Friday, August 24, 2018

You don't need Class War polemics to fight the scandal of restricted social mobility

Jeremy Corbyn has been criticised for his plans to compel the BBC to publish the social class of all its employees “to ensure it properly reflected the broader population.”. Corbyn's proposal was defended on the BBC “Newsnight” programme by Owen Jones and when I tweeted that this sounded like “Class War” to me Owen vociferously objected – as he’s quite entitled to do of course. This led to a lively exchange with Owen and others on Twitter. This blog attempts to explain my accusations.

In an article in the “Times Literary Supplement” in January 1997, a few months before the return of the first Labour Government for eighteen years, Stein Ringen the Norwegian sociologist and political scientist said this:
“What is peculiar to Britain is not the reality of the class system and its continuing existence, but class psychology: the preoccupation with class, the belief in class, and the symbols of class in manners, dress and language. This thing they have with class is a sign of closed minds, and is among what is difficult for a stranger to grasp in the British mentality. Britain is a thoroughly modern society, with thoroughly archaic institutions, conventions and beliefs.”
Tony Blair declared in an election speech in 2001
“Our top priority was, is and always will be education, education, education. To overcome decades of neglect and make Britain a learning society, developing the talents and raising the ambitions of all our young people”
The above two quotes are, of course, inextricably connected. If you believe in “Equality of Opportunity” in a society it starts with education. And education is itself a characteristic of class.  And despite Blair’s  ringing commitment to education can we say more than twenty years on that much has changed? Owen Jones in his polemic (his descriptor) “The Establishment” says “Governments enter and leave office and yet the establishment remains in power” – in other words the class structure described by Ringen remains in place along with a severely restricted “Equality of Opportunity”  itself a function of a wide disparity in the quality of education in our schools and other institutions.

John Prescott declared, also in 1997, that “We are all middle class now”. He was premature. As Harry Leslie Smith put it in 2014 in “Harry’s Last Stand”:
 “The middle classes are so afraid that they will that they will become as dispossessed as the poor that they have allowed the government to use austerity as a weapon against them and their comfortable way of life”
The subject of Class will not go away – as Stein Ringen suggests it’s an inherent element of Britishness. But does that mean that we are in a “Class War” and that we should be actively fighting on Class grounds rather than as Blair seems to have intended fighting the causes of class differences rather than indulging in a “Class Envy” driven activism?
Carole Stone, ex BBC Producer, prolific writer and Managing Director of YouGovStone said in 2010:
“The people I meet certainly aren’t agonising over whether they are middle class and what that means. Class is a red herring. I have rather coarse vowels when I speak, and very occasionally in my youth I used to wonder whether people would regard me differently if I had a posher accent, but I truly believe that you are now defined by the company you keep and the sort of person you are.”
And in the above referenced book Owen Jones says “…the Establishment is bound by shared economic interest and shared mentalities”. That these shared interests are in part based on similar educational and social backgrounds must be true. But so what? Ed Conway in The Times today admits to having had a privileged upbringing at his private school and says:
“Why this fixation [on the part of Jeremy Corbyn] with classifying people on the basis not of performance or ability but on stuff their parents couldn't influence : their parents’ jobs, the education their parents chose for them?” 
I should perhaps declare an interest here. I came from an archetypically Middle Class family and like Mr Conway I went to a Private School. We weren't fat cat rich but comfortably off and My Dad was a prototype Blairite in believing that education was important and that I would get a better one if he paid for it. Once I started work my background was entirely irrelevant and as I progressed in a business career it was certainly based on “performance or ability” and nothing else.
Demographic classification is really only important if it can lead to action. It would be possible to classify BBC employees by Class  - though I suspect more difficult than Corbyn and Jones think for the reasons Clare Stone (Working Class upbringing, Middle Class  education and Establishment jobs) gives. But what are you going to do with the information except use it as evidence in your Class War battles? Is there to be positive discrimination at recruitment forced on the BBC – a quota system based on Social Class. This is an idea as impractical as it is daft!

I accept that the Establishment is too powerful too cliquey, too monocultural and that change is desirable. But I also believe that you should look at the root causes rather than indulge in socialist polemics. Spending cuts are one of the primary root causes – not least the introduction in England and Wales of Further Education tuition fees. The postcode lottery in education and the unaffordability for many of tertiary education is a scandal in a rich nation, which pro tem Britain still is. Healthcare is another area where divisions are inherent. Poor health in C2DE families compared with ABC1  can be as much of a social mobility inhibitor as poor education.

As Patrick Diamond of the LSE  points out here Social Democratic thinker and politician Tony Crosland would have deplored  “…the recurrent tendency to romanticise English working-class life”. The constant association by Corbyn and Co. with the past (the memorialising of Peterloo just the latest in this long saga) is largely  unhelpful romantic twaddle. The current day scandal of restriced social mobility will not be resolved by referring to previous class struggles and waving red flags. It can only be challenged from a position of power which will only come from pragmatic “Art of the Possible” politics.

Slogans won’t help nor will class envy. The categorising of Social Democrats like me as “Blairite” or “Neo-Liberal” or worse is counter-productive as is the peddling of absurd delusions like a “Jobs First Brexit” – as moronic as it is oxymoronic. And finally it’s profoundly unhelpful to stigmatise people because of their social class and to indulge in petty class envy rhetoric.  

Monday, August 20, 2018

Whatever the merits or demerits of Brexit there is no way the current timetable can deliver it.

If we start from the (a bit questionable) premise that our leaders (and our civil servants) are not stupid or malignant then the failure to conclude a credible Brexit deal can only be attributable to the fact that it cannot be done within the currently planned timescale.

No member nation of the EU has ever wanted to leave before so there was no precedent guiding us.The triggering of the process by giving the Article 50 notification was not based on any realistic assessment of how long it would take. It was solely driven by domestic politics. 

The Article 50 notification was premature and unnecessarily so. It has meant that negotiations about the terms of Brexit have been rushed, superficial and incomplete. The probability of a “No Deal” Brexit is at least in part driven by a drive towards an artificial deadline. 

Part of the problem of this fatal haste has been the failure to get “buy in” even in the Conservative Party, let alone in the country at large. We are no nearer knowing the terms of Brexit and this means that everything is theoretically still up for debate. 

“Chequers” attempted to cut through the confusion but as a credible proposal it lasted about 24 hours. It heightened the divisions in the Conservatives - best illustrated by  the departures of two of May’s three key Brexit ministers. “Shambles” doesn’t begin to describe it.

At the heart of this is the fact that continued membership of the Single Market is essential. The Swiss (constitutionally an Uber-Independent nation) know this as do the Norwegians. Britain would be the only significant European country outside the Single Market. 

But membership of the Single Market requires continued acceptance of the “Four Freedoms” - including Freedom of Movement. The “Leave” campaign revolved around two interrelated things; (1) Stopping migration of Europeans to Britain (2) “Restoring” Britain’s Sovereignty. 

So the U.K. negotiators cannot do a deal that gives us a “Norway” type arrangement and the Single Market, despite being essential,  is not on offer. Theoretically membership of the “Customs Union” could still be negotiated, but this would be hugely complex and take time. 

Whilst the higher level arrangements as to how the U.K. would operate outside the Single Market and the Customs Union (including how this would work in the island of Ireland) remain unsettled and unclear at the lower level the same largely applies. 

The terms of UK’s trade with its 27 EU partner countries is covered by the EU Treaties of which it is a signatory. This would lapse and separate arrangements would have to be  negotiated with all of them. This has not even started yet. 

And Britain would also give up the established trade arrangements with over 50 non EU countries that it enjoys as a result of negotiations that have been concluded between them and the EU.That’s another fifty deals that would have to be done and where the work hasn’t begun. 

All the above surely has to mean that aside from the continuing debate about the merits of Brexit the current timetable is wholly unrealistic and to stick with it would cause chaos. Article 50 has to be withdrawn, or at least indefinitely extended. 

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Don’t blame Theresa May - Delivering Brexit would defy any democratic politician

Theresa May’s Government looks unlikely to survive and her political career will end in abject failure. But in a way it’s wrong to blame her for this. True she’s brought the igmony on herself with her facile “Brexit means Brexit” sloganising and her equally simplistic “Will of the People” mantra. But could any other politician have done any better? It’s highly unlikely. At the highest level of abstraction the problem is that Brexit makes no sense.  

Brexit’s advocates were, and are, at best xenophobic charlatans and at worst racist idiots. The second group, effective though they were, we can safely now ignore. For a brief but hugely damaging period in our nation’s history Nigel Farage and his gruesome bunch of supporters and fellow travellers held sufficient sway to influence the EU Referendum outcome. Much as we may regret it the truth is these bastards won. But they have largely disappeared and their pathetic parody of a political party, UKIP, has faded away. But the xenophobic charlatans are still with us dominating not just the Conservative Party and the Cabinet but the leadership of the Labour Party as well.

Brexit is an isolationist and English nationalist proposition based on the idea, once so perfectly parodied by Flanders and Swann, that “The English are Best”.  This is what  “Sovereignty” means. The charlatans argue that it matters more where a decision is taken than whether it is the right decision. So Brussels bad, Westminster good. But as Westminster (both Houses of Parliament) has been doing its job (being traitorous in Brexit speak) then the proposition has changed. Now Sovereignty seems to mean giving the Prime Minister Carte Blanche to do what she likes. It’s not just  those of us opposed to Brexit who don’t accept that.

Brexit is unachievable in anything like the foreseeable future because of its complexity.  Of course Britain can leave the European Union. But to unravel forty years of trading arrangements, regulations, laws and legal processes, Customs deals etc. etc. would take maybe a decade or more. And increasingly it is becoming obvious, if it wasn’t before, that to undertake this would be utterly pointless. Certainly to try and do it just because our so-called “Sovereignty” would be marginally enhanced would be insane. The maddest ever example of a nation cutting off its nose to spite its face.

The truth is that the sovereignty of the 28 EU members is largely unaffected by EU membership and the benefits of the pooled Sovereignty we all have  as members far exceeds any marginal loss of control of our own affairs. This fact was poorly explained in the Referendum and is little understood today. We need urgently to pause and reconsider what is in the national interest. It’s not too late. And it’s essential.

Monday, June 04, 2018

Why Brexit is stalled - will the Civil Service save Britain from disaster?

Two years on and Brexit is stalled. By the time we reach the theoretical departure from the EU date of 29th March 2019, determined by the precipitate triggering of Article 50, there is no possibility that a proper deal will have been negotiated. In what continue to be febrile times  we just cannot trust our politicians to act responsibly on our behalf. Brexit has become a political football - used only to secure personal or party advantage. The hard core logic is lost in all this noise. There is no meaningful debate. The media is as polarised as the politicians. And so in these times you have to look to the Civil Service. This comprises our brightest and best. They have experience and intellect and, above all, an understanding of what is possible. And what is not. And they also have a public duty - to do what is right for Britain. They know that what the Government wants is impossible. Not difficult. Impossible. UK can of course leave the European Union. That has never been in doubt. But what cannot be achieved is a half way house somewhere between Full membership and non membership. A “Norway” type outcome, if you like. The reason is simple. “Norway” requires acceptance of Freedom of Movement (FoM). And that is one thing Theresa May and her gang (or Jeremy Corbyn and his for that matter) can never accept. The EURef outcome was primarily driven by a wish to stop EU27 citizen “migration” to the UK. Not concerns about “Sovereignty” , which most voters would struggle to define. Immigration (aka Freedom of Movement ). 

So the “negotiations” are so much nonsense. If you go to the table ruling out FoM there’s not much to negotiate. Maybe membership of the Customs Union, though without membership of the Single Market this looks pretty useless. No - the only Brexit available is a Hard Brexit ( no deal). Which brings us back to the Civil Servants. They know that to leave the EU without a deal cannot be in the national interest. It isn’t “right for Britain”. They are clearly telling the Government that reality. Hence the cleft stick that Theresa May is in. She has three options. (1) Stop Brexit . (2) Cling on to the delusion that a Soft Brexit is possible (a delaying mechanism) . (3) Accept Hard Brexit and risk defeat in Parliament and/or the country.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Tories are blaming the Home Office. But it’s they that carry the blame:

The Tories are blaming the Home Office. But it’s they that carry the blame:

Harry Truman famously had a sign on his presidential desk saying “The Buck Stops here” - as in a democracy it usually does. Not on the desks of the Sir Humphreys but of their political masters. Did the Civil Service warn Home Secretary May or Prime Minister Cameron that their determination to undercut the UKIP threat with knee-jerk, ignorant and racist legislation might not be a good idea? Maybe they didn’t, and as such they abrogated their mandarin duties. Poor, but not the real issue.

The real issue of course is the legislation which as ever was initiated by government. Dave and Co. were worried by the rise of UKIP. Many in the Tory ranks argued for a formal alliance with the Kippers (remember that Toby Young ?). Others argued that the only way to counter Farage was to steal his clothes. EU Referendum ? Of course. Tighten Immigration! Naturellment.

The immigration policy was win-win. The focus groups said is was Numero Uno as a concern of the Great British Public. And ILLEGAL immigration (Aaaargh) - what’s not to hate ?

So the 2014 Act was to curb ILLEGAL immigration. Nobody could argue with that surely. And Ed Miliband’s Labour didn’t. Their focus groups told them the same thing as the Conservatives’. The Great British Public don’t like immigrants much and illegal immigrants are pariahs. Chuck ‘em out. Right!

So what’s an illegal immigrant? Easy innit? Some dude who’s living here without papers which show he has the right to do so. Round ‘em up. Ship ‘em out. Easy one. Except that the educated middle class metropolitan elite didn’t know some people didn’t have passports. (My God how do they get into Tuscany in the summer hols?).

If you have a passport your nationality with its right of residence in the U.K. is documented.   But if you’ve never needed to get one - even though you’ve been here 40 years or more since you came as a child? Well you ain’t got no papers sunshine. And we know what no papers means. You’re an illegal Sambo - away with you.

And here’s the rub. Government failed to understand and the Home Office failed to advise them that these paperless Brits were not illegal immigrants by any logical use of the term. They were Brits with a paperwork problem. Not quite the same!

That’s the be all and end all of it. Cockup not conspiracy.  Bad policy and legislation  within which a major anomaly existed. Failed challenge (except by a few MPs like Jeremy Corbyn, Caroline Lucas and David Lammy). And a Home Office which either didn’t know (Aargh) or did Know and kept quiet.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Myth of Sovereignty

 The reasons people gave for voting “Leave” in the EU Referendum fall broadly into two categories - though they overlap and both can be characterised under the slogan “Take Back Control”. The clinching argument which gave “Leave” their narrow victory was concerns about “Immigration”. The other argument - the one given by the more sophisticated Brexiteers - was about “Sovereignty”. Those who personally voted “Leave” , giving “Sovereignty ” as the reason, also tend to deny that immigration concerns were the principal reason “Leave” won. They are squeamish about associating themselves with a position which could be borderline racist, Islamaphobic  or xenophobic and for which the main proponents were UKIP and its even further to the Right fellow travellers. In particular the campaign led by Nigel Farage, Arron Banks and Kate Hoey. There is a strong dose of disingenuousness about all this. Some of the Conservative “Leave” campaigners jumped on the “Turkey  is joining the EU” meme - including the new Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt. The “Official” “Leave” campaign ran an advertising campaign saying this. It was, of course, a barely coded message about immigration, especially Muslim immigration. At least the advertising of Banks, Farage and co. was more open about its “Don’t open the floodgates to more migrants” pitch.

“Take Back Control”  was often linked to “our borders”. Essentially a positioning which says that “Freedom of Movement” - one of the “Four Freedoms” essential to the EU’s “Single Market” - meant that anyone from 30 countries (not just EU countries) could come and live and work in Britain as a right. And when here they would be treated as a British citizen in respect of (say) healthcare or welfare. The “Take Back Control” slogan and all its surrounding rhetoric implied that FoM is a bad thing and we should have full control of our borders again and not have who enters Britain decided but Brussels. In fact studies show that the presence of European nationals is strongly net positive to the UK economy. But such truths were casualties in the febrile and often squalid times of the Referendum.

A Sovereign nation certainly controls its border itself unlike the 28 countries of the European Union, along with Switzerland, Norway and Iceland which are open to citizens from across the continent. But it is surely the case that the 27+3 nations that will continue to be open if Britain leaves have made a conscious decision to do so. In effect they have pooled their Sovereignty on this matter.  And for good reason. The Single Market offers huge mutual benefits and the freedom of movement of two factors of production - Labour and Capital - is an integral part of this.

Those who voted “Leave” citing “Sovereignty” no doubt had control of borders as one of the reasons but, they argue, it goes beyond that. “Isn’t it better that Britain takes its own decisions rather than having slavishly to follow the same path as 27 other countries?” There is a strong nationalistic element to this reminiscent of Flanders and Swann’s “The English, the English, the English are best - I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest”. In essence where a decision needs to be made and who makes it is more important than the quality of the decision - or so this implies.

Rationally in most cases it really doesn’t matter where a decision is taken or who takes it so long as we perceive the outcome as being beneficial to us. To me two of the most important developments of the past decade or so were taken thousands of miles from Britain’s shores. Amazon and Apple launched products and service which literally changed my life. To be able to buy virtually anything online from  Amazon at a fair price and have it swiftly delivered to my home is a boon. And to be able to make this purchase lying on a hotel bed (as I am now) using my iPad?  Well ! Exactly the same applies to political decisions. If the European Parliament approves a regulation that benefits me does it matter that it was taken in Brussels rather than Westminster. Of course not. In a global, interdependent world the best decisions on crucial matters are better taken cooperatively. The English are not necessarily best.
The EU recognises that local matters should be resolved locally. “Subsidiarity” is a key EU principle. The idea that you take decisions at the lowest level practical is inherent in how the EU works  - far more so than in England where (unlike Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) we have few political institutions below Westminster to devolve decision-making to.

The other benefit of joint sovereignty in certain areas is that there are more checks and balances .and greater pooling of experiences. If the EU proposes a new regulation there are 28 nations to consider it from their own experiences. If the British Government proposes a new law no such checks exist. It may take longer at an EU level, but any significant new regulation will have been considered from a broad not narrow perspective.

The mention of Amazon and Apple - and I could have chosen a hundred or more examples - was just to illustrate that 21st Century life is complex and major influences on our lives come from people or organisations we only engage with indirectly. This may seem a statement of the obvious - it is - but this fact is at the heart of any discussion about “Sovereignty” , or should be. At a basic level many of us would like the maximum of control over our own lives. It is possible to do this - perhaps by moving away from the complexities of modern living to some cottage in the country, growing our own vegetables and making our own entertainment. Even if we do that we cannot truly escape. We still have to pay our taxes and fulfil some bare minimum citizen obligations. The world is always with us.

In modern history some of the greatest horrors come from when peoples , or specific groups of people, are forced to do something against their will. Ethnic cleansing. Fleeing war or a natural catastrophe. It is natural to want to choose what we do and when we cannot do that for whatever reason we are aggrieved. And in a democracy it is likely that legitimate governments will pass laws that some citizens will object to. Here the concept of the “greater good” applies. You won’t please all the people all the time but so long as a particular law or regulation benefits significantly more people than those who object to it it’s probably worthwhile. So long as the democratic process was fair and followed and the consequences properly managed.

Which brings us back to the decision-making process in governance. Can we accept that in principle it really doesn’t matter who takes a decision or where it is taken - only whether it was a quality decision? Are lower level decisions always better than higher level ones or does there need to be a pragmatism which accepts remote decision-making if the outcomes are desirable? I think the answer is obvious. Major social, economic environmental and other changes can only really be taken at a high level. You couldn’t have had London boroughs opting out of the “Clean Air Act” at will. There had to be a decision at a much higher level of Government if the fogs and smogs of 1950s London were to be eradicated. Which they were.

Politics has always been in part about the struggle between freedom and compulsion those polarising goals of the Right and the Left. The battleground is at the heart of political discourse. The gut cry “Too much regulation stifles our freedoms” is not a modern idea. In power parties of whatever political persuasion will always have to consider whether more or less regulation is desirable - there is rarely a credible ideological answer (or even guideline) to help resolve these questions. That regulation has generally increased in the post war decades is broadly true. This is in part a response to lifestyle changes and in part a consequence of having a better understanding of science. The “Clean Air Act” was necessary because people were dying prematurely and unnecessarily from pollution. The heavy regulations applied to smoking and tobacco were the same. Public health was the driver.

As citizens our first obligation is to obey the law. Even if we disagree with it. The “greater good” argument should persuade us if we take our citizenship seriously. But how the law should operate and what new laws should apply (or existing laws be relaxed or changed) can be contentious. Perceived fairness is crucial - are those to whom a new law will apply being treated “fairly” ? If we are non smokers we probably don’t care that much about tobacco duty increases. But, I would argue, we should care that smokers are being treated fairly - smoking is a legal pursuit. We accept discriminations across society that are for the “greater good”. The banning of smoking in public places was certainly discriminatory - but few or any would now argue that it was the wrong thing to do. My 40-a-day mother would be astonished if she was here. But she isn’t. She died prematurely of cancer in 1978.

Modern life is not only complex but we also live in a world of far greater interdependence than even our closest forefathers. “No man is an island entire in itself” wrote John Donne 300 years ago but the apotheosis of this appeared in the twentieth century and has grown exponentially. Even an island race is no more entire in itself, and certainly not one as large and diverse as Britain. The primary context in which we live and work is now a global one and, especially, European. The British economy is inextricably part of the greater European one. The drivers are freedoms that we and fellow Europeans have created for our mutual benefit. Crucially three of Adam Smith’s four “Factors of Production” can and do move freely across the 28 countries. Labour, Capital and Enterprise move according to classic economic supply/demand drivers. A Greek Bank can invest in a Swedish car plant without restriction if its sees a good return. A Swedish student can study in Athens. A Greek Doctor can work in Britain's National Health Service. And so on tens of thousands of times over.

Change can be stressful and some manage it better than others. Whilst Britain is certainly not a closed society it can be insular – more so, perhaps, than those among our fellow European nations with contiguous borders. The joy of driving across national borders without the need to stop for any customs or other checks has been a part of mainland Europe for decades. They don’t talk about “going abroad”  - that concept doesn’t exist. That doesn’t mean that going from (say) Germany to France isn’t noticed. Of course not. The distinctive cultures of the two countries is enjoyed, even celebrated but moving between them is no big deal. But those 21 miles of sea between Britain and “Europe” though no longer any sort of physical barrier thanks to the Tunnel are still a psychological barrier. We do go “abroad”.

The biggest divide in Britain is not North/South or even Class – it is between those who see nationality as horizontal – and those who see it as vertical and hierarchical. The latter group were the ones satirised by Flanders and Swann.  They are often older, less educated and far less travelled. They see nationalities as having a hierarchy with Britain at the top. They often put Anglophone Countries next -  indeed many  of the Eurosceptics who became Brexiteers are supporters of the mythical “Anglosphere” a concept not acknowledged by anyone in the countries like Australia or New Zealand who the Eurosceptics say would be part of it. It’s all bunkum. Those of us who see nationality as horizontal don’t deny differences of culture and behaviour – we just don’t think British culture and the way we behave are better than those who are different.

So “Sovereignty” or “taking back control” is a consequence not of logic but of bias. The idea that decisions that Britain takes on her own are likely to be “better” than those taken co-jointly with others is based on the same highly questionable ideological slant that sees nationality as vertical and hierarchical. It conflicts with the adages like “Two heads are better than one “ or “A problem shared is a problem halved”. It is proudly individualistic , even nationalistic, rather than collegiate and trans-national.

What we are dealing with in the “Sovereignty” question is not empirical. You cannot “prove” that “taking back control” will produce better outcomes (or that the opposite will for that matter). The issue amounts to this. Should Britain really become the only country in Europe outside the EU and it’s close associates like Norway and Switzerland in the Single Market because of some highly spurious claim that we need to “restore our Sovereignty”. Can we really be that foolish?

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Cut the ideology – let’s design a passenger driven Railway system.

Tap here to start composing...

Sunday, October 01, 2017

"Solutions of Hard Left or Hard Right or of "Glorious Isolation" won't work in 2017.

It's 2017. Whatever policies any Government introduces have to reflect the realities of today. They did indeed do things differently in the foreign country that is the past. But to "return" to that past is not just impractical - it is as impossible as it is undesirable. That's why Brexit will eventually collapse - forced away by the sheer illogicality of trying to apply 1950s solutions to 21st Century realities. In an interdependent world you cannot retreat to the isolation of the past. In a post Imperial world you cannot go back to times when Britain ruled the Waves. And in a modern world of mixed economies and the advanced welfare state you cannot go back to the applied ideological socialism of Attlee let alone to some wistful Marxism.  Nor can the ideologies of laisser-faire be universally applied either. Thatcherism is just as impractical in 2017 as is the Clause Four socialism of the post war years.

The mixed economy which is the only game in town for a modern European state (and most others around the world)  has its flexibilities. Judgments need to be made about what the State does, and what is left to the private sector. And judgements need to be made about regulation and accountability as well. But the interdependence of nations requires that decision-making is substantially at a trans-national level. The co-operation that this requires brings ancillary benefits with it - "Jaw Jaw" means the avoidance of "War War" , a not inconsiderable advantage of partnership. And, yes, there is some surrendering of national sovereignty. But that has already happened to a significant degree with the growth of the multinational corporation and with the movement of manufacturing to the East. Decisions are made which fundamentally affect us in corporate boardrooms and in Beijing and Seoul and Manila and it is only in partnership at a European level that we have the power to influence these decisions. 

Finally the complexities of international finance also mean that neither neo-Marxism nor neo-Thatcherism is practical for Britain in 2017. The financial services sectors - especially banking in its various forms - are transnational and this cannot be rolled back, nor will it be. The Banks are not the pariahs that some on the Left say they are - but nor can they be allowed unregulated freedoms as the events of the global Financial crisis of ten years ago showed us. Again only with institutionalised cooperation and supervision can the finance sector be responsible to us all - no country is an island in this and it is preposterous to argue that a Britain alone would cope better than a Britain that continues to be part of the European Union.

The speakers at the rostrums of the Party conferences can continue to spout ideological "solutions" based on their favoured ideologies of Left and Right. They may relish the applause. But as Theresa May is finding, and as Jeremy Corbyn would soon find, reality kicks in. The slogan that actually means something is "Better Together" because in fact it is more than a slogan. It's a non-negotiable reality.  

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Ian Kershaw's "Hitler" - have we heeded the "warning from history"?

Ian Kershaw's "Hitler" is probably the longest book I have ever read. Spread across two volumes and in excess of 700,000 words it covers the life In meticulous detail. And yet never for one moment does it drag. To describe such a book on such a subject as a "page turner" may seem odd. But there are quite frequent moments when a sense of disbelief cuts in and you inwardly say "Surely not?". And you turn the page to see if it is true. It always is. As with most lives there is chance mingled with ambition and design. Hitler nearly died as a child. He could have lost his life in the Great War. His personal ambition could have been - should have been - stifled long before he gained supreme power. Nothing in his early life qualified him for, or pointed him to, his leadership of one of Europe's most cultured and sophisticated nations. And yet it happened. Nothing in Hitler's character and personality suggested that he would be revered and followed in a messianic way. And yet he was. 

All lives, certainly politically significant ones, have to be seen in the context of their times. Of the many human tragedies that resulted from the Wall Street Crash of 1929 nothing was greater than its precipitation of the rise to power of Adolf Hitler. Prior to the Crash Germany, if not prospering, was at least strongly recovering from the nadir of the post war years. The hyper-inflation was gone. Employment was increasing. Democracy seemed (for the first time in the still young country's history) solid and coalition meant that governance was comparatively stable in the Weimar Republic. These were not conditions in which the political extremes would benefit. Hitler's Nazi Party lingered at well below 10% in most elections and its threat, real a few years earlier, seemed to have subsided. The Communists were equally marginalised. But the Crash changed all that. Hitler polarised opinion but his eventual rise to power had two drivers. First the feeling that conventional politics had failed and something new should be tried. Secondly the view held by many that the real threat was Bolshevism and its local arm the German Communist Party (KPD). Hitler was fervently anti-Bolshevik and this combined with the novelty and promise of his pitch was to propel him to power.

Kershaw's meticulous research means that there is surely little of significance to learn about Hitler that he hasn't revealed. Before he entered politics in the 1920s Hitler had achieved nothing. He had a minor talent as an artist but insufficient for him to enter Art School. He was a drifter without profession or qualification before the Great War. Decommissioned from the Army in 1919 at the age of 30 (with an Iron Cross for bravery in action) he gradually become involved in politics and started to form his personal political credo. This was strongly nationalistic, violently anti-Semitic and strongly opposed to Bolshevism. His personal testament "Mein Kampf " - written when he was in prison for leading an incompetent coup in Bavaria - is an extended rant within which these themes dominate in an almost paranoid, certainly obsessive, way.

Kershaw shows that there were four main factors in Hitler's rise to power. The propitious (for his message) economic circumstances of 1929 and the next few years. The scapegoating - blaming identified targets for Germany's problems. The immense power of Hitler's oratory. And the chilling, but technically brilliant use of propaganda. The "Hitler myth" was created by the speeches and the staging. There was no precedent for such events as the Nuremberg Rallies in modern history and yet, bizarre though they were, they were effective in building the "Hitler brand". The brand had all the classic elements that those of us familiar with brand management will recognise. Powerful imagery, clear messages (the "brand promise"), a "benefit" offer,  slogans, and an effective delivery vehicle (Hitler himself). Brands will, however, only prosper if they deliver the benefits they have promised. In his early years in power Hitler delivered. The peaceful retaking of the Rhineland in 1936 was popular as evidence of Germany's nationalist reemergence after the humiliation of Versailles. And these years (up to the outbreak of war in 1939) also saw economic recovery driven by public sector spending on infrastructure and above all the military. Unemployment virtually disappeared. In parallel with this "progress" went the tightening of totalitarian control and the grotesque victimisation of minorities - especially the Jews. When "Reichskristallnacht" happened in 1938 - an event unthinkable in a democratic state - it was just part of a sequence of increasing institutionalised victimisation and anti-semitism. 

Dictators - and by 1936 Adolf Hitler had become one - cannot rule alone. That he was uniquely evil is arguable - though Kershaw doesn't argue it. Instead this comprehensive biography details how the dictatorial powers he assumed were supported by an entourage and a system which, if not as venal as Hitler himself, was absolutely complicit in implementing his schemes and sustaining him in power. Not only that. The German people as a whole supported the Führer. I say "as a whole" to emphasise that there was resistance - increasingly brave as opponents were eventually simply wiped out of forced away. But in the main Hitler had high levels of popular support. This reached its apogee with the military successes of the first year or two of the War but Hitler's hold on power had been largely unchallenged from the mid 1930s onwards. Crucial to this was the closeness of a few at the top of the Nazi Party. Goebbels, Himmler, Bormann, Goering,Hess, Speer and the rest provided the support but also the implementation. As did the Army leaders - at least at first from the defeat of Poland, France, Belgium and the rest in the early war years. The scope and scale of the Nazi tyranny was such that a massive infrastructure had to be created to apply it. At all levels - from the regional Gauleiters to the lowly concentration camp guards there had to be compliance and a willingness to implement. And there was. Himmler and co. oversaw all this and Hitler rarely involved himself in the detail. There was also the phenomenon that Kershaw calls  'Working Towards the Führer" the premise of which is that there was a sort of assumed authority and delegation which came from those at all levels taking actions which they knew or assumed Hitler would approve of - even if they actually had no authority or orders to do so. Chillingly the euthanasia of those with mental illness or other handicaps was an example of this - as was much of the detail of the Holocaust.

This is a huge biography but Hitler's personal life remains obscure. His relationships with women, even with Eva Braun, are sketchy largely I think because there is insufficient evidence to draw upon. Some have alleged a homosexual period in Hitler's life but Kershaw does not address this - largely I suspect because there is absolutely no evidence to support it. The personality causes of Hitler's malignancy are also hard to fathom. Was he "mad"? Well by any rational definition of the word the answer is surely that he was? But in fact from a purely clinical and psychoanalytical perspective there is little to support this. And if he was mad were all of those at all levels who implemented his policies mad as well? Obviously not.

With his armies poised to invade Britain in late 1940 Hitler stood on the brink of absolute domination of Western Europe. The military achievement both in its scope and swiftness of results had been extraordinary. Germany clearly had very good Generals and an effective Army. Hitler held back. Kershaw describes clearly how in power Hitler had not wanted conflict with "England" as he called it. Munich was part of this - there was a genuine wish to keep Britain neutral. Hitler admired Britain's Empire - not least because it gave her the "Lebensraum" (essentially geographical territory) which he believed Germany lacked. Hitler's war aims were primarily about lebensraum - along with the determination to break Bolshevism which was, of course, to lead to the invasion of the Soviet Union. With hindsight from the moment that Hitler moved his armies into Russia, the Ukraine and the other soviet republics the war was over. It did not seem so at the time - least of all to Hitler. Once the war started slowly to turn against Germany Hitler turned against his Generals and against Goering whose Luftwaffe he saw as having let him down. The armed forces fought tenaciously and with courage on two fronts. On the Western front, after D-Day, it was only a matter of time - especially with the Americans in the front line. Hitler became increasingly delusional certain that the Allies would start squabbling among themselves, that his new weapons (V1 and V2) would swing the war back his way and that he could still win what had become "Total War". Kershaw focuses in some detail about the breakdown in relations between Hitler and the Generals - something that became more apparent to him after the unsuccessful attempt on his life in 1944 which was led by disaffected Army officers. The horrors of the Eastern Front were such that it was quite clear, had it not been before, that Hitler had a complete disregard for the value of human life. His armies became as much cannon fodder as the German forces had been towards the end of the Great War - ironically because it was in part Hitler's memory of that conflict which drove him on ever after to restore Germany's reputation. National pride was a key driver of all that he did.

The Holocaust is covered with restraint but Ian Kershaw shows its roots in Hitler's malign philosophy and describes how anti-semitism, along with anti-Bolshevism, drove everything that he did. There is an incrementalism to this story which is chilling - not least because we know what it was eventually to lead to. As we have seen Hitler was not hands-on in the detail but of course he knew what was going on and had inspired it. Kershaw made a famous television series about the Nazis called "The Nazis: A Warning from History" and he addresses the same aspect of "warning" in the biography - though without at any time moving away from a strict fact-based interpretation of what happened. The facts are enough. That thousands of ordinary Germans were willing to take part in unparalleled acts of barbarism - and in genocide (and that the military/industrial complex that was the Third Reich functioned to make this possible) is truly frightening. That is the warning. It is true that in a dictatorship the  rule of fear is ever present - people do what they do to survive. "Obeying orders" and keeping their heads down and looking the other way. But it is clear that the majority of the population were complicit (or if not that unwilling to challenge) because they chose to be. 

The compliant population lasted until the War turned against Hitler by which time it was too late. Today we call the phenomenon of ordinary people accepting things that might previously have been anathema to them as "Normalisation". At its most trivial this is the "Well he got the trains to run on time" syndrome where we surrender our previously held assumptions as to what is acceptable behaviour in our leaders because key aspects of life (employment, availability of food and shelter, security) are delivered where they were absent or under threat before. As we have seen Hitler initially delivered. How he did it is subservient to the fact that he did. Ian Kershaw has  described it as follows: 

"Dictatorship emerges where an individual or clique takes over power, usually at a time of crisis, on behalf of and often with the support of the people, and substitutes personal authority for the rule of law"

So the most important "warning from history" is not to normalise - not to accept that  the means justify the ends. Or at least to be wary if the "means" seem inconsistent with our previously established norms. There is no such thing as a "benevolent dictatorship" when the Dictator - Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Franco - replaces an elective democracy with a totalitarian exercise of power. History teaches us that the "benevolence" doesn't last long. 

Have we all learned from the warning that the Hitler years gave us?

In the 21st Century we may argue that the lessons of Germany in the Hitler years have been learned, that the post-war checks and balances are such that we have taken note of history's "warning". It would be naive and dangerous to assume that this is the case. President Erdogan of Turkey and President Putin of Russia are both following a not dissimilar path to the early years of the Third Reich (or the years immediately preceding them). Individual liberties have been limited and state power has been used to eliminate opposition. In Donald Trump's America we see overt nationalism backed by propaganda and simplistic sloganising ("Make America Great Again"). One of Hitler's first acts on taking power in 1933 was to withdraw Germany from the "League of Nations". Trump is also contemptuous of international cooperation bodies such as the UN and NATO. And scapegoating is Trump's natural way - Muslims and Mexicans as well as Democrats and Judges. 

The United Kingdom has a strongly nationalist Government and a Prime Minster who wishes to eliminate dissent. The 48% of the voters who voted against the proposal to eschew international cooperation and to leave the European Union are being told by the Prime Minister that they should come in line and by the propagandist pro-Brexit newspapers that support her that those who oppose her are "saboteurs". Theresa May has attempted to avoid parliamentary scrutiny and parliamentary debate and votes on this issue - though some of our parliamentarians and judiciary have managed to stop the worst excesses of this extreme political dirigisme (bordering on one-party dictatorship). The pro-Brexit vote was delivered by nationalist rhetoric (about "Sovereignty") and by a xenophobic anti-foreigner and (above all) anti-immigrant pitch. May's calling of an early General Election is clearly based on her wish further to entrench the power of her increasingly nationalistic one-Party state. This also extends to withdrawal from such bodies as the European Court of Human Rights

That democracy is under threat today in countries that previously had entrenched it is not in doubt - and this should be a warning. That some elected politicians, once they secure power, exercise it undemocratically is there for all to see. That scapegoats are sought and victimised has uncomfortable parallels with the past. That dissent is not allowed is also increasingly common. And that propaganda - usually delivered by compliant Media owners from "Fox News" to "The Sun", the "Daily Mail" and the rest - is insidiously employed to reinforce the governing hegemony is surely not in question. 

After the Wall Street crash Germany plunged into darkness. Millions of dead and fifteen long years later she emerged, and was utterly determined to heed the warning from history that the Hitler years had been. The United Nations and institutions of international justice and political and economic partnership in Europe facilitated that progress. But others seem not to have heeded the warning in the same way - at least rectify. The nationalist and isolationist path on which America and Britain are launched is certainly as foolish as it is anachronistic. It could also be catastrophic. 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

My 100,000th Tweet !

I have just sent my 100,000th Tweet. As I first tweeted in May 2010 this means that there has been an average of 40 tweets (and retweets) from me per day. Assuming that the tweets are on average 20 words in length my tweets amount to 2 million words. This is more that “War and Peace”, the Bible and “Lord of the Rings” together. Not a bad output in just over six and a half years!

I could see that anyone unfamiliar with Twitter might find this all a bit mad! “How do you have the time?” Well the answer is that if each of my tweets takes me thirty seconds that is only twenty minutes a day. I scan Twitter quite regularly and follow links from it a lot. That, for me, is Twitter’s most valuable role. I believe that I am better informed by using Twitter as a gateway to other online sources. I tend to be “on Twitter” in “Down time” – especially on a train or at an airport. I would accept, though, that I read a bit less because I take part in social media. I still read a lot, but not as much as the pre-Twitter days.

I also meet people on Twitter and feel that I know them. Of my nearly 3800 followers I feel quite close to at least a couple of hundred few of whom I’ve actually met. There is a camaraderie there which is very pleasing. Over the last few months I have stopped following people whose views are antipathetic to mine (with one or two exceptions). This is quite controversial but I take the view that following 1900 people (as I do) is probably too many anyway and why should my timeline be cluttered with people I fundamentally disagree with?

I am fairly open on social media. I use my real name and with a couple of clicks anyone can find my full contact details. This has caused no problems at all and I see no reason to operate behind a pseudonym.I get little spam and trolls avoid me mostly. I dont block people just because they disagree with me but I do if they are rude or exceptrionally stupid! I don't follow and often block Eggs.

So onwards to the next 100,000 ! And thanks to my followers and those I follow for making Twitter worthwhile for me.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

How the Daily Mail makes our green and pleasant land into a moral refuse tip

I could have chosen a hundred or more (many more) tabloid  front pages to make my point. Which is that thanks to those who finance and deliver this sort of illiberal, slanted, narrow, selfish garbage we have declined visibly as a nation.Not just from the fact that our citizens in large numbers read this stuff. But because it is far worse these days than it used to be and it has far greater effect.

The disaster of Brexit was in strong part a consequence of lies and biased half-truths spread by the tabloids. Every day there was a new edition and a new front page. 

That most of the headlines and the stories were patently untrue, as in the example above, became habitual. And that they appealed to prejudice hardly needs to be stated. There is a strong anti-EU Islamaphobia in Britain. Even though the EU has almost nothing to do with Islam and there are very few Muslims in Britain here as a consequence of the EU's "Freedom of Movement" rules. (British Muslims are, of course, overwhelmingly of New Commonwealth origins (from Pakistan and Bangladesh etc.) A week or so before the EU Referendum  a man in Teddington High Street said within my hearing that he would be voting "Leave" because there are "too many ****** Muslims here already". There was a similar interview on Charlie Brooker's BBC look back on 2016. The canard that Turkey was going to join the EU and that, as the Daily Mail put it "1.5m Turks were coming to Britain" was an influence in the Referendum outcome. Think about this for a minute. Something that was patently untrue. Something that was promoted by the tabloid press. Something that was openly bigoted and biased. Something that appealed to prejudice and to xenophobia. That (maybe crucially) led to Britain quitting the European Union.

The British Government has its policy decided by public opinion and that public opinion is substantially influenced by the tabloids. "Freedom of Movement" within the EU is characterised as "Immigration" by the tabloids and for a British Government (or Opposition) to be seen as supporting immigration is the kiss of death. (The fact that the indivisible “Four Freedoms” - the free movement of goods, capital, services, and people - have been overwhelmingly positive for Britain as with the rest of the EU member nations is ignored because one of the freedoms is seen as "immigration").

So our Government policy is being driven by lies and prejudice, by ignorance and bigotry. Few politicians have the balls to stand up for the Four Freedoms and those that do – Anna Soubry, Ken Clarke, Tim Farron and a few others – become tabloid targets. And all of us, including these courageously honest people, become the targets of the Mail and the rest:

Back to today’s Mail front page at the top of this Blog. This is classic stuff. The Hard Right is against Britain’s admirable Overseas Aid policies. So they invent and idea that if we cut Aid we could rescue the NHS (Does this sound familiar?). Its utter offensive nonsense of course but it will be believed. Again.  And there you have an example of how low we have sunk. Ignorant. Selfish. Nationalist. Xenophobic. Brutal. Not all of us of course. Probably nor even a majority of us. But sufficient of us to change this green and pleasant land into a refuse tip. And that hurts.