Saturday, June 24, 2017

Britain Adrift

A system where the choice of British Prime Minister is Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn is -self evidently- a system that needs reform.  

Despite the humiliation of a hung parliament, the current Prime Minister, Mrs. May, has nevertheless started the negotiation to leave the European Union. The Conservatives do not intend to stop at any halfway houses, but to leave the jurisdiction of the ECJ, and so withdraw from the customs union, the single market and essentially all the institutions of the EU. Although Brexit will cause major economic damage- not to mention trashing the national brand of the UK- it is not the most immediate problem the country faces right now. Britain is sailing into the mother of economic storms with the engine stopped and a huge argument on the bridge.

The "sombre national mood" identified by the venerable Queen Elizabeth II is rightly named.

The sense that the Brexit vote has cast Britain adrift in uncertain international waters has grown over the past year since the result became clear. yet the fact is that the vote itself was the result of clear national unease. The fact is that for decades the UK has been facing a leadership crisis.  Theresa May is hardly unique in being essentially unqualified for the job of Prime Minister. She has chosen to deal with her party's problems rather than the national interest, and so did David Cameron when he called the referendum in the first place. Both are guilty of a betrayal of the national interest, even when they proclaimed their supposed devotion to that interest. Gordon Brown, suspicious and belligerent, was equally not up to the task. Tony Blair, whatever the hope and determination he brought into power, left office reviled. There are few Prime Ministers who can be said to be truly successful, and this is not always due to their own characters. The fact is that the system of British government is not able to deliver what the politicians and the voters expect. Without wholesale reform the political system will grow ever weaker and more discredited than it is now.

The need for political reform is already obvious, but the fact is that it is already too late to avoid the economic crash. The level of household debt at around 87.6% of GDP  is still close to all-time highs, yet the ability to support this level of debt is being squeezed by surging inflation, as Sterling continues to be marked down on the basis of Brexit. The problem is that Britain now faces a triple whammy: a collapse in confidence, a rapid acceleration in inflation and a squeeze in real incomes. 

In order to stabilize Sterling, it is pretty clear that interest rates ought to rise. Yet if the Bank of England takes that decision, then house prices and consumer spending will face drastic and painful adjustments at a time when confidence is already weak. The past few months have seen a significant fiscal contraction as the impact of various tax changes has hit the market, and some consumer sectors are already reporting sharp falls in activity. Anecdotal evidence suggests that pub spending, for example, has fallen 25-30% year-on-year since the beginning of the summer. The government is taken more tax out of the economy than before, and this at  time when confidence in the UK has taken a sharp turn for the worse. If monetary policy were to turn too, then a sharp and deep recession would be unavoidable.  It may already be happening.

The problem is now that the UK economy is on a knife edge. Stagflation- that curse of the 1970s- is back, and again, as in the 1970s, the political will to tackle the crisis has been lost. All of the activity of the Conservative government, when it has any to spare from fighting itself, is focused on the 18 month timetable until Brexit. Yet the economic crisis is even more immediate. 

There is a sense of drift, that all of the comforting and familiar scene we have known since the 1980s is about to be wrecked. Some changes, the passing of the Royal generations, for example, are inevitable, but nonetheless unsettling for that. Some- our membership of the EU- are being willfully destroyed. The indifference shown by the Conservatives to the fate of the residents of Grenfell Tower until it was too late is not merely the callousness of a particular political brand, but the incompetence of an entire system. Austerity is not merely a failed policy, it is a dangerous failure. Andrea Leadsom has the gall to demand "patriotism" -the last refuge of a scoundrel- from the BBC. Yet now one year on from the Brexit fiasco it is clear that people are voting with their feet. A crash dive in the number of people wanting to come to the UK is now being coupled with large numbers of well qualified Brits choosing to leave. On top of everything else, the UK will now have to deal with labour shortages in critical sectors- truly back to the 1970s once more.

It is clear that Britain stands leaderless and bereft on the brink of a future it does not wish for and does not understand. She stands adrift on the brink of storms that will transform her  -or destroy her. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

After the Earthquake

When the Exit poll arrived I was, for a moment, utterly elated. 

The Conservatives had finally done enough to alienate even their most die-hard supporters. Fox hunting, grammar schools, dementia tax and above all the Kamikaze Brexit -not to mention all the other festering, broiling drivel of their brain dead manifesto and vacuous campaign- had finally brought the Tories to defeat. Yet, and yet, Theresa May, in all her tin-eared, out-of-touch, arrogance remains the Prime Minister. Despite Boris Johnson's transparent moves- as George Osborne noted, Johnson has a permanent leadership campaign- in fact Mrs. May, despite electoral embarrassment bordering on humiliation, remains Prime Minister and will probably survive for far longer than the chimpanzee cage of the British press currently thinks.

The fact is that after the biggest scare of their lives the Conservatives are in the same mind set as Dr. Johnson: "When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully". If they do not focus now, then a second election would lead not merely to defeat, but to utter rout. by Sunday, Labour were already 5 points above the Tories in the polls and a second election can only have one winner.

Many of us were outraged by Theresa May. 

Her "Citizen of Nowhere" speech was the most disgraceful, provincial, no-nothing speech I have ever heard a British Prime Minister make. It was close to a rejection of the values of the enlightenment as any UK leader has made in 200 years and once made, the rest of the May disaster was sown: the rejection of any compromise over the EU and the only deal being no deal.

Of course any thinking person must gain a certain grim delight from the failure of the feral, ultra-right British press pouring buckets of manure over the Labour leader- and being roundly and totally ignored. The satisfaction that the hate goblins of the Mail, Express, Telegraph and Murdoch have lost their power to lead public opinion is the greatest joy of this election. Yet Paul "vermin" Dacre retains his privileges, rather than being tarred-and-feathered, as you might think common justice might command.     

Yet the choice of Mrs May or Mr. Corbyn is a choice of being shot or being hanged.

Corbyn's vision of the future is in fact the vision of a better yesterday coated in a a sickly syrup of special pleading and willful ignorance. His cowardice in failing to challenge the kamikaze Brexit of Theresa May is as laughable as it is contemptible. His vision of nationalized, subsidized Britain is as provincial and out of date as Theresa May's fox hunts and grammar schools. Some people with only 2 "E"s a A level go on to educate themselves- Mr. Corbyn never has. Although he began life as a trade union organizer for the tailors trade union, in fact he never qualified as a tailor, only as an agitator.  His policy prescriptions are as intellectually empty and as uncosted as those of the Tories. He may seem to have the tweed and chalk dust qualities of your rather ineffectual geography teacher, but the reality is that he is much less qualified.

So the choice was provincial arrogance or provincial ignorance.

What then for the Liberal Democrats?

Surely in the face of the simultaneous intellectual implosion of the right and left in British politics there should have been a revival of the kind of muscular liberalism that speaks for internationalism, globalism, openness and economic literacy?

Well, not this time. In fact the percentage of the vote fell even from the nadir of 2015. Our sole comfort was that we fought the election better, so that in our key seats we made a few gains. yet the loss of Nick Clegg was bitter indeed. Of the 9 seats we held last Wednesday, we lost five of them. Ok it was close, and for 2 votes here, 45 there, we could have not merely gained but doubled from 9 to 18 or so. More to the point with Ed Davey and Jo Swinson back, the Liberal Democrat benches have some big hitters returning to the House of Commons.

However for the time being the battle is not coming our way. However that gives us some opportunity to plan and build, and I hope we do. I will be trying to make the case of a more modern, innovative ideology to put forward to the party and to the country.

The time is surely coming when a party that can put forward a positive vision of the future will overcome the backwards looking intellectual failure of both left or right. 

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Hopes and Fears

Watching the UK election from afar has been a sad and chastening experience. The fact is that neither the Prime Minister nor the Leader of HM Opposition are fit for office. 

The partisan media scream for their particular political brand but have utterly failed to dissect the issues that threaten to wrench the UK into crisis and possible collapse. Biased, incoherent and feral, the British press has systematically undermined democratic debate and even basic rules of decency. Frankly the drivel that most of the print media serve up is a slop of insults to the intelligence and out-and-out depravity that genuinely makes me ashamed of the country of my birth. That the FT, The Economist and sometimes the Guardian do provide nuanced and thoughtful opinion doesn't off-set the verminous alt-right lies published by the off-shore owned, tax avoiding right wing bastards in the Dailies Telegraph, Express, Mail, or the Times or the Sun. In future years we will not need to look far to understand the roots of the British national crisis: it has screamed from every disgusting front page.

So apart from fury at the vile press, what is a thoughtful, liberal minded, basically patriotic voter to make of the state of the nation on the eve of the general election?

Firstly that the country is on the brink of an epochal political change. The election of such a woefully inadequate figure as Theresa May is only possible because the electorate refuses to consider that the are being presented with a false choice. The economic suicide of "no deal" with the EU should not be presented as any kind of choice and the nauseating and empty rhetoric of "no deal being better than a bad deal" is childish nonsense. The shear irresponsibility shown by the so-called negotiating team of "Team Theresa" is as outrageous as it is hollow and pointless. 

Meanwhile there is the tortured retelling of the Corbyn story as some kind of virtue tale. Yes, he may be sincere, he may even be a genuine idealist, but the simple fact is that on almost every issue, from Ireland to Venezuela, Jeremy Corbyn has been wrong, and often badly, totally, completely wrong. he may indeed have stuck to his principles, but they are wrong principles.

A straw woman or an inflexible tin man is not the choice that the UK should be making.

There is a better choice- one that is derided and deliberately ignored by the witches coven of the right wing press. It is very simple: for the good of the country and for ourselves we should vote Liberal Democrat. 

I have voted Liberal or Liberal Democrat in every election except once, here in Estonia where I voted for a friend standing for the Social Democrats in the Tallinn City Council. At this general election I found that owing to boundary changes my oversees vote had been moved from the safe Conservative seat of the Cities of London and Westminster into Westminster North, which is a marginal Labour seat. I was very thoughtful, since although I disagree with much of her point of view, I regard the incumbent Labour MP as a reasonable figure to serve in Parliament and her defeat would, I thought, serve to reinforce a the Conservative Prime Minister, who I hold in contempt. Yet in the end I decided to vote for the Liberal Democrat. This was not merely a negative anti-Tory, anti Labour vote, but also a positive statement that the Liberal Democrats represent an idology whicch is better and stronger than the alternatives.

An open society, tolerant principles and social cohesion based on a more efficient economy are not on offer from Labour, and still less for the provincial and shrill Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats understand the need to rebuild British politics based on a more open electoral system and a more responsive administration. Where we get MPs elected, they serve with these principles in mind and consistently, Liberal Democrat MPs are better rated by the people that they serve. The fact is that politics is not all the same and the Liberal Democrats are better.

So I have voted for hope, for better politics and the chance of change. The fears of the other alternatives may yet be well founded, but I have decided that in the battle of hope over fear that Hope should get a better chance.

We will see on Friday whether the British people have chosen likewise.  

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

News from Abroad

Some people have drawn parallels between the shock of Brexit in the UK and the shock of the advent of Donald Trump as President of the United States. In particular on both sides of the Atlantic there is a powerful sense of the role of the media in both events. Of course, Trump himself is a product of celebrity culture who managed, improbably, to turn a reality TV show into a platform for government. Through the power of the alternative media he was able to create a platform and a power base. The supporters of Brexit many of whom, such as Nigel Farage, are close to Trump also followed an alternative media playbook.

Both the Leave campaign and the Trump campaign played fast and loose with the truth, or to put it plainly- they lied.

There are doubtless many other parallels in the campaign, but what has happened since the the advent of May and Trump- May unelected as PM and Trump 3 million votes behind in the popular vote- is instructive. Neither government can claim a fully legitimate mandate, yet both are following an agenda that is extreme and, by the standards pertaining before 2016, illegitimate.

However the overwhelming difference is that in the United States the majority of the media are attacking the policies of the controversial President. In the UK, by contrast, the majority of the media is so supportive that they are demanding that the the Conservative government be even more extreme.

Theresa May is following an agenda that is directly dictated by the editorial policy of the Daily Mail.

What is particularly outrageous is that the newspapers that advocate the most extreme- and in my view damaging- policies have several things in common. The are all owned via tax efficient holdings, often foreign or offshore. They do not pay the full amount of tax due to the UK, while at the same time hypocritically savaging those deemed guilty of a lack of patriotism to the UK. These targets for abuse seem to include include such "radicals" as any judge, politician, actor, sportsman- or indeed any public figure- who speaks up against them. The disgraceful invective that is launched against those who dissent from their dangerous, damaging and occasionally out-and-out evil agenda is truly terrifying. 

The United Nations has condemned the hatred put out by the UK right wing press, but the response from the five off-shore and foreign billionaires who control 60% of the UK press has been to double down on the hatred, confident that no one will not dare challenge them, even when there is proof positive of activity- such as phone hacking- that is unambiguously and undeniably criminal.

So whereas in the United States the media is challenging power, in the UK the media is cheering on extremism- it is power. Figures such as Paul Dacre- backed by his proprietor Lord Rothermere, who Private Eye named as one who falsely claims non-domiciled status in order to avoid taxes-  spew forth an agenda that is fully in keeping with the Daily Mail of the 1930's. At that time the Mail supported the Blackshirts of the British Union of Fascists. The Barclay Brothers- the owners of the Telegraph- avoid tax by living on the island of Sark, where their attitudes have earned them the loathing of most of the islanders. The owner of the Daily Express- a newspaper that refuses to accept even the toothless regulation of Press Complaints Council and in consequence repeatedly prints lies with no sanction- is a porn baron, Richard Desmond

Then there is Rupert Murdoch. The charge sheet against this Australian naturalized American is long indeed, but the "dirty Digger" has acquired a level of power and influence that few- if any- have ever acquired without holding political office. Yet he has been investigated and censured by the UK Parliament and several of his highest executives jailed.

These five men, these five billionaires, are evil men who serve an evil cause. 

For as long as they control the UK media, the country will find it exceptionally difficult to change course. The incompetence and arrogance of the May government is coupled with cowardice in the face of the hatred and bile of the press. The result is that while Donald Trump is being challenged by his media, the UK is being incited to jump from the bridge by the baying mob orchestrated by the corrupt and criminal press barons.

As the break-up of the Kingdom moves inexorably forward, with Scotland now facing another referendum and Northern Ireland fearing a return to the abyss of violence that a Brexit hard border would very likely create; as millions- both British and European- now contemplate the economic disaster beginning to unfold and make plans to leave; as it begins to dawn on the British people how much they have been lied to by the Brexit mob; so the worst predictions emerge as the grim reality.

When the time comes to name the guilty men, the five billionaires, and those who did their bidding, should be the first to receive condemnation.

Monday, February 20, 2017

An Unreasonable Brexit could be fatal for the UK

The weeks pass and the position of the Conservative Brexit government grows ever more unreasonable. Many people who voted to leave the EU would still have been perfectly happy with an "economic association", indeed it was the default option for probably the majority of those who voted to leave: "we should have an economic not political union". Leaving aside the practicalities of how much economic issues require political engagement, the idea of limited economic cooperation is not unreasonable.

However the current position of the Conservative government is that Brexit means the end of British membership of any European cooperation groups, whether political or economic. Brexit means not merely withdrawal from the EU, but the outer group of European Free Trade Area (EFTA) nations that are members of the EEA. It even means the withdrawal from the EU customs union. This total withdrawal is not the majority position of the British people: 48% voted to remain full members of the EU and it is quite clear that many, possibly most of those who voted to leave still expected some kind of ongoing relationship short of membership with the EU.

Then there is the growing evidence that the Conservative position of complete exit is going to cause considerable damage to the the UK- both economic and political. The disruption in Northern Ireland could even trigger the renewal of violence in the province. The rage in Scotland at being forced into a complete severance of EU ties is bringing separatism back on the political agenda, even despite the horrendous economic mess that that particular Leave vote would bring.  Then there is the limbo into which we have placed 3 million EU citizens living in the UK, as well as a large number of our own citizens living in the continuing EU. Already UK farmers report significant issues with seasonal labour. Universities have seen a significant drop in EU applicants. The reputation of the UK as an open and tolerant society is daily being undermined by the moronic racism that the vote has ignited in its wake. It is quite likely that all of the GM plants in the UK will close after the mooted PSA acquisition, with the cost of many jobs. The City is losing thousands of jobs to Dublin, New York and Frankfurt. All of this before we even understand what kind of relationship will follow the enactment of article 50.

Yet EU governments are thinking carefully. The timeline for article 50 negotiations is too short and it is clear that without creating transitional arrangements, the Brexit on offer will be extremely disruptive. In a sense the aggressive statements by Michel Barnier on outstanding payments owed by the UK are a good thing, since there is at least something that the EU would want from the UK. Otherwise Britain begins to look like a total loser in any negotiation. There is sympathy in many quarters at the position that the UK finds itself in, but also frustration at how little the HMG is prepared to commit to. The 12 points that Mrs May has offered are simply too general to be a basis for any substantive agreement, while the threats of simple reversion to WTO rules are too weak a negotiating position to have credibility- the UK cannot negotiate separate WTO rules for itself in time, even if there was no opposition from such members as Russia. Neither are there well functioning back channels into Brussels. The UK is deeply isolated and in a very weak position.

All of this could have been avoided if a reasonable position had been adopted by Mrs. May's government, but "Brexit means Brexit" actually means an extreme and damaging Brexit. Total withdrawal will come at huge cost. 

The result is increasing rage against the Conservatives. Even if one could accept that leaving the EU would lower barriers, rather than raise them- a highly debatable point- the disruption of moving away from the largest trade block and the largest economy in the world is unlikely to create any benefit in the short or long term. Even if one believed the "Singapore without the sunshine" hype of the Tory Libertarians, the fact is that the timing is very unfortunate to say the least. The rise of Trump could bring to an end of a century of Anglo-American alliance at a time when Russian mischief making creates a huge threat to our freedom. Even if one accepts that the Tory best case scenarios are even possible, the questions of basic competence in the Cabinet room are more than enough to raise as many fears as hopes. 

The population and economic power of all the other 15 Queen's Realms: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Jamaica (which has given notice it intends to become a Republic) plus 11 very small countries in the Caribbean and Pacific, all combined, is less than that of Germany. Furthermore the idea that Australia is going to switch away from trading with Asia to the UK is obvious nonsense. The world trades with its neighbours, which is why we trade massively more with Ireland than we do with India, and that will be true whether we have a free trade agreement with India or not. The Imperial nostalgia of such figures as Jacob Rees-Mogg is not credible as a policy either politically or economically. So the EU states continue to regard the debate in London with a growing sense of disbelief and unease.

Of course, the European Union is itself going through significant challenges: the Dutch, French and German elections not least. The wildest hopes of the UK anti Europeans rests on victories for their allies in these countries. Yet the meddling of Mr. Putin- so successful in the UK and the US- may find limits in the rest of the EU. It would make a great deal of sense for the UK to delay Article 50 until new governments are in place in these three founder states, yet Mrs. may does not seem to have a keen awareness of her own interests, and her Brexit bulldozer has no reverse gear. We can make no predictions, but the chances are high that Marine Le Pen will not be the French President, that Geert Wilders will not be the Dutch Prime Minister and that there will be no breakthrough for anti-Europeans in Germany. The British will not be waiting to see anyway. So we have to find a way to start the discussions without causing meltdown from the very beginning.

Several EU governments have reached out to the UK, but have been frustrated by the continuing internal dialogue in London: it is not that there is no running commentary, there is still no credible sense of direction, except further retreat from any position that could be considered a compromise. The UK expects nothing, but is not prepared to ask for anything anyway. 

In the face of one of the most damaging acts of policy since the 1930s, the British government has not been able to create a credible negotiating platform. It is a serious failing and one that unless remedied this year will cause a decade long crisis. The UK is on a knife edge, and one that carries huge risks not merely of damage but humiliation. It may even be a final -existential- risk. 

British pragmatism was always reasonable. Now this lack of reason may in fact finally destroy the United Kingdom. It would be a pity, but "whom the Gods would destroy, they first make mad".

It is time for the UK to find a reasonable position and a reasonable tone of voice. 

Can Theresa May deliver?

Friday, January 27, 2017

The misjudgment of Theresa May

It has been a long hiatus from blogging.

Partly it was that I have had little time and less inclination to comment of a series of utterly catastrophic events for Western values. I began to feel that the fear of the implosion of the West that this blog was founded to warn against had actually happened. The withdrawal of the UK from Europe and the advent- one can hardly say that losing by three million votes was an election- of Donald Trump in the United States are two malign sides of the same discredited coin. A spectacular failure of confidence and a betrayal of what open societies are supposed to stand for.

In ancient Rome, a victorious general could be granted a Triumph- a truly extravagant ceremony where the Triumphator was promoted for one day above all mortal Romans. In the midst of this adulation a slave would travel with the hero saying: "Respice post te. Hominem te momento" (Look [to the time] after you [are gone]. Remember you are only a man. This "momento mori" has been much on my mind as I have watched the Conservative Brexiteers, who won only by the narrowest of margins and the new Trump administration, which lost the popular vote by over three million votes, attempt to reshape the politics of their respective countries as though they had an overwhelming mandate to do so.

Trump and the Tories are seeking massive and potentially hugely destructive changes in the social, political and economic order, but they are failing so utterly to conciliate with any other forces in society that it now seems a foregone conclusion that things cannot turn out as they predict. Donald Trump is already the most unpopular incoming President since records of these things began.

The Tories by seeking a complete break with Europe are flying in the face of the majority of what even the Leave voters expected. It will be extraordinary disruptive and is undermining the power of the UK on a daily basis. We are insulting our friends and gratifying our enemies, such as Vladimir Putin. It is a monstrous act of economic self harm and political vandalism. In the midst of these catastrophic decisions, Theresa May has gone to Washington to court the crass and vulgar Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump is held in contempt by the vast majority of the British people: if he is the least popular incoming President among Americans, he is positively despised by the Brits. As ever more resistance gathers in the States to the erratic and odious Mr. Trump, Theresa May has decided to put all our eggs in an American trade basket.

It will not work and it will make the Conservatives astonishingly unpopular. At the moment it is only the inept and useless Labour party that is sustaining the poll ratings of the Tories. As soon as a viable alternative is put forward, I predict that support for the Tories will all but collapse. Increasingly I am reminded that in Canada both the Conservatives and the Liberals were virtually wiped out at different times, only to recover power- in the case of the Liberals at the last election from a pretty deep third place. If Brexit ends as the disaster that it seems inevitable that it will, then I could see deep changes emerging- including not merely the rehabilitation of the Liberal Democrats, but quite possibly their return to power, even as the largest party. 

If the choice is humiliating subservience to America or partnership with Europe, we will recoil from Trump. So to the Brexiteers I say: remember you too will die.