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.