Spring, Michele Hanson, Pinker, Kahneman, Brexit, Ursula LeGuin – a few one-sentence blogs

Time is pressing and I’m off on holiday to an island where I’ll face south across the ocean and follow the sun, and climb up to the cloud forest behind. But there are blogs that I’ve wanted to write. So I thought – how about a blog of single sentence. (Max two, but you’ll see how this expands.)

Brexit: in his speech to his party’s spring conference yesterday, LibDem leader Vince Cable argued that “nostalgia for a world where passports were blue, faces were white and the map was coloured imperial pink” had driven some older voters to Brexit. In response to the uproar from some in the Tory ranks I’d simply say that some truths are self-evident – and add the reminder that without anti-immigrant sentiment Brexit would have been decisively defeated.

Michele Hanson: the Guardian columnist died a few days ago, after 34 years (I think) of writing a column for the Guardian. I knew her a little back in the 70s, we had mutual friends, and I’ve caught up today with a few of the columns I didn’t read, and found them both downbeat and upbeat, wise, warm and rather wonderful – whether she’s writing on care homes, dogs, family, personal hygiene – she engaged so many people with moments and issues in life they could connect with.

At the other extreme my old bete noir, the fluffy-white-haired guru Steven Pinker, paired in this instance with the 18th century Scottish genius-philosopher, David Hume, whom Pinker neglects to mention when talking about the enlightenment – and who stated clearly and succinctly that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions”. In other words, don’t give reason space which it oughtn’t to have – give it, I’d argue, shared space, let one inform the other, and take both out beyond our private lives into the public sphere.

Thoughts from Tim Harford in the FT, quoting Daniel Kahneman: “When faced with a difficult question we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.” In the case of the referendum the difficult question being “Should the UK remain in the EU”, and the easier substitution “Do I like the way this country is going”.

The last item was two sentences – so I’m adding a third from Harford as a separate item – a rather obvious cheat. “No voter can master every issue … referendums instead invite us to ignore the question, give the snake-oil peddlars an edge, concentrate our ignorance into a tightly-focused beam, and hold nobody accountable for results.” Right on.

For something completely different … Alexander Harris in the Tate Etc Magazine: “So I became a collector of early autumn evenings. In the ancient analogy … the time of youth is spring. But I remember only one or two spring days from my childhood – it is all autumn: the orange of the late crocosmia flowers meets the spotted yellow fringes of hawthorn leaves; blue skies deepen above glowing stone walls, and then it all softens to a yellowy grey haze…” That set me thinking, and I only half-agree, and maybe that’s because my pre-eminent spring memory is of a day in May walking in the Cheshire hills with my first girlfriend, and spring was suffused with birdsong and a funny feeling of elation, of walking on air, that I’ve never quite recaptured …

(Treating Alexander Harris’ quote as one sentence …)

A quote from Neil Collins, an old-friend from the 70s who I haven’t seen in maybe forty years, in the FT, in the context of the collapse of Toys R Us and Maplins: “Is yours a zombie company… [zombie being] defined as a company that has failed to earn its interest cost for two consecutive years and is valued at less than three times sales. …[The Deutsche Bank] comprehensive analysis of the world’s 3000 biggest businesses implies that more of them [this year than last] have discovered a strategy for survival – [instead of just] clinging on, merely waiting a mercy killing from rising interest rates.” Two reasons for including: one, a reminder to me and anyone who enjoys abstruse speculation that there’s a hard business world out there, and if we choose to rant against capitalism we have to remember how bloody hard and ruthless the business world is  … and, two, whatever’s happening in High Street retail, things are getting slightly better – are they???

Rediscovering Ursula LeGuin, someone else who’s died recently: there’s a new book which collects together her non-fiction, ‘Dreams Must Explain Themselves’. She had Taoist beliefs … that established an instant bond – the Tao, or Dao, the way, is the wisest, simplest yet most all-encompassing of notions; and she admired Calvino, Borges, Woolf, Twain, Tolstoy and Tolkien. And how about: “To think that realistic fiction is by definition superior to imaginative fiction is to think that imitation is superior to invention.” I’ll add my own comment – never curtail that sense of wonder, of fantasy and myth – walk on the wild as well as the wise side.

Four sentences. Time to exit.

Is reason enough?

(References are to Steven Pinker’s new book, ‘Enlightenment Now: A Manifesto for Science, Reason, Humanism and Progress’, and Philip Ball’s excellent review of the book in the March edition of Prospect. Also to Philip Dodd who took on Pinker is a determined interview on the Radio 3 Free Thinking programme.)

A brief weather note to begin. Spring we thought might almost be upon us, but Siberia has chased it away, and the snowdrops are looking a little out of place, and the daffodils have all but gone to earth.

So too reason? And, specifically, the pursuit of reason in political argument and debate?

I’m reading so much about identity, culture wars, anger and estrangement – and now with Steven Picker’s new book, the Enlightenment is in the news. How can I not be a big fan? The rigorous application of reason brought to bear on all aspects of our activities. As advocated by Diderot, author of the Encyclopedie, the seminal text of the Enlightenment.

Sleep of reason

Goya’s The Sleep of Reason, ‘the sleep of reason produces monsters’, from his series of etchings, Los Caprichos, 1799.

But has the Enlightenment also gone to earth? Pinker thinks not – argues powerfully against.

I’d love to sign up unreservedly to his paean to progress – things are getting better, as the statistics and graphs tell us, incontrovertibly so – we are all living longer, better educated, immeasurably better off if we take the world as a whole. But what troubles me is his ‘aversion to anything subjective’, as Philip Ball puts in his review. Pinker denies religion any role, likewise identity, tribal identity – and that means shared beliefs in progress, humanity, compassion, sometimes God. He has no place for out-there institutions, places of worship, and the collective action they often embody – action against poverty, hardship, exclusion – inspired by and acting out of love. Compassion, as I argued in a post of a few years back, discussing Pinker’s last book, The Better Angels Of Our Nature, doesn’t get a look in.

Can reason be enough of itself to triumph over violence?

For Pinker man is ‘born into a pitiless universe [and] shaped by a force that is ruthlessly competitive’. Only reason can hold out against this. And reason finds expression in democracy as the most effective way to gain traction. Thomas Hobbes had a similar view of mankind, but saw our only hope as lying in contracting with an autocratic ruler. With Xi Jinping seeking president-and-party-leader-for-life status we’ve a good example of that alternative path closer to hand. Turkey likewise, and Hungary and Poland moving in that direction.

Reason simply isn’t enough on its own. It’s not solus reason that’s leading the charge, it’s religion, and reason together, and by religion (a maybe controversial definition!) I mean the exercise – the acting out – of an innate compassion, a rather un-Darwinian concept. Not just the compassion of mother to child, or a care worker to her charges, or a priest or minister toward his congregation, but compassion as an innate moral code that informs the wider political workings of society.

Pinker’s right in there, unworried about his PC status, arguing that the left, supposedly champions of the working-class and the left-behind, has focused too much on issues of sexual and cultural identity – and lost connection with the old working class. Marx is excluded from the pantheon but Hobbes indeed is one of the good guys. Fascinating as intellectual debate, but where is the connection with the everyday?

Reason is too chill to excite, too cerebral to inspire (unless you’re Pinker). We are where we are today because the passion and compassion of reformers, secular and religious, has consistently challenged enterprise and competition – to the benefit of all. Championing education, social welfare, safety nets in time of need. It’s when society believes in and acts out a shared morality that we move forward.

Pinker has run himself into hot water in recent weeks arguing that inequality isn’t a major issue for our times – the majority worldwide is in our times so much better off – but inequality is a key driver of social action. Inequality is tied in with a sense of being left behind, on the outside. There’s a big poker game running, but it’s (the UK) down south, or (the USA) up in the north-east, or out on the West Coast, and I’m not invited.

If society isn’t inclusive, if it isn’t compassionate, those who perceive themselves as excluded will set themselves up as ‘the majority’, will scale down compassion to actions within their own social group, and society will polarise, and nations seek out their own identities, and close borders, and all the grand tenets of the Enlightenment will be even more confined to discussion among academics.

This zenpolitics blog is about strategies for living, if that doesn’t sound too grand – I’ve summarised them before as enterprise and compassion, social justice and capability. Yes, there’s a violent side to all our natures, but it’s more our competitive instinct that dominates and drives society forward. Violence arises when we push back selfish boundaries too far.

Compassion and competition work together. If competition is centrifugal, tearing apart, at its extremes, violence, then compassion is the opposite, it is the instinct that binds – and it is innate. Pinker would scorn such notions.

Pinker’s wonderful to listen to – he signed my copy of Better Angels at a Royal Society of Arts talk some five years ago, and we had a few words back then. (Our subject – was war inevitable in 1914?) But his argument hasn’t the essential motor, the sine qua non, to progress.

It will fire the campus and the book pages. But beyond?

George Orwell – lessons for a post-truth world

How do you define an essay, and how does an essay differ from a blog, or an article by a newspaper columnist?

Bernard Crick in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition (published in 2000)  of George Orwell’s essays attempts a definition: it can be moral, didactic and serious … it can be informal and flexible, ‘above all it leaves the reader in some uncertainty about what is going to be said next’.

By comparison so much contemporary discourse is predictable: read a blog, your favourite blog, and you’ve a good idea what it might say.

Orwell as we all do had favourite themes (though he often surprises), but he approaches them in ways that are never tedious or predictable. The Prevention of Literature begins at a PEN Club meeting, ostensibly celebrating John Milton and freedom of the press, where none of the speakers highlight that freedom of the press means the freedom to criticise and oppose. (Two speakers eulogise the Soviet Union.) Antisemitism in Britain begins with specific examples (‘No, I do not like the Jews … Mind you, I’m not anti-Semitic, of course’), Politics and the English Language with passages which exemplify ‘a few of the bad habits which spread by imitation’, and How the Poor Die takes off on a harrowing journey based on his own experience in Hopital X in Paris in 1929.

The greatest joy in reading Orwell is his lucidity – and the sheer breadth of his experience and reading. (In Books v Cigarettes he owns to having just 442 books, and yet his range of reference and quotation is remarkable. There were of course always libraries.) His essays are models – and reminders – for our own time, as they were for the 1940s.

Likewise his conclusions. ‘The Catholic and Communist are alike in assuming that an opponent cannot both be honest and intelligent.’ We no longer have a Russian ‘mythos’ (‘true individuality is only attained through identification with the community’) but we have ‘mythos’ which are all our own, and a society which in recent years has become more divided and less tolerant.

We don’t play with ideologies as they did in Orwell’s time. But we tailor what we say or write, more dangerously, we tailor what we think, to received notions, put identity and security before intellectual challenge.  ‘A bought mind’, now as then, ‘is a spoilt mind.’

Orwell continues: ‘Unless spontaneity enters at some point or another literary creation is impossible, and language itself becomes ossified.’ What applies to literature also applies to politics.

What we also get from Orwell is a portrayal of the mood of his times, the anxieties of a wartime and immediately post-war would where one spectre of totalitarianism has been removed but another is asserting itself ever more strongly, good minds all around Orwell are signing up, and tempering their beliefs and writing to what they deem a higher cause. Orwell doesn’t question the aim, the emancipation of the working class, but is adamant that Soviet Russia isn’t the vehicle by which that might be achieved.

(We also pick up on his anxieties about a post-Christian, avowedly humanist society, where socialism as as an ideal, as an alternative to the afterlife, has been compromised, maybe fatally.)

Totalitarian regimes require misinformation, they write and re-write their own histories (pro-Soviet intellectuals were caught out by the 1939 German/Soviet pact, and caught out again when Germany invaded Russia in 1941). But apologists for Russia weren’t the only enemy.

‘Any writer or journalist who wants to retain his integrity finds himself thwarted by the general drift of society rather than active persecution.’ Examples include ‘the concentration of the press in the hands of a few rich men, the grip of monopoly radio and films, the unwillingness of the public to spend money on books…’

Misinformation in our own time has been well-disguised: it’s about how the news is framed and who does the framing – about how we, as watchers and listeners and readers with it, are manipulated. But post-Brexit, post-Trump, in the recent German election, it’s out in the open. Which side is putting out ‘fake news’?

Many of the essays were written for Tribune, and that meant a left-wing and intellectual audience. I’d guess that Orwell would love to have written for a wider audience, to have hustled in alongside a newspaper magnate (or maybe not!) as Michael Foot did with Beaverbrook in the 1930s, or better still find popular media outlets that weren’t in the hands of rich men. 1984 and Animal Farm, written at the same time as the Tribune essays, did of course break through, but at the level of the educated middle- not working-class. So the best Orwell could do, the best he could hope for, was to influence other writers, other opinion-formers, to lay out a course between the intolerancies of the Tory (and Catholic, as he saw it) right and the radical and Sovietised left.

He does this with grace and precision at the conclusion of his essay of antisemitism, arguing for integrity based on self-examination:

‘I defy any modern intellectual to look closely and honestly into his own mind without coming upon nationalistic loyalties and hatreds of one kind or another. It is the fact that he can feel the emotional tug of such things, and yet see them dispassionately for what they are, that gives him his status as an intellectual.’

Hatreds and loyalties aren’t confined to nationalism of course. (Another subject on which Orwell writes with great insight.) My only caveat is his use of the word ‘intellectual’. It is not beyond all of us in our educated world to step back and step back and view our world dispassionately.

One obstacle, a fundamental one, to our doing so, is our use of language.  Orwell is explicit on the subject in Politics and the English language:

‘…the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language … one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy … where you make a stupid remark it will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change all this in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits …’

There’s a mighty challenge here, and the first thing I must do is re-read what I’ve written here – is it an essay or a blog or just a few ruminations ? – and see how it fares when judged against Orwell’s high aspiration.

Wishful thinking

…..and its consequences.

How do you deal with half-truth or dissimulation, with hyperbole – or simple wishful thinking? Or simply two versions of the truth – see my last post on the subject of identity. I might disagree with Roger Scruton, but I’d never doubt his integrity.

Government isn’t about certainties. Most government policies don’t deliver on their original intentions. But if based on clear principle and sound argument then we can accept them, for good or ill, as part of the political process. Not so wishful thinking, which can have malign consequences.

Workforce planning in the NHS  From the Department of Health, last December: ‘Brexit will be a catalyst to get [workforce] planning right.’ [Source: The New European] This in the context of a steep rise in the number of nurses and midwives from the EU leaving the UK. And the answer, we’re told, is to train more of our own nurses.

Why Brexit should in any way be a catalyst for workplace planning in the NHS I can’t see. There is an ongoing need to train more nurses, Brexit or no Brexit. Desperation, as we find our health services understaffed, is hardly the way forward. And if anyone has seen cold, clear planning on the Brexit side over last few months, please let me know.

Trade deals and food standards  ‘Mr Gove has insisted that the UK will not compromise on food standards, even if that means a “narrower deal” with the US.’  Retaining access to EU markets, vital for many farmers, ‘will require continued adherence to EU standards’. That access could be hard to reconcile with US demands for the UK to import chicken washed in chlorine and hormone-treated beef, both of which are banned by the EU. But in a speech this month, Wilbur Ross, US commerce secretary, said that if Britain wanted a trade deal, it needed to accept US rules on precisely such issues.’ [Source: Financial Times 25/26 November]

Remember the context: 70% of the UK’s food exports last year went to the EU. 80% of our food exports come from the EU.

Obama warned how difficult a trade deal with the USA could be. Maybe under Trump we wouldn’t be at the back of the queue – but only, as Wilbur Ross makes clear, only if we accept American standards, and abandon the EU standards we ourselves have done so much to nurture over forty years. The first lessons of negotiation are to be sure of your argument, and negotiate from a position on strength: neither would true of any post-Brexit US trade deal.

Remember also that this is the USA of Donald Trump, busily posting anti-Muslim videos produced by the British extreme right. More than ever, we need to stand our ground, and know who our friends are, friends who share our values.

A new generation  There’s a breed of establishment liberals, all avowedly Remain voters, who may see Brexit as an economic mistake, but ‘put the blame for the mistake on liberal leaders rather than the benighted masses’. Robert Peston is one such: I’m quoting here from The Economist’s review of his new book, simply entitled ‘WTF’.

This isn’t to say that ‘the self-renewing elite’ Peston refers to shouldn’t be in the dock. And I’ll leave aside my thoughts on whether ‘establishment liberals’ are true liberals. My focus here is on wishful thinking, and I’ll let The Economist’s review of Peston’s book speak for itself:

And his conviction that ‘out of the current swamp a new generation of politicians with credible ideas will emerged primped and pristine on the shoreline of our ageing democracies’ looks delusional. There is little evidence that Britain’s elites are prepared to use Brexit as a spur to bright new policies. There is ample evidence, by contrast, that Brexit is being handled in the worst possible manner: dividing the country still further and distracting attention from what ails us.

That last sentence, and the last clause, ‘distracting attention’, is key. ‘Wishful thinking’ in everyday life may help keep us all afloat, but in politics the damage it can do is extreme.



Swift, clean victories

There’s an intriguing book just published by military historian, Lawrence Freedman, entitled The Future of War: A History: it focuses on (to quote the Economist review, 20th October) ‘how ideas about future wars could be fought have shaped the reality, with usually baleful results’.

‘Swift, clean victories’ have long been ‘baked into concepts of future war’, WW1 being a prime example. It would all be over by Christmas. In our own time we’ve civil wars rather than wars between nations, urban and guerrilla war, and hybrid, cyber warfare. Wars feed on themselves, self-perpetuate as they ever did.

Freedman’s message to policy-makers, the review concludes, is to beware those who tout ‘the ease and speed with which victory can be achieved while underestimating the resourcefulness of adversaries’.

I’m reminded of the current Brexit discussion. First create your adversary, as we’ve done, and then under-estimate his capabilities, and all the while assume that radical change, and even outright victory (and it would be seen as ‘victory’: we are combatants), can be achieved quickly.

I’ll bring in Richard Thaler here, recently-announced winner of the Nobel Prize for economics, and developer of ‘nudge’ theory. Thaler understand choices ‘as battles between two cognitive forces: a “doer” part of the brain focused on short-term rewards, and a “planner” focused on the long-term’. For Daniel Kahneman a related divide is exemplified in the title of his bestseller, ‘Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow’.

Our instinct for short-term success overpowers our planning instinct, we always want the quickest route, and we fool ourselves into thinking we have the wherewithal, the strategy, the materiel, to get us there.

There is, it seems, an inevitability about this process. There’s a quote from Steven Pinker, writing about Kahneman (Guardian, February 2014): ‘he gave me a comment that really sat with me: he noted that the idea of human nature with inherent flaws was consistent with a tragic view of the human condition and it’s a part of being human that we have to live with that tragedy.’  Pinker also argues that ‘we have the means to overcome some of our limitations, through education, through institutions, through enlightenment’.

I’ll take him at his word on ‘enlightenment’. There’s another side to human nature, as inherent as the flaws that Pinker alludes to, that takes us beyond  the ‘doer’ and the ‘planner’, the fast and the slow. Practised down the generations, put simply it’s self-awareness, living in the moment, bringing our reason, our planning instinct, to bear on our immediate or short-term actions.

In the spirit of zenpolitics,and in the absence of any apposite zen koans to hand, I’ll quote the 13th century Turkish (though born in Afghanistan) mystic, Rumi (I love the langauge): ‘…your inspired reason goes forward without obstacles/at the careful and measured pace of a camel’.

As for over-reliance on reason: ‘Discursive reason’s a vulture, my poor friend:/Its wings beat above a decaying corpse./The Saint’s reason is like the wings of Gabriel: …’

I’m touching on a vast subject here. Two Nobel prize winners on the one hand, three-millennia-old tradition and practice on the other. They don’t need to be in conflict, and both would warn against the pursuit of ‘swift, clean victories’.


The story so far – fifteen months on the disaster trail

The shadow over politics, the Brexit shadow, is one vast distraction. I feel I have to escape the shadow before I address other political subjects. But those other subjects – they’re all impacted in some way by Brexit, not least by the uncertainty associated with Brexit.

Take the environment, for example. UK environmental law is tied into European. Projects are EU-financed, standards, ideals, aspirations are shared. I remember at Finistera, at the end of the Camino, last autumn, noting how environment projects there were funded by the EU. I’d shared the Camino with many nations, and I loved that confirmation that many nations shared those standards, lived by a common framework. We know that Brexit free-traders cosy up to climate-change deniers, are casual about man-made changes to the environment – human ingenuity, they argue, has coped, and will always cope. All hinges on that one word ‘cope’.  Does the world we have around us, and that we’re projecting for our futures, mean that we’ve ‘coped’?

Human rights – the European Convention on Human Rights, which followed on from the UN Convention, and unlike the UN Convention is legally enforceable. Before the European courts. So for that reason we should exit it, according to Theresa May. As Philippe Sands (author of the remarkable East-West Street) pointed out when talking at the Cheltenham Literary Festival last Sunday, more than any other country we – the UK – gave Europe the convention. It was a British inspiration. Hersch Lauterpacht, who pioneered so much (beginning life in Lviv, in modern Ukraine: he left in the 1920s, his family were wiped out in the holocaust), was latterly a Cambridge professor.

Farming policy: how will policy change, how will farmers be financed, once we exit the EU, and exit the Common Agricultural Policy? CAP funding is based primarily on the amount of land farmed , so big farmers (mostly Tory supporters) benefit most. On the other hand, to quote a Scottish hill-farmer in a Reuters report: ‘The bloody-mindedness of the French or the Irish in standing up for agriculture was not just standing up for their farmers but brought a good deal for us as well.’ Post-Brexit, where will the money be directed? We are promised ‘a major policy overhaul’. Will the acreage farmed continue to dictate funding?  How might our landscapes change? Will the much-hyped new trade deals bring in cheaper farm imports , with knock-on effects on farm prices – other farming countries have more clout than we do. And what of cheap farm labour from Eastern Europe?  Michael Gove wants to prioritise the environment in any new scheme. But we’ve no idea how that will work out in practice, and legislation will be fast-tracked through parliament – fundamental changes pushed through with minimal public debate.

The Cheltenham Literary Festival has brought to the town an impressive range of politicians, journalists, singers (Peggy Seeger), mountaineers (Chris Bonington), sportsmen (Mike Brearley, Jonny Bairstow), TV stars, performers, poets, novelists….

Among the politicians was Chris Patten. I’ll leave his words to speak for themselves.

Referenda ‘are fundamentally anti-democratic in our system and I wouldn’t have anything to do with them’. (I can’t recall Patten’s exact words in Cheltenham – I’m quoting from another interview he gave.) Leavers in the Brexit campaign peddled a dubious notion of sovereignty (‘dubious’ was his polite word in Cheltenham – I see that elsewhere he’s spoken of ‘all this ideological crap about sovereignty and taking back control’). Brexit itself is ‘the single most calamitous act of self-harm in my lifetime’.

Philippe Sands, also at Cheltenham, put the remarkable achievement that the EU represents in the context of the preceding centuries of war. How casual can we be to turn our backs? He mentioned that Boris Johnson has been a friend for thirty years. How, he wondered, do you sustain such friendships in present times? Brexit has brought the obsessive tendencies of the further reaches of the Right, and Left, to centre stage. The centre ground of rational idea-based, truth-invigilated debate, is out of fashion.

Boris’s dad, Stanley, has written a novel. He and Vince Cable, also a new novelist, were a Cheltenham double-act. Boris’s novel assumes a Russian plot behind Brexit, enough to bring Brexit down. But he himself has changed sides from EU-supporting environmentalist to that contradiction in terms, a Brexit-supporting environmentalist.

Vince Cable outlined how higher education, the number of foreign students in the UK, intra-university cooperation across Europe were being threatened by Brexit. Stanley’s response, ‘Vince may be right, but he may not be.’ That was the limit of his response.

‘He may not be’ – that is standard Brexit-speak. You don’t need to address the detailed argument. It’s enough to suggest these days that’s there’s another point of view, however weak. And that point of view gets equal billing. The climate-change debate over again.

Jeremy Hunt, health secretary, is a one-time Remainer, now a Leaver – the damage, he suggests, to the economy that leaving was supposed to cause hasn’t happened. Is he now a convert to the hard-Brexit free-traders’ prognosis of a free-trade nirvana which will somehow subvert a world where protectionism and self interest are ever more asserting themselves? Or the Hammond soft version?

As the economy,  we haven’t left yet, we’re in a phoney-war period, a state of suspended grace which might just allow us to pull back from the brink – but the brink is too enticing. That itself is another aspect of Brexit – how supposed conservatives, the slow and steady incremental movers of politics, overnight become practitioners of brinkmanship.

Brexit is not only a bizarre course in terms of the economy, it is extraordinarily damaging to the democratic process, not just by giving referenda precedence over parliamentary democracy (so we have the question, can an act of parliament over-ride a referendum result – where does sovereignty lie?) but by polarising debate, taking out the common ground that most of the Right and Left shared until 2015.

Not only is the common ground not shared – it’s now scorned. So the John Majors, Chris Pattens, Nick Cleggs – they are old-school, flag-wavers of a different age. That would apply to me, and to most of my peers …


Austerity versus stimulus

Don’t let anyone say I avoid the big subjects!

Whatever one’s instincts, where lies truth? Is there any definable ‘truth’ when it comes to this debate – stimulus versus austerity. A good starting-point is a book of that name, just published, a collection of essays edited by Robert Skidelsky and Nicolo Fraccaroli.

The question, as Robert Skidelsky and David Blanchflower argue, ‘is whether Britain should be compared to Greece… Britain could, the Keynesians argue, continue to expand its debt with no risk of lowering confidence in the economy, as long as that debt expansion was used to pay for growth expanding projects’. But does high government borrowing push up interest rates and inhibit private investment? – Friedrich Hayek’s argument.  Is there a danger that people will lose faith in the management of the economy? – Niall Ferguson.

The UK national debt will peak this year at 89% of GDP, the biggest since the 1960s and up 36% from a decade ago.  (Paul Wallace, Prospect, July 2017.) I’ve seen figures for the first quarter of 2015 indicating that the annual cost of servicing the debt was £43 billion, but a third of the interest in that debt is the government paying interest to itself – the result of quantitative easing. On the other hand interest rates are currently very low, and could rise, and in  Paul Wallace’s words, ‘The Treasury is right to worry about maintaining fiscal headroom to respond to a future downturn.’ But if we take out that one-third which the government is paying itself, then it doesn’t look quite so bad.

Comparisons with other countries are helpful, and confusing. My data isn’t up-to-date, but the USA debt was over 100% in 2011, and  Japan’s debt is approaching 200% of GDP. Paul Wallace quotes the IMF, which puts our public debt as the sixth highest of 26 advanced economies. The CIA World Factbook ranked us 18th internationally.

And what about total public spending, another key indicator? Down from 45% in 2009-10 to 39% now – which is its pre-crisis level of 2007-8.  Wallace points out that in the late 1980s Britain spent virtually the same on health and defence. Today we spend nearly four times as much on health.

What this tells me is that there’s a case to be argued on both sides. For stimulus and for austerity. But I’m a Keynesian at heart. Keynes understood that confidence is everything, investment and not retrenchment is the key, and that the private sector is the driver of all successful economies. At the same time there is nothing intrinsically wrong or to be frightened of when it comes to public expenditure.

I think the phrase I quote above is key, ‘as long as that debt expansion was used to pay for growth expanding projects’. So – just one example, but an easy one – scrap HS2. Any growth benefits will be miniscule compared to the benefits from investing the money elsewhere – not least in other infrastructure projects.

Where does this leave the NHS? Real spending on the NHS increased at a rate of 1.1% under the coalition, compared to 4.1% a year over the past few decades. In addition, much of social care is in crisis. Benefits will be pared back further in the coming years. Prisons are too often scary and ineffective places…. This where increases in current expenditure have to be focused. Not on re-nationalising energy supply or the railways, whether such goals are worthy or not. As for scrapping student loans – a contributory scheme, an adjustment to rather than a scrapping of the scheme, may be one way forward. Paying off existing loans would not be a sensible use of resources. And what of scrapping the 1% pay increase limit for public sector workers – a highly inequitable restriction, enforced for four years – and now the subject of very public bickering among cabinet members?

This takes us to current arguments about increased taxation, and how effective that might be. Could it be increases in VAT, and /or a mansion tax (highly controversial) – where revenue streams would be certain in a way that that increasing the top rates of tax or hiking corporation tax wouldn’t be.

With continuing impacts from globalisation, and automation, the future is massively unpredictable. My only sure conclusion at this time is that austerity, as currently enforced and anticipated, is unnecessary and counter-productive. But how we spend wisely – and at the same time promote investment and encourage business and international trade – that is another matter.

What is absolutely certain is that we don’t need the tomfoolery of Brexit. And we do desperately need a competent government.