The success of post-Brexit Britain is plain for all to see. I’ve never seen so many street celebrations as citizens up and down the country embrace their new freedoms, and even their blue passports which provide them with a warm glow of satisfaction as they wait for hours at our borders. Two reports today illustrate the good news. The IMF say UK economic growth in the coming year will be the worst of any developed country, including Russia. This is a great achievement! And Bloomberg says that Brexit is costing the economy £100 billion a year. Well, talk about money well spent! Heartily slapping themselves on the back, government ministers from Rishi Sunak down can’t believe their good fortune as they slide further down the polls. Trade deals everywhere, Freeports in every village and a bonfire of EU regulations have all, or will all we’re promised transform our lives into poorly paid wage slaves. New laws banning protest and strikes will make us free. And we’ve managed all of this without Putin invading us! It’s the bulldog spirit!
How would you characterise Keir Starmer? What kind of animal is he? This sort of question is sometimes put to focus groups, to help us understand how ordinary people perceive politicians. A rough and ready technique I admit, but it does allow for some lateral thinking. Looking back at previous Labour leaders, I would hazard that Clem Attlee was like a giraffe, estimated to be somewhat ungainly but actually fleet of foot, and shall we say a cut above most others. Gaitskell is harder to pin down, but perhaps a cuckoo in the nest is apt enough for someone of my persuasion. Harold Wilson? What can one say but a wily fox, highly adept at outmanoeuvring a jealous field of incessantly baying hounds. Jim Callaghan I can’t quite identify in this categorisation, as ‘Sunny Jim’ I suppose people might have thought him an easy-going Labrador, but contra that he had his bite. For several years Neil Kinnock demonstrated, regrettably, that a dog can have a bark worse than its bite, and Thatcher’s ankles were left prettily (a la Alan Clark) scar free. I realise that I’m missing one or two leaders out here -Michael Foot and John Smith respectively. Both were highly personable, regardless of what you might have thought of their rather diametrically opposed politics. In their own ways, they would always have respected your territorial claims.
The modern era has been ushered in by Tony Blair. His period as leader in opposition was judged by the highly intuitive British press to be the coming of Bambi, the lightweight star of a 1942 Disney film, whose emergence is described by Wikipedia thus: “A doe gives birth to a fawn named Bambi, who will one day take over the position of Great Prince of the Forest, a title currently held by Bambi's father, who guards the woodland creatures against the dangers of hunters. The fawn is quickly befriended by an eager, energetic rabbit named Thumper, who helps to teach him to walk and speak.” Well, I wonder who Thumper was? Not somebody with a ‘Clunking Fist’ perhaps?
I need to remind readers that I am merely seeking to address a question which is often put to focus groups. Next comes Ed Miliband. I confess I quite like Ed, he is always prepared to listen and pay attention. So a Lemur comes to mind. Next up? Are we allowed to mention that name? Yes it’s [expletive deleted]. The cuddly human who has become a non-thing, airbrushed out of Labour’s history, just like Trotsky was never photographed standing shoulder to shoulder with Stalin. Or was it the other way round? Who knows, but we do know who got the ice pick. So for JC (make what you will of those initials) a Koala Bear comes to mind, a beast which despite or because of its furry, innocent cuddliness necessarily faces extinction.
Now we come to the point of this article. What kind of animal is our current top dog? I have in my mind an image of something you thought you saw but has since merged seamlessly into the bark of a tree, the fold in a leaf or the mud in the ground. Yes, a Chameleon. Very hard to pin down, unless of course you manage to pick it up and shake it around a bit. What will you find? It might make a squeak or two, something like ‘well the circumstances have changed so I’ve changed my mind.’ This is a surreptitiously respectable position which is almost scientific. “When the facts change, I change my mind - what do you do, sir?” asked John Maynard Keynes. Einstein might have agreed. But neither of them technically were politicians. Politicians are supposed to change facts. In Labour’s case like changing or should I say demolishing the status quo of inequality in our society. But no, that’s not on the cards. ‘Better’ managerialism is on the cards.
Here, in the dutiful pursuit of the right metaphor, I’m looking at the magical beauty of an antheap, which grows so symmetrically it could be an Egyptian pyramid. One only needs to look at the latest Oxfam analysis of global wealth inequality to see how the filthy rich own most – and more - of the pyramid. But our Chameleon, appearing in Davos, tells Laura Kuenssberg he’d rather be there than in Westminster. His migratory habits must be watched. You can predict them but will you always spot them?
I’ve been thinking about some pub quiz questions. On the theme of ‘more or less’ (a game sometimes played at the end of pub quizzes) I’ve come up with these teasers:
1.Are you more or less likely to be appointed Chairman of the BBC if you are a friend of the Prime Minister?
2.Are you more or less likely to win a multi-million PPE contract if you are a friend of the Prime Minister?
3. Are you more or less likely to break the law if you are the Prime Minister?
4. Are you more or less likely to be ‘careless’ with your tax affairs if you are a friend of the Prime Minister?
5. Are you more or less likely to get multi-million pound ‘levelling up’ grants for your constituency if you are the Prime Minister?
6. Are you more or less likely to be a multi-millionaire without the foggiest idea what life is like for ordinary people if you are the Prime Minister?
7. Are you more or less likely to drop all your policy pledges if you want to be the next Prime Minister?
Well, enough already. These are indeed difficult questions, and no cheating is allowed. That would be naughty. So -
8. Are you more or less likely to be naughty if you are a friend of the Prime Minister?
The prize for answering ‘no’ to all these questions is of course is a well-deserved gong.
I’m not sure I understand the urge to introduce ‘driverless’ cars, unless at some point the idea is to do away with the driving test. I reckon they are just another component in the automated hell of the ‘metaverse’ or the ‘internet of all things’ where our lives will be serviced and controlled by remote computers in the hands of a small elite of multi-billionaires. Is this a desirable objective? The consequences were well portrayed over 50 years ago in 2001: A Space Odyssey where the spaceship’s computer HAL gets a bit too big for its boots (and has to be booted down so to speak) and even earlier in E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops which might provide a prescient glimpse into the future of our over-dependence on machines. We are only in the nursery stage of being turned into fully functioning infants though, as a piece in The Intercept (link below) reveals. It reports yet another crash caused by a malfunctioning Tesla car on autopilot, whilst the vehicle was driving through the San Francisco Bay Bridge. Thankfully nobody was killed, but several were injured. CCTV footage shows the car making its own choices and coming to a stop in the tunnel-like structure. With several cars piling into it, others were able to dodge the pile-up, drive around and continue on their way. That says something about human nature. As yet there isn’t an autopilot that says ‘Stop! Get out and help!’
I am totally enamoured with the art of Paula Rego, who died last year. Her work is real but surreal and yet it comes alive in its sheer physicality. Her subject matter –people in all sorts of situations domestic and mythical—doesn’t waver from a truth, even if it’s not always clear what the truth is (isn't that a thing?). Her technique is sublime and her compositions are careful but coyly haphazard. She had a room to herself at last year’s Venice Biennale—and demonstrated that ‘traditional art’ can hold its own against the post-conceptual newcomers. The picture below, Angel in its very title captures the ambivalence that inhabits so much of her work. It’s worked in her oft-used medium of pastel, which from a purely technical point of view I am sure would have left Rembrandt speechless.
+Government ministers are dabbing their eyes as they introduce a bill to ensure ‘minimum safety standards’ in front line services. Obviously recent stories about people waiting days for an ambulance has got to them. At last, they have realised that starving public services of cash for over a decade has decimated standards of care. Sadly not. The crocodile tear sluices have been opened purely to curb people in front line services taking strike action. There’s no talk of maintaining minimum safety standards at all other times. Anyway, why just pick on some public services and not others? How about a minimum service level for MPs? Today Tory MP Andrew Bridgen has been suspended for five days for breaching the code on lobbying (and read between the lines: for being an objectionable git). If a nurse can be sacked for the offence of striking for better pay, then perhaps MPs should be sacked for putting themselves before their obligations as honourable (sic) members.
+I rejoiced reading this little snippet from the Evening Standard, about Nigel Lawson's retirement from the House of Lords:
The parliamentary record shows Lord Lawson of Blaby, who chaired the Vote Leave campaign during the EU referendum, last spoke in the House in April 2019 when he raised the spectre of “undesirable insurrectionary forces” if parliament refused to accept the result of the Brexit vote. Warning of a “rift” with the public, the veteran politician highlighted the danger of “an ugly situation” developing. Lord Lawson had previously faced claims of hypocrisy after it emerged he was applying for a French residency card.
The last sentence sums up the man. And as a founder of the so-called ‘Global Warming Foundation’ he has done more than most to undermine rational science and of course his Brexteering activities did much to damage the UK economy. But he’s been there before with his boom and bust Chancellorship. Good riddance!
I picked up a copy of Thomas Piketty’s book ‘Time for Socialism’ last month, and yes, it’s the sort of book the leader of a ‘left of centre’ political party ought to read. Piketty is no shouty ideologue from the ‘hard left’ but a thoughtful economist with a love of credible statistical evidence to substantiate the remedies he conceives are necessary to improve society—with a big emphasis on tackling inequality, which disease he thinks tears at the roots of progress on so many levels. He blows apart myths. Here’s an example:
‘Between 1930 and 1980, the [tax] rate applied on the highest incomes was on average 81% in the United States, and the rate applied to the highest inherited estates was 74% . . . [Then following the polices of wealth tax reduction employed by Reagan, et al] ‘Between 1980 and 2020 the rise in per capita income was halved in comparison with the period 1930-1980. What little growth there was, has been swept up by the richest, the consequence being a complete stagnation in income for the poorest 50%’ (p.228)
In other words, higher taxes on the wealthy do not lead to reductions in growth—the standard measure of economic success. In France, Piketty shows that there has been no wealth migration from the country when it had wealth taxes (which Macron has abolished) - quite the contrary in fact. But we’re fed as truth the myth that rich people will export their wealth if they are ‘taxed till their pips squeak.’ The fact that many wealthy people (and corporations) already do do that, using tax havens, tells us where the real reforms are needed. And how blind our politicians are—or should I say how subservient they are—to the wealthy. Over to you, Keir . . . (and stop listening to Mandelson, for whom inequality could be brushed to one side so long as the filthy rich paid their taxes. Which often they don’t.)
+I’m watching the Netflex docu-series The Monster of Wall Street, which looks at the rise and fall of Bernie Madoff, the ponzi fraud king who was once hailed as Wall Street’s miracle man. It is an absorbing series (four episodes) and begs so many questions about the ability of markets to police themselves (ha!) and government to do the job for them. The Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) failed on multiple occasions to properly investigate Madoff’s activities. That was partly due to the fact that he was so well in with them. It’s a salutary lesson, but one which has not been learnt. We still live in a world where ponzi schemes proliferate. Indeed, Madoff was only brought down by the collapse of that other great ponzi scheme, the US mortgage market in 2008. We found echoes of that here, with e.g. Northern Rock and other wonderful financial institutions which celebrated the ‘light touch’ regulation of their business, once lauded by—who else– Gordon Brown. Now that the Tories are contemplating allowing banks to combine their retail and investment functions once again, we can expect to see a slide backwards. As somebody commented in the Madoff series, the bankers, hedge funders et al only have one interest at heart—their own. I wonder if a government were to propose an Anti-Greed Bill, what it would contain.
+With that as a backdrop, Starmer’s latest wheeze is to say Labour is the party of ‘taking back control,’ which aims to suggest that a Labour government will devolve more power. I’m in favour of that, but it seriously remains questionable what will come of it after new Labour ministers and their departments find all sorts of excuses why this, that and the other would be better kept under Whitehall management. Given that Starmer has also said that there’ll be no ‘open chequebook’ it is clear that local control will not extend to any extra finance. And nowhere does ‘taking back control’ seem to mean taking control off the City. It doesn’t mean properly regulating that monster, nor does it mean really getting to grips with tax havens. It’s an empty slogan which encapsulates the inoriginality of Starmer’s imagination. And I’m wondering if it’s a trademark transgression. Dominic Cummings might have something to say about that. But perhaps he’s already advising Starmer.
+Philosophy Now magazine asks its readers each issue to answer a philosophical question. This month the question is What is time? The simple answer is, it is no more real than a concept. Here’s a slightly longer answer.
A more interesting question might be what is a moment? We appear to have moments in time. We reflect and we think in ‘the present,’ that is in this (and only this) moment—we live in an ineluctable series of ’moments,’ where we imagine time ‘stands still’ sufficiently for us to gather our thoughts and do our things. We live in a series of moments. So what are these moments? Like footsteps in the snow they seem to leave a trail but not for very long, they melt away and become faded memories. That we have this memory gives us the notion of time—a notion that is inconceivable, for example, to a rock. The question ‘what is time’ wouldn’t occur to a rock, even if the rock encapsulates the elements of its being in its molecular structure, i.e. its past., just as we do. Without consciousness there can be no sense of time, no concept of living in the moment, which is to say in a fiction twixt past and future (since we actually ‘live’ neither in the past nor the future). Time is a figment of the moment. The moment is another word for now. So what exactly is ‘now?’ That, I think, is a question for later, even if I thought of it now.
+There’s been a fair old competition going on these last few months. Who’s coffin witnessed the longest grieving queues? The Queen's, Pele's or Pope Benedict's? Does it really matter how long the queue is? (It's another media obsession.)
+Here’s an extract from Keir Starmer’s speech today:
So let me spell it out – no more short-cuts. Strong, dynamic government is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. Communities need strong public services, but that’s not enough on its own. For national renewal, there is no substitute for a robust private sector, creating wealth in every community.
Well, he’s really spelt it out hasn’t he? Only a robust private sector can do the job. It appears all else is secondary. How far will he take this spelt out wisdom? More privatisation of the NHS, perhaps? Private (i.e. toll) roads? G4S patrolling our streets? More contracting out of local (and national services)? More revolving doors in the defence sector? The opportunities are endless! We’re told—in the face of criticism—that the proposal for a ‘Great British Energy company’ signals Starmer’s radicalism. But it’s not yet clear what that means. Will it actually alter the balance between consumers and big energy? Whatever Starmer thinks it means, I’m willing to bet it will not put energy companies into the public’s hands.
N.B. It is a common error on the part of Starmer and his ilk (inc. Tories) that the state doesn't create wealth. One only has to ask, e.g. American defence manufacturers to determine the truth of this.
One of my international readers, who takes a keen interest in British politics, unearthed this letter (below) in the recent release of documents from the National Archives. Clearly, it’s a document that had to be kept under wraps for 23 years (Is it a 20 year rule now?) So, good old Photoshop. When Photoshop became a wee bit notorious, Labour made a bit of hay over a 48-sheet poster of Cameron which appeared on our streets in some election or other. When you want to show somebody’s face at that magnification, you’ve got to have Photoshop! Not a pimple to be seen! But before the days of Photoshop it took more effort. I remember a leaflet from the 1970 general election delivered in the Haltemprice (East Yorkshire) constituency of Tory MP Patrick Wall. He appeared in a photo to be standing with a group of other men inspecting some road improvements. Except he didn’t appear to be all that engaged. And unlike the others, he didn’t have a shadow. I suspect at the time that he was probably present at this historic event, but nobody could be bothered to take a picture. Which tells me his contribution wasn’t so historic after all. But MPs hate not to be seen in their constituencies. This wasn’t always true. Once upon a time, constituencies were simply sources of voting fodder and MPs were remote—literally in many cases. Churchill comes to mind. All of this predates fake news! At least we Brits don't employ doubles.