May shuffles and leads with the joker

THE APPOINTMENT of Boris Johnson as foreign secretary is either a very smart move by Theresa May or an incredibly stupid one. I can’t make up my mind which.

It’s certainly a gamble of some sort. Until now, even May’s own supporters weren’t claiming that she was much more than “a safe pair of hands” – Westminster-speak for “boring and cautious”. Boris’s surprise elevation, the sacking of Osborne, Gove, Whittingdale, Crabb and Morgan, and the hospital pass of DEFRA to her vanquished rival Andrea Leadsom, were bolder moves than anyone expected. This could be the brisk radicalism of someone who has acquired power quickly and confidently. Or it could be a streak of Cameroonian carelessness.

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WATCHING EVENTS UNFOLD post-Brexit reminds me of the scene in the original Dad’s Army movie when a streamroller “driven” by Captain Mainwaring and Corporal Jones accidentally crushes a line of tents at a training camp. Mainwaring says sorry for destroying the tents, only to be told: “You will be. It was you that was gonna be sleeping in ‘em.”

No one can stop Brexit, and no one can steer or control it either. The hapless Brexit leadership, stuck in the cab like Mainwaring and Jones, have been reduced to shouting “don’t panic” in a grim parody of their campaign strategy, which was simply to ignore facts and shout louder than anyone else. This is a self-inflicted disaster pressed on us by politicians who are simply out of their depth.

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Talk to the hand

DESCRIBING YOUR OPPONENTS’ CLAIM as irresponsible is a funny way of refuting it. It implies that the claim is probably true, and the would-be rebutter knows it but doesn’t want to talk about it.

The implication is not only that the threatened thing is bad, but that the possibility of it happening should be taken so seriously that it’s better to avoid discussing it at all. We don’t want to put ideas into people’s heads. No one condemns talk about an alien invasion as “irresponsible” because hardly anyone thinks it’s going to happen. It could only be deemed “irresponsible” when a lot of people think it might. That’s the thing about not putting ideas into people’s heads: the ideas are usually already there.

So it was with John Major and Tony Blair’s claim yesterday that Brexit could put the Northern Ireland peace process in danger. Theresa Villiers, who is apparently the Northern Ireland secretary as well as a leading Brexit campaigner, condemned this as “highly irresponsible”. When people try to close down a debate like this, it’s usually because they don’t have an answer they can live with. Villiers could have just said it wasn’t true, that everything would be fine, Brexit or no Brexit. But she couldn’t. That would’ve made her look stupid.

It should be self-evident that anything that drives a wedge between the Northern Ireland and the Republic will put the peace process in peril. The peace process rests on a fragile compromise: on the willingness of Nationalists to accept closer association with the Republic as a proxy for unification, and the willingness of Unionists to tolerate the Republic being treated quite differently to other foreign countries.

Brexit will throw up a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. A real border with checkpoints, passport control, police with dogs – the whole bit. It has to, because that is the logic of the Brexiteers’ own position. We have to control our own borders, remember? How can we control our borders if we have an open one with a European Union country whose borders are, in turn, open to the rest of the EU. Simple, we can’t.

Either we are going to have that border between the Republic, or we are going to put Northern Ireland in some sort of quarantine with an internal border between it and the rest of the UK. Either way, the fragile compromise will be shattered. Nationalists will feel they are back to square one – it will be as if the peace process never happened – or Unionists will be furious that they are not being treated as a proper part of the UK. All hell will break lose. As it will in Scotland if Scots vote to remain and are forced out of the EU by English voters.

There is another possibility, of course: I could be wrong and closing the border may not be necessary at all. But that would mean the Brexiteers were also plain wrong about the effects of the free movement of people. And they’re never going to admit that, are they?

Now, that’s really irresponsible.

Photo: Kelvin Boyes/Northern Ireland Executive/

Why it’s hurting but not working

broken-toolsOne of our favourite economists at English Economic (yes, one or two are all right) is Oxford University’s Simon Wren-Lewis. Simon has been one of the most trenchant critics of Britain’s Tory government within mainstream economics, and his clear and straightforward arguments generally go unanswered by government supporters. Simon is also one of the few academic economists to make a concerted effort to reach out to non-economists, both through his Mainly Macro blog (which caters for both economists and the rest of us) and his campaign against “media macro” – the distortion and misinformation in the mainstream media which does so much to promote right-wing economic ideas and always seems to favour the interests of the rich and powerful.

One of the most important questions Simon has been tackling recently is why all the extraordinary measures taken in the UK and the Eurozone in recent years have failed to get the economy moving. Put very simply, there are two ways for the authorities to stimulate the economy quickly (in what economists call the “short-run”), so we can see some economic growth and start getting pay rises again. The government can either spend money itself or it can encourage other people to spend money. Either way, someone somewhere has to start putting some money down.

Read the full article on English Economic.

Election 2015 – a road to nowhere

Following the election campaign? Clear as mud, right?

Well, one thing that’s clear is that neither the Tories nor Labour have any confidence in the vision they’re selling. Even after last week’s slick manifesto launch, I’ve still no idea what sort of country David Cameron wants us to be living in ten years from now. I don’t think he does either. Meanwhile, Ed Miliband seems to be running a 50:50 campaign: 50% Blairite, 50% old Labour; 50% leftish populism, 50% neo-con. But it’s not a smooth blend. It’s got a funny taste. The best I can say is that is has about a 50% chance of success (narrowly defined as stopping another Tory-led government).

Both Labour and the Tories are terrified of making mistakes but frustrated by the deadlock in the polls. This is pushing both old parties into making seemingly daring, but ultimately fatuous, incursions into each other’s territories.

So the Tories, who condemned Labour’s energy price freeze as “Stalinist”, now promise to do exactly the same thing with rail fares. Labour, which has spent five years attacking austerity, now threatens us with its triple lock of fiscal rectitude, which sounds like a particularly nasty sex toy. Meanwhile, the Tories are spending money like it’s going out of fashion, with squillions extra suddenly magicked up for the NHS, housing subsidies, tax cuts and childcare. I don’t get it.

But I’m not meant to get it. The policies don’t makes sense, but the politicians don’t care. The two old parties are beyond ideological or political coherence and are just tossing out messages they think people want to hear. At the last minute, both seem to have woken up to the fact that a “core vote” strategy won’t work because neither of them have enough core voters. It might once have worked for Labour, due its current advantage in the electoral system and its slightly higher core vote, but that was before the meltdown in Scotland. That electoral advantage is now working in favour of the SNP, which is happily mopping up Labour’s core vote north of the border. But the SNP surge hurts Labour without helping the Tories get over the line.

Hence the increasingly desperate scrap for a handful of votes, focusing on neutralising the negatives for each party. All of which leaves us even more clueless about what the two old parties really stand for.

Neither really understands swing voters, and neither leadership really likes its own core voters. Cameron is said to privately despise the antediluvian pensioners and right-wing fruitcakes who dominate most Conservative associations. And Labour too often shows disdain for working class people and working class values. The Tories cling to their discredited free market ideology, but are ready to toss it aside when the going gets tough, shown as much by George Osborne’s retreat from austerity after 2012 as last week’s desperate unfunded spending promises. Labour, which has lost two ideologies (socialism and Blairism) but has yet to find a third, hides behind bland statements of values (which could just as well appear on Tory banners) and appeals to vacuous concepts like “everyday people”.

I’ve been a member of the Labour party for thirty years. I will vote Labour on 7 May because, in the end, this election – for all its complexity – comes down to a choice between a party of the rich, which behaves exactly like a party of the rich when it’s in power, and the other lot. I prefer the other lot. The Labour party has to rely on the votes of working people to win elections. The Tories have to court Ukippers and can’t help but look after their own. Labour will not try to destroy the NHS or the BBC. The Tories might do for both. Labour has to try to do something about ever widening inequality or risk destroying itself. The Tories are turning Britain into a billionaire’s playground. Labour might not reverse that, but it has no interest in encouraging it. For this election at least, that will have to be enough.

Perhaps this is a transitional election and a new political system will emerge with new alternatives on the left that are more convincing than the Greens or George Galloway’s clowns (but don’t hold your breath). The election after this one could be fought in a different country – I can’t see any way in which the situation in Scotland can be reversed. England itself might begin to break up into regional blocs and could become ungovernable. I’ve no idea, and neither has anyone else. The one crumb of comfort is that whatever cobbled-together outfit gets around the cabinet table next month, they’re unlikely to last five years. They’ll be lucky to last five months.

How to keep the United Kingdom (sort of) together

Okay, panic over, here’s the answer to the West Lothian Question.

England is going to get its own parliament one way or another, so let’s have a proper parliament and not a rump group of Westminster MPs doing a spot of English legislating in their spare time. That means an English prime minister and cabinet, accountable to an English House of Commons – an English government in name as well as practice.

The governments of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would have power over the same things – basically everything except those powers they agree to share through the UK (pretty similar to the “Devo Max” deal offered to Scotland at the last minute, as the union seemed to be slipping away).

For the UK, we directy elect the UK “prime minister” (best not say “president” while my fellow citizens retain their sentimental attachment to the House of Windsor – but how about “President of the Council” for those who, like me, enjoy finding new uses for old things?). He or she would head a small cabinet dealing with UK-wide matters, which we could call the Council of State (or even the Privy Council if you like – sorry, can’t stop myself).

I’m not convinced we would even need a UK parliament. We would have four perfectly good parliaments already, and how many parliaments does one small archipelago need? There wouldn’t be much UK legislation – most laws would be domestic matters – so what there is would have to be ratified by all four parliaments (and hence, in practice, negotiated first – what a novelty!). A less stringent alternative would be to have all four parliaments “meeting together” as the UK parliament (they don’t have to be physically in the same place – we have the technology for that). You could have some sort of weighting system, so that England gets more say than the smaller nations, but not 85% of the say.

There you have it: no cumbersome regional assemblies in England that no one wants; no asymmetric distribution of powers storing up trouble and sowing instability for the future; no Barnett formula; no ridiculous “double-hatting” by the UK prime minister dabbling as England’s PM two days a week (what happens if the UK prime minister is a Scottish or Welsh MP?); no paralysis in England when the UK government lacks an English majority; no need for increasingly meaningless Westminster elections (with ever dwindling turnouts) in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. And no need for any resentment – it’s a voluntary union and everyone has the same powers over their own affairs.

Of course there are a lot of detail to be worked out, but I can’t see any serious problems. My biggest headache is where to stick the UK prime minster, assuming the English PM bagsies the keys to Number Ten… You know, there must be a lot of room in that big grey building at the end of the Mall.