Dead Men Left

Friday, December 30, 2005

The proper media is picking up the Craig Murray story. It was headline news on Radio 4's PM programme, and it looks like the Times is running it tomorrow.

Hurrah for the RMT

London tubeworkers are threatening to go on strike tomorrow evening.

First up, I live in London. If there's no tubes running, it will have a direct impact on my evening. (Just to make that clear.)

But there's not a chance in hell I'm going to line up with the predictable furore about "greedy unions" and "£30,000 a year" and "35-hour weeks" and all the rest of it. Nor can I stand the equally tiresome claims that yes, of course we support the right to strike... but not at New Year! Have these people no shame? It's funny; these people support the right to strike, except when it's actually used.

This strike's not about money, or some perverse desire to "spoil a great night out" on the union's part. It's about Transport for London wanting to break arrangements it had previously made over rostering. The RMT claims this will reduce safety on the tube.

Now, as a reasonably regular tube passenger, frankly I'd place the drivers and station staff of the RMT in a better position to make judgements about my safety than employers prepared to sign up and contract out repair work to notorious cowboys like Jarvis. If a strike's necessary to defend my safety on the tube, so be it.

There's a wider issue, however. Tube drivers are better-paid than others because they have a strong, well-organised union. Breaking that union won't suddenly mean, say, nurses getting paid more; quite the opposite.

Weakening the most powerful and best-organised elements of the working class makes grinding away at the rest of the workforce so much easier. The only way lower-paid workers will improve their lot is through organisation. Anything that undermines their attempts at organisation weakens their ability to win better pay and conditions.

Historically, unionisation amongst lower-paid and previously unorganised workers has tended to follow the better-organised and better-paid workers. Successful strikes provide an excellent example for others; moreover, the support of the better-organised can be vital in defending the weaker sections - the solidarity between baggage handlers and food-packers in the recent Gate Gourmet dispute was an excellent example of this.

With that in mind, I wish a happy new year to Bob Crow and the RMT. I hope many more will follow their lead over the coming 12 months.

(Also at the Sharpener.)


I'm sure you'll have seen this already, but Craig Murray, former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, has been hassled by the Foreign Office to return a few documents in his possession relating to details of the UK's use of "evidence" obtained from torture in Uzbekistan. The particular embarrassment here is that Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has claimed that does not use "information" obtained through torture elsewhere.

You can see why any documents even whispering otherwise would cause some bother. Documentary evidence that the Britsh government was both aware of torture in Uzbeki jails, and considered evidence obtained through torture as legitimate, would be most unfortuante. Proof that, for example, the Uzbeki authorities boiled prisoners alive would be particularly unfortunate if there was even a hint that the UK government had relied on "information" obtained through such means.

Craig has taken the option of circulating documents which say that as widely as possible. The Independent has (partially) picked up on the story.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Gordon Wilson/Harold Brown/fresh Tory eccentricities

A minor masterpiece of the type, this Telegraph opinion piece from Thomas Utley. Not one word, at any point, is directed towards explaining why - and on what particular planet - Gordon PFI Brown can be compared to Harold Wilson. Instead, we are offered a brisk rehash of Thatcher's founding myth: the tragic decline from Britain's glorious past at the hands of greedy unions, until the "biggest crisis of all" (Utley's words), the so-called "Winter of Discontent". After this abasement, the glorious redemption and happy march into the promised land of decency and free-markets. Complete tosh, on several levels, and made even more ludicrous by attempting to drag Brown into it.

The blunt truth, and one until very recently generally recognised by British business, is that Gordon Brown is the best Chancellor of the Exchequer they are likely to get. There just has not been any available political alternative; no-one else could have so assidiously promoted continual privatisation, deregulation - yes, deregulation - and so delicately courted business opinion with provoking significant opposition. Even where Brown has found it necessary to increase public spending, he has been careful to involve private business in the management of public expenditure.

The Tories were simply in no position, post-ERM, to maintain this balance. The question now is whether they, in cahoots with the Lib Dems, could now do so. It will take more than bowdlerised history lessons to answer it.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Turkeys coming home to roost

Like its greying, sweat-encrusted real-life counterparts, I've ditched DML's electronic Make Poverty History wristband. And not a moment too soon, either, because that raging cretin Geldof has decided to campaign for the Tories:

Sir Bob told Sky News: "I am not giving tacit approval. What I am trying to do is agreeing to help formulate a policy that I would agree with."
He added: "Narrow definitions of what politics are do not interest me.

"I am not party political. I am completely non-partisan, as are those dying of want. It doesn't concern me what people think about me."

It's a pity Geldof isn't "dying of want": he would be less ready to condemn those who actually are to the passive, voiceless status of token victims. Christ almighty, what a monstrous cockwit the man is. Anyway.

Worth mentioning, once more, how many of its tricks Cameron's "compassionate conservatives" are learning from the US. I blogged a while back about Bush's increased funding for "development" aid, which now arrives tied explicitly to the Nation Security Strategy. Meanwhile, a key neoconservative strategist has been appointed head of the World Bank.

Geldof, being largely a hopeless ego-driven patsy and a self-inflating sack of flatulent platitudes, may be unaware of the nuances here. His fulsome praise for George Bush's many and varied good works in Africa, however, suggests a certain flickering political awareness.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Off to Berlin for Christmas. Back in New Year, I expect.

"Destroy every fucking grammar school in the country"

Right then, S&M's wrongness - more as an example of the type than any particular wrongness on his part. He wonders why Prescott - and Labour backbenchers - are setting themselves against the 11-plus, and decides:

Paternalism. Giving poor but bright students an education is bad for them. it takes them out of their natural society and places them in an alien environment. Even if they jump through the hoops, pass all the exams and get well-paid jobs, they suffer isolation and loneliness. Why not protect them from this fate?

...because clearly there aren't any proper reasons for opposing the reintroduction of goat/sheep distinctions at age 11.

I have to admire the utter confidence of the grammar school apologists. They've all learned the rhetorical arts rather well, perhaps in-between double Latin and extra-hard sums such as were learned in Proper Schools back in the Good Old Days, c.1950. Maybe this is why they feel a return to those happy years are so important. It is impressive, in its own way, that a deeply elitist and anti-egalitarian system should be wheeled on-board under the guise of giving the deserving poor a chance, &c.

Because the last thing grammar schools promoted was social mobility. Isakofsky summarised the problem well, in an earlier discussion at DML:

The defenders of grammar schools all went to grammar schools. Amongst those, some were working class, though the research done at the time found that many of the people who described themselves as working class grammar school boys or girls had one parent who came from a distinctly professional background - mother at home was concealed in the stats.

People like John Marks claim that grammar schools created class mobility. Problem here: only a small percentage at grammar school came from (on their classification) manual working class. Meanwhile, grammar schools on average across the country were less than 25% of population. So how much social mobility can you squeeze out of that. Add in the imponderable effects of immigration having the consequence of squeezing the host working class up a notch into supervisory roles and the supervisors into lower management...and talk of grammar schools creating social mobility is tosh. John Marks and others argue from their own experience. We never hear from the 75%. It's bogus history we keep being fed.

This missing 75% is rather strange: where are all those former secondary modern pupils demanding a return to selection? If, as the meritocrats claim, the 11-plus is so clearly a superior system, why are not more of these (doubtless) happy, contented failures, secure in their particular places, beseeching the government to deliver more grammar schools?

Better yet than this apparently selfless concern for the suitably aspirational working classes is the pretence that the 11-plus will undermine the market. Now, there's no doubting that house-price selection, age 11, is a problem. But introducing more selection at the same age hardly seems the best way to tackle the inequalities it produces. More likely to reinforce them, in fact: not only are the supposedly objective, value-neutral "intelligence" tests of the type favoured by the 11-plus notoriously value-heavy and subjective, but - as isakofsky suggests - middle class parents will already have performed some house-price selection.

You want little Timothy and Tabitha to attend the grammar school? You'd better get them in the right primary school, then: pay through the nose for the right catchment area, use - if little Tim is indeed nice but more than a little dim - private tuition, and leap through the appropriate financial hoops on their behalfs. Unless our Tory anti-capitalists want to introduce selection at age five - a possibility, I suppose, leading on to selection at age 2, age zero, and then perhaps a pre-natal multiple-choice test - they're going to have to think a little harder about this one. Selection is not the answer.

Still, the apologists continue. Research evidence showing decreasing social mobility is dragged out to support a return to grammars, drawing protests from the researchers themselves. Complaints about history teaching in schools are press-ganged into support for selection. Prescott, for one of the few times in eight years of government, says something sensible on the issue, and is denounced - and you can smell the class hatred here - as too stupid to understand.

It's slightly depressing; or it would be, if I thought that the argument was even close to being won for the elitists. The truth is that no working-class parent is going to accept a system that, more likely than not, will so obviously and so arbitrarily condemn their child at such an early age. Grammar schools will remain electoral suicide.

...tho not complete chiz becos Justin uterly wet and weedy tho he his draw atention to st custerd's online site hurah hurah.

Local politics

Just received a rather heartening press-release from Tower Hamlets Against Transfer:

Tenants vote NO in 5 out of 7 ballots
Tenants voted NO to transfer in five out of seven of the housing privatisation ballot results announced today in Tower Hamlets.

'People are seeing through the empty words, glossy pamphlets and hard sell. Once you see the blackmail, threats and dirty tricks it gives the game away. Once you get out on the doorstep and discuss it with neighbours, tenants can smell a rat with Housing Choice,' says Kay, a Cranbrook tenant.

Tenants against transfer to new private sector housing association landlords have worked hard trying to make sure we knock on every door, and counter the years of glossy propaganda, DVDs and hard sell by the would-be landlords, Council and so-called 'Independent Tenant Advisor' staff.

'We want improvements on our estates - not privatisation. Why should we give up our security, lower rents and charges, and accountable landlord? We don't want these RSLs doing private luxury developments all over our green space. They want to make money at our expense - it's not on,' says Sean, one of the tenant on Longnor, Osier and Norfolk (Bancroft East) who voted no.
'It's a disgrace the lies they tell - they promise new homes to loads of desperate people, they say there's no difference in tenancy rights. Lots of tenants were not sent voting papers. But we kept up campaigning to the end, and the tenants stood together to say NO,' says Habib of the Clichy and Stepney Green campaign.

The five latest No votes are on Barleymow (56% no) , Cranbrook (72% no), Granby/Hereford (63% no) Longnor,Osier and Norfolk (54% no) and Stepney Green/Clichy (63% no). On Lansbury the campaign faced intimidation and threats from HARCA staff, with voting conducted in a HARCA-run hall. On Exmouth estate most tenants voted before hearing any alternative point of view.

Today's results follow no votes on Wapping and Lincoln estates in October 05, and a controversial Bow Parkside ballot in July 05 where the Council's claim of a 7-vote majority is being legally challenged. Tenants on the Ocean estate in Stepney are also furious that their vote, due in November 05 has now been postponed until summer 06 due to the mood on the estate. A deputation from the estate to the Council meeting last week demanded that the vote is held immediately or abandoned. 'We believe they have postponed our vote because they know we would vote no,' the deputation told the full Council meeting 14.12.05.

Tenants against transfer are demanding the Council put all housing funding into repairs and improvements on estates immediately, and back the local and national campaign for direct investment in council housing as an alternative to stock transfer or other privatisation options.

Tower Hamlets council is fighting estate-by-estate for New Labour. And fighting is pretty much the word: on the Lansbury estate, HARCA (the “registered social landlord” looking to run the place) used its own employees to bust up a Defend Council Housing meeting: in a bizarre simulation of genuine protest, a group of HARCA staff, complete with HARCA placards (and a token representation from the estate), marched into the community hall screaming and shouting abuse, and sufficiently disrupted the meeting that the chair had to call the police. Though HARCA’s, ahem, politically independent, it struck me as a classically New Labour manoeuvre: a completely simulated “movement” papered over the atomisation of social and political life New Labour strive for.

Elsewhere, Tower Hamlets council is victimising a long-standing member of staff for her involvement in Defend Council Housing. They know that each vote against stock transfer is a blow against New Labour; what they absolutely dread is that Respect will gain as a result. Whilst I don’t share the confidence that Respect will win control of the council next May, I’m sure that we will be the biggest single party represented in the chamber in a few months’ time.

That, by itself, would be fantastic: one of the most deprived boroughs in the country has been subjected to over a decade of crackpot New Labour schemes, a Blairite gloss that barely masks over a deeply corrupt political culture. The extent of New Labour’s failure in the East End, is quite stunning. Misplaced talk about “communalism” during the general election campaign out here was a shoddy attempt to divert attention from the underlying reasons Respect has gained a traction there; yes, the war matters, but so do local schools, the PFI scheme at the hospital, the proposed Crossrail development, and, above all, housing. The war alone would not have won George Galloway his seat, and it will not deliver council seats for Respect in the spring.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

We Are All Chavs

I've always thought that the contempt in certain middle class circles for 'the chav' is born of bewilderment, incomprehension at how the working class have had the cheek to develop an authentic, vibrant, meaning-ful material culture of their very own. In contrast to the middle classes, who struggle to define themselves through the 'style' section of glossy magazines.

From, after. I thought both were spot-on. I wonder whether it's time to reclaim the word: the splendid Goldie Lookin Chain - and the similarly marvellous Lady Sovereign - are examples for us all, clever and funny, with none of this smug dullard so-called "irony". Death to Little Britain!

See, also, Stumbling and Mumbling getting education all wrong, with subsequent discussion. (Paralleled, in a more bad-tempered and shouty fashion, after this post. Will respond properly to S&M tomorrow.)


Eventually, it will sink in that "compassionate Conservatism" does not mean "One Nation" or "cuddly" or "not wholly unpleasant" or "vaguely sort of left-wing" Conservatism. It's a neoconservative euphemism.

Before enlightenment dawns on the bewildered herds of Westminster, expect more confused bleating from those, like this Liberal Democrat, who think they can see a wolf, but are baffled by its downy soft wooly jumper. Particularly entertaining, in a cruel way, is the absolute bewilderment that a Tory, and a right-wing Tory at that, should lay claim to environmental credibility.

It’s easily done, as these examples from the US show. All that is needed is to drop the leftist language of social choice and economic impacts from environmental concerns, and replace it with the classically liberal rhetoric of personal consumption decisions. Cameron’s redefinition of the environment as a "quality of life" issue is an attempt to do precisely that.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Morales wins, Telegraph whines

Excellent news from Bolivia:

A FORMER coca farmer who was elected President of Bolivia yesterday is threatening BG Group with the nationalisation of its gas assets in the Andean states.

Evo Morales, who leads the Movement towards Socialism party and who describes himself as “Washington’s nightmare”, said that he would revoke the rights of natural gas producers at the well head.

Foreign control over Bolivia’s vast natural gas reserves was a key issue in the election, alongside coca farming, which is under pressure from Washington over concern that it fuels the drug trade. Señor Morales said that he wanted to change the terms on which foreign companies, such as Repsol, of Spain, Petrobras, of Brazil, and BG Group, of Britain, extract gas.

It's always a pleasure to read what the Right have to say after events like Morales' election, but I wasn't expecting them to be quite so defensive. Here's the unusually meek Daily Telegraph leader:

In the past 30 years, Latin Americans have abandoned the generals in favour of democracy and are now using that freedom to push the continent to the Left...

Such tweaking of Uncle Sam's nose will delight those who hate Mr Bush. Yet two words of caution are in order. The Washington/International Monetary Fund free-market prescriptions may have led to a widening of the gap between rich and poor. But, looking beyond the anti-yanqui rhetoric, that does not mean their outright rejection south of the Rio Grande.

See, for example, the moderate economic policies pursued by President Luiz Inácio da Silva in Brazil. Second, protectionism has been tried before in the region and found dismally wanting. That should serve as a lesson to a small, poor country such as Bolivia, which, despite its natural gas resources, needs foreign investment to build its infrastructure almost from scratch.

How fitting that the hapless Lula should held up as an example; if there's one direction that would be catastrophic for Bolivia, it would be following the same course that the Workers' Party have taken up the backside of the IMF. "Protectionism" may well have been "found wanting", but it still was not as disastrously bad as the free-market alternative.

The graphic failure of neoliberalism in Latin America is a difficult one to argue around, admittedly. But this mealy-mouthed criticism just won't do. All that is need is a little imagination. Mark Steyn's got the right idea. The US as rape victim? The man has a certain style, has he not?

Monday, December 19, 2005

Down with skool

Behold your future executioners:

"I see a bit of 'class' is coming back now with Cameron and his outfit. The Eton Mafia. We [Labour] are always better against class. When it's a class issue.

"It's the Eton mob isn't it? They used to fight their wars on the Eton playing fields. Now they win elections on the Eton playing fields. I always feel better fighting class anyway - bring the spirit back into the Labour Party."

This would be less absurd if the man Prescott deputises to hadn’t been to Scotland’s own Eton. New Labour lets certain, carefully-vetted and basically toothless old bulldogs off the leash every now and again: witness Dennis Skinner’s contribution to the Labour Party conference. The punters like it – never mind the lack of substance, just admire the burnished patina of proletarian struggle. This is a New Labour simulacrum of class war; a re-enactment staged for entertainment only, rather like those strange men who dress up as Cromwell’s footsoldiers and parade around local parks.

If John Prescott had suggested that Labour were going to close Eton (and indeed Fettes), we might be getting somewhere. Nonetheless, the whiff of damp saltpetre and the flash of blunt swords is more than enough to set the Tories off:

The Tories yesterday sought to deepen the prime minister's discomfort by urging him to ignore Mr Prescott's "class war" battle and stand firm. David Willetts, shadow education spokesman, said: "What we are seeing with John Prescott is a guy who has this deep resentment about not having passed the 11-plus and still, 50 years, 60 years on, is fighting these battles."

Here we see the new language of the class war: deference to the "meritocracy". John Prescott is just thick, you see, and riddled with spite when he sees the clever people doing so well. Never mind that social mobility is on the slide, or that educational outcomes are becoming more – not less – attached to social class.

Fortunately, as Roy Hattersley points out, the 11-plus only really appeals to those who’ve already passed it: the prospect of writing off 80% of children, aged 11, is not one that appeals greatly to most parents - something that Prescott doubtless appreciates. The cries of grammar school swots – and the whisperings of their public-school masters - will fall on deaf ears.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Bang on cue

Well, lo and behold:

The new Conservative leader, David Cameron, today ratcheted up the pressure on under-fire Charles Kennedy with a direct appeal to Liberal Democrat MPs, councillors and voters to defect to his new-look Tory party.

In a lunchtime lecture Mr Cameron said that Lib Dems with an interest in the environment and social justice will find a "natural home" under his "modern, compassionate" leadership - and announced a new website, libdems4cameron, to evangalise for Lib Dem defections.

'pon said website, we find Cameron thus:

Issues that once divided Conservatives from Liberal Democrats are now issues where we both agree. Our attitude to devolution and the localisation of power. Iraq. The environment. I’m a liberal Conservative. I’m determined to tackle the challenges faced by our country and our world in a moderate, forward-looking, progressive way. And I hope, over the next weeks, months and years, that many Liberal Democrats will want to join us: to build a modern, compassionate Conservative Party; to help address the big challenges our society faces, and to be a growing voice for change, optimism and hope.

Notice the presence of Iraq. If Kennedy goes, the only serious divide that remains between the two parties will go with him: even a notorious - ahem - leftwinger like Simon Hughes would not symbolise opposition to the war in quite the same identifiable way. Party conference this autumn was pretty much the death of Kennedy, in any case; he may be popular amongst his membership, but it's the latter-day Thatcherites in the party leadership that are making the running. (I don't, incidentally, view the opposition of the Lib Dem membership as a "serious divide" to a Tory-Lib Dem love-in. They will be disciplined, just as Labour members were.)

It's notable that it's the Tory Party that have made the first move, too. You wonder if they'll bag themselves a sprightly young Woodward. More likely, a period of mutually admiring glances and flirtatious remarks, sickening to behold, will commence before an amicable pre-election pact is agreed upon.

Nuclear power and the free market

David King, the government’s chief scientific advisor inadvertently spilling the beans about nuclear power:

I emphatically do not believe in direct government subsidies for nuclear energy. The decisions about the economics will be made by the private utilities sector, guided by government considerations on the need to meet our emissions targets and to have a secure energy supply.

This isn’t “political expediency”, so much as repeating the TINA mantra that guides all policy: the government is inherently badly placed to make decisions, therefore let the free-market do it. The logic that demands more nuclear power plants – and dismisses any alternatives – is grounded in the idea that only decentralised and market-based policy implementations can really work, and that the market should not be interfered with.

This is questionable at the best of times. When applied to the environment, it is downright ludicrous. The fact that so many activities, via the market, simply dump their costs on the environment is as good an example of market failure as you could hope to find. We shouldn’t be attempting to prop up and even maintain these failures. We can’t tackle global warming on a piecemeal basis: there is an urgent need for central planning: for a central strategy that encompasses transport, housing, food consumption, industrial use, and so on, and addresses each from a determination to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the most equitable manner possible.

It is folly, then, to think we can leave the economy largely unmolested by swapping gas- and coal-burning power plants for nuclear. It’s not carbon-neutral, in any case, and – despite King’s pious hopes – it is so unsafe and so hideously expensive that an extension of the UK’s nuclear power schemes will require extensive government intervention. Far better to apply the state’s resources to tackling the problems at source, which means (as a first step) radically improving public transport, serious investment in sustainable energy, imposing the true costs of greenhouse gas emissions on producers, and subsidising energy-efficient consumption.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Faith in human progress

At some point, everyone will realise that Little Britain is shit.

Johnson exposed

This Boris Johnson=lovely cuddly bumbling oaf thing. Utter nonsense, getting quite sick of it – particularly when he’s penning stuff like this:

We live in an age of easy, gifted telegenic politicians who never put a foot wrong or slur their words on Newsnight, and it is therefore magnificent that the Liberal Democrats continue to have a leader with a Churchillian ability to slot it away.

Vicious, no? But never mind the cheap and dirty laughs, here’s the meat:

Only Charles Kennedy is capable of bubble-gumming this coalition together. It is now quite clear that if he were to go, he would be replaced by someone who might come perilously close to endorsing one position or the other, rather than keeping up the amazing Lib Dem strategy of endorsing both. The party would be taken over either by the likes of Mark Oaten and Nick Clegg, who seem in many ways to be very similar to David Cameron's Tories; or else it would go Left under Simon Hughes and the rest of the tofu-munching busybodies.

This coziness with the Orange Book gang, from senior Tories, is going to get more and more frequent over the coming months.

NB: Tory environmental concern=get on your bike (and look for work?) Cunning.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

A Very British Neoconservatism (preliminaries)

New blog, Shackled Up to the Rigmarole, has a few comments on Douglas Murray, who some of you may vaguely remember as the mildly prodigistic author of Bosie: A Biography of Lord Alfred Douglas a few years back. Seems Murray has had a bit of funny turn of late, penning a shortish tract enticingly entitled Neoconservatism: Why We Need It.

Shackled Up..., extending a convenient parallel, remarks on how the sad decline of anti-homophobic Bosie biographer to Ratzinger groupie mirrors that of Lord Alfred Douglas himself. There's something broader taking place here: Murray's polemic can be filed safely alongside Oliver Kamm's "racist" screed, Anti-totalitarianism: The Left-Wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy, the recentish British publication of Irwin Stelzer's Neoconservatism (complete with important set-piece essay by Michael Gove), the foundation of the Henry Jackson Society[*] (see also), and - perhaps most significantly of all - David Cameron's election victory, as masterminded by George Osborne.

It's been brewing for a while, fuelled by the heady excitements of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Belmarsh, but a serious attempt has been concocted to transplant neoconservate thought to this side of the Atlantic. I've remarked before that, even on its home turf, neoconservatism of itself is not desperately popular; but there's no reason to become complacent about messianic Tories. We have, after all, seen their type before.

[*] A small footnote, and a genuine question: why is Daniel Brett, otherwise a nice liberal sort, writing for this lot? Dan?

Monday, December 12, 2005

Shiny happy people: investment

Stumbling and Mumbling's advising the Tories not to bank on a recession. Reasonably good advice, as far as it goes: Labour in 1992 made the mistake of assuming economic woes would shoo them into office, and there's no great reason to think that Black Wednesday Cameron in year x will be necessarily better placed Kinnock was to exploit the issue.

More of a problem, however, with Chris' happy view of the UK's fortunes. In particular,

Companies have lots of cash. In the last 12 months, their retained profits have exceeded capital spending by £21.7bn, or 2.3% of GDP - the highest proportion since 1983 (table I of this pdf). In theory, this could be a sign of realistic pessimism about the future. But history shows otherwise. Such surpluses have been a great predictor of stronger growth, as firms eventually spend the money on jobs and equipment.

It's the "eventually" that sticks. There's clearly any number of other, far more exciting things for firms to spend their money on - shares, properties, fat bonuses, all sorts of goodies. It's also much easier for them to spend their money like this, the handy by-product of financial globalisation - which, incidentally, has helped weaken the link between retained earnings and business investment, at least for the larger companies.

British business investment in general is at its lowest (as a share of GDP) for forty years, but that's not reason enough to think it will recover. Eight years of persistent New Labour poking and prodding haven't solved this one: despite a slight recovery since 2003, British capital investment lags significantly behind other, similar economies (PDF). It's far more likely that Britain will remain much where it is now: as a low investment, low productivity economy dependent on low wages and long hours to compensate.

Climate change and the necessity of politics

Jarndyce, at his spangly redesigned blog, wonders whether the climate change march will really make any difference. His reckoning that, at this stage in proceedings, its main benefit will be in stirring the pot, and keeping the issue on the boil, is probably about right. Ten thousand protestors is good – far bigger than anything before on the issue – but it’s not yet enough to start really shifting the issue politically.

This is rapidly turning into a problem, because – having fought for years against the lunatic idea, tragically supported by at least one powerful government, that climate change either isn’t happening, or doesn’t matter – the environmental movement is facing something of a dilemma. There’s a consensus that climate change is happening and does matter, regardless of a few recidivists’ beliefs, but that it can be treated like any other policy issue.

In the neoliberal world, this means reducing it to an issue of management. Targets can be fixed, competent administrators found to work towards them, and all will be well. Oliver Letwin, the Tories’ former shadow environment minister, has floated the classic technocratic fix: set up an independent committee to monitor progress towards targets, allow markets to work their magic, and don’t let messy political wrangling get in the way. We have the technology, you see, and it doesn’t really matter what that technology is, including nuclear power.

Except nuclear power – as discussed elsewhere – is not carbon-neutral, but is fanatically expensive and demonstrably unsafe.

Moreover, even if we swapped, overnight, all our current fossil-fuel power generation for nukes, the relatively slight, one-off reduction in carbon emissions would be overwhelmed, in a few years, by increased emissions from transport. Taking climate change seriously means addressing transport use in the UK (PDF): greenhouse gas emissions from all transport (including aviation) were 47% higher in 2002 than in 1990, compared to a 10% reduction in emissions from all other sectors. This increase is entirely due to private transport use: emissions due to public transport have fallen 8% - at the same time as passenger-miles have risen. (This ONS Excel file has the raw statistics.)

Either the Tories are prepared to hand over transport policy to this independent emissions monitor, or it will be a drowned duck. Quite clearly they won’t, since it would interfere with their longstanding commitments to ”ending the war on motorists” and accelerated road-building. This is leaving aside the anti-democratic founding principle of the proposed commission: that it should be "independent", and hence free of politics.

Any solution here will be, of necessity, holistic: neither the market alone, nor narrow-minded government policies, will resolve the issue. That is part of the reason why a politically-minded mass movement is needed; it’s the only way to keep the issue out of the hands of the technocrats.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The wretched of the earth, and Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson demonstrating “compassionate conservatism”:

The real divide is between the entire class of people now reposing their fat behinds on the green and red benches in the Palace of Westminster, and the bottom 20 per cent of society - the group that supplies us with the chavs, the losers, the burglars, the drug addicts and the 70,000 people who are lost in our prisons and learning nothing except how to become more effective criminals.

Yes, folks, it’s the residuum - given a suitably early C21 spin with Johnson’s nods towards libertarianism: let them eat chips. Of course, as before, he’s picked up on a genuine issue: social mobility is declining, and New Labour is doing precious little about it.

But cuddly, compassionate Boris has a remarkably short memory: indeed, two whole decades worth of palpable decay in public services appear to have disappeared: the rot only began when beastly do-gooding New Labour arrived in power. Yet here he is, decrying the expansion of higher education for reducing mobility:

As we all know, there has been a huge expansion in higher education in this country, and Gordon and Tony will not rest until 50 per cent of the population receive it. But this expansion has overwhelmingly benefited the middle classes, and especially the rich.

Absolutely true; but it was the Tories who started this expansion, and they did so by raising barriers to access for the poorest. It was the Tories who reduced the grant to negligible levels, removed unemployment benefits, and introduced a system of education through loans. New Labour has simply travelled a little further down the same road.

There’s another curious absence in Johnson’s outraged screed. Nowhere does he talk about inequality, instead peddling the happy myth that 80% of Britain are now comfortably middle-class, or even rich. This is ludicrous. Inequality in Britain has been rising almost continuously for two decades. The great acceleration of inequity began under Thatcher; things improved marginally under Major; inequality increased again under the first Blair government, and now may or may not have fallen slightly (PDF file).

The result is that, far from the income distribution cutely resembling a “bowler hat, or a python that has swallowed an elephant”, it peaks somewhat above £10,000, and then stretches on and on into the distance. There is no “great bulge” in the middle where we all sit contentedly. The Institute of Fiscal Studies report that (PDF):

In 2003/04, almost two-thirds of the population had incomes below the national average income of £408 per week. The distribution is skewed by a relatively small number of people on relatively high incomes. Median income in 2003/04 was
£336 per week – in other words, half the population had household income below
this amount.

Figure 2.1 in the IFS reports shows the picture very clearly. The top 10% all earn at least £670 per week – that’s twice the median. The top 20% earn at least £520 a week.

Social mobility and social inequality are distinct ideas, of course, but the one has a direct effect on the other, most especially through education. We’ve already seen that access to higher education is skewed towards the children of the rich. What’s also important is that earnings received from education are skewed towards the rich, too. In other words, not only is access to education biased against social mobility, but outcomes from education are biased against it. Inequality and social mobility form a direct relationship, through education.

Boris Johnson won’t address this, naturally: he’s a Tory, and the alleged “solutions” he hints at are equally old-fashioned: reduce university attendance, promote on-the-job training, and hark back to apprenticeships. Singing the praises of social policies in decades long passed seems an odd way to show how modernised the Conservative Party are; but better this than do anything that would seriously address social injustice. They remain, at heart, the Nasty Party.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

David Cameron's real dirty secret

Nothing to do with Mistress Pain, Olivia Channon, or anything else truly salacious, I'm afraid. Squeaky-clean Cameron's big dirty secret, one his supporters are keen to hide behind the flannel of "modern, compassionate conservatism", is just how right-wing he is. And becoming more so.

Take Iraq, where Chris at the Virtual Stoa has done some digging. Cameron described himself, back in February 2003, as "confused and uncertain" about the issue; prepared to support the Labour government, but only “in the right circumstances”. He indicates his constituents’ concerns about the planned invasion, and even concludes that Blair “might be in for a surprise”, losing the support of Tory MPs – himself, it is certainly implied, amongst them.

Two years later, and Cameron’s position, as Chris says, is “utterly different”:

The mission to establish a representative government in Iraq is a cause worth fighting for.
As a Conservative, whose natural instincts are to be wary of grand schemes and ambitious projects for the re-making of society, I had my concerns about the scale of what is being attempted.

Moving from the position of deterring a foe - Saddam - to an approach of pre-emptive action to remove him, was a profound change. That is why specific endorsement from the UN - through a "second resolution" - was so desirable.

But when - principally due to French obstruction - that was not possible, a decision still had to be made.

Should we enforce a stream of UN resolutions against Saddam, remove a key element of instability in the region and neutralise a continued threat - or should we back off?

I thought then that, on balance, it was right to go ahead, and I still do now.

If we are to defeat the global Jihadist terrorist threat we must realise that we're all in this together.

It's full-on neocon howling at the moon craziness. It's not something, I'd wager, too popular at present with the voters.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

As if by magic

How strange:

After prep school, young Dave, as he was then called, followed in the family tradition and went to Eton.

In a strange twist of fate his headmaster, Eric Anderson, had been Tony Blair's housemaster at Fettes public school, sometimes dubbed the Scottish Eton.

Another strange twist of fate:

Researchers at the London School of Economics found that Britain appeared to have one of the worst records for social mobility in the developed world.

They also concluded that Britons were less likely to break free of their backgrounds than in the past.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Unwanted Christmas presents

Very grateful for two bloggers who've saved me a bit of cash, and the guarrantee of a wasted and irritable afternoon, by reviewing two books I'd wanted to buy only so I could have some justification for my belief that they both make the world a marginally less happy place to be in.

First up, D-Squared on Freakanomics. It's a savage mauling, ears bitten off, fur flying, etc, so hurrah for that. Second, Stumbling and Mumbling on Oliver Kamm's Anti-totalitarianism: The Left-Wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy, from which:

I found all this deeply disappointing. As a liberal lefty with no strong view on the war, I was prepared to be persuaded. Kamm not only fails to do this, but actually weakens the case – and not merely by contaminating it by racism.

(NB: Stumbling and Mumbling is a great blog, but my goodness it isn't half irritating when people write "Leninism" when they mean "Stalinism"... oh, it may sound petty to you, but the absence of Lenin's really decisive theoretical contribution - that the unevenness of class consciousness necessitates separate political organisation - from S&M's list of terrible Marxist sins, all of which have more to do with Kautsky, Stalin and the Fabian tradition than any revolutionary thinking - is annoying.)

The near-interminable books-what-I-have-read lists that minor celebrities and Top Public Intellectuals (TM) are invited to contribute to are currently cluttering up many a weekend supplement. Think of the above as a kind of antidote.

Global warming and the Caliphate, by liberal approximation

A memorably snotty column from Catherine Bennett last week on the climate change demo, if only because it stuck so precisely to the liberal columnists’ Style Guide, ch. 27: Protestors Are Weirdos.

Let’s see. Accusations of hypocrisy?

There are coaches and minibuses running from around the country," announces the campaign website. "Get on board and make sure this is the biggest protest ever against climate change." If its urgings are successful, there must, then, be implications for the atmosphere from all these large, fossil-fuel consuming, CO2 emitting vehicles converging on London.

Check. Strenuous efforts to highlight the futility of it all?

Even though the war march made no difference to the war, and the countryside march changed absolutely nothing, and summer's Make Poverty History gatherings looked more like big, self-congratulatory parties than a coherent political statements, there is no reason why the climate march, designed to make "the entire world community move as rapidly as possible to a stronger emissions reductions treaty" should not be different... these days demonstrations, almost by definition, are a waste of energy.

Check. And, the presumed coup de grace, useful idiots opening the door for dangerous extremism?

...the organisers might have been more diligent about protecting their campaign from morphing into what may turn out to be a more viscerally anti-Bush effort than its title suggests, one which listens to enemies of America at least as attentively as it does to representatives from Friends of the Earth... [nice people wouldn’t] join a movement which welcomes Saddam's old mate George Galloway and like-minded colleagues on to its platforms.

Check once more. (Sotto voce: It’s partly my fault “Saddam’s old mate” was speaking in Tower Hamlets on climate change a fortnight ago. Bennett’s reaction pleases me greatly.) The anti-war movement has become the template for all that is Bad and Wrong with protests: we were simultaneously jolly nice, middle-class do-gooders and deranged lunatics itching for "the annihilation of Israel or creation of a caliphate…", united by our own futility; smug and scary and pointless, all at once.

This liberal trope hides a certain truth, however. It is necessary, if we are playing Bennett’s game, to kick the anti-war movement at any available opportunity precisely because it has been dangerously successful: we did not stop the war, quite evidently, but we made it unwinnable, and in doing so tied together many of the loose threads in British society that the liberal centre would prefer to see frayed and abandoned.

We mobilised, in unprecedented numbers, the most oppressed sections of the British working class alongside traditional working class organisations, and hundreds of thousands of previously quiescent citizens. They were brought together in opposition to a Labour government bent on waging war and making every available appeal to national security, patriotism and party loyalty to enforce its line. This was (and is) a terrifying prospect, if you are of the opinion that politics should be left to men in suits in Westminster. The rest of us think it is much too important for that.

Bennett’s attempt, then, to demonise the anti-war movement for the moral edification of nice environmentalists actually establishes it as a damn good example. George Monbiot at the rally, post-demonstration, all but said as much: climate change is not a “nice” issue, but one that will dramatically determine politics for the rest of our lives; its consequences will be too serious to be left to individual consumption choices; and so we require a mass, global movement to enforce targets and restrictions globally, towards which Saturday’s marches were the first step.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Modern political dilemmas

Is it possible to shout "but all this is your fault!" at Tories without it sounding like a New Labour snivel?