22nd June 2016: the day the UK last had a functioning government

I know the UK Conservative Party has an ideological belief in minimal government, but that’s not the same as simply going AWOL.

Up to June 2016, the UK had already spent most of the months leading up to the Brexit referendum on increasingly bitter and dirty campaigning. Not much governing got done in this period.

With the poll result, Article 50 was triggered and a date was set for Brexit in 2019. Negotiations began and pretty much completely consumed public debate and government activity for the next 3 years. The original leaving date of March 2019 was moved back to June and then to October because agreement could not be reached. Brexit was finally formally enacted the following January, but as events have showed, it was only a cosmetic agreement and the actual terms are still, as I write in October 2022 being disputed.

In the meantime, whole new government departments were created (The Department for Brexit Opportunities) thousands of civil servants were recruited or redeployed and the workings of Westminster on anything other than Brexit became paralysed.

In January 2020, just as we were emerging blinking into the post-Brexit daylight, COVID 19 arrived. For the next two years, the Pandemic quite reasonably consumed all our news, all our leaders’ attention and much of our attention and focus.

In 2022, thankfully, COVID appears to have run its course, at least as a threat to life on a massive scale. Here was the opportunity for our leaders to get back to addressing some of our pressing crises. Instead we had a series of scandals involving Ministers and others, which took up most of our politicians’ time and attention, over the Spring and Summer, and led to a Conservative leadership election. This created another two month period of limbo, in which there was effectively no government.

Finally, just as Liz Truss was sworn in as the new PM, the Queen died and the entire nation stopped for a fortnight to watch old footage of the Royals.

So there you have it. A full six years living in the UK with no government at all.

The Tories have long believed that we should have minimal government, which only intervenes when it is absolutely unavoidable. The markets will take care of everything else. That, they say, is the beauty of Capitalism – it pretty much looks after itself.

The last six years have been a real-world test of this doctrine and I’m afraid I’m not convinced it has proved their point. Rather the opposite.

Fallacies of economics

I haven’t tried it, but I reckon if I applied for permission to build a house extension made of balsa wood and sellotape it would be rejected by the planning authorities. The laws of physics and materials are understood well enough and there’s enough agreement on the fundamentals, that it would be a quick and unanimous decision. There wouldn’t be a weird cult-type body jumping in to claim that balsa is actually a hugely robust and waterproof building material maligned by decades of misinformation which has convinced us, unfairly, of its unsuitability.
And if I ignored them and tried to build this extension, I’m pretty sure it would fail.

Science is like that.

Economics on the other hand……

Any old crazy nonsense seems to be fair game, if you say it loud enough and repeat it frequently enough.

This week the UK government set out a mini-budget (they call it a fiscal event or something similarly vague) based on economics which most experts reckon would fail at ‘A’ level exam standard. At a time of high inflation (even the government is calling it a cost of living crisis) and rising interest rates, they have cut taxes, mostly for wealthy people, leading to a massive fall in the value of the currency and panic in the financial markets. The global financial bodies like the IMF have poured scorn on it, lenders have retracted many of their mortgage products due to increasing uncertainty around interest rates and the central bank has had to make one of those interventions which defy explanation, to sustain some facet of the market which none of us really understands. Maybe that’s also part of the problem.

So what should we conclude about economics and governments?

Is it that economics is so disrespected as a body of knowledge that the authorities can freely ignore it? Or is this a government that’s simply economically illiterate? Or is there a conspiracy behind the whole episode? Maybe it’s a cunning plan to undermine the Bank of England leading to a restoration of political control.

Or maybe it really is what it appears to be – blind free market ideology trumping common sense.

US President Joe Biden’s commerce chief last night told CNN “simply cutting taxes, reducing government and deregulating” was a “failed economic theory,” and argued the chaos in the U.K. right now was a “cautionary tale.” Ouch.

In the alternative reality of finance and economics, this sort of thing happens all the time.

Just one recent example. I’m fascinated by this extract from Sam Ashworth-Hayes in The Spectator:

They’re reacting to the earlier news that UK’s new PM is proposing to cap energy prices. The goal is to protect the public from price increases, which threaten to put almost half the population into fuel poverty.

SAH is explaining why she thinks a price cap is misguided.

… a price freeze removes all incentives for households and businesses to reduce their energy bills – so we’ll crank up the heating, “safe in the knowledge that the Treasury is covering the tab”. Eventually demand will outstrip supply, and that’s when we’ll get blackouts. 
It would be much better to let everyone pay the full cost of their energy use, while doling out “massive quantities of cash” to those who genuinely can’t afford to stay warm. This would incentivise everyone to use less energy – a reduction in demand that would push prices back down – while also making sure people don’t freeze to death. 

The fact this is nonsense seems clear to me. But not, it seems to others. Including people who claim to know their DPOs from their derivatives.

I’m really intrigued that someone covering current affairs really believes markets , especially those unreal artificial markets constructed for utilities, would work in this Adam-Smith-utopia-utility-maximising fashion.

Have we learned nothing from history?  We have shortages of food on supermarket shelves because there aren’t enough drivers. Why haven’t wages increased to attract new entrants and fill the shortfall? Why have there literally hundreds of thousands of unfilled vacancies in nursing and midwifery for decades?

Did the massive hike in the price of petrol lead to a reduction in miles driven (spoiler alert, no it didn’t). Did massive taxes on cigarettes and alcohol reduce consumption? (Ditto). 

Why is my High Street full of shops who close half of the week because they can’t attract staff, when seemingly we have rising unemployment?

It’s one of our most compelling fallacies – that market forces work to equalise supply and demand in these constrained markets. They just don’t. 

Our current financial bedlam has been created by the madness of free-market ideology taking priority over actual policy goals.

But that doesn’t mean economics makes a whole lot of sense either.

Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government

Monty Python famously demonstrated that Arthurian legend does not provide a sustainable model for electing a leader.

But the UK’s current system may actually be worse.

A few minutes ago, Liz Truss was announced as the winner of the race to become the UK’s new Prime Minister. She was elected by members of the Conservative Party. This process has been criticised as unrepresentative, undemocratic and unreliable. It is tempting to characterise these 160.000 odd people as the classic aged, wealthy, white, out of touch golf club types from Tory central casting. I suspect the true nature of things may be even grimmer. I should know. I’m one of them.

There’s little data on the profile of Tory members, even from the party themselves, and the electoral commission raised some serious doubts around the security of the party’s election mechanics. Just to spice it up a bit, Tortoise Media managed to register family pets, underage relatives and foreign nationals as members of the party. Should these people (and animals), they asked, be responsible for choosing the UK’s leader?

For me, this whole debacle has shown another wrinkle in our creaking political system too.

A little while ago, during the respective scandals enveloping the two main parties, ‘Partygate’ and ‘Beergate’, it looked as though both Labour and/or Conservatives might be electing a new leader very soon.  The natural thing to do therefore was, it seems to me, to join both parties ASAP to be eligible to vote in the likely forthcoming leadership polls.  I’m really not sure why more people haven’t done this.  It costs about twenty five quid and we’re forever hearing about how hopelessly unrepresentative it is.  It’s hardly an original idea.  Isn’t that what led to Jeremy Corbyn’s win and the near-death of the Labour Party which ensued?

So I went online, and joining the Tories was the definition of simplicity.  It took about ten minutes from start to finish, they took my money and within a day or so I was receiving invitations to events, updates on campaigns and explanations of policy.  Quite impressive, I thought, a little grudgingly.

My Labour Party application was more problematic.  I tried to join online but the site wouldn’t accept my card payment, so I sent an email explaining my situation.  About a fortnight later, I received a response telling me I could join online (as I had tried to do) or on the phone or by post.  I picked up the phone and spoke to someone at Labour HQ who explained that they couldn’t currently sign me up on the phone, but they would send me the forms by email to sign up by post.  Nothing arrived.  I left it another fortnight and called again.  same response.  I waited.  After another few weeks I called again but the whole team was in training and there isn’t even anyone to answer the phone (they claim to be available between 11 AM and 3 PM though this hasn’t been my experience.  I tried again a week later and got the same response – no-one here to answer the phone as we’re all in training. And on it goes. Eventually i received a postal form which i sent off about a month ago. No news since then.

Fast forward a few months and I got to vote for the next PM through the Tory Party.  But my Labour membership application is still not confirmed.  Labour HQ gives every impression of being staffed by a volunteer in his garage with an answering machine and no access to a computer.

And sadly, my friends, that is one more reason why we won’t be seeing a Labour government again in my lifetime.  Because if they can’t get this right, then what hope is there for them?  Or indeed for any of us?

Patriotism, hmmmm

As I write, there’s a war in Europe and people are literally dying for their flag.  Sometime soon (sorry Ma’am), we’ll be crowning a new monarch in the UK and the debate about the role of a hereditary monarchy will return.   England recently won the women’s’ European football championship, giving rise to something resembling a national celebration.

The American right, under the banner of MAGA – Make America Great Again – is threatening to return to power at the next elections, both congressional and , subsequently, Presidential.

Patriotism is in the air.

In his twenties, my father had to decide between three jobs – one in America, one in Switzerland and one in Britain.  He chose Britain because he really fancied the job on offer.  That is how I came to be British.  It is literally an accident of birth.

So when people tell me they are proud of Britain or that they are proud to be British, I scratch my head.  At a logical and meaningful level, it makes no sense at all.  They might just as easily be saying they are proud of their brown eyes or their ginger hair and freckles.  If they had happened to be born Chilean, would they be proud of that?  Or Russian?  Identifying with ‘people like me’ may be natural, but is that ‘pride’?  To me it’s more like being a football fan.  It’s about taking sides, recognizing the natural order of ‘us and them’.  Doesn’t really matter what makes us us or them them.

I also find I’m inevitably drawn to the stereotypes which make patriotism hateful.  The England football fans, fighting in the streets, singing about the war.  The American far right with their religious fundamentalist hypocrisy and shameless racism.  So I struggle to treat it with the same dispassionate curiosity as other isms.

Fundamentally, I do believe we have a need to believe in something. It’s almost irrelevant what that something is.  It gives us a community – people like us.  It’s the people we need, and the belonging more than the cause itself.

And the country we were born in is in some ways a natural thing to ‘believe in’ – whatever that means.  It does have a story – literally a history, which makes it rich and complex.  In school, we tend to learn to positive side of that history, ignoring the more shameful or embarrassing parts.