Government for the one percent? Turkeys voting for Christmas?

The British political system is a wonderful and mysterious thing. For most of my lifetime we have had Conservative governments. The received wisdom is that they are, and they certainly believe themselves to be “the natural party of government”.

Which is weird because the most cursory inspection shows that they govern in the interest of a very small minority of Brits. Any party which seriously proposes something euphemistically described as ‘trickle down economics” is sort of admitting that it is making policies which are designed for an elite.

And it has become increasingly obvious to anyone paying attention that it is normal for policy decisions to be ‘bought’ by vested interest. There are too many examples to mention, to the extent it’s surely not in doubt.

It is what Dye and Zeigler described as ‘the irony of democracy’ in one of my political science textbooks. The way, a bit like some competitive markets move inexorably towards monopoly or oligopoly, a democratic system veers uncontrollably towards rule by interest groups. They were talking about the USA in the 1980s but it is equally true today, or so it would appear.

So how is it that people vote for a government which basically screws them time after time? It can’t simply be that the comms machine is so smart it convinces them that black is white and good is bad, can it?

That’s what people said about Brexit, where Brits voted, like turkeys for Christmas directly against their own interests but that was surely also more complicated.

And why aren’t people more angry about the increasing inequality in Britain? Or the way ordinary folks are facing a cost-of-living-crisis while corporate profits are booming? Or as the Unite trade union calls it the profiteering crisis?

Well, I think I have found the answer.

As, so often, it was discovered by Douglas Adams:

“[Ford said] “.. On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people.”
“Odd,” said Arthur. “I thought you said it was a democracy.”
“I did,” said Ford. “It is.”
“So,” said Arthur, hoping he wasn’t sounding ridiculously obtuse, “why don’t the people get rid of the lizards?”
“It honestly doesn’t occur to them,” said Ford. “They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.”
“You mean they actually vote for the lizards?”
“Oh yes,” said Ford with a shrug, “of course.”
“But,” said Arthur, going in for the big one again, “why?”
“Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in.”

― Douglas Adams, The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

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.

The age of rhetoric

My good friend bob (not his real name) voted for Brexit. He says nobody can possibly know if the economy will be better or worse afterwards so the economic consequences wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) influence him.

He’s completely wrong of course.

Everybody with any knowledge of the UK economy knew that Brexit would have severe negative economic implications. If people tried to say otherwise they were – let’s be charitable – mistaken or self-interested.  Many of these ‘hidden’ or ‘unintended’ consequences came to light later on, but if it was your job to know these things, you would certainly have known them at the time.

And that’s one of the problems. Who do we believe when so many of our authority figures have shown themselves to be untrustworthy?

It rather suggests a broader shift in the source of authority.  Not just on issues like Brexit, but all around us.  It began with nature.  Then came religion.  Next was science and rationalism.  But it now appears we have gone beyond that and we’re entering an age of rhetoric. As Michael Gove famously said, “this country has had enough of experts”.  We have it seems replaced them with the uninformed blatherings of Z-list celebrities, snake-oil salesmen and PR companies.

Or should we call it ‘the age of total bollocks’.

Where’s the bleeding Government gone?

While we watch the unfolding horror story we call Brexit, there’s one aspect of this nightmare which is shockingly – if understandably – underreported.  For nearly two years there has effectively been no government active in the UK.  Only bloody Brexit.  No real analysis or scrutiny.  Except on Brexit.  And no opposition for that matter, even on Brexit – the Labour Party should hang their heads in shame, but that’s another subject.  The point is large chunks of Government have been paralysed since Article 50 was triggered in March 2017. And it would seem nobody has really noticed.
Is this some devious Tory ploy? – they’ll suddenly announce that ‘Small Government’ was introduced and nobody complained. So a slimmed down State must be OK.  That’s perhaps another distraction.  Keep to the point please.
Because the news has principally followed the political story of the day – i.e. Brexit – there has been a void in the world of real news.  Meanwhile Universal Credit – the new combined benefits system which is uniformly slated by everyone who knows about these things – will be introduced with only a murmur of dissent.  And the tragic failure of the health system to  address the crisis in mental health evokes little more than a shrug of resignation.  Under different circumstances, these are things people would take to the streets to protest about.  But without journalistic flame-fanning, it’s all just a bit meh.
Meanwhile in the real world there is effectively no provision for young people with mental health problems.  Of more than 338,000 children and young people referred to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) last year, 31% were treated within a year. But 37% got no help at all and another 32% were still waiting for treatment to start at the end of the year.  And suicide is still the biggest cause of death in young and middle aged men in the UK.
Are we really ok with that?  Should we be? Should the Government be? Oh, I forgot, there isn’t any.

More evil than you thought


I’ve worked with politicians and public servants in the past, so it’s no surprise that politics is a dirty business.  But I’m continually staggered by quite how low politicians can stoop.  And it’s not just the politicians themselves.

Allow me to introduce James Comey.  Not previously a household name in Britain, he’s Director of the FBI.  Surely beyond the backbiting day-to-day nastiness of politics.  No, far from it.  Comey has taken the extraordinary step of actively intervening in the US Presidential election to try to scupper Hillary Clinton’s campaign.  This breaks a longstanding convention that supposedly neutral public servants don’t make provocative interventions close to the election.  Comey’s intervention was 11 days away from polling day.  He wrote to Congress announcing an investigation into emails which might or might not be related to the investigation they conducted into her own emails, while she was in office some years ago.  An investigation which deemed she was careless, but guilty of nothing wrong.  And let’s put this in context – if she were  guilty of the worst accusations, it would be a trivial procedural matter by any sane standards.

But in politics where there’s dirt…..





Passport to Lunacy

I’m writing this in the final days of the build up to the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.

“with so few weeks to go before the vote, I believe that the negativity, the bickering, the foul-mouthing, and particularly the wholesale abuse of facts by both sides have seen off most of our attempts to make the vote interesting”.  So said Jon Snow, the veteran Channel 4 news presenter.

This can be mostly explained by the way the debate has been hijacked by the various campaigns to be the next leader of the Conservative Party.  What a shame someone has to win that particular race.  The players are all so impossible to like.  More of that, perhaps, another time.

For my part, the idea of leaving the EU makes as much sense as arguments for Cornwall becoming independent from England.  Maybe less.

Or indeed, for our older listeners, it’s about as sensible as the idea behind the classic Ealing Comedy ‘Passport to Pimlico’ in which, as I recall, the London borough declares itself part of Burgundy by some ancient charter, and therefore not responsible to  Westminster. The script was written by Thomas Clarke, who had a reputation for developing absurd ideas to their likely conclusion.


Bizarrely the film was inspired by real life events – the maternity ward of Ottawa Civic Hospital was temporarily declared extraterritorial by the Canadian government so that, when Princess Margriet of the Netherlands was born there, she would not lose her right to the throne.

I simply can’t understand how anyone could seriously consider Brexit a good idea, except perhaps as a source of entertaining literary and film ideas for future writers.  Ahh, now I get it.

‘If You Can’t Say Something Good About Someone, Sit Right Here by Me’

The line is attributed to Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt.  How very approriate.

I was remindeed of it today, as I read an article by Benedict Pringle in Campaign about negative advertising in political campaigns (is there any other kind?)  He draws attention to the way Zac Goldsmith has been criticised for his negative approach in the campaign to become London Mayor.  The winner, Sadiq Kahn had an unusually positive story to tell – essentially his biography; a rags-to-riches story of the son of a Pakistani bus driver who made good.

Pringle reckons negative campaigns have three arguments in their favour:

  1. People remember negatives better than positives
  2. Negative stories are more believable when it comes to politicians
  3. Negative stories are more likely to be passed on, generating extra reach

I don’t particularly disagree with any of this but it seems a bit strange to be justifying negative campaigning in this way when it is very much the default option.  I can hardly think of any well-known political campaigns that haven’t railed against something or set out to scare the bejesus out of us in the event the other side should get in.


The last British general election provides a classic case.  The polls were neck and neck and the Conservatives had been employing a scattergun approach, until they seized upon a winning tactic – namely frightening us with the prospect that a Labour win would bring effective power to the Scottish Nationalists (SNP).  The rationale was that in a hung parliament (which we all expected) the SNP would inevitably forge a partnership with Labour and hold the balance of power.  Despite both Labour and the SNP declaring they had no intention of forging any such alliance, it worked a treat and the Conservatives won.

Positive campaigns like that of Khan are few and far between.  The upcoming US Presidential race is likely to be particularly dirty.  But that is the norm.

This gives me another opportunity to remind you of the Daddy of them all:



“Don’t let it be him”


Haven’t had a rant about evil British politicians for ages, but today I’m annoyed.

A while ago Russell Brandt (of all people) sprang into the headlines for urging people not to vote.  He was an unlikely political champion but this was rather the point – people were increasingly disillusioned with the political elite after generations of scandals, excess, self-interest and general cynicism.

I found the whole thing depressing.  I have always voted (even though it was usually futile).  I wanted politics to matter to people.  I even did a degree in Politics.  Brandt’s call to no arms seemed, along with the popularity of UKIP and BREXIT, to represent the widespread rejection of the very people who should be making things better, but who are commonly seen to be making things worse.  While they line their own pockets.

Could it get any worse?  Sadly yes.  When I worked in the energy business, it rapidly became apparent that public policy simply wasn’t addressing any of the issues of the day. Two huge issues faced the energy policymakers over the last twenty years.  How to replace the energy generation which is due for decommissioning and how to shift from coal-dominated power generation to a more sustainable mix.  Neither was addressed, even though everyone in the industry knew the issues.  In the meantime the political rhetoric (remember “the greenest government ever”?) simply misled us.

Now I work in healthcare and tragically the same seems to be true.  The pronouncements of policy makers (“economies from efficiency savings”? What again?) bear no relation to what we hear from the professionals in the NHS.  There’s either a kind of mass denial going on or a deep dishonesty.  And as for the posturing around the Junior Doctors’ dispute, I’m afraid truth was the first casualty.

The issue du jour, as I write, is the Panama papers.  The wealthy are avoiding tax by hiding their assets in tax havens – didn’t we already know this?  In the wake of Starbucksgate and Amazongate and (insert your own tax-avoiding multinational-gate here…) the UK Government promised to lead the charge against tax havens.  Now it seems they had their own trust funds in Panama all along.  Dust off that old photo of the Bullingdon Club, with Cameron, Osborne and Boris looking like posh twats.

Sadly, in those policy areas I know a bit about – and some I don’t – I see those charged with making it work simply ignoring the issues and fighting their own turf battles.  Should I assume that the same is true in every other policy area?

The only thing more depressing than the sheer hypocrisy of this is the fact that we’re only learning about it because of the PR tactics of their political opponents in the BREXIT campaign.

It made me think of the advertising campaign for the Camelot lottery.  We see common hate figures like Katy Bigot-whatsername and Laurence Llewelin-Flounce-a-lot and we’re urged to play the lottery – so they won’t win.  “Don’t let it be him”.  Weird but memorable.

I want someone to do some proper politics, please don’t let it be Brandt.

But, much as I want to dismiss Russell Brandt and the others who are asking us to reject our political leaders, tragically they do have a point.  This is how Jeremy Corbyn won the support of millions of disillusioned voters who want Labour to be the answer.


I wish. But sadly I don’t think it’s likely to be him, either.