Jottings for January
The political and economic scenes in Britain are warming up nicely as the general election, due on 6 May, approaches. The leaders of both the main parties are working hard to establish the issue which they hope will determine how the electorate will vote. Labour focuses on the National Health Service, on which it is more generally trusted than the Conservatives. The Tories are busy fostering the false smear that Labour government spending caused the 2008 global financial crash and that if returned to office in May, Labour would wreck the economy again. In fact much the biggest issue at stake in the election is Britain’s future in the European Union, on which David Cameron is increasingly non-committal, having recklessly capitulated to the demands of his own back-bench Neanderthals and UKIP for an ‘in/out’ referendum, i.e. on whether Britain should remain in the EU or withdraw from it — ‘Brexit’, in the jargon, short for British exit. Almost all the literate political and economic pundits and most of the British financial and business communities acknowledge that Brexit would be a catastrophe for the UK in just about every sphere. Yet it looks increasingly as if in a Brexit referendum, promised by Cameron for 2017 if the Tories have an absolute majority in the house of commons after the May election, there might well be a majority for leaving the EU. Labour is unambiguously against a referendum and in favour of staying in the EU and working for its reform, with the UK’s European allies, from within. On any measurement the huge importance for Britain’s future of its relationship with the rest of Europe makes this issue eclipse all the other election issues put together. There are plenty of other reasons for wanting to replace Mr Cameron with Mr Miliband in No. 10 Downing Street, but the EU issue on its own should be enough to convince all thinking people, whatever their normal party allegiances, that a vote for the Conservatives (or UKIP), and thus for a serious risk of Brexit, would be deeply irresponsible.
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When the London Jubilee Line tube train pulls in to Green Park station on Piccadilly, next to the Ritz hotel, the electronic notice boards in each carriage flash up the announcement that “this is Green Park: alight here for Buckingham Palace,” advice that is then repeated over the train’s loudspeaker system. Apart from making one wonder how many foreign visitors to London know what the obsolete word ‘alight’ means, this splendid rubric conjures up an image of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, slumbering peacefully side by side on the tube, suddenly being woken up by the announcement about Green Park and Buckingham Palace. “Come on, dear,” says the Duke, nudging the Queen: “this is our stop.” And they gather up their Sainsbury’s shopping bags and umbrellas and woolly hats, hastily hopping down onto the platform just before the doors close and the train rattles off towards Bond Street.
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Why has Britain’s recovery from the recession been so slow and uncertain? Why are the limited fruits of the recovery, such as it is, so unfairly distributed between the richest and the poorest? Why have the Chancellor’s sadistic cuts in government spending so signally failed to bring down the budget deficit to the level that he had promised? Why is government borrowing so stubbornly resistant to the reductions promised by Osborne and Cameron? The answer to all these questions is available almost daily in the columns of the Financial Times, hardly a hotbed of socialist dogma, and in countless articles by the financial commentators elsewhere in the serious media. Capitalism is like riding a bicycle: it has to keep moving ahead and growing if it is not to collapse in a heap. Constant growth depends on constant consumer demand, reflected in economic activity by households, firms and government — especially by ordinary individual consumers. But for years the richest few in society — the bankers and financiers, the oligarchs, the shareholders, the company senior executives with their astronomical salaries and bonuses — have been seizing an ever increasing share of the national income, including an increasing share of its annual growth (if any), leaving a shrinking share for everyone else. A shrinking share for ordinary consumers means a steady reduction in their ability to consume: ever lower wages mean reduced spending, even when bolstered by increasingly expensive debts, themselves eventually a source of instability. As the prospects for a steady growth in spending fade, firms are increasingly reluctant to invest in new or up-dated plant or to recruit more labour, lacking confidence that ordinary consumers will be able to afford to buy their products. Lack of aggregate demand in the economy thus lies at the root of our failing economies, especially in the drowning eurozone but in Britain too.
There are various obvious remedies: put more money in the hands of those who can be relied on to spend every additional penny they receive, namely the poorest and weakest in society, e.g. by increasing welfare benefits and reducing taxes such as VAT which are a disproportionate burden on the poor and which reduce their ability to consume; use fiscal policy to reduce inequality in society, increasing taxes on those with the lowest propensity to spend marginal income (namely the already rich); greatly increase government spending on capital infrastructure projects, especially social housing (Roosevelt’s New Deal with its huge infrastructure projects was a vital ingredient in America’s recovery from the great depression of the 1920s and 1930s); encourage immigration by people of working age whose contributions to the economy will help to pay the pensions of Britain’s steadily ageing population and whose taxes will increase government revenue and so reduce the deficit; and pour money into education and training, research and development, vital investments for the future. It defies belief that on every single count the Conservative-led coalition has done the precise opposite of what’s plainly needed since it came into office in 2010, choking off the incipient recovery instigated by Gordon Brown’s Labour government and actually throttling aggregate demand in the economy by cutting public expenditure, increasing taxes on the poorest and cutting, instead of increasing, welfare benefits, thus shifting resources even further from the poorest to the richest. No wonder Mr Osborne has failed so miserably to hit any of his targets. Yet the Tories boast of their superior economic management skills and their success in bringing about Britain’s miracle (but mostly invisible) recovery. How do they get away with it?
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It’s strange that the scribbling classes (to which I suppose I belong, part-time) have such a problem with “whom”. Any parenthetical phrase coming between a “who” and the verb that “who” clearly governs is automatically taken to require “who” to be converted to “whom”: “This is a man whom many believe is the greatest living poet,” where no-one would dream of writing “whom is the greatest living poet”. Examples in almost any posh newspaper or magazine are numerous. Even the aristocratic Debretts is not immune, throwing in an inappropriate semi-colon for bad measure:
“Inclusion is by invitation only; with specialist panels selecting whom they believe is making an impression in Britain today.” – http://www.debretts.com/people/people-today-0#sthash.OKZmz5RC.dpuf
But I have to confess (or as the more self-consciously trendy scribes write these days, “fess up”) to an incurable blind spot when it comes to the difference between “which” and “that” at the beginning of a relative clause. My strict grammarian daughter, founder-owner of the wildly successful linguistic blog ‘Glossophilia“, has frequently explained the difference to me, and flinches every time I get it wrong, but five minutes after receiving her instructions in the matter I have forgotten the rules all over again.
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Two welcome developments over my book, What Diplomats Do, published last July — neither another diplomatic memoir, nor an academic textbook, nor a novel, but with elements of all three. First, the (American) publishers, Rowman & Littlefield, have agreed to extend to the end of July 2015 the deadline for individual, non-institutional UK and other non-American buyers of the book to get it for a discount (it had been due to expire at the end of 2014) if they use the revised order form on this website — simply download https://secureservercdn.net/126.96.36.199/02z.c2e.mwp.accessdomain.com/wp-content/uploads/Flyer-What-Diplomats-Do-June14.pdf. (They have also increased the discount to 30%, hardback version only.) The 30% discount for American buyers (pdf) is also still available for several more months. Secondly, there have recently been two more especially perceptive and illuminating reviews of What Diplomats Do. The first, by Dr Katharina Höne, of DiploFoundation and University of Aberystwyth, is published on the DiploFoundation website and reproduced in full along with many other reviews at https://barder.com/wdd/reviews-of-what-diplomats-do; and the second, by the distinguished former US diplomat Marshall P. Adair, published in the US Foreign Service Journal, can be read here (pdf). Both these reviews, among others, are well worth reading, especially if you haven’t yet decided whether to buy the book!
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One of the film’s “chapters” includes spoken extracts of notes on film by the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein. Another shows a silent dance, conceived by Mr Campbell and performed by Michael Clark Company, inspired by equations in the first volume of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. [Financial Times, 2 December 2014]
Inspired by what?