Tag Archives: free markets

Wall Street, the Wolf of Wall Street  and the decline of moral sense

Robert Henderson

 

Wall Street (1987)

Main cast

Michael Douglas  as Gordon Gecko

Charlie Sheen as Bud Cox

Daryl Hannah  as Darien Taylor

Martin Sheen as Carl Fox

Terence Stamp as Sir Larry Wildman

Hal Holbrook as Lou Mannheim

Sean Young as Kate Gekko

James Spader as Roger Barnes

Director Oliver Stone

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The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Main cast

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort

Jonah Hill as Donnie Azoff

Margot Robbie as Naomi Lapaglia

Matthew McCaughey as Mark Hanna

Kyle Chandler as Patrick Denham

Rob Reiner as Max Belfort

Director  Martin Scorsese,

Twenty six years lie between Wall Street and The Wolf of Wall Street (TWOWS) hitting cinema screens. Wall Street is fiction, although there are reputedly people in real life from whom the film’s main characters were developed, for example  Sir Larry Wildman is supposedly drawn from  on the British financier Sir James Goldsmith. The Wolf of Wall Street (TWOWS) is based upon the autobiography of a Wall Street trader Jordan Belfort. How much of that is fact  is debatable, although the general tone of the man’s life given in the book  is plausible.

Both films  begin their action in 1980s. Both deal with the shady world of finance. Both are vehicles for the unbridled egotism of their main characters.    There the similarity between them ends.  Wall Street is about  corporate raiders, men who seek to take over companies and then  asset strip them,  sell them on  quickly for a profit or run them as a business for a while, reduce costs (especially by cutting jobs ) and  then sell them . The main criminality involved in the film is insider dealing.

TWOWS  is simply about making a fast buck and the faster the better, with not even a show of doing anything beyond making money.   These people use   any method from the huckster selling of penny shares to insider dealing and celebrate each success in the spirit of the man successfully  running a hunt-the-lady scam in the street.  They are the masters of the universe and those who lose out are suckers.   There is zero concern for or even awareness of the greater general good of a society in the film.

The protagonists in Wall Street are a young stock trader Bud Fox, and a corporate  raider  Gordon Gecko.  Bud idolises Gecko and manages to work his way into Gecko’s circle by passing on privileged information to him, information which he has received from his father Carl who is a union leader at Bluestar Airlines.

Once inside Gecko’s circle  Bud  sheds  his morals and is content to help Gecko  engage in insider trading until the point where he discovers that he is being used as a catspaw by Gecko , who is trying to take over Bluestar  to dissolve the company in order to access cash in the company’s overfunded pension plan. Bud rediscovers his conscience after a fashion and outmanoeuvres Gecko by making an agreement with  Wildman – whom  previously he had helped Gecko to  defraud  through insider trading when Wildman wanted to take over a steel company –  to buy a majority shareholding in  the airline on the cheap  and run it as a going concern.  In doing this his  motivation is more revenge for being betrayed than suddenly being disgusted with what he had become under Gecko’s influence.

DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort is a trader who loses his job  with a Wall Street broker when the firm crashes, moves into boiler-room trading in penny shares (which are barely regulated and allow for huge commissions to be charged to naïve investors who are often buying shares which are next to worthless). He makes a small fortune doing this.

Belfort then decides to strike out on his own account in rather more up-market  surroundings. With a friend , Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill),  he sets  up  a suitably Ivy league sounding firm of brokers Stratton Oakmont.  They operate on the principle of “pump and dump”  (artificially inflating a company’s share price by tactics such as spreading false rumours or simply buying heavily and then selling the shares rapidly). Stratton Oakmont is given lift off by an article in Forbes magazine which calls Jordan a ‘twisted Robin Hood and the “Wolf of Wall Street”,  which appellations prove a first rate recruiting sergeant for Stratton Oakmont  with hundreds of young stock traders flocking to make money with him.  From that point on he becomes seriously rich.

What the films do admirably  is show the difference between the cinematic portrayal of  the American financial world  in films released  in 1987 and 2013.   To refresh my memory I watched Wall Street again before writing this review. The striking thing about the film is how restrained it is compared with TWOWS.

Michael Douglas’  Gordon Gecko is far more disciplined than DiCaprio’s Belfort.  He  has some semblance of intellectual and arguably even moral  justification for what he does, most notably in a scene where he is addressing a shareholders’ meeting of a company he is trying to take over. This is where Gecko utters the most famous words in the film “Greed is good”. The words have serious context. Gecko is peddling  the laissez faire  line that competition is an unalloyed good because it is the agency which creates natural selection amongst companies and it is only that which keeps an economy healthy. He also  puts his finger on a real  cancer in big business: the development of the bureaucratic company where the company is run for the benefit of the senior management rather than the shareholders. Gecko  rails against  the huge number of senior managers on  high salaries  in  the company he wishes to buy, a business  which has done little for its shareholders.  Whether you agree with the raw natural selection argument in business  – and I do not – at the very least it shows that the likes of Gecko feel the need to  justify what they do, to provide an ethical cloak for their misbehaviour.

There is also a serious difference in the general behaviour of  Gecko and Belfort.  Gecko  for all his faults is not a libertine. For him money is both an instrument and an end in itself. It gives him power and status, a medal of success in his eyes and the eyes of the world he inhabits.  There is purpose in Gecko.  He enjoys the material trappings of wealth but is not overwhelmed by them. In Belfort there is merely an ultimately empty grasping of licence  with drugs,  whores  and absurd status symbols such as an outlandishly large yacht , which his ego drives him to wreck by ordering the ship’s captain to sail in weather which the captain tells him is unsafe to sail in. He acquires a trophy girlfriend , He dumps his wife. There is no solid foundation to any part of his life.

The other big general difference between the films is ethical.  Wall Street has a moral voice which acts  as a  foil to Gecko’s amorality.   Bud Fox’s father Carl puts the case against capitalism red in tooth and claw. After Bud’s  discovery of Gecko’s attempt to buy Bluestar Carl’s dissenting ideological  voice  is added to by Bud. In TWOWS there is no moral voice or pretence by Belfort (or any other character) that what they are doing has any social function or ethical content. Instead the public are simply viewed as a bovine herd to be milked as ruthlessly as possible.  The fact that what is being done – whether it be selling penny stocks in a boiler room or using insider information in more sophisticated company –  is no better than a confidence trick does not cause Belfort and his fellow participants the slightest discomfort only unalloyed joy. They are getting rich at the expense of suckers. It’s all a game whose only end is to make the individual rich and to be rich is a validation of their existence.

Gecko and Belfort end up in prison, so in that respect at least they honour the old American  film tradition of never showing the criminal getting away with it, although  in the case of Belfort he ends up in a place which is not so much a prison as a country club.

Both films are strong in all the technical ways – script, plot, characterisation and acting – that are used to judge films. Michael Douglas’ is a more studied performance than that of  diCaprio who brings an amazing energy to the role.  But arresting as Douglas’ performance is  the film the film has ample space to fill out other characters. Indeed, in terms of screen time it is Bud who wins out.

DiCaprio’s   Belfort has strong claims to be the  best performance in an already  long career, but it utterly dominates the film and consequently the other characters have little room to develop than TWOWS.  They either remain one rather dimensional or like Matthew McConaughey  appear only in cameos.

The quality of the films as films is reason enough to watch them, but their primary value , as a pair,   is their charting, unwittingly,   of the decline of moral  sense between the 1980s and now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Civitas Meeting  – The trouble with Europe  19 May 2014

Robert Henderson

The sole speaker was Roger Bootle of the Daily Telegraph and Capital Economics

Bootle was  promoting his book The trouble with Europe.  The main thrusts of his argument  were

-          Europe is a declining political and economic power.

-          The growth rate within first the EEC and then the EU has been poor overall compared with economies outside the EU.

-          The EU has undermined European economic performance through promoting too generous welfare states.

-          That much of the regulation comes not from the EU but national governments within the EU.

-          That the EU has smothered competition between nation states and this has hindered innovation and enterprise.

-          That Europe’s period of  greatest world dominance was a time of intense competition between European powers.

-          That EU countries have suffered a loss of identity through mass immigration and those with empires had  a further blow to their national self-confidence through their loss.

-          That European elites have had their energies eaten up with trying to create uniformity within the EU to the detriment of such things as investment and productivity.

-          That the Euro is the biggest  economic disaster the EU has suffered,  dwarfing the Common Agricultural Policy.

-          The EU as it is presently constituted is obsolete.

Bootle laid down his terms for Britain  remaining within the EU: an end to ever closer union,   a guarantee of no second class status for the UK if she remains a member, a reduced EU budget, repatriation of powers to EU member states. National governments to be empowered to reject EU legislation and restrictions on the free movement of labour.

These conditions  are  so improbable that it is reasonable to conclude that Bootle in reality wants Britain out of the EU. If Britain does leave the EU, Bootle is in favour of what he called the WTONLY option if a good free trade agreement with the EU cannot be arranged. The WTONLY option is to simply leave the EU and then rely on World Trade Organisation rules to give Britain access to EU markets.

During questions it was heartening to see how many of the questioners were utterly hostile to the EU, despite the fact that many  of those there came under the heading of the great and the good, the sort of people who would normally be considered unvarnished  Europhiles.   Most promisingly, voices were raised against the wholesale takeover by foreigners of British business and the ill effects of multinationals.

I raised the question of how Britain should deal with the mechanics of leaving bearing in mind that the entire British political elite were Europhiles who would do everything to subvert the wishes of the British electorate by stitching Britain back into the EU through an agreement which included the four so-called EU freedoms, the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour within the EU. I suggested to Bootle that Article 50 was a poisoned chalice which would enable British politicians to do just that.  Rather surprisingly Bootle said that he did not think that the mechanics of leaving were important.  I was not able to question him further because of the number of people wanting to ask questions. However, I have addressed the subject and others in the email I sent to Bootle after the meeting. If I receive a reply I will add it to this blog post.

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E mail sent to Roger Bootle 31 5 2014

Dear Mr Bootle,

A few points I  was unable to put to you at the Civitas meeting of  19 May.

1. How much do you think the status of the  Euro as  the second largest reserve currency has contributed to the survival of the Euro?  I enclose a note on this at the bottom of the email.

2. You advocate giving both sides of the story, of admitting that leaving the EU will not be without costs both material and moral.  The problem with that is twofold.

a) political knowledge and understanding amongst the electorate  as a whole  is  minute. Most will respond to the fear factor points not the reassuring points simply because they do not know enough to assess the situation rationally.

b) all the STAY IN camp will be peddling is the fear factor. Hence, the electorate will be hearing the fear factor language from both YES and NO camps but only the reassuring points from those who wish Britain to leave.

3. How the UK leaves the  EU is not a trivial matter as you suggested. The danger is that regardless of the wishes of the electorate ,  the British political elite will stitch us back firmly into the EU if they are given a free hand over the negotiation. This is so because we have a political class – especially the leading members of the class –  which is  overwhelmingly prepared to act as Quislings (Quislings in the service of the EU in particular and internationalism in general) to ensure that Britain does not escape the tentacles of the EU.

Of course such a betrayal could apply regardless of whether article 50 is activated or a simple repeal made  of the various Acts binding  us into the EU, but  Article 50 carries far more dangers for those who want us out of the EU than a simple repeal of the Acts  would do.  If Britain accepted the legality of Article 50  we  would have to put up with any amount of prevarication and dirty tricks for two years.  Worse,  the time to reach any  agreement between Britain and the EU under article 50 can be extended if both parties agree.

As those negotiating on behalf of Britain would inevitably be politicians who have sold their souls to the “European Project”, the odds are that they would use any obstruction and delay by the EU to justify making an agreement which would practically speaking nullify the vote to leave.  As sure as eggs are eggs, the agreement would  place  us  firmly back into the EU’s clutches  by signing Britain up to the four EU “freedoms” (freedom of movement of goods, services, capital and labour)  and all the rules regulating the single market.  If the break with the EU is done simply by repealing the various Acts which bind us in, our politicians will not be able to use the restrictions and difficulties raised by Article 50 as an excuse for selling the voters down the river with an agreement such as I have described.  Instead, they would have to take full responsibility for whatever they agree to.  Article 50 is a particularly toxic poisoned chalice.  Don’t drink from it.

It is essential that before any referendum takes place that all mainstream UK parties make it clear that whatever  agreement  is reached by those negotiating on behalf of Britain this should only be ratified if the British people vote for it in a second referendum.  Unless this happens the political class will give us something which binds us back into the EU.

5. It is a dangerous argument to claim that competition between governments is a good thing if you are relying on the historical example.  In your Telegraph article Europe’s politicians must embrace competition or face slide into obscurity (19 May) you write:

It is very striking that Europe’s golden age, when European countries bestrode the world and European influence was at its height, was an era of competition between nation states. Admittedly at times this competition went too far and spilled over into war …

The reality of European history is that it has been primarily a history of war as far as you care to go back. War not peace has been the norm. The period of European ascendency was no exception to this and because of technological developments became more and more efficiently brutal.    Use the European historical example and you are simply inviting the Europhiles to say “Told you so. Nation states can’t be trusted to behave”.

6. At present I also have a problem with  all political discussions  and especially those referring to the economy.   We are within striking distance of the production of general purpose robots which will be able to do not only most of the jobs humans now do but most of any new ones which arise.   The implications of this are so profound that they bid fair to render any political solutions or policies currently in play obsolete.  Politicians should be planning for such developments but they are simply ignoring them.  If you read  these two pieces you will see where I am coming from:

http://livinginamadhouse.wordpress.com/2011/07/01/robotics-and-the-real-sorry-karl-you-got-it-wrong-final-crisis-of-capitalism/

http://livinginamadhouse.wordpress.com/2013/06/23/technology-out-of-control/

Yours sincerely,

 

Robert Henderson

 

 

 

Civitas meeting: Transforming the market: Towards a new political economy

Civitas meeting: Transforming the market: Towards a new political economy 13 November 2013

Speaker: Dr Patrick Diamond

Diamond’s talk was based on his recently published Civitas tract http://civitas.org.uk/press/EAdiamond.html

Diamond is firmly in the NuLabour camp, having been involved in various positions servicing the last Labour government,  including that of  head of Policy Planning in 10 Downing Street. He now holds several academic positions at London and Oxford universities. He is also a Labour councillor for the London Borough of Southwark.

What is his recipe for “transforming the market”?  This extract from his Civitas tract give the bare bones of it:

“The government is an enabler, directing strategic investment to growing sectors and firms, providing fertile conditions for entrepreneurship.

The government is a  regulator, managing the inherent volatility and instability of markets, while promoting competition in product and capital markets.

The government is an equaliser, ensuring the supply of public goods and human capital helps the least advantaged, while ensuring the basic distribution of household income accords with basic principles of fairness and social justice.

And the government is an innovator , promoting experimentation, technological adaptation, alongside the discovery of new markets, services and the advancement of knowledge.” pp49/50

This has the ring of someone reciting a catechism whose end is in its saying not in its doing.

Diamond’s  buzzwords for curing the ills of the British economy are decentralisation and localism. This dovetails with the Labour version of the Tories’ risible “Big Society” which I heard  John Cruddas  outline not so long ago (http://livinginamadhouse.wordpress.com/2013/10/20/one-nation-labour-work-family-and-place-a-taste-of-labours-next-election-propaganda/). Read this in conjunction with this report and you will have Labour’s economic and social programme  for the next general election.

There is a good deal of “back to the future” in his  programme. He wants to create a ‘super ministry” combining the Department of Business,  Innovation and skills (BIS),  the Department of Communities and Homes and some Treasury functions to “ decentralise and devolve economic power away from London.”  Older readers will be irresistibly reminded of the first Wilson government in the 1960s when work, and especially public sector work, was to be sent to the less prosperous parts of Britain. Thankfully Diamond  at least spared us any ancient embarrassing rhetoric such as “the white heat of technology” or “picking winners”, but that is what he thinking.

Diamond’s wish to see Britain’s economy “rebalanced” away from services and towards manufacturing also resonates with Wilson’s desire to shift more people into manufacturing. This he attempted  to do with arguably the most absurd tax ever introduced in Britain, the  Selective Employment Tax (SET).  This  was placed on service companies only, the idea being that this would make more people seek manufacturing jobs  because service employers would find it more expensive to employ people and the number of service jobs would fall. In turn the hope was that manufacturing wages would be lowered because of increased competition for such jobs. This last was an heroically optimistic scenario because of the power of the unions at the time.

SET failed for the wondrously obvious reason that it increased the costs of service employers without improving the circumstances of manufacturers, whose wages remained  much the same,  while demand for  their goods was at best not increased and at worst might have even fallen if unemployment in the service sector rose due to the increased cost imposed by  SET and reduced overall demand.   This meant manufacturers could not employ more people.  All  SET could do in the circumstances of the 1960s,  if it had any effect at all,  was reduce employment and/or raise retail prices.

So many things are to Diamond’s mind “too centralised” or  overly  concentrated in particular areas .  Apart from  general economic power and government,  he pointed to banks, infrastructure such as airports and even the Arts. Leaving aside whether localising affairs is desirable, there is an inherent problem with making things more local and decentralised. There needs to be not merely the bricks and mortar of regional banks and companies, councils with much more responsibility and so on, there needs to be a class of people who can handle such responsibilities at the local and regional level. None exists at present. Nor can such a class be created by conscious policy.  It is something that happens, if it happens at all, naturally.

At one time Britain did have a healthy political and managerial class who were willing and able to assume the burden of exercising local power. But that class grew naturally from the fact that the whole of society was of necessity  conducted at the local level because of poor communications. But from the advent of the railways onwards localism became less and less the natural state of affairs.  We have now reached a  point where the exercise of  political power and initiative  at the local level  is feeble because those with real political ambition do not see serving at the local level as important. It is all very well to lament this and say power and influence should be shifted back to the local level but how able and ambitious people can be persuaded to confine themselves to local government is another matter. Frankly, I doubt whether the clock can be turned back.

As part of his worship of the local Diamond is much taken with Germany with its regional banks, workers directives  and technical schools.  He wants Britain to copy them. In this he is making the profound but common error of believing that what works in one society will work in any other society. This was doubly  odd because he recognised in one part of his talk (and does so in his written tract) that the transfer of methods from one society to another was problematical, but still went on as though the problem did not exist when he got to the detail, such as it was, as to what should be done in Britain.

Germany is decentralised because that is the way it has always been. A latecomer to the nation state (1870), the German state has always been in practice a federation with some of the larger components such as Saxony and Bavaria having histories as substantial kingdoms in their own right.  The consequence is that regionalism comes naturally to Germany in a way that it never would do in Britain and especially England,  because England has been centralised in the sense that it has been a kingdom encompassing those with a broad common ethnicity for many centuries. In modern Germany the sixteen Lander form political entities which each  have both size and a separate history   to create and maintain  regional loyalty. In England there are no such hard core regional loyalties. Regional sub-divisions of England are no more than geographical expressions, the South West, the North West, the South East, Midlands and so on.  Even the North East – the  region of England often put forward as having the strongest regional identity – is far from being an area  with a separate identity around which all the inhabitants can coalesce.

Diamond’s scheme for remedying the ills of the British economy has many other weaknesses. He is sold on predistribution.  This is, almost inevitably these days, an ideological import from the USA.  It is the political equivalent of selling snake oil to the ill.  The idea is that silly old traditional methods of redressing inequality such as progressive tax regimes and benefit support (which actually work) are forsaken for ethereal aspirations that  encourage long-term investment,  providing good quality public services, particularly healthcare and investing in the skills of the young , workers on company boards, a minimum wage pegged to inflation and so on.  The problem is these will not work while mass immigration and relatively free trade exists both in terms of imports and the export of jobs through outsourcing.

The broad sweep of Diamond’s ends I would have sympathy with, the re-industrialisation of Britain, greater material equality, an end to the worship of markets, long term planning by companies and so on.  The problem is his means. They will not work because he is always trying to work within the context of both a market economy and globalisation. Take his strategy for manufacturing. To increase this, especially in terms of making it much broader as well as larger in GDP terms, some form of protection would have to be used, be that traditional controls such as quotas and tariffs or state control of vital industries together with fiscal measures to ensure the price of essential goods and services are within the reach of the poor.   We can be sure of that both because economic history has no example of a country industrialising except by protecting its domestic market and because simple logic tells you that it is impossible to compete across the economic board  with countries whose labour forces are earning a fraction of British wages, who have scant regard for health and safety and whose governments ensure that it is very difficult to enter their markets by economic regimes which are anything but laissez faire.

Diamond’s attempt to get round this problem is for Britain to concentrate on high-tech industries. There are two problems with this. The first is strategic whereby it is dangerous for any country to leave itself at the mercy of world events by being unable to produce a wide range of products either at all or in sufficient quantity to tide the country over in an emergency.

The second difficulty is the sheer impossibility of creating  sufficient jobs to employ enough of a  large population like that of the UK to compensate for the export of lower tech, lower skilled work. Even if it was in theory possible, it would be impossible to find enough people capable of  high tech work because the way IQ is distributed means that even in a country with a strong average IQ such as Britain will have huge numbers of people who have mediocre to poor IQs –for example, there are around 6 million people with IQS of 80 or less in the UK.  Thus two reasons for a broad-based economy come together: the impossibility of providing enough high tech, high skill jobs and the need to cater for the less able in society.

The audience questions and remarks

What was heartening was the anger which quite a few of the audience (it was a deliberately small gathering of around 25) expressed about the way British governments had failed to protect British companies and British economic interests generally. “Britain is becoming a servant economy” was probably the best of the comments summing up where Britain is headed if the current laissez faire policies continue to be followed.

These points were made by other members of the audience:

-          The takeover of  British companies by foreigners was made much easier with the abolition of the Mergers and Monopolies Commission  (which had a public interest test)  and its replacement with the Competition Commission (which has no public interest test but simply a test for the proportion of the market a takeover would involve).

-          Manufacturers comprise only 11% of GDP but 50% of British exports.

-          Manufacturing jobs are generally better paid than service sector jobs so their loss is more keenly felt both by the individual and in terms of GDP.

-          Foreign direct investment is often concerned with the acquiring of British assets rather than new investment.

-          Energy costs are killing manufacturing in the UK.

The owner of JLS Ltd, John Mills (who is currently the largest Labour Party donor and a one-time Camden Councillor),  advocated a deliberate 20%  devaluation of the pound . I have discussed this with him on another occasion and the problem with it is this: starting the devaluation is easy enough, but stopping it   at the level you want it is not. The danger is that the currency  will deflate way beyond the desired point because the brakes fail to halt the decline in its value.  It is also worth remembering that the value of the Pound against major currencies has dropped 20% or so since Lehman Bros failed in 2008.

I managed to make a few points. These were:

1. That it is impossible to rebuild manufacturing except behind protectionist barriers, official or unofficial, the proof of this statement being the fact that it has never been done.

2. Most immigrants are not engaged in highly  skilled work but low-skilled or unskilled jobs, which in itself gives the lie to the idea that immigrants are doing jobs which Britons could not or would not do. I further pointed out that many of these jobs involve dealing with the British public  – in shops, cafes, call centres and so on – and that many of those  so employed have completely inadequate English. To claim that a foreign worker who cannot speak fluent English is a better employee in such posts than a native English speaker is a self-evident nonsense.

3. That British unemployment, especially youth unemployment, cannot be cured while our borders are effectively open both because of the EU and the unwillingness of all the major parties to halt immigration from outside the European Economic Area.  (Diamond flatly refused to discuss the question of immigration, contenting himself with “We shall have to differ on immigration”).

4. Diamond stated in his talk that healthy economies relied on “efficient, effective and non-corrupt public sectors”. I broke the dreadful truth to him that Britain no longer has such a public sector. Privatisation (especially PFI) has greatly increased the opportunities for corruption in public service. Increase the opportunities and corruption increases. It is a very simple equation.

Diamond accepted that corruption had  worsened in central government public service but bizarrely claimed it had reduced in local government circles. The reality is that corruption has increased not decreased in local government because so much of local government work has been contracted out. Diamond attempted no justification for his claim merely asserted it. (It is a very strange thing but I have never been to a meeting dealing with the same general subject area as this one where anyone other than me  has raised the issue of corruption, this  despite the fact that there are regular examples of it in the mainstream media).

Privatisation has also reduced the efficiency of public services, because  where used it destroys the chain of command within the public service.  This occurs because where there is a private contractor involved the public service provider cannot instruct those employed by the private contractor but must work through the contractor’s management. This can lead to very complex arrangements.  I gave the example of major London hospitals where there are  routinely PFI contracts for the food, the laundry, the ward cleaning and the maintenance and cleaning of the multi-media installations (TV, phone, internet).

5. That giving more power,  including greatly increased borrowing powers,  to local councils is  a recipe for disaster because of the lamentable quality of the large majority of councillors. I urged anyone around the table who doubted this to go and view their local council in action, especially in the committees and subcommittees.

6. The laws which allow directors who do not meet their statutory responsibilities to be punished are rarely enforced. I gave as examples the provisions within the Company’s Act to remove the personal; limited liability of directors and to ban people from being directors.   I pointed out that these provisions  had not been used against any of the directors of RBS, HBOS, Lloyds or  Northern Rock, despite their extremely reckless behaviour.  Had the limited liability of directors such as Fred Goodwin been removed the directors could have been sued for every penny they had.  As for banning directors, I told the meeting that from my own experience with the Inland Revenue of  trying to get even the directors of tinpot concerns banned  was well nigh impossible and that to get a mainboard director of a Footsie 100 company banned was in practice impossible unless the director was convicted of a criminal offence against the company such as embezzlement.

What needs to be done

If Britain’s economy can be reshaped it can only be done with a judicious use of protectionist measures, the renationalisation of vital services such as the utilities  and an end to mass immigration.  Diamond will not even consider doing any of this.

There was one issue which I did not get a chance to raise  because of the constraints of the meeting.  Nor was the issue touched on by Diamond or any of the audience. It concerned technological changed.  Robotics and 3-D printing bid fair to turn our economic world upside down. I include below links to a couple of articles which deal with problems they will create. Just in case you are tempted to say Oh that’s just sci-fi, especially in the case of robotics, go online look at the latest robotic developments, for example, a humanoid robot which can walk over rough ground (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/10360951/Meet-Atlas-Boston-Dynamics-unveils-robot-that-can-walk-on-rocks.html)

and a humanoid robot that has human eye movements very well imitated. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/10413987/Meet-ZENO-R25-the-first-affordable-human-robot.html)

The implications of Robotics are explored in these essays:

http://livinginamadhouse.wordpress.com/2011/07/01/robotics-and-the-real-sorry-karl-you-got-it-wrong-final-crisis-of-capitalism/

http://livinginamadhouse.wordpress.com/2010/10/13/the-geepees-a-cautionary-tale/

Making plans on the basis that our economy and society will remain in broad terms similar to what it is now is a mug’s game.

Robert Henderson 29 11 2013

Bruges Group International Conference 9 11 2013

Which Way Out?

Speakers

Prof. Tim Congdon  (Economist)

Prof. Ivar Raig (Tallinn University)

Prof. Roland Vaubel (Mannheim University)

Ian Milne (Banker and Industrialist)

Prof. Patrick Minford (Prof of Economics Cardiff Business School)

Christopher Booker (Telegraph journalist)

Dr Richard North (Long time EU campaigner)

Mary Ellen Syon (Irish Daily Mail Journalist)

Kieran Bailey (15-year-old who is shortlisted for the Brexit prize)

This conference is important because it brought together some of the people who are likely to be part of the public face of the OUT campaign if and when a referendum is held on Britain’s future in the EU.  Frankly, it was not encouraging,  both because there was great deal of conflict between the views of this supposed panel of Eurosceptics and  many of the proposals had a Utopian ring for they did not take into account the likelihood or otherwise of their plans being put into operation.

Prof. Tim Congdon

Congdon was the most forthright of the speakers. He wants Britain out of the UK full stop: no Lisbon Treaty Article 50 exit,  just the Westminster Parliament repealing the Act which binds Britain  into the EU. His main reason for taking this stance was that to commit to the use of  Article 50 would mean accepting its legitimacy. That has its dangers because if its legitimacy is accepted before  Britain activated the Article , the EU might extend the maximum two year waiting period the Article stipulates  before a member state can leave to a much longer time.  As this would require a Treaty change over which any member state would have a  veto I think this is not a realistic threat provided a referendum is held soon.

Nonetheless, Congdon’s instincts are right,  for to tie us into a two year waiting period would allow the EU to create a good deal of mischief. Using the Article 50  route would also provide an escape route for our Europhile political elite because they could argue that b ecayuse of the Article the best deal they could get was one which left us still within the coils of the EU, for example, a similar  relationship with the EU to that of Norway or Switzerland, both of whom are signed up to the so-called four EU freedoms: the freedom of unrestricted movement within the European Economic Area (EEA) of capital, services, capital and labour.

Congdon was just as unequivocal on the claims that Britain would lose greatly if she  left. He pointed out that the vast majority of UN member states were not EU members but were able to trade successfully both generally and with the EU, and cited various examples of countries, some small,  outside the EU which had made treaties with much larger nation states  such as the USA and China.  Congdon also made  much of the EU’s declining share of world trade, which is only around 12% now and is set to decline further.

As for Britain needing a plan as to what exactly she would do after leaving the EU before leaving, Congdon said this was completely unnecessary and cited the fact that some  65 independent  countries today had gained their independence  from Britain without having such a plan.

I agree wholeheartedly with Congdon’s  overall strategy,   but there is a presentational problem with the man. This is the first time I have heard him speaking in person. I was astounded by the eccentricity of his delivery.  He would be speaking normally when suddenly he would explode into what I can only describe as an hysterical rant. This he must have done at least half a dozen times in his twenty minutes or so of speaking. As he is very likely to figure in any OUT campaign this is worrying. It is odds on he will not go down well with the general public, because eccentricity of any sort, even that which has some charm,  will alienate as well as attract and frankly this  was not an engaging eccentricity.

Congdon was also caught out by a questioner from the audience. He had cited the recent Canada-EU trade treaty as evidence of what could be done by Britain once she is outside the EU.  A questioner asked him for details of the treaty. Congdon had to admit he did not know what they are. That is just plain sloppy. If you are going to cite something as evidence common-sense tells you to mug up the facts  because as sure as eggs are eggs you will be challenged on the evidence.

Prof. Roland Vaubel

Vauble detailed the vested interest of  the various  instruments of the EU – Commission, Parliament, Court of Justice.  In every case centralisation of EU powers increased their power. Hence, he saw no likelihood of any repatriation of substantial powers unless Article 50  is activated.

As for the process of leaving, Vauble took a legalistic approach. He  maintained that the activation of Article 50   was the only way Britain could leave the EU because he considered the acceptance of the Lisbon Treaty by Gordon Brown made any other exit  illegal.    The answer to that is simple: treaties signed by a government which cannot be repudiated by a future government are utterly undemocratic.

Assuming Britain activated Article 50, Vauble said that the EU elite would give nothing much  to Britain over the two years and the odds were that at the end of two years no agreement would have been reached and Britain would simply exit the EU without any agreement.  Because of this Vauble claimed that Britain had to have a strategy for what was to happen after Britain left without a Treaty. Vauble’s solution was for Britain to make alliances with other EU members, especially the smaller ones.  His overall message was that Britain could not survive on her own.  Vauble further envisaged that a Britain which had left the EU and had some form of alliance with other states, both within and without the EU, could act as a lever to change the centralising tendencies of the EU.  He seemed much  more interested in using Britain as a tool for other states’ ends than suggesting  the best strategy for Britain.

Prof. Ivar Raig

Even making considerable allowances  for the fact that English was not his first language, Raig was an awful speaker, mixing incoherent passages with statements of appalling banality , all delivered in what I can only describe as a prolong yell.

Out of the incoherence came a desire for Britain to wrap itself in another  supra-national bloc, in this case one based on North America, Germany, Scandinavia and other Northern European states. This he grandiosely labelled the New Atlantic Project. Like Vauble he believed Britain would not be able to go it alone.

Ian Milne

Milne was in  favour of using Article 50, although he was less committed to it under all circumstances than Raig and Vaubel.. For Milne activating the Article was more a question of showing willing to preserve legal form than a commitment to observe it.  If the EU showed they were going to be obstructive after  Britain activated the Article, then he was happy for Britain to simply leave by making a unilateral declaration.

He was far from pessimistic about Britain being able to negotiate a reasonable settlement with the EU, not least because of the disruption of EU’s  trade with Britain if there was any serious delay.  Milne emphasised how advantageous the EU’s trade with Britain is to the EU , both because of the large trade deficit Britain runs every year with the EU and the supply of goods to EU businesses such as the German car industry.  He also pointed out the rest of the world would not take kindly to uncertainty because they also had an interest in Britain and the EU resolving their differences.

The most useful part of his speech was his detailed plan for how the exit should be administratively planned. He wanted a Ministry for EU Transitional Arrangements (META) set up to manage the business. He took his inspiration from large projects such as the Olympics and Crossrail.

There are contentious points in the detail of his ideas, not least his rather too trusting belief in the efficiency of private industry compared with public service. But his basic idea of a ministry devoted solely to the administrative, economic, legal and political issues arising from our departure is sound because it will be a complicated business.

The problem with his plan is that it is difficult to envisage any conceivable British government implementing it,  not least because for a government to develop such a detailed plan would be to hamstring both the government of the day and any future government.

Prof. Patrick Minford

A decent speaker but completely out of touch with reality because he is in thrall to the laissez faire quasi-religion. A clear example of a man being captured by one of Richard Dawkins’ memes, in this case by a very harmful one. The problem with Minford is that he has spent his entire working life in either public service or academia. This allows him to maintain his fantasy of  perfect markets with perfect information without the evidence of real life intruding.

Minford wants out of the EU because he has the fashionable but untrue idea that the British are in favour of free markets and free trade while the other EU members are locked in a socialist mindset.  Towards the end of his offering he made the comment that the British had always been free traders including during the Industrial Revolution.  This was a truly incredible statement because the British Industrial Revolution occurred whilst  Britain operated arguably the most successful protection system ever seen through the Navigation Acts and the Old Colonial System. That  tells you Minford either has a very tenuous grasp of economic history or is willing to deliberately fabricate to maintain the plausibility of his ideology.  He might also ask himself how unions became so powerful in Britain  if support for free markets and free trade is so heavily stitched in British minds.

From this misreading of both British history and indeed  her current realities,  Minford  built his case for leaving the EU.  He wants Britain to depart  because he views the EU as a protectionist syndicate which prevents Britain from following her supposedly free market ways.

Having laid out his general scheme of objections to the EU he wandered into the ground of employment and extolled Britain as a far superior job creator than most of the EU whose unemployment was much higher. This difference he attributed to Britain’s free market instincts.  From there he moved to the question of immigration and blithely told the audience that immigrants do not take jobs from Britons. He produced what he fondly imagined to be a knock down argument by trotting out the crude classical economic argument about how Britons would find jobs if only they would accept lower wages (which would be facilitated by less welfare provision)  or were better qualified.   This caused a good deal of anger amongst the audience with quite a few calling out.

When questions were taken I managed to get myself called. I told the meeting that on the question of immigration and jobs I had special knowledge from my time as an Inland Revenue investigator. I proceeded  to detail some of  the ways that huge numbers of jobs never came onto the open British market because of foreign gangmasters employing only their own nationals, ethnic minority employers employing only their own people, foreign companies bringing in their own nationals and the recruitment of foreigners for jobs by not only British companies but British public service employers.  I further pointed out that around 5 million people who were counted as being in work in Britain were not meaningfully employed because they had to draw benefits to provide a living wage. If this 5 million is added to the 2.5 million officially unemployed, the real rate of unemployment in Britain is running at over 20% (the official unemployment rate using the Labour Survey count  stood  at 7.7% for 2.49 million unemployed in October 2013).  That is not so very different from much of the Eurozone.

Having done that,  I  attacked the idea that Britons were wedded to the idea free market economics, pointing out the evidence against this belief such as I have already mentioned, and ended by asking from where exactly Minford got his fantasy view of Britain and the British. All of this was very warmly greeted by the audience and many came up to afterwards to express agreement.

What was Minford’s response? It was feeble to the point of embarrassment. He just kept on repeating various forms of “You are wrong” with  absolutely no attempt to address the detailed objections I had raised to his words.

On the plus side he did reject the “Norwegian Option” on the grounds that it would not only tie us into the single market legislation but force acceptance of the four so-called EU freedoms, namely, the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour within the European Economic Area.

Minford was also on the right track when he pointed out the quite small part of the British economy which is devoted to exports (he put it at 10%).  He was also generally confident of Britain’s ability to be successful outside of the EU.

Christopher Booker

Booker is a promoter of the use of Article 50 as the only means by which the EU could be forced to open negotiations.  That begs the questions of what negotiations would result with the Europhile  British political elite bargaining for Britain and the probable response of the EU if Britain simply announced it was leaving.

The answer to the former question is that the Europhile politicians  who would be leading the British side of the negotiations would try to tie Britain firmly back into the EU. If Britain simply repudiated the European Acts which have led to  her entanglement in the EU by repealing them that would make it much more difficult for the British political elite to tie us back into the EU. This is  because Britain would immediately start operating in a post-EU world and British politicians would have to adapt to that reality whether they liked it or not.

As for the response of the EU elites, they would be unlikely to do much by way of creating heavy protectionist barriers against Britain both because of their healthy trade surplus with Britain and the many economic links between Britain and the rest of the EU and because of  the World Trade Organisation’s regulatory framework which binds its members to pretty tight restrictions on protectionist barriers.  It is also human nature to be more respectful to those who adopt strong dominant action than to those who display weak cringing behaviour such as has been the norm for British politicians dealing with the EU for over twenty years.

If leaving the EU means we cease to be covered by the many treaties signed by the EU which currently apply to  Britain (Booker said there are around 700), so  much the better for that would force a re-evaluation of the ones we wished of which to continue to be members.  It is wildly improbable that Britain would be denied independent membership of any it chose to sign up.

Booker is also a supporter of the “Norwegian Option”.  Hence, much of what he says about wanting Britain to be free of the EU grasping hands is pointless at best and dishonest at worst because the Norwegian Option” would still leave Britain within the coils of the EU.

Mary Ellen Synon

By far the most interesting speaker because she was the most realistic. Synon has worked in Brussels for many years and she is under no illusions about the corrupt and self-serving and above all ideological nature of the EU. Synon  said there are instructions to Eurocrats about the language they use in public. They never say people always citizen as in “a citizen of the EU” The word country is used as little as possible and if a Eurocrat is talking about his own country he or she will says “the country I know best” not “my country”. She was generally scathing about  British and other EU politicians.

According to Synon said the 2017 date for a proposed referendum was  chosen because Britain will take the six-month rotating presidency of the EU Council of Ministers in the second half of 2017. This would give Cameron (or anyone else who is PM) and various cabinet members a great deal of opportunity to bring EU summits to Britain and to posture regularly in front of the cameras.

Synon is sceptical about a referendum being held even if Cameron is PM after the next election. She thinks he will try to wriggle out of it as he wriggled out of the promised referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.  I think is  unlikely because the situation will be rather different to what it was with the Lisbon treaty.  The latter  was accepted by a British Government before Cameron came to power. In this case he would be remaining in power. In addition, Cameron has nailed his colours very firmly to the referendum mast.  It would be immensely difficult for him to renege on his promises because he would have no one else to blame but himself if the promise was broken.

But even if  there is a referendum and it is won  by a large majority,  Synon thinks that the EU will do what they have done with other referendum reverses such as the Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty first time round. They will try to engineer another referendum. In the Irish case they did this despite a healthy vote against ( 53.4 percent against, 46.6 percent in favour) in the original referendum.

The tactic was dependent on the existence of willing collaborators in the Irish government. Synon had  no doubt that a Cameron government would find such collaborators, not least because questioned by the Spanish newspaper La Pais in April 2013.  Cameron was asked whether, in the event of a vote to leave the EU this question: “Would you be willing to leave the Union?”  He replied  “I would not”. (Synon described Cameron as collaborator).

Using the Irish example as a template, Synon then outlined in gory detail what were likely to be Cameron’s tactics if a vote to leave occurred .  The government would not accept the vote. There would be a questioning of whether the electorate had understood what they were voting for. This would be followed by the commissioning of  an opinion poll  designed to  either reject the result of the referendum outright or provide a pretext to hold another referendum  on the grounds that the electorate had not understood what the first referendum really meant.

In Ireland another referendum had to be held because the constitution required it. In Britain there is  no such requirement.  The British government could simply ignore the referendum result unless Parliamentary action forced either another referendum or the respecting of the vote of the referendum which had been held that  returned a vote to leave the EU.

Synon’s full notes for her speech can be found here http://www.eureferendum.com/blogview.aspx?blogno=84482

Dr Richard North

North began his speech by saying no referendum could be held in  2017 because David Cameron has committed himself to “substantial re-writing” of the Treaties before referendum.  This  he claimed would  require an Inter-Governmental Convention (IGC) which would take several years to convene, agree changes and have the changes ratified by the various member states, some of whom would have a constitutional  requirement to put the matter to a vote. In principle, Britain would be one of them because of the  referendum lock” provisions in  the European Union Act of 2011. This requires any substantial change to the EU treaties to be put to the British electorate. In addition, the 2015 European Parliament elections would mean that before any IGC could be called the newly elected Parliament would have to approve a new Commission, a process which North believes would take until the end of 2015. (http://www.eureferendum.com/blogview.aspx?blogno=84483)

The obvious objection to that is the fact that the EU has shown itself willing to disregard legal niceties when it suits them. Moreover, it all depends on what “substantial re-writing” would mean. It could be that Cameron (if it is he doping the renegotiation) will simply be tossed a few insignificant bones which the EU elite can claim can be managed within the present treaties. Alternatively, the British government might simply say this is the fruit that  our negotiations have born and they will be incorporated into EU law in due course if the vote is to accept them and stay in the EU. It should be remembered that the Wilson renegotiation which led to the 1975 referendum were put to the British electorate without  a Treaty change.

The interesting part of  North’s speech dealt with the  amount of law  coming from Brussels which is in reality merely Brussels rubber-stamping decisions made by  other supranational bodies. (North claimed that it was most of the EU regulations we toil under).   This law is  called Dual International Quasi Legislation. It derives from what North describes the   EU as having become, namely,  “part of a nexus of legislative bodies, linking international agencies of the United Nations with regional, national and local bodies, to form one continuous, seam-free administrative machine.” (http://eureferendum.blogspot.co.uk/2007/03/sucess-of-eu.html)

The rather shadowy  bodies  which make such laws  are  the likes of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, (http://www.codexalimentarius.org/) which sets standards for  the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organisation, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  (http://www.ipcc.ch/)  and the Bank for International Settlements (http://www.bis.org/about/index.htm).  The rules agreed by such bodies  go through the  EU  legalising process on what is known as the “A List” without a vote.

Although the process may be rubber-stamping,  it is worth noting that the EU is not legally bound to accept such agreements. However, it suits the EU elites’ purposes to do so because it fits with their anti-democratic supranational agenda for it restricts who makes the decisions to an even smaller group  than would be the case if the EU instigated the regulations.

North is in favour of using Article 50 as an exit vehicle. He gives no sign of appreciating the potential damage which two years of prevarication by the EU could do or the opportunities for active collusion with the EU elite  by the British elite to trap  Britain  once more within the tentacles of the EU.

His idea of using the “Norwegian Option” as a staging post to full independence is wishful thinking,  because once a new settlement is reached it is highly improbable that a further referendum would be held for many years if at all, not least because the “Norwegian Option” would tie us into the four so-called EU freedoms and the  general single-market obligations.

Kieran Bailey

He spoke confidently but,  unsurprisingly for a 15-year-old, said nothing of obvious importance. His appearance smacked too much of gimmickry.

An unasked question

Had I had the opportunity I would  have posed a question which went unasked, namely, what should be done to tie down Cameron (or any other PM) to what will happen if there is a vote to leave the EU? We need to know before the IN/OUT referendum what the British government is committed to.

What should be done?

If a referendum is to be won the OUT camp must put forward a coherent and attractive message which goes to the heart of British people’s fears and anger resulting from British membership of the EU.  Talking legalistically about invoking Article 50, negotiating for a relationship similar to that of Norway or Switzerland  or mechanically reciting mantras about free markets and free trade will not do that. Indeed, it will drive voters away.

The British resent and distrust the EU because of the impotence of the British government and legislature to prevent EU law taking precedence over the will of Parliament. However, they are often unclear about which areas of policy have been subcontracted to Brussels. The OUT campaign must keep hammering home exactly how much cannot be done while Britain is entrenched within the EU.

The most important EU issue in British minds is indubitably  immigration. That should be made the focus of the OUT campaign. Indeed, the more it becomes an anti-immigration campaign the better because mass immigration affects from the entirety of life. The primary ill is simply the fact that huge numbers of foreigners coming into Britain change the nature of Britain both generally – think of the laws against speaking freely and those imposing “non-discrimination” dictats  on the grounds of race and ethnicity – and particularly, for example, here parts of the country are effectively colonised by those of a certain ethnicity or race.

Then there are the secondary ills which immigrants bring: the undercutting of wages, the removal of jobs from the open British market by ethnic minority employers who either employ only those of their ethnicity  and   foreign gangmasters who supply only those of their own nationality, the use of the NHS, the taking  of housing (especially social housing) which forces up rents, the overcrowding of schools in areas of heavy immigrant settlement, the drawing of benefits  by immigrants very soon are they arrive in Britain  and  a disproportionate propensity for crime.

A full throated campaign against these ills, which should encompass non-EEA citizens in Britain as well as EEA citizens, would be something the British electorate would instinctively and enthusiastically   respond to.  It would also allow those speaking for the OUT campaign to vividly illustrate the extent that the EU affects British life in all the important political policy areas.

The danger is that those running the OUT campaign  will, because of the grip that political correctness has on modern Britain, turn away from immigration as a major plank in their platform or  even shun it altogether.  That will guarantee either a lost referendum or allow  Britain to be re-stitched into the EU with something like the “Norwegian Option”.

Royal Mail and ideology

Robert Henderson

The starting gun for the privatisation of the Royal Mail has been fired t(http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/royal-mail/10303689/Royal-Mail-privatisation-Government-confirms-flotation-within-weeks.html).

As with the banks,  the taxpayer takes the losses  and private business gets the profits. To prepare Royal Mail for privatisation the taxpayer has taken sole responsibility for the Royal Mail’s pension fund . They have done this  because its liabilities are huge and no private investor or business would take Royal Mail  on with the pension fund attached.

The pension scheme is closed to new members, which means that over time the liabilities will decline as pensioners die. However, that will take a long time and the liabilities are huge and uncertain.

The pension fund had estimated liabilities £33bn in the 2012/13 accounts (http://www.official-documents.gov.uk/document/hc1314/hc01/0149/0149.pdf).  This figure had risen by nearly £3bn in a year:  “The total pension scheme liability increased, from the date of transfer on 1 April 2012, from £30.547 billion to £33.378 billion at 31 March 2013.”

The scheme is “an unfunded defined benefit scheme providing pension and lump sum benefits on retirement and  death to members and former members of the Royal Mail Pension Plan (RMPP), and their dependants, in respect of their service up to 31 March 2012. The scheme is closed and has only pensioner and deferred members. As this is a closed scheme, there are no employer or employee contributions, the on-going pension payments and other payments are funded from the consolidated fund”  (Ibid)

The key words here are “unfunded” and “funded from the consolidated fund.  That means it is like the  Old Age Pension, namely, funded out of taxation.

The Pension Fund was supposedly made shipshape and Bristol fashion by the government  pumping in £2.2 billion in 2012.  However, after the first year of operation after the taxpayer bailout the “Royal Mail Group is facing an extra £300m annual bill from its pensions, one year on from a multi-billion-pound deal that was supposed to have solved its pension issues once and for all ahead of a public listing.” (http://www.efinancialnews.com/story/2013-05-31/pensions-talks-return-to-haunt-royal-mail?ea9c8a2de0ee111045601ab04d673622)

What can be expected from a privatised postal service

The experience of every other large privatisation apart from BT is of rising prices and decreased service.  Even in the case of BT the comparative success of the privatisation – the landline connections for phones and broadband are still dependent on BT’s  control of the network – would probably not have occurred if the mobile phone revolution had not taken place and  introduced genuine competition into the telecoms market.

There are a number of reasons why a privatised Royal Mail will go the same way as the likes of British Rail and the utilities.  To begin with there is the VAT exemption which is bound to vanish. As   it is a public organisation Royal Mail  does not pay VAT on most of its products: a privatised Royal Mail will almost certainly pay VAT on all of its products. The present position with VAT  is this:

“Royal Mail products that remain exempt from VAT, in addition to free products

UK

1st and 2nd Class (stamps, online, franking, account*)

Special Delivery™ Next Day (stamps and franking)

Standard Parcels

Recorded Signed For™ (if purchased with a VAT exempt service)

Keepsafe™ (personal and business)

*1st and 2nd class account is a new product that was launched in April 2012. This is a Universal Service which does not qualify for volume related discounts. Royal Mail also offers a 1st and 2nd class service called Business Mail which is available on account. Volume related discounts are available on this service for larger postings and VAT is liable

International

Airmail

Surface Mail

International Signed For

All HM Forces Mail (BFPO)

Inbound Mail

Redirections within UK (personal and business) “

(http://www.royalmail.com/information-vat-and-postal-services)

All those exemptions will  be under threat with privatisation,  not least because  EU competition commissioner is likely to  be after them like a shot as the exemptions would be viewed as illegitimate state aid ( http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2305592/Price-class-stamp-soar-1-just-years-Royal-Mail-privatised-campaign-group-warns.html) . There will also be challenges by private postal companies and TNT Post UK has already said they will try to get the courts to rule that “ the exemption should be removed from all Royal Mail services apart from stamps and services directly connected to the obligation it has to provide a universal service six days a week”. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/journalists/steve-hawkes/10309856/Legal-fight-threatens-Royal-Mail.html).  If successful that would put 20% VAT on bulk mail deliveries.  In time, it is reasonable to expect even more dramatic challenges to any VAT exemption.

Then there is the question of raising capital. The official line is this: “ To help protect the future of the universal postal service, we aim to end Royal Mail’s dependence on unpredictable funding from the taxpayer and allow them future access to private capital. We will do this by selling shares in Royal Mail. “ (https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/ensuring-the-future-of-the-universal-postal-service-and-post-office-network-services)

On the face of it this is a nonsense statement.  As a matter of simple fact the British government can raise money by way of borrowing far more cheaply than a private company, no matter how large, can do (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/may/21/royal-mail-public-sector-privatise).

The claim becomes less odd if the real reason why capital cannot be raised by Royal Mail is the EU competition commission’s resistance to  state aid. The commission  is especially keen on stamping on state aid  in relation to EU postal services, which it desperately wants to see in private hands or at least with a mixture of private and public providers competing on the same basis, as it seeks to have a uniform postal service throughout the EU ((http://ec.europa.eu/competition/sectors/postal_services/cases.html).  It is probable that a publicly owned  Royal Mail would not be allowed to raise cheap money through the offices of the government because the assistance  would not be available to other private postal competitors and, hence,  would be judged as unfair competition by the EU competition commissioner.

But not all state aid is bad in the EU commission’s eyes.  They  were willing to collude  with the  UK government to prepare Royal Mail for privatisation by allowing what amounts to massive state aid through the removal of the deficit laden Royal Mail pension fund from Royal Mail , viz:

“The European Commission approved UK plans to relieve the Royal Mail Group (RMG) from excessive pension costs relating to its past monopoly position and to provide RMG with restructuring aid consisting of a debt reduction of GBP 1089 million (around EUR 1311 million). The Commission concluded that RMG’s revised restructuring plan would ensure a sustainable future for the group in its twofold function of providing universal postal services and of granting access to its delivery network to other providers in the UK. Moreover, the plan negotiated with the Commission included appropriate measures to minimise distortions of competition induced by the aid (IP/12/260).” (Ibid)

The sale is also ostensibly  odd in that it comes at a time when  Royal Mail is making a solid profit  (£400 million in the past year). However, the strangeness of the decision vanishes when it is realised that  the Royal Mail has been deliberately fattened up for privatisation  by the massive price increase in the cost of postage stamps in 2012 (First class stamps rising from 46p to 60p and second class from 36p to 50p.  Parcel charges have also risen substantially http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-17859782. Incidentally, iIt is a moot point how much of the £400million profit arose from people buying huge numbers of stamps at the pre-rise prices, but nonetheless the increase in profitability is too large to be  ascribed to that one off event alone ).

The obligation to maintain the universal  postal service (UPS )  – the obligation to deliver  post anywhere in the UK at the same price six days a week –  is protected by the Postal Services Act 2011 (http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2011/5/introduction) and the  EU Postal Services Directives (http://ec.europa.eu/internal_market/post/legislation/index_en.htm). However, once Royal Mail has private shareholders  this could change, especially if a majority private shareholder emerges. This could easily occur  if much more than 50% of shares are sold  to the private sector . The intention of  the government is for a  majority of shares  to be in private hands  with the rest held by the government. The  percentage to be retained by the government might be very small  and this is suggested strongly because ministers  has been very coy on the matter of the size of government’s holding .  It could be as low 10% for all we know.

If a majority shareholder does emerge,  they  will inevitably argue that they cannot compete with other private operators who are not bound by the UPS. Their complaint could well be upheld either by the UK or the EU competition authorities on the grounds of practicality, that is, the impossibility of running Royal Mail as a private business when it has the  UPS obligation which its competitors do not have to honour.  If the VAT exemption is lessened or even abandoned altogether, that would  add to the argument to dilute or even remove entirely the UPS obligation. It is worth  remembering that the so-called “golden share” held by the government in Jaguar cars was limply given up by the government  not that many years after being introduced (http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1989/dec/06/golden-shares).

The UPS is under attack already from retailers who rely on posting goods to customers. They are under no obligation to use Royal Mail. This means they can charge whatever they like for postage within the UK and there are claims that some online retailers are charging multiples of the postage cost  which Royal Mail would charge for deliveries to out of the way addresses. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-24069354).  This will be happening because  the contracts the retailers  have agreed with postal providers other than Royal Mail will stipulate that this must be done.  If Royal Mail had retained its monopoly of small parcel deliveries (or even had the size of parcels in its monopoly increased) this would not be able to happen with anything like the same frequency.

The privatisation of Royal Mail also threatens the Post Office network, which is now an entirely separate organisation, Post Office Ltd.  Governments have been cynically undermining the Post Office for decades with a gradual removal government services which bulked out the postal services. The threat is not immediate because “We have committed £1.34 billion of funding for the network from financial year 2011 to 2012 to financial year 2014 to 2015. This will enable the Post Office to maintain and modernise its network to help safeguard its future.” (https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/ensuring-the-future-of-the-universal-postal-service-and-post-office-network-services). However,   looking ten years or so ahead it is probable that the cry will go up from politicians that the Post Office is a white state-owned elephant because there is every chance that a privatised Royal Mail will refuse to continue the contracts with the Post Office which currently exist on the grounds of cost and convenience.  

Why the privatisation is happening

Royal Mail would be perfectly viable as a public service if the old monopoly of letter post and small parcel post was maintained. It is true that email and other forms of digital messaging have reduced considerably the number of letters sent. But this drop has been offset by the considerable increase in parcel post arising from e-commerce, an increase which is likely to continue for quite some time.    Indeed, with the monopoly restored and modern sorting machinery being introduced, Royal Mail would almost certainly be able to make enough for necessary  future investment  whilst keeping postal rates moderate.   A cheap postal system would be a considerable boost to the economy generally.  The Post Office network could also be underpinned by the use of the offices as collection points for goods ordered through the Internet.

If that is so why is privatisation being driven through so ruthlessly  for transparently false reasons? The answer is ideology. The globalist, laissez faire ideology has infected to a lesser or greater degree all of Britain’s major political parties.  That  ideology dovetails with the supranational mentality engendered by the EU , commitment to  which is at the British political elite’s political core. It is doubtful if any senior British politician  not firmly committed to either laissez faire  globalism or the EU; most are committed to both. That is the simple truth.

Royal Mail privatisation – an act of ideology not of necessity or prudence

Robert Henderson

The announcement of the privatisation of the Royal Mail  by  the Business Secretary Vince Cable (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/royal-mail/10172284/Royal-Mail-lined-up-for-3bn-float.html)  is the marriage of the Thatcherite  privatising Zombie which has infected the whole of the mainstream British politics linked to the mania for “competition” exhibited by the EU (http://ec.europa.eu/competition/sectors/postal_services/overview_en.html).  The two ideologies – that of market economics and the goal, pursued with pathological determination,  of an ever expanding equalisation of trading conditions throughout the EU dovetailed perfectly.

The public sees Royal Mail as a public service. This is unsurprising because it has been in public hands since the 17th century and the provision of a universal delivery service to every part of the country for a standard charge existed from the time  Rowland Hill invented the postage stamp and the penny postage in the mid 19th century until the EU  interfered and ended the monopoly on letter post and small parcels in 2010.

There are clearly much broader questions of social  utility  than the cost or otherwise to  the taxpayer.  But even on the narrow and vulgar question of cost to the taxpayer there is no solid case for privatisation. Provided the letter post and packages up to a size which encompasses  the large majority of packets sent is  kept as a state monopoly,  the service could be relied upon to remain in the black whilst keeping postal charges low.  Even with the considerable weakening of Royal Mail’s monopoly over recent years it is still delivering healthy profits, viz: “ The state-owned delivery company said pre-tax profits jumped to £324m from £201m last year and a loss of £165m in 2011. Underlying operating profits soared 165pc to £403m from £152m in 2012” ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/royal-mail/10070998/Royal-Mail-delivers-profits-fit-for-flotation.html).

It is true that letter numbers have  declined  considerably in recent  years, by 25% between 2006 and the end of 2012. Nonetheless, the volume is still considerable  with 16 billion letters being sent to 28 million addresses  in 2012 (http://media.ofcom.org.uk/2012/03/27/ofcom-announces-measures-to-safeguard-the-uks-universal-postal-service/). Even with the ever growing use of digital communications, it is difficult to see letters dwindling to an insignificant number in the near future. Moreover, a good deal of the recent letter decline can be attributed to the ever growing cost of postage,  with second class mail for small letters now being 55p (large letters 69p) and first class  mail  60p (large 90p) (http://www.royalmailgroup.com/first-and-second-class-stamp-letter-prices-unchanged). In 1840 when the penny post was introduced a letter of any size could be sent for one old  penny. At 2012 prices that would be 87 old pence today (7/3) , or 36 new pence.  (http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/education/Pages/inflation/calculator/).  In real terms the  modern cost of a first class large letter is nearly three times as much as its 1840 predecessor. Bearing in mind the benefit of modern sorting technology  and transport and a great reduction in the number of deliveries per day,  it is rather surprising that the cost of post has risen hugely in real terms in modern times rather than dropping.

Parcel post costs have also risen sharply for those sizes of parcel  most likely  to be used: “2kg [parcel] was previously £5.30, but this will now rise to £8 if it is bigger than 45cm by 35cm by 8cm.” (2013  –  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/9965562/Cost-of-posting-parcels-to-rise.html and http://internetretailing.net/2013/04/online-retailer-speaks-out-as-royal-mail-changes-parcel-pricing/#sthash.4EFUCLqr.dpuf) )

These price rises have been permitted by the regulator Ofcom simply to prepare the Royal Mail for privatisation. If Royal Mail remained in public hands, with the old letter post and small parcel monopolies restored, the cost of postage could be reduced considerably because profit would not be a prime driver of the cost . In fact, with the current profits being made, even if the present situation was maintained substantial postage price reductions could be made.  The current large profits are only needed to make Royal Mail  attractive to prospective buyers of the business.

But even If the worst came to the worst and Royal Mail regularly made a loss, and the taxpayer had to  directly subsidize the cost, this would still be a benefit to the general public because it would ensure that an important public service was maintained at a price the public could afford.

The really good news for those who want  Royal Mail to stay as a public service is the immense growth in parcel post because of the already hugely expanded and ever expanding increase in Internet buying. In May 2013 this accounted for 9.7% of all retail spending excluding automotive fuel (http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/rsi/retail-sales/may-2013/stb-rsi-may-2013.html#tab-Internet-Sales). There is every reason to believe it will continue to grow substantially as people get more and more comfortable with buying online and the opportunities to buy in shops diminishes as more and more close The Centre for Retail Research estimates that stores will decline  from 281,930 today to 220,000 in 2018, a decline of 22% (http://www.retailresearch.org/retail2018.php).  This growth in parcel post will more than cancel out the reduction in revenue from  letters.

Practically allied to Royal Mail is the Post Office . Until  April 2012 Royal Mail and the Post Office were  effectively part of the same organisation, albeit as agencies of varying status. (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmselect/cmbis/84/8405.htm).  Now the Post Office is to be, legally, an entirely separate state-owned organisation.

A Commons committee in 2012  recognised  its public service function: “The Post Office remains an essential service which is extensively used. A third of the UK population—just under 20 million people—and half of all small businesses visit one of over 11,500 post offices every week.] The Post Office is one of the country’s largest cash handlers, processing around £70 billion of cash and £636 million of coinage every year. “
(ibid)

The official view of the Post Office networks future is rosy: “[In 2012] Paula Vennells, Chief Executive of Post Office Ltd, supported the proposals and set out her ambition for the Post Office:

If I have a vision, it is to have 30,000 post office outlets, not 11,500. It is to have standalone electronic drop boxes for mail packets. It is to have ATMs in railway stations. It is to have identity kits in town halls and libraries, all branded ‘Post Office’. But until we transform the current network and make it more sustainable, that becomes just an ambition.” (ibid)

This seems wildly improbable in the context of a privatised Royal MailAlthough  a ten year deal to maintain the existing Post Office network was agreed by the government in 2012,   it is probable that the network will be severely reduced in the not too distant future . It has already suffered a considerable contraction –  there are 11,500 Post Offices now compared with 20,000 in 1990. Many of the remaining offices,  and especially the  sub-post offices,  are struggling   because government services such as TV licence renewal have been removed from the Post Office remit and  there is a  general move towards online government services (in which the user increasingly has no choice but to use the online service) will worsen  the lot of Post Offices, especially the sub-post offices. (http://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/news/article-1678139/Post-offices-death-by-a-thousand-cuts.html).   Politically it will be much easier to reduce a stand alone state-run Post Office network  in size or even do away with all together than one attached in some way to the Royal Mail, especially if the privatised Royal Mail and its other private competitors decide not to use  Post Offices  as parcel pickup points and the government can keep pointing the Post Office network as “a burden on the taxpayer”.   The network It does require a public subsidy but this is minute in the context of national expenditure – it was  £150 million in 2010/11 ((http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmselect/cmbis/84/8405.htm)

There is little experience of privatised postal services  because there are few anywhere  in the world and those that have been privatised – Sweden, Finland and New Zealand – have only done so within the last 20 years.   However, a 2007 European Commission report on the liberalisation of postal services within the EU  found a common theme, namely, a reduction in post offices and increased postal charges (http://www.boeckler.de/pdf/wsi_pj_piq_post_europe.pdf).  That is exactly what is to be expected when private operators are allowed  into a state service.

Does anyone  honestly doubt that privatisation will make matters worse? After all, every major British privatisation of public  services,  apart from telecommunications  where there can be real competition,  has resulted in higher charges for at best unimproved and at worst inferior services.  Why should this privatisation be any different?

Here is a media doubter Vikki Woods writing for the free market Daily Telegraph  : “ Vince Cable said in the Commons that the time had come for the Government to step back from Royal Mail and allow its management to focus on growing the business. The sell-off “is practical, it is logical, it is a commercial decision… It is consistent with developments elsewhere in Europe where privatised operators produce profit margins far higher than the Royal Mail but have continued to provide high-quality and expanding services.” Oh, yes? He says “expansion” but I hear “shrinkage”. The universal service obligation was only five days across Europe back in 2011, and now various national mail companies are sucking their teeth and suggesting three days a week would be good. “(http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/countryside/10176212/Our-postman-delivers-a-sack-of-bad-news.html).

I suspect that many will have the same fears.

The Royal Mail is already much diminished from what it was. There is only one delivery a day; the cost of postage has risen massively  and much of the Post Office counter service which includes a good deal of postal work – recorded and registered letters, airmail, special delivery and so on –  has gone because of the massive reduction in Post Offices.   How long before the universal letter post obligation is reduced from six days to three days or two days? How long before a single universal charge for the whole country is abolished and hard to service areas such as the countryside are charged much more than the cities?  How long before door-to-door letter post  deliveries are replaced by deliveries to central collection points ?

Privatisation is a fraud on the public for its is selling that which belongs to everyone.  Where privatisation of state assets involves selling them  to the general public  it is a confidence trick on a par with the conman who “sells”  Nelson’s Column to  tourist.   Britons  who purchase shares in a privatised company are buying what they already own.  Think about that fact and don’t be a sucker.

The public is being doubly stung with this privatisation.  Not only will they almost certainly have, based on the experience of privatised postal services abroad, a more expensive and less comprehensive service within the foreseeable future, the funding of accrued Royal Mail pensions up to 31 March 2012 will remain as a charge on the taxpayer (http://www.royalmailpensionplan.co.uk/) rather than the new privatised company.  In short, the taxpayer is left with the debts while the buyers of  Royal Mail walk away unencumbered with the historical pension obligations.

This is something which does not need to happen. It would be perfectly possible to retain a state-owned universal postal service which would not make a loss, would make sufficient money to keep modernising  and would be much cheaper to use. All that would  be required is the political will to say no to the EU and revert to the old letter and smaller parcel monopoly.  This  privatisation is simply an ideological decision and has nothing to do with the  viability of a state-run postal service in this country.

This could well be a highly unpopular privatisation because the public  overwhelmingly view  Royal Mail as a service and have become jaundiced by previous large privatisations such as the energy and water industries, all of which have  resulted in raised prices and no great improvement in the service they provide. It could  well cost the Tory and Lib Dem parties dear at the next election.   (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/royal-mail/10050074/Poisonous-privatisation-of-Royal-Mail-will-cost-the-Conservatives-votes-in-2015-Bow-Group-warns-Tory-MPs.html). If it does, they will have only themselves to blame.

Technology out of control

Robert Henderson

I have previously examined  how robotics has the potential to make unviable both consumer based  economic systems based on the market and free trade between countries and the vast potential they have for creating economic and social  upheaval  in any industrialised society (http://livinginamadhouse.wordpress.com/2011/07/01/robotics-and-the-real-sorry-karl-you-got-it-wrong-final-crisis-of-capitalism/).  A short recap of these difficulties will set the scene for the less obvious threat posed by other emerging technologies.

When general purpose robots are available they will not only be able to do the jobs humans do now but any new jobs arising from the technology. This is a wholly new situation because all previous technological advance has created new jobs which can only be done by humans.

In such circumstances there will be a choice for any  society: ban robots in the society  and  goods produced by robots in foreign countries or suffer  a catastrophic and unmendable unemployment and the subsequent catastrophic loss of demand.

Alternatively, a society could be organised predominantly on a command economy basis with  the robots producing most of the goods and providing  most of the services with  human beings acting purely as consumers apart from those needed to do whatever jobs robots cannot do or  it is deemed dangerous for them to do. There could also be a peripheral human economy consisting of those producing art or artisan goods for a niche market.

General purpose robots are the most obvious and comprehensive threat to the  economic arrangements of the advanced world, but there are other emerging  technological advances which either already exist as practical tools for general use or will do so in the not too distant future.

3D Printers

A favourite SciFi  invention is the universal replicator, a machine which produces whatever a person wants. We are not there yet but the first significant steps have been made with the 3D printer.

3D printing has the potential to undermine any society based on mass production for high volume  consumption.  If everything can be reduced to an electronic blueprint, in principle anyone can  produce anything. This is  because  3D printers will not only print from ready-made programs. Any object can be scanned and then the scanned information in digital form may be used to print the object.  All that will be required is the requisite printing equipment with the physical materials to create the object required.

This will raise a number of problems for private business, both in terms of what they will be producing and supplying and because of the intellectual property implications.  Imagine a world in which, say, the individual human can produce 75% of the manufactured goods they require simply by printing them.   That is not so far-fetched as it might seem. Consider your own life. What would you think it obviously  impractical for a 3D printer to produce?  Almost certainly a house, quite probably a car.  Perhaps anything large and complicated.

Large is not an insuperable problem even for the present  because  parts  of any object could  be produced with a 3D Printer and then assembled, quite probably by a robot.  A Dutch company DUS Architects are already testing out the proposition that a house could be printed out (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/ultratravel/the-next-big-thing/10110195/The-worlds-first-3D-printed-house.html)

Complexity would not be an absolute  barrier  because a printer could print from the centre to the perimeter or an object.  Using that technique  a complete car could be printed out.  A house would be a stretch because of the problems of foundations,  but it might be possible to print a house in its entirety on foundations created by  humans or robots.  In principle anything could be produced whole provided it was not larger than the capacity of the printer used to print it.

3D printing  has the potential to create immense economic difficulties.  If it was used widely traditional manufacturers would at best find the demand for most of their goods either vanishing altogether or dropping very sharply.  Wholesalers would be rendered unnecessary in great swathes of industry because they only thing they would have to deliver would be a computer programme to the individual 3D printer. Retailers might still have a life as showrooms for the printed product, but it would be a much reduced service because people would probably be more and more content just to view a model on the Web or one printed out by a friend. Perhaps a holographic representation of the article to be printed  would be provided before printing.

Price would also be a consideration. There is good reason to believe that items printed would be cheaper than those made in factories because there would be no overheads beyond the machine’s purchase, its maintenance, the materials used for printing and the energy used. A parallel with 2D printing can be made. It is much cheaper to print text or images on your home printer than give the work to a commercial printer.  There is also the possibility that the materials for creating 3D printed artefacts could be reused, just like  plasticene, over and over again. If  an item was not liked or a  print went wrong there would be only the cost of the energy used to print to be borne.

But 3D printing could go way  beyond the manufactured goods we have now. If anything can be reduced to a computer programme and the correct ingredients by way of the ink substitute created to put into the 3D printer why could not anything physical not be created including food?  Organic material has already been used in 3D printing as we shall see. It might even  be possible in the more distant future to manipulate atoms to create whatever elements are required, just as the  sun causes different elements  to form.

The macro economic effects   of widespread 3D printing would be catastrophic because there would be, as with general purpose robots,  a huge loss of demand  due to a widespread  loss of employment as  industrial, wholesale and retail activity was severely reduced.  A company which makes and  supplies  computer programmes rather than making and supplying physical things is going to need a  tiny workforce  compared to a manufacturer with their  factory or the wholesaler or retailer with their warehouse.

In the beginning when 3D printers are  very expensive less than user-friendly,  there would  be businesses which would set up 3D printing shops  just as there are 2D print shops now.  But the likelihood is that as time goes on and 3D printers become cheap and user-friendly ,  businesses  doing the 3D printing for customers will become defunct or at least very much reduced. In any event such businesses  will  indubitably require far fewer staff than traditional manufactures.

What is it to be human?

3D printers represent an existential  threat as well as an economic one. The reproduction of human parts has already taken its first tentative steps using  3D printers – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/9849212/New-3D-printing-technique-could-speed-up-progress-towards-creation-of-artificial-organs.html)

If it is possible to print a kidney why not a complete human being ?  Assume there is a situation where a complete body could be replicated. Think further and imagine that not only the physical construct of the body can  be replicated but also the  mental element of a person. This might be done by simply replicating a brain with the replication process exactly copying the brain in all its facets, including the brain’s  operational state,  at a point in time so that the resultant artefact would be an exact copy of the original just as a copied computer file is an exact copy of data at a point in time.  Even more removed from the original person would  be a means of reducing  the entire mental construct of a person to a digital representation which could be stored as a computer file and then downloaded into other machines, artificially created bodies  or even other human beings.

That might seem something which is way into the future, but consider the speed with which technology is already advancing, how we have moved from physically huge computers fifty years ago to tiny devices with many times the power of the most advanced  computer made in the 1960s. The temptation to offer a modern version of “It’ll never replace the horse” is strong but equally doomed to ridiculous failure.

Think on two questions:  (1) if  individual humans can be replicated  what is it to be human?   (2) Once everything  can be  reduced to digital data or indeed data in any form, where does reality begin and end? I would suggest only in the concept of things rather than the physical reality of them.

Self-Organising materials

Another future disrupter of  market economies is self-organising materials. Imagine a material which did not have a fixed state but could assume different states to perform different tasks. Such a material could perform as a  wondrously enhanced Swiss Army knife  without the need to have  any permanent specific tools, viz:

 A. System Functionality

We aim to create a system of sand grain sized modules that can form arbitrary structures on demand. Imagine a bag of these intelligent particles. If, for example, one needs a specific type or size of wrench, one communicates this to the bag. The modules contained within first crystallize into a regular structure and then self-disassemble in an organized fashion to form the requested object. One reaches in, grabs the tool, and uses it to accomplish a meaningful task. When one is done with the tool, it goes back into the bag where it disintegrates, and the particles can be reused to form the next tool. Such a system would be immensely useful for an astronaut on an inter-planetary mission or a scientist isolated at the South Pole. Even for the average mechanic or surgeon, the ability to form arbitrary, task-specific, tools would be immensely valuable in inspecting and working in tight spaces.(Self-Disassembling Robots Pebbles: New Results and Ideas for Self-Assembly of 3D Structures (http://groups.csail.mit.edu/drl/wiki/images/5/5d/RobotPebblesWorkshop-GilpinRus-ICRA10.pdf).

This system uses electromagnets and a subtractive system. It begins with a quantity of the grain sized modules and removes those which are not needed for a specific item, just as a sculptor starts with a block of marble and creates by removing material. Unlike a sculpture when the object is no longer required the totality of the grain size modules reforms until it required to form  an object again.

That is self-organising materials as tools, but any object could in principle be so created, even complicated machines. All that would be required is a form of self-organising  material  flexible enough to  translate any  digital map into a real object.

The effect of widespread use of self-organising materials  would mean that much of traditional manufacturing would become unnecessary. That would have serious effects on demand because employment would be substantially reduced.

Intellectual property

The wholesale removal of production and supply by innovations such as 3D printing and self-organising materials have  serious  implications for intellectual property.    If everything is reduced to a digital representation,  where will ownership of ideas and physical  creations lie?  At present it is possible to have patent(s)  in an object, but what if anything can be scanned and  a 3D print made from the scan? Who could claim that a patent had been infringed if the item complained about  was the results of a scan produced by the person making the 3D print?  That would not be the equivalent of someone taking an object or process and simply reproducing it by physically duplicating by an act of copying.   Rather, it would be akin to the situation where someone photographs a painting then mass reproduces the photograph.  There would be no obvious breach of patent  because the copies would be of the photograph taken of the painting not of the painting itself and the creation of a photograph is an act of artistic creation in itself .

In such circumstances patent rights would become effectively null and void.  If there was an attempt to reform patent law to include replication of an original patented design,  however reproduced, if it was identical or even merely  had a large degree of similarity with the scanned object,   it is unlikely that it would be enforceable. That is  because  all any person wishing to replicate an object would have to do to put themselves arguably beyond a patent would be to manipulate the data from the scanned object  to make it other than identical with the original object which was scanned and then argue the changes were sufficient to constitute something different in quality to the scanned original object.   That would be a never ending playground for the lawyers as people squabbled over what constituted a significance similarity.

There would also be an obvious reason why enforcement would fail: the sheer numbers of people copying things, with most of them doing it simply for themselves or at least on a very small scale. The patent holders would be faced with a similar problem to that faced by the creators of digital material such as films or music who still suffer massive breaches of copyright.  Patent holders  would  be overwhelmed by the numbers  of breaches.

There could also be problems over copyright. A person who scanned an object would be creating a digital data map of the object. That would be an original creation. Who would own the copyright of the data map? Presumably the person who scanned it, for the data map they have created is original.  If the data map was then sold to others there would  be a direct conflict between the rights of the patent holder of the scanned object and the rights of the copyright holder who created the data map. How could that be resolved? Frankly I doubt whether it could be in any coherent or effective legal manner. If copyright was legally denied to those who created a data map by scanning, such a law  would almost certainly have general implications for copying anything by any means, even including the copying of a painting by painting a copy.

Disruptive technological advances  do not have to dramatic or completely novel

General purpose robots and self-organising materials  are genuine  novelties in the sense of having no antecedents, but less novel  and exotic  technological advances  also contain threats of social and economic disruption.  Think of the effect that the automation of a single machine dedicated to one general type of  activity might have. An automated sewing machine  meets  that description and there are serious attempts being made to produce one:

Fully Automatic Sewing of Garments Using Micro-Manipulation

FBO – DARPA has provided $1.25 million for Softwear Automation to develop a complete work-cell called a Beta Unit for fully automated sewing. That includes a numerically controlled sewing machine that tracks fabric movement by observing passing threads and under servo control moves the fabric under the needle stitch by stitch. Complete production facilities that produce garments with zero direct labor is the ultimate goal.

The military’s annual clothing budget at $4 billion dollars and employs about 50,000 people.

The US annual import of sewn items is approximately $100 Billion per year.

The technology proposed appears to allow cutting and sewing at costs LESS THAN in China. There is only one basic innovation required; that the metric of motion should not be meters or inches but rather thread count in the fill and warp directions. (Wovens and leather like materials need a slightly different measure.) This leads to THREE fundamental technical issues that have largely been solved and discussed below as well as more routine engineering development.

“The automation process proposed by Dickerson works something like this. First, an “overhead, pick-and-place robot” grabs the necessary pieces of fabric and places them at the head of a sewing machine. The appliance itself would be equipped with “machine vision” capabilities, specific enough to spot and track individual fabric threads. That intel would “provide fabric location information” to actuators that operate the sewing machine’s needle and thread, and “budgers” — motorized balls, underneath the sewing machine that latch onto the fabric via vacuum seal — that move the material to and fro.”  http://nextbigfuture.com/2012/06/fully-automatic-sewing-of-garments.html

If such a machine is invented much of the emerging economies of the developing world would be lost  because of their  very heavy reliance on producing clothes. And that is just one machine. Other basic manufacturing processes currently relying on cheap labour in places such as China and  India  could be and almost certainly will be invented.

What should be done?

Governments should be considering  the implications of any disruptive new technology and planning to deal with the problems they create, for example, by deciding now whether to ban or restrict the use of general purpose robots or to rejig the way a society produces goods and provides services, rather than wait for the reality of the new  technology to be upon us.

Dispiritingly,  governments  are, with the notable exceptions of GM foods and alleged man-made climate change,  ignoring the potential  dangers technology can  present.  In most instances the potential dangers are not even part of the  mainstream political discourse, not least because  there are no powerful and well funded  interest groups lobbying  about technologies such as robotics.

The irony is that GM foods and man-made climate change either present no proven danger (GM foods) or have no proven foundation (man-made climate change),  while dangers posed by technologies such as  general purpose robots and  3D printing contain  very real and obvious dangers

Why do GM foods and man-made climate change appeal to many while  fears over technologies such as robotics and 3D printing lack a  public voice? Probably because digital technology has become so much a part of our lives.   Most people simply think of the idea of robots and 3D printing as simply a development of what they already use and increasingly interact with on a quasi-human level.  Green issues are set apart from such everyday experience.   There is also probably an element of people thinking they will be treated as SF addicts at best and  unbalanced at worst if they start  raising fears about robots, 3D printers  and suchlike. They should put aside their fears of being embarrassed and think about the practical  implications of such technologies.

Book review – The Liberal Delusion

John Marsh, Arena Books, £12.99
Robert Henderson
“Is Western society based on a mistake?” asks John Marsh in his introduction. The possible mistake he considers is whether liberals have a disastrously wrong concept of what human beings are and what determines their behaviour  which leads them to favour policies that are radically out of kilter with the way human beings are equipped by their biology to live.
It is not that liberals do not believe in human nature as is often claimed. It can seem that they do  because they insist that nurture not nature is the entire font of human behaviour and consequently it is just a matter of creating the right social conditions to produce the type of people and society the liberal has as their ideal. But liberals balance this rationale on a belief that humans are naturally good, an idea which itself assumes innate qualities. Hence, they believe in an innate human nature but not one which bears any resemblance to reality.
The belief that disagreeable aspects of human nature do not exist and that all human beings are innately good is a product of the Enlightenment, where it took its most extreme and ridiculous  form in the concept of the ‘noble savage’. Marsh will have none of it. He debunks the idea thoroughly. He sees human beings as not naturally wholly good or bad but the product of natural selection working on the basic behaviours of humans. In this opinion he leans heavily on the Canadian-born evolutionary biologist Steven Pinker who in his The Blank Slate dismisses the idea of the noble savage with a robust
A thoroughly noble anything is an unlikely product of natural selection, because noble guys tend to finish last. Nice guys get eaten
If there is no rational reason why anyone should  think that human beings are innately good , why do so many, especially of amongst the elite, fall for the idea? Marsh attributes the phenomenon to the idea being emotionally attractive. There is plentiful evidence for this. One of the pleasures of the book is its first rate line in quotes, many of which are staggering in their naivety. He cites the grand  panjandrum of atheism and a fervent believer  in innate human goodness Richard Dawkins as writing in The God Delusion
I dearly want to believe we don’t need policing – whether by God or each other – in order to stop us behaving in a selfish or criminal manner
So much for Dawkins’ scientific rationality.

A religious realist – Baltasar Gracian, author of the Art of Worldly Wisdom
Or take the case of A. S. Neill, founder of  the famous or infamous (depending on your politics) Summerhill School, which did not require anything in particular from its pupils:
I cannot believe that evil is inborn or that there is original sin…. We set out to make a school where children were free to be themselves. In order to do this we had to renounce all discipline, all direction, all suggestion, all moral training, all religious instruction…We had a complete belief in the child as a good, not an evil being. For over forty years this belief in the goodness of the child has not wavered
That is a quasi-religious statement no different from a Catholic saying they believe in the Trinity.
In the first half of the book Marsh questions and finds wanting in varying degrees just about everything the modern liberal holds dear: that human nature is good and rational and formed by nurture alone, that freedom is the primary end sought by humans, that morality is a set of shackles rather than a safety catch on human behaviour, that science is an unalloyed good, that religion is no more than harmful fairy stories; that a county’s history and customs are at best unimportant and at worst a malevolent means of maintaining an undesirable status quo, that economics should be determined by the market, that universalism and multiculturalism are unquestionably desirable, equality is always beneficial, and the idea that the individual has primacy over the group.
Some of these liberal ‘goods’ are contradictory, for example, the clash between equality and the individual. To enforce equality inevitably means impinging on the wishes of individuals. Doubtless a liberal would argue that the individual should only have their wishes met insofar as they do not impinge upon the wishes of others. In practice that means a great deal of coercion to prevent individuals satisfying their own wishes, and often such coercion occurs where individuals have perfectly reasonable and moral wishes which cannot be satisfied at the same time. For example, two sets of parents may want to send their children to the same school where there is only room for one child.
There are also heavy question marks over whether modern liberals actually believe in individual freedom. The idea that human beings should and can be manipulated into behaving in a certain way by producing social circumstances which engender the desired behaviour is determinist. Where is the freedom if human beings are seen merely as automata responding to the stimuli of their circumstances? Nor is the ‘freedom’ liberals are supposed to espouse a general freedom. The individual in modern Britain may be free to drink what they can afford to buy, or be as sexually promiscuous as they choose, but they are not allowed any freedom of speech which attacks the core values of political correctness. Who would have thought even twenty years ago that English men and women would be appearing in the dock for saying things which went against the politically correct ethos, but that is precisely what is happening with increasing frequency.
It is also arguable that the modern liberal is interested not in individuals but groups. It is true that human ‘rights’ are exalted by liberals, but these are not really individual rights but communal ones. For example, a law which grants free expression or insists on due process is an individual right because it applies in principle to all. Conversely, if (for instance) ‘hate speech’ is made illegal, this is a de facto communal right given to particular groups, because in practice certain groups enjoy much greater protection than others, for the police and prosecuting authorities are not even-handed in their application of the law.
The second part of the book is devoted to the morally disreputable means by which liberals have propagated their beliefs. Marsh is unforgiving about this aspect of liberalism. It involves persistent dishonesty when dealing with evidence which contradicts their world view. The dishonesty consists of both calling black white and conscientiously ignoring and suppressing that which contradicts the liberal world view. In the case of Britain he singles out the BBC as being hopelessly biased towards the liberal left world view, with a particularly strong line in Anglophobia, something he illustrates by citing the BBC’s After Rome, a programme which painted Dark Ages Islam as a vibrant civilisation and Dark Ages England as primitive and barbaric (p152).
The author laments the fact that liberals have generally been silent on the abuses of Communist regimes whilst engaged in a never ending raking over of Nazi malevolence. He cites as a rare and most honourable leftist exception Malcolm Muggeridge, who exposed the Stalin-inspired Ukrainian famine and searingly described the all too many useful idiots of the British liberal left at the time:
Travelling with radiant optimism through a famished countryside, wandering in happy bands about squalid overcrowded towns, listening with unshaken faith to the fatuous patter of carefully indoctrinated guides, repeating the bogus statistics and mindless slogans – all chanting the praises of Stalin and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (p138)
There is a further problem which Marsh spends a good deal of time examining. It is not clear exactly what constitutes the modern liberal. Many of the most enthusiastic enforcers of what we now call  political correctness do not call themselves liberals, but are members of the hard left or  representatives of ethnic and racial minorities who see political correctness not as a moral corrective but as an instrument to promote their individual and ethnic group advantage, often with the greatest cruelty. Nor is this simply a modern phenomenon for it has been happening since the 18th century.
Marsh patiently records atrocities in gruesome detail generated by those following secular and rationalistic systems of thought deriving from the ideas of Enlightenment, from the grotesque slaughter of the French Revolution to the insanities of various communist and fascist regimes in the 20th century. This is a truly depressing catalogue not merely of murder on a colossal scale but murder committed with atrocious cruelty. His tale of atrocity begins with the suppression of the Vendée rebellion by Republicans during the French Revolution, where men were castrated before death and women killed by explosives detonated within their vaginas, to the madness of Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” which rode on slogans such as “smash the old culture“ and the terrible promise of the Red  Guards that “We will be brutal”.
Marsh’s judgement of liberalism both in its beliefs and the practical consequences of its implementation verges on the despairing:
To sum up: in the past there were positive aspects to liberalism, but at its core lies a deeply flawed attempt to impose a romantic, but unrealistic, view of human nature on society. Because it is fundamentally untrue, lies, bullying and coercion are needed to impose it, and opponents must be silenced. Because its view of mankind is idealistic, its devotees think it must be true, and are strongly committed to it. It is congenial to people who are well-meaning and who have a naïve rose-tinted view of the world, which avoids dwelling too much on the ugly side of life, like the single mum in a tower block in Tottenham, trying to keep her children safe and worrying about gangs and knife crime. It is in denial of the fact that many aspects of life are worse today than in the past. Liberals cling to their views, ignoring the evidence of science, psychology, anthropology, history and social workers. It is a blind faith in a Utopian project , which blithely dismisses reality and regards its opponents as prejudiced. There is nothing to discuss because we are right. Sadly, for its devotees, truth will out in the end. The experiment was foredoomed from the start (p171)
Damning as that judgement is, I think Marsh is being rather too generous to liberals (especially the modern ones) when he credits them with being generally well-meaning. They are ideologues. That makes them dangerous, because any ideology removes personal choice in moral decision making as the mind becomes concentrated on fitting the ideology to circumstance rather than addressing each circumstance pragmatically. As Marsh points out, it also gives the individuals captured by the ideology an excuse to behave immorally in the enforcement of the ideology on the principle that ends justify means. That is particularly so with ideologies which are what might be called millenarian in their psychology, with a promised land at the end of the ideological road. Political correctness is of this type.
Once someone has accepted the validity of ends justifying means and they know or even suspect  that the means will cause harm, that removes any claim to being well intentioned because their final end good intentions are swallowed by the immoral means. Nor can any ideologue, liberals included, rationally have any confidence that a great upheaval of a society will result in their desired ideological ends. What history tells us is that tyranny or chaos are invariably the results of such attempts.
There is also a tremendous arrogance in assuming that it is possible to define what is desirable human behaviour and what is a good society. Liberals may imagine that what they purport to be the ultimate human goods – non-discrimination, equality and the primacy of any individual are objectively what they claim – but in reality they are both no more than value judgements and highly questionable in terms of their outcomes. Modern liberals, or at least the true believers, are really just another set of self-serving egotists who think they know how others should live.
There is a looming leviathan throughout the book that is largely ignored, namely mass immigration and its consequences. Marsh to his credit does mention immigration as a problem, both in terms of weakening British identity and causing resentment amongst the native white population, but it does not feature in more than a peripheral way. Marsh never really asks the question “how much of the change in general British behaviour and the nature of British society in the past fifty years is due to mass immigration?” The answer is arguably a great deal, because multiculturalism and ‘anti-racism’ have been used as levers to promote the ‘anti-discrimination’ and ‘equality’ agendas across the board.
In the end Marsh stumbles in his task of debunking modern liberalism, because he is reluctant to face the full implications of what he is saying. In his introduction he writes,
So is this book a straight-forward attack on liberalism? No. It is not as simple as that. There are some areas in which I believe liberals are right. I acknowledge that some liberalism is necessary and beneficial. Few would want to go back to the restrictions of the Victorian era or live under a despot. There was also a need to free us from a negative attitude towards sex. Liberals are right to be concerned about inequality and to fight for social justice. There still remain great inequalities and their campaign for greater fairness deserves support. I welcome the undermining of the class system, the greater opportunities open to women and the improved treatment of racial and sexual minorities – the decriminalisation of homosexuality
He cannot quite bring himself to go all the way and see modern liberalism for what it is, a pernicious system increasingly aimed at suppressing the resentment and anger of the native British population as the consequences of mass immigration become ever more obvious and pressing. Clearly he agrees with much of the central politically correct agenda, but it is precisely that agenda which has created the present situation and it is difficult to see how such an ideology could ever have resulted in any other outcome once it became the guiding ideology of the elite – because the ends of political correctness run directly against human nature and can only be enforced.
Marsh’s sympathy with political correctness leads him wittingly or unwittingly to risk having his  argument distorted by concentrating not on the whole but a part of British society and treating that part as representative of Britain. Take the question of liberalism undermining the poor by making them dependent on the state and denying them moral guidance at home and in school. Marsh uses an interview with the youth worker Shaun Bailey (chapter 11) who works in a poor area of  London. The problem is that Bailey is black and this colours his interpretation of what is happening. He looks at the experience of blacks and treats that experience as representative of the poor generally, which it is not. For example, poor white Britons may have a greater incidence of one-parent homes and fathers deserting mothers now than previously, but the incidence of these behaviours amongst poor whites is much lower than it is amongst poor blacks, whether British born or  immigrants. Yet Bailey’s views are represented as being generally applicable to British society.
Despite these caveats, I strongly urge people to read the book. The Liberal Delusion is important because it succinctly performs the task of pointing out that the liberal emperor has no clothes or at least very tattered and insufficient ones. That is something which is sorely needed. The book’s value is enhanced by being  written in a lively and easily accessible style. Just read it with an understanding of the limitations imposed by Marsh’s residual, almost subliminal, hankering after the core values of political correctness.
First published in The Quarterly Review

http://www.quarterly-review.org/?p=1790

See also The Liberal Bigot

The EU: Making the going good for getting Out

ROBERT HENDERSON  suggests some ways in which the No side can maximize its chances of winning the referendum on EU membership

Amidst all the confusion and excitement of bringing about a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, it is easy to forget that there are considerable risks associated with the vote. The government will almost certainly campaign to stay in, as will the Labour Party, and many institutions, lobby groups, media groups, foreign governments, and influential individuals. Public opinion, although hardening towards leaving, is fickle and cannot be relied upon. A decision to stay in would probably destroy the UKIP, and would also seriously undermine Conservative Eurosceptics. It is therefore essential that we should think about the likely shape of the campaign, and how we who believe in leaving can improve the odds.

The general strategy

A) How to leave

Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty states

1. Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.

2. A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention. In the light of the guidelines provided by the European Council, the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union. That agreement shall be negotiated in accordance with Article 218(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. It shall be concluded on behalf of the Union by the Council, acting by a qualified majority, after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament.

3. The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.

4. For the purposes of paragraphs 2 and 3, the member of the European Council or of the Council representing the withdrawing Member State shall not participate in the discussions of the European Council or Council or in decisions concerning it.

A qualified majority shall be defined in accordance with Article 238(3)(b) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

5. If a State which has withdrawn from the Union asks to rejoin, its request shall be subject to the procedure referred to in Article 49. (http://www.lisbon-treaty.org/wcm/the-lisbon-treaty/treaty-on-european-union-and-comments/title-6-final-provisions/137-article-50.html).

It is strongly implied in in  para 3 of  the Article that unilateral withdrawal is possible :

“ The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2”.

However, the clause does not explicitly  give the right of unilateral secession and could be interpreted as merely referring to how any agreement might be scheduled to take effect. The other EU members could adopt this interpretation to thwart the UK leaving without declaring UDI.

The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties cites two legitimate  instances where a party wants to withdraw unilaterally from a treaty which does not make any provision for withdrawal : (1) where all parties recognise an informal right to do so or  (2) the situation has changed so substantially  that the obligations of a signatory are radically different from that which was originally agreed to.   The informal right patently does not apply in the case of the EU. As for radical changes to the obligations of a signatory, that would be difficult to sustain. It is true that the organisation (the EU) the UK belongs to now is radically different from that which they originally joined in 1973 (the EEC), but the  UK has signed  new treaties to agree to the new circumstances as they have arisen.  Hence, there would be no radically changed obligations which had not been taken on formally by the UK.

The only precedent  of any sort for withdrawal is Greenland’s  secession  in 1985 from the European Economic Community (EEC).  The was facilitated by the Greenland Treaty. However, it is not  an obviously relevant precedent because Greenlanders retain Danish citizenship for  Greenland has home rule not full independence from Denmark. They are consequently full  EU citizens.  Because Greenland is also one of the  Overseas Countries and Territories of the EU it  is also subject to some EU law and regulations, mainly those relating to the Single Market. .

Even if it is accepted by the other EU members  that there is a unilateral right of secession,  the fact that it  could only  take place legally after two years would give the remainder  of the EU the opportunity to run the UK ragged before the UK left.

As for getting an agreement which would allow the UK to generally re-establish its sovereignty, especially over the control of its borders, this is most improbable.  A  Qualified Majority in the European Council  is required  and even if such a majority is obtained the European Parliament can block the secession. The potential for delay and blackmail by the EU of the UK is considerable.

In any event it is likely is that the EU would  drive a bargain which is greatly to  the UK’s disadvantage because the  Eurofederalists would be terrified of creating a precedent for any other EU member which might wish to radically change their relationship with the EU.  That would make them demand conditions of the UK which were so unappealing it would deter other member states from following suit. There is also  the danger that  the Europhile UK political elite  would take the opportunity to agree to disadvantageous terms for the UK simply to keep the UK attached to the EU in the manner that Norway and Switzerland are attached. The treaty arrangements of  Norway and Switzerland  are routinely portrayed  by supposed  Eurosceptics  as purely trade relationships. They are not. Both countries are firmly within the EU straitjacket. Indeed, the Europhile BBC  ran a story in 2012 entitled Non-EU Norway ‘almost as integrated in union as UK ‘ (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-16594370). As for Switzerland, a glance at their treaty arrangements will show their close EU embrace http://www.europa.admin.ch/themen/00500/index.html?lang=en.  Most importantly they have no control of immigration from the EU . If the UK signed up to the Single Market after formally leaving the EU  we should be in the same boat.

The OUT camp must make it clear that  it would be both damaging and unnecessary for the UK to abide treaty requirement. Even if the UK did not try to sign up to  the Single Market, it would allow the EU to inflict considerable damage on the UK both during the period prior to formally  leaving and afterwards if  the price of leaving with the EU’s agreement was  for  UK to sign up to various obligations – for example, to continue paying a large annual sum to the EU for ten years.

There is also the danger that the stay-in camp could use Article 50 to argue that whether the British people want to be in or out, the cost of leaving would be too heavy because of this treaty requirement.

The Gordian knot of Article 50 can be cut simply by passing an Act of Parliament repealing all the treaties that refer to the EU from the Treaty of Rome onwards. No major UK party could  object to this because all three have, at one time or another,  declared that Parliament remains supreme and can repudiate anything the EU does if it so chooses.

If the stay-in camp argue that would be illegal because of the treaty obligation, the OUT camp should simply emphasise (1) that international law is no law because there is no means of enforcing it within its jurisdiction if a state rejects it and (2) that treaties which do not allow for contracting parties to simply withdraw are profoundly undemocratic because they bind future governments.

The OUT camp should press the major political parties to commit themselves to ignoring Article 50. If a party refuses that can be used against them because it will make them look suspicious.

Before the vote

B) The parties’ plans of action if there is a vote to leave

It is important that all the parties likely to have seats in the Commons after the next election are publicly and relentlessly pressed to give at least a broad outline of what action they would adopt in the event of a vote to leave. Left with a free hand there is a serious danger that whatever British  government is  in charge after a vote to leave would attempt to bind the UK back into the EU by stealth by signing the UK up to agreements such as those the EU has with Norway and Switzerland which mean that they have to (1) pay a fee to the EU annually, (2) adopt the social legislation which comes from the EU and (3) most importantly agree to the four “freedoms” of the EU – the free movement of goods, services, capital and  labour throughout not merely the EU but the wider European Economic Area (EEA).

It is probable that the Westminster parties will all resist this, but that would present them with two problems. First, a refusal to do so would make them seem untrustworthy; second, if one party laid out their position but the others did not, that would potentially give the party which did say what it would do a considerable advantage over the others which did not. If no party puts its plans before the public before the referendum, there should be demands  from those who want the UK to leave the EU that  any new treaties with the EU must be put to a referendum and, if they are rejected, the UK will simply trade with the EU under the WTO rules.

C) Repudiate re-negotiation before the referendum

Supporting the negotiation of a new relationship between the UK and the EU before a referendum is mistaken, because it would seem to many to be giving tacit approval for renegotiation and legitimize the possibility of the UK remaining within the EU. It is also rash, because  the likelihood  of the EU giving nothing is very small. Indeed, they might well give something substantial, because the UK leaving the EU would be a very great blow to the organisation. The UK is the country with the second largest population within the EU with, depending on how it is measured, the second or third largest  economy and the country which pays the second largest contribution to the EU budget. For the EU to lose the UK would not only be a blow in itself, it would also create a very strong precedent for every other EU state, especially the largest ones. If  the UK left and prospered, the temptation would be for other EU states to leave.

If the EU offered  a big carrot such as the abolition of benefits  for migrants to the UK  from the rest of the EU until they had lived in Britain for ten years, that could  seriously  undermine the resolve of those wanting the UK to leave the EU because it would dovetail with British fears of mass immigration from the EU and the mainstream media representation of the immigration  problem as being essentially a welfare problem. The Europhiles would then be able to represent the immigration threat as no longer a threat as they bleated their  mantra “the only immigrants will be those who are working and paying their taxes”.  That would be difficult for any mainstream British politician or party to counter because they have all be peddling the line of welcoming “hard working immigrants” for years.

But even if negotiation produced nothing of substance, as happened with Harold Wilson’s “renegotiation” of 1975, it would be a mistake to imagine that it would not influence the referendum result. The electorate is divided between the resolute come outs, the resolute stay-ins and the wavering middle. A claim by the stay-in campaigners that something had been conceded by the EU, however  insignificant, would provide the waverers with an excuse to vote to stay in because they could convince themselves they were voting for change. If the EU were to offer nothing, waverers might see this as evidence that the EU was too powerful to oppose.

Those who want the UK to leave should unambiguously put the case for no renegotiation. Dismiss anything Cameron (or any other PM) brings back from the EU by way of altered terms as being irrelevant because the EU has a long record of agreeing things with  the UK and then finding ways of sabotaging what was agreed. In addition, a future British government may agree to alter any terms offered at the time of the referendum. The classic example of this changing of agreed terms happening in the past is Tony Blair’s giving up of a substantial amount of the Thatcher rebate in return for a promised reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), a promise which was never met. That episode produced my all-time favourite amongst Blair’s penchant for lying. Two days before he went to the EU meeting at which he  gave away a substantial part of the rebate he declared during Prime Minister’s Questions that the rebate was “non-negotiable – period”.

It is difficult to envisage any British prime minister not trying to  negotiate with the EU before a referendum, but it might just  happen if whoever is in power when the referendum is announced were to be told privately by the  major EU players that nothing will be given and the prime minister of the day concludes it would be best to pretend that a decision had been made not to negotiate rather than risk the humiliation of getting nothing, perhaps not even a pretence of negotiation before nothing is given. Why would the EU do this? They might calculate that it would be a gamble worth taking to send a British PM away with nothing, whilst hoping the referendum vote would be to stay in because then the power of the UK to resist further integration would be shot.

If the EU offers nothing, the OUT camp should welcome the fact and stress to the public that if the referendum is to stay in,  the EU could force any federalist measure through because not only would any British government be much weakened in its opposition to more federalism, the UK political class as a whole would more than willing to go along with it because of their ideological commitment to the EU.

D) After the vote

Ideally the government which deals with the EU after a vote to leave will have committed themselves to a plan of action before the referendum vote.  However, as described above, it is quite possible that this will not happen because  the UK’s overwhelmingly Europhile political class will try to re-entangle the UK with the EU. To prevent them doing so there should be a concerted campaign after the vote to ensure that the British public understands what is being done on their behalf with a demand for a further referendum to agree any new treaty.

The terms of the debate

It is essential that the Europhiles are not allowed to make the debate revolve around economics. If they do it will effectively stifle meaningful debate. As anyone who has ever tried to present economic ideas to an audience of the general public will know it is a soul-destroying experience. Take the question of how much of UK trade is with the EU. The debate will begin with the stay-in camp saying something like 45% of UK trade is with the EU. Those wanting to leave the EU will respond by saying it is probably less than 40% because of the Rotterdam/Antwerp effect. They will then be forced to explain what the Rotterdam/Amsterdam effect is. That is the point where the general public’s concentration is lost and the debate ends up proving nothing to most of the audience.

But although nothing is proved to the general audience by detailed economic argument, the audience will remember  certain phrases which have considerable  traction. In amongst the serious debating on the issue of trade there will be phrases such as three million jobs in Britain rely on the EU and dire threats about how the EU will simply not buy British goods and services any more. This is nonsense, but fear is not rational, and many of those who vote will enter the voting chamber with fear of losing their jobs  in their heads regardless of what the OUT camp says if the debate is predominantly about economics. Shift the debate away from economics and the fear-inducing phrases will be heard less often.

National sovereignty

How should those wanting to leave the EU shift the focus of debate? They should put the matter which is really at the core of the UK’s  relationship with the EU  – national sovereignty – at the front of the  OUT camp’s referendum campaign. Campaign under a slogan such as Are we to be masters in our own house?

Making national sovereignty the primary campaigning issue has the great advantage of  it being something that anyone can understand because it is both a simple concept and speaks directly to the natural tribal instincts of  human beings.   Being a simple concept readily  and naturally understood,   it is a far more potent debating tool than arguments attempting to refute the economic  arguments  beloved of the stay-in camp.  The fact that the natural tribal instincts have been suppressed for so long in the UK will increase its potency because most people will feel a sense of release when it begins to be catered for in public debate.

The appeal to national sovereignty has a further advantage. Those who support the EU are unused to debating on that ground. That is because uncritical support for the EU has long been the position of both the British mainstream political class as a class and of the mass media. That has meant that the contrary voice – that which wishes Britain to be independent – has been largely unheard in public debate for thirty years or more. Where it has been heard, the response of the pro-EU majority has not been rational argument but abuse, ranging from patronising dismissal of a wish for sovereignty as an outmoded nationalism to accusations that national sovereignty amounts to xenophobia or even racism. These tactics – of excluding those who want to leave the EU from public debate and abuse substituted for argument – will no longer be available to the  pro EU lobby.

Immigration

The most threatening and energising subject relating to the EU for the general public is immigration. The public are right to identify this as the most important aspect of our membership of the EU because immigration touches every important part of British life: jobs, housing, education, welfare, healthcare, transport, free expression  and crime besides radically changing the nature of parts of  the UK which now have large populations of immigrants and their descendants.

The public rhetoric of mainstream politicians and the media is changing fast as they begin to realise both what an electoral liability a de facto open door immigration policy is, as the effects of mass immigration become ever more glaring. The argument is shifting from the economic to the cultural.  For example, here is the Daily Telegraph in a leader of 25 March:

“The fact is that, for many in Britain (especially those outside the middle classes), it is not just a matter of jobs being taken or public services being stretched, but of changes in the very character of communities. Those changes may not necessarily be for the worse: as the Prime Minister says, Britain’s culture has long been enriched by the contributions of new arrivals. But as long as ministers treat immigration as a matter of profit and loss, rather than the cause of often wrenching social change, they will never be able fully to address the grievances it causes.” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/telegraph-view/9952717/Immigration-and-the-limits-of-the-possible.html)

This new frankness in public debate means that the OUT camp can use the immigration argument freely, provided they keep the language within the confines of formal politeness. The subject will naturally dovetail with the emphasis on national sovereignty because the most important aspect of sovereignty is the ability to control the borders of the territory of a state.  Judged by their increasing willingness to talk publicly about immigration, it is probable that the mainstream UK parties will be content to go along with  ever more frank discussion about immigration.

The economic argument must be kept simple

It will not be possible to avoid  economic arguments entirely. The OUT camp should concentrate on repeating these two facts:

The disadvantageous balance of payments deficit the UK has with the EU

The amount the UK pays to the EU

Those are the most solid economic figures relating to the EU. There is some fuzziness around the edges of the balance of payments deficit because of the question of where all the imports end up (whether in the EU or outside the EU through re-exporting), while the amount the EU receives is solid but it has to be broken down into the money which returns to the UK and the amount retained by Brussels. Nonetheless these are the most certain  figures and the least susceptible to obfuscation by the stay-in side.

The best way of presenting the money paid to the EU is simply to say that outside the EU we can decide how all of it is spent in this country and to illustrate what the money saved by not paying it to the EU would pay for.

It will also be necessary to address the question of protectionist measures the EU might take against the UK if the  vote was to leave. It is improbable that the EU would place heavy protectionist barriers on UK exports because:

1. The massive balance of payment deficit between the UK and the rest of the EU, which is massively in the EU’s favour.

2.  Although the rest of the EU dwarfs the UK economy, much UK trade with the EU is heavily concentrated in certain regions of the EU. The effect of protectionist barriers would  bear very heavily on these places.

3. There are strategically and economically important joint projects of which the UK is a major part, like Airbus and the Joint-Strike Fighter.

4. The Republic of Ireland would be a massive bargaining chip for  the UK to play. If the UK left and the EU rump attempted to impose sanctions against Britain this would cripple the RoI because so much of their trade is with the UK. The EU would be forced to subsidise the RoI massively if protectionist barriers against the UK were imposed. The EU could not exempt the RoI from the sanctions because that would leave the EU open to British exports being funnelled through the Republic.

5. The EU would be bound by the World Trade Organisation’s restrictions on protectionist measures.

The economic issues which are not worth pursuing in detail are those relating to how much the EU costs Britain in terms of EU-inspired legislation. It may well be that these load billions a year of extra costs  onto the UK  but they are not certain or easily evaluated costs, not least because we cannot in the nature of things know what burdens an independent UK would impose off its own bat.

Getting into detailed discussions about such things will simply play into the hands of  the stay-in camp because it will eat up the time and space available to those promoting the OUT cause.

Other issues

Apart from the economic questions, the stay-in camp will use these reasons for staying in:

That the EU has prevented war in Western Europe since 1945. This can be simply refuted by pointing out that the EU was not formed until  twelve years after WW2; that until 1973 the EU consisted of only six countries, three of them small,  and  of only nine countries until the 1980s. Consequently it would be reasonable to look for other reasons for  the lack of war. The two causes of the peace in Western Europe have been the NATO alliance and the invention of nuclear weapons which make the price of war extraordinarily high.

That nation states such as the UK are too small to carry any real diplomatic weight in modern world. That begs the question of whether it is an advantageous thing to carry such weight – it can get a country into disastrous foreign entanglements such as Iraq and Afghanistan – but even assuming it is advantageous, many much smaller countries than the UK survive very nicely, making their own bilateral agreements with other states large and small. It is also worth remembering that the UK has such levers as a permanent seat on the UN Security  Council (which allows the UK to veto any proposed move by the UN) and considerable influence in institutions such as the IMF and World Bank.

ROBERT HENDERSON is a London-based freelance writer

 

Originally published in the Quarterly Review

Published in http://www.quarterly-review.org/?p=1737

Margaret Thatcher and the cult of personality

Robert Henderson

Two Cults

Margaret Thatcher was the subject of a cult of personality. This was not the result of calculated  propaganda, but simply the creation of her extraordinary personality. Because the cult of personality developed not in a totalitarian state but a country where public opposition was possible, there were two cults of personality attached to her in a relationship which mimicked the matter/antimatter duality. These were the Thatcherite religious believers fulfilling the role of matter and the Thatcher-hating Left  acting as the antimatter.

Both the matter and the antimatter Thatcher cults were  potent.  The religious believers  bowed down before the great god MARKET (and Thatcher was his prophet) and, when things  went wrong,  did what all religious believers do until they lose their faith, denied reality by simply pretending something had not happened or by giving a calamity some  absurd spin to ”prove” the god had not failed.

For the Thatcher-hating Left she was the personification of the Devil and consequently credited with all manner of evil,  but, as is the way with personifications of the Devil, never portrayed as anything but powerful, a being possessed of a political juju (doubtless ensconced in her handbag) which could wreak any degree of havoc  with all that the Left held dear is if she so chose.   Like all those who believe in evil spirits the Thatcher-hating Left ascribed every act of ill fortune to her.

The attitude of both bands of cult followers was essentially superstitious, attributing powers to the woman which she did not, and often could not,  have.  The religious Thatcherites imagined she could  speak the spells which would miraculously convert Britain from a  country making silly old fashioned things such as steel, ships and cars and mining coal to a country stuffed to the gunnels with entrepreneurs creating new non-unionised service industries; the Left saw her as a witch practising black magic to contaminate and transmogrify the world they knew.

Because the Thatcherite religious believers  and her leftist haters  could not and still cannot see past the woman’s   gigantic political personality,  they made and continue to make the same mistake, namely, seeing the two cult figures as the reality while ignoring  her actual policies and their outcomes.

The reality of Thatcher

The reality of Thatcher is that objectively she achieved little if any of her wishes. It is a bitter irony for the woman (and Thatcherites generally)  that her policies were of a nature which  undermined the  ends  she espoused.  Perhaps the prime example is Thatcher’s  avowed wish to see a strong and wealthy Britain  whilst creating through her  commitment to laissez faire economics the very circumstances that would weaken the country. Under her economic regimen and its lingering aftermath ever since Britain  has become ever less self-sufficient in strategically important economic activity such as the production of  food and energy  and vast swathes of British business were  either bought up by foreigners or ceased to operate from Britain because of offshoring and the absence of government action to protect our own economy.   She simply did not understand that you could not have laissez  faire in both the domestic and international economic sphere and have a strong nation state.   Had Thatcher  known any economic history she would have realised that, but even without such knowledge  common prudence should have told her that a country which is dependent on others for necessary goods and services is a weak country.  Moreover, one of her claimed tutelary heroes Adam Smith readily understood there are things which are either strategically important such as armaments or social goods which are  never going to be supplied universally by private enterprise such as roads.  Thatcher never gave any indication of realising that Smith was not the unrelenting free marketer of her imagination.

Thatcher’s  failures in making policy to  achieve her ends were legion. She  destroyed much of British heavy industry in the belief that those made unemployed would rapidly be re-employed in private sector jobs. The new jobs did not materialise and she was reduced to presiding over massive and long lasting unemployment  which she funded with North Sea oil and gas tax revenue and the receipts from privatisation, whilst fiddling the unemployment figures shamelessly. She sold off state owned  services  (which belonged to the community as a whole not to the government)  in the belief that service would  be improved . It was  not. Instead vital services such as the railways and the provision of energy and water became ever more expensive whilst providing poorer service and less employment. She introduced so-called private business methods into the NHS and higher education in the belief that they would become more efficient. The result was massive increases in  bureaucracy and an ever climbing  cost of  both the  NHS and higher education and a substitution of the pursuit of  money for the public service ethos because money was attached to individual patients and students. She introduced the Community Charge or “Poll Tax” in the belief that it would be fairer than the old domestic rates. The result was widespread unfairness because it took no account of an individual’s means  and  provoked the nearest thing to a national movement dedicated to the non-payment of taxes known in modern times.  She raged against  EU interference in British affairs but signed up Britain to the Single European Act (SEA)  in the belief that it would create a genuine single market within the EEC.  It  did not create such a market and merely presented the EEC with an open goal for ever more audacious sovereignty grabs.  A supposed opponent of further mass immigration, her signing of the SEA also opened the door to free movement within the EU, a situation worsened by her strategy of dramatically widening the EEC.  She signed Britain up to the  She embraced “Care in the Community” for the mentally ill or disabled on the grounds that it was more humane than keeping  such people in long-stay institutions. The result was thousands of people left to largely fend for themselves in the outside world who were quite incapable of doing so. She sold off great swathes of social housing (which belonged to the community as a whole not to government) to tenants in the belief that this would result in a “property owning democracy” whilst more or less ending the building of new  social housing.  The eventual result was the growing housing emergency we have today. She instigated the disastrous “light touch”  regulation of the financial services  industry by abolishing credit controls and  failing to meaningfully regulate the  industry meaningfully after “Big Bang”  in 1986  which  effectively de-regulated the London Stock Exchange to bring in a brave new world of free trading (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/financialcrisis/8850654/Was-the-Big-Bang-good-for-the-City-of-London-and-Britain.html)  with the dire results with which we are now living.

Even in the few areas where she was ultimately successful such as the Falkland’s War she was at best negligent in ignoring warnings from the Foreign Office of a growing threat to the Falklands  in the months leading up to the invasion and even after the expeditionary force had been dispatched  she agreed to a US organised plan which would have not offered the Islanders either self determination of or any meaningful security (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/margaret-thatcher/10008116/Margaret-Thatcher-how-she-took-on-the-men-and-won.html).

There were also acts of omission and collusion with policies with which she supposedly fundamentally  disagreed.  Most importantly, Thatcher failed utterly to carry her strong views against further mass immigration into her period in office. Not only that but, as already mentioned,  she made things much worse on that front by signing up to the Single European Act. She agreed to the institutionalisation of political correctness in public life, especially in the Civil Service, schools and universities. In addition, she allowed the “progressive” educational establishment to destroy a first rate  school examination system  by swopping the certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) and O(rdinary) Levels  for the dangerous absurdity of the General Certificate of Education (GCSE), an exam   supposedly for all 16 year olds but which was in reality two exams masquerading as one.  Despite the fact that Tory support rested heavily on the countryside  she allowed the de-regulation of rural bus services to occur  which reduced them so  severely that to live in countryside meant owning and driving a vehicle or at least having access to someone who did.  To make matter worse, this was done in tandem with a wilful neglect of the then nationalised railways.

The protests after her death were unsurprising

Just based on her economic disasters the uproar surrounding her death is unsurprising.  In the space of a few years she raised the unemployment  pay claimant count from 1.4 million when she took office in 1979 to 3.2 million by 1986 (http://www.economicshelp.org/macroeconomics/unemployment/measuring_unemployment.html) That bald figure is startling enough but the reality  is ten times worse. She  must have known her policies would result in mass unemployment,  at least in the short term, when she removed the financial support of taxpayers from nationalised industries or sold them off in the belief that private business would be able to do the job more efficiently with  much smaller workforces.   Further, as these industries were concentrated in areas where they were by far the dominant employer she should  have realised that structural unemployment would be created  in many parts of the country.  To imagine, as she did, that new jobs would rapidly sprout in the areas showed  a  shocking lack of understanding of economic history which has no example of such a thing happening on the scale required in 1980s Britain.

What is certain is the fact that she had no doubt about the destructive possibilities of laissez faire economics, viz:

“Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ is not above sudden, disturbing, movements. Since its inception, capitalism has known slumps and recessions, bubble and froth; no one has yet dis-invented the business cycle, and probably no one will; and what Schumpeter famously called the ‘gales of creative destruction’ still roar mightily from time to time. To lament these things is ultimately to lament the bracing blast of freedom itself.” — Margaret Thatcher, Statecraft P. 462

A politician of conviction?

The idea that merely having convictions is praiseworthy is a rum one. Hitler, Stalin and Mao had convictions. But even  if the  quality of a person’s convictions is ignored, this is one of the most mystifying of myths attached to Thatcher.  The reality was she frequently changed her position on the most important issues she faced or adopted methods which went against her avowed policies when she had created a mess, most notably with the massive rise in unemployment resulting from her slash and burn approach to the British economy which greatly  increased the benefits bill for many years and left people unemployed for years, in many cases for decades.

The most significant publicly  admitted changes of policy  were on immigration, the Europe and global warming.  Before the 1979 election she had spoken of the need to control immigration  because the country was in danger of being “swamped”:

‘If we went on as we are then by the end of the century there would be four million people of the new Commonwealth or Pakistan here. Now, that is an awful lot and I think it means that people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture.’

She went on to say, ‘The British character has done so much for democracy, for law and done so much throughout the world that if there is any fear that it might be swamped people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in.’

 ‘If you want good race relations, you have got to allay peoples’ fears on numbers. […] We do have to hold out the clear prospect of an end to immigration…’ (http://www.runnymedetrust.org/histories/race-equality/59/margaret-thatcher-claims-britons-fear-being-swamped.html)

Once in office she did nothing despite still feeling strongly about the subject in private  (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/margaret-thatcher/6906503/Margaret-Thatcher-complained-about-Asian-immigration-to-Britain.html).

On Europe she went through the following metamorphosis:

-          1975 she campaigned and voted for Britain to remain within the European Economic Community (EEC – the EU was only formed  by  the Maastricht Treaty in 1993).

-          By 1980 she was convinced that the EEC was not  acting in Britain interests.

-          By 1986 she had  signed the Single European Act giving the EEC immense powers to interfere  with Britain’s sovereignty.

-          In the late 1980s she adopted the policy of enlarging the EEC which meant that a vast new swathe of workers from poor countries would be allowed free movement within the  EEC.  The effects of this also allowed the federalists to press for things such as Qualified Majority Voting on the grounds that the EEC/EU had become too unwieldy to operate under the original  rules and to generally press forward with the creation of a United States of Europe.

-          In 1990  she took the UK into the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM)  despite being opposed to a single currency to which the ERM was a stepping stone with the pound effectively shadowing the Deutschmark.

The idea that Thatcher only realised what the EEC was after taking office in 1979 is simple nonsense. Thatcher’s speech to the  Conservative Group for Europe at the start of the Wilson referendum on the EEC clearly shows her viewing the EEC as far more than a  simple free trading area, viz:

That vision of Europe took a leap into reality on the 1st of January 1972 when, [ Edward Heath] Mr. Chairman, due to your endeavours, enthusiasm and dedication Britain joined the European Community.

 * The Community gives us peace and security in a free society, a peace and security denied to the past two generations.

 * The Community gives us access to secure sources of food supplies. This is vital to us, a country which has to import half of what we need.

* The Community does more trade and gives more aid than any group in the world.

* The Community gives us the opportunity to represent the Commonwealth in Europe. The Commonwealth want us to stay in and has said so. The Community wants us.

 Conservatives must give a clear lead and play a vigorous part in the campaign to keep Britain in Europe to honour the treaties which you, sir, signed in Britain’s name.

 We must do this, even though we dislike referenda. We must support the [ Harold Wilson] Prime Minister in this, even though we fight the Government on other issues.

 We must play our full part in ensuring that Conservative supporters say “Yes to Europe”. (http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/102675).

In any case, the Treaty of Rome left no room to believe it was merely a free trade organisation.  No one could read that and be in any doubt  that the intention was to create a United State of Europe. Thatcher, the supposed obsessive  who was a stickler  mastering a subject,   should have read it before the referendum.

As for global warming, she started the ball rolling whilst in office and then reversed her position in her autobiography published in 2003. Here she is speaking to the  UN general assembly, in November 1989:

“What we are now doing to the world … is new in the experience of the Earth. It is mankind and his activities that are changing the environment of our planet in damaging and dangerous ways. The result is that change in future is likely to be more fundamental and more widespread than anything we have known hitherto. Change to the sea around us, change to the atmosphere above, leading in turn to change in the world’s climate, which could alter the way we live in the most fundamental way of all.

“The environmental challenge that confronts the whole world demands an equivalent response from the whole world. Every country will be affected and no one can opt out. Those countries who are industrialised must contribute more to help those who are not.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2013/apr/09/margaret-thatcher-green-hero)

By  the time she had published her political work Statecraft in 2003 she was thinking along these lines:

“The doomsters’ favourite subject today is climate change. This has a number of attractions for them. First, the science is extremely obscure so they cannot easily be proved wrong. Second, we all have ideas about the weather: traditionally, the English on first acquaintance talk of little else.

“Third, since clearly no plan to alter climate could be considered on anything but a global scale, it provides a marvellous excuse for worldwide, supra-national socialism. All this suggests a degree of calculation. Yet perhaps that is to miss half the point. Rather, as it was said of Hamlet that there was method in his madness, so one feels that in the case of some of the gloomier alarmists there is a large amount of madness in their method.” (http://www.masterresource.org/2013/04/thatcher-alarmist-to-skeptic/).

There were other issues where her public position was at odds with her actions, for example, the troubles in Northern Ireland and the rule of law. Thatcher claimed that there would never be a surrender to  IRA terrorism.  Yet after she narrowly escaped death in the Brighton Grand Hotel bombing in 1984 (12 October)  the Anglo-Irish agreement was signed little over a year later in November 1985 giving the Republic of Ireland government  a say in what happened in Northern Ireland and committing the British Government to accepting the principle of a united Ireland if a majority were in favour. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/november/15/newsid_2539000/2539849.stm). There was no obvious reason for such a change of heart beyond the fear generated in Thatcher by the bombing of the Grand Hotel.

As for the rule of law, far from respecting it as she claimed, she laid the basis for the ever increasing authoritarianism of the British state by permitting the police to act unlawfully during the miners’ strike by stopping miners and their supporters from travelling across the country and turning a blind eye to any police excesses as they clashed with the miners and their supporters.

A politician of conviction? Only if you define  someone as such who runs from one position to another while vigorously embracing each  successive position regardless of its  contradiction of a previous  advocated policy or set of ideas.

Nor was she someone who would take responsibility for her actions. When she found her policies were a disaster she either claimed she had been badly advised or cheated (for example, the Single Market, global warming) or attempted to ignore the mess she had created  (for example, enduring mass employment and ) by misrepresenting it, or in the case of unemployment, using North Sea oil  tax revenues,  the privatisation receipts and blatant manipulation of the unemployment statistics to paper over the unemployment cracks.

Why did Thatcher get things so horribly wrong? 

Why did Thatcher get things so horribly wrong?  Her behaviour  strongly suggested that she was seriously lacking  psychological and sociological insight. This meant she constantly made horrendous mistakes such as trusting the EU over the single market and imagining in truly infantile fashion that millions of jobs shed from heavy industry and coal mining would be rapidly replaced by “modern” jobs in the service and light industry sectors.  Her record in choosing people to support or employ was also dismal.

Far from being a free thinker her cast of mind  made her the ready captive of an ideology:

“…as Leader of the Opposition MT once cut short a presentation by a leftish member of the Conservative Research Department by fetching out a copy of The Constitution of Liberty from her bag and slamming it down on the table, declaring “this is what we believe”. (http://www.margaretthatcher.org/archive/Hayek.asp).

It is dangerous to trust anyone who is  susceptible to ideological capture for the simple reason that all ideologies, whether sacred or profane, are inadequate descriptions of and guides to reality.    This means that ideologues constantly have to try to fit reality within the ideology rather than having  reality driving their choices.  Those which include economics are particularly dangerous because their reach is so vast.

Ideologies are the prime example of Richard Dawkins’ memes, mental viruses which capture the individual and direct their thought and behaviour.  Those who are captured by them by them give up their mental autonomy.  That speaks either of a character trait such as that of requiring a source of authority for choices or a  weakness of intellect which seeks ideological  algorithms  developed by others to answer political  questions because the person’s capacity to answer the questions by rational pragmatic examination based on their own knowledge and intelligence  is inadequate.

How good was  Thatcher’s mind? She  is frequently  represented by her adherents as ferociously intelligent.  This view  will not stand up to examination.  She read chemistry at Oxford but only achieved a second class honours degree (http://womenshistory.about.com/od/thatchermargaret/a/Margaret-Thatcher.htm).  Oxford at the time did not divide the second class degree into  upper and lower second classes  and had a fourth class honours division instead.  The old Oxford second  is generally taken to be the rough equivalent of an upper second.  That raises questions over her intellect.  Chemistry at degree level in the 1940s had not become heavily mathematized  as it now is.  Diligence would get a student a long way. This   quality Thatcher  reputedly  had in spades. If she did, the fact that she only took a second suggests that she was not very intellectually gifted. That is particularly the case when it is remembered that she went up to Oxford during wartime when competition for places was severely reduced because so many of the potential male students went into the forces rather than to university. A beta plus mind at best.

What people probably mistook for intelligence was her avid seeking and retention of data. But it is one thing to learn facts or arguments parrot fashion, quite another to mould them into a coherent intellectual whole.  Based on her frequent renunciation of previous positions, it is reasonable to assume that she simply did not have the intellectual wherewithal to put the data she took on board to any useful purpose. She certainly never  gave no indication that she ever saw the bigger picture.

There were also the question of her how fitted she was by experience to fill the role she played, that of the hard-core economic libertarian forever seeking ways of making people take responsibility for their lives both socially and in their work.  When I look at the present Tory front bench I have a similar feeling to that  which I experience when thinking of the Nazi leadership.  The Nazis had a rather noticeable lack of Aryan types amongst them: the present Tory front bench is remarkably short on people who have been entrepreneurs or indeed of people who have any great  experience of work outside the narrow confines of politics.

Margaret Thatcher was a forerunner  in this respect. She graduated from Oxford in 1947.  For the next four years she worked for various private companies as a research chemist. At the age of 26 she married a millionaire. He funded Thatcher’s career change from chemist to barrister. She took the bar exams in 1953 and practised (specialising in taxation) until 1961, the last two years of the period occurring after she was elected to the Commons in 1959.  After that it was all politics.

Thatcher’s experience of the real world of work is at best four years as a research chemist and eight years as a barrister.  However,  being married to a millionaire at the age of 26 rather dulls the idea of her living a normal working life.  The truth is she made her way not as a self-made woman but by the traditional route  for female advancement of marrying a rich man.

There was no need for Thatcherism

The really angering thing about Thatcher’s time in No 10 is that she could have done what she was elected to do, tame the unions, without engaging in the deliberate wholesale destruction and alienation of much of Britain’s heavy and extractive industry and the placing in private hands of the public utilities, especially those of gas, electricity and water.   This was because Thatcher had the great good fortune to arrive as Prime Minister just as North Sea oil and gas was coming on-stream in large quantities.  Those revenues alone would have provided any government with a very large safety net to finance temporary difficulties caused by serious confrontations with the larger trade unions.   She also enjoyed  the very large receipts from the big privatisations such as gas, electricity and BT.  No British government has ever had such a sustained revenue windfall as hers.

There was absolutely no economic need to destroy so much of British industry or place much of the state-owned  organisations  into private hands.  Continental countries such as Germany and Italy retained their shipbuilding; France,  Germany and Italy retained a native mass production car industry.  Germany still has a substantial coal mining industry. Privatisation proceeded at very different speeds throughout Europe.  That no other large industrialised  country followed Thatcherite policies  with anything like the speed or fervour of Britain  yet  survived and frequently out competed Britain economically  demonstrates that Thatcher’s policies were not a necessity but simply an ideological choice.

Her government could have spent the 1980s taming the unions sufficiently to prevent the excesses of the 1970s.  It is true that the very high level of unemployment  of the 1980s was an aid to this, but it was probably not the main rod which largely broke the Trade Unions’ back.  Home ownership had been rising steadily throughout the twentieth century and by the time Thatcher came to power in 1979 not far short of 60%. The highest it reached even after Right To Buy was only 69% – the idea that it was Thatcher who made it possible for the working man and woman to own their homes for the first time is another myth about her(http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/personalfinance/houseprices/10005586/Home-ownership-falls-for-first-time-in-a-century.html).  .

The fact that so many people were owner occupiers with mortgages  meant that they were much less willing than they had been to strike at the drop of a hat because they feared losing their home.  Even those who were not owner occupiers had much more to lose in terms of general comfort, security and prospects of greater opportunity for their children than had been the case before, say, 1939.  To take just one example, children from poor families had a greater opportunity than ever to enter  higher education. This growing reluctance to come  out whenever the union called for  strike  was why the National Union of Miners’ leader Arthur Scargill was not willing to hold a ballot of all  his members before calling a strike. He feared such a ballot would be lost.

The combination of this increasing  reluctance to strike amongst union members together with the legal restrictions on unions such as no secondary picketing and severe penalties for strikes called with a formal ballot would have been enough to end the anarchy which prevailed in the 1970s.

Apart from the social and economic upheaval of the Thatcher years, she can also be blamed for a continuation of the damage she caused both in the long term structural unemployment but also in the fact that she subverted  the Labour Party so that it adopted most of what was damaging from the Thatcher period, most particularly in the adoption of her devotion to laissez faire economics and in Labour’s all too ready acceptance of the EU  elite’s desire for comprehensive political and economic union.

The 1980s could have been so very different.  The revenue from North Sea Oil could have been put into a sovereign wealth fund which  by now would be worth hundreds of billions.  If  the Single European Act had not been signed the movement towards a  federal EU would have been halted in its tracks  (national vetoes applied to this area of decision making  at the time). If Thatcher had not argued for an ever wider EEC the poorer nations from the East would not have joined and the immigration threat they carry would not exist.  Indeed,   Britain could have left the EU entirely because the Tory Eurosceptics could have allied with Labour under Michael Foot or even Neal Kinnock. New social housing could have been built with the proceeds of Right to Buy thus obviating to a large degree the shortage of housing now.  If the nationalised industries had been sustained there would have been no serious structural unemployment.  Had proper attention been paid to the strategic importance of  essential economic areas such a food and energy self-sufficiency we should not be so dangerously reliant on foreigners for such things today.  Most importantly, if  that had been the general thrust of politics in the 1980s it is doubtful in the extreme that Blair and NuLabour would ever have arisen.

The tragedy of Margaret Thatcher is that she had a sense of patriotism and probably genuinely thought she was doing the best for her country at the time she implemented or advocated policies (her honesty when policies went wrong was  another matter).  The problem was that her judgement  and understanding was all too often hideously wrong or defective. She so often provided comforting rhetoric, especially on Europe and immigration,  but she never delivered the goods. The fact that she was such an overpowering political figure made things worse because it meant she could steamroller her cabinet on most issues at most times. It is difficult to think of another politician  in the past three centuries who wrought so much damage on Britain.

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