Tag Archives: laissez faire

Film review – Steve Jobs

Main Cast

Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Inc

Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman, marketing executive for Apple and NeXT and Jobs’ confidant in the film.

Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple and creator of the Apple II

Jeff Daniels as John Sculley, CEO of Apple from 1983 to 1993.

Katherine Waterston as Chrisann Brennan, Jobs’ former girlfriend and Lisa’s mother.

Michael Stuhlbarg as Andy Hertzfeld, a member of the original Mac team.

Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, and Perla Haney-Jardine as Lisa Brennan-Jobs (at different ages), the daughter of Steve Jobs and Chrisann Brennan]

Director: Danny Boyle

Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin

Robert Henderson

The film is not about the entirety of Jobs’  life or even all of his adult life as a computer entrepreneur. It runs from the launch of the Apple Macintosh in 1984 to that of the  iMac in 1998. Consequently, it  misses arguably the most fruitful part of Jobs’  business  life which ended with his death  in 2011.

Running through the  film are two themes from outside of  the IT world. The first  is the impact of the knowledge that he (Jobs) was adopted at birth, rejected by his first would-be adopters after a few months and the adopted again.  Jobs’ inept handling of  human relations is attributed to this.   The second theme is a remnant of Jobs’ rather chaotic social life which in the film he runs on the same dysfunctional basis as his work. The remnant is his  one time girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston)  and their daughter Lisa whom Jobs tries not to acknowledge initially  as his child, but whom he  gradually accepts as his daughter.

Those are the circumstantial bare bones of the film.  The film’s distinction and energy comes from a remarkable turn by Michael Fassbender as Jobs. Fassbender  has a talent for portraying obsessive characters. He did it in magnificently in  Shame as a sex obsessive and he does it here with his portrayal of Jobs  as an unrestrained control freak with a adolescent grade  ego the size of Jupiter.  He is constantly bullying and appears to have  little if any moral  sense. When he does behave more reasonably it is invariably not because he feels guilty,  but either as a result of  Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet)  thrusting what he is doing wrong so firmly in his face that he cannot ignore it or because someone treads on his  personal territory , as when  he discovers that Andy Hertzfeld  (Michael Stuhlbarg)  has paid his daughter’s first semester fees after Jobs in a fit of temper told  her he will not pay them.  In short, Fassbender’s Jobs is very like a particularly fractious  teenager without any  adult brake on his bumptious behaviour.

Whether  Fassbender’s Jobs is a realistic portrayal  of the man is another matter. It is disputed by many who knew him  and certainly this filmic Jobs is a monstrously unsympathetic character, the sort of person who continually brings gratuitous stress into the lives of those around him.     Nor is he shown to be an  infallible  entrepreneurial wizard.  Jobs got many things  right with Apple, especially after his return to the company, but he also got a great deal wrong by relying on his judgement of what would appeal  to the public and taking little account of what his programmers and hardware engineers told him .

His worst mistake was  the original Apple Mac which he deliberately had made so that it could only take programs written for its operating system (which was incompatible with that of Microsoft),  could not readily  accommodate add-ons to improve functionality and, just to put the cherry on things, the AppleMac case could not be opened to repair or enhance except with special tools  which were not available to Apple Mc purchasers .   At the time it was launched I remember thinking it was a bonkers way of proceeding.  It was an act of supreme egotism on Job’s part because he wanted the system to be entirely self-contained, that is to be a system  he envisaged  and controlled.  With Jobs in this characterisation it was always his way or the highway.

The Wozniak character expresses his frustration at Jobs’ lack of technical knowhow most vividly when he says “What do you do? You don’t write code. You’re not an engineer.   You’re not a designer. You can’t put a hammer to a nail.  I built the circuit board. The graphical interface was stolen from Xerox Park, Jeff Raskin  was the leader of the Mac team before you threw him of his own project. Someone else designed the box.  So how come  ten times in a day I read  that Steve Jobs is a genius?  What do you do?”

Jobs’ reply is a facile “I play the orchestra, and you’re a good musician. You sit right there and you’re the best in your row.” Fine if the tune Jobs is conducting is a hit with the public but quite often it was not.

This scene is one of the best in the film. The problem is that the real Wozniak denies ever confronting Jobs so directly: “Anybody who knows me will tell you I just don’t say negative things to people, and could not have said them, and didn’t.”

There is a very strong acting performance across the board. Steve Jobs is splendidly   cast and apart from Fassbender,  there is a dominant  turn  by Kate Winslet (does she ever give a poor performance?) as Jobs’  right hand woman and confidant  while  Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak, Jeff Daniels as John Sculley,  Michael Stuhlbarg as Andy Hertzfeld, a member of the original Mac team are all very convincing because they are just the type of personalities with just the type of looks one would expect in such jobs.  Katherine Waterston as Chrisann Brennan is, Jobs’ former girlfriend and Lisa’s mother is by turns convincing  as a single mother justifiably  angry at Jobs’ failure to acknowledge his daughter denied  and pathetic inadequate  .

The screenplay is by Aaron Sorkin who wrote the screenplay for the  Social Network.  This is not anything like as good a film as the Social Network, which retained its taut energy and constantly  evolving storyline  throughout , whereas Steve Jobs  is much more dependent on Fassbender’s  bravura scenes which in general tone do begin to have a certain sameness towards the latter stages of the film. Nonetheless Steve Jobs has much of the Social Networks quick wittedness in its dialogue and the relationship between  Fassbender and Winslet is constantly sparky.

This film is not as good as it might have been but it will not bore you.


The digital tyranny – The threat posed by a cashless society

Robert Henderson

We are in danger of sleepwalking into a cashless society. More and more purchases are made by electronic means , through standing orders,  direct debits, debit cards  or credit  cards.   Debit and credit  card purchases already account for over a third of UK GDP and more than three quarters of retail purchases (up from 46% in 2003), while  card and computer purchases have just overtaken UK cash sales.

The next logical step  towards  a cashless society is to have laws which allow private businesses  and any public body  which charges for  its services  to refuse cash payment.  Denmark is seemingly  taking the first tentative steps along that road.  The Danish Government has proposed legislation which if passed  will  remove the obligation to take cash from retail outlets such as petrol stations,  clothes shops  and restaurants next year.

With the combination of more and more people using  methods of payment other than cash and the willingness of technologists to  feed the trend with ever more sophisticated and comprehensive  systems of  cashless payments, there is no reason to think that this trend towards  making cash dysfunctional will stop unless governments take a hand and prevent cash from becoming  defunct by law.  This development  is alarming because the abolition of physical money would  carry  tremendous dangers in terms of  the opportunities for  state authoritarianism  and simple practicality.

The dangers  from state authoritarianism are:

  1. There would be no money which could be held which was not potentially known to the state, because with only electronic money available it would have to be stored electronically and be accessible via the Internet  if it was to be useable.

But what about using virtual currencies such as Bitcoin?  Apart from the dangers of such a means of exchange – the great volatility in value, the frauds which are occurring where Bitcoin is stolen, the lack of a lender of last resort and a restricted range of  goods and services which can be bought – Bitcoin still  needs  to be stored electronically and hence is  potentially identifiable and accessible to governments. There would also be an audit trail from an individual’s source of electronic money  to the purchase point of a virtual currency  like Bitcoin. The only exception would be if someone sold something or did paid work for someone and was paid in a virtual currency like  Bitcoin.

If Britain  went cashless and others did not the likelihood is that a black market in foreign cash such as dollars would  arise in Britain.  There would also be the possibility of exchanges made by barter or a product such as cigarettes becoming a de fact currency.

  1. A cashless system would allow the state to have all  electronic money stored in a central government controlled place.  This would leave  the  individual  at the mercy of the state which could deny electronic money to anyone within their jurisdiction by cancelling or blocking their means of payment.
  2. The state could more readily control the money supply if all bank accounts were  under the control of the state and physical cash did not exist.  The state would be able to manipulate public economic behaviour by  imposing a negative interest rate when increased spending is deemed desirable  – people save less because it costs them money – and a transaction tax every time a purchase is made  – people spend less if because it will cost them to make a purchase – if it is thought an economy is over heating.
  3. The state could remove money from your account at will.
  4. The opportunities for general surveillance of the individual both by the state and by private corporations or individuals would be greatly increased.

The problems of practicality are:

1.The idea  assumes that everyone can  afford a  computer of some sort, whether that be a mobile phone, tablet or desktop, and can afford to replace their means of getting access to the Internet  every few years at best.  The reality is that millions of people are too  poor to be able to meet such costs.  The taxpayer would have pay for access to electronic money for those too poor to buy their own.

  1. Many people cannot use the digital technology.  Huge numbers of people  are still not using  this technology. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates that  11% of the UK population (approximately 6 million) has never  used the Internet.  Moreover, the ONS did not ask for frequency of use merely whether someone had used the Internet When the ONS asked whether people had used the Internet in the three months prior to the question being asked,   only 86% answered yes.  Thus 14% of the population had either not used the Internet for more than three months  or   had never used it and, importantly,  only 68% of disabled people had used the Internet in the previous 3 months. Clearly there will be large numbers of people, including  the most vulnerable in society,  who will seriously struggle to use digital technology for the foreseeable future. If cash becomes illegal many of  these people will literally not be able to live if they cannot understand the technology or have no one to operate it for them.

3.The computer systems which support a cashless society will inevitably be subject to  regular disruption, whether from hacking or simple failure because,  as we all know,  digital technology frequently goes wrong and the system downtime can be considerable.   Imagine being unable to access the only means you have of paying for something.  It would probably be necessary to have more than one electronic payment device because of this, although that would not help if the fault was not with your payment device but with that of those from whom you wished to make a purchase.

  1. Many people will have their means of accessing electronic money stolen  or lose it themselves.  They would then need to replace their equipment which allowed them to access their electronic money.  Many would not be able to afford to do so and those most likely to lose or have their electronic money access  equipment stolen  would be the old and the disabled.

A cashless society would have considerable attractions for a government. It would greatly extend the power of the state over the individual. Crime generally might  be reduced without  physical cash to oil the felonious wheels, although cybercrime would become more tempting in the absence of banks to rob and people to mug. Tax evasion would become very difficult for most people (the rich would simply move their money to other jurisdictions) .  There would also be the saving on the abolition of the need to maintain a physical money supply.  Banks  and other financial institutions would also welcome the abolition of cash as it would remove the considerable cost of physically handling cash and maintaining a branch network.

The danger is that cash will become defunct by default,  because the Government shows no interest in protecting cash and arguably is surreptitiously encouraging  its demise by making it either impossible or very difficult to access public services in any way other than through the Internet.  We could reach a point where, say, 90% of the population use electronic money  and a government simply says it is time to go cashless ignoring the fact that millions of people who cannot use electronic money will be left in the soup. Politicians need to be lobbied now to ensure that  the maintenance of cash remains a legal requirement.

But it is not just a case of ensuring that cash remains a legal requirement. Even a  widespread refusal to accept cash  by businesses and other corporate bodies which charge for their services  would be seriously socially disruptive. That idea also needs to be knocked on the head  by making it illegal to refuse cash in payment for anything.

Get writing to your MP.

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


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.








How the BBC fixes the political bias of Any Questions

Robert Henderson

The programme is fixed generally because all those invited will on subjects such as race, immigration, homosexuality and feminism  toe the pc line to a large degree. (Ask yourself when was the last time you heard someone on Any Questions saying that mass immigration is an unalloyed ill). They will do this either from ideological conviction or the fear of the consequences if they become accused of a pc “crime”.

There is also a more particular built in bias which will generally result in preponderance politically correct  and left leaning answer. To demonstrate this I have compiled  the details of panel members  for a couple of recent two month runs of Any Questions – June-July 2013 and January-February 2014 (17 programmes). These details are shown at the bottom of this blog post.

Then there are  the biases produced by race, ethnicity and employment. Those who are there as right leaning representatives,  but are immigrants or the children of immigrants, members of a racial or ethnic minority or compromised by receiving public money or favours such as those bestowed on the quangocracy will often be left leaning in certain areas such as the desirability of mass immigration or the worth of public service, regardless of their nominal political orientation.

In the four months covered by the two periods chosen, the leftist, politically correct bias is clear: on every panel at least two (half the panel) of the participants are formally left leaning and in a number of cases more than two. A good example is the 28 2 2014 programme where at least three members (Hughes, Eagle, Greer)  are of the left and arguably all four because Chua being the child or immigrants and a member of an ethnic minority will in many areas automatically be pc (for example immigration)  even if she has some non pc ideas as well.

There is no example of any programme with more than two right leaning members  on it. Moreover, many of those classified as right-leaning will be right leaning only in the area of economics and even there someone who supports laissez faire economics is veering into the leftist world because the effects of globalism feed into the liberal left internationalist credo.

It is also noteworthy that although there are a few members of panels who may  reasonably be categorised as of the hard left, for example, Diane Abbott and Laurie Penny,   there is no one who represents the far right.

It is reasonable to suspect that the BBC packs all its audiences for political and current affairs programmes in a  similar way.

28 2 2014

The Bath Literature Festival with Justice Minister Simon Hughes MP, Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Maria Eagle MP, Yale Law professor and author Amy Chua, and writer and broadcaster Germaine Greer.

Political count: two left-leaning MPs (Hughes and Eagle), an immigrant and radical feminist (Greer) and an ethnic minority representative  and child of immigrants to the USA (Chua).

21 2 2014

Blundells School in Tiverton, Devon, with Secretary of State for Scotland and Lib Dem MP Alistair Carmichael, Conservative backbench MP Nadhim Zahawi MP, New Statesman columnist Laurie Penny and Labour backbench MP Frank Field.

Political count: two left leaning MPs (Field and Carmichael ), one ethnic minority  immigrant  and right leaning MP (Zahawi) and one member of the hard left (Penny).

14 2 2014

Central Hall Methodist Church in Walsall with Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee Keith Vaz MP, Fisheries and Farming Minister George Eustice MP, Pauline Black from The Selecter and UKIP Party Director Lisa Duffy.

Political count: ne Left leaning MP, immigrant  and ethnic minority representative (Vas), one right leaning  MP (Eustice), one ethnic minority  representative  (Black) and  one right leaning representative from a minor party (Duffy).

7 2 2014

Altrincham Grammar School for Girls with Defence Minister and Tory MP  Anna Soubry, journalist and poverty campaigner Jack Monroe, the Liberal Democrat MP Jeremy Browne and the Former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw MP.

Political count: one Tory MP but with a strong streak of political correctness (Soubry), two left leaning MPs (Browne and Straw) and one leftist journalist and campaigner (Monroe).

31 1 2014

Purfleet in Essex with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles MP, Labour backbencher Diane Abbott MP, author and columnist Simon Heffer and the new Green party peer Baroness Jenny Jones

Political count: one centrist Tory MP (Pickles), one hard left MP who is the  daughter of immigrants  and an ethnic minority representative (Abbott), one right leaning journalist (Heffer) and , one hard left peer, (Jones).

24 1 2014

Gwyn Hall in Neath, with the First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones, Jill Evans Plaid Cymru MEP for Wales, Conservative Vice Chairman for Campaigning, Michael Fabricant MP, and the former leader of the Liberal Party Lord Steel.

Political count: two  left leaning politicians (Jones and Evans) and one right leaning  MP (Fabricant) and one left leaning peer (Steel).

17 1 2014

Greenbank High School in Southport with the former Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Health Andy Burnham, Supermarket Ombudsman Christine Tacon and Liverpool based textiles businessman Tony Caldeira.

Political count:  one right leaning MP (Mitchell), one left leaning MP (Burnham), one member of the Quangocracy (Tacon) and one businessman who is a Tory Party supporter (Caldeira).

10 1 2014

Heythrop College in London with Justice Secretary Chris Grayling MP, Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan MP, Patrick O’Flynn the new Communications Director for UKIP and former coalition minister the Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Teather.

Political count: two left leaning MPs (Khan and Teather), one right leaning Tory MP (Grayling) and one rightist representative for a minor party (O’Flynn).

27 7 2013

Endellion, Cornwall with Lord Hattersley, writer Jessica Mann, Times columnist Phil Collins and Jacob Rees Mogg MP.

Political count: one leftist peer (Hattersley), one rightist MP (Rees-Mogg), one immigrant  who has been part of Quangocracy (Mann), one left leaning journalist (Collins) .

19  7 2013

Bridport in Dorset with Lord Ashdown, Kate Hoey MP, Baroness Julia Neuberger and former Chancellor of the Exchequer Lord Lawson.

Political count: two left leaning peers (Ashdown and Neuberger), one centrist Tory peer (Lawson) and one left leaning MP (Hoey). Neuberger is the daughter of an immigrant mother and a member of an ethnic minority.

12 7 2013

Bushey in Hertfordshire with Chuka Umunna Shadow Business Secretary, Vice Chairman of the Society of Business Economists Bronwyn Curtis, Grant Shapps Chairman of the Conservative Party and the Speaker’s Chaplain the Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin.

Political count: one left-leaning immigrant and member of an ethnic minority MP  (Umunna), One immigrant Australian economist (Curtis), one right leaning MP (Shapps) and one ethnic minority immigrant representative (Rose Hudson-Wilkin).

5 7 2013

from Keswick in the Lake District with Liberal Democrat President Tim Farron, Shadow Europe Minister Emma Reynolds MP, Deputy leader of UKIP Paul Nuttall and Leader of the 1922 Committee Graham Brady MP.

Political count: two left leaning MPs (Farron and Reynolds), one right leaning member of a minor party  (Nuttall) and one right leaning MP (Brady).

28 6 2013

Titchfield in Hampshire with John Denham MP, Chair of the Public Administration Select Committee Bernard Jenkin MP, Chair of the Bar Council Maura McGowan QC and Minister of State for Justice Lord McNally.

Political count: one left leaning MP (Denham), one right leaning MP (Jenkin), one criminal lawyer  with no obvious political affiliation (McGowan) and , one left leaning peer (McNally).

21 6 2013

Purley in Croydon. The panel are Labour peer Baroness Oona King; editor of Prospect magazine Bronwen Maddox, Foreign and Commonwealth minister Alistair Burt and the novelist, journalist and human rights activist Joan Smith.

Political count: one left leaning ethnic representative peer (King), one right leaning journalist (Maddox), one right leaning MP (Burt) and one left leaning journalist (Smith).

14 6 2013

Great Yarmouth Racecourse in Norfolk with Daniel Hannan MEP, commentator Mehdi Hasan, Communities and Local Government Minister Don Foster MP and Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Mary Creagh MP.

Political count: one right leaning MEP (Hannan), one son of immigrants and left leaning ethnic minority representative journalist (Medhi Hassan) and two left leaning MPs (Foster and Creagh)

7 6 2013

The Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth, Wales with Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Owen Paterson MP, Labour’s Peter Hain MP, Leader of Plaid Cymru Leanne Woods, and commentator James Delingpole.

Political count: one right leaning MP (Paterson) one left leaning MP (Hain), one hard left representative (Woods)  and one rightist journalist (Delingpole).

1 6 2013

Slough in Berkshire. The panel includes the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers MP, the director of the think-tank British Future Sunder Katwala, Business woman Julie White and Labour peer Lord Adonis.

Political count: one right leaning MP (Villiers), one left leaning ethnic minority representative who is the son of immigrants (Katwala), one business woman whose company D-Drill gets a good deal of its work from government (White) and one left leaning peer (Adonis).

What the British people want from their politicians… and what they get

Robert Henderson

What do our politicians think of the electorate: precious little. All the major mainstream parties either ignore or cynically  misrepresent  the issues  which are most important to the British – immigration, our relationship with the EU, the English democratic deficit,  foreign adventures , the suppression of free speech and the precarious state of the economy. . These issues are  not addressed honestly because they either clash with the prevailing internationalist agenda or because to address them honestly would mean admitting how much sovereignty had been given away to the EU and through other treaties.

This antidemocratic failure to engage in honest politics is an established trait. The wilful removal from mainstream politics of vitally important issues has been developing for more than half a century. The upshot is that the British want their politics to be about something which is not currently on offer from any party with a chance of forming a government. The British public broadly seek what these days counts as rightist action when it comes to matters such as preserving nationhood, immigration, race and political correctness, but traditional leftist policies on items such as social welfare, the NHS and the economy (has anyone ever met someone in favour of free markets and free trade who has actually lost his job because of them?).

The electorate’s difficulty is not simply their inability to find a single party to fulfil all or even most of their political desires. Even on a single issue basis, the electorate frequently cannot find a party offering what they want because all the mainstream parties now carol from the same internationalist, globalist, supranational, pro-EU, pc songsheet. The electorate finds they may have any economic programme provided it is laissez faire globalism, any relationship with the EU provided it is membership, any foreign policy provided it is internationalist and continuing public services only if they increasingly include private capital and provision. The only difference between the major parties is one of nuance.

Nowhere is this political uniformity seen more obviously than in the Labour and Tory approaches to immigration. Labour has adopted a literally mad policy of “no obvious limit to immigration”. The Tories claim to be “tough” on immigration, but then agree to accept as legal immigrants more than 100,000 incomers a year from outside the EU plus any number of migrants from within the EU (350 million have the right to settle here). There is a difference, but it is simply less or more of the same. Worse, in practice there would probably be no meaningful difference to the numbers coming whoever is in power. The truth is that while we remain part of the EU and tied by international treaties on asylum and human rights, nothing meaningful can be done for purely practical reasons. But even if something could be done, for which serious party could the person who wants no further mass immigration vote? None.

A manifesto to satisfy the public

All of this set me thinking: what manifesto would appeal to most electors? I suggest this political agenda for the What the People Want Party:

We promise:

1. To always put Britain’s interests first. This will entail the adoption of an unaggressive nationalist ethic in place of the currently dominant internationalist ideology.

2. The reinstatement of British sovereignty by withdrawal from the EU and the repudiation of all treaties which circumscribe the primacy of Parliament.

3. That future treaties will only come into force when voted for by a majority in both Houses of Parliament and   accepted in a referendum . Any  treaty should be subject to repudiation following  Parliament passing a motion that repudiation should take place and that motion being ratified by a referendum.  Treaties could also be repudiated by a citizen initiated referendum (see 29).

4. A reduction in the power of the government in general and the Prime Minister in particular and an increase in the power of Parliament. This will be achieved by abolishing the Royal Prerogative, outlawing the party whip and removing the vast powers of patronage available to a government.

5. That the country will only go to war on a vote in both Houses of Parliament.

6. An end to mass immigration by any means, including asylum, work permits and family reunion.

7. An end to all officially-sponsored political correctness.

8. The promotion of British history and culture in our schools and by all publicly-funded bodies.

9. The repeal of all laws which give by intent or practice a privileged position to any group which is less than the entire population of the country, for example the Race Relations Act..

10. The repeal of all laws which attempt to interfere with the personal life and responsibility of the individual. Citizens will not be instructed what to eat, how to exercise, not to smoke or drink or be banned from pursuits such as fox-hunting which harm no one else.

11. A formal recognition that a British citizen has rights and obligations not available to the foreigner, for example, the benefits of the welfare state will be made available only to born and bred Britons.

12. Policing which is directed towards three ends: maintaining order, catching criminals and providing support and aid to the public in moments of threat or distress. The police will leave their cars and helicopters and return to the beat and there will be an assumption that the interests and safety of the public come before the interests and safety of police officers.

13. A justice system which guards the interests of the accused by protecting essential rights of the defendant such as jury trial and the right to silence, whilst preventing cases collapsing through technical procedural errors.

14. Prison sentences that are served in full, that is,  the end of remission and other forms of early release. Misbehaviour in prison will be punished by extending the sentence.

15. An absolute right to self-defence when attacked. The public will be encouraged to defend themselves and their property.

16. A general economic policy which steers a middle way between protectionism and free trade, with protection given to vital and strategically important industries such as agriculture, energy, and steel and free trade only in those things which are not necessities.

17. A repudiation of further privatisation for its own sake and a commitment to the direct public provision of all essential services such as medical treatment. We recognise that the electorate overwhelmingly want the NHS, decent state pensions, good state funded education for their children and state intervention where necessary to ensure the necessities of life. This promise is made to both reassure the public of continued future provision and to ensure that the extent of any public spending is unambiguous, something which is not the case where indirect funding channels such as PFI are used.

18. The re-nationalisation of  the railways, the energy companies, the water companies and any  exercise  of the state’s authority such as privately run prisons which have been placed in  private hands.

19. An  education system which ensures that every child leaves school with at least a firm grasp of the three Rs and a school exam system which is based solely on a final exam. This will remove the opportunity to cheat by pupils and teachers. The standards of the exams will be based on those of the 1960s which is the last time British school exams were uncontaminated by continuous assessment, multiple choice questions and science exams included practicals as a matter of course. .

20. To restore credibility to our university system. The taxpayer will fund scholarships for 20 per cent of school-leavers. These will pay for all fees and provide a grant sufficient to live on during term time. Any one not in receipt of a scholarship will have to pay the full fees and support themselves or take a degree in their spare time. The scholarships will be concentrated on the best universities. The other universities will be closed. This will ensure that the cost is no more than the current funding and the remaining universities can be adequately funded.

21. A clear distinction in our policies between the functions of the state and the functions of private business, charities and other non-governmental bodies. The state will provide necessary public services, business will be allowed to concentrate on their trade and not be asked to be an arm of government and charities will be entirely independent bodies which will no longer receive public money.

22. A commitment to putting the family first. This will include policies which recognise that the best childcare is that given by the parents and that parents must be allowed to exercise discipline over their children. These will be given force by a law making clear that parents have an absolute right to the custody of and authority over their children, unless the parents can be shown to be engaging in serious criminal acts against their children.

23. Marriage to be encouraged by generous tax breaks and enhanced  child allowances for children born in wedlock.

24. Defence forces designed solely to defend Britain and not the New World Order.

25. A Parliament for England to square the Devolution circle. The English comprise around 80 per cent of the population of the UK, yet they alone of all the historic peoples are Britain are denied the right to govern themselves. This is both unreasonable and politically unsustainable in the long-run.

26. A reduction to the English level of Treasury funding to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This will save approximately £17 billion pa because the Celts receive overall approximately £1,600 per head per annum more than the English.

27. An end to Foreign Aid. This will save approximately £11  billion.

28. A written constitution to ensure that future governments cannot abuse their power. This will be predicated on (1) the fact that we are a free people, (2) the belief that in a free and democratic society the individual can be trusted to take responsibility for his or her actions and to behave responsibly and (3) that politicians are the servants not the masters of those who elect them. It will guarantee those things necessary to a free society, including an absolute right to free expression, jury trial for any offence carrying a sentence of more than one year, place citizens in a privileged position over foreigners and set the interests and safety of the country and its citizens above the interests and safety of any other country or people.

29. Citizen initiated referenda shall be held when ten per cent of the population have signed a petition asking for a referendum.

Those are the things which I think most of the electorate could embrace, at least in large part. There are also other issues which the public might well be brought to  support if there was proper public debate and a serious political party supporting them such as the ownership and bearing of weapons and the legalisation of drugs.

The positive thing about such an agenda is that either Labour or the Tories could comfortably support it within the context of their history.

Until Blair perverted its purpose, the Labour Party had been in practice (and often in theory – think Ernie Bevin), staunchly nationalist, not least because the unions were staunchly protective of their members’ interests and resistant to both mass immigration (because it reduced wages) and free trade (because it exported jobs and reduced wages).

For the Tories, the Thatcherite philosophy is as much an aberration as the Blairite de-socialisation of Labour. The true Tory creed in a representative democracy is that of the one nation nationalist. It cannot be repeated too often that the free market internationalist creed is the antithesis of conservatism.

The manifesto described above would not appeal in every respect to ever member of the “disenfranchised majority”. But its general political slant would be palatable to that majority and there would be sufficient within the detail to allow any individual who is currently disenchanted with politics to feel that there were a decent number of important policies for which he or she could happily vote. That is the best any voter can expect in a representative democracy. People could again believe that voting might actually change things.

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. “

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.

How much public money is being stolen and wasted because of the privatisation of public services?

Robert Henderson

In June this year I attended a talk given by Michael Heseltine. It was embarrassingly limp re-hashed Heseltinian fare from the 1980s,with Heseltine airily advocating localism in place of centralised government with precious little idea of how  to engineer his envisaged  utopia of local politicians free from the Westminster party embrace mixing with banks,  Chambers of Commerce and other trade bodies to bring about a Nirvana of self-help and self-determination. (http://englandcalling.wordpress.com/2013/06/18/michael-heseltine-rebalancing-the-british-economy/).  Thankfully,  the Coalition thought so little of Heseltine’s proposals in his Government commissioned report No Stone Unturned that only the derisory sum of £2 billion (Heseletine had asked for £49 billion) was allocated to his recommendations for devolved power and expenditure  to promote growth (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/spending-review/10144584/Spending-Review-2bn-to-boost-regional-growth.html). It would have been less insulting if the Coalition had allocated nothing.

When the opportunity came for questions I raised  the matter of  increasing corruption in the spending of public money.  This is a consequence of taxpayers’ money going to private contractors at an ever more alarming rate as the mania for putting out public services to private companies and not-for-profit organisations such as charities  continues  unabated,  despite the ample evidence that contracting-out is generally very poor value for the taxpayer.  My argument was simple: the greater the number of public contracts being put out to tender by commercial businesses and not-for-profit organisations, the greater the opportunities for corruption by either public employees and contractors colluding or contractors fixing things amongst themselves.  Human nature being what it is, greater opportunities for fraud inevitably means greater instances of  fraud.

Heseltine reacted with considerable vehemence to my suggestion that serious corruption might exist in public service saying that he “took great exception” to the idea.  His denial rang hollow because sadly there is a constant flow  of publicly reported frauds by those receiving public money.   Here are a few recent examples of  alleged frauds:

1. Pharmacists and drug companies colluding to overcharge the NHS for drugs http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/10133557/Pharmaceutical-scandal-The-NHS-the-drug-firms-and-the-price-racket.html.    The amounts in this case are potentially very large: “The Daily Telegraph’s investigation has found that companies are privately offering discounts of up to 70 per cent on drug tariff items to high-street chemists, with the pharmacist keeping the difference. For example, the NHS would agree to pay £100 for a drug that would be supplied to a chemist for only £30.” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/10135897/Pharmaceutical-scandal-firms-boast-of-profits-on-drugs-that-cost-pennies.html).

2. Former government education adviser Tim Royle  arrested on suspicion of fraud when he was a headmaster ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/10130632/Former-government-education-adviser-arrested-on-suspicion-of-fraud.html).

Sometimes  misbehaviour  is judged to have fallen short of the criminal, but it still costs the taxpayer money.  A good example is that of  one-time award-winning  head teacher Jo Shuter  who  left herself open to suspicion and criticism by  inappropriate spending  and the employment of  relatives. She resigned but not before   being given a final warning  for “financial and human resource mismanagement”  (http://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/london-life/jo-shuter-there-was-a-blurring-of-my-personal-and-professional-worlds-it-was-incredibly-stupid-8664781.html)

I can give two examples of questionable public contracts involving a great deal of money  which I personally tried unsuccessfully to bring to public notice. Both involved Camden Council, the London borough in which I live. The first occurred in 2003 when the Council announced that they were to replace 14,000 kitchens and bathrooms in their council housing stock.  In response to a question I put to him at a public meeting  Neil Litherland, the then director  of Housing in Camden , quoted me £6,000 for each room (£12,000 for a kitchen and bathroom combined).  The bathroom and kitchen units Camden  proposed to fit were pretty basic. The total cost at that price was £168 million (at 2003 prices).  This struck me as outlandishly expensive, so   I went to a local high street fitted furniture retailer to get a  quote.

At the retailer  I  selected units of the same quality as those proposed by the Council and  was quoted £1,500 for each room, including the installation of the kitchen and bathroom units.   That was for a single retail sale. A contract for 14,000 properties should  result in a very substantial discount below a retail sale, but even at the retail price quoted the contract would have been a quarter of the Camden quoted figure.

When I made my complaint to Camden,  I doubled the £1,500 quoted by the retailer because Camden were doing other renovation work such as re-wiring and laying new vinyl on the floors in the kitchens and bathrooms as well as fitting the new kitchen units and bathroom suites.  The extra  £1,500 per room for this  renovation work was almost certainly far too much,  but even  at £3,000 per room  Camden  would have been halved their actual bill saving £84 million.

A  disinterested person reading that account might think the local politicians and the MP for area would have been biting my hand off to take up the case and stop the grossly overpriced contract going through. I could not find a single politician to take up the matter. Nor could I get even the local papers to investigate the matter.

The second case involved what is now known as the Francis Crick Institute. (http://ukcmri.wordpress.com/2012/11/11/links-to-all-ukcrmi-blog-posts/).  This is a gigantic medical  research laboratory currently being constructed on land behind the British Library. The site is  a road’s width from the Eurostar terminus.  There are excellent grounds for opposing the building of such a laboratory because it will be dealing with level 4 (the highest biohazard level) toxins.  This poses a risk of dangerous materials being released  (through a terrorist attack or carelessness)  into an area which is both heavily residential and arguably the busiest transport hub in London.  However, that is not the important thing in the context of corruption.

In an attempt to stop the building of the laboratory I used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to gain details of the sale of the land on which the laboratory is being built. The land belonged to the taxpayer and was under the stewardship of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). The site   was put out to competitive tender and a good deal of interest was shown (27 bids, including the likes of Barratt Homes and   Oracle Group  – http://ukcmri.wordpress.com/2011/02/11/the-full-list-of-bidders/).  The decision was solely in the hands of the Secretary of State for the DCMS who was exercising a quasi-judicial role in the matter.  Despite this, documents I obtained using the FOIA unambiguously show Gordon Brown when PM illegally interfering with the bidding process  from before the closing date for bids and carrying on interfering until the sale was complete (http://ukcmri.wordpress.com/2011/02/21/gordon-browns-involvement-in-the-sale-of-the-land-to-ukcrmi/).   Here is an example extract from a Treasury document  dated 1 August 2007:

The PM is also most recently stated that he is very keen to make sure that Government departments are properly coordinated on this project [the laboratory] and that if there is a consensus that this is indeed an exciting project then we do what we can to make it happen. This is extremely helpful from a DIUS and MRC perspective, but, formally a NIMR relocation project in London has yet to receive Lyons approval from Treasury (for either the first planned NTH site or the possible BL site).

This was before the initial bidding process was closed.  The process was a sham, the other bidders having bid with no prospect of success. Brown should not have interfered at all,  even to say whether he thought X or Y was or was not  a promising project, but here he is  issuing a direct instruction to favour the laboratory consortium by getting all the government departments with some future or immediate interest in the laboratory to put their weight behind it. (When a Prime Minister says he is “very keen” on something that is an order to move heaven and earth to achieve it).

As with the Camden contract for kitchens and bathrooms I was unable to get any politician, local or national, to take up the matter. Every Camden councillor and the local Labour MP Frank Dobson  had the information but refused to act. Camden granted planning permission in principle, but this had to be agreed by Boris Johnson in his role of Mayor of London because the Institute building  is over the height which can  be sanctioned by a London council. Johnson  granted permission despite having the details of the corrupted bidding process (http://ukcmri.wordpress.com/2011/01/14/notification-of-planning-irregularities-to-boris-johnson/) and refused to comment on Brown’s illegal involvement in the decision.  Equally telling in this case was the failure of the national media to take up the story despite Gordon  Brown’s involvement.  The nearest I came to getting the story up and running in the media was a single  short piece in the London Evening Standard (http://www.standard.co.uk/news/no-10-interfered-to-push-through-600m-plan-for-virus-superlab-6557759.html).

The nature of public  fraud

Much, probably the large majority,  of the fraud consists of inflating contracts. This can be done with or without the collusion of public servants and politicians. Collusion between  contractors, public servants and politicians  speaks for itself.  Fraud without public servants or politicians being involved is more complicated. It requires a conspiracy by a number of contractors to fix a bidding process.  The larger the contract  or the more specialised the  work to be done, the more likely a bidding process can be fixed, because often there are only a handful of bidders  capable of taking the contract on. This leads to corrupt agreements between the companies to share out public contracts between themselves at inflated prices. This is done by the bidders  putting in bids to a supposedly competitive bidding process structured so that the company who is to take the contract puts in the lowest priced bid. However, this lowest bid is much higher than it  should be if it was pitched simply at a level to  guarantee a level of quality and provide a reasonable profit for the successful bidder.

The practice is probably very widespread. The Office of Fair Trading concluded an investigation in 2009 which showed widespread fixing of prices: “The OFT has imposed fines totalling £129.2 million on 103 construction firms in England which it has found had colluded with competitors on building contracts.” (see   http://www.oft.gov.uk/shared_oft/reports/Evaluating-OFTs-work/oft1240.pdf and http://www.oft.gov.uk/shared_oft/business_leaflets/general/table-of-infringements.pdf).

Where public servants and/or politicians agree to accept an overpriced contract they may be  bribed either directly or indirectly. A favourite indirect method  is not to pay the politician or public servant at  the time of the fraud but later with lucrative sinecures after they have left office .

The current rules regarding ministers and public servants taking posts in private industry are so lax as to be next to meaningless – they can take up posts after a year or two, regardless of how closely the private sector job is linked to their previous post.  A recent eye-catching example was that of Dave Hartnett who has just taken up a post with the accountants Deloittes. . The Telegraph Daily telegraph  recently reported “Until last year, Mr Hartnett headed operations at HM Revenue and Customs. His new role will involve him working one day a week at Deloitte, which acts as auditor for companies – including Starbucks – which have been accused of using legal loopholes to avoid paying tax.” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/banksandfinance/10083254/Former-Revenue-boss-lands-tax-advice-job-at-Deloitte.html). I am not  suggesting there is corruption  in this case,  but is it really acceptable to have such a senior and important public servant turning from  gamekeeper  to poacher so rapidly?  Like Caesar’s wife, politicians and public servants should be above suspicion.

Waste through incompetence and lack of alternatives

Some of the fraud will be accomplished because the public servant or politicians involved in making contract decisions are simply not up to the job of judging what is a reasonable price for the work being put out to contract.  This is a common enough state of affairs because public servants often find themselves asked to negotiate contracts  even though they  have no experience of  doing so because work which has always been done by direct public labour is suddenly subcontracted to the private sector.   To cover their ignorance the public servant  will often judge bids not on their objective merits, but on who is the cheapest within the criteria set for a contract.  Whether the bid is a reasonable price  for the work done is ignored. This has a knock on effect, not least because  of the widespread lack of honest competition in bidding.  Those accepting bids will justify their acceptance by referring to other contracts for similar work.  Because of this inflated prices become the norm. The politicians who have to make the final decisions on the contracts are as ignorant as the  public servants who negotiate the contracts and simply take what is put before them in the vast majority of cases.

But even where politicians or public servants do realise a price is too high, they can be in a very difficult position which makes them  accept the price quoted.  The problem is that if they refuse all the bidders for a contract on the grounds of cost , then how is the work to be done?  They cannot go elsewhere often enough because there is no public organisation which could do the job rather than a private company or not-for-profit  institution. This is a particular danger with really large or specialised contracts which can only be undertaken by a few companies.  An inflated price may have to be paid by the taxpayer because there is no longer a  public sector alternative.

How much money is being lost?

Total UK Government expenditure for 2014 is £715.3 billion (http://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk/total_spending_2014UKbn). However, that does not include all of the Public Private Initiative (PFI)  liabilities because  Governments want to keep the full  PFI/PPP indebtedness off  the official national debt.  A report by the Office for Budget Responsibility in August 2011 notes that many PFI deals are not recognised in the National Accounts.:

“ As well as lacking transparency, this has fuelled a perception that PFI has been used as a way to hold down official estimates of public sector indebtedness for a given amount of overall capital spending, rather than to achieve value for money.[27]

The report details the scale of the problem noting that “at March 2010, PSND [Public Sector Net Debt] included about £5.1 billion (0.4 percent of GDP) in respect of PFI deals that were recorded as on balance sheet in the National Accounts.” However the OBR considered that “the total capital liability of on and off balance sheet PFI contracts was closer to £40 billion (2.9 per cent of GDP).”[28] They estimate therefore that if PFI contracts were all recognised as debt in the National Accounts this would increase the level of debt by around 2.5% of GDP.[29]” (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmtreasy/1146/114605.htm)

In 2012 The Guardian using ONS figures put total PFI liabilities at £301,343,154,097 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2012/jul/05/pfi-contracts-list).

It is clear that  a substantial figure should be added to  the headline £715.3 billion to account for the full PFI liability for 2014.

In the nature of things it is impossible to say exactly how much of taxpayers’ money will have been spent on overpriced contracts. However, the examples which are public knowledge suggest that it must be very considerable, because so much of what used to be done in-house by the British state, at both national and local level, is now put out to contract.

Take the NHS as an example.  If you spend time as an in-patient in the present day NHS you are likely to find that the cleaning, laundry, catering and provision of multimedia installations are  contracted out. The NHS will also spend immense amounts on equipment which will be supplied by a private contractor. Staff will often be recruited by a private agency for a hospital.  If they need temporary doctors and nurses they will pay a private agency.   The hospital may well have a Starbucks or a Costa Coffee instead of an in-house café for visitors. There is fair chance  that  hospital car park will  be run by a private company. Most expensively, if the hospital is recently built it will almost certainly be the  subject  of a PFI contract which stretches way into the future (twenty years or more). This,  and apart from costing the hospital a good deal of money  to pay for the building,   will almost certainly entail a costly management contract to run and maintain the building. This means in practice no one will be in definite overall charge,  because if something goes wrong with the building the contractor has to be left to undertake the maintenance as they see fit

The NHS is one of the most comprehensive examples of contracting out. But most government departments and much of local government displays the same tendency.  Schools and universities are within the contracting out net.  Defence procurement is  depends  very largely on  private contractors, foreign and British.  Police forces around the country  have either privatised much of their administration or are thinking of doing so.  Even the translation service used by the courts has been put out to a private contractor (with disastrous consequences).  Local government services such as waste  collection and disposal and street cleaning are frequently in the hands of contractors. The most disturbing and absurd example I have come across is the privatising of the quasi-judicial  District Auditor post which oversees local government and deals with complaints about their financial probity(“ Following the outsourcing of the Commission’s in-house Audit Practice, all auditor appointments are of private firms “ http://www.audit-commission.gov.uk/audit-regime/appointing-auditors/).

If only ten per cent  official Government expenditure is creamed off by fraud, that would mean £71 billion  of taxpayers’ money will be lost this financial year.  That is more than half the current government deficit.  But the figure  could well be much more because of the omitted PFI costs and the incentive of contractors to be as greedy as they can get away with.  Putting on twenty or thirty per cent to charges for supplying goods and services to central and local government might seem reasonable if you are the supplier and have good reason to believe  prices are likely to be accepted even if they are high. If the Telegraph reports of the grossly inflated prices charged  through collusion by pharmacists and drug companies are to be believed, the sky is the limit in the right circumstances for ramping up prices.

 Why do politicians do nothing?

It is little wonder that politicians in Britain are so willing to tolerate corruption because so many of them are happy to have their snouts in the public trough themselves in illegitimate ways. The information published by the Daily Telegraph on MPs expenses in 2009 was sufficient to show that the majority of MPs were engaging in expense claims which should never have been counted as legitimate expenses by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) in normal circumstances . This was because they did not meet the HMRC test of being  expenses “ wholly, exclusively and necessarily “ incurred in the performance of a job.   Very few MPs faced criminal charges even though quite a few repaid money they had claimed. Nor does the public know how many of the MPs faced fresh assessments  by HMRC or the penalties if any HMRC imposed.

Two criminal offences are committed by those who evade tax by illegitimately describing expenditure they have incurred as tax deductible expenses. That  counts as a false declaration. They are effectively claiming money by false pretences. A second criminal offence arises if the bogus expense claim is made without an employer knowing that it is bogus (effectively theft from the employer) or a business which  is paying a sub-contractor expenses as part of the contractual arrangement  and the business does not know the claim is bogus (effectively theft from the employing business).

Depressingly, MPs appear to have learned little if anything from the Telegraph’s 2009 exposure of their shameful behaviour  because they are still thrashing their expenses (15 May 2013  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/mps-expenses/10059243/Have-MPs-learnt-a-thing-since-2009-Their-greed-suggests-not.html).

There is also the widespread  practice of politicians being employed on lucrative contracts by organisations whose interests they have either surreptitiously  promoted as a backbencher or , in the case of ministers,  had an area of responsibility which coincided with that of the organisation giving them the job  (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1387791/Corruption-risk-ex-ministers-walking-straight-private-sector-jobs.html)

Finally there is  the scandal of still active politicians openly acting as paid lobbyists,   including providing ready access to Parliament  (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2013/apr/10/lobbying-professionals-parliamentary-passes).

How things used to be

Until fairly recently the British Civil Service was remarkably free from corruption (local government is a different matter), a fact made all the more surprising because of the truly colossal amount of money Government  disposes of each year . There were two reasons for this. The first was the hard-won tradition of public service which in which the Civil Service is an apolitical institution and as such serves no political ideology or party but provides politicians of all stamps with disinterested advice and executes their policies. This tradition has been underpinned by the lifelong working careers which public servants, especially senior ones, have commonly had. Of course, that was merely the ideal and, as with any human institution, the reality fell some way short of the ideal. Nonetheless, such sentiments and conventions have in the past affected the behaviour of public servants for the better, especially in the area of honesty. Sadly, the public service ethos has been largely lost because of the constant upheaval in terms of employment, the loss of  career security  and thirty years of politicians and much of the mainstream media reciting the false mantra that private is good, public is bad.

The second reason for a lack of corruption was  the direct provision of most the services provided by central government. This meant that the number of large central government contracts offered to private business  was  small in relation to the money spent on the direct provision of public service in all its aspects. In such circumstances serious fraud becomes difficult going on impossible for most civil servants because they do not have access to large amounts of taxpayers’ money. (Where they do have access, for example in the Inland Revenue, in most instances there are strict accounting procedures which make the embezzlement of large amounts of cash extremely difficult). Moreover, where there are few government  contracts, most civil servants are not in a position where someone  would find it fruitful to bribe them because they have nothing to sell.  Unsurprisingly, where serious corruption amongst public servants employed by central government has occurred in the past, it has been overwhelmingly in those areas where large government contracts exist, most notably in Defence Procurement and building contracts. It is a reasonable assumption that the more public contracts offered to private companies, the greater the corruption will be simply because the opportunity for corruption increases.

It would be impossible to reinstate the public service ethos quickly, but taking work back into the  public  service fold  would have an effect on fraud and waste through incompetence.  It would  definitely reduce fraud and should allow costs to be controlled because it would be the public sector setting the prices for the work.

Here is a question for the supporters of privatisation in it various forms to puzzle over. Ever since Thatcher began the privatisation of public services governments have insisted that this was saving the public money.  Yet  government expenditure since 1980 has risen substantially  in real  terms.  In 1980 total public spending was £104 billion (http://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk/total_spending_1980UKbn). Using the Bank of England inflation calculator, £104 billion at 2012 values would be only £377 billion. (http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/education/Pages/inflation/calculator/flash/default.aspx).

The cruel truth is that the £715 billion of  government expenditure  in the present financial year is almost double what it would be if the UK had maintained public expenditure at 1980 levels in terms of the real value of the Pound.  If the true PFI/PPP figure for 2014 was included it might be double. The huge increase since 1980  is very interesting because in 1980 the UK  not only had a serious unemployment problem,  but owned vast swathes of British industry, everything from British Leyland and coal mining to the public utilities and , believe it or not younger readers, a national bus network which meant that to live in the country did not mean you had to run a car.  1980s  UK also had armed forces which were considerably larger  than they are now and the putting out to private contractors of public sector work in  national government and council services was rare except in areas such as road building and defence procurement.  For example, local councils only routinely  employed direct labour on items such as road maintenance and cleaning.    In addition much of  private business then was, we were constantly told,  supposedly hideously uncompetitive . Yet despite  these alleged  crippling disadvantages, the British government in 1980  was able to maintain a level of public services  better and more comprehensive than that we have today whilst spending, in real terms,  little more than half of what government spends today.

Why has British government spending rocketed?  It is reasonable to put forward as the primary culprit the mania for privatising everything  because of the near doubling of government expenditure since 1980, the high cost of privatised services  and the many individual examples of public contracts, especially the PFI contracts, which seem outlandishly expensive.


These things have not been understood by the privatisers:

1. The public service ethos did exist and was most valuable in maintaining standards, continuity and honesty within public provision.

2. Multiplying the opportunities for fraud results inevitably results in more fraud.

3.  That public services cannot be run on commercial lines  because public provision is normally universal provision.  Unlike a private company losing business, a public service provider such as the NHS cannot turn round and say we will not treat these patients because we need to cut costs.

4. For public services to run properly need to be focused not on the bottom line but the provision of the service.

5. Once a public service has been contracted out to a private provider,  the private provider has the government over a barrel because there is no alternative to a private provider once the public service option has been done away with.

6. That public employment gave those so employed secure lives and indirectly increased the sense of  security in those employed by outside of  public service  because  having a substantial proportion in secure jobs in itself made society more stable and certain.

7. That public money is a recycling of money and however it is recycled it has a value because its spending supports local economies.

8.   That public expenditure has increased steadily during the privatising of public service activities.

Robert Henderson 30 6 2013

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 (https://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.

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.


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

Richard North: useful idiot or Europhile wolf in Eurosceptic’s clothing?

Campaign for an Independent Britain meeting 4th May 2013

Dr Richard North: The way forward

His  contribution was very odd indeed for someone who is supposedly strongly Eurosceptic.  His “way forward” is for the UK   to remain entwined in coils of the EU for the foreseeable future.  Of course, North does not describe his suggestions as leading to this, but that is the practical consequences of what he advocates.

North’s strategy for the UK’s departure from the EU is this:

“….invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, leading to a negotiated exit based on UK membership of the EFTA/EEA as an interim settlement. To ensure short-term continuity, we would have all EU law repatriated, giving time for examination and selective repeal, and the enactment of replacement legislation as necessary – all over a period of some years.”

He wants the UK to sign up to the type of arrangements Norway and Switzerland have with the EU. This requires them to  adopt a large proportion of  EU regulations (not least because of the ever broadening bureaucratic demands of the EU obsession with competition and harmonisation ), pay large annual sums to the EU to subsidize the poorer members of the EU and,  worst of all, subscribe to the four EU “freedoms”, the free movement of   goods, services, capital and labour across not only the EU but also the larger European Economic Area (EEA).

That would be bad enough but his naivety  over what Article 50 entails is startling. Here is the article in full:

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 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 never any 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.

How much of the vote does UKIP command?

North also addressed the question of UKIP’s  share of the vote in the recent council elections. This he represented as  trivial because although they took 25% of the vote  the turnout was very low (around 30% overall).  He ignores one important fact about turnout: if the turnout is shrinking then the potency of those who vote rises. UKIP voters and those willing to vote to come out of the EU at a referendum may be much more inclined to vote than those who want the status quo or at least are not motivated to vote for the UK’s independence.

Based on objective facts North  is far too pessimistic about obtaining a vote to leave. There are two great  differences between now and the 1975 referendum. In 1975 the British public had only two years’ experience of the EEC which was a vastly less intrusive body than the EU is now. If a referendum is held in the next few years the electorate will have 40 odd years of ever greater interference by Brussels with British politics and in  the lives of Britons.  To this can be added the growing number of prominent voices, both political and from the media and business , which are calling for either an outright campaign to leave the EU or at least a reshaping of the EU in such a radical  fashion that it has no chance of success. Both factors  will lend vastly greater potency to the OUT camp campaign now than was the case in 1975.

North’s  tactics before a referendum

Much of this was driven by fear, fear that a the British electorate would not vote to come out.  The consequence is that North proposes a complex, expensive and above all time consuming schedule of preparatory work before any referendum is held.  There are also conflicts between his desired ends and proposed means.

North  addressed the subject under five separate heads. I comment separately on each.

Reassurance for business

North argues that because the EU is first and foremost a political construct, business has no right to have a say in whether the UK is in or out of the EU. I have sympathy with that view, but North  immediately capsized this position by stating:

“…business has a right to expect a predictable and stable regulatory and trading environment, the status of which is affected by our membership. Therefore, we need to be able to assure the business community that, should we leave the EU, there would be no adverse effects.

“In effect, that would mean “protecting” membership of the Single Market – which could be achieved through EEA membership. And, as long as that membership is assured, business has no locus in the broader debate.”

By taking this position on the Single Market North is effectively granting business a very large say in how we are governed,  because continued membership of the Single Market will require at the least subscription to the four “freedoms”  and the acceptance of  EU laws relating to the Single Market. That will greatly impinge upon the UK’s sovereignty.

An alternative to the EU

North believes that we should not merely take back power from Brussels but also stop the power regained being grabbed by Westminster. He starts from the claim that  the UK has never been a democracy.   That is true in the sense that there has never been direct democracy – that is no more than a commonplace – but for a century before the UK was signed up to the EEC in 1973 there was a good deal of democratic control because the UK’s politics were national. British politicians then could not routinely hide behind supranational agreements such as those  governing the EU to avoid responsibility for unpopular policies or be forced to adopt policies which were in the interest of foreign powers and to the UK’s disadvantage  simply because of  Treaty arrangements.  If the UK leaves the EU utterly and  our relationship with the EU becomes the same as we have with any other foreign power British politics will again become national not supranational. That is the most certain way of re-democratising the UK.

What does North want?  He is much taken with the Harrogate Agenda  (HA) (http://harrogateagenda.com/).  This has six demands which are similar in tone to those of the 19th century Chartists and the 17th century Levellers before them.  Here are a couple of the demands to give a flavour of the HA:

2. local democracy: the foundation of our democracy shall be the counties (or other local units as may be defined), which shall become constitutional bodies exercising under the control of their peoples all powers of legislation, taxation and administration not specifically granted by the people to the national government;

4. all legislation subject to consent: no legislation or treaty shall take effect without the direct consent of the majority of the people, by positive vote if so demanded, and that no legislation or treaty shall continue to have effect when that consent is withdrawn by the majority of the people;

Whether or not these are practical (which I very much doubt if put forward in this extreme form) , there is irony in the fact that North espouses such ideas  because his proposals for a new relationship  between the UK and the EU would utterly undermine  the thrust of the HA demands  for a  UK  entangled in an EFTA or similar arrangement would still be subject to decisions being made by foreigners with,  doubtless,  the willing complicity of Westminster politicians.  The Europhile British political class is not going to vanish overnight so the only realistic way of making them behave reasonably is to force them to operate within  a national context.

 A network for dissemination

Here are North’s proposals:

“ Spreading the message is an essential part of any campaign, but reliance on the media is not going to be sufficient. Formal and informal networks will have to be built, some not dissimilar to direct marketing networks. Activities should include formal training and education, as well as more general propagandising.

Many revolutionary organisations have acquired their own newspapers, or news magazines, as a means of better spreading the message.”

Even if all this was possible, which is very doubtful  because it would need serious money as well as willing hands,  it would take far too long to establish as an effective propaganda tool.  A referendum if it comes will not be that far in the future.   What is needed is a simple readily understandable message such as “Are we to be masters in our own house” repeated as often as possible through the national and local media. With more and more politicians, mediafolk, businessmen and various celebrities making Anti-EU noises this is not a forlorn hope.


North proposes a campaign of civil disobedience, including the late payment for “Council Tax, water bills, BBC license fees and other such fees” and  visiting every “agency, every employment office, etc. and remove all information (leaflets, brochures) not in English”.  He goes on to say that there are “A very wide range of activities is in fact possible, many entirely risk-free and totally within the law”.

I doubt whether in these politically correct and increasingly authoritarian times that there would be  many which are “entirely risk-free and totally within the law”. Late payment of the BBC license could get you a criminal record; removing information leaflets not in English would probably get you investigated for  racial harassment because there would not be much point in removing them without running a campaign saying what you were doing and why;  failing to pay many official bills on time could result in late payment surcharges.  If civil disobedience is urged it is important that the possible consequences are spelt out to prospective candidates for such action.

Nonetheless that is not my main concern with civil disobedience committed in this random fashion. Civil disobedience is only effective if it is (1) focused, (2) publicity worthy (3) does not greatly inconvenience or disgust the general public and (4) does not make the protestors look ridiculous.   A good example of a serious single issue campaign blighted by clownish antics is that of Fathers for Justice. Leaving people to engage in acts of civil disobedience (particularly on a local scale) as they choose will not meet those criteria.  If it is to be used, civil disobedience must be a national act. The Poll Tax disobedience is the best example in modern British history of such action. A readily understandable single issue: we won’t pay the tax. It was perfect because it blocked up the magistrates courts and brought the everyday system of justice to its knees.

Sovereignty and opposition to  immigration are the two strongest cards the OUT camp has  to play. If it is used , civil disobedience should be designed to focus public interest on those two issues.

 A coalition of allies

North tried to make a distinction between umbrella groups (bad) and coalitions (good).  In practice the two are indistinguishable.  What determines the unity of purpose of  any coalescing groups is not what they are called but the nature of the groups and their leaders.

North’s response to being challenged

During questions from the audience I said that North’s proposals were an excellent recipe for remaining within the EU for the reasons I have already given. North became very animated and spoke at considerable length to refute what I was saying.  People only behave in such a manner during debate if they feel their position is under real threat.

The kindest interpretation of North’s position is that he is acting as a useful idiot for the Eurofederalist cause in the mistaken belief that things can be resolved to the UK’s advantage  by talking, by being “reasonable”; the unkindest interpretation is that he is a Eurofederalist wolf in Eurosceptic clothing attempting to undermine the campaign to remove the UK from the grip of the EU.

North  has condensed the   views  espoused in his speech into  written form on the CIB website – see  http://www.freebritain.org.uk/_blog/Free_Britain/post/an-eu-free-future-for-all-by-dr-richard-north/


http://www.freebritain.org.uk/_blog/Free_Britain/post/turnout-by-dr-richard-north/ ).

Robert Henderson

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