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It’s a challenge to believe it, but according to reliable reports Jim Murphy, the leader of the Scottish Labour party, has been claiming that whichever of the two main UK parties wins the most seats in the election on 7 May will be entitled to form a government. This is constitutionally quite wrong: it’s the party that can win a vote of confidence in the new House of Commons, if necessary with the support of other parties, whose leader is entitled to become prime minister. But Mr Murphy goes even further in error: according to the Guardian‘s report of 7 April,

Murphy also indicated that Labour would resist pressure to vote down the Tories if David Cameron’s party became the largest in parliament.  Murphy told Sturgeon the last time the losing party had formed a minority government was in 1924.”  [My emphasis — BLB]

What?!  Is Jim Murphy seriously asserting that if the Conservatives win a few more seats than Labour in May, but the anti-Tory centre-left parties (Labour, SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Greens and maybe some LibDems and others) together command a majority in the new House, Labour would “resist pressure to vote down the Tories” and allow Cameron to form another government, even though there was a majority in the House of Commons ready to support a Labour government under Miliband? This scenario surely beggars belief: Cameron forms a government, presents an anodyne Queen’s speech which is either approved (Labour MPs abstaining) or rejected (Labour and the other centre-left parties voting against), followed by a vote of confidence in the Cameron government — which Labour MPs, by abstaining, allow to be carried when they have the votes to defeat it! It’s hard to imagine Labour party members and supporters and the other regiments of people all over the country, yearning to be rid of this austerity-obsessed, class-driven, incompetent Tory-led government, placidly acquiescing in such a betrayal of the hopes of millions. Yet according to a politically astute friend living and working permanently in Scotland,

the ‘biggest party forms the government’ lie is the main plank in Scottish Labour’s pitch. It is repeated endlessly on TV and radio (and presumably on the doorstep) every day. That, and the psychotic belief that the SNP are Tories – their first election broadcast featured the SNP’s role in the vote of no confidence that brought down the Callaghan govt., ‘ushering in Thatcher’ (as if she didn’t have to win an election first).

My cry of pain at this heresy and its appalling possible consequences is the lead letter in today’s Guardian (9 April 2015):

“In his Scottish television debate with Nicola Sturgeon (Sturgeon eyes early push for second referendum, 8 April), Jim Murphy reportedly asserted that: 1) “Labour would resist pressure to vote down the Tories if David Cameron’s party became the largest in parliament”; 2) Gordon Brown had been wrong in 2010, having won fewer seats than the Tories, to investigate the possibility of remaining in office with Liberal Democrat support; and 3) Labour “would not need Scottish National party support to win the election or form a government”.

I hope Mr Murphy was wrong on the first count. He was certainly wrong on the second and probably wrong on the third. The right to lead a new government belongs to whichever party leader can win a vote of confidence in the new House of Commons, and he will not necessarily be the leader of the largest party in a hung parliament. By asserting the opposite, Mr Murphy plays into the hands of Lib Dem leaders hellbent on renewing their coalition with the Tories regardless of the consequences for the country.

He is understandably preoccupied with saving a few Labour seats in Scotland from the SNP, but he shouldn’t be allowed to pursue that aim at the expense of Labour’s chances of forming the next government – most likely relying on SNP and other parties’ support in order to do so.

Brian Barder
London

There’s not enough space in a Guardian letter to spell out the full implications of the Murphy heresy. Constitutionally, the only criterion for forming and administering a government is the ability to win a vote of confidence in the House of Commons: being the leader of the biggest party in the House is irrelevant. In the old days of two-party politics, when around 90 per cent of the electorate voted either Labour or Conservative, the two things almost always coincided: the leader of the biggest party was also the man or woman who could win a vote of confidence. Those days are over: in the Jim-Murphy new era of multi-party politics and fractured allegiances, what counts is the ability to assemble a reasonably like-minded group of parties represented in the House and together big enough to command a majority in favour of a vote of confidence. It seems quite likely from current polling figures that the Tories may win a few more seats than Labour but that the group of parties willing to support a minority Labour government may amount to a majority of the whole House, which would make Ed Miliband the prime minister of a minority Labour government.

The rather large fly in this sweet-smelling ointment is the position of the LibDems. They alone of the significant parties refuse, as usual, to say in advance of the election which of Cameron or Miliband they would support as prime minister. It sounds from Nick Clegg’s and Paddy Ashdown’s utterances as if they will again adopt the out-dated and cynically self-serving formula that they will “talk first” to the leader of the largest single party in the new House — not the leader of the party with the greatest support from all parts of the House. Even if LibDem MPs in the new House are reduced to a negligible rump, as some polls suggest may happen, they may still just have the numbers to put either the centre-left pro-Labour group or the centre-right group (Conservatives, UKIP, DUP) over the finishing line with the magic figure, 326 MPs, guaranteeing a majority in a vote of confidence. To the limited extent that LibDem intentions will be determined by which single party has the most seats, and not which multi-party group, Murphy is correct in asserting that every Scottish seat won by the SNP from Labour makes a Conservative government more likely. But that is true only if the LibDems emerge from their night of carnage still holding the balance of power.

Incidentally the Tories and some confused commentators are simply muddying the already murky waters by claiming that the SNP may hold the balance of power and thus be in a position to dictate terms to Ed Miliband and to extort policy concessions from him, for example over Trident: the SNP is already committed to supporting a minority (or indeed majority) Labour government and are in no position to impose conditions on their support, since to withhold it would risk paving the way to another Cameron government, the last thing the SNP can afford to seem to want. No policy bargaining with the SNP is necessary or desirable, at any rate until after a Labour government is safely voted into office. It’s only the LibDems who plausibly hope to be able to auction their support to the highest and most unprincipled bidder, without regard to the consequences for the country and its people. In the few remaining weeks before the election, it should be a prime objective of the Labour leadership to encourage the LibDem rank and file in the country, and the left-of-centre element in the LibDem leadership, to insist publicly before 7 May that they will not tolerate Clegg or his successor as leader using LibDem votes in parliament to enable Mr Cameron to stay on in No 10 Downing Street as prime minister.

Brian

From the viewpoint of a committed Labour party supporter, here are ten things about last night’s television debate that depressed me:

1. The commentariat treated it as a beauty contest, with numerous polls declaring winners, losers and rankings (all mutually inconsistent and therefore meaningless) instead of an opportunity to assess the competence, values and personalities of the seven party leaders. Virtually every newspaper declared a clear victory for the leader of the party supported by that newspaper, a wretched commentary on the objectivity of our organs of information. (I make no pretence of objectivity on this blog, of course. I offer opinion, rarely information.)

2. Ed Miliband did extremely well for Labour, making several devastating points, but he was easily outclassed by the three women leaders – Natalie Bennett (Greens), Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru) and especially Nicola Sturgeon (SNP), who all spoke the language of real people instead of the speak-your-weight machine auto-pilot clichés reeled off by all the men: Nick Clegg (LibDem), the worst; Nigel Farage (UKIP), the most shameless; David Cameron, who had most obviously learned his coaches’ scripts off by heart, and to a much lesser extent Ed Miliband himself.

3. Miliband inexplicably failed to nail the lie, repeatedly thrown at him by Cameron and most viciously by Clegg, that the Labour government had “crashed the economy” and caused “the mess that the coalition inherited.” This was a golden opportunity to confront Cameron with the reality that the crash was caused by the international bankers, the Tories’ friends. It was left to Bennett and Wood to make this elementary but crucial point.

4. MilibanLabour leader Ed Milibandd committed a tactical error in repeating his apology for New Labour’s “failure adequately to regulate the banks” (although he did confront Cameron with the Tories’ record of complaining that the banks were being over-regulated!). This is like the police accepting the blame for a burglary because they didn’t have enough bobbies on the beat in the relevant street. It appears to validate the unscrupulous but effective Tory and LibDem attribution of blame for the global banking crash and recession to the then Labour government.

5. Similarly, it was and is a serious tactical error for Labour to accept any blame for Labour governments’ “failure to control” (i.e. reduce) immigration, another issue on which Miliband unnecessarily apologised last night. Labour should instead explain the economic and social benefits of immigration, stressing the absence of reputable evidence that immigration depresses native workers’ wages, and pointing out the benefit to Britons of freedom to live and work anywhere in the EU. The shortages of housing and of school and hospital places associated with areas of high immigration are failures of government planning and provision, not a justification for limiting immigration.

6. Clegg repeatedly asserted the need for the next government to “finish the job” of “balancing the books”, eliminating the deficit and continuing the economic recovery – with the clear implication that if, or when, there’s another hung parliament after 7 May, the LibDems will again throw in their lot with the Tories, probably (depending on the arithmetic) condemning us to five more years of Cameron, Osborne and Duncan Smith and the completion of the wreckage of the welfare state, and opening the door to Brexit. That at any rate sounds like Clegg’s intention: will the LibDem rank and file allow him to commit another such betrayal? Is that what Tim Farron and Vince Cable want?

7. It was left to the three splendid women to attack the whole philosophy of austerity, insisting that further cuts would hinder the recovery and increase the already intolerable burden on the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society. Aggregate demand needs to be revived, not further squeezed. Miliband’s insistence that a Labour government would have to make further cuts in public spending to balance the books and eliminate the deficit, just doing these things ‘more fairly’ than the Tories, encouraged the false impression that there’s not much to choose between him and Cameron.

8. How refreshing if Miliband had explained that borrowing is needed for essential investment in our decaying and inadequate infrastructure, that borrowing by government is no worse than taking out a mortgage to buy a house or borrowing to expand or modernise a factory, that the level of the national debt is perfectly manageable, indeed rather low by historical standards, and that while interest rates are so incredibly low it makes excellent sense to increase government borrowing for capital spending. Alas, it was left to two of the women to make this basic point. (Clegg actually demonstrated his level of economic expertise by denouncing Labour policy for planning to “borrow money that they haven’t got”, one of the evening’s few gems. Or did I mis-hear him? I don’t think so.)

9. Labour really ought not to encourage the Tory obsession with the budget deficit. It makes good sense to run a deficit while the economy is still in slow and unbalanced recovery from recession. There are much more serious problems that need to be more urgently addressed, such as the deplorably low level of productivity and the potentially disastrous external trade deficit.

10. How depressing that according to several opinion polls, Farage’s disgraceful performance was rated a success on a par with that of Miliband and Sturgeon, along with Bennett and Wood, the true successes of the event. Farage was consistently xenophobic, cheaply populist, anti-Europe, bad-mouthing immigrants and HIV sufferers, appealing to the worst and most ignorant national prejudices. It was left to Leanne Wood to tell him he should be ashamed of himself. Cameron’s sole complaint was that UKIP risked a Labour election victory by taking votes from the Tories. If only!

Brian

The prime minister is trying to scare us all with the spectre of Ed Miliband doing a deal with the Scottish National Party involving a Labour-SNP coalition after the election in May, thus allegedly “bringing into the government the party that wants to break up the UK”, or words to that effect, and conjuring up the ludicrous idea of Alex Salmond as deputy prime minister. Mr Cameron knows perfectly well that there’s no question of a Labour-SNP coalition: both the Labour party (e.g. Caroline Flint on the Andrew Marr Show on 8 March) and Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader in Scotland, have made that clear. If however there’s a hung parliament again on 8 May, there might well be a majority of the progressive parties combined, including Labour and the SNP, plus the Greens and some LibDems, which would support a minority Labour government on a ‘confidence and supply’ basis, enabling Miliband to form a government and win a vote of confidence. But any such loose understanding needs to be set up by Labour, however informally, before the election, so that it would be clear as soon as the results are in on 8 May that there’s a majority of progressive MPs from several parties collectively willing to support a Labour government. This would avoid a prolonged period immediately after the election and before a new government could be formed of arguing and haggling between all the parties of both left and right about coalitions and alliances and deals and multi-party policy agreements and party splits, with no certainty about the outcome. Anyway we voters have a right to know the intentions of the various parties before we cast our votes.

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Another canard being spread shamelessly by the Tories is that if there’s a minority Labour government that depends on the SNP’s support for its majority in the House of Commons, this will enable the SNP to force Labour to make excessive concessions to Scotland, which in turn will enrage the English. In addition, it’s being suggested that English voters will be even more enraged by the spectacle of a Labour minority government having to use SNP Scottish votes to pass legislation that only affects England. The first of these nightmare scenarios is nonsense: the SNP would have no leverage to extort unreasonable concessions for Scotland from a Labour minority government since their only recourse if the government rejected their demands, as it would, would be to withdraw their support and bring down the government. This would probably mean fresh elections, leading to either a Conservative-led government or else a majority Labour government, with the SNP losing any influence at Westminster either way. The solution to the second objection is a Labour declaration at last in favour of an eventual English parliament and government, probably in Manchester or Birmingham, relieving the federal government at Westminster of all responsibility for purely English matters. Of course it would take a decade or more to achieve this, but just adopting it as a clear Labour objective would effectively disarm the accusation that a Labour government dependent on SNP votes would mean England being governed by a gang of Scottish MPs. It would also, incidentally, answer the West Lothian Question — nothing else does!

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You don’t need to be a paying member of Chatham House  (aka the Royal Institute of International Affairs) to listen to a fascinating podcast about Britain’s membership of the EU and its future prospects. Chaired by the Chatham House Director, Dr Robin Niblett, those discussing the issues with exemplary clarity and brevity are Dominic Grieve, among the best of the few good Tories (and accordingly summarily sacked by David Cameron), Peter Kellner, political commentator and superpollster extraordinaire, and Quentin Peel, Mercator Senior Fellow at Chatham House and long-time former FT columnist and correspondent. The discussion lasts for less than 20 minutes but says more in that time than a year of Prime Minister’s Questions.

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Speaking of which, once upon a time the feisty Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, a Tory MP cordially disliked by the Tories and rather popular with the rest, used to interrupt the present prime minister at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) as he was making the usual allegations about the defects of the Labour party’s record and policies, to remind him that at PMQs he was required to give answers relating to his own responsibilities as prime minister, not about Labour policies for which he had no responsibility at all. More recently Mr Bercow seems to be allowing the prime minister unlimited latitude to bang on endlessly, voice raised and purple-faced, with obscure quotations from Labour speeches of long ago supposedly demonstrating U-turns (the ultimate sin of the modern politician), inconsistency and hypocrisy, often culminating in that stale old chestnut, the demand for “an apology”. I suppose the Speaker has his work cut out trying to quieten the baying mobs on both sides of the Chamber so that the questions and non-answers can be heard, without once again taking on the prime minister for his relentless abuse of the original purpose of PMQs.

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The great Financial Times guru, Martin Wolf, on the feebleness of George Osborne’s boasted recovery from the recession:

“The overall picture of a dismally slow recovery is quite clear. … Voters are grumpy for understandable reasons. Such a long period of stagnant living standards is not to be found within living memory. In the third quarter of last year — despite the vaunted recovery of the UK economy — real gross domestic product per head was the same as in the third quarter of 2006 and 1.8 per cent lower than in the first quarter of 2008 (the pre-crisis peak). This has given the UK something very close to a lost decade. Why such a poor recovery should be a matter of congratulation is hard to comprehend.

“The main cause of the slow recovery in standards of living … has been the feeble recovery in GDP per head. Given the robust employment performance, this weakness is, in turn, directly related to the feeble productivity performance. … An important question is how far the reaction of a flexible labour market to policy-induced weakness in demand explains this dramatically poor productivity outcome…”

Martin Wolf   Financial Times 06 March 2015. [My emphases — BLB]

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Ugliest new verb of the year (so far):

“The Independent reports that representatives of Channel 4, ITV, Sky and the BBC have discussed the ultimatum and whether to “empty chair” the PM if he refuses to take part.”
Times Red Box, 6 March 2015
“…not to mention increasing speculation about Cameron somehow being empty-chaired…”
John Harris, Guardian, 6 March 2015

Brian

Labour could come second to the Conservatives at the elections in May in another hung parliament and still be able to form the government. That sounds impossible: but it could happen.

People, especially LibDems, assume that whichever party wins the most seats, even if short of an overall majority, automatically has the right to form a government. But the key test is not having the most seats (still less having won the most votes): it’s who is likeliest to be able to form a government that has the confidence of a majority in the House of Commons.

So here’s a possible and not improbable scenario. The election produces a hung parliament: i.e. no single party has an overall majority.. The Tories win a few more seats than Labour and claim that this entitles David Cameron to remain in No. 10 Downing Street and the Conservatives to form a new government, alone or in another coalition. However even with the support of UKIP, some LibDems, and some Northern Ireland MPs, the Tories might still be unsure of a majority. Labour, by contrast, could probably claim a clear majority in parliament if it has even qualified, conditional support from all the left-of-centre parties: the SNP, most LibDems, Plaid Cymru, the Greens and some from Northern Ireland. If he can demonstrate this, Ed Miliband is entitled to be invited to form a government and submit it to the House of Commons for approval in a vote of confidence.

The key issue therefore may be whether immediately after the votes have been counted Miliband can demonstrate, citing evidence, that he can form a government that will command the confidence of the House. But this will be almost impossible if Labour has done nothing to establish the intentions of the progressive parties before the election. If the positions of the progressives are still unclear after polling day, it will surely be too late for Labour to demonstrate its ability to muster majority support for a minority Labour government — especially if it has won fewer seats than the Conservatives. The consequence will then be five more harsh years of Tory misrule, with continuing LibDem and now UKIP support.

Nicola SturgeonThe alternative, however unpalatable to many good Labour people, is for Labour now to talk informally to the other progressive parties (including especially the SNP and the left-leaning LibDems) with a view to agreeing a list of specific measures that a Labour government (whether a majority or a minority government) would introduce and that the other progressive parties would support. The objective would be a loose understanding (well short of a coalition) that if a Labour government presented,  both before and after the election, a broadly and partially agreed programme for government,  the other progressives would agree to support it in votes of confidence and in budget votes (“confidence and supply”) to enable Labour to govern, even though some of them would be unable to promise support for other measures in Labour’s manifesto.

The usual objections to this scenario are (1) that it would seem defeatist for Labour to assume that it will fail to win an overall majority, (2) that it would encourage floating voters to vote for the SNP and other smaller progressive parties rather than for Labour, and (3) that the price for such support which the SNP would demand — scrapping Trident, exorbitant further devolution of powers to Scotland, etc. — would be too extreme for Labour to pay it. None of these objections holds water. Even if Labour does win an overall majority, it’s likely to be a dangerously slim one, and the conditional support of the other progressive parties will still be almost essential: certainly valuable. As Andrew Rawnsley convincingly demonstrates in today’s Observer,  every vote for the SNP at Labour’s expense risks depriving Labour of enough seats to be able to claim the right to form a government in a hung parliament: every SNP seat won from Labour makes continued Tory or Tory-led government more likely, and a minority Labour government with SNP support more unattainable, something to be rammed home on every opportunity. As for the SNP’s likely price for its support, Labour can safely reject unreasonable or politically unacceptable demands, since the SNP will have nowhere else to go. If it withholds support from a minority Labour government and thereby brings it down, the likeliest consequence will be a further term of Tory-led government — for which the SNP will be held responsible. (Even if, as Rawnsley implausibly suggests, this is what the SNP leadership secretly wants, because it would bring Scottish independence nearer, it’s hardly what the SNP rank and file want or would tolerate.)

So Labour should talk now to the other progressives with the aim of identifying enough common ground for them to promise qualified support to a Labour government after 7 May — whether Labour has an outright majority in the House of Commons, or whether Labour has the most seats but not a majority, or even if the Tories have won marginally more seats than Labour.  It’s a no brainer.

Brian

My letter summarising the case for a federation of the four nations of the United Kingdom is published in today’s Guardian (10 February 2015):

Politicians must be bold on UK federalism
In your editorial of 4 February you once again edge gingerly towards advocacy of a federal UK. Next day David Davis (Letters, 5 February) equally cautiously tiptoes towards the same solution. The Liberal Democrats favour federation but seem too timid to spell out its advantages or to answer misguided objections to it.
England’s preponderant size is a reason for the safeguards for the smaller nations provided by a federal system, not an objection to federalism; and federalism would reduce the number of professional politicians around the UK, not increase it, even with the new English parliament and government which would eventually be an indispensable feature. It offers the only satisfactory answer to Tam Dalyell’s West Lothian question; ends the gross over-centralism that still disfigures our present constitutional arrangements; permits and encourages further devolution within each of the four nations; brings government decisions closer to the people they affect; and works fine in many comparable western democracies from whom we can and should learn.
It would sharply reduce the scope and powers of the Westminster (federal) parliament and government, which may be why it’s so fiercely resisted by machine politicians. Everyone else would benefit. Labour, the party that started the still unfinished devolution process, should adopt it as a very long-term aim and promise to start the long process of consultation and research required to precede it.
Brian Barder
London

In the online version, my letter is illustrated by a photograph of the Westminster Parliament building (the Palace of Westminster) with the caption: “Anachronistic? The Houses of Parliament, London”.  But nothing in my letter suggests that the Westminster parliament, or the government that it generates, is anachronistic.  On the contrary: that parliament is already in effect a federal parliament elected from the whole of the UK with responsibility for all matters, throughout the UK, that have not been devolved to the parliaments and governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  The anomalies and contradictions that bedevil the present constitution stem from the Westminster parliament’s second and incompatible role, as a parliament for England, responsible for all subjects, since there is still no separate parliament for England to which any subjects at all can be devolved.  The cure for this is obvious:  sooner or later (probably later) we shall inevitably establish a parliament and government for England, probably based in the midlands or north of England, to which all domestic subjects applying only to England will be devolved.  This will complete the devolution process by establishing a federal relationship between the UK’s four nations.

Another letter in today’s Guardian also persuasively argues the federal case but then concludes with the suggestion that the house of commons might become the parliament for England while the Upper House, now the house of lords, would be converted into an all-UK parliament.  But this would needlessly complicate the completion of the federal project, as well as perpetuating the current confusion between the Westminster parliament as an all-UK federal legislature and the same parliament as a parliament for England.  The basic federal principle will never be understood and accepted in this country as long as people, especially English people, continue to regard the Westminster parliament, and especially the house of commons, as somehow belonging to England — a misconception apparently vindicated by the current fatuous proposal by the Conservative party to create a kind of fake English parliament comprising all the English MPs at Westminster, with MPs elected from the other three nations excluded.  How such a pale shadow of a parliament could possibly function without a corresponding English government drawn from its members, and completely separate from the existing federal UK government, is a question that seems not to have occurred to the advocates of this hopeless scheme.

Federation will come, because it’s the logical culmination of the unfinished business of devolution and because it’s the only way to protect the three smaller nations from the domination of their Big Brother, England — a domination which still threatens to cause the disintegration of our increasingly Disunited Kingdom, unless we set a clear course to eventual federation in the nick of time.

Brian

The political and economic scenes in Britain are warming up nicely as the general election, due on 6 May, approaches. The leaders of both the main parties are working hard to establish the issue which they hope will determine how the electorate will vote.  Labour focuses on the National Health Service, on which it is more generally trusted than the Conservatives. The Tories are busy fostering the false smear that Labour government spending caused the 2008 global financial crash and that if returned to office in May, Labour would wreck the economy again. In fact much the biggest issue at stake in the election is Britain’s future in the European Union, on which David Cameron is increasingly non-committal, having recklessly capitulated to the demands of his own back-bench Neanderthals and UKIP for an ‘in/out’ referendum, i.e. on whether Britain should remain in the EU or withdraw from it — ‘Brexit’, in the jargon, short for British exit. Almost all the literate political and economic pundits and most of the British financial and business communities acknowledge that Brexit would be a catastrophe for the UK in just about every sphere. Yet it looks increasingly as if in a Brexit referendum, promised by Cameron for 2017 if the Tories have an absolute majority in the house of commons after the May election, there might well be a majority for leaving the EU. Labour is unambiguously against a referendum and in favour of staying in the EU and working for its reform, with the UK’s European allies, from within. On any measurement the huge importance for Britain’s future of its relationship with the rest of Europe makes this issue eclipse all the other election issues put together. There are plenty of other reasons for wanting to replace Mr Cameron with Mr Miliband in No. 10 Downing Street, but the EU issue on its own should be enough to convince all thinking people, whatever their normal party allegiances, that a vote for the Conservatives (or UKIP), and thus for a serious risk of Brexit, would be deeply irresponsible.

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When the London Jubilee Line tube train pulls in to Green Park station on Piccadilly, next to the Ritz hotel, the electronic notice boards in each carriage flash up the announcement that “this is Green Park: alight here for Buckingham Palace,” advice that is then repeated over the train’s loudspeaker system. Apart from making one wonder how many foreign visitors to London know what the obsolete word ‘alight’ means, this splendid rubric conjures up an image of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, slumbering peacefully side by side on the tube, suddenly being woken up by the announcement about Green Park and Buckingham Palace. “Come on, dear,” says the Duke, nudging the Queen: “this is our stop.” And they gather up their Sainsbury’s shopping bags and umbrellas and woolly hats, hastily hopping down onto the platform just before the doors close and the train rattles off towards Bond Street.

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Why has Britain’s recovery from the recession been so slow and uncertain? Why are the limited fruits of the recovery, such as it is, so unfairly distributed between the richest and the poorest? Why have the Chancellor’s sadistic cuts in government spending so signally failed to bring down the budget deficit to the level that he had promised? Why is government borrowing so stubbornly resistant to the reductions promised by Osborne and Cameron? The answer to all these questions is available almost daily in the columns of the Financial Times, hardly a hotbed of socialist dogma, and in countless articles by the financial commentators elsewhere in the serious media. Capitalism is like riding a bicycle: it has to keep moving ahead and growing if it is not to collapse in a heap. Constant growth depends on constant consumer demand, reflected in economic activity by households, firms and government — especially by ordinary individual consumers. But for years the richest few in society — the bankers and financiers, the oligarchs, the shareholders, the company senior executives with their astronomical salaries and bonuses — have been seizing an ever increasing share of the national income, including an increasing share of its annual growth (if any), leaving a shrinking share for everyone else. A shrinking share for ordinary consumers means a steady reduction in their ability to consume: ever lower wages mean reduced spending, even when bolstered by increasingly expensive debts, themselves eventually a source of instability. As the prospects for a steady growth in spending fade, firms are increasingly reluctant to invest in new or up-dated plant or to recruit more labour,  lacking confidence that ordinary consumers will be able to afford to buy their products. Lack of aggregate demand in the economy thus lies at the root of our failing economies, especially in the drowning eurozone but in Britain too.

There are various obvious remedies: put more money in the hands of those who can be relied on to spend every additional penny they receive, namely the poorest and weakest in society, e.g. by increasing welfare benefits and reducing taxes such as VAT which are a disproportionate burden on the poor and which reduce their ability to consume; use fiscal policy to reduce inequality in society, increasing taxes on those with the lowest propensity to spend marginal income (namely the already rich); greatly increase government spending on capital infrastructure projects, especially social housing (Roosevelt’s New Deal with its huge infrastructure projects was a vital ingredient in America’s recovery from the great depression of the 1920s and 1930s); encourage immigration by people of working age whose contributions to the economy will help to pay the pensions of Britain’s steadily ageing population and whose taxes will increase government revenue and so reduce the deficit; and pour money into education and training, research and development, vital investments for the future. It defies belief that on every single count the Conservative-led coalition has done the precise opposite of what’s plainly needed since it came into office in 2010, choking off the incipient recovery instigated by Gordon Brown’s Labour government and actually throttling aggregate demand in the economy by cutting public expenditure, increasing taxes on the poorest and cutting, instead of increasing, welfare benefits, thus shifting resources even further from the poorest to the richest. No wonder Mr Osborne has failed so miserably to hit any of his targets. Yet the Tories boast of their superior economic management skills and their success in bringing about Britain’s miracle (but mostly invisible) recovery. How do they get away with it?

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It’s strange that the scribbling classes (to which I suppose I belong, part-time) have such a problem with “whom”. Any parenthetical phrase coming between a “who” and the verb that “who” clearly governs is automatically taken to require “who” to be converted to “whom”: “This is a man whom many believe is the greatest living poet,” where no-one would dream of writing “whom is the greatest living poet”. Examples in almost any posh newspaper or magazine are numerous. Even the aristocratic Debretts is not immune, throwing in an inappropriate semi-colon for bad measure:

“Inclusion is by invitation only; with specialist panels selecting whom they believe is making an impression in Britain today.” – http://www.debretts.com/people/people-today-0#sthash.OKZmz5RC.dpuf

But I have to confess (or as the more self-consciously trendy scribes write these days, “fess up”) to an incurable blind spot when it comes to the difference between “which” and “that” at the beginning of a relative clause. My strict grammarian daughter, founder-owner of the wildly successful linguistic blog ‘Glossophilia“, has frequently explained the difference to me, and flinches every time I get it wrong, but five minutes after receiving her instructions in the matter I have forgotten the rules all over again.

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Two welcome developments over my book, What Diplomats Do, published last July — neither another diplomatic memoir, nor an academic textbook, nor a novel, but with elements of all three. First, the (American) publishers, Rowman & Littlefield, have agreed to extend to the end of July 2015 the deadline for individual, non-institutional UK and other non-American buyers of the book to get it for a discount (it had been due to expire at the end of 2014) if they use the revised order form on this website — simply download http://www.barder.com/wp-content/uploads/Flyer-What-Diplomats-Do-June14.pdf. (They have also increased the discount to 30%, hardback version only.) The 30% discount for American buyers (pdf) is also still available for several more months. Secondly, there have recently been two more especially perceptive and illuminating reviews of What Diplomats Do.  The first, by Dr Katharina Höne, of DiploFoundation and University of Aberystwyth, is published on the DiploFoundation website and reproduced in full along with many other reviews at http://www.barder.com/wdd/reviews-of-what-diplomats-do; and the second, by the distinguished former US diplomat Marshall P. Adair, published in the US Foreign Service Journal, can be read here  (pdf). Both these reviews, among others, are well worth reading, especially if you haven’t yet decided whether to buy the book!

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One of the film’s “chapters” includes spoken extracts of notes on film by the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein. Another shows a silent dance, conceived by Mr Campbell and performed by Michael Clark Company, inspired by equations in the first volume of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital.  [Financial Times, 2 December 2014]

Inspired by what?

Brian

The poll figures currently suggest that the general election in May will produce another hung parliament, with neither major party likely to win an overall majority of the seats.  The commentariat continues to write and speak as if this must mean another coalition government, right?  No, wrong.  Or at any rate that the party with the most seats has the right to have the first shot at forming a government, OK?  No, wrong again.  Well, it’s bound to mean that if the LibDems hold the balance of power again (i.e. if they win enough seats to put either Labour or the Conservatives over the top), they will try to negotiate the terms on which they would join either in a coalition, starting with whichever of them has won more seats?  Not necessarily — not even probably.   OK: but it might not matter that much: the Tories are already trying to raise even more money from their hedge fund manager friends to enable them to fight a second election later in 2015, which Cameron would be entitled to call if he emerges as prime minister in May, wouldn’t he?  Again, not necessarily.

There was a significant but almost wholly unnoticed constitutional amendment sneaked onto the books shortly before the 2010 election, mainly by the then Cabinet Secretary, Sir (now Lord) Gus O’Donnell.  Just one month before that election, I wrote a blog post in which I described, with links to the sources, a constitutional development with major implications in the event of a hung parliament in the following month:

There is a fear that such uncertainty [caused by the failure of either party to win an overall majority], if it lasts more than a very few days, will cause a run on sterling, turmoil in the bond markets and a possible need to raise interest rates, which would slow down and perhaps reverse Britain’s economic recovery.  To avert this potentially damaging fall-out from a hung parliament, the Cabinet Secretary, encouraged by the prime minister (and possibly with the agreement of the other party leaders), has written a new “rule book” — although No. 10 Downing Street has demurred at this description, asserting that it’s no more than a codification of existing and hitherto unwritten constitutional practice. The Cabinet Secretary’s code, apparently taking the form of a new chapter for the Civil Service Manual, provides, among other things, that if a hung parliament results from an election, the incumbent prime minister, regardless of the number of votes or seats his party has won, should not and must not resign as prime minister until it’s clear that there is a specific alternative MP likely to be able to form a government that will win the support of a majority of members of the House of Commons, expressed in majority support for that government’s  programme, as defined in the Queen’s Speech.  This formulation is designed to protect two fundamental constitutional principles:  the nation’s government must be able to be carried on without a significant hiatus; and the monarch must not be placed in a position of being forced to make a decision (such as having to choose whom to invite to try to form a government when there is no consensus on whom she or he should choose) that would entail, or seem to entail, political partisanship as between the parties, thus potentially damaging confidence in the monarchy’s position above party politics.

This (probably new) rule has important implications.  Newspaper editorials claiming that Brown will be morally and politically obliged to resign immediately as prime minister if Labour comes second or third in terms of votes cast, have got it wrong.  Brown and the Labour government would be obliged to continue in office for as long as there was any uncertainty about how the LibDems would vote on a Labour or Conservative government’s Queen’s Speech or on a vote of confidence in either government.

What’s more, the dilemma facing Nick Clegg will not be which of Labour or the Conservatives to ‘support’ in a hung parliament, but whether deliberately to bring down the existing Labour government in the vote on the Queen’s Speech or in a vote of confidence in the government.

As we all now know, my prediction turned out to be wrong on at least two counts:  Gordon Brown, lambasted by the media for his failure to resign the day after the election as soon as it became clear that the Tories had won more seats than Labour, resisted pressure from the LibDems and the Tories to hang on as prime minister until the terms of a Tory-LibDem coalition under Cameron had been agreed, got fed up with being vilified for “clinging to office”, drove to the Palace, and resigned anyway, taking the rest of his administration with him (not physically, of course);  and it became clear that whatever the state of the parties’ negotiations in the effort to glue together a coalition commanding a Commons majority, there could be no question of the LibDems being willing to serve in or even support a government under Gordon Brown as prime minister, so low was his standing in the country at the time.  His resignation was thus inevitable, whatever the new O’Donnell rules might say about the incumbent prime minister having a duty to remain in office until a clear successor with majority support in parliament had emerged.

The situation next May will however be different.  The biggest difference is that in 2010 the incumbent prime minister was Labour, whereas in May 2015 the Tory leader will have the huge advantage of incumbency — an advantage which Gordon Brown was unable to exploit because of his unpopularity.  Regardless of which party wins the most seats in a hung parliament, and even if Labour with support from the LibDems, SNP, Greens and some leftish nationalist MPs win enough seats to constitute a majority, David Cameron will still be entitled to remain in office, even until the new parliament meets.  At that point Cameron would be entitled to present a programme for government in the Queen’s Speech and seek approval for it in the House of Commons (which would in effect constitute a vote of confidence in his government).  If the Tories plus UKIP and some LibDems (if any) plus the right-of-centre nationalists managed to muster a majority in favour of the Queen’s (i.e. Cameron’s) Speech, Cameron could constitutionally continue as prime minister: the question of his resignation would not arise, and the Queen would have no power to demand it, even if she (and her advisers) thought that Miliband had a better chance of forming a government likely to command a more durable majority’s support in the House.
This scenario is by no means far-fetched:  Cameron, ever the opportunist unhampered by principles or political philosophy, is quite capable of putting together a programme in the Queen’s Speech so alluring, so full of populist goodies, that it would be difficult for any reasonable centrist party to vote it down.  In that case Cameron would almost certainly reject any idea of another coalition, heading a minority government, possibly with an informal “confidence and supply” understanding with UKIP and the other right-of-centre parties under which he would need to try to assemble a majority for each individual measure but would resign as prime minister only if defeated in a vote of confidence or on an issue involving the vote of funds to the government.
Even if events turned out in this way, or something like it, the time might well come when Cameron might calculate that if there were to be another election within a few months, the Tories would stand a good chance of winning it, this time with an overall majority.  He would then be tempted to resign and hope to win an ensuing general election outright (the dubiously constitutional Fixed Term Parliament Act 2011 could easily be circumvented or if necessary repealed).  Hence the reported decision of the Tories to start now collecting money to fight a possible second election in 2015.  But this depends on a questionable assumption.  David Cameron could resign and — if asked, but only if asked — advise the Queen to dissolve parliament,  followed by a fresh election; but this is one of the few occasions when the Queen is not bound to accept her prime minister’s advice.  She might well reject it if, for example, soundings by her advisers suggested that Ed Miliband would have enough backing from other parties to form a government with majority support in the House of Commons — and if she thought that the expense of another election so soon after the last would not be justified, especially in view of the risk that the outcome would be similar to that in May.  In such circumstances even a prime minister in office can’t be sure that his resignation would necessarily precipitate another general election.
All this is of course pure speculation.  It could well be falsified by any number of unpredictable factors, including the party arithmetic of the May election results and the extent of Cameron’s willingness to tough it out and hang on in No. 10 Downing Street until parliament meets even if Labour has won more seats than the Tories and would be generally regarded as having ‘won’ it.  Or indeed Labour might win an overall majority, in which case Cameron would automatically resign and Miliband would accept the Queen’s commission to form a government.  An overall Tory majority would similarly make speculation about the implications of a hung parliament redundant.
However, at the time of writing, the opinion polls seem to point to a hung parliament with Labour as the biggest party:  and with less than five months left before the election, Labour clearly ought to be making contingency plans for that outcome.
So what could the Labour party do now to minimise the danger of Cameron winning fewer seats but contriving to continue as prime minister until he can stitch together a majority in support of a Tory programme in the Queen’s Speech? The first priority must be to begin now to put together an agreement with the LibDems, the SNP, the Greens and Plaid Cymru on the essential points of a minority (or indeed majority) Labour government programme for which they would all be prepared to pledge support, whatever the arithmetic of the new parliament.  All this needs to be done urgently and above all publicly, so that the electorate knows what it will be voting for.   It should not be difficult to find enough common ground for a programme manifestly more fair and humane than anything currently on offer from the Tories, while still being economically and fiscally responsible.  For almost all concerned apart from UKIP the prize — an end to the Tory project of destruction of the welfare state and Britain’s departure from the EU — should be too great to turn down.  Such a widely supported progressive Labour programme, publicly endorsed in advance by the majority of the parties likely to win seats at the election, would maximise the chances of a clear overall majority in the new parliament — and offer the best hope of preventing the Tories plus UKIP being able to assemble a counter-majority, with some support from the dithering centre.  It will go against the grain and instincts of many good Labour people to begin now to look publicly for common ground with either the LibDems or the SNP, both of whom have so recently been sworn enemies of Labour.  But if we are to have any hope at all of a Labour government next May, we need to swallow our pride and our prejudices and seek support for a progressive alternative to Cameron and Osborne wherever we can find it.
To be absolutely clear, I am emphatically not advocating a Labour-led government coalition with the LibDems or anyone else.  If the new parliament comprises a medley of small parties, several of which would need to support any government measure in a kaleidoscope of different combinations for it to secure parliamentary approval, a laboriously negotiated coalition agreement between four or five different parties would be unachievable, as well as unmanageable and therefore undesirable.  Failing an overall Labour majority (clearly the best outcome of all), the aim should be a minority Labour government with enough broad support from the other progressive parties to ensure parliamentary approval for the key elements of the Labour election manifesto to justify an informal confidence and supply understanding. For once Tina has proved her case. There Is No Alternative.  But time is already dangerously short.  To quote another former and very different Conservative prime minister, Action this day!
Brian

With apologies for returning once more to the subject of my recent (first and last) book, What Diplomats Do, I want to let you know that three new reviews of the book have been published recently:  on the DiploFoundation’s website, by Dr Katharina Hone; on the website of LabourList, by Sir Keith Morris, retired British diplomat and former British ambassador to Colombia; and in the journal of the Foreign & Commonwealth Association, Password, by Sir Alexander Downer, Australian High Commissioner to the UK and a former long-serving Australian Foreign Minister.  All three of these reviews have now been added to the earlier reviews on my website at http://www.barder.com/wdd/reviews-of-what-diplomats-do.  These reviews, especially the one by Dr Hone, provide very good descriptions of what the book sets out to do and how it does it, as well as offering judgements on how well (or badly) What Diplomats Do lives up to its title.  It is not a diplomatic memoir, not a text-book, and certainly not a novel, although as several reviewers point out, it has elements of all three.

The 20% discount on the list price of the book for individual (but not institutional) buyers in the UK expires at the end of the month.  Individual buyers in the US continue to enjoy a significant discount. I couldn’t possibly comment on the grounds for this discrimination.  The discount is available to those using the order forms that can be downloaded from http://www.barder.com/wdd.

End of commercial!  Watch this space for a forthcoming blog post that will seek to correct some common misconceptions about the possible consequences of another hung parliament following the UK general election in just five months’ time.

Brian

Grenville-Murray book cover

It’s not often that a fascinating and important new book — in this case about an accomplished diplomat, journalist, whistle-blower, novelist, dissembler and controversial celebrity of Victorian times — is made available, totally free of charge, to anyone with a computer, internet access and Adobe software for downloading a book-length PDF file.  This is what Professor Emeritus G R Berridge, prolific writer and author of the classic textbook Diplomacy: Theory and Practice, has done with his latest book,  A Diplomatic Whistleblower in the Victorian Era: The Life and Writings of E. C. Grenville-Murray [pdf].

A quick web search reveals plenty of information about Eustace Grenville-Murray, including the texts of some of his writings and many references to him in the writings of others. But there has not hitherto been a full-length biography, and in his new book Professor Berridge describes some of the difficulties he has encountered in assembling the material for it:

First, his birth was illegitimate, so the records of his early life are either largely fictitious or non-existent. Second, because he was a whistleblower but relatively impecunious, he went to great lengths to cover his own literary tracks in order to safeguard his salaried income, so it is by no means easy to identify his writing, especially his newspaper articles. Third, because aristocrats both inside and outside the Foreign Office were desperate to contrive his downfall a whole raft of damaging myths was created about his official conduct and particular events in his life, and these have been constantly re-cycled – and inevitably embellished. …  Finally, he left no personal collection of private papers – no private correspondence, no diaries, no unpublished memoirs…

Berridge closes his book with these words:

Grenville-Murray’s ultimate misfortune was that his two great patrons, Dickens and Palmerston, tugged him in opposite directions: the former to the literary exposure of social evils, the latter to the important work of diplomacy.  He was no saint but it remains to his credit that, despite the tension between them and the strain that simultaneously plying these two trades imposed on his family, he made such a valuable contribution to both over such a long period. He deserves a better place in history than that pegged on the lazy re-cycling of the myths that he was a ‘scurrilous’ journalist deservedly ‘horsewhipped’ by a nobleman he had offended.
 Two observations about this lively chronicle of an extraordinary life in diplomacy and journalism:  first, its contemporary relevance (you can’t help noticing the partial parallels with another equally talented Murray whose controversial diplomatic career was eventually terminated by a hostile and exasperated Foreign Office); and, secondly, what an excellent film could be made of Berridge’s book, one that would be exciting and funny in equal parts.  Conversion of the text to a film script wouldn’t be exceptionally difficult.  It might need a voice-over narrator for which Geoff Berridge’s own distinctive voice would be ideal.

Professor G R Berridge

In the introduction to his book on his own website, Berridge sets out no fewer than 16 reasons for his decision to publish it as an ordinary PDF file on his website rather than submitting it to his publishers for publication as a book, whether in hard covers, as a paperback or as an e-book, or any combination of the three.  All book publishers should take the precaution of thinking carefully about the professor’s 16 reasons, which have significant lessons for them.  The downside seems to be the greater difficulty in spreading awareness of the existence of the book on a single semi-private website:  very little chance of reviews in specialist or general interest journals or newspapers, no mentions in publishers’ lists or advertisements.  It’s there, absolutely free and ready to be downloaded, but how many people know about it?  It’s even quite easy to send it from one’s own computer to a Kindle, if you have a Kindle account, so that you can add it to your Kindle library to read on the train, or plane, or in your favourite Chinese restaurant when lunching or dining alone.  So please heed this earnest plea:  if you’re prompted by this to download and read A Diplomatic Whistleblower in the Victorian Era, and if you enjoy it as much as I did, spread the word about it, and send your friends and family without delay to http://grberridge.diplomacy.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/GrenvilleMurray.01.pdf.

 PS:  Full disclosure:  Geoff Berridge is an old friend.  A few years ago I made some modest contributions as Editorial Consultant to the first edition of his extraordinarily useful and readable Dictionary of Diplomacy:  please see the Preface to the First Edition in subsequent editions.  More recently he has proved an excellent mentor and literary godfather helping in very many ways to bring my own first (and last) book, What Diplomats Do, into a not particularly startled world — please see http://www.barder.com/4229.
Brian

Alan Mumford, leading collector of and expert on political cartoons, has produced another in his brilliant series of political cartoon biographies, this time of that always fascinating character David Lloyd George, the Welsh wizard (the one before Nye Bevan).  Illustrated with numerous contemporary cartoons of the great but controversial man, some of them not previously published in modern times, the book’s text includes a highly readable  potted biography of LG followed by an informative and lively commentary on the cartoons themselves, setting out their historical background and explaining political references in them with which the modern reader might be unfamiliar.  Not all the cartoons are designed to be ‘funny’, but nearly all make an often sharp political or personal point with more impact in a smaller space than a paragraph of writing could hope to achieve.

Full disclosure:  Professor Mumford and his wife Denise are among my own and my wife’s oldest (in both senses!) friends.  Before Alan embarked on publishing his cartoon collection books, he had been the author and co-author of many authoritative and much esteemed books on management and management training.  For details of all these you can do a search for ‘Alan Mumford’ on Amazon.

More information about this eminently collectable book is provided in the book’s flyer, including links to the page devoted to the book on the Lloyd George Society website and to the relevant page of the publishers’ website where you can order a copy of the book for the modest sum of £20 (+p&p).  Please click on the picture below to see the full-size flyer and to access in it the web page for buying it.

Mumford-LlGeorge flyerMumford Lloyd George flyer thumbnail

 

Mumford-LlGeorge

PS:  If you enjoyed the Mumford collection of Lloyd George cartoons, you’ll be sure to enjoy equally my own book describing “What Diplomats Do: the life and work of diplomats” — details and link to order form with generous discount here.

Brian