Economists have always bemoaned about the lack of economic understanding demonstrated in the actions of our political leaders. However in Britain at least we have come to a unique time in our political history, a time when our leaders display an almost complete ignorance of the art of economic management.
The golden rule for the management of the economy should be don’t play fast and loose with the economy, because if you do it will come back and bite you. This our government did when the prioritised ideology and political advantage in negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU. They negotiated a deal that maximised the damage that would be inflicted on the British economy. The terms were so bad for the fishing industry that Scottish fisherman are registering their boats in Copenhagen as Danish, so they can sell their catch to the Europeans. The terms of the deal make it very difficult if not impossible to sell fish direct to Europe from Britain. Already with shortages in the supermarkets and a fuel crisis the government is having to backtrack on the terms of it deal, trying to minimise the negative impact of the deal. Already its going back on its hard line on European immigration in an attempt to persuade European HGV drivers to return to Britain, as a shortage of native HGV drivers mean food products are being left to rot in the fields or warehouses. Slowly step by step the government is removing the restrictions on European HGV drivers that it imposed in January.
Britain is a trading nation and whose peoples well being the well being is dependent on International trade. Only about 60% of Britains food is produced in the country the rest has to be imported. A fact understood by both the German Kaiser and Hitler in both world wars. They tried to bring Britain to its knees by stopping or limiting the import of food and essential raw materials through submarine warfare. Surprisingly the government of Boris Johnson has done something similar to what both the Kaiser and Hitler aspired. It has imposed barriers to the trade with our largest trading partner Europe. The barriers are the imposition of a complex system of controls on trade, so complex that many businesses either side of the channel have withdrawn from trading with Britain or Europe.
What passes under the political radar Westminster is businesses complaints about the large quantity of paperwork required to export to Europe, now we have left the single market. One exporter claimed that now they have to complete 28 separate forms when exporting to Europe, whereas before January that number was the imposition of new border controls trade with Germany has fallen. Imports from the UK have fallen by 56% and exports to the UK by 29%. If Germany was a small insignificant trading nation this would not matter, but Germany is the economic powerhouse of Europe, its largest economy. Soon if not already the UK will cease to be one of the top ten nations with whom Germany trades. Only a politician blind to reality could show indifference to such a catastrophic decline in trade.
Already significant sectors of the economy show marked signs of economic distress. Agriculture, fishing and the food processing industries are examples of this distress. The export of British cheese to Europe has become almost impossible. This downturn in foreign trade is significant because it means there will be a downturn in the level of economic activity, most likely leading to a recession. How far the downturn will go is hard to predict, all that can be said is it’s foolish to deliberately engineer a downturn is economic activity, as any downturn can gain momentum and leading to a very nasty recession. Golden rule number 2, it is easier to start a downturn in economic activity, than to stop one, so don’t start one unless there are compelling economic reasons for doing so.
What appears an unknown to our political leaders, is something called the economies of disintegration. Through reducing production on site and outsourcing it to the cheapest suppliers in the world, the cost of manufacturing has come down rapidly. There is no longer such a thing as a British car, parts come from all over the world. Under this system a car part such as the carburettor can go back and across the English Channel eight times, before the its assembly is completed. Now the government has hit the supply chains with a wrecking ball, no longer can manufactured goods pass freely between Britain and Europe. This wrecking ball is the mountain of paper work required by the import/export authorities of each country. While it can be said that the supply chains of business are far too long and too easily disrupted, it does not make any economic sense for the government to suddenly interrupt the free flow of goods in this supply chain. This will cause shortages and disruption in the domestic industries, as they have been denied the time to adjust to the changes. I cannot predict what will happen in the long term to British manufacturing industry, but the short term effect of interrupting the supply chain will be a decline in manufacturing industry.
If Boris Johnson and his Brexiter government is correct, all previous governments that believed British prosperity depended on increasing it trade with the rest of the world were wrong. Although this government boasts of increasing trade with the rest of the world, its rhetoric gives away the reality. When the government talks of the need for the spirit of the Blitz it is telling a different story. The Blitz was a time of shortages and rationing. Already there are plenty of indicators that the British economy is heading into a dark time, when shortages of goods become common place. A cartoon in a German newspaper sums this situation. A travel agent is talking to a couple who want to travel somewhere, where they can experience the shortages and inconveniences of the former East Germany, the agent recommends a stay in Brexit Britain.
When the economist John Galbraith discussed the means by which the horrors of the Great Depression of 1929 could have been averted, he said steps should have been taken to restore business confidence. A series of meeting between the President and business leaders would have done a lot restore confidence in the business community. Knowing that the government was taking their concerns seriously and acting on them would have done wonders to restore business confidence. Confidence is necessary if businesses are to invest and that new investment would have kickstarted the economy. Of all that I have mentioned this psychological factor is the probably the most significant. A loss of business confidence can easily turn a downturn into a recession or even worse a serious depression. Again Britain is a good example of what not to do in terms of leadership. The impression it gives is that it’s not listening to business. In response to concerns about the negative impact of the rise in gas prices on the biggest users, the government has made it clear it is not willing to help, except in extremis, as business has had plenty of government money already to tide it over during the pandemic, there is no more left. If anything can be more calculated to destroy business confidence, I cannot think of it. All this is compounded by the character of the Prime Minister. He is known for his lack of interest in the detail of government, as a leader he lacks gravitas. At the last Conservative party conference he amused those in attendance with a series of jokes. Those not at the conference noted his lack of interest in the crises that were happening outside the conference hall. The government’s actions, plus the knowledge that we have a lightweight as political leader, will do little to restore business confidence. Golden rule number three, when an economic crisis threatens government should act appropriately, it must never seem indifferent to the crisis. The sterling crisis of 1976 was in worsened by the Chancellor, Jim Callaghan on being questioned at the airport on his return from an international conference about the crisis, said’ ‘what crisis” giving the impression of being somebody not in command of the facts.
In the future students of economics and business studies will be given Brexit Britain as a case study in how not to manage an economy, or to put it more brutally how to turn a formerly prosperous nation into a basket case.
Politics in Britain appears to be a in state of stasis, nothing seems to happen. No longer is Westminster forum were the decisions crucial to our future well being are made, dullness and a ‘do nothing’ manner seem to prevail. In part this can be put down to Britain decline, both relative and real. Being now of relative global insignificance seems to have a negative impact, realising that are now figures of little significance, fearing that they can do little any import, they have lost the desire to do. However it might not he the loss of empire and the loss respect of the world’s leading statesman that account for this sense of ennui at Westminster. Economic theory offers an alternative explanation.
Parliament is dominated by two parties, although the rise of nationalist parties, in particular in Scotland pose a threat, the power duopoly of Conservative/Labour has not yet been seriously threatened. Duopoly is the extreme example of an oligopolist market and it is the theory of oligopoly that explains this political inertia or caution. Caution is the word that best describes the behaviour of oligopolists. They have reached this position of great power and don’t want to do anything that might threaten this power. What they realise is the power of their rivals is such that they have the potential to do great damage to them. Therefore they will do all in their power to avoid radical or aggressive actions that could provoke a damaging war with their powerful rivals. What they fear most is losing votes to their rival, much as the oligopolist fears losing market share to its rivals. What exist between oligopolists is an undeclared war or a truce of kinds. All fearing a damaging trade or political war that could inflict a death blow to their business or political party.
Oligopolists compete within certain parameters, fearing not to upset the apple cart. Businesses compete not with price but through advertising, marketing. Hoping at best to make modest inroads in a competitors sales. Similarly politics in Britain is another phoney war, conducted within strict parameters, parameters defined by the mainstream political culture. One of these parameters is responsible. Policies be responsible, not commit the partly to a great spending programme, because voters fear for their wallets. The political truism observed by all is increasing taxes is a vote loser, while reducing them is a vote winner. Also responsible politics doesn’t threaten powerful vest interests. The best example is the property lobby. Any policy that might threaten house prices is a ‘no-no’. This mainstream view also excludes as possible policies, those that while they may promise needed radical change, are too difficult to implement as they will upset power groups in society or voters.
In consequence politics is predominantly a war of words, each party claims that they possess that unique set of values that make them best suited to governing the country. Policy statements or policies spelt out in detail are anathema, as they can start a political bidding war in which each strives to out do the other. Potentially damaging to both parties as they have to make good on their policy promises. A leader can state that he wants every person in the country to have a job that guarantees a fair wage, an income that maximises their well being, but must never state how that would be achieved.
This can lead to the politics of dullness, with each party hoping to keep their share of the vote and remaining a major party. Hoping that this caution will be rewarded with those few extra votes that translate into a majority in parliament. The peculiarity of the British electoral system is that a marginally small but larger share of the vote can translate into a disproportionately larger number of parliamentary seats.
One other characteristic that political parties share with oligopolistic corporations, is a ruthlessness in preventing new entrants coming into the market. They are aware that their majority position in politics is always under threat, they are aware that the once in a lifetime event that changes the political landscape. A change which gives an outsider the opportunity to replace one of the two main parties, as occurred in the 1920s, when Labour replaced the Liberals as one of the two main parties.
This strategy is action is demonstrated by the risky strategy that the Conservative party adopted over Brexit. Its vote was threatened by the Brexit party, which one a majority at the last European election, through the support of disaffected Conservative voters. To crush this upstart the party adopted the Brexit party policy so depriving it of the political oxygen which it needed to thrive. This was a risky strategy as it meant their rivals the Labour Party could have opted for Remain, which would have put at risk their candidates in strongly Remain constituencies. Fortunately for them the Labour Party read the political runes and decided that majority opinion or the voters that mattered were for leaving the EU*. This about volte face by two predominantly Remainer parties, deprived the half of the nation wanting to stay in the EU unrepresented.
What can be said is that the British political system works to favour the two main parties in situ? No matter how outrageous their behaviours or betrayals, they need fear being voted out. British politics will continue in its outrageous but merry way refusing to countenance any change. Change that might threaten the power of the two dominant parties. Even when the crisis of climate change is becoming increasingly apparent neither of the two main parties will be willing to make the radical change necessary to help avert it. When the Conservative government reneged on its promise to install a national charging grid for electric cars, Labour remained silent. Fearing being accused of making irresponsible policy commitments that would threaten existing jobs in the motor trade, forcing on the country a change they may not want. Giving the leadership of Cop26 to any British politician is detrimental to the well being of the world. All that can be expected is lots of words, words used to say the right thing but devoid of meaning or commitment. Possibly this is a sign of Britain’s decline, a not willing to commit to anything that might threaten to diminish further Britain’s international power and reputation.
Economists see the free market economy as the end point of social evolution. Industrialisation and the market economy are but inevitable stages in the development of society. Sophisticated developed societies are market economies. They are the high point of social evolution, a belief best demonstrated in Francis Fukuyama’s claim that history ended with the development of liberal democracy. All these democracies were of course free markets. Human freedom has reached it’s zenith in the free market. (Milton Friedman even thought the killing and imprisonment of thousands in Pinochet’s Chile, as a price worth paying for the restoration of human and economic freedoms.)
This triumphalism of the market economists is a recent phenomenon. In the period after the second world war and as a consequence of the Great Depression, free market economists were a small discredited minority. Instead economists such as Karl Polanyi, Nicholas Kaldor and John Maynard Keynes who supported the state management of the economy were those held in the highest regard. However with the economic crisis of the 1970s, these economists fell out of favour to be replaced by the free market economists, who persuaded governments institute the new era of neo-liberalism.
Karl Polanyi is now one of those unfashionable economists that is now being studied again after the collapse of the market economy. What makes him so different from the free market economists is that he did not believe that free markets were a product of social evolution. He sees the economy as part of an integral part of a network of social institutions. Changes in the economy were a consequence of changes in wider society and changes in the economy in its turn changed the society in which it was located.
Polanyi traces the origins on the free market industrial society of today to Tudor society. The old military aristocracy was losing power to a new rising class comprised of small landowners and the merchants in the towns and cities. It was the demands of these two groups that kick started the social and economic change that led to industrialisation and development of the free market. Landowners wanted the rural peasantry off the land, so they could introduce new and more profitable farming methods. This was enclosure of common lands. Legislation made it almost impossible for the poor ‘inefficient’ peasant farmers to continue to farm the land. They could not afford the costs of enclosing their farmland. . The great merchants in the cities wanted the end of the guild system, which they believed restricted their ability to make money. Guilds imposed regulatory controls on their members, which the great merchants believed placed unfair restrictions on their ability to trade. These two groups were over represented in parliament. Also the great merchants (Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell) were the source of loans for a government that was always short of money. Consequently the government introduced measures to help both groups.
Once example was the vagrancy laws which could be used to control the landless peasantry. Landless peasants without work and no support within the community could be whipped and driven out of the community, so relieving the landowners of the obligation to support them. E.P. Thompson about the Black Laws introduced in the 18th century) which further disempowered the working poor. These acts introduced capital punishment for offences such as trespass or for destroying a farm gates. These had the effect speeding up the exodus of peasants from the land. Formerly the rural peasantry could collect fallen branches from the woods, now this was illegal. Similarly poaching as means of supplementing a poor diet was now a hanging offence. This created a new class of landless proletariat who would supply the labour for the new industries that were developing in the towns and cities.
This breaking of the link between the poor and the land, created the flexible and mobile workforce that the new industries would need. Obviously there were other important factors that facilitated the industrial revolution such as advances in technology.
If I understand Polanyi correctly the free market and industrialisation, were accidental changes following on from a power grab by the landowning and merchant classes.
Social and economic change produced a new ideology, that of capitalism. In the new social environment, people thought differently. What now ensured societies well being was Adam Smiths ‘invisible hand’ of the free market. Now the price system would be responsible for distribution of wealth, and consequent responsibility for people’s well-being. Poverty now was not deserving of amelioration, it was a consequence of a personal failings. However even Adam Smith was shocked at the brutal way the new capitalists were treating there employees in Glasgow. However the moral coda that he inserted at the end of ‘The Wealth of Nations’ stating that employers owed a duty of care to there employees was ignored. Capitalist ideology dehumanised society, people and land were now valued according to their utility. They were now things, society was commodified, people and land were things that were bought. Valued only according to their usefulness. This was according to Weber the process of disenchantment. What today has become known as financialisation. Society was an inhuman affair in which people only had value in their functionality.
Perhaps the best illustration of the new way of thinking is represented in the writings of those twentieth century economic historians who wrote that the introduction of the Factory Acts were responsible for the slowing of economic growth in the 19th century, as the money that should have been reinvested in the business was instead spent on wages or improving the welfare of the workers. This was the cause of Britain’s relatively poor economic performance compared to foreign rivals. There spokesman was the liberal MP John Bright who argued that the country’s continued prosperity was dependent on the continued exploitation of children in the Mills. An attitude that still prevalent today. During the 2015 election campaign Ed Milliband was criticised by a member of the audience for not understanding that the success of his business depended on his continued ability to continuation of that exploitation of his workers through the zero hours system. Some employers certainly in the medieval period treated their workers equally badly, but they did not boast of the fact, or claim that their behaviour had moral sanction from the nations code of ethics. Then the prevailing Christian code of ethics would have condemned such behaviour. The stocks were often occupied by tradesmen who had cheated there customers. Whatever the failings of the Middle Ages a different and anti capitalist ethics prevailed.
Polanyi writes that the unregulated free market is a threat to social order. The example he uses to demonstrate this is the Speenhamland system which was introduced in the late 18th century. Until industrialisation there was a thriving cottage based textile trade. With the introduction of new technology and the growth of the factory system, these people faced impoverishment. Trade was lost to the new mills taken and payment for whatever they produced was reduced to the price paid for such products by mills. In France the impoverished peasants together with the urban proletariat provided the foot soldiers that made revolution possible. This was avoided in Britain, because the poor could apply to the parish for relief. They never became as desperate as the working poor in France. The parish money enabled these workers to remain in their homes and provided them with sufficient money to satisfy there family’ basic needs. Unlike their French counterparts desperation did not drive them to revolution. There were no equivalence in England of the Chateau burnings of France.
One writer rightly describes Polanyi as a moral economist. All new economics students in the U.K. are taught that moral preoccupations have no place in the study and practice of economics. It is a science different in nature from ethics. Even today economists and writers prefer Polanyi without the moral dimension. Threats to the social order posed by the economy are said to bring forth a reaction, societies develop protective measures that seek to minimise the disruptive effects of the free market. Anybody who has read ‘The Great Transformation’ cannot fail to note his suppressed anger when he describes the impact of the Great Depression on people in Europe.
Polanyi is important today not just because he offers an alternative vision of economics and society; but because he was one of that great generation of economists, who persuaded governments that a new way of managing the economy was possible. A way that would prevent a recurrence of both the crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. Unfortunately a later generation of economists have persuaded governments to abandon the policies of these economists and revert to the failed economic policies of the 1920s.
One last point Polanyi makes and that is that the market based price system is only a recent historical development. Only in the last two to three hundred years have households satisfied a majority of there needs by exchanging money for goods and services in the market. Prior to take the market only provided a minimum of a households needs. There is no reason why the price system and free market will always be the means by which goods and services are distributed. When the managing director of the IMF warns of another Great Depression, all that can be certain is that the free market so beloved of the Neo-Liberals will disappear.
I have reached that time in my life when I find it impossible not the look back on my life and reflect on it. What I don’t intend to do is pass on my wisdom to a younger generation, all too often age is confused with wisdom. There are plenty of foolish seventy year olds around, certainly in sufficient numbers to disabuse me of any notion that age might in some way equate to wisdom. Instead passing on my tenets of wisdom, I make will some observations on life in general.
Kierkegaard is one of the most profound observers of humanity. One of my favourite sayings of his, is that public opinion is the dogs opinion. What is often claimed to be received wisdom is often nothing more than a series of fallacious understanding believed by the majority to represent truth. There are many occasions when society is swept by new and compelling misunderstandings of society and human behaviour. I say swept because even the most intelligent of people feel obliged to subscribe to the current nonsense that will now pass as accepted wisdom. Brexit Britain and Nazi Germany can be used to illustrate how public opinion can be corrupted
National socialism was the passion that gripped Germany in the 1930s. Jews, Jewish thinking and Jewish ways of behaviour were held have corrupted Germany society and to be responsible for the malaise into which Germany had sunk. Germany to recover its national health and natural vitality had to rid itself of this alien virus. A return to the Germany of folkloric heroes, men and women the becoming equals of the heroes Nibelungenleid. Once Germany was freed of the alien virus of Jewish cosmopolitanism this happy result would be achieved.
Brexitism is a nationalism similar to nationalism which swept through Germany in the 1930s, both identify an alien virus as being responsible for national decline and decay. Although in this example the alien virus is Europeanism, our national spirit Brexiteers believe has been sapped and fatally weakened through contact with European cosmopolitanism. Just as with the Nazis the solution is to eradicate this virus from U.K. society. What is proposed is a violent break with the greater Europe or the EU. Britain will be returned to splendid isolation on the of an island situated on the edge of Europe. Geographically European but politically anything but.
Not surprisingly the government’s of both countries adopted similar solutions to this problem. Expel those responsible for spreading the virus. Although the expulsion policy was less brutal in Britain, it is in essence it is similar to that of the Nazi’s. If people are denied to right to work and reside in the country, they will leave. In Britain it has been this has been enforced through the hostile environment which denies Europeans the right to remain in this country, while in Germany it was the violence of the brown shirts.
Brexitism is a nonsense, but a nonsense that is increasingly held by the political elite. A nonsense that is beginning to permeate all levels of society. In the 1960s it was believed that the quality of parliamentary democracy would be improved by the influx of educated graduates as MPs. Yet it is these very people that have become enthusiasts for Brexit. It is as if are governing classes are gripped by a religious fervour, a fervour that prevents them accepting anything contrary to their belief system.
The parliament of local squires and trade unionists of the past so derided by political commentators in the 1960s; was the one that withstood the fascism of Mosley and his blackshirts and resisted Hitler in the dark days of 1940. Today’s parliament of graduates (often educated at the elite universities) have surrendered their integrity to nothing more than a media campaign led by a group of populists.
Nietzsche despite being claimed as one of there own by the Nazis was nothing of the kind. He was a fierce critic of German nationalism seeing it correctly as yet another non thinking belief system of the majority. It was for him the wisdom of sheep, the herd instinct, the wish to fit in and be the same as the others. An unquestioning desire to live like others. This is why he opposed democracy, believing that it would give power to the undistinguished middle classes. As today’s parliament is drawn overwhelmingly from the middle classes, it is worrying to think that Nietzsche might be right. The next Prime Minister is criticised for being a follower of public opinion. In the words of one critic he sees which way public opinion is going, and then rushes to the front saying follow me. If this critic had been brutally honest, he would have said that the same is true of the majority of MPs. Unfortunately we are led by a parliament of sheep that are constantly looking for somebody or something to follow. Prior to the referendum of 2016 the parliamentary sheep believed that public opinion favoured remaining in the EU, now although by a small margin public opinion was demonstrated to be the contrary, these sheep switched sides. Truth they believe resides in majority opinion.
Returning to Kierkegaard he believed that it did not matter, if only one man believed the truth. The truth was the truth no matter how many believed it. Therefore it was of no consequence, if what the majority believed was wrong. He took this belief to extremes, believing that the Danes were insufficiently Christian lived a life contrary to the mainstream, provoking controversy about his person hoping his example would lead Danes into changing their lives. His appearance helped in his task as he looked distinctly physically odd. One leg seemed shorter than the other, his badly fitting trousers gave that impression. He tried to be a Danish Socrates button holing people in the street and engaging them in a conversation through which he demonstrated the unsoundness of their beliefs. As a figure of controversy and mockery, he certainly was a lone speaker of Christian truths. The isolation and mockery made him convinced that he was a martyr for the truth. He found this martyrdom unpleasant, but thought it necessary to bring Danes to a sense of the truth. Although his martyrdom failed to change any minds, his books did for so later generations, who appreciated his unique approach to truth.
What Kierkegaard and Nietzsche shared was a scepticism of the received truth. This isolated them from there fellow men. Truth is often more offensive to people that the accepted lies by which live their lives. A knowledge of the thinking of the sceptic philosophers is the best protection against the fallacious enthusiasms that periodically sweep through society which carry others away. I cannot believe that anybody schooled in scepticism can believe in nonsense, such as that preached by our Brexiteers.
What must be understood is that Brexit (Britain’s leaving the EU) has no economic justification? All post Brexit scenarios will leave the British people poorer and in the event of a ‘no deal’ substantially poorer. Instead it best understood an expression of the political classes ‘amour propre’ or self worth. Politicians want to be participate in some history changing event, so they can demonstrate there ‘greatness’ of spirit. This is why they remain so nostalgic about 1940, they want also to be known for their membership of a great and noble generation of politicians, that saved their country. Reputation counts for everything amongst the political class. Being members of a community of nations greatly restricts their scope for leadership and individual distinction. Free of the shackles of EU membership they will be freed to demonstrate their leadership qualities. Theodore Roosevelt demonstrated this when he expressed regret that during his time as US President, the US had not participated in any war. He was denied that opportunity to distinguish himself and earn glory for himself and his country.
While it may not be true that most British politicians want to wage war on their neighbours, they do want the bully pulpit from which all US President’s operate. This is why since 1945 Britain has been eager to demonstrate that it is the major power in Europe. Unfortunately they have never been able to demonstrate this, as Germany and France have been unwilling to play second fiddle to Britain. Free of EU membership these politicians believe (misguidedly) that they will as leaders of an independent nation able to play the great game of international politics. Reality will strike on leaving the EU and these politicians will discover that as leaders of a small nation off the coast of mainland Europe, they will be relegated to being just another group leaders from a small nation, shooting from the back of the room hoping to attract the attention of the great powers at the front of the room.
There is another compelling reason for Brexit. Britain has been in relative decline since the late 19th century. In 1914 Britain was still a great power, but by 1945 exhausted by two wars it was reduced to being a minor player in world affairs. In 1949 Britain became bankrupt, ruined by a run on the pound, and only to saved from the ignominy of bankruptcy by a large US loan. Politicians have recognised that this decline has robbed them of their power to play a significant role in world affairs. As a consequence politicians have resorted a number of increasingly ploys to arrest this decline. These ploys have become increasingly desperate, the latest being Brexit. The shock of leaving the EU will revolutionise British society and economy. Europe with its rules and regulations they believe stifles individual creativity and enterprise. Freed from them Britain will enjoy a new industrial renaissance and become an economic power house. Unfortunately history demonstrates shocks such as Brexit have the reverse of the intended effect. The Neoliberal experiment of the early 1980s destroyed 20% of British manufacturing industry, if Professor MInford is to be believed Brexit will destroy the rest. As a British citizen all I can hope that is the last desperate gamble of a political class obsessed with dreams of past Imperil glory and that the reality of Brexit will finally destroy any such illusions they hold about Britain being a great power.
As somebody with a keen interest in history, I often see in past times leaders who resemble those of today. I see in the last three Caesars, Caligula, Claudius and Nero men who embody the characteristics, so often demonstrated in the behaviours of contemporary politicians. Caligula was mad and brutal, once slaughtering a senators son and forcing that same senator to share in his jokes about his dead son. This senator having one surviving son was forced to participate in this charade to preserve that son. He was reputed to have wanted to make his horse a senator and to have declared war on the sea. Claudius was a vindictive mediocrity, who ordered an invasion of Britain, so he could have a triumph in Rome. He believed this would establish his right to the throne. Claudius was poisoned by his wife, so her son Nero could become Emperor. Nero was a vainglorious man who believed that he was a talented poet, musician and playwright. He was neither, but his courtiers out of fear flattered him by praising him as a talented artist. Madness, mediocrity, charlatanry and vaingloriousness are personality traits that I can identity in so many of contemporary leading politicians.
Although contemporary political leaders no longer have the power or right to kill their enemies, they as so many vindictive Caesars try to destroy them. The media can be relied upon to indulge in the character assassination of their rivals. Any right wing politician can expect the media to conduct on their behalf the most vituperative and vile attacks on their left wing rivals. Intimidation is their weapon of preference. It is no coincidence that so many politicians are poor public speakers. They don’t need to employ reasoned speech, as they have much more effective means of silencing their critics.
Without exception the person who abuses, exploits and intimidates people is recognised as the person best qualified to be leader. These are people who amongst our friendship groups, we would reject recognising them as unpleasant dysfunctional individuals. Today power and the ability to use and exploit power are seen as the only political virtue required of a politician. What we worship is the abuse of power. Bad behaviour by our leaders is excused as being necessary to get the job done.
Contemporary politics lacks any great motivating belief or ideology. The politicians who govern us today have grown up in what is an age of relative plenty*. They and the people found the great ideologies of the past unnecessary, as no great change was needed in society, all were well fed and housed. The great anger at the injustices of society of which gave rise to the great reforming and revolutionary ideologies of the past was no longer there. The left grew complacent and abandoned socialism and was negligent in the protecting the rights of the people.
Whether it be called individualism or something else, people saw the life as being the acquisition of material goods, the securing of a comfortable lifestyle. However in this complacent society, there were the malcontents. These malcontents were of the right, the wealthy right. They wanted a return to the unequal society of the past. A society that gave them a unique set of privileges of wealth and status. They wanted back a society that deferred to wealth and privilege.
All societies have periods of crisis, any organisation created by fallible mankind is prone to periods of failure. When the economic crisis of the 1970s occurred, rather than take action to remedy the most obvious failings of a society that served most people well; the right seized the initiative and implemented a series of changes that would create not a society that served all well, but one that served to benefit a small group of the most privileged.
They also had an ideology, Neo-liberalism which claimed that by dismantling the regulatory state it would free the economy to create more wealth for all. These regulations which they were so eager to destroy were those that protected the well being of the people. Soon even the political left adopted this philosophy believing it the only means of attaining political success. Neo-liberalism is a belief system empty of any moral code. The only moral value that can be ascribed to this philosophy is a belief in success to be achieved at any cost.
What Neo-liberalism created was a moral waste ground, a society in which the old social contract was destroyed. No longer did the political leaders govern in the interests of the people, so the people no longer gave there consent to be governed by their current leaders. Dissatisfaction with the political leadership has grown, increasingly people have turned to political groupings outside parliament which promise change. Change that will benefit them the people. Although these leaders are charismatic, what they offer is unreal solutions to real problems. Solutions such as leaving the EU as the means to restore national prosperity and pride. These political groups are so like the millennial cults of the past, that offered magical but unreal solutions to real problems. Since they preach the impossible, they don’t employ reasoned argument, but the tactics of the advertising industry to sell there set of impossible truths. Criticism of such movements only attracts hostility and threats. The British Brexiteers constantly make threats about what will happen if they are denied. A threat left unspecified.
Returning to my main argument since the onset of the Neo-liberal revolution we have been taught that the only people that count are the ‘movers and shakers’ of society. Such people can be identified by their abrasive personal style and there contempt for the ordinary people. The billionaire heroes of Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Unchained’. Even politicians that are far from being characterised as movers or shakers feel they have to adopt this mode of behaviour. A politician would feel insulted if they were described as principled and of good character. Unless of course it was in their election literature and being used as a means of winning votes.
There is also the self fulfilling prophecy. Our expectations of the political class are so low we expect them to behave in an unprincipled manner. Any politician that behaves differently is an object if suspicion.
* This has become increasingly less so since the Neo-liberal reforms of the late 20th century and the financial crash of 2008
This essay was prompted by an article in the left of centre daily newspaper that I read. In it the journalist (who is an economist) claimed that Brexit would be a non event similar to the millennium bug. It was an article I thought so typical of contemporary journalism, a well written article with a simple story line that ignored inconvenient realities. He dismissed those experts such as the Governor of the Bank of England, stating that they had constantly misread the economic runes and their predictions were always proved to be wrong, so why should we take their warnings of a bad Brexit deal seriously. Instead he preferred to trust the politicians, the realists who would deliver a good Brexit deal. In colossal misreading of history he said that the good guys, the politicians would deliver the best possible of Brexit deals. One can only believe he is ignorant of history, a history in which ill informed and incompetent political leaders led their country into disaster.
There is one disturbing feature of this article which in so characteristic of contemporary journalism. That is the disparaging of experts and expert knowledge. What he is suggesting is those who know a something about their subject are to be distrusted and instead we should listen to the politicians who know little or nothing about the subject. He trashes the idea that there is something that can be called human knowledge. As Mark Carney and the British Treasury have so often got things wrong, he claims that this proves that there is nobody who knows what is really going to happen in the economy, least of all the experts. Therefore it is just as well to trust the ‘know little’ and ‘know nothings’, as their sense of realism will prevail and they will deliver a good deal on Brexit.
Just as with so many who have studied economics, he can see no role for human folly in history. Unlike him I cannot consider the current generation of political leaders who have demonstrated serial incompetence in their roles, as the best people to be in charge when the country faces the existential threat that is Brexit. Can anybody really claim that any of our leading politicians have actually improved the performance of the departments in which they ran. The list of there failures is endless, transport, prisons, schools etc. This is why one minister has the unkind nickname of ‘failing Grayling’.In this government the good minister is the one that fails to made the department of which they are in charge worse.
However fairness demands that this journalist be judged as an economist. He bases his article on the claim that Mark Carney and the other expert economists got it wrong, when they said that Brexit would be bad for the economy. In his article he writes of several examples that demonstrate that the economy is sound and prospering, in spite of the referendum vote. Yet as an economist he should know that Mark Carney once the Brexit referendum was announced immediately pumped money into the economy to prevent the crash he warned against. This created cheap money and as interest rates were so low people borrowed to supplement their low incomes. Economic growth or what he terms prosperity has been founded on a rapid and unsound expansion of consumer borrowing. Such borrowing cannot continue for ever and the economy is rapidly coming to resemble that of 2008, when an over indebted economy crashed, with dire consequences for us all.
What this left wing journalist also fails to mention is inequality. The prosperity that he sees demonstrated in his local supermarket, excludes the millions on low pay. Those millions in the gig economy suffering the twin evils of low pay and insecure employment would have a very different view of the economy to his.
Possibility John Ford in his film ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ had it correct, when his newspaper man confronted with an awkward truth, says it is better to print the myth than the truth. Similarly too many journalists prefer as does John Ford’s newspaperman to print the myth. In this case it is the myth of British exceptionalism.
Recently a visitor to my house, scoffed when he saw that I had been reading a book on stoicism. Stoicism was to him a philosophy of a dead past, which was of no relevance today. Actually the books of the past can have a lot to teach us about contemporary society. Human behaviour and motivations amongst the great and powerful change little.
Erasmus despaired about the behaviour of the petty princelings that ruled the various cities of renaissance Italy. What particularly angered him was the damage wrought on their cities by these vainglorious princes and dukes seeking to achieve fame through war. Inevitably these wars turned out badly for their cities, even if they won there was the huge cost in wealth squandered and lives lost. He correctly identified this lust for fame in the ‘great men’ of his time, as the main cause of suffering amongst the peoples of renaissance Italy. This lust for fame is still a powerful motivator amongst our politicians. Although it is not a recent example Theodore Roosevelt*, regretted that he was unable to lead the USA in some Great War. War for him was the supreme test of a statesman’s leadership skills.
War gives politicians the chance to demonstrate their virility, it shows them to be one of that elite band, those who change the destiny of nations. This lust for war was so evident in the Presidency of George Bush. Even before the Iraq war his advisors were writing articles or giving interviews in which they stated that they were eager to demonstrate the superiority of the new American military technology. While Saddam Hussein’s Iraq provided just such an opportunity, it also provided an illustration of that old proverb that nobody wins a war. Iraq and the Middle East ever since has been involved in the turmoil of constant warfare, costing the US more men and resources than did the initial invasion.
Living in a country much diminished through historical mishaps our leading politicians have little opportunity to express their masculinity through war. Our military is so reduced in strength that our prospects of waging war without the help of a powerful ally are almost impossible. In the age of globalisation there is no longer the prospect of invading some weak and easy to beat enemy. They all have powerful friends who would intervene to protect their trading interests in that country. Although it was never acknowledged Britain could only wage war in the Falklands against Argentina with the permission of the USA.
Consequently our glory seeking politicians have to find a new enemy to beat. These enemies must fulfil two requirements, they must be internal so having no powerful foreign allies who could intervene on their behalf and offer the prospect of easy victories. One such internal enemy is provided by the state education system. Decades of vilification by the right wing press have convinced many that state schooling is nothing but a system of institutionalised failure. Any reform announced by an education minister will garner instant applause, as an overdue reform of a system that is failing our children. More importantly teachers and children can offer little effective opposition. Teachers organisations are too weak to resist any changes imposed by the minister. Children of course, do as they are told. Through portraying themselves as takers on of the enemy within, these politicians can achieve the fleeting glory of being tomorrow’s newspaper headline.
What these politicians really want is a foreign enemy to beat. Such an enemy can rouse the xenophobic instincts of that part of the population that distrusts anything foreign. These are the people for whom Europe is holiday destination offering sun and beaches, but nothing more. Our lusting for glory politicians have for decades waged a war of words against that enemy of Britishness, the European Union. Now they have succeeded and Britain is no leaving the European Union. They have won their easy victory. However even this war of words and policies proves the truth of the saying that all are losers hen it comes to war. They like the Italian Renaissance Princes have through their victory cost their country much. Slowly it is being recognised what damage this brutal rupture with our greatest trading partner will cause to the economy and wealth of the British peoples. Already the government is stockpiling medicines and asking food companies to do the same with food in preparation for a disastrous exit from the EU. Such is there lust for glory and a place in the history books, they ignore any evidence contrary to there beliefs. It does not matter how often businesses tell government that they don’t have the facilities to stockpile food, the government’s response is that because they have told business to stockpile food they have done all that’s needed to offset a bad Brexit. As one despairing businessman said, this lot could not run a fish and chip shop.
One myth to which these politicians refer is Britain’s glorious history, it’s standing alone against the Nazi enemy and its saving Europe from itself. However these politicians don’t realise that the war exposed the incompetencies of the governing upper middle classes. The discredit they incurred from the disasters of Dunkirk and Singapore* led to there loss of power in the post war election and the election of a majority socialist government. Now these same people are in words of a former leading politician leading the country into ‘an act of self harm’.
What Erasmus teaches us through his writings that all to often the wrong people achieve supreme power. Glory seekers who to achieve there place in the sun and doing so wreak immense harm on society in an attempt to fulfil there ambitions. His book ‘The Adages’ is full of warnings against letting such people achieve supreme power. Once this book was regarded as an indispensable read for statesmen, now it is largely neglected. Perhaps if it was still widely read our political classes would realise the dangers of having leaders who possess little more than a narcissistic sense of self belief. The political education of our leaders seem sadly lacking, as in both Anglo Saxon democracies the political classes are in thrall to narcissistic politicians.
*US President 1901-1909
*Media producers collaborate in the perpetuation of this myth. There are endless films about the miracle of Dunkirk, but none about the ignominy that was Singapore. The British commander General Percival managed the defence so incompetently that his army of 85,000 men was rapidly overwhelmed by a smaller Japanese force of 30,000 men. After this disaster many said that never again should such men (public school educated and of the upper middle classes) run the country. Now such men are again in charge and leading the country and demonstrating that as a class they have learnt nothing since 1942.
Although it was intended as an insult, directed by the Prime Minister at such as people such as myself that wished to remain a European citizen, it is a title I am proud to claim. Perhaps an example from my life explains what I mean. At the age of eighteen I left my country home to study at a University in London. I left behind what many would regard as an idyllic life. Our family’s life moved to a rhythm dictated by the seasons. Winter meant a slowing down, the time when nature itself entered a dormant stage. Although his work never became dormant it was by January reduced to what were a series of maintenance tasks. Then with the coming of spring when nature began to revive, he became more active in his working life. This was the breeding season, when hatched pheasant chicks from eggs in the incubator, to be followed by transferring the thousands of young chicks to small secure nurturing pens. Then when summer reached its peak he worked from dawn to dusk, transferring and settling colonies of pheasant chicks in the surrounding woodland. Although it was a hard life working as a gamekeeper he loved it. Having rejected the alternative of an easier life in the city. When asked why he did not want an easier life in the city, he said that he could tolerate the noise of the city. This digression is necessary to explain why it was a wrench for me to leave country life behind. I should add that all my childhood friends remained attached to the countryside. Consequently I became distant and estranged from them to such an extent that I now find it difficult to recall there names and facial features.
When surrounded by and living amongst people who loved the country life, why did I leave? The reason for me was it was a matter of growing into maturity, I felt that to remain I would be trapped in an eternal adolescence, a sense of ‘not-grown-upness’. I had grown out of the country life. Today when my wife suggests how nice it would be to retire to a country cottage, my reaction is panic. What country life represents for me is a closing in of the intellectual horizon. A panic akin to claustrophobia, a fear of losing that sense of freedom which I treasure.
Perhaps my schooling accounted to my sense of an intellectual claustrophobia. I studied at a country secondary modern. A school in which the boys were expected to become farm labourers, factory hands or members of the armed forces . The girls typists or clerical assistants. Our education virtually ceased at fourteen, as at that age we had learn all that was needed to perform our expected future roles. What I developed was a sense of frustration, I knew that there was much more to learn, which I was being denied. Some of our teachers recognised our frustration, and by the time we reached the age of fifteen they offered us a chance to sit a new exam designed for secondary modern students. However even this was a source of frustration. The science textbook we used was the science of the 1930s. Obviously it was a reprint, but it ignored all the scientific developments that had taken place since 1945. What I can remember is that it state the space that made up most of the universe was the ether. I term I think that dated back to Isaac Newton’s time.
Although I loved the country life, I wanted more the escape from its narrow confining intellectual horizons. A rooted life, a sense of belonging for me was the surrender of my individuality. Going trout fishing at first light was an experience I will always treasure. However even when fishing alone in the early morning in the most idyllic of surroundings could not dispel my uneasy sense of being trapped. I could not see myself endlessly repeating this experience. I needed something more.
Unlike Theresa May I value that sense of rootlessness that she abhors. It gives you a chance to remake your self. There is nothing that forces or pushes you into a particular role. Now although everybody knew that I was a gamekeepers son, it was only for them a matter of some interest or curiosity, it was not my defining characteristic. In the country being a gamekeepers son circumscribed your opportunities. You were expected to fulfil one of two roles, either follow in your fathers footsteps or become a farm labourer. The only escape was to become a factory hand in the nearby town.
The young people I met in London, were cut adrift from there roots. All were seizing the opportunity to remake there lives. Revelling in the freedom that being an unknown gave you. None wanted to go back. Patriotism of the form that Mrs May is advocating was something we scorned, it was old a drawing back to our childhoods. How could you be a British patriot of this sort and enjoy the music of Jimmi Hendricks or all the other American stars. We wanted to be citizens of nowhere adopting whatever identity suited us at that moment. Our clothes, our appearance and behaviours represented a rejection of the past. London for the young then was at the centre of the youth fashion industry. Clothes were not patriotic they were international.
Within the youth culture there was an ironic attitude towards the symbols of patriotism. A clothes shop was named Lord Kitchener’s Valet. The historical Lord Kitchener was an austere unliveable, although competent general of the early 20th century and Empire. A man who stopped his men from shooting the mortally wounded enemy after battle, on the grounds that bullets cost money, he advocated the cheaper option of killing them with the bayonet. Now the shop that bore his name mocked all that he stood for, it celebrated frivolity.
With rootless goes a sense of openness, you are open to and welcome new experiences. Michael Oakshott said that education was the initiation into new experiences. This initiation he imagined would be achieved through an intermediary, the teacher. However the citizen of nowhere is a self education, always seeking to initiate themselves into new experiences. With this freedom goes a sense of emptiness. There are times when you reach barriers or limits to your intellectual explorations. I can look back and recall reading Baudelaire’s prose poems. He like me could suffer a sense of ennui. One such poem that expressed my discontent was the one in which he describes the bleak view from his window of the rainswept Parisian rooftops.
Now there is a closing in of the horizons. New patriots that is our Brexit seeking politicians see us ‘citizens of nowhere’ as a threat to them. I think because we pose a threat to the easy certainties they cling too. Europe is a threat to them as it threatens there certainties. The cordon sanitaire
that protected there world of childish certainties has gone. Europe is now longer across the channel its here, its there neighbour. These new patriots don’t want change, they want it kept away from them. Rejecting Europe is an anguished cry of pain. Not only do they want to expel Europe from their country but they also want to suppress the fifth columnists such as myself that are a viper’s nest of ‘foreigness’ and strange ideas. I am abused as a member of the elite, my education they say has rendered me unfit to be a man of the people. I have lost what they see as my sense of Britishness. Strangely enough politicians who are Oxbridge graduates and members of the upper middle class, don’t suffer from this curse of ‘eliteness’.
Theresa the many of us ‘citizens of nowhere’ will continue to reject your notion of Britishness. We don’t want to retreat back into your comforting world of childish patriotic certainties. Unlike you we want to embrace the world out there. Fortress Britain is a chilling idea, a denial of that step forward that means embracing the uncertainty that is out there. The patriotism of yourself and your colleagues represents nothing more than the suffocating dullness of a familiar comfort blanket.