Thursday, 27 October 2011

If you want to make good policy, you have to understand your history

I'm always banging on about poor policy-making.

Think about its ubiquity. Overly sado-masochistic economic policy in the early 1980s? European Exchange Rate Mechanism debacle? Iraq War? Tuition fees foul-up? All good instances of where a historian might have helped. Respectively, experts on the Great Depression, British Governments' attempts to avoid devaluation between 1961 and 1967, the Suez Crisis (above) and inter-war health charging might have all said: er, don't do this. It'll go awry.

Whitehall and Westminster don't listen all the time. But they should.

Recently, historians have begun to sharpen up their act, and the History and Policy group at King's College London, with whom I am remotely associated, are a good example.

I could give you lots of examples of their work, but let me zero in on just a few.

Want to know why we'll need a fundamental overhaul of our politics, re-creating a sense of community and shared sacrifice, if we're to fight global warming? Read Mark Roodhouse of York on the 'blitz spirit' and wartime rationing.

Want to know why the Conservative Party in Scotland is unlikely to make a comeback, new name or no new name? Read David Torrance on the manner in which the Scottish Nationalists have (bizarrely) moved onto the intellectual ground the Unionists used to monopolise.

Want to understand the possible conditions under which the Euro could survive and, indeed, thrive? Read Richard Roberts of King's College London on the Austro-Hungarian currency union and the powerful central bank that made it work.

These are all examples of how history (and History) should guide decision-making. Have a good look round the site. Wouldn't it be better if Ministers browsed here before they acted?

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Conservative Europhobes' faulty history

One of the most depressing things about Monday night's rebellion among Conservative backbenchers - of whom 90 voted for or abstained on a motion calling for a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union - was the lack of historical knowledge displayed among the Euro-sceptics.

They're aware of the long campaigns for a new referendum, all right.

But as for the wider history of going in and staying in? They were and are nowhere near the mark.

Because there are two reasons Conservative and Labour leaders such as Harold Macmillan (above), Harold Wilson, Edward Heath and Jim Callaghan went into Europe, and fought to stay there. They can be filed under 'national interests' and 'necessity'.

In the 1950s and 1960s Britain's growth lagged behind that of continental Europe. That was to some extent because Europe's war-shattered economies started some way behind, and during the 1950s were catching up. But after the Treaty of Rome in 1957, which envisaged and then built a Common External Tariff wall around the original six members of the EEC, this disappointing economic performance was also due to the fact that the UK was locked out of a huge, dynamic and advanced market - right next door. Both Macmillan and Wilson decided that Britain had to be 'in' rather than 'out'.

And here's the vital point. Many Conservative backbenchers want to 'renegotiate'. They want to become members of a European Economic Area, along with Norway and Switzerland, enjoying free trade with the EU but not being subject to its laws. But any half-decent historian knows that this is what Macmillan and Wilson wanted too. And they couldn't have it - because the French wouldn't let them. The British wanted a 'pick and mix' Europe in which they could keep their trading links with the USA and the Commonwealth (and the wider world). The Six said: no, that would breach the Common External Tariff and drag the internal market's coherence down to the lowest common denominator of any one country's taxes, benefits and low tariffs. It's not an al a carte menu, said General de Gaulle - twice. Take the set menu or stay out.

The UK is not Norway or Switzerland. It's not a small oil-rich country with oodles of a raw material other energy-hungry Europeans want. It's not a banking superpower that can hold its own whatever happens. It's a country whose trade has been moving Europe-wards since the 1950s, in an unstoppable process of economic integration that yesterday's Conservative and Labour leaders (by no means all of them Europhiles like Heath) understood. We might not like it - it means that European food costs much more than it would if we bought it from North and West Africa - but it's an irreducible fact of life. Get used to it.

This amnesia brings to mind John Major's 'warm beer and cycling to church' remark, in which he summoned up an England that never has been and never will be.

Or - now I come to think of it - proposals to roll back some employee rights at work, on the basis that they've 'gone too far'. Never mind that calls for security of work began to gain political or legislative purchase in the 1880s, let alone the 1980s.

The past is a historical weapon. It's important to know which bits of it are mythic nonsense. Withdraw from the EU and enjoy the benefits without the burdens of free trade? I don't think so.

Monday, 24 October 2011

England's university landscape: darker than ever

The latest news out of English Higher Education is not encouraging, to say the least. Surveys that show that one in ten potential students might be put off by the new fees structure. Rumours about today's early UCAS application numbers that show about the same drop in numbers actually applying, concentrated especially among mature students looking to attend mid-ranking universities in expensive cities. And that humanities courses might be suffering in particular.

It is certainly true that we'll have to wait a little while to see what those UCAS figures actually mean. The number of 18-year olds is going down anyway. And it's hard to see what the social or grade composition of the potential is at this early stage. But the numbers are highly suggestive. The era of English university expansion is over.

All this at the same time as the depressing uncertainty about what many universities really will charge. As English HE tries desperately to react to Ministers' latest screeching u-turns and hairpin bravado, some may lower their headline fees to take advantage of low-cost places 'freed' from the Government's overall cap. It's an unedifying picture of ad hoc policy adaptation, just made up on the fly.

So congratulations to Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Cambridge Vice-Chancellor (above), for speaking up and saying what a degree should really be about. Experiencing different views of the world. Developing a critical mindset that nevertheless remains constructive. Asking questions both of yourself and of the people around you. Wondering what it is to be a person.

Attaching such a figure as large as £27,000 to undegraduate courses can only add to the instrumental sense that one invests a huge amount of money in a course, and then expects a return on it. Indeed, the higher the return, the higher the payments, but the quicker they disappear. So 18 to 21-year olds might choose to take law, management, business and medicine to the exclusion of all else.

This poses a real problem for our society. As Borysiewicz asked: 'Medical science can make us live to 90. If you haven't got the arts and humanities what's the point of living until 90?'

As we await the outcomes of one of the most reckless gambles in the history of British public policy, we can only say: hear, hear.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

City protests: no-one knows where they're headed

Occupy Wall Street and Occupy London are fascinating examples of a groundwell of feeling about the banking sector and its power. Tens of thousands have marched around the world to express their discontent about the financial system and its disproportionate rewards and influence. About 250 protestors are continuing to camp out at St Paul's Cathedral (above) to register their disgust at a sytem which nationalises the costs failure while privatising the benefits of 'success'.

Conservative newspapers, politicians and thinkers have expressed sympathy for the anger. But they haven't moved much from their position that financial services, and City workers in general, are crucial to Britain's tax base, its balance of payments and its prosperity.

In the long run, they might be highly significant. The Chartists, campaiging for universal suffrage in the early nineteenth century, saw their halcyon days and attempt to emulate continental revolutionaries peter out on Kennington Common. 'Established' opinion and 'common sense' condemned the Suffragists. The Socialist Medical Association spent years fighting for a national health service that would be free at the point of use. Conservative Ministers poo-poohed 1980s and 1990s grass roots movements calling for a National Minimum Wage. Did it destroy jobs, as they claimed it would? Er, no.

All of those ideas seemed outlandish to many at the time. But in the end they came to seem irresistible - a process in which sit-ins, petitions, protests and speeches were vital, whatever some official, archivally-based or 'top-down' histories say. Last year saw the UK elect its first Green Member of Parliament - something deemed impossible a couple of decades ago.

Occupy Wall Street and London's City protestors might just fade away, a few concessions hemming in bankers' behaviour all they have to show for it in the short term.

But in the long term? We might be witnessing an upheaval that historians write about for many decades to come.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Conservatives beware - women voters might walk away

One of the main reasons for the Conservatives' electoral dominance in the twentieth century was the Party's popularity among women voters.

This 'gender gap', in which women voted for the Conservatives in much greater numbers than men, gradually faded away in the 1980s and 1990s, though the gap was only closed finally at the 2005 general election.

Scholars reckon that women were put off by the 'macho' and male-dominated culture of the trade unions and the Labour Party, choosing perhaps to take out their frustration with their own Labour-supporting husbands within the privacy of the ballot box. Inflation, that bugbear of anti-Labour voters and thought from the 1940s onwards, hit housewives disproportionately hard as they shopped for household goods. The Conservatives appealed to an idealised vision of family life, for instance in the 1959 election, during which the party put up poster after poster of a happy family tucking into a huge dinner or watching their new television.

And so on. Mrs Thatcher, with an appeal to women voters all her own, was later to mix these elements together in a powerful electoral cocktail.

Now that's all at risk. Why? Because the evolving economic and social situation is turning women off the Coalition in their droves. Most of the Coalition's falling poll ratings are due to women turning away from its message and intent.

Retail price inflation is raging again. Women are much more likely to lose their (low paid, part time) jobs in this Great Recession than are men. Pension changes seem to be discriminating against women, especially older women who are likely to vote. The withdrawal of some public sector services (for instance Sure Start Centres) will make most women's lives much, much more difficult and exhausting. Most of the Government's key figures are men. David Cameron's 'calm down, dear' quips don't help.

Right now, David Cameron has the opportunity to remake the political scene and emerge as a new type of centrist Baldwinite Conservative.

But he ignores women voters at its peril. If this continues, it won't be Baldwin he'll be compared to. It'll be the one-term Prime Minister Edward Heath.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Great recessions don't necessarily make governments unpopular

Well, today what we've known for some time became even clearer: we're all going to be feeling a lot poorer over the next two years. An Institute for Fiscal Studies report is absolutely adamant that unemployment will rise, incomes will stagnate, poverty will go up, and inflation will probably remain stubbornly high. Even those of us who still have jobs will feel less well off and more insecure.

Bad news for a government which is going to preside over the fastest fall in living standards since the mid-1970s?

Well, you'd think so. But I think that's unlikely, and twentieth century British history is in fact pretty clear that governments need not suffer in such circumstances.

For one thing, all elections are a choice between alternatives. The electorate shows absolutely no desire whatsoever to elect a left-leaning government under Labour's leader, Ed Miliband. Impressions of political leaders are settled very early in every Parliament. William Hague looked dead in the water very, very quickly - as even some of his own party grandees said at the time. So did Iain Duncan Smith. So, to go further back, did Michael Foot. That's one political reality that's not changed.

Neither has the aura of success or failure. It will escape most people's notice that the IFS has long been saying that the next few months and years will be the worst since 1975 and 1976 - just as spending cuts on a very similar same scale to those years rain down on an anaemic recovery. But the Labour governments of that time, led first by the wily Harold Wilson and then the avuncular, popular, 'normal' Jim Callaghan, were relatively popular - until the Winter of Discontent brought British social democracy crashing to the ground. Why? Because its leaders looked like they knew what they were doing. Because they were able to say 'we inherited a mess'. And because the Labour Party represented many of the British people's instincts about how to ride out an economic and social crisis.

Sound familiar?

It is of course always possible that the Coalition will run into its own crises - more about this later in the week, especially if the Defence Secretary is forced to resign - but at the moment, the constantly-worsening news from the economy doesn't mean anything is settled about the future of British politics.

Modern political history tells us only that ongoing and chronic recessions create political opportunities. But someone has to go out there and seize them. At the moment, that's David Cameron.

Friday, 7 October 2011

'Britain and the Sea since 1600'... Not bad?

Another review for Britain and the Sea since 1600 (above) has come in. This one's probably the worst of the lot they have, as regular readers will know, been in general very positive - which comes as a bit of a disappointment.

But as I've said before - you can't please all of the people, all of the time.

This one is by Helen Doe, a University of Exeter Teaching Fellow and maritime writer. There's some praise here, specifically about its 'usefulness' for students.

But there's also some quite piercing commentary, to say the least. In particular, Doe objects to the lack of coverage of the great nineteenth-century shipping firms that girdled the world (e.g. P&O). And Doe would also have liked more on marine artists and the 'environmental turn' in ways of perceiving the sea and its value and vulnerability since the Torrey Canyon tanker disaster off Cornwall in 1967. Doe concludes:

This is an ambitious book that promises a ‘full-scale treatment of Britain's relationship with the surrounding oceans’ and yet it is inevitable, as O'Hara admits, that a single volume cannot be considered comprehensive. The book does provide a useful series of themes, but they are highly selective and provide a strangely uneven view.
There's probably some truth in that. It's impossible to cover more than four hundred years of history with the same sureness of touch, or indeed in the same detail. One is inevitably an expert (in the present blogger's case, in the history of economic and social policy) in some areas, while remaining relatively under-powered on others.

But in general the experience of reading Britain and the Sea's reviews has demonstrated to me how frustrating it is when expert readers say 'ah, you should have covered this', rather than engaging with 'I thought this was interesting, and this less so, in what you actually did cover'. I'm reminded about a phrase J.R.R. Tolkien used about his magisterial Lord of The Rings: 'the passages or chapters that are to some a blemish are all by others specially approved'. Daniel Baugh, you'll remember, wanted more on London and on the financial crisis of the early twentieth century. Hugh Murphy wanted more on 'Scottishness' within 'Britishness'.

Especially galling is the fact that a long section on nineteenth-century shipping companies ended up on the cutting room floor (as did a bit chunk about London). And, just as this review came out, I was in the National Archives of Scotland, researching a new article about - you've guessed it - environmental views of the sea and 'clean water' in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

So I saw the hole in the doughnut. But no one book can do everything. Mea culpa!

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Bad history: Cameron's speech was just wrong

At the end of an intensely depressing political conference season, marked by three quite bad leaders' speeches, there was a final kick in the teeth for those of us who think that we should link the past to the present, use evidence wisely, and draw on expertise.

For the Prime Minister (above) made a series of historical errors in his own address - British History blunders so fundamental, and so glaring, that I couldn't let them pass without comment. Have a look at what he said:
Britain never had the biggest population, the largest land mass, the richest resources - but we had the spirit. Remember it is not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog.
Well, yes - and no, no, no. Britain had a much smaller population than France at the time of its Industrial Revolution, it is true. But it grew much faster than its rivals, and its population became much more concentrated. It's not about the size of your population, but where they are, who they are, and how old they are. It never had the largest land mass, but it done have one of the longest coastlines in the world, full of good harbours that allowed it to take advantage of the age of commercial expansion and trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And as for 'the richest resources' - well, this is nonsense indeed. What about (as Nye Bevan had it) the coal of which Britain is made, and the fish with which its surrounded? What about its rivers, which provided it with motive power? Its temperate mix of rain, winter warmth (for a country this far north) and its rains?

Overall, Britain's ascent to world economic and diplomatic leadership was due to a complex mix of institutional factors (institutional stability, a patent system which allowed inventors to keep the benefits of their gains) and - yes - the resource endowments and population which the Prime Minister pooh-poohed. It had nothing to do with the nebulous 'spirit' he has invented and invoked.

And yes, I know that politicians are not supposed to be academic experts, but this was really poor stuff. Rhetoric we can cope with, and indeed it's a critical part of the practice of real politics. It's never done President Obama any harm - and indeed the heights of his oratory may well be important if he is re-elected. Winston Churchill famously sent the British (and particularly the English) past to war for him - a mythical and slanted view of history (and History), to be sure, but at least he'd read a lot of it.

This was thin gruel. It was full of errors. And it does no-one's national past any good - particularly from the leader of a government obsessed with 'our national story'.

We are constantly being told that voters are disillusioned with politicians. Is it any wonder?

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Mr Chancellor, you have plenty of room for manoeuvre

Now, where was I? Oh yes, that's it, economic policy and our ever-chancier edge towards the financial abyss.

As I've said here, again and again: politics is about choices. And the main choice the UK Government has made is to emphasise austerity. Cuts. Spending reductions. Talking down the prospects for growth. Talking up the 'crisis'. Saying that government and public sector debt are the problem - as David Cameron did again today, in his leader's speech to the Conservative Party Conference.

That's one of the reasons for the Prime Minister's near-disastrous flirtation, over the last 24 hours, with telling voters what they should do as regards their own personal finances. The more the nation's finances are compared to a 'maxed-out credit card', his political calculation goes, the more voters will sympathise with his plight as a harassed, over-borrowed head of household. Turns out people don't like being told what to do. What a surprise.

In fact, quite a lot of good news has been rolling in for some time - as you can see from the chart above (courtesy of some Economist calculations). Click on it if you want. Scroll back to late 2009, and those dog days of the bitterly divided Brown administration, and the Treasury was predicting that the year just ended would see the gap between government spending and government revenues reach 12 per cent or so of Gross Domestic Product. Since then, the gap has shrunk, and shrunk, and shrunk some more. Now nine per cent seems more like it. This despite the fact that the economy has slowed very rapidly in the last eighteen months or so - which should have forced the deficit as a proportion of national wealth up, not down.

Three per cent of UK GDP equals (I reckon, draws on paper) about £30bn. That's a lot of money. If I were Chancellor, I'd spend some of it. It would provide, for instance:

Free University tuition for everyone across the UK;
A doubling of regional industrial and business assistance;
A 2.5 per cent cut in VAT;
More movement on Income Tax thresholds;
A corporation tax holiday;
More road and rail spending;
An enormous dowry for a Green Investment Bank...

...and so on. And on.

Want to know where growth might come from? Instead of finding small change down the back of the sofa for 'credit easing' (whatever that is), or to empty people's bins every week, I think you can find it here.

In the breaking of the piggy bank. I'd rather go over the brink splurging, and trying to save the economy, than just drift over Niagara in a barrel. Because that's what the present policy amounts to.