Friday, 24 August 2012

The new history of the sea: the surge continues

 It's interesting. Every once in a while, historians seize on a topic - apparently without co-ordination - that brings them all together.

At the moment, it's the sea. Now I know that every time you start reading about something yourself, you see the same topic everywhere - I've done the same myself, on (for instance) Scandinavian influences on public policy, or the effect of the apparently impressive performance of the Russian economy in the 1960s. Other authors look at the influence of the Cold War in domestic politics. Or whatever.

But the sea has a new-old fascination - especially for the British - that's now come around again.

I've been thoroughly re-reading David Abulafia's The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean (above) and looking for the first time at Philip Marsden's imaginative The Levelling Sea, a personal and touching account of the history of Falmouth, in Cornwall. Both contain exactly the elements familar from the new histories of the waterborne world: imaginative reconstruction of what life on and around the seas was actually like; acute political and cultural judgements about the role of geography; a sense of the inward-outwardness of places Marsden says have their 'faces turned to the water'; a really visceral feel for people moving; and the influence of war, conflict and political upheaval on average people's lives.

Why has this relatively novel fascination taken hold? Well, I've always argued myself that a new age of globalisation makes us think about previous ones (in the Roman era, just as much as during the late nineteenth century rivalry of maritime empires). How did regionalisation work, rather than just the one-dimensional or 'flat' globalisation of the technophile web enthusiasts amongst us? What happened to class in an era of greater mobility? Did people act or feel different about nation, gender or sexuality once out of sight of dry land, rather like they do today in (clears throat) liminal tourist environments like Las Vegas (hello, Prince Harry)? How much do people really travel when they can, when it's cheaper than it was before? And do they travel in straight lines, to destinations afar, before coming home? Or do they move around these new globalised spaces in a more constant and chaotic manner? What's the effect back 'at home', for instance in Marsden's Cornwall, when people move around so much?

Take note about one thing you might not have known: per capita, there was much more 'churn', and much more migration, in the 1890s, than there is now. Globalisation? We don't know the half of it.

A lot of questions. And assertions. But also a lot of answers, in these two very different but also fascinatingly similar works which are, above all, hauntingly sensitive about real people experiencing, fighting and often surmounting real crises and dilemmas. As Abulafia puts it in an Introduction that lasts long in the mind: 'the roulette wheel spins and the outcome is unpredictable, but human hands spin the wheel'.

It all amounts to a new geographical turn - and it's a refreshing change from the post-modern turn of the 1980s and 1990s, the class-based history of the 1960s and 1970s, and the statist and traditional writings that dominated the mid-century. Long may the seasonal flood and the storm surge continue.

Please note: I am now away again until at least Monday 3 September. Even historians have to have a break sometimes! Full service will resume then, but for now - Happy Holidays! And thanks for reading - I'll get on with talking about the deficit, about economic growth, about the American Presidential election, over-fishing and about the crisis of care in our ageing society when I get back. I promise. For now, adieu.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Britain's budgetary retreat: when will they ever learn?

It's tough being Chancellor. The wind can change. The skies can darken. Events can take over.

But there's no excuse for getting the single most important thrust of policy - the budgetary balance, and the mix of spending within that budget - totally wrong. That's what Chancellor George Osborne (above) did when he adopted his 'fiscal mandate' - to eliminate the structural deficit (that part not explained by the ups and downs of the economy), and to see debt falling by the end of this Parliament.

There's not much chance of that now - not unless the UK economy goes on an unlikely (but possible) growth streak between now and 2015-17. Yesterday's news, that borrowing is in fact going up and not down, despite the medium-term trend of a falling deficit, is just the latest sign that the strategy hasn't worked. The figures are highly uncertain at this stage, but a weakening of the fiscal position in July - when the books are usually in the black - is an ominous sign indeed. There are some one-off reasons for this, of course - the North Sea oil flowed rather less strongly than usual - but these are harbingers of the energry-scarce world to come, not the 'blip' civil servants think they can dismiss with a wave of the hand.

That's what we've been saying here for two years: that the Coalition's plan to cut so rapidly, and to do this by slashing infrastructure spending rather than current outlays, amount to the most misguided fiscal policy since the disaster of 1980-81. That debacle destroyed a quarter of British manufacturing industry in just a few months; this one has taken us into the longest recession since the 1930s (and possibly since the late nineteenth century). It's no consolation to be able to say: 'I told you so' (though I will anyway, thank you very much). That just shows how few people listen to academics - and to economic historians.

It's no wonder that the Chancellor's erstwhile cuts allies are turning against him, and that Liberal Democrats are talking about drawing up their own economic strategy that relies somewhat less on cuts, cuts and more cuts. On the day that the Greeks are asking for more time to deliver their own austerity 'package' (for which read: unlikely and unrealistic fantasy), it's a salutary reminder that there are alternatives to our present masochism. There are always alternatives. As we've said here before: build more houses; build more roads; cut taxes... But do something. Anything will do at this stage - if it boosts aggregate demand. Some in Whitehall's corridors of power are beginning to come round to this case, if slowly.

Meanwhile, the Treasury is thought to be drawing up contingency plans to reduce spending still further, if the new Office for Budget Responsibility says that the fiscal mandate is unlikely to be kept in its autumn judgement. Another policy doomed to fail; another strategy that will undermine, rather than underpin, confidence. When, oh when, will they ever learn?

Monday, 13 August 2012

I'm off yet again...

But Public Policy and the Past will be back between Wednesday 22 and Friday 24 August, and then again from Monday 10 September. Happy holidays until then!

-The Historian

The Olympic nature of the true Britain

So the Olympics are all over. Crikey. That was emotional, wasn't it? Eagle-eyed readers will remember that this blog set Team GB a target of between 56 and 60 medals to match the historic average of home games' improvement over previous Olympics, taking into account factors such as size of population and size of economy.

And they did it. The medal count stands at 65 - and the number of golds at an extraordinary 29. It was a high bar, but they cleared it. Well done, everyone. Pats on the back all round. Perhaps a gin and tonic or a half of lager. Super stuff. The Olympics' biggest winner? The athletes themselves, of course, whose hard work and dedication has paid off at last. I defy you to watch (for instance) this video of Jade Jones' Taekwondo celebrations (above) without cracking a smile. Have a look at the meaning of Gemma Gibbons' silver without wiping away a tear, and you're made of stone.

And the British Olympics' biggest loser? This is unquestionably someone who should have been basking in reflected glory from the Games: David Cameron. Not content with making a series of bizarre and embarrasing racially-charged gaffes about 'Indian dancing' as an unacceptable school sport, he then tried to highjack the moment by announcing that sport would be compulsory in primary schools. That would be the same primary schools, of course, that the Government has been promising to withdraw from in terms of setting down what must and musn't be learned. His very presence seemed to prevent Team GB winning any more medals, as the 'Curse of Cameron' took hold. He was booed at the boxing. He made a complete fool of himself pretending to like boxing on the television (much as his previous attempts to pretend to like football have been eye-wateringly fake).

Then he called for 'more competition, more competitiveness' in state schools - only to be rebuffed by Jessica Ennis herself, who insisted that it's important that children enjoy physical activity early on, rather than getting put off by failure. The Prime Minister had ignored so many facts that it's impossible to believe that he works through his briefs - or indeed that he even reads the newspapers. It emerged that the Government had been selling off playing-fields itself - though some of these were surplus to requirements at closed schools. His biggest Conservative rival, London Mayor Boris Johnson, chided him for abolishing the requirement to teach school sports in the first place. And most of all - most galling of all - the whole made-up argument about school sport, which has come on in leaps and bounds for the past two decades, under governments of both political parties, is just plain wrong. Who does Mr Cameron think has been winning all these victories? Yes, that's right: young men and women who've only been out of school for a handful of years at most, and out of primary school for between (say) ten and fifteen. Seventy per cent of whom went to state schools. I ask you: is it possible to get things any more wrong?

The abiding impression? The PM has gone into reactive mode, surfing day-by-day headlines rather than thinking about strategy, ominously early in his premiership. All partisanship aside, listen to Tony Blair on Britishness and the Olympics on Radio 4, and you hear a politician expressing himself in a much more clipped, focused, argumentative and about coherent way. At the moment the Prime Minister is adrift, and he knows it.

But I digress. The main thing to take away from these games is that Britain isn't changing: it's changed. Who won all these medals? State school pupils, as we've seen. Refugees like Mo Farah, who came to Britain at the age of eight and built a new life for himself. Women boxers - one in the eye for sexists everywhere.

All this despite a nasty and vituperative campaign against so-called 'Plastic Brits'  mounted by The Daily Mail. Every single Brit born abroad they added together to get to a count of 61 - despite campaigning for lots of (white) Commonwealth citizens to get passports to compete in the past. They haven't kept up that barrage, by the way, and they've retreated in the face of the more inclusive patriotism that faces them now. Perhaps they've realised that far too many famous Brits were born abroad to mount any campaign at all that isn't just embarrassing and self-defeating. If so, good.

But remember this, the next time you open one of our hatemongering shout-sheets: Britain has just been covered in glory by young people, by immigrants and by refugees. 

Broken Britain? Not a bit of it.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

My first film review: the year of the bat?

So I went to see The Dark Knight Rises the other night, proving - once and for all - that I do get up to things that don't involve (a) reading books, (b) writing about those books, or (c) shaking my fists about the poor quality of what passes for public policy in our times. It's nice to get out and about now again, isn't it?

So. My ears are still ringing, and my senses remain assaulted, by the vast, noisy, complicated, dingy, aggressive surge of filmaking that I looked at, open-mouthed, as the film made one damn fine effort to impress me. I'm sure I saw the kitchen sink fly past at one point, but still.

There was much to admire about this new Bat. For the first hour, Christopher Nolan as director comes close to redefining the superhero genre itself, threatening to remake an entire cinematic inheritance and to reshape the very nature of the hero and the quintessence of what it is to make difficult decisions in dark times. Plot-heavy and believable, it's here that the film scores its most abiding triumphs. The Dark Knight Rises, for more than a third of its run, looks and feels nothing like a superhero movie at all - a daring break with the spandex and derring-do of its early summer Marvel Avengers rival. Most of all, it's an ensemble piece. The central 'hero' can only succeed with the help of a huge team of extras and helpers, all of whom suffer for their attachment to him. That's a big change from the 'one man can make a difference' verities of American road drama and local heroism (1980s action hero Michael Knight, take note).

After that, though, the ear-ringing chaos descends. The Gotham City denouement (I'm trying not to give too much away here) lapses slightly back into traditional caped-crusader-with-gadgets mode. The payoff at the end is rather too pat for my tastes - especially as the audience has been teased with an impending sense of doom for nigh-on two and a half hours.

There's an annoying seven or eight minute sequence in the middle, where the film veers rather too much towards its Tale of Two Cities source material. Once the forces of law and order are out of the way, the city erupts into a posh-bashing frenzy which has the poor old denizens of Fifth Avenue out scrabbling in the gutter with their poodles. Revolutionary courts spring up. The revolution begins to turn in on itself. What a surprise. Stop me if you've heard all this bit before. It's not overtly political, despite the attempts of Guardian types to make it so, but it sure is crude and mishandled. 

More importantly, something philosophical is missing - some existential break with the past along the lines of the film's low-key opening, all characters, talk and narrative. Some of the early promise bleeds away later. How much better would it have been to have followed the film's source material, and broken Bruce Wayne, both physically and mentally? How much more satisfying to have had the courage of Nolan's nuclear-explosion convictions, and for the big bang to have wiped out The Bat entirely? Could the riot sequences have been edited more cleverly, to excise the jarring sense of a mob on the rampage mere seconds after the police had disappeared from the city's streets?

So it's not quite up there with must-see, jaw-dropping, kick-yourself-in-the-head, eye-poking action classics - it's not a Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, a Jackie Chan's Police Story 3. Close, but only half a cigar.

But you should still see it. It's big, bold, clear-eyed, adult, angry, suspenseful, rageful and sometimes even shocking. It's still resonating inside my head a week later, like I've stood inside a great big bell while someone was hitting it with a huge hammer. Go on. You won't regret it.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Even fatally wounded governments can stagger on for a long time

The Liberal Democrats' threat (or promise) to veto Parliamentary boundary reform means that the Conservatives will almost certainly not be able to form a majority government in 2015. It's that serious. You can look at the numbers here if you want, but does anyone really think that the Tories can gain an eleven point lead over Labour on the old electoral map? That's what they'd have to do - for an overall majority of one. Given that every single poll available shows a substantial slice of left-leaning Lib Dems moving over to Labour, that party is likely to win 35-36 per cent of the vote at the next election as a minimum baseline. A Conservative vote share of 47 per cent, anyone? Er, no. It's not going to happen.

So serious is this that many pundits still think that David Cameron (above) will still try to pass the new boundaries - as he's perfectly entitled to do, every single time the Boundary Commission reports under the new legislation. In every Parliament from now on, until a new administration changes the rules that (by the way) this column always said were a bit of a joke. What a mess. 

For now, all this is such a car-crash that commentators are asking how long the coalition can go on for, and whether the Lib Dems' leader, Nick Clegg, can hold on. Given that his party has now lost a fifth of its members, one is tempted to ask: why would he want to?

The lessons of history? Well, it's that governments and leaders can stagger on for a long time. Attlee went on for more than a year and a half after his majority was slashed to single figures in the 1950 General Election. Jim Callaghan's minority Labour administration lasted for nearly nine months even after the formal end of the 1977-78 Lib-Lab pact. John Major's government lurched ahead for years after its raison d'etre had been shattered by the European Exchange Rate Mechanism debacle in 1992. It even continued for three years after the effective loss of its overall majority in 1994, after eight Conservative MPs had the Parliamentary whip suspended (and one more resigned).

So we'll be in this nasty old mix-up for some time yet, I suspect. Suspended between a Coalition no-one really believes in any more, and a new dispensation - most likely a minority Conservative government, or a Labour-Liberal Democrat Coalition. Don't expect getting there to be quick - or easy.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Could Boris Johnson really become PM?

The previously-absurd idea that Boris Johnson (above), Mayor of London, might become Prime Minister when David Cameron steps down is doing the rounds. Conservative MPs are frustrated that they didn't win the last election; on the day their new Parliamentary boundaries look to have run aground, and their chances of winning the next election outright have therefore fallen to near-zero, they're probably apoplectic. So they're scratching around for someone with broad public appeal; somebody who talks 'human'; a politician who can persuade Labour and other voters to put an 'X' next to his or her name.

Donors, press backers and some backbenchers have now fixed on Boris, a politician who was able to defy the tide and win 'Labour London' back in May. 

Historians might well smile wryly. The Conservatives have a history of going for mavericks as their leaders. Benjamin Disraeli and Winston Churchill spring to mind, the one an ex-financial speculator and propagandist from a Jewish family who'd written a string of colourful political books, the other an ex-Liberal apostate who had a history of rebelling against the party whip - over everything from Indian self-government, the Abdication crisis, and then the appeasement of Nazi Germany. 

But hang on there. Disraeli had served for decades as his party's leader in the House of Commons. He'd written searing novels about the 'One Nation' problem - the relations between what he called 'the RICH and the POOR'. Churchill had served as a war correspondent in the Sudan, in the army, and been Home Secretary and Chancellor. What's Boris done? Appeared on a news quiz. Say a few mildly self-deprecatory things. Get himself sacked for bad (personal and public) behaviour. Bumble through some self-inflicted crises as Mayor. It's not the Battle of Omdurman, is it?

So it's unlikely.

But it is still possible.

Our world is set up for people like Boris to storm towards the top. Our organised politics has been taken over by a load of grey clones who move through life at a tiny number of universities, via research positions with their parties, to a safe seat in Parliament, and then to their party's leadership. Almost anyone with any grit or difference about them at all - Ann Widdecombe, John Prescott, Louise Mensch, John Cruddas - is made to look like some sort of beguiling philosophical maverick. Rather than just someone who's had a life, and is not prepared to put their opinions in a box. It's a complex world in which name recognition is everything. Being known as 'BoJo' would help anyone. It's a post-modern world of irony and dark humour, in which getting stuck on an overhead zipwire might not make you look stupid, but serve as a knowing wink at the masses.

So: Boris? History says no. But the future might say yes.

Friday, 3 August 2012

How does Britain's medal haul look historically?

So you may have noticed that there's been a bit of a sports tournament or something going on in London.

Newspapers were, for some days, full of angst about 'Team GB's' performance. I am personally a bit unsure about whether I want the Olympics to become quite this much of a team event, or to be such a site of nationalistic and patriotic sentiment, but there you are. There's some great stuff to watch whatever your views on this one.

So I thought today that I'd look at the best historical numbers (being both a quantifier and a historian) to see how Britain are doing.

Sports scientists reckon, looking back at the last twelve (non-boycotted and fully attended) games, that the average medal increase over the previous games for the host nation should be thirteen or so in total. So, for the Brits, they should be looking to win about 59 or 60 medals. Other experts, using rather more complex models factoring in Gross Domestic Product, population numbers and government spending on sport, reckon that about 56 medals would add up to a par games.

How are they doing so far? Well, as of right now (10am on Friday 3 August) they've got fifteen medals - somewhat ahead of where they were at a similar point in Beijing (though the running order isn't really comparable). They're going to have to go some to get to 56-60. We can reckon on two or three more rowing medals, three to five in the sailing, eight to ten in the athletics, a couple more swimming medals and up to nine more in the cycling: a total of 29-30 or so on top of that fifteen already in the bag. That takes us to 45.

So 11 to 15 more medals have to come from somewhere - in sports where GB don't dominate - to take Britain's Olympians to their predicted totals and justify the near-£500m pumped into Olympic sports since 2005. Britain

Can they do it? It's something to aim at. They might. But there's the bar - and it's a high one.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

A Eurozone break-up would come with eye-watering costs

 Economists have been looking over the edge of Euro collapse for some time, competing, for instance, to see how the effects could be mitigated. Given that those deleterious effects might amount to an economic nuclear bomb ten times worse than the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, that's no wonder.

The scenarios are mind-numbing. The collapse of most British, French and even German banks, and their effective total nationalisation. A deep renewed recession would ensue, much more frightening than the UK's current problems, amounting to the loss of five per cent of GDP. British exports and her stock market would probably plunge. There would have to be a new and unprecedented round of quantitative easing - money-printing by the Bank of England. Finance and trade for and in the developing world - just starting to power ahead - would dry up. The global depression would last for years.

Now of course banks and their economists issue these reports from their own perspective - and while fearing for their own jobs. Would UBS, for instance, survive the breakdown of Germany's financial structure in 'Latin' Europe? Could French and Italian banks look with equanimity on Spain or Greece leaving the Euro? No. They'd be hammered. So the rescue job is on - including frightening the horses as much as possible.

Plenty of monetary unions have broken up in the past and, though the short-run outlook would be incredibly bleak, growth would still resume in the long run. Argentina broke away from the dollar and defaulted from its debts in 2001. The Latin Monetary Union of the nineteenth century broke up and was reformed again and again. The Irish Republic broke its one-for-one link with sterling in the 1970s.

But all those changes came with big, big costs. Argentine savers lost all their money. The Latin Monetary Union was stalled at birth, and remained a common rather than a single currency due to political differences over the role of gold and the French Franc, and it was strained by a series of wars - including the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. The Irish currency fluctuated wildly against sterling during the 1980s. Those assertions of financial independence were no panacea. The problem, as Keynes of course had it, is that 'in the long run we are all dead'. Does anyone really think we can wait five to ten years for strong renewed growth? No, I didn't think so.

But one thing is sure - there would be vast costs to a Euro break-up, and Britain would also be plunged into a new and much deeper recession in the short run. Governments would fall. Britain's Coalition would come under immense strain. It would be extremely unlikely to win the next election - which depends critically on economic recovery, of some sort, and at some point, in the next eighteen months to two years.

Conservative Euro-sceptics currently licking their lips about the collapse of the Euro: be careful what you wish for!