Tuesday, 30 April 2013

England's local elections - PPP's yearly preview

Regular readers will know that this column likes to preview each year's local elections, in order to read the tea leaves on how well the political parties are doing. So will this year be like 2011, when Labour did pretty poorly for the only major party of Opposition? Or will it be more like 2012, an election held just after Chancellor George Osborne's 'Omnishambles' Budget, in which Labour did just about well enough to look like a credible government-in-waiting?

Probably neither. Probably somewhere inbetween.

First, let's set the bar. It's a 'shire' election, in Conservative-leaning rural counties (many of which have had their urban sifted out into unitary authorities for each city). That means we have to calculate a 'notional national share' by looking at how these wards performed in the past and then imagining those shifts all over the country. Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, the gurus of such things, reckon that if Labour does as well as it's doing in local by-elections at the moment it ought to gain 350 seats. Many fewer - less than 300, say - and all the opinion poll leads in the world will look pretty useless when weighed up against real votes.

All the signs are that they're risking just that outcome. There'll probably be nothing like the local elections of 1968, which saw Labour annihilated and suggested that a Conservative government really might be on the cards, or 1995, when the Conservative retreat turned into a rout (particularly in Scotland), or 2009 - the last time these wards were up for election - when the voters took the opportunity to give the Brown government a kicking as it dredged the very bottom of its unpopularity. The Government will do better than the dire economic situation would seem to suggest. They'll be pretty badly beaten up, all right, but holding their losses down to anything under 300 will feel like a triumph after everything the country's been through in the last three years. Their deficit in the opinion polls has been shrinking recently, and the economy may just (just) have turned the corner. Labour's going to have to come from a 2009 third place in lots of wards if they're to win the seat - a tough ask if ever there was one. If the Conservatives do come out of this with bruises, rather than losing an electoral limb, they'll feel pretty chipper.

Even the possibility of such a result ought to worry Labour, for the real mark of an Opposition ready to spring back into power is overwhelming victories like these at the local ballot box. At the moment, their strategy is frankly overwhelming, and they do very poorly indeed in the south of England. What happens in Essex (above), for instance, where ultra-marginal constituencies such as Harlow should be in Labour's sights, might matter a great deal more than what happens in the Midlands once we get into a General Election campaign. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, is (probably falsely) rumoured to have a '35 per cent strategy' to win the next election, where he keeps hold of left-leaning Liberal Democrat defectors but doesn't have to attract many other voters. That may have worked for Barack Obama in Ohio and Florida, but the less clearly-segmented electorate in Britain - and Labour's enfeebled state, in terms of both finances and organisation - make that a harder trick to pull off here.

But the real answer to all this in 2013 is that we don't really know what'll happen. How well will the United Kingdom Independence Party do? That's a question that resonates very strongly in a first-past-the-post election where the winner in each ward takes all. Will they do well enough to throttle the Conservatives' chances of holding on to a swathe of councils and seats, perhaps pushing their losses up towards 400? Well enough even to make a big breakthrough on their own and seize fifty to a hundred council seats? It's not clear. Upon that uncertainy hangs a great deal: essentially whether Conservative MPs chortle or panic on Friday morning.

There's your card marked, then. If Labour win fewer than 300 seats, things don't look so good for them - and they will look very bad indeed if they're down under about 200 or so. If the Conservatives lose more than 350 seats, their chances of winning an overall majority in the House of Commons at the next General Election will look even closer to zero than they do now. If they lose a great deal fewer than 300, they can pat themselves on the back and say they've come through the worst.

Come back on Friday, and let's test projection against reality!

Monday, 29 April 2013

Sometimes the water flows downhill!

Sometimes The Historian can seem like a bit of a grump. Public policy? It's usually done pretty badly. The news agenda? Dominated by commentators who can't remember yesterday, let alone post-war Britain... and rarely know much even about the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Austerity? Don't even get me started.

But every now and again a little shaft of light pierces though the gloom. That was the case on Saturday, when I had the honour to chair a research degrees training day at my home institution.

The speakers were great - sharp about the use of the internet for research, interesting about the nature of blogging, really fascinating about the use of social media to disseminate students' research. The non-academic speakers, from the Royal Literary Fund not least, were also superb - focused, helpful, useful, to the point. I felt like a bit of a dinosaur in a way, because when I started with research, I had to get great big dusty tomes out of the Bodleian and shoot paper slips down Harry Potter-style holes in the wall. Now it's all changed, as the audience (full itself of writers and thinkers) appreciated. Research has become something protean, a blurry, moving set of boundaries that are in flux all the time. It's much less easy to pin down: but it's much more exciting.

The barriers to understanding are many. Academic writing that obfuscates more than it enlightens. Academic feuding that seems to go on for decades, long after the initial issues have been long forgotten. A grasp on research ethics and research efficacy that sometimes seems slippery at best.

But sometimes, somehow, through all the dissauding torrents of controversy, via what passes for Higher Education 'policy', despite all the slog... sometimes the waters of new knowledge do flow. If that's right, it's a critical insight at a depressing time, and a welcome boost to sagging morale.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Britain's economy: it's a slog that lies ahead

So we avoided a triple-dip recession (above) It's a relief, and a sign that at long, long last there might be a bit of hard ground under our feet. We might just have stopped sinking.

There'll be a bit of a fillup to confidence from the announcement. There'll certainly be sighs of relief in Whitehall and amongst MPs from the two governing parties at Westminster. A Conservative administration - albeit a minority one - might still be formed following the 2015 General Election after all.

But what does this really tell us about where we're headed? The answer: not much. Scratch underneath the headline data, or alternatively look at historic trends and comparators, and things still look pretty bleak.

We're going ahead, but we're going ahead very, very slowly. The nadir of our projections - less than one per cent growth this calendar year - might be behind us. We might do a little bit better than that, at this rate. But this is still by far the slowest and flattest recovery from any recession in modern history. Sure, we went down further in the crash of the early 1930s (partly because we tried to reflate this time, before aborting the operation after the 2010 General Election) - but we're bumped along the bottom for years now, and the waste of lost output and lost income is now worse than in the Great Depression and its aftermath. That's right: worse than the Great Depression.

There's worse. Productivity growth has plummeted, to some of the worst levels we've ever seen in this country. Why invest? Why retrain? Why Why move your job or your company? You might very well ask those questions, and answer them with a very negative 'don't bother' if banks won't lend and the economy looks unlikely to grow very rapidly for years to come. Of that virtuous circle of high growth, rising wages, high investment and high productivity that was the hallmark of the 1950s and 1960s - the era demonised by Thatcherites for three decades now - there is no sign. And there isn't likely to be, either.

That's because fiscal policy continues to be pointed in exactly the wrong direction - 'cutting' the deficit, while tinkering around with some ludicrous and ill-conceived supply side plans that not even the Conservatives' own MPs and Lords think will work. A declared objective that won't even come true in its own terms, as the Treasury is likely to continue missing debt targets for as far as the eye can see. They made it in under the wire for 2012/13 by the simple trick of slashing capital spending and demanding departments spend little or nothing in February and March. You know what? I can pick up a telephone and shout at people too. It's not a skill. It's an admission of failure.

So we look out on a rather unappealing vista: years and years of public sector spending cuts, perhaps running to 2018 or 2019, very low productivity growth, little or no real income growth (in fact, quite the opposite - a big squeeze on family budgets) and only moderate growth in GDP.

We're beginning to crawl away from the precipice. But we're shuffling away from the brink on our hands and knees. We should be walking on our own two feet by now.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

MMR: when the governed don't trust the governors any more

So I went and had my triple Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccination yesterday, since I've never been innoculated before (don't ask) and the menacing measles outbreak in South Wales is uncomfortably near my own home.

Anyway. I feel fine today, though I felt a bit groggy yesterday. Thanks for asking.

But why has take-up of the vaccine fallen so far? So far below the safe threshold at which most of the population is covered? That's the real qwuestion behind the lurid headlines, and an answer demands more than attacks on the Daily Mail for its (admittedly disgraceful) coverage of the issue.

Yes, the Mail led the scaremongering - about doctors who wouldn't vaccinate their old children, or Japanese variants of the vaccine that aren't even used any more. But remember: the initial research that linked the jab to autism in young children was published in The Lancet, so an initial set of stories was more than justified. The tone? Hysterical. And deeply, deeply shameful - if our newspapers had much shame left. The dear old Mail has even started insinuating that any deaths from measles will be due to doctors' negligence - rather than their own failure to check (and re-check) what they write. It's no wonder that United Kingdom Independence Party voters - older, wealthier, southern types who often read the Mail - are more sceptical about MMR than other groups in the population.

Stiil. Papers like the Mail wouldn't be able these seeds of fear and confusion if there wasn't fertile ground for it. And the field ready for the plough? A public that doesn't trust anybody in authority: certainly not the Government, announcing today that the budget deficit is falling by the splendid ruse of slashing long-term capital expenditure, moving yearly spending around and then threatening government departments with the rack if they spend a penny in March, the last month of the financial year. A trick that worked by - oh, yes - just the tiniest sliver of a drop that they needed for Ministers' headlines. Don't think this is a partisan point, either, for Gordon Brown as Labour Chancellor and Prime Minister was a master of re-announcing spending and announcing tax cuts that turned out to be nothing of the sort.

Is it any wonder that the public are disillusioned. It's no wonder that faith in most figures of authority is at an all-time low (since modern polling began, anyway). The Daily Mail's philosophy rests on telling everyone, over and over again, that you can't trust anyone else - that you should stand on your own two (British) feet. But our politicians, and sometimes our doctors - including those sitting on the commissioning bodies that are then going to buy their own services - have helped them do their nasty and ubiquitous work.

The real reason why parents shied away from MMR? Simple: no-one trusts a word our leaders say any more. Which is a pity, because we're actually pretty well and transparently governed. But years of spin and counter-spin, amplified and encouraged by a poisonous press, mean that Britons can't be told any more. They have to be persuaded. And if the persuader is a virus that just might kill you? Welcome to tomorrow.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Why are Labour's poll numbers sagging?

The news in UK politics at the moment is all about Labour and the United Kingdom Independence Party. Labour is, just perhaps, not doing as well as they might; but UKIP is always said to be 'surging' and 'on the march'. Top Labour people are worried - as they should be. They are perhaps seven or eight points ahead of the Conservatives, as we teeter on the brink of the third recession in five years, and we look mournfully at the prospect of deflating real incomes for as many years ahead as we can peer. That's down a bit on the position a month or so ago, when Conservative MPs really were looking pretty down-in-the-mouth at Labour leads well over ten per cent.

So what's happened? A row over benefits, in which Labour was deemed to look a bit 'soft' of cheating, even among its own supporters? The death and subsequent lionisation of Baroness Thatcher as a Conservative hero who 'saved her country'?

Unlikely. That's the floatsam and jetsam of politics - the surface stuff that may change numbers over a few days or weeks, but are unlikely to explain Labour's (arguably) anaemic polling performance over the entire Parliament.

That's actually down to this: voters don't really believe in Labour's alternative economic prospectus. Headlines saying that Labour's going to spend more money, when citizens have been told there isn't any for years, just don't seem to scan. It's a hard sell, saying that spending more might end up saving money - though it's probably the right case to make in the short term, especially as everything the Shadow Treasury team have warned about since 2010 has pretty much ended up coming true.

That's added to the sense that the electorate just don't really trust Labour with the economy after the meltdown of 2007-2008. Put simply, the doctors that were in charge when the patient had the heart attack aren't entirely trusted to nurse him back to health. Ed Balls (above), Gordon Brown's right-hand man during most of the latter's tenure at the Treasury, is an unwelcome reminder to voters just how good they once had it, and just how hard they heavens opened on Labour's watch. Even after the laughable performance of George Osborne as Chancellor over the last year (since his 'omnishambles' 2012 Budget), he's still preferred to Balls as Chancellor. If the next election is going to be an unpopularity contest, won by the least hated and feared, the Conservatives may have their noses in front. A bit. Maybe.

The whole thing leaves Labour's numbers weak - and the next General Election up for grabs. Regular readers will know that The Historian doesn't think that there is much chance of anyone gaining an overall majority next time, but Labour would be the biggest party were it to gain just 24 seats. It should be easy pickings. A difficult-to-make economic case, and the legacy of the crash, are making it harder than it once appeared.

Friday, 19 April 2013

The history of US gun control: don't hold your breath

Gun control. It's what Americans call a hot-button issue. Europeans looked on, aghast as the US Senate refused (above) even to pass tougher background checks on gun buyers this week - a common sense measure that is so far short of gun control measures in the rest of the developed world that it was hard to see, from outside, what all the fuss was about.

Here's one thing it was about: a long history of trying, again and again, to hold the line on guns after each massacre or assassination. Efforts that have usually failed, and revealed a deep-seated divide about what America really is or stands for.

The United States is a more violent place than most other rich countries. Petty and property crime is less out of line with the rest of the world, of course, but we're focusing on gun violence here, so we can leave the debate about that mismatch slightly to one side. That creates campaign after campaign for 'something to be done' about gun crime, but an equal and opposite reaction among citizens who want to defend themselves, and see no reason why they - 'law abiding citizens' as they are - should do anything to accommodate the acts of a few criminals in their midst. Massive and well-funded campaigns by the National Rifle Association mean that the air is never clear of pro-gun sentiment and, simply put, many politicians are either afraid of them or funded by them.

Republicans have been moving rapidly rightwards in recent years, away from the former position and towards the latter - all the while giving the Democrats a stick to beat them with among a public who definitely back extended background checks, if not wider 'gun control'. Republicans don't like being painted as a bunch of backwoods social darwinists, but their political tin ears mean they can't hear what they sound like to non-ideologues among the actual voters any more. So let's hear it for Senators such as John McCain of Arizona and Susan Collins of Maine, politicians who are right-of-centre (and from states with lots of gun owners), but who put their principles and their sense of the public good before the (figurative) loaded gun that was put to their head by the NRA. There was just a faint whiff there of a lost tribe: the moderate Republicans who once made the Congress work. Without them, there's unlikely to be much legislation out of Washington any time soon. Which, of course, is how the NRA - and any number of other pressure groups, on both Left and Right - really want it.

You might say that the history of 'Obamacare', now likely to come into force across the United States, is a hopeful sign. Decades of pressure for a better healthcare deal for most Americans, and a long search for some way to constrain costs, included an attempt by Bill and Hillary Clinton to extend the reach of insurance cover - another reforming effort shot down in the Congress during the 1990s. Wave after wave of pressure for reform might break the log-jam in the end.

But today's House of Representatives is now so gerrymandered, and so partisan, that it seems unlikely that either side of America's great political divide will ever have a bit majority again - and if that is possible, it certainly won't be the more pro-control Democrats doing the winning while Republicans control most of the state governments who draw up House seat boundaries. Even had the (admittedly feeble) compromsie cleared the Senate's absurdly restrictive filibuster rule and attracted sixty votes, it'd have been obliterated in the House. It's that simple. Both sides of the debate have gone away claiming victory, and they'll probably go on doing that all the way to the next federal elections in 2014 and 2016.

One day there'll be a comprehensive gun deal. For now? Don't hold your breath.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Baroness Thatcher, the 'nation' and the politicians

Baroness Thatcher's funeral (above) is of course a deeply personal moment, though it's been surrounded by some of the trappings of state authority. As such, it's also a moment for reflection about the shape of our political life itself.

The Prime Minister says that 'we're all Thatcherites now' - something that might be true insofar as everyone's got a position on her; everyone's got a view; everyone's got an argument to make or an opinion to volunteer. The terms of political trade certainly are carried on by reference to her legacies. Even the Labour leader is being compared to the Iron Lady, somewhat unconvincingly, though he does share something of her passion for ideas. There was respect and some sadness at the passing of a leader who was very popular in some (more affluent) parts of the country: and there were protests, too, by those opposed to her policies and their often-baleful influence on British society.

But while that's all happening, the nation and its leaders are drifting ever more assuredly apart. That's making the mirroring, reflecting and explanatory power of this moment less powerful than some of those politicians claim. A moment that once might have seemed like a national catharsis - a great sharing, of disagreement if nothing else - suddenly feels much less important than it might once have done.

You can see this disentangling everywhere - from the insular and tight-knit leaderships of the two main parties, who on the Conservative benches have often gone to school and university together, and on the Labour benches often know each other from work, are married - or are siblings. Or in the steady deterioration of the main two (now three) parties' standing in terms of voting intentions. How many votes will Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats together get in the next General Election? Eighty five per cent? Eighty six? It's not much of a vote of confidence, and in their different ways the rise of the Greens, of UKIP, and of the Scottish National Party owes a great deal to the perceived irrelevance of the Westminster parties who currently swap the wielding of power between themselves.

To return to Baroness Thatcher's funeral, you can see these trends played in political indifference - the waning circulation of old-fashioned newspapers, the low television ratings that documentaries about Thatcher achieved on her death. And in the failure of any 'Thatcher effect' to move the polls greatly in the Conservatives' direction, though Labour's lead over their major rivals does seem to be drifting down somewhat at the moment.

There are a lot of reasons for all this. The very tight-knitness (and the unruffled, even glassy poise) of our political elites is one. Citizens' ever-more crowded, time-poor and complicated lives are another. The main parties' very similar answers to our problems, all written in the shadow of Thatcher's influence, is one more.

Analysing those explanations will have to wait for another day, though. For now, it's a day to remember the 1980s - the clashes, the dividing lines, some of the triumphs - and a lot of the damage. But there's a danger there: and it's to assume that all this sound and fury means anything to all to the average middle-of-the-road Briton. Because, increasingly, it doesn't.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Peering into the electoral crystal ball - again

This column isn't bad at picking elections. It said that President Obama would 'probably' be re-elected. Well, big deal, you might say, but it looked closer at the time than it proved once the fog of battle cleared. And we've picked the exact outcome of a British General Election before (registration required). So it's not such a bad old record.

And now? Well, we look forward at the moment to another Hung Parliament. There will be more Labour MPs; there will be fewer Liberal Democrat MPs. The only question is over the scale of those gains and losses, and how well the Conservative Party will do.

Start with this: without boundary reform, the Conservatives face an uphill battle that looks like the north face of the Eiger.

They need to win by seven or eight percentage points to gain an overall majority of just one seat (always supposing that Labour poll at least in the low 30s - an almost impossibly low bar for them to clear). And it's not looking promising right now. Labour numbers aren't all that great, either, as they continue to labour under the electorate's low view of their performance under Gordon Brown and of the party's young and untested new leader. Plenty of Blairite Labour people aren't sure about Mr Miliband either, but that's another story. But the Conservative numbers are pretty, pretty bad. They're now polling just under 30 per cent of the vote on average, a number that's been falling without sign of an upturn for more than a year.

And what of the Liberal Democrats? Well, they've been experiencing a bit of an uptick in the polls recently. Ever since the Eastleigh by-election put a bit of a spring in their step, and ever since they started picking more fights with their Conservative 'partners', they're been looking a bit rosier. This column has been very, very gloomy about the party's electoral prospects in the past, rating them likely to win only between twenty and thirty seats (down from 57). Now? Well, maybe we can add a few back - thirty to thiry five might be more likely. Most of which, of course, they will hold at the expense of aspiring Conservative MPs, making Prime Minister David Cameron's task of winning an overall majority (above) all the harder.

No doubt they'll throw everything at it. They'll throw nasty stuff about migration and welfare about, as they've already being doing at the behest of their svengali-like electoral planner, Lynton Crosby. They'll rant and rave about Ed Miliband's 'left-wing' tendencies, hoping that his relative lack of connection with the voters will close off all debates but: who would you rather be Prime Minister? It'll win some voters back, and it might well see the Conservatives win more votes than Labour - overall. But there's one big problem with that strategy. It might appeal to UKIP voters, who might gently flow back towards the Conservatives as the date of the General Election approaches. But Mr Miliband doesn't need any of them to actually win a small majority, or at the least to lead the biggest Parliamentary party. He can just sit back and let the Conservatives' right-wing rhetoric win him the election by alienating leftish Liberal Democrat defectors, keeping them at Labour's side.

Mr Cameron's abandonment of his 'One Nation' phase of compassionate Conservatism will then have cost him dear, as it destroyed William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith too.

The ultimate test at the moment? Look to the bookmakers. A Conservative overall majority is rated at a likelihood of between 15 per cent and 25 per cent, while a Labour majority might be judged at about a 45 per likelihood. No overall majority? The chance is not all that far behind. And likely to grow and grow.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Thatcherism: did it reverse the economic tide?

There's so much to say about Thatcherism, isn't there? Here's a last set of thoughts for the week - this time, covering the idea that the UK productivity experienced a necessary and productive fillup from Thatcher's economic reforms.

There's only one massive problem with this analysis. It isn't true. Or at least, it isn't true in the simple way that you might have hoped if you wanted to construct a cut-and-dried case for Lady Thatcher's policies (above). No, her governments' actions didn't usher in an era of rapid growth or any better use of resources. Quite the opposite, in fact. Productivity growth slowed during the 1980s, and only picked up again (a bit) in the 1990s, never returning to the heights of those derided Keynesian days (pdf) of the 1950s and 1960s. Looking back, it was in the late 1960s that British productivity growth peaked, not in the 1980s. 

Hang on, though. There is a sense in which the Thatcher reforms do appear to have pepped up British economic performance, after what might just have been a once-and-for-all period of good performance provided by pump-priming policies and large economies of scale in the post-war era. They might not have gone on working well, and in fact relative deindustrialisation in (say) Sweden suggests that they wouldn't. By the time she left office in 1990, Britain had indeed begun to reel in her major competitors - France, Germany, the USA. They had their own massive problems (for instance, German reunification), but it can't be denied that their labour productivity fell away even further and faster than that in Britain. So there is some evidence that labour market and other changes did help Britain avoid that fate.

I wouldn't go too far along this route if I were you. UK labour productivity stopped catching up on the 'leaders' when Britain nestled in just behind them in the 'productivity race'. We could see the whole process within what economists call the 'catch up and convergence' framework, in which developed countries under conditions of free trade and the free movement of ideas constantly jostle for leading positions, alternately surging ahead and then relaxing a little in their turn.

So the record is: well, mixed. There were productivity gains, but they were only relative improvements compared to Britain's developed-world competitors, and they took a long while to turn up. They came, too, at enormous cost in lost production and jobs, much more inequality and a legacy of low wages and poor marginal productivity in jobs around the edge of the labour market. It's a complicated picture.

Remember that the next time someone tells you Lady Thatcher was 'the saviour of her country', won't you?

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Lady Thatcher: draft two

So I've been thinking further about my judgement of the Thatcher era (above) that I wrote here the other day. I was trying to be detached, cool, dispassionate; skills the historian abandons at his or her cost. But there's so much to say, so much to go over, that I'm going to have another bite at the cherry. Call it the second draft of history. Here's one thing you can be sure of: there are going to be a lot more.

There's obviously a lot more than could be said in her favour. Things she got right. Messages sent; decisiveness deployed; good done. On balance, council house sales were a good policy, allowing Britons who had never before had the chance to own their own property to feel a sense of place, of ownership, or agency. That's why many (though not all) people who did buy those houses feel such a visceral sense of loyalty to the Iron Lady still, all these years later. She made them feel as if they belong. After years of petty council regulations, and years of poor management (the GLC didn't even know how many properties it owned, let alone what state they were in), there was something here to be valued. The cardinal error, of course - as with so much else in Thatcherism - was not to use the money to invest, in this case in much more social housing. So now we're left with a massive, massive housing shortage - not entirely the fault of this policy, but certainly made worse by the reckless lack of building during these years.

And then there's the Falklands. To be honest, if you're not going to use your navy to fight back when a fascist dictatorship invades what remained British sovereign territory, you might as well not have one. I know what you're thinking. Defending a few thousand Falklanders was a madcap adventure out of the nineteenth century. That it was: and it cost many lives, of course. It would have been cheaper just to have rehoused the Falklanders and left the Argentines do what they wanted with all those frozen penguins. But that's not the point. It was never practical politics to do that - any government that tried would have imploded immediately - and Thatcher took to her task in those vital few weeks with verve, courage, skill and (yes) some luck. I didn't like any of it all that much, but it's true.

But let's look again at what I called the debit side of the ledger in my last post. It's just much, much longer, and it contains a doleful list of mistakes, evasions and errors.

Where to begin? Well, here's one: the union of Scotland and England is in peril today, and that's partly down to the fact that Thatcher developed a remarkable tin ear for Scots' political philosophy. Most Scots came to loathe her. It's that simple. The much-abused 'sermon on the mound', during which she lectured Scots (of all people) on thrift, self-reliance and charity, is one reason. The misguided 'test' of the Poll Tax north of the border is another. But worse, much worse, seems to be the fact that she just didn't seem to listen. Most Scots opposed the very rapid run-down of their staple industries, and she did nothing to sweeten the pill - not rhetorically, and not financially. It was a cardinal error for a politician who was actually rather better at listening than her image now suggests. And it has put one of the most sacred of all Conservative (and conservative) sacred cows - the Union itself - at risk.

Here's another: the nationalisation of Britain, as well analysed long ago by Andrew Marr among others. I know that looks and sounds strange, but the greatest paradox of Thatcherite rule was the 'strong state' part of 'the free economy and the strong state'. Mrs Thatcher rolled forward the frontiers of the state in almost every area of social and economic life, drawing those boundaries back only in terms of industrial subsidies and regional spending (and hardly there, either). Universities. The NHS. Local authorities. All were subject to a culture of top-down authoritarianism, auditing and set-everyone-against-each-other performance measurement that took most of the vocation, and a lot of the joy, out of working away at something you love. Want to pinpoint the real culprit for stagnating public service productivity and a kind of creeping paralysis among workers in these supposed 'caring' sectors? Look no further. Whitehall in her time wrested even detailed agendas away from teachers, lecturers, doctors, nurses and councillors, and allowed civil servants and outsourced business consultancies to draw up hard and fast rules that probably made a bit of sense on paper, but didn't mean anything out in the field.

And lastly, there was the tone. Triumphalist, sometimes crowing, always drawing up dividing lines and inviting enemies to take their best shot, Thatcher seemed to revel in being fired at. Fair enough: but she also seemed to revel in pounding other Britons' faces in the dust. You can't say that about any other Prime Minister as long as the memory stretches back. Even Lloyd George, that mercurial wizard of Liberal politics, used to smile at people as he betrayed them. Some of the job losses were inevitable. Some of the collapsed companies were always going to go down anyway. But to say it was good; to say that you didn't regret it. Well, that's why so many people ended up opposing Mrs T. And it assisted with that atomisation, that disintegration, which so many mourn. Who'd have thought I'd end up echoing Russell Brand, of all people? But he's right: if you end up saying that there's no such thing as society, soon there might not be.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Lady Thatcher: for good and for ill

Well, she's gone. The woman who defined my first political memories. Who elicited so much love and so much hatred. What's left? For a while, the silence of the empty battlefield; to some extent, the quiet that falls after the long battles that brought great swathes of the country to impotent rage or joy (and an intellectual standstill) long ago. For what more is there to say? No doubt you made up your mind about Lady Thatcher (above) long ago. Most people did. She was that sort of politician.

But with death comes detachment and, perhaps, a first attempt at analysis.

This blog does not really hold with the kind of policies that the Thatcher governments were supposed to stand for - though these were observed more in the breach than in reality (of which more later). But there were, let us be clear, some enormous successes to her name while she was Prime Minister.

How long have you got? Well, let's start with the privatisation of what should have always remained private trading companies - Cable and Wireless, Rolls-Royce, British Leyland, British Airways, British Telecom and the rest. This undoubtedly raised their efficiency and their performance, even if much of that happened in the run-up to the sell-off rather than because of it, and even given that some of these new companies got bought up or collapsed later in the century. Let's go on to a not-insubstantial record on environmental policy, with Thatcher-as-scientist personally interested, warning against climate change and leading the way towards a ban on CFCs, which were helping to cause ozone depletion in the atmosphere. Or let's go on to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, which helped bring the police under control after all the terrible scandals of the 1970s - an act, in its way, as important as the placing of the trade unions under the rule of law themselves. Above all, perhaps, she recognised the potential of Mikhail Gorbachev as the coming man in the Soviet Union, and set out - in a pattern historians are coming to recognise as 'Thatcher Mark II' - to do a deal with him.

We don't actually have time yet to consider her role in smashing trade union power, a not-unmixed blessing that did only some of the work that Harold Wilson's In Place of Strife proposals might have done in 1969 and which Ted Heath's Industrial Relations Act tried to do in 1972. Let's face it: social democracy and technocratic conciliation had been tried, and found badly wanting. But we also have to say that the torture inflicted on British workers was misdirected. Labour relations badly needed rapid reform not so much because the trade unions were too powerful, but because they were old-fashioned, segmented, obsessed with their 'rights' and demarcation lines, and too small - locally, regionally, nationally. None of them dared reach an overall deal with any government when they had to look over their shoulder at each factory's shop steward. Thatcher set out not so much to solve that problem, but just to ignore it and sweep it away in a welter of body blows that left bruises all over the body politic - not just on her targets among union 'militants'. Her 'solution' was the destruction of whole swatches of manufacturing - sectors of the economy that, re-equiped and straightened out, might just have given Germany a run for its money today. But that's another story, for another day. We'll come back to that one.

In other areas, she was a pragmatist - cautious, instinctive, careful not to push on too far ahead of public opinion. And there's nothing wrong with that. She pumped money into the National Health Service. She refused to privatise the railways, (rightly) convinced that their inefficiencies could be dealt with in the public sector. There was an enormous amount of personal kindness under that thick public skin - partly caused itself by being a women from a middle class background, despised by Tory grandees, who helped sweep the culture of bone-headed rich-boy inefficiency out of the City as much as she assaulted the traditionalist views of trade unionists.

But there's probably more red on the debit side of the ledger book than there is black on the credit side. She gave us the cult of leadership and 'conviction' that we have today, in which the public is supposed to look to their leaders for 'belief' and 'commitment'. I'd settle for calm deliberation, formality and problem-solving myself - something in the style of Harold Wilson - but this column is (as ever) in a minority on that one. Shorn of Lady Thatcher's rather formal sense of Cabinet government and accountability - even while bringing in the Poll Tax - later Prime Ministers, such as Tony Blair, were to make a hash of whole policy areas because they 'just knew' 'in their guts' that they were right. Think of Iraq. I could go on.

And remember: behind all the bluster of 'hard choices' and 'cold baths' in and for British industry, a fifth of it was destroyed over just two or three years. That was never meant to happen. What in fact did happen, in a completely haphazard and unplanned manner, was that the hyper-monetarism of her first three years in power pushed sterling up far too high, a process that was accelerated by surging oil revenues and incoming 'hot' money after exchange controls were abolished. Nothing was done to alleviate that crisis. Whole industries that were perfectly viable in more normal times were allowed to go to the wall. It was awful, and worse than awful: it was an avoidable policy error, of the like a government led by Denis Healey or Roy Jenkins would never have made. It made the economy very unstable, subjecting it in 1979-83 to an accidental shock therapy that even Nigel Lawson's and Gordon Brown's more broad-based approaches have yet to rescue it from in parts of the UK.

I'm not sure what History will say. It's too early for that. But this is what this historian is saying right now: despite a huge record of achievements on the supply side of the economy, the vast damage done to Britain's economic future by the creation of an army of disaffected, apathetic, damaged and deskilled workers, and the country's depleted infrastructure - in short, by very badly designed macro-economic policies - outweigh the good done in detail. It was Thatcher who first 'parked' millions of workers on Disability Benefit - something to recall when next those workers are themselves under assault for being 'lazy' or 'workshy'.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Won't Universal Credit just make more Philpotts more likely?

There's a strange dissonance in British politics at the moment. The Government wants to be seen as tough on welfare, and tough on the causes of welfare. Conservative Ministers have seized on the case of Mick Philpott (above), convicted last week of killing six of his children in a revenge plot gone wrong, as an example of the 'lifestyles' engendered by paying out benefits all the time.

But when you look in more detail, it isn't always addressing many of the root causes of what welfare 'dependency' and fraud there actually is in the UK (more on its true extent another time).

Take Universal Credit. Most civil servants involved wish someone would, but there you are. Leave aside for a moment the possibility that the project will become one more of those expensive IT disasters that litter the history of British governance over the last thirty years. It might work, and recent u-turns on, and downgrades to, the project will give it more time to work in a smaller series of trials. This column has said from the start that this reform has got 'catastrophe' written all over it, but let's take it on its merits.

The real worry, given the Philpott, controversy, is that Universal Credit might make domestic abuse, violence and benefits cheating even worse.

For the Philpott case wasn't really caused by the abuse of the benefits system. Sure, the man could and should have been working. But that wasn't why he had so many children by women that he dominated and abused. That was down to the fact that he was a fanatically controlling and obsessive individual. It was a classic case of domestic abuse that any expert could have painted from a textbook.

Now take a look into the immediate future. The new Universal Credit system will fold almost all benefits - though admittedly not Child Benefit - into one, single, monthly payment. That will mean that the rage and the war inside houses like Philpott's will probably become more and not less acute as these sorts of men try to take control of their partners' bank accounts and financial lives - and get a single opportunity and gateway to get their cynical, nasty hands on all the cash. Remember that much of the money that the Daily Mail and its allies complain about as 'benefits' was paid as tax credits down to the fact that both Philpott's wife and his girlfriend were working. It wasn't a workshy household, overall, at all. It was Philpott, not 'the Philpotts', that were at the root of it all. Now it will be even easier for such men to get all that money paid to them if they can only force their frightened wives or girlfriends to sign the forms. It isn't quite the impersonal fraud that will probably dog this system from its inception, but it looks a lot like it.

So there you have it - an argument that's being used as a 'wedge' issue, manipulated behind the scenes by the Prime Minister's new electoral svengali, Lynton Crosby, to paint the Labour Party and its leader as weak on welfare and on cheating. But the Coalition's own reforms might make both those situations worse.

Has anyone thought of this? I only ask.

Friday, 5 April 2013

The day the 'Daily Mail' jumped the shark

The Daily Mail's Wednesday headline - about the horrible case of Mick Philpott and the six children he has been sentenced to life for burning to death, and blaming the welfare state for his sins - was the moment that newspaper finally jumped the shark, accelerating a long, slow circulation decline into obscurity. I'm sorry, but I can't bring myself to reproduce the actual front page that they inflicted on us, but the above will have to do. You get the idea.

It was nasty. It was cheap. And it didn't even make any sense.

This column is not much for jumping all over every mistake or evasion the press make or engage in. Nor does it really think that new legislation or harsher regulation will make much difference - except making news editors think twice about publishing truly invasive pictures and stories.

But this error was of a different order of magnitude. They've gone too far on this one, and the Mail's subsequent calls for 'a debate', though disingenuous, show that there's been at least a partial rethink in Dacre Towers. Paul Dacre's august journal - the one that brought you Jan Moir's slurs on the memory of Stephen Gately, let's remember - is supposed to stand for personal responsibility, justice, vengeance and punishment - of individuals who have choices, know what it before them, and choose to go down the wrong path. Hey, it's not a massively convincing moral code, but it's a start. And at least it makes sense ideologically, along the lines of C.S. Lewis' memorable attack on 'The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment'.

But here the Mail has gone for a sociological approach, a kind of cod-Marxism that explains why Melanie Phillips, ex- of The Guardian of course, finds the paper such a congenial home. It's all to do with incentives, apparently. Blame it all on the state, the paper's 'writers' say, attacking welfare payments that had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Philpott's twisted and hateful decision to risk the lives of his own children in a botched plot to frame his wife. I'm sorry, but haven't you been reading your own jibes and barbs for the past twenty years? I thought we all had to stand up and take responsibility for ourselves, and that the warp and weave of our society had nothing to do with explaining our actions?

What a mess. For a historian, it's an incident that reveals even more deeply-ingrained attitudes for what they are. For this is one of those incidents in which the self-interested and the comfortable use the harsh world out there to grub out a bit of power and influence for themselves: using Philpott's case as an example of why welfare should be cut, and drawing unwise, foolhardy politicians into the 'debate' as well, is just a case in point. Saying that the poor are ignorant, degenerate, ungrateful and unworthy of support goes back centuries, and one could pretty much cut and paste the Mail's coverage of this case into the yellow press of the 1890s. It wouldn't look out of place.

Have we moved on? Not really. Which is more than a pity: it's a shame.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

'Lincoln' the film - and Lincoln as history

Many historians have got pretty heated up about Steven Spielberg's recent movie 'Lincoln' (above). It's got some errors in it, not least an inaccurate roll-call of states and representatives who voted for the thirteenth amendment to the US Constitution (the one abolishing slavery). One could add many, many more. I wouldn't bother, though - life's too short for an attack on artistic license and simple mistake-mongering. What would the movies be like if everything had to be precisely accurate? Basically, there'd be a lot fewer films, and I rather enjoyed this one.

It wasn't just Daniel Day Lewis' jaw-dropping, eyes-pop-out-on-springs performance. Yes, well: we've come to expect that from Day Lewis. It was the central thrust of a film whose point was a dark and complex one. Like it or not, Spielberg and his writers were saying (and you might not), politics is about compromise. Evasion. Tactical retreats. Sometimes, barefaced lies. So we see President Lincoln, so lionised and so exalted for so long, stalling genuine peace efforts so he can get what he wants - the total abolition of slavery enshrined in the Constitution.

Now leave aside the fact that this would probably have happened anyway, and that this lame duck of a Congress didn't need to pass it right then and there for it to become effective. Leave aside the nitpicking. It's a subversive message in its way, and it sits alongside a lot of Spielberg's other works in this respect. Francine Stock has recently come to appreciate his work in a new light, having noticed how all his films try to turn their overt lesson inside-out. Childhood innocence in ET? What about the American police state that tries to kidnap the little bug-eyed guy? Small-town syrup in Super 8? You were left pretty clear about all the domestic feuds and hatreds that seethed under the surface. And so on. I could go on, but don't worry - I won't.

The most sophisticated critiques are much more complex than this. It's not the details (some of them are pretty damn on the button anyway). It's not that this is a flag-waving testament to a certain idea of America. Neither case will hold water. It's the way in which the entire film focuses on one man, when it might have looked at the huge, multi-faceted and multi-racial movement for Emancipation that Lincoln only reluctantly, and only quite late in the day, put himself at the head of. We might have seen the petitioners, the protestors, the speechmakers and the organisers: instead we saw only the figurehead. That would have helped the film, actually, for it would have shown off Lincoln's political skills at their fullest as the President struggled to hold together the coalition he had come to lead so late. Instead, here he is battling southern racists. And we know whose side we're on then, don't we?

Still, it's a story of an epic individual struggle, told in the great American liberal tradition, and all the better as such to bring in crowds who might not know much about the end of the Civil War and the politicking behind its scenes as things stand. And it works on that level. This is the same point this blog made about The Iron Lady in January 2012. There's an inaccurate film which cuts and pastes all sorts of events in unlikely collages. But the central point - that dementia can bring anyone down - soared above those changes to the historical record. Neither film is a U-571, grotesquely bending the whole shape of an entire campaign or chain of events to fit its own bombastic purposes. They have an interior seriousness that at least stirs debate.

That's why some professors will be using Lincoln as a teaching aid. And that's why I enjoyed it so much.