Tuesday, 23 December 2014

A historian looks at 2015

So in this last blog of 2014, it's time to look forward and speculate about what 2015 might bring us. And the answer? Massive instability. We've got used to this a little, from the oil price through the chaos associated with the Euro to the collapse of Syria. But it's likely to speed up again in the year to come, especially in Britain. Let's look at a few straws in the wind:

A chaotic UK General Election. Now we're supposed to be qualified to tell you what's going to happen here. But we can't. Right now, things look very close in terms of seats between Labour and the Conservatives. Both are wallowing so low in public esteem that it looks as if they could both lose the election with around 280-290 seats. But the story isn't as simple as the straightforward decline of 'two-party politics' (if there ever was such a thing). It's true that the links of party - of union, social club, town, branch, sports team - are less powerful than they were. But actually, the 2015 results are likely to see a small uptick in the combined numbers of the Conservatives and Labour, due to the near-demise of the Liberal Democrats. And our present impasse owes as much to the unpopularity of all three party leaders (above) (Latest figures: -11% for David Cameron, -28% for Ed Miliband and -48% for Nick Clegg) as it does to long-term social and intellectual changes. Consider this, too: it's not so much that the parties are disintegrating, but that they're pulling up the drawbridges on their fortresses. Labour is very weak in the South of England; the Conservatives are almost non-existent north of Birmingham. It's the Conservatives' uncertain 2010 advance into the North of England that is most likely to be reversed this May: this will make things worse. Our politics is regionalising: the United Kingdom Independence Party may well win seats in the East of England where they are strong, the Scottish National Party will probably win between 25 and 35 seats in Scotland, the Liberal Democrats might cling on where they face the Conservatives in the South and West of England and the rural North. It's that which makes this one so close to call. For now, file under 'don't know', with a slight lean towards a weak and unstable Conservative plurality given Labour's implosion in Scotland. Which brings us to...

Further calls for Scottish independence. Last week we said that Jim Murphy, Labour's new leader in Scotland, was probably the most important political figure in the UK. If he could do something - anything - to reverse Labour's catastrophic slide in the polls there, then Labour might well win the UK General Election. If he can't, they won't. It's that simple. And the early results are not encouraging for Mr Murphy. Both specific polls, detailed questions about his leadership and the cross-breaks from UK-wide polls show very little movement towards Labour at all, albeit at a time when the SNP's numbers have stopped going up. Polls also show that a second referendum would be a lot closer than the first. Now Canadian experience in Quebec tells us that you have to start a long way out in front if you're 'yes' and you want to win such a contest, so the UK is probably safe for a while yet. And there a lot of uncertain 'No' voters out there who might or might not vote on an anti-SNP ticket in May. But that's a very, very thin straw to clutch at if you oppose the separatists. If the SNP were to win a majority of the seats in Scotland in May (quite likely right now), and then to have an overall majority at Holyrood after 2016, they might well call for a second referendum in 2017 or 2018. Whether they get one will depend on the constellation of forces at Westminster - and Scottish public opinion - at the time.

European populists on the march. The UK isn't the only place to harbour the rise of new parties. Podemos is riding high in Spain, where two-party politics is similarly on the slide. Syriza is doing well in Greece, if perhaps a little less well than a couple of months ago. Sinn Fein in Ireland is held back by scandal and a whole truckload of historical baggage, but is still convincing a fifth of the Irish Republic's citizens to say that they'd vote for the party, and might be able to force its way into government before long. And what they all have in common is simple: the appeal of the 'outsider', the insurgent, the radically new, the eschatological desire for a 'new dawn' or a 'fresh start'. UKIP and the SNP have the same advantage, of course - one reason why they're doing so well. And they also have neatly-tailored answers to the very complex challenges of austerity. Either they deny the existence of our massive debt challenge and threaten to repudiate joint liabilities (the SNP), or they blame it all on 'Europe', 'foreigners' and 'immigrants' (UKIP). Either approach represents a silly post-truth politics, and Europe's insurgent far Left would also find themselves in a more complex world than they think were they ever to default, devalue and try to reflate. But we'll leave those dilemmas for another day.

So there we have it. A chaotic election. A geographically splintered politics. A continuing debate over the very existence of the UK. Mounting success and popularity at the populist edges of European politics, threatening continued austerity and perhaps the Euro itself.

And that's it from 2014. 2015 is likely to be a year of unparalleled confusion in the British political scene. You know what? We can't wait.

Until then, Happy New Year!

Monday, 22 December 2014

The indecisive autumn

Back in September, we wrote that we were facing a decisive autumn. The Scottish independence referendum, the daily countdown to the looming General Election, the suspicion that the identity of the likely winner would be clearer soon and the fact that we'd then know whether there was likely to be a referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union all meant that it looked as if Britain was facing a critical breakpoint in its national life.

It didn't work out like that.

Scots rejected the idea of independence by a fairly decisive margin - more than ten percentage points - and yet it's the Scottish National Party that soars in the polls, not the victorious 'unionist' parties. Labour in particular is struggling to hold on to even a majority of its 41 Parliamentary seats in Scotland, and there is a chance (albeit only a chance as yet) of an SNP landslide that might wipe every other party off the Scottish electoral map. There are lots of reasons for this - the general anti-politics and anti-'Westminster' mood in the country, the honeymoon appeal of Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP's new leader, Labour's turmoil after being called a 'branch office' of the London party by its outgoing Scottish leader, the SNP's ability as a national party to face both leftwards (promising better state childcare) and rightwards (urging a corporation tax cut). But that doesn't matter for now. What does is that the surge of support for the Nationalists means that even if Scottish independence is not exactly back on the agenda, the idea is certainly hovering in the ether, waiting for a chance to rematerialise in more concrete form.
The tanking oil price and Scotland's ageing population means that the economic case for independence - the crucial window of opportunity the SNP and its new leader admits they failed to convince people about - is pretty much over and shut, at least in terms of the higher public spending for which 'yes' activists thirst, and probably in any scenario. That'll cause Scottish and UK politicians innumerable headaches in the years to come, for the SNP may well now stop short of calling for outright independence (completely fairly, given the referendum outcome) and start taking part in UK governments and Westminster Parliamentary votes on English-only matters, as Alex Salmond has suggested. It's an evolutionary step, but one that may inflame English national feeling in unpredictable ways. Anyway. Nothing about the relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK has been settled by a clear 'no'. Who would have thought it?

And as for the General Election, now just a bit over four months away, the SNP's remarkable polling breakthroughs have made its likely outcome even more messy. Labour might just, just - by a hair on its nose - be more likely to be the biggest party in the aftermath. Without the SNP challenge, that would now be quite likely. But no viable Parliament is likely to emerge from the rubble of the Big Three's fall in public esteem, and we may well be back at the polls within a year. That's certainly what the Conservatives think, and they're busy raising money for a second contest. Stop shuddering and covering your face with your hands with dread at the prospect. It won't be that bad.

All of which means that we might have a referendum on the UK's EU membership in 2017. Or (since only the Conservatives are committed to that prospect) we might not. And, given the volatile state of public opinion on the matter, we might then vote to leave, or we might not. Most polls show that the British would stay, they've moved recently in that direction - and in the still-possible event that Prime Minister David Cameron has led a successful renegotiation and recommended staying in, there's almost no doubt that we would. In fact, perhaps the worst possible thing that could happen to Britain-in-Europe is a weak Miliband administration menaced by UKIP in its northern electoral fastnesses, which then collapses and lets in a very Eurosceptical Conservative Party led by Theresa May or (please, please let us find a way to avoid this unthinkable prospect) Boris Johnson.

So we were wrong. Now, stop it with the intake of breath there. We know that you don't read that much here. But we thought that the Scottish independence referendum, the post-party conference polls and what they told us about a likely EU referendum would make everything clear by now.

One more, with feeling: they didn't. Everything's still just about as clear as mud. Scotland might become an independent state in the next few years. It's more likely that it won't, but you never know. If you know who's going to win the next General Election, we advise you to get down the bookmakers, because no-one else does. And Britain's membership of the EU? Your guess is good as ours. And really, as a historian, such uncertainty should have been obvious and predictable all along. Nothing falls in neat boxes, follows clear lines or proceeds in order. It's all mess, chaos, contingency - and a new set of challenges invited by the resolution of the last. Just another way in which the study of academic History can be brought to bear on the study of how public policy both does and might work.

And with that, well, that's nearly it for 2014. We'll be back tomorrow with a list of what to look out for in 2015, and then it's 'good-bye' for the holiday season. After an exhausting year of public policy chaos, in some ways the break can't come too soon.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

And the most important UK party leader is...

...Undoubtedly Jim Murphy, leader of the Scottish Labour Party (above). And, if things fall a certain way in May, perhaps Nigel Dodds, the Democratic Unionist Party leader in Westminster.

Why? Because we're shaping up for a really, realy tight election. It's hard to see where we are right now nationally: ICM, usually the most accurate of our telephone pollsters, give Labour a 5% lead, though Ipsos-Mori give the Conservatives a three-point advantage. The latest round of Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft's polling is out today, and we've got to the 'bite point' where the Conservatives seem to be able to defend English marginal seats against their Labour challengers. Well, we've got there at Conservative majorities of between 7% and 8% - in Warwick and Leamington, for instance, which it looks like the Conservatives will be able to hang on to, though not so much in London seats such as Ealing Central and Acton. That would probably put Ed Miliband, Labour's UK leader, in Downing Street as the leader of the single largest party, though only just. Ealing is 56th on the party's target list, so Labour might be around the 300 seat mark if they do take it, but miss out on a few supposedly 'easier' gains. All things being equal.

Except that they're not equal. Because Labour seem to be doing rather better in English marginal seats than they are in what one might once have called their 'heartlands' - Wales, where Labour's performance this year has been underwhelming to say the least, and Scotland. That's possibly and in part because the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) are stealing ex-Conservative votes across middle England more than they are Labour's (though they seem to be biting chunks out of Labour's support in the north of England as well).

Labour faces by far its most formidable challenge in Scotland, from a rejuvenated Scottish National Party that is building on the back of its grass-roots recruiting and activism during the Scottish independence referendum. Right now, its membership nudging 100,000 (far more than the UK-wide Lib Dems, for instance), the SNP senses a historic opportunity to win the most seats in Scotland (i.e., more than thirty) and to declare themselves representatives of Scotland as a whole at Westminster. The data is again not completely clear, but right now the massive SNP surge in the polls would suggest an unprecedented number of gains for them: of 40 or even more Parliamentary seats. That still seems unlikely in practice, partly because a lot of the Labour majorities they face are so large, but they've done it before in elections to the Edinburgh Parliament, so they can (at least in theory) do it again.

That's where Mr Murphy comes in. He's tough, experienced, unafraid of a fight - and very, very ambitious. He's a plausible and outspoken leader who's in a good position to unite pro-union forces around a centrist Labour Party that still talks about social justice. He's a bit right-wing for many Labour activists in Scotland, and for many of the left-leaning commentariat there, though that never hurt Tony Blair in England (or in Scotland, come to that). And he's going to have to be on his game, and more. The data tells us only that the race to be largest party is still a toss-up. Every single seat might count. If Labour loses 20 to 30 of its Scottish MPs, it has absolutely no opportunity whatsoever - a close-to-zero chance - of getting over the threshold to Downing Street. The Conservatives will be the largest party, and they'll go occupying the great offices of state, albeit in a badly wounded, last-man-standing kind of way.

That's where Mr Dodds comes in. For the Conservatives have been doing quite a bit of under-the-radar wooing of his Democratic Unionists over the past year or so. They know that even their own numbers, plus those of a severely-depleted Liberal Democrat grouping, might well not now add up to the effective majority post of 323 - let alone the 326 needed for an overall majority were Northern Ireland's Sinn Fein MPs to take up their seats, or the 330 or so one might want to be confident about actually governing for any length of time. They'll need the eight or so DUP MPs then, won't they?

Forget about David Cameron and Ed Miliband. The most important party leaders of 2015 are those who the people of England probably never give a thought to, even if they've heard of them.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Britain's housing emergency: fighting back will mean warlike measures

Britain is in the throes of a housing emergency. Everyone knows it, in their bones. It's when the stories about London garages and the Greek islands you could buy with the proceeds from your Notting Hill flat begin to appear that the dark clouds truly start building up on the horizon. They're there again. You just need to know where to look. And this time, with the banking system still in convalescence and real wages stagnating, those storm clouds look black indeed.

You might be young and unable to buy a house. Or stuffed in a tiny little box of a flat when you would like a house for your two young children. Or, alternatively, you might be middle-aged and fairly comfortably off, thank you very much. In which case, we could ask you this: if you live south of Birmingham, where exactly are your children going to live? And your carers, when you grow too old and infirm, as you near the ripe old age of 90 or 100, to look after yourself? If you imagine that they're going to live on an average wages south of £30,000 a year, when a nice house in (say) Bristol might cost £300,000, then, reader, you've got another think coming.

Britain doesn't build enough houses. Nowhere near enough. We need about 250,000 more dwellings every year just to keep up with household formation and population growth. We build a laughable 100,000 to 125,000. You don't need to know anything else. That's the story in two numbers - a tragedy that is making homeowners very rich indeed, as prices soar, and leaving everyone else locked out of the whole game as the number of homeowners gently falls and falls.

We're not going to get anywhere with this problem unless we start treating it like a wartime emergency. Forget today's Prime Ministerial announcement of more help for the under-40s. That's just pouring more petrol on the fire: something that's in many essentials been announced before, and another policy (like Help to Buy) that will have historians scratching their heads for decades to come at Ministers mendacity and self-delusion. Forget sweetners like better access to mortgages, or easier terms. Interest rates only go one way from here - upwards - and unless we build more, that will either cause a massive housing crash or push even more young people out of the market. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Londoners remain in expensive temporary accommodation, looking to build up their points so that one day, one day, they might be able to move into a really small flat. Camden has maybe 25,000 people on its housing list. It pushes maybe 20 flats a week up onto its website for rent. We can't go on like this.

Now Britain doesn't have an entirely happy history of state-driven (but privately-executed) housing drives. The Attlee govenrment's promises turned to dust amidst austerity and a dollar shortage. The Wilson government's 500,000-homes-a-year target had to be abandoned as it overheated the economy. But Harold Macmillan's record as Minister of Housing in the early 1950s (above), when he bent every lever of state and business power to the end of reaching a 300,000 per annum homes target, is a good example of what might and can be done. If the will existed to face down land-banking developers, local 'not in my back yard' conservatives and the vested interests of homeowners afloat on the increasing value of their main asset. Macmillan's methods were simple: ramp up building in every sector. More council houses, funded by borrowing and central government subsidy. More New Towns. More road building and land drainage. More improvement. Grants for better amenities and home expansion. And so on.

The truth is that we need to do all these things, and more. Probably much more. We might have to build on defence land, school fields, in shops and derelict commercial and industrial sites that the owners aren't using. In wedges on the Green Belt. Everywhere. Now. Today. Our housing disaster area requires big thinking, of the type that Public Policy and the Past has recommended again and again. Governments must declare large parts of southern England emergency areas: both green and brown-field sites should be fast-tracked immediately for the construction of brand new towns linked to older transport links via whole new 'light and fast' public transport grids.

Developers would be told: meet these transport, water and electricity standards, and then you can go for your lives. If they won't do it, then the state must - reviving a New Town tradition that has for too long fallen into abeyance, only recently being resurrected in (very shadowy) form via the Chief Secretary to the Treasury's controversial threat to direct targeted housebuilding schemes from Downing Street.

Building a few houses at Ebbesfleet and Bicester just won't meet the case. It's a pathetic, pitifully inadequate, indeed embarrasingly lightweight response to a clear and present danger to our entire prosperity and social structure. Less than 30,000 houses, which is all that those two developments will deliver? About six weeks of our housing requirements. Think of it like that and you begin to perceive the true scale of our predicament. If you don't like the changes required to get us out of this, you can go and tell all those families in inner London bed and breakfasts that you've just stamped all over their children's futures. Good luck with that.

Such radical measures might sometimes be hard to take. They would fundamentally change the shape and feel of southern England. They would make it feel more like the built-up and more crowded Netherlands. But you know what? There is now no alternative if British society is to hold together at all. It's that simple.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Out of office...

Well, after the storm of traffic (and Twitter controversy) of the last few days, that's it until Monday 15 December. We'll be back all that week to comment on what we've learned about history and public policy this year, and what we might find out next year. So do click back then.

Until then: thanks for visiting, and thanks for driving up the site traffic each and every month.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Scottish independence: a country's brush with disaster

One of the reasons Scots voted so decisively against independence back in September was that the economic case for separation just had not been made convincingly. Indeed, the economic part of the Scottish National Party's prospectus appeared to have been written in the sand, washed away not only by the tides but pretty much by every puddle that lapped over it.

Anyway, that debate's all over now, isn't it? Except that it's important to say that the economic outlook for an independent Scotland has been getting worse almost every single day since the referendum. As the SNP's membership and poll ratngs continue to surge, as the party looks forward to making lots of gains at Labour's expense in the May 2015 General Election, and Nicola Sturgeon as Scotland's new First Minister enjoys something of a honeymoon period, this reality will soon intrude into Scottish and British national life.

The oil price has been falling. Not just falling, but caving in - down from the Scottish Government's White Paper estimates of over $100 a barrel (the very lowest they would project over the summer was $99) to something more like $70 (or even lower) today. Despite Scottish Ministers' rather desperate-sounding claims to the contrary, no-one really believes that the price will rise much beyond $80 in the next year or so. Indeed, as Scotland's oil and gas reserves run down over the next twenty to thirty years, it's possible that even the next ten years' relatively strong production (against a weak medium-term backdrop) will only bring in small change compared to what the Edinburgh administration hoped and believed. As the rouble falls, and US shale gas production ramps up, who wants to buy expensive energy from the North Sea? No-one, that's who.

Now we did actually say this during the independence referendum, but we'll leave that to one side for now.

During the independence referendum campaign, the Scottish government argued that there could only be a £100m drop in oil revenue flowing to the government over the next five years. Its most optimistic projections were for a rise of over £2bn. That's all fantasy now. Scotland's government brings in about £7bn from oil every year. A fall of 36% in the oil price means that it'd be £2.5bn down from where it thought it might be. That's something like an 8.3% fall in the Scottish Government's total budget - the equivalent of losing the whole of that administration's education spending, or almost all of the Holyrood Parliament's infrastructure expenditure. No developed country could take such a shock without massive tax rises or a prolonged recession. Case closed.

The result? An independent Scotland, at this oil price, would be a very austere place indeed. Most of those different and distinctive (and welcome) parts of Scottish national life that the mostly left-leaning Yes campaign prize as uniquely their own would have to go. The council tax freeze. Free tuition fees (cost over three years: £1bn). Elderly care that's free at the point of use. The lot - even without accounting for the larger currency fund that would have to be built up to defend an independent Scotland's currency in such circumstances. If oil prices rise, great. They are very volatile, and they might. Then there can be a bit of an oil fund. There can be quite high levels of spending, on the Nordic model.

But make no mistake: Scots, especially poorer and more vulnerable Scots, would have been badly burned had they voted 'yes' in September. This petro-economy just has to be more diverse if it's to have both political independence and high levels of public spending. That could happen, and it's a valuable, achievable goal in and of itself. But at the moment an independent Scotland would have neither prosperity nor egalité.