Friday, 23 November 2018

Which would damage Britain more, Brexit or a second referendum?

When I was a child, I lived with my parents. They always did their best for me and I was never hungry or shabby. When I grew up I decided I needed to make a life for myself away from home. I met a girl and we married. In the early days of our marriage, we were poorer than I had been when I lived with my parents, but we stuck at it and worked through various difficulties until we achieved a comfortable lifestyle, very considerably better than my parents had enjoyed. And because my parents were good parents they backed me throughout this struggle and were delighted with the outcome.

Now, bearing in mind that your parents may not live as long as you, tell me which is more damaging, to endure through the early difficult years of independence in order to make a good life for yourself, or to give up at the first hardship and go back to your parents’ home where it’s safe and secure in the short run?

There are some unfortunate people who, through no fault of their own, do not have an option. There are some people who choose the second option. But if everyone chose the second option, society would collapse, wouldn’t it?

Let us please remember that the 2016 Referendum was the UK electorate’s first opportunity for forty years to make a choice on the direction taken by the EU.

As it happens, I had read the fine print and voted ‘No’ in 1975. However, I blame no-one who was at that time under the impression that the EEC stood for free trade and nothing more. It’s no good now pointing to old documents, you really had to live through that campaign to know how much pressure was put upon a public that had only a couple of year’s experience of life on the inside and still saw an exciting prospect.

But to all those who now claim that changed circumstances within a scant two years necessitate another plebiscite to confirm our departure, may I politely enquire how vigorously you campaigned for a vote on the loss of sovereignty entailed by the formation of the EU at Maastricht? Were you satisfied with the opt-outs negotiated by Major or did you consider the UK was being marginalised within a determinedly integrating organisation? Not a change in circumstances worth a vote, eh?

How upset were you when the EU constitution, on which we had been promised a vote, was re-badged as the Lisbon Treaty and pushed through regardless of rejection by other countries? Did you worry at all about the erosion of the veto and the rise of majority voting? Did you care when the Eurozone members began meeting on their own to form a common position to put before the European Council, where they collectively outvoted the non-members? More huge changes, but again not worth a vote?

If none of these things caused you sufficient disquiet to call for a further referendum, then I respectfully suggest it is disingenuous to call for one now, when Brexit has not even been implemented and the only new information to hand is that negotiations turned out to be more difficult than expected. In that context, I invite you to bear in mind that prominent Remainers have publicly urged the EU to be tough on the UK in order to assist their campaign to reverse the decision to Leave. In other words, your own team has made a significant contribution to the difficulties of which you now complain.

The electorate gets one choice in forty years, the people make their choice and you think you can campaign with impunity for that choice to be overturned before it is even carried out? Seriously? You think that democracy in the UK will not be dreadfully damaged in the process? Two hundred years after Peterloo, has the establishment truly learned so very little?

Have you taken note of polls showing the low regard in which politicians are already held compared to other groups? In 2016 the government pledged to implement what the people decided. That pledge has not yet been met. If it is not met, then do not expect a restoration of trust in the political system within a generation.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Book Review:
'Adults in the Room' by Yanis Varoufakis

Some critics of Varoufakis are clearly unreasonable. He did not create the Greek debt crisis of 2015; he inherited it.

A so-called bailout programme which actually reduces the national income of the debtor economy, rendering it even less able to pay than it was before, is demonstrably unsustainable. Kicking the can down the road, by what is called ‘extend and pretend’, protects badly-managed international banks at the expense of ill-advised Greek citizens and their livelihoods.

A Greek default would have led to the country’s ejection from the Eurozone and who knows how much damage to the EU project.

We need to remember that the single currency’s advantage over earlier programmes such as The Snake and The EMS was supposed to be its irrevocable nature. If Greece could be forced out, what would prevent the next victim of the single currency’s poor design being forced out too? Was it reasonable to expect Greece to take one for the team? I hardly think so.

The Lesson of ‘Adults in the Room’ is essentially an old and simple one: When you are in a hole, stop digging. But that advice is sadly oversimplified. You find that others in the same hole won’t, for a variety of reasons, stop digging. What’s worse, the owners of another, much bigger hole, see digging you further in as a wonderful means of digging themselves out.

Though his short career as Greek Finance Minister may have appeared Quixotic, the sad truth is that Varoufakis was tilting at real giants, not windmills. As is all too common with giants, many of these were not all that nice, and there were simply too many of them out there.

I recommend ‘Adults in the Room’ not just to critics of the EU, but to anyone tempted to overdose on a Public-Relations-based idealisation of a deeply-flawed organization.


(5 Stars)

Sunday, 4 November 2018

What worries me about UK politics.

To begin with, let me declare an interest. In 1979 I stood for election to parliament as a Liberal, back in the days when there was a Liberal Party. I was one of the 100 prominent Liberals (‘prominent’ being a relative term in this context) whose names were listed in the press as opponents of the Lib-Lab Pact.

There is no longer any British political party representing my broadly centrist position. I have to say with regret that since the merger with the Social Democrats my former party has turned into something neither liberal (in the classic sense) nor democratic (as demonstrated by its attitude to the EU Referendum result). For me, this explains its failure to fill the vacuum in moderate politics created by the polarisation of the two main UK parties and the rise of fissiparous nationalism in Scotland.

I am troubled by the seemingly inexorable rise of identity politics. In politics, I do not care about a person’s identity, I care about the quality and rationality of his or her ideas. To value ideas only insofar as they are uttered by an approved sort of person and to dismiss ideas uttered by any disapproved sort is a classic ad hominem fallacy, offering no hope of reaching the truth. Identity politics emphasizes irrelevant divisions and breaks down social cohesion to our collective diminution as citizens.

Another major concern is the diminishing respect for free speech. Extreme political correctness is the new fascism. No-platforming, shouting down, political violence and other forms of mob censorship are rapidly destroying our free society. I find it so tragic that things for which my father’s generation fought and died are so little valued and so lightly cast away by people who have the nerve to call themselves liberals. I’m sorry, but such people do not know the meaning of liberalism; they should read JS Mill’s On Liberty and learn what it is.

I value social media. Living as I do in rural isolation, forums such as this allow me to feel close to people all over the world. At the same time, I worry about the apparently deliberate policy of some media to create what has been called ‘echo chambers’; self-reinforcing factions rarely exposed to alternative views. When the certainty of one’s own righteousness becomes intense, there is an unfortunate tendency to respond to contrary views with hostility and belligerence rather than reasoned argument.

(In passing, may I mention that as a former philosophy teacher I know a thing or two about rational discussion. It was frequently necessary for me to play devil’s advocate, putting forward arguments for a view I didn’t actually support because it was necessary that someone should. You cannot convincingly claim to be correct if you are not familiar with the main objections to your view and able to offer reasoned refutations thereof. Without this there is only emotion and prejudice.)

I am disturbed by an increasing willingness to define ourselves by what we are against, rather than what we are for. Admittedly, this is often instinctive and reactionary. During the Scottish Independence referendum the unionist campaign understandably resorted to playing down the prospects of an independent Scotland but I would have preferred to see far more emphasis on what the UK had achieved and could in future achieve through integration. Likewise, the Remain campaign’s scaremongering about the dangers of leaving the EU was far more prominent than any enumeration of the benefits of membership.

I know politics has always been a bear pit. Confrontation is the nature of the beast. Yet it is vital to keep in sight the underlying truth that the UK collectively is far more than the sum of its parts. Split its countries or its society apart and we all suffer.

I wish I could have said the same for the EU. Sadly I can’t. The direction it has chosen is one which benefits just some citizens at the almost unbearable expense of others.

Friday, 12 October 2018

Scotland and the Pound

I received an abusive comment on Quora , which maintained that the pound was as much Scotland’s as England’s. Please permit me to clarify:

Yes, the pound is as much Scotland’s as it is England’s, which is to say, not at all. The pound is the currency of the United Kingdom, the laws of which include a currency union created by and subject to that same set of United Kingdom laws.

Monetary policy within the UK is the responsibility of the Bank of England under a series of Acts of the UK Parliament. For example, though the Bank of England has a legal monopoly of the note issue, Scottish commercial banks are allowed to issue notes under licence. Under the 2009 Banking Act, they must hold sufficient reserve assets (Bank of England notes or gold) to maintain the value of their notes in the event of commercial failure. This is because, strictly speaking, Scottish notes are not legal tender but promissory notes.

Just as withdrawal from the EU would leave the UK no longer subject to EU law, withdrawal from the United Kingdom would leave Scotland no longer subject to UK law, which includes the laws governing the currency union and the laws governing the note issue.

An independent Scottish government could choose to issue a currency called pounds, but it could not choose to issue UK pounds since it would no longer be part of the UK. (There is no prospect of Scotland being recognised as the continuing state as opposed to the ten times larger population from which it would have withdrawn, which would continue to be governed by UK law.) The Scottish pound would thereafter become, domestically and internationally, a separate currency from the UK pound. The exchange values of the two currencies could diverge.

Regarding sterling, Scotland would have two options:

  1. To ask the rUK to continue the currency union, which was what the then Chancellor specifically ruled out in 2014, or

  2. To use UK sterling (now a foreign currency) within Scotland as Panama currently uses the US dollar. This places monetary policy in the hands of the issuer of the currency, that is to say, the rUK.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

The siren song of socialism

the days of steam rail
The Labour Party Conference has promised to turn the clock back. But were the former communist economies really so admirable?

Eastern Bloc command economies were able to achieve rapid economic growth initially because they still had a large percentage of the workforce underemployed in agriculture, much of which could be directed into more productive industrial employment. Additionally, the USSR, in particular, had under-exploited natural resources where exploitation rates could be increased. For a while, therefore, they were able to outgrow the capitalist economies for which both of the above advantages had expired decades earlier. This was the period that suggested the model could work.

However, once the playing field levelled out and both economic models could only grow through efficiency improvement and investment, the command economies fell behind because there was no competition to stimulate innovation. (You don’t have to build a better car than the Trabant if the Trabant is the only car that the masses are allowed to buy.)

The command economies also wasted up to ten percent of the labour force taking the place of market forces to plan what the remaining ninety percent should do, and created perverse incentives to meet set targets rather than operate efficiently.

This coincided with improved communications so that an international demonstration effect alerted Eastern consumers to the fact that lifestyles were better in the capitalist countries. Essentially the USSR’s empire collapsed because it couldn’t compete in the arms race and the consumer products race at the same time.

Putin’s revanchist regime has courted popularity through encouraging nostalgia for the lost empire but is now running up against the same constraints, which is why he’s having to raise the pension age despite the resulting unpopularity.

Of course, certain UK politicians’ ideas are rooted so firmly in the past they seem not to have noticed Russia is no longer the USSR and no longer even makes a pretence of putting the workers’ interests first.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Cosy Crime from Flame Tree

I'm delighted to announce my third acceptance from Flame Tree, this time for their forthcoming 'Cosy Crime' anthology.

My story is called 'Sir Robert's Gargoyle'. It is a mystery set in and around an English cathedral, where during the Civil War in the seventeenth century the church silver disappeared and was never recovered. An unlikely modern sleuth sets out on the trail of the loot. I do hope you will like it.

Cosy Crime is scheduled for a January release. The contents include:

Honey of a Jam by Stephanie Bedwell-Grime

Longfellow's Private Detection Service by Joshua Boyce

Peppermint Tea by Sarah Holly Bryant

Eykiltimac Stump Acres by Jeffrey B. Burton

Death in Lively by C.B. Channell

The Body in Beaver Woods by Gregory Von Dare

The Glorious Pudge by Amanda C. Davis

Twenty Column Inches by Michael Martin Garrett

Sir Robert's Gargoyle by Philip Brian Hall

Open House by E.E. King

The Whittaker-Chambers Method; Or, Mulligan’s Last Mystery by Tom Mead

Scoop! by Trixie Nisbet

The I's Have It by Annette Siketa

Murder on the Lunar Commute by B. David Spicer

Just the Fax by Nancy Sweetland

Raven Nevermore by Louise Taylor

A Mouthful of Murder by Elise Warner

These contemporary authors will appear alongside the following classic and essential writers: Arnold Bennett, Ernest Bramah, Anton Chekhov, Arthur Conan Doyle, Andrew Forrester, R. Austin Freeman, Anna Katherine Green, Maurice Leblanc, Arthur Morrison, Baroness Orczy, Catherine Louisa Pirkis, Edgar Wallace, Israel Zangwill, G.K. Chesterton.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Is it more important for Scotland to be in the EU or the UK?

The question begged here is more significant than the question asked, isn’t it? Could an independent Scotland get into the EU? There are several reasons why it might not, and all of these have been rehearsed ad nauseam. Is it worth going over them yet one more time? Probably not. It’s a complete dialogue of the deaf. Essentially it boils down to a disagreement between SNP supporters (who see no obstacle to anything) and unionists (who see obstacles to everything.)

Realistically, it seems far from certain that the option assumed in the question is actually available just for the choosing, especially in the short term. Pragmatically, an independent Scotland must be prepared for membership of neither union.

Perhaps we could look at the people involved instead of the economics. Scotland’s current residents include around 475,000 British nationals from other parts of the UK. Meanwhile, about 720,000 Scots live elsewhere in the UK. Intermarriage for 300 years has produced a very large number of people of mixed Scottish/other-British heritage and today’s British families (including my own) can comprise persons born on different sides of the border.

All of a sudden upon independence, a million and a quarter people would find they no-longer lived in their own country. One of them would be me. Personally, I find the prospect devastating.

Neither group of ‘exiles’ could be deprived of their present nationality against their will. An independent Scotland can offer Scottish nationality to non-Scots-born residents of Scotland, or possibly to Scots-born residents of the rest of the UK, but it cannot force it upon them.

In fact, it must be legally dubious whether a Scottish government could even force nationality change on Scots-born unionists. In the short term at least, a British passport is likely to be more valuable to travellers than a Scottish one.

It is therefore not beyond the bounds of possibility, in the event of a narrow vote in favour of independence, that the subsequent Scottish population would be almost equally divided between Scots and resident aliens.

We’ve recently had cause to notice how well the dividing of a population almost equally across passionately-felt identity lines has gone, I guess?

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Alternative Theologies

My story 'Devine Justice'  is included in the latest of the B-Cubed anthologies Alternative Theologies.

I'm delighted to share the table of contents with these notable authors and I do hope people will enjoy reading the book.

We hear quite a bit about alternative comedy, alternative history and so on these days. I've not previously come across a publisher willing to take the spirit of adventure into this sensitive but vital area.

Religion cannot be excluded from the remit of free speech. Even what we believe to be true must be examined and tested. It is impossible to prove that truth is false, yet it is so easy for an unexamined truth to degenerate into a dead letter and meaningless recitation.

This is why genuine religious philosophers always welcome rational challenges. Those who permit no discussion serve neither their own interests nor the interests of the truth.

Anyway, my story examines what happens when a defence attorney who is a master of sophistry and rhetoric faces his sternest test: his own trial on charges of breaking the laws of God. I'm very fond of this tale and I hope you'll all like it.

Friday, 27 July 2018

Tired old Propaganda

I studied economics at Oxford, taught it, helped introduce management science as a secondary school subject in Scotland and subsequently examined it.

However, there are considerably more eminent economists than me who support Brexit. Perhaps I might pray in aid the 2017 report by Patrick Minford, Professor of Economics at Cardiff University and Roger Bootle, Chairman of Capital Economics, Europe’s largest macroeconomics consultancy, among others. The group included six former economic advisers to government and eight university professors.

“Brexit could boost the UK economy by as much as £135 billion a is time to abandon the gloomy forecasts of Project Fear and embrace Project Prosperity – the mounting evidence that quitting the protectionist EU will transform Britain’s prospects over the next decade.”

Now you may not agree with the distinguished authors of this report, but isn’t it about time to ditch the tired old propaganda campaign that Brexit is exclusively the province of the ignorant? Rational discussion is not aided by abusing those who don’t agree with you, nor by hysterical prophecies of cataclysm.

It simply is not the case that all the evidence points one way. As Spinoza pointed out, it depends on the colour of the glass through which you view it in the first place. In this case, also, there is a decision to be made on the balance of probabilities and of risk versus reward.

Even if majority opinion amongst certain groups did point one way it’s not much of a guarantee. I’ve been here before, being called a xenophobe and a fool almost two decades ago, when I was one of the relatively few economists who held that the UK should not join the Euro because it was unsoundly structured, would not work properly and would damage several European economies severely. Strangely enough, nowadays I find far more people who remember agreeing with me back then than I ever noticed at the time.