The case against article 50 and the hard brexit that will follow

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So MP’s are finally voting on article 50. Tory eurosceptic labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is calling on his MP’s to back the bill. After all we had a referendum and a majority backed leave. However I would argue, no, both labour and Tory rebels should not back article 50 and here’s why.

Well no firstly they didn’t get a majority. As I’ve pointed out before multiply the turnout of the referendum (70%) by the 52% and you come up with 37%. Now excuse my elementary maths, but isn’t 37% less than 50%? By definition a majority requires +50%. In most European countries a decision on something as important as this this requires a majority decision, not a simple plurality. And this ignores the millions who were excluded from the ballot (EU citizens, UK citizens leaving abroad).

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Brexit was only supported by 37% of the UK electorate and under 27% of the UK population

The idea that the UK can make such a momentous decision (which statisticians say was something of a fluke) on the basis of a decision made by just 37%, the vast majority of whom are old foggies who’ll be dead in a few years time (meaning technically the 52% “majority” will have slipped away not long after brexit is implemented), is a complete distortion of who democracy is supposed to work. Especially when we remember how the brexit camp only won thanks to criminally irresponsible” campaigning.

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Its possible that the relative age difference between leave and remain voters means already they’ve lost the majority…if they ever had it in the first place!

And furthermore democracy is not majority rule. Its majority rule with minority rights. Given the tightness of the result, it would seem sensible to go for a Norway model arrangement. However, the Tories being the ideological zealots that they are pushing for a hard brexit. One that will see the UK becoming the 51st state of Trumpland.

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Indeed, perhaps more worryingly, we now have the PM throwing herself at the feet of Trump, offering him a state visit just days after he took office (normal protocol is to wait until a president is well into his term) and refusing to join criticism of his openly racist ban on Muslims (including many British with dual nationality). This does not bode well for future negotiations with the US on trade. Keep in mind there’s all sorts of concession the US will be looking for. The ability to buy parts of the NHS, the relaxing of UK safety or environmental standards and changes to UK food standards.

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You may wonder, if you’ve ever been to the US, why so many Americans have bizarre diets, they’ll avoid dairy or grains, but happily tuck into a pork chop. They’re vegan, but also like to go hunting. They eat all sorts of crap but insist on only soya milk in their coffee. Well the reason for this is the dire state of US food safety compared to those in Europe. This is a country where cattle can be pumped full of growth hormones (which end up in the meat or milk), chicken chlorinated and GM foods are often sold unlabelled. This is what’s going to be on your plate post-brexit.

Oh, what’s that you say, why I’ll just buy British. Ya, and already the UK farming lobby is looking to switch to these US production methods. Which aside from the food safety issues are terrible for the environment and for rural employment, given how the US food corporations and large farmers have squeezed out many small farmers. So UK farmers, especially small farms will struggle post-brexit. Oh and btw, the US food lobby are one of the main employers of foreign labour in the US. So not what you want brought over to rural England. In short, if you thought dealing with the EU was bad, dealing with Trump is a lot worse. And that is what MP’s will be voting for.

And worse, from a labour MP’s perspective, the Tories have hinted at how they want to get rid of the welfare state, gut employee protections and try and turn the country into some sort of tax haven for the super rich. Now firstly its unlikely they’d succeed, Ireland has a much lower rate of corporation tax (and personal income taxes), the Benelux and East Europeans offer even lower rates for certain kinds of business (and all throw in free EU membership as a freebie). The baby boomer pension time bomb and the very generous retirement the UK has given to its pensioners (free NHS treatment, bus pass, winter heating, TV license, weekly state pension, etc.) means the numbers simply don’t add up without reneging on pensions. But its probable they’ll at least try. One has to seriously question the sanity of any supposed left winger who votes to endorse this in a few days time.

Furthermore, as I’ve pointed out before any labour MP needs to think strategically. Basically if you are a labour MP, the people in your district who voted leave were overwhelmingly Tory or UKIP supporters. Polls have shown that the vast majority of labour members and supporters voted remain. Now backing brexit is not going to convince any of these conservatives types to back you next election…..but it might cause many of those who voted remain to vote against labour. I for one will not be voting labour next election if they back article 50, even if they oust Corbyn before the next election. And it will probably be a long time before I think of doing so again. As far as I see it if labour back brexit, they will be guilty of betraying every principle their party has stood by. And given that backing brexit has turn Corbyn into a Tory groupie, I’d be better off voting lib dem, the SNP or the Greens as they are providing much more effective opposition to the Tories than labour.

And I am far from alone, polls show many now vote one way or another depending on how they voted in the referendum. If labour backs brexit they are committing political suicide. The results of recent by-elections should have hammered that point home.

And from a UK point of view, a hard brexit means tension in Northern Ireland and Scotland. While its still far from clear Sturgeon can get a majority any time soon (although I won’t rule it out, her chances are better than last time), I’d argue such a historic betrayal by England all but guarantees that over a long enough time line (once the older generation who voted leave and no to independence last time have died off), that Scotland and NI will leave the UK at some point in the next few decades. Voting for article 50, MP’s need to consider you may be voting to break up the UK. Future historians might judge you very unkindly, noting that our current ones ain’t exactly thrilled either.

All in all we have to conclude the entire brexit process is flawed and it was flawed from the begining. Cameron, confident of victory and more worried about the short term internal politics of his own party, did not ensure the correct political checks and balances were put in place before calling the referendum. He should have insisted on a majority decision and held the referendum in the autumn when turnout from students would have been higher. He did not set out, nor did the leave camp, what kind of brexit we’d be getting. And I find it very difficult to believe that many of those who voted leave what the UK to “take control”….and then surrender sovereignty and control over our food supply and Health care to Trump and his cronies. The entire process is flawed, its going to be a mess, so I’d say go back to the begining and start again. Why should the country suffer just because Cameron was a moron?

Globalisation and its discontents

A couple of years ago, if you were protesting against globalisation, you were assumed to be an anarchist or an eco-warrior. Nearly every major political party of right and left was signed up to the idea that globalisation was a good idea and that anyone who said otherwise was a wholly eared nutter.

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Globalisation has many opponents, anarchists, eco warriors, Trump, the far right….clowns, UKIP…..

However we now face the situation where the two major parties in the UK are essentially anti-globalisation (one hard left, the other authoritarian right). In America Trump is running on an anti-globalisation platform, while even Hilary has had to row back from her support of international trade agreements. What went wrong?

Firstly, I think it has to be acknowledged the benefits globalisation has brought. While I’d take the figures below from the world bank with a pinch of salt, it has to be said that globalisation has help lift millions out of poverty. It has helped push forward technological process, introduced us all to new ideas, its brought us multiculturalism, new and exotic tastes from far afield, and countries aren’t fighting world wars anymore (which is just as well given that we now have nuclear weapons). However it also must be said that experiences may vary. A rising tide has not lifted all ships.

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This can be illustrated by the next graph, the so called “Elephant Graph” which plots the relative change in income over the last twenty years, depending on whether you are among the world’s poorest or richest. If you a subsistence farmer in the developing world (i.e. the very poorest) you’ve probably seen no change at all. If your one of the 10% of the world’s richest, you’ve had it pretty good over the two last decades. The working class and middle classes in Asia and the developing world have seen the most dramatic improvements of all, going in many cases from poverty to complaining about first world problems. If you are middle class in the West, you’ve seen some benefit, but you’ve probably noticed that others have gotten a lot better off and keeping up with the Joneses is that little bit harder. However, the working class in the West have seen very little change, indeed some are even worse off. This essentially is the heart of the problem.

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And the problem, I would argue, is that somewhere along the way globalisation got bundled up, much like those toxic CDO’s that brought on the financial crisis, it got repacked with a lot of toxic neo-liberalism and outdated and rotting lassie-faire nonsense. It was then sold on as a complete package. Countries and electorates were told that they couldn’t have one without the other. That they must sacrifice their labour rights, wages, privatise public services and downside the state, all for the sake of globalisation. Now that everyone’s worked out that out that this globalisation CDO is filled with neo-liberal dog shit, people want to throw it away rather than simply unpick the good bits from the bad.

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Not least because often the very people who sold this toxic CDO were the very neo-liberal types who packaged it up in the first place (i.e. parties like the Tories or the GOP) and the very same who are catching blowback from the consequences. And they are obviously reluctant to admit their error or abandon their long held ideology. Also their lies have started to catch up with them.

For years the go-to lie of many right wingers was to blame foreigners, poor people and organisations like the EU for all the worlds ills. Your local water supply has been privatised? Not our fault (even thought it was in our parties manifesto and one of our donors is on the hook to get the contract), the EU made us do it (only because we got the very legislation passed by them so we could dodge the flak!). Can’t get a hospital bed? that’s not because we failed to fund the NHS to account for an ageing society, its the fault of them nasty evil hobbits foreigners comin over here and overloading local services. Your taxes too high? No, its not because of our failure to make the rich pay their taxes, its them scroungers living on benefits that’s the problem.

So when Corbyn tries to blame globalisation for causing brexit, I would argue that this is not entirely correct. It was this toxic neo-liberal agenda that along the way got mixed up with globalisation that’s the problem, plus the aforementioned lies of the right wing media. Like the boy who cried wolf, unwilling to admit to their error, they proceeded with the referendum. But the pleb’s, who they’d spent the last twenty years telling that everything was the fault of the EU and foreigners, actually voted leave. Confronted with the fact that actually you can’t keep the single market and end free movement, so they’ve doubled down and are going for a hard brexit. Similarly in the US, Trump is the inevitable consequences of this bundling of globalisation with neo-liberalism and the decades of lies told to the public by the right wing media (i.e. blame foreigners, China and poor people for everything….so a guy who blames these for all of America’s problems is suddenly popular!). In both cases baby, bath, water, tub and rubber ducky goes over the side.

There is no reason why we can’t unpick the two things however. The countries that have done best out of globalisation have certainly done so, to varying degrees. Unsurprisingly, communist China does not subscribe to the principle of lassie faire. They will intervene to protect local industries when they feel its necessary. The Germans and many other EU countries have hung on to their welfare state, offering some protection to those effected by the negative consequences of globalisation. They’ve also resisted, to varying degrees, the privatisation of public services (often merely floating public services off into state owned quangos). And they are willing incentivize growth in certain key industries (German renewables for example). Brazil and India have also adopted a policy of resisting privatisation and are trying to build up their welfare states to make sure the benefits are more evenly distributed.

Granted not everything is rosy in these countries, China for example has a lot to do to improve workers rights and there’s still lots of people in India who are desperately poor. The defacto coup by right wing politicians in Brazil (essentially a neo-liberal push back against the aforementioned measures) is hardly a positive. However, one has to compare and contrast with the pre-globalisation situation – workers in China then had no rights period, pretty much everyone in India was desperately poor and Brazil was ruled by a military Junta. But clearly there is no reason for globalisation to remain coupled to neo-liberalism. There is in essence another way. But as noted, the political right, and even some elements of the hard left, are unlikely to do this as this would be a direct affront to their long held ideologies.

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However, rolling back globalisation will have consequences. Already there has been a growing trend of beggar-thy-neighbour style tit for tat protectionism. Unsurprisingly the US, the United States of France (a Time magazine jibe which is actually unfair on the French!) has been the worst offender. These measures however often end up being counter productive. As the BBC reports:

There was an outcry in 2012 when cheap Chinese tyres flooded into the US market, putting the viability of the domestic producers in question.

President Obama responded with punitive tariffs to get China “to play by the rules”.
The protectionist measures were well received in the US, but a study by the Peterson Institute established that the tariffs meant US consumers paid $1.1bn more for their tyres in 2011.

Each job that was saved effectively cost $900,000 with very little of that reaching the pockets of the workers.

Or put it another way, what the Trump’s, Theresa May’s or Corbyn’s of this world don’t tell you is that by opposing globalisation they think that the computer in front of you should cost you two or three times as much. It shouldn’t be nearly as advanced as those available in other parts of the world and it should be less reliable and less energy efficient. Now okay, those on a descent salary, like me, could still afford to pay such prices (or slip one into our luggage when we’re overseas on business). But I suspect those on a lower income will suddenly find that things like mobile phones, TV’s, laptops, cars, central heating, foreign holidays etc. all just became luxuries they can no longer afford. In short, roll back globalisation and suddenly many will find that the UK (or US) just became very unequal and life just became very unfair, very quickly.

The fact is we’ve all benefited from globalisation in ways the elephant graph above perhaps does not capture. I’m not that old and yet I remember when mobile phones were the size of a brick. When cars were so unreliable you had to carry tools around and work time into your morning schedule to account for the inevitable breakdown. When TV’s were so prone to failure some manufacturers made more money selling warranties on them breaking down than on selling TV’s. And your choice of drink in a cafe was builders tea or brown muddy water laughably referred to as “coffee” (Now we have lattes, cappuccinos, green teas and this thing called “salad”). Globalisation and the international competition that it brought forced companies to change. It provided them with the incentive to change, it drove technological progress, allowed them to buy in parts and materials or bring in expertise and investment from abroad to implement these changes.

Yes there were winners but also losers, some jobs did move overseas. Although it has to be said that other countries (not run by neo-liberals) fared better than either the UK or US. And, as I noted in a prior article, a lot of the job losses we blame on globalisation were largely a consequence of increasing automation (the UK now produces nearly as many cars as it did in the 1970’s, but with only a fraction of the work force). And there is little evidence to support the notion that foreigners are taking people’s jobs. Indeed the danger is jobs moving overseas (due to immigration restrictions making it impossible to recruit), or machines taking them. Both these mechanisms are in fact the main reason for the trends in the graph below.

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Germany & the Eurozone has held on to more of its manufacturing than the UK or US

Restricting immigration and leaving the free market will inevitably mean some companies will leave the UK (or the US in the case of Trump winning). The recent “flash crash” of the pound is a case in point. Its now believed to have been caused by a computer engaged in high frequency trading reading an FT article which had key words like “hard brexit”, “crisis” and “far right” in it, shat its electronic pants and sold everything it had. Now while human traders will be a little more discreet and careful about what they do, but they will essentially do the same….then relocate to Dublin or Frankfurt.

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And the decline of 20% in the value of the pound to date essentially means you just lost 2 & a half a month’s salary, once those currency exchange differences work their way into retail and energy prices (oil and natural gas recall are generally priced in dollars). And WTO tariffs would push prices up yet further. A leaked treasury report now suggests brexit could cost the UK treasury £66 billion a year (£1.2 billion a week….rather than the extra £350 million the Brexiters promised).

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Brexit is already causing major problems, for pension funds for example

Post-brexit the UK will find it increasingly hard to export, given the consequences of tit for tat tariff imposition and the fact that we’ll have cut ourselves off from the rest of the globalised world, which will mean the UK will no longer be able to attract the best and brightest (case in point, the Tories recently announced that no foreigners would be asked to advice on brexit policy, or in other words they don’t want the best and brightest available to advise them!). The country will slip further and further behind to the point where UK companies can’t export, unable to sell outside of the closed shop of the UK economy because anything we try to sell is just Lada like obsolete.

Over a long enough time period, the anti-globalisation brigade may well get their wish – more jobs for British people. Foreign multinationals will be streaming into the country, because the UK will have fallen so far behind that it essentially now counts as a developing world country and these companies will want to exploit an impoverished UK and its cheap labour costs. As Paul Mason puts it:

What happens when the investment banks move to Frankfurt, the carmakers to Hungary, the offshore finance wizards to Dublin, the tech companies to newly independent Scotland? What happens when, instead of Poles, it is poor white English pensioners herded into the polytunnels of Kent to pick strawberries for union-busting gangmasters?

Certainly there is a need to rethink globalisation. It needs to work for the benefit of everyone and we need to quit thinking that this “benefit” is measured in the form of dollar bills. The world faces many major problems, overpopulation, peak oil, climate change, ISIS you name it. These are global problems, they need global solutions, which means international co-operation, not more division.

But we also need to acknowledge that getting rid of globalisation would be a very bad idea. If the neo-liberals were correct, that downsizing government and privatising public services was a good idea, then Somalia, which hasn’t had a functioning government in several decades, would be the richest country in the world (instead its one of the poorest and most dangerous places on the planet). Similarly if the Brexiters (or Trump) are right, then North Korea, the country with the tightest border controls and lest free market trade agreements would be the worlds most dynamic economy….of course the opposite is true!

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Opponents of globalisation, simply don’t seem to realise how much the world has changed and hence why we can’t just wind back the clock a few decades. And in many cases the medicine they proscribe would be much worse than what the propose to cure.

 

Why the Britannia’s not coming back….nor the Empire!

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The Britannia….where the queen would wine and dine blood thirsty dictators so the UK could sell them weapons

Liam Fox, Boris Johnson and a number of the other Brexiters want to bring back the Royal Yacht Britannia. They fantasize about a future where they travel the world signing new trade agreements from its decks. Really?

Well the current yacht was built in 1952 and completely obsolete (it was declared as much when it was decommissioned 22 years ago). I mean there’s a long list of things it won’t have (such as this thing called “the internet”….Liam Fox might want to look that one up!) and you’d have to train an entire crew as to how to use it. One would have to question the logistics of bringing it up to speed and back into service.

Furthermore, its also way too small for modern trade negotiations. The days when a UK minister could settle an international trade deal with some tin pot dictator over a glass of sherry and a handshake are long gone. A typical trade delegation these days will consist of several hundred lawyers and negotiators (of which Britain currently employs…..none!). Such talks will typically take place over a good few months, with the politicians only flying in for the last few days to settle any sticking points and basically knock heads together where necessary.

So you’d need something a little bit bigger….as in like a cruise ship! And you’d probably want more than one. And just one of those will set you back about half a billion, with an annual running cost of about a tenth that. And that’s for a ship kitted out for budget holiday makers, crewed by staff mostly drawn from developing world shipping nations. A ship decked out to the sort of royal standards we are talking about, crewed by the Royal Navy, you’re likely thinking many times these amounts, probably a few billion to commission and maybe a hundred million a year to run. Perhaps more. So not cheap.

But we’d get value for money from all those trade deals and saving on flights & hotels, right? Well aside from the little niggle that its going to be difficult to negotiate a trade deal with China from this ship….seeing as Beijing is 150 km’s inland. Australia? Canberra’s now the capital and that’s about 200 km’s inland. New Delhi? Over 1,000 km’s inland. Ottawa in Canada? 400 km’s inland. Washington DC’s close to the coast, but you’re not going to get a boat that big up the Potomac. Moscow in Russia?…you get the idea. And let’s not even consider the gas and oil rich states of Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan.

Now I suppose the Brexiters will argue, oh but johnny foreigners will hop on a train and come to us. Ya and if Putin showed up in his yacht, moored it off Brighton and summoned the PM to appear before him, how would the brit’s react? Probably by telling him to get stuffed and get on his bike and we’ll see you in London.

Also one has to wonder how it would look to the locals with their minsters being wined and schmoozed on a luxury yacht by an ex-colonial government. Dodgy as hell one assumes. Again how would the tabloids react to news of one of the UK’s minsters attending secret meetings on a foreign head of states private yacht? These days politicians, even those in less than democratic countries, have to at least pretend to not be corrupt.

And as I pointed out in a prior post, the British have a very brazen view of the British Empire that is not shared by the rest of the world. To many in India or former UK colonies, the history of the British Empire, its oppression of native populations, the atrocities it committed, the Empire’s use of concentration camps, are listed in the same section of the history books as nazi Germany and its crimes. So to draw an analogy if Angela Merkel commissioned a Reichsyacht the SS Bismarck and sailed it into Southampton for a trade negotiation, how would the British react to that? Not well I expect! How do you think the Indians are likely to react to a royal yacht in their waters? My guess is you’ll get ten minutes to turn around before they launch the torpedoes.

And this is perhaps the real problem here – the warped fantasy world view of these Brexiters. They don’t seem to realise how much the world has changed in the last 60 years. Or indeed how much of history they were taught in their posh boarding school is at odds with reality. Hence why they don’t understand the consequences of trying to reset everything and pretend its 1950 again.

There is worrying talk that the hard Brexiters are winning the argument behind closed doors. What’s wrong with that? Well a hard brexit pretty much guarantees a harder landing for the UK. It would almost certainly lead to another independence referendum in Scotland. And furthermore the harder the brexit the more likely a yes vote in Scotland becomes. Also it could even be enough to provoke a border poll in Northern Ireland. So hard Brexit might well turn out to mean Engexit….as in it will be England essentially leaving the EU and the UK breaking up.

Also a hard brexit will have a much more significant impact on trade, given the inevitable link between trade and free movement. Already a number of universities are talking of setting up campuses in the EU, most likely shifting much of their research staff overseas. A number of high tech firms and banks are also talking about moving and again the harder the brexit the more incentive they have to push into Europe. And the head of Nissan has hinted that he will be expecting some sort of “compensation from the government for brexit to maintain operations in the UK.

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UK factories in the 70’s were a model of unproductivity, crap cars produced using outdated technology by work-shy strike-happy workers, companies that needed significant state intervention to stay afloat

Now while you could accuse Nissan’s boss of being a little cheeky, but back in the old pre-globalisation days many industries were given a large government subsidy, were state owned or their market share defended by punitive tariff’s against foreign competitors. Even Tory governments prior to Thatcher didn’t really question this, as it was understood that the UK’s industrial jobs won’t survive in a completely free trade environment without some form of protectionism or subsidy. As a consequence the ideological enemy right now of Mr Fox isn’t Jeremy Corbyn but his hero Thatcher, who would be rolling in her grave….if she had one.

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Fox with his hero…and ironic ideological enemy…well at least that’s one positive thing we can say about him!

Now while rolling back Thacherism would have its advantages, but its cutting off your nose to spite your face to leave the EU to achieve this (it would make more sense to do it from within the EU by convincing the rest of the union to do the same). And its also throwing the baby out with the bathwater given all the other unintended consequences. More crucially however from a future British trade point of view, it is how much the global economy has changed since last trade deals were signed on Britannia’s decks.

Back then the UK went around the world offering to open its trade door a crack in exchange for full access to foreign markets for UK firms. Now the boots on the other foot. The Chinese economy is vastly larger than the UK’s. Many of the UK’s firms (about 52% in all) are foreign owned (Nissan, the country’s largest carmaker is a joint Japanese and French endeavour, Jaguar Land rover is owned by India’s Tata group, who also own…you get the message!). Instead the UK will be offering an access all areas pass to Indian and Chinese businesses, in exchange for slightly more favourable terms for the UK…sorry England…. to sell goods to them.

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Global economies compared. Note how India’s will be 6 times bigger than the UK by 2050 and China’s 10 times bigger. Also note the above figures are in nominal GDP which arguably overvalues Western economies and undervalues developing ones.

And faced with tariff free competition from either Polish or Chinese made goods British manufacturing firms and parts of the service economy, will struggle to compete, especially against foreign firms based in countries not run by bigots who can recruit more freely. Its not foreigners coming over here and “stealing” your job people need to worry about, its foreigners staying at home and your job moving overseas. And the decision to sack British workers will be made in foreign board rooms.

The only many English companies could hope to survive in this environment is by essentially turning the country into France…..and I don’t mean today’s France, I’m talking about Mitterand’s France with massive levels of subsidy and state intervention. The recent Hinkley deal, which will be subsidised to the tune of 68.8% of the cost of every watt it generates, is likely to be the shape of things to come. Without this level of interventionism certain sectors of the UK economy will collapse, in much the same way some sectors collapsed when Thatcher took over.

The irony is, many of those who voted Brexit in the hope of seeing more control over foreign trade and immigration will likely see the opposite happening. More big government, more bureaucracy, more foreign goods coming in, less jobs for British people, with the UK more foreign owned and more dependant on foreign workers being brought in to meet temporary skills shortages.

And much of what any future UK trade delegation will be negotiating, likely from a hotel on the Beijing ring road rather than a royal yacht, will essentially be the orderly surrender and fire sale of what’s left of the UK economy.

A history lesson for Brexiters…which they’ll never learn

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On Tuesday a group of 500 history academics signed a letter calling for the UK to remain in the EU. They warned that to leave the EU would be to condemn Britain to “irrelevance”. This list included many well known household names such as Ian Kershaw, Suzannah Lipscomb, Simon Schama and Niall Ferguson.

The last of these names was a bit of a surprise as he’s been critical of the EU in the past. However, like his colleagues Dr Ferguson has clearly decided that leaving would outweight any benefits. As he put it:

“The lesson of history is that British isolationism has often been associated with continental disintegration.”

He also accused the Leave camp of promoting a warped “scissors and paste” view of “plucky” Britain throughout history, that ignored certain historical realities (such as how impossible it would have been to win either world war without the aid of European allies or the US).

And this intervention comes on the back of a similar intervention from 150 leading scientists (including Stephen Hawking) warning that leaving the EU would be “a disaster” for science in the UK. And of course many leading economists and ex-US presidents and advisers have also warned of the consequences of leaving the EU.

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The leave camp will no doubt mumble about “bias”. But seriously, academics, particularly those from very diverse fields rarely agree on anything. All of them coming out against Brexit does kind of suggest there’s reasons to worry about it (no smoke without fire).

Unfortunately, I doubt these interventions will have any effect. If you are over 50, non-university educated, on a low wage (or retired or not working) and you get most of your news through tabloids, then you are more likely to be a leave voter.

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The reality is that most Brexit supporters aren’t going to influenced by any statement from academics, in part because they are never going to hear about it (the tabloids are certainly not going to publish them). This is why the leave camp know they can drive around in a battle bus with misleading slogans scrawled on it, despite the fact they have been thoroughly debunked weeks ago, and yet still keep a straight face.

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Indeed the “curry row is a good example of the sort of BS the leave camp is aiming for. At the moment thanks to a Tory policy (forced upon them by UKIP) you have to be earning over a certain threshold of money to become resident in the UK, which is making it difficult for UK curry houses to recruit staff from Asia. Some have responded by recruiting from Eastern Europe instead. The contrarian logic of the Brexiters is, oh leave the EU and the Eastern European chef’s will be on an equal footing with Asian ones.

Of course the reality is that actually Brexit will mean restaurants won’t be able to recruit any staff and some will be forced to close down. Clearly the problem here is a xenophobic immigration policy taken straight out of the Daily Mail and implemented without first working out its implications. However, this tactic of divide and rule is exactly the sort of methods the British used in India, pitting one ethnic group against the other. And ethnic minorities are overwhelmingly likely to vote Brexit, so you can see what the leave camp are up too.

And of course the irony is that anyone on a low wage (or worse retired and thus on a fixed income), many of whom will vote for Brexit regardless of what is said over the next few weeks, are the very people who will get absolutely screwed over if the UK leaves.

This is what worries me about the up coming referendum. It is not a rational decision being made by well informed voters. It is a vote based fear, prejudice, ignorance and lies. To paraphrase Churchill, never in the field of politics has such a momentous decision been made by so many so ill informed.

When you ignore the lessons of history…

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The election of a Green as president in Austria was soured by the high number of votes going to the far right.

While it seems that Austria has pulled back from the brink of electing a fascist as president. But hat nearly half the population were willing to do so is deeply disturbing. Those who ignore the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.

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And for those who argue that the Austrian Freedom party are now mainstream, no fascists here, well what are they doing going around with blue Cornflowers on their lapels? For those not in the know, this was the symbol used by Austrian nazi party when they were banned between 1934 and 1938 (after trying to overthrow the government and murdering the Prime Minster). Hofer could not send out a stronger signal as to his views, short of dressing up in an SS uniform….only that would get him arrested!

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It would be a convenient time for many to go and watch Lawrence Ree’s excellent BBC series the Nazi’s a warning from history and its follow up “Auschwitz: The Nazis and ‘The Final Solution”. For there are many trends from the rise of the nazi’s that we see playing out again, both sides of the Atlantic.

Firstly the fact that Hitler was helped into power by those on the right (this is in fact the title of Ree’s first episode). Trump, and many European far right leaders, faced significant opposition from those on the centre right establishment initially, only for them to both become allies in the end. Well the same was true of Hitler. While in the history books we remember him for his fiery speeches. But when necessary he could tone things down, put on a suit and play the moderate deal maker. This was how he was able to worm his way into power.

Secondly, there is this myth of history that the nazi’s ceased power in an undemocratic way. Certainly once in power they began to abuse it and ignored or removed the checks and balances designed to limit or stop them destroying democracy. But the sad fact is that he was elected with 33% of the votes on a 80% turn out (this was the election just before the Reichstag fire). This means he had a mandate from 26% of the population, as compared to the recent Tory election “victory” of 2015 where they got 37% of the votes, with a turn out of 66% (i.e. a mandate from just 25% of the electorate). In subsequent elections the nazi’s achieved just short of a majority (although obviously one must doubt how honest such elections were). Even so the disturbing fact is is that Hitler won a larger mandate from the German electorate than David Cameron.

So while yes Hitler did abuse power, this would never have happened if it weren’t for millions of Germans buying into his racist rhetoric and voting for him. Of course the parties of the left in Germany at the time warned that he was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. But no we were assured, he’s only “talking tough” and “telling it like it is”. He has to say these things to appeal to the common voter. When he says he wants to ban all Muslims Jews he doesn’t actually mean that. The real enemy is bearded lefties like Corbyn who….might tax us a little bit more to help pay for the NHS (shock horror!)…and may have said something bad about Israel’s policy in the West bank.

And as Ree’s series describes, support for the nazi’s remained strong throughout Germany (Chaos and Consent), with many millions actively collaborating with the nazi’s (ratting out neighbours, turning in Jews, etc.), right up until the middle of the war (when it was obvious what madness they’d signed up too, but it was a little late then!). And crucially, as Ree’s 2nd series points out, it would be incorrect for us to lump the entire blame for nazi crimes on the Germans alone – many other nationalist groups in neighbouring countries supported them.

The Austrians, as noted, had their own nazi parties (yes they had more than one!). And they didn’t exactly put up much of a fight when the nazi’s took the country over (they were just as fascist already, it was more a dispute over whether they wanted to be Austrian nazi’s or German ones). Indeed, many became enthusiastic supporters of the reich (Hitler after all was Austrian, not German). I recall someone once pointing out to me that of all the countries that needed laws banning fascism it was Austria. This week’s result suggests those laws need strengthening.

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One can draw many similarities between current neo-fascists and similar parties that supported the nazi’s and collaborated in the holocaust.

In Hungary during the war the Arrow Cross, of which Jobbik is the natural successor, seized control and then allied with the nazi’s and fought alongside them. Many of the Jews and Gypsies who died in Auschwitz came from Hungary, rounded up and deported there by Hungarian fascists. The Poles too, even thought they had been invaded by Germany and many did resist the invaders, but some Poles did collaborate with the nazi round up of Jews and other minorities. Some played an active role in the Holocaust itself, as also happened in a number of the Baltic states.

Perhaps the worst offenders however were the Slovak’s. Not only did they hand over all of the Jews, but they actually ended up PAYING the nazi’s to take them away (yes really!). And of course there were plenty of people in countries like France (friends of Le Pen one assumes) or Norway who also collaborated with the nazi’s. Many tens of thousands from these countries actually joined the SS and fought on the Eastern front.

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Oh, and speaking of collaborators there’s another twist to these neo-fascist movements. Many are allied with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, either being formal allies, admirers of Putin (such as Trump or Farage) or are openly taking money from Moscow. Yes, all these ultra-nationalist marching around, waving flags, proclaiming how they are proud to be French, British, Hungarian and how they reject outside influence, yet they are essentially stooges of the Kremlin!

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Le Pen meets her bosses, how very patriotic!

So clearly what recent events show is that we have a major problem with an undercurrent of fascism throughout Europe and America that needs to be challenged. And I stress America, for as this documentary from the Beeb shows there is growing far right problem in the US too (which with the combination of guns in the US I fear is almost certainly going to lead to trouble).

My guess is that about 33-20% in some countries subscribe to these views. They are then able to con enough of the remainder (generally those from the centre right) into supporting them, often by stoking fears about immigration or other lies about the parties of the left. This is one of the reasons why the lies of the leave camp in the UK are so worrying. Its critical therefore that something must be done.

And what must be done is not repeating the mistakes of the past, when politicians and business leaders got into bed with the fascists, seeing them as a better alternative to those on the left. Well they are not. When a politician comes along advocating mass deportations, turning the country into a police state, defaulting on the nation’s debts, abolishing unions and the minimum wage we have to take him at his word. Even if he flip flops on it the following week. Because history tells us we cannot take the chance that he means what he says.

Debunking the Great Reagan myth

A central founding myth of the Tea Party is the legacy of Ronald Reagan. It is one of the reasons cited for supporting Trump as they see him as another Reagan (although its worth noting that not even Reagan’s own son agrees with this one). Around Reagan, or Thatcher in the UK, cults of personality have grown that border on those of many a despot. Hence why I think it would be prudent and timely to de-construct this myth and expose the realities of the Reagan Presidency.

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Figure 1: Reagan has developed something of a cult of personality that ignores the realities of his reign

Myth #1 – Reagan brought down the Soviet Union

Reality: Reagan wasn’t even in office when the Soviet Union collapsed and there is very little evidence that his policies helped push it over the edge. Economic miss-management and internal opposition offer more plausible explanations for the USSR’s collapse

Reaganite’s have a habit of claiming credit for things that happened when he wasn’t even in office, yet they are often slow to accept blame for events that occurred shortly after he left office, or even when he was in office (as we will see when discussing the economy). But it has to be acknowledged that the Soviet union collapsed after he’d left office.

The massive military spending the US engaged in is often cited as the reason why the USSR collapsed, as it couldn’t compete with the US. However in truth Soviet military spending was fairly static over the course of Reagan’s presidency, with no significant increases. This is why Republicans often cite Reagan’s star wars program for being the final nail in the coffin.

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Figure 2: Soviet military spending and US spending, keep in mind Reagan was in power between 1981 and 1989, ironically there is a steep increase in spending under Jimmy Carter & Richard Nixon!

While it is true that the soviets did initiate a counter program to star wars, but Reagan’s supporters often exaggerate the scale of this program. One of the most expensive elements of this program was the Energia rocket booster which may well have consumed as much as 1% of the total soviet budget for a brief period. However it seems unlikely building one rocket would bring down the soviet empire. And besides Energia was a multi-use program that also launched the Soviet space shuttle and was envisaged as supporting future space station construction or space colonies. And the Russian federation continued to fund this program right up until 1993, two years after the collapse. It would seem strange, if we buy into the propaganda, that if the costs of this program were so crippling to the Russian economy they’d keep spending billions of rubbles on it for a further two years afterwards.

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Figure 3: The Soviet Energia rocket with the Polyus Orbital Weapons Platform test vehicle, on its way to the launchpad

Indeed the Russians continued to fund (and ultimately deployed) a number of other ABM counter measures even after the USSR collapsed. So the neo-con narrative simply does not correspond to the facts.

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Figure 4: If competing with the US star wars system was so crippling to the USSR, why did the Russian Federation continue to fund (and deploy) weapons systems like this Topol-M? (which can evade attempts to intercept it)

Aside – So why did the Soviet Union collapse?

Well the answer is a bit more complicated that the GOP preferred answer so it would be wrong for us to point to any one single cause. Books have been written about this topic. Certainly continued competition with the West did not help, but all the indicators were that the Soviet’s were spending money that they had. Military spending by the soviets was at around 7% of GDP and it was what was going on with the other 93% that was the problem. Western counter-espionage definitely helped, but it was the Europeans, most notably the French, who led the way here. But in simple terms, the Soviet union collapsed like a house of cards because it was a house of cards.

Ultimately the soviet system just wasn’t very good at organising at running a country. The talking heads in Moscow gave out orders and dictates, setting unrealistic targets divorced from reality and expected everyone to magically achieve them. Inevitably this created all sorts of problems. For example, they drained the Aral sea away in pursuit of cotton quotas. The Reactor at Chernobyl was built without adequate shielding and without sufficient numbers of trained staff to operate it (only one member of staff in the control room that night was a qualified nuclear engineer and he was fresh out of college!). The soviets also badly mismanaged their oil supplies, mining and other core industries. One need only look at a Lada of the era as proof of everything that was wrong with the soviet system.

Ultimately three events were largely to blame. Firstly the mismanagement of their agricultural system meant the soviets went from a net food exporter to an importer in the space of a few decades. Now initially this wasn’t a big deal, because they were also one of the world’s largest oil producers and thus they were able to use their petro-dollars to buy American grain to feed the soviet populace. This incidentally counters a key neo-con myth that the soviets wanted to destroy America. Had the Kremlin ever done so, they would have destroyed their main source of food and much of the surviving Soviet population would have starved to death over the proceeding winter.

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Figure 5: Missmangement of agriculture and a dire environmental policy played a major role in the collapse of the soviet system

Soviet oil production ensured they could easily spend their way out of trouble, until in 1988 when soviet oil production peaked. Given that ex-soviet oil production rebounded in the years after the soviet union, it is generally believed that this “peak” was an artificial peak caused by soviet mismanagement, rather than a geological peak caused by a lack of oil. Either way, shortly there after this the soviets started to have financial problems.

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Figure 6: Soviet Oil production, note how it rises again after the collapse of the USSR, suggesting that miss-management by the soviets might be to blame

And as if to make matters worse, the world was struck at the same time by a massive oil glut with oil prices tumbling. This was triggered by the fact that a number of OPEC nations began cheating on their quotas leading the Saudi’s to decide to “punish” them by opening the taps. However they did so right at the same time the global economy was entering into another recession, sending oil prices off a cliff. This pretty much bankrupted the USSR.

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Figure 7: Oil prices around the time of the Soviet collapse

Some Reagan supporters, aware of all of this, have tried to make out that this was all part of Reagan’s master plan. Pro-saudi bloggers claim instead it was the Saudi king’s idea. In reality, the collapse in oil price badly effected the Saudi economy. One of the reasons why many young saudi’s took to Afghanistan (forming what would become Al-Qaeda) at this time was because they had nothing better to do back home. And recall that the trigger for the price collapse was a sluggish economy. So we would have to believe that Reagan & H. W. Bush, along with the Saudi king, deliberately sabotaged their own economies to score a few political points against the soviets.

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Figure 8: The Soviet’s didn’t take down this wall because Reagan told them, the east Germans did it because the communist system had collapsed due to internal hubris

Finally, there were many long standing opposition movements to soviet rule, the Polish Solidarity movement for example, which started long before Reagan ever got into office. Naturally when soviet bloc citizens lost their jobs and got sick of queuing for bread, they began to listen to these people and the rest is, as they say, history.

Myth #2 – Reagan cut back public spending and pushed for a smaller government

RealityThe Reagan administration was one of the most prolific deficit spenders in US history, government spending massively expanded under his reign and much of it was squandered on pointless projects. And far from shrinking the US government, Reagan hired nearly half a million extra civil servants

It is, to say the least strange that committed anti-communists in the GOP will come up with such elaborate explanations as to why the soviet union collapsed when the more obvious reason (it was basically a crap system) is a lot more satisfying. Well that might have something to do with the awkward conclusion that if the USSR didn’t collapse because of star wars, it means Reagan took $209 billion of taxpayers money and urinated it up against a wall.

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Figure 9: Federal spending under Reagan was exceptional high, even higher than Obama or G. W. Bush.

Star wars basically didn’t work and was little more than a massive fraud. Thirty years later and none of the hardware they set out to develop has been deployed. It was the biggest waste of public money in the history of western democracy.

Yet star wars was merely one of a whole host of foolish military projects either started under Reagan, or ones from previous administrations which were a waste of money and should haven been cancelled, but which he continued. The B-1 program for example had been cancelled under Carter, but was revived by Reagan. In another example, he wanted a 600 ship navy (don’t ask me why) so they brought back into service a bunch of old WW-2 era battleships that had been essentially obsolete since the 1940’s.

And, ironically given how many Tea Partiers tend to be conspiracy nuts, the US “black budget” expanded significantly over the Reagan era, as did the secrecy around it. And there is good evidence to suggest it wasn’t being spent wisely. The two programs we know about, the B-2 and F-111 were both budgeted on the assumption of orders in the hundreds, but Congress rightly pointed out that this would be insane given how expensive these aircraft were. Its likely had both aircraft been subject to greater public scrutiny prior to this, they would have been cancelled or re-designed. The similar A-12 program, was able to resist cancellation under Reagan, only to be cut as soon as he was out of office.

And like I said, this is they stuff we know about. In 1987, an oversight saw the US budget include a line item for a half a billion to be spent on a black project called “Aurora. Conspiracy theorist have claimed that this might be some sort of alien spacecraft. I propose a more obvious explanation, the damn thing didn’t work and was such an embarrassing screw up (who knows maybe it crashed on take off) that the powers that be decided to use the cloak of national security to push some soil over the corpse and tip-tow away.

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Figure 10: The US federal deficit soared under Reagan

And it wasn’t just in defence spending that Reagan miss-spent. He’s often remembered for firing air-traffic controllers or cutting spending on welfare programmes such as mental health services. But he also expanded Medicare, the FBI, CIA and other intelligence services. He increased total federal-government employment (excluding the military) by 400,000. And he was doing all this using the country’s credit card. Reagan had been elected because Carter had run up a deficit of $79 billion. By the time he left office Reagan blew through $155 billion. Worse, Carter’s deficit was run up during a recession, while Reagan was running deficits at a time of economic growth.

Myth #3 – Reagan was a tax cutter and this stimulated the US economy

RealityReagan cut taxes for the wealthy but overall he put up taxes. There were three recessions during his reign and any growth during his reign wasn’t as spectacular as it is sometimes portrayed

The wealthy saw taxes fall from a top rate of 70% to 28%. However, the Reagan Adm. also slipped through a range of tax increases. In fact federal taxes increased every year of his presidency except for the first and the last.

This brings us to the question of why the US economy grew under Reagan, because the implication is the opposite of what is claimed by neo-liberals (i.e. Reagan put up taxes which caused economic growth !?! ). In truth there were a host of things going on, that we need to account for. The recessions of the 70’s had been quite severe and thus the rebound effect was equally large. This may have created the illusion of growth that was stronger than it was in reality.

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Figure 11: US GDP adjusted for inflation, note the recessions include two within his term and one during the following Bush(snr) presidency

Also, there was (as noted) an oil boom going on in the middle of his presidency, which naturally pushed up growth. Indeed, for Thatcher, once you account for the 10% added to government coffers each year because of the North Sea boom, the Thatcher era “boom” doesn’t look that spectacular. Back in the US, the early 80’s was also marked by a tech revolution in the form of video games and home PC’s beginning to reaching a mass market.

Furthermore we have to ask whether any growth under Reagan (or Thatcher) due to their market liberalisation was sustainable growth, or just a boom and bust bubble. I’d argue that recent events suggest it wasn’t sutainable growth. But even over the course of the Reagan Adm. there were several economic downturns. The first, was clearly the hangover from the Carter Adm. But the second occurred 2 years through his first term. Sluggish growth inter-spaced with various downturns and recoveries followed, with a further major recession under G. H. Bush (which, if we’re going to blame Carter for Reagan’s 1st recession, its only fair we blame Reagan for this 2nd Reagan recession).

So the growth under Reagan was at best sluggish and uneven and there is little evidence that they can be related to his policies. Noting that those policies including tax increases not cuts.

Myth #4 – Americans were better off under Reagan

RealityUnder Reagan, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer

A rising tide lifts all boats. Well not under Reagan. US unemployment increased under his term in office, largely because while the yuppies in Wall Street did rather well out of it all, many of America’s primary industries were being shut down. The Reagan era is the period when large parts of the US industrial heartland became a rust belt. And in the UK Thatcher too presided over a period when many UK manufacturing towns went from full employment to virtual welfare colonies.

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Figure 12: Wages and purchasing power under different US presidents

And should anyone blame the unions for all of these, its worth noting that many of these job’s didn’t go to Asia, but they simply moved to other Western countries. At the same time for example, that ship building was in decline in the UK, new ship yards were opened in Finland and Germany, which got (and still get) many of the very same liner contracts that used to go to Newcastle and Glasgow dockyards. And in Germany and Finland union membership is actually compulsory for workers in certain heavy industries. Similarly car makers in the UK and US started to slide at the same time that German and Japanese car production rose.

And not only did Reagan or Thatcher do nothing to stop this, they actually encouraged the collapse of heavy industry. Quite apart from Thatcher’s ideologically motivated attack on the coal mining unions, this was also the era of corporate raiders who would buy up a company and then tear it down, firing thousands of workers so they could build apartments on the same site as the factory. This was an era of sleazy destructive economics, with much corruption behind the scenes.

And while the richer certainly got very rich thanks to our dynamic dyo, the lot of many others declined, as large numbers of UK and US citizens suddenly found themselves mired in a poverty trap that their children and grandchildren still found themselves stuck in. Reagan’s tax hikes disproportionally effected the poor and middle classes compared to the better off. To my mind Thatcher’s real legacy is the Ned or the Chav, while Reagan’s is the inner city ghettos of cities like Detroit or LA.

Indeed we could go further, as the fact is that growth under democratic presidents has a tendency to be higher than under Republican presidents. Reagan’s presidency was something of a rare high point by Republican standards, but still lower than Clinton, Johnson or Kennedy.

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Figure 13: GDP growth by US president, Reagan ranks highly by Republican standards, but average (at best) by the standards of democratic presidents.

Myth #5 – Reagan was an active president, with a vision who worked hard for America

RealityHe was an unimaginative, ill-informed and so ill-attentive he frequently fell asleep during meetings and important briefings

It is ironic that Reagan is known as a man with a vision, as this is not shared by those who knew him in office. As William Leuchtenburg (a history Professor from Carolina) describes in a recent book (based on cabinet papers from the Reagan era), Reagan frequently stunned those around him with his ignorance at current events. His mind, according to Peggy Noonan, was “barren terrain”. Indiana congressman Lee Hamilton describes how Reagan once interrupted a meeting on nuclear weapons policy to discuss the plot of the kids movie War Games. Clark Clifford regarded the president as “an amiable dunce” and as William Leuchtenburg summarises it “No one had ever entered the White House so grossly ill informed”.

This forced his staff to work hard to bring him up to speed on at least some basic level, or as David Broder (a white house aid) put it “The task of watering the arid desert between Reagan’s ears is a challenging one for his aides.”. However the fact was he wasn’t a very active president, frequently he would be given briefing papers which he won’t read, instead lazing around watching cowboy movies. On the day before a summit meeting with world leaders about the future of the economy, he was given a briefing book. The next morning, his chief of staff asked him had he read it (he hadn’t even opened it!). “Well, Jim, the Sound of Music was on last night.

As Lou Cannon, his principle biographer put it “Reagan may have been the one president in the history of the republic who saw his election as a chance to get some rest”. And on some cases he did so by dozing off in the middle of important meetings…once while the French President was in the room!

As for his political vision, it was sadly lacking. He simply did not have any, aside from the sort of vague Republican sympathies towards “low tax” or “commies bad”. As George Shultz (his chief of staff) puts it “Trying to forge policy was like walking through a swamp.Donald Regan recalled: “In the four years that I served as secretary of the treasury, I never saw President Reagan alone and never discussed economic philosophy”. You could walk through Ronald Reagan’s deepest thoughts” a California legislator said, “and not get your ankles wet.”.

As a consequence, a Republican senator went so far as to say: “With Ronald Reagan, no one is there. The sad fact is that we don’t have a president.”Of course in the absence of active leadership, the bureaucrats simply ran the country without him.

If Reagan’s government was the best American government ever, then it was a government where the bureaucrats in DC ran everything, raised taxes, expanded the federal government and ruled the people like a king.

Myth #6 – Reagan was a competent leader

Reality Even his own staff considered him mentally unstable and sufficiently unreliable that they drew up contingency plans to remove him from office under the 25th Amendment

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Figure 14: It did occur to Reagan’s staff that their boss might not be the full shilling

As noted it quickly dawned on many in his cabinet that the president might be mentally unstable. At the very least he was a little slow (probably early onset of his alzheimers) and not mentally competent.

This also forced him to rely ever more and more on his wife, who practically became the defacto VP. Now while president’s frequently resort to their spouse for support and advise, giving your wife top secret briefing papers is entirely another thing. And worse Nancy Reagan had a strange obsession with Astrology, something she dragged her husband into. This created something of a national security nightmare for the white house staff, quite apart from the fact that the president was now under the influence of others and not technically capable of carrying out his duties.

So serious was this situation that when Howard Baker took over as the white house chief of staff, he was advised by his predecessor to start making preparations to enact the 25th Amendment, removing the president from office on grounds incapacity. Thus it is very likely that had there been any major crisis during Reagan’s reign (such as nuclear attack), that his staff would have put this plan into action and removed him from office, either putting George Bush (snr) in charge or resorting to some sort of direct rule by the white house cabinet.

Myth #7 – Reagan was a great communicator

Reality Reagan was gaffe prone and treated his presidency much like an acting job

As Reagan’s defence chief Colin Powell put it “the President’s passive management style placed a tremendous burden on us…” . Or as Frank Carlucci, observed: “The Great Communicator wasn’t always the greatest communicator in the private sessions; you didn’t always get clean and crisp decisions. You assumed a lot. . . . You had to”.Many republicans seem to forget than in his early years the president was frequently prone to making all sorts of serious gaffes.

Such incidents led his staff to taking measures in hand to keep their president from the media, in case he blurted out something crazy. He performed all of 6 news conferences in his first year in office, a modern president would do that many in a month. In the end he and his staff took to treating the role of president essentially as an acting job. They would give him cue cards, they would put out a chalk spot to show him where to stand and he would do as he was told. As one staffer put it “Every moment of every public appearance was scheduled, every word scripted, every place where Reagan was expected to stand was chalked with toe marks.”.

The president “cut ribbons and made speeches. He did these things beautifully” Congressman Jim Wright of Texas acknowledged. But in essence the US got itself not a president for 8 years, but instead they hired an actor to play the part of a President. Unfortunately this template of a stage managed actor as a sort of presidential spokesmodel for special interests was something we’ve seen emerge on several occasions since then, most notably with G. W. Bush (jnr).

Myth #8 – Reagan’s tough line with the Soviets, or in the middle east, helped keep Americans safe

RealityHe nearly started WW3 and provoked a series of terrorist attacks against the US, notably the Lockerbie bombing

While we can look back at Reagan’s gaffe’s now with a certain level of amusement, at the time they were a little more serious. His “evil empire” speeches were taken very seriously in Moscow who became convinced that Reagan meant to attack the Warsaw Pact. As a result they were on a heightened level of alert throughout this period. This paranoia reached a head during the 1983 Able Archer exercise, which the soviets feared might be a pretext for an actual NATO first strike. They actually went on full alert a hair’s breath away from firing throughout this exercise. Worst still was a malfunction of a key early warning system (which seemed to indicate a missile attack) just prior to the exercise, which could also have led to a soviet strike had they taken these results at face value.

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Figure 15: Deployment of the Pershing missiles dramatically heightened Cold War tensions

Meanwhile, Reagan’s posturing in the middle east far from keeping America safe, had the opposite effect, leading to a wave of terrorism launched against Americans. Prior to the bombing of Colonel Gaddafi’s headquarters, the Libyans had actually been downscaling involvement in terrorism. However instead this attack lead to a pronounced escalation. It is not clear whether it was Gaddafi or some other middle east group, possibly the Iranians (in revenge for the shoot down of an Iran airliner by a US destroyer) who bombed the Pan-Am flight over Lockerbie. But the very fact that there’s more than one candidates isn’t exactly an endorsement of Reagan’s foreign policy.

And of course there was his regime’s intervention in Afghanistan, which involved giving much weapons and CIA training to a group of Jihadi’s who Reagan went so far as to compare to the founding fathers…..groups we now know as “the Taliban” and “Al-Qaeda”. The actions of the CIA in Afghanistan, were naive at best and dangerously counter-productive at worst. The US was getting involved in a tribal war, which had little to do with geopolitics and they were aiding and abetting Jihadi groups who were arguably as great a danger to the US as the soviets.

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Figure 16: The Taliban who came to Tea, Reagan’s support for Islamists in the 80’s led eventually to 9/11

And then there’s his support for Saddam Hussein, even after he started gassing the kurds and was supplied with a large amount of weapons in the Iran/Iraq war (America also supplied weapons to the Iranians, indeed America’s policy here seemed to be to keep the war going for as long as possible). And of course there was the disastrous intervention in Grenada and Beirut to consider (again this too probably provoked a number of terrorist attacks against the US).

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Figure 17: Under Reagan the US was an ally of Saddam, supplying him with much hardware

That said, we need to consider that Reagan was surrounded by Neo-con hawks at this time, many of whom were urging a much more aggressive US stance on a foreign policy. There are some who argue we should credit the president with reigning in the neo-cons, as they would have almost certainly started WW3 if he had not restrained them.

Myth #9 – Reagan was a climate change denier and anti-science, just like any good GOP president should be

RealityScientific research undertaken during his term of office proved the link between recent warming and CO2 emissions, under Reagan’s term the IPCC was founded based in no small part to research conducted by US scientists

It is practically a rite of passage for any Republican candidate these days to take an anti-science position and decry “evolution”, stem cell research conducted by scientists “with an agenda”. And of course, any presidential candidate must be a climate change denier.

However George Shultz has pointed out that the Reagan white house, for all its faults, took a very different approach. While they cut research funding to a number of environmental causes, climate science funding continued. This led to the founding of the IPCC, with the US agreeing to provide a significant portion of its funding. Now some claim that this might have been a miscalculation by the Reagan white house, attempting to bury the problem in a sea of analysis. But the fact still remains that while modern republicans deny climate change (despite having access to far stronger evidence), the Reagan government was at least open to the idea of doing something.

Also around this time the issue of the ozone layer emerged. And again, while skeptical of the issue, the Reagan Adm. did at least try to tackle the problem, again with further investigation of the science and possible solutions. This eventually led to the Montreal Protocol signed under his predecessor. Again, the contrast between Reagan’s approach to environmental issues, and modern Republicans is pretty stark. Noting that he was not a person known for his pro-environmental views (Carter had solar panels put up on the white house, which Reagan then had taken down).

Of course, given the ineptitude discussed earlier, we do have to wonder how much of this was Reagan’s policy and how much of it was well informed advisers pushing pieces of paper under his nose for signature knowing he won’t bother to read it. But certainly his administration did not take the sort of actively anti-science approach that is now a virtual entry requirement for the GOP. Yes, Reagan was to the left of many modern republicans on the environment!

Myth #10 – Reagan was a racist and pro-gun and would be the ideal Tea Party president

RealityThere is little evidence to support this, his policies are largely neutral on these issues, I suspect Reagan would have been appalled at the Tea Party

To the Tea Party Reagan has become a blank canvas that you can paint anything on to. This is a common thread for the many who see Trump as a new Ronald Reagan. And equally those on the left have tended to view him as a near cartoon like bogeyman. Hence some have been going back through his speeches with a racist code book in hand and picking out various phrases and terms and interpreting them as sign’s of Reagan inherent racism.

As I pointed out earlier, anything we hear from a Reagan speech was generally scripted and not really his words. Indeed, one of his most prominent speech writers is now known to be a racist. So I would take anything said by Reagan while in office with a certain pinch of salt. Furthermore, I would argue that Reagan simply wasn’t the sort of person to form strong opinions. As a privileged white guy from California, who worked most of his life in a film industry that was more white than this year’s Oscar nominations, he probably never had sufficient contact with any minorities to form strong opinions.

But as regards “building a wall” and shipping the Mexicans out, Reagan actually enacted an amnesty that helped 3 million undocumented migrants gain residency in the US.

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Figure 18: Reagan, while supportive of the 2nd amendment, was not in favour of an unregulated free-for all

Similarly, I would argue the Tea Party view that Reagan was pro-gun isn’t entirely supported by the facts. Recall that he was nearly killed by an assassin in his first year of office. An attack that would ultimately lead many years later to the so-called “Brady law”. Over the course of his presidency he passed one measure that relaxed certain regulations on guns, but signed into law another (criminalising attempts to make concealable firearms, indeed the very law those trying to use 3D printers to make guns are likely falling foul of).

Several items of gun control legislation were drafted under his presidency, although ultimately signed into law by other presidents. The Gun-free schools act was signed by Bush (snr). While the Brady law was signed by Bill Clinton (in no small part due to Reagan stating he was in favour of it) as was the assault weapons ban (which Reagan also supported).

On the whole I’d argue Reagan was largely neutral on guns. Like many Republicans he was, at least in principle, in favour of legalised gun ownership. But he certainly wasn’t in favour of the unregulated free for all that we now see many Tea baggers argue for. And keep in mind Reagan wasn’t facing the scenario Obama now faces where spree shootings have become a daily occurrence. I suspect had Reagan faced this sort of problem neither he nor his administration would have hesitated to bring in appropriate measures.

Indeed, prior to the recent measures taken by Obama, the Brady foundation gave him an F for prevention of gun violence, suggesting he was weaker on gun control than Reagan. Yes, if we were to argue that Obama is “anti-gun” we would have to move the goal posts of what counts as anti-gun (i.e. regulation v’s banning them) so far to the right than even Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and many other republicans would have to also count as being “anti-gun”.

And as regards the tea party (aka the American Taliban), while Reagan was something of an outsider within the GOP, he was certainly not a radical, he did not favour burning the house down just for the hell of it. We’ve seen all sorts of self-destructive policies coming out of the Tea party the last few years, no-gun regulations even in the face of mass shootings, no debt ceiling increase, even if it means the US government going bankrupt (recall no President has ran up a higher deficit than Reagan), shut down Congress until Obama scraps Obamacare, or more recently threatening to shutdown the Supreme court for nearly year in the hope they can get a more conservative justice in the job. It is difficult to believe Reagan would have gone along with this sort of behaviour. I suspect he would have considered it as un-American and entirely counter productive.

Myth #11 – Reagan did not abuse his office like more recent presidents

RealityReagan should have been impeached for his involvement in Iran-Contra

Certainly it is true that many US president’s have done things in office that could be seen as an abuse of power. Obama has some tough questions to answer over the PRISM spy network, which was never subject to proper judicial, legislative nor public scrutiny. Clinton’s private affairs, while I would argue they were not grounds for impeachment, they still weren’t the sort of behaviour we’d expect from a US president. And let’s not even begin to discuss G. W. Bush lying to congress and the public about WMD’s and starting an illegal war, not to mention approving torture, detention without trial and co-operating with states known to be hostile to the US (such as Gaddafi’s Libya and Assad’s Syria).

However, its difficult, even for G. W. Bush, to top the high crimes committed by the Reagan Adm. In two works – Iran/Contra.

For those unfamiliar with the crisis I’ll attempt a brief summary, although American Dad provides a more humorous one here. But in short, as part of his efforts to fight what Reagan considered to be communist aggression, he funded various CIA operations against socialist groups in south and central America. One group to attract US attention was the Sandinista’s. Exactly how communist the Sandinista’s were is a matter of dispute. Keep in mind they are currently in government in Nicaragua and while they are fairly left-wing, they are certainly not communist. And even if they were, they were clearly not taking their orders from Moscow.

Unfortunately for the US the main opposition to the Sandinista’s were a group called the Contras, a rebel group known to use terrorist tactics as well as trading in drugs…much of which ultimately ended up on the streets of the US. Naturally congress would not allow funding of the Contra’s, pointing out the hypocrisy of them spending billions a year on a war on drugs, but then help a bunch of drug dealers to found a narco-state.

At the same time the US was approached by the Iranians with an offer to trade US hostages in Lebanon for weapons. The Reagan Adm. approved of this sale and then diverted the funds to the Contras who used the money to buy guns. However, the Contra’s actually used some of the money to ship drugs and then used the profits of this to buy yet more guns. Exactly how compliant the CIA was all of this is still disputed, some argue the CIA actively helped the shipment of drugs into the US, others argue they knew about it but simply turned a blind eye and actively suppressed attempts to expose it. But certainly the CIA and the white house would have known that the Contras were actively using funds that they had supplied to smuggle drugs into the US.

By trading weapons for hostages Reagan was contradicting a long standing US doctrine of never negotiating with terrorists….and then giving the proceeds to another bunch of terrorists! Worse, Iran was at this point considered an enemy of the US. Many other US allies in the region considered Iran to be their main military threat, notably US ally Saddam (who again was at war with them). This is why I think we can dismiss the suggestion earlier than the Saudi’s helped America bring down the USSR by increasing oil production. After this little escapade the Saudi’s won’t have pissed on Reagan to put out a fire.

By aiding and abetting known enemies of the US (and terrorists) many have argued that the Reagan Adm’s actions on Iran/Contra constituted high treason. While that might be going a bit far, certainly his actions meet the criteria of “high crimes” and “abuse of power” laid out in the US constitution as grounds for presidential impeachment. And keep in mind this would have swept up not just Reagan but also Bush (snr) who had his grubby paw prints all over this scandal (again recall he had been head of the CIA).

However Reagan was spared impeachment by a partisan political system (the GOP knew that if they pulled the trigger on this they could kiss goodbye to the presidency next election). And the fact that they had a compliant fall guy in Oliver North….guaranteeing Oliver North would never be short of a few bob, as the GOP made sure he was well cared for afterwards…after all we won’t want him spilling his guts….

But again, we have to ask, how complicit was Reagan in Iran/Contra? I suspect he may have vaguely nodded to his staff when they discussed it, but did he actually understand what it was they were up too and the geopolitical implications of it? If it had come to trial I suspect any good lawyer would have gotten him off on grounds of diminished responsibility.

The Church of the one true Ronald

The reality of Reagan, once we de-construct the propaganda and the cult of personality, is that of a slightly senile retired actor, who through a combination of luck and coincidence managed to blunder into the white house. He was very much the accidental president. However, once in power he was quickly out of his depth and forced to rely on others, be it his wife or a snake pit of neo-con hawks, neo-liberal cheerleaders or big government bureaucrats, whom he pretty left to run the country, with mixed results. In essence for 8 years the US didn’t have a president, they hired an actor who played the role of president. Although due to this pesky thing called “the constitution” they had to give him some input on the direction his character was going to take.

But many on in the GOP will steadfastly refuse to believe this. Indeed another myth we failed to tackle is the idea that he was popular during his reign. Actually his approval ratings were no better than many other presidents while in office, at times in fact they dipped as low as 30%. Reagan’s popularity only really started to rise after his diagnosis with Alzheimers. And since then the myth’s above (and many more) have grown around him.

Reagan’s cult of personality is perhaps an interesting thing to study as it does show you how major religions get started. I won’t be surprised if in a post-apocalyptic future of a ruined America, many worship icons to the one true Ronald, the last of God’s profit prophet, before the end times. And perhaps worryingly, they are already naming everything and anything after Reagan. Thousands of streets, schools, airports, bus stops and landmarks were promptly named after him (including a mountain!). If a hobo laid down on a park bench for too long he could find himself staying at the “Ronald Reagan Restorium” by the time he sobers up. They even tried to get his face carved into the side of Mt Rushmore.

This cult of personality of Reagan is not only delusional and a disservice to the man, but it is also extremely dangerous. It raises the risk of the US repeating many mistakes committed in the past. Or worse, pursuing policies that even Reagan won’t have supported. And electing a genuine nut as President (i.e. Trump or Cruz) might just destroy the country. Those who ignore the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.

Revisiting Chamberlain

Been reading a bit of World War II history recently, notably Richard Overy’s book “the road to war” as well as the TV series of the same name, plus the excellent Lawrence Oliver narrated “the world at war”. Anyway, its led me to argue that perhaps history has judged British PM Neville Chamberlain a little too harshly.

There are various myths about Chamberlain. For example, the myth that Chamberlain was a liberal. Actually he was a member of the conservative party, although he was frequently a member of coalition governments with the liberals. He did earn a reputation as a social reformer, yet one who wanted to balance the books. The holiday’s with pay act, the Housing Act (1938) and the Factory Act (1937) for example, did much to improve the lot of the British working classes. In essence, he was the PM that talked the talk of many recent UK PM’s, but actually delivered on his promises (despite being a Tory!).

Contrary to rumours that he opposed rearmament, the opposite is true. First as chancellor, then as PM he directly supported rearmament (from 1935 onwards), even going against cabinet colleagues where necessary (debunking rumours that he was a weak leader). He instituted the policy of “shadow factories” that would prove crucial to wartime production. Recognising the importance of air defence, his government put particular emphasis on aircraft production. Also, realising that intelligence would prove crucial, first in diplomacy, then later during the war, a code breaking unit was set up, first in the Admiralty and then later in Bletchley Park, what would later become known as “Ultra”.

Of course, supporters of Churchill, have been quick to credit Churchill with many of these things, even though he was in the political wilderness at the time. The idea that he could so influence UK government policy via a few opinion pieces in the Daily Express, is simply bonkers. But history is written by the victors, and Churchill was able to claim credit for much of the policy of Chamberlain’s government after the war, with nobody bothering to do any fact checking.

Of course, the big blip in Chamberlain’s record was when he returned from Munich waving around that famous piece of paper. As we now know, he may as well have waved around a piece of loo roll that Hitler had wiped his ass with. The tabloid view of history is that Chamberlain naively believed Hitler’s promises.

This is contradicted by private accounts from the time, which suggested that Chamberlain held a fairly dim view of Hitler, describing him as “the nastiest piece of work I’ve ever had to deal with”. I find it difficult to believe he’d take such a person at his word, if this is what he actually believed. However, Chamberlain’s problem was that the UK was in no way prepared to go to war. He would have gone to Munich having been briefed by his generals that if Hitler marched into Czechoslovakia, there would be little if anything the British army could do to stop him.

And the British public were hugely resistant to war. In the immediate aftermath of World War I the horrors of the war led to a large anti-war movement forming. This led to much disarmament and the creation of international treaties intended to prevent future wars. Even by the 1930’s this anti-war movement still held much sway among the UK public. Furthermore, there were more than a few fascists in Britain who thought Hitler was a wonderful chap and couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Hence Chamberlain had to balance whatever his views might have been, with the realities of politics and military capability.

Given such factors, that Chamberlain returned from Munich with anything is perhaps a sign of success. Indeed that piece of paper wasn’t the Munich accords, but a separate agreement he’d struck with Hitler, in which Hitler agreed that he would seek no further territorial demands on the continent. Its very possible that Chamberlain realised that Hitler won’t stick to this agreement. However it had two important effects. Firstly, it bought the UK a crucial year in which to rearm. And secondly, it allowed Chamberlain to set a trap for Hitler.

When Hitler crossed into the Czech Republic, this proved to even the most ardent peacenik, or indeed jackbooted Daily Mail readers, that Hitler was a danger to world peace who had to be stopped. Without this accord with Hitler, and without him so blatantly reneging on it, its difficult to see how the allies could have offered the guarantee’s of security they gave to Poland in 1939 without facing considerable domestic opposition.

However, its here that Chamberlain’s plans start to become unstuck. His plan was no doubt to confront Hitler with the threat of “Bismark’s Nightmare”, a war on two fronts. While Germany had a head start on the UK and France in terms of rearmament, they would not have been strong enough to fight both the Western allies and the Russians at the same time. And it was inconceivable that Stalin would allow the fascist dictator to creep up to his border and sit idle. Faced with certain defeat, Hitler would either be forced to back down, or his generals would orchestrate a coup and force him from power.

But if this was the British plan, it was quickly blown out of the water by the Molotov/Ribbentrop pact, which saw the unthinkable, an unholy alliance between communism and fascism. Stalin, faced the problem that his purges had crippled the red army and he was in no condition to go to war. Furthermore, from the Russian prospective, it looked like the allies were trying to drive the Germans towards them. The Russians had also previously lost a war to Poland in the 1920’s and were anxious for some pay back, not to mention creating a buffer zone between themselves and the nazi’s.

Of course, I have little doubt that Stalin knew exactly who he was dealing with (takes one to know one!) and that the Nazi’s had no intention of ever sticking to this deal any longer than it suite them (and of course that suited Stalin just fine, as he probably felt the same way!). Quite frankly, I suspect that if when the moment came to sign, had Ribbentrop dropped his pants and proceeded to wipe his bum with the agreement, neither Molotov nor Stalin would have batted an eyelid :)). However, it left whatever game Chamberlain had been playing in tatters. The rest as they say is history.

I’m not saying we can absolve Chamberlain of all blame. Certainly he, and the government’s he was part of, could have done a lot more to confront the looming threat. But he was constrained by the day to day realities of politics. Perhaps the rush to blame Chamberlain after the war was driven by an unwillingness to blame others closer to home, such as fascist sympathisers, peace campaigners, church leaders, the Royal family, business leaders anxious to avoid disruptions to trade, etc. It was all too easy to instead pick a conveniently dead scape goat like Chamberlain and blame everything on him instead.

However the reality is instead a tale of political leaders who were trying to do their best to avoid war, but who got carried along with the tide of events beyond their control and the changing whims of public opinion. It is perhaps quite significant when you consider events in the Middle East or Ukraine, as it shows how easy it is for politicians to become trapped by events beyond their control.

weekly roundup

Been ill with a cold and now the flu :oops:, tiss the season I suppose! Anyway, a round up of a few of the week’s stories.

Syriza
Its worth reflecting on the victory of Syriza in the recent Greek elections. Radio 4’s John Humphry‘s, who has a son in Greece, has done a number of pieces on the hardship of ordinary Greeks in recent years. If you’re wondering why so many Greeks voted for Syriza, its worth having a listen.

As I’ve been saying since the beginning of this crisis there has been a distinct lack of leadership within the EU. The EU’s one shot solution to all ills has been, until very recently, austerity with much tightening of belts and privatisation of public services. The end result is that listening to the ECB has tended to remind me of that scene in father Ted where they organise a disco and play the same record over and over again. Needless to say the Greeks have decided the time has come to change the record.

In part this has to be blamed on the German Chancellor Angel Merkel, who is a fairly risk adverse and unimaginative politician. To Merkel doing something radical would involve changing her brand of toothpaste, living dangerously would count as having cornflakes for breakfast rather than porridge! Also there has been a tendency to not consider the economic and political consequences of austerity, which has seen much hardship for ordinary Greeks and a rise in support for many radical parties.

Ultimately, the concept of solving Greek’s debit crisis using austerity alone was flawed from the beginning, as this assumed that Greece would one day be in a position to pay off its debts. As Syriza have been pointing out there seems to be no economist in the world who believes that was ever going to happen. This was an unspeakable truth that nobody in the EU, nor the Greek government would say , because they feared the consequences.

It is for example worth reflecting on the differences with the Greek bailout and, say the bailout in Ireland. In Ireland, it was never the Irish governments debt that was the issue. It was the huge amounts that Irish people had privately borrowed (approximately ten times Ireland’s GDP! as compared to an Irish government debt a tenth of that!) from banks and international lenders to fund the property bubble. Prior to the crisis the Irish government had been posting surplus budgets year on year, even when Germany and the UK were reporting deficits and doing so despite a string of tax cuts over the course of the boom.

In essence the Irish bailout was a case of a bridging loan to tide the Irish government over until it de-toxified the private debt mountain, and got people working and paying their taxes again. In theory, this should enable the Irish to pay off its debts, although the crash has left a lot of Irish in a precarious financial situation.

The situation in Greece however was very different. And given that the Greek debt has actually increased since the bailout its quite clear that austerity isn’t working and never was going to work. If this was an individual or a company, then this is the point where bankruptcy proceedings would start. Creditors need to realise that lending money involves an element of risk, after all why else do they get to charge interest? So in such a situation, Greece would settle its debts to the best of its ability, paying off what it realistically could, with the rest of the debt being written off.

However, this hasn’t happened in Greece, there’s been some debt write down, in the form of a “debt swap” back in 2012 , but that’s about it. Previous Greek governments feared heading down this road as it could lead to them being kicked out of the Euro. While the rest of the Eurozone feared that it would undermine the credibility of the currency, quite apart from the fact that the bulk of those euro’s are owned to other parts of the Eurozone.

So in short, anything Syriza does can’t be any worse that what the prior regimes have done. My concern however is that I’m worried if they understand the risks they are taking, or the consequences of engaging in what will effectively be the negotiated bankruptcy of a country. Particularly as Syriza has made various populist, but outlandish promises, ranging from creating hundreds of thousands of jobs to free electricity to cutting property taxes (the sort of thing left wing governments are usually imposing!).

How exactly the Greeks will be able to afford these measures isn’t explained. They could only do so by borrowing money, at least in the short term. But in the event of a debt write down, nobody, not even their eurozone allies, are going to be willing to lend them money. This again, is normal in any bankruptcy proceedings, nobody is going to lend you money (other than Wonga) if you’ve a pile of CCJ’s to your name. That’s why you should generally avoid going bankrupt at all costs! As Robert Peston at the BBC points out, the speed at which the Greek economy could collapse, if the ECB cut off the life support, is pretty swift.

The Greek’s could leave the eurozone and return to the Drachma, then simply print money, but that would wipe out the pensions and savings of most Greeks, as well as bring down their entire banking sector, quite apart from the normal problems caused by hyper inflation. I don’t want to have to be avoiding Ryanair flights to Greece because I can’t squeeze all the Drachma’s I’ll need for the taxi to my hotel into my hand luggage!

Inevitably there’s going to be a need for compromise. The Troika need to realise that holding Greece over the fire is not going to result in them paying anything, when they clearly don’t have the means to do so. There is a need for a little bit of European solidarity here. But equally, a need for a bit of realism from the Greeks. They can hardly be expected to see money lavished on them at the same time their creditors are having to take a fairly hefty hit.

My concern is therefore, what happens if one or either side refuses to compromise. The consequences are likely to be Grexit. And while I tend to doubt the more extreme UKIP fantasies of what happens after that, it is likely to have a pretty disastrous effect on the Greek economy (out of the frying pan and into the fire) and a knock on effect on the European economy, including the UK.

Syriza also have this strange thing about Russia and Putin, which is not entirely explained.

Rise of the Populist parties?
The victory of Syriza has also had the media speculating that this might signal a radical change in European politics, whereby new parties populist parties begin to take over from the old guard of politics.

I think its important to remember however, that there is nothing new about Syriza. They are pretty much saying the same things they’ve been saying since before this crisis even began, its just the presentation is a little different and given the massive mess Greece is in, more are willing to listen.

Similarly, as I discussed recently, there is nothing new about UKIP. Their message isn’t that much different from that of the likes of the BNP or the EDL. The presentation might be different, they tend to prefer talking in code, rather than being more openly racist. But essentially dress Enoch Powell up in a cheap suit, put a pint in his hand, make him laugh occasionally and you’ve got Farage.

And Sinn Fein, who have gained a lot of support recently, as I discussed in a prior post, haven’t changed their message or core policies since 1920. The reason for this upsurge in support is driven by a lot of angry and confused people, taking it out their frustrations on a ballot box.

So yes its possible we’ll see populist parties figure in future governments. But its worth remembering that they are advocating polices that are actually quite old and not very new. So anyone expecting instant miracles is going to be sorely disappointed.

Election debate
Cameron and the Tories appear to be running scared from any debates in the run up to the next election. It started off quite amicably, once they learnt UKIP would be invited, they insisted the SNP would be included. Okay, makes sense, would be silly to exclude the ruling party of Scotland, particularly if the debate was held in Scotland, or the topic of Devo Max is likely to feature.

Then Cameron insisted that the Greens come along. Again, fair enough, they represent an obvious counter to Farage. While I won’t expect them to feature in every debate, but then again I’d be against the SNP, UKIP or the lib dems being invited to all of them either. But its reasonable to include them to some degree.

However now Cameron wants ALL the major parties to be invited, the Unionist, Sinn Fein, SDLP, the Welsh Nationalists, etc. I mean while we’re at it why not invite the Monster raving loony party, or how about George Galloway? By the time they all introduce themselves the debate will be over. I also have this vision of Galloway getting Farage in a headlock while Nicola Sturgeon tries to give him a Glasgow smile, as Miliband and Clegg take it in turns to give Cameron wedgie’s and the Unionists try to march their “traditional route” past the podium of Martin McGuinness, while the Welsh and the Greens sit in the corner discussing rugby and minted lamb :)).

The reality is that debates run counter to the Tory election plan. To those on the right they plan to point out that Farage is an insane racist and a fan of Enoch Powell. And to those who don’t read the Daily Mail, the Tory message is to point out that Cameron looks much better while eating bacon rolls….assuming they put some caviar in it first!

The danger with a TV debate is, that there’s likely be many “I agree with Miliband/Farage moments” and as a result they are very likely to lose support, no matter how the debate goes.

Education woes
One of the battle grounds in the election could be education. This doesn’t bode well for the Tories, as there is a growing view that their policy of favouring academies has not had the benefits that the Tories claim.

This is important, given that the Tories policy is to push any school that is “failing” into the category of an “academy” or “free school”. This robs the school from any local government control and hand that control over, more often than not, to various Tory party cronies and public school boy chums. It kind of makes Thatcher’s great milk snatch pale in comparison, given that they now seem to want the entire school.

Meanwhile, Ed Miliband has also been proposing a cut in tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000. I would dismiss criticism of this policy from various overpaid “Jonty De Wolfe” types in academia, who are clearly more worried about the gravy train they’ve profited from coming off the tracks, than student welfare. Much as we can ignore the opinions of a tax dodging head of Boots.

However the BBC’s Sean Coughlan has a more intelligent criticism of this policy. He points out that its the issue of student loans to pay for maintenance, plus the fact that said loans seldom cover all a student’s living costs, that is the major cause of stress on household budgets. In other words, cutting fees may not deliver all the benefits that Labour, or their supporters in student unions, suggest.

Not an issue
Those on the right have been making hay out of the brutal beating of a university law lecturer by POLISH criminals 88|. However, if you’re wondering why the Daily Mail hasn’t been interviewing him, its because he doesn’t agree that this the attack on him should be seen in that context, that it has little to do with immigration. There is a need yes, to deal with criminals crossing borders. But the solution to this (as he sees it) is more co-operation with EU partners not less.

Churchill
Last week saw the fiftieth anniversary of the funeral of Winston Churchill….and no I’m not talking about the dog from the insurance ads! ;D Inevitably, the Tories, who have a nasty habit of excessive hero worship, tried to make a big deal out of it.

Such behaviour is dangerous as it often leads to a warped tabloid style view of history. To say that Churchill had his flaws is to put it mildly. He was, as some critics have pointed out, a racist who considered non-white races (or Catholics) as inferior. The first gassing of the kurds may well have been launched by the British in the 1920’s, not Saddam, acting under orders from Churchill, who endorsed the use of gas to put down rebellions in Afghanistan and Kurdistan, as well as against Russian forces during the civil war.

It is perhaps ironic that he is known as a great war time leader. In the first world war, his actions led directly to the disaster at Coronel. This occurred because Churchill vetoed the sending of reinforcements to the British forces in the Falklands, against the advice of the admiralty. Churchill seemed to be more worried at the time in preventing a German born aristocrat friend from loosing his job at the Admiralty than fighting a war. Fortunately, after the battle, the RN was able to rush several ships south to save the Falklands before the Germans could attack the Islands directly. Churchill was also involved in planning of the mess otherwise known as Gallipoli.

And he only became PM in 1940 because of the British military mess in Norway ….that again had Churchill’s finger prints all over it! This would be a bit like G. W. Bush resigning in the middle of the financial crisis only to be replaced as President by Alan Geenspan!

And above all else, there was his role in Ireland. As I discussed in a prior post, he was involved in undermining the case for Home rule by loudly proclaiming that Westminster would renege on its pre-WWI commitments to implement it after the war was over (playing right into the hands of the IRA). The Black and Tans who terrorised Ireland were also his idea.

This behaviour had many long term implications, Irish independence became a matter of time rather than a possibility. Britain’s credibility was undermined in many corners of Empire, which probably played a role in the break up of the Empire later. Irish neutrality in WW2 was largely a consequence of the Irish seeing an alliance with the man responsible for the burning and looting of Cork as being little different from that of an alliance with Hitler.

Churchill has his high points but its also important to remember he had his flaws and certainly made many mistakes, as is the case for many historical figures. There are, for example, many Irish who hold up De Velera in the same light as Brits look on Churchill. However, to describe Dev as a “flawed” character is to put it mildly. One could argue the Irish civil war was largely a consequence of him putting his pride before country (he refused to sign the oath of allegiance…until it became politically convenient to do so!). He also often seemed to be more interested in scoring political points against his rivals (such as Churchill!).

If you want to promote a one sided propaganda version of history, then I recommend you watch the film “Churchill – the Hollywood years”….with Churchill played by…Christian Slater….well its got a good song!

The road not taken

I’ve been in Ireland through the Scottish referendum and I think the attitude over here is, why do the Scot need to even have a debate? Ireland doesn’t even have Scotland’s natural resources and we’ve got by fine, what’s the big deal? Naturally many were disappointed that Scotland failed to take the plunge.

However there also has been some soul searching in Ireland about how Scotland managed to get to the stage of an independence referendum while avoiding the bloody violence of the Ireland’s war of independence. In short, could Ireland have broken away from the UK peacefully?

A series of unfortunate events
Almost as soon as the ink was dry on the Act of Union there were calls within Ireland for it to be repealed. Demands for so called “home rule” (what we’d now call devolved government) grew pace under Daniel O’Connell, then Parnell and finally John Redmond. The call for home rule was opposed by the aristocracy, in particular wealthy Irish landowners and their allies in the House of Lords. Hence numerous home rule acts were defeated.

The Parliament Act however, changed this. In 1911 the Third home rule act passed, thanks to Redmond and his allies in the British Liberals, although it would be 1914 before it achieved Royal ascent. The delay was caused by events up in Ulster, where Protestant’s feared majority Catholic rule, “home rule is Rome rule” they argued. There were violent clashes between pro-Unionist mobs and Republicans, with both groups forming their own militia.

Finally Redmond hammered out a compromise that would see the Ulster counties get an opt out from Home Rule (fun fact, if Redmond’s offer had gone through this would have likely led to a 28 county Ireland, not 26 counties as Ireland gained Tyrone & Fermanagh). However by now World War I had broken out and Westminster decided to postpone home rule until after the war. Redmond not only agreed to this, but encouraged Irish to go and fight in order to end the war more quickly.

Of course Redmond was assuming, like many at the time, that World War I would be short. He was not anticipating a 4 year global conflict nor the horrors of the Somme and Ypres. His opponents within the Irish nationalists, who never wanted Home Rule anyway but full independence, were quick to point to the conflict, and the constant stream of bodies coming home to families in Ireland, as proof that home rule wasn’t going to work. Ireland would still be dragged into conflicts half a world away because of imperialists playing their little chess game of empire. Up until now Redmond had managed to outmanoeuvre the nationalists, but as the war dragged support for home rule began to wane.

Not least because the UK Parliament then, as now, had its fair share of “head bangers” and “swivel eyed loons”. The unionists and imperialists within Parliament were quite happy to sound off to the Daily Express how they never agreed with Home Rule and intended to get it repealed as soon as the war was over. While this may have made for cheerful reading for UK conservatives, as you can imagine it played right into the hands of the nationalists, who pointed to this as proof that Westminster politicians can’t be trusted and that the home rule bill ain’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

And to make matters worse there were all sorts of rumours floating around Ireland, ranging from a planned crack down on Republican groups and fears of conscription into the British army. Conscription had been introduced in 1916. But the Irish had been exempted, as I suspect the British thought it better to have willing Irish at the front, rather than un-willing republicans, putting them in close proximity to British military officers…then handing them a gun! Again the “head bangers” were happy to suggest that Paddy wasn’t pulling his weight for the empire and the Irish should be conscripted and put right at the front.

All of this pent up frustration within republican groups eventually exploded in the Easter Rising of 1916. One of the fact’s often overlooked about the Rising is that it was not popularly supported. Many of the units available to the republicans failed to show up that Easter Monday, in many cases because they had been specifically ordered not to take part by their commanders. The infamous Proclamation was likely given to a bemused crowd of commuters.

How to lose friends and alienate people
Now had the British reacted proportionally to this threat, e.g. call in a priest or some suitable intermediary and try and negotiate a peaceful resolution, the course of Irish history could have been very different.

Unfortunately, the British went all Jack Bauer on the rebels…or perhaps I should say they went all Reginald Dyer. They brought up artillery and a gunboat and started shelling the rebel held positions (probably causing more damage than the rebels!). Orders were issued to shoot anyone seen to be helping the rebels, even unarmed civilians. After the rising, military courts were set up and many of the leadership executed, most notably James Connolly, too weak with Gangrene to stand he was executed while sitting in his chair.

Suspicious that there might still be some Irish loyal to the Crown, the British Army, egged on by the right wing press back home (and a certain amount of anti-Irish bigotry), then embarked on a campaign in which they arrested anyone who the slightest nationalist sympathies. Even those playing Gaelic games or carrying hurley’s were liable for arrest! These actions completely altered the public mood away from home rule towards independence, as it suggested that the British government could not be trusted.

Even so, a war could have been avoided. When the British appeared slow to implement home rule (they waited till 1920!), the republicans beat them to the post by setting up “Dail Eireann” a new Irish Parliament comprising of the Irish MP’s elected in the 1918 general election.

Unfortunately the same day as it first met, a group of RIC members were ambushed in Tipperary. While the Dail had nothing to do with this, the British government decided to connect the dots. They were also no doubt fearful of the fact that some (but not all) of the Irish deputies had communist sympathies. So they had the organisation banned, and later its leaders arrested. In effect this handed the initiative to the IRA (or “die hards” as they were often called at the time) as only thing holding them back had been the Dail. As they say the rest is history.

Learning the lessons of history
So there are two ways of looking at this. Firstly one could argue that the Irish war of independence was just a consequence of a series of unfortunate coincidences. Had Ireland been granted home rule, this would have become a stepping stone towards independence eventually (much as Australia and Canada). Although it would have more than likely come much later, it would have been peaceful.

Others would argue that the war of independence was the enviable consequence of Irish nationalism clashing with British Imperialism. And thus that even if home rule had been granted, things would have kicked off eventually. In much the same way that, even if Archduke Ferdinand hadn’t taken that wrong turn down a street in Sarajevo, war would have broken out eventually as the primary cause of the first world war was rivalry between competing empires.

My two cents would be to point out how many hasty decisions, made on the basis of short term factors had longer far reaching consequences.

The decision by Carson and Craig to oppose home rule, as well as the foolish posturing and points scoring of conservative peer’s in Westminster destroyed the case for home rule and played directly into the hands of Sinn Fein…something the NI first minster needs to consider next time he’s looking across the table at his ex-IRA deputy!

John Redmond decision to back British involvement in WW1 has to go down as one of the most epic acts of political suicide in history. It made the labour party’s 1983 manifesto seems perfectly sensible in comparison. Indeed the Irish government only recently thought it would be a good idea to put up a memorial to Redmond…seemingly “forgetting” about one of the country’s greatest leaders for a century, all because of one speech!

And the British overreaction to the Easter Rising, largely a consequence of them pandering to the right wing media mob, effectively cost them not just Ireland, but large chucks of the empire.

So there are lessons to be learnt from the history of Ireland’s breakaway that are relevant today. Lack of trust in Westminster was one of the key factors in the Irish rejecting home wanting full independence. So equally if Devo Max is delayed or reneged on I suspect Scotland’s day’s in the UK are numbered.

And politicians reacting to scary, but often inaccurate reports in the press (e.g. such as media claims regarding immigration or people on benefits), can result in them taking hasty decisions that have long term consequences. Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, for example voted to leave the UK largely I suspect because people there are sick of the Tory cuts and the government’s Daily Mail-esque antics.

And similarly promising an “in or out” referendum on the EU, just to deal with an internal dispute within the Tory party could have significant consequences on the entire country. Indeed it could spark a break-up of the UK.

As the saying goes those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.

Viva la Vida

I’ve been reading a book by journalist David Wallechinsky in which he profiles tyrants and dictators both past and present. One can see many common strands of behaviour among tyrants. Suppression of human rights, use of death squads to silence opponents and torture are all too common.

Bizarre behaviour
But another trend he identifies is the tendency to pass bizarre laws. For example, Ne Win, the former dictator of Burma, once ordered all vehicles to start driving on the right one morning (meaning bus passengers must get on and off buses in the middle of the street!). The late dictator of Turkmenistan, Niyazov passed all sorts of strange and bizarre laws, ranging from the banning of lip synching, smoking (only after he had to quit for health reasons), dogs, long hair and ballet.

Gaddafi, never to be outdone in weirdness, once ordered all Libyans to start breeding chickens, even those living in apartments (and presumably making jokes about not counting chickens before they’ve hatched were banned too!).

In another example Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov has this strange thing about keeping lions and tigers as pets and has also passed laws that include banning of energy drinks, although murdering and torture of his opponents is still apparently legal.

Meglomania
Meglomania is another all too common trait. Lukashenko of Belorussia insists that he be called “Batka” (dad) by Belorussians. In another example, Niyazov had the month of January renamed after him (and April after his mother, plus September after a book he wrote…which is required reading for anyone joining the civil service!).

In Africa, Obiang Nguema (the dictator of Equatorial Guinea) has claimed to be “in permanent contact with the almighty”. While in Cameron (the country not “call me dave” ;D) under Paul Biya, it is reported that one cannot get a job with the state, even that of a lowly police officer, without “you have to show that you support the president actively, that you love him and his party”.

Corruption
And of course we have the squandering of public funds. Niyazov (again!) for example had a 12 metre high gold statue of himself erected on a platform that rotated so that it always faced the Sun.

The Kim’s of North Korea have spent billions of their impoverished countries money on a grand capital with numerous gaudy landmarks, vast (largely empty) skyscrapers and vast boulevards (in a country where practically nobody is allowed to drive).

Saudi Arabia under the house of Saud, is considered so institutionally corrupt (regularly topping the poll for Transparency International) most companies doing business in the kingdom have to set aside hundreds of millions in their budget to pay for kickbacks and bribes.

Similarly Karimov, the dictator of Uzbekistan, was lambasted in the wikileaks diplomatic cables for squandering most of his country’s wealth on himself and his family, notably his daughter, described as “the most hated person in the country” by the diplomatic cables.

Suppression of the Media
Dictators also have a habit of suppressing the media and tend not to be terribly happy with those who criticise the regime. For example in Laos, under the communist dictator Sayasone, it is illegal to “propagate information or opinions that weaken the state or slander the state”. Lukashenko once threatened to “wiring the necks” or protestors. A law in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is so broad that merely making a statement such as “don’t be a thinkhead like Mugabe” to a friend on a bus can get you imprisoned.

A good example of the effects of this media manipulation can be seen via the ongoing saga over the missing Malaysian Airliner. There have been some slightly bizarre reactions from the Chinese relatives, with some convinced the airliner is okay or not able to understand why they’ve been searching in the wrong place. Some have threatened to go on hunger strike, as if that is somehow going to magically make the airliner (or more than likely now its wreckage) appear.

Of course the problem here is that the Chinese are used to being lied to by their government or have facts hidden from them, as much for their own protection as to hide the bungling incompetence of the Communist party. While we in the West are well used to seeing politicians running around with they’re hair on fire or standing around in the middle of a crisis looking stupid (G. W. Bush was particularly skilled at this one!), Chinese citizens are not.

Elections – Tyrant style
It is quite common for dictators to try and justify their actions with a veneer of democratic legitimacy by holding highly suspect “elections” or referendums. Such “elections” tend to be passed with results of +90%, e.g. Obiang’s “election” in 2002 saw him get 97.1% of the vote, Niyazov 99.5%, Karimov 90% and Saddam out did them all with 100%.

Such results are usually borne out by the fact that the ego of most dictator’s cannot stand the notion that someone might actually disagree with them. I mean, one suspects that David Cameron is all too aware that a sizeable proportion of the British population regard him as an upper class twit and would sooner eat a ballot paper than vote for him (hence why his tactic is to ignore them and try to bribe the rest of the country with tax cuts while blaming everything bad on Nick Clegg, the EU and immigrants). But dictators cannot tolerate the idea of any form of opposition, failing to realise the total hypocrisy that this reveals of themselves and their regime.

Psychology of the Dictator
But what goes through the mind of a dictator? Why do they do it? In some cases it’s because they are basically evil cruel bastards (Francisco Nguema and Duvalier are good examples of this), with little thought for anyone. Many are clearly vain and insecure egomaniac’s. In other cases they are simply deluded fools surrounded by a bunch of cronies and yes men who won’t dare not tell them the truth.

Nicolae Ceaușescu the late dictator of Romania is a classic case study here. He was apparently oblivious to how much he was universally hated by his people until the 21st of December 1989, when in the midst of a mass propaganda rally, with the Warsaw pact imploding around him, he was booed off the balcony by the crowd (see here). His regime, once one of the most iron fisted of the Soviet bloc effectively ceased to be right there and then. He was captured an executed by partisans a few days later, still largely at a loss as to why he was loathed so much. Similarly the downfall of Erich Honecker’s East Germany is another classic example of a deluded dictator unaware of how is universally loathed, suddenly learning the truth the hard way.

Overthrowing dictators
Unfortunately the overthrow of dictatorships isn’t easy. More than a few have been replaced by a regime not much different from the one before. Perhaps a more relevant question is to ask how to stop dictators achieving power.

In this regard, Wallechinsky considers G. W. Bush (then in power at the time of publication) as a sort of “special case” as Bush demonstrated many of the same tactics of a dictator. Be it a contempt for human rights laws (such as prohibitions on torture), rendition of suspects, secret trials (or imprisonment without trails), starting wars illegally, disputed elections (Florida and all that), manipulation of the media (Foxnews and the swiftboating of John Kerry) and corruption (Cheney’s secret energy committee the minutes of which are still unpublished and the matter of many billions of money for Iraqi reconstruction that just disappeared).

While Bush didn’t become a dictator as such, he shows the dangerous slippery slope which occurs when you allow any leader to ignore or violate those all-important checks and balances. Clearly maintaining these are the best way of protecting people from tyranny.

As for those dictators already in power, well most won’t be there were it not for the support by the West and other major powers. An economic boycott (either an official one or a public unwillingness to shunt said nations products) could also serve to put pressure where it is needed. And also there is the international criminal courts. Seeing the likes of the rogues I’ve mentioned brought to account would certainly act as a firm deterrent to the rest.