Monday, 29 June 2015

On This Rock

Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam Meam. 

Considering the claims that the See of Rome makes, then, while individual Popes might be or have been charlatans or lunatics, the institution itself is either telling the truth in making those claims, or else it is indeed the Antichrist, and any professing Christian who does not submit to Rome on Rome’s own terms must believe it to be so.

Who will call good evil by pointing to the Papacy’s defence and promotion of metaphysical realism, of Biblical historicity, of credal and Chalcedonian orthodoxy, of the sanctity of human life, of Biblical standards of sexual morality, of social justice, and of peace, and by then saying, “Behold, the Antichrist”? That is the question.

Ah, Faith of Our Fathers. Father Faber was the son of the Rector of Stanhope, and, like a striking number of Tractarian or Tractarian-influenced converts, his ancestry was largely Huguenot (as is part of mine, although another side is Highland Catholic).

So his “fathers chained in prisons dark” were not quite as his thoroughly rousing hymn would suggest.

The Lanchester Review: Blairism Is No Solution To Labour’s Identity Crisis

Richard Cotton makes a powerful case.

Fundamentally Speaking

On Saturday, at a conference on Catholic education, I heard a very distinguished speaker explain, among many other things, that there was still a Protestant fundamentalist adoption agency in this country, acting fully in accordance with its principles.

The Catholic agencies had long ago stopped mentioning the Faith, although they had been founded to stop the placing of Catholic orphans with Protestant families who often even changed their Irish names.

As soon as they stopped insisting that they would place children only with practising Catholics who adhered to Catholic principles, then they had no defence against, for example, being required to place children with same-sex couples, who would now include David Cameron's same-sex married couples.

But the Protestant fundamentalists had continued to insist that they would place children only with Protestant fundamentalists, and they are still doing so, untroubled by the present Conservative Government, by the previous Coalition, or by the Labour Government that is blamed for having closed down the Catholic adoption agencies.

It did not. Effectively, they closed themselves down. If they had stuck to their founding principles decades before, then that Government would have left them alone. That is not a guess. The record proves it.

In the pub afterwards, my friend and I were discussing the ridiculous list of "British values" bequeathed to England's grateful schools by Michael Gove. Political systems that are not values. Values shared with scores of other countries. You know how it goes.

But as my friend said to me, this kind of thing, "led to people like us hiding in priest holes for hundreds of years." Quite so.

Within living memory, Catholics had worse relations with the British State than were enjoyed by the Muslims of, among other places, the Arab world and the Indian Subcontinent.

Any teenager or undergraduate who had attended that conference, which also heard a Labour MP express his deepening scepticism about the EU, would have been a prime target for identification as having exhibited "radicalised behaviour".

Well, frankly, I hope that any teenager, any undergraduate or anyone else who attended that conference was indeed radicalised by it. I certainly was.

Grecian Earned

In 1953, Germany's debts were cancelled by a range of countries.

Including Greece.

Just saying.

Let's Not Lose Our Marbles

Britain's, and especially London's, museums express Britain's, and especially London's, global role and character.

In whatever context it might be uttered, "They should be sent back to where they came from" is not a sentiment in keeping with that role or character.

Cobblers On The Cobbles

Coronation Street is now a top quality sitcom, but that is what it is. The only things missing are the laughter track and the "You have been watching" at the end.

In coming weeks, the Dobbs and Tinker clans are going on a camping trip where they will run into a "wilderness explorer" played by Paddy McGuinness, who had never acted until his mate, Peter Kay, cast him the sublime Phoenix Nights, and who is best-known for presenting a game show.

Of course, Corrie has always been rich in humour. But this is something else. This is about the centralisation of ITV. To the London media, "the North" means two things: Manchester and comedy.

Thus, Channel 4 billed the superb recent police procedural No Offence as a "comedy drama", when in fact it contained no more jokes or funny situations than would occur in real life, and much of it was very dark indeed. Brilliantly so, in fact.

How about a competition to find the best idea for a one-off drama, and the best idea for a one-off documentary, from within the working class, most obviously defined as the social groups C2DE, in the area covered by each of the 12 ITV regions? It is just a pity that there is only one ITV region in Wales.

The winners would be broadcast in two regular primetime spots, one for drama and one for documentaries, over 12 weeks. Not necessarily on ITV. But that network does happen to have the regional boundaries in place, and, apart from the Welsh thing, those do happen to be singularly suitable to this task. It would certainly put the BBC to shame.

This exercise could be repeated annually. As could be a competition to find the best idea for a one-off drama, and the best idea for a one-off documentary, from within the rural communities in the area covered by each of the 12 ITV regions. The ITV London region extends well into the Home Counties, so this would be perfectly feasible.

Again, the winners would be broadcast in two regular primetime spots, one for drama and one for documentaries, over 12 weeks.

Long-Term Economic Plan

On the train from Newcastle to Carlisle on Saturday, I marvelled, as I have done in the past, at the fact that every town in the Tory part of Northumberland had a railway station.

But not in the old mining, and still solidly Labour-voting, south east corner, where half the county's population lives.

And certainly not in County Durham, where a town the size of, for example, Consett, has not had a railway station since as long ago as 1955.

Yet Consett was a major steel town in those days, and Durham at large was a major mining county. It is generally supposed that everyone had expected that those things would always remain the case.

But the record of Beeching and before hints at something else.

Coal, steel and rail were known as the Triple Alliance, especially with reference to their respective trade unions during the three industries shared heyday.

Trains, like tracks, are made of steel, and they used to run on coal; they still do run on the electricity that is largely produced by the burning of coal, even though we do insist on importing it even while sitting on vast reserves of it.

Likewise, cutting off the coalfields and the steel towns by taking away their railway connections was a slow but inexorable way of killing them. 20 or 30 years later, they were "in the middle of nowhere". They had not always been so.

Moreover, just as the loss of the railways was fatal to heavy industries whose goods were not appropriate to other means of transport, so, in turn, the loss of those industries was fatal to the railways.

Reshaping, indeed, Dr Beeching. Reshaping, indeed.

But now that it looks as if no local authority in this country is ever going to permit fracking, the case has become even more pressing for a return to the coal that, unlike anything approaching enough shale gas, we know for a fact is there.

And thus the case for the only realistic means of transporting it, and for the industry that is necessary to build and maintain that means.

Signal to the Banks and Financiers


We call on David Cameron to support the organisation of a European conference to agree debt cancellation for Greece and other countries that need it, informed by debt audits and funded by recovering money from the banks and financial speculators who were the real beneficiaries of bailouts (Greek leader calls last ditch referendum on bailout, 27 June).

We believe there must be an end to the enforcing of austerity policies that are causing injustice and poverty in Europe and across the world.

We urge the creation of UN rules to deal with government debt crises promptly, fairly and with respect for human rights, and to signal to the banks and financiers that we won’t keep bailing them out for reckless lending.

Frances O’Grady General secretary, TUC
Len McCluskey General secretary, Unite the Union
Paul Kenny General secretary, GMB
Manuel Cortes General secretary, TSSA
Sarah-Jayne Clifton Director, Jubilee Debt Campaign
Paul Mackney Chair, Greece Solidarity Campaign
Nick Dearden Global Justice Now
Owen Epsley War on Want
James Meadway New Economics Foundation
Ann Pettifor Prime Economics
Diane Abbott MP
Dave Anderson MP
Richard Burgon MP
Jeremy Corbyn MP
Jonathan Edwards MP
Roger Godsiff MP
Harry Harpham MP
Carolyn Harris MP
George Kerevan MP
Ian Lavery MP
Clive Lewis MP
Rebecca Long-Bailey MP
Caroline Lucas MP
John McDonnell MP
Liz Mcinnes MP
Rachael Maskell MP
Michael Meacher MP
Grahame Morris MP
Kate Osamor MP
Liz Saville-Roberts MP
Cat Smith MP
Chris Stephens MP
Jo Stevens MP
Catherine West MP
Hywel Williams MP

Austerity Will Not Cut The Deficit

Michael Meacher writes:

Osborne’s 8 July budget will be forced through in the teeth of all economic experience.

The history of the last 70 years demonstrates one conclusion irrefutably: austerity is the wrong way to cut deficits.

After the second world war had dramatically drained Britain’s wealth and left the country with colossal debts amounting to 260% of GDP, these huge deficits were easily tamed by fast economic growth in the post-war years.

President Clinton achieved a similar turnaround in the US after he inherited an enormous deficit in 1992 and ended his 8-year presidency with none, largely due to rapid economic growth.

Again, the Swedish high budget deficit was successfully brought down during 1994-8 by a policy of fairly fast economic growth.

Even in the US in recent years, despite the political deadlock and a largely non-functional Congress, the US has achieved a far bigger and faster recovery from recession than Europe, again as a result of the priority given to growth by Obama.

What is striking about these previous periods of large deficits is that debt was not a significant political issue. The public were not scared by the size of the public debt.

For every year between the mid-1940s and the mid-1960s the debt was far, far higher than at any time since 2008, during which time it hasn’t peaked beyond 80% of GDP.

Yet there was no panic, indeed it was a time of huge confidence as the foundations of the Welfare State were being laid.

Had the British public been as acutely frightened by their leaders about the debt ration in the post-war period as they are being panicked now by Osborne, the welfare state, the inspiration not only of Europe but of the whole world from China and Singapore to Brazil and Mexico, would never have been born.

Equally remarkably, when Harold Macmillan as new prime minister in July 1957 told the British people that they had “never had it so good”, the size of the government debt at that time was 120% of GDP, far far higher than the debt ratio of about 70% in 2010 when Gordon Brown was accused of mortgaging Britain’s future by profligacy.

So why the vastly different reaction to public debt in those previous times compared with today?

The answer is that Osborne has been skillful at framing an (untrue) narrative to suit his political purposes while Labour has utterly failed to offer a (true) counter-narrative to Osborne’s fetish with austerity.

Osborne has successfully manipulated the issue of austerity to provide the excuse to achieve his real aim of shrinking the State, squeezing the public sector and privatising almost all public assets.

Labour on the other hand has been all over the place between the Blaitite rump who largely support Osborne, a shadow chancellor who never stamped his mark on a credible alternative policy, and a Left whose calls for growth were ostentatiously ignored.

Labour now desperately needs one central theme: Austerity won’t cut the deficit, but growth will.

Containment Has Not Worked

The incomparable Patrick Cockburn writes:

Effective action to prevent further attacks by Isis-inspired gunmen requires a recognition of the failure of the policy of containment of Isis pursued over the last year by the US, Britain and their allies.

In the aftermath of an atrocity like Sousse, it would be naïve to expect David Cameron to admit to this failure and to recommend new and more effective policies.

Unsurprisingly, he expressed defiance towards Isis, commiseration with its victims and pledged a “full spectrum response” to the massacre.

There was waffle about Isis “attacking our way of life and what we stand for, so we have to stand united with those that share our values”.

But nowhere in Mr Cameron’s interview with the BBC or speech in the House of Commons was there much sign of understanding what he is up against.

What has really changed since 9/11 and 7/7 is that today terrorist attacks are promoted by a powerful state based in northern Iraq and eastern Syria that has an army more powerful than most members of the UN.

It was all very well for Mr Cameron to insist that the UK had carried out 300 air strikes and this is more than any other country aside from the US which has carried out 6,000.

What he did not address was the fact that despite these airstrikes Isis last month defeated the Iraqi army at Ramadi and the Syrian army at Palmyra.

Making an issue of the fact that the BBC refers to “Islamic State” suggests that Mr Cameron has not really grasped the seriousness of developments in Iraq and Syria over the last year.

Mr Cameron has played a part in opening the door to Isis by joining the campaign to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, which has led to that country collapsing into anarchy which provides fertile soil for Isis to take root and grow.

This in turn is contributory cause to Isis expanding in Libya. 

There is no sign that Mr Cameron or any of the Western powers have learned any lessons from what happened in Libya.

When Saudi Arabia started bombing Yemen earlier this year its actions were backed by the US, Britain and other powers, though a predictable result of this air campaign has been to weaken the Yemeni army, the one institution holding the country together, and lead to Isis becoming an influence there for the first time.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) that used to be penned into remote villages has become a power across south Yemen.

Talk by Cameron of combatting “the narrative of the terrorists” shows a lack of seriousness on the part of the government.

What it really needs to do is find effective local partners in the Middle East which means better relations with Iran and the coalition it leads, which is fighting Isis, at the risk of offending the Sunni states like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Gulf monarchies whose sympathies are with the Sunni communities in which Isis has taken root. 

Europe’s Attack on Greek Democracy

Joseph E. Stiglitz, no less, writes:

The rising crescendo of bickering and acrimony within Europe might seem to outsiders to be the inevitable result of the bitter endgame playing out between Greece and its creditors.

In fact, European leaders are finally beginning to reveal the true nature of the ongoing debt dispute, and the answer is not pleasant: it is about power and democracy much more than money and economics.

Of course, the economics behind the program that the “troika” (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) foisted on Greece five years ago has been abysmal, resulting in a 25% decline in the country’s GDP.

I can think of no depression, ever, that has been so deliberate and had such catastrophic consequences: Greece’s rate of youth unemployment, for example, now exceeds 60%.

It is startling that the troika has refused to accept responsibility for any of this or admit how bad its forecasts and models have been.

But what is even more surprising is that Europe’s leaders have not even learned.

The troika is still demanding that Greece achieve a primary budget surplus (excluding interest payments) of 3.5% of GDP by 2018.

Economists around the world have condemned that target as punitive, because aiming for it will inevitably result in a deeper downturn.

Indeed, even if Greece’s debt is restructured beyond anything imaginable, the country will remain in depression if voters there commit to the troika’s target in the snap referendum to be held this weekend.

In terms of transforming a large primary deficit into a surplus, few countries have accomplished anything like what the Greeks have achieved in the last five years.

And, though the cost in terms of human suffering has been extremely high, the Greek government’s recent proposals went a long way toward meeting its creditors’ demands.

We should be clear: almost none of the huge amount of money loaned to Greece has actually gone there. It has gone to pay out private-sector creditors – including German and French banks.

Greece has gotten but a pittance, but it has paid a high price to preserve these countries’ banking systems.

The IMF and the other “official” creditors do not need the money that is being demanded. Under a business-as-usual scenario, the money received would most likely just be lent out again to Greece.

But, again, it’s not about the money.

It’s about using “deadlines” to force Greece to knuckle under, and to accept the unacceptable – not only austerity measures, but other regressive and punitive policies.

But why would Europe do this?

Why are European Union leaders resisting the referendum and refusing even to extend by a few days the June 30 deadline for Greece’s next payment to the IMF? Isn’t Europe all about democracy?

In January, Greece’s citizens voted for a government committed to ending austerity

If the government were simply fulfilling its campaign promises, it would already have rejected the proposal. But it wanted to give Greeks a chance to weigh in on this issue, so critical for their country’s future wellbeing.

That concern for popular legitimacy is incompatible with the politics of the eurozone, which was never a very democratic project.

Most of its members’ governments did not seek their people’s approval to turn over their monetary sovereignty to the ECB.

When Sweden’s did, Swedes said no.

They understood that unemployment would rise if the country’s monetary policy were set by a central bank that focused single-mindedly on inflation (and also that there would be insufficient attention to financial stability).

The economy would suffer, because the economic model underlying the eurozone was predicated on power relationships that disadvantaged workers.

And, sure enough, what we are seeing now, 16 years after the eurozone institutionalized those relationships, is the antithesis of democracy: Many European leaders want to see the end of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s leftist government.

After all, it is extremely inconvenient to have in Greece a government that is so opposed to the types of policies that have done so much to increase inequality in so many advanced countries, and that is so committed to curbing the unbridled power of wealth.

They seem to believe that they can eventually bring down the Greek government by bullying it into accepting an agreement that contravenes its mandate.

It is hard to advise Greeks how to vote on July 5. Neither alternative – approval or rejection of the troika’s terms – will be easy, and both carry huge risks.

A yes vote would mean depression almost without end.

Perhaps a depleted country – one that has sold off all of its assets, and whose bright young people have emigrated – might finally get debt forgiveness; perhaps, having shriveled into a middle-income economy, Greece might finally be able to get assistance from the World Bank.

All of this might happen in the next decade, or perhaps in the decade after that.

By contrast, a no vote would at least open the possibility that Greece, with its strong democratic tradition, might grasp its destiny in its own hands.

Greeks might gain the opportunity to shape a future that, though perhaps not as prosperous as the past, is far more hopeful than the unconscionable torture of the present.

I know how I would vote.

Both Handmaiden and Victim

John Wight writes:

As ISIS and ISIS-style terror erupts across the globe, Western governments are busy making plans to establish a rapid reaction force in Eastern Europe to ‘contain Russia’, thus qualifying them for an annual ‘you couldn’t make it up’ award.

It calls to mind one of Britain’s worst military defeats, suffered at the hands of the Japanese, when 100,000 troops and sailors were marched into captivity after the fall of Singapore on February 15, 1942.

Winston Churchill called it, “the largest capitulation in British history.”

Many of the British troops never even fired a shot before surrendering, thus adding to the humiliation and ignominy of their defeat at the hands of a much smaller force.

The British commander responsible for the surrender, Lieutenant General Arthur Percival, earned himself a cold place in history as a consequence.

A major reason for the defeat and surrender of an island that was considered a key and strategically vital part of the British Empire, was that the guns of the British defenders were pointed in the wrong direction; they’d been expecting the Japanese attack to come from the sea, rather than through the jungle and swamps of the Malay Peninsula behind them.

Today, in 2015, British guns are not only pointed in the wrong direction, they are pointed at the wrong enemy.

The most recent terrorist atrocity, carried out last week against tourists in Tunisia, has resulted in the most British victims since the 7/7 attacks in London which ended in the deaths of 52 innocent civilians.

On the same day as the Tunisian attack, a terrorist atrocity was carried out in France, while in Kuwait a suicide bomber attacked a Shia mosque.

Meanwhile, in Iraq and Syria, the so-called Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS/ISIL) and other Salafist terror groups continue to kill, slaughter, and butcher men, women, and children.

All this is happening while the West continues to make a virtue of impotence, more concerned with directing its ire against a country, Russia that has been at the forefront of resisting terrorism at home and abroad.

Yes, without doubt, you couldn’t make it up.

Every day that IS exists it grows stronger; its vile ideology becomes more entrenched and grows more attractive to ever more young disaffected Muslim men across the world.

They are not attracted to the group’s religious doctrine so much as the opportunity to join a cause that allows them to feel powerful as opposed to the powerlessness of their current predicament in a world underpinned by the anarchy of a free market that breeds poverty, despair, and injustice.

As such, the West is both the handmaiden and the victim of radicalisation.

Every terrorist attack confirms the collapse of Western foreign policy and its alignment with some of the most reactionary states on the planet – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, etc. – not to mention ultranationalists in Kiev and across Eastern Europe.

It constitutes unimpeachable evidence of the sham that is Western democracy, and how it rests upon foundations of hypocrisy and mendacity.

The crisis and chaos that has engulfed the Middle East as a direct result of the West’s role in the region ,increasingly threatens civilians everywhere, including Russia.

That is why it remains unconscionable that the West remains intent on treating Moscow as an enemy, rather than a partner in a struggle against one of the gravest threats to modernity and civilization the world has faced.

Furthermore, this cognitive dissonance, this departure from reality, informs an air campaign that has failed utterly in its stated objective of degrading the power of IS and stemming its advance.

When it suffers a reverse in one part of Syria or Iraq, it advances in another, butchering civilians wherever it appears.

The question needs to be asked: Where is the 30-40,000 strong rapid reaction force to counter the barbarism of ISIS?

Where is the determination to contain a state – the so-called Islamic State – that violates every moral and ethical principle of humanity in its treatment of minorities, women, children, and natural justice?

There is no more grievous indictment of the policy being undertaken by the West than the fact that a large swathe of the world is now a no-go area for tourists and visitors.

The impact of the attack in Tunisia, for example, will be measured in a loss of a tourism industry that is vital to that country’s ability to maintain a nascent democracy that is balanced precariously on the edge of sustainability, thus making the growth of extremism and terrorism there more rather than less likely.

This lamentable state of affairs is even more grotesque when we consider that this year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.

This was a war that saw the West and the Soviet Union unite against a common enemy, fascism, in the interests of humanity.

Those who fought and sacrificed and suffered immeasurably in that war would be well within their rights to judge the current generation of leaders harshly over their lack of statesmanship and foresight in understanding who and what the real enemy was, and where the real threat to global peace and stability resided.

The barbarians are at the gates and it’s time to wake up. Or else we’re going to have a bloody disaster on our hands.

The Lacuna In The Maastricht Programme

They were utterly ignored by media that, then as now, preferred the joke figures of Conservative Euroscepticism and then also of UKIP. Even those have since been supplanted in the same media by the likes of John Redwood, who consistently voted in favour of Maastricht. But the Great 66, the anti-Maastricht Labour MPs, were right all along. Even The Guardian is starting to have to admit it. Zoe Williams writes:

‘This is our political alternative to neoliberalism and to the neoliberal process of European integration: democracy, more democracy and even deeper democracy,” said Alexis Tsipras on 18 January 2014 in a debate organised by the Dutch Socialist party in Amersfoort.

Now the moment of deepest democracy looms, as the Greek people go to the polls on Sunday to vote for or against the next round of austerity.

Unfortunately, Sunday’s choice will be between endless austerity and immediate chaos.

As comfortable as it is to argue from the sidelines that maybe Grexit in the medium term won’t hurt as much as 30 years’ drag on GDP from swingeing repayments, no sane person wants either.

The vision that Syriza swept to power on was that if you spoke truth to the troika plainly and in broad daylight, they would have to acknowledge that austerity was suffocating Greece.

They have acknowledged no such thing.

Whatever else one could say about the handling of the crisis, and whatever becomes of the euro, Sunday will be the moment that unstoppable democracy meets immovable supra-democracy.

The Eurogroup has already won: the Greek people can vote any way they like – but what they want, they cannot have.

On Saturday the Eurogroup broke with its tradition of unanimity, issuing a petulant statement “supported by all members except the Greek member”.

Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek finance minister, sought legal advice on whether the group was allowed to exclude him, and received the extraordinary reply

“The Eurogroup is an informal group. Thus it is not bound by treaties or written regulations. While unanimity is conventionally adhered to, the Eurogroup president is not bound to explicit rules.” 

Or, to put it another way: “We never had any accountability in the first place, sucker.”

More striking still is this line of the statement: “The Eurogroup has been open until the very last moment to further support the Greek people through a continued growth-oriented programme.”

The measures enforced by the troika have created an economic contraction akin to that caused by war.

With unemployment at 25% and youth unemployment at nearly half, 40% of children now live below the poverty line.

The latest offer to Greece promises more of the same.

The idea that any of this is oriented towards growth is demonstrably false. The Eurogroup president, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, has started to assert that black is white.

And that brings us to the crux of the troika’s programme: what is the point of reducing this country to rubble? 

The stated intention at the start of the austerity package was to restore order: allow Greece to take a short hit to its GDP in the interests of building a stronger, more balanced economy in the long run.

As it became clear that growth was not restored and that even on its own terms – the creditor must come first – the plan was failing, the line changed.

It became a moral crusade, a collective punishment of the Greeks.

In 2012 the head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, said in an interview with this newspaper, “Do you know what? As far as Athens is concerned, I also think about all those people who are trying to escape tax all the time.

All these people in Greece who are trying to escape tax. And I think they should also help themselves collectively.” 

How? “By all paying their tax.”

At the time, it sounded strange: how, in a country of cripplingly high unemployment, with whole families living off the depleted income of one pensioner, was the answer going to come from tax?

She was offering not a solution but a narrative: the Greeks were in this situation because they were bad people. They wanted a beneficent state, but they didn’t want to pool their resources to create one.

The IMF was merely the instrument of a discipline they dearly needed.

This line has broadly held – the debtors are presented as morally weaker than the creditors. To give them any concessions would be to reward their laziness and selfishness.

The fact that debt is a two-way street – that the returns on debt exist because of the risk that the money might be lost, and creditors have their own moral duty to accept losses when they arise – is erased by this telling of the events.

Also airbrushed out of that story is what the late economist Wynne Godley called (in 1992!) the “lacuna in the Maastricht programme”: that while its single-currency proposal made provision for a central bank, it had nothing to say on the matter of what would replace the democratic institutions – the national governments whose power, once they had no control over their own currency, would be limited.

Now we have our answer: the strongest takes control.

At the moment, Germany knows best. How do we know they know best? Because they are the richest.

The euro was founded on the idea that the control of currency was apolitical. It has destroyed that myth, and taken democracy down with it.

These talks did not fail by accident.

The Greeks have to be humiliated, because the alternative – of treating them as equal parties or “adults”, as Lagarde wished them to be – would lead to a debate about the Eurogroup: what its foundations are, what accountability would look like, and what its democratic levers are – if indeed it has any.

Solidarity with Greece means everyone, in and outside the single currency, forcing this conversation: the country is being sacrificed to maintain a set of delusions that enfeebles us all.

A More Colourful, Eccentric and Laid-Back Britain

Neil Clark writes:

The actor Patrick Macnee, the star of the cult 1960s British adventure series The Avengers, who died last week aged 93, has been widely mourned.

Co-stars and fans paid generous tributes. There was a widespread feeling of sadness, not just because we had lost a fine actor and a very nice man, but also, I believe because of nostalgia for one of the greatest and most inventive television programs of all time, and the era in which it was made.

When we mourn Patrick Macnee we are also mourning a more colourful, eccentric and laid-back Britain which sadly no longer exists.

The Avengers was a product of a confident, but not aggressive, country: the Britain of Harold MacMillan, Harold Wilson and détente; the Britain before Rupert Murdoch came to the country, and before the neocon/neoliberal takeover of power which made our politics and our public life much uglier.

Watching The Avengers reminds us of all the good things we have lost from a much happier time in our past. The Avengers, which made its television début in 1961 and ran for eight years, was stylish, witty, wonderfully entertaining and very, very British.

John Steed, the character played so memorably by Macnee, drove a vintage 1926 Bentley. Immaculately attired, he wore a bowler hat and a Savile Row suit and always carried an umbrella.

Quaint country villages and stately homes, eccentric inventors and specialist proprietor owned shops featured regularly in the series.

This Britishness was a reason why it was so popular in countries across the world, including the US.

“We became terribly British,” said Brian Clemens, the Avengers scriptwriter and producer.

“A car is a car and not an automobile. A lift is a lift is a lift, and never an elevator. It is this Britishness that fits the fantasy world so appealing to the Americans.”

“The formula was to set the stories against a tongue-in-cheek panorama of the picture-postcard Britain illustrated in tourist brochures,” explains Dave Rogers, author of The Complete Avengers.

“Every aspect of British life was incorporated as it was promoted overseas: from atom stations, biochemical plants and modern industry on the other hand to fox-hunting, stately homes and the Olde English Inne on the other.”

It was The Avengers’ mix of the very Olde and the very new which made it such an exciting watch.

In one episode our heroes could be seen in a Scottish castle looking for the ghost of ‘Black Jamie’, in another they were trying to find out who had shot George/XR40, a brilliantly advanced computer at a government research establishment.

In one memorable episode ‘Death at Bargain Prices’, a seemingly old-fashioned London department store has secretly been converted into a giant ATOMIC bomb.

The Avengers was the product of a Britain that hadnt lost its identity to globalization; a Britain that felt genuinely good about itself.

The 1960s was a very optimistic period where it seemed anything was possible. Living standards for working people were rising all the time.

There were jobs for everyone - and proper jobs, too. The economy worked in favour of the many, not just a tiny few, as it does today.

Back in the 1960s, supporting manufacturing industry was still considered important by UK governments who weren’t in hock to international finance capital. The economic policies were dirigiste.

In 1968 there was an ‘I’m Backing Britain’ campaign, endorsed by the Labour government.

The Labour government’s commitment to manufacturing was so strong that they introduced a ‘Selective Employment Tax’, a levy on service industries which then went to subsidize export industries.

An export boom occurred, and in 1969/70 Britain recorded a record balance of payments surplus of £550m.

Industrialists and British manufacturing companies feature in many Avengers episodes. It’s hard not to feel nostalgic when John Steed arrives at one of these companies and we are reminded of the ‘real’ economy we once had.

The governments of this pre-neoliberal era didnt feel the need to shout their patriotism from the rooftops or show their ‘toughness’ by illegally invading other countries.

They simply made sure that the most important parts of the British economy stayed in British ownership, which often meant public ownership.

The 1960s was also a period of détente in the old Cold War and this is reflected in some of The Avengers plots.

Steed and his glamorous and very beautiful female assistants often pitted their wits against Soviet spies, but it never got too serious, and there were no pompous lectures about how ‘superior the Western way was.

“The “spy-fi” show (The Avengers) made the Cold War seem somewhat enjoyable and presented espionage as a glam, swinging 60s accessory”, wrote Chris Johnston in his Guardian obituary of Patrick Macnee.

In one episode, The Correct Way to Kill, the Avengers actually worked alongside Soviet agents. In Fog there is a plot to sabotage a disarmament conference by a man who has an armaments business.

Lots of people got killed in The Avengers, but it was not a gratuitously violent program.

John Steed, perfect gent that he was, never used a gun (Patrick Macnee, a World War Two veteran, insisted on it), but he usually gave villains a good thwack with his umbrella.

The fantasy, surreal side of The Avengers grew even stronger from series five onwards (the first colour series, shown in 1967), reflecting that we were now in the age of flower power and psychedelia.

One 1968 episode, with the wonderful title Look (Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One), But There Were These Two Fellows, involves a fiendish plan by a greedy businessman to gain control of a land and development company by getting a pair of unemployed clowns to murder his rivals.

In fact, greedy, megalomaniac businessmen who want to wipe out, one way or another, their competitors, feature quite a lot as villains in The Avengers, reflecting the different cultural values of the time.

Today we’re expected to tug our forelocks at billionaire monopolists, and not to question how such people acquired their vast wealth.

The Avengers was a conservative’ programme. But it was quite a socialist one, too, in its disdain for financial crooks.

It was also very progressive in the way that Steed’s female partners were treated as equals and were strong characters in their own right, particularly Cathy Gale and Emma Peel.

The Avengers ended its eight-year run in 1969, but in 1976 Patrick Macnee returned as John Steed in The New Avengers, with two new partners, Purdey and Gambit.

Again the emphasis was on its Britishness.

Overseas promotion photographs show Purdey, played by Joanna Lumley, posing with a bowler hat and an umbrella before a billboard which says ‘The New Avengers’ and ‘Made in Britain’ stamped on it no fewer than nine times.

The logo for the series, which also was featured on a board game, was a lion in red, white and blue.

Steed no longer drove a 1926 Bentley, but a Jaguar coupé, and then a yellow Rover and a Range Rover, all cars made in British state-owned factories.

However, less than two years after the last New Avengers episode was shown on British television in December 1977, Britain broke with the post-war economic model which had served the majority of people so well, and which had given us such a rich cultural life.

Neoliberalism became the dominant ideology.

Britain‘s industry, its infrastructure and its natural resources were put up for sale. Factories were closed down, or passed into foreign ownership.

In 1985, Harold Macmillan, the ‘One Nation’ Tory Prime Minister at the time when The Avengers was first shown on British television, made a speech in the House of Lords in which he likened the Thatcher government’s privatisation programme to selling the family silver, which of course was what it was.

The growing influence of media mogul Rupert Murdoch had a coarsening effect on our culture, and television in particular, experienced a dramatic ‘dumbing down’.

The impact of neoliberal globalisation made Britain a more boring country as it destroyed genuine diversity and the Britain showcased in The Avengers.

Just compare the variety of the British High Street in the 1960s with today, when identikit chain stores and global restaurant and coffee chains predominate.

Politics has become more boring, too, with anyone who stands apart from the ‘extreme centre’, be they George Galloway or Jeremy Corbyn on the left, or Nigel Farage on the right, subject to attacks from odious establishment gatekeepers who are determined to impose the new orthodoxy of ‘correct opinions’, especially when it comes to foreign policy and the demonisation of official enemies.

In one classic 1967 Avengers episode Never, Never, Say Die, John Steed and Emma Peel foil a plot to replace politicians with robots. Today, the British political elite is so robotic (“We must sanction Russia!, We must sanction Russia!”) that you wonder if Professor Stone’s plan actually succeeded.

British eccentricity, lauded in The Avengers, has all but disappeared. People have become scared of saying the ‘the wrong thing’, or of being ridiculed for stepping out of line.

The UK’s more aggressive foreign policy since the 1970s has made the country much less popular internationally.

In the Avengers era, people around the world liked what Britain stood for. But that goodwill has been lost by the adoption of disastrous ‘liberal interventionist’ foreign policies which have left the Middle East in turmoil and made British civilians terrorist targets.

John Steed was a much better Ambassador for Britain than Tony Blair or David Cameron.

They don’t make programmes like The Avengers in the neoliberal/neocon era. They tried a film remake in 1998 and it was truly awful.

Television series have become a lot darker since the 1970s, reflecting the insecurities of the age. There is no drama series on British television today that comes anywhere near to matching The Avengers for its style, wit and charm.

“It is an ironic truth that The Golden Age of anything is always ‘then’ and never ‘now; and it is only with time and hindsight, and Dave Rogers, that the realisation eventually dawned that I had actually lived and participated in such an age,” wrote Brian Clemens in his 1988 foreword to The Complete Avengers.

The 1960s and 70s was a golden age for Britain (and indeed many other countries around the world, too), and just how good it was has only become apparent with the passing of time.

So let’s raise our glasses to Patrick Macnee and toast not only a great actor, but a great television program meand a great era.

And at the same time, lets hope that the neoliberal/neocon era will soon be ending.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Time To Take Stock

As "America has ceased to be a Christian country" for the umpteenth time, W. James Antle III writes: 

If nothing else, the Supreme Court's most recent decisions should shatter whatever remaining illusions of what courts are likely to do for them for the foreseeable future, even when controlled by Republican appointees.

The Supreme Court isn't going to be a major force in restoring limited government or cutting federal authority down to constitutional size.

Yes, you might see some protection of property rights, like Kelo, or spending money on behalf of political speech, such as Citizens United.

The courts aren't totally useless in protecting civil liberties. Some libertarians and conservatives will even cheer the gay marriage decision.

But since FDR's court-packing scheme was even threatened, you'd be hard-pressed to find a major expansion of the welfare state that was blocked on constitutional grounds by the Supreme Court.

Two Obamacare rulings later, the second one rejecting a fairly straightforward reading of the text of law, should remind us that isn't going to change anytime soon even with a Republican majority on the high court.

Social conservatives in particular shouldn't expect much from the Supreme Court.

Every four years, Republican presidential candidates — especially ones who aren't that socially conservative themselves — tell them they should put whatever policy differences they have aside because a Republican president will appoint conservative judges.

That's true, but the impact is much more limited than advertised. Elections matter and so do judges.

If Al Gore and John Kerry had been nominating justices instead of George W. Bush, Hobby Lobby would certainly have gone the wrong way.

Without the justices nominated by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, both Supreme Court decisions on partial-birth abortion would have been unfavorable to bans, not just one.

But on the biggest questions that have motivated social conservatives, from school prayer to abortion to gay marriage, conservative judges have at best been able to nibble at the edges of liberal precedent.

From Planned Parenthood v. Casey, upholding Roe v. Wade, to Friday's decision discovering a constitutional right to gay marriage, Supreme Courts dominated by Republican appointees have frequently entrenched liberal court decisions.

What major socially liberal decision has ever been overturned, as opposed to merely curtailed somewhat?

In fact, it is worth noting Earl Warren, William Brennan, Harry Blackmun, John Paul Stevens and David Souter, some of the most liberal justices on the Supreme Court, were all nominate by Republican presidents.

Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy have mostly voted with conservative bloc, but have sided with liberals on some big decisions.

John Roberts has been an even more reliable conservative vote, but his main judicial legacy may be twice rescuing Obamacare from itself.

Most of the Republican presidential candidates are arguing that restocking the Supreme Court is the way to fight back against the decisions conservatives dislike.

But this tactic has never worked, even when Republicans have held the White House and Congress, and even when significant effort has been made to avoid liberal "stealth" nominees.

(Has there been a stealth conservative nominee to the Supreme Court since JFK tapped Byron White?)

Clarence Thomas is likely an anomaly. It is doubtful a Republican could today get a justice much more conservative than Kennedy confirmed by a Democratic Senate. And Thomas was confirmed by a narrow margin at great personal cost.

Half the Democrats in the Senate voted against Roberts, including Barack Obama. Only ten mostly conservative Democrats voted for Thomas.

So confirming reliably conservative justices will require a Republican Senate as well as White House, and even that seems to come with a high margin of error.

None of this is to say that I don't think the judicial appointments of a Republican president would be better than Hillary Clinton's.

But if Reagan couldn't restock the Supreme Court, I'm not holding my breath for what lesser Reaganites can accomplish.

It is interesting that Jim mentions Byron White.

Look at the judges who handed down Roe v. Wade. Harry Blackmun, the ruling's author, had been appointed by Nixon. Warren E. Burger by Nixon. William O. Douglas by Roosevelt. William J. Brennan by Eisenhower. Potter Stewart by Eisenhower. Thurgood Marshall by Johnson. And Lewis Powell by Nixon.

Even take out the two Democratic nominees, and that still gives a Republican majority in favour of what was in fact the overturning of the laws of all 50 states. In stark contrast, one of the dissenting judges, Byron White, had been appointed by a Democrat, Kennedy, while the other, William Rehnquist, had been appointed by a Republican, Nixon.

No one found that remotely odd at the time. No one who had bothered to pay attention would find it remotely odd from the perspective of the present day.

Nixon, by Executive Order, first legalised abortion at the federal taxpayer's expense. Whereas it was Carter who signed into law the Hyde Amendment banning it, which, although Henry Hyde himself was a very conservative Republican, had been passed by a Congress both Houses of which had been under Democratic control at the time. That Amendment has never failed to receive its necessary annual renewal by both Houses.

In 1976, Ellen McCormack, a strongly pro-life Democrat, became the first woman Presidential candidate ever to qualify for matching federal funding and for Secret Service protection. If there is not one already, and I should be delighted to hear of it if there were, then someone needs to write a full biography of Ellen McCormack.

(Someone also needs to do a "Whatever happened to each of them and to what each of them stood for?" study of the eight candidates whose names were placed in nomination for Vice President at the 1972 Democratic Convention.)

Both of McGovern's running mates were pro-life. Whereas Nelson Rockefeller legalised abortion in New York. Ronald Reagan, who to this day retains a totally undeserved pro-life reputation, legalised abortion in California.

Reagan, like Bush the Younger after him, proved to be worse than useless when it came to appointing pro-lifers to the Supreme Court, not even trying to do so on two of the three occasions when the opportunity presented itself to him.

Thus, in 1993, when Planned Parenthood sued the staunchly pro-life Democratic Governor of Pennsylvania, whose son is now a staunchly pro-life Democratic Senator for that state and made his case without difficulty from the platform of the 2008 Convention, over that state's very moderate legal restrictions on abortion, Planned Parenthood's case was upheld by a court every member of which had been appointed by a Republican President, including three by Reagan, apart from Byron White, who had dissented in 1973 and who was still dissenting 20 years later.

Eight Republicans out of nine judges. A third of the court appointed by Reagan. And before that court, Planned Parenthood beat Bob Casey, the Democrat who sought to uphold democracy in Pennsylvania. Of course. All round: of course.

I am not saying that the Democratic Party, as such, is pro-life and a great friend of the traditional family. But the Republican Party, as such, sure as hell isn't, either. Especially after recent hours, just wait for who its eventual Presidential nominee actually is, and then for the ones in 2020 and ever thereafter.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Boosting the Living Standards of the Self-Employed

Owen Jones writes:

If  booming levels of self-employment are an indicator of a thriving economy, then Greece is the powerhouse of Europe. Just under a third of the population of this austerity-ravaged nation are self-employed, more than double the EU average. 

Spain is another go-getters’ paradise, it seems: with half an entire generation out of work, self-employment among the young has surged. And then there’s Britain, where around 40% of the rise in jobs since 2010 is down to self-employment.

If our rulers are to be believed, here is entrepreneurial flair and British dynamism in action, a vindication of the government’s “long-term economic plan”.

But the plight of the self-employed is being ignored. It is time that the left began championing their cause.

Independence, flexibility, “being my own boss”: this is how many self-employed people positively appraise their situation.

In a country where power in the workplace has shifted so decisively towards employers – benevolent or tyrannical, it’s the luck of the draw – you can see why self-employment is almost a refuge for many.

But self-employment spells precariousness, insecurity and falling living standards for all too many.

Last week George Osborne lauded figures indicating that wages were rising; but what is often neglected is that the 15% of British workers who are self-employed are stripped out of these figures.

There is little up-to-date research on their income, but the Resolution Foundation suggests that between 2006-07 and 2011-12 their weekly earnings dipped by a staggering 20% – and there was a big rise in underemployment, or self-employed people doing far fewer hours than they would like.

“Look at the new businesses being created under our watch!” proclaim the Tories, hailing booming levels of self-employment as an exercise in job creation.

But only 17% of self-employed people in this country have any employees at all, lower than anywhere else in Europe.

Self-employment is often a means for businesses to hire workers without offering the rights and responsibilities that normally come with employment: private pensions, paid holidays, sick pay or maternity leave, for example.

According to the Royal Society of Arts, only 11% of self-employed people believe the welfare state is fair for people like them.

“A self-employed builder has no recourse to statutory sick pay should they have an injury on site,” its report, Boosting the Living Standards of the Self-Employed, points out; and “a self-employed cleaner would have no access to statutory maternity pay were they to become pregnant”.

As one self-employed academic and writer put it to me: 

“Getting a mortgage, impossible; renting a flat, very difficult; you get ill, you lose money; you go on holidays, you lose money; you run out of work, getting benefits is a lot harder than when you get fired from a job.” 

A sign-language interpreter tells me that many work for less than the minimum wage after costs are taken into account. 

“The most difficult part is chasing up unpaid invoices,” says a make-up artist in the Lake District, voicing a common complaint. 

A data inputter similarly has to wait weeks for a school academy federation to cough up, and resents the lack of social security. 

“If the government expects a significant proportion of the working population to be self-employed it needs to provide a safety net.” 

Then there’s the phenomenon of what could be called “self-unemployment”, a convenient means of massaging the employment figures. 

One former delivery driver told me he became self-employed to escape the “usual silly sanctions” imposed by jobcentres, but ended up making a loss. 

And take a graphic designer forced into self-employment after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Though officially self-employed, “work is so hard to come by and competition so fierce, I earn a negligible amount”, he says, and is eating through the remainder of his savings. 

“Skiver” and “scrounger” bashing has had very real consequences. “A generation ago, such low incomes would have seen us heading straight to the jobcentre,” he says.

“Now the stigma of unemployment is so fierce and the hoops so difficult to jump through, people like me prefer to register as self-employed.” 

The Tories would say he’s a go-getter. “I’m a single bit of paperwork away from being the focus of all their bile,” he says.

It’s up to the left to champion the rights of the self-employed.

They are often starved of desperately needed loans; that’s why we need public investment banks with a specific mandate to lend the self-employed cash.

Such banks would also address the injustice of being denied a mortgage.

A set time-limit for settling invoices must surely be introduced, with fines for failing to pay up without reasonable cause.

Self-employed people need provision for pensions, paid sick leave and holidays too. As the RSA report points out, universal credit may well leave self-employed people even more penalised by the social security system: another cause that needs taking up.

Self-employment should not mean financial hardship, a lack of basic rights and security, a race to the bottom in terms and conditions; but that’s what it does mean for many.

The Tories have been allowed to crow, unchallenged, about the self-employment boom. They heap praise on the go-getters who are often getting little.

On the left as well as the right, this cause has been unjustly neglected for far too long.