Saturday, 22 December 2012

Well, that's it for 2012...

...because it's time for my holidays. That's it for 2012. The year we learned that being yourself, rather than pretending to be something you're not, is the only sure way to popularity (take note, Mitt Romney). That the next UK General Election may well be just as indecisive as the last, and that the Government's economic policy was labouring in dark and dangerous waters indeed. A year that saw a date set for a Scottish referendum on independence. The year of a wonderful Olympics, of President Obama's re-election, and the emergence of a new leadership team in China.

Fascinating stuff. So fascinating, indeed, that it almost seems a shame to leave 2012 behind. But time, though relative, does at least appear to march only in one direction. Basically, The Historian needs a rest.

But never fear: I will be back. I'll be here in the New Year: ready, willing and able to comment on economic policy, Higher Education, history, psephology and bureaucracy. There'll still be a bit of film and cricket as a side-order as well.

Look for another post around Wednesday 23 January.

Until then, Happy Holidays!

Friday, 21 December 2012

Neo-liberalism and 'The Killing'

So I've been glued to Danish TV's The Killing - the third and last series of which has just ended on BBC4 TV in the UK. I won't give away the ending for you, except to say that it challenged expectations - and it's got a lot of people pretty angry.

But what I will say is just how superb the show really was - tense, political, dynamic, characterful. It was feminist enough to challenge expectations of what a woman should be like, Sophie Grabol (above) as Sarah Lund refusing to be pigeonholed in any way whatsoever.

A no-nonsense, dynamic woman who refuses to dress in anything but jeans and a jumper? Taking on and beating men at their own (socially inept) games? Bravo.

But what really came home to me was the way in which the show evoked the crisis of the neo-liberal state, even in social democratic Denmark (where the Left is back in power after a long break). Denmark is often held up as the best place in the world to live, a paradigm for social democrats everywhere on how to combine social justice with economic dynamism.

But what did we find in The Killing? A Prime Minister desperate to keep a shipping firm, and manfuacturing jobs, in the country - and to stop those jobs migrating to China. A shipping boss faced with a crisis of profitability (and a restive board) if he stayed. Political corruption (and payoffs) across the spectrum of a very, very narrowly cast political elite. Public spending cuts undermining the police - and the pathology service. It was all a very bleak prospect indeed.

The Wire, probably the best crime series ever broadcast, took on just these themes - the decline of manufacturing jobs (in shipping, as it happens) in season two, political corruption in season three, and public sector spending cuts in season four. Exactly the same themes. Exactly the same sense of jobs and hope gurgling away down the plughole - leaving everyone wondering just how the hell to cope.

Drama reflecting reality? Charles Dickens, eat your heart out.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Minority governments needn't be rudderless

So last week I spoke at the Treasury last week under the aegis of History and Policy, that innovative group of historians at King's College London who look to bring together historians and policy-makers to mutual benefit. I can't say what was said, really (though there was nothing vastly controversial), but I can tell you what it got me thinking about.

The topic was the 1976 IMF crisis, that paradigmatic moment when a Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer (Denis Healey, above) had to 'turn around at the airport', had to go 'cap in hand' to the IMF, had to squeeze and cut public spending everywhere he could find it.

Well, that's how it's been sold. Actually, sterling's decline against the dollar represented a managed 'float' downwards that got out of hand; the IMF had been into the Treasury plenty of times since 1945, and this time they were pretty gentle; spending cuts were small, and soon reversed.

But the myth has won out over the reality.

Anyway, one of the things that was most notable about the crisis was how strong Healey's Treasury remained throughout the eye-watering pressure - through all the negotiations, the tantrums, the Cabinet fights. There weren't that many leaks - well, not ones that weren't made on purpose. Healey's official team - particularly his relatively Keynesian Permanent Secretary, Sir Douglas Wass - stuck with him through thick and thin. And in the end, Labour decided to stay together and enact a balanced economic programme of tax increases, procedural trickery and spending reductions to get through together.

All without a Parliamentary majority.

This time? Well, this Coalition has quite a big Parliamentary majority (of over eighty), but Lib Dem and Tory politicians have been at each other's throats, there's been persistent leaking from both sides, and Healey's esprit de corps seems nowhere to be seen.

Maybe a minority government, struggling through day by day, would be better for governmental cohesion? It's a counterintuitive thought, but it's something to mull over.

With Labour pretty clear that they won't enter a full-blown coalition with the Lib Dems (at least with Nick Clegg in charge), and with the Conservatives shifting away from their partners even as it becomes clearer and clearer that an overall majority is beyond them without boundary changes, we may well get to find out in just over two years' time.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

England's cricketing triumph: a tale of two characters

So England's cricketers triumphed in India. After a really dreadful year of losses, political intriguing, fallings-out and retirements (including of their captain), they managed to finish the year on a high.

Now, I'm not much of a cricket commentator. I'll leave that to others - though, strangely, the most-read blog I've ever penned was on just this subject, way back in September 2011, at the moment when England's Test team officially became the best in the world. Now, that didn't last - after a horrible away series against Pakistan and a miserable home series against South Africa, the new top dogs.

But what did happen was that England didn't then panic. They held true to some of the mechanisms I praised in the autumn of 2011. What were they again? Preparation; planning; uncovering unlikely heroes; unity; ambition; ruthlessness; strength in depth.

After a truly disastrous outing in Ahmedabad, when they were pumelled by nine wickets, they decided to be ruthless again. To rediscover their core strengths. Their resilience. To pick their best team - including two spinners - and to go back to the basics of picking the best eleven for the day. Stuart Broad, ill and out of form? Sorry, but you're out. Tim Bresnan, willing to give everything but still suffering from the repercussions of a shoulder operation? So are you. It was tough: but it worked. And a new set of young players, emerged as well - Joe Root, Nick Compton - to round the picture off.

But at the heart of this monumental triumph (England haven't won a series in India since 1984/85), I offer you another lesson: a tale of two men.

One of them is quiet, and quite softly spoken; doesn't feel the pressure; doesn't even sweat in the extreme heat. He seems like a nice young man, really: dogged, a bit diffident, not particularly outspoken, a matter-of-fact, straightforward, sometimes abashed sort of person. Alastair Cook (above), England's relatively new captain, might be accused of being just a bit boring, sometimes, were he not one of the most successful batsmen of all time at such a young age.

The other man was also vital to England's eventual demolition of the Indians. A ridiculous, smile-you-can't-help-it, talent-fuelled, adrenaline-charged, absurd, breathtaking innings at Mumbai poked the Indians in the eye over and over again, leaving them reeling away from a showman par excellence. Kevin Pietersen - well, what can one say? Loud, abrasive, difficult, by turns heroic and annoying, self-assured, even swaggering, full of misjudgements and makeups. A more completely different character to Cook could not be imagined, let alone picked out.

They are two utterly, utterly different men. But that's one lesson for team-builders everywhere: yoked together, they were unstoppable.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Historians: ponder your meanings!

Sometimes it's difficult, being a historian. No, I don't mean the meetings, the paperwork, the politics. There's no need to get the violins out.

What I mean is the methodology.

Here's a good example for you - hopefully it'll serve as a little parable for early career colleagues and the like, because I hope it's an instructive case. In my new book (yes, you can buy it on Amazon), I quote the UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (PM between 1957 and 1963) (above) to show how awed British politicians often were by what I call 'the Scandiavian example'. As he put it while visiting the country in the early 1960s:

Norwegian 'applied socialism' is of a fairly moderate kind and the Government is, in many respects, not unlike our Progressive Conservative Government... [but] I think both Sweden and Norway present the policies which Mr Gaitskell seeks vainly to impose on the British Labour Party. If he were to succeed, they too would win power and hold it for a long time.

Except that I didn't read on properly for - or among - my notes. I've just read Peter Catterall's splendid published volume of the Diaries, and I've been nudged to say that I should have put that quote in a wider context. You know what? I confess that I couldn't read his handwriting, spidery at best (and impossible at worst, due to a First World War wound). So I didn't catch the next bit, which you'll feel (as I do) changes the meaning more than a little:

The unattractive side of the Norwegian 'affluent society' is its increasingly Pagan character. Christianity (they have a Lutheran church) is openly despised, and a sort of vague, materialistic agnostic creed flourises... My speech at the Round Table dealt with this (in a passage about 'How to Fight Communism') and caused quite a sensation...

So a rumination about success becomes one about the hollowness of secular 'progress'. Hands up - I should have noted the disapproval along with the approval (though I make this clear with other examples elsewhere). I'm not perfect. What a shock, eh?

Now, this isn't to embrace historical relativity - to indulge in the 'historical facts are what historians happen to chose' haw-hawing of E.H. Carr's misguided What is History? 'Facts' aren't just what is churned out in the books-and-articles sausage machine. They existed; they exist. But they are in flux, and they are subject to historians eyesight, stamina and archival nous.

Thought you'd like to know.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Democrats can't be complacent

American Democrats probably feel pretty good right now. Not only is President Barack Obama (above) still streaking ahead in the popular vote (leading Mitt Romney by 3.65 per cent and nearly five million actual ballots), but they were able to defy predictions of losses in the Senate. They were even able to win a few seats back in the House of Representatives too.

Demographic trends seem heavily to favour them, too. Who are their voters? Young people. Hispanics. African-Americans. Unmarried women. Which exact groups are likely to grow and grow in size over the decades to come? You've got it - Democratic-leaning ones. In due course, the blue team might be able to put states such as Arizona, South Carolina, Georgia and even the big one - Texas - into play.

But it's not all happy days for left-leaning partisans.

The Democrats face a nasty raft of Senate elections in 2014 - with a series of their sitting Senators (especially in Alaska, Arkansas and Louisiana) looking highly, highly vulnerable. The odds remain that they'll cling on to the upper chamber of Congress in two years' time - but it might be a bit too close for comfort.

And in the House? Well, only a really, really good year will ever give them control there again. They've actually won the popular vote for House seats this year pretty easily - but due to gerrymandering local Republican legislatures, they've fallen far short of taking over.

And one last thing. President Obama is personally popular, despite the mediocre job approval ratings of his first term. He's an extraordinary man - a great speaker, a calm governor, and a decisive commander-in-chief. His absence at the top of the ballot might really hurt his sympathisers in years to come. Beyond Hillary Clinton (a hot favourite for the White House nomination if she wants to run), the Democrats' bench isn't exactly crammed with talent.

So Democrats can raise a toast this Christmas. But only one. Or two. The third hurrah should go to out-thinking their opponents, if they want to stay ahead.

Friday, 7 December 2012

A horror of an autumn statement

So UK Chancellor George Osborne (above) came out with a horror of an Autumn Statement. I don't have to write very much at all today, really, because the numbers speak for themselves. 

Set aside the pain for average families, which (although those on very high incomes are indeed also being squeezed) will last a long time - especially if you're in receipt of any welfare benefits or tax credits.

No, there are two real horrors for anyone who believes in the credibility of UK government policy. The first: an accounting wheeze, taking Bank of England debt vouchers onto the Treasury's books to make it look as if the deficit is going down. Coupled with putting in cash from a 4G mobile phone auction that hasn't even happened yet, that's a hell of a sleight-of-hand.

And the second? The fact that spending cuts stretch as far as the eye can see - and that no-one believes a word of them. Does anyone out there really believe that non-ringfenced spending (that falling outside of schools and hospitals) is really going to fall by a further 31 per cent in the five years from 2013, after everything's being slashed already? No, they don't - the Institute for Fiscal Studies has termed the idea 'inconceivable' - and the result will eventually be a hit to UK financial credibility as bad as the deficit reduction strategy that's never really worked.

That's why I would say that the Government's strategy is not working very well - if at all. And why it threatens the UK's credit rating. Why? Because we've been left with only a grotesque parody of old-fashioned homilies when an economic policy should be.

It's hurting. But it's not really working.

Monday, 3 December 2012

The brass neck of Danny Alexander

Tax avoidance has become something of a hot political issue recently - mainly because of the tens of billions of pounds that big companies just find ways not to pay. It's a sum, incidentally, that dwarfs (let's see) welfare fraud, or the annual cost of tuition fees, or any number of other political 'costs' that politicians don't really like to tally up. So the Government's keen to bring in some extra cash (and a bit of much-needed popularity) if it can.

That's what's behind the Chief Secretary to the Treasury's tour around the radio and television studios today. Danny Alexander (above), the Treasury's Liberal Democrat number two, has been saying that the Government is devoting just over £150m to stopping up some of the loopholds and rat-runs that large corporations use to avoid paying their fair share towards the cost of austerity.

But it's just a sticking-plaster of an announcement, without much basis in reality, when Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs has been absolutely hammered by some of the largest administrative cuts Whitehall has faced (£2bn and counting, since you ask). Struggling staff won't exactly raise a cheer when, having been mugged at the station, they're given a fiver or a tenner back by their assailant's apologist. A spokesman who won't even poke miscreants in the eye by laying out exactly who they are, and what they've been doing. Or even say whether he uses their products.

It's not Mr Alexander himself. He's got only a slim chance of hanging on to his Parliamentary seat at the next General Election anyway - a fact that might help explain his willingness to stand up to his Conservative Coalition 'partners' over issues such as green energy.

It's the principle of the thing - and why American-style 'fact checkers' are springing up all over the place. We can't let 'post-fact' politics take root here, as it has across swathes of the fantastical American right. They called it right when the Prime Minister recently said that his administration was 're-investing' £900m to stop tax evasion. What he really meant, of course, was that No. 10 was intervening inside HMRC to move some increasingly-scarce cash around. It's exactly the same sleight-of-hand that we've seen today, and it's just not acceptable after all the misrepresentations, re-announcements and re-packagings of the Brown era.

The Government is, to be fair, talking about cracking down on notorious tax havens such as Jersey (which has been impotently threatening to sever ties with the UK as a result). And it's got a mixed, rather than absolutely terrible, recent record in the rather cloudy world of international negotiations over tax havens - the only level at which any sort of administrative action will work anyway. So it's not all doom and gloom.

But today's 'announcement'? What a joke.