Fiscally reckless

So, after months of inaction occasioned by the Tory Party indulging in one of its regular bouts of internecine warfare, and a further delay for some feudal mourning rituals, today the Government finally got around to unveiling a plan to tackle the looming financial crisis.

There had been some expectation that newly-minted Prime Minister Liz Truss, free of the need to pander to the assorted oddballs who comprise the Conservative membership, would come up with something semi-sensible, a hope encouraged by the fact that she had shown some ability to recognise political reality by abandoning her “no handouts” approach to the energy bill emergency and adopting a price freeze strategy, albeit one financed by debt rather than taxes on the power sector.

Alas, it turns out that Truss, and her Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng, are even further down the neoliberal rabbit hole than was feared. The budget presented this morning, featuring tax cuts unapologetically targeted towards the wealthy, with wildly unrealistic projections of economic growth which will supposedly compensate for the resulting deficit, has not only dismayed the mass of the electorate who are not going to benefit from the abolition of the top tax rate, but also caused panic in the financial markets, sending the pound to a 35-year low against the dollar. Commentary in the press has been overwhelmingly negative, comparing the plan to the infamous “Barber Boom” of the early 1970s, an attempt by Edward Heath’s government to kick-start the economy by aggressively cutting taxes, which ended with the ignominy of an IMF bailout.

Truss seems to be betting that this time the trickle-down strategy will finally work, and that everyone will have forgotten about all the unpleasantness by the time the next election comes around. Since that poll is at most two years away, that is quite a gamble. The stake for Truss is her premiership; if she wants to wager that on a long shot I guess she can, but the stakes for the nation are so much higher that it’s hard to view this reckless course of action with equanimity.

All is not lost though; the scale of the crisis and the obvious inadequacy of the government response is provoking a backlash, as workers are forced into action to defend even a basic standard of living. The country is set to become ungovernable unless there is a change of course; one can only hope it comes before too much more pain is inflicted.

Jean-Luc Godard RIP

The Grim Reaper has been busy in the last few weeks, claiming some genuinely significant figures; first Mikhail Gorbachev, now Jean-Luc Godard.

You may not be surprised to learn that I watched a lot of Godard’s Nouvelle Vague films when I was a student, but I have to admit that, À Bout de Souffle, Bande à Part, and Alphaville apart, they have pretty much merged in my mind into one long, disjointed montage of coolly alienated young garçons et filles pursuing doomed relationships in a monochrome Paris. Of his later work I’m fairly sure that I’ve seen Prénom Carmen, but I can’t recall much about it.

When it comes to cinematic milieus, I probably lean more towards 70s New York than 60s Paris (while recognising that without the influence of Godard it’s unlikely that Scorsese would have made the films he did) but, that said, I still think that Michel Poiccard makes a infinitely more appealing role model than Travis Bickle, so there’s no doubt that Jean-Luc’s reputation as a genius auteur is fully justified.

Elizabeth Windsor RIP

Well, this has turned out to be quite a week of change for the UK; a new Prime Minister and a new monarch within the space of two days.

Of course the former has become so commonplace recently that it’s hardly worth commenting upon, but the latter is a novel experience for just about the whole population, so it’s difficult to know how the country will react. It’s the sort of thing that feels like a bad omen, especially given the general sense of gloom that has been pervading the nation lately, but on the other hand the immediate response of most of my (admittedly unrepresentative) associates has been to look forward to some extra public holidays, so perhaps the net effect will be to lighten the popular mood somewhat.

Whatever; I expect we’ll have to plod through a week or two of somber music and public lamentation, though hopefully it will be a little more dignified than the mass hysteria that broke out when Mrs Windsor’s ex-daughter-in-law passed away. There might even be a reasoned debate about the future of the monarchy, though that perhaps is too much to hope for…

Power crisis

I’ve been trying to think of a metaphor for the current state of the nation that doesn’t involve some mode of transportation heading for disaster, but it’s tough. A ship, the captain drunk and the junior officers fighting amongst themselves, steaming straight on to the rocks, a train speeding towards the buffers, the driver asleep at the switch, or an autonomous vehicle careering along a cliff edge, the AI heedless of the danger. In each scenario the passengers can do little but look on, aghast, bracing themselves for the inevitable collision.

If we go with the nautical analogy, then I guess the announcement last week that domestic energy prices will be more or less doubling in October would be an iceberg floating into the doomed vessel’s path, a development for which the authorities seem completely unprepared, despite the fact that it was sighted months ago.

The interminable process by which the 0.3% of the UK electorate who are members of the Conservative Party choose our next Prime Minister is thankfully almost at an end, but I am not at all sure that the installation of a new regime in Number 10 will result in much more in the way of decisive leadership. There is a general assumption, in the liberal press at least, that Liz Truss will win, and that, once in power, she will shed the performative Thatcherism that she had to adopt to get elected, but which nobody, not even her Tory audience, and least of all herself, actually believes is a coherent response to the current crisis. Even if she is morally unmoved by the prospect of a sizeable section of the population slipping into destitution, the economic and political calculations all point towards the necessity of state action to offer at least some relief to the voting public.

And yet… If the last decade of UK politics has taught us anything, it’s that no policy is too bone-headed or self-defeating that the government won’t at least consider enacting it. Respond to the most significant cost of living crisis in half a century by cutting Corporation Tax and trusting in the magic of trickle-down economics? Why not?

I’m fortunate that I’m in a position to be fairly passive about this; I can absorb the extra costs, so I feel no pressing need to do anything more active than posting some mildly acerbic pieces on my little-read blog. Others are obliged to be more militant; the current wave of strikes seems certain to spread, as workers are forced to defend their already precarious standard of living, and talk of civil unrest, and even riots, is uncomfortably plausible.

So, despite the evidence to the contrary, I remain hopeful that our ruling class retains enough common sense to realise that inaction is not an option, and that they will do just enough to get us through the winter without mass starvation. Some kind of deficit fund to subsidise a power bill freeze looks likely, especially if it can be structured in a way that funnels big fees into the pockets of Tory cronies.

Of course that will be just a temporary patch, and will do nothing to fix the structural problems that leave the country vulnerable to the vagaries of the international energy markets, so the reckoning is only being postponed for a few months. It’s time that will make the difference between life and death for many of our citizens though, and it will give us a chance to get a bit more organised, and push for a proper solution, so I guess we have to take any breaks we can get.

Recession gloom

So, I’m back from the US, after a pleasantly extended sojourn spent catching up with old friends, revisiting past haunts, and exploring some new ones. Naturally enough a lot had changed since my last visit back in the 90s, but there was enough reassuring familiarity that I was able to properly relax. Apart from some anticipatory anxiety as I stood in line at immigration, I can’t recall a single tense moment. I guess it helps that I’ve slowed down a bit over the last 30 years, and am content to spend a whole morning taking a gentle stroll through a gallery, or sitting outside a cafe watching the world go by, rather than rushing around trying to see every attraction on offer in whatever locale I happen to be passing through. If I did have a minor complaint, it was that the cost of living was much higher than I remembered – $30 for a beer and a burrito! – though I suspect this is mainly because I stayed in nice hotels and ate at classy restaurants, unlike my younger self, who was happy with grubby hostels and cheap burgers. I tip more these days too.

Anyway, back to reality. I had planned to have a bit more downtime before returning to work, but the latest news on the economy has spooked me a bit, and I’m thinking that I should probably get some money coming in sooner rather than later. I might be more relaxed if I had any confidence in the government, but since our nominal Prime Minister has chosen to spend his final days in office sulking rather than running the country, as his would-be successors vie for the hearts and votes of Tory party members by promising ever more outlandish fantasies of low taxes and reactionary social policy, it seems likely that things will get very much worse before they get any better.

Of course any worries I might have are insignificant compared with those facing the 50%+ of the population who are forecast to find themselves in fuel poverty going into the winter. It seems inconceivable that the political pressure generated by such widespread hardship will fail to push whoever ends up in Number 10 into some sort of action to inject some more spending power into the economy, whatever fears they may have about the effect that might have on inflation. Some combination of price controls and a boost to Universal Credit would probably cover it, but that may be too much to hope for, and a limited expansion of the already-announced fuel credits is a more likely outcome.

It remains to be seen whether the Tories, following their instinct for self-preservation, will unite behind their new leader, or if continuing internecine conflict will tempt Truss/Sunak to seek a personal mandate from a General Election. From a democratic viewpoint that would be a welcome development, but I suspect that dealing with a fractious party for a couple of years while hoping the economy picks up will look like the lesser evil when compared to inviting the judgement of the electorate in the midst of a cost of living crisis, so there will be no semi-competent technocratic administration riding over the hill to save us any time soon.

And these are just our local problems – I haven’t even touched on the war in Ukraine, US-China tensions, Middle East instability, climate change… I may need another trip to the calming oceanside sooner than I think.

Going, but not gone

So Boris Johnson finally read the writing on the wall, and grudgingly agreed to step down as Prime Minister, though not quite yet. He will stay on until a successor has been identified, which may take until October. In the meantime he has promised to run a lame-duck administration, though how exactly that will differ from the current rudderless government isn’t clear.

There is no obvious front-runner in the race to replace Johnson, and the field isn’t exactly inspiring, so it looks like the country will continue to slide into disorder, as various national and international crises pile up. A General Election might provide some respite, but I can’t see any of the potential new PMs being reckless enough to call one, so, as has been the repeated pattern over the last few years, things seem likely to get a lot worse before they get any better.

Farewell Boris?

Meanwhile, back home, it looks like Boris Johnson’s time as Prime Minister may finally be drawing to a close, as once-loyal ministers reportedly gather to tell him that the game’s a bogey.

The time difference makes it a bit difficult to keep up with all the latest developments, and, to be honest, sitting here in the Californian sunshine, I’m finding it hard to care that much. There will be plenty of time to catch up when I’m back.

Los Angeles, July 4th 2022

With my characteristic good timing, I’ve chosen a moment when the US seems to be entering one of its periodic spells of paranoid reaction to pay my first visit to the country in nearly 30 years.

Fortunately I’m in California, visiting some old radical buddies, so I doubt I’ll experience anything too illiberal. If anything, the recent developments seem to have energised the left, around here at least, though I suspect that what I am observing is just one side of the country’s deepening polarisation, rather than a more general progressive shift.

Whatever; my trip is a social one, so I’m going to leave the politics for another day, and focus on catching up on a personal level with some people I haven’t seen for far too long. As you might imagine, my friends are not the most patriotic of citizens, but we’re going to settle back tonight with some beers, and a joint or two, to watch the fireworks, and dream of a better future.

Rowing back progress

Although today’s US Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe vs Wade had been leaked some time ago, the reality of it still came as a shock. Even as economic inequality has deepened in the last decade or so, the left has been able to console itself with the idea that the social gains of the last 50 years or so were more or less secure. It’s harder to believe that now, with the Conservative wing of the Court openly gunning for every progressive gain from voting rights to interracial marriage.

On the other hand, the fact that this decision is so clearly out of step with US public opinion, and has only come about as a result of the flagrantly undemocratic packing of the Court, might be the straw that finally breaks the unfathomable reverence US liberals pay to the Constitution, a document drawn up two centuries ago by white male slaveowners to preserve their dominance over society. If that is too much to hope for, then at least the elections in November might see some blowback against a Republican Party which engineered this assault on the civil liberties of 51.1% of the population.

Boris lives on

As expected, Boris Johnson managed to rally enough support to survive the confidence vote, but the fact that 41% of his MPs felt unable to back him is rather awkward, to say the least.

Instant reaction in the liberal press is leaning towards the view that this result leaves Johnson badly wounded, and that disquiet in Tory ranks seems set to grumble on, but few are predicting that he will go any time soon. A more plausible scenario is that he will attempt to shore up his support on the right of the party by doubling down on the reactionary populism that got him into Downing Street in the first place. That might not do much for the Conservative Party’s chances of winning the next election, but that poll could be two years away, which would be a long time for the country to be without responsible government.

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