Lists of military spending are usually done in absolute figures.
Using these, the UK spends more on its military than every other country in the world apart from the USA, China and India. More than Russia, more than Germany. More than France. More than Japan. The sixth largest economy, but the fourth biggest military spender.
When you look at per capita military spending however, that’s the burden that that spending puts on each individual citizen, the UK comes in at number three.
For 2022 that looks like this for the ten countries that spend the most in absolute terms.
Per capita military spending
In US Dollars
So, the burden of military spending on every UK citizen is more than double that of every Russian citizen, and over five times that on every Chinese citizen. So, to match the Russian level of per capita spending, we could cut our expenditure by half. If we wanted parity with China’s spending per citizen, we could cut down to a fifth of the current level.
It should also be noted 1) that the top six of these countries, plus Japan, are allies of the United States and 2) there is not majority support in the UK to increase military spending. A poll by yougov/datapraxis in May which asked voters to choose between
(a) ‘The war in Ukraine has showed that my country should be spending more on defence, even if that means that we must cut money on other areas like health, education and crime prevention’, and
(b) ‘Despite the war in Ukraine, my country should not be increasing spending on defence as that could require cutting money on other areas like health, education and crime prevention’.
showed 36% against increased expenditure to 25% in favour.
The figures for absolute military spending that these calculations are based on come from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute for 2022. The figures for population are from UN figures for 2019, so the calculation won’t be exact, but aren’t likely to be significantly different.
Just as Nigel Farage tries to diss Just Stop Oil demonstrators as out of touch and cossetted upper class “brats” with names like Indigo and Jocasta – this from a man called Nigel – a survey from Savanta Comres shows majority support for faster, deeper action to head off the climate emergency.
Overall, only one in four voters think the government is doing enough. Three in five say that it is not doing enough.
Majorities of all age groups think not enough is being done. The younger the age group, the more strongly this is felt. Just over half of over 65s rising to over 7 out of ten of 18-24 year olds.
Even among Conservative supporters, nearly half want more action and this becomes overwhelming among supporters of other Parties. Farage and his denialist head bangers are the unrepresentative minority.
As there are such strong majorities, and some of the actions needed, like stopping new oil and gas exploration, unblocking Onshore Wind farms and launching an immediate insulation programme are so easy and obvious, the question that has to be posed is; why isn’t this happening? Who is the government representing if it isn’t the majority? And, given that their failure to act on the scale and at the speed needed is causing widespread anxiety and fear, especially among young people who see the future approaching with a sense of menace and trepidation, doesn’t the term “eco-terrorist” apply more to them than to young people trying to jolt them out of their complacency?
After the drought in the Summer turned the local park into a dustbowl, the grass bleached to straw ghosts, the ground rock hard, the air hazy, the Autumn monsoons that we have had for the past few weeks have turned it back into lush water meadows almost to marshland in places. It hasn’t quite got to the swamp quality we’ve had in previous autumns, with geese wading through puddles that have merged into small lakes, a testament to just how dry it got, but it’s on the way. I now stay on the paths when I walk through, so as not to plash.
A grumpy old bloke in the bus queue outside the Magistrates Court, perhaps ground down a bit by the almost constant rain, turns to the woman next to him and complains about the new Highway Code giving cyclists preference over cars in a tone that implies that this is a sign we are being driven to go to the dogs by a conspiracy of elitists with a thing about Lycra. It is so evident to him that this is a bad thing, and so evident to me that it’s a good thing that I say so. He ignores my comment. or, possibly, doesn’t hear it because I seem to be one of the last people in Northwest London still wearing a mask on the buses. It seems odd that he’s so defensive of cars when he’s queuing for the bus. Perhaps he’s more anti cyclist than pro car.
On the side of a bus outside Willesden Health Centre, “Come for our affordable premier dental care in Turkey”. The shortage of NHS dentists laid bare by an advert.
Outside a fruit and veg shop on Willesden High Road a sign reading “Polski, Irani, Arabi”. Fusion Grocery. Up the street a succession of shops with Brazilian or Portuguese flags. We duck into a cafe that’s a little gem of a place, panettones hanging from the ceiling, dark wood shelves all the way up displaying gleaming bottles of mysterious dark alcohols, a coffee machine that looks well used, a TV in the corner showing Joe Biden speaking grim faced in Indonesia with Portuguese subtitles, everyone else in the place speaking Portuguese and the guy at the counter just about understanding me. We sit at a tiny table next to a freezer cabinet and shelves full of the Iberian equivalent of chocolate frosted sugar bomb cereals drinking an almost perfect Capuchino, just smoky enough, not too sweet, not too much and the best one of those tiny custard tarts I have ever eaten, the pastry flakier than flaky and the custard full of creamy dimensions; positively mindful. J agrees that its better than Costa carrot cake, in more ways than one.
Coming back up the road, a pair of houses are being renovated by a hard working squad of, mostly Sikh, builders. Every day a different smell. Some almost poisonous, the reek of araldite. Some fresh and spring like, newly sawn wood. Outside on the scaffolding, a large stuffed rainbow unicorn is suspended like a hunting trophy with that awful pathos abandoned soft toys always have. “Jackie Paper came no more…”
As we go into the COP, we know the conference will be full of lobbyists from BP – and other companies like them – trying to claim that they are on a pathway to sustainability. Doesn’t look like it, does it?
BP changed their logo and adopted the slogan “Beyond Petroleum” in 2000. If this is the progress they have made in 22 years, it doesn’t look like they’ll be getting beyond it any time soon. In fact, carry on making this rate of progress (up to 7.3% in 22 years) and they’ll have made it “beyond petroleum” in just over 301 years – so, by around March 2323; which is a bit late in anyone’s terms.
There’s a little old lady, but not from Pasadena, who lives down the hill and owns a powder blue Morris Minor that’s almost as old as she is. Whenever she takes it out for a spin, she has a look of intense concentration bordering on manic glee that makes every trip seem an adventure as she pootles past. The throaty purr of the glorified lawnmower engine that drives it drowns out the whispering hum of the sleeker, more anonymous vehicles that back up behind her; sounding like a V8 by contrast. As the Beach Boys would have it, “Go Granny! Go Granny! Go Granny! Go!”
Much as people form relationships with their cars – we had an old split window Morris in the 60s that we called “Ada” and had to will up hills – there is a lot less romanticism about them here than in the USA. You can’t imagine a local equivalent of Bruce Springsteen singing, “We were building Austin Metros”, or “We were building Ford Escorts”.
Thunderbirds – quite a name in itself- are redolent of cruising across endless prairies on a “freeway” (and what a loaded word that is) at 100mph or burning rubber in strip races at Ventura Beach and Jack Kerouac proclaiming that “the only word I had was Wow”. The only local equivalent of “Get your kicks on Route 66” is satire, Billy Bragg’s “A13, trunk road to the sea”.
If you ever have to go to Shoeburyness
Take the A road,
the okay road that’s the best
Go motorin’ on the A13
Even the opening line has a sense of compulsion about it. If you ever have to go to Shoeburyness…not so much an exploration as a chore, especially as you also have to go “rather near Basildon”. Somebody has to.
One of the odd things about people acting as though the COVID pandemic is over is that it increases the number of people who keep catching it. My Mum and Dad, both 92 and who very rarely go out, recently picked it up on a visit to Hospital, after sitting in a waiting room for quite some time surrounded by people without masks on. Both have got through it, Mum without symptoms, Dad being quite bad with it for three days, underlining again the relative vulnerability of men (weaker sex and all that). Both of them are as vaccinated as you can get and we’re all very thankful for that, as the death rate for people over 80 who are fully vaccinated is 1 in 68. If you have had fewer than 2 vaccinations your chances drop to 1 in 7. Residual vaccine sceptics please note. I’m not saying this to score a point.
So, I went down to Grays and did a very brief socially distanced drop off of some chicken soup my daughter made for them – “give ’em some chicken soup”. “But madam, that won’t help” “It wouldn’t hoit!”
Wandering back through town I stop off for a Capuchino and strudel at Lola’s Bakery on the High Street opposite where the Queen’s Hotel used to be. A little gem of a cafe full of pastries and caffeinated smells, staffed by Eastern European women busily doing accounts, with a couple of other grey haired geezers sitting at the tables outside, quietly taking in the breeze and the pale October sunlight. They have a sign on the counter which gains a bit from translation, proclaiming that all of their pastries are freshly made in “our laboratory”. “IGOR!The Strudels!” But the lab does good work. Recommended if you are ever in Grays High Street.
The precinct is busy but determinedly down at heel. An attempt to revive the High Street in the 1970s, complete with multi story car park and killed stone dead by Lakeside opening up in the 80s. The old status stores, M&S, even Woolworths, either migrating there or shutting down. A Poundland. A Burger King. A “Gorgeous in Grays” store. There seem to be a lot of Sacred Heart Jesus posters on sale, a counterpoint to the evangelical revival on display at the mega church at the Eastern end of what used to be Congress House, the old Coop Department Store that we thought was terribly modern in the sixties. The design of these varies, but the Jesus is always very white. In one he points to the blazing heart in his chest with the same sort of understated gesture that a gangbanger might point to a gun – “you don’t want to mess with this”. In another he holds up two fingers in benediction but has a reproachful expression – “I know what you’re thinking, and I’m deeply disappointed”. The fingers are crossed. A woman walks past talking to her mate “He was so fucking rude to me…” The classiest and coziest place in the precinct is the Costa cafe by the High Street entrance, where I pick up a sandwich for the train journey back. Most tables full. A buzz of conversation. A barista straight outa’ Shoreditch, all massive mane of curly hair and beard, brews coffees in a chilled sort of way.
On the way up to the station a tiny black girl gives me a conspiratorial grin as she zooms past on one of those three wheeled scooters.
The journey back goes up the Rainham line. That means we pass Wennington, the small settlement hit hardest by last year’s wildfires during the 40C heatwave. Wennington is one of those unobtrusive landmarks that you tend to take notice of without making a note of. Out beyond Rainham proper and built, presumably, on a bit of land higher and dryer than the big sweep of marshland that surrounds it and sweeps all the way down to Purfleet, so it stands on the horizon. Even expecting to see damage, the state of it is quite a shock. The stubby stone church tower stands at one end like a squat exclamation mark, next to it several houses that have been gutted, just their dividing walls and chimneys pointing blasphemously upwards, then a few houses that look untouched, then several more completely burnt out, blue sky showing where their living rooms and bedrooms should have been, then some more, seemingly normal. Not built back better. Or even built back at all. It stands as a memorial and a warning. We got off lightly in that heatwave, even though the Fire Brigade had more calls than on any day since the end of the Second World War. The winds were light. Next time, and there will be a next time, we might not be so lucky.
A sign of hope as I sit at Tower Hill and eat my sandwich somewhere scenic. The moat around the Tower, filled eight years ago with scarlet ceramic poppies in a striking memorial to World War One, is now running riot with wild flowers. The same sort of recreated meadow we have in our local parks but on a grander scale. The sea of colour waving in the wind somehow gentles down the still, grim old fortress, with its thousand year terrible history and hinting that maybe we can do better than we’ve done and, if we don’t, the flowers will still be here when we are long gone.
On my street, halfway up the hill someone has left a pile of bright yellow Don’t Pay Energy Bills Oct 1st leaflets on a garden wall. They have blown in the wind all over the pavement like autumn leaves amongst the equally yellow barriers put up by the gas men around the holes in the pavement they have dug to replace the mains. This, according to their hand out, is to make our increasingly unaffordable gas supply safe for “many decades to come”. This is a bit alarming. If we are to be off fossil fuels by 2050, “many decades to come” can’t be more than three at the most.
Along Grove Park, on top of the low brick wall under the boundary fence of The Village School – its shrubbery studded by crushed beer cans and discarded wrappers blown in on the wind – someone, some time ago by the looks of it – has propped up a copy of Salman Rushdie’s children’s book Haroun and the Sea of Stories as though it is an offering, or possibly a statement of some sort. Soaked by rain and spattered by leaves and bits of paper, it is steadily decomposing back into the wood pulp from which it was printed, the pages stuck together in a papier-mâché morass. There is something simultaneously plaintive and defiant about it – an echo and reminder of what it once was; haunting itself like a literary ghost.
Down at the shops, a middle-aged black guy in a brushed fur cowboy hat emerges from the halal butchers looked bewildered.
A huge man wearing a windcheater with a gigantic Welsh dragon emblazoned on the back chats quietly with his mate, in Polish. His 8 or 9 year old son stands next to him with an identical stance and body language.
Outside Aldi – “the cheap shop” – an aging Indian bloke stands staring across the road in a full-length black leather coat and battered, but smart, brown fedora, looking like a slightly effete secret policeman from 1920’s central Europe.
And this evening there were no less than two foot-patrols of police officers walking through the shopping drag. Two men heading East and, ten minutes later, two women heading West, crossing each other’s path like an attenuated square dance. Neither were making any contact with the life on the streets. The two women were absorbed in conversation with each other, turned inwards as they proceeded at the regulation two miles an hour in the general direction of Iceland and VBs and both talking at once. The two men seemed cut off from everything, and each other. No eye contact with anyone, staring unfocussed and a bit glacially into the middle of next week as they walked. There but not there. An oddly passive presence. Waiting for something to react to rather than trying to connect.
Between 1912 and 1920 along the West side of the Edgeware Road, where the Loon Fung, Morrisons and Asda Supermarkets are now and stretching up as far as the Volkswagen dealership by Hay Lane, was where the Airco factory used to be. This was a vast workshop that built a large proportion of the aircraft used by the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War. All the original De Havilands. The company went bankrupt within two years of the armistice. The end of the war meant there was no demand for aircraft anymore and BSA, who bought it, were sold a pup (and not of the Sopwith variety).
The only part of the original factory that’s left is the former head office, which is now the Beis Yaakov Primary School. Glancing across at it, it is surrounded with solid black railings well above head height – fortress style – and there is a tall square extension in compatible architecture topped off with an inwardly curving fence, presumably to stop balls being kicked over from the rooftop playground and, possibly, to make it hard for someone with hostile intent to throw anything in the other way. At 10 in the morning there are two Community Security Trust blokes shooing in Orthodox looking Mums in sleek grey SUVs delivering a rather late school run. They are both wearing bright yellow hi vis vests. One of them is holding on to it with both hands at chest height, while repeatedly doing that knee flex thing that the Police tend to do when they are standing still but feeling tense. Evenin’ all.
After announcing Liz Truss’s resignation as Prime Minister on the 2pm News, the first piece of music played by Radio 3 was the Thunder and Lightning Polka. I guess they are not in mourning.
Simon Pirani’s article, “the causes of the war in Ukraine” is posed as a reply to John Bellamy Foster’s brilliant and terrifying Notes on Exterminism” but simply doesn’t address what Bellamy Foster is saying about the connections between US nuclear war posture, its policy towards Russia and the connection with climate breakdown but talks primarily about Gazprom instead. It’s also odd that Simon states that it’s important to understand the background “in order to understand what happens next, and how this relates to the western powers’ historic failure to deal with climate change,” and then completely fails to explore either. There is no vision for what the end of the war might look like if his section of the Left’s backing for Ukraine and NATO leads to a Russian defeat – either for Ukraine or for the world. Nor is there any examination of how the US war drive connects with their failure on climate breakdown. For any insight into this, readers would be better off reading Bellamy Foster, or the companion article from John Ross, which does explain how the war fits into the totality of current geopolitical struggles in a way that makes sense of it.
This is particularly significant because the USA is spending 14 times as much on its armed forces as it plans to invest in climate transition. As Meehan Crist put it in the London Review of Books in March “One of the worst outcomes of the war in Ukraine would be an increasingly militarised response to climate breakdown, in which Western armies, their budgets ballooning in the name of “national security” seek to control not only the outcome of conflicts but the flow of energy, water, food, key minerals and other natural resources. One does not have to work particularly hard to imagine how barbarous that future would be”. Not hard to imagine because that’s pretty much the world we already have under the Pax Americana, but a bit more so.
Simon seems to assume that the “popular resistance” represented by mass conscription in Ukraine hints at a progressive outcome if the Oligarchy in power and its NATO overlords achieve their war aims. To be fair, this is not explicitly stated, just presumed. Leaving aside reports of WhatsApp groups in Ukraine set up to warn people of when the press gangs are in the neighbourhood, and that 7% of the conscripts sent to the West for training have deserted; the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Since the start of the war the Ukrainian government has moved sharp and hard against the rights of the workers they are calling up to fight, and they have drawn up a post war reconstruction plan with western capital that would make Ukraine even more of a dystopian neo liberal laboratory than it already is. Not a land fit for heroes. Before the war, the combination of low wages and corruption with the pending threat of conscription to fight in the Donbass led to one of the lowest birth rates in Europe and 600,000 people a year leaving the country for a better life; some to Russia, more since 2014 to the EU.
Simon asserts that “until 2014, western policy was focused on integrating Russia into the world economy on the west’s terms: even after the Kremlin’s military intervention in Ukraine, the western response remained reactive.” The USA is always reactive, in the sense that it will intervene in any situation anywhere, anytime that it can take advantage of; but it is also invariably pushing things along, actively seeking contradictions and fissures that it can insert itself in to shift things its way. Staying global hegemon takes work, and there are US Embassies full of active agents and 800 US military bases all over the world either doing it or waiting to join in, an inner space full of satellites keeping tabs on things and a cyberspace dominated by US tech companies intimately linked to the security state.
Think about what “integrating Russia into the world economy on the west’s terms” means. “Integrating Russia into the world economy on the west’s terms” means subordinating Russia to the West. Not partnership. Not multipolarity and a deal among equals, but subordination. The US applied the same presumption to China, that participation in the WTO would make it more western, allow the private sector to dominate over the state, ease into a political system that could be bought up by the ruling class; just like ours is. The 2008 crash put paid to any prospect of that. Pro US voices have been marginal since then.
The US is no longer trying to incorporate China, or, now, Russia, on its terms, because it knows it can’t. Its policy now is to break the world economy apart and try to retain domination of as much of it as it still can. In most of the Global South, it is losing ground, quite quickly. That makes continuing to dominate Europe very important. If the European economies suffer as a result, that’s a price to be paid and ridden out politically.
Simon’s core argument is that “the West” was interested in getting cheap Russian energy and therefore had an essentially pacific intent towards it until the invasion on 24th February came out of a clear blue sky and forced them to reassess. This requires almost complete amnesia for anything that actually happened in the run up to 24th Feb – Russia’s continual appeal for negotiations on a “Mutual Security Pact” that NATO could have agreed to and spun out forever to avoid getting to the crunch point had they wanted to instead of spurning with imperial contempt – and a presumption that all of “the West” had the same interests, rather than there being a rift between the US and Germany that was resolved in the former’s favour at the NATO Summit the week before the invasion, with Germany coming to heel and refusing to open up Nordstream 2, putting NATO on an economic war footing. This was almost certainly a tipping factor in Russia’s decision to intervene.
Because, the term “the West” in this context, covers some real contradictions, particularly between the economic interests of the USA and those of the EU, and Germany in particular, which partly explain why Russia was never simply taken into NATO or ever considered a possible EU member even at the point it was considered a “strategic partner”.
Lenin always argued that politics trumps economics. And so we have seen in the case of Germany. It is not in Germany’s economic interests for this war to continue, nor for cheap Russian gas to be cut off from its industries and domestic consumption. This is also true across Europe. The Prime Minister of Belgium has spoken of fears of “deindustrialisation” as a result of this sudden rupture in energy supplies. Political turmoil is rising across Europe, not least in the UK.
The struggle over whether Nordstream 2 would be opened up last winter illuminates the fault lines here. The US was against it, for the same reasons it wouldn’t consider letting Russia into NATO. A close relationship between Germany and Russia undermines US dominance across the whole EU. Russia in NATO would have a similar centrifugal effect on the alliance. Blowing the pipelines up just as demonstrations were starting up in Germany and elsewhere to get them put back on stream to cut energy bills is a completely logical thing for the US to do. Burning the boats. Cutting off the options. Trying to stop a connection being more widely made between the cost of living crisis and ongoing support for the war. The idea that the Russians would blow up their own pipelines, when resupply of gas though them is such a huge diplomatic carrot, is as absurd as the idea that they would shell a nuclear power station occupied by their own troops or convoys of cars full of civilians trying to get out of Ukraine into Russian controlled territory (which they are supposed to have done twice in recent weeks if you believe our objective, reliable media).
The US attempt to subordinate Russia has never been a passive policy, not least in Ukraine and to describe it, either in or after 2014, as “reactive”, as a synonym for defensive, implying that it is a dozy, passive force, only taking action when severely provoked, dulls our understanding of just how proactive they are. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenburg has no such delusions and his comment “we have been preparing for this since 2014” should be taken at face value.
And it’s quite clear from this article that preparations for sanctions against Russia were being actively negotiated between the USA and EU from November last year which knocks a big hole in Simon’s main contention that the economic war was a defensive reaction to the Russian intervention. All part of the game plan.
Simon describes the Maidan movement of 2014 as though it was a simply popular uprising against corrupt oligarchs. This is as simplistic as describing Brexit as a popular revolt against “elites”. There is no recognition of the role of the far right, the division in the country leading to civil war is elided, nor is there any acknowledgement of the active intervention of the US and EU to try to mould the outcome in their favour, nor of the tussle for influence between them. The active role of the US in the Maidan movement alongside the far right isn’t mentioned. John McCain addressing a rally in the square is neither a figment of anyone’s imagination nor a “reactive” intervention. The role of Victoria Nuland, one of the architects of neo conservative interventionism and an active participant in many such interventions is almost too well documented, but Simon passes them by without a nod, or a word, or any acknowledgement at all.
The replacement of one corrupt oligarch, Yanukovitch, with another, Poroshenko, who collaborated with the far right throughout his Presidency and oversaw neo liberal reforms, opening up Ukrainian farmland to Western Agribusiness, rather undermines Simon’s assessment. Popular participation in the Maidan in the West of Ukraine did not determine a popular outcome.
Since at least the Orange Revolution (the clue is in the colours, the US can’t help itself when it comes to branding its products) in 2004 there was an open struggle for where Ukraine would align. None of this is unknown. None of it “reactive”.
This is paradoxical because Simon recognises that “in 2013, the Kremlin offered a substantial discount on gas sales as part of a generous trade package, conditional on Ukraine abandoning its talks on an association agreement with the EU; Yanukovych’s support for that package was among the sparks that set off the Maidan revolt.” This package was rather positive for Ukraine, but not at all in the interests of the EU or US. As we know with sparks, the flame has to be fanned.
We are now in a situation in which criticism of NATO is an expulsion offence for Labour MPs. The GMB is campaigning for increases in military spending, when the UK already spends more on its military than every other country in the world apart from the USA, China and India, and, through NATO and AUKUS, is allied to countries responsible for two thirds of global military spending, with the USA at their core. The US is fast losing ground economically and so is trying to reassert itself militarily, even if this leads to war with other nuclear armed powers. Increased arms spending by the UK signs us up for that. Not recognising this drive, or flinching away from the consequences of it, disarms the Labour movement in the face of the greatest short-term threat to human survival.
To invert one of Simon’s sentences; those in the western ‘left’ who don’t recognise that ‘NATO expansion’ is the chief cause of the military conflict and that Ukraine is fighting a ‘proxy war’ for the US with $53 billion worth of US weapons and $12 billion more to come… act in effect as apologists for the USA’s dangerous brinkmanship that could lead to nuclear war and the end of human civilisation.
The war in Ukraine is indeed a historical turning point. Its result will determine whether we move into a New American Century – with a NATO victory, a US backed colour revolution in Russia, possible partition of the country into at least three parts, as some of the more hawkish neo cons planned in 1991, and the decoupling of Russia from China to facilitate the war US hawks want in the South China Sea before the Chinese economy gets too big for it to deal with – or not.
This prospect makes it a matter of principle that the Left and civil society should resist this war drive.
This post has been written for the newcoldwar.org site published in Canada.
It used to be a truth universally acknowledged in the UK that instability in government was something that other countries with less sang froid and stiff upper lips were prone to, but not us. “I have been in negotiation with one of the French governments” was a joke from the 1950s Goon Show that sums this up. Until relatively recently it could be taken for granted that UK governments were, if not strong, at least stolid, and if not stable, at least able to stumble along with a somnambulist inertia that everyone could live with. Not anymore.
We have now had four Chancellors of the Exchequer in as many months and will probably be on our third Prime Minster of the year by Xmas. Kwasi Kwarteng was sacked on Friday afternoon by increasingly isolated new PM Liz Truss “because”, as one BBC commentator pithily put it, “he agreed with her”. Boris Johnson resigned in July. There was already a definite fight on economic policy between himself and his Chancellor Rishi Sunak, whose resignation started a flood of Cabinet members jumping ship and making his position untenable.
There was then a leadership contest in which Sunak won a majority of MPs, but Liz Truss won the backing of Conservative Party members – who tend to be older, whiter, better off, more Southern and rural than most – for her attempt to defy gravity. Running alongside Truss in a sort of three-legged race, was Kwazi Kwarteng. Both Truss and Kwarteng were joint authors of “Britannia Unchained” a wild neo liberal tract from 2012, aiming to slash and burn the state and allow the private sector to rejuvenate the economy in one mighty bound, if given enough “incentives”. Having won the race and promised to “deliver and deliver and deliver”, Truss and Kwarteng went for broke, sacking the chief Treasury civil servant and announcing a “mini budget” without a financial forecast from the Office for Budget responsibility to give it some cover.
This announced £54 billion worth of tax cuts to benefit the wealthy and corporations, which would have to be covered by borrowing, on the presumption that this would stimulate “growth”. This was at the same time that government Ministers were still solemnly intoning that pay claims by workers were unaffordable and “inflationary”. At the same time, they announced a subsidy for energy bills, again to be paid for by borrowing £150 billion over two years while refusing to put a tax on the windfall profits of UK based energy producers (projected to be £170 billion over the same period). As the Daily Mail put it “AT LAST! A TRUE TORY BUDGET”.
As the Chancellor was speaking, the pound collapsed ten cents against the dollar and the interest rates on UK Government bonds started rising sharply as investors started to demand what one of them called a “moron premium”. The knock-on effect of this was that the Bank of England had to intervene in the bond markets to buy government stocks to prevent a run on pension funds that could have seen them collapse; and raise interest rates to stop a collapse in the currency – which had a devastating effect on mortgage rates, with lenders withdrawing 40% of the schemes previously on offer. A young woman on the BBC Question Time programme caused a horrified sharp intake of breath the following week when she said that her previous mortgage offer of 4.5% had gone up to 10.5% as a result. That intake of breath was the sound of the air coming out of the Conservative Party’s support across the country. One sort of growth that Truss has definitely delivered has been a staggering increase in the Labour opinion poll lead, which is now around 30%.
This is meltdown territory. Extrapolations from these polls have projected a collapse of the Tory Parliamentary Party to fifty something MPs at best, and 3, or 0, at worst. Unless they can pull something miraculous out of the fire, it’s possible that future historians will be writing books entitled “The Strange Death of Conservative England”. This is much worse than1992, after the pound was forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism on “Black Wednesday” and the stuffing was knocked out of the previous long period of Tory governmental dominance. This lot have had black Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday…
If you want to see what this looks like, check out the faces on the Tory benches at Prime Minister’s Questions last week, and look at Truss’s face too. The great baying, roaring monster that is the usual face of the Parliamentary Conservative Party at PMQs is weirdly shell shocked. Even the cabinet, with the single exception of Truss’s overpromoted understrapper Therese Coffey, although sitting alongside Truss on the front bench, seem in another world. Visibly plotting.
As in the Book of Revelations, we now are seeing “a great wailing and a gnashing of teeth”. Party discipline is in disarray. Frantic efforts by demoralised and angry Tory MPs to steady the ship are combining with comments, some off and some on the record, that whatever they do now they’ve blown any reputation they had for economic competence and the attempt to find a new course may lead to a split. This last is possibly overstating things, but nemesis looms one way or another. Jeremy Hunt as Chancellor has little support in his own Parliamentary Party – getting less than 30 endorsements when he stood for leader – and was a deeply unpopular Secretary of State for Health, when he presided over the long and bitter Junior Doctors strike.
The underlying problem that Truss tried to solve with an act of will is that the underlying fundamentals of the UK economy are shaky. Investment is low and therefore so is productivity. In Britannia Unchained, Truss attributed this to workers in the UK being “the worst idlers in the world” and needing to “graft” more. Clearly a woman with a popular touch. The attempt to break with long slow managed decline by leaving the EU after the referendum in 2016, a piece of faith healing on a par with “throw aside thy stick and walk”, has compounded the long term British disease of weak investment from the private sector with a collapse in exports to the EU. There is now a balance of payments crisis of historic proportions. A running deficit of 8% according to Torsten Bell of the Resolution Foundation. This is very thin ice to be jumping up and down on in the way that Truss has tried to do. Sacking Kwarteng and replacing him with Jeremy Hunt was supposed to be reassuring; but an extraordinarily wooden press conference by Truss, simply left everyone speculating how long she had left. The Bank of England has now said that it will stop buying government bonds on Monday. So, probably not long. This very short press conference makes painful viewing. After attempting to describe the complete wreck of her economic policy as decisive action by her that somehow left it intact, she took just three questions, from the BBC, ITN and Murdoch’s flagship tabloid, the Sun, to take the key indicators of the media temperature, eyes desperately looking around the room for sympathy in an awful icy silence, finding none and fleeing at the end to calls of “are you going to apologise?” As she spoke, the interest rates on UK government bonds went up and up and up.
The basis for Johnson’s sleight of hand, that Brexit would unleash the animal spirits of Great British entrepreneurism, supposedly stifled by the dead hand of Brussels bureaucracy, allowing “left behind” regions to “level up” has gone up in smoke. Cakeism is as dead as the Queen, and all the Kings Horses and all the Kings men can’t put it back together again. When Truss went for her weekly audience with Charles III he is reported to have said, “You’re back again. Dear, oh dear”. Ouch.
At the same time, inflation is hitting living standards hard. One in four children are now living in poverty. The effect of tax breaks for the rich and a wages squeeze on the rest of us is a redistribution of wealth from worst off to best off. As a result, we have seen a wave of local and national strikes by Rail Workers and Communication Workers which have rolled on all summer. Barristers just won a 15% increase in fees after an all out strike. Large settlements have been won in local disputes. Nurses and Teachers unions are balloting and getting record turn outs, flooding over the government’s thresholds of 50% turnout and a majority of all those eligible voting yes to be lawful. More significantly, although these strikes are being bitterly resisted by employers, with the government backing them up, there is no sign of support for them flagging among the workers involved, they have very strong popular support and arguments about wages versus profits have now been aired on mainstream media, whose beautifully coiffed attack dogs have been exposed as the tawdry hacks they are by a set of trade union leaders, like the RMTs Mick Lynch, who stand their ground and tell their truths and strike a popular resonance. Rallies for the union led Enough is Enough campaign have regenerated the sort of enthusiastic support and political ferment we saw in the early period of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.
Meanwhile, Truss’s government has had to make u turn after u turn as it collides with reality. They have conceded that onshore windfarms might be a good thing after opposing them as matter of principle all summer. Truss still has an irrational antagonism to solar farms, even though they are only allowed on marginal land and cover less acreage than golf courses; but even here she has run into a row with the unlikely figure of her Business Secretary, Jacob Rees Mogg, who, although he flirts with climate denial, knows a cheap energy source when he sees it. They have also told Friends of the Earth and Client Earth that they will not appeal against the High Court Judgement that their climate plan for 2050 is unlawful; so, they will have to come up with one that is by the end of March 2023.
At the same time, noises from previously belligerent Brexiteers put into the Northern Ireland Office have become positively apologetic towards the Republic of Ireland and, whisper it softly, the EU itself, to try to resolve the row over the Northern Ireland Protocol, which put them at odds with Ireland, the EU and the United States. A deal on this may not be enough to prevent Irish unity in the relatively near future however, as there is now a strong current of Unionist opinion that is open to it and seeking to explore it, Sinn Fein is the largest Party in the Northern Irish Assembly, and is leading in opinion polls for the next General Election in the Republic. Truss’s gauche attempt to dismiss SNP leader and Scottish First Minster Nicola Sturgeon as an “attention seeker” who she would “ignore” have won her no friends North of the Border and compounded the pressure for a new independence referendum there.
In what might be one of her last significant moves, Truss looks set to announce that China will be officially classified as a “Threat” rather than “strategic competitor” as now. If this goes ahead, this will be another act of spectacular self harm by the UK, as the Office for National Statistics points out
In 2021, China was the UK’s largest import partner and sixth-largest export partner for goods.
The UK imported £63.6 billion of goods from China in 2021 (13.3% of all goods imports to the UK) and exported £18.8 billion of goods (5.8% of all goods exports from the UK)…
China is one of the UK’s largest trading partners, accounting for £93.0 billion (7.3%) of the UK’s total trade in 2021.
There are also 143,000 Chinese students studying at UK Universities, a quarter of the international student intake that pay the exorbitant fees that keep the higher education sector going. Combine this with taking an axe to joint research and development projects between UK and Chinese Universities and you have a formula for serious damage to one of the few world class sectors the UK still has.
Combine this with Truss’s intention to double military spending to £100 billion a year by 2030 and you have a situation in which the rest of public spending will be squeezed at home, after ten years of austerity have already cut them to the bone, and the country will be gearing up for war abroad. The UK already spends more on its military than any other country in the world other than the USA, China and India, and is in direct alliance, through NATO and AUKUS, with countries responsible for two thirds of global military spending. Inside the country it’s possible to pass this off as “defence”. People overseas, given the UK’s consistent history of military interventions, will understand it better.
Opposition to this is hampered by the bipartisan policies of the current Labour leadership on these issues, and a motion calling for increased military spending proposed by the GMB union was passed at Party Conference in September. This was posed as defence of unionised manufacturing jobs. It must be very reassuring for a woman in Yemen who has seen her family blown to bloody rags by a BAE systems missile fired from a Saudi jet, whose pilot was trained by the RAF, to know that the workers who built it were trade union members with decent terms and conditions. The only delegate who spoke against support for the Ukraine war at Conference was suspended the following day. Labour MPs have been banned from criticising NATO, with the dozen or so from the Socialist Campaign Group who had signed a Stop the War statement told to take their names off if they didn’t want to be expelled from the Parliamentary Labour Party. A similar motion, also proposed by the GMB, is going to the TUC this week and the scale of the vote against it will indicate where the ground the Labour leadership is standing on will begin to shift.
Opposition to increased arms spending is much wider than support for a peace deal in Ukraine, as the phrase “Putin’s war” for the war that NATO provoked is repeated like a mantra across a wide political spectrum, from Boris Johnson to Owen Jones. But, as the crisis bites harder over the winter, the struggle over the cost of living deepens and widens, the government stumbles from crisis to crisis and desperately tries to improvise itself out of the hole it has dug, clarification can’t help but spread through the ferment.
The attraction of drain covers isn’t evident to most people. We walk over them without noticing. Primary schools sometimes do rubbings of them with crayons, like an urban industrial version of brass rubbings, but most people don’t give them a second glance or thought.
After having my flu jab this morning I was wandering along The Grove and spotted a couple of Drain covers with designs that were positively fractal, quite exciting as drain covers go. The patterns were quite vertiginous in a way that would pass muster in the opening credits for Dr Who. Most of the others were dull, symmetrical and functional. Nothing to see here. But these ones were an artistic labour of love that were worth giving a bit of respect to. Perhaps even photographing and collecting. Jeremy Corbyn is on to something here it seems.
One of the less serious attempts to put people off voting for Jeremy was the story that he collected photos of drain covers. This was part of a wider campaign to present him as a cracked eccentric; because it must be completely inappropriate to have a leader of a mass political party who grows his own cucumbers and pots his own jam. This, nevertheless, shows how universal this attack was. No stone left unturned. No angle not covered.
On Saturday, the rather secretive Roe Green Walled Garden was opened for a day. It does this a couple of times a year. Even though I’ve lived here for over 25 years, I’ve never been in there before, and it’s quite an extraordinary place. A sort of collective allotment growing organic produce, cultivating compost and worm juice (not for human consumption) and a celebration of a certain kind of suburban eccentricity and local historical awareness, with a little occasional cafe and a couple of sheds with a collection of fascinating bric a brac and second hand books. A joy of a place. Scattered around are life size dummies, mostly of people who lived on the site from the 1901 census with information about who they were. The Lodge by Kingsbury Road, which was empty for years and we used to call the “rat house”, because that’s who lived there, and is now on its third attempt to be rebuilt as a restaurant, was where a gardner lived with his family; and his model sits outside one of the shed with his mouldy cap on and a brass dog at his knee. But, my favourite is the bloke who donated the bike he cycled to Paris on in 1937. Tempting to follow suit, but I’d need an electric bike to manage it these days. He also looks a bit like Jeremy Corbyn.