Of Drain Covers and Walled Gardens.

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.

Eat your heart out Bill and Ben.

How Americans see the War in Ukraine

Following on from the information that 77% of Germans support the West initiating peace negotiations in Ukraine, a survey published by the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and Data for Progress shows that 57% of likely American voters support the US pursuing diplomatic negotiations as soon as possible to end the war, even if it requires Ukraine making compromises with Russia. 

More people think that the Biden Administration should do more to initiate peace talks than think it has done enough.

More people think that continuing US military aid – amounting to $53 Billion so far with another $12 Billion under discussion – should be not continue unless there is ongoing diplomacy to end the war than those who think it should be unconditional.

There is a similar level of opposition to continuing support at current levels if this leads to long term global and US economic hardship.

This is made even stronger when specific examples of domestic hardship are identified, with a strong majority opposing continued support at current levels if it leads to increases in gas (petrol) and good prices in the US.

Trita Parsi, executive vice president at the Quincy Institute, put it rather well, “Americans recognize what many in Washington don’t: Russia’s war in Ukraine is more likely to end at the negotiating table than on the battlefield. And there is a brewing skepticism of Washington’s approach to this war, which has been heavy on tough talk and military aid, but light on diplomatic strategy and engagement.

‘As long as it takes’ isn’t a strategy, it’s a recipe for years of disastrous and destructive war — conflict that will likely bring us no closer to the goal of securing a prosperous, independent Ukraine. US leaders need to show their work: explain to the American people how you plan to use your considerable diplomatic leverage to bring this war to an end.” 

It should also be noted that only 6% considered that the war in Ukraine is a top 3 issue for the US, with 94% disagreeing.

A United Kingdom that looks outward, with no self-awareness at all – David Lammy’s speech to Labour’s Conference.

Atlanticist Labour Shadow Foreign Secretaries have the difficult job of squaring the circle between the reality of UK subordination to US global dominance – with everything that flows from that – with the desire of the Party membership to be – and to be seen to be – “ethical”. This is usually covered by rhetorical devices that touch nerves and mobilise emotions, while obscuring awkward realities. A classic of its kind was Emily Thornberry’s speech in 2019 in which she included Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro in a list of “Trump inspired strongmen” that the Party had to oppose, sliding over the awkward fact that, far from being one of Trump’s acolytes, Maduro was one of his targets, and Venezuela to object of ruthless US sanctions that were responsible for the deaths of over 40,000 people. Details, details…

With the banishment of that awkward internationalist Jeremy Corbyn and the reassertion of a new era of unapologetic Atlanticism from the front bench, David Lammy has gone further.

He did not reflect, in his foreign policy speech to Labour conference this year, that the role of “Britain in the World” has historically been rather like that of the policemen he mentions who used to stop and search him when he was “a skinny kid in NHS glasses on the streets of Tottenham“; and for very similar reasons. At one time as dominant world cop and enforcer, latterly as the new world cop’s most eager henchman.

His speech provides a cover for it to continue to do so.

His list of challenges faced by the world is odd, and in a strange order.

Conference, the world faces more challenges today than at any other time in my 22 years in parliament. The rise of China. Conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Ethiopia and South Sudan. A global food crisis. And a climate crisis.

“And a climate crisis”. The climate crisis is the framework in which everything else takes place – or doesn’t. It’s not an item on a list. Least of all the last item. And the central problem is that the world’s most powerful state is prioritising military interventionism over dealing with it. The USA is spending more than 20 times as much on its military as it is on dealing with climate change, claims to “global leadership” notwithstanding.

China, by contrast, is spending one and a half times as much on climate change as on its military.

Who is doing the right thing?

The UK already spends more on its military than every other country in the world apart from the USA, China and India. It spends more than Russia. Through NATO and AUKUS it is in direct alliance with countries that account for two thirds of total global military spending. But the Truss government wants to increase spending by 50% by 2030 and the Labour front bench is going along with this. This is not a polict that tends to peace.

Lammy’s “green dimension” is subordinate to Cold War imperatives and inwardly oriented. The UK should not be dependent of “fossil fuel dictators” he says. Which ones does he mean? Will imports be stopping from Saudi Arabia any time soon?

And “we will seek to work with allies and partners to create a new international law of ecocide to criminalise the wanton and widespread destruction of the environment.” There’s that presumption of leadership from the Global North again, Britain’s “allies and partners” in setting and policing the ecological rule book for everyone else.

And note the weasel words – “we will seek to…” This will be rather tricky for the Global North because most of the fossil fuel companies seeking to develop the 350 carbon Bombs (projects which each have a carbon footprint of over a billion tonnes of CO2) that will bust us well beyond 1.5C on their own are companies that are based here; and so are most of the banks that finance them.

The news has just come through this week that major US Banks are threatening to withdraw from Mark Carney’s Climate alliance, because “they fear being sued over the alliance’s stringent decarbonisation commitments” and you can make your own judgement on whether the “law of ecocide” would target them or not, even if the UN made climate action its “fourth pillar”.

This also applies to the specific crisis that Lammy uses to frame his speech. The USA has for years explained to the Global South how hard it is to squeeze out a few billion dollars to help get to the 2020 target of $100 billion a year agreed at Copenhagen ten years earlier which has still not been met and that, with a bit of luck and a following wind (and a bit of redefinition of private sector loans) they might be good enough to get up to the target by 2024. Maybe. If the Global South is good. And nothing else comes along that is more urgent.

By contrast, they have magicked up $53 billion to fuel the Ukraine war in 6 months. Just like that. Easy. Whatever your view of the rights and wrongs of the war in Ukraine, and more on this later, it’s shocking how both the quantity and the speed are so dramatically different and provide such a clear demonstration of US priorities. Perhaps the way that a lot of this aid will go in orders for munitions and ammunition from US arms manufacturers may have something to do with that, but most of it reflects the war drive the USA is carrying out to try to shore up its economic decline relative to China.

In this framing, its odd that Lammy poses “the rise of China” as a challenge “for the world”. It is certainly a challenge for the US world order, Pax Americana, New American Century, Unipolar US domination; call it what you like. But that’s not the same as a challenge “for the world”.

For most of the world, benefitting from Chinese investment and trade, it looks more like an opportunity; and this is explicitly embraced by the Left in the Global South, Latin America particularly; where they are very clear about who runs the “Empire” and who has carried out coup after coup to install “dictatorships” across the continent.

It is peculiarly bizarre when considering that UK overseas aid is lauded for raising 3 million people a year out of poverty. This is not a figure I have seen anywhere else and have not been able to find online. It would be odd if true, because the impact of the COVID pandemic everywhere in the Global South outside China has been to throw back development and increase poverty. It would, of course, be a good thing if true, but pales into insignificance compared to China’s record as a developing country of raising 850 million people out of poverty in 40 years (21 million a year); seven times the rate. This was described in a Labour Foreign Policy Group document, generally rather hostile to China, as “perhaps the single most significant contribution to human wellbeing in world history”. But let’s not dwell on that. Let’s move swiftly on and not think about how this statistic is actual people whose lives have been immeasurably improved. It’s only the same number of people as the entire UK population thirteen times over. Just think of how many people that is. In forty years. And that includes everyone in Xinjiang, whose living standards are rising by 6% a year and whose labour is no more forced than that of anyone else who works in a factory.

It is also odd that Lammy does not mention that the “conflict in Yemen” is fueled by British made arms, of the sort that Conference sadly voted to boost, and the Saudi Air Force and Navy are trained to bomb and blockade ports by the RAF and Royal Navy – leading to famine and the world’s worst cholera epidemic. Nothing to see here. Let’s talk about Ukraine instead.

Lammy says “No act of imperialism is ever the same. But Vladimir Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine this year was just the latest front in an age-old war between democracy and dictatorship. Freedom and subjugation. Empire and independence.” From the country and allies that have – just since 1990 -brought us two wars each in Iraq and Yugoslavia, the invasion and twenty year occupation of Afghanistan and the reduction of Libya from the most prosperous country in North Africa to a war ravaged basket case, this might be considered a little ironic. Quite what kind of “act of imperialism” Lammy considers these to be is unclear, who was fighting for “freedom” and who for “subjugation”, who for “Empire” and who for “independence“, he doesn’t say. Possibly because it’s too obvious if you think about it for a moment. Does he have no self-awareness at all?

“Vladimir Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine” is an oft repeated mantra that conceals more than it explains. Deliberately. The war in Ukraine did not start with the Russian intervention this February. It started with the overthrow of a democratically elected President in 2014, aided and abetted by the considerable resources of the USA and EU, in cahoots with the local far right. This led to a rebellion on the Donbass region and an eight year civil war. As Sir Richard Sherriff, the former NATO Deputy Commander, remarked, a little off script, “this war started in 2014”.

The invasion this February followed attempts by the Russians to get an agreed mutual security arrangement that was spurned with complete contempt by NATO.

The Russian decision to recognise the Donbass Republics in February was not carried out by Putin alone but had the support of the overwhelming majority of the State Duma, including the main opposition Party, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, reflecting concerns at the failure to implement the Minsk Agreement, refusal of NATO to engage in any talks about mutual security, and a build up of 130,000 Ukrainian troops – whose pay was tripled in December – opposite Donetsk and Lugansk threatening their liquidation.

All war is barbaric, but it may seem odd to viewers of the atrocity porn produced by Feargal Keene and the like that by comparison with what the Americans do, the Russians have been relatively restrained. There have been a number of specific strikes on infrastructure like power stations or dams, but in US air campaigns they aim to smash the entire power and water treatment systems on day one to reduce the population to a state of rebellious despair. “Shock and Awe”*. In fact, the US dropped as much explosives on Iraq on the first day of the second Iraq war as it took the Russians a month and half to do in Ukraine. All relative? Up to a point. But not if you’re underneath it.

The term “Special Military Operation” incidentally, is not a weaselly euphemism to cover all out war, but an internationally accepted definition of a particular sort of limited war, and everyone who reports on this knows it. This is now escalating and will continue to do unless peace negotiations can get going.

Worse, Lammy’s way forward is both delusory and condemns Ukraine and its people to being a permanent proxy war zone for NATO. “Whether it takes six months, three years or ten, Ukraine will win.” Ten years of war? Seriously? “Ukraine will win“? With Russia incorporating the South and East into the Russian Federation and mobilising accordingly, I can’t see that. Lammy is calling for war without end.

At a point that even EU Foreign Representative Jose Barroso is calling for a negotiated peace acceptable to both sides – “we stand ready to assist the peace plan just launched and we urge all parties to seize this opportunity to de-escalate the crisis and end violence of this developing tragedy,” it is deeply depressing that Labour’s Foreign policy spokesperson striking the same sort of bellicose posture that Boris Johnson did when he intervened to sabotage the last serious attempts at peace talks back in April.

If he wants the “global food crisis”, not to mention the energy crisis that he, again oddly, didn’t mention, to end, we need to end the war. That starts with pushing for peace, not a ten year war.

Lammy envisages a war crimes tribunal for Putin. On the model of the sort we have seen for George W Bush and Tony Blair for the hundreds of thousands of deaths in Iraq that their war led to? One like that? Or perhaps the one for Putin after the Chechen war, at a time he was considered a “strategic partner” by NATO? War crimes, it seems, are always committed by our enemies. Never by us, or anyone allied with us. The numbers don’t count. Especially if they are in the Global South.

Lammy is also right that the Tories tend to craft a Foreign Policy that is a wolf in wolf’s clothing and that the current government, delirious on Brexit Kool Aid is picking fights with everyone and thinking it can get away with it. It won’t. But his version of looking outward is simply to reassert traditional alliances with the rest of the Global North as it rearms on a colossal scale, while hoping a wee bit of extra aid will keep the Global South sweet enough not to start lining up with the Chinese model of development.

While Lammy is right to argue for restoring overseas aid to 0.7% of GDP, his argument is less that this is the right thing to do as partial reparations for the damage and exploitation done by the Empire and slave trade, more about enhancing the “soft power” of the UK as the beneficiary of it, even though, as he said his “ancestors knew what it was like to have their freedom taken away. They heard the twisted lies of imperialism as they were stolen from their homes in shackles and turned into slaves.” Quite so.

“A voice for peace, development and freedom across the globe” is sorely needed. A voice for expanded UK military expenditure, for an unquestioning alliance with the USA in its provocative militarist dotage as it pushes for wars it thinks it can win in Ukraine and the South China Sea, won’t provide any of that.

Historical Note

“Shock and awe” marries the two US bombing traditions of precision targeting with colossal force. But, unlike the initial advocates of precise targeting, who argued for overwhelming strikes on key targets of military significance, “choke points” like the Schweinfurt ball bearing factory in the case of Nazi Germany, these strikes combine taking out military HQs but also decisive civilian infrastructure. So, from day 1, there is no power, no clean water, no functioning sewage system. It seems odd that advocates of this approach are trying to argue that “the Russian way of making war” is more barbaric than that.

Have Brylreem, will bomb! US Air Force General Curtis Lemay in 1954. Sketch taken from the photo by A.Y. Owen in the Getty Images Collection which, if anything, is even more alarming to look at.

The idea that destroying civilian infrastructure makes a population less inclined to resist has never been vindicated in practice; unless it reaches the almost genocidal scale of the B29 raids on Japan in 1945 led by Curtis LeMay, who went on to bomb North Korea “back to the Stone Age” a few years later; in which the state of mind of the shattered survivors barely counts. In the initial argument in WW2 between the US Air Force, who thought they could “hit a pickle barrel from 6 miles up” using a precision bombsight in daylight (they couldn’t) and the RAF, which went into carpet bombing wide civilian areas at night, the British side disregarded its own experience during the Blitz, that the raids had made the civilian population hate the bombers harder and strengthened resistance to them, thinking this wouldn’t apply in Germany because the people were “a different sort”. No stiff upper…A racialised argument within white supremacy, indicating that the British took it for granted they were ubermensch, but that it was rather vulgar to proclaim it.

All quotes from “The Bomber Mafia” by Malcolm Gladwell.

How Germans see the war in Ukraine

In a survey conducted recently by opinion research institute Forsa for the RTL / ntv “Trend barometer” there are very strong majorities for “the West” to initiate peace negotiations (Graph 1) for “Western leaders” to keep talking to Russian President Putin (Graph 2).

While there is majority support for supporting Ukraine at least at the current level about a quarter of people think that it is too much, balancing similar numbers who think it too little (graph 3) but there is equally strong opposition to specific escalation (graph 4).

Opinion in the UK – with less dependence on Russian gas and a bigger role for the military in its national psyche – is more bellicose, but the strong sentiment for the sort of peace negotiations that China and India have called for in the key state in the EU indicates that its government will face increasing difficulties in maintaining a pro war stance as the winter crisis unravels.

The Emperor still has no clothes…

This is a write up of my notes for the Teach the Future Teach In on 27th August. It misses out some ad libs and includes other notes that were skipped over, so doesn’t act as a precise script for the recording due out shortly.

Organising on climate in the trade union movement means we need to grasp that its vital for working class organisations not just to react to the crisis but to lead on resolving it.

Last year’s OXFAM report noted that the rapidly increasing carbon footprints of the top 10% of the global population will take us above 1.5C on their own, regardless of what the rest of us do.

The poorest 50% have a negligible carbon footprint. What might be called the “upper middle” 40% – which includes most of us here, working class people in the Global North and better off people in the Global South – have a carbon footprint that is shrinking.

The struggle for a sustainable climate is therefore a class struggle against the unsustainable overconsumption of the wealthy.

If you look at the organising core of climate denialism it combines the corporate interests of fossil fuel companies and an activist cadre of extremely wealthy men, like Lord Lawson.

Global Crisis

The problem is that attempts to deal with climate breakdown have to go through the existing machinery of power, which maintain current economic relations.

This is very marked in the United States, which has been the world’s leading economic, political and military power since at least 1945. They are failing to lead.

This is not just because they are spending twenty times as much on their military as they are on climate investment, but because their whole model of society – all those sprawling gas hungry suburbs, short haul flights, lack of high speed rail or decent metro systems in most cities, the celebration of individualised alienated mass consumption to fill the holes in their souls – generates the third biggest per capita carbon footprint in the world. Only Saudi Arabia and Australia are worse. “The American Way of Life” is not a viable model of the future anymore – even for the US itself.

They are now also exporting record quantities of fracked LNG and Oil. The power of fossil fuel interests buying up votes in Congress means there is a see saw between outright Trumpish denialism and limited half measures like the Reduce Inflation Act – which combines both vital investment in green energy and lets further fossil fuel projects off the leash. The passage of this Act means that John Kerry will no longer be walking naked into the conference chamber at COP. He’ll be trying to maintain his dignity in his underpants.

There is a strongly held view in the Global South that climate breakdown is a problem for the Global North to fix, on the basis that the world’s richest countries – the USA, Canada, EU, UK, Japan, Australia etc – are responsible for 90% of historic carbon emissions. “You broke it. You fix it”. That is sometimes put vehemently in India and is a strongly held view in parts of China too.

But in China that is shifting.

A friend of mine who works for a Chinese University tells me that for the last few years there have been two to three conferences a week on aspects of climate change up and down the country. Xi Jinping talks a lot about the need to build an “Ecological Society”. They are currently investing one and a half times as much in green transition as they are in their military. It is currently expected that their 2030 target for renewables will be met by 2026 and coal – on which they are still heavily dependent – is being redefined as a support for a grid based on renewables not the other way round. The speed with which this can be achieved is vital for all of us (both in its direct effects but also in providing a developmental model for other Global South countries).

More negatively, the failure of the Global North countries to transfer the $100 billion needed as a bottom line for the Global South to cope with climate impacts and develop without recourse to fossil fuels has led to the African Union planning to demand at the COP that Africa’s reserves of oils and gas are developed to alleviate poverty. With Global North countries developing their own reserves, they don’t have a leg to stand on if they want to oppose this.

Britain

We are about to move from Boris Johnson’s inverted pyramids of patriotic piffle – pie in the sky “world leading” targets with no plans to meet them just to strike a pose – to Liz Truss – who will be worse.

While Truss formally supports the Net Zero 2050 target for the UK, she says she finds the sight of solar farms in the countryside “depressing” and her response to the energy price crunch is to use it to boost oil and gas production and exploration in the North Sea, while rejecting a windfall tax on energy producers, lift the ban on fracking while opposing onshore wind – none of which will reduce bills.

She is backed by Lord Frost – known to his friends as “Frosty the No Man” – who opined in the week of our 40C heatwave, during which the Fire Brigade had more call outs than at any time since the second World War, that he saw “no evidence” of a climate emergency in the UK and instead of the “medieval technology” of wind power, favours measures to “master our environment”, like fracking and nuclear. She is also backed by Steve Baker and the Net Zero Scrutiny Group (a really bad name for a band) and is anticipated to put go slowers like Jacob Rees Mogg in the cabinet.*

The paradox here is that you could have such a dynamic Tory narrative in favour of Onshore Wind. They could say – “let’s cut the red tape and let the market work its magic!” Or, in the name of “energy security” they could paint them red, white and blue and call them “Freedom Farms”, stand in front of them for a poster with the slogan “Its Britain’s Wind!” Why don’t they do that? Perhaps because fossil fuels are more profitable than renewables and they want to maintain market share regardless of the cost (in all respects).

The good news here is that they are already so unpopular that just about everything they do will be discredited just because its them doing it. Liz Truss – a hard person to warm to – will not get a honeymoon period.

Schools

Who said this?

“The challenge of climate change is formidable. For children and young people to meet it with determination and not with despair we must offer them not just truth, but also hope. Learners need to know the truth about climate change…they must also be given the hope that they can be agents of change.”

Nadhim Zahawi said that at the launch of the DFE Net Zero Strategy in April. Of course, his pitch for Conservative leader a couple of months later was to cut 20% from all government budgets, so…

Four questions for us to think about.

  1. In the context of increased economic pressure on schools, with energy costs up 93% on last year, leading to pressure for cuts down to bare bones provision (4 day weeks, cutting all staff not teaching core subjects have both been floated) will the positive initiatives from the Net Zero Strategy – like the National Nature Park, the requirement for all schools to appoint sustainability leads in 2023 – be dropped as “green crap” and the DFE Sustainability Unit with them?
  2. In the context of a wholesale retreat from Net Zero targets by the Conservatives at national level, what milage is left in lobbying Conservative MPs (though we should never cease pointing out to them that dropping the 2050 targets would lose them 1.3 million votes) compared with getting opposition parties likely to form the next government on a sound policy? The point here is that a government visibly on the skids is leaching power even while still in office and the statement “We will undo this” by Shadow Ministers cuts the ground out from new initiatives and sets the agenda even before the old government falls.
  3. In the context of denialists/go slowers “crisis, what crisis” types dominating the cabinet, how far is the current DFE “impartiality guidance” – which says that the science is set and denialism invalid, but the debate on what we do about it has to be done in a “non Partisan” way, that blocks support for particular campaigns or initiatives but allows debate to be had, so long as no one view is promoted, allows personal views to be stated, as long as they are identified as such and its made clear other views are available – be replaced with straight forward “war on woke” from the top? **
  4. What scope is there for a campaign for school insulation on the TUC Report, to directly cut energy costs and act as community hubs?

Lastly, watch out for the NEU Guide to Decarbonising the Curriculum – due out in November.

Thank you for having me.

* And so she has. At Business and Energy for goodness sake.

** The appointment of Jonathan Gullis, who refers to the NEU as the “No Education Union” and does not seem an open minded sort of chap, does not bode well.

Mourning in Late Britain

Living in the UK is a bit like living in a museum, in which popular culture is encouraged to steep in nostalgia for lost status. This can be quite bitter, rather like an over stewed pot of tea.

An aspect of early industrialisation and former global dominance here is the survival by inertia of archaic forms of governance mostly abandoned or overthrown elsewhere. Our Head of State has just changed, not by election and not on any political timetable, but because of biology. The former Queen was 96 and as healthy as anyone could be expected to be at that age; but died last week just two days after seeing Boris Johnson off, and Liz Truss in, as Prime Minister.

This is probably entirely coincidental. But we now have a new Head of State and new Prime Minister in the same week, in a bizarre two for one offer. From Elizabeth II and Boris Johnson to Charles III and Liz Truss. “Oh, brave new world that hath such people in it!”

As a result, we are now in a strange pause of “national mourning” in which almost everything is on hold. While they haven’t gone so far as to stop all the clocks, strikes by Rail and Postal workers have been suspended, the TUC postponed, no Party meetings or campaigning is taking place, Parliament has shut down, the media is wall to wall black suits mobilising a tsunami of deference for the old monarch and the new: even the football is cancelled for a week of Sundays, the last two Proms have been scrapped “out of respect” and the music on the Radio has a definite decaffeinated quality. Charles III declaring that this mourning period will extend to 7 days beyond the funeral is probably his first mistake. People will be grumbling.

More to the point, while everyone catches a breath, the underlying crises of what might be called “Late Britain” are building beyond a point that they can all be peacefully contained. In his first address to the nation, Charles III intoned gravely that “our values have remained, and must remain, constant.”

Fat chance of that.

The 2008 crash shattered the notion that things might go on relatively well or relatively badly, but it was all, ultimately, manageable. This went out the door with the boxes carried by the sacked employees of Lehman Brothers. Politics in the UK became more intense, and the unthinkable thought. Much of it fantasy.

This was writ large with Brexit – the notion that with one mighty bound, the UK could free itself from the shackles of EU restrictions holding back its natural market genius and long lost ubermench status, and go sailing off into the wider world, striking “easy” trade deals on favourable terms, especially with countries in the Global South; an approach openly referred to as “Empire 2” in some parts of Whitehall. Wishful thinking as policy.

This has not worked. Levels of private investment and private sector R&D – never high in the UK – have sunk to historic lows. So has growth. Poverty, particularly child poverty, has increased. Wage levels have stagnated or sunk. People in work are having to use food banks in ever increasing numbers. Life expectancy in poorer areas is dropping. People are having fewer children. The future no longer looks like a promise, more like a threat. And that’s leaving aside climate breakdown – which is exactly what they are now trying to do.

Since Brexit, the Tories are now on their third Prime Minister. Each replacement has been a move further right, with wider still and wider Brexit as goal and talisman. In the leadership election campaign over the summer, both candidates were agreed on the aims of deepening Brexit – decoupling the UK from the EU’s environmental and labour standards so the UK becomes more like the USA – but disagreed on the pace of it.

Liz Truss represents a minority of her Parliamentary Party – most of whom supported her rival, Rishi Sunak. Truss’s cabinet rests solely on her own faction – most of whom have essence of Ayn Rand on a drip feed into what passes for their souls – and promises war on all fronts. Stalling on climate action. War drive against Russia and China. Confrontation with the EU – and USA – over the Northern Ireland Protocol. Confrontation with the SNP. Redistribution of wealth up to those who don’t need it from those who do. Attacks on the right to strike and organise. Privatisation of the Health Service. Tearing up all remaining alignment with EU standards on labour and environment standards. War on woke (ie equalities). It’s hard to imagine that this will go well.

Her speech in Downing Street spelled out three priorities and challenges.

She did not mention climate breakdown, which makes everything else she said a form of displacement activity while we are waiting to die. Her list of infrastructure to invest in did not mention insulation but had roads in first place. Truss is backed by the Net Zero Scrutiny Group and Lord Frost, who opined during the week local temperatures exceeded 40C that he saw “no evidence” of a climate crisis, has appointed Jacob “2050 is a long way away” Rees Mogg to energy, plans to open up 130 new gas and oil fields in the North Sea and remove the ban on fracking, opposes onshore wind and rural solar farms. This is proclaimed as a way of increasing domestic energy supply in the face of rising prices, with the implication that this will ease the pressure on bills. It won’t. The quickest sources of low cost additional energy is onshore wind and solar, which she opposes. New North Sea gas and oil fields take 28 years to come into production on average. So, approval now will see them on stream in 2050 which, as Rees Mogg might remark “is a long way away”. It is also the point at which we need to have closed down fossil fuel production almost entirely if we want a planet we can live on. This is a kind of madness and a sign that these people are incapable of rising to the actual challenge of our time and, if left in power, will instead lead us to disaster.

Of the three, her first aim was to “get Britain working again”. This is curious, because employment levels are high, albeit often poorly paid, part time, insecure. Her “bold plan” is to make tax cuts and “reform”. Reform means greater insecurity for workers, greater “flexibility” for employers. Tax cuts benefit people with higher incomes most; which Truss formulates as a reward for “hard work”. In her book, people on low incomes don’t work hard and therefore deserve everything they get. Her presumption is that increased disposable incomes for the better off will lead to greater demand and therefore spark “business led” investment. But increased demand without investment, which is what we’ll get, will just fuel inflation, as it did in the US and beyond, with Joe Biden’s stimulus package. At best, this will be a clumsily inequitable way to try to partially counteract the recessionary impact of higher prices for necessities and increased interest rates leading to reduced demand across the board but seems guaranteed to entrench inflation into stagnation. It serves a political purpose of trying to keep the better off on board with the Conservatives, pulling the ladder up beneath them, consolidating a core vote and preventing total political meltdown. It may not be enough, even for that.

Her second is to “deal with the energy crisis”. The rise in fossil fuel prices started long before the Ukraine war and is now structured into the global economy, but the upward twist the war gave it could be resolved by a push for peace negotiations. As the Financial Times put it, “This coming winter will bring a reckoning. Western governments must either invite economic misery on a scale that would test the fabric of democratic politics in any country, or face the fact that energy supply constrains the means by which Ukraine can be defended.” As it is, Truss sabre rattles in faraway countries of which she knows little, and sometimes can’t pronounce, is pressing for a sharp increase in military spending to 3% of GDP, will try to ride out the economic misery, and will try to tear “the fabric of democratic politics” to do so.

She is standing on thin ice. But she will jump up and down on it all the same.

With UK based fossil fuel companies scheduled to make £170 billion in excess profits in the next two years, she has chosen not to impose a windfall tax on any of it. Shell, her former employer, paid £0 in UK tax in 2021, and she obviously thinks this is the way to go. Instead, the state will borrow up to £150 billion this year alone to subsidise energy costs at £2500 per household per year for the next two years (until the next General Election). Though the details of exactly how this scheme will work are still unclear, this heads off an immediate meltdown, as prices were projected to go up to over £5,000 by January, putting more than half of the population into fuel poverty. But this is still a rise of £600 on current levels, which are already pushing a lot of people into arrears (and this is during the Summer in which most people have their heating off and are just using their boilers to heat water, so this will still be a grim winter on this front and vulnerable elderly people are expected to die).

This is just one aspect of a general inflationary crisis, with prices rising at 13% a year (and projected to rise to 18% next year) while wages are falling well behind. Employers who are offering any rises at all are trying to lock workers into two or three year deals at below the current inflation rate while also proposing “modernisation” (a euphemism to cover cuts in holiday entitlement, pensions, safety measures, extra payments for unsocial hours etc). This is sparking a revival of trade union struggle, support and membership. Rail workers and Post Office workers and Barristers (!) are already engaged in a prolonged series of strikes and these, despite frantic efforts in the media to demonise and divide and rule, are very popular with the public, because everyone is under the cosh in the same way. Union leaders like RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch have become media stars and gained a lot of resonance putting straightforward common sense arguments that workers shouldn’t be expected to carry the can for the crisis when private companies are making massive profits, opening up a space in the mainstream for broadly socialist ideas for the first time since the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn in 2019.

Smaller scale and hard fought local or sectional disputes have often won substantial gains for the striking workers, so in the national disputes there has been a clear line from the government to the companies involved not to make any concessions at all, for fear that these struggles will become contagious. Truss aims to pass legislation to make strike action almost impossible to carry out legally, by imposing high ballot thresholds, while imposing “minimum service levels” if strikes do take place. If passed, in conditions of continued economic pressure, this will lead to what used to be called “wildcat” actions and, at the very least “quiet working” as the norm as resentful people struggle with an unfair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. The coordination of a prolonged series of one day stoppages in the existing disputes would provide a political focus both for the demands of the strikes and opposition to these measures that will spread far beyond them.

Her third priority is to “put our health service on a firm footing”. In her book, that means privatisation. US style labour and environment standards also imply US style health care. Needless to say, this is not popular, even among conservative supporters. When Boris Johnson put his big lie, that leaving the EU would save the UK £350 million a week” on the side of his campaign bus in 2016, the strap line was “let’s spend it on our NHS”. The “our” in that slogan is heartfelt across the country. Anyone who tries to break it up for private insurers to leach off will be well and truly loathed.

Truss could be an easy magnet for that. Trying very hard to be a two dimensional cardboard replica of Margaret Thatcher, she has the brass neck that comes as standard with Tory MPs, but also seems to have had a charisma and empathy bypass operation. It used to be said of Johnson that he was Teflon. Nothing stuck to him. It took a while, but it did in the end. That has never been said of Truss. Excruciating mash ups of her most embarrassing moments are doing the rounds on social media. Just google “Truss cheese speech” for an example. With Johnson’s calculated buffoonery it was possible to believe that, as the old Habsburg joke had it, “the condition of the realm might be terminal, but it’s not serious”. Truss doesn’t do humour, except unintentionally. And she has a gift for dropping unnecessarily antagonistic remarks which exacerbate crises that need emollience, like her comment that SNP leader and Scottish First Minister is an “attention seeker” who should be “ignored” or that workers in the UK are “the worst idlers in the world” who should “graft” more: which won’t exactly endear her to them.

As the polls turn south, the pound sinks slowly in the West, possibly dropping below parity with the dollar for the first time ever, and the nemesis of the 2024 General Election approaches for Tory MPs, expect trouble in Parliament as they fight like ferrets in a sack to keep their jobs. It has been reported that 12 of them have already written letters of no confidence, all ready to go. Some honeymoon period.

Nevertheless, I suspect that the calculation is that whatever they do, the Conservatives will probably be out at the next election in 2024, so they might as well go for broke in the meantime; in full confidence that an incoming Labour government led by Keir Starmer will reverse none of it. The task in the labour movement is to generate such a mobilisation against Truss’s measures that the momentum has to be carried over into government.

Stats for Socialists: Wages and Inflation

The government argues that wages should decline in value, because if they don’t, prices will go up.

There are six countries in the EU that have a system whereby wages are automatically increased to catch up with inflation every six months.

Their inflation rates in July were no worse than those in comparable countries.

Indexed countries in capitals

Looking at neighbouring countries, we can see here that Belgium, where the employers have a campaign to get rid of indexation as “unsupportable”, has a lower inflation rate than The Netherlands, which doesn’t have it, Slovenia, which has indexation, has a lower rate of inflation than Croatia, which does not.

And the UK has a higher rate of inflation than five out of six of the indexed countries, with only Slovenia being higher.

Workers are the victims of inflation, not the cause.

Kherson Quagmire bodes ill for NATO Narrative

“…military press releases tend to be loaded with so many euphemisms, elaborations and aggressive improvements on the truth that if placed in any body of water, they would sink immediately to the bottom” Malcolm Gladwell in The Bomber Mafia.

Information in wars is even more heavily controlled than it is in peacetime*. This is partly about what is reported and partly how. This is sometimes deliberate, sometimes an unconscious function of a set of ideas so taken for granted that contrary information becomes impossible to process. This can therefore be profoundly misleading. Reliance on solely Western/Global North/NATO sources for news on the Ukraine war produces a disorienting bubble in which it becomes necessary to believe that the Russians would shell a nuclear power station occupied by their own troops; because accepting that the Ukrainians are doing it disturbs an otherwise untroubled moral compass. As a trigger warning, this blog contains info from sources like the Military Summary channel and the Duran, which take info from both Russian and Ukrainian official statements as well as info sent in from people on the ground.

This is supplemented by analyses in specialised journals, like this one, which originally appeared in the Journal of the US Marine Corps, and is essential reading to understand both how the Russians have operated on all three fronts, and how this is viewed from within sections of the US military establishment – when they are not spinning a line for popular consumption as a TV talking head. This analysis is illuminating because it is not distorted by a need to emotionally manipulate its readers. A debate among serious military leaders has to be more objective than that, so they can be clear eyed about what they are dealing with; so the information given will be more objective than the prolefeed in the mass media.

However, Western media imperatives can lead to catastrophic developments on the ground if military actions are taken to provide raw material for politically necessary myths.

The current Kherson offensive is a case in point. At the time of writing (evening 5th September) it is unclear if the current stabilisation of the front line reflects the culmination of the attack, the point at which it runs out of steam, or whether it is an operational pause before another attempt to push forward.

In a Blog last week, I noted that this long heralded Ukrainian counter offensive to retake Kherson Region had not materialised and opined that it probably wouldn’t. I had quite a lot of company at the time. The day before it started, the Daily Telegraph – which has a huge retired military readership much in evidence in its letter columns actively taking a keen professional interest – published an article citing Ukrainian military sources saying that such an offensive was off the cards, because they didn’t have the air or artillery cover to make it viable.

While this may have been classic wartime misdirection – on the presumption that the Russian General Staff would read the Telegraph, relax and let their guard down – that assessment seems to be accurate and have borne out by events so far.

The Press Release from the British Ministry of Defence on Saturday that redefined this offensive as having “strictly limited tactical objectives” might be seen as a post facto rationalisation that, whatever the objectives at the outset, strictly limited tactical objectives appears to be all that it is achieving – at enormous cost to the soldiers sent into it; while seriously depleting Ukraine’s already limited stock of armoured vehicles at the same time. Gains of a few kilometers. Thousands of men dead to gain them. Like the Somme. Or Passchendaele. President Zelensky yesterday proudly proclaimed the reconquest of four small settlements – and a “marines at Iwo Jima” type photo of a soldier putting a flag up is doing the rounds – while the hospitals in every city behind the front line are full of wounded soldiers.

Sending thousands of infantrymen with limited and vulnerable armoured support across open fields without air cover or sufficient artillery backing, and expecting them to press on regardless potentially for 50 kilometres to reach the Dnieper River, is a forlorn hope. The terrain for the attack is doubly unfavourable because it is so open and flat. Very little in the way of woodland or built up areas. No cover. This is a contrast to the Donbass, which is heavily urbanised, with the main roads between major towns strung out with linear settlements almost all the way along.

Speculation that this offensive was ordered for political reasons against the advice of the General Staff appears vindicated by the way the Ukrainian military have published no bulletins at all about what’s going on – theirs not to reason why, but also theirs to reserve their right not to put a positive spin on it. A sort of silent protest.

The political reason for it being the need to give some backing to stories in the West/Global North that “the Ukrainians have the initiative”, as General Petraeus put it on one US News programme a day or two before the offensive went in. This is not because support from the ruling class in the West/Global North is in any question, as the Ukrainians are acting as proxy fighters for them, but support among their populations might. A couple of months in which the Russians have consolidated in Luhansk and made steady progress in Donetsk, and appear to be gearing up to push on to Mykolaiv, is not conducive to keeping NATO populations geared up for sustaining the cost of the war with their fuel bills over the Winter. The 70,000 strong demonstration in Prague on Sunday against energy prices and NATO being the first of many in prospect. If its all going tits up, the feeling that its time to cut losses becomes stronger; whatever anyone’s sympathies.

Nevertheless, an offensive which would require a minor miracle to be successful does not seem a very good way to try to go about this; and indicates a certain desperation.

Petraeus, in the same programme, used the revealing phrase IF Europe can survive this Winter”… (my emphasis) all will be well because the EU will have weaned itself off Russian gas and oil, which will hit Russia’s economy hard. He hasn’t noticed that the Russians are selling gas and oil east and south and will continue to do so, that their income from this has strengthened the rouble, and that some of this oil and gas is finding its way back to Europe; having been sold on at a mark up by countries like India and China. With the US itself now less willing to sell its own oil and gas overseas, to keep domestic prices down, whether Europe can survive this Winter without unpredictable upheavals that will bring down governments and put all sorts of issues up for question is doubtful. But it is also overshadowed by a deeper shift, that, having started out thinking they still held the whip hand that they are used to in weaponising energy, NATO countries find that they have accelerated a shift in global trade patterns and energy supply to their own disadvantage and the cost of their populations. Backing down would be a destabilising humiliating defeat, but not doing so risks upheavals that may be beyond their control in their own heartlands.

Back in Kherson, so far, these attacks have either gained a few kilometres, been held off, or driven back; or, in the case of one salient in the centre of the line south of the Ingulets river that defines the front line for quite some way, could have become a trap – with the three pontoon bridges that enabled the troops and their vehicles to get across, and provided their only escape route too, blown up – and the soldiers in it coming under ferocious bombardment; which has left the area littered with burnt out armour.

This offensive is beginning to look more like the last effort of the Iranian military in the Iran Iraq war – in which a comparable superiority in manpower enabled a push into an sparsely populated area of Southern Iraq, which then became a killing zone for superior Iraqi artillery – than the successful Croatian offensive into the Krajina in 1995 – in which better trained troops with superiority in artillery and tanks overwhelmed a strong but outclassed militia. The Ukrainians don’t have this.

A Russian push north of the same river on the edge of the pocket, has nevertheless been driven back by the Ukrainians, and they have captured the pontoon bridge the Russians constructed to get across. They will presumably now try to get resources across this bridge, either to reinforce or resupply the soldiers trapped in the pocket; or will have to try to use it to extricate them from an impossible position. Either way, this is a slender thread to be relying on, as anything moving across it in either direction will be a sitting duck for attack from the air or from artillery which will have it in their sights. And the bridge itself could be destroyed quite easily, unless the Russians calculate that it is to their advantage to keep it in being as a magnet for targets; as supplies, reinforcements or retreating troops are funnelled narrowly towards it.

So, it looks as though this attack will achieve neither its military nor its political objectives. If you listen solely to the news here, reporting of developments has been very limited, bigging up limited gains, within a framework of an upbeat view of the Ukrainian military’s potential for ultimate victory that fits rather well with Malcolm Gladwell’s comments at the top of this blog. The latest line from MiniDef is that the Russian army will mutiny this Winter; which reads very like wishful thinking.

How long they can keep this up with any credibility remains to be seen.

*Orwellian post script.

The description in Orwell’s 1984 of Winston Smith’s job falsifying propaganda – a real event eliminated here, a totally fictional one broadcast as truth there – drew directly on his experience of working for the British Ministry of Information during WW2.

This was housed in the University of London’s Senate House – then the tallest building in London and a model for the Ministry of Truth – and, as the University history puts it,  was “responsible for subterfuge, censorship and propaganda” for the duration.

Plus ca change…so, pinches of salt all round I think.

Senate House – The Ministry of Truth Photo David Alves. https://www.flickr.com/photos/64097751@N00/33631514211

Stats for Socialists: Why the Tories will cost the Earth – in both ways.

Both candidates for Conservative leader, and therefore Prime Minister, oppose onshore wind and favour new oil and gas exploration in the North Sea. This is motivated by the current increase in costs for oil and gas – which makes them expensive for consumers and profitable for producers.

The TUC released figures showing excess profits for UK based fossil fuel producers of £170 billion in the next two years. We could do an awful lot with a windfall tax on that. A rate of 56%, as currently used in Norway, would raise £90 billion. The projected prospective Norwegian rate of 78% more like £132 billion. And these are excess profits; so, taxing the lot wouldn’t be unreasonable, even for opponents of public ownership.

Even the lowest amount would pay for Labour’s proposed £26 billion investment to insulate our housing stock by 2035 three times over, with £12 billion left over to do the schools and hospitals too.

It is now 9 times more expensive to produce energy from gas than it is from renewables. But energy prices are set by the gas price. The EU is planning to cut that link so the cheaper energy from renewables can be reflected in prices. Keeping the link here in Brexit Britain would make energy here qualitatively more expensive than in the rest of Europe. The IMF reports that this is already the case.

Its hard to avoid the conclusion that the consensus resistance to insulation on the Right is because insulated homes reduce bills by reducing demand for an otherwise profitable product. And that would never do, would it?

It takes 28 years to bring new Oil and Gas fields on stream, compared to under two years for onshore wind and five for offshore.

Another way to put this is that we can have new onshore wind farms in operation by 2024.

Offshore wind projects starting now will come on stream in 2027.

New Oil and Gas fields given the go ahead now will take until 2050 – by which time we should have very little use for them if we want to survive.

Nuclear power plants take 7.5 years on average just to construct. Hinckley C is scheduled to take 9. The energy they produce is significantly more expensive than renewables. The government’s proposed Small Modular Reactors are even more expensive and not due to be rolled out until the 2030s.

Reports in the FT have indicated that new “agile” companies hoping to exploit North Seas fossil fuel reserves will bring them into production faster than has been the case hitherto. Which, presumably, is where the proposed scrapping of health, safety and environment regulations come in; so we can have a regime of deep sea oil drilling rigs as lightly regulated as the banks were before 2008.

What could possibly go wrong?

Stats for Socialists: CEO pay up by 39%.

According to figures from the High Pay Centre total pay for FTSE CEO’s has went up sharply in 2021.

It is now back up to over 109 times median UK full time average pay.

We want parity? Something to bear in mind next time some hack from the media repeats the government line about workers taking strike action being “greedy” for not wanting to get poorer, as their pay is eaten up by inflation, or wanting to keep a decent work life balance in face of the demands for “modernisation”, or – so selfish – wanting to keep their jobs.