Osborne’s ever decreasing circles: a self-fulfilling prophecy

In a nutshell, Mr Osborne’s Autumn Statement goes something like this:

“Last year I told you everything was awful, but I was wrong. It was much worse than that, and the much worse-ness isn’t my fault, just like the original awfulness wasn’t my fault. The latter was Labour’s fault, and the former is the Eurozone’s fault. In order to deal with the thing that was Labour’s fault, I had to cause a lot of people to be sacked, and those that weren’t sacked I had to cause to get a lot poorer by freezing their wages and increasing their taxes whilst at the same time I said to the Bank of England that it was OK to let inflation rip. This has worked wonderfully, with the small exception that no-one has now got any money, and so they can’t buy stuff, and also a lot of them no longer pay any taxes because I got rid of their jobs. Consequently they have now started scrounging on the state even more which is pretty thoughtless of them, but my mate Iain Duncan-Smith is doing his best to make scrounging more difficult, and I’m grateful to him for that. But despite his best efforts, the upshot has been that it’s costing me a lot more to keep all these idle people fed, whilst at the same time I’m not getting as much dosh into the coffers because of that tax problem I told you about. I fixed that by making people pay more VAT, but then the ungrateful bastards started buying even less stuff than before, and that’s caused a lot of my richer mates to have to get rid of their workers, and that’s added even more to the problem of idle people living off the state. So as I was saying, things are a lot worse now than when I started out on this thing.

“But I’d hate you to think I was a quitter, and more than that I’ve gone and kind of promised a lot of very rich people that they can lend me money quite safely, and so they’ve been doing me a bit of a cut price offer on their loans. If I don’t keep those promises it’s all going to get rather unpleasant and stuff, so I really need to keep them on board. To do that I’m going to have to get rid of a lot more jobs, probably up to about 700,000 instead of the 200,000 which was the number I first thought of, and I’m really sorry and all that, but what can I do? If those rich people cut up rough we’re all going to be in the doo-dah, but especially me because a lot of them are my old school mates, and their mums and dads know me, and they know my mum and dad, and you know, it’s all rather embarrassing when I’m down at the club.

“Don’t think I haven’t noticed that if I add a further 500,000 to the dole queue it’s going to mean I get less in in the way of taxes, and I’m also going to have a lot more idle people to support, and people aren’t going to be able to buy stuff, and then more people are going to be idle, expecting me to pay for them, and, er, well, I know it looks a bit strange, but I’m really sure that a bit more of what’s made it all go so horribly wrong will make it go all right in the future.

“But just in case it doesn’t, and this is where I think you’ll find I’ve been particularly clever, I’ve decided to get out of some of my future commitments by changing the pension rules mid-game, and although it seems to have pissed a couple of million people off today, they’ll soon get over it, and by the time it really hits home I’ll have retired and to be honest I won’t really care that much anyway.

“And if that doesn’t work either, I’ve arranged for a massive distraction by my secret chums in the Eurozone, who will help me out a lot of they really fuck that all up and then I’ll be able to point at them and say that there was nothing I could have done anyway.

“And so I commend this statement to the House, and I hope it finds you as it leaves me, and now I’m off to Brussels to see how that Eurozone fuck-up’s going, and see if I can’t make it all a bit more difficult for them. Toodle-pip. Love, George”

I want to be a cardiologist

Well, no, not actually me. I’m far too old a dog to learn so sophisticated a set of new tricks. The speaker is one of a number of young people I’ve been “interviewing” today. I’ve put interviewing in inverted commas because in one sense these interviews weren’t real. They were practice sessions that we provided to Year 11 students at our local secondary school, and there were no jobs on offer. But in another sense the interviews were very real indeed. They weren’t rôle plays: those of us interviewing the young people weren’t teachers that they knew well, but real managers in a real business, asking them real questions. Many of them were very nervous indeed.

It’s a cliché to note that young people get a bad press. That rioting shoplifters get a degree of attention that kids simply getting on with their lives do not. That truanting, alienated youngsters are held up to public ridicule and disapprobation, whilst those going to school and doing their homework are not held up to anything, least of all praise or encouragement. Even more so is it the modern mythology that contemporary schools, especially inner-city ones, are hot-beds of ill-discipline and plummeting academic standards.

As ever, the facts bear little relation to the jealously guarded narratives that assure us things are always getting worse, and that hell awaits our out-of-control and careering hand cart. The school whose students I had the privilege to talk with today had not hand-picked its best and brightest. The entire Year 11 were out and about at employers like us, and I have no reason whatever to assume that the students we received were anything but a typical sample. Two stood out in particular. One was the aspiring cardiologist of this piece’s title. Teenagers today, we all know, are barely articulate illiterates, yet this young man told me with moving and devastating openness that his desire to be a cardiologist was based on his determination to prevent for others the premature death from a heart attack that had taken his own father. He also told me about how his desire to be successful was in large part a way of discharging his debt of gratitude to his mother. She had given up her own desires in order to ensure that as far as was possible he and his brother and sister were not disadvantaged by their father’s death.

The second was a young man who had been a refugee when a baby, and had settled in Scandinavia. He then came to this country unable to speak or read a word of English, just in time to enter secondary school. I asked him how he had coped. He told me, in an entirely matter of fact kind of way, that he had to admit that it had taken him 3 or 4 weeks to get sufficient proficiency in English to allow him properly to join in lessons. Such sluggardly progress reflected rather poorly on the 47 years it’s taken me to become even vaguely fluent in French. His language was now, a mere 4 years later, indistinguishable from any native speaker, and entirely devoid of accent. His ambition was to study criminal psychology: he wanted to understand what it was that “made some people do such bad things”. I could wish that the average reader of tabloid newspapers showed as much maturity, and as little desire to fling miscreants in jail and chuck away the key.

I was left feeling both hugely uplifted, and horribly anxious. Uplifted, because these youngsters so comprehensively dismantled the myths about feckless and disengaged youth. But anxious because, in the week that the numbers of unemployed young people passed the 1,000,000 mark, I wondered how many of our kids, equally as bright, committed, and serious as these, would be left to waste their talents, and perhaps even more terribly, their spirits on the dole queue of our collective economic incompetence.

Should damaging your own health be against the law? Apparently so, if you ask the BMA

I don’t smoke. As it happens, I don’t think you should, either, if you do. Watching those huddled groups of furtive smokers at the back of my office, I have to confess that my unguarded, but instinctive, response is one of contempt. “Get a grip of your life!” I want to shout. “How can you allow yourself to be obliged by your frankly disgusting habit to shiver in the icy blast ripping through this grim bus-shelter-like affair? Have you no pride?” I don’t, of course, partly because I’m far too polite, and partly because I recognise that it’s none of my damned business.

But I confess to these unworthy emotions in order to make it crystal clear that I hold no brief for smoking. I do, from time to time, enjoy a nice cigar on a sunny afternoon in my back garden, but as for a 20-a-day fag habit, I really can’t be sympathetic. So I cannot be accused of special pleading. But whereas I do recognise that it’s none of my damned business if some of my comrades have decided to behave with a cheery and ill-advised disregard for their personal health, the British Medical Association signally fails to do the same.

It wishes to ban, under pain of breaking the law, anyone from smoking in their own car. This is because, they claim, that smoking in a car creates a 23-fold increase in the noxiousness of the air within it compared with that in a smoky bar. At the very least they must be judging that from memory since smoky bars are already banned, but we’ll let that pass. How reassuringly precise seems that 23 times multiplier. It must be scientific. Well, that’s the kind of “scientific” claim that lets them down, the public down, and indeed everybody down. The best that can be said is that smoking in a confined space increases the concentration of toxins in the air. I think I could probably have worked that out for myself since it is blindingly obvious.

But the argument with the BMA is not at root an argument about the science that they quote. Even if they were not grossly simplifying for effect, and their faux-precision were correct, they would still be wrong to call for this ban. If I eat a disgusting McDonald’s quadruple hamburger with added plastic cheese in my car, I am not only offending against taste and decency, but I am also endangering my health. Am I to be banned from doing so? If I buy a bag of barley sugars, and consume them in my car, am I to be hauled before the beak because of the damage I’ve done to my dental health?

There is an infinity of choice before me if I want to cause myself damage. The fact that I might decide to cause that damage to myself in my car hardly seems a relevant consideration. The BMA need to stop lecturing us on how to behave. They are right to point out, in as much graphic detail as they wish, the consequences of this, that, or the other dangerous personal habit. And then they need to shut up. I’m an adult, and I’m perfectly capable of making such decisions for myself.

Kicking the cat: Theresa May follows in the ignominious footsteps of Ed Balls

There’s one thing that marks out the modern politician, no matter which party you look at, from their more illustrious forebears. It is their extreme unwillingness to accept personal accountability, and the concomitant extreme willingness to blame others.

That’s bad enough when the blamee, if that word exists, is another politician. That happens so often, especially between different administrations, that we hardly even register it. But when the butt of this unsavoury blame culture is an official, it’s even worse. Public servants have not made any decision to engage in the dirty tricks of the political circus. They are simply trying to get on with their often extremely complex, difficult, stressful and exposed jobs, and have no public platform from which to denounce their persecutors. Once the “open” borders scandal broke, Theresa May lost no time whatever in heaping obloquy on Brodie Clark, publicly destroying his reputation ahead of any investigation to ascertain the facts. Sharon Shoesmith’s fate was exactly the same when it appeared to Ed Balls to be to his political advantage to hang her out to dry over the Baby Peter débâcle.

Today, in front of the Select Committee, Brodie Clark got a public opportunity to expose his maltreatment, for which I suppose he should be grateful since Sharon Shoesmith had to wait an awful lot longer before her partial vindication came to public light at an Employment Tribunal.

In their behaviour, both Ed Balls and Theresa May reveal themselves to be thoroughly disreputable and untrustworthy people, and morally bankrupt to boot. They cared not a fig for natural justice – a particularly devastating weakness in a politician who, as May does, has responsibility for law and order. But then she’s a recidivist in these matters: one casts one’s mind back to her disgraceful posturing during the riots, attempting to adorn herself with the mantle of saviour of Britain’s streets when in fact all along it was the police chiefs who decided to change tactics, not the politicians. Then, at the Tory Party conference, she told what was in effect a bare-faced lie about immigrants and their cats. The more I think about Theresa May, the more I come to the conclusion that she is indeed a very unpleasant woman.

Having said that, I fear we must all acknowledge that we get the politicians we deserve. We want hermetically sealed borders, but don’t want to be delayed more than a micro-second when we return, tired and irritable, from our motorway trek to Calais, or our over-night flight from the Maldives. We want social workers that will spot a potential child-abuser at fifty paces and a decade before he offends, but want them to achieve this remarkable feat without ever enquiring into our own lives, or suspecting us of anything. We want a police force that will never let a crime be committed, but which will never stop us in the street and question us either. We want teachers that will rule schools with rods of iron, but who will never look at our precious little Tyrone with even the slightest frown of disapproval. In short, it seems almost that we want to be lied to, to be deceived, to be colluded with and reassured that we can have as many cakes as we want, and yet stuff our faces with them at the same time. And do so, of course, without ever getting fat.

And so the deceitful, blaming, sound-bite obsessed, unpleasant politician has evolved to provide us with exactly what we appear to want: to be protected from our own foolish and contradictory desires. So perhaps we have no right to moan. Perhaps, even, Balls and May do us a favour by lifting the veil. It still stinks, though. I hope most fervently that Mr Brodie Clark wins his constructive dismissal case. Not that it will make any difference. Theresa May will be far too brazen to resign, and Mr Cameron far too craven to sack her.

Thou shalt love the Market thy God, with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength

So now the markets have turned their attention to Italy. And, it seems, the markets are not to be trifled with. As they devoured Greece, and then Ireland, and then Portugal, so they are licking their lips at the prospect of Italy. When the 10-year yields on government bonds for those other Eurozone countries reached 7%, it was not long before they could no longer afford to make their next debt payments. They all protested fiercely that they would not, despite that, require bailing out, but bailed out they all were. Today, Italy’s 10-year yields reached 6.73%, and so the pattern looks set to be repeated. Except that it won’t. The former, relatively small economies, could be bailed out, but Italy cannot. An impasse if ever there was one.

We are all wearily familiar with this scenario, and with the way that it’s presented, so much so that we no longer really absorb what it means. But what it means is this: that “the markets” are calling the shots. They are no longer a means to an end, but are now the driving force catapulting whole peoples into penury, and the appeasement of which now justifies the setting aside of democracy itself. If the Greeks have the temerity to call elections, then the markets will punish them. The markets are to be obeyed.

But what are the markets? Not very long ago the markets were essentially a club of rather amateurish gentlemen who amused themselves by playing the tables just as they might at Monte Carlo. But now the markets are fundamentally an algorithm. Mathematicians have built models of a complexity that is equalled only by their blind foolishness. The algorithms have started to bet amongst themselves. If you want to imagine a technocratic dystopia, don’t worry about crazed robots taking over nuclear weapons installations and blowing us all to smithereens. In fact, you don’t have to imagine anything at all. You just have to observe what is already happening.

The logic as dictated by the markets goes something like this. If you, as a sovereign country, want to borrow some more money, and we, the markets, have decided you’re a bit of a risk, then we’ll up your interest rate. You’ll have to pay up, because if you don’t you’ll have to default. If you default, your banks will collapse. If your banks collapse, your citizens will riot. But hang about. Jacking up the interest rate makes that default ever more likely. And on top of that, it’s the banks who are mostly the very same market players that are demanding ever higher yields in the first place. That’s why default on sovereign debt will cause those banks to collapse. So the algorithms which make the banks raise their lending demands are feeding into the algorithms that calculate the banks’ likely collapse, which feed into the algorithms driving the currency exchanges, that feed into the algorithms that underlie the stock markets, and so it all goes on.

But when we talk about markets as if they were some primaeval force like tectonic plates, or ocean currents, that we can do nothing about, and which have an almost independent life of their own that is beyond our control or intervention, and that follow laws that cannot be altered just as if they were laws of nature, then effectively we have made the markets into a God. We have surrendered our sovereignty, our democratic and social futures, to a vengeful deity that will punish us if we do wrong.

But we created the markets. We can uncreate them, change them, make them serve us again. We do not have to live in fear of them. We do not inevitably have to serve them. Suppose we decided that we will not accept a yield above, say, 5%. What would happen? The free marketeer will tell us that the heavens will fall. That no-one will lend to Italy, and that Italy will then default. But who will lose first if Italy defaults? Surely it is those who have already lent Italy money. And who is that? Generally it’s those very institutions that are demanding ever higher yields. So surely the challenge to the markets is simple. Accept lower yields, or have Italy default. Take your pick.

But we daren’t offend the God of the market with such blasphemy. We daren’t call its bluff. The God of the market is a cruel God indeed, and it will surely punish those that cross it. Really? Like all the Gods before it, I suspect that this latest God may turn out to be more easily defied than we feared. I’m feeling lucky. How about you?

Britain’s supermarket class wars

As traumatic and depressing experiences go, I suppose I’d have to concede that a visit to an Asda supermarket doesn’t really rank up there with divorce, bereavement or supporting the England football team. But nonetheless, had it not been for the fact that a perfectly blue Manchester sky greeted my emergence from one of the city’s Asda emporia, lifting my spirits and filling me with the joys of, well, Harpurhey, then I seriously think I might have sunk into a prolonged decline. I felt almost dirty, and that by dint of the mere fact that I’d spent 15 minutes in the shop’s dark, windowless interior, my health had probably been compromised for good.

A snobbish over-reaction I hear you fulminate, and you are of course perfectly correct. But reactions, even snobbish and exaggerated ones, have to have something to react to. There can be no doubt, it seems to me, that British supermarkets (or, more accurately, supermarkets that operate in Britain, since Asda is an American-owned enterprise these days) have deliberately and with great precision aligned themselves to different segments of the market, segments that are unashamedly driven by Britain’s continuing obsession with class.

Class in Britain is like one of those squidgy toys that, when you push them in at one point, simply and immediately respond by protruding at another. No matter how hard you try, every effort to undermine and get rid of our class consciousness merely succeeds in creating new and ever more nuanced class distinctions. Whereas middle-class used to mean that you at least knew what balsamic vinegar was, it now requires one to be able to distinguish between cheap and cheerful brands that even Asda might sell on the one hand, and £50 a bottle sticky confections made by Italian artisans on the other. Olive oil was once something for all classes to shove in wax-blocked ears, but now it shoots off into the stratosphere of single estate, stone-squashed, unfiltered vintages every bit as obscure and over-priced as any Bordeaux grand cru classé you might care to imagine, and to which heights only the seriously middle-class can follow.

If you thought that it was only food that differentiated the class-stratified supermarkets, you’d be very wrong indeed. Food does perhaps lead the way – sadly I was unable to purchase the matured Manchego cheese I was looking for in Asda, which seemed to be more interested in offering me garish processed “Cheddar” called, improbably enough, Mexicana, which appeared to consist of a kind of orange rubber speckled with brightly coloured fragments of peppers and chillies that were redder and greener than any pepper had the slightest right to be. But it by no means stops there. I think there’s a PhD to be had for the bright scholar who maps out a correlation between the acreage of window that a supermarket sports, and the class of its clientèle. Asda had no windows at all, and instead it was lit by a greenish and wan fluorescent glow that perhaps was designed to mask the sallow complexions of the literally benighted customers. By contrast, Waitrose shops all seem to have access to daylight, whilst Morrison’s and Sainsbury’s settle for an uneasy compromise in which the deeper one penetrates towards the in-store (how I hate that expression!) bakery the further one leaves the daylight behind.

Then there’s colour scheme. Asda goes for a perky and slightly phosphorescent green that contrives to clash with all its customers’ clothes simultaneously. Morrison’s adopts green and yellow, but at least it’s a yellow and a green that look as if something in nature might also be that yellow or that green. Sainsbury’s plumps for a strenuous orange, only partially compensated by its more sombre blue bed-fellow. Tesco has a faintly patriotic blue and red approach which is simply strident rather than symbolic. Waitrose, by contrast, has no dominant colour scheme, but flits stylishly between earthy hues which change with the food departments themselves.

Perhaps even more telling is the arrangement of the store. Waitrose, Morrison’s and Sainsbury’s seem united in the idea of putting the fresh fruit and vegetables near the entrance. It seems to give the optimistic message that if you’ve popped in just for a moment and in a great hurry to obtain something to deal with your peckishness, it might be that you’re looking for an apple. Not Asda. No, their hurried but peckish clients are clearly after a packet of Monster Munch. If you want fresh vegetables in Asda, you’ll need to have brought your hiking boots, and have a leisurely half hour to spend actually finding the stuff. As for Tesco, I can never find anything in their shops anyway.

But what is chicken, and what egg? I don’t ask this from a strictly poultry perspective, but more from a philosophical one. Are these class distinctions, so carefully defined and maintained by the supermarkets, creating and deepening the existing stratifications of our society, or are they merely reflecting and following the distinctions we’ve all made anyway? I suspect that it’s all a symbiotic and mutually reinforcing relationship in which neither is following the other, but in which neither leads, either. Although price is important, I don’t think it’s really determining. So much of our food now is comoditised, and supermarkets compete so fiercely that even Waitrose, that paragon of the middle-class extravagant shopper, is now obliged to reassure me constantly that Tesco is no cheaper. And indeed, Tesco is a bit different. I said a moment ago that I can never orient myself in their shops, and I think this is a consequence of their variability. Rather than aim for one single social stratum, Tesco seems to try and blend in with its stores’ particular class backdrops. In posh places, Tesco seems like Waitrose. In less posh ones, it seems like Asda. And of course, more than any other supermarket, it’s everywhere.

Other countries don’t seem to echo this class-based supermarket self-definition. In France, whether it’s Carrefour, Leclerc or Intermarché, the experience seems broadly the same. The same as each other, I hasten to add. Not the same as in Britain. That’s quite easy to explain though. By and large, French supermarkets still sell food. Like, stuff you not only can, but might even want, to eat. And that’s very different from all of the above.

The Church of England’s political incompetence is strangely reassuring

Not even Anglicanism’s best and most faithful friends (of whose number I proudly count myself) could reasonably argue other than that their beloved church has made a spectacular pig’s ear of the whole Occupy London Stock Exchange protest and encampment. The protesters have been in the church’s favour, out of it, in it again, out of it, in it, and generally shaken all about in their uneasy relationship with their camp-site’s landlord. It’s easy to poke fun, and of course many in the media have been queueing up to do just that. The benefits of hindsight have rarely been on more conspicuous display, and to pontificate with the advantage of those benefits about the uselessness of the actions of those who have not enjoyed them is easy, if hardly edifying, sport.

The church was always going to be damned if it did, and damned if it didn’t. That might be a consequence of the church’s disorganisation, but in a much more profound sense it’s an inevitable consequence of the infuriating way in which its founder defies easy categorisation, and refuses to be dragooned into straightforward alliance as much with bankers as with protesters. For every facile rendition of quotations about rendering to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, there is an equally facile appeal to quotations about the eyes of needles. Those that claim there is some simple and self-evident moral necessity for the church to align itself with the protesters and eschew the bankers are mistaken. Jesus does not castigate riches per se: he merely, but unwaveringly, points to the debilitating effect on our moral well-being of allowing ourselves to use riches as a way of assessing our own and others’ worth. It is as wrong to judge a banker as worthless because they are rich as it is to judge a rough sleeping youth as worthless because they are poor. Equally it is not riches, but the love of riches, which corrupts us morally. And you don’t have to be rich to love riches, after all.

So the church’s attitude to the protesters on its doorstep was always going to have to be nuanced if it was going to remain faithful in its witness. And nuance is not what anyone who is desperate to see the church take sides wants to be bothered with.

What, then, should the church have done? I believe it should have stuck more clearly and more steadfastly to its fundamental purpose of ministering to the people, rather than appear to be vacillating this way and that under pressure from first one side, and then the other, in this divisive set of circumstances. It is not the church’s concern to worry about the rights and wrongs of camping on the public highway. It is not even its primary concern to worry overly much about health and safety, and certainly not to use health and safety as a fig-leaf to cover its embarrassment. The church should indeed be on the side of the poor and oppressed, but it does not necessarily follow that that is the same side as the protesters. It may be. It may not. It is also the role of the church to be on the side of the rich and powerful, in the sense that rich and powerful people are indeed also people about whom the church should care. The proper care of the rich and powerful may consist mostly in calling them to repentance, of course.

So if I’d been in the Chapter of St Paul’s I’d have been organising a rota for saying mass amongst the protesters, and challenging them to assess their protest in the light of the gospel. Old fashioned, I know. I’d also have been doing the same in Paternoster Square amongst the bankers. The modern church feels embarrassed by such ideas, and wants instead to promote itself as politically engaged and relevant, and as some sort of political arbitrator. I think it’s a mistake, if for no other reason than that the Church is so politically incompetent. And of course, that’s where I came in. I find the church’s incompetence reassuring. I’d hate the church to be slick and successful as a political force. Instead of trying, and failing with humiliating consequences, to operate as a political player, the church should stick to its guns as the conscience of the nation. That, ironically, is a profoundly political role. It is not the church as aloof and other-worldly. It is the church as witness to what is truly significant in human life, and the devil take the consequences.