Brexit stretches Britain’s democracy to breaking point

Nothing word is more stretched to people’s convenience that “democracy”. Everybody claims to be democratic, and yet few are interested in understanding what people actually want and then implementing it. They just want to convince themselves that their own points of view are “democratic”. But democracy matters all the same – and it is at the heart of Britain’s Brexit crisis.

Liberals are as bad as anybody in trying to bend the idea of democracy to suit them. After all genuine liberals are only a minority of the population at large, and the idea of “liberal democracy” contains a tension at its heart. Tory MP Bernard Jenkin was quite right when he said that marchers last weekend in favour of a further “people’s vote” on Brexit (of whom I was one) weren’t really interested in democracy, but in finding a way for Britain to stay in the EU.

But Mr Jenkin and his ilk are no better. They often claim that people and parliament are pulling in opposite directions. Parliament has a Remain majority, they say, but there is a Leave majority in the country at large. The first part of that statement is probably true, though most MPs seem to want to implement the 2016 referendum result in one way or another. The second statement is flat untrue, according to polling evidence, as demographic shifts and scepticism over Brexit mount. More people would prefer the UK to stay in than leave (though whether there is a majority for either view is doubtful – a lot of people just want it settled one way or another so that the political class can move on to other business). These Brexiteers stretch things even further when they claim that the majority of the British public support their particular version of Brexit, which means departure from both a customs union and the Single Market. For all that humbug, their claim rests on a series of ideas about democracy that have widespread support.

The first idea is that referendum results trump all other forms of democratic decision making. Thus the 2016 referendum result is an instruction to parliament that it must honour, or else there is a betrayal of democracy. This is widely accepted: most Remainers think that the 2016 result can only be superseded by a further referendum result. But there are some curiosities. Turnout in the 2016 referendum was high by British standards, but the result was close, so that the winning side got well under 40% of the registered electorate. Unlike the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, 16- and 17- year olds were excluded; it is thought that these would mostly have voted Remain. So were EU residents registered for local and European elections (English people resident in Scotland were not excluded the independence referendum). But legally the result was not actually binding – it was advisory. That means that any challenges to its legality, particularly on the conduct the Leave campaign, would actually be pointless. For all that most people think the referendum result is valid and binding – and what most people think, in a democracy, matters a lot.

A second principle is that the manifestos on which political parties stand in a general election are binding on those MPs. The manifesto is the instrument by which the people delegate responsibility for governing to their MPs. This idea is popular with party managers and activists of all political parties. It suggests that if they can win a parliamentary majority for their party, then they have a democratic mandate to implement the entire manifesto, regardless of whether circumstances or opinions change. The seems to be the main justification that the Prime Minister Theresa May uses for her “scorched earth” policy of ensuring that any alternative to the deal she negotiated with the EU gets no oxygen in parliament. Indeed Mrs May seems to think that the manifesto gives her government absolute executive authority to implement it until a no-confidence vote stops it. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, would probably think the same way if he were Prime Minister. The manifesto argument does have some power. If MPs and parties could do what they liked regardless of what they said at election time, they would be hard to hold to account. And a manifesto is an attempt to promote a coherent programme rather than focus on a single issue. Still most politicians do not go about winning votes based on their manifestos, and few voters other than party activists read them. Instead they say that they are the best candidate to stop the one you most dislike, or that they would be an excellent representative for local issues that never make it to the party manifesto. If a Labour candidate came to my door, and I said that, sorry, I preferred the Lib Dem or Green manifestos, she would tell me not to waste may vote on them because they would never get in here: vote Labour and I can stop the Conservatives winning and implementing a hard Brexit. If I succumbed to this argument, Labour activists would say that I was supporting widespread nationalisation and abolishing student tuition fees. Tories would say that I had voted to implement Brexit. And, of course, it is very rare for the winner of a British general election to actually win an overall majority of votes cast, still less a majority of the electorate as a whole.

A third idea is that you can’t keep going back to people with the same proposition. If it fails at a referendum or parliamentary vote, then you must move on. It is one of the bigger complaints of Brexiteers that for countries where EU treaty changes are put to national referendums and fail, they are put back to them again, substantially unchanged. There are good reasons for this within the EU, but it does make the point that membership of the union restricts the options for any national electorate, and that they have to rely on the their elected representatives to negotiate on their behalf. This idea certainly has something going for it. It stops a bullying executive (or political class) trying to gets its way regardless. And it means that people and MPs are fully accountable for how they vote – rather than just shrugging and saying that they can always change their vote later. The irony of Mrs May repeatedly coming back to Parliament with the same deal, while saying that a further referendum would be undemocratic is lost on few. Still circumstances do move on and minds can change.

What is being lost in all this is the idea of representative democracy, which suggests we elect MPs to consider the issues of the day on our behalf based on the circumstances of the time. We want them to use their own judgement on our behalf, rather than mandating them to adopt particular positions. That idea clearly has its weaknesses, but it is the founding principle of Britain’s democratic institutions. It is the reason that we have single member constituencies, where we vote for people first and parties second. If we believed that parties and manifestos were more important, then a proportional voting system would be more appropriate – which is indeed used in Scottish and Welsh parliamentary elections.

Democracy and its institutions are a messy compromise. There is no right answer, and the best answer will only be the best answer for quite a short period of time. The test is whether the public at large think the whole process is fair, and recognise the legitimacy of the laws that result. By and large British democracy has passed this test, for all the complaints of liberals like myself. But Brexit is now stretching that. Remain voters were shocked at the strength and depth of feeling that emerged from those that voted Leave in 2016. That created a moment for democratic compromise. But the reason why the anti-Brexit protest marches have been drawing increasing support, and the petition to revoke article 50 has gone viral, is that a very large part of the electorate now feels trampled on and ignored in its turn. That is why I have joined them. We have gone through all the stages of grief for the Brexit result, emerged from depression, and instead of reconciliation we are getting angry again. We are told that Britain’s membership of the EU is plot by an unaccountable liberal elite, but that is not how it feels to us and our social circles. It feels more like a group of unscrupulous chancers capitalising on the (legitimate) resentments of the public to push through changes that will make our lives worse.

Who knows how this will work out? Should, against the odds, the Remainers actually succeed in stopping Brexit there will be huge scars on Britain’s body politic – but a least their political leaders seem to recognise that we can’t go back to where we were before. But if Brexit goes through, there will be deep scars too, especially Brexit-supporting leaders seem to care little about it. The people being trampled on may not be a majority, but they are, by and large, the people that keep the country and the economy running smoothly, and participate in public institutions, including voting. How their anger will be channelled is the great unknown that will overhang British politics.

Following the referendum, the government should have gone for a compromise Brexit, involving membership of the EEA (Norway-plus), and then let British democratic institutions take over from that, either back into full membership, or full exit. Mrs May’s plan was a reasonable interpretation of what Leavers voted for, but failed to reach out to Remainers while they were still on the ropes. We will pay a bitter price now whatever happens.

Modern Monetary Theory: a silver bullet for the left?

I have been reading the Economist regularly since 1974. I would find it hard to live without it. But I’m generally disappointed with the modern paper: its analysis lacks penetration, and its default setting is a mediocre version of neoliberalism with a few softened edges. But one of its regular columns stands out: Free Exchange. This discusses new thinking in economics in an open way that does not dismiss challenges to the conventional thinking that dominates the rest of the paper’s coverage. Last week it took on an idea that is increasingly fashionable on the left in America: Modern Monetary Theory (or MMT – its advocates love their TLAs).

This new strand of thinking on macroeconomics winds conventional economists up quite a bit, including those like Paul Krugman who are usually considered to be on the left. This is mostly because MMT’s advocates are deliberately provocative, disregarding a whole series of economic conventions, such as the use of mathematical models, and a complete lack of interest in finding common ground.

So what is MMT? I have discussed it here before, but in essence it suggests that the purpose of taxes is not to raise funds for public spending, which can be done by “printing” currency, but to stop the economy from overheating and the currency suffering from unacceptable levels of inflation. This is a reversal of the modern “neo-Keynesian” consensus (which I will call NKC since TLAs are clearly the thing), developed in the 1990s and still maintaining its grip, which suggests that the job of taxes is to fund government spending, while the job of monetary policy is to police inflation.

MMT has been seized on by the left (for example by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) because it suggests that the conventional arguments for austerity economics are bogus. Governments (or at any rate those that have their own currencies) don’t need to worry about budget deficits as long as inflation remains dormant. The magic money tree exists and is ready to nourish an expanded role for the state. Interestingly here in Britain the Labour leadership, represented by shadow chancellor John McDonnell, has resisted taking up MMT, in spite of entertaining other innovative economic thinking. I’m not entirely sure why that is, but Mr McDonnell is acutely aware of the dangers of his party being painted as wacky with the nation’s finances.

In fact the gap between MMT and the NKC is not as big as either its advocates or its critics suggest – much of it is linguistics. This is something that the Free Exchange columnist grasps, instead of falling for the wind-ups on both sides:

Speaking with MMT’s adherents is sometimes like watching a football match with friends who insist the ball remains stationary while every other element in the game, including the pitch and goalposts, moves around it.

The Economist Free Exchange 14 May 2019

Behind the kerfuffle the MMTers are onto four truths that conventional economists should be perfectly able to understand.

First: conventional monetary policy, which primarily operates through manipulating interest rates, is at best a blunt instrument for managing the economy, and at worst positively destabilising. It depends on managing levels of private debt, and often allows it to build up to excessive levels by promoting asset bubbles.

Second: public debt is much less destabilising than private debt, provided that it is denominated in the country’s own currency. Indeed many countries are able to sustain levels of public debt that used to be thought of as impossible – Japan being a prime example.

Third: fiscal policy (i.e. managing levels of public spending and taxation) is a much sharper instrument for managing the economy than monetary policy. It is much easier to direct extra demand to the weaker parts of the economy where is is less likely to cause problems. It may also be easier to direct extra spending towards productive investment (for example in clean energy or social housing) rather than inflate bubbles and the pay of unscrupulous intermediaries like bankers.

Fourth: across the developed world there is much greater headroom for additional government spending than is commonly supposed. This is because of a phenomenon referred to as “secular stagnation”, described by such conventional economists as Larry Summers, who describes MMT as “voodoo economics”. When the Financial Times’s veteran economics writer Martin Wolf thinks that the British government should borrow more to spend on clean energy projects because of secular stagnation, you should know something is up.

So MMT certainly has something going for it, once you look past the wind-ups. What are the problems? It is being embraced as an answer to austerity policies, with the suggestion that spending more on public services and benefits does not mean putting taxes up. But MMT doesn’t say there is unlimited scope for extra public spending – it says this is limited by the resources that the economy has access to. But there is little discussion about how you tell that an economy was is living beyond its resources – simply that this would lead to inflation. Supporters of the NKC suffered a similar complacency because of low inflation levels before the great financial crisis of 2008. Doubtless eventually excess would lead to inflation, but in a globalised economy there is likely to be financial instability first, perhaps driven by foreign currency borrowing. With record levels of employment and a large trade deficit it is not self-evident that the British economy isn’t at the limit already – though if extra public spending was carefully targeted it would stimulate production rather than cause prices to go up or imports to increase.

Which leads to a political issue. Under any economic theory it is clearly the case that governments can borrow too much, and that eventually printing money causes more problems than it solves. At worst this leads to cases where ruling elites and their supporters continue to live well and entrench their power, while the rest of the country becomes impoverished (think of Zimbabwe and Venezuela at the extreme, or the lesser cases of Turkey now and Argentina under the Kirchners). That is why developed world governments operate within political constraints to stop them spending too much. MMT is being used as an argument to remove those constraints, and that would end badly unless they were replaced by robust alternatives. This does not seem to be a conversation that the supporters of MMT are taking on.

There is a middle way. If, as Mr Wolf suggests, government borrowing is directed to support investments that will help economic wellbeing in the long run, then the risks of the economy going out of control are much lower. And if these investments can be biased towards areas where local economies are weak, that is even better. That means institutional controls are needed to ensure that current spending and taxation remains within limits, and to ensure that investment projects are worthwhile. But such institutional constraints are anathema to the left.

If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. MMT is a useful challenge to stale conventional thinking on managing the economy. But even if its supporters are right that the economic arguments for austerity are flawed, we should not be blind to the political problems of giving governments too free a hand to spend as they please.

Theresa May is stuck in a hole. She has decided to keep digging

There is something unspeakably depressing about Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, seeking a short delay to Britain’s departure date from the European Union, currently 29 March. According to the news reports this morning, this extension should be a short one, of no more than three months.

She has decided on this, apparently, because a longer delay would cause a revolt in her own Conservative Party, including Cabinet resignations. I am no Brexit sympathiser, but such a rebellion would be perfectly understandable. A long delay would mean that Mrs May had failed completely to achieve the goals she set out both when she became Prime Minister in 2016, and went to the country in 2017. How on earth she could contemplate doing so without immediately resigning is completely beyond me. And yet the thought of resigning doesn’t seem to have crossed her mind. She seems stuck in the narrowest of tunnel visions.

But I cannot discern any plan to break the political deadlock that has caused the her to go back to the EU with her request. She is still hoping that a parliamentary majority can be cobbled together to pass the deal she has negotiated, which last time lost by 149 votes. She has been trying to do so by bullying and bribing the MPs who give here a bare governing majority, from her own Conservatives and Northern Ireland’s DUP. She may be able to round up the DUP, but there is a blocking minority of at least 20 Tory MPs who would prefer not to have a deal at all to accepting Mrs May’s deal. Her threat to these MPs is that they might not get Brexit at all. But her bluff has been called. To make that threat credible she needed to ask the EU for a long delay. She has no prospect of succeeding in getting her deal through based on her governing coalition.

To pass the deal she needs to get a lot of opposition MPs on side. Could a large enough block of Labour MPs be frightened enough of no-deal chaos to back her deal? There is no sign of the Labour leadership helping her, and neither any sign of a substantial block of Labour MPs defying their whip to give Mrs May a triumphant victory, which could hurt the party in any subsequent General Election. The political gulf between the party leaderships is so huge that it is hard to see what kind of compromise could be forged. There seems to be only one idea that might break the deadlock: making the passing of her deal subject to a referendum which also gave the public the option of opting to abandon Brexit altogether. That might get SNP and Liberal democrat support, as well as Labour’s. There is just about enough time in the three months to hold such a referendum. But the political ground has not been prepared sufficiently. It is likely that a majority of Conservative MPs would oppose such a U-turn by the government, and that would make Mrs May’s position untenable, which would in practice make the referendum impossible.

Would EU leaders grant the British government’s request for a short extension? They sound reluctant, but they have one good reason to do so. A no-deal crash now is likely to be more damaging than one in June, because there is more time on both sides to prepare for it. Because that is where things are now heading.

Theresa May is stuck in a hole of her own digging. Each shovel of earth had seemed logical at the time. Her red lines were a very reasonable interpretation of the referendum mandate; the Article 50 notice was timed so as not to interfere with elections to the European Parliament, which would have been a major complicating factor – and still are. She o hoped that where she led enough people would follow. But the politics is deadlocked. She has done only one brave thing to try and break that deadlock: which was going to the country in June 2017. And that only made her problems worse. Since then she has simply dug herself in deeper.

What can she do? One alternative is to abandon all pretence of trying to secure a deal, and say that a no-deal is government policy. And then see what happens next. Presumably Labour would then table a confidence motion, which would put Remainer Tories on the spot. That in turn might lead to a General Election, in which she would defend her no-deal proposition. A second thing she could do is to resign as Tory leader and Prime Minister – passing over the premiership to a more politically skilled insider like David Lidington as caretaker, if she can engineer it. That would set off a leadership contest in the Conservatives, while the caretaker might try to either manage a crash out or negotiate a longer delay to exit.

But my guess is that she will do neither of these things. She will plough on with a strategy that has no chance of success, and the country will crash out of the EU on some date in June. That prospect is unbearably depressing.

Why I support opening up the Lib Dem leadership contest

I’m in York for the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference. The main job will be grandstanding the party’s position on Brexit. That is uncontroversial. For insiders there is a much more interesting debate about changing the rules for electing party leaders.

This has become much more pertinent because the current leader, Vince Cable, has decided to stand down in May, unless there is a new General Election. We will be choosing a new leader soon.

There are three key elements to Vince’s proposal to open up the process. The first is uncontentious: set up a registered supporters scheme to allow people a degree of participation without full membership. There is a lot of evidence that many would join, creating a wider pool of people to send appeals for money and other help. The problem is what else to offer them in order to give them an incentive to sign up and stay signed up.

Which brings us to the second element: allowing these supporters, subject to an extra payment, to vote on the party’s choice of leader. This worries many, especially after a similar scheme in the Labour Party led to the dysfunctional Jeremy Corbyn being selected. But there’s a further problem. Current rules restrict the choice of leader to MPs: and there are just 12 of them. Last time there was a vacancy only one person put themselves forward. Leadership contests are an opportunity to bring members and supporters together to decide what the party is about. A shortage of candidates undermines that process. So the third element is to open the leadership up to non-MPs. This is what other small parties do, like the Greens, the SNP and the DUP – though the latter two have devolved parliaments as an alternative base, at least in theory. This also worries a lot of members, who think that grown-up parties are always led by MPs.

If I was to judge by my Facebook feed, the conference will emphatically reject the second and third proposals. But this is highly unrepresentative of actual members and conference goers. The great and the good are lining up behind Vince.

What to make of the arguments against? I have two immediate reactions to the parallel with Labour. The first is “We should be so lucky”. Labour is not that far from actual power, which made it very interesting to entryists and others. I struggle to imagine that many people who don’t really support the party trying to sign up and influence the choice. Which leads to my second reaction: “It would be a nice problem to have”. For all my dislike of Mr Corbyn, his election energised his party and brought in lots of extra members and funds. If the Lib Dems aspire to national leadership it will need a similar influx. Anyway the party is in a different place to Labour. I can’t say that Mr Corbyn is any more dysfunctional than former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy, who is regarded by the party as a success rather than a failure, and canonised after his tragic death.

And what of allowing non MPs to stand for the leadership? The arguments against look particularly thin. For example it is often said that the Greens’ practice of electing leaders outside parliament is a failure because the press does not beat a path to their door, and are much more interested in their lone MP, Caroline Lucas. But that is not true of the DUP, where Arlene Foster is their most visible representative in the media. It’s much more complex than that. Clearly there are many advantages to leading the party from within Parliament- but it won’t save the party from a poor leader. Surely the members and supporters can be the judge of this?

But is clear is that the party is stuck. Its policies, especially on Brexit, are quite popular and are not being taken up by the major parties, which are veering to extremes. But it is stuck at no more than 10% support in the polls. It needs momentum from somewhere to make it fashionable again. Opening up the leadership is one way of breaking out. It’s risky. And it may not work. But carrying on with the current ways looks more likely to condemn the party to the sidelines.

The ERG and Labour are the authors of Britain’s Brexit chaos

Britain’s Brexit drama rolls on to wards a destination that nobody knows. Anything from a dropping out without a deal (notwithstanding MPs trying to vote away the possibility) to a further referendum looks feasible, none of the many options looks probable.

Earlier this week I visited a small food manufacturing business that exports about half of its products around the world, but mainly to EU countries. While orders remain healthy the business’s managers are utterly perplexed by the state the country has got itself into. They cannot plan for Brexit because they don’t know what form it will take. Exit itself is not such a big deal for them. There will be more paperwork for exports to EU countries, but that doesn’t stop them from exports to non-EU countries. The problem is that they don’t know what form the paperwork will take, and what arrangements to make for VAT, etc. Doubtless this doesn’t just affect exports to EU countries either, but also those to countries with which the Union has trade agreements. What they’re angry about is not the decision to leave (though they are exasperated by how ignorant people were at the time of the vote, and largely still are), but how we have backed ourselves into such a corner about our arrangements for international trade. They think that there is a real prospect of supermarket shelves going empty for a while after exit.

This has helped put things in perspective. If the scare stories about no-deal look overdone, the denials that problems will amount to anything much by hard Brexiteers look even less credible. Why would anybody take Ian Duncan Smith seriously after the Universal Credit fiasco after all? The whole thing is a horrible mess. Who amongst our politicians comes out of it well?

Few people seem to have a good word for the Prime Minister, Theresa May. This is mostly unfair. She lacks emotional intelligence and should surely have done a better job of consolidating support before she negotiated the “final” deal last year. If we are going to leave the EU without economic chaos, and exacerbated political problems in Northern Ireland, this is as good as it gets. Mrs May’s claim that it is as close as we can get to the zeitgeist of the 2016 referendum result is perfectly defensible. The deal takes the country out of the union. It gives the government a much freer hand to regulate immigration, and we are out of the agriculture and fisheries regimes. The Northern Ireland backstop is undoubtedly awkward, but it is a tackles a hard problem. I don’t think that most people in Britain or Northern Ireland mind it that much. So what if we are stuck in a Customs Union? That doesn’t seem to bother the Turks very much. People who rubbish the deal haven’t presented convincing alternatives. The “Canada plus” idea doesn’t deal with the Irish problem, and messes up trade with the EU, which by sheer geography is our most important trading partner, never mind 40 years of historical integration. The “Norway Plus” option, which would put the country in Efta, like Norway and Iceland, does not deal with immigration, which most people agree was the biggest issue in the 2016 referendum.

So I don’t think that Mrs May and the Conservatives who have stood by her come out of the picture too badly. I also have some admiration for ardent Remainers in that party, like Kenneth Clarke, who have reluctantly backed her. This is grown-up politics.

But lest you think I am letting off the Tories on this, by far the most mendacious politicians in Britain are the Conservatives in the European Research Group, led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, which seems to have enormous power in the wider Conservative movement, and is poised to take over its leadership. Mr Rees-Mogg’s claim that the deal is “Brexit in name only” is nonsensical, as is the claim that parliament is trying to subvert the will of the people. It is not clear what people actually voted for in 2016, and the result was close anyway. Leave campaigners did their best to muddy the waters as to what people were voting for, in order to assemble the widest possible voting coalition. If they want a more extreme version of Brexit then there are clear political processes that need to be followed to achieve that. You can’t hang it on the referendum result. Norway and Switzerland similarly rejected EU membership by popular vote, but are quite happy with intermediate arrangements that are closer to EU integration than Mrs May’s deal. Even on the Irish backstop, which is more of a legal obstacle than I thought, it wouldn’t be a problem if they really believed what they claim about the possibilities of alternative arrangements. And the terms of their opposition will only convince people in the Republic of Ireland that such a legal device is necessary.

The DUP I have a bit more sympathy with. They do not represent the opinions of a majority of the province, but they do seem true to their party values. However when their spokesmen offer the government negotiating advice, specifically to keep the no-deal option “on the table”, it makes me choke. This is the party whose obstinacy in their negotiations with Sinn Fein has left the province without a devolved government for over a year.

After the ERG, I think the most dishonest British politicians are the Labour leadership. They have no clear plan at all, and have been opposing the government simply for short term political advantage. Either they should back Mrs May’s deal, or they should clearly advocate putting it to a public vote against a Remain option. Instead they maintain a dishonest fiction that they can do a better Brexit deal. This has helped prolong the uncertainty that is slowly but surely undermining Britain’s commercial infrastructure. and it could well lead the country into a no-deal situation that most people accept will be catastrophic at least in the short-term. If they really wanted an exit with a customs union they should let the deal through, and then change things afterwards, once they have won a majority in parliament. The party did not advocate outright opposition to Brexit in their manifesto, and neither a further referendum. Given the national situation supporting the deal, or at least abstaining, but be perfectly consistent with the position they were elected on.

There are competent and reasonable Labour MPs, but they are mainly on the back benches. To hear Yvette Cooper on the radio is to wonder how much better life would be if she had won the party leadership in 2015, as I had hoped. She is engaging with reality rather than political slogans.

What of the others? My own Lib Dems are engaged in a risky strategy of total opposition until a new referendum is agreed. Whether or not that is responsible adult politics is one thing, but it least it is consistent with what they have been telling the public since 2016. The party has tried responsible adult politics in the coalition years of 2010-2015, and were slaughtered for it. My instinct is to be similarly understanding of the SNP. Given the way the Scots voted in the referendum it would be hard for them to roll over.

Personally I do hope that a delay and a new referendum emerges from the wreckage. This is only appropriate for a decision on this scale. But the government’s proposed deal is an honest attempt to square the circle. It is a pity that so few of the country’s politicians are interested in honest solutions.

Knife crime requires local action and resources, not national grandstanding

England is suffering a serious epidemic of knife crime, with a high proportion of teenagers amongst both the victims and perpetrators. A few months ago a teenager was a murder outside my local Tube station; some fresh flowers marked the spot as I walked past it this morning. Many others are similarly finding the epidemic is coming uncomfortably close to home. Two further murders over the weekend have provoked a national political kerfuffle. But much of it misses the point.

The biggest problem in English politics is that too many decisions are taken by the UK government in London, with a weak regional layer (comprising a few city regions based on large conurbations such as London and Manchester), and local government that lacks powers by comparison with any other large country. A striking aspect of this is that different public agencies, such as police, health services, schools, social workers and so on, do not cooperate as much as they should. Each of these agencies reports up to a politician in Westminster, who grandstands to national media agencies according to a news agenda that is set nationally. Leaders of local agencies don’t have the power or incentive to make local cooperation work, and they are liable to have their funding squeezed anyway to make way for for headline-making projects. Any yet so many problems are complex, and require just such local coordination.

It isn’t so bad in Scotland, which has devolved government and Scots-level media, though there are issues there with local government being hollowed out. Wales, which also has devolved government, doesn’t seem to be any better run than England. I don’t know enough about that country to know why, but my impression is that Welsh politicians are quite conservative, and have used their powers to resist reforms that have been taking place elsewhere in the country. But I think the Welsh are slowly learning the implications and responsibilities of devolution the hard way.

Knife crime has complex roots. A lot of it is related to youth gangs, many of which feed on the trade of illegal drugs. Too many teenagers are drawn into these gangs, apparently to make up for the lack of any other community to belong. Gangs find the use of knives is the most cost-effective way of asserting themselves. Many young people feel that they need to arm themselves for their own protection, as well as status. What lies behind this, and has led to the rise youth crime, after a long period when it fell, is, to my mind, the hollowing out of local public services. The Labour government of 1997 to 2010 pumped quite a lot of resources into local institutions, especially after its early austerity years. They did not really believe in local empowerment, and their efforts were clumsy and inefficient. Many of the resources went into the pockets of expensive but superficial management consultants; many agency managers spent time in interminable inter-agency meetings that were slow to take responsibility; anybody involved in public services had to wade through reams of waffle worth nothing more than an education in buzz words. Some reforms, such as those to the probation service, suffered hugely from political grandstanding. There was a tendency to nanny and lecture people rather than empower them.

But for all that a lot of good work was done, which, in some areas at least, achieved a lot. Schooling improved and its scope widened to early years and providing beyond the school day and term time; they were encouraged to work with other agencies. The police established neighbourhood policing teams, which gathered local intelligence, and had the time to deal with antisocial behaviour and work with other agencies. Youth crime fell sharply.

Then came the financial crisis and the push to make cuts to government resources. This went up a few gears with the Conservative Liberal Democrat coalition government of 2010 to 2015. Incoming ministers rightly bridled against the inefficiency of Labour’s public services, and felt that they could do better with less. They drove through drastic cuts. At first this seemed to go quite well. There was indeed a lot of waste to be stripped out, and statistics, including those for crime, appeared sho little if any damage. But they too followed an over-centralised modus operandi. The Lib Dems did try to moderate this – and they helped the creation of city regions to better coordinate agencies in the bigger cities – but it hard not to be overwhelmed by the Westminster way. The cuts were driven from the top by the Treasury on national departmental ministers. Furthermore many ministers followed a flawed model of outsourcing to save money, which fragmented services further and focused them on inward looking performance targets. The big idea for many of the outsourcing agencies was to de-skill services, reducing their ability to deal with complex problems. Experienced, problem-solving professionals were replaced by junior box-tickers. They became unable to facilitate solutions by working with other agencies, so problems were passed on rather than solved. This became even worse after 2015 when the Conservatives governed on their own, and drove the fiscal squeeze though even further. Childrens Centres and youth facilities were closed down; neighbourhood policing was eviscerated; probation and prison services engaged in a battle for survival with little time to help solve society’s wider problems. The epidemic of youth crime followed.

At last England’s political class realises that there is a problem, and is starting to panic. But once again they are reaching for national solutions, or using the crisis to advance national beefs, like police powers. A popular solution is to create a knife-crime “czar”. Others call for a national strategy driven forward by the Prime Minister. All these are tried and tested approaches which rarely acheive more than short term gains on narrow criteria. What is depressing is that it isn’t just politicians that are calling for this sort of approach. One of the leading advocates is Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the former head of police in both London and Manchester. But people like Sir Bernard are part of the problem, not the solution. He was one of the leading advocates of the hollowing out of neighbourhood policing to make way for headline-grabbing specialised regional and national squads.

A few more perceptive commentators point to a more successful approach. Glasgow used to have a huge knife-crime problem – but a coordinated and devolved multi-agency approach reversed it. This is referred to a “public health” approach, to which some politicians are paying lip service. Whether or not this nomenclature is helpful I am not sure. But what needs to be done is to push resources into regional and local multi-agency teams, with the power to rebuild the local institutions that have been so callously swept away and make them work properly. Unfortunately this will not be quick, though it would help with a lot more than knife-crime. The problem was many years in the making and it will take many years to solve.

That is not to say that there are not national aspects to the problem that could do with a bit of a national shove. One of the developments are the “county lines” developed by city gangs going into small towns and rural areas, and connecting the problems in both. But even here we should note that it is in such small towns and rural areas that local institutions are at their weakest, where austerity and economic trends have combined to suck wealth out of local economies. The city gangs are pushing at an open door.

But our over-centralised way runs too deep. Even those who advocate a more decentralised approach rarely seem to understand its full implications. It will take more than this panic for people to understand just how dysfunctional our governing institutions have become.

Why Donald Trump is right about Syria

The US President Donald Trump doesn’t do complicated. That’s one of his biggest weaknesses, as well as a major strength. Most real problems are complicated; but simple is easy to communicate. And the idea that “elites” use the excuse of complexity to mask incompetence or worse has a powerful resonance with many people.

Take Mr Trump’s diplomacy with North Korea. It is a hard problem, though arguably not all that complicated, and it has defeated every US regime that has tried to tackle it. Mr Trump’s is no different, though he assumed that his genius could crack it. He hopes that he can tempt the country into rolling up its nuclear programme by offering the benefits of an open economy. But convincing the paranoid is hard work, especially when you want to appear tough yourself. At least Mr Trump didn’t fall for the something-for-nothing deal that his counterpart sought. Meanwhile he hopes that his theatrics, and the reduction in tension arising with nuclear and missile tests now done, will be result enough, and he sticks to this simple message. While the intelligentsia gabbles on about his failure, there is unlikely to be much damage to his reputation.

No foreign policy problem is more complicated than that of the Middle East, a place where your worst enemy can be your friend elsewhere in the neighbourhood. But is Mr Trump onto something by pushing for the withdrawal of US forces from Syria? Sometimes it requires a simple vision to cut through nonsense.

Mr Trump’s stance has caused despair amongst foreign policy professionals. Extracting the US from Syria will mean that the country loses influence, and it would mean that the country’s most reliable ally, the Kurds, will go over into the Syrian government/Russian camp. Years of diplomacy and relationship building will be trashed.

But the US and its European allies have achieved nothing of value in Syria since its civil war erupted in 2011. The Islamic State terrorist organisation has nearly been crushed there, it is true, but was it a real threat in the first place? And has the level of threat diminished? IS’s leaders promoted it as a base for attacks against western interests around the world, in deliberately provocative propaganda. But did we respond to those provocations in the right way? Was there much practical sustenance to terrorists arising from IS’s Syrian bases? Such attacks as there have been were perpetrated by lone wolves and small cells, with little direct connection to Syria. They are more likely to have been provoked by western military action rather than deterred by it. Security experts are now telling us how little the wiping out of IS’s bases in Syria and Iraq makes to the level of threat – though admittedly they would say that regardless. The western powers simply gave what IS’s attention-seekers what they craved, with a bit of martyrdom thrown in. In the end the Syrian government, with their Russian and Iranian allies, would doubtless have dealt with them anyway, or they would have collapsed from their own contradictions.

Meanwhile the continuing western presence is creating more
conflict, in particular with the Turkish government. The Turks are by no means
good guys, but then are the Iranians, Saudis and Russians? Turkey is a European
power as well as a Middle Eastern one: the war in Syria makes other aspects of
our difficult relationship with it harder to manage. It was the Turkish
president Recep Tayyip Erdogan that started Mr Trump down this course in the
first place.

By now the concept of liberal intervention should be dead. It was pioneered by Tony Blair, for use in the former Yugoslavia, and then picked up by the neoconservatives that surrounded George Bush Junior. The Balkans are part of Europe, and military intervention there was followed through with state-building by mainly European nations. It more-or-less worked. But such follow-through could never be replicated in Iraq, Libya or Syria. Instead all we have learnt is how alien these places are to our concept of society. Military intervention, unless contained within clear boundaries and part of a broad coalition, like the First Gulf War, is doomed because it has to be followed by the process of state-building, which Western countries cannot do.

So what is to be done instead? Military interventions may often be helpful to prevent civil wars from escalating, or to break a stalemate and bring peace – or even to bring down a murderous regime. But it needs to be led by local powers, with outsiders providing logistical or air support if appropriate. In Syria these local powers are Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel. These regimes inspire no confidence: they are as likely to see civil wars as opportunities to develop their rivalries as crises to be fixed. But that is surely because the have become to used to the idea of superpower leadership. They are not used to taking leadership roles themselves. We in the west haven’t got used to that idea either. So many commentators, especially from the left, assume that all the problems in distant lands are the fault of western powers, and therefore it is our responsibility to fix them. They ascribe no agency to local actors. I call this way of thinking “post-colonialism” as it reminds me of the arrogance of the colonial era. Civil wars and state collapses do not benefit the neighbourhood. Sooner or later the local powers will learn how to manage them towards peaceful outcomes, even if this doesn’t look very pretty to our eyes. Mostly they are learning this the hard way (as Yemen shows – a civil breakdown that has been mainly left to the locals). But, for example in West Africa, there have been better examples. Western intervention doesn’t help. And if the Russians want to play superpower games, more fool them.

Mr Trump seems to get this better than most. The paradox of his ambition to “Make America Great Again” is that it means a retreat from global responsibility, and taking a narrower view of its interests: the opposite of greatness. But the colonial era is over; the Cold War has passed; and Pax Americana is now broken. It is about time the world joined Mr Trump and woke up to the consequences of that.