Will climate action be the battleground for the next General Election?

For an instant my blood ran cold. A spokesman for the proposed new coal mine in Cumbria was being interviewed on the radio. Opposition to it is based on its inconsistency with Britain’s plan to reduce greenhouse gases. The interviewee had barely started when he took the line that Britain only contributed 1% of greenhouse gases, and what the country does doesn’t really mattered compared to China, where they were still building coal power stations. It was first time I had heard this line of argument in this country. It felt like a portent.

To their credit I have not heard Conservative party ministers take this line, even as they prevaricate when short-term projects collide with longer term ambitions, as in this coal mine project, and in the case for expanding Heathrow airport. The government has been setting ambitious targets on greenhouse gas reduction – meaning that there is something of a consensus on the issue among the main political parties. With the UK hosting the international COP26 conference on climate change in November, it is under intense international scrutiny, as it tries to persuade other countries to increase their ambitions. It is a welcome difference with the USA, where the Republicans oppose serious action for reasons that range from outright denial to feeling victimised to just general obfuscation. Could Britain change?

The ominous precursor is Britain’s membership of the European Union. There was a similar political consensus that Britain should stay in amongst the party leaderships – but then the Conservatives came under serious pressure. This was from Nigel Farage’s Unitied Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which skilfully stirred up trouble, tapping into deep discontent amongst older voters, and many others who were disengaged from the political process. This became a serious electoral threat to the Tories, as a large part of their voter base was defecting, and many of their grassroots activists sympathised with Mr Farage. First the Tories had to head off the threat with a referendum, which the leadership then lost. And as the government floundered with the process of departure, Boris Johnson took on the leadership of the party, and moved it straight into Ukip’s ground, offering a hard Brexit and strict limits on immigration.

Mr Farage was a busted flush. His next move was into lockdown scepticism. But this showed that he did not have his finger on the pulse of Britain’s discontented. Most people, including Leave supporters, felt this was cranky and antisocial, and he never broke out to the level of support needed to create political waves – in the region 20%, say. But scepticism on climate action seems tailor-made for his style of political campaigning. Climate action will soon enough be forcing unwelcome change on ordinary people – through the cars they drive to home heating, to say nothing of unsightly wind farms. A huge array of arguments can be deployed, from throwing doubt on the climate science to whataboutery (like that spokesman’s “what about China?” to “we agree but this is the wrong way to do it”. The arguments need not be consistent, they just need to play on the idea that a privileged elite is trying to pull one over on ordinary people. I haven’t seen any clear polling, but it is one of those issues where the answer depends on exactly what question you ask. Most people are happy to go along with the general concern expressed by Richard Attenborough and others, but less happy when action could cause personal expense or inconvenience. Scepticiam could easily reach the levels that Mr Farage, or somebody like him, need to create serious trouble for the Tories. The Gilet Jaune movement in France is a worrying example.

Mr Johnson’s strategy is his familiar one of “have your cake and eat it”. Boosterism on how much Britain is doing to reduce carbon emissions, using the COP26 summit as evidence, but nothing that has a serious impact on household finances or any other aspect of daily life. This is unsustainable in the long term. People who are seriously worried about climate change – and there are a lot of them – aren’t taken in for a second. To them it is probably a case of “if it isn’t hurting it isn’t working”. But increasingly there will be tensions. That coal mine – and airport expansion – is a case in point. There will be bumps on the road for energy distribution. There has been inadequate investment in storage capacity to manage the peaks and troughs of renewable energy, for example.

If scepticism gains traction, then the Conservatives will inevitably be pulled in that direction in order to hold their base, especially in the newly-won seats in north England, the Midlands and Wales. That will give other parties a chance to bring their climate action credentials to the fore. If these parties are able to form some kind of alliance (Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens anyway – the position with Scots and Welsh nationalists is harder) then there could be real momentum for change. The election would become a real moment of decision. Something like this happened in Australia’s most recent general election – though there the sceptics pulled off an unexpected victory. But Britain is not Australia – which has a vast coal-mining and natural gas sector.

It is, of course, possible that Mr Johnson will successfully duck and weave for long enough to reach the next election without serious conflict arsing. But climate change is bound to become a hot political issue eventually.

How will Britain’s economic chaos pan out?

Britain is suffering mounting economic chaos as supply chains break down. The government shrugs – these are just teething problems, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, suggests, as Britain finds a new normal as a high-wage high-productivity economy. Is this the nonsense it seems to be at first sight?

It doesn’t help that reporting on the emerging problems is very superficial – simply the regurgitation of statements put out by interested parties with no attempt being made get to the bottom of things. The government chooses to dissemble rather than inform. The current petrol crisis, running into its second week here in Sussex, even if it is easing elsewhere, is a case in point.

The government blames it on consumers – or a surge in demand caused by “panic-buying”. After the first few days this was clearly nonsense. People were running out of petrol. Such evidence as we had from the queues outside petrol stations, admittedly anecdotal, was that most people had delayed filling up, and were now desperate. And yet nobody seems interested in trying to understand what was really happening. The government kept on repeating the tangential but irrelevant fact (if it is the case) that there was plenty of petrol at the depots, followed by the non-sequitur that if people simply behaved normally the situation would right itself quickly. This morning the BBC Today programme interviewed a forecourt manager in Kent – and suddenly things started to make a bit more sense. Instead of the normal four fuel deliveries in the last week he had received just two. The current situation had come about because supply problems over the summer meant that forecourt stocks had run low, so that the slightest blip was enough to knock the whole system out of kilter. He didn’t say, but it was easy to infer, that a continuing shortage of deliveries meant that the system couldn’t right itself. This is fundamentally a problem of supply, not demand. The government’s tactic of increasing the number of tanker drivers, including by the use of the army, starts to make sense. It wasn’t simply a confidence-building measure, as ministers seemed to be suggesting, but an attempt to fix a broken system.

And what is happening to motor fuel is being repeated across many other sectors. A lethal combination of a hard Brexit, restrictive immigration rules and the covid-19 pandemic is delivering a series of critical labour shortages. The most notable is that for heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers, which is behind the fuel crisis. But it is far from just this – there is an emerging crisis on the slaughtering of pigs, for example. Problems emerged in the summer, or before; businesses did what they could to manage, but at the cost of resilience; as difficulties arise, the system breaks down. A small uptick in motor fuel demand broke the distribution system and it requires an influx of additional resources to fix it; the large, seasonal uptick called Christmas is approaching, covering all manner of goods (though hopefully not motor fuel). Muddling through could easily tip into breakdown in many parts of the economy.

The government’s problems are both in ideology and competence. Ideologically the government wants to move to a different sort of economy, less reliant on cheap, imported labour. Its leaders also believe in the problem-solving capabilities of free markets and private enterprise, and the need for government to step back. They fully expected teething problems following Brexit and the roll back of immigration, but they expected that businesses would adapt and solve these problems without the need for government intervention. So they shrugged off the early warning signs. And for the most part ministers lacked the competence to see how problems could become unmanageable, and what the best interventions might be. It doesn’t help that the public appears unwilling to hold the government to account, and seems happy to accept that “stuff happens” and that it is all somebody else’s fault. So we have strategy but no tactics.

Does this strategy make sense? I always felt that the strongest case for Brexit was what I called “the hair shirt” one – that Britain had it too easy in the EU, and was relying on cheap imports of both goods and labour. Brexit could force the country to raise its game, and move to higher productivity. Living standards would fall in the short-term, but the result would be more sustainable. What other countries have succeeded in reaching this high-wage high-productivity model? Not the US, where high levels of inequality make cheap labour plentiful in many places, and where the currency can be kept at a high level to make imports cheaper. The most obvious examples of the are in Scandinavia, and Denmark and Sweden in particular. These are obviously not such good exemplars for Conservatives, as they have achieved this within the European Union. Switzerland may be a more a congenial example, though it has opted for a higher level of European integration than Britain has. However there are also the examples of Canada, Australia and New Zealand – which are doubtless more acceptable. Japan, perhaps, is another case. But all these countries have built their success on strong exports, in agriculture, manufacturing and mining. Britain no longer has the potential for agriculture or mining exports on the scale needed; its manufacturing has been hollowed out. There may be alternatives, perhaps based on the country’s world-class university sector. Various aspects of health technology seem to me to be the most promising – especially since the centralised structure of the NHS provides opportunities for data mining (if that’s the right word). There could be a path through to the sort of wealthier and more equal society that the government seeks, or says it does.

But it is hard to see how the country can get there without serious investment, led by government. The education system is an obvious case in point. Universities look to be in relatively good health, so long as the supply of foreign students can be maintained, which means allowing successful graduates to stay in the country if they wish. The obvious gap is in technical education, to fulfil the many mid-level jobs that a high-productivity economy needs, as well as making the best use of the country’s Human Resources. Clusters of technical excellence also need to be developed across the country – this is best led regionally by empowering regional and local government. I also think that a better-resourced health service is required, both to supply the quality of service a country of Britain’s income level should expect, and to be the anchor for an expanding private health economy, developing new treatments and technologies that can be applied worldwide. These investments would need to be financed. If a government had the courage of its convictions, it would do a lot of this through borrowing – as the investment should yield a bigger money economy to tax in future. But doubtless more tax income would be needed too.

And yet the government has no such clarity. Rishi Sunack, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, talks of fiscal prudence and even future tax cuts. Unless he means to do the opposite of what he says (a possibility that this government is quite capable of), this is a bad place to start. A period of cuts to areas that need more money is beckoning. Meanwhile the government urges businesses to overcome labour shortages by raising wages. This at a time when one of the government’s key policies is a public sector pay freeze. Wage rises may be a good thing, but they are also liable to lead to price rises for the goods that people buy – a process that could lead to intolerable pressure through the economy. It is all very well to hope for higher productivity, but this is hardly feasible in many of the areas under stress – such as HGV drivers.

Where is this heading? The government has already been forced to “temporarily” relax immigration rules for HGV drivers and some others. Much more of this is likely – the government will try to tackle the shortages of “low-skilled” workers though temporary immigration visas. This is a strategy that many countries have followed, and it rarely goes well. It either fails because the jobs aren’t attractive enough, or more likely, it will simply draw in an underclass of highly exploitable workers from poorer countries, which could form the basis of poorly-integrated immigrant communities of the future, as the idea of “temporary” gets ever more stretched. To its credit, the government is clearly alive to the dangers, but it may find it has little choice. Another safety valve for the economy is increasing imports – though this won’t reduce the dependence on HGVs – as the country proves too small to sustain productive supply chains by itself, it can make use of those from abroad. That can be financed by the sale of ever more assets such as property and businesses to foreigners – perhaps the real meaning of “Global Britain”. This will be no more appealing to patriots.

And meanwhile in one part of the country an interesting economic experiment is taking place. Northern Ireland has one foot in the EU single market, and an open border with the Union. This has created supply chain problems with the mainland and empty supermarket shelves. But they didn’t suffer from petrol shortages (or not to the same critical extent). As the province’s supply chains become more integrated with the Irish Republic, and thence the wider EU, perhaps it will find things easier than its compatriots over the water.

I shouldn’t underestimate the resilience of Britain’s economy. Perhaps the stresses will indeed push the country towards a more modern economy – electric cars certainly look more appealing now. But for once I’m not optimistic.

Why won’t Britain’s politicians take police reform seriously?

I have written a number of times about the British police, and been highly critical of its senior management – “institutionally stupid” being my verdict. The specific cases that have provoked me were Operation Midland, the Daniel Morgan affair, the harassment of a female back police officer and, most recently, the Plymouth shootings (which, unlike the others, did not involve the Metropolitan Police, the country’s top force). Now the Met is being heavily criticised after one if its officers was sentenced for raping and killing a member of the public, Sarah Everard, after arresting her. And yet on each of these occasions the police respond with nothing much more than “stuff happens” and “lessons will be learned”, and carried on much as before. And Labour and Conservative politicians have backed them up. We have to ask why.

The Everard case is particularly chilling to me as the false arrest took place very near where I used to live, on a stretch of road that I often used, by car, bus and on foot. It is almost always busy, and it is well-lit at night. It was another attack perpetrated by a man on a woman, simply because of her sex. It is an extreme example of a serious societal problem, that does not seem to be getting better, in spite of more liberal education. At the other end of the scale, a recent study showed that sexual harassment is at epidemic levels at secondary schools and sixth-forms – a problem that seems to be much worse than it was a generation ago. Murders of women by men they don’t know as they go about their daily life are still quite rare – but only after most women are advised to be “sensible” and take precautions over their own safety that men largely don’t bother with.

The response from senior police officers, and the ministers they are accountable to, has been underwhelming in the Everard case. Advice on how people might avoid false arrest by lone officers comes across as victim-blaming. Ms Everard should have been more “streetwise”, it is suggested. Could the perpetrator have been identified as a risk beforehand? Again the response so far has been pretty defensive. Alleged offences of indecent exposure committed by him beforehand were “minor”; vetting procedure had turned up “no evidence”. It’s all just too difficult. The man was a “bad apple” – a lazy way of expressing that it just one of those things that happens once in a while, like rotten apples. Lazy because, as Guardian columnist Marina Hyde points out, the actual proverb is that “one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel” – and there is plenty of evidence of bad apples in the police being left to do just that.

What are the management failures here? The first has been a complete failure to judge the public mood over such an enormity. Something more that the normal institutional defensiveness was surely called for. Beyond that are questions about the vetting of recruits, the management of misogynistic attitudes in the force and the prioritisation of crimes against women. There is also the question of how the police dealt with the indecent exposure incidents. These are all related to each other. Without understanding the evidence more clearly – and which of the various stories floating around are true – I find it hard to form a clear view myself. But it has been known for a long time that there are cultural problems within the force, and nothing much ever appears to be done about it. We are often assured that things are getting better, so reminders that the problems are still rampant are shocking. However it is also clear that police attitudes reflect those of large parts of wider society.

And so to the question I started with. Why don’t the politicians try to take control and act against police deficiencies? So far all the serious ones have rallied round the Met Commissioner, Cressida Dick. That includes Conservative ministers, and also Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, and Sadiq Khan, the Labour Mayor of London, who, unlike Sir Keir, actually has the political authority to act. It seems that, to them taking on the police creates more problems than it solves.

The first question is over the position of Ms Dick. Her fingerprints are on many of the serious management problems that I have written about, if not as Commissioner, then in her earlier career. And yet the politicians have stood behind her, and extended her contract only recently. They may well know something I don’t – that she is, contrary to appearances, the best hope for making progress behind the scenes. She certainly recently had the support of my fellow Lib Dem blogger David Boyle. And the dismal truth is that there probably are few, if any, serving senior officers with the grasp to take on what needs to be done. It is an institutional problem. It clearly calls for an outsider to take charge – and that has been heavily resisted in the past.

Which highlights the wider problem – taking on police culture is likely to make things worse in the short term. This can be seen from the case of George Floyd in the US. His murder last year was in its way even more shocking than the Everard murder. It was in full public view and carried out by a policeman on duty, with the support of his colleagues. The outrage it provoked was extreme, and many politicians did attempt to act. But crime rates rose, and there was a political backlash – fears over changes to policing were among the reasons that Donald Trump and the Republicans did inexpertly well at the presidential and Congressional elections.

The Labour and Conservatives have identified law and order as a central issue in winning over the white, older, working class and lower middle class voters they feel are critical to their success. So they tone done criticism of the police, and trust that the outrage will blow over before the next general election. And the public continues to be let down by institutional failings in our police forces.

What is the point of the Labour Party?

People often ask what is the point of the British Liberal Democrats; the same question, for similar reasons, might be asked of the country’s Green Party. The raison d’ĂȘtre of Labour seems self-evident. But the party is failing and the question needs to be asked again.

A century ago Labour broke through the country’s two-party duopoly to replace the Liberal Party as one half of Britain’s two-party system. At that time the point of Labour was clear: it was to represent the interests of Britain’s working classes. The party’s founders argued that working people were ill served by the existing system, and that the Liberals in particular were letting their working class supporters down. Working people needed a more radical reworking of the political economy than the Liberals seemed capable of offering. It was an argument they won as the Liberals were riven by division and failed to offer a coherent raison d’ĂȘtre of their own. Labour then struggled to reconcile their radicalism with the practicalities of government, but eventually, in 1945, they succeeded with a radical programme of welfare reform, combined with relatively conservative economic management and foreign engagement. Ironically the two principal architects of this reconciliation were in fact Liberals: William Beveridge and Maynard Keynes. Such is politics.

Since then the function of the Labour party changed, as the nature of work in the British economy changed. The agricultural and industrial workforces were steadily replaced by bureaucrats and service industry workers. In the 1960s and 1970s trade unionism, which formed the backbone of the Labour movement, seemed out of touch with the times. They opposed more efficient industrial organisation and often entrenched conservative attitudes to race and sex. Labour struggled to adapt. It was riven by division when in government in 1964 to 1970, and failed to convincingly win power back in 1974, finally succumbing to a Conservative monopoly of power in 1979. When it retook power in 1997 it was as “New Labour” under Tony Blair. In its new form its job was simply to oppose the Conservatives by marshalling a coalition of working class and middle class voters. In this view the British political system had become a two-party institution like that in the USA. Political organisation outside the two main parties was pointless, each of the two had to be a broad coalition. The days when a political party could be based on narrow class interests were gone.

The British political establishment, from most politicians to journalists and civil servants largely accepts this idea of what the two main political parties are for. But it has a problem, evident in the USA as well as Britain, though it is resolving differently in each country. It is too tempting for an ideological clique to try and take over the machinery of one of the major parties in order to impose a programme on the country based on minority support. The ideologues may fail, but in doing so they leave the field to their opponents, and the system fails to become truly competitive. That is what has happened to Labour following its loss of power in 2010. Labour was still run by a relatively broad coalition, representing the interests of public service professionals and the “new” working class, dominated by ethnic minority workers in the big cities, but they dropped more conservative supporters.

The two-party system then fractured badly in 2015, when in Scotland as the SNP took almost all the seats. Since Labour had previously dominated there, it has ruined their chances of being truly competitive on the national stage – the party has little prospect of governing on its own, even if they deprive the Conservatives of a majority. An ideologically hollowed-out Labour Party has proved unable to challenge the SNP, and has even lost out to the Tories in Scotland. An ideologically-focused Labour Party has proved just as uncompetitive.

The Labour leadership since this disaster, Jeremy Corbyn followed by Sir Keir Starmer, has chosen to ignore it. Both clung to the possibility that the party can win enough seats in Westminster to govern on its own. Mr Corbyn sought to do this with ideological radicalism in the hope that this would motivate enough disillusioned and apathetic voters to overcome the legions of older, more conservative voters who turn out more reliably. This came closer to succeeding in 2017 than anybody expected, but led to disaster in 2019 – which of those elections was the outlier due to special circumstances remains hotly debated. Sir Keir is going back to the idea of an unideological party that can challenge the Conservatives on competence.

Sir Keir’s strategy seems to be navigating that awkward ground between success and failure. At this year’s conference he needed to show that he was in charge of its party. This he has largely done – the disunity and “chaos” described by some are in fact evidence of authority being asserted. But does Labour look like a competent government in waiting, as Mr Blair’s did before 1997? Not yet. Will it ever? Open to question. And if it can’t show evident competence, what else does it offer? Above all this looks like a strategy that depends on the Conservatives losing the election, rather than Labour winning it. For all the government’s incompetence, however, the current Tory leadership knows how to win elections by changing the subject. And remember Labour can’t just win – it has to win big.

Meanwhile there are those who think Labour should instead break the system that is now so loaded against it. This means changing the answer to the question of what Labour is for. It would cease to be one of the pillars of a two-party system, but an ideological vanguard fighting for the interests of its metropolitan voters in a multiparty system. To do this it has to work with other parties, including the SNP. Above all it needs to adopt electoral reform. That means adopting a system of proportional representation to the UK parliament – lesser reforms such as the Alternative Vote won’t do. This has two advantages. First it allows serious cooperation with the Lib Dems and the Greens, which should improve the party’s chances of winning, and of forming a successful government if it fails to win a majority. After the Lib Dem catastrophe following coalition with the Conservatives in 2015, the minor parties will seek a high price for their support and serious electoral reform must be part of it. Second, once implemented, it will pose big problems for the Conservatives, who will have much more trouble fighting off the populist right, as well as hanging onto liberal Remainers.

But this strategy brings its own problems. There is no upwelling for this sort of political reform amongst the public – support is broad but shallow. It would come under sustained attack by the Conservatives who would claim that it was throwing away the county’s cherished traditions and inviting weak governments. If they want to change the subject away from their competence to govern, this might present them with just that opportunity. This is why I was sceptical of such a strategy when I looked at Labour’s prospects last year. Back then, though, I thought that the Conservatives’ weak performance in government would make them vulnerable. I am much less confident of that now.

As it happens Labour’s conference rejected a motion in favour of electoral reform. It was backed by 80% of constituency members, but blocked by Britain’s ever-conservative unions, doubtless after nudging from the Labour leadership. There is no sign that the current leadership wants to go in that direction. Labour seems too weak to win, but strong enough to prevent any other parties than the Conservatives and the SNP from succeeding. So just what is the point?

The NHS makes Britain a high-tax nation. Tories need to get over it

The most significant political development here in Britain in the last week was the government’s announcement that it is going to raise National Insurance by 3% of income (1.5% each to be paid by employer and employee) to pay for additional short-term costs in the NHS and longer term costs of social care. Alongside it were announced a sketch for the future public funding of social care. This is a reversal for the Conservatives, who had promised not to raise rates of Income Tax, NI or VAT, which has caused consternation among many Tories. They see their dreams of Britain being a lower-tax country ebbing away.

With this new tax the proportion of national income taken as tax will be historically high – though I read differing stories of just how much. When I first started to work calculating PAYE and such in a small accountant’s office in 1976, the basic rate of income tax was 35%, and the top rate was 83%. On top of that “unearned income” was subject to a 15% surcharge, which could take the top rate up to 98%. Then there was National Insurance – admittedly at a much lower rate and capped so that it did not apply to higher levels of income. Corporation Tax was 52%. VAT was only 10% (or 8% on some goods I can’t quite remember), compared to 20% now – but I find it very hard to believe that the country is even close to raising as much tax relative to income as it was then. Maybe I’m missing something. It was a signal achievement of Margaret Thatcher’s government (1979 to 1990) that it cut these rates drastically without destroying the nation’s finances.

That achievement seems to have fostered an illusion amongst many Conservatives – that lower tax rates pay for themselves by creating economic growth – and the effect would be doubly beneficial if wasteful public spending could be cut too. They could point to successful countries with lower rates of tax: such as the USA and Japan – whereas many European countries were regarded as basket cases, suffering from excessive tax. Such people, often styled as “economic liberals”, dominated the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition of 2010 to 2015, and David Cameron’s majority Conservative government that briefly succeeded it. These governments drove forward a period of austerity, in which many areas of public spending were cut drastically, and spending on other areas, such as the NHS, failed to keep up with increased demand. Taxes did not fall so much, though. Personal tax allowances were raised – but tax collection was tightened up. This period should have awakened Tories to the fact that big tax cuts are off the political agenda in the UK. It required huge amounts of political capital just to stand still on the tax and spend equation.

At the heart of this reality is the National Health Service. Unlike most developed countries, the bulk of Britain’s health care is supplied for free through this nationalised utility. This must be funded by taxes (or if you are a follower of Modern Monetary Theory, taxes are required to ensure that the spending is not inflationary). Private health services exist alongside the NHS, but in most cases a wall is placed between the two. You cannot top up your NHS care with private money. Such are the egalitarian principles behind the NHS.

When the NHS was set up in 1949 it was widely thought that health services were like any other utility – such as the drains. Demand would be contained at a particular level when health needs were met – few people become intentionally ill after all. This has never happened. Health care has extended its reach as new conditions come within its scope, and new treatments become available.

All this is generally understood. But what economic liberals often fail to grasp is that if some perfect market mechanism could be found to supply medical services, backed by a perfect social insurance system, then the overall demand for medical care would be very high. In other words people would choose to spend on health services over and above other sorts of consumption. The consumer appeal of reducing pain and extending life has a strong competitive appeal. It is unknowable how much this hypothetical level of demand is – but to get some idea of how high it could be, look at the USA – where healthcare costs 18% of national income, notwithstanding high levels of unmet demand. In Britain the ratio is about 10%, with a lower income per head. So Britons get to spend 8% more of their income than Americans on other things. But other things they probably don’t want as much as better healthcare. They just have no good way of using their income to achieve this because of the way the NHS is structured, and because their political leaders have imposed such a draconian cap on costs. The NHS tops international league tables for value for money – but not for health outcomes. That is not the right way round. In one view the design of the NHS means that demand for health care is exaggerated, because it is free at the point of delivery. In practice the NHS acts as a constraint on demand, because it makes it hard for consumers to use their own money to get what they want.

Other health systems are better at drawing in private money to supplement taxpayer funding. This is done by not imposing a segregation between public and private systems – typically by using an insurance system underwritten by the state. Well-working examples include Australia and the Netherlands (America, on the other hand, is a horrible mess). Alas this not an option for the United Kingdom. The NHS and its egalitarian principles are a national religion that no politician dare touch. Since all health systems have serious drawbacks alongside their advantages, it surely makes sense to try and make the NHS system work better, rather than replace it with something new.

But making the NHS work properly means ramping up the level of funding so that it is closer to the level of “natural” demand, alongside taxes and fees that distribute costs fairly, reflecting that it is a form of insurance. To his credit Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair understood this when, in the early 2000s, he decided to just that, reversing many years of constrained spending. To balance this he and his Chancellor, Gordon Brown, raised National Insurance. At one level this makes sense. This tax is the closest we get to an insurance premium, paid while people are in work, and drawn down in retirement – alongside taxes on tobacco and alcohol, two big drivers of healthcare demand. However the Treasury hates the idea of hypothecated taxes, and there has been no attempt to fund the NHS actuarially. National Insurance is lost in general taxation. Alas Messrs Blair and Brown fatally misread the economy and cut income tax at the same time, all the way down to 20% for the basic rate. That was because of buoyant capital receipts from Britain’s booming capital markets. That income evaporated in the financial crisis of 2007 to 2009. Beyond a little tinkering with top rates, it has been considered toxic to raise income tax rates since Mr Blair promised not to do so before he was first elected in 1997. That is unfortunate because it is clear this tax that should be raised, rather than NI, as it would take money from better-off pensioners (people like me, in fact) who have not done so badly from the austerity years, but who can expect to be using NHS services more.

This problem will come back to haunt this government, or, more likely, its successor. The extra 3% on NI may be enough to keep the NHS going for now, but it surely cannot do the job on social care as well. The wider economy may give governments more time, through growth and with greater scope for budget deficits than the Treasury is assuming. In the long run though, the NHS means that the UK will be pushing its way up the league table of higher tax countries. Conservatives need to get used to that fact.

20 years after 9/11, the terrorists have failed

Pessimism is the prevailing wisdom of the times. So it is for most commentators looking back at the terrible events of 11 September 2001. In The Times Gerard Baker’s article is headed “Awful truth about 9/11: the terrorists won“, which the editor says “has the ring of truth”. The veteran BBC correspondent John Simpson has been saying much the same thing. This is what the public wants to hear: the glass must always be half empty. But the half full case needs to be made.

The muddle starts with what you think the terrorists were trying to achieve. Messrs Simpson and Baker assume that it was really rather limited: to promote their ideology, and to take America down a peg or two in its world standing. This framing perhaps comes from America’s “War on Terror”. I would accept that this was meant to stamp out jihadism and to maintain America’s world standing. And I have no difficulty in accepting that it has failed. Jihadism rumbles on; America’s standing has taken a knock in the last couple of decades. But wouldn’t his have happened without 9/11? America’s power, or rather its power relative to the rest of the world, has clearly diminished. This is mainly because of China’s rise. That is a product of successful policy in China itself, rather than anything America did or did not do. China’s resources are massive; the curious thing is why its global standing had been so low for so long. It is slowly moving towards its rightful place. Inasmuch as this has meant many millions being lifted out of poverty, that is something to celebrate.

Jihadism also persists. But this is not as the international network whose aim is to bring down western civilisation – but more localised rebellions, building on the resentment of the left-behind against corrupt elites. This is on the rise in parts of Africa and the Middle East. It was present before 9/11, and did not need Al-Qaida to to push itself forward. and I don’t see its rise as a failure of Western policy – but the result of poor governance in many less well-off countries. It would surely have happened anyway.

But the aims of Osama bin-Laden, Al-Qaeda, and Islamic State who followed them, were and are much broader. They wanted to destroy the West by provoking a global clash of civilisations, in which force the oppressed Muslims to take sides, and would eventually bring down the decadent, materialist West, who lack of moral fibre would do for them in the end – and doubtless the decadent, materialist Russia and China too. At first things went well for them. America’s “War on Terror” played straight into their hands, especially when they decided to extend it to an attack on Iraq. This indeed provoked anger, and America and its allies found it hard to sustain their early victories. Meanwhile jihadism attracted a following among people in Western countries who felt powerless and marginalised. Their biggest success occurred more than a decade after 9/11, when the Syrian civil war created space for jihadists to become established. This was because the Syrian regime pushed anti-government forces into their arms, while the West stood back. But when they tried to exploit this space to fuel terrorism in Europe, this time by IS, the West acted and caused their collapse. But Western leaders had become cannier. Once IS has been destroyed they pulled back. They were happy to leave the jihadists to their fate in a messy but localised civil war, with Iran, Russia and the Gulf Arabs jockeying for advantage.

Meanwhile in Western countries jihadi terrorism has dropped off to a low level, with little serious organisation. It has clearly lost its cachet amongst the discontented. Security types worry that the Taliban victory in Afghanistan will change that; it’s their job to worry about that sort of thing. But jihadism does not look like a path to global victory, but an exercise in futility. Afghanistan is an exception. In North Africa, the Middle East (and not least in Palestine) and the rest of Asia Sunni Muslim militants look further than ever away from achieving their goals. And Afghanistan will doubtless start to look messy in its turn. For jihadism to maintain momentum they needed Western armies to go into Muslim countries and provoke retaliation. Now they are gone. It took time but Western leaders have finally understood what this war is all about and how to win it.

And that, rather paradoxically requires a dose of humility. It requires accepting that not everything that goes wrong in the world is a matter of policy failure in the West. Others have agency too. There can be no crusade (a word that means much the same as jihad) to promote Western values. If these values win out, it will be because of their inherent virtues, as the alternatives break down. And their the picture looks much more hopeful.

The developed world’s business model unravels. Is that a good thing?

Free trade and globalisation; just-in-time supply chains; the supply of cheap labour (such as lorry drivers or fruit pickers); each of these has been a critical aspect of economic development in the last twenty or more years in developed countries. And almost every day I read an article about each of these is unravelling. This feels like a profound reversal – but what will it mean?

I can’t help thinking back to my management training in the late 1990s. There was one segment called “The Power of One”. The idea was that if you improved each aspect of your business by a small amount (“one”, which could be 1%), the overall effect on profitability could be profound. Profit is the difference between two large numbers – so improving each of those numbers by a small proportion has a disproportionate effect. If your revenue is 100 units, and cost is 98, your profit is 2. If you increase revenue by one to 101, and cut costs by one, to 97, your profit is 4 – double. This was part of an era of tight micromanagement and of continuous, incremental improvement. Alongside this came a trend to break up business processes amongst specialists by outsourcing – and often this was to businesses based in places where labour was cheap. Or sometimes to agencies that could procure cheap labour, often by using immigrant labour. This gave managers more ways to exert the Power of One, often using the oldest management technique of all: bullying. The changes might be incremental each year, but over time the effect was profound. Complex supply chains and cheap labour became embedded in rich world economies. Some big businesses, such as supermarkets, became very powerful; others, such as farmers and haulage businesses were squeezed dry.

By and large economists applauded this process. Prominent liberal economist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman once said “Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything”. Human wellbeing is measured by the amount people consume (well it isn’t, economists admit – and then fail entirely to to act on this insight); in the long run to consume more per person people must produce more per person; that is the definition of improving productivity. Add to the mix gains from trade, a favourite concept of economists, and the gains made in the 1990s and 2000s through tighter management would be bound to lead to gains for everybody in the long run. Economists deal in aggregate numbers and sweeping generalities – their’s is not ask what is really happening beneath the numbers; that’s mere logistics that the little people like accountants are there to manage. But non-economists were not so sure that all was well. They pointed to a number of problems: inequality, exploitation, sustainability and resilience.

To many the rewards of all this productivity improvement were skewed. True, many things became cheaper and inflation was reduced to a small number – but the lives of many workers and small business owners were squeezed by the culture of continuous management bullying, and their livelihoods became less secure as work became here today and gone tomorrow. The big, powerful businesses controlling it all were not necessarily all that profitable, as they often competed intensely with each other, but they were controlled by small elites who were able to corner good incomes for themselves – a reward as they saw it, of making their business more efficient. And there was a strange shadow world of highly-paid professionals designing these complex systems and keeping them in being, in finance and consultancy.

But the inequality problem went deeper than that. Many of these techniques are about the use of cheaper labour (not all – just-in-time management is about inventories) , either by outsourcing to places where labour costs are low, or by importing workers from such countries. Economists are relaxed about this. Wages are low in less developed countries because productivity is low there. Trading with them helps the raise productivity and wages, so both sides gain. This is more of a stretch if the workers themselves are imported – but there is evidence of benefits to the exporting country in that case too. There are a couple of problems though. Labour standards are often lower and this is often exploitative and unethical. More fundamentally, it can only be a temporary fix. Living standards and wages rise in cheap labour countries (look at the succession of countries where this has happened – Japan, South Korea and now China) , and immigrant workers integrate into their new home.

There was also a hidden cost: to sustainability and resilience. Farmers were forced into methods that sucked the land dry (figuratively – depriving the soil of nutrients rather than water), and culled biodiversity. Few people want to be lorry drivers, and their average age is rising. And when there is disruption, such as an earthquake in Japan or a container ship grounding in the Suez Canal, chaos ensues right around the world. Never mind a global pandemic. Suddenly, the world is full of production and transport bottlenecks.

And so it has all started to unravel; the gains are being unpicked and reversed. The changes have been happening for a decade or more, but the first conspicuous reversal came with a political backlash that economists are prone to dismiss as “populism”. In 2016 Donald Trump railed against outsourcing, immigration and foreign trade deals. And in power he did his best to put the clock back, most successfully in trade. In the same year Brexit campaigners also exploited discomfort with free trade and immigration. The outcome has been a profound disruption to many businesses, as buying things from the European Union has become harder (and selling things there), while the pool of flexible European labour has diminished.

Brexit means that the shift has been particularly acute here in Britain – but Brexit has merely accelerated trends that can be seen right across the developed world, and which the Covid-19 pandemic has also accelerated. This has created a very challenging environment for many businesses, and it will surely mean that the prices of many goods will increase, and living standards, as measured by economists, will fall. But before we get too gloomy about this we need see it all in a broader perspective.

Firstly, most of this is about “stuff”: things that need to be moved around by ship, train or lorry. Productivity levels for stuff are already very high, to the extent that it plays a much smaller role in the economy as a whole than it used to. Manufacturing and agriculture account for less than 20% of British national income, compared to over 70% for services. Furthermore there is a lot of over consumption. Most clothes that are bought are only worn rarely. Who really needs an SUV with a max speed over 100mph to do the weekly shopping? Vast amounts of refuse is generated. Consumption of yet more stuff is not going to be the route to improved wellbeing. We can adapt to consuming less across our society without an adverse impact – even recognising that a significant minority of people would benefit from an increase in consumption.

Secondly, it is good thing if many people in lower-paid jobs (which I will not call “low-skilled” as the Home Office does) have more bargaining power. We are long overdue for a reversal of the balance of power between workers and capital, which has tilted towards the latter from the 1980s. This is why incomes have been skewing towards the better off. Whether what we are witnessing is enough to be such a reversal is another matter – but it is surely a step in the right direction.

And thirdly there are other ways to improve productivity. Automation may destroy jobs, but, as economists don’t tire to point out, it leads to the creation of others. Good process management, another 1990s idea, but one that failed to catch on as much as it should, could improve many industries, especially in services such as health care. It failed to catch on because it involves delegating more power and responsibility to lower levels of the organisation – something that senior managers and regulators like are uncomfortable with. Many observers suggest that the shock of lockdowns has spurred innovation and productivity improvement.

So it may not be a bad thing that the world is changing, but all change is disruptive, and the main victims of disruption, in the short run, are usually the less well off. But in the short term most of will find it harder to get many of the things that we want. there will be more self-service. But it may a step towards making the world a better place.

Trying to get Afghanistan into perspective

What is it about Afghanistan that causes Western policymakers and commentators lose all sense of perspective? A striking example of this phenomenon is former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who has described President Biden’s policy as “imbecilic” in an outburst on his website – or at any rate that regime’s attempt to justify it.

This loss of perspective has been going on for more than 40 years. It all started at the end of 1978 when the Soviet Union established a puppet government there backed up by a military invasion – it made me chuckle that the year’s most significant event occurred after all the papers had published their reviews of the year. All hell broke loose in Western political circles. The US president, Jimmy Carter, was condemned for being soft, and failing to counter Soviet global encroachment. There were constant references to the Afghanistan’s supposed strategic importance. This was too much for me. I was a student at Cambridge at the time, and had been prompted to rethink my whole attitude to geopolitics by a course on the philosophy of international relations taught by Professor Harry Hinsley (hardly a radical leftie…). The games that the US and Soviet Union were playing by intervening in third-world countries were inversely proportional in intensity to strategic importance. The Soviet coup and invasion was undertaken exactly because the country was not strategically important, so there was no risk of an extreme counter-reaction, which could lead to a nuclear war. I even wrote a letter to The Economist, who were fuming away with everybody else, pointing this out. Alas the Great Game continued as leaders in America and Russia continued trash poor countries with little strategic importance while pretending that this was some life or death struggle of values. In the case of Afghanistan, Americans started to sponsor jihadist terrorists who were attacking Soviet troops – thereby helping to secure the foundations of the jihadist movement that would in turn attack the West. Events after the Iranian Revolution in 1979 should have been enough of a warning (and incidentally that country was strategically important, which is why the superpowers treated the crisis with kid gloves). That failure to grasp the bigger picture was all too typical.

At least this time we are hearing a lot less about the strategic importance of Afghanistan. Instead people are being exercised about the humiliation of the US-led coalition, and how this is upsetting our allies while heartening our adversaries. Mr Blair is saying, apparently, (confession: I have only skimmed his article and I am mainly relaying on secondhand reports) that the West needs to be “resolute” – and that the retreat in Afghanistan is a catastrophic and unnecessary defeat. This isn’t how the West won the Cold War, he suggests. In fact there were many defeats and humiliations for the West over the course of the Cold War. Vietnam (together with Cambodia and Loas) is the most obvious, but after that there were defeats in Angola Mozambique and Nicaragua. Military and intelligence types kept popping up to say that the West was losing, and needed to give them more money to buy their toys or play their deadly games. I was left feeling that these types weren’t all that impressed with Western values, and were more impressed with the higher priority that the Communists gave to their military and intelligence services. And then, practically without warning, it was all over.

How the West won the Cold War had little to do with military confrontation, or the winning or losing of third-world allies, notwithstanding US Republican attempts to suggest as much as they try to deify their hero, Ronald Reagan. It was the self-evident superiority of Western values that did it. This led to a much better standard of life for its citizens, which became clearly evident in Europe, with, for example, the contrasting fortunes of West and East Germany. The Communist Party governments simply lost the will to continue. Mikhail Gorbachev tried to address the system’s weaknesses, but instead simply precipitated their collapse.

Tony Blair has baggage, of course. He has staked a lot on his narrative of “no regrets” for the Afghan and Iraqi wars. This has long been built around cartoonish invocations of good guys and bad guys, in a war of values. But the bad guys are a disparate bunch. Alongside the jihadists who want to take the world back to Medieval values, and reject practically the entire Western materialist ethos, you have Russia and China, who are, if anything, even more materialist, and who also consider jihadism to be a threat. To find these powers cheering a jihadist victory shows just how over-extended the projection of power by the US and its allies had become. To many people, and not just ruling elites, the Western projection of power is not about the promotion of decent human values, but about the advance of the narrow interests of an elite that wishes them ill. In Afghanistan Western values became irreparably linked to civic corruption. Apparently the focus on fighting a war had much to do this; the military types in charge of the allied effort are get-things-done people; they used familiar channels of using people they saw as effective. Getting things done in a less developed society usually means abetting corruption, and so it appears to have been. The West thought that it should sort out security first, and then deal with nation-building. But they got it the wrong way round. The Taliban’s strongest selling point was that they were not corrupt, which most people seemed happy to believe. And with that they won the hearts and minds of people outside the educated urban elites, including, it seems, most of the Afghan security forces.

We should just let the paradox of that sink in. One of the best things about Western, liberal societies is that they are amongst the least corrupt. And yet Western interventions in less developed countries are closely associated with maintaining corrupt elites. We are trying to win the war of values by betraying them.

Ultimately the West will win the contest for the world’s hearts and minds through demonstrating that its values are better at bringing peace and wellbeing to their citizens. Russia is clearly in an economic cul-de-sac and its leaders will eventually be held to account. In China, this is much less clear – but power is being concentrated in a narrow elite which is intolerant of criticism. Perhaps more quickly than we image, they too will find themselves in a cul-de-sac.

But all is not well in the West either, due to the complacency of governing elites. The reverses in Syria, Iraq and now Afghanistan will not help the West’s standing and the advance of liberal values. We will need to respond robustly to threats to public order from jihadists, from Russia and from China. But we should not forget that our values will win through only by proving their worth. We were making too many compromises in Afghanistan, and ultimately that is what accounts for the humiliation. But as humans we should know that it is better to accept humiliation than indulge in an endless game of denial.

Asking the wrong questions on the Plymouth shootings

On 12 August a gunman in a working class district of Plymouth killed five people: his mother and four others who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, before killing himself; two others are seriously injured. The community’s first thoughts, rightly, are for the victims and their loved ones. But questions must be asked about whether this episode could have been prevented. And here the early signs of the discussion are not encouraging. It is hard to see how Britain’s public services will get much better while politicians, senior managers and commentators all look at problems in the wrong way.

What is clear from the evidence that has emerged so far, however, is that this is indeed a failure of public service. The shooter used a licensed firearm; there was ample evidence that he was not a fit person to possess such a deadly weapon, and local people had expressed their concerns about his state of mind. The dots could easily have been joined and the weapon removed from his possession, as it had been temporarily previously. In fact the intervention could have been even simpler: by not returning the weapon to him a month or so ago.

And yet the senior politicians and public servants involved may be shocked at the loss of life, but they look unworried by accusations of failure. This is what the writer Douglas Adams called the SEP field in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which confers complete invisibility. SEP stands for Somebody Else’s Problem. In this case it stems from the way we assume that all organisations should be run, and especially public ones: through a system of written policies and procedures. Lawyers love this. To see if anybody is culpable if something goes wrong, all you have to do is check whether individuals followed the written procedures. Workers and managers like this for the same reason: follow the procedures and you should not be blamed if anything goes wrong. If something does go wrong even though everybody has followed procedures, then the call goes out to amend those procedures – and the public can be told that lessons have been learned. It is a wonderful system that rejects any notion of common sense and leadership, but it is no way to run an efficient and effective organisation. That depends on managers pulling together information from various sources and making decisions to further the interests of the society, or their employers. Procedures can help them to do this, but they can also get in the way, and they are often absent for the particular circumstances of the here and now. It is then that leadership kicks in – and the critical organisational thing here is whether managers have the scope to gather the information they need and the authority to act. This was clearly not the case for those overseeing public safety in Plymouth. But nobody is likely to be talking about it.

Commentary on this incident began badly. One of the main topics was whether the shooter should have been categorised as a terrorist. This matters so far as the various procedural routines that public servants follow, but is a red herring if you think that the main problem was a lack of local leadership. The conversation quickly moved on to the procedures for granting and renewing firearms licences, and the need to trawl social media postings. Absent from this discussion, as usual, is any question over resources and prioritisation. Apparently licences were being waved through because the police managers had decided that other areas were a priority. Police resources are stretched, so I would not like to second-guess that decision. Might the requirement to look at social media simply incur a whole lot of pointless trawling and arbitrary decisions about what is relevant? It would take a courageous public servant to suggest as much in the wake of this tragedy. Furthermore it still leaves those who were worried about the shooter’s state of mind with nobody to talk to.

There is in fact a clear organisational solution to the management of threats like this: neighbourhood policing. In London the police did try this a number of years ago, though only after prodding from politicians, and they quietly gutted it when political attention moved on. I had a little experience of it while helping one of our ward campaigns in the early 2000s. A team of half a dozen police officers and PCSOs were given responsibility for a local authority ward (about 15,000 residents in that case). They made it their business to meet regularly with local people, gathering information about their concerns and intelligence about who was doing what. They then took the initiative to try and head off threats to public order – organising youth activities, for example. In this case at least it would have given somebody the chance to put together the disparate pieces of information that pointed to a threat. The technique is popular in America, but it has failed to get much traction here. Police chiefs clearly think that it is an inefficient use of resources. They prefer to invest in specialist squads and things like heavily armed SWAT teams. Doubtless this follows modern management fashion, which emphasises focus and prioritisation. But a lot of the police’s job is risk management, which does not respond well to such thinking (“prioritising risk management” is an oxymoron: risk lurks in the areas you do not prioritise). But the problem isn’t just the police; it is the whole system of political management and public services. If there was more political accountability at ward level, the police would have to respond to it. Instead being a ward councillor is usually an undemanding first step for budding politicians, or a sinecure for status-seeking political activists. As with most of the country’s political representation, most contests are uncompetitive, with one party dominating. Councillors’ political careers depend more on managing their party connections rather than being accountable to the public.

Added to this is a persistent idea that an efficient organisation requires functional specialisation, which leads to what my management training referred to process fragmentation. Crafting a solution to a problem, such as somebody having mental health issues, often requires the involvement of several specialists, each of who can veto a solution. An official looking at a problem instead sees several problems, most of which are not his or her responsibility – the SEP field again. This can be compounded when people use data protection as an excuse not to share information. This is at the root of many public service failures – though not necessarily this one.

All this leads to a cycle of public service failure. Bad things happen; changes are made; things get no better because people ask the wrong questions. We content ourselves with the thought that things could be worse, and life goes on. We should demand better.

The tragedy in Afghanistan is the price of hubris 20 years ago

The collapse of the western-backed Afghan government in the last week has been breathtaking. My first thoughts go to the many thousands of Afghans who made use of its liberal freedoms, and who supported the western powers, but who now face a bleak future, and many who face no future at all. Some soul-searching is due for those of living comfortable lives in the west, whose governments have created this fiasco.

The proximate cause of the disaster is a lack of leadership within the Afghan government, contrasted with strong leadership from the Taliban. There seems to have been a will to resist the Taliban, but the elected leaders of the government, and their appointed officers, did little to mobilise it. Their authority and power depended on an implicit guarantee from the western powers, and America in particular. When first President Trump, and then Joe Biden withdrew that guarantee, the whole pack of cards came tumbling down. We may question the American tactics – they had reduced their governments’ commitment to the war to a historically low level, perhaps this was acceptable for the indefinite future. But any serious analysis of the situation leads to the observation that “I wouldn’t start from here.” Historical inevitability is a popular idea for people looking backwards, and is usually overdone. But it is hard to resist the idea that the American intervention in 2001 was doomed from the start. How did we get there?

As I was growing into political consciousness in the 1960s and 1970s the dominant world event was the war in Vietnam. America’s defeat was a massive loss of prestige. The country deployed uge firepower and yet was still defeated. In the last years, after America had already declared its retreat, morale among US servicemen, mostly conscripts, collapsed. This added to the idea that America did not have the stomach for war – it had “gone soft” through excessive economic development. It is an idea that persists to this day, in spite of manifest evidence to the contrary. America’s military regrouped after this catastrophe, though. And then came the collapse of the Soviet Union, who had suffered a similar loss of military prestige in Afghanistan. America had won the Cold War without its military fighting spirit being put to serious test. And then came Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Iraq’s leader, Saddam Hussein, was a strong exponent of the “America has gone soft” idea, with his own nation toughened up by a long war with Iran. But America, led by probably its ablest President in modern times, George Bush Senior, responded with force and diplomatic skill. An American-led coalition counterattacked and so completely outclassed the Iraqi opposition that the world was left aghast. American military prestige was restored at a stroke.

Bush was conscious that even this awesome military power had its limits, but he was defeated by Bill Clinton in 1992. Meanwhile many Americans became hubristic; this awesome military power was for the using. They saw it as a means of either crusading to make the world a better place, or of bending the world to America’s advantage. To his credit, Mr Clinton was clearly sceptical about this. But into the picture came a politician from outside the US: Britain’s Tony Blair, who came to power in 1997. He developed the idea of “liberal interventionism” – the idea that western powers should intervene militarily to prevent humanitarian catastrophe, and, later, to stop villains. He persuaded Mr Clinton to use US power to intervene in Kosovo, which was perceived as a success – especially compared to the West’s earlier timidity in the Yugoslav wars. Then, in 2000, Bush’s son, George Bush Junior, won the US presidency.

Mr Bush was not as strong and experienced as his father. And amongst his key supporters, including his Vice President Dick Cheney, were a group of politicians known as the “NeoCons”. The NeoCons believed strongly in the muscular use of US military power to secure advantage. They also believed that sympathetic regimes could be put in established across the world based on liberal democratic values. Their particular project was the takeover of Iraq, still ruled by Saddam, in which they planned to make pots of money for their cronies, while bestowing on that country a superior political system. Then came the terrorist atrocities of 11 September 2001.

Most Americans wanted to respond to this tragedy with the use of military might, notwithstanding that it was unclear how this could be done effectively against so nebulous a foe. The was the NeoCon’s moment, and Mr Blair was happy to lend his support. But it was too much of a stretch to blame 9/11 on Saddam, even for the American right. But there did seem to be a link between the terrorists and Afghanistan, and there was a military opportunity. Taliban rule was starting to crumble, especially in the north of the country. The Americans could capitalise on this to gain a quick victory. This they duly did. But what next? It was easy to knock over the existing government, but there was little with which to build a replacement from the country’s disparate tribes. But this is exactly what America and its allies tried to do. Was failure inevitable? Perhaps not, but America lacked the political leadership with which to accomplish such a task. The NeoCons soon became bored and moved on to Iraq, where they managed to manufacture an excuse to go to war, backed by Mr Blair again. That was a colossal distraction, which has not ended very well.

But even if disaster in Afghanistan could have been averted, it would have involved a colossal effort for an unclear political gain, disproportionate to the aim of dismantling some terrorist bases. The country’s other area of significance, as a hub of the global heroin trade, has been beyond central government control. Afghanistan is often described as “strategic”, but this is very questionable. It borders many countries, but it comprises harsh terrain which has proved impossible for outside powers to control. Wise leaders leave it alone.

What strikes me is the hubristic nature of both Mr Bush and Mr Blair’s understanding over how military power should be used. The idea that America and its allies can act as a global policemen whose reach goes everywhere, apart from China, Russia and some of their satellites, has probably always been nonsense. It has led to countless thousands placing hopes on western intervention, which either fails (as in Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya) or never happens (as in Syria). We should be developing an alternative idea that the policeman’s role should mainly be down to to the lesser powers in the neighbourhood. Instead these powers define themselves in opposition to America’s power (or sometimes in support), and defer to its leadership or actively try to undermine it. Rarely do they offer leadership of their own.

Afghanistan is a good example of this. The powers in the neighbourhood are Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia and India (I’m not counting the neighbouring former Soviet republics as substantive powers, perhaps unfairly). None of them want Afghanistan to be a hotbed of Sunni extremism, but none, other than India, were prepared to make America’s situation any easier. The current mess is for them to sort out, and always should have been. This is clearly Mr Biden’s view, and probably Mr Trump’s, and they are right strategically, whatever the tactical errors.

But there is no sign of any of these local powers stepping up to the plate. That deepens the tragedy. Meanwhile the best that America, Britain and the other allies can do is accept as many Afghan refugees as they can in order to palliate the guilt somewhat. But their grumpy electorates are unlikely to reward such courage. The picture is bleak indeed.