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.