Is liberalism in crisis?

I was fascinated to read Why Liberalism is in Crisis in the New Statesman, which takes the form of a dialogue between John Gray and Ross Douthat. I’m familiar with Dr Gray, a British philosopher; Mr Douthat is a New York Times columnist, with a practising Christian perspective (i.e., to contrast with my own non-practising, agnostic Christian perspective, and Dr Gray’s Christian-influenced atheism). They are both highly sceptical of the liberal establishment, but are both deeply rational, and clearly Western liberals in the broad sense. As such I appreciated and enjoyed the article.

Despite their differences, both men agree that liberalism is in retreat, both within Western societies, and globally. They have an intense dislike of the “woke” consensus, as well as right-wing populist irrationality. Interestingly they think that the fashionable pessimism about the future of Western democracy is overdone. But they are firm believers in the global decline of the West: Taiwan is as good as gone, so far as they are concerned – while the rise of China, India and Russia is relentless and continuing – though I’m not sure if Mr Dothat agreed with all of the last bit (i.e. the inclusion of Russia). But neither think that these rising powers is promoting a universal credo to replace liberalism, as the Soviet Union once attempted. Instead Christian universalism is being replaced with something much more focused on national and ethnic identities. Optimism about the spread of liberalism had been based on the idea that it is the route to economic prosperity – but the rise of China has given the lie to this, says Dr Gray. Meanwhile Western ruling elites seem to be in denial about all of this.

If you break down the article into individual statements about the political state of play, I would agree with most of them. Furthermore, I would agree with two of the writers’ big conclusions: that the decline of Western liberal democracy is overdone by most commentators, and that the political heft of the West has declined sharply, as China in particular has advanced, while Russia makes mischief in the vacuum left behind. Where I disagree is that liberalism, and a belief in cosmopolitan liberal democracy, will simply retreat into being the West’s house philosophy, while the rest of the world moves to various flavours of nationalist autocracy. I think that liberalism is outgrowing the West.

This is for a number of reasons. The first thing is that I don’t think that universalism is dying. According to Dr Gray the West’s universalist out look derives from the fact that Christianity was the world’s first major universalist religion. Christian’s believe their message is for all nations. It shares this outlook with Islam but not, say, Judasm or Hinduism. Buddhism seems less tied to ethnicity, but you don’t hear of Buddhist missionaries, and its forms seem closely tied to local traditions in, say, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, and so on. After Western imperialism burned out, Christianity followed the West’s commercial expansion. Perhaps the same might be said of Islam: expanding through conquest at first, and then through commerce. But Christianity is burning out – though the authors spend a bit of time talking around the possibility of a Christian revival. More contentiously, I would say that Islam is heading down the same road. So if I accept that universal religions are in terminal decline, why do I say that universalism is alive and well? Because communication technology has so reduced the barriers to universal communication. Almost everybody either has access to the internet, or aspires to it. Memes cross boundaries all the time. China is creating its on separate online world, but it can hardly hope to keep out international influences entirely – and once inside they will spread rapidly. China is already heavily influenced by Western ideas, from Marxism, the centrality of science, the embrace of capitalism to Western fashions. This is not one-way traffic, of course, as the west consumes non-Western ideas voraciously. Above all this interconnectedness promotes a certain lifestyle of which the Western middle classes are the apogee. Furthermore, the world is beset by worldwide problems, from climate change to global trade and finance. People think of themselves as human and inhabiting the planet as a single homeland. This awareness is crying out for a philosophy which embraces this idea. Nationalism, on the other hand, ends up by promoting conflict with neighbours and minorities.

The next point is that the autocratic ways of non-Western nations are in collision with the idea of individual autonomy, for which demand will rise as prosperity develops. The autocracies are stuck with an awkward dilemma. Their principal justification is that personal autonomy needs to be sacrificed in order to advance prosperity and harmony. If they don’t deliver these things, their legitimacy declines – as is happening in Russia. If they do deliver – as China is managing – demand for individual autonomy will rise, placing more pressure on the governing elite in due course. Popular resentment may not focus on demand for democracy, but it instead on corruption. The presence of corruption means that individuals are routinely humiliated by state power – personified by a lowly official rather than the commander-in-chief. Rampant corruption blights all the nationalistic autocracies. The Chinese leadership understands this threat very well, and is fighting corruption hard. But it is doomed. Its method is to concentrate yet more power to the central elite, creating more opportunities for either corruption or jobsworth local rule – which can be just as undermining of authority in the long term. Only Singapore has managed to establish autocracy and clean government at the same time – and for that it surely depends on its small size. Where the West has failed to impose its influence, in Afghanistan for example, it is largely because it had no answer to rampant corruption.

Meanwhile, each of the developing non-Western powers has a strong dependence on trade with the West. China cannot seem to break out of its huge trade surplus. In the short term this puts China in a strong position – it stockpiles Western currencies, and creates dependencies for certain products. But the country would face social collapse if it was unable to export at such volumes. And all the countries depend on the West for certain high-technology components. Their elites build bolt-holes in Western countries in case things should sour in their own.

The strength of liberalism is that it provides answers to all these challenges in a way no other system does. It embraces the idea that all people are equal and share mutual interests. It provides for a system of accountability that is the surest way of stemming corruption and providing individual autonomy. By no means all democracies have corruption under control – but nearly every country which does have corruption down to manageable levels is a liberal democracy (Singapore is the stand-out exception). The secret of liberalism is not its Western heritage, but that fact that it solves problems, and that it is the best way to secure the middle-class lifestyle than most of humanity aspires to. There may be alternatives to advancing towards that objective, but not to holding it. China, India and Russia will all discover this in their own way.

Perhaps the best way to demonstrate what I am talking about is on the Korean Peninsula. South Korea is by no means a country of Western heritage. It was colonised by Japan, not by any of the Western powers. And yet cosmopolitan liberal democracy has taken root there, and the country is amazingly prosperous. Part of their journey was through nationalist autocracy, but this could not be sustained. Meanwhile in the north, a rejection of such values has led to a spiral of totalitarianism. North Korea consistently fails to feed itself, while investing heavily in the military to secure its future. Countries like China and Vietnam have retained their autocratic ways, and not shared North Korea’s fate – as they have embraced capitalism. And yet ultimately even these well-managed autocracies will face the choice of following one or other of the Koreas.

What we in the West have to realise is that our collective political power is in relative decline, and that we no longer rule the world – not that we ever did, but it has been an implicit assumption made by thinkers of left and right, who attribute all the world’s failings to Western policy failures. And the West no longer rules liberalism either. This hugely power set of ideas have a life all their own. Liberalism is not in crisis – but the self-confidence of the West is.

Why do TV dramas struggle with middle class characters?

A tale of two BBC TV dramas. My wife suggested that we watch two new series: The Responder and Rules of the Game, which had been well-reviewed. These dramas provide a telling contrast in the portrayal of character.

The Responder centres on a police officer in Liverpool, long past his sell-by date, and I have seen two episodes. The characters are dealt with sympathetically (mainly) and convincingly. This is gritty drama about manly working class people, and it is done well. Of course, it is not about typical working class life, but yet again deals with people working in the criminal justice, interfacing with the criminal underworld, and on the edge of violence. Well-trodden ground it may be, but it presents a sympathetic portrayal of a flawed character dealing with an unholy mess of life, and is one of many such dramas, made here in Britain and elsewhere too. We can all draw something from them.

Rules of the Game is a different matter. I have seen the first episode, and that will be enough for me. It deals with an unfolding drama at a family-owned manufacturing business in some unspecified town north of London. The main characters are middle class and I quickly lost interest in all of them. They are cardboard cut-outs living lives of unrelenting falseness, devoid of loving, sympathetic relationships. This might be taken as satire, or a critique of middle class ways, or of capitalism perhaps. But it is actually trying to deal with a serious societal issue – abuse at the workplace – that really does merit serious treatment. But we were not going to be left with any penetrating insights on how these situations develop amongst real people.

On reflection this seems to be pretty typical of modern TV dramas. Most of them are just contrived nonsense stories as a pretext for showing violence on our screens in a variety of settings. Their favoured characters are flawed but honest working class (or perhaps more correctly, lower middle class) investigators trying to unravel a mystery in the face of unrelenting falseness from more senior management and officialdom. More serious dramas have many elements in common, but manage to be less contrived, offering glimpses into grittier parts of society. But even here middle class characters (or, perhaps, upper middle class ones – though all levels of social workers get the treatment too) are shown as unrelentingly false and devious, motivated by purely by money or status, or perhaps just unable to see beyond the rulebook. Of course falseness, money, status and compliance culture are genuine parts of the middle class world – but it is inhabited by real people, whose lives are much more complicated than typically shown. If drama can examine the dilemmas and flaws of a bent copper sympathetically, why can’t they do the same for the managing director of a business, or a chief constable, or even a social worker?

Perhaps the key to this is that these dramas (certainly the ones I watch) are made by middle class people for middle class people. Breaking through the middle class veneer gets us too close to home. Much easier if what we see on the box are caricatures and clearly not people like us, especially if it fits our prejudices about officialdom or people slightly higher up the chain of seniority.

We watch drama because it is not real life. We like to see a bit of violence; we love mysteries and whodunnits – which are mainly absent from our lives. But writers could try a lot harder with their middle class characters – especially when they have made such efforts with others.

Munich: The Edge of War

Munich – The Edge of War. (L to R) Jeremy Irons as Neville Chamberlain, George MacKay as Hugh Legat, in Munich – The Edge of War. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2021

I watched this new film from Netflix last weekend. It is based on a novel by John Harris, and billed as a rehabilitation of British Prime Minister during the 1938 Czech crisis, Neville Chamberlain. If that was its aim, I’m not sure it succeeded.

This episode is a seminal moment of European history. It was the climax of the British policy of “appeasement” of Hitler, and did much to give that word its current bad name. As I was growing into political consciousness in the 1970s, it was taken as Exhibit A in the case against trying to accommodate dictatorial regimes. The fate of an innocent third country was sacrificed for no real good, and war happened anyway. In those days the dictatorial regime in question was the Soviet Union, and the episode was used by conservatives against the idea of detente, and for robust confrontation wherever the Soviets tried to extend their influence. I readily accepted such arguments, until I took up History at Cambridge in 1978. After that I developed a more nuanced view: that the conservatives, in trying to avoid the Second World War were in danger of starting the First. What that year taught me more than anything, though, was the need to understand why people did what they did – and that unless you understood how you yourself could have acted that way, then you hadn’t achieved that aim. So I’m all for a more sympathetic treatment of Chamberlain.

This film certainly achieves that. He is played by Jeremy Irons, and portrayed as avuncular, and very clear about what he was trying to do, and not naive about Hitler and the Nazis. This is entirely convincing. But the question of Chamberlain’s rehabilitation hinges on whether his judgement was correct. Here the film is much more muted, which is not a bad thing. But its conclusion is both clear and tendencious.

This question turns on two things. The first is whether standing up to Hitler’s threat to invade Czechoslovakia would have unleashed a military coup in Germany and brought his regime to a thankfully early end – or rather whether knowledge of this plot was a good enough reason to stop Hitler from moving. Historically this is quite new idea – the evidence has been slow to emerge. The film cannot resist the temptation to take it up. Much of the drama that results is made-up nonsense, in there to spice things up. Chamberlain was not confronted with the reality of the plot in Munich itself, just as the deal was being done. But the coup plot was real enough, and British Intelligence knew about it. I’m not sure if Chamberlain was briefed, but if he had, I’m sure he would have been as dismissive as the rest of the British establishment. This was no way to formulate foreign policy. This is what the film shows, so, for all its nonsense, the film gives quite a fair presentation of the underlying reality. It is one of history’s great tragedies, and the film doesn’t hide this.

The second issue is whether sacrificing Czechoslovakia in 1938 bought Britain and France critical time, which in the end was decisive in beating Hitler. The film doesn’t labour this point of view, but clearly supports it. In one scene, Hitler explains to one of the fictional characters that Germany has 70 divisions poised to invade, and that he would easily overcome Czech resistance. At the very end of the film, in the postscript titles, the film states its case – that critical time was bought, which proved critical to Germany’s eventual defeat.

But this is contentious. A strong case can be made for it, but I for one have yet to be convinced. The first point is that the Czechs were militarily well-prepared – more so than the Poles in 1939. They had superior tanks to the Germans – and indeed the Germans needed those tanks for their subsequent campaigns – from Poland right up to the invasion of Russia in 1941. Rommel’s panzer division, so important in forcing Britain’s retreat to Dunkirk, was equipped with Czech tanks. On the other hand, Germany was ill-prepared. This was exactly why the German generals thought that starting the war would be criminally irresponsible, and why they were planning a coup. Britain (and France) were also badly under-prepared. Both sides made good use of the year and bit after Munich before war was eventually started. The introduction of the British Spitfire and Hurricane aircraft on the one hand and the German Messerschmitt 109 on the other followed strikingly parallel paths. Apparently Hitler regretted not going to war in 1938, so the portrayal of his confidence in the film may be quite accurate. But he was probably the victim of his own propaganda.

There are many imponderables in the question of who benefited most from the delay. But we need to be clear that Chamberlain’s strategy failed (and that of the French leader Duladier). The two allies were not ready for war in September 1939, and had little idea about what to do when Germany attacked Poland. Chamberlain was a terrible war leader. The portrayal of him in the film of doing everything to put off the prospect of war may well be quite accurate. However admirable and understandable that is, it is a poor place to start when it comes to the business of fighting. And yet he clung on. France collapsed, the British army lost most of its equipment, and nearly suffered a much worse disaster. It took Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union and America’s intervention to stop Hitler, but not until after tens of millions of people died. Of course a total German victory would most likely have been even worse than this – but it is hard to think of it as a success from the standpoint of 1938. And it is wrong to think that such a disaster was inevitable at that point.

Does Munich have any lessons for us in the 21st Century? Conservatives still tend to see all geopolitical confrontations through this lens, continuing to use the term “appeasement” pejoratively. But the policy of detente that conservatives were so worried about in the 1970s and 1980s probably hastened the Soviet collapse rather than put it off. Conservatives claim that it was the robust confrontation of Reagan and Thatcher that did it, but the hollowing out of self-confidence in the Soviet system that engagement brought about was much more important. Dealing with China and Russia now requires a robust mix of confrontation and engagement, and the Munich episode tells us little about this, either way.

Having said that I think there are a couple of things we can draw from it, neither of which are very clear from the film. First is that we sacrifice small nations at the altar of great power politics at our peril. One of the ways that the post-war world differs from those days is that we have a much greater respect for the sovereignty of smaller nations. The treatment of Czechoslovakia by Chamberlain and Duladier would now be considered a disgrace. There was apparently an ugly meeting between these two and the Czechs at Munich in which their abandonment was rammed down their throats. That was somehow left out of the drama – its inclusion would have given the whole thing a lot more edge. The second thing is that empathy and respect cut no ice with strong political leaders. Chamberlain tried this with Hitler, but it only served to make him question his will to go to war. Hitler may even have expected Chamberlain to bottle it when he attacked Poland.

There are resonances with the current situation over Ukraine. Putin is by no means a Hitler, but he shares an adversarial outlook to foreign relations, and a desire to expand his realm (or restore it, if you prefer). The claim is that all Russia wants is status and respect really is nonsense. As former British Foreign Secretary William Hague points out in an excellent piece in The Times, the West has already tried that, years ago, and was rewarded with the first attack on Ukraine in 2014. Mr Putin is examining the West’s every move and looking for signs of weakness. Fortunately the US President Joe Biden’s touch is much surer than Chamberlain’s. He has not abandoned Ukraine, but neither has he promised to go to war on its behalf. His threats are credible.

I’m not a fan of historical dramas, as they always distort events to produce a better story, and they always over simplify. On the other hand, well done they can offer us insight, or at least bring things to constructive challenge and debate. And they are often a visual feast. I love The Crown, for example, for all its manifest nonsense. Munich is very watchable, but scores two hits and one miss in the insights it offers. The hits are its portrayal of the German coup plot, and its presentation of Chamberlain and how the man approached events. The miss is its attempt to portray Chamberlain’s achievement as a success, where it oversimplifies something much grittier.

Just what is Russia’s game in Ukraine?

Last week I speculated about the future of Boris Johnson. Today I try to penetrate the murk around a similarly bewildering, and much more momentous, issue. Is Russia about to start a war with Ukraine?

Russia has been building up forces on the Ukrainian border – numbering around 100,000, we are told. These includes a lot of modern equipment, such as tanks, missiles and anti-aircraft systems. The menace is palpable. But there are a couple of curiosities. Firstly, it is very public. Western media is full of clearly recent footage of Russian troops massing and exercising in the snow. This is in stark contrast to the Ukrainian side, which only seem to have issued some old footage in a very un-snowy environment. The media have had to content themselves with unspectacular footage they have shot themselves. And the second is that 100,000 troops does not sound such a huge number, especially given previous Russian military doctrine. They do seem very well-equipped – this is more like how America goes to war, but, as even American forces have found, not enough to accomplish a substantial occupation of hostile territory. Then the Russians insist they are not about to attack – they are merely conducting exercises. The Russian public are, apparently, not being prepared to expect a nasty war against fellow Slavs.

All that points to a propaganda exercise, and not the prelude to a full-scale invasion. The problem with that interpretation is that Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, has been pumping up the rhetoric for many months now, and his sidekicks are making blood-curdling threats. Mr Putin has talked about “red lines”, and made demands that seem to be designed not to be met, even through a process of artful compromise. They want NATO to back off, away from both the territory of the former Soviet empire and many of its former satellites eastern Europe, from Bulgaria up to Poland. There is no doubt that Mr Putin feels the loss of prestige to Russia from the Soviet collapse. The loss of Ukraine and Belarus is felt particularly acutely – and not without some reason. These countries, or large swathes of them, have been considered to be core Russian territory for two or three centuries (though, importantly, the western part of Ukraine has a very different history). Nothing would enhance Mr Putin’s prestige more than reversing this ignominy. Russia has a huge nuclear arsenal; it has invested heavily in its armed forces, who enjoy a high priority; meanwhile the West seems to have neglected its defences, especially European countries. Surely this disparity can be exploited?

Russian claims that they are not planning a war are worth nothing. Western intelligence clearly think they are planning exactly that. Because Russia’s intelligence services enjoy even more prestige than its armed forces, and are very capable, this must be because that is exactly what the Russians want them to think. The Russians are engaging in a diplomatic process, but making extreme demands. So just what is the “or else” they are threatening if it is not war against Ukraine? In any case, the Russians are quite capable of fabricating a provocation. Russian elites have a post-modern attitude to truth, and for some years they have operated a policy of implausible deniability.

What the Russian seem to want in Ukraine is a puppet government, formally aligned to Russia, and its economy dominated by the Russian oligarchy, funnelling the proceeds back into the Russian economy. The problem is that since their seizure of Crimea and much of the Donbas region in 2014, achieving this through some form coup or rigged election is implausible; they achieved this in 2004 and 2010, only in each case for this to undone by a popular uprising. The Soviet model of dictatorship requires powerful and loyal security forces; they never achieved this in Ukraine, and they are further away from achieving it now than ever. They may think they can achieve something by causing the West to abandon the Ukrainian regime, causing a loss of prestige that results in a corrupt oligarch taking power (not so hard to find in Ukraine). Or maybe they think they can achieve it directly through military intervention, as the US-led coalition did in Iraq in 2003. That ended badly, of course, but Iraq is a very different place.

The further problem for Mr Putin is that Ukraine matters both too much and too to the West. Too much as a token of Western prestige against the constant assault it receives from Russian disinformation and interference for it simply to be abandoned. But not enough that if it did fall to Russia, the West would think its vital security interests would be threatened. This makes bluffing them almost impossible – in the end they would simply call that bluff because not enough is at stake. What an invasion of Ukraine would do is to force NATO to upscale its deployments in Eastern Europe – now kept quite low in deference to previous agreements with Russia made when these countries joined the alliance. This is exactly what Russia wants to prevent, as they would feel the need to upscale their own armed forces in response.

What Russian leaders should appreciate, but don’t seem to, is that open warfare is a red line for European people and their leaders. This is borne of terrible experiences in the Twentieth Century – which Russia endured too, but seems to have taken a different message from. Use of warfare as an instrument of policy is regarded as a crime against humanity. This is one reason they neglect their armed forces given the opportunity, and why conservative commentators (especially in America whose experience of war has been much milder) think their leaders lack backbone. Russia could just about get away with its implausible deniability in 2014, but a major offensive against Ukraine would be a deeply shocking event, that would galvanise them into a very different outlook.

So Mr Putin might be contemplating something short of all-out war. This could be a bombing and missile campaign, like NATO used against Serbia over Kosovo. Or it could be something we haven’t thought of yet. But it all looks very risky. NATO succeeded in causing Serbia to retreat from Kosovo, but it hardly won over Serbian hearts and minds. There would be enormous pressure on Western governments to come to Ukraine’s aid. A full-scale war is even riskier. Ukraine is much better prepared than in 2014, and warfare in the age of cheap drone weapons is decidedly trickier than it was, as Russia has found to its (or its protégés) cost in Turkey, Armenia and Libya.

Russia does have another powerful card to play: Europe depends on its natural gas supplies. By withholding supplies form the spot market (or diverting them to China), Russia has already forced up gas prices to the level of acute pain, even amongst countries like Britain that don’t import anything from Russia. Most of this gas comes through Ukraine, and a war would create a crisis in supplies. And yet this is a hard card to play for the sorts of political gains it seeks. And the Russian regime believes in conservative finances: it would not want to lose the income for a prolonged period. Doubtless it could supply more gas to China – but the Chinese know a weak bargaining position when they see it.

What of the West’s response? Contrary to expectations, this looks to me have been measured and astute – playing an asymmetric situation as best it can. They have offered diplomatic channels. They have also been doing what they can to raise the costs to Russia of an invasion. This mainly comprises preparing economic sanctions. Sanctions don’t have a strong track record, especially since corrupt ruling elites usually find ways of profiting from them. The most interesting is the threat the throw Russia out of the SWIFT financial messaging system – as Iran has been. This could make life very hard for Russia in the short-term. In the longer term it would hasten the development of alternative systems available to countries outside the Western sphere – and doubtless they can rely on the substantial support of China for this. It is hard to know how heavily these threats weigh in Mr Putin’s mind. The West is also offering military support to Ukraine in the form of weapons, ammunition and advice – and doubtless intelligence too. The longer this goes on, the harder it will make any military campaign. But ultimately the West will not commit its armed forces to Ukraine’s defence.

I suspect that Mr Putin wants a lighting military campaign with a rapid victory, like America achieved twice in Iraq, from which Russia’s military prestige would be enormously enhanced (as America’s was, at first), and to impose humiliating terms on Ukraine. If so Kiev is the likely objective. But the risks are enormous, especially in the longer term.

Mr Putin’s best bet is to back off, accept the meagre pickings that NATO is offering, and use all his enormous disinformation capability to declare victory – how Russia could make the West stand to attention by merely flexing its muscles. But the reality would be a clear defeat that marks the limit of Russia’s power.

Will Boris Johnson survive?

I do not usually use this blog to indulge in short-term political speculation. I have access to no special inside sources – I simply make use of the information pumped out by sections of the mainstream media, being mainly the BBC and the Financial Times, supplemented by newsletters from The Guardian, The Times and the New Statesman. But I can’t resist it in the case of Boris Johnson’s future tenure as UK Prime Minister. There are some wider themes.

By last Friday Mr Johnson had hit a new low, as yet more revelations about parties in Downing Street emerged. Significantly these came through the Daily Telegraph, a paper that has been very supportive of Mr Johnson, with the angle that disrespect was being shown to the Queen, as these events occurred on the night before the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh. Conservative MPs were reported to be going to their constituencies over the weekend to “take soundings”. This process is often referred to, but it don’t actually know what it means. Clearly comments coming through to MPs through email and social media are highly unrepresentative. But what can you do over a weekend? We are meant to conjure up pictures of MPs going out to high streets and knocking on doors to talk to ordinary voters. But if they do this, the coverage is likely to be small and equally unrepresentative. And it doesn’t sound the sort of thing Tory MPs do on cold days in January. Instead, presumably what happens is that the MPs have a chat to a few usual suspects: party officers and donors, in their Conservative Association – people that they need to keep onside in the shenanigans of local internal party politics. This morning a BBC correspondent was suggesting that the feedback was not as terrible as the emails last week. But it is hard to say how reliable this feedback is. Mr Johnson has not acted out of character after all, and he has a huge stock of capital to deplete.

Meanwhile Mr Johnson has been working on a recovery strategy. The first step is to buy time by asking people to wait for an investigation by civil servant Sue Gray to be completed. Then there has been spin that these are trivial events compared to the great affairs of state that Mr Johnson has supposedly got right, and that anyway he has made a fulsome apology. This apology was made last Wednesday before Prime Minister’s Questions in parliament. This in fact covered only one of the events, and hid behind the lame idea that he thought it was a “work event” that was within the rules at the time. Mr Johnson did look abject on that occasion, but few think that this had anything to do with being genuinely sorry. Alas this dissembling on the apology is typical of how politicians operate, and it is a foretaste of how Ms Gary’s report is going to be spun. It will be presented as answering a question that was actually outside its terms of reference – whether the events were illegal.

The next part of the strategy is to have a clear-out of the staff at 10 Downing Street, whose culture appears to be so out of tune with the public zeitgeist. This supports Mr Johnson’s narrative (to insiders) that he has been badly let down by his staff. This is well-trodden territory for incompetent leaders, and personnel changes almost never work.

But the most curious part of Mr Johnson’s survival initiative has been a series of policy ideas presented to Tory backbenchers as “red meat”. These include putting the Royal Navy in charge of stopping the flow of migrants in small boats coming across the Channel, and ending the BBC licence fee. These invite the question of why, if they are such good ideas, they hadn’t been progressed already. Worse, they look like an invitation to a political quagmire. In the case of migrants, it is hardly clear how this is actually going to solve the problem – instead it looks like more over-promising. Priti Patel, The Home Secretary, has already seen her reputation amongst Conservative activists nosedive for being unable to deliver on fierce rhetoric. And as for the BBC – this could very easily be presented as a vindictive attack an all its works, from Strictly Come Dancing to the Green Planet, from excessively doctrinaire Tories who resent the BBC’s political coverage. The public may have cooled a bit on the BBC, but it is still a much-loved institution amongst the middle of the road voters that the Conservatives need to hold onto.

So this strategy might be called an alligator strategy, after the famous James Bond scene where he escapes from a trap by using the backs of alligators as stepping stones to cross a pool. Tory MPs who are frightened of taking such a drastic step as unseating the PM must be given a possible path to safety. The point is to weather the crisis, not to create a winning strategy for the next two years. And since I think that these MPs are genuinely frightened of making awkward choices, and yearn for the feel-good days of Mr Johnson’s past, I think it could well work.

Which surely leaves Mr Johnson in a similar position to John Major in 1992, when his credibility collapsed with the ERM crisis. He limped on for over four years before succumbing to the worst electoral defeat in the party’s history. Mr Major is the exact opposite personality to Mr Johnson, but that will not stop them from suffering the same fate.

If Mr Johnson survives, it will be a vindication for the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, whose strategy has always been to differentiate himself from the Conservatives mainly on competence. After two years when this approach seemed to be taking Labour backwards, it is at last paying dividends. It is unlikely to work if Mr Johnson is replaced by Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss or, especially, Jeremy Hunt. But a wounded Mr Johnson is the perfect target.

Boris Johnson’s political achievements are astonishing. His fall will be as spectacular as his rise. My guess is that this will occur at the next General Election – but it could be much sooner if Conservative MPs have any sense.

The Tories must choose between lower taxes or the NHS

Discontent in the British Conservative party goes beyond frustration with the erratic leadership style of Boris Johnson, and his low poll ratings. Many feel that the government is failing to deliver on a distinctly Tory vision of how to run the country – one that is business-friendly with light regulation and low taxes. Shadow leadership contenders, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak, and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss are both trying to capitalise on this discontent. But there is no way out, which is why Mr Johnson may yet limp on until the next election.

Item One in this discontent is the government’s covid strategy. Many Tories feel that it is too heavy-handed and too beholden to cautious experts. Leave the public to make up its on mind on precautions and take the consequences, they suggest. Their thinking is plainly muddled, and out of touch with most voters, but at least as the virus morphs into something a bit less deadly, so policy can move on in their direction.

Item Two is Brexit. In Tory eyes this was meant to be a great liberation from bureaucracy, which would allow “buccaneering” British business to achieve its full potential. And yes, one prominent Tory did use that word, referring to licensed pirates on the high seas back in the 17th and 18th centuries, at whose modern equivalent the Russians’ advantage is surely unassailable. In fact businesses have been mired in even more form-filling, associated with imports and exports to the European Union, which surrounds the country, and is thus its readiest partner for both. Some remember that it was much simpler back in the 1960s before Britain entered the Common Market – failing to understand how the world has moved on. Meanwhile rolling back regulations has been happening at a snails’ pace, as the regulations were more than a bureaucratic whim, and aimed to achieve a public good – which has to be achieved in an alternative way. Downing Street has resorted to pointing to crowns printed on beer glasses and the changed colour of passports as among the main achievements of Brexit. And that is before the insoluble problem of Ireland is brought into the picture, ever capable of exploding with dire consequences. In fact most Brexit voters, including the former Labour-voting ones that Mr Johnson so successfully courted in the 2019 election, never much cared for deregulation as a reason for Brexit. They wanted to see more restrictive immigration policies – which the Tories have indeed delivered. But that has brought more bureaucracy, and snarl-ups due to labour shortages. Tory MPs’ business friends are not particularly happy, even as Tory voters are now a lot less worried about the issue.

And Item Three is taxes. They are going up, both corporate taxes and national insurance, levied on people in work and their employers. This is nominally to pay for grasping the nettle on the emerging social care crisis, but in fact the money will disappear into the National Health Service, which has been completely disrupted by the covid crisis, and now has massive backlogs for routine care. The Tory discontents say that above all they should be a party of lower taxes (especially on businesses and the rich, sotto voce) – and that this is a betrayal. Mr Sunak hints that if it was left to him, he would be cutting taxes soon. Most people outside the Conservative Party wonder if he can possibly be serious. With little room for manoeuvre on the budget deficit and national debt (and if you don’t think such things are relevant, high inflation suggests fiscal excess) the only way this vision can be delivered is by cutting government spending.

At the heart of this is rising spending on the NHS. Since the party regained power (in coalition) in 2010, the government has attempted to cap NHS spending so that it just about kept pace with inflation. But as the baby boomers age, and skew the ratio of older people, demand has been rising at a higher rate. The financial pressure has caused system resilience to be reduced, and this is one of the causes of the now alarming backlogs. Tory hopes that NHS costs are containable are based on two fallacies and a misconception. Fallacy One is that demand can be met through making the service more efficient. Any user of the service can point to inefficiencies in this massive, bureaucratic behemoth of an organisation. But that comes with the necessary scale and complexity of what the healthcare sector is trying to do – international comparisons show that Britain’s health services are amongst the world’s most efficient. But these same comparisons also show that in many areas Britain’s health services less effective. We are, to quote The Times columnist Matthew Parris, “getting a second-rate service for the cost of third-rate one.” This is not what the public wants, and further cost restraint is liable to mean the service becoming third-rate all round.

Fallacy Two is that faster economic growth can allow spending to keep up with demand. Alas the headwinds against growth in a modern, developed economy are many, and I have written about these many times. That demographic problem that is stoking up demand is not least among them. Besides there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the wealthier people become the more demand there is for health services. Which leads me to the misconception: which is that excess demand for the NHS arises because it is free. That suggests that there should be ways of persuading the public to make do. But the problem is that the effective NHS monopoly on health care limits supply. Other systems are much better at mobilising private money – and where they do, demand is higher, not lower. A large and growing healthcare sector is one of the features of any modern, developed economy, however it is financed. Resisting it will breed discontent.

That points to an answer. If Britain could move healthcare to a public insurance model, such as the Netherlands or Australia have, the public would both get a guarantee that their basic needs will be met, and the mobilisation of private money to pay for a world-class service. I have been to Australia quite a bit over the years – and one thing I hear very little of is discontent with its health system. And Aussies know how to be discontented. But such a shift, as surely almost all Tories know, is an impossibility. For all its faults, the public has become attached to the system. And trying to mix more private money into it would be seen as a betrayal of its ethos. Doing this as a open public policy is clearly suicidal. But doing so by stealth, by restraining the public service while allowing the private sector to grow, is problematic too – although exactly this has happened to dentistry and optometry already. If wealthier people are paying big taxes for a service they don’t use, it will create discontent, and reducing their taxes will starve the public service, making it even worse. Neglect of the NHS under the Conservative governments of 1979 to 1997 was one of the reasons that support for the party collapsed in the 1990s. And one of the reasons that Mr Johnson did so well in 2019 was by promising to invest a lot of public money in the NHS, amongst other public services.

But people can pay more tax. Taxation in Britain is not especially high by European standards. If the system is well-designed the harms can be limited. Tories will have to embrace this, unless they want to challenge the public shibboleth of the NHS. Instinctively many Conservative MPs understand this, and they may realise that Mr Johnson represents the best way of postponing this awkward choice, and they may well let him muddle on.

What Conservatives should be doing is developing a new vision for the 21st Century that embraces higher taxes and a well-funded NHS at the heart of a flourishing health economy, based on world-leading health research and development. This is perfectly credible, unlike world leadership in buccaneering.

When will we see peak China?

Don’t bet against China. This has been sage advice ever since that country’s careful embrace of capitalism after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Failure has been predicted several times, but its growth has been rapid, both in economic and political power. Similar advice pertains to the US economy, at least for better-off Americans, even as its politics disappoints. But nothing is forever, and there will come a point when China’s growth runs out of steam.

Right now there is unmistakable hubris in China’s political class, which frequently touts the superiority of its political system over that of the West – with its response to the covid pandemic being the latest piece of evidence. And yet as 2022 progresses, that will look less convincing. The point here is not that the pandemic started in China and that the initial outbreak was fumbled. That could have happened anywhere, though it is interesting to note that in China the problem arose with weakness and denial at a junior official level, whereas elsewhere the weakness is more likely to be further up the chain. China’s policy is to stamp out the disease before it can get going through very strict lockdowns, and sealing the border. It shows a very impressive degree of political control and resolution from the centre, which other large polities have failed to match. But what next? The first problem is that China’s own vaccines are less effective than those developed in the West, and are not up to the job of being a first line of defence – but the leadership regards the use of vaccines developed elsewhere as a sign of failure. The next problem is that the virus is evolving so that it is becoming more infectious, and thus harder to contain – though less deadly. This means that as the West moves beyond the need for lockdowns and learns to live with the virus, China is faced with an awkward choice. Does it try to keep up its zero-covid strategy, with all the costs that that this brings? Or does it let the virus run its course in China, softened by vaccines and a less dangerous strain? That might make it look as if China’s leadership had made some wrong choices earlier on – even if that is unfair, given that death rates in China are likely to stay very low. We have a demonstration of the strengths and weaknesses of the different political systems. The open, chaotic system of democracy in the West, which includes some important countries in East Asia, is both better at technological development, and more adaptable and resilient when it comes to shaping public policy. Policy failure may be more likely in the West, but its consequences are not as serious – indeed it can be more readily used as a learning experience.

Behind this is the timeless conflict between centralised political control and localised decision-making. The genius of capitalism is that uses markets to facilitate efficient local choices, right down to the individual; markets have proved vastly more effective at processing information than any other system that humanity has devised. The attempts by socialist states to do without markets, and the free capital that is required to make them work properly, notably by the Soviet Union and Maoist China, proved a dismal failure. While these systems did have some notable achievements, they made little progress with the eradication of poverty. The Soviet Union’s attempt to reform and embrace some aspects of capitalist systems ended in complete collapse. China noted this failure and made sure that its own embrace of capitalism was more controlled. The Communist Party developed a hybrid system of central party control alongside highly competitive capitalist markets that has been astonishingly successful. It has been the world’s most striking political and economic success of the last fifty years, and has done more to move the world out of poverty than any other single thing. With economic success has come a stronger political standing, backed by military power, which the country has been increasingly ready to assert.

Now, as a good liberal I need to make an important point here. China’s rise has been good for the human race. A country of over a billion people deserves a high status in the world’s political system. American conservatives are inclined to see China’s rise as a political failure – but that is quite the wrong way to look at it. This is not just because it has benefited so many Chinese people, who can now adopt middle-class lifestyles – but China’s rise has contributed to a much more efficient world economy, whose benefits have been well beyond its borders, and not least in the USA and other countries in the West.

But there is a problem, both for China and the rest of the world. China’s hybrid system of authoritarian capitalism is not sustainable in the long run. China is far from the only country that has followed this path. In the first half of the 20th Century there were Germany and Japan. In both of these rapid economic success led to political tensions that in turn led to militarism and vastly destructive war. In the second half of the century several East Asian countries have followed the authoritarian capitalist path, which too has led to political tension. There seems to be a choice between allowing democracy to take hold, or moving deeper into totalitarianism. South Korea and Taiwan have decisively taken the democratic path. Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand are struggling with this choice, though not yet on the totalitarian road. Vietnam has so far successfully avoided the crunch, but it is bound to come there. Singapore resists full democracy, while avoiding outright totalitarianism, and is further down the development path than others – but it is just a city-state.

Under its current leader, Xi Jinping, China has opted for decisively for totalitarianism, and is taking Hong Kong with it. What do I mean by totalitarianism? It is a political system where a highly centralised elite, usually with a clear single leader, attempts to control all aspects of life. This includes non-political values and the editing, and rewriting, of history. The concept of objective truth is discarded so that pretty much any statement is valued purely on its political implications. The reach of public policy often takes in the private foibles of the senior leader – in China the government wants to stamp out effeminacy among men, for example. The Chinese Communist elite has decided that any admission that the Party is, or ever has been, mistaken is a political challenge that must be crushed. Hence its difficulties in confronting covid. A change of policy might in fact be a sensible response to new facts about the virus – but, especially given the hubris displayed so far, it also makes it look as if the earlier policy was a mistake. The argument that when the facts change so does the policy is not a comfortable one for authoritarians: when the facts change, so might your legitimacy.

We come to a basic problem with authoritarian systems. They rely heavily on an elite of no more than a few hundred people, personally known to each other. Beyond this it is impossible to trust people completely. And the further they follow the totalitarian path, the greater this reliance becomes. There is simply a limit to the amount of information that such a small elite can process. The public health authorities in Wuhan, where the covid outbreak started, were not able to take clear, independent decisions, but felt that their duty was to suppress information about anything that looked bad. China has worked hard to make its elite work efficiently, including by leveraging it with technology. The country is placing heavy hopes on the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Singapore’s ruling elite is doing much the same thing with some success – but it is one thing to manage a city state, and another a country of one billion people. For China’s ruling elite the problems are mounting. Here are a few of them.

The first problem is demographics. Thanks both to Mao’s one-child policy, and to the normal dynamics of economic development, the ratio of working-age people to older people is in the process of rapid decline. The overall population of the country is starting to fall. For all the country’s economic advances, a Western-style system of welfare has not been developed. This will require a radical reshaping of the Chinese economy with high economic productivity increasingly focused on domestic needs – and, surely, a greater dependence on imports.

Then there is financial management. China’s system of finance is many-layered and complex. The Western socialist idea of a centralised system of state finance with a large national debt has not been followed – doubtless because the economy too large and complex for that to work. Vast amounts of money have been invested, notably in property development, financed by a complex system of finance, involving public and private agencies. Restrictions on banks have led to complex work-arounds. There is a huge dependency on high property values, which reaches well into local government finance, where funds depend more on property development gains than taxes. The whole system bears a strong resemblance to the financial system in the West before the Great Financial Crisis of 2007-09. Western commentators are quite sanguine about this, assuming that the vast political power available to China’s central government will allow them to manage any fall-out better than Western governments did. Only up to a point.

Even in the area of global politics China faces a problem. Much as they crow at the retreat of the West in such places as Afghanistan, they have little ability to fill the vacuum. The West’s retreat is followed by collapse, vacuum and, in many places, war, and not by a beneficent China restoring order. China has nothing to match the West’s proclamation of liberal values and a rules-based order. It simply denigrates them, while boasting about its own political system, which is pretty much impossible for any other country to replicate, except Vietnam, perhaps. It is notably un-ideological in its international dealings. That is very attractive to regimes who tire of being lectured by Westerners – but it has a dark side. China has no compunction about bullying if it does not like what any country is doing – Canada, Australia, South Korea and, currently, Lithuania are all victims. Suddenly a rules-based order and a bit of lecturing start to look more attractive. China’s weak international position was especially conspicuous at the recent COP-26 climate conference. The country showed almost no leadership, in spite of the fact that most countries are becoming much more concerned about climate change. Those countries get a more constructive response from the West. And China is the world’s biggest producer of carbon emissions, so it should have something important so say.

These problems are clear. Another important issue is more ambiguous. Will the increasing control of the Communist elite mean the loss technical innovation? At the moment the Party is bearing down on privately-controlled businesses, which have been the source of much of this. But totalitarian regimes can be good at innovation, especially in highly focused areas, such as military technology. China has set some major priority areas, which will doubtless receive generous funding. All the same, innovation and creativity flourish more in a less directed environment. Much of China’s investment is sure to disappoint. AI, in particular, is a much much trickier thing than those with directive minds allow. Driverless cars have been around the corner for many years now, for example.

So, as China confronts these problems, what is likely to happen? The biggest fear is that, like Germany and Japan a century ago, it channels its frustration into military aggression, and starts off a war that it cannot stop. There are some signs of this, but the world is a very different place. The world trading system, which has China at its heart, is liable to weaken as China tries to become more self-sufficient, both for political reasons, and to manage its changing domestic priorities. How this plays out in the wider world is hard to judge. It could be a boon for other developing world countries, who may take China’s place as exporters. It could hurt the American economy, which has benefited so much China’s boom – but then again, betting against such a dynamic and adaptable system is not wise.

My guess is that China will be enveloped by a slow-moving financial crisis. Communist power will succeed in slowing it down, but that will prolong rather than solve it. This will impact investment, development and growth across the country, and undermine the Party’s prestige. Eventually Mr Xi will be replaced, perhaps as his next term ends in five years’ time, and this would be cue for another change in direction. The world will become a very different place.

Boris Johnson’s Covid gamble

Understanding the latest wave of infections of Covid-19 in Britain is very hard. Data collection has been messed up by the holiday season, and anyway this wave, driven by the Omicron variant, is presenting in a different way to earlier ones, meaning the statistics don’t quite mean the same thing as before. Politically the most interesting thing, though, is the “don’t panic” attitude of the government’s policy in England, compared to what has been happening in Scotland and Wales. It is a gamble.

This gamblers based on a number of ideas. First is that the Omicron variant causes less serious harm than earlier ones, and that this is reinforced by more widespread vaccination, including third jabs, or “boosters”. The thought seems to be that scary infection rates won’t cause hospitals and other health services to be overwhelmed, and that the wave will burn out quickly and subside rapidly, reducing its impact on daily life. However this assessment seems to be as much driven by politics within the Conservative Party, as a sober assessment of what is known about the virus. For reasons that aren’t very clear to me, the Brexit awkward squad has decided that scepticism of the conventional, cautious approach to fighting the virus is the next Big Idea. Many business lobbies seem to have joined in, especially those in the hospitality and travel, after a frustrating two years, with recovery repeatedly postponed. The evidence and logic backing up these sceptics is weak at best – it is mainly a question of clutching at straws and finding out flaws in the logic of the advocates of caution. Funnily enough, though this scepticism is very prominent, even dominant, in the ruling party, it does not seem to be widely shared by the public, who usually find the government scientists more convincing. It is significant that the Scottish and Welsh governments (respectively led by the SNP and Labour) are taking a more cautious line.

So far it is very hard to tell who is right. Hospital admissions of people with Covid are going up, but not as fast as infections. Moreover it is not clear how many of these admissions are of people seriously ill with Covid, as opposed to being ill with something else, and also happening to be infected. A bigger source of stress seems to be staff being infected and having to stay away from work in isolation. Are things better in Scotland and Wales than in England? The statistics are very patchy; they do seem to be doing better, but that may be because Omicron hit them later (especially Wales). But if the government has got it wrong in England, it is too late to do anything about it. We could be in for two or three weeks of stories of overloaded hospitals and ambulances waiting outside unable to discharge their patients – and extra deaths, from Covid or not, as a result.

I find the sceptics generally unconvincing, and yet they aren’t wholly wrong. Stopping the virus is an impossibility – we have to have an end-game which involves us living with the virus, as we do with the common cold and flu. Vaccination is clearly part of that; other public health precautions may also have to become a permanent feature of life. We might need to adopt East Asian attitudes to the wearing of face masks. Ventilation standards need attention. Something else probably has a role too: waiting for the virus to evolve so that it comes less virulent, even as it becomes more infectious. Omicron seems to be a major step in that direction – which is why the government’s gamble may yet pay off.

And if it does, that will be a personal triumph for the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, which will bolster his position within his party, if not the country at large. Another possibility is that things go badly, but turn out to be no better in Scotland and Wales, in spite of their extra precautions. That would prove the contention made by lobbyists that hospitality venues present minimal risk, and that restrictions are simply rounding up the usual suspects for appearances sake.

But most likely is that the evidence will be muddled, without proving either side right until many months later, when the debate has moved on. Such is life in the era of Covid. Happy New Year!