Learning to live with Brexit means looking to the future

Like a rather surprising number of Remainers, Brexit has been like a bereavement for me. Before the referendum in 2016 few people would admit to an emotional attachment to the European Union (indeed this was one of the reasons Leave won), but I was among them. I can date that attachment to attendance at a rally in Westminster Hall in 1975, when the keynote speaker was Ted Heath, my first political hero, when I was 17. Or perhaps it was before then, when I identified as “European” when living in Jamaica, in order to distinguish myself from the many Americans I was at school with (while doubtless trying to stay ay arms length from Britain’s colonial legacy). Whatever the origins, I have been following the classic five steps of bereavement since the referendum.

Compared to many Remainers I went through Denial and Anger pretty quickly, but then I got stuck for years on Negotiation. This partly revolved around pressing for a new referendum, and thinking about how that should be conducted – though as time went by I became more sceptical that this was the right way to go. But mainly I got drawn into discussion about the terms of withdrawal and the future relationship. This was a furious paddling to try and stave off the inevitable next stage: Depression, which duly struck with the December 2019 General Election result. I turned away from the whole subject and busied myself with other things. But I can now confidently say that I have reached Acceptance. Acceptance does not mean that the pain has stopped: there will be pangs every time I get stuck in a passport queue when ravelling in the EU, and with every young friend or relative that complains that their opportunities are blighted as they can only find work into Union with difficulty. But I can than talk or think about the EU without trying to roll back time.

The breakthrough moment came last summer, when the EU agreed a post-pandemic aid programme which involved the creation of shared debt. This was a massive breakthrough in the evolution of the union. The deal itself, as usual, will not live up to the hopes placed on it, but the union is now better placed to deal with the challenges facing it. I quickly realised that this deal would have been much harder to reach if Britain had been a member. We had become paranoid about taking on debt from other EU countries – the idea of EU solidarity had so little currency. Whether or not a small majority of Britons were now in favour of British membership at any time, the country was irretrievably divided and it became increasingly difficult for the country to be a constructive member. Both John Major and Tony Blair found this, after starting their premierships wishing for Britain “to be at the heart of Europe”; they failed and subsequent premiers did not even try. The EU is actually better off without us, even though our departure has weakened it in many ways. If Britain is to rejoin, it has to be wholeheartedly, with a referendum majority of much more than 52%, and with prospective membership of the Euro agreed and understood. That will not happen in my lifetime, or not without some catastrophe changing people’s outlook, which I do not wish on my fellow countrymen. I have got over it.

So how does an ardent Remainer like me cope with Britain’s new status? I think there are two key rules. The first is to look to the future, and not to refight the battles of the past. It is very tempting to say “told-you so” as one promise after another of Leave campaigners comes to naught. But it doesn’t help; we can’t turn the clock back. And anyway, we need to understand that Remain campaigners got things wrong too, if not quite so egregiously. The second key rule is to be more realistic and critical of the European Union itself. It is useless to try and sell it to the British public, and we must understand what opportunities Brexit presents, even when we are acutely aware of the costs. In fact if Britain does things better than the EU, it will provide healthy competition that might guide it to a better place.

In this spirit, one of the most important things to understand is that the Union, and especially the Single Market, is a neoliberal project. It is based on the promotion of free trade and competition, and it aims to limit government interference in commerce. It is ironic that many Conservative Brexiteers are ardent neoliberals, and think that Brexit opens up opportunities for Britain to pursue more neoliberal policies. I differ from most people on the political left in thinking that neoliberalism is not necessarily a bad thing. This week’s Economist has an article which suggests that Britain’s economic progress in the 1980s up to the Great Financial Crisis was more down to EU membership than the liberalisation pursued by Mrs Thatcher’s government. It makes the case by tracking total factor productivity of the three countries that joined the EU (or European Common Market as we then called it) in 1973, i.e. Britain, Denmark and Ireland, compared the original six members (France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries). This had been in steady decline until 1970, flattened in the 1970s and then rose steadily until the mid 2000s. Mrs Thatcher did not rule Denmark or Ireland, so but the county’s economic performance was no better. This is false dichotomy. A large part of the economic benefit of joining the union arose from the Single Market reforms, which were Mrs Thatcher’s gift to the EU, and probably her most enduring political achievement. The Single Market was not a conspiracy to inflict pointless bureaucracy on British industry – it was in fact the opposite: to free intra-union trade (and movement of people and capital) from unproductive bureaucracy. We are learning this the hard way. It is a neoliberal project par excellence.

The Economist suggests that outside the EU, Britain might again suffer from “British Disease”, as our markets become less competitive. But where I agree with the left is that neoliberalism has little to offer most developed world economies in 2021, and certainly not Britain’s. Our future economic wellbeing is much less dependent on free trade with other countries, and state intervention is going to be much more important. Free markets are still critical, but they are not enough. Furthermore, conventional economic measurements, such as gross income (i.e. such measures as GDP) and productivity, are an unreliable guide to wellbeing.

The Conservative plan to use Brexit to drive through neoliberal reforms is doomed. If they succeed in implementing them, which they will find hard, they will deliver disappointing results with Britain outside the Single Market. There will doubtless be opportunities in some industrial sectors, but for each these there will be other sectors ruined by Brexit. Last month the Economist painted a depressing picture for the outlook for the British chemical industry. Brexit may not be as dire for Britain’s short-term economy as many predicted (though the jury is still out on that one), but medium term the outlook for GDP and other conventional economic measures is poor. But I have just said that does not matter so much. Instead we should be focusing on national wellbeing, and here there are possibilities that may be improved by Brexit, or at least not harmed. To get this sort of thinking started I will suggest three.

The first is environmentally sustainable agriculture and fisheries. We need to look at these industries not from the old-fashioned point of view of extracting the maximum quantitive output from our land and sea, but to restore those natural resources to health. Marginal agricultural land should be rewarded; alternatives need to be found to the mass use of environmentally damaging pesticides and fertilisers. We need more marine conservation zones and a war on destructive industrial fisheries. We can do this much more easily outside the EU’s management structures.

The second, and more economically significant, area for development should be the health economy. The overall importance of health to the economy is growing, but it is not an industry that takes well to conventional economic measurements. Often less is more (healthier people require fewer medical interventions; more effective medical interventions often require more economic inputs a balance that is often seems to lead to reduced productivity). We need to develop better ways of managing public health, as well as more effective interventions. Britain has advantages here, especially those that arise from a single national health service, and the way it can draw medical data together. Covid-19 has shown the good and the bad of British health services. The country has led the world in developing vaccines and other medical interventions, but public health services have been chaotic, and central government interventions ineffective – though the country’s armed services have shown some rare organisational effectiveness. The country has palpable strengths, but the whole area needs to be rethought.

And the third area for focus is developing of opportunities for people with weak paper qualifications. This should be easier now that access to our labour markets from less developed corners of the EU (and the rest of the world) is being reduced. As a good liberal I support freedom of movement, especially within Europe, but the main benefits are for those with good qualifications. But keeping foreign labour out is far from sufficient for improving the prospects for people already here. This needs much more focus than it is getting – pushing more people in badly-paid and insecure jobs is not the answer, but it is where neoliberal policies will take us. One idea on the left that I would like to be given more time and thought is a government job guarantee. I think this has more promise for national wellbeing than the much more fashionable Universal Basic Income.

I need to make one further point. These ideas, and others which make wellbeing their focus rather than aggregate income, require a much higher level of government competence than we have ever seen in this country (except maybe in the days of Victorian metropolitan development). The British government is far too centralised to be effective (a criticism I would lay against the French one too, also shown up by the pandemic response), and it is made worse by excessive faith in management consultants and outsourcers. There are pockets of excellence in British public life (much of the education system, aspects of the NHS, and the operational side of the armed forces, though not its procurement side). But something big needs to change.

The current government is ill-equipped to take advantage of the opportunities that now present themselves. They should be challenged not for promoting Brexit, but for mismanaging it.

2020 ended well for Boris Johnson: do not underestimate him

“All’s well that ends well.” This seems to be the motto of Boris Johnson, our Conservative Prime Minister in the UK. He’s had a terrible 2020, with his government constantly being wrong-footed by the developments on the coronavirus epidemic. But he ended it with two major successes and that pretty much neutralised it all at a stroke. This is how he does his politics, and it is why he should never be written off.

His first success was on the virus, with the approval of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. The development and roll-out of vaccines is the one area of virus policy where Britain’s record stands up to international comparison (actually alongside development of treatments, though the benefits of this are less visible). And the Oxford vaccine was developed largely in Britain, and is manufactured here, as well as many other places worldwide. It seems to have the best balance between effectiveness, cost and deployability of the leading vaccines – though it lost the battle of the press releases earlier in the year, with misleading comparisons of efficacy being made with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Britain may now beat other major countries in the speed with which it tackles the crisis through vaccination, just when infection rates are starting to explode in much of the world. Britain should be among the first to see the benefits of mass vaccination.

Meanwhile, Mr Johnson’s most dangerous critics, the lockdown sceptics, have been silenced. With hospitals now under extreme stress it has become much harder to make the case that lockdowns are an unnecessary evil. And a lot of the stories being peddled by sceptics, such as that London was starting to benefit from herd immunity, have been shown to be idle speculation. Also the presence of a new, more infectious strain of the virus has served as an alibi for a lot of dodgy decisions in the run-up to Christmas. My suspicion is that much of the recent explosion in infection rates, which is leading to hospital overload, is in fact down to pre-Christmas behaviour, following the government’s announcement that a five-day easing of restrictions would be allowed. But everybody is talking about the new strain.

So, although the news from the pandemic is very depressing here in the UK, Mr Johnson has managed to limit the political fallout for him personally. The fumbling goes on, but if the vaccine goes as well as we re al hoping, then Mr Johnson can put a positive glass on the whole thing.

Mr Johnson’s second triumph is the Brexit deal. This is a huge political success, whatever one thinks of its substance. Without it there would have been a lot of Brexit-related noise and hassle in early 2021; with it the end of the transition period was a bit of an anticlimax. Furthermore, the process of pushing the conclusion of the deal to the very last moment was solid politics. Doubtless it helped to wring more concessions from the other side on the sort issues of nominal sovereignty that get his MPs so worked up. Better still, the lateness, and its proximity to Christmas, reduced public scrutiny; this critical piece of legislation was rushed through parliament in a single day. Another hope of government supporters, that the short-term economic effects of Brexit would be masked by the effects of the pandemic looks as if it will come to pass too.

It is not hard to see how the government hopes things will go from here. after a “bumpy” couple of months, the vaccine will start to push back the effects of the pandemic, precipitating an economic boom, which masks any short-term costs of Brexit. On Brexit the government doesn’t need to deliver on its preposterous promises of economic benefits (which isn’t to that there won’t be benefits), it just needs to say “There, that didn’t hurt so much did it?”. Remainers painted a picture of short-term economic catastrophe. There has been such a catastrophe, of course, but that is clearly because of covid-19, not Brexit, and the country will bounce back.

Of course this does not mean that things will keep on going well for Mr Johnson. His serial incompetence and weak ministerial team will lead him into yet more mess and muddle. It is not at all clear how he plans to get away from the carnage inflicted n government finances – though the betting is that he will try to ignore it, which is what quite a few sensible people are saying he should do. He will have a huge political headache in dealing with the bid for Scottish independence, which will be harder to ignore, though there may be political capital to be made in England.

But the point is this: we should not underestimate Boris Johnson’s command of the art of low politics. He may well last until another election (likely to be before 2024), and win it.

UPDATE

I started drafting this piece last week, and, in spite of some edits, its perspective is a bit last week. Soon after I pressed the button to publish, Boris Johnson went on the television to announce six weeks or more of heavy lockdown in England, including the reversal of his position on schools that he had been defending only that morning. To many this just shows how bad he is at managing this crisis. This could all have been done long a go – the evidence was clear then – but leaving it until later ensures that the damage inflicted will be greater. So that looks like a bad start to 2021.

But my main point stands. If the government can implement the rapid rollout of the vaccine, and if that succeeds in beating back the virus, the momentum will switch and the trials and tribulations will be forgotten. Neither proposition is a certainty, but both look probable. What is currently missing is expanded financial support for those adversely affected by the measures – but looks as if it is on its way.

Why there may be no Brexit deal

As a rule I don’t like it when journalists report events before they happen, rather than waiting for a few days when facts start to emerge. When The Economist reports on most elections across the world it usually does does so before polling day, and rarely bothers afterwards beyond a brief update in the weekly summary. So why don’t I wait to see whether a deal is reached between the United Kingdom and the European Union for trade and other matters after the Brexit transition period ends on 31 December? Well there is a lot of kerfuffle and maybe it will help to make sense of it.

Optimism has been widespread that a deal with be reached, after the usual theatrics, because both sides will be damaged if not. But over the weekend I started to become pessimistic. The British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, lacks the skill to pull it off, I thought. The New Statesman‘s Stephen Bush articulated the anxiety much better than me in the magazine’s Morning Call, a daily email update on British politics which well worth subscribing to if you follow British politics closely.

Mr Bush’s point is that in order make the compromises necessary to push such a deal over the line, leaders must have a clear idea of critical priorities (and, therefore what other matters reopen to compromise). For example with his predecessor Theresa May it was immigration and the Northern Ireland border; she was less concerned with the “level playing field” concerns of the EU. With Mr Johnson, he either has no such clarity, famously wanting to have his cake and eat it, in the English expression, or if he does it is focused entirely on maximising the country’s legal sovereignty, which any substantial trade deal is bound to constrain, Britain not being the United States of America.

This last point chimes with a point being made more and more loudly by Conservative MPs and Lord Frost, Britain’s lead negotiator. The EU, they say, doesn’t understand that we are a sovereign nation. In any relationship breakdown one or both sides usually claim that the other simply doesn’t understand them. The louder this claim is made, the more sceptical detached observers become. These government supporters are protesting too much. It is they, surely, who are failing to understand the priorities of the other side.

If so, there would be plenty of precedent. British Eurosceptics are often very knowledgeable about the EU, but rarely understand it, and susually to predict how it develops. I remember clearly in the 1990s how many knowing Britons told me that monetary union would never happen, for example. Others were convinced that the Euro could not survive the debt crisis of 2011.

But there are two sides to this. Am I failing to understand the Eurosceptics? In fact they have plenty of grounds for annoyance with the EU side in this negotiation. One of their leaders, the Tory MP Bernard Jenkin, claimed yesterday that the EU offered a deal like Canada’s without tariffs, and have rowed back. In particular the EU are now asking for enforcement provisions well in excess of the Canada deal, where disputes go into the World Trade Organisation’s resolution system. I have heard two arguments made about why Brexiteers’ hopes for a Canada-type deal are unrealistic. One is that the volume of trade with the UK is much higher and so the EU has more at stake; the other is that it still involves some tariffs, whereas the Britain is asking for none. That may be, but I suspect Mr Jenkin is right: that the EU side did suggest that “Canada plus” was on the table, but have backtracked under pressure from the French government in particular. Furthermore it is hard not to bristle at the enforcement provisions suggested by the EU (as reported by not entirely trustworthy sources, it must be admitted). It allows the immediate imposition of retaliatory tariffs without resort to preliminary dispute resolution. This is the sort of thing we expect from Donald Trump’s America (for example in its dealings with China), and not those fair-minded former allies at the EU, the Eurosceptics somehow don’t manage to say.

So the ire from the British government side is understandable. But perhaps they and their supporters should have seen it coming and been better prepared. Here is where trying to understand the EU would help. It is not a settled and and stable institution, like most mature nation states. Its progress resembles the flight of the bumble bee, in a constant series of stalls. But this gives it a sort of dynamic stability that the Anglo-Saxon mind struggles with (and doubtless many Latin ones too). The EU is constantly under existential threat, and its institutions and member governments must constantly seek ways to head these threats off. Brexit presents one such threat, as many a Eurosceptic has gleefully pointed out. Others may follow where Britain leads. A deal where Britain manages to have its cake and eat it would give this threat substance. This is not so much from the EU’s newer members like Hungary and Poland (with their large EU subsidies), but from the older countries, who might ask what they get in return. Far right parties, like France’s Front National, remain a potent threat to the political establishment. That threat will be compounded if the EU doesn’t seem to have done enough to protect struggling communities such as France’s fisherman, never mind one that allows their cross-Channel competitors to feed off state subsidies. Mrs May’s favourite mantra was that “No deal is better than a bad deal”. But that applies more strongly to the EU side than to the UK.

But surely the EU would not want to threaten its trading surplus with the UK? Wouldn’t a no-deal hurt them more? This was a favourite argument of Brexit supporters during the referendum campaign. But that surplus is concentrated among a small number of better-developed countries. These countries, Germany in particular, are better able to withstand the shock than others. And they are quite used to subordinating economic considerations to political ones, as has been shown by their willingness to apply sanctions to Russia. Besides Britain doesn’t have a lot of choice as to where it gets many of its imports. EU national governments, Germany and Ireland in particular, are more calmly strategic that many have given them credit for.

Meanwhile Britain has not helped itself by its government interpreting its new-found sovereignty as the right to renege on any foreign treaty it likes. Its attempt to wriggle out of the Withdrawal Agreement enacted a year a go with respect to the Northern Ireland border is very striking. Doubtless this is viewed by the government as a piece of hard-ball negotiation to increase the costs to the other side of a failure to conclude a deal. But when Britain suggests that the EU has nothing to fear from a looser British enforcement regime for the EU single market, the automatic response is to ask how the country is to be trusted without waving a big stick at them. One of the many ironies, though, is that British exceptionalism probably doesn’t present a big threat to the Single Market. Nobody loves petty rules and high regulatory standards more than the British, and they are wary of state subsidies too. Indeed, healthy competition is a more likely outcome.

The Eurosceptics’ optimism is based on the idea that Britain can gain a strategic advantage by causing tactical problems for the other side. But nobody is fooled. Do they care? Many eurosceptics advocate a “clean break”, and describe a scenario without a trade deal as the “Australian option”. There will be a bit of short-term disruption, for sure, but the country will adapt soon enough.

Those actually in the government are less sanguine of course, and that’s why a deal of some sort is still on the cards. Only a minority of the country was ever convinced that Brexit was the right thing to do, after all; they formed a narrow majority only by persuading more sceptical voters. That does not mean that a no-deal Brexit will be fatal for the government – though it won’t help handing Scotland. After all the deed will done and Britain can’t go back to where it was before. But a cruel reckoning is on its way and we should all worry about that.

Three things lockdown critics just don’t get

Here in England, the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is under fierce attack from his backbenchers over both the four-week lockdown that is coming to an end, and the system of tiered restrictions that will replace it, which means that almost everybody will still be subject to heavy restrictions. These critics are, for the most part, very muddled. While I would not suggest that Mr Johnson’s management of the pandemic has been particularly competent, I do think his overall strategy is the right one.

Still, the critics are right about a couple of things. The first is that lockdowns will not eliminate the virus, which has been a realistic objective in Asia and Australasia. This is because, unlike them, we cannot seal off the country from people coming in. That would mean closing almost all airports, ferry ports and the Channel Tunnel. The trickle of people allowed in (including returning Britons) would be quarantined under guard. Goods would have to be picked from ports by drivers based in this country. It would make Brexit look like a walk in the park. No European country, or American one come to that, can enforce such a regime. It is remarkable that so many Asian economies, as well as Australia and New Zealand, are able to do this. Without having to deal with such a volume of incomers, it is possible for a rigorous test and trace system to stay on top of the virus. New Zealanders can now go to rugby matches and concerts without social distancing. The economic cost is substantial, but this regime seems to be popular with those that live there.

The second thing that the critics get right is that the costs of an effective lockdown are huge, in both jobs and wellbeing. and that the longer the lockdown goes on for, the greater the cost. But no supporter of lockdown suggests otherwise. They simply say that the alternative is worse. That is because of three things in particular that the critics mostly fail to grasp.

The first is that infectious diseases grow exponentially, and not arithmetically, unless you can impose restrictions that reduce the reproduction rate down to one or less. And that means being very restrictive: the virtual cessation of social life (England’s Tier 1 is not enough, current evidence suggests). If the reproduction rate is above one, then the disease keeps on getting worse, and will accelerate. The critics seem to suggest that there is some form of equilibrium to be found between the level of restrictions and the prevalence of the disease. So, for example, a high level of lockdown means, say, one hundred deaths a day, but a looser one means a thousand. If R is above one, however, there is no such equilibrium. The equilibrium is not a function of lockdown restrictions, but the achievement of herd immunity – which means that 70% or more must be immune (the widespread assumption being from having already caught and survived the virus), and so breaking the chain of infection. The cost of that is massive. In Europe levels of significant herd immunity have only been observed in Italian towns were the disease has killed 1% or so (see this article in the Economist).

And the second point that few critics grasp is that the damage wrought when the virus shows high levels of prevalence is about much more than a few extra dead bodies. The disease will reach a point where it is be seriously disruptive. That people can’t see this was driven home to me when a senior Conservative MP Mark Harper was interviewed on the radio. He trotted out the familiar trope than people were underestimating the costs of lockdown, which had to be weighed against the benefits. He gave star billing among the costs to reduced access to healthcare services during lockdown. And yet there will be no access to such services once the epidemic starts to overwhelm them, and it is fear of just that which is the main driver of lockdowns; without lockdown health services will be overwhelmed as sure as night follows day. And it won’t be just health services that suffer. Absenteeism will rise dramatically, disrupting all manner of services. And fear will keep at least 40% of the population at home, with the inevitable toll on mental health and the economy. Covid-19 is much deadlier than flu (or at least the strains of flu normally seen each winter), and cannot be weathered in the same way.

And the third point? It is simply not feasible to shield the vulnerable while letting those with a low risk of being seriously ill to get on with life as normal. The disease will strike down even younger and apparently healthy people; and it can inflict lasting damage even if you survive it. But the chances of serious consequences for most people are quite small (and for them comparison with flu has more validity). But the flip side to this is that many others are at serious risk: anybody over 60 or with many quite common health conditions such as diabetes or heart disease. I have seen an authoritative estimate that these are about 20% of the population. But these people don’t live isolated lives: they depend on contact to some degree with healthier people. These people also have to shield, to protect those they are close to. This group is not only very numerous (somebody has plausibly suggested another 20%), but it is much harder for such people to successfully shield themselves form the outside world. In the second wave of the epidemic, where vulnerable people have been much more successfully shielded than the first, there has been a clear pattern. Firstly younger people catch it, largely without serious symptoms. Then it is passed on to working people whom they interact with (shop staff, security guards, and so on). and from these it moves on to the seriously vulnerable. It is not enough to suggest that people should simply take the level of precaution that is appropriate to themselves. That would mean that many working people would have to furloughed and somehow replaced at the front line.

There really are no alternatives if you cannot seal the country’s borders Personally I placed high hopes on rigorous test-and-trace systems, such as those operated in Germany. We have not attempted anything like German rigour in the UK, instead going for massed centralised families with a high theoretical volume but almost no impact on the course of the disease. But even in Germany the system gets overwhelmed once the virus reaches a certain level, and you are back to lockdowns. Sweden’s rather laxer regime is sometimes mentioned as an alternative, but that is breaking down too. Its advocates had suggested that infection levels would fall in the Autumn as herd immunity started to impact. But it hasn’t, because in fact Swedes had been exercising social distancing to such an extent that not enough people were being infested (and with the economic and other damage that followed). If enough people had been infected their health systems wold have collapsed.

All of which is very grim, were it not for one thing: the fact that vaccines are on the way. We don’t know much about the various vaccines, beyond basic safety and efficacy. In particular we don’t know how much they would slow transmission of the virus. But they are enough to make huge difference and allow lockdowns to be eased. Quite why Conservative critics are still banging on with their complaints about lockdowns when relief is at hand is one of the pandemics’ many mysteries.

It’s all about R. Lockdown critics don’t understand exponential mathematics

Quite early in the Covid-19 outbreak, policymakers told us that the critical thing to understand about managing the disease was something they called “R”. This is the reproduction rate: the average number of other people that anybody that catches the virus will infect. If it less than 1.0 the epidemic will fade away. More than one and the disease spreads exponentially. Discussion of R then dropped from view, with people focusing more on the absolute level of infection (usually given as cases per 100k). That’s a shame because R is central to understanding what has just happened here in UK, which also applies to most of the rest of Europe with small variations.

In those the dark days of March, R was a horrific 2-3. That meant the disease was spreading very rapidly through the population. For a moment people thought that might not be such a problem: that herd immunity would develop, and the disease would slow down as the number of potential carriers was diminished. But there are two major problems with this. The first is that if the disease spreads rapidly, then health services (and other infrastructure) become overwhelmed, and there s substantial collateral damage. And that is exactly what happened in the Spring. Hospitals started to fill up, requiring them to clear beds; people with other conditions suffered, and Covid-infected people were pushed into care homes to make room for others, with appalling results. The death rate across the country shot up, and not just because people were dying from Covid, though frightening numbers were. The second problem with the herd immunity strategy was that nobody knew whether, or for how long, catching the disease would confer immunity. It was quite an interesting example, incidentally, of how basing decisions on evidence is not quite as robust as it seems. What do you believe in the absence of evidence? In Britain people believed, absent evidence, that face masks were useless and that you would get long term immunity by catching the disease. There is no rhyme or reason to it being that way round. Too often people who ask where the evidence is are just sticking to their prejudices.

I digress. The only sensible response to an R of over 2 was strict lockdown, which was implemented in Britain on 23 March. This was remarkably successful (it is puzzling why some people suggest that it wasn’t). R came down to about 0.7, and the disease was beaten back to manageable levels in most places. But what next? The government eagerly implemented a general relaxation, while maintaining a certain number of rules on social distancing. By this time few people were talking about R, and it was hard to know what aim of it all was. I think it was felt that the relaxation would take the R back up to 1.0, but no further, thus keeping the virus at manageable levels. It is probable that a lot of faith was being put in the Track and Trace system to contain outbreaks as they occurred. And yet the system they built was not designed to achieve that level of rigour, which needs tough local leadership and timely data, both of which were practically designed out of the system from the start. The result was that R crept up to about 1.5. Much better than before, but also pretty useless in terms of managing the disease. If R is over 1, then the disease will rise up to overwhelming levels much more quickly than people will intuit, because of the exponential way in which the disease spreads.

The government’s next strategy was one of local local lockdowns. The hope was that these would reduce R to below 1 in areas were the prevalence had become high. Over the last few weeks two problems have emerged, though. First is that even with these stricter measures R is above 1, and health services are under imminent threat. Second is that R is rising scarily everywhere else, and to beyond 2 in some places. That meant that most of the rest of the country wasn’t in fact that far behind the hotspots. Just what was going on here will probably not be known for some time. Perhaps people in Tier 3 of the lockdown system felt bolshy because they were being singled out, and did not apply themselves properly to lockdown. Perhaps people in Tier 1 felt they could relax because they weren’t in trouble yet. Anyway, it is very clear that the regional response strategy has failed. And so we are back to national lockdown.

But schools an universities are still open, and weariness is creeping in as businesses fail and savings run out. The death rate is much lower than before (the rate of excess deaths remains negligible) and this is being used to suggest that we should just “live with” the virus. Some conservative newspapers (the Telegraph and Mail in particular) opposing lockdown, even though their recommendations would sentence many of their readers, more vulnerable than the average, to an untimely and horrible death, or perhaps just a long-term deterioration of health. Such critics have failed to understand the logic of R. It is not about choosing an acceptable level of disease and freezing it there: it is about stopping the disease before it overwhelms.

So how on earth do you live with the disease and retain a semblance of normal life? The only proven way is the Asian one (there are many variations, shown by China, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and Australia and New Zealand). This requires the disease to be stamped out, mainly through strict lockdown, for inward travel to be heavily restricted, and for any outbreaks to be stamped on hard. For some reason Europeans, and not just the British, seem unable to do this (even the Germans are struggling). It’s even worse for the Americans. Asians, and interesting this includes Antipodeans of European heritage, seem much happier to comply with busybody regulations. Not all Asians of course: Indians struggle, as do Indonesians, Philipinos and a number of others.

Absent the Asian approach, thoughts turn to the use technologies that are not yet available. Vaccines may not be the silver bullet they are for diseases like polio, but they could still throw enough sand in the wheels of transmission to stop R getting above one. Mass testing, talked up by the Prime Minister Boris Johnson, offers ways of identifying infected people so that they can be isolated. That raises all sorts of questions.

Locally I have found the most informative source about the progress of the virus comes from the government’s interactive map. I have watched the infection rate steadily go up, with white ares (very low infections) moving to green, and green going moving to blue (over 100 per 100k); in my local patch it is 171. We’re keeping our heads down.

It’s all very depressing. The most important thing to understand about the spread of infectious diseases is that it is exponential. None of the lockdown critics I have heard or read seem to grasp that. And only a few understand that the critical thing isn’t the death rate but the stress on public infrastructure, including, but not limited to, hospitals. In the end it’s all about R.

September: the virus strikes back

I still have not yet recovered blogging groove, as I settle down in my new home, and with family caring issues taking priority. So I am doing a consolidated look-back on the last month’s news again. If last time the central theme was the rise of Great Power politics, this time the theme is the virus.

After the Spring crisis passed, more or less, in the developed world (not so much in the US), people relaxed in the summer (or winter depending on your hemisphere). But the virus is coming back, with the world both better prepared, but less psychologically and economically resilient. The stress is showing.

The virus’s most spectacular victim was the US President. This drama is still playing out. What has emerged is interesting, though. Donald Trump has made a great show of not allowing the virus to affect him, being rarely seen in a mask. But in fact huge efforts are made to screen anybody that comes near him, with extensive use of a quick-turnaround test. But such measures only work so far, and if enough people come into proximity, the test is bound to have miss a few. A reception for his nominee for the Supreme Court appears to have been too hubristic.

Once Mr Trump was infected his behaviour stands in complete contrast to our own Boris Johnson. Mr Johnson soldiered on valiantly, did what the doctors told him, and went to a public hospital only when he had to, with treatment recognisably similar to any member of the public. Such a passive approach was not for Mr Trump. He quickly ordered the most aggressive treatment possible, and checked himself into and then out of an elite hospital. He now claims to have conquered the virus in days. We shall see. This probably reflects cultural differences between our two countries as much as personality. Many Americans, and especially the rich and powerful, struggle with the idea that they can’t take full control of their treatment, as is often the case with the UK’s NHS. Private treatment is available here, but, quite often the best expertise is tied to the public service, and Britons don’t like public and private to mix. It is one reason why nationalising health care is unpopular in the US, even if less well-off Americans have little practical control.

But what effect will this have on the US election campaign? Democrats continue to have reason for quiet confidence. A month ago they seemed a bit rattled, as Mr Trump had forced the narrative onto his own agenda: law and order. But the Democrats’ candidate, Joe Biden, is a seasoned campaigner, backed up by a solid team. He held his nerve. The riots subsided and soon the news was dominated by the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the unseemly haste to replace her before the election. Mr Biden refused the invitation to stoke up the culture war on abortion, but instead moved the narrative on to court challenges to President Obama’s health care system, which many working class Americans now depend on. This was followed by the first TV debate, dominated by Mr Trump’s hyper=aggressive behaviour. Mr Biden was not given the rope to hang himself with, and the focus became the personality of the President, which the Democrats are quite happy with. And now Mr Trump’s infection has put the virus centre stage. Mr Biden’s poll lead seems to be holding up, and perhaps even increasing. Most Americans have chosen who they will vote for, and not a few have voted already. Everything that is happening seems to reinforcing those choices, on both sides, and making each side more motivated. As in the mid-term Congressional elections in 2018, that is mainly working for the Democrats. Can they seize the Senate?

But the biggest question to me is what will happen after the election, with the country so bitterly divided. Mr Trump doesn’t seem to care. But if Mr Biden wins, he will have a big job on his hands. He does seem to be aware of this.

Here in Britain, the UK government’s reputation is floundering. There is something curious about this. After its initial fumblings, and the appalling early death rate that resulted, the country’s record bears comparison with many of its peers. The record of the US is worse, and so is that of France, since June. Also the records of England (directly under the control of the UK government) and Scotland (mainly under the control of the devolved SNP government) is pretty similar. But Mr Johnson’s Conservatives have suffered much worse damage to their reputation. Mr Johnson’s style is ill-suited to the occasion, and, worse, he has surrounded himself with weak ministers, while more competent people remain on the sidelines criticising his record. There is a lot to criticise, of course, especially with the government’s failure to understand effective process management (with vastly inappropriate and over-centralised structures), and the lack of a clear strategy, as different factions vie to be heard. But others are making the same or worse mistakes and getting away with it. Mr Johnson is failing at the sorts of things politicians are supposed to be good at, as well as the ones for which they have little expertise. Many of theConservatives that voted Mr Johnson into office last year seem surprised; but most others are not.

So far the big winner from the crisis appears to be China. Although they too fumbled the early stages, with dire consequences for the rest of the world, their brand of totalitarian government has stamped out the disease and kept the virus at bay. Meanwhile everybody else is struggling: as they ease restrictions to let life go on as it should, the virus comes back, and the exponential dynamics of infectious diseases stoke. Still, some countries seem better able to handle the challenge than others. But it is hard to generalise. Herd immunity can be bought only at a very high price, in direct and indirect deaths, and debilitating “long-covid”, and may not last long-term anyway. But containment comes at a very high price too. A vaccine seems the best hope.

Why localism is key to test and trace

Sometimes you have to keep banging away about something. For some time I have been complaining that the government’s system for providing tests for Covid-19, and then for its approach to contact tracing, suffers from a fundamental flaw of process design. I see this being occasionally mentioned by others, but the idea hasn’t caught on. So I will say it again.

This is relevant because the testing regime seems to be in a state of complete dysfunction. The government is not being transparent about what is going wrong, a an issue which is not unrelated, so I’m having to join some dots, based on a flood of anecdotal evidence from people at different levels in the system that have popped up on the news. The system has been overwhelmed by a surge in demand. Whether or not this should have been foreseen is one question, but taking a step back and looking at the outcome prompts another. This excess demand seems to have caused the whole system to fail, so that while testing capacity is very high (the government claims it is higher than in most other countries), all, or most, of the tests are taking far too long to return results, which completely undermines their usefulness. I have heard experts suggest that if results take longer than 48 hours to be returned, then they are of little practical use. That sounds about right. Results seem to be taking much longer than this in the official system, or at least that which serves most users (I think hospitals are linked to a different one, which might be working a bit better). The problem seems to be at “Lighthouse” labs where samples are analysed. The government suggests that this is just a numbers game: these labs have a capacity and demand is in excess of it, leading to delays – which is perfectly plausible explanation and doubtless at least part of the problem. There are other stories of staffing issues as these labs are losing temporary workers as the university terms start, and finding them hard to replace.

How to manage this? The first response is to stop people taking tests through the booking system, by telling them that they are unavailable, or only available hundreds of miles away. One story is that the only way that people living in the London suburb of Twickenham can get a test locally, rather than one in Aberdeen (in the north east of Scotland), is to say that they are living in Aberdeen. This is causing an immense amount of distress, which is feeding back in complaints to MPs. The government is now trying to impose some form of prioritisation on tests to give this more rationality. But that will be hard going, with goodwill in short supply. There is a least one new Lighthouse lab in the pipeline, and the government doubtless is placing its hopes on this. Alas any relief is unlikely to last for long. The whole thing gets much worse when the need for contact tracing is brought into the picture, where similar problems are emerging, though not, excess demand. The whole damn system is flawed.

What’s gone wrong? The designers of the government system are bewitched by the idea of scale economies. The unit cost of a large scale system operating at full capacity is generally very low. And because covid tests are basically quite standard, at first sight the building of such high volume facilities looks like a sensible way forward. When the government suggested that the system would be “world-beating”, this is doubtless what lay behind it, as many countries have gone for a much more artisanal approach. But that is only one aspect of process design. The problem comes from how you manage the whole process from end to end (i.e. from the moment somebody decides that they need a test to the moment they get the result). The more steps there are in the process, and the more disconnected their management, the less efficient the whole becomes. This can seem quite paradoxical. Each part of the system can seem to be operating well, but the whole can be dysfunctional, and doesn’t seem to be anybody’s fault. The problem is compounded by the the government’s preference for the use of mass-sampling facilities. People are sent to drive-in centres that are able to process large volumes. But these are often idle and simply make the whole process more disconnected. The symptoms of such a disconnected “silo” based process design are very familiar. Bottlenecks, queues, delays, lost files, and all the while managers working frantically hard at their own little section in the knowledge the the problems are all somebody else’s fault. And managers blaming users for making unreasonable demands. There is so much at stake in the overall design that nobody dares point out that it might be better to scrap the whole thing and start again. Instead they work on fixes that ameliorate the worst problems but make the whole process more cumbersome. In this case designing systems to prioritise demand.

What’s the alternative? It is to create local facilities that do the whole job end to end, or as much as possible. Best of all is if the testing function can be integrated with a similarly localised system of contact tracing, all accountable to a local director of public health, part of local government. Where possible staff should be able to cover multiple jobs, rather than specialising in just small parts of it. This is more or less how it works in Germany, among other places. Such a system cannot solve all problems. It may not be able to overcome shortages in critical supplies (reagents for tests, and so on), though managers are more empowered to find work-arounds. How would it cope with excess demand, as is happening at the moment? It is superior in several ways. Firstly because managers are likely to have a better overview of the whole system, problems are more likely to be foreseen. Secondly bottlenecks are more easily fixed. It is easier to recruit two or three extra staff in a local centre than a couple of hundred in a centralised facility. And where there are problems, they will not bring the entire country to a halt. And finally communication with the end user is likely to be far superior, as they are much closer to a knowledgeable, human interface.

These principles have been well-understood since the 1990s (when I used them to reorganise processing operations that I was managing). Alas the government, and those it appoints as advisers, are far too wedded to the imperial silo-based model and seem incapable of understanding that they are dealing with poor systems design rather than a few teething difficulties. Doubtless the silo approach works well in some contexts. But not here. But quite why the lessons of the 1990s are so widely forgotten in 2020 remains something of a mystery to me – my guess is that managers and politicians have been distracted and beguiled by new technology.

The Lib Dems search for a new strategy

To be a Liberal Democrat in Britain is to experience long spells in the political wilderness, interspersed with short intervals of relevance. After passing through most of 2019 in one of those intervals of relevance, the party is well and truly in the wilderness now. What should it do?

It is worth asking what is the party for. It provides a political home for those who want a party which has liberal values at its core, rather than a peripheral part of a wider coalition (as is the case for Conservatives and Labour, and indeed Scottish Nationalists or Greens). It then seeks to advance those values, either by winning elections and taking political office, or by forcing other parties to compete for liberal votes, and so making them more liberal in their exercise of power. What are those liberal values? It is about individuals taking control of their lives as far as possible, regardless ethnic or national origin, or sex or sexual orientation. That’s how liberals are classically defined, and it matters in the current world because many prefer a political narrative that elevates the nation-state into something close to sacred, rather than a mere means to an end, and there is a widespread belief that multiculturalism has failed. But modern liberals have attached other beliefs to this classical core. One is a strong belief on the need to intervene to protect the environment, and another is the need for the state to play a very active part in the management of the economy, through the welfare state, public services, redistribution of wealth and regulation of private business. There is a further belief that political power should be distributed amongst international bodies, national government and local government. That makes them in favour of such bodies as the United Nations and the European Union, as well as much stronger regional and local government. Liberals (or at least those that the Lib Dems seek to represent) think that too much power is concentrated in Westminster, where often it is captive to an out of touch elite, even if that elite is often liberal in its instincts.

But there are people who believe in all of this who are members of the Conservative and Labour parties. The problem is that in these parties liberal ideas have to compete with others. Among the Tories the nationalist narrative plays very strongly; they overlook the unbalanced distribution of wealth and power; and they are reluctant to take on corporate vested interests for environmental protection, amongst other things. Labour is less concerned with individual empowerment and have a tendency to see the answer to all problems as being concentrating more power in national government. This was taken to extreme lengths under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. But it is perhaps a measure of success for the Lib Dems that both major parties are making a pitch for the liberal vote, and that many voters struggle to see the need for another political party. Answering that question lis at the heart of any Lib Dem strategy.

Which is why it matters so much to Lib Dem strategy what the other parties are doing. There are some in the party who think that the party should ignore the other parties to go full on with the promotion of liberal values, and so build a loyal core vote. Alas this can only be one strand in a larger strategy, and not the most important. For now Lib Dems are much happier defining themselves against the Conservatives than Labour. The Tories are controlled by radical ideologues, more interested in wrecking things that they dislike than in governing competently.

Labour is the conundrum. Its new leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has resisted defining a clear ideological path, concentrating his fire on government incompetence. The ideological legacy of his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, is slowly being pushed into the background. This creates a blank canvass onto which voters, including liberal ones, can project their hopes. This is not unlike Sir Keir’s most successful predecessor, Tony Blair. How do the Lib Dems compete?

The answer I most often hear is to this is locally. To win the next election Labour must climb a huge mountain. That journey would be slightly easier if they decided to ignore the Lib Dems in a few critical geographical areas and let them challenge the Conservatives there. And if Labour thought that the Lib Dems were picking off Tory votes that they would be unable to reach, then this semi-cooperative strategy looks more attractive. But at the same time Labour does not want to leak votes to the Lib Dems, and would prefer the party not to exist. There are something like 30 seats where Lib Dems are first or second placed and able to mount a credible challenge (they are second-placed in about 60 more – but so far behind that this hardly matters). In their current state the Lib Dems would happily settle for that.

That is all very well, but the party needs a degree of national strength and purpose if it is to present a convincing local challenge anywhere. To do so it needs to champion causes that the Conservatives and Labour are ignoring, but which are both popular and highlight the party’s values. Two lines of advance are often advocated. The first is to continue the party’s strident pro-Europe stance by proposing to rejoin the EU as soon as practical. Labour are anxious to win back Brexit-supporting voters, and so are making their Brexit challenge about competence and not principle. The trouble is that most people are thoroughly fed up with the politics of Brexit, and accept that the Brexit side won. Meanwhile the Conservatives are anxious to promote a narrative that the country is being undermined by Remainers who have not accepted the democratic verdict of the people. So a pro-EU strategy risks either flopping because it is too out of touch with the national mood, or, if it gets traction, of supporting the Tory narrative and distracting attention from government incompetence.

The second possible line of attack is to attract leftists disillusioned by Sir Keir’s prevarications. The party is already adopting a mild version of this strategy, through adopting a robust environmental agenda and talking up such ideas as universal basic income. And yet the party’s most promising constituency is soft Tory voters who find left-wing radicalism suspect.

So the party is not doing much of anything. That will do for now. Tory-inclined liberals are throughly disgusted with Boris Johnson’s government. Many voters are thoroughly suspicious of Labour. Sir Keir will have to break cover on economic and environmental issues; when he does so opportunities will open up for the Lib Dems.

The key is to find issues that show how liberal values favour ordinary people. To discover what these might be the party needs to listen more, as its new leader Ed Davey is doing. There are some straws in the wind. The Black Lives matter movement has shown how disappointed and frustrated people from ethnic minorities are that so much prejudice remains. The government’s struggles with covid testing and tracing are showing how nationally centralised systems are often ineffective, and that local centres should be given more scope to find their own ways and mobilise local resources. Grand government schemes to soften the blow of lockdowns are all very well, but far too many people, especially self-employed, are falling through the cracks. Can a narrative of diverse local communities working together to overcome local challenges be developed, to compete with the Conservative and Labour ones focused on winning national power?

The wilderness period will continue for a while yet for the Lib Dems, but there is always hope.

The world in August 2020: the dance of the Great Powers

I haven’t posted at all in August. This is mainly because my wife and I finally completed our house move to a village in East Sussex. We have been reunited with the bulk of our possessions after nearly four months of storage, and we have been unpacking figuring out what to do with them. Then came choosing and ordering all sorts of new things to fit our new house and lifestyle; getting to know the neighbours has been constrained by social distancing, but there has been some of that too. It just hasn’t felt appropriate to take time out to do some blogging. Besides I quite like to take extended periods off for reflection. I’m sill not sure what direction to take the blog. I’ve had two main ideas. One is to try to dig a bit deeper to develop some ideas in series of essays. The second is the opposite: to fire off quick opinions on the issues of the day. Of course I can do both. I’m going to try the second idea first, by reflecting on the month that has just passed.

The pandemic gets messy

The biggest issue of the day remains the Covid-19 pandemic. In the developed world the good news is that death rates have plummeted (outside the USA). But infections remain persistent, which makes loosening restrictions much harder. The exponential nature of infectious diseases means that things can quickly get out of control. Not enough people have caught it to confer herd immunity, and it looks likely that immunity isn’t conferred for long periods after illness anyway. Meanwhile the impact on jobs and normal life has been heavy, and could get worse as measures to head off the worst, such as paying people to do nothing, run out of steam. Difficult decisions pile up on governments and members of the public, and everybody, across the world, is struggling. Apart from trying to head off another wave of nasty, slow deaths, the biggest worry seems to be the effect this is all having on children’s education, closely followed by how to rebuild economies as people realise (or not) that the we can’t go back to how things were before.

The US election: is Trump catching up?

The month started with US President Donald Trump trailing his Democratic challenger Joe Biden for November’s presidential election. It ended with all sorts of experts from both sides saying that Mr Trump is closing the gap with his relentless focus on law and order, following riots in various US cities over police racism. The betting now has the two contenders nearly even. The hard evidence for this catching up is rather thin so far, so we await polling based on the month end, after the republican convention. Doubtless both sides have their reasons for talking up the President’s chances, but I remain sceptical. Compared to four years ago, many more people have already made up their minds. Those that have plumped for Trump will be cheering him on, and remain on fire. But Trump sceptics will have seen nothing in his transparent politicking and outright lies to persuade them to change their minds. Mr Biden seems to be holding his nerve, and appears to be well-advised. Mr Trump, on the other hand, remains his own worst enemy. Still the polls don’t have to narrow by very much for the election to become quite close, such is the built-in Republican advantage. But this is no rerun of 2016.

Belarus: spheres of influence

The big idea of the moment on the political right (taking in some on the left too) is national sovereignty and the primacy of the nation-state, with a reaction against supranational structures and treaties. Alas, just as it did in the 19th Century this soon morphs into an international system based on a small number of “Great Powers”, surrounded by minor powers, satellites and colonies who are not fully independent in any practical sense. Each Great Power demands its sphere of influence, where other Great Powers must keep their noses out. This is evident in Belarus, where there is a popular uprising against a rigged election and a dictatorial regime that has been in power for too long. But Belarus is, more clearly than any other country, within Russia’s sphere of influence. The rest of the world seems to accept this, and are keeping out of it. This is bad news for the people taking part in the uprising. President Lukashenko’s support in his security forces looks strong, and the Russian government do not want the uprising to succeed. They only want to weaken Mr Lukashenko’s regime so that they are less able to resist Russian influence, which doubtless involves making the Russian oligarchy richer. Belarus’s claim to be an independent nation is probably the weakest in Europe, after all; it only won independence from Russia by accident.

China: victim culture

Another Great Power seeking to undermine the independence of others to further its interests is China. Like Russia (which feels it was shafted when its communist regime collapsed in the 1990s) and the USA (where Trump supporters are convinced that their country has been taken advantage of by all and sundry), this assertiveness is driven by a strong sense of historical victimisation. In China’s case this is based on abuse by colonial powers in the 19th Century (it did not achieve Great Power status and was treated as fair game, by the values of the time) and then subjected to a decade of attack by Japan from the 1930s, in which it was devastated. China’s sense of victimhood has more historical validity than Russia’s or Donald Trump’s. But victim mentality is hard to turn into mature, constructive engagement and long-term success. The country is demonstrating its contempt for Western liberalism by crushing dissent in Hong Kong (where nobody questions its sphere of influence). Its subordination of all to its national interest, and its willingness to bully and bend rules, including its tolerance of cyber attacks from within its borders (or worse) have raised security fears for equipment supplied by businesses based their, and any data they might get their hands on. This is causing costly commercial disengagement with the West, not helped by Mr trump’s paranoia. It has now also deeply antagonised the other Asian giant, India. It is hard to know where all this is going. Personally I’m not as convinced as most commentators by the country’s unique combination of central party control with rampant commercialism, with the former increasingly taking priority. There are distinct financial instabilities which even China’s highly competent management may be unable to control, and the rest of the world is slowly ganging up against it.

A revitalised European Union

The EU hit a low point early in the year, as the advance of Covid-19 made it look irrelevant, and Britain’s exit diminished it. But the institution advances in times of crisis, and release from the Brexit saga seems to have invigorated it, as well as fresh leadership within the Commission. Its scheme to deliver collective relief for the Covid crisis broke new ground, especially with the issue of collective debt. The usual Anglo-Saxon sneerers (like the New Statesman columnist John Gray) predict the EU’s imminent demise, but, not for the first time, the institution lives on. The flaws of the nation-state system may not be evident to these critics, but it surely is to the EU’s member states. But it is sobering for British Europhiles like me to realise that the EU’s step forward has been made much easier by the UK’s departure. shared debt would have been a very hard sell in Britain’s political climate, even if Brexit had been headed off.

Brexit endgame

But Brexit isn’t done yet. What will happen once Britain ends its transition period from leaving the European Union on 1 January 2021? Negotiations seem deadlocked, with both sides blaming the other for intransigence. They may well both be right. Britain’s light-headed government as a strong belief in cobbling things together at the last minute, and does not want to end up as appearing to be an EU satellite. It hankers after status somewhere in between being a Great Power, where it develops spheres of influence, while not being in a minor power, where it would be in somebody else’s sphere of influence. There is no sign that this has been properly thought through, and so what it is prepared to compromise on. But the EU is behaving decidedly in the manner of Great Power which doesn’t mind denting a neighbour’s sovereignty for its own convenience. But a no-deal would be very costly to both sides, so the betting is that a way will be found of saving face.

Britain’s essay-crisis government

Britain’s Conservative government’s approach to Brexit, leaving everything difficult to the last minute and trying to bodge through, is reflected in everything it does, and the results aren’t pretty. The most egregious example in August was the collapse of its attempt to replace A-level and GCSE exam results with a moderated system of teacher assessments putting the overall results in line with previous years. Instead there has been massive grade inflation, and doubtless injustice as some teachers were more generous with their assessments than others (though, of course, this may be the case with exam marking too). The government had plenty of time to prepare, and yet walked straight into the elephant trap, relying on moderation by algorithm rather than human intervention. This partly reflects the managerial approach of the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who celebrates his light touch, but abhors competence and dissent amongst his ministers. But it goes deeper. Britain’s political class has for a couple of generations become political specialists, with little experience of serious organisation and management beyond election campaigns. The civil service is little better, drawing a critical distinction between “policy” and “implementation”. Civil servants take pride in specialising in the the first, and assuming that the second can be dealt with by separate implementation specialists. In the real world policy and implementation need to be in a close feedback loop which separation makes impossible. And when the government (in both political and civil service guises) asks for help from practical people, it usually asks the wrong ones: people from big business or the major consultancies that support them. Big business succeeds by making things simple and employing economies of scale; public services are in the public sector largely because the have to deal with human complexity, for which this approach is ineffective (otherwise the private sector would already be handling them). The government’s sub-standard Covid testing and tracing regime arises from the false application of big business wisdom.

Ed Davey: the new Lib Dem leader

The British Liberal Democrats chose a new leader, Ed Davey, who comfortably beat his rival, Layla Moran. I know them both quite well. The party went for the experienced Ed, who was a coalition minister. Many of Layla’s supporters had hoped to put those coalition years, with their student tuition fees and benefits cuts, behind them. But many members had joined precisely because they thought the coalition was a worthy project. On being chosen, Ed said that the party had to “wake up and smell the coffee”. A rather tired cliché, but he is right that the party needs to broaden its appeal beyond an opposition to Brexit that tipped into taking sides in a culture war. Like the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, he seems to want to make competence centre stage, as the Conservatives seek to distract the public from their failures with cultures wars. But will the party be crushed by Labour? Or will Labour seek to operate in a sort of partnership depending on relative local strength? The answer to that depends on the party’s local strengths, and relatively little on the leadership. Meanwhile there is a lot of quotidian work to be done to make the party’s national infrastructure more effective, after years of crisis management have created dysfunction . The same can be said of Labour, but, as a smaller party the job is much easier for the Lib Dems. The party’s President, Mark Pack, and Chief Executive, Mike Dixon, recent appointments both, are up for this patient work – the signs are that Ed is too.

We need to talk about class

We hear a lot about racism in politics. But we don’t hear so much about another form of prejudice that is arguably just as important, and indeed adds an important dimension to the understanding of racism: social class.

What do I mean by social class? It is quite difficult to pin down exactly: it reflects combinations of social circumstances, such as education and where you live. Social class confers advantage to some and disadvantage to others, and to gaps in mutual comprehension. For example there is total exasperation in the Labour Party between middle-class metropolitan liberals and conservative working class union members. There is a lot of evidence that working-class people suffer disadvantage, for example in the job market. Middle-class people are often clueless about how to deal with this, except by creating abstract talking points such as “social mobility”, and trying to make everybody middle class like them. Middle-class privilege goes largely unrecognised.

Funnily enough, I have often heard the assertion that British society is riven by class distinctions which have barely changed over generations, in a uniquely British way, in contrast to both European neighbours and former colonies. But this goes hand in hand with outdated stereotypes of what class looks like. This divides society into upper, middle and working classes. Upper class people are thought of as landed aristocrats, middle class people as suburban professionals and working class people as blue-collar workers. All are predominantly white, and the common mental picture cleaves to old-fashioned gender stereotypes too. In fact social class has changed radically over the last few generations, and the divisions in British society are not particularly unique to Britain.

Changes to working classes have received some recognition through the work of Claire Ainsley, author of The new working class: how to win hearts, minds and votes, who is now working for Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour Party. Much of the modern working class is from ethnic minorities or are recent immigrants, many are in insecure job contracts, and the women are as likely to be working as the men. This analysis has to be taken seriously, but it may distract from more important dynamics that affect working classes as a whole.

The new upper class is perhaps better understood. This is the elite of the super-rich. The new aristocracy is no longer so closely tied to the ownership of land, but instead to big business. It has deep political influence in nearly all political systems, from the United States to China, and is doubtless behind the erosion of capitalist competition. But we should not exaggerate its influence either: western democracies (and the Chinese Communist Party, come to that) retain powers to hold it in check.

It is the new middle classes that seem to be the least understood. They are as heterogeneous as the new working classes, but I know of no work comparable to Ms Ainsley’s trying to get to grips with its complexity. The artist Grayson Perry observed two very different middle classes in a television series exploring class. On the one hand he talked to the anxious inhabitants of a suburban housing development, keeping up with appearances and ever-changing fashions. On the other there were self-confident liberals who didn’t care what others thought of them. And what about those young metropolitan Momentum activists creating Labour’s collision with the party’s working class roots? They clearly feel that society is stacked against them, for example for property ownership, and yet they are university educated and have access to professional careers.

Two forces in particular are shaping the new class landscape. The first is economic. Working class livelihoods have always been vulnerable to advances in technology. Advances in manufacturing and office technology has shrunk the number of traditional working class blue- and white-collar jobs, replacing them something more rootless. This has militated against traditional working class solidarity and union organisation, and reduced both pay and job security. The second is the massive expansion of education. Educational standards have risen across the board, and the availability of university education has increased dramatically. This has opened up access to middle class work, both expanding its extent, and making it more precarious. Meanwhile immigration has served to backfill working class roles from families that have transitioned to middle class. The interaction of these forces is complex and their effects are not well understood. In my opinion (I am getting a bit ahead of the evidence here) it has created a big problem of what might be called middle-class privilege (though my mother would have objected to that use of the word “privilege”, which to her was loaded with a sense of responsibility). If you are born into a working-class family it is much harder to make your way into a good middle-class life than it should be, based on ability. And in particular if you make a poor start in your educational career it is much harder to make progress than it used to be. Meanwhile the living conditions of working class people don’t get enough attention from the political class, making life harder than it should be.

Let me illustrate the new class dynamics a few examples. The first is about language. Grammar and, to a lesser extent, spelling serve a linguistic function to reduce ambiguity. But the opprobrium attracted by bad usage is totally disproportionate to this usefulness – it is surely used as a means of maintaining a class filter. If your grammar and spelling is a bit weak, you are liable to be dismissed as not being up to standard, even if you communicate quite clearly. I speak as somebody that enjoys linguistic pedantry – but I have to be careful it doesn’t get in the way.

A further example is the use of educational qualifications to pre-select job applicants for interview. This doubtless makes sense in some cases, but it is applied much more widely than it needs to be. When recruiting myself I tried to disregard qualifications, especially if the individual had a significant work track record. That track record, and understanding how the individual goes about their work, was to me much more important. Indeed overcoming a poor educational start is a sign of ability. And yet sifting by educational qualifications is deeply embedded into our job market without regard to how appropriate it might be.

A revealing linguistic tic is the habit of middle-class people calling working-class jobs as “low-skilled”. This has rightly been called-out during the Coronavirus crisis in the case of care workers, but it remains pervasive. It demeans working-class people, who work often requires a lot of skill, but not of the sort you get through a university degree.

Class cuts through racial politics. The most egregious racism comes from white working class people – who think that non-white people (or immigrants) are being given an unfair advantage. This may be well-known, but few seem interested in finding out what drives these feelings – it is easier to put it down to working class ignorance. A different class dimension affects the Conservative government’s narrative on racism. Led by middle-class people from ethnic minorities (like the Home Secretary Priti Patel, or the Downing Street adviser Munira Mirza), the message is that a lot of the fuss about racism comes from a victim mentality in many non-white people, which can be overcome if they engage more constructively with society at large. This has led to a spectacular parliamentary spat between Ms Patel and Labour minority MPs with a more working-class background, who complained about being “gaslighted”. The truth is that the experience of racism for ethnic minority working-class people is very different from those from middle classes. The current fuss is driven mainly by a cry of pain from working-class non-whites.

And then we have the case of university tuition fees. These are an attempt to move the cost of university tuition to those that benefit most from it – a push back against middle-class privilege. But those middle classes are often enraged by them – hence Labour’s promise to abolish them at the last election. Their argument is that state-funded university tuition improves access to it and hence social mobility. But this is a bit like the Conservatives’ attempts to address the high cost of housing by subsidising first-time buyers. The substantive way to improve lives of working class people is through making their work better-paid and more secure, and to reduce the cost of life’s essentials, such as housing. There is at last some sign that both Conservative and Labour politicians are starting to recognise it (I wish I could say the same for my own Liberal Democrats, who have become something of a middle-class ghetto – though not irretrievably).

That is welcome. But politicians need to address two further aspects of the class system. The first is fairness – ensuring that people from working class backgrounds are not disadvantaged by prejudice. The second is empowerment – to give all communities, working-class or middle-class, more say over their lives. One big cause of working class dissatisfaction is that they feel sick that things are done to them without their consent. This was ably picked up by the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum. But politicians are better at exploiting anger than dealing with its causes.