20 years after 9/11, the terrorists have failed

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trying to get Afghanistan into perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe Biden has made a strong start

“Cometh the hour, cometh the man,” is what I wrote when Joe Biden was elected US President last November. I had a good feeling about the man because Mr Biden looked to be somebody who confronts the world as it really is, rather than on some projection based on conviction, as more partisan politicians do. It is going better than I expected.

In that post I said that the new president needed to do three things: revive the economy, get on top of the virus, and put pressure on the Republicans. On all three counts he is doing well. He has been lucky, but he has helped to make that luck. We can now see that this is the job he has wanted to do all his political life. He was ready for it. It turns out that being a Vice President is good preparation for the Presidency, especially at the start. The last Vice President to make it to the top was George Bush Senior in 1988; he proved very effective at the job, even if he was less effective at the politics. Before that we might remember Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, also very effective operators. Mr Biden knows how the machinery of government works and was well prepared by the time inauguration came, notwithstanding the tardy cooperation of the outgoing administration.

Mr Biden has also proved an adept politician. He made a good start before he took office when the Democrats took both the Senate run-off elections in Georgia. The Republicans had been favourites. How much he can take personal credit for this is hard to say – but he clearly didn’t get in the way. That gave him control of the Senate by the narrowest possible margin. He has used it skilfully. His biggest achievement has been pushing through a massive economic stimulus bill. He now has two more ambitious efforts involving massive outlays: an infrastructure plan and welfare reforms. He has not sought to build bridges with the Republicans, in the way that Barack Obama wasted so much time doing, but the measures are likely to go down well with many Republican voters, especially the ones that switched to Trump in 2016 and 2020. I can’t see that the welfare changes stand much chance, as they look too strong for conservative Democrats in the Senate – but they should help keep up the pressure.

And the next point about Mr Biden is that he takes decisions, even tough ones, quickly. This is part of being ready for the job, but it is a strong contrast with Mr Trump and Mr Obama, and especially the former’s gaggle of squabbling advisers. A striking example of this has been the decision to withdraw the US military completely from Afghanistan by 11 September. We might well think this is wrong (The Economist argued that keeping on a small commitment would be value for money), but it happened quickly.

But is he taking America in the right direction? One criticism is that he is just rehashing failed policies from the 1970s. This is put quite eloquently by Gerard Baker in The Times. Mr Biden wants to throw a lot of public money at problems, promoting federal agencies and trade unions, in a striking reversal of the prevailing wisdom since Ronald Reagan came to power in 1980 – even if the practice never quite lived up to the rhetoric. There does seem to be something quite old and familiar about this approach. Mr Biden has been compared to Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson – falsely because he doesn’t have enough Senate votes to be anything like as ambitious as this pair. His infrastructure plans recall Dwight Eisenhower. These policies just led to stagflation in the 1970s, it is said. But context is all. Big government worked well enough in the 1950s, with the rise of light manufacturing and the bureaucracy of the consumer society – all those salesman, account clerks and insurance administrators. But in the 1960s and 1970s, the economy and society suffered a number of problems. First came the Vietnam war, which the US government refused to finance through taxation, causing the postwar world financial infrastructure to buckle. Then came the malign effects of union inflexibility, which meant that consumer price rises fed through quickly into wage inflation, creating a wage-price spiral. And then came the shock of escalating oil prices in the 1970s, the first important symptom of environmental constraints on the US model of growth. Combine these with big government and you got stagflation.

That was then. Now is a very different world. The wage-price spiral has been broken by the growth of globalisation and the impact of technology. A new world financial infrastructure has emerged. Environmental constraints are being embraced rather than denied. And anyway since 2008 the developed world seems to have been suffering from deficient demand. Interest rates have been cut to rock bottom; there does not seem to be enough positive pressure in the labour market. Nominal jobless rates may look low (slowing for the pandemic), but pay at the lower end is propped up by minimum wages, job insecurity is rife, and people are dropping out of the workforce. Throwing public money at problems could be quite beneficial at such a time, even if it was harmful in the 1970s. And excess public spending is much more likely to get the money to where it is needed that tax cuts.

Still, you don’t have to be on the political right to worry that president is taking things too far. Predictions of a rise in inflation are widespread, though an awful lot of people seem to think that this will work in a similar way to the late 20th Century. One way or another interest rates are likely to rise – a sign of a better balanced economy after all – and this could have some fairly scary consequences in a financial system that seems to take low interest rates and booming asset prices as one of the fundamental rights of man. But it could take some time for any problems to emerge.

A second criticism is that Mr Biden is taking his radicalism too far. He has spoken of bringing America together and healing the partisan divides. But in many ways he is doing the opposite. Much of the Republican base – the wealthy rather than the populous part of it – was horrified by Donald Trump, whose grip on that party shows no sign of weakening. But they will be even more horrified by fear of tax rises, and will doubtless find themselves returning to the party fold. That does not matter that much in terms of votes (these are the top 1% after all, even if you have to add in larger numbers who fancy their chances of entering that elite) – but it means lots of campaign funding to promote misinformation and damaging memes. The Republicans scared a lot of people into voting for them in Congressional races last year by portraying the Democrats as being taken over by the “radical left”. It won’t be too hard to paint Mr Biden’s policies in that light.

A big challenge will come in 2022, when the mid-term elections come. Most commentators already seem to have written the Democrats’ chances off, following what happened to Mr Obama and Mr Trump at the same points in their presidencies. But that can’t be in the plans of a consummate politician like Joe Biden. He clearly feels that his policies can peel away a lot of voters from the Republicans.

And that will make American politics very interesting over the next year and a half. Mr Biden has started well, and he means to keep up the momentum.

In defence of vaccine nationalism

Not all are equal when it comes to vaccination against Covid-19. Israel speeds ahead, followed by Britain and the USA, with other European countries bumbling along in their wake. Developing countries, or most of them, are a long way behind. This has provoked some harrumphing. “None of us are safe until we are all safe”, it is said. According to this idea the vaccine should be distributed in a world programme based on individual vulnerabilities. This gets general murmurs of approval from liberal types, or at any rate those are not in government. No wonder conservatives think liberals are soft in the head.

There are deeper philosophical and ethical questions behind this, but it would be useful to start with two facts which don’t seem to get mentioned in this context. The first is that vaccine manufacture is well behind the ambitious targets set earlier in the year. The headlines may be dominated by the massive scale of orders placed by the British government and others, but delivery is another matter. According to Tim Harford in the Financial Times some 800 million doses were promised in 2020. but only 20-30 million were actually delivered. There are no surplus stocks sitting around in national inventories while the needy are unvaccinated. The second fact is that death rates in the developed world, and Britain and the USA in particular, are very high. Britain’s is the highest in the world, we are told. In the developing world death rates are much lower. Some of this may be down to weaknesses in data gathering and government denial, of course. But mostly it is because their populations are much younger, on average, and so less vulnerable. And Britain and the USA both have an obesity problem. So if you are going to start with a worldwide vaccination programme, why wouldn’t you begin with the USA and Britain anyway? Is there really a worldwide injustice here?

Looking a bit deeper there is then the question of practicality. Collective efforts are often inefficient. In Europe the EU’s joint procurement is well behind that of newly separate Britain’s. A centrally organised world programme doesn’t bear thinking about. It’s bit like the lockdown sceptics’ idea that we should protect the vulnerable and let everybody else live their lives unrestricted (or restricted only by their own fear). At fist sight you might think it looks a good idea, but it doesn’t survive any closer inspection at all.

It’s worth a thought as to why this might be. One problem is accountability. The more complicated a project, and the more people involved, the more the need for accountability slows things down. And at the world level accountability has always been a problem. There is also the question of information. The further away you are from the sharp end, the poorer the quality and the less effective decisions tend to be. Committees and collaboration have their place; they even have heir place in worldwide vaccination programmes. But not in leading the emergency effort to get as many people vaccinated as fast as possible. here allowing national governments to act independently is going to get more shots into arms more quickly.

This leads to an important philosophical and ethical issue that liberals would do well to think about more deeply. How often do we hear pleas that needs of African peasants (we often focus on the rural poor and overlook ballooning urban poverty for some reason) should be just as much concern to us as the problems of our immediate neighbours? The fact that we neglect poor people in faraway places is regarded as a moral failure. And yet when rich people, or people in rich countries, try to help poor people far away, it so often ends badly. Aid ends up helping the wrong people, or distorting market and governance structures to their detriment, or simply comes over an example of patronising post-colonialism, reinforcing ethnic stereotypes. The exercise often seems to be guilt-tripping with little wider practical utility, beyond raising the status of certain NGO types. Of course the first premise of the liberal argument is sound enough: that all people on earth are morally equal. This is not a given, but there are all manner of reasons, moral, spiritual and pragmatic, why we should believe this. But this needs to be complemented by some form of proximity principle. It is quite right to be more concerned about those closer to us than those further away. It isn’t a moral failure. We can imagine a sort of hierarchy of family and close friends, neighbours, fellow countryman and so on. Such a hierarchy invites a whole series of problems, though. Western liberals, me included, agree that race or ethnic identity should play no part in it, of course, but this isn’t universally accepted (look at what is happening in China or India). Should Britons be more concerned about Latvians than Moroccans because of some form of European or Christian identity? And a lot of aid made by rich countries to faraway places is beneficial to humankind; I give to several charities and support the UK’s generous aid budget. It’s a bit of a nightmare, which is doubtless why many liberals try to short-circuit the discussion by denying any kind of proximity principle. But that doesn’t work either.

I am no moral philosopher,so I am not going to attempt an answer to these tricky questions. I rely on intuition. To me there is nothing wrong with countries focusing on vaccinating their own citizens as a top priority, even if richer countries end up getting ahead of the queue (which won’t be entirely the case anyway; India, for example, is the world’s leader in the manufacture of vaccines and is as nationalist in its priorities as anybody). That does not mean it is right to sabotage other countries’ efforts, or to hoard unused vaccine stocks. And once the urgencies of your own country have been dealt with, it is right to devote national resources to aiding other countries where the need is greater. I often disagree with the current British government’s moral priorities, but I think they have this one roughly right.

Trump is not a proper fascist; his coup might have succeeded if he was

Throughout his presidency, I have waited for the moment when Donald Trump overstepped the mark, causing him to alienate a large part of his support base. There were moments when I thought he had reached such a point, but I was proved wrong each time. But the events last week in Washington are surely that moment. His presidency is nearly over anyway, of course, but he is surely unlikely to come back from this.

Of course an astonishing number of Americans thought that the storming of Congress was justified, but the Republican coalition is still breaking up, and it is likely to reform without Mr Trump in control. You could tell Mr Trump was in trouble when he read out his statement disowning the protesters and conceding that he would hand over to the new administration. He normally doubles down; he does not do light-footed manoeuvre.

What happened? It was very clear from even before the election that Mr Trump would try to cling to power if he lost. His plan to do so amounted to a coup, but one that maintained some vestiges of legality. He thought he could mobilise Republican Congressmen and state administrators, and sympathetic judges to annul the state election results he didn’t like, and substitute more congenial ones. For the most part they did not cooperate (the Congressmen being a shameful exception), because Mr Trump could not provide them with any serious evidence to work with, and they had too much respect for the rule of law, or at any rate understood that the risks for them personally were far too high. His last chance was on Wednesday, when Congress was due to ratify the election results. He organised a march of his supporters on the Capitol. What was Mr Trump trying to do? Here it gets murky. His hope may have been to intimidate the law-makers into overturning the election results. He may simply have wanted a spectacular demonstration of the strength of feeling on his side to sustain the betrayal narrative, from which he could build his comeback. If you want to build a conspiracy theory you can easily find enough to work on. After he lost the election Mr Trump cleared out the senior appointees of the Defence department and put in complete loyalists. The Washington National Guard was under the control of the Defence department, but it had not been mobilised for trouble, as it had been for the Black Lives Matter protests.

But it looks as if there was no clear plan. Once the protesters got into the building they did not know what to do. This was the worst possible outcome for Mr Trump. The protesters engaged in vandalism and showed general disrespect for one of the United States’s most hallowed institutions without achieving anything more than a delay to proceedings. This was fine by those of Mr Trump’s base driven by a hate for those institutions and of revolutionary intent: the white supremacists, the QAnon conspiracy theorists and the wild fringe in general. But a large part of the Republican coalition prefers to see these people as a tiresome sideshow. For many conservative Americans, having somebody dressed in a bison outfit leading the way is not a good look. Funnily enough, if the protestors had been met by a robust police and National Guard presence, it would probably have worked much better for Mr Trump – they could blame failure on the “deep state”. The plan had not been thought through and it lapsed into farce, albeit a farce in which several people were killed.

That is very revealing. Many people claim that Donald Trump is a fascist. It is perfectly true that there are many common threads between Trumpism and fascism. The cult of personality, the demand for personal loyalty amongst officials, the disrespect for the rule of law and political convention. The tactics were fascistic too: the use of elections to gain a foothold, the cooption and then subordination of establishment conservatives, and the indulgence of mob violence from supporters. But there are big differences. Fascists concentrate power in a militarised state, subordinating all other civil and private organisations. They adore administrative competence (Mussolini wanted to make the trains run on time; Hitler built autobahns). They are also driven by a clear, if fantastical, vision of where they want to take their country. Donald Trump worked to dismantle the state, not build it up. He let private corporations run riot, including ones he did not like. He has very little regard for administrative competence. He was not a warmonger either – he tried to end foreign wars, not start them. His supporters were not organised into paramilitary formations that could drive through a violent coup. Some of his supporters were heavily armed, it is true, but there was something anarchistic about them; they viewed their weapons as an extension to their personal autonomy, rather than part of being a soldier for a cause. Once you take the narcissism away from Trumpism, there really is very little left.

Which is why the coup failed and Mr Trump has been humiliated. There were no storm troopers ready to enter the Capitol and neutralise opposing Congressmen. There were no leaders on the ground with a clear idea about what they needed to do.

Very soon Donald Trump will leave office. So much of his power, and self-esteem, derived from that office that it will be difficult for him to come back, especially after this fiasco. But his popular base is still there, angry at the turn of events and convinced that it is they who are the victims of a coup. The new administration faces many difficult choices. Joe Biden wants to be a figure of healing and reconciliation. But can he simply let the forces of darkness reorganise with impunity? Republican leaders face hard choices too. Their no-prisoners resistance to the Democrats has unleashed a tiger that is consuming them. Is it time to change tactics in order to capitalise on the fears that much of the American public has of left-wing radicalism?

And all the while the pandemic runs riot. What a moment to become President. But it will not do to underestimate Joe Biden.

Joe Biden: cometh the hour, cometh the man?

I greeted the defeat of Donald Trump in the US Presidential election with relief rather than joy. It was the most important thing to be decided in these elections: but otherwise it was a poor night for the Democrats. That bodes ill for the success of the new administration. But perhaps the new President, Joe Biden, will rise to the occasion.

The first Democratic disappointment was the failure to suppress Mr Trump’s vote more than it did. In fact “suppress” is not the word: Mr Trump’s vote was huge. Victory depended on a series of narrow wins in key states: very similar in character to Mr Trump’s victory in 2016. Based on polling evidence, most people had expected something more decisive. The next disappointment was the Democrats’ failure to secure the Senate. This game isn’t over yet: it will be decided by the double run-off section in early January in Georgia, but the Republicans are favourites. But the Democrats fell short in a whole series of contests where they were expected to do well, and that was the pattern of the night. The Democrats hung on to the their majority in the House in Representatives, but went backwards. They did not make breakthroughs at state level either: important because these elections will affect redistricting for the House. Down-ticket Republicans polled more than Mr Trump.

If the Democrats couldn’t win big this year, when can they? Looked at strategically it the Republicans are winning the battle to be the natural party of government, albeit by a narrow margin. This should worry Democrats a lot. They have long been expecting a demographic dividend, as America becomes less white, and as older, conservative voters die off. Instead Republicans are managing to recruit amongst ethnic minorities. I don’t know what data on younger voters is, but I suspect it follows educational attainment. Less well-educated Americans gravitate towards the Republicans, regardless of race and age, it seems.

This bodes ill for the Democrats in 2024, and of Kamala Harris’s chances in that election if Joe Biden steps down, as expected. There will be a lot of soul-searching. Some want to go down a left-wing populist route, stoking up anger over wealthy elites rigging the system to their advantage. Such a strategy has worked in Latin America (though whether it has done poor voters there any good is another question) – but I don’t think it has traction in America, not least amongst those of Latin American heritage, for whom socialism is often a toxic brand, based on the record of Latin American socialists.

Beyond that, Mr Biden is going to find it very hard to govern. He needs the Senate to unlock major spending initiatives, or legal reforms, for example to health care, or reforms to make it easier to elect Democrats. Nothing in these election results is going to discourage the dominant no-prisoners wing of the Republican Party, represented by the senate leader Mitch McConnell, as well as Mr Trump himself. Republicans will suddenly rediscover their fiscal conservatism and stoke up worries about public debt, conveniently forgotten when Republicans such as Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush or Donald Trump have been in charge. The new administration will be undermined at every turn. And on top of likely control of the Senate, they have stacked the Supreme Court with conservatives. Mr Biden’s appeals for Americans to unite to tackle the country’s problems are entirely futile. Further, Republicans are trying to undermine his legitimacy by saying the election was “stolen”. The extreme partisan nature of US politics will continue.

So what does Joe Biden need to do? The critical things are to revive the economy, get on top of the virus, and put pressure on the Republicans. The economy is critical. Until 2020 this was looking good for Mr Trump. The acid test isn’t the level of the stock market, so beloved of the President, but whether the economy is running hot enough to push up wages and well as create a plentiful supply of less skilled jobs. Mr Trump’s success there doubtless accounts for much of the strength of his support. How much he was actually responsible for this, and how much he was building on his predecessor, we will never know. The virus, of course, is the test Mr Biden has set himself. On both counts luck looks to be on the new President’s. side. The first of the vaccines is coming good, and other promising ones are behind it. This is already having a positive effect on confidence. This means that he is not as reliant as he might of been on Congress to provide funding for the states. The second piece of luck is that the Federal Reserve takes an expansive view of its role in keeping the economy going, and should not jack up interest rates at the first sign of success.

What do I mean by putting pressure on the Republicans? His life will be a lot easier if a small handful of Republican Senators break ranks. It will also be easier if Supreme Court justices also feel a bit of political pressure to appear non-partisan. This dos not mean indulging in the culture wars (on abortion and such matters), which tend to polarise politics and rally the Republican faithful. It does mean keeping the heat up on healthcare and support for “seniors” and veterans. The Republicans aren’t having it all their own way. MrTrump is not going to disappear; surely the party’s stalwarts are going to tire of bowing and scraping to their monarch. Mr Trump is also likely to face a blizzard of lawsuits – though this is unlikely to change public opinion much.

The interesting thing is that of all senior Democrats, Joe Biden seems to understand what needs to be done best. He has it in him to empathise with the average working class Trump supporter. His campaign was very skilful. He is going to need all of that skill in the years ahead. But he knows that. Cometh the hour, cometh the man?

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.

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 clich√©, 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.

Deadly and contagious, this virus is reshaping our society

When the pandemic started to seriously intrude into our daily lives, in March, my view was the it might accelerate some changes, but it was being overplayed by some commentators as a society-changing event. My view is changing. And it is changing because the virus is proving so hard either to beat or to live with. It just won’t go away. In this week’s statement the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, made some steps towards acknowledging this. But many people are still in denial.

It is too early to develop a clear view of how this pandemic is evolving. But I can see at least three phases. The first phase is over. This saw the initial emergence of the disease, and immediate hard lockdowns to try and contain its spread, alongside the mobilisation of the health systems. In East Asia and Europe, and in some parts of America (such as New York) this strategy has succeeded in preventing or stemming a rapid advance. Elsewhere weak health systems or perverse political leadership means that the disease is still spreading rapidly. But that aside we are now in an awkward second phase. The lockdowns are being eased, but alongside this the disease is making local breakouts. It is becoming clearer that restrictions on our daily lives cannot be relaxed fully. Even if the disease can be stamped out in some areas, it remains prevalent in neighbouring ones, and the threat of it returning ever-present.

We still don’t know enough about the virus that is causing all the trouble, how it spreads, and its effects on the human body. But some aspects are becoming clearer. The first is that it is deadly. It does not seem to affect many of the people it infects, and some people seem to think that it merely hastens the demise of people already at death’s door. And yet 20-30% of the population appears to be vulnerable in most places, and it has the capacity to double the death-rate, or more. Hospitals become overwhelmed and unable to deal with other health conditions. The second aspect is that it is highly contagious, much more so than other viruses that are deadlier to the infected (such as ebola). Just how contagious is unknown, but we do know that super spreading events occur, where dozens of people are infected by a single individual at once. Being indoors seems dangerous, as does being in proximity to people who are exhaling heavily, such as people singing, shouting or exercising. Wearing masks seems to be a significant help in reducing infection risk. What makes the virus so much of a problem is this combination of lethality and contagiousness. We are conditioned to deal with diseases that are highly contagious but not so deadly (like most flu) or deadlier but much less contagious. To these two known aspects there is an important unknown. Does catching the disease confer immunity to it? There is a widespread assumption that it does, meaning that we can expect herd immunity to arise at some point, when most people can’t catch or spread the virus. But the emerging evidence is troubling. Antibody tests show low rates of prevalence even in places where the disease has been widespread. And there are reports of people being infected multiple times. A second unknown is how quickly we can get an effective vaccine. There has been impressive progress, but plenty of reason to be cautious.

So where does that leave us? Developed societies have no choice but to try and contain the disease. This means changing behaviours to reduce the risk of catching it. This arises partly through public policy and partly through private choice. As I said in my previous post this means that many people are going to avoid social gatherings indoors, including going out to pubs and restaurants. The more prevalent the disease at any time and place, the more such measures have to be taken. The best we can hope for is containing the disease to low prevalence, allowing quite high levels if freedom, but stamping on local outbreaks as they occur. This is being done most successfully in East Asia; in Europe Germany is the main large exemplar. But even this is far from normal. The big problem is that we are going to have to live with this disease for a year at least and probably a lot longer. This has profound consequences.

The main consequence is in the world of work, and in the economy generally. There are two main aspects to this. First is that sectors that rely on close social contact and free movement are going to shrink, perhaps drastically. This includes hospitality and travel. The second is that productivity in most sectors is going to be dented as health precautions take effect. This will inevitably reduce the standard of living. Prices will rise faster than pay; taxes will probably have to rise to curb excess demand and inflation. All this is too much for most people to take on all at once. Many are still trying to negotiate with the virus. I hear owners of indoor gyms complaining about not being allowed to open, like other businesses are. And yet an indoor gym must be one of the best spreading environments conceivable, after a mass indoor choir.

So how did Mr Sunak face up to this huge challenge in his budget statement this week? Pretty well in the circumstances. The most important thing is that he is pivoting from trying to keep old jobs alive (e.g. through the furlough scheme) to creating new ones, in particular focusing efforts on younger people, whose livelihoods are most at risk. His generosity towards the hospitality sector with his VAT scheme and meal discounts may look hopeless against the tide of events Рbut it does demonstrate some empathy towards one of the sectors most under pressure, which could reduce the short-term trauma somewhat. His £1,000 bonus for firms that retain furloughed staff until January looks harder to justify. It is hard to believe that it will make much difference to job retention, and yet it is estimated to cost huge sums. Surely it would have been better to top up benefits for the out-of-work. His reduction of stamp duty on property purchases looks like an expensive sop to party donors Рthough I personally stand to benefit.

But, as most people see, this is only a start. In the pipeline are more job losses and business failures, which will bring more problems in their wake. There is also an upcoming crisis in local government finance, as central government support to meet the extra costs of the crisis is woefully inadequate, and the role local government needs to play in combatting the virus is becoming ever larger. This will be the third phase of the pandemic, as the economic crisis deepens, while the struggle to contain the virus continues. Conventional economic management tools are not going to help as much as they should be. A lot of the problem is restriction to the supply side of the economy, while demand is suppressed by fear as much as lack of funds – so boosting demand simply risks creating inflation or a currency crisis. However job creation in public services: health care, social care and education, looks like a sensible way forward. Lower productivity means more people will be needed in these sectors. A rebalancing of the economy from private to public sector will surely mean tax rises in due course, but with no shortage of liquidity in financial markets the government can probably defer some of the hard decisions.

And meanwhile the public will have to confront some hard truths. The virus shows that the free-wheeling individualism at the core of western societies has its limits. It is not sustainable to suggest that individuals can judge the health risks for themselves, since by spreading a lethal disease the consequences of their actions will mainly be felt by others. The failure of so many people in Britain and parts of America to wear masks in public shows how far we have to go. We have something to learn form the East Asians. But not China. That is another story.