Thursday, 13 April 2023

Come you Masters of War ... I'm just want you to know I can't see through your masks

The Peter Jackson edited Get Back Beatles documentary is a fascinating insight into the way the most famous band in the world worked together a year before splitting up for good. It forces a revision of the idea that their rehearsals were marked by a simmering acrimony as suggested by the contemporary – and now suppressed – film Let It Be, which was based on the same footage. The much longer Jackson compiled film suggests they actually got on quite well, despite George Harrison flouncing off at one point. We see the Beatles working as a group on songs – such as Harrison’s 'All Things Must Pass' and Lennon’s 'Gimme Some Truth' – that would later become some of their authors’ most famous solo efforts.

It’s easy to forget you are watching fly on the wall footage that is over half a century old. And some of the most innocuous scenes, on closer inspection, reveal their age. Take the debate in the film over the idea ؘ– proposed by original filmmaker Michael Lindsay-Hogg – that the Beatles should hire a ship to take them to Libya where they would perform in a Roman amphitheatre on the coast (the Get Back sessions were meant to prepare for a TV performance which would eventually morph into the rooftop concert). “How are you going to get a ship in a couple of days?” asks Ringo Starr. “We got the American Navy for How I Won the War” says John Lennon, a reference to a 1967 film he acted in. To which Starr responds, “Yes but they were passing by and you only got them for a few hours”. Cue images from the film of the actors disembarking from a D-Day style landing craft.

Toy Story

To utilize a popular phrase, that could never happen nowadays. Something that is made painfully evident from the documentary Theaters of War which shows how the US military now meticulously controls the content of films and TV programmes, to the extent of insisting on line by line script changes to make sure they appear in a desirable light. In 2023, the PR savvy U.S. Navy would never allow their ‘toys’ to be used in a film as subversive as How I Won the War. Director Richard Lester said the film was an “anti-anti-war film” in that it portrayed war as intrinsically hostile to humanity itself rather than just being against the war crimes of the other side. The plot shows the battalion coming to the conclusion they have to kill their commanding officer as his incompetence is leading them to their deaths (unfortunately they don’t and it does). The effect is rather muted by the fact that he is played by Michael Crawford, later to become famous as Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em (although to be fair people wanted to kill him too).

According to Theaters of War, thanks to incredibly persistent Freedom of Information requests, it’s clear that “thousands upon thousands” of films and TV shows have been “rewritten at script level” by the Pentagon and the CIA. If the filmmakers want military cooperation – access to all those aircraft carriers, fighter jets and troop extras – they have to hand over their entire script for vetting. If they don’t, they don’t get to use the military equipment, which is usually essential for box office success. If they do agree, they have to sign a contract and the Pentagon “are effectively like another producer”.

This ‘help’ is most obvious in blockbuster movies like Top Gun (which according to the Pentagon “completed rehabilitation of the military’s image which had been savaged by the Vietnam War”) and its 2021 sequel, Pearl Harbor, or The Hunt for Red October. And it’s evident in TV series like 24 and Homeland which bear the hallmarks of the CIA’s decision to follow the Pentagon’s lead and open an office to liaise with television and cinema in 1996.

The Pentagon Universe

The national security state is also integral to the greatest ‘cinematic’ innovation of this century – super hero movies. The original script for Iron Man, for example, had its hero, Tony Stark, battling against the arms industry. But by the time the film went into production this had entirely flipped. In the actual 2008 film, he inherits his father’s arms business and the subsequent franchise is “an outright celebration of the arms industry”.

In fact, super hero movies like Man of Steel or Captain Marvel are the perfect advertisement for new military ‘toys’. And the Transformers franchise is little more than a showcase for new weapons. Until 1988, rules stated that the Department of Defense should only help films achieve “authenticity” and “dignity”. Subsequently, however, these were enlarged to allow promotion of “public understanding”, help with recruitment and support of government policy.

And this mission creep has had tangible effects. Captain Marvel was “a recruiting bonanza, a vehicle for the Air Force to reach young women”, channelling, according to its star, Brie Larson, “the spirit of the Air Force”. 2021’s The Suicide Squad has an assortment of super-hero bad asses overthrow a fictional anti-American government in Latin America. Any similarity to actual events is strictly coincidental.

These are just stupid films for kids, you might object, and besides anti-war films do get made. Both demurrals have some validity but don’t erase the basic problem. Super-hero films have a cultural impact way beyond their immediate fan base. Apart from being some of the highest grossing movies of all time, they reach a far wider audience by being constantly repeated on prime time TV. Critical war films – for example Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July or possibly 2005’s Jarhead – do get produced but they are swimming against the current. Oliver Stone’s Vietnam films were delayed for years because of their “unacceptable themes”.

Rehabilitating Nukes

We are talking about a gradual cultural seepage. According to one interviewee, filmmakers are well aware their films are going to get vetted, so “they write their scripts in ways they know will ultimately please the Pentagon …. People self-censor and tone down any potential critical view.”  Much like journalists, you might say.

This process of cultural acclimation can be sent in a frankly scary (pun intended) segment about what happened to Godzilla. In the original 1954 Japanese film, Godzilla was literally created by hydrogen bomb testing and survivors of the monster’s attacks had radiation poisoning. Godzilla was “an allegory for the U.S. nuclear bombing of Japan”. This association survived in the 1998 Roland Emmerich version but by the 2014 iteration the U.S. Department of Defense was involved. A passage in the original script where a character recalls how their father survived the Hiroshima bomb was replaced by musings about the “arrogance of man”. And far from being the source of the mutation, nuclear weapons were the solution. Nuclear tests in the 1950s were actually attempts to kill Godzilla.

Revealingly, the 2019 reboot Godzilla: King of the Monsters was made without Pentagon assistance but stuck with the “nukes as heroes theme”. The filmmakers conclude: “It’s hard to imagine a more complete reversal. This long time warning about the dangers of proliferation is now an extension of the U.S. military and something of an advertisement for the bomb”.

Essentially, and terrifyingly for the future of humanity, nuclear weapons are being ‘rehabilitated’ and Hollywood is integral to that redemption. The subdued reaction to the possibility that nuclear weapons may be used in Ukraine may be evidence that it is having the desired effect.

That’s Entertainment

What Theaters of War unmasks is just how PR-saturated our popular culture is. With all due respect to Noam Chomsky, this is not about manufacturing consent through news and current affairs coverage. It is a form of propaganda that works through the slow accretion of subconscious associations and acquiescence with outwardly fictional, often absurd, depictions. “This is more insidious than state control and state-produced propaganda,” one interviewee notes, “because it passes off as just entertainment.”

As one internal Pentagon document observes, “Features films reach far greater audiences than any single news media story about the actual events. Audiences will voluntarily sit through a two hour ‘infomercial’ [about an army operation]”.

The contrast with the 1960s and How I Won the War could not be starker. That decade and the following one were laden with overtly critical, and fundamentally subversive, films about war. Paths of Glory, Dr Strangelove, The Hill, The Battle of Algiers, The Bed Sitting Room, Oh! What a Lovely War, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Catch-22, M*A*S*H and Apocalypse Now all reached large audiences. Sure, they were outnumbered by celebratory depictions of war (invariably involving daring exploits against nefarious Nazis), but the point is they existed and competed with standard fare. Nowadays, in an era when PR has hugely extended its tentacles, if they ever got made in the first place they’d be shunted off to the art house sector and only seen by people who attend film festivals.

This affects TV as well. In the 1980s the BBC could produce the nuclear war docu-drama Threads and the basically seditious Monocled Mutineer. Whereas now we are treated to The SAS: Rogue Heroes. For assorted cranks and weirdoes, the former are available on DVD.

It might seem strange to say in the aftermath of the Corbyn and Sanders insurgencies but, as Theaters of War demonstrates, the long march of PR is making our societies more and more conservative and averse to change. If the Left cannot find a way to counteract this tendency and reach mass audiences, it – and maybe humanity as a whole – will not have a future.














Thursday, 23 March 2023

Other People's Money – The Degeneration of Thatcherism, part two

 And so we move on to part two of the chronicle of the Conservatives’ remarkably profligate attitude towards other people’s money, despite what Margaret Thatcher may have led you to believe in 1978. Here is part one

This revisionism is not solely directed at Conservative hypocrisy – tempting as that may be – it also exposes the barren hulk of the current Labour party, which promises to transport us back to the halcyon days of early David Cameron. Another of Margaret Thatcher’s famous lines was to describe New Labour as her greatest achievement. “We forced our opponents to change their minds,” she said. And we haven’t stopped paying for it since.


If any part of British society bears the unmistakable imprint of Thatcherism – and almost all do in some way – it is the housing sector. The policy of the ‘Right to Buy’ – allowing council house tenants to buy their homes at discounted rates – undoubtedly came to embody the Thatcherite promise of creating a ‘property-owning democracy’. In awarding her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the elder George Bush commended Thatcher for putting “private roofs over British heads”. But the policy, because it also involved preventing councils from replacing the stock they had to sell, had one consequence that was the polar opposite of owning your own property – having to rent it.

The number of private renters has more than doubled since the turn of the century and that doesn’t include those renting from housing associations. This change was enabled by classic Thatcher-era legislation, the 1988 Housing Act, a deregulatory bonfire which introduced short-term tenancies, allowed landlords to charge whatever rent they liked, and got rid of any security of tenure for tenants, permitting them to be evicted with only two months’ notice. It presaged a huge change from the post-war social democratic settlement which was characterised by a mix of owner occupation and council housing. “The private landlord, increasingly associated with the rack-renting of slums was nearly eliminated”, wrote historian David Edgerton of that period.

But this brave new (old) world which saw the triumphant return of the private landlord and the phasing out of council housing had consequences: the number of private tenants who couldn’t afford the rent, and thus became reliant on financial assistance from the state, shot up. The amount spent on housing benefit increased from less than £2 billion to £24 billion in 2015/6 and now stands at over £30 billion a year. This is a public subsidy to landlords to make up for the fact that the level of rent they are charging is beyond the capacity of their tenants to pay. True Thatcherite Conservatives like to present the enormous housing benefit bill as indicative of out-of-control welfare spending that needs to be pruned back but, in fact, it is a direct result of their deliberate gutting of the post-war social order.

Speaking of which, the Cameron/Osborne administration did successfully, although temporarily, reduce the size of the housing benefit subsidy. Naturally, this was through eliminating tenants’ entitlement to it – through denying it to under-21 year olds and introducing a benefit cap – rather than reducing the need for it by cutting rents. Curiously though, a little publicised feature of the Conservatives’ 2016 Welfare Reform Act did indicate the financially sensible nature of the latter approach. ‘Social’ Landlords – i.e. local councils and housing associations – were required to reduce rents by 1% a year for four years. According to a House of Commons Research Briefing, “of all the measures implemented to date, the requirement on social landlords to reduce rents …. has achieved the highest level of saving.”

Innocently, you might think therefore that such a policy of rent capping should be applied to the private sector, where rents, the number of renters and the housing benefit subsidy have all mushroomed over the last 30 years. But such an idea doesn’t factor in how the Conservatives are the party of asset owners, whose interests – even if reliant on a huge state subsidy – must be protected at all costs. Rent control, if applied to the private sector, seems to cause an irrationally vituperative reaction among Conservatives. Friedrich Hayek, Margaret Thatcher’s favourite philosopher, described the policy as “deadly”. More recent adepts have condemned it as almost as devastating to a city as bombing it.

At the other end of the scale, the Conservatives have subsidised the deposits and mortgage repayments of first time home (usually flat) buyers through the Help to Buy scheme launched in 2013 which has so far cost £21 billion. Aside from artificially raising house prices, and thus benefiting housebuilders like Taylor Wimpey, the scheme has left recipients high and dry after the huge rise in interest rates, and thus mortgage interest payments, following the Truss debacle. But such is the Conservatives’ obsession with home ownership, seen as such an indelible part of Thatcher’s remodelling of British society, they are prepared to move heaven and earth –  including their own allegedly free market ideology – to massage the optics.

The Economy

The Conservatives did not, it should be said, instigate the huge state bail out of the banks that the British government felt it had no choice but to pay following the 2008 financial crisis. That was the prerogative of the last Labour government. But market fundamentalist Thatcherite ideology – convinced of the inherent wisdom of allowing those at the top of society maximum leeway – was certainly in attendance in spirit.  And the Sunak administration is pursuing the very sensible policy of removing the regulations that Cameron introduced as a sop to the prevailing zeitgeist that something had to be done to prevent 2008 from playing out again. I’m sure it’ll end well.

What can be laid at the door of Thatcher’s children, however, is subsequently using the exclusive money generating power of the state to massively augment the wealth of the richest in society. This was through the capital creating policy of Quantitative Easing (QE). Since 2008, QE has been deployed three times – immediately in response to the financial crisis (Labour), after the Brexit vote (Tory) and then again in the economic panic that ensued post-Covid (Tory) – totalling £895 billion in Britain alone.

QE works by creating a huge mass of money (so-called fiat money), that naturally seeks investment opportunities. The stock market is one of those investment outlets, although the booms engineered are decoupled from traditional market reasoning – the backing of companies because they are thought likely to be successful in the future. The resultant “explosion in billionaire wealth” – the cumulative wealth of the UK’s top 10 billionaires has increased by 281% since 2009 – therefore cannot be explained solely, or even mainly, by the natural workings of the market. During the pandemic for example, economic activity and growth plummeted but the number of UK billionaires rose by a fifth. This huge wealth – a billion is a thousand million – has been given a stupendous boost by positively Stalinist state intervention, carried out by, among others, devoted Thatcherites.

It should also be pointed out that Quantitative Easing directly contradicts one of the core tenets of original Thatcherism, that of monetarism. Developed by the American ‘free market’ economist, Milton Friedman, monetarism held that, to combat inflation, the supply of money should be strictly controlled. Doubtless the theory was honoured in the breach by ’80s Conservatives, but from the 2010s government policy around the world has simply laughed at it. Whether the inflation we are now experiencing has something to do with massive increases in the money supply – á la Friedman – is a moot point. In the last decade, notwithstanding regular doses of QE, the main threat was deflation, not inflation, suggesting that the capital boost of QE had stayed within the financial system. Possibly the last tranche of it – the creation of $834 million dollars an hour worldwide for 18 months – was so huge that some of it, in line with the official narrative, leaked out. Or maybe support for a largely mothballed ‘real’ economy – i.e. increasing the amount of money in circulation but reducing the amount of goods – produced the classic ingredients for inflation. Who knows?

Certainly now, we are seeing the opposite of QE, so-called Quantitative Tightening (QT), on the part of the world’s central banks, along with increases in interest rates. Whether this presages a new financial crisis, which may be unfolding as we speak, is an interesting question. But to even make a dent in the massive inequality caused by the economic intervention of adoring Thatcherites it would have to go on for decades.

Possibly Conservatives would retort that their post-Thatcher predilection for economic intervention does not just help those at the summit of the society but also the many millions at the bottom end. This is through working tax credits which ‘top up’ low or moderate incomes. Tax credits were introduced in America in the 1970s and expanded massively by Bill Clinton. Naturally, this country followed suit, and working tax credits became a core part of New Labour’s welfare philosophy (with emphasis on the working).

Their origin among parties theoretically antithetical to Thatcherism and Reaganism is deceptive, however. In reality, tax credits are another form of state subsidy to vested interests, enabling employers to pay low wages and institute more part-time or zero hours contracts with the assurance that the state will meet the shortfall. They are an essential part of our Thatcherite economic landscape. In 2015, the charity Citizens UK revealed that large retailers, such as Next and Tesco, were costing taxpayers £11 billion annually so that their staff could enjoy “a basic standard of living”. The situation has only become more acute in the interim.

Perfunctory, if high profile, attempts to wean on employers off tax credits, such as Osborne’s higher minimum wage, have not worked partly because they have been accompanied by a never-ending war on trade unions, the one force in society capable of making tax credits unnecessary through compelling employers to pay higher wages. Rishi Sunak’s anti-strike legislation, which permits employers to seek damages for the effect of strikes, will hit what’s left of trade union power, already hobbled, as we know, by archetypal Thatcherism. Tax credits in themselves are hostile to trade unions because if wages rise because of trade union influence, the tax credit level will fall as a result. It is no accident that a country such as Norway, which regards trade unions as social partners, not ‘the enemy within’, and which has a system of sectoral collective bargaining to determine wages, has not introduced tax credits. It doesn’t even have a minimum wage because strong trade unions mean it isn’t necessary. Norway, incidentally, also has a much higher standard of living.

It’s clear that the Thatcherites in Britain didn’t vanquish ‘socialism’ as they claimed they had. They merely changed the beneficiary group.

Covid and Corruption

There is something viscerally enraging about the Conservatives’ fiscal incontinence during the Covid pandemic.  It came after years of justifying taking money away from poor people – through policies like the benefit cap, sanctions and reducing the amount received by sickness claimants by £30 a week – on the grounds that it was only fair to the hard-pressed taxpayer.

But the interests of the taxpayer, allegedly so close to Conservative hearts, were strangely downgraded during the Covid lockdown when corruption and the raiding of the public purse by friendly businesses were rife. Virtually no prosecutions concerning the £5.8 million lost through fraud have taken place despite 30,000 allegations of fraud being reported to HMRC. The same is true of Rishi Sunak’s month-long Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which attracted an estimated £21 million in fraudulent claims from the hospitality sector. This dawdling contrasts with the alacrity that the Conservatives look upon alleged fraud in the benefits system. Permanently staffed hot-lines for the public to report fraud, regular tests for sick and disabled people, and the dispensing of thousands of sanctions to claimants for not upholding their “contract with the state”, have been features of this parallel universe in the UK for years.

In total £4.3 billion lost in fraud during Covid has been written off by the Treasury, prompting one minister in the House of the Lords to resign and accuse the government of “having little interest in the consequences of fraud to our society”.

But far from having little interest in it, Conservatives seem positively in favour of subverting free market ethics when it involves their friends. Michelle Mone, accused of secretly receiving some of the profits of a PPE firm that won large government contracts after she recommended it ministers, became a Conservative life peer in 2015. Altogether, nearly £1 billion in Covid contracts were awarded to 15 companies linked to donations to the Conservative party. It certainly pays to network.

The Conservatives’ alleged concern with getting value for money for the taxpayer is for the birds. The overriding aim is that 1) A narrow elite circle benefit and 2) The cash – otherwise known as other people’s money – finds its way through labyrinthine sub-contracting to the “good hands” of the private sector. Dido Harding, appointed as chair of “NHS Test and Trace” in 2020 is an example. Her lack of medical experience was no obstacle. Known as “an accomplished networker” according to The Times, she went to Oxford with David Cameron, married a future Conservative minister, and rose to become the chief executive of a mobile phone company and a Tory peer. Despite being given an astronomical £37 billion in funding, Test and Trace, reliant on sub-contracting by firms like Serco and consultants paid up to £6,000 a day, was a monumental failure, with more than 60% of those with Covid symptoms not being contacted. By contrast, the in-house teams of the doomed Public Health England and local authorities reached nearly 98% of their contacts. Go figure.

Ubi omnes errabis?

As alluded to earlier, this is not about simple hypocrisy. Arguably most political movements are hypocritical in that they don’t do what they say they are going to. The historical reputation of the Britain and America is that they compelled the rest of the world to accept the virtues of free trade, whereas in reality they were arch protectionists, and in Britain’s case, actually destroyed the industries of competitors through imperialism.

But Thatcherism started out with free market intentions. In its early days it preached the tenets of monetarism and controlling the money supply, sold off loss making industries to the private sector, declared war on trade unions as impediments to ‘free’ employment relations and hiked interest rates (causing a huge recession and remaining unmoved while thousands of businesses who couldn’t survive in the new unforgiving environment went to the wall). Only gradually – through for example contracting out essential public services and bailing out ‘too big to fail’ banks – did it morph into something else. Now the Thatcherites, notwithstanding their free market sheen, are presiding contentedly over a system of socialism for the rich.

Partly this is to do with misunderstanding what conservatism is. Friedrich Hayek, the major intellectual influence on the modern Conservative party, succeeded in reconnecting it to its classical liberal, or ‘old Whig’, philosophical inheritance. According to him, this conservative-liberalism, in contrast to idealistic socialism, had a “low” view of human nature. Hayek famously said that everything would turn out well if everyone behaved selfishly. But this selfishness was meant to exist within the law and the rules of the free market.

But nobody, besides intellectuals, believes in the sanctity of the free market. Many wealthy people will go where they can make even more money and the state, which rakes in and distributes hundreds of billions of pounds, offers that opportunity. The corruption around Covid illustrates the temptations and modern privatisation more broadly relies on the existence of a well-endowed state which can re-distribute taxpayer funds to the private sector. The Conservatives have, for years, been resolutely unforgiving about a ‘something for nothing’ attitude on the part of the multitude. Benefit sanctions, already at an all-time high, are being multiplied still further by Jeremy Hunt. But for the rich this sternness melts like ice left out in the sun. This is because the Conservatives are, and always were, a class-based party and exponents of class solidarity. When Tony Blair declared in 1999 that the class war was over, only one side was listening.

But the degeneration of Thatcherism has deeper causes than just the class bias of the Conservative party. Thatcher tapped into a profound conviction among Conservatives that if burdensome regulations and socialistic rates of taxation were lifted, the result would be prosperity for all and runaway economic growth. This certitude can be traced back to Adam Smith who thought the “natural effort of every individual to better his condition” was so powerful a principle it would carry society to “wealth and prosperity” and surmount ignorant obstacles placed in the way by “the folly of human laws”.

Coincidentally, the UK did – in common with the rest of the world – experience an economic boom in the mid-1980s. Naturally, Thatcherites took this as confirmation of the economic wisdom of their policies, which despite the temporary pain involved, had to be persevered with (actually the pain was probably connected to the ensuing boom, capitalism had always relied on a shake-down of capital value to lay the ground for subsequent growth). In fact, the economic boom of the mid-1980s became lodged in the public mind as the consequence of tough Thatcherite medicine and has endured despite the boom being revealed as a unique event.  Economic growth has declined in every decade since the 1980s, culminating in the present torpor. Real wages are not predicted to return to their 2008 level until 2026 and are experiencing a 3.9% annual decline, productivity is terrible when compared to before the Financial Crisis (0.5% compared to 2.3%), and business investment is anaemic.

But rather than face up to these issues, Thatcher’s children are umbilically attached to the idea that the only solution is more deregulation and tax reductions for the investors. These policies – known as supply-side reforms because they concentrate on those ‘supplying’ investment and employment (or not) – are religiously propagated by many conservatives despite the fact that they have already been implemented, with the results we see before us, for nigh on four decades (the corporation tax rate was 52% in 1981, it is now 19%). Liz Truss, for example, convinced herself that a bias towards redistribution over economic growth lay at the root of poor economic performance despite the evidence pointing in exactly the opposite direction.

One very obvious reason why these questions are not honestly examined, is that it would move into the crosshairs numerous Thatcherite shibboleths, most notably the idée fixe that underperforming economic growth can be palliated by reducing tax rates and irksome regulations on the wealthy. This ‘fix’ seems to be impervious to empirical evidence, though the Sunak administration is finally increasing corporation tax after decades of reductions, hoping no-one will notice that this contradicts a basic tenet of conservative economic philosophy.

As the South Korean economist Ha-Joon Chang pointed out a few years ago, the level of regulation is not a disincentive if there is a prospect of profit to be made. “…. strange as it may seem to most people without business experience,” he wrote in 2010  “businesspeople will get 299 permits … if there is enough money to be made at the end of the process. “In contrast, if there is little money to be made at the end of the process, even 29 permits may look too onerous.”

Why there is in the UK “little money to be made” – with the notable exception of finance and property – is not a question many are eager to ask, especially if it indicts their whole economic strategy which supposedly rests upon the inherent virtue of making money.

Herein lays the explanation as to why Thatcherism has degenerated into a system of socialism for the rich. It’s quite possible – indeed common – to remain ideologically blinkered in the face of evidence showing the hollowness of your ideology. It’s even possible to implement policies, such as corporate tax cuts, that do not have the beneficial effect you say they will. But it’s not possible to ignore the real world consequences of the failure of your economic philosophy. That is why free market Thatcherism has degraded into a swirl of subsidies, bail-outs, phoney privatisations, landlord patronage and plain corruption. They’ve been necessary because the free market hasn’t been able to prosper under its own devices and if you, as a party, represent the interests of asset-holders at the end of the day, they aren’t especially difficult choices to make. And in those circumstances, delving into the ready pile of “other people’s money” becomes irresistibly tempting.

But the remains – what lies at the root of economic failure?





















Saturday, 18 March 2023

Reflections on the Work Capability Assessment when its days may be numbered

I was recently interviewed by the New Statesman about government proposals to scrap the Work Capability Assessment. Given the suffering the latter has caused, you might think this is a cause for celebration. But the new plans will simply hand job centre work coaches the power to "determine what, if any, work-related activities an individual can participate in". And they will doubtless be armed with the power to dish out sanctions for anything they regard as non-compliance. Given that sanctions are currently at an all time high, the prospect is frightening.

I didn't know the details at the time of the interview


Tell me about when and why you first applied for Employment and Support Allowance?

 In the summer of 2010 I suffered a brain haemorrhage and subsequent stroke in the operation to deal with it. When I left hospital after a few weeks, I applied for ESA but it took some time to go through because the form (and the doctor’s certificate) was lost twice. I couldn’t write at the time so I had to get a friend to fill it out on my behalf – three times.

 How long into claiming that benefit were you asked to do a Work Capability Assessment?

 It was probably the standard time, about 3 months, maybe a bit longer. The assessment took place in December 2010.

 Can you describe your memories of the assessment, and how you were physically and mentally at the time?

 The effects of the stroke were still very real. My sense of balance was shot through (balance is one of those things you don’t appreciate until it’s damaged), my speech was slurred and got worse the more I spoke, I became breathless after the slightest physical exertion and tired very easily. In short, I wasn’t in a fit state to do any job I’m aware of.

The assessment was quite brief. I was invited into an office and was asked various questions about my daily routine and what “tasks” I was able to perform. I remember when I left and walked down the corridor, I glanced back and could see “medical professional” observing me.

A few days’ later I received a letter saying I had been awarded zero points. I had been deemed “fit to work” and was not eligible for Employment and Support Allowance. I could apply for Jobseeker’s Allowance if I wished.

(I appealed and over a year later a tribunal awarded me 18 points which classed me as not fit for work and put me in in the Work Related Activity Group. However by that stage, I was working as a part-time (very part-time) freelance journalist.)

How did it make you feel?

 Angry. There was no genuine attempt to find out what was wrong with me, nor what I could do – not just once or twice but multiple times, in line with what jobs in the real world actually require you to do. It felt like a tick box exercise aimed at finding any excuse for culling you from the benefit rolls.  I think I could have dropped down dead and no-one would have been bothered.

 A few years’ ago, an academic described the WCA as reminiscent of the First World War medical tribunals that returned shell shocked and wounded soldiers to the front. That seems an apt analogy.

 With the news that the government may be scrapping WCAs, what are your reflections on the process and what it tells you about how the government treats people and its attitudes to the welfare system?

 I don’t know what they're proposing but I’m very sceptical. Sanctions doled out to the benefit claimants are currently going through the roof so I don’t see many signs of a change of heart. What any humane benefit system for sick and disabled people has to take on board is the deep fear that the Work Capability Assessment generated – that you’d be left destitute and unable to actually do a job to cope with the fact that your income had been taken away. And many were put in precisely that position (not just people found fit for work but those in the Work Related Activity Group, thousands of whom were also sanctioned).

What sick and disabled people need is the peace of mind that comes with security of income. I remember a person I knew who attended Headway’s Life with Brain Injury group with me (Headway are a brain injury charity). He had no peripheral vision and was certified blind (he got a Guide Dog when I was there) and wanted to take up a volunteering opportunity. He was reluctant to do so, however, because he feared the DWP would say ‘aha, this is proof you can do things’ and take his benefit away. This was a sign of a sick (no pun intended) system and makes a mockery of the claim at the time that pre-WCA system just abandoned people to live isolated lives on benefits.

The only politician I’m aware of who really understood the fear induced by the callousness of the WCA was Jeremy Corbyn. The faction who now control the Labour party certainly don’t. They created the WCA in the first place. Ironically, the 2017 and 2019 Labour manifestos promised to scrap the Work Capability Assessment, which is what we’re told will happen now, but I doubt that will be mentioned much in the ensuing debate.




Wednesday, 8 February 2023

Other People's Money – The Degeneration of Thatcherism

 “The problem with socialism,” Margaret Thatcher famously said (or perhaps nearly said), “is you always run out of other people’s money”.

Subjecting everything to a merciless cost-benefit analysis was the core Thatcherite credo. ‘Lame Duck’ nationalised industries were privatised and left to sink or swim in the unforgiving waters of private sector, ‘uneconomic’ coal pits were shut down no matter what the cost to the communities dependent on them, and internal markets, pledged to scythe through waste and bureaucracy, introduced into national institutions like the NHS and the BBC.

Therefore, it’s one of history’s great ironies that in the 21st century her party – the Conservatives – are, under the guise of ‘free market’ policies, more profligate with “other people’s money” than any socialist government ever was, or, if one wants to be optimistic, ever could be.

“Socialism”, Thatcher’s mortal enemy, by regulating the private sector, as opposed to throwing money at it, would be immeasurably cheaper.

Let me count the ways.


The enormity of Liz Truss’s energy price guarantee  a huge “state handout” of between £100 billion and £170 billion may have been scaled back by Jeremy Hunt but the principle remains: using taxpayer money to subsidise the profits of energy retail and supply companies because the prospect of public ownership – ‘socialism!!’ – is so horrifying it can never be countenanced.

And the huge cost of heating their homes to the public – the price cap is now at an annual level of £4,279 – has only been exacerbated by the Conservatives’ attempts to head off the idea of public ownership by introducing phony competition into a plainly monopolistic market. The £6.5 billion state bailout of the energy retail company Bulb – one of nearly a hundred new suppliers introduced to give the appearance of competition to the electricity supply system – will cost each household £230.

Despite the fact that, due to sharp falls in the price of wholesale energy, gas and electricity are cheaper than they have been since 2010, the market price will not be reflected in bills for a long time. “The cost of rescuing failed energy firms,” says Rupert Hargreaves of Money Week magazine, “will add hundreds to each bill, offsetting some of the declines in wholesale energy prices.” And of course the shaky finances of the still existing energy firms need to be secured.

It is reassuring to know that the opposition ‘Labour’ party, now safely back in Blairite hands, will continue this prudent use of taxpayer funds. Its stated approach of a six month price cap freeze, now judiciously mirroring Hunt’s policy, will give £29 billion to the energy firms, the mad Corbynite relish to “nationalise everything” at exorbitant cost having been thrown in the dustbin of history where it belongs.

It’s not surprising therefore that there is a singular lack of curiosity in Westminster as to why wholesale energy prices have been on such a rollercoaster in the first place, spiralling skywards and then crashing. It can’t have been solely down to Vladimir Putin , or the gods of supply and demand, because the falls continued, even sped up, after the Nord Stream pipeline, which syphoned gas to Europe, stopped operating and was then sabotaged.

All that Rishi Sunak will say is that it’s impossible to artificially hold energy prices down. But there is nothing natural about the ‘wall of money’ that drives speculation in commodities such as oil and natural gas. “Prices for food, oil and gas are determined independently of both wholesalers and costs,” noted economist Ann Pettifor in the Financial Times last September. “Wall Street and Chicago Mercantile Exchange investors deploy vast sums in speculation on movements in the price of both food and energy prices. It’s a profitable game.”

But rather than cracking down on speculation, the government, unfailingly loyal to a bastardised market fundamentalist ideology,  wants to encourage it. The Financial Services and Markets bill, currently being scrutinized by the House of Lords, will give the Prudential Regulation Authority and the Financial Conduct Authority additional objectives of encouraging “economic growth and competitiveness.”

The idea that you should limit speculation in commodities, which drives up wholesale prices thus inflating everyone’s heating bills by thousands of pounds, is beyond the bounds of the thinkable. This is despite the fact that it has been done in the past by an American President who would have bristled with indignation at being called a ‘socialist’.

In 1934, Franklin Roosevelt passed a law that limited speculation in commodities to 20% of the market. Stability reigned until ‘New Democrat’ Bill Clinton – channelling the deregulatory spirit of Reagan and Thatcher – legalised credit default swaps in housing (paving the way for the 2008 financial crisis) and in the same law gave the green light to unlimited speculation in other commodities, such as oil and gas – the root of our current troubles.

But the notion that we might shun this 21st century liberation and return to the benighted ‘socialist’ practices of the past – which kept energy bills low thus obviating the need for huge public subsidies – is clearly just puerile. Like King Canute ordering the tide to stop coming in.

Public Services in general

You might think that no-one in their right mind would want to copy our dog’s breakfast of an energy supply system in other public services. But then again you (probably) don’t live in the mind of a Thatcher-besotted British Conservative.

The roll out of broadband installation in the UK is (prepare for a shock) heavily subsidised by the public purse. Under the £5 billion “Project Gigabit” programme, the government is gifting most of this money to BT and BT Openreach, its broadband division. However, stung by the lack of progress, it has augmented this with the fake competition model pioneered in the energy distribution system, encouraging other suppliers, so-called “altnets”, to start laying fibre-optic cable. Unfortunately, reports the Times, these paragons of efficiency are – much like private medical firms cherry-picking the simplest procedures – concentrating on the easiest areas. So “we’ve ended up with hundreds of fibre companies all building in the same areas.”

There is also the clear and present danger in the current climate that some of these “altnets” could go bust. So, as with the energy supply ‘market’, the government is setting up a Supplier of Last Resort system, naturally at the public’s expense. Unavoidable bail-outs, in the manner of Bulb, are on the cards. According to investigative journalist Solomon Hughes:

Customers of failed broadband firms will be shunted back to the old monopolistic firm, BT. The cost of these bailouts will be borne by the customer or the government. Just as in energy, trying to break [up] monopolistic firms by encouraging new entrants might end in costly failure.

The ‘socialist’ alternative, outlined by Corbyn at the 2019 General Election, would have been far more effective and cheaper. He wanted to entrust broadband rollout to a new public firm, called British Broadband, created partly by nationalising BT Openreach, and funded by taxing trillion dollar tech monsters like Facebook and Google. But this “crazed communist scheme”, to quote Boris Johnson, was too much for freedom-loving Brits so we’re back to gifting private firms public money to dig up the same stretch of road.

It has dawned on some right-wingers that the privatisation pioneered by Margaret Thatcher at the start of the 1980s has morphed into something else without many people noticing. Initially the Conservatives did simply divest themselves of state-owned companies (that had often been nationalised in the 1970s because they were at risk of bankruptcy). Firms like Cable & Wireless, British Steel, Rolls-Royce, British Airways, Jaguar and even Thomas Cook, were sold and had to make their own way in the private sector. Sometimes they survived and often, as in the case of Jaguar, British Steel and Thomas Cook for example, they didn’t.

But from the Tell Sid era of the break-up of British Gas in the mid-1980s, so-called ‘privatisation’ changed its nature. It became synonymous with contracting out monopoly services from the state to the private sector on the dubious grounds that this would be more efficient. This process is now so ubiquitous, encompassing services like water, gas and electricity, the railways, academy schools, NHS services, air traffic control, and care homes, that its uniqueness, and crucial difference with authentic privatisation, is often overlooked. These services were funded – and continued to be funded – by the government and, most importantly, could not be allowed to cease to exist.

After British Rail ‘privatisation’ in 1996, for example, the operation of lines was subject to a franchise system companies could bid to run. At the same time, the public subsidy awarded to this allegedly privatised system has increased by over 200%. And when the train operating companies are faced with a strike by their employees, they are reimbursed by the government for lost revenue.

In the words of a journalist for the right-wing Spectator magazine:

The rail industry hasn’t really been privatised at all. It remains underwritten by the taxpayer. Nor is there much in the way of competition: local monopolies are guaranteed by the franchising system.  The only difference is that the system is rigged so as to allow the private companies owning the franchises to make a profit, even if their underlying operation is making a thumping loss.

Predictably, faced with this “rigged” system, the writer wants to return to the original spirit of Thatcherism and genuinely privatise the railways, abolishing state subsidies and forcing “the industry” to stand on its own two feet. But this solution would simply result in a system of free market anarchy that laid the ground for Thatcher’s bête noire of ‘socialism’ in the first place. Fares would be hiked into the stratosphere and ‘uneconomic’ lines shut down. What is socially necessary is not always profitable – in fact the two are often in conflict – and the fear of this realisation is why this country lives under the sway of bastardized Thatcherism.

Where did it all go wrong?

In part two, I will continue to list the myriad ways that 21st century conservatism props up the ‘free market’ system with public funds, in addition to asking why.

The answer, in my opinion, lies in both a putatively realistic but flawed vision of human nature and the unacknowledged economic failure of Thatcherism. She told herself, and everyone else, that releasing the forces of enterprise and beating back trade unions and socialism would result in a future of unending prosperity for all.

However, it hasn’t turned out that way and all they can do, to tweak a well-known phrase, is ‘throw [other people’s] money at the problem”.