All said, and none done

When it comes to it, the speech came; as speeches go, it went. Brave speeches can inspire, and many appear in history books – but if their promises are proven false by reality, they have only notoriety.

After 13 years, there is a great deal about which Conservatives can boast achievement, but promising bold action on government failure rings hollow after so much missed opportunity.  The nation has never felt a drop of that Hard Rain.

If the media, or the nation, were expecting a rip-roaring performance f the sort that Boris gives, they were looking at the wrong man:  Rishi Sunak exudes smiling competence, but not excitement. Every man must play to his strengths. A last leader’s speech before an election is meant to be expansive and visionary – but the man was wrong for it, and the vision is long since faded. That is a cause of regret; deep regret. There was so much that could have been achieved in these past years since Boris’s spellbinding triumph in 2019, but all has faded.

Thirteen years and a fallacy: the narrative (into which I also fall) is that Conservatives have led the government for 13 years, and at this moment it looks as if there is little to show for it. That is not true though. Under David Cameron much was transformed.  Government finances were moving to stability, even to eliminating the deficit, and taxes were inching down. The economy recovered to better condition than ever before and Britain was at effectively full employment, which was unheard of before. Then our attention was distracted by Brexit – but the dire warnings were proven false. Then came the lockdown, and the war. The finances went out of the window, the economy was driven into a politically created recession, as bad in its time as the predictions the Remainiacs frightened us with in their visions. And here we stand.

It has not been 13 wasted years, but four systematically wrecked years. Voters do not have long memories, and we judge by how empty our pockets are.

Now Rishi stands up and says that he will change the system that has held back change for thirty years. It is hard to take him seriously:  why has it not been done long since?  And what is this change?  Dominic Cummings promised one, and turned everyone around him against him, until he was forced out swearing Lear-like vengeance.

This time though, the thirty years of a ‘political system that incentivises the easy decision, not the right one‘ and ‘rhetorical ambition which achieves little more than a short-term headline.‘, and he says he will say how to break it. Yet he did not: not even a hint.

There are things that can be done, no doubt.  I have suggested several on this blog over the years. It is hard to have confidence in seeing that Hard Rain when the heaven over our head is like brass and the earth under us like iron.

There may be good intention in Westminster, but commands from on he dry up by the time they come to those who are tasked with putting them into effect. That may have to be the subject of an article soon. Then again, is there really good will in Westminster, when the Prime Minister himself declares from the podium what we all know, that a man is a man and a woman is a woman, but civil servants are sacked and cowed into silence for saying the same, and guidance still goes out form the highest level denying it?

It will take a great deal of action, committed with courage, with no looking back, and with exceptional achievement, to turn the voters, and in less than a year, that is improbable.

Rishi is a nice man, well meaning and with one of the best brains in the House, but without action, all this is nothing. “Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.”

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Twisted narrative

Turmoil is an opportunity for the ambitious man, for the dishonest and the foolish man. They convince listeners of an instant false narrative, as we have seen in the swirling waters following the mini-budget.

Even amongst Conservative MPs a tale has gone round that the failure of Liz Truss’s mini-budget disproved the principle of low taxes, or of the ideal of economic growth and that somehow it proved we must have high taxes and high spending. It is an instant false narrative, and shocking that it should come from those who call themselves Conservatives.

We were all there though: we saw what happened and in reaction to what. The market reaction to lower taxes was a good one – shares rose. The shock was in the bond markets and the currency markets, when it appeared that spending was not to be curbed at the same time, and when ‘experts’ were side-lined. This is the very opposite of the narrative pressed by advocates of high taxes.

This needs saying, because the advocates of tax-and-spend were out on the airwaves immediately, pushing their line in the face of all demonstrable facts.  To the average voter it is an attractive idea, bypassing the complexity of truth:  Truss supported low taxes and cut taxes – there was an immediate market crash and hike in interest rates; therefore the one led from the other. It is no more accurate than to say that I was ill after a blow-out meal that included beef and cabbage, preceded by mussels which had gone off – so beef and cabbage are dangerous, ignoring the moules frites. Indeed, concentrating on the beef will encourage the consumption of curdled mussels, which would be deadly.

The beneficiary of this dishonest narrative will be the Labour Party: the very party whole pledges make Liz Truss’s misstep seem the path of virtue – unfunded spending even beyond their crippling taxes, and money printed with abandon.

The specific point about the mini-budget was that it contained new spending without announcing cuts, which made the government spending unaffordable. The price demanded by the market to lend shot up, Moody’s became moody, fears began that the Treasury would print money, collapsing the value of the pound, Weimar-style – and if Truss did not, Starmer would have no conscience about printing fake money. Is it any wonder the market went into meltdown?  Nothing about it was about low taxes as such.  The reducing in tax levels was the one thing the market liked.

(The bank of England has been blamed too: some economists have accused the Bank of misconduct in the matter, when the ramped up interest rates and this was enough on its own to spook the market – a high cost of borrowing collapses the profit margin in new ventures and so deters investment. I will leave economists to chide the Bank. It looks bizarre to increase interest rates as the economy teeters on recession.  Inflation at present is not caused by an overheating economy- we are far from over heating – but by the cost of raw materials and components resulting from the Lockdown and by the cost of energy during the Ukrainian War.

Talk of the markets governing policy looks uncomfortably like the overthrow of democracy by a trapezocracy – but if the Government will get itself into unsustainable debt, then it is dependent on the banks, and if (as for the last half a century it has been, the state becomes so vast as to create an inescapable gravitational well around itself that the entire economy is swirling around the rim of the maelstrom, then we are all dependent on those markets, and democracy can go hang. It is not just liberty which depends on shrinking the state, but the very being of democracy.)

This matters, because the “accepted version of events” will shape the political debate for years to come, and those who get in first get to shape it. The proponents of high-tax-high-spending-strict-control have got their version round the world before the truth has got its boots on. This is a danger, and a lesson to those who should have been making the argument for liberty and prudence.

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Inability in politicians

Ability in a politician, his, or her, worthiness to fulfil the position, is hard to judge and more apparent when the burdens of office have borne upon them. Speech is easy: action is hard. Only the latter is a reliable test, by which time it may be too late.

An appropriate motto for many a former Prime Minister would be capax imperii, nisi imperasset.

In a dictatorship or oligarchy, power is gained through force or guile or corrupt dealing, and these may be the appropriate qualities for governing. In a democracy, power is gained through creating popularity, in a form of playacting (which is by very definition hypocrisy), and this is of no relevance in actually ruling. The voter then who is serious about his choice has a counterintuitive balancing act, to choose between two or three candidates who, by the very nature of the system which selected them, are probably unsuitable.

Hobbes makes the crucial distinction which the popular electoral system fails to make:

WORTHINESSE, is a thing different from the worth, or value of a man; and also from his merit, or desert; and consisteth in a particular power, or ability for that, whereof he is said to be worthy: which particular ability, is usually named FITNESSE, or Aptitude.

For he is Worthiest to be a Commander, to be a Judge, or to have any other charge, that is best fitted, with the qualities required to the well discharging of it; and Worthiest of Riches, that has the qualities most requisite for the well using of them: any of which qualities being absent, one may neverthelesse be a Worthy man, and valuable for some thing else. Again, a man may be Worthy of Riches, Office, and Employment, that neverthelesse, can plead no right to have it before another; and therefore cannot be said to merit or deserve it. For Merit, praesupposeth a right, and that the thing deserved is due by promise: Of which I shall say more hereafter, when I shall speak of Contracts.

The political system of popular acclamation encourages the rewarding of popularity, not ability, and then destroys that popularity with the demonstration of inability. It is a calamitous application of the Peter Principle.

Looking at myself, I am well aware of my own inabilities in some areas, and though I am lauded in some endeavours, I would be hopeless if entrusted with others. For a politician it can be no different. Ability must have so many aspects, it is surely impossible that one man should have them all. This makes Cabinet government vital (although only Grenville has been credited with putting together a ‘Ministry of All the Talents’). David Cameron to his great credit placed senior ministers in long-term positions, to learn and master the job. (Unspoken, it also tames the civil servants, who may otherwise ignore the politicians as another will be along in a few minutes.)

One might say, in the poplar context:

The Value, or WORTH of a man, is as of all other things, his Price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his Power: and therefore is not absolute; but a thing dependant on the need and judgement of another. An able conductor of Souldiers, is of great Price in time of War present, or imminent; but in Peace not so. A learned and uncorrupt Judge, is much Worth in time of Peace; but not so much in War. And as in other things, so in men, not the seller, but the buyer determines the Price. For let a man (as most men do,) rate themselves as the highest Value they can; yet their true Value is no more than it is esteemed by others.

The manifestation of the Value we set on one another, is that which is commonly called Honouring, and Dishonouring. To Value a man at a high rate, is to Honour him; at a low rate, is to Dishonour him. But high, and low, in this case, is to be understood by comparison to the rate that each man setteth on himselfe.

Debate as I may, it is out of my hands. It is no wonder that the voters are disquieted, disenfranchised in the choice of the King’s First Minister (as even the King himself is disenfranchised in the choice of his own minister). Were the system more clearly that of a Cabinet government, the Prime Minister in Bagehot’s terms ‘first amongst equals’ then maybe all this hurley-burley would look less like an élite coup. One wonders how the Australians cope, when this sort of thing happens all the time.

One must only hope that the Members of Parliament who are making the decisions, flawed as they are, can consider the right measure of ‘worthinesse’ to the actual task to be entrusted, and that they know their colleagues’ qualities, which we on the other side of the screen never can. One may hope too that their chosen leader will have the humility to trust colleagues, flawed though they are to carry the burden no mortal man can carry alone.

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What happened; what happens

He seems a sensible chap, and a committed tax-cutter. He was given the worst job in government and chose to stick with it, and now has the most thankless. Jeremy Hunt has prayers riding on his shoulders.

Ours is an age of instant myths. It is commonly understood that the financial markets fell when tax cuts were announced, but that is untrue: the stock market rose. Then however the bond markets factored in that no spending cuts were announced, that the OBR had been muzzled, and interest rates were high, leaving government finance unaffordable – that was the crash.

A constant theme of Conservative campaigning is that the nation must live within its means – which is a euphemism: they mean the government must leave within its means. (‘The nation’ is us, poor mugs, our earnings hollowed out by taxes from before and behind, and we know we have to live within our means or the family starves.) Yet as soon as a PM gets into office, the gold before their eyes sends sober pronouncement out of the window and cash is scattered like a drunk man with a stolen wallet. This last fortnight has been a shock back to reality in Downing Street.

Not in the country though: here unreality is boosted. The myth of the tax-cut crash has been born, and careful management is needed to convince voters that their pockets need not be fleeced. At the moment the topsy-turvy understanding has spread that low taxes make you poorer.

The market rose though, for a while. Tax cuts are indeed a necessity for growth, and growth is necessary to get out of the mess caused by the lockdown and deepened by the Ukrainian War.

Deep cuts are needed. Government spending cannot be on an upward ratchet. Liz Truss would not admit it:  she thought growth would replace the loss from the tax cuts; and it will eventually, but the high interest rates and higher debt will swallow it first. The collective minds of the bond markets were right: government borrowing is unaffordable and so the debt must come down – not just the deficit month by month but the capital amount of debt. That needs such deep cuts that the deficit is eliminated.

A first discipline should be accepted: capital sales go to capital repayment. When Channel 4 is sold, those proceeds cannot just disappear into the Treasury to be splurged on a pet project, and when redundant public land is sold, likewise, to repay national debt, and reduce the beggaring interest payments.

Every government promises to ‘cut waste’ and efforts are petty, possibly because of the way budgets are worded. More granular examination is required. There is political capital in spending on ‘health’ and on ‘defence’, but how much actual goes on healthcare or soldiery?  When over a billion pounds is sent to a few local authorities to do research on ‘health inequalities’, that is accounted as health spending, but it does no good, beyond justifying a budget.

It is not enough to set a budget and throw money without looking at every item. It is better for billions to be cut from a nominal health budget or a nominal defence budget if the cuts are to waste and the actual, effective spending remains. Let MPs then earn their keep by cross-questioning all this spending and deleting the nonsense, the unnecessary and the postponable.

Liz Truss would not admit it, but Jeremy Hunt has done.  The word “cuts” is toxic in political debate according to television journalists. It should not be. If spending has gone too high, it can come down, and should do. The growth agenda must continue.

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The Truss issue

She did it, and is in place, and with a new Cabinet team. It will take more than a mop and bucket to clear the blood on the carpet: gallons of it.

It is looking good so far – a pause to the Online Safety Bill and the Bill of Rights Bill; both measures robustly criticised here. (Both Truss and Sunak attacked Nadine Dorries’s Online Safety Bill in their leadership debates, so her resignation was not unexpected.) In the Commons, the nervy Paisley schoolgirl was gone, and we saw a confident performance, with no mention of cheese or pork markets.

When her predecessor stepped at into office, I wrote a post (“Boris the chosen one”) with a number of  observations, including the tribute he received from Toby Young, another journalist and achiever, who had headlined his piece “Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Man”, and the same quote appeared, with one necessary change, about Liz Truss in the Mail yesterday.

I also wrote and a list of predictions, which were all borne out in time.  I can repeat much of that here about Mrs O’Leary:

Some things we can be pretty sure of:

  1. She will surprise her opponents;
  2. She will disappoint and frustrate her supporters;
  3. A great many MPs will be drawn from the backbenches to fill the shoes of those who cannot hack it;
  4. The coming men will themselves surprise their enemies and disappoint and frustrate their supporters;
  5. Someone will start a cry of ‘betrayal’.

When there is a change at the top, political commentators will project all their own hopes and fears on the new PM and declare in all solemnity that there is only one way to go on X, Y or Z, and claim to understand exactly what is in the mind of the new PM, which is surprisingly exactly what is in the commentator’s own mind, and they will be shocked, and convinced of an establishment plot, when it does not turn out so.

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