Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Tonight in the House: Murder, booze and buggery

Two funny, yet disturbing, books have me thinking about who really governs Britain – and who should

Everyone knows about it now, of course. The 2018 BBC drama series A Very English Scandal has introduced a new generation to one of the strangest stories of the 1970s – the Party leader, Jeremy Thorpe, who was charged with incitement and conspiracy to murder. Until recently, the matter had been largely forgotten. It had faded to a footnote. One had to be 60 to remember it at all well, and no-one who wasn’t knew, or cared, what it had been about. Then in 2014 Thorpe, by then an old and very sick man, died; two years later, John Preston published the book on which the series was based.

At about the same time, political journalist Ben Wright published Order, Order! The Rise and Fall of Political Drinking. One book is a story of shot dogs, petty crooks, skullduggery and buggery. The other is a merry romp through the many bars of the Palace of Westminster. Both are entertaining, but they do leave you wondering who the hell has been in charge of the nation. They also left me thinking hard about who we want in public life, and what we want of them. My conclusions weren’t quite what one might expect.


Thorpe in 1965 (National Portrait Gallery/Walter Bird)
For those unacquainted with the Jeremy Thorpe scandal, the bare facts are as follows. In 1961 Thorpe was a young Liberal MP who had first been elected to Parliament two years earlier (as had Margaret Thatcher). Visiting a friend in the countryside, he was rather taken with a handsome, smouldering 21-year-old stable lad called Norman Scott. He resolved to seduce him, did so, and conducted an affair with him for several years. This was risky, as homosexual sex was to be illegal in Britain until 1967. The affair palled for Thorpe. However, Scott proved unable to manage his life well afterwards and turned to Thorpe for help.

Scott does not appear to have been vindictive or spiteful; he had had a difficult start in life, but loved animals and only really wanted to work with horses. However, Thorpe, fearing blackmail, dumped the problem on another Liberal MP, Peter Bessell – a man scarcely better able to manage his own affairs than Scott was. For several years, Bessell made various efforts to keep the lid on Scott, by helping him in small ways here and there. However, as Scott’s life spiralled out of control, he became more and more importunate. In the meantime, in 1967 Thorpe was elected leader of the Liberal Party, making him a major national figure. Thorpe resolved to do away with Scott rather than risk a scandal.

The matter climaxed with a botched murder attempt, Thorpe’s fall, and his eventual trial and acquittal for incitement and conspiracy to murder. It was a scandal that had the nation rivetted for years, and I have never forgotten it, for I was a Liberal activist in the 1970s; I was thus involved, albeit very peripherally, and was present at one or two of the occasions described in the book.

Author John Preston, formerly of the Sunday Telegraph and London’s Evening Standard, has done a splendid job. A complex narrative with multiple actors is very well managed, and the book is extremely well-paced. It also conveys the feel of the times. Preston takes us through the reforms of 1967 that finally made homosexuality legal in Britain, legislation that owed much to Lord Arran, a well-loved if somewhat eccentric peer known to his friends as Boofy; he and his wife were also deeply committed to the cause of badger welfare, and kept a number of the animals in their house, wearing Wellington boots indoors to avoid badger bites. Arran was deluged with hate mail for advocating the homosexual cause. “On another occasion,” writes Preston, “a parcel containing human excrement arrived at his office. Apparently, under the impression that it was pâté, his secretary told him, ‘I threw it away, Lord Arran. It wouldn’t keep.’”  After the reform had passed: “Afterwards Lord Arran was asked why his homosexual law reforms had succeeded, while his efforts to protect the rights of badgers had not. Arran paused, and then said ruminatively, ‘There are not many badgers in the House of Lords.’”

Throughout the book stalks the figure of Jeremy Thorpe himself – charming, warm, kindly and utterly ruthless in his use of his friends, especially Peter Bessell. In the end, Bessell was not fooled. A few others, such as the journalist Auberon Waugh, never really had been. Yet most people seem to have been fixated by Thorpe’s charm. The facts of Thorpe’s affair were known to the police as early as 1962, and to successive home secretaries from 1965. At no point was he warned that he could be prosecuted, or advised to withdraw from the public eye. When he finally did face trial, the proceedings were so heavily loaded in his favour as to seem rigged; the summing-up of the judge, Sir Joseph Cantley, was so skewed towards the principal defendant that it became the subject of a famous parody by the comedian Peter Cook. There had clearly been a cover-up by the Establishment to look after one of its own. Thorpe was acquitted. But although the Establishment had saved his skin, it did not – to his own surprise – welcome him back; he slid into obscurity and died there 35 years later, in 2014. Only then did this bizarre affair resurface in the public consciousness.


My first thoughts on reading Preston’s book were that I should be angry; that, as an idealistic young activist 40 years ago, I had been betrayed by a cynical social system that protected the powerful, and punished the Norman Scotts of this world. Neither was Thorpe the only character in this book who committed crimes, and got away with it where a mere pleb would not. A minor role was played by Labour politician George Thomas, who arranged for Bessell to plead Thorpe’s case to the then Home Secretary, Sir Frank Soskice. Thomas, later Lord Tonypandy, eventually became a much-loved  Speaker of the House of Commons – yet after his death in 1997 it was suggested that he himself had been homosexual, had been blackmailed because of it, and, worse, had been guilty of child abuse (it should be said that this was never tested in court). At another point in the narrative, Thorpe does a publicity stunt with Jimmy, later Sir Jimmy, Savile, later exposed (again, after his death) as a child abuser of epic proportions. Last but not least, a larger-than-life figure in the later stages of the book was the Liberal Chief Whip, Cyril Smith, a man of massive girth (he was said to weigh nearly 30 stone, about 190 kg). He was finally revealed (again, after his death) to be a serial sex offender against children.

What is particularly depressing about Preston’s narrative, entertaining as it is, is that all of this was known to people in power at the time. Thorpe’s MI5 file had hit the desk of successive Home Secretaries and Prime Ministers. Of the latter, Harold Wilson was also apparently well aware that Bessell’s business affairs were well dodgy. (It is a pity he did not look harder at one of Bessell’s contemporaries, Labour MP Robert Maxwell, who as chairman of the House catering committee apparently flogged off all its best vintages, and may have trousered the proceeds.)  As for Cyril Smith, in 1980 I was having lunch with a friend and fellow Liberal activist in Liverpool, and commented that I had brought Smith to Warwick University for a speaking engagement the previous year, and had liked him (as indeed I had). “But you know that he interferes with little boys,” my friend told me. It was, he said, well known in Rochdale. It seems it was; an attempt to unmask him had been suppressed the previous year. But the allegations did not surface properly until after Smith’s death in 2010, 30 years later.

As I came to the end of A Very English Scandal, I felt angry and cynical. Yet at the very end of the book, there was something that lifted my spirits – of which more below. And then I read Ben Wright’s Order, Order!, and started to see some more shades of grey.


Ben Wright is a BBC political correspondent, currently based in Washington. Order! Order! is a journey through the alcoholic haze of British politics. It is, for the most part, about Westminster (though there are some side-trips to Washington and a vodka-fuelled romp through the Kremlin).

Like  A Very English Scandal, it is entertaining. Thus the Speaker of the Commons in the 1960s comes into the Chamber so pissed that he cannot clamber into the chair, whereupon the Government Chief Whip tells him he is a disgrace. “I’ll have you out of that chair within three months,” he calls, to be told, “How can you get me out of the chair, Bob, when I can’t get myself into it?” On a March evening in 1979 the Government falls (I remember this well) and the press corps corps find themselves compelled to cover events without alcohol as the catering staff are on strike. (“Passers-by were confronted with that most frightening spectacle: a sober mob of journalists.”) Nicholas Soames, Churchill’s grandson, denying that he has been drunk in the House: “My lunches consist of bananas, still water, preserved apricots and bats’ droppings.” 

But of course this does not always end well. Wright records a Tory MP for High Peak who was notorious for his claret habit and became a sort of Lord of Misrule. Yet it caught up with him in the end, and the MP and journalist Matthew Parris would later remember the member towards the end of his life, drinking water at lunch but ordering melon with port for dessert and desperately trying to spoon the port from it. In due course he died. Wright’s purpose is not simply to make us laugh; indeed, his last chapter reviews the various unpleasant ways liver disease can kill us. To be honest, that chapter, true though it is, feels a little dutiful. But Wright clearly wants to ensure that his book is not taken as a paean of praise to heavy drinking, and he is right to do so.

Yet Wright also wants to present the way that booze has lubricated political discourse – and to show us what we might have lost. He quotes journalist Peter Oborne to this effect. “Political discourse in the last century was more humorous, kinder, more generous,” says Oborne. “Less earnestness, less dogmatism, more humanity at a personal level. I don’t think it’s entirely a gain that we’ve moved from a culture that was based on drinking alcohol together to a culture based on drinking coffee together.”

Wright looks at why things have changed. The hard-drinking culture of the past was sometimes the product of a bygone breed of MPs from an industrial, union background (and, though he does not say so, one suspects the Tory squirearchy supplied a boozy element too). Today’s MP is, by contrast, anodyne and without identity. “The demise of heavy industry,” says Wright, “has been matched by the rise of the professional politician. Today it is common for MPs of all stripes to be incubated in think tanks or serve political apprenticeships as ministerial special advisers before entering the Commons.”  As Oborne hints, they drink coffee. Neither are they so likely to hit The Gay Hussar or other West End and Westminster restaurants to brief journalists off the record (as Wright recounts, for Labour MPs, Alastair Campbell stopped that).

There is no evidence whatever that this has improved our political discourse. And it has pushed the politician away from the people. For proof of this we need only look at the popularity of Nigel Farage, who is careful to be seen with a pint in hand. This is calculated, as Farage more or less admits to Wright: “The reason it works is because in a politically correct age where all this stuff is frowned upon I think people see it as two fingers up to the establishment and political correctness,” he says, though he claims that isn’t why he is doing it. But I suspect it is, at least in part. The new sobriety may also have increased the partisan divide. At Westminster, there always was one; the Tory and Labour members tended to use different bars, But there was no strict apartheid. And in Congress, says White, a discreet drinking culture saw the members drop by each other’s rooms for a bourbon sundowner. No more.

Should we beg our pols to go back on the booze? It’s tempting to say yes. At the end of 2016 I published my own polemic, Such Little Accident, in which I argued that political discourse depended on people meeting face-to-face and that we no longer did so. I did not insist that these encounters should involve alcohol. But I implied that they often would, and stressed the pub as a place where people did not go as often as they did.

However, one thoughtful reviewer, herself someone who had taken part in public life, wasn’t so sure. “As a teetotaller I cannot say I am swayed by any argument that pubs are an answer to bringing back real political debate. As an ex-member of the Labour party and ex-city councillor in the late 1980s, being teetotal excluded me from many if not the majority of the decision making by the battalion of overwhelmingly white male Labour councillors.” It is a fair comment, and the drinking culture of the House of Commons as it was until the 1980s will have excluded, or at least not drawn in, many who were not natural participants, especially women (Mo Mowlem is the only woman politician who Wright cites as having navigated that culture successfully). It is also bound to exclude those whose social or religious background does not include the traditional British boozing culture. This cannot be a good thing.

But something has been lost, and I am unsure as to what has been gained.


Where do these two books leave us? On the face of it, they are about the failure of the Westminster system. A ruthless Establishment protects its own, even when they are mixed up in murder – though only to protect itself; they are spat out afterwards. Meanwhile a culture of drunkenness prevails in the House, but is then replaced by a cold technocracy that alienates the voters. It is all rather grim. But there are those shades of grey.

A Very English Scandal presents Thorpe, and to some extent Bessell, and their contemporaries in their very worst light. In a way this is fair; it’s an awful story. Yet Preston admits, albeit briefly, that Thorpe had genuine political principles, of a sort. Moreover, although the book is well-researched, Preston relies heavily on certain sources. He has to; most of the prime movers are dead, and he has made every effort to speak to those who aren’t, as the Acknowledgements section makes clear. But he seems to recount in great detail what Peter Bessell did, thought and felt, so he may have relied heavily on a memoir, Cover-up,that Bessell published privately a few years before his death.

There is also a conspiratorial feel about the book in places. Thorpe’s first wife, Caroline Allpass, died in a car accident not long after the 1970 General Election, after only two years of marriage; her car drifted across the centre line on the A303 and hit a lorry coming the other way. Preston hints at rumours that she had found out about Norman Scott and seemed distracted at the time of the accident. In fact, the witness accounts suggest she simply lost concentration (on a stretch of road that was then quite dangerous; I knew it well). In another passage, Preston implies that Wilson’s first Home Secretary, Sir Frank Soskice, not only knew of the Scott affair in 1965 but had read compromising correspondence between Thorpe and Scott, and swept it under the carpet. In fact, Preston’s account suggests that while this is entirely possible, it’s far from proven; Soskice may have had the facts to hand but not bothered to read them. The Establishment did close ranks around Thorpe. But how deliberately, and how explicitly, isn’t clear.

I wondered, too, to what extent the Thorpe affair was the result of laws and mores that were themselves quite wrong. Thorpe was terrified that he would be exposed as a practising homosexual at a time when it was illegal – but it should never have been. In fact many public figures must have wondered what would happen were their private lives to have been exposed. They had good reason to be afraid, as Lord Arran’s mailbag showed.

I have no wish to excuse Thorpe. Preston may have shown us the worst of him, but it’s clear that he was charming but cynical and a user of the worst sort. Neither should Bessell have a free pass. He was  a much nicer man, and behaved well at the end; but his judgement was awful, as regards Thorpe and much else besides. Moreover successive Home Secretaries knew how badly compromised Thorpe was by his private life and did nothing. Late in the book we have Cyril Smith as Liberal Chief Whip, trying to keep a lid on the scandal when he himself had horrible things to hide. There is even a Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police who in 1971 tacitly endorsed a cover-up when he must surely have known what was in Thorpe’s police file. After I finished the book, I mentioned the latter to a friend who is a former detective (not from the Met). He was not at all surprised. “As a police officer, you were always dealing with people more powerful than yourself,” he told me. “You were often told to be careful.” The picture that emerges from Preston’s book is one of a corrupt and closed Establishment that makes fools of us all. As for Order, Order!, it shows us a world of (mostly) men pissed as farts in the Mother of Parliaments, as capable of transacting the business of the land as they were of raising the Titanic.

And yet in a sense Peter Oborne was right; something has gone. We are now governed by technocrats, former “research assistants” whose purpose has always been to enter Parliament and whose private lives, one suspects, have been dull; in today’s 24-hour rolling news culture, they must have nothing to hide, and must always be sharp, available and well-briefed. The idea of going on TV completely soused, as Wilson’s Foreign Secretary George Brown did more than once, would be foreign to them. Perhaps it should be. But it is hard to see what moves them.

The ructions over Brexit, in particular, have uncovered a remarkable lack of spirit in the House. Many if not most members are known to think that it is a bad idea, but cannot bring themselves to oppose it openly lest they incur the wrath of their constituents or their party leadership. So they will do nothing to stop it. One yearns for a George Brown, or even perhaps a Churchill, to get tanked up on the terrace or in the Smoking Room and stride into the chamber, kneel briefly to the chair, take their place upon the green benches, rise – a little unsteadily – to their feet and proclaim: “Mr Speaker, we are sleepwalking to disaster.” But they won’t. With one or two proud exceptions, the careerist, technocratic nature of the modern politician is not to take such a risk.

Reporting the trial: The Mirror, 1979
Perhaps this timidity is also because they are under far greater scrutiny than they once were. On paper, of course, we have become more tolerant. A man or woman’s sexual preferences are now, in theory, no-one’s business but their own, provided they do not involve children or the vulnerable. But a quick tour through a few Facebook discussion groups can sometimes show how little has really changed. Those who take their own stand on matters of policy can also be a target; I wonder if Lord Arran might find a modern Tory Remain rebel’s postbag all too familiar. Moreover there is now a merciless 24-hour news cycle that needs far more material than it once did. A sharp light would be shone on the private life of anyone remotely interesting. The colourful individuals of the past – the Tom Dribergs, the Bob Boothbys – may still be with us, but not in public life. We should not be surprised if they now choose to do something else. To be sure, Thorpe was a disgrace, and being a drunk is not a virtue. But maybe the pendulum has swung back too far the other way.


There is a gentler note at the end of A Very English Scandal. Preston reproduces a letter from Peter Bessell to Norman Scott, written after the trial at which both had – at some personal cost – given evidence against Thorpe, only to see him walk. The letter is kind and generous, and makes it clear that Bessell thought they had still done the right thing in giving evidence – but also that, remarkably, he forgave Thorpe:

The important thing is that we must all be willing to face the absolute truth, even if the consequences are not entirely pleasant for any of us…
There is a wonderful side to Jeremy’s character which I shall always admire and hold in affection. That does not excuse his actions in respect of you ...but he needs understanding and sympathy just as much as the rest of us…

Bessell died a few years later. He had been a fool to trust Thorpe, who did not deserve his forgiveness. Moreover his own business and personal life had been a mess. Yet there is something attractive in that letter, and I should much rather dine with its author than I would with most current public figures. Maybe there is a question for us here . What, actually, do we want our politicians to be? Would we have them cold, sober, ambitious and obedient, as they have mostly become? Or would we rather they were fashioned of the same warped, unseasoned wood as the rest of us, the better to carry our hopes and dreams?

was published in December 2016 and is available from Amazon and other online retailers, or through bookshops
(ISBN  978-0-9978815-0-9, ebook; ISBN 978-0-9978815-1-6, paperback)

 Follow Mike Robbins on Twitter (mikerobbins19), on Facebook or on Goodreads

Saturday, 28 April 2018

Inequality and democracy: Can they coexist?

Equality and democracy are closely related. If one declines, what happens to the other? Thoughts on inequality, democracy, refugees, complexity, and collapse. And droning monks

The Western world has an equality problem.

Inequality is of course not the same as poverty. But it does make everyone poorer. On paper, it need not; if the rich take an increasing proportion of a country’s wealth, is that a problem, if everyone is getting richer overall? I am going to argue that that won’t happen, because those at the bottom of the heap can only increase their standard of living in a true democracy, and inequality is a threat to democracy. So inequality will set up a vicious spiral in which it increases, and democracy decreases.

The 1930s Slump. A march in Toronto
Inequality has been increasing. Few people have explained this process so well as Robert Reich, author of the 2010 book Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future.

Reich was Labor Secretary in Bill Clinton’s first administration and is now Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at Berkeley. His diagnosis, as set out in Aftershock, is simple; it is that the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few will make everyone poorer, because the rich don’t spend anything like enough to generate employment – that needs a mass market, in which wealth is distributed through the workforce so that everyone can participate in the consumer economy. However, a process of wealth concentration has been going on for years. “The wages of the typical American hardly increased in the three decades leading up to the Crash of 2008, considering inflation. In the 2000s, they actually dropped,” says Reich, and goes on to explain that the economy has grown so much over that period that, had the benefits been divided equally, the typical person would be 60% better off.

If that’s the case, how come that, for 30 years, no-one seemed to notice this upward redistribution was happening? Reich argues that the relative decline in income for most people was masked by longer hours, which meant their overall income did not always decline – so that although their income per hour did, they didn’t always notice. He also notes the participation of women as well as men in the workforce, generating dual incomes so that people did not, subjectively, feel poorer (he does not use this as an argument that women should not be in the workforce). And, most dangerously, the decline in real incomes has been compensated for by an explosion of credit. A quick look at house prices over the last 30 years suggests where much of that credit went. When the property bubble burst, the game, indeed, stopped.

Britain is scarcely better in terms of income distribution. Inequality is often measured using the Gini coefficient, which measures variation through frequency distribution. The coefficient is expressed as a value between zero and one, where zero represents perfect equality and one represents the concentration of all wealth in one individual. According to the OECD, individual countries’ Gini coefficients range from roughly 0.24 to 0.7. That of the US in 2013 was 0.396 and Britain’s was not much better, at 0.358. These figures are high for developed countries; for comparison, France’s and Germany’s were 0.294 and 0.292 respectively. This suggests that if Reich is right and the US has a problem with income inequality, then Britain has one too.

The numbers seem to bear this out; according to the Equality Trust, households in the bottom 10% of the British population have an average net income of £9,277 while the top 10% have net incomes over nine times that (£83,897). The poorest 50% of all households own just 8.7% of the wealth; the richest 10% of households hold 45%. True, the Trust has an angle; its mission is to encourage greater equality. However, the figures have been drawn from Britain’s Office of National Statistics. The Trust adds that poorer children can expect 52 years of healthy life against richer ones’ 71. One could add that even the lower figure is far better than in lower-income countries. Nonetheless, the evidence of inequality in Britain is striking.

Inequality is not good for democracy. Reich warns that, if we’re unlucky, Americans will at last say “Hell, we were screwed”, but then draw quite the wrong conclusion from that, electing a right-wing, isolationist, populist and frightening President. He is wise enough to make this a fictional character (though she slightly resembles a sort of Palin-Thatcher cross.) It is an intriguing premise, given that Aftershock was written many months before the Trump campaign began to gain traction. It is not surprising.  Losers of rigged games, as Reich rightly says, tend to get angry. An alternative scenario that Reich does not consider is that Americans, and Brits, will vote for governments who see the need for greater equality, but that those governments will be hamstrung by markets, trade treaties and, in the US, legislative stasis. In that case people will, quietly first and then in greater numbers, drift away from the system, and society will lose its cohesion; government will become ineffective; and the Western world will decay into irrelevance.

A historical relationship
But the link between equality and democracy is not a new one. Without the former, the latter could not have taken root.

A functioning democracy requires a measure of equality – yet a certain equality is needed to attain democracy. The Industrial Revolution was, in effect, a breaking of that vicious circle. Between 1700 and 1900, Britain broke the cycle of poor nutrition, low output, low income, low consumption and poor nutrition. J.D. Chambers, in his elegant 1972 summary Population, Economy And Society In Pre-Industrial England, credits a fortuitous break in cycles of disease, but also says: “One aspect of the Industrial Revolution… is that the labour force was not only very much larger but that it was worked very much harder.” This needed better nutrition. In a 1990 paper, the future Nobel prizewinner Robert Fogel pointed to “the exceeding[ly] low level of work capacity permitted by the [18th century] food supply… The increase in the amount of calories available for work over the past 200 years… increased the labour-force participation rate by bringing [in] the bottom 20% of the consuming units… [who had had] only enough energy… for a few hours of strolling each day – about the amount needed for a career in begging.” (The Conquest of High Mortality and Hunger in Europe and America: Timing and Mechanisms, 1990.) He concluded that improvements in nutrition and health had accounted for perhaps 30% of the growth in per capita income in Europe between 1790 and 1980.

So the vicious circle had been broken. But those who controlled food and wages did not permit this out of altruism, or because they had read Fogel. Chambers cites the way in which 18th-century labour combined to obtain better wages. Or as the filmmaker Michael Moore put it in his 1996 polemic, Downsize This!, “When the early unionists stood up to the companies, it resulted in a higher standard of living for all of us… Thanks to labor unions, we have… wages that allow even the most unskilled worker to purchase many products – which, in turn, gives more people jobs.” This process of collective bargaining could not have happened under an all-powerful oligarchy. In effect, one type of human right secured another. In 19th-century Britain, freedom – albeit imperfect, the beginnings of liberal democracy – became more than its own reward.

Free debate was central to this process. Brian Inglis’s absorbing account of the social reforms of the 19th century, Poverty and the Industrial Revolution (1971), describes how in 1832 MP Michael Sadler fielded a Bill to regulate abuse of labour in factories;  the evidence collected by the Bill’s Committee proved, as the Leicester Mercury put it, that “cruel over-working [of children] has in many places been practised… It is horrible, and an outrage on humanity, and decency…” The uproar forced the new government to pass its own 1833 Factory Act, which for the first time created an independent inspectorate.  Britain never became a workers’ paradise, but that is not the point; rather, it is that democracy and the free circulation of information allowed the vicious circle of malnutrition to be broken and real growth to begin. It is an argument also stated, in a rather different form, by Amartya Sen, chiefly in his much-read book Development as Freedom (1999). Crudely put, a democracy is a society in which people may empower themselves; to Sen, famously, famines do not happen in a democracy. The development of capitalism and democracy, and the synthesis between the two, in the 19th century seems to demonstrate the same argument.

This is of course an imperfect thesis. Technological change also fed people in the 19th century: tinned goods; the introduction of refrigeration, enabling the transport of meat from Argentina and the Commonwealth; the process of enclosures, which slung people off the land but also created cheaper food; then building of the railways deep into the Great Plains of the US, which brought cheaper grain and in so doing caused an agricultural depression in Britain but also fed people – all of this mattered, and it is dangerous to say that there would have been no rise in living standards without democracy. Yet it is hard to see how ordinary people would have claimed their share without the freedom to organize and to be represented.

Today, however, as Reich has explained, the rich have reacted, and grabbed back a bigger share of the cake.  This reaction has been happening for a while, and it has already destabilized our world.  Consider the following from Reich’s Aftershock. It is a very good summary of what happened in 2008:

As mass production has to be accompanied by mass consumption, mass consumption, in turn, implies a distribution of wealth... Instead of achieving that kind of distribution, a giant suction pump had... drawn into a few hands an increasing portion of currently produced wealth. ...In consequence, as in a poker game where the chips were concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, the other fellows could stay in the game only by borrowing. When their credit ran out, the game stopped.

Except that it isn’t Reich himself and it isn’t about 2008. Reich is quoting long-ago Fed chairman Marriner Eccles. And Eccles was writing not about 2008 but about 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. Yet this is not so different to what happened after 2008, as the British and US governments bailed out the banks that were too big to fail, and ordinary people paid for it through a regime of austerity. After 1929, and again in 2008, it wasn’t the wealthy that paid for their folly.

So why not?

Anti-austerity demonstation in Valencia (Fito Senabre/Wikimedia Commons)
Rousseau is alleged to have said in a speech, “When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.” Actually the rich are quite good at making the poor eat each other instead. One can see this in the carefully whipped-up rhetoric against “scroungers” and the “workshy”; those of limited means are encouraged to blame their troubles on those less, rather than more, fortunate than themselves. Meanwhile the rich have helped themselves to the country’s assets. Anyone who doubts that this is what has taken place in Britain should read Owen Jones’s excellent The Establishment and How they Get away With It, or James Meek’s shrewd take on privatisation, Private Island.

This is part of a process by which wealth will become more and more concentrated. At some point, the consumer economy and the mass-markets it supports will go into decline. It will not be for the first time. Some have argued that this was the fate of Mayan society; it all became too much and the great mass of people stopped supporting their priestly class, and simply dissolved back into the jungle. (The American anthropologist Joseph Tainter has seen this process slightly differently, as one of societies collapsing because they support too much complexity; more on this below.) Is that what will happen to us – that the system will simply decay, leaving our societies to decline into illiberalism and superstition; a repeat of the end of the Roman Empire? That is somewhat apocalyptic, but as the philosopher John Gray has pointed out, the idea that history is, by its nature, progressive has little to support it.

But the threat to democracy in a society doesn’t just come from the inequalities within it. It comes also from inequality between societies – global inequality.

Global inequality
There is a rising tide of xenophobia in some European societies that is at least in part the result of a broader dimension of economic inequality that is threatening European democracy – global inequality and the refugee crisis. In 2015-2016, we saw the arrival, in Europe, of large numbers of refugees and illegal economic migrants (we should be careful about this distinction; one may be a refugee from poverty). This gave rise to a liberal and decent reaction in some quarters, but has also been of use to the radical right.

As Slavoj Žižek puts it (in Against the Double Blackmail, published in 2016), after the terrorist outrages in Paris in November 2015, these liberal impulses were drowned out by the rhetoric of the war on terror. It is, he writes, “easy to imagine what will follow ...The greatest victims of the Paris attacks will be the refugees themselves, and the true winners ...will be simply the partisans of total war on both sides.” Žižek’s answer to this is a global solidarity that attacks the causes of conflict and migration – global inequalities – at their root. In fact, there is sometimes more at issue than that; the specific problems of Syria and Eritrea are not solely about north-south inequalities. In principle, however, Žižek is right. Global, as well as internal, inequalities are threats to democracy.

Moreover, the two types of inequality are related, for those who feel themselves disadvantaged will always be vulnerable to the siren call from those who would have them believe that their enemy is not the rich, but those who have nothing. In such a mood, no-one will be disposed to listen to the reasoned arguments that tell them refugees and the poorest are not the cause of their problems. We saw a process of this type in the 2016 Brexit referendum in Britain, where millions trooped to the polls to vote “Leave”, convinced that the tide of migrants from Europe was making them poorer. In fact, the evidence suggests the exact opposite. What will happen when, too late, people find that their standard of living is not rising but dropping? Again, as Reich suggests in the case of the US, they may decide that democracy is not the answer.

So what is to be done?
Robert Reich’s book is lucid and enjoyable (as is the film based on the book). But although it’s great on diagnosis, I’m not so sure he has solutions. He suggests a number of measures to address inequality. One is a “reverse income tax” that will subsidize the middle class (why does the US not appear to have a working class, one wonders?). The money would be funded by a carbon tax, and would be added to paychecks. This reminds one of the system of poor relief devised by magistrates at Speenhamland in Berkshire at the end of the 18th century. “Speenhamland” was, when I was young, always taught as an example of the road to hell being paved with good intentions. It simply allowed employers to lower wages, thus accumulating wealth for themselves while making the public pay their wage bill. In fact, recent research has suggested that Speenhamland’s outcomes were not so clear-cut. Still, with many lower-paid workers in Western countries now drawing welfare to supplement their wages, one wonders whether we already have Speenhamland writ large. In any case, this is tinkering around the edges. Wouldn’t we be better off having a much higher, and strongly enforced, minimum wage? Far from bankrupting employers, it’ll make us all richer in the end. 

Even more important, we could address the whole question of governance. Reich does suggest measures to get money out of politics, but what he does not discuss is the weakness of electoral systems that give voters a limited choice between at most two candidates. You want to throw the bums out? Give us a system that lets us choose a better government. But in any case, suppose we did get one; it might not be able to do much about inequality, and that might make things worse. Progressive rates of taxation are one answer. In Britain, however, a modern government would find it very difficult to return to the rates of supertax that applied before 1970; neither is it entirely clear that it should, as it would be hard to collect and might not, in the end, make much difference. Other forms of taxation change are possible, with a move back towards the social-democratic model. But at the moment there seems little prospect of it.

I suspect the answer lies in some major shift in economic life. This may be something like automation, which we have seen coming, but for which we have done little to prepare. But it is not really clear what the consequences will be; many may find themselves without jobs, but they may be the people least able, as a class, to effect change. If so they will simply suffer.

But perhaps leadership is not the answer to this anyway. Joseph Tainter, mentioned briefly earlier, would not think so. Complex societies, he says, “do not evolve on the whims of individuals.”

The collapse of complexity?
Tainter’s 1988 book The Collapse of Complex Societies posits that social systems evolve by meeting challenges through the development of complex structures, both social and technical. This is not hard to believe; as the population rises, innovations such as (for example) public irrigation systems will be needed to grow their food, and roads to carry it to them. To run these systems demands complexity, with a growing number of people in roles that are removed from primary production. At some point, the marginal rate of return on this complexity will fall to a point where it can no longer justify its cost, and the complex society will collapse. Tainter presents a number of examples to support this theory; the Mayans are one, the Western Roman Empire another. The latter’s collapse, says Tainter, is seen as a lapse into darkness; actually it may have been a logical response to an overly complex system that could no longer justify its existence, and it ceasing to support it, the population made a rational economic decision.

One must not oversimplify Tainter’s argument. He does not, for example, see collapse as occurring in societies that have stronger neighbours. They will simply get taken over. Moreover he sees a society’s resources in terms of energy; if it can expand those resources, through conquest or technological change, it may be able to sustain complexity. Given that we may be on the verge of an energy revolution, this is interesting. Nonetheless Tainter’s vision is compelling; of a society splitting into multiple specialized sectors as it evolves, and acquiring more and more functions that are removed from primary production, until at some point the whole shebang simply cannot pay its way. Oddly, the group closest to this argument, for me, may be the 18th-century Physiocrats, who believed all wealth derived, in the end, from the land; they would have understood Tainter perfectly.

Tainter is not talking about inequality. He is talking of the costs of complexity. But it seems axiomatic that these would fall hardest on the poor. Tainter does comment that, as the rate of return on complexity drops, “parts of a society perceive increasing advantage to a policy of separation or disintegration. ...Various segments increase passive or active resistance, or overtly attempt to break away.” So can we apply his theory to our own situation? Is growing inequality in the UK and USA a symptom of excessive complexity? If so, Tainter may have shown us the exact mechanism through which inequality will destroy democracy and, if we are unlucky, much else besides.

Droning monks
One can even guess which area of complexity will be the first to exhaust everyone’s patience. Earlier, I quoted Mariner Eccles’s diagnosis of what happened in 1929 and suggested that 2008 had not been so very different. In these cases, the part of society that went wrong was the financial sector. This sector adds to complexity. But it is not a luxury; it grew up in order to finance productive enterprises, including infrastructure – a cursory dip into the history of the railways, shipping and other industries will confirm this. Thus, if Tainter is right, the marginal rate of return on this aspect of complexity should be adequate. But in both 1929 and 2008, it showed itself not to be, as it had acquired functions that served its own existence rather than the needs of society as a whole – for example, through the “securitization”, or packaging, and sale of mortgages that should really have remained with the original lender. 

The resulting losses fell not simply upon society as a whole but on those parts of it that could least afford it. The results, in the 1930s, were catastrophic for democracy, and 2008 seems to have had a similar (if so far milder) effect.

If my analysis is correct, then, we can both attack inequality and preserve democracy by removing layers of complexity, rather than, as in Tainter’s prognosis, collapsing or being swallowed up by neighbours. And the interesting thing is that in England, at least, we have been here before.

I have lately been ploughing through a mighty tome called The England of Elizabeth. It has 533 close-set pages (excluding index) and this was just the first volume. The book was the crowning achievement of the historian A. L. Rowse, who died in 1997 at the age of 94. It is packed with detail – too much, perhaps; yet it is a magisterial picture of a country in an age of self-discovery, facing multiple dangers from within and without, guided to safety by a monarch of extraordinary ability. I’ll be returning to this in a future post. But what is striking in this context is Rowse’s take on the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which took place not many years before Elizabeth’s accession; looking back, we see this as a political event, but profoundly affected the economy. According to Rowse, it threw:

“one-sixth of the whole cultivable area of the country upon the market ...the settling in of numerous hard-headed, hard-fisted families to screw the utmost return out of the land in innumerable places where idle monks had droned away their lives [means] there must have been a considerable increase in productivity...”

Dissolved: Whitby Abbey (Ackers72/Wikimedia Commons)
There surely was. But more relevant here, perhaps, is the fact that the monastic structure must have made huge demands on the resources of the society that supported it. We are back with Tainter; there was a burden of complexity that could not justify itself economically. But instead of collapsing, this complex society laid a part of that burden down. To be sure, it did not do so solely for that reason. The Dissolution was a political act. Yet it both released the burden on resources, and increased them. In so doing it was part of the roots of the Industrial Revolution.

So what will our Dissolution be? And will it throw Tainter’s process into reverse, as the Dissolution appears to have done? If not, the weaknesses caused by inequality will be laid bare, and democracy will find it harder and harder to justify its existence.

But what if none of this is inevitable? Maybe Tainter has shown us how things might end, but a complex society in which everyone does have an interest in the level of complexity may prove resilient; why not? Of course, if its level of complexity continues to rise without delivering sufficient benefits, it will collapse. In this, Tainter is surely right. But if those benefits are more fairly shared, the burden of complexity will be tolerated for longer. It is this challenge that we face now. Ask someone on the conventional left, and they may argue that it can be met through progressive taxation and through State ownership of key sectors. They may be part-right. But to me, only a more fundamental reform of democracy will enable it to meet the challenge of inequality, just as it did in the 19th century.

A couple of years ago I wrote in these pages about the way the political agenda in the US and especially the UK is distorted by the electoral system, making it open to manipulation (Don't like anchovies? Don't bother voting, then, July 2016). There is no need to restate the arguments in detail here. But in a nutshell, the current systems allow vested interests to target a very small number and homogenous type of electors in order to swing the result. A few months later, the US Presidential election showed how horribly right this was. The extent to which that very small number of floating voters in swing states actually were targeted and their minds changed, by outside interests remains open to dispute. However, the implication is that the agenda can be distorted. Thus the decline in real wages for (say) socioeconomic groups C3, D1 and D2 may be the main concern for millions of people, but the election will be fought instead on some matter that only really exercises a few hundred thousand – say inheritance tax on homes worth more than £325,000, although few people outside South-East England really own them (in fact the average house price in the UK in February 2018 was £225,047). Thus the costs of maintaining a complex society are shifted onto the shoulders of those less able to bear it, and at some point, they may decide not to do so.

The danger at that point is that they will set about some droning monks. My guess is that it their victim would be the financial services industry. In a way they will be right. Many of its activities are superfluous and damaging, as we found out in both 1929 and 2008. But it provides over a million jobs and generates a trade surplus of £60 billion. And as stated earlier, it does have productive functions. What if the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater?  And what about other “non-essential” sectors – foreign aid, the arts? Would they survive?

In a sense, this has already happened. Disenfranchised in general elections, millions of people trooped into the polling booths in 2016 to vote to dismantle one aspect of complexity: Britain’s membership of the European Union, with its tangled skein of rights and obligations, its notorious (though overstated) bureaucracy – and its net benefits, which were just too hard for people to envisage. Maybe the Brexit vote was the collapse of complexity in action. And maybe the rapid reform of our democracy is the only way to halt this process, tackle inequality and prevent everyone melting, like the Maya, into the jungle. As Tainter points out, for some, to abandon the Western Roman Empire was a rational decision. But we should remember what came next – the Dark Ages.

was published in December 2016 and is available from Amazon and other online retailers, or through bookshops
(ISBN  978-0-9978815-0-9, ebook; ISBN 978-0-9978815-1-6, paperback)

 Follow Mike Robbins on Twitter (mikerobbins19), on Facebook or on Goodreads

Sunday, 22 April 2018

A Higher Loyalty

James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty is the book of the year (at least, so far), and some may think they should read it and wonder whether they can be bothered. Should they?

Sacked FBI Director James Comey’s apologia A Higher Loyalty has made quite a splash, and seems to have got under the President's skin. It is very much a book of its time and place, and books that hit the headlines don’t always hang around afterwards. But this one might have a longer half-life than most. James Comey isn’t Hemingway and I guess wouldn’t claim to be, but he’s a concise, engaging writer with a story to tell. There are also some brief but sharp glimpses of people we think we know  – Rudy Giuliani, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Barack Obama; all of them really quite vivid. There is also plenty to hold one’s interest before one even gets to Donald Trump (who appears quite late).

But it’s Trump who is the final target of the book. And good though it is, I am intrigued as to exactly why Comey wrote it.

A Higher Loyalty isn’t really an autobiography; rather, it’s a series of morality plays structured round the events of Comey’s life. So we start by hearing of his struggles at school in New Jersey, and how he learns one must call out bullies. He talks about working in a supermarket as a teenager, and the lesson here is what he learned about leadership from his boss. He is a young lawyer in the prosecutor’s office in New York, and this lets him discuss the Mafia dons he helped put behind bars and their morality and code of conduct. He takes his first major post in government, as Deputy Attorney-General in the George W. Bush administration, and we are into the story of illegal surveillance and torture, and how he must demonstrate its illegality.  Then he is FBI Director under Obama, and gives us a glimpse of the latter and of what Comey considers leadership – courtesy, patience and empathy.  Throughout, there is a theme of public service, and of this higher loyalty – to truth, to public service, to the Constitution.

All of this is carefully preparing us for when we get to meet the Orange One, round about page 200. And every life-lesson we’ve read about in the book so far comes alive at this point, showing us exactly why Comey thinks him morally bankrupt, soulless and a danger to democracy.

A Higher Loyalty, in short, is a very neat hatchet job on Trump. But why write it? After all, if Comey’s the copper-bottomed public servant he’d have us believe, he’d take his secrets to the grave. I think there are three possible reasons for doing this. Two do not reflect that well on Comey. The third, however, does.

First, this book could be a self-justification. Comey’s conduct regarding the Clinton email affair, the way he presented the FBI’s conclusions on it in July 2016, and his decision to reopen it that October have made Comey a serious hate figure in some circles. The emphasis Comey puts on this episode supports the theory that this book is an apologia, as does his detailed description of his battles with Dick Cheney and his Chief of Staff, David Addington, over surveillance and torture. As Laurence Dodds put it in a review in the Telegraph (April 16 2018), “James Comey wants you to know that he is a good man. Or at least, that he tries. ...[He] depicts himself as an honest agent in a den of vipers.”

Not everyone is 100% convinced. Carlos Lozada’s review of the book in the Washington Post  (April 14 2018) cites a passage in which Comey refers to information that could have compromised the then Attorney-General, Loretta Lynch; but he does not say what it was. It was almost certainly an email in which Lynch is said to have made improper promises to the Clinton campaign about the investigation; in fact, there are doubts about the email’s veracity, and maybe Comey should not have mentioned it. I also wondered if Comey should have written about the Clinton emails that his team were not able to see (from early in her time as Secretary of State); in so doing he cast fresh doubt on the affair while claiming that he considered it closed. That seems a little disingenuous.

And sometimes Comey is just too sure of his ground. Late in the book Comey comments that: “Doubt, I’ve learned, is wisdom. . . . Those leaders who never think they are wrong, ... are a danger to the organizations and people they lead.” This doesn’t impress Lozada. “Trump,” he says, “is the most severe example of that tendency in this book. But he is not the only one.” In short, if this book is about self-exculpation, it’s not a total success.

Happier times: Comey's appointment is announced (FBI/Wikimedia Commons)
But there’s a possible second motive for writing this, which is to set out his stall regarding his next job. Comey is only 57, and wouldn’t be thinking of retirement. He is currently teaching, but it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t like to jump back in to the fray. He may see himself as a candidate for Attorney-General. He may even dream of being Vice-President. Although not currently registered, he’s historically a Republican. If the Trump presidency ends very badly, as many Americans seem to expect, any Republican candidate in 2020 will need to distance themselves from the disaster – difficult, as many swung round behind Trump when he won the nomination. One way might be to have as their running mate one of Trump’s fiercest critics and worst enemies – and a man who has stated clearly, in this book, that he believes in the rule of law. Still, so far Comey has given no sign he wants high office again. And there is a third explanation; that he has written this book because he is sincerely worried about what Trump may do to the country’s institutions, and wishes to warn people.

 In particular, he believes Trump does not understand, or at least not accept, that certain public officials are not there to serve not him but the broader polity. This is dangerous. Comey’s main example is the way Trump tried to get a pledge of loyalty, as a Mafia boss would; the FBI Director cannot give such a pledge – his duty is to the law. Comey could also, had he wished, said more about the pressure Trump has put on his Attorney-General, Jeff Sessions, because the latter has followed the law now and then instead of the President’s wishes.

This isn’t a perfect book. Comey is likely not a perfect person. Democrats won’t be convinced by his explanations of 2016. And while Comey does admit to doubts about his past decisions and conduct (Lozada was too harsh), it’s true he can seem sanctimonious now and then.  Even so, Comey seems sincere. “Politics come and go,” he writes. “Supreme Court justices come and go. But the core of our nation is our commitment to a set of shared values restraint and integrity and balance and truth. If that slides away from us, only a fool would be consoled by a tax cut or a different immigration policy.” 

Exculpation? Extended resume? Maybe, in part; but I’m going with the third explanation . This book is a hatchet job on Trump, to be sure, but it’s not simply personal. Comey, a senior public servant, wrote this book as a statement of values that he holds dear, and a warning that they are under threat. For many, that will be reason to read it.

was published in December 2016 and is available from Amazon and other online retailers, or through bookshops
(ISBN  978-0-9978815-0-9, ebook; ISBN 978-0-9978815-1-6, paperback)

 Follow Mike Robbins on Twitter (mikerobbins19), on Facebook or on Goodreads