Monday, 27 March 2017

Tragedy, and the human response to it

So, I guess that really we all knew this day would come again. Once again a terrorist attack has taken place in the UK. This time driven by someone who has taken extremist Islam as their reason for pointlessly murdering innocent people on our streets. It is truly terrible that 4 people who had no idea what was going to happen or choice that day had their lives taken by a coward who attacked them hoping he would never have to live with the consequences. 

There is no singular normal, typical or expected reaction to this sort of news. It is rightly so alien to us that we will all decide how to react - and it is not the right of society to enforce "norms" on us. That reaction is made up of our initial emotion, and then the judgements, conclusions and responses we then show. Many people have tried to use this attack as a weapon to whip up further hatred, anger and division. I want to consider whether this reaction stands up to close scrutiny. This is not to shame or insult people, but to offer them an alternative reflection to consider. 

We have had almost a full week since the terrible events that claimed the lives of a policeman and 3 random members of the public. Enough time for every possible shade and shape of human opinion (no matter how vile or incredible) to have made its way on to social media. Certainly an initial reaction from a lot of people (and we can't know if it is a majority, a large minority or simply the most vocal) was that this attack showed why we should "send them all home". Those angrily opposed to migration into the country certainly believed this was an opportunity to finally show how Muslims flooding into the country were a danger to our very lives. Of course, the problem with that was very quickly it was found out that the attacker was British born. 

But the leap from there having been an attack to this snap reaction is an obvious, if flawed one. If a Muslim coming into this country has carried out an attack, then there must be more coming in to do the same - this is finally the evidence of that. Of course, that sentence belies the incorrect thinking behind it - those people who are afraid that immigration makes us less secure ALREADY believed that before this attack. That the attacker was British born will do nothing to stop them thinking that. In many cases no amount of evidence will stop people thinking that. The term used by psychologists is "unsubstantiated conclusive" thinking - where you jump to a pre-determined conclusion irrespective of the evidence. It is easy to understand this thinking - particularly when it is reinforced and fuelled by so much of the media establishment in this country and parties like UKIP. 

From there, the next opinion or perception that came about was that actually all, or a large section, of the Muslim community in this country were dangerous. The proposed answer therefore is either to kick out all Muslims or to start a process for internment for them. Again, the logical flow behind this seems to be straight-forward. There is a danger from a particular community, we should therefore lock all or some of them up to keep everybody else safe. If you break that down, there are actually 3 separate ideas to consider. The first one is that there is a danger from an identifiable group (Muslims), we can spot those likely to be dangerous, and that internment will reduce the danger and make us safe. 

Well, if we take the first point, that there is a danger from an identifiable group (Muslims) then we have to look at the terrorist attacks in recent memory. The definition of a terrorist attack "means acts of persons acting on behalf of, or in connection with, any organisation which carries out activities directed towards the overthrowing or influencing, by force or violence, of Her Majesty's government in the United Kingdom". That would then seem to equally apply to 2 recent terrorist attacks - this one and the murder of Jo Cox MP. Jo Cox was killed by a man who had links to extremist organisations (the National Front, EDL and the National Alliance). Certainly 2 of those groups have openly tried to influence the government through violence. He was a lone attacker, who took inspiration from those groups without being directed by them to carry out an attack. He used weapons he had to hand to carry out a targeted but unsophisticated attack to create a feeling of terror in the political establishment. He had a troubled existence with a history of sporadic behaviours. All of those things apply equally to the recent attacker. 

There is one difference however, ISIL, following the attack claimed that Khalid Massood was now a soldier of ISIL. Many have hung their hats on this fact to differentiate the 2 events. However, that does not hold up. Khalid Massood, as far as we know at this point, had no contact or direction from them. To hang whether someone is guilty of a terrorist attack or not based on what somebody else does after the fact simply doesn't make sense. Equally, to the victims of the attack, I am sure they would have scant regard for this distinction. So we are left with not one group of terrorists to worry about, but 2 - Muslim fanatics and right-wing fanatics. 

If we look at the proposed solution to this, internment, then we would have to, from that, apply it equally to both of these groups. Of course, all of the available evidence, from whenever internment has been tried points to 2 very clear conclusions. Firstly, that it doesn't work and in many cases is counter-productive in that it acts as a recruiting sergeant for extremists. Secondly, that it will always lead to innocent people being unfairly imprisoned. These are clearly both very strong reasons to refuse to see internment as the answer. 

Clearly, this is not to say that nothing should be done to combat terrorist attacks. From every attack we need to learn what we can do to stop the next one. But currently, from what we are told, in this country we have been successful in stopping a number of attacks. To go further than we have so far we must challenge the radicalisation of any individuals in any group, ensure we have appropriate policing, security and intelligence strategies, and the tools and resources to carry them out. But internment is not one of those, and it never should be. Something must be done can not turn into the worst possible response must be done.

One of the very shameful events that cropped up in our reactions was that of the shaming of a Muslim woman, walking past an injured person being treated immediately after the attacks, ignoring what was going on and chatting on her mobile phone. For those that wanted yet further evidence of the inhumanity of Muslims, this seemed to be a "smoking gun". The picture very quickly spread across social media platforms - evidence (as if it was needed) that Muslims were against "us". When I initially saw it I too believed that it showed a woman on her phone near the scene of an atrocity. 

Again, we should break down the mindset that leads to this point. Firstly, we are attributing how somebody should react when something like that happens. Some people will rush to help, some will run away, and some people, in shock will try to pretend it hasn't happened. We can not judge how others react because we don't know what their reaction really says. Secondly, on the basis of a still photo shared on social media, this ladies actions and thoughts have been guessed at and then shared as if a clear and undeniable truth. If she was on her phone near the scene, could she not have been calling the emergency services? Telling her family what she had seen but that she was OK? Could she have been so wrapped up in her day she hadn't even realised what was happening? Anyone who has been to London will know that plenty of people in that city do walk around in that mode. Finally, there was a leap from her not reacting according to some decided norm, then on to her not caring or even being happy this had happened to that, somehow, being evidence that all Muslims are bad. I can't even believe I am writing this - but that is the logic that some bought into and shared - within 24 hours of the incident itself. 

Of course, the photo was then shown to be of something quite clearly different - the lady in question was not on her phone, but holding her face in shock and horror. But for people who wanted to believe the first interpretation because it supported their view - this wont matter. My point is that it is easy to be mistaken, or see one thing as something else. But we must be careful before being led to logical leaps and bounds by people on social media. It is natural (and uncontrollable) to have an emotional reaction when something like this happens. We all do it. It is easy to jump to conclusions - in fact in more dangerous times jumping to a snap decision is a survival strategy. But we should all be able to look at that conclusion, or flow of thought and ask ourselves - does my conclusion stack up - or does the conclusion have more to do with what I already believe? Because if we start making snap judgements on how our country protects itself, and treats us as citizens on the basis of our reactions - we bloody well have to get them right first. 

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

All we need now is Spandau Ballet

              I am sat writing this the evening before the first full budget of our 2nd Tory chancellor of the last 20 years, Philip Hammond MP. We have now had a full 6 years of Tory chancellors - even if for 5 of those they were supported in Parliament by a weak and ineffective coalition partner in the Lib Dems. So, it is probably worth looking at how well those Tory chancellors and governments have done for us. By us, I mean the great British working classes. I include in that those of us lucky enough to be working, and those of us who for whatever reason can't or aren't working at the moment. It is also right and fair to measure those chancellors against what they set out as their own priorities. After all, it is not fair to only measure them against things they never promised to do.

              Like most economists (and other political writers) it would be really easy for me to fall into jargon and measures that most people don't understand. Who really feels GDP, deficit, debt ratios? Whilst I want to steer clear of these as much as possible - they are necessary to consider. Mainly because these were the measures which George Osborne and then Philip Hammond have measured themselves against. But there are other measures that they feed into - and these do matter. These are how well-off we as individuals feel, and the future prospects for the economy. As well as these, there are other factors that matter - how well funded and effective our public services are; how much tax we pay and how many of us are in gainful employment.

              Coming into power in 2010 was never going to be easy for any government. The world was still reeling from a financial crisis, caused by global banks, that was as severe as The Great Depression. This was impacting pretty much every country - though some worse than others. In the UK because we had bailed out the banks here we had a massive public sector debt (the amount the government owes) that had risen from under 40% to around 65% a the time of the General Election. This was the worst of all worlds - it was driven by an increasing amount of debt from bailing out the banks, a shrinking economy and a growing deficit. The deficit or surplus is the difference between how much the government is earning (basically through taxation) compared to how much it spends (on services for the people). 

             So whichever Chancellor came in had to do one (or all) of 3 things - grow the economy, reduce the deficit and / or reduce the overall debt the government had. The prevailing idea from George Osborne (and presumably supported at that point by the public) was to reduce the deficit, within 5 years, and thereby start to pay down the debt levels. Surely we could return to surplus? After all, we had run a surplus for the overwhelming majority of the Blair years, after the deficit laden years of the Thatcher government. This therefore gave rise to the austerity agenda - the aim being to reduce how much the government spent to get in line with what they earned. 

             But the Tories also inherited a number of other problems and benefits at that time. For example, we had an NHS that was the best in the world, as proven by a number of international comparative studies. This was not only in terms of the service provided, but also how much it cost to provide. Gone were the days of waiting on trolleys in corridors. We had improved standards across schools. Whilst not all of the policies used were particularly popular, they were, mostly, working. Sure Start and EMA were supported by all parties as right and necessary because of the benefits to social well-being. The unemployment rate however had taken a marked increase - meaning fewer people were working - whilst this had stayed stable around the 5% mark for the majority of the Blair years this shot up as a result of the global banking crisis to 7.5%. This had been a massive improvement - during the Thatcher years it had been between 7.5% and 10% for almost the entire period. 

            So across those areas, how have the Tories done? Well, let's look at deficit and debt reduction, unemployment, amount we pay in tax, and those services mentioned above one at a time. 

Debt & Deficit

Since 2010, the debt as a share of GDP (the most reliable measure) has increased from 65% to 85%. In money terms, these 6 years have added £1trillion of debt. That is debt which our government must now pay back. More worryingly, the deficit is still at 3%. We were meant to be rid of both of those things by now. In fact, neither has been delivered on. We are worse off than we were. 


Here, it appears, we have good news. The unemployment rate has seen a steady downward trend. It has moved from a recent high of 8.5% to 4.8%. We should all be celebrating, shouldn't we? Well, it isn't quite so rosy. 700,000 of those new jobs are zero hours contracts. That is 700,000 people who don't know if they will have work from one day to the next. We may as well go back to the days of the Labour exchange. Workers earnings have not increased - which you would expect from high employment. More people can say they have a job, but more than ever don't have enough money coming in to actually survive. So we must remain cautious if we want to say this is good news.


The level of government taxation - ie how much they take out of the economy each year to pay for public services has now increased back to levels last seen in 1986. So whilst they have spectacularly failed to reduce the deficit, they have done that whilst taking more of your money from you. Not only that, but the source of that tax has become far less friendly for you. Much less is being taken from big businesses and wealthy individuals. Instead, more tax is being taken from your wallet, by way of increases in VAT and Insurance Premium Tax. They have openly and actively taken from the poor to give to the rich. A true reverse Robin Hood. 

Public services

Well, Sure Start and EMA didn't survive the first year under the Tories. Our health service is once again falling apart. This winter we had the worst performance during the winter since we started measuring such things. Junior doctors went out on strike - previously unheard of. In education there are experts, councillors (of all parties), headteachers and MPs screaming at the government to address the lack of funding. What it the response of the current government? To instead set aside money for their pet project of grammar schools and free schools. Just consider that, any extra money they find is not going to your child's school - but to open a new one that you have no say over. Teachers are leaving the profession in droves, and recruitment of new ones is drying up. We are back to poor services where only the wealthy will be okay. 

                  So, it is amazing that we find ourselves here again. A government that can't get spending under control, where services are so poor they are a laughing stock, where only the wealthy are benefitting. Things haven't been this bad across so many measures since the early 1980s. Some would argue that there are other similarities - for example a Labour leader who is painted as a dangerous leftie by the media and who doesn't seem either willing or able to shake off the tag. What is worrying is that against this backdrop the Tories are still enjoying electoral success. This really should be a wake up call and warning to the Labour Party. The question is whether they are listening - or repeating the internal fights of the 1980s. Only time will tell. The problem is, how much of a country will we have left at the end of it?