Britain, Economy, Politics

Old … and Bad

Old ideas die hard. And perhaps old, bad ideas die hardest.

I had the fascinating experience last month of spending time in London in the days preceding Queen Elizabeth II funeral. To say it was an of out of this world scene would be rash understatement.

Crews were still cleaning up the mountains of tribute bouquets in Green Park near Buckingham Palace last weekend. Workers still collected the thousands of written condolence messages, many from children, that were left with the flowers. The grass was worn from the hundreds of thousands of people who did what they could to pay homage to a monarch who seems to have represented for many the very idea of dignified service, while also being the last symbol of a generation that faced down fascism and then lost an empire.

Crowds outside Buckingham Palace

One newspaper account of Queen Elizabeth’s impact wondered if her personality was simply bigger than “the firm,” the Brit way of referring to the royals, and whether the new king could ever hope to match his mother’s magic. He won’t, but the smart money would be on the British monarchy continuing. It’s an old idea and an outmoded one, but compared to the slimy, bad faith politics run amok in many western democracies, a hereditary monarch who strives, however imperfectly, to represent the best of a nation seems downright decent, not to mention needed.

The solemnity of the Queen’s memorial stands in sharp contrast to the current chaos in British politics. The new prime minister, Liz Truss, a tin-eared true believer in Reagan-Thatcher-like trickle-down economics, a Sarah Palin without the charm, would be comfortably at home among the radical political right here in the former colonies.

Truss and her equally hapless finance minister rolled out a new Tory economic plan immediately after the royal funeral that immediately tanked the pound, roiled the mortgage markets and brought emergency intervention from the Bank of England. It was a $500 billion dollar unforced error literally in the first days of her tenure.

The package of tax cuts and regulation trimming was deemed so draconian that Truss’s approval numbers didn’t just drop they went down lower than the Piccadilly line. One poll had the opposition Labour Party up in a future election match up by more than 30 points, prompting one conservative backbencher to quip that Tory leadership had decided against reading the instruction manual until after they had broken the economy.

Slogans and dogma and Liz

You wouldn’t know it listening to the radical right in the American conservative movement, most of whom have embraced Truss and the even more right wing Italian prime minister, but every western economy is dealing with inflation and spiking energy costs. If you think gas prices are high here, price a liter of petrol in Europe. Yet, what Truss and British conservatives have done with fiscal policy only exacerbates the impact. They have latched on to old ideas about tax cuts for the wealthiest – sound familiar – somehow trickling down to the country’s working class at the bottom.

Truss talks, like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan before her, about a “rising tide lifting all boats” and “growing the economic pie.” It’s an old idea and a bad one.

This old, won’t die trickle-down notion goes a long way toward explaining why US and British economies are among the world’s worst examples of economic inequality. As John Burn-Murdoch reported recently in the Financial Times – not exactly a left-wing rag – the UK and the US have become poor societies with a few really, really wealthy people.

“Our leaders are of course right to target economic growth,” Burn-Murdoch wrote, which is what Truss and fellow travelers in the US say they want to do, “but to wave away concerns about the distribution of a decent standard of living – which is what income inequality essentially measures – is to be uninterested in the lives of millions. Until those gradients are made less steep, the UK and US will remain poor societies with pockets of rich people.”

All this talk of inflation, economic growth and people left behind has a particularly fun house mirror-like quality when seen in the context the looming US mid-term elections. Republicans want to frame the election around gas and grocery prices and their never ending “crisis on the border,” yet they offer absolutely no policy prescription for either of the problems they hammer on daily.

The dirty little secret is they have no policy answers, because like the clueless conservatives now running Britain they govern by slogans and what the brilliant Financial Times columnist Edward Luce calls “the curse of magical thinking – promises that bear no relation to any realistic ability to deliver; extravagant lies that cater to some felt need for self-delusion; gullibility dressed up as hard-nosed ‘taking back control.’”

Conservatives in what Winston Churchill dubbed “the English speaking world” have come to equate bluster and gaudy wealth with smarts and expertise – see Elon Musk, to cite just one example. Brits were flimflammed by a collection of conmen and clowns into abandoning the European Union, a decision that more and more of them regret just as many Americans bought into the lying bluster of a guy who bankrupted his casino and failed at everything in his life save reality TV and Republican politics.

It’s a complicated world out there. As the old saying goes: every problem has an easy, simple solution that is wrong. It takes expertise and knowledge to grow an economy coming out of the worst pandemic in a hundred years, while dealing with a nutcase in central Europe with his trigger finger on the nuclear button. Yet, Liz Truss’s first act as prime minister was to fire the senior civil servant at the British treasury office. Her second act was to trigger an economic disaster for her country.

As Ed Luce notes, “The one clear plan that Trump has for a second term, which more assiduous types have been working on, is to give him the power to fire the federal bureaucracy and replace them with loyalists. That’s anti-expertise, anti-qualification politics on steroids.”

It’s a path so stupid that of course he’ll do it if he gets a chance.

The UK, a place I love, has seen better days, sadly too the breakaway colonies. It feels like the political end times are upon us. Rational action and decent behavior built around old values like honesty and service are forever floating away. Given all the mess, little wonder the Queen, a quiet, dignified symbol of duty and character was so widely mourned. Say what you will about hereditary royalty, she represented something better than what she left behind.

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Additional Reading:

A few more suggestions …

How the right’s radical think tanks reshaped the Conservative party

One more piece on how and why the Conservative Party in Britain has ended up where it is. Turns out you can trace a good deal of it to US “think tanks” funded by right wing billionaires and corporations.

When Boris Johnson assumed office as prime minister in July 2019 and proceeded, without the mandate of a general election, to appoint a cabinet that was arguably one of the most right wing in post-second world war British history, many commentators called it a coup. The free market think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs felt self-congratulation was more in order, however.”

Maybe there really is a vast right wing conspiracy after all. Read the full piece.


The Sweat and Blood of Fannie Lou Hamer

As the U.S. Supreme Court heads toward what could well be the complete dismantling of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, this timely piece is a reminder of why that law came to be and why we still need it.

Voting rights pioneer Fannie Lou Hamer

“At the 1964 Democratic National Convention, Hamer rose to national prominence. She and other activists had started the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party. Because Blacks were denied the right to vote in Mississippi, the MFDP argued, the state’s Democratic delegates were not legally elected. The group presented a report showing Blacks were denied the vote. The Mississippi delegates should not be allowed to vote at the convention, the report stated, and the MFDP delegates should be seated instead.”

Fannie Lou Hamer is a civil rights icon. Read her story and do all you can to support efforts to expand, not limit the right to vote.


Stephen King on What Authentic Maine Cuisine Means to Him

OK, something a little lighter. The celebrated novelist on the cuisine of his native state.

“When I think of Maine cuisine, I think of red hot dogs in spongy Nissen rolls, slow-baked beans (with a big chunk of pork fat thrown in), steamed fresh peas with bacon, whoopie pies, plus macaroni and cheese (often with lobster bits, if there were some left over). I think of creamed salt cod on mashed potatoes—a favorite of my toothless grandfather—and haddock baked in milk, which was the only fish my brother would eat. I hated it; to this day I can see those fishy fillets floating in boiled milk with little tendrils of butter floating around in the pan. Ugh.”

King has written an introduction to a cookbook that draws inspiration from his books. Read the whole thing.


Thanks a million for following along. See you again soon. Be careful out there.

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