Archive for the 'Guest slot' Category


Getting the MPs we deserve?

Friday, April 12th, 2019

A guest slot from Harris Tweed

In a rare moment of PB agreement in a recent thread, Casino_Royale and Nick Palmer, himself a former MP, discussed the shallow gene pool which provides too many of our MPs, and the party and parliamentary processes which aim – not always successfully – to keep them in check. Strong whipping, party patronage and a lack of local competition in their seats mean too many members can enjoy a trouble- and blame-free life on the backbenches with an agreeably-subsidised lunch. As Nick also pointed out, this stifles free thinking and bores some of the cream before it has the chance to rise to the top. (Before I go any further, I apologise for the generalisations in this piece, and agree wholeheartedly that most MPs are doing what they believe to be best, and a number way in excess of zero succeeding).

The three factors I mentioned in breaking down this order of things are probably not the only ones, but they’ve each played their own role. Brexit and Corbyn are effectively the same issue – factors which have split parties to a greater depth than whipping can fix. Both stem from public/membership votes which weren’t tied to the provision of a Commons majority to deliver a programme. Labour members elected a leader clearly unacceptable to a majority of the MPs, and the great British public decided Leave was A Thing without providing the parliamentary clout to see it through. This has left the whipping system broken, and may yet split one or both of the main parties.

I mention social media, because it’s a relatively new influence on MPs. Too often it’s negative and reactive (“people on Facebook are for/against X, therefore so must I be”), and leaves MPs scared of the baying mob. They ignore the fact that the people moved to post about X are very much the fired-up front row, and never a representative sample of their constituents. Nor are they posting from a position of legislating in the round. But it has also democratised the process, and allowed actual experts to illustrate when MPs are talking out of their hats, using the valuable but unfashionable currency of researched facts.

And it’s the lack of that currency among MPs which worries me most. In the “trouble-free/agreeably subsidised lunch/working parliamentary majority” era, they could get away with being ill-informed sheep. Now that each one has become what Nick Palmer called a ‘quasi minister’, chuntering at an op-ed in the Mail and jeering at PMQs really won’t cut it. But we’re the ones who send them there, and the baying mob has more votes than the academic expert on trade in lemons. Too many times, MPs grasp onto a passing opinion piece in the papers as evidence for what they should think or do, without considering that its author was up against a deadline and will be measured on retweets rather than accurate facts-per-paragraph. Get your head in the Commons library and read some actual facts on which to base your opinions!

But even among PB members, how many of us do enough due diligence on the people we send to Westminster? How many of us consider the calibre and quality of the individual rather than which colour rosette they wear and whether they support Policy Y from Party Leader Z? And among the electorate at large, where local newspaper readership has been decimated and local radio stations no longer need to be local, how many voters even know or care who their MP is?

The ‘current situation’ may have left many holding heads in hands, exasperated at MPs’ collective failures. And that may increase the disconnect between Westminster and the voters. But perhaps we can also hope that it’ll lead to at least a few more of us checking who we’re sending there in the first place.

Harris Tweed

(Harris Tweed has been a PB poster for five years and a reader for over a decade. He works in the media, parts of which he fully agrees also find themselves in need of “adultier adults”!)


EU and Whose Army?

Friday, December 7th, 2018

There is no subject that will more rapidly inflame the jowls of a Euroskeptic than that of the EU Army. It is often employed as the trump card that will instantly and irrevocably end all discussion of further European integration.

The basis of this antipathy has never been fully established but seems to be founded, in the first instance on misguided fealty to NATO and, in the second, to the exceptionalist view that no other European nation than the British can field an effective fighting force. However, the fact remains that, for a significant proportion of the British population, the notion of EU owned and operated armed forces causes revulsion and symptoms of physical distress.

So in light of the UK’s troubled relationship with the EU it is worth examining the EU’s currently military disposition, its future intentions and how that might affect the UK.

Army of One

The notion of an autonomous EU defence policy was created in the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the Maastricht Treaty. At that time the EU had a civil war with occasional outbreaks of genocide erupting on its southern flank in the form of the Yugoslav civil war. It was felt that the existing security framework of the ECP was ineffectual and not suited to the febrile times in which Europe now found itself.

The original notion of the CFSP was that EU and NATO forces would be ‘separable but not separate’. NATO would remain responsible for the territorial defence of Europe while the EU would eventually take the lead on peacekeeping and police actions with member state forces being assigned to each entity as necessary.

This situation obtained until the Lisbon Treaty which created the position of the High Representative and the External Action Service. There was no longer going to be a common security policy there was going to be an EU security policy – an important difference. Since then we have had the establishment and rapid growth of the EU Military Service. This organisation is headquartered in Brussels and is currently running six separate operations outside Europe. It is intended that the EUMS will be capable of brigade level executive action by 2020.

Thus the idea that the armed forces of the EU have been developed in secret and only now sprung on the the British people is entirely false. The strategic goals and the direction of travel have been readily apparent since Maastricht.

To its critics the development of the EUMS and the associated structures is a sign of the EU wishing to mantle itself with the trappings of the nation state. This may even be true to a minor extent but it is a happy byproduct rather than the main motivating factor. There are two driving forces behind EU military integration: the strategic and the economic.

Call of Duty

There has always been an influential strand of thought in Europe that may be crudely termed ‘Gaullist’. This philosophy holds that NATO constrains European strategic autonomy and that, instead, there should be a strong and independent Europe de la défense. This school of thought has flowered again since the end of the cold war. For post of the post-war period the US and Europe shared a common strategic goal of opposing the Soviet Union. This allowed Europe to benefit from the presence of significant US forces in Europe.

The strategic interests of the US and Europe no longer align in the same way. The US is now looking anxiously west, across the Pacific, for its rival while Europe looks east where a tattered yet belligerent and unstable double headed eagle hones its talons.

The US is no longer as heavily vested in the defence of Europe as it once was and that effort is rapidly sliding down the scale of American priorities. In a decisive break from the separable but not separate policy the EU is going to have to take responsibility for its own territorial integrity.

The situation has been described with typical erudition by the French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.

Dans ce travail, nous devrons suivre un fil d’Ariane : celui de l’autonomie stratégique de l’Europe et des Européens. Car il nous revient, au sein de l’Union européenne, d’assurer la sécurité de notre continent et de nos concitoyens.

In this effort we must follow the thread of Ariadne: that of strategic autonomy for Europe and Europeans. Because it is up to us, in the European Union, to ensure the security of our continent and our fellow citizens.

Money for Nothing

The second and equally important compelling factor for European defence integration is financial. Modern weapon systems are fantastically complex and expensive. They require large numbers of technically adept personnel to maintain and operated. With a few exceptions no European nations have the capacity to design and field these systems outside multinational cooperative structures. The result is that no single country can provide a full spectrum of defence capabilities. Each must therefore bring something to the EU military alliance that can strengthen the whole.

Combined EU defence spending is second only to the USA but the fragmentation of that investment across 27/28 (delete as applicable) countries means that resultant military force produced is not of a similar scale.

We Happy Few

Notwithstanding its neurotic gyrations over Brexit the UK shares, perhaps to an even greater degree than some of its continental neighbours, these two issues of strategic autonomy and effective defense spending. An EU military alliance, if effectively funded and operated, is a far better defender of British strategic interests that NATO which utterly dominated, to a degree that is not readily apparent to most, by US interests.

The EUMS is not geographically limited in the way that NATO is by Article 6. This was a provision inserted by the US as it had no appetite for defending the colonial possessions of the UK and France. For a salutary example of how NATO membership does not always serve British interests remember that the Falklands War would never have happened if Article 6 did not exist.

The defence challenges and strategic goals of the UK have more in common with Denmark than Hawaii. Membership of a European defence structure recognises this in a way that NATO membership never can.

There is not going to be an ‘EU Army’ in the sense of a unitary force structure and forces with no chain of command back to national governments any time soon or perhaps ever. There is, however, going to be increasing and accelerating integration of defence efforts through EU institutions.

The UK is going to be involved in the EU defence structure after Brexit because its strategic situation compels it to be so with shared imperatives and goals. It’s is just going to have a much reduced voice when it comes to shaping those structures.

Dura Ace

Dura Ace is a regular and ex-RN officer who was censured for stealing a tuk-tuk while on active duty.


A Nation once again?  Part 2 – Culture and politics

Sunday, October 21st, 2018

In the second of three articles Alanbrooke looks at Irish affairs

In the previous article I looked at economics which is quite a hurdle. This article looks at the longer term issue of the impact of putting two sets of people  together. In Ulster the past always lies ahead of us,  so somewhere along the line somebody needs to be squaring circles. The North, trapped in its history and with a victim mentality, somehow needs to fit in to a fast modernising, liberal state which increasingly wants to leave the past behind.

A culture shock is unavoidable – in both directions

The North and South of Ireland are different in approach . Ulster culture is more like lowland scots irrespective of which religion. Ulster people are brusque, to the point and obstinate (with apologies to readers in Ayrshire). 

A northerner can make asking for a cup of tea sound like a threat without realising it. Unsurprisingly the Nordies often grate with their neighbours much like say the Scots with the English and that’s before we get to the historical baggage.

For unionists it’s the ongoing suspicion of nationalist intent. In the Irish Republic the protestant population has crashed by 60% and dwindled from 10% of the population at independence to 4 % now. A civil war and De Valera’s ardently catholic and Gaelic policies didn’t help improve the unionist view. The RoI’s record on its minority doesn’t look great from up North and as they say just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

For nationalists there lurks a recurrent niggle that the Republic abandoned them, that the South did live up to the ideals of 1916. Likewise there is a recognition that some aspects of the UK are superior to RoI, the NHS being top of  the list and that would be unlikely to survive in its current format.

For both communities there lurks the prospect of perceived second class citizenship. Once the dust has died down how does the North come to terms with no longer running (or not) its own affairs? How will  Belfast fare against the all-pervading presence of Dublin a city which has a bigger impact on its hinterland than London does to the UK or Paris to France? And then of course there are the day to day issues of parades, flags, the annually scheduled riots the whole headbanging  nonsense.

The Republic is not going to be too worried about Northern sensitivities, they’re too busy making money. There is already a degree of healthy scepticism about the North and that may just get bigger. Southerners look at the North and can’t understand why they don’t want to get richer. 

If you want some fun type “protestant work ethic” in to an Irish blog, you’ll think you’re in a Surrey golf club. The British government’s overindulgence of NI petulance will disappear and I don’t think any community in the North is ready for this, nor the Irish for the political pushback.

Politics will change  drastically

The politics of a New Ireland would be fundamentally different from the old.  For a start off the electorate has just grown by 40% and they are an awkward lot. The Irish STV system encourages communities to vote as blocks for maximum representation. So it’s fairly likely the unionists will all end up voting for a single party which would have about 15% of the seats.

The injection of Northern votes will also propel  Sinn Fein past Fianna Fail, at which point the old civil war party divisions look even more irrelevant. What is the point to two conservative pro-business parties when the opposition are now left wing populists?

How the electoral arithmetic will work out is hard to say, but it’s likely that at some point in the future either Sinn Fein could be the government or the successors to the DUP could hold the balance of power. At this point the North will take its pound of flesh.

Politically the Republic will be in for a shock to the system.  How this will play out is anyone’s guess.  In an ideal world all would get on together and start making themselves better off. But they should be doing that today and they’re not.  Suffice to note the British population in Ulster who are about 2% of the UK have been a perennial thorn in the side to the British government.

The Republic will be taking on a 40% thorn and this will change the nature of the state materially. Unity will put together two peoples who have big holes in their common history and in some cases have diametrically opposed views. The Republic inevitably will become a bit more like the North with all its consequences.

I often say the NI conflict is the Scots versus the Irish but they’ve both agreed to blame the English. Maybe in the distant future a British PM and a Taoiseach will be sitting in a bar somewhere consoling each other on how hard it is to handle their Scots.


Alanbrooke is a longstanding poster on PB as well as a Northern Irishman.


The Dangers of Polite Demagogues

Monday, September 3rd, 2018

The cartoonist known as Pont is perhaps best remembered (if at all) for his Punch series on the English character. The cartoons depict a certain type of pre-war English upper middle class life (dressing for dinner, hunting, country weekends, clubland, patient, stoic enjoyment of outdoor pursuits, bewilderment at Abroad and the need to Keep up Standards, often to the point of absurdity) laced with endearing eccentricity. It is a life which has largely disappeared, save for those (often foreigners) wealthy enough to indulge in some of its nicer aspects. Yet some of his gently humorous observations still resonate: Absence of Decision is the ideal gift for Mrs May when she finally retires. A Tendency to Be Hearty quietly pokes fun at the Farages of this world. The Importance of Not Being Alien speaks for itself.

Two of his cartoons – Political Apathy and the Importance of Not Being Intellectual capture a very English mistrust of Big Ideas and and the excitable politicians promoting them. Big Philosophical Ideas are for Foreigners. Odd really since Locke, Paine, Burke, Mill and Adam Smith have a pretty good claim to have come up with the ideas which have shaped an important strand of Western political thought. Still, Utopian politics have never had much purchase in English politics, at least since the Civil War. If anyone felt the need to start reshaping societies radically, there was America available or, later, the Empire. No Napoleons for us, thank you very much!

Some of that scepticism has been felt about politicians who were charismatic, fluent, outsiders in some respect and, possibly, unreliable or dangerous. Non-U, to coin a term. But at various times, oh so necessary. Disraeli, rescuing the Tories from the electoral wilderness. Later, Lloyd George. Or Churchill. The latter two reached their zenith in wartime, when ordinary rules no longer apply.

But Mosley (arguably as talented and charismatic) was not trusted, the English instinctively viewing him as a Roderick Spode rather than a new Messiah. Angry, foam-flecked shouting is associated with dangerous, possibly religious based, idees fixe (Ian Paisley and his Whore of Babylon) or encouraging violence (Scargill ruining the miners’ case by talking about overthrowing the government). Even when radical change was wanted, it was a conventional, polite, taciturn, traditional leader (Attlee) who was trusted to deliver it.

Radicalism does not necessitate ranting and rallies (though it does need thoughtful preparation) and, if a bit of passion is needed, well, Welsh politicians are always available. (Scots politicians touch us in other ways.) There was something admirable in a determination not to reward demagoguery.

A stereotype no doubt and probably no longer true, if it ever was. There was demagoguery aplenty two years ago and last year. Still, it is true that manners, how people behave, speak and look has always played a part in how politicians are assessed. This tendency seems more marked nowadays with the perpetual search for the charismatic, authentic (policies an optional extra) politician who will make people feel good and inspire them while not frightening the horses or, at least, not too many of them.

Viewed in this light, Corbyn captures the zeitgeist almost perfectly. Mild-mannered, patient, with the air of a kindly, determined uncle with gentle eccentric hobbies (allotments, manhole covers) only becoming exasperated at being unfairly pressed, as anyone would, really (or so his supporters say) and yet, on stage, able to generate adoring loyalty and admiration.

Little wonder at the frustration of those who see a petulant evasiveness, questionable judgment, malicious indifference to those outside his circle and passive-aggressive response to criticism or challenge behind it. Not hard to be calm, after all, if others to do the ranting for you; even easier to claim it has nothing to do with you, should someone be so rude as to complain.

Meanwhile, the Tories, lumbered with a dutiful leader doggedly pursuing an ill-thought through policy which its main proponents can now barely explain, let alone implement competently, pathetically latch onto the latest saviour politician for the post-May deluge (Johnson, Rees-Mogg, Javid, Hunt, Raab) each time one manages to walk and talk in public without falling over.

Let’s take Rees-Mogg who, with his suits, 8-year old’s haircut, devotion to Nanny and courtly fluent politeness, could have walked straight out of a Pont cartoon. He talks beautifully, has lovely manners charming even his most determined opponents and has the requisite amount of eccentricity.

Or Johnson with his messy hair, ill-fitting clothes, classical aphorisms, rather-too-pleased-with-itself wit and carefully crafted bumbling persona. That either of them should be viewed as serious contenders for the highest office suggests a failure to listen to what they say, to see that they mostly talk nonsense, sometimes dangerous, ill thought-out and harmful nonsense. It is a measure of how out of ideas and talent the Tories seem to be that amateurish eccentricity, incompetence in office and Boys Own enthusiasm are even thought of as serious contenders.

Against them, Corbyn, catering for the 1960’s nostalgia market, can almost look like the grown up. Almost.  Some of his criticisms are well-founded; some of his policies sensible in aim, if not execution. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is King.

Easy to see the dangers in excitable ranting. Less so when dangerous ideas or plain nonsense are spoken quietly. Mildness is not the same as moderation. Bad ideas do not become better because they are presented fluently. Fervour is not a substitute for thought. If the English have been good at not falling for obvious demagogues, they seem now all too willing to fall for polite ones.



What happens next if not much happens?

Sunday, August 26th, 2018

Like the media, we are attracted to drama. What if Trump is impeached? What if No Deal Brexit leads to economic meltdown? What if both major parties split? What if the EU collapses?

But what if none of that happens? The instinct of people in power is to avoid chaos on their watch if possible. Cans are kicked down the road. Fudge is prepared in industrial quantities.

Suppose that rule applies here, specifically to Brexit. A deal is done in which everyday commerce continues under similar rules to now (there is not remotely a Commons majority for anything else), with a lengthy transition period and options for divergence at some time in the future which, like the Scottish option to vary income tax, may never be used. An attempt to get a second referendum fails. Intense controversy in Parliament is followed by reluctant consent. A few Tory and Labour MPs go independent. The economy ticks on, neither booming nor crashing.

What then? Few are really happy with the state of affairs. Remainers find we are out despite their best efforts. Brexiteers have their freedom, but a leadership unwilling to use it. The Tories are exhausted and out of ideas. Labour is in opposition and divided. The LibDems occasionally change from one obscure leader to another. 2022 comes round, and it’s an election. Who wins?

Some predictions:

  1. In the end, the Tories won’t replace May. The fact of Brexit will take the edge off for people who wanted more. There is no consensus on an alternative, and no polling pointing to a strong alternative. Replace May with Javid, say? Why bother? May delivered Brexit and remains indisputably calm under pressure – for Tory MPs, why not stick to nurse rather than risk Boris? The Tory appeal will once again be stability – we got you through those troubled times, why not stay with us?
  2. In the end, Labour will remain largely intact. There are clearly a few MPs who have had enough, but no sign of a critical mass that would actually achieve anything by defection. Equally the will of left-wingers to engage in a serious deselection drive is absent – and increasingly seats are already picking not especially radical candidates without much fuss. A few will drift into independent status; a couple may be deselected; some will retire. But if Labour wins, there will be no stomach in the PLP to go further left than the 2017 manifesto. The Labour appeal will be not be a socialist revolution but that 12 years of an exhausted Tory party is enough.
  3. Something like UKIP will resurface. The party itself may be irretrievably damaged by its descent into farce, but there is enough Brexiteer money to finance a new venture, and it’s hard to look past Farage as leading it. Their appeal will be “real Brexit” – “let’s turn those options for divergence into reality”. That will damage the Tories more than Labour if it is popular, and the success or failure of that enterprise will be what decides the election.

Who wins? We honestly don’t know, but the longer term future will only really be decided afterwards, because May doesn’t have a long-term vision and Corbyn doesn’t have a PLP majority to deliver radical socialism. I don’t see either of them fighting a 2027 election – for all the grit that they have both so amply demonstrated, common sense will dictate that it’s time to retire by 2025. At that point, both parties will face the challenge of choosing leaders with a viable, interesting project which can command a solid majority.

And most people have currently not even heard of the leaders who will emerge.

Nick Palmer

Nick Palmer was Labour MP for Broxtowe


Hubristic Overreach – what happens to dominant parties

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2018

From ex-LAB MP and longstanding PBer Nick Palmer

It’s pretty widely-believed that politicians are all in it for themselves – the fame, the money, the sense of power. On the whole, that’s not true in most democratic countries. Fame is a double-edged sword: the media will build you up and then tear you down. If you’re good enough to get a Cabinet salary, you’re good enough to earn more for less work outside. And few retired politicians report that their experience was one of untrammelled power – most report perpetual frustration alleviated by short periods of achievement.

No, initially most people take up politics because they want to make a difference, overused phrase though that may be. More freedom, more equality, more national independence, more prosperity – the objectives vary, of course, but the spirit is surprisingly similar. That’s why you get enduring cross-party friendships: at heart there are kindred souls on the other side. Later on, though, you may start to think that what it’s all about is really just winning, so you can do Good Stuff. And that’s where you sow the seeds not just of cynicism (“What do I need to pretend to believe so I can win?”) but of hubris.

Why? Because the eternal compromise and difference-splitting and settling for quarter-measures go against the grain. You feel you need to go along with them, because otherwise the other lot will get in, and that would be terrible. But democracy forces parties to compromise with the electorate, making just enough concessions to popular preference to get a majority. On the whole, that’s a good thing, even remembering the fickle nature of many not very interested voters. But if you went into politics to achieve great change, it’s tantalising.

What, though, if you think you’ll win anyway? You are X% ahead in the polls, your opponents are divided, your personal ratings are well ahead. Well, then, it’s the chance to do the job properly, implement all those things you fancied in your most ambitious days. Why not sort out retirement care with a new system of charges, Mrs May? Why not impose an escalating fuel duty to wean people off petrol, Mr Brown? Why not send the Armed Forces to help sort out the situation in Iraq, Mr Blair? Why not slash taxpayer spending on public services, Mrs Thatcher?

Now look across the Atlantic. The Republicans control all the major levers of power, and may well continue to do so after the November elections. Why not take the opportunity to reverse Roe vs Wade? Why not really do the job of getting rid of any kind of universal health care?

Because it’s Hubristic Overreach. You can get away with it for a while, if you start in a dominant position, because voters aren’t paying that much attention. But at some point they notice, and they think, “Hang on a moment, that’s not what I voted for.” They protest, but the momentum carries you on. It’s the Right Thing to Do. They’ll appreciate it in the end. And they’ll never vote for the other lot, the polls are clear, aren’t they?

But polls measure what voters think today, not tomorrow. And, sooner or later, people get fed up. They may not vote for the alternative, but they stop voting for you. Keeping you in power has gone to your head, and it’s time to stop supporting you, even if it means giving the other lot a chance.

Conservative Republicans hope they can maintain an absolute grip on Congress in November, so they can move decisively to roll back the vestiges of liberalism. Brexiteers hope for a clear, hard Brexit, to achieve the great triumphs of freedom from tiresome European entanglement.

They should be careful what they wish for. At some point, people will pay more attention, probably in the middle of an election campaign. They notice that you’re in the grip of Hubristic Overreach. And at that point, it’s too late to rediscover the reasons why you used to compromise.

Nick Palmer


Three Score and Ten? Has the NHS reached the end of its natural life?

Sunday, July 1st, 2018

On July 5th the NHS marks its 70th birthday, and the occasion will be marked by a significant financial injection as a means of life support by the Conservative government. This should keep it breathing for a while yet, but like any ageing process we should consider whether the condition is terminal, and what the objective of continued treatment is. Is the NHS a model of health care fit for the 2020’s or are there better ways of organising it in the modern world?

Why then was 1948 the moment of the birth of the NHS? And why has it taken up such a central place in Britain’s self-image? Other nations do not seem to fetishise their health care system to the same degree, or make it such a sacred cow. British politicians find this both a benefit and a curse, but as we saw with the £350 million per week Brexit Bus pledge, it is one that moves votes. The NHS was a central part of the first truly secure Socialist majority government in the UK, but also a product of its times.

In 1948 there had been substantial governmental involvement with management of hospitals for a decade, beginning in 1938 with planning for anticipated mass bombing casualties, health care staff had also spent a decade either in uniform, or in civilian government control. It was a unique moment in British history, when Attlee’s genteel Socialism and Blitz spirit of national unity came together as parents of the NHS. It was also the year of peak post war austerity.

The NHS was a sickly child from birth, with a vast legacy of untreated conditions, inadequate finance and staffing, and unsuitable legacy estate. Waiting lists were immediate, and the first co-payment charges shortly followed, precipitating Cabinet splits and resignations.

While waiting lists, central planning, and grey bureaucracy were acceptable, even state of the art, in 1948 they became increasingly grating to a population that had become more sophisticated and consumerist. Since then there has been a political desire to satisfy consumerist demands by both Conservative and New Labour governments, and also to introduce elements of competition. Largely this has been via the mechanism of internal market and contracting out of services to private providers, and one that continues today.

This element of privatisation has rarely met the desire for consumer choice, as the competition has been for contracts from the government. Operations and services are put up for bidding like cattle at auction, with the winner rarely being awarded the contract on the basis of clinical outcomes, but rather on the basis of price. This demonstrates that the customer is the government rather than the patient. We have arrived at a solution that meets some of the government’s aims, but at the expense of combining the worst of central planning, corporate profiteering, and lack of consumer responsiveness.

The  challenges to the future include medical inflation exceeding consumer inflation, rising expectations, failure to recruit and retain staff, the obesity crisis, and each of these deserve analysis. The biggest challenge is the demographic one, as summarised in this tweet:

Just as the solution to the pensions issue will be a combination of working longer, paying in more and getting less, the answer in health will be much the same. We will need to stay healthy longer, pay more (either in tax or privately) and get less, or a combination of the above. Staying healthy longer requires a public health approach such as that in the Marmot Report, and it seems increased rationing is on the way. The latter is likely to increase consumer dissatisfaction.

Funding remains the political football. Whether funded by a single government payer, or via compulsory insurance, universal healthcare is essentially redistributive. Those that gain are the elderly, the poor, the mentally infirm and the chronically sick, while the system is paid for by light users, who by and large are young healthy and relatively affluent. There will therefore always be tension between payers and recipient.

Any universal system has to be based on the greatest good for the greatest number, but should this be on the basis of need or of economic benefit? Should the system favour the working plumber over the retired one? The stockbroker with a breast cancer over the dinner lady with the same? I would argue that to do so would be politically suicide, and strike at the founding principle of the NHS. One parent of the NHS was that feeling of wartime national unity that defines postwar Britain, and is central in British psyche and in particular of social conservative voters.

As such, benefits have to be independent of economic utility, and defined on cost effectiveness for the whole nation. How then should we address the increasing restiveness and consumer demand for 24 hour access and rationed treatments? Well, the safety valve for this has historically been the private sector, but this is much smaller in the UK than in comparable OECD countries with universal access. To meet the demand, the UK private sector needs to grow, reform, to become more affordable, more transparent on price and outcomes, and to have robust clinical governance over rogue clinicians. If these were to happen then the consumer would find it more palatable to fund out of discretionary income.

This could be done via a combination of tax relief for private health insurance, vouchers for co-payment by the NHS to pay for an element of the private cost, and a Speedy Boarding co-payment for private wings at NHS hospitals. Private insurance has its merits, but insurance companies are rather prone to sell umbrellas on sunny days and take them back on rainy days, with nearly all policies excluding chronic conditions, mental illness, and pre-existing conditions.

Perhaps the answer for this is for individuals to be permitted to save for their own families health care in tax-deductible accounts analogous to private pensions, with the funds restricted to self funded health care. These could be preserved post retirement and include funding for approved social care. In many ways, such a system would be a return to the pre-NHS mix of workhouse hospitals, friendly societies and private provision, but better adapted to modern Britain.

Are there betting implications? Not really, other than that the NHS will become increasingly frail as it moves into its dottage, and post Brexit will return as a touchstone issue in British politics. It is also likely to remain fatal to political careers, whether in government or opposition. Health Ministers rarely get the top job. In the immortal words of John Reid, on being reshuffled into the job “Oh F***, not Health!”

Dr Foxy

Dr Foxy is a Hospital Specialist in NHS and Private Practice in Leicester. He also has worked and studied in the USA, Australia and New Zealand. He has an interest in statistics and public health planning, is an occasional political punter and longstanding contributor to PB.


How Labour need to stop worrying and learn to love the bomb

Monday, April 9th, 2018

Picture credit: The MOD twitter feed

Despite its relative lack of salience as a motivating issue for voters there is an interesting discussion to be had on how a Corbynite Labour party can use defence policy to attack the Conservatives in an area of perceived strength.

The last few decades of British defence policy have been characterised by constant out-of-area and expeditionary deployments that have been hindered by massive personnel reductions and scandalously poor procurement and program management. At some point the delusion will no longer hold and UK defence policy will have to reflect reality rather than aspiration. Which of the two major parties will be able to supply sufficient vision to implement the necessary changes?


An examination of the defence policies manifestos that the two major parties prepared for the 2017 General Election reveals two similarly brief offerings. One is deceptive to the point of dishonesty and the other is merely lackwittedly ignorant.

The Conservative offering is platform focused, a vulnerability to which we’ll return, as it is largely a list of hardware that the government has bought, is buying and will continue to buy with taxpayers’ money. It also displays a certain amount of creative ambiguity when it comes to future intentions. For example, the Astute submarine program will be ‘completed’ but there is no commitment to the full seven boats so completion can be artfully redefined as six boats should necessity dictate. This type of misleading language reveals less about the actuality of Conservative defence policy than it does about their cynical assessment of the average voter’s analytical capacity.

Now picture the scene inside Labour party HQ in April 2017. May has just called the Election That Never Wasn’t and a policy platform must be hastily assembled. Some junior wonk with Ronnie Corbett glasses and a W.G. Grace beard has been charged with writing the defence policy. He is still shaking from last night’s cocktails and he thinks he might have tweeted something about Jews while he was drunk. He has fifteen minutes to draft a defence policy or Seumas will know why. The result is a puerile blend of platitudes about the UN and peacekeeping combined with some hastily assembled facts from Wikipedia with which to bludgeon the Conservatives.

Despite the utter and manifold failures of Conservative defence policy from 2010 onwards the Labour manifesto chooses to highlight the withdrawal from service of the Harrier and Ark Royal. These decisions were taken seven years ago in the 2010 SDSR and there is no examination of why these decisions were poor or any offer of a competing vision. Like the Conservatives the statement is platform focused as if that were the most important consideration of defence policy.


The Conservatives have a defence policy problem. Their core vote expects to have their dessicated pleasure centres of nationalism and martial reverence stimulated by the long pale finger of Williamson. This means areas of defence that actually have a negative effect on the nation’s military capabilities, Red Arrows – I am looking at you, are untouchable lest the bowls clubs, WIs and golf courses of Middle England combust with Daily Mail directed incendiary rage.

Since the end of World War 2 every Conservative government, with the notable exception of Sir Edward Richard George Heath KG, MBE, has left office with lower defence spending as a proportion of GDP than it inherited. So while the Conservatives have a marvellous track record of slashing defence spending they are politically, culturally and organisationally incapable of making the types of radical and imaginative changes the country needs.


The contemporary Labour party periodically moves between three positions on defence policy. These are: disinterest, embarrassment and internecine conflict over nuclear weapons. Despite the longstanding ambivalence of the Absolute Boy toward the Absolute Bomb I believe that Labour will enter the next General Election campaign with a policy of replacing Trident. There a few good reasons for this but principal among these is pragmatism; the program will simply be too far advanced to cancel by 2022.

In the past week alone the government issued a $126m contract for long lead items relating to the Dreadnought boat missile compartment to General Dynamics in Rhode Island. By the time of the next election a great deal more money will have been irrevocably spent eliminating cancellation as a realistic option.

Labour could seize the initiative on defence policy by pivoting away from the usual technocratic arguments about hardware and, instead, adopt a strategy that focuses on the armed forces’ most precious and most mismanaged asset: the people.

For decades defence procurement policy has been subordinated to a strategy of centrally managed industrial welfare. My expectation that Labour would be able to break this cycle of dependency on work creation schemes is nugatory. However, a Labour defence policy that put people at the centre could be relevant and compelling.


Here are some worthy ideas worthy of consideration in the Corbyn government’s first defence white paper.

The most important and central plank of the new policy should be to face reality and reverse the now decades old doctrine of doing more with less. The focus of the UK forces should be overwhelmingly on the North Atlantic, the GIUK gap and the British Isles. Call it the East of Skegness Policy. British forces have been in more or less constant combat in the Middle East for 26 years. It is now safe to conclude that whatever it is that we are doing there isn’t improving the situation and that we should stop. This strategic pivot would end long out of area deployments and thus greatly improve morale and retention.

The armed forces are a large and complex organisation that increasingly requires many technical specialists. They are constrained into to recruiting into exactly two positions: apprentices and management trainees. Every other vacancy must be filled by internal recruitment. Recruitment and retention should be aided by improving pay, housing and other similar issues. The retention problem is particularly grave once officers hit the OF-3 or OF-4 level in their late 30s or early 40s. The forces lose a lot of potential senior talent at this level so consideration should be giving to allowing people to move in and out of reserve status with relative ease to get some of them back.

All three services should be much better integrated with the creation of ‘purple’ uniform posts such as medics or other specialists who can move between combat arms during the course of their career. A United Kingdom Defence Force with a single administrative spine should be the ultimate goal.

The final strand of the defence policy should be the treatment of veterans. This doesn’t mean poppies or charities or similar facile nostrums. It should consist of a thorough and structured program to prepare, emotionally and professionally, every servicewoman and man for life after the forces.

As the young people who end up killed, maimed or mentally damaged are overwhelming working class from the more deprived areas of the United Kingdom this is the sort of class issue that Corbyn could sell with energy and authenticity.

Dura Ace

Dura Ace is a PB regular and served as a Fleet Air Arm officer for 20 years