29 DON’T PLAY THAT SONG
Tolstoy was reluctant to give Napoleon credit for anything. But if the Emperor slipped up in Russia, Boney showed common sense when he claimed that timing was the essence of genius. Committing to levelling up the regional economies of the UK while there is a cost of living crisis would have for Napoleon brought back memories of the Russian Steppes and deep snow. Yet if Britain had a dynamic government led by someone like Franklin D Roosevelt and there was a plan similar to the New Deal we could have had the prospect of crusading heroes seizing magic moments and making history. FDR may have been the right man at the right time back in the 1930s but he would have suffered days when he was obliged to hold his breath and hope for the best. The President survived because he had a plan and energy. Dynamism, competence and faith helped Roosevelt mitigate the worst effects of the economic depression. And despite opposition from the American rich he held out until the second world war arrived, and after that, economically at least, it was plain sailing for the four terms American President. Or at least until his death.
The limitations of the British government will ensure that it cannot replicate the success of FDR and his Democrats. The UK government already compares badly to the alternatives in Western Europe. A scoundrel called Pfeffel and his pack of blinkered and incompetent lackeys have not revealed problem solving skills. Roosevelt had Keynesian convictions. He believed that a government could make a difference. Pfeffel and the people around him have nothing but a neoliberal do nothing faith in a market unencumbered by government planning. Faced with a cost of living crisis and with no neoliberal elbow room, the knee jerk reaction of the government to the existing economic problems is to get rid of 90,000 civil servants. Of course what the government says about governing is not meant to be taken seriously. They do not believe in governments and governing. The market and the invisible hand will solve everything or at least eventually. With nothing to do, the members of the government campaign rather than rule. Pfeffel has put on more hard hats than Cate Blanchett has worn movie costumes. They also look at how the money coming out of the Treasury can make them and their friends rich.
But right now living standards are collapsing. Higher marginal cost curves may not be important to the average shopper but they have noticed the jaw dropping weekly cost of groceries. The government message is that chancellor Rishi Sunak is thinking about the cost of living crisis. This is the new style of government. Nothing is done to solve problems but the politicians are thinking about how people are suffering. On a good day they give speeches and powerpoint presentations. Often these occur in front of a Union Jack. Welcome to the intellectual bankruptcy of neoliberalism. Pfeffel, with and without his hard hat, has said that the underperforming economies of the regions will be addressed by levelling up. The programme always looked inadequate. Now it feels like a con. David Milliband is not the most popular politician amongst Labour Party members. Many on the left believe he was too easily seduced by power and neoliberal economic theories. The critics of Miliband remember his willingness to sanction rendition, the practice of sending terrorist suspects and even reluctant witnesses to other countries where they would be tortured on behalf of the British government. But even Milliband has a point when he says that Britain is now in a position where it is left with two alternatives, obituary and revolution. There are no next measured steps that will solve the social and economic problems facing the UK, especially when hysterical hegemony dismisses even modest reform.
Unbalanced and stuttering economies and a cost of living crisis require government actions that neoliberals are obliged to consider taboo interventions in the market. Even free with his money Pfeffel is reluctant to tread on the toes of the folks with the cash. This is why he prefers to build bridges and tunnels. Economic interventions are what neoliberals dismiss as socialism. And after forty years of British media hysteria we all know what we are supposed to think of socialism. But even socialists and social democrats would struggle with this cost of living crisis. Covid and Brexit have intensified previous and now perennial problems with the supply of the raw materials needed for production. Covid and Brexit have also reduced the number of people available in the labour market. This is why prices and the cost of fuel bills are increasing. And, just to make it complicated, lockdowns reduced the profits of companies and increased their debt. Not always because Covid has made some people very rich. The less fortunate enterprises, though, are looking for payback. Hate to kick a man when he is down but it is difficult to see how Pfeffel, as he claims, will solve these problems by creating a high growth and high wage economy. Even if he did deliver what he says, and only the poodles in his Cabinet talk as if he might, such success risks making worse the labour and raw material shortages that have already driven up prices.
But these are serious problems for serious people. The neoliberals are programmed with the invisible hand nonsense of Adam Smith. Roosevelt had a high investment programme and managed inflation with an incomes and prices policy. Some have argued that he saved capitalism but, if he did, he gets no thanks from the neoliberals. There will be no prices and incomes policy that can prevent extra investment in green jobs augmenting the existing inflation in the British economy. Utilising heavy investment and an incomes policy is not without risk but not as risky as doing nothing. It would also ease the hardship being faced by ordinary people. Of course a prices and incomes policy and higher taxes to help pay for investment shifts the burden of the cost of living crisis towards bankers and wealthy companies or what some of us in our weaker moments call capital. Much easier for Pfeffel and his cronies is to let ordinary people suffer cost inflation and watch demand for goods and services shrink. Or put simply, exacerbate a cost of living crisis.
And all this is before we even think about levelling up. The author of this ruse is Michael Gove. The chap was already having a bad week before his failed Scouse impression but after that the jibes about his cocaine habits were not slow to appear. Poor Gove. How does one level up the economies of the regions without making government interventions that are supposed to be socialist in a society that has confined such notions to the dustbin? The answer from David Milliband, a man that spent his political career retreating from the left wing opinions of his father, is that you do not. The UK options are either obituary or revolution. Note that we are talking about a population fed nonsense by the British media. Obituary it is then.
To understand how neoliberalism is inconsistent with levelling up we only have to look at the one British success story, the Premier League. And why not? After the economics some light relief is in order. Funding from the Abu Dhabi sovereign state has made it almost impossible for anyone to be competitive with Manchester City. Liverpool football team won a title two seasons two years ago but that only happened because the team manager of Manchester City failed to have adequate cover for his defence. European competition ensures that the rich clubs get richer and the poor clubs become poorer. If Manchester City win the League every year for the next decade, it will only be imitating what Paris St Germain and Bayern Munich already manage in France and Germany. Spain has a ubiquitous two horse race but Spain is really more than one country. Without its geography Spain might have been dominated by just one team.
In the football world the big boys receive most of the European money and claim the hog share of the TV rights and commercial sponsorship. This they use to establish themselves as international brands which means that they get more money again. And so it goes. This is neoliberal economics in action. A couple of months before his 22nd birthday Erling Halland signed a contract with Manchester City. So far his skills have been limited to scoring goals. His statistics for retaining possession, making successful passes and creating assists are not great. While running around a football pitch and, when the opportunity arises, aiming the ball at a net he will earn £350,000 a week and, no surprise here, undisclosed bonuses. There is an irony within this dream neoliberal model. Manchester City are owned by a sovereign state, one that so far has invested billions in the football club. There is another irony. The NFL in the States has salary caps and drafts to ensure talent is balanced out between the teams and American football remains competitive. All this happens in the USA, home of modern capitalism. Perhaps it was the influence of Roosevelt.
In the Premiership some money is taken from the big clubs and given to clubs lower down the League but not enough to threaten the status quo. This support for the less successful does not happen because the Premier League contains closet social democrats. To establish the Premier League the creators had to give voting rights to all the clubs. British politics is dominated by a two party system where the winner takes all. Levelling up requires a lot more than a powerpoint presentation from MIchael Gove, nothing less than a radical overhaul of the British Constitution. This brings us back to David Milliband and his quote about obituary or revolution. No one should hold his or her breath. There is a scene in The Dark Knight when The Joker describes himself as a man without a plan. ‘I am someone that likes to watch it burn,’ says The Joker. Seeing the UK head towards calamity should give him a thrill.
Howard Jackson has had thirteen books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest book Long After This is now available here.