Destruction of Labour bad news for UK democracy

As recently as May 2010, it seemed just about conceivable, even post-election, that Labour would stay in power. Having presided over the biggest economic crash since 1929, Gordon Brown remained in office, and it was in fact the Conservatives who were having the inquest as to how they could not secure an overall majority in such favourable circumstances.

It seems astonishing, just over five years on, that the Labour Party may now be on the verge, literally, of falling apart. With a bloodied Liberal Democrat faction and no evidence despite the hype of any Green surge, this will leave the left in smithereens.

What Labour needs to do over the coming weeks is select a Leader to unify the left-and-centre. What it seems intent on doing – partly because of the crazy decision to let keyboard warriors who registered vague support last month have the same say as committed canvassers of 30 years’ standing – is dividing itself even more.

With Scotland gone for at least a decade and boundaries due to change in 2018, Labour’s task to regain power and influence is to outpoll the Conservatives in England. Even this would not guarantee an absolute majority, but it would offer likely largest party status. It is, however, something which has only been achieved twice in the last nine elections since 1974.

The real battleground is southern England. Here, depressed coastal towns such as Hastings, run-down areas of Southampton, funky social liberal parts of Brighton, struggling dormitory towns like Folkestone, the whole of suburban far-from-posh Essex, poor peripheral towns like Harlow, flooded parts of the West Country and the whole of England’s least affluent county of Cornwall are represented in their entirety by Conservative MPs. In other words, in the entire south of England outside London, the party of the working class is blue. How could Labour let this happen?

Working people know the welfare system does not work, they expect work to be rewarded, and they see the value of financial responsibility. After all, they exercise all these things themselves. Therefore, they vote for parties which see this too. These are not my words, they are the basic summary of a report by John Cruddas into why Labour lost, commissioned by the party itself.

That the party is turning in on itself, degenerating into factions and on the verge of an outright split is the result of ignoring even the right questions, never mind the right answers. And that is before we even reach the farce of its Leadership election, which will inevitably result in a weakened opposition, less effective challenge to the government, and a decline in the standard of British democratic debate.

Regardless of our own political stances, the populist dash to the extremes should cause all democrats to worry. It is not good for any of us.


History of the Rugby World Cup: 1991

The first Northern Hemisphere World Cup merely confirmed Southern dominance as the era of amateurism and the four-point try approached its end. Yet it was not New Zealand but Australia, with stars Michael Lynagh and David Campese, who returned home with the gold.

The opening game hinted at ongoing Australasian dominance as New Zealand edged Grand Slam winner England 18-12 in London. Wales was humiliated, crashing to Western Samoa and exiting right at the start. Scotland, the previous year’s grand slam champions, was left to eliminate the South Sea islanders in the quarter final.

With New Zealand cruising past Canada, we seemed all set for one Northern semi and one Southern. Enter Gordon Hamilton, striding into the left-hand corner to put Ireland, incredibly, 18-15 up against the mighty Wallabies with just a few minutes remaining. Enter then Michael Lynagh, cool and calm under pressure, unwilling even to think of the drop to force extra-time, to lead his team through with a last-gasp try of its own.

Meanwhile in Paris England also rolled over the line for a late try to eliminate France 19-10. The scene was set for a repeat, eighteen months on, from the epic Grand Slam decider during the Poll Tax protests. In a game of much courage but little creativity, Scotland led 6-0, was pegged back to 6-6, and then ever reliable stalwart Gavin Hastings was left to slot a penalty midway through the second half from no distance, level with the right-hand post. Only the kick never came inside the post, England escaped to the other end, and Rob Andrew curled over the winning drop for vengeance and a place in the final.

The final was no better, with Australia always leading though somewhat fortuitous at times. A single, early converted try was the difference and the gold shirts lifted the gold trophy 12-6. Much would change before it was competed for again, not least the entry of a traditional rugby playing nation hitherto barred…

Linguistic proof ancients gave birth on their knees

The words “kin”, “knee” and “gynaecology” are all related. It does not appear obvious at first sight, but think about the pronunciation, particularly the original as guided by the spelling, and it becomes more obvious.

“Kin” and “knee” are both basic Germanic words and, of course, the latter was originally pronounced with the leading “k-“. Add that in, and it is easy to hear that they sound alike. They are, in fact, from the same root.

“Gynae-” is a prefix from Ancient Greek but ultimately from the same Indo-European root as “kin” and “knee”. The initial hard “g-” is merely a voiced “k-” (or the other way around, depending on how you want to look at it).

Why would a word referring to family linkage (“kin”) be linked to a word referring to a part of the body (“knee”) and to a word indicating female (“gynae-“)?

Easy. The ancient Indo-European women (“gynae-“) gave birth (to their “kin”) on their “knees”. All three were obviously linked, therefore, and language supported that.

Ugh! But this is backed up by historical references, from the Bible to Roman scrolls suggesting that giving birth on knees is humiliating and should be stopped (and thus was still the norm, at least among some).

Never doubt the power of linguistics – or the desirability of social advances!

UK not “sixth richest country in world”. Yet…

One of the lines frequently used by those who believe “the Government” should simply find money from somewhere for everything they want is that “We can afford it”, usually followed by “The UK is the sixth richest country in the world”.

The “sixth richest country in the world” figure is deliberately misleading. People using it should be held to account for this.

The figure originates from the total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of every sovereign state in the world; specifically, it is the total GDP unadjusted for what is known as “Purchasing Power Parity” (PPP), which effectively takes account of the cost of living, and thus the value of a certain amount of money in a certain country.

In other words, the figure originates from the total GDP for each country taking account neither for the population nor for the cost of living. It is almost meaningless. Although the funny thing is, the latest figures from 2014 (confirmed by the IMF, World Bank and CIA) in fact show the UK is in fact ranked fifth (behind only the United States, China, Japan and Germany) on this measure, not sixth.

So the UK by pure GDP (known as “nominal”) is the “fifth richest country in the world”, but that figure is meaningless as it gives no indication as to how rich individuals within its boundaries are (and thus, relevantly to the original point, how much they may be able to contribute in tax and charges to pay for services).

In fact, if you merely take account of PPP, the UK drops to tenth, passed also by India, Brazil, Russia, Indonesia and France. In reality, taking into account the cost of living (and thus the cost of public services), the UK is no better than the “tenth richest country in the world”. Admittedly, all the nine above it have higher populations, but that only brings us to the more relevant figure, namely GDP per head.

(On the latter measure, for the record, the UK will overtake France this year – so “ninth richest country”…)

The much more relevant figure is the country’s GDP per head (often known as “GDP per capita”), because that gives an indication of the real resources available to a population as a whole. For example, Denmark’s population is just over a twelfth of the United Kingdom’s, but its economy (at least, as measured by total GDP/PPP) is approaching a tenth of its size. Clearly, therefore, the Danish have more resources to pay for their public services than the British – they are, in any meaningful sense, “richer”.

Going by GDP per capita, the United Kingdom comes out in the mid-20s globally – about level with France, and 10% behind the likes of Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark. Far from being the “fifth” or even “ninth richest country in the world”, its economic output would suggest it is more like “twenty-fifth” – hardly startling, and in fact positively middling by Western standards.

This is to leave quite aside, of course, that “GDP” is a fundamentally unsound measurement. Within Europe, it is notably skewed in Ireland, where significant foreign investment is added to “GDP” in Ireland but in practice adds to the “GNI” (and therefore the practical resource for public spending) elsewhere, most obviously in the United States. “PPP” is also seriously flawed – watch how the UK shoots up the Eurostat GDP/capita tables in the next couple of years and then deny it is to do with the exchange rate between the euro and sterling settling at a quite different figure from that which prevailed from 2008-14.

As it happens, the UK is in a rather good position over the next quarter century or so, because its companies just happen to have significant amounts of wealth they can release in the coming years and decades – much more so than any comparable economy. This leads to a number of projections, of which this is just one, suggesting the UK’s ranking for GDP/PPP will rise to the top ten in the world by 2030, and to the highest in the European Union (aside from microstates) by 2040. Whether that is particularly meaningful or not (see previous paragraph) is another matter.

By 2050, who knows, the UK may be the “sixth richest country in the world” per head, rather than in total. But to be clear, it isn’t now. And even the most optimistic projections suggest “ninth richest country in the world” may be more like it even then. Let us be clear, therefore, about the resources we really have – as what is currently a middling Western economy.

We are still too reliant on debt

This superb article from the Washington Post about the need the “change the debt dialogue” speaks for itself and requires no further comment.

We still have an obsession with debt. It is seen as an absolute necessity, an accepted norm, even a good thing, when it comes to further education, property ownership or business start-up. It even drifts into “good thing” territory with reference to mobile phones, vehicles or even furniture.

It really isn’t. Eventually any Ponzi scheme is bound to collapse like a stack of dominoes. Fall far enough, and they’ll even break the table!

Countries like Germany manage perfectly well without stacking up such debt. People work as they are educated, rent until they can more easily afford to buy, and use investment for business. It is a more austere world, but also a more stable one – and one in which the very notion of things like “store credit” is alien. What is more, it is a more equal society and the wealth is not all stacked up in one corner while everyone else subsists on credit.

We need to change our entire attitude to debt. I do not know where we start, but it is clear we should.

Left must stop blame game and deliver solutions

One of the things which struck me in the response to last week’s post on the Left’s abandonment of the actual working class was the unwillingness to engage by many Left-leaning respondents, to the extent that I came to believe they do not want to solve problems, but merely assign blame for them.

A classic case is some of the larger Trade Unions. Their failure to abandon the outright “anti-austerity” rhetoric, which even an internal Labour report has found to be out of step with an electorate which actually recognises the need for fiscal responsibility, has led to a decline in influence and membership.

In May, for the first time in 60-80 years (depending on precise definition), centre-right to right-wing parties received an outright majority of the vote in Great Britain. That has been the outcome of the anti-work, anti-austerity agenda. People do not actually agree with it.

In the end, successful politicians, as I also wrote last week, will do two things: firstly, they will recognise they are not always right; and secondly, they will learn to compromise in order to secure a winning coalition.

I am not sure the Left does not realise this. Frankly, I think the deeper problem is that most on the Left don’t want to win. It’s far easier to blame others for problems, than to take actual responsibility for solving them in the real world – the real world where actually work is the route out of poverty, and where fiscal responsibility is obviously necessary.

History of the Rugby World Cup: 1987

This is the first in a weekly series of my own memories of the Rugby World Cup, starting next month and ending at Halloween. Rugby is not my sport, by any means, but it is a great tournament (even though I think it goes on too long), and one which has already provided many great moments.

What a different game it was too. It was entirely amateur, with just four points for a try. Dropped goals were allowed direct from free-kicks (the first points in the Final came that way) and scrummages; place kicks (which included most kick-offs) were taken without tees. At half-time players remained on the field, there were no substitutions or cards, and (very much unlike football) players on the field barely celebrated scores at all. 

TV coverage was also more limited, with no ref mics or such like to indicate why penalties had been awarded or how the game was being managed. 

Things have certainly changed!

We may not have known from the first tournament, a straightforward win for New Zealand, the game’s dominant force, just what a fine competition this would become.

In 1987 there were only seven test-playing nations at cricket, and with South Africa similarly excluded, there were only seven senior rugby nations too – the “Five Nations” plus the two Bledisloe Cup rivals, Australia and New Zealand, who hosted the first tournament. Fiji was the extra country to reach the last eight – this was before the rise of Argentina and Italy.

As it was, New Zealand and Australia eliminated Scotland and Ireland respectively and Fiji fell to France. The only all-Northern match in the knock-out phase saw Wales comfortably defeat England.

For Europeans, in an era before multi-channel broadcasting and the tradition of staying up late for games, the tournament was really noted for a remarkable semi-final match between Australia and France. With New Zealand awaiting in the Final, a Wallaby victory was assumed and sure enough, the home side led for the most of the match. However, France ran in four tries to win 30-24 – an important win not just for France, but for Northern Hemisphere rugby.

The Final was a step too far, with the All Blacks dismissing France 29-9. But those two teams would have many a close-run thing in future…

Ancient Indo-Europeans may have counted in eights

Following on from last week’s blog, one correspondent asked about the peculiarity that all Western Latin-derived languages change their means of counting around the number 16-17.

To explain again specifically: for the numbers 15-18, Classical Latin had quindecim, sedecim, septendecim, duodeviginti – derived literally from ‘five-ten’, ‘six-ten’, ‘seven-ten’ but then ‘two-from-twenty’.

French and Italian have, respectively, quinze/quindici, seize/sedici, dix-sept/diciasette, dix-huit/diciotto – in each case literally ‘five-ten’, ‘six-ten’ but then (unlike Latin) ‘ten-seven’, ‘ten-eight’.

Spanish changes order one further back: it has quince, dieciseis, diecisiete, dieciocho – thus ‘five-ten’ but ‘ten-six’, ‘ten-seven’, ‘ten-eight’.

Here, it is over to you – why did all three shift from Latin, with Spanish shifting one further?

One thing which is immediately apparent, however, is that most Indo-European languages show a common trait around the number ‘nine’. This is, in French, Italian and Spanish respectively, neuf, nove, nueve. It is no coincidence that this is similar to the word for ‘new’: neuf, nuovo, nuevo. As far back as Proto-Indo-European, from which Classical Latin, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit and Proto-Germanic were derived, the word for ‘nine’ showed a striking resemblance to the word for ‘new’. The reason is quite simple: it was a new digit. Originally, Indo-European speakers counted only to ‘eight’.

It is thought we now use Base Ten as our counting system because that is the number of fingers we have (including thumbs), but the linguistic evidence is that millennia ago we ignored the thumbs. Counting in Base Eight is fairly logical after all – it allows for constant doubling, from two to four to eight to sixteen as so on; computer scientists, no less, typically use Base Eight or Base Sixteen (or simply Base Two, i.e. binary).

(It should be noted no specific evidence has been found in Eurasia for ancients having counted in Base Eight; though there is none that they counted in Base Ten either. There is evidence from the Americas of humans counting in Base Eight; alongside significant evidence of Base Twelve and even a system based around Sixty used by the Babylonians.)

What is interesting is that the subsequent moves in Latinate languages towards a shift in order around the number sixteen demonstrates that there is still something innately important about that number. It is also just about possible that although Classical Latin was consistent from 11-17 (including, unlike its daughter languages, 17 itself), spoken Latin was not and that there was always a split in the spoken language around 16.

Any thoughts on this more than welcome!

Left has given up on working class

It is now almost a weekly thing to see someone somewhere reel off the statistic that “more than half of people experiencing poverty are in work”, with the (implicit or explicit) point being to reject the notion that work is a fundamental route out of poverty. Such nonsense is plain dangerous.

Let us firstly simply reverse their point, noting that the comfortable majority of working age people are in work and defining “poverty” as “relative poverty”: the vast majority of people in work are not in poverty, and the vast majority who are not in work are in poverty.

Put in that way, and we can see immediately that work is absolutely fundamental to escaping poverty, however defined. This is not just because it provides an income, but it also provides self-esteem, social networks, and the potential for further aspiration – few to none of which are available to those trapped on out-of-work benefits. The primary gain of work is not financial, but social – anyone who doubts that, should read this article about an entire community of compensated jobless.

It is deeply troubling that those who claim to be on the “Left” refuse to see this obvious point. Rather than giving people a helping hand out of poverty, they merely want to compensate them for being in poverty and thus leave them trapped. It is pathetic.

Yet this dangerous nonsense is almost becoming mainstream. Even courses on advising people who are on benefits or in debt suggest that advisers should recommend “tapping up family members” before they suggest finding a job (or even a second job). The focus is entirely on where money can be attained rather than where it can be earned; this is bad for the taxpayer (or family member), but we need to be clear it is even worse for the individual concerned. To promote a dependency culture in this way is nothing short of callous.

(Oh, and as for “there are no jobs” – unemployment is only 6% and, here in Northern Ireland, one of our foremost companies, Almac, has just announced it cannot fill all the positions it is creating.)

Work is the route out of poverty. It is time the “Left” remembered it is supposed to stand up for workers!

Loyalism needs to be less isolationist

What a difference three weeks makes. Three weeks ago, we experienced an aggressive, unpleasant bonfire and parading weekend where parades supporters injured public servants and forced people out of their homes, while parades opponents attacked community centres and openly threatened violence if they did not get their way. Yet this weekend, a thoroughly fun and inclusive feast of social liberalism known as “Pride” came to an end – and, far from coming under attack, public servants were even able to decorate one of their vehicles in the colours of the festival. From Belfast at its worst to Belfast at its best within a month.

That is not to say that everything about Loyalist parades is wrong (many, indeed most, are a musical and artistic delight, particularly in rural areas); and it is not to say that everything about Pride is right (it has become alarmingly party-political, for a start). However, a visitor to Belfast would not have missed to aggression in the air three weeks ago; yet they would have felt utterly welcome this past weekend.

All is far from lost for Loyalism, however, because on the day of the Pride Parade I caught just one tweet which offers real hope for the future – the author is apparently a member of the PUP:

Important that we dispel the myth that a non-Loyalist event is by default an anti-Loyalist one. We should end any remaining self-isolation“.

Yes, yes, and thrice yes! Give that man a leadership role in Loyalism, and Northern Ireland will become a far better place – not least for Loyalists.


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