A slice of Agricultural History

The air was fresh at 12 ºC and a gentle cool breeze was blowing, but the skies were clear blue and the warmth of the sun surprisingly strong for the time in the morning.

The Fête de la moisson was set to last most of the day and a large field near the edge of the village would accommodate both the fête and a car park. Noticeable by its absence was any attempt to squeeze money out of the visitors. Yes, there were stalls selling home made honey, olives, walnut oils and crafts made of wood or lace; but one of the most spectacular displays of sculptures made from scrap metal seemed to make no attempt to sell anything to anyone. The whole show was free, and reflected a pride in local French farming history.

There were old tractors, some in immaculate condition and some obviously in full working order, but mostly they seemed to act as props for excited children to climb and have their pictures taken. There were cutters, binders and old balers. Some of the equipment was belt driven, and I had seen similar items in agricultural shows in Britain, but there was also an awesome wooden baler that compressed straw using a series of levers and ratchets and was powered only by three men, all wearing what seemed to be the agricultural worker’s uniform of white shirt black hat and trousers with braces.

A number of events reflected the local importance of forestry. There were two man saws. One of these involved strapping a tree trunk on a frame so that it pointed up at an angle of 40º. One of the men climbed high up onto the log while his mate stood on the ground below. They then proceeded to cut the tree trunk along its length, and incidentally towards the feet of the man balanced on the log. A rather more conventional two man saw was available of anyone to try and a small queue developed as anyone from about five year upwards had a go at sawing off a slice of wood.

Next along a couple were cooking lardons. Their fires consisted of a two logs standing on end. The middle had been cut out, and a slot made near the bottom to allow air entry, then they set fire to the middle of the log. It would have burned for hours, and indeed did burn for three or four hours before being dowsed with water.

Running along the whole of one end of the field was an open sided tent with a long table running from end to end. There they served a hundred or more meals: all the same, four courses for 14€. We did not stay to eat, nor did I try to throw a bale of straw three metres up in the air, but I enjoyed the atmosphere, enjoyed the pride in country skills, in simple food and in local heritage. I enjoyed the pride that I felt in being part of it all. I may speak a different language, but I am a part of the same humanity and I share so many of the values shown at the show. I am proud to be European.

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Is another war inevitable?

I want to start with a quote:
“Every modern state is governed by the privileged, that is, by those who control industry by owning railroads, lands, mines, banks, and credit. These men thus obtain enormous and unearned capital, for which there is no use in the country where it is produced, because the poverty of the workers limits the home market. Those who control this surplus capital must seek new countries and new people to exploit, and this clash of selfish interests leads to war.”
… and to ask you “When do you think that was written?”

But first I would like to consider the idea and whether it has any lessons for us today.
Few will need convincing that wars are often fought over resources: access to resources themselves or access to trade in resources. Some examples are obvious. The Opium wars, the First Anglo-Dutch war, the Battle of Plassey when the British consolidated their hold on India, the Finnish-Soviet War over Nickel and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait were all over resources directly or the right to trade in resources. Others are less obvious. Many would say that the American War of Independence was about taxation and votes, but control of trade routes was of key importance, and that is why the French joined in on the side of the Americans. The American Civil War was at least partly about slavery, but cotton was central to the dispute between the northern states and those in the south who used slaves to grow it. When Germany invaded Russia in the Second World War it was largely to gain access to Russian and Ukrainian oil and grain. (References 1, 2, 3 )

Next we might consider the effect of giving more money to the rich as opposed to giving it to the poor. Trickle-down economics has been roundly discredited. This excuse put about by the wealthy for being allowed to acquire even more wealth has been demolished by Nobel Prize winning Joseph Stiglitz, and the IMF (Causes and Consequences of Income Inequality: A Global Perspective. 2015) among others.
If you want more evidence for the damaging done of inequality there is a wealth of information and statistics in the excellent book The Spirit Level by by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson.

Now let us consider whether the allegation that we are governed by the privileged stands up to scrutiny. Consider the educational backgrounds of cabinet ministers. Consider the revolving door between government service and work in “the City”. Robert Peston has written a book on the rise of the ‘super-rich’ called Who Runs Britain? How the Super-Rich are Changing Our Lives . For a wider look at the way money buys power and influence and the way the UK is governed by a small coterie of very rich people who are either directly in government or buy influence with the government I suggest Donnachadh McCarthy’s book The Prostitute State. Then consider, perhaps, how New Labour surrendered so many of the traditional Labour Party values when they sought the support of Rupert Murdoch and big money in ‘the City’, or the  way Nick Clegg fitted in with his Tory coalition partners to the distress of traditional Liberal Democrats. All in all, it would seem to me that the case is made; Robert Peston is right: Britain is ruled by the super-rich.

It is now time for me to answer my own question. The quotation that I started with was written to the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, by his friend George L. Record in 1919. He was criticising the settlement in Europe post World War I. He suggested that another war was inevitable. As we all know it was only twenty years until his (and President Wilson’s) worst fears were realised.

So, now let us look again at the decision of the UK to leave the European Union. Despite all the undoubted economic gains, the cultural and scientific advantages, the benefits to the environment and the advantages in pursuing criminals and terrorists across borders, the greatest benefit of the EU has been the prolonged period of peace in Europe. When I think of the improved employment and maternity rights promoted by the EU, the presence of workers on company boards in Germany or the experiments with a universal income in Finland it seems to me that the EU has to a limited degree promoted a more egalitarian society than has been traditional in the UK. When I think of the wealthy politicians and newspaper proprietors who persuaded British voters to vote for Brexit, I find myself wondering if they were finding the EU too egalitarian for them.

Was the key interest of those who promoted leaving the EU a desire to de-regulate, to strip away workers rights, to remove regulations relating to food hygiene and animal welfare with the ultimate objective of increasing further their own dominant wealth?

If that is true and George Record was right then the UK is set on a path of inevitable conflict with other countries. The prospects for the future peace of Europe do not look good.

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My Cassandra Moment

Sometimes I feel a bit like Cassandra, remember her? She was the lady blessed with the gift of prophesy and the curse that no-one would believe her.
Today’s “news”:
1) Owen Smith warns that the Conservatives have ‘secret’ plans to privatise the NHS.
2) Some people have been taking too much money out of their pension pots.
On 1) I have been campaigning against the privatisation of the NHS for years. I successfully took an amendment on the subject to the Liberal Democrat National Conference in 2008. That was when Owen Smith’s New Labour colleagues were at it. And I fought hard against the Lansley sponsored Health and Social Care Act of 2012, a bill that was shamefully supported by Nick Clegg, Paul Burstow and Norman Lamb.
On 2) it was obvious (and I said so) that when the government allowed people to take out the capital from their pension funds some would leave themselves without an adequate pension. If you tell someone who feels poor that their pension fund is worth £100,000s some will be tempted to get their hands on it without realising that they will need that if they live another 30 years. It all seems rather cynical when one considers that those who have accessed funds in this way pay tax at their top rate.
In a rare departure from good sense Steve Webb even said he was quite happy if people drew out their pension funds and bought a Lamborghini.
So do you want to know what disasters I am predicting today?
No you don’t because you won’t believe them anyway.

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You can drive a car with three wheels, but why would you?

I have come to realise that I mustn’t go on beating myself up about the result of the EU referendum vote. If I spend all my time agonising about the prospect of the UK leaving the EU, or reading articles by other people who are agonising about it I shall make myself ill.

It is time to look on the bright side. There must be some good that could come out of it. Don’t get me wrong, I still regard the prospect of our leaving the European Union with great concern. I still believe that such a move will reduce jobs and trade, reduce our influence in Europe and the world and put up the cost of living in the UK. But we shall survive. It feels as though someone has removed a wheel from our motor car. You can drive a car with three wheels. They used to make three-wheeled cars, but they have less space and less grip, they are less stable and you can’t avoid potholes.

Three wheels anyone?

Three wheels anyone?

So you can drive a car with three wheels, but why would you when you could have a car with four.

But, and here comes the good news, I have found a bright spot to cheer myself up; and perhaps, I hope, to cheer you up a little too.
For many years I have argued that the world would be a better place and a safer place if it were more equal, just as this country would be a safer, happier and better place if it were more equal. Others have put the case in great detail and with greater authority than I can, but a good place to start would be by reading ‘The Spirit Level’.
When I was discussing ‘Brexit’ with an American lawyer friend he said:
“Oh, I don’t know, it won’t be too bad, we shall just see the managed decline of the UK which has been going on for a hundred years or more.”
I realised that he is right. In global terms Britain has been declining in influence, power and wealth for many years. With the loss of empire and the loss of status of Sterling as a world currency, with the loss of food production, motor manufacturing, white goods and television sets, Great Britain is not as great as we used to be, or perhaps as we used to think we were.
Maybe in global terms that is no bad thing. As fuel becomes more expensive and our disposable wealth falls we shall learn to use less oil. In global terms that would be no bad thing. The tricky thing about equality is persuading the wealthy that they need to reduce their wealth a bit and that in so doing they will benefit everyone. So maybe the continuing managed decline in UK PLC is no bad thing. Maybe the loss of some of the finance sector to Paris and Frankfurt would be no bad thing.

So we need to cheer up. The world will not end. We shall be poorer, but maybe, just maybe, the world will be a little bit fairer.

Some challenges remain of course. If the managed decline of the UK makes the world a fairer place, what do we need to do to make the UK a fairer country? That is a massive challenge, and with the current state of our political parties I am not sure how we do it.

There is also the challenge of social cohesion and peace on our streets and in our communities. We have seen how the intemperate language of politicians has permitted (I would say ‘encouraged’ but you may feel that that is going to far) a rise in hate crime and racism. We can all play our part in standing up to this dangerous inflammatory behaviour. Do not remain silent. Do not nod your head or walk by on the other side of the road. We must all speak out when we see intolerance, discrimination or hate raising its ugly head in our communities. This, I acknowledge, is a massive challenge and others may have more to offer on the subject than I can.

And so, Dear Reader, Cheer up and Good Luck.

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We needed a revolution, but not this one

It feels as if I am waking from a nightmare; a nightmare where we have turned out backs on our friends, we have turned our backs on cooperation over trade, culture, science, care of the environment, security and the control of crime. We have turned our backs on our neighbours. Worst of all we have turned out backs on an organisation that has promoted peace and the peaceful transition of totalitarian states to democracies.

And then I wake and realise that it was not a dream, we are living that nightmare.

I promised to come back with some thoughts on the outcome.

Some commentators, in an attempt to appear balanced have criticised the lack of honesty in both campaigns. The remain camp were accused of scaremongering. They said the pound would fall and the value of shares would fall. They said that the financial credibility of the UK would suffer. All three things happened. In addition we have plenty of anecdotes of small businesses and creative projects suffering either because EU grants have been withdrawn or customers from France and Germany have disappeared.
Some of the claims made in particular by the Chancellor seem to have ben exaggerated. He threatened us with an emergency budget that would need to increase taxes or cut spending. That has not happened yet.

The Leave campaigners promised an additional £350 million to the NHS.   Despite being

False promises to the NHS

What lies at the centre of the Leave Campaign!

challenged repeatedly over the figure itself (a large chunk of the notional £350 million is never sent to the EU at all, and even of the amount sent a large proportion comes back to the UK in grants) the leave campaign continued to make it a central plank of their campaign. It is perhaps of note that they also promised to spend that money on Cornwall and the regions, on farmers, on scientific research and on removing VAT

Iain Duncan Smith claims he never promised money to the NHS

Iain Duncan Smith claims he never promised money to the NHS

from domestic fuel bills. They now acknowledge that such promises were ‘a mistake’.
They promised to control immigration. They talk of a points system, which we already use for non-EU immigration. They said that we would never reduce net migration to below 100,000 if we stayed in the EU, conveniently ignoring the fact that we already have 180,000 non-EU immigrants, and they were claiming that in a post-Brexit UK migration from outside the EU would be easier. They now admit that they will not and cannot deliver this.
They claimed that Turkey was just about to join the EU and that millions of Turks would flood into the UK.
They promised more fish for fishermen. That too seems to have been a chimera.
And Lastly, they promised that the people of the UK would take back control, would return sovereignty to a democratic government in the UK from a non-democratic one in Europe.
Almost every part of this assertion is false.
The UK like every other State in the EU is already a sovereign State.
The System of government in the EU, whilst a little complex is notably more democratic than that of the UK.
And far from giving control to the people of Britain we seem set to transfer the reins of power from one product of Eton, Oxford and the Bullingdon Club to another one.

Before I move to what might come next, there are two more predictions that, sadly, have come true.
Scotland does not wish to leave the EU. If the Scots’ wish to remain part of the EU is stronger than their wish to remain part of the UK we shall see the break up of the united Kingdom.
The second thing is even more sinister. We have seen, as predicted, a rise in hate-crime, xenophobia and rascism. After months of politicians talking about threats and possible violence some of the basest instincts of our compatriots have been released. Some of our citizens seem to have been given permission to give expression to their nastiest feelings.

If I now talk of dire threats and possibilities it is not because I believe or know that these things will happen, but because I believe that these things might happen, that history should teach us how to avoid making desperate mistakes, though history, alas suggests that we are poor learners.

I have made much of the EU as an organ of peace. No-one claims that the EU is perfect, but while we talk we do not fight. No-one would claim that all the nation states of the EU will always have nice liberal governments, but while the EU exerts a moderating influence the risks of extreme governments of either Right or Left is greatly reduced. The existence of the EU does not prevent one of the European Nations electing an extremist leader, but it would prevent such a person abolishing the democratic institutions of their country and setting up a dictatorship and it would almost certainly be able to contain or limit extremist behaviour. To put it in stark historical terms: the EU would not prevent a country electing another Hitler, but it would prevent him setting up a dictatorship and declaring war on his neighbours.

So what might happen?
We might see the collapse of the EU. There are other break-away groups would would love to hold referenda in their own countries.
We might see the rise of extremist far right governments.
We might see the rise of extremist far left governments, though I suspect that that is less likely.
We might see Russia flexing its muscles more aggressively and with Europe in disarray we would be less likely to stand up to such threats.
We might see the the rise of the far right in the UK, particularly as those who thought that Brexit would bring jobs and homes to everyone.
We are almost certain to become poorer as a country.
If we continue to have neo-liberal governments such as those of the last thirty years there will be a continued run down in public services, with Health and Welfare the first to go.

This contest, like all wars of the past has been fought with the lives and livelihoods of the poor to satisfy the ambitions of an elite. The ambitious politicians have played the same game as ambitious politicians for thousands of years. They have encouraged to poor to blame all their difficulties on the even poorer. The gap between the rich and the poor in Britain has been widening. Instead of the obvious explanation (that the rich are taking from the poor) somehow the elite have managed to peddle the myth that the poor of Hartlepool are poor because there are starving, homeless Syrians.


The Rich are getting richer, while the poor pay the price.

I shall leave you with two maps and a plea.
First a map of where the UK voted to leave.
Secondly a map of the ten richest and the ten poorest areas in Northern Europe.
And the plea? We have done a monumentally stupid thing. We must now all be constantly on oug guard against extremism, against hate-crime, and against simplistic attempts to blame ‘the other’ for our own misfortunes or disappointments.

Votes by region

Eu Referendum results


Rich and poor in Northern Europe

Rich and poor in Northern Europe

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Britain has just committed an act of self-harm

The title of an article by the economics editor of The Times caught my eye: “The poorest voted for Brexit, now they will bear the brunt of the cost“. How true, I thought and started reading.

The opening sentence brought me up short. “Britain has just committed an act of self-harm.” I remembered a girl I had admitted when I was a houseman. She had taken an overdose of Paracetamol after a row with her boyfriend. She did not intend to die. It was a protest.

Now you may know that Paracetamol is a particularly nasty drug with which to attempt, or threaten suicide. You do not go quietly to sleep either to wake later, or not wake. It is not particularly sedative, but it destroys your liver and you go jaundiced and die some days or even weeks later.

To my embarrassment I do not remember whether she did in fact die, but I shall never forget the look of terror in her eyes the next morning when she realised that death was the probable outcome.

Many of my fellow Britons have just made a protest vote. I have no doubt that the majority of them will come to regret it: but I know not how soon or how many. The drunken tweet sent in the early hours may have repercussions in hours. The unintended sexual encounter may show its effects in days or weeks. Trusting the Tories with the NHS may not prove fatal for ten or twenty years. I wonder how long it will take the poor downtrodden and exploited British voter to realise that they have simply been taken for a ride by different bunch of public school toffs.


The Poor will not gain from leaving the EU

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The Death of Europe, or just the UK?

I can’t believe that the sun is still shining this morning. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has just voted to leave the European Union. 52% of those voting chose to leave.

There will be pundits with more authority to write on why this happened and on what will, or might happen next, but maybe that does not invalidate my shared thoughts as I struggle to come to terms with what feels to me like an apocalyptic decision. After a decade in politics I had thought that the failure of the Liberal Democrats in coalition would be the nadir of my political experience, but what we have just experienced during EU referendum campaign is far worse. The cause, the course and the outcome have all been depressing, each one worse than the previous. I have almost come to despair of democracy.

The Cause.

The roots of the referendum lie in divisions within the Conservative Party and David Cameron’s attempts to keep it united.

As I have written previously with regard to the Liberal Democrats, all political parties are themselves a coalition of differing views, and there have always been tensions within the Conservative Party. It just so happens that they are so focussed on gaining and retaining power that they have developed a certain discipline that enables them to keep those divisions hidden from view for most of the time. The Tories have always been divided on Europe. Some leaders are more ‘pro’ and some more ‘anti’. The phrase that they used to paper over the differences was ‘eurosceptic’. We can all visualise being sceptical without being opposed to something. We even talk of healthy scepticism. The truth is that some Tories hated the EU and always wanted to leave. Their leaders kept the lid on the discontent in two ways: they criticised the EU in public and they talked vaguely of having a referendum. In the run-up to the 2015 General Election David Cameron decided that the best way to keep his own right wing on board and to fend off the increasing threat from UKIP was to make a firm offer to hold an “in/out” referendum if he was the next Prime Minister.

This may well have been a promise that he thought he would not have to deliver. None of the opinion polls predicted a Conservative majority, and if he were in coalition with the Liberal Democrats again he could always blame them for stopping him having a referendum. But, and here comes the first major blow to the democratic process in the saga, he did win an overall majority. Or did he? Was the election ‘stolen’? Or bought? The funding of British political parties and the electoral system is just one of the things that I believe to be wrong with our democracy, but we do have rules on election expenses and there are widespread allegations that the Conservative Party broke these rules. We know that their campaign focussed heavily on a number of marginal seats, and that the wipe-out of the Liberal Democrats was at least in part due to the intensive campaigning in those seats. The story is still unfolding, but it is possible that the Conservatives do not in fact have a legitimate majority.

Tory Battle Bus

“Police launch general election fraud probe” Daily Mail.

“Conservatives admit failure to declare election expenses” Channel 4 News

“What is the Tory election expenses story and why isn’t it bigger news?” Guardian

“Eight police forces investigating potential election expenses breaches

And so, to his surprise, David Cameron found that he was Prime Minister again, this time leading a Conservative government. He decided that he had no choice but to deliver his promised referendum. But first he would go through a charade of having tough negotiations with other European nations and come back with some concessions that would enable him to move from a position of relative euroscepticism to being an outright supporter of the EU.

The Course

I have seen the rough and tumble of political campaigning, and I have seen rival candidates stretch the truth to its limits, but I have never seen such an ill-tempered, ill-mannered and dishonest campaign. The remain camp engaged in some speculative exaggeration of what might happen if we leave the EU. But the dishonesty exhibited by the Brexit camp was breath-taking. From the claim that we send £350m a week to the EU, and coupled with it the implication that we could spend that money five times over (NHS, Farm subsidy, Regional grants, removing VAT from domestic fuel and Scientific research) to the implication that the whole population of Turkey was likely to flood into the UK we saw an astonishing number of ‘porkies’. Some were challenged by fact-checking web sites or by independent academics, but the Brexit campaigners carried on regardless. The whole situation was exacerbated by the BBC’s famous insistence of ‘balance’. The BBC seemed to think that each time an authoritative statement was made by an independent body, or a letter was published that bore the signature of hundreds of academics, it was necessary for the BBC to bring Farage, Gove, Johnson or Duncan-Smith into the studio to put their case. Their ‘case’ often amounted simply to denying the statement of the experts and repeating one of their sound-bite claims about bringing back sovereignty or faceless bureaucrats. One example of this was when the Michael O’Leary, the outspoken chief executive of Ryan Air, said that because we would lose access to the European open skies agreement air fares would rise. The Brexit response was simply that there is no question of air fares or holidays costing any more.

There were repeated attempts to conflate membership of the EU with the European Court of Human Rights (which was set up by the UK among others long before there even was an EU) and the euro (which is a currency that the UK does not use, and does not give any support to.) But the most inflammatory and dangerous language was used in relation to immigration. Nigel Farage threatened “violence on the streets” if immigration was not curbed. Cameron’s foolish claim that he could lower net migration to “tens of thousands” was thrown back at him, but the Brexit team alternately claimed that they could deliver it themselves and said that they would control migration with a points system that would allow more immigration, not less. It was conveniently ignored that there are already 180,000 immigrants from outside the EU where we already operate a points system, and deceitfully suggested that the UK’s creaky infrastructure was all due to immigrants from the EU. The evidence actually shows that EU migrants contribute more to the treasury than they cost, and as I have repeatedly written here and elsewhere, the problems being experienced by the NHS are the result of UK government policies. Before I leave the subject of immigration I might point out that Jeremy Corbyn proposed financial help for councils who took in significant numbers of immigrants. This statement, like much of what was said by the Labour Leader was conveniently ignored by most of the media, and significantly by the BBC. One might add that the previous Labour government had introduced just such a scheme and it was abolished by the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010.

The xenophobic demagogy we heard from the Brexit camp had the effect of permitting anger and hate to bubble up in individuals. The most extreme example of this hate was the awful murder of Jo Cox, but the aggressive and inflammatory language used by politicians had a more general effect of making acceptable, behaviour and language that would not normally be acceptable . I have a friend who was delivering leaflets when a man came charging out of his house and pursued him down the road shouting obscenities and calling him a traitor. 

One problem of the whole campaign was its asymmetry. There was, if you like an asymmetry of evidence and an asymmetry of truth, but there was an asymmetry of the whole underlying argument as well. The Remain camp seemed to concentrate on the economic benefits of EU membership to the exclusion of all else. I would regard the economic case as unanswerable, but the Brexit camp did not need to answer it. They appealed almost exclusively to emotions: fear, distrust, dislike of governments generally. Only occasionally did the Remain campaign point out that some of us love being part of Europe, some of us love the diversity and some of us love living at peace with our neighbours.

Sheila Hancock on peace and war in Europe.

Sheila Hancock on peace and war in Europe.

Gordon Brown in Coventry Cathedral

Gordon Brown in Coventry Cathedral

The outcome

I shall pause here, and post my thoughts on the outcome later. I do this for two reasons. First, I should acknowledge that my attempts to predict the future may be even more flawed than my attempts to chronicle what has happened and why.

And Second, I need to do something else today apart from thinking about this awful, awful state of affairs. Thank you for staying with me so far, if you have.

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