The revolution according to Mary Berry

Democratic control over quantitative easing would be a welcome first step to my kind of revolution, writes Stewart Cowley.

Hitler lived out his final days in the foothills of the Patagonian Andes pottering around his plantation in a gardening smock with Eva Braun. The Japanese are a quirky set of sexless robots too busy upgrading their manga subscriptions to care about producing the next generation. A new study of the Zapruder Film shows that, if you look carefully, it is actually the driver of the Dallas limousine who turns around and shoots JFK. And, finally, an actor/comedian/pop star says it would be nice if everybody had a nice life all of the time. You would have thought the world had a pleasing regular rhythm to it the way these stories rise and fall like dead fish from the bottom of the ocean.

These days, economics can only dream of this kind of regularity and rhythm. The rules of supply demand have all but disappeared from our lives. For instance, there was a day when, if the economy wasn’t so great and unemployment was high, prices would fall as both buyers and sellers of goods and services reacted rationally and adjusted their behavior accordingly. I distinctly remember haggling with a salesperson in Dixons during the recession of the early 1990s for a ten percent discount on the sticker value of sound system. And I got it.

But now none of this works. People in the UK are working harder than ever before but their real wages are increasing at a crawling pace of about one percent a year.  The gap that is opening up is like nothing we have seen before and symptomatic of something very strange; economics has stopped working.

To fill the gap we have policies like Quantitative Easing, which pump-primes the economy with made up money, and schemes like Help To Buy, which attempts to reignite the problem that got us into this state in the first place. And it’s not like these policies are unique to the UK. The US, Europe, China and – above all – Japan are all doing the same. The result is a twisted and distorted system where the old rules of free market economics have simply broken down. If you were a physicist you would be wondering whether the speed of light really was constant.

Even attempts to revert to confrontational tribalism have stopped working. Russell Brand’s editorship of the New Statesman set me on edge waiting for Mary Berry to hold a press conference from the Claridges tearoom to call for the immediate redistribution of profits from the Great British Bake Off. But the social media response to Brand’s 4,500 word thesis was as incoherent as the original. There was much talk of the coming revolution but nobody on the left (defined only as those people who don’t see themselves ‘on the right’) could agree what it looked like. They had been led to the top of the mountain but there wasn’t anything there when they arrived – a basic error of leadership. The episode had the whiff of the scene in Citizen Smith when Robert Lindsay’s Wolfie was asked when the Tooting Popular Front’s revolution was starting – “About six, maybe half past depending on when everybody can get there.”

Meanwhile, in the real world, away from the undefined Utopia proclaimed from West End hotel rooms by multi-millionaire anarcho-syndicalists, the Unite Union had to climb down from the rejection of the INEOS rescue deal to save Grangemouth petrochemical plant faster than any shop steward has ever shouted “Everyone out!!!”.  In the face of private capital, labour does not have an argument, least of all from union leaders who think the rhetoric of the 1970’s applies to the financial realities of today. The traditional negotiating voice of workers has dwindled to a whisper.

We now have a twisted system of inadequate political and social responses to the financial crisis which says that we have learned nothing whatsoever from it – all we have done is to seek to dampen its effects so that we can avoid confronting it. At the same time, increasing calls for the post-crisis props to be extended and institutionalised is creating a democratic deficit – people now do not have a say in the things that really control their lives; there is no democratic control over QE for instance. By taking away the forces that would have, in previous times, allowed the recalibration of society we are brewing up a longer-term problem that leads you to an uncomfortable conclusion. If there was ever a time when free market forces should be allowed to let rip in a society it is now.

Mary Berry - revolutionary? Not likely. Photograph: Getty Images.

Head of Fixed Income and Macro, Old Mutual Global Investors

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Expressions of sympathy for terror's victims may seem banal, but it's better than the alternative

Angry calls for "something to be done" play into terrorists' hands.

No sooner had we heard of the dreadful Manchester Arena bombing and before either the identity of the bomber or the number of dead were known, cries of “something must be done” echoed across social media and the airwaves. Katie Hopkins, the Mail Online columnist, called for “a final solution”, a tweet that was rapidly deleted, presumably after she remembered (or somebody explained to her) its connotations. The Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson wanted “a State of Emergency as France has” and “internment of thousands of terror suspects”, apparently unaware that the Nice attack, killing 86, happened after that emergency was declared and that nobody has been interned anyway.

It cannot be said too often that such responses play into terrorists’ hands, particularly if Isis was behind the Manchester bombing. The group’s aim is to convince Muslims in the West that they and their families cannot live in peace with the in-fidel and will be safe only if they join the group in establishing a caliphate. Journalists, striving for effect, often want to go beyond ­banal expressions of sympathy for ­victims. (It’s a mistake I, too, have sometimes made.) But occasionally the banal is the appropriate response.

Pity begins at home

Mark Twain, writing about the “terror” that followed the French Revolution and brought “the horror of swift death”, observed that there was another, older and more widespread, terror that brought “lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty and heartbreak”. The first, he wrote, we had been “diligently taught to shiver and mourn over”; the other we had never learned to see “in its vastness or pity as it deserves”.

That is true: more children across the world die each day from hunger or disease than could ever be killed in a terror attack. We should not forget them. Nor should we forget that the numbers killed in terrorist attacks in, for example, Baghdad far outnumber those killed in all European attacks of our times combined. In an age of globalisation, we should be more cosmopolitan in our sympathies but the immediacy of 24-hour news make us less so.

When all is said and done, however, pity, like charity, begins at home. We naturally grieve most over those with whom we share a country and a way of life. Most of us have been to concerts and some readers will have been to one at the Manchester Arena. We or our children could have been present.

Cheers from Highgate Cemetery

What a shame that Theresa May modified the Tory manifesto’s proposals on social care. For a few giddy days, she was proposing the most steeply progressive (or confiscatory, as the Tories would normally say) tax in history. True, it was only for those unfortunate enough to suffer conditions such as dementia, but the principle is what counts. It would have started at zero for those with assets of less than £100,000, 20 per cent for those with £120,000, 50 per cent for those worth £200,000, 99 per cent with those with £10m and so on, ad infinitum. Karl Marx would have been cheering from Highgate Cemetery.

Given that most people’s main asset – the value of their home – did not have to be sold to meet their care costs until death, this was in effect an inheritance tax. It had tantalising implications: to secure their inheritance, children of the rich would have had to care for their parents, possibly sacrificing careers and risking downward mobility, while the children of the poor could have dedicated themselves to seeking upward mobility.

The Tories historically favour, in John Major’s words, wealth cascading down the generations. In recent years they have all but abolished inheritance tax. Now they have unwittingly (or perhaps wittingly, who knows?) conceded that what they previously branded a “death tax” has some legitimacy. Labour, which proposes a National Care Service but optimistically expects “cross-party consensus” on how to finance it, should now offer the clarity about old age that many voters crave. Inheritance tax should be earmarked for the care service, which would be free at the point of use, and it should be levied on all estates worth (say) £100,000 at progressive rates (not rising above even 50 per cent, never mind 99 per cent) that yield sufficient money to fund it adequately.

Paul Dacre’s new darling

Paul Dacre, the Daily Mail editor, is in love again. “At last, a PM not afraid to be honest with you,” proclaimed the paper’s front page on Theresa May’s manifesto. Though the Mail has previously argued that to make old people use housing wealth to fund care is comparable to the slaughter of the first-born, an editorial said that her honesty was exemplified by the social care proposals.

On the morning of the very day that May U-turned, the Mail columnist Dominic Lawson offered a convoluted defence of the failure to cap what people might pay. Next day, with a cap announced, the Mail hailed “a PM who’s listening”.

Dacre was previously in love with Gordon Brown, though not to the extent of recommending a vote for him. What do Brown and May have in common? Patriotism, moral values, awkward social manners, lack of metropolitan glitz and, perhaps above all, no evident sense of humour. Those are the qualities that win Paul Dacre’s heart.

Sobering up

Much excitement in the Wilby household about opinion polls that show Labour reducing the Tories’ enormous lead to, according to YouGov, “only” 9 percentage points. I find myself babbling about ­“Labour’s lead”. “What are you talking about?” my wife asks. When I come to my senses, I realise that my pleasure at the prospect, after seven years of Tory austerity, of limiting the Tories’ majority to 46 – more than Margaret Thatcher got in 1979 – is a measure of my sadly diminished expectations. l

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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