A failing faux-democracy or a benevolent dictatorship? I know which I’d choose.

“…It is not merely shocking but tragic that 61 per cent of young people in the UK would prefer a dictator to a democratic leader.” Matthew Syed in the Sunday Times praising the virtues of liberal democracy.

One of the best governments I ever lived under was not a liberal democracy, actually it wasn’t a democracy at all. All the liberal freedoms were in place – the press, assembly, speech, worship and the rest. The Leader was benign, able, professional and his administration was competent and respected. But nobody has ever voted for him. When the Leader died unexpectedly the people were openly weeping in the streets. The Leader was Edward Youde , the Governor of Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong government in the 1970s and 1980s virtually eliminated corruption where it had been rife, especially in the Royal Hong Kong Police. They constructed hundreds of thousands of homes for a growing population swelled by refugees (aka “Asylum Seekers”) escaping from the horrors of Mao’s China. They built a highly efficient metro system, two tunnels connecting Kowloon to Hong Kong Island and started work on an amazing new airport.

The important Financial Services sector was loosely regulated and there were occasionally probity issues but it mostly worked. Taxes in Hong Kong were low but the buoyant economy funded the huge construction projects and world class education and healthcare. Effort was rewarded, but there was adequate provision for those in need. Compare the benevolent dictatorship that was late colonial Hong Kong with the shambles of our “liberal democracy” in Britain today!

What is a woman?

In the distant days when mums and dads didn’t know the sex of their foetus until it became a baby on birth it was often the midwife’s task to give the news. “It’s a boy Mrs Briggs” she said as I emerged into the light that cold November day in 1946.

Now that identification didn’t require too much examination. The telegram was sent to my Grandma “Arrived safely with tassel” it said. And that was that.

The vast majority of us settle without too much difficulty or thought into the biological sex that is apparent as soon as we are born and is obvious from physical and physiological features including chromosomes, gene expression, hormone levels and function, and reproductive/sexual anatomy.” [Canadian Institute of Health Research] (CIHR). We are not “assigned” a sex as some put it, we are a sex and that doesn’t change.

Whilst sex is predetermined that does not mean it is comfortable for all of us. That the vast majority of us accept our biological sex does not mean that we all do. This is where the idea of “gender” as separate from biological sex becomes useful. Gender “…refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, expressions and identities of girls, women, boys, men, and gender diverse people. It influences how people perceive themselves and each other, how they act and interact…” (CIHR)

None of us can change our biological sex but we can change or modify the gender we attach to ourselves or wish to be perceived as. Jan Morris described this feeling as follows: “I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl. I remember the moment well, and it is the earliest memory of my life.” Morris began transitioning to life as a woman in 1964 at the age of 38.

Morris, who I had the pleasure of meeting back in 1988, had some surgery to underpin her gender choice but neither she nor anyone else claimed that this or her gender choice changed her biological sex. When I met her she was perfectly credible and identifiable as a woman. She had adopted the female “social construct” and it was not controversial in any way, She was a woman.

So why is the subject of sex and gender so controversial and why is there so much heat around it? My view is that it is necessary to accept that biological sex is a given at birth but that gender is a personal choice. If I or someone close to me or a complete stranger for that matter wishes to transition from one gender to the other gender that’s almost entirely their affair and society should not only allow it but recognise it formally.

When I say “almost entirely” it is important to identify what this means. Sport is a good place to start. The only sports that are not divided into separate male and female competitions are those where the physical advantages that a man has over a woman, mainly to do with characteristics like strength and speed and height, don’t count. Showjumping and other equestrian events are the obvious example. But most other sports should not permit women whose biological sex is male to compete. This is common-sense.

That we accept women who were previously men as women (and vice versa) is humane and decent. But there is a sensitivity here in certain environments like changing rooms and bathrooms which needs sensible handling. This is something that transgender people are generally aware of I expect.

There are no stigma attached to being transgender. But equally the “physical and physiological features” of a trans person are different from those of the same gender who have chosen the gender that equates to their sex. If we all accept this fact and act accordingly surely that will take the heat out of the subject ?

Truss and Kwarteng charged in like an ideological bull in a china shop

Lord Hague (The Times today) may recall from his brief time in Shell that we used to refer to the Corporation as a Super Tanker that took quite a long time to change direction. If it was true of Shell how much more true is it of a country like Britain?

In post war times only Margaret Thatcher succeeded in repositioning the nation created in 1945-51. The astonishing establishment of the Welfare State, linked to the taking into public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy, endures to today despite Thatcher’s privatisations.

There needs to be debate about who does what on the margins of the mixed economy – does anyone doubt that our railways need to be better integrated and more customer accountable for example? Similarly the public/private partnership that is the NHS needs a dispassionate examination to find the ideal balance not ideological claptrap.

The new Prime Minister’s fatal error was to think that dramatic urgent macroeconomic action , on taxation especially, was needed. Politics is the Art of the Possible and change needs debate and you need to prepare the public and the markets for it. Truss and Kwarteng charged in like an ideological bull in a china shop. We’ll be picking up the pieces for quite a while.

So now our unplanned and profligate tax cut plans are, surprise surprise, to lead to savage cuts in public expenditure! Well who’d have thunk it ?

The error has been to treat tax cuts and spending plans as if they are part of separate decision systems. They are not. If you want credibility you don’t start with the income side of the P&L but with expenditure. What do we need to spend public money on and then how do we fund it, not the other way round.

Cutting income by cutting taxes could only lead to increasing borrowing if expenditure remained the same. But with interest rates rising servicing this debt soon appeared unaffordable. The three elements of tax, expenditure and borrowings have to be managed together. This is hardly a revolutionary idea.

Truss and Kwarteng once given the levers of power couldn’t wait to start moving them driven by their kindergarten level ideology. To change the basis of our nation’s tax and spend system may be a desirable thing to do. But if you have to sack a highly respected Treasury official to do this there should have been a pause for thought.

The rush to action was also profoundly undemocratic. It took place outside the normal budget cycle, was undebated in Parliament and had the character of emergency decision-making when there was no emergency. Well now there is – with markets reacting as markets do. There is nothing irrational about stock or currency trading – we may not like the wisdom of the market but it’s how it works and always has.

Covering up the cracks with style

Penny Junor’s panegyric is understandable when you realise how little we have to celebrate. Yes it was a well directed and choreographed spectacle showing that we could still do the past with style, but we can’t do much else. Defending our currency, feeding our people, heating our homes, lighting our streets are likely to defeat us this winter.

The long drawn out day of the funeral brought our a well-heeled audience and it must have been galling for Italy’s president to have to discard his Maserati in favour of a bus. The couturiers (Chappelli and Stella Macartney included) must have run out of black silk and taffeta for the mourning apparel.

I was reminded of a Cameron MacIntosh production, well directed and cast with at times a surprising script. The Archbish put Johnson in his place: In “those who serve will be loved and remembered when those who cling to power and privileges are forgotten” he was to the point. The ushers had halted Johnson and his consort’s attempt to barge in. The new King looked sad and bewildered, as well he might, but held it together. As did the confident little future King George.

La Reine est Mort, vive Le Roi. And what a potentially disastrous reign is in prospect.Will Charles feel empowered to intervene as his subjects starve and freeze? As the pound slips below parity and inflation skyrockets? As civil disorder spreads?

Pageantry can be used to cover up failure but I think that was consequential here, though it was convenient. For twenty-four hours and more it would have been churlish and out of place to address the realities of modern life for many. No more.

Will King Charles address the paradox of the fact that four-fifths of us reject the Church to which the State adheres, and of which he is now Head?

“However, more recently [Charles] has travelled to the Vatican for the canonisation of John Henry Newman and to India, to celebrate the 550th anniversary of the birth of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. These visits and expressions of ecumenical sympathy for the religions of others will only get bolder, now that he is finally able to make the judgments for himself.” Daniel Finkelstein in “The Times’.

The thing about Cardinal Newman, of course, is that he was an apostate moving from the Established Church, of which the then Queen was head, to the Roman Catholic Church. For Charles to attend his canonisation was frankly bizarre. Maybe he felt it was OK to mark the Sainthood of a man who had rejected the Church of which his mother was now head but it was unclear what message was being given.

Charles has always had a fluffiness about religion which his “Defender of Faith” (singular) suggestion illustrates. If you imply some equality in religions you cannot have an Established Church. You can’t with intellectual logic predicate one true religion (the Church of England) and acknowledge the credibility of other faiths as alternatives as well.

Less than one fifth of Britons adhere to the Church of England and even fewer to other Christian sects like Catholicism and the Non-Conformism (see pie chart above). Nearly half of the country has no religion at all. This fact also argues for the disestablishment of the Church.

The American Constitution asserts Freedom of Religion although this at the time it was drafted really meant freedom of Christian worship. When adherents to non-Christian faiths began, much later, to come to the United States the Constitution gave them comfort though that was a bit serendipitous. None of the Founding Fathers were Jews or Muslims or Hindus nor for a century or more were immigrants.

Donald Trump’s Islamaphobia was unconstitutional and shameful and unworthy but it concentrated the mind. Unlike Britain The United States has no established church or religion. The Christian faith is implicit in the rituals and no non Christian has ever been elected to high office. But the Constitution protects all. We are much more singular.

Whilst our formal behaviours are singularly C of E our society is not. Religion is on the decline and secularism is increasingly the norm. King Charles may try and address the paradox implicit in the fact that four-fifths of us reject the Church to which the State adheres.

Those of us who reject all religions should not in any way deny the rights of believers. But in a curious way to view the subject from a secular standpoint can be helpful. To argue freedom of worship and religious equality whilst being a devoted member of one religion is a stretch. To do it when you’re Head of the Church is even more strange !

Farewell to the Commonwealth ?

The pain of losing Empire was considerable to Churchill and other leaders under whom it happened. So a pseudo-Empire was created and called, rather pompously the “British Commonwealth”. It was ersatz imperialism , a gathering of nations that had little in common other than the fact that their citizens had once been subjects of a King or Queen Emperor/Empress in a Palace in London.

The Commonwealth was not designed to be or do anything substantial. It took over the “Empire Games” a quadrennial sporting tournament which the Brits rather liked because we won a lot of medals. A mini Olympics shorn of the best athletes.

The “British” designator was dropped, the number of nations expanded – some even with no British connection. That said there was still little of substance for the countries’ leaders to do other than eat well and exchange fraternal banalities.

The Commonwealth has never been political, and most of its members are republics. It was briefly a trade alliance (“Commonwealth Preference”) but never has the association acted collectively to do much. The countries mostly speak English but they are scattered around the globe. They have British High Commissions rather than Embassies but without collective power or authority the Commonwealth is a Ruritanian anachronism.

Liz Truss isn’t “stupid”, but she is a political nerd unfit for high office

Browse through social media and you will find plenty of references to the “stupidity” of our about to be new Prime Minister Mary Elizabeth Truss. I disagree. She is a well educated woman who, just out of Oxford with a decent Degree, joined Shell as a Graduate entrant , and Shell doesn’t often recruit “stupid” people !

Liz Truss – not the “Full Deal”

Individuals’ intelligence doesn’t increase over time much, but how we learn to apply it does. We become more effective ( there are exceptions !) Successfully applied intelligence is when a smart person learns (knowledge) and then adds value to this by applying their intelligence.

So decision-making, at its best, is when bright and knowledgeable people apply their knowledge and brains to a problem and come up with a good solution. Often (but not always) this is done with others – the “Two heads are better than one” syndrome.

Let’s return to Ms Truss. Accept for a minute that she’s academically bright. Accept also that she has twelve years experience as an MP and ten as a Minister during which you would have thought she will have acquired a broad knowledge of issues. And she’s only 47 – an ideal age you might think. So what’s the problem?

Here we need to go back to David Cameron who became Prime Minister at the age of 43 and who had a rather better Oxford degree than Truss. The problem with “Dave” was that he was completely remote from the real world. Eton, Oxford and a couple of handy sinecure jobs before becoming an MP. He had intelligence but had never applied it. In short he had no social intelligence. Much the same applies to Boris Johnson who though he was a good (if somewhat dilettante) journalist and writer had also never acquired social intelligence.

Liz Truss comes from a much more middle class mould than Cameron or Johnson, she is not a Toff. But like them she has never really done a job of substance outside politics. A job in which engagement with ordinary people is required. When she speaks Truss sounds like an alien from another planet. To paraphrase CLR James “What know they of politics who only politics know ?”

Truss’s record as a Minister is patchy at best. In February this year the Financial Times said: “Her keynote speech on foreign policy last year, in which she talked of rebuilding the “muscle” of “Global Britain”, was described by one former UK ambassador as “the biggest load of drivel I’ve ever heard”. Her early ministerial career was a flop and, until recently, her national profile has been relatively low.”

Circumstances too bizarre to contemplate have given us Elizabeth Truss as Prime Minister, arguably the most “accidental” PM since Alec Douglas-Home in 1963. She is a political nerd who from time to time spouts “drivel” . The disgrace of imported cheese and Pork Markets for example.

Truss in “Nerd” mode is comfortable with the shallow ideology of the Right but there is little or no depth in what she says, and certainly no pragmatic and thought-through proposals. She will soon find out that leadership is about more than using trigger words or references to Margaret Thatcher to get applause.

So we have replaced a buffoon in Number 10 with a nerd. Someone who from time to time engagingly made us laugh with someone who will send us to sleep or drive us to drink. She’s not likely to be a PM who fails because she lacks academic intelligence but one who fails because she isn’t the full deal. She’s not Thatcher, Major or Blair. We’ll soon find out what she is though. The auguries are not promising.

We need efficient, reliable and well-managed water, gas and electricity supply. The Not For Profit model can provide it.

The Left is wrong to call for “nationalisation” of failing public services. There are alternatives, and there aren’t many physical assets to take into public ownership anyway! The physical infrastructure of water, gas and electricity supply (pipelines and cables) , including the connections to our homes, is already part of our national fixed assets register like roads and railway lines. The issue is how we manage these assets and the products and services they provide.

The supply of water is controlled by private sector monopolies, the worst model imaginable. The companies have a licence to print money, pay shareholders dividends and their senior management huge salaries and benefits. As a consumer I can only buy my water from one supplier. There is no competition.

The supply of gas and electricity is from a multitude of retail suppliers none of whom has any significant strategic advantage over the others. Price competition is the only differentiator and it is entirely phoney. Prices, as we have seen recently, are determined by world markets. Downstream of the producers the retailers have played with price offers but none of them has any real chance of offering enduring better deals.

There is nothing much to “nationalise” in our water, gas and electricity (downstream of the power stations) supply sectors. Few assets and no supply infrastructure that are not already effectively publicly owned. In each case all that is needed is to create an efficient Not For Profit entity to act as the middleman between the producer and the consumer. A good parallel is the London Underground. The Tube invests its profits entirely in its infrastructure and has no shareholders, nor needs them.

We live in a mixed economy within which there is a symbiosis between the public and private sectors. They need each other. Essential services can be run as a sort of third way without any overriding ideology. The public and private sectors and, especially, we the people need efficient, reliable and well-managed water, gas and electricity supply. The Not For Profit model can provide it.

Gas is an international commodity, but we can control the price of our own production

That the voters have little or no idea how our energy sector works is hardly surprising when journalists and politicians don’t understand it either.

Gas is a commodity which internationally is priced in an almost perfect market. That price is at the intersection of the supply and demand curves. If, as at present, supply is constrained whilst demand is constant then the price goes up. Our Gas supply sector (retail) takes its product at international prices. It has no alternative.

The pricing realities for Gas in Britain would be the same whoever owns the retail sector. After the botched privatisation of thirty years ago we have a multitude of private sector gas retailers who compete on the margin by offering largely synthetic pricing deals to customers. None of these “suppliers” has a significant strategic or acquisition cost advantage over the others. The competition is largely artificial .

Taking private sector retailers into public ownership and creating a single publicly owned supply entity would eliminate the phoney retail competition but it would have no effect on international prices at all. Economies of scale could reduce local costs and eliminating marketing costs would also be beneficial. But these benefits, though measurable, pale into insignificance compared with the effect of changes to international (wholesale) prices.

Post War price of crude oil

Back in the 1970s the world had to adjust to a huge increase in oil prices taking the price of refined products to unprecedented levels. Similar forces are at work now with Natural Gas. It’s supply driven. In the 1980s prices fell back as supply increased and again this is paralleled today. If supply from Russia returns then oil and gas prices should fall again.

Let me return to the specific situation we have with gas in the U.K. Fifty percent of our consumption is from indigenous resources, mostly from production from British waters offshore. The producers (see above) include multinationals like Total, BP and Shell and some independents like Harbour Energy – the largest producer of all. The suggestion in some quarters that these companies could be nationalised is laughable and can be ignored. But other actions are feasible.

These producers price their output at the market price I referred to above. Hence when the sell it to the retailers that’s the price the latter have to pay. The graph showing the price of Gas from the Netherlands above is illustrative. The recent rise mainly caused by shortages of Russian gas since April is clear. However although traditionally domestic output in the U.K. has been priced at international prices in fact it doesn’t have to be. It’s our gas !

There is nothing to stop the U.K. Government paying U.K. producers a lower price for their gas. For example a price similar to that in Summer 2021 before the massive world price escalation (see graph). Remember producers were perfectly content with their receipts in 2021 and have done nothing to justify the serendipitous windfall profits they have made over the last year.

Obviously there is nothing we can do about the price of gas for the 50% we import. But for our home produced 50% there certainly is. Set that at a much lower level and reduce retail prices in line. The producers would complain of course, it would in effect be a windfall profits tax. But it would be a positive move in times of high inflation and stress.