British politics is now unconnected to power – we need leaders who understand this

We should look to candidates who prioritise things they can actually do something about

Politics is fundamentally about power, one would think. Liz Truss barely had any when she arrived; now she has gone. Sunak has a little, but not a lot, more. Boris had it in spades in December 2019, but had lost it by earlier this year. Elsewhere I have written about the extent to which Cameron’s 2015 election victory represents something of a modern high, by mandate and power, albeit subsequently wasted.

Yet the politics of the UK these days is largely reminding me of the quote, usually misattributed to Kissinger, that “academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low”, aka Sayre’s Law. The fact is that, like academics eyeing each other warily across the High Table (Maurice Bowra’s adage that he felt “more dined against than dining” was just such an exposition), politicians of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are now squabbling over an ever-diminishing realm of authority, and this should impact electoral choices.

The Truss-Kwarteng debacle a few weeks ago demonstrates the limitations of what an “independent” medium-sized country actually are. Whilst on the face of it we can deplore financial markets and globalisation, and say to ourselves that this happens even to the greatest powers – Bill Clinton’s healthcare reform in 1994 foundered “fucking bond traders” – we also know that size matters. Taking on the financial markets as a large economy is different to taking one on as a small one. This is a rather Manichean world and Britain is showing itself to have neared the dividing line.

Of course, this could all have been better managed and the specifics of the Truss administration made a bad situation worse. But with Sunak coming in, we can judge whether simply a more articulate and deft touch would make the difference, much as Leopold II succeeded Joseph’s reforms in the 1790s. In fact, he will not, because Sunak understands precisely that Britain can ill-afford to operate outside the bounds of economic convention dictated to us, from the major institutions via the capital markets. Britain cannot have a truly independent monetary or fiscal policy, and Sunak will not want to test this again. This is because of two factors: first, Britain simply is not big enough, with an economic hinterland of adequate heft, to support Sterling and the government borrowing markets on its own. It is almost uniquely globalised in terms of its financing and the shift to this model in recent decades (see my previous note on exchange rates) means that Brexit or not, this will not improve. Secondly, Britain is buffeted about by two economic forces – the EU and the US – who do carry their weight. Interest rates in both will effectively dictate British interest rates; the only scope for freedom are in those occasional periods of divergence between the two:

Source: IMF database, figures annual

Interest rates are of course only one lever of economic power (albeit an important one in a financialised economy); but the recent reaction to Kwarteng’s budget shows that fiscal tools are equally to be judged by the narrow minds of financiers of little imagination, and it was not only the exchange rate that collapsed for a time, but also the cost of borrowing which rose (Clinton’s “bond traders” in action). The notions that Britain could just “do its own thing” was always fanciful, at least without accompanying “pain” which no politicians are as yet prepared for.

So what does all this mean? Well for me, as an active Conservative Party campaigner and even one-time candidate, it means thinking about leaders who will actually will do something because they are focused on areas which a domestic agenda can still influence. Truss vs Sunak was a false dichotomy because neither promised actionable agendas. I supported Kemi during the last leadership contest, first because I agree with her, and secondly because those areas were one a Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland can actually do something about.

I am more or less talking about kulturkampf in a broad sense. Readers of this blog will know that I prioritise issues of identity above most other things because nation-building is both important and something of a lost art in the globalisation age. Kemi’s most impressive speech for me was her response to the House during Black History Month in 2020, where she laid out some very obvious but important points about British culture:

“Our history is our own; it is not America’s. Too often, those who campaign against racial inequality import wholesale a narrative and assumptions that have nothing to do with this country’s history and have no place on these islands. Our police force is not their police force. Since its establishment by Robert Peel, our police force has operated on the principle of policing by consent. It gives me tremendous pride to live, in 2020, in a nation where the vast majority of our police officers are still unarmed.

On the history of black people in Britain, again, our history of race is not America’s. Most black British people who came to our shores were not brought here in chains, but came voluntarily because of their connections to the UK and in search of a better life. I should know: I am one of them. We have our own joys and sorrows to tell. From the Windrush generation to the Somali diaspora, it is a story that is uniquely ours. If we forget that story and replace it with an imported Americanised narrative of slavery, segregation and Jim Crow, we erase the history of not only black Britain, but of every other community that has contributed to society.”

I commend everyone to watch this.

We can debate the specifics of her message here, but the important point is that she can campaign and do something about this. There is a culture war to be won, through the media, through institutions, through agency capture and other machinations if we really want. These are all within the remit of a leader. What she cannot do anything about, is bring interest rates into the realm of fairness for savers and the hard working rather than constantly inflating domestic household debt. At least, not for now – although if you get the identity question right, at some point down the line you can begin to ask the people for the sacrifice needed to finally rectify the economy and bring it back to something which serves the population and not the other way around.

Britain needs to break out of its mindset that it still carries the kind of status and power which allows for true independence. It is this wrongheadedness which led to one specific strand of Brexit support for which I have no sympathy whatsoever – the Dan Hannan school of “Singapore on Thames”. If these politicians spent half as much of their time trying to change things that are changeable, instead of pursuing doctrinaire dreams of economic engineering, Brexit might actually be made to work. In the meantime, the economic shackles we live under continue to demonstrate what a poor economic choice Brexit was. Better panem et circenses.

Not all emerging markets are the same (Part 2)

Tent vs marquee economies (or why Indonesia is bad and Vietnam is good)

I previously looked at the SE Asia economic picture overall and drew out some pretty stark contrasts. I want now to focus specifically on two markets I know well, both of whom have cheerleaders: Indonesia and Vietnam. Only one of them, I would suggest, has a bright future. Against these, as ever, I find it useful to benchmark against China, the one regional example of an economy that has made progress.

In fact, based on statistics previously discussed, even in a basic way Indonesia has constantly under-performed Vietnam (and indeed most peers) over the period 2010-2020:

Source: World Bank, Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report 2022

It is poignant that once we move beyond real GDP, the variation is marked. Both Indonesia and Vietnam have experienced significant population growth – but even factoring that in, Vietnam has sped ahead on a per capita basis. In terms of nominal GDP, Vietnam comes close to China levels of growth and, incidentally, does so with a currency which has not depreciated against the dollar anywhere near as much. In median wealth, Vietnam, coming from a low base and with CPI not much less than Indonesia, is still notably ahead. And lastly in household consumption – that portion of GDP growth that we consider “good growth” – Vietnam is more than double Indonesia even though the latter experienced the greater part of a commodity boom during the period. In other words, Vietnam, from a standing start, has led everyone in the region bar China; and is the only country to come close to matching China’s remarkable overall levels of growth.

So much for the past – but what about the future? Well the problem comes in understanding the structure of the economy, and in particular the effects of inequality, inflation and where relevant, currency depreciation. Indonesia’s under-performance is due to both a long-standing inequality and inability to distribute the proceeds of growth into a mass middle class, as well as peculiar governmental weakness at tackling inflation and currency depreciation, which are linked.

Source: World Bank, Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report 2022, Bloomberg

As a demonstration of the former, I tend to use my own measure of inequality, which is to look at the “wealth multiple” of mean-to-median assets per capita. The higher the multiple, the more unequal the economy. I find Gini coefficients to be too muted in their outcomes, and most of the public sources such as the World Bank still inhabit a pre-Piketty world focusing on income distribution rather than asset distribution – but all this will be in a future post. What is important is how much higher Indonesia’s wealth multiple is compared to the two post-Communist economies which are doing better (for the record, others such as the Philippines are unsurprisingly even worse). Both Indonesia and Vietnam have experienced high levels of inflation – but, of course, this comes against the background of Vietnam’s much higher rates of nominal GDP growth. And above all, whilst most of currencies have weakened against the dollar, none have been so spectacular in their depreciation as the Rupiah.

2020 exports by industry for Indonesia (left) and Vietnam (right)

Source: The Observatory of Economic Complexity

Indonesia has been sustained by commodity cycles in the past and may benefit from another which has recently commenced – but the problem is, this is only arrow in its quiver. For me, there are two broad models of economic emergence, which I visualise as “tents” and “marquees”. A tent is simple, and has a couple of simple poles which hoist the whole fabric. These poles can raise a high summit point, but they are frail and narrow. A marquee takes longer to assemble, but has multiple poles and is usually more robust. Indonesia’s reliance on commodities – and its marked inability to produce an export-quality value-adding sector (for instance, manufacturing) – makes it a tent. Vietnam, whilst its summit point is still lower than that of Indonesia, is supported by multiple sectors. Importantly, this also means producing a wider “middle”, which somewhat depicts the creation of a real middle class.

Tent vs marquee models of economic development

In short, whether you are an entrepreneur, a foreign investor, or just the common man on the street, Vietnam is a much better prospect than Indonesia. This reality belies the generic theoretical focus on demographics and real GDP, and correlates to the empirical and anecdotal evidence from the streets. Anyone who goes to Jakarta and then Saigon will feel a difference in energy and enterprise. In Indonesia – much like Thailand or the Philippines – a few rich incumbent families own practically everything. Jakarta, by another shorthand metric I like to use, has no pavements: the rich go by car and the poor have nowhere to go. Saigon has middle classes who walk around urban landscapes. Likewise, the streets of Saigon are full of absurd little shops where the emerging consumer is upgrading their life (not anything I would personally buy, but nonetheless); Indonesia instead has little between the gleaming malls and the warung.

From a business level, it shows through as well: the long-hoped-for mass ownership of four-wheel vehicles in Indonesia has never really materialised – passenger car growth over the decade is half that of China and Vietnam, and behind even Thailand. Modern retail (for instance hypermarkets) has never yet had its day in the sun, instead being swamped with by the low-end providers like Alfamart and Indomaret. Banking has not had the traction expected, particularly in additional services; but meanwhile low-end app-based financing is common place. And at the end of the day, Indonesia’s new economy champions still tend to feel much lower in quality of management than even their regional competitors – Go-Jek vs Grab, for instance.

The reasons for all this are manifold, and would warrant a full academic paper (although some of the topics around cultural traditions may not even make it past the censors of modern publishing). But what is clear is that, following from the previous post, there are better and worse markets and Vietnam and Indonesia, often compared together amidst a group, are good examples of this contrast. I would hazard that Indonesia’s presumed consumption take-off may simply never materialise. People talk of Indonesia sitting at the heart of the revolution in EVs – which is questionable – but even if it happens this may never feed through to the population. Certainly, alone amongst the beneficiaries of the last commodity boom over 2006-2012, Indonesia saw little gain for median families, and such wage growth as came was washed out by its rampant inflation. Indonesia seems destined only to be constantly extracted from, by local families or foreigners. Personally, if I had a dollar to invest today, the choice between these two is pretty clear.

The Return of Theresa May?

The shenanigans of the Conservative Party gives me a moment for some fun: what if the Tories really did cast out another leader now, just a few weeks into her tenure?

First, I should emphasise that I do not predict at this point that Liz Truss will be removed. Nonetheless, neither do I think it completely unlikely, since MPs will grasp at almost anything which they think may help them get re-elected and, let’s be honest, nobody wants to face unemployment in this current environment.

So my logic is as follows:

  1. Liz Truss may be deposed by MPs seeking to try and move on quickly from the current crisis (25% chance)
  2. MPs will not give members a choice again, if this occurs. Instead, they will avoid the whole thing by presenting a single candidate as a fait accomplis (100% certain).
  3. MPs will look to the past, not the future, when seeking their consensus candidate. With an election only two years away, I do not believe many will want to “try something new”, but rather look for a caretaker that minimises the damage from an election that seems almost certainly lost (70% likely).
  4. There are only a few candidates suitable for this role, balancing out their status, past experience and willingness to serve. I believe only former PMs, Chancellors or high profile leadership candidates would be options. May is on obvious candidate (100% true).

There are really only a few names who can make this list. Boris is too recent and probably uninterested. Sunak and Javid, two former Chancellors, will both want to distance themselves from this irretrievable mess and believe they still have future careers. Several others, such as Hammond or Rory Stewart, are no longer MPs. To my mind, only three people would “do their duty” and lead in the current circumstances” Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt and Theresa May.

So who knows what will happen? Gove seems too opportunist. Hunt might work but is a little faceless. I do think Theresa May has one quality, which is that she is dogged and hard-working and will provide some reassurance. Moreover, she has dealt almost entirely in crises. As a caretaker, there would be many worse. All this gives me the chance to return to one of my favourite memes:

This devaluation exposes how poor Britain really has been for two decades

The decline of Sterling in recent days has caused the kinds of panic amongst MPs and commentators usually reserved for global warming, Brexit and early England exits from finals tournaments. As an economist, I can testify that currency economics is amongst the more arcane and complex – at least, to model. What traders do on a whim may reflect current issues, or longer term ones; but precious few really know – certainly not politicians.

First, we should be clear about what the exchange rate is or is not. It is not, for instance, a broad measure of “a country’s strength”, a term that has been bandied around by gammons and globalists alike as they face the prospect of achingly expensive holiday costs to Mallorca and Miami, respectively. Nor does it reflect “how rich we are”, as though a 20% fall in the pound makes people, in any real sense, 20% poorer than they were weeks ago. Exchange rates are a measure of value, particularly for lubricating cross-border trade, and more than anything are a measure of demand for money and assets within an economy, from abroad.

A strong economy can of course lead to a strong currency as people seek to invest into your country. Over time though, much of this will be ironed out through PPP as import prices start to rise over time reflecting demand. But currencies can also be artificially high, often for prolonged periods, due to trends such as the continued opening up of various asset classes to foreign capital, which can happen without the underlying economy producing anything more than it did before. I refer to this as the financialisation of an economy, a common feature throughout the Anglosphere from the 1990s onwards. Britain is particularly guilty, as seen below, and these numbers do not even reflect the unseen financial burden placed on UK taxpayers from housing foreign banks.

Ratio of bank assets to GDP

Source: TheGlobalEconomy

The consequence of all this is important: Sterling has been over-valued on a real economy basis for years – since well before Brexit or even the global financial crisis. The 2:1 exchange rate against the dollar reached in 2007, for instance, may be seen as the height of a monetary hubris unleashed by Thatcher but really bedded in by Gordon Brown, her true son. Everything was thrown into the financialisation of the economy and, as a second layer of back-up, the property market which saw Britons become richer by gross asset value but not usually by income or net assets. One way in which this washed through, therefore, was through looking at the gap between nominal exchange rates and PPP, where it could be seen that Britain was getting no richer compared to America than it had before or since. The yawning gap in the mid-2000s was totally driven by things other than the UK economy.

GDP per capita at PPP, US vs UK since 1990

Source: World Bank

In my humble opinion, something approaching parity between Sterling and the dollar had been due for a long while. I must admit to quite some surprise at how small the fall in Sterling was after the referendum in 2016, and had always assumed a rate of closer to 1.1-1.2 over the succeeding years. That it has taken a second crisis to cause the devaluation speaks more of the limited attention span and economic comprehension of currency traders, than it does of any lingering strength of the post-Brexit economy to punch above its weight.

The decline has now gone beyond my own instinct of where the “natural” level. This may be an exaggerated response to the budget from the markets, it may be my underestimation of British strength, or it may just be, like so much else, a temporary feature of the vagaries of the markets. On the other hand, it could signal a further long term deterioration of the structure of the UK economy. Either way, this decline had been coming for years and should have been expected. Even without Truss – indeed even without Brexit – we should have been at lower levels than what has been the case.

Because this “crisis” has really exposed how weak Britain had been for so long: continued poor productivity, an enormously skewed domestic economy with a whole political apparatus focused on maintaining house prices, and rampant financialisation to the detriment of the real economy. It is an unedifying sight to see semi-literate, over-reacting traders being observed and reflected by even less literate and even more hyperactive MPs and journalists. However more than anything, we should be digesting this new normal as the correct reflection of where we have been – and it may even help us plan properly going forward.

The asymmetries of Putin vs the West (or, why The Economist keeps looking stupid)

It has been some time since this blog has taken its title at face value and looked at some of the large scale asymmetries at work in the world around us. The Ukraine conflict, however, presents just such a chance. Plenty has been written on the subject now by armchair experts in Eastern European strategy, many of whom no doubt only recently become epidemiology experts too. I offer a few simple thoughts about the asymmetric nature of the game Putin is playing, and in every case I start with the panacean truisms one finds in the media.

“Russian GDP is not even as big as South Korea, it is overreaching itself!”

The globalist response to almost any conflict has been to look to economic indicators – at least, the ones we are familiar with – as a measure of how powerful a country is or can be. I will give such commentators the benefit of the doubt that in most cases, they are aware there is some nuance and that localised imbalances can affect outcomes; but still, by and large, they will believe that historical determinism tells us that a country’s GDP will indicate the way the winds are blowing.

What Putin is exposing, however, is that for Russia (and China, amongst others), expenditure in materiel capital has to be matched with the commitment to expend human capital. On a GDP basis, many others will be more powerful than Russia; but judged on the basis of its hard resources multiplied by the factor with which it is willing to use them, Russia’s position on the world stage is not one of punching “above its weight”; it is very much a significant player (which, let’s be honest, is exactly how it is treated within the world of realpolitik). This is a case of asymmetric capital deployment.

The Western response in offering the Ukraine arms and supplies is a case in point: it costs the West nothing to do this. Indeed, given the realities of the military-industrial complex, offering military equipment which is in turn paid for through loose monetary policy actually helps the West. The problem is, it does not do much to help the Ukraine. Putin knows that no Western government at this stage is willing to lose the life of a single soldier in defence of Kiev; China knows likewise about Taiwan. And they are able to gamble that even with the best of wills in armament support, if the West has no boots on the ground, its commitment will be as fickle as the next budget discussion in Cabinet. Only blood counts.

So whilst it is absolutely true that Russia is not rich enough to match much of the West, it really does not matter because that is not the game being played. I suspect not a single Ukrainian soldier coming under a rocket attack is thinking to himself, “well the joke is on you, you’re overreaching your GDP base”. Unless the West changes its tune on how to respond, the Russian bear is not going to be paying too much attention. Instead, as one of my friends pointed out, “there is no significant military force standing between Russia and Paris today, a situation we have not faced for generations”. Another added, “but there is a lot of GDP standing in the way”.

“Russia is on the decline anyway, in ten years time this will be seen as a massive mistake!”

Again, this is very possibly true. After all, the big difference between the Russian threat and the Chinese threat is that it seems difficult to imagine Russia being more important in ten years time than today. Again however, I suspect this is cold comfort to the dying Ukrainian civilian, who is most probably not shouting to the incoming tanks “well you’re on the wrong side of history!”. As Keynes says, in the long run, we’re all dead.

The fact is that in this kind of game, a grenade in the hand is worth two on the production line. Most incidents like the Ukraine are not played out over the kinds of timeframe that the Cold War was; once an aggressor gets its way, it can be almost impossible to dig them out again other than at enormous costs which, as described above, people are unwilling to pay. Yet the fact is that Russia is doing this today, not years down the line when history has come to bite it. This is a case of asymmetric timing.

All powers are likely to rise and fall cyclically. Russia doubtless is on a down cycle already – but so what? History is not decided by trajectories (much as historical determinists and progressivists would love to believe), and still less are real objectives today affected by those long term trends. A power willing to punch today can easily and consistently outcompete the larger power waiting for things to fall into the natural order of things. Obama’s pushing of this wording is perhaps his most pernicious legacy as a clarion call to inaction.

“The whole world is watching this and will be judging Russia!”

Whilst the first two popular claims may well hold true, even if they are irrelevant, this last one is questionable due to one last great asymmetry, which constitutes the eternal dilemma of the policeman. The West is of course judging Putin – for now. Sanctions will come in. There is discussion of banning Russia from the SWIFT payment system for instance, as well as the removal of this season’s Champions’ League final from St Petersburg (Russia’s involvement in the Eurovision Song Contest however, has been subject to confusion).

The problem though, is precisely that the whole world is watching this – through the 24 hour news cycle, through social media, through memes. Yet the policeman’s dilemma is, why do I prioritise this over anything else? And with the fragmentation of Western attention, through so many channels, the cohesion of Western attention is less than in generations past, even as the volume of that attention is more. This is asymmetric focus.

The Russians know that Western observers struggle with creating a hierarchy of what is supposed to be important. Modern media has dampened our sense of proportionality, meaning that there is a perception of crying wolf. How much better or worse is Biden’s performance over the Ukraine, compared to the retreat from Kabul for instance? Or Obama’s red lines in Syria? Or his response to the last time Russia invaded the Ukraine? In the heat of the moment, everyone is entitled (as many are) to believe this is the most important issue in the world today; yet that same raw sensation will also see it be less to tomorrow. Maybe another invasion, maybe another form of Covid, maybe just forest fires will do the trick. Our lack of media curation has brought us to this.

I would additionally add that, in all of human history, sanctions have only ever to my knowledge worked in one example: South Africa. In this case, it worked because the target society of the sanctions (white South Africans) looked up to and respected those sanctioning them – they cared. Not the case with Russia, or with China. Probably not even the case with India. The corollary is that asymmetric focus is only solved when the matter is close to home – culturally, ethnically. Sweden, for instance, is not a member of NATO, but will still be able to count on American and European physical support in the event of a Russian invasion in a way the Baltic states might struggle with. Let’s be honest, because they’re white. This is the only thing which cuts through the ADHD of modern life. Are the Ukrainians really white enough and middle class enough for people to sustain their care? We will find out.

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If this sounds cynical, that is because it is. Asymmetries unlock many of the answers where there is more heat than light and war has been so unknown for so long. As long as Putin is playing a different game, the constant refrains about meaningless measures will remain rhetoric whilst real people are suffering. Grasping these asymmetries can lead to small but very effective changes in policy, and consequently enormously different outcomes. Given that the US purported to know about the coming invasion so long ago, a single battalion of American soldiers, under the guise of ordinary joint training exercises, would have made Putin pause for thought.

One must always ask oneself, “what would Putin do?“.

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PS – where now those anti-nuclear deterrent voices?

North Shropshire was never much of a surprise

Tory mauling in North Shropshire by-election was self-inflicted by Boris  Johnson | Financial Times

Since the by-election in North Shropshire, described variously by lazy journalists and commentators as “stunning” and “shocking“, a lot has been written about how historic the North Shropshire result has been. Clearly, it was an extremely poor showing for the Tories and, arguably, for Boris personally. The actual historical context, of the seat being held by the Tories for two centuries, is also somewhat true – it certainly has not been held by Labour or the current Liberal Democrat party before this. However, the Tories of two centuries ago were clearly not the Tories of today, so unlike some of the Red Wall seats which fell to the Tories in 2019, the historicity of this claim is rather tenuous – those seats, for instance Workington or the Don Valley, were literally in the camp of just one party (Labour) since 1918.

So much for the soft stuff. The statistical context is even more important. The fact is that whilst North Shropshire was a bad result, it nonetheless was much to be expected. Most obviously, incumbent governments will of course always suffer during mid-term by-elections, since there is little reason for voters to turn out for anything other than “sending a message. In the 146 contested Parliamentary by-elections since 1979, only 7 have resulted in the incumbent party of government not losing vote share. Most of these have some particular backstory to them as well, such as the Blaenau Gwent or Glenrothes by-elections under Labour. Gains by the Tories such as Copeland or Hartlepool are, by definition, remarkable.

The second most obvious point to make is that by-elections in the aftermath of major crises – domestic or global – will always magnify this swing effect. The statistical evidence is more limited here, but it is worth noting that the greatest swings against have tended to come in the wake of enormous economic dislocations, in the early 1990s for the Tories (Newbury and Christchurch) and in a statistical basis of one, in 2009 for Labour (Norwich North). These represent the only times since 1979 that real GDP growth has slipped into negative territory, and it shows. Since Covid-19 has created an economy dislocation some 2.5x greater than the 2008 crisis, it stands to reason that anti-government swings will be larger still. It is imperfect but it stands up to scrutiny.

Most importantly however, it should also be noted that swings against incumbent governments have, over time, been larger and larger. This is a secular trend divorced from specific party politics, since it has continued as a trend throughout various Tory and Labour governments. Below is a chart of the swing against in all by-elections since 1979 where the ruling party has lost a seat. Not only can you visually see the increasing size of the swings against, but statistically it also works out that whereas in the 1980s a government could expect an average swing of ~-15% against at an election, by the 2010s one could expect a ~25% swing against on average. Swings have increased by 10% in and of themselves.

The obvious question to ask is why this has occurred, to which I will only for now speculate. The first reason is the ongoing evidence of partisan de-alignment since 1979, which has become more pronounced even after 2010. The second could be the ongoing evolution of social media and its impact on the 24 hour news cycle, something which actually affects by-elections more than general elections. After all, electorates are used to being inundated during a general election and have done since the 1930s. But the amount of national focus on individual by-elections, first from television and now through social media, has made both dealignment as well as the “bloody nose” concept more pronounced. Regardless of the specifics, governments are going to find it ever harder to win by-elections.

This is not to say that the Conservatives had anything other than a poor result. But long-term increases in anti-government swing + largest economic dislocation in a century = almost certain defeat for a government. Boris still did worse than he needed to; but anyone believing this was not the opposition’s to lose is kidding themselves.

“Success” against the virus ≠ zero deaths

Covid beach

One of the most fascinating aspects of the reaction to Covid-19 in the West, has been the near-perfect alignment between the political Left vs Right, and the sides of caution vs courage. Almost without exception – after a few early weeks of confusion – those who favour big government and intervention, also favour lockdown, wearing masks, almost permanent health screening and continued economic dislocation. Those that favour small government, lean towards Swedish-style herd immunity, and want an end to the lockdown and for people to just get back to work. Anecdotally, there are very few people crossing over at all, which I find remarkable.

In East Asia, by contrast, the response has been uniformly lock-step: everyone tolerates intrusive government and everyone supports the (virtue-signalling*) wearing of masks. Expats in Hong Kong, for instance, have felt heavily the weight of – effectively – racial prejudice for their differing attitudes on what constitutes “best practice”. All pretense of those traits of modernity – self-reliance, independence and adventure – which were driving urban Asia forward have vanished as these societies demonstrate their true colours of sheepish governmental dependency and open embrace of social closure.

The economic debate has raged for some time. Just to take headlines from recent days, one side (rather too gleefully for my liking) posits “Four reasons state plans to open up may backfire — and soon”, while the other retorts that “The lockdown left is no friend of the working class”. But for me the most pernicious rhetoric is that of men like Andrew Cuomo, whose popularity is premised on the logically fallacious claim that:

“ … if you ask the American people to choose between public health and the economy, then it’s no contest. No American is going to say, ‘accelerate the economy at the cost of human life.’ Because no American is going to say how much a life is worth.”

In this assertion we see the defeatist and absurd idea that lives should be protected at all costs. The fawning view that “Asian countries focused on containment in a bid to minimise mortality” has been accepted as the rightful moral goal of virus policymaking. The economics debate is fruitless, since it pits logic against emotion; but the moral point is important.

The analogy between Covid-19 and the common ‘flu is compelling and purposefully misunderstood: it is not a biological parallel per se, but rather one of social morality. It is an impossible and unnecessary task of government to eliminate death from natural causes. There is such a thing as “natural attrition” from disease and old age; and the ‘flu, which kills tens of thousands each year in the UK and US, remains the last bastion of socially accepted, blameless death on a large scale. The ‘flu is not like dying from traffic accidents, which might arguably be prevented; it is natural process of life and if this virus does not come to get you, the next one will. To try to prevent this is to commit yourself to a problem with no solution other than feeding an unquenchable appetite for resources – and in turn would ultimately spell the end for universal public healthcare which would be burdened intolerably by the expense. I will say this again: an acceptable level of deaths from Covid-19 in the UK should number in the tens of thousands before severe economic dislocation is necessary; several times more again in the US. “Success” was never, and should not be measured against, negligible mortality – for this virus or future ones.

Both Trump and Boris have thus made significant errors in their response; but the error was not so much their technocratic plans on testing and quarantines. Rather, the biggest blunder they made was to allow the narrative to move on to the grounds of protecting all life. From inception, both governments suddenly found themselves on the hook for an unachievable and undesirable objective: limiting deaths to zero or almost zero. This put them on a hiding to nothing and set a terrible precedent for both – though Trump and the US is likely to escape a touch more lightly. But Trump has also made a rod for his own back with his China rhetoric – since however true it is that the virus came from China, externalizing the cause, rather than making people accept it as a normal part of existence, strengthens their belief that “success” means stopping it like one would a foreign invader.

By the same token, for the first time in my recent life, I now no longer feel China is necessarily the long-term “winner” it might be. The government is very nearly promising its people protection against the unprotectable, setting expectations that may not long from now see them demand healthcare instead of military expenditure. All very well, but it will build no independent Great Power status like that.

I for one do not believe we should – or will – inhabit a world where major viruses lead again and again to the necessity for lockdowns. By the same token, neither do I believe that we should inhabit a world “safe” from such lockdowns only through constant testing, screening and health surveillance. Instead, we simply have to become a society of humans capable of digesting the idea that death is a fact of life; deaths from viruses and other natural causes, all the more so. To be constantly worried about death of this nature (as opposed, for instance, to war) is to be petty, parochial and apathetic, unable to see the bigger picture. I liken it to a company whose employees and management are constantly focused on cost-control and the bottom line; all the while forgetting the visionary focus on growing the top-line. Such a company is one living in the past, occupying the twilight of its existence, not looking to the future. It constitutes a lack of ambition.

Speaking personally, for all the distress and heartache that any disease or event incurs, I would rather not live in a society which exerts its time and resources, however good the intention, in trying to protect its people from life rather than encouraging them to jump into it. I would always favour courage over caution. Perhaps in this, I have finally discovered my true, core, Toryism.

 

* Curiously, a piece written by Jason Ng, an anti-government activist and lawyer, which vocally disapproved of expats during the virus and pretty much specifically called for expats to wear masks in order to “show solidarity” with locals – the very definition of virtue signalling – has been taken down from the Hong Kong FP website where it had been posted.

What Covid-19 mortality might look like if we all counted like the Germans

Germany Covid

One of the less covered aspects of the Covid-19 crisis has been the wildly differing ways in which countries – and within the US even states – count the dead. This in turn has made comparability between countries almost meaningless, with very little to be learned between the numbers of deaths in Italy for instance, and those in Sweden. And by the time you bring China into the discussion, comparability ceases even to be mentioned. The singular failing of the WHO is not failure to combat the virus (which it has little power to do), but failure to at least coordinate consistent numbers. On this basis alone, the WHO has been a fiasco.

The problem is that how one counts deaths, even though it sounds like it should be scientific process, is actually an art. There will always be huge amounts of subjectivity in interpreting whether a virus like Covid-19 constitutes the “primary cause” of death, or whether it is merely a “contributary factor”. The discipline with which a group of medical practitioners understand and stay within guidelines on this reflects all sorts of local conventions and culture. Generally, one might assume that the more technocratic a society is, the more strict they would be.

Step forward Germany. Throughout recent months, German numbers have been hailed as an example of what good governance should look like, with early testing being seen as key. Yet if you look at the details, a puzzle is presented: although German total deaths are much lower than that of France, for instance, its total numbers of infections are almost the same.

Total Covid deaths

Note: mortality rate defined as reported Covid deaths as % of total infections “Non-German Europe” are countries coloured in red; Source: Worldometer.info

All the good governance in Germany would, one assumes, mostly have led to lower deaths through lower infections, yet this has not occurred. Rather, the gap between total deaths is partly filled by the differences in counting methodology. In fact broadly speaking “Greater Germany”, encompassing Austria, Switzerland and Denmark, together average a mortality-to-infection rate at around one-third that of Non-German Western Europe (and this is already distorted by the fact that in Switzerland, non-German cantons are reporting much higher mortality than their German brethren).

So what is going on? Whilst I have no doubt that the Germans are doing better, they are not doing that much better. But at present, if there is a difference in counting methodology, I also have no doubt that I would lean towards the German over the non-German way. What then would the UK and other countries’ mortality rates look like under the German system?

First, I have assumed a simple re-basing of these mortality rates to the Greater German average, creating a like-for-like “Germanic deaths” number for each country. This lowers them substantially. “But”, I hear you cry, “is the German healthcare system not better?” Well, perhaps it is – though in fact there does not appear to be much consensus on this from various authorities. But let us say for the sake of argument that there is a qualitative difference, we might use a simple proxy such as the number of hospital beds per capita to readjust this number and make it more apples-for-apples.

Greater Germany Covid

Source (for beds): Nationmaster.com

Greater Germany does have a better-than-average provision of hospital facilities, particularly in Austria and in Germany itself. Taken together, the Germanic average of hospital beds per capita is higher than most other Western European countries, although France is also quite high. If we then adjust the “Germanic deaths” number upward again, by the number of beds, we have an indicator of what German-style Covid-19 death counts might look like.

European Covid like for like

Note: “adjusted” figures adjusted for hospital beds per capita compared to Greater Germany

Despite making this adjustment upwards, non-German Covid-19 deaths, whilst higher than Germany’s (and almost certainly correctly so), are still substantially below the current reported numbers. In other words, if the UK used German-style death counting, its numbers of Covid-19 deaths might be about half the current number and possibly well below. The same applies to all other countries in the region. I would posit that this is the basis of real comparability, not the published statistics.

Of course, this is all back-of-the-envelope stuff and many will complain that this does not take into account all the nuances of each country’s policies and virus reactions. But there can be no doubt that:

  1. Each country is counting in a different way;
  2. If the UK were counting along German lines, reported deaths would be much lower; and
  3. Conversely, if Germany were counting along UK lines, their numbers would be higher.

However taking into account what has been happening in each country, if I were to guess at who’s numbers are a better and more accurate representation of the real situation, I know where my money would be. But then, I am Austrian.

 

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(For reference I did the same analysis incorporating the Asian OECD statistics, which seem remarkably similar to Germanic numbers. China in particular, whatever else is may have covered up, has a stringent policy of how it reports Covid deaths and the region as a whole would likely be similar. However the outcomes from this analysis did not move the needle enough to start having to justify commonality between Asia and Europe)

Asia OECD Covid

How Labour continue to be over-represented

As an addendum to my previous post, I have been poring over the numbers again and it struck me as notable that the Tories, despite never having dropped below 30% of vote share in modern times, have often won fewer than 200 seats whereas Labour, despite having dropped below 30% on at least two occasions (1983 and 2010), have never breached this psychological nadir. This year, again, they were forecast initially by the exit poll to weigh in at around 191 seats, but somehow managed to scrape in at 202 in the end.

In any first-past-the-post system, the winners will always benefit disproportionately and this is as true of the US electoral college as it is of Canadian ridings or British constituencies. For instance, people complain about Trump’s electoral college over-representation in the last presidential election in 2016 but forget that Obama benefited from a vote-to-college exaggeration twice before him, as did Bush and Clinton etc. This is simply an inherent function of this kind of system, and might be considered a sort of “winner’s dividend”. However what also appears to be true is that in Britain, the Tories have traditionally always had to “work harder” for their majorities than Labour, the result of a structural and psephological imbalance between the two parties’ support.

To highlight this, I have looked at how many votes per seat each party has had to win for their large majorities, comparing the Tory landslides under Thatcher and Boris, vs the Labour landslides under Blair. Even adjusting for total vote (in 2019 terms), the Tory majorities were much harder to come by:

Number of votes required per seat won by landslide winners (thousands, 2019 basis)

Majority winners

Note: in order to create a like-for-like comparison, I have adjusted the raw votes per seat upwards to the 2019 total vote numbers since the electorate has grown larger in absolute terms over time

To turn this around, if we look at how poorly the losers of those elections fared, one can see how under-represented or not they are in defeat. Again, the numbers show Tory defeats being much worse than Labour ones, which manifests itself in how the Conservative Party was at below 200 seats for the whole period between 1997 – 2010, something even Michael Foot and Jeremy Corbyn have not managed.

Number of votes required per seat won by landslide losers (thousands, 2019 basis)

Majority losers

Lastly, I look at the “tipping point”, in other words how the parties fare when close to each other – for instance in the two hung parliaments that we have had this decade. Extraordinarily, in both cases the Tories, despite being the winners of each election, still had to accumulate more votes per seat than the defeated Labour Party, turning the entire concept of a “winner’s dividend” on its head. By way of comparison, John Major’s slender absolute majority in 1992 only just saw the Tories needing fewer seats than Labour.

Number of votes per seat required in close elections (thousands, 2019 basis)

Close elections

At the very least this shows that the tipping point is well above the natural 50/50 threshold between the two parties. With the Tories having won a swathe of seats across the northern Labour heartlands, and with the impending promise of boundary changes, this could evolve somewhat; until it does though, Labour can relax in the knowledge that as a starting point, the electoral system still somewhat favours them.

The long arc of Tory progress (and why the SNP can be ignored)

Cameron Boris

On election night, I – unlike some around me (they know who they are) – was not losing my head. I had reasonable confidence of a substantial Tory majority, and had even put my money where my mouth was – being a buyer of a Tory majority at 44 in the spread betting markets. I had one central thesis: that the British electorate does not produce hung parliaments when there is a clear choice before them. Rather, hung parliaments only occur when the parties cannot distinguish themselves from one another (1974, 2010), or when they are unknown quantities (2017, pre-war). By this logic, Boris was in a good position to win outright.

This was despite the best attempts by the media to misread the polls. Like sub-par generals, journalists are always doomed to fight the last war, and the pollster who did “best” last time always exercises a disproportionate influence on their discourse the next time around. This year it was the YouGov MRP’s turn for lazy writers to place too much faith in, never remembering that no one pollster has ever been the “most accurate” twice in a row. In the event, the polls-of-polls were all broadly correct.

Of course there are other points of note about the Tory performance. On the one hand, there can surely be no denying Theresa May her contribution to breaking the Red Wall, and perhaps it really needed two heaves to get there; on the other hand, the media narrative on Boris being unpopular was I think well wide of the mark. Amongst key voter demographics, Boris was a positive, not a negative, and not just in contrast to Corbyn. Anyone who witnessed the acceptance speech by Ian Levy, the winning candidate in Blyth Valley, or to the reactions in Workington or Darlington, cannot doubt how central Boris was and how well he played on the doorstep as a loveable scamp who transcended class in his determination for Brexit.

Yet hidden amongst all the shock and turmoil lies a more profound truth: the Tories have been quietly improving their standing amongst the electorate for the last twenty years. Indeed the party have improved on their share of the vote at every election since 1997. They have also improved on their absolute numbers of votes since 2001 (the one surprise here being the considerable popularity of John Major even in 1997).

Conservative Party vote share and vote totals since 1997

Tory progress

This has not always translated into increased numbers of seats, due to the vagaries of the electoral system. 2017 saw Theresa May lose seats even as she surged to the highest vote share since Thatcher’s first election in 1979. William Hague, too, managed only a single net gain in 2001 despite a whole percentage point increase in votes. But set against this is the extraordinary fact that the party have now managed twice, in three elections, to work its way out of a hung parliament and back into a majority – a particularly difficult feat.

The cherry on the cake, of course, is that for those of us who lived through the dark days of the 1990s, we live to see a Tory government now likely to rule for at least fourteen years, and maybe nineteen. And whereas every other administration has won their biggest victories at or near the beginning (1945, 1966, 1983, 1997) only to see a long slow decline, somehow we have endeavoured to our greatest moment so far at the fourth time of asking, after a decade of being in power and all the scrutiny that comes with it. This is unprecedented and we are I think, allowed just a moment of self-satisfaction.

Majorities won by successive single party governments since 1945

Majorities

The one dark cloud being touted is Scotland. It will prove impossible for Boris not to yield to the SNP for a second referendum, they say. Yet for my own part, I reject this media interpretation. We should be clear that the SNP, whilst doing well in absolute terms, underperformed their own expectations and their previous results, and ended the night a slightly disappointed party. At 45%, their vote share was notably lower than the milestone 50% that they achieved in 2015, at the height of their post-referendum popularity. In seats, too, they failed to obtain the psychologically important 50 seats which they had set for themselves, and which would have cost Ruth Davidson a chilly outing in Loch Ness.

SNP and Conservative Party vote shares since 2015 vs support for Scottish independence

SNP

Source: Scottish independence polling from YouGov / The Times

Reading overlying themes onto partisan performances has its limitations. Reading Brexit results onto Tory or Labour support is impractical, for instance. But this is less so for one-issue parties such as the SNP or the Brexit Party. Their secular decline in their vote share since 2015 reflects the commensurate decline in popularity of the Scottish independence proposition over the same period. Much as the SNP have made headlines with the help of simplistic reporting, they are actually worse off than they have been in the recent past.

And here, given the success of my previous theory, is my second one: the popularity of independence in Scotland correlates directly with the efficacy of government in Westminster – not the nature of that government or its political colours, just plain ability to govern. Hence why the build up to 2014, with a coalition in place, led to one peak; the minority of 2017-2019 another (as were the mid-to-late 1990s). But I predict that as Boris gets his feet under the table and gets on with life, Brexit included, Scottish sentiment will begin to recede. Boris need not pay such calls for independence any heed, and all credit to him, he seems to be headed this way.

Support for Scottish independence (1978 – 2012)

Westminster effifacy

The progress that the Conservative Party has made since the mid-1990s is a tribute to various leaders, each in their way: William Hague for his “night shift”; Michael Howard, the man who arguably saved the Conservative Party with his performance in 2005; David Cameron and his decontamination; May and the recognition of the new tectonic plates of class and economics; and finally Boris, who with his ambiguity over Brexit somehow captured the skeptical but generous spirit of the age. Even Iain Duncan Smith was a useful placeholder. The fact is that this 80 seat majority is a tribute not just to Boris’ political skills, but rather to a long, slow, and painful rebuild which for all its highs and lows, has seen indomitable progress towards power. Just what the Conservative Party has always been about.

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A slightly self-congratulatory update (2 Jan 2020)

First, it seems this theme of long term progress has been picked up by various commentators, such as Martin Kettle at the Guardian, who notes that:

“The Tories have now formed four governments in a row. Remarkably, they have increased their share of the vote for the last six elections. They have 200 more MPs today than in 1997. Those who sit for seats in the north and Midlands have got most of the attention, and rightly so. But the tightening Tory grip in parts of the south that were once marginal also matters. The Tory advance across Wales is dramatic. And they remain a player in Scotland, something Labour can barely claim. They are UK-wide again. And they now have a new generation of MPs who can shape their party.

Secondly, there was an interesting graphic from the Financial Times talking about the Tories and the working class:

However whilst the FT was trying to make the point about Tory inroads, much of this graphic simply demonstrates the underlying improvement in performance, which would naturally eat into traditional Labour voters since Conservative success basically equates to Labour decline. Either way, the choice of 1997 as the starting point is notable and the story a component of what I outlined above in the original post.