Written 13 April 2020
So, thought I would have a crack at another post. I’ve read my first post and think it’s not that good to be honest, a bit all over the place. I’ve never really been one to write longish pieces, I studied maths and science from the age of 16 so developing any sort of writing ability has always felt like a bit of a long haul, though after more than thirty years I am now much better than I was when I first started working.
Still, no excuses, like anything writing is easy to throw stones at, doing it yourself is more difficult. I’m not going to go back and edit the first post, that seems rather to miss the point.
Lent, Easter and fasting
I was off twitter for Lent and didn’t really miss it at all, in fact I found it much easier than expected. I ate only from early evening, and feel good for that (I don’t actually find that particularly difficult). Meat only on a Saturday, and fish on a Friday so largely vegetarian, again something I don’t find particularly difficult. One or sometimes two cups of sugary coffee or tea is ample, the problem is not to graze through the evening (that’s my downfall). I’d like to say I read a lot more scripture and my prayers improved, I’m not sure they did too much, but I have reread Mere Christianity which is just brilliant as always.
On Day Two of Easter I’ve had devilled kidneys, kleftiko and rabbit pie, all great.
Media and Twitter
So without twitter I relied mainly on the Guardian for news (no payroll, see?). I have now deleted the app from my phone. God it’s awful, parochial and small minded with a strong undercurrent of disdain, sneering, snobbery and malevolence. And that’s before making the horrible mistake of looking at the comments on the stories. The very worst of British.
As I said above, I didn’t miss twitter really and have yet to post anything. I’ll monitor the situation, but I already feel a very big cull coming on…mainly journalists.
Reaction is the only paid subscription I have (£4 a month, but now available for £26 a year I think). It’s excellent, more than enough for me, and I’ll be keeping it on. I also enjoy Unherd. I have absolutely no inclination to subscribe to anything else (I had the Spectator for a year, but like all magazine subscriptions after a year they run out of stuff to say). I’ve been reading Pete North’s blog which has more insight than anything else out there on international trade: it’s his curse to be right about stuff rather too early and so to fall foul of the curators.
I’ve watched some TV news, I think that will tail off for me, they really have little to add. I have stopped watching the daily news conferences, the standard of questioning and insight from the heavy hitting political journalists is execrable. I’ve seen various comments that the BBC has had a “good” Coronavirus crisis. Well, I’ve always watched the local news and it’s good and enjoyable. But really the problem for the BBC is that breadth comes at the expense of depth; for me depth wins out every day so I don’t see my consumption going up.
Cornovirus and national emergency
More observations from me on where we are (to add to the many thousands of takes out there).
Firstly, I do not think that anyone at all has more than a fraction of the evidence that is necessary to make a sensible judgement on policy. This has implications for current policy, for which the best I think we can say is that quite understandably it is being set against a background of maximum precaution. This is even more so when we turn to the question of what we will see from the perspective of 2021 or 2022 (needless to say the first half of 2020 will be the subject of extensive research for years and years to come, and people will reach different opinions). The most important thing we can I think we can be reasonably confident of is that this thing isn’t going away soon. We are less than four months into the first wave of what will likely be a series of outbreaks within this country and across the globe. It is very early days. I hope that the stated policy of protecting the NHS from being overwhelmed is successful and turns out to be the best one, but that is going to have to develop into something else very soon and that will quite properly be a political, not a scientific, judgement. Scientists will obviously advise, but the decisions need to be made by accountable politicians. The broad consensus in the UK is that policy has been implemented too late, we will only know when we have the benefit of hindsight whether this is actually the case.
Secondly, some observations on the main two schemes to support the economy. The furlough scheme seems to be sound thinking, though putting it in the hands of the HMRC is something that as an accountant I am very strong reservations on. It appears that the take up is likely to be three times higher than modelled by the Treasury (where on earth does the Treasury find its modellers, they have obviously never worked outside the civil service, see also Brexit forecasts). The loan scheme seems very poorly designed indeed, a sort of muddle of putting loans through the banks while also requiring them to shoulder some of the risks. Speaking to our own relationship manager when it was announced in the first (proper) budget, a week before it was increased dramatically in size, it became obvious that banks would feel they would have to put through loans through credit committees. It’s not going to work and I said so on day one. The Chancellor said all the right things in announcing the schemes (massive schemes, operating at pace, the perfect being the enemy of the good etc). All well and good, but both schemes look to me like schemes that have been designed by Treasury civil servants, reviewed by other Treasury civil servants without ever asking the advice of people who actually approach banks for loans or use the HMRC portal as a punter. The emerging consensus is that we are going to have to get used to more active government; well, active government is going to have to get real and do a lot better.
Broadly, I think the furlough scheme can probably work (it needs to be backed by an absolute no nonsense whistleblower line because the people who abuse it need to go to prison). The loan scheme I don’t think will: some sort of helicopter money would make more sense.
Thirdly, the NHS. I’ve made the point over many years that my experiences with the NHS range from totally brilliant to absolutely and utterly crap. It’s not the thing to say right now while we live in a world of Thursday night claps, but I’d be amazed if we don’t see in a year or two that its response to this crisis has been similarly variable. I remain highly sceptical of the slightly Orwellian tones in which “Our NHS” is discussed. It’s creepy.
Fourthly, the Monarchy. I’ve been a Republican all my life, and Republic is the only campaigning organisation I am a member of. I’ve always hated the campaign’s focus on the Royal Family, my support for a Republic is based only on the fact that our governments wield the power of the Crown in Parliament. It’s a constitutional issue for me, I don’t care that the Royal Family are posh. Over the last couple of years I’ve come to favour a kind of dual head of state, with a hereditary monarch as ceremonial head of state and representative of continuity and prime ministers to be appointed and sacked by another head of state or constitutional body that is elected. I’m convinced more than ever that the ceremonial head of state is actually a very important role in the UK, and it is undeniable that it is of great importance to a very great number of UK citizens and if the dual head of state is a non-starter I’d stick with the monarchy.
Fifthly, notwithstanding the comment on the Monarchy and bundling up a number of issues, the UK needs putting on a proper constitutional footing. This has been obvious to me for a long time, and the whole current mess of having a Deputy PM with no real power is just another illustration of the problem. I appreciate the arguments that having no written constitution gives us a very useful amount of flexibility and adaptability, and I’d draw up a constitution pretty loosely, but I’d have one drafted nevertheless. In fact all our systems of governance, our constitution, devolution and the relations between the constituent nations, our welfare state, our system of taxation all need a total drains up and hopefully this crisis brings that closer.