Monday 23 May 2022

Now the food megacorps are too big to fail, are we heading for famine?

This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog

George Monbiot in the Guardian on Friday suggested a frightening prospect about the food inflation we are currently experiencing.

He says the problem has been that, like the banks, over-consolidation of the food industry – now that just four giant companies control 90 per cent of the world grain market – means that they are now ‘too big to fail’. To coin a phrase.

So what if they suddenly run into difficulties, as the big banks did in 2008? This is what he wrote:

“…. here’s what sends cold fear through those who study the global food system. In recent years, just as in finance during the 2000s, key nodes in the food system have swollen, their links have become stronger, business strategies have converged and synchronised, and the features that might impede systemic collapse (‘redundancy’, ‘modularity’, ‘circuit breakers’ and ‘backup systems’) have been stripped away, exposing the system to ‘globally contagious’ shocks.”

That is certainly a fearsome prospect, but it need to be linked with other thinking along similar lines.

Why exactly does over-consolidation lead to inflation? That is the question answered in one of the best newsletters around, by Matt Stoller on monopolies and called simply Big.

Last week he wrote about the Cantillon Effect, called after the French 18th century economist Richard Cantillon:

“Cantillon described what happens to class of people in the economy when a gold mine opened. Those near the mine, or with connections to the king, were the first to get access to the increased money supply. They bid up assets, and gain political power. Then as the gold moved into the rest of society, inflation in normal goods is the result. (Cantillon also noted that imports increase dramatically after a gold discovery, articulating a version of what is today known as ‘Dutch disease’ in economics.)

Last year, Stoller wrote that: “From railroads to plastic bags to semiconductors to ice cream, Wall Street and monopolists are creating shortages and exploiting them…

That is spot on. Perhaps because the Liberal spirit has been dulled in the West, the main Liberal contribution to economics has been silent – a critique of monopoly power.

I am reminded of the research by the economist Amartya Sen, who studied the great Bengal Famine of 1943, in which 1.5 million people starved to death.

He found that there was no real shortage of food. It was just that people were no longer able to ‘command’ it.

It was too expensive or they had no right to it, or something. Similar problems applied in other famines from the Irish Potato Famine to the Bangladeshi famine more recently.

In other words, food shortages are a ‘populist’ lie; famine is about inflation and inequality – which also leads to inflation.

Sen also, it seems to me, pointed at the truth about a possible grassroots solution.

Ten years ago, I wrote a short, radical history of the UK allotments movement, and I found myself quoting the following letter to Country Life, written at the height of the first Dig for Victory campaign in September 1917:

“The assumption on which a national policy of agriculture is based seems to be that the food supply of the country depends chiefly on the large cultivators. One is not prepared to say that there is no truth in this. The five-hundred acre farm must yield a greater absolute percentage of the food supply than the little plots. Still, that is not all the truth… Some remarkable instances can be given to show how this works out practically. For example, a man who had cultivated forty rods of land, when he set about it was able to produce as much from twenty rods as he had done from forty rods.”

In other words, economies of scale don’t exist here. This approach, which has development experts on side, means supporting small farmers – because, in the end, attention to detail by committed small farmers will produce food, in the right places, at the right prices.

This is, once again, small versus big. Economies of scale versus diseconomies of scale.

The discovery that small farmers out-produce big farmers was set out in the 1970s by Amartya Sen, but it actually isn’t a very new idea – as the letter to Country Life shows. The great radical William Cobbett noticed it when he was defending Horton Heath in Dorset from enclosure, noting that poor people could make poor land productive:

“The cottagers produced from their little bits, in food, for themselves, and in things to be sold at market, more than any neighbouring farm of 200 acres.

He noted that ten farms of a hundred acres each could produce more than one farm of a thousand acres. But it was a varied and diverse productivity, compared to the handful of products grown by the big farms. And there lies the source of the muddle. Monsanto and those like them don’t measure yield in the same way.

As I argued in my book The Human Element, the fundamental problem is that, although the West won the Cold War, we have adopted an increasingly Soviet economy ourselves – where an increasingly tiny elite, manage massive, technocratic monopolies, getting fat at the expense of ordinary people.

And which are in the end not capable of meeting people’s needs, for reasons we understood perfectly well back in 1989.

Tuesday 17 May 2022

How i stopped worrying quite so much about nuclear annihilation

This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog...

I can’t be the only person in the country at the moment who wakes in the early hours of the morning worrying about a nuclear attack.

As Dr Johnson said about hanging, the impending loss – not just of my own life – but everyone I know and love and our whole tradition and history too, certainly concentrates the mind wonderfully.

I can’t believe it is good for my mental health – or anyone else’s either.

Added to which, there was the historian Antony Beevor spelling out the extraordinary peril that we now find ourselves in – explaining how Putin has backed himself into a corner. With the help of the Americans, he is now contemplating his nuclear stockpile.

"Putin wants to terrify us," said Beevor in the Mail on Sunday. "And he does, because his own disastrous mistakes have backed him into a corner. He is prepared to use nuclear weapons if Russia faces an existential threat, and by Russia, he means his own regime if it is defeated in Ukraine. This has created far greater dangers for the world than at any moment since 1945."

Part of the problem is that I feel so powerless to do anything about it. It isn’t the kind of thing that is likely to be prevented by a stiff letter to my MP.

But then, it is at times like this that I think of Wellesley Tudor Pole and his ‘silent minute’ – begun at the height of the blitz on British cities in 1940.

It so happened that, when he went to see Winston Churchill about the idea, he found the new prime minister had been worrying about rumoured links between senior Nazis and occultism. Tudor Pole’s proposal spoke to that as well.

He was a former major in the British army, who had been on Allenby’s staff in Jerusalem in 1918 and had gone to great lengths to make sure that the British protected the life of the mystic  ĽAbdu'l-Bah√°, one of the key figures in the start of the Baha’i faith. Later in life, be bought the site of Chalice Well Gardens at the foot of Glastonbury Tor.

His proposal to Churchill was that, with the help of anyone of goodwill, he would build a psychic barrier against Nazi invasion.

For one minute every day at 9pm, he would light a  candle and, for a minute, he would imagine the barrier and pray for peace.

This was said to be why Churchill asked the BBC to broadcast the Big Ben bongs every night at 9pm, as a kind of focus, which they did from November 1940.

The ‘silent minute’ was revived by Dorothy Forster in 1993, in time for 9/11. So while I don’t want to interfere or to change anything, I have a feeling that 10pm is the new 9pm – that is when the main news of the day is broadcast.

All this post is designed to do is say that I will light a candle just before 10pm every night – I will then, for one minute, pray for peace and imagine us protected by a huge semi-permeable dome, covering Britain and Ireland, permeable to everything except intercontinental ballistic missiles, which just glance off and roll harmlessly into the sea.

As any sensible policy wonk will understand, there is no way this could possibly protect us – which is why it can’t do any harm to try.

And it is action to take. Which will make me feel better, even if nobody else joins in…

Monday 9 May 2022

On the prospects of being blown to atomic dust

This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog...

The British people are prepared if necessary to be blown to atomic dust.

So said Sir Alec Douglas-Home when he was prime minister. There are so many things wrong with that statement – yet it is also a quintessentially patrician and British way of putting it.

Who are ‘the British People’ described here? Did he mean you and me? Because I don’t remember ever consenting to being blown to atomic dust.

Even worse, it was said by a man whose class probably meant that, personally, he would be inside a government bunker – probably in a regional seat of government under the Chilterns.

Now, I have no idea as an ordinary citizen how much this ancient emergency system is still working. I remember, when I was training as a journalist at Harlow Technical College in 1981, we were all shown around the nuclear bunker underneath Essex County Council. And many of us – especially for some reason the women trainees – were so cross about it, that I felt it would never be repeated.

What annoyed them was not so much the silly messages, left behind after their most recent exercise – one said: “AUTHORISE RELEASE OF 200 CREAM BUNS: POLICE ESCORT” – it was the sense that we were being tricked into the idea that we could survive and fight a nuclear war.

When I was a reporter in Oxford in the early 1980s, there was a room in the basement of the town hall which was supposed to be where they would manage the city from after a nuclear attack. Inside were two telephones, a map and a set of instructions which said: “What to do in the event of a nuclear attack on Oxford – No. 1: Make tea”.

This was good advice. But really the room was mainly used to keep bicycles in.

Since the end of the cold war in 1989, our own government has – rightly or wrongly – neglected these kind of precautions. So now, with a kind of proxy war happening against Russia, with Boris Johnson popping over to Kiev whenever he can and the Russian foreign minister threatening this country most weeks, I don’t believe this is good enough.

The government can’t have it both ways after all. Either Putin is sane and sensible, in which case, why has he invaded Ukraine, so disastrously? Or he isn’t, in which case I’m not reassured by defence secretary Ben Wallace and his blithe dismissal of the risk: "We are part of a Nato partnership of 30 nations who outgun him, outnumber him and have potentially all the capabilities at our disposal. I don't fear him, and I think we should be very grateful in this country that we have a nuclear deterrent."

What happens if Putin is as crazed and illogical as we fear?

Of course there need to be consequences for Putin for all he is doing – and there will be – but, if we are going to take the risk of standing up to him, then our government must put some resources behind protecting us all.

My prediction is that, if the conflict in Ukraine carries on for years – as Liz Truss suggests it will – then these issues will increasingly rise up the agenda here.

But what can we do about it – if nothing else because it beats sleepless nights worrying about whether the UK will be there in the morning?

First, I think we need to put money into civil defence again, so that we know we are not just protected by the fantasies of the current cabinet. In the second world war, there was a powerful political campaign for deep shelters for the urban population. We need something similar now.

Second, it is time to devolve resources for keeping people safe as far as they will go – to voluntary groups that may already exist, like Neighbourhood Watch or the new local welfare groups that emerged during the lockdown.

Finally, we need to make common cause with the Russian dissidents – and make links between them and our own. That was the historian E. P. Thompson’s strategy in the early 1980s – that the opposition to the cold war on both sides needed to make common cause with each other. That is certainly a healthier approach than the idea of 'cancelling' all Russians.

As the Common Sense newsletter, run by former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss, put it last week: "FIFA and UEFA suspended Russian soccer teams from competing. A university in Milan cancelled (and then reinstated) a course on Dostoevsky. The International Cat Federation banned Russian-bred cats from competition. This, of course, in addition to blocking Apple Pay and Google Pay from ordinary Russians connected to sanctioned banks...."

Where, you might ask, are the British dissidents? Like Noam Chomsky or Chris Hedges in the USA  - people who discern the opportunity now being seized by a few washed-up cold war warriors and arms dealers who are keen to prolong the crisis? I don't know, but we need a few of them now...

Wednesday 4 May 2022

Looking back at 1997 - maybe what followed was inevitable

This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog

It is a little terrifying to think that thee general election of 1997, which brought with it such a sea change in our politics, was now 25 years ago this week.

I remember it as much for the extraordinary turn in fortunes for the Lib Dems, more than doubling the size of their parliamentary party to 46 seats in one leap, as I do for bringing the Blair-Brown show to power.

I was editor of Lib Dem News in those days, the party’s weekly paper, and I had spent much of the campaign travelling around the west country and other places, like Evan Harris in Oxford West & Abingdon, Brian Cotter in Weston-super Mare, Stephen Williams in Bristol West and Mark Oaten in Winchester (I particularly remember meeting his beautiful wife Belinda in the high street).

It was the perfect example of the so-called 'dual approach' at work: the Lib Dems were winning places where they had previously won local government influence. “Heading east from Penzance towards the capital - a journey of more than 300 miles,," wrote a Times columnist in 1993, "drivers spend all but the half-hour traverse of Avon motoring through counties that are dominated or controlled by the Liberak Democrats,"

It certainly felt like that as I drove through huge fields with huge blue posters, but Lib Dem gold or yellow posters in profusion on so many houses.

At the party at the Pizza on the Park on election night, that the campaign chair Richard Holme said, as Tom Brake won his seat in Caterham – which had long been a part of Lib Dem Sutton – that he had never heard of it before.We had become so used to never quite managing to win at a general elections – it was amazing to find ourselves suddenly popular.

I had been expecting a breakthrough like this since I had joined the Liberal Party in 1979 – I had even made a bet with my grandparents that we would win 50 seats “next time”. But 1983 came and went, and my grandparents died. In 1997, I finally felt some measure of justification.

The campaign had been characterised partly by a tacit alliance between Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown. That night, Ashdown was given a police escort to London after his own count in Yeovil. He believed he was driving up to London to take power.

I believed in those days that this was a disastrous idea. Now, I’m not so sure because – with the benefit of hindsight – it seems to me that so much of New Labour’s rule for the next 13 years was technocratic and flawed. What a difference the Lib Dems might have made if John Prescott had been faced down by Blair when he complained and persuaded him to dump his promise to Ashdown…

We could perhaps have prevented the Iraq war, and maybe insisted on a fair voting system for Westminster, but I’m far from sure that my own party would have had the self-confidence to reject Labour-style technocratic centralisation using numbers – a horrible boulderisation of the enlightened approach by alternative economics thinktanks like – like the New Economics Foundation – to spread skills downwards and to measure everything.

“But what else can we do?” Lord Falconer said to me in 2001 when I told him I was writing about too many numbers at the heart of government. Could we have predicted the growth and damage of tickbox – or that it would undermine the trust of anyone using services, or in politicians that saw the world in terms of a common good that over-rode individual rights?

Could we have, back then, seen the future enough to know what disaffection it would bring along with it, so that Blair's so-called 'modernisation' agenda now looks like a terrifyingly inhuman cul-de-sac?

I doubt it.

So it maybe that we were stuck with the history we have in fact been living through. It is just that it could and should have been different.

It is hard to recreate the sense of victory of the young over the old and worn out that the 1997 election seemed to mean, back then. "Did you stay up for Portillo?" was the main question we asked each other - which was a question about whether we had seen the shock defeat of the next Conservative leader, Michael Portillo by a young Labour type called Stephen Twigg.

Well, I did, but I was back home by then, trying to work out what it would all mean now that so many of my thinktank friends were all involved in inquiries which were to take us in and out of No 10 for the next few years.

So we didn’t achieve the enormous changes we had set ourselves to do, but we came pretty close…