Populism, the Hate/Victim dialectic and why the Left need to insult us.

Even the BBC are at it now. Populism is the new racism. It is the new buzzword. Everything we don’t like is now ‘populist’. David Cameron is blaming his own political demise on populism and everyone else thinks its just fine as an explanation for the electorate not doing as they were told. So now 17.4 million voters who have almost got used to being described as thick, racist, uneducated, old, poor, white etc are now having to cope with a new insult whose repeated misuse implies that we are all just a bloodthirsty rabble. I explained here why populism is almost exactly synonymous with democracy and not something altogether nastier. But a further question is begged: Why do the Left have to resort to continual insults in order to further their political aims? The answer to this problem goes back into the depths of Marxist history and runs something like the following:

The Marxist theory of dialectics is a bastardised re-statement of Newton’s Third Law of Motion: ‘For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction’, but applied to economics and politics. According to the theory of Marxist dialectics, there is an original state – a Thesis – and its opposite, the Antithesis. When reaction between these two states is completed, a higher state is reached – that of Synthesis. As humanity and politics evolves, this Synthesis then becomes a new Thesis which finds its match in a new Antithesis, and so on. So, according to Marxist theory, the story goes something like this: a socio-economic condition, say Feudalism (the Thesis), is matched by the conditions of the feudal slaves and serfs (the Antithesis). When revolution occurred between these two as it did during the French Revolution, then the resultant Synthesis produced Capitalism. Likewise, when Capitalism becomes the new thesis, it is matched by the Proletarian antithesis. When revolution between these two occurs, we get Communism. Communism is deemed to be the highest state of political and economic achievement and further evolution cannot occur.

Note that there some common characteristics pertaining at each stage of this progression. The first is that there must be revolution (preferably a bloody one) between the thesis and antithesis before the synthesis can be achieved. The second is the unstated, but implied need for an educated middle class elite to act as the guiding hand to direct the antithesis stage into the synthesis. It must be remembered that Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Mao and all the rest were highly educated middle class intellectuals. A third common factor is that in each case, society must be divided into two antagonistic groupings in order that the revolution is effected. The final characteristic is that the thesis in each case becomes an object of opprobrium and hatred, whilst the antithesis deserves our sympathy. In other words, society is divided along the lines dictated by the élite.

It is easier to think of the two groups in a divided society divided in this way as a ‘Hate’ group and a ‘Victim’ group – instead of ‘Thesis’ and ‘Antithesis’. The labelling of each group is essential in order to differentiate ‘Them’ from ‘Us’. For example, in the turmoil of revolutionary Russia in August 1919, there were leftist political groupings such  as the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks, as well as the Bolsheviks of Lenin. In an article in Pravda, Lenin accused these groups of being “accomplices and foot-servants of the Whites, the landlords and the capitalists”[1]. Note that two whole groups of people – nominally allies of the Bolsheviks – were routinely labelled as allies of actual enemies of the Revolution who had already earned themselves a place in the ‘Hate’ lexicon of Bolshevism. Having thus categorised these Socialist groups as a threat, this extract from a Cheka (Bolshevik Secret Police) internal memo dated 1st July 1919 shows the next steps:

Instead of merely outlawing these parties, which would simply force them underground and make them even more difficult to control, it seems preferable to grant them a sort of semi-legal status. In this way we can have them at hand, and whenever we need to, we can simply pluck out troublemakers, renegades, or the informers that we need….As far as these anti-Soviet parties are concerned, we must make use of the present war situation to blame crimes on their members, such as “counter-revolutionary activities”, “high treason”, “illegal action behind the lines,” “spying for interventionist foreign powers” etc. [2]

This categorisation was constantly used in order to control and ultimately eliminate whole groups of people. Dividing society in this way, whipping up up hatred against one group or another made it easier for the Bolsheviks to gain acquiescence from the remainder of society to commit the mass murder of the first fifty years of Soviet Communism – roughly 20 million (although estimates vary). Categorisation and societal division was a process which led inevitably to wholesale slaughter or imprisonment in gulags. This in turn terrorised the whole population and gave justification for even greater excesses.

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Photographs: Soviet executions of Russians (dates unknown). Images from Wikipedia. The Left do not do this sort of thing anymore in the West. But the process of getting to this point is still the same.

In our modern society, such slaughter is illegal and in any case is deemed counterproductive by the modern day Socialist. Nearly all societies throughout the world are much better informed than they have ever been before. The internet has ensured that governmental excesses are generally well broadcast and so the sheer brutality of previous regimes has become, for the most part, a thing of the past. The obvious exception to this is North Korea which has succeeded in keeping its population largely ignorant of the outside world. The other exception is ISIS or Da’esh which actually wants news of its excesses to reach the outside world in order to spread terror.

This leaves us with the modern, western Left which nevertheless uses the same basic principles to divide society and thus create conditions whereby the Leftist élite are able to occupy the moral high ground, point the finger at their enemies and so (they hope) rally the rest of society around them in order to bring about whatever revolutionary vision is in their minds. Where before the victim group was ‘the worker’ or ‘the masses’ or ‘the proletariat’, this has had to be modernised into a variety of victim groups such as the LGBT community, ethnic and racial groups, women, the poor, the disabled and so on. Once again, these ‘vulnerable’ groups are given the dubious pleasures of special protection from the Left, so that another identifiable sub-section of society can be stigmatised as the Hate group. The Tories, people who voted Leave, bankers, ‘the 1%’, racists, Islamophobes, sexists, white van drivers, people you wouldn’t want to invite to an Islington dinner party, and so on, are all popular groups for provoking the ire of the Left. In fact, pretty well anyone who is unfortunate to have made a distinction between one person and another, will find themselves attracting the opprobrium of the Left. In generating this societal division, the Left insert themselves into positions of power and/or influence, from whence they begin to a) earn money at taxpayers’ expense; b) manipulate events to their own satisfaction.

So the whole thing is a very simple process. Those who obstruct the path of the Left are placed into a Hate category. A Victim group is sought and then exploited by using inflammatory language against the Hate group. This drives a wedge into society. Into the divisions thus created, drops the middle class Leftist élite who utilise this lacuna as a means of gaining power. It does not need very many Leftists to carry out this process, especially in this age of social media. What matters is that a huge number of (often unwitting) fellow travellers latch on to the idea and use it in public discourse. David Cameron is a particularly good example of a useful fool in this respect. It is also necessary to point out that the two groups do not have to be antagonistic towards each other in the first instance. What is important, for the Leftists, is that the two groups are identifiable as different. The process of division deliberately foments, or even manufactures grievances which are then used to open the gap.

It is the oldest rule of warfare of them all: Divide your enemies and then conquer them.

References

[1] and [2]: Courtois S, Werth N, Panné J-L, Paczkowski A, Bartošek K, Margolin J-L; (1999): The Black Book of Communism – Crimes, Terror, Repression. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Posted in BBC, Political Debate, Socialism | Leave a comment

Populism and the Semantic Creep of the Left.

There has been much talk of populism just recently. The use of this term has gained currency during and after Brexit – and also during the rise and election of Trump. Newspaper correspondents and EU apparatchiks are looking nervously at the resignation of Matteo Renzi, former Prime Minister of Italy, after another one of those horrid referenda. Meanwhile, a so-called ‘populist’ government – Syriza – is in nominal power in Greece (although it is the EU troika that is actually in charge). There is a far right party in Hungary called Jobbik which is gaining ground. Marine Le Pen is looking like a serious contender for the President of France. Austria has narrowly avoided a right wing president and Geert Wilders is gaining ground in the Netherlands. The collection of incredibly polite German professors in the form of AfD is snapping at the heels of Angela Merkel. Whilst much of this movement is is described as ‘right wing’ it is not exclusively so, Syriza being the obvious Far Left exception. Newspaper and television correspondents are beginning to notice a pattern and are looking nervously over their shoulders. The fixed establishments, with whom those correspondents hold a sometimes questioning and sometimes uncomfortably incestuous relationship, are terrified.

The unifying characteristics of this popular movement is a dissatisfaction with the political status quo. That such dissatisfaction is a Bad Thing means there is a growing consensus amongst all those worthy newspaper columnists and other ‘opinion formers’, that populism is akin to a very nasty disease which is becoming increasingly prevalent amongst the lower orders. Furthermore, the leaders of this movement are frequently described as ‘demagogues’.

So what exactly is ‘populism’?

Populism, as spoken by the cognoscenti, is defined rather well in this article by Julian Baggini in this Guardian article. Specifically, he says:

“Populism is not defined by right and left, nor even by the virtue of its goals: think Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. Populism is rather a way of doing politics that has three key features. First, it has a disdain for elites and experts of all kinds, especially political ones. Second, it supposes that the purpose of politics is simply to put into action the will of the people, who are seen as homogenous and united in their goals. Third, it proposes straightforward, simple solutions to what are in fact complex problems.”

So that is what populism does, but in this article by Nick Cohen, the dangers of populism are manifested thus:

“If you oppose the new populists you become an enemy of the people
As neo-tribalism replaces neoliberalism, you must forget about the old checks and balances democracies erected to govern complicated societies. You must be sure to respect the “will of the people” in its unmediated rawness. You must be surer still that you are a part of “the people”. For, if you are not, you can find yourself an “enemy of the people” just by carrying on as you did before.

Everywhere, authoritarian nationalists are using populism to batter their enemies. Even before the failed coup gave Recep Erdoğan the opportunity to purge anyone capable of gainsaying him, the Turkish president presented himself as the true of the voice of the Turkish people. His critics were, by definition, potential traitors.”

But is this really what populism means? My favourite dictionary, The New Oxford Dictionary of English says this:

populist n. a member or adherent of a political party seeking to represent the interests of the ordinary people. ¤A person who holds, or is concerned with, the views of the ordinary people.

That all seems to be very innocuous, so just to check, here is the definition from the Cambridge Dictionary online:

populism
noun [ U ] UK /ˈpɒp.jə.lɪ.zəm/ US /ˈpɑː.pjə.lɪ.zəm/ mainly disapproving

political ideas and activities that are intended to get the support of ordinary people by giving them what they want:
Their ideas are simple populism – tax cuts and higher wages.

A little closer perhaps to the Baggini and Cohen definition, but it does not sound very much like Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has closed down opposition by imprisoning thousands of people, removing professors from universities and shutting newspapers. When Nick Cohen talks about the dangers of authoritarian nationalists, he probably has Adolf Hitler in mind. But in this concept – that populism leads to authoritarian nationalism and disaster – we have a puzzle which is heightened by the fact that the actual definition is in direct contradiction to authoritarianism; and furthermore seems vaguely familiar. Here then, is the definition for democracy:

democracy n. a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives: a capitalist  system of parliamentary democracy.

It seems these two systems, populism and democracy, are in fact very nearly one and the same thing – provided we use the words correctly. But this phenomenon – where the meaning of populism has crept from a synonym of democracy into one of incipient evil – must have a purpose, especially as it is perpetrated by (principally) newspaper columnists who are all intelligent and are deemed to have access to a dictionary. So three questions arise from this curiosity:

  1. Who is doing this?
  2. Is it deliberate?
  3. What do they hope to gain from it?

The first question is answered by looking at articles, broadcast content and social media. Over the last few months. it has seemed to me that the principle perpetrators of this semantic creep are commentators who are mostly from the Left. Although not exclusively so, as this article by Danny Finkelstein suggests. Nevertheless, all of the offenders have put forward ideas which are in favour of the political status quo of the West i.e. that which is loosely termed “the Establishment”. They have all tended to rail against the physical and electoral manifestation of people expressing their dissatisfaction with the way things are currently being done. The support shown towards Brexit and Trump are all deemed “populist” by these writers.

When used in this way, the term ‘populism’ is used to convey opprobrium from the writer, even though the real meaning has absolutely no such value-judgement attached.  When it is repeated in the media as often as it seems to be, it becomes a term of abuse. And so the use of populism in this way can only be deliberate. Conjoined, as it often is, with the term demagogue (which means a “popular leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than rational argument”) then we begin to see that it is a characterisation of something that is altogether unpleasant. Indeed, Julian Baggini makes it clear:

“Think of populism and you’ll likely think of the nasty rightwing nationalism of Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders or Nigel Farage. But if Jeremy Corbyn is re-elected as Labour leader, it will be a mild-mannered socialist who will have led the most successful populist campaign in Britain in decades.”

So that’s it then, in black and white. Populists are nasty (except for Jeremy Corbyn).

But who gains from all this? The answer, as so often when dealing with political discourse and the Left, lies in George Orwell’s 1984. Winston Smith, in serving the Ministry of Truth, has to engage in regular bouts of ‘two minutes of hate’, where everyone has to hate whichever enemy is current. The objective of the Ministry of Truth is to control language (and by extension, thought). Once that is controlled, power is maintained by the government. Meaning and history is deliberately shifted over time in order to suit the status quo.

And so there we have the explanation for the semantic creep which is so typical of Socialist political discourse. It is deliberate, designed to obscure the truth and it maintains power to the establishment by attempting to turn whole groups of people into enemies. In the case of revolutionary Marxism, it is used to usurp an existing establishment and substitute a new (Socialist) one.

But one further question is posed from all this: Is this technique of deliberate shift of meaning effective in helping to maintain power? To the best of my knowledge, the demagogues have not sprung upon their soapboxes to harangue and incite the assembled crowds into acts of violence. Here in Cornwall, the village smithies do not seem to be humming with the sounds of whizzing grindstones and the shriek of swords, pitchforks and scythes being sharpened. Twenty thousand Cornishmen have not crossed the River Tamar and wanted to know the reason why. Instead, what has happened in June of this year is that 72% of the electorate have trooped off to the polls and cast their votes. The majority of them, 17.4 million, have very politely stated that they wish to leave the European Union. In the United States, a majority has done likewise for Donald Trump. And in Italy there has been a 60/40 split in favour of “No” and Mr Renzi has resigned.

So is this really the populism of the fervid imaginations of our columnists? Have there been pogroms and book burnings? Of course not. But the grip of the current establishment has been loosened ever so slightly by the express democratic will of the people. Democracy fails if it does not listen to the people – and fails to evolve with the will of the people.

That is the purpose of populism.

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Richmond by-election: Why the Liberal Democrats should be worried.

It’s very sad that Zac Goldsmith – a very good and honourable MP – has lost  his seat in the Richmond Park by-election. He always said that he would resign from the Conservatives if they decided to build the third runway at Heathrow. The Conservative government has decided to do just that and so, being a man of honour, that is precisely what Zac did. He has been replaced by a Liberal Democrat, Sarah Olney, who has managed to endure 2 minutes 59 seconds of being questioned by Julia Hartley-Brewer in this extraordinary interview before being taken away by her minder. Not a good start for Sarah Olney’s views on accountability.

The Lib Dems ran the campaign in Richmond as if it were a re-run of the EU referendum. They asked the good people of Richmond to judge the Liberal Democrat policy position of being opposed to the UK exiting the EU. They punched this message repeatedly, whilst at the same time splitting Zac’s core message of opposing the third runway at Heathrow, because Sarah Olney is also opposed to the third runway. Or at least, so she says, even though her husband has made a lot of money from helping to expand Heathrow’s Terminal 5. She may not be quite so solid on this subject as she says she is. Her record in Parliament will be worthy of a close watching brief.

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Picture: Sarah Olney campaigning with Bob Geldof during the Richmond Park by-election campaign, November 2016.

Naturally, having won the by-election, the Lib Dems are shouting about how it is a vindication of their opposition to leaving the EU. By contrast, Twitter was yesterday alive with people making comparisons between the similarity of the margin of their win with that of the Leave margin in the EU referendum – 4.5% compared with 3.8% for the referendum. Those of a waggish nature suggested that as the vote was so close, the people of Richmond obviously did not know what they were voting for and so there should be a re-run; that the result should be overturned by the courts, and so on. In other words the intrinsic hypocrisy of the Liberal Democrat and Remainer positions have been exposed for what they really are – an assault on democracy and the biggest mandate for anything in the history of the United Kingdom. Julia Hartley-Brewer caught Sarah Olney nicely with this and caused the dear lady to cut and run.

But there is another aspect of the results of this by-election which deserve deeper analysis. According to the Evening Standard, the EU referendum results for Richmond-upon-Thames are that 75,396 people voted for Remain, whilst 33,410 voted for Leave. This means 69.3% voted for Remain in Richmond during the referendum. However, that was in June of this year and much has happened in the ensuing debate about how and when we should leave. A huge amount of effort has been expended by the Remainers in attempting to find any means possible to overturn the referendum result. And even some of those who voted Remain are now beginning to express impatience with those persistent Remainers who think they can overturn that result. If the Richmond by-election really was about about being a re-run of the referendum then we should look carefully at the fact that Sarah Olney’s percentage was a mere 49.68% of the votes cast.

In the EU referendum, Richmond-upon-Thames (a bigger area than the Richmond Park constituency) was 69% in favour of Remain in June. But it is now only 50% in favour of Remain. In other words, the swing away from Remain and towards Leave is about 19% or 20%. If this swing was reflected in a further national referendum, the Leave/Remain margin would increase to about a 60/40 split in favour of Leave.

Moreover, the by-election result shows a severely reduced turnout of 53.44%. The national turnout for the EU Referendum was 72.21%. Working these figures back into Richmond Park constituency, it suggests that about 26,000 voters stayed at home – who otherwise went out and voted in the June referendum. This further adds credence to the idea that enthusiasm for Remain (and the Lib Dem support for this) has rapidly declined in the country as a whole since 23rd June.

Whichever way you do these calculations, it suggests that a huge chunk of the electorate are completely turned off by the Lib Dem attempts to overturn democracy. Even though they have just increased their Members of Parliament by one, the Liberal Democrats are heading for big disappointment at the next General Election unless they change their message.

***UPDATE***  A common shout by Labour and other Lefties, who were defeated in a perfectly fair election, is that a newly successful government only speaks for a small percentage of the people. So a government which obtained, say 45% of the votes cast, by the time turnout is taken into account, perhaps only 30% (or less) of the total electorate voted for them. This argument has been used in various ways by Labour in the past; and more recently by the SNP when contriving various reasons for a re-run of the Scottish IndyRef. If we were to apply the same logic to the Richmond by-election then Sarah Olney’s share of the potential vote is: her share of votes cast multiplied by the turnout percentage, i.e.: 49.68 x 53.44% = 26.5%. So if only 26% of the people voted for her, then clearly, this is an excuse for another election, just to make sure.

Posted in Beyond Brexit, Political Debate | Leave a comment

There is no Plan! Where is the Plan?

One of the more persistent memes since the referendum has been the regular claim that the government has no plan as to how it intends to negotiate our exit from the EU. We are now five months after the referendum and many of those who voted on the wrong side of history are still in a state of collective anguish. Conversely, plans are being made to subvert the will of the British people. Various people of stature – Tony Blair, John Major, Richard Branson and a host of acolytes are reputedly gathering funding and so on for a campaign to take us back into a wheezing, sclerotic EU before we have actually managed to leave it. But the principle charge still stands – that the Brexiteers have no plan. This couple of recent gems from Matthew Parris are good examples (my thanks to Andrew Atter and Marie Le Conte for bringing them to my attention):

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And again, just to make sure that we get the message:

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The fact of the government not providing a running commentary on progress, thinking and planning is provided succinctly enough by the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis here, from about 15.09 onwards, but especially from 15.12 onwards. From this we can conclude that David Davis is not going to tell us; whether we, or the Remainers, like it or not.

Not telling the opposition your plans in advance is generally considered to be a useful tactic, whether in playing chess, negotiating a business agreement or prosecuting a war. General principles can be established at the outset between the parties i.e. that you are going to negotiate an agreement or go to war with each other. But the detail as to how events actually proceed is down to planning and not letting the opposition know which cards are in your hand. Outcomes are also dependent upon how each party responds to the events as they unfold.

For instance, in 1933, the British government responded to Hitler’s getting power and then setting out an aggressive agenda, with caution. After the annexation of Austria in March 1938, there came the Munich Agreement on 15th September 1938. This was followed by the Sudetenland Crisis in October 1938 and the invasion of the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Until this point, appeasement was the plan – giving Hitler what he wanted in return for peace. Then on 1st September 1939, Poland was invaded and Britain declared war upon Germany. Note that there was no particular plan invoked up to this point by the UK, only broad principles which changed as time went on. The only tangible thing which happened was the quiet re-arming, which Chamberlain’s infamous ‘peace in our time’ speech gave us approximately 12 months to do. At the time none of this was evident to the public. After Poland fell to the combination of German and Russian invaders, the policy changed from ‘appeasement’ to ‘containment’. The British and French hoped to contain Germany, at least in the West. In the summer of 1940, this plan was also abandoned with the fall of France. From that moment on, the plan was ‘defence’, because that was the only option available to us. Only after the battle of El Alamein in October and November 1942 was the plan turned around from ‘defence’ to ‘offence’ and then total victory in 1945.

To ram the point home, the following is a summary of one of those wonderful wartime obituaries that the Daily Telegraph does so well. It concerns a young Royal Navy Commander – an engineer in peacetime – who found himself summoned to 10 Downing Street in early 1941. At this time, most of Europe was occupied: shipping was being sunk in the Atlantic faster than we could build ships to replace them; North Africa was in flames and Rommel was doing all the running; the Russians were retreating back to Moscow and Stalingrad; Singapore had fallen to the Japanese; and Repulse and the Prince of Wales had been sunk. The Americans had not yet entered the war. The young man (whose name I have sadly forgotten) entered the underground bunker of No. 10 and was brought into the presence of The Great Man. His future duties were outlined to him; whereupon Churchill, in typical stirring form, summed up thus: “Whilst all those around you are preparing for defeat, you are to go into a room and prepare for victory.” And so he did – into the blackest of the deep bowels of The Admiralty, and in the deepest of secrecy, he began the logistical planning for sea-borne landings onto hostile shores. This work was put into practice in Operation Torch in North Africa, the Allied invasion of Sicily and then Italy – and culminated in the biggest of the lot, in Normandy.

Once again, the point is that the plans were kept secret. In the latter case, even the principles of turning round defeat into victory was completely unknown to the public. For very good and obvious reasons.

So it is extraordinary that the Remainers should continue to demand that the government reveals their deliberations to the public – and especially to a group of people who have sworn to do everything in their power to overturn the decision of the British electorate.

But even if their demands were reasonable, which they are not, is there not also a case for demanding of the Remainers, what their plans are? The simple fact is that the European Union is not what it was even a year ago. It is increasingly apparent that the EU has become a burden to many of the countries who are members of it. Increasingly, the peoples of the EU are starting to wake up to the realisation that their political masters have some sort of agenda which does not include the opinions, needs or demands of the vast majority of the people who elected them into office.

Southern Europe – Greece, Portugal, Spain and particularly southern Italy, are economic basket cases. They have been driven to the brink of poverty by the economic demands of the ECB; which is run principally in the interests of Germany. Whether Le Pen is elected as president in France; and whether Renzi is thrown out and his banking reforms fail or not, is almost irrelevant. The fact is that a tide of popular protest is sweeping across Europe, driven by the twin toxic issues of the incompetence of the Euro and the huge dismay of untrammelled migration into Europe of an alien people, religion and culture. This last   seems intent upon swamping a Judeo-Christian culture which has evolved over the last two thousand years. And the political class all seem Hell-bent on making this happen without the slightest courtesy of asking their own people if they want this.

In the light of all this growing chaos, my questions to those who would usurp the decision of the people of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are these:

  • How much is it going to cost us to bail out the EU banking system?
  • How much will our continued membership fees rise by if we stay in?
  • How many unwelcome migrants are we going to take in?
  • How much is this going to cost us in terms of extra benefits, schools and hospitals?
  • What will be the cost to society for the increase in crime – particularly rape and other forms of violence?
  • What will happen to our Rule of Law – are we going to have one rule for the migrants  and another, harsher, set of laws for the non-muslims?

So Remainers, what is your plan?

Posted in Beyond Brexit, Democratic Deficit, Political Debate, Taxpayer | Leave a comment

Flooding, maize and undersowing.

It has been raining a lot throughout England and Wales just recently. According to the map below (H/T Phil Latham) parts of Devon, Dorset and throughout the Midlands, there has been in excess of 55% of the average rainfall for November, in just three days.

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Inevitably, there has been debate about how much of the flooding is down to wicked farmers growing horrid maize to feed their cattle. Some of this debate has been quite lively and extended between Phil Latham (angry dairy farmer), Miles King (botanist and ‘boring ecotroll’) and Phil Brewin (waterlevel manager and freshwater ecologist). It has been entertaining to watch.

Normally, my default position is to fly to the defence of farmers because I feel strongly that they get a rotten PR deal from the media, which tends to broadcast the eco-nuttery of George Monbiot without balancing it with any common sense from actual farmers. But on this occasion, Miles suggested that the problem of run-off from maize stubble can be mitigated by undersowing grass which will stabilise the soil over winter and the high risk period. For his part, Phil Latham wondered about the yield reduction caused to the maize by the undersown grass.

I have a lot of sympathy for the undersowing idea, so I shall explain. Some years ago, I had a grazing licence on some land near Kingston Maurward near Dorchester. So on a daily basis, I used to drive out, using the back road between Tincleton and Dorchester. (Miles  might know this road). Along this road are a number of farmers, some of whom grow maize for their cattle. One winter was especially wet and the maize stubble became waterlogged, compacted and then shed the water with a rush. Great gullies were cut into the soil and large amounts of sediment were dumped onto the lane as well as flooding it. This confirmed my view that leaving bare soil over winter was not only environmentally damaging, but also a waste of good agricultural land, because the land is doing nothing for six or seven months of the year.

I suspect that conventional farmers have been slow to adopt the idea of undersowing maize because it is yet another operation and there are valid fears of reducing the maize yield. Farmers have enough to do already without giving themselves extra work. If they can get away with cutting the number of operations on a farm whilst maintaining margin, then the minimum amount of work is a sensible strategy.

A little time spent on Google reveals that the practice of undersowing maize with various grass and grass/legume options is now common practice in Denmark. It is under trial for the purposes of flood prevention in Wye and Usk. I have no doubt that farmers in the catchment of the Somerset Levels will be encouraged to do something similar. I certainly hope so.

The characteristics of the late growing season demanded by maize (it needs a soil temperature of about 10 degC to germinate) mean that it provides a long window of opportunity for farmers to get a catch crop in between their main crop. The grass can be grazed or silaged and offers an effective increase in the quantity of dry matter produced from a given area of land. In addition, it can be viewed as a green manure (so beloved of organic farmers) with the root mass being returned to the soil to provide the basis of an improved soil structure – rather than an increasingly depleted one. Furthermore, the catch crop of grass does not need inputs of N, because it is helping to restore the soil Nitrogen balance after the high inputs of the maize crop. In the end, this system seems to me to provide the farmer with lower costs (easier cultivation), better compliance with environmental standards in cross compliance; lower risk of run-off during periods of high rainfall; and above all else, the opportunity for additional income for the farm.

There will be times and some farms for which this system is difficult or expensive to operate, but I suspect that reluctance in take-up of this idea is more due to caution on the part of farmers, than any real objection. So it would be good to see this happen across the country.

Posted in Environment, Farming | Leave a comment

Where is the Soil Association going with all this? An open letter to Helen Browning.

[As an explanatory note: Helen Browning OBE is Chief Executive of the Soil Association.]

Dear Helen,

A few days ago, the Soil Association tweeted a message about the advantages of organic farming with respect to animal welfare. The short film attached to the tweet suggested that only organic cows were happy cows and that a mere 3% of cows in the UK were organic. By inference the tweet suggested that the rest had poorer welfare standards. The resulting explosion on Twitter from many farmers has caused the Soil Association to withdraw its tweet and apologise.

The apology shown below is well-meaning; but when looked at closely, only serves to confuse the matter further. It talks about 80% of animals in the EU being reared in factory farms, where the original tweet was about UK farms. So we have confusion about what exactly is a factory farm and why the Soil Association conflated EU statistics with UK ones. Taken altogether, your tweet and its subsequent apology are in turn misleading and then confused – and suggest a weak attempt to wriggle out of the problem you have created for yourselves.

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As an ex Soil Association Licensee, I have often looked upon the inner workings of the organisation with disbelief. I have seen, first hand, the disconnect between the rhetoric of the organisation and the  actual organic farmers themselves. The latter are hard working and often exceptionally good business people. The former are people mostly divorced from the countryside and its workings – and are largely dependent upon the public purse for their incomes. They lead sheltered, air-conditioned lives by comparison with their real farming colleagues. Under your predecessor, Patrick Holden, I watched a beleaguered former president of the NFU, Peter Kendall, struggle to keep his temper when surrounded by the Soil Association’s conference hall full of right-on supporters. The issue, as always, was that the Soil Association considers itself to be the sole guardian of good agricultural practice; and that “conventional” farmers are wicked, chemical spraying exploiters of the countryside who are only doing it for money. The offending tweet above is just one of a long series of gratuitous insults levelled at UK farmers (and, by extension, Irish ones as well) by the Soil Association.

A particular case in point has been the Soil Association’s response to bovine TB. This has  amounted to the pusillanimous avoidance of discussion of the problem in order to minimise exposing its members to the truth about bTB and badgers. The thrust of SA public statements has been the idea that avoidance of stress in cattle leads to lower incidence of bTB and that organic farming avoids stress. From which the public infers that organic systems avoid bTB. This is manifestly not the case and there is no difference in bTB incidence between organic and non-organic farms. And yet the Soil Association has been been content to continue to sow this misleading impression amongst the public.

For many years the Soil Association has continuously sought to further organic food as  being distinctive and of higher quality – in order to justify the higher prices which are essential to pay for what is actually a very expensive product. To a point, this may be fair enough. But much of that “distinctiveness” has also been driven by the idealogical belief that the Soil Association is not only “better” than “conventional” but that it is also more distinctive than the other organic standards bodies. The result has been an ever-ratcheting spiral of increasingly onerous standards. This in turn has made the system more expensive and difficult to achieve. The premium for the food produced does not compensate the farmer for the hidden costs of compliance, and so the farmer finally gives up organic status and reverts to more sensible non-organic farming (and improves his bank balance as a consequence).

The upshot of all this organic propaganda has been the public sowing of division between organic and non-organic farming systems. The greater the “distinctiveness” between the organic and non-organic standards, the more the Soil Association has rubbished the conventional farmer. This has inevitably resulted in resentment amongst non-organic farmers – and some embarrassment amongst existing organic farmers that their neighbours should be thus slagged off.

But there is a glitch in the Soil Association scheme. By alienating the non-organic farmers, the Soil Association has also alienated the very market from which it draws new entrants to organic farming. For some years, after the subsidy system was altered in favour of organic farming, there were more new entrants to organic conversion than there were departures. Then the departures from organic farming started to gather pace. For a while, that was balanced by the number of new entrants. So, on paper, things were moderately static or even improving in terms of organic hectares. However the situation has now changed and the number of new entrants is being exceeded by the departures. The result is a dramatic decline in organic farming in the UK:

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To emphasise the decline in the new entrants to organic farming, the following graph gives the relative declines in the amounts of land in organic conversion (both charts copied from Defra Organic Farming Statistics dated 19th May 2016):

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These numbers are brutal. They suggest that there is a small percentage (3%) of farmers who are hanging on to their organic status because they like it. But the original Soil Association aim of making a meaningful percentage of UK farmland to convert to organic is looking increasingly doubtful. Indeed, the total organic area has declined by 30% since 2008.

In conclusion, it seems to me that the Soil Association has reached a fork in the road. One choice is for you all to continue as you have been doing, by denigrating the vast majority of UK and Irish farmers who conduct their businesses using the highest standards anywhere in the world. Or the Soil Association can undertake a complete culture change and go back to the original principles of Eve Balfour – and use the huge amount of modern knowledge which confirms that the health of the soil, its microbes and invertebrates, is essential to environmentally and economically sustainable farming. The first choice is the easy choice of maintaining your quasi-regulatory, commercial, charitable and idealogical fixations. It will depend to an increasing degree upon the taxpayer, because the income from farming and UK produced and processed food will continue to decline. But ultimately it will lead to an organisation which exists solely to talk to itself.  The second path is the most difficult and would involve a huge amount of courage, because much of the existing Soil Association would disappear. But it is the one that is most needed.

So Helen, I suggest a choice between the original purpose of the Soil Association and good management of the soil; or the perpetuation of an organisation which has forgotten the very place from whence it first sprang.

Which will you take?

Yours sincerely,

David Eyles.

Posted in Common Agricultural Policy, Environment, Farming | 4 Comments

Are BBC TV licence fee numbers dropping off a cliff?

It has become noticeable  on Twitter of late that criticism of the BBC has intensified and become more widespread. My own television viewing stopped in 2012 and I have not since watched live television on any medium. My sole viewing is the odd clip of a political discussion or event on YouTube. So it begs the question as whether my own response to the often dire rubbish on television is an extreme one, or whether other people are taking similar action and getting rid of The Box and reverting instead to computer generated news and entertainment (or even reading books and talking to each other more).

The only objective way of measuring such a phenomenon, if it exists, is to check the discrepancy between the number of households in the UK against the number of TV licences issued, to see if the number of licences issued is falling. Licences are issued on the basis of one licence per household and this will cover any number of televisions within that household. Broadly speaking, the number of households who decline to pay for a TV licence will comprise two groups of people: those who are like me and have switched off altogether; and those who are continuing to watch television, but have declined to pay for the licence. In the parlance of TV Licensing, the official arm of the BBC which is responsible for collection of the television licence fees, these recalcitrants are termed ‘evaders’. Much is made by TV Licensing of their success in catching evaders (800 per day) and that their success in prosecutions is 99%. See their annual review for 2015/16 here.

In the figures below, the TV licences issued are matched against the number of households in the UK (data from ONS). TV Licensing figures for the number of UK households have not been used because their figures are not presented consistently and have been subjected to changes in methodology during the study period. By contrast, the Office for National Statistics figures have been gathered and presented consistently.

Figure 1 – Graph of increases in TV licenses issued and number of UK households, since 2008.

 

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From this, we can see that the number of TV licenses issued (blue line) has risen in a very straight line since 2008. The average rate of increase has been an additional 100,000 licenses each year. This increase can be attributed to the efficiency of TV Licensing in locating and demanding payment from non-payers. It is also a function of the increase in UK households over the same period (red line). However, it can be seen that the two lines are diverging, with the number of households increasing at a faster rate than the number of licences issued. This suggests that the number of non-payers is increasing. This is confirmed in the following figure:

Figure 2 – Number of households not paying the TV licence.

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In absolute terms, the number of UK households which declined to pay the TV licence fee have risen from 779,000 in 2007, to 1,394,000 in 2016 – an increase of 615,000. On average, that suggests that TV Licensing are losing an additional 61,500 households each year. The keen observer will notice that the number of non-payers actually fell in 2014 and 2015. This is because the number of additional licence fee payers increased almost uniformly, whilst the growth in the number of households was almost flat from 2013 to 2015. This might have been because of the stagnating housebuilding programme in those years. Whatever the demographic reason for a flattening out of the number of households, there was the illusion of TV Licensing actually managing to catch up for a while. However, in 2016 (actually 2015/16 financial year) this apparent improvement was reversed and the number of non-paying households rose sharply. The figures suggest that an additional 191,000 households did not pay the TV licence fee in that financial year.

This dramatic rise in non-payers is confirmed implicitly within the TV Licensing annual review for 2015/16 (linked to above) where they proclaim that they have caught 300,000 people not paying the licence fee. And yet for the same period, the total number of licence fee payers rose by a net figure of only 100,000. So that means that 200,000 are dropping off the other end. This increase in non-payers for 2015/16 is 3.1 times the historical increase in licence fee non-payers. In percentage terms, the non-payers have risen steadily from 3.1% of the total households in 2007, to 5.2% in 2015/16. It remains to be seen what happens in the next financial year.

The  reasons for this very obvious disaffection for the BBC and all its works are the subject of another debate, but it is clear that the disaffection is real and increasing. The market for entertainment and news is changing its preferences from a mid 20th Century means of delivery into much more technologically and socially diverse 21st Century delivery systems. The BBC is clinging on to the licence fee for dear life, but it will not be long before their life support system is taken away by sheer loss of customers.

 

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