A Tale of Two Weekends

If I were John and John were Me,

Then he’d be six and I’d be three.

If John were Me and I were John,

I shouldn’t have these trousers on.

AA Milne

Two weekends, two weeks apart.

In each children spent hours preparing their own personal tributes to the focus of the weekend. Parents arranged accommodation. Face paints were in profusion. Cardboard constructions abounded. There were placards and banners and flags.

One got minute by minute coverage in hushed tones, with talking heads running out of things to say after 6 hours or so and then needing to start projecting what various people, having their every movement and facial tic filmed, might be betraying in a momentary expression. The other one was almost totally ignored, despite both events occupying almost exactly the same space in central London.

Imagine if the media priorities had been reversed:

“And, as the man with the giant mosquito on his head, slowly makes his way around Parliament Square, we reflect on how many hours must have gone into constructing that mighty insect. And now we see the scientists, garbed in their traditional white coats, making the point that no nature means no future. What a riot of colour it is and so many volunteers have given up their time, not only today but in the months of preparation for the Big One. So, Sir David, are you surprised by the number of children in the procession today?” “Not really, Huw…”

“Meanwhile in other news, police arrested a Mr Charles Windsor and his wife Camilla at their home. Police seized several crowns, an orb, sceptres, rings, some very large chairs and other paraphernalia which could be involved in coronation activity. Royalists claimed that the police had been ridiculously heavy-handed. The police said that their actions had been entirely proportionate.”

In Christopher Clark’s new book about the revolutions throughout Europe in 1848, Revolutionary Spring, he talks about the origins of radicals and liberals in opposition to the establishments of the day, divisions which still seem to be with us today. But it is our Government which is radical, prepared to do great violence to the status quo, the opposition which seems to be liberal, bogged down in endless arguments about tiny differences, and the BBC which appears to be left on its own representing what it sees as the current Establishment.

Now there will be many who say that journalists should not be involved in defending any status quo, and I can understand that. However it can also be argued that a state broadcaster like the BBC does have some responsibilities in this respect. But which status quo do you defend?

The Government’s agenda is problematic – it’s not just about the lying and the corruption, but the constant changing of position, the most obvious being the Kwarteng fiscal event in the autumn. Climate protesters are remarkably consistent by comparison, not surprisingly really as the limits imposed by physics are not changing with each quarter. And their focus of sustainability is surely the most critical part of any status quo which needs defending, ie the ability of the planet to support life in all of its forms.

Television is extremely good at focusing our attention on something, and away from something else. This is why companies spend so much on television advertising and why our televised sports halls and pitches and the combatants within them are festooned with logos and messages from a myriad of sponsors. However, the Communications Act 2003 prohibits political advertising, which includes campaigning for the purposes of influencing legislation or executive action by local or national (including foreign) governments. The BBC have interpreted this as not allowing any form of protest to be visible during televised sporting events (most recent example being the Just Stop Oil protest with the orange powder at the World Snooker Championship), an event for which the title sponsor is Cazoo, Europe’s leading online car retailer. Similarly, the police have said that one of the considerations in their level of policing response to the Republic demonstrations this weekend, including pre-arrests before the procession or any protest had taken place, had been the wall-to-wall television coverage of the event.

46% of the UK population are very or extremely worried about climate change, but the biggest demonstration in the UK in the climate movements’s history was not covered on television at all. 62% of the UK population support the monarchy and we get all the main channels turned over to coronation coverage. I think what I am calling for is a bit more balance here, something we used to think, with some pride, was a national characteristic.

We are changing as a country and I am not talking about our satisfaction with the NHS

OK I am talking about satisfaction with the NHS a little bit, as it was all over the media yesterday. Just 29% satisfaction compared to 70% in 2010, with the chart above helpfully showing the precipitous decline since then. Does that remind you of another set of graphs I put up not too long ago?

It should. We stopped spending the same proportion of GDP that other similar countries do on their health services and our performance in terms of patient satisfaction plummets. Who would have thought it?

In fact this was only a headline as the Kings Fund and Nuffield Trust had just issued their analysis of the NHS-related bits of British Social Attitudes Survey Number 39, which had originally been published in October, and was itself based on data collected between September and October 2021. However it is an impressive survey overall, with 44,000 households taking part (you can find the full technical details of the survey here).

What is very clear is that the nation is changing fast. Some things are not – a slender majority in favour of increasing taxes and spending more on health, education and social benefits has remained almost static since pre pandemic and all of the averages conceal very polarised views between Brexiteers and Remainers, the different communities in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and particularly between Londoners and the rest of the UK.

This looks like it is beginning to be recognised, with a big increase in the proportion agreeing that working people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth (up to 67% compared to 57% in 2019) and, for the first time, a slim majority in favour of moving to proportional representation.

Only 17% say it is very important for being truly British to have been born in Britain, which is down from 48% in 1995, which feels like a sea change in attitudes towards immigration to me.

And then we turn to the environment. Rather echoing the Met Office research I highlighted recently, 45% view climate change as the most important environmental issue, compared with only 19% in 2010, with 40% of the population very concerned about the environment, compared with 22% in 2010.

Which brings us to two climate stories in quick succession.

The first was yesterday, when the Committee for Climate Change, appointed to assess the Government’s progress against its own commitments on climate change, gave its 2023 report to Parliament on England’s progress in building climate resilience across the economy – and the extent of policies and delivery to meet them. It was not a positive assessment.

Source: https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/progress-in-adapting-to-climate-change-2023-report-to-parliament/

What they found was:

There is a striking lack of climate preparation from Government:

  • Policies and plans. Despite some evidence of improved sectoral planning by Government for key climate risks, ‘fully credible’ planning for climate change – where nearly all required policy milestones are in place – is only found for five of the 45 adaptation outcomes examined in this report.
  • Delivery and implementation. In none of the 45 adaptation outcomes was their sufficient evidence that reductions in climate exposure and vulnerability are happening at the rates required to manage risks appropriately. For around one-quarter of outcomes, available indicators show insufficient evidence of progress.

Baroness Brown, Chair of the Adaptation Committee, went further:

The Government’s lack of urgency on climate resilience is in sharp contrast to the recent experience of people in this country. People, nature and infrastructure face damaging impacts as climate change takes hold. These impacts will only intensify in the coming decades.

This has been a lost decade in preparing for and adapting to the known risks that we face from climate change. Each month that passes without action locks in more damaging impacts and threatens the delivery of other key Government objectives, including Net Zero. We have laid out a clear path for Government to improve the country’s climate resilience. They must step up.

By coincidence, today is the Government’s Energy Security Day, backed by a report called Powering Up Britain. This follows a High Court ruling last October which found that, when they signed off their carbon strategy, they didn’t have the legally required information on how carbon budgets would be met. The article went on to say:

Ten million tonnes of carbon could be illegally unleashed in the mid-2030s as a result. Doubt was also shed on the 95 per cent of the sixth carbon budget that was accounted for in the government’s estimates.

Mr Justice Holgate also ruled that the strategy breached the Climate Change Act by failing to provide enough detail on the emissions savings, leaving parliament and the public in the dark.

Originally called Green Day, but presumably dropped after Jeremy Hunt’s comments about not wanting to be an American Idiot, the Energy Security Day has highlighted the following Government priorities:

  1. Energy security: setting the UK on a path to greater energy independence.
  2. Consumer security: bringing bills down, and keeping them affordable, and making
    wholesale electricity prices among the cheapest in Europe.
  3. Climate security: supporting industry to move away from expensive and dirty fossil
  4. Economic security: playing our part in reducing inflation and boosting growth,
    delivering high skilled jobs for the future.

Further analysis at this stage has not been made easy by the way that the Government has released details. Chris Stark, the Chief Executive of the Committee for Climate Change has described it on Twitter as “government by press release”, ie

The government now adopts this communications strategy regularly: press release the night before – published documents later. It gives them two bites of the press coverage.

But it makes it hard for a statutory organisation like @theCCCuk, with legal duties, to comment.

Others have been less constrained in their response. The main criticisms are that many of the policies presented in the report have been announced previously, that there is no significant increase in support for home insulation and that the focus on carbon capture and storage (CCS) is out of all proportion given the long-standing difficulties of scaling up the technology.

The BBC quote Bob Ward, policy director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change at LSE:

What does not make sense is to carry on with further development of new fossil fuel reserves on the assumption CCS will be available to mop up all the additional emissions.

I had an initial skim of the report looking for what was planned for heat pumps, which regular readers of this blog will know I have some history with. I found this:

The Government has an ambition to phase out all new and replacement natural gas boilers by 2035 at the latest and will further consider the recommendation from the Independent Review of Net Zero in relation to this. People’s homes will be heated by British electricity, not imported gas. The Heat Pump Investment Accelerator will mean heat pumps are manufactured in the UK at a scale never seen before. We want to make it as cheap to buy and run a heat pump as a gas boiler by extending the Boiler Upgrade Scheme by three years, and by rebalancing the costs of electricity and gas.

So reading between the hype, they are going to invest £30 million in heat pump manufacture in the UK, which they claim will attract £270 million of “private investment into manufacturing and associated supply chains”.

The other parts are:

  • Committing to extending the £5,000 grant for another three years (which is less than the difference between the cost of installing a heat pump and a gas boiler currently in many cases, although this may change if schemes like the recently announced Octopus pilot become more widely adopted).
  • The “Clean Heat Market Mechanism” which is supposed to encourage the installation of low carbon heating appliances.
  • A consultation to shift green levies off electricity and on to gas bills.

The country is changing fast. The Government needs to be more transformational than this to keep up. Or, in Baroness Brown’s words, step up!

Day 2 of the UCU Strike: Never explain; never regret; never apologise

Source: https://www.bankofengland.co.uk/boeapps/database/Bank-Rate.asp

As we arrive at the second day of UCU strike action, we move from the industrial austerity discussed in my last blog to monetary austerity. With the latest rise in the Bank of England Base Rate to 4%, it also seems timely to consider the history of Bank of England independence.

Go to the Bank’s own website and you will find all the presentations from a 20 years on celebration of its independence from 2017. Ian McCafferty, External MPC Member at the Bank of England, gave a speech in 2017 about the circumstances of its introduction. The main reason given for the change was credibility of monetary policy.

But is this history entirely accurate? The Brussels and Genoa economic conferences of 1920 and 1922 (previously referred to here, and, as in the previous piece, the source of most of the next couple of paragraphs is from Clara Mattei’s excellent The Capital Order) first introduced the idea of central bank independence from democratic control as something desirable (before World War I, the Bank operated much more as a commercial bank and was the only limited-liability corporation allowed to issue bank notes, which gradually became a monopoly power). As Ralph Hawtrey, a senior economist at the UK Treasury of the time, said, the Bank of England should follow the precept: “Never explain; never regret; never apologise”.

The main reason formal independence does not appear to have been sought in the UK at the time, was that it was unnecessary. Montagu Norman was Governor of the Bank of England from 1920 until 1944, but was very close ideologically to Basil Blackett and Otto Niemeyer, who effectively ran the Treasury during those years. For example in 1927, the Governor of the Bank of France, Emile Moreau, relayed the opinion of the French Ambassador to London at the time: “Winston Churchill [Chancellor at the time]…isn’t really in control of the Treasury. The man who does in fact control it is Sir Otto Niemeyer, the intimate friend of M. Norman”.

The result of this was technocratic control of monetary policy, with politicians unable or unwilling to challenge the Bank or the Treasury. So, when Neville Chamberlain was Chancellor in March 1921, he said that: “the price of money is wholly outside government action”. Similarly, in March 1925 when Winston Churchill was Chancellor, he said that: “I think it would be an inconvenient practice if the Chancellor of the Exchequer were to set the precedent of expressing approval or disapproval of decisions taken at any time by the Bank of England”.

This was despite what, to at least some technocrats, must have been a terrifying increase in the electorate at the end of World War I – the size of the electorate tripled from the 7.7 million who had been entitled to vote in 1912 to 21.4 million by the end of 1918 as a result of the Representation of the People Act of February 1918. This gave the vote to 8.5 million women for the first time (those aged 30 or above and subject to some property requirements) and extended the male franchise to a further 5.2 million (all men over 21 if they were willing to serve British rule).

Technocratic rule ended following the 1945 General Election, when the new Labour Government nationalised the Bank, and the call for an independent central bank only really gained ground in 1992 when it was included in the Liberal Democrat election manifesto in that year. We might perhaps have expected this to have been brought in earlier alongside the change in direction towards monetarism under Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Milton Friedman was probably the best known advocate of monetarism at the time, but Friedman rejected central bank independence on the basis that it would be a bad idea “in a democracy to have so much power concentrated in a body free from any kind of direct, effective political control”.

So, viewed in that way, central bank independence can be viewed as the normal state of affairs, and the 52 years between 1945 and 1997 as the anomaly. One thing that is clear is that central bank independence makes monetary austerity much easier. As Gerard Vissering said at the Brussels Conference of 1920 about central bank independence: “A national or municipal government might possibly be powerless against such pressure on the part of the employees, because the latter can make their political influence felt on national government.” He went on, “…[a]n independent banking institution need not however allow itself to be led by the nose by any power whatsoever exercised by the employees”.

So central bank independence can be seen to be as much about political control as economic management. As McCafferty says, it was introduced for credibility. But credibility with who? Other governments following the same consensus is one answer and the financial markets probably another. There is also the argument about managing expectations within the domestic economy, another form of credibility – ie if people expect monetary policy to be unbending in pursuit of its inflation target, there is no point hoping that this will not be pursued, and therefore the forces pushing up inflation will dissipate sooner (and therefore, the argument is, you actually need generally lower interest rates to achieve your aim). Let’s call it the crushing of hope policy.

This argument does of course depend on the technocrats knowing best. However, as Martin Wolf wrote in the FT about Gordon Brown in May 2010:

...it is far too easy to blame him alone for the UK’s current plight. The truth, I would argue, is that his biggest error was to believe in the conventional wisdom about the prospects for durable economic stability, the robustness of modern financial markets and, surprisingly perhaps, the strength of the post-Thatcher UK economy.

As Blair Fix has pointed out here, increasing interest rates to control inflation looks more like a faith position than one based on much evidence in many cases. How many politicians would be prepared to die on the monetary austerity hill if the central bank were ever to lose its independence again?

Next time: fiscal austerity.

Day 1 of the UCU Strike and it feels like a class war entirely manufactured by the Government

Hundreds of thousands of public sector workers were on strike today. I was one of them. Meanwhile the Bill above is making its way through Parliament – it was voted through earlier this week by all but one of the Conservative MPs, but is currently getting rather more scrutiny and push back in the House of Lords.

It seems likely that there will be legal challenges to some elements of the Bill and that some of them will be successful. The Labour Party have promised to reverse it if they win the next election.

I spent my first strike day ever (yes, I know, I am just a political union member and a mere picket tourist – all of these criticisms are entirely justified) by attending a meeting of the Leicester Actuarial Science Society with the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries (IFoA) President Matt Saker. It was a very well attended event and there were a lot of questions for Matt. These ranged from the IFoA strategy in Africa, to mutual recognition agreements with the Institute of Actuaries in India to the pros and cons of the recent vote to create a Chartered Actuary status for associates and fellows to the future relationship of the profession to AI applications, reflecting the global nature and broad range of interests of the student audience. I felt very much like I was witnessing the next generation of actuaries getting stuck into the issues that would be important to them through their careers, and it was inspiring to see.

Back to the strike. I differ from many of the strikers interviewed in that, in my view, I was not doing anything particularly altruistic by striking. I was standing up for my own pay and conditions. Which, it seems to me, everyone should be able to do in a free society. Years of anti union legislation, uberization and the growth of sectors with weak unions has made us used to having to negotiate for ourselves individually or in small groups against much more powerful employers. The fall in real pay over the last 12 years indicate that this has not really worked for us and perhaps a new era of collective bargaining is now necessary.

Meanwhile the Government thinks that it is a better idea to muzzle unions and repress future strike action than to deal with any of the grievances of the workers they represent. They think this is a better idea than to build anything, invest in anything, or do anything positive at all. You have to ask who such a move, temporary and largely struck down as illegal as it is likely to be, is designed to impress: future party donors perhaps?

The next generation I saw today did not strike me as one which will have much patience for such manufactured class wars and the governments which manufacture them.

It is my hope and, after today, my belief that they will think we have more important things to be doing.

Trade unionism: my part in its downfall (with apologies to Spike Milligan)

Source: Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Trade Union Membership, UK 1995-2021: Statistical Bulletin, 25 May 2022

It all began for me on 23 September 1985, the first day in my first graduate role as a management trainee at the home counties factory of a security printing firm. From the beginning I was left in no doubt by my new employers that the fairly powerful print unions at the time (SOGAT and the NGA) were the biggest impediment to the captains of industry within the firm from running the business successfully. Occasionally I was allowed into management meetings, where all of the things we could do if it wasn’t for the unions were discussed endlessly.

During my time in this first role, the printing industry changed dramatically: the typesetting was computerised, massively reducing the number employed virtually overnight and Rupert Murdoch set up his non-unionised newspaper factories at Wapping. There had already been three pieces of trade union legislation in the 1980s by the time I started work, the latest being the Trade Union Act of 1984, which required secret ballots for union elections and strikes rather than the show of hands which had been possible up until then. The Miners Strike had also only just ended in March 1985, which had a devastating impact on the trade unions more generally.

Further legislation now quickly followed:

  • the Public Order Act 1986 (which introduced new offences related to picketing, and increased police powers over protests involving groups of 20 people or more);
  • the Wages Act 1986 (which reduced many of the restrictions on employers fining and deducting money from employees’ pay, removed statutory holiday entitlement and reduced state funding for redundancies);
  • the Employment Act 1988 (which gave workers the right to not join a union, and trade union members the right to challenge strike ballots);
  • the Employment Act 1989 (which restricted trade union officials’ time off for duties and abolished government support for redundancy payments);
  • the Employment Act 1990 (which finally removed the closed shop – ie a workplace where union membership was compulsory – and secondary action protection);
  • the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, which consolidated the legislation of the 80s and 90s, while clarifying that the right to take strike action was protected when it was “in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute”; and
  • the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act 1993 (which gave trade unions a duty to inform employers of upcoming strikes).

This would appear to have given my first employers everything they could have wanted in terms of containing union power but, after some retrenchment in the 1990s owing to the incoming Labour Government taking the UK back into the Social Chapter of the Maastricht Treaty (which we had originally opted out of in 1992) in 1997, there was further legislation in the form of the Trade Union Act of 2016, which, amongst other measures:

  • introduced a new requirement of 50% of union members to vote in a ballot for strike action;
  • required that workers in important services (health, school education, fire, transport, nuclear decommissioning and border security) must gain at least 40% support of those entitled to vote in a workplace for a strike to be legal;
  • required two weeks’ notice of industrial action to be given to an employer (the employer can agree to one week);
  • limited the right to take industrial action after a strike ballot to six months, or nine months if the employer agrees.

Over the period since 1985, wealth inequality, which had been steadily reducing since at least the end of World War I stalled and has been generally on a slightly increasing trend since:

Source: Resolution Foundation The UK’s Wealth Distribution, December 2020

And the position with respect to income inequality is even worse, with the UK having the 9th worst income inequality of the 38 countries in the OECD:

Source: Income inequality in the UK, House of Commons Library, 30 November 2021

However, perhaps this was a price worth paying, if the forces of creativity and entrepreneurship had at last been allowed full rein, freed from the stifling dead hand of union power? Unfortunately not (TFP stands for total factor productivity in the graph below):

Source: The UK Productivity “Puzzle” in an International Comparative Perspective, Fernald and Inklaar, April 2022

So whatever, the continuing problems of UK PLC, it does not look like union power was ever really one of the major ones. Undeterred, the Government is proposing further restrictions on trade unions and their members, including enforcing minimum service levels during strike action for ambulance staff, firefighters and railway workers and requiring some employees to work during a strike under threat of being sacked if they refuse.

The TUC has made a submission to the International Labour Organisation of the United Nations over what it sees as breaches of Conventions 87 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise) and 98 (Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining). As David Allen Green has blogged:

But regardless of your view on the ultimate rights and wrongs of strikes by public sector and other public service workers, there is something fundamentally objectionable in the current government’s proposals to compel certain “key” workers to attend work when they otherwise would be entitled to strike….Simply prohibiting other key workers from being able to strike, without sufficient alternative entitlements and arrangements to balance this loss of a right, is misconceived and illiberal.

It is an authoritarian gesture, rather than a solution to a problem.

Roy Lilley (at the Institute of Health and Social Care Management) in a postscript to a recent blog, focused on what a strategic failure the proposals represent within the NHS industrial dispute:

HMG plans, to ban strike action by some public workers is a further example of ‘push-back’ management. Push the disputes into the courts instead of dealing with the root-cause of strike action, improve industrial relations and representation.

So what has my part been in the downfall of trade unionism to date? In my first job, other than an abortive attempt to develop a new shift pattern(!) for the security guards in the factory, I had few skirmishes with union leaders compared to those with my management colleagues. In the finance sector, where I spent most of the middle 20 years of my working life, I rarely came across any staff representation at all. As a school teacher I joined the ATL rather than the NUT (they have since merged to form the National Education Union) due to its reputation for being determinedly non-militant. And, in my current role, I rather flounced out of the UCU over a difference of opinion over the pensions dispute raging at the time.

So I have not been a very good supporter of trade unionism over the years. However it now seems clear to me that the industrial austerity (ie the crushing of labour power within the economy, further discussed here) described above during my lifetime has been a political rather than an economic project all along. None of the economic justifications given for it since the 1980s have been borne out and the unopposed rugby of industrial management we have increasingly witnessed since has resulted, in my view, in poorer outcomes than if the 99% had been consulted regularly.

I sense that the current Government will only be satisfied when trade union membership levels fall to zero. So if, like me, you don’t want that to happen, the time to push back against running the economy at all times exclusively in the interests of the owners of capital is now.

I have rejoined the UCU.

Democratising the Lathe

I have been thinking a lot about Ursula K Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven over the last few weeks, a book I would highly recommend at any time but particularly at the moment. It is the story of a man, George Orr, who can change reality by dreaming. An ability that terrifies him. He is caught taking unprescribed drugs to try and prevent himself dreaming and as a result is sent for a “voluntary therapeutic treatment” with Dr William Haber, a dream specialist. Haber has built a machine called the Augmentor to make it easier for his patients to have dreams directed by him. He starts to work with Orr, becoming increasingly impatient with Orr’s version of the directions Haber is giving to his dreaming in the machine, until eventually Haber dispenses with Orr and connects himself to the machine instead.

Every time reality is changed it is as if it has always been changed. The changes become increasingly dramatic and disruptive until a peak of general insanity now referred to by all as The Break:

All over the world the various gods were being requested, more or less politely, for an explanation of what had occurred between 6.25 and 7.08 pm Pacific Standard Time.

But what the book really focuses on are George’s desperate attempts to live in this increasingly unhinged reality, as the only person (apart from Haber) aware of the abrupt changes swinging it around, and to hang onto the one person, Heather Lelache (or Andrews in the final version of reality they arrive at), he has ever loved.

One of the sentences on the last page (when he finds out that she has married) has stayed with me in particular:

He stood and endured reality.

However hilarious some of the moments of the last few days have been (and let us not forget some of the highlights here, here and here), we are all going to have to endure some significantly altered reality over the coming years as a result, from the moron risk premium to the cost of living crisis slowly rippling through all aspects of life, at a time when we already have a climate emergency and other planet-wide issues we need to be dealing with. There are many arguments to be had about the best way to tackle all of these problems, and I intend to throw myself fully into those arguments.

However, I would propose that we have to prioritise ensuring that, as a society, we never ever again let the lone mad scientist or economist or politician or former talk show host or indeed anyone else, whoever or however charismatic they are, take over sole control of the machine.

I think we need to do three things to achieve this, before we start to argue over policy:

Adopt proportional representation in parliamentary elections. We have got to broaden the support for whoever is in power, rather than stick with the current system which focuses on a tiny number of people in marginal constituencies and ignores pretty much everyone else. Make Votes Matter have agreed a cross-party document (which I have signed) called the Good Systems Agreement. This sets out the options on voting systems to replace first past the post and the best way of getting there. More about what is wrong with our current system (from the Electoral Reform Society) can be found here. Never again should there be a small cabal of people (like this weekend) deciding on who runs the country – with a steadily shrinking selectorate as their ability to achieve consensus on anything dwindles with every successive decision. We no longer have a system in the UK that can make important decisions and the answer is not more technocracy (leaving it to the so-called clever people, however foolish they may be) or plutocracy (leaving it to the rich), it is more democracy, ie including all of us in the decisions we will have to live with.

Reform media ownership and promote plurality in support of a more democratic and accountable media system. The Media Reform Coalition has produced a manifesto for a people’s media which I support: it includes proposals for an Independent Media Commons – with participatory newsrooms, community radio stations, digital innovators and cultural producers, supported by democratically-controlled public resources to tell the stories of all the UK’s communities. This will allow a much greater range of ideas to be presented to the public and discussed than the current Overton window (see below) and greatly improve our national debate about the things that matter.

Source: 99% Organisation

Reform election finance. Recommendations for doing this were provided in the July 2021 report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, with 47 recommendations following a comparison of political and electoral finance regulation in 12 countries (Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and the USA), the majority of which are around reforms to campaign practices, meeting emerging threats around the source of donations, delivering greater transparency and enhancing compliance with election finance law.

We have big problems to solve in the UK and we need everyone to be able to contribute if we are going to solve them. However currently:

  • Our votes are counted in a way which effectively wastes most of them;
  • The information we receive about politics is fed to us through a very partial sieve controlled by a small unrepresentative group of people whose vested interests effectively define our Overton Window; and
  • Influence and access to power often appear to go to the highest bidder rather than the best ideas.

All of this needs to change whoever is Prime Minister in the coming weeks, months and years.

Chartered Actuary: I am still very confident that this is a good idea

I originally talked about Chartered Actuary status (here, with the cartoon above) when the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries (IFoA) first proposed the idea and set up a consultation in 2018. I said then that sometimes an idea comes along that seems so obviously good that you wonder why it hasn’t been done a long time ago.

Four years on from the retreat from the proposal following the slenderest of straw polls offering some challenge, and it remains a good idea. There are still relatively few full actuarial roles available for associates and many firms still assuming a default career path of continuing to fellowship.

There are some differences this time however:

  • There will be two chartered actuary designations: Chartered Actuary (Fellow) and Chartered Actuary (Associate), with the hope that the FIAs who were most concerned with maintaining their distance from AIAs last time will now support the proposal. The original proposal suggested Chartered Actuary (CAct) would be a single distinct qualification, a required qualification point for all student actuaries to reach before going any further and globally recognised as the generalist actuarial qualification from the IFoA. This approach has been abandoned, with no requirement to complete the core curriculum before tackling specialist modules. It will be interesting to see whether Chartered Actuary (Associate) will be seen as a destination in its own right, or just a change of letters. This will depend on all of us within the profession (see below).
  • The environment we are operating in has certainly changed, with the replacement of our regulator, the FRC, by the Audit, Reporting and Governance Authority (ARGA). One of the concerns that the IFoA were looking to address in 2018 was that another, much larger, profession, could pose an existential threat. If actuaries have a unique skill set, which is likely to be lost to a wide range of businesses and other sectors if it is unable to meet the demand for those skills due to a simple lack of numbers, then the need to take any perceived barrier to practise away from our emerging young professionals is clear. The move from FRC to ARGA does not remove this threat and there also remains in the regulatory proposals to date the threat of differential regulation, where actuaries are regulated more heavily than other professionals doing similar work could price us out of markets where we have value to add. The profession therefore needs to grow to increase our voice and influence over the future regulation of the profession.
  • We have acknowledged the impact of the Great Risk Transfer within the finance sector, but in my view the impacts more generally of the increased individual risks and uncertainties millions of the UK population face as energy, food and housing costs escalate need to be faced up to by our profession. For that we need to continue to be a destination of choice for a growing number of your people with a widening range of backgrounds and experiences.

So what do we need to do to make this a change worth making? We need to start behaving like a generalist actuarial qualification is what we want, and offering roles for actuaries on completion of core practice modules in future. It will mean not necessarily insisting on further actuarial specialisation as a requirement for senior roles within our firms. It will mean getting comfortable with a much wider range of specialisms amongst those we consider to be actuaries. Some are already doing this, but most of us need to go much further. A good place to start might be the IFoA’s own website, where the Route to Becoming An Actuary still features a diagram where an IFoA Associate is shown as a milestone on the way to the final destination of becoming a Fellow.

Some Don’t Like It Hot

Levels of body temperatures at which extreme hot and cold sensors are triggered – data source: An Immense World – Ed Yong

In January this year, the southern hemisphere experienced, in some cases, record-breaking heatwaves, with temperatures reaching 50.7° C in Western Australia. In the last few weeks, it has been the turn of the northern hemisphere.

In the UK this week, we recorded the highest day (40.3° C in Coningsby in Lincolnshire) and night (25.8° C in Kenley in Surrey) temperatures ever. What is clear is that climate change has already significantly changed the probabilities of extreme weather events occurring in the UK, meaning that our own past experiences of weather ranges and likelihoods are now out of date.

This is likely to have many consequences. This week our railways literally went into meltdown in places, with New Street operating an “exit only” policy for a period while no trains were running to or from the station at all. Overhead cables were damaged, requiring lengthy repair work and buckling rails led to widespread speed restrictions across the network. This is because the heat tolerances of our railway system were set in cooler times, meaning that most of the network can operate up to around 46° C. As track temperatures can be up to 20° hotter than air temperatures, this threshold was widely exceeded.

So, if our infrastructure has limits, what about life on the planet? Well yes, in animals these are controlled by proteins called TRP channels, which allow neurons to be stimulated at temperatures which would be immediately extremely harmful to the organisms concerned. A few of these are shown above. In humans, this is a body temperature of around 42° C (a healthy temperature is around 37° C and our bodies work hard to keep it there, but we starts to feel unwell from 37.8° C upwards and may become comatose at 42° C. We are likely to die or at least suffer serious brain damage at 43° C), but the hot and cold limits vary hugely between different species. So rapid changes in the temperature distributions means that habitable areas, which would need to be at temperatures well short of these limits, for a wide range of animals and plants will also be changing rapidly, requiring migration or extinction for many.

In humans, where we have more control over our environments, we will still need to adapt many of our practices, from how we construct our infrastructure, to how we use resources and spend our time. One obvious question that has come up this week is why we don’t have a maximum workplace temperature (currently we don’t have a minimum either, although we do have guidance around minimum temperatures). The House of Commons Library Briefing Note on this from 2010 can be found here.

In Germany, a maximum of 26°C is the norm but the guidelines state that, if the outside temperature is higher, a workplace temperature may in certain circumstances be higher than 26°C.

In Spain, Real Decreto 486 of 1997 lays down that, in places where sedentary work takes place, the temperature should be between 17 and 27°C. In places of light physical work, an acceptable temperature will be between 14 and 25°C, although there are some limitations and conditions around these requirements.

There are clearly complications around setting a maximum comfort level which would probably also need to account for humidity and activity, but the Health and Safety Executive have suggested 30° C in their guidance as a maximum acceptable temperature, less if the work is strenuous. They also suggest polling employees to see if a particular temperature is comfortable, making adjustments if more than 10% are uncomfortable in an air-conditioned office.

There are now renewed calls to introduce a maximum workplace temperature in law. And, as Lord Turner so eloquently put it on Sky News, this is at only 1.2°C warming. If all of the promises made at Glasgow are kept we may stay between 1.8°C and 2.5°C. However in the UK, the Climate Change Committee, the body set up specifically to monitor our compliance with our climate commitments, has already said that our current programmes will not deliver net zero. And Liz Truss, who may be Prime Minister in 6 weeks, has vowed to halt the only green levies we have so far been able to put into law.

In the meantime, it appears to be a great time to be a Melanophila, or fire-chasing, beetle.

What Stuart Kirk was not criticised for and what this tells us about financial markets

For those of you totally immersed in the daily to and fro of the finance industry, this post about Stuart Kirk will probably seem a little late in the day. For those of you who are not, let me explain briefly what I am talking about today!

Stuart Kirk was Global Head of Responsible Investments at HSBC Asset Management. On 19 May 2022 he gave a talk at the FT Live Moral Money Summit Europe conference with the provocative title of Why investors need not worry about climate risk. Stuart’s talk was a real crowd splitter. Many called for his dismissal (HSBC subsequently suspended him), others regarded his talk as a missed opportunity and full of things which were not true, while others have regarded his stance as speaking truth to power.

However what interests me most about all of the column inches devoted to the affair is what he has not been criticised for and what this tells us about financial markets.

What Stuart said was structured around the following 12 statements:

  1. Unsubstantiated, shrill, partisan, self-serving, apocalyptic warnings are ALWAYS wrong.
  2. As the warnings became ever graver, the more asset prices INCREASED in value.
  3. One of only three explanations can explain the impending end of the world and higher risk asset prices:
    1. Climate risk is negligible.
    2. Climate risk is already in the price.
    3. All investors are wrong.
  4. Even by the UN IPCC own numbers, climate change will have a negligible effect on the world economy – A (large) temperature rise of 3.6 degrees by 2100 means a loss of 2.6 per cent o global GDP. Let’s assume 5%.
  5. Adaption is cheap and effective: climate related costs relative to GDP and mortality rates are down.
  6. Perhaps the biggest error of thinking with climate risk is confusing volumes and values – Plenty of things happen between a volume disruption and a move in asset values.
  7. Climate “winners” and losers” can create value. Climate “winners” and “losers” can destroy value.
  8. The difference between volumes and value is regularly made clear in markets.
  9. Even if climate risk isn’t negligible, it’s too far into the future to matter for most companies.
  10. To make climate change appear like a significant threat, scaremongers are torturing their models.
  11. It’s easy to show that climate change is an investment risk if you engineer a bond market collapse.
  12. Climate change isn’t a long-run risk just like wars, energy crises, pandemics, financial crises and so on (with the graphs shown above to supposedly prove this point).

Can you spot the pattern here? All of these statements are about the map that Stuart is standing in (think of Joey standing in his map to orientate himself in Friends). It is a complicated map of asset prices and charts and reports written by lots of other people standing in the map with Stuart, but it is still just a map. And the map is the territory as far as Stuart is concerned. If something does not appear in his map, it is not worth worrying about. And climate risk is struggling to make it into his map. In Stuart’s view, this is a problem for climate risk, and the people “torturing” their models to make climate risk appear significant and piling him up with regulatory reporting responsibilities are very annoying.

But of course this take is completely upside down. This is not a problem for climate risk. Rather climate risk is a problem for us and the fact that it does not appear in our models unless we torture them (which I am sure is true) means that we have the wrong models. Because the scientific consensus about the consequences of climate change on our current trajectory of between 3 and 4 degrees warming are (amongst others from Mark Lynas’ Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet):

Africa […] split between the north which will see a recovery of rainfall and the south which becomes drier […] beyond human adaptation.
Indian monsoon rains will fail. The Himalayan glaciers providing the waters of the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra, the Mekong, Yangtze and Yellow rivers [will decrease] by up to 90%.
The Amazonian rain forest basin will dry out completely. In Brazil, Venezuela, Columbia, East Peru and Bolivia life will become increasingly difficult due to wild fires which will cause intense air pollution and searing heat. The smoke will blot out the sun. Drought will be permanent in the sub-tropics and Central America.
Australia will become the world’s driest nation.
In the US Gulf of Mexico high sea temperatures will drive 180+ mph winds. Houston will be vulnerable to flooding by 2045. Galveston will be inundated. Many plant species will become extinct as they will be unable to adapt to such a sudden change in climate.
The [IPCC] in its 2007 report concluded that all major planetary granaries will require adaptive measures at 2.5° temperature rise regardless of precipitation rates.[and] food prices [will] soar. Population transfers will be bigger than anything ever seen in the history of mankind. [The feedback effects from the] Amazon rain forests dry[ing] out and wild fires develop[ing] [will lead] to those fires [releasing] more CO2, global warming [intensifying] as a result, vegetation and soil begin[ning] to release CO2 rather than absorb[ing] it, all of which could push the 3° scenario to a 4°-5.5° [one].

Much of the discussion about the talk was that Stuart was speaking out bravely and that HSBC had only suspended him to silence inconvenient truths, that he had been silenced by “extreme environmental ideology“. I have no idea about all of the reasons why HSBC suspended Stuart other than their official statements, but it seems clear to me that many people in the finance industry agree with what he said. This suggests to me an extreme ideology of its own of resolutely refusing to look out of the window.

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s excellent New York 2140, global sea levels have risen by 50 feet. Everyone lives in tower blocks connected by sky bridges which occasionally topple into the canals which were once streets. I used to think that money markets would not survive events like this, but Robinson posits what I believe is a more likely future scenario. The Intertidal Property Pricing Index is developed instead, carefully constructed to be reasonably stable despite the instability of the actual real estate being valued, and people bet on it. And soon everyone is fixated on what this index is saying daily rather than the buildings collapsing around them.

This is exactly what our finance sector will do of course, there will be money to be made out of such activities after all. And so expectations that they will, in any way, be a leader out of the climate emergency are, in my view, unrealistic.

We will however need the finance industry to facilitate aspects of how we transform our economies over the next 10 to 20 years. And this will involve much more of the regulation which annoys Stuart and others so much.

A success made of failures

Source: Wikimedia Commons: Shattered right-hand side mirror on a 5-series BMW in Durham, North Carolina by Ildar Sagdejev. Cropped by Nick Foster

It starts in 2025 with a description of a horrific heatwave in India which will stay with me for a very long time. As well it should as, in the book, it kills 20 million people. In response, India send thousands of aircraft up to 60,000 feet to spray aerosol particulates of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere, in defiance of the international conventions banning such activities, to deflect some of the solar radiation with the aim of reducing the probability of future heatwaves for a period. By how much or for how long or with what other consequences is unknown.

As we build up to COP26 in Glasgow in November this year, in the book we start with the results of COP29 in Bogota, where the organisation which would come to be known as The Ministry for the Future (and the title of the book by Kim Stanley Robinson) was set up “to advocate for the world’s future generations of citizens, whose rights, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are as valid as our own. This new Subsidiary Body is furthermore charged with defending all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves, by promoting their legal standing and physical protection.”

The Indian crisis happens a few months later. The new head of this body, Mary Murphy, is briefly held captive by, Frank, one of the survivors of the heatwave in her own flat in Zurich (the book also feels like a love letter to Zurich) and challenged to do more:

It’s not enough. Your efforts aren’t slowing the damage fast enough. They aren’t creating fixes fast enough. You can see that, because everyone can see it. Things don’t change, we’re still on track for a mass extinction event, we’re in the extinctions already. That’s what I mean by not enough. So why don’t you do something more?

This has a profound impact on Mary, who keeps in touch with Frank and his troubled suffering life throughout the book. It also leans her towards effectively endorsing the involvement of her No 2 in “black” operations to ensure certain people are “scared away from burning carbon”.

Indeed the book is suffused with eco-terrorism. Technological progress has partly displaced the state monopoly of violence, with drone technology in particular meaning that no aircraft or ship or surface navy is safe from a well-enough organised group by the end of the book. People stop flying when aircraft start being shot down regularly, and those that still do fly use carbon-negative airships, where solar panels generate more power than the ships use. Davos attendees get taken hostage and given a compulsory seminar at one point. Tax havens become obsolete when all money becomes digital and tracked.

Mary’s interactions with central bankers are probably the closest this book ever comes to comedy. In the first, she tries to argue for a “carbon coin”, a digital currency which would be paid out to organisations and people who could prove they had removed carbon from the environment. This would be the incentive to work alongside the carbon taxes. The contemptuous response from the Federal Reserve and others at first is “not our purview”, however by the end they are on board with this and many of the other ideas developed along the way.

There are so many ideas in this book, far too many to cover them all here: some of them familiar to me from economics (carbon quantitative easing, Jevons’ Paradox, Modern Monetary Theory, Gini Coefficient – these each get a short chapter among many other ideas and interspersed with riddles) and others not so. The Indian techno fix is the first of many: some successful, like sucking out the meltwater under glaciers to slow them sliding into the ocean and others not so, like the billionaire wanting to refreeze the oceans. Russia dyes parts of the Arctic yellow to reflect more sunlight back. Huge areas of land are rewilded.

What strikes me most is that the arguments we tend to have here and now about which course to take (Freud’s phrase is quoted here in the book – “the narcissism of small differences”) seem largely moot in this one imagined near-future: all of them are tried there – it’s not techno-fixes or de-carbonisation of transport and heating, it’s both. It’s not carbon QE or re-wilding, it’s both. If something doesn’t work, it’s abandoned. By far the most important determinant of which of the IPCC future scenarios we end up on seems to be how quickly we start. Economists come in for particular ridicule there – whatever course of action is planned, they can find one group who thinks it will have one effect, one who think it will have the opposite effect and one which thinks it will make no difference at all. The difference is that the economists are no longer guiding policy there, but facilitating and post hoc rationalising it.

There is a wartime feel to the book throughout, with people doing what they feel needs to be done in desperate circumstances. The choices are all different levels of bad, but bad is almost incalculably better than worst. And the overall impression is of a world changing rapidly, with one of its herd animals belatedly getting into better balance with the others. Even at 560 odd pages the impressions are inevitably just that – one chapter is just a list of different organisations working on aspects of the climate emergency in different countries, described as about 1% of the total number active. It is like the shards of a smashed wing mirror picking out details from the vanishing world behind. I have never wanted to apply the word polymesmeric (which I first saw on the cover of Catch 22 by Joseph Heller) to a book as much as I have to this one.

The hoped-for outcome of all of this? In one conversation this is described as a “success made of failures” or a “cobbling-together from less-than-satisfactory parts”, which I think sums it up nicely.

And I definitely want to visit Zurich one day. Probably by airship.