Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Blair's blurred vison on US

The East is Redder

Last week, Tony Blair landed in Washington, possibly to discuss with Bush how a quick war on Iran might take people's minds off the debacle in Iraq. He should have stayed longer. There is nothing like living in America to heighten appreciation of Europe.

A year or so after Labour won office, a New Labour Minister met the New York Labour Party branch and asked what they saw as their role. The comrades told her that it was their fraternal duty to confiscate the rose-coloured glasses off visiting New Labour cabinet members as they landed at JFK, and not to return them until departure.
Clearly they failed with the Prime Minister, who consistently looks across the Atlantic for points of unsocialist emulation.

Reinforcing the point, recently there was a study that showed that British people were healthier - about ten years worth - than their American counterparts. It refrained from suggesting reasons. Diet and obesity were mentioned, but that is far from sufficient rationale for the better health of a nation whose gastronomic repertoire includes the chip butty and the fried Mars Bar. Indeed, if anything, the report understated the case, since for reasons of comparability it excluded minorities, who in the US are disproportionately poor, uninsured, and unhealthy,

In the end, two of the reasons suggested in the perplexed debaters in the US carried most conviction. One was that for more than half a century Britain has had a national health system, and let us emphasize system, since private medicine in the US does not provide the systematic and routine preemptive care of the British ante and post natal clinics and children's health model.

The other suggestion was that the disparity was a result of stress: even Americans with health insurance never know whether they will keep their jobs, and thus their insurance, or even their houses.

While on a public level most Americans treat poverty as a something that happens to others, usually because of their moral failings and fecklessness, on an instinctive level, they have, repeated election results notwithstanding, enough of a connection to the real world to know that poverty could indeed happen to them - and that there is only the flimsiest of safety nets between them and the gutter if catastrophe strikes.

Even the most progressive American employers cut off pay after a few weeks of sickness and most American workers have no recourse against unfair dismissal, unless they can prove racial or gender discrimination. That is narrowly defined. .One of the few progressive measures that Bill Clinton authored was unpaid maternity leave. Before then women could be sacked for having the temerity to take time off to give birth,

But even after this Clintonian great leap forward, the US remains the only industrial country in the world that has no provision for paid maternity leave.

In short, most Americans are a pay-cheque or two from catastrophe: lose a job, you lose health insurance. If you do not pay medical bills, your credit rating goes down the river and with it your claim to all the credit that the philanthropic Chinese are extending to the nation as a whole.

Even litigation can kill. As one lawyer I asked at the time of the O J Simpson case summarized - if you are rich and guilty, you want to be tried in America: if you are poor and innocent, in Europe.

The comparison with Britain is not an isolated one. Two years ago, a similar study showed that the average Hollander, who at the end of the war was much shorter than the average American, is now taller by several inches. The most convincing explanation was the success of the postwar Dutch welfare state.

Similarly glowing statistics, whether on health, rising living standards and even productivity per hour, come from most North West European states compared with the United States, it does really raise the question of why so many in the Blair government look to the USA for a model.

Perhaps it really is time for the remnants of the democratic socialists in the Labour Party to remember that Orwell predicted that democratic socialism would come into its own in Western Europe.

It is time for the soft left to stiffen up and decide that compared with the rest of the world, Europe is a worthy model. There are doubtless some recidivists out there in the party who are still fighting the Wilson-era wars against the European Union, but they should have learnt their lesson by now. Although the EU is a far from perfect institution, it is considerably more attractive than all the currently feasible alternatives. It is a safe bet that this government would have regressed even more towards an American model if we were not part of it.

The soft left should also be putting its democratic instincts to work. In the face of attempts to rip up recently won Human Rights protections, sending British citizens to vigilante justice in Texas, introducing identity cards and the other Big Brother proposals, surely it is time to give a cheer or two for democracy, not to mention fighting for the introduction of European style labour protection for British workers: freedom from unfair dismissal, union rights, pension rights and all the other measures on which New Labour has seen itself as the champion of the Confederation of British Industries against its own party and electoral base.

It is surely better to work with partners who see the benefits of social democracy (even Christian Democrats in Europe are far to the left of any American party) than to throw in our lot with an increasingly authoritarian, militaristic and theocratic state that only believes in Darwin when it comes to social relations.

No wonder the PM feels at home in Washington. A Prime Minister who admires Margaret Thatcher, took us into Iraq, wants faith-based schools funded by millionaire wannabe peers, wants to throw out the human rights act and introduce a new civil and military nuclear program without consultations, is indeed likely to be happy with a special, supine, transatlantic relationship. But it is certainly not, in its present form, an alliance that democratic socialists should cherish in preference to Europe.
A version of this appeared in Tribune, London, 26 May.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Blair Loses Boro's - Looses Bombs?

Blair losing boroughs in London may signal Britain loosing bombs over Bushehr in Iran.

Successive British governments have reduced the power of most city councils to the point that they probably envy the autonomy of the Iraqi government. But under cover of yesterday's local elections, Tony Blair's cabinet reshuffle may be moving the UK closer to yet another idiotic war at the behest of George W. Bush.

While some of the demotions in the cabinet shuffle were understandable because of the scandals surrounding the ministers being axed, Jack Straw, the foreign secretary had not been the focus of any headlines. That leaves the suspicion that he was axed because of the small print in what he has been telling the media. He had said that it was "inconceivable" for military operations against Iran.

If you check the ever-informative sound of silence, this is not something that the Prime Minister had been saying.

There is a poetic justice here. One of the reasons that Blair had sacked Robin Cook as foreign secretary was to remove an obstacle to his war plans over Iraq, and his successor, poor Jack Straw is now paying a similar price. A newly appointed minister, whether Straw, in the run-up to Iraq, or his successor Margaret Becket, in the run up to Iran, is not in a position to block the wishes of a Prime Minister who is so cocky and self assured that while firing others, has overlooked the one big cabinet change that could have restored Labour to popularity-his own resignation.

One cannot but help suspect that it is that arrogance which is costing him and the party so dearly. While there are nanny-state issues, like the identity cards Labour is introducing, which erode its popularity, and while it has dangerously alienated its own base in the unions and among workers, one of the interesting things about the results of the local elections is that Labour did not do nearly as badly as many people thought it may.

There are several reasons: one being an incompetent opposition-indeed, between the Liberal Democrats and the Tories, two incompetent oppositions. The other is that in the primary task of a government, Labour has done quite well in a social-democratic way. Almost everyone in Britain is better off, and what is more, the people in the formerly depressed industrial regions are much better off, not least because of major flows of government spending. For example, there is still not a single Tory councilor in Liverpool or Manchester.

Much of this is due to Chancellor Gordon Brown, who has managed to assuage the bankers while increasing state spending on traditional Labour objectives. But he has wisely stuck to his economic knitting, waiting for the blade to fall on his rival, Blair

He has not uttered a word against the war in Iraq, let alone against one in Iran, and in his own way he is as fond (or fondly delusional) about the special relationship with Washington as Tony Blair.

But aware of how unpopular George W. Bush is with the British electorate, not to mention Tony Blair, all Brown has to do is to keep his head down to be the beneficiary of Blair's overreaching if he joins in an attack on Iran.

Tourism and Tots To Save the World

St Lucia changed hands no less than fourteen times in the wars between the British and the French when its lush tropical climate and its volcanic soil produced the sugar and rum that were the economic equivalent of modern day oil. For centuries, the Caribbean was the equivalent of the Persian Gulf - the source of most of the North's wealth and a magnet for armies and fleets.

And then it was forgotten. Economically, if St Lucia had ended up with the French, its inhabitants could have been enjoying EU benefits and subsidies, like Martinique, visible across the Caribbean swell from the North of the island, which has almost three times the per capita GDP.

What it has left, is sun, sand, and some of the most beautiful scenery in the region – including the Marigot Bay location for the original Rex Harrison Dr Doolittle - and of course its people, who have included two Nobel prize-winners, Derek Walcott, the poet, and Sir Arthur Lewis, the economist who half a century ago developed "development" for the UN. (http://nobelprize.org/economics/laureates/1979/lewis-autobio.html)

Lewis's insights need updating. He compared the price of coffee to steel, because in those days, countries imported and exported tangible commodities. But in his native St Lucia, the sugar cane has gone, and following the American case at the WTO against the EU's banana preferences, this last major export crop is in danger as well. While for such a small island St Lucia has some successful manufacturing, almost half its income and its jobs now depend on tourists arriving with money to spend

For traditional economists and governments, this often seems an undignified way for a country to earn its living. But as one of George Bernard Shaw's characters once remarked, those that talk most about the dignity of labor are usually those that don't do any. There is no rush of jobseekers from the hotels and bars of the tourist resorts seeking backbreaking work in the cane-fields. In fact, British tourists alone take more money to developing countries than the government sends in aid and those tourist dollars, Euros and pounds usually go directly to locals and have less risk of being siphoned off by banks, consultants and politicians who stand ready to ambush aid money. In the case of St Lucia, each year there are over four visitors for each inhabitant, which could cause some culture clash, but the St. Lucians seem to take it in their stride.

As for the "Not-In-My-Back-Yard" syndrome, tourism developments usually bring better infrastructure, roads, power supplies, water and sewage plants to benefit the neighbors. It may be true that there is a certain percentage of tourists who are obnoxious, but that is infinitely preferable to having the more traditional accoutrements of development, a steel smelter, coalmine or nuclear power station in your backyard.

The UN recognized that recently when it accepted the World Tourism Organization as an affiliate, albeit with a slight name change, to UNWTO to distinguish itself from the unpopular World Trade Organization. As Kofi Annan recognized, "Tourism really has the potential of opening up economic space for people around the world. We should encourage tourist developers to go and set up tourist developments," he said pointing out the infrastructure development that comes in their train.

That is not to say that tourism is all wonderful, as anyone who has seen the coasts of Majorca or some parts of the Dominican Republic can testify. For example, cruise ships are usually owned by companies that are so offshored that they are almost extra-terrestrial, paying no taxes anywhere in the globe and ensuring that almost every last cent of the cruise dollars stays on board and off-shore rather than being spent in the islands they visit.

And then there are international resorts, which at least pay rent, taxes and wages in the resorts, and which more responsibly try to source as much as they can locally. What makes St Lucia stand out is that many of the hotels are locally owned. Last month, I was there taking advantage of Air Jamaica's new non-stop service from New York (www.airjamaica.com).

St Lucia's Rodney Bay epitomizes how development can work. Medium sized local hotels, like Coco Resorts, Bay Gardens and Village Inn, clustered around the famous harbor employ local people and send their guests to local attractions, such as La Soufriere, the active volcano, and the rainforest, where the Rain Forest Sky Rides chairlift allows what James Joyce would call a scrotum-tightening glide through the canopy of the forest.

Allen Chastanet, who used to work with Air Jamaica, has built the Coco Palm hotel (part of Coco Resorts), which typifies the local resourcefulness. Solar heating panels save imported fuel bills. Hotel wide internet keeps travelers connected, and arrangements with local restaurants and bars allow guests to sign for meals and drinks and pay with their hotel bill.

Local cuisine is Caribbean with a strong French influence and a definite level above the usual tourist destination fodder. To celebrate that, Chastanet and the other local hoteliers are arranging a Rum and Food Festival November 2-5, 2006 to balance the world famous St Lucia Jazz Festival, which also takes place nearby. I should declare an interest, I am helping to organize the Rum Festival-all in the interests of Caribbean development of course.

So has all this tourism and commercialism degraded the culture and society? Not at all. St Lucia now has a national health care plan, which, it is worth noting, makes it more developed than the United States in terms of access to hospital care. The revenue that makes that possible derives from tourism. You can go visit, and sink a tot, sure in the knowledge that you are helping development and the progress towards the Millennium Development Goals far more than your government-and enjoy yourself at the same time! Sir Arthur Lewis would approve-in spirit as it were.