Straight outta Trumpton

Oh dear. 2016 really hasn’t been a good year for those of a progressive persuasion, has it? Yet after Brexit, all the portents were there for a Trumpocalypse. The breezily confident pollsters, the media and leading personalities and politicians of every stripe queuing up to denounce the Donald, the somewhat muted enthusiasm for Clinton in an anything-but-Trump kind of way. The more they denounced him, the more it fed into his one key point that he was an ‘outsider’ not an ‘elitist’. A billionaire outsider at that, but hey, there’s no point grumbling now.

I can’t pinpoint any particular writing on the wall moment, but in hindsight, there were many. Clinton struggled to beat a single opponent for the nomination, despite Sanders being an unknown maverick who was outside the Democratic caucus. Trump emerged from a crowded field of 17 Republican potential nominees, most of whom raised far more money than him, and was initially written off as a two percent chance to be the eventual nominee. Trump’s rhetoric was crude and appallingly divisive, but the one time such an approach always plays well is in the role of anti-establishment iconoclast. One even wonders if the Dems’ and GOP’s own internal late polling was telling them the real truth about how close it was. It was noticeable that in the final week, Clinton’s tone, though couched in terms of unity, was still pouring criticism on her opponent. Trump, for the first time in the entire campaign, talked of being a hope for all Americans – this is the language of someone in the lead looking to run out the clock.

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Let it all out, lady. You tried your best.

However, after wailing and gnashing following Brexit, I’ve decided to take a longer view this time and look more optimistically (and in some cases, pessimistically) at what trends seem to be emerging and what they might mean.

This is as big a headache for the Republicans as it is for the Democrats

Apart from Bob Dole and a handful of others, the entirety of the Republican establishment ranged from lukewarm to openly hostile. Dubya pointedly left his vote for President blank. The GOP may well embrace Trump and talk of unity now, basking in the joy of Democrat humiliation, but all of the policy reasons that underpin their distaste for Trump (he is a populist; they are becoming ever more neocon) and all of their own infighting which led to their Tea Party-Freedom Caucus splintering will come bubbling back in January once the hangover has worn off.

What about ‘draining the swamp’? Well, given what happened down ballot and the trends over the past few federal and midterm elections, that swamp is mostly full of Republican alligators now. Neither Clinton nor Obama will be around to moan about. And that presents a dilemma for Trump and Congress: if Trump backs down from his grand promises, particularly the economically protectionist ones, in the teeth of Congress obstruction, he will disappoint his fans faster than any poundshop demagogue. If he stands firm, then the GOP risk becoming the problem, as they were during their ludicrous standoffs with Obama. The party that has contributed the most to political stasis and an increasingly unhinged and divided narrative in Washington had better end their ideological bickering because they will have nobody to blame but themselves now.

‘Hate’ only triumphed on one level

However ugly this campaign may have been at the federal level, amidst all the carnage on Tuesday, real progressive change continued to happen at the state level. Across a whole range of states, voters chose to control access to guns, improve access to marijuana, make healthcare more affordable and increase the minimum wage. Yep. And this wasn’t just in kooky liberal places like Vermont and Oregon. Southern, red state Arkansas legalised medical marijuana, as did conservative, rural North Dakota; meanwhile the enlightened voters of solidly Republican South Dakota rejected a bill which would have reduced the youth minimum wage. In all, 110 of 161 mostly liberal-progressive ballots were approved: Ayn Rand must be spinning in her grave.

The lesson here for Democrats is that amidst all the success of Clinton (Bill) and Obama at the Executive level, they have sure taken their eye off the ball state by state. The one curse / blessing when your ‘side’ wins / loses the White House (and the bit that many non-Americans too easily forget) is that the US President has limited powers. The Democrats need to forget about finding a nominee for 2020 for the time being, and concentrate on finding better candidates and campaigning more effectively in House, Senate, Gubernatorial and Local races, starting with the 2018 midterms. This is something the GOP has been doing quietly and effectively for a long time. What use would it have been if Hillary had limped across the line on Tuesday anyway, faced with the same intransigent, hostile Congress as Obama, but without his greater political gifts?

Even if Obamacare is repealed and the Supreme Court is packed with conservatives, there is little to stop states continuing with their own versions of a modern progressive polity. SCOTUS is often reluctant to interfere below the federal level, whatever its ideological leanings. And the more these blue states have fewer gun deaths, greater tolerance and diversity, better healthcare and protections for the low paid, the more traction these ideas can gain elsewhere. That said, rust belt ‘blue’ states like Wisconsin and Michigan were notably absent from these ballot initiatives. What the hell were the Democrats playing at? Is it any wonder voters in Clinton’s ‘firewall’ felt left behind?

America is becoming an ever more polarised nation

This is not an emotional statement. As the actual (not the pollsters’!) polling data emerges, the drearily predictable divides and fissures in the US electorate are becoming gaping chasms. Clinton actually made gains in this election on Obama. Yup. She did better than any Democrat in living memory with college-educated white voters: not enough to get her over the line, obviously, but further evidence of education becoming a major electoral faultline. Clinton even improved on Obama in 2012 is some states. Sadly for her, they were either piled up in already blue states like California (and therefore wasted in the electoral college system) or they were wasted in red states because there weren’t enough to turn it blue (e.g. Texas, Arizona). It’s telling though, that Clinton walked New Mexico (theoretically a swing state) while losing or struggling in her rust belt firewall. What does this mean? Put simply, these red, southern states are becoming ever more urbanised, and less rural: another major faultline. If (and it’s always a big ‘if’ with the Dems) the Democrats can get their act together, the future trends for them are powerful. The GOP is fast becoming the party of the rural, the less educated and the ever more exclusively white. Trump would need to close schools, universities and cities as well as building his ‘wall’ to reverse that trend.

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Time to welcome our new orange overlord.

And yet for all this optimism, I don’t want to underplay my dismay at this result. If all political careers end in failure, then the careers of populists with wild talk and big promises usually end in spectacular failure. Trump cannot possibly deliver on his ‘manifesto’: it is incoherent and self-contradictory. Furthermore, the role of president requires compromise and pragmatism far more than dead-eyed decision-making. And even if we accept that a serial bankrupt has some business, if not political, acumen, he might just have broken Golden Rule #1: never over promise and under deliver.

As for his temperament, and his measured victory speech which praised Clinton and talked of healing and unity, well, they all say that. Thatcher quoted St. Francis of Assisi in 1979, for crying out loud. What will he say the next time a gun nut runs amok in a school? Will he argue that it wouldn’t have happened if the kids had been armed? He claims to be sick of NATO and wants the US to take a back seat in international strife. Okaay, but I seem to remember Dubya wanting a bit of good old isolationism until 9/11 rudely thrust him right back in the thick of it. And does his mancrush on Putin mean he’ll just let him walk all over Eastern European states? Reagan would be horrified.

Will he even give up TV? Roosevelt had his fireside chats. Trump could get a new show – “Prez” – where he puts aspiring young political through a reality competition with the winner joining his executive cabinet. Don’t laugh: did you think this guy was going to win a year ago?

 

 

 

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Tokyo story

Gosh, it has been a long time between drinks. I can only offer a pretty useless excuse for my radio silence: a stunned-mullet, despondent contemplation of my navel as recent events have seemed to defy political gravity and logic. Did Britain really vote to leave the EU? Is Donald Trump truly the Republican presidential nominee? Is Jeremy Corbyn actually leader of the Labour Party?

If you had had an accumulator bet on all three of these scenarios as recently as eighteen months ago, you would surely have enjoyed quite a juicy payout on a relatively modest stake. When reality is this crazy, who needs satire?

Well, I have an opportunity to take a closer look at two of the above three phenomena, because I am back in Blighty – land of my birth – for a prolonged stay of three months. The main purpose is to spend quality time with family who are not getting younger or, sadly, healthier: the price one has to pay for deciding to live as remotely as is possible from ‘home’.

Of course, it gives me ample opportunity to test the water of Brexit Britain. Is there a vibe of confidence, despair, trepidation or all three? What on earth is going on in a country where both main parties seem determined to row as furiously as possible away from the centre ground: one back to a 1950s utopia of grammar schools and protectionism, the other to a more 1970s-stylee world of closed shops and nuclear disarmament.

Anyway, en route to Airstrip One, we decided to break up the horror of long haul flying with a delightful five day stopover in Tokyo. I couldn’t recommend this city more.

It is as clean, efficient and modern as one would expect from the Japanese, and yet there are hidden, twisting alleys away from the gigantic malls and Blade Runner-esque neon signage serving homely, delicious yakitori street food. There are other contradictions: the preponderance of space age toilets with electronic seat warmers and built in bidets jars with a puzzlingly old school cash-reliant economy – frustrating for the traveller hoping to rely on his trusty Visa.

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Vending machines…which sell beer. What great people!

The lack of English among many locals, even in hospitality, is a minor hindrance but a reminder of Japan’s splendid isolation, although it is compensated for by a uniquely attentive politeness. And for all the business-like efficiency that permeates this megalopolis, there is an endearing charm and sense of fun. The Studio Ghibli Museum, a shrine to the beautiful anime of Hayao Miyazaki, is worth fighting tooth and nail to get tickets for (it is absurdly difficult to source them online, so mahoosive thanks must go to the concierge of the Tokyo Station Hotel for procuring them – simply one of the best hotels I have ever had the fortune to stay in).

Even Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea exceeded my somewhat cynical expectations, with astonishing parades and firework displays to complement the absurdly popular rides. Word to the wise: you need to spend time working out how best to utilise the slightly Byzantine fastpass system in advance. You always need a plan in Tokyo.

But the highlight, without question, was the Onsen Oedo Monogatari in Odaiba. The Japanese onsen is so much more than a thermal springs spa, as their more humble New Zealand counterparts tend to be described. It is a whole complex offering much more than just natural hot springs: within the walls are sushi restaurants, sake bars, kids activities and a range of massage options. Indeed, the best way to describe an onsen is to say it is the very antithesis of a gym, with absolutely nobody doing any exercise, and long may that continue. Every aspect is geared towards different ways of relaxing. Even the quiet room was a sort of gym parody, with an array of TVs for patrons to watch, but only electric massage chairs to sit in instead of those wretched cross-trainers.

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Warm, bubbly tranquillity.

Think on, people. When a culture as workaholic as the Japanese invests so much time in the pleasures of studied relaxation, perhaps we need to reconsider the wisdom of dealing with a long day at the office by pounding a treadmill into submission. Even the insistence on nudity and gender-segregated bathing areas was liberating, once I had put aside my Western awkwardness.

Five days barely scratched the surface of Tokyo, let alone the delights of the rest of Japan, but we will return. Next up: Skipton, North Yorkshire: “Gateway to the Dales”. Sheesh…

 

An open letter to B. Johnson, MP

Dear Boris

Voters, eh? Bloody hell! And the look on your face on Friday  – well, would it be unkind to suggest that you weren’t quite expecting this, my dear chap? And then that young Hannan fellow was quick to pour cold water on all those promises the Leavers made during the campaign. You remember, the ones about using the £350m a week we ‘pour’ into the Eurocrats’ coffers to boost the ailing NHS? Of course that was rubbish – indeed it was someone you’re very fond of, M. Thatcher, who negotiated the rebate. And then there is all the spending the UK gets back, much of it into struggling parts of the UK, like Cornwall and Wales, who suicidally backed Brexit, presumably after hearing your eloquent but meaningless promises.

But you knew that.

And how does the 57% rise in racist attacks reported by the police since Thursday square with your cuddly, witty, man-of-the-people persona. As long as you kept your distance from whiffy xenophobes like Nigel Farage, you thought that you could just make a few gags about straight bananas and Brussels sprouts and it would be all OK. Presumably you’re OK then with Polish waitresses being laughingly told to ‘start packing’, and people wearing “Send the buggers back” T-shirts and yelling at Asians to go home. I’m not making this stuff up, by the way – I’ll leave the making up stuff to you. And never mind the fact that migration from Commonwealth countries is nothing to do with the bloody EU.

But you knew that too.

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There are lies, damned lies and the witterings of Johnson, B.

But it was all about taking back control, wasn’t it? Silly me. I should have read the sign on your shiny bus. And how’s that working out for you now, Boris? Your mate Dave’s thrown in the towel and dumped it all on you. Gideon hasn’t exactly thrown in the towel yet, although he may go back to folding towels at Selfridge’s if the FTSE and Sterling keep tanking. What was that you said about Remainers’ scaremongering? And what did ‘Mad’ Mikey Gove say about not listening to experts? So reassuring. I guess we’ll just ignore Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse and Standard and Poor and their dire prognostications. No need to worry about the £120bn wiped off FTSE shares in a few hours: that’s about 10 years’ worth of UK contributions to the EU. Talk about cutting off one’s nose and all that! Anyway, they’ve made a handy flowchart even you can fathom. Have a look at it, dear boy, and get back to us with your preferred pathway. No rush, mind. Because no MP in his/her right mind (that obviously excludes a large rump of your party, possibly also your good self) will actually vote to trigger Article 50.

But you knew that.

So allow me to tell you some things you didn’t know, although you will find out the hard way PDQ.

First, there was all that stuff about putting the ‘Great’ back in Britain. I don’t think Scotland got that memo, because they voted to stay in the EU and are even more likely to be on their way out of the UK now. They also have a leader who isn’t an ignoramus and who knows stuff about economic consequences and constitutional matters, the infuriating girly swot that she is. Even some Unionist leaders in Northern Ireland are urging people to apply for Irish passports, for crying out loud. You could be the Tory leader who engineered a united Ireland! Putting the Little back in England, eh? Oh my aching sides!

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UK’s fearless clueless Brexit negotiator flies into Brussels

Also, I know you truly, madly, deeply wish to be Prime Minister (Lord knows why, because the job needs someone a teensy bit more serious and credible than a bumbling, blustering bumclown who moonlights between penning erudite but ill-informed pieces for the Telegraph and the Spectator, and appearing on Have I Got News For You). Well, you are finding out now just how challenging that particular role is going to be, and how utterly unsuited you are to it, because as a young person might say, shit just got real. The EU will be in no mood to accommodate any of your empty promises. Not one. And why should they? Let’s face it, if the EU were a wedding reception, we’ve been behaving like the embarrassing, drunken, elderly, narcissistic relative that heckles the speeches, pukes up in the fishbowl and sits in the corner nursing a pint of Bacardi and coke, railing against bloody foreigners. Your promises of getting all the benefits of freedom of movement and free trade without all that pesky ‘red tape’ and fees and Eurocracy has been rightly shot down by the European Commission.

I know you have an ego the size of a planetoid: that’s what got you (and us) into this unholy mess. You’re also a big fan of Churchill and have this airy delusion that you might one day emulate your hero and don the mantle of ‘Great Statesman’. Well, did you not read this speech of his?

‘Hard as it is to say now.. I look forward to a United States of Europe, in which the barriers between the nations will be greatly minimised and unrestricted travel will be possible.’

I don’t suppose you’ve ever bothered to try to promote this vision to the people up and down England in areas of deprivation (mostly caused by your party’s policies, but that’s an argument for another day) who voted Brexit. Better to let that jolly Farage chap pander to divisive rhetoric and simple slogans instead. Of course, the big risk there is that they might just go and damn well do what you never wanted to or thought would happen. And they just did.

You’re a Classics graduate, aren’t you Boris? So we have one little thing in common at least. But whereas you probably hope History will remember you as having the leadership of Augustus, the wit of Juvenal, the oratory of Cicero and the wisdom of Socrates, instead it will be more like the vanity of Narcissus, the mindless populism of Cleon, the treachery of Catiline and the bumptious folly of King Midas. Think on, old boy. Think on.

The young person’s guide to Brexit

Once upon a time, there was a street called Europe Street. It was a picturesque street, with some lovely old houses and gardens, which had endured a somewhat chequered history, largely because some of its homeowners had indulged in the unfortunate habit of trespassing on and destroying their neighbours’ property in drunken rampages. The damage had been variable – Lord Bumface always used to chortle that apart from a few outhouses, most of his lovely period buildings had emerged unscathed (Lord Bumface was always boasting and chortling about something, to everyone else’s irritation). M. Marcel’s house, however, had had to be practically rebuilt twice, after some very unsavoury street fights, and even Frau Wurst’s property had endured some significant damage; not that many were sympathetic about this, following that dreadful business when all those poor servants had been killed, after being made to work for no wages.

So, after one particularly gruesome episode of rioting, looting and general mayhem, the good citizens of Europe Street had reluctantly decided to let bygones be bygones, and to come together in a new spirit of friendliness and cooperation. Indeed, the avuncular town mayor, ‘Uncle Sam’, who lived round the corner in a rather splendid white house, had told the denizens of Europe Street in no uncertain terms that he was mighty tired of these disagreeable and destructive squabbles; he was only going to invite them round for dinner in future, if they promised solemnly to behave themselves. As chairman of the Wells Fargo bank, he had even threatened to cut off their overdrafts which they desperately needed for all their repairs.

The message was understood. Six of the households decided to band together to form a Neighbourhood Watch and Residents’ Association. Ostensibly, it was to allow them to get to know each other better over a beer or two, and to allow their wives to sell each other some of Uncle Sam’s fancy new Tupperware, but the plan was also to help each other with their various business ventures, which had been ruined in the last big fight. Frau Wurst, who was very well-educated and always sensible about these things, had pointed out that everyone had their strengths and weaknesses. M. Marcel, for instance, made the most delicious pastries and quiches, but was absolutely hopeless at paying his bills on time, and had frequent problems with quarrelsome domestic staff who were prepared to quit working at the drop of a hat. Signor Fettucine was a dab hand at fine suits and dresses, but his enormous family were prone to furious arguments that inevitably led to some spectacular falling-out. Frau Wurst had been forced to fold the family tank-building business and concentrate on designing quality cars instead, although she could never find enough buyers who were prepared to pay her what she wanted.

Even Lord Bumface had his problems, although he was loath to admit them. He had made a small fortune helping Uncle Sam expand his bank, but had then blown most of the profits on a very expensive model railway set. No matter what he tried, no matter how much he spent, it kept breaking down, and he could never get the damn trains to get to the stations on time. M. Marcel and Frau Wurst had tried not to snigger when they had heard about the shortcomings of Lord Bumface’s train set, but they couldn’t help themselves. Frau Wurst even had a word for it.

“Schadenfreude, my dear Marcel,” said Wurst. “I ought to feel sorry for him, sitting there in the pouring rain, trying to fix his trains, but he never listens to my advice.”

“It serves him right,” said Marcel contemptuously. “Have you eaten his food? It is disgraceful. I would not serve it to my dog.”

Anyway, over many years, more and more of the houses on Europe Street joined the Association. Even Lord Bumface got up off the sidelines and joined in the fun. And despite the odd difference here and there, the neighbours of Europe Street had managed to stay friends for nearly 70 years, without any major squabbles. Their businesses had thrived, the language classes for their kids were as popular as ever, and the bad old days were long forgotten. They had even begun an annual musical talent competition. Some of the singing was terrible, and Lord Bumface used to sulk when his songs flopped, but the positive vibe was unmistakable. And everyone loved nothing better than to head down to Stavros’s Hotel and Taverna in summer after several months’ hard work, to enjoy the finest kebabs and tzatziki in town, and generally unwind over beer and cocktails at the sunny end of the street. Even Frau Wurst used to let her hair down on these vacations, although the wild behaviour of Lord Bumface’s teenage kids would make her cringe in disgust.

Then, one day, everything changed. Most of the residents were sitting in Lord Bumface’s living room, enjoying some scones and afternoon tea. Lord Bumface was feeling a little lonely and bewildered after his partner of many years, Lady McLeod, had asked for a trial separation. That their marriage had been rocky for some time was no secret to the other residents, and was the source of much gossip, but publicly they wanted to show some solidarity with their fellow neighbour, even if he could be a little pompous and aloof sometimes.

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There was a knock at the door. When a servant ushered the guest in, the residents were taken aback by the sight of an ashen-faced and clearly troubled Uncle Sam.

“I’m worried about Stavros,” said Uncle Sam. “He has missed paying his dues to me for three months straight now. When I tried to call him today, I kept getting an engaged tone. I think he’s left the phone off the hook.”

There was little initial reaction from the gathered throng. Stavros was notorious for his laxity in paying his debts on time. Indeed, no-one much cared in Europe Street because he was just as lax at charging people for his delicious souvlaki, and everyone just figured it would all even out in the end. There was just the teensiest hint of jealousy from Frau Wurst that Stavros and has family and servants always seemed to be enjoying a nice life in the sun, without ever seeming to do much work for it.

“I also have been having concerns about Stavros,” said Frau Wurst. “We were supposed to have a financial planning meeting last week, but I think he’s been avoiding me.”

This also provoked little reaction. People went out of their way to avoid discussing money matters with Frau Wurst. She had this irritating knack of making one feel guilty and incompetent about debt, and she was always grumbling about ‘unnecessary’ expense at their monthly shindigs.

Then the door flew open and a waiter from the Taverna ran in, babbling breathlessly: “Please – come quickly! We’ve got no power, the kitchen’s flooded and Stavros has locked himself in!”

At this, the Europeans and Uncle Sam sprinted out of the house and down the road to the Taverna, where a scene of utter pandemonium confronted them. Most of the staff were outside, hammering angrily on the locked door and demanding a response from within. A few quick questions soon ascertained that they had not been paid for some weeks. Rubbish had been allowed to accumulate, and when Uncle Sam managed to break the door down with the help of one of his burly guards, they found Stavros and his immediate family slumped on the floor, with empty bottles of Ouzo piled around them.

“Get up, Stavros, old chap,” said Lord Bumface. “We’re worried about you and we need to talk.”

Frau Wurst had been staring suspiciously at the driveway. “Where are your cars, Stavros? What happened to the Mercedes I sold you? And the BMW, for that matter?”

Stavros lifted himself groggily to a sitting position. Without looking at Wurst, he mumbled sheepishly, “I had to sell them. No more cash. Things have got pretty bad here.”

Wurst was incredulous. “All of them? And what have you done with the money? Some of your staff have not been paid for weeks, apparently.”

“I, er, spent it. On other stuff,” gulped Stavros, finally daring to cast an apprehensive glance at Wurst’s frosty scowl.

“All of it?” shrieked Wurst. “Well, I think it’s high time you took some responsibility for your actions. You need to face up to your debts, and pronto.”

“If you hadn’t offered such cheap credit to buy them, I wouldn’t be in this mess,” said Stavros sulkily.

“Well, no-one forced you to buy those bloody vehicles,” retorted Wurst.

“Now now,” interjected Lord Bumface in a conciliatory tone, “it’s no good berating poor old Stavros. What’s done is done. After all, I don’t recall you complaining about Stavros’s ability to pay at the time, Frau Wurst.”

Frau Wurst opened her mouth to protest, but thought better of it. After a pause, she said more diplomatically, “Well, I suppose you are right. But we still can’t let him get away with this. I mean, look at this place! What’s needed here is a clear-out, a good tidy-up and a sensible budget. If I can manage to live within my means, I don’t see why…”

Uncle Sam cut short Frau Wurst’s homily. “Be that as it may, we mustn’t heap suffering on suffering. We’ll have to find a way for Stavros to repay what he owes everyone without bankrupting him in the process.”

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At that moment, a smartly-dressed young man strode purposefully into the room. His blue suit was immaculate, his white shirt crisply ironed. “How do you do?” he said with a grin, introducing himself with a firm handshake to each of his neighbours in turn.

“Who are you?” stammered M. Marcel.

“Call me Alex,” said the newcomer. “There’ve been some changes around here. The servants were so fed up with Stavros not paying them on time, that they had a vote and put me in charge of the house instead.” He turned to Stavros and gave him an unfriendly nudge with his foot. “Come on, Stavros. You can’t stay here any more. You’ve got to move into the outhouse.”

“That’s nice for you, my boy,” interrupted Frau Wurst, “but what are you going to do about the house’s debts? I’m afraid your predecessor has been very sloppy with his finances.”

“Nothing,” replied Alex, with a defiant gleam in his eye. “The servants here have suffered enough. I don’t see why we should have to pay for his incompetence.”

Wurst was outraged. “Fool! How on earth do you expect to get any more loans if this is how you treat your creditors? The Wells Fargo bank is not a money tap for you to turn on and off at will. There must be consequences. Tell him, Uncle Sam,” she implored the mayor.

Uncle Sam nodded silently, keeping his gaze on young Alex. Yet if Alex was supposed to be intimidated by this, he was showing no signs of it.

“Whatever. My first duty is to the people who elected me, and frankly, they’ve had enough of all this doom and debt. Your ‘repayment’ plans would make us paupers for eternity. You can take your restructuring deal and shove it. Anyway, I have other friends to help me with my finances.”

“What other friends?” spluttered Frau Wurst.

“The Count,” declared Alex nonchalantly. “He is quite prepared to offer hard cash and guaranteed electricity at very cheap rates. And he doesn’t chastise me for it like you lot do either.”

At the very mention of this name, there was an audible gasp in the room. The Count was a mysterious figure who lived in a rather grand looking castle at the eastern end of the street. Very few of the neighbours had ever dared to visit his colossal property, although those that had, spoke of how cold and windy it was up there. They also said that his servants looked underfed and miserable, even though there were piles of cash and gold in his impressive main hall.

Some of his closest neighbours on Europe Street were frankly terrified of him. They remembered that previous Counts had forced them to be part of an alternative street committee, the Union of Secure and Social Residents, which had been much less fun and much less prosperous, and the whole unhappy debacle had ended rather abruptly some years ago. Since then they had been desperate to join the more popular Residents’ Association, especially since it had been expanded into an Economic Club too, although many of them didn’t really understand what this meant.

Uncle Sam had been mighty keen on letting these new houses into the Association. This was driven by his hatred of the Count, who often let it be known that he felt he ought to be the town mayor, and had engaged in some very hostile arguments on the matter in the past. Nonetheless, this wish had caused quite a bit of friction with some of the more longstanding Association members. Some of the servants in these houses were less than impressed when servants from the new houses had begun working in their houses, on account of their willingness to work for cheaper wages. Lord Bumface in particular had had to reassure some of his loyal workers that they would not be left high and dry, although he was secretly delighted with his new employees, who were much more hardworking and motivated than some of the whiny, ungrateful local types who dug his allotment potatoes and harvested his orchard.

Alex’s view of the Count, however, had changed radically after meeting him the day before. Staggered by the pile of unpaid bills he had inherited from Stavros, and in sheer desperation, he had made his way up to the Count’s castle. The place was absolutely freezing, but the Count had beckoned him into his huge main hall, where he sat, flanked by two enormous hounds, beside a roaring fire. Alex had stood shivering rather abjectly by the fire, looking down at his feet and unsure how to begin.

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“Alex, my boy, what is the matter? You look troubled,” said the Count.

“It’s the other houses on the street. They’re making all these threats if I don’t sort out my debts.”

“Shto? Really, Alex. Don’t vori, my son. You should have come to me sooner. I have everything you need – money, gas, electricity, protection – and without all their stupid rules and regulations. Drink?” He offered Alex a glass of colourless liquid. Alex accepted the glass and took an uncertain swig. The liquid burnt the back of his throat and reduced him to a ferocious bout of coughing. The Count shrugged and drank liberally, without so much as a raised eyebrow.

Eyeing Alex cautiously, he spoke in a warm, genial voice. “I can make you a better offer. You wouldn’t have to do much for me. Go away and have a think about it. Even if you do accept their lousy deal, remember there is always an alternative.” The Count smiled enigmatically at Alex, stroking one of the fierce hounds sat beside him. Alex mumbled his thanks and scuttled off back down the hill, the Count’s words ringing in his ears.

And now Alex was faced with a real dilemma. For Frau Wurst had been coldly adamant in laying down the law: “Alex. With leadership comes great responsibility. You know the Association’s rules, and if you don’t, allow me to spell them out for you. If you reject our offer and throw your lot in with the Count, it will be the end for you as an Association Member. We could not allow it. You would be completely on your own. Is that what you really want?”

Alex stared defiantly at her for a few moments, but then he shrugged and looked down at the floor. The pressure from the rest of the Association was intolerable. He knew, however reluctantly, that he had no choice. His people would never agree to falling out with the Association, and they simply would not trust the Count.

Correctly taking Alex’s silence as assent, Frau Wurst said gently: “You have made the right decision, Herr Alex.”

“Chin up, old bean,” added Lord Bumface. “It’s never too late to turn things around.”

For all his jovial optimism, though, Lord Bumface was privately disquieted by these events. Stavros might well have been a bit too casual with his finances, but that was no reason to inflict such brutal medicine. When the Association had decided to use the same communal bank to finance their repairs and pay their servants, it had seemed like a great idea. Yet lately, there just seemed to be no end of trouble with it. Indeed, Lord Bumface was relieved that he had managed to keep his own estate out of it, preferring to use his own bank instead.

Yet that was not enough for some people, thought Bumface. Things had become very tough at home of late. And it had all started when that awful used car salesman had set up shop on his estate. There was no doubt that he provided a popular service to his staff, but his wretched garage always looked so mean and ugly, and he was always boozing and smoking and chattering away animatedly to the gardener.

His most irritating habit, though, was his utter disdain for Lord Bumface’s management of the estate. “Couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery,” he would say, with his characteristic smug smirk. He had also said some very unkind remarks about Lord Bumface and Lady McLeod, speculating loudly to all and sundry that if His Lordship couldn’t manage to keep his marriage together, what right had he to tell everyone else how the estate should be run. He would call Lord Bumface Dave, disrespectfully, and in retaliation Bumface nicknamed him Garage, on account of his shady profession.

Lord Bumface recalled the episode with a grimace: Lady McLeod had threatened to set up her own farmhouse in the northern part of the estate, and take her personal servants with her. She had nearly got her way, but at the last moment a majority of her staff had opted to keep the estate together. For now. Garage had been winding him up about it ever since. That hadn’t been the worst of it, however. In recent years, the number of people wishing to live and work in Europe Street had grown to staggering proportions. I don’t know why anyone is so surprised, Bumface reflected ruefully, since we’ve made it such a nice place to live. Many of these workers had got into the habit of sneaking across the nearby river at the dead of night and then pleading for whatever work might be available. They had come from awful homes on shanty streets, where the daily grind was a mix of fighting and haggling for money and food.

Bumface shuddered. If he were honest, these people frightened him. Yet he could understand what motivated them. Of course, nothing had caused as much debate and disagreement within the Residents’ Association. In fact, he couldn’t ever remember the arguments being this bad. Frau Wurst was a passionate advocate for letting them stay. Some residents commented unkindly that it was probably due to guilt over how badly some of her servants had been treated 70 years ago. Some people never knew when to let things go, thought Bumface. But others were much less enthusiastic, mainly because their staff were suspicious of anyone who might be prepared to work for less wages. They looked, dressed and spoke differently too. For some reason, thought Bumface with a weary sigh, that always seems to upset people.

And now Garage was giving him grief on this very matter. Honestly, the man was impossible! He had been going around handing out beer and cigarettes to the other staff, trying to cajole them into his barmy plan to hold a vote on membership of the Residents’ Association. This really did get Bumface’s goat. Garage had wangled a job on one of the Association’s special committees. But instead of going along to the meetings and making sensible contributions, he was just too lazy to bother turning up. And when he did, he would merely insult everyone and tell them they were a waste of space. And despite being paid handsomely for his ‘services’, he now had the temerity to say that Bumface Manor would be better off out of the Association altogether. Of all the damn cheek!

Lord Bumface trudged back to his house, stomped into the kitchen, poured himself a stiff whisky and slumped wearily into his favourite chair. What a bloody awful day! At that moment, a familiar face appeared at the window and grinned grotesquely at him. Garage!

“What do you want?” grumbled Bumface.

“I see you had a successful day at the Taverna, Dave,” smirked Garage sarcastically. “That poor boy Alex. What kind of shoddy deal was that? You let that Kraut woman walk all over you.”

“Her name is Wurst. My name is Bumface, or Your Lordship. And I’m quite proud of young Alex actually, facing up to his responsibilities like a man…”

“He’s been duped, hoodwinked – and you know it,” cut in Garage. “You don’t seriously expect him to pay off those debts, do you? His poor staff have put their faith in the Association, and this is the thanks they get – a lifetime of penury. I don’t know how you sleep at night.”

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At this, Lord Bumface went puce with fury. “How dare you! You ghastly man! You don’t care about Alex or his staff. You’re just using him to bolster your tawdry ideas. You don’t care about anyone but yourself. You just try and undermine me at every turn.”

“Calm down, dear,” giggled Garage impishly. “You might do yourself an injury. Of course, if you were man enough to put this to a vote…”

“Right!” yelled Bumface. “If that’s what it takes to shut you up, bring it on! I’m not scared of you. You might be popular down the pub, but my staff are far too sensible to go along with your hare-brained schemes. They didn’t desert me over Lacy McLeod, and they won’t now,” said Lord Bumface, standing as tall as he could and trying to sound confident.

Garage called his bluff. “OK, Dave. You’re on. Oh, and by the way, you might want to test the loyalty of some of your devoted staff – you’ll be in for a nasty surprise.”

“If you’re trying to frighten me, Garage, forget it. I know you’ve managed to twist a few arms with your lies and promises, but all my best staff are good friends of mine, and loyal. They’d never consort with a charlatan like you.”

“Oh, wouldn’t they? Brutus! I think it’s time you came out here!”

Suddenly, a man stepped out of the shadows. He had a bumptious look about him and a distinctive mop of rather unkempt blond hair.

“Brutus!” said Bumface after a pause, visibly shaken. “Not you too?” The sense of betrayal was palpable.

“Sorry, old bean,” said Brutus with a smirk. “I know you’re a fan of the old Association, but really this bureaucratic nonsense has to stop.”

Lord Bumface regained his composure. “I take it this is part of your masterplan to take over the estate. You’re a fraud, and a liar. No good will some of this. Even you know that.”

“Well, we’ll just have to let the staff decide, won’t we old bean?” said Brutus. Bumface tried to maintain a dignified defiance, but he was worried. Of that, there was no doubt.

At that moment, Uncle Sam wandered past a nearby hedgerow and stopped to listen. Garage, Bumface and Brutus were arguing furiously and gesticulating wildly. Like a bunch of schoolkids, thought Uncle Sam sadly. He wandered a little further on. There was another commotion outside Frau Wurst’s house. There was a vast crowd of new arrivals sitting on the lawn clutching their possessions uncertainly. Inside, Frau Wurst could be heard yelling at one of her senior staff. A little further on, Uncle Sam came to the Taverna. He wanted to stop for a beer, for it was a warm night, but something about the glum expressions on the waiters’ faces told him that this probably wasn’t the time.

Then, a sudden gust of wind chilled him momentarily. He glanced up and saw the Count’s castle, resplendent in gold and marble. A feeling of revulsion came over him. I bet you’re loving this, you snake, thought Uncle Sam.

And sitting along in his castle, the Count stared down at the street thoughtfully. And he smiled. And he waited…

 

 

 

Water under the bridge

In an effort to dam the rising tide of indignation at the news that Oravida (yes, them) have been bottling precious Kiwi water and selling it overseas at a fat profit, and after paying a pittance in water-drawing consents, Environment Minister Nick Smith may have let an unintended cat out of the bag.

Dr. Smith dived into the fray, with a breathless press release confirming that out of some 500 trillion litres of freshwater flowing through our lakes, rivers and aquifers, only 10 trillion is extracted: 6 for farm irrigation, 2 for urban drinking supplies and 2 for ‘industries’ which are mostly water bottling ones. Hence, the Greens and others calling for a moratorium on selling precious bottled water are ‘idiots’ because it amounts to just ‘0.004 per cent’ of the total available water. Once you correct Dr. Smith’s poor maths – 2 trillion is 0.4% of 500 tn, not 0.004% (0.004 is the fraction you tap into the calculator) – it is still an impressive rebuttal.

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Water, water, everywhere and, er, plenty to drink

So far, so good. Yet it got me thinking: why was there so much indignation about selling water in the first place? After all, it seems that agriculture is a much more thirsty business, not to put too fine a point on it. Eric Crampton has a good piece on it here. Essentially, irrigation for dairy requires some 250 litres of water on average to produce one litre of milk. For beef and lamb, that figure rises even further, to almost 1000 litres. Yet one litre of water will provide, er, one litre of bottled water.

I am oversimplifying, and I should add that for all the valid criticisms of ‘dirty dairy’, some of that 250 litres does go back into recharging the aquifer. However, Nick Smith may have produced a lightbulb moment for a growth New Zealand industry. Imagine the poster: come and visit clean, pure and green NZ, where the water is so good, we sell it back to the climate-affected, drought-ridden world. Or as Crampton more succinctly puts it:

Main point of the article: why are y’all getting so upset about water being put in bottles and shipped to China when it takes (ballpark) 250 times as much water to make a litre of milk, which is then dried out and shipped to China? They’re both selling water.

Quite. Naturally, this argument will be about as welcome to the NZ farming lobby as Ken Livingstone at a bar mitzvah, but the anti-economic, protectionist grumblings of a community that has been no friend of parties of the left should not concern a future Labour/Green government. And by that same argument, greenies should not get in a tizzy about ‘squandering our precious resource’ when it is the very definition of a drop in the ocean.

Of course, putting a price on water will not be quite as easy as Gareth Morgan envisages, although he makes further salient points for doing so. Yet the fundamental problem of cows shitting up the waterways, so to speak, is perhaps best solved by reducing the number of cows doing so, and selling what is really NZ’s greatest resource: clean, fresh water. If we sold 0.1%, and either taxed it or allocated consents valued at 1c for every $1 worth sold, it would generate $5bn in revenue, that could certainly clean up the mess left by dairy. And agriculture would not die – it would go back to being the rather less lucrative but more sustainable industry it was before the dairy boom.

So Trump triumphed. He went from being not remotely credible last year, through to a 2% long shot in January according to Nate Silver, to a near certainty just four months later. House Speaker Paul Ryan, unofficial Republican leader, is not impressed. He is refusing to endorse the star of The Apprentice. In fact, the wailing and gnashing from ‘real’ Republicans is a delight to behold. Ever since the #NeverTrump hashtag started doing the rounds, ‘real’ Republicans have been at pains to point out how unsuitable Trump, and how much he will alienate core GOP voters, let alone persuade swing voters.

Well, I think they are wrong. This is perhaps the future of the right-wing electoral coalition in the US, Trump has cottoned on to that fact, and it ain’t pretty. Trump has galvanised the angry white male voter like never before. The trouble is, the other half of the GOP base is the rich elite, who see nothing wrong with ever greater tax cuts for them and for giving Wall Street exactly what it wants. Finding a campaign message to stitch these two together will not be easy. Trump’s bizarre, on-the-hoof populism has made him as many enemies as supporters. Leaving aside his casual misogyny and xenophobia which seems to indicate an almost insouciant disregard for voting blocs like, y’ know, women and minorities, his anti-establishment rhetoric is anathema to the RNC bigwigs and they do not like it one bit.

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The next President? Shudder…

A word of caution: this election will not necessarily be a shoo-in for Hillary. If we were wrong to write off Trump’s primary campaign, then we would be foolish to assume he will crash and burn in November. It is true that outsiders and extreme candidates have flopped badly before (think Goldwater on the right in 1964 and McGovern on the left in 1972), but they were usually also poor communicators as well as lacking in broad electoral appeal. The demographic electoral calculus may well not favour Trump, but the delegate maths didn’t either. He will fight a brutal but savvy campaign and if Hillary makes too many gaffes she could lose. But even were he to win, he would be the ultimate disappointment. Congress will never pay for his wall or his other barmy promises. And another blowhard from the right will damage the GOP’s credibility still further.

And finally, some thoughts on TV’s hottest show: The Bachelor. Nah, just kidding.

 

 

Just a spoonful of sugar…

George Osborne, who gave up folding towels at Selfridges to have a go at managing the UK’s finances, has just lobbed a hand grenade into the taxation public policy debate. Somewhere among his usual farrago of bribes, cuts, back-of-an-envelope growth prognostications and hoary platitudes about compassionate conservatism, he managed to find a way to plug his little finger into the £4bn fiscal hole in the dam: a tax on sugary drinks.

With his trademark sardonic smirk, he gushed about how the revenue raised would be poured back into funding school sports. All jolly good, I suppose: a Tory Chancellor caring so deeply about worrying rates of child obesity, that he introduces a policy which will reduce sugar consumption and get kids more active again. Call me a cynic, but I don’t think this policy will achieve, or is intended to achieve, what it is supposed to – more on that later. Yet I have been more interested in the reactions to this from across the political divide, both in the UK and back here.

National, in the guise of Health Minister Jonathan Coleman, moved quickly to dampen down speculation that they might adopt a similar policy here. Labour and the Greens are probably agonising over this: on the one hand, they have been banging the drum about rising obesity rates, especially among Maori and Pasifika children, for some time; on the other hand, if National were to follow their British centre-right counterparts in adopting the policy, there would be more miserable hand-wringing from Labour in particular about National stealing all their best ideas and taking the credit.

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Sugar presses all the same addictive buttons as cocaine, at a fraction of the price!

Unusually, I find myself in agreement with ACT leader David Seymour’s analysis, which means I need a stiff drink and a lie-down. The data from Mexico, where a similar tax has been trialled, is inconclusive. While consumption of fizzy, sugary drinks has fallen among the poorest quartile by 12%, consumption of other untaxed beverages has gone up: the tax does not apply to fruit drinks and juices which also have high levels of sugar. And what about other foods with large amounts of ‘hidden’ sugar, such as processed foods? It is all too easy to target Big Soda in the first instance, as it is compressed into a handful of corporate global behemoths (Coke, Pepsi etc.) and therefore handy villains for the most passionate political advocates.

Hence, any real attempt to use excise taxation to influence healthy behaviour surely needs to be more comprehensive if it is to work. Obesity rates may well start falling in Mexico, or they may not. Supporters of a sugar tax point to the successes of hiking duty on tobacco, and price has long been accepted as having a powerful effect on changing habits. Yet it seems these signals are best read by those from middle and higher socio-economic groups, who have quit in steadily increasing numbers over recent decades. Inveterate smokers these days tend to be concentrated in low socio-economic groups, and disproportionately among Maori and Pasifika. This is classic user pays. It is a semantic argument as to whether the tax revenue covers some or all of the associated healthcare costs for smokers, but it is an unavoidable truth that people whose smoking habit takes a significant slice of their meagre earnings are making a huge personal contribution to tax coffers which offsets their drain on health resources.

Why would it be any different for sugary drinks? A tax on it is one of consumption, and is therefore regressive. There is already evidence that mere lobbying for a sugar tax in the US has prompted better educated and more affluent consumers to reduce their consumption of fizzy drinks quite drastically. Many of those of lower socio-economic status, however, may well struggle to wean themselves off sugary drinks, as many have with cigarettes. Their personal freedom to purchase and consume is unaffected, but they would now contribute to the cost of treating their potential obesity themselves. Again, this is a very user pays, free market approach to the problem. Chillingly for Labour, there is nothing to stop John Key adopting such a sugar tax to burnish his ‘progressive’ credentials, knowing full well that the burden will actually fall mostly on poorer people, and to use the revenue for a tax cut!

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…and pay tax on it, and then tomorrow you may die.

The danger for Labour and the Greens here is that they fall into the same tactical elephant traps again and again which National keep setting for them. The Greens’ advocacy of a sugar tax to ‘combat obesity’ has distracted them from its regressive nature. If National now adopt one, as Osborne has done, they will claim it as a progressive policy (and public perception is likely to agree with them), ignoring the fact that it may only just be a handy extra revenue stream funded disproportionately by the poorest Kiwis.

The same criticism could be levelled at Labour for their currently suspended policy of raising the retirement age to 67. It is nothing other than a benefit cut which would hurt the poorest Kiwis (who generally work in the worst / most arduous jobs). As a teacher, it wouldn’t kill me to work an extra two years, but it might well do if I laboured at something more menial. Of course, many on the left just assume that any policy decision of Key’s is neoliberal, and therefore raising the age is the compassionate, progressive thing to do, without considering on whom the burden of consequences falls the most.

Even if we accept that the savage hikes in smoking excise tax over the years in OECD countries has worked in reducing smoking, it would be easy to forget that the progressive governments which introduced them suffered at the polls, and saw many of their most loyal working class voters desert them, never to return. There are fairer and more effective ways to reduce obesity and address the growing costs and needs of an ageing population that should be considered.

When the Donald met the Bern

Is Trump unstoppable? “Hell, yeah!” as Ed Miliband might say. The last time I opined on Mr. Trump’s campaign, it was early days, and most lefties were content to pass round the popcorn, wondering smugly which of Trump or Tony Abbott would provide the most entertainment. Well, the Mad Monk has been unfortunately ousted by the altogether more electable Malcolm Turnbull. It would be fair to say, however, that the Donald has er, exceeded expectations.

The writing was on the wall when he won three of the first four Republican primaries; or I should say, when ‘establishment hopefuls’ Rubio, Bush, Kasich, Christie etc failed to win any of the first half dozen primaries. Nobody from either the GOP or the Democrats has ever won the nomination, let alone become President, with such a poor start. And when the only alternative to Trump appears to be Cruz, an uber-conservative evangelical whose uncompromising weirdness makes him almost as unpopular with the rest of the party, you know that the once mighty Republican Party is in a terrible hole.

On the other side of the fence, another ageing maverick who is big on rhetoric and pie-in-the-sky promises, and light on how on earth he proposes to fund them, is pushing Hillary Clinton all the way. For Big Bern however, as Nate Silver at 538 has pointed out, the Democrats’ more sensible primary system – awarding more of their delegates proportionally, rather than allowing big states such as Ohio and Florida to be winner-take-all, for example – means that the all-important delegate math is simply not on his side. I’m ready to eat humble pie if the Bern prevails, but the aftermath of Super Tuesday III has seen Clinton should pull steadily further ahead.

Of course, this is because the Democrat primaries have boiled down to a two-horse race pretty early. Imagine if a third candidate – a moderate such as Elizabeth Warren – was still in the race. There would be a strong possibility that Sanders, like Trump, would hoover up all the angry and disaffected, while the establishment support would be split. This is exactly the strategy Trump has been employing, with stunning results.

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Hey, you! Yeah, the snivelling asshole from the lamestream media! You said I would lose and you were dead wrong. Ahahaha!

To put it another way, as Nate Silver has done, if Trump were a Democratic candidate (stop laughing at the back – he has flirted with it in the past and even donated to Bill Clinton!), the fact that delegates are awarded proportionally would have enabled him to be stopped much more easily. Yet the Republicans’ more shambolic blend of primaries and caucuses, and equally confusing half-proportional, half-winner-take-all, has allowed media-savvy, reality TV king Trump to exploit it ruthlessly.

And while Sanders now looks like failing in his bid for the nomination, he has also given the Democrat establishment an almighty scare. Comment from across the spectrum has tended to bewail the dysfunctionality of these primaries, and in one sense it is hard to argue with that, given that after a total spend of $2bn, mostly on attack ads and endless phone polling, America is looking at three ‘front-runners’ with a combined age of 211. I don’t wish to sound ageist, but that is a brutal comment on the next generation of both major parties.

Yet I do not share the pearl-clutching pessimism of those who think that a Trump presidency will hasten some kind of Armageddon with Putin or the Arab world. As a clever populist with an eye for shameless soundbites, Trump is proving a fierce campaigner, yet like Sanders, he is likely to disappoint his many fans should he be elected President. Congress holds the purse strings, and will be unlikely to fund either Trump’s grandiose border wall or Bernie’s fanciful and exorbitant spending promises. And a swathe of voters who perhaps felt that a bright new era of politics was imminent, will shuffle off more disillusioned than before.

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50% ginger toupee. 50% orange skin. 100% maniac.

It would be pretty sadistic to laugh at the US political elite’s predicament: and much as I enjoy a dose of political sadism, I actually have a wee scrap of sympathy for them. Trump and Sanders are outsiders: neither have been committed in any meaningful way to the parties whose nomination they seek. Why shouldn’t ‘party elites’, who understand that moderate candidates who sail close to the centre are the most electable, do their utmost to prevent extreme ideologues from capturing the party. Across the world, serial rebels and iconoclastic insurgents such as Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage have been making the headlines; yet the former’s pleas for unity and the latter’s assertion that he is “not a career politician”, despite spending the better part of two decades in the European parliament, are laughable.

Straight-talking, sloganeering, anti-establishment mavericks have been promising milk and honey to the disengaged since Cleon of Athens in the 5th century BC. And they have invariably been huge disappointments.