Barbara Castle - remembered for what she didn’t do

Barbara Castle, born in October 6th, 1910, was one of the most successful female Labour politicians of the 20th Century. She served in the Department of Transport, overseeing the introduction of permanent speed limits, alcohol breath tests and compulsory seat belts. In the Employment Department she brought in he Equal Pay Act, and she also served in Overseas Development and Health and Social Security.

However, it is probably something she didn’t do that will be recorded in the history books. In an attempt to bring the trade unions within the law, she proposed to limit their powers in her 1969 white paper, “In Place of Strife.” Union bosses were bringing the country to its knees by exercising industrial power with arrogant, bullying tactics that were beyond the rule of law. They rebelled against her plans, and found a ready friend in James Callaghan, who fought against her proposals in Cabinet. The Cabinet was split, resignations were threatened, and the Labour paper, Tribune, campaigned publicly against her for attacking workers rather than bosses. She was forced to climb down as the bill was diluted to ineffectiveness. The unions had won.

She began a hate-hate relationship with James Callaghan, who dismissed her from an otherwise little-changed Cabinet when he became PM. His excuse that he wanted to lower its average age looked thin, since he was himself 4 years older than Harold Wilson, the PM he replaced. Castle became an MEP, and in 1990, a life peer.

She had failed to tame the unions, as did Edward Heath when he unexpectedly won the 1970 general election and introduced his “Industrial Relations Act.” The unions fought back bitterly with a series of strikes that brought power cuts and a three-day working week. Heath called an election in 1974, asking “Who runs the country?” The electorate replied, “Not you,” and booted him out. The unions had won again, and Heath was demoted to sulk for years on the back benches.

Margaret Thatcher did bring the unions to heel, where both Castle and Heath had failed. There were three elements to her success. Firstly, she didn’t initially confiscate union power, but redistributed it from the union leaders to their members. Thus there were now secret postal ballots for members to elect their leaders, in place of a show of hands at the workplace under the eye of shop stewards. Workers voting at home began to elect more moderate leaders. There were postal ballots, too, as workers won the right to be consulted before strikes could be called. This deprived their leaders of the ability to call instant walk-outs.

The second element of the Thatcher government’s approach was that it was piecemeal. Instead of one big act that would provoke total opposition, there were a series of measures, each fairly small, but cumulatively they gradually brought the unions under control. It was a salami slicer approach.

Her third element was privatization. Putting the big state industries into private hands changed the attitude of their workforce. Strike action now could threaten their own jobs, and their company’s long term survival. Britain went from having the highest number of days in Europe lost through strike action, to having the lowest. Such industrial unrest as remained was now mainly confined to industries and services that remained in the public sector.

Thatcher succeeded where Castle and Heath had failed, by adopting a gradualist, Fabian, approach. Jeremy Corbyn’s policy of reintroducing those lost union powers shows how effective their abolition was in curbing extremist left wing militancy.

Barbara Castle was 87 when she sat in the front VIP row in Cambridge’s Senate House when I graduated with my Master’s degree in 1997. I don’t think she knew she was watching the President of the Adam Smith Institute. Had she done so, she might well have walked out.

It's only ever the excuse that changes

We’ve another of those calls for global economic management and control. For the transfer of rich country resources to poor. A reminder that it’s only the excuse that changes in this matter:

As our climate emergency unfolds with the economic and ecological instability that it wreaks, we need to again consider a host of new pan-national institutions to tackle this threat. The effects of the climate crisis will be most extreme for people in the global south. It requires massive investments, as much as an additional $2.5tr per year, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, which current financing and institutional arrangements appear unable to fulfil.

We would need to ensure financial stability and a mechanism for the transfer of resources through an international climate stabilisation fund – a sort of IMF targeting the climate crisis. This agency would put in place new fiscal arrangements to regulate global financial markets and corporate elites, especially those that have made vulnerable island and developing countries into tax havens or exploited natural resources. These nations now require the means to transform their futures. This body could seek to coordinate tax policies and disburse lost taxes to provide direct support to climate-exposed territories: encouraging productive diversification and tackling interconnecting inequality and displacement caused by climate change.

The argument being that post-WWII we put in place those global economic regulators. Bretton Woods, the IMF, the World Bank and so on. Now we should do so again. Simply because it’s obvious that there should be global economic regulation from the centre.


Except that’s to miss the point of the past 40 years. We did indeed have those global institutions. And the poor countries didn’t grow. Then we started - this global neoliberalism - to use market processes and the poor countries did grow. We are enjoying that delight of falling global inequality as a result. The progressive eradication of absolute poverty. We actually have, in place right now, the correct economic policies that is.

But, obviously, because it is just obvious that there must be a Fat Controller, we must reinstitute the failed policies we’ve proven wrong just because. Thus this current call. Climate change is only the excuse here.

It’s also an appallingly bad excuse as the IPCC’s own economic models show. Whatever it is that we do about the point, even if we do nothing, those models insist that doing it within a globalised and free market economy produces better results than inside a more regional and planned - socially democratic even - one.

But, you know, that urge to plan everything just never does leave some people. Thus the flailing casting around for an excuse for it. Even when the very idea has been proven to be empirically, let alone theoretically, wrong.

The ill-fated R101

It was a major blow to British aviation when the airship R101 crashed and burned in France on October 5th, 1930, on its maiden overseas voyage. It was headed to Karachi, then part of the British Empire as part of a project to serve long-distance imperial routes. Two rigid airships were authorized in this programme, both publicly funded, and effectively in competition with each other.

The R01 was designed and built by an air ministry-appointed team under Lord Thomson, the Labour Secretary of State for Air in Ramsay MacDonald’s government, whereas the R100 was designed and built by private industry, by a team headed by Barnes Wallis, later to design the dambuster bouncing bomb and the swing wing aircraft design.

The R101’s trials had not met expectations. Its lift was nearly 3.5 tons lighter than anticipated, and its weight was over 8.5 tons heavier. Moreover, because of much heavier than expected tail surfaces, the ship was nose heavy. The ship was modified as a result, lengthened by 45 ft to add another gasbag, making it the world’s largest aircraft at 731 ft in length. The modifications caused new problems. The hydrogen-filled gasbags could rub against the frame, with risk of tearing, and there were problems with the covering skin.

The ministerial team had made bad decisions in introducing new and untried technology. The diesel engines and the frame were too heavy, and the servo motors that steered the rudder were excessively complicated. The R100 designers used a simple hand-operated steering wheel and cables instead. There were too many untested features, and to meet political pressures, the ship was making VIP joyrides before it had been properly tested, and before it had gained an airworthiness certificate.

The privately-built R100 relied for the most part on proven technology and was a success. It made a return test flight to Canada in 1930, a trip taking 78 hours, and passed with flying colours. The R101’s tragic crash in France killed 48 of the 54 people it carried, including many VIPs. Lord Thomson, the Air Minister, died along with senior government officials and most of the Air Ministry’s design team.

The subsequent Enquiry concluded that one or more of the forward gasbags had probably torn, leaking hydrogen and making the ship too nose-heavy for its elevators to correct. On impact the escaping hydrogen had ignited, possibly from a spark, or perhaps from a fire in one of the engine cars that carried petrol for the starter engines. The death toll exceeded that of the later Hindenburg disaster of 1937, and was among the highest of the decade.

It effectively ended Britain’s airship programme. The R100 was grounded and retired, and work was stopped on the planned R102. The Air Ministry concluded, somewhat belatedly, that hydrogen was just too dangerous a material for airships, and stopped all subsequent development, just as the Germans later did after the Hindenburg disaster.

The R101 provided a classic, and in this case, tragic example of how public projects can become bloated, with new additions being included until they become overburdened, and respond to political pressures rather than design needs. The R100 team, by contrast, kept it simple, with a clear goal in sight and incorporating established working technology rather than loading it with untried and problematic innovations.

It was an unhappy episode, costly in lives, but it ultimately led to safer and less weather-vulnerable passenger aircraft. Airships may make a comeback, probably as heavy lifters for such things as transformers within city construction. They may carry passengers across oceans for luxury flights with bedrooms, restaurants and glittering ballrooms, as zeppelins once did, and just as the Orient Express takes passengers on nostalgic train journeys across Europe. If this happens, it is to be hoped that they will be designed and constructed by private firms rather than by government committees.

Pecunia non olet laddie

The BP-funded scheme provided 16 to 25-year-olds with £5 tickets to RSC productions. That’s a noble cause but in 2019 BP looked like an odd sponsor. Why should young people accept free theatre tickets from a company that is contributing to the destruction of their futures?

One answer being that pecunia non olet - money has no smell. If cheap tickets are of value then it doesn’t matter where the money is coming from.

But rather more important is that it’s not BP doing the damage. It’s the people using BP’s products that are - whatever damage that may be. It is not the person who extracted the petrol responsible for the emissions of my driving to the shops. It’s me, the person doing the driving to the shops.

The youngsters taking a diesel powered bus - a fossil fuel produced electricity powered Tube, Shank’s Pony or bicycle fed on fossil fuel derived foods - to the theatre are the people producing the emissions being complained of.

Climate change isn’t an imposition upon us all by some capitalistic ogre, it’s us causing whatever the problem is.

ASI at Liberal Democrat and Labour Party Conferences

As well as our programme of events at the Conservative Party conference, the ASI also travelled to Brighton and Bournemouth for panel discussions at the Liberal Democrat and Labour conferences.

Our joint panel at the Lib Dem conference with Volteface focused on the case for legalising cannabis. It was absolutely packed (and baking hot), with Lib Dem mayoral candidate Siobhan Benita making the case for a regulated cannabis market in London on the back of Evening Standard polling that showed majority support for legalisation in the city.

Siobhan was joined by former Met special constable Joseph Kaz and ex-drug dealer Niko Vorobyov, with the Standard’s David Cohen chairing. You can catch up on the full discussion via the Volteface podcast here.

I travelled to Brighton and the Labour Party conference last week for a debate on what Brexit means for vaping, hosted by Prospect Magazine. It seems as though there is a meeting of the minds from all corners of the political spectrum, as I found myself espousing similar views on the topic to Labour’s Sir Kevin Barron MP. We both agreed on the huge success of e-cigarettes and other reduced-risk nicotine products in giving smokers safer choices, and saw Brexit as a potential opportunity to change some of the wrong-headed regulations that hamper efforts at encouraging more smokers to switch.

A Plague on the Petty Politics which Impede Progress

Last week the four main candidates for the north Norfolk constituency held a husting to debate the climate emergency.  They quickly agreed the problem was too big for party politics: the parties should cooperate to find and implement the best national strategy.  Two minutes later they were squabbling over cheap party shots.  No sign of any strategy.  No comment from the floor because voters are inured to this behaviour.  The Supreme Court may regard the parliamentarians as the bastion of democracy but many are beginning to doubt it.

In its lumbering way, parliament does many small things well enough but when it comes to major national issues such as the climate emergency, the NHS, adult care or transport infrastructure, party game playing ensures that little or no progress is made, especially when it puts votes at risk.

The last Labour government’s constructive proposals for funding adult social care were labelled a “death tax” by the Tories and no more was heard of them.[1]  Seven years later, Theresa May’s similar proposals were branded a “dementia tax” by Labour and nearly lost her the election.[2]  The adult care green paper is over two years late and has missed so many deadlines that they have stopped issuing them: “A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: ‘We will set out our plans to reform the social care system at the earliest opportunity to ensure it is sustainable for the future.’”[3] It has probably been written but its publication is delayed perhaps for fear of the negativity it will receive.

The House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee’s July report[4] in July called for urgency, £8bn. in additional funding (para. 41) and, importantly, consensus across political parties (para. 19). John McDonnell appeared to agree with this last point at Labour’s 2019 conference but MPs in other parties believe he was being economical with the truth; it may be just an electoral ploy. The Shadow Health and Care secretary, when approached, did not appear to indicate any willingness to cooperate and nor has the current Secretary of State.

In March 2018, almost 100 MPs “called on Theresa May to establish a cross-party commission to address the crisis in the NHS and in social care. A letter sent to the Prime Minister calls for a parliamentary commission and signatories include 21 select committee chairmen and 30 former ministers.”[5]  Given the current Parliamentary arithmetic, why should the government reject the only plausible way forward?

Norman Lamb and Lord Saatchi have long pressed for a cross-party approach to long-term strategy for the NHS.  We know it is massively wasteful and, with an ageing population and above inflation costs of medicines, technology and staff, it will become unaffordable.  Chucking another £20bn at the problem from time to time does nothing to address the reform it needs. 

In its 70 years the NHS has been subject to only one strategic review: the Royal Commission set up by Harold Wilson in 1975. Too big, unfocussed and cumbersome it may have been but many of its recommendations are relevant today.  For example, the Commission considered the NHS too big. To stop politicians meddling, it should be divided into autonomous regional public corporations and not remain part of the Department of Health.  Such regions would each still be twice as large as NHS Scotland and four times larger than NHS Wales.  Each would better match resources with local needs. Strange as it may seem, the 1979 Secretary of State did not agree. A pity.

The Commission and Labour opposed prescription charges. The then Health Secretary, like the current one, thought otherwise: (Hansard 1805): “When we debate the problems of the drug industry we are told that it is responsible for forcing large quantities of unnecessary drugs on patients who do not need them. When we impose a disincentive to that [prescription charges] we are told that people will be deprived of care that they need. Labour Members cannot have it both ways.”[6] 

Back in January 2018, The Guardian was the only voice raised against a new commission on the grounds that it would take too long and we already had all the answers.[7] That non-sequitur escaped them.  In any case, we need cross-party consensus so that NHS reform has continuity through changes of government.  As the last Commission pointed out, political meddling is a large part of the problem.  The differences between the 1975 Royal Commission and the convention we need now are speed, focus and composition.  Clearly a neutral chairperson will be needed but the rest should be the same MPs who will have to enact the results – not a large club of elderly experts, however wise.

The electorate is right to demand that parliament delivers.  Politicians must cooperate to do so.  Luckily three of these challenges, the NHS, adult social care and transport infrastructure, are for England only: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland must find their own solutions.

If political parties cannot deliver on the major issues of our time, the people will demand the leadership who can. Without greater responsibility by our politicians, our democracy itself is at risk.  To take a rule from the Rugby World Cup, they must use it or lose it.  

The space age began the space race

On October 4th, 1957, the USSR launched a satellite into Earth orbit as part of International Geophysical Year. Sputnik 1 was not the first man-made object to reach outer space; that feat was accomplished by Wernher von Braun’s V2 rocket in World War II (in 1944 a vertically launched one passed the internationally accepted Kármán Line of 100km, and one launched in 1943 had reached Richard Branson’s redefinition of space as 85km). But Sputnik was the first to attain Earth orbit.

It was a polished sphere 23 inches in diameter, with 4 trailing antennae broadcasting radio pulses. The famous “beep, beep, beep...” could be heard by radio amateurs, and the satellite’s 65-degree inclination meant it could be heard almost in almost every inhabited part of the world. Travelling at 18,000 mph, it took 96.2 minutes to complete each orbit.

The rocket that carried it was derived from an R-7 Semyorka ICBM designed by top space scientist Sergei Korolov, whose very existence was not admitted by the USSR until after his death. Sputnik 1 was surprisingly heavy at 184 lb, but surprisingly primitive, in that 112 lb was its power supply of three silver-zinc batteries. The West gleaned more scientific information from Sputnik 1 than the Russians did, because their tracking technology was more accurate, so they could study the orbital decay in more detail. The satellite burned up on re-entry 3 months later.

American officials had known about the impending launch, but were totally surprised by the public reaction to it. To the American public is seemed like a defeat. They had been beaten into space by what they had thought of as a relatively backward country. The Soviets had not initially thought of milking the launch for propaganda, but when they saw the America reaction they began crowing about their more advanced technology, demonstrating, they said, the superiority of socialism.

Ironically, von Braun had been itching to launch a satellite with his Redstone rocket topped by a revolving cylinder of Sergeant missiles to fire it to orbital velocity. President Eisenhower would not allow it, however, because he wanted space to be a civilian domain, and thought a military rocket ‘inappropriate.’ The USSR had no such qualms. When America’s civilian rocket Vanguard crashed in flames on the pad in December 1957, Eisenhower finally gave the go-ahead to von Braun’s team. They had made preparations in secret, hiding their satellite in a car boot to escape detection. They were thus able to launch Explorer 1 into orbit by the end of January, 8 weeks later. It discovered the van Allen radiation belt almost immediately.

President Kennedy was not going to have America beaten, and issued his famous challenge. If the USSR wanted a race, they could have one. In less than 12 years after Sputnik first went into orbit, Americans were walking on the moon, a feat that it is reckoned contributed to a steep decline in Soviet morale, one that ultimately hastened the USSR’s demise.

There’s an epilogue, in that exactly 47 years after Sputnik achieved orbit on October 4th, 1957, SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X-Prize on October 4th 2004 by becoming the first private, non-government vehicle to go into space twice within 2 weeks with passenger-carrying capability. Sputnik 1 started the space race, but the modern version seems to be not USA versus USSR, but private versus government.

The entirely trivial effect of formula milk on climate change

We’ve much huffing and puffing about the costs of formula milk. That, instead of the human draught kind, creates the emissions that damage the environment when used to feed babies.

Breastfeeding for longer could help save the environment, scientists have said as they reveal Britain’s poor rates cause the equivalent of 77,000 cars worth of damage.

Experts at Imperial College London have for the first time calculated the harm to the planet from infant formula.

They found that, not only does it produce significant amounts of greenhouse gas due to the in creates for dairy cows, but it also depletes water and electricity, as well as producing waste.

Everything has costs as well as benefits. The important question is what’s the balance between them?

The Imperial team calculated that breastfeeding for six months would save up between 95 and 153 KG of carbon dioxide per baby.

Ah, the costs are entirely trivial. Ludicrously minute that is.

The Stern Review told us that the social cost of carbon - the damage it does - is $80 per tonne CO2-e. Bottle feeding a baby for 6 months thus has a cost - tops - to the environment of $12. Against which we can and should set the benefits.

Not all women produce enough milk to feed their baby. Bottle feeding aids in any quick or immediate return to work. Some simply prefer it. That last being the most important point. Our task, as ever, is to maximise human utility over time within the constraints imposed by reality upon us.

Does bottle feeding produce more than $12 of benefits in the eyes of those who do it? Yes, of course, they pay more than that for the formula. Therefore the practice, among those who do it, is adding to the utility and wealth of humanity. Long may it continue.

Further, could we all stop worrying about trivialities here?

Politicians, public servants, and James Buchanan

I knew James Buchanan personally, largely through the Mont Pelerin Society, in which he served a term as President. He was born on October 3rd, 1919, one hundred years ago. He lived to be 93 years old, and changed economic thinking. He was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1986.

He went through university in Tennessee, his home state, by living at home and working on the farm. His war years were spent under Admiral Chester Nimitz in Honolulu, after which he went to do a doctorate at the University of Chicago under Frank Knight, who also taught Milton Friedman and George Stigler. Buchanan had not realized how free market-oriented the economics department there was, but it converted him from being a youthful socialist to becoming a fervent and lifetime advocate of market economics.

He is most famous for the book he co-authored with Gordon Tullock, “The Calculus of Consent,” which introduced Public Choice Theory to the world. Until then, most economists had blithely supposed that politicians and civil servants worked dispassionately for the public good, and could be relied on to bring corrections when needed to instances of market ‘failure,’ or where markets failed to deliver what were thought desirable outcomes.

Not so, showed Buchanan and Tullock. Their research and analysis showed that politicians and bureaucrats behaved like other economic players, seeking to maximize their self-interest. This need not be economic. Politicians might act to increase their chances of re-election or promotion, and bureaucrats might behave so as to increase the size and importance of their department. But the notion of dispassionate, public-spirited behaviour was not supported by the evidence.

The principles that govern behaviour in economic settings also apply in fields such as voting, lobbying or campaigning. People’s first instinct, Buchanan showed, was to make decisions that accorded with their own self-interest. Actions that are alleged to be “in the public interest” usually conceal the self-interest of those advocating them. The claim might be to help others, but the covert reality is in fact to help those making the decisions. Buchanan argued that understanding this fact enabled one to predict the behaviour of voters and politicians.

This rather displaces the pretended idealism of ‘public service,’ and replaces it with a rational self-interest. Most people do not like their alleged motives being undermined by this unforgiving analysis, but it proves a good tool for predicting outcomes. Politicians who advocate low rents for tenants of public housing might claim to favour the interest of those tenants, but in reality they are often bidding for the votes of those tenants in order to augment their own power.

Buchanan’s argument influenced the founding of the Adam Smith Institute. His analysis was largely a critique of the behaviour of legislators and public servants, but we speculated whether there might be a creative counterpart to that critique. Could we devise policies that would flow with the self-interest of politicians and civil servants, instead of being thwarted by them? Could policies by constructed such that their success would help politicians to be re-elected, and public servants to be promoted?

Promoting and proselyting free market ideas is worthwhile, of course. But we thought something else was needed - policies constructed to enable those free market ideas to be applied in practice, and in ways that work to the advantage of the legislators and public servants who might implement them. Building on James Buchanan’s analysis, a new type of think tank opened its doors.

Censorship powers will be used to censor, obviously enough

As the folk wisdom has it, be careful what you wish for because you might get it.

A common enough refrain these days is that people really shouldn’t be allowed to say that. The “that” changes with the person doing the insisting but transphobia by misgendering, climate denial, absolutely anything at all that can be twisted into a definition of racism and so on. Those who use their Twitter, or Facebook, other social media accounts, to do so must be purged from that town square.

To the point that some are insisting that the platforms must be out under strict responsibility to make sure that such things cannot be said on them. Be careful:

Singapore’s new law to combat “fake news” has come into effect despite criticism from tech giants and activists, who labelled the tough rules a “chilling” attempt to stifle dissent.

The law gives government ministers powers to order social media sites to put warnings next to posts authorities deem to be false, and in extreme cases get them taken down.

Once such powers exist then of course government is going to use them. Why do you think people go into government if it’s not to have power over people and society?

And there’s absolutely no certainty whatsoever that those exercising power are going to do so in ways that you like.

Which brings us back to the standard warning about how to maintain a liberal and plural society. Never allow anyone - certainly not government - a power over society that you wouldn’t want your enemy exercising.