The Politics of Passport to Pimlico

16 Oct

At the end of the Second World War, Britain underwent a period of fiscal restraint and recovery, often at the behest of the mighty US dollar, the period is often referred to as “Austerity Britain”. George Osborne might have pulled his best jazz singer impression 60 years later and reminded us “ you aint seen austerity yet “..but he didn’t. Austerity Britain in the late 1940s was a confusing and contradictory place to be in.

Having won the war and secured a brave new world, Brits suddenly found themselves queuing for bananas, continuing to live within someone else means, and those means were rather meagre. Just what was the concept of freedom they had suffered and sacrificed for ? Surely not one that imposed limited on sugar ?  Concerns were raised by the British medical Association that the post war austerity diet was less substantial and healthy than the wartime diet.

Against this background, or even creating it, the Government was battling a balance of payments deficit. It seems like another world. When did politicians last blink at trade figures. Before the bond market became the powerhouse of global politics it was the trade deficit.

So against this narrative of Austerity and Trade deficits the British Government pulled and pushed levers at will. Often with little thought of the impacts on the Citizens. Often with great thought on the impact. Some of those decisions sit within the contemporary political culture of 2016. Some don’t. And some such as the NHS fit in 2016 neat version of the politics of post-war Britain. But i digress. The Movies.

Britain still had a Board of Trade and its Minister Stafford Cripps spoke on everything – loofahs,herring barrels and hedging gloves. And films. Britain was heavily dependent on American movies, which cost American dollars. Cripps suggested a 25 per cent tax on American films, after protestation from the Rank group it was finally imposed at 75 percent. Well done Mr Rank. American film exports were embargoed and Rank came to the rescue, making 47 films in 12 months. The tax went away quickly but the films, well some of them lasted. Passport to Pimlico being one.

Over the last few months as urbane Scots and less couture Londoners have tried to fathom a logic to voting en masse to stay in the EU and yet being forced to leave, many random passer-by have shouted “ Passport to Pimlico “. Theres no real connection but its made the film seem relevant again.

Passport to Pimlico is set in the late 1940s. A London town discovers through the accidental explosion of a bomb that they are technically Burgundian. Whitehall realises that this requires some thought, the traders realise they can move in outside the scope of rationing and Government intervention. Theres soon an outcry and a border crossing imposed, the Burgundians are left to their own devices and fight back. Of course so they can negotiate an exit from a position of strength.

And Charles Hawtrey tickles the ivories.

There are a number of political threads in the film. Some of them stronger than others.

Some see the traditional Ealing theme of a group of sensible folk battling the might and potty bureacrats and showing how common sense belongs to them.It is the bureaucrats who seem stuffed suits and 2 steps behind. However the Pimlico residents don’t appreciate the complexity of the trade embargo they get. The border crossing works both ways, perhaps this is similar to Ranks feelings towards Cripps. Cripps gets a light ribbing in the film with signs of “ Forget that Cripps feeling” . The Pimlico residents then fight back, stopping the Tube on its way through. Well show em, cor blimey. Is this how 2 landlocked territories co-exist. Well it’s perhaps a mirror of the Berlin blockade, but in dear old blighty wed hope for something more civil.And we get civility in the face of Whitehall starving them out, the locals ( English not Burgundian ) start to throw food over the fence. Of course it was poor planning on their part that the food got flooded in the first place but anyway. Freedom it seems isn’t all it’s cracked up to be so the Burgundians negotiate to go back to limited nylons in exchange for the security of , well limited nylons. They negotiate a faux Marshall Aid agreement around a loan of the Burgundian assets and away we go. Back to the queues and traditional English rain. One senses England is the true home of these Burgundians rather than Britain.

But what of Austerity ? Passport to Pimlico is surely a pro-austerity film. Not just pro- but actually praise be and thank the english gods for it. While many people saw Austerity as a necessary evil, Passport trades it off as an end in itself. It is our ability to ration, to make good, to be happy under control that they wish for. “ You don’t know your well off until you aren’t “ Austerity is wonderful. So why do distressed Bremainers look to the film ?

Theres no logical support in the film, inevitable Londoners will be left waiting for the rain, running down the meagre supply of nylons and wondering how they can use their capital to get back into a life of drudge. But it was our drudge. Cripps never let Cigarettes be on ration, though the Chancellor advised slower smoking was better for your health. We can laugh at failed health warnings but from 2016 the message of doing what the Government tells you is still accepted.

Charles Hawtrey – Piano- over and out.


David Kynaston A World To Build

Steven Fielding A State of Play : British Politics on screen,stage and page

Tom Sobchak Bakhtins “Carnivelesque” in 1950s British Comedy

Chris Bryant Stafford Cripps

Election Billboards …still hanging on !

28 Sep

Last week Stuff ran an article headed ” Election sign designs fail to excite “. In the article a design lecturer commented ” They are all fine, but there is nothing new ” after looking at signs in Palmerston North. Simplicity seemed to be the message. The Lecturer suggest ( though perhaps not as her as the article leads us to think ) that candidates need to re-think marketing.

Hang on though, these are local body elections. Most candidates will be spending in the hundreds of dollars, if at all. Hoardings don’t win elections, they may make a confirmation or connection. But is that the point ? The 2016 elections have seen local hoardings make a bit of a comeback even if the political effect will be limited. From Vic Crones early and illegal use of them outside the prescribed period, which led to a bizarre exchange about underwear pictures ( not hers I must add )., through to the shocking revelation that marlborough candidates are ignoring safety advice in placing hoardings at intersections. And to think they may be responsible for …well something.

More artistically and without any real logic Invercargill has seen hoax billboards for Harambe, the Gorilla shot in a US Zoo. I love the quote from the Invercargill election officer that ” these were not in accordance with the district plan ” clearly an oversight around signage for dead zoo animals during the prescribed election period. He then went on to say the signs would probably not distract from the real candidate signs. Lets hope the residents of Invercargill aren’t spending too much time searching voting documents for a silverback.

In Auckland there has been a fight between candidates over a phrase used by Manurewa – papkura action team , that they are opposed to 9.9 percent rates increases. Now this isn’t because they dislike 9’s or that they don’t like 9.9 , its unclear if they want more or less ( ok it is clear )

2 Whangerai candidates have been displaying works of art  because they didn’t want to do political billboards. The art looks really neat- whether it will help them who knows.There have also been mock boards for a candidate who isn’t running – make your own joke up there.

Thieves in Auckland stole a trailer of billboards from a candidates house – again insert own joke here, but anything about them returning twice as many the next day is mine. ( The herald used the line Greg Mckeown woke up this morning to find his home had been targeted, which is a really bad attempt at writing a blues song ) .

Thieves were also stealing Tessa Bergers signs , though quite frankly they are awful in terms of political messaging. The real sadness though is that many billboards still create an opportunity for racist graffiti. Though that is not the point. I don’t really care about the message, billboards are art. They are a Gilbert and George esqu art for sure, and not the kind you’d want in your living room. But they are still here, and the local elections allow us to escape the vanilla national ones …long may they continue.

Seldon on Cameron

6 Sep

Cameron at 10, the new paperback edition has a brief update to remind you that having done his best to cling on to power through the coalition, the Scottish and STV referenda and beyond Cameron shot two great big holes in his no doubt expensively shoed feet and has left the building.

Seldon has become the instant go to man for insight and narrative on the inner workings of the Prime Ministership. His work on John Major was almost a lengthy diary comprised on numbers newspaper cuttings and “private information”, his works on Blair more thematic. Seldon comes to like the latter Blair, where as he seems as though he can hardly tolerate Brown and finds Ed Balls ” the puppet master ” Ed Balls the dancer younger readers may not be aware was a politician and friend of Gordon Brown in a former life.

So his approach to Cameron seems , well headmasterly. Seldon seems to have a soft spot for Tories and   posh ones at that. Cameron is seen as failing the big tests, he is a tactician not a strategist. He keeps all the plates spinning when many would like them to crash, until of course they do spectacularly. For Seldon Osborne seems to be the real hero of the book, political,ruthless and yet ever so subservient. One for the price of two seems a constant theme around Cameron / Osborne (Camborne perhaps ?). Seldon doesn’t really make much comment on the levels of fear or poor campaign run by Cameron in both Scotland and Brexit, as with his books on Blair he drops relationship in in a thematic way – read a chapter on Lynton Crosby or Michael Gove rather than interweaving them. At times its disjointing, at others its helpful ( you can skip Gove if you wish – Gove skipping would be a sight and perhaps a tourist attraction).

Im not sure what value Seldons books really bring. Its a combination of Journalism and at times infuriating private information. One imagines for example that conversations between Cameron and John Oliver are attributable to one or the other of them, maybe even both of them! One wonders if the Seldon machine is gearing up to befriend Teresa May, and if they are, for all its faults I will probably read it.


18 Aug

Sean Mahoney reviews Dave Hill’s analysis of the London Mayoral elections and discusses how it looks now through the prism of post-Brexit. Dave Hill, Zac Versus Sadiq: The fight to become London Mayor (Double Q, 2016) 270pp There was a moment in the recent London Mayoral election at which both the main candidates were attending a […]

via Zac Versus Sadiq — HONG KONG REVIEW OF BOOKS

Ministers at War

18 Jul

You may recall when Obama was standing for US President. It became very chic amongst the pop political classes to talk of the ” Team of Rivals”. It was going to be the guidebook for his Presidency. Look the book is around 900 pages so in summary ( as it’s quite hard to read in bed ) it’s about Lincoln trying to keep his rivals in the tent. Now it became something of a buzz phrase. I was slightly worried then that ” Ministers at War” was billed as being a UK version.


Scanner’s book however doesn’t pretend to be quad-guide book, though in some ways it is. Churchill was dealt a fairly tricky hand, Prime Minister without the full consent of his party, taking over from a disastrous Prime Minister and policy that he was partly implicated in, faced with numerous rivals for the post( or at least people who thought they could do it better than he could ).Add to this the ongoing total war and you have a fairly challenging in-tray. It’s never clear that any of his rivals really could have rolled him, Stafford Cripps for all his self-belief would have struggled to contain a Tory parliament, Beaverbrook was a Lord,and Atlee,Beverage and Morrison all had agendas but were unlikely to have challenged him, let alone succeed.

It isn’t then that Churchill was trying to manage his rivals, rather he was trying to placate the rather swollen egos within his Cabinet, and beyond. He did this with varied success. Some were dispatched, others given enough rope and some left to gain momentum. By 1945 many of his rivals found themselves on the winning side.

What is remarkable is that Churchill had to energize the internal politics of the Cabinet at a time of total war. Allegiance was not straight-forward. In politics it never is.

This book does provide something of a guide to the ego massaging successful leaders need to do, and that at times they also need to wield the axe..even if it may be a little blunted. It was a coalition united by a common purpose that he just about managed to keep on the road until 1945. Schneer notes that Churchill’s path to No 10 was not straightforward and could easily have gone against him. I don’t though agree that in falling away in 1945 we ended up with a unified,progressive government ….the 1945 Labour Government was Atlees own team of rivals with even bigger egos and jockeying for position, though that s a minor criticism of this wonderfully readable book.


Eight Juxtapositions

16 Jul


Sean Mahoney reviews China expert Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s latest collection of essays juxtaposing Chinese history and culture with some Western counterparts. Wasserstrom’s book is revealed to be a potentially crucial one for international relations.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Eight Juxtapositions: China Through Imperfect Analogies from Mark Twain to Manchukuo (Penguin, 2016) 94pp.

In 2008 a China–New Zealand Joint Venture called Sanlu was found to have been distributing contaminated infant formula milk. A large number of children developed kidney stones and, tragically, six children died. Milk powder producers went into damage limitation mode. Three of the directors of the joint venture company were swiftly sentenced to death. The New Zealand Prime Minister refused to interfere to avoid creating any disturbance. Paranoid at the risk to New Zealand’s Milk exports, he saw the executions as an internal matter for the Chinese. However, at the same time he was making threatening statements to the tiny Pacific…

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Playboy of the Brexit World

13 Jul

I must get over this , but can’t help feeling Brexit is the British political event that will reset all other recent issues. A massive shake up of a snow globe.

In the play “The Playboy of the Western World”, a man appears in a small Irish town claiming to be on the run after killing his Father. The man , Christy Mahon, becomes an object of fascination and admiration. A clear and strong character. Eventually when his Father, who is clearly not dead, turns up the town turns against him. It seems they are disappointed in him, for not having committed the crime. When Christy then tries to kill his Father ( the first time or second time whose counting)  the villagers then react by trying to lynch Christy. I can’t help finding lots to consider about current British Politics in this play. Mass disappointment and support for actions that seem crazed, upset in those actions that don’t seem as crazed as you were told after all. Embellishment, lies, a desire to have those whose bad behaviours haven’t reached our poor standards punished. It’s all so simple really. We want to be mistreated, on clear black and white lines. When we are not we resent it, how else can you explain the following…

Teresa May is now the Prime Minister of the UK. Only a couple of weeks after the Brexit vote, a campaigner for Remain is now leading the Brexit Government. She was portrayed in some way as a compromise, May the pro-custodial, anti-immigration, hardline rhetorical basher of clerics, now looks like a mainstream response thanks to the wild claims and assumed rubbish rhetoric of our own Christy Mahon – in the shape of Johnson/Farage and Gove.  May appeared in a contest where the rhetoric was clear, 48% lost, 52% won. Those of us not in the 52% can clearly swing into it to maximise our opportunity. May perhaps is Christy Mahon, hoping we don’t reveal her truth when it comes down to it.

The new adventures of the great moving right show. Stuart Halls essay is just as relevant today, in  the era of far right murders of politicians, death threats to immigrants, an opposition that opposes itself. The period of crisis is presented as two versions of nationalism, a social democratic celtic version and a little Englander UKIP version. This is the new version of the great debate , the two versions being irreconcilable form a crisis. Yet the crisis is something more. Those competing versions sit across the main political parties, certainly at Westminster. UKIP takes its leadership from the old Tory elite and its votes from old Labour left behinds. Old Labour left behinds don’t support old Labour style leadership in Corbyn, nor the Blair-lite on offer in the PLP. The Conjectural as Hall and Gramsci might say is the Westminster party system holding together beliefs that run like water over a waterfall. The response it seems , sadly, is another swing to the right. Teresa May is the answer, what on earth was the question.

Sadly the answer doesn’t look like it will involve Corbyn. My sadness is that I anticipated Corbyn vs Leadsom as being like an episode of the good life.I need no further explanation. Those marching Leadsomettes was the oddest thing I have seen for some time.Leadsom brought a fatal blow on herself by the politics of the reproductive system. These are not straight forward times.

I read a couple of passing references post Brexit to the film Passport to Pimlico. An Ealing comedy you will recall.Charles Hawtrey on the old Joanna. The crux of the film is that a post war town in London finds itself actually part of France. It therefore leaves the UK and runs its own anti-austerity state-lette. it’s not Lords of the Flies, and of course what eventuates is a reawakening in the gawd bless the Queen mum style Englishness. Would this be a future of the independent London or Scotland ? Does this prove that Brits are really a breed apart from Europe anyway ? It seems it is a film you can take and place any Brexit political message across. My take for whats its worth is that it’s a pro-austerity propaganda film. You couldn’t take the freedom Charles, you couldn’t take it. Play your piano but with ration coupons.


Maybe Brexit will be the point that British politics couldn’t bend anymore. I don’t know, but the Labour party looks, well fissiparous if I am using big words.The membership and the MPs are further apart than they have ever been. One wonders if any party could survive this. And what will it look like if it does and if it doesn’t. The Bi-patrisan days have gone in every sense except the party governing system . Look busy Teresa Mays coming she doesn’t mind incarceration. Just hope shes Christy Mahon and not the Mayo town he finds himself in.



1 Jul

I have written some rambling thoughts on the campaign before Bristeria and thoughts on the whole UKIP thing ( though somewhat outdated ) UKIP a racist string of sausages..or the milosevic-isation of debate. 

A week ago the future of British politics seemed predictable if not straightforward. This week the dust doesn’t seem to know where to settle. It seems rash to predict much at the moment, though there are plenty of negatives to consider, and it seems very few positives. Negatives not just in those things that are unpalatable, but also those things we know no longer to be true, to exist or to have a future.


Referendums are blunt instruments( yes Referendums not Referenda )

You don’t always get answers to the question you ask. Much is being made of this being about giving the elite a smack in the nose. The anti-elite can’t seriously be represented by Johnson and Farage, so lets assume it is a lumpen anti-elite on top of this high Tory caste. Are they using this as a way of getting an anti-politics message across ? I would wonder if this is too simplistic. David Cameron, who is now going home to straighten his tie, put on his proper suit and sing his national anthem , has used Referendums to avoid the short-comings of his political leadership. 3 times he adopted a negative position of “leave things alone” yet asked the people to decide. The fall out of the Scottish Independence Referendum where people felt they may have been short-changed on the promises, combined with the over zealous campaigning language probably made the EU Referendum a vote too far. He had saved his own skin last time, alas this time he failed.

Calls for a second referendum will only add to the confusion and chaos. At what point do you really decide the people have spoken ? Parliament made a mess of the Referendum by not having thresholds in it, but you can’t restart the process on that basis. To quote John Major the only way forward for a new vote would be after a process of ” negotiate and decide”


Labour is lost

Labour is currently split in a way it hasn’t been since , well since the 1980s which isn’t that long ago. The Parliamentary group had hoped to use this result to exit the unpopular leader. However the party still support him and oddly it is the MP’s and former MP’s starting to look out of touch on this one. The opposition has decided to tear itself apart just when it is needed most. It seems Corbyn will remain Leader, so then what? I heard Jack Straw comparing it to a 1930s Trotskyite plot ! This is not language most voters would understand or warm to. What those MPs will do remains to be seen. They can’t sulk on the back benches forever…can they ?

British Politics is in a state of flux

It seems that for the past 10 years the kaleidoscope has been fractured. From the outside it looks like Britain has struggled to get to grips with its new-found pluralism. Regional assemblies and Parliaments, elected Mayors etc have created a fractured microcosm of political debate. At times it doesn’t fit a national narrative ( Zac Goldsmith anyone Zac Goldsmith and his Pint). At times it does. Mainly though it revolves around Power and a culture of centralisation rather than democracy. I can’t see through the fuzziness as to how a General Election will occur before 2020…but it may only be me. It does seem though that Brexit and its implications have become the agreed norm. The debate, ridiculous as it was ( where is the Budget Osborne promised us ? ), seems over. At least until the negotiations begin.

Don’t ever listen to anyone telling you the 70s were a crisis.

Since 2007 we have had the Global Financial Crisis, the expenses scandal, Browns leaderless Premiership, the coalition, Austerity, the Pasty Tax, Scottish Independence issues, The EU Referendum …and on and on. This is the decade of Ungovernable Britain.I don’t see the next few years receding from this. A Parliament split across a major issue and out of touch with the public, working through the implications of withdrawing from the EU…All we need is for the bin men to go on strike.

2/3 of Migration to the UK is from outside of the EU

Just saying


The Tories leadership crisis is chaotic and clumsy. But they always are. Pick anyone at random and have a look at it, they are always the same. I’m more concerned though that in voting for the EU exit, many of those who did vote because they are suffering from the economic ill wind are going to find themselves lashed to Austerity Mark II. What positives do those left behind get to draw from this ? That they can be heard if a Toff lets them ! Too simplistic I know, but this isn’t the great awakening of the lower working class, it may be the final destruction for many of them as the regions get further decimated.When Teresa May is considered a compromise you know the future is bleak.

It seems odd that only a week after the Referendum, rather than looking at how Britain got into the mess where a Racist murder of an MP occurs, it is instead wondering how sinister Michael Goves wife is !





22 Jun

I find that phrase “Brexit” just a little worrying. After “Grexit” you just knew it would become the new “-Gate” applied often incorrectly to as many situations as possible. Someone somewhere is trying too think of a catchy headline to reflect the removal of David Cameron and xit..ill wait for that zinger.

The Referendum on leaving the EU though has shown what UK politics might look like under Proportional Representation or maybe if the party system hadn’t stopped at 2 and 1/2. We are seeing this in some of the regional elections and it may well continue. The Social Liberal anti EU brigade, the Christian Democrat, The Blairites, The Soft Left,The Lib Dems ( I guess they are still a thing ). The Socialist Nationalists on the Celtic Fringes, the Orange blooded ( and Green ones ) as well. Even UKIP the anti-politics faction has the Welsh lump who are a law unto themselves.

The Referendum may seem entertaining, like a giant its a knock out series. But it’s also confusing. That most binary of solutions , a yes or no vote , being reflected by the most fractured and multi-polared campaign in most people’s memories.


The campaign though, how did it end up like this. Harold Wilson, Ramsey MacDonald and even David Cameron Mark 1, managed to keep their disagreement agreements very narrow. Tariffs,Trade or the voting system. The Conservatives though are falling apart, throwing any and every issue into the mix. Many of them combustible. Its like the mid 90s again. Cameron Mark 2 will probably end earlier than anticipated or limp along. And that Campaign, the master strategist of Conservative campaigns wrote ” concern about immigration remains the leave campaigns strongest suit…” Don’t we know it. Don’t we know it.

Did it all get too much, jousting celebrities on barges on the Thames. I am not sure what this was meant to achieve. They weren’t even famous. In 1975 we had a picture of Richard Briers and Arthur Lowe backing the Yes campaign. The idea was to keep angry anti-politicians from succeeding ( as in Norway in 1972). Just one of many ways this is fundamentally not like 1975.

And how does a Government propose risking a referendum on the issue and then campaign that it might start Wars or ruin the economy to do so.If the issue is so risky why are we even going to have a chance ? It’s not because of democracy , we could be allowed to vote on many things. It was Cameron’s concession to save his 2015 skin, only to lose it in 2016. The Zombie Government of John Major is returning, held to ransom between Osborne and Gove, egged on by Johnson and the ever resilient Farage. He seems to have no Far-Exit plan of his own.


For a brief moment I thought there was something humorous in a Pub chain providing campaign beer mats. Wetherspoons printed 200,000 vote leave beer mats. In fact they printed a second mat. They sell beer and coffee, apparently, and hot meals, oh and “facts” about the EU. The “fact” they are printed on beer mats , something I had forgotten even existed, perhaps tells you that the core demographic for them, is , well is not me.

If only it had stayed at unhinged drinks mats(disposable ones)and meaningless opinion polls. If only this had been about trade, even the NHS discussion was interesting. Watching 2 wings of the Government accuse each other of putting the NHS at risk. How will they ever come back together ( answer easier than we all think …for now ). If only they hadn’t started to claim that entire nations were about to take over your living rooms. Turkey or Iraq or the Moon. It didn’t matter . They were coming. They are not like you. The UK, who have assimilated immigrants remarkably well for ever is now frightened of ancient religions. Though not Protestants it seems. ( Not frightened of them, it seems they are frightened though.) They are taking your job, your way of life,your beer mats, your Boris Johnson. They may even take Field Marshall Guthrie, who apparently defected during the campaign. A very unmilitary thing to do.It took me some time to recall who he was , a bit like Gordon Brown and John Major …does anyone really take note.


And then against a backdrop of hysteria over immigrants and foreigners and Political parties tearing into each other of debates that misunderstand immigrants and refugees a Woman was shot dead. She happened to be an MP who had spoken out in empathy for the plight of refugees. Some will assume no link with this turgid TV spectacle of a campaign and the death. I find it hard not to. When we have had a good 10 years or so of Howard,Kilroy-Silk.Boris and Farage making us hide behind the settee. Farage felt that he was being victimized, its hard to comprehend. His supporters no doubt did so. The murder will never be comprehended without an understanding of the campaign. Was this what UKIPS people’s army was about ?

I have thought before about Farages Toxicity.The Milosovisation of British politics. He’s not gone away, and despite the likelihood of a Remain vote, he is unlikely to. Now we have had a debate at Wembley Arena ( sadly reported as Stadium on New Zealand Radio ) its hard to see where the spectacle of Politics goes.

Even the Queen is joining in. She wants 3 reasons to stay in Europe. Well Ill try your Majesty.

  1. You’re an Unelected Monarch, so you should shut up.
  2. Refer to 1.
  3. And again point 1.

I have never been hugely exorcised by “Europe” I accept it like I accept Local Government. It does not threaten Sovereignty anymore than the Welsh Assembly does. There was always an acceptance that it requires co-operation, that is not a negative. There are bigger and better issues and gains to be made. Leaving would only add to the UKs problems, the Bristeria of a Leave vote would not even satisfy the Tory Right wing. (I can never recall a member of the Government claiming they wouldn’t feel safe on public transport near another Government Minister.) I doubt it would create better environmental politics, social conditions, workers rights or well anything. Yes it is cumbersome and needs reform, but it provides for something more than isolation.


In years to come I wonder what  narrative will be remembered for the 2016 Referendum. Lets hope that the murder of an MP is not forgotten. Lets hope that it is the tipping point for UKIP and divisive politics.



Sugar Sweetened “Beveridges”

9 Jun

I wrote a slightly different version of this paper recently for Massey. I am posting it here as a gateway to a second post I am writing, the left overs so to speak. What fascinates me about this is that the role of Jamie Oliver as policy pioneer creates some interesting issues around our politicians, our celebrities, what gap are Oliver and others filling ? and why one version of socialised neoliberal statist health in the UK is different to the nozickean neoliberal statist health in New Zealand ?…but that’s to follow.

Sugar Sweetened “Beveridges”

“A profound move that will ripple around the world.” – Television Chef Jamie Oliver on the introduction of a “Sugar Tax “in the UK (Horton, 2016)

“There is no simple answer otherwise people would have tried it “Jonathan Coleman, New Zealand Minister of Health on the same “Sugar Tax” (Plumb, 2016)

“ Human behaviour became …a problem to be analysed and resolved “Michael Foucault (Foucault, 1988)

“Until a law is passed to imprison fat people, gluttons of Britain are free to roam our streets and attend special diet classes like this one ..” – Television Comedy Little Britain (Little Britain, 2003)

In March 2016 the United Kingdom’s Conservative Government announced plans for a “Sugar Tax” (a levy raised on the production of soft drinks which contain above a certain level of sugar). This news caught many observers by surprise. How did a right leaning and anti-interventionist Government introduce a tax, which had not been mentioned in their manifesto some 10 months earlier? Within hours of the announcement the New Zealand Government, who share many ideological and organisational similarities with their United Kingdom (UK) counterparts were emphatically ruling it out. So how does this occur? Two Governments with similar worldviews on many policy issues, running health systems that operate within similar limits and constraints. One however has decided on a Sugar Tax, the other won’t even entertain it. What does it say of their comparative health systems? What does it say of their comparative views of regulation, individual choice and the role of the state? And has New Zealand really ruled it out forever?

Health systems the world over have been under increasing pressures from a number of factors. An ageing and growing population, the development of expensive technologies, increasing user expectations and access to knowledge and growing demand with a rise in a number of chronic disease states. How health systems respond to funding, delivering and governing these issues is a contentious and significant political issue. (Blank & Burau, 2014) As demand grows it becomes harder for Governments to fund existing services and operations, and the focus shifts to either raising additional revenue streams (private payment or taxation increases for example), improving service efficiency or rationing service delivery. In many countries combinations of all of these seem to be tried to varying degrees. And yet in many countries these prove challenging to deliver. (Gauld, 2009)There has been a significantly rise in Adult obesity and every region of the world has seen a doubling (at least) in obesity rates between 1980 and 2000. (Blank & Burau, 2014). This contributes to many other life threatening and costly disorders, Cardio-vascular disease rates and Diabetes type 2 for example. The UK and New Zealand have similar rates of adult obesity 23% in the UK compared to 20.9% in New Zealand. The desire to respond and reduce this growing social phenomena especially with the increases in youth obesity rates and the inequitable distribution of obesity amongst those of lower socio-economic status and lower educational achievement sits high on the list of most health systems. (Blank & Burau, 2014).

To the users of the UK and New Zealand health delivery system the systems may look and feel remarkably similar. Both would be defined as “Beveridge “health delivery systems. Beveridge systems are funded through the state and general taxation and result in universal delivery, free, or with minimal cost, at the point of service. The delivery model is often centralised and bureaucratic. (Van der zee & Kroneman, 2007) This is in contrast to so called “Bismarck” systems where the population are mandatory subscribed to an “insurance” premium model which allows them to fund care at a variety of competing providers with less central government control of care models. These systems result in a more pluralistic and devolved delivery of service and provision. The former are found in the UK, New Zealand and also Italy and the Nordic countries while the latter can be found in France, Germany and Japan. In addition to these two models is the third more market based private insurance model found in the USA where coverage is neither universal nor compulsory and care provision is not only competitive but at a cost to the end user. Both New Zealand and the UK have experienced some changes and challenges over the last 30 years which have seen more and more features of free market systems and incentives creep into the system. At heart though they remain Beveridge systems. (Gauld, 2009)As Beveridge systems New Zealand and the UK have similar health care outcomes as well.

Health systems focus much of their interaction with the population through the policy process. When applying policy, particularly in a centralised Beveridge system, there are three potential avenues open to them. Regulatory policies, distributive policies or redistributive policies. Regulatory policies limit people’s available actions and decisions. Distributive policies allocate provision of service to individuals or groups that are considered beneficial but may not materialise without state intervention. Redistributive policies allocate resource from one individual or groups and allocate it to others. (Blank & Burau, 2014)

In a health context regulatory policies might be the restriction or availability of certain pharmaceuticals or vaccine schedules. Distributive policies could include the provision of inpatient hospital services throughout the country even in sparsely populated areas. Redistributive policies may well include those targeted services, for example the free provision of dental care to under 18s is funded through taxation on those over 18.

The imposition of a “Sugar Tax” as advocated during current debates is clearly a regulatory policy. It cuts to the heart of a serious and contentious issue, that of an individual’s rights versus benefits they receive. Am I free to ingest high doses of Sugar, undertake minimal physical activity and then rely on the state to treat my health issues as a consequence of that? Or can the state regulate my behaviours or at least receive some compensatory transfer through taxation? Both New Zealand and the UK have historically had taxes on sugar but these have been pure customs and excise levies and often to provoke consumers not to utilise a healthier choice but to utilise a more economically favoured option (such as the sugar from a Jamaican plantation rather than a Louisiana slave trade supply). (Pinny, 2010) Sugar was first taxed in the UK in 1850 and British Sugars were taxed in New Zealand in the 1860’s, though presumable from British companies not grown in Britain.
Taxing as a way of reducing actions considered socially unacceptable is often referred to as a “Sin Tax”. The imposition of Sin Taxes are double edged, they look to break perceived bad behaviour but also to fund infrastructure to meet growing demand. (Blank & Burau, 2014). Some have even argued that these regulatory policies are nothing more than an additional way to “discipline” those citizens who are behaving unsatisfactorily in their lifestyle choices (Henderson, 2015)This even creates the risk of scapegoating a “fat” underclass being financially punished for their poor choices and requiring corrective action, often when they are the more vulnerable and least able to deal with the issues in hand. (Evans A, 2010)

In October 2015 the UK Government published as part of its childhood obesity programme a long awaited report into the effects of sugar. The report by Public Health England is titled simply “Sugar Reduction: the Evidence for Action” (Public Health England, 2015). The report followed on from an earlier report into the need for action on sugar reduction. It highlighted that 25% of adults, 10% of 4 to 5 year olds and 19% of 10 to 11 year olds were obese. The cost of obesity is claimed to be over 5 billion pounds for the NHS each year. While the report raises a number of concerns, including the role of media marketing to influence behaviour, the need for knowledge for consumers making decisions and the impact of price promotions on sugar intake (an estimated 6% increase in sugar intake was linked to price promotions) it was the sugar tax idea that caught the media attention. (Campbell, 2015). Tax can reduce the consumption of sugar sweets drinks and products. Of the 8 recommendations one was to introduce a price increase of 10 to 20% on high sugar products through a tax or levy. The report also notes that the food and drink industry has been an opponent of these changes in many of the countries they have been introduced, notably France, Finland, Hungary and Denmark. (Public Health England, 2015). Within a short space of time the Prime Minister ruled out such a levy whilst the British Medical Association and Royal Society for Public Health were amongst those favouring the idea. (Campbell, 2015). The perceived hero of the narrative of getting this policy on the agenda, Jamie Oliver, expressed concern that the financial might of the food and drink industry was hampering progress, while the Government insisted, despite raising the fears of campaigners, that they would not make any decisions on a tax until they agreed on a childhood obesity strategy. The timeframe for doing this was unclear. (Jones, 2016) (Griffiths, 2016). Oliver had used a TV documentary “Sugar Rush” to outline the effects of sugar on children, the advantages of a tax and of advertising changes. He even introduced a surcharge on certain drinks in his own restaurants. (Griffiths, 2016). Oliver had previously played the role of hero in another policy narrative, this was around the role of nutrition in school dinners. A similar tactic of documentary, individual action, political pressure and media attention had been used then though the outcome was less clear. (Naik, 2008). Whilst it’s unclear what changed for the Government in the few weeks following as the mid-March budget outlined the introduction of a Sugar Tax and the legislation to enforce it from 2018 has now been presented to Parliament, outlining two bands of levy depending on the rate of Sugar per 100ml, although there is still no sign of the Childhood Obesity Strategy previously thought so central to any tax decisions. (Elliot, 2016)

Whilst there was surprise in the UK, the New Zealand Government was quick to dampen any expectations of a tax or levy on sugared drinks. The Government has a childhood obesity strategy comprising over 20 issues and it did not wish to add a Sugar Tax to them. They were waiting for further research and the Health Minister felt there was no definitive evidence to support the change. The opposition were not clambering to advocate for the change either as they announced they would prefer sales regulations rather than tax. (New Zealand Herald, 2016). This position seems to have left them at odds with many health professionals and advocates. Professor Rod Jackson argued that waiting for definitive evidence would mean no action on most health interventions and that the question should be on balance will this reduce or increase harm? Jackson clearly falls into the reduce camp. (Jackson, 2016). Countering this view was the powerful Grocery lobby who saw the proposal as merely an excise tax and one with no impact on consumer behavior. They were advocating for “nudges” to behavioral health drinks initiatives. (Rich, 2016). Jackson and other academics had in 2014 produced a paper arguing for much of the same landscape as the Public Health England report. It noted that while some local initiatives had taken place encouraging Schools in some areas to replace high sugar drinks, and the lets beat diabetes initiative Counties Manukau ( which saw drink providers replace higher sugared drinks for lower sugared ones in their restaurants) there has been no coordinated approach from Government ( despite being a centralized Beveridge system) (Sunborn, Merriman, Thornley, Metcalf, & R, 2014) The authors recommended a national approach including a tax on Sugar Sweetened Beverages (SSB) and an end date for consumption of SSB in the same way that the smoke free 2025 target has been set for Tobacco eradication.
This emphasis was again followed up by a group of over 70 leading academics and specialists, after the UK announcement, urged the Government to introduce a Sugar Tax as a quicker way of gaining action on childhood obesity. (Plumb, 2016).

But will it work?

The New Zealand Government is reluctant to assess the proposal other than with a long bow. The report published by the Ministry of Health reflects only on the Mexican example and finds that there is insufficient evidence of its impact and that while sugar taxes have a role there are “difficult and detailed design issues” to overcome. (Ministry of Health, 2015). In some ways this also shows a reluctance to be seen as a Government that will increase costs on users of recreational goods. The New Zealand Treasury and Government took a similar view for a number of years on taxation increases on tobacco users. The Treasury were unconvinced that the effects of reducing smoking rates outweighed the economic hardship that would be added to existing users, particularly those who had lower rates of disposable income. (Thomson & Wilson, 2001) Public Health England however had taken a wider view on the evidence and pointed to reduced SSB intake in a variety of Countries that had introduced taxes of some description, including Norway, Finland and Hungary. (Public Health England, 2015) Whilst New Zealand may want to wait for definitive evidence, there are many research studies that show that an increase in the price of SSB will result in lower intake of sugar, improvements in obesity related diseases and cost savings to the state. (Lennert Veerman, Sacks, Antonopoulus, & Martin, 2016). Or as Professor Jackson commented “don’t wait for the unobtainable definitive evidence, act on the best available evidence.” (Jackson, 2016)
Even having taken the bold decision to introduce the tax though the UK Government may still find resistance. Although the Sugary Drinks Portion Cap Rule introduced in New York City in 2012 was not a tax but a regulation its aim was similar, to reduce the negative impacts of sugary drinks, and its resistance was forcefully led by the retail grocery lobby. New York had tried and failed to introduce a Sugar Tax in 2009 and in 2012 the Mayor of New York introduced a ban on large servings of sugary drinks (defined as 25 calories per 8 ounces). The ban also reduced the size of cups in restaurant self-service establishments. (Min, 2014)The ban known as the “Soda Ban” was never fully enacted due to extensive lobbying that led to several legal challenges. The leading Industries in the UK have already signaled a strong intent to pursue legal challenges to the Sugar Tax claiming it is discriminatory. (Evans & Smith, 2016)

The UK health sector is moving into new territory. The Sugar Tax that will start in 2018 will create a number of new challenges and opportunities. It is above all though a clear signal that the Government will respond to childhood obesity in new policy ways which may make a difference. The research study undertaken in Mexico suggested a 12 % decline in SSB and a 17% decline amongst lower socio-economic groups. At the same time non SSB drinks have increased 4%. There is no reason that this kind of impact can’t be made in the UK or New Zealand. (Colchero, Popkin, Rivera, & Ng, 2016). What however does this tell us about the health systems? As Beveridge systems national priorities remain firmly centralized and dictated by Government. In the UK it is of note that the change has come when the Chancellor (Finance Minister) has led the charge and it is not driven purely by the Health Minister. This perhaps reflects the fact that it is a Tax, but also reflects that key [policy in a Beveridge system needs to be owned by the Treasury. This was certainly the case with the Tobacco control policy in New Zealand. (Thomson & Wilson, 2001). There is also a reality that Beveridge systems although similar in outline have some remarkable differences. In the case of New Zealand and the UK this might include provision of service such as dentistry. It also though recognizes the political reality within these two countries. Although the Governments are remarkably similar, the NHS is now reflective of what one commentator observed as “Socialized Neoliberalism” (Gauld, 2009, p. 152). This confirms others views of the agenda pursued by Jamie Oliver, within a neoliberal or capitalist framework there is a well intentioned corrective action agenda- making smarter consumers. (Evans A. , 2010). By framing the debate in terms of the product and production rather than the outcome (Sugar Taxes over Fat Taxes) there is a softening of public perception and acceptability. (Min, 2014) Enabling people to live independently. (Gauld, 2009). Perhaps this is the reason why New Zealand is set against looking at the merits of the Sugar Tax? The National Government came to office campaigning against the “Nanny State” those policies and regulations that it felt were encroaching on people’s freedoms. They have been hyper-sensitive since 2008 to reflect any policy support that was or could be seen as nanny state and it is a criticism thrown, often with little evidence but able to halt action. (Rudman, 2016) . Or maybe it is the reality that Sugar allows the masses an escape from reality? Sugar has been seen as one of the first consumer goods that’s use allowed people to create different versions of themselves (Mintz, 1985)
What we do know though is that the centralized Beveridge system, once the will and momentum becomes apparent, possibly with a more charismatic leadership outside of the political arena, direction and implementation will be forth write and forthcoming.

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