Queen’s Speech on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade

My Lords, I find myself in profound disagreement with the Government’s war strategy in Ukraine and, in fact, with almost everything that has been said about Ukraine in this debate. I will try to explain why.

British policy aims for a Russian military defeat, which it will help to bring about by economic sanctions and supplying Ukraine with the necessary means of war. Liz Truss said on 27 April:

“We will keep going further and faster to push Russia out of the whole of Ukraine”.

Simon Jenkins has commented:

“She is clearly revelling in her imagined proxy war on the Russian bear and no one in Whitehall appears able to restrain her.”

I wish her proxy war was only imagined but it is actually happening.

It is an open secret that both France and Germany regard our hawkishness as driving up the price of peace and thus making a ceasefire more elusive. So what is the price of peace? For those whose history lessons begin and end with the Munich agreement of 1938, it is obvious; the price of peace is shameful surrender to the limitless ambitions of an evil and possibly mad dictator. I take a different view. I believe that Putin’s war aims, unlike Hitler’s, are limited and therefore that the fashionable domino theory—that if you give way here, then one after another will fall—is wrong.

I want the war to end before the war aims of our Government are achieved, for two reasons. The first is because the prolongation of the war threatens economic catastrophe. One aspect of that, mass starvation, was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord King, earlier in the debate.

Secondly, there is the consequence of a military disaster. If it happened that Russian conventional forces were actually pushed to defeat, as the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary want, Russia might well counter with tactical nuclear weapons. These have never been deployed; they abolish the distinction between conventional and nuclear war and thus remove a crucial barrier to uncontrolled escalation. To avoid these huge risks, the military position on the ground has to be such—I know this is an uncomfortable thing to say—that both sides can claim some military success. That means that our Government should take a very hard and accurate look at the scale and type of military help we give to Ukraine.

The peace terms discussed in Ankara in late March called for Ukraine’s neutrality, backed by security guarantees and a timeline to address issues such as the status of Donbass and Crimea. The Ukrainians withdrew from them after reports of the massacre at Bucha surfaced on 1 April. This was a horrible war crime, but it does not follow that because a country’s war methods are brutal its ambitions are genocidal or limitless.

Our Government should be urging a resumption of the Ankara process. I believe that a negotiated peace would be possible along lines which safeguard the independence of Ukraine and satisfy some Russian demands. There are three elements. The first is Ukraine’s neutrality for 20 years in return for international, including Russian, guarantees of Ukraine’s territorial borders before the Russian invasion of 24 February. That is, Russia would need to withdraw its troops from the territories that it has conquered after 24 February. Second is UN-supervised elections to determine the future of Donetsk and Luhansk. Third is acceptance of the transfer of Crimea to Russia in return for compensation. No conceivable independent Russian Government will voluntarily give up Ukraine, but Russia must be made to pay for this.

To prepare the ground for this, our Government need to drop talk of bringing the Putin regime to trial as war criminals, and should promise to de-escalate economic sanctions by stages as the peace accord is implemented. As Liddell Hart wisely said:

“Inflict the least possible permanent injury, for the enemy of to-day is … the ally of the future.”

Ukraine: Refugees – House of Lords Questions

Lord Skidelsky:

My Lords, in addition to the help that the Government are giving to Ukrainians to come to this country, will they consider offering humanitarian visas to those brave Russians—members of the clergy, members of civil society, academics, journalists and ordinary citizens—who face long prison sentences for exercising their democratic right to oppose this war?

Baroness Williams of Trafford:

I am very glad that the noble Lord asked that question because, at this point, we all need to stop and remember all of those Russian people who are so against, or do not even know, what is happening in Ukraine. I do not have many details of that, but it is certainly heartbreaking when you see Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine who appear not to know what they are doing and why they are doing it.

For a public sector job guarantee

My Lords, I think I am the only macroeconomist contributing to this debate, which is perhaps rather odd as it is a debate on economic affairs. As instructive and important as the other contributions have been, I want to talk about economic policy, because unless the economy works a lot better than it has in the last 10 years, none of the spending pledges, to be quite honest, will be worth the paper that they are written on, and how well it works will largely depend on economic policy.

The good news is that fiscal policy is back. The gracious Speech said: “My Government will invest in the country’s public services … My Government will prioritise investment in infrastructure and world-leading science research and skills”.

That is good. Governments everywhere have started to inch back to fiscal policy. Retiring ECB chairman, Mario Draghi, admitted that monetary policy “needs help from fiscal policy.”

Evidently the Chancellor agrees. That agreement is indicated by the figures of extra spending that he promises over the next five years. Austerity is over.

Why the turnabout? First is the realisation that monetary policy cannot deliver the required boost to spending. We are told that central banks have run out of ammunition. The truth is that they never had enough ammunition to bring a sick economy back to health. The reason was the liquidity trap: most of the extra money pumped out by central banks simply was not spent on the real economy, it got locked up in financial assets.

Second is the realisation that fiscal policy was pointing the wrong way. There is a lot of myth-making going on here. It is claimed that, thanks to years of austerity, the Chancellor now has the “fiscal space” to boost investment, but the logic of that is all wrong. Trying to balance the budget when the economy was depleted did enormous damage to millions of people; making the economy smaller made the budget more difficult to balance. The result of that has been missed targets, less investment and rising national debt. To say that the nation had to sacrifice itself for 10 years in order to enable the Government to spend more on the health service or infrastructure now is simply terrible fraud. There has been no mea culpa from the perpetrator of that fraud: George Osborne.

The Government promise to increase spending while maintaining the sustainability of the public finances. It is just possible that the Chancellor will meet his much-revised fiscal targets; it really depends what happens to the economy, and most people are expecting a recession. If or when that happens, the Chancellor will have to talk about “headwinds” rather than “headroom”.

Now that fiscal policy is back in fashion, can we do better than the current hit-and-miss strategy? Former Fed chairmen Bernard Bernanke and Janet Yellen have called for more powerful automatic stabilisers. It is a slightly technical phrase but, in this connection, I urge the Government to seriously consider a public sector job guarantee. Its purpose would be to balance fluctuations in private sector employment in a non-discretionary way. The reservoir of public sector jobs would deplete or fill up automatically as the economy waxed or waned. Not only would this be a much more powerful automatic stabiliser than trying to balance the economy by paying out more on unemployment benefits, but it would remove the discretionary element from tax and spending policies that did so much to discredit fiscal policy in the past.

Finally, I am encouraged by the promise in the gracious Speech to give communities more control over how investment is spent, so that they can decide what is best for themselves. John Maynard Keynes long ago emphasised the importance of rightly distributed demand—that is, investment channelled to underheating, not overheating regions. The Government’s pledge to prioritise investment in poorer regions will give communities more control over how money is spent. It would also dovetail neatly into a job guarantee programme.

It would be tragic if the second coming of fiscal policy were to be wrecked on the same inattention to the need for a fiscal constitution as the last one. As Paul Johnson, director of the IFS, recently said: “The trouble is that setting supposedly binding fiscal rules, missing them, abandoning them and replacing them with something new” is not a fiscal constitution, it is back to the bad old days of the political business cycle: we must do better than that this time.

Brexit: Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration

My Lords, I do not want to add to the volume of speculation about what will happen tomorrow or a day or two after. The noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, expressed clearly my position on what should happen: the withdrawal agreement, or an amended successor to it, should be made subject to a vote of confidence, and if the Government lose it there should be a general election. That is the clean and British way but whether it will happen is in the hands of the gods at the moment.

Continue reading “Brexit: Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration”

Speech on the Autumn Statement 2018

My Lords, I welcome the general thrust of the Budget. As the OBR says, it represents the “largest fiscal loosening” since 2010. Noble Lords have suggested that the Chancellor is spending his windfall, but I mistrust the language of “windfalls”. Windfalls are only forecasts of revenue based on forecasts of growth; they are not there under the bed, so to speak, and should be given the credence they deserve—which is very little.

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Brexit: Preparations and Negotiations

My Lords, it is very cold in this spot at the moment. That is a comment not on the Cross Benches but on the fierceness of the air conditioning—but I shall struggle through.

I have heard with increasing incredulity the efforts of noble Lords in this House, some of them my good friends, to reverse the results of the referendum of 2016. It may have been a mistake to hold a referendum on such a complex issue, but, having asked the question and promised to treat the answer as binding, it seems to me inconceivable that responsible politicians can disregard it. This is the answer to the noble Lord, Lord McNally. David Cameron gave repeated assurances that he would respect the result of the referendum, and I do not think we can ignore that.

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Economy: Autumn Budget Statement

7.47 pm

Lord Skidelsky (CB)

My Lords, I will concentrate, as is my wont, on the macroeconomic implications of the Budget. That is not to say that supply-side questions are not important—of course they are. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Maude, that a Government should not be exempt from the efficiency expected of the private sector. However, in general, efficiency is closely related to investment. The more investment there is, the more efficient an economy is likely to be, for the simple reason that there will be much less resistance to cutting costs—which in practice usually means laying off workers—if there are plenty of alternative jobs available.

We have 1.4 million people out of work—“too many”, the Chancellor rightly says. Continue reading “Economy: Autumn Budget Statement”

Economy: Currency Fluctuations

12.55 pm

Lord Skidelsky (CB)

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, for making this debate possible. The most dramatic economic effect of the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote has been the collapse of sterling. Since June, the pound has fallen by about 16% against a basket of currencies. Mervyn King, the former Governor of the Bank of England, has hailed the lower exchange rate as “a welcome change”. Indeed, with Britain’s current account deficit in the order of 7% of GDP—by far the largest since records started—depreciation could be regarded as a boon. But is it? That is the subject of our debate today.

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Universities: Freedom of Speech

Motion to Take Note
1.07 pm
Moved by Baroness Deech

That this House takes note of the protection of freedom of speech in universities.

2.22 pm
Lord Skidelsky (CB): My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, for making possible this debate. I shall draw your Lordships’ attention to two threats to free speech on the campus. In four minutes I have time for only two threats, but I think that they cover most of the ground.

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