Tuesday, 8 December 2015


Here is the text of a letter I've sent to my local MP:

Open the Door to Transparency- -StopTTIP - 15542416215.jpg

Dear Dr Wollaston

I understand that the House of Commons will be debating TTIP on Thursday. I hope you are planning to be there!

I'm sure you are aware of the widespread strength of feeling against TTIP. I share the concerns of many that the secretive deal is primarily designed to serve large, corporate interests. The ISDS provisions are particularly objectionable in this respect. The UK has a tried and tested system of civil litigation, and does not need a rival system to which only large corporations have access.

I want in particular, however, to draw your attention to two aspects of this debate with which you may not be so familiar.

The first has to do with the nature of economic growth. It is generally assumed that all growth is the same - i.e. that so long as GDP rises it doesn't really matter what is causing it to rise, and that since more trade increases GDP it is by definition a good thing.

This, however, is not the case. Although much trade is useful, there is plenty that takes place for no social purpose other than to make a profit for the traders. This profit comes not from "value added" but from the losses or exploitation of others.

For example, the EU case for TTIP makes clear that nearly half the increase in trade that will occur is in cars, with three times as many vehicles being shipped across the Atlantic than at present. The environmental cost of this shipping goes without saying (I hope) but the real question is who will benefit from this increase in trade? If, as the EU claims, the cars are to be cheaper, despite the additional costs of all that shipping, then it follows that workers wages will be lower, probably because more work is outsourced to low wage parts of the world. Cheap American cars are of little use to us if we have lower earnings with which to pay for them. As with so much trade, the main beneficiaries will be the car companies and their shareholders - i.e. the already rich.

The second point has to do with the relative merits of small and big business, which the EU and TTIP treat quite differently. To give you an example - changes last year to the VAT system required all sellers of digital media to pay VAT in the country of sale, rather than the home rate (or no vat at at all if they are below the threshold). This has caused many small UK businesses to stop trading directly into Europe, because the costs of compliance are so high.

These rules were designed entirely with big businesses in mind, and we are now seeing small businesses being obliged to trade via big platforms such as Amazon, as a result of which they surrender a large chunk of their margin. For example, if I sell one of my books via Amazon I get about £4. If I sell direct I get about £8. I do most of my shopping in Totnes, so that is £4 more that could go directly into the Totnes economy rather than into a mega-corporation's profits.

TTIP will continue this trend, since it makes the assumption that GDP going into the pockets of already-wealthy international business and their shareholders is as valuable as GDP going into a local economy, employing local people at reasonable wages. I strongly urge you to look at all these aspects very carefully, and not just focus on the big, partisan debating headlines that surround this subject.

Many thanks, and all best wishes

Martin Whitlock

Photo credit: „Open the Door to Transparency- -StopTTIP - 15542416215“ von greensefa http://www.flickr.com/photos/21733269@N06/15542416215/. Lizenziert unter CC BY 2.0 über Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, 6 December 2015


I recently recorded a short interview with the Network of Wellbeing on why GDP is such a poor measure of economic wellbeing. The occasion was "Buy Nothing Day", the point being that many of the most valuable things in our lives don't come from a shop and don't involve the payment of money. But because GDP only measures money transactions the many unpaid activities that bring value into our lives are excluded from the measure of national prosperity.

It's with slight trepidation, therefore, that I propose a "shopping opportunity" for Christmas, in the form of Human Politics : Human Value at a special Christmas price of £9.99. By buying direct, however, the supply chain, the carbon footprint and the transactional waste is kept to a minimum. And since the book was thought about, researched, written, typeset and printed in the UK, all in all it is a relatively "eco" choice as Christmas presents go!

If you've read it yourself you'll know (I hope!) that it's offers an accessible insight into how the system that we've come to accept as "normal" in the economy is in fact disastrous for human and environmental wellbeing. When it comes to land ownership, trade and big business there are much better ways of organising the economy for our individual and collective good, as the book shows.

But that's not all: the book offers answers to some intriguing questions (How rich really was Mr Darcy?); includes a brief history of architecture (and the money that funds it) from the Sumerians to the Shard; has a chapter that has been described by a reader as "the best short analysis of the geo-politics of the post-war era" that they have ever read; and concludes with a powerful critique of a system of education severely compromised  by inappropriate and overly-narrow testing. In summary: there really is something for everybody not entirely contented with the way in which the human race arranges its affairs at present.

Order the book now at the Mindhenge Books website, for £9.99, with free UK p&p. Alternatively, a Kindle version is available here.

All best wishes for a peaceful and restful holiday season, when the moment comes...

Tuesday, 1 December 2015


As shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn is at the sharp end of the debate fissuring the Labour Party about whether or not to join the bombing campaign in Syria. The case he makes epitomises the grown-up, post-Iraq desire in relation to military action that many MPs of both left and right now espouse, to do the right - i.e. moral - thing. And since there is a moral case both for and against, there is a certain elegance in the proposition that Jeremy Corbyn should open the Labour case on one side of the argument, while Benn closes it on the other.

When going to war, however, with the resolve of killing people for a moral purpose, the default position should be against, so morality insists that the case for is resoundingly made. Mr Benn set out that case on BBC 5 Live this morning (here, about 2 hours 28 minutes in) in the following terms.
  1. There is a civil war in Syria in which millions are displaced. Isil is thriving in the resulting vacuum; 
  2. There is a clear threat from Isil to our citizens, those of other countries and those living in the regions it occupies; 
  3. There has been a unanimous UN resolution urging member state to do something about this; 
  4. Attacks on the beach in Tunisia, in Ankara and Beirut, on the Russian plane in Egypt and most recently in Paris show the nature of this threat; 
  5. The Paris attack could as easily have happened in Britain; 
  6. Britain is already involved in a bombing campaign in Iraq; 
  7. The Kurds say that support from the air makes a difference; 
  8. France has asked Britain to join in; 
  9. Backing off in fear is not the right thing to do; 
  10. Innocents are already dying, and there is no option that does not involve this continuing; 
  11. Isil are responsible for beheadings and crucifixions, throwing gay men off buildings and the sexual enslavement of women. 
Items 1 to 6 are statements of fact. Nobody doubts that the people who bombed Paris will also bomb London if they get the chance. Like Al Qaida, who succeeded spectacularly by dragging the western powers into an unwinnable regional war, Isil is out to cause as much mayhem as it can. The question is, will further bombing in Syria really hinder it in that? Or might it actually help its cause?

In response to that latter point, Benn falls back on points 9 and 10. Bombing Syria may increase the threat level on Britain's streets, but people are dying whatever happens, and backing off in fear is not the right approach.

That is not an argument one way or the other. The fact that people are already dying could support the case for intervention if it was more than likely that the number of deaths would reduce over time. The evidence for this is flimsy at best, and the precedents are not encouraging. Backing off, on the other hand, is generally a good idea if you think you are going to experience more harm than good. Whether you call it fear or pragmatism is a question of language.

The position of the Kurds in all this is unclear. Commentators have pointed out that they are much more interested in securing their own area that in taking on Isil outside it. That the French government should encourage Britain to join the bombing in Syria is understandable but does not strengthen the case. People who have just experienced an appalling tragedy do not always offer the most clear-headed advice.

Which leaves us with point 11. Isil represents a direct, ideological challenge to the humanitarian principles that underpin the western democracies - principles that run through the institutions of global governance that the western democracies were instrumental in creating.

This is also a statement of fact. But as an argument for war it falls into the “something must be done” category that allowed Tony Blair to lead Britain into the war in Iraq. Blair still points to Saddam's many cruelties as the reason why he finds it “hard to apologise for removing” him. Isil's cruelties are far more explicit, deliberately calculated to shock and posted on the internet.

Illiberal social attitudes and cruel punishments, however, do not qualify as a casus belli. Homosexuality may be punishable by death in 10 countries, mostly in the middle east, which Britain is not considering bombing. Nor is it bombing countries (some in Europe) in which women are trafficked into sexual slavery. Beheading and crucifixion exist as forms of capital punishment in a handful of states; indeed, a teenager remains under sentence of crucifixion in Saudi Arabia for participating in a pro-democracy demonstration.

Meanwhile, Assad's barrel bombs are killing far more people indiscriminately than Isil's more focused spectacles will ever do. As for the disparate, western-backed Syrian groups, their objectives beyond getting rid of Assad are unclear but it seems unlikely that secular western issues such as rights of gender and sexual orientation, of even the establishment of democratic rights leading to elections they can lose, are high on the agenda.

Another place, another time-frame. In 25 years Britain moved from Section 28 to gay marriage. Only 200 years ago it still used the pillory - a punishment similar to stoning. History is an erratic process. Attitudes change as societies open up, and as economic, social and educational prosperity spread, but this happens differently in different places. It is legitimate to be appalled by barbaric practices from which ones own society has moved on, but it does not follow that one can bomb others into change.