Opinion polls and a United Ireland – 1

Everyone loves an opinion poll on the potential result of a referendum on a united Ireland.  The media has something to report and its commentators have something to comment on. 

Nationalists in particular like them – they are a good fit with Sinn Fein policy of being in favour of a united Ireland while not actually being able to do very much about it.  It keeps the pot simmering with the promise that someday soon it will come to the boil.  Nationalism repeats that there needs to be a conversation about what a united Ireland will be like, as if talking about it brings it closer – giving the impression of doing so – at least to its supporters.

The Dublin Governing parties don’t mind since their policy of sometimes expressing support for a united Ireland tallies with the general view of the Southern population that it would be a nice idea, although without much evidence of it exercising itself to bring it about.  A perfect fit for the Southern establishment and its political representatives.

The British government doesn’t mind because it has said it will do whatever the people want, once again demonstrating its good offices, while it can be confident that it will not be required to do anything very much.

Only Unionists seem not be enamoured with them, even though they should, since they usually show there being no realistic chance of the majority in the North voting for unity in the foreseeable.  This might be a result of their normally dour political outlook in which seventeenth century politics seems by far the most attractive, and among whom some think flying the union flag for Prince Andrew on his birthday is the honourable and righteous thing to do.

Of course, they have an aversion to seeing the little enclave carved out for them being anything other than as British as Finchley, and nobody asks this North London district if it wants to leave the union. They are also concerned that opinion polls may show them winning most of the time, but that they only have to lose the real thing once to have lost definitively, which is progress of a sort, since the last time they lost such a vote they changed the rules to ensure that they couldn’t.

Two opinion polls were reported at the end of last year, one in the North and one in the South, and the issue will become more excited as the results of the March 2021 census in Northern Ireland begin to be published in March this year, although with full results only by next year.

These polls are attractive because they allow for various interpretations.  As we have seen in the vote for Brexit, some on the left still see it as a great idea even if it rallied a reactionary vote around Boris Johnson and split the Labour Party.  If only, they say, the Party had supported Brexit it could have stolen Johnson’s thunder and won over all the pissed-off working class voters available to a progressive sovereignty politics!

Fortunately, opinion polls can rule some claims out, including the idea of Brexit powered by progressive politics, as the Lord Ashcroft poll showed. It demonstrated that it was primarily an English nationalist vote with strong anti-immigrant content that would supposedly have expanded the Labour Party vote by pissing off the 63 per cent of its supporters who voted Remain.  Very convincing, I don’t think.

The Ashcroft poll on Irish Unity reported that ‘The news that Northern Ireland voters would choose to stay in the UK – by a majority of 54% to 46% in my poll, once undecideds are excluded – is a welcome early Christmas gift for unionists. In a similar survey two years ago, I found a wafer-thin margin for Ulster to join the Republic in a united Ireland.’

It then said that ‘My latest research, published today, shows a clear swing back towards remaining in the United Kingdom . . . But as I also found in my survey of over 3,000 voters and focus group discussions throughout the province, it is the nationalists who feel things are heading their way.’

When I first heard this previous poll result, I didn’t believe it to be accurate and in discussion with a colleague in work he didn’t believe it either. It wasn’t consistent with what I knew and with other polling results.  There has also been no political development in the past two years that could explain an increase in support for remaining in the UK or a fall in support for a united Ireland.

The latest poll has recorded that ‘Nearly two thirds (63%) of voters thought that in a border poll tomorrow, Northern Ireland would vote to stay in the UK. However, by 51% to 34% they thought that a referendum in 10 years’ time would produce a majority for joining the Republic in a united Ireland.’

‘While 90% of self-described Unionists thought voters would choose the UK in an immediate border poll, only 64% thought this would be the outcome ten years from now,’ while Nationalists belief that the vote would be for a united Ireland increased from 47% to 91%.

Nationalists overwhelmingly (93%) expected Northern Ireland to be out of the UK within 20 years, two thirds (67%) of unionists thought they would still be part of the Union at that stage. However, fewer than half (47%) of unionists thought the status quo would still prevail in 50 years; 23% said they thought Ulster would have left by then, and 30% said they didn’t know.

This reflects a certain pessimism of unionists, consistent with their reactionary and generally paranoid politics where ‘Lundies’ and traitors are a constant threat, but also reflects for some a nagging unspoken acknowledgement of the illegitimacy of their position, which doesn’t however extend to shifting from it.  I recall my not very political late Aunt from the Shankill Road in Belfast saying that there would be a united Ireland, but not in her lifetime.  That, it appears, continues to be another largely unacknowledged view.

Whether the pessimism of unionism collapses into resignation and the optimism of nationalism becomes a spur to action is yet to be determined.

to be continued

Goodbye Covid-19?

Common Cold Can Protect Against Infection by COVID-19 Virus

Professor Tim Colbourn of University College London was quoted in the ‘Financial Times’ (on 4 Jan) that it was “entirely reasonable to think that the burden of Covid can be reduced by 95 per cent in 2022, so that it’s no longer a top 10 health problem.  That would be a reasonable goal to end the pandemic.”

The article notes that ‘some experts view Omicron itself as a pointer to future evolution of the Sars-Cov-2 virus, as natural selection favours mutations that pass quickly and efficiently between people who already have some immune protection . . . These conclusions are supported by epidemiological evidence that the risk of severe disease is reduced by half or more with Omicron.’

The Director of the Wellcome Medical foundation, Jeremy Farrar, is quoted as saying that he was reassured at the prospect of Omicron taking over from Delta and that “I’d be more worried if you had different variants circulating at the same time.” 

The article states that ‘another variant of the virus is a certainty and that while individual changes in the genetic code are random the environmental pressures that allow some to thrive are not.  This favours variants that transmit quickly while evading immune response but mutations that make the virus more lethal are unlikely to make it fitter and may even be a handicap.’

Jennifer Rohn, a cell biologist and UCL professor, said that “although you can imagine a deadly new variant emerging that’s more harmful . . . I don’t know how feasible that would be for this virus.  Sars-Cov-2 depends on infecting cells and it may already be close to the limits of its repertoire.”

The article notes that the view that the virus will become milder is ‘a matter of debate among scientists’, but quotes another professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, Paul Hunter, that he is convinced this is true of coronaviruses.  “Sars-Cov-2 will continue to throw up new variants forever but our cellular immunity will build up protection against severe disease every time we’re infected. In the end we’ll stop worrying about it.”

Jeremy Farrar notes that there is a small risk of an evolutionary jump – “something out of left field that does not come from existing lineages”, the article states that ‘most experts regard it as extremely unlikely. “I’m much more scared of another pandemic caused by a new virus that we don’t yet know about than by some variant of Sars-Cov-2” says Tim Colbourn.

Since much of the left has taken a doomsday view of Covid-19 this is perhaps not good news for their perspectives.  How they can continue to argue for a zero-Covid policy – the article quotes a forecast of 3bn infections world-wide over the next two months – is a terrain I don’t really want to explore.  With perspective not far from the fictitious character Private Frazer of ‘Dad’s Army’, perhaps they will cling to a dialectical understanding of the non-linear revolutionary genetic leap that will confirm their pessimism.

They will not, in addition, be enamoured with the views of the former chairman of the UK’s vaccine taskforce, Dr. Clive Dix, who has said ‘Covid should be treated as an endemic virus similar to flu, and ministers should end mass-vaccination after the booster campaign.’

He effectively repeats the views of Dr. Gerald Barry in Dublin quoted in the previous post in calling ‘for a major rethink of the UK’s Covid strategy, in effect reversing the approach of the past two years and returning to a “new normality”.

“We need to analyse whether we use the current booster campaign to ensure the vulnerable are protected, if this is seen to be necessary,” he said. “Mass population-based vaccination in the UK should now end.”

The Guardian’ article goes on to report him saying that ministers should urgently back research into Covid immunity beyond antibodies to include B-cells and T-cells (white blood cells). This could help create vaccines for vulnerable people specific to Covid variants . . .  adding: “We now need to manage disease, not virus spread. So stopping progression to severe disease in vulnerable groups is the future objective.”’

The article quotes Professor Eleanor Riley, professor of immunology and infectious disease at the University of Edinburgh, saying: “Everything depends on whether another variant comes up.  A fourth dose or second booster of the existing vaccine probably isn’t going to achieve very much. The evidence is that immunity against severe disease is much longer lasting. The only justification for doing a second booster for the majority of the population would be if we saw clear evidence of people, five or six months after their booster, ending up in hospital with severe Covid.”

Most people will welcome these views, if only because it’s what they want to hear, as they are tired of lockdown and fed up with the restrictions on their lives.  One danger of pretending everyone has been equally in danger from Covid-19 was always that the vulnerable would be overlooked.  A continuing blanket assertion that we are all still threatened, including children, is worse than useless.

The left’s zero-Covid strategy has nowhere to go, except to expose its exponents as wild catastrophists whose ultra-left politics is exposed once again; supporting longer restrictions for which more and more people can see little justification.  Believing that socialist revolution can only arise out of crisis, they wrongly assume that every crisis requires revolutionary methods.  They do so in pursuit of relevance and sign of their revolutionary purity.  That social crisis has not shown itself conducive to working class politics was the subject of some of the earliest posts on this blog.

A continued forlorn and regressive campaign for zero-Covid will ignore the real issues that are arising, and will have to argue that individual, very basic, freedoms and civil rights should continue to be suppressed by the state.

The issues arising include other costs of lockdown, which will affect working people, and the young especially, for decades.  A left that wants this lockdown extended and deepened has no credibility in responding to these problems.

These costs include financial, health and educational losses.  Calls by the left for the government to pay for workers not to work exhibit all the ignorance often called out by conservatives and reactionaries.  Those workers genuinely at risk or sick must be fully protected but this requires that the rest of the working class actually continues to work.  Real mass lockdown of society is impossible.  Pretending that only ‘essential’ workers should continue to work divides the working class perniciously and reveals levels of ignorance about a division of labour under capitalism that makes the vast majority ‘essential’.

As for asking the government to pay, this reveals incredible confusion at multiple levels – illusions in the capitalist state; illusions in the power of money without workers producing goods and services to buy with this money; the effects of inflation on workers’ living standards in simply handing out money, and the fact that governments don’t pay for anything – they tax or borrow and pay back the latter with the former, unless of course they print money, but then see previous comment.

If any of what this left claimed was true for any length of time, the ‘property question’ which Marx said was key would not be the ‘leading question’ in socialist politics.

More immediately, socialists should support workers being back in the workplace, in order to strengthen their feelings of shared identity, interests, solidarity and organisation.  Concern about health and safety should be dealt with collectively, which is much easier to do if you actually work closely together.

The Health Service has failed – see this earlier post – but to say so is almost to be damned as impugning the staff who work in it, some of whom have made real sacrifices during the pandemic.  Unfortunately, the politicians and bureaucrats who have been responsible for the incapacity of health services to carry out their role have cynically hid behind them, substituting rhetoric about heroes and rituals of hand-clapping for an effective service.

The British left is especially bought into illusions in the NHS, which is a health bureaucracy that was exposed from the start as incapable of protecting even its own staff.  The overwork of many staff is testament to its essential nature as a medical bureaucratic creature of the state, which for socialists is first and foremost a capitalist state with operations, functions and direction determined by the requirements of its class character.

Much of the Irish left wants an Irish NHS, because health care in the South is two tier, in complete ignorance of the fact that the failure of the NHS in the North means that health care there is more and more two tier as well.

Health provision in the pandemic has undergone a real crisis, with services closed down or restricted, waiting lists increased and diagnoses not carried out.  Just like an economic crisis, no crisis goes to waste as far as those in power are concerned.  Simply defending the existing service and believing that more money is the answer is an illusion.

So, to answer the question – Covid-19 will only go away if a zero-Covid policy was possible and was implemented.  It isn’t possible so it isn’t going to happen.  Instead Covid-19 and the mistaken reaction to it will leave in its wake multiple problems.  We need to understand the reason for this mistaken reaction and what the correct approach now is to the current and future evolution of the disease.

Back to part 2

‘Lockdowns . . . a failure of public health policy.’

Coronavirus: 133 patients in intensive care as pressure on hospitals builds

When University College Dublin virologist Dr Gerald Barry was interviewed by ‘The Irish Times’ and asked ­– why have we so many cases when we’re so highly boosted? – he said ‘Even asking the question points to the root of our problem in Ireland and in many parts of the world, we are using a tool that isn’t designed to stop infections and then wondering why it didn’t stop infections.’

‘I would strongly advocate for a complete reassessment of everything we have done to this point, identify everything else that could be done that would help, knock off everything that isn’t feasible or is unaffordable and do everything else.’

So we have failed? – ‘The problem with a “do more” strategy is that some countries that have demonstrably done less to curb the spread of infection, such as England, seem to be doing better overall.’

Just such a reassessment was recently reported in ‘The Guardian’ from Professor Mark Woolhouse, ‘one of the country’s leading epidemiologists’, who has written a forthcoming book, ‘The Year the World Went Mad: A Scientific Memoir’.  Lockdown, he says, ‘was a lazy solution to a novel coronavirus epidemic, as well as a hugely damaging one”.

The day Britain went mad is reported as when ‘the No 10 briefing in March 2020, cabinet minister Michael Gove warned the virus did not discriminate. “Everyone is at risk,” he announced.’  To which Woodhouse responds: “I am afraid Gove’s statement was simply not true. In fact, this is a very discriminatory virus. Some people are much more at risk from it than others. People over 75 are an astonishing 10,000 times more at risk than those who are under 15.”

 “We did serious harm to our children and young adults who were robbed of their education, jobs and normal existence, as well as suffering damage to their future prospects, while they were left to inherit a record-breaking mountain of public debt.  All this to protect the NHS from a disease that is a far, far greater threat to the elderly, frail and infirm than to the young and healthy.”

“We were mesmerised by the once-in-a-century scale of the emergency and succeeded only in making a crisis even worse. In short, we panicked. This was an epidemic crying out for a precision public health approach and it got the opposite.”

That Covid-19 is a disease that discriminates is a point made often on this blog and by others, which should have signaled that a blanket approach wasn’t warranted.  A recent paper analysing this has recently been published, which shows the disparity in effect by age, despite the difficulties in measurement. 

It records that in ‘Twenty-five seroprevalence surveys representing 14 countries were included . . . the median IFR [Infection Fatality Rate] in community-dwelling elderly and elderly overall was 2.9% (range 0.2%-6.9%) and 4.9% (range 0.2%-16.8%) . . . IFR was higher with larger proportions of people >85 years. Younger age strata had low IFR values (median 0.0013%, 0.0088%, 0.021%, 0.042%, 0.14%, and 0.65%, at 0-19, 20-29, 30-39, 40-49, 50-59, and 60-69 years . . .’

These IFRs have been calculated using data from 2020 and are therefore before widespread vaccination, at least in richer countries and before the less virulent Omicron variant.  We can therefore expect these numbers to have fallen not only due to vaccination but also better hospital treatment as lessons began to be learned about ventilation etc.  The paper notes that ‘absolute risk values still have substantial uncertainty’ and mentions the low number of elderly in the studies examined by the paper, but which might also reflect uncertainty about the total number of infections and number of deaths actually caused by Covid as opposed to deaths of people with Covid.

The link here to IFRs for various diseases shows that for the younger age groups Covid-19 is far down the list.  According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control here Influenza (over all ages) appears more severe than Covid-19 for those aged below 30 although this also depends on the virus, host issues, and other factors.

The paper also notes that ‘besides age, comorbidities and lower functional status markedly affects COVID-19 death risk. Particularly elderly nursing home residents accounted for 30-70% of COVID-19 deaths in high-income countries in the first wave, despite comprising <1% of the population. IFR in nursing home residents has been estimated to be as high as 25%.’

Professor Woolhouse argues in ‘The Guardian‘ article that:

‘the country should have put far more effort into protecting the vulnerable. Well over 30,000 people died of Covid-19 in Britain’s care homes. On average, each home got an extra £250,000 from the government to protect against the virus . . .  “Much more should have been spent on providing protection for care homes,”

He ‘castigates the government for offering nothing more than a letter telling those shielding elderly parents and other vulnerable individuals in their own homes to take precautions,’ something this bloggers’ wife found particularly galling as medical personalities and politicians congratulated themselves and were congratulated by others for efforts on her and others’ behalf which consisted of nothing much more than a letter.

As ‘The Guardian’ goes on in reporting Woodhouse’s views ­– ‘The nation could have spent several thousand pounds per household on provision of routine testing and in helping to implement Covid-safe measures for those shielding others and that would still have amounted to a small fraction of the £300bn we eventually spent on our pandemic response, he argues. Indeed, Woolhouse is particularly disdainful of the neglect of “shielders”, such as care home workers and informal carers. “These people stood between the vulnerable and the virus but, for most of 2020, they got minimal recognition and received no help.”

The British Government, according to Woodhouse, thus “lacked a convincing plan for adequately protecting the more vulnerable members of society, the elderly and those who are immuno-compromised.”  

“Lockdowns aren’t a public health policy. They signify a failure of public health policy.”

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

Hello Omicron

Omicron puts scientists on red alert

Back in December the Deputy First Minister warned that Omicron will hit Northern Ireland “like a ton of bricks”.  “Once again we find ourselves dealing with what potentially is going to be the worst time through the whole of the pandemic,” she added. ‘We are continuing to work around the clock with public health officials to understand the impact because there are things that we currently know, but there are also things that we do not know.’ 

The Chief Medical Officer for Northern Ireland said that he was ‘more concerned than at any previous point in the pandemic’. The Chief Scientific Advisor said that it was inevitable that cases would double every couple of days.

In Dublin the Health Minister said that ‘the reality is the situation is very stark.’  Asked about the comment of the English Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, that hospitalisations will be as bad if not worse  than last winter, he said ‘we could well see that, yes.’  Leo Varadkar warned that the situation was ‘beyond our worst feras’

Mike Ryan of the World Health Organisation has said that Omicron will ‘fill the hospitals up, we will fill the ICUs up.’ Similar warnings were made by politicians and health authorities across the world.

A month later the tone has changed. The Ministry for Health in Northern Ireland has admitted Omicron has not been the threat anticipated, now acknowledged in the South as well.  Learning to live with Covid has been accorded greater weight alongside recognition that lockdowns cannot continue forever. There are now more prominent questions about exactly what the threat from Covid-19 is, and just how many in hospital have been admitted with Covid or for something else but just happen to also be infected.  

At the end of last week it was reported that 44 per cent of those in hospital In the Irish State were diagnosed with Covid only after being admitted, some of whom will not have been admitted due to its effects. While nearly 1,000 Covid related patients are in hospital with the infection almost 500 patients are awaiting discharge from hospital but have nowhere to go, filling beds and potentially posing a risk of further infection.

The need for adequate social services is a longer story than ‘War and Peace’ and as unfinished as most people’s efforts at ‘Ulysses’.  The health service bureaucracy complains that services are under threat from Covid but the real problem is its own failings, in capacity and organisation.  In the South there was much dismay at news that five times more senior managers were recruited in the second quarter of last year than medical staff.

These senior managers complain about staff absences due to Covid but many of these staff are not actually sick but following the isolation rules recommended by them.  And this is not the only part of their lockdown strategy which is worse than useless and is falling apart.  Useless, because testing results take so long when people are most infectious in the first few days.  Useless because many people have been unable to get tests when they want, Useless because to be effective tests would have to be carried out continuously in a way that cannot be performed.  At €200 per PCR test it is an expensive waste.  Falling apart because testing cannot meet demand so it is not even a reliable indicator of extent of infection. It has been estimated that between 300,000 and 500,000 infections went unrecorded last week, up to about 10 per cent of the population. In what possible way could testing act as any sort of measure of control? 

The argument between the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) and Government about whether hospitality should close at 5pm or 8pm now looks laughably pointless, while widespread use of derogations calls into question the whole policy as does reduced periods required in isolation.  At the end of the first week in January there were fewer people in ICU than before Christmas. What is happening is that lots of people are now getting natural immunity.

Even in December it was still clear that infection was primarily an issue for elderly people and especially those unvaccinated.  In mid-December it was reported that 68 per cent of deaths related to Covid in the previous week were among those with an underlying condition and two-thirds were among those aged 65 or older.  This age group accounted for 50 per cent of hospitalisations while the unvaccinated accounted for 45 per cent of patients in ICU.  The unvaccinated were more likely to be in hospital and had a higher death rate. The majority in ICU over the last month have had the Delta and not Omicron variant.

When warnings were first made about the new Omicron variant it was stated by the CMO in England, Chris Whitty, that ‘there are several things we don’t know [about Omicron] but all things that we do know are bad’, which wasn’t true.  The administration in the North and Government in the South took their cue from these warnings.

When the Taoiseach Micheál Martin warned that the projections by NPHET were ‘sobering’, one journalist noted that ‘nobody pointed out that NPHET’s projections have frequently been almost drunkenly inaccurate.’  He admitted that this might not matter given the large numbers involved but this brings us back to Whitty’s remark about all the things known about Omicron were bad.

It was widely argued that the danger of hospitalisation, requirement for ICU, and death – let’s call each of these ‘ Z’ – were all a function of cases, let us call this ‘X’.  The severity of the Omicron variant was known from South Africa to be significantly milder but when the sheer number of cases was taken into account a milder variant with a lower severity – let’s call this level of severity ‘Y’, meant that a much bigger X multiplied by a lower Y still meant a very large Z, i.e. large number of hospitalisations etc.  All making perfect sense in algebraic terms but pretty meaningless in real terms.

If the severity of infection was lower there could be no assumption that a higher number of infections with a mild disease would be a calamity rather than a lot of people suffering a mild infection; but as we see, Whitty and those following simply assumed that a higher number of cases would almost inevitably bring a higher number of hospitalisations, requirement for ICU, and deaths.

Given the much increased transmissibility of Omicron and large numbers forecast it is hardly justified to believe that any general lockdown was going to work, an inadequate testing regime would be relevant, and that a strategy bases on protecting everyone could possibly work.  A policy of focused protection of those known to be most vulnerable is the only one to make sense but hostility to this, in the form of the ‘Great Barrington Declaration’, has been widespread for a long time and defaulting to it would have opened up those responsible for the existing approach to questions.

The reason not to do so, as at the start of the pandemic, was the claim that with so much uncertainty about the new virus the precautionary principle was required: assume the worst and prepare for it while perhaps hoping for the best.  Unfortunately, this explanation doesn’t convince.

If it must be assumed millions would be infected then it should have been obvious that generalised lockdown could not work, even more obvious now with Omicron.  The precautionary principle would require that an optimistic view of its efficacy could not be assumed.  The precautionary principle would also mandate a serious analysis of the prospective harm caused by generalised lockdown and I’ve yet to see any.

Relevant also is the fact that right from the start of the pandemic it was not a question of complete uncertainty – some things were known and should have been acted upon but were effectively ignored.  This was that the real threat to the population was highly correlated with age, with the more elderly suffering a risk multiple times greater than of younger people, which would point to a focused strategy of protection.

Instead of precaution, the real reason was the assumption that the health system could not cope with a sudden increase in cases but, since these were overwhelmingly those at risk, this too was no answer to those advancing the argument of an alternative approach.

Forward to part 2

‘From Empire to Europe’, and then where?

‘From Empire to Europe: The Decline and Revival of British Industry since the Second World War, Geoffrey Owen, Harper Collins, 2000.

This is another book I read last year: a history that more than most has contemporary relevance.  It charts the story of British manufacturing from the end of the Second World War to the end of the century.  The majority consists of ten chapters on the experience of separate industries, from textiles and steel to cars and pharmaceuticals.  Not all are stories of failure.

Two early chapters present the historical background and four at the end review differing explanations for Britain’s relative decline.

The book was first published in 1999 and screams ‘BREXIT’ – as a history of the future of Britain outside the EU, or so it might too easily be concluded.  In fact, given the relative starting positions of Britain and the rest of Europe, then and now, the mistake of standing outside of the rest the continent now looks more obviously stupid and will more quickly be seen to be so.  If it isn’t already.

After the war ended it was expected that in due course Germany would resume its pre-war role of supplying Europe with manufactures; Britain could concentrate on the rest of the world with which it already traded.  The Labour Government decided against joining the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and ceding sovereignty over its two most important industries, while the left of the Labour Party complained of the economic liberalism on the Continent it said led to social injustice.  Foreign  Secretary, Ernest Bevin, insisted that Britain was ‘not just another European country.’  Some economists at the Board of Trade favoured membership of the ECSC on the grounds of exposure to European competition, but this was a minority view.

The Tory Government from 1951 broadly followed its predecessor, rejecting a second opportunity to join the ECSC or taking part in negotiations to create the Common Market.  European integration was, in the words of another author quoted, ‘at best irrelevant to Britain’s economic self-interest and at worst a political nuisance which had to be tolerated, if only in public, because of the Americans.’

Again and again, Owen records the effect of being outside the European market.  In textiles small and medium-sized firms from Italy and Germany benefited ‘to a far greater extent than the British industry from the expansion of intra-European trade in the 1950s and 1960s . . . where the long-standing bias towards non-European export markets proved to be a serious disadvantage’ (p57)

When eventually Britain did join the Common Market, it found that its European competitors ‘instead of scale and standardisation . . . had put more emphasis on design and technical innovation . . . imports from the Continent rose sharply in the second half of the 1970s, and the British textile industry, having neglected European markets in the 1950s and 1960s, was not well equipped to respond.’ (p77)

In shipbuilding ‘the export trade was regarded as marginal and unpredictable’ and ‘a marketing strategy geared to the requirements of domestic owners was becoming obsolete’. (p97 & 100). In steel, ‘traditionally the most nationalistic of all major industries . . .  European steel-makers needed a market as large and competitive as that of the US’, and ‘while recognising that the smaller domestic market-imposed limits on how far British steel-makers could go in the American direction . . .’ there were barriers to this being achieved within Britain.

On the other hand, while ‘there was a long tradition of price-fixing in French steel, and the industry had bee oriented almost entirely to the domestic market the effect of the European Coal and Steel Community (which was opposed by most French steel makers) was to break down the parochialism of the industry and force it to plan for a wider European market.’ (p 148, 127 & 130).

In the paper industry, joining the Common Market ‘would have exposed it ‘at an earlier stage to competition in a large dynamic market; ‘modernisation and rationalisation which occurred in the 1980s and 1990s might have occurred earlier’ and it would ‘have provided export opportunities’ which might also ‘have started earlier.’ (p170)

In relation to the engineering industry Owen writes that, after the war, ‘when the continental economies were in disarray and the need for hard currency was urgent’, when standing aside might been seen as explicable, ‘the neglect of Continental Europe . . . after its recovery in the 1950s . . . was to prove a serious error.’ Seemingly strongly placed in the early 1960s, low economic growth and lack of involvement in intra-European trade meant that ‘an increasing number of British manufacturers were falling behind their Continental counterparts in the scale of their production.’   The failure to Europeanise in the 10–15 years after the war meant that for many firms it was too late when they did.

A similar experience les behind the decline of the British motor industry: ‘the decline of Leyland has to be seen as an avoidable disaster, largely attributable to the failure to Europeanise the business in the 1950s and 1960s.’ (p249). The ‘low priority’ given by British firms to Continental Europe meant that they did not join ‘homogenous, fast-expanding and highly competitive mass market enabled companies such as Renault, Volkswagen and Fiat to narrow the productivity gap with American manufactures . . .’ (p250)

Owen points out that European industry was itself not always successful and notes its failure in computers and semiconductors.  Of the former he says that ‘European industry might have done better if governments, instead of nurturing and protecting national champions, had concentrated on widening the market for computers . . . As it was, nationalistic, producer-oriented policies, discriminating in favour of chosen domestic suppliers, exacerbated Europe’s most serious weakness vis-à-vis the US, the small size of the market.’ (p270)

Owen makes clear that lack of orientation to a European market was sometimes a mistake not just made by the British, and that failure was not simply a result of lack of access to that market.  Other strategic mistakes were made. Half a century later it would therefore be an identical mistake to see market restrictions only on a continental scale as the problem, when many industries now have global markets and global production.

So, Renault is partnered with Nissan and Mitsubishi; Volkswagen includes Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, Porsche, SEAT, Škoda plus others and has an alliance with Ford, while Fiat is now part of Stellantis, which includes Chrysler, Jeep, Peugeot, and Citroën.  Britain has a small luxury car market with volume production owned by foreign companies.

Owen tells a similar story about chemicals, noting however that the success of ICI by the end of the period covered was despite the factors that harmed the development of British companies in other industries.

Others were also successful, such as pharmaceuticals, which Owen says was due, among other things, to its ‘openness to foreign investment.’ (p372). This ensured that ‘British-owned firms were forced to compete against the world leaders and learn from them.’ (p387)

In the last chapters he looks at common explanations for the decline of British industry after the war, including the nature and dominance of the financial system; the quality of training, education and culture; poor industrial relations, and Government policy.

On the first, he says that ‘the financial system on its own does not have a decisive influence on which countries succeed in particular industries, although it may play a supporting role.’ (p403).  He does not believe culture or education factors were decisive either, and although he notes that ‘there is no doubt that some British companies were badly managed in the 1950s and 1960s . . . there was significant improvement in the 1980s and 1990s.’ (p 422)

On Government policy ‘the decision to opt out of European integration was the biggest missed opportunity of the 1945–60 period, more important than any mistakes in macro-economic policy.  Indeed, it is hard to argue that Britain suffered from uniquely incompetent macro-economic management during these years.’  (p 450) Britain became a member of the EEC ‘fifteen years too late.’  He concludes on an optimistic note, telling us that ‘by the end of the 1990s Britain had found a role for itself as a medium-sized industrial nation, well integrated into the world market.’  (p 461)

Everyone loves a happy ending so maybe it’s as well the book hasn’t had another edition.  The ‘unique incompetence’ of British Government economic policy that didn’t exist after the war looks as if it has arrived.  But not only the government, the informed commentariat look as if they think this policy should persist, or, more charitably, be persevered with.

In today’s ‘Financial Times’ (6 January) Robert Shrimsley records the view that ‘Tories are wondering what happened to the Brexit they promised’, as if they got ‘the house red’ rather than the ‘vintage claret’.  He recommends that ‘whether one sees Brexit as fabulous or foolhardy, it is absurd not to take the wins that are available.’   

Unfortunately, the wins he seems to champion do not seem to be up to very much and also have downsides. His recommendation, therefore, is to continue better with a failed policy that will do nothing much more than deliver failure.  He, like Kier Starmer – the so-called leader of the opposition – can no more think of going back into the EU than Tory Eurosceptics could previously stop dreaming of leaving it.

The book tells a sorry tale of British failure to appreciate where the world was going and what its place in this changing world was to be.  It has happened again with Brexit.  Deciding to persevere is what’s called déjà vu all over again.