The Plight of the British High Street

A walk through my local High Street tells an all too familiar tale. Nationwide there are hoards of empty units, boarded up shops and ‘To Let’ signs throughout areas that not too long ago were bustling retail parades, bursting with shoppers all too willing to part with their hard-earned cash in exchange for items they didn’t need and a feeling of satisfaction with having ‘made something’ of their lives. This has now gone. High Streets are now the domain of businesses with nowhere else to go. Post-Offices, Banks, Estate Agents, Chemists and Newsagents are still there but there are some new kids on the block. Poundshops, Gold Exchangers, Second-Hand buyers and sellers are nestled in between the ever-expanding franchised fast-food outlets and the odd independently owned, overpriced boutique, selling worthless tat to people with more money than sense (or taste).

It’s very easy to put this down to the current financial hardship being felt by almost everyone not a professional footballer or hedge-fund manager but I think this is a much deeper shift in attitudes toward shopping and town centres. It is true that the global economic downturn has put extra pressure on small High Street shops but the emigration of major retailers to ‘out-of-town’ aircraft hangers in retail parks on motorway junctions is not new, I remember them starting in the eighties. Equally, the influx of service providers and discount stores to fill the void left by the large retailer’s exit is a change that has been progressing slowly for decades, the recent recessions have merely accelerated the process.

Blame for the decline in High Street popularity is also put on local governmental decisions to allow these lager superstores to operate far enough outside town centres to benefit from cheaper land and rates while still being near enough to them to be in active competition. This could be a valid criticism given that it is local authorities who set both the business rates paid by the units in the town centres and the parking rates for their customers but while I accept that much local governmental policy is misguided, I cannot understand why any council would be driving business out of the town centres while facing cuts to their own budgets. Also, dropping rates to keep some shops in business would amount to a subsidy, propping-up an otherwise unprofitable enterprise, something I do not believe any local authority should be doing with private sector businesses.

Another factor needing to be taken in to account when assessing the situations discussed above is the rise of online shopping. Online retailers have seen well above inflation growth year on year regardless of recession. People are becoming ever more comfortable buying things online and retailers ever more sophisticated in their marketing and delivery strategies. Gone are the days of worrying about being stuck with an item you don’t want because the picture online made the product look nothing like the reality and not being able to return it. Delivery times can often be set at the time of order to fit in with one’s lifestyle and the rise in online competition has forced most retailers into abiding by an easy returns policy. Christmas shopping in December used to be an absolute nightmare but I wouldn’t know now as I haven’t done any gift shopping in actual shops for years.

Changes in the local business landscape should not be seen as all negative, the decline in daytime activity in town centres has been counteracted by a rise in nightlife as pubs, bars and restaurants flourish, offering people a temporary escape from the depressing news headlines and the even more melancholic soap-operas or reality TV epidemics currently offered up as weekend night-time entertainment. It’s not just in the darkness that these changes in activity are evident, the empty units are nearly always near offices, colleges and schools, making them attractive to the glut of deep-fried poultry providers with near identical names (normally based on an American State), offering their fare to any who are unaware or uncaring of the resulting arterial damage its consumption entails.

At root, all these changes are not the result of policy change or government ideology, they are the result of a basic economic model. Give people choices and they will make them, if you are able, as a retailer to offer a more popular option than your competitors you will be more successful. High Street shops are there not as an aesthetic distraction as you drive through on your way to the cheaper and more convenient superstore down the road, they are there as businesses to make money. One cannot have the convenience of local shops while being disinclined to use the regularly, if you think that the superstore is causing the decline in your local high street, you are wrong. It is you, the users of your local shops who have the collective power over their success or failure. As the saying goes: if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.

Even more so than with politicians, we don’t just get the High Streets we deserve, we actually get the High Streets we want, even if we don’t know it yet.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

P.S. – Wow, when I had the original thought for this post it was supposed to show my positive feelings towards the changes in our town centres and how I wholly embraced them but having read it back it’s incredibly negative. I don’t actually feel the way I come across, I quite like the idea of service based High Streets and shops being conveniently out-of-town but I suppose I’m too grumpy to get my positivity communicated in a comprehensible way without appearing sarcastic!

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Economic Sanctions Will Not (And Cannot) Work In Iran.

The aftermath of the “1st Gulf War” of the early 1990s was the first time I remember hearing the phrase “Economic Sanctions”, which were to be used against the Ba’athist regime in Iraq, with the intention of pressurising the then dictator, Saddam Hussein into cooperation with UN weapons inspectors. At that time I was in my early teens with a still highly idealised and polarised world view, the cold war with its threat of nuclear oblivion was still fresh in the collective memory and the modern financial superpowers of China, India and their smaller neighbours were still thought of as stagnant economic backwaters. The continued dominance of Western industrial imperialism seemed unstoppable, communism had fallen in almost all of Eastern Europe and the devastating military power of NATO had just been in evidence. It seemed to us that the only way to power and success was by working with the West, that fighting was futile and could only postpone the inevitable fall. The political opinion of the time (having just witnessed the events following the fall of the Berlin Wall) was that large-scale military conflict would be no longer necessary, that external political pressure and internal civil unrest would be the modern, safer (for the West) and cheaper (for the West) way to wage regime changing wars. It was on this background that economic sanctions were proposed and agreed against Iraq. Knowing that the Iraqi economy was (and still is) highly dependant on the export of crude oil to the Western powers who would be implementing the sanctions, the collective opinion in the UN was that Saddam Hussein would be forced to cooperate with the weapons inspectors or risk losing power completely in a violet coup d’état brought on by the impoverishment of the civilian population.

As we know, this is not how it happened.

While it is unquestionably true that economic sanctions on a country such as Iraq in the 1990s can and often do have the effect of reducing their power on the world stage by crushing the financial muscle available to them and driving their economic development backwards, the supposition that this is probable or even likely to lead to inevitable rebellion and regime change is at best questionable. Crippling the economy of a rebel state may make its leader unpopular with its population but the financial losses imposed upon Iraq led to a humanitarian crises with a disputed but huge number of children and vulnerable adults dying or being severely affected by malnutrition and a lack of both clean water and medical supplies (between 200,000 and 500,000 child deaths), the per capita yearly income in Iraq fell from over $3,500 to less than $450 in the years leading up to 1996. The outside world was not unaffected by the suffering caused by the sanctions and various UN resolutions were passed allowing Iraq to trade crude oil in return for humanitarian aid. However, while much aid was bought using this system, it all had to come through centralised government agencies, further strengthening the dictator’s control over his people and making civil unrest (let alone open rebellion) nearly impossible. Without Saddam Hussein’s blessing, the populace of many areas would have starved to death, they were simply not strong enough to even consider a popular uprising. The sanctions had not just failed in their attempts to get Iraq to tow the line and cooperate with the UN resolutions, they had caused millions of ordinary Iraqis pain, misery and suffering, while further reinforcing the vice like grip Saddam held over the country.

Now the new fear, as perceived by Western governments, is the proliferation of nuclear armaments spreading to Iran, a volatile theocracy openly opposed to “Western Imperialism” and the state of Israel (also a nuclear power). This opposition is not without cause, the Western backed Shah of Iran was openly put in place following the nationalisation of the country’s petroleum industry by a democratically elected government. The Shah went on to be increasingly autocratic and brutal becoming ever more unpopular until the islamic revolution of 1979. Western governments have almost all been unilaterally opposed to the government in Tehran since this time and mistrust of Western governmental policy has become embedded in the political structure of the country. Despite Iran’s protestations that their nuclear programme is wholly for civilian purposes, it is widely recognised throughout the international community that the level of uranium enrichment being pursued could easily result in the manufacture of weaponry; combined with the use of Iran’s domestically produced missiles, a large number of countries could theoretically become vulnerable to attack.

However, despite the continued hostility of the Iranian government towards the West, when asked (in confidence) many citizens will express a belief in the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with the US. The general population in large Iranian cities like Tehran live highly modernised lifestyles, compared to the states surrounding them (due mostly to revenues provided rom state oil exports) and have much more political and expressive freedom than most islamic states (partly due to the differences between Shiite & Sunni attitudes to discussion). Contrast this to Pakistan (a current nuclear power) where scenes of celebration following the September-11-2001 attacks were broadcast worldwide, large sections of the country are under tribal rule and corruption is rife throughout both the military and political establishments. It is however, a democracy which, although unstable, has a stated (though not always actioned) aim of aiding Western military forces in their pursuit of the Taliban and other religious fundamentalist and fanatical organisations hostile to Western involvement in Islamic politics.

We have recently seen various military maneuvers in and around the strait of Hormuz both by the Iranians demonstrating that they could close it and the Americans showing that they could keep it open. Given the stated Iranian military aim of deterrent rather than engagement and the American desire to sustain stability in the region I don’t believe that this posturing and flexing of muscles is likely to come to anything more than slightly heightened tensions between neighbours. The idea that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be used as any more than almost all have them have ever been used for (a deterrent) I find equally implausible. The Iranian government may be theocratic but they are not suicidal. Neither are they genocidal, whatever you might hear in loaded news reports. The only overtly aggressive statement to come out of Tehran in recent years was the highly dubious Farsi translation of a speech by President Ahmadinejad when he appeared to predict the elimination of the Israeli government, although he did not say how or when. Given that the president is not the “Supreme Ruler” and the verbally belligerent yet reluctantly pragmatic approach normally taken by such states in foreign affairs, a nuclear Iran could well be a stabilising influence on the region to counterbalance the military and diplomatic power of Israel.

It should also not be forgotten that nearly 60% of all Iran’s exports go to China, India, Japan and South Korea, not Europe and North America. With these figures set to rise as the Eastern economies grow more rapidly than their Western counterparts, stricter restriction on oil exports to the West will most likely result in strengthening bonds between Iran and the Far East, further loosening any controlling influence Western governments may feel they have in the region.

It is my belief that only by engaging with states like Iran on an equal diplomatic basis rather than treating them like errant teenagers needing to be ostracised from the community can stability, peace and equitable, sustainable development be achieved, not just in the Middle East but throughout the world. I do not mean in a Kissinger “Realpolitik”, condescending way just to deal with them because one has to. Treating another’s opinions or values as equal and as valid as yours is fundamental to a belief in democracy and free speech. Persuasion and debate through the use of evidence are the only tools needed here, not intimidation and coercion with threats of force. We should not be surprised if others are offended and defend themselves aggressively if they perceive us as aggressors trying to change them forcibly, if we listen we’ll probably see that most of us want the same things in life, just wrapped up a little differently.

Thanks for Reading

Rowan

Can Assad Hold Back The Arab Spring Tide In Syria?

More than a year since the start of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ it has become clear that the predicted collapse of the numerous dictatorships throughout North Africa and the Middle East will not be happening at the pace some had hoped. It certainly has not happened in the same way the former communist bloc in Eastern Europe changed in the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall. With hindsight, it is clear why this could not have been the case. Almost all (Yugoslavia excepted) of communist Europe relied heavily on the central authority of Moscow for military, security and financial support, as was shown by the responses to various popular uprisings in the 1950s and1960s, most notably Hungary in the Autumn of 1956. This created an atmosphere of mistrust among the citizens of the country, with the state feeling no need to curry popular support from any section of society. With the start of Perestroika in the USSR during the middle to late 1980s, the governments of Eastern Europe were left with an empowered populace determined to change the status quo and little state power to prevent them. This has not been the story in North Africa and the Middle East. There is no single dominant central power dictating and enforcing policy in the region, much of the income of the region is dependant on the export of natural resources to foreign markets (most notably crude oil) rather than heavy industry, tending to empower an autocratic despot still further by not relying on near full employment levels for economic stability. The history of European communism since the death of Stalin seems to suggest that ruling by committee without an unchallengeable tyrant was the government of choice (Yugoslavia & Romania excepted), this gives greater stability when the state is strong by spreading the strain or pooling resources and loyalties but once cracks appear under severe pressure, the lack of a central authority figure for those in power to gather around can lead to further rifts and fragmentation, possibly precipitating governmental collapse.

However, the overriding factors in the success or fall of governments under popular revolt seem to be:

  1. Does the current government accept there must be a change and will they go without being forced?
  2. Has the current government lost control of the military?
  3. Do the rebels have adequate resources to fight or do they have any outside (foreign) aid?

When we look at this list in this order and compare them with the list of states to have had successful rebellions in the ‘Arab Spring’ and the order in which they fell (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya) we can see that as soon as a ‘no’ answer appeared to a question, the government fell. It may seem fairly obvious that if the government has no will or resources to hod on to power they will lose it but it is also quite unusual for those in power to relinquish it easily and not to have contingencies in place to support them, especially within the military.

Clearly, Syria has not reached any of these points yet. Assad will not go anywhere willingly and excepting a few deserters, the majority of the armed forces are still under his control. The international community is wary of supporting a dispersed and disorganised rebel army whose leadership, power and political polices are largely unknown. Currently, the situation appears to be unwinnable for both sides, the uprising is too powerful, numerous and widespread to be crushed by Assad and his government forces but without outside assistance the rebels have little chance against a trained, organised and well equipped army. The current trend in the international community is to look for a peaceful solution based on government reform and more popular representation. However, many of the diplomats pushing these ideas are from The ‘Arab League’, whose membership consists of states who are (in the most part) dictatorships. Clearly instability in the region is bad for all of them but the thought that another of their number could fall victim to a revolutionary movement that still threatens them must surely be a worry. It is stability and peace that concern them, not liberty and justice.

In Libya, the geography and demography of the country made rebel support fairly simple and almost risk free. Almost all the population centres and military installations are near the coast, using modern aircraft carriers and battleships to provide air support for the rebel fighters proved an effective way of removing a largely unpopular dictatorship without the use for ground troops. This could not happen in Syria. With many of the population centres far inland and at altitude, effective air support for untrained guerilla fighters would prove difficult and would be unlikely to succeed without providing active ground troops to support the rebel forces. Given the close political links between Syria and Iran and the incredible worldwide unpopularity of the war in Iraq, ground troops are really not a viable option.

Nor should they be. One of the major failures of Western foreign policy in recent years has been the underlying belief that governments in the developing world should be encouraged, coerced or cajoled into running their economies for the benefit of us rather than their own citizens. The conviction that what is good for them cannot be good for us and vice versa is a long-held misconception that is prevalent in the corridors of power throughout the Western world. The conservative short-termism implicit in this belief is undeniable. Flourishing, developed economies need partners to trade with, the more equal or near-equal trading partners you have the stronger you will all be. Imposing Western-dependant governments, even if those governments are democratically elected, in countries like Iraq or Afghanistan is not a long-term solution. Propping-up pro-Western despots like the Shah in Iran or Mubarak in Egypt may provide temporary stability but only at the expense of long-tem development. Allowing (Egypt) or enabling (Libya) the citizens of a country overthrow their own government and giving them the choice to run their state affairs for their own benefit is the only long-term solution. Much of the political and religious instability and fanaticism throughout the region could be tempered and moderated by fair and equitable development. Treating them as political equals rather than noisy, troublesome peasants who deserve to be tricked into selling their prized assets on unfair terms will only exacerbate the ill-feeling towards the West many of these people feel.

It’s not the decadent, modern lifestyle that we lead that leaves many Arabs feeling resentment towards us. You only have to look at the popularity of many aspects of Western culture and technology throughout the region to see that. Its our arrogant belief that only we deserve it.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

All comments are welcome, I’ll try to answer as many as I can.

Is there an alternative to Capitalism?

Am I the only one getting thoroughly sick and tired of the protesters in front of St Paul’s Cathedral? I get their point, they think life in a capitalist system is unfair and should be made more fair. Yeah great, any suggestions about what a better system than capitalism is? No? What a fucking surprise.

The Church of England is not, at least in principle, in favour of huge profits by either individuals or corporations (except themselves, they do have a large portfolio of stocks in the FTSE). When stopped by the police from entering the London Stock Exchange, the protesters decided to block the entrance to probably the only organisation in the local area not wholly obsessed with profit at any cost. A bit of a PR coup really, even if it was an accident, as the general public are more likely to care about the obstruction of a church of a god than a church of money. One major thing they seem to have overlooked (a fact which seems to be overlooked by most modern protesters) is the provision of a viable alternative.

In 2003 when many people marched throughout Europe to show their displeasure with the planned invasion of Iraq, the alternative was to not invade. Whatever your personal views on the invasion, not invading was always a valid option and was given as the chosen alternative by the protesters in that movement. In more recent times, many protests have been due to economic circumstances. From university tuition fees to public sector pensions, today’s protesters all seem to have the same message. “It’s not fair” and not much else other than to say that another way should be found. This is not an alternative, none of the major political parties have viable options due to the current hamstrung nature of the public purse, there simply isn’t enough money in the treasury for students or public sector employees to be given special treatment anymore. All that seems to come out of the current protest camps are a variety of ways of telling us “it’s not fair”, “it” being capitalism or at least life under a capitalist system. I have yet to hear anyone give a viable alternative or to even explain what they mean by “capitalism”. As far as I can make out, it was the removal of knowledge in the marketplace by obscuring the products for sale that caused much of the financial distress being seen now.

Imagine a farm produce wholesale marketplace. All the producers have their wares on show and you are free to barter with them for the prices you will be prepared to pay. You can see and touch the produce, you can tell the quality and know what it will be worth to you once purchased. However, as time goes by some producers start to pre-package their products, making it very difficult to tell the quality of the goods before purchase. Not only that but you cannot even open the box after purchase because you will be re-selling it on to another dealer with the eventual owner only knowing the quality when it is too late to do anything about it, you only have the word of the producer to go on for any knowledge as to the quality of the product. With no checks on the producers, is it any wonder this modern-day version of Jack’s magic beans economics failed? Whatever anyone tells you, this is not capitalism. Blocking the workings of Adam Smith’s invisible hand by making the marketplace opaque not only prevents free access to the markets by those who do not understand the jargon or etiquette of the stock exchange, it limits the scope of the free market system. Poor products will not sell well at a fish market, why should their stocks rise in the FTSE? True capitalism may be inherently unstable and volatile but as long as transparency is maintained, long-term rises in stocks with no worth (and slow falls in valuable stocks) will be kept to a minimum. It is not less capitalism that is the solution, it is more freedom, transparency and accountability in the marketplace that can return us to economic growth.

Whatever you hear the protesters say, we are all better off in many ways than our parents generation. They in turn were better off than their parents and so on. This is not only in terms of material consumer goods such as cars or televisions (although many of these, such as washing machines or dishwashers, could be said to have improved the lifestyles of their users) but also in terms of working hours and conditions (including paid holiday, much safer working practices and conditions, minimum wage etc), higher life expectancy both in terms of quantity and quality (retirees going on activity holidays would have been unheard of decades ago) and also in the education and freedom of career choice available to the modern school/university leaver. In the early part of the last century many men and indeed children worked in mines, dangerous factories and other industrial sites. Regardless of the education received at your local school, you where unable to choose a career, it was provided by the local works, you did what your father did, you were unskilled and could work nowhere else, hence the fear felt by many of these communities when the global market made many of these works unprofitable and left them out of work. Instead of seeing the opportunity provided by these closures, many sought in vain to stop them by protest, making the situation for their communities worse. Embracing the changes in the modern world and changing with it, rather than fighting to hold back the tide, is the only way forward today. We can all be better off by using the free market to better our own situations, trying to halt globalisation can only work against you, resulting in you been left behind those who have chosen to press forward into modernity.

The only examples of non-capitalist policies given by the current protesters that I have heard have included using co-operative banks or shopping at The John Lewis Partnership. These companies exist inside the capitalist system not outside and are subject to all the same forces, unless you force people to run companies in this way, many will not choose them. Given that many of these people seem to not be in full-time employment (or at least don’t have to go to a permanent place of work every weekday), they shop at John Lewis & Waitrose and use banks which are more expensive to the users than most on the high street, I presume they are not those most at risk from the ravages of this inhumane capitalist system. Without the modern economic booms of the late 1980s and early 2000s I doubt if many of them would be in a situation to afford to protest in this way.

The continual flow of population from states with restrictive economic policies to those with higher levels of economic freedom is evidence enough that living in these kind of nations is not popular with those who have no choice in the matter. From Cuba to the former Soviet Bloc to South-East Asia, the general populace have never been happy to live under repressive, far-left regimes. Fully socialist or communist states have never been (and can never be) maintained inside democratic systems, people will always want more freedom to choose.

Scandinavian countries so-called social-democractic polices are often touted as a kind of “3rd way” in between the extremes of capitalism and socialism. The results of their policies are plain for all to see: high GDP, high human development index scores and low Gini coefficient all sound almost too good to be true. There are however certain factors which have helped them (especially Norway & Sweden). Being generally sparsely populated, often mountainous and forested has given them easy access to sustainable timber, hydro-electric & geo-thermal power, iron-ore and other minerals. Fertile fishing grounds and the discovery of North Sea oil & gas when combined with their relatively low population have also helped boost their ability to fund large welfare states, resources that are simply not available in the levels required to most Western European states. Restrictive immigration policies (until recently) and a lack of former imperial colonies contributed to high levels of social homogeneity. This, combined with some of the freest movement of labour in Europe (hiring and firing is surprisingly easy for such ‘left-wing’ governments) has hindered the abuse of the welfare state so often seen in this country. Other than high tax rates and some nationalised industries, their economies are free-market based with emphasis on foreign exports of both natural resources and high-end technology. High levels of population density, a relative scarcity of natural resources and a pre-existing welfare dependency culture mean that these models cannot be copied into the UK wholesale and although there are aspects that could be adopted they would, despite their long-term benefits, be expensive to implement and would increase the expense of government borrowing in the short-term.

In both the long and short-term, I can see no viable alternative to free-market economic policy. It remains to be seen how much state intervention is necessary or desirable to maintain (or start) growth and prosperity while continuing our inevitable progress toward human health and happiness. My own feelings are that people and companies should be left to trade as best they can with as little government intervention as possible. Laws and policies that ensure free trade and equality of opportunity can, in my opinion, only ever be good but laws that restrict these freedoms should always be avoided.

“It is not the creation of wealth that is wrong, but the love of money for its own sake.”
 
“No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well.”
 
“There can be no liberty unless there is economic liberty.”
 
– Margaret Thatcher
 
 
Thanks for reading
 
Rowan
 
All comments are welcome, I’ll answer as many as I can
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