The myth of Nero fiddling as Rome burned was largely concocted by political opponents to portray him as both uncaring and incompetent. But one reason why the myth has persisted down the ages is that it speaks to something profound in the human psyche. When faced with an irresolvable predicament, humans – along with other animals – engage in what psychologists refer to as “displacement activity.” Among the most common and instantly recognisable is someone scratching their head when they can’t think of a solution to a puzzle. Humming to oneself or whistling in the dark to alleviate fear are also common examples. But it is when one’s predicament has particularly dangerous consequences – such as one’s capital city burning to the ground – that displacement activities – like playing music – can serve at best to do nothing to save the situation, and at worse to accelerate the crisis.
With this in mind, consider the issues which have exercised the players in Versailles-on-Thames in the past week or so. They find themselves in the midst of the worst economic crisis in living memory – not, as some within the elite would like you to believe, because of Russian oil and gas supplies which are still flowing and are not yet subject to sanctions – with the very real prospect of a perfect storm in the autumn as a central bank-induced financial collapse, the non-renewal of Russian oil and gas contracts, global food shortages and a serious challenge to the global dollar currency system arrive more or less simultaneously. In these circumstances one might be forgiven for imagining that the political class would be making a serious effort to mitigate a crisis which is largely of their own making. Instead, as GB News’ Neil Oliver observes, we have been treated to behaviour which would be more fitting among children in the school playground.
The overarching concern is, of course, “partygate” – the Prime Minister’s criminal breaches of lockdown restrictions applied to the rest of us during Covid. As I warned back in January, Labour could only snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by pursuing an issue which was essentially a matter between the Prime Minister and the electorate. But just as someone with a decaying tooth cannot help but poke at the cavity with their tongue, so Labour leader Kier Starmer has proved unable to resist turning Boris Johnson’s parties into his main focus at the weekly Prime Minister’s questions. So much so that divisions within Labour’s shadow cabinet finally spilled over into the public domain last week as Lisa Nandy, Shadow Minister for “levelling up,” criticised Starmer’s obsession. As Kevin Schofield at HuffPost reported:
“A Labour split has erupted after Lisa Nandy told Keir Starmer to stop focusing on partygate and instead tell voters how they would tackle the cost of living crisis… Nandy said there was a danger that voters would think ‘we’re all as bad as each other’ if Labour continued to focus on Boris Johnson’s woes over lockdown-busting parties in Downing Street.
“She said Labour risked looking ‘out of touch’ at a time when families across the country are struggling to make ends meet.”
With local elections taking place throughout the UK on 6 May, and with inflation and falling incomes emerging as the main issue for voters, Nandy’s fears will likely be proved correct, as turnout collapses. This is especially so because new information concerning Starmer’s own breaches of the lockdown rules have come to light over the last week, suggesting, precisely as Nandy feared, that they are indeed “all as bad as each other.”
The reason that partygate was so attractive to a Labour leader who seems determined to make Neil Kinnock look competent, is because it requires no ideological position to be taken. Socialists, Liberals and Conservatives alike can unite to condemn a Prime Minister who breaks his own laws. And, of course, many did toward the end of 2021. Had Starmer avoided turning it into a party-political issue, Johnson’s own backbenchers would likely have deposed him by now. Making it a party-political matter saved Johnson’s job… for now at least.
Navel-gazing might be the best description of the other froth emanating from Westminster as the economic crisis deepened and blowback from the economic war on Russia began to send shivers – figurative and literal – through a population which may not be able to keep warm next winter. One Tory MP – apparently in an attempt to distract himself from Angela Rayner’s Sharon Stone impersonations, took to watching porn while sat on the green benches… something that has now resulted in his resignation. On the other side of the house, a shadow minister is accused of making sexist comments to a female Tory MP. The result of all of this childish behaviour is that, according to the BBC, senior MPs have decided that the middle of a potentially existential crisis is the right time to radically reform parliament itself:
“House of Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle said ‘radical action’ and a review of working practices was needed. And former Leader of the House Dame Andrea Leadsom called for Parliament to get its own human resources department.”
Meanwhile, the best that Ministers could come up with for solving the UK’s unfolding economic collapse was making childcare facilities and roads more dangerous and privatising the Passport Office – presumably so that the elites can by their way out when the proverbial hits the fan.
Although it is hardly a strategy, Labour’s one-off windfall tax on energy companies has a bit more beef to it – and few voters are about to oppose it – but it risks disincentivising investment in the North Sea at a time when this might be the only means of keeping the lights on. After all, even if some combination of nuclear and renewable energy could replace fossil fuels – it won’t – only someone totally detached from reality would think it was possible in the course of the six months or so that we have before Russian fossil fuel contracts come to an end and winter sets in.
The energy crisis which is now undermining the UK economy was always a predicament rather than a problem, precisely because there is no acceptable outcome. This has been brushed over for years – if not decades – by the pretence that weaning ourselves off fossil fuels was merely a matter of finding alternative ways of generating electricity alone. The fact that this – probably impossible – feat was actually the easiest part of ending fossil fuel use never really entered the mainstream debate. For all of our efforts, diesel – for which we still depend upon relatively heavy Russian oil – remains the lifeblood of an economy in which everything we depend upon for life support is either moved by truck or maintained by things that are moved on trucks… even, ironically, the wind turbines and solar panels which were supposed to save the day.
Less obviously – to the fake left as much as to the political class – energy is what makes an economy work. As Steve Keen famously put it, “capital without energy is a statue, labour without energy is a corpse.” More specifically, it is the exergy (useful energy) available to the economy after the energy required to produce exergy has been deducted, which determines whether an economy grows, stagnates or shrinks. Various attempts – mostly from bright green lobbyists – have been made to suggest that it is possible to decouple economic and energy growth. These, however, prove either impossible to replicate or can only be replicated using flawed growth data.
Peak oil – and thus peak energy – seems to have occurred in November 2018. Global oil consumption in 2022 is now four million barrels a day below that high point. And since oil is essential in the production of coal and gas – and, indeed, of non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies – shortages and the ensuing rise in prices have triggered rises in the cost of energy as a whole. And since everything in the economy depends upon the exergy derived from surplus energy, the result is growing shortages and rising prices across the economy… a situation, by the way, which cannot be resolved by raising interest rates.
It is not just that the poor are going to go cold and hungry this winter or that some – particularly among the elderly – unable to afford external heat and lacking the calories to generate enough internally, are going to die of hypothermia. No Tory government – nor, truth be told, recent Labour ones – has been overly exercised about the hardships inflicted on the poor. But the realisation that the pent-up financial wealth of the godzillionaires and corporations at the top is about to disappear via a stagflationary collapse of the currency itself, is enough to have the bought and paid for politicians lying awake at night. And the more they come to realise that what they thought of as wealth is but a claim on future energy which no longer exists, the more their minds recoil in horror.
This, perhaps, is why Boris Johnson’s Christmas party and Angela Rayner’s legs suddenly seem more urgent than contemplating the hard decisions about energy that the political class has been avoiding for decades… decisions that are all the harder to make because of the self-inflicted wounds caused by a no-deal Brexit, economically illiterate lockdowns and the decision to declare economic war on one of the world’s biggest commodity and energy exporters. Displacement activity indeed!
They’re not quite fiddling yet. There again, London isn’t burning yet… but it is only a matter of time.
As you made it to the end…
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