Monday 29 April 2013

Why drone on about drones?

Last weekend, the British media suddenly discovered that the RAF is flying American-built drones. They made this discovery because, on Saturday, there was a march from Lincoln to nearby RAF Waddington to protest about the use of these drones.

The demonstration was not that large (estimates vary between 200 and 600 people), but it has at least served the purpose of raising awareness of the issue. The puzzle is why it was not until this demonstration that the media realised the RAF had any drones at all.

The RAF operates a fleet of ten Reaper drones. The aircraft are all based in Afghanistan but are operated remotely. The first five have been operated since 2007 by the RAF’s No.39 Squadron, which is based at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada but is due to relocate to RAF Waddington. The second five entered service this week, and are operated by No.13 Squadron based at Waddington.

The Guardian claimed on Saturday that it had “revealed” this news last Thursday. It did no such thing. Britain’s ownership of drones is not a state secret but has been in the public domain from the beginning.

The media’s belated realisation that Britain has drones is not the only puzzle. The other mystery is why drones are considered an issue at all.

The objections to drones boil down to the following:
  • No pilots are risking their lives – a good thing, surely?
  • The risk of civilian casualties – no greater a risk than with conventional aircraft. In both cases, the point is to use such weapons accurately and within clear rules of engagement.
  • The use of drones for targeted assassinations – no moral difference to any other method of assassination. In any case, unlike American drones, the RAF’s are not being used for this purpose.
  • The use of drones by the security services rather than the military – again, something that America does but not Britain.
  • The use of drones to continue the ‘War on Terror’ – well, yes, but so are all the other armed forces. The problem is the strategy, not the weapons systems.
  • The risk that RAF Waddington will become a ‘target’ – far less risk than during the cold war, when nuclear-armed Vulcan bombers were based at Waddington. Unlike during the cold war, however, a sturdy wire fence should provide ample protection.
  • The use of drones avoids public scrutiny or accountability – how? Political decisions on military matters are subject to the same scrutiny and accountability regardless of the weapons systems. This scrutiny and accountability may well be deficient but, if so, there is no evidence that the problem is unique to drones.
The point is not drones per se but that, like any other weapons system, they should be used legitimately and properly. Saturday’s demonstration missed this point and diverted attention away from the main issue, which is the counter-productive strategy of the ‘War on Terror’. Rather ironic, is it not, that the demonstrators missed the target?

Saturday 27 April 2013

How far right must you go to be rejected by UKIP?

It comes as no surprise to discover that several UKIP candidates in the local elections hold some rather unpleasant opinions.

According to today’s Daily Telegraph, some of them have such extreme views that even UKIP has baulked. Scrutinising various candidates’ statements, however, it is hard to tell where UKIP draws the line.

The following views appear to be acceptable for a UKIP candidate to hold:
  • Mick Philpott, who killed six of his children in a house fire, should have faced “chemical castration” to stop him claiming benefits for more than two children. Philpott should be “hung or burned at the stake”.
  • Objecting to police charges against “three blokes [who] kill a pedo”, adding “if they can’t do it we will”.
  • Endorsing the far-Right English Defence League.
  • ‘Liking’ Facebook groups with names such as “No more mosques in Britain”, “Women deserve as much respect as men … LOL joke” and “Racism? No mate it’s just ethnic banter”.
  • Referring to a risk of tuberculosis after barriers to Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants are lifted next year: “I would suggest not going to London after January 2014 unless you absolutely have to and if you do, adopt the Japanese practice of wearing a face mask.”
These views, on the other hand, are sufficiently unacceptable to UKIP that you will be withdrawn as a candidate:
  • Blaming Jewish people for the Holocaust.
  • Being a former member of the British National Party.
Of course, it is perfectly possible that there is no morally consistent dividing line because UKIP is an incoherent shambles. If there is a clear threshold, it is probably not a moral one but a cynical calculation about what you can get away with.

A magic solution for climate change?

A new technological breakthrough promises to revolutionise the battle against wasting water.

Until now, people (well, Americans anyway) have been wasting billions of gallons of water by running the shower or tap to hide the noises they make on the toilet. A new iPhone app, the Akatu Fake Shower, makes the sound of a shower or tap running, so that you can drown out the noise of your flatulence without wasting water.

Amongst this app’s features, you can earn ‘badges’ for all the water you’ve saved. You can also “share your achievements” on social media, although it is a mystery why anyone ashamed of the sound of their farts has no inhibitions about sharing their “achievements”.

Yes, with this new invention, we can finally end all further scientific and technological discovery. Humanity’s work is done.

Friday 26 April 2013

The end of democracy?

Why is the public gradually disengaging from democratic politics?

Henry Farrell thinks he knows the answer. In an essay inspired by Colin Crouch’s influential book Post-Democracy, he writes a depressing epitaph for democracy. Globalisation and neoliberal economics have combined to shift power elsewhere, while the voters are left with less and less choice. In a postscript on the Crooked Timber blog, Farrell laments the current political chaos in Italy.

The problem with Farrell’s thesis is that he conflates the malaise of democracy in general with that of social democracy or moderate socialism. It is true that democracy is in trouble, and that neoliberalism has had a major role to play in the undermining of democratic politics. But just because the traditional left has no answer to the current economic crisis does not necessarily mean democratic politics as a whole is impotent.

The collapse of neoliberal orthodoxy in the recent financial crisis was a gift to its opponents but the traditional left has been completely unable to provide a coherent or compelling response. That is not because democracy is failing. It is because the social and economic conditions of the post-war era (which made the social democratic settlement possible) no longer apply. Like UKIP, social democrats yearn for a return to the 1950s, but for different reasons.

There is a coherent and compelling response for the Liberal Democrats to adopt (once they get over their current fixation on blending into the establishment). First, they should adopt the recommendations of the Rowntree-funded Power Inquiry (full report here and executive summary here), which examined popular disengagement from formal democratic politics in Britain (and which was previously discussed on this blog here). Second, they should develop some radical new economic thinking, and this work has already begun, in particular with the ALDC’s 2008 pamphlet by David Boyle and Bernard Greaves, The Theory and Practice of Community Economics, and the just-published Green Book.

One can at least agree with Farrell that things cannot continue as they are. One cannot accept his fatalism simply because the parties of the old left resemble exhausted volcanoes.

Wednesday 24 April 2013

The price of everything and the value of nothing

It’s official. The Secretary of State for Culture is a philistine.

Maria Miller will deliver a speech at the British Museum today:
British culture should be presented as a “commodity” and “compelling product” to sell at home and abroad, the culture secretary, Maria Miller, will argue in her first speech on the arts since taking up the job in September.
It has taken Miller seven months since becoming culture secretary to deliver a speech setting out her philosophy, and it turns out that she knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

It is this economistic outlook that is the true heritage of Margaret Thatcher. Instead of attacking the corpse of a dead prime minister, critics should focus on the zombie of her ideas.

Tuesday 23 April 2013

Cry God for Harry, England, and Saint George – if that’s alright with you

Today is St George’s Day, the national day of England. It is worth asking why the English do not celebrate it the way other countries celebrate their national days. Two Liberal Democrat MPs, John Leech and Greg Mulholland, have asked the same question.

Most countries have a national day, which usually commemorates a key date in the birth of the nation (for example, Bastille Day in France or Independence Day in the USA – indeed, independence day in any country that was formerly a colony).

England cannot do that because it has no ‘birthday’. What event would we commemorate? The unification of England by King Æthelstan in 927? The Norman Conquest in 1066? The signing of the Magna Carta in 1215? The Glorious Revolution of 1688? All of these were important events in the evolution of England but none stands out as a definitive founding date.

The alternative is a saint’s day, which for example the Irish (and the Irish diaspora) commemorate with St Patrick’s Day. One can see the point of St Patrick, the missionary who brought Christianity to Ireland. But St George? A Greek born in Palestine who served in the Roman army and did not slay any dragons? A saint whose flag was adopted by the English in 1190 during the crusades, as a means of earning Genoese protection of their ships entering the Mediterranean? St George may have been a successful rallying cry during the crusades but it is hard to see him as a cause to get excited about now.

The lack of any local associations with the national saint is not the main reason for such little jubilation on 23rd April. There is the more fundamental question of English identity. Nation states, in the way we understand them today, are essentially a nineteenth-century invention. Before then in 1707, England and Scotland unified to create the United Kingdom, and there was a subsequent tendency for the English to subsume their identity in Britishness.

One can see this during the 1966 World Cup final. It was a great moment of English (as opposed to British) celebration, yet look at the archive film and the flags being waved by English supporters. They are Union Jacks, not flags of St George.

It was only after the revival of Scottish and Welsh nationalism in the 1970s that the English were forced to re-examine their own identity. It has been a slow process. It was not until the 1996 European Football Championship, hosted by England, that English supporters waved English flags in any great numbers. Since then, these flags have been a permanent fixture on every white van.

Two factors deterred a revival of English identity during that period. One was the insistence during the 1980s by the right-on PC brigade that white English people, as the only humans on the planet who had never been colonised or occupied, were uniquely denied the coveted status of victimhood and should therefore live in a permanently abject state to atone for their past sins. The other was the appropriation of the English flag and other national symbols by the far right. Faced with these pressures, most middle class English people kept their heads down.

Both pressures have thankfully receded, so that today John Leech and Greg Mulholland have no qualms about urging us to be more forthright in our commemoration of St George’s Day. Neither MP offers any compelling method for how this could be achieved, probably because a celebration would be the consequence of a clear, shared national identity rather than the cause of it. Mulholland’s remedy seems to consist largely of urging on English teams in international football and rugby events, which is unlikely to enthuse the majority of people who aren’t interested in these sports.

Sceptics will argue that a national identity cannot be invented but must evolve, which ignores the fact that most European national identities are not natural at all but were consciously contrived by romantic nationalists during the nineteenth century. As the sad experience of Tony Blair and ‘Cool Britannia’ shows, it is not so easy to pull off that trick today.

Meanwhile, it has been suggested that St George’s Day should be made a public holiday, not just as a national day but also to commemorate the anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth and death. This ignores the practical problem that 23rd April often clashes with Easter and is close to the May Day bank holiday. We already have more than enough public holidays at this time of year.

What is the solution? It is the traditional English method, which will happen regardless of what any MPs say. We will muddle through. 23rd April will remain an annual whinge-fest, when a few politicians and commentators look wistfully at St Patrick’s Day and wonder why the English cannot enjoy a similar national celebration.

But do we need a solution? Is there actually a problem? Perhaps the real reason we do not celebrate St George’s Day is a rather good one. The English have become almost post-nationalist. As the one nation that has never been colonised or occupied in recent centuries, we have no victimhood in which to wallow or ancient enemy to blame for everything. Any discomfort we feel is a slight guilt at being comfortable in our own skins. It is a sentiment related to the fact that we are the one country with no need to put its name on its coins or postage stamps. We usually prefer quiet understatement to gross displays of national fervour, and that is how it should be.

Small businessmen with small minds

Small business interests ought to enjoy more sympathy from Liberal Democrats. After all, they represent a Liberal ideal of small-scale, local economic power and are a preferable form of enterprise to large corporations.

Why do Liberal Democrats retain a lingering suspicion? The probable reason is a fear that small businesspeople are not just Tories but Poujadists, the sort of people Eric Idle moaned about in Monty Python’s Travel Agent sketch:
“ get cornered by some drunken greengrocer from Luton with an Instamatic camera and Dr. Scholl sandals and last Tuesday’s Daily Express and he drones on and on and on about how Mr. Smith should be running this country and how many languages Enoch Powell can speak and then he throws up over the Cuba Libres...”
These suspicions will not have been allayed by the response of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) to the mock funeral of Margaret Thatcher held last week in the former coal mining village of Goldthorpe in South Yorkshire.

The FSB alleges that the Goldthorpe protest, which was broadcast around the world, will deter foreign investors from investing in Yorkshire.
[The FSB’s claim dominated last Friday’s edition of BBC1’s Yorkshire area local news programme Look North, which for some reason is not available to view on the BBC iPlayer.]
It is highly unlikely any foreign investor will be deterred, since such one-off protests would have no bearing on the sort of considerations investors normally make. There has been no serious investment in Goldthorpe since the pit closed in 1994. This suggests that the lack of investment has more deep-seated reasons, such as poor infrastructure, low levels of educational attainment and high crime.

People living in and around Goldthorpe must feel strongly resentful at their economic predicament, so last week’s emotional outburst was understandable. But their mock funeral, along with all the other anti-Thatcher protests last week, was a futile gesture. It was pointless because Thatcher has been out of power for 22 years. The point now is to contest the ideology not the person, and that requires a completely different strategy.

The obsequious tributes to Thatcher need countering, principally to challenge the widespread fallacies that Thatcher’s policies were inevitable and that her legacy remains permanent. But none of the street protests articulated any coherent criticism. Instead, they seemed to consist of warmed-over SWP slogans from the 1980s.

So the key thing about the protests is that they were ineffectual. Talking them up serves only to salvage them. Which is precisely the mistake made by the FSB.

The FSB succeeded only in extending the media coverage of the Goldthorpe protests by an extra day. It is behaving as if it were playing a computer game set in the 1980s called ‘Fantasy Union Bashing’. It has confirmed the worst suspicions about the political prejudices of small business people. This may be unfair, but the FSB should have considered the consequences for its reputation before it spoke.

Monday 22 April 2013

How not to start a career in television

Is this the worst start ever to a career in television?

As Gordon Brown could have told that unfortunate newsreader, it is always wise to check whether you have a live microphone fitted before opening your mouth.

Did the earth move for you?

You thought earthquakes were caused by natural geological forces, and the recent earthquake in Iran is no exception. How wrong could you be?

It turns out that when you have sex, the earth really does move. Or at least it does according to one senior Iranian cleric:
A senior Iranian cleric says women who wear revealing clothing and behave promiscuously are to blame for earthquakes.
He’s obviously not convinced by the theory of plate tectonics, then.
“Many women who do not dress modestly ... lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which increases earthquakes,” Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi was quoted as saying by Iranian media.
If you live in an earthquake zone like Iran, it is wise to take precautions. What does this senior cleric advise? Improve building construction standards, perhaps?
“What can we do to avoid being buried under the rubble?” Sedighi asked during a prayer sermon last week. “There is no other solution but to take refuge in religion and to adapt our lives to Islam’s moral codes.”
This superstitious nonsense does not entitle you to feel smug, not when children in Britain have died of measles because of the unfounded belief that the MMR jab causes autism, and not when there are shelves full of quack remedies on sale in Boots.

Sunday 21 April 2013

Mr Lloyd George’s Favourite Pudding

Due to some serendipity on Amazon’s website, I came across an inexpensive little booklet called Lloyd George’s Favourite Recipes, which arrived in the post yesterday.

The title is misleading, since it contains only three pages of Lloyd George’s favourite recipes (five recipes at the beginning of the booklet plus a further five missing from earlier editions and restored in an appendix). The booklet is no less interesting for that.

It would doubtless have sold less well if it had been titled more accurately. It is nevertheless one of those fascinating locally-published Women’s Institute collections of family recipes. The edition I received was published in 1996, being a reprint of Lloyd George’s Favourite Dishes published in 1974, in turn a new edition of a collection first published in 1919 and originally titled The Criccieth Women’s Institute Cookery Book; including Recipes for the Favourite Dishes of the Prime Minister (The Right Hon. D. Lloyd George, M.P.).

You will of course want to try one of Lloyd George’s favourites, and in 1919 there was none of that nonsense about healthy eating:
Mr Lloyd George’s Favourite Pudding
1 lb flour, 1 lb raisins stoned, ½ lb suet, a pinch of salt, mix all together and moisten with milk. Put the mixture into a basin and boil for four hours. Serve with sauce or sugar.

Saturday 20 April 2013

Clegg’s computers stolen as local ice cream war hots up

“Clegg’s Sheffield office computers stolen” is the headline story in the Sheffield Telegraph today.

No personal data was on the stolen laptops. Even so, the Sheffield Telegraph has given the story top billing, ahead of the potentially more interesting “Sheffield ice cream van ban ‘madness’”, where it turns out that the Labour-run city council is about to ban almost all of Sheffield’s ice cream vans from the roads because they breach new emissions rules.

Despite having his laptops stolen, Nick Clegg is firmly on the side of the local ice cream sellers:
Deputy Prime Minister and Hallam MP Nick Clegg said: “Labour are going to have cold war on their hands this summer if they go ahead with plans to take ice cream vans off Sheffield’s streets.
“While I would support efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, this should be done in a sensible way that doesn’t wipe out small firms.”
Perhaps Clegg should set up a Cones Hotline.

Friday 19 April 2013

Yet another myth busted: “A competitive tax system is a better tax system”

You’ve heard the arguments: Having a ‘competitive’ tax system is a good thing for the UK. Trying to tax the wealthy and corporations just stifles economic performance and puts off investors. If business and wealthy people are taxed too much, they will desert Britain for countries with a more ‘competitive’ tax system.

Does this belief in a ‘competitive’ tax system have any evidential basis?

nef (the new economics foundation) has produced another of its useful mythbusters. The evidence shows what happens when you pursue a competitive’ tax policy:
  • Only big, multinational companies can afford to shift operations to take advantage of different tax regimes, so that when governments lower business taxes, local businesses face unfair competition.
  • A race to the bottom means that, as countries respond to one another’s policies, everyone ends up where they started, except more impoverished and with greater inequalities of wealth.
  • There is no evidence that differences in the tax take have any impact on GDP growth.
  • Genuine investors are not deterred by tax regimes. They are attracted by a good infrastructure, a healthy and educated workforce, and the rule of law – all of which rely on tax.
 Oh dear. Another of those tired old right-wing tropes bites the dust.

Thursday 18 April 2013

Before you throw those election leaflets in the bin...

As polling day for the local elections approaches, the volume of leaflets is increasing. If you live in a marginal ward, you may be getting several bits of paper shoved through your letterbox each day.

Before you put them in the recycling bin, scan (or photograph) each one and send it to (The process is very simple; just upload jpeg files to the website). is a real-time archive of election leaflets – new content is available online immediately it is uploaded. But this archive relies on volunteers throughout the country to gather material; if there are no leaflets from your area on the website, it is because no one in your area has scanned and uploaded any material.

The good news is that embarrassing content in opponents’ leaflets, which was previously confined to one local ward, can now be seen nationwide. The bad news is that embarrassing content in your own party’s leaflets is equally accessible.

Either way, digital versions of these leaflets will remain online in perpetuity, unlike the real things, which rarely survive more than 24 hours.

Wednesday 17 April 2013

Thatcher: a picture paints a thousand words

The Poke has assembled a splendid collection of Twitpics to mark this special day. And one picture in particular is a symbol of all that Margaret Thatcher stood for:

Large crowds gather in Leeds city centre to watch Lady Thatcher’s funeral

Tuesday 16 April 2013

Memo to George Carey and the ‘Islamophobia’ lobby: THIS is persecution

You may recall that, a couple of weeks ago, former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey complained that Christians in Britain felt persecuted because of ‘aggressive secularism’.

In reality, there is no religious persecution in Britain – not unless your definition of ‘persecution’ includes having to live in a pluralist society and tolerate other points of view.

What Carey and others with a similar persecution complex, such as those complaining about ‘Islamophobia’, are actually trying to do is appropriate victim status for political advantage.

If these people want to understand what real persecution looks like, they should examine the situation in Bangladesh, where the authorities, at the prompting of Islamist parties, are arresting ‘atheist bloggers’. The Islamists are demanding the death penalty for bloggers who “insult religion”. One blogger known for his connection to anti-Islamist protests and for criticising religion has already paid with his life; he was murdered at home in a machete attack.

Carey and the UK’s Islamophobia lobby should consider themselves fortunate to live in a secular society, the only sort of society where everyone, irrespective of their religious views, can live without fear or favour.

Meanwhile, if you want to support the victims of persecution in Bangladesh, you can take action here.

Monday 15 April 2013

Thatcherism is not a Thousand Year Reich

In today’s Guardian, John Harris wonders what happened to that extinct species, the One Nation Tory. He finds a revealing statement by Margaret Thatcher (quoted in a book by Ian Gilmour, one of her cabinet ‘wets’):
“Do not say it is time for something else! Thatcherism is not for a decade. It is for centuries!”
Thatcher said this in 1990, towards the end of her premiership when she was already going round the bend. Nevertheless, the idea that Thatcherism is permanent or inevitable is widely held, even among her opponents.

The apologias by juvenile right-wingers among the comments on Liberal Democrat Voice are only to be expected, but others who ought to know better have been equally fatalistic. Here for example is Paddy Ashdown, speaking in last week’s debate in the House of Lords:
At the time when she did those things, they needed to be done.
Historical inevitability? I never knew Paddy was a Marxist.

More often, inevitability is cloaked in a false notion of pragmatism, where the Thatcher settlement is viewed as so permanent as to be beyond ideology. This has led to the current fad for managerialism, which suggests that most mainstream politicians have given up on offering real political choice.

There is a difference between agreeing with Thatcher and being mesmerised by her. It is time for people to snap out of it.

In politics, nothing is inevitable or permanent. If that were the case, there would be no need for politics. We always have a choice and, the sooner that is recognised, the healthier our politics will be.

Thatcher and alcohol

One extraordinary thing about Margaret Thatcher’s death is that there has been no mention anywhere in the media of her alcoholism.

It was an open secret in Westminster that, by the end of her premiership, she was putting away a bottle of scotch a day (or rather, night, since she was notorious for staying up very late). I heard from a reputable source in the mid-1990s that she was receiving medical treatment for alcoholism.

Her husband Denis’s fondness for a G&T was well known but there was never any mention of his wife’s heavy drinking. As with Charles Kennedy’s problem before it burst into the open, it was known about but not talked about.

Media reticence was understandable while Thatcher was alive, for fear of a defamation lawsuit. Now she is dead, the continuing taboo is hard to explain.

Sunday 14 April 2013

Grantham keeps calm and carries on

I visited Margaret Thatcher’s hometown of Grantham yesterday, not to sign the book of condolences but to do the weekly shopping at Morrisons.

There was no outward sign of any mourning. There was no makeshift shrine of flowers and teddy bears outside the corner shop where Thatcher grew up (the shop is now occupied by a chiropractic business called Living Health).

Why the local stoicism? Following the Lincolnshire earthquake of 2008, the Guardian noted:
Stoicism is in keeping with the character of a county which, despite being England’s second-biggest, does not like to make a fuss.
In the 1983 general election, I was Liberal candidate for Grantham and, in the course of canvassing, met several local people who knew Margaret Roberts (as she then was) before she left for Oxford University, never to return. None of them had a good word to say for her. They still gave the Tories a big majority, though (the sitting MP was Douglas Hogg before he bought the infamous manor house with the moat).

One of the more bizarre occurrences during the campaign was at a house meeting one evening. In those days, Grantham’s local cinema (the Paragon) was an independent family-run business. The manager went out and about with a Super 8 camera and made his own newsreels. He asked if he could film the meeting. I prepared to conduct an interview, only to discover when the manager turned up that he made his newsreels with no sound. Had I known in advance this was to be a silent film, I could have organised a custard pie fight or tied the Tory agent to a railway track. In any event, I am probably the last Liberal candidate in British political history to feature in a silent newsreel.

PS: The title of this post is a cliché but it seemed only appropriate, given that almost every shop in Grantham still appears to be selling “Keep Calm and Carry On” coffee mugs. This slogan has rapidly become the “You don’t have to be mad to work here but it helps” de nos jours.

Saturday 13 April 2013

Immigrants and Princess Diana – a winning combo

The Daily Mail is obviously trying to outdo the Daily Express in the anti-immigration stakes. And with this headline (which brings Princess Diana into the mix), the Mail is surely onto a winner:

All the Mail has to do now is find a cancer angle, and it will have a headline worthy of the Daily Mail-o-matic.

The death of British political satire

The Daily Show’s recent satirical report on North Korea has been an internet hit in China, attracting 2.8 million views. The Washington Post blog reports:
“The Daily Show” is not big in China. But when the popular Chinese Web portal Sina posted an eight-minute segment from the show discussing the latest North Korean provocations, it racked up an astounding 2.8 million views and counting, as well as tens of thousands of comments, many of them praising the show. That appears to make it one of the most-watched “Daily Show” clips ever. It also raises questions about whether China’s flagging support for North Korea might reflect popular sentiment as well as Beijing’s own geopolitical calculus.
The clip embedded in that blog doesn’t work outside the USA, so here is a version that should work anywhere:

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is available on Comedy Central in the UK, so many British people have the opportunity to watch it. And it is interesting to ask why we no longer have satire of this calibre in Britain.

We used to do it well. The BBC produced That Was The Week That Was fifty years ago, when Jon Stewart was only just born. Nowadays, we have Have I Got News For You and Mock the Week, which I analysed in an earlier blog post:
For a true view of how the British merge politics and entertainment, one has to look instead at comedy – the sitcoms Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister, The New Statesman and The Thick of It, and the panel games Have I Got News For You and Mock the Week. In isolation, each of these shows is quality entertainment, but together they promote a thoroughly cynical view of politics. In fact, they are more than cynical; they are nihilistic, suggesting that the whole business of politics is risible and that no one in public life is trustworthy or competent. The problem isn’t that these programmes satirise individual politicians or specific types of behaviour but that they imply the whole enterprise is doomed.
The only recent British TV programme that genuinely qualified as political satire was Bremner, Bird and Fortune, and it was last broadcast in 2008. There has been an attempt at a British Daily Show with Channel 4’s 10 O'Clock Live, but it was less than the sum of its celebrity parts. It also suffered from the destructive cynicism that infects other shows.

And that is the difference. The Daily Show mercilessly rips apart the humbug of politicians but it never despises politics itself. The possibility that politics could be better is always left open. The current crop of British satire, on the other hand, regards the whole enterprise as irredeemable. And that is not really satire at all.

Friday 12 April 2013

Another myth busted: ‘strivers v skivers’

nef (the new economics foundation) has produced another mythbuster, this time debunking fallacies about welfare expenditure.

Only 2.6% of Britain’s social expenditure is received by able-bodied unemployed people. And the situation is dynamic; these people are not permanently unemployed:
In reality, people slip between employment and unemployment, often within the space of a few months, as the economy relies increasingly on short-term, low pay, insecure contracts. This happens even more in areas where the economy is especially weak. In Teesside, one of the UK’s struggling economic regions, research has found that, for many people, ‘shuttling between benefits and jobs’ has become their predominant experience of working life.
People in full-time work but whose pay is too little to live on receive a much greater share of benefits:
A far greater proportion of social expenditure is spent on people in paid work, through working tax credits, than is spent on the fit and able-bodied unemployed. Last year expenditure on Income Support and Working Tax Credits amounted to £13.8bn, more than double the £4.9bn paid out to JSA [Job Seeker’s Allowance] claimants. Taking into account all the different benefits available, and distinguishing between different groups by their primary benefit, 20.8 per cent of the total benefits bill is spent on employed people on low incomes, while only 2.6 per cent is actually spent on the able-bodied unemployed.
For the first time ever, in-work poverty has overtaken workless poverty, with 6.1 million people in working households living in poverty. Instead of tackling the problem of low income, the government is subsidising employers offering poor quality employment through working tax credits. Taxpayers are picking up the bill by topping up wages so that paid workers can feed and house themselves and their families.
The ‘strivers v skivers’ argument suggests there are two distinct groups in society and tries to pit them against one another. In reality, this caricature is a complete myth, and certainly no serious basis for devising any reform.

Postscript: Some sense on this subject from Chris Dillow (with thanks to Nick Barlow for spotting it).

Thursday 11 April 2013

How William Morris poisoned Britain

There was a fascinating TV documentary on BBC4 the other night called Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home. It was a sharp corrective for anyone who disapproves of health and safety legislation, for we learnt that many of the Victorian era’s new household products and gadgets were lethal.

One such hazard was wallpaper, or more specifically wallpaper dyed with a green pigment containing arsenic. A leading manufacturer of this wallpaper was none other than the famous socialist, designer, artist and all-round romanticist William Morris. The documentary explained that, besides his wallpaper manufacturing business, Morris owned a big stake in the world’s largest arsenic mine (which was the main source of his inherited wealth). Morris was aware of the hazard of arsenic poisoning but dismissed warnings of the danger.

The documentary did not mention that Morris also poisoned Britain figuratively as well as literally. He shares the blame for one of the biggest problems in Britain today: the inability of people to come to terms with urban living. Britain is one of the most urbanised countries in the world (80% of us live in cities and towns), yet most urban dwellers want to create an illusion of rural life. They aspire to a detached or semi-detached house with a large garden, instead of a town house or flat as in most continental cities. As a result, British cities have sprawled outwards and used up far more land than is necessary, which in turn has increased travel distances and encouraged excessive car use.

This trend has its origins in Morris’s ‘back to the land’ anti-urbanism, an understandable sentiment at a time when many people lived in overcrowded slums but unjustifiable now. Morris, with his concern to protect the natural world from pollution and industrialisation, is today regarded as a proto-environmentalist. Yet the irony is that, by fostering a pastoral impulse, he bears more responsibility than most for the destruction of the countryside to make way for sprawling low-density suburbs. As Jonathan Meades put it, the trouble with ‘back to the land’ is that eventually there is no land left to go back to.

Morris remains a hero to many for his socialism, his art and his environmentalism. But he was a hypocrite even by the standards of his own time, and we will not create liveable cities in Britain until we reject the baleful influence of his counter-productive sentiments.

Wednesday 10 April 2013

New edition of Liberator mailed out today

The new edition of Liberator magazine is being mailed to subscribers today.

There is a summary of the contents on Liberal Democrat Voice.

Not yet a subscriber? Subscribe here – you can opt for print and/or Kindle and iPad versions.

Did Kim Jong-un appear in Grease?

This Monday’s edition of the Sun included a bizarre ‘exclusive’ claiming that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un performed in a school production of the musical ‘Grease’ while at a Swiss boarding school in the 1990s.

As you would expect from the Sun, the story was accompanied by some dreadful puns (“You’re the Jong that I want”, “Tell me war, tell me war”, “Hopelessly devoted to nukes”).

Sadly, it turns out to be untrue. The Washington Post has debunked the story, suggesting that the Sun’s photos are probably of the dictator’s older brother Kim Jong-chul.

Kim Jong-chul was at one time being groomed to succeed his father Kim Jong-il as dictator, but was passed over because his father thought he was “no good because he is like a little girl”. Clearly, a passion for the musical theatre is not an asset when being considered for the leadership of North Korea.

Tuesday 9 April 2013

Thatcher: Local newspaper gets to the heart of the matter

Bexley Times: “Former Dartford candidate Margaret Thatcher dies”

Which social class of Liberal Democrat are you?

The BBC’s Great British Class Survey has received a lot of attention over the past few days. Instead of the traditional three categories of upper, middle and lower class, the survey claims that there are now seven distinct social classes of British people. You can take the test here to discover which of these new classes you belong to.

To make more sense of these seven new classes, the Guardian has helpfully defined them in terms of well-known sitcom characters.

In case these new classes still don’t make sense, Liberator has helpfully devised this test for members of the Liberal Democrats to help them see where they fit in the party’s social hierarchy:

The Great Liberator Class Survey

1. First thing each morning, you like to catch up with the news. Do you:
    (a) Switch on Sky News
    (b) Grab your iPhone and look at your friends’ tweets
    (c) Listen to the Radio 4 ‘Today’ programme
    (d) Read the Financial Times while being chauffeured to your office
2. Where do you live?
    (a) In a council tower block with Lib Dem posters in the window
    (b) In a flat-share with Lib Dem posters in the window
    (c) In a suburban semi-detached with Lib Dem posters in the window
    (d) Do you mean my home in London or my place in the country?
3. How do you like to relax?
    (a) Watching Sky Sports
    (b) Tweeting
    (c) Relax? I’m too busy out campaigning
    (d) Do you mean when I’m in London or at my place in the country?
4. Nick Clegg has just announced a controversial change of policy. Do you:
    (a) Complain by phoning Radio 5 Live
    (b) Complain by sending an angry tweet
    (c) Complain by raising the issue under ‘any other business’ at your next local party executive meeting
    (d) Express quiet satisfaction by making a large donation to Nick Clegg’s office
5. Your local party intends to submit a motion about wind farms to party conference. Do you:
    (a) Worry that this policy would increase your fuel bills
    (b) Worry that the motion doesn’t mention LGBT rights
    (c) Worry that you haven’t got round to installing a windmill on your garden shed
    (d) Worry that wind farms will spoil the view from your place in the country
6. You are about to go out canvassing but it can be hard on your feet. Do you wear:
    (a) Trainers
    (b) Whatever
    (c) Sandals
    (d) The green wellies you keep in the back of the Range Rover
7. Your local Focus team has been out delivering on a hot summer’s day. To keep them refreshed, do you stock up with:
    (a) Tennent’s Extra
    (b) J2O
    (c) A polypin of real ale
    (d) Cheap Spanish fizz (you wouldn’t want to waste the proper champagne on your local Focus team)
8. At the end of a hard day’s campaigning, do you and your local Focus team:
    (a) Get a takeaway from the local kebab shop
    (b) Go to an organic vegetarian café and spend all your time tweeting each other
    (c) Dine at an Indian restaurant owned by one of your supporters (where everyone will eat the same things they always order)
    (d) Tuck in to the Waitrose hamper that Ocadio delivered earlier in the day


Based on your answers, Liberator’s dedicated team of social scientists has analysed which class of party member you belong to:
    Mostly (a) – Working class political activist. Are you sure you still exist?
    Mostly (b) – Like, whatever
    Mostly (c) – Typical bloody Liberal
    Mostly (d) – How much did you say a peerage costs?

Monday 8 April 2013

Lord Bonkers pays tribute to Margaret Thatcher

I first met the young Margaret Roberts (as she then was) because I was in the habit of buying my dog biscuits from her father’s shop in Grantham and she would sometimes serve me.

This evening of all evenings is not an occasion to record that she generally kept her thumb on the scales.

Read more from Lord Bonkers on Liberal England.

Margaret Thatcher – humbug alert

Few wish to speak ill of the dead. And so with the death today of Margaret Thatcher, even most of her fiercest opponents are being generous in their tributes and any criticism is muted (although Liberal Democrat Voice’s insistence on “tributes only” is going too far).

There will doubtless be a few ill-judged reactions in poor taste but don’t waste your disapproval on them. Instead, watch out for the unscrupulous politicians who exploit the memory of Thatcher to justify what they are doing now. Because however much today’s politicians pay fulsome tribute to Thatcher, they are actually deeply uncomfortable with her main attribute.

Whatever you thought of her ideology, the key thing about Thatcher was that she had an ideology. She was a conviction politician with a clear vision of what she wanted to achieve. Her famous statement “there is no alternative” (‘TINA’) was an expression of that conviction, not of consensus politics or convergence on a mythical ‘centre ground’. Her conviction was based on a moral idea of right and wrong, not on the bogus grounds that her preferences were obvious or inevitable. Thatcher’s agenda was above board, not smuggled in under the guise of non-ideological ‘pragmatism’. She thought radical change was possible; she did not accept conventional wisdom as a given and never attempted to merge into an homogeneous political class. She welcomed argument and did not respect people who always agreed with her. This is the antithesis of what mainstream politicians believe today.

Thatcher’s convictions have left an appalling legacy and many of the major problems we face today, such as the consequences of financial deregulation or inflated house prices, can be traced back to decisions of her government. But the problem was that her convictions were wrong rather than that they were convictions per se. It will require convictions of equal strength to challenge the consensus she created.

So as you listen to the tributes between now and the funeral, beware of the politicians who invoke Thatcher and ‘TINA’ to justify the status quo without providing any kind of substantive argument. Anyone who suggests that Thatcher’s victories in the 1980s mean we have no choice today will reveal that they do not understand Margaret Thatcher’s conviction politics and do not understand why, by severely limiting the range of political options, they are undermining democracy.

Postscript: As predicted, Francis Maude appeared on Monday evening’s edition of BBC2 Newsnight, arguing that Thatcher had settled a whole host of political issues in perpetuity.

Sunday 7 April 2013

Move along folks, nothing to see here

David Cameron won’t like it. The Daily Express won’t like it. But their favourite scare story will be a non-event.

It turns out that there will probably not be hordes of Bulgarians and Romanians descending on Britain on 1st January 2014 (when restrictions on the free movement of workers from Bulgaria and Romania will be entirely lifted across the European Union).

EurActiv reports:
A Foreign Office-commissioned report has directly challenged claims by UK Prime Minister David Cameron that Britain faces a massive wave of immigration from Bulgaria and Romania when labour restrictions applying to these countries are lifted next January.
The 60-page report [pdf] by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) says that Britain is unlikely to be the preferred destination for Bulgarians and Romanians when labour restrictions are lifted.
And those who do plan to come are unlikely to take advantage of the UK’s social security system, it adds in a direct rebuttal of arguments put forward by the UK Prime Minister.
So, panic over.

Unfortunately, it’s not quite the end of the story. The Daily Express refuses to have its fox shot. It dismisses the NIESR report as a “whitewash” and has found a red under the bed:
The NIESR, whose director is Left-leaning economist and well-known immigration enthusiast Jonathan Portes, unsurprisingly seems to talk down the potential downsides of this impending migration.
Not just reds, but “liberal intellectuals”:
Instead of being soothed by warm words from cabals of liberal intellectuals, ministers should wake up to a looming disaster.
Well, it’s a free country and you are free to choose who to believe: “intellectuals” who have conducted serious research and produced a detailed and reasoned report, or an anonymous third-rate hack employed by a “porn baron” to churn out ignorant, hateful, racist bile.

Britain isn’t ‘broke’

“Britain has maxed out its credit card. The level of debt is too high, and the cost of servicing that debt risks bankrupting the UK. We’re in real danger of heading the same way as Greece.”


The ‘maxed-out credit card’ metaphor is actually complete bollocks, and nef (the new economics foundation) has just published a handy mythbuster to expose this metaphor as both false and damaging.

Saturday 6 April 2013

Waiter, there’s a moose in my soup

If your plans this weekend include the middle-class nightmare of a trek round IKEA, you can at least seek solace in the IKEA cafeteria with a portion of moose lasagne. Except that the moose lasagne is off:
Sales of the lasagne, of which about 10,000 tonnes has been produced by a Swedish supplier for IKEA, were stopped at its stores in 18 countries across Europe after tests by Belgian authorities late last month revealed traces of pork.
To confuse matters, the BBC says that IKEA has withdrawn elk lasagne. But that’s OK, because elk is the same thing as moose.

Still, it could have been worse. They could have found traces of horsemeat. But if that were the case, the Belgian authorities would not have considered it a problem.

‘Unease’ about Osborne is not good enough

“Lib Dems attack Osborne for ‘playing politics’ over Philpott” says the front-page headline in today’s Guardian.

But the story beneath does not justify the hype. What does this “Lib Dem attack” actually consist of? According to the Guardian:
A coalition rift was blown into the open when the Liberal Democrats condemned George Osborne for “playing politics” with the deaths of six children after the chancellor highlighted the Mick Philpott case to raise questions about high welfare payments.
Amid deep unease among senior Lib Dems – up to and including Nick Clegg – over the Conservatives’ use of the deaths of six children to make the case for controversial welfare reforms, the party went out of its way to distance itself from the chancellor’s remarks.
Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem chief secretary to the Treasury, who is usually careful not to criticise the chancellor, made clear his unease. “The Philpott case is an individual tragedy,” he said. “Children have died in that case. I think that is where we should let that case lie. I would not want to connect that to the much wider need to reform our welfare system.”
So this is not an attack, merely “deep unease”. Furthermore, only one Liberal Democrat minister (Danny Alexander) has gone on the record, and his remarks are guarded. The only evidence we have for the “deep unease” of other ministers “up to and including Nick Clegg” is unattributable briefings. This doesn’t much sound like “a coalition rift was blown into the open” or that “the party went out of its way to distance itself from the chancellor’s remarks”. In fact, it doesn’t amount to much at all.

The Guardian’s report includes only one genuine Liberal Democrat attack:
In the most hard hitting remarks by a Lib Dem, the party’s former Treasury spokesman accused the chancellor of playing politics with the deaths. Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay said: “You can forgive George Osborne’s immaturity and inexperience as chancellor but not this calculating, callous cruelty. If he can’t see it is wrong to play politics with the death of six children, he is not fit to be chancellor.”
Oakeshott, who acts as an informal adviser to the business secretary Vince Cable, often does not reflect the thinking of the leadership. But Cable is understood to feel that vilifying people on benefits in the way Osborne has done is misplaced.
That’s more like it. Except that Oakeshott is not a member of the government but an outspoken backbench peer known for his off-message remarks. The only other prominent Liberal Democrat to condemn Osborne publicly is Sarah Teather – again, not a member of the government but an ex-minister.

Osborne’s statement is morally disgusting and has poisoned discourse on a controversial subject. Yet the best that Liberal Democrat ministers can do is express their “deep unease” or feelings that Osborne’s view is “misplaced”, and only then via their spokespeople’s unattributable briefings.

If Liberal Democrat ministers had openly expressed their revulsion in similar terms to Matthew Oakeshott, the Guardian’s headline would have been justified. As it is, we must conclude that there is no “rift” in the coalition, barely a ripple.

Friday 5 April 2013

Get out your chequebooks – it’s Kim Jong-un

Does anyone seriously believe that the current wave of bellicosity from North Korea justifies Britain spending £20 billion-plus on renewing Trident?

David Cameron does. But then as David Grace points out, Cameron believes in three impossible things before breakfast:
  1. North Korea wants to launch a nuclear attack against the UK alone, not involving the USA or anyone else.
  2. North Korea is capable of delivering a nuclear attack against the UK.
  3. North Korea, which is not put off by the US nuclear and conventional capability, will be put off by Trident or its successor.
In today’s Guardian, Simon Jenkins – no left-wing disarmer – demolishes Cameron’s spurious arguments and exposes them as nothing more than the self-interest of the defence lobby:
The lunacies of a Korean dictator halfway round the world is music to the ears of defence lobbyists, arms manufacturers, security consultants, generals and admirals. It should rescue a few billion pounds from the cuts. All cry with one voice, “the Koreans are coming. Spend, spend, spend”. And the politicians capitulate, Cameron and the coalition, Ed Miliband and Labour, the Treasury, the press. Kim Jung-un has them on the run. He must be laughing.
And anyway, how can the North Koreans unleash and let slip the dogs of war? They’ve already eaten them.

Have they no shame?

“HBOS: Regulator’s findings shame three executives who brought down a bank” says the headline in today’s Guardian.

I thought the point was that these bank executives had no shame to begin with.

Thursday 4 April 2013

Where is the evidence for evidence-based policy?

‘Evidence-based policy’ seems to be all the rage these days. And little wonder. Because it is actually fallacy-based policy that is all the rage.

Reactions to the Philpott manslaughter case are the most recent example. The tone was set by yesterday’s appalling Daily Mail front page. The airwaves have been full of Tory MPs – oblivious of the old adage ‘hard cases make bad law’ – claiming that the Philpott case is an argument for cutting back on welfare payments generally.

Nick Clegg’s immigration speech last week was informed primarily by a need to mollify popular irrational feelings about immigration.

The most notorious case was the MMR vaccine controversy, which led to a sharp drop in vaccination rates, resulting in several deaths. And as the news from Swansea shows, this 15-year-old groundless scare is a gift that keeps giving.

Fallacies are powerful. They are promoted by charlatans, whipped up by the tabloids, swallowed whole by a credulous and irrational public, and adopted by cynical politicians eager to follow rather than lead public opinion.

And these fallacies are not isolated cases. Their prevalence can be judged by the need for websites like Dr Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science blog, Channel 4 News’s FactCheck Blog, and the independent fact-checking organisation Full Fact.

There is a rational answer to all these fallacies: evidence-based policy. Never mind fallacies, prejudices and dogma; just ask the experts what the evidence says and – hey presto! – there’s your evidence-based policy. And why stop there? If there is one evidence-based answer to every political question, why bother with elected politicians? We could simply be governed by unelected technocrats.

There’s just one snag. Technocracy has no place for morals. Which is important, because politics is ultimately about making moral choices. Evidence-based policy can tell you “what works” but even that is problematic. As Alex Worsnip explains on Prospect magazine’s blog:
The notion of “what works” is amorphous and vague. One can only assess whether something is working against some kind of a standard for what a well-functioning society looks like; for what it is that you want to work and how. As an economist might put the point, you have to have a utility function to maximise; you can’t just maximise.
Is a society “working” if GDP rises steadily but citizens are drastically unequal? What about if people of different races and religions have different access to opportunities and goods? These questions are ineliminably moral, and must be answered in detail before we can have a useable notion of “what works.” The attempt to find some value-neutral standpoint from which to assess what works – the aspiration for an escape from ideology altogether – is an impossible one. Deciding how to weigh up different social benefits and harms is hard; it goes to the core of what we want our society to be like. But these questions are just made harder by reducing a vast swathe of distinct and often competing considerations to a single, sweeping judgement of “what works.”
The error here is not just a philosophical one. When politicians talk about what works, they make tacit assumptions about various moral questions concerning the proper aims of public policy. But by presenting themselves as “non-ideological pragmatists,” they get away with leaving these assumptions unarticulated and undefended. And so we get a particular value-laden agenda – often, though not always, that of the ruling class – smuggled in, under the banner of anodyne pronouncements about the need to sometimes make compromises or to be sensitive to empirical evidence.
At its worst, this can amount to making a set of value-assumptions seem like incontestable and ineradicable features of the world; to what the sociologist Max Weber called the “routinisation” of value. Those who oppose a particular agenda are characterised as “living in the past” or as failing to recognise the facts of the modern world. Likewise, talk of “possibility” is frequently used to delimit the range of political options, without it being made clear in what sense and why a particular course of action is supposedly “impossible.”
In short, ‘evidence-based policy’ carries the risk that it can be exploited by politicians claiming that theirs is the only option. It can be used to deny alternatives and shut down debate. This outlook is the source of Nick Clegg’s dubious claims that he is not ideological but “pragmatic”.

On the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog, Professor Michael Bassey suggests that the problems with evidence-based policy are basically methodological, arguing that the best we can hope for is “what may work” rather than a definitive solution. He is correct up to a point, but ignores the moral dimension.

We should always insist that policies do not fly in the face of the evidence. But evidence does not resolve moral questions, and moral choices are what politics is ultimately about.

Wednesday 3 April 2013

Wonks who don’t get out much

Coalition government is likely to become the norm in Britain because of the long-term decline in the combined vote of the Conservative and Labour parties (it peaked at 97% in 1951 and slowly fell to a postwar low of 65% in 2010).

But coalitions, now routine in local government, are still regarded as a novelty in national government. John Kampfner argues today on the Guardian’s Comment is free blog that, because coalition government is more likely, we need to learn to do coalitions better. He also suggests, paradoxically, that coalition could enable the parties to abandon “the Blairite straitjacket of triangulation that so stifles choice and debate”.

Kampfner acknowledges that the mistakes of the present coalition are partly due to the rushed procedure for coming to an agreement. But there is something else:
...there is a far bigger lesson, and it goes to the heart of the disconnect between the Westminster village and the rest of the country. The demographics of British politics are bad enough, but what happens when all the parties cleave towards similar policies and a small voting pool? On immigration, the three leaders find themselves dancing to Ukip’s tune. On criminal justice, drugs policy, Europe and elsewhere the recipes on offer, for all the rhetorical positioning that goes on, sometimes vary only at the margins.
Even on the burning issues of the moment – welfare, NHS reform and economic cuts – when it comes to the general election, how different will they sound when they are probed on the specifics of their commitments, and what these would commitments?
None of this should come as a surprise. Our rarefied political class is uniformly obsessed with the legacy of Tony Blair. The former prime minister bequeathed the art of triangulation – find out where your opponents are on any issue, and plonk yourself right in the middle. This is usually called “being on the side of the hard-working family”. It should be called the politics of caution. The hard worker/non-shirker/squeezed middle is a construct of wonks who don’t get out much. Voters have more variety, and are best served when given a choice.
Coalitions, far from limiting that choice, could – if done properly next time around – increase the options available. Parties could be required to set out before the election, as during any negotiations that take place afterwards, what they would be prepared to trade and what they would stick to: their “red lines”.
The risk-averse politics of triangulation does not offend voters but nor does it galvanise their support. It is why the Liberal Democrats remain stuck at 10% in the polls. Kampfner continues:
The Lib Dems, the beneficiary of coalitions, should rediscover some of their old radicalism, both for their own prospects and to reintroduce greater political choice. Clegg is correct when he juxtaposes the responsibilities of office against what he calls the empty wish lists of opposition.
Like any party, Clegg’s cannot and should not get all it wants. But the triangulation of the Blair era was little more than managerialism and safety first. It was the politics of a small minority of floating voters, and it was based in closing down areas of controversy. Paradoxically it was the Lib Dems who offered something different. Within Labour, the signals are mixed. Does the party think electoral success resides in an electorally self-selecting straitjacket, or does it have the courage to present something more galvanising?
Now, tragically, the only party that is refusing to play the game of cautious consensus is Ukip. Meanwhile, regarding the biggest issues of the moment – such as the failings of the financial system that led to the crash, the global shifts to the east and the rise of a new authoritarian model – mainstream politics is largely silent.
The reason Clegg repeatedly offends his party on issues such as secret courts and immigration is that he is being repeatedly advised to triangulate. To get out of this rut, he needs to set about his advisers and sack the “wonks who don’t get out much” – the merchants of triangulation, the believers in the “hard worker/non-shirker/squeezed middle”, the risk-averse advocates of converging on a mythical ‘centre ground’, the calculating cynics who believe you should construct policy on the basis of this week’s focus group data. If he doesn’t get rid of them but continues to triangulate, eventually the party will get rid of him.

The balance of Cameron’s competences

France and Germany have decided to have nothing to do with David Cameron’s review of the powers of the European Union. And they are quite right.

They consider that the UK government’s ‘review of the balance of competencies’, launched at the insistence of the Conservative half of the coalition, is a “domestic political exercise”, which it plainly is. If several EU member states had agreed that a comprehensive review were necessary, this project would have some legitimacy, but they haven’t, so it doesn’t.

The sole purpose of this review is to enable the British Conservative Party to mollify its eurosceptic wing sufficiently to avoid an internal split, while fending off the electoral threat from UKIP. To propose a review on these parochial grounds is imperial conceit of the highest order. Does anyone seriously believe that any sort of fundamental constitutional review for a 27-member union should be based primarily on the selfish needs of just one party in one member state?

France and Germany also point out, quite rightly, that you cannot have an “à la carte” approach to EU membership. When you join a club, you must abide by its rules. Of course, all the member states have a say in what those rules should be. The UK, as one of the larger member states, has more say than most, or would if the Tories were not so maladroit at making friends and influencing people.

The British Tories would rather the EU were simply a loose, free trade area. If that is what they really want, they need to build a coalition behind it by mobilising allies across the EU. Instead, they pulled out of the main right-wing bloc in the EU (the EPP, the largest group in the European Parliament) and formed a rival right-wing bloc (the ECR, a rag-bag of “nutters and homophobes” – Nick Clegg’s words, not ours).

And anyway, why should France and Germany care what David Cameron thinks? They know that he is unlikely to be able to leap all the hurdles he has set himself and won’t be around for much longer. As John Palmer points out:
The survey [the UK government’s review] is one part of a carefully orchestrated campaign designed to lead up to a possible referendum on EU membership, to be held towards the end of 2017. This, of course, will be well after the next general election and is designed to follow on what London expects will be a major new EU constitutional treaty to give the Euro area sweeping new powers.
The prime minister’s strategy therefore depends on him successfully clearing three critical hurdles. First: survive as leader of the Conservative party up to the general election. Second: win the next UK election with a clear overall Tory majority. Third: trading demands for the UK to be given a special semi-detached status in the EU in return for not blocking a new treaty for euro-area economic and political union.
There are obvious question marks over all three stages.
The irony is that all this nationalist posturing by the Tories is actually harming the national interest. As this morning’s Guardian leader argues, it is marginalising Britain and diminishing its influence. But then the Tories are so short-sighted and unimaginative that symbols of national pride matter more to them than the substance of national influence.

Tuesday 2 April 2013

Ex-UKIP MEP admits UKIP’s climate policy is “very amateurish”

An exclusive story from EurActiv:
An ex-UK Independence Party (UKIP) MEP says that the party’s climate change scepticism was callow and so eccentric that party press officers often had to contradict the views of its climate spokesman, Lord Monckton.
“The policy was very rudimentary and their [climate change] position was very amateurish,” said Marta Andreasen, who left UKIP to join the Conservatives in February.
“Climate change is not a reality for UKIP,” she added.
The more you hear about UKIP, the more you realise what a shambles it is. So the question is why it has become so popular. The grumpy old right-wing Daily Express-reading vote can account for only part of it.

The main reason UKIP can thrive is that the three mainstream parties are all converging on an illusory ‘centre ground’ (as discussed previously here, here and here), with a similar non-ideological and managerialist approach, and so appear indistinguishable to voters. The Liberal Democrats, in losing the ‘protest vote’, seem to have forgotten why so many voters were disillusioned with the political system and protested in the first place.

Coming soon: new edition of Liberator magazine

The new edition of Liberator magazine is at the printers and subscribers will receive it next week. More details of the new edition’s contents will appear on this blog shortly.

To make sure you receive your copy, subscribe here.

Next up: the minimum wage

Unlike our report on electoral reform yesterday, this is no joke. The government’s Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (which I seem to recall has two Liberal Democrat ministers in it) is worried the minimum wage may be too high.

Well, let’s have a look at the minimum wage. The rate for people aged 21 or over is currently £6.19 per hour. Does that sound too high to you? How would you know? You are probably middle class and think in terms of an annual salary, so let’s convert it into terms you will understand. Assuming a 40-hour week and paid holidays, £6.19 X 40 X 52 = £12,875. For people aged 18 to 20, the minimum wage is £4.98 per hour. £4.98 X 40 X 52 = £10,358. But these annual amounts are a best-case scenario since, for many low-paid people, work is often casual and holidays not always paid.

There is an argument that the minimum wage harms the economy and here is Jo Swinson (who ought to know better) making it:
Employment minister Jo Swinson said in February: “The level of employment is now above its pre-recession peak, but the employment rate is below the pre-recession peak.
“This means that we believe that caution is required – particularly as the minimum wage rate is now at its highest ever level relative to average earnings for adults, and remains high for young people.”
She is motivated by a fear that the minimum wage acts as a disincentive to job creation, but that is only the case if your job creation strategy is a race to the bottom on wages. Taken to its logical extreme, the government could eliminate unemployment tomorrow if it eliminated pay altogether.

Meanwhile, depressing pay levels can only harm the economy. First, low-paid people must spend what they have – they don’t have a surplus to save – so their income goes straight into the local economy to buy goods and services, which helps the economy. Second, the lower pay levels are, the more the government has to subsidise stingy employers in the form of Income Support. Leaving aside the arguments about unemployment benefits, surely anyone in full-time work should be paid enough to live on?

But then these arguments will cut little ice with those for whom austerity is more of a religion than a rational policy.

Postscript: The Living Wage Foundation has calculated the living wage for both London and the rest of the UK. For London, it is £8.55 per hour and for the rest of the UK £7.45. Converted to annual salary equivalents, that is (£8.55 X 40 X 52 =) £17,784 and (£7.45 X 40 X 52 =) £15,496 respectively, in both cases more than the statutory minimum wage. So, Jo Swinson, still worried that the minimum wage is “high”?

Monday 1 April 2013

Is Britain a more liberal society?

Henry Porter in yesterday’s Observer has his doubts:
Tolerance of gender, sexual and racial differences is certainly much greater today. But can Britain be described as a more liberal society after a month that has seen all parties support legislation that will effectively license the press, and a second bill introducing secret hearings in civil cases pass through the Lords, with Liberal Democrat peers whipped to oppose amendments that were designed to support open and natural justice? I’ll come to the Lib Dems later, but the short answer is no.
There have been gains and losses in recent decades. Nowadays, we accept gay rights and people can say f**k on television. But more fundamental liberties are being sacrificed:
Things are happening that would have been unimaginable to democrats across the political spectrum 30 years ago. Personal rights have expanded and tolerance undeniably has increased, but at the same time we are behaving as though liberty were a limitless resource that can be endlessly compromised without loss to the individual, or to the sum total of rights that define our free society.
Porter said “I’ll come to the Lib Dems later” and he does:
That the Liberal Democrat party lost or betrayed its principles so quickly in government is, I suppose, to be expected, and I have to confess to very little surprise when I read Nick Clegg’s weaselly speech on immigration, which seemed to proclaim tolerance yet contained the subsonic message of rightwing dog-whistle politics. With every day that passes, he looks more and more like a member of Blair’s second administration home affairs team.
The problem is that as the liberal voice is all but disappearing from parliament we have a generation of leaders in their 40s who will seem almost indistinguishable to future historians. Clegg’s betrayal of liberal values was simply part of the process of his becoming a member of the pragmatic, basically non-ideological, homogenised governing class, which on these issues of liberty moves in lockstep.
British politics these days is reminiscent of beer in the 1970s, when the big brewers almost destroyed Britain’s brewing culture and the wide variety of beers. They wanted to replace them with a few bland, homogenised, TV-advertised keg beers such as Double Diamond, Courage Tavern and Watney’s Red Barrel. They would have succeeded were it not for CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale), which led a revival of craft brewing.

The blithe dismissal of civil liberties is the Watney’s Red Barrel of politics. We don’t just need a campaign for civil liberties. We need a Campaign for Real Politics.

Clegg to abandon electoral reform?

Following Nick Clegg’s affront to Liberal Democrat members with his support for secret courts and a tougher line on immigration, we speculated last week that the third offence in this sequence would be the ‘Snoopers Charter’. But something else has turned up.

Clegg will today slaughter another sacred cow when he announces the abandonment of the party’s long-held commitment to electoral reform. Liberator has seen an advance copy of a speech that Clegg will deliver this morning at an event hosted by the right-of-centre think tank Policy Exchange.

The speech starts off with some fine words about the importance of constitutional reform and rebuilding people’s trust in the political system. But about halfway through, Clegg drops this bombshell:
My party will always advocate an electoral system that respects the wishes of every voter. But, at the last election, we promised to introduce a system of fairer votes. We said we would introduce proportional representation and expressed a preference for the single transferable vote.
We felt it was an honest and pragmatic solution to the problem of people’s lack of trust in politicians. Better surely, we asked, to introduce a fairer system of voting so that the House of Commons would more accurately reflect popular opinion.
But, despite the policy’s aims, it was seen by many people as a reward for parties that came third. Or sometimes even lower. And so it risked undermining public confidence in the electoral system. The very public confidence that is essential to building a democratic Britain. That is why I am no longer convinced this specific policy should be retained in our manifesto for the next General Election.
So I have asked Lord John Sharkey, who did such a sterling job running the AV referendum campaign, to lead a review of this and our other constitutional policies in the run up to 2015.
Strictly speaking, of course, Clegg isn’t formally altering party policy. But as with last week’s speech on immigration, any nuances will be lost. Phrases like “I am no longer convinced” and calls for a “review” will be interpreted by the media as a definitive change of policy.

Members of the party’s Federal Policy Committee were told about the speech last week but were not shown its contents. However, during preliminary discussions on the party’s next manifesto, they were informed that Clegg feels the results of the AV referendum in 2011 have pushed the issue off the table for the foreseeable future and that the party should concentrate its campaigning elsewhere.

Liberator understands that opinion among Clegg’s advisers remains divided. The ‘doves’ are arguing that electoral reform of some unspecified kind – though not AV – should be retained in the manifesto but that it should not be given any great emphasis. The ‘hawks’ believe that, with the public having shown its view so emphatically two years ago, Clegg should bow to the weight of opinion, rule out any form of PR and come out explicitly in favour of first-past-the-post.

Although, on the face of it, the tentative wording of the speech suggests that the doves have won this argument, the spinning going on behind the scenes indicates that the real winners are the hawks. Their agenda seems to be to maintain the coalition with the Tories beyond 2015.

The hawks have been briefing journalists recently that Clegg’s experience of working closely in government with the Conservatives has opened his eyes to the merits of their point of view on this and several other key issues, including secret courts and immigration. They are saying that, after five years in a coalition, the public expects to see the Liberal Democrats take a series of positions closer to the Conservatives. They add that getting proportional representation out of the way will help cement voters’ views of the party as a slightly more moderate and sensible version of the Conservatives, which is the political space Clegg wants to occupy.

Clegg’s support for secret courts and his populist position on immigration suggest that such a strategy is already being implemented. Further evidence is that Clegg has asked his adviser Julian Astle to conduct market research on a possible slogan for the 2015 election campaign, with one front-runner being ‘Liberal Democrats – the conservative party for thinking people’.

The dropping of electoral reform will cause deep unease within the Liberal Democrats, given the long attachment of many members to this cause. Indeed, today’s speech is bound to spark another internal row, probably even greater than the one over secret courts. The dispute will fester until the party’s autumn conference, where the Social Liberal Forum and Liberal Reform, in a rare show of unity, are already planning to submit a motion reaffirming party policy in favour of STV. The leadership will doubtless try every trick in the book to keep such a motion off the conference agenda, possibly by substituting a more anodyne motion of their own. If these manoeuvres fail and an uncompromising pro-PR motion is debated, the leadership will struggle to defeat it since it will attract the votes of most delegates, apart from those who have died of boredom after having STV explained to them by people in yellow sweatshirts.

In any event, we should know the truth of Clegg’s intentions by noon today.