Saturday, 29 November 2008

Friday, 28 November 2008

Freedom of information and Jacqui Smith

It's the fingerprints of our dangerously libertarian Home Secretary that are to be found all over the preposterous arrest of Damian Green, a politician whose name had been quite unknown to the general public until yesterday.

Sometimes our Government seems to have a death wish, and Jacqui seems keen to be seen at the front of the queue as always. You'd have thought Gordon had more than enough problems right now without any intervention on Ms Smith's part.

At least she kept a well-judged sense of proportion in ordering the arrest when she decided to use the anti-terrorist squad; Mr Green will be grateful that he's still alive. Honestly, you'd have thought they had enough work keeping on top of all the terrorists crowding our country (if Ms Smith is to be believed) without 'taking out' opposition MPs who manage to cause ministers a little embarrassment now and then.

I've spoken here before on the misuse of the anti-terrorist laws, and this latest farce reinforces my belief that politicians start abusing such legislation almost before the ink's dry. If only we already had our identity cards; that would certainly have scuppered Mr Green's criminal conspiracy before it even got going, wouldn't it?

What do you mean, the Government weren't consulted ahead of Mr Green's arrest? Everyone else seems to have been.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

The budget that wasn't a budget

It would be an understatement to say that I'm underwhelmed by Alastair Darling's latest tinkering; for reasons I've discussed many times, I don't think that the solutions on offer are going to save the world's financial institutions, merely ensure that Britain owes them an inconceivable amount of money.

What would I have liked to have seen? To the extent that money being put into the economy may at least cushion the worse of the recession, I would have liked to have seen the return of the 10p tax rate, and extending further upwards than before. Since those with low earnings are the most likely to spend their money it would tend to boost trade too. But doing that would of course require the Government to admit that they had been wrong to abolish it in the first place.

As far as possible, I'd have funded the tax cut by getting rid of most of the allowances and other mechanisms that enable the wealthy and big businesses to avoid paying taxes. An end to offshore subsidiaries selling 'services' to their UK parents for starters. An end to trust funds whose primary objective is to transfer property down succeeding generations of a family without the inconvenience of having to pay death duties. A firm clampdown on tax havens.

I suspect those two measures alone would fund the tax reductions, and have a far greater effect in reducing inequality in our society.

While we're about it, bin the ludicrously expensive, pointless and unwanted Identity Card scheme. If the Government were prepared to admit they'd got it wrong on that one they'd be able to save a few bob, that's for sure.

Trident. Do we need to renew it? No of course we don't.

VAT? Forget it; bringing it down to 15% is little more than pissing in the wind. Laughable. Some things are best left alone.

If our economy picks up, it will be because other rather better run economies have improved rather than the result of any efforts on the part of our Chancellor. He'd have served us far better if he'd looked for a way forward that called time on our credit culture once and for all. Even allowing for the unpopular nature of such a route, I'm not sure Mr Darling has even grasped the need to consider it.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Illegal immigrants and the need for an amnesty

Boris Johnson has been advocating an amnesty for illegal immigrants for some time, and is now planning to increase the pressure for change by setting up a study to assess how it would benefit society.

He's quite right of course, so it's singularly disappointing to see the responses he's had so far from the Immigration minister among others. Cracking down hard on immigrants plays well with what remains of the Daily Mail element of the Government's support (did such support ever exist?) but all too frequently politicians seem blind to the law of unintended consequences.

One obvious example has been the growing reluctance to allow seasonal migrant workers to come here in the crop-picking season. Has that meant that such work has been taken by underemployed 'British Workers'? Of course it doesn't; it means that large quantities of fruit and vegetables have been left to rot, which is one of the factors in rapidly rising food prices.

There are many jobs that are both unattractive and low-paid that won't get done unless people come and do them outside the framework imposed by taxation and employment legislation. I doubt if James Purnell is going to pursuade the great unemployed to take them on either. Our Government is not alone in publicly denouncing illegal immigrants whilst at the same time using them to prop up the comforts of an affluent society.

Boris Johnson is right on this, and Gordon Brown, James Purnell, Phil Woolas et al. should have the courage to say so rather than pandering yet again to our unpleasant tabloid press.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Spending our way out of trouble

It’s curious how a major financial crisis has been the saving of Gordon Brown, regardless of his own role in precipitating it. A month or so ago, you’d have got something approaching even money that it would have been a toss up for who would be forming Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition come the next General Election, the Lib Dems or the SNP. Now though Labour have coasted the Glenrothes by-election, and the latest opinion polls suggest that the electorate agree (as does much of the world) with Gordon’s recent assertion that this is ‘no time for a novice’. Certainly not for George Osborne, whose reputation will not recover easily from his schmoozing with that Russian oligarch.

Vince Cable on the other hand is looking very much the man. Every major step the Government has taken has been proposed beforehand by Vince, and the LibDems are appearing foolish only in that they preferred the hapless Nick Clegg as party leader. A week or so ago, he was the object of Labour sneers over his proposal to cut taxes but already it appears that the Government are now about to do just that, with cuts targeted at those most likely to spend the money when they get it.

So what is it that is actually happening? To me it appears like this:

  1. The banks run out of ready cash after years of reckless, unsustainable lending (this one at least seems inarguable).
  2. The Government bail out the banks, at massive cost, by borrowing the money to do so since it has none of its own.
  3. Since this solves nothing, the Government now give people money to spend, once again borrowing the money to do so since its already up to its ears in debt.

This they hope will bring us right back to where we started; property prices rising, the banks lending lots of money, people spending money they don’t really possess at all, but with one major difference. The Government has placed itself in the self same position as everyone else; owing lots of money with no reasonable prospect of repaying it. The last time this happened (with somewhat different historical causes) was when Harold 'you've never had it so good' Macmillan was occupying Number 10, and leaving the incoming Labour government to pick up the pieces.

The Government was of course already deep in debt, not least from its fondness for PFI schemes, which represent a 'buy now, pay later' approach to public finances popular in part because the consequent debt is conveniently hidden when it comes to the balance sheet.

Is cutting taxes the answer to our problems? Of course not, it just defers the day of judgement ever further. Since the people who pay taxes are in the main those who already have money, they are the ones least likely to be having problems. What we do need though is a realignment of our tax system so that the obscenely wealthy pay a higher proportion of tax, and those on low salaries pay less. This has beneficial knock-on effects that might not be immediately apparent. For example, if a City trader had paid considerably more of that end-of-year bonus in tax, he would have had somewhat less left to spend on property; that would have reduced the inflationary spiral of property prices not only round London and the home counties, but across the country as a whole as demand for second (or third, or fourth) homes would have been reduced.

When Gordon Brown took over as PM he promised a Government of 'all the talents'. If he still holds to that, he should get down on his knees and plead with Vince Cable to join the Cabinet as Chancellor. Unlike his Labour counterparts, Mr Cable doesn't hold back from saying the unpopular, that the only way to justify tax cuts for the low paid is to increase them for those who earn above the norm. In the end public services (and other debts) have to be paid for and by the public, not by paying derisory wages to those who work in the sector.

In the meantime, Gordon's decision to scrap the 10p tax band is looking increasingly foolish.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Lord Saville and the Bloody Sunday enquiry

Lord Saville's enquiry into the events surrounding Bloody Sunday makes the Lady Diana Spencer inquest seem the absolute model of brevity and commonsense. Now the news is that he has postponed his report for another year.

His enquiry actually has a remarkable similarity to Diana's inquest in that just about everyone knows what happened, and consequently the conclusion that is likely to be reached. It would have saved a lot of time and money if our Government, which has certainly known all along what happened, had simply owned up and apologised. All the more remarkable that it didn't, given that in general the only mistakes Tony Blair wasn't prepared to apologise for were his own.

The enquiry stopped hearing witnesses four years ago yet it has proved a continuing gravy train for members of the legal profession. Even now, when you'd have thought that there was little left to fund beyond a supply of quill pens, ink and paper it is costing more than Jonathan Ross' BBC salary (the one he was getting before he was suspended that is).

You can keep up-to-date with Lord Saville's progress in some detail through the enquiry's own website. Unfortunately, you will also need considerable telepathic powers to do so since the website has not been updated for several years now.

I'd like to save Lord Saville time and effort (he could have had my advice ten years and £182m ago if he'd asked). Some members of the Paratroop Regiment opened fire on demonstrators without good cause, and 14 innocent people died as a consequence. Given all the circumstances during the 'troubles', it is surprising that this was in most respects a unique event. Lord Widgery's report was a shameful whitewash. The families of those who died should be offered an unreserved apology (and compensation if that's what they want) and we should move on.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

You're having a laugh...

The age of comedy is not yet dead. Don't believe me? Try here.

Dust to dust

There's a certain satisfaction to be had from knowing that the Pope didn't exactly get things all his own way.

Hazel Blears: bloggers and cynicism

Hazel Blears (one of the more obscure members of the Cabinet, I suspect her main responsibility is providing the tea and biscuits) has denounced political blogging, accusing it of feeding a climate of cynicism towards the political process in this country.

I can only apologise; this blog is unashamedly cynical. Despite what Ms. Blears might think, that is not because I have been reading other political blogs, in fact quite the opposite. My cynicism stems from politicians who are all too often incompetent beyond measure, who are prepared to lie and cheat when it helps them get legislation passed, and who suffer a collective blindness when it comes to their assault on our civil liberties. Far too many keep their snouts firmly in the trough, in politics not for what they have to contribute but for what they can get out of it . Beyond that, we have a voting system that as often as not denies voters the opportunity to believe that they might actually influence the outcome of an election. Right now we have a Prime Minister who was not chosen by the electorate, who holds no electoral mandate for his policies, and who sits in what would (until recently) have been regarded as one of the safest Parliamentary seats in the country. He is able to choose the date of the next election when he judges it to be most to his advantage. He can only be sacked by an unelected monarch. No grounds for cynicism there then, is there?

I blog partly as an outlet for my frustration at feeling disenfranchised by the form of Parliamentary democracy we enjoy here. Partly because I enjoy exchanging views with others (and not necessarily those who share my political sympathies either). And partly because I know that blogs like this get right up the snout of the Hazel Blears of this world.

The very fact that someone like Ms Blears has a seat round the Cabinet table - that alone is reason enough for cynicism I would have thought.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Hey, hey, LBJ...

It's been a long and exciting night listening to the Presidential election ending of course with a result that is clearly welcome far beyond the US borders . One of the things that struck me most was how the electorate appeared far less polarised than I have ever been conscious of before, which seems to bode well for democracy and not just inside America.

Over here President Johnson is largely remembered for the terrible obscenity that was the Vietnam War. So it's worth remembering the very significant contribution he made to confronting the racial discrimination that was so deeply entrenched in the US in the 1960s; in many ways that period provided the springboard for today's historic event.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Voting intentions

Much is being made of the likelihood that Barack Obama will attract less votes in today's US Presidential election than he would have done otherwise because of his colour. To the extent that happens it's sad since reflects the deep-rooted nature of racism, but should we be unduly concerned?

I rather doubt it. Regardless of colour, the process by which voters in any democracy choose their preferred candidate is (to say the least) complex. Much has been made of John McCain's age by his opponents, and those who reject him on those grounds could reasonably be accused of ageism; it is not as though he is yet of a time of life where he might be expected to shuffle off this mortal coil.

Then there's the gender issue. One of the most bizarre aspects of the election is reports that some feminist voters, erstwhile supporters of Hillary Clinton, are prepared to vote Republican for no other reason than that they've put up a female candidate for VP. That Sarah Palin's neaderthal political views are diametrically opposed to those of Ms. Clinton seems to be of no concern to them; explain that one if you can.

Few of us vote solely on the basis of politics and policies. Voters all carry prejudices into the voting booth, and it is the mark of a democracy that those are tolerated, even where we disapprove.