Welcome to the United Kingdom of Westeros

“One more such victory and I am ruined!” – Pyrrhus

Yes, I was going to catch up on my blogging about Preacher, now some two weeks overdue. But you’ll hopefully appreciate that these last couple of weeks have been a little tumultuous in my country, which overnight on Thursday went from being a peaceable United Kingdom to something more akin to the squabbling factions of Westeros. So I thought maybe I should write something about that. Continue reading “Welcome to the United Kingdom of Westeros”

The Road to Damascus

It’s been a few months now since I’ve written anything on this blog. And what a tumultuous few months they’ve been, in what’s usually the so-called ‘silly season’ when governments go on their hols.

We’ve seen a (in my view) brave man expose the extent to which the US and UK governments are sliding towards full-on totalitarianism, all in the name of ‘security’; revelations for which he’s now on the run, ironically having to seek refuge in nations whose claim to totalitarianism is rarely in doubt.


Continue reading “The Road to Damascus”

How Mr Hammond learned to stop worrying and love Trident

“Our own independent nuclear deterrent… has helped to keep the peace for more than forty years.” – Margaret Thatcher, 1983

“Glory be to the Bomb, and to the Holy Fallout.” – Insane mutant, Beneath the Planet of the Apes


Philip Hammond and his spads inspect the missiles at Faslane

When I was a teenager, in the mid-1980s, it wasn’t a question of if the world would be destroyed in a nuclear holocaust – it was when.

After forty years of teeth-bared, nuclear-armed confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, it felt like a miracle that we were still walking the tightrope and hadn’t fallen off. When hardened Cold Warrior Ronald Reagan was elected US President in 1980, and immediately started referring to the Soviets as “the evil empire”, it felt like we were starting to wobble on that tightrope very alarmingly.

Popular culture reflected our anxieties, warping our expectations and filling us with apocalyptic paranoia. We might have thought the post-nuclear wasteland replete with adventure after movies like Damnation Alley or Mad Max 2, but we were soon disabused of that notion with the horrific realism (and even that was toned down somewhat) of TV movies such as The Day After and Threads, both of which gave the teenage me nightmares for weeks. Even Raymond Briggs, author/artist of cuddly Christmas favourite The Snowman, got in on the act with cartoon downer When the Wind Blows, which gave kids the opportunity to watch two loveable pensioners die a horrifically protracted death of radiation poisoning.

The music too reflected the sense of inevitable impending doom. When the Wind Blows boasted a doomy score by Pink Floyd arch-miserablist Roger Waters, whose 1983 Floyd album The Final Cut ended with a charming depiction of nuclear holocaust, Two Suns in the Sunset (“could be the human race is run”). Liverpool dance pop band Frankie Goes to Hollywood followed up gay sex celebration Relax with the doomy Two Tribes, which opened with a mock nuclear attack announcement and whose video featured lookalikes of the US and USSR Presidents fighting to the death in an arena.

Apocalyptic paranoia goes dance.

Our own Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, had swung back into power after a supreme burst of sabre-rattling in the Falkland Islands, in which she used the sledgehammer of the British military to crush the less than effective conscripts of stupidly aggressive Argentine dictator Leopoldo Galtieri. Following that, she became extremely chummy with Reagan, whose idea of humour was the unintentionally recorded gag, “we begin bombing in five minutes”, which put the Soviet army on a high alert status. We became paranoid that every misinterpreted radar shadow of a flock of geese would spark off a retaliatory ICBM strike. It was only a matter of time.

But by some miracle, it didn’t happen. Against all expectations, President Reagan sat down with new, moderate Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, and negotiated the climbdown from the Cold War that would culminate in the collapse of the totalitarian USSR in 1991. For ten years, we lived free from apocalyptic paranoia – until September 11 2001 brought the golden opportunity of a new threat, different in nature but similarly all-pervading. Guns blazing, George W Bush declared “war on terror”, ignoring the fact that, traditionally, wars are fought between two states, not one state and a mobile group of fanatics with no national allegiance.

Bush’s problem was that, like the First World War generals whose tactic was to charge machine gun emplacements with cavalry, he was trying to fight the war before the one he was actually fighting. Al Qaeda are not “the Reds”, with a conveniently available selection of cities to rain destruction on; they’re a group of fanatical opportunists most of whose weapons consist of vests with TNT sewn into them. Faced with this, “let’s bomb the bastards” makes absolutely no tactical sense, because they’re in the middle of large populations of otherwise innocent people in otherwise innocent states.

And the reason I bring all this up now is that, in the face of all sanity, military strategy and economic good sense, Conservative Defence Minister Philip Hammond is currently making the same mistake. On Monday, before visiting nuclear submarine base Faslane in Scotland, and in direct contradiction of his party’s Coalition Agreement with the Lib Dems, he unilaterally announced the first steps towards purchasing a like for like replacement for Britain’s Cold War missile system, Trident.


“We hold these truths to be self-evident / that all men may be cremated equal” – Vern Partlow, Old Man Atom

This issue has been a political hot potato for some time, and to their credit (whatever their other failings), the Lib Dems seem to be the only English political party who can see this for the massive waste of money and strategic nonsense that it is. Alex Salmond’s SNP, faced with the inconvenience and moral problems of hosting the submarines, has a similar viewpoint. Both make perfect sense – in today’s world, Trident is a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Let’s look at the destructive potential of the system. Here comes the maths bit…

Britain has four Vanguard class submarines, each capable of launching 16 Trident II D-5 missiles, each of which can be tipped with up to 8 W76 warheads, with an explosive yield of 100 kilotons (1 kiloton = 1000 tons) each. That’s a total destructive force equivalent to 51200 kilotons of conventional explosives. To put that into perspective, the bomb that annihilated the city of Hiroshima in 1945 had a yield of 16 kilotons. Just one of the multiple warheads carried by each Trident missile is more than six times as destructive as that. Altogether, Britain’s nuclear capability is equivalent to 3200 Hiroshimas.

Now, it is fair to say that the 2010 Strategic Spending Review has limited that substantially, halving the number of missiles each submarine will carry to eight, and limiting the number of warheads carried to a total of 40. That has massively reduced the destructive potential available at any one time to a mere 250 Hiroshimas. But don’t get too relieved – we’re keeping a (reduced) total of 120 warheads actually available; that’s 750 Hiroshimas. And we could strap them onto the missiles and load those missiles at any time – I doubt we’d tell anyone.

This massively excessive destructive potential sort of made sense as a ‘deterrent’ at the height of the Cold War, with two ideologically opposed blocs, armed to the teeth with nukes, growling at each other. The theory was that nobody would launch a first strike for fear of facing equal retaliation; you can’t win a war if the entirety of civilisation is destroyed (which ignored the probability that even if only one side launched its nukes it would effectively devastate the planet). This strategy was known as Mutually Assured Destruction, with the all too appropriate acronym MAD.

But, militarily speaking, what threats do we face now? Learning lessons from Germany, most international rivals now know that the way to best your rivals is not to conquer them but to buy them. Ignoring the small clutch of nations with a limited nuclear capability (North Korea, Israel, potentially Iran) that can’t hold a candle to the West’s nuclear arsenal, the only states currently posing a similar threat to the Soviet Union are China and Russia. Both are too gripped in their own newfound love of capitalism to risk nuclear war; China in particular, by dint of holding the debts for most of the West, doesn’t even need to. All it needs to do is send round the repo men.

So we’re left with the threat that Western governments have built up, propaganda-wise as the baddies since the demise of the USSR – terror. And more specifically, terrorists. Government press releases and hysterical news media bombard us daily with nightmare scenarios of suitcase bombs, suicide vests and the ever-looming shadow of the Twin Towers airliner attacks.

Against that, what on Earth is the point of launching a multiple warhead intercontinental ballistic missile? Even if the so-far-unproven spectre of small nations (like Iraq) developing “weapons of mass destruction” comes true, those weapons will be like peashooters against rockets compared to even conventional Western forces. A massive nuclear strike – against any of our current enemies and likely any we may face in future – makes precisely zero strategic sense.

“It’s the last thing they’ll be expecting – a daylight charge over the minefield.” – Arnold J Rimmer, Red Dwarf


And yet, at the “leaders’ debates” just before the 2010 General Election, both Gordon Brown and David Cameron emphatically insisted that Trident must be replaced with a similar/identical system to maintain Britain’s defences. Why? It made no sense then, and makes even less now, with the repeated mantra that “there’s no money left”. With the massive slashing in public spending on society’s sick and vulnerable, how on earth can anyone justify spending billions on a massive military white elephant?

Brown then, and Cameron now, made no sense from a military perspective in retaining such phenomenal destructive power. With Cameron, you can at least understand the perspective of trying desperately to shore up the illusion that Britain somehow retains the weight it once had as an international power – after all, the very nature of Conservatism is to cling to the past and try to reverse progress. Brown’s Labour Party had no such excuse, and neither does Miliband, who’s been conspicuously quiet on the subject.

However, I’d guess that neither wishes to upset the American defence industry, from whom Trident and any potential replacement would be bought and maintained. Estimates of the overall cost (including new submarines, new missiles, and new or refurbished warheads, plus ongoing maintenance) vary wildly from £25 billion (2006/7 government figures) to £97 billion (2009 Greenpeace estimate). Still, that’s a drop in the ocean compared to the US annual defence budget of $1.4 trillion, most of which I’m pretty sure is spent at home. Put simply, the US defence industry is not desperate for the billions we’d give them, whatever politicians might think. The people of the United Kingdom, on the other hand, are – certainly if George Osborne is to be believed.

To be fair to the pro- camp, all those billions would not be spent in one great lump, whatever the opposition might say or imply. The costs cover a thirty year period; however, it’s still estimated at £1.5 billion to £2 billion per year. That’s a pretty massive sum to be wasting on a weapons system that, even if it made strategic sense as a deterrent, could never actually be used. Particularly when Osborne insists that £10 billion needs to be slashed from the benefit budget because the nation can’t afford it.

And to be fair to the anti- camp, not replacing Trident with an identical system is not the same as complete unilateral disarmament (as espoused in Michael Foot’s 1983 Labour manifesto aka “the longest suicide note in history”). Other nuclear weapons are available. Ideally, ones with slightly more precision than Trident, whose smallest possible effect is the destruction of an entire city. I’d argue that we probably do need nuclear weapons. Just not blunt instruments. Iran is not going to gain the nuclear capability of the USSR overnight; it took them decades to reach that level. If that seriously looks like a threat, we could reconsider. But arming ourselves to the teeth just in case is ridiculous.


“It is the nuclear missile Harrods would sell you. What more can I say?” – Sir Humphrey Appleby
“Only that it costs £15 billion and we don’t need it.” – Jim Hacker
“Well, you could say that about anything at Harrods.” – Sir Humphrey Appleby
Yes Prime Minister

In the end, spending billions of pounds on a weapons system that no longer makes strategic sense, at a time when, if its proponents are to be believed, we are so desperately short of money that austerity is the only possible solution, is utterly, completely bonkers. Why should other countries seeking to acquire nuclear capability listen to us taking the moral high ground when we can’t give up our own Cold War toys? And regardless of your party allegiance, can you honestly say that a very expensive way of waving your willy around to look important matters more than caring for the vulnerable in your society?

If, like me, you’re old enough to remember the all-pervading fear and certainty of destruction in those last days of the Cold War, it should be enough to cure you of any nostalgic tendencies about it. But the Conservatives love the past, and are intent on hurtling us back there, convinced that it was always a halcyon Golden Age better than the one we have now. Buying another dose of Mutually Assured Destruction may satisfy Philip Hammond’s nostalgic urges, but to the rest of us, it’s just MAD.

The venomous Cameron and the amphibious Clegg


There’s a well-known fable involving a scorpion and a frog. The scorpion, keen for nebulous reasons to be on the other side of a river, asks a nearby frog to help out by carrying him over. The frog is dubious. “How do I know you won’t sting me?”, he asks. The scorpion, reasonably, replies that if he did, they would both die. So the frog, naively, agrees to the plan, and inevitably, halfway across, the scorpion stings him. “Why did you do that?” gasps the dying frog. “You know that we’ll both die now!” The scorpion is phlegmatic: “It’s my nature. I can’t change it.”

This charming tale came to mind on Monday, when BBC News managed to find a space in between its wall-to-wall Olympic coverage for some actual news. Said news was a dejected looking Nick Clegg seeming to finally realise the nature of the predatory beast he’d harnessed himself and his party to. He’d called a press conference to announce that the last of the Lib Dems’ central policy planks, the reform of the House of Lords, was to be abandoned in the face of overwhelming opposition not just from Labour, but from the Lib Dems’ own coalition partners/masters, the venomous Conservative Party.

It took Clegg rather longer than that mythic frog to feel the repeated stings his ‘allies’ barbed tail was inflicting on his party’s policies. The Tories granted him his cherished referendum on reforming the electoral system, then despite careful negotiations defeated him at the polls with a hell-for-leather opposition campaign infinitely better funded and organised than that in support of the motion. They allowed him his increase in the income tax lower threshold – while at the same time slashing the top rate of tax for their hyper-rich cronies (sorry, ‘job creators’ – ha!) and rejecting his proposed ‘mansion tax’, a variation on another cherished Lib Dem policy, Land Value Tax. And all this after beginning their marriage of convenience by forcing the Lib Dems to not only abandon their policy of opposing rises to, and trying to abolish, university tuition fees, but actually twisting their arms to tacitly support having the fees trebled.

Yes, the Lib Dems have wrung some small concessions from the Tories (see my previous blog on this), to the extent that Cameron has had to tell the press that he could “govern like a true Tory” if only it weren’t for those pesky Lib Dems, in an attempt to placate his more barking rightwing backbenchers. But to the voting public, those concessions are small fry compared with the formerly compassionate-seeming Lib Dems’ complicity in slashing the Welfare State and laying the groundwork for further privatisation of the much-loved NHS.

And in any case, the public image of the Lib Dems rests primarily on those central planks they’ve been so vocal on in the past – abolition of tuition fees, the reform of the voting system, and the reform of the House of Lords. With the first two well and truly scuppered by their underhand partners, the forced abandonment of Lords reform was the final sting for Clegg, who miserably took to the air to (finally!) condemn the damage his supposed ‘allies’ were doing not just to him, but to their own party and the government of the country as a whole. Finally discovering some balls, he chose to use them in precisely the wrong way, with a childish tit-for-tat gesture that promised to scupper a cherished Tory policy – the electoral boundary review, which, on the face of it, would gain the Tories more seats in a reduced Commons to the detriment of both Labour and the Lib Dems.

The problem is that, in the minds of the voting public, the Lib Dems are most strongly associated with constitutional reform, and with good reason. As my Lib Dem friend Richard explains in his blog, if you’ve lost faith in the political system because you think it’s broken, nothing about it will work properly until it’s fixed. Trouble is, looked at without partisan goggles, the proposed boundary review does seem a fairer way of dividing votes for the British electorate. Clegg himself said in November 2010 that it would mean "correcting fundamental injustices in how people elect their MPs". And it’s less than certain that the Tories would like or benefit from it as much as he seems to think.

So retaliating against the Conservatives by blocking a policy he should by rights be in favour of, and which they may not be as keen on as he thinks, looks, well, a bit silly really. Unfortunately, this is the same kind of political naivete, derived from years spent in opposition, that produced his other great no-win scenario, tuition fees. Like that debacle, he’s damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t.

If he blocks the boundary changes, he can be seen to be finally standing up to the Tories – but be seen as a hypocrite by many, not least in his own party. If he chooses to retain his integrity and support a constitutional change perfectly in line with his own party’s policies, he’s got nothing in the arsenal left to strike the Tories with, and looks like he’s bent over to let his party get shafted by them for the umpteenth time.

Hindsight is of course a wonderful thing, but I’d say he should have stood firmer ground when the Tory leadership first broke their word and began aggressively campaigning for a ‘no’ vote to the AV referendum. There were any number of cherished Tory policies he could have seriously damaged by withdrawing support back then – the NHS reforms, the welfare reforms, reduction in the top rate of tax – and he might have seriously regained some respect and support for his party in the eyes of the electorate. But they’ve all been passed now, with the tacit or actual support of his party giving them a mandate, and all that’s left to torpedo is a policy that he should, logically, be in favour of.


OK, so what about the other Parliamentary numskulls?


To be fair, no party has emerged from this debacle covered in glory. David Cameron, in particular, now looks incredibly ineffectual as a leader who can’t even deliver his own party’s support for an agreed-for policy. The backbench rebellion of 91 MPs is one of the largest rebellions against the party whips in the history of his party, and the fact that they felt they could get away with it does Cameron’s leadership standing no favours at all. One tweeter commented, accurately, that “Lib Dems thought they were in Coalition with the whole Tory party not just David Cameron”. The backbenchers are making the Tory party look like a reverse ouroboros, a snake whose tail is somehow eating its own head.

Not to mention undermining the tenuous alliance they have with the until-now supine Lib Dems, which they seem to have forgotten is the only thing currently preventing them from struggling through as a minority government. They can’t even go to the polls without a 55% vote of no confidence due to the Fixed Term Parliament Act, the one constitutional reform that has been enacted. Not that they would be likely to win an outright majority this time, but it’s never worth underestimating the power of delusion in the rightwing Conservative ranks. In short, they’ve finally succeeded in alienating the party that is the only thing keeping them properly in power. But like that scorpion of old, that’s Tory nature.


But surely Labour are dealing with this with their usual sensitive maturity?


Labour too look pretty crap here, torpedoing a policy they’ve championed of old as a (supposed) party of the working class. Politics is about compromise, and while the Lords reform might not have been all they wanted, voting for no reform at all feels like cutting off your nose to spite your face. It could always have been built on later, in the increasingly likely result of the next government being Labour. Instead, next time the Tories can fling the accusation that they’ve already rejected it once. It’s the same as those ardent PR supporters who voted no to AV on the grounds that it wasn’t full PR – those opposed now have the ammunition that the British public have already rejected electoral reform.

The Lords reform legislation as drafted had its roots in a Labour-instituted study, too, and they voted for it at both first and second reading, dropping their ‘no’ bomb at the late stage of debate timetabling. They probably did have a point that the legislation was shoddy and needed reshaping, and that might well have required considerably more than 14 days’ worth of debate. But crucially, at that late stage, they offered no alternative suggestion – just an emphatic “no”. It looks most like a childish fit of pique, designed to drive a wedge between the coalition ‘partners’ in the full knowledge of Cameron’s ineffectiveness of whipping his backbenchers into line.

And yet, Labour might be being cannier than they seem, especially with Clegg’s (perhaps?) unwitting connivance. For all the ambivalence of the Tories and the Lib Dems, Labour were the one party surest to lose out on seats due to the boundary review. Now, despite Cameron’s plan to persevere with it, if the Lib Dems hold to Clegg’s word and oppose it, it’s finished. Advantage: Labour.

The fact that this couldn’t have worked out better for them in that sense has led some to speculate that this was an arcane plan of Miliband and co’s all along – oppose Lords reform and Clegg will have to retaliate, and boundary changes is the only significant thing he has left to strike at. And one Lib Dem I know has gone even further and suggested that perhaps the opposition to the boundary review is Clegg’s own olive branch held out to the previously intransigent Labour party, laying the groundwork for abandoning their treacherous Tory partners at last.


A match made in Hell?


I’m not sure I buy that, but there still seems to be some vain hope that Clegg, Cable and co will cross the floor and hook up with Labour. I don’t think that would do them any favours; they’d be seen as fickle and opportunistic, bending their ideology to whichever main party would offer them the most regardless of their principles. Far better to abandon coalition altogether while they can still (truthfully) assert that they have tried to make it work in the same mature fashion as European parties, only to be thwarted by the childish, materialistic behaviour of their supposed ‘partners’.

They could then stand some chance of regaining respect by supporting the Conservatives on a ‘confidence and supply’ basis, leaving them free to oppose any measures they genuinely didn’t support. The only problem there is that most of the measures a lot of Lib Dem MPs would oppose have already been passed in a frenetic haste by a Conservative party desperate to enact their ideology in case they turn out to be a one term government.

And of course, leaving the coalition would leave the Lib Dems with no positions in the Cabinet from which to moderate the Conservatives’ brutal, ideologically motivated policies. But in the eyes of most of the electorate, they’ve singularly failed at ‘moderating’ anyway, content with a few piecemeal breadcrumb policies thrown from the table while the Conservatives hacked away at everything liberals and the welfare state have achieved since 1948.

Again, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I wonder how many Lib Dems now think their leaders should have walked away from coalition with either major party, retaining their integrity by saying, “we tried to make it work, but neither party would compromise maturely enough for us to find common ground”. Those who support the coalition may be saying that “enough common ground” was precisely what the Tories offered, but they’re just now finding out how much those promises were worth (rather later than many others, I think). It’s taken long enough, but the Lib Dems may finally be realising that Tories can no more change their nature than that scorpion, even if it means their own electoral destruction.

What if the rightwingers were right?

Feral underclass

The feral underclass, tomorrow.

In the wake of David Cameron’s recent kite-flying statement about cutting off housing benefit for everyone under 25, the whole subject of welfare reform – and the demonisation of welfare recipients – has reared its head again. Displaying his usual stunning lack of empathy in his determination to ‘Con-Dem’ the ‘scroungers’ so berated by Iain Duncan Smith, our glorious leader chooses once again to conveniently ignore a few facts:

  • The vast majority of those claiming housing benefit are actually in work. The paltry minimum wage (£6.08 per hour, fact fans) isn’t enough to live on in many places even if you’re working full time.
  • A large proportion of the benefit bill is composed of working tax credits, claimed, again, by those who already have the jobs IDS is exhorting claimants to go out and get.
  • Removing housing benefit from young people would massively reduce their ability to move to other areas where they could get jobs, even while IDS echoes Norman Tebbit’s “get on your bike” refrain.
  • Forcing them to move back in with their parents would be difficult if their parents have been forced to ‘downsize’ their accommodation (as recommended by that self same government).
  • The artificially (and politically motivated) inflated house prices make it virtually impossible for even those on a decent wage to buy a house, while buy-to-let landlords, free of any kind of regulation, are able to raise already exorbitant rents as high as they like, knowing tenants have no other choice.
  • And finally, the £10bn Cameron’s seeking to save on the welfare bill is a drop in the ocean compared to the amount of unclaimed tax that wealthy individuals and corporations are allowed to get away with not paying. Vodafone alone could pay for more than half that saving if it paid what it actually owed, but has been allowed to ‘negotiate’ with HMRC to pay a fraction of what is due (under Labour, who are every bit as culpable). And that’s just one company.

Cameron and his cronies have this propaganda approach of picking the tiny minority of extreme cases of ‘welfare entitlement’ then somehow managing to tar the majority with the same brush. Anyone who’s been in the position of being unemployed is aware that there isn’t a vast army of ‘entitled scroungers’ who ‘don’t want to work’ and choose benefits as a ‘lifestyle choice’.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that this view is correct, and there’s a huge ‘feral underclass’ thumbing its nose at the taxpayer while using their hard-earned cash to go on holidays and drive BMWs.

Even if this IS the case, then is simply removing all their income the best way to deal with it? Assuming you favour the ‘stick’ approach of "they deserve all they get" or "they’ll have to get jobs then", you’re ignoring the fact that, according to the ONS, there are only one sixth as many job vacancies as unemployed people.

So the actual effect of cutting off all income from these ‘scrounging parasites’ is to throw them out on the streets to starve. Now, some rightwingers are callous enough about their fellow humans as to say that’s no more than what they deserve. "Survival of the fittest", etc.

But if you can’t appeal to a sense of caring for the vulnerable in society, it’s worth taking a pragmatic look at what effect this would have on them, those ‘hard-working taxpayers who’ve had enough of supporting the ‘idle’. Said ‘idle’ classes will now be starving on the streets, complete with that army of kids you say they’ve had just to get more benefits. Local authorities can’t afford to house them – shouldn’t, by your arguments. So what will this ragged army of former ‘parasites’ now living in boxes under railway arches do?

Well, those least equipped to cope may well simply die – of starvation, cold, exhaustion, all the things that currently ravage the homeless population all the time. Look forward to the possibility of discovering rotting corpses lying unburied hither and yon throughout city centres. At least it’ll create job opportunities in the funerary market, I suppose.

Some might turn to selling themselves sexually – look forward to a vast increase in those street corner prostitutes of both genders, many probably underage. I’m guessing those ‘hard-working taxpayers’ wouldn’t be too happy about that; most of those who espouse such views probably already hate the ‘immorality culture.’

But if the rightwingers are right about the type of ‘entitled’ person that makes up this ‘army of scroungers’ what most of them would do on finding themselves destitute would be to turn to crime. Burglary, mugging, car theft, drug dealing, public disorder – all would increase many times over from their current rates, as the only options left for these ‘nasty parasites’ would be CRIME or DEATH. City police forces, already starved of budgets and resources, would be unable to cope, and even if they could catch any significant amount of this new army of criminals, it would be impossible to squeeze them into an under-resourced, privatised prison system that’s already bursting at the seams for lack of investment.

So, even if you genuinely believe there’s an army of entitled parasites living the high life at the expense of the hard-working taxpayer (which is, of course, bollocks), be careful what you wish for. If these people are the feral, lawless, troglodytes you believe them to be, your fervent desire to cut off their only income could only lead to city centres being besieged by armies of homeless, barbaric, criminal thugs, intent on robbing, raping and selling their bodies to the highest bidder. It would be, effectively, the kind of dystopia the Daily Mail seems to have a disturbing fetish about.


And while I hate to bring Godwin’s Law into this, I find it all too easy to imagine what the rightwingers would do if confronted with this dystopia of their own making. “Round them all up”, would be the cry. Followed, inevitably, by a lack of caring as to where they went, as long as it wasn’t ‘here’. With prisons already too full, swathes of land would have to be adapted into makeshift ‘camps’ like those already crammed full of asylum seekers and refugees. But you couldn’t deport your ‘feral underclass’ if they’re British citizens, and you couldn’t release such scum back into society. So what would you do with them? At this point, you begin to hear the sound of ovens being fired up…

Yes, I know this is all exaggerated dystopian hyperbole. More moderate Conservatives certainly don’t want it to come to this. But the particularly extreme, rabid rightwingers who insist on the complete dismantlement of the Welfare State and the abolition of all workers’ rights and protections, clearly haven’t thought through the impact this would have on them.

Fortunately, the majority of benefit claimants aren’t a combination of extras from Shameless and Mad Max, but decent, law-abiding people, many of them actually in work, trying their best to honestly pay their way in a society where inflation and income inequality have made it impossible to do so without state help. Meanwhile, that same state is giving concession after concession to the real ‘entitled parasites’ – corporations and individuals so wealthy that they can afford to shirk their fair share of paying for the country they live in. Tax breaks, HMRC negotiations and non-dom status are of course condemned by Cameron and Osbourne – but only in the case of certain people. Jimmy Carr might be “morally wrong”, but strangely the same judgement doesn’t apply to the Conservative front bench and their friends in the City.

Contrary to the fevered beliefs of many on the left, Conservatives aren’t actually ‘evil’. Nobody sees themselves in that way. They honestly believe they’re doing the right thing, and that by removing state intervention and allowing ‘the market’ to dictate terms they can sort out society’s problems. To some extent, they may even be right. The problem for me is that, even if it works, they’re ignoring the inevitable human suffering and carnage it will cause before it does.

Of course, Cameron’s draconian welfare proposals aren’t actually policy. At least, not yet. The obvious political motivation was to throw a few bones in the direction of his party’s more extreme back benchers, ahead of what’s liable to be a fraught debate about Lords reform this week. Reading the news articles about this, even the right wing press don’t seem to think it’s a good idea – the below the line comments on even the Telegraph and the Mail seem to be generally damning of it. But there’s always a few free market, state-dismantling fanatics who advocate the complete abdication of any responsibility to society as a whole. To them I say – read the above (or perhaps HG Wells’ The Time Machine) – and be careful what you wish for. Because (HYPERBOLE ALERT) treat the poor badly enough and they will eat you.


It’s my party, and you can buy it if you want to…


We’re barely into a new week, and already the Conservative Party is embroiled in yet another controversy about being the party paid for and answering to the super-rich. After the passage of the free-market bonanza NHS bill, then the “fuck the poor” spectacle of a Budget that considered cutting taxes for the wealthy its most important priority, now it seems that if you give the Conservatives £250,000 or more, you get to have dinner with David Cameron and tell him what to do.

Seemingly keen to hasten their electoral demise by rushing headlong to the state of sleaze and scandal it took them years to reach by 1997, it seems the Conservatives have been allowing party co-treasurer Peter Cruddas to promise that every donor of £250,000 or more will have a private dinner with Cameron at the Number 10 flat. This, it was heavily implied, would allow such donors a significant input into party policy – suddenly the reasons for the cutting of the top tax rate seem clearer.

Cameron, of course, said he’d known nothing about this (to quote Christine Keeler, “well, he would, wouldn’t he?”). In the wake of a Sunday Times video clearly showing Cruddas making this offer, the hapless co-treasurer instantly resigned, without the usual days of Cameron offering his “full support”. Clearly, even for the Tories, this wasn’t going to be one they could brazen their way out of.

Not that they’re not trying. Cameron seemed to immediately withdraw from public view, leaving hopeless Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude to vainly defend Cruddas’ actions on Radio 4’s Today programme and in the Commons. Maude was onto rather a sticky wicket trying to defend a policy that everyone had suspected existed, but for which there had previously been no proof. “But,” protested Maude, “it’s not like this is new. Everyone knows you can buy the Conservative Party!”

OK, those weren’t his precise words, but that’s more or less what he was saying. And do you know what? He’s actually right. A quick glance at the Conservative Party webpage concerning donations reveals exactly what level of access you can get, and for how much.

  • £50 a month gets you the title of ‘Party Patron’ and, presumably, a glowing sense of well-being.
  • £250 annually (less money, oddly) gets you into ‘Fastrack’ (I like my racks fast), where you meet “like-minded supporters of the Party” at “social events”.
  • £2000 annually gets you into the anachronistically named ‘Team 2000’, and here things start to look decidedly fishy. These guys are, apparently, “The principal group of donors who support and market the Party’s policies in Government, by hearing them first hand from the Leader and key Conservative politicians through a lively programme of drinks receptions, dinner and discussion”.
  • £2500 gets you into the ‘City and Entrepreneurs’ forum, at which you have “discussions… in the West End”. On what, I wonder?
  • £5000 gets you into the ‘Front Bench Club’, and you get to “debate with MPs at a series of political lunches”. Presumably without ever telling them that your donations will stop if they don’t do what you want.
  • £10,000 gets you into the ‘Renaissance Forum’, at which you “enjoy dinners and political debate with eminent speakers from the world of business and politics”. “Debate” as in “bribery”?
  • £25,0000 gets you into the ‘Treasurers’ Group, at which you will be “invited to join senior figures from the Conservative Party at dinners”. Hmmm…
  • And lastly, for this list, £50,000 gets you into the ‘Leader’s Group’, in which you can look forward to being “invited to join David Cameron and other senior figures from the Conservative Party at dinners”.

The price list stops there, but it’s reasonable to assume that, just as Cruddas said, increasingly high donations will get you increasingly exclusive access (for a couple of amusing suggestions as to what exactly, check out Millennium Dome’s blog). So, just as Maude says, this was hardly a secret. Well, maybe this level was, but it was easy enough to work out from what they’d actually put in the public domain.

Thus it was that a shaky looking David Cameron finally emerged from the shadows this lunchtime for a previously booked gig he couldn’t duck out of – an address to the Alzheimer’s Society on increased dementia funding. The sight of him delivering his excuses beneath a banner advertising the society may not have pleased them (and invites some tasteless jokes which I’ll refrain from here), as he relegated their cause to second place after addressing the whole wretched ‘corruption’ issue.

He insisted that all this was news to him, but admitted that there had been private dinners with some high flown donors. It was all above board, he insisted, and there was no question of impropriety or undue influence on government policy. That’s all right then. Presumably these billionaires just wanted the undoubted delight of the Camerons’ company, and in no way did the fact of their massively high donations hang over the dinner like a looming sense of obligation.

Still, Cameron promised to publish the details of all these dinners – “something no Prime Minister has ever done before”. It’s a revealing list of plutocrats, hedge fund managers and financial brokers, all of whom, given their net worth, presumably donated significantly more than £250,000 each to the Party. Still, I’m sure the possibility of displeasing those who financially prop up his party by disagreeing with their aims never once entered into our incorruptible Prime Minister’s head.

And with that, he promised an internal investigation into the affair and proceeded to lifelessly deliver his planned speech on dementia. Afterwards, he slunk off without taking any questions from the assembled journos, and is conveniently absent from Prime Minister’s Questions at the House for the next few weeks, leaving his whipping boy Nick Clegg to take the flak. Being for once blameless, Clegg could have a lot of fun at his master’s expense here – I wonder if he’ll have the nerve?

Labour, of course, leapt on the revelations with glee. Ed Miliband, with the air of a school debating society captain who’s won a petty victory, fumed that it was a bit mad to have an internal Tory party investigation into allegations of corruption into the Conservative Party. In this he has a point. The old “quis custodiet ipsos custodes” question could debatably apply to any political party, but it’s certainly pertinent when the party in question is actually in government and passing legislation. Still, when the calls for an independent inquiry are led by “cash for peerages” Labour Lord Levy, the words “pot” “kettle” and “black” instantly leap to mind.

Because it’s not like Labour have never done this kind of thing. Apart from Levy, and the odd coincidence that big Labour donor Bernie Ecclestone was exempted from the ban on tobacco advertising for his Formula 1 hobby, the Labour website too lists ‘benefits’ for their donors. Admittedly, their menu is rather more modestly priced, and tops off with the exciting sounding ‘Thousand Club’ which confusingly costs £1200 to join. This doesn’t get you an intimate dinner with Ed Miliband, in the unlikely event that you should desire such a thing, merely “exclusive events” and a free pass to the Party Conference, the Glastonbury for Labour supporters. But it’s the same kind of thing as the Tories. And besides, Labour don’t need big donations – they get those already from the Trade Unions.

Which brings us to the whole vexed question of party funding, and how it influences policy. It’s an odd coincidence that in a recent Deputy Prime Minster’s Questions, Clegg was called on to answer what was being done about the undue influence of unaccounted for lobbyists on each party; at the time, I caught myself thinking, doesn’t that include all those funding donors, like the unions funding Labour and the City providing more than half the funding for the Conservatives?

With the issue thrown so thoroughly into the public eye, Cameron fell back on some old policies, stating that donations to parties should be capped at £50,000 annually. Now, there is some merit to the idea that donations should be capped, to prevent the donors effectively ‘buying’ their own compliant government (as seems to be the case in the United States). But £50,000? That’s still £250,000 over a five year Parliament. Which is quite a lot.

No party (except maybe the Lib Dems) has been keen to really address the issue of party funding, for the obvious reason that any reform to the present system would stand to lose them quite a bit of money. As it stands, the Labour Party is largely funded by huge Trade Union donations, and the Conservative Party by City firms and plutocrats. As a result, each is obliged to take a stand on fairly narrow, sectional viewpoints. This is actually the very antithesis of democracy and the embodiment of corrupt self-interest, but because it’s such a longstanding arrangement, few people question it any more.

Not coincidentally, this is one of the reasons why the Tories tend to do well despite representing, basically, businesses and the rich. They have a massive financial advantage that allows them to sweep in with a barrage of donor-funded publicity in any constituency where they might be threatened. Labour have the wherewithal to stage at least something of a fight back, but the Lib Dems, whose funding is far more modest, have never had a chance. With a much more limited supply of financial resources, they’ve had to concentrate on seats they have a good chance of winning, and simply abandon the rest as a lost cause. And they’re more leery than their counterparts of large donors, after their one big contributor, Michael Brown, turned out not to actually own all the money he gave to them.

This is clearly a corrupt state of affairs – but when the leading parties are the beneficiaries, why would they challenge it? But interestingly, a 15 month inquiry by the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended some pretty sweeping reforms when they reported last November. The report recommended a much lower cap of £10,000 per donor, which would bring things down to a much more level playing field for all three major parties. Of course, this wouldn’t go far to funding a big political operation for any of them. Which is why the report proposes using £23million of state (read ‘taxpayer’) money to make up the shortfall, and give all three major parties the same amount of money to deal with. Hey presto – at a stroke, the Tories would be stripped of their City-funded financial advantage, Labour wouldn’t have to be a slave to the unions, and the Lib Dems might approach something like credibility in comparison.

There are moral and pragmatic arguments against this – why should the taxpayer fund political campaigning (particularly when austerity is cutting real incomes left, right and centre), and how could this get voted through when the two largest parties stand to lose advantages because of it? As a result, we’re unlikely to see anything like this happen, which is sad, because as the Committee said, it would be “ the only safe way to remove big money from party funding”, and claw something like democracy back from vested interests who can currently buy representation in ways the ordinary voter can only dream of.

But on the flipside, even with austerity, this amounts to a contribution of 50p annually for each taxpayer. And £23million may sound like a lot, but it’s pocket change compared to what’s being slashed from the NHS and the benefit system while billionaires are getting tax cuts. Isn’t it a price worth paying to buy back your representation from self-interested billionaires and trade union demagogues? With the issue certain to be debated, this report is bound to be called on – by the Lib Dems if nobody else, since they have least to lose. That’s assuming they’ve paid the requisite £250,000 to get the Prime Minister to listen…

A tax is the best form of offence

One of the ‘joys’ of living through an ongoing economic crisis is that suddenly, everyone is an armchair economic pundit. Forget Robert Peston – you’ll hear a hugely diverse (often misinformed) range of opinion on this arcane, complex and, quite frankly, dull topic these days in every pub in the land. Not to mention a spectrum of political viewpoints all over the internet.

This week, the armchair economic pundits have mostly been talking about George Osborne’s typically divisive 2012 Budget. According to whose take you read, it’s a terrible budget, or a great budget, or an unmemorable budget, or an attack on the poor, or a much-needed shot in the arm for the business sector. As an armchair pundit myself, what I see in this Budget is a politically incompetent attempt to drive through more of the increasingly hardline Conservative ideology that’s been a signature of most Coalition policies since the Conservatives and their junior partners (or “human shields” – thanks for that one, Owen Jones) the Lib Dems got into power.

Poor little rich boys


Osborne called it “a Budget to reward hard work” in his Commons statement, but a not particularly close look is needed to tell that this only applies to very well-paid hard work. Key to this is the much pre-publicised dropping of the top, 50%, tax rate for very high earners to 45%. No amount of (not especially well-done) spin can disguise the fact that this is, essentially, a bonanza tax cut for the very rich, who in these straitened times are  precisely the ones who need a tax cut least.

This is standard Conservative ideology. Osborne claims in one breath that it will remove a disincentive for those ‘wealth creators’ to shift their businesses to the UK, while in the next he says that the tax take from said ‘wealth creators’ will rise by five times due to other measures contained in the Budget. Well, which is it, George? If the 50% tax rate was putting them off coming here, how will other means of raking in even more money not do the same thing?

Shifting to another tack, the Chancellor and the Treasury point to a not-especially reliable ‘Laffer curve’ showing that this higher rate of tax actually decreases the overall tax take from the very rich. This, according to the Treasury, is because when the tax rate is too high, the rich find increasingly more ways to avoid paying it. Therefore, the theory runs, you’ll take in more tax at a lower rate, because those upstandingly moral wealthy people will happily pay all they owe, if that amount is generally lower.

This is an interesting perspective. “We can’t make the law work,” says the Chancellor, “so we’ll remove that law”. Interestingly, this is one of the most persuasive arguments to abandon the utterly ineffective prohibition of drugs; but somehow the same chain of logic isn’t applied there. It would be more in keeping with the government’s hardline stance on the drug laws (not to mention with Osborne’s stated aims on tax avoidance) to make more strenuous efforts to make sure the law is followed, not only to the letter but also to the spirit. But then that wouldn’t win all that goodwill from the very rich people who form a core part of the Tory voter base (not to mention donating about half of its party funds).

Laffer curves are a very subjective thing. The idea that the ‘peak’ tax rate after which revenue from taxation begins to decrease is at exactly 45%, or 50% for that matter, is mathematically simplistic. It’s also entirely theoretical until long term, reliable data has been gathered at varying tax points to make the comparison.

But Osborne claims to have this data. He points to the revenue gained from the 50% rate as being far less than the £3billion Labour claimed it would net when they introduced it in 2010 – less than a third of that, apparently. What he neglected to mention (but must surely be aware of) is that there is only data from the first full year of the tax. And because Labour gave a nice long term warning that the tax rise was going to be happening, many of those who would be affected chose to pay themselves dividends early, to avoid the new rate.

This had two big effects – it made the tax revenue for Labour’s last year in power artificially high (not that that could save them electorally), and made the first year’s takings at the new rate artificially low. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, had the new rate been maintained long enough, it might have brought in far more. And that’s presumably including the anticipated avoidance. If Osborne’s promised crackdown on tax avoidance happens, who knows, it could have brought in even more.

No, none of the Chancellor’s justifications for this tax cut being pragmatically and morally the right thing to do hold any water at all. Perhaps if they had someone with the skill of Alastair Campbell doing their spin, they might have. But they don’t, and this looks like exactly what it is – naked Conservative ideology, which clings to their traditional idea that the rich deserve to keep their hoarded wealth at the expense of the poor.

As if to prove this, Osborne also announced a further ‘crackdown’ on benefit fraud. So, if the poor (even the tiny fraction of them whose claims are fraudulent) flout the law, they must be severely punished. If the rich flout the law, that must mean the law is inconvenient and should be removed. Think about the message that sends – far from ‘detoxifying the Tory brand’, the current Cabinet seem intent on raising the age old spectre of ‘the Nasty Party’ – now with added Nastiness. Electorally this may not be a wise plan.

Gran, can you spare £10 billion?


And neither are the methods being used to make up the predicted shortfall. Most prominent among these, and causing howls of outrage among even the right wing press, is the so-called ‘Granny Tax’ – an apparent £10 billion tax raid on the pensions of the elderly.

This is not big or clever politically. The Chancellor is always seen as ‘Mr Nasty’; he’s the killjoy that makes it more expensive to drink, smoke, or drive your car. But mugging the elderly to give more money to the hyper-rich, that’s a new low. What next, raising tax revenue by stealing candy from babies?

Again, this could have been handled better with a little thought about the message. It’s actually tied in to the Lib Dems’ much vaunted increase in the tax free personal allowance – their manifesto pledge was that, in time, this would be raised to £10,000, benefitting everyone, but particularly low earners. A big step was taken towards that in the Budget, with the threshold being raised quite considerably to £9205.

There’s a rather nasty viewpoint that says pensioners have had it too easy during the savage cutting back of austerity, and it’s time for them to pay their fair share. That’s tied in to jealousy, plain and simple – the elderly have managed to buy houses and get good pensions – things that are rapidly becoming impossible today. So why should they get the nice stuff by virtue of having lived in easier times? Let’s drag them down to the same low standards the rest of us have to put up with!

Put like that, it actually seems a most un-Conservative policy – the elderly have worked hard for their assets, and surely standard Tory mantra would be that they should keep every penny. But this is New Conservatism, steeped in class prejudice that would make Thatcher (a grammar school girl) blanch with horror. What Osborne is doing will, predictably, only affect lower ‘earning’ pensioners. Their tax-free threshold, which normally rises with inflation, will be frozen at £10,500 for the foreseeable future. New pensioners will have it even worse – their threshold will be stuck at £9205. Not coincidentally, the same as the new tax free threshold for working people.

So the logical – and less politically explosive – thing to have done would be to make clear that it was this parity they were trying to achieve, and juggle both tax free thresholds until they were equal. Yes, some pensioners would lose out, but less than with what’s actually happening. And there might be some justification in that anyway, if spun right – which it wasn’t. It’s hard to fathom the reason for any experienced politician to handle it this way – it’s like Osborne’s actually trying to throw away the next election.

Corporation’s what you need


Perhaps he was hoping to use it to disguise yet more tax relief for large corporations – being panned for mugging the elderly might be the lesser of two evils compared to pandering to those all-purpose bad guys of unrestrained capitalism. In his quest to bring the level of Corporation Tax – on corporate profits – down from 28% to 22% (lower than almost every developed country), the Chancellor made another leap for glory by shifting it down to 24%.

On top of that, there’s an arcane rule about shifting corporate money from one tax region to another. If a UK-based company shifts profits from, say, Ghana to Switzerland, it currently has to pay the Treasury the standard corporate tax rate on the money made by doing so. Well, guess what? Not any more! Perhaps George was willing to take the hit on mugging grannies to keep that little wheeze from becoming more widely known.

This, of course, fits in with the Tory mantra that private industry will make everything better. Bring down the burden of corporate tax, the theory runs, and businesses will flock to the UK, bringing all that lovely money with them. Except, of course, they won’t be giving any of it to the state, because in Tory-world, only the free market can handle money responsibly.

This ignores two fairly well-proven things. Firstly, corporations exist to make as much money as possible. That’s their very raison d’etre. Do you really think they won’t still attempt to hoard as much of it as possible? And if they do, how will that help the economy? And secondly, it’s hard for a business to make any money in a consumer economy where the consumers have no money to spend – largely because they’re losing it all in tax to fund corporate tax breaks.

The fate of the Nice Ones


But what about the Lib Dems, and their much-claimed moderating influence on the ruthless, money-hungry class warriors of the Conservatives? Nick Clegg has been lamely pointing to a few measures that could, on the surface, look ‘nice’. Chief among these is the raise to the personal tax free threshold, which leaped much closer to the target figure of £10,000 by going up to £9205. That’s got to be a step in the right direction, surely?

Well, sorry Nick, but it’s not as good as it looks. For a start, the raising of the tax free threshold is accompanied by a lowering of the threshold for the higher, 40% rate – this has been frozen and will fall to £41,500 by 2014, meaning that more and more people will find their tax bills getting higher. Also, it doesn’t do much to help the truly poor, who may be below that threshold already.

And this policy won’t do much for the low earners it lifts out of tax either, because of a nifty little benefit technicality pointed out by the Citizens’ Advice Bureau. If you’re in that low-income bracket, chances are you’ll be claiming Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit. Well, these benefits taper off the more you earn, and here’s the thing – that’s net earnings, ie after tax. So while the new thresholds give £220 with one hand, the increased earnings mean that they take £187 right back. Leaving those low income households with the princely extra sum of £33 a year. Put like that, it doesn’t seem quite so generous, does it Nick?

OK then, how about the other measures, the ones that Simon Hughes claims make “the rich pay their fair share”, and Cameron says will bring in five times the revenue of the 50% tax rate? There are a couple of these, and on first glance they look quite good. Unfortunately, they’re basically fudged versions of the much more effective mansion tax originally proposed by Vince Cable, who shiftily tried to make them look good on last night’s Question Time with the haunted look of Dr Faustus discovering that his deal with Mephistopheles wasn’t as good as it looked.

These measures are to do with stamp duty, and initially appear to be a creditable attempt to tax assets rather than earnings – because they’re, sort of, a tax on property. Henceforth, stamp duty on properties worth over £2million will rise from 5% to 7%, but even more significantly, for properties bought by the tax dodging wheeze of using shell companies rather than individuals, it will go up to a whopping 15%. And there’ll be an annual duty on residential properties already owned by shell companies (though the rate for it has yet to be determined).

While this “mini mansion tax” is nice, the other rises have one basic flaw – they depend on the property actually being sold. It seems sheer madness to make confident estimates of the money you’ll make from property transactions, as there’s no guarantee of them happening at any predictable level. Hell, what if the rate of property purchase drops because of this measure? Where will the money come from then? Well, just maybe from the further £10 billion to be slashed from the welfare budget – at precisely the time more and more people are falling into poverty.

Nick Clegg is shiftily trying to claim that these measures constitute the ‘tycoon tax’ he so unexpectedly called for at the recent Lib Dem conference; despite the fact that what he outlined sounded nothing like this. He’s also saying that a proposed cap on tax relief fits the description (a good policy, nonetheless).

But I have to wonder what backroom deals were already in place with the Tories before he made that announcement. The Lib Dems attempts to spin this Budget as being anything less than naked Conservative ideology completely at odds with their own is sadly lacking here. Of course, the Conservatives’ spin isn’t too great either. The difference is that everyone expects the Tories to be nasty, even if they may have overreached themselves this time. Once again, though, I think we expected better of the Lib Dems. They’re beginning to appear almost powerless in the Coalition, and their leader’s constant attempts to defend extremely right wing policies are beginning to make him personally look like Vidkun Quisling.

Nothing in the world can stop them now?

Lib Dems aside, this should still be electoral suicide even for the Tories. Well, if they had any sort of worthwhile opposition, anyway.

Labour seemed to do all right out of the Budget. This is largely because opposing Budgets is easy, and opposing one this nasty was child’s play – even for the charisma vacuum that is Ed Miliband. But Labour still seem to have no coherent idea of what they would do instead. Vague promises are floated one week, then discarded the next. And the best their Shadow Chancellor can come up with is that he’d do more or less the same things – just more slowly.

There are three years to go before the next election, which might give both Labour and the Lib Dems the chance to shape themselves up into some kind of credible opposition to the Tories. Let’s hope so. Because right now, the fact that the Tories have the sheer gall to put through a Budget this mercenary and selfish seems to indicate that they think no-one can challenge them. And on the present evidence, they may well be right.

Horror Excess


For the last few days, the subject of boardroom excess has been brought firmly to the forefront of the news. That news has been firmly fixed on what should have been a government owned bank – the Royal Bank of Scotland, whose disastrous purchase of failing Dutch bank ABN AMRO was in no small part responsible for the near-collapse of the British banking system. The targets of media – and thus public – ire have been its former chairman, ‘Sir’ Fred Goodwin, and its current CEO, Stephen Hester. Politicians and their supporting press have had their knickers all in a twist over, firstly, Hester’s surprisingly large £963000 ‘bonus’, then Goodwin’s apparently undeserved knighthood.

Both narratives have reached a convenient resolution, so convenient it actually looks a bit contrived. And, as far as I’m concerned, so it is – contrived to distract people from a much larger systemic problem of which these two rapacious capitalists are merely the tip of the iceberg.

I can’t help wondering what backroom deals and political pressure caused first RBS’ chairman, Philip Hampton, to decline his own £1.4m share gift ‘bonus’, then Hester to finally relent and decide he wasn’t going to take his. Both made their decisions amid a mounting storm of public anger; but as usual where a press narrative is concerned, the shades of grey were barely touched upon.

The assumption that RBS is ‘publicly owned’ is close to, but not the actual, truth – the bailout of £45 billion of OUR money to rescue the bank from its own unthinking greed actually left 17% of the bank outside government hands. This was in the dying days of the New Labour government, when the party was somehow still desperate to avoid associations with its own socialist past; so buying the whole thing and effectively nationalising it was right out. Nobody, they thought, wanted to be reminded of British Steel, British Leyland and British Rail – ignoring the fact that privatisation has in many cases rendered formerly nationalised industries worse than they previously were.

So RBS, remained, effectively, a private organisation – albeit one in which the public had a vast majority share of 83%. David Cameron had a point when he said that it wasn’t the government’s place to interfere with remuneration arrangements in a private company; but as shareholder rather than legislator, it certainly could have had a say. It now seems that they did, and Hester’s £963000 bonus had actually been halved at the hamfisted insistence of our beloved Prime Minister. How he thought that kind of sum would be in any way more acceptable than twice the amount shows his trademark lack of empathy with those who aren’t hyper-wealthy millionaires, but hey, at least he made the gesture.

Trouble is, the gesture WE all saw was a middle finger to those who thought senior bankers were already being paid an insane amount, and the PR pressure didn’t let up. And the discussion of the issue was starting to lead onto a wider discussion of, well, if we can’t control the rampant excess of a company that’s 83% publicly owned, maybe, just maybe, something’s wrong with the entire system that allows this to happen.

I’m only theorising, but I wonder if, at this point, a quiet word was had from ‘someone’ in the Treasury (perhaps with the initials G.O.) with the board of RBS, to the effect that, unless they sacrificed their goodies this time, the whole comfy system might come crumbling down for the entire sector. And again, just theorising, but maybe Mr Hester was prepared to call the bluff, but Mr Hampton wasn’t. So, when Hampton gave up his bonus, it really did become politically untenable for Hester to cling on to his.

At this point, another banker was thrown to the wolves – step up, Sir Fred Goodwin, the ‘mastermind’ behind the ABN AMRO takeover and chief architect of RBS’ near-collapse. There’d been quiet rumbling for a while about the prospect of ‘punishing’ Goodwin by stripping him of his knighthood. Lest we forget, this knighthood was given out – in happier financial times – by New Labour in yet another attempt to prove that they weren’t so different from the Tories when it came to looking after The City. There’s a revealing clip of Harriet Harman defending this at the time by saying she “believed” the honour wasn’t for services to the banking sector, but more because Goodwin was such an all round nice bloke.

Buckingham Palace would beg to differ. It was indeed for ‘services to the banking industry’ that Goodwin was knighted, although with hindsight it’s easy to wish the Queen hadn’t just used that big sword to cut his head off and save her country a lot of money. Now though, with the public mood towards bankers something akin to their feelings for Nazi war criminals, it’s been arranged that Goodwin will no longer be “Sir Fred” and revert to plain old “Mr Goodwin”.

This was arranged by a little seen body called the Forfeiture Committee, staffed by civil servants and entirely apolitical – you know, just like the whole Honours system isn’t. There is, undoubtedly, a certain amount of satisfaction to be gained from Goodwin’s stripping of his title. Mind you, I at least might have preferred it if he’d instead been stripped of his pension – a pension that leaves him struggling on a mere £350000 a YEAR from the funds of a bank that WE paid to rescue from his calamitous mismanagement. Still, could have been worse – the original pension was nearly twice that amount, but Goodwin grudgingly ‘agreed’ to sacrifice half of it at the urging of then Chancellor Alastair Darling, himself being leaned on by his Opposition equivalent – one Mr George Osborne. How times change!

So yes, I’d have been happy for him to keep his meaningless knighthood if he’d given back the pension that we’ve paid for. After all, the knighthood’s costing us nothing. And I suspect “Mr Goodwin” has enough of a personal fortune from his obscene pay while still working for RBS that he could probably manage without a pension at all.

Richly deserved fates for both Hester and Goodwin, many are saying, and I find it hard to disagree. Many others, however, are saying that these men have been sacrificial lambs on the altar of public opinion, and I find that hard to disagree with too – but not for the reasons most are saying it. Stripping Hester of what was actually a share gift rather than a cash settlement doesn’t actually achieve very much; he couldn’t have sold the shares until they vested after four years, in which case it would surely have been in his interest to make RBS do well, which presumably is what we want. And removing an archaic medieval title from Goodwin, while it’s nice to see him humiliated, is little more than a meaningless gesture.

No, the reason these two men come across as scapegoats is that, presumably, we’re meant to be satisfied with these two highly-publicised bits of ‘justice’ and stop talking about the problem they actually represent – the increasingly insane levels of remuneration at the top of not just banks but every substantial private organisation.

Yes, Hester has given up his bonus – but he still draws a ‘basic’ salary of £1.2m. This, it is argued, is because it’s the going rate for a talented CEO, and such a person is necessary to restore ‘confidence’ (a word that so easily precedes ‘trick’) in the RBS. The tradition of ‘bonuses’ is justified in the same way – they must be doled out, regardless of merit, because everyone else does it (although this seems to be a tradition largely confined to the UK and the US). Indeed, so great is the expectation of this kind of entitlement among bankers now that the former employees of failed bank Dredsner are actually suing their now-defunct employer for the $66m in bonuses they didn’t get this year – because the bank went bust. That’s some brass neck.

Meanwhile, CEOs and board members routinely award themselves annual pay rises of around 40%, at a point when the lowest ranking members of staff are seeing regular pay freezes. Just ask the employees of HMV, whose Christmas bonus has now been abolished, and have been told that Bank Holidays no longer count as public holidays, so must be worked by all without overtime pay. So they’re working slightly harder than most board members, whose jobs are so undemanding that many sit on multiple boards drawing huge salaries from each.

As with so many political issues, there are two aspects to this – the moral and the pragmatic. A moral argument on the topic is almost impossible to win, because everyone’s morals are subjective. Anyone criticising the state of affairs regarding income inequality is immediately branded as using “the politics of envy” by supporters of the status quo. Bloody right we’re envious – when Tesco CEO Philip Clarke gets paid £6.9m a year while his lowly employees have to use tax credit just to survive, I’d say there was a right to envy. But envy doesn’t mean critics of the system want to be in the same position as Clarke; it’s not a binary argument. They just want some form of fairness restored to a system in which the tax rate tops out when you’re earning £150000 a year, and men like Clarke earn many multiples this amount.

Still, some argue that this IS a fair system – I can see the point about rewarding hard work and keeping the state out of it. That’s plainly not the case – but it’s their moral stance, and unlike religion, it’s virtually impossible to proselytise your own moral code. But there’s the pragmatic argument too, which is harder to shoot down. There’s a finite amount of money in the system. If CEOs and board members continue to get annual raises of 40% or more, they’re increasingly going to be hoarding the vast majority of that finite amount at everyone else’s expense.

I say “hoarding”, because that’s what they do. They’re not actually spending these vast sums of money, which might help stabilise the economy. No, it sits, often untaxed, in foreign banks and tax havens. It’s been estimated that, currently, there is $18 TRILLION worth of untaxed assets sitting in offshore havens. That is, I believe, more than a third of the GDP of the entire planet. And if the rich keep getting 40% pay rises, that figure is only going to get larger.

Unfortunately for such vested interests, the issue has become a hot political topic, even with the apparent dismantlement of the Occupy movement. It was unsurprising to see Barack Obama address income inequality in his State of the Union address this month; but more surprising to see Republican hopeful Mitt Romney vilified by his own party for paying a meagre 15% tax on his gigantic income. Ordinary Republican voters, it seems, are no longer being conned into voting against their own interests by the vague promise that they too can be hyper rich and benefit from the system.

Over here, motivated by political necessity, there have been things afoot too. Many are somewhat ineffectual, if well-meaning. Vince Cable’s much-publicised proposals on curbing boardroom excess strike me as weak at best. Full disclosure of executive pay may well lead to execs saying, “why aren’t I getting as much as he/she does?” Shareholder voting on pay rises is largely irrelevant when most shareholders are vast, impersonal pension funds. Having employee representation on pay committees is a nice idea, but hinges on the concept that execs wouldn’t have the cheek to vote themselves massive increases when faced by their lowest ranks across a table. As we’ve seen time and again, execs have this much cheek and much more besides.

Other ideas, though, seem rather better – and sadly less likely to happen. The Lib Dems’ proposed ‘mansion tax’ on properties above £2m in value is quite a good one – after all, you can’t shift your house to an offshore haven. Trouble is, it’s likely to be shot down by their Tory partners in the interests of fairness –after all, Mr Cameron and his Chipping Norton friends do have VERY big houses.

Then there’s Land Value Tax – again, you can’t move land out of a taxation regime. To some extent, countries like Australia do this already. Perhaps by coincidence, Australia’s economy is doing rather well. However, despite some Lib Dem fondness for the idea, nobody else seems to want this one either.

Then there’s the rather more bonkers idea espoused by a few left wing commentators recently of a one off 20% ‘wealth raid’ on the assets of the tiny proportion of the hyper-rich. This, the commentators argue, could raise £800bn at a stroke – more than enough to pay off the £149bn deficit, and start making a dent in the national debt itself. Trouble is, I can’t see how this would work realistically, when so much of that wealth is based in property or moored anonymously offshore.

As with so much of economics, there are plenty of proposed remedies floating around at the moment, and it’s hard to see which are workable, realistic or fair (there’s that moral judgement again). But the only thing that is clear is that the current system is unsustainable. CEOs aren’t going to sod off overseas if you deny them the contents of Scrooge McDuck’s Money Barns – somehow Mervyn King manages to run the Bank of England on a mere £300000 a year, and he’s not clamouring for a giant increase. No, this whole thing needs more comprehensive debate than this long ramble can cram in, but it’s a debate that shouldn’t be shut off because we’re sated with the sacrifice of two of the small fry villains of the tale.

The game of social dysfunction

After a second night of – relative – calm, it looks as if, thankfully, the orgy of rioting, looting and destruction that has swept England since last Saturday is finally over. In the aftermath of England worst civil disobedience in generations, it’s time to look for answers. Or to play the blame game – a game that, in fact, pundits and the public have been playing since Tottenham started burning last weekend. A lack of complete information has never been any barrier to humanity’s ability to jump to conclusions where events like this are concerned, even more so for those of us that live in the country that was collectively terrified for four nights.

So who is getting the blame? After all, there’s always “some bastard who is presumably responsible”, isn’t there? Blame, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and accordingly everyone’s view of the responsibility for events is being filtered through the prism of their own politics, views and prejudices. Thus the left blamed the right, for having caused so much social deprivation with their emphasis on capitalism, big business, public spending cuts and an ever widening social divide. The right blamed the left, for decades of indiscipline, political correctness, excessive tolerance and an ‘entitlement culture’ based on benefit receipt that was easier than working. Oh, and the EDL, with predictable stupidity, blamed the blacks.

The consumer culture was responsible, in which aggressive advertising and corporate hype raised to an almost religious fervour the desirability of trendy materialistic items to those who increasingly couldn’t afford them. The spoiled nature of today’s youth, brought up on a welfare state to believe they were entitled to something for nothing, was responsible. A lack of proper parenting was responsible. The moral corruption of the nation’s leaders was responsible. Police racism was responsible. The failing economy, widening the divide between an increasing army of poor and a shrinking minority of ultra-rich, was responsible. A lack of discipline in schools was responsible. Rap music, with its glorification of sexism, homophobia, drugs and illegally obtained material items, was responsible. Twitter was responsible. Facebook was responsible. And so ad infinitum, each seeking to boil down an incredibly disparate set of circumstances that happened to come together to cause chaos into one nice, simple soundbite, so that we can do something easy and say, “there, we’ve sorted that, it’ll never happen again”.

“Criminality, pure and simple,” was the Prime Minister’s oft-repeated, scolding refrain. The former Eton prefect was presumably forgetting his own teenage trouble with cannabis and later well-documented hooliganism with Oxford University’s toffs-only drinking society, the Bullingdon Club. Criminality it was, pure and simple it certainly was not. The truth is, you can’t boil this down to one nice, simple explanation where those you don’t like get the blame. I think there are elements of all the causes listed above that have contributed, and that most people, left and right, have a point to make and some responsibility to be shouldered.

Of course, the information is still incomplete, and it may never be possible to provide proper explanations, but using the events to justify your own political prejudices is never a good idea. Particularly if you’re the EDL. In the emergency session of Parliament called yesterday, David Cameron sought, predictably, to shift the blame onto “the last government” who by his reckoning appear to have been responsible for every social ill from the sacking of Rome to the First World War. Ed Milliband, equally predictably, pointed out that it had happened during a Conservative-led government, and their savage social injustice must have caused it. Neither seemed willing to look too deep into the causes, and with good reason – beneath the usual tired rhetoric, both had a point. What we’ve seen over the last week is the huge simmering melting pot of this country’s social problems finally boiling over, and it’s been a long time coming. Or to put it another way, in the Buckaroo game of England’s social dysfunction, successive governments have piled on more and more bedrolls and crates, and the current one has just had the misfortune of putting on the last stick of dynamite that finally makes the mule kick.

So how did we get from a peaceful protest over a dubious police killing to jaw dropping footage of England’s greatest cities in flames as though the Luftwaffe had made a return visit in search of trainers and plasma TVs? Racism definitely played its part, though even that isn’t as simple as many would like to claim. There are definitely some very dubious circumstances surrounding the Metropolitan Police’s shooting of Mark Duggan last Thursday (can it be only a week ago? It seems like a lifetime). From the, as usual, limited information available, it looks like the Met reacted with totally disproportionate force, and shot a man who wasn’t offering the kind of threat that would justify this. But equally, it’s been shown that Duggan did have a gun – it was a blank-firing pistol that had been adapted to fire live rounds. The problem being that he hadn’t actually used it – it was the police that did all the shooting. Duggan, at least on the face of it, was no angel. But shooting him in the head may have been overreacting.

Some, initially, took this as evidence that the inherent racism in the Met condemned by the 1981 Scarman Report was still very much around. And they very possibly have a point, though it’s always a mistake to paint every policeman with the same colours (so to speak). There are numerous accounts of the police’s tendency to stop and search young black men far, far more frequently than any other ethnic group, even at the expense of going after other, non-black criminals who are more obviously doing wrong – my friend Chris Lancaster, a teacher in Hackney, has attested to this point with firsthand tales. But is this still the “jungle bunny, darkie, send them back to their own country” racism of the 70s and 80s, or are we looking at something more complex?

England may be far more racially sensitive than it was in those dark days, but that doesn’t mean we’ve reached any golden age of equal treatment and opportunity for all ethnicities. As a general rule, criminals have always tended to come from the poorer sections of society. Also as a general rule, even now, most of the country’s black youth have also been locked into the poorer sections of society – particularly in London, where the descendants of the Caribbean immigrants of the 50s have never managed to escape the poverty trap no matter how hard their parents worked. So it’s not hard to see the flawed chain of ‘logic’ that could lead even a non-white supremacist policeman to be prejudiced. Criminals are poor. Black youths are poor. Therefore black youths must be criminals.

But there’s an even bigger racial issue here than any kind of prejudice inherent in the police, which is the question of WHY social class can be defined by race. In a land where racism apparently has been made so much less of a problem, why are there still some races unable to escape the poverty trap? Actual racists, of whom there are still a depressing amount, would say that it’s because of black culture, entitlement, rap music, etc. Even more depressingly, they may have a point – the culture of many young black men in poor backgrounds has shaped itself into something wilfully antisocial. Obviously that’s not true of all, but enough to be noticeable, particularly for the mainstream media who focus on this minority at the expense of the rest of the black community. But that misses the point that an antisocial culture has developed because of injustice, prejudice and poverty, which in turn reinforces those things in a depressing zero sum game. It’s easy to blame rap music for causing social ills, but remember that rap music was spawned by those very social ills in the first place, and has nihilistically drifted away from its original message of political outrage and injustice to resignedly boasting, glorifying women with big butts and telling us how many guns and expensive things the rappers own. But if you see your ancestors working hard and still living in poverty, and your only hope of financial advancement is crime, it’s easy to see how that can be tempting.

None of which excuses or justifies such behaviour of course, and it’s equally true to say that plenty of people from such a background study hard, work hard, and are fine members of society. And equally, there are still plenty of honourable people in the black community who have a justifiable sense of outrage at the position they STILL find themselves in purely because of their race. Of course, the racists take this as proof of their obvious superiority – if blacks are as good as us, they argue, there wouldn’t be such a disproportionately high number of black people in poverty. This, quite frankly, is bollocks. The reason there are so many black people among England’s poor is, quite simply, that there are still racists. It’s clear that not enough has been done to address the problem of integrating Britain’s varied ethnicities. A ‘quota’ system of positive discrimination in employment is not the answer – how patronising is it to know you’ve got a job purely on the basis of your race rather than your ability? The answer, surely, is in education, in bringing all people up to respect each other as equal – not just in the classroom, but everywhere in society. Many good people are still struggling to achieve just that. But plainly it’s not working, and new racists are being brought up to hate all the time. Look at the average age of an EDL member – we’re mostly talking under 30. If young people are still being taught by those around them that some races are more equal than others, there’s plainly still a very big problem.

So it was hardly surprising that, when a group of perfectly well-intentioned people accompanied Mark Duggan’s family to Tottenham police station on Saturday to demand some answers and were met with indifference and contempt, something bad was going to happen. And something bad did, as – reportedly – a teenage girl was pushed to the ground by a policeman, for reasons that are still unclear. Angry, people started throwing things. And lo and behold, another race riot was born on the streets of London, not so far from where similar riots had spring up in the 80s.

And at that point, it’s fair to say it really was a race riot – those same issues that sparked the 80s riots had, with a depressing inevitability, flared into violence again. Depressed, but not entirely surprised, I only watched the news with half an eye that night – it was a familiar narrative, and I had the nihilistic view that again, nothing would change.

But I was wrong. Things did change – for the worse. With any riot, there’s always an extra momentum built up by mob mentality, and by those who opportunistically latch onto it for their own ends – to cause trouble, to start a fight, and always, to steal things and break things. So it was that Saturday, but the scale was unprecedented. As the night wore on, it became clear that, however it had started, this was about more than Mark Duggan and police racism now. It had become rioting, destruction and looting for its own sake, with no point to make whatsoever. Shops were looted, cars and buildings set on fire, and any message that might have been given was entirely lost.

As night followed night, it became clear that this was now ALL about the looting, the fighting and the destruction. It was like the end of Quatermass and the Pit, with apparently ordinary people drawn mindlessly into the wanton indulgence of theft and vandalism. The communities being ransacked were their own backyards – they were, to use a phrase I first heard in a Stephen King novel, “shitting where they eat”.

At this point, any easy analysis of the causes was impossible. The film and CCTV footage, and the news photos, showed a much more disparate group in terms of age, gender and ethnicity than anyone had expected. Of course, people see what they want to see – to racists, 90% of them were black, to liberals, 90% of them were socially deprived, to conservatives, 90% of them were from broken homes and living on benefits. As we’re seeing now that the mindwarping amount of them arrested is beginning to filter through the courts, it’s not that straightforward.

A breakdown of the demographics involved is not yet forthcoming, so I’m guilty of speculation myself here. But of those looters who’ve already gone through the courts, we’re seeing that plenty of them actually had jobs, in some cases quite well-paid ones. So they weren’t all on benefits. Plenty of them were in higher education – so they weren’t all stupid. Plenty of them were women – so they weren’t all men. Plenty of them were white – so it wasn’t all about racism. And while a very high proportion were teenage or younger, there were plenty of people in their 30s and even their 40s, so it wasn’t a failure exclusively confined to a new ‘feral’ generation.

So what caused such a disparate bunch to turn into the terrifying mobs of roving thieves we saw over the last week? With so many different kinds of people involved, it was obviously more than one thing. The trouble is that all the causes feed into each other, so identifying motives – or solutions – is not easy.

“It’s the madness of a consumer society, where we’re all told to buy things we can’t afford,” cried many liberals, myself included. That this had a part to play was obvious; in the words of one teenage girl interviewed on the news, they wanted “some free stuff”. And after all, the main activity of the disorder was theft. More than ever, we live in a society where we’re defined as people by the things we own. You’re in a lower social class if you don’t have the right brand of trainers, or the very latest model of iPhone. Equally obviously, these things are getting harder and harder for ordinary people to afford, even as they’re artificially made more desirable by advertising and social pressure. “Tear it all down!” cried a communist friend of mine, clearly failing to appreciate that Karl Marx would hardly have been proud of a proletariat whose sole motive was the acquisition of material things.

“It’s the recession and the Coalition cuts,” we also cried. There’s an aspect of that too, for some. Whatever you think about the Coalition’s economic policies, it’s undeniable that the social divide between rich and poor is wider than ever before. The diminishing tiny group of the wealthy get wealthier and wealthier, while the increasingly populous poor get poorer. All this in the middle of a global recession in which those perceived to have caused it – the investment banks – have been bailed out by taxpayer’s money and continue to pay themselves conspicuously obscene bonuses while governments, held to ransom by threats of corporate relocation, can do nothing but look on impotently. “We’re just taking stuff back from the rich,” commented one looter as she walked away carrying her pointless new hoard. As cries of political rage go, it was pretty inarticulate, and smacked of excuse-making at that, but it summed up the increasing anger the population are rightly feeling about the increasingly divisive economic inequality the world over.

“It’s the voice of the voiceless,” was another cry I heard as a justification for this being the only kind of revolutionary expression an inarticulate ill-educated underclass could manage. That’s as may be, but they were hardly sticking it to their oppressors; Chipping Norton and the West End went unmolested. In fact, the looters’ targets were depressingly unambitious. I mean, JD Sports? Footlocker? Miss Selfridge? As consumers, their looting choices were decidedly low-rent. That may have just been down to opportunism; Armani and Gucci don’t have too many outlets in Hackney. Still, it’s telling that the REALLY exclusive stuff wasn’t hunted for – these were the dream things of decidedly ordinary people, and even these for many were out of their reach.

But not for all. As has been pointed out, many of those doing the robbing already had some of the things they were nicking. Some, like the teenage girl whose parents own a mansion, could clearly have afforded to but them anyway. So why would people want to loot things that they already had, didn’t need, or could afford to buy? The right wingers would have us believe that it’s because of a spoiled “entitlement culture” where the Welfare State has given the population the impression that they can get something for nothing, and this was a logical extension. And you know what? I think they had a point. But only the beginnings of one. We DO live in a culture where we expect to be able to get “free stuff” without having to work for it. State benefits have to shoulder some of the blame for that; even in the 90s, when I was on benefits, I found that there were occasions when it was better for me financially to stay on benefits than get a job. Not that this is any reason for the Welfare State to be dismantled, as the right wing would immediately insist. The benefit system is certainly ripe for overhaul, though whether the current government’s plan for it will work is questionable. But that’s only part of the “entitlement culture”. After all, if benefits payments are higher than potential wages, isn’t there also a problem with the wages? For years, employees rights have been eroded to such an extent, and corporate privileges extended by so much, that wages haven’t risen in real terms since 2003. I’d say the private sector has something to answer for in making joblessness a more attractive state than working for a pittance to enrich a minority.

If Labour have given the country a too-generous benefit system though, that’s as nothing compared to the economic dreams the Conservatives fostered in the 80s. Thatcher’s dream of a classless society where everyone gets rich (except the poor, who don’t matter) led to decades of easy credit possessions. Credit which, in the middle of a financial crisis, is no longer available. Why, people may be asking, could our parents get free stuff and we can’t? Oh wait, there’s an easier way…

Not to mention (and this is admittedly being filtered through MY prejudices) the inane “celebrity” culture that’s arisen over the last decade or so. How many young people, asked what they’d like to be, will these days simply say, “a celebrity”? Fame used to be earned by talent, hard work, and yes, sometimes luck. Now a lifetime of glitzy parties, appearances in Heat magazine and a line of workout DVDs is perceived to be guaranteed simply by dint of appearing on TV shows that require an unpaid public simply to turn up and gurn onscreen for a few minutes a week. Big Brother, The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent et al have fostered this culture, and we are, in part, reaping the rewards of it. If young people’s biggest dream is to be accorded the trappings of fame without doing anything to deserve it, these have surely played their part. When young girls say that their dearest aspiration is to be a footballer’s wife, that’s a dispiriting state for future generations to be in. Fame without work has become so ingrained in our culture, it’s easy to understand how people might think they can get – and deserve – something for nothing.

“They’re taking away my EMA,” one looter stated, “so this is, like, me getting stuff back.” A decreasing amount of educational opportunities, whether real or perceived, is undoubtedly stoking the fire of social unrest, particularly in poorer areas. Having said that, this was a claim it was hard to take seriously in a lot of cases. It later transpired that many of those looting were already in Higher Education. And it was noticeable that, if the looters were so concerned about their education, they conspicuously left Waterstone’s untouched.

Nevertheless, to some the Educational Maintenance Allowance, innovation though it is, has been a genuine lifeline. Some criticise it as, effectively, paying to keep kids in education and therefore off the unemployment register. But for some, it does enable them to go to college without having to support their family with a part time job. Its loss has been felt in many communities; but I still think in these cases that it’s been more a factor in the erosion of morale than an actual contributor. Books seem to hold far less attraction for the looters than Nikes.

“These people have no community spirit!” was the clarion call of many conservatives. And they’re right there, too. When people are destroying, looting, and burning down the places where they live, when lack of concern for your fellow human beings leads to robbing an injured man’s backpack under the guise of helping him, it’s clear that large swathes of the looters had absolutely no investment in their community, or indeed humanity in general. I doubt this applies to everyone who was out there, but it’s true of a hell of a lot of them. How we get people like that to accept the idea that “no man is an island” is a knotty problem, particularly when everywhere they turn, they see so-called ‘pillars of the community’ acting out of selfish self-interest. It’s hard to have much faith in a community when you see that community’s elected representatives defrauding those who pay their wages to get themselves a new duckpond. Or a moat. Or even a flatscreen TV like those that proved so popular to the looters. And when those selfsame representatives, and their enforcers in the police, have been caught out accepting favours, hospitality and money from a vast media empire intent on making more money out of invading the privacy of grieving families, that’s hardly likely to foster a sense of community either.

“These looters have no fear of the consequences because the police have been stripped of all power to act!” Another one that is, in some ways, true. The perception fostered since the 70s by movies like Dirty Harry (which, incidentally, is intended to condemn the behaviour of its title character rather than glorify it) is that the police’s hands are so tied by the ‘human rights’ of criminals that the criminals can act with total impunity. In some ways, this isn’t far from the truth; but the police themselves have to shoulder some of the blame here. I hasten to add at this point that the vast majority of police officers are decent people who actually want to fairly preserve law and order. However, the decades of scandals in which the British police have been embroiled by an admittedly diminishing proportion of their number have left them trepidatious of taking any direct action for fear of reprisals from the public. Even now, there are still problems with this. The death of Ian Tomlinson last year, and the public outcry over the outrageous kettling of student protestors, have left senior police officers fearful to take bold action when faced with these situations. Not to mention the fact that the Met in particular is currently leaderless after its two most senior officers had to resign over their roles in the phone hacking scandal.

“What are they going to do anyway?” snorted one looter. “Put me in prison? They’re full! Give me an ASBO?” And he was right. It’s hard to see how Big Dave can honour his press conference promises of cramming the 1500 and rising looters already arrested into a prison system that’s already creaking at the seams. ASBOs, an asinine Labour invention, have done nothing to curb people’s contempt for the punitive system either. How have we ended up with so many criminals that an impressively large prison system isn’t big enough for them? Well, there is the well-known fact that the prison system does little in the way of rehabilitation; for a first-timer, a spell in jail with some hardened criminals will just result in him or her being released as a better-skilled criminal. This is not to say that criminals shouldn’t go to prison – but equally something must be done to reform a system where, when they come out, they’re more likely than not to simply go back to crime, get caught, and go back in.

To briefly bang a drum I’ve banged before, if you want to do something about the number of criminals, you might want to look at reforming the drug prohibition laws. How much crime, including that on sinkhole estates like Hackney’s Pembury, is built on the backbone of drug dealing? How much untaxed profit is floating about that the government could use to reduce the deficit? And all because, since 1971, we’ve followed the head in the sand approach of the US in saying that it’s somehow the state’s business to regulate what people put in their bodies for recreation. Pretty much all drug-related crime stems from the fact that drugs are illegal; if they were available for properly regulated sale, anyone who wanted to use them could do so without having to harm anyone but themselves.

I’m not saying that recreational intoxication is in any way a desirable state for people; but the rest of us don’t seem to have a problem with getting pissed every weekend, which is at least as physically harmful and antisocial. Legalise drugs and properly regulate their sale according to the health harms they pose, and you’d free up an inordinate amount of prison space, government money and police time – not to mention breaking the back of organised crime by removing its most profitable endeavour. And how many teenage ‘gangstas’ would idolise drug dealers if the drug dealer was just the bloke in Boots? Since people are getting and using the drugs anyway, a rational debate on this subject is long overdue. Sadly, however reasonable politicians may seem on this subject while in opposition, once in power none of them dare risk opening the political Pandora’s box of the subject. But now more than ever, it would be a debate worth having.

“Where were the parents?” was another cry. “They’re all from broken homes, with no male role model and a mother having more and more kids to sponge off the State!” This is a tough one. A stable home environment may well be better for children, though it’s hard to tell yet how many of the looting youngsters were from single parent families. But to espouse that any family which doesn’t include a parent of either sex is a dangerous path – not just from a gay perspective, but because it reinforces the already pernicious idea that single mothers are some kind of blight on society. Well, I’m the product of a single mother household, as are many of my friends, gay and straight, and I like to think most of us turned out all right – certainly none of us were out looting.

But it is true to say that there’s a real problem with some children having as little respect for their parents as they do for their teachers. Traditionally, teenagers especially have always rebelled against authority figures; the police being, in fact, the biggest target here. And the conservatives may have something in saying that it’s hard to respect and obey an authority figure who demonstrably has no power over you. Should parents, teachers, police officers and the like be allowed to give kids a thick ear if they’re misbehaving? The liberal in me says no, but it’s hard to deny that when these things were allowed, the young did have more respect for authority. I hope I’m wrong on this one, because I hate the idea of getting more right wing as I get older. But it’s increasingly seeming to me that authority figures with their hands so tied end up having no authority at all. At the very least, I think perhaps a debate on what kind of consequences can ethically be meted out to give youth some kind of discipline is in order. A rational, evidence-based one though, rather than a reactionary, knee-jerk, Daily Mail/Mary Whitehouse approach.

If this seems like a very, very long laundry list of problems, well, that’s because these are the little plastic pieces overloading the Buckaroo game that is England’s social fabric. Note, NOT the UK – Scotland, which has many of the same problems, saw no such unrest, and in fact neither did quite a few parts England. There was no looting in Newcastle, or Truro, both of which are subject to so many of these issues. One of the other questions we need to ask is why these particular parts of England and not others? Despite Big Dave’s reticence, I genuinely think the biggest waves of social disorder in decades deserve a proper, considered inquiry.

That inquiry will need to take everything listed above into account, and properly weigh up the evidence and statistics when they are finally available. Basically, what I’ve just done is try and list almost very major social dysfunction in the country – no small task, and for that reason I haven’t even got started on the topics of what we do now; how we clear up and how we stop this from happening again. Another post will follow on that later, with, hopefully more concrete information to back it up. For now though, it’s fair to say that the terror that’s gripped us all for the last week has been down to an overloaded combination of all of this.

However, if it can be boiled down to one, singular issue, it is this. Stripped of ethical, legal, political and emotional considerations, human civilisation is based on one very fragile social contract. Probably its best known summation is from Christianity: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. In other words, purely pragmatically, we condemn murder because we don’t want to be murdered. We don’t steal because we don’t want to be stolen from. And for the better part of the last week, that social contract was held in limbo by enough of the English population to paralyse the country. If that contract is now back on, it’s in no small part due to the fact that we were reminded of it on the news in an admirably dignified appeal by Tariq Jahan, whose son Haroon was killed in the Birmingham chaos. He’d lost his son, he told us. If nobody else wanted to lose theirs, they should calm down and go home. And for a wonder, they did. Now we need to ask some very searching questions.

We can’t afford no education

No doubt when we have perfected a method of  killing Russians by dropping Pope and Dryden on their heads, the English department will enjoy equal research funding!” – A Very Peculiar Practice, 1988

So, not entirely unexpectedly, the coalition’s whopping increase in tuition fees has (narrowly) passed the Commons vote. As one of a large number of people who are finding their Lib Dem votes taste like ashes in their mouth (dreadful mixed metaphor, I know), I’ll be writing a much longer blog post soon about my feelings towards the coalition and my generation’s relationship with politics as a whole. But in light of today’s shaky victory for the coalition, I thought it worth going in to my problems on this policy in particular.

There’s a very telling story recalled by Stewart Lee on Youtube regarding Mrs Thatcher’s views on liberal higher education. Apparently, when told by a student that said student was studying Ancient Norse Literature, her only comment was, “what a luxury”. And that’s the Conservative view on Higher Education in a nutshell, and the real ideology underpinning a policy that’s been grossly misrepresented by almost all concerned – even, on occasion, its opponents. Education, the argument runs, is only of value if that value can be quantified monetarily. As Stewart points out, if you struggle to justify an Arts degree by pointing out that theatre tours make money, you’ve already lost the argument, because you’re seeing it in precisely those terms. By that argument, the study of Shakespeare that Michael Gove holds so dear would have been abandoned centuries ago. No money in it, you see.

But let’s start, in fairness to the policy’s apologists, by wondering if they’re right when they say it’s an improvement over the current system. So, despite a potential threefold increase in tuition fees, most students will end up paying less. This is actually true. When the word ‘progressive’ is bandied about, most of us disagree. But it is progressive, in the economic sense of the word – that is to say, the more money you earn, the more of your debt you’ll pay back. Consequently, unlike the fixed payments under the current system, it could be seen as fairer. Plus, as Vince Cable seems to be constantly trying to tell us, the threshold by which you’ll pay it back has been raised from £15k a year to £21k a year. So you’ll not pay anything for a greater length of time than now. And thirty years after you graduate, any money you haven’t paid back will be written off as a bad debt.

Put like that, it’s hard to see why anyone should find it a problem. But the reason they’re rioting on the streets of London tonight is that most young people going to university don’t necessarily do Economics. You can break it down all you like, but to a 17 year old contemplating Higher Education, the prospect of a £40,000 debt hanging over your head for the next thirty years is a pretty fearsome one, no matter how favourable the repayment rates. If that had been around when I went to uni, I’m pretty sure I would have had very serious second thoughts. No matter how much Clegg and Cable bang on about social mobility, the pure fact is that the very prospect of that debt is going to put the less well off seriously off going into Higher Education.

And the basic issue where I disagree with the coalition – and the Labour Party – entirely is that in my opinion, more money should be being put into Higher Education. I managed to go to university, despite being from a less than well off background, because the State funded it. Neil Kinnock, in 1983, made a speech where he was rightly proud of being the first one in his family to go university – because of the Welfare State his party founded. And what we’re seeing now is yet another nail in the coffin of that Welfare State, something the Conservative Party have been trying, albeit surreptitiously, to dismantle almost since its inception.

The State used to provide a full grant, by which the less well off could have all of their university education funded. Not just the tuition, but the living expenses too – there were no student loans necessary unless you bought too much beer (I did). The dismantling of free Higher Education for all was actually started by that nemesis of the left Margaret Thatcher, who froze the grants in 1990, to a level at which they remain now, twenty years of inflation later. Her spiritual child Tony Blair continued the chipping away by introducing Tuition fees, and it’s no surprise that the current Conservative government (face it, it is one) would want to carry that on.

I’ve had a long chat with my friend James, who finds my views incomprehensible. Surely, he argues, if prospective students did the sums and were committed enough and well-informed enough, they’d see that the new policy is no kind of disincentive. I’d agree with him – if it weren’t for the fact that tens of thousands of young people don’t see it that way. A 17 year old wanting to study English Literature probably can’t do a cost/benefit analysis and might (hopefully) not even know what one is. I’d say the massive demonstrations against the policy show that people don’t see the benefits. All they see is a giant debt for the next thirty years. And that’s enough to disincentivise those who aren’t that good at sums – like, say, the ones doing Arts subjects.

An argument I’ve heard many times now – most recently from an MP on Radio 4, though I forget which one – is why taxpayers should foot the bill for other people to attend university. This is what I believe should be called the ‘screw you Jack I’m all right’ policy. The obvious subtext is that nobody should pay for State services they don’t personally use, and has often been pointed out, its logical extrapolation is that nobody should pay for the National Health Service unless they’re ill. Although David Cameron would probably love that – it’s called private healthcare, and it’s what the Republicans in America are fighting tooth and nail to defend. From my point of view, as a childless man, I could use this to justify not paying the part of my taxes used to fund schools. But I won’t, because I genuinely believe that a morally responsible state has a duty to provide certain things for its citizens and that all those citizens should be responsible for paying for them , regardless of whether they personally make use of them.  Interestingly, nobody ever disagrees with that about the NHS. It’s when you have to prioritise what else a morally responsible State should provide that the arguments begin. I see an opportunity for Higher Education as one of those priorities. Clearly others would rather spend the money on State-sponsored Botox treatment.

But the coalition have been given a golden excuse to carry out these draconian reforms. The buzzword is ‘deficit’. Most people, and I count myself among them, find economics a baffling, abstract topic. All we know is, there’s a deficit between how much we make as a country and how much we owe. It’s big, and it needs to get smaller. Consequently, the government can do more or less what it likes, providing it reduces the deficit. And this has been the biggest argument for the cutting of university funding and the increase in tuition fees.

The trouble is, at least as far as I can see, that this is what’s technically known as ‘bollocks’. The increased fees aren’t due to start until 2012, and will in the majority of cases, be funded by student loans from government coffers that won’t be paid back for many years, if at all. How this can have any impact on the current deficit is impossible to fathom. My friend Richard, normally a defender of the coalition, has done the sums and found the policy pretty unjustifiable on his blog – check it out, he’s far better at Economics than I am.

And that’s what really gets my goat, more than the Lib Dems reneging on campaign promises or the Conservatives trying to dismantle the Welfare State. It’s underhanded and dishonest. What they’re really doing is using the deficit as an excuse to carry out ideological policies long held by the Conservative Party, propped up by the increasingly foolish Lib Dems. Yes, the policy won’t prohibit the less well off from attending university. But it will put them off. Meanwhile, the rich can attend with impunity, as they always have. In practice, as a social measure this is returning us to the pre-1946 era when the only ones with degrees were the wealthy.

Don’t get me wrong – I know there is a real problem with the proliferation of university degrees. Labour’s target of having 50% of the populace attend university has cheapened the value of a degree to such an extent that the jobs market is flooded with Media Studies graduates flipping burgers, and anyone with no degree at all is seriously disadvantaged no matter how suitable for the job they may be. But attacking this problem by favouring the rich at university, while typical Conservative policy, is morally indefensible. Instead, perhaps we should try and re–engineer the education system as a whole, so that only the most qualified can actually get to university. Without wanting to seem like a grumpy old man, that’s how it was in my day – plenty of people wanted to go to university but didn’t get the necessary grades, regardless of the State funding. In contrast, my friend Sam – 19 years old – has a university place despite pretty poor A Level grades. Doing, I think, some kind of Media Studies course. An overhaul – a massive, fundamental one – is needed for the education system as a whole. And not just Michael Gove banging on about returning the nation’s children to the three ‘R’s.

But what it really boils down to is that the students are being asked to foot the bill for an 80% cut in University funding, massively disproportionate to the other cuts carried out in the name of the deficit. And, in the spirit of Maggie Thatcher’s opinion of Ancient Norse Literature, what funding there is is being reserved exclusively for Maths, Science and Engineering. So those much vaunted Humanities subjects that form part of Gove’s new English Baccalaureate count for precisely sod all at university level. Plainly, the coalition are happy to have rote knowledge of Shakespeare drilled into children, but heaven forfend they get paid money to actually think about it.

So it’s bigger than tuition fees, bigger than the selfish political aims of the National Union of Students. The whole University system is under attack, its value judged solely in terms of its profits. And that’s not, and never has been what universities are about. Regardless of your views on how irresponsibly the protestors have acted, regardless of the poor, hard done by Prince of Wales and his sadly damaged Rolls-Royce Phantom, the issue here is one of civilisation. Tuition fees are the tip of the iceberg.