On Political Silly Season

At least it isn't every year.
At least it isn’t every year.

 

It is party conference season in the UK, with the Labour Party currently enjoying their moment in the spotlight. It is times like these that I envy the Americans, who only have to endure the spectacle of their preferred political party’s most gung-ho, swivel-eyed or greasily ambitious apparatchiks getting together to engage in collective groupthink once every four years, unlike us Brits who are treated to these traveling roadshows each year.

And as usual, we have had our fair share of silliness.

The Liberal Democrat party conference was largely dominated by the news that Sarah Teather, the current government children’s minister (because apparently that is a separate role that we need?) is throwing her toys out of the pram and standing down as an MP at the 2015 general election because the LibDems are not sufficiently like the Labour party for her liking. In a similar vein, much of the remaining press coverage was driven by continual speculation about Nick Clegg’s leadership, and Tim Farron’s (the Liberal Democrat’s party president) evident desire to serve in coalition with Labour rather than the Conservatives, and quite possibly to shack up with Ed Miliband and take romantic mini-breaks together as well.

UKIP were hoping for a successful conference to build favourable press in the long run-up to the European Parliamentary elections, where they are expected to do very well and challenge for first place. However, they came a cropper when one of their MEPs hit a journalist and made an inappropriate “slut” joke, all in view of television cameras and witnesses. This is a typical example of the pointless distraction – the actions of a silly activist then overshadow anything substantive that may have been discussed or decided at conference. UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, did his frank and inimitable best to salvage some small gain from the smoking wreck and lift the morale of his troops, but the damage was already done.

This man can make positive press conference disappear faster than I can finish this capt---
This man can make positive press coverage disappear faster than I can finish this capt—

 

Now we are enduring the Labour party conference, another exercise in denial as to the reasons for their 2010 general election loss and their persistent unpopularity throughout the country. Of course, no Labour conference is complete without the proposal for several new and entirely redundant laws. This time, in the wake of the horrific terrorist murder of British soldier Drummer Lee Rigby, Labour are proposing making it a specific crime to attack a member of the armed forces. Because, of course, at the moment anyone could do that and walk away entirely untouched by the criminal justice system. So we have the typical frenetic, pointless legislating that we have come to know and love from the Labour party.

Something to look forward to.
Something to look forward to.

 

As of press time we can only speculate as to the joys that await us at the Conservative party conference, but as a conservative voter I am filled with my usual apprehension that we will see more moves to make the Tories indistinguishable from Labour, and the unceasing need to try to “outnice” their main electoral rivals by embracing universal benefits for rich and poor alike whilst continuing to clobber the rich with onerous tax rates. If Osborne and Cameron manage to articulate even one original policy that stands a snowball’s chance in hell of shrinking the state and increasing personal freedom, I will not only be delighted but I will eat my hat.

So, in conference season 2013 we have a party in denial about why they were booted out of government and remain widely distrusted, a party in the midst of severe post-wedding remorse pining for the other woman that it didn’t marry, a party whose manifesto and policy announcements were entirely upstaged by an ornery old man unfamiliar with the workings of television and a party calling themselves the Conservatives but who seem to have accidentally picked up the Labour party governing playbook by mistake.

It must be groundhog day.

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The Distant Dream of Lords Reform

A walking, talking advertisement for the benefits of separation between church and state
A walking, talking advertisement for the benefits of separation between church and state

 

In their latest editorial on the subject, The Guardian appears to have given up on the one-step, transformative reform of the House of Lords that was set in motion by the last Labour government and the next steps enshrined in the coalition agreement (before the Tories and LibDems blew the plan to bits in a fit of politically childish pique). Instead, they now advocate a slower (if that were possible), multi-step process of gradual and incremental reforms before we arrive at the cherished goal of having a working bicameral legislature where both houses hold democratic legitimacy.

We begin with the usual wailing and gnashing of teeth at the current state of affairs, and lamentation that the yearly spectacle of undeserving people being honoured with the privilege of sitting in the upper house has taken place yet again:

What an embarrassment to the so-called mother of parliaments. Thirty more cronies and party donors, leavened by a handful of the genuinely worthy and the downright eccentric (what’s an active journalist like Danny Finkelstein doing on the list?), appointed to the democratic world’s largest legislative chamber. It’s hard to imagine where they’ll find room to sit, never mind a job to do, in a chamber where in some debates there’s a 90-second limit on speeches. Yet proposals for reform are discarded. Even a modest suggestion of voluntary retirement founders. And prime ministerial patronage continues more or less unchecked.

The whole exercise is, in the widest sense of the word, corrupt: a system where individuals who make huge party political donations and – however sound their judgment and broad their experience – are awarded a place in the legislature as a gift from the leader of the party is just as much a scandal waiting to happen now as it was when Maundy Gregory was operating the system in the interests of Lloyd George.

But after this strident denunciation of the way things work, The Guardian goes turncoat on us:

Yet despite its Ruritanian appointments process, the Lords is generally acknowledged to be working unexpectedly effectively. Peers do take seriously their duty to scrutinise legislation, they have a good record for improving it, and some have been doughty defenders of individual freedoms. And look closely at who actually sits in the Lords: since the hereditaries were largely ejected in 1999, it’s become a more representative cross-section of the electorate – and the share of the votes cast – than the Commons, and more ethnically diverse. Even the gender balance is at least no worse. The danger is that the more useful it is, the harder it will become to reform.

Well, yes. This is why bicameral legislatures are a good thing. A more ruminative upper house will generally act as a brake (if not a stop) on the more reckless or short-term politically calculating moves of the lower house (and Lord knows that countries like Britain and America need such a check). This fact holds true even when the upper house in question has no real democratic legitimacy. But the fact that the House of Lords is doing okay-ish at the moment (if we choose to ignore the recent lobbying scandal and the fact that 26 lords spiritual continue to exert the not-always-benign influence of the Church of England over our lawmaking) is insufficient reason to reduce the pressure for comprehensive reform.

Most of the hereditary peers are now gone, so Britain is at least spared the indignity of having nascent laws scrutinised by the inbred landed gentry of the realm. We are just left to tackle the political appointees, the favoured party fundraisers and other beneficiaries of prime ministerial patronage who continue to occupy the place. We must also end the ridiculous, anachronistic idea that it is in any way appropriate to reward a person for their deeds (no matter how worthy or altruistic) by giving them a seat in our legislature. The honours system must be divorced from the political system as a matter of great urgency.

The Guardian concludes:

No one supposed, in 1999, that removing the hereditary peers was where reform would end. But since then, the next step has invariably been too much for some and not enough for others. So without abandoning the ambition for an elected upper chamber, perhaps it is time to make progress in smaller steps.

I would rather abandon any expectation of further changes in the next two years in the hope that more comprehensive reform can be achieved following the 2015 general election. This is not an unrealistic goal. True reform was part of the coalition agreement and very much on the cards until the Tories and Liberal Democrats decided to have a mutually destructive bust-up over linking the policy to changing electoral boundaries. Assuming the parties can find it within themselves to grow up slightly, Lords reform can be part of a future coalition agreement (or single party manifesto) too.

Semi Partisan Sam says no to any more slow, incremental reform of the House of Lords. The nation would be better off suffering through another two years with the upper house stuffed full of bewigged, enrobed anachronisms and political patronage beneficiaries before finally kicking the lot of them out after 2015 rather than enduring another decade or more of hand-wringing and glacial progress.

Our Superficial Media

The G8 summit in Lough Erne, Northern Ireland, finished some days ago now, but our intrepid journalists in the press are still on the case, poring over and analysing the ramifications and outcomes of this latest summit.

Unfortunately, the minds of our (supposedly) best journalists and bloggers are not concentrated on the policy substance of what was (and was not) agreed at the meeting, distracted as they are by something far more important and consequential – the fact that David Cameron insisted on a smart-casual dress code for the world leaders at this year’s G8, rather than the buttoned-up suit and tie look that is par for the course at these events.

They mean serious business because the ties have come off
They mean serious business because the ties have come off

Iain Dale, writing at Conservative Home, sniffs:

Whoever chose Lough Erne as the venue for the G8 should get some kind of honour. As a PR exercise it couldn’t be faulted. The countryside backdrops to all the interviews and press conferences were simply stunning. Less stunning, though, was the fact that David Cameron seemed to have a physical aversion to wearing a tie at any point during the event. Orders had clearly gone out from Number Ten that this was a ‘dress down’ G8, although it was rather difficult to tell whether Angela Merkel had got the message, as in all the pictures I saw she seemed to be wearing the same, tired old lime green jacket. I assume she brought a change of underwear.

What penetrating insight. In The Telegraph, Benedict Brogan thunders:

G8 summits are notorious for their sartorial excesses: matching floral shirts, ponchos, stetsons, it has become a commonplace for the host country to rope the visitors into trying on some sort of local dress. Yet what happens when the world’s most powerful men (sic) gather in the UK? We make them dress like bachelors emerging into the bleary dawn after a vigorous stag party. We might as well ask them to wear jeans. What’s wrong with a bit of understated English tailoring, as a way of plugging one of our more successful exports? In fact, it’s London Fashion Week. There’s all kind of natty pastel numbers available, rather than the blue blazers. But for my money, they should tie one on to show they take the taxpayer – and their responsibilities – seriously.

Someone might be so kind to remind Mr. Brogan that he would be taking his responsibilities as a journalist for a prestigious newspaper more seriously if he focused on the policy agenda of the G8 summit, and not the dress code.

Even The Guardian gets in on the act, with a dedicated feature in their Fashion section:

Not for the first time, the dress code has proved to be one of the trickier aspects of the G8 agenda. Style novice George Osborne underlined the dilemma with his sartorial excuse to BBC Breakfast on Tuesday. “I’m doing what I was asked,” he said. “I got out my jacket and blue shirt.” Forget tax and Syria, smart-casual is tough for these guys.

Cameron demonstrated yet again that for him sleeves rolled up and no jacket semaphores getting down to business. He famously did it on the campaign trail all-nighter and he’s done it at Lough Erne. For him a suit jacket and tie is for everyday prime ministerial humdrum but real power dressing – when he’s hosting international leaders – means pale blue cotton and unironed chinos.

But the real gem comes from the sub-headline to that same Guardian article, which reads as follows:

Forget tax and Syria, smart-casual is tough for these guys. Cameron demonstrated yet again that for him sleeves rolled up and no jacket semaphores getting down to business.

Forget tax and Syria. Indeed. Some people certainly have; unfortunately, they are the people whose job it is to hold our elected leaders to account, to scrutinise, analyse and challenge their activities and policy decisions. With a barely growing economy, persistently high unemployment (we recently celebrated the economy adding 5000 new jobs – a paltry 5000 in country of 65,000,000!) and widespread dissatisfaction with his leadership, David Cameron must have been delighted to be taken to task over his sartorial choices rather than his lacklustre/harmful economic policies and desire for more middle-east adventuring in Syria.

The journalists will no doubt counter that there is a “legitimate public interest” in stories like this, that the public are interested and want to know, justifying all of their column inches on rolled-up shirtsleeves and ties, and the dearth of column inches on the outcomes of the G8 summit. This argument is complete claptrap. The journalists themselves generate the public interest in these process-driven non-stories, thus justifying (in their minds) their decision to cover them in ever increasing detail. After all, it’s far easier to sit at your laptop for twenty minutes and bang out a vapid column about the fashion choices of our politicians than it is to do some real journalism, and pore through meeting minutes and policy papers to educate and inform the public as to what is really going on.

Enough of superficial political “journalism”. David Cameron, Barack Obama and the other six can wear matching gimp costumes to the G8 for all I care; what matters is whether they (for once) manage to cook up some policies that actually benefit the non-elites in our respective countries, and (wishfully thinking) take positive steps toward hammering out a comprehensive EU-US free trade treaty.

But I’m not holding out much hope. Our leaders don’t have the best track record when it comes to acting in our interests, and “journalists” such as Iain Dale and Benedict Brogan seem more interested in clucking disapprovingly at their outfits than scrutinising the decisions that they make.

On EU Secession And Straw Man Arguments

Another day, another newspaper column from a political has-been lecturing us on why leaving the European Union or renegotiating our terms of membership would be terrible, just terrible, and consign us to the lowly status of a third world country, adrift in the sea of globalisation with no friends and no influence.

The newspaper columns tend to follow the exact same template, and this time it was the turn of Kenneth Clarke, writing in The Telegraph, to gently explain to us stupid “swivel-eyed” nationalist loons exactly why our views are undermining Britain and putting our future at risk. He writes, with reference to the potential EU-US free trade agreement currently being discussed at the fringes of the G8 meeting in Lough Erne:

For, irony of ironies, it is of course the EU that is making deals with America and Canada possible. It should come as no surprise that President Obama’s officials have commented that they would have “very little appetite” for a deal with the British alone. Quite simply, the political commitment and dedication that the creation of a free market encompassing over 800 million people, 47 per cent of world GDP, and boosting the combined economies of the EU and the US by nearly £180 billion, could only ever be made by the leaders of evenly matched economic blocs.

What nonsense. While this statement may be true for some of the smaller EU member states, until you reach about Spain size, it certainly does not apply to the United Kingdom. Why would any country not wish to negotiate bilaterally with the sixth largest economy in the world, and miss out on the many benefits of tariff-free access to such a large hub of industry, innovation, technology, arts and sciences? Ken Clarke would have us tremble in fear that the mighty President Obama might overlook pathetic, little old Britain if we dared to stand on our own, but he certainly pays attention to the likes of India, Russia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and countless other countries with much lower nominal GDP than the United Kingdom, so that argument hardly stands up.

But of course, Ken Clarke doesn’t need his arguments to bear scrutiny, because they are straw men. He assumes that a Britain outside of the European Union would automatically be isolated, introverted and inward-looking, seeking to shut itself off from the world, but he is putting words into the mouths of the Eurosceptics. He disingenuously proclaims:

There always has been something of the romantic in the British soul. We can’t fail to be stirred by Charge of the Light Brigade visions of Britain standing alone against the odds. It is the same sentiment behind the idea of exchanging the EU for Nafta.

But, in the end, we are a practical race. We know that the empire on which the sun never set was created by intrepid, relentlessly outward-facing adventurers and administrators, not isolationist John Bulls. That “Brexit” would mean curtains for our ability to have any leadership role in world-defining plays like these free-trade agreements would greatly disturb us. Accepting a diminished situation in which the UK is forced to trade by EU rules which it has had no say in setting is simply not in our nature.

I don’t know of any anti-EU people who want to create a Fortress Britain and isolate ourselves from the world – in fact, quite the opposite is true. We feel that the ever more onerous conditions and regulations that must be observed as part of our EU membership damage our national competitiveness and make it harder for us to do the business that we want to do with the rest of the world. If the EU were simply a free trade area then remaining an EU member to negotiate an agreement with NAFTA or the US would make the utmost sense. But the ever-closer union has become so much more than that, spawning parliaments, commissions, foreign policy chiefs, “human rights” courts, and generally extending its tentacles into every aspect of national life. How does Ken Clarke imagine being beholden to all of these anti-democratic institutions improves our leverage or bargaining position when it comes to discussing matters of free trade?

Of course, Clarke is deeply invested in the success and longevity of the European project. He himself is a current member of the secretive Bilderberg group which in the post-war years was instrumental in formulating many of the policies and initiatives that have helped to bring us to our ever-closer union with our European neighbours and allies. Indeed, at the most recent Bilderberg Group meeting in Watford, England, one of the agenda items specifically focused on “the politics of the EU”, which you can read as “how to make the masses support our floundering European project”. The last thing that he would want is to undo his organisation’s stated objectives of weakening the institution of the nation state in favour of larger, pan-national, anti-democratic organisations. The European Union serves the needs of his political and corporatist friends very well indeed; the average voter, less so.

Personally, I don’t appreciate being talked down to by the likes of Ken Clarke, so in retaliation I am going to post this video of him, taken at a campaign event while he still held fairly high political office, being too fat to get out of a racing car that he was inspecting (skip to the 7 minute mark):

 

I’ll change my views on Britain’s need to leave the European Union, or at least drastically renegotiate our terms of membership the day that Ken goes on a diet.

Taxes, The Answer To Everything

HMRC taxes

 

When your default position holds that Government should always be bigger and seek to do more, and play an ever larger role in the life of the citizenry, it generally follows that you will also be obsessed with tax policy, and ingenious ways to come up with new revenues. After all, the all-seeing, all-knowing behemoth has to be funded somehow.

Polly Toynbee, in her latest Guardian column, lambasts the Conservative-led government for “giving up” on trying to find new revenues, and imagines a world where tax avoidance (perfectly legal) and tax evasion (not so much) can be eliminated at the click of her fingers. She writes:

Cutting the 50% top rate suggests no great enthusiasm for rigorous taxing. Last week’s ONS figures revealed gigantic avoidance of the 50% top rate. It could have been collected but George Osborne needed to prove it didn’t work. The Treasury estimated raising the rate to 50% should bring in £6.2bn, but the actual return was a puny £100m.

In year one, before its official start date, high earners gamed the tax by rushing to take dividends and bonuses early. They paid more into pensions, gaining undeserved higher tax relief. Or they used trusts, or took income as capital gains. (That can be stopped, by fixing capital gains, as Nigel Lawson did, at the same rate as income tax, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies advocates.) Once Osborne announced the top rate would fall to 45%, high earners gamed it again. Incomes Data Services reports a massive delay in bonuses until after 6 April, when they leapt up by 107% in the finance sector to catch the new 45% rate. That could have been forestalled.

In Polly Toynbee world, a 50% top rate of tax is absolutely worthy and to be encouraged, and she sees nothing wrong with this, but we already know that. What is more striking, however, is the glib way in which she assumes that the population, outraged by such high taxes, can simply be stopped from taking perfectly legal measures to limit their tax bill. Phrases such as “that can be stopped” or “that could have been forestalled” are boldly laid down, but are not followed up with the how to do it when it comes to implementation.

When she does offer specific prescriptions for raising more tax revenues, she picks and chooses from the worst and most counter-productive tax policies from around the world, including this gem:

Britain can do plenty alone: we could adopt US tax laws that make every UK passport holder, wherever they are in the world, pay UK tax.

Ah yes, double taxation. The United States is the only major western country to enforce this policy of taxing their citizens on money earned overseas, and the policy is universally despised and acts as a significant disincentive for many Americans to work abroad for any length of time. But by all means Polly, let’s adopt that hated policy.

This is not to say that there is not a very real problem of tax avoidance, but it is far more on the business side than the individual side. People are rightly outraged when companies such as Starbucks use crafty mechanisms (“oh, we have to pay all the money we make in our UK stores as a royalty to our European headquarters in Amsterdam, so we don’t have any UK profits to be taxed this year, sorry”) to avoid paying tax on profits earned in Britain. And somehow it seems even worse when those same corporations, under the harsh glare of the media spotlight, deign to cut the government a cheque, to throw the exchequer a small bone to help solve their PR crisis.

Of course, the whole quagmire could be cleaned up very easily if only there was a political party (hi, UKIP) willing to take a scythe to the existing British tax code and rebuild it from the ground up, based on the tenets of real fairness, which of course means a flat tax. A flat rate of tax on income, corporate profits, capital gains and (if we must keep it) on value added, i.e. sales. Wherever possible, double taxation should be avoided – if you have paid tax on income or a purchase already, HMRC should not be allowed to come back for a second bite of that asset later on. And if we have learned nothing else from our friends across the sea in the United States, deductions should be avoided at all costs, as should Gordon Brown’s labyrinthine system of tax credits that you can claim for everything under the sun. Eliminate deductions and tax credits so that you can lower rates for everyone.

Toynbee concludes:

Tax cheating should be Labour’s chance to tell honest political truths: you get what you pay for, you can’t have Swedish services on US tax ideology. Tax is the price we pay for civilisation. At elections, all parties promise the impossible, more with less and cuts in “bureaucracy” to pay for everything. Treating the public like children on tax does nothing for trust in politics. The door has opened for that conversation.

In her mind, big government is synonymous with “civilisation”. The more responsibilities that the government takes on, and the more that citizens are subservient to the government, the more “civilised” that society becomes. Polly Toynbee probably knows more history than me, but I can think of at least a couple of great civilisations from the past that survived and prospered just fine without 50% top rates of income tax, married couples allowances, earned income tax credits or personal allowances.

And if Polly Toynbee really thinks that the door has opened for a conversation about the government going back to talking half of every pound that you earn above a certain threshold, and preventing citizens from making private financial decisions and transactions at a time of their own choosing so as to limit their tax liability, I am reasonably confident that she will find that door slammed very hard in her face by the British people.