Budget 2017 Reaction

Homer Simpson - George Osborne - Budget - Annual Statement

This was a holding budget designed to buy the government some political breathing room, and so Philip Hammond kicked the can down the road on nearly all of the major fiscal and structural issues facing Britain

I intended this piece to be just a few disjointed thoughts reflecting on Philip Hammond’s Budget Statement and the boldness or cowardice of the Tories, but it gradually expanded to touch on issues of federalism and local government, and the counterproductive nature of the annual “Budget Theatre” itself.

A one-way ratchet to Bigger Government?

As Budgets go, this one was fairly bland and non-offensive. Contrary to the justified fears that Theresa May’s administration would be a one-way ratchet to Bigger Government, such ominous moves were largely missing from today’s statement – though of course we still have the highly un-conservative “Industrial Strategy” to come.

Equal to the challenges facing Britain?

It is hard to argue that this Budget in any way acknowledges the scale of the challenges facing post-Brexit Britain. A serious Budget which attempted to do so would have included a lot more on education and proposed a means to help re-train the many workers who will find their jobs outsourced or automated in the coming decades. £40 million to train new maths teachers is good, and any steps to improve Britain’s STEM output are welcome, but this does nothing to disarm the time bomb which will affect many of those already in the workforce.

A serious Budget would have done more than take tentative steps around the housing crisis, firmly addressing the supply issue now rather than tinkering with demand by abolishing stamp duty on properties under £500,000. It would have touched the third rail of British politics and defied the doctrine of NHS non tangere to meaningfully reform British healthcare and the way it is funded. It would have grappled with social care and the need to ensure that those who can afford to bear more of the cost of any care they require in old age.

But of course we got none of those things. And the great danger is that we will now never see these problems meaningfully addressed in the lifespan of this government. One can appreciate that Brexit is currently sucking much of the oxygen which might otherwise fuel other policymaking, but we should not have to choose between managing Brexit (which this government is also failing to do) and dealing with other long-term problems. It should not be too much to ask for the UK government to walk and chew gum at the same time.

Short-term thinking over long-term need?

A government’s first budget is normally a place where bad news gets dumped and difficult decisions made, the idea being that it is better to absorb public anger now and then win back favour with giveaways in the final budget(s) before a general election than have to anger people with harsh corrective measures later in the term. David Cameron’s government followed this approach, with Chancellor George Osborne doling out the harsher medicine (or plain confusion, in the case of the Omnishambles budget) in early years and then sweetening the deal prior to the 2015 election by pretending that he had solved all of Britain’s fiscal challenges and therefore had spare cash to throw around.

The fact that Theresa May’s government is not following this well-worn path is not a sign of some innovative new strategy – it is a sign of clear political weakness. The current Conservative government is already teetering on the brink, without a majority in the House of Commons and kept afloat in the polls only because of fear of Jeremy Corbyn. Philip Hammond therefore had no political capital to spend by irritating the electorate any further, or asking anything more of them; instead he was forced to try to accrue some political capital with a giveaway.

As I previously wrote:

Twice a year – once in the annual Budget and once in the Autumn Statement – the Chancellor of the Exchequer gets to his feet and delivers a refreshed set of economic policies in a big, set piece speech where he is essentially forced to favour tomorrow’s headlines over optimal long or even medium term decision making.

Nationally significant policies from every government ministry live or die by the concessions that their ministers are able to wrangle from a Chancellor who is forced by political reality to be more concerned with tomorrow’s Daily Mail headline than the state of our public finances in a year’s time.

Thus the annual Budget Theatre encourages short-term thinking. Whether one takes the Osborne approach or the Hammond approach, Budgets are as much about chasing favourable headlines and dominating the news cycle with positive coverage for a few days than they are about serious long-term strategic thinking.

Budget Theatre is a bad way of governing

This blog has long complained that this annual Budget Theatre, with all the speculation and press coverage surrounding it, is a really bad way to run a modern democracy. Why? Well, there are a number of reasons.

First of all,  as already discussed, the Budget spectacle encourages short-term thinking. Budget 2017 is something of a “giveaway” budget, with the government making concessions and seeking to tamp down public anger rather than taking difficult decisions in the long term. In short, it prioritises the political and tactical over the strategic.

Secondly, the Budget spectacle directly feeds into the Politics of Me Me Me, far more so than any other event, even general elections. During the build-up to Budget Day, the day itself and the immediate aftermath, we are encouraged by the media to think only about how the budget affects us and our wallets. This is understandable, since the Chancellor has the power to inflict severe pain or lavish great rewards on favoured groups. But it is also therefore an incentive for us to “ask not what we can do for our country, ask what our country can do for us”, to reverse John F. Kennedy’s exhortation.

As I wrote at the time of George Osborne’s 2015 Budget:

Having two occasions each year when an already-powerful chancellor in an already-centralised country like the United Kingdom gets to play with nearly all of the controls and levers which influence our economy – as though he were Homer Simpson at the controls of Springfield Nuclear Plant – only encourages meddling and tweaking of things that should properly be left to local government and individuals.

When you have direct, ultimate control over which families deserve help buying a house, which people should keep or lose their benefits or how much a person pays in sin taxes for their guilty pleasure, the temptation to use those powers is irresistible. And because of the ratchet effect, it is the easiest thing in the world to give away new perks to favoured interest groups, but nearly impossible to ever claw them back without being exposed to political attack. Even under this nominally conservative government, budgets and autumn statements have often been a one-way ticket to bigger government – or at least more activist state.

Unfortunately, Budget Theatre is inevitable when so many decisions affecting so many people are made centrally rather than locally, and applied at a national level rather than taking into account the specific and varying needs of different regions (or between the cities and the countryside).

And this leads on to my next point…

Britain’s overcentralisation disease

I continue to find it vaguely ludicrous that decisions about how much tax should be applied to a pint of beer or a litre of gasoline are set nationally in Westminster, and that we all have to tune in to the Budget Statement every year to find out what tweaks and incentives the Chancellor has seen fit to impose on our lives at the behest of the public health or environmental lobby.

Britain is a ridiculously over-centralised country in terms of governance. Devolution is a good thing in principle (though I would argue that we should move toward a federal UK with the same powers devolved to each home nation) but the net result of current devolution is that Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have rightly floated off to do their own thing in terms of domestic policy while England remains overcentralised.

We need to move to a place where local authorities, ideally county councils, take over some of the tax-raising powers from Westminster and gain more control over spending in areas such health, transport and education. We need to stop fearing the “postcode lottery” and start welcoming it as a petri dish for testing new policies and encouraging healthy rivalry between regions. More decentralised taxation and spending would force local politicians to put their money – or their electorate’s money – where their mouths are. If leftist politicians want to hike sales taxes or fritter money away on white elephants they should be free to do so, and then answer to voters.

Finally, enhancing the powers of local government in England would increase the current woeful levels of participation in local democracy as the decisions made locally suddenly started to matter a lot more. And this in turn would see an improvement in the calibre of people running for local office, and serve as an incubator for political talent outside Westminster.

Of course, some of the blame for the current situation rests with the Thatcher government, which felt it necessary to de-fang many local authorities since they represented such an impediment to the government’s turnaround strategy. One can argue whether or not this was justified, but certainly the end result is a country where far too many decisions and policies rest with the Westminster government when they should really sit much closer to the people.

Conclusion

This year’s Budget could have been a hell of a lot worse, given Theresa May’s interventionist instincts and tolerance for Big Government. Fortunately, Philip Hammond seems to have resisted such pressures and delivered a Budget which – if Britain were operating in steady-state with no major challenges on the horizon – would have been largely inoffensive.

Unfortunately, Britain is not in a period of steady-state operation, where domestic and international issues are stable and a technocracy is more than capable of fiddling with the switches and dials to keep things running smoothly. On the contrary, we have entered a period of discontinuity, an abrupt departure from our previous national trajectory, when the old political consensus is revealed to have frayed to the point of uselessness and bold new policymaking is required.

As I recently wrote, a bold new programme of coherent, mutually-supporting policies is required to equip Britain to face these oncoming challenges. The Tories now have the slogan, but it remains painfully clear that they do not yet have the solutions, though various initiatives are now underway to come up with some original new policies.

But it will take their time for these policy groups – notably George Freeman’s Big Tent and Nick Boles’ Square Deal schemes – to come to full fruition and develop workable policies. And even then there is no guarantee that Theresa May or the next Conservative leader will approve of these policies and work them into their programme for government.

Unfortunately, as a nation we are treading water at the moment, neither swimming toward the oncoming wave or swimming away from it as it threatens to break over us. This was a holding budget designed to buy the Tories some political breathing room and perhaps signal that they are starting to comprehend  public dissatisfaction with the status quo, particularly on housing.

But without some kind of joined-up, comprehensive plan – and a coherent message with which to sell it to the public – it is hard to see the Tories winning the kind of electoral mandate or public support they need to be anything more than a caretaker government.

 

Philip Hammond - Budget 2017 - Conservative Party - Tories

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Will Due Process Be The Final Casualty Of Westminster’s Sexgate?

Sir Michael Fallon - Secretary of Defence - resignation sexual harassment allegations

Facing up to historical injustice while protecting due process rights for today’s accused – the irreconcilable conflict at the heart of #BelieveTheVictim and Westminster’s escalating sexual harassment and assault scandal

Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson was quite correct when she likened the torrent of sexual harassment and assault claim now roiling Westminster to a dam having suddenly burst. Just as the Harvey Weinstein scandal led to allegations against numerous other Hollywood A-listers and power players, so the cracks are now spreading across Westminster’s thin ice.

But unfortunately, the release of floodwaters caused by a burst dam has the power to sweep away everything in its path – both those shoddy buildings on weak foundations which deserved to be condemned, but also many structurally strong houses which were up to code, but which the tidal wave refused to spare.

The media (who really ought to be a bit more introspective about the tawdry behaviour and abuse within their own ranks, as is already being uncovered in America) love a simple narrative, and presently even the most serious allegations of rape and sexual abuse by prominent political officials are being reported in the same breath and often under the same headline as relatively minor infractions of the kind which astonishingly brought down former Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon, forcing his resignation yesterday.

Naturally, the social justice warriors of Westminster see mandatory re-education as the obvious solution, and now want elected MPs to go through the same condescending “consent workshops” that the NUS likes to inflict on freshmen students.

Charlotte England of Left Foot Forward writes:

Far from accusing all men of being rapists, consent training aims to clarify what consent means and tackle pervasive myths that contribute to rape culture, which is defined as an environment in which prevailing social attitudes normalise or trivialise sexual assault.

According to Green Party deputy leader Amelia Womack there is little understanding in Westminster of the power dynamics at play between male MPs, senior political party figures and other staff like assistants and researchers. Teaching men what is and isn’t appropriate behaviour is therefore imperative.

No, it is not imperative. At this point, even the most sociopathic MP understands the dangerous ambiguity around consent, for reasons of self-preservation if nothing else. Those politicians who continue to step over the line in 2017 do so deliberately, either because they don’t care or simply have no impulse control. And all the consent training in the world won’t fix that. Meanwhile, perfectly decent and law-abiding people will feel ever-more surveilled and curtailed in their behaviour while too many of the real guilty parties continue just as before.

But then this is always the effect of corrosive identity politics – serious social problems and even crimes are too often drowned out because of the disproportionate reaction to lesser behaviour which does not even fall on the same spectrum. If you go to Defcon 1 over some clumsy and ill-advised flirtation at a Westminster Christmas party then you have nowhere left to go when serious allegations involving rape or abuse of power come into play. Each incident becomes just another indistinguishable piece in the “rape culture” jigsaw puzzle and it becomes that much harder to focus on the real victims and perpetrators.

The difficulty with the more minor allegations which are now emerging in Westminster politics and elsewhere is that the outrage at (and de facto punishment of) the alleged offender (public shaming, terminating of careers, ending of livelihoods) is more a reaction to the general trend or cumulative scandal than the individual sin.

If a town finds itself in the grip of a serious crime wave then public anger and demands for something to be done are quite understandable, but is it right for the same ire and punishment to come raining down on the one-time teenage petty shoplifter as befits the man who makes a career of kicking down front doors and making off with the family jewels? Surely not. But our justified anger at decades of genuine sexual harassment and abuses of power is threatening to bleed over into other realms – types of behaviour which range from inappropriate to pitiable – which could have grave implications for how we live and work together (and even court one another) in future.

Grazing a colleague’s knee while making an ambiguous comment over dinner isn’t great (and in fact becomes absolutely wrong when a professional power imbalance exists), but the reason that such low-level behaviour can now prompt the resignation of people such as former Michael Fallon is because of a wider, understandable revulsion at far more serious offences such as those allegedly committed by Harvey Weinstein and other prominent people. The delusional middle-aged, middle-ranking male politico who wrongly mistakes the professional attention of a female journalist for a romantic interest is to be slapped down and probably also pitied, absolutely. But do we really need to turn every such incident into the Dreyfus affair in terms of notoriety?

The pendulum has swung from legitimately bad people getting away with patterns of tawdry behaviour and abuse of power for decades while their victims suffered grievous harm toward fundamentally decent people now being at risk of having their lives destroyed over ambiguous, misinterpreted behaviour or even unfounded malicious allegations. If there was a middle ground anywhere here, it has certainly been skipped over in our reaction to this post-Weinstein torrent of accusations.

While we are right to be disgusted at the world of overt sexism, sexual harassment and abuse which is slowly, painfully being consigned to history, we also have a duty to consider what kind of world we want to create in its place. If we truly want to go down a road where every alleged victim is believed and punishment meted out without due process or any threshold for evidence then we will midwife a brave new world where any public career and reputation can be ruined by a single malicious or disputed allegation. This may soon prompt concerned individuals to hedge against the risk of being brought down by false charges, meaning that every single personal interaction must be witnessed, every woman or vulnerable man permanently chaperoned and everybody permanently surveilled for their own safety, perhaps in the same manner that many American police forces are now outfitting their officers with body cameras.

But this immediately raises privacy concerns. People were sufficiently unhappy at the potential privacy issues presented by Google glasses that this promising prototype product had to be discontinued before making it to mass market. But the kind of constant surveillance required to provide sufficient personal insurance against a formalised “believe the accuser” culture – where the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” is abandoned – makes Google glasses seem tame by comparison.

If we are to avoid going down this extreme road then we at least need to set clearer rules about workplace interactions, so as to remove the ambiguities which lead to the “grey area” where many disputed events currently fall. We will need draconian rules prohibiting any romantic or sexual relations with coworkers that might seem more appropriate to the military than office-based professional work environments. There will need to be a blanket ban on any such relations, with the penalty for any transgression being instant termination regardless of whether or not the the encounter or relationship in question is consensual. Human Resources departments of firms large and small will need to staff up in order to carry out the inquisitorial new role assigned to them. If your parents met while working together, they must become the last generation which ever does so.

And if this seems excessive them we must step back from the brink and think again about whether casually discarding the time-honoured principle of “innocent until proven guilty” is a step that we are willing to take, particularly given the grave ramifications and precedent that doing so may set. Do these new rules apply only to accusations where there is a power imbalance (such as in the workplace) or will we apply them to purely social interactions between equals, too? How do we define “equals”? Will there be any statute of limitations on historic allegations? Will there be any evidentiary standard whatsoever? How will this new reality dovetail with existing laws governing libel and defamation, or to one’s ability to bring civil suit against an accuser for loss of future career earnings?

We must also ask ourselves how much collateral damage we are willing to accept in our effort to make right past wrongs. There are many valid and totally understandable reasons why a victim of abuse or harassment twenty years ago may have kept quiet to this day, but it is also plainly the case that any form of proof in terms of DNA, CCTV footage or retained correspondence is much less likely to exist, in which case it becomes one person’s word against another’s. We then have to decide to what extent we are willing to atone for historical societal sins by lowering the evidentiary standard and always believing the victim when every further move in that direction increases the likelihood of present-day injustices.

Do two wrongs make a right? Or is there a point where we will have to admit that justice for some historical alleged incidents will simply never be possible? We cannot escape this choice. We may wish that it did not exist, and we may pretend that some mythical alternative exists, a solution where proof for past allegations can always be found, victims always believed and offenders always correctly identified and punished. No such magic solution exists; it is a chimera.

At present we are in danger from swinging from one extreme to another, from victims being outrageously shamed and silenced to being unquestioningly believed without even cursory verification; from no consequences for serial perpetrators to draconian summary justice regardless of guilt. The danger is particularly acute as we suffer under a weak government with the weakest of leaders, a prime minister with non-existent decision-making abilities, who can’t afford any more missteps and is therefore prone to making up policy on the stop to appease whoever happens to be shouting the loudest.

#BelieveTheVictim? There is a valid debate to be had here, with serious arguments on both sides – the “always believe” side putting the emphasis on compensating for a history of past injustices and the “proof, please” side placing its emphasis on the importance of traditional due process. Ultimately, some kind of fudged compromise is all but guaranteed, pleasing nobody even as it acknowledges a messy reality.

Personally, while I lean more towards the “proof, please” side I acknowledge that simply telling accusers that nothing can be done to pursue their historic complaints without documentary evidence is often untenable, and that the rights and presumption of innocence which should always accompany a private citizen do not always fully carry over when the accused is in elected office or otherwise occupies a position of public trust.

But my goodness, we ought to stop and think a little more carefully before attempting a quick fix to a month’s worth of disturbing headlines by overturning centuries of precedent.

 

UPDATE – 3 November:

For what it’s worth, I think Ayesha Hazarika does a good job of explaining the kind of non-draconian, common sense solutions which we should be looking at here, for the Spectator:

But the silver bullet is behaviour. You can have all the Human Resources and complaints systems you like, but until MPs, and senior staffers, understand that their basic behaviour to junior women and men has got to change then I’m afraid the needle will not move. And it’s not actually that difficult. I would hope most people could work it out without the need for a cringey manual but here’s a few helpful tips. When you’re the boss, don’t fondle, grope, cup or lunge at anyone and as a general rule don’t harass people for sex via the oh so clever ruse of late night drinks to ‘help them with their career’. And give yourself a reality check: they’re not inviting it and they’re really not into you. At all. Especially if you’re a 58-year-old man who’s seen better days and they’re someone thirty years your junior who either works for you, needs a job or an interview. Ask yourself this critical question: are you abusing your position to get in someone’s pants? And if all that fails, ask yourself how you would feel if you get caught.

Politicians love lording it over the rest of society about how we behave and how we should conduct ourselves in the workplace. It’s time they cleaned up their act – and it’s really not that hard.

Absolutely. A cultural change which ends this “come out with me for late night drinks to discuss your career (wink, wink)” practice should be encouraged, because it is where professional power imbalances exist that the worst serial offenders always lurk.

 

Westminster Big Ben Telephone Box

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The Battle For British Conservatism: Book Progress Update

Atlantis Books shop Oia Santorini Greece

A tedious race against time

As I mentioned last month, I am in the slow, tortuous process of writing a book on the challenges and future of British conservatism, based partly on my writings on this blog and augmented where appropriate with new material.

It turns out that writing a book is quite hard. Who knew? And yet a whole host of verifiable idiots seem to effortlessly churn the things out one after another; but then I suppose many of them have collaborators, researchers or ghostwriters. By contrast, my humble little book (much like this blog) remains very much a side-hustle, and one which necessarily takes third place to work and another significant ongoing project (details TBC) for the time being.

Right now I have a 30-page outline in Google Documents which is being sporadically worked on as I slowly transform terse bullet points, links to my past articles and stream-of-consciousness paragraphs into the final text. I hope to self-publish on Amazon and iBooks (or whatever else those young whippersnappers use, with their loud music and Pac-Man video games) by early in the new year, closer to Christmas if things progress smoothly. Maybe I’ll tweet it out in a 5000-tweet thread or broadcast it on SnapChat, who knows?

I can’t help but notice, as I set to work, that much of the UK political media has finally woken up to the fact that there might be something ideologically dysfunctional within the Tory Party, hence the sudden proliferation of “OMG the Tories have lost their way!” articles in all the prestige media and main political websites. Well done guys, it only took four years for you to catch up (ten years if we count Peter Hitchens as the pace-setter, which we probably should).

Joking aside, this is somewhat frustrating as I know full well that ideas first expounded on this blog (which I know is sometimes read by mainstream UK political journalists even if they almost never deign to link to me or re-tweet my stuff) will soon be appearing in rival books which have the backing of actual publishers and real distribution networks. And in a few short months, a bunch of self-satisfied hacks who only a few months ago could still be found praising the dismal, centrist Tory party to the rafters will be smugly sitting in television studios pontificating on how they were the first to recognise that something was wrong in Toryland. “Where did the Tories go wrong?” will likely be early 2018’s version of “So, Brexit happened” in terms of topical political book sub-genres ravenously pounced upon by the Westminster elite.

Therefore I find myself in a bit of a race to market against these guys, not because I will be remotely competing with them for critical acclaim or market share (I’ll celebrate if I end up selling fifty of the darn things and anybody outside my social circle pays the blindest bit of attention) but purely because I want the personal and intellectual satisfaction of getting my long-held ideas and warnings in print before the prestige media elite saunter along to claim insights first published on this blog as personal, original revelations of their own. Obviously there is a quality/speed trade-off at work, and I don’t want to release any old rubbish prematurely. But I also really, really don’t want to see Fraser Nelson’s Comprehensive Explanation Of The Conservative Dilemma staring down at me from a shelf in Waterstone’s before I have gone on the record myself. That would be significantly sub-optimal.

So I continue to work away on this project in the background. You may have noticed a new series on the blog called “The Battle For British Conservatism” (first article here), some of which will undoubtedly feed into the book (and which will hopefully feature some more interesting guest contributions), but other blog updates may be slightly more sparse for awhile as my energies are diverted.

In the meantime, it would be tremendously helpful to me if readers not already signed up for email updates could do so by signing up right underneath the Facebook sidebar on the right (if you’re reading on a smartphone or tablet then it may be waaaay at the bottom of the page). I will be using the blog’s hitherto-untapped mailing list to keep everyone updated on the book and offer a discount for readers – not that it will cost more than a London pint anyway.

In the meantime, if anyone sees Owen Bennett, Isabel Hardman or Tim Stanley hunched over a MacBook in Starbucks writing something vaguely similar, please give me a heads-up so I can stock up on Red Bull and pull the required all-nighters to beat them to the finish line.

Cheers!

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Harvey Weinstein Hypocrisy And The Westminster Cesspit

Westminster Big Ben Telephone Box

British journalists have reported and commented extensively on the Harvey Weinstein scandal, yet seem curiously unwilling to lift the lid on the seediness and sexual harassment which routinely takes place within their own industry

In the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal (were you as stunned as I was?!) we have seen a range of responses from genuinely shocking and awful first-hand accounts of serious harassment and abuse to the now-obligatory collective guilt lectures delivered condescendingly to All Men.

But I am particularly interested in the response of journalists and commentators in Britain who took the time to report on a sexual harassment scandal unfolding in Hollywood while remaining curiously silent about a similar culture at work in their own industry.

I make no pretence of being a Westminster insider, but in my life on the far, far outer periphery I have attended a number of political functions, meetings, party conferences, boozy book launches and parties where very high profile journalists and moderately high profile politicians were present, and I have seen behaviour with my own eyes which would shame some of those who lent their voices to the chorus of condemnation of Harvey Weinstein and other serial alleged harassers. I have also heard disturbing personal accounts of inappropriate and unwanted advances by married men in the media, though having been relayed to me in confidence, these are not my stories to tell.

The seediness of Westminster politics is reasonably well known, but while political journalists are generally now willing to report on politicians when they come a cropper, most are understandably much less eager to lift the lid on their own sub-clique. Yet ultimately, journalism is no different from many other professions where people work, travel, eat, rest and play with the same group of colleagues in a high-pressure environment. Throw in the fact that politics and political journalism falls squarely into the “showbusiness for ugly people” category and is dominated by big beasts who grew up in a very different Fleet Street era and young people desperate to get a break, and a pulsating atmosphere of illicit romances, scandals and unwanted advances is all but guaranteed.

I have been to events where wine-sodden journalists said eyebrow-raisingly inappropriate things which made others feel uncomfortable, or in some cases made fumbling physical advances which had to be repeatedly warded off by the unfortunate recipient. Most of these incidents amounted to little more than general slovenliness and lechery, the kind of thing which reflect badly on a person but should not necessarily end a career or put somebody in court. But other times the behaviour I witnessed and heard about fell distinctly into the dodgy end of the grey zone.

And yet so far the only people from the political media world to have faced any kind of scrutiny in Britain are the writers Rupert Myers and Sam Kriss – both of whose cases were summarily tried in the fiery crucible of the Twitter and Facebook Star Chamber with no due process. As happened for so long in Hollywood pre-Weinstein, a couple of relatively minor fish in British political journalism are being made scapegoats so that the Big Fish can swim on unsated, undaunted and unchecked.

Much is being written about the bravery (or lack thereof) exhibited by certain individuals in Hollywood in their dealings with Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men accused of sexual harassment. And many of us probably feel rightful admiration for the brave few who first came forward at considerable personal risk, and shake our heads at the powerful A-listers who didn’t once think to risk anything to warn or protect others.

But I am curious about the household name journalists who behave nearly as badly at SW1 events or party conference hotel ballrooms yet go unreported and unpunished year after year. And I am particularly interested in their media peers, who know exactly what is going on and whether or not it fits a pattern of behaviour, and find all the time in the world to excoriate Harvey Weinstein while saying nothing about the atrocious behaviour that occurs right under their noses.

Tom Bradby, former ITV News political editor and current anchor of News at Ten wrote quite a stirring call-to-arms about an unpleasant “lads culture” at his old rugby club and various stag parties he later attended. Yet after all his years at the top of British political journalism he couldn’t think of any relevant anecdotes about his own peers and colleagues of sufficient concern to make it into the article? Perhaps not; Bradby may very well have purposefully avoided many of the booze-fuelled, bacchanalian evening events which make up the Westminster social calendar, and saw nothing. But I suspect that many others of equal seniority and profile to Bradby know exactly what goes on but give their own industry a Get Out Of Jail Free card.

As anyone who works in politics and answers truthfully will attest, Westminster can be a very seedy place. I understand that the ascension of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 saw some dispossessed Labour centrists indulge in behaviour which would have been considered scandalous at King Belshazzar’s feast. It seems likely that Theresa May’s bungled campaign and the trauma of election night this summer saw some similar desperation-fuelled behavioural lapses on the Right.

The two mini scandals du jour – Labour’s Clive Lewis getting a bit verbally carried away at a Momentum event in Brighton or Jared O’Mara having posted unsavoury comments on the internet fifteen years ago as a young man  – barely scratch the surface of what goes on. Indeed, these cases are almost decoys, relatively minor transgressions being seized upon so that the accused can be made scapegoats for the graver sins of a much larger group. One almost wonders whether the enthusiasm with which the UK political blogosphere, print and television media picked up these stories was a way of over-compensating for the profound silence about what takes place within their own camp.

But this seediness and sexual harassment within British politics and journalism will not be eradicated by offering up some scrawny, barely-known writer from Vice or a slightly bigger deal from GQ Magazine as a sacrifice to the Twitter gods. It will take a big fish to land a big fish – a heavyweight figure from a major publication or broadcaster must put their credibility on the line. The world of politics and journalism, like Hollywood, is a very hard industry to crack and those struggling to gain admittance from the outside risk everything by speaking out, even as they are the ones predominantly being preyed upon by grotesque, self-satisfied insiders.

One day – perhaps quite soon, given the rapidity with which Harvey Weinstein fell from grace – one of the big beasts of UK political journalism will be revealed for what they are. Somebody who everybody in the Westminster political/media world has been paying obsequious homage to for years will receive first one allegation of improper conduct, then another, and then a steady drip-drip of accusations until the sudden resignation, admission of “errors of judgment” and flight to celebrity rehab inevitably follow.

And when that happens, we will all be sitting here wondering how it was that so many people whose sole job it is to unearth and report stories of public interest – so many respected, well remunerated household names – somehow neglected to mention what was going on in their own back yard.

And what little scrap of credibility the Westminster media retains will be gone for good.

 

Harvey Weinstein - Meryl Streep

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Resurrecting The Citizen Politician

Ben Gummer MP

After Brexit, attracting more exceptional citizen politicians and fewer mediocre career politicians is the next crucial step towards democratic renewal in Britain

A worthwhile article by new Labour MP Laura Smith for LabourList underlines the urgent need for more politicians who look and sound like contemporary human beings rather than cautious clones who have been training to become MPs their whole life.

Laura Smith writes:

I’m new to politics. I’ve never been in local government; I was an activist, a member of the union and came from a long-standing Labour Party family. I haven’t come from a background of jargon and empty words, and I know what it’s like when life throws you a curve ball that takes the wind from your sails and the plans that you had made lay shattered in a million pieces. I can say with integrity that I will try my best to fight against the injustice that members in my constituency feel, and I’ll do it with vigour and sincerity.

Entering Westminster has been an eye opener without a doubt. Never have I been more sure that the ambitions of many there come from a place of self-indulging hypocrisy, and the decisions that they make are sheer games rather than coming from a place of care.

I don’t know the parliamentary protocol nor do I care much for it, I speak with a northern accent, I came to the door with an overdraft, no savings and a limited wardrobe purchased on a credit card to try and look smart.

I am what I am and that is representative of millions of women in Britain. My class has been with me my whole life, forged from the experiences of my Scottish mining grandfather, and I’ve ridden on the rollercoaster of the ups and downs of life. I’m proud to be working class, I’m proud of my people and for as long as my constituency wish to keep me in Westminster I will fight for the working people of this country.

How refreshing it is to hear a politician – especially a Labour politician – speak passionately about the politics of class rather than the politics of identity. Both are divisive, to be sure, but the former is at least reassuringly familiar and relatively harmless these days, while the latter is doing more than anything else right now to tear apart the fabric of British society.

I would probably disagree strongly with about eighty percent of what Laura Smith stands for, but there can be no denying that this is exactly the kind of decent, committed person we should want to attract to Westminster – somebody with strong convictions, a record of community service but also, crucially, a life outside politics (Smith held real jobs and ran her own business).

It cannot hurt to have more MPs of all parties who know what it is to live on a budget as Smith has done, or to have struggled with debt, unemployment or work-life balance issues, to complement those who know how to be an ambitious party functionary but little else. Being an MP is a calling and not a career, but certain accommodations can and should be made which would make serving in Westminster more appealing while still demanding sufficient dedication to public service.

Smith’s dismissal of parliamentary protocol will also chime with many people, including all those SNP MPs who didn’t understand why clapping after a speech was verboten while braying like a donkey at Prime Minister’s Questions is positively encouraged. While there will always be an important place for tradition and rituals which remind us of our heritage and the small part we play in our larger shared history, it is also undeniable that certain habits and protocols are hopelessly outdated and serve no useful purpose. There is no reason why Parliament should not adopt electronic voting, for instance, rather than wasting time while MPs physically traipse in and out of the Commons chamber to record their vote.

But most impressive in Laura Smith’s article is the fact that she clearly went to Westminster with a purpose greater than her own political advancement. Not every MP can or should be a statesman, a philosopher or a leader, though MPs of all backgrounds and ideologies have fulfilled these roles. We also need MPs who care deeply about their constituents and about particular issues, campaigning MPs who want to use their term(s) in office to make a specific difference. Indeed, such MPs can often be far more valuable and effective than those who merely spout reheated rhetoric from four decades ago, be it Michael Foot-style socialism or unreconstructed Thatcherite dogma.

Yet too often we let motivated MPs of this calibre languish for a term or two on the backbenches before they either become disillusioned and stand down, or else lose their inner fire and slowly transform into unremarkable, uninspired time-servers.

One of the best recent citizen politicians in Parliament was former Conservative MP Dan Byles, a man who was the first in his family to attend university, received a prestigious Army scholarship, served on active duty in Bosnia, rowed across the Atlantic, climbed mountains and served on the board of several charities before serving a single term in Parliament from 2010-2015.

This is exactly the kind of person who should now have a senior Cabinet role, and whose charisma and leadership skills might presently be leading the Conservative Party in a more inspiring, less suicidal direction. Yet despite becoming one of relatively few first-term backbench MPs to rack up some real accomplishments to his name (including constitutional reform of the House of Lords via a private member’s bill), Byles stood down in 2015 to “pursue new challenges”. Some of our most exceptional people no longer feel that they can make a meaningful difference by serving in Parliament.

Westminster attracts the power-hungry, the ambitious but also – thanks to elitism and nepotism – the mediocre and the self-serving. And too often, the genuinely talented are overlooked in favour of the well-connected. Witness Theresa May’s government, which managed to find a place for the utterly unremarkable Ben Gummer (son of former Tory minister John Gummer) in Cabinet while leaving thoughtful and intelligent conservative voices like Kwasi Kwarteng or James Cleverly to languish on the backbenches. Note also how Harlow MP Rob Halfon, who could actually articulate a positive (if controversial) vision for conservatism, was sacked as a minister while Theresa May kept faith in Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who entered politics not to advance any deeply-felt political agenda but to “get a grip on her life” and add another accomplishment to her CV.

As if the chaotic Brexit negotiations did not already make it abundantly clear, the calibre of leadership we manage to attract at the national level does not serve us well. This is in significant part due over-centralisation at Westminster and the neutering of local government in Britain, where at present there is probably only one executive role outside of Cabinet – the mayoralty of London – which might remotely prepare a politician to plausibly step into the role of prime minister. But it is also because we expect too little from the people we choose to represent us.

To take the next step in renewing British democracy, we must break the stranglehold that national political party headquarters wields over candidate selection. We must do away with affirmative action shortlists and central casting candidate lists alike, empower constituency party organisations and allow them to nominate candidates who they feel best represent their values and their concerns. We must devolve and decentralise significant powers away from Westminster to the counties and the regions, so that local government can transform from being adult daycare to a useful incubator of future national leadership talent.

And we must re-embrace the idea of the citizen politician, valuing the contributions of those candidates with different backgrounds.We must identify and advance talent wherever it is found rather than demanding that passionate and inspired MPs with executive experience outside politics first spend years acting as bag-carrier for other ministers before being trusted with any real responsibility.

Only if we embrace this radical decentralisation and ideological renewal – here it is particularly important that committed small-C conservatives seize back control of the Tory Party from the dead hand of Theresa May, just as the Corbynite Left deposed the centrists within Labour – can we take the next step after Brexit and finally begin the democratic renewal of Britain.

The alternative is more of the same uninspiring, grinding disappointment with which Britain has sadly become so familiar.

 

Theresa May - Conservative campaign bus - photo op campaign phony

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