Tuesday, 26 June 2007

We should have a referendum on Europe

Constitution or amending treaty? Rationalisation of institutions or a major change in our relationship with Europe? “Properly protected as a country to make our own decisions” or a “major shift of power”? Too far? Just far enough? Or not even close? Europe’s leaders may have agreed on a new European treaty, but citizens and politicians in the UK are bitterly divided.

The contents of the new treaty having been decided for us, the big question now revolves around whether to have a referendum to approve the treaty, or whether Parliament should decided. Normally, this would be a straightforward matter. The UK has never ratified a Treaty through a referendum; the 1975 referendum was not related to a particular treaty. There is no constitutional need to hold a referendum; indeed, referendums have no place in the British constitution, which is a representative democracy in which parliament is sovereign. (Unless I’m mistaken – and let me know if I am – the 1975 referendum was the first and only nationwide referendum the UK). Thus it is perfectly acceptable and indeed normal that a new treaty should go parliament to be ratified.

And yet to avoid a referendum would be wrong, for four reasons: it would be undemocratic; counter-productive; possibly self-interested; and a missed opportunity.

Under normal circumstances, it would be perfectly democratic for parliament to ratify the treaty – as explained above, we are a representative democracy that elects parliamentarians to take these decisions for us. But in this particular instance, every one of those parliamentarians was elected promising to offer the British people a referendum (at least, the three national parties, which between them constitute 95 per cent of the House, gave such a promise). Thus parliament’s mandate does not stretch to the ratification of a constitutional treaty for the European Union. On the contrary, the election demonstrated an overwhelming demand for a referendum. Based on the convention (one might fairly call it a fiction, even a conceit) that votes express a will and a mandate for manifesto commitments, the vast bulk of voters expressed a desire for a referendum on any constitutional treaty.

The response from our leaders is that this is not a constitutional treaty. The original plan, set out in 2004, was for a European Constitution and all that that entailed. But it was rejected, and so Europe’s leaders have confined themselves to a mere tidying up exercise, an amending treaty to make the EU run more smoothly. Leaving aside for the moment whether or not this is poppycock, the fact remains that to many this appears less like a tidying up exercise than a tucking up exercise. It is clear that many EU governments wanted to incorporate as much of the old constitution as possible – in effect, the articles but not the name – and it is also clear that this is part of the ongoing constitutional process, even if it has been radically trimmed down. Within the perception of the people, it is essentially the same – albeit perhaps more modest – treaty and they expect to be consulted. If not, their vote in 2005 has been ignored; Parliament has found a way to weasel out on its promise to the people. This is exactly the sort of thing that undermines faith in and respect for politicians, parliament and indeed democracy.

This last is a very important point, because there is a nasty whiff of self-interest about the sudden freedom from the requirement to hold a referendum. It is widely believed that Tony Blair’s decision was one symptom of his famous “wobble”, when he also agreed to stand down after his third term. Blair never wanted a referendum, because he knew he would lose. The Tories wanted to win one, but there is a nervousness about reopening old wounds; like a mangy dog, the Conservative Party has a habit of picking at its sores. And for the Liberal Democrats, a European campaign risks diverting precious funds to a cause that is popular with the activists but will not yield greater power or any long-term benefit, yet risks positioning us more clearly than ever in the minority camp. Thus it may be that a referendum is in no politician’s interests (though it may be in the interests of the opposition to be seen to demand one that they don’t actually want). Whether or not this is in fact the case, it would be hugely damaging to politics in general in this country if voters believed that they had been denied a referendum because it was inconvenient to politicians, rather than for sound constitutional reasons.

Yet there is a fourth reason for holding a referendum, and one that has been largely ignored in the constitutional minutiae. A third of a century has passed since the last referendum, and that referendum was on a very different Community from the Union in which we now find ourselves. Political debate about this has failed; it is widely believed that politicians – even in the Conservative Party – are out of step with public opinion. The real questions of Europe are not debated in Parliament or by politicians in public; instead, debate revolves around the size of rebates and whether we should join the Euro now or later. These are proxy wars for the real debate that is being avoided: what is the role of the European Union? What are its limits? What should be the balance of power between the Union, its member states and the citizens at large? And what role does the UK want to play within both that debate and the future Europe? By avoiding this referendum we are once again sidestepping these issues.

Many in the political classes are terrified of the outcome of that debate (Europe has for too long been an elite-driven, top-down process). Yet as long as that debate is avoided, the underlying need for resolution will eat away at the heart of our politics.

So I say let us demand a referendum on Europe. Let us begin to have a proper debate about our and Europe’s future. We may not like the outcome of the debate, and we may not get the referendum result that we desire. But this is one of the most important issues in British politics today, and it is not being adequately addressed.

It is time to throw the pieces in the air and let them fall where they may. It is time to trust the people.

Monday, 25 June 2007

Lessons from the Labour deputy-leadership race

It’s a good job I’m not a betting man, because I would have put my money on Alan Johnson winning the Labour deputy-leadership election.

As it happens, he was beaten into second place at the very last minute by Harriet Harman, losing by less than a percentage point on the final round. Interestingly, the shortfall was almost exactly the same in the first and final rounds.
What is far more interesting, however, is that John Cruddas won the first round, and Harriet Harmon came second. Their success carried them all the way to the penultimate round. Thus, despite Peter Hain’s early ejection, this suggests that there is still a lot of life left in what is usually called the “left” of the party, and what I might prefer to call the socialist wing, Old Labour or (borrowing some of their own more irritating semantics) the “unreconstructed” elements within the Labour Party.

What is also fascinating and shocking is the turnout: at least a couple of MPs and MEPs failed to vote, but more notably, almost half (46%) of members did not vote either. This suggests that a large part of the party was either unimpressed by all the candidates (and this seems unlikely, as the offered genuine diversity and choice) or believed that the vote was of little importance or value. With Harriet Harman now elected, we can expect that the post will prove of little importance or value, too.

As for levy-paying members of affiliated Trades Unions, just 8% bothered to cast votes. This last raises some interesting questions. If only 8% of levy-paying members bothered to vote, what proportion are actually interested in Labour Party matters? What proportion are even supportive of the Labour Party? And perhaps most importantly, what proportion are actually aware that they pay the levy?

If I understand correctly (and please let me know if I’m mistaken) Trades Unionists pay the levy automatically unless they specifically opt out. If this is the case, then this vote raises the spectre that a huge proportion are paying the levy unwittingly. If so, there may be a case for legislation requiring Trades Unions to reverse this situation, so that would-be Labour supporters must actively opt into levy-paying.

In the meantime, Liberal Democrats would be well advised to draw to the attention of Trades Unionists that they may be unwittingly funding a Party that they do not support, and perhaps oppose. A case for a publicity campaign, perhaps?

Saturday, 23 June 2007

A no win situation

You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t.

That certainly seems to be the verdict of political pundits and illiberal elements as they pour opprobrium on the recent discussions between Gordon Brown, our next Prime Minister (acts of god permitting), and Sir Menzies Campbell about a role for Lib Dem peers in a Brown government.

My view is that Diane Abbot (one of the more pleasant socialists) got to the heart of the issue when she said that such a deal would be “electoral suicide” for the Liberal Democrats. For our party, the greatest challenge is ridding itself of the popular misconception that Labour and Liberal are different shades of the same colour (red, or red with a hint of yellow), different wings of the same centre-left family that stands in contrast to the centre-right blue(-rinse) alternative.

Such misconceptions are not helped by Sir Menzies’ persistence on referring (and proudly at that!) to the Liberal Democrats as a party of the centre-left. We are not a party of the centre-left, of the centre-right, or of the centre-anything. We are a liberal party: as opposed to socialism as we are to conservatism, both committed to fairness and distrustful of the state. As my more avid reader will recall, I have discussed this before.

Part of disabusing the public of their view of us as a Labour ginger-group (it would explain the orange!), “the social conscience of the Labour Party”, is to quash the assumption that in any coalition we would automatically side with Labour. This is not to say that we should show any eagerness to side with the Conservatives either (especially not this current shower!), but we must dispel the myth that if Labour fails to make it to the necessary 324 seats they can trust us to prop them up.

After a general election, in the event of a hung parliament (and I’m still not prepared to put my money on it happening), we should be prepared to negotiate with either and both parties – showing no favour – to identify which is prepared to put forward the more liberal policy platform. We must also be prepared to reject both parties and allow one (no matter which one) to form a minority administration, if neither are liberal enough.

That seems pretty clear to me. So why is it that some Lib Dems seem to think we have a natural ally in one of the other parties? And why is it that the pundits seem not only to agree, but to be genuinely shocked that we should reject the chance of power? After all, nobody joined the Lib Dems in the hope of enjoying the faux-leather seats in the ministerial limo.

This baleful piece in The Times is typical. According to the Editor, the Liberal Democrats ought to be more willing to collaborate than other parties (he is not clear why) and should therefore jump at any opportunity that presents itself. Strangely, the article notes that we have “declined to negotiate a coalition with either the SNP or Labour in Scotland… leaned in Labour’s direction in Wales [and] then flirted with a bizarre bargain with Plaid Cymru and the Tories before lapsing back into opposition” and also, inaccurately this time, claimed that “they also toyed with reaching an understanding with David Cameron over a common contender for mayor of London… before backing out of that accord too” (which is a crude distortion of the truth). What conclusion does the Editor draw from our apparent three bouts of discussion followed by refusal? That “This behaviour is neither consistent nor coherent.” I beg to differ. It is clearly consistent, and its coherence comes from our willingness to enter into coalition only within a broadly liberal framework.

My point is not that this is all grossly unfair, however. One would expect little else from the Murdoch press, wed as it still is to New Labour. Indeed, none of the press are impartial – that’s not really their job, despite another common misconception. My point is that had the discussions turned out differently, and were Lord Ashdown and his fellow Lib Dem peers preparing to spend less time with their families, you may rest assured that the press would have howled with derision all the same. Instead of being incoherent and not ready for power, we would be unprincipled and interested only in office; instead of Campbell being weak and indecisive, he would be weak and easily seduced; instead of talking of a missed opportunity, they would speak of our losing our identity.

I have said it before and I will say it again: the more popular our party and our ideology, the more the reactionary elements (on both sides) will attack us; the more powerful we become, the more our enemies will concentrate their fire upon us. That is the price of success. So be it.

It was daft of Brown to think that he could co-opt the Liberal Democrats at a time when they have more MPs, higher poll ratings and more persuasive policies than ever before. Sir Menzies is right: our priorities should be maximum votes; maximum seats.

Thanks, Gordon, but we’ll go it alone!

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Damn private equity and the all reactionary, White Guardist plutocrats

An excellent article by Anatole Kaletsky in today's Times. I don't always agree with him, but he's bang-on-the-money in his critique of the current assault on Private Equity firms.

Sunday, 17 June 2007

It’s got to be Gordon

James Graham has asked me to join in the Brown Meme that Matt Wardman began.

2 things Gordon Brown should be proud of:

- Resisting demands from within the Labour Party to reverse all the good legislation of the previous two decades
- Becoming a father

2 things he should apologise for:
- Pushing the size of public spending to the highest level ever seen
- Claiming the credit for economic growth that was in spite of, rather than because of, his efforts.

2 things that he should do immediately when he becomes PM:
- Resign (but as that won’t happen, so…)
- Declare an intention to establish a fully elected second chamber - and follow through quickly (I completely agree with James on this one – so much so that I’ve just lifted his wording)
- Scrap the plan to introduce compulsory ID cards

2 things he should do while he is PM:
- Decentralise and federalize the UK; create an English Parliament (perhaps in Birmingham); give far more autonomy to local authorities to raise as much revenue as they see fit in whatever way they wish; permit national parliaments to devolve power over services (e.g. health and education) to local or regional authorities
- Cut taxes through a rise in the personal allowance to the equivalent of the minimum wage.

I’m not going to tag lots of people, though, as in my experience they will all have been tagged already. If all of the 16 Matt originally tagged have tagged 8 more, then there are already 128 invitations circling out there. If the second generation have already started tagging, there could be around a thousand, and people will be getting them twice and becoming ratty.

I have invited Duncan Borrowman to participate, though.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

It’s a sad world in which we live

For most of my life, at least until my late-20s, the news that private jets are becoming so cheap that they are increasingly usable by middle-class people as air taxis would have been cause for rejoicing. It would be a sign that yet another play-thing of the elite was becoming more accessible, just as motor cars and mobile phones are no longer rich men’s toys but considered to be the bare necessities of life.

Not now. I see a green-eyed monster on the horizon, hurling abuse and opprobrium at this new scourge of the airways. I’ve not seen them yet, but sooner or later somebody is going to start bleating about the amount of carbon they pump out and how they’re contributing to global warming.

Oh, I know I ought to be more sympathetic to such concerns. Believe me, I do care. It’s just that I miss the days when progress was something to be welcomed.

Sigh! At least global warming should hasten the return of my other favoured form of air transport.

An amusing conversation

Tom and a colleague are chatting by the kettle. Tom’s colleague is complaining that she has just received a parking ticket.

Colleague: I was only there for 10 minutes.

Tom: The problem is, there’s just so many of them these days. You can’t get away with it even for a moment.

Colleague: The vultures!

Tom: Admit it – we’d be in gridlock without them.

Colleague: They’re just revenue raisers for the Council.

Tom: Maybe we should retrain them all as plumbers.

Colleague: We can’t even get a plumber round my way.

Tom: You want to find a nice Pole to do the job.

Colleague: I’d rather give the money to an English person. [As an afterthought] If they were better at the job.

Tom: Ah, but that’s the thing, you see. The Poles are excellently well trained. They’ve still got decent vocational education over there, unlike here. Polish workers are very skilled.

Colleague: Yeah, but they charge half as much as our workers.

Tom: So you get a quality plumber for half price, and they get a better income than they’d get in Poland. Sounds like a win-win to me.

Colleague: But I hear they’ve got a skills shortage over there. Nobody’s left to do the jobs.

Tom: But that’s okay, ‘cos they’re getting loads of money in remittances, as the Polish plumber sends money home to the family.

Colleague: Yeah, but they’re not getting enough taxes because all the work is being done over here and the money comes in but nobody pays tax on it.

Tom: Perhaps, but they don’t need so many public services if they have the money to provide for themselves.

Colleague: That’s Tory talk! I thought you were a Liberal.

Tom: That is liberal. Just a different kind of liberal.

So the battle goes on.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Is there really slavery in the UK?

I was reading about a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) today that talked of contemporary slavery in the UK. According to the report, slavery still exists in this country, two centuries after the trade is slaves was banned.

For the report’s authors, “all forms [of slavery] share elements of the exploitative relationship which have historically constituted slavery: severe economic exploitation; the lack of a human rights framework; and control by one person over another through the prospect or reality of violence.”

There is no doubt that the above conditions do exist within the UK – particularly, but not solely, in the areas of people trafficking and work-gangs – and such egregious practices should be vigorously stamped out by the government.

But I am not clear that these three conditions alone justify the label “slavery”. Leave aside for a moment elements of the report that seem to imply that a combination of low wages, illegal management practices and a fear of loss of employment constitutes slavery. To my mind, there is a fourth key ingredient to slavery that marks it out from other forms of enforced servitude. It is the common thread that links together the slave owning states of Greece, Rome, the early modern European monarchies and many pre-civil war American states. It is legitimacy.

This is implicitly recognised in the 1926 Slavery Convention, which defines slavery as “… the status and/or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised” (my emphasis). The fundamental difference between the Roman Servus, the Viking Thrall and the Georgia cotton-picker on the one hand, and the trafficked Latvian factory worker or Cambodian prostitute on the other is that the former were owned by their masters as legal property. The owner was free to do with them as they wished – not merely de facto, but de jure. The slaves could hope for no help from the state. Until the Age of the Emperor Claudius, it was entirely legal for a Roman citizen to kill his or her slaves; in the plantations of the West Indies, slaves were whipped until the flesh came away from their bodies.

By comparrison, the modern “slavery” that is described (and decried) by the JRF, among others, is an entirely illegal practice. In this sense, it is no different from any other form of coercion. It differs only in duration from being forced to do something at knifepoint by a robber or a rapist. It is more akin to kidnapping, assault (real or threatened) and various other illegal practices, including paying below the minimum wage, illegally deducting wages, threatening to withdraw employment or accomodation without notice, and so on. All these are wrong and many of them are wicked, but they do not in themselves constitute slavery.

Perhaps the key point is that if the trafficked sex-worker were to approach a policeman and ask for help, she would be protected and her tormenters jailed. The same could not be said for a Greek σκλάβος.

One might argue that this does not matter. The use of the term “slavery” is a deliberately emotive gesture to focus our attention on what are, nonetheless, terrible crimes. If fewer people are trafficked and fewer labourers bonded, then it is a good thing. Furthermore, language is commonly evolving (“nice” used to mean wanton and dissolute, while one would be wary of using “gay” to describe any old happy and joyful state of being), and as legal ownership of people does not exist anymore, it is reasonable to shift the definition to where it is most useful.

I find this unsatisfactory, however. Partly this is because it remains useful to have a term that specifically defines the legal status of ownership of another human being. But it is also because slavery does still exist in its traditional sense. There are still societies where people can be legally owned, or at least where they can to all intents and purposes. In Burma, for example, tens of thousands of forced labourers work on road-building for the military junta; in southern Sudan there are slave markets openly selling captives. Whether the right to own another human being is written in the statute books is irrelevant (purists may disagree!). What matters is that the authorities not only turn a blind eye but actively uphold the process.

This is an intolerable abuse of liberty. It should be noted, therefore, that where the machinery of the state acts not to protect the liberty of individual but to help strip it away, the state can no longer be said to exist by the will of the people (having the consent of the majority of the people is not sufficient), and so can no longer be taken to be sovereign. We should not only treat such states as pariahs, but be willing to force them to comply with international norms and humanitarian principles – as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proclaims (Article 4) that “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms”.

And what of our modern, British victims, from whom I would remove the title “slave”? The key is also in the question of legitimacy. Because they are not the legal property of their persecutors, their salvation lies not in manumission but in education and understanding.

As JRF notes with justifiable disapproval, “although the police see trafficked people as victims, the immigration service sees them as illegal entrants.” For my mind, they should at least be returned home with dignity, but we might even consider granting them (at least temporary) immigration status. There is of course moral hazard in allowing them to stay simply because they have been victims. Yet if the victims fear that the authorities will return them home – to a place from which they were clearly prepared to risk and suffer great hardship to escape – they may not come forward, which makes apprehending and prosecuting the perpetrators harder, and will therefore also exacerbate the illegal immigration problem.

While we are at it, we should make great efforts to convey to potential victims that they have rights in law that will be upheld, and that the authorities are sympathetic to their suffering and not in the pockets of their persecutors. I have often wondered why the authorities do not (perhaps they do!) distribute leaflets in many languages to prostitutes telling them that if they are being threatened, the police will help them and turn a blind eye to the fact that they have been prostituting themselves (which anyway is a victimless crime).

Where forced servitude is supported by the very authorities that should be stamping it out, we should use diplomatic (and, if necessary, not-so-diplomatic) pressure to see that it is eradicated. Where it is illegal, authorities should work with the victims to apprehend and prosecute the criminals responsible for their hardship. Whether or not we call it slavery, there is a great deal of suffering here and across the world.

Monday, 11 June 2007

Not every common-law wife is a nascent victim

I did not even have to open my paper this morning for the heckles to start to rise. The promise of daft legislation was splashed across the front page.

The Times reports that unmarried couples are to get equal rights on separation, “able to make claims against their partners to demand lump-sum payments, a share of property, regular maintenance or a share of the partner’s pension when they separate. They will also be able to claim against their partners for loss of earnings if they gave up a career to look after children.”

Children present a special case, of course. Human children are incapable of looking after themselves for an unusually long period of time – under another promised law, until they are 18 years old. It takes two to tango, as they say, and it is perfectly reasonable that both parents take a financial responsibility for their offspring – even if they later split up.

This is the case already, though the law does not always compensate those (usually mothers) who have put their careers on hold while caring for children. The new law would seek to do that and much more. The Times suggests that an assumption will be made that cohabitation is a partnership, where everything is held in common. No time restriction will apply, as is the case in other countries, where the couple must have lived together for a minimum length of time to have a claim. Neither will it be necessary for a party who was not working to prove that the other party consented to their not contributing. The aim is to provide protection without necessarily conveying rights, and the cohabitee must prove that they will suffer financially, so short relationships are unlikely to yield a return.

This is a typical top-down solution to a perceived problem, establishing a universal rule for what should be multifarious arrangements, tailored by individuals for their own needs. It will create bureaucratic and judicial burdens where private contracts should obtain. Typically of the worst sort of self- (or opponent-) styled “liberal” opinion, it views individuals as victims.

The problem is not that there is no rule to protect cohabiting couples. The problem is that cohabiting couples do not make arrangements to protect themselves. This is partly a cultural issue: love makes us act irrationally; it is considered unromantic to respond to your partner’s omnipresent toothbrush and dedicated sock-draw by producing a contract laying out who will own what in the event of a split. When couples start to buy things together, the last thing they want to do is apply a colour-coded label so that they know which CDs and books are communally owned when it all goes sour.

Yet it is also the case that some couples cohabit without ever intending to or wishing to share their property. I have known plenty of friends who have lived with boyfriends and girlfriends with whom they have never intended to share their whole lives – or their property. Sometimes, relationships are wittingly temporary; other times, there is a deliberate desire to protect one’s property from falling into the hands of another in the event of a split.

In fact, there is already a law that protects the interests of cohabiting couples: it is called The Marriage Act. It creates a legal union between the cohabiting couples that (if memory serves) includes (at least in the version of the contract to which I agreed) the clause “with all my worldly goods I thee endow.” (Which, sadly for Mrs. Polemic, included neither a family estate in Herefordshire nor a yacht).

Marriage is not everybody’s cup of tea of course, but I suspect there are two or three underlying reasons why this is the case. One is its association with a religious ceremony: I have argued before that the French Revolutionaries, having abolished most church institutions, would have done the world a huge favour if they had changed the name when they created a new, civil alternative to marriage. By keeping the nomenclature of the church, they created a headache for future generations.

The second is a “fear of commitment” (which may, of course, not be fear at all, but a rational decision). Many people do not want to conjoin with their partner ‘til death do them part. They want to wing it. That’s fine, but if that is the case, should they be compelled to accept the legal duties of married couples? Surely, if they choose not to commit emotionally, they should be free not to commit materially as well.

Finally, there is the cost. Weddings are not cheap (which is why, by the actual date of the wedding, I’d been obliged to sell the family estate in Herefordshire and the yacht!) and plenty of people are simply not prepared to take on the expense.

The solution to these issues is clear: we need to separate the expensive, emotional and perhaps religious celebration of the union of a man and a woman (or any combination of the above) from the simple, legal and civil protection offered to cohabiting couples that wish to establish the legal basis of their partnership and provide for one another’s security. The means of doing this would mesh perfectly with arrangements to end one of the last remaining bastions of discrimination in British law.

At present, homosexual couples may not marry (for which, blame the Church for a crime of commission and the revolutionaries for a crime of omission). Conversely, heterosexual couples may not enter into civil partnerships. So neither homosexual nor heterosexual couples are able to (forgive me) divorce the legal from the ceremonial.

Why not reform the system entirely. Let civil partnerships be legal arrangements, available to all, whereby (usually cohabiting) couples can make a legal settlement setting out the division of property and the rights and obligations of each partner. The could be quick, easy, cheap and tailored to the needs of the couple concerned (do they wish to share only the house in which they live, or their entire property portfolio?). It would require no ceremony. Indeed, just for (libertarian) fun, this could be conducted by a private notary, rather than allowing the State a monopoly.

Meanwhile, marriage should become solely a celebration of the love that two (or more!) people hold for one another, a declaration of their desire to forsake all others and live together forever, which need have nothing to do with the State, but may be conducted by priests, professionals, officiating friends or the spouses themselves, depending on their preferences.
The two might be combined, of course – many people would kill both birds with one stone. But at least we would be clear who intended to share their property and who did not. And at last we would know exactly what people meant when they said somebody was their spouse, their partner, or was merely living with them.

Bird brained

Pigeon Campaigns UK (a group so vast that they can afford to spurn the need for a website) is up in arms because the authorities at Norwich Cathedral called in an expert to shoot a pigeon.

“We are absolutely disgusted that a place of worship such as Norwich Cathedral could be responsible for such a heinous crime against our wildlife,” fumed John Davison, a spokesman. “Culling pigeons as a method of control has been scientifically proven not to work.”

Perhaps, but that is hardly the point. The sniper apparently was called in when the bird was spotted trapped in the rafters, which suggests that the alternative may have been to allow it to continue to flap around in great distress until it died of stress.

As for the suggestion that the house (or rather, palace) of God should be a haven for wildlife, Christians believe that God gave man a duty to manage and look after the Earth, not a duty to treat every animal as inviolable, even where this means we must ignore their suffering. The rage of the pigeon fanciers says a lot more about the nature worship of Mr. Davison than the Christian worship of the church authorities.

Can Campbell make housing a Lib Dem issue?

In an “in other news” footnote to a post on pensions, Centre Forum’s Free Think blog asks whether

“Ming is being told by his pollsters that housing is concerning the voters enough to make it a top priority? And do the Lib Dems have enough of an identity on that issue to make it a key feature of any future election?”
As I have commented on the Free Think site, I wonder whether the real problem is that the Liberal Democrats have too much “identity” on the subject.

Do they introduce land value taxation to capture the unearned wealth that accrues to today’s landowners at the expense of future landowners?

Do they devolve even more decision-making on planning to local or regional authorities? Or do they use the power of Government to defend the general public against the vested interests of local NIMBYs (somehow, the acronym doesn’t work if one spells it with an ‘ies’).

The more liberal wing might allow landowners the freedom to develop their land as they see fit. The more interventionist might want to use regulation to force landlords to build houses that meet certain criteria and standards.

Another Lib Dem identity crisis?

Friday, 8 June 2007

Labour’s philosophical guru tries to repeat his success

Last night I broke my moratorium on buying new books, again.

First it was Lord Ashdown (whose book has lamentably sat in a draw since then) who broke down my defences, and last night it was Lord Giddens. Clearly I can’t resist the authority of aristocracy!

To be fair, I think it was a special case (inevitably!). Anthony Giddens was the author of The Third Way, which in 1998 provided a seminal outline of the New Labour mindset and laid out (perhaps for the first time) the supposed philosophy underpinning the Blair-Brown government.

Ten years on, one of the two architects of that government is on the verge of handing over to the other, and Giddens has taken the opportunity to pen a sequel. This is important, he argues, because if New Labour is truly to renew and to constructively address the issues facing Britain today and in the coming decade, it needs to repeat something which it did in the 1990s and which, tellingly, the Conservatives have not done. Giddens argues that before New Labour came up with ideas, let alone policies, it conducted a thorough analysis of the world in the 1990s, and from that its philosophy and policies emerged. The world has (naturally) changed over the ensuing 15 years, and a new analysis is needed. Giddens seeks to provide that in his new book.

Last night I attended a book launch at Policy Exchange, where both Giddens and Danny Finkelstein discussed the book and the future for Gordon Brown. This, reading the first two chapters, and Question Time stimulated my brain so much that I was awake until 4am. Much note-taking ensued.

Over the next few days and weeks I’ll share with you a few interesting snippets of Gidden’s insights. Like him or hate him (and just 30 pages of his book is enough to convey a clear bias that at times causes him to deliberately obfuscate or misrepresent the facts) he is the nearest New Labour had to a philosophical guru. His Third Way was essential reading for the opposition as well as for aspiring ministers in the last ten years. If he has managed to repeat his success (and that is by no means guaranteed) then the better we understand it the better we will be able to counter it.

The Third way is a new, dynamic socialism. We ignore it at our peril.

Question Time takes advantage of senile old man

I’ve missed almost all of the current series of Question Time, so tonight I was determined to watch it. For now, you can too, as tonight’s programme should be available online, but the BBC have previously proved bad at maintaining their archive.

Julia Goldsworthy (only third place? Your readers are mad, Stephen!) was pretty good, but hamstrung by being sat next to a bumptious buffoon (see below). Francis Maude was incredibly dull. Boris Berezovsky was interesting during the first half of the programme, which was devoted to Russia. And Melanie Philips was the token Daily Mail journalist, there to stir the pot on the far right (“I’m afraid I am one of that strange breed of people who are actually not persuaded of the man-made global warming theory at all.”)

To stir the pot on the far left, however, was Tony Benn, and he stood out from the crowd as singly the most bone-headed panellist that David Dimbleby could possibly have found. In just one hour, he managed to accuse Britain of locking up Nelson Mandela, suggested that Britain should not seek to extradite Andrei Lugovoi over the murder of Alexander Litvinenko lest it upset the Russians, and suggested that the Russians might fear the fairness of British justice because of Guantanamo Bay (which is, as some of my more sharp-eyed readers may have noticed, on a different continent from either of the protagonists in this case).

His most ignorant and facile point, however, was in opposition to carbon trading. He argued that the issue of greenhouse gasses was one of rationing, and that carbon trading was the equivalent of selling the single loaf of bread in a lifeboat to the highest bidder (“so that the rich gobble it up”). He catagorically opposed “marketing of ration books” and insisted that we share the right to emit carbon. This is both economically-illiterate and dangerous, but it is typical of a man who believes that governments are best placed to distribute both rights and wealth from on high.

In fact, carbon trading is the only means of ensuring that the right to emit a limited amount of carbon is distributed most efficiently. Most efficiently does not mean equally, of course; Benn may on the face of it be an egalitarian, but human progress depends on the efficient use of carbon, not its equal distribution. If we were each given our ration of carbon-emissions and banned from trading them – as was the equivalent during the 1940s and 1950s when the War coaliton and then the Labour government rationed food and banned its trade – those desparate to emit carbon would be restricted from doing so, while others with no particular need would be endowed with a largely useless permit.

A much fairer system, and one that would generate far more wealth for everybody, would see the government selling the credits, so that those that valued them most could secure them. We would all benefit from the money raised, which could be spent on establishing carbon sinks, buidling alternative energy infrastructure, or researching other solutions to global warming (or, for that matter, spent on health, education, or handed out to citizens as a form of dividend).

Anyway, it is likely to be primary polluters who need credits, rather than end-users. As long as the manufacturers of electricity and petrol and aviation fuel have to buy credits, our carbon emissions will be priced into our electricity bills, the cost of driving and the price of our holidays. This is a far fairer and more efficient means of distributing the right to emit carbon than government rationing. Bear in mind that rationing stretched well into the 1950s because governments, once endowed with the power, were reluctant to let it go. If you’re really worried about the poor, the solution is to enrich them and let them buy carbon-intensive goods alongside the rich.

Still, it should not be a surprise that Benn is confused, as he is clearly becoming senile. Only that can explain his daftest comment: that he is a libetarian. Tony Benn, the author of the “longest suicide note in history”, which would have arrogated more power to government than Britain had seen since the Stewarts, claimed to be a libertarian. The man’s clearly gone mad!

Friday, 1 June 2007

No more Income Tax (at least for another year)

Back in the Middle Ages there was a terrible practice called “Serfdom” or “Villeinage” whereby peasant farmers were forced to work one or even two days a week on somebody else’s land, and were only allowed to work their own land on the remaining four days. Thus was their labour taxed to pay for the public goods that their political masters thought vital to the wellbeing of society: cathedrals, castles and wars with the French.

By comparison, our far more civilised society has found a way of taxing the labour of the common man far more subtly, by taking approximately two fifths of every pound we earn. Funnily enough, it still equates to two working days a week. It’s as though nothing has changed.

To make it entirely clear to us just how much of our labour our masters take from us for their own ends, the Adam Smith Institute has devised a jolly wheeze. Reversing the trick by which the Government moved from making us work for them directly for two days a week to taking a portion of our hourly wage, they have taken to calculating it annually.

According to ASI, if we worked solidly for the Government until our annual tax bill was paid, and only then began to work for ourselves, we would have to work on the royal demesne (or rather, at the behest of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) until 31 May. Then, from 1 June, we’d be working for ourselves, able to keep every penny we make.

So happy Tax Freedom Day everybody! From here on in, you’re working for yourselves, and not for the feudal masters.