Category Archives: politics
Cicero may have popularised Cassio’s wise words “to whose benefit?“, but in our cynical times we need to refine the question: to whose expectation of benefit? Indeed, it seems implausible that the subtle distinction should have been lost on the Romans, but I certainly lack the comprehension of their language that would enable me to judge such nuances.
WordPress records show the above as the first words of a draft saved, but not published, on February 26th 2012, following the death in Syria of distinguished journalist Marie Colvin. Who could expect to benefit from her death? Or indeed from the escalation of events both before and since: an incursion at the Turkish border, various massacres. Most recently the use of sarin gas, coming conveniently shortly after Obama had spoken of chemical weapons as a ‘red line’ that would provoke a change of policy.
The answer must surely be, someone looking to provoke Western intervention. Someone given hope of powerful backing by western rhetoric, and by events in Libya. They’ve been disappointed for a long time, but now finally it seems Obama will supply them with weapons. For anyone else to engage in such gratuitously provocative yet militarily futile acts would be extraordinarily perverse. Above all, for a government with nothing to gain and everything to lose if the West were to get seriously involved (not to mention a ruthless but quietly efficient president without the vain showmanship of Saddam or Gaddafi).
Nor could you rule out someone with an even more sinister Agenda, like the CIA or Al Qaeda, or one-off maverick nutters, with whom neither ‘side’ would wish to be associated. The latter can be the ones who have the most devastating effects of all, as in the assassins of Franz Ferdinand or Yitzhak Rabin.
Can this be lost on our politicians and their advisors? Seems unlikely. I suspect much of the current rhetoric is driven by a complex case of good-cop-bad-cop desperately hoping to achieve something. Those Western politicians who really want military intervention do so for external reasons: to topple a regime with a history of the two great regional crimes of being friendly with Iran and hostile to Israel (even if Israel itself would rather have a devil-you-know relationship with a stable neighbour than a civil war)!
Could a new Western-friendly president in Iran change the situation? It’s an interesting prospect (and will probably spare Iran the kind of disturbance that followed re-election of the ‘wrong’ man last time), but I fear it’s too late to make much difference. Events in Syria have momentum. Likewise in the West: if the more gung-ho of American politicians and their backers rebuffed Khatami in more peaceful times, how likely are they to change now, when it would mean some serious backing down? But at least Rohani’s probable election could serve to strengthen the hands of those favouring peace in the region including, I think, Obama himself.
Where I think the West must really bear guilt is in provoking the war in the first place. The ambiguous rhetoric and the Libyan example led rebels to suppose they’d get support if things got bad enough, but also westernised media-savvy Syrian emigrants who “spoke for” the country when it was all starting, spinners of propaganda like the “gay girl“, and doubtless others, all contributed. The contrast must surely be Bahrain, where a similar uprising was suppressed by a government that was historically more repressive than Syria’s. The obvious difference is that with no agents provocateurs or prospect of international support, Bahraini protestors cut their losses rather than escalate when the government reacted firmly to them. Bahrain didn’t get Egyptian-style democracy, but neither did it get the horrors of civil war.
 Who “they” may be, and whether there is a faction less guilty than the government to whom the West could supply weapons is an altogether different question. Not one I could speculate on.
 The Iranian president from 1997-2005, who made serious efforts to mend fences with the West but was firmly rebuffed by the US, sending a message that the West wasn’t interested and that a Western-friendly leadership was a waste of time.
What headline fits the announcement of Mrs Thatcher’s death? Maybe that best-known misquote.
Thatcher was the only prime minister in my lifetime, and (along with Attlee) one of just two in living memory to have done anything substantial and positive for the country. Like Attlee before her, she came to a country in deep crisis, and took decisive and necessary action to confront the most pressing problems of her time.
For readers too young to remember, Britain in 1979 was in the depths of a crisis not entirely unlike Greece today (imagine yourself a Greek prime minister now)! Post-war reconstruction had morphed into chronic profligacy, taxes (on everyone who worked) were astronomical, and government spending was mired in corruption. Yes, an element of that has returned today, but not on a remotely comparable scale (well, except for that deficit). Digging us out from that mess was never going to be pretty, but against all expectations she had the guts to take on that herculean task.
Her defining characteristic that resonated with my generation and social circle was meritocracy. Born a grocer’s daughter and brought up above the shop, she rose through life on her own merits. She had no truck with unearned privilege, and that made her many enemies amongst those with power and influence. Nor with the politics of envy that would arbitrarily “level down”. She neither supported nor attacked privilege itself, but came down hard on the abuse of privilege. An ideal role model for my cohort at Cambridge when we voted to disaffiliate from the (then-)loony-left National Union of Students and even elected a paid-up Young Conservative as president of our own students union. By her time the bastions of privilege included the trade union movement (whose leadership were of a generation brought up in a very different world and still fighting the battles of the pre-1939 era) and the institutions of the post-war state that had become corruption-magnets. Such an overprivileged leader as Blair or Cameron trying to take them on would’ve been a sitting duck for class warfare.
OK, she had the advantages of her generation: an adult life in the wake of total war, meaning lots of reconstruction work to generate productive economic activity, and the demographics of “dead mens shoes” opening exceptional opportunities for a man (or more rarely a woman) of merit to rise rapidly through the corporate ladder or other walks of life. By the 1980s that window of widespread opportunity had closed to a tiny crack as a generation that hadn’t had to fight in total war were in the positions above us. She instead pushed an entrepreneurial culture, which was not easy to get to grips with for those of us who’d been brought up in a culture where a popular word for entrepreneur was ‘spiv’, and emphatically NOT something to aspire to.
She led us out of the disaster of the 1970s, but did she also lay the foundations for today’s troubles? In part I think she did. Hers is the culture (reinforced by her successors) that blames the EU for so many troubles, yet could be relied on to veto or sabotage any serious attempt to improve its institutions and practices. Housing in the 1980s was a disaster, though to be fair the worst of that was a legacy of earlier policy coming home to roost. She did (belatedly) lay the seeds for improvement and the ‘golden age’ of the mid-late 1990s, but also for the greed and profligacy that followed it (though not for the disastrous outcome).
What about the central accusation, that deregulation of the city led directly to the Blair/Brown bust? I’d say she’s guilty of that only in the sense that Attlee was guilty of the 1970s bust: a failure to anticipate that the institutions shaped in her time would grow into monsters in the hands of incompetents. The credit bubble of the 2000s that led to the bust was the very antithesis of monetarism, as is clear from a graph of money supply growth shooting up into double-digit real inflation (albeit masked by the rise of cheap manufactured imports in a meaningless price index, and creating “feelgood” by flattering GDP and other measures of national wealth).
I need to wrap this little piece up at some point. So let’s finish with a quote from the words of wisdom from which my title is misquoted:
… I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation …
 Excluding Churchill, whose greatness (such as it was) was thrust upon him by circumstance of war.
 Albeit with serious blind spots: she continued to pour taxpayers’ money into the bottomless pit of the car industry known at various times as British Leyland, Austin, Rover, MG, Jaguar as it came back to the taxpayer for more bailouts every few years just as it had done since the 1960s. That was indeed obvious at the time, and I can see no explanation for not letting the market work.
 Not that either of those disasters would’ve had the guts.
Parliament today has held a long debate on legalising “gay marriage”. Strong opinions on both sides, commonsense on neither – at least so far as I’ve heard reported.
What an utterly bizarre waste of time. How the **** is marriage any of the government’s business? It should be neither legal nor illegal: it should just be there for people who want it and churches/etc who are happy to marry them.
Marriage is a historical and religious tradition. For participants it’s a personal and/or religious statement. For the law to poke its nose into that and confuse it with legal rights and obligations is Big Government gone mad – the kind of thing this government is supposed to be against.
Where the law might legitimately have business with peoples relationships is where there are joint commitments and obligations. Children, obviously, but as soon as you widen the relationship net you could be looking at business partners, or people sharing a house and mortgage. And that begs the question: why does the law discriminate against units of more than two people, or against close relatives who can’t marry but might very well lead interdependent lives? The victims of serious discrimination are these ladies, whose rights got lost in the stupid confusion of law and marriage.
Exercises in futility seems to be a bit of a theme of the current government. They’re also (less controversially) changing the rules of succession for the monarchy in the name of equality. I find it hard to imagine a more glaring oxymoron than “equality” in that of all contexts!
 If you accept, as I don’t, that the act of marrying should confer the kind of special privilege they wanted to share.
Is today’s Sir Humphrey a complete idiot, or are our politicians deliberately picking a fight with the Court of Human Rights?
I suspect the latter. To pick such a fight may be no bad thing, but they’re going about it the wrong way. Don’t just ignore the court on an issue that can painlessly be fixed. Tackle it much earlier in the development of some dubious issue, and build alliances. Maybe in the first instance do it by supporting some other government’s fight over a suitable issue.
The court says that a blanket ban on prisoners voting is a violation of their “human rights”. Government sticks its fingers in its ears. Hardly anyone wants to give prisoners the vote, and opinions divide, with a suspected majority supporting the government.
But wait a minute, this whole conflict is based on a misrepresentation. The court hasn’t said “give prisoners the vote”, nor even “give some prisoners the vote”. It’s just said “don’t operate a blanket ban”. Even if our politicians are too dumb to see the obvious solution, it can’t have escaped Sir Humphrey – unless of course the meritocracy has vanished from his job and an idiot has been appointed on some politically-correct anti-elitist principle.
Why not just give the responsibility to sentencing judges? Let the removal (or not) of the vote be a decision for the judge in every conviction (and not just those involving prison). Keep the status quo as a default, so if a judge says nothing about the vote then the convict loses it while in prison but keeps it while in the community. Surely that removes the blanket ban – thus satisfying the court – without making anything worse than it is, or even losing face!
Elitism is a dirty word in the UK today. Well, at least borderline, though far from universally agreed. It is fashionable amongst our politically-correct chattering classes to sneer at anything associated with an ‘elite’ – real or imagined. Fortunately the fanatical extremes of Mao’s China or the world’s theocracies have never prevailed here, but there are certainly people here who’ll think the worse of you for having been to an Ivy League university (you’re privileged, that’s unfair), or for preferring good music to whatever happens to be in “the charts” (you’re a snob).
Now we’ve just held a huge orgy of the ultra-elite, yet somehow that’s OK: most of those same chattering classes are celebrating it. Dissidents who decline to celebrate may have their own bandwagons (the hype, the barefaced fraud over costs, the disruption to life), but the event’s inherent elitism isn’t one of them. Somehow, physical prowess and sporting excellence are OK where intellectual prowess and academic excellence are deeply suspect.
That is, until now. It seems some killjoy has done a bit of digging, and found that the olympics are elitist after all. Not for the obvious reasons, but because too many of our successful athletes come from privileged backgrounds. Worst of all, they went to fee-paying private schools. It seems olympic success, just like academic success, can be bought by parents for their offspring. Whoops!
A moment’s thought should tell you that’s blindingly obvious: parents who pay high fees in preference to a free alternative expect something for it, and they’re not entirely mistaken. Indeed, barriers to entry to many elite sports are inherently much higher than to elite universities: you don’t aspire to something unless you have at least the facilities to practice it! Among my own cohort, elite universities were an aspiration for some, elite football for others, but olympic sports such as swimming/watersports, anything equestrian, or winter sports were simply unthinkable: they’re not for the likes of us!
Anyway, now that the Olympics are officially elitist, will we start sneering at them as a bastion of privilege, too? I don’t think that’s likely, but it does look like a riposte for when the forces of Political Correctness want to interfere with our top universities on the grounds that they select on academic criteria.
More interesting would be if it can provoke a debate that’ll eventually highlight the total absurdity of an education policy that allows schools to select pupils (commonly at age 11) on a wide range of different criteria such as sporting or artistic prowess (along with some that are altogether more dubious), but at the same time explicitly forbids selection on academic merit!
Scottish nationalists have momentum. Now an unlikely alliance of UK political parties, headed by prominent Scottish politician Alistair Darling, launch a joint campaign called “better together” to preserve the union. That uneasy superstate known as the United Kingdom.
As an Englishman I won’t get the vote on this: the decision will be left to Scots. That probably means we can expect to see some bribes to Scotland coming from the better together campaign, and the more uncertain the outcome, the more will be the bribes. I expect proud Scots will reject the bribes, greedy Scots will grab them, and the balance will determine the eventual deal. The broken state of our union with its festering injustices on both sides (from an English point of view, headed by the Westlothian Question and Barnett Formula) can only get worse.
This is not what we need. If the union is to survive and prosper, the last thing it needs is this hopelessly broken state leading to legitimate grievances on both sides. Right now there is one proposal on the table to fix that, and it’s coming from the SNP. So long as it’s the only fix on offer, it has my support. But then, I don’t get the vote.
Maybe we would indeed be better together. But for the campaign to be credible, they need to tell us how they propose to fix the union. If non-Scots had the vote, maybe we could hope for a decent alternative.
France’s new president Hollande hit by lightning on his first day in office!
I hope he’s a good atheist. The world will come to terms with his politics and vice versa, but a paranoid president would be bad news indeed!
The government’s latest announcements are sounding increasingly like NuLab Lite: government to intervene in markets, to pick winners and losers, to pour other people’s money into selected places. Selected by whom? You can be sure the job of administering pots of public money like that will be a magnet for corruption!
- Taxpayer to pour yet more money into housing (and the debt bubble) by underwriting banks losses on big mortgages.
- Slush fund for lending to small businesses.
On a more positive note, I expect that they’re taking another leaf out of NuLab’s book, and that some of these announcements will lead to very, very little action. Let us hope!
But something more interesting is happening. Instead of the mainstream media cheerleading all these interventions, they’ve united to rubbish them. Across the political spectrum, we have a remarkable degree of agreement:
Ian Cowie in the Telegraph (political right): You really could not make it up. Government proposals for taxpayers to underwrite looser mortgage lending for first time buyers may help buy-to-let landlords exit the housing market with handsome profits before house prices fall further. But they are unlikely to be of lasting benefit to anyone encouraged to take on excessive debt before interest rates rise from their current historic low and more homebuyers find themselves in negative equity.
Mary Ann Sieghart in the Independent (political centre): The one thing missing from today’s housing strategy will be an outright acknowledgment that lower house prices would be a good thing. It’s still too much of a political taboo. But ministers know that it’s exactly what the younger generation need. So do prospective buyers and their parents.
Matt Griffith in the Guardian (political left): While some of the initiatives – notably the government’s pledge to provide insurance for mortgages to new-build properties – are the equivalent of an intergenerational mugging: the state underwrites young people taking on a huge debt for an asset that is clearly overvalued.
Andrew Ellison in the Times (political right): A strange conspiracy maintains the high cost of homes – hence these weird schemes to help the first-time buyer.
James Saft at Reuters: Under the plan both builders and the government would contribute funds to partially indemnify lenders against what I am betting are the inevitable losses. Borrowers, who are almost by definition younger and less well off, will still bear all losses, but will be rewarded with the chance to take out the kind of loan which has proven time and again to be a bad idea.
Wow! They really are all singing from the same hymn sheet. Just a shame they took so long to notice the problem! Evidently this blog was ahead of its time, for example in August 2007: … the taxpayer money going into this helps inflate the price of anything nice, by lifting the market in general.
Eventually perhaps they’ll put the final pieces of the picture of overpriced housing together: If chickens can’t come home to roost now for property millionaires and bankers, we’re transferring yet more burden onto the productive economy. And that’s tilted towards the young (because fewer of them own property) and high-earners (who pay more tax). That’s precisely the people who will be most welcome in other countries, when the burden of subsidising our fat-cats gets too much for them. If we drive too many of them out, the economy is basically gone!
The institution of the monarchy has long been in decline. Yet almost all the powers that be at least pay lip-service to it.
Yet while claiming to support it, they’re dismantling it by stealth. Blair killed off royal behaviour, now Cameron changes how we select them. Clearly royal traditions have no value, so what’s left? Apart from the Queen herself, who is from a different generation to our modern ringmasters. It’s obviously a joke, but I don’t think I get it.
How many more changes before we can nominate someone like Abdul Arain for the job of monarch?
Yesterday, that is.
The funeral I spent much of yesterday attending (and singing for) is not something I’m going to share in detail with my blog readers. A moving ceremony, and a medium-sized church impressively filled with mourners, followed by a wake.
Yesterday’s public event was of course the voting: the election and referendum. The first was interesting, particularly in Scotland where the SNP – who seek Scottish independence – won an outright majority. Good for them! What saddens me there is to see the libdems lose so badly, here (England) and elsewhere. I’m not a libdem supporter (though I’m with them on some issues), but they surely deserve credit along with the Tories for giving the country a government last year in its hour of need!
The worst result was the referendum. We were presented with a choice between an utterly indefensible system, and one with the merit of ensuring winning candidates have majority support. Since I’m not a candidate for election, I can be blunt and say without beating about the bush, the electorate has demonstrated its stupidity.