Monday, September 26, 2005

Hypocrite of the Year

I have just watched The Prime-Minister-Elect make his acceptance speech to Labour Party conference. Gordon Brown’s certainly wasn’t making a chancellor’s speech – there was precious little there about the economy.

Neither was it the speech of a contender in a contested election for the party leadership – he made no attempt whatever to placate those within the Labour party who had hoped that a Brown premiership would mean the end of New Labour. He obviously considers that he has the succession in the bag and was setting out his stall to the country for the next general election. And judging by the sour looks on the faces of some left-wing delegates even as they forced themselves to give Mr Brown a standing ovation, most of the Labour party has reached the same conclusion.

From a technical perspective, ignoring my own opinions about the validity or otherwise of what was said, it was a better speech than any other I have heard him make. But was really stood out about the speech was the truly astonishing hypocrisy. Not since O.J. Simpson promised to bring to justice his wife’s killer have I seen such an amazing display of bare-faced humbug.

Gordon Brown said he learned from his parents ‘to respect others, to tell the truth, to take responsibility’. A pity he wasn’t listening more carefully.

He said that Labour should be proud to have taken one million pensioners out of poverty. This from the man who, with his £5 billion a year raid on pension funds and his over-complicated tax credits which destroyed incentives to save, has done more than any other individual to wreck pension provision in Britain. His Pension Credit is so complicated and unpopular that 1.6 million eligible pensioners fail to receive the money to which they are entitled, because they don’t or cannot complete the forms. And typical pensioners have seen more than a third of the increase in the basic state pension snatched back in higher council tax. As Labour’s own Frank Field pointed out Gordon Brown inherited one of the strongest pensions provisions in Europe, but we now have one of the weakest.

The same Gordon Brown who waxed lyrical today about the need to develop human potential by providing more access to education, was the man who intervened to defeat the rebellion against top-up tuition fees. Usually when Tony Blair has been taking flack for unpopular policies Gordon Brown goes into hiding, but just before the key vote on University fees, Gordon let it be known that he was backing Tony on this one. With that support, top up fees, a policy which is likely to deter many students from poor backgrounds from Higher Education, scraped through by five votes. Without Gordon Brown’s support the policy probably would not have been passed. And he talked about how Conservatives did not want people to go to University – the truth is that the number of University places was expanded far more under the last Conservative government than it has been under this one.

And what a nerve to accuse Conservatives of having believed it was impossible to ban child labour when it was not a socialist but a Tory - Lord Shaftesbury – who introduced the legislation which did exactly that.

Similarly, what a nerve to say that Conservatives believed it was impossible to ban slavery. This country banned slavery first here and in other places within our reach, and then hunted down and destroyed the slave trade on every ocean on earth, many years before the Labour party existed, and there were plenty of Tories and Liberals alike who took part in that campaign. William Wilberforce, the independent MP who campaigned long and hard to ban the slave trade was a close friend of Tory Prime minister William Pitt and was supported by him - Pitt even moved an anti-slavery motion for an investigation on Wilberforce's behalf at one stage when Wilberforce was ill.


But the worst of the lot was that he actually dared to say

“No more ‘The man in Whitehall knows best.’”

That really is in the same league of duplicity as if Tony Blair were to claim to have opposed the war in Iraq. Gordon Brown is one of the biggest exponents of Whitehall meddling in the entire history of British government. He is responsible for a massive increase in the number of inspectors and regulators. There have been 15 new regulations every working day under Labour. The British Chambers of Commerce now estimate that the cost of new regulations on business under Labour has reached nearly £40 billion (BCC, Burden’s Barometer).

Brown has doubled the total spending on auditing local government, expanding certain types of regulation by six thousand percent. Today’s papers report that the number of consultants taken on by this government has added 1p in the pound to income tax. Councils, police, head teachers, doctors and nurses, have all faced dozens of government targets, forms to complete, and controls, and most of these bureaucratic implements have the Treasury’s fingerprints all over them.

For claiming to oppose the idea that “The man in Whitehall knows best”, a philosophy which his entire term of office as chancellor completely exemplifies, I nominate Gordon Brown as Hypocrite of the Year.

Reflections after a trip to Newcastle

A couple of days ago I had occasion to drive to Newcastle and back to visit a work colleague. I was already well aware at an intellectual level that getting from West Cumbria to the North East was quite a slog, but intellectually understanding this is not the same as doing the journey. I went by the A66 to Penrith and M6 to Carlisle: it took well over three hours to get from Gosforth to Carlisle and my colleague, who used to live in Whitehaven, tells me this was par for the course. I came back via Scotch Corner: this also took more than three hours and took me through the most dangerous stretch of road in Britain, where there are signs warning that nearly 200 people have been killed or injured in the last few years. And the train journey is no easier.

Overall the round trip from West Cumbria to Newcastle took longer, and was more tiring, than a one-way trip between West Cumbria and London.

I’m sure this isn’t news to any native Cumbrian and that everyone born here or who has lived here longer than me is thinking something along the lines of “finally worked that out, have you?” But please bear with me. What really bothers me is that decisions about transport networks and the organisation of public services as they affect Cumbria are being made by people in London who have absolutely no idea what that journey is like.

It was obvious at the public inquiry into the daft proposal to de-trunk the A595 that this had been dreamed up on the basis of national criteria and looks totally logical from a desk in London – and it was equally obvious that anyone with first hand knowledge of the roads and communities affected realises that downgrading the road is a really terrible idea.

Similar arguments apply to the future of local health services. There are real difficulties about providing every possible medical service locally in an area like Cumbria. Obviously we want the best possible health care: unfortunately for some specialist services that is going to mean a visit to a regional centre. However, we must never lose sight of the fact that every time a service moves to Carlisle that imposes suffering on people in West Cumbria and when a service is moved to Newcastle it is even worse. And where there is absolutely no alternative but to provide some NHS services at a regional level, perhaps we need to re-think where that should be – many of Cumbria’s North-South transport links, while far from good, are not as difficult as some of the East-West links.

The same issue applies to proposals to regionalise the Fire service and the latest scheme to regionalise the police.

I am deeply unhappy both with the idea of abolishing local fire control rooms and merging Cumbria constabulary into some giant regional force. The government’s argument for larger police forces is that the small ones are supposedly inefficient. Perhaps if they didn’t have such a huge burden of form-filling and could spend more time catching criminals both small and large police forces could be more effective. I heard from a recently retired copper that when he started work thirty years ago they had to fill in forms equivalent to an average of about two pages of A4 when they arrested someone, but that now it would be closer to fifty pages.

It has not been my experience that large operating units are always more capable. There are certainly some efficiency savings with bigger units – economists like me call them economies of scale – but big organisations are usually more bureaucratic, less flexible, and often less able to adapt to local and human needs. Even if we can save on administrative overheads by having larger police forces, it will remain important to take as many policing decisions as possible at a local level. But I remain to be convinced, and any proposals to merge local police forces, especially into huge regions, should be examined with a fine tooth comb.

Double book review: "Incompetence" and "Jennifer Government"

“Incompetence” by Rob Grant
“Jennifer Government” by Max Barry

The two funniest books I have read this year have both been satirical black comedies set in extreme near-future worlds. In each book the author has taken some trends he perceives in modern society, extrapolated them ad absurdum, and had fun seeing how ludicrous he can make the consequences. In this the two books are very similar, but in the targets they take aim at they are diametrically opposed. “Incompetence” takes the mickey out of big government, the nanny state, and the European Union. By contrast “Jennifer Government” satirises America, and that version of free market libertarianism which is so extreme that it is sometimes called anarcho-capitalism.

The preface to “Incompetence” reads as follows:

“Article 13199 of the Pan European constitution: ‘No person shall be prejudiced from employment in any capacity at any level by reason of age, race, creed, or incompitence’” (Yes, the spelling mistake is deliberate – I wonder if Rob Grant had the same problem I did in preventing the software he was writing in from automatically correcting it !)

“Incompetence” is described as “A novel of the far too near future” and is set in a united Europe in which “Non Specific Stupidity” is a registered disability which cannot be used to hold back promotion prospects, waiters have Tourette’s syndrome, airline pilots have vertigo, etc. The story is told through the eyes of an undercover agent who is not what he appears to be, on the tail of a mass-murderer who is all too competent.

Where Rob Grant satirises an over-mighty European Federal government, the Australian Max Barry depicts a future in which his eponymous heroine Jennifer Government is one of the few remaining employees of a state which has been almost entirely privatised. For the two thirds of the world dominated by the USA, government, welfare, tax, and the welfare state have been abolished and the major companies run things to such an extent that most people change their surname to that of their employer.

Back when I was at University I met a number of people who actually wanted to live in a world like the one described in “Jennifer Government” – they thought that taxation is theft, money should be privatised, heroin and all other drugs legalised, etc. One of them, now an MP (though he has since grown up and is no longer an extremist – in fact he’s now arguably to the left of Tony Blair) once criticised me for believing in the National Health Service. Another told me that Libertarians had a lot in common with anarchists as they were “both anti-state.” All the major political parties have had problems with hardliners taking over their student wings, and these people were so over-the-top that when they took over the Federation of Conservative Students it eventually had to be shut down by Norman Tebbit for being too right wing.

Both books bear just enough resemblance to real world events to be very funny indeed, but if you take either of them too seriously you may be a trifle paranoid. If you’re into black comedy or satirical humour, I would recommend that you read both and gain additional amusement by reflecting on what a complex world we live in that two such completely opposite satirical visions both have sufficient truth in them to make the books work.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

WHERE HAVE ALL THE DENTISTS GONE ?

One of the issues which regularly came up in Copeland during the recent election was the impossibility of finding a dentist. This is becoming an increasingly acute problem in many parts of Britain, and Cumbria is one of three or four rural counties where the lack of access to dental services has become totally unacceptable.

During the run-up to the election WHICH asked candidates to support a pledge to work for improved dental services: I was happy to endorse this and would have made it a priority had I been elected.

Over the past few months the number of dental practices in Cumbria which are taking on new NHS patients has varied between three and nil. As of yesterday I was advised that there is not a single practice taking on new NHS patients in the county. And even if you are prepared to pay, many practices are not taking on new private patients either. If you are not fortunate enough to find one of the exceptions, the only way to get dental treatment short of an emergency is to travel anything up to a hundred miles.

Tony Blair promised five years ago that by now everyone in Britain would have access to an NHS dentist. As usual, he broke that promise.

Britain is not spending enough on training new dentists, and we do not have an adequate reward framework to ensure that it is worth the while of existing dentists to provide a basic service. And that isn’t only about money. One of my contemporaries at University who became a dentist on graduation recently switched to private practice, after a successful career as an NHS dentist, and subsequently wrote to tell me that she wished she had done so years ago – not just because of the money, but because of the freedom from all the bureaucratic rules and regulations.

Years of neglect will not be put right overnight but we need to make a start. This should involve a proper contract between NHS dentists and their patients so that everyone knows where they stand. We also need a sensible payment system based on the number of patients on roll rather than the number of procedures carried out, which should include a limit on how much patients will have to pay but a guaranteed adequate income for dentists which gives a reward for their skills and checks the steady loss of good dentists to cosmetic work.

Copeland’s MP, Jedi Jamie, has suggested in parliament that “golden handcuffs” for dentists might be part of the solution. Apparently the curriculum at the Jedi academy doesn’t include the law of unintended consequences. If you put conditions like that on any profession, one of the first side-effects is that fewer people are attracted to it.

Cumbria, and Britain, deserve better.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Don't tell me what to believe

One of the most irritating things in political discussion is people who tell you what your own views are. Usually this is a variant of a debating trick – the people who are taking one side in a debate want to be up against the most extreme form of the opposing position and claim the middle ground, so they try to paint the other side into the corner of adopting the strongest possible position.

Tony Blair is a past master at this. For example, until very recently – to be precise, until French and Dutch voters killed both the European constitution and any realistic chance of British entry to the Euro - he was always playing this game on Europe. Mr Blair and his acolytes would suggest that we had two choices with regard to the European Union – sign up to the constitution, or leave altogether. (Before that, they suggested that the two choices were to scrap the pound and replace it with the Euro, or leave altogether.)

Like the majority of British voters, who are neither federalist eurofanatics nor hardline anti-europeans, I became extremely tired of Mr Blair telling me that if I didn’t support his own European projects I had to support British withdrawal instead.

Funnily enough when the French voted down the constitution I don’t recall anyone suggesting that France might have to leave the European Union. And suddenly Mr Blair adopted our position, the existence of which he had previously denied, and now presents himself as the arch champion of a more democratic and decentralised Europe of co-operating nations.

On other issues, however, both the Blairites and often their opponents are still playing the same trick. Let’s look at a few examples

Fallacy number one – If you don’t support the war in Iraq, you must want Saddam Hussein back.

Oh come off it. It is perfectly natural to view both the thousands of deaths caused by the war and the anarchy and unrest which has followed it, and the vast numbers murdered by Saddam Hussein, as terrible disasters. It is legitimate for people on either side of the debate about the Iraq war to point to considerable loss of life which resulted or would have resulted from the opposing side’s policy. But the decision of whether or not to invade was a choice between evils, and the fact that someone has come down on one side does not mean they are happy about all the consequences unless they have actually been foolish enough to say that they support Saddam or that everything in Iraq today is wonderful.

Fallacy number two – If you want to maintain British liberties you must be undermining the war against terrorism

The need to strike a balance between security and freedom has existed as long as there has been civilisation. The human rights to freedom from arbitrary arrest and protection from being blown up by terrorists – or shot by policemen who have mistaken you for a terrorist – are all important and part of what makes this country what it is. We found out in Northern Ireland that arbitrary detention without trial does not necessarily help us defeat terrorists. Sometimes it creates injustice which leads to more terrorism. There will be circumstances where we have to give up some liberty to ensure our own protection. But this should never be done without the most careful consideration of the consequences.

Fallacy number three – if you suggest that the war in Iraq (or any other government policy) has made terrorist attacks more likely, you’re justifying those attacks.

There was no justification for 9/11 - period. There was no justification for the tube bombs - period. There is no justification for trying to change the policy of any democratic state by blowing up men, women and children - period. Those who carry out such atrocities are not soldiers or martyrs but murderers - period. (That view is shared by the vast majority of British Muslims.)

It is quite possible to combine the belief that terrorism is wrong with a wish to ask ourselves what policies will most effectively help us to combat terrorism and recognise where we got it wrong. As it happens, I think that the removal of the Taleban regime in Afghanistan probably reduced the terrorist threat to the rest of the world but that the overall effect of the war in Iraq has been to increase it.

Fallacy number four –if you want to fight racism, islamophobia, or any other evil, the best way is to pass more laws against it.

In the past few years we have seen a positive torrent of new laws, often badly thought out, often criminalising things which are already illegal, as a substitute for effectively enforcing the laws we already have. Unfortunately these laws are often badly drafted, and can end up criminalising things which should not be illegal.

I would dearly like to see a rule adopted by parliament for at least the next ten years that for every new law they pass, another one should be repealed. Sadly the flood of ill considered and useless or downright harmful legislation shows no sign of abating.

A week is a long time in Northern Ireland ...

I keep two versions of this blog - one on the News and Star website and one at www.blogger.com. Usually I post the same items on both in the same day. Owing to a slight misunderstanding between myself and my long-suffering staff, there was a delay in posting some of this month's entries on the blogspot site.

So when I came to post here a piece which I had written immediately after the World Cup qualifier between England and Northern Ireland, the senseless violence of the last few days made the optimistic tone of that entry seem wholly inappropriate. I am convinced that my basic point was right, but I have rewritten the piece to reflect more recent events.

Last week when the final whistle blew, with the score at one goal for Northern Ireland to none for England, the cameras zoomed in on the scene where two types of flag were being waved in close proximity by jubilant supporters. Some were green flags belong to ecstatic Irish supporters, from Ireland's Catholic community – the others were the flag of St George modified by loyalist symbols, and these flags were being waved by equally ecstatic football supporters from the Ulster protestant community.

I never thought I would see such flags from those two communities being waved in jubilation, side by side, as both sides celebrated the same event. I know some people can never regard an English sporting defeat as anything other than a national disaster. But to me – a British Anglican married to an Irish catholic – the sight of protestants and catholics celebrating together said something positive about the ability of people to come together, compared to which the loss of the match paled into insignificance.

But Northern Ireland has seen many false dawns and this was yet another. In the past few days of rioting both policemen and innocent women and children have been injured by thugs who wrongly describe themselves as "loyalists".

Guys, nobody who throws things at, let along fires automatic weapons at, Her Majesty's police officers for trying to do their job, is in a position to describe himself as a loyalist. And nobody who takes part in such behaviour or refuses to condemn it, whatever community they come from, has any business claiming that they are operating on the principles of any form of Christianity, Protestant or Catholic.

Jesus Christ told his followers to "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." And when they came to arrest him, Jesus told two of his disciples who tried to defend him with force to put their swords away, saying "those who live by the sword shall die by the sword." The first century Aramaic language didn't have words for "machine gun" or "petrol bomb" but I think it's fairly clear that the sense of the instruction covers them.

If we want peace in Northern Ireland we have to make sure that those who follow democratic paths are rewarded and those who use or threaten violence are not. That message has not always been sent as clearly as it should have been. We owe it to the children of Northern Ireland to make it clear to everyone. Last week's scenes of celebration as protestants and catholics waved their flags side by side represent the future. The rioting of the past few days does not.

KEEP HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL DAY

I drafted this blog entry on my laptop yesterday while sitting in front of the TV and unable to tear myself away from the final afternoon of the Ashes.

I had been at the Oval 20 years ago when England last won the Ashes at home. This has been the most fantastic test series – one of the Australian commentators described it as one of the best of all time. And after some stunning close finishes and fiercely fought matches a magnificent century from Pietersen was bringing England within sight of regaining the trophy. It has been an emotionally charged occasion: as Richie Benaud was saying farewell in the commentary box on his last afternoon at the end of many years as a test cricket commentator, Kevin Pietersen’s innings was finally concluded by an unplayable delivery from McGrath. As Pietersen left the field, Shane Warne shook his hand, and we saw one of the greatest bowlers of all time - finishing his test career with yet another ten-wicket haul and as the leading wicket taker of the series - shake hands with the new batsman who in his debut test series has been the leading run scorer and almost certainly helped delivered a historic victory. This was the past shaking hands with the future.

Which brings me to a point about the past and the future – for as the saying goes, those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.

When Holocaust Memorial Day was introduced, I was responsible for organising the first commemoration in St Albans as chairman of the relevant committee. It was not practical to put together a local commemorative service which would have done the event justice, so instead we organised an exhibition using material provided from the lead government department, DCMS. That material was thoroughly inclusive. Although it justifiably gave particular attention to the murder by the Nazis of six million Jews and a similar number of other victims including Gypsies and mental patients, Holocaust memorial day also commemorated many other acts of genocide including some against Muslims such as the massacre of Bosnians at Srebrenica.

There were a few people who expressed to me privately a minority view that Britain is already obsessed by the history of the World War Two era, and this was yet another repetition of a story which is very well known. However the majority, and especially all my Jewish friends, were very strongly in favour of setting aside a day to remember the terrible crimes which humans have committed against one another and giving it a name which commemorates what they rightly regard as the single most ghastly episode of mass murder in history.

I agree, and was deeply disappointed when certain Muslim leaders who ought to have known better boycotted Holocaust Memorial Day earlier this year on the inaccurate grounds that the event is supposedly not inclusive.

Anyone who read the material which DCMS put out knows that this is simply not true – Muslims in Bosnia and elsewhere were mentioned along with Armenians, Rwandans, Latin and Native Americans – you name a group of victims of racial mass murder or ethnic cleansing in the past few centuries, and they were included. This also appears to have escaped several committees of Muslims set up to advise the government who have advised that the event should be renamed Genocide Memorial Day and suggested that the present name gives the impression that “Western lives have more value than non-western lives.”

Apart from the fact that the Jewish race originated in the Middle East, and it is therefore odd to describe them as Westerners, there is nothing in the way the event has been organised which would give a reasonable person that impression. All the Holocaust Memorial Day material which I have seen bent over backwards to avoid creating the impression that some lives are more valuable than others.

We need to improve relations with the Muslim community, and that imposes a responsibility on both sides. Non-Muslims must do their best to respect the faith and reasonable concerns of those who follow Islam, but Muslims must also respect the beliefs of others, and both sides must work to dispel damaging stereotypes and prejudices. Both sides must also pay the other the challenging compliment of not being afraid to criticise those who they think are in the wrong, which is what I am doing now.

Any Muslim leader who appears to downplay the significance of the Holocaust is failing to rise to that challenge. I do not believe that most modern British Muslims are anti-semitic. I suspect that those who boycotted Holocaust Memorial Day or suggested that the name be changed are guilty of foolishness and insensitivity rather than racism. But one of the most damaging stereotypes against Muslims is that they are particularly prone to prejudice against Jewish people. Every time a Muslim leader reinforces that image, he (I use the male gender deliberately because it is always a man) damages the reputation of Islam and lets down his own community.