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Left must cure its anti-intellectualism

This article isvery good for a number of reasons,but one is the issue that the Left becoming increasingly “closed“. Anti-intellectualism is a feature of “closed” politics, as is entirely obvious

The real issue, as expressed on BBC Newsnight by prominent American political philosopher Michael J. Sandel on Friday (the day after Russell Brand’s vague lunacy), is more that Western politics has become preoccupied by comparatively minor issues to which it takes a managerial approach. Hence, it is irrelevant.

As Russell Brand failed to provide any answers on BBC2, BBC Question Time gave yet another platform to UKIP’s “closed” and simplistic garbage. However, for once its representative was for once entirely overshadowed by a Trade Unionist, who treated us to a truly appalling demonstration of “closed”, unreal, anti-intellectual nonsense. Nominally he may be “Left” and UKIP may be “Right”, but the answer to anti-intellectualism is not more anti-intellectualism.

We were told that £120 billion is lost to the UK in “tax evasion” – a figure which, by definition, we cannot actually know but which we can reliably guess has been reduced under the current Coalition as convictions for tax evasion have increased by one third. We were told that £40 billion is lost in “tax avoidance” – except tax avoidance is perfectly legal, rendering this figure actually zero (actually the UK has one of the most efficient tax collecting regimes in the world). And to crown it all we were told that the banks are “holding” £500 billion – ignoring the fact that it’s not their money, it is the role of banks to hold money (at least 10% of deposits by good practice and convention), and that the very Credit Crunch was precipitated by the banks not holding enough money to cover toxic debts (the average UK bank had reduced its holdings to less than 2% of all deposits by 2008 – truly crazy stuff which enabled an unsustainable “boom” fuelled by bad debt).

it only got worse because, for all its apparent openness, the SNP also belongs to the ranks of the “closed”. Its outgoing Leader Alex Salmond, he of “decisions in Scotland should be made by the people of Scotland” fame, treated us to an outrageously hypocritical treatise of NHS England. In it, he failed to take account of the extra money the Coalition has borrowed to put into Health which has then been passed on due to Barnett Consequentials to Scotland – because he would have had to admit the SNP hasn’t spent all that extra money on Health; he failed to note that the protection of Health funding in England has seen the share of public spending on Health there rise to 22% – probably because he may have been asked to confirm that his own government has reduced this share in Scotland to 19%; and he castigated the Coalition’s desire to reform Health to make it more efficient so that the principle of free access can be maintained despite an increasing financial strain caused by an ageing population – despite the fact his government has an even bigger black hole to fill because it hasn’t carried out similar reforms, it has reduced funding comparatively, and it has not taken account that the strain in Scotland is more acute than anywhere else in the UK because its population is growing more slowly and ageing faster. Had Mr Salmond had his way. Scotland would have been the sovereign state with the lowest life expectancy in Europe in March 2016 (it is already the UK region with the lowest) – and its First Minister is telling the rest of us how to do it?!

There we had a Trade Unionist and a First Minister engaging, supposedly on behalf of the “Left”, in outrageous, anti-intellectual fiction. No wonder so many people are disillusioned by the whole charade!

NI parties must recognise need to reform welfare

Irish Nationalists think the UK’s welfare system as at May 2010 was absolutely perfect.

That is the logic of their current position in Northern Ireland. Much has been made of how Nationalist opposition to matching welfare reforms being carried out in Great Britain is leading to mass pot holes, delays in cancer treatment and increases in housing rents – all of which is probably true. However, rather less is being made of a more obvious point: Northern Ireland’s current welfare system isn’t fit for purpose, doesn’t work, and therefore obviously needs reformed. In fact, to be clear, Northern Ireland parties, if they opt against Great Britain’s system, are obliged to design their own and would be perfectly at liberty to do so without losing ‘parity’, provided it was designed to achieve the same outcomes as the one in Great Britain.

The truth, in Northern Ireland as in Great Britain, is this. As each generation goes by, proportionately more people are caught in the welfare trap, spending almost all (or even all) their adult lives on benefits. At the same time, the system has become so complex that many who are entitled to benefits and to whom the system would provide a useful safety net are deprived of access to it. Others, meanwhile, who are willing to work and who would gain from the social networks and self-esteem of doing so find it entirely financially unviable to do so. What kind of ludicrous system is that? Yet it is the one Nationalists have chosen to defend and indeed to try to implement (remember, Northern Ireland must implement its own system if it breaks from Great Britain’s, even if it happens to be identical to the old one) – and that is the key point here.

It needs to be pointed out, decisively, that lazily seeking to re-implement a broken welfare system which creates an ever more hopeless “client state” of people for whom benefits are a way of life is indefensible. Welfare was designed to be a safety net, not a way of life – and reforms are necessary to return it to doing what it was designed to do. This has nothing to do with “cuts” and everything to do with helping people live the most enriching lives they can – something the current system actually inhibits in many cases. (Note again here: even if we accept that in addition to the reform programme the Tory-led government is introducing benefits “cuts”, Northern Ireland is quite at liberty not to introduce such “cuts”, and in fact to invest more in its own reform programme. That would require our MLAs to explain what reform programme they will carry out and what else they will cut or where else they will raise revenue to make that investment. Has a single MLA done this?)

It also has to be pointed out that Nationalists are refusing to govern. Government requires compromise, not grandstanding for partisan gain. Even if they fundamentally believe the old system is perfect, they must recognise that others don’t and seek a deal accordingly. Instead, they are playing into the hands of those who wish to reform the system radically by refusing to operate the current system and thus threatening to collapse it (the benefits system, not the Executive) altogether.

So the challenge has to be clear and from all quarters: why are Nationalists seeking to put back in place a Welfare System which stops people from living enriching lives and fails comprehensively to meet the goals for which it was established? Let us hear from them what is so wonderful about that broken system that it must be re-implemented, almost literally, at all costs.

And while we’re at it, why are Nationalists refusing to govern, especially given this is a system they largely created in the knowledge that it requires compromise? Let us hear from them about why the current system of devolution should not be reformed (another area where Nationalists are universally unwilling to see reality or compromise), when they have failed to operate it in good faith. Those are the real issues here.

Northern Irish need to learn not to vote for gridlock

Never has faith in Stormont been so low screamed the Belfast Telegraph on the basis of a Lucid Talk poll last week – and no doubt it is true. Yet the very same poll showed that if an election were held tomorrow, the DUP and Sinn Fein – the parties responsible for Stormont and thus for that low faith – would romp home with half the vote.

This is plainly senseless. Yet still it seems a majority of us outside the DUP and Sinn Fein don’t understand this “democracy” lark.

One Belfast Telegraph correspondent openly called for Direct Rule. That would be Direct Rule by a Conservative-led administration, despite the Conservatives being rejected at every post-Agreement election in Northern Ireland. At the last European election, they came last, securing less than half the vote of a new party which had imploded the day before polling. If we wanted a Conservative-led administration locally or in Europe, we could have voted for one – yet we didn’t. It is thus fundamentally undemocratic to argue that we should get one (other than at UK level – we have accepted that by accepting that we should remain within the UK at a referendum in 1998). We have tried ignoring the fundamentals of democracy before – it gave us half a century of incompetent single-party rule followed by a generation of terror. I wouldn’t recommend we try it again.

Others demand we reform the institutions. Of course, I have recommended reform myself. But the are not going to be reformed by those who benefit politically from leaving them the way they are – namely the DUP and Sinn Fein. They will coolly blame each other of course, but the reality is no party or coalition willingly changes the system through which it gained power… unless it becomes genuinely scared that it will soon lose it…

It is a strange form of democracy admittedly. This is not because it is a “mandatory coalition” (firstly because it isn’t; and secondly because Grand Coalitions are quite normal in Europe); it is because parties are entirely communal and derive power from playing the blame game against each other. This is quite normal politics of course, but in our case they are obliged to stay together – frankly for the quite sensible reason that power-sharing is necessary in a society whose past consists of violence founded upon segregation and consequent ignorance and hatred. So to be clear power-sharing and Grand Coalition devolved government are the only show in town – if you want people to work them better, you want people to reform them at the edges, and frankly you want people who are more representative (we need more women for an obvious start), we need to stop just talking about it. Get out and campaign and stand and vote for change!

This is the point. We need to face the fact that we have gridlock because that is what we voted for – and apparently would continue to vote for. If you want proper government rather than gridlock, don’t vote for the parties which have delivered it. If you want reform of the structures, don’t vote for those who derive their power from the current structures. If you want better politicians, well, it is your responsibility to get them elected.

A quick fix to Stormont’s broken system

Straight and to the point from my online sparring partner Andrew G. – as noted here last week, it is not so much the system which is broken as our willingness to share the burden, and often unpopularity, of government.

I have written many times before that the problem in Northern Ireland remains that each side is being sold a vision of outright victory, where the “other side” will just go away. For Unionists, Northern Ireland is “British” (whatever that now means), and thus “British” people should have precedence. For Nationalists, Northern Ireland is “Irish” and thus “Irish” people should have precedence. Anyone else is a “guest” – oh yes very welcome of course, but on the home side’s own terms only…

Whatever system you come up with, we still therefore live in a society where people elect parties to deliver outright victory. Since outright victory is impossible, this means eternal gridlock. Each side of that gridlock demands elections and so on, which will only deliver further gridlock. However, we need to remember something: it is not the politicians delivering gridlock. The politicians are only there because we put them (or allowed them to be put) there. We are responsible for the gridlock!

Therefore it doesn’t much matter what “system” you have in place, until we elect parties who are honest enough to recognise compromise isn’t a dirty word, and that in an inevitably multi-party government it will be absolutely necessary, there is no chance of progress. Frankly, we need to stop being selfish and demanding it all our own way or no way. (I have written before how “Progressives” are as guilty of this as anyone else.)

In short, the issue isn’t that we don’t have an opposition, it is that we don’t have a government! It is not that the government isn’t held to account – it is that it is, to the extent that it is even held to account by its own members, rendering effective governance impossible. (That is not to say that a large minority cross-community ‘opposition’ wouldn’t help, by the way – it is just that the problem needs defined properly and we need to be realistic about the prospects of delivering this.)

It so happens, to force some progress, I would establish an external “Independent Standards Commission” on a similar basis to the previously existing “Independent Monitoring Commission”. This would have a remit to do two things:

  • assess the validity of Petitions of Concern, with the power to instruct the Speaker to render them invalid if: a) they do not have signatures from more than one “designation”, and b) it is not clearly indicated how the issue would negatively impact in a discriminatory way on a specific group; and
  • hold judicial authority to remove/bar a Minister found guilty of breaching the Ministerial Code.

This would mean that Petitions could only in future be used as they were intended in the Agreement (i.e. as a genuine protection); and that the Ministerial Code (which was central, we should recall, to the DUP’s “victory” at St Andrews) would be enforced.

This would have an important practical outcome as it would no longer be necessary for both the DUP and Sinn Fein to agree on things for them to pass: either the DUP or Sinn Fein would be free to seek an alternative majority (in practice requiring at least two designations) from among other parties to get things through. This would have the effect at least of limiting gridlock. It would also re-establish the primacy of the Rule of Law and consensus – Ministers would no longer be able to attack the police or the judiciary, nor would they be able to go on “solo runs” on big issues only to find them subsequently overturned in Court.

However, this would still only be a sticking plaster until such time as the electorate realises that if it wants progress for all of Northern Ireland, it has to vote for parties who represent progress for all of Northern Ireland. It’s that simple.

If you’re going to be a pedant…

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt corrected Alliance leader David Ford in the Assembly this week – when the latter used the word “referendums“, the former couldn’t get in quickly enough to interject with “referenda!

Well indeed, every Oxbridge-educated scholar would know that the plural of neuter second declension nouns in Latin is -a.

Except, ahem, referendum is not a second-declension noun. It is a gerund, and thus has no plural as such.

It is true that gerunds have plural forms. However, because it is a gerund, referendum in Latin means “referring thing” or perhaps more idiomatically “referred matter”; thus the plural form referenda would mean “referred matters”.

However, only one matter was referred to the people of Scotland last week – thus it was a referendum. The clear context of Mr Ford’s remarks was to refer to similar instances of a single matter being referred – in which case the productive plural formation is quite correctly referendums.

If you’re going to be a pedant, it pays to know your stuff. Quod erat demonstrandum.

US must win Ryder Cup

Europe is getting just a bit cocky about its favourites tag for this week’s Ryder Cup. Here’s why a bet on the Americans may not be a bad thing.

Firstly, the “Miracle at Medinah” was something of a fluke. In fact, in 2012, the Americans won 17 more holes than the Europeans. Excluding the 18th, they actually won 25 more – nearly one per match. American wins were all 5&4, 4&2 and such like – whereas the Europeans won not a single match before the 17th. The Americans played the better golf but crumbled right at the end if it came to it.

Secondly, the Ryder Cup needs an American win. If Europe wins, that’ll be 6 of the last 7 and 8 of the last 10 (and five in a row at home). That is no longer competitive – it is almost a return to the days of the Americans beating the British Isles all the time.

2014 was the first ever year that Europeans won 3 out of the 4 majors. It would be good for golf, however, if the late honours in the year went back across the Atlantic.

Notes on the Scottish Outcome

I’d be interested in comments on these thoughts about the electoral situation in Scotland now after the referendum results. They are in no particular order and I am but an outsider, so corrections welcome!

1. Polling surveys can be better than exit polls. Postal votes accounted for the majority of the gap between “Yes” and “No”. Roughly 3.6 million votes were cast, nearly a fifth of these were by post (as postal “turnout” exceeded regular turnout, as it always does); it is possible as many as 70% of those 700,000 were for “No”, but even if that is an exaggeration the chances are that the gap within those 700,000 was at least 200,000 – more than half the final 400,000 gap. This was the fundamental peril of an exit poll, and it actually why YouGov’s final “survey” (which included postal voters) was more accurate than an exit poll would have been.

2. Scotland is now split four ways in terms of political identity. Around a quarter of the population are vehemently Scottish Nationalist, telling pollsters that this was about “freedom” and getting away from the “yoke” or even “slavery” of England; around a quarter favour Scottish independence but with no particular nationalist fervour, they merely believe it is time for Scotland to “stand on its own feet” or for Scottish decisions to be “made in Scotland”; another quarter feel Scottish predominantly or solely but are relatively content to be in a Union with other countries if it is deemed to be in their economic or social interests; a final quarter are British (though they see no clash between this and Scottish of course) and would have sense a profound loss of identity in the event of independence. The battle of course was fought in these middle two quarters; the skill of the “Yes” campaign was utterly to detach the notion of “Scottish Nationalism” on one hand from the notion of “Scottish independence” on the other, but they didn’t quite do enough in the end to ease uncertainty among those who feel Scottish and are open to independence but also have no real objection to being in a Union.

3. The SNP will be unharmed by the defeat. On the contrary, 45% is something of a victory in context. The challenge for the SNP is to keep united under new leadership (something which did not happen post-1995 in Quebec, to use that risky parallel). This will be challenging, not least because there are obvious personality clashes (as there were the last time Mr Salmond stood down) and the SNP has to meet the aspirations now both of Scottish Nationalists and of what we may now call Scottish sovereigntists (see above, i.e. those who want an independent Scotland for the sake of standing in the world as it is now or simply breaking away from a British elite, but who have no interest in Wallace or such). However, the prize for unity is a good result in 2015 for a start. Despite not doing so well in the “heartlands” at this referendum, there is no reason the SNP should expect to lose UK Parliament seats; on the other hand, the good performance in Glasgow and other urban areas means they may reasonably expect to gain seats there (especially if they can appeal to “sovereigntists”).

4. The Scottish Conservatives now have most to gain. “No” did markedly well in areas which are (or were recently) SNP/Conservative marginals and, even more relevantly, the Scottish Conservatives are now offering more powers to Scotland than anyone else except the SNP itself among the four traditionally main parties. It is a big ‘if’, but if the Conservatives can get the balance right between meeting the interests of “English votes on English issues” with “fiscal autonomy for Scotland” and lead the delivery of both, they will reinvent themselves as a distinctly Scottish party with a track record of delivery there. It is a big opportunity.

5. Gordon Brown had nothing to do with it. The fairly boring story of the polls in this referendum is that the polls were right, except that as ever they missed the 3-5 point swing to the status quo at the very end (hence my own prediction on Facebook on the morning of voting that the result would be “around 55% no”). There was no late swing in the final 24 hours beyond that which was predictable weeks beforehand. Gordon Brown’s speech was an absolute barnstormer, but it was too late and made no difference. (“The Vow” had very little to do with it either – it was a foolish, cack-handed and mischievous response to what was, frankly, one dodgy poll by a company which proved overall to be among the least accurate.)

6. The “Yes” campaign was predominantly civic and not political, and thus so must the response be. A Constitutional Convention is a good idea, both within Scotland and across the UK.

Obsession with “private” involvement in Health is hypocritical nonsense

The equipment used by the Health Service is privately produced. The medicines are privately provided. The hospitals are privately built.

That alone – in addition to the fact school materials are privately published, roads are privately constructed, key public sector recruitment is privately delivered – should tell us what an absolute nonsense our politicians’ obsession with ‘privatisation’ of our Health Service is.

Politicians, particularly in Northern Ireland (but also notably in Scotland and Sweden currently), are experts at trying to pull the wool over our eyes by taking a stand on something they can’t deliver or focusing on something they know to be irrelevant to draw our attention away from the issues they could affect but aren’t competent enough to deal with. Yet again we see them failing completely to capture the key issues around Health (and indeed Welfare) Reform, while at the same time frothing at the mouth about “privatisation” in health care.

This would indeed be a scandal if it turned out that contracted private provision were actually costing more than public provision would. Self-evidently, however, it is costing less – otherwise it wouldn’t be contracted. The public sector doesn’t produce health equipment, or provide (and research) medicines, or build hospitals (or for that matter schools or roads etc) precisely because it would be more expensive and less efficient (generally – there are exceptions, particularly the dreadful PFIs). The reason is that the private sector can research and thus deliver specific, advanced, innovative expertise well beyond that provided by the public sector because the private sector can take risks while developing and researching this expertise that the public sector can’t. There is no particular reason that health care provision would be any different. That is why many countries have it – including right-wing hotbeds like Sweden and Denmark (where even the ambulances are private).

It is noteworthy also that the concern in this “debate” is not the patient (for not once has anyone suggested patients are receiving inferior care or placed in greater danger by private provision) and far less the taxpayer (who is receiving greater value). Oh no, we hear nonsense about “the private sector is only in it for the profit” – ignoring of course the point that public sector workers receive higher salaries and pensions, one of the likely reasons that private sector provision is better value and more efficient for the taxpayer. (One correspondent even condemned the notion of trying to provide services “on the cheap” – as if that’s a bad thing!)

What is happening here is a nonsensical and hypocritical “sector wars” approach which attempts to pull the wool over our eyes to protect a system which is bureaucratic, inefficient and expensive. Laughably, this is presented as “protecting the NHS”!

In fact, to “protect the NHS” (i.e. a Health and Social Care Service free at point of access which provides quality provision without an unbearable burden on the taxpayer) it will become increasingly important to shift to less bureaucratic, more efficient, more cost-effective means of service delivery. Unlike politicians who are actually endangering the Service with their hypocritical bluster, I don’t care which sector provides that as long as it is ultimately accountable – and, if you really care about the principles of the NHS, nor should you.

Northern Ireland vastly better than 20 years ago

One correspondent joked that I should be “more definite” in my blog pieces, so here’s another one: the notion that Northern Ireland isn’t multi-fold better (and more cohesive) than it was 20 years ago is complete drivel!

In the Northern Ireland of 20 years ago, with freakish exceptions, you never saw a different coloured face and you never heard a foreign language. No one wanted to come and live here; actually, no one wanted to come and holiday here. You did see plenty of army (and other) checkpoints; you did take ages crossing the border; you did face restrictions to where you went and when. And murders were more common than road fatalities are now.

Host a major music awards ceremony, or the start of a Great Cycling Tour, or a major golf championship? The notion would have had you in hospital laughing! This is a better country.

Promote an Irish language job freely in East Antrim, or park a car with a ‘GB’ sticker in Andersonstown, stroll into a political event in the Felons Club to mention your dad was in the Army in open discussion? That would have been cause for genuine concern. This is a more cohesive country.

The Troubles. What were the Troubles? People who will soon be driving and voting actually ask that. My 11-year-old stepdaughter condemned sectarian slaughter in Iraq on the grounds that “I mean, we have Protestants and Catholics but we don’t go around doing that”. To grow up in, this is pretty much a normal country!

Find the second highest and fastest growing identity here is “Northern Irish”? You know what, this is actually a country!

I suspect those who forget the obvious, vast advances are those who were anticipating something different. The notion of “peace” had perhaps always been of a “peace” solely on our own terms. We find one which is a mushy compromise a bit disconcerting – yet it is the only one available. And it is one which has improved things so immeasurably, that sometimes we forget to try measuring.

Is it imperfect? Look around the world and tell me somewhere that isn’t.

NI Corporation Tax reduction can’t happen

I was astounded to see media reports suggesting the UK Prime Minister is about to reduce Corporation Tax in Northern Ireland. This shows a basic misunderstanding of devolution – and of politics.

The UK Government has never claimed to have the power to reduce Corporation Tax in Northern Ireland. What is being considered is the devolution of Corporation Tax to the Northern Ireland Assembly. It would be for the Northern Ireland Assembly (Executive, in practice) to reduce Corporation Tax, not the UK Government.

This is important because, of course, that couldn’t possibly currently happen. For all their talk of lower business taxes (DUP) and all-island tax harmonisation (SF), the fact is the DUP and SF have brought the Executive to the brink of collapse over immediate spending reductions (necessitated by maintaining the current broken Welfare system) and ongoing real-terms spending reductions (necessitated by the UK Government’s determination to reduce the deficit). The idea that they would double this burden by adding hundreds of millions to the “savings” already having to be made to take a punt on the long-term benefits of a Corporation Tax reduction is laughable. Reduction of Corporation Tax, even if it were devolved, would merely go into the pot with all the other issues upon which the DUP and Sinn Féin are gridlocked – from the single education authority to the Maze.

A Corporation Tax reduction can’t and won’t happen any time soon. Don’t trust anyone telling you otherwise.

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