Category Archives: Politics

Time for Cameron to step aside from EU debate

If you’re explaining, you’re losing.

One of the most astonishing moments of the Scottish independence referendum was when the three “unionist” party leaders shared a platform to explain “The Vow”. So badly had the “No” campaign been run, that it ended up doing the explaining – going into detail about what staying in the UK would mean. A less complacent and better run campaign would never have been in such a position; it would have forced the “Yes” side to do all the explaining (as Alasdair Darling had done successfully in the first debate), leaving all the uncertainty on the “Yes” side. As it was, it was left almost as unclear what a “No” vote would mean as a “Yes” vote – and a 30-point lead was reduced by two thirds come polling day.

Prime Minister David Cameron is now at risk of doing the same thing. He is spending far too much time discussing what his “reforms” are all about, at the expense of the much more fundamental debate about what is in the interests of households across the UK. The referendum question does not ask what we think of Mr Cameron’s reforms, nor (note well) what we think of Mr Cameron himself. It asks simply whether the UK should remain in or leave the European Union. That, and only that, is the issue.

Mr Cameron would be best, therefore, stepping aside now. His “reforms” are largely irrelevant. The issue is whether the UK wishes to remain part of the world’s largest free trade bloc (with the range of advantages that brings from a lower cost of living to an enhanced role on the global stage), or leave it and be sidelined (with all the uncertainties that brings from tariffs on food an electrical items to border controls and limited opportunities for R&D, science and agriculture).

As families for the first time in nearly a decade get used to wages rising in real terms but continue to be wary of global economic conditions, as we are faced with the greatest humanitarian horror on our frontier since at least the collapse of Yugoslavia, and as our free and democratic way of life is threatened by everything from Middle East terrorism to Far Eastern economic expansion, whether a few people have to wait a year or four years for in-work benefits is frankly neither here nor there.

Leaving the EU could see our holiday entitlements reduced; it could see the cost of living raised by up to £3000 per household; it could restrict our ability to seek trade, educational opportunities or even holidays in Continental Europe; it could destabilise the UK itself (with a second Scottish independence referendum and border controls re-introduced in Ireland); it could lead to American administrative, business and even military interests being transferred from the UK to a new “special relationship” with Germany, left as undoubted leader of Europe in the UK’s absence; it could see the withdrawal of CAP and PEACE funds from the UK’s periphery, enhancing the wealth gap between north and south (to the marked detriment of Northern Ireland); and it could see investment and jobs flow away from the UK, leaving our young people trapped with few opportunities (in a country which long ago lost its export base).

Proponents of “Leave” may want to deny some or all of the above. Let us hear them do so. Levels of child benefit for Romanians have nothing to do with anything – this debate is about the fundamental risk to our cost of living, job opportunities and social well-being that tearing us apart from the EU could cause. So let us have this debate, without delay.

Tagged

Belfast bus lanes and bikes are working

I was on BBC Nolan last week (on the rare occasions I could get a word in, such is the show!) to discuss a significant traffic hold-up caused by a lorry which overturned on the M2 between Yorkgate and Fortwilliam at around 3.30pm on a Friday.

As happens, the “discussion” turned into a debate about a certain DUP MP’s views on motorists’ rights, specifically on the motorists’ rights to drive 30mph rather than 20mph.

As happens also, that particular DUP MP was wrong. He generally is – after all, he does neither reason nor evidence.

In fact, Belfast’s bus lanes and bikes system have been a success – I stop short of “huge success” for a reason, but nevertheless a success. The objective was the reduce the number of cars entering (and thus polluting) the city centre, while increasing the number of people entering. Exactly that has happened – more people now enter the city centre than previously did, they just tend to do it by bus or bike.

We are well used to the counter-argument, and as ever we heard it all on and after the show. People are fed up with congestion yet somehow believe they are also punished by having to go 20mph rather than 30mph (surely if it is that congested they would never be able to get up to 30mph in the first place?); people are fed up being fined for driving in bus lanes (if they can’t see the bus lane, should they be driving at all?); people think cars are being forced out of the city centre (well yes – they pollute the place and endanger pedestrians). One person even complained that he could no longer drive to Boojum for lunch (er, the one I know is directly opposite a train halt and why on earth would you pay for parking while waiting in the queue that is constantly outside it?)…

The bus lanes have fallen short of the designation “huge success” or “complete success” because the authorities show much less willingness to fine people for infringing urban clearways, which is a much greater problem than driving in bus lanes because it both causes mass congestion and also limits passage for bicycles and buses all at once. It is arguable that they have also moved slightly too soon, with Belfast Mass Transit still a year or so away on any route. One particular rush-hour bus lane, from Stormont to Dundonald, is just crazy.

However, for all of this, the overall balance is clearly positive – for the public, not for the motorist. And that is what it is meant to be.

NI needs to tackle rampant Islamophobia

I am delighted to see not only that plans for a larger Islamic Cultural Centre have been approved, but that they drew no opposition from any party on Belfast City Council.

It remains alarming, however, how rampant Islamophobia in Northern Ireland has become. Indeed, it is so ingrained, that we have to question to very foundations of our community relations policies and programmes – because, in this regard, they appear to be having limited if any success.

The most basic example is the underlying notion that all Muslims are Daesh-sympathising terrorists. Let us even leave aside the fact that most of the students using the Centre will be from Indonesia, a country which has contributed nothing to global terrorism but suffered significantly from it (notably in Bali). We have to ask serious questions about how anyone from Northern Ireland could cast an entire people as terrorists, given our own experience! This is such a senseless accusation that we have to ask whether it is, in itself, a hate crime – for those making it are clearly incapable of living in a genuinely civilised, pluralist society.

We then have the notion that Muslims are an “alien culture”. They are in fact the culture which has contributed vastly to Western science and mathematics (the numerals we use, for a start), and which has been consistently intertwined with us. This has not always been a happy relationship, but from the Crusades to Western imperialism it is evident that the cause of any unhappiness has scarcely been one side alone! Religiously, they are not particularly different – the core messages of the Qu’ran are the same as those of the Bible.

Of course, just as Christianity has difficulty with its fundamentalists, Islam has difficulty with its. Just as peaceful, loving Christians are the victims of these fundamentalists, so are peaceful, loving Muslims. The vast majority of Christians despaired at terrorism in Northern Ireland perpetrated by self-identifying Christians, at the horror of the Holocaust carried out by what many regarded to be Europe’s most civilised Christian nation, and indeed at the two World Wars with each side led by predominantly Christian countries. Likewise the vast majority of Muslims despair at the ongoing horrors in Syria and Iraq, and feel shamed by the notion that they are carried out supposedly in the name of the religion (while in fact being carried out in marked contravention to its holy book).

Then of course we have the ludicrous notion that somehow refugees are Daesh’s route to influence in Europe. Actually, refugees (noting the distinction from economic migrants) are escaping Daesh. Daesh does not need to hide within groups of refugees risking their own lives to cross narrow strips of water. It already thrives on the radicalisation of some Muslim youths already in Europe – a radicalisation made somewhat easier if non-Muslims around them go out of their way to be overtly Islamophobic.

In some ways most alarming of all is that Northern Ireland’s (and Europe’s) Islamophobes are actually doing Daesh’s work for it. They are buying into the very “clash of civilisations” that Daesh wishes to create, because such a clash will bring more vulnerable young people into its way of thinking, all while utterly destabilising Western civilisation (not least given the number of Muslims living perfectly peacefully in the West).

The actual clash is between civilised people – who recognise that the Rule of Law must apply equally to all, that different views and values must be fairly represented in society, and that those of different political opinions and objectives have an equal right to be heard provided they do not engage in hate or violence – and uncivilised people. Daesh is made up of uncivilised people. We in Northern Ireland and the West should not be joining them in that group.

Belfast City Council should be applauded for extending the hand of friendship to its Muslin community and, particularly, for doing so in a way which integrates them (through a Cultural Centre open to all) rather than banishes them to “their own community”. It is just possible that, in this case, the politicians were ahead of the people. It is time people stopped doing the work of Daesh for it. We must recognise, in opposition to all fundamentalists, the value of an integrated, multicultural society.

Google, Apple, and tax…

Apple last year announced the creation of 1000 jobs in Cork.

This was cause for rejoicing, of course. 1000 jobs means 1000 incomes in the area – created externally but spent internally. Contributions in income tax and social insurance will help the revenue, which will also benefit from VAT paid on items and services in local retail outlets, eateries, dry cleaners and all sorts of others – whose business will also itself be further boosted, potentially creating further jobs (even if part time) and so on.

There will even be indirect effects, such as house prices rising, not least because half of the jobs will be taken by foreigners coming into the area and spending locally who otherwise would not have been there to do so.

To repeat, all of this is created by an external company, at no cost to the Irish taxpayer beyond the investment made in the IDA, who try to encourage such job creation for the quite obvious reasons noted above.

Oh, one thing: Apple does not pay any tax in Ireland.

Is that a problem?

That question maybe is not quite so easy to answer in practice as it is in principle, eh?

Indeed, the Irish Government is quite determined that Apple not pay it any tax; precisely because if it was forced to, it may not operate in Ireland at all (thus depriving it of the income tax and VAT revenue its employees deliver and promote).

As a side point, Google’s owner “Alphabet” recently overtook Apple as the world’s most valuable company. It employs 3000 people in the UK, who contribute £150 million to UK revenue in income tax alone.

How is that principle versus practice coming along?

Transfer tests remnant of appalling political failure

Transfer tests have to end. They are a crude, nasty, unfair system of determining who goes to grammar school (and which). They pigeon-hole children and force parents (in  effect) to pay for coaching. The consequence is that many children end up in the wrong school and many parents run up debts (in both time and money) that would not be necessary in a fair system.

The outcome of it all, as we saw reported in the latest OECD report, is literacy and numeracy standards lower than the average in the developed world (that they are higher than England, whose standards are the worst, is nothing to write home about), while the cream of the crop leave school able to administer but not innovate. We churn out accountants, lawyers, civil servants and all kinds of other bureaucrats – but no entrepreneurs or general wealth creators. Meanwhile teachers continue to be pressurised with all kinds of administration of their own (and constantly live under threat of discipline if they look once at the wrong pupil or even the wrong parent the wrong way). The system has its good points, but fundamentally it doesn’t work for anyone.

The transfer tests represent the ultimate political failure – one side failed to realise the harshness of it all, the other failed to analyse the problem properly in order to solve it.

Firstly, as mentioned in the past on these pages, no one asks the obvious question: what is the education system for? Even lessons grouped by subject are a fundamentally Victorian method, designed for sending people off to govern 19th century India rather than to create wealth in a globalised 21st century economy. Without agreeing what we want from the system, we are never going to agree how to get it.

Secondly, what is the cause of the transfer test? It is that grammar schools are oversubscribed. Why is this? It is because they are perceived automatically to be better than other schools. Why is this? Generally, it is because they are, given the common (academic) curriculum. So no one then asks the other obvious question: why is there a common curriculum? If pupils are genuinely not academically minded and thus not desiring of a career as a civil servant, an accountant or a university lecturer, why give them the same curriculum as those who are? Maybe there is an answer to this – but I have never seen the question posed.

Thirdly, let us face a few home truths. Parents are going to want the best for their children; not all schools are going to be the same; so there will be and should be an element of choice.

So, never mind the daft sectarian games, let us face the fact that the current system is unfair on children, parents and teachers and answer the question: how do we enable that choice to be made in everyone’s best interests?

Sweden causing harm by trying to be nice

I wrote late last year about how it is necessary to judge policies not by their intentions but by their outcomes. The (relatively) new Swedish Government is finding that out the hard way – adopting policies of no doubt noble intention which are actually causing considerable harm.

(Relatively) new Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom intervened several times in recent weeks on the topic of Israel’s “extrajudicial killings”. What she said was absolutely justified. However, it has seen her banned from Israel, and that is a serious problem – Sweden has traditionally been seen as a neutral broker in moving the Israel-Palestine process forward, but has now succeeded in removing itself from that role. This is all for the sake of a few words which, while justified, were actually never going to help move things forward. They drew and inevitable response from Israel which will result in more damage than good.

Of course, more well known is Sweden’s ludicrous immigration policy. It was no doubt a policy of fine intention for Sweden to throw its doors open to refugees from across the Middle East and North Africa. However, the outcome has been vast pressure on Sweden’s public services, huge difficulties at the borders of the European Union as people seek passage through, and most of all that refugees have arrived in the “promised land” with no realistic prospect of building a career there. News that police have been covering up prosecutions for crimes, most notably sex attacks, committed by refugees from Afghanistan, is just a subset of this tendency – it is well intentioned to try to stop news of such things spreading fear among the broader population, but in the end it makes this far worse when the news does spread.

To be very clear, this very blog will show that I have been opposed to Israel’s current government’s warmongering, and supportive of accepting more refugees than we are in Northern Ireland. However, going too far, even with good intentions, can have negative and even dangerous consequences.

Countries like Sweden, which have not always been in position to provide moral leadership but may feel justified in doing so now, need to do better than naively pursuing policies whose negative practical consequences anyone can foresee. Europe’s response to the Middle East in general is an incoherent mess, but while we have a duty to get this right morally, we also have a duty to get it right practically. To fail in the latter is to contribute to worsening the problem, not solving it.

Household debt and general wellbeing

4%.

By my reckoning, that is the answer to the question in last week’s post about Household debt.

Excluding income from lucky inheritances (and noting I’m open to correction), that is the number of households in Northern Ireland which actually have an income of £100,000 or more; and that is thus the number who can actually afford the standard “middle-class” lifestyle we are supposed to aim at.

If “success” is attaining a “standard middle-class lifestyle”, 4% of us can attain it. The vast majority even of “middle-class” people cannot. (Small wonder “rich people” always seem to come from households earning £20k more than ours, no matter what ours earns…)

The problem is the further you go up the income scale, the more you are expected to spend. If you live in a detached house you are “supposed” to have foreign holidays (probably plural), you are “supposed” drive nice cars (probably plural), and you are “supposed” to have children in grammar school (while paying the “voluntary” fees, buying all the kit, and so on).

4% can reasonably expect to do all of this on current income, without incurring debt.

An acquaintance posted a very brave article on depression just before Christmas (I will leave it up to him if he wishes to leave a link to it in the comments below). I hope I am doing him justice to pick out that broadly he noted the expectations of a grammar-school educated person in Greater Belfast – you are supposed to go to University (and probably get at least a 2.1), you are supposed to find a woman and get married, you are supposed to play club sport, and you are supposed to have children and support the standard middle-class lifestyle.

The lifestyle 4% of households can actually afford, leaving aside other grossly unfair social pressures around third-level education and marriage.

These totally unreasonable expectations of a “standard middle-class lifestyle” are leading to serious problems. They do lead to people buying things, not least around Christmas for children, which they cannot possibly afford. However, the problems are not just financial. They can lead to families pushing (and coaching) children into schools for which they are not really suited; they can lead to young people finding it impossible to cope as the rest of the world seems to attain a lifestyle which seems for them so far away; and they lead to social divisions, as people who are actually quite well up the income scale cling to what they have and indeed demand more rather than enabling any kind of wealth distribution. We should be honest enough to admit this is part of the reason we have such big lobbies for maintaining grammar schools (rather than enabling everyone to compete on the same basis); capping rates on mansions (meaning people living in houses valued at £1.2m pay only double what people living in a house valued at £200,000 pay), and keeping rates and taxes low (so we can keep the money to spend ourselves on winter holidays and new kitchens rather than have it redistributed potentially to aid those born into poorer circumstances who are left on below average incomes).

Unfortunately, this is intergenerational. Children of “middle-class” families (by which we really mean a small percentage of top earners) come to expect the latest of everything – not just the foreign holidays and so on, but the latest iPhone even pre-teens; a new car as soon as they have passed their test; and so on. This then trickles down so that all their classmates – regardless of parental income and wealth – expect the same. Remember: this is a facade! Almost nobody can actually afford this!

Many will not like reading this and will come to justify such expenses. What is wrong with wanting the best for ourselves and our children? Those on the political right would agree with the premise of that question, of course (but, by the way, those on the left should not). We should all at least admit what is going on, however.

A reader of this blog gave me the example (I trust he will forgive me if I misquote) that a test was done using the board game monopoly. Players were tested on their psychological reactions as the game progressed. There was a catch, however. One player was given £2,000 to start, and the other just £200. It is in fact impossible for the former player not to win in such circumstances [with apologies, I forget the precise figures, so let us just assume that is true]. What assessors found was that the former player began genuinely to believe he was winning on the basis of his own skill; furthermore, they in fact found that the latter player began genuinely to believe he was losing as a result of his own failures – despite the fact the outcome of the game was pre-determined by the amount given to each player at the start.

In other words, it is human instinct to believe good fortune is in fact our own brilliance; and indeed even to believe bad fortune is our own stupidity. I would posit the result is that those who have had good fortune come to believe they are entitled to the “standard middle-class lifestyle” given their own perceived brilliance; and perhaps also that those who have had bad fortune come to give up given their own perceived stupidity.

It is a facade. And it is not actually one we can afford. The impact is not just financial – it is educational and psychological. The pressure and expectation to attain a lifestyle which is in fact unaffordable even to very successful people is causing us serious harm.

Do we not all need to think again about what constitutes “success”?

 

 

Unionists making NI less British, not more

I was on Nolan again last week at short notice to discuss the decision in the House of Commons in support of a specifically English anthem (implicitly) for English sports teams. This came in the same week as the first vote taken in the House under the new “English Votes for English Laws” measures. This followed on from an article in the Newsletter about how sport continues to divide in Northern Ireland and how Northern Ireland needs its own anthem like Scotland and Wales. (I note lots of charming and persuasive comments underneath…)

This was, in other words, a week when growing English self-consciousness was further demonstrated, and the push towards at least federalism was continued – driven by the English. This has long been predictable and people in Northern Ireland, with less than 3% of the population, are deluding themselves if they think they can (or should) stop it.

An inevitable consequence of this will be a continued surge in Northern Irishness. As Nationalists seek to make us more dependent on the British public purse, and thus more distinct from the Republic of Ireland, this will only continue. It is bizarre, however, that the people in Northern Ireland most dedicated to keeping Northern Ireland distinct from the rest of the UK are Unionist politicians.

Increasingly, it seems the only purpose of any Unionist politician is to stop anything happening. Reform same-sex marriage as in the rest of the UK? No thanks, we’ll define marriage differently from everywhere else. Align blood donation policy with the rest of the UK? Not us, let’s just openly discriminate. Sort out abortion regulations? No, let’s just pretend it’s not happening. Bring NI into line with other countries of the UK in having its own anthem for its own team? Ah no, bringing flag flying policy into line with British norms was already too much for us, er, British people… we will have the British anthem but stuff British social norms, eh?

It is already frankly bizarre that Scotland and Wales have their own anthems while Northern Ireland uniquely retains the same one as England. If England switches too? Northern Ireland will simply look ridiculous, clinging on to an anthem which it well knows represents only half its population.

I am British, and frankly I’m fed up with looking like a desperate hanger-on within the UK. It is time those who claim to be British took on the full responsibilities which come with that. Federalism (at least) is coming, and it is not just economically that we need to be prepared for it.

First Minister position on Easter Rising not unreasonable

If I were the First Minister of Northern Ireland (God forbid on all our behalves!), I would attend at least some Easter Rising commemorations. I would do so because I would be seeking to represent the whole population, and for some of the population the Easter Rising is an important and indeed positive event in their historical narrative. It should be obvious that is not necessary for me to be endorsing that positivity in order to represent people in that way, in the same way that it is not necessary for all RTs to be endorsements.

However, we should also be very clear that the First Minister has every right not to attend any. For many people in Northern Ireland, even frankly some of Nationalist background, the Easter Rising is an anachronism from a century ago. Others prefer as a matter of course consistently to look forward, not back. Others regard it as a markedly negative event, and they do so for a wide variety of different and even competing reasons (from regretting the break with Britain, to regretting as a matter of principle to use of terrorism, through to regretting the inevitable division of the people of Ireland caused by the Rising and the reaction to it leading inevitably to partition). The First Minister, it is often noted, is a dual office, and the deputy First Minister will no doubt attend where relevant – so her absence does not leave her office unrepresented.

There is also something else here that, judging by a recent debate on the BBC’s Nolan radio programme, at least some Nationalists and even Progressives have not grasped about the 1998 Agreement. The document itself is very clear – the “people of Northern Ireland” may opt to be “British, Irish or both”. It is therefore clear beyond any doubt that they may opt to be exclusively Irish (i.e. not British) or indeed exclusively British (i.e. not Irish). There is also a requirement for “mutual respect”, i.e. for respecting that someone may opt not to hold a particular national affiliation in any way at all. The very reason there is a First Minister and a deputy First Minister is to cover that accepted fact of our identities.

I ran a recent course on “identities and symbolism” (and such like), at which I did a class on “Remembrance”. In advance, I asked someone from a Nationalist background (whom I know to be a supporter of the SDLP) what “Remembrance” meant to them. “Honestly? Nothing.” It may be hard for Unionists and indeed even Progressives of a broadly British background to tolerate that response, but under the Agreement (as well as the basic requirements of tolerance in a diverse society) it must be regarded as genuine.

Therefore, it may be hard for Nationalists and indeed even Progressives of a broadly Irish background to tolerate that if you asked many Unionists what they thought of the Easter Rising, you would get the precise same response. For a vast bulk of Northern Ireland’s population, it honestly means nothing at all. Again, to be clear, that is not my view, but it is not unreasonable for that opinion to be represented.

As ever, we are struggling in Northern Ireland with the basics of democracy. We have to learn – more than anywhere – to tolerate the expression of opinions with which we vehemently disagree, and to debate issues (including our history) without simply cutting off those who come at them from a different angle. The struggle with democracy is far from unique to us, of course.

What we are unique in struggling with is that we are forced to manage particularly exclusive and frankly selfish expressions of identity, as we come to terms with something simple but consequential: there is absolutely no requirement in the Agreement for “British” and “Irish” identities to overlap.

You know what? There probably should have been

Household debt a real crisis in NI

The Belfast Telegraph has not been having a great run recently in its choice of news priorities, but it did hit the mark on Friday with a piece on household debt in Northern Ireland. We need to have a much more practical discussion about this, as it may be the single biggest socio-economic problem we have.

I wish to return to the subject on this blog next week, but today I wish to establish two things – debt is a driver of poverty and we all have a role in overcoming it. I will look at these separately.

To be clear, this means debt is a driver of poverty as much if not more than the other way around. Thus it affects people of all income levels, and can do them serious harm in a number of ways (there is significant evidence, noted in the article, that in fact a higher percentage of people in work are affected by debt than those not it work).

This is an issue poorly served by quoting statistics, but we do need to look at some which have already appeared on this blog: Northern Ireland economic product per head is only 75% of the UK average; wages are only 89%; yet household spending is 96%. We need to be very clear about this means: we are not earning enough to spend the amount we wish to spend.

This is where we all have a role in overcoming it comes in. We are allowing public policy to be developed and public debate to take place towards a society in which retail and leisure constitute our “economy”, and the focus is solely on “spending”. In functioning economies, the “economy” clearly means the creation of valuable products and services, not least for export, and the focus is thus on productivity and value.

Let us put more bluntly what this means: Northern Ireland residents do not produce or contribute enough economically to enjoy the standard of living to which they believe they are entitled. The issue is not that they do not get enough to spend what they do, but that they do not earn enough to spend as they do. If they wish to maintain a standard of living at around the Western European average, they will have to produce and contribute as much to the global economy as other Western Europeans do.

This is not remotely a condemnation of people who have run up vast household debt. It is a condemnation of public policy and public debate which is predicated on presenting as an optimum a certain level of expenditure rather than a certain level of productivity or value. We are all guilty, at least up to a point – even those who are not actually in debt – for allowing policy and debate (and frankly social norms) to be skewed in this way.

For the week between now and the next post on the subject, I will leave just one question hanging (I would be grateful for any informed answers), but I would be grateful if readers let me know if they disagree with the premise (not for the first time, I may be wrong).

The standard “middle-class” lifestyle is seen to be a detached house (ideally in the suburbs); two cars on the driveway (one probably a premium brand); children in grammar school (and ideally the odd sports team); two holidays a year (probably both international); and frequent leisure (eating out etc) – this is the one presented in the car, insurance and holiday adverts, after all.

Yet I reckon to live such a life, particularly if there are no grandparents or other family to assist with the children, you need a household income of at least £100,000 or very close to it.

What percentage of Northern Ireland households have such an income?

 

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