Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Trump's views would get surprising support over here

We can all agree Donald Trump is an idiot, or as Conservative Scottish leader Ruth Davidson MSP said, quoting Prince Hal addressing Falstaff in Shakespeare's Henry IV, a 'clay-brained guts, knotty-pated fool, whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch'. But sadly, that doesn't mean his poisonous gibberish isn't gleefully welcomed by a certain, disaffected community.

So, while more than 100,000 people and counting have signed a parliamentary petition calling for Trump to be banned from entering the UK, echoing calls from MPs like Sarah Wollaston and Tulip Siddiq:

... but a substantial number of people have also signed a petition which could easily be a part of Donald Trump's policy platform:

Sadly, it seems, small-minded, impractical, illogical, racist idiocy is not reserved for absurdly coiffed, perma-tanned, fascist bullies wanting to become US president.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Salmond should do his homework on Tony Benn

Tony, Emily and Hilary
Alex Salmond, among others, has indulged in some pretty hateful unpleasantness in the wake of the vote to bomb Daesh in Syria last night, claiming that Tony Benn would be spinning in his grave at his son Hilary's support for airstrikes.

Salmond told LBC:

‘I’ll tell you this. His father, whose speech I heard in the Iraq debate all these years ago, would be birling in his grave hearing a speech in favour of a Tory prime minister wanting to take the country to war. That’s just a reality.’

Quite understandably, it has provoked Emily Benn, Tony’s granddaughter and Hilary’s niece, who has demanded the former SNP leader retracts his comments. She tweeted:

‘Mr Salmond, Your comments are both deeply offensive and simply untrue. I hope you reflect and retract them.’

And inevitably, for her efforts, Emily Benn was included in further abuse with some commentators calling the shadow foreign secretary a ‘murderer’ and ‘disgrace’ who should be expelled from Labour.

It strikes me that Alex Salmond cannot be a very good judge of character. He must have met Tony Benn on dozens of occasions and yet seems not to be aware of how immensely proud he was of his son and his progress in the Labour Party.

If Mr Salmond had wanted some hints as to what the late Mr Benn would have made of his son’s speech last night, he could have taken some direction from Tony Benn’s own words in his Diaries when the 2003 invasion of Iraq was on the agenda and the two Benns had very differing views.

For example this is an entry from Wednesday, October 17, 2002:

Turned on the seven o’clock news. Hilary was on – his first appearance as a minister, with a difficult brief, because the aid agencies have called for a pause in the bombing of Afghanistan to get the food in, and Claire Short and Blair have turned it down. Poor Hilary had to defend them, but he was very competent. He said the aid is coming in anyway, and obviously we all hope for the best.’

And as Blair was pushing Britain towards the invasion of Iraq, on March 17, 2003, Benn wrote:

‘Hilary rang me up tonight to talk about Iraq. I told him, say what you really think, that’s the right thing to do. Say what you really think to people because you’re not in the Cabinet. I was touched that he should have thought of ringing me. I think that possibly will have helped him, but he said he might ring me later tonight.’

And then on the day of the actual vote, March 18, 2003, Tony Benn’s entry said:

‘Well, at ten o’clock there was the vote. I haven’t got all the figures, they’ll all be in the records, but about 140 Labour MPs revolted, which was eighteen more than last time, and a majority of backbench MPs, but the Government won overwhelmingly. Then on the second vote against the Government resolution, the Government had a bigger majority. That means the war is authorised by the House of Commons.
‘Hilary obviously had to vote with the Government, and there you are.’

The vote on bombing Syria was nothing like as significant as the invasion of Iraq and yet Tony Benn managed to write just twelve words on his son's voting to support the conflict with no hint of fury or sense of betrayal whatsoever.

Evidence of Tony Benn's immense pride in his son was also palpable when the veteran Labour MP introduced his son to the House of Commons in 1999. As Hilary Benn took the oath of allegiance to the Queen, Tony, sitting on his usual backbench seat, wept with pride. The Telegraph reported it thus:

'as the young man's voice resonated through the Chamber, the veteran parliamentarian, who under all the brimstone is actually a grand old softie, blinked back the tears until they could no longer be kept at bay.'

The writer added that it was 'as charming a moment as we have had for some time'.

And finally, Alex Salmond could always have recollected what Tony Benn - that great anti-Fascist who never failed to 'have a purpose firm' - had called his memoirs; Dare to be a Daniel. I fear, though, the sentiments of that hymn may be lost on the SNP for dissenting voices seem not to be allowed therein. Without exception all SNP MPs voted against bombing Syria, without question or deviation.


Alex Salmond has issued a clarifying statement. Unsurprisingly, he didn't apologise at all. This is what he said:

‘ “Birling in your grave” is a well-known Scottish idiom, which means a deceased person would be enormously surprised by the current turn of events. I think it is a fair comment that Tony Benn would have been astonished to hear his son make a pro-war speech in favour of a Tory Prime Minister’s war plans. There was certainly no disrespect meant to Tony Benn, who I held on the highest regard. Not least of which because of his passionate anti-war speeches – for which I was present. The labour Party would be better employed demanding an apology from the Prime Minister for calling their own party leader a “terrorist sympathiser”.’

I'm assured by a Scottish friend his definition of 'birling' is questionable to say the least.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

A perilous path to an inevitable war

Assuming the House of Commons votes as expected and consents to allowing the RAF to bomb Islamic State (ISIL) targets in Syria, from the furious level of debate going on one would be forgiven for thinking Britain was preparing to deploy a taskforce of the size used in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

But, instead of tens of thousands of British troops being despatched to the border to gather as part of a massive international invasion force, Britain plans to add a few planes – Tornadoes and Typhoons – to the eight Tornadoes already carrying out bombing sorties on ISIL in Iraq. We are assured that this exceedingly modest force will produce real, tangible results; that we will witness the Brimstone missile – which adorns the Tornadoes but not the Typhoons – accurately decapitating ‘the snake’ with the minimum of collateral damage and those already fighting really cannot cope without our input.

It may be the case that this small increase in airpower does, indeed, make an important difference but there must certainly be a risk it simply adds yet more complications to a perilously messy battleground. And while we wait to see how the military action plays out, the political risks on all sides will remain immense.

There seems to be universal agreement that defeating ISIL cannot simply be done from the air but the motion to be voted on tomorrow rules out deploying British forces - one wonders whether this will remain a firm pledge if there were a Paris-style atrocity in London. Instead, we are, apparently, hoping to rely on 70,000 ‘moderates’ to secure land vacated by ISIL as they retreat from our bombs. There is a great deal of scepticism about this assertion and, in what was an otherwise impressive performance by David Cameron in the House of Commons, it was the closest the prime minister came to a ’45 minutes from attack’ claim. If things go wrong, if little evidence of this force emerges and terror returns to the streets of Britain, it will appear as though Cameron, like Tony Blair before him, massaged the views of the Joint Intelligence Committee to push Britain into another conflict. His authority will be dashed for good.

Moreover, it has emerged on the eve of the debate and vote Cameron has told his MPs:

'You should not be walking through the lobbies with Jeremy Corbyn and a bunch of terrorist sympathisers'

This thoughtless, dim comment blows apart Cameron's attempts to build a broad coalition for bombing ISIL in Syria. There are many differing, and honourably held, views about how to tackle this terror threat but no one taking part in the debate here feels any 'sympathy' for ISIL. It is an astonishingly offensive and foolish thing to say which not only insults vast numbers of people across the country - probably a majority - who oppose further military action but may also galvanise parliamentary opposition on all sides.

For Jeremy Corbyn, it is hard to find anything in his self-destructive handling of the situation about which to be positive. While the debate should be focused on the rights and wrongs of military involvement in Syria, what we might be able to achieve balanced against the inevitable risks of conflict, the centre of attention has been Corbyn and the furious split that has emerged within Labour. Corbyn has a strong mandate and plenty of support within the wider Labour Party as a whole but he is a terribly isolated figure within the parliamentary Labour Party. It is not hard to imagine figures such as Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn and Shadow Defence Secretary Maria Eagle vacating their positions soon.

As a permanent rebel, Corbyn was never likely to inspire much loyalty from his shadow ministers and when it is so blatantly clear his policies – on matters such as Trident and military action – contradict the opinions of so many of his close team, he was always on a hiding to nothing. While not having a collective policy on the matter of whether the country goes to war or not is a blow to Labour’s authority, offering his MPs a free vote on the matter was always the likely outcome and should have been offered from the outset. Instead we’ve been exposed to Corbyn at one moment trying to be the diplomat allowing debate within the parliamentary party while in another attempting an impression of a tough guy, insisting that he and only he would be deciding Labour policy.

There is no doubt that misguided military action in the region has helped create the stage upon which the ISIL death cult has been able to flourish and we can’t afford another incompetent intervention like Iraq and Libya. We must try and starve ISIL of funds and weapons – as Corbyn has argued – but in the short and medium term this does nothing to stop further attacks in Europe and more terror in their lands. 

It is impossible to present a good answer to this desperate situation. Bombing at any stage will cause civilian casualties, but we see civilians being murdered in horrifically perverted ways on a daily basis by ISIL regardless. Without Syria returning to a stable state the refugee crisis that has swept across the Middle East and into Europe cannot be solved. ISIL can play no role in the future; but fighting them from the air, across a land beset with chaos, seems unlikely to contribute to any sort of stability. Yet, it is at this moment that the UN has called, with remarkable unanimity, for states to join war against ISIL, wherever its war-mongers can be found.  And, whilst ISIL can ignore the border between Iraq and Syria, it makes no sense for those fighting the cult to do the same.  Furthermore, even if our military power is unlikely to make any significant difference to the outcome, our commitment to supporting our close political allies – especially France, at this time of great need – will be valued.  What is more, if we were to refuse to fight in the air over Syria, where Raqqa has been declared the capital of the ‘caliphate’, we would be handing these people a propaganda victory.

And yet, I must repeat: there is no good answer to this desperate situationI find myself in the odd position of thinking that, were I to have a vote tomorrow, I would probably side with Corbyn, despite little of what he has said influencing my thinking. I would oppose getting involved now on the basis of that dodgy ’70,000 moderates’ claim and the belief that a much more comprehensive international coalition needs to be formed to do the job properly, both during the conflict and, even more crucially, afterwards. 

The only certainty is that we cannot ignore ISIL.  This is a movement inspired by violence and it will not neglect us.  Whatever is to come, we can be pretty sure it will be terrible.  Perhaps the only logical conclusion is to acknowledge that, ultimately, we surely cannot rule out doing the job properly and using British ground forces.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Livingstone has betrayed his own 7/7 legacy

After the attacks of July 7, 2004, Ken Livingstone gave, what I thought at the time, one of the most powerful, appropriate, significant, moving, unifying, perfect, political speeches of our time. He spoke for wounded, but resilient city.

And yet, the same person last night stated that the bombers that day 'gave their lives' in protest against the invasion of Iraq after the country had been 'lied to' by Tony Blair. Ken Livingstone 'absolved' them

I knew Blair was lying at the time. So did Ken. I went to anti-war events with Ken Livingstone where Kenneth Kaunda and Jesse Jackson were guests of honour in 'London's Living Room' in City Hall. Jeremy Corbyn was at same of the events too. But despite being lied to by Tony Blair over the invasion of Iraq we didn't bomb London. But Ken Livingstone gave them an excuse they didn't have and it was despicable. 

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Corbyn is avoiding his duty by avoiding Syria

I know the focus was never likely to be on Jeremy Corbyn’s efforts at Prime Minister’s Questions, as George Osborne was unveiling his double whammy, the Autumn Statement and Spending Review all rolled into one. But, Corbyn may as well not have bothered turning up he made so little impact.

It is not that the subject matter of his questions were completely inappropriate – challenging the government’s commitment to green energy and the plight of, and services offered to, abused women – they were just the wrong subjects on the day.

The Prime Minister is preparing to present to the House of Commons proposals, which will at some point be debated, that could see British armed forces going into action against ISIL in Syria. I know that the Labour Party is hopelessly split on the issue, but it falls to the Leader of the Opposition to raise these important issues on occasions like PMQs.

And while the pressure to support such airstrikes is huge – and, speaking personally, I do think we have a responsibility to help try and fix the mess which we are undoubtedly partly to blame for creating – the shooting down of the Russian plane by a Turkish fighter is reason enough to consider pausing for a moment, just to allow for anger to subside, for events to follow their course.

Had Jeremy Corbyn made such a plea, even though David Cameron is likely to have brushed it off, the Leader of the Opposition would have been making a reasonable point, one which would have broad appeal. After all, hastily sending our military in to such a confusing, multi-layered, conflict zone, without detailed talks and agreements between as many of the significant players as possible, is the last thing we should be doing.

But no. Not a word on the matter did Jeremy Corbyn mutter. It was left to the SNP’s Angus Robertson to mention Syria. Sadly for Corbyn, avoiding the issue isn’t going to make it go away.


While I'm on the subject of the opposition, how on earth did shadow chancellor John McDonnell put himself into a position where he had to appear on television and condemn the brutality of Chairman Mao? I understand it was supposed to be a gag about Osborne flogging of British assets to a Communist government in China - an attack which has some merit - but to say it fell flat is slightly flattering.

I do quite like McDonnell's style on television; he's quite open and happy to be contrite - some may say he has a lot for which to be contrite - but he should steer clear of attempts at edgy humour.

'Affordable' housing that isn't

In what looks suspiciously like an attempt to garner a few favourable headlines before the full gruesome fine details of today's Autumn Statement are fully exposed, the Treasury last night put out a release unveiling the Chancellor's plan to turn 'Generation Rent into Generation Buy'.

George Osborne will commit to building over 400,000 new homes across England by 2020/2021, costing £6.9billion, claiming it will be the 'biggest affordable housebuilding programme since the 1970s'. To achieve this, he will say that the government will be doubling its housing budget and encouraging private developers to build affordable homes.

Of these, the government says 200,000 will be starter homes, aimed at first time buyers under the age of 40 and to be offered at a 20 per cent discount.  They would have a maximum, and apparently 'affordable', price of £250,000 outside of London and £450,000 in the capital.

It is, inevitably, just the latest repackaging of a reannouncement of a reannouncement of an announcement  on this issue. But, the starter home scheme remains beset by the same problems; largely that they remain far too expensive.

In October this year, Shelter did a study of the policy and demonstrated only higher earners are likely to benefit. It found, at 'current average lending ratios':

In England, you'd need an income of £50,000 and a deposit of £40,000

In London, you'd need an income of £77,000 and a deposit of £98,000

If you secured a 95% mortgage on a Starter Home

In England, you'd need an income of £59,000 and a deposit of almost £11,000

In London, you'd need an income of £97,000 and a deposit of almost £20,000

The study went on:

'This is out of reach for low and middle earners, especially families. Only higher earners, in the top 30%, have much of a chance, and in London only then if you're a couple with two high incomes. Even then, that assumes that you've already got a hefty deposit saved up. For families without deposits, only the top 10% of earners will stand a chance.'

It seems that aiming at these small, comparatively wealthy, groups is what passes for an 'affordable' housing policy.

The full comments from Shelter can be found here


It won't be a surprise to many, but the Greens are understandably unimpressed by Osborne's 'affordable' housing plans. In a statement released this morning, London Assembly member Darren Johnson said:

'This budget won't offer anything to most of Generation Rent in London, for whom buying a home is a bad joke, muich like the term "affordable housing". Renters need secure tenancies and rent controls so they can stay put and save a deposit, curbs on property investors who are driving up house prices, and investment in social housing for renters on low incomes.

'This review also marks the end of investment in affordable housing in inner London, where the housing crisis is worst. The chancellor has turned his back on Londoners who are overcrowded, in poverty due to housing costs, and homeless.'

I expect Green MP Caroline Lucas to make much the same arguments later today.


Another figure you won't hear from George Osborne today is a prediction from the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR). In a report published today, the organisation reckons that not only will the chancellor miss this year's deficit target of £69.5billion, he will also fail to return the UK to a surplus by 2020.

Blaming weaker than expected growth, the CEBR predicts the deficit will be more than £18billion in 2021, rather than the £11.6bn as predicted by the Office for Budget Responsibility - a black hole of £30bn. After missing most of his main economic targets during the Coalition government, is Osborne going to do it all again?

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

'52%' want UN backing for airstrikes

While the voices calling for Britain to be more involved in a military campaign against ISIL are becoming louder, it is worth noting that public opinion is divided on whether further commitment is the best course of action.

In fact, a recent poll, taken after the Paris atrocities, indicates public opinion may be more along Jeremy Corbyn's line of thinking.

According to the survey - published by Survation, which questioned 1,546 people on November 16 and November 17 – just 15 per cent of people support Britain taking unilateral action against ISIL in Syria. A further 52 per cent support a ‘more measured, multilateral response, military or otherwise' but, crucially, 'backed by a UN resolution’.

Thirteen per cent believe Britain should avoid any involvement whatsoever, a policy backed by 19% of UKIP voters.

Significantly, the poll also reports that a majority fear our current bombing campaign against ISIL in Iraq has not made this country any safer, quite the opposite in fact. Just 18 per cent of people thought military strikes against Islamic State had made the UK safer, 56 per cent think the country is less safe as a consequence.

In Prime Minister's Questions, David Cameron was asked - by the SNP's Angus Robertson, not Jeremy Corbyn - would he only commit the UK to further action against ISIL if he had the approval of the United Nations. This is Mr Cameron reply:

'It is always preferable to have a UN Security Council resolution, but if they are vetoed or threatened with a veto over and over again, my job, frankly, as Prime Minister, is not to read a Survation opinion poll but to do the right thing to keep our country safe.'

It would seem that the Prime Minister is not too concerned by the views of the UN then. 

But if he presses ahead with his plans for a Commons vote on bombing in Syria, he will still face an almighty struggle to get it through. Last time round 30 Conservatives voted against Syrian airstrikes and Jeremy Corbyn now plans to order his side to vote against any expanding military commitment without UN backing. There will be Labour rebels but can Cameron really rely on sufficient numbers being prepared to defy their leader to get it through?

(Survation's full results can be found here)

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

The Labour Party is ashamed of its own leader

‘I can’t speak for Jeremy’ was a phrase I heard several times on the Today programme as Hilary Benn appeared discussing the Labour Party’s confused position regarding terrorism, the shoot to kill policy and Syria. We now find the opposition in such an absurd position that the Shadow Foreign Secretary - a thoughtful, rather than a bellicose, man - is not only disagreeing with his leader but also not offering him much of a defence.

Of course, in many ways, Jeremy Corbyn is right. It would be preferable for characters such as Mohammed ‘Jihadi John’ Emwazi to be brought before a court of law and be tried, found guilty and appropriately sentenced for his brutal murders. Similarly, it would be better if we were able to diffuse potential terror attacks far in advance and not be forced to rely on a shoot-to-kill policy; this is, after all, a last ditch defence and can go wrong – just think of poor Jean-Charles de Menezes.

Corbyn's view on the shoot-to-kill policy

But, ultimately, neither of these options is currently credible.

Corbyn is also right that to a certain extent the mistakes of the West have contributed to this terrible situation. We are still clearly feeling the consequences of the invasion of Iraq and it is perfectly easy to present an argument that the West’s actions have caused instability and terror over decades in places like Iran, Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Yemen. But, relying on simply blaming the errors of the West as the basis for a foreign policy is wholly inadequate and not sustainable.

Ultimate responsibility for the onslaught in Paris, the recent bombing of the Russian plane after it left Sharm el-Sheikh, and other similar attacks, lies with the perpetrators and no one else. The horrific actions by ISIL within the land they control cannot be blamed on the actions of the West. No one but ISIL alone can be held responsible for its prehistoric rule of terror, the beheadings, the mass executions, the stonings, the sexual exploitation, the beatings.

There is, for apparently good reason, widespread acceptance that it isn't possible to sit down at a table with these people and negotiate; there will be no agreement or peace and reconciliation commission. We are faced with the difficulty that the jihadis, high on blood lust and power, regard it as a privilege to be killed. This disconcertingly alien doctrine makes it horrendously difficult to know how to obstruct them. Ironically, it would seem that we need to give them the satisfaction of achieving martyrdom; the only way to defeat them must be by military means; it will, of course, be far more difficult, but all the more important, to defeat their ideas.

Instead of grappling with these realities, however, Corbyn is sticking with pacifist principles, insisting that there needs to be a peaceful solution to Syria. It goes without saying that not many would argue about the desirability of following such a path. If the situation were not so serious, there would be something almost admirable about Corbyn's insistence on remaining loyal to his ideals in the face of such horror. After all, there were many admirable men who were conscientious objectors in the last world war, usually motivated by a profound religious belief, who refused to fight or kill but still served society with great heroism. They did not, however, succeed as leaders of a major political party. The cold reality is that, when faced with complex, difficult moral crises, leading politicians require their ideals to be malleable, infused with a streak of Machiavellian realism.

So while Corbyn was comfortable as a principled, anti-war critic on Labour’s backbenches, as leader he now shies away from formulating policy knowing that the majority of the parliamentary Labour Party disagrees with him. 

Cameron’s strategy towards Syria may be incoherent and relies on ignoring the refugee crisis currently in Europe, but at least there is a semblance of a strategy emerging. There is a recognition that only massive international co-operation will tackle ISIL. 

Corbyn, meanwhile, plans to instruct Labour MPs to vote against extending British bombing in Syria - surely such an issue should be a matter of conscience - and yet has failed to offer a viable alternative. Shadow ministers know they cannot keep appearing in the news, flatly contradicting their leader, and, simultaneously, be a credible opposition. His parliamentary party know this and are furious and embarrassed.

I’m left wondering what Corbyn’s attitude would be towards situations like the genocide in Rwanda or the Bosnian War; under what circumstances would Jeremy Corbyn support military intervention? So far, it’s a question he refuses to answer and it won't go away.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

What sort of NHS do we want?

It is quite a painful thought to realise that some think that by using IVF through the NHS one may have deprived someone of vital life-saving cancer drugs. Yet, that is what I was left thinking after listening to a debate on the radio the other day: it confirmed what many already suspected - access to IVF services is increasingly something of a postcode lottery across the country as the NHS has continually to tighten its belt as it struggles to stay vaguely solvent.

The programme brought memories flooding back from several years ago when my wife and I went through two IVF cycles through the NHS. Oddly enough, I find I struggle to remember many precise details as the whole process lasted so many years and the stress was so tiring, putting it out of my mind has broadly seemed the best thing to do.

Inevitably, we began with the many years of trying and failing to have a baby, then there were the exploratory tests, there was an operation, possibly two, there was a useless GP who lost our notes setting the whole procedure back months, and by doing so reducing our chances of success – and even of being accepted as patients – as we got steadily older and closer to very inflexible deadlines.

Once we finally were accepted, after a doctor was a little generous with my wife’s (lack of) weight, the drugs started, then the evening injections and the final, vital, trigger injection. The latter has to be given with such precision, the first time we did it we had to find a quiet room in the middle of a wedding reception to administer it. Then a specimen has be provided, the specialists do their wizardry. And then there is the waiting to see if it worked.

And, the first time, it didn’t. What next?

Apart from the inevitable huge disappointment, I remember going to our next appointment at the unit not entirely clear what we could do next; it’s possible that is just my recollection. But, suffice it to say, we started the drugs again, and another trigger injection – this time the specified time was in the middle of the night. To my horror, I managed to bend the needle but hoped I had administered the required quantity of the drug. Another specimen, more wizardry, then more waiting.

This time, it worked, bent needle or not. And our daughter has just turned 3.

Some describe this treatment as a ‘luxury’ but it certainly didn’t feel like it at the time. According to NICE guidelines, clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) should offer three cycles of IVF to all women of 39 or under. When we embarked upon this path, the age limit in our area was 35 and only two cycles were offered; it is certainly not the worst. The guidelines are woefully ignored across the country with only 18 per cent of CCGs offering the full service. What treatment one gets is entirely reliant on where one lives. It’s a hopeless situation which the government is studiously ignoring; its budgeting means that such treatments are a secondary concern.

According the OECD, Britain still spends less - in some cases significantly so - on health per capita than many of our European neighbours, such as France, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark. We spend less per capita than Canada and Australia (and the US, though its health service is something of a basketcase).

It is, therefore, hardly surprising that the OECD finds that, as a consequence of pretty mediocre spending, by the standards of developed Western nations, we currently have a mediocre health service. Their new report finds that we lag behind countries in key areas such as the survival from cervical, breast and bowel cancer. We need 75,000 more doctors and nurses to match the standards of our peer nations (a cause hardly likely to be helped by our government's anti-immigration rhetoric).

In these circumstances, and ignoring the fact that infertility is a recognised medical condition, I can understand how someone might think that a trust spending £6,000 trying to assist a couple have a child might reduce funds available for other therapies. We have learned so much about the importance of speed, when treating cancer, for example, that our reaction to demands for swift medical intervention, is urgent and visceral. And politicians, to extent, can make moves to answer such demands. At the same time, however, it is almost impossible to quantify the long term costs accrued due to stress, depression from infertility, and consequent long term savings from successful IVF treatment. In ways similar to aspects of mental health, it is simply easier to ignore.

Ultimately, it is a matter of ambition: It is about what sort of NHS we want - and are willing to pay for. Should the service be one which is constantly scrimping and saving, where one treatment is competing with another and there is a debate about which is apparently more 'justifiable’? Do we want a health service which doesn't aspire to be the best but instead is stuck on a permanent downward spiral? Politicians can talk about delivering the best health service in the world but this needs backing with hard cash. Putting it simply, this should not be a question of either cancer treatment or IVF. We need, and should demand, both. 

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

While Labour shouts, the real battle is in the Tory Party

Somewhat unfortunately I found myself in an argument with an ‘ultra-leftie’ Corbyn fan the other night, one who clearly hadn’t got the memo about a kinder politics from his Dear Leader. He thought it was reasonable to illustrate a graphic explaining ‘How Tory Welfare Reforms Work’ with an image of a Swastika, claiming it was merely ‘a diagram’. When I suggested this was a fairly offensive comparison to make, I was taken to task. The implication was that if anyone implied that this 'diagram' might be unfairly tainting the Conservative Party with Nazism, then it was the viewer's - in this case, my - fault. Clearly, he had not managed to grasp the power of semiotics. 

For merely questioning his taste I was accused of being a Tory. And this is where the Labour Party now find themselves; unreasonable people railing against the world, convinced their own view is the one true view, accusing those who might question them of apostasy. The vast majority on the left, the thoughtful, kind, principled but pragmatic, have been rendered dumb by the earthquake that has occurred beneath their feet. Until Corbyn and his shadow cabinet emerge with a package of coherent policies, the official Labour Party is something of an irrelevance, failing to provide a decent opposition.

Meanwhile, in the real world, George Osborne has been busy donning a cloak of moderate sensibilities and set about stealing some of Labour’s best policies and there is barely a whimper of protest – or indeed claims of ownership – from Jeremy Corbyn and his shadow cabinet. Lord Adonis, whose talent for ideas and getting things done was such that he was close to Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, has been left flailing in the wind and, given the opportunity to resurrect his idea of an infrastructure commission, leads it with George Osborne’s blessing. For a party serious about forming the next government, losing the talents of Lord Adonis is little short of criminal.

Other ideas Osborne has pinched or developed include the devolution of business rates, grand-parental leave, the abolition of non-dom status and the national ‘living wage’. And remember the city academies idea – chaotically attacked by the last shadow Labour cabinet – was the brainchild of a certain chap called Andrew Adonis when he was a part of a Labour government.

George Osborne’s pitch is part of the real battle currently going on in British politics; who will succeed David Cameron. The PM has reiterated this week his intention to last the full five years of his second term, but, as I have written before, this simply isn’t practical or honest. If Cameron isn’t to stand for election again – and there is time for him to find a way to renege on this pledge – he has to leave office giving his successor sufficient time to outline his or her vision for the country before the 2020 general election.

The Shadow Chancellor, who, inevitably as he is the one ordering ‘austerity’ across the country, has a reputation of being the hard man of the government, the hatchet man. To counter this, he has, without any shame, turned into a magpie and is happily stealing good ideas from wherever he can find them, trying to present himself as the possesor of the common ground, a man not attached to a particular political dogma and above the day-to-day political fray. For now, until when or if there is an economic downturn, he remains the Tory Party’s lucky chancellor and a supreme tactician.

Theresa May, on the other hand, has, with one speech, jeopardised her chances of succeeding in her campaign to become next leader. Ignoring the government’s own statistics (see this excellent James Kirkup piece here), she painted a fearful picture of a Britain being held back and divided by immigration, warning about how we must protect our borders from the hordes outside and, by doing this, remain strong, a ‘beacon of hope’. It’s not a million miles away from the vision created in the film of Children of Men. 

The motives for her speech are curious. This vision might appeal to some grass roots Tories, timid and fretful of the outside world, comfortable in their shires, but it's a weak pitch for leadership. The government has failed to hit its own targets at reducing immigration. Logically, the only way to get net migration to the tens of thousands is to bar European Union migrants and the only way of achieving this is to pull out of the EU to end the freedom of movement. (Her refusal to even acknowledge the migration crisis affecting Europe is a discussion for another day).

Unsurprisingly, this has prompted a ferocious backlash from business groups who find themselves on the same side as refugee groups. Simon Walker, the Director General of the Institute of Directors, said:

‘We are astonished by the irresponsible rhetoric and pandering to anti-immigration sentiment from the Home Secretary. It is yet another example of the Home Secretary turning away the world’s best and brightest, putting internal party politics ahead of the country and helping our competitor economies instead of our own.

‘The myth of the job stealing immigrant is nonsense. Immigrants do not steal jobs, they help fill vital skill shortages and, in doing so, create demand and more jobs. If they did steal jobs we wouldn’t have the record levels of employment we currently do.’

With such a response from what is supposed to be part of their core constituency, May’s speech and stance is very hard for any other minister to defend though some will foolishly try. A rattled Prime Minister later gave it a go on the BBC.

I have never much rated Theresa May’s chances to succeed Cameron; a long-serving Home Secretary yes, but she gives the impression of being too hard and too unsympathetic. She first warned of the Tories being seen by too many as the 'nasty' party and yet, here she is the one reviving the image. Combined with simply being factually wrong on the impact of immigration and annoying large swathes of business, I think her chances of becoming leader have slumped further.

The other much-touted contender, Boris Johnson, didn’t hurt his chances at the Conservative Party conference. He is the conference darling, his speech was packed with jokes and he presented a vividly more humane Tory alternative. But he is way behind Osborne at the moment, to such an extent the Chancellor can happily say he would be ‘very surprised’ if Boris didn’t make it to the top team under Cameron. He didn’t add ‘if he’s a good little boy’ but was probably thinking it.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Bye then Illtyd

I don't really know what to say about Illtyd, who died last week at the age of 84, as I know anything I write will fail to do him justice. As with all good teachers, Illtyd would say, with his soft, lilting, lyrical Merthyr tones - which could click seamlessly into hilarious, poetic, fluent and startling invective - you can always aim higher.

He was a man of immense and huge kindness; generous with his mind and money. He was an idiosyncratic  writer, his words threaded with wit and often irascible venom, and he was blessed with an infectious humour which made his wealth of stories - frequently about Labour politicians doing something in their youth that they shouldn't - sparkle.

Several times a week, he would limp his way into the Camden New Journal offices where I used to work, clutching books marked with the yellow paper - paper I have never seen anyone else use - upon which he wrote his columns and book and theatre reviews. Again, as with all good teachers I have known, his handwriting was appalling; knowing this, he would sit down and patiently dictate his words to one of the several young hacks there. It could be tricky, particularly if it was after lunch; his voice could get fainter and fainter and you'd be grasping to catch it, like the song of the lark as it soars higher and higher.

He was a nurturer. He wanted to help us all, to nudge us to success. He was always interested in our lives, concerned about our families. It was lovely that he made the time to come to my wedding more than ten years ago. His words of advice were affectionate and well-considered; though he wasn't shy of telling anyone that he or she was being an idiot if the moment required.

Illtyd, with a newly trimmed beard, at our wedding, with a long haired me
Often, after delivering his lines to whatever young Turk he encountered in the office, Illtyd and I would slink off to a nearby pub where we'd discuss the politics of the day; he had very little time for Tony Blair's New Labour and left the party over the invasion of Iraq. He also had a deep mine of stories from the Labour Party; older figures such as Barbara Castle, Marcia Falkender and Ken Livingstone would mingle with Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson.

I remember once he was opening a Camden New Journal jobs fair and, bizarrely, there was a stall representing the security services. Illtyd opened the fair in typically respectful fashion before turning with unveiled fury on the unfortunate officers at this stall, demanding they show him his MI5 security file. I don't think they returned to the fair in subsequent years.

Illtyd at the Gay Hussar, by Martin Rowson
Illtyd loved the conspiratorial nature of his tales. Similarly, he loved the gossipy atmosphere of the Gay Hussar, where he could take his huge range of friends, from politics, journalism and acting, for lunch. During a meal he could wave and greet old friends as well as scowl, with a menacing glint in his eye, at old foes, while regaling those present at his table with his stories. And, yes, I have never known a better swearer. Maybe there is something about the Welsh timbre which can enable the foulest language to sing like poetry. It was a naughty delight to hear Illtyd suddenly crackle with explicit glee, condemning some dull New Labour apparatchik in the most unrepeatable manner.

These lunches could take a while. I believe my then editor did wonder where I'd gone on those Friday afternoons. I remember one occasion when we were dining on the first floor of the Greek Street restaurant; at 5pm, I was still getting the brandy from behind the bar to top up our glasses. 

The great love of his life was Christopher Downes, the theatre dresser and Camden New Journal theatre reviewer. Together they ran what ran what Peter Mandelson called the 'trattoria'. Talking after his death in 2003, Mr Mandelson told me:

'I remember spending Saturday afternoons in the pub with them and their friends, and we would go back to Lea House (Illtyd and Chris's house), which I used to call 'the trattoria', and Chris would make and assortment of tasty and hearty dishes.' 

Homosexuality was illegal for some of the time they were together. In an interview for BBC Wales in 2008, his nephew, actor Richard Harrington, asked how the relationship had been possible, especially considering Illtyd held public office:

'We did it openly. There were lots of men and women like us. We didn't advertise, putting a sign up - we just got on with our lives.'

With Chris, they mixed with an altogether more glamorous crowd than mere politicians; thus, their encounters with Hollywood stars would be liberally sprinkled in their tales. Illtyd and Chris were together for over 50 years and Illtyd felt his loss deeply.

The day after Illtyd's death came news of the death of Denis Healey, a huge Labour figure. Illtyd was denied a chance to be an MP and a member of the House of Lords by machinist politicians who feared his variety and intellect, and Healey, likewise, could be said to have missed out on the top job for similar reasons. But both were part of a generation of post-war Labour politicians whose wider personal experiences, knowledge of a genuine ideological divide, informed their politics. Compared to the politicians of today, whose career trajectories are frequently dull and confined within the walls of Whitehall, this generation had 'hinterland' and knew personally of the real struggles people have to contend with in their daily lives

During one afternoon at the Gay Hussar with Illtyd, I recorded our conversation, many of his stories and his reflections on New Labour; it really is about time I dug up the recording and transcribed it.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Boris' Tour de France 'no brainer'

Fans of Boris Johnson like to claim that behind that bumbling, buffoonish, Bertie Wooster-esque, fa├žade there is a clever, conscientious politician.

But it has become increasingly hard to be convinced by this argument and with his rejection of London hosting the Grand Depart of the Tour de France, he has acted with staggering unprofessionalism and short-sightedness, damaging any prospect of the race returning to Britain for many years to come.

London went through the whole process of bidding for this stage of the Tour triumphing over places such as Edinburgh, Manchester and cities in Germany. And then, the day before contracts were due to be signed, Transport for London pulled out claiming that it wouldn’t provide value for money.
Boris Johnson has now said pulling out was his call, describing it as a ‘no-brainer’.

‘I had to take a very tough decision, obviously painful. In an ideal world, you know me, my policy is to have your cake and eat it. The difficulty was we had to make a choice. £35million is an awful lot to spend on a one off when you could put that money in to long term projects. What people really want is safer cycling lanes.’

It’s certainly true that people want safe cycle lanes – something which Boris himself has been pretty reluctant to invest in until recently – but if it was such a ‘no-brainer’ why on earth wasn’t this realised at an earlier stage? What is the point of going through the whole charade of bidding for such a prestigious event when the mayor can so glibly withdraw at the last minute? 

TfL claim that the process didn't cost a penny as it was all done internally; perhaps true, but all the work done on the bid by members of staff has been completely wasted. Whatever else has gone on, there has been a massive failure of process at TfL and within the mayor’s office.

And we must look at this claim that it wouldn’t have proved to be value for money. Spending £35m on anything is certainly a hefty bill but Yorkshire, which hosted the opening stage last year, estimates it has generated £150m worth of wider benefits. There, the event attracted 4.8m spectators; it is hard to imagine it wouldn’t have attracted an even bigger crowd if the peloton had been wheeling their way through London's highways and byways next year.

In TfL’s defence, a spending review is looming and it does face cuts but Boris isn’t exactly averse to wasting money. Christian Wolmar, the transport journalist who recently tried to become Labour’s prospective candidate at the next mayoral election, put together a good little article looking at the money wasted by Boris during his tenure.

Amongst the highlights were:

£300million spent on the New Bus for London, a poorly conceived, terribly designed monster that will lumber around our streets for the next few years. Boris has also spent £10m pursuing his fantasy of an estuary airport, something which was never likely to happen in the first place

£24m on a cable car across the Thames that promised to be a great way for commuters to travel but in fact carries precisely zero commuters. Boris pledged no public money to this, but of course TfL has contributed.

Boris pursued another vanity project to rebuild the Crystal Palace; it involved handing much of a public park over to a Chinese business, apparently ignoring the conventional tendering process and hoping locals would simply be wowed. Unsurprisingly, Bromley Council ultimately walked away after fruitless talks – wasting £150,000 in the process – and Crystal Palace Park was in the sadly all too familiar position of missing out of millions of pounds from the Heritage Lottery Funding as a consequence of Boris’ misadventure.

TfL has also pledged £30m to build the Thames Garden Bridge (along with another £30m from the government) despite promises, again, that public money would not be used. Again, the whole project appears not to have gone through proper tendering processes.

In comparison to the above, therefore, spending £35m, with the likelihood of greater, and wider, benefits down the line, doesn’t seem such a bad idea.

But what makes the decision all the more inexplicable is that one of Boris’ genuine achievements as mayor has been his ability to sell London around the world. Yet this tangible success – one which has the capacity to provide a legacy for the future – has been foolishly set back by cancelling the event in such a last minute, casual fashion.

It is clear that the Tour de France owners, Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), are angry at the withdrawal – the bidding process would undoubtedly have cost them time, money and effort – and they are hardly likely to look at future bids from London, or elsewhere in the UK, with much sympathy. And other sporting organisations too will look at London with sceptical eyes, wondering whether it’s worth dealing with the city if there is a chance it might pull out at the last minute.

Boris’ legacy has been looking flimsy for some time but a future major will not thank him for this genuine damage to London’s reputation as a city which can stage major international events with competence, confidence, success and flair.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Until Syria is rebuilt, what choice is left?

The ultimate goal, as Europe deals with the migration crisis that is suddenly sweeping the continent, must be to restore peace in Syria and help make it a country to which people feel safe enough to return.

Tragically, this country, which was so recently functional, civilised and well developed – albeit one ruled by an hereditary dictator – has disintegrated. Both ISIL and President Bashar Al-Assad are unleashing unspeakable terrors upon the people, four million of whom have fled the country and a further 10million are displaced within its borders.

And, as these refugees flee, into Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and beyond, they join other refugees fleeing other places of conflict in Libya, Eritrea and South Sudan, as well as economic migrants; a massive movement of people mostly desperate for, as Stella Creasy said in the emergency debate yesterday, ‘the chance to stay alive’.

This is the situation that David Cameron and Europe face. While Angela Merkel and others have started welcoming refugees for humanitarian and other more prosaic reasons, it’s hard not to conclude that the prime minister’s response has been directed by a contradictory mess of politics.

It can only be a good thing that Cameron’s government wants to take in 20,000 vulnerable people who have fled to refugee camps from Syria by 2020, but at 4,000 a year this is a pitifully small number, especially compared with Germany which is contemplating 800,000 migrants this year and a further 500,000 in subsequent years. Germany welcomed 18,000 refugees last weekend alone.

There seems little doubt that the prime minister and his government were caught flat-footed by the outpouring of anger and grief triggered by the decision of several newspapers – including my own – to publish the photograph of the dead Aylan Kurdi on their front pages; yet, hopes that the 20,000 pledge would be enough to see off his critics already seem misplaced. And Cameron’s stance does nothing to deal with the situation facing Europe now.

In many ways, the prime minister is in an unenviable position. On the one hand, he doesn’t want to be seen to be doing anything which might smack of co-operation with our European partners in case it provides any ammunition for those in his own party who want to leave the European Union - many of whom are also prominent campaigners against high immigration. On the other, Mr Cameron will be only too well aware that his EU partners are urging Britain to do more to alleviate the refugee disaster within Europe’s borders and he must fear that his determination to exclude this country from any shared willingness to offer a safe harbour to refugees threatens the progress of any future EU negotiations.

But, as the circumstances change, our response must change. Cameron is right when he says a solution cannot simply be achieved by taking in more refugees. And he is clearly aware that any solution has to be multi-faceted. 

The prime minister may feel sore about his failure in the last parliament to command support for attacking Assad after he used chemical weapons in the conflict in Syria. But, without parliamentary approval, we now learn that action has been taken in Syria anyway, with a fatal drone strike on British terrorists there. International co-operation is essential and enlarged military action of one sort or another – against both Assad and ISIL – now seems increasingly inevitable.

But simultaneously, Cameron might be better to try and rise above the messy political complexities, take a lead in parliament, and respond to the imperative need for human kindness closer to home now.

Those who argue against allowing more refugees into the country, have a favourite question to which they often return, 'well, how many should we take?’ It is an impossible question to answer. The British government has done much to support refugees in the Middle East, spending more there than any other European country. But the crisis has developed and moved. Ignoring the situation in Europe is not part of a solution.

Britain cannot keep on claiming to be an honourable place of refuge on account of the Huguenots who flocked here in the 16th and 17th centuries . It cannot even do that on account of the Kenyan Asians who arrived here from the late 1960s. As Robert Peston has noted, Germany’s motivation to taking so many migrants is not wholly humanitarian; their population is ageing and falling, a boost in younger workers is just what Germany needs.

Similarly, we need to take heart from the very significant benefits this country has accrued from our own, historic refugee influxes and recognise that being properly generous, now, could bring its own reward in the future. But ultimately, the demand to act, to work with our European counterparts to tackle this wretched situation on our doorstep, is a simple one; the humanitarian need is here and now.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Paying 0.003 pence a day too much towards failed asylum seekers

Failed asylum seekers have cost the country a whopping £73million in the last year; that means every person has paid the equivalent of about £1.14 a year to support these illegal spongers. Across the year, that’s just over a pocket bursting 0.003 pence a day for each of us.

The £73m figure has been released by the Home Office - and it is the first time it has been released -  to coincide with the government’s ‘consultation’ on its plans to axe benefits for those who remain in the country after their application to remain has been refused.

In the last year, this support was provided to just over 15,000 asylum seekers, and their dependents, who had their application refused, up from about 9,000 the year before.

Of that sum, £28million goes towards about 4,900 failed asylum seekers who 'would otherwise be destitute' and if they meet certain other conditions, such as a medical reason for not being able to travel.

A further £45million supported about 2,900 families who, under the current legislation, continue to receive help if they have a dependent child.

Currently, a migrant can receive a £36 weekly allowance, as well as accommodation, the moment they claim asylum in the UK and it continues for thousands after an application has failed.

Apparently, according to the government, this level of generosity is 'wrong in principle and sends entirely the wrong message to those migrants who do not require our protection but who may seek to come to or remain in the UK in an attempt to benefit from the support arrangements we have put in place for those who need our protection'.

Instead, the government wants to stop support for those who don't leave Britain after their claim is rejected, unless there is a 'genuine obstacle' preventing them from returning to their home country. Safeguards will remain for children, the government insists, but for families their benefits would cease after a grace period of 28 days.

The government believes the current system 'creates an incentive to remain in the UK unlawfully'.

As the migrant crisis continues, the government is doing all it can not to mention the word refugee; it appears to hope that no one will cotton on to the fact that many of those trying to cross the Mediterranean and the Channel, are fleeing war torn places like Syria, Libya, Eritrea, Somalia, Afghanistan and may well have genuine reasons for seeking refuge. Instead, the implication is that many of these might be making such a perilous journey for this egregious £36 a week. 

Obviously, it is right that those who fail to secure asylum return to their point of origin, if possible, but for the sake of 0.003p each a day, is it really a mark of a humane society to deny pitiful amounts of support for families and those threatened with destitution?

And, if failed asylum seekers are not deported - which would not be an enormous surprise judging from the country's long experience of our inept border services - how would they be supported? 

This effort to make 'savings' might not only be counterproductive and unpleasant, it is yet another example of the government fiddling and grasping for easy headlines rather than trying to take effective action.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Calais situation shouldn't be a surprise; it's a symptom

There has been no attempt by the government to tackle the on going migration crisis we are witnessing on our screens on a nightly basis. Meetings are held, pitifully small amounts of money are proffered with embarrassing amounts of pride, unpleasant fences grow higher and the situation continues without being disturbed.

The current chaos in Calais is a symptom of the British government, and its European counterparts, failing to cooperate and formulate a coherent policy to deal with the world's greatest migrant crisis since the Second World War.

We are not witnessing clamouring masses desperate to access the UK - or, in more significant numbers, Germany and Sweden - because of our generous benefits system, the promise of a house, or jobs, or vague security; the primary reason behind this mass movement of people is war.

And European governments hope we just won't notice.

For vast numbers of these migrants are refugees fleeing violence in Syria, Libya, Sudan, Somalia; Theresa May may talk of returning people to their home countries, but to those mentioned above we simply can't. The British government are trying to avoid their international responsibilities and ignore the refugee situation; taking responsibility, it seems, is too much of political cost.

There is no legal means for these refugees to access any possible host country in Europe currently. Trying to storm the Eurotunnel is little of a challenge when compared with the horrors so many have endured.

Greece, Spain and Italy are bearing the greatest burden. And is it any surprise that France might be dealing with the situation in Calais so ineptly in the vague hope that the British government might share some of the burden.

And it's not as though several British governments do not bear some responsibility for the anarchy we are currently seeing in the Middle East and North Africa.

I'm aware I am sounding like a stuck record; I've said the same before about the government's shameful, pathetic, cowardly, inept and short-term politicking on this issue  This abject derogation of duty, however, makes me continually furious so it can't be said enough.

We should all be ashamed by their actions.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Osborne apes Brown at his barnstorming best

For the best part of ten years, while he was at the Treasury, Gordon Brown dominated the House of Commons and every year he blunderbussed his Budget at an expectant nation.

Growth figures were bombastically rattled through, his hubristic ‘end of boom and bust’ slogan was wheeled out to the delight of his Labour backbenchers, rabbits were theatrically pulled from top hats, elephant traps were carefully laid and the Leader of the Opposition was invariably left on a tricky wicket, clutching a bat broken by the opposing team’s vice-captain.

And the youthful George Osborne clearly watched these performances with a mixture of horror and awe; he may not have agreed with Brown’s policies, but he clearly enjoyed the performance as the former member for Kirkcaldy provides Osborne with his template.

Osborne has been a lucky chancellor. During the coalition government, the economy came mightily close to a double and triple dip recession and growth was painfully stagnant. He missed his own deficit targets time and time again and few but the wealthiest could actually feel the benefits of whatever growth there was.

But, he held his nerve and has been rewarded. The economy is growing at a healthy rate, jobs are being created – albeit too many at too low a wage – and yesterday (July 8) he was able to deliver the first Conservative-only budget since Kenneth Clarke rose up on his hind quarters in November 1996.

Osborne has moved on since his disastrous pasty tax Budget and this was his cleverest yet. While there were the predictable crowd pleasers like the inheritance tax changes, reduction of the benefits cap, defence spending pledges and promising a surplus by 2019/2020, he made quite a bold pitch for the political centre ground.

Osborne’s Living Wage, while not actually at the level of the living wage, was a spectacular rabbit to pluck from the hat; such a whopper it was almost a hare. For those on the minimum wage, aged 25 or over, it means their pay will jump by 70p an hour – to a not insignificant £7.20 – from April and would reach £9-an-hour by 2020. Before the General Election, Labour only pledged that the minimum wage would rise to £8 over the course of this parliament; no wonder George Osborne was being cheered to the rafters by his backbenchers.

Increasing the tax free personal allowance, promising a rise in NHS spending and abolishing non-dom status for people born in Britain to parents domiciled here, could also have come from any party.

Such was the nature of his bravura performance, one would be forgiven for thinking all was fine and dandy with the economy. The clouds over China and the chaos engulfing Greece seemed a long way away and the still fragile nature of the economy could almost be forgotten. Just weeks ago, one Tory MP told me he feared the economy had already reached the crest of the wave now and worried about the next few years, especially considering the country’s enormous debt. But today, these concerns were put to one side.

Yes, while giving with one hand, Osborne was taking with another, like every chancellor before him. Those relying on tax credits will feel the pinch particularly, especially those under 25 years-old; now is not a good time to be young. But again, Labour will struggle to fight against tax credit changes and will not reverse them if and when they get the opportunity.

Unlike Gordon Brown, Osborne is not a Son of the Manse; he isn’t naturally infused with the oratorical skills and moral authority of a church minister. But, with his stature enhanced by the illustrious nature of his office, few are able to command the House of Commons as he does.

Harriet Harman responded for Labour; famously acknowledged as the hardest job of the year for the Leader of the Opposition. She did her best, but one thing she did get absolutely spot on was her acknowledgement that this Budget was as much about Osborne’s ambition to succeed David Cameron as it was the economy. And it is impossible to conceive Boris Johnson delivering as wily and assured package as George Osborne did today. Once again, the likely successor to our current prime minister is his next door neighbour.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Greece versus the prevailing economic hegemony

For ten minutes, over fresh drop scones and orange juice, I almost managed to train my two-year-old daughter to say ‘the Greek vote is counter to the prevailing economic hegemony’. What a great party trick that would be.

Trouble is, she struggled to pronounce ‘economic hegemony’ with any great fluency so it’s a game to be saved for another day.

In Greece, meanwhile, Alexis Tsipras’ left-wing administration has been dealt a remarkable democratic boost following yesterday’s referendum, but it remains to be seen whether this will ultimately help to deal with the ‘prevailing economic hegemony’ with which it is battling. And such is the parlous state of the country’s banks, it has very little time to find a deal.

Yes, there are democratic deficiencies in the whole referendum process; as Peter Kellner of YouGov observes. For such a vote to have true democratic accountability  it needs, he argues to follow these principles:

It is clear the Syriza government in Greece breached many of these; but such was the scale of the victory, Tsipras and his administration have received a huge mandate for their confrontational stance against the Eurozone. As of today (July 6) five parties have rallied behind the prime minister's position, including opposition parties, forming an impressive domestic coalition. Those querying the legality of the vote, such as European Commission vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis, will only play into Syriza's hands further, allowing them to portray Greece as the conspired against victim of the piece.

In truth, Greece finds itself in its current wretched state as a combination of its own long-term, systemic, failings and the complicity and ineptitude of the European Union. Why, for example, was Greece admitted to the Eurozone club back in 2001? Who would have guessed that drenching a country, famous for governmental corruption and woeful levels of tax receipt, with cheap credit would end so disastrously?

In the Financial Times, in December 2000, Tony Barber explained how Greece's admission was more to do with 'political symbolism than economic consequences' and that Greece would:

'serve as a beacon for central and eastern European countries, which hope they will not have to wait long after joining their European Union before they, too, can abandon their national currencies for the euro'.

Efforts to delay Greece's entry on the basis that the country 'did not meet the criteria for low inflation and budgetary discipline in a sustainable way' were swatted aside.

The Greek government's lack of 'budgetary discipline' is legendary. The Economist wrote in a 2012 article that tax evasion was routinely shrugged off by officials as 'a national sport' and it cited a recent study which found that up to €30million of tax revenue went missing annually. As recently as 2010, a study using satellite photographs to count the number of swimming pools in Athens - a measure tax inspectors use to indicate wealth - found that instead of there being 324 as officially declared, there were, in fact, 16,974. Covering pools up with nets still remains a favoured tactic to evade such monitoring. 

In 2012, a list was published of 4,151 Greek celebrities who, collectively, owed the Greek state £12.4billion in unpaid taxes.

And only in recent years has the absurdly generous pensions system been reformed, which once counted jobs such as hairdressing as a hazardous occupation and enabled a barber to retire at the age of just 50. These reforms still have far to go, however.

In the early years of Greece's membership of the Euro, its economy boomed but in every year since 2001, it registered budget deficits of over three per cent, reaching a peak of almost 16% in 2010. In the same period, debt as a percentage of GDP, has risen from 108% in 2001 to almost 180% now. When George Papaconstantinou became finance minister in 2009, he was forced to disclose the budget deficit was almost double the estimates given by the previous right-wing administration; Papandreou's socialist government was thus nobbled from the start.

As the crisis has reached a climax, I've heard comparisons between Greece and the experiences of coping with debt by Iceland and Ireland, but these latter two are blessed with comparatively functional political systems; any such comparisons are, therefore, rendered invalid.

Since their entrance to the euro club, therefore, the dysfunctional country has piled debt upon debt; its credit rating has been shot to pieces; it has received loans and bailouts from the IMF and the EU; and yet growth - the only means by which Greece might escape this mess - has stubbornly refused to accelerate. There have been flickers in the last few years, but nothing more vigorous.

Meanwhile, in June 2013, the IMF admitted they hadn't foreseen how much damage the austerity programme would wreak upon Greece and only last week a report - which the Eurozone tried to block from publication - acknowledged Greece's public finances had no chance of recovery without significant debt relief. 

Grim though it may be for the people of Germany to concede, until the eurozone recognises this reality, Greece will remain in turmoil and will not recover.

Fundamentally, what we are witnessing is a clash between democratic power and harsh economic realities. There is no doubt Tsipras has reinforced his position domestically - and could inspire other left wing movements such as Spain's Podemos - but with a lack of a deal this will fade. The Greek Prime Minster's pledge that a new agreement with the EU would be signed within 48 hours of the referendum seems absurdly optimistic. At the same time, the Eurozone may wish not to acknowledge the power of the people, but ultimately knows it must do to an extent to avoid the very real possibility of Greece plunging into disorder. 

And yet, the Eurozone holds the strongest cards. If the banks have no money, the people of Greece will be unable to buy food, medicine and other essential supplies. Even leaving the eurozone doesn't necessarily prevent this from happening as a new currency would take time to organise. The prevailing economic hegemony, no matter how ugly and discredited, ultimately has the power to drown this nation's democratic voice and set a very worrying precedent indeed.