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Gordon Brown’s Legacy is Perpetual Austerity. Good.

“Why are you so ANGRY?”, I am often asked. I don’t mind people who disagree. But what I cannot stand are people for whom the managerialist, high-spending government IS THE ONLY WAY. These are the people who will, with graphs and “facts” confidently tell you that because investment fell while Brown was spending all the money, then Brown had to spend all the money BECAUSE THERE WAS NO CHOICE. The other option, that there was no investment, because Brown was hoovering up all the money and people which might have been used to invest, doesn’t occur at all to them. They are dangerous because they are plausible. They sound reasonable. They are confident of their analysis. Many of them are extremely well respected, and they often have the weight of academia behind them.

They all tell you the deficit doesn’t matter, that “austerity” is not necessary or self-defeating and we should instead be spending more.  And like Maggie’s 364 economists, they are wholly, ridiculously wrong. They may be right in every detail. But they were still wrong – the German Army of WW2 can plausibly claim to have lost no tactical engagements. They too were right in detail. They still lost. The 364 economists’ descendants defending the Blairite, last hurrah of the post-war welfare state are wrong because they’re extensively trained in the status-quo, and can see no alternative.

The state is too big. It spends 50% of GDP, and takes 45% or so in Taxes. Before WW2, this was around 25%. The state now seriously considers the contents of school lunch boxes, how much middle-class people drink of an evening or the font on a packet of fags a reasonable part of its remit. We are over-governed.

It’s trivially true, as the managerialists claim that Austerity’s ideological, that deficit fetishism is silly, but that does not make the coalition’s spending cuts insane. What was insane is testing the proposition that public services improvement was simply a matter of fire-hosing money. Most of the money spent went on wages – headcounts went up, and pay (especially if you include pensions) outstripped the private sector. “Austerity” is merely the bleating of a well-paid client state being forced to live within the country’s means once more.

Some spending makes sense: Road and infrastructure building for example – borrow at low rates to build things which generate real economic return. It’s a no-brainer to turn the A1 into a motorway or upgrade the A303 by Stonehenge. Deficit fetishists whinge. But there is no equivalent need to have public sector workers paid more than private sector workers. They enjoy better pensions and greater job security, so pay them less! Freeze their pay till they get the same as their equivalents in the private sector, whose wages are set by productivity, informed by markets.

There needs to be fewer public sector workers, doing less, and paid about the same as those whose salaries are not guaranteed by the tax-payer. No tax-funded salary should be more than the Prime-ministers’. The problem is the state is trying to do too much, and only a slow, continued squeeze on it will bring the public finances back on track. It is only when you come across the public sector at work – four hour meetings with eight people paid over £30,000 a year, in which no-one goes away with any actions, that you realise how much fat there is to cut. It’s not a trim that’s needed. A saw needs to be taken to whole arms of the state, giving PEOPLE back control of their own lives, for good or ill.

If you blew up every Sure-Start centre and fired their staff tomorrow, is there anyone who wouldn’t be able to cope? How many people would be immediately worse off without the attentions of social workers? Of course some would miss it. But many would be better off – think of happy families ripped apart by over-zealous enforcement of state-employees’ decisions. Victoria Climbe and Peter Connelly’s murders happened despite the tender ministrations of the state in these families’ lives. Ministrations which may encourage others in society to ‘look the other way’ in the face of horror, as someone’s paid to think about that sort of thing. Too many people have persuaded themselves “vital” services are vital, when in fact they’re part of the infantilisation of a population which is losing the ability to look after or make decisions for, itself.

On the day after Gordon Brown announced he’s to step down, his legacy is a British public carrying a burden of a state he built, which achieved little, and at enormous cost. The private sector is getting on with doing what it does, creating wealth, and coming up with new ideas, but it is shackled to a imbecile obsessed with box-ticking, and getting in the way. Oh, and the lumbering imbecile is very, very powerful, armed to the teeth, and can pick the private-sector’s pocket at will. Worse, the imbecile actually believes it runs things.

We need to find ways to reduce inequality which don’t involve hundreds of thousands of civil servants. Luckily, there are good solutions: a Citizen’s basic income (or similar ideas like a negative income tax) achieve redistribution, but don’t need a huge bureaucracy to administer. The Coalition’s universal credit is a baby step in the right direction, and very popular with the people to whom it so far applies. Do not be thinking this shrinking of the state will leave poor people out in the cold: on the contrary, it will FREE the poor FROM the social workers and benefits officers who blight their lives with forms and stress, just as the private sector needs to be freed from onerous regulation, which do little but create a vulnerable oligopoly where a chaotic but resilient market once existed.

The only thing we can thank Gordon Brown for is that no Future Chancellor will ever think they’ve abolished “Boom and Bust”; and he tested to destruction the idea that all that was wrong with public services is they had insufficient money or staff. That’s it. Done. The high-point of the post-war welfare state was reached under Brown and Obama. Bless him, Hollande in France is right now demonstrating what happens if you continue dancing when the music stops. The next revolution is that radical idea that the state should be leaving people alone. “Austerity”, in reality the self-interested bleating of people whose jobs to interfere in other people’s lives, has only just begun.

Thanks to Gordon Brown’ complete and total failure as Chancellor, as Prime-Minister, and as a man, “Austerity” is permanent. Good.

What Libertarians can learn from Antonio Gramsci and Why they Should Join the Tories.

I describe myself as a Libertarian, mainly because the traditional labels of ‘left’ and ‘right’ don’t fully fit. As P.J. O’Rourke remarked “Turn right at Economics, Take a left at sex and drugs, straight ahead to paradise“*. The right are largely economically liberal, but socially authoritarian, and the left, the opposite. And this varies by time and place, influenced by history. Swedish neo-nazis for example are strongly in favour of that kingdom’s generous welfare state. But I don’t want to ‘smash the state’. Shrink it, gradually, for sure. But I don’t want a revolution. Nor do I see much fundamentally wrong with representative democracy.

Libertarians too often have an intellectual jump-off point at their state-free utopia. This isn’t libertarianism, but anarchism, but these anarcho-capitalists hurl abuse at any libertarian whose ideas include working with existing institutions: not “real” libertarianism. There’s no coherent plan to get from a state which takes 50% of GDP and thinks it reasonable to control the font on cigarette packets, or the contents of Children’s lunch-boxes, to one where the state keeps to its reasonable functions. Thus libertarianism is a philosophy for spotty herberts, ranting in pubs, mainly to each other. And the An-caps are to blame.

Unless your intellectual jump-off point is our society and government, complete with problems, here and now, you will be ignored. This is why Labour was out of power for nearly two decades until they abandoned their marxist fantasy. The Tories fell into the trap of imagining an Elysium somewhere around 1953, which saw them out of power while Gordon Brown laid waste the economy. The party that wins power is the one with a clear solution to the problems of the country now, and an optimistic vision for the future sufficient to encourage people to vote.

The problems faced by the UK government are a deficit requiring spending cuts, and preventing tax-cuts. A population which appears to be obsessed by immigration (especially in the kind of places where there is little). This means the solutions are extraordinarily unpopular, as the left hate spending cuts, as the right thinks not giving tax-cuts is tantamount to socialism. Social liberalism, gay marriage for example seems to have brought out the right-authoritarians out in full-scale culture war. Immigrants are the first casualty, as they seek their fantasy ’50s Britain.

Despite extraordinarily difficult political headwinds, the coalition’s doing a good job. Taxes have even been cut, especially on the low-paid. In-work benefits are about the same or more generous, increasing the returns to work, and out of work benefits have been frozen or squeezed. This tax-cut, and benefit rise has been largely responsible for the missed deficit targets. But the effect has been profound. Added to the incentive effects, supply-side reforms, mainly making it easier to fire, and less costly to employ, have seen something of a jobs miracle. Despite a weak economy, millions have found work, and the coalition has mostly achieved this by increasing incentives to the out of work, and by reducing obstacles to jobs being provided. Even the jobs miracle is grotesquely unpopular. Ranty rigties and “libertarians” bemoan the increased in-work benefits bill. The left are having a right old froth about “zero-hours” contracts or the rise in self-under-employment.

But everywhere you look, the coalition’s been shrinking the state’s influence over economic life, and seen a flourishing of private sector economic activity. State headcount, the bean-counters and box-tickers of Gordon Brown’s expensive client state, has been pared back to pre-1997 levels. The debate about the deficit has been comprehensively won – even Labour has abandoned its punk-keynsianism in rhetoric at least.

Ranty twitter libertarians often ask how I can stomach being a Conservative. It’s simple. They do a good job in day-to-day government, and they do shrink the state overall. It is true Conservatives are not libertarians. The clue is in the name. But they are fellow-travellers, at least as far as they want to go, and especially so in matters economic. The Cameroons are also reasonably socially liberal. They do want to get the state out of the bedroom, and pursue a more reasonable set of drug laws. The Tory party has lost its ranty, EU-obsessed authoritarians to UKIP, who, one suspects, mostly hate the EU because it prevents bringing back hanging. And the Tory party looks a whole lot better without them.

Libertarians should offer a vision of a freer, richer, stronger UK, starting with the rich, free and strong UK we have now. We should do so by infiltrating the existing parties and making arguments for policies that work mainly by freeing people from state dependency and control. Citizens’ Basic Income, protections to civil liberties, freedom of expression and association. If there were more libertarians making the arguments rather than stomping off in great huffs like David Davis, or Douglas Carswell, we might get somewhere.

But Libertarians are too selfish, immature and self-centred to compromise. We do have the answers. Libertarianism is right, good and helpful to people. But we are absolutely rubbish at making the arguments to those who matter because we couch the arguments in such absolutist terms. Libertarians need to get their shoulders to the wheel of debate, instead of standing at the sidelines shouting incoherent abuse to people trying to come up with solutions to problems faced by people in the here and now. Otherwise we leave policy-making in the here and now to Gramscian marxists who’ve already completed their long-march through the institutions.

Libertarians should join the Conservative party. Not because the Conservative party fully agrees with us, but because it should.

*if anyone can find the source for, or correct me on this quote, I’d be grateful.

Government and Mazlow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Life, even after a few years of falling wages, is pretty good in the west. Whatever the idiots of the left tell you, you need to pretty comprehensively screw your life up to be homeless in any developed western economy. Some people fall through the net, but they’re exceptions who’re often on the streets because they reject help. Starvation in the west, is almost always a result of mental illness, not want. This is why shroud waving about ‘the bedroom tax’ has fallen flat. It’s just contrary to what people can see with their own eyes.

So, unlike almost every society preceding it, the west delivers all the physiological needs of food and water to all of its people, with near 100% reliability. Most do a pretty good job of providing affordable healthcare too.

With the bare necessities of life secure, a place to live is fairly high on the list of requirements. And very, very few people have nowhere to live. Some fall through the cracks, and for too many it’s far too expensive to live reasonably near work. We build too few houses, and prices are too high for sure. But that’s a problem soluble within the present system. Unlike many economies on earth, however almost everyone in the west has access to a secure house.

Other elements in ‘security’ are amply provided by western societies. We enjoy secure property rights. Few of us die of violence. There is justice, imperfect to be sure, but there is a reliable dispute resolution process. We can travel freely, and seek to do business worldwide, and assume contracts are honoured. Regulations ensure our homes and workplaces are safe. None of these are perfect, but by with centuries of problem-solving, things get better, in fits and starts.

This is the bread and butter of politics. The steady, patient accumulation of good ideas, and the abandonment of bad ones. Free market, democratic capitalism has delivered material wealth unimaginable to our forebears, and will continue to develop improvements, and hopefully find ways to distribute them better. Regulation, and robust institutions to enforce them, are necessary, in part so people don’t have to re-invent the wheel every time they innovate. What works – from hard hats on building sites to banking capital adequacy is a reasonable function of government. And it’s pretty dull. Much of this is supranational trade regulation, outsourced to bodies like the WTO and EU to enable bigger, and therefore more efficient markets. Too much regulation, of course strangles the golden goose. But that too is tested world wide and locally. Bad ideas like marking-to-market are abandoned, good ideas which seem to work, spread. This is only possible because people are allowed to question our rulers.

From Magna Carta in 1215 (and similar ideas in the Islamic world at about the same time) which put rulers under law, imperfectly, and with many retrograde steps, the idea that Government should obtain their people’s consent gained traction. And because people are good at solving problems, the societies which governed by consent, and which broadened the stake in society, were far more successful than the autocracies with which they competed. We free people have seen off big, bad ideas: The divine right of kings, Bonapartism, religious absolutism, slavery, fascism, communism and we’re having another competition with religious absolutism now, but no-one thinks seriously that Radical Islamists pose any existential threat to western democracies.

We, broadly if not universally, won. And if the Koreans or Japanese have caught up, it is by taking up our good ideas and applying them to their society. They now compete to generate the new ideas which help society improve. As more and more countries join us on the technological frontier – the former soviet Eastern Europe is catching up fast, as is China, and so more and more of humanity’s creative endeavour will be applied to solving problems, creating solutions we can all share.

In politics, it’s tempting for politicians to rubbish others’ ideas and try to sell theirs as revolutionary. But because we’ve defeated all the really, really bad ideas, we’re now arguing about ever smaller and smaller problems. This, in turn makes politicians look small and petty. We’re no longer arguing about how to organise society, we’re arguing about distributing success. This requires managers, not leaders. And so turnouts fall worldwide and people shift from parties of government to single-issue pressure groups. We hanker for the old, simple, black and white questions were WE could broadly persuade ourselves that WE were on the side of Angels, and THEY were the bad guys. And if you grew up with the cold war, in the democratic west, we were the ones outside the wall, asking the others to tear it down. And now, the Green movement is on the side of the planet against big, bad business, which is destroying the planet. Or UKIP blaming everything on the EU and the LIBLABCON Westminster clique.

Feeling part of something, especially AGAINST something self-evidently wicked, is more important in many ways than material and economic security. These are the social, love and esteem layers of Mazlow’s Hierarchies of need. British elections in the 1980s were in part between those who sympathised with the communists, and those who identified with America. Parties were mass movements, and satisfying as a result. In success, politicians lost something to define themselves against, even as they maintain the forms of adversarial debate. When you’re discussing potential nuclear holocaust, or how to defeat fascism, this is fine. But if you’re trying to present £11 a week  off benefits as existential crisis, or a small change in tax-rates as a return to communism (guilty as charged…) you just look ridiculous.

While this was manageable during a long rise in living standards, it rapidly became less so when the great recession hit. Having got used to success, governments spent and spent to fund promises of ever greater services, and ever greater consumption. And eventually the money ran out. Insurgent parties then moved into the void across the world – UKIP, the Tea Party, Front National and others. Some more responsible than others, but each coming with their own comforting ‘Them and Us’ narrative.

Ultimately I think these parties, should they ever be confronted with the realities of Government will either end up looking exactly like the parties they claim to oppose, be absorbed by them, or will implode under the weight of their internal contradictions. The upper levels of the hierarchy of needs are not really deliverable by politicians. All they can do is promise to manage the ever shrinking portion of economies needed to deliver safety, security and possibly health to the people. It used to require the productive efforts of 95% of humanity just to provide food, a task delivered in the west by just 1% now.

People want to be listened to, as an inevitable consequence of having enough to eat and a place to eat it. But everyone wants something different. So we require a new politics, one that enables and facilitates, rather than seeking to impose a one-size fits all approach. Formal government needs to shrink, sharing, as David Cameron used to say in the good times, the proceeds of growth between tax-cuts and better services. This will leave people to seek the social, love and esteem without government interference, and with an ever-shrinking burden of taxation. You want freedom. Free people from want, let them feel secure, then watch our creative talents take man to the stars.

Yes, we (unfairly) despise politicians, because they have solved the major problems of life, and continue to do so. The answer isn’t to return to them-and-us politics, but with smaller questions; Instead we must take more questions out of the politicians’ purview. Their job is largely done, and they can recede, to be the people to whom we outsource the bin collections and sewage regulation. What they do is important. But it is now unglamourous.

One day perhaps we will give no more thought to the Government that delivers health services, organises some redistribution, funds education services and defends the realm than we do to the remarkable supply-chain that delivers our bread. Libertarianism will not come from destroying government, but by building on its successes something vaster and grander, and more satisfying to the people who live in it than any Government or bureaucrat could possibly imagine. Let us not despise democratic government, but reduce it over the next few centuries to the status of the monarchy in the UK now, a useful, decorative relic which doesn’t get in the way much, while the free people get on with delivering what people actually want from each other.

On Being a “Real Conservative”

Tim Montgomerie, formerly doyen of Conservative home, now at the Times, has returned to his former bailiwick to explain why he’s not joining UKIP. Basically, they’re a bunch of clownish amateurs, however much he likes having his prejudices stroked by them. Despite not wanting to join them, he agrees with much of UKIP’s analysis.

I feel – as many Tories do – that there is a cuckoo in the nest at present and he will be gone on either the day after the next election or a year or two afterwards…

Cameron is, of course, a great deal more popular than his party. Or more accurately, in this current toxic anti-politics mood, less unpopular. Cameron isn’t the problem;  people like Montgomerie (and me…) are the problem. The parties, as they shrink are less the mass movements of ordinary people they once were, but clubs for political obsessives. The Tory fixation with Europe, or the endless Lib-Dem demands for PR as the answer to everything, or Labour’s wibble about predistribution could never happen in a genuinely mass party.

He blames Cameron for failing to win an election against Brown. The UKIPish nutters, obsessed by Europe are far more to blame than the Prime Minister for conservative failure to win an election. The sheer insane kamikaze disloyalty they have shown has crippled the party for nearly two decades.

David Cameron is not a terrible conservative. He’s a little bit conservative in every respect. A little bit of a fiscal conservative. A little bit of a Eurosceptic. A little bit of a reformer. A little bit of a hawk on foreign policy

Montgomerie appears to be complaining that the Prime Minister who has cut state spending faster than any administration since Atlee is not savagely partisan enough. Cameron doesn’t seem to enjoy being conservative enough. And that is the problem.  In the United states, the parties have become utterly polarised. Candidates must appear extreme to win nominations in primaries, then tack to the centre to win an election. Everyone ends up with something they didn’t vote for, which further feeds dissatisfaction with politics. American Politics is utterly toxic and totally dysfunctional as a result, yet too many Tories look at the GOP today, and think “Gosh, I wish we looked like that“.

As parties shrink, they become captured by vested interests: The Labour party is more in hock to the Unions than ever before, a wholly owned subsidiary of Unite. The Tories run the risk of being seen as being a subsidiary of their big-business donors. All this turns off the average voter, who feel, rightly at the moment that none of the parties speak for them. Hence the rise of UKIP, the SNP and the Greens who all have messages which are angry, clear, simplistic and wrong.

The activists, like Montgomerie have to realise it’s they (we…), not the much-derided “political class” who are the problem. Professional politicians have always existed, and the idea the country should be run by amateurs is laughable. Until activists can reach out in the spirit of compromise, seek to speak to people about what the people are interested in, not what the activists think the people ought to be interested in, politics will remain a minority pursuit. Most Tory councillors, who’ve experience of governing get this, but the activists, the enthusiasts, the door-knockers and bloggers who create the mood-music don’t. “How can he think like this? If only he’d be more extreme, then all would be well.

How’s Ed Miliband’s 35% strategy working out?

Montgomerie blames Cameron for the rise of UKIP, which he says

is partly the product of both lousy party management and strategy by the current Tory leadership.

I think a better analogy is UKIP as the Tories’ Militant Tendency. As Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless have shown, the UKIPish backbenchers and activists are utterly unreconcilable – reaching out to them is utterly futile. They got the referendum they claimed to want, but it just encouraged them in to more tantrums of headbanging nuttiness A referendum in 2017? NO WE WANT ONE NEXT WEEK, WITH YOU CAMPAIGNING FOR ‘OUT’!. They have got into the habit of rebellion, and lack the discipline to want to run the country, preferring the masturbatory pleasures of opposition, even while sitting on the Government benches. Compromise isn’t unprincipled. Collective responsibility isn’t dishonest. It’s a recognition that there’s competing interests in the country, and no-one gets everything they want.

There are divisions across the Right in all parts of the world but the lack of internal democracy has forced Tory divisions into the open and many natural Tories out of the party… Robust systems of internal democracy might have meant certain policies that I, personally, support – including equal marriage and the 0.7% aid target – might have been blocked. I would have argued for them but party members and MPs deserve to be consulted more often than at a once-in-a-decade leadership election. Every MP in the next parliament should have a job (running the UK equivalents of Battleground Texas, for example (of which more on another occasion)). There should be an elected Tory board and Chairman with the responsibility to think about the long-term health of the Tory Party. The whole party apparatus should not be obsessed with helping the current leader survive beyond the annual electoral cycle. Fundamental change is needed in party organisation if it is to think long-term about rebuilding in the northern cities, changing the profile of party candidates and – the previous theme – remoralising the Tory brand.

There are some good ideas about decentralising the party, but the problem remains: Tory activists do not look like the country and remain unhealthily obsessed with Europe. The country is socially liberal, the party is (mostly) not. To give too much power to the current ageing activist base risks accelerating the party’s retreat from the electorate, and making it harder to govern – the one thing the electorate agrees on is it cannot stand a split party. The party must reach out first, try to make the activists look a little bit more like the country and learn to compromise again.

Purging the UKIPpers, who’ve been making Tories unelectable since 1992 is a good start.

No, Abi, the Poppy Is Not associated with Racism, Nationalism and Islamophobia.

Abi Wilkinson, a generally thoughtful breed of lefty, has nevertheless, in this article, succumbed to the temptation of projecting her prejudices onto something she doesn’t understand and in doing so caused some offence. I said I would explain why thought she had written a bad article.

The fact is, poppies have become less a symbol of genuine grief and recognition of the soldiers who have fallen fighting in our country’s armed forces, and more a compulsory signifier that a person is on ‘our side’.

The phrase “The fact is” rarely comes before a fact. But it is easy to see why people could think the Poppy divisive. The men in uniform, the pageantry, the national unity, are redolent to the triumphalism of empire which makes much of the left uncomfortable. They’re wrong.

British history has its shameful moments, something the right is often guilty of ignoring, however Remembrance is not the season to dwell on these. Broadly, the British Empire was a force for good, trying to leave Cricket, the Rule of Law, democracy and Railways behind. That this was a stated aim of the British Empire is something the left is loathe to admit. Historians should not be seeking to impose a narrative based on today’s values or seek to “prove” something for the benefit of one political view today; rather we should learn the lessons of history, so the horrors can be avoided, and the triumphs learned from. That requires admissions of failure as well as a celebration of successes.

The armed forces who have for four hundred years fought in support of one of the most stable and prosperous democracies on earth, have every right to take pride in the successes, and remember that our freedom is bought with a heavy price. This country took part in, but then dismantled the Global Slave trade, fought European dictators from Napoleon to Hitler, offered a parliamentary model of democracy which has proved itself far more stable than the presidential  model exported by France or the USA. A British soldier has died overseas in the service of his country every year since 1666, with one exception: 1968.

I grew up with the Cold War raging. We, as part of the Alliance of democracies beat international communism, as we defeated European Fascism. The Army I joined was trying to put the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone together. And the Army I have served has been in Far off Dusty places for the last decade and a half. The world is undoubtedly a better place for it, taken as a whole, though the merits of each campaign can be debated. Recently the mother lode of bad ideas making people miserable round the world stems from the creed of Radical Islamism. Abi’s political ideas were formed when ‘the enemy our boys are fighting’ were mostly Muslims.

So from there it’s a simple mental jump to regard the British Armed Forces are mostly a tool to fight Muslims, conveniently forgetting previous decades, and centuries of idealogies and enemies defeated. And to a limited extent, amongst some people, the poppy has become a ‘them and us’ symbol. If you don’t wear the poppy you are one of “them”. This was as true, and to the same extent, for the leftists and communists and Irish, as it is for  Muslims now. It has never been significant.

Propaganda images pitting our soldiers (deserving of state support) and ‘immigrants’ (greedy, reviled and a drain on state resources) are the bread and butter of this [Britain First].

Britain first are capable of putting together emotive Internet memes, but little more. But theirs is not, and will not be the majority or even significant view, though they are tapping into genuine if misinformed hostility to immigration. Most soldiers I know find Britain First’s mawkish parasitism on their profession faintly ridiculous. The real experience of remembrance can instead be found at war memorials up and down the country you will see proud men and women, many wearing medal ribbons, remembering those they fought alongside who didn’t come home.

Remembrance isn’t about the  political posturing at the Cenotaph or people sharing memes on Facebook; and certainly not a Newspapers encouragement of a Poppy hijab. Instead it is about the smaller, more personal ceremonies at village memorials, regimental parade grounds and churches up and down the country. I think of the village on Skye where my Grandfather grew up. There are five houses and a pub. There are eight names on the war memorial. And five more from World War 2. You will not see any hostility there to anyone there. Just bow your head and reflect why we have the freedom to speak freely to our rulers and how dearly it has been bought.

Last year saw my Unit’s wreath laid at Westminster Abby. The year before that, I was on an Army base. The year before that, with my Brother in Yorkshire. So my experience of Remembrance is likely to be very different to Abi’s, who I suspect is not moved as I am by the sacrifices of our Soldiers, nor as proud of what they have achieved.

Wear a Poppy. Don’t wear a poppy. Wear a  white poppy if you think such private pride and grief is really something you feel needs challenging. Thousands of men died in Normandy 70 years ago in part for your right to do so. Abi’s journalistic mistake is to imagine her experience of Remembrance, filtered through a miasma of political beliefs, and distorted by selection bias and availability heuristic, and imagine it to be universal. I would invite her to Remembrance ceremony with me next year to see for herself.

A Caledonian Prediction

The eve-of-voting polls are remarkably consistent pointing to 48-52, with 5-10% undecided, in favour of no, so this is going to be the baseline of my prediction prediction. But the pollsters are not at all confident of their weighting methodology.

  • ‘Don’t knows’ typically break for the status quo in such referendums. 
  • There are an unusually large number of people refusing to talk to pollsters. If these break one way or the other, this can make a mockery of polling.
  • One side is much noisier and more enthused than the other and there has been intimidation. This can lead to an under-reporting of one side
  • There are a lot of people who’re voting for the first time and for whom no previous elections can be used to compare.
So, as a keen amateur psephologist, I thought I’d have a go at a prediction taking into account the factors above.
  1. Baseline 48-52 for ‘No’.
  2. Don’t knows at 5% breaking 2-1 for ‘No’ gives 47 1/4% to 52 3/4% for no.
  3. It’s simply impossible to know how the Silent voters will vote, but in my experience as a teller, they tend to be older, male, and well educated. Older lean ‘no’, male leans ‘yes’ and education is a weak predictor of ‘no’.
  4. I suspect ‘No’ voters are less likely to take part in online surveys, and be keener to avoid letting on they vote no, for fear of Nationalist flash mobs. I suspect there is a shy ‘no’ vote nudging it a couple of percent, or possibly more.
  5. First time voters, and newly registered voters are likely to be under weighted in pollsters methodology, especially if the turnout is very high. It may be this is sufficient to outweigh the ‘shy nos’.
Given the above my SWAG (scientific wild-arsed guess) is No 53% Yes 47%. I’d be more surprised by a ‘Yes’ than I would by a bigger ‘No’ win. I think most Scots, even some who voted ‘Yes’ will be relieved by a ‘No’ vote.

On Representative Democracy

An individual is generally a pretty competent judge of his or her interests. We are pretty efficient at judging what’s best for friends and family too. And in certain cases, distributed decision-making is better than individuals, because a market price for example is the distilled wisdom of everyone’s knowledge. But democratic decision making is not like this. The questions asked are usually binary, but about issues that aren’t binary. Neither of the propositions makes any sense. Scotland’s independence referendum, or the referendum UKIP and Tory loons wanted so, so badly on the EU, but about which they are getting cold feet because they know they’ll lose.

Many Tories, and libertarians, like Douglas Carswell are attracted direct democracy, attracted by the idea of the wisdom of crowds. But they don’t take into account the extent to which the processes of such direct democracy tend to be in practice controlled by party machines, for whom politics is a profession, the art of the possible.
the route campaigns have taken over the years is 1) persuade a major party to discuss, then adopt a proposal 2) consider exactly what legislation would be necessary to get a proposal into law 3) find time in the legislative programme not taken up by rubber stamping minutiae, to get it through both houses of parliament. Because the demands are vague, everyone “passionately caring” about a given issue will have their own patchwork of loyalties and only sometimes will even complete acceptance of a group’s demands induce satisfaction.
The route now is to take up the anti-establishment cudgels, and demand politicians do 1, 2 and 3, immediately. There’s little engagement with the process which enables ideas to become legislation. This is the motive behind the rise of anti-establishment parties – and UKIP and the SNP use similar tactics. First play on people’s sense of entitlement. We live in a market economy in which everyone expects their demands to be met, and do not consider what is possible. This creates a sense of grievance. This is then exploited by expert demagogues who direct it at some ‘other’. UKIP have the EU, the SNP have cleverly turned the vicious anti-English hatred which burns in the hearts of many Scots into ‘anti-Westminster’ sentiment. 
Having persuaded the people an amorphous THEY is doing every bad thing to YOU, the Farage/Salmond present a simple solution, independence from THEM will enable YOU to realise your dreams. The people are persuaded, by this simple manipulation to equate THEM with everything bad, and the achievement of getting rid of THEM will create nirvarna. It’s a simple, attractive message, but ultimately guarantees dissapointment. No-one’s thinking about steps 2 & 3 and is unwilling to do the work. This school of demagoguery is also practiced by Labour: the rich, the bankers, the fat cats who’re profiteering at your expense. The Tories are guilty of holding benefits recipients to account for the deficit.
The problem is one of unreasonable expectations of an electorate which wants a government which does everything, but is unwilling to pay the necessary taxes. Just as the electorate expects democracy to work like a consumer business, they expect government services to do so. And here, the kind of solutions which are applicable through politics are not as efficient as those of the market. But with a single-funder, the market is unlikely to arise organically for healthcare services, so politicians still have a role in sorting out how the market should operate. Successfully in the example of utilities (fancy arguing I’m wrong, don’t bother, I’ll delete your comment) less so in the example of rail. But there is no doubt market solutions work better than state dirigisme, because of the wisdom of crowds.
Unlike market solutions, political solutions are manipulated by political parties into two competing sub-optimal camps, from which people must choose a mix of things they like and things they don’t. This is not a subtle decision-making and resource allocating process, and given the toxic iconoclasm pervading politics at the moment, it’s a recipe for disaster.
The solution isn’t more veto points, more layers of government all coming up with sub-optimal solutions to problems that may or may not be best out of government control. The solution is to devolve more power to individuals, whose decision-making process is not political. Decisions should be moved to the appropriate level of government. Usually this will mean moving it down.
Ultimately government should be made up of people to whom we outsource the management of dreary tasks like road-building, waste collection and dropping bombs on uncooperative foreigners. Because people aren’t by and large traffic-engineers, waste logisticians or in the military, we are not qualified to comment, but we can offer oversight, voting out people whose judgement on these issues we trust no more. It’s possible the Police and crime commissioners may become such a single-issue go-to for public concern. And in a representative democracy, they will have to learn to say ‘no’ to the electorate from time to time. Political processes cannot please all the people, all the time.
Ultimately the logic of devolution if it has any merit, ends up with individualism. And the best way for individuals to be able to balance the competing demands of modern life is for Government to get out of the way of his or her preferences through the action of markets. Government’s role is to regulate and oversee those markets. It’s difficult to see to what practical problem “leave the EU” or “Break up the UK” is a solution. But these are presented as solutions to people who don’t understand what’s wrong or how to fix it, and who frankly, have more important things to worry about, so we elect people to oversee the experts we hire to do the dirty work.
Constitutional change is political masturbation. It’s enjoyable for political wonks to talk about. But the people the demagogues have enthused, UKIPpers and YES voters will feel let down when the thing they desire doesn’t deliver their promised land. And a new bunch of political obsessives will find another issue to make political decision-making more opaque and less efficient when the solution is devolution of power to existing structures: local democracy and individual decision making through markets. The institutions of the UK work pretty well, and the unwritten constitution is remarkably flexible. There are structures which are best dealt with supranationally, nationally, regionally, locally and individually. Generally, decisions should be delegated down so ‘devo-max’ seems appropriate, but there’s little need for big changes, just Government that’s a bit smaller, more local, and less expensive. 
Politicians lie: governing parties lie by obfuscation because they can’t reveal their impotence in the face of democratic checks and balances. But parties which invite to point blame on “them”. Well we saw where that could lead 70 years ago.
If I was Scots (which I am, half, but no vote…) I’d still rather be part of a nation capable of putting a top-flight aircraft carrier or two to sea. And little England will find much less influence outside the EU than in. We cant escape the trade rules. I may be a libertarian in wanting people, not politicians to have power. That’s not in UKIP or the SNPs offer. I am also a conservative. I see no reason to make radical changes to solve problems that barely exist.

Douglas Carswell, Direct Democracy and the Clacton By-Election.

When Quentin Davis defected to Gordon Brown’s Labour party in 2007, Matthew Parris remarked “when a Tory crosses the floor to Labour, the Average IQ of both parties goes up…” which is one of the most deliciously bitchy political insults of all time. Few called for a by-election. You had an opposition struggling for unity, facing a dying administration. The defectors, back-stabbing, politicking and so forth, like in the dying days of Major’s administration, is part of the theatre of politics. And vital to its function.

Defecting to another party not in a governing coalition or vice versa is called ‘crossing the floor’ and is also an important way by which the legislature (parliament and especially the commons) can hold the executive (the Government and its payroll vote) to account. If the executive cannot command a majority for at least ‘confidence and supply’ in the commons, you MUST call a general election. By leaving the Government over issues like the corn laws, or Europe, or civil liberties, you can prevent the Government enacting its program. You’re sending the strongest possible signal to your party’s leadership. And if it’s well timed, or comes in a large group, you can bring down a Government.

Or in Quentin Davis’ case, you can leap aboard a burning ship right at the moment a torpedo slams into the magazine, to the sound of Guffaws of “good riddance, you silly prat” from one’s former colleagues.

Which brings me to Carswell. If he had decided to stay in the commons, he would be able to support the Government in bringing the law calling for a 2017 EU referendum through parliament. He could have continued to support the government in rolling back some of the civil liberties that were taken by the Labour party in its 13 years of goose-stepping nanny-statism. He would have been able to do this as a UKIP member with a confidence and supply agreement with the coalition from the opposition benches. Much like the Ulster Unionists in 1995-7.

Instead he’s decided to take the Manor of Northstead (MPs can’t actually resign, they have to be sacked and the means by which this happens is to take a paid office of the crown incompatible with a sitting MP), and so trigger a by-election. This seems likely to set a precedent, and everyone’s applauding him for it. But if this becomes a convention that crossing the floor triggers a by-election, the executive will be significantly strengthened at the expense of the legislature, and this is not what Carswell claims to want at all.

“But it’s Democratic” people will say. “They elected a Tory, and a Tory they should have”. But we live in a representative democracy. Carswell is strongly in favour of direct democracy, so be clear, I am not accusing him of hypocrisy, just counter productive stupidity. For when an MP crosses the floor in a safe seat in future, the Governing party will be able to parachute a loyal apparatchik into the seat, and use the party machine to ensure victory. If a a sitting MP in a marginal constituency goes, electoral considerations, rather than the role of holding the Government to account come to the fore when deciding what to do on policy and law-making.

Carswell is strongly in favour of the right of recall too, which suggests a very different conception of the role of an MP to mine. Indeed, it is this issue that caused him to jump ship, not “Europe”, as much of the media will have you believe. I think we elect people of character to scrutinise legislation, and if necessary, kick up a stink, while trusting the electorate to judge him in the whole, every 4-5 years or so. Carswell thinks an MPs job is to reflect the brute and unexamined opinions of his electorate, and pander to their prejudices, which is why he voted against gay marriage (Which is also why I suspect this has been long-planned to occur up at a time to cause maximum damage to Cameron and conservative electoral chances). The state shouldn’t control our lives, but to the extent it does, it should be more than mob rule, which is why I am only half in favour of more direct democracy. Unfortunately, UKIP is all about mob rule, a bunch of pitchfork-wielding ignoramuses who neither know nor care what makes the world turn, or why.

The Tories will throw the kitchen sink at Clacton, and will probably be able to win (update: I no longer think the Tories will win, thanks to Lord Ashcrofts polling – when the facts change….), as local Tories are highly pissed off, and electorates don’t reward turncoats. The Tories will be able to mobilise an Anti-UKIP vote from Liberal and even Labour supporters as they did in Newark. I suspect he’ll look at the morons, bigots and buffoons ranting away with the certainty that only the truly mediocre mind can generate, and realise that he’s thrown away a seat at the top table and the chance to influence policy and drag the centre ground his way, for what? The leadership of a party which will never amount to anything, and which is the principle obstacle in the way of its own stated main aim. Carswell may just regret yesterday for the rest of his life.

But given UKIP is far more comfortable with the idiot certainties of opposition than in having a genuine platform for government, he may just fit right in.

 

On Social Mobility and “Who Runs Britain”?

There’s a report from Alan Milburn’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, which suggests, amongst other things, companies should publish social mobility audits, revealing how many privately educated employees they have. This offensive, ridiculous, illiberal, and counterproductive proposal undermines the sweetcorn of truth which does exist in the report, from amongst the turd of Alan-Milburn’s chippiness. This report fails to illuminate because it’s asking the wrong questions.

Britain is not unique. We are middling in terms of inequality in the EU, but near the top in the extent to which your parents’ income predicts ones own, which is being taken as a proxy for social mobility. The report then spends many pages talking about public schools and Oxbridge. Inequality isn’t about the 7% at the top, but about the 15% at the bottom, trapped on welfare. Do something for them, and Britain’s social mobility and inequality will look a lot better.

Oxford and Cambridge exist to select the very best students, and then give them the very best education. I would be surprised if Oxford and Cambridge universities (and the wider Russell Group, I attended Edinburgh) didn’t provide the vast majority of leaders across a number of fields. It is after all what they are there to do. For Milburn to imagine becoming a FTSE 100 CEO is more about who you met than a consistent track record of success in exams, University and Business, is being disingenuous.

Likewise the 7% of people who go to public (mostly boarding) school have many advantages, so it would be surprising if they didn’t also form a disproportionate part of the elite, not least in access to Oxford and Cambridge. This is true in all rich-world democracies. My parents weren’t rich, but they made enormous sacrifices to send me and my Brother to a boarding school and they did so because the skills and experience I would receive would be worth their sacrifices. It’s not just technical or academic, many of these are soft skills.

If you start boarding at 13, you effectively leave home and you’re forced to mature faster. You have to go through puberty in the company of peers, with nowhere to hide. You learn to keep private, while being in public. You have to be a diplomat to survive. This generates a robustness of character, but also a certain tolerance. You often share a room, so you need to learn to negotiate with people you may not like much. There is little privacy, so learn how to keep yourself to yourself, even when around others. You talk more, to a wider range of people than people who go home to parents most evenings. Every meal is social. These skills carry through into later life, as the ability to network, be polite, diplomatic, charming and confident.

The additional pastoral care in a public school enables easier focus on extra-curricular activities such as sport or music, developing the whole person. The communal living is in particular an excellent preparation for a military life, so it is unsurprising that Public schoolboys still make up a disproportionate number of the Officer corps of the British army*.

At the top end of the Arts, Sport and Music – remember these are ‘tournament’ professions: the winner takes it all. And often, the also-rans get next to nothing. Is it surprising that people with rich parents feel more willing to take the risk of chasing a dream of a life on the stage? Is it surprising that schools with extensive and varied sporting facilities (Eton’s boating lake was an Olympic venue, for example) produce lots of sportsmen? Is it surprising that schools with extensive music facilities, with access to them late into the evening, and very little else to do, often produces musicians? An aspiring musician in a boarding school will find it a lot easier to recruit bandmates than at a comprehensive where the bandmate might live 5 miles away, rather than down the corridor. Many of the co-incident advantages advantages shared with “middle-class” parents in the state sector: wealth, a home full of books, parents committed enough to put commit their income into education (private school, or after school tutoring), heath and wealth. Imagining this to be discriminatory behaviour by an old-school tie is just fanciful.

Instead of imagining why 7% of the population provide 62% of senior Army officers, ask why 88% of state educated pupils aren’t better represented, and what can be done to encourage them to apply for Oxbridge, Sandhurst or RADA. Instead of assuming a discriminatory “old boy’s club” ask whether there is anything the state sector can learn from the Public Schools in preparing pupils for excellence. This is the point of the academy and free schools programs: to open the state sector to new ideas, and free them from the dead hand of the Local Authority, (and by extension the dreadful teaching unions and their dogma). Many public schools are opening up academies, and offering scholarships to the brightest and best of their intake.

Instead of imagining talent is evenly distributed, ensure opportunity is. Labour closed many routes of access to an excellent education to poor students, not least the assisted places scheme, which supported access to the best education for bright children of low-income parents. Instead of assuming “elitism” to be a bad thing, revel in the fact that Trinity College, Cambridge has more Nobel Prizes than France, and some of those are tales of social mobility. Elitism works, if the groundwork is there. Why are public schoolboys so confident? What can be done to encourage able state pupils to believe they can make it, rather than succumb to the “soft bigotry of low expectations”. Unfortunately, some of the state sector is failing, but Alan Milburn is asking the wrong questions, because he’s already decided upon the answer.

*Though it is a marker of the increased professionalism and calibre of the Army these days that privately educated people are joining the ranks in ever greater numbers too.

Why our Leaders are Pygmies.

It’s simple: Nothing I’ve seen of the leadership of the UK suggests the calibre of people is any better or worse than in previous ages. It’s just the issues they’re dealing with are smaller, and the scrutiny they face is much more immediate, superficial, and lacking the culture of deference from previous ages. In the past, politicians got the benefit of the doubt. Whether the people agreed with them, there was an assumption they were in it for the right reasons. Now the assumption is “they’re all in it for themselves”. They aren’t.

Maggie Thatcher faced down the Soviet Union. David Cameron enjoys no enemy which unites the nation behind him, in part because we won, but also because half the population has decided we’re “small” and therefore shouldn’t try to intervene, anywhere, ever. The UK remains one of only three countries whose militaries have Global reach, but you wouldn’t believe it if you read the comment sections of papers.

The Politicians haven’t changed. The people have – and we’ve become nihilistic, cynical and pessimistic, small-minded, insular, cowardly and prone to seeking information confirming, not challenging our prejudices.

Politicians could help themselves by not pandering to nannying fussbucketry, minimum pricing for alcohol, the font on a packet of fags, and the content of school meals, which are absolutely not the proper function of Government, and which make them look small and petty. “Render unto Caesar…” works both ways. If the politicians were to leave us alone for a bit, they might regain respect.