Friday, 31 December 2010

Dr Liam Fox will not last the year ...

I have already allowed myself two predictions for 2011:

1. The pound will not go up or down against the euro and at the end of the year it will be roughly where it is is now (today: 1.16 - 1.17 euros to the pound)

2. Voters will say "No" to electoral reform. They are conservative anyway and will be even more so in the face of continuing uncertainty about their personal finances.

If I allow myself one more, then by the end of 2011 my predictions will be either mostly right or mostly wrong ... So here's the third prediction:

3. Dr Liam Fox will not be Secretary of State for Defence by the end of 2011. That's just a hunch - and an attempt to think about politicians other than Cable-Clegg.

And on that note, I wish you, Dear Reader, a Happy New Year!

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Another Prediction for 2011: Voters will Say "No" to Electoral Reform

When Russians went to bed on 31 January 1918, they woke up on February 14: the Bolsheviks had finally brought Russia into line with the rest of the Christian world and abandoned the [inaccurate] Julian calendar in favour of the [more accurate] Gregorian.

It took a Revolution to achieve this technical adjustment. When the changeover was made in undemocratic Britain, in the eighteenth century, there was popular unrest: people thought that a fortnight of their lives was being stolen from them.

I can't see British voters turning out in May to say, Yes, they want Electoral Reform: an end to First Past the Post and the adoption of some system of proportional representation ( it's the Alternative Vote which is on offer).

The depths of British conservatism can always be gauged from the attitudes of Labour Party grandees. Think of Michael Martin as Speaker of the House of Commons, a man so steeped in belief in the Establishment and its traditions, including the britches he wore, as to make Tsar Nicholas of All the Russias look like a positive radical.

The Labour Party grandees are already standing up to announce their opposition to electoral reform. God, the Queen, School Uniform and First Past the Post - it's all part of the seamless Order they have profited from. They will fight in the last ditch.

British voters aren't much better. They aren't really in favour of change. It's usually foreign and new fangled, like the decimal system which took pounds shillings and pence away from them.

The Voters idea of Change is either A Bit More of the Same or, alternatively, A Bit Less of the Same.

Taxes up a bit or down a bit. Benefits up a bit or down a bit.

The trouble with Electoral Reform, as the Referendum will present it to them, is that it asks them to endorse discontinuous change. I can't see them buying that. And unfortunately you can't calibrate First Past the Post into something a Bit More sensitive to the popular will and a Bit Less unfair to minorities. That's not how it works.

So, Tough. Life ain't fair, the voters will say. First Past the Post it will remain. God Save the Queen.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Tax Freedom Day

The Adam Smith Institute does a useful job calculating, each year, what they call Tax Freedom Day - the day on which someone in employment starts to keep the money they earn instead of handing it over to the government in taxes. For 2010, TFD fell right at the end of May - basically, forty percent of everything anyone earns goes to the government.

Very few people are shocked by this. Over the decades, as the percentage going to government has drifted upwards so the "middle ground" assumption about what is a reasonable level of taxation has drifted up with it.

I don't think the political Right should have a monopoly over thinking that forty percent is too much. High taxation does not a left wing country make. Or a fair country. Or a just one. France has high taxation and France is one of Europe's nastiest right-wing countries. People there are very unhappy.

What reconciles most British voters to high taxation is the thought that they will get it back in benefits of one kind or another, some of them very tangible - like the bogus "Winter Fuel Payment" which is a direct cash transfer to the bank accounts of those known to be particularly bribeable (the over sixties).

The troubles with this line of thinking are two-fold.

First, it uncritically assumes that government is She Who Gives Benefits. This kind of thinking is child like. It is a very odd notion of what government is for.

Second, it ignores the costs of the middleman - the apparatus of government and administration which collects taxes and gives it away. They don't do it cheaply, you know. And they don't do it very efficiently. You would probably be better off not paying the taxes in the first place and simply buying some of the services government provides. People might be better off buying or swapping books than paying for public libraries.

I think the middle ground assumption needs to change. It could be done from a left wing position. On the left, someone could say: we will abolish all flat taxes because they are regressive taxes, hitting the poor harder. So we will abolish VAT. Then we will raise the thresholds at which variable taxes kick in, so that the rich pay more than the poor. But we will not stop cutting taxes until the tax take is down to 20% of Gross Domestic Product.

Of course, we will be cutting expenditure too. We will abolish the House of Lords for starters followed next by the Arts Council.Policing costs will go down because there will be no more State Visits from tin-pot dictators, Papal or otherwise. And we will cut by at least 50% the number of poor countries we invade and occupy.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Public Holidays: Could Do Better?

For most people who work for other people, holiday entitlements are valuable things -part of the package of benefits which includes salary, a salary scale, employer's pension contribution, and maybe bonuses.

But do people get the most out of their holidays? Over the festive season, for example, what proportion of working people have actively chosen and negotiated the time off they have? And, even if not, what proportion are satisfied with the arrangements made for them?

My guess is: Not very many. Lots of people are on holiday for no better reason than that their employer has shut down. That's true of many parts of the public sector - which could remain open 364/365 if only they would learn how to work a rota.

It simply baffles me that group practice GPs surgeries are allowed to operate as Monday to Friday, bank holidays excepted, nine to five offices. There's really no excuse. It should be seven days a week, 364/365 and no argument. Not only would patients be properly served, GPs might get more out of their holidays if they actually chose them. Complacency does not make for enjoyable holidays.

There is another side to the UKs protracted and clumsy Festive Season. If you are an outsider observing the UK economy, it looks very much as if these people are not very keen on working. Shopping, maybe. Drinking too much, maybe. Frankly, I wouldn't give this economy a triple A rating. That's why I make this Prediction for 2011:

Whatever the euro's problems, 2011 will end with the pound no stronger against the euro than it is today when it is trading at about 85 pence to the euro (about 1.17 euros to the pound). In the early days of the euro, Brits got 1.50 - even 1.60 euros to the pound. Trouble is, they produce increasingly fewer things that other people want. Scotch whisky, dodgy money deals and weapons of mass destruction (BAE) - that's about it.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

My Mick Jagger Secret

This is autobiography

In the months before I went to University, I had a temporary job clerking in the Dartford Youth Employment Bureau, a Victorian house with a large garden - in Miskin Road, if I recall correctly. I was 17 going on 18.

In those days, the State was less determined to keep Records on you. When you reached 18 you ceased to be the responsibility of the Youth Employment Service and any local records they held on you were destroyed.

One day, I was assigned the task of weeding the files - taking out everything held on those who had passed their 18th birthday, carrying it into the garden and making a bonfire.

When I got to the letter "J", I got to Jagger, Michael - a past pupil of Dartford Grammar School for Boys, just up the road. His file contained the form he had filled up preparatory to his Careers Interview with C R Councer, our Youth Employment Officer. The form asked the young Mick Jagger what he was interested in , what his hobbies were, and so on. Mr Councer had penned his comments and career suggestions at the bottom of the form.

I was very tempted to keep it. I had no right to, of course. The contents were of no legitimate public interest. But it was a curiosity and it might be valuable one day.

I burnt it along with all the rest. That's my Mick Jagger Secret.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Jesus Saves - but only if you know that?

As December 25th approaches and the western Churches call on us to celebrate the birth of the Saviour, spare a thought for all those who lived and died Before Christ and had no opportunity to be Saved by Jesus.

A lot of thoughts have been spared on that subject and all over Christendom articles and books and Ph D's discuss whether those born BC had a chance to be saved and, if so, how. Different churches have different answers, but in general nowadays they don't want to damn these unfortunates. It would seem illiberal. But they have to be careful how they formulate their positions. Give away too much and it sounds like a dangerous concession: Jesus is just one - er, historically recent - Way of getting Saved.

Worse, the birth of Christ creates a fresh problem. Ever since that first Christmas, there have been countless millions who have lived and died without ever having heard of Christ. For most of history, there was no Internet to spread the Good News. In truth, the Good News spread very slowly.

Liberalism also dictates that these unfortunates living in the wrong places should have a chance of salvation, though the suspicion sometimes sneaks in that maybe they are a bit to blame for their plight. Maybe they didn't listen out hard enough for the Good News.

It gets even more complicated. (Why did God make this so difficult?) The natives don't speak your language, so either you learn theirs or they learn yours. They can't actually know that they have an overwhelming reason to learn your language, since they haven't yet heard the Good News, so you learn theirs and preach to them in the local tongue and translate the Bible into their language. It's very time consuming and the Earth is a big place. There are lots of people out there who haven't heard of the Beatles, and maybe as many who haven't heard of Jesus.

There are further complications. (Theology is more fun than Sudoku, you know).

How long do the natives get to get the message? Suppose I am already old and feeble when I first get to hear the Good News. It's complicated and new-fangled and, frankly, I don't understand all of it. This three-in-one business, for example. Maybe these Christians are just another bunch of scammers. So I suspend judgment and die. Damned?

At this point, the Roman Catholic church could step forward and claim that the real problem is the underlying Protestantism of my assumptions. I've made it sound like it's all between the individual and Jesus: Jesus saves individuals.

Not at all, says the Vatican. There has to be, at the very least, an intermediary. Yes, you guessed, Us. "Outside the Church there is no salvation", says the Vatican - and sotto voce nowadays, Look what happened to the Jews.

So the Catholic focus is not on all these doubting jungle Thomases, caught up in their own heathen cultures. It's on the babies. Baptise them quick. That way they are In and they stand a chance. Put them into schools which indoctrinate them and they stand a bigger chance, so that the likelihood that they will be beaten and buggered on the way to salvation is a price well worth paying.

For Services to the Vatican ... and other Public Service Awards 2010

For Services to the Vatican, Mark Thompson, Director General of the BBC - now an outreach service of the bunker.

Runner Up: Private Eye. Though saved from an actual Award by one sharp front cover, Private Eye remains remarkably coy about the scandals which have engulfed the Roman Catholic Church. Even the cartoonists have gone docile: at the time of the Pope's visit, there was nothing in Private Eye's pages which could not have appeared in a Catholic rag.

But, true, they were saved by one front page gag (I quote from memory): "In the old days, boys wanted to enter the priesthood. Now it's the other way around"

For Services to Baroness Uddin: Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions who decided not to

For Services to the Royal Family: the British Press upon the occasion of a young chap announcing that he's gonna marry his live-in girlfriend.

For Services to Keeping the Lower Orders Deferential: David Cameron, who responded to the above announcement by giving them a Day Orff. As one wit writing to The Independent observed, that's the Circus organised, now we just need the Bread.

For Services to Scotland: Gordon Brown. Long may he continue with his round of Good Works in the Parish. I trust no one will try to draw him back to London.

For Services to Banking: Sir Fred Goodwin, for keeping a low profile.

.... Well, you get the idea. You could turn it into a Christmas parlour game. I have left you a clear field with the Liberal Democrats. It is the Season of Goodwill....

Sunday, 12 December 2010

A University Education: Is it worth it?

This is autobiography - and, on this occasion, quite difficult to write

I have always had my doubts about universities, doubts about the students and doubts about the teachers.

In 1965 I began a degree, on a full grant topped up with an Open Scholarship (£370 + £60 per year, enough to live on). I was the first in my family to attend University, sponsored by my boys' grammar school for Oxford entrance. My school told us it was hard to get into Oxford. But when I arrived and began talking to my fellow students at St. Peter's College, I was surprised. I had three As at A level. Some of them had a couple of Ds and Es. But they had gone to (minor) public schools and (more importantly) their fathers had attended St. Peter's. They were often sons of clergy, and at that time St. Peter's catered to them. The head of the college, J P Thornton-Duesbery, was a Moral Re-armer. Some of these young men with Ds and Es became active in OICU: the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union, a scary organisation of fundamentalists.

I don't think my grammar school realised they were enrolling me in a God-bothering Oxford college. They just thought St Peter's was an easy college to get boys into; its academic results were dismal.

Nowadays, maybe the equivalent of St Peter's is a former polytechnic where you are expected to lean to the left and study some bogus subject.

I didn't think very highly of my degree course (PPE) or (some of) those who taught it. When I graduated with a First, I wrote a pamphlet attacking the content of the PPE degree. Someone republished it a couple of years ago when people were marking the 40th Anniversary of the 1968 Student Revolt. Then a few years later, I wrote a piece of autobiography which reflects on the quality of the teaching - this piece, which I prefer to the pamphlet, is now on my own website, www.selectedworks.co.uk

Thirty years later, at the first opportunity, I took early retirement from my University teaching post. There were many reasons. Not the most important, but the hardest one to acknowledge - I have never said this before - was the feeling that too many of my colleagues, and too many of my students, weren't very bright.

I had colleagues who had poor degrees (Lower Seconds or worse) and no subsequent research achievements to show that their degree-awarding universities had judged them wrong. They had got into university teaching during the period of university expansion when there were lots of jobs and not enough candidates. My feeling was that some of them had sought a careeer in university teaching precisely as a way of denying awareness of their own intellectual limitations. They were like surgeons who do botched jobs.

Sometimes students realised that their teachers weren't really up to it. On one occasion, I was asked to repeat a course for a group who had protested that they had been intellectually short-changed by a colleague of mine. They had been, believe me.

But then there were the students. For the last ten years or so of my career, I didn't teach undergraduates. I taught MA students enrolled on full- or part-time programmes for which (unless sponsored) they paid their own fees. They were "soft" programmes - Creative Writing and such like - and, basically, if you could pay, you could join. The barrier of an Upper Second as a criterion of admission had gone.

The result was a Mixed Ability class.

I came to the (private) conclusion that probably most university education in "soft" areas - the arts, the humanities, the social sciences - should be offered as "adult education" within part-time provision, with open enrolment, and full-cost fees. I could not think of any good reason why what I was doing should receive government funding.

I no longer have contact with universities - and they do not have contact with me.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Revolting Students? I blame the parents

The only certain consequence of a very big increase in university student fees is that more young men will try their luck at drug dealing and more young women will turn to lap dancing clubs - unless the Fawcett Society closes them down, in which case young women will turn to prostitution.

There is a background issue about parental responsibility. At what age do you lose responsibility for your children? (Leave aside, for the moment, when you acquire it). When they could leave school? When they do leave school? When they leave home? When they finish an undergraduate degree? When they are in proper full time employment? When (if female?) they get married? Never?

Let's stick with the middle classes and how they create families. Unless very affluent, they rely on free pre- and ante-natal care; free vaccinations; free schooling from 5 ( earlier if they are lucky) to 18; lower bus fares and cinema ticket prices. They assume that everyone is happy to subsidise their children and so they often have more than they would if they had to pay the full cost. There are lots of middle class breeders.

They assume that the subsidised life will continue indefinitely. They do not expect a radical change to occur when their children go to university. They certainly do not plan to pay for this stage of their children's education. When the children go off to university, surely that is when we upgrade the car, extend our holidays abroad, and replace the sofas they have trashed?

So some - some, not all - of our revolting students now find themselves caught between parents who Can't Pay, Won't Pay and a state which has decided it also Can't Pay, Won't Pay. In short, they are stuffed.

More precisely, they are faced with the prospect of building up quite substantial debts just to support themselves and pay fees. And this debt is secured against the prospect of rather uncertain future employment. Adulthood hits them all at once, at eighteen.

Adulthood ought to hit their parents too. Parents need to be weaned off their dependence on subsidies to bring up children. Perhaps they should be enrolled compulsorily in savings schemes which yield lump sums for their children when they reach adulthood. Maybe they should be told they have been feckless to have the children and not plan for their future.

Worst of all, there are lots of middle class parents out there who can afford to support their children but are too mean to do so. They talk about Growing Up and Responsibility. I am sure the demonstrators on the streets of London have heard a lot of such talk,.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Death and Taxes - and Crime

Like death and taxes, crime is one of the inevitables of life. Perhaps it's time to get over it. That would be one way of keeping down the prison population.

I am regularly a victim of crime. I set up shop at stamp exhibitions [ I am a stamp dealer by trade ] and stuff gets nicked. Sometimes I notice, sometimes I don't. You are not much of a victim of crime if you don't actually notice it. There was once an Arab sheikh, alarmed to be visited in his London hotel room by the police. They had come to tell him that his credit cards had been misused. For a million. Really? he replied.

When you do notice it, you then have to decide whether to report it. Is it worth the time? Is it worth going to court for? Will you yourself get into trouble? As a young man studying in Paris, I had my room burgled and money stolen. I spoke to a neighbour: I wouldn't go to the police, if I were you, she said; it will be a lot of trouble, and besides you are a foreigner. With long hair.


But suppose you persist. You detect it, you report it. The police file the report and that's the end of the matter. How are they supposed to catch the criminal? It's alright when it's a case of someone with an uncontrollable temper hitting someone right in front of a police officer. Or someone who walks into the police station and says, "It was me". But otherwise, it's a lot of work, catching criminals and to be honest, we can't be bothered.

For that, we should be grateful. If you had a nearly one hundred percent on-the-ball, efficient, motivated and sophisticated police force, unwilling to let any crime go unpunished, you would also have nearly one hundred percent of the population with a criminal record. Is that really desirable?

What is desirable is that the police try to prevent crimes which shatter people's lives and pursue those guilty of such crimes. That means protecting children and other vulnerable groups from violence and intimidation. It means taking seriously women who phone up to say they are terrified their ex -partner or their family is going to kill them. I would be willing to let an awful lot of crimes go unpursued if that meant that really horrible crimes were prevented or their perpetrators always hunted down and punished.

Instead, it seems police resources are still disproportionately allocated to pursuing small-time drug dealers selling weed or women sex workers whose offence is to offend rather than harm. And so on. Let it go, I say. Nothing terrible will happen. I am still in business even though stuff gets nicked.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Atheism and Secularism

Many years ago I was commissioned to write a short book on Atheism. I had already written a short What is Philosophy? [ republished at my www.selectedworks.co.uk site]and thought I could deliver on Atheism.

But I couldn't. I found it emotionally difficult and I had other (emotional) worries, notably a divorce.

You could, for starters, distinguish three kinds of atheism : ontological, epistemological and moral.

Thinking about what there is (ontology), you can argue that there is no need to postulate a god to explain the universe and so, using Occam's Razor [ Don't imagine more things than you have to ], don't postulate one. You can also argue that any well-founded ontology looses its robustness or coherence once you start adding a god into it. And so on. None of this interests me very much, though I read some of the books.

Thinking about how we know things (epistemology) you can argue that it's unknowable whether there is or isn't a god - which leads to agnosticism rather than atheism - or that there is no evidence pointing towards the existence of a god or that the evidence points the other way. For example, the Problem of Evil (the theodicy problem) suggests that even if there is a god, he, she or it isn't a good one or isn't a powerful one. There's too much evil in the world. This is a bit more interesting and I read quite a few books.

But my own brand of atheism, such as it is, says that it is wrong to believe in god. It's a moral question. I ended up with the following formulation: If a good god did exist, he would not wish us to believe in him any more. Too many crimes have now been committed in his name. To expand on that, there is now something indecent about believing in god. From a slightly different angle, there is something weak-willed about believing in god. It is too closely connected to hedging one's bets, since in general (though for no compelling reason) belief in god and belief in personal immortality are interlinked. Take away the promise or threat of immortality and there is not much left of Christianity. The Vatican would not be able to frighten anyone without immortality.

But whether or not someone is a theist does not trouble me very much. In fact, from the religious and theological literature I read from my teenage years on, I always came away with respect for those who live quietly pious lives - I say "quietly" because the lack of demonstrativeness is the core of the piety. And I think there can be non-theist versions of that piety: paying attention [ to someone, to something ] is the natural piety of the soul.

What does trouble me is organised religions. With very few exceptions, they are dreadful outfits - mean spirited, cruel, corrupt, self-indulgent, full of hate towards women and children. The Vatican - a totalitarian bureaucracy - has demonstrated all that, continuously, for centuries.

So I want to clip the wings of organised religions and keep them out of public life. No state religions, no faith schools, no NHS hospital chaplains, no red carpets for the big wigs, no tax breaks, no immunity from civil and criminal law.

That makes me a secularist.

I am surprised how weak we are in our dealings with organised religion. Mussolini granted the Vatican recognition as a "state" because its bureaucrats wanted to put themselves beyond the reach of ordinary civil and criminal law. That is what the 1929 Lateran Pact is all about. Time to repudiate it. Send in the tanks. No Vatican State, just a church whose bureaucrats, like all other citizens, are subject to the laws of the country in which they live.

A Day Orff for the Lower Orders

Prince William is getting married. Hurrah for William! And Mr Cameron has given us the day orff. Three cheers for Mr Cameron! Hip hip!

You can see where Mr Cameron is coming from. Maybe he remembers Alderman Snudge at school speech days: Because you have worked so hard, I have asked the Headmaster to grant you an Extra Day's Holiday! Hurrah for Alderman Snudge!

What will actually happen?

GPs will shut down their surgeries, yet again, and moonlight as Out of Hours doctors, for which the going rate is £175 per hour[ Sunday Times research]. Three cheers for Mr Cameron!

Refuse collectors will work on Saturday and even Sunday to "catch up" the round they missed on Friday. They will be paid double or treble time. Hurrah for William!

Schools will shut. Last day of school, last day of sorrow! A supply of fresh faced children will be made available to line the streets and wave the flags. Hurrah for William! Three cheers for Mr Cameron! They will be bussed in to create the illusion of popular enthusiasm. London will be quietly transformed into a Potemkin village.

Apparently, in North Korea, attractive young women in nice clothes are employed to sit on benches, book in hand, near the awful monuments which tourists are obliged to visit. It's meant to create the illusion of normality in a country where people starve and die on the streets, but not on the streets of Pyongyang because only the party faithful are allowed there.

While the children are waving their flags, their teachers will be shopping in Ikea and Tesco, whose workers - of course - will not enjoy a day orff. Public holidays in Britain are basically public sector holidays and public sector workers like to be served. There is a pecking order and at the end of the pecking order is the ethnic minority check out worker in Tesco. Who is also expected to cry, Hurrah for William!

There is no public holiday on which shops and restaurants shut and town halls and GP surgeries stay open.

There is no public holiday when it's England versus Germany. The economy cannot afford it. But when the second in line to the throne decides to marry, it's only natural that the Prime Minister of the bride should want the public to pay for it all.

Not that the bride is terribly important. She will have to learn her place. Just like Diana.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

A paradox of getting older

All the surveys say that older people are happier than younger people. "Happier" may be read to mean less restless, less anxious, less troubled; more contented, more satisfied, more at ease. Whatever, I put my hand up to say I am one of those people who feels happier now than when younger.

In some ways this is surprising. Older people often have money worries and they all have health worries. From fifty or sixty onwards, things start going seriously wrong: there are things which are debilitating, like arthritis; and things which may be terminal, like heart attacks and cancer. Poeple live longer but few die of old age.

My parents' and grandparents' generation lived differently as they got older in one important respect. Serious illness struck them down, often suddenly. They dropped dead from heart attacks and they died within months of cancers which had developed unnoticed. There was no warning. They had not been seeing their doctor.

Nowadays older people live with cancer screening, blood pressure monitoring, cholesterol checks, vital organ function checks. Over 60, you can easily clock up a lot of tests.

In the past year, my age alone has meant that I have been offered bowel cancer screening ( you do this one by post), a cholesterol check and probably a diabetes check (I can't remember - I just remember that I don't have it).

Then, because of my heredity, I have regular prostate cancer screening.

Then, because of a virus which did not identify itself to routine blood tests, I had liver function and kidney function tests, followed by ultrasound scans of kidneys, liver, pancreas. After all that, the virus gave up and went away. As it would have done anyway.

There have been more tests, but I think you get the point by now.

I think you could be forgiven for getting a bit anxious with all this screening and testing, even if at the end of it you are still fit and blogging. Sometimes I think that I will say No to the next test. Or simply not go to the doctor. But then I realise that is irrational.

So I have to learn to live with it. But I still think it's a bit of a paradox that I both feel happier and at the same time keep being reminded that one day there will be something to worry about.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Wikileaks and The Secrets Fallacy

It's true that sometimes They know things that we don't. I didn't know that Chinese officials talking to American officials feel free to brief against North Korea - and I was a bit relieved to discover that they do. It reassures me that the Chinese are rational.

But a lot of the time They don't know any more than we do - and sometimes less. This is true both for diplomats and spies. They both move in rarified circles and it would call into question their salaries and their status if they conceded that, actually, you can generally find out more by reading the newspapers and Googling. Or by reading books.

But the moment something becomes Secret, it acquires an authority which makes it worth leaking. It then becomes headline news.

Before the UKs last General Election no one ever claimed that David Cameron and George Osborne were in the rocket science class when it came to understanding the fiscal and monetary measures needed to keep UK plc afloat. Gordon Brown claimed rocket scientist status for himself and the press had awarded the title to Vince Cable. When it came to forming a Coalition cabinet, there was a general feeling that though it had to be Osborne at the Treasury, it ought to have been Vince.

So it's no surprise that Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, should have been unimpressed by Cameron-Osborne. It may be more surprising that he shared his assessment with the American ambassador, but then it is a diplomat's job to get people talking and King was not saying anything terribly controversial.

Once again I feel relieved: just like the Chinese officials, the Governor of the Bank of England seems to have got his head screwed on.

Whenever I am in danger of being overawed by the wisdom of those whose emails are marked Secret, I remind myself of how, at the time of the Kosovo conflict, NATO forces came to bomb a Chinese mission in Belgrade thinking it was a Serbian military or police installation. They hadn't consulted an up to date Guide Book.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Hurrah for Rebecca Harris MP!

Governments and the officials who advise them make a mess of many things. In the UK, they are clueless when it comes to organising Public Time - the calendar, the clocks, public holidays, opening hours for public services.

So it is not surprising that the well-established case for moving our clocks forward an hour from their current summer and winter settings is currently being advanced in Parliament by a Private Member's Bill, introduced by the Tory MP, Rebecca Harris. Not by the Government. They are in a flap about it. They know it has majority support and they say they aren't going to oppose it. But the idea that they might assume responsibility for handling such an important Quality of Life issue is beyond them.

Our current clock times are beholden to the Farm Lobby or, at least, three farmers in the north of Scotland. Farmers like it to be light in the morning; the rest of the population see the advantage of having light at the end of their working day. Businesses would find it convenient if our clock times were aligned with those on the European mainland - only Ireland and Portugal share our time zone and look where that's got them. Road safety experts reckon the change would reduce accidents.

It seems there is a pretty overwhelming case. If you live south of the Scottish border, there is no doubt about the matter. If you live in Edinburgh or Glasgow, it seems the same is true according to a Sunday Times report. But whether our quality of life will improve currently depends on the skill of a single Tory MP. Good luck to Rebecca Harris MP and shame on the Government for being so pathetic.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

How can you possibly want to belong to this organisation?

How can you possibly want to belong to the Roman Catholic church?

I know that the BBC News website presents the Vatican as some kind of moral authority to which we should all pay heed - it functions as a sort of outreach for the Vatican Press Office - but that's not a good enough excuse.

The Vatican is worldly, calculating, corrupt, backward and evil in the effects it has had over centuries. How can any right-thinking person sign up to this organisation?

The BBC wants us to believe that it is some kind of breakthrough that the Pope has come to the conclusion that in certain cirumstances (like saying lots of Hail Marys before you do it) it might be all right for a gay male prostitute to put on a condom before fucking a client.

Someone at the BBC is undoubtedly out of his (it must be a he) tiny mind. If you are in the real world, these remarks are no breakthrough and no excuse for decades of absurdity. It just piles absurdity onto absurdity. This mindless casuistry ought to be News only because it shows that if you live in the Vatican you have nothing to offer the world.

Suppose Kim Jong Il, our soon to be departed Dear Leader, gets up and says that in certain circumstances it is understandable that people should want to flee North Korea. Should the BBC go gaga and proclaim it as some kind of breakthrough? Of course not. It would do nothing to redeem decades of oppression and starvation, presided over by this absurd dictator. Not for one moment should the Dear Leader be allowed a respite from the world's exasperation and ridicule.

Ditto Ratzinger.

The Naming of Parts: "Contains Sulfites"

This is autobiography

I was brought up on bread and jam, toast and marmalade, and I loved it. Only in recent years have I slacked off. It seems I don't digest bread very well. (Pandas don't digest bamboo shoots very well but they are still hooked on them).

On our 1950s and 1960s table the pots of jam proclaimed "Honestly Made, Honestly Better" but they did not proclaim their ingredients. I began to think about this when East European jams began to appear in the local Co-op in the early 1960s. I was a teenager and doing the shopping for my mother when she was ill. The jars were tall and sloped towards the lid, the glass greenish with air bubbles. The jam was delicious, big halves of apricots swimming in the loosely set jam. It was cheaper, too. My mother was not convinced. It was foreign.

It is one of the achievements of the European Union to have forced the labelling of food products. Honestly made, honestly better turned out to be full of colours and preservatives and not much fruit. Basically, it was junk. The Hungarian jams were fruit and sugar.

Food labelling helps us improve the quality of our life. We can make informed choices. It has forced producers into cutting the crap content of their products. Sometimes, the information now provided seems excessive. But in one case, the labelling remains inadequate.

Thanks to the influence of the wine producing countries, the European Union still does not require the labelling of wine with its contents. We have got only so far as a grudging "Contains Sulfites". Since they all contain it, no producer loses. I would really like to know what my wine contains. Then I might understand why some of it gives me a headache though most doesn't.

Monday, 15 November 2010

In Praise of a Throwaway Society

How long should a pillow last?

In my family, pillows were things acquired as part of setting up home and, once acquired, were kept for a life time. I don't think they were ever washed. My mother did, however, double wrap them with two pillowcases - something I still do - and pillowcases were washed, maybe once a fortnight.

My (feather) pillows go down the tip after a year or so. I see no point in washing them and they are cheap to replace.

I can't remember the last time I had a pair of shoes repaired. I wear them out and throw them away. I rarely polish them, despite having been brought up to do so. I can recall watching an uncle polishing his leather shoes for work, always with great care, and I am sure those sparkling shoes had seen many years' service. But they cost him ten minutes a day when he could have read his Daily Herald.

No one darns my socks, mends my shirts or sharpens my knives. There is no need. I replace these things. But I remember another uncle who had his own personal wooden-handled knife to eat with, not more than a couple of inches left of it after decades of being sharpened.

There are still people about with a Workhouse philosophy: one set of decent clothes, kept for best and kept for a very long time; other clothes bought cheap and worn and washed until faded and threadbare.

Life can be better than that and throwing things away is part of what makes it better.

The line between reasonable and profligate replacement, of clothes and household goods, has shifted dramatically in a century, at different rates for different goods - a social historian could probably chart it and that would be interesting reading. Think of hairbrushes for women and razors for men.

But should we even see a line between the reasonable and the profligate? If you have the money, surely it is yours to spend as you please? If you want to throw out the sofa after twelve months instead of twelve years, who is to say you shouldn't?

It is "the environment" which may make us pause, but I am not always sure why. Oil is an exhaustible resource but - for example - cotton isn't. You can just keep on growing it. Ah, but what about Waste and its disposal? A throwaway society is a society which creates waste on a vastly greater scale.

Of course, that's true, so the waste has to go somewhere and, of course, we may have to pay for it to go there - though sometimes other people will be happy to pay us to recycle it. That's as true now as in Charles Dickens' time.

The trouble at present is that we are surrounded by ideologically-motivated recycling, the costs and benefits of which are unclear. When I loook at the big, diesel-guzzling lorries which crawl round my city and are slowly and painfully filled with "recyclables" I rather suspect they are part of a Soviet system which does not care about costs or benefits. Some of the time, the "recycling" is simply bogus - the stuff goes to landfill; they just won't admit it. The rest of the time, when all the costs are factored, is it rational to collect all those half-washed empty cans of dog food? Would it not make better environmental sense to ban the dogs?

Friday, 12 November 2010

Funerals

This is autobiography

Funerals are organised - and sometimes paid for - by the living, who also have to experience them. It is better that the dead do not interfere.

It's possible to dispose of a body without a funeral: you send it to the crematorium and they burn it. No one has to take a day off work.

It seems a bit harsh, though there was a time when it might have attracted me: the teenage time when The Mayor of Casterbridge allowed me to indulge maudlin grief to the full.

Most likely, my children will have to decide whether to give me a funeral and, if so, of what kind. I very much hope they will have my body cremated and I do not want any religious officiation. Otherwise, it's up to them how they use the time they will be allocated.

I haven't attended many funerals and have only taken full responsibility for one, my mother's. My mother believed in God, so I invited a C of E clergyman to officiate, even though for stretches of her life she felt herself too wicked to attend church. She read the Bible privately at home.

I was grateful to the clergyman, who did a sensitive job. I have attended other funerals where you feel sorry for those grieving as you listen to the jobbing cleric make a hash of things, reading from crib notes about someone he never met. Far better to do it yourself.

I spoke at my mother's funeral, addressing the five people in attendance (including the cleric). It is one of the things in my life that I am really glad I did. I am surprised I managed it. Outside the crematorium chapel, I had seen the approaching single and unaccompanied hearse, which I had ordered, and it had been too much for me.

My mother died within a few weeks of being taken seriously ill. It was an unpleasant death (Carcinoma pancreas), only relieved by moments of morphine-induced animation. I sought desperately to focus her on happy and redeeming moments of a very unhappy life and when I spoke at the funeral it was also to foreground a few things of which she had been proud.

A few months beforehand, she had her final nervous breakdown - on New Year's Day 1978, depressed and suicidal, she ordered a taxi and presented herself at the gates of an old-fashioned asylum (Bexley Mental Hospital). They telephoned me. I was 31. She was 70.

Fourteen years had passed since her last major breakdown, which rendered her unable to walk or speak. You could call it catatonic depression or, simply, melancholia. On Boxing Day 1964, it was me who telephoned for an ambulance and who sat in the back with her as it took her to Bexley. She stayed there for months and for ECT. In 1978, they refrained from the ECT.

Nowadays, parents often live to an age when their children have resolved the difficulties they have created for them and where they can feel that the parents have had their life and it is right that they should die.

But when you talk to people who have lost a parent or a partner, it is clear that the expectation of someone's death is always not quite real. Death is not meant to happen this week, when you are not quite ready.


A funeral is one of the ways we deal with the fact of not having been quite ready for a death.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Hubert Wolf - Pope and Devil

The future is like the past. And the past is like the future.

This is a fascinating book by an academic church historian, using the Vatican archives to show how it responded to the rise of Nazism and the reality of the Third Reich. It provides - perhaps unwittingly - insight into how the central bureaucracy of a totalitarian organisation functioned in the 1920s and 1930s and - no doubt - still functions today. There are obvious parallels between the way in which the Vatican has handled its recent sex abuse scandals and the way in which it handled its relations with Nazi Germany, in both cases always deciding in favour of institutional self-interest.

At first, I thought the author must be writing tongue in cheek, ironically, in taking us through the handling of matters about which priests in rather expensive black gowns get excited - female gymnastics in the case of the future Pope Pius XII. But by the end, I suspect not.

The Vatican as we know it was Mussolini's creation. He acceded to the Church's demand to remove itself from the jurisdiction of national civil and criminal law by granting it recognition as a state, able to send ambassadors all over the world, issue passports and postage stamps, but above all, able to claim immunity when threatened with action for the crimes of its leaders.

But its bogus claim to statehood is only one of the sources which nurtures the Vatican's irresponsibiliy. The other source is its unaccountability for the use to which it puts the funds furnished by the faithful. Hubert Wolf describes in detail what Vatican bureaucrats do with their time. So many bureaucrats, so much time on their hands. If God hadn't invented committees for them, they would have surely done so themselves.

It is in this area that I locate Wolf's lack of wider vision. As a church historian, he is above discussing the Vatican as an organisation where money, power and influence operate as in any organisation, only - because of its totalitarian character - more so.

Nor is it his job to moralise. I am free to do that. For me, the central question is this: Is the Vatican, as an organisation, a force for Good or Evil? (I am not a relativist and I am happy to use those terms).

I answer that it is a force for Evil, always ready to persecute, even excommunicate , those of its members who show too much humanity - as long as they have no worldly power. Always ready to accommodate to the powerful, to bow down to worldly power. Hitler was never excommunicated - a topic Wolf throws away lightly in his closing pages.

Nowadays, no one stands up to the Vatican. Only this year, all our politicians grovelled to Pope Benedict on a state visit got up by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Standing up to the Vatican begins with withdrawing diplomatic recognition. No more Papal Nuncios scurrying around organising the bishops to fight the British version of Modernism. Wolf gives a detailed and fascinating account of what Nuncios - among whom the future Pius XII - got up to in the 1920s. I don't believe anything will have much changed. Read this book, and you won't want a Nuncio in your own back yard.

Postscript: "Nowadays, no one stands up to the Vatican". I forgot the recent action of the Belgain authorities who raided the Catholic bishops and archbishops, laptops and all, daring to treat them as subject to Belgian law. The indignation in the Vatican was intense: that our priests sexually abuse children is no business of the police!

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

A note to warmongers, American and (as a consequence) British

Dear American Reader

There are several reasons why it is a bad idea for your country to attack other countries:

1. Your country will lose. Didn't you get the message after Vietnam?

2. Baddies don't get killed in the wars you conduct. Your missiles, fired from a safe distance, usually kill women and children - at home, in school, in hospital. It happens over and over again and, by the end, there is a very big civilian casualty toll and a very small number of Baddies killed. Ever stop to ask yourself why you are so unpopular?

3. Volunteer troops, often taken from deprived backgrounds, will sometimes behave well under stress and become heroes. But it seems, more often, they behave badly - loosing off bullets because they panic, beating up and torturing people (any people) who fall into their hands, generally acting unpleasant. Sometimes they are under the influence of illegal drugs which I understand are very popular back home but easier to get in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That sounds enough reasons to stop and think very carefully before you subject people in far away countries to shock and awe. Especially when you consider that the Brits will follow mindlessly behind wherever your leader leads.

Which? and your savings accounts.

Back on 10th July, I wrote about Hoarders and Wasters.

Now Which? has confirmed one of my suspicions. There are no less than 1200 different "Savings" accounts available from British banks and building societies. If "savers" switched their money from some of the low interest accounts to some of the higher interest ones, they would gain an estimated £12 billion a year. Instead, they are getting a rate of return on their "savings" which is below the rate of inflation. Good news for banks.

But Which? makes a mistake. It assumes that all this money is being "saved". That's not true. It's simply not being spent and that's a different activity. Some people are too mean, too lazy, too happy or too sick to spend. They may also be too mean, too lazy, too happy or too sick to save properly.

Take my free advice. Don't save. Then you don't have to read Which? reports on best value for money Savings accounts.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Smelly Feet? I blame Marks and Spencer

I am of that generation which went to Marks and Spencer for one hundred percent cotton, one hundred percent wool. Socks, shirts, underpants, jumpers. You knew it made sense. Nylon made you sweat and itch and smell.

Now you have to look hard to find one hundred percent in M&S. It's all "Cotton Rich" and "Wool Rich" - that is to say, it's polyamides in greater or lesser proportions, whether it's made in China, Turkey or the UAE (three sources I noticed today - China provides the "Italian inspired" ranges).

Today I had to search hard for cotton and wool socks. What confronted me was massed ranks of "Fresh Feet" socks - socks which have been "sanitized" with some "silver technology" (that probably should have an ® )and promise freshness as long as the sock lasts.

So if you have smelly feet, M&S is the place to shop.

But, hang on, what is the direction of causation? Do ninety percent of men have smelly feet, accounting for the fact that ninety percent of M&S socks are targeted at this group? Surely not. I thought that smelly feet was a minority interest, easily catered for by surgical wear shops which sell corsets and trusses.

So maybe it's the other way round: stuff your socks with polyamides and, boy, do they make your feet smell - unless, of course, corrected for with sanitizing technology.

Take my advice. Avoid socks for smelly feet. Insist on cotton or wool. Better safe than smelly.

Added 3 October 2016:

In a local M&S, looking for things to buy for young grandchildren, I noticed a pack of socks. I read the label - they had been treated with Freshfeet (That's a Trademark) Technology. Frighten them young, eh?

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Eric Pickles, Scientology and Donkeys

Eric Pickles, our Communities Secretary, has challenged the very handsome tax breaks which some local authorities - including the City of London Corporation - give to Scientology. Up to 80% off business rates on their handsome properties.

Nice breaks if you can get them.

The world is full of questionable tax breaks. Donkeys do very well out of them, which is why there are lots of donkey sanctuaries, and lots of donkey sanctuarians going round ensuring that the legacies continue to roll in. They fund a lifestyle, not only for donkeys but for the humans who control them.

Just as there are too many buses on the road because they are subsidised through free bus passes for favoured groups (my age group, notably) so there are too many animal welfare charities because they are subsidised through tax breaks. Animal welfare charities are nice little earners.

As such, they should be treated like regular businesses. This would reduce their number and, hopefully, reduce the number of cute and cuddly animals used to front them.

But I would go farther. The Tories think inheritance taxes are unfair because they stop people leaving what they want to leave to their nearest and dearest. Well, maybe inheritance taxes on legacies to humans could be eased if legacies to cats' and dogs' homes were taxed more heavily. Let's say at 95%.

Then there are organised religions, the word "organised" having the sense that it does in "organised crime". Religions get out of VAT and business rates and criminal responsibility and goodness knows what else. How else would they afford all the baubles?

Time to tax them too.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

France: an Infantile Disorder?

They are striking again in France. They have been doing it ever since the August holidays ended. They always do. This time they say it is in opposition to legislation raising the retirement age from 60 to 62. France has the same problem as other European countries: funding the cost of state benefits for people who insist on living a lot, lot longer and against whom, so far, no virus (bird flu, swine flu, HIV) has proved remotely effective.

To an outsider, the strikes seem infantile. These are people who are not listening, not thinking and who are stuck in a groove of self-destructive action.

But there must be more to it than that. Every time I visit France, I am struck by how highly regulated life is by a highly centralised state apparatus. Personal freedom is quite limited. Commercial freedom even more so. People seem agitated and quick to anger. There is something wrong with the way of life.

All the restaurants open and shut at the same times and so do all the shops and banks. Every business displays reams of official paper granting it permission to do whatever it does but not anything else. People are fearful.

Everything shuts in August, including the hospitals - and so when, a few years ago, there was an extreme August heatwave, it was able to do a good job killing off elderly citizens in the cities simply because there were no doctors available to treat them.

Life in France is suffocating. No liberty, not much equality and certainly no fraternity. Strikes in France are not a left-wing disorder. They are symptoms of deep seated frustration with a centralised, authoritarian state and way of life. Unfortunastely, those going on strike think that the solution is more state power.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

My Benefits Right or Wrong

Over the past thirty or forty years, British governments have encouraged voters to think that they are in business to hand out benefits.

Ther have been a number of motivations.


When traditional industries in the North of England and so on declined and died, it was an easy option for govenment to hand out benefits, with no questions asked, to those who had become unemployed and to their dependents. It has continued ever since. Occupation? Benefits Claimant.

Then, to buy off disquiet about what was going on, governments - especially New Labour - had the bright idea of making everyone a Benefits Claimant. Thus arrived Universal Benefits. Child Benefit is the one now being talked about.

Universal benefits seem to make taxation painless - you pay your taxes and they give you it back, less the middleman's costs. It does not occur to people clutching their free bus passes that it might be more cost-effective to lower taxes and abolish the benefits.

So governments have created a nation of benefits' scroungers, the most vociferous of them affluent and middle class. Mr Cameron can say Your Country Needs You, but the claimants are quick with their reply, My Benefits Right or Wrong

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Life Isn't Fair. Get over It?

We don't choose when and where we are born, our parents or our genes. If we are very unlucky with any of those - and in many times and places, many are - we don't even live long enough to exclaim, It Isn't Fair!

Parents push the notion of Fairness as a way of settling disputes among squabbling children. It seems to work which may explain why politicians copy the strategy. I doubt it's because they have read John Rawls's A Theory of Justice .

But politicians aren't elected to be fair. They are elected to push agendas which offer benefits to some at the expense of others. So when they say (as the Conservatives were saying not so long ago)that they will reduce Inheritance Tax, that's not because it's Fair to do so but because there are lots of voters out there thinking about the big inheritance they are going to get when their Dear Parents eventually (and why does it have to be so long coming?) die. They don't want to see it taxed away. They aren't thinking about Fairness; they just want the money.

Social democratic parties have generally pushed the view that the job of government is Redistribution from richer to poorer and they have argued - or assumed - that this is the core of Fairness. This automatically creates a space for right wing parties to exclaim, Oh No It Isn't!

That is true. Justice in the nursery often involves ensuring that the small child gets the same number of strawberries as the big child - fairness in this instance is actually egalitarian, with entitlement simply based on being a person.

But justice in economic and social life is much more complicated because it has to take into account how the poor got to be poor and the rich got to be rich. Entitlement is connected to a narrative history not to abstract identity as a person. If you are poor because you spent your inheritance at the gaming table, well, Tough. It's not the government's job to tax someone (anyone, in fact) so that you can go back to the gaming table.

But suppose you didn't squander an inheritance. Suppose you just never had a chance. Isn't it the job of government to try to make life fairer than genes or parents would otherwise make it? In other words, isn't the job of government to correct life's unfairness?

One answer is that it is if by that means you can produce a better outcome for everyone. If you transfer resources from the well-off to the deprived, you indirectly benefit the better off. The streets are safer and that outcome can be achieved at a cost less than the cost of locking up the poor.

The trouble with this argument is that it simply appeals to the Prudence of the better off. It says that you can buy off trouble.

That is a belief which comes easily to an elected politician. Gordon Brown really had no other political credo than a belief that you could always buy off trouble. But someone else might reject Prudence and when warned about Trouble could simply say, Bring It On! That's what Mrs Thatcher did. That's what happens in many countries as a matter of course. But Trouble has a habit of spiralling until life becomes, for everyone, nasty, brutish and short.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The View from Waterloo Bridge

There was a time, twenty years ago perhaps, when I disliked London. It was dirty and run down. Margaret Thatcher had abolished the Greater London Council and it showed.

Things are much better now and there are things about London I really like.

One is the view from Waterloo Bridge. Look to the east or look (especially) to the west and the panorama is spectacular, especially at night. Both old and new contribute and, whether by accident or design, the colour palette is limited and harmonious. There's no argument, it's wonderful and it's enabled by the very open nature of the bridge, with its low parapets and so on.

Take a look before it's too late. They have been doing roadworks on Waterloo Bridge. Large - very large - pairs of black posts have gone up on the west side pavement, the length of the bridge. Soon vast traffic signs will be nailed to the posts. They will destroy what I have been describing.

I have written to the Mayor of London, not somethig I normally do. We shall see.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Equal Opportunity - except for your Brother?

Well, I have learnt something this week which perhaps only an Only Child would need to learn.

Reading the Message Boards, it's quite clear that whatever commitment people have to Equality of Opportunity it doesn't extend to their younger brothers

I read that Ed has disloyally taken David's job, like some kind of Polish plumber shoving aside a proper British worker.

I read that Ed has been cruel to his Mother by not letting her Eldest Son have his way.

Basically, I read that Ed should have Known his Place.

Well, I know that Deference remains a core value in British society, a value assiduously nurtured both by our elders and our betters.

And quite clearly there are many on the Message Boards for whom the pull of deference is stronger than the spirit of May the Best Man win. I guess they all have younger brothers.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

The Labour Party: You couldn't make it up

I have stopped voting, but I take a (generally bemused) interest in British politics.

The Labour Party bemuses me. Led by Tony Blair, its most hated member, it won three elections. Led by Gordon Brown, its most hate-filled member, it lost one. So what does the Party do? It gives Brown star billing at the latest party conference where he woos them with such gems as "I take full responsibility". Well, if that's the case, why didn't they take him out and shoot him? Instead, with tears in their eyes, they applauded him. They must be nuts.

As for the leadership election, they would have done better to toss a coin: David or Ed? Much better, David and Ed should have taken a lead from Ant & Dec and stood on a Job Share ticket. They would have won hands down. The electorate could then (five years from now) savour the choice between David & Ed or David & Nick.

As for policy, Labour Has No Alternative. It has to oppose Tory cuts to public services. That's because its members and backers work for those services and don't want to lose their jobs. Opposing cuts in public services implies that it wants Britain to go further into debt until it loses its AAA credit rating (and goes bust) or that it wants higher taxes (Soak the Rich).

Unfortunately, the Rich are not easily Soaked. Try to soak them and they disappear to Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man. These are the Crown Dependencies which Parliament licences to operate as havens for those who want to avoid or evade UK taxation. It is unthinkable that a Labour Government, which always grovels to the Crown, would vote to incorporate these Dependencies into the UK and its tax system.

There is an absurdity here which bemuses me. All our governments have hung on desperately to Northern Ireland, never allowing it to be suggested that mainland Britain plc should divest itself of this heavily loss-making subsidiary. At the same time, they would never ever contemplate a take over of the profit-making Isle of Man and Channel Islands. Parliament has the right to do that, but it never would. Indeed, in case the Crown Dependencies are not enough tax havens, there are also a score of Overseas Crown Territories - headed up by the Cayman Islands - also licensed by Parliament to help people avoid and evade UK taxes. You could not put a cigarette paper between Labour and the Tories on their commitment to these arrangements.

So what we have is a political class united in its determination to make it as difficult as possible to raise the money which would balance the books and fund decent public service provision. It's very strange.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

On preferring Second Best to Change

This is really autobiography.

Human beings cannot be other than creatures of habit. They are obliged to create futures which are pretty much like their pasts.

Habits can be changed, but only a few at a time and against a background of habits which remain intact. Changing a habit involves some kind of emotional and intellectual challenge, however minimal. You have to go outside your comfort zone and you have to learn something new.

Most of the time, human beings prefer their comfort zones and the absence of mental challenge to the work involved in change. Some human beings prefer to be comfortable and idle all the time.

Inevitably, this often means settling for second best. Or worse. So people end up for very long - sometimes lifelong - periods in bad marriages and bad jobs, living in fuel inefficient homes, driving fuel inefficient cars, with their money going in and out of an account with a second-rate bank, taking a break from it all on cold and wet public holidays.

I opened my first bank account in 1965 in order to pay in my University grant cheques. (My mother, who died in 1978, never had a bank account. She had nothing more than a Post Office Savings Bank account until the end of her life. When I sent her cheques by way of financial support, she asked her butcher to cash them. She was humiliated when one bounced).

I opened my first account with Lloyds in Oxford and I stayed with Lloyds until the mid 1990s - let's say, thirty years. Lloyds was all right but not more than that. I found it hard to keep track of my finances and cheques did bounce. Their rates of interest were almost certainly higher than ones I could have obtained elsewhere.

A friend spent several years pointing out to me that I could change for the better. Eventually I moved to First Direct and I have never regretted it. Here was a bank where I could check the state of my account 24/7. I am never in trouble now.

But there is something shocking about the way I resisted making a fairly simple change from one bank to another. And there are plenty of people about who would never have done it. They would have stuck to their bank as if it was written into their marriage vows that they should do so.

Elected politicians have their own unbreakable habits - in the UK, nothing will persuade them to change the way business is conducted in the House of Commons - that is to say, submerged under rituals designed to stop as much change as possible.

But politicians open to change have to contend with the electorate's resistance. Voters are people who stand there, fold their arms and tell you that they always have done and always will do it THIS way. Urged to change, they will stamp their feet and cry Shan't, Can't, Won't!

As a result, for example, the United Kingdom now has no coherent system of weights and measures which everyone uses. For a number of years, the European Union tried to get us to Go Metric. Even Going Decimal would have been a start. But TEACHERS had no intention of going metric (they didn't understand these foreign ideas), and market traders saw the chance to become METRIC MARTYRS, and like the pound sterling, wasn't it part of our TRADITION and HERITAGE to have three feet to a yard and (what is it?) 1760 yards to the mile.... and so eventually the European Union gave up. Go into your supermarket and see the result: some foodstuffs are now sold in Metric measures and some in Imperial ones. What is a child supposed to make of it all?

I once asked myself what was my most deeply embedded habit among habits which could be easily changed.

My mother used Persil, I have always used Persil, and I have never experimented with anything else. In contrast, my mother bought Lux toilet soap. I buy Occitane and (on trips to France) Le Petit Marseillais. I think the difference may be simply this: that fifty years on from my childhood, the range of freely available soaps has expanded enormously. You aren't stuck with Lux or Fabulous Pink Camay.But there are people who act as if they are, whose brand loyalty to some soap is as strong as mine to Persil.

It's a bit scary. Isn't life for the living and living about trying new things?

Sunday, 19 September 2010

The Pope in Britain: How do you think the world sees us?

I suppose it is part of being an Imperial power that you do not care how others see you.

In this sense, the State Visit of the Pope shows that Britain is still an Imperial power. Our political establishment simply don't care how others will perceive this bizarre display. Nor do they care that they might have found better ways to spend their time and taxpayers' money this past week.

The biggest insensitivity implied by this red carpet visit is probably that directed towards the Republic of Ireland. Here is a small country, our neighbour, which has struggled to free itself from the burden of its past. It has turned away from its own history in order to co-operate with the UK in seeking a solution to the Northern Ireland conflict. To join the modern world, it has fought hard to put the priests back in their box. The Irish government still has a long struggle ahead to bring a vicious and devious church to account. For the UK government to flaunt the Pope is sticking two fingers up to the Republic of Ireland, a country the Pope cannot visit.

Goodness knows what the rest of Europe thinks. The Pope's visit puts us down there with Malta and Portugal, not up there with France or Germany or Spain. All our politicians who filled up their diaries this week with Popey events would have done better to sit down with their opposite numbers in mainstream Europe for a few hours. It would have been to our advantage, economic and political.

On a wider stage, one can only imagine the despair of those working to combat HIV in Africa to watch this suck-up visit unfold.

Whose fault? Blair and Brown. They pleaded with the Pope to grace us with a visit - it can even be a State Visit, Your Holiness. It was Brown who grovelled for the eventual Yes from the Vatican. This visit is part of his Legacy.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Do We Need the BBC?

I am one of the handful of people who does not have a TV licence. I don't watch TV. I prefer to watch old movies on dvd.

I do look at the BBC News website. It's been revamped recently. The main stories for the past couple of weeks have included several transparent plugs for the Pope's visit ("opportunities to see the Pope" and so on). Opus Dei must be pleased with the success of its press operation.

Then there is a new section of "regional" news in recognition of the fact that the UK is "pretty much a non-country" (to borrow a phrase from UKIP Farage).

Seven o'clock Sunday evening, this is what's on offer:

ENGLAND: "Shock at 16-year-old girl's death"
SCOTLAND: "Call for homeopathy cash pull-out" [ I think that is in the category of Recycled Old News]
NORTHERN IRELAND: "WW2 mortar bomb found in attic" [That's the stuff of over 50 years' worth of local newspaper stories, isn't it?]
WALES: "Pedestrian killed in road crash" [ Well, it wasn't a sheep so I suppose it might be news...]

Anyway, I rest my case. Do we need the BBC? No. I think I'd prefer News International garbage to this publicly-funded garbage.

Just keep the World Service for Intelligent Foreigners.

Waitrose and Duchy Originals: touching one's forelock

A year ago, Waitrose bailed out the Duke of Cornwall's firm, Duchy Originals. They pumped in money to expand the range and got exclusive dealing rights.

A year on, it's hard to avoid Duchy Originals on Waitrose shelves. They've got everything covered, except maybe tampons (I must check).

Buy one from the range and a donation to the Prince's Charities is built into the price.

Britain's hereditary aristocracy is remarkably resilient. It survived the first world war without being put up against the wall and shot, as it should have been.

It did well in the second world war. The pro-Nazi Duke of Windsor (the ex - King Edward VIII) did not go to prison for his politics, but was merely sent off to govern one of the colonies. The potential Quisling King was simply removed to a safe distance from the Battle of Britain. Steered by Churchill, King George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother did a good job helping maintain morale. They had a good war.

Now we sleep walk towards another King Edward VII, as Prince Charles, Duke of Cornwall, waits in the queue for the old Queen to die and give him a few years at the top.

Meanwhile, I can't shop in Waitrose without contributing to his charities. I am sure some of them are jolly good things. But Waitrose is a decent organisation, a progressive employer. I would much rather that there were Waitrose charities and that I paid my pennies into those. There is something demeaning about having to cough for Prince Charles.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

The Pope, the People and the Politicians

The Pope's visit will be a moving and momentous occasion for the whole country and he will undoubtedly receive the warmest of welcomes.

Author of those words? Gordon Brown, in September 2009.

It was Prime Minister Brown who offered the Pope this forthcoming State Visit. Tony Blair appears also to have tried when Prime Minister.

Blair no doubt thought Cherie would like it. Brown thought it would play well with working class Labour voters in Glasgow and Liverpool. Both demonstrate how out of touch British politicians are with those who elect and eject them. The majority of people profess indifference to Ratzinger's visit; a minority - including me - are incredulous and angry; another minority are in a tizz over what hats and shoes the Pope will wear.

Brown's remarks back in September 2009 simply illustrate his dissociation from the world around him.

The Pope is the reactionary head of a corrupt organisation. He is poisonously opposed to the kind of society Britain has become. In no sense is he a spiritual leader. There's not much more to say, other than that his organisation enjoys immunity from British law. It is inconceivable that Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, would allow a case to be brought against a member of the Roman Catholic hierarchy for obstructing the police in bringing to justice paedophile priests.

I didn't vote at the last Election. I felt that the political system was no longer credible and reform would only come when people declined to give even token endorsement to the antics of the political class.

For similar reasons, I can't take the Labour leadership contest seriously. These are all people who knew that Gordon Brown was nasty and a nutter, but who allowed him to plot and bully his way to the top, completely unopposed. Just as senior Liberal Democrats covered up Charles Kennedy's alcoholism when he was their Leader, so Labour's inner circle remained silent about Brown. I wouldn't like any of them in charge in a crisis.

It goes deeper than covering up the tantrums. Blair and Brown at least agreed on this: say nothing about the eventual cost to future taxpayers of Labour's half-baked private-public partnership schemes which built the new schools and hospitals but at exorbitant costs which will not be paid back for decades - and at punitive rates of interest. All the costs which were deliberately kept "off balance sheet" will creep back on to become nightmares for our children and their children.

You can't trust the Pope. You can't trust the politicians. I'm not even sure you can trust the people.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Vanity is a Human Right - does that include the Pope's shoes?

I am always pleased to see people dress well and often tell them so. That does not necessarily mean dressing expensively, but it does of necessity involve letting other people know you care about your appearance. It's not quite the same thing as having a sense of style, but if you have no sense of style, you won't get very far in dressing well.

Whether cheap or expensive, overstated or understated, dresing well means you are going to have to look in the mirror. That's fine by me. Vanity is a human right. It goes hand in hand with maintaining self-respect even when the going gets rough.

But should the Pope agree with me?

The other day I tried to imagine the vehicle which will accompany him on his upcoming tour of Scotland and England and containing his wardrobe. I tried to imagine the roadies who will look after the costumes and wondered if he has a personal hairdresser and make-up artist. And, I suppose, he must have a dresser who serves as the mirror.

And I wondered, How much do his shoes cost?

When I posted that last question on the Guardian website, a Catholic groupie calling herself "Rosary" came to the Pope's defence: she just loved the Pope's "Super Kool" shoes. And the outfits he wears.

The problem for me is this: I thought the Pope was supposed to think vanity a bad thing and modesty a good thing. I thought he was supposed to think poverty a good thing and wealth - and certainly the ostentatious display of wealth - a bad thing.

But his wardrobe is in the same league as those of pop stars and dictators.
His role model could be Elton John.
The only thing missing is a pair of shades.

I haven't even mentioned the jewellery.

I wonder, Can the Pope really be happy with the thought that there are followers out there who get giddy over his shoes - not to mention his hats?

I imagine that if I asked him that question, he would take me aside and, with a smile, say to me, "Have you never heard of showmanship?"

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Claudy Bombing and the Catholic Church

In 1972, three bombs went off, without warning in the Northern Ireland village of Claudy. Nine people died, the youngest eight years old.

It appears that the police suspected - and had evidence for suspecting - that a Roman Catholic priest, Father James Chesney, masterminded the operation, either on his own intitiative or following an IRA decision(the IRA as of today does not accept Claudy as one of its bombings).

The police alerted their superiors, who alerted the Northern Ireland minister in the British government (Willie Whitelaw), who spoke to Cardinal Conway, Roman Catholic primate, who moved Father Chesney across the border into Donegal, where he continued working as a priest until his death in 1980. The police never questioned him.

We have got used to the fact that the Catholic Church moves sex abusers from parish to parish. We understand that the United Kingdom's law enforcement agencies will never move against members of the Catholic hierarchy who have been accessory to covering up for abusing priests.

Now we have to take on board that a UK government - and a Conservative one at that - was happy to see a priest moved on when he probably took the decisions, including handling the explosives, which resulted in nine deaths. Cardinal Conway appears to have had no compunction in co-operating to protect a possible murderer.

I begin to wonder for how long has the Catholic Church been so completely above the law. I suppose the Pope is coming here next month to ensure that things stay that way.

Eccentricities, Habits, Life Style Choices, Comfort Zones

This is autobiography.

There are things about myself which I understand by linking them to early experiences. We took a daily newspaper when I was a child and I am pretty sure that among the earliest newspaper headlines I read were those which catalogued Comet air crashes. There were lots of them in the early 1950s. In my child's mind, aircraft became things which crashed. I doubt that my mother did anything to disabuse me; she was full of anxieties and would simply have refused to fly if the opportunity had presented itself. It never did.

So I am not that surprised that for most of my life, flying has been a source of anxiety and, for many years, something which was simply impossible. I flew once in 1967 or 1968 (in a Comet)on a very short haul; I did not fly again until about 1995. Then I flew intensively for a few years, most of it with Ryanair and easyjet on short hauls. I even began to make day trips and I flew in BAs small turbo props, which are surely not for the faint hearted. I ventured as far as Israel, Ukraine, Armenia. I have never flown across the Atlantic.

After several years in which I lost my anxieties, a couple of bad trips put me off. A very bumpy, crowded flight to Dublin; a flight back in a storm from Munich with a loud bang which the person in the next seat told me was lightning striking the plane. I did make a point of flying again soon after that, but then I did not get on a plane for four or five years; I started again in 2009 but made just two trips.

There are other things about myself which I cannot link in an obvious way to things in my past and which I do not really understand.

I live a very silent life. I work at home but almost never play music while I am working. I never, ever listen to the radio. I have a new and fancy home cinema system and in the evenings I watch dvds. But the system has no aerial and is not tuned in to receive TV programmes. I never watch TV and do not have a TV licence. In the past five years, I have watched a handful of programmes: during the UKs recent election, I went to my daughter's to watch one of the Leaders' Debates. Before that, I can't remember what I last watched. Certainly very little after 9/11, which I did watch all day.

My car is equipped with a sophisticated sound system (I bought the car second-hand) but I never play CDs or listen to radio, even on very long journeys across Europe.

I have a landline phone for broadband connection. The phone itself is switched permanently to silent; I don't answer it. If someone rings me on my mobile with Number Witheld, I don't answer it. Most of the time I use text messages and emails to communicate with family, friends and clients. I love sms and email.

So what is this? Is this silent world an eccentricity? A habit which I don't challenge enough? A life style choice, screening out a cacophony of media babble? Or simply my comfort zone, outside which lies anxiety? And, for the purposes of this piece of reflection, why?

That is the question to which I don't have a clear answer. I know that one of my motives for switching my landline phone to silent was my irritation with timewaster calls. Now I listen to the messages but I don't always return the call. The same motive may explain why I don't listen to radio or watch TV: I am too easily irritated by them. Bu that doesn't explain why I listen to so little music when I belong to a generation - and I was part of it - which grew up on rock and roll. So it's not just about irritation.

I am comfortable with my choices, except to the extent that I recognise that they are eccentric. There's the rub: a life style choice which marks me as a bit odd.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Alan Milburn: Social Mobility Tsar

Alan Milburn, the Mr Nasty of New Labour, has accepted the job of Social Mobility Tsar, advising the UKs Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government.

If you don't believe in Social Mobility you probably believe in Tsars of one kind or another. The last real one was Nicholas II of Russia which makes me think that Alan Milburn is supposed to act as Social Mobility's Mr Stupid.

The inhabitants of the United Kingdom, subjects of the Queen etc, are not very keen on social mobility. They simply don't believe that the top jobs should be open to all. The vast majority are in favour of a hereditary monarchy even it means Charles III. They believe that ordinary people should be allowed to get rich, but they aren't particularly keen on the idea that ordinary people like themselves should be in charge of anything important, like the country. They prefer to put their trust in those who come from good homes and good schools: David Cameron and Nick Clegg, for example. Connections to the hereditary aristocracy and that other well-known Tsar, the Christian God, are added feel-good factors.

This is a big part of Mr Stupid's problem. Then there is the other part:

In the first half of the 20th century the biggest driver of social mobility was the Second World War. Churchill's government realised that the war would be lost unless careers were opened to talents. As a result, men and women from modest backgrounds rose through the ranks, military and civilian, on the basis of intelligence and bravery. Some of them ended up in very senior roles indeed. Now they are are nearly all dead.

The main driver of social mobility after 1945 has been abolished. Crude and sometimes cruel as they were, the 11+ and (free) grammar schools plucked people like me out of their class of origin and propelled them upwards towards training and careers their parents did not even know existed.

My parents left school without qualifications. My father rose from being a delivery boy pedalling a bike to become a self-employed shopkeeper with two lock-up shops. My mother never worked at a higher level than general shop assistant.

I ended up with three academic degrees, including a doctorate, and rose to a senior teaching post (Reader) in a half-way decent university (Sussex). I am not so sure it would have happened had I not been put in a grammar school environment. Our governments seem to have the same feeling since in the past two decades they have repeatedly tried to create schools which are not bog-standard comprhensives.

Unfortunately, they have chosen to do this making great use of God and school uniform. I put it forward as a general Law, that making children do God is a way of trying to keep them in their place. God and social mobility don't go together. Ditto school uniform, though we had it in my boys' grammar school and subverted it at every moment that we could. As a general rule, school uniform is there to promote conformity.

Social mobility is about allowing people to rise through the ranks even though they hold their knife and fork wrong, have a different accent, and don't give a toss about God and the Queen. I don't think this is something our coalition government has in mind.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

The Crown Dependencies: time for the Treasury to take an interest

The United Kingdom government has got its work cut out to balance its books, not only to scale back the annual budget deficit but also to reduce all the "off balance sheet" debt accumulated and hidden under Gordon Brown's reign at the Treasury and Downing Street: 13 profligate years in all.

The Liberal Democrats are in government on the basis that they will push for "fairness" in where taxes are raised and services curtailed. In that case,they - and Parliament - should take more of an interest in the "Crown Dependencies", the feudal relics of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.

Go on the Internet and you will find extraordinary amounts of overpaid legal faffing about these strange backyards. The simple truth is this: United Kingdom governments quietly license these local offshore territories to act as tax havens for rich people, many of whom would otherwise be UK taxpayers or more of UK taxpayers than they presently are. Live in the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man and you don't have a vote to send an MP to Westminster - and as the quid pro quo, you don't pay UK taxes. It's a no brainer. Taxes are lower or non existent in the Crown Dependencies; who cares about having an MP? And they are near enough to allow you to commute back and forth without hindrance to your office in London.

It's almost as simple as that. And the solution is almost as simple: Parliament should offer these offshore tax havens either the choice of complete independence from the UK - which would cost them, since at present we do a lot of the leg work to keep them in business - or incorporation into the UK and its tax system, in exchange for which they get to send their MPs to Westminster.

I am being generous really. On another day, I might say: just incorporate them. That's what any country really committed to fairness would do.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Simple, Complicated and Elaborated Relationships

People talk about relationships as simple or complicated.

Boy meets Girl (or vice versa) - they fall in love - they get married and live happily ever after. Simple enough, except that it rarely happens.

Boy meets Girl (or vice versa) - he is still involved with his ex. - but she decides to give it a go anyway - they argue - it becomes a habit which lasts even when he is no longer involved with his ex - she starts seeing someone because they are arguing ... This can get complicated.

These ways of talking tend to suggest that relationships, and the kind of relationships they are, are things which happen to people rather than things they make. It's true that people are told they need to "work at" their relationships, but they are only told this when the relationships seem to be going wrong. It is the stuff of parental advice and marital counselling: Try harder!

A different starting point would look on all relationships as things we make. Nothing just happens. Relationships are things of which we are capable, not things to which we are liable. (Author! Author! In this case, Rom Harré.)

Serious-minded people will make serious relationships and playful people will make playful relationships. Either way, they are working at their relationship from the very outset, in good times and bad.

Relationships work better when people understand that they need to be continuously made and re-made, as circumstances and the participants change. Habit is the background of everything we do, but habit cannot substitute for invention and re-invention.

We often describe relationships which last as "deep", but I would prefer to call them "elaborated". A great deal of detail has been filled in. There are the habits which form the background, but then there are the traditions, the rituals, the shared understandings - including sexual understandings - the attachments and affections, the trust, the humour, the projects and plans.

So a relationship is something people are always making. If they are lucky, they will be pleased with what they are creating and carry on, happy in what they are doing. If they are unlucky, one of them at least will conclude that it's time to tear up the paper and start over again. Either way, you don't rest on your laurels "till death us do part"

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Israel. Learning the Truth.

I have just finished reading Ilan Pappe's The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oneworld 2006); I picked it as a result of reading Shlomo Sand's The Invention of the Jewish People, about which I blogged in June.

Several times in recent years I have been shocked to discover the depth of my own historical ignorance. The first shock came when I read Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's The Unknown Mao. Somehow, I had managed to hang on to the idea that Mao had been a good thing for China. Other shocks came reading all the post-1991 books which demonstrate the depths of viciousness which characterised the old Soviet Union. Some of it I knew about; but not all.

Now I feel a bit ashamed to discover my ignorance about Israel: a racist, colonialist state founded on historical fantasies, ethnic cleansing and continuing violence. It is apartheid South Africa, probably worse. After reading Sands and Pappe, it is hard to avoid the thought that Israel is the last remaining outpost of 19th and 20th century European right-wing nationalist and racist ideologies. Most of the strategies and tactics of expansionist Nazism have been deployed and continue to be deployed against the Palestinians, except genocide. And now there are fringe Zionists - looking at non-Jewish Palestinian population growth - who spend their days dreaming of killing Palestinians. Sometimes they get the opportunity.

When the Jewish settlers cleansed Israel of its indigenous Palestinian population in 1948 - 49, they killed thousands as part of the terror they created to hasten their exodus. But only thousands; most became the refugees living in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, the West Bank and the Gaza strip. The UN observed what was happening, the General Asembly passed a Right of Return resolution, but the UN - which started the conflict by partitioning Palestine without conducting a Plebiscite - then did nothing. At the same time Stalin's Soviet Union and its satellite Czechoslovakia was supplying Israel with more arms to attack the Palestinians.

One of the most revealing details in Pappe's book is the claim (pages 235-236) that in 1948 - 49, the new Israeli authorities were very keen that the Palestinian refugees should be the responsibility of a new UN organisation, UNWRA, rather than the existing International Refugee Organisation (IRO). The latter had recently gained massive experience with handling refugees from World War II, many of them Jewish victims of Nazism. The Israelis did not want IRO staff to make any connection between the plight of the refugees they had recently helped and the Palestinian refugees displaced by the actions of the new Israeli state.

The Palestinians survived, in refugee camps and ghettos of one kind or another, of which Gaza is now the biggest: a "prison camp" in the words of British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Despite constant migration into Israel of foreigners claiming to be Jews (and some who don't even claim that), the demographics are against the Zionist state.

So is elementary morality. So is the absence of anything other than an ersatz, fake state-sponsored culture that (as I read Pappe) the universities have played an important role in creating.

One must remember that there are important strands of Jewish religious and secular cultures which are not Zionist and sometimes even anti - Zionist. At the time of Israel's creation, there were non-Zionist Jews living in the country who opposed the expulsion of the Palestinians, sometimes with local success.This does not stop Zionist propagandists, from conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Judaism and, of course, anti-Semitism. Sir Martin Gilbert [of the UKs Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war] was doing it on Israeli army radio only recently.

In 1995, I travelled to Jerusalem to initiate discussions on a distance-learning doctoral programme between the University of Sussex (where I worked) and an Israeli higher education institution. I knew so little about Israel that I did not really register why some of my Sussex colleagues were less than enthusiastic about partnering with an Israeli institution. There was a peace process, wasn't there, which meant (among other things) that I had been able to walk alone all the way round the top of the Old City walls taking photographs, some of them showing the young Israeli soldiers looking down from the walls to observe the comings and goings of the Muslim/Palestinian markets. And when I was unexpectedly introduced to Yasser Arafat in Bethlehem, I simply wished him Good Luck ... (this encounter is recounted in "A Christmas Carol" - go to Stories at www.selectedworks.co.uk )

I knew enough to keep quiet about that odd encounter when going through the Security de-briefing on my way out at Ben-Gurion airport. But otherwise: Such ignorance! I am embarassed. My own Owl of Minerva is very clearly flying only after dusk.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

The Over 60s are going to be with us for a long time

Recent UK official data have revealed the massive burden of Government capital and interest repayments which will fall on the next generation of taxpayers - unless, of course, they repudiate their parents' and their grandparents' debts. If those who incurred the debt were obliged to pay it off, then the present generation of taxpayers would be looking at an all-round 30% tax hike.

At 63, I am one of those who benefited significantly for the first fifty or so years of my life from other people's taxes: in school, university and in a career as a university teacher. This is one reason why for the past ten years I have made my academic work available on line with free download. It's there for today's students if they want it (www.selectedworks.co.uk). I think all old academic work should be made available like this and not hidden behind paywalls of one kind or another.

My occupational pension is modest enough to indicate that my career was not a material success (I net £1170 a month) but the pension contributions also came from public money.

Now I am self-employed and in the month of July I have to pay my half yearly tax, quarterly VAT and quarterly self-employed National Insurance contributions: this time round, a bit over £6000. I know that much of that money will be squandered by the government, but on balance I count myself fortunate in being fit enough to work, to like the work I do and to enjoy a standard of living higher than my pension alone would permit me.

But government and the over 60s have a very different outlook. Governments encourage women to leave the workforce by offering them a lower age (60) at which they can collect their Old Age Pension. And even if they continue to work, women can still collect their pension. They do not have to pay further National Insurance contributions. Men have to wait until 65. It is the biggest piece of legalised sexism still in existence.

Governments also indicate to all the over 60s that it is time to take it easy and stop contributing to society. Free Prescriptions, Free Swimming, a cash handout every Christmas (allegedly for "Winter Fuel" but you can winter on the Costa del Sol and still collect it)and, of course, the iconic Free Bus Pass.

These freebies are essentially patronising and paternalistic electoral bribes. There is absolutely no reason why the government should pay a person's bus fares just because they are over 60. It distorts the transport market, discouraging walking and cycling and encouraging binge bus riding. Rather than put the funds into a higher state pension, leaving people free to decide how they spend it, the Bus Pass shepherds older people to a government-preferred pattern of consumption.

Worse, it has created or reinforced a culture of dependency among the over 60s. They now firmly believe that the Bus Pass is a Human Right, part of what society owes them. As a result, some now think they should also get free rail travel and goodness knows what next. It is a culture of benefits scroungers. The benefits are modest - they are freebies - but the beneficiaries are often affluent. And mean.

Since this group of over 60s is going to increase as a percentage of the population, a cultural shift is needed. The over 60s should be encouraged to think that they are responsible for themselves so long as their health allows it. Their children should be encouraged to accept more responsibility for them as they get older and more frail - they get their reward in the end: an inheritance. The government should define its responsibilities more narrowly. The vulnerable elderly who are beyond voting but need expensive care are a primary responsibility. The state pension comes next, but that should be more clearly framed as a contributory scheme even if it is a compulsory one. After that, I am not sure that the government should be doing very much. All the freebies should be abolished.