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Saturday, 31 December 2011

Writing Books: the Way We Were Then

I have a small room in my flat which is a constant reminder to me that my father hoarded junk in his caravan on a scale which made visiting an encounter with an obstacle course.

This morning, I have been trying to tidy up my room, a task I discharge several times a year, willing myself to throw things away.

The room contains suitcases, empty boxes, my bicycle (which I don't ride), Bags for Life, my library and my life history insofar as that it is deposited in written and other documents: there are such things as reel to reel recordings of lectures I gave in the early 1970s and which were precursors to my first book, Language Truth and Politics, published in 1975.

No sooner published than I took two copies of the book and broke them up. I pasted the book, page by page, onto the right hand sides of a large desk diary and used this to record comments and criticisms of the book, to add further references and to make amendments for what I hoped would be a second edition - which did indeed appear in 1980.

Illustrated above, a right hand page with the beginning of Chapter IV and the surrounding comments which extend to the facing left hand page. I guess few people would work like this now. And the result was not particularly happy: the second edition is even more cluttered with footnotes and parentheses than the first. You can see from the sample page above how that came about.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Don't Mean To Be Funny, But Is There Something Wrong with Mr Miliband?

I am one of the handful of people in possession of a letter from TV Licensing confirming that I do not need a licence because I don't have a TV.
I have a home cinema system but it isn't tuned to receive TV broadcasts; to me, this is simply part of mental hygiene.

So that is one reason why it is only today that browsing The Daily Telegraph website I came across a 2011 video clip which shows Mr Ed Miliband, Leader of the Labour Party, replying to a range of different questions from a TV interviewer with the same answer - almost word for word.

I obviously don't know what you can get away with on TV these days but I have to say Mr Miliband's behaviour in this clip strikes me as very odd. He seems to be suffering from some cognitive impairment.

Surely you cannot lead a political party which claims it could form a government (and with Mr Miliband as Prime Minister) if your Leader has got some kind of mental block which prevents him answering questions from an interviewer.

Have I missed something?

My Predictions for 2011: Two Out of Three Ain't Bad

A year ago, on 31 December 2010, I blogged three Predictions for 2011:

1. "The pound ... at the end of the year will be roughly where it is now (today: 1.16 - 1.17 euros to the pound)"

RESULT: A near miss. Sterling stayed in that band for most of the year until lack of decisive action by eurozone leaders strengthened sterling, which ends the year at 1.19 as of Friday 30.12.11 - a gain of 2.72% over the year. The gain hardly suggests that the markets think the eurozone crisis that much worse than the sterlingzone crisis. In reality, what happens in the UK is inter-dependent with what happens in the rest of the Europe.

2. "Voters will say 'No' to electoral reform" in the AV referendum

RESULT: A hit. The prediction was made at a time when there seemed to be support for electoral reform so I had to give reasons for my prediction - go to the 31 December 2010 Blog to find them

3. "Dr Liam Fox will not be Secretary of State for Defence by the end of 2011"

RESULT: A hit - and I think I may have been the only Blogger to predict this outcome. (I should have put money on it).
I had read press reports about Dr Fox's conduct in office which suggested to me that he was pursuing his own agenda in a way unacceptable for someone in a sensitive post, even in these relaxed Coalition times.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Governments, Cultures and Sex

I was thinking about how we are often shocked by the ways other cultures and their legal expression respond to adultery, rape, homosexuality, promiscuity, prostitution, and sex itself. Iran and Afghanistan make the news because they punish women for the crimes of men. The Indian sub-continent because men throw acid into the faces of women who spurn them. The list and the details could be extended at length and it would be shocking.

Our own cultures have their oddities. Sexual jealousy can be an intense and sometimes mortally destructive force which hardly needs encouragement from legislation.

Yet in France and other countries, you will get off with a lighter punishment if you can show that yours was a crime of passion. That is not true in the UK where (for example) the last woman to be hanged (Ruth Ellis) was strung up for killing her unfaithful lover.

But the UK has its own soft spot for sexual jealousy in its divorce laws. If your husband or wife has a one-night stand with someone else, that is sufficient ground for filing a fault-based divorce petition. So instead of encouraging people to find ways of dealing with hurt and jealousy, you give them an instantly-available and very destructive outlet for it. Hardly a way to support the institutions of marriage and the family. Only the lawyers benefit.

In another Blog, I said that fault-based divorce should be abolished or, at least, that the law should no longer recognise adultery as a sufficient ground for divorce.
Sexual infidelity brings out the worst in those who are hurt by it. The law should try to discourage the worst, not encourage it.

After all, infidelity is extremely common and it would be more helpful if laws and cultural institutions encouraged people to find ways of dealing with it and moving on.

Monday, 26 December 2011

My Third Prediction for 2012: The Queen's Jubilee and the Olympics will be too much to handle

The UK Government is planning two big Circuses for 2012: the Queen's Jubilee and the Olympics. To encourage celebrations for the former, public services will shut down for two days. To ensure that the latter runs smoothly, the army will be on duty.

Will it all go well, like 2011's Tory-boosting Royal Wedding, or will there be problems? Here is scope for a simple Either-Or prediction.

I believe that the future is like the past: since the Royal Wedding went well (my contribution was to leave the country), then so should the Jubilee and the Olympics.

But 2011 also saw urban rioting during the school summer holidays.

I think we will see more urban riots in 2012. The state media will be focussed North Korea-style on ensuring compulsory Joy for the Jubilee and the Olympics and will push into the background reporting of the 2012 recession, the effects of the Cameron government's austerity programme, the corrupt management of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs [which may go to Court it seems], and so on. Disorder on the streets is one likely effect of this dissociation between social reality and media cheer-leading. None of the Cameron government's initiatives is really going to deal with the issue of young urban NEETs [ Not in Education, Employment or Training].

When will the disorder occur? August is a wicked month. School holidays and light evenings. The trigger? You can usually rely on the Metropolitan Police.

Me? I will be out of the country for both the Jubilee and the Olympics.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Christmas: A Season for Old Men

Up at eight, My Breakfast and then I walked along the seafront here in Brighton. The rules are different on Christmas Day: you say "Good Morning" or "Merry Christmas" to those you pass. I think Charles Dickens may have something to do with that.

Shower, dress and a quick look at the BBC headlines.

As you would expect from the BBC, an outreach service for the Vatican, the Pope is in Number 1 position and, dressed in glittering robes, laments the commercialised "glitter" of Christmas. This old man just hates anything he doesn't control.

Number 2 position goes to another old reactionary, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh who unlike many of those old men who will fall ill at Christmas has been very promptly and successfully treated for an emergency heart problem. Lucky chap.

Number 4 position goes to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, also lamenting but, in his case, he laments the abuse of trust underlying both London's recent riots and the on-going financial crisis. So a bit radical and a bit more complex than the Pope, but from the pulpit of a state church loaded with quite extraordinary wealth.

So there you have the BBC's start to Christmas Day. Three old men, how many of them wise?

Now I am off to join my family. Merry Christmas!

Friday, 23 December 2011

My Second Prediction for 2012: Alex Salmond will become even more popular

I just read a puff in The Guardian for the new Leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Johann Lamont - who you have never heard of before. "Scottish Labour leader's mission ... to save the union" is the way The Guardian headlines its interview with her.

There you have it. A Labour and Unionist Party which will die in the last ditch to Save the Union since that happens to be Labour's only chance of ever re-gaining a majority in the United Kingdom parliament. Even now, there are 42 Labour MPs from Scottish constituencies. Johann Lamont's prime task is to keep it that way.

That means opposing Scottish Independence and that means lining up behind Scotland's hereditary landowners and the Union Flag. In Scotland, Labour is a party of reaction. You probably couldn't pass a cigarette paper between Johann Lamont and Michael Martin, the former Scottish Labour MP, disgraced Speaker of the House of Commons and voice of reaction.

Scottish voters will realise what it's all about: Vote Labour to Save the Westminster Parliament: Save Ed Miliband, Save MPs expenses, and Save Michael Martin in the House of Lords.

And realising what it is all about, Scottish voters will turn ever more sympathetically towards Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party and a politician whose skill at the job will make Johann Lamont and Ed Miliband look like inept and merely self-interested opponents of the SNP-led Scottish revivial

Good Luck in 2012, Mr Salmond. By the end of the year, you will be even more popular and quite possibly more popular than Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Moribund combined.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

My First Prediction for 2012: A UK Foreign Policy Disaster

The sun never sets on the British Empire and in 2012, Prime Minister David Cameron will want to remind you of that. Buoyed by his success in Libya - where in alliance with his former friend, the Emperor Sarkozy, Cameron helped replace one set of human rights abusers with another - Cameron will look for a new adventure to boost his domestic standing.

There are several enticing prospects.

In Africa,we need a more robust response to the pirates who threaten our yachting community. So we could invade defenceless Somalia.

In the Middle East, Iran is being beastly to us - perhaps because they sense we can't stand up for ourselves. Well, they need to be shown that that isn't the case. Likewise Afghanistan to which we will despatch Prince Harry.

In Latin America, ships (and yachts) flying the Falklands Islands tax-avoiding flag are going to be barred from mainland ports. This policy is the work of Argentina, as a response to our provocation: we are sending Prince William to the Falkland Islands. Well, if they think that is provocation, we will show them what real provocation is about.

Then there is Syria and then there is Europe, which will turn against our europhobe government. Spain will begin to agitate over tax-haven Gibraltar and our government will fail to adopt my proposal to give them Hastings to end the dispute.

David Cameron will over-reach himself somewhere and find himself embarked on a bigger conflict than he can manage and without enough allies. It won't be on the scale of Suez but it will be debilitating nonetheless. Maybe William Hague will have to resign.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Aidan Burley MP and the Case Against Allowing Englishmen Abroad

Aidan Burley is the Tory MP for Cannock Chase and in the News for attending a Stag Party in France where his mates dressed up as Nazi officers and addressed the French bar staff in the fake German accents ve are zo gut at, ja?

You do wonder about a man in his thirties who knows that he has to wear a suit and tie to become MP for Cannock Chase but is otherwise as clueless as Prince Harry - though I suppose that comparison might be some comfort to him: you can be clueless and still do very well in life. After all, this Stag Party could afford a French ski resort to parade their ignorance and stupidity.

There is a larger issue. A decade ago I was a regular flyer on Ryanair and easyjet. For some destinations - Bratislava, Hamburg, Prague - the thing you dreaded was a stag party on board, sad groups of not-so-young men intent on getting pissed and impotent. And when you got to wherever it was, there they were on the streets, objects of complete and utter local contempt.

I remember a German woman behind a bar remarking on their inseparability from each other: When one goes to piss, they all go to piss.

I felt at the time that it would be in the National Interest (Mr Cameron does that) to ban stag parties from travelling abroad. It would be better to restrict them to vomiting on English pavements.

How can you be taken seriously at the negotiating table when this is what you show to the world as England's finest?

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Stronger Pound = Weaker Economy

For the first time in nearly a year, the pound has edged upwards against the €uro. Since last December it has stayed in a 1.15 - 1.17 band but has now edged up to 1.19. Hardly dramatic, but maybe it will go higher.

This is good news for €uroland exporters (ie, Germany) since it will make Mercs and Beemers marginally more affordable to British customers - and a weekend trip to Paris likewise .

It's bad news for Britain's service led-economy since it will make our tourist tat, language schools and financial services marginally more expensive.

Not so long ago, everyone was telling Greece that if it left the €uro and went back to the Drachma, it would automatically devalue, thus making Greek olives and holiday islands more attractive.

Since the introduction of the €uro, the pound has steadily devalued against it, thus helping keep us afloat with sales of Royal Wedding mugs and so on. The devaluation has been massive - ten years ago you could get 1.60 €uros for a pound.

Any appreciation of the £ now is a doubtful benefit. There are things on the plus side: our embassies in €uroland and Brussels will be cheaper to run. But is that enough?

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The Democratic Unionist Party: Once again, the Tail Wags the Dog

How appropriate that it should be the Democratic Unionist Party which tabled the House of Commons motion commending Prime Minister David Cameron's exercise of the British veto in the recent EU negotiations.

The Democratic Unionist Party is one of Northern Ireland's weird religiously-based parties, a Protestant one and therefore committed to keeping Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom.

If the inhabitants of mainland Britain had a say in these things (they don't) they would want to cut Northern Ireland adrift at least as much as they would want to cut Europe adrift.

Europe adrift? Yes, that's right: Fog in Channel; Continent isolated.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

On a cheerful note, Cemeteries and Graves

Trying to think about something less gloomy than British politics, American politics, Russian politics ... I arrived at cemeteries and graves.

I am against them. Dead bodies should be burnt and the ashes scattered to the winds. By all means, choose where (off the top of my head, if I had to, I would choose Mount Caburn in Sussex but frankly think it would be an unreasonable imposition on the living to demand such a gesture).

I have never been back to the crematoria where the bodies of my parents were burnt and I have rarely visited the graves of people known to me: I can think of just one significant occasion and then I went at someone else's request.

True, I have visited Famous Graves.

In Paris, I once did the tourist visit to Père Lachaise and was moved by the narrative on the tomb of Héloise and Abelard, but merely curious in relation to Jim Morrison and all the rest.

Stuck with something to do when on business trips, I have sometimes strolled a local cemetery, often highly visible in Catholic countries. But they are awful places, combining ostentation and inevitable neglect - and creepy when there are photographs of the dead. And in Vienna, I went down into the vaults where the Emperors are boxed up. (The ritual surrounding this, in which the pall bearers have to knock for admittance strikes me as similar in intent to the ritual demanded by Wahabbi Islam - that rulers be buried in unmarked graves)

In Jerusalem, back in 1995, I made a very deliberate effort to visit the grave of Oskar Schindler, a hero to me (I don't have many heroes; Grace Darling is another). And I was prepared with a tiny bit of Sussex flint to place on the grave and I took photographs. I don't understand this aberration in my normal attitudes.

I suppose this is a companion piece to my Blog about Funerals.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

One Hyde Park: Parliament's Gift to the Super-Rich

One Hyde Park is London's most prestigious residential address. Developed by a Guernsey-based company, its 80 apartments are designed for the super-rich: the most expensive sold for £136 million according to a report in today's Observer.

Sixty two apartments have been sold. Just nine have been registered for Council Tax (capped at an annual £1375 on each apartment) with five owners claiming second home discounts. Westminster City Council is now trying to track down the owners of the others and get them to pay up. They may have to doorstep them, if their officials can get past security and into the building.

Even more significantly, an estimated £750 million in stamp duty has been avoided by buyers using a relatively simple device. (It's unclear from The Observer whether this device was available to the original buyers or only to those buying second hand).

Instead of claiming ownership yourself when you buy one of these flats, you assign ownership to a company based (in most cases) in The British Virgin Islands - and a separate company for each apartment. Then when you want to sell, you don't sell the flat, since stamp duty would be payable, you sell your Virgin Islands company. The buyer gets the flat as the sole asset of the company. Simple, elegant - and a scheme licensed by the UK Parliament just a mile down the road.

That's because the British Virgin Islands, like the Caymans, Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man, is one of those bogus jurisdictions created by Parliament and endowed with offshore rights solely in order to allow the rich and the super-rich to avoid their fair share of UK taxation.

I suppose the residents of One Hyde Park think to themselves, We're All In It Together. I am sure they pay up for the Door Security.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

My Breakfast

This is autobiography.

Forty years ago, academic year 1971 - 72, Roland Barthes gave a seminar course at l'Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes titled "Ten Years of Semiology". I was in the audience. The stylish presentations were enlivened by digressions:

Barthes remarked that he had once begun a project on the semiology of food and had tried asking his students what they ate for breakfast. They were very reluctant to talk about this, Barthes said - and added, I think they would have answered more readily if asked about their sex lives.

Breakfasts are things of habit, sometimes ancient habit. I began drinking Breakfast Tea - strong with milk (British Rail tea, Workman's tea) - when I was a child and I continued more or less uninterruptedly for over fifty years. I would only abandon the habit (in favour of coffee) when abroad in hotels and faced with the impossibility of getting strong tea and milk. I stopped adding sugar when I was about eleven.

Then, following prostate surgery a couple of years ago, I developed an irritable bladder. (The consultant said that since my prostate had been reduced in size by fifty percent, the bladder was now free to wobble ...).

A few experiments convinced me that part of the solution was to give up the habit of a lifetime in favour of weak Jasmine tea ( now sometimes I vary that with weak Bombay chai. You need some kind of hit in the morning)

I drink my tea with McVitie's Digestive Biscuits,which I dunk even though they disintegrate, occasionally varied with Rich Tea, shortbread (too sweet at breakfast time really), and Scottish Abernethy (also too sweet).

Then, after a pause or a second cup of tea, I eat a bowl of muesli (fruit and nut; supermarket own brands) to which I add a portion of All Bran and, always, fresh fruit - a banana, a pear,an apple, berries, a peach ... simply depending on what I have in the kitchen. The milk is always semi-skimmed.

This is another recent habit. For most of my life, I ate buttered toast and marmalade for breakfast, and though not a connoisseur of the bread I cared greatly about the marmalade. Unfortunately, as I knew but failed to act upon, first thing in the morning two or three slices of buttered toast and marmalade made me feel bloated and a bit nauseous. The same was true of the croissants which substituted for the habit when abroad.

As with most habits, I was not put off by this major disadvantage to my diet until I ran into some additional digestive problems occasioned by a liver disorder. Eventually, I tired of feeling nauseous and found my way to my new diet with which I am very happy. I never feel rubbish after eating my bowl of muesli.

There you are: My Breakfast. A little tribute to Roland Barthes, forty years on from that seminar.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Gathering Winter Fuel Payments

Once again, the Government has slipped two hundred pounds into my bank account. I'm over 60, you see, and therefore in need of a Winter Fuel Payment. Doesn't matter what my income is, or whether I am still working (I am),or whether I spend my winters, as do many Brits, on the Costa del Sol. Nope, no questions asked, it's two hundred quid tax free - more if you are a Couple.

Once you have given them your bank account details, they will slip you the money every year until you die. It's meant not so much to warm your living room as warm your heart towards the governing party (or parties). The votes of the over 60s are the ones most worth having - there are lots of us and we are more likely to vote (though I don't).

If I sent the money back, it would cost them at least two hundred and fifty quid to process my donation, so there's no point in doing that. I suppose I should give the money away but I guess most of us spend it on Christmas presents and something to raise a toast with over the turkey: "Here's to continued electoral bribery. May there be more benefits for the over 60s in 2012"


Postscript: If the government had really wished the elderly stay warm in winter at affordable cost, then instead of universal winter fuel payments it would have funded loft insulation, double glazing, new boilers, installation of gas supply, and so on. Think how much could have been achieved in a decade! Not such good news for the energy companies, of course.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

We Need to Talk About America

Here in the UK, we are constantly reminded that we have a "Special Relationship" with the USA. That means that when the USA goes to war, we go to war (Iraq, Afghanistan). But not vice versa (Suez, Falklands, Libya).

Any half-way reasonable person should be terrified by the "Special Relationship".

Look at the wannabe Republican Presidential candidates: Bachmann, Cain, Paul, Perry, even Romney. They deal in ignorance and prejudice, and dangerously so. They should never have their fingers on any triggers. And it's not a new phenomenon: don't forget that the elderly Senator McCain chose Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate, so that if anything happened to him ...

Then look at the complete and utter inability of the American System of Government to deliver any strategy to deal with the problems of spiralling public debt, the budget deficit and the dire state of the US economy.

Then think about the enthusiasm of that System for uncontrolled guns, sending young black males to jail, ruining lives with decades-long jail sentences for nothing, executing the innocent after decades-long delays on Death Row. It's absolutely terrifying.

Then think about the religious fundamentalism, the crooked evangelists who are so overwhelmingly successful ....

When I was an undergraduate, we were set to read a textbook by Ernest S Griffith called "The American System of Government". It concluded by describing that system as not the least of the means by which is built the Kingdom of God among the Free.

We need to talk about Kevin. And, yeah, even more, we need to talk about America

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Ageing Populations and "The Ballad of Narayama"

Many years ago I saw Shohei Imamura's "The Ballad of Narayama" at Brighton's Duke of York's cinema. It's a beautiful and deeply moving film, set in the past, about a poor rural Japanese society in which the elderly are, by custom and tradition, exposed to die on the bleak mountains when they reach the age of 70. The central drama is between a mother, who believes in the custom, and her son who resists his duty - which is to carry her on her final journey to the mountain. At one point, to make her point that she is becoming useless, the mother smashes her mouth against a stone ledge in order to render herself a toothless old woman.

This Japanese film resonates with elements in Western culture. Think of "Greater love hath no man than this ..." and its exemplary case, Captain Oates, marching to his death in the snow.

In both Japan and the West, life expectancy has risen dramatically in just a short period and continues to rise. It places strains on government budgets, obliged to fund pension payments for many more years than was ever foreseen and to support expensive care for the elderly frail.

There is a lot of publicity around those who take themselves off to Swiss clinics which will help you die but none that I am aware of about those who take less dramatic measures to bring their lives to a close.

I class as the elderly frail those who are in no state either to seek to prolong their lives or to shorten them. But those in a pre-frail state have some choices. Occasionally, they refuse further medical treatment. Occasionally, they live it up and do all the things they have been advised not to. In other words, they do not strive officiously to keep themselves alive. But very rarely do they actually commit suicide.

People grow old at different rates and their circumstances are different: there are now lots of men in their seventies with young children to care for.

But as a general rule, governments should not strive officiously to keep alive the elderly, especially when their quality of life is deteriorating irreversibly. Budgets need to be finite for medical treatment and for care. There should be no funding for research aimed at extending life expectancy. If done intelligently and sensitively, the results would be better than an uncritical policy of keeping everyone alive for as long as possible


Added 24 July 2018: This Blog is incorporated into a longer piece on Ingratitude in my book The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones and other booksellers.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Trafalgar Square: a Health & Safety Free Zone

Today I arranged to meet a friend in Trafalgar Square. He was late, so I spent half an hour in the November sunshine watching children, young and old, climbing onto the plinth of Nelson's Column and clambering over the lions - some succeeding in sitting astride them for their photographs.

It occurred to me that in many cities - Paris, perhaps - no such thing would be allowed. Too informal and disrespectful.

Then it occurred to me that everything that was going on in front of me was in defiance of Health and Safety. The corners and edges of the stone plinth are brutally sharp, the lions are slippery, polished by thousands of jeans, the drop is substantial. Of course, the younger children were supervised by their parents, but the teenagers and older visitors not.

I guess there are accidents from time to time. But watching the scene, I thought: this place is dedicated to Lord Nelson's victory at Trafalgar. No one - no one - here cares much about that; probably they have never heard of it. They are having fun being in London just because Health and Safety has decided to turn a blind eye to what is going on underneath Nelson's blind eye. Long may it continue.

Friday, 18 November 2011

"Where are our Bobbies?"

I glanced at a newstand today and picked up the headline on The Daily Mail and the first line of the story - apparently, a quarter of UK inhabitants claim never to have seen a police officer "on the beat" (patrolling the streets)

The headline is, of course, sickly sentimental: "Bobbies" are in the same world as Janet and John in sandals and satchels. "Our Bobbies" compounds the sentimentality with it implication that police officers are cuddly Dixons of Dock Green. There isn't a journalist on The Daily Mail who actually believes that. The sub who composed the headline probably had two fingers down his (surely not her?) throat as he wrote it.

As for this quarter of the population who have never seen a patrolling policeman, one must always remember that, at any one time, a quarter of the population is drunk, hungover, stoned, depressed, preoccupied, short sighted, blind, deaf, stupid and highly unlikely to spot an invasion from Mars if it landed on the pavement in front of them.

Accusation and Acceptance

Go to the supermarket, walk through town, and soon enough you will hear a couple arguing - more precisely, bickering. Accusations are the currency of such arguments, whether small accusations or, eventually - in arguments we don't overhear - big ones: "You're having an affair with him", "You're always trying to undermine me".

It's a judicial currency of Right and Wrong, Plaintiff and Defendant. If you want, in the divorce courts you can actually pay for the privilege of trading accusations. In principle, any relationship where accusations are regularly traded is on skid row towards divorce.

Relationships work where there is a large measure of mutual acceptance. But sometimes acceptance turns into tolerating the intolerable. How can that be avoided?

The secret is not to get into a relationship with someone whose habits, values or personal traits you find intolerable. If you really cannot stand vain people, don't get involved with one - and, even more, don't get involved and then try to reform the offender. There is nothing more tiresome for anyone than a partner who is constantly trying to change them. It turns the relationship into a reformatory.

If you get involved with someone whose habits, values, personality you basically like, enjoy or admire, then acceptance is going to come easy. Maybe there is just one thing that is really hard to accept. Maybe he smokes. Then take a stand on it at the outset, and if he quits, make very sure that you do not promptly move on and find something else to disapprove of.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Review: Matthew Sweet, The West End Front

London is the whole world in one city - if it chose to become a country, it would be a rich and powerful one. Within its boundaries, a thousand and one narratives of great political, economic, cultural and social significance are constantly played out.

Matthew Sweet's The West End Front (Faber and Faber 2011) picks up some World War Two narratives the threads of which pass through London's grand hotels - the Savoy, The Ritz, the Dorchester, Claridge's. Each thread provides a chapter heading: Sweet has ten stories about - among others - spies, homosexuals, agitators, con men and women, abortionists and exiles.

It is thoroughly researched, carefully crafted and often moving. Sweet is not an academic, which appears to me increasingly a condition of writing a good book - I kept comparing Sweet favourably with an academic work in the same genre but without a heart: Frank Mort's deadly Capital Affairs which I tried to read a while back.

There is a moving chapter which details the death of just one young woman, Mary Pickwoad, following a botched abortion in a London hotel, the Mount Royal. Sweet has gone after every document which might still exist and every person still alive who might have something to tell about the story. It is a beautiful Memorial.

More shocking and often surprising are the details which show England's class system functioning at all levels, in government, in the military, the police and among the spooks who were denizens of all the big hotels. In the early stages of the war, at least, Hitler was not unambiguously everyone's enemy; Jews and Communists were more menacing enemies for some of Sweet's upper-class and institutionally powerful characters. In my previous Blog, I noted the extraordinary way in which at the beginning of the War, whilst the big hotels had deep bomb-proof shelters, the London Underground was initially closed as a place of refuge from the Blitz. How many of us knew that before, I wonder?

If you like reading about World War Two or about London, this is a very good book to go after

Saturday, 12 November 2011

The Purpose of Poppies

When I was a young Leftie, I used to wear my Poppy. Now I don't. It's too clear that wearing a Poppy now has nothing to do with remembering the past and everything to do with asserting something in the present.

At the heart of it there is this, that the Poppy has been hijacked by the political class.They may be stupid, they may be corrupt, they may have sent service personnel to pointless deaths in ill-conceived campaigns - but, when the chips are down, they want to show you they are all in the same boat together. And, look, it's a Patriotic one!

And if you don't wear your Poppy, then the bully boys will finger you. "Wear your Poppy", his minders no doubt told James Murdoch, "without that, you haven't got a chance"

As for remembering the past, which the BBC encourages us to do, it is about old men's memories of heroism and sacrifice and not about the stupidity, the corruption, the callousness of previous political classes. The most memorable fact about the First World War is that it didn't end with every single Minister and General swinging from the lamp posts.

I just started reading Matthew Sweet's West End Front. In Chapter Two, I learn that when the London Blitz began, the Government at first declined to open the London Underground at night to provide Air Raid shelters. At the same time, luxury London hotels had deep shelters constructed in their basements so that their guests could find safety during air raids. Only pressure from Communist agitators in the East End (where most of the bombs were falling) opened the Underground at night. They had only to make a very simple point: All In It Together? How come then that at the Ritz and the Savoy they have deep shelters and here in the East End, we have only surface shelters? (Anderson shelters and such like). A couple of thousand East Enders died before the Underground was opened.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Karen Horney on Personality Types

This is from memory:

Karen Horney, the American psychoanalyst, classified people's dominant personality character traits like this:

- those who move towards other people (loving types of all kinds)
- those who move against other people (aggressive types of all kinds)
- those who move away from other people (recluses of all kinds)

The beauty of this simple typology is that it is exhaustive, though sometimes it may be unclear to which category an individual should be assigned. Does a person who gets close to others but in order to manipulate them count as someone who moves towards people or against them?

The typology is not simply exhaustive. It provides an umbrella way of categorising the strategies and solutions people adopt in different situations.

For example, faced with conflict initiated by a paranoid or a bully, some people will seek to move out of the conflict zone altogether. In effect, they become recluses of one kind or another.

A person whose drive is towards attachment is more likely to respond by trying to placate or buy off the aggressor in order to remain close to them. Such a person may even adopt the aggressor's values ("Stockholm Syndrome" would be an extreme example)

But when one aggressive person initiates conflict with another aggressive person, the result is a fight.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Ireland to close its Vatican Embassy

So should everyone else.
These absurd embassies only flatter the Vatican into thinking it is something more than a corrupt religious organisation. It is not a state and its officials should be subject to Italian civil and criminal law.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Talking Cure or Talking Remission?

Cancer patients are never cured. They go into remission. That is the limit of the relief doctors promise.

Psychoanlysis became known as "The Talking Cure", thanks to the insight of one of its early patients who coined the phrase. But the insight offers false hope. We are never cured of neurosis. With help, we may go into remission - perhaps for many years - but the possibility of relapse is always there.

If there is only ever remission, then different therapies can be evaluated on a simple metric. If a quick fix therapy which takes an hour lasts a year, then a long fix which takes fifty two sessions ought to last 52 years if it is to match the effectiveness of the quick fix.

This may sound shocking and if it does that is partly because there is a disputable view of life which may be shared by traditional psychoanalysis. This is the view that we have one life, which proceeds irreversibly so that it is worth spending a lot of time (and money) getting it on track early on.

An alternative view is that, like a cat, we have several lives and they are partly discontinuous with each other.

There is an incrementalist view that we learn from experience and that the more experience we have the more we learn. I think this is false for life, just as it is false as an account of children's learning - children's learning is massively discontinuous. Experience leads to discontinuous re-organisations of our minds and personalities, maybe seven times in a lifetime, maybe nine (to stay with the cat).

Other people help us hold together a sense of continuous identity through these re-organisations of self but, really, our past is a foreign country the details of whose geography we are always forgetting.

It is the normal state of things that a woman should look at a man and sigh, "He's not the man I married". It is only ideology of the kind embodied in church marriage vows that encourages the misconception that he could remain the man she married.

Nor - as the sigh indicates - is there any guarantee that men and women shed their skins and change into new selves in ways and at a rate which leaves them always compatible. The reconfiguration of selves which occurs in the normal course of living thus becomes a source of interpersonal and even social dislocation which ideologies struggle to contain.

The idea of the Talking Cure promises too much. The centre cannot hold for ever. Therapy which works for today will not work for tomorrow. The best we can hope for are therapies which give us some remission from the problems our latest selves have created for us.

Dr Liam Fox is Out: as Predicted on this Blog 31 December 2010

If you go to my Blog post for 31 December 2010 you will see that I made three predictions for 2011, the third of which hazarded that Dr Liam Fox would not be Secretary of State for Defence by the end of 2011

Well, unless he makes a quick comeback, then Prediction Fulfilled

For the other Predictions you will have to go to the original Post.

Oliver Letwin? You couldn't make it up

I thought putting Top Secret documents in a waste bin in a Park was called Making a Drop. Your controller (who would have been following you) can then do a Pick Up and hurry back to a Foreign Embassy to Microfilm them all ...

But to be fair to the chap [I've only met him once and he seemed pleasant enough], his eccentric habits reminded me of an incident which occurred forty years ago.

John Birtwhistle and I were walking up the Caledonian Road, as you do, when we noticed some waste bins outside the offices of the Movement for Colonial Freedom overflowing with interesting looking papers. Many were telegrams, from and to the African National Congress and such like. This was the era of apartheid and even though telegrams would have already been read by Our Agents and Theirs, it seemed rather careless to put them out on the streets. So we gathered them up and disposed of them properly - I forget how.

But I did not dispose of some other interesting things. Blank sheets of notepaper with the crest of the House of Lords. Oh, what delight!

"Dear Fiona, May I request the pleasure of your company for Tea ...."

I guess Adam Werritty would have found a quite different use for them.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Problems with Paranoids

A coalition between the Liberal Democrats and a Labour Party led by Gordon Brown would have already broken down. Brown is simply too much of a paranoid personality to co-operate with anyone who isn't a crony and a toady. He lives in a zero-sum world:

Your gain is my loss (and this provokes fury)
My gain is your loss (and this is a source of immense, if insecure, satisfaction)

Divorce courts may be made to favour paranoid politics; successfully functioning government becomes impossible under paranoid leadership.

Zero-sum gaming is not the only hallmark of paranoid personality. Brown failed because, like all paranoids, he had no (empathic) sense of the world around him. He could never sense how other people were feeling, guess what they were thinking, figure out which way the wind was blowing. Other people had to tell him,in the same way that paranoid dictators rely on their secret police. In this, he differed fundamentally from Tony Blair, who is without paranoia.

Having to have things explained to you, just because on your own you simply don't get it, provokes its own insecurity: how come these people know things that I don't? Do they really know them? Are they trying to misinform me? Are they PLOTTING?

Hence the short life of secret police chiefs under Stalin.

Hence also the drive to create distrust among those around you, to make it impossible for other people to plot against you because you have sown mutual suspicion among them. The best way to stop people ganging up on you is to make them so suspicious of each other that they can't form a gang.

David Cameron seems without paranoia, as does Nick Clegg - for all that he is persecuted.

The paranoids among the political class can't believe that it might be possible to co-operate. They think the Coalition must be a Plot.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Free Bus Passes and Free Medication

I have never applied for my Free Bus Pass. It's not just that I can't think of a good reason why I should be thus subsidised and, indeed, am offended by the idea. I also have this suspicion that thus encouraged to hop on a (privately-owned) bus, I would end up walking less.

I walk quite a lot and as briskly as I can for at least Nanny's recommended 30 minutes. Mostly I walk into town, most often along the bus route. It helps keep me off medication for raised blood pressure, though I may have to give in one day.

I accept my over - 60 Free Prescriptions, but I know they can also do harm. According to the College of Pharmacists, people in their 60s start to accumulate these freebies and end up popping more pills than they need to and sometimes with unwanted side-effects.

When I read that, I recalled the day back in 1978 when I called out a GP to visit my 71 year old mother who had turned yellow. He asked her to produce her medication. Methodically, she lined up what I now imagine to be a dozen bottles and packets on the dining table. He looked through them and told her to stop taking all of them, immediately. True, it didn't help. She had cancer of the pancreas and was dead within weeks. But the image of those bottles and packets has been a caution to me.

It probably sounds a bit extreme to say that Free Bus Passes and Free Prescriptions are health hazards. And not everyone spends their Winter Fuel Allowance on booze. But the whole principle of these things is wrong.

It's not only that they kick in before people retire. More importantly, they feel good to those on low (and not so low) incomes - so good, that they often feel grateful to the government for its generosity. They are vote winners. Electoral bribes, if you will.

The serious alternative is to ensure that those who have retired from work have adequate pensions. This the UK has singularly failed to do, with pensions as a fraction of earnings much lower than in other European countries. The freebies are then a bit like MPs expenses, which Margaret Thatcher intended should compensate for low salaries.

An adequate pension would mean that older people would be free, like younger people, to choose how to travel and to pay for it. Maybe a daily bus ride to the shops but maybe a weekly taxi for one big shop. A fee for prescriptions might also discourage the kind of freebie pill-popping the College of Pharmacists describes.

There are two obstacles to be overcome. First, removing the idea that governments are there to give handouts. Second, and much harder, creating a fiscal and economic environment in which adequate pensions can be funded. Pensions don't drop from the skies. Someone has to save, someone has to invest. In the UK, it is going to be a huge challenge to get people to accept that if they are going to live in retirement for twenty years or more, then they had better start saving for it now - and adequately. With all the tax breaks and encouragement in the world, it is a massive demand to make. Some people, looking at the costs, might well decide that they will go on working until they can work no longer. From the point of view of cash-strapped governments, it would be sensible at least to encourage that option.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

A Country with No Common System of Weights and Measures

Two hundred years or more ago, as countries entered the "Modern Era" so they unified, simplified and extended the reach of systems of weights and measures. Local and highly particular traditions disappeared, as did - in some cases (notably Germany) - local currencies. The metric system is the most obvious expression of this move to the Modern Era, and close behind, the decimal system

The UK managed to convert to a decimal currency but has never made it into the Metric system - though it is affected by the fact that most of its important trading partners use it. As a result, the UK is now pre-modern, with an incoherent jumble of systems in use.

Just visit any supermarket. Here you can find pints for some liquids, liters for others. Grams and kilos on one shelf, ounces and pounds on another. In Cornwall, maybe they still sell potatoes by the gallon.

Weigh yourself on the bathroom scales, and chances are you will use pounds and stones (whatever those are) rather than kilos. But your medications are normally measured in milligrams and grams.

Go to a fabric shop and you may find meters or you may find yards. Buy petrol and it's in liters, but distance measurement is in miles not kilometers. And, to rub it in, road signs show fractions of miles rather than decimal points of miles - as you approach the Channel Tunnel, you are counted down from two thirds of a mile to one third of a mile ...

Don't even think about whether your plane is being navigated in feet and miles, or meters and kilometers. Confusion on this matter has caused accidents.

My guess is that teaching in schools reflects the incoherence of the society outside. Children learn how to use bits of different systems, and none of them very well. They have no idea of how powerful a tool a unified system can be.

The UK also, of course, has a pre-modern political system - a monarchy with the usual trappings of odd local rights and privileges (ownership of swans and such like); an unelected second chamber; a first chamber designed to remind its Members of 19th century public schools.

The UK is a basket case. Expect worsening growth figures and more Imperialist adventures, with some weapons calibrated metrically and some Imperially. That's one reason why the wars will be lost.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Why the Sun Shone At the Weekend: a note to Parliament

The real reason the sun shone in England over the weekend of 29 September - 2 October? It wasn't a public holiday. For public holidays, Parliament chooses dates when it is likely to be cold or wet.

Very soon, England will be plunged into afternoon darkness. School children and workers will have no light at the end of their day. The clocks will go back in order to achieve this. Why? There are three hill farmers in the north of Scotland who would object if they were put on European time. Faced with a [Tory] Private Member's Bill to align our clocks with mainland Europe, David Cameron made clear that it could not happen - the Scottish interest had to come first. Maybe we can try again when Scotland goes its own way (it would be crazy not to).

The odd thing about Euroscepticism is that English is the common working language of Europe. We simply don't take advantage of that fact, except as lazy tourists who never speak the local lingo. We put more effort into exclusionary language policies -encouraging people to bury their heads in the sands of Welsh and Scottish Gaelic, languages which will never butter any bread.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Brighton to Antwerp in four and a half hours

Up the A23/M23, along the M25, down the M20 to the Channel Tunnel. That's an hour and a half on a good day.

Onto the E40 heading towards Brussels, off at Gent onto the E17, onto the Antwerp Ring, through the Kennedy Tunnel, follow the signs to the Centrum and with any luck you will have parked up in another hour and a half.

It's hard to get the Tunnel down to the bare minimum of one hour and ten minutes, so with an hour and a half allowed for the crossing, you get to four and a half hours plus whatever stops you care to make. For me, it beats the train (up to London, across London, change at Brussels)

It also beats the train on price. I can do the return trip in my Skoda Octavia 1.9 TDI on a tank of diesel - about £55 at yesterday's prices - to which the Eurotunnel crossing added another £58 for a short stay trip.

Belgian roads are pretty awful: the carriage ways bumpy, the exit systems alarming, the signage demented. But it's only a short distance from the French border up to Antwerp, and Antwerp is a very pleasant city with good restaurants and strollable streets. It's very much a zoned city. The area around the Centraal Station is rough (though I chose the Radisson Blu there which is spacious and good value - 109 euros for one night and breakfast). The shopping area contains a lot of up-market boutiques - there is money here. The Jewish district on a Friday and Saturday is full of strikingly tall and well-built men in eighteenth century costumes, and women who seem small and stooped in comparison. Both manage the pushchairs.

This time I combined work with pleasure and visited the Rubens House. The paintings on display are mainly indifferent, though I liked the porttrait of the young van Dyck, but the garden (on a hot sunny day) was delightful.

Some years ago, I used to take Stands at the Antwerp stamp fair (Antwerpfila). Indoor smoking was still allowed and the hall used to fill up with a haze of cigar smoke. I always came away with a sore throat. Strangely, in a rich city it was a very down-market fair, and I never made any money and stopped going. I wanted to see if anything had changed, so this time I went as a visitor and would-be buyer. It hasn't changed and I was only able to buy a very little stock - not even enough to cover the very modest cost of the trip.

English is the second-language and I hesitate now to use my French. As everyone knows, Belgium is now pretty much a non-country, only recently emerged from a long period without a Government and with high levels of inter-communal dislike.

And then there is the language dilemma which confronts Flemish / Dutch speakers: you can learn English as your first foreign language (and it's an easy language to learn if you are coming from Flemish / Dutch), and English is a world language and allows you to deal with tourists and be a tourist yourself in other countries. Or you can learn French in order to communicate with your fellow countrymen. Imagine if schools in Kent offered a choice of French or Welsh. I know what I would choose.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Punishment for London's Looters

"Thefts not involving violence should be punished by a fine. Whoever seeks to enrich himself at the expense of others should be deprived of his own. But, since this is ordinarily the crime only of poverty and desperation, the crime of that unhappy portion of mankind to whom the right of property...has left but a bare existence ...the most suitable punishment will be that kind of servitude which alone can be called just - the temporary subjection of the labours and person of the criminal to the community, as repayment ...'

Cesare Beccaria, On Crimes and Punishments (1764; Paolucci's translation)

Sunday, 25 September 2011

The Underdetermination of Personality by Experience

The general idea is this. Experience is just like any fact in that it is open to an indefinite number of interpretations.

In science, it is a commonplace that theories are underdetermined by data - the data have to be interpreted. C.S. Peirce calls the process of getting from data to theory, "abduction". The same idea comes up again in the work of W.v.O.Quine and philsophers of science like Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend.

In one kind of language learning theory, it is also a commonplace that children can only make sense of their linguistic environment - what is being said to them and around them - by bringing to it quite a lot of interpretive ability, including the ability to extend their own language skills by heavy use of analogical thinking ("Look, three sheeps!)

In another kind of language learning theory, the linguistic experience of the child is thought of as triggering theories or interpretations which yield working internal grammars. Just as Peirce thought that "abduction" only works because we are in some way attuned to the world we live in, so Chomsky thinks that internal grammar-building is heavily constrained by our pre-tuning, our biological inheritance, even if this is later modified (shaped) in informal and formal educational settings.

An adult person's personality is, at least in part, the product of their childhood experiences. Some people think that it is entirely the product of experience. But even if this is so [I don't think so, but let's assume so], experience has to be interpreted. Unless there is one unique way in which individuals are pre-tuned to interpret experience, then the same experiences can yield different personality results just in virtue of the way they are interpreted. The very same experiences which produce a mean personality in one individual may make another person generous.

This is not a question of "free will". It is a question of what the (growing) individual makes of their experiences. Some - probably most - of this making will be unconscious (triggered, if you like) but at least a small part will be reflected upon.

But even the unconscious part is not entirely predictable: whatever pre-tuning (whatever bioprogram) we start off with, it is not so rigid as to preclude divergent responses to the "same" situations. For this, we may be grateful.

Ed Miliband to Cut Student Fees, Raise House Prices, Give Out Free Bus Passes

The Best I Can Do at the moment is not very much.

My interest in British politics is at an all-time low. The fate of the eurozone, the Middle East and Afghanistan seems much more important, as does the prospect of a scary Republican US President.

Into this world steps Ed Miliband like some blundering would-be comic who mumbles last year's jokes

We will raise something. We will cut something. This is what he thinks politics is about. That's what he's been told. He's been told that the thing to cut is student fees. His joke-writers think this will raise a laugh - I mean, a Hoorah - in Middle England. They have also whispered in his ear that it will snooker the Lib Dem leadership and play well with their Party base. It is the politics of the smoke-filled room, just without the smoke.

Miliband is unlikely to get the chance to cut student fees and in the unlikely event that he does, well, by 2015 we will live in a different world and the Pledge will be forgotten. Did we say that? Oh no, we meant ...

It's not only grim up North London. It's pretty clueless too.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Will Greece run for longer than Agatha Christie's Mousetrap?

I get the feeling that the Greek tragedy is being played out at such length that it is bound to end in farce, not to mention some more deaths on the streets.

Really, it is now all about protecting the interests of those banks, like BNP Paribas, whose very highly-paid and supposedly very highly intelligent suits thought it was a jolly good idea to buy lots of Greek bonds, thus encouraging the Greeks to take advantage of their stupidity and issue even more bonds.

At no point, as far as I can see, were the Greek economy, Greek tax revenues, Greek budget surpluses growing at the kind of rate which would make it possible to service the debt, let alone repay the money. The suits at BNP Paribas clearly did not feel it necessary to look into such matters. I guess they assumed that in case of difficulty, they would be bailed out. This, unfortunately, is a reasonable assumption. We can't have bankers having to pawn their suits.

So both Greece and the bankers were taking each other for a ride. They both deserve to fail.

My humble suggestion is that we should stop feeding the bond market. Governments should not normally run budget deficits and, indeed, should run surpluses in order to pay down existing debt. If the volume of accumulated debt is just too vast for repayment to be feasible, then governments should default and vow never to borrow again.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Make-Up and Body Maintenance

Many years ago ... I was talking to a student writing a Ph. D. on make-up (cosmetics - lipstick, eye shadow, that kind of thing). I remember arguing that perhaps the notion of "make-up" has to be understood in relation to a base line of "body maintenance" and that, over time, the same act can shift from one category to the other - more precisely, that what was once (superfluous) make-up becomes (required) body maintenance.

As a child, in the early 1950s, I once watched an elderly woman feeding the squirrels in a park in Bournemouth. She was a bearded lady - she had a straggly white beard. Even then she must have been eccentric to have not shaved it off; today, she would be extremely eccentric or worse.

The standard for body maintenance for women is now much higher than it was fifty years ago - women, and not just young women, are expected to remove hair from upper lip, chin and so on.

Fifty years ago, body maintenance for men and women did not (I think) include use of deodorants or after shave - though shaving creams used by upper class males were often perfumed and can still be purchased in the right shops.

But men did use hair cream (Brylcreem, Trugel) and the passing of this category of make-up provides a case example of change moving in the opposite direction from the norm: it now seems to us an ill-conceived form of make-up, simply necessitating the use of anti-macassars (as once provided by British Rail).

In contrast, men never used perfume then, though now they do.

Minimum standards have changed. Clothes which once were changed weekly are now changed daily: socks, underpants, vests, shirts. Hair is washed daily, not weekly. Showers are taken daily rather than baths weekly. Teeth are brushed more frequently. All this within the space of fity years.

The standard for self-neglect has consequently shifted. A grubby shirt collar is now enough to signal it in a man.

The minimum standard acceptable at work has also shifted, though at the same time it has become les conformist. It is now more important that you wash your hair than that you have a short back and sides.

Very soon, the stink of cheap tobacco hanging round someone will lead to them being considered unemployable.

You get the idea. It's easy to expand on this - and even write a jolly interesting Ph. D. If the focus was on standards of body maintenance in Great Britain, the title could perhaps be From Godliness to Cleanliness.


Added 24 July 2018: Material  from this Blog post is incorporated into the chapter on "Lipstick Semiotics" in my book The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016, freely available from Amazon, Waterstones and other booksellers.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Bring Back National Insurance!

Here in the UK we get bank statements and mortgage statements but we never get a National Insurance statement. We should.

I just finished reading Tony Judt's Ill Fares the Land an elegant essay but really too bland to review in its own right. Like many well-meaning critics vaguely to the Left he would like us to be equal enough to feel that we are all in it together. Right now, in the UK and USA, we live in a very unequal world dominated by zero-sum gaming and free riding.

My own modest proposal to reverse the trend is to relaunch the idea of universal and compulsory National Insurance.

You would get a National Insurance number at birth and your parents would start paying in for you; when you take over responsibility you would continue to pay for the rest of your life. After all, private firms don't start giving you free Travel Insurance when you hit 60. Instead, they increase the premiums.

What you are paying Insurance for would be set out in your National Insurance contract. An annual National Insurance statement would show you what you had paid in - and what you had taken out.

Insurance is basically a way of dealing with risk and hazard. National Insurance should primarily protect against the risks of ill-health and unemployment - one hundred years ago, that was the main intention.

I am not sure it should be a pension scheme since pension schemes ought to involve investment and, ill-luck aside, everyone will end up wanting a pension. But National Insurance could be combined administratively with a contributory state pension scheme.

So once a year you would get a National Insurance statement:

Paid In £abc

Received Back:

3 visits to GP @ £x per visit
1 visit to Accident and Emergency @ £y
1 month's unemployment benefit @ £z

Administrative charges should be shown in some kind of globalised way, reckoned at a percentage of the insurance premiums. That would be an index and test of government efficiency.

People would get into the habit of carrying their National Insurance card and even remember their NI number.

The alternative to such a scheme is to abolish the idea of National Insurance altogether and pay for everything out of general taxation.

The problem is that general taxation is resented precisely because there is no transparency and accountability. It all goes into a big pot which is then fought over by government departments. Some people have privileged access to the pot - for example, Prime Ministers when they decide they need a war to boost their standing or when they want to roll out the red carpet for the Pope.

My suggestion only makes sense in a more equal society otherwise it turns into a form of regressive taxation. It requires that there be a high minimum wage and high income tax threshold combined with a cap on salaries and other earnings.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

More Thoughts on Government Debt: towards Zero Government Debt

Over the course of a lifetime, I have often borrowed money. Usually, I have had to explain to someone what I want it for - buying a house, a car, or whatever. Once, I even asked for £1000 to launch a business - and here I am nearly twenty years later still running it, debt free.

At the same time, I had to show some evidence which would give my Bank confidence that I could and would pay back the money I was borrowing.

I may be completely wrong, but when Governments issue Bonds (ie, invitations to lend them money)no one seems to ask them what they want the money for. In the past, it was often enough blindingly obvious - most obviously, when they were fighting a war. Everyone knows that wars are very expensive.

But now it seems everyone takes it for granted that governments borrow money for unspecified purposes which do, however, include such well-known components as paying back the last lot of (maturing) debt and covering the (current) budget deficit.

This all seems to me a bit slapdash and to result in very large banks (BNP Paribas, for example) lending large sums of money to governments (that of Greece, for example) who are very unlikely to pay it back. No one really asked what the money was going to be used for and whether there was any reason to suppose it could be paid back. The system was called, Having an AAA rating and sovereign governments held AAA ratings as a sort of courtesy title.

My suggestion is that banks (and other investors) should start asking governments seeking funds what the money is going to be used for.

Governments could help by issuing bonds for specific purposes - for example, extending the London Underground. Here, lenders can see that the money is going into a long-term investment which, with any luck,will result in profits which will comfortably pay the interest during the life of the bond and the capital sum when it matures.

If governments then continue to issue Bonds for unspecified purposes but, basically, to cover their incompetence, investors might become more wary and demand higher rates of interest on such Fecklessness Bonds. Eventually, governments might give up and realise that there is no longer a market for fecklessness.

There is really no reason why governments should not run balanced budgets, or at any rate, budgets balanced to a small margin of error. Nor is there any reason why they should borrow for anything other than purposes which will, in not too long a term, strengthen their tax base - in other words, productive investments in infrastructure.

As for wars, By Jingo! Let those who want to fight wars pay for them.

Review: Liaquat Ahamed, Lords of Finance

In the UK, the department of Business, Innovation and Skills (Proprietor: Vince Cable) issues a list of dates on which it advises employers to lock out their workers. These are what are commonly known as Bank Holidays and are designed nowadays to boost imports (people go abroad) and kill off any "green shoots" of growth in GDP.

It felt appropriate to read Liaquat Ahamed's splendid book over the long August Bank Holiday weekend. It's another of those books by someone who isn't an academic which makes one wonder why we bother with academics. It's true that he has degrees from Harvard and Cambridge; but he has written this beautifully crafted and researched 500 page book in his spare time away from being a "professional investment manager".

Though the cover blurb makes you think it is going to be about the Great Crash and the Great Depression, it is actually a much bigger study of central banking between 1914 and the mid-1930s focussing on the relations between four key players - Benjmain Strong at the New York Fed, Montagu Norman at the Bank of England, Hjalmar Scacht at the Reichsbank and Emile Moreau at La Banque de France. These institutions were still, for all or much of this period, privately owned and foolishly organised but responsibility devolved upon them to maintain financial stability at both domestic and international levels - the four main characters spend much of their time travelling, by train and boat, to meet each other.

They deal with bank reserves, international loans, interest rate setting, money supply, price inflation (or deflation), employment levels, war debts, war reparations and exchange rates. For much of the time, they are committed to mantaining the Gold Standard. Some of them do and some of them don't know what they are doing and the same is true of the politicians with whom they are uneasily involved. Britain's Labour Party comes out of the story as clueless and deferential to every orthodoxy around.

Some of the most interesting cameos in the book concern the moments when the politicians and the bankers collide: for example, Winston Churchill fatefully returning the UK to the Gold Standard in 1925 - a decision he later acknowledged as the worst in his life. Or, more importantly, Franklin Roosevelt tearing up the rule book, taking America off gold, encouraging price inflation, and thus in a very short period, turning around the US economy. This narative comes at the tail end of Ahamed's book and feels less than generous towards Roosevelt's huge achievement. In contrast, Keynes gets full credit for the perspicacity of the running critique he offers for the entire period and mostly from the sidelines.

Many other episodes have - and are designed to have - a contemporary resonance, right down to the rogue trader who busts an investment bank. And when in 1928 a British treasury official snootily remarks that "The French have always had a sure instinct for investing in bankrupt countries" it is impossible not to think of BNP Paribas' current exposure to Greek debt.

The really sobering thing about this very readable book is that though it gestures to the post-war achievements of the IMF, the World Bank and Keynesian economics in avoiding anything like the turmoils of the 1920s and 1930s it still leaves me with the thought that plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. It also leaves a clear message that big players never pay their debts.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Review: Abdul Salaam Zaeff, My Life with The Taliban

Recently I reviewed here the Memoirs of the UKs former Ambassador in Kabul, Sherard Cowper-Coles (Cables from Kabul) who came to the conclusion that the only way forward (read: out of the mess)in Afghanistan would involve engaging in a political dialogue with the Taliban, whose Islamic Emirate government the Americans overthrew in the aftermath of 9 / 11.

This position is based on Cowper-Coles' "close to conclusive" belief that the Taliban and Al Qaeda were and are quite different orgnisations, with different aspirations and goals. The Taliban want Afghanistan for the (Islamic) Afghans. Al Qaeda wanted global jihad and simply used Afghanistan as a base for its global adventures.

Abdul Salam Zaeff was a senior member of the 'old' Taliban who was the Islamic Emirate's Ambasador to Pakistan at 9 / 11. He became the international face of the Taliban as it resisted demands to hand over Osama bin Laden to the USA.

Now he is living back in Kabul after several years as a prisoner of the Americans in Bagram, Kandahar and Guantanamo - a protracted experience which he recounts in harrowing detail. The detail suggests to me that he is telling the truth and more than fully explains his current desire to be left alone in Kabul and not drawn into the "dialogue" now being proposed. The US would like to see him as "Moderate Taliban", a label he resists strenuously: "The thought of dividing them into moderates and hardliners is a useless and reckless aim" (p 153)

He comes across as a man who has experienced too much: born in 1968, orphaned as a young boy, exiled in Pakistani refugee camps, a fifteen-year old jihadi against the Russian Occupation, a founder member of the Taliban opposition to the war lords and mobsters who moved into the vacuum left by the retreating Russians, a minister in the Taliban government, a much-abused prisoner of the Americans.

I have a sense of someone brave and defiant but also as someone struggling with depression, seeking support in religion and wanting nothing more than to pursue his Islamic studies. He comes across as both humane and flawed. He gives very little ground.

For example, on the destruction of the Buddhist statues at Bamyan, he observes "While I agreed that the destruction was within the boundaries of shari'a law, I considered the issue of the statues to be more than just a religious matter, and that the destruction was unnecessary and a case of bad timing" (p. 128). That is the sum total effect on him of entreaties [he was Ambassador in Pakistan at the time]from China, Iran and Japan.

Again, when he has to deal with US demands for the extradition of Osama bin Laden, he takes the diplomatic high-ground - we don't have an extradition treaty with you, if he is guilty of any offence then we will try him if you give us the evidence or even allow an Islamic tribunal in another country to do so, and so on - when probably he could have said, we don't know where he is and we cannot control him.

At the same time, Zaeff cries when he is summoned by a neighbour to watch on TV the destruction of the Twin Towers since he immediately realises that it is a disaster for Afghanistan (pp 141 - 143). That did not lead him to conclude that maybe Afghan hospitality extended to bin Laden was at an end.

There are surprising themes in this book, notably his hatred of the Pakistani authorities who he sees as tools of the Americans, and nasty ones at that. He also sees the British presence as motivated by a desire to revenge ninety year old defeats - not so laughable when you realise that we back it up by seeing Afghanistan as a suitable theatre of war for our spare princes.

There are also big ommisions - next to nothing about drugs, no attempt to defend the Taliban's exclusion of women from education and public life, or its taste for public executions (though the USA has never made Saudi Arabia justify those). Nor does he confront the fact that some Afghans may want a different future to the one he imagines for them, though it is true the Taliban did try to come to some agreement with the Northern Alliance before assasinating its leader (Massoud).

Zaeff often comes across as a likeable man, but at other moments I am not sure if I am dealing with religous conviction or just with priggishness and narrow-mindedness - the same kind of feeling I might well have reading Catholic theologians. There is a general problem with those who come at the world from a theologically-schooled world-view, that they cannot always see the wood for the trees. They don't prioritise. Zaeff's remarks on the Bamyan statues is as close as he gets to doing so.

This is a very readable book, once you realise that you do not have to remember the names of the Tolstoyanly long list of characters. A great deal of credit is undoubtedly due to Zaeff's editors, Alix Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

When the Majority is Right: Condorcet Meets Who Wants to be a Millionaire

This is academic autobiography

A couple of times recently, I have been taken back to work I did in the 1970s on the justification for majority voting, both in government and the legal system (jury trials)

The first writers to treat the matter seriously were Rousseau and Condorcet, the latter - among other talents - a mathematician specialising in the theory of probabilities.

Condorcet showed that majority voting is a good guide to truth:

(1) the more enlightened (knowledgeable) is each individual voter, with a minimum requirement that they be more likely to be right than wrong on any one occasion (p = greater than 0.5)

(2) provided that when voting, voters are trying to give the right answer

(3) and provided that they vote independently of each other - if one voter follows the lead of another, that simply reduces the effective number of voters

If these conditions are met, then in a majority vote the probability of the majority being right increases (and quite dramatically, heading towards p = 1 [certainty])the larger the vote gap between majority and minority.

Since I did the work in the 1970s, the TV quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? has come along and it demonstrates Condorcet's theorem perfectly. When a contestant Asks The Audience to select the right answer from four possible answers, he or she can safely assume:

(1) that the Audience is quite knowledgeable- Quiz show live audiences are likely to contain a high proportion of people good at quizzes
(2) members of the audience have no motive to give answers they believe to be untrue (they enjoy giving right answers!)
(3) they vote independently of each other using push-button consoles with little or no time to consult the person sitting next to them

Hey Presto, the audience's choice of right answer will, almost certainly, BE the right answer. If some researcher checked back over Ask the Audience choices, I think they would rarely find that the Audience got it wrong. Ask the Audience is a No Brainer if you don't know the answer yourself.

There is more serious stuff in my essay "Majoritarianism" on my website

Monday, 22 August 2011

Big State? Small State? It's not a Theological Question

The Tea Party gives the case for small government a bad name. They treat it as a theological issue. (In contrast, they treat religion as a public relations issue: the important thing is to show very publicly that you do God. I doubt that God is impressed.)

There are times when government should expand its sphere of activity and times when it should contract. It's not a theological issue.

In World War Two, state activity expanded enormously in the UK and USA to meet the challenge of a determined and very powerful enemy. Some of that expansion was quite quickly reversed after the end of hostilities: rationing, for example.

If the economy goes into downturn, we know that it makes economic sense for the government to expand to pick up the slack. That is what the New Deal was about, though unlike later versions of it, the original New Deal actually got roads and hydroelectric power dams built. Modern governments find that too much of a challenge and prefer simply to hand out benefits to booost consumer spending. That's a pity.

That's also part of the incompetence of modern governments. If there is a case for smaller government in the UK - and there is - it's primarily because our unreformed and unreformable institutions cannot organise a piss up in a brewery. Give them money and they waste it. Better not give it them, then. You have to work with what you've got and we have got Whitehall and Town Halls.

I'd like to see taxes going down to around twenty percent of GDP. I'd abolish VAT, raise the income tax threshold dramatically but increase inheritance tax and introduce property taxes ("Mansion taxes"). It would be seriously illegal to ship your money to the Channel Islands. In other words, I'd introduce a progressive tax regime.

At the same time, I'd link benefits - unemployment benefit, access to health care, old age pensions - much more closely to contributory insurance schemes. Everyone should get their National Insurance number at birth and with it the assumption that they will contribute. I would reverse child benefits: parents should pay into the insurance schemes for their children from birth. In this way, we could encourage a more responsible approach to having children.

Many things would have to go. The Arts Council. The House of Lords. Most of the Armed Forces, since we would be a small state not a big state intent on invading other countries. Free Bus Passes. Private Finance Initiatives. Hiring private sector consultants to advise government - there, I am sure, is something we can agree upon.
And I'd move Whitehall to an office block in Croydon and release all that real estate for sale.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Does Italy Need an Ataturk?

I have just read M. Sukru Hanioglu's Ataturk (Princeton UP 2011) - sorry I can't get Blogger to do the umlauts etc - an academic study, dripping footnotes, of Ataturk's world view. For fifteen years, until his death in 1938, Kemal Ataturk drove the creation of modern Turkey as a successor state of the Ottoman Empire, a task he equated with promoting scientific materialism, secularism and Westernisation. To this day, Kemalism provides the main alternative to Turkish Islam - but even Turkish Islam is quite unlike the unreformed Islams of the Arab lands.

Thanks to Ataturk, modern Turkey uses the Roman alphabet and the Christian calendar, is largely unveiled and sends dreadful performers to the Eurovision song contest. Ataturk introduced the Swiss Civil Code, which created equal rights for women, and modelled the Turkish Republic on Europe's republics.

In the Ottoman Empire, enthroned in Constantinople, the Sultan as secular ruler was also the Caliph as religious ruler. In the 1920s, Ataturk first of all abolished the Sultanate and then, a much more sensitive task, abolished the Caliphate. This he saw as essential to the task of modernisation and westernisation.

In this period, Italy was moving in the opposite direction. The Papacy had been defeated in the 19th century and after 1870 the religious ruler no longer controlled a territory (the Papal States). Thus, the inhabitants of the Vatican became, in principle, answerable to Italian law - a situation they found intolerable. Mussolini came to the rescue in the Lateran Treaty of 1929 which gave the Catholic Church a territory - today's Vatican City State - and thus removed Church officials from accountability to anyone else's laws.

The territory is actually a bit bigger than we usually think, since it includes Castel Gandolfo and church Basilicas. Either way, big enough to operate a criminal organisation (including an unsavoury bank) and big enough to give refuge to fugitives from justice. The Vatican's internal organisation remains today opaque and unaccountable.

The absolute monarchy of the Vatican is careful not to offend Italy's government, however corrupt, provided it toes the Vatican line. So it does, since the Church's endorsement is still worth having in a conservative society.

Italy needs an Ataturk who will repudiate the Lateran Treaty and insist that no one who lives in Italy is outside Italian jurisdiction. No more Vatican hiding places, no more Holy See passports.

Its called Modernity, something the Vatican has held at bay since 1929. Time to call time.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

A Tit for Two Tats: A More Rational Approach to Riot Offenders

In the back of my mind, I have this idea from the theory of games. In general, there are benefits from co-operation which exceed the benefits from conflict. Most games are not zero-sum games in which my gain is your loss and vice versa.

So when someone who you relied on to co-operate, in a potentially positive sum game, fails to do so, the rational response is to give them another chance - and, if possible, to signal that this is what you are doing. But if they fail to co-operate a second time, then you go into conflict mode and strike back hard. In other words, A Tit for Two Tats.

This "second chance" strategy was the one David Cameron adopted when he appointed Andy Coulson - the known-to-have-been-dodgy News of the World editor - as his head of communications.

Many of the crimes committed during England's recent riots were opportunistic. Many of those who have been caught are the most naive - the people who did not cover their faces or who did not know how to run fast when confronted. Many of them have no previous criminal record. They are the wrong people on which to exercise Tit for Tat. The heavy sentences should be imposed on those who have done it - or something similar - before.

It is foolish to criminalise large numbers of people who you actually need not to be criminals, but to become hard-working and law-abiding citizens. The only rational policy is to give them a second chance. To do otherwise is simply to begin the process by which an offender becomes a repeat offender. And society becomes a zero-sum game.


Added 24 July 2018: These ideas are incorporated into the chapter "Crimes and Punishments" in my book The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones and other booksellers.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The New Statesman on The Coming Anarchy

I thought I'd buy one of the mags put out by London's chattering classes and picked The New Statesman since it had the most lurid cover: The Coming Anarchy. Streets on Fire. Markets in Free Fall. Eurozone in Crisis. Can it be stopped? in bold black print on a background of swirling smoke.

Inside, it's all pretty polite:

The Leader, " If the Prime Minister still believes in tackling the causes of youth disorder ... he must now lead the thoughtful debate that the recent disturbances demand". Sounds like The Times to me. It's meant to produce a "Hear, Hear" reaction.

Peter Wilby, retired New Statesman editor opines, "I see no ethical distinction between how the financial services industry loots its customers and how youths looted London shops", which is what Peter Oborne said in The Daily Telegraph a few days previously. So on this the chattering classes are agreed. Whether it means that they think bankers should be locked up or, rather, that youths should not be locked up, I don't know.

Nana Yaa Mensch, chief sub-editor is more interesting because she was there on the streets of Brixton unlike the police who weren't: "Is this the face of policing in the age of cutbacks...?" That's arguable: for many years Private Eye's police logs from Neasden have presented idleness as the face of London policing, cutbacks or no cutbacks. Cutbacks never cut back on schmoozing time with News International.

Laurie Penny concludes that " Civil unrest is a frightening thing, but more racism, more violence and more young people being demonised will not heal our cities" which David Cameron could agree with. He just thinks that first you punish the offenders hard enough for them never want to offend again. True, all the evidence is that only the death penalty can achieve that. Send them to prison for six months and your yoof offenders turn into yoof re-offenders.

And last but not least, Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London 2000 to 2008, "We need one clear answer, from the Tories in Whitehall and City Hall, to when they will call off and reverse their police cuts" Well, nice to see Ken and Boris in agreement.

So, on balance, the chattering classes of the Left are in agreement with the chattering classes of the Right.

Here's what will actually happen:

Since we happen to have a Tory-led administration, there will be some repression. David Cameron will front the campaign. He's not the sharpest tool in the box but he knows that this is what the tabloids expect of him. He is not going to play to Daily Telegraph readers and imprison the bankers and the general enthusiasm for imprisoning young people who weren't so street-wise as to hide their faces will soon wear off. (And already, some of those accused of the more serious offences appear not to be yoof at all: for example, the person accused of setting fire to the Reeves furniture store in Croydon is 33 years old)

Since there's not much money about, not much else will happen. The future will be pretty much like the past. But cheer up, that only means riots once in a decade or so.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Tragedy and Carelessness, Part Two

In a previous Post (5 June 2011) I wrote out from memory my family tree on my mother's side (and including her siblings) back to the mid-nineteenth century. It's quite detailed. In contrast, from memory I would have been able to tell you very little about my father's side. My father's parents called each other "Mum" and "Dad" so I never knew their first names. Of course, I knew that Grandad's surname was Pateman and, fifty years ago or more, my mother told me that Grandma's maiden name was "Veryard" and I remembered it.

Only by going onto a genealogical site yesterday do I now know that my grandfather was Albert William Pateman, born 1885 West Ham, died 1962 Woolwich, and that my grandmother was Eliza Kate Veryard, born 1886 Edmonton, died 1979 Bexley. Here they are photographed in the 1950s:

They married 1910 (in Edmonton) and my father (Albert George Pateman) was born there in 1912. His elder brother, William Arthur F (Uncle Willie) was born in 1910, his elder sister (Auntie Kit) in 1914, his younger brother Arthur 1915 - but he died as a young man in a motorbike crash so he was never an Uncle - and Auntie Edna in 1918. Edna's birth is registered in Dartford, indicating that by this time the family had left Edmonton, and it is around Dartford in North West Kent that my father grew up and remained for much of his life. I was born in West Hill Hospital Dartford.

I knew my grandparents as what I would now call an eccentric pensioner couple who lived at 41 Churchfield Road Welling, which I guess was a rented house. It was notable for an outside toilet, a single damson tree in the wilderness of the garden, a single cold tap in the kitchen and an upstairs which was out of bounds. The front room was full of bric a brac, my grandmother being an enthusiast for jumble sales. All living took place in the living room where my grandfather sat beside the fire pushing logs into the flames. He did not chop wood and my grandmother appeared not to cook: I firmly believe that they lived on a diet of tea, biscuits and sardines on toast, except when they came to have Christmas Dinner with my parents.

My grandfather, a short man who held himself erect with his shoulders pulled back, had a story about riding to private school on the south coast in a carriage, a box of chocolates in his hand. I think this was fantasy.

My mother is the only source of informaton about his employment, my father never mentioning it. She told me Grandad had been a school caretaker and a bookie's runner. On her own 1938 marriage certificate, he is indeed described as a school caretaker.

Grandma's appearance was exotic, with large fleshy features suitable for caricature; my Mother inferred from her very large nose that she was Jewish. But she was born in Edmonton, home to a large number of Veryards, some also called Eliza. Though her Birth in Edmonton is registered, she doesn't show up in the Middlesex or London Censuses of 1891 and 1901 [WRONG: see footnote which corroborates the original paragraphs which follow now].

Memory tells me that she spoke of a childhood which included a printer's shop, and this may link her to the Thomas Veryard who was born in 1854 at Castle Cary but moved to North London (an area which is sometimes London and sometimes Middlesex, just as Tottenham is sometimes Edmonton).

I think Grandma may have had Somerset links which may explain why my parents honeymooned in Castle Cary in the 1930s. There was also some connection to Dymchurch in Kent where my grandparents had a caravan in the 1950s and where photographs prove that I stayed.

FOOTNOTE Though I cannot find anything in the 1891 Census, in the 1901 Census Eliza K Veryard turns up living at 69 The Crescent,Tottenham. She is listed as the daughter of Thomas J Veryard, aged 47, a "Letter Press Printer, worker on own account at home", who was born in Castle Cary, Somerset. He is living with his wife Ellen, aged 47, born at Alford in Somerset. The other members of this household are daughter Julia (18), my grandmother Eliza K (14 - one would expect 15 or 16 but I don't think that is a problem), Tom (12), Arthur L (9), Frederick (7),Gertrude (4), Maud (3) - Maud rings a bell with me - Joseph (1), and Thomas Veryard's mother Eliza (75: born 1825, died 1907 Edmonton - from the Internet, it seems she did not marry but that the father of Thomas was called Paul Done).

In the 1881 Census the family is at 13 Aske Street, Shoreditch, aged 26, with his wife Ellen,a son Robert (7) born at Castle Cary, a daughter Ellen (4) and a lodger, Emma Veryard, a paper bag maker.

I count 10 children and thus assume that there are many other descendants of Thomas J Veryard and Ellen Veryard. But if the Internet search is correct, Thomas Veryard owes his surname to the fact that his mother did not marry.

Added 24 July 2018: I have now published a memoir of my childhood, I Have Done This In Secret (degree zero 2018), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones and other booksellers.

Genteel Poverty and Hidden Affluence: probing beneath the surface

Thinking some more about Danny Dorling's book, discussed in my previous Post, I remembered a concern I have about polite social science and government surveys.

It is too readily assumed that people tell the truth. Often, they don't but you have to be intrusive to find that out. Social scientists are supposed to seek the truth not prove that they are polite or well-meaning.

There was once a stock literary character, the elderly spinster or widow living in "genteel poverty". The money had run out but she tried to keep up appearances, deceiving the world into thinking that there was more in her purse than there really was. Had a social scientist passed through and asked her how she was doing, "Very Well, Thank You" she would have replied.

The opposites of the genteel spinster are all those people who plead poverty when they aren't poor. Often, they have a plausible case because their "official" incomes are poverty incomes. But sometimes those incomes have hidden supplements.

The same is true for those who are willing to admit to affluence but are in reality quite wealthy.

Crime, work in the black economy, windfalls, extended family support and inheritances all boost people's standards of living. They may provide unreliable and intermittent boosts to income, but that is not a reason to ignore them. Some people get through their whole life on a series of windfalls.

If you are going to make a serious study of inner city deprivation or rural poverty, you need to factor in things like the proceeds of crime and how they get distributed. You need to probe the black economy and add in its effect on income levels.

You also need to look at family networks of support and not just at individual income profiles. When my mother left my father, our new stock of furniture comprised cast-offs from my mother's brothers and sisters. London's recent looters did not just loot for themselves; some of those plasma TVs were for the family.

Then there are windfalls from Premium Bonds and the Lottery. When Premium Bonds were introduced in 1956, my paternal grandmother presented me with one. Just one. I still have it somewhere. But if you manage to buy a few thousand Premium Bonds, then you will have tax-free windfalls from time to time which don't show up as "Interest on Savings". It's what my father relied on. He also had a very good act to demonstrate poverty. He lived in a caravan. Many were fooled.

Lottery wins are also tax free. I realise that the Lottery is basically a tax on the poor, but even a modest lottery win can temporarily boost the income of an extended family. Most inheritances are also tax free and even poor people get them sometimes. They can provide an enormous boost to a family's fortunes.

Only if you probe behind the front most of us present to the world can you explain things like the strange ability of so many families to come up with staggering sums of money for weddings. Now there's a topic for Danny Dorling. I bet there's a North - South and rural - urban divide on wedding costs!


Added 24 July 2018: This Blog post provides material for the chapter "Judging by Appearances" in my book, The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones and other booksellers.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Review: Danny Dorling, So You Think You Know About Britain?

Danny Dorling is a Professor of Human Geography and a whizz with statistics. He has all sorts of Gold Medals to his credit. In spirit, his book could be twinned with Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone (2009).

But the letter of that latter book comprises tightly-focussed use of statistics, remorsely marshalled in support of the single conclusion they draw.In contrast, Dorling's book is an unfocussed scatter of statistics (some interesting), unintegrated mildly left-wing recipes for a better future, occasional hobby horses, and bits of chumminess. You can imagine it having been stitched together from academic articles, seminar papers, newspaper comment, invited talks,and so on. I ended up feeling disappointed and frustrated.

His copy editors weren't up to much either: who would have thought a publishing house would miss the confusion of Principals and Principles? (page 136, twice)

It remains true that the UK is one of the world's most unequal (advanced) societies which in recent years (and like its big brother, the USA) has become more unequal. Every measure of equality and inequality tells the same story: social mobility, educational experience and outcomes, health and health care, housing, income and wealth, North and South, town and country, mortality.

One of the things that I liked about The Spirit Level was the attention it paid to Japan as both a more equal society and a low tax one. I find that appealing, simply because there is just so much evidence (and not just from the Taxpayers' Alliance) that UK governments are unable to use tax revenues effectively to achieve their goals, whatever those goals are. So I am interested in alternatives.

For example, if you twinned minimum wage legislation with maximum wage legislation you could cut out some of the disastrous middle-man activity of redistributive taxation. And the more you lift tax thresholds at the bottom, the less you have to supplement people's incomes with hand-outs.

But one of my fears is that there is no one who will see Equality and Low Taxes as a policy agenda worth developing, just because those who develop agendas are almost entirely those (like the UK Professoriate) who are sustained by state funding and who automatically see More State as preferable to Less State.

Whether UK political parties could even begin to grasp the magnitude of the task they would face if they sought to reverse the relentless growth of inequality is another question. Over the past decade, they have found it more convenient to throw the people the circuses of War and Royal Weddings in the belief that these are bigger vote winners than justice or fairness. And they may well be right.