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Thursday, 31 March 2011

Access for Grandparents: Misunderstanding the Children Act 1989

Without exception, today's press reports that grandparents will acquire access rights to their grandchildren - access they quite often lose following the marital break-ups of their own children.

The Children Act 1989 had something else in mind. Children have rights, including right of access to their parents and, by extension, their grandparents. Such access is only to be denied them if it is clearly against their best interests.

It is because our way of thinking places so much emphasis on the rights of parents and so little on the rights of children that the UK performs disastrously on UNICEF's Index of Child Well-Being; among advanced Western nations, no country performs worse.

It is this privileging of adult rights always at the expense of children that explains, for example, why a heroin addicted woman can go on producing heroin addicted babies, year in and year out. The babies may well become subjects of Child Protection orders from the day they are born, and may well be removed from the mother at birth. But at any suggestion that the mother should be bribed into being sterilised, there will be horrified cries of "Eugenics!" and "Nazism". After all, what's a baby compared to a woman?

I think children should have right of access to their grandparents. Grandparents should be delighted if their grandchildren are keen to see them.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Good Governments do not Distribute Benefits

Thirty or forty years ago, the decline of traditional industries brought factory and mine closures across large parts of the UK. The safety net of Unemployment Benefits provided - rightly - for those affected.

Unfortunately, successive governments had no better strategy than to continue paying Benefits indefinitely. They became hereditary and created an underclass of unemployable individuals living in (largely white) ghettos. Unemployment Benefits turned into Disability Benefits though most of the disabilities were imaginary.

A good government would have avoided this outcome. It would have found ways to bring new industries to depressed areas and to motivate families to move to thriving areas. But we have had pretty clueless governments for decades. One has only to look at their housing "policies".

Not only did they leave communities to rot, they dealt with disquiet about Benefits Scrounging by bringing more and more people into the Benefits queue. Gordon Brown was probably the main architect of this move. We now have whole classes of people who think that they can have as many children as they like because there will be Benefits provided for them - not to mention the over 60s who now regard a Free Bus Pass as a Human Right.

All this is a terrible mistake. Instead of providing a social safety net, Benefits now create a dependency culture across virtually the whole population. Instead of linking them - as far as possible - to insurance schemes, people have been allowed to think that they are simply things for which someone else will pay.

Every child should have a National Insurance number from birth and thereby be enrolled into a scheme to which at some point they will be expected to contribute and from which they can draw benefits in sickness, unemployment and old age. Some people will never be able to contribute to the scheme - the severely handicapped - but no one will object to supporting them, from general taxation or from a premium on contributions to the insurance scheme. Most people will be able to contribute and willing to do so when the benefits are clear.

In this way, we could begin to break the cycle of Dependency Culture and restore dignity to everyone. Life is about living.


Added 24 July 2018: The arguments of this Blog post are expanded in my paperback The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones and other booksellers

Monday, 28 March 2011

UK Uncut, Topshop and the Order of the White Feather

UK Uncut is one of the most imaginative protest groups to appear in the UK, rightly drawing attention to the fact that if you are very rich or a very big company, how much tax you pay and whether you pay tax at all is largely a voluntary decision. Her Majesty's Government and even more so Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs have decided that, really, for big people tax is something between them and their conscience. Compulsory tax - PAYE and such like - is for the small people.

Thus Sir Philip Green, Topshop boss, has satisfied his conscience by registering his company (Arcadia Group) in his wife Tina's name and settling her in Monaco.

Sit down protests in Sir Philip's shops are a bit like sending him a white feather. That is what women did in the First World War to men not in uniform who they felt should be in uniform. The idea came from a man (Admiral Charles Fitzgerald)who realised it would be a powerful inducement if it was women who picked out the cowards and sent them their feathers.

The merits of such vigilante action cannot easily be separated from its consequences. There was no merit in bullying men to take part in an utterly pointless slaughter, so enormous that after World War One many of those women who so gaily sent their feathers found that there were no men left alive to marry. (On which subject, try Virginia Nicholson's Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived without Men after the First World War).

It is the same with UK Uncut. Maybe they will shame Sir Philip into paying more tax. But to what end? Not everything in the public sector garden is lovely. Our political class and their self-satisfied and self-serving bureaucrats are perfectly capable of squandering every penny of extra tax UK Uncut sends their way.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Why Tahrir Square is not Trafalgar Square

It was obvious that someone would try to link The Fight Against the Cuts to protests in the Middle East. It's bogus.

Repressive regimes in the Middle East are state - heavy. It is state employees who can make or break you, ignore you or make life easy for you. Favouritism, nepotism, and corruption are the order of the day. This may not be true of all public services but it is always true of some.

Those protesting against state repression are not, in general, state employees. They are street traders, shopkeepers, small entrepreneurs, construction workers, taxi drivers, students .... They want the State off their backs. They don't want to be taxed or harassed out of existence or sent to prison for voicing their frustrations.

Here it is state employees who want us to Fight the Cuts, along with some of the better-off recipients of Benefits. Middle Eastern despots have favoured tribes, who get a disproportionate share of what's going. In the UK, it is the vote-crucial over 60s who are bribed with their Winter Fuel Payments and Free Bus Passes. Those beyond voting - the elderly frail - are neglected.

Transport some of this weekend's protesters to Egypt or Libya and they would be waving a despot's photograph.

Sarah Palin and a naive tourist at the Wailing Wall

This is autobiography, prompted by reading this morning's newspapers: Sarah Palin has visited the Wailing Wall.

I went there in December 1995. I had travelled to Jerusalem to represent my University department in preliminary negotiations for a study programme with an Israeli institution. I had a day for tourism before my meetings, so I headed first to the Wailing Wall.

The Wall was busy with religious activity, so I hung back at a respectful distance. A man in a black coat and a black hat, rather like my own, approached me. Would I like to see inside the Wall? I gestured to my own black hat (a fedora), which I now realised could be misleading, and replied "I'm not Jewish". "I know" he replied and took my arm.

Inside the robing room off the side of the Wall, he sat me down and told me a bit about the history. He pointed to the crevices in the wall with little slips of paper pushed into them and explained the tradition of leaving a prayer - though he may have said a wish. He gave me a slip of paper and I wrote my wish and pushed it into the wall. He then asked me for his fee.

I paid him and got up to leave. At the exit I was surrounded by three or four youngish men in the robes required for praying at the Wall. They wanted money. They had tales of woe. One of them lifted his beard to show a tracheotomy. They were quite aggressive.It cost me about $100 to get out.

I was a bit disturbed but nonetheless headed on to the Dome of the Rock. An elderly man in an old tweed overcoat accosted me. Here we go again. He offered a guided tour for a modest sum and so, knowing nothing of how I should conduct myself in a Mosque, I signed up. He led me into the Mosque, brushing aside parties of women and children in a rather imperious manner, and explained things to me in flawless English from the 1940s. I imagined that he had learnt it from the British in Mandate Palestine. At the end of my tour, he gave me his card and wished me well.

Unlike Sarah Palin, I also visited Bethlehem - I have written about this experience in the Stories section of my website, Look for "A Christmas Carol". You will find me there shaking hands with Yasser Arafat ...

Monday, 21 March 2011

The BBC News website and Religion

I have been Blogging about the drip drip of Catholic propaganda on the BBC News website. Someone has had a word in their ear and today they give front page space to the results of a British Humanist Association survey. Hoorah!

The BHA asked two different questions:

Do you have a religion?
Most people answer "Yes" to this

Are you religious?
Most people answer "No" to this. In fact, 65% in England and Wales say "No" and 56% in Scotland

But here's the BBCs headline for this story, filed by John McManus:

"Many people 'are not religious' suggests survey"

Surely some mistake? 65% and 56% - isn't that what most people call "Most"?

Over to the Opus Dei desk at the BBC for the answer ....

Postscript 10.20am Monday: An instant response! The word "Many" has been changed to "Two thirds"!

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Dementia in Brighton and Hove: the Royal Wedding is Coming your Way

My local Council has just sent me my Council Tax bill for 2011 - 2012. I'm Band C, live alone, so it's going to cost me £988.32 - the 32p is no doubt for the enclosed 32 page booklet telling me what they think I get for my money, with lots of helpful information:

"We recycled more than 50,000 bras in 2010" (page 3).

You mean you have someone counting them? (But I give you credit for the humorous touch. Page Three indeed!)

Anyway, to get to the point, the whole of the back page is given over to demonstrating the havoc wrought by Public Holidays. "Easter 2011 & Royal Wedding" it's headed, "Refuse and recycling collection dates". Yep, you guessed: between Friday 22 April and Friday 13 May, refuse collection is going to break down, with no less than four Saturday catch-up collections needed to cope with the chaos created by the Church of England and William Windsor and his girlfriend.

What is it really about? Do our refuse collectors want to go to Church on Good Friday and again on Easter Monday and then, come Friday, line the streets waving flags for the Happy Couple? Do they want to march through the streets of Brighton on May Day, demonstrating solidarity with refuse collectors around the world? (Behind them, a contingent of local GPs doing the same for doctors?)

No, they want the money from the Saturday catch - ups.

If you think only Greece has public sector scams, click to enlarge the back page of my A - Z guide to Brighton & Hove Services.

There is an alternative. Pay refuse collectors a decent salary with a thirty day holiday entitlement. Stay open all year and organise work on a rota. Expect workers to take their holiday entitlement on days which fit in with their own needs and preferences. Stop the Public Holiday scams, stop the Public Holiday chaos, return some dignity to the workforce.

Raymond Carver, creativity and the modular mind

I am reading Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love in the "amputated" (Carver's word) ultra-short versions edited by Gordon Lish. Writing doesn't come much tighter.

It made me remember a problem and a solution to it that I used to think about.

Many creative individuals live disorganised and even disastrous lives. This is commonplace. Sometimes things get so bad that work actually stops: too drunk or too depressed, there are no stories or no paintings.

But a lot of the time, personal chaos and beautifully crafted work seem capable of co-existing. Carver was a drunk and an exquisite craftsman who didn't really need an editor to stop him putting a word wrong.

How is this possible? I always thought such combinations of chaos and order showed that the mind is Modular: that each part of it enjoys (relative) independence from the other parts. (In psychology, think of Jerry Fodor or Howard Gardner). The bit of Carver's mind which reviewed the story line and the sentence structure was not the same bit which got blind drunk.

In the same way, I sometimes wonder how democracy can be a good thing when we know that at any one time, half the citizenry of any democracy are depressed, drunk, otherwise off their heads - you name it (the surveys do). Maybe - just maybe - people can think straight about politics even when they can't think straight about anything else. The case for democracy needs something like this to be true.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Boris Johnson, Brian Haw and The View from Waterloo Bridge

There are things the Mayor of London can stop and things he can't or won't.

Last October I wrote to him the following letter:

"Dear Mr Johnson

Over the past couple of decades, the view from Waterloo Bridge - looking east or west - has become one of London's most spectacular, especially at night. I am sure you know this .... Recent roadworks on the bridge have been accompanied by the erection of lots of large posts on the west side in readiness ... for the erection of even larger road signs which will obstruct and spoil the current openness of the bridge and the view. You should stop this from happening ...."

Not my responsibility, came the reply: the bridge is the responsibility of the City of Westminster (north side) and the London Borough of Lambeth (south side). Write to them. So I did, but they didn't answer.

The signs have now gone up including three enormous ones on the central span, all saying the same thing. It's the end of the finanacial year, you see, so you have to find something on which to spend the money.

It's a pity. It was a lovely view. Mr Johnson could still step in and knock some wooden heads together. After all, he doesn't want the view spoiled in Parliament Square.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

We will come to you, but don't come to us

No one in the UKs political class suggests that the UK should try less hard to be a Global Player.

We stand ready to invade far-away countries, we want to sell arms on a grand scale (and often to the same countries as we might also want to invade), and we want our cultural influence (English language, Christianity) to penetrate to the four corners of the earth. Mr Cameron is active on all these fronts.

And then there are our banks, who really are global players.

At the same time, and nearer home, we fail to exploit the advantage which arises from the fact that English is the common language of Europe. We didn't join the €uro (still consistently outperforming the pound on the foreign exchange markets) and we won't join the Schengen (Open Borders) area. There are countries not even in the EU who use the €uro or which - like Norway and Switzerland - have signed up to the Schengen Area.

We want tourists to come here: the Government now has a new "Strategy" to promote this as one way of reducing our reliance on banking to balance the balance of payments.

But we are deeply unsure about having foreigners come her to study and work, despite overwhelming evidence that language schools are big business and that employers want to employ migrant workers. In that respect, nothing has changed since the 1950s, when London Transport and British Railways encouraged migrants from the West Indies.

The core of the problem is really this: if you want to be a Global Player, the Globe will also tend to come to you. That is why London is the world in one city. There are economic migrants from our own Empire and other people's Empires: there are refugees from wars we have started; there are those who might have preferred to go to Finland but for the fact that they speak Finnish there.

Just as Mexicans will always find ways of crossing the border into the US, so the World will always find a way to come to the UK so long as they UK behaves like one of the Big Boys.

The choice is simple:

Get over it, and find a way to accommodate a diverse population: build enough houses, for example, it's surely not that hard.


Get Out of It, and stop playing Big Boys' games

Cardinal Keith O'Brien and the BBC

You may well recognise the name of Cardinal Keith O'Brien. I think of him as the Catholic Church's answer to Attila the Hun. At Easter and Christmas, he's the man who issues the blood-curdling press releases which knock the poor old Archbishop of Canterbury off the front pages. O'Brien is about as reactionary as they come, specialising in Messages of Hope which scare the pants off you.

But today it's a slightly different story. True, he's grabbed the front page of the BBC News website which is nothing new. But today we are presented with a new liberal Cardinal O'Brien denouncing the government for increasing aid to Pakistan by £445 million without demanding any matching Pakistani commitment to securing religious freedom for Pakistani Christians, who are (undeniably) persecuted.

It's a very well-aimed criticism and it's perfectly newsworthy, especially in the context of the recent assassination of Pakistan's only Christian government minister.

But of one thing I am sure: it's on the BBC News website's front page because it provides the editors there with another opportunity to do their daily outreach work for the Roman Catholic Church.

Someone could do a useful job with a Blog which simply tracked the endless drip-drip of Catholic press releases onto the BBCs website. Volunteers?

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Bombing Civilians: Our Lessons for Gaddafi

I have just finished reading Bombing Civilians: a twentieth-century history, edited by Yuki Tanaka and Marilyn B. Young (The New Press, NY 2009). Like most academic anthologies, it is good only in parts: unlike good journalism, academic writing is often flabby and repetitive. But I learnt some new things from it.

For example, I did not know that the UK's Royal Air Force developed its civilian bombing techniques in Iraq in the 1920s and 1930s, nor that this is where Arthur "Bomber" Harris - the architect of RAF raids on Hamburg and Dresden - developed his enthusiasm and his skills. Here is an extract from one of his 1924 reports:

"They [ the Arabs and the Kurds] now know what real bombing means, in casualties and damage: they now know that within 45 minutes a full sized village, vide attached photos of Kushan-Al-Ajaza, can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured by four or five machines which offer them no real target, no opportunity for glory as warriors, no effective means of escape, and little chance of retaliation or loot such as an infantry column would afford them in producing a similar result" [ quoted from Tanaka and Young, page 21]

These views were not immediately endorsed either by all politicians or all members of the RAF: Air Commodore Lionel Charlton, senior air staff officer in Baghdad, voiced disquiet. He drew attention to the inaccuracy of the bombs being used, the faulty intelligence that led to them being dropped in the wrong places, and the horrific injuries to civilians which resulted. As a result, he was recalled to London, his salary halved and, in 1928, forced to resign from the RAF. (op. cit, pp 23 - 24)

But politicians saw aerial bombing, openly described as a terror technique, as a way to reduce military casualties almost to zero - they had killed a whole generation of young men in World War One, and killing uncivilised tribes people would play better with electorates.

Over the next eighty years, the UK and then the US perfected the technology and techniques of bombing civilians from a a great height - first Germany, then Japan, then Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and most recently Iraq and Afghanistan. The technology has achieved such perfection that Colin Powell could talk of "shock and awe" - a phrase which simply substituted for the older word "terror".

If Colonel Gaddafi now uses aerial attacks to quash a popular revolt, he will be following in the footsteps of the British in 1920s Iraq. And he will be using forces trained and equipped by the UK and several other countries now holding up their hands. His terror will be real, their horror unfortunately not.


Added 24 July 2018: This Blog post is developed in the chapter "War and Terror" of my book The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones and other booksellers

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Prince Andrew: A Lesson in Democracy for the Middle East

Our former Ambassador to Tunisia and Qatar, Stephen Day has warned the Government ( and specifically William Hague) that the controversy over Prince Andrew, Duke of York, is "seriously damaging Britain's relationships abroad". But asked about his warning letter, Ambassador Day replied, "I didn't ask for him to be sacked. I don't know what his job is".

There you have it in one line. Prince Andrew did not have to make an Equal Opportunities application for anything so demeaning as a regular job. He "volunteered" his services in exchange for Air Miles - he currently collects around £500 000 a year in taxpayers' money for travel and expenses. He gets to see the world, flog his own house at over the asking price, have stress massaged away, and at the same time, of course, promotes British arms sales (what else is there to export?)

This is how you turn an unemployed Prince & Duke playboy into an expense account Prince & Duke playboy. This is our lesson to the Middle East. Want to become a democracy? Wonder what to do with all your left-over autocrats and their very numerous male offspring, some of them a bit thick or a bit boorish? Give them expense accounts so that they can continue to live the high life.That way, you won't have any trouble from them. Alternatives? Oh no. Sending people to prison is very expensive and doesn't work anyway. Ask our Justice Minister, Mr Clarke.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

National Identity

Go to to fill in your form, and you will come to Question 15, "How would you describe your national identity?" where you are invited to Tick all that apply:

[] English
[] Welsh
[] Scottish
[] Northern Irish
[] British
[] Other, write in

Are you going to write in "United Kingdomish"?

If that makes you smile, that's because you know it's absurd to suppose that the UK is a nation. It may provide passports but it does not provide identities. That must be because it only came into being under a hundred years ago as a result of an Irish independence movement which only half achieved its aims. Our rulers hung on to six counties of the colony we had created in Ireland and tacked them on to Great Britain.

Are you going to write in "Great British"?

Well, that would be immodest even if "Great" historically has the meaning of "Greater" - ie, "larger" as in "Greater London"

Our Westminster politicians are very much hoping that, unless you are "Northern Irish" [is that really a "national identity"?], you are going to tick English and British, Welsh and British, Scottish and British - and best of all, just British [ and best]

I don't want to give any satisfaction to our Westminster politicians. I will tick English. I was born in Kent, went to school there, and have for most of my 63 years studied, lived or worked in England. My children grew up in England.

And I might write in "European" because I think the ideal of a Europe, free of military conflict, with open borders and a single currency, is inspiring, however awful the bureaucracy in Brussels may be. And in Europe, there are republics and countries with no Established Church.


Added 24 July 2018: This Blog is expanded in the chapter on National Identity in my book The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones and other booksellers

Monday, 7 March 2011

English or British? (continued)

My first post attracted a lot of readers, so I think I should try to expand a bit and be more precise.

The UK is no longer politically credible as a single - state entity. The constitution is anachronistic (unelected House of Lords) and lopsided (no English parliament). The political system lacks legitimacy - voter turnout is low (36% in the recent Barnsley bye-election) and the electoral system inherently unfair. Politicians are widely distrusted (to put it politely).

What are the ways out and ways forward?

OPTION 1. A federal system. Each of the UKs four components has a parliament with identical powers and a federal parliament deals with all-UK questions like defence and foreign affairs and major taxation matters. This system could also accommodate the Channel Islands and Isle of Man whilst closing down their tax haven businesses which drain the UK Treasury of funds. Each component would fly its own flag alongside the UK flag. (In Europe, it's common to see town halls flying the national flag and the EU flag side by side).

The drawback of this scheme is that it is a bureaucrat's dream.

OPTION TWO. The break-up of the UK. One or more of the four constituent parts takes full independence and leaves the others to sort themselves out as best they can. This doesn't entail that relations between Outs and Ins become hostile. Indeed, the opposite should be the case. The Republic of Ireland is entirely independent of the UK but has bi-lateral arrangements which make things like travel in both directions easier than they would otherwise be. The Republic is much more popular as a holiday destination for English tourists than the North.

Break-ups can be civilised. The obvious case is the separation of the Czech Republic and Slovakia by consent. Importantly, Slovakia seems to have done very well out of going for full independence, with strong economic growth and even qualifying for entry to the €uro zone ahead of the Czech Republic.

The potential disadvantage of this scheme is that the four components go off in such different directions as to make business and everyday life complicated and inefficient. Scotland might want to stay in the EU and adopt the €uro; England might want to leave the EU and certainly would want to stick with the £.

Though I think the €uro is a great acheievement and the Schengen Area also, I can see that non-EU countries are not nasty countries: Switzerland and Norway are not on any axis of evil. One is quite conservative, as a result of its Referendum - based politics, the other is socially progressive. But both are members of the EUs Schengen Area and both adopt swathes of EU legislation as if it was their own.

Those who want to defend the existing order of things are afraid that an independent England (though, curiously, not an independent Scotland or Wales) would turn into a nasty Nationalist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, football-hooligans' paradise. Maybe a bit like France.

I think the opposite might be the case. If England was an independent nation, it might actually be quite a tolerant and progressive country. Of course, it would have right-wing and left-wing parties. There would be voters both pro and anti Europe. There would be anti-immigrant people and Open Borders people. There would still be the Bankers.

So English independence would not automatically solve political issues and conflicts. But it would create a better constitutional and political framework within which they could be dealt with.

It would also ease the resentment clearly widely felt in England that Scotland, Wales and Norther Ireland get a (subsidised) better deal than they deserve. Since the Scots at least think the subsidy runs the other way (because of North Sea oil), neither side would feel disadvantaged if it took its independence. So independence is a win-win option for both England and Scotland. For Wales and Northern Ireland this is not so obviously the case, but they might take heart from the case of Slovakia, which was the poorer half of Czechoslovakia until it decided to break away.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

The BBC, the Establishment's Broadcaster

I went to the BBC News website this morning (Sunday) so see what's happening in the world. The site leads with news of a Ministry of Defence "No Comment" on a Sunday Times story that SAS troops have been captured in Libya. You wonder who phoned / faxed / texted whom.

Glance down and you get this as another Main News story:

"Archbishop urges Lent abstinence. The head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales urges a return to self-sacrifice in Lent, suggesting worshippers forego meat on Fridays"

I kid you not. I didn't find this in the archives for 1951. It's simply the BBC News website doing its usual Outreach work. Well, it's Sunday, innit?

I gave them an Award at the end of last year for Services to the Roman Catholic Church. They clearly aim to win it again.

The Royal Family? Ah, there we have a different way of Serving the Establishment. There is no News about Prince Andrew, the man about whom you are supposed not to ask Parliamentary Questions either.

It would be wonderful if the UK had a public service broadcaster, just as it would be wonderful if it had a free Parliament. The BBC takes your taxes but serves the Great and the Good. I would close it down.

Postscript. Later on Sunday, the BBC News website did add a story about Prince Andrew: William Hague defending him. In other words, the newspapers do the criticising, and the BBC publishes the Establishment response. As and when that Establishment response changes, the BBC will also change its reporting. But not before.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Mr Miliband's Inheritance

As I see it, the legacy of New Labour is a bit like this:

On the one hand, New Labour encouraged the idea that governments are things which hand out benefits, to everyone and pretty much regardless - so-called Universal Benefits like the "Winter Fuel Payment" which you can collect while living on the Costa del Sol provided you are over 60. (Give them your details and it's paid directly into your bank account, for life). Gordon Brown regards such universal benefits as his greatest achievement. The State taketh and the State giveth back, minus overhead costs.

On the other hand, New Labour eroded the tax base by making it entirely possible for non-doms, rich doms and corporations to live and operate in the UK while paying less tax than ever before - maybe as little as one per cent, but what's one percent between friends? Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs added its own gloss to New Labour policy, taking the view that for rich people and corporations, paying tax is essentially like charitable giving. It's voluntary.

As a result, the only people in line to pay for Universal Benefits are the Squeezed Middle and the Sat-On Bottom who receive them. Since the overhead costs of administering these schemes of Take-and-Give are not inconsiderable, the Middle and the Bottom both end up feeling that they are not getting a particularly good deal, especially when the Take increases and the Give diminishes.

A break with New Labour's past would involve asserting that the State is not really there to hand out benefits, let alone sweets to spoilt children. It has more important tasks such as defending its citizens from criminals and tyrants, building infrastructure, and providing a limited range of services of which education and health might be the two most important.

Benefits are things which you get back when you pay into insurance or pension schemes. The State may establish these and regulate their running, but they are a distinctly different line of business which should be kept apart from general taxation.

A break with the past would also involve saying that you can't live here, work here or run corporations here without paying your fair share of taxes here - and not just saying it, but organising legislation so that the obligation to pay taxes can't be wriggled out of.

This second break is long overdue. As far back as the First World War (and again the Second), Parliamentary Committees and the Inland Revenue plagued the Vestey family ( ranches, meat packing, butchers' shops) trying to shame them into paying some UK taxes. Without success. And the latest Lord Vestey is still among us. (For details of this extraordinary saga, see Nicholas Shaxson, Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men who Stole the World).

But the first break is probably impossible for Mr Miliband to make. In the UK, elections are won by electoral bribery and Mr Miliband would not be a bog-standard politician if he did not present himself as The Man Who Will Give You Your Benefits Back.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

English or British?

A recent poll for the Searchlight Trust found that there would be considerable popular support for a Nationalist party which was free of association with fascist and racist ideologies and imagery. Many more people were willing to describe themselves as English than as British, which was seen as a cause for concern.

It isn't. There is no British football team and the logic is simple: no football team, no nation. When they are supporting England, its ethnic minority supporters wave the flag of St George just like the Nationalists.

The Union Jack is now the flag of the political class, not of any section of the general population except for Northern Ireland Protestants and Royalists (those deluded souls who will be out in force for the Wedding of the Year). This is hardly a progressive coalition.

The political class, for obscure reasons, is trying very hard to hold together the failing state of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Searchlight Trust seems to be on their side.

For several years, I have pinned my hopes on Alex Salmond and the SNP. If they could take Scotland out of the UK, that opens the way for several closed questions to be opened up:

- Why is there no English parliament with powers at least equal to those of Scotland's?

- Why on earth are we in any kind of Union with Northern Ireland? Why has there never been a referendum in Great Britain asking people if they wish to remain united with a bit of Ireland which remains a liability? (Unfortunately, the Republic of Ireland doesn't want it either and has changed its Constitution accordingly)

- Why isn't England looking towards Europe? Why isn't it in the Schengen Area? Why instead is it stalked by the New Labour Frankenstein, the United Kingdom Borders Agency, trying hard to create Fortress Britain?

It was New Labour, and especially Gordon Brown, who tried to persuade us that we were all in it together as "British" and that we should love one another as such. It was an entirely bogus attempt - like Gordon Brown's shifting accent - to disguise the Scottishness of New Labour. People saw through it immediately, which is one reason why they call themselves "English" rather than "British". It is not tainted with hypocrisy.

The Searchlight Trust's survey was not unintelligent, but conservative assumptions seem to underpin it. In my view, a tolerant society cannot be equated with the Union Jack and an intolerant one with St George.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Plagiarised Ph Ds? I guess there are lots of them

In 1968, the UK government awarded me a Major State Studentship to study for a doctorate at Nuffield College, Oxford. Fourteen years (two of them on the Studentship), four universities and five supervisors later, the University of Sussex awarded me a doctorate for my work Language as an Object of Social Theory. In 1987, a revised etc. half of it was published by Oxford University Press as Language in Mind and Language in Society.

None of it was plagiarised. As a Scholarship Boy, it did not occur to me as an option. I gave many, many hours of the best years of my life to writing the fucking thing. Little good did it do me.

If you are the son of Gaddafi or a German aristocrat, perhaps you just assume you are entitled to what you want, and by the easiest route.

I supervised Ph. D students who thought a bit like that. I remember one Busy and Important man who submitted badly-written drafts. I asked him how he wrote them. He told me he dictated to his secretary in between meetings. What are you supposed to say in response to that? Maybe it was OK for Bertrand Russell but you ain't Bertrand Russell?

Part of my disillusionment with university life - about which I still find it hard to write but which led me to quit at the earliest opportunity, aged 50 - arose from my feeling that there were students getting MAs and even Ph Ds who could not really think their way out of a paper bag and that quite a few of my colleagues were in the same predicament.

When universities and polytechnics expanded in the 1960s and 1970s, there were jobs for anyone who had confidence to apply. That included sons and daughters of the upper middle classes who had scraped Thirds or even Pass degrees but who felt somehow entitled to the comforts of an academic post. The Church was no longer really an option.

Many of them never published anything or, if they did, you can read it and immediately sense that it is bland and derivative or worse. By now, all of them are comfortably retired. Their universities seem to me still burdened with the legacy of their mediocrity.