Political Leaders: Made of Plastic

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In an earlier post, Avoiding the Debate, I discussed some of the reasons why the electorate is increasingly switching off politics and I made the point that some intellectual honesty during political discussions would go a long way to repairing the situation. I would like to develop this theme with a short post for the weekend on the curious incidence of the plastic political leader.

They are all seem to be the same, don’t they? Completely ruled by their media advisors, they all speak the same politico, media-friendly language, and they even wear the same tailored suits. They refuse to acknowledge both sides of the argument, they issue inane and meaningless soundbites and they appear unprincipled shifty, and lacking conviction. Wait for the Leaders’ TV debates if you want to test this theory. Here they are already being prepared for their live TV appearances:

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If only they could allow some individual humanity and personality to shine through! We all know what’s required, and it’s not made of plastic. It’s made of real flesh and bone. You can argue about his politics (and I agree that there is probably a degree of political cynicism under the facade) but how is it that Boris is able to win his mayorship twice in a city that votes predominantly labour? Yes, it is probably by appearing eccentric and by by quoting Greek mythology. But the fact of the matter is that people are bored with plastic leaders. At least Boris appears different. He is unconventional and interesting, and this makes people listen to him. Whatever your political leanings, we need to bring back some flawed humanity into the political discourse and a slightly unconventional, offbeat and unpredictable figurehead, so long as he/she was a capable and intelligent manager, would be a good start.

Finally, I don’t wish to endorse any particular politician with this posting and I am sure there would be suitable candidates to replace the plastic Miliband. George Galloway perhaps? Or the maverick Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis. Now he’s certainly not plastic! Any ideas for Cleggers?

Unpicking the Immigration Debate

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Today’s release of the latest ONS quarterly immigration statistics has caused a predictable political storm, so I thought I would dip my toe into this emotive matter. The problem with the immigration debate is that people always start by shouting about EU controls and racism before considering the facts and trying to come to a considered conclusion. I can’t promise I will achieve this but I’ll give it a go. Please also note that when I refer to ‘national interests’ in this essay I mean the interests of all those currently residing here whatever their origins. And, yes, that includes those that arrived here as immigrants. Its a longer post than normal but bear with me.

When we discuss UK immigration policy we do have to distinguish between EU and non-EU migration because the law currently regards each category separately. I will mention both but initially I would like to discuss some general factors.

It would be fair to say that global population movement is becoming ever more straightforward. Improved global communications have made it much easier for potential migrants to learn about possible destinations and to compare their present situation to what they hope might be possible elsewhere. The over-riding desire is for a better life but that may be prompted by a number of drivers including economics, employment, corruption, poverty, war, disease, religious discrimination and any other number of the horrors that we see across our screens each day. In the worst case, these push factors are ruthlessly exploited by organized crime syndicates who traffic people in the most amoral and dangerous ways. Few will fail to be moved by pictures like this one taken near Australia.

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The UK is clearly an attractive destination for many, and I was struck by a recent BBC interview of migrants rescued in the Mediterranean by the Italian Navy, many of whom identified the UK as the place they wanted to go to. It is easy to understand why. The economy is prosperous, we have a solid legal system that protects individuals, by and large, from persecution, crime is low and we protect ourselves collectively with our welfare system (see my previous post on welfare). A key pull factor is the existence of trans-national networks in the form of relatives or friends who have already settled in a country and of course this is certainly the case for multicultural Britain.

The worrying aspect is the number of people that want to move. If you want to judge the potential scale of the problem then have a read of this Gallup paper. It takes a global perspective on migration but there are aspects of it that are startling for the UK. Some key facts are as follows:

* 700m adults worldwide would like to migrate to another country if they could.
* The US is the preferred destination followed by Canada and the UK
* The paper concludes that developed countries such as our own could be overwhelmed if aspirations became intentions.
* The desire to migrate is highest in sub-saharan Africa where 36% or 166m people would migrate if they could.
* In third place, the UK would attract 46m people with France 39m and Germany 26m

It is very hard to know for sure how many people would actually leave their own countries but as transport links and communications improve it will become easier, and if even a small proportion of those who aspire to migrate actually moved, then a great number of people could try to reach our shores. It is worth pondering these two images. The first shows the projected increase in the UK population, and the second redraws the map of the world according to population density. Compare the size of the UK with, say South America or the US. We already have lot of people.

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cartogram population map

But does a large and growing population matter? Well it depends on your point of view and what matters to you. A sudden increase could place pressure on services, but if the economy was growing then this could be accommodated so long as there wasn’t a sudden surge. We also have space for new development at the moment but as a countryside dweller I would not wish to see our green spaces become totally covered over with concrete. That said, I am sure that there are many readers who love the city life who would place their cosmopolitan lifestyle high up the wish list of life. There are also the cultural changes that would undoubtedly occur as people from overseas became residents and brought in their own cultural norms. Now personally, I don’t really mind about these either. But I might if cultural diversity started to challenge the fundamental things that make me feel British such as our democracy, legal system and rights. I have touched on one component of this issue in my recent post The Religious State.

One important factor that is often ignored is the security implications of large-scale migration and this seems particularly relevant today. I have mentioned the number of people in sub-Saharan Africa wishing to move and you only have to look at the chaotic scenes in Italy as migrants are rescued, disembark and then disappear from holding camps to make their way illegally across Europe often without documents proving their origins. Whilst I am sure that the majority are just looking to improve their lot in life, it would be relatively straightforward for an organization like ISIS, for example, to deploy sleepers, amongst the throngs who may eventually come to these Isles to do us harm. There is also evidence that ISIS intend to use migrant movements to destabilise Southern Europe and shipping routes in the Mediterranean. This is certainly something that we need to bear in mind without assuming the worst in all those that make the treacherous crossing over the Med.

And then there is the economy. A key advantage of net immigration is that it can fill shortages of skills when the economy is growing fast. Whilst this perpetuates growth and suppresses inflation, it can be a double-edged sword. For example, we currently restrict the number of medical school places available for UK residents whilst bringing in trained foreign doctors to fill jobs in the NHS. There can be doubt that we have loads of bright kids that could fill additional places to study medicine and yet we choose to restrict the numbers to save money. I do like it when we save money, but I don’t like to see our kids stymied in their aspirations. More broadly, the danger is that we save money by outsourcing training and education to other countries who probably can’t afford the costs anyway and who suffer disproportionately when they lose domestically-trained individuals. It is a tricky one; where does the national interest lie, and whose national interest is it? The same applies to low-paid workers. We bring in foreign workers to do jobs on the minimum wage that many of our own people would decline. This keeps industry competitive but it also encourages some to rely on the welfare state which I discussed in the post linked earlier. If the entry of unskilled low-paid foreign workers was restricted then pay would rise and in-work benefits would subside…to the benefit of taxpayers but at a cost to industrial competitiveness.

Looking at these issues, it seems to be a problem of degree. We want migrants to come here but not in such numbers that we are overwhelmed or which disadvantages the people already resident here. Acting in the national interest is why we have countries. On balance, this does mean that we should implement comprehensive border controls. We do have one advantage and that is geography. Our Island status makes it easier to control entry and exit to the country although we would have to spend more than the existing and pitiful 1.7% of our tax revenue to so so. Neither should we distinguish between EU or non-EU migrants. We should judge each application on its merits and only take those immigrants that we have identified as being advantageous to accept according to our needs at that time. Now, that is not to say that we wouldn’t negotiate bilateral agreements that would waive visa requirements with certain countries but, in the case of the EU, it would be on a case by case basis. I have yet to understand why the free movement of people within the EU is such an important component of the internal market and it seems to me to be more of a measure designed to socially engineer economic equality rather than free trade. I will eventually write a post on the EU as I expect there will be no getting away from it, but for the moment it is sufficient to say that the EU is essentially a political structure and therefore all things can be negotiated if there is a will.

Finally, we cannot ignore the components that drive migration. We cannot resolve economic inequality by throwing open our doors but we can try to address some of the less desirable factors by playing a full role in the international community and by directing our overseas aid budget more strategically. And I will post on that too before long. But that is enough for now. Please be polite to me and one another.

Devolution: Who’s Accountable?

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Since the Scottish referendum, there has been much discussion about devolving power down to the regions, and the recent announcement by the Government that it intends to devolve a £6 billion health and care budget down to the Greater Manchester area has been largely greeted with approval across the political spectrum. For sure, it gives local authorities the responsibility to set health and care priorities and to shift cash around but does it actually increase accountability and promote value for money for the taxpayer?

Well, I expect that there are few that would disagree that centralized structures are unwieldy and often struggle to get value for money despite the attractions offered by the economics of scale. We’ve heard about the £10 Whitehall paperclip too often for this not to be true. There is also no doubt that a centralised and corrupt political system often directs resources for political purposes rather than on the basis of actual need. Where it is allocated altruistically, it is often misdirected owing to a lack of understanding about particular local conditions and requirements. Local spending also gets better scrutiny and is more transparent as budgets are smaller and easier to inspect than the national versions.

Devolved budgets look attractive then, but in my opinion it is only by owning the right to spend and to raise revenue that proper democratic accountability can be enforced. If it is only the power to spend a budget that is devolved then there is little to stop the spender using up all the cash and then pointing to the central government when it finds it has run out of resources. ‘It’s not our fault, you haven’t given us enough’ will be the excuse. Particularly from a Labour-run council with a Conservative Government (or vice versa). On the other hand, if an authority has to raise the cash that it wishes to spend then it is totally accountable for both sides of the equation. It may decide to raise more revenue through an increase in local taxation and spend a little more but to do this there will have to be a conversation with the local electorate who may see things differently. That is proper democracy at work and a powerful driver for encouraging tax-payer value for money. Moreover, if that conversation takes place at a local level then the debate is often better focussed and able to highlight the real issues rather than a centralized argument that gets lost in all the Westminster noise.

So, it’s an open and shut case: we should devolve the maximum power down from the centre. Well, perhaps not. Whilst a centralised treasury sometimes misdirects resources through corrupt politics or incompetence, it does allow the central authority to at least have a stab at resolving geographically competing needs. If we fully devolved tax-raising and spending powers to small regions then the sparsely-populated or poorer areas would be completely disadvantaged, and it is unlikely they would be able to offer the same standard of services. In extremis, this could encourage significant population movements
to the metropolitan areas which could be destabilising and suddenly increase the pressure on services in particular areas. On a more philosophical note, I suppose one aspect of belonging to a country is that the population has a common interest in looking after each other regardless of location. Isn’t that why we have the Barnett formula for Scotland? That collective insurance would soon disappear as the devolved regions started to become more like autonomous mini states.

I am instinctively against big government and so the devolved solution looks attractive. But it is not a straightforward case and it requires careful thought. It may be that a half-way house solution that partially devolves tax and spending would provide the right balance of efficiency and accountability. In this regard, a locally levied sales tax (with commensurate reduction in VAT) might be one way of devolving tax raising powers without going the full hog. However, our Union has already suffered some shocks recently following the Scottish referendum and I think we need to move cautiously to avoid the unintended effects of any fiscal actions we take too hastily. It is probably a question of scale. The Soviet Union was too big to run from a centralized authority but, on the other hand, we can’t live in little tribes. Thoughts?

Political Leaders’ TV Circus

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Oh Dear, the TV companies have agreed the dates for our lords and masters to strut their stuff live on the telly. There will be two TV debates where 7 of the party leaders will engage in a political soundbite melee, and a final event where just David Cameron and Ed Miliband will go head to head. They will be screened on 2, 16 and 30 April so my advice would be to attend your pub quiz night on those dates as you are likely come away better educated and, I suspect, a good deal more cheerful.

In my post, Avoiding The Debate I discussed the reasons for the poor quality of the political debate in the UK and the adverse effect it was having on the electorate. Forgive me for sounding cynical but is this really going to help the situation? The media will talk up the programmes and tell us they are bringing politics to the people when in fact all they really want are the viewing figures and the hope that someone trips up so that the story can be kept going for a few days. Forget any idea of a considered discussion on the strategy-led policies of the various parties. Instead it will be a fest of soundbites, faked outrage and manufactured drama. It will be Eastenders meeting Westminster in a Christmas panto special. The audience will boo and hiss, the protagonists will roll their eyes at each other and those at home will think solely about who got the better of who in the war of pre-rehearsed wit and soundbite.

And how could it be otherwise especially in the two debates where there will be seven parties (Con, Lab, Lib/Dem, UKIP, Green, SNP, Plaid Cymru). There will be no time for any detailed argument just the same old inane point scoring that has turned so many people off politics and politicians.

The only hope is that the whole thing falls apart and gets cancelled although the TV companies have said that if anyone pulls out, the programmes will continue with an empty seat on the stage.

Enjoy your quiz.

The Religious State

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Today, I would like to write about the interface between religion and the State. Before I start, I would just like to say that it is not my intention to offend anyone that holds strong religious beliefs although I will make some difficult points that reflect my perceptions as an educated non-believer. I will also mention radical Islam, not because I want to single out any particular set of beliefs but because it perhaps represents a threat to our immediate peace, security and community cohesion.

Whilst I personally lack any belief that there is a God or a creator that provides a higher purpose for us in life, I do accept that many religions provide a moral framework with teachings that are sensible and advantageous to follow such as peace, goodwill, forgiveness and respect for our neighbours. It is also interesting that many of these principles are common across the religious spectrum even between religions that are opposed to each other in the manner of their implementation. I also accept that for many people religious beliefs can provide comfort in times of bereavement and inspiration for endeavour. These have immense value for those that embrace the ideals, and I would not wish to denigrate their beliefs or those advantages.

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Whilst I acknowledge some of the practical benefits, I have difficulties concerning the implementation of some belief systems. Throughout time, religious leaders have imposed their ideas on people through the fear of retribution, violence and even bribery. Whether it is fear of purgatory, the Inquisition, witch trials, catholic and protestant persecutions or, more recently, the rise of Islamic State, then the common thread is always about the imposition of a belief system on the flock by those that seek to exert control. It is all about, ‘I am the upholder of this religion, I am right and if you don’t agree and conform then x,y and z will happen’. This way of imposing belief systems is apparent within many religious texts which are reinforced by ideas that prophets and religious leaders are qualified and entitled to uphold religious tenets. It is almost as though the authors of these texts wrote their own job specification. There is also the threat of divine retribution against those that demur from the stated ideals. Historically, it is through such certainties that leaders have been able to exert control. It is rule by fear.

Whilst much of this is historical, there are still problems today even though most religious texts were written hundreds or even thousands of years ago. On a positive note (in my view), things are gradually changing. It is interesting that as educated populations and liberal democracies have spread then it has become ever harder for religious zealots to impose their doctrine, and religion in these countries has become more of a voluntary matter. Clerics are still able to influence the public debate but in secular countries it is more by cajoling than enforcement which reflects a distinct and welcome reduction in political power and authority. It is almost certainly why hard-line extremists in places like Afghanistan are so against democracy and threaten to punish people who take part in elections.

And yet we are nowhere near total enlightenment. Some branches of Christianity still issue threats of eternal damnation, and Catholic attitudes towards some matters like contraception are still controlled by an unelected hierarchy in Rome. More worrying are the atrocities that take place in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia where religion dominates most functions of the state. Or, even worse, in lawless parts of the world like Syria, Libya, Somalia. In these places effective government has completely collapsed, and ad-hoc groups use religion as the justification for unspeakable acts of violence as a means of exerting control over a terrorized population.

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Closer to home, we have no majority group religions that are actively seeking to supplant our system of government. There are some single-issue Christian groups like the pro-life lobby that are vociferous but they are restricted in their objectives and they largely eschew acts of violence even if they can be quite intimidating in the manner of their approach. However, there is a small but growing minority of the Muslim community that is attracted to the ideals put forward by radical clerics originating from non-secular countries and who are willing to use violence to enforce them. In extreme cases, some proponents would replace our whole legal framework by a system of religious law. Religion and the state would become inseparable and, presumably, the arbiters of good taste would be the self-appointed religious leaders. This is not just a cultural variance but a matter that directly challenges our whole way of life, our system of government and our system of rights born out of Magna Carta. Having baldly stated the challenge, I must at this point be at pains to state that such views are attractive to only a tiny portion of our Muslim population which at 7% is itself only a small minority. However, small though it may be, violent Islamic extremism does seem to be a growing problem with security ramifications that need to be addressed if community divisions are to be avoided.

It seems to me that as the problem centres on a radical interpretation of Islam then the problem can only be addressed from within the Muslim community, and this means within homes, mosques and schools (in that order of importance). The problem (and I tread warily of generalizing here) is that within the Moslem community there seems to be a cultural reluctance to challenge religious certainties and teachings. There seems to be much more respect for religious leaders, and this makes it less likely that statements heard in the mosque will be challenged in later discussions around the family dinner table where in my experience most children learn to find their way in life. This religious deference is indeed a weakness being exploited by those that seek to influence opinion, and one that must change if a battle of the cultures is to be avoided. I do sense that were there to be a home-grown outrage then there could be a significant backlash resulting in community divisions and unrest so the matter does need to be addressed urgently. And it can be addressed with Muslim leadership, determination and community action. Witness the heartening photograph on Twitter of a group of moderate Norwegian Muslims surrounding a synagogue to guard it in an act of symbolic unity. Now let’s see a huge march in London for the same ideals.

It is a measure of how difficult the situation has become that I found that last paragraph very difficult to write. Whatever the reasons (and perhaps we will address some of these in my next post on immigration), cultural divisions and misunderstandings really do exist in our society. I am no social scientist, and I have written my perceptions as a white middle-class Englishman but they are only my perceptions and I am very open to counter-arguments. As a result, I would welcome informed Muslim comment if I have misunderstood the situation. It is only by eating our hay together and ruminating that we will increase our peace and mutual understanding.

Spying on Schoolgirls

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I was disappointed that the family lawyer acting for the families of the three schoolgirls who recently traveled to support ISIS in Syria should have appeared on TV yesterday to place the blame on the Security Services. The accusation was that it was the spies’ fault for not monitoring the girls’ twitter accounts and acting to stop them running away.

Well there are two points about this. First of all, the security services have got better things to do than spy on 3 schoolgirls. Make no mistake, there are really serious threats within the UK that demand far more serious attention than the schoolgirl whims apparent in this case. It is a question of resources, and personally I would prefer the authorities concentrated on stopping a home-grown terrorist outrage in a shopping centre than waste time by acting in loco parentis for a small group of kids in Bethnal Green.

Secondly, the case illustrates the real dichotomy presented for a liberal democracy such as ours. There is real pressure from within the liberal establishment for constraints on the extent of surveillance and intrusion into our lives, and yet here we are with a media implying that it was wrong that the state didn’t spy on three schoolgirls who presented no immediate threat to the communitiy. Well, come on, which is it to be?

There are other issues in this case which I will wrap up in a larger post coming soon. In the meantime eat up and ruminate a little.

Russian Bears

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Welcome to the return of the Cold War. The news today takes me back a long time to another life when I was a cold war warrior. What is interesting is that the Russian bombers that I used to chase around in the North Atlantic are the same type of aircraft that British RAF Typhoons are presently chasing around in the English Channel. Presumably, in the intervening years the Russians have spent a bit of cash on upgrading the aircraft although they look remarkably similar. I should also add that my log book is almost as old as these bombers and has been gathering dust in the drawer for a long time so I’m sorry about the quality of the header image! It looked more impressive in the flesh, honestly!

It does seem unimaginable that a war could come to our shores from the East, and it is tempting to conclude that Putin is merely posturing at a time of increased international tension. Putin loves sending messages, and he is rarely subtle so it is probably worth remembering that the Litvinenko Inquiry is still ongoing and it is quite likely that Putin is going to be implicated in the poor man’s murder in some way.

Whilst a full-on war seems most unlikely, Putin’s actions in the Ukraine are destabilizing the international order that had settled out following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. I have noticed that the pages of several broadsheets are packed full of comments by Putin supporters, spreading misinformation and painting the man whiter than white. I wonder if the Russian Embassy will venture into our sheep shed to do the same? The key questions to ask these agents provocateurs is how have the separatists obtained some of the latest Russian military equipment including advanced artillery, surface to air missiles and tanks? And if the Russians are not providing men to operate this kit, how did a butcher from Donetsk learn how to operate a missile battery. Oh, you know, the missile battery that he captured from the Ukrainian Army whilst brandishing a meat cleaver! Laughable.

Yes, laughable to us but deeply worrying to those Baltic states that have thrown their hat in with the EU and NATO and whose populations include a sizable Russian ethnic minority that could easily be subverted by FSB tricks straight out of the KGB manual that Putin knows so well as a former colonel. The situation in Ukraine may already be lost. The Eastern half of the country is effectively annexed now and there can be little prospect of any kind of meaningful withdrawal. But in my view Eastern Ukraine should not be lost without a major cost to Putin otherwise he may miscalculate and be tempted to repeat the venture in countries where a NATO response is required by treaty. Sadly, he only responds to power not prevarication.

Since 1989, European NATO countries have rightly run down their forces to gain a peace dividend but this now needs to be reviewed. The Russians have spent billions of petro-dollars renewing and upgrading both their nuclear and conventional forces (notwithstanding the remarks about the bomber earlier). However, to match the Russian build up will take years, and in these times of austerity it will be very difficult to achieve especially as there does not seem to be the political will to re-arm in many western countries. Yet in my view we do have a powerful alternative. It will hurt and there will be great ructions, but it will be cheaper and it could be deployed immediately. It is financial.

When the wall came down, Russia stepped into the capitalist world. Their version may be corrupt, unenforceable by law and oligarchical but it still relies on western finance and capital to operate. So far, Europe has stepped back from meaningful sanctions, largely owing to German reluctance and dependance on Russian energy supplies. But to corrupt a saying from Game of Thrones, Summer is Coming! Proper hard-hitting economic warfare could bring Russian banks to their knees within weeks. The currency would plummet even further, inflation would run rife and the economy would be tipped into the most terrible depression. It would hit Putin right where it would hurt most: in the pockets of his supporters. I’m not proposing incremental measures but a full-on economic first strike preceded by quiet warnings away from the cameras.

Yes, this would hurt us too but nowhere near to the same extent. For sure, German exports and European energy supplies would suffer, and growth would probably turn negative. However, western economies are extremely strong and resilient and would recover soon enough. Most importantly, it would be cheaper than a long arms race, less existentially threatening and nobody would have to lose their life. Which has to be quite a positive for all of us.

Seeing those Russian bears in the English Channel has made me feel all nostalgic! Pass me the hay…

Avoiding The Debate

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There is nothing more frustrating and boring than watching a politician avoid answering a question, and it is little wonder that public respect for MPs and the political process has sunk so low. But how is it that we have arrived at this point and are MPs solely to blame? The mother of parliaments was once regarded very highly, and its members were largely seen as public-spirited and principled. Now the electorate yawns at the day to day political tussle, and MPs are mocked and set alongside merchant bankers in the court of public opinion.

To my mind, the primary reason for this state of affairs is the manner in which the political debate is hosted and targeted. Modern communications are instantaneous, and fickle media outlets provide such fleeting opportunities that politicians often only have time to spill out some short and catchy, yet inane, sound-bite that they hope may later command a headline in the following day’s paper. There is very little opportunity for considered argument about the pros and cons of a policy: only its one-sided and instantaneous promotion.

This problem is made worse by the misreporting of any kind of admission by a politician that a counter-argument may have some merit even if he believes that those disadvantages are outweighed by the advantages of his own position. What tends to happen is that if a politician acknowledges both sides of an argument then it is often the fact that he has acknowledged the disadvantages of his proposal that is reported as the main thrust of the story. As a result, his reasoned debate that might well have interested the audience is left unexposed.

But why are political discussions reported in this way? It is quite clear that many media outlets have their own political allegiances and will spin a story to suit their own political allegiances. So, for example, from the same interview content, The Telegraph would report that a Minister favours tax cuts to stimulate the economy whereas The Guardian would report that the Minister wants to cut services to make tax cuts for the rich. The party whip system also makes this situation worse. So utterly tribal has party politics become that absolute adherence to the party line is demanded and anyone caught going off message is immediately dragged into the Whip’s office for a metaphorical (or real, who knows?) spanking. The problem with this approach is that it not only discourages MPs from discussing matters rationally, but it encourages the media to make the thrust of their story the very fact that a minister or MP has raised their head above the parapet to occasion proper 2-sided debate.

Finally, I suspect that there is another altogether more cynical component to this issue. With the erosion of 2 party politics has come the rise of the special interest groups and ever more research into the polls. Rather than steering public opinion through good leadership and strategic vision, parties now seek to be all things to all people in the hope that they can court the maximum vote. This is a strong driver for avoiding reasoned debate because any clearly stated position risks alienating a potential voter somewhere. How intellectually dishonest is that? It is obfuscation, and it is driven purely by the thirst for political power rather than a desire to make the world a better place.

I don’t know where the answer to this problem lies. In the first instance, I really wish that media outlets would act more responsibly by encouraging fair reporting and creating the conditions to allow politicians to make their arguments properly. Second, the local party associations, whips and party apparatchiks need to recognize that opinion cannot be uniform and that it is not necessarily damaging for both sides of an argument to be exposed. Indeed it is healthy for the country. Finally, it is possible that we will have to re-examine our electoral system. Whilst I was always a supporter of the first-past-the-post system, perhaps the other factors I have mentioned mean that it has finally had its day. Whatever the answer, we cannot go on with matters as they are. Democracy relies on proper debate and voter engagement, and we don’t appear to have either at the moment. Anyone got some good ideas?

Welfare: Redistribution or Contribution?

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It seems to me that the intricacies of the British welfare system have become so complex that we have stopped thinking about who and what exactly it is for. Is it a safety net or a means of redistributing wealth within our society? These days, politicians would never discuss this question in such politically bald terms, but if you turned back the clock 40 or so years and you would find no such shrinking violets. In some respects, I feel this is a shame. At least the old class warfare discussions were politically principled and had a touch of intellectual honesty about them. Today, it is almost as though politicians have mislaid their politics or conveniently forgotten them as they seek to confuse the floating voter. As a result, arguments about welfare become foggy either through dissembling, complex technical discussions or, worse, piecemeal and inefficient reforms which are largely advanced to court the voting approval of narrow interest groups. But in my view the lack of a clear vision about the purpose of welfare makes reform difficult as the lack of a strategic framework encourages ad-hoc and expensive changes that rarely achieve the intended purpose. It also encourages that modern scourge of government: political meddling in operational matters.

So where do I sit on this? Well if pushed, I would fall on the safety net side of the argument but with some provisos. Ha Ha, they shout, the old ram wants to pick on the poor and disadvantaged. Rename him, Ebenezer at once! But, actually, not at all. In my view, it is a measure of a peaceful, successful and humane society that we should help those that fall on hard times or become sick such that they are unable to support themselves. We will discuss religion (I don’t do it) in future posts but the texts of many religions nonetheless demonstrate that as a species we have long demonstrated an innate sense of compassion and consideration for our fellow beings even if it is not always put into practice (which I very much intend to return to).

It therefore seems that our basic instincts are to act compassionately, and I would certainly like to think that I live in a civilized society. Yet in my view that aspiration shouldn’t extend to using state spending as a means of redistributing wealth. That model has clearly been shown historically to fail. Look at the disasters in the former (and, increasingly, existing) Soviet Union or in Venezuela. At face value, state-manufactured equality sounds attractive but the principle always gets mismanaged and corrupted, the rich flee, the economy suffers and everyone gets poorer defeating the primary objective of the idea. No, to my mind welfare is a safety net, and it is certainly not a mechanism for making poor people better off. The best way of achieving improved living standards is to provide a framework that encourages individuals to compete through education and civil rights, and then to encourage innovation and individualism to allow people to achieve their maximum potential. Note though, that potential cannot be the same for everyone no matter how much we meddle or wish it otherwise. That is not a fact of politics, it is a fact of genetics and the way of the natural world. This is the key point that nobody will discuss because we don’t like the idea that we can’t control every individual’s outcome in life.

Having said all that, it doesn’t solely have to come down to the survival of the fittest, and we have it within our ability to set moral limits and achieve some kind of balance. If someone is ill with a life-threatening condition or something that would materially affect the quality of their life then I feel that we should find the cash to look after them. That shouldn’t extend to boob jobs, tattoo removal and varicose veins, though, and it doesn’t mean that a patient should get a free consultation with the GP just because they have a cold. The principle of self-reliance rather than collective-reliance should always come first and this should be applied as the first test. Its not just in health matters either; the same principle should apply to the benefits system. I really don’t like the way that some try to stigmatize those in receipt of benefits, and whilst generalizations may appeal to the Sun readership, it cuts no ice with me. That said, it is right that people should be encouraged to return to self-reliance and the only way of achieving this is by setting limits on the amount of collective aid that will be provided and by limiting the conditions that may prompt its delivery. The Coalition government recognized this, and in my view was quite right to point out that nobody on benefits should receive more than an average wage. Quite where the level should be set, however, is a serious matter for debate and I would be interested to hear views.

Lastly, we’ve talked about the need for balance in our welfare state, but before we get carried away by dealing in absolutes, let’s take a look at redistribution in terms of one of the less savoury aspects of capitalism. Twenty years ago I would have argued that the free market should run free and unencumbered. Certainly, it seems to provide the best framework for successful trading and commerce, and ordinarily this would benefit all. However, globalization, improved communications and porous borders have decreased the power of national governments and allowed unaccountable multinational corporations to trump elected officials. This has undermined our system of liberal democracy to such an extent that I do fear that we are in danger of a political retrenchment brought on by popular antipathy. I find it ironic that those who have benefited most from globalization have accumulated such wealth whilst exhibiting such little awareness of the wider world that they may have already endangered their own existence. By any measure, it just cannot be right that 1% of the world’s population owns 80% of the worlds wealth. That means that the benefits are not being shared out equally. Oh wait, you don’t mean redistribution, Old Ram? We thought you were against it?

Its a conundrum for sure. I instinctively feel that we should be wary of regulation yet as a very minimum, all corporations should be made to pay the tax due in the countries where they conduct their business. That doesn’t mean to say they should necessarily be taxed more because they are large, but it does mean they should pay their way. Its a question of balance again. I’m not sure of the answer to this one and it demonstrates the dangers of dealing in absolutes, but I’m sure if I eat some more hay and ruminate a little something will come to me. Over to you.

Welcome

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Welcome to my personal blog called The Ruminating Sheep. Have you ever shouted in frustration at politicians and commentators for either refusing to debate an issue properly or for re-framing the question to suit their own personal agenda? In my opinion, most thinking people would accept that there are pros and cons to any preferred course of action and they understand that policy is often about choosing the best path rather than one that is right in all respects.

Sadly, today’s media-centric world prevents important matters being debated in such rational terms. Commentators are so restricted by time that there is only a brief moment to blurt out some meaningless sound-bite before the matter is closed and the forum moves on to the next topic. Personally, I am infuriated that politicians’ media advisers tell their proteges never even to acknowledge the existence of a counter-argument. Instead, they are told to promote solely their own stance even seemingly at the expense of personal integrity. As a result, the pros and cons of a policy are never properly exposed, and politicians and commentators are left looking evasive, dishonest and to most of us, utterly foolish. It is no wonder that respect for Westminster is so low and that voter apathy is so prevalent. Why cant they understand that the country is crying out for some honest public debate? An individual that was able to explain rationally why he thought his proposed course of action was better than the alternatives would really tap into this rich seam of frustration, and the political system might be surprised at the electorate’s response. Media permitting of course, but perhaps we’ll come onto that in due course.

Here at The Ruminating Sheep, I would like to open up topical items for friendly and analytical debate. In terms of my own politics, I suppose most folk would describe me as right leaning. That said, part of the problem with modern politics is that the whipped party system seeks to corral opinion into tribal pigeon holes whereas in reality most people have a variety of views that don’t necessarily fit into any one particular political compartment and I would hope that this would apply to me as well. We don’t just want to be policy wonks either as politics can get a bit boring after a while so I will also provide respite by posting on other matters in the news that I think you will find interesting. I would like to point out that the views on this site are my own as an interested layman. I am neither a political scientist nor a member of any political party. With that in mind, what you see is what you get. The blog is completely run within my own resources and without sponsorship.

Technology will also prevail, and you can follow me on twitter at the link on the page. Whilst I hope that you will come here routinely, I will periodically prick your conscience by tweeting links to the latest post if you elect to follow the flock of ruminants.

Lastly, can I please ask that you remain polite to me and to each other, and that you remain on topic. Many of our subjects will invoke strong feelings and opinions but in the spirit of open and rational debate lets try to channel these emotions into some really sharp intellectual analysis. I will moderate the comments for offensive remarks and bad language and repeat offenders will eventually be banished from the sheep shed and into the pig pen! Oh, and by the way, that means offensive in terms of common decency rather than politics!

So, thank you again for visiting. Let’s eat up our hay and start ruminating…..