EU: Making A Failing Democracy Worse

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I promised that I would dip a toe into the acid bath of EU matters, and with my feet well protected in rubber boots I will wade in….ankle deep at any rate.

Whatever your viewpoint, the first fox that needs shooting is that the EU is primarily an economic organization. In my view, that is a diversion. It is actually a political structure that lists economic management as one of bailiwicks, and uses economic arguments to further its statist ambitions. Once you accept this proposition then the debate about whether we should stay in the EU or leave becomes more a matter of political taste and where you sit on the tribal spectrum.

It was the vision of European leaders that the EU would use political, economic and social policies to unite the continent in an ever closer union in order to suppress the nationalistic tendencies that did so much damage during 2 world wars. For the founding fathers, political union was accepted as being a long game but it would become inevitable once centrally imposed social and economic policies developed poorer countries and ultimately bound them together in a unified political process. Harmonised fiscal and social policies, a single currency, a parliament, commission, foreign policy and, as recently announced by Juncker, an aspiration for an EU army, are much more than an economic single market. They are the trappings of a state.

Now there is no doubt that the EU has been beneficial for former Soviet Union countries like Poland. However, the question is whether a political union is still necessary to save Europe from itself and maintain stability in the post Cold War era? In my view it is no longer necessary. For a start, it is pie in the sky to think that the EU could ever deploy its own army. There is just too much historical baggage and a plethora of differing opinions for effective policy formulation. Think about the current and past EU foreign policy disagreements such as the Yugoslavia fiasco, and more recently, the different attitudes within the EU towards Russia. This is why NATO, acting solely as a security mechanism and backed by a strong US should remain the foundation of Western European security. The alliance has a clear mission that is universally supported by its members, and its security focus is unencumbered by the distraction of European political state-building. Moreover, it is my view that free markets in goods and services will ensure the economic interdependence of states and act as a far tougher glue than any social or political engineering by a central European authority.

Turning to the politics, the EU is essentially dominated by socialist and social democratic parties that have an altogether different viewpoint that is at odds with the political culture here. Despite the current polling balance of left and right parties in the UK, I believe that the British instinct is essentially Conservative in nature and not in the mould of European social democracy although I would accept that the situation in Scotland currently seems to be different to elsewhere (but watch what happens when they are responsible for raising their own taxes). This difference in political culture is readily apparent by the behaviour and constitution of the European Parliament which by British standards is as left-wing as anything we have seen here in the UK since the Michael Foot days. Whilst the British electorate periodically elects Labour governments it only does so when the Party moderates its politics towards the centre, and in my view this demonstrates that mainstream Britain sits further to the right of the political spectrum than most of our European neighbours.

Whilst differences in political culture causes practical problems for policy, my main issue with the European project relates to its size. I have previously discussed some of the factors that seem to be undermining the credibility of our political process here in the UK, but perhaps the main issue is the feeling that politicians are too remote and that voters feel unrepresented and unable to affect the outcome of the political debate. For many, it seems that a vote cast has little value, and voters therefore feel powerless and disenfranchised from the decisions affecting their lives. This problem is not just confined to the UK and is characterised by the rise of extreme and populist political parties at each end of the spectrum with potentially destabilising implications. When voters become disenfranchised they eventually take matters into their own hands by voting for decisive change with unpredictable results. Witness the rise of the far right in France, for example.

History suggests that the feeling of disenfranchisement gets worse as political structures get larger especially if power is retained centrally. It is far harder to represent an individual voter’s opinion if he/she is one individual in a massive sea of people with different political views and culture. On the other hand, whilst smaller structures improve representation they can be inefficient and prevent administrations from balancing competing needs between regions. It comes down to balance again, but one things is for sure, if the existing UK political structures have become too large and distant for voters, then we are making the situation worse by hitching our wagon to the European monolith where the democratic deficit is magnified tenfold.

I am increasingly concerned about voter apathy, cynicism and disenfranchisement and where we might end up if we don’t fix this democratic deficit soon. The more I have reflected on the matter, the more I am favouring a massive devolution of power, including taxation, away from a central federal government based at Westminster down to some newly created English regions plus Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We have a population of 65m, and with other countries operating very well with populations of 6 million or even less, there is plenty of scope to design our regions such that they would be economically viable and capable of operating more like the states in the US. Decentralisation to a federal model would increase local political accountability and promote voter engagement. Crucially, as part of this project, we should take back powers from Europe and return them to the British people. Decision making needs to come closer to the people not further away from them.

There are many that argue that we would be damaged economically if we withdraw from the political structures of the EU but I believe this is a disingenuous distraction with political undertones. I will offer one fact that illustrates why trade with the mainland would continue whatever political alterations are made to our relations with the EU: half of the cars that are made in Germany are purchased in the UK. We just buy too much of their stuff for them to close their trading doors to us.

This is a political matter not economic. We need to bring decision making closer to our electorate, and EU integration is going in the wrong direction. I would vote OUT in a referendum at the moment but I remain open-minded about potential reform. The changes would need to be significant, however, rather than superficial.

More hay and rumination, Fritz and Pierre?

Twitter Wars: The Tribal Politics of Unmentionable Racial Issues

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Yesterday I reviewed a Sunday Times article by the journalist Trevor Phillips (also here in the Mail but scroll past the DM political hype to get to his piece), and I praised his candour for highlighting the woeful lack of debate about some of the practical problems posed by multiculturalism. After I published my blog I issued a tweet advertising it and then had an interesting exchange with one individual that I believe illustrates the real problems presented by tribal politics in our quest for meaningful debate.

I have left out the name of my sparring partner but an examination of my twitter account will reveal his identity if you’re curious. I have also offered him a full right to reply by blog on this site if he so wishes. Here is the exchange that took place:

Me: Brave, brave Trevor Phillips tackling unmentionable issues like race. His article reviewed here…link to the ruminating sheep blog.

F: dog/whistle rubbish for the Tory Press. Sadly Trevor’s realised there is a lot of cash to be made as a right- wing black guy.

Me: What’s right or left got to do with it? We’re talking about multiculturalism and ability to debate issues free of censure.

F: claiming all Jews are rich, and all blacks are criminals, is little to do with multiculturalism.

Me: Read the article. His point was the inability to discuss the subject and the dangers therein. You’re twisting it (poorly)

F: I’ve read the article. It’s very racist.

and

F: We’re not allowed to say ‘most black people are criminals’ for a reason – it’s judging a human being purely on their race.

Me: He’s not saying most black people are criminals. I will blog about our exchange tomorrow and give you full right to reply.

Now there is a delicious irony to this exchange which I will come to in a moment, but before then I feel it is right to address the implication that Trevor Phillips has written a racist article. First of all, a quick read of Phillips’ bio reveals that this is a man who has consistently promoted equality, diversity and social opportunity over a long career as a broadcaster and more latterly as a public servant. Second, there is nothing within his article that I could construe as racist. The context ( and I urge you to read the whole thing) – is about the barriers to a meaningful discussion on racial and multicultural matters. The focus of F’s objections seems to be this:

“If African Caribbeans are statistically more likely to commit some kinds of crime than other people, as indeed they are — we are especially proficient at murdering other African Caribbeans, for example — it might make some sense to understand why, so we can stop it happening. Not all Jewish people are wealthy; in fact, some are extremely deprived. But if — as is true — Jewish households in Britain are on average twice as wealthy as the rest, might it not pay to work out what makes these families more likely to do well? Is there something that the rest can learn from their traditions and behaviour? We all know why these things cannot be said. The long shadow of slavery and the Holocaust rightly makes us anxious about the kind of slack thinking that led to the dehumanising of entire populations.
Yet should history prevent us from understanding the differences between us — especially if those insights might improve life for everyone?”

I just don’t see that as racist especially in the context of the main thrust of his article. He is merely stating facts and explaining why they are relevant to his thesis. Note also that Philipps is of Afro-Caribbean descent himself.

Now to the irony. In previous posts, Avoiding the Debate and Toxic policies I explained some of the factors preventing proper analytical political debate and how this was causing electoral apathy and cynicism.  Some of these factors include media hyperbole, tribal politics, political dogma and the party whip system. Importantly, it also includes certain nefarious activities like evasive politicians attempting to be all things to all people and pressure groups and organisations suppressing debate by calling into question the integrity and motives of anyone attempting to discuss certain matters.

The whole point of Trevor’s article was about the suppression of the multiculturalism debate. By accusing him of having financial motives and of making racist remarks, his detractors would seem to be using ad-hominem accusations to avoid discussing the substantive issue. This precisely and extremely elegantly proves the exact point made by Philipps in his article. Quad erat demonstrandum.

I have no idea of the motivations of ‘F’ in his twitter remarks but tribal politics and his instinctive defence of multiculturalism as a political rather than social phenomena seems to have played a major part during our exchange on twitter. That is tribal politics at work and neatly illustrates how it raises barriers to proper debate. I have offered ‘F’ the right of friendly reply with a post of his own here in the sheep shed, and I would be interested to hear his perspective. Let’s hope he will eat hay with us and ruminate in the spirit of constructive debate.

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Postnote: ‘F’ has posted his reply in comments which you can find below or by following the link here. I still feel that he is viewing the issue through a political lens which in my view is unhelpful but probably realistic in today’s climate. I would nonetheless like to thank him for his constructive contribution to the board. Perhaps others have a view?

Unmentionable Racial Issues

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In a previous post, I talked about how some subjects are never discussed because they are, or have been made, politically toxic. As a result, important issues lie unmentioned and simmering with politicians preferring to ignore them rather than raise their heads above the parapet. With this in mind, it was extremely refreshing to read an article in The Sunday Times by journalist and former chairman of the Racial Equality Commission, Trevor Phillips, on the deep racial problems lying within our multi-cultural society and our inability to discuss them.

In his brave article (unfortunately behind a paywall), called Ten Things About Race that are True but we Can’t Say, Trevor highlights how New Labour’s attempts to tackle discrimination failed to addressed the problems of multi-culturalism in practice. He says that local authority funds promoting multi-ethnic diversity have been misused by community leaders who benefit from preserving isolation. He highlights that many young people are “trapped behind walls of tradition and deference to elders”, and identifies that the Charlie Hebdo shootings in France were partly of a consequence of segregation within Muslim ghettos. He believes that similar issues lie behind our own 7th July bombings.

The article would be incendiary if it wasn’t written by a well-known and respected black journalist, and perhaps this is the point. Trevor is absolutely correct that in our desperation to avoid causing offence we are ignoring critical issues and he cites as an example the institutional reluctance to tackle the grooming of young girls by some young Pakistani men in our cities. He also points out that the recent fury over Benedict Cumberbatch’s use of the term ‘coloured’ meant that his important point about the need for more black actors to be employed got completely lost. His key point is that it is “more and more difficult to address problems in our society because we are too afraid to describe them”

Bingo! This is exactly the point I tried to make in my previous post on toxic policies, and Trevor is also correct to highlight that unless we are brave enough to overcome this reluctance, then the far right, already ascendant in some European countries, will continue to make electoral progress for merely ‘speaking the truth’

Trevor Phillips will develop his theme in a Channel 4 documentary on Thursday at 9pm, and I for one will be interested to see it. Well done Trevor.

New Life

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I’m sorry but the stream of posts may slow slightly for a week or two whilst I get to grips with matters in the sheep shed. Things kicked off last night with these two fine chaps who initially seemed a bit resistant to enter our modern world and needed a helping hand. Wonder why?

Normal rumination will be restored shortly.

Political Grandstanding and Hubris

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In previous posts (here and here) I have discussed the pernicious effect that today’s 24-hour soundbite media has on the quality of our political debate and its contribution to electoral apathy. I don’t want to bang on about this but I was so outraged at the TV coverage of yesterday’s meeting of the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee that I feel compelled to get a few things off my chest so that I can enjoy the rest of my day and eat lots of hay without enduring a bad dose of ruminant indigestion.

For those of you fortunate to miss it, this all-party Parliamentary committee, chaired by the Labour MP Margaret Hodge, was taking evidence from HSBC executives on the company’s role in facilitating tax evasion schemes. Now, this is precisely the sort of core business that this committee should be conducting and it is quite right that Parliament investigates any abuse of the tax system. My objections are not to do with the subject matter but the conduct of the MPs during the hearing.

The verbal abuse of Stuart Gulliver and Chris Meares was bad enough but the treatment of Rona Fairhead was an abuse of parliamentary privilege. Unfounded accusations, inappropriate tone, confusing informed comment with personal views, refusing to allow witnesses to answer by talking over them, deliberate rudeness, contrived moral outrage and anger. The list goes on, and it only happened because the proceedings were filmed and presented an opportunity for our parliamentary saviours to grandstand safe in the knowledge that they would get a few moments of glory in the evening news.

The problem with this approach is that the purpose of the proceedings was undermined by the behaviour of the all-party committee members. The idea is to take evidence and report back to parliament, and by behaving in this way the committee members actually reduced the chances that witnesses would provide meaningful evidence and that anything consequential would eventually be reported. Moreover, whilst the MPs may have thought they were courting public opinion with their contrived anger, actually all they were doing was bringing politics further into disrepute and adding to the widespread public impression that they are solely interested in themselves rather than the public good.

It really is time to remove the cameras and have a clear out. I periodically have to do that with my sheep. Distasteful, but occasionally necessary for the benefit of the rest of the flock.

Toxic Policies: Mentioning the Unmentionable

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In a previous post called Avoiding the Debate, I mentioned some of the factors that I believe are stifling our political debate and reducing its quality resulting in worrying electoral apathy and a democratic deficit. Today, I thought I would mention another feature that undermines proper discussion, and that is the toxic policy.

The toxic policy is an issue that has become so politically suicidal ever to mention that no MP will even dare to raise the matter for discussion. It is a political no-go zone. A good example is our centralized funding model for the NHS. Now I don’t know if our current model is the best solution or not. But I do know that the NHS costs an extraordinary sum of money and that demand for health services is increasing at an alarming rate. With this in mind, it seems to me that periodically we should at least look at other ways of funding health care even if we subsequently decide that the current model remains appropriate for today’s circumstances. At the very least we should have the courage occasionally to take a look and discuss it.

Making subjects politically impossible to raise is a deliberate tactic employed by those who oppose change and seek to stifle debate. Frequently, those employing the tactic will try to adopt the moral high ground by implying that someone is extreme or despicable if they dare even to open a matter for discussion. At a local level, a good example is the use of the term Nimby to describe someone opposed to a development. The moral implication is that an individual or party is somehow acting selfishly and against the common good for opposing a development even if they are the person most affected by the proposal. The Greens are particularly adept at employing the tactic when wind farm developments are proposed but it is also used to stifle debate on other policy matters. In these instances, contrived moral outrage is often reinforced by accusations that the very fact that a subject has been opened for discussion reveals that a decision for change has already been made.

The problem with such political correctness is that questions that need to be asked remain buried, change becomes impossible to achieve and political orthodoxy becomes dogma. Now you might think that a politician that is unwilling to tackle the toxic policy lacks bravery and that would be true to some extent, but in the face of the likely adverse media coverage it becomes much easier to bury a subject rather than to raise it.

This is ultimately bad for all us in my view. How will we ever get better if we don’t look at all the options?

Pick and Mix Policies for the Politically Homeless

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The problem with tribal politics is that politicians and voters are forced into narrow categories where there is little scope for interpretation or shades of grey (no we’re not going there today). Politics has always been tribal to some extent, but the 24 hour scrutiny of a media that is hungry to write stories about internal divisions has made party politics even more partisan and boring. The Whips hold sway, and with some notable and interesting exceptions, politicians rarely put their head above the parapet to challenge their party orthodoxy with interesting and new ideas. I discussed some of this in a previous post, Avoiding the Debate.

Recently, I have started to reflect on which political pigeon hole I should adopt as my home, and I found that I don’t really fit anywhere particularly well. I suppose if I was forced, I would say that I’m socially liberal but economically conservative. I believe that self-reliance should be promoted wherever possible as it enriches lives, but on the other hand I want the State to provide a temporary safety net for those of my fellow citizens that fall on hard times. But, note, a safety net not a means of dogmatically redistributing wealth, and so I would place limits on the extent of taxpayer support (see here for my post on the welfare state). In a similar vein, I think that the State should be as small as possible for efficiency but that does not mean zero state activity as government intervention in some areas is necessary and beneficial. I don’t think governments should run trains but they should run the security services and law enforcement, for example.

Even on other economic matters I do not necessarily adhere to conventional doctrine as whilst I believe in a free market I also think that limits should be placed on its excess. I don’t want higher taxes but I do think Google and the like should pay their way if they expect to trade here. Similarly, I’m not opposed in principle to the private sector providing public services so long as it is properly regulated to ensure the necessary standard. Sometimes, the private sector can do a better job than civil servants, and that can offer value to taxpayers so long as we don’t get ripped off. And, finally, do let the bankers make loads of money so long as its not at our expense, they pay their taxes and they don’t rely on us to bail them out when they cock it up.

On other topical matters, I have decided that on balance I would like the UK to leave the political and legal structures of the EU and to implement proper immigration controls (see post here) for the benefit of all the people living in these Isles. Yet, I also want to protect the rights of our existing immigrant population now that they have settled here. I see them as British as myself. On civil rights, I believe in our democratic rights and legal system but I also think that with citizen rights come responsibilities and that the balance occasionally gets skewed the wrong way by inappropriate laws some of which are imposed from outside the country. On social affairs, what’s wrong with gay marriage, for example? Why should I try to stop someone experiencing the same happiness that I have found in my own union. It affects me, my lifestyle and my country not one jot. It is only religious and extreme political dogma (see post here) that would oppose such ideals and I have no truck with that.

I think a bit of me is also nationalistic in the sense that I believe we should act in the interests of the UK and all its citizens. Now that may sound a bit scary or suggest that I could be a closet EDL or BNP supporter but I could never vote for them because I believe in the equal rights of all British citizens whatever their ethic origins or religious beliefs. I believe that the UK should continue to play a role on the international stage but with our own interests placed at the centre of our approach to diplomacy and international aid, and not necessarily for the benefit of those around us (depending on the issue, they may coincide, of course). In this regard, I would like to see us deploy our overseas aid budget more strategically to support foreign policy.

Above all, I want to feel that I have some kind of influence on what happens around me. That means that I am gravitating away from the centralized Westminster political model towards a more federal system of government. That is the preferred Labour answer for English devolution if I correctly understood their comments following the Scottish Referendum. Following my earlier post on Devolution, blackandwhiteram made some interesting remarks about the US federal system, and on reflection I think that the size of our population could now make a similar system viable for the whole of the UK. A fully federal system would allow the regions to tax and spend (but not borrow) in order to provide services but with a greatly reduced federal government at Westminster providing mainline services such as defence and foreign policy. There are some difficulties with this model which we discussed previously and it would be necessary to design the regions carefully (or come up with an English Barnett formula to reduce regional inequality – see the Devolution post I linked). A federal system needn’t cost a lot more if Whitehall was reduced in size and a layer of local government stripped away to make space for the regional assemblies or whatever you want to call them. Most importantly, it would improve voter representation and influence, and we could get away from this charade that is currently taking place in the run up to the general election.

So I am indeed politically homeless. There are signs of new thinking. I notice that Tim Montgomerie has started to promote a right-leaning initiative that challenges the Conservative orthodoxy by introducing an element of social justice, and maybe this is a sign that some of the dogmatic political boundaries are starting to erode. Its worth a read although its still not quite right for me.

So, homeless for the moment. Good job I’ve got a sheep shed to sleep in.

HR: Confusing Education with Training

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It really is tough for kids growing up today. It seems that there is ever greater pressure to cast them into a pre-determined shape at an ever earlier stage. This is especially apparent in the jobs’ market where specifications are written so tightly that there is no room for individuals who are well-educated and adaptable but who lack many of the terribly narrow requirements that you see listed in job adverts.

I absolutely place the blame for this at the Human Resources community’s door. It seems to me like HR has become a monstrosity, extending its tentacles into all areas of corporate life and building an empire that would impress Darth Vader. You only have to look at the multitude of books that have been written on recruitment and applying for jobs to understand that as a cadre, HR has tried extremely hard to develop a rigid science behind something that is otherwise largely common sense. It also leads to companies and organisations deferring to this self-promoted expertise and allowing people without any great understanding of a business to select the job applicants which are crucial for that company’s future wellbeing.

There are wider adverse effects too. Overly tight job and people specifications preclude a whole group of candidates who might well perform better in a job than those that are able to tick the most boxes. It also forces young people to make crucial career decisions at an ever earlier stage so that they then have time to gather the necessary ticks. This is not the way a childhood should be in my opinion. They just don’t know what they want to be when they are growing up and they shouldn’t have to make such weighty decisions until they are mature enough to recognise their path through life. In my experience, individuals can achieve extraordinary things when they love their job but that job can take a bit of finding. On the other hand, if someone has been steered onto a particular path by premature and irreversible decisions then they are likely to be unhappy and will be certainly less productive.

Finally, we hear much from Industry moaning that they can’t find the people with the necessary skills and fingers are pointed to failings in the education system. Now, let me make clear that improvements do need to be made to education, but we need to be clear what schools, universities and companies are responsible for. Schools and Universities do education, firms do training and by trying to confuse the two industry is attempting to drive training costs onto the State. Education should provide the foundations for training which is the last stage in the process before an individual starts work.

If we confuse education and training then we are in danger of weakening those foundations. We will end up producing demotivated automatons who are incapable of creative thought and constructive innovation. Is that what industry really wants? Our industrial leaders need to take charge of their manpower and invest properly and strategically in their businesses if they wish to remain competitive. Crucially, that will involve them taking more responsibility for training their workforce. Maybe this is one reason why the UK’s productivity has been so poor in recent years.

Rant over, do pass me the hay…