Monthly Archives: November 2008

Dangerous Complacency over the Damian Green affair

Sniping at Tory mendacity aside, I can’t help but feel a palpable sense of complacency in the Observer today over the Damian Green affair.

First up, we have the normally sensible Vernon Bogdanor. WTF? It doesn’t take a Professor of Government at Oxford University to tell you that the police actions were constitutional. The “virtue” of our unwritten constitution is that pretty much anything the state decides to do is, unless Parliament has the foresight to see that it might happen and the backbone to prevent it (that would be a no, then). The real question is whether it should happen in a democratic state. And here it gets murky: I would be the first to argue that individual MPs should have some kind of exemption from the law. But that isn’t the same thing as saying that the office of Member of Parliament should be treated in the same way. I am hardly the first to point out that we expect MPs to deal with confidential information on a daily basis. It may well be the case the 19th century convention dictates that parliamentary privilege is limited to the floor of the Commons itself, but we live in the 21st century now. If that privilege doesn’t extend to MP’s hard drives and filing cabinets, it bloody well should do. And the whole point about conventions is that they can be revised with a wave of the hand. All it took was Michael Martin to say no, and that would be that.

Bogdanor also magics up this straw man:

‘If an MP were accused of theft and keeping stolen goods in his office at the House of Commons, should he be exempt from a police investigation?’

…to which the answer is of course no, but how can you compare that to receiving leaked information? If the test is, did Green do anything as serious as theft, then it is a test he will almost certainly pass by any measure. It is an utterly daft thing to say.

Andrew Rawnsley nails a lot of Bogdanor’s flummery in his article, pointing out that the 18th century law that Green was arrested under should have, if it was not a dinosaur statute that should have been scrapped alongside the law banning Welshmen from Chester years ago, have resulted in both Gordon Brown and Winston Churchill being banged up. But so caught up in the political mess of it all, Rawnsley too lapses into complacency, arguing that because the government is the big political loser in all this, and because no-one is being arrested for calling the UK a “police state” we have very little to worry about.

Yet this is classic wedge politics. I’m trying to avoid referring to boiling frogs here, because that is an unforgiveable cliche, but how much more ground do we have to give up before people like Rawnsley will accept that enough is enough? As he more or less acknowledges in his article, yet another line has been crossed. We’ve had two solid decades of lines being crossed now. The fact that we don’t live in a police state (and we don’t) doesn’t mean we can afford to dismiss it every time we take a baby step in that direction.

It can be no coincidence that this arrest happened during an interregnum period at the Met and a day after Parliament “prorogued” (a fancy word people use to make themselves sound intelligent which means Parliament wasn’t sitting, as it won’t do until Wednesday). Equally deliberate was Jacqui Smith’s act on Andrew Marr this morning, waggling her eyebrows meaningfully and casting innuendo about how there may (or may not) be important principles of national security at hand here (bombs! terrorism!) while, oxymoronically, continuing to emphasise the right of opposition MPs to “embarrass the government” (which speaks volumes about her real attitude towards scrutiny).

Ironically though, if the issue behind the raid is genuinely as serious as Smith implies, the way the police went about it was even less forgiveable. If this really is a matter of national security, then both Cameron and Green (Clegg too would be nice) should have been invited to a meeting in New Scotland Yard, had the nature of the threat spelled out to them, and asked for cooperation. Is anyone seriously suggesting that they wouldn’t have complied? In the event, the high profile of this arrest would have almost certainly damaged any corresponding intelligence work.

But the most startling thing about the Observer today is what’s missing: no article by Henry Porter. This is the journalist who has chronicled Labour’s raid on civil liberties for the past half decade and who has been warning of just this sort of behaviour. So what does the Observer do? Give him a day off. Notably, there isn’t a “Henry Porter is away” notice at the bottom of William Dalrymple‘s piece where Porter’s column can normally be found.

Notwithstanding the importance of the Mumbai massacre, it is an odd decision. It isn’t as if they dedicated pages elsewhere to the Damian Green affair – it only warranted a single page of news.

Thanks largely to Henry Porter, the Observer has acquired a strong reputation as a champion of civil liberties. I do hope that, as it comes to the crunch, it doesn’t start getting cold feet.

UPDATE: Henry Porter has an article today about the Damian Green incident on Comment is Free. Judging by the length, I’m guessing it was written for Sunday’s Observer.

The return of clear blue water? I’m bored already

As regular readers of this blog will be able to testify, whenever I say nice things about the other parties, it always comes back to bite me in the bum.

So it was that I backed Caroline Spelman and Ray Lewis, shortly before it became clear their actions were indefensible. And last weekend I wrote a favourable review of plans to cut VAT, responding to reports that the Labour Government were planning to do precisely that.

I still say that cutting VAT now and short term unfunded tax cuts in general, makes a certain amount of sense right now. They won’t stave off recession, but they could give us a softer landing. Doing nothing and whinging about how “I wouldn’t start from here” – the Tory approach – is likely to make things worse. What a shame therefore that the Pre-Budget Report was such a confused mess.

You can sum up the confusion at the heart of the PBR with one statistic: NI is set to increase by 0.5p in the pound. When you’re reduced to playing with silly numbers like that in taxation policy (and that’s only after 2011 – something tells me the Treasury will have rewritten their plans several times by then), it’s clear you lack the confidence of your convictions. It’s just so faffy.

Putting VAT back up in 13 months is just daft. Personally, I’m willing to be on it not happening. We’ll get to next November and the CBI, FSB et al will be lining up to demand the rise get deferred another year. And since when did the Treasury do January-January budgeting anyway?

What we needed was something strategic. Gordon Brown is a tactician, not a strategist and this has always shown in his budgets. It is all about the detail. The Lib Dem proposals for a tax shift are all about strategy – where we want to be in 5-10 years time not merely about getting out of the current hole. As it happens they would help there too.

And what of the Tories, this back to the 1992 bombshell stuff is already getting old. They’ve now replaced the vague, ominous threats with specific threats. The Treasury’s stupid fumble over releasing the wrong draft of the PBR enabled them to start talking about a VAT increase to 18.5%, and now they’ve managed to magic up a VAT increase to 20%. All very scary sounding stuff, except for two things. 1) You cannot argue, as Cameron and Osborne are that a 2.5% reduction will have no effect on the economy while claiming that a 2.5% increase is a “bombshell”; 2) If the situation is really as bad as they claim it is, if they do get into power they will either have to detonate the “bomb” themselves or slash public spending – we’re talking decimate the numbers of schools and hospitals here. In reality, they’ll probably end up doing a bit of both.

So it appears we are back to clear blue water: the Tories scarifying about tax increases and Labour scarifying about public funding cuts. None of this is to question the fundamentals of our economy or to ask why it is that individuals at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder pay so much in tax while those at the top pay so little. None of this is to question whether we can continue to base our economy on financial speculation. None of this is to ask how we might start to rebuild our industrial base. And don’t even mention the environment, that is so 2006. A return to party politics in other words, in which the main parties conspire to avoid talking about anything that actually matters.

Curb your enthusiasm.

We may live in a police state, but at least we don’t live in their police state

So, what to make of the incarceration of Damo Green? We, not to disagree with a word of what Nick Clegg has to say, I find myself siding with Justin McKeating at the same time.

It IS very worrying, but I find it difficult sympathising with the plight of a party which – when in power – introduced a law which meant that the sound of the members of a certain political party’s voices could not be legally broadcast and who – if they ever do get back into power – would scrap the Human Rights Act (replacing it, at some point, with a vague and amorphous British Bill of Rights which they have stated would afford less rights to individuals suspected of criminal offenses) and hand the police even more powers.

Over the years I’ve often hoped for a bit more self-awareness in Conservative politicians and I realise it is a forlorn wish. They are the stupid party for a reason, after all. But you never know.

God Trumps: Bonus Cards

The New Humanists’ God Trumps appears to be becoming a bit of a mini-phenomenon. Catholic Herald editor Damian Thompson has claimed it is Islamophobic because it pointedly refuses to make any Muslim jokes (the satirical point being made is rather lost of Mr Thompson).

Personally I found the feature quite amusing, but a couple of things irked me about it (both of which are common to a lot of what comes out of humanist stables). First of all, the anti-Catholic sentiment was a little over the top. The simple fact is, most Catholics don’t follow every word the Pope utters to the letter. Indeed, one issue that is ripe for mockery is the way Catholicism seems to accomodate that, allowing Tony Blair into the faith despite helping to start a war which the Pope opposed, and letting people off the hook as long as they confess every now and then. Follower Dedication: 9/10? You must be joking!

The second weakness is the failure to see the funny side about the Godless. Agnostics come in for a hard time, which is well and good. But in lumping secularists, atheists and humanists together into a single category, you end up with a lowest common denominator mush. Do the Godless really only have a wealth rating of 1/10? Some of the richest countries in the world have secular constitutions and secularists have control over a lot of the world’s media? Sounds pretty wealthy to me. And there is a broad spectrum of the Godless. If you are going to mock the agnostics, then why not take a few potshots at the Brights and Outs. It seems to me we need some new cards:

Age: founded in 2003 – 1/10
Wealth: small, but growing – 1/10
Follower Dedication: try suggesting not all religious people are eeevil to them and see how they react – 7/10
Daffiest Doctrine: er, the name ‘brights’? The urge to slavishly copy evangelicals by having their own bumper stickers? Alvin the Chipmunk has a good look? – 8/10
Weapon of Choice: whining – 8/10
Easily Offended? oh yes – 10/10

Age: 17th century – 4/10
Wealth: Friends’ Meeting Houses and several foundations and trusts set up by Friends’ after spending a lifetime of rotting children’s teeth – 5/10
Follower Dedication: for goodness’ sake, you can even be a Buddhist Quaker – 3/10
Daffiest Doctrine: er, that people should experience the Holy Spirit for themselves and not believe in doctrine? – 3/10
Weapon of Choice: chocolate, porridge – 10/10
Easily Offended? haven’t managed to yet – 1/10

Age: 11/10
Wealth: when you’re going to be eaten, what need for material possessions? 1/10
Follower Dedication: absolute – 10/10
Daffiest Doctrine: there’s nothing daffy about believing God lies sleeping at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and will rise up and eat us all. But in this context – 11/10
Weapon of Choice: Great Cthulhu, of course – 11/10
Easily Offended? He has a thick skin – 1/10

Truffle Hunting with Lib Dig

Over on Lib Dem Voice, I’ve started a new column called Lib Dig Pig.

Why Lib Dig Pig? Well, frankly it came from a old gag about “Lib Dig on a Pig” about having the section on the website dedicated to Sarah Palin and I just like the sound of it. But I do like the visual metaphor of snuffling around hunting for rich, smelly webpages lying there beneath the surface.

I think it is a karma thing. This is probably what I did in a past life (not that I believe in such things you understand – before the Boyce Thought Police descend on me).

Neil Trafford

I can’t claim to have been especially close to Neil Trafford, but learning of his death quite upset me this evening.

Neil and I were roughly the same age and the same generation politically. Our paths criss-crossed – he was involved in LDYS when I was more heavily involved in Manchester politics and he became involved in Manchester when I was more heavily involved in LDYS. I first got to know him in a meaningful way when I came up to help in the Manchester local elections in 2000.

Neil always impressed me as a passionate and professional campaigner. More than that, although this is perhaps related, he always seemed pretty grounded and you got the impression he had a life outside of politics. He was friendly and upbeat and exactly the sort of person you would want on your team.

The party has lost a star, but I’m also aware that a lot of people have also lost a close friend. My thoughts are with them.

Cutting tax is not a zero sum game

I’m cautiously optimistic about the rumoured plan of a 2.5% drop in VAT. It sounds like a good move to me, for several reasons.

One thing a VAT cut won’t do is lead automatically to a reduction in prices. Most food isn’t VAT-rated and it is hard to believe that a CD priced £9.99 this week will be priced £9.78 next week. However, taken together those 11ps start to add up. At the top end of the scale, being able to shave a bit more off the asking price for that plasma screen might just make the difference between whether it sells or not. If spending on the high street is down a couple of percentage points, dropping VAT by about the same amount could save real jobs. That means more people paying NI and income tax (and VAT) and fewer people claiming JSA. Looking it in that way, we have to ask ourselves the question: would it cost the Treasury more or less to keep VAT at 17.5%?

Gideon Osborne is not this blog’s favourite Shadow Chancellor, but I will give him credit for one thing: he has managed to get the media to completley buy into his claim that tax cuts now – any tax cuts – will automatically lead to paying a greater price in the longer term. The truth is much more complicated than that. VAT is a deadweight cost – a tax on commerce which is generally seen as a good thing. In my personal utopia, we wouldn’t have it in the first place. Dropping it at the start of a downturn has a real chance of softening the landing. It isn’t a magic feather, and there is certainly a point where the cost of dropping it outweighs the benefit, but it is a practical measure.

Vince Cable has broadly welcomed it, while emphasising the Lib Dem’s own policy for a tax switch (both policies are compatible). Cameron and Osborne have rubbished it. That should surprise no-one because VAT is the tax of choice for the Conservatives. It was Mrs T’s favourite tax. Raising it still further was one of Norman Lamont’s first acts as Chancellor. Ken Clarke, keen not to be outdone, expanded it to gas and electricity (Clarke has now come out as a VAT-cutter, suggesting his common sense now outweighs his dogma). Tory ginger group Direct Democracy – the closest the Conservatives get to genuine localists – envisage a world where council tax will be replaced by, you guessed it, a sales tax.

Once you remember that the Conservatives are not a pro-business party but a pro-entitlement party, it is easy to see why: piling the VAT on the proles means that you don’t have to pay for things by taxing unearned wealth. So for future Baronet Gideon Osborne to recoil at the merest suggestion is no surprise. The only tax cuts he will consider are on things like inheritence tax for millionaires.

The Tories have decided they are back in 1992, and have relaunched their “tax bombshell” posters. Labour should follow suit. Anyone remember VATman?

Paul Flynn a victim of net censorship? Don’t make me laugh

Paul Flynn is crying foul over the Parliamentary authorities’ decision to force him to pay for his own blog. Prior to that, he had tried charging the costs to the taxpayer via the Communications Allowance.

Derek Wyatt has also joined the fray:

“They don’t get in the way of my letters or phone calls, so why do they want to interfere in what I put on the web? They only want me to publish anodyne videos that no one will watch.

“They have got it completely wrong. They don’t understand the net. They simply don’t get it. It is like 1984.”

1984? How does this in any relate to state surveillance and state-sponsored torture?

Let’s be clear about some things: not a single MP is being censored or told what they can and can’t say – the issue is whether they can use Parliamentary expenses to do it. Paul Flynn is apparently shelling out £250 for his not particularly impressively designed Typepad blog. Looking at Typepad’s pricing structure, I can’t for the life of me understand why he is paying more than $50 for the service – so what is the other £180-ish being on?

Peter Black
and Lynne Featherstone‘s blogs doesn’t cost them, or the taxpayer, a penny yet by all accounts is considerably more successful. Reason? They haven’t confused style for content. By arguing the toss over this, the only thing Flynn has achieved is to illustrate an example of the ‘sense of entitlement‘ that Sir Christopher Kelly was warning about last week.

What Clegg should ask in PMQs tomorrow

Unusually for me, for the past couple of weeks I’ve been watching PMQs.

It hasn’t been a happy experience for me. On both occasions Clegg has been felled by Brown, who on both occasions has simply swatted him away by smearing about £20bn cuts in public services. And I can’t help but feel that the confusion at the heart of Clegg’s own strategy has lead these blows to be effectively self-inflicted wounds.

It’s time he rethought this strategy. Instead of flailing wildly once Brown has accused him of wanting to cut public services, he should confront it face on. I’d like him to say something like:

The Prime Minister has repeatedly accused me of wanting to cut public services. If by that he means I am calling for him to abandon the appalling money pit of the national identity card scheme, scaling back the NHS IT programme and [your choice here], then I plead guilty. In this time of economic crisis, how can he possibly justify continuing to waste public money on these projects?

Come on Nick, don’t make me put my head in my hands for the third week running.