Thatcher the Revolutionary

Posted on April 09, 2013

Thatcher the RevolutionaryThere has, by now, been more written about Margaret Thatcher than anyone can possibly read. Some of it is fantastic. Some of it is wicked. Much of it is more about the myths, good and bad, than it is about the actual political leader.

I don’t intend to add at great length to the reams of discussion already produced, but it seems to me that perhaps her longest-lasting impact has been neglected. Indeed, it is so long-lasting that it is yet to fully play out, even now.

Margaret Thatcher changed the Right from a reactionary movement into a revolutionary one. She embraced the crucial realisation that institutions and traditions are not inherently right, and embedded elites are almost always inherently wrong.

She was not afraid to tear up conventions and topple mouldering monoliths to pass opportunities and rights to the masses.

The traditional and aristocratic elites in her party hated her for it. So did the bosses who had grown fat on inefficient state industries, where failure was something to be managed, not eradicated. The millions who had suffered the result of symbiotic, comfortable relationships between the trade unions and the conservatives who contented themselves with a top deck cabin on Britain’s sinking ship, cheered her on.

It is easy now to imagine she was one of the establishment, by simple virtue of having been in Government for 11 years. But she wasn’t – she entered Parliament against bigotry over her class and gender, and she faced exactly the same bigotry (from all sides) once she got there. Small wonder that she liked plain-speaking grammar school boys more than aristocrats with land and estates.

A marvellous note survives from ICI’s personnel department, on the rejection of her application to be a research chemist in 1948. It reads: “This woman is headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated.” In the view of ICI, she didn’t know her place, she dared to speak her mind and she was therefore a threat to their established order.

They were right – if wrong to reject rather than recruit her as a result. She came to bury the elite, not to praise or preserve it.

In her time, she had successes and failures, as all politicians do. It was certainly not the case that everything she did fitted the revolutionary ideal that I’ve just laid out – and nor did all of the revolutionary steps that she wished for come to pass.

But in having the realisation that conserving what came before is not enough, she changed the direction of centre right thinking. She was no libertarian, but she set the tone for the British Right to wake up to libertarianism.

The practical results of her time in power were positive overall. There were many ways they could have been improved, but it is undeniable that she revolutionised Britain. The way she changed the course of our thinking in the coming decades, though, will eventually come to outweigh even the way she changed our lives, our rights and our economy in the decade she made her own.

The Pope and the Tyrant

Posted on March 19, 2013

The new Pope’s PR people are doing a good job for him so far – his practice of going on unexpected walkabouts has been much acclaimed as showing a new, reformist papacy.

His message at today’s inaugural Mass was also one of moral zeal:

Whenever human beings fail to live up to this responsibility, whenever we fail to care for creation and for our brothers and sisters, the way is opened to destruction and hearts are hardened. Tragically, in every period of history there are “Herods” who plot death, wreak havoc, and mar the countenance of men and women.

But ultimately successful PR has to be built on hard reality – there’s little point in making good noises if your behaviour fails to match them.

So Pope Francis’ pronouncements ring hollow when you consider that right there in his congregation as he spoke was Robert Mugabe. It’s hard to think of a tyrant who better fits the Pope’s description of a “Herod”, and he has plotted much death and wreaked much havoc in his murderous rule over unfortunate Zimbabwe.

Why did the Vatican invite a brutal dictator to their most prestigious event, giving him VIP treatment and a free pass through Italian territory in defiance of the EU travel ban? This is the Catholic Church, not known for its tolerance and famous for excommunicating monarchs who get divorced – and yet they seem comfortable to welcome Mugabe just because he calls himself a Christian. I hope they are able to get the bloodstains out of his chair.

For those who argue that they should bring sinners in, preach to them and hope for their repentance, the message should by now be clear. This is the second or possibly third Papal inauguration Mugabe has attended, and his boot has yet to lift off the face of his people by so much as an inch. Instead, he basks in what he considers to be the validation of his Church, and continues with his campaign of terror. Preaching isn’t working.

If Pope Francis wants to show a real change in the Vatican’s administration, he could do worse than excommunicate Robert Mugabe.

Gosh, crikey – Hugh Grant breaks Leveson’s ethics proposals

Posted on March 14, 2013

As the self-appointed arbiter of media standards in the UK, Hugh Grant has a lot of opinions about what is and isn’t ethical journalism. Apparently the Guardian is perfectly ethical, while papers which report on, I don’t know, sex scandals involving English celebrity romcom actors are beyond the pale. Who knows how he settled on that view?

However he came by his moral code carved in stone doesn’t matter, he’s marched down the mountain and has spent several months using the tablets to lay about any who stand in his way.

Except perhaps he should read what they say before using them to clobber others. Take today’s tweet from the Media Moses:

That’s quite a big claim – that Rupert Murdoch personally ordered the Times Editor to order the Prime Minister to follow a specific policy and set of actions, which the PM immediately obeyed. What starts as a “rumour” has become, by the end of the tweet, supposedly solid fact that “Murdoch rules.”

Surely an ethical reporter would have given some evidence, quoted a source or even given any reason at all to believe it?

In fact, I seem to recall that the Leveson report had something to say about exactly that:

“45. A new regulatory body should consider encouraging the press to be as transparent as possible in relation to the sources used for stories, including providing any information that would help readers to assess the reliability of information from a source”

In short, Hugh Grant is promoting adopting the Leveson proposals by, err, going dead against Leveson’s proposals on evidence and sourcing. His “rumour” could have come from Tom Watson. It could have come from one of Murdoch’s own competitors. For that matter, Hugh Grant could just have made it up – but he has merrily injected it into the public debate, with no evidence or source in sight.

It’s hardly “ethical reporting”, is it, Hugh?

Kirchner didn’t even win a majority of Argentines in the Falklands

Posted on March 12, 2013

The Falkland Islands’ referendum could hardly have been more clear. Turnout was over 90%, and while 1,513 voted to stay as  a British overseas territory, only 3 voted against.

Those three are intriguing. Iain Martin of the Telegraph speculates that they may have been voting for independence from Britain but not in favour of joining Argentina.

But what if they were motivated by true Argentine nationalism? After all, there are some Argentines living in the islands (real ones, I’m not adopting the Kirchner Government’s ludicrous suggestion that everyone there is legally Argentine). And any who have been resident for seven years prior to the referendum had the right to vote yesterday.

The precise number of Argentines living there isn’t clear – a spokesman for the Falkland Islands Government tells me there are “a handful”, but legal nationality wasn’t a question on the Islands’ 2012 census. The closest estimate I can find is from the BBC in 2007, who reported that:

“20 Argentines…are fully integrated into the 3,000-strong community of the archipelago”

It seems likely that those who were “fully integrated” 6 years ago would by now have lived there long enough to be entitled to vote in the referendum. Even in a worst case scenario in which half of them had died, emigrated or fallen in the sea since 2007, that would leave 10 Argentines with a vote on the future of the islands.

So it seems clear that not only did an overwhelming majority of Falkland Islanders vote to stay British – not even a majority of the Argentines eligible to do so voted to leave.

Maybe Christine de Kirchner needs to have a rethink…

 

Save Our Bacon

Posted on March 07, 2013

Some shocking news has filled the airwaves, taken over our TV screens and dominated the BBC’s online news output. Across the nation, listeners, viewers and readers are struggling to take it in: bacon, pork pies, scotch eggs and sausages are quite bad for you.

I know, I was stunned, too. Who would have thought that salty, fatty, processed meat products were worse for your health than apples and Bran Flakes?

Sure, pig lobby groups (I suppose we should call them “Big Pig”) have been pushing that line for years but until I saw today’s evidence I  thought they were just squealing to protect their vested interest in not being sliced up thinly and eaten for breakfast.

Why is this considered news?At the start of the day we all knew that unhealthy foods were unhealthy and, after top billing from our national broadcaster, by the end of the day we will still all know it. Tomorrow perhaps we can expect groundbreaking findings that a kick in the groin hurts, followed by exclusive revelations of George Galloway’s slight scepticism about free market capitalism.

There is a distinct irony in medical researchers wasting years of their lives carrying out a mass study in order to tell us something we already knew about extending our life expectancy. At best there was an outside chance that they would crunch the numbers and announce that a terrible mistake had been made – that five portions of fresh fruit and veg is actually deadly, and we could only be saved by high doses of fried bread and black pudding.

Obviously if that had happened it would have been great news, and a genuine triumph for science that we could all welcome. But I doubt it was their motivation.

Instead, they seem to have purposely re-researched a well-established fact, with the sole aim of being able to publish it again. The BBC has kindly obliged to pass the message on, with the result that thin people with excellent life expectancy are loud-hailering in the nation’s face that we ought to shape up and stop being so disgusting.

You can almost taste their exasperation that the fry-up hasn’t yet died a fatty death, face down in a pool of its own egg and beans.

I severely doubt that today’s publicity will change anything in the national diet – other than perhaps boosting bacon sales by the constant looped video footage of butties. Show me someone who doesn’t know that bacon isn’t good for you and I will show you someone under the age of 5. Propaganda campaigns haven’t just scraped the barrel, they’ve hacked through its planks with a dented spoon – and yet they still aren’t working.

That people haven’t snapped to attention at the call of a Change4Life advert isn’t down to ignorance – how could it be, given the fortune spent on “public information” campaigns? It’s down to their personal choice to do things that are gratifying and enjoyable even at the well-known cost to their eventual lifespan. In other words, they’re exercising their right to choose how their own lives should be lived.

The failure of repeated attempts to turn us into a land of the uniformly fit and boring helps to explain why food nannying is moving away from pure propaganda and into the realms of bullying. The cries for a “fat tax” will grow and grow, and if we aren’t careful the nudges will turn it to shoves and then outright legislative force. All because the people won’t do what they are constantly told they should – and because those doing the telling are self-righteous enough to shift with ease from “you should” to “thou shalt.”

A message to those who think insults should be illegal

Posted on January 15, 2013

One of the fundamental tenets of a free society is free speech – the freedom to criticise, to debate, to hold to account and to shock or insult. The world is full of people who will say “I believe in free speech – but it doesn’t mean the right to insult people or their beliefs.”

Well, I’m sorry if you find this offensive, but I’m about to offend that belief. It’s illogical nonsense. Free speech is not free speech if you cannot use it freely – and part of its function is to allow people to express their beliefs, including that the beliefs or sensitivities of someone else are incorrect, unpleasant or just plain idiotic.

The fallacy of “I believe in free speech, but not the freedom to offend” is alarmingly widespread, and extremely dangerous. Sometimes  it is spouted by the naive, the mistaken or the simply stupid – but often it is a faux-logic cover for those who simply do not believe in freedom at all.

Claiming to believe in free speech but not in the freedom to offend is like saying you believe in the freedom to breathe, but not the freedom to absorb oxygen into a bloodstream, or that everyone has a right to use pens but ink should be banned. It means you don’t believe in free speech at all. It is the verbal equivalent of sleight of hand – and not a very good one, drawing a distinction where no distinction exists.

If you are guilty of using it, please stop doing so. In the magic trick stakes, it’s more like the kind you get free in a cracker and try to perform drunk on Christmas afternoon than a Derren Brown illusion. No one thinks you actually have magic powers, they think you’re a tiresome relation who can’t hold his drink. When you finally doze off in front of one of the weaker Bond films, they’ll raise a silent cheer and either draw on your face or place your hand into a cup of warm water. Or both.

Until now, the law backed up these amateur Paul Daniels tribute acts. Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 made it a criminal offence to say anything insulting, where that insult is defined subjectively by the recipient of the comment or anyone witnessing or hearing tell of it.

I’m delighted to read that the Home Secretary has now accepted a Lords amendment to delete the provision which outlaws insults. I hope you will join me in congratulating the Reform Section 5 campaign – and in keeping a watchful eye for any other incursions into free speech.

UKIP’s Ollyshambles has serious consequences

Posted on January 09, 2013

UKIP’s internal tensions have been obvious for some time. As the main party has gathered points in the opinion polls by picking up kneejerk reactionary positions on gay marriage and the burkha, the youth wing – Young Independence (YI) – has seen its own surge on the back of libertarian activism.

As I tweeted a month ago, after witnessing a debate on gay marriage between an old guard member and Olly Neville (a leading member of YI):

All parties – and the country at large – have that growing generational difference, particularly when it comes to the understanding of individual liberty. The test of their character is how they deal with them. And that’s where UKIP are now in big trouble.

In what some have inevitably dubbed the #Ollyshambles, Neville – who recently became the popular Chairman of Young Independence – was last night sacked from his post by the party’s leadership. His crime? He dared to disagree with them over gay marriage and on the idea that European Elections were more important than Westminster – both perfectly sensible positions for a libertarian eurosceptic to take.

So why should anyone care? After all, I hear you say, he was just the youth leader of a political party which has no Parliamentary representation. That’s true, of course, but the Neville affair does have some important ramifications for UKIP and for our wider politics.

Consider the context: UKIP are at 16% in the polls, widely touted as headed for first place in the 2014 European Elections and according to the Mail on Sunday set to deny David Cameron any chance of a General Election victory, all at a time when the EU is an increasingly important issue. Whether they convert their current polling into votes, and how they campaign matters a great deal.

The implications are numerous.

First, there’s the impact on UKIP’s effectiveness. The party’s youth wing had been signing up activist after activist from Conservative Future, based on its message of good humour and libertarian politics. That is now shattered, as the leading proponent of both is roundly duffed up. UKIP have already had resignations over the scandal, meaning they are losing energetic young activists as well as the gloss which an active youth organisation gives to a brand.

Then there’s the damage this does to UKIP’s message that it is a different kind of party, one that rejects top-down control and the enforcement of toeing the line. They have made great hay with this – look, for example, at the comments given by former CF Deputy Chair Alexandra Swann on her much-publicised defection to UKIP:

“As a member of Conservative Future, with no real power, I was monitored and forced to stick rigidly to the party line. The Tories stifle debate, and no one gets along, whereas UKIP encourage debate and they all get along fine.”

That sounded great for them at the time, but now rings extremely hollow. Small wonder Alexandra was looking rather uncomfortable on Twitter last night in the face of the news.

Given that the Conservatives allow MPs to break ranks on leaving the EU or opposing green taxes, while Labour keep Frank Field, Lord Adonis and plenty other outspoken rebels in their ranks, UKIP risk their anti-politics reputation by sacking people for simple disagreement.

Perhaps most serious for Nigel Farage is the impact this has on his own core messages about what UKIP believes. Time and again we’re told it is a libertarian party, and yet it seems that speaking your mind in favour of libertarian positions is a sackable offence.

The same goes for the question of who their leader backs or sacks. When Winston Mackenzie, the UKIP candidate in the Croydon North by-election, became the latest official representative of the party to say something horrendously bonkers by announcing that gay adoption was a form of “child abuse”, we were told that UKIP is a party that lets its people hold their own opinions.

As recently as Monday, Farage was on the Today Programme defending his troops from the Prime Minister’s allegations of oddness on the grounds that:

“…we’re eccentrics, and we tolerate eccentricity.”

So either it’s acceptable “eccentricity” to insult gay people, but unacceptable to suggest they should be allowed to marry, or this is an overnight change of position. If it’s the former, then that’s pretty horrendous. If it’s a change of position,  presumably UKIP will now sack anyone who breaks from any policy at all. That would be awkward for them, given a) the tendency of their candidates and MEPs to do so and b) the fact that Nigel Farage himself has publicly gone on record as opposing their policy on drugs.

Next time (and there will be a next time) a UKIPper says something genuinely awful, how will Farage fight off the demands to sack him or her?

All in all, this is a pretty mess: young activists alienated, a libertarian and anti-politics reputation fundamentally undermined, and a total inconsistence with their own leader’s attitude to sacking and policy cohesion. Anyone acquainted with the history of UKIP will know that they are no strangers to arbitrary purges – indeed, they are probably the only political party with far more ex-members than members. It’s fair to say a return to that bloody heritage is not the road to political success.

2012 may have been UKIP’s year to party, but the Ollyshambles suggests 2013 may be the year of the hangover.

How high taxes killed our belief in helping others

Posted on January 08, 2013

When all factual and economic arguments have failed, Britain’s proponents of high taxes fall back upon philosophical justifications for their position. “Tax is the thing that makes us civilised”, they declare, “It brings us together as a society”.

Such arguments are dragged out to perform again and again, like those 1960s pop acts who were fleeced of their retirement pots by unscrupulous managers. Of course, there’s no actual evidence for them – that’s the point, they are declarations of conveniently unmeasurable truths.

But even such intangible claims are starting to look shaky. As the debate about cutting benefits for the better off intensifies, it is increasingly clear that high taxation has killed our national sense of helping others, of the well to do making sacrifices to help those less fortunate than themselves.

Just look at the row over Child Benefit. There was a time when people recognised that if they earned a good salary, they didn’t really need welfare to top up their income – whereas others who were barely getting by did.

Now, the letters pages and radio phone ins communicate a very different world view. Those who have been squeezed over and over again by successive Chancellors grabbing at their earnings, their savings, their pensions, their petrol bills and their pasties want something back in return. The idea that just because they might be earning £50,000 a year then they shouldn’t get Child Benefit enrages large numbers of people – the payment is one of the few things they get back from the large amounts they have to pay to the Exchequer.

That is a remarkable shift from the widespread sense of “middle class oblige” that once existed to the far less attractive sight of well-heeled parents defending their right to be welfare recipients.

But people who want to hang onto their payments cannot be blamed for feeling that way. It’s a natural reaction to want to get at least a bit back when you are shelling out a small fortune every year through constant, multiple taxation. It is our politicians, and particularly the high tax lobby, who are responsible for the near-total erosion of that sense of sacrifice for the greater good.

Of course it is an absurdity to pay welfare benefits to the well-off. It is a perverse interpretation of a welfare state that was intended as a safety net – particularly at a time when there are plenty of families who can only dream of earning £50,000 a year. Worse, it means cycling cash through a wasteful tax collection and benefits payment system, only to return some of it to the pocket where it originated.

The welfare bill must be brought down, and the just way to do that is to withdraw benefits from those who need them least. High taxation has driven out the sense of responsibility which would once have made that the obvious and natural thing to do for most Britons. Far from making us “civilised” or “bringing us together”, overfeeding the tax man has made us selfish. Taking more and more money from workers has made them grip what they have left all the tighter.

The moral case against high taxes must be made or – counter-intuitive as it may seem – the moral case for helping others will continue to fall on deaf ears.

A table, a chair – and liberty in the space between

Posted on December 18, 2012

Whether you like the monarchy or not, you’ve got to agree that the Queen knows her job inside out. It’s hard to think of anyone who has a more natural, ingrained understanding of her role and the protocol that goes with it. Just witness her glance of disappointment when Barack Obama bungled things and talked over the national anthem last year.

So it’s fair to say she does not do things by accident when enacting her constitutional role.

There was a great example of this at her visit to this morning’s Cabinet meeting. As the camera panned down the table, two things were noticeable.

First, that she was sitting in the Prime Minister’s chair. This is symbolic as well as polite – a reminder that the PM exercises many of his powers under Royal Prerogative, on the Queen’s behalf. She was visiting, so he gave up the chair to the person whose powers he exercises.

The second was that the Queen was sitting ever so slightly back from the table. Every minister had his or her chair pulled in to do business – she, though, was a few inches further back.

It is the tiniest thing, but far from irrelevant. It wasn’t chosen to enable a quicker getaway, or for leg-stretching room, but because it was part of her role in the room. In our constitutional monarchy, which has proved such a stable way of preserving democratic liberty against the tyranny of crown or dictatorship since 1688, the Queen was there to watch others exercise the powers of Government, not to govern herself.

She sat by the Cabinet table, not at it. And in those few inches of space lay 324 years of constitutional history – liberty preserved by the placing of a chair.

You won’t find an elected president in the world who is as classy as that.

Video: The EU receives the Nobel “Peace” Prize

Posted on December 11, 2012

When the ludicrous news that the EU had won the Nobel Peace Prize was first announced back in October, I compiled a “Nomination in Pictures” exploring the supposed peace that Brussels has brought to the streets of Portugal, Spain and Greece.

Herman van Rompuy, Martin Schulz and José Manuel Barroso collected the award yesterday in Norway – a country which is outside the EU, and therefore presumably riven with civil war and cross-border aggression. A reader has produced the following video tribute to the most absurd Nobel award to date: