UK Uncut have made a fatal error

Posted on December 10, 2012

UK Uncut has a pretty simple mission. They think corporate taxes should be higher than they are. Therefore they protest at the shops and outlets of the brands they have judged are not paying enough. The objective is to force the companies to cough up over and above their legal requirements out of a combination of shame and commercial inconvenience.

It’s a pretty messy approach, catching customers and ordinary staff in slanging matches which should really be between activists and Chief Executives. It has also led to UK Uncutters getting remarkably outraged about the idea that a company might have the right to not allow them on their property.

Last week, the movement had its first major victory. Starbuck’s buckled under the pressure and agreed to pay £20 million to the taxman which it does not legally owe. It was a jubilant moment for the high tax pressure group, but within days they have managed to turn their first victory into what may very possibly be their last.

Successful political campaigning is about stick and carrot, pleasure and pain. I want you to change your position, and to persuade you to do so I need to do two things: 1) make your current position extremely uncomfortable and 2) make the new position I am proposing much more attractive.

UK Uncut have done the first thing pretty well. Aided by the Guardian, which itself uses some complex but entirely legal jiggery pokery to keep its tax bill at a minimum, they have driven large amounts of negative media exposure for the firms they target at the same time as besieging their shops and cafes until they are forced to close. Like the Sith, they may be using their powers in the pursuit of the wrong ends, but you can’t deny their Force is strong.

So, having hammered Starbucks into submission and extracted voluntary payments into the Exchequer as planned, the next step would naturally be to congratulate them. End the boycott and move on to other targets, now the precedent has been set, proving to others that doing what you ask will bring rewards.

But, instead, on Saturday HMRC’s little helpers were back at Starbucks’ door – shouting at customers, grappling with police and making a general nuisance of themselves. Just as they did before the baristas opened their wallet.

This is a fatal error. The message UK Uncut have sent is that if you do what they ask in response to their beating you with the stick, they will put the carrot away and hit you some more.

Other UK Uncut targets will have been watching closely. When Starbucks took the plunge, they will have wondered if they should follow suit – particularly if it would be worthwhile to save them the disruption caused by these fiscal versions of Mary Whitehouse.

The lesson they will take now is precisely the opposite. Why bother bowing to UK Uncut’s demands if your reward is more punishment, more heckling and more trouble? Unless their tactics change, I suspect we won’t see anyone else do what UK Uncut want for quite some time to come.

Why I love the Shard

Posted on July 06, 2012

I love the Shard.

Yes, the opening ceremony last night was more than a bit underwhelming – resembling nothing more than an 8-year-old Sauron playing with a laser pen – but the building itself is magnificent.

Just look at it. This is arguably the most ambitious and radical building London has put up since Parliament was rebuilt in the 19th century. It is bold, sleek and a remarkable technical achievement all in one building.

As well as its external appearance, there is the mind-boggling scale of the experience it offers those inside. It is so tall that it will provide London’s first ever sea view. That’s remarkable, an achievement which reconnects us with the unlimited engineering dreams of the Victorians.

The Shard is also a confirmation of our welcome return to sane modernity. The 1960s and 1970s saw architecture kidnapped, locked in an abandoned warehouse and ritually tortured by a clique who were convinced that being modern meant knocking down beautiful historic buildings and replacing them with ugly, brooding concrete boxes. The Shard is a stake through the heart of architectural nosferatu like Euston station.

There will always be criticism – happily, we live in a populous and opinionated society, where all have access to digital loudhailers, so that is inevitable. Tastes differ, but there is genuine absurdity in the cult which seems to have developed around the design of St Paul’s cathedral.

For some, it seems, no large building is acceptable in London unless it is St Paul’s, or a carbon copy thereof.

The Guardian glowered that it can be seen “towering over St Paul’s” in a picture that implied they are next door to each other, rather on different sides of the Thames.

The Telegraph’s normally excellent Ed West similarly objected that from Parliament Hill, the Shard can be seen “dwarfing St Paul’s”.

It is as though some imagine St Paul’s as a great, stone censor, Mary Whitehouse carved in Portland stone, tut-tutting about anything that might offend her stately sensibilities.

This is wrong-headed: St Paul’s itself was, in its day, a radical departure from the norm. Nothing of its sort had ever been built in England before, and it shocked and repulsed many contemporary observers. In that sense, the Shard is a descendant of St Paul’s, not its usurper.

Wren himself had to battle for years to be able to go ahead with his revolutionary new building, fighting against those who said the new cathedral should be exactly the same as the buildings that had gone before. Thank goodness that he stuck with it and prevailed – and thank goodness those building the Shard did the same 300 years later.

The benefits cap debate – a win for Ministers, and an economic fail for critics

Posted on January 23, 2012

The furore over Iain Duncan Smith’s proposed benefits cap was predictable, and Ministers have merrily sailed into it for two reasons – because a high profile fight on this topic brings them an electoral advantage, and because they knew the Left would swallow the bait in one great, unthinking gulp.

The idea that no household should get more than £26,000 in benefits – equivalent to a pre-tax salary of £35,000 – is overwhelmingly popular. British voters subscribe to a strong idea of fairness, particularly when it comes to the idea that working should be more rewarding than not working, and they have been outraged by numerous reports of large families living at no cost to themselves in huge, overpriced houses in particular.

The critique of the proposals coming from the Left, notably from Lib Dem Guardianista Tim Leunig, is fatally flawed because socialist economics fails to recognise that the economy is dynamic. You can’t change one input to the system without others shifting in response – both when macro market forces and micro human behaviour are involved.

The flaw comes when they crunch the numbers. Leunig’s Guardian piece claims to calculate that the benefits cap would leave people living on 62p a day. The most crucial element of his workings is that a 4-bedroom house in Tolworth costs £400 a week. That’s true right now, but it wouldn’t be the case once a cap has been brought in.

The truth is that some of the main beneficiaries of overly high benefits are private landlords. They may not get payments from the DWP direct, but they reap the cash anyway through inflated rents, secure in the knowledge that every time they put the price up, benefits levels are raised to pay them. This is a racket, exploiting the foolishness of officials in pumping more and more money out and the absence of taxpayer power to rein in this behaviour.

Tim Leunig is right that if rents were fixed as they are now then his hypothetical family would pay£400 a week. But rents aren’t fixed, they are fluid. If you remove a large amount of cash from the system then prices will fall. By arguing for the system to remain as it currently is, rather than accept a cap, this supposed “progressive” is effectively fighting the corner of benefit-farming landlords.

There are knock-on benefits to removing the artificial inflation in rents, too. If renting property out becomes less profitable, the desire and the financial means to buy-to-let will be reduced, helping to address the shortage of affordable housing that is so often highlighted as a problem.

This is why we can expect IDS to be intensely relaxed about this fight gaining so much publicity. When it comes down to it, he has public opinion and solid economics on his side.

Humour and free speech

Posted on November 03, 2011

For those of you in London – or in striking distance of London – who have a taste for political cartoons and an enthusiasm for free speech, there’s an event to look out for taking place next week.

Index on Censorship – one of the UK’s most established pressure groups, which campaigns for free expression – is having an auction of original cartoons by Martin Rowson. As well as being a good event, it’s in support of the most fundamental cause: free speech. I’m planning to attend to support Index’s work, and I’d urge others to do so, too.

Freedom of expression – along with property rights – underpins our other freedoms. Without it, freedom struggles to exist even in private.

The full details of the event are here.

The 96 year old feud between the Murdochs and The Guardian

Posted on July 08, 2011

The hatred between the Guardian and the Murdochs is a thing of legend, but I hadn’t realised until today quite how far back it goes. Via the ever-excellent Willard Foxton, I came across an intriguing article which incidentally sheds a bit of light on the history of the titanic struggle between the two.

The piece recounts the story of how Rupert Murdoch’s father Keith Murdoch, sent as a war correspondent to cover the disastrous Gallipoli campaign against Turkey in 1915, attempted to expose the military failings which were feeding thousands of British, Australian and Kiwi soldiers into a meatgrinder in the Dardanelles. His and other journalists’ reports were heavily censored by the military authorities on the ground, and eventually Murdoch decided to smuggle a letter to Prime Minister Asquith to bring the mess to light.

(It’s worth noting at this point that the normally excellent Willard Foxton referenced this story on the Huffington Post as an instance of the Murdochs “doing damage to the allied cause in WW1″, whereas I’d personally view it as an example of a journalist doing what they should – investigate and expose serious issues in the public interest, but we’ll have to agree to disagree on that.)

The bit that caught my eye was what happened to Murdoch while he was trying to smuggle the letter back to Britain:

He got as far as Marseilles, but there was detained by a British officer with an escort and warned that he would be kept in custody until he handed over the letter. He had been betrayed…by H. W. Nevinson, the correspondent for the Guardian.

And 96 years later, here we are again, watching the Guardian and a Murdoch kick lumps out of each other. I can’t imagine after this week’s events that there’s any chance that peace will be declared in the next 96 years, either.

Posh loner who liked poetry but not sport “obviously did it”, say media

Posted on December 31, 2010

Chris Jefferies may have committed the murder of Joanna Yeates – but as one of the fundamental principles of our legal system reminds us, he is innocent until proven guilty. It’s become a tradition in these cases for the media to indulge in heavy handed, nudge-nudge wink-wink implication when reporting the arrest of someone even before any charges have been brought.

Recall the case of the Ipswich Ripper, who murdered five women in 2006. The case is still notorious, but most of us have forgotten about Tom Stephens, the innocent but extremely odd man arrested wrongly for the crime spree. As soon as his name was revealed, numerous outlets started heaping increasingly peculiar implications on him – normally using anonymous comments from neighbours an acquaintances.

The most bizarre of these, which I remember made me laugh out loud at the time, was that he had been “digging in his garden with a small trowel“.

The smear was that if he was digging, he must have been burying something (or someone). In reality, of course, if digging ones garden with a small trowel was a crime then millions would be detained every Sunday afternoon and the panellists of Gardeners’ Question Time are veritable Moriartys.

The same is happening to Chris Jefferies. I am not attempting to go on some crusade to clear his name – for all I know, he may well be guilty. The police may know more that persuades them of this. What is certain is that the media do not, but are engaging in trial-by-tittle-tattle all the same.

Here are a choice selection of some of the reports about Jefferies so far, including some recognisable classics of the genre and some really weird ones:

“Oddball” – Almost all newspapers

“He showed no interest in cars or sport” – The Mirror

“The way he pronounced words and said his sentences was also weird”…”The things he taught us were really odd, he loved old English poetry.” – Small World News Service [NB it’s not that odd to like old poetry…when you’re an English teacher]

“Campaigned for gun range and prayer books” – Daily Mail

A loner” – Almost all newspapers

very posh, a solitary figure and very cultured” – The Sun

“An only child who has never married” – Daily Mail

an active member of the local Liberal Democrats and knew the leader of Bristol city council, Barbara Janke” – The Guardian

his students remembered him for his love of the poetry of the Pre-Raphaelite poet Christina Rossetti and idiosyncratic pronunciation of place names” – The Independent

If you spot any other corkers, put them in the comments and we can build up a full innuendo collection.