Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Dissident Opinion

The greatest Editor that the Morning Star has yet to have, perhaps because he still lists his work for the Socialist Worker on Journalisted, Peter Hitchens writes:

This may become important in the troubled months which lie ahead, so I’ll say it now.

The Russian politician Alexei Navalny has long been viewed by Western media,  and presumably by others interested in such things,  as the possible leader of some sort of anti-Putin movement in Russia.

So he may well be. But let’s not get carried away.

I was struck this morning by the description of him in the Murdoch Times newspaper as a ‘dissident’. Under the headline ‘Moscow shows its true colours in trying to silence a dissident’, my old adversary Michael Binyon (some of you may recall our clash earlier this year in a debate organised by Standpoint magazine) wrote:

Alexei Navalny is a classic Soviet-style dissident — inflexible, uncompromising, daring the state to do its worst while sabotaging any face-saving formula that could blunt western criticism of the Kremlin.


This reminded me of earlier attempts to compare the trial of the fashionable ‘Pussy Riot’ group to that of the dissident writers Daniel and Synyavsky under the Brezhnev regime, in 1965, also in The Times in a leading article on 18th August 2012.

Both comparisons are ludicrous.

The Pussy Riot trial was held in the open, and the defendants were charged with an offence which would be met with prosecution in many countries, namely disrespectful and disruptive behaviour in a sacred place, or one believed by Christians to be sacred, as the BBC would these days put it.

See here.

Daniel and Synyavsky’s trial was closed to the foreign press (and, so far as I can recall, to the defendants’ own families) and was for an ‘offence’, of publishing their works abroad, that was not and should not be subject to prosecution in a free country.

I have argued that the Pussy Riot group would have got into trouble in plenty of other places for what they did, raucous protests in major places of worship being generally frowned on, but that prison was both harsh and unjustified, and not a fitting punishment for what they did.

See here, and note the predictions of a new Cold War, whose proponents have been seeking one for years and now have it.

But is Mr Navalny a ‘dissident’, to be classed alongside Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov, Anatoly Koryagin (whose hand I am proud to have shaken,  now largely forgotten, though his battle against the abuse of psychiatry was particularly courageous and costly to him, so much so that his own wife could not recognise him when she was eventually allowed to visit him in prison), or their equivalents in the Soviet Empire, the forgotten Robert Havemann, Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa?

Mr Navalny is a master of publicity and knows how to use the internet.  But is he to be compared with such figures?

Is the fact that some people do compare him with such figures a lesson to us? When will we understand that modern Russia is not the old USSR?

When will we grasp that, since the death of Lenin’s Party, Russia simply does not contain the clear moral battle between good and evil which a tiny few very courageous people were able to fight during that era? (Most of us would certainly have done as most Russians did, and learned to live with the disgusting thing).

I have noticed that liberally-inclined  Westerners tend to accept Alexei Navalny’s claim that a creepy video (I think  this  is the one), in which he used the word ‘cockroaches’ to refer to terrorists from the Caucasus, is a joke. Some joke. While actual cockroaches can be killed with a slipper, he says in the 2007 recording, ‘for humans I recommend a pistol’.

Can this be the hero of The Guardian and, in the view of The Times, the modern-day equivalent of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Mstislav Rostropovich?

Things have changed, if so.

Very few seem to know of Mr Navalny’s past associations with Russian nationalism, a political position which makes UKIP, which The Guardian regards as appalling and The Times never ceases to condemn and harry, look like the vanguard of political correctness.

This association is said by some Russians to have led to his exclusion from the liberal Yabloko (Apple) political party of which he was once a prominent member,  to which event I have found just one glancing reference in the Western press (The Financial Times of 14th May 2011), which says he ‘left’ the party ‘after being accused of being a nationalist’ but also notes that his ‘hardline stance on guns and immigration grates with Moscow’s smug liberal elite’.

Do The Times and The Guardian, flagships of London’s liberal elite, know about this stuff?

I should have thought it certain that two prosecutions of Mr Navalny, and one of his brother Oleg, on criminal charges are politically-motivated.

It is also interesting that, though his brother now has been, Mr Navalny has not actually been imprisoned, despite being convicted of charges under which he might have been locked up.

Do the authorities want to keep in circulation, while restricting his movements and blackmailing him?

But I'd still like to see it shown beyond doubt.

British coverage of his trials seems more or less to assume that the charges are politically-motivated. Doubtless it is so, but I should myself like to see some analysis of the evidence that has actually been presented against him and his rebuttal of it.

To indulge in my own unsuitable parallel, as Mr Navalny is in no way comparable to the Bolshevik old guard murdered by Stalin in the late 1930s, the greatest damage done to Stalin’s appalling Moscow Trials in the 1930s was effected when it was proved beyond doubt by the Dewey Commission that various defendants could not possibly have been in the places where their acts  of treachery had been said to have taken place,

See especially the case of Yuri Pyatakov, who couldn’t have flown to the airport he was accused of using because the flight he was alleged to have taken didn’t exist.

It’s all very well assuming that tyrants lie. It’s much more effective to show that they are doing so.

Perhaps if the all-pervasive prejudice against Vladimir Putin’s Russia were absent, this would happen because journalists and reporters would see it was necessary to persuade rather than just to conform.

It is interesting that the same metropolitan intellectual classes that were so inclined to apologise for Soviet tyranny are those who now most fiercely condemn the Putin tyranny.

Can it be that it's not the tyranny that troubles them, but something else? And if so, what?

In any case, I wonder what sort of Russia would emerge were Mr Navalny to be propelled into the Kremlin by western-backed mobs, as some doubtless hope.

I’m sure I wouldn’t want to be a cockroach, or a ‘cockroach’, under his rule.

As for his famous attacks on corruption, this is of course easy for those seeking power.

Russian friends commented on this to me that Boris Yeltsin had made his political name by being the loudest enemy of corruption, even riding, as Communist Party chiefs never did, in Moscow trolleybuses.

‘And look at what happened to him,’ they add, pointedly.

Running The Straight Race

It is a sobering thought, even on New Year's Eve, that this site's propagation of the view that I have been seeking to promote, by whatever available means, for more than 20 years, has put me in the position where Owen Jones, whom I had never previously met, autographed his book "To David" without needing to ask who I was, while at the same time I am probably closer both personally and politically to the American paleoconservatives than any other writer in Britain, and certainly as close to them as anyone over here.

Moreover, it is notable that most of the paleocons' British associates are at least broadly on the Left, and would definitely describe themselves as such: Neil Clark, Rod Liddle, Brendan O'Neill.

Even Peter Hitchens supports public ownership of the railways, the utilities and the Royal Mail, with a restored Central Electricity Generating Board once again tapping into this country's vast reserves of coal while also making mass use of nuclear power, the principal lobbyist for which has always been the trade union that is now Unite.

Peter gets around this by pretending that that kind of thing has nothing to do with whether or not one is left or right-wing. He is on his own there.

The American Conservative, the only publication in the world to have paid directly for my bylined work this year (admittedly, the days of being paid for that look increasingly to be coming to an end), and which approached me for it rather than having me pitch, publishes articles advocating Presidential runs by Elizabeth Warren and Jim Webb, while making it clear that it could not support any likely Republican candidate other than that hugely improbable nominee, Rand Paul.

Against Hillary Clinton, I rather suspect that Neil, Rod and Brendan would also support Paul. I certainly would. Against Jeb Bush, we would all, I am sure, support Elizabeth Warren or Jim Webb. As, very clearly, would The American Conservative.

There is a real difference in that Neil, Rod and I, and I suspect Brendan as well, would support Warren or Webb against Paul, whereas the paleocons would take the other view. If the choice were between Bush and Clinton, then we should all be together on the first flight to Mars.

But then, ever dividing us, there is race. Isn't there?

Well, is there. Herewith, two of my associates.

First, the Southern Avenger himself, Jack Hunter:

Over the last week, many conservatives seemed to be unified around one narrative: Race or racism had absolutely nothing to do with the Michael Brown and Eric Garner killings, the protesters had simply made it such and this led to the tragic murder of two New York City police officers.
The shooting of an 18-year-old black male by a white officer in Berkeley, Missouri, near Ferguson, on Tuesday—accompanied by a video that appeared to support the cop’s actions—reinforced this narrative among conservatives. So did the senseless riot that followed.
Many conservatives believe race or racism was never a factor at all in the Brown and Garner cases, or in most of these types of cases. Many insist that the protesters were just making all this stuff up.
Who disagrees with this? Black people.
In poll after poll after poll after poll after poll—strong majorities of black Americans have consistently said that race plays a role in how law enforcement is applied and how the justice system is conducted in the United States.
We know that black teenagers are 21 times more likely to be shot by the police than whites. We know that 1 in 3 black men can expect to go to jail in their lifetime.

We know that 1 in every 15 black males in the U.S. is currently incarcerated. We know black offenders receive longer sentences than white offenders.

We know that despite the same rate of use of marijuana, blacks are 4 times more likely to be arrested.
Black NYPD police officers give some perspective.

Reuters reported on Tuesday:
Reuters interviewed 25 African American male officers on the NYPD, 15 of whom are retired and 10 of whom are still serving. All but one said that, when off duty and out of uniform, they had been victims of racial profiling, which refers to using race or ethnicity as grounds for suspecting someone of having committed a crime.
The officers said this included being pulled over for no reason, having their heads slammed against their cars, getting guns brandished in their faces, being thrown into prison vans and experiencing stop and frisks while shopping. The majority of the officers said they had been pulled over multiple times while driving. Five had had guns pulled on them.
On the Garner killing, Reuters added, “Said one officer from the 106th Precinct in Queens, ‘That could have been any one of us.”
These are just a few of the statistical realities and perspectives black Americans know too well, and through which they viewed the Michael Brown and Eric Garner controversies.

It’s almost impossible to imagine them not seeing a racial component.
But are blacks just misperceiving these circumstances as racism, as many conservatives seem to think?

Or have black men and women have observed things in their communities for a very long time that many outside their communities aren’t aware of?
Is this even a possibility? Many conservatives: Nope.
Years ago, I used to say inflammatory things as a conservative radio shock jock, “The Southern Avenger,” knowing it would generate a certain animosity, even racial.
I thought it was a badge of honor, that this was my role. I believed part of being a conservative was simply to ignore minority criticism, or perhaps to point to other minorities who agreed with me.

Over the years, I’ve changed my mind significantly.
But do many and perhaps most conservatives subscribe to this mindset?

I must ask—particularly given recent events and the reactions to them—is part of being conservative just not caring what black people think?

It should be noted that there were diverse conservative opinions about the Eric Garner decision.
Conservatives do not need to agree with every criticism made by black Americans of law enforcement and our justice system, but they do need, at a bare minimum, to consider them.

They need to acknowledge that they exist.
They need to listen.
Republican Sen. Rand Paul has listened. He even agrees that black Americans have a point  about racism and our current system.

The conservative reaction? Paul has been called  “anti-cop,” accused of “pandering” and worse.
So much for minority outreach.
Politics is tribal. The dynamic of conservatives vs. liberals and Republicans vs. Democrats isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
But in the past few months since Ferguson erupted, and the last week in particular, it has felt a lot more like conservatives vs. blacks—that the right thinks African Americans don’t have a point, an argument, or even a side worth considering when it comes to these controversies.
I hope I’m wrong.
And then, Jim Antle:

At the moment, it appears House Majority Whip Steve Scalise will avoid Trent Lott’s fate: being tossed out of the Republican congressional leadership in a racially charged controversy.

But will the Republican Party escape its fate as a political party black Americans and most other nonwhites are convinced hates them?

The question enrages conservatives, who raise some pointed queries of their own.

If Scalise shared David Duke’s racist views, why has it taken more than a decade—and some liberal trolling around hate websites—to reveal it?

Many liberals don’t even try to be fair in reading the hearts and motives of their political opponents.

Some of them claim to believe conservatism is inherently racist; others simply employ the charge as a political weapon.

They cannot be appeased, so why keep handing them Republican scalps?

Finally, isn’t there double standard at work here?

Al Sharpton has a long, documented history of racial demagoguery, yet he is welcome at the White House. Jesse Jackson called New York City “Hymietown,” an anti-Semitic slur.

President Obama himself attended a church led by a pastor who delivered racially incendiary sermons.

Scalise’s claim to be unfamiliar with the racist ideology of an obscure group is more plausible than Obama’s assertion that he was unfamiliar with Jeremiah Wright’s anti-white rants.

Democrats tolerated a former Ku Klux Klan member in their Senate leadership team as recently as the Obama administration.

Avowed segregationists were part of the New Deal coalition, appearing on presidential tickets with Franklin Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson. Progressives like Woodrow Wilson held Duke-like racial views.

All good points. I’ve made many of them myself and will continue to do so, as liberal Democrats should be held accountable.

But conservatives shouldn’t stop there.

As the Bible says, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

I was among the conservatives who thought Trent Lott needed to go back in 2002 (coincidentally, back when the Scalise talk allegedly happened).

Not because I thought his complimenting Strom Thurmond’s 1948 presidential campaign was anything other than flattery, blowing smoke up an old man’s posterior on his 100th birthday.

But I did think once a controversy arose, the Republican leader of the Senate—a successor to Everett Dirksen, who helped pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Bob Dole, who voted for it—should be able to manage a more convincing denunciation of segregation than Lott proved able to muster.

Democrats may never police their own in this fashion.

As Michael Brendan Dougherty observes, however, “I can’t think of a more unattractive pose than arguing that the Democrats have awful standards and the GOP should sink to them.”

Why should conservatives and Republicans accept, within certain limits, this partisan double standard?

First, the GOP has a much bigger burden in trying to win over minority voters than the opposition.

The Democrats recovered from their legacy of supporting slavery and segregation; Republicans have yet to recover from Barry Goldwater’s vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Second, Republicans have a harder case to make to minorities and many white voters that their opposition to social welfare spending, unchecked immigration, racial preferences, leniency toward lawbreakers, overly expansive anti-discrimination laws and hate crimes legislation are all motivated by something other than animus.

Making that case becomes impossible if conservatives associate with people who advocate white supremacy, speak disdainfully about African-American intellectual abilities and appear to believe the worst thing about slavery is that it brought black people into the Western world in the first place.

Or maybe conservatives don’t associate with such white racists, but merely conclude they are no worse than the National Council of La Raza. David Duke is about as bad as it gets.

We should downplay this fact because of Sharpton and Wright? That’s not to say conservatives should always retreat in the face of racism charges.

There should be no abandonment of conservative principles or individuals who are falsely accused. But conservatives should be smarter.

Think how much easier life would be for at least one Louisiana congressman if racists had never felt welcome at conservative gatherings and white nationalists could never hide effectively at anti-tax meetings.

Blair? Who Cares?

He won three uncontested General Elections, the first of which had been in the bag since Britain left the ERM, years before almost anyone had ever heard of Tony Blair.

Never mind, "Who else should have won?" No one else even wanted to win. On no occasion did anyone else make the slightest effort to win.

Not even when, in 2005, any half-competent Opposition would have wiped the floor with Blair. The choice not to do so was conscious and intentional.

2015 is shaping up to be the General Election that 1997 could have been if John Smith had lived, or if Bryan Gould had become Leader.

But if there is one thing on which the entire political spectrum is agreed, then it is that Labour should have won in 1992.

UKIP's and the Conservative Right's hatred of the Major years and of all their consequences cannot mean anything else.

While anyone still squawking that that loss gave Labour the chance to become New Labour (and the New Labour position was always that it had been a good thing that Labour had lost) is now an object of complete and utter derision.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Must Try Harder

So, there you have it.

The opposition to the replacement of O-levels with GCSEs came from the teaching unions.

Whereas the insistence on it came from Keith Joseph.

Of whom, expect to hear a very great deal more in 2015.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Aristocrats of Labour

Crashes All Round

Even Mervyn King says that Labour was not responsible for the Crash.

Fraser Nelson continues to expose the Government's lies about the deficit. For whom is The Spectator going to advocate a vote, and why?

As for bailouts, the State is about to pay the redundancy of the City Link workers whose fate augurs so well for the privatised Royal Mail.

Next up, the railways, which have been falling apart due to the unseasonal arrival of cold weather in late December.

But public ownership? The very idea!

Country Matters

A free vote on the hunting ban was in not only the last Conservative manifesto, but also the Coalition Agreement. Believe in it when you see it.

In any case, the really strong views on both sides are held in rural areas, and plenty of rural people loathe the hunting fraternity for riding roughshod over gardens, crops, and so on, as well as for monopolising the political voice of "the countryside".

The cuts by the Coalition provided Labour with a one-off opportunity to break into 100 or more seats in the countryside, especially the English countryside.

Especially by fielding, so to speak, the right local candidates, with or without previous party affiliation. While directing plenty of union and other money to those constituencies.

It has failed to do so. The decidedly non-One Nation Blairite machine, which does not really want Ed Miliband to replace David Cameron, and which supports the cuts, has won out on this one.

Sack them, Ed. Why did you not sack them four years ago? Why do you continue to allow your party to be staffed by them? Why?

Modest Common Sense

The end of the EU and NATO is nigh, with Greece and Spain preparing to tear down the whole edifice on the basis of wisdom that, although consistently expressed in the House of Commons, has been ignored by the British media for a generation.

Costas Lapavitsas writes:

The Greek parliament has failed to elect a new president and the country’s constitution dictates that there should now be parliamentary elections. These will be critical for Greece and also important for Europe.

A victory for Syriza, the main leftwing party, would offer hope that Europe might, at last, begin to move away from austerity policies. But there are also grave risks for Greece and the European left.

The rise of Syriza is a result of the adjustment programme imposed on Greece in 2010.

The troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) provided huge bailout loans, with the cost of unprecedented cuts in public expenditure, tax increases and a collapse in wages.

It was a standard, if extreme, austerity package, with one vital difference: austerity could not be softened by devaluing the currency as, for instance, had happened in the Asian crisis of 1997-98.

Greek membership of the euro had closed all escape routes.

Brutal austerity succeeded in stabilising Greece and keeping it in the economic and monetary union by destroying its economy and society.

The budget deficit has been drastically reduced, the current account deficit has turned into a surplus and the prospect of default on foreign debt has receded.

But GDP has contracted by 25%, unemployment has shot above 25%, real wages have fallen by 30% and industrial output has declined by 35%.

The human cost has been immeasurable, amounting to a silent humanitarian crisis.

Homelessness has rocketed, primary healthcare has collapsed, soup kitchens have multiplied and child mortality has increased.
Since the summer of 2014, the depression has been drawing to a close, helped by the strong performance of the tourist sector.

Yet, the damage from troika policies is so severe that growth prospects are appalling.

The weakness is manifest in foreign trade, which the IMF expected to act as the “engine of growth”. In 2014, Greek exports will probably contract, while imports began to rise as soon as the depression showed signs of ending.

This is a deeply dysfunctional economy.
In the midst of this catastrophe, the troika is insisting on further austerity to achieve massive primary budget surpluses of 3% in 2015, 4.5% in 2016 and even more in future years.

Its purpose is to service the enormous foreign debt, which has risen to 175% of GDP from about 130% in 2009.

Astonishingly, the IMF still expects Greece to register average growth of 3.4% during the next five years – provided, of course, that it goes full speed ahead with privatisation, deregulation of labour and market liberalisation.

The troika has truly embraced the economics of the absurd.
In 2010-11, the Greek people actively opposed the disastrous policies of the troika and its domestic allies, but failed to stop them.

After 2012, however, as unemployment and poverty escalated, it became difficult to organise popular protest.

Still, exhaustion with troika policies is so great that voters have turned in droves to the left, in the hope that Syriza will offer a better future.
Syriza promises first to achieve a substantial write-off of Greek debt and, second, to lift austerity by aiming for balanced budgets, instead of the surpluses demanded by the troika.

It will reconnect families to the electricity network, provide food relief and shelter the homeless. It will take immediate action to reduce unemployment through public programmes.

It is committed to lowering the enormous tax burden and to boosting public investment in an effort to accelerate growth.

There is nothing radical, much less revolutionary, in these policies. They represent modest common sense and would open a fresh path for other European countries.

After all, Syriza has repeatedly declared its intention to keep the country within the economic and monetary union, and to avoid unilateral actions.

There is little doubt that its leaders are committed Europeanists who truly believe that they could help transform the EU from within.
The trouble is that the EU is far from amenable to Syriza’s ideas.

Germany’s exporters and banks have benefited substantially from the euro and have no incentive to abandon austerity.

Berlin has its plate full anyway as the eurozone is exhibiting renewed weakness, with France and Italy on the ropes.

There is also Mario Draghi at the ECB, rambling on about quantitative easing, a policy that Berlin detests. 

The last thing that Germany would welcome would be Syriza and its programme. A scaremongering campaign is likely in the coming weeks to deter Greeks from voting for the leftwing party.

Should the campaign fail, a Syriza government can expect hostility from the EU, which is not short of weapons.

Syriza’s programme is sensible and modest, but lacks secure funding. Greece also needs substantial finance to service its debts in 2015, perhaps up to €20bn.

There are some debt repayments in the spring that might be manageable, but further repayments – €6.7bn – must be made in July-August, which will need fresh funding from abroad.

And, needless to say, Greek banking would be rapidly asphyxiated if the ECB stopped providing liquidity.

A Syriza government will probably face an ultimatum to capitulate, perhaps by being offered some watered-down version of austerity.

This would be a disaster for Greece and a major defeat for opponents of austerity in Europe.

It is vital that Syriza wins and applies its programme without flinching, helped by international support.

The battle lines are forming in Greece.

The Real Political Scandal

Although some of the terminology is unfortunate, James Bloodworth writes:

"In every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power…are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class." 
Which radical scion of the establishment could have said such a thing? Tony Benn? Dennis Skinner? Or even Leon Trotsky perhaps?

The answer is former Conservative prime minister Sir John Major, that well known scourge of capitalism and tribune of the working class.

When the man who privatised British Rail and launched propaganda campaigns against single mothers believes society is insufficiently meritocratic it ought to be clear that the UK is heading in the wrong direction.

And a closer look at the top of British society demonstrates that, rather than turning into a bleeding heart in his retirement years, Sir John is simply stating the obvious.

Just 7 per cent of Britons are privately educated yet, according to a government report published in August, 33 per cent of MPs, 71 per cent of senior judges and 44 per cent of people on the Sunday Times Rich List went to fee-paying schools.

If you were waiting for some sort of media outrage about such an appalling state of affairs then you may have to wait a little longer: 43 per cent of newspaper columnists and 26 per cent of BBC executives hail from the private school system too.

Even the grittier sections of the music industry, which once gave expression to working class authenticity, are increasingly dominated by the affluent.

In 2011, music magazine The Word found that the majority of UK chart acts were either privately educated or from exclusive stage schools.

This compared with 1990, when it found that nearly 80 per cent of artists in the Top 40 were educated in state schools.

Acting is hardly faring any better, with cut-glass accents and fatuous self-confidence increasingly ubiquitous. 

As the actress Julie Walters recently explained: "I look at almost all the up-and-coming names and they’re from the posh schools … Don’t get me wrong … they’re wonderful. It’s just a shame those working class kids aren’t coming through. When I started, 30 years ago, it was the complete opposite."

Elitism in Britain is now so pronounced that the coalition government’s own social mobility commission has compared it to "social engineering" in favour of the rich.

(That’s right: social engineering – the term right-wing pundits lazily throw around whenever it is suggested that Oxford and Cambridge admit at least a few more pupils from ordinary - not poor, just ordinary -backgrounds.)

Speaking of which, Oxbridge graduates are snaffling a large number of the top jobs too.

While they comprise just 1 per cent of the population, Oxford and Cambridge graduates make up 75 per cent of senior judges, 59 per cent of cabinet ministers, 47 per cent of newspaper columnists and 12 per cent of the Sunday Times Rich List.

Attendance at one of Britain’s top universities is admittedly different from attending a private school in that a place at the former is won strictly on merit.

But when you consider that just one in 10 children who attend either Oxford or Cambridge are entitled to free school meals – compared with a fifth of children in Britain as a whole – it becomes clear that more is at work in getting a golden ticket to one of Britain’s top institutions than talent alone.

A quick glance at some of the surnames that dominate Oxford ought to illustrate my point. 

According to a 2013 study by the London School of Economics, a disproportionately large number of places at Oxford are taken up by people with Norman Conquest surnames such as Baskerville, Darcy, Mandeville and Montgomery.

This isn’t because a Norman surname confers great wisdom; rather it is because we live in a society where privilege begets privilege.

Did I mention, too, that London is the unpaid internship capital of Europe?

Like Sir John, you ought by now to have picked up on something: the offspring of the privileged are greedily snapping up a large proportion of jobs in the most desirable - and usually best paid - professions.

As a consequence the door is being slammed shut on millions of bright, talented and hard-working kids from modest backgrounds. Britain in 2014 is a family with the wrong members in control, as George Orwell famously put it.

Yet it would be a mistake to view the increasing stratification of society as accidental.

By accepting vast inequalities of wealth (and focusing instead on equality of opportunity) the political class has acquiesced in the slow death of social mobility for one very simple reason: the vastly unequal outcomes they almost all accept as de rigueur render all notions of "equality of opportunity" null and void.

The reason is a straightforward one.

Thomas Piketty’s ground-breaking book Capital in the 21st Century looked at how wealth concentrates when the returns on capital are higher than economic growth.

Or in plain English, how it’s easier for someone who already has plenty of money to make more of it. 

But like wealth, opportunity concentrates too.

Or as Piketty’s predecessor Karl Marx put it, "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they make it …under circumstances … given and transmitted from the past". 

Despite politicians paying lip service to the meritocratic ideal, Britain today has some of the lowest rates of social mobility in the developed world.

Of the rich countries listed by the OECD, the three in which men’s earnings are most likely to resemble their fathers are the UK, Italy and the US - in that order.

Predictably enough, of the OECD countries Britain also happens to be the fourth most unequal – only Mexico, Israel and the US have a more unequal distribution of wealth.

The privileges of British parents become the privileges of British children.

Meanwhile, the relatively egalitarian Scandinavian countries have some of the highest levels of social mobility, indicating a strong link between a lack of social mobility and a gaping chasm between rich and poor.

And so, in allowing those at the top to grab an increasingly large share of Britain’s wealth, politicians of several generations (Sir John Major included) have knowingly trashed social mobility.

This, rather than the number of Romanians living next door, ought to be the real political scandal in 2015.

Please note that I shall not be putting up any comments about grammar schools, which none of those making them knew as anything other than a term of abuse until their own ideology priced them out of the commercial schools sector.

Our First Choice As A Country

We have, as a country, some big decisions to make. Sadly most of those will not be debated seriously in next year’s election campaign.

Instead, it will consist mainly of a fantasy debate on the deficit  and tax and spend, alongside caricatures  of the party leaders.

But the actual choices are real, deep and will determine the type of country we want to become.

Their importance is exemplified by the familiar story of travel chaos over Christmas – and in particular the vivid image of crowds crammed dangerously into the small Finsbury Park station in  north London.

Some mainline stations were closed. Engineering work had overrun as usual. An alternative starting point in north London was chosen, one wholly ill-equipped to meet the demand.

I cycled past Finsbury Park and the packed, fearful atmosphere outside the station would have shamed a Third World country.

Later that day I got an email from a friend of which the following is an extract:

“Today I wanted to go to Biggleswade (I’m a man of modest ambition...) but even this the Gods decided to deny to me, choosing  as their human agents the planners at Network Rail who have fallen into a situation of having Paddington, Euston  and now Kings Cross all closed at the  same time. I got to Finsbury Park and  was caught up in a scrum that was edging towards the frightening.”

Here is our first choice as a country, one with wider implications.

Do we want to live in a land where, during peak travel times, it is impossible to get from North London to Biggleswade in Bedfordshire?

Or do we have higher ambitions?
It appears we have already made the decision. We accept the squalid chaos at Finsbury Park.

I draw this conclusion on the basis that we have tolerated the intolerable for many years now; that is, some of the most expensive train fares in the world, unreliable, overcrowded trains and a culture that aims to deliver the minimum for passengers while extracting as much cash from them as is possible.

But I suspect that if there were a proper public debate the choice would be different.
The cause of the squalor, as with other increasingly fractured public services, is partly structural. If you pose the deadly question, “Who is accountable to whom?” the answer is never straightforward.

Network Rail is responsible for the infrastructure and took the decisions that led to the overrunning of engineering work and the absurd use of a frenzied Finsbury Park.

The rail regulator is ready to fine Network Rail for its incompetence but any fine is virtually meaningless. In effect passengers will pay for it.

Network Rail cannot go bust. Its managers will continue to earn their high salaries. Some bonuses will be paid. The supposedly mighty Transport Secretary huffs and puffs but has lost the power to do very much.
So, instead, bewildered passengers seek compensation from the train companies, but on this occasion they were not responsible for the cock-ups.

As I was describing the mad, dysfunctional structure to a GP yesterday, he noted that there were many similarities with the way the NHS is being restructured.

There, blurred lines of responsibility make the railways seem like a model of simple good sense.
The state of the health service demands an even more urgent public debate. Once again we won’t get a proper one during the election campaign.

But I note that both the shadow Health Secretary, Andy Burnham, and the Liberal Democrats’ health minister, Norman Lamb, have spoken of the need for one in the next parliament.
In the case of the railways and even more in relation to the NHS the debate cannot solely be about governance, important though that is.

There is also the key question of resources.

Do we want high-class care for the elderly and a properly functioning health service? Or do we accept the squalor of some nursing homes and the lottery in which some will lose all their savings to pay for this poorly regulated care?
Paying taxes is presented in this country as a “burden”. Yet for selfish reasons I would pay a health tax if it guaranteed a decent national care service in the future. Most other voters would too.

I would consider such a proposition to be a bargain, a good investment, rather than the alternative of waiting to see whether every penny saved is required to pay for dodgy elderly care at some future date.

Earlier this year I argued that instead of a destabilising referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, we should have a plebiscite on whether or not we back an earmarked health tax to address the demands of a growing elderly population – a far more urgent issue than Europe.

It will not happen. The Treasury has a collective nervous collapse when targeted taxation is proposed. It would not be able to cope with the idea of a referendum to legitimise a tax increase.

But without such a device other ways must be found to have a grown up debate about how an affluent country can meet the demands of its civilian population.
Although the election campaign will be largely puerile, we already have hints as to where the parties stand on the question of how to handle public services.

In the Autumn Statement – unexpectedly the most significant domestic political event of the year – George Osborne outlined sweeping spending cuts over the next few years.

Not only does he want to wipe out the deficit, he seeks to build up a big surplus towards the end of the next parliament, despite the introduction of some large tax cuts.

Even on his terms the planned cuts mark a return to the quality of public life in 1999, before the last Labour government began to invest in services.

This was a point when the UK’s services were being compared badly with those of eastern European countries.

I assume therefore that David Cameron and George Osborne have made their choice on the bigger questions relating to the quality of public service provision in the UK.

Presumably they are content to live in a country where a passenger is crammed into a Tube station so packed it resembles a badly managed football crowd, to then wait for a train to Biggleswade that never comes.

Without falling into all the fantasy “tax and spend” traps that distort the pre-election landscape, Ed Miliband must show he has higher ambitions for a country with some defining choices ahead.

Friday, 26 December 2014

Straining At The Nats?

The SNP has ruled out supporting a Conservative Government. It could not have done otherwise. The same is true of Plaid Cymru and of the Greens.

Since either the Leader of the Conservative Party or the Leader of the Labour Party is going to be Prime Minister, that leaves only one option.

In any case, polling now points to a Labour overall majority in line with the historical norm, i.e., without needing Scotland at all.

Twenty SNP MPs? Thirty? Forty? So what?

Just so long as you vote Lib Dem if you live in Gordon.

Bear Reality

Well, yes.

Russia now lists NATO as the Number One threat to her own security.

Whose fault is that?