Saturday, February 28, 2015

Energy suppliers and the price comparison websites take us for fools.

There are two frauds going with Energy supply. The first is the basic premise that one supplier over time will be cheaper than another. There is no reason why this should be true, and it isn't. The fundamentals of Gas and Electricity supply are the same for all the suppliers. The raw materials cost of gas/electricity, the cost of distributing it  to the home and the costs of marketing do not vary much between suppliers. The need to invest and to pay shareholders dividends are much the same as well. No one supplier has a cost advantage that they can convert to a permanent price advantage. What they do is continuously run tactical price-led campaigns to try and encourage switching. In the very short term a consumer can save, but over time swings and roundabouts cut in and there is little point.

The second fraud is the price comparison websites. They serve the needs of the suppliers to induce switching and are rewarded with commission payments when they succeed. The implication that you can save (say) £210 a year by switching from one supplier to another is highly specious (read the small print if you doubt it!). What they do is gross up the tactical offer from Supplier A and compare it with your current price from supplier B. But in a few weeks time Supplier B could have a similar tactical offer...or Supplier C or Supplier D for that matter. 

So what should the consumer do, stick with one supplier and engage with them. Make sure that you let them know you are monitoring prices and that you expect them to be competing over time. And that you expect the best tariffs. There is little point in continually switching supplier. You only feather the nest of the price comparison websites as well as spending time "researching" when you've got better things to do ! 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

No ifs and buts - to be elected to Parliament gives you a full time and well paid job!

The idea that you would have a job in public service for which you are paid a salary higher than the earnings of all but 3% of the population and not regard it as "full time" is offensive. And yet that is what the disgraced Tory grandee Sir Malcolm Rifkind is saying and so is his erstwhile colleague Lord Heseltine, among others. 

The competition to be selected to contest a Parliamentary seat is intense in all the major parties. For anyone interested in politics, ambitious and with a bias for service to be a Member of Parliament must be the dream job. And it is a big job as well. You serve the interests of an electorate of, on average, 70,000 people and their families. They come first because they have a right to demand your attention and your help. 

Constituency work is the core of an MPs job. In addition the MP has a duty to his electorate to represent their interests in Parliament. He or she is not a delegate and is expected to use their own judgment on issues, and it is accepted that they will be loyal to his Party. That is the next layer up in the job – in part the rather demeaning “lobby fodder” role but that aside the duty to be an active member of the legislature.

The hard graft work of Parliament is in the many Committees. Here the “humble” MP can come into his or her own. Studying and revising legislation, challenging witnesses and ministers and so on. 

Finally an MP may become a Minister or Shadow Minister. There are 120 of the former each of which brings with it a fully accountable portfolio of responsibilities. Not all MPs want to be a minister (and not all ministers are MPs of course, some sit in the House of Lord’s) but most do. Not, I suspect, because of the additional salary that being a minister brings with it but because to do a ministerial job is the pinnacle of a political career, especially if it is in Cabinet.

So what is an MPs job? It is, from the moment he or she is elected, to be part of the active fabric of our national politics – of our governance as a nation. How an MP’s time is spent depends on the nature of their parliamentary and, for some, ministerial work. I have been told in the last few days (not least by Sir Malcolm Rifkind) that to be an ordinary MP is not a full time job and further that there is a comparison between the case of the MP who has “another job” as a minister or shadow minister and the Rifkind example. That is that an MP’s active pursuit of income outside of Parliament and Party and Politics is analogous to the fact that another MP may have “another job” as a minister. This is bunkum. To be a minister is part of the public service role for which you were elected – as is, for example, to be a member of a Parliamentary committee. 

Malcolm Rifkind has made no friends with his claim that he had the right to supplement his MP’s salary of £67,060 because he wanted to “have the standard of living that my professional background would normally entitle me to have”. Aside from the fact that with his MP’s salary alone  Rifkind is close to the top of the earners league in Britain there is the implication that to feather his own nest during the working week on non public service work is acceptable. It may be common, and MPs may always have done it but is it acceptable? I would suggest not. 

Can you imagine a High School teacher, average salary £30,000, saying that he or she would work the hours they choose for this salary turning up at their school when they feel like it because  they need to pursue  additional earnings outside to which their “professional background” entitles them?  Oh and they would use the insider knowledge accruing to them from their teaching job and experience to help them get this lucrative outside work!

Monday, February 23, 2015

Send in the Clowns time in South Thanet

"Meet the Ukippers"

The BBC was allowed what seems to have been total access to the UKIP Party workers on the ground in South Thanet – the Constituency for which Party leader Nigel Farage hopes to be elected as Member of Parliament in the upcoming General Election. The programme has become famous because of the views of Councillor  Roxanne Duncan, a dim-witted and openly racist woman in her mid sixties who is one of two UKIP members of the local Council. She revealed deep-seatedly prejudiced views directed at “negroes” or “people with negroid features”. Among other things she said:

 “A friend of mine said “what would you do if I invited you to dinner and put you next to one?” I said I wouldn’t be there. Simple as that.”

Ms Duncan’s honesty was curiously refreshing - repellent though her views are. Her fellow activists, a bit more media savvy, were much more circumspect. The Branch Chairman Martyn Heale, had a rather large skeleton in his cupboard – he was once a member of the neo-Nazi “National Front” and seemed irritated that people keep mentioning this. He was the sort of person familiar to grass roots activists – an energetic enthusiast and the type of person you might expect to see running a local bird-watching group. As was Liz Langton (pictured above with her husband) Ukip’s then press officer for South Thanet, who might be the lady Captain at a run of the mill small town  Golf Club. Sincere people with not much hinterland except dogs and, in Mrs Langton’s case, a passion for collecting clowns. Heale and Langton didn't really express strong views but it was clear that they fully bought into Ukip’s anti-establishment, anti-EU and anti immigration meme.

The party activists and local members were seen at various meetings one of which Nigel Farage spoke to. They were almost without exception in  late middle-age ( or older) and (it seemed) of modest education. None of them was articulate in a broader sense and one suspects that they know what they are against but not what they are for. Curiously the programme revealed little in the way of a coherent Right Wing ideology and few of the South Thanet UKIP team or its supporters could present a coherent and detailed case for any political position. The strongest moment was when a couple of building workers were interviewed about their complaint that they had lost casual work because Bulgarians were prepared to work longer hours for the same money. Langton was excited by the this and tried to get the local media interested in the story - but they weren't. 

It is important to remind ourselves that South Thanet is Nigel Farage’s chosen constituency and its demographics certainly suggest it has plenty of the archetypical Ukip supporters around. An ageing population. A deprived area. A long way from London emotionally if not actually (75 miles) and contemptuous of the Metropolitan elite. But if their local Ukip membership and activists are typical of other Constituencies then Ukip has a problem. These were political  rookies with no practical experience at all and few of the talents you expect of local party workers in the traditional parties. This naivety Ukip tries to present as a virtue but frankly on the evidence of this documentary you wouldn't expect them to have the nous to run any sort of decent election campaign. Too old. Too ignorant. Too narrow. Too biased. And, in the case of Councillor  Roxanne Duncan so gruesomely prejudiced that she should not be allowed any forum to present her staggeringly offensive views. 

Nigel Farage is no fool and surely he will realise that it will be a struggle to win in South Thanet with this lack of organisational talent on the ground. Will he ship in people of real competence to run his campaign? I wouldn't bet against it. In the meantime Duncan and the rest have had their brief moment in the spotlight – and a right pig’s ear they made of it. The metaphor of Liz Langton’s collection of clowns was apposite.  

Saturday, February 21, 2015

It's a very bad idea indeed Mr Balls - think again

One should be wary of believing everything one reads in the newspapers - especially in the Murdoch press in the run up to a General Election! But if there is a scintilla of truth in today's report in "The Times" that Labour is considering reducing some of the tax benefits attached to pensions in order to pay for reducing University tuition fees then one can only conclude that the Party has taken leave of its senses.

The idea that you can fund one specific expenditure from one specific tax is rarely credible. Labour is already taking us for fools with its policy of introducing a "Mansion Tax" to pay for increased NHS spending. That's not how the public accounts work! Tax receipts go into one large pot. Government expenditure comes out of it. You cannot create some sort of bloated piggy bank where you isolate a specific tax revenue and from which you pay a specific set of bills. So the underlying logic of using savings on tax relief to pay for student costs is deeply flawed.

But aside from the flawed housekeeping logic the idea of penalising pension savers at this time is not just wrong but immoral. The changes in recent in recent times to pensions - especially in the private sector - have dramatically reduced the financial prospects for future retirees. Where final salary based pensions from Defined Benefit schemes were once very common these have now all but vanished for new employees. Schemes have closed and their replacements - so-called "Defined Contribution" schemes - offer much less by comparison, and especially much less certainty. Workplace savings, which is what these "DC" schemes really are, are important but for average earners they offer very modest post retirement income prospects. Better than nothing, but far from generous or enough. 

In ths changed world Government in its own interest should be reducing the tax liability on specific pension schemes not thinking about increasing it! In its own interest because if you take away pension income by (effectively) increasing tax then you are likely to find that you have to give it back again in welfare benefits. People have to live and the Pensioner community is already struggling with inflation which is way above the averages of the Consumer Price Index.

It's a bad idea Mr Balls. Think again. 


Friday, February 20, 2015

We cannot retreat behind walls in the modern world

In my lifetime (Post War era in its entirety) the most significant phenomenum by far has been the overt cooperation of nations. By "nations" I do not just mean inter-Government (though it includes that). I mean, especially, the business world. As a child I can't recall my family consuming any global brands. TV was 95% locally made (the odd Hollywood movie aside). Holidays were on Cornish not Costa beaches. And our society was mono-cultural. Over the years all of that has changed. My parents visited perhaps ten countries. I've been to nearly 100. They had three radio stations to choose from. I can listen to any station anywhere in the world on my iPad. They had to get visas to travel and wait in long queues at borders. My borders, once I've got to Calais (!) are open and crossed at 120 kms per hour. My Father only ever worked in London. I've lived and worked in seven countries.  

Whether we like words like "Globalisation" or not it is a fact and it's here to stay. The Multinational Corporation, the Global brand, the international media, the ubiquitousness of travel, the openness of modern societies to migrants, the economic cooperation, the bias for "Jaw Jaw" to resolve differences not "War War" ( in Europe at least). All of this, and much more, driven by technology. We can be anywhere in the world (almost) within 24 hours. We can tune in to any medium from almost anywhere. I can read The Times without even having to get out of bed. And the Washington Post for that matter. On Facebook I have friends in thirty countries and converse with them in real time. There are no food seasons any more. I can buy strawberries and raspberries all the year round at my supermarket. Containerisation has meant that my bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand costs no more to transport to me than a bottle of Sancerre.  

In this international world we cannot retreat to behind our borders. We cannot take unitary decisions over things in isolation. It's about much more than cooperation with other nations in fact. We are, like it or not, in partnership in everything we do with people, institutions, businesses and centres of power external to us. That is why to continue to play an active part in international bodies, to continue to build political and economic alliances, to continue to be an open, liberal pluralist society and to reach out and not retreat inwards is the only way forward.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Our politicians as Brands --- there's no "Apple" there !

Back in 1960 JFK was seen as the first to market himself as a "Brand". Not sure he was really, but he was certainly "made" by some slick brand marketing. Here in the UK we don't have a President (boo, we should !) but we have had some powerful personal brands (Wilson, Thatcher, Blair in modern times). So what about now? Here's a personal list of some of the best, and worst of today's lot.

1. Boris Johnson. Easily our strongest personal political brand. Wide appeal. Meets the criterion of the "Love Brand" - you forgive him his mistakes. "Boris" is "Coke" - instantly recognisable. Not the "Real Thing" - but then nor is Coca Cola. 

2. Nigel Farage. Brands need strong visual symbols. Farage has that. The pint and the fag. The grin. He is the quintessential "Marmite" brand and like that product if you like him, you like him and if not you hate him. His appeal is strong, but limited. Like "Boris" he is forgiven his mistakes. But once you've made up your mind one way or another you are unlikely to change. 

3. Ken Clarke. A bete noir of the Tory Right but Ken has the ability to appeal across the political spectrum which is unusual today (Thatcher and Blair had it). Ken is 74 and has missed any chance of Number 10 and knows it. But he keeps on trucking. He has a hinterland (Jazz, beer, cricket...) which makes him interesting where others are not. Fading a bit but still admired. Marks and Spencer.

4. Gordon Brown. Strong identity, Scottish, proud, achiever but deeply flawed. Gordon is the "Royal Bank of Scotland". Still around, but you wonder why. Once very powerful but now at best tolerated - at worst a symbol of failure. Unfair, of course. But that's it with brands. Once they're shot they're shot.

5. Tony Blair. Someone who once was. A brand once the runaway leader that has now fallen spectacularly from grace and is struggling to re-establish itself. Hubris led to pride before the fall and it won't be easy to recover, indeed it may be impossible. Blair is Tesco. The shelves are still stocked, but nobody wants to go there. 

6. Theresa May. May has a strong visual identity and is underpinned by self-confidence but is rather gaffe prone. Unlike Boris (some see him as a rival) she is not forgiven her mistakes, rare though they may be. Most of the time she delivers but when she has a bumpy landing or cancels a flight she is not forgiven. Theresa May is British Airways. 

7. David Cameron. "Call me Dave" has what all brands need - a solid technical product. The bits and pieces of politics, like public speaking, he does well. But it is hard to like him because beneath the solid surface you have no idea what he really stands for. Not because he doesn't tell you, but because you don't believe him. He is superficially the archetypical political professional but it's a veneer. Underneath that veneer you don't trust him. Cameron is BP - and riding for a fall like they did. 

8. Ed Milliband. Ed is nice, capable but hugely maligned. His most commonly used descriptor "Red Ed" is a negative jibe and his most familiar visual symbol, Wallace of "Wallace and Gromitt", was also given to him by his enemies. His own brand identity is taking a long time to emerge and his sponsors are struggling to do it. He is the opposite of Cameron - you do mostly know what he stands for (decent performance and a lack of Flashiness) - for but there is no overwhelmingly strong brand identity to sustain him. He is worthy, and decent but finds it hard to defend himself when under attack. Ed is a Skoda on "Top Gear".  

More to come ? Let me know...! Do we have an "Apple" manqué ? 

Sunday, February 08, 2015

A Referendum on Britain's membership of the EU in 2016 is a farcical idea. But pragmatically it might be a good one!

I am not the most pragmatic of people. During my Shell career I once did a management course which included psychological profiling and I scored what was the lowest score ever on "Pragmatism".(I scored quite well on other things so the P45 was withheld!). I'm not sure that pragmatism is necessarily a virtue anyway. You see what I mean. This by way of an introduction to the thought that as a strong pro-European I should probably, and pragmatically, welcome the idea of an early EU Referendum.

I think the whole idea of a Referendum is bunkum. Other than a misguided attempt to unite the Conservative Party it has no logic to it. The reason for my view that there IS no reason to hold one. There is no new Treaty on the table. No changes to the EU, or Britain's relationship within it, are being proposed that require specific public endorsement. The EU is an organism within which change is a constant, but organic change. Of course it's different from the EC that Britons vote overwhelmingly to stay part of back in 1975. But every change that has taken place since then has happened democratically and Britain has been involved. Notably in the 1980s when Mrs Thatcher successfully negotiated a lower contribution for Britain.

Back to pragmatism. Let's assume that a new Cameron Government of whatever construct wants finally to kill off the Eurosceptics. (It won't, of course, like death and taxes they'll always be with us). He knows that if it is in Britain's interests to stay in the EU and that one way to do this is to launch into apparently substantive discussions with our 27 fellow EU members and come out with a "deal". Our partners will probably and pragmatically agree to this. They want the whole nonsense out of the way as much as we do. This "deal" will have some "hot button" element in it that Cameron can hail and present as a "result". Perhaps over migration (two birds with one stone time). It won't mean a can of beans, but it can be presented as a "Good deal for Britain". You can hear the rhetoric now.

Parliament will endorse the "new deal" comfortably. The payroll vote + Labour + LIbDems+SNP... A comfortable majority defeating the Eurosceptics and the awkward squad. Farage, if he's there, will throw a fit. Carswell will burst his spleen. And a few Tory Right Wing grandees now out of office personally will cry betrayal. But Dave will win. Then the Referendum campaign will have the political Establishment solidly "For". Yes the antis will argue against and they will have plenty of support in the Media. But remember all this will be only a year or so into the new Parliament. Cameron will still be in the afterglow of having upset the odds and stayed in office. This should give him the confidence to marginalise the antis. And the payroll vote will be secure along with ambitious Tory MPs who won't want to damage their prospects of a job by joining the awkward squad.

Pragmatists always justify the means, however uncomfortable, if the ends are better achieved by doing so. If the ends of settling that the UK will stay in the EU for good can best be achieved by the farce of an EU Referendum in 2016, then perhaps I should also conclude its a good idea...

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Owen Jones, living in the distant past, has a startling resemblance to Nigel Farage

Twitter activists know that there is a tendency, forced on us by the 140 character limit, to to indulge in Reductio ad absurdum. Owen Johes has given us a classic of the type. He has managed to be contentious at least three times in the cramped space of one tweet.

Is Labour facing "wipeout" at the lands of the SNP? Well Lord Ashcroft's poll of 15 Scottish seats would certainly suggest so. But other polls and thoughtful analyses by Iain Dale and others point to Labour holding on to more seats than it loses. The anti-establishment movement seen elsewhere in the UK with the rise of UKIP and the Greens manifests itself in Scotland in the SNP. This was seen in the Independence referendum and the country is still in the afterglow of that near earthquake. Labour, honourably in the view of many, campaigned for a "No" vote and this has cost them dearly. There was certainly a strong Socialist element in the SNP's IndyRef campaign but the "Yes" vote comprised a broader coalition than that. Including, no doubt, a few "Tartan Tories" and others from the Right. The SNP's #GE2015 campaign may be overtly Socialist in character, but I doubt that it will be. The question the voters will address is not the binary Yes/No choice of the referendum but a much more complex one with issues spanning Trident to the economy to the role of MPs at Westminster. Yes there will be a fierce SNP/Labour fight. But to characterise it as a fight between the new standard-beamers of Socialsm (the SNP) and traitors of the Left ("Rightwing" Labour) is simplistic nonsense.

Jones, if he supports Labour (questionable), should surely be encouraging them in Scotland. They have three months under a new leader there to claw back ground lost to the SNP. It is far from the lost cause he suggests it is. The same applies more generally to Labour across Britain. Here Jones is suggesting that there are "political cranks" trying to make the Party more Rightwing. He wants Labour to be more overtly Socialist and eschew the centre ground. The problem with this is, of course, that were it to happen Labour could kiss goodbye to any chance of power. Perhaps Jones would prefer a party waving the Red Flag and returning to the days when they promoted "...the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange" - that's a perfectly respectable and intellectually sustainable message. If you want Labour to be a fringe party without a chance of winning an election.

The "political cranks" are, by the way, the Blairites and especially Alan Milburn and Lord Hutton. The former recently said "You [must] appeal to a broader constituency, other than your core vote. It’s very easy in politics, comfort blankets work in politics, because – guess what? It does what it says on the tin! – it’s dead comfortable. But it doesn't give you victory." The "comfort blanket" he is referring to is the old fashioned socialism that would, in theory anyway, shore up hard core support. It would also prevent anyone else voting for you. Milburn again: "How did Margaret Thatcher construct enormous majorities? By making a deep incursion into Labour territory. How did Blair construct enormous majorities? By making deep incursions into Tory territory."

The Tories would love it if Ed really was "Red". They could guarantee themselves another five years in power if he was. He isn't, and for two reasons. First conviction. Milliband was a supporter of and an effective Minister in the  "New Labour" government of Blair/Brown. Second pragmatism. He knows that  victory is only possible from the Centre/Left not from peddling old-fashioned Socialism. It is absolutely NOT "Rightwing" to be a supporter of a mixed economy and to acknowledge that successful modern States are public/private partnerships. And to argue that national economies should not run long-standing public deficits. Jones revealed his colours on this when he said that "Angela Merkel is the most monstrous western European leader of this generation". This was because she is the most powerful European politican and because she favours more balanced national economies - notably in Greece. To call her "monstrous" for this is as wrong as it is offensive.
There have always been Owen Jones's around across politics. Nigel Farage is another one. They resemble one another in their extremism, their convictions and their populist appeal - though Farage is well ahead of Jones in the latter. They are also alike because both want to return to the past - in Jones's case to 1945 and in Farage's 1955. Not many people make Farage look modern by comparison ! And they are alike in that there is not a cat in hell's chance that they will gain power or see their preferred policies implemented. I hope. 

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Alan Turing was judged and convicted by the laws of his time. We can apologise, but not overturn his conviction.

In my lifetime, rather more so than in the earlier decades of the twentieth century before I was born, we have as a nation become more tolerant and more socially liberal. At the same time there has been an increase in regulations and prohibitions. There is a paradox here and there will not be absolute consensus about what has been unbanned nor about what has been banned! But personally I think we've got it about right. Decriminalising homosexuality I support, as I do the prohibition of smoking in public places. Tightening up on drink driving seems to have been right to me, but I also support the reform of the licensing hours for pubs. There's not much, if anything, I'd like to be able to do that is now banned. There's not much I'd like tighter controls over.

So the laws change over time. But at any one time we have to obey those laws - even if we believe they are iniquitous. You can't smoke in a pub, so don't be a dick and try and do so! That's not how it works in a civilised society.

Which brings me to Alan Turing. What he did broke the law and he was convicted and punished. From today's perspective what happened to Turing is shocking - as was the persecution of other homosexuals at that time. But wrong though we now say (rightly in my view) that law was it was then the law and Turing and all the others broke it. If you try and find a way to pardon Turing you have to pardon others as well (Peter Tatchell is currently arguing in favour of this). You cannot discriminate in Turing's favour because he is now famous. Justice is blindly impartial, or should be.

We cannot as a nation get into some huge exercise of retrospectively looking at criminal cases and deciding whether we should overturn convictions. (This is not saying we shouldn't review unsafe convictions - those where it was not the law that was wrong but the conviction against that law). We cannot say that a law that applied in, say, 1950 shouldn't have applied because the law was subsequently repealed. Sadly we can't unhang a murderer who was executed because capital punishment was later abolished. 

I see no problem, in principle, in our generation apologising for the "sins" (as we now see it) of an earlier generation. But we cannot retrospectively change the law and decide that someone duly convicted by due process of law should now be unconvicted. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The decisions about the ideal public/private split in our economy needto be case by case.

I was born in 1946 a year or so into the only and last Socialist administration that the United Kingdom has ever had. During the course of those extraordinary six post-war years the British economy and society was shifted significantly to the Left. A National Health Service (NHS) was set up. Free secondary education  became a right. The Bank of England, civil aviation, coal mining, the railways, road haulage, canals, electricity and gas and the steel industry was nationalised in. By 1951 about 20% of the British economy had been taken into public ownership.

The Attlee government was unashamedly ideology driven and that ideology was Socialist. The driver was Clause IV of the Labour Party constitution which said the goal was:

“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”

Over the past sixty years successive Governments have gradually unravelled the public ownership legacy of Attlee. This has partly been a result of a general ideological shift in the public at large and one that was to become common to all major political parties. Labour codified this by abandoning Clause IV in 1994 a move without which (arguably) they would not have come to power in 1997.
But whilst there has been an irreversible ideological shift away from Clause IV type socialism that does not mean that the debate has ceased, nor indeed that privatisation activity has stopped. Previously sacrosanct areas like the NHS are, to some extent, “up for grabs” – i.e. some of its service provision is and will continue to be provided by the private sector, where the profit motive by definition is dominant. In these cases we have common ownership (the physical assets of the NHS are mostly still publicly owned) without conventionally “equitable” distribution of the returns from them. The justification for this is that the private sector contractor will provide a more efficient and cost-effective service than if that activity was managed by Government employees. We will return to this later!

Given that the Public v Private battle has long since been won by the privatisers it is appropriate to take stock and see what’s next, or what in this writer’s view, should be. This is not about ideology at all. There is no presumption that Private enterprise is good and public ownership bad (or vice versa) – this is because this is self-evidently true. The very basis of a mixed economy is that there will be a public/private mix. The judgment calls relate to where the line is drawn, and why. Let’s start with the “Why” first and the most contentious area, and not just in Britain – Healthcare.
The original premise was that the public provision of health services would be at no cost to the patient. However prescription charges were introduced within a few years and charges began also to be levied for dental treatment. Today many areas of the NHS are chargeable though there are many who are exempt from these charges – not least those over 60 years of age and those on income support. The substantive point, though, is that though the premise that there would be free healthcare has long since been breached  it is all still undeniably a public service. The premise is that the Public “ownership” of Healthcare is non-negotiable and this is reinforced by a commitment that the quality of service received  will not be influenced by the ability to pay. Which then brings us to the subject of who provides the service. It is not black and white by any means! Let’s take a couple of examples. A hospital needs heat and power and the former is generally provided by a boiler house on site. The operation of this boiler house and all its connected facilities throughout the Hospital is of course crucial to the welfare of patients and staff. Does this mean that because it is important therefore it has to be provided by employees of the hospital on whose property it is located? I would argue not. There is no inherent reason why this service should not be contracted out to third party providers in the private sector who contract to provide a service against standards agreed as part of the tender against which they bid and were appointed.
Crossing the bridge from a dogmatic assertion that if it’s a public asset therefore everyone who works there should be a public employee to one where it is accepted that there will be a mix is crucial and reasonably uncontroversial! Where you draw the line is another matter. In the NHS case if we accept that a hospital (etc.) is a public/private partnership (which it is) which areas should never be contracted out and which always? Lets take the making up and issuing of prescriptions. These have to be right don't they? Our Doctor prescribes medication for us and gives us a prescription. The next step is vital. We must get from the dispensary exactly what the doctor has prescribed there is zero room for error. Vitally important you might say and therefore an area which should be under tight public service control. But of course it isn't and never has been. If we go to Boots, Britain’s largest dispenser of prescriptions, we are dealing with a Private sector business and indeed one that is presently owned by an investor – the Private Equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts. In addition to their pharmacies Boots sells wide range of products which means economies of scale for their pharmacy operation. This work is carried out on behalf of the NHS against standards laid down by the NHS. Boots must meet these standards and their performance is monitored to see that they do. The same, of course, applies to all the other pharmacies that make up prescriptions, small and large. Whilst it would be going too far to say that it is immaterial who ultimately owns Boots -  clearly a business of such importance to British healthcare has to be well run and robust – in essence if they meet standards in a cost-effective, costumer-focused and efficient way that is all that is required. That they make a return and a profit on this activity ought  not to to be of know direct concern to those who give them the contract to trade – although it needs to be monitored of course in the public interest.
If we edge away from ideology – whether it is that of the free-market ideologue of the Right or that of the neo-Marxist of the Left – that takes us towards the consumer who is unlikely to be bothered by ideology one way or the other. That consumer just wants goods and services at reasonable prices and reliably and wherever possible to be able to make a choice between real competing offers. The word “real” is crucial here. If the competition is non-existent for logistical reasons or artificial then that adds nothing to the consumer’s benefit.
Having established the ground rules – no ideology, efficiency, cost-effectiveness, competition where possible and so on – we can then consider the appropriate public/private split across the economy. It comes up with some perhaps surprising conclusions, not least that there are some area where in the public interest activities should be taken (or taken back) into public ownership !
I wrote here about the Energy sector (especially gas although to an extent the same argument applies to electricity). I demonstrated that because no Gas supplier has any infrastructural advantages over any other, nor product acquisition cost benefits either, then their cost bases will be broadly the same. This means that over time competition is purely tactical and largely artificial.The profits made go in dividends, high executive salaries and so on. There is little doubt that a well-run publicly owned monopoly would be in the public interest producing lower prices and less wasteful pseudo-competition. This entity could be a Public/Private Partnership or it could, even, be a wholly private entity given a mandate to run the operation for a contract period against performance criteria and in return for agreed remuneration. It doesn't really matter who does it as long as it is, as I say, “well-run”. There is no bias in favour of public management – the only crucial decision is that the assets are publicly owned and that the whole operation is run in the public interest, which it self-evidently is not at present.
If Gas is an obvious area for public ownership railways are another. There are some similarities. Both Gas and the Railways rely on a single infrastructure supply system. Gas pipelines in one case and rail tracks in the other. Whilst there are some route based alternatives for some journeys in essence virtually ever rail route is a private sector monopoly with one or at most two operators on it. For the hugely busy London commuter routes there is only one choice – lump it or walk. Britain is unique in the modern world in having such a broken-up and confusing number of railway companies. There is no integrated system and fares, rolling stock, consumer offers, etc. vary between companies and across the country. While the individual companies are notionally private in fact most of them receive extensive public subsidy - £2.2 Billion in the last year. The very fact of the subsidies confirms what in any case is self-evident and that is that our Railway system is a public utility. This is acknowledged for the track (etc.) owned and operated by Network Rail – the “Private company limited by guarantee” which took over when Railtrack, the shambolic private company set up on the privatisation of British Rail in 1994, went bust. Network Rail is to all intents and purposes a publicly owned company.
There is a strong case for Britain's railways to be operated in the public interest rather than the interests of private sector companies. The failure of privatisation is not in serious dispute – but taking the railways (services as well a track and stations) back into public ownership does not necessarily mean a return to the old centralised and bureaucratic “British Rail”. Many other options exist as has been described here.  
If we eschew ideology and look only at public interest then the argument as to who owns our national assets becomes more informed. It seems to me that any truly strategic asset – absolutely vital to the State – is a candidate for public ownership. The Railways. Energy infrastructure. Water. Hospitals and the Health Service. The docks and airports. And so on. Then if we agree that the decisions as to who runs these assets is also non-ideological we can accept the reality that at a macro level it will always be a public/private partnership. A hospital boiler house may be contracted out to a private provider. But what about a maternity unit? If a private provider can guarantee to achieve agreed service standards at an acceptable price why not? Well the answer to that question might be an objection to profit – again not an ideological objection to profit per se but a recognition that if the publicly owned NHS on its own and without private sector help ran the maternity unit to the same standards and at the same cost this would be preferable. Preferable because the “profits” would not go to a third party (shareholders) but be retained by the NHS.
The point about all of this is that there is nothing new or indeed inherently controversial about it. We have seen that Boots Pharmacy offers a good public service in part because it can spread some of its retailing fixed and variable costs over other things that have little directly to do with the prescription dispensary. A publicly-owned pharmacy would struggle to do this! 
The problem many have with the principle of public ownership is that there is a history of low performance levels, high costs and failure in much of it in the past. But new management models and corporate structures can change that without in any way damaging the principle of public service. Public/Private partnerships don't have a very good name either but this ignores the reality that much of our society relies upon them. We use them every day whether we realise it or not!
I think that it is wrong that the domestic Gas retailing sector is such a source of high profits, high salaries and pensions all driven by phoney competition. This can and should change. Precisely what is put in its place is open to debate but the principle that this activity should be run solely in the public and national interest seems irrefutable. Apply the same logic in a non-ideological way to all of our key national assets and you might move forward.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Why what has happened in Greece couldn't happen here

Two-party politics (let alone three or more party politics) will only be dead if our electoral system changes. I have defined four main streams in English politics: 

  • Green/Socialist 20% 
  • Social Democrat 30% 
  • One Nation Tories 30% 
  • Independent Right 20% 

You can quibble about the percentages I suggest but if you ignore current Party affiliations surely the streams are clear? With a more proportional voting system coalitions of Right or Left would be likely (though a Grand Coalition of the centre, as in Germany, could not be ruled out). 

The third party in England after the Election, as now, will be the LibDems. Despite their lowly position in the polls the strength of incumbents in many constituencies will give them perhaps 30 seats. And yet they do not represent any of the political streams I identify! If the Party didn't exist it's members would scatter to the Greens, Labour and the Conservatives (Orange book neo-liberals). There is no coherent logic to the LibDems at all. And for them rather than the Greens or UKIP (both of which could out-poll them nationally) to be the third player in a coalition is hardly very democratic! The other effect of FPTP is that politicians stay within the two main parties rather than going to their natural home. There are plenty of Tories who despise "One Nation" Cameron but don't follow this through by defecting to UKIP. There are plenty of Labour members who would be happier in a Green/Socislist party which more strongly reflected their views.

Across Europe the four political streams I describe also exist but in many countries they have a seat allocation matching their vote allocation, This has allowed the Greek equivalent of the Green/Socialist stream to gain power. In Britain FPTP has prevented three party politics from truly arriving and 3+ party politics won't arrive this year either - in seats that is. UKIP and the Greens do represent coherent streams in British politics. But FPTP means they are unlikely to be any sort of player this year. Odd sort of democracy !

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Can ΣΥΡΙΖΑ follow Plato and see the light - with EU help of course!

Some of our much loved Right Wing Eurosceptics like Charles Moore are already rubbing their hands at ΣΥΡΙΖΑ success in the Greek elections. They think chaos will ensue leading to the departure of the Greeks from the Eurozone, possibly the total collapse of the single currency and even of the European Union itself! They shouldn't. There is a case to be made that the EU, the Euro and certainly Greece will emerge stronger from this challenge. Here's why.

Greece entered the single currency ill-prepared , at the wrong Drachma/Euro exchange rate and without having made the necessary economic reforms. But don't reach for your megaphone and cry "Stupid Boy". In 2000/2001 the European economies were booming, as was Greece. The idea that boom and bust had been beaten was common. So although there was, as we have seen, little room for manoeuvre when bust did happen (and some !) few were predicting such an event. 

No EU member economy was untouched by the Global Financial Crisis but most did have the reserves to weather the hurricane - just about. Greece, and to a slightly lesser extent Spain, Portugal and Italy suffered the most. These Southern European countries shared defects that were covered up when all was well (as did Ireland)  but were hugely damaging when thing started to fall apart. For years now the EU and the European Central Bank (ECB) have been trying to return things to a manageable normal. That this has happened shows not the weakness of a United Europe but its strength. Without the unifying Euro Greece could have suffered a catastrophic collapse of the Drachma which for dollar denominated imports (Energy especially) could have been fatal to its democracy and to public order. 

The recent new Quantitative Easing (QE) announced by the ECB shows not only that the Bank is very much still on the case but that it has mechanisms at its disposal to help further the economic recovery. It is taking a long time, and it's a bit of a roller-coaster but it is happening - and Greece will be a beneficiary. In France M. Hollande had to realise that spending your way out of an economic downturn frankly wouldn't work. His new economic policy, developed substantially in a European context, had to happen. The same still applies to Greece.

Greece is the world's 43rd largest economy, coincidentally almost the same size as Ireland.The Irish   solution, give or take a twist or two, has to be the Greek solution as well. Restructuring of the economy. Removal of artificial bubbles like the property price inflation. A restoration of a current account balance - in time. And the removal of unaffordable State commitments. Well, you may say and Charles Moore and co will hope, ΣΥΡΙΖΑ isn't going to accept all that! Don't you believe it!

Greece in the Euro means that there is a shared responsibility across the Eurozone to help Greece's recovery. So far political uncertainty and the rather facile view that "Austerity is the Villain" has led to turmoil across the nation. The Greek people have spoken and given ΣΥΡΙΖΑ the mandate to sort things out. The EU will acknowledge the need to respect the democratic choice the Greeks have made and will bend over backwards to make economic renewal in Greece work. ΣΥΡΙΖΑ were not elected to preside over chaos and they will swiftly realise that to work with European partners rather than doing a runner will be the way forward. They won't be the first revolutiaries to get pragmatic. And Angela Merkel and co. will be pragmatic as well. The QE can provide the stimulus and careful finessing can ensure that Greece is a major beneficiary. 

Plato said "One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors." ΣΥΡΙΖΑ have chosen to partipate and will want to demonstrate swiftly that they are far from inferior to their failed predecessors but much more able. Let's hope that they will be wise because they have something to say - not fools because they have to say something! Now is the time to see! Can the men (and women) of Greece not be afraid of the light? 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Kow-Towing to the House of Saud demeans us all


I've drunk Malt Whisky with Saudi Arabian friends in private homes in Jeddah. I've been taken to see the open square in Riyadh where public executions are carried out (called, oh so wittily, “Chop Chop Square”). I’ve travelled along the highways where bored, rich Saudi youth drive their fast cars at terrifying speeds and not infrequently kill themselves. I've waited an hour in a line at Airport immigration only to have the window closed as I arrived and had to start again.

I've met Saudi women in their homes, beautiful in Paris fashions, who have completely to drape themselves in black, and veil their faces, if they venture outdoors. I've met Phillipina maids who have suffered sexual abuse from their masters but would be the guilty party if they had the temerity to complain. I've visited a millionaire Sheikh in his mansion in Marbella where his wine cellar is famous, and his tarts are many and varied. I've sat all day with another Sheikh in Riyadh, a holy man, who leaves meetings to pray five or six times a day.

I've been told about ageing Saudi men who add to their collection of “wives” by taking a “bride” just out of puberty for their pleasure, and then discarding her at a whim. And other men who are in the forefront of the homophobic assault on gays, whilst secretly having sex with boys available to anyone with the money to pay.

I've met the Saudi who claims to run the largest distribution agency for a famous brand of whisky in the world, and the financial beneficiaries of which were members of the Royal family. I’ve seen conclusive evidence of fraud and bribery by Western companies anxious to ingratiate themselves with corrupt Saudi princes. I’ve watched as the commercial rules which apply to the rest of the world are bent and broken to get greedy hands on Saudi riches.

I’ve stayed behind high compound walls in expatriate housing where drunkenness and sexual licence is rife and where the claim is often that “this is the best posting I ever had”. I’ve seen collusion, protection and sleaze distorting normal commercial practices.

Let’s be clear these are not random acts of dysfunctional behaviour - these are symptoms of a sick and crooked society. A nation which for all its faux-tradition is only fourteen years older than I am! A country which follows the “Divine right of Kings”, which has not even the vestige of proper democracy and which concentrates immense wealth in very few hands indeed. A country which practices a “law and order” that was abandoned by a civilising world shortly after the Middle Ages era when it was standard.

Behind the front of religiosity which provides the rationale for a totalitarian control of the population is institutionalised hypocrisy. It is a misogynous society where the rights of women simply don’t exist, where there is no freedom of worship or expression and where anyone who challenges the status quo will be imprisoned, or worse.

Remember Osama bin Laden was a Saudi and 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis as well. Of course they were at the lunatic fringe of religion-driven madness, but they grew up in a society where religion theoretically dictates every aspect of behaviour. But this is to a large extent a front for an Orwellian control system which keeps power in a very few hands indeed.

And what of the West? Well many of us do condemn what we know to be happening in this sordid apology for a society. Amnesty International and others publicise the daily obscenities – like the public torture of Raif Badawi. Brave journalists have exposed the evil imperative of the House of Saud and of the institutionalised corruption that emanates from it. But the death of the Saudi King has brought cringe-making tributes - and the British Prime Minister and Heir to the British throne will be jetting off to Riyadh to “pay their respects”.

Let's be clear – my objection to the Saudi regime and how they run their country is not cultural insensitivity or ignorance on my part. I lived in the Middle East for six years and travelled widely including, for a time, to Saudi Arabia every month. I had my eyes and ears open and talked at length with Saudis - many of whom became friends. Islam is the State religion across the region but nowhere is it so insidiously distorted as in the Kingdom. It is the shield which protects the leaders from the people – the King is the “Keeper of the Two Holy Mosques”, one of which is, of course, in Mecca to which devout Muslims travel for the Haj. This, his unchallenged power, a formidable Army, and an extensive security apparatus make the King invulnerable. And there are plenty of Mullahs around to provide a quasi-spiritual justification for any and all of the daily atrocities committed by this vile regime.

Kow-Towing to the House of Saud demeans us all.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Eurozone Quantitative Easing - good for Britain?

Quantitative Easing has been effective in the UK and the U.S. and there is no reason why it should not be so in the Eurozone as well. The scale is large but it has to be if it is to work. In a way the timing for the European Central Bank is  good because the lessons from the US have been learned. Gradually people are realising that to look at the Eurozone in narrow country terms is missing the point. It's as if the U.S. Treasury worried about the effect on Arkansas when it took macroeconomic decisions - such as QE. Like if or not the Eurozone pools sovereignty just as the member States of the federal United States give up sovereignty. The concerns about Greece are not that Eurozone actions won't eventually be effective there. They will, albeit with struggles along the way. The concern is that local Real Politick will trump Eurozone action. QE is timed (perhaps) to demonstrated especially to the Greeks that they can continue in the long term to benefit from being part of the Euro. 

As for Britain the exchange rate is only one component. QE is designed to stimulate growth and demand. Most of that will be satisfied internally within the Eurozone where of course there are no exchange rate complications. It may be that successful application of QE will see that growth without any major fall in Euro value relative to the Pound though I doubt that this will be uppermost in the ECB's mind! The €/$ rate is a different matter. The fall in the Oil price means that a weaker Euro relative to the dollar is less damaging than it would have been. As a net importer of energy, which is dollar denominated, this is not a bad time to take measures which may see further falls in the value of the € relative to the $.

I suspect George Osborne, in saying that Eurozone QE is good for Britain, was thinking more of the benefits to the UK a healthy or at least a recovering Eurozone rather than the downside of the negative exchange rate effect on exports to Eurozone customers.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Party’s over - new alignments in British politics freeze out the Liberal Democrats

Political stream

Current Party choice

Socialist Left (Green)

Green Party. Left of Labour Party. Some LibDems.

Social Democrats

Mainstream Labour. Some LibDems (esp. Ex SDP)

One Nation Conservatives

Mainstream Tories (Esp. Europhiles). Orange Book LibDems

Independent Right

United Kingdom Independence Party. Eurosceptic and Libertarian Tories. Social conservatives.


In this article for the American website Blogger News Network I argued that there are four distinctive streams in English politics - to which can be added, in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, local Nationalist (or National) streams. The four main streams present across most of the United Kingdom, and their current Party relationships, are shown in the above table.

As we can see this analysis shows up the fact that since its formation at the merger of the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party the LibDems have been a curious construct spanning three of the four political streams I identify. Indeed virtually every type of political leaning has been accommodated – except hard-core Euroscepticism or social conservatism. As the Liberals, the SDP/Liberal Alliance and finally the LibDems gained votes and eventually seats it did seem that a third force in British politics had arrived in a significant way. Remember at the height of Margaret Thatcher’s years in 1983 this third force gained 7.8m votes (25.4% of the vote) but only 23 seats. By 2010 the (now) LibDem vote had fallen to 6.8m (23%) but the seat count had risen to 57 (a fall of 5 seats compared with the highpoint of 2015). This was a reflection of the LibDem success in working at a local level – although the seat count was still hugely short of what they would have had under a strictly proportional system.

In 2010 the three main parties gained 88% of the vote between them. The choice, except in the Celtic fringes of the Kingdom, was broadly between the Conservatives and Labour with the LibDems being the only serious “Neither of the above” choice. The latest (22nd January) opinion poll from YouGov shows how this has changed:












In 2010 the Conservatives and Labour secured 65.1% of the vote – this has risen, due to Labour’s recovery, to 67% - not a dramatic change. What is dramatic is how the “Neither of the above” vote is now split between three parties rather than residing just with the LibDems. Its composition is also different. Some Eurosceptics and social conservatives have moved to UKIP along with a strong element of the “plague on all their houses” population. Many of these will be previous Conservative voters, some previously voted Labour and many may not have voted at all. The Greens will have gained support from disaffected LibDems and more Left-leaning previous Labour voters. The remaining LibDem loyalists are perhaps residents mainly of constituencies where there is a LibDem MP who they like along with a residue of tactical “Stop the Tories” voters (always a good source of LibDem votes in Conservative/LibDem battlegrounds where Labour was a poor third.

So in the past to vote LibDem was strongly a protest vote and across England it was really the only one available. This is not to denigrate those for whom the LibDems’ wholehearted commitment to Europe, their opposition to the Iraq war and their convinced social liberalism was an attractive combination. But in truth in 2010 it wasn’t really distinctive policies which gave the Party nearly 7m votes but more an “I agree with Nick” feeling - and a rejection of the Conservative and Labour parties.

The Coalition has caused a fragmentation of public attitudes with the LibDems being clobbered. To fall from nearly 7m votes to 1.7m – as implied by the latest polls – would be a change unprecedented in British politics, at least over the course of one Parliament. (My own view is that the LibDems will probably do better than this and that the “incumbency factor” will see around 30, possibly more, MPs hold their seats. But even that would be a 50% fall in seats.)

As the LibDems have declined so UKIP and the Greens have grown. In both cases the choice is more than “None of the above”, though it is certainly also that. The LibDem protest vote was for a Party which was a very broad church indeed embracing shades of opinion from the neo-liberal economics of the Orange Book (Clegg, Laws, Alexander) to the broadly Social Democratic (Cable, Ashcroft, Campbell, Williams). For many LibDem voters these differences were largely unknown and the fact that the LibDems were not the Conservatives (or Labour), were pro Europe and were socially liberal was enough. Hence the shock that in the Coalition Clegg, Laws, Alexander and other LibDem Ministers have been obviously comfortable with the Conservatives economic neo-liberalism. The support for the rise in Tuition Fees was perhaps the eye-opener for many that said not only could LibDem promises not be believed but that the LibDems in the Coalition bought the Conservatives “Austerity” case one hundred per cent.

But whilst the LibDems were the only credible “None of the above” choice, confused though the nature of that choice in truth was that is no longer the case. If the choice to vote LibDem was not really mainly a policy choice the reverse applies to UKIP and the Greens (and to the SNP in Scotland). These parties have grown in significance precisely because of the clarity and simplicity of their offer. UKIP is anti-Europe, anti-immigration, anti-multiculturalism and deeply conservative. The Greens are pro-environment, pro the return of some privatised utilities into public ownership and take broadly strong Left/liberal position on most issues. They are also pro EU. Both parties, but especially UKIP, see the three main parties as being too similar. The idea of “LibLabCon” frequently referred to by UKIP gets to the heart of this. The public, from Left and Right, seems to be responding to this by favouring two parties (three in Scotland) who are distinctively not part of this consensual mainstream.

So where do these changes leave the LibDems? If we look again at the table at the head of this article you will see that these four distinctive political streams do not include a “LibDem” one at all. This is because there is no distinctive and coherent and different LibDem message any more – and certainly not a united one. Take away the “Neither of the two above” imperative, factor in the fact that three of the new main streams are both overtly socially liberal and pro Europe and the LibDem message is not unique any more. Add the fact that the LibDem leadership is itself split between opposing economic models and you see a Party which is unlikely to avoid a split and a decline. Nick Clegg and David Laws are neo-liberal One Nation Conservatives in all but name. Vince Cable is unlikely to be uncomfortable with a return to his Social Democratic roots in a mainstream Labour Party. And for the voters it is the same, along with those previous LibDems strongly driven by Environmental issues who will no doubt be more than happy with a resurgent Green Party. For the LibDems the Party’s over.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

I'd like the outcome of the General Election to be a progressive alliance, with electoral reform top of its agenda.

The idea that Labour should declare that it would not enter a Coalition is ignorant nonsense. British politics has changed. The LibDems through hard work over a couple of decades proved that the British public is prepared to accept an alternative to the old Parties.  The SDP and to a lesser extent PC have done the same. And now UKIP and the Greens  have woken the sleeping democratic giant up. The days of Labour and the Conservatives having a monopoly of opportunity for power are gone. Our Electoral system is patently unfit for purpose. Every vote should count, but it doesn't. A Tory in Wigan or a Socialist in Woking might as well not bother to go to the Polling station. 

At the next Election neither Labour nor the Conservatives will get more than a third of the vote. Probably less. Will that be a mandate for single Party government? Of course not. The serendipitous workings of our electoral system may give a wafer thin overall majority to one of the two Parties. But that would be no victory and to try and govern alone when two-thirds of the people who voted didn't support you is arrogant and doomed to failure.

I hope Labour is the largest Party after the election. I hope the Greens get a few more seats. I hope that the LibDems hold around 35 seats and think they will. I hope that UKIP implodes. I hope that Labour regains lost ground in Scotland. And I hope that this leads to a Labour/LibDem/Green coalition with Electoral Reform top of the agenda. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

The letter to Muslim leaders from Eric Pickles–what does it really mean?


So how should we react to Eric Pickles’ letter to the Mosques? It is worth reading carefully because it either deliberately or inadvertently raises more questions than I think it answers. There is no doubting its sincerity, albeit that the language is mostly carefully chosen and almost achingly moderate!

Lets start with the key phrase in the first paragraph

“The hijacking of a great faith to justify such heinous crimes sickens us all”.

I'm not sure that this is is true. That is because it implies understanding on the part of us “all” about what has happened. Has Islam been “hijacked” and if it has does that sicken us? Most of us are ill-equipped to judge whether Islam has been hijacked, and indeed what this means. Those perpetrating the crimes don’t think they've hijacked anything. It is certainly true that       

“Muslims  around  the  world  have  made  clear,  such actions are an affront to Islam.”

But it is also true that this does not apply to all Muslims, even here in Britain. One man’s “hijacking” is another man’s “true faith”. Islam is divided, not just the Sunni/Shia divide but within these subsets there are huge divisions. Anyone claiming that there is one true Islam, which is non violent, and that all the deviations from this are not representative of the

“true nature of British Islam today” 

is indulging in wishful thinking. The truth is that a significant body of Muslims do indulge in a violence driven, as they see it, by their faith. Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan and of course Al Qaida and ISIS among others. As I argued here Islamic Terrorism is a malignant subset of Islam. Sadly the “men of hate” do speak for some Muslims in Britain and around the world. To go into denial about this is unhelpful and potentially counter-productive.

Then Pickles says he wants Muslim leaders to

“explain…how faith in Islam can be part of British identity”

and even that

“British values are Muslim values”

I have no idea at all what this means. Surely all that we really want is that our laws are obeyed by everyone here of any faith or of none? We don't want some sentimental and rather improbable coalescence of “British values” and “Muslim Values” – not least because both are rather spurious concepts. Under the law we demand non-violence from everyone but there is plenty of room for cultural variations. If by “British” Pickles means, as he seems to mean, our Anglo-Saxon, Christian heritage then this is different from the heritage of (say) a Pakistani family who worship at the Mosque. What are we saying here? That there should be some sort of Melting pot in which  the Pakistani heritage’s culture is modified to make it a bit more Anglo-Saxon and a bit more Christian? Is that what “making Faith in Islam part of British identity” means. If so it’s nonsense.

If we define “British values” as being something different from the Anglo-Saxon/Christian heritage that we mostly have then they really do become meaningless. Can you create a co-mingled set of British values that is part Christian, part Jewish, part Hindu, part Muslim, part Rastafarian, part Polish…of course you can’t!

We have a pluralist society with a wide variation in cultures. The dominant one is our traditional White, Anglo-Saxon, Christian one but why would you expect anyone whose culture and heritage is different to abandon theirs and adopt ours. They can if they want to, but you can’t force them to and you shouldn't try.

The message to British Muslims is surely not about “Values and identity” but about the rule of law. As a society we expect total compliance with our laws. So child abuse, or rape, or mutilation, or bombings etc. will not be tolerated whatever the underlying twisted rationale of the perpetrators. They may say and believe that they are being truer Muslims by committing acts our law says are illegal. We say that they are being criminal and that we will pursue them and try them and punish them if they are found guilty.

And if they obey our laws, as the vast majority do, they can live peaceful and valuable lives whether they buy “British identity” or “British values” or not.

    19th January 2015

Escape from the “Mawoks”


This is a piece I wrote in December 2002 well before UKIP and Farage and his Men of Kent and Kentish men came so malignantly into the public eye. It is actually substantially about them, though of course I didn't realise it at the time. Its a bit of a rant, something I needed to get out of my system I think! Anyway I share it with you now, twelve years on, for what it’s worth. It may explain one or two things!

One of the reasons that I could never vote Conservative is that to do so would link me (however tangentially) with a group of Tory voters that I cannot stand. I call them the “Men and Women of Kent” (the “Mawoks”), although they are to be found throughout the Home Counties and variants of the type can be seen across the length and breadth of England. In declaring this bias I can be accused (as we shall see) not only of biting the hand that fed me, but also of a prejudice bordering on racism. Over the years I have tried to rid myself of this unworthy intolerance, but unsuccessfully. The time has come now to reveal my problem and to seek guidance as to whether it is curable.

Sometimes prejudice is based on ignorance and fear (the most racially intolerant people I have met have rarely ever mixed with people of races other than their own) but my personal bias is the opposite. I am of these people that I despise - born and bred. I was born the year after the end of the Second World War in Orpington, Kent. Orpington is known for chickens, for one spectacular By-Election win for the Liberals in 1962, and for being the archetypal London suburb. I was only born there because it was where, pragmatically, my parents chose to live. They were not of the area (Dad was a Lancastrian and Mum was a real Londoner) but Dad needed to live somewhere where he could commute easily to the City where he worked. Orpington Station had regular services to Cannon Street – so Orpington it was to be. The town lacked anything that was remotely interesting. An architecturally anodyne High Street, housing estates built during that great splurge of speculative house building of the 1930’s and schools and other facilities necessary to serve a dormitory suburb. It was, then and now, on the cusp between London and “the country” – the extensive and (I must admit) beautiful “Garden of England” started just south of the Town. Just north was the beginning of the ugly sprawl of South London. Orpington was classic Mawok country – a fertile land for that key Mawok provider, the Estate Agent.

The Mawok has many obsessions, but housing is the main one. Between 1946 (when my parents bought a small semi on a “Davis Estate” off the Sevenoaks Road) and 1968 (when they reached the heights of a detached house with substantial grounds in the prime area of Keston), we moved every four or five years. Upward mobility was measured by the house you lived in and my father’s successful career funded my mother’s aspiration to have a bigger house in a better road. The phenomenon I have described is, of course, as prevalent today as it was forty years ago. The drive to have bigger and better housing is the main Mawok motivator. Our first house cost around £800 in a very tight housing market in 1946 (£21,000 in 2002 money). The same house today would sell for around £250,000 – a more than tenfold increase in value in real terms! No wonder today that the wealthiest members of the Mawoks’ Golf Clubs are the Estate Agents.

As the Mawok moves upwards so other lifestyle elements develop as well. For my Father his car, his Golf Club and my education were the most important (in that order). My father always had a car – a “Company Car”, naturally. Before Government began to tax company cars at their real value this was the most sought after of all the employment perks. Like our housing obsession the phenomenon of getting your employer to pay for your car is a peculiarly English thing – particularly for Mawoks. So every three years or so Dad would have a new and bigger and better car to go with the bigger and better house. And like the house this reached its ultimate apotheosis in the late sixties when he secured a Rover 2000 – truly the first of the “executive” cars. At the age of Fifty Dad had the detached house in Keston, the Rover in the drive and (to keep him busy on Sunday mornings) a long standing membership of West Kent Golf Club.

For the male Mawok (and for some of their women) the Golf Club was and is the centre of their social world. My father took up the game in the early post war years when golf was a traditional and rather elitist game. He joined “West Kent” a members’ club which used pricing and prejudice to keep out players who were “undesirable”! I remember driving with Dad to the club one day and as we approached the road which led to the clubhouse I noticed a prefabricated, metal roofed building on the course. I asked my father what it was and he said (somewhat shamefacedly) that it was the “Artisans” hut. He explained that the Club committee some years earlier had decided that there was a potential source of revenue available from “Artisan” (working class!) players. These players paid a small subscription for which they were allowed to play on the course on weekdays (when it was not so busy) - but they were not allowed to use any of the club’s member’s facilities or to play at weekends. The Mawoks were not, of course, Artisans. All of them had (like my father) solid, well-paid white collar jobs and they were the ones who colonised the 19th hole and ran the committee. In some ways the sport was incidental to the social component – the Mawoks joined the club not just to play golf, but to be able to socialise in a milieu, carefully protected by the application of strict membership rules, in which they would be comfortable.

The next Mawok fixation was, and is, private education. Here we begin to move away from the social part of the Mawok lifestyle to an area which borders on the political. The Mawok does not believe in the governance of the State in areas which directly affect his health, wealth or prospects (and those of his children). He is against progressive taxation (he doesn’t see why he should pay more income tax just because he has an above average income – he has earned it after all!). And he certainly doesn’t see why he should use (and pay for through taxation) what he sees as sub-standard public services. My father not only sent me to fee-paying schools from the age of five onwards, but he was also sure that he should be rewarded with a tax rebate for doing so. Curiously, although my father had convinced himself that it was essential that I received a Public School education, the same did not apply to my younger sister. She went to a State primary and Grammar school, was very well educated at them and became a successful teacher in state schools as an adult. But for me private education was essential and my father made many “sacrifices” to pay my school fees. Looking back I’m not sure what those sacrifices were (the upward mobility didn’t seem to suffer much) but I was very conscious at the time that I was seen as a financial burden. Today’s Mawoks will also do their damndest to fund private education for their children, but if their means don’t quite run to this they will move (if necessary) to those Mawok areas where the state schools are better (distorting even further the property market as they go). The perceived quality of local schools is one of the key influencing factors on property prices.

Private education has always been part of the Mawok dream (I was the second generation of my family at my school) and paying for private health care is also accepted by the Mawoks as a necessary burden. My parents opposed the setting up of the NHS in the 1940s and took out private health insurance as soon as it became available. In the pubs of Tunbridge Wells, where the Mawoks gather, you will hear them running down the Health Service and the State education system and bemoaning the fact that they have “no alternative” but to pay privately for medicine and for schooling. In this they are being disingenuous – Mawoks, in my experience, have always taken the option of paying for these things themselves. It is a bit like the Golf Club membership – the Mawok can afford to pay for such privileges.

Sometimes the Mawok has to rely on the State and there is no opting out. For the commuting Mawok, like my Father, the principal reliance was on British Rail, Southern Region. Occasionally Dad would drive his Rover to his office in Eastcheap, but even in the fifties and sixties the traffic and the lack of decent roads, did not make this a real option. So at 8:08 every morning (and at 5:36 every evening) he would be on the Orpington /Cannon Street train. But at weekends, for holidays and for other trips my father would never think of using public transport. When once, much later, he had to go with me on a bus it was clearly the first time for many years – he described it as being like a “Sunday school outing”. Today’s Mawok reserves his strongest vitriol for the condemnation of public transport. The commuter trains are dirty, unreliable and too expensive but he is trapped in that he has to use them. Like my father years ago he never uses a train where he can use his car and he is most unlikely ever to be seen on a bus. The Mawok was a fervent supporter of the sale of public assets first instigated by the Thatcher government of the 1980s. He argues that there is now more choice and better value than when there were monopoly state owned suppliers of electricity, gas, water and other services. When challenged about the decline in standards on the railways since they were handed over to Virgin and Stagecoach and their like the Mawok will blame Mr Blair and Mr. Prescott conveniently forgetting that it was the Mawok in chief John Major who created the railway mess that New Labour has struggled to clean up.

The Mawok is not really a political animal, any more than he is committed to any other sort of voluntary service. He is not a generous supporter of charities and once the key things in life are paid for (see above) he is a bit of a cheapskate. I know many Mawoks who refuse to subscribe to satellite or cable television (despite the fact that the sports they want to watch are increasingly on these channels) claiming that they cannot afford the thirty or forty pounds a month subscription. Whilst they are only too happy to benefit from corporate hospitality that is often on offer to Mawoks at work (the box at Lord’s or Twickenham) they rarely pay for sports tickets out of their own money. Holidays are important to Mawoks and they will book the crossing for the BMW months in advance so that they can get to the favourite hotel in France or Spain on schedule. And today’s Mawoks buy second homes in Southern Europe – increasingly a key element of the Mawok lifestyle.

Although most Mawoks are not politically active this does not stop them from having robust political opinions, but there is usually an inverse relationship between the strength of the opinion and the real relevance to them. So Mawoks will sound off in the saloon bar about the “appalling” standards of public education or healthcare, despite the fact that they have protected themselves and their families from these services by going “private”. But nothing riles a Mawok more than something that affects their most valued “right” – their personal mobility. So if you ask a Mawok what they think about the price of petrol (or some of the other high costs of private motoring) be prepared for a tirade against the Government which (in their view) takes far too much from them in motoring taxes and builds too few roads.

The Mawok is a privileged species, but this does not stop them from seeking ever new ways to protect and enhance their privileges. They see Conservative politics as being more likely to do this and this is the sole basis of the Mawoks’ unwavering commitment to vote Conservative. If you look at the blue swath across the constituencies of Southern England you can be sure that not only has it always been so, but that it always will be. The Mawok is not a floating voter; he tribally supports the Tories through thick and thin. This does not mean that there are not outposts of Mawok land in the Celtic fringes (the West Country) or the more enlightened suburbs (Richmond, Kingston, Surbiton, even Guildford…) where a progressive anti-Mawok movement has ousted the Conservative and elected a Liberal Democrat. But in the hard core Mawok dominated country of Kent, Surrey, Sussex, and Hampshire hell will freeze over before they elect anyone but a Conservative.

I hate the Mawoks because of their ignorance and their prejudice. I hate them because notwithstanding their advantages they spend so much time complaining. I hate them because they close their minds to any argument which challenges their view of the world. I hate them because of their narrow-mindedness and their meanness. And above all I despise them because they have no idea how awful they are and because they assume that since I was raised in Mawok country, the progeny of Mawok parents, then I must embrace their values. I will never vote Conservative lest somebody mistakenly thinks that I do.

Patrick S Briggs

December 2002