‘Shoulda woulda coulda’ – How I wish I’d replied to a question about the EU

Have you ever lain awake at night after an argument, thinking about all the things you should have said but didn’t? Well, a similar thing happened to me when I was sunbathing on the beach in Tel Aviv. I know, tough life. Let me explain…

At the end of an incredibly hectic 5-day crash course on all matters Israel and Palestine (and more than one or two araks) I had a discussion with a fellow Conservative about what it was I disliked so vehemently about the EU, which culminated in him asking me ‘which European policies do you disagree with’? In response, I mumbled something virtually incoherent about the European Arrest Warrant and democratic principle. And so it was that, having collected my thoughts after a good sleep, I started to regret the things I hadn’t said and I’ve been meaning to write a blog about it ever since!

So Will, if you’re reading, I’d like to rephrase please. I should have replied by telling you that for me, my position doesn’t rest on individual policies. It’s about the EU’s raison d’être. The vision of its founding father, Monnet, means that the treaties the EU is based upon – its very foundations – are statist in aim and transfer power from accountable national governments to distant, and in the case of the Commission, undemocratic, supranational structures.

Take the treaty of Rome, which, alongside creating an anti-market Common Agricultural Policy with a fiendishly complicated set of subsidies and environmental rules (that even today, accounts for 42% of the total EU budget), established the European Social Fund or ESF.

The ESF is the oldest of the EU Structural Funds, which are ‘dedicated to improving social cohesion and economic well-being across the regions of the Union’. It is a redistributive financial instrument, so its spending is concentrated on the less-developed regions of the EU. Now, if you agree that taxpayers’ money should be used to redistribute wealth (a fundamentally socialist principle) that all sounds well and good, but the problem in this case is that there is no European demos – that is, a common political unit – to give the redistribution legitimacy.

Fast forward to 1992, when this problem was further compounded by the creation of the Euro in the Maastricht treaty. As the recent financial crisis proved, the Euro cannot function as a national currency does for precisely this reason. While wealthy southern Germany may traditionally have been prepared to subsidise spending in the poorer north and east, German taxpayers are not willing to bail out Greece, Portugal or Spain, because there is no shared sense of identity. In fact, Bavaria and Hesse, the two richest states in Germany, last year opened a lawsuit to challenge this system of transfers, which is indicative of a growing hyper-local trend that is at odds with the grand European project.

But the Maastricht Treaty did more than create a currency designed to fix the EU on a course of ‘ever closer union’ (don’t forget that the architect of the European Coal and Steel Community, the precursor to the European Economic Community, believed that the best way to achieve political integration was through economic integration). It also gave the EU’s institutions sweeping new powers in the areas of foreign policy, defence, law enforcement, criminal justice, asylum and immigration, which the Amsterdam Treaty built upon and expanded with the Social Chapter. Later, despite being rejected by the Irish, the Dutch and the French in several referenda, the Nice and especially Lisbon treaties would broaden and strengthen EU competencies in these areas.

As you would expect, you can see the ‘big government’, interventionist philosophy that courses through the EU’s veins work its way out into European policy. Whether it’s banning high-power vacuum cleaners or 100 watt incandescent lightbulbs, forcing television manufacturers to change their ‘ecodesign’ requirements for standby functions or makers of water heaters to change energy consumption labelling, refusing to allow restaurants to use refillable olive oil jugs or prohibiting manufacturers of bottled drinking water to label their product with anything that suggests consumption fights dehydration, EU policy makers prove time and time again that they have no qualms about interfering in the minutiae of our lives.

And whilst it is true that the EU embraces free markets in some respects (though even the existence of a customs union could be said to be anti-free market), this work is undone by other EU actions. Open Europe, for example, estimates that the top 100 EU regulations cost the UK £27.4 billion a year – that’s more than the Treasury received in council tax in 2013.

None of that is to say I don’t agree with co-operation or trade between European countries. I do. I just don’t think you need the EU’s supranational structures and political machinations to achieve the best results. And that’s why, if we win a majority next year, I’ll be voting to leave in 2017.

Inside the mind of a Tory

It’s usually the case that when I end up chatting to friends about politics, I spend 90% of my time correcting misconceptions about my views.  It’s always the same lazy caricature; I’ve lost count of the number of times that it’s either been said or implied that I’m heartless or indifferent to the plight of the poor. So I’d like to take this opportunity to set the record straight.

Ever since the industrial revolution and the birth of mass production, humans have had a tendency to think about problems on a grand scale.  It’s understandable really, especially for Brits. After all, we had an empire that covered three quarters of the world. Couple that with the intoxicating influence of Marxist ideas and you can see why Beveridge was tempted to deal with the five ‘giant evils’ – squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease – with centralised national bureaucracy.

Admirable though those aims may be, the belief that only the state has the ability to make a big impact has had lasting repercussions that will be difficult to overcome. People often make the mistake of equating government with society. But the two are very different, and in fact, I’d argue that reliance upon the state is slowly but surely undermining society and our traditional forms of solidarity: family, neighbourliness, charity and even faiths. So I want to see the government take a step back and the foundations of society to be re-laid. But it’s important to understand that this desire of mine (and many others) is not borne out of indifference.  Let me explain.

We now have a welfare system that not only supports family breakdown, it actively encourages it. Single mums in receipt of benefits treasure the ‘independence’ they have, when what they mean is that they have exchanged dependence upon the biological father/s of their children or other family members for dependence on the state.

Is this really always the right solution? Swapping a personal, potentially loving relationship for a faceless master? Because make no mistake, government is a whimsical and capricious overlord.

How about neighbourliness?  I’m currently reading Alan Johnson’s book ‘This Boy’ (which, incidentally, I would highly recommend). I’m obviously not old enough to remember what things were like in the 1950s, but what struck me when reading about his childhood in the slums of west London was firstly, how difficult life was back then, and secondly, how his local community rallied together and people protected one another.  Of course, things were far from perfect – I am under no illusions about that – but I wonder how many of today’s shopkeepers would allow single mums to keep a tab open indefinitely when they couldn’t afford groceries, or how many of our neighbours would refuse to answer the door to a debt collector who was visiting to relieve us of our sofa or TV. Most people don’t even know who their neighbours are anymore, and you can bet your bottom dollar the person working in your local shop doesn’t understand your financial worries.

Why is that? It’s because we don’t believe that where poverty exists, we should have to deal with it personally. We expect people in need to receive support from the government – that’s what we pay our taxes for, after all, and if there isn’t enough to go round, well… just increase the rate.

What about charities? Very, very, many of them no longer need to rely on the goodwill of donors who want to give their own money to causes they deem fit. Instead, we have a situation where 27,000 charities are now dependent on the government for more than 75 per cent of their income and the ‘voluntary sector’ receives more money from the government than it receives in donations. I’ve blogged briefly about the negative consequences this can have before.

These days, even faith groups have given up.  In times gone by, the church used to see one of its duties as looking after the widowed and the poor. Original forms of ‘welfare’ came from monasteries or Christian almshouses. But now, churches and other Christian organisations lobby hard for government action to alleviate poverty. Higher benefit payments, funding for foodbanks, a clamp down on corporate tax avoidance, banning of zero hours contracts – all of these issues and more are high on the agenda for Christian organisations. They feel they have been absolved by the state of a responsibility they traditionally saw as their own.

And now we are told that many, if not most, of the serious problems we face today are better dealt with on an international scale. We need the World Bank, the IMF, the UN, endless G summits.

But the problem with this way of thinking is it gives the impression that we, as individuals, are incapable of making a difference. We see the scale of these vast bureaucracies, and though we feel distant from them, we think they are the only vehicle through which problems on our doorstep can be dealt with.

I believe that’s wrong, and it doesn’t make me heartless to say so. I want to abandon state dependence for individual freedoms that build strong societies. If you want to have a big impact, you need to show small acts of kindness. It is personal self-giving, not compulsory taxation and re-distribution of wealth that has the best and most profound effect. Do what you can to help people in your immediate surroundings. It will be more significant and longer lasting than a BACS payment from the DWP. That’s what right-wingers are about.

Claims that the far-right is on the rise in Europe are far off the mark

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European Elections: 9 Scariest Far-Right Parties Now In The European Parliament.  That was the headline of an article in the Huffington Post after the results of the latest elections were announced, and they weren’t the only ones to analyse the situation in that way.

Despite the fact that hard-left parties made significant gains in several countries, including Spain, Greece, Portugal and Ireland, the focus has been upon the rise of the ‘far-right’ and its implications for the future. But given that there is a strong tendency to characterise politicians as ‘far-right’, when they actually have left-wing aims, I thought I would take a brief look at the policies of the parties in question.

First, though, let’s examine what it means to be ‘far-right’.  Far-right political views ‘usually involve support for social inequality and social hierarchy, elements of social conservatism, and opposition to most forms of liberalism and socialism,’ as well as being anti-communist.  But with the possible exceptions of the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands and the Austrian Freedom Party, the parties mentioned in the Huff Po article simply do not fit the far-right bill.

Let’s start with Front National. Leader Marine Le Pen has outlined her strong support for protectionism, particularly for the French agricultural industry, and has criticised globalism and capitalism.

The party is also very keen on preserving a socialised healthcare system, with the website stating:

“Health is a precious commodity that should not be reserved for those who can afford it, or those living in the right place. It is our duty to defend Social Security and constantly improve, in a spirit of responsibility.”

Hardly the words of a party that supports ‘social inequality’.

Now how about the German National Democratic Party?  Well, they’re not doing so well on the far-right score either.  The NPD’s economic programme promotes social security for Germans and rejects the ‘liberal-capitalist system’.  Seems more left- than right-wing to me, and let’s not forget that they associate themselves with National Socialism (Nazi-ism), which, as George Watson so eloquently explains, was a left-wing ideology (the clue is in the name).

OK, OK, but what about the Finns Party?  As anyone would surely expect from a Nordic country with strong socialist leanings, the Finns are about as far from far-right as you can get.  Their slogan is ‘Justice for All’, and their platform is described on their website like this:

“In sum, the basic foundation of the Party is a recognition of the Progressive traditions of equality of opportunity for all, an equitable and defendable distribution of wealth, and a public responsibility towards those citizens who, due to circumstances beyond their control, lack the possibility to pursue a good life.”

They think that ‘the state has an important role in Finnish societal and welfare policy to help provide opportunity and education and help to assure physical and mental health’, that ‘as a rule, basic services must be provided by the public sector’, and that ‘taxation of capital income should be increased and made progressive’.

Same goes for the Danish People’s Party, which wants to maintain a strong welfare system; believes that ‘health care and the public hospital service [sic] must be of the highest standard and should, in principle, be publicly financed through taxation'; and that ‘future generations [should be] able to live in a clean and healthy environment’.  Hmm. Definitely not thinking that these two should be given the ‘far-right’ tag.

But what about Golden Dawn, those famous Greek fascists?  Yeah.  Here’s a quote from their manifesto:

The ultimate goal of the social state is the elimination of tiered false-value of money and the controlled use of it as a trading mean. The state should have control over private property so that it is not dangerous for the survival of the People [sic] or can manipulate them. The economy should be planned so that it serves the national policy and ensures the maximum self-sufficiency without dependence on international markets and control of any multinational companies.

Still think they ain’t communists?

Then you’ll probably think that Jobbik, the Movement for a Better Hungary, are exemplary right-wingers too.  Because they say that ‘across the world a global capitalism based on the free movement of multinational capital has broken down. Billions have been made destitute, and ever widening gulfs have grown in societies.’  Sounds like something that could have dropped from Marx’s lips without a second thought.

And finally, Lega Nord. They have traditionally won support from across the political spectrum, picking up votes from former Christian Democrats, Communists and Socialists, as well as those who used to vote for the Italian Social Movement.  It has been very difficult to define them as left- or right-wing, because whilst advocating liberal ideas, such as deregulation, they also support social-democratic ones, such as the preservation of workers’ wages and pensionsBut apparently Huff Po think they’ve got the definition nailed.

It seems to me that the only things these parties have in common are euroscepticism and a dislike of immigration, but even these characteristics are not unique to the far-right – as evidenced by the hordes of former Labour voters who have switched allegiance to UKIP right here in Britain.

I am not saying that representatives of these parties do not make some worrying statements, but their ‘far-right’ label is misguided and very possibly damaging to centre-right moderates, which leads me to question whether that is the real intention behind it. And in any case, people’s anger about their modest gains in the European Parliament would be better directed towards the European Commission – which is an unelected supranational government, without opposition, and the only EU institution with the ability to set the legislative agenda.

Image courtesy of domdeen / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Who is really poisoning British political discourse?

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This was a tweet from the official UKIP Bexley Twitter account on Saturday after a campaign to force the party to pay for the return of their leaflets went viral. Yes, you read that right. Blood and faeces. You seriously have got to question the sanity of anyone prepared to collect and post their own bodily fluids to a political party. Others, admittedly with more humour and panache, decided to send heavy items such as bricks and bottled water at UKIP’s expense.

A quick google image search will show the kind of foul-mouthed messages or crude drawings that people had written and drawn on the UKIP leaflets they returned. And it doesn’t stop there. Billboards have been similarly vandalised.

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There’s nothing erudite or witty about these comments.  It’s just nastiness for the sake of nastiness and it sows seeds of division.  Like it or not, UKIP have tapped into a deep vein of discontent and reactions like this only serve to fuel the fire.

I don’t know what it is about left-wingers who profess to pride themselves upon acceptance and open-mindedness, but the same kind of attitude was displayed in the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s death.  I’m sure everyone’s already heard what Bob Crow said upon hearing the news, but here’s a recap:

“I won’t shed one single tear over her death. She destroyed the NHS and destroyed industry in this country and as far as I’m concerned she can rot in hell.”

Or how about Dennis Skinner:

“Why was Parliament recalled? She shouldn’t have received special treatment. I’ve got better things to do than watch people talk about her.”

And who can forget Oldham Labour Councillor Tony Larkin, who was forced to apologise for causing offence after posting “ding dong the witch is dead” on an online forum.

There’s no sensitivity or grace in these remarks, and compared to the tributes made by prominent political opponents of Tony Benn or Bob Crow after their deaths, they come across as even more mean-spirited and spiteful than they originally appeared.

I’m not a UKIP supporter, though on some issues, I think they’ve got the right idea. But what’s funny about the people who staunchly oppose UKIP is that despite their claims to stand for tolerance and unity, they are so unprepared to hear views that disagree with their own that they want to see any dissenting voices shut down completely. The time has come to ‘challenge’ UKIP over their racist attitude, according to Dan Hodges, and ‘turning a blind eye [to why UKIP attracts unsavoury supporters] is not just irresponsible but dangerous’, says Mehdi Hasan.

Now, if what Dan and Mehdi mean is that we need to have an open discussion about the issues UKIP campaigns on, I am all for it. But I thought we were already doing that, because in many ways, UKIP are setting the terms of debate. I can only hope that they weren’t suggesting something more sinister, such as refusing to allow UKIP the opportunity to transmit party political broadcasts, or stopping their spokesmen from appearing on Question Time.

This kind of clampdown really is dangerous, and what’s more, it plays right into the hands of the more extreme political parties and gives their already disaffected supporters more ammunition, pushing them further to the fringes.  Personally, I don’t think UKIP are anywhere near comparable to the BNP.  I know UKIP supporters who are decent and as far from racist as you can get, but they do have genuine concerns.  And that’s why it’s important that they are given a platform to share their views and join in political debate without the fear of being marginalised or silenced altogether.

Imagine if all parties or disparate groups such as the EDL were able to take part in mainstream discussion and were put under proper public scrutiny.  They would have the chance either to make their case in a coherent way, as Nigel Farage so often does, or they would shoot themselves in the foot. I can’t think of a better way to switch sober-minded people off than to show them the real face of the groups they support.

As far as I can see, it’s not UKIP, but their opponents who are poisoning British political discourse – whether it be with vulgar, petty attacks or a more disturbing desire to shut down political debate by declaring any of UKIP’s supporters racist or bigoted.

Tenants of the UK, unite against Labour’s rent controls!

Cheaper bills.  We all want them.  Especially me.  My rent and council tax combined make up just under 50% of my monthly salary; add utilities and we’re over half.  And that doesn’t even include food, travel, or that other absolute necessity – whiskey.

I’m pretty much a poster girl for Labour’s ‘generation rent’.  On a fairly decent wage for my age, but by no means generous.  Live in Zone 1?  Out of the question.  Parts of Zone 2 are off limits too –  when my friend and I looked for a property in North London, we’d tell the letting agents our maximum budget (which wasn’t unrealistic) and they would laugh at us, saying we wouldn’t find anywhere in that area for that price.

So we moved East, to Bromley-by-Bow.  Not exactly the most lively or well-heeled spot, but still at the very top end of our budget.  Were the price to increase, I’m not sure either of us would be able to afford to stay in our flat.

But I would rather find somewhere else to live, perhaps in Zone 3, perhaps somewhere with no tube station and better bus links, than have increases in my rent capped by Labour.

And here’s why: because rent controls don’t work.  In fact, they end up creating the very opposite outcome to the one they intend to achieve.  What they do is increase demand for property, whilst simultaneously decreasing supply.

Put it this way.  If all existing phone shops were forced to sell iPhones for £50, how many people do you think you would find queuing outside?  Demand would go through the roof, because the product was massively undervalued.  But how many entrepreneurs do you think you would have wanting to open a phone shop if they knew they couldn’t sell their wares at the true market rate?  Exactly.  None.  Even though demand would be abnormally high, the abnormally low price wouldn’t allow retailers to make a profit.  So the supply would decrease, which, ironically, pushes the true value of the product even higher than it was to begin with.

Of course, this is an extreme illustration, and Labour’s current proposals for rent control are much, much more modest.  But once government intervention becomes the accepted solution to a problem, the tendency is – almost always – to regulate more widely and strongly as time goes on.

This will be especially true in the case of rent control, because the plans Miliband has set out are so limited that they are unlikely to have any significant impact upon prices at all.  Labour are nothing if not politically shrewd, and this latest policy is a perfect example of their cunning.  Propose something tame and popular, that most people would have serious trouble opposing, but lay the groundwork for much deeper involvement in the rental market in future.  This year it’s a cap on increases.  In a decade it’ll be a cap on overall prices.

I can’t think of a better way to stunt the growth of our housing supply, storing up even greater problems for the future.  Socialists talk about acting for the masses, but they always assume that they know better than the proles when it comes to determining the market value of goods and services.  Slow hand clap, Mr Miliband, slow hand clap.

The ‘Cinderella Law’ is a pumpkin

It has recently been announced that the Government will introduce changes to the child neglect laws in the Queen’s Speech in early June so that parents who ‘starve their children of love and affection’ will face prosecution under a new ‘Cinderella Law’.

The charity Action for Children has been campaigning for this since April 2012 and there have been a number of failed attempts to amend the law through the Lords and Private Member’s Bills.  But following a public consultation, Ministers have decided that the time is right to make it an offence to deliberately harm a child’s ‘physical, intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development.’

Now, I think it’s fair to say that we all know it’s wrong to abuse children.  But there are huge problems with enshrining the offence of emotional abuse in law.

The first is of a practical nature.  How do you define emotional abuse?  Of course there are cases where obvious neglect has taken place, but these would already be caught by the general definition of ‘ill-treat[ing], neglect[ing], abandon[ing]… expos[ing]… caus[ing] or procur[ing a child] to be assaulted’ in the Children and Young Persons Act 1933.

By adding emotional abuse to the statute book, could we be in danger of outlawing ordinary and reasonable parental discipline?  After all, punishments are deliberately designed to have an effect upon a child’s emotions.  If they didn’t have any, they would be entirely pointless.

In the most dysfunctional family settings, I think it is entirely conceivable that a parent’s well-meaning yet clumsy attempt to enforce discipline could be misconstrued – either deliberately or accidentally – by the child as damaging.  So it is troubling that the evidence put before the court in these cases could rest partially upon the testimony of the kids involved, particularly in situations where the child is extremely young.

And this bring us neatly to the most serious issue with the Cinderella Law: whether or not a punishment causes harm to a child’s development – especially their ‘intellectual development’ – will be entirely subjective and dependent upon a child’s testimony and ‘expert’ advice.  What kind of parents would be prosecuted for stunting the ‘intellectual development’ of their child?  If I were a betting girl, I’d put money on religious mums and dads being first up against the wall.

And even if you had settled on a suitable definition of emotional or intellectual abuse, how would you ever prove beyond reasonable doubt – which is the task of a court – that it had occurred?

History has taught us that prosecutions secured on the advice of experts such as Prof Sir Roy Meadow because of physical injuries to a child turned out to be unjustified.  How much more unreliable will this kind of evidence be in cases where emotional abuse is the alleged crime? When parents found guilty under the new law will face a maximum of 10 years in jail, I think we have a right to expect that the prosecution’s evidence should be stronger than it ever could be.

If the Cinderella law is less about securing prosecutions and more about ‘sending a signal’, then the change in direction is both foolish and naïve.  Parents who really are deliberately abusive pay no heed to the law anyway, that is clear enough to see in cases of physical abuse.  Rather than changing the behaviour of wicked mothers and fathers through the blunt instrument of legislation, the far more likely outcome of creating this new offence is that loving but misguided parents, or those who are vulnerable themselves, will be criminalised.  Parents who suffer with emotional difficulties will be loathe to come forward and ask for support if they feel there is even a slight chance that they could be hauled before the courts for emotionally abusing their children.

Introducing new laws where evidence of ‘criminal’ behaviour cannot be satisfactorily proven sets a dangerous precedent, and in these circumstances, it is another sorry example of government interference in family life.  This law, much like the glass slipper on the feet of Cinderella’s step-sisters, doesn’t quite fit.

Giving kids the right to vote is utterly bonkers

Now that 16-year-olds are being given the chance to vote in the Scottish referendum on independence and Sadiq Khan, the shadow justice secretary, has announced that under Labour, 16- and 17-year-olds would get a first vote in London’s 2016 mayoral election, the subject has become a political hot potato.  Polly Toynbee has recently come out in favour and there are many more who suggest that we should extend the franchise to 16-year-olds.

A very vocal lobby dedicated to the cause has been assembling, with a special ‘Votes at 16’ website, which neatly summarises the arguments in favour of lowering the voting age.  On the surface, they seem quite persuasive, but actually, several are misleading.  For example, the site says that at 16, someone can join the armed forces, but it neglects to tell its readers that under-18s need parental consent to do so and they are also barred from fighting on the frontline because the UK has signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which defines childhood as lasting until 18.

The right to marry is another case in point.  In England and Wales, any 16- or 17-year-old wanting to get married would have to get permission from a parent or guardian, though in the event, very few decide to do so.

But for me, the most important factor in deciding whether or not to lower the voting age is entirely ignored by votes at 16 proponents.  Voting is a huge responsibility and not one that should be taken lightly.  We should be careful about who we bestow with such a duty.

I would argue that one of the primary things we should require from any potential voter is that they make an active contribution to the state.  And one of the easiest practical ways to define a contribution in this sense is in financial terms.  Are you earning a wage, or were you earning a wage before retiring or being made redundant?  Do you pay income or council tax?  We have all heard the famous phrase from the British colonists, ‘no taxation without representation’, but shouldn’t the reverse be true too?

There are only 310,000 income tax payers under 20 in the UK.  This represents 0.49% of the total population, but since the latest figures show that 82.8% of 16-year-olds and 73.5% of 17-year-olds are in full-time education, I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of that 0.49% are actually 18 or over.  And with the school leaving age rising to 18 by 2015, even more under-18s will be financially dependent upon their parents until they leave full-time education.

A father wouldn’t ask his 16-year-old son for advice on how to manage his household finances, because firstly, he wouldn’t have the experience necessary to make the right kinds of decisions, and secondly, he doesn’t pay the bills, so why should he have a say on whether his Dad pays for a Sky subscription or not?

Why then, would we give these children – as defined by the UN – the right to decide how vast quantities of public money should be used?  In both cases, the money belongs to someone else, so there is no real interest in seeing that it is spent wisely.

I would say that I don’t understand how anyone could seriously suggest that giving children with no experience of life outside school and family the right to vote can be a good thing, but we all know that the younger you are, the more likely you are to support left-wing parties.

Extending the franchise to 16-year-olds is a cynical attempt to improve the political performance of the Labour Party, much like its immigration policy. Any decision to give children the right to vote will be a lasting monument to the stupidity of adults, and we should resist it with every fibre of our being, no matter how alluring it may seem.