Monday, 30 June 2008

More NHS Spaghetti anyone?

The management structure of the NHS has always reminded me of a huge pile of spaghetti. The shape is generally conical, like almost every management structure, but so convoluted are the workings between apex and base that trying to track where the money goes or how the ideas move is like tracing the strands of spaghetti as they wind in-out, up-down and around. Some strands are long, some small, some thickly coated with sauce, some almost bare, and no one can possibly work out how the strands interweave without taking the whole thing apart. It is a complete mess and mangle.

Today we learned of Lord Darzi's new plan for the NHS. Not surprisingly much of it is just window dressing wrapped in management speak: "personal care plans", "dashboard", "quality accounts". We know the result of this nonsense already - more form-filling for doctors and nurses, more managers required to audit the forms, more number crunching from Whitehall and an annual statement from the government that things have improved since this time last year. There is no wide-ranging proposal to address the biggest problem with the NHS - government interference in a professional service for political purposes.

We recently saw the most blatant example of this type of interference that i can remember, the Deep Clean. No less than £57million of additional money was promised to pay for all hospitals to be cleaned thoroughly in an attempt to counter the spread of MRSA and c. difficile infections. True though it is that £57m is a drop in the NHS ocean, it is still 57m quid thrown at a gimmick designed purely to show that the government was doing something. Not surprisingly the Treasury did not fund the whole £57m as it had originally promised and the total spent on the project was more than £65m, only about 60% of which was spent on cleaning, the balance being sucked into the bottomless pit of administration. Little effect on infection rates appears to have resulted but a big dent was made in existing hospital budgets. It was, like all such knee-jerk gimmicks, counterproductive. Even if infection rates had been cut substantially it was a one-off exercise and did not look to the main causes of the problem.

Of far greater benefit would have been the introduction of simple old-fashioned accountability. The person in charge of a hospital ward should be accountable for its cleanliness. Ask any nurse with 30 years' experience and he or she will tell you that when they started work the wards were spotless. Matron was responsible. She could lose her whole career if the state of her ward caused illness or death and she made sure that those under her command cleaned everything thoroughly every day. Now who is responsible? The chief nurse no longer has control because he or she is given priorities based on government diktat by the ward manager, complying with the latest priority from Whitehall takes priority over other spending. The ward manager no longer has control because he or she is simply doing what has been passed down the chain; the same for the department manager, the hospital chief executive and the area trust. By the time we reach that level everything is so remote from the dirty ward that it doesn't matter how many more people can pass the buck up the chain. No one is directly responsible so one possible incentive to cleanliness is missing.

There is, of course, a simple solution; move cleanliness of wards to the top of the list of priorities and then apportion the remaining budget between the many other competing claims for funding. That is how things are done in private hospitals and the levels of infection are negligible. But to approach it in that way is impossible because the government has set targets for waiting times and failure to meet those targets will cost votes. Because the government might suffer, so heavy sanctions can be applied to a hospital or trust which misses the targets. Again political interference gets in the way of doing things properly.

Every private sector business which provides goods or services to the public looks to delivery first and tailors its operation to suit the needs of the customer. A company which manufactures hospital beds must make beds which hospitals want to buy, namely beds which have the features required by clinicians for the benefit of the patients. The customer is asked what is needed and the manufacturer must make it in order to stay in business. If the bed maker operated like the NHS the managing director would decide on the design and require that everyone should have access to just that one design. It is a recipe for commercial disaster but within the NHS it would be claimed to be a great improvement because there is no "post-code lottery" over which patients get the best beds.

Lord Darzi goes a small way to addressing this problem in his proposal for a pilot scheme by which people with long-term health problems are given control over their own "personal care budget" (another ghastly slogan, but the benefit is in the substance not the slogan). We wait to see just how much control the patient will have but it is a welcome first step towards making the service respond to the needs of the customer rather than the political interests of the governing party.

Much more will be needed before the NHS turns from a pile of spaghetti into an efficient organisation ... from little acorns etc.

Common sense anyone?

An advantage of having no expertise in anything is that one can approach any subject armed with just one's own version of common sense. What is "common sense"? I suggest it is not at all "common" but a very personal thing. It is a combination of our own experiences and the experiences of others who have made a significant impact on our lives and on our beliefs. We store those experiences in our minds and analyse whether a proposition put to us should be accepted by applying the resultant "common sense" - our own, personal, common sense.

Recently there has been debate in Parliament about abortion, should abortion be allowed only where the foetus is 24 weeks old or less (and subject to other conditions, as is the current law) or should be time limit be lower? Opinions ranged from those who are in favour of abortion on demand to those who would not allow abortion at all. Members of Parliament hold such radically differing views because of their personal experiences and beliefs. Those at one extreme say "it is common sense that all abortion is murder, just as if I were to shoot you through the head", the other end of the spectrum says "it is common sense that the world is already overpopulated and anything to reduce population is a good thing". They can never agree yet they are both right because their personal views of common sense support the propositions they put forward. In between those extremes were the vast majority whose minds were open (to a greater or lesser degree) and who would vote according to what they found most influential in the debate. The issue being debated was not one with a scientifically measurable right answer, it was all a matter of opinion.

The position is both the same and different when it comes to an issue which is essentially one of science. The great global warming debate is probably the best example we will ever see of this. At one end stand those who presume mankind to be the most malevolent force the planet has ever known, at the other end stand those who think mankind can do nothing wrong. In between stand those who want to hear and examine both sides of the argument before reaching a conclusion and, of course, the conclusion they reach will be affected by their own personal version of common sense. But, unlike the abortion debate, there is also an objective element to the exercise because any argument which rests on a scientific proposition can be weighed by reference to the available scientific evidence. Of course history shows us that established scientific beliefs can be proved to be complete bunkum (until they are then proved to have been right all along, until they are again proved to be bunkum, until ... etc etc) so "objective" is an overstatement, but at least there is an empirical basis of assessment to add to our common sense.

The global warming debate would be just an amusing side-show if it were not for the predictions of plague and pestilence. Whether there is warming and whether man causes it or contributes to it in a significant way are neither here nor there unless there is a benefit to be achieved by preventing warming. The dire prognostications are essential for the topic to be worth examining at all by a layman.

I make no apologies for approaching the great global warming debate with a deeply sceptical mind. My scepticism is based on something I consider to be a matter of common sense, namely that nothing is worth doing if it does more harm than good. In order to assess whether more harm than good will result I have to decide how I value the position as it is now, then I have to decide how I value the position as it will be once the change has been made. My starting point is the belief that the development of the things that make life comfortable and which are now under attack was a great human achievement. For example, electricity is produced by CO2 emitting power stations to keep houses warm all year and fuels are produced from oil so that we can fly around the world and drive a car to visit friends and family when we want. These are things which were almost unimaginable a hundred years ago. So I start my examination by giving a high value to the comforts of life as it is lived today. This necessarily means that I require very cogent evidence in order to be persuaded that the clock should be turned back and these great comforts abandoned or ameliorated.

It is not, I think, unreasonable to assume that many others approach this issue as I do and that others have changed their position as I have changed mine. The simplicity of the greenhouse-effect theory is something which allows it to be readily understood and my initial reaction was that it is entirely plausible. But then I heard Saint Al of Gore say that the debate is over and the science is settled. Whatever area of science it addresses, such a statement is not only implausible it is patent nonsense. My version of common sense tells me that science is never settled on any issue ever, not once, not now, not in the past, not in the future, never at all, no, no, no. My version of common sense also tells me that conspiracy theories are to be treated like a fresh dog turd, they must be avoided if you wear nice shoes and left to dry in the sun until someone with a shovel consigns them to the dustbin. So conspiracy was out as an explanation for Saint Al's absurd statement, what then caused him to say it? My initial reaction was that he said it in order to stifle both debate and further scientific examination, for fear that he might be proved wrong which, in turn, caused me to enter the debate and look at the science.

As a lawyer by training and long experience I am satisfied that the best way to examine a proposition is to break it down into its constituent elements and examine each one in turn.
If a flaw is found in one element, it is then necessary to see how that flaw affects the other elements and whether the flaw undermines the substance of the proposition.

Saint Al puts forward a simple proposition with seven elements: (i) the earth's temperature is rising, (ii) a rise in CO2 in the atmosphere causes the earth's temperature to rise, (iii) no factor other than rising CO2 can explain the rise in temperature, (iv) human industrial activity causes a rise in CO2 levels in the atmosphere, (v) no other factor causes the rise in CO2 levels, (vi) continued human emission of CO2 will cause continued rises in temperature and (vii) the consequences are dire.

Just a few hours of googling proves beyond doubt that the debate is not over on any of these elements save, possibly, (iv). More than that, the central evidence relied on by Saint Al to support propositions (i), (iii) and (v) is open to such serious dispute that it cannot support his conclusions and the evidence supporting (vii) is in many respects pure speculation (the Stern Report, in particular, is the most absurd example of mashed logic and fanciful inference I have ever had the misfortune to read).

This does not mean his proposition is wrong, but it does mean we should not, in my opinion, adopt measures aimed at alleviating predicted dire consequences until the evidence in favour of the proposition is far more powerful than it is at the moment. I call that common sense.

Sunday, 29 June 2008

The Minister Gives You Permission

Things get rather silly when the government admits that the main plank of a new piece of legislation is completely unnecessary, but it is all the more silly when the legislation in question will apply only in an impossible, or near impossible, situation. Things get worrying as well as silly when the wider effect of such a law is exposed.

The new piece of legislation, which is currently being debated in Parliament, expressly allows employers to choose a new employee (or someone for promotion) in order to give their workforce a more balanced number of women or members of ethnic minorities. One might think this would change the law because it has been the position for decades that an employer is not allowed to discriminate on the grounds of race or gender. As so often with the current government things are not what they seem, Ministerial explanations of the proposed new law have made this abundantly clear. The new law is to apply only where the employer is faced with two or more applicants who are otherwise equally qualified for the job and even then the employer is not obliged to offer the position to the "minority" candidate.

That necessarily means that the number of times it could apply is at most minuscule and more likely nil. When are two people equally qualified for a job? A number of applicants might have the same paper qualifications and, although this is unlikely, identical experience; but everyone is different and personality is always a relevant factor. We have all met people with brilliant paper qualifications who lack even the tiniest smidgen of common sense or charm, equally we have met people with little formal education who have personal skills that make them exceptionally suited to a particular career. The rest of us are in the middle - we are our own personal blend of formal qualifications, experience, charm, ambition, dedication, industry and the hundred other factors that lead to us doing our work the way we do. Unless there are two or more equal candidates the new law simply cannot apply; and that means that it cannot apply except in the most bizarre and unlikely circumstances, circumstances which I suggest will never arise.

What is the position under existing law? That is easy - no applicant may be refused employment because of their gender or race (other forms of discrimination are also outlawed). Where two or more applicants have the same qualifications it is impermissible to choose a man rather than a woman simply because he is male, or a white person rather than a black person simply because of pigmentation. But the courts are not stupid, they recognise semi-hidden discrimination where they see it; for example, where all employees of a company are male and there is evidence that time and again well qualified female applicants are refused work one can infer that discrimination on the ground of gender is taking place. Whether that inference is justified depends on the evidence in each case, but it is not a difficult conclusion to draw where there is no rational explanation for selecting only men.

The new proposal will not expressly require an employer to employ a woman or a person of a minority race, it merely says that it is permissible to take into consideration any lack of "diversity" when deciding between equally well qualified candidates. Not only is it the case that the employer can make that decision under the existing law but the risk of discrimination being inferred from a course of conduct means that such a decision is often sensible in order not to infringe current legislation.

OK, so this proposed new law changes nothing. No harm in that, eh? Sadly I foresee a number of potential harms.

English law presumes that legislation has a purpose and the courts must make that presumption when interpreting Acts of Parliament. Where an Act says "when two applicants for employment are equally well qualified" or words to that effect, the courts must interpret what is means by "equally well qualified". To conclude that it is impossible for two people to be equally well qualified would render the law meaningless, therefore it cannot mean "equally well qualified" in the literal sense, it can only mean "with generally equal experience and qualifications" or some such formula. The Tribunals will be full of claims and if you listen carefully you can hear the arguments being rehearsed already: "my greater experience outweighs his better paper qualifications", "the job requires a minimum of my paper qualifications which no amount of experience could provide", "this is a job requiring charisma and I was the only applicant with charisma" and so on and so forth. Those claims are all well and good but will mean nothing unless the possession of generally greater experience and qualifications gives an entitlement to the job. As far as I am aware that is not the position under current law, yet this new proposal appears to assume that it is the case.

Such a presumption is a joy to a pure meritocracist but, like so many theories, it does not reflect the real world. Try this example. Mr and Mrs Joe Ordinary are well-mannered, law-abiding, hard-working but as thick as shyte. Their children mirror their parents' qualities. Mr and Mrs Joe Ordinary have worked in a local factory for years doing mundane work but doing it honestly and with a smile on their faces. "Mr Manager, our Wayne's out of school this June, have you got anything for him?" and the next year it is Charlene and, two years later, Jason. If vacancies exist it would be a very stupid manager who turns away the young Ordinarys in favour of someone with more GCSEs. Perhaps he will have to do so under the new law.

And what is to happen where there are two candidates of generally equal ability, if the man is chosen rather than the woman is it now to be presumed that discrimination has occurred? The existence of a law giving permission for an employer to choose the woman can readily be interpreted as giving rise to a presumption that he should do so if he employs few women already. This presumption would, again, give meaning to an otherwise meaningless law.

There is, I suggest, a far more worrying aspect to this law which, again, follows from contrasting the new provision with the existing legislation.

The structure of the present law is: "these acts of discrimination are not permitted ..." the prohibited acts are then set out. That structure is based on the general principle applicable throughout the common law countries (England and Wales, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and most former colonies) that we are all permitted to do as we wish unless the law says it is not allowed. This is based on the three-pronged principle that (I) the State is our servant not our master, (ii) the State should step in to control behaviour only when it does significant harm to others and (iii) the State should describe the prohibitions it imposes with clarity so that we know where we stand.

The proposed new law, as described by Ministers, involves the State giving permission for behaviour which is already lawful. At the moment the right to employ someone in order to give gender or racial balance to the workforce is an inherent right of an employer simply by reason of him being an employer. No one has given him that right, he has it because it has not been prohibited. Now the source of that right will be the State. This follows the precedent created by the Human Rights Act under which the State has taken to itself the power to grant us a whole series of "rights" which we previously possessed independently of the State.

In the areas covered by the Human Rights Act the presumption has changed. Where previously everything being allowed unless prohibited by the State, now the State gives us the right to act as we will in the absence of the State imposing a limitation on the right it has already granted. Everything comes from the State - the right to act comes from the State and any limitation on that right comes from the State; previously it was only the latter. This change of emphasis is of huge importance because the more examples there are of the State giving permission to do that which we could previously do anyway, the closer we get to a general ban on doing anything unless expressly authorised by government.

We can expect many more measures like this in the next two years. Mr Brown's hopelessly weak position within his parliamentary party allows other ministers to live out the dreams they formulated when active in student politics thirty or more years ago. It is their once in a lifetime opportunity to put into effect the statist ideals which led them to the Labour Party in the first place. What better example can there be than a law which ministers themselves say changes nothing except for turning an inherent right into a right granted by the State?

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Thou shalt not know thine accuser

What is the presumption of innocence? That's a nice simple question with a nice simple answer - it is the presumption that a defendant in court is entitled to be acquitted unless the prosecution proves his guilt. That is fine as far as it goes, but it does not tell the full story because the presumption of innocence is one of a web of important principles developed over time to ensure the fairness of criminal trials.

The starting point is for the country to decide when, as a matter of general policy, it is right for someone to face a penalty for having behaved in a particular way. The policy we have adopted historically is that a penalty can be imposed if, but only if, three conditions are satisfied. First, the conduct complained of must infringe the law; secondly, the State must prove that the accused committed such conduct and, thirdly, the process by which the State tries to prove its case must be fair.

There have been numerous assaults on all three conditions over the last 11 years and the future under our current government promises even more.

Let us start with the first condition - someone can only be at risk of a penalty if his conduct infringes the law. What could be simpler than that? No one needs to consult a solicitor to know that it is against the law to shoot someone in the head, take a pork pie from a shop without paying, forge a bank note or make threats to extort money. That these and many other acts are crimes is something we learn with our mother's milk, but how are we meant to know about the thousands of new offences created by Ministerial implementation of obscure powers contained in the bowels of even more obscure Statutory Instruments? Sometimes it is practically impossible even for lawyers with access to complex computer reference libraries to discover that a regulation is to be brought into effect until after the event. "Ignorance of the law is no excuse" has been a necessary principle in ensuring that everyone is subject to the same rules, but if even those with the best research tools cannot find the new law the scope for unfair convictions is increased.

The second condition is that the State must prove that the accused committed the act complained of. It is at this stage that the presumption of innocence is normally mentioned - the case, it is said, must be proved beyond reasonable doubt. A little known but perfectly fair exception arises where the defendant relies on an excuse in the Act of Parliament invoked against him. For example, if an Act says "It shall be an offence to assault the Pope with a cucumber unless you have attended a Ken Dodd show within the preceding 24 hours", the prosecution needs only to prove that the defendant assaulted the Pope with a cucumber. The onus is then on the defendant to establish that he attended a Ken Dodd show at the necessary time. If the burden to disprove the excuse fell on the prosecutor it would be an unfair burden because it would be simple for the defendant to establish the defence but almost impossible for the prosecution to disprove it. In other words a balance is struck for good reason. If the prosecutor cannot show the assault, the exception doesn't come into play.

That is all very well because in that example there is a trial. Sadly, we have become accustomed to all sorts of penalties being imposed without trial and, in particular, to the Penalty Charge Notice.

Let us go back a few years. PC Plodd is walking the beat and sees you pull your handkerchief out of your pocket and accidentally dislodge a toffee wrapper which drops silently to the pavement. PC Plodd says "excuse me sir, would you mind picking up your litter, thank you so much" you turn around, he points out the offending wrapper and smiles, you pick it up, apologise and put it in the bin. He could have said "under section so-and-so of this or that Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act I have reason to suspect you have committed the offence of littering the Queen's highway and will invite the Magistrates Court to issue a summons". But he has more sense than that; he knows not only that it will reduce the chance of you picking up the toffee wrapper but also that it would bring law enforcement into disrepute for him to be heavy handed over something so petty when a quiet word will do the job.

What would happen today? Fortunately many a PC Plodd will do exactly what their predecessor would have done, but all too often it will not be PC Plodd who is on the scene but a Council "Enforcement Officer" with a financial incentive to issue a Penalty Charge Notice, 80 quid thank you, 40 if you pay within seven days. And then there is the real problem, a Penalty Charge Notice can come through the post a week later because the dropping of a toffee paper has been spotted on CCTV and someone says it is you. Even if you were to take the trouble to make an appointment to view the footage you might not be sure it really was you or even where you were at the date and time in question. It is still £80 or £40 if you pay within seven days. You can appeal under threat that an appeal loses you the 50% discount for early payment. You can take it to court but the court can fine you up to £2,000. Some will take their challenge as far as their pockets will stretch, many others would rather be fleeced of £40 than £80 or more so they give in and bear a grudge. No sufficient proof exists to satisfy a court but it is less trouble and less risk to give in than to fight. The vice is in the grudge.

What about the third stage? This is the need for the process of proof to be fair. It does not seem to occur to our government that the judges have been honing the law of evidence in criminal trials for centuries. Shelves in law libraries groan under the weight of rulings by which the judges have detected potential problems and suggested solutions, then abandoned the suggestion if it did not work and replaced it by something else, then developed and improved that new solution; and all with a view to ensuring that the innocent are not convicted. I stress the final phrase of that sentence - it is all about ensuring that the innocent are not convicted. That some guilty men will walk free is an inevitable consequence of a system which is fair to the innocent. It is also inevitable that some truly dangerous rogues will walk free. But that is a price which must be paid if we are to ensure that many more completely innocent people will also walk free. Every inroad made into the protections given by the law of evidence will be to the prejudice of the innocent.

A few days ago the Law Lords ruled against allowing witnesses' identities to be hidden from the defendant. In the leading judgment Lord Bingham said the risk of witnesses not coming forward through fear "is not a new problem ... but it is a serious one. It may very well call for urgent attention by Parliament." Jack Straw interpreted this as an invitation to introduce knee-jerk legislation. I predict it will be worded broadly so that the government appears tough on the bad boys, this will be bad law.

The extract I have cited from Lord Bingham's judgment omits thirteen words which change the whole meaning from an invitation to a warning, the full quotation is: "This is not a new problem (it inspired the procedures of the Inquisition and the Court of Star Chamber), but it is a serious one. It may very well call for urgent attention by Parliament."

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Why is anyone surprised?

Oh dear, he's done it again. Mr Mugabe is restored as the unchallenged leader of Zimbabwe.

He will tell us that the decision of his only opponent to withdraw from the run-off Presidential election is a result of internal pressures within the opposition party which caused them to erupt in a frenzy of internecine violence. He will also tell us that the freedom fighters loyal to his benevolent rule did everything they could to prevent the massacre, but there is only so much that
civilised people can do when the barbarians turn on each other. To ensure there is no repetition Mr Mugabe will inform us that he has, against every instinct in his body, accepted advice that yet further restrictions on political activity must be introduced and the sentences for engaging in such activity must be increased.

It is such a familiar tale. Totalitarian rule has a habit of following the same pattern wherever it exists and whatever the political ideology espoused by the ruling elite. Be it Idi Amin, Dr Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, Nicolae Ceausescu, Ceausescu's great hero Kim Il Sung, Fidel Castro or any of the other totalitarian leaders who have blighted the world in my lifetime exactly the same thing has happened.

The exercise has five stages. The necessary preconditions are that a country must be in a dire mess and that there is general support for the idea that the mess needs to be sorted out.

Stage one is to identify the person who will solve the mess. Usually a charismatic leader will emerge saying all the right things. Those things are always the same. To start with a villain is identified on whom all blame is placed for the mess. That villain might be a previous indiginous political leader, a former colonial power or another country which appears to be a threat. It matters not who or what the villain is, that there is an identified "enemy of the people" is enough. Once the villain has been identified as the source of all ills, our hero needs to identify himself as the source of all cures. This is always done by announcing that he will give power to the people and free them from the yoke of oppression. Cheers all round, prosperity is guaranteed, praise our hero and pass the cheesecake.

Stage two comes when our hero is first in office. The oratory that has carried him there has persuaded the people that the slate has been wiped clean, all nastiness is over and a whole new structure will be put in place. Once our hero is in place he has to face the reality of the mess. He realises he must tell the people that the slate has not been wiped clean because the mess has not disappeared with the vanquishing of the villain. To say such a thing would be to undermine a central plank of the message that got him to power, so he cannot possibly say that. What he must say is that the mess is far worse than even he imagined in his most horrendous nightmares. It is all the villain's fault, but our hero must take radical measures to put things right. For the only time in his political career our hero admits a mistake - "I was mistaken in believing that the villain had left some parts of our great country unsullied by his evilness." The people accept what our hero has said because he is their hope for salvation and they are delighted that their new leader is a humble man who can accept he made a mistake and has the honour to apologise. Again there are cheers all round because prosperity is guaranteed, our hero is praised.

Stage three requires our hero to take wide-ranging powers so that his special wisdom can undo the harm inflicted by the villain. Because our hero is but a humble servant of the people, all such powers involve the return of power to the people "We have today taken the first necessary steps by returning to you the power to run the economy. All banks have been nationalised. No longer are they owned and run by private profiteers, now they are owned and run by you." This time the cheers are deafening, "glory be" says Mr Serf "I control the banks". Stage three includes many more measures to take the control of activities into The State's hands. The people are relieved that, for the first time in their memory, such activities are in safe hands.

Stage four arrives when our hero finds that his ministers are not solving all the country's ills. A crop failure has occurred, this is not what our hero promised but our hero is always right so the Minister for Agriculture must be to blame. A major speech is now made by our hero. This time there is no apology for appointing the wrong man to the job. Our hero appointed the right man on the information available, but that information was faulty because the Minister deceived our hero about his credentials. This is an exceptional event, never before experienced in the new and glorious history of our recently-freed great nation. The Minister has been relieved of his duties and will face prosecution. A condign punishment will be sought. This exercise is repeated ministry-by-ministry. Unrest starts and our hero must re-assert his authority to ensure there is no repetition of such dismal failures. Our hero has been persuaded, against every instinct in his body, that only he has the wisdom and foresight to overcome the problems caused by the duplicitous traitors who lined their pockets with ministerial salaries on the back of our hero's benevolent greatness. All ministries are brought under direct Presidential control because only in that way can the people be assured that they have control.

Stage five is an inevitable consequence of stage four. When further problems arise there is a risk that our hero will be blamed directly by the people. This is not right because he is the saviour of the people, he is the people. The laying of blame at the door of our hero must be prevented. From his point of view there is nothing wrong with this because he is the people, criticism of him is criticism of everyone and it is entirely wrong and trecherous to criticise the fine people of the nation. Political dissent is treason and must be prevented. The more the criticism, the more extreme the means required to stifle it.

And so we have it. Totalitarian rule in a nutshell. Details differ for each totalitarian regime, but the pattern and the result are always the same. Once Stage Five is reached it is never long before our hero is ousted. Mugabe is in that position today. We can hope that the replacement is not another totalitarian nutcase, I'm not holding my breath.

The Radioactive Goat Principle

Fighting serious crime is a difficult job. There might even be times when special powers have to be introduced in order to combat a particularly dangerous threat. The process is quite simple and involves two stages. First, a gap in the present law is identified by which the police and security services are not able to undertake certain investigations in the way that is necessary to protect against a genuine threat to the country. Secondly, a new law is drafted to give the powers that were previously lacking. It is all very simple.

At least, it is all very simple in principle, but practice shows us that a third stage is often involved. It is the stage at which someone puts up a hypothetical situation far removed from the situations the police and security services have identified as relevant. I call it “The Radioactive Goat Principle”. “What if”, some keen back-bencher in a marginal constituency opines on the floor of Parliament, “someone stands in the road outside this House with a radioactive goat? How will these new measures protect Honourable Members from deadly radiation? If it can happen here in Westminster, it can happen at schools, railway stations, airports and shopping centres. And it need not be a goat, it could be any animal or even a human being. We have a unique opportunity to protect this country against a potentially devastating threat. My constituents need to know that they will be protected and I will not rest until the good people of Bogshire North can sleep safely in their beds.” He secures the headlines he wants in the local newspapers by raising a fanciful threat which, if it occurred, would be very serious.

The government wants the Member of Parliament for Bogshire North to retain his seat and makes an amendment to the draft legislation to give a power to seize any animal capable of being irradiated if it encroaches within 200 yards of any building holding or capable of holding more than 20 people. For practical reasons the power is one that can be exercised by local councils as well as the police and security services. The debate continues and it is pointed out that the chance of someone walking the streets with a radioactive goat is slimmer than a supermodel’s spindly legs. The response of the government minister leading the debate is to accept it is a small chance but it is better to have the power for use if the unlikely event occurs, if the event does not occur there is nothing to fear because the power will not be used. The measure is passed into law, including the radioactive goat provision. That there is already ample law to deal with the problem of someone walking a radioactive goat seems to be of no interest to anyone.

A week later Mrs Bloggins is walking her dog by the church, as she has done for thirty years, and is accosted by a local council official who invokes the new law and hauls her and her pet to the local police station. Mrs Bloggins spends six hours in a cell before a geigercounter is brought in from a local school and it is ascertained that neither she nor Ploppy the poodle would be of any use if slotted into the core of a nuclear reactor. The whole exercise achieved nothing positive, although it diminished the country as a whole. It brought the law into disrepute and terrified a lady who was simply taking her dog for a walk. Never again will she feel safe when going about her ordinary business.

Who is to blame, the council official or Parliament? No doubt the council official’s suspicion was groundless, but what he did was entirely within the law. The real problem lies in the passage of an unnecessary law to combat a fanciful threat.

The Chairman of the Local Government Association has issued guidance to local councils about how they should use the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. Under this Act local councils have been spying on people. The law giving them the power to do so was said by government ministers to be a necessary measure against the threat of terrorism - that was the argument that got the Act through Parliament. And what has it been used for? To see whether people live in the catchment area of the school they have chosen for their children, to see how much rubbish people put in their bins and countless other pettifogging matters wholly unconnected to a terrorist threat.

Exactly the reasoning behind the Radioactive Goat Principle has been wheeled-out by the government in support of its proposal to allow people to be detained for 42 days without charge. Both David Milliband and Hilary Benn have used precisely the same argument on Question Time – the situation might arise in which 28 days is not enough, this new law is there just in case. In the same way that my hypothetical “just in case” law to protect against the risk of a radioactive goat caused Mrs Bloggins and Ploppy to suffer, so the 42-day law will cause other innocent people to suffer. To suggest that the new law, if passed, will be used only in cases involving serious acts of terrorism is not borne out by experience.

Fighting serious crime is a difficult job. Introducing new laws should also be a difficult job. Any fool can draft legislation to match the concerns of the latest scaremongerer, but legislation has consequences. Unless the bare minimum is enacted to deal with real and not fanciful threats we will sink deeper into a morass of unnecessary and misused over-regulation.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Weather Forecasts

Yesterday (Saturday) I had to decide whether to spend my Sunday undertaking work to the floor of the kitchen in FatBigot Towers or decamp to Essex to assist my brother-in-law in the construction of a shiny new edifice, to wit, a garden shed.

Research was required in light of the unfortunate amount of weather that has been around in the last few days. The verdict of the experts was clear, there was a consensus, rain would fall. Shed was cancelled and kitchen floor moved to top of to-do list.

Sunday was a gloriously sunny day with nary a cloud to besmirch the blue heavens.

No doubt this unexpected hot spell will be seized upon as evidence of the omniscience of St Al of

Being just a simple fellow I find myself compelled to ask how St Al is able to tell us what the weather will be like for the next thousand years when our local weather forecasters cannot predict 24 hours ahead.

Will tax stop people driving?

In his most recent missive your FatBigot suggested that both recent and impending increases in "green" taxes on motorists are nothing more than a dishonestly disguised tax hike. Today I want to discuss what effect such increases in tax are likely to have on the number of miles driven in the UK. The need to do so has been prompted by a recent intervention by a junior minister of dubious history.

Recent increases in the cost of petrol and diesel have provided the Treasury with a nice windfall. Although the level of fuel duty is a fixed sum per litre, VAT is charged on top at 17.5%. For every penny that the base price of fuel rises, the increase at the pump is 1.175 pence. Similarly, an increase in fuel duty of one penny per litre is actually an increase of 1.175 pence because of the bizarre double-taxation scheme by which VAT is charged not just on the fuel itself but also on the duty.

The government has announced its intention to add 2 pence per litre in fuel duty in October of this year (they originally planned to introduce that increase in April but elections were looming so they chickened-out). The actual increase in tax, of course, will be not 2 pence but 2.35 pence once VAT is added. Many calls have been made for the proposed increase to be abandoned because the government has made a killing from the additional VAT received from increases in the base price of fuel caused by the rise in wholesale oil prices. Such calls were dismissed by that great champion of balance and fairness Joan Ruddock, the erstwhile big cheese at the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Displaying the level of principled behaviour we have come to expect from our present rulers, her continued naive attachment to the aims of CND has not prevented her from collecting a Minister's salary in a government firmly wedded to the retention of nuclear weapons. Her feeble bleat was that the increase in duty must go through because we must not forget the environmental agenda.

Let us test the reasoning behind her comment.

For these purposes we need to make one, and only one, assumption, namely that the driving of motor cars causes damage to the environment. That being our starting point we must ask what difference an increase in duty of 2.35 pence per litre will make to the extent of use of motor cars and, thereby, to the extent of damage to the environment.

In order to examine that issue we need to make no other assumptions, but we do need to bear in mind two simple and obvious points. First, we have to choose how we spend our money and, secondly, we live in the world in which we live not in some fanciful place where modern life has never been experienced. All spending, whether by business or by individuals, is either essential or discretionary. What is essential depends on the means at our disposal; many things that seem essential when one earns £100,000 a year suddenly appear in a different light when we lose our job and find a replacement at a quarter of the salary. But the question I am addressing is all about Mr & Mrs Average – that band of people which constitutes the vast majority of the country and the vast majority of the motorists in the country. Those of sufficient wealth not to be affected at all by the price of petrol are irrelevant, as are those for whom petrol is an irrelevance because they do not have a car.

For Mr & Mrs Average essential spending includes such things as the costs of housing, food, water, clothes and travel. For these purposes essential travel includes that which must be undertaken in order to provide the housing, food, water etc – travel to and from work, to and from shops. It also includes other elements of travel which are necessary for people to live ordinary lives in the real world – visiting friends and relatives, going to the leisure centre, taking children to school and on excursions, going to the GP or dentist, and innumerable other things. Everyone must decide whether those journeys should be undertaken and, if so, by what means.

Over the last couple of years the average price of unleaded petrol at the pump has increased from around 90 pence per litre to more than £1.10. Has that caused a massive decrease in the number of miles driven? This is a vital question because if such a huge increase in fuel costs has not made a significant difference to behaviour it is irrational to think that an additional increase of 2.35 pence will do so. The answer, of course, is that there has been a reduction in the use of motor cars where the cost of driving has become disproportionate to the benefit received, but there are structural and practical reasons why no major change has occurred or will occur in the foreseeable future.

Many journeys cannot be undertaken other than by road. Where there is no train service, no river, no canal and no airstrip it is road or nothing. In such places the carriage of goods, the carriage of people for business purposes and the carriage of people for private purposes must all occur by road or not at all. An increase in fuel costs will not prevent essential journeys being undertaken, but they will increase the costs of business thereby adding to inflationary pressures in the economy as a whole. Undoubtedly certain private journeys will not be undertaken if they become too expensive. Perhaps people will not be popping out to the shops quite as often as before, perhaps they will visit Auntie Dora twice a year rather than three times, perhaps they will share a car to work with a colleague, but these are not going to make any real difference to the total number of miles driven because the shops need to be stocked, and people need to go to the shops for provisions, people need to get to work, children need to get to school, young and old need to get to the doctor or dentist and so on.

Where railways, buses, rivers or canals provide an alternative to the motor vehicle, price and practicalities determine whether people will choose not to drive. We can leave rivers and canals out of account because few carriers exist. The question becomes, will an increase in the cost of driving a car cause significant numbers to turn to the train or bus? Buses are, of course, for people only. Carriage of goods and people by train involve essentially the same considerations – is there a cost benefit to using the train and, if there is, are there any reasons why the car remains preferable despite being more expensive?

These considerations are constantly reviewed by businesses who have a choice of how to convey their goods. If diesel remains so highly priced that the switch to rail appears likely to be of long term benefit to a business one can be confident that the switch will be made. The same can be said of individual travel for business purposes because a sensible business will not want to cover the cost of its staff traveling to meetings by car if the train is cheaper. Recent increases in rail fares have not helped the anti-car lobby in this respect but it can certainly be said that for many businesses the decision between road and rail for their staff will often be a matter purely of cost.

When it comes to our personal lives there is a factor never addressed by the anti-car brigade. It is that ownership and use of a private car is considered by many to be something that enhances their independence. After years of standing at the bus stop in the rain they can walk out of their front door and get into their own means of transport. It might be slower than the bus or train or it might be faster, that is often of little concern to them. They are no longer waiting for someone else to carry them because they have earned the money to buy their own transport, they can enjoy the radio without interruption, sing along without complaint, have a cigarette if they are so inclined, take a detour to have a cup of tea with an old friend or drop off some dry-cleaning, buy something heavy which fits in the boot but which they couldn’t take on the bus or train and the list goes on and on.

Far more important than the mathematical assessment whether the car or train would be faster or cheaper for a particular journey is the fact that they have flexibility and choice – a choice which they have earned. In order for an increase in the cost of motoring to affect a driver’s decision whether or how to travel it is necessary to persuade the driver to give up his little piece of independence. It might or might not be right to label this as vanity, let us be generous to Joan Ruddock and call it that, but however one labels it, it is a factor which must be overcome before a driver will choose an alternative means of transport. For the driver, therefore, there are three considerations: (i) price, (ii) convenience and (iii) vanity. None of them stands alone, all three affect every decision.

Be it a trip to see Auntie Dora with your 3 children, the weekly shop, lending your garden shredder to a friend who lives 10 miles away, carrying yourself and your clubs and trolley to the golf club or a thousand other scenarios from real life, the car is the likely choice once you have a car. Who is going to say “sorry Fred I can’t lend you my shredder it would cost me £3 in petrol, last week it was £2.83 but the increase in fuel duty means it is now too expensive”? It simply is not realistic.

So where is the scope for reduction? It flies in the face of common sense to say that an increase in the price of petrol will have no effect on the number of miles driven, some will take the bus or train for certain journeys where it benefits them to do so. It also flies in the face of common sense to say that people are going to switch to the train or bus in vast numbers unless the cost saving outweighs the aggregate of the inconvenience and loss of vanity caused by abandoning the car.

There is no evidence of the huge increase in fuel prices over the last couple of years causing mass migration from the internal combustion engine. Joan Ruddock’s suggestion that a further increase in duty of 2.35 pence per litre will be good for the environment is laughable.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Chicken Licken and the motorist

The modern day Chicken Licken tells us that the sky is about to fall in and a major cause is nasty people driving motor cars. Why is that a major cause? Because motor cars emit Chicken Licken Gases and the more Chicken Licken Gases there are the quicker the sky will fall in. It's a terrible problem. Something must be done! What are we to do about it? That's obvious. We must prevent people from driving motor cars. One simple law is all that is required. Ban the lot of them. The sky will be saved, Praise Al Gore and pass the gin and tonic.

For some reason that hasn't happened. Why not? Let me think ... oh yes, anyone who did such a thing would never get re-elected. So what have they chosen to do instead? They have increased taxes on motoring. This has been done in two ways, first by simply upping taxes all-round and secondly by adding additional tax to cars which produce the most Chicken Licken Gases.

Let me now say two things which are blindingly obvious. First, increasing taxes on motoring will only reduce Chicken Licken Gases if they reduce the total amount of such gases associated with motor cars. Secondly, increasing taxes on motoring will only reduce Chicken Licken gases if they reduce the overall Chicken Licken Gases associated with travel.

In order to see what gases are associated with motor cars we need to ask what motor cars are. I am no expert, but I believe they are machines comprising assorted metals, plastics and fabrics. There are three stages to their life - they are manufactured, then they are used, then they are scrapped. At each stage Chicken Licken Gases are produced.

Lots and lots of Chicken Licken Gases result from manufacture. I claim no direct knowledge but have read that more are produced during manufacture of a motor car than during the average lifetime of its use. Even if only half as many Chicken Licken Gases are producing during manufacture as during an average lifetime's use, it's still an awful lot in a manufacturing process of a week or so compared to what is then produced over 12 or 20 years of driving. Nor do I claim direct knowledge of what is involved in scrapping a motor car but presumably it is necessary to separate the metals from the plastics and fabrics and melt-down the metals for re-use elsewhere. A good few miles of travel would be required to produce the same emissions as the melting process.

So, we have three stages to the life of these machines, two of which are industrial processes producing significant amounts of Chicken Licken Gases compared to the daily amount emitted by actually using the thing. In order to keep to a minimum the overall level of Chicken Licken Gases resulting from the existence of a motor car it is, therefore, necessary to keep each one on the road for as long as possible, thereby delaying both the scrapping process and the need to manufacture a replacement. On an incidental but related theme, the scrapping process involves other "green" problems such as the disposal of non-recyclable plastics and fabrics, but that is a different issue.

Any taxation policy which encourages people to dispose of large cars and replace them with smaller models will actually increase the overall level of Chicken Licken Gases unless the disposed-of larger cars are then acquired and used by someone else and this can only happen if there is a market for such vehicles. The very factor which encourages the original owner to dispose of it (increased running costs) will inevitably reduce the field of potential purchasers. It is a simple fact of life that those who can only afford a small initial investment on a car also require the car to be cheap to run. Equally, someone who can afford to run a car at an annual cost of many thousands of pounds is unlikely to want to buy an old vehicle - if he can afford that much to run it, he can afford a new(er) car. There comes a point when increased running costs make certain vehicles unsaleable to the British driving public. At that point they have to be scrapped or sold overseas to be used in a country where they can be afforded. If a car is scrapped and a replacement bought, more emissions are produced than if the old car was used because the new car has to be manufactured; if sent to India or Africa (and there are many thousands of such each year) it will produce just as much Chicken Licken Gas in its new home as it would if used in the UK but there are further emissions resulting from shipping the thing half way across the world. In other words, taxing large cars off the road to be replaced by smaller ones will increase emissions until the date on which the last of the large vehicles would have ended its useful life and been scrapped.

Next we have to ask whether stopping people driving motor cars will ease Chicken Licken's worries - this is where the second blindingly obvious point made above comes into play.

People have to travel. They have to get to work. They have to get to the shops. They have to visit family and friends. These are not optional activities they are at the heart of their lives.
Can they switch to public transport? In some places they can, but what of those in rural areas where public transport is not readily available? No doubt the bicycle and horse have a part of play (though beware the Chicken Licken methane produced by a flatulent horse), but these are not replacements for the motor car for all purposes. Many simply have to drive if they are to continue earning their living and living their lives.

Even a switch to public transport where it is available will only go so far to placate Chicken Licken. Buses and trains do not just appear by magic, they have to be manufactured and, eventually, scrapped. Switching to public transport does not eliminate CO2 emissions it merely saves the difference between (i) the total Chicken Licken Gases created by the manufacture, use and scrapping of the abandoned motor vehicles and (ii) the total Chicken Licken Gases created by the manufacture, use and scrapping of the trains and buses now used by the former motorists.

So how many people have to be taken out of cars and put in buses and trains for the total Chicken Licken Gases to be reduced? No one knows for certain because there are too many imponderables, but we can get some idea from figures that are generally available.

UK government figures (produced by DEFRA) provide some useful information. Differing estimates (some higher and some lower) come from other sources but since DEFRA is a Department of the UK government and it is the government that imposes the taxes I will use their figures.

DEFRA estimates the average CO2 emission per passenger mile of bus travel is 140g. This is based on fuel consumption alone, it excludes manufacture and scrapping of the buses, also excluded are other factors which affect the total emissions of public transport compared to average domestic use of a motor car - such as running their offices, manufacturing and installing bus stops and shelters and cleaning (I can speak only for myself but my car is not subjected to daily cleaning unlike London buses).

For train travel the DEFRA figure is 100g per passenger mile. As far as I can tell it is based on fuel consumption and manufacture of both trains and tracks. It excludes emissions caused by building and maintaining stations and the railway operators' offices.

DEFRA estimates 430g of CO2 emissions per mile for a medium sized motor car (as far as I can tell this assumes single occupancy and includes manufacture but excludes servicing, cleaning and scrapping).

Fuel consumption, and therefore CO2 emissions, of all these means of transport will increase as the number of occupants increases but the average emissions per passenger mile will decline. In addition, increased passenger numbers will require the manufacture of more buses and trains because many are already full at busy times, this might also require the building of new bus garages and train depots but one can only speculate about how many would be required or what quantity of Chicken Licken Gases would result.

A further relevant factor is the extent to which a particular journey by public transport includes wasted miles. For example, if I want to go from FatBigot Towers to St Paul's Cathedral I can drive straight there (about three miles due south) but the most direct bus covers about an additional mile and the quickest train route takes me west, then southwest, then east for approximately six miles in total. Assuming four people make the journey the DEFRA figures give a total of 2,240g of CO2 by bus, 2,400g by train and 1,720g by car. So I'm in credit for that journey. If I take one rather than three passengers it is 1,120 by bus, 1,200 by train and 1,720 by car; I am suddenly a sinner, but perhaps not when one adds-in the items associated with bus and train travel which do not go into the DEFRA figures. In addition, most train journeys require the passenger to get to and from the station at each end, each mile of bus journey at each end adds 140g to the equation. There are, of course, many journeys for which trains or buses are able to take more direct routes than private motorists but that is not generally the case so one must factor-in the wasted miles involved in using public transport.

One cannot draw precise inferences from DEFRA's figures about how many drivers would have to take public transport to make any significant impact on overall emissions. What can be said is that car journeys involving 3 or more people would appear to give Chicken Licken no more cause for alarm than similar journeys undertaken by bus or train and even trips by single motorists are not as troublesome as our gallinaceous friend might fear because the alternative means of transport carry us on a more circuitous route.

So, where does this leave "green" motoring taxes? To suggest that they will make more than a gnat's fart of a difference to world CO2 emissions is to fly in the face of reality. Are they really intended to stop people driving? We can usually judge as much about any political policy by what is not said as by what is said. A policy to increase tax on motorists with a view to getting cars off the road inevitably involves a second step, a Plan B. Once those cars are off the road the tax will no longer be received by the Treasury, so we must ask about Plan B - where will the lost tax come from once the cars are dead?

Of course Plan B has not been announced.

There is no Plan B.

There never has been.

They don't want us to stop driving, they just want to wrap a massive tax hike in bogus eco-friendly clothing.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Well done Ireland

Friday's result of the Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty brings warmth to the very soul of TheFatBigot.

I start from a simple premise, namely, that self-determination is the bedrock of a stable society.
Self-determination means: (i) the people being able to choose those who govern them, (ii) the people being able to change the government without recourse to the use of force and (iii) the government being able to change laws with a view to improving the lot of the people. Without (i) you can't have (ii), without (ii) (i) can only happen once, without (iii) both (i) and (ii) would be a complete waste of time and a failure of the changes made under point (iii) results in both (ii) and (i).

Self-determination breeds stability, encourages civilised discourse and provides an incentive for government to act in the interests of the people. In the United Kingdom we have a long and proud record of stability based, in no small measure, on the knowledge that even the most incompetent and stale government can be removed by popular vote after a short period of time. But changing the government is a futile exercise if the government itself is denuded of power.

Therein lies the problem I have with the so-called "European Project". I cannot state with unerring accuracy what the European Project is because those in charge of it never tell us of their "big picture". But I can say what the European Project has done to date and from that draw my own conclusion as to what the big picture must be. In doing so I adopt a simple but compelling principle, namely that you can tell what someone intends by looking at what he does. If someone holds a loaded shotgun to another's head and pulls the trigger I will conclude that he intended to cause that person's death. Death is the most likely consequence of the action and in the absence of a compelling alternative explanation it must be concluded that the intention behind the action was to kill.

It seems to be the case that some 80% of new laws introduced in the UK are the result of binding EU requirements. Every year there seem to be more and more EU Directives which must be made law in the UK because our obligation under existing treaties is to introduce them. They might be beneficial, they might be detrimental, they might be neutral, but we have no choice but to introduce them. Our government and Parliament are powerless to stop them. Self-determination has been curtailed to a huge degree.

As I understand it, ratification of the Lisbon Treaty would lead to yet further areas of decision-making being passed from Westminster to Brussels and Strasbourg. It is a prospect I find unacceptable.

Debate on this issue often gets side-lined into two irrelevant but highly emotive backwaters.

First, complaints are made about corruption and a snouts-in-the-trough culture which appear to prevail in the EU institutions. It is asserted that we should not be involved in something so corrupt. Reprehensible though such matters are they are symptom of the problem not the cause. Because the EU is answerable to no one it is perhaps inevitable that bad practices will arise and may become entrenched, but the problem comes from the lack of accountability. The absence of the essential elements of self-determination is the problem not the corruption itself.

Secondly, examples are given of beneficial laws which have been been made by the EU and it is argued that we would miss out on such provisions if the EU did not have prescriptive powers. That is a herring of the brightest scarlet. There is no reason at all why there should not be inter-governmental discussions on all sorts of areas of policy with a view to ideas being shared. Something which appears to a national government to be beneficial to its country can then be adopted and time will tell whether it is in fact a sound policy. The same policy might do great damage elsewhere because circumstances are different. The requirement for uniformity might result in that policy being adopted everywhere, in which case the second country would suffer, or rejected everywhere in which case the first country would miss out on a good opportunity for improvement. It is a lose-lose situation. Far better that ideas are discussed and each country chooses what it adopts and what it rejects.

But I want to concentrate on the central question, that of the EU's big picture because I fear that it is the abolition of self-determination for all 27 countries within its realm. This might seem like scare-mongering overstatement, but I would suggest that it is the inevitable consequence of taking more and more powers from national governments and giving them to the central EU bodies. If you prevent national governments from being able to make a radical change of course by leaving them with just a rump of residual powers you remove from the people the power to choose a change of course for their country.

Margaret Thatcher changed the course of the UK but could do so only because sufficient Conservative MPs were elected by the people of the country to form a Parliamentary majority. Some think her change of course was a good thing, some are indifferent, some think it was detrimental but all recognise it was legitimate because it was the result of a free election, a result of the right of self-determination. Had it been imposed from outside without a vote it would have had no legitimacy and the stability of the country would have been threatened.

Whether there will come a time when the EU's big picture will take all significant powers from national governments remains to be seen, but we would be a step closer if the Lisbon Treaty were adopted and a step further away from being able to reverse the change.

Those on the right see the European Project as a Marxist plot, those on the left see it as entrenching capitalism. Both see it as something which dilutes or removes the power of people to choose their own government and breaks the crucial bond between government and the people which is at the heart of self-determination.

Will we ever see EU Commissioners being forced into a corner by Jeremy Paxman, made to squirm by a Question Time audience or having to stand up and justify their decisions in a Parliamentary debate as our senior ministers are? I do not know, but I doubt it, and even if they were would such an experience affect their position? Would it put their career at risk? Would it make them have to think again and possibly make a u-turn in the face of overwhelmingly hostile public opinion? As things stand at the moment there would be no adverse consequences for them at all, they could just carry on regardless.

We abandon self-determination at our peril.

Monday, 16 June 2008

We must stop this evil

This evening Turkey played another country at Association Football and won 3-2, having been 2-0 down with just a few minutes to go. They have qualified to go through to the next round of the European Nations Cup, or some such tournament. It really was a splendid game and TheFatBigot is delighted that the native country of many of his neighbours was successful.

But oh dear, this is a big big oh dear ...

Why do they have to drive around honking their car horns until after midnight?

The road outside FatBigot Towers was blocked by cars whose drivers, even after parking so that they could join their friends in celebration, remained seated and honking. Buses disgorged their occupants in south Islington for fear of unpleasantness and passed by at less than walking pace. The crowd outside the pizza shop was enormous, thus impeding some of the most vital traffic in London - the delivery chaps on their mopeds who scuttle hither and yon supplying high-cholesterol sustenance to those in need of clogged arteries.

Here in FatBigot Towers there is a desire to open the living room window on warm evenings to allow fresh London air to mix with the ciggy smoke, but the noise became so bad I couldn't hear the golf commentary on the telly. It really was too much.

And it's not just the Turks, on the rare occasions Arsenal win something it's even worse. Not worse in terms of numbers of cars. Not worse in terms of volume of car horns honking. But much worse in that Arsenal supporters in motor cars seem to take four-sevenths of their team's name too literally and expose their largest muscles through every available car window.

What a hopeless shower

Have we ever before been a government so anonymous and devoid of character?

There was a time, not so long ago, when the cabinet comprised people of weight and substance who were known to the public. Every political party comprises various factions with differing views of policy and a convention grew up of including in cabinet senior members of the government party who had actually done something in their lives. It was all based on the quaint notion that debate between able people with significant experiences is likely to produce sound and consistent policy. That does not mean it will result in policies that work, but it was thought to be a better system than having decisions that affect the whole country being taken by just a few chums who all think essentially the same thing on every issue.

James Callaghan’s cabinet always comprised senior figures from the unalloyed Trotskyite wing of the Labour Party as well as those, like him, whose experience had tempered youthful naivety. They all had in common a desire to maintain the United Kingdom as a bastion of Marxist social and economic policy and the cabinet system of policy-making allowed that shared belief to be put into practice. But such people as Denis Healey, Shirley Williams, Anthony Wedgwood-Benn and David Owen were known to all and able to speak out on issues concerning their departmental responsibilities without having to ask for a script from 10 Downing Street.

When the post-War Marxist experiment had run its course and the Conservative Party was returned to power in 1979 policy continued to be made collectively in cabinet. Margaret Thatcher’s first cabinet included William Whitelaw, Francis Pym, James Prior and Michael Heseltine, all of whom differed radically from her on many issues of policy, as well as Keith Joseph, Sir Geoffrey Howe, Lord Hailsham and others with records of substantial success in the world outside Westminster. Like her, many had been senior members of Edward Heath’s government and, as such, had been party to the continuation of the central Socialist philosophy of the post-war consensus, but they were figures of substance and experience who were able to hone policy by discussion from a position of genuine knowledge; and whose faces and names were known to the public.

Even as Mrs Thatcher ventured into more esoteric territory in her third government, she continued to include in her cabinet people of great substance with public profiles such as Douglas Hurd, Tom King, Kenneth Clarke, Nigel Lawson and Nicholas Ridley. The same was true of John Major’s governments in which Kenneth Clarke, Michael Heseltine, Douglas Hurd, Tony Newton, William Hague, Peter Lilley, Michael Howard and others were figures people knew and could identify as senior members of government.

Who do we have now? I doubt that most members of the public could name more than three or four cabinet members. That is hardly surprising because none of them seems to have any real departmental responsibility any more and every public appearance is a trial by ordeal – we can almost hear them asking “what was the answer Gordon gave me for that question?” We have a cabinet of anonymous Blair-Brown clones with no experience of business, little experience of the law (other than by passing innumerable new laws which even they do not understand), hardly any of them has ever employed someone (other than friends or relatives through their Parliamentary expenses allowance), none of them has created a real job for anyone and none of them is allowed to speak his or her mind in public (apart from Harriet Harman who speaks what little there is of her mind and comes a cropper every time).

Just look at who we have been given in the three great Offices of State.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer is Alastair Darling. He was a solicitor for five years then a barrister for three before entering Parliament. I have no reason to doubt that he was a thoroughly competent practitioner in both branches of the legal profession, but he was not in either field long enough to achieve any distinction. Appointed, at least in part, because he had succeeded in keeping his foot out of his mouth in early ministerial positions he has lurched from crisis to crisis at the Exchequer and appears to be nothing more than Gordon Brown’s glove puppet. His flapping at the Dispatch Box when announcing Gordon’s half-baked non-solution to the 10p tax rate debacle was quite sickening.

As Home Secretary we have Jacqui Smith. Words fail me. She did, I readily concede, enjoy a degree of success in her eleven years as a teacher before entering Parliament, attaining the position of Head of Economics at a comprehensive school (and no, I do not say that disparagingly). No experience of the law, one year in the cabinet as Chief Whip, no experience heading a government department, no public profile and then she becomes Home Secretary. One might expect such promotion for an outstanding theorist with a record of innovative or inspirational thinking, but she is not, she is a party functionary.

The Foreign Secretary, David Milliband, is a different kettle of fish. It cannot be said that he does not have ideas. He was, after all, Tony Blair’s chief policy adviser (or some such title) from 1994 until 2001 and can, therefore, claim partial responsibility for turning the United Kingdom into a bankrupt country in which the state spies on its people more than even the Stasi managed in East Germany. But does he have any real substance? A succession of pitiful media performances was topped by a truly breathtaking display of smug incompetence on Question Time a week or two ago. One must not be too nasty to Mr Milliband because he succeeded the most appalling and inappropriate appointment to the position of Foreign Secretary in history, Margaret Beckett.

Can anything better be said of the rest of the cabinet? Not by me. I can think of only one senior member of the government who has achieved distinction in a field outside politics and that is the Attorney General, Baroness Scotland. She was one of the youngest people (and the first Black woman) to be made a QC and was hugely successful as a barrister.

The anonymity of the rest of them is truly scary.