Sunday, 27 July 2008

Who is responsible for teaching children?

I start from what I believe is an indisputable principle, namely that parents are responsible (in the causative sense) for creating children and, therefore, they are responsible (in the legal and social sense) for bringing-up those children.

We all know that some parents are simply not up to the task of rearing children and that others encounter difficulties they do not have the capacity to overcome without help. Society must make a choice between upholding the sanctity of parental responsibility and intervening, by compulsion if necessary, to try to cure or alleviate problems. In past generations it was the grandparents, aunts and uncles, or village elders who would step in to fill the void and such interventions still happen very often. Where there is no other option the organs of the State have residual powers including, in extreme cases, forced removal of children and their placing for adoption. The role of the State should always, in my opinion, be one of last resort. That does not mean there is no place for experienced nurses or social workers to give advice to an expectant mother where the signs are that she might not be able to cope when the baby arrives, but it does mean that compulsory intervention should be limited to situations in which there is both a real problem and a real chance that the State can make things better.

It is noticeable, however, that the growth of State services over the last 50 years has led to many believing that the State is primarily responsible for certain aspects of rearing children. I believe this to be a fundamental misconception, a misconception seen most vividly in the field of education. If you were to ask 100 people in the street who is responsible for educating children I guess a majority would say the State. This is not so, parents are responsible for educating their children just as they are for housing, feeding and clothing them.

The State's proper involvement in education is two-fold. First, in its capacity as the mechanism through which we seek to maintain certain standards, the State has a role in laying-down a minimum standard for education. In this role its position is the same as in law enforcement, we have certain collective standards which the law upholds (not to kill, not to steal, not to assault and so on) and the State enforces these standards by prosecuting and punishing offenders. Giving children a basic education is another standard which we adopt collectively because accumulated wisdom tells us it is beneficial for all. The only collective mechanism through which we can enforce that standard is the State, so the State must have the power to step in where children are not being educated to a proper standard.

The second role of the State is to provide schooling but in this respect the proper role of the State is limited. Where parents can provide education at home (either themselves or by the use of tutors) there can be no objection to them doing so provided the standard of that education does not fall below the national minimum standard. Similarly, where parents pay for their children to attend privately run schools the State's only role is as enforcer of a national minimum standard. It must be accepted that the vast majority of parents cannot afford private education for their children and do not have the means or the time to educate their children at home, so we all pay taxes and we delegate to the State the role of providing formal education. It must always be borne in mind, however, that the State is simply acting as delegate, it does not provide schools because it has an innate duty to do so, it provides them because we pay an element of our taxes in order to pay for that service. The mere fact that the State provides the vast majority of school in the UK does not give it primary responsibility for education, that duty rests first last and always on parents.

To suggest, as is done regularly by dinosaurs of the political left, that parents should not be allowed to pay for their children's education or to teach their children at home it to say that the State bears primary responsibility for children. This relegates parents to the role of servants of the State. Government is always at its best when it is reminded constantly, and with penalties for recalcitrance, that it is the servant of the people.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Max Mosley's Magic Member

Let me make one thing clear. What Max Mosley does with his willy is absolutely none of my business. A newspaper thought it was their business and decided to tell its readers what he did with it. This week a High Court Judge ruled that Mr Mosley's willy is not a matter of legitimate public interest. With any luck the ruling will make editors reflect on what is and what is not other people's business

The newspapers have been exposing matters of the trouser for many years but it is only relatively recently that they have done so in respect of people whose private affairs do not impact on their work or their livelihood. Two categories have been considered fair game for a long time, actors and politicians. Even with these people hypocrisy used to be a necessary precondition to their adventures being exposed to general gaze. That made a lot of sense.

An actor whose public profile and, therefore, earning potential involves a squeaky clean family-man image can hardly complain when the lie is made public. The newspapers serve a legitimate public interest in exposing the man's image as bogus, in this there is no difference between reporting his adultery and reporting the use of illegal drugs. Someone who promotes his career by saying "look at me I'm a really good chap" invites attention to his habits so that the paying audience can decide whether their inclination to see his work and put money in his pocket is affected by the truth coming out.

Very much the same analysis applies to the exposure of philandering politicians although there is sometimes a further factor. In addition to claiming "vote for me, I'm a really nice family man" some of the more stupid politicians have been unwise enough to point at an opponent and say "don't vote for him, he's an adulterer". The bases on which someone could be persuaded not to vote for an adulterer are that he is a hypocrite and that engaging in adultery makes him unfit for political office. The first basis is sound both logically and ethically because it gives rise to legitimate concern about the honesty of the candidate. The second basis is one I have never been able to understand.

Some very able politicians have been serial adulterers and some have been chronic alcoholics; what matters is whether those activities have affected their abilities adversely. Similarly some hopeless politicians, promoted way above their ability, have been teetotal and faithful. Nonetheless, there has been thought to be political mileage in suggesting a connection between bedroom habits and fitness for office. The ludicrous John Prescott was a master of this art, scoffing and flapping his blubbery jowls at the likes of David Mellor and Tim Yeo when the Conservatives were last in power. "Unfit for office" was one of his catch phrases and was the hook on which he hung his garbled calls for resignations.

It goes without saying that a moronic hypocrite like Mr Prescott did not consider his own adultery to undermine his fitness for office. In one respect he was correct because he was never fit for office in the first place but, more importantly, his blatant double-standards made him a laughing stock among the very few who did not already consider him as such. To my mind his affair with his diary secretary was relevant only in that it exposed him as a hypocrite. A useful contrast can be made with the late Alan Clark who had the good sense to promote himself as clever rather than nice and whose exposure as a class-one shit caused hardly a ripple.

With any luck the legacy of Max Mosley's Magic Member will be a realisation that adultery is a private matter unless it involves not just hypocrisy but relevant hypocrisy. Adulterous hypocrisy is relevant only where the adulterer promotes his fidelity in the furtherance of his career. Beyond that there is no public interest in any real sense of the term.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

The Purple Plague and the art of hypocrisy

There are few things more likely to raise both a laugh and a sigh of dismay in FatBigot Towers than a pious pronouncement from the upper echelons of the Church of England.

To be fair to the befrocked buffoons they have been admirably consistent in their inconsistency since the day the Church was formed.There is nothing surprising about this because the whole organisation is a bit of a nonsense. It was invented by the tyrannical Henry the Eighth when the then pope would not let him divorce his first wife (Henry's wife that is, not the pope's, wives of popes are a whole different ball park of hypocrisy). For more than 400 years it has claimed to be part of the Church of Rome despite the Catholics, who might be thought the correct people to judge such a claim, not accepting it for one second. Since the time it began the Church has accumulated vast wealth in both land and other property whilst claiming to serve a god rather than itself. That is not a very auspicious background for any organisation, for an organisation which lectures us on what to do with our money it is the worst possible start.

Today we witnessed an almost comic spectacle, the leaders of the Church of England marched in central London to complain about the West not doing enough to eliminate world poverty. The protest revolved around a declaration made in 2000 by the United Nations to half extreme poverty by the year 2015. In reality this is all about Africa. The call from the Bishops today was for the West to spend more money. That was it. Like Gordon Brown, throwing money at a problem is all they have to suggest. I suggest they turn their attention elsewhere. Let me explain where and why.

There are three problems. The first is corruption. Corruption if rife at all levels of officialdom in many African countries. At the lower levels it is no different from much of eastern Europe where those given a little power use it to secure "commissions" in order for the wheels of administration to flow smoothly. Lots of little commissions add up to a lot of cash but, to be frank, little can be done about it. Perhaps more serious is corruption at the highest levels of government. Senior ministers cream-off enormous sums to overseas bank accounts to provide for themselves and their families for the future. Some of this type of corruption is overt through the creation of sumptuous estates for the senior ministers to live in while in office. They defend it by saying it is good for the standing of the country that its leaders can receive foreign dignitaries in style. The standing of the country is enhanced by the leaders living in fine palaces, rather like the Archbishops in the Church of England.

The second problem is the level of population growth. A village with a certain amount of land it can farm is limited by what can be done with the land. The quality of soil and atmospheric conditions in much of Africa are not conducive to efficient agriculture or animal husbandry, if the starving people are to be fed from their own land the productivity of that land must be improved. Much has been achieved in this respect through irrigation projects, the use of fertilisers and new crops which get the best out of the poor soil. Such projects must continue but there is no need for the Bishops to get excited about this because those projects are continuing and their continuation will provide benefits for generations to come. But poor conditions for growing food are still poor conditions for growing food, doubling a very poor crop leaves you with a poor crop. Unless the demands on the land are under control even a doubling of production does little to alleviate the problem. It is for this reason that population control is vital and population control can only be addressed by a change of culture in the country concerned, the idea that it can be imposed by the West is simply absurd.

The third problem is that many African countries are engaged in expensive military actions (both wars between nations and civil wars). These absorb vast sums of money which could otherwise be used to pay for the projects currently funded by western aid. The Bishops suggest meekly that thought might be given to eliminating this aspect of spending but they do not demand it. They only demand things from the West. If the Church wishes to be taken seriously it must take a stand on this issue.

In order for the Church of England to take a truly moral stance it should call for aid to be dependent on proof that corruption is limited, population is limited and military action is limited. Let them choose their own limits by all means, but do not let them call on the ordinary taxpayers of this country to fork out more while their organisation holds billions of pounds of assets and not a single vicarage will be sacrificed in today's cause.

These people really are the Purple Plague.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

A wise old saying

There is an old saying in the law: as the allegation is more serious so should the proof be more clear. I am not going to turn this musing into a paper on burdens and standards of proof, but I do want to look at that saying and see what it means in practice.

There are two different principles at work here. One is that the more unusual the activity complained of the less likely people are to believe that it occurred. For example a witness who says "I was standing at the bus stop outside my house at 8am waiting for the bus to take me to work" is describing something very ordinary and everyday, it takes no leap of faith to accept that he is telling the truth. Were he to say "I was standing on my head on top of the bus shelter waiting for a big pink fairy to carry me to work" even the kindest soul is likely to have some difficulty accepting it as true. It is probably right to say that the commission of a very serious criminal offence is something which does not happen as often as the commission of minor offences. To take an obvious example, there are fewer murders in London each year than there are examples of littering the pavement. An accusation of murder necessarily requires the prosecution to persuade the jury that something very unusual happened and that, of itself, makes the jury less likely to convict the Defendant without clear evidence.

The other principle is that where the penalty for a particular offence is a serious penalty it is fair to expect the offence to be proved very clearly. Not only is murder a rare occurrence, it also carries a mandatory life sentence. It is hardly surprising that juries often take a long time to deliberate in murder cases even where the evidence is very strong indeed, they know the consequences of a guilty verdict and will not cut any corners.

These thought-processes merely reflect standards that have developed over time in our society. We have a well-developed sense of fairness, we know what is serious and what is trivial, we know that it is fair to give serious matters more mature consideration than trivial matters. Perhaps it is better expressed as a negative: we know it would be unfair to convict someone of murder unless the evidence is very clear indeed. Many murders are just ordinary assaults with highly unfortunate results but that does not prevent the jury from requiring overwhelming proof of the assault where the victim died and less powerful proof where exactly the same type of blow merely left the victim bruised.

This reasoning is now coming to the fore in the great global warming debate. When the hoo-hah started some years ago only a small number of people felt a need to examine the theory in any detail because the only threatened consequence was that the planet would get a bit warmer. How nice, we all thought, a longer cricket season, less ice on the roads in winter, lower heating bills, let's have a bit more of it if it's not too much trouble, thank you.

Then the predictions turned to plague, famine and pestilence. That's a rather different scenario. We don't like plague, famine and pestilence, we must stamp out this evil. There was still relatively little interest in the science behind the arguments because there was no price to pay except to cut down a bit on coal and petrol. That's not a problem, I will drive at 60mph rather than 70 in order to prevent starvation in Africa. All that was required was equivalent to not dropping litter, it was no great inconvenience and a lot of good would result.

Over the last three or four years things have changed dramatically. All of a sudden we were told we must stop driving, stop flying, stop this, stop that and we looked at how those changes would affect our lives. Those who hanker for life in a cave with nothing but a small cabbage patch for food and hand chewed raffia clothing could not be happier, their dream is coming to pass. The rest of us face calls for such dramatic changes to our comforts that we ask whether it really is necessary. Suddenly we are threatened with the equivalent of the mandatory life sentence and, not surprisingly, we ask whether the case for such a serious penalty is proved with sufficient clarity. The accepted, perhaps even orthodox, position of the alarmists was accepted without debate when it did not threaten us, then we became a jury.

The task of a scientist when he appears before a jury is to explain the science in handy bite-sized chunks so that it can be understood by those who need to understand it in order to reach a decision. If he is exposed as an obsessive the jury might well be reluctant to accept what he says without supporting evidence. In the global warming debate we find obsessive scientists on both sides, we are bombarded with hyperbole and worst case scenarios. What we want to know, sitting in our jury box, is whether the case of the alarmists is proved. Do they have sufficient evidence to justify the life sentence with which we are now threatened?

I wonder whether, when making their doomsday predictions, they realised they were making their task of persuading us about the science harder rather than easier.

Let's Be Nice About Global Warming

The more I read about global warming / global cooling / climate change the more I see personal attacks being made on those who offer opinions and analyses. To my mind this is a very strange way to conduct a debate on something so important because personal attacks tend to detract from calm investigation of the facts. Can they have any legitimate part to play in the debate?

My approach to such a question is guided by what I know. I am a lawyer with a good few years under my belt so I look at how we conduct cases in court and, in particular, on the part personal attacks play in the effective presentation of an argument.

The facts are king in almost all cases. He who wins on the facts usually wins the case. Examination of facts is not, however, an entirely unemotive exercise. It can be observed that there are two ways to attack a witness. You can attack the story he tells and you can attack him. In other words you can say "do not believe what he says" or "do not believe him", on some occasions you have the opportunity to say both.

In order to succeed with the "do not believe what he says" argument it is necessary to attack the substance of what the witness has said. You try to expose factual errors by reference to other, known, facts. Where what the witness has said is not credible because it is inconsistent with established facts, the result is that the witness's evidence will be rejected. This does not, however, mean that the witness himself is being deceitful. Far more often than one might think, a witness is absolutely convinced that what he says is true when in fact it is false. That might be because he has deceived himself, or he saw only part of the picture, or he took something out of context. You risk doing more harm than good if you attack him and try to expose him as a liar and a cheat because he is neither of those things, he is just someone who is mistaken and examination of the facts proves that to be the case.

The "do not believe him" approach necessarily requires the witness to be attacked personally. What he says might not be open to challenge in any other way. For example, if only the witness and the Defendant were present and the witness claims the Defendant said or did something against the law there will often by no independent means of assessing the truth of his evidence. Exposing him as someone with a criminal record for dishonesty might be the only weapon in your armory, in which case you have no choice but use it and attack the man. It also works in more subtle ways, perhaps by showing the witness to be short-tempered or to overstate his case; you have ammunition to undermine the witness himself and, thereby, to undermine his evidence.

Attacking the witness personally cannot succeed, however, where there is clear independent evidence establishing that what he said is true. It is an obvious point, but "do not believe him" has no weight when the court can say "ok, we'll reject him, now what about the other 15 witnesses?"

Anyone who follows the great global warming debate will be familiar with the personal attacks thrown out by both sides of the argument. Those supporting St Al of Gore accuse those questioning the warming theory of being right wing extremists in pursuit of an ideology or in the pay of the oil industry or closed-minded bigots resistant to change. Exactly the same accusations are made against St Al and his merry men but in reverse - they are part of a socialist plot to destroy western economies, they are in it for the money, they are quasi-religious zealots. The only insult they each make in the same terms is the accusation that their opponents are too stupid to understand the science.

What I find interesting about these insults is that they are often used in a wholly irrelevant way. This irrelevance can be exposed by looking at the substance of the debate and, in particular, by remembering that the debate has two strands, the scientific and the political.

The scientific strand is concerned with facts and just facts. The starting point is the question: "how has the earth's surface temperature changed"? People collect temperature measurements from various sources, analyse it and produce averages. Questions arise about the weight to be given to various sources of data and various methods of analysis. It does not further the issue by saying "he has selected certain data only because he wants to prove warming/lack of warming". Maybe someone did select certain data because he feels they prove his preconceptions, but if the data he chose are the most accurate his motive is irrelevant and if there are better data available they can only be proved to be better by objective analysis not by insult. The same applies when examining the method of analysis applied to the data. Choosing the best possible analysis for a bad reason is the same as choosing it for a good reason and either is better than choosing a less reliable method. At this stage of the debate the personal attacks are utterly meaningless and do nothing but expose the accuser as someone unwilling or unable to be objective. The same goes for the other aspects of the debate which are purely scientific.

The political strand of the debate is a different kettle of fish, it involves forming assessments of what should be done, it is all about value-judgments. Even here, ascribing motives and hurling insults is of limited use. If the position is that the world is doomed but can be saved if, and only if, we scrap all motor cars there is no difference in substance between someone who argues for scrapping motor cars simply because it is necessary and someone who argues for scrapping motor cars because he has failed his driving test ten times and has a chip on his shoulder about motorists. The motive behind the suggested solution to the problem is wholly irrelevant. Where, however, there is more than one possible solution to a problem the motives of the person suggesting a particular solution might help us evaluate whether his argument for that option is skewed by his preconceptions or his vested interests. Knowing his motives and his interests can be relevant in making a value-judgment because the proponent of a particular course of action is, of necessity, putting forward his opinion. We cannot know how much weight to give someone's opinion unless we know whether he has a motive or a hidden agenda which causes him to argue for one result rather than another.

Too often we see people trying to discredit a piece of research or analysis by attacking the researcher or analyst. They seem not to realise that such an attack does nothing to undermine the substance of the research or analysis. If a scientist involved in the debate seeks to undermine opposing work by attacking the authors he makes a rod for his own back because the objectivity of his own work comes into question. His work will, in the end, stand or fall on its own merits but he will be known forever as a partisan scientist. "Partisan scientist" is an oxymoron, and someone carrying that label runs the risk of the last five letters of oxymoron being given more emphasis than the first three.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

The rich are getting richer. So what?

The point I wish to discuss today is whether a growing gap between the richest and poorest in the UK is a problem.

There are two measures of wealth, first by reference to the value of assets and secondly by reference to annual income. Obviously the two overlap considerably because those with very high annual incomes often turn some of their income into permanent assets such as houses, fine furniture, works of art and financial investments. Successful entrepreneurs have substantial capital assets as a result of having substantial incomes, they enjoy both types of wealth. But the source of substantial assets is not always substantial income (something seen most clearly in the case of those who have inherited the family castle but cannot afford to maintain it) and some with large incomes do not have much capital because they invest their income at the roulette table or on the pleasures of the flesh.

What difference does it make to Fred Poor that his next door neighbour and good friend, Mr Jack Impecunious, wins a million pounds on the national lottery and changes his name to Mr Jack Rich? The answer, of course, is that it makes no difference at all. Fred still has the same income he had before, Jack's new wealth does not take anything from him nor does it prevent him receiving wealth he would otherwise have received. I must, of course, qualify these comments by saying that Jack's win might well benefit Fred through his desire to share his good fortune with his friends, but that is not guaranteed.

The position is the same if it is not Fred's neighbour but Sir Richard Branson who wins £1million. Overall the gap between rich and poor has increased because there is an extra million quid at the top end, but it makes absolutely no difference at all to anyone other than the recipient.

What difference does it make to Fred Poor if his neighbour (or Sir Richard) earns an extra £1million rather than winning it on the lottery? The answer, again, is: absolutely none.

Let us test the hypothesis by approaching it from the other end. What difference does it make to Fred Poor if his neighbour or Sir Richard Branson does not win or earn £1million? The answer is the same. Fred's capital and income are entirely unaffected by someone else becoming richer or not becoming richer.

We can then look at it from a different angle and ask what difference reducing the wealth-gap makes to Fred Poor. There are, fairly obviously, two ways of decreasing the gap, either you increase wealth at the bottom or you decrease it at the top, in practice the latter is necessary in order to find the funds to allow the former to happen. To test this we can take a simple example and ask what difference would result from Sir Richard Branson facing a one-off tax of £1billion. It does not take a genius to work out that it would reduce Sir Richard's wealth by £1billion and that the amount in the Treasury's coffers would increase by £1billion. If that were to be distributed evenly among all the people in the UK it is less than £20 each. If distributed among the poorest 10% it is less than £200 each. And it can happen only once for that sum of £1billion. Once it has been extracted from Sir Richard it cannot be extracted again.

Of course there could be such a one-off tax levied against a lot of rich people to make a dramatic difference to the total amount of wealth at the top, but it would still result in just a one-off payment to the poor. Or would it? The more that is taken off the top the more people below them will expect to share in the bounty. If the lump sum for the poorest 10% reaches £500 those in the 11-15% bracket will say "where's my bit?" and if £1,000 the next 5% might demand a share and then the 21%-25% bracket feels excluded and kicks-up a fuss. Then those on average salaries will complain that they are paying more tax than the poor but are not receiving any benefit from the windfall. The bigger the pot the thinner it will have to be spread to prevent a sense of unfairness developing. One thing that is an absolute certainty is that no one will become rich by hammering the rich with a one-off tax. It is certainly the case that the very poorest could receive a much needed small one-off payment but I fail to see how that will make any real difference to anything.

There is a further dimension to this argument which is what is likely to happen after the one-off redistribution has occurred. Receiving a lump-sum of, say, £5,000 will not increase Fred Poor's wages. He could invest it at 6% and receive £300 a year which will make him marginally less poor but marginally less poor is all he would be. Sir Richard Branson would be down £1billion but would still be earning a lot of money (subject, of course, to the continued success of his businesses) and in all likelihood will build his wealth back up to the same level as before in a few years. And then the complaints about the wealth-gap will be exactly as they were before the one-off tax was levied.

At this stage it is worth taking one step back in the argument. In the illustration I have used the starting point of redressing the balance is to take £1billion from Sir Richard Branson by way of tax. In a developed society it can only be taken by tax not by any other method. I have assumed that the money will then be paid to the poor in the UK because that is necessary to maximise the reduction in the gap between rich and poor. Both the collection and payment of the money will not happen by magic, they will be administered by the government. The whole scheme would require the government to be trusted not to use the windfall of £1billion for any other purpose. Maybe they can be trusted, maybe they cannot, but governments of both parties have long and ignoble histories of using windfalls to fill gaps in the Treasury's books. At very least we could expect them to deduct a percentage for the costs of administration which would result in the poor receiving less in total than was extracted from the rich.

I am not ignoring the argument that the rich could face high levels of income tax but I discount that as a solution because history shows rates of income tax above about 40% to result in reduced receipts.

Complaints about the gap between rich and poor increasing are just empty bleatings because the increased wealth of the richest does not cost the poorest a single penny. They complain that the gap is getting bigger, I respond with the most valuable question in history: "so what"?

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Timing is everything for David Cameron

The fortunes of the Conservative Party in opinion polls changed dramatically last autumn during and immediately after their annual party conference. Two gaffes by Gordon Brown and one policy announcement by the Conservatives switched the polls overnight and Mr Brown's position has weakened ever since. It is worth looking at those events because I believe they justify Mr Cameron playing a waiting game and leaving the announcement of radical policies until quite close to the general election.

There is a long standing convention that all three major parties should be allowed a fair hearing during their party conferences. This does not mean that their opponents cannot talk about or criticise policy announcements made during the conference season, but it does mean that no other party makes policy announcements or engages in a publicity seeking exercise when it is someone else's turn to be heard. The convention merely reflects a fair approach to political debate and I have a strong belief in the essential fairness of the vast majority of people in this country.

Gordon Brown appears to have been at home with a bad cold the day fairness lessons were being taught at his primary school. He decided to try to upstage the Conservative conference by visiting troops in Iraq and making sure the press and television covered his visit fully. While there he announced that there was to be a reduction in troop numbers in Iraq by Christmas, only for his figures to fall round his ankles like knickers with weak elastic no sooner than he had uttered the words. In this double-headed attempt to show strength he displayed massive misjudgment. As a result, many who were inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt as a new Prime Minister withdrew their goodwill. It was a double-gaffe of massive proportions.

Added to that, the Conservatives made a policy announcement on Inheritance Tax which captured the national mood. The issue of Inheritance Tax deserves a musing of its own, for present purposes all that need be said is that the Conservatives' policy announcement was looked on favourably by the British public.

Since then the opinion polls have moved steadily in favour of the Conservatives and Mr Cameron to such an extent that something quite dramatic would be necessary for Labour to remain in government after the next general election.

We can quibble about the significance of opinion polls at this stage in a parliament, but I suggest that Mr Cameron can rely on the figures until such time as the tide show any sign of turning. His greatest challenge is to ensure that he does not lose support by making mistakes. A mistake that results in no loss of support is not a problem, what he must avoid is giving the government a rod with which to beat his back.

Many of us are old enough to have vivid memories of the the early 1990s. John Major had taken over as Prime Minister from Margaret Thatcher in late 1990 with only 18 months to go until the next election. His party suffered internal strife and was showing signs of being stale, having been in government with substantial majorities for over 11 years. In the run-up to the 1992 general election Labour was polling quite strongly and many thought the election was theirs to lose. Lose it they did. There had been doubts about the capability of their leader, Neil Kinnock, to fill the role of Prime Minister effectively. One might think he would have concentrated on staying calm and appearing to be statesmanlike, but in a massive error of judgment he held a party rally shortly before the election in which he unashamedly acted as though the election had been won. Just like Mr Brown's error in visiting Iraq when he did rather than a week later, Mr Kinnock's decision to hold a victory rally at the wrong time cost him dear. Timing was everything and his timing was as wrong as it could have been.

Mr Cameron has reached his present position on the policies he has announced to date. Many will need refining over the next two years, some will have to be replaced entirely due to changes in circumstances and in some areas there is still to be a major policy announcement. The key political consideration in the timing of refinement, replacement and announcement is how it might play with the voters. If it appears that the government's position in a particular field will become weaker, he must wait until Labour is in the deepest possible hole before he chooses the spade with which to pile the soil on top of them.

The area in which the government is most vulnerable is the economy. Mr Brown's shocking lies about the effect of the abolition of the 10p starting rate of income tax (remember, he said no one would lose as a result) required a humiliating supplementary budget which did the government more harm than good. The harm it did to the government was five-fold: (i) it showed that Mr Brown's decision to abolish the 10p rate was flawed, (ii) it showed he had lied in saying there would be no losers, (iii) it showed disregard for low-paid people by not giving full compensation to everyone affected, (iv) it added significantly to government debt at a time when Mr Brown and his hapless puppet chancellor were proclaiming the need to control debt and (v) its timing, just before a by-election, made it look like a bribe handed out reluctantly in order to save a seat in Parliament. Labour's claim to be trustworthy handlers of the national finances took a severe mashing.

The world economy is now taking a pummelling but Mr Brown continues to assert that the British economy is well placed to cushion the blows. Week-by-week that assertion is being exposed for the bluster it is, an exposure made all the more believable because of the 10p tax fiasco. For Mr Cameron it is this fact that gives him his greatest weapon if he is to change tack and make the necessary massive inroads into government spending. There is plenty that could be done in this regard without touching politically sensitive areas such as the NHS, police, schools and defence, but that is not of itself sufficient reason to change tack now.

We know what will happen if he reneges from the current commitment to match Labour spending plans. The government will label it an attack on "beneficial" spending with any reduction in spending being measured in terms of lost policemen, nurses, soldiers, teachers and hospitals rather in the more realistic measure of lost quangos, spin doctors, management consultants and non-job bureaucrats. "Tory cuts" will be the watchword for the BBC for several weeks and there will be a specially extended Panorama programme in which the conclusion will be that there are some reductions possible in bureaucracy but more significant will be the reduction in patient care in the NHS.

It is necessary for Mr Cameron to wait until Mr Brown and Mr Darling can no longer explain how their future spending commitments can be funded. They will almost certainly never admit that that position has been reached but the figures on reduced tax revenues, increased benefit payments and rising inflation will speak for themselves. Those figures will allow Mr Cameron to say that the current spending plans cannot be afforded without massive increases in tax. He must be precise about the areas in which spending on bureaucracy will be reduced, concentrating on quangos, and he must give a cast-iron guarantee that a Conservative government will not employ a single spin doctor or political adviser at public expense.

Not only is it necessary for Mr Cameron to wait before he does this, it is also necessary for him to do it.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Mr Brown's upside-down attitude

It was only a matter of time. Today the government announced that the planned 2p per litre increase in fuel duty will not happen until March 2009 at the earliest. He was keen to stress that the decision was taken to help people at a time when household budgets are being stretched by rampant inflation in fuel and food prices. This tells us a lot about Mr Brown and his attitude towards the little people.

This whole saga started with a deception. True though it is that an increase of 2p per litre in duty was planned, to announce it as an increased cost to the customer of 2p per litre is a big fat lie. Duty is one of three elements making up the price we pay at the pump. The other two are the cost of the fuel itself and VAT (value added tax). The price of the fuel is determined by normal market forces and has risen rapidly recently as demand has exceeded supply. Duty is a fixed sum per litre regardless of the price of getting the fuel to the pump. VAT is a levy of 17.5% charged on both the fuel price and the duty. Therefore, any increase in fuel prices is multiplied by 17.5% at the pump because the government makes a windfall gain. Equally, any increase in duty results in a further 17.5p in the pound being charged by way of VAT. They have different names but duty and VAT both result in money going from our pockets to the Treasury. A 2p rise in duty is a 2.35p rise in tax. Talking of a 2p rise in duty is, therefore, a deception. What was proposed was a rise in tax on petrol of 2.35p per litre.

Next we can look at how the government viewed this proposed rise in tax. As well as continuing the deception by only ever referring to it as a rise of 2p per litre, the anticipated revenue was built into their shaky calculations of tax revenues for the financial year. When calls were made for the increase to be scrapped Mr Brown and Mr Darling bleated about the need to increase duty in order to balance their books. They said that spending plans were predicated on the revenue from the rise in duty being received. Not once did they acknowledge that the increased VAT from soaring fuel prices more than cancelled out any loss of revenue from scrapping a 2p rise in duty. When you also add-in the additional VAT payable as a result of rising food prices, the significance of fuel duty on the overall tax-take becomes even smaller (yes, I know many foodstuffs are not subject to VAT but many are, and all are when turned into a VAT-able meal at a restaurant). Perhaps they felt they had to say this because the government's accounts have gone completely haywire and they need all the tax they can get to pay for their bloated spending plans. But that does not explain why they felt it necessary to concentrate so much time and energy on a tiny element of the overall tax structure.

And today, when they finally had to back down in the face of overwhelming public pressure, they had the gall to say they were doing us all a favour. This was not a lie because it reflects precisely how they view the situation. As dedicated socialists they presume that the State has the right to all property. An income tax rate of 40% is, in their eyes, a gift of the remaining 60% to the lucky people because their starting point is that the State is entitled to 100%. So it is with fuel duty. The 2p rise in duty was never, for them, an increase in what the State takes, it was a proposed reduction in what the people were allowed to have. Protests about increased duty were met with the attitude "you are lucky to have been allowed to keep that 2p per litre thus far, why are you being so ungrateful now that we propose to make a small inroad into our generosity towards you?" A further psychological effect was in operation. Because Mr Brown looks on the proposed increase as a move by the State to retain its own property, he had to fight for it in the same way we would fight for our television if someone is seen walking out of our house with it.

This attitude, and only this attitude, explains why Mr Brown sees a postponement in the increase as a favour. It has guided so much of what he has done over the last 11 years, yet it is upside-down. There should never be surprise that approaching anything from completely the wrong angle leads to an expensive mess.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Government by sit-com

The essence of situation comedy is exactly what the description "situation comedy" dictates. Characters between whom there are conflicts are brought together in situations which amuse. One of the secrets of good situation comedy is that the writers know when to stop. The time to stop is when the natural situations that can arise between the characters have been exhausted. If they do not stop at that stage there are only two ways the show can go; it can repeat situations which have already been exploited or it can descend into the absurd and become a parody of itself. Either course results in damage to the brand.

It was desperately sad to see Steptoe & Son extended beyond its natural life by the use of increasingly far-fetched scenarios. When it started it had a point, it exposed the relationship of the two main characters and made clever and incisive observations about both the characters and the situation in which they found themselves. In later series we found Albert and Harold dressing up in silly costumes and getting involved in situations which simply could not happen in real life. It was still amusing, but it was not its old brilliant self. Like watching a favourite aunt succumb to Alzheimer's disease we saw a slow and irreversible decline. Much though we loved her we hoped she will soon be put out of her misery because we knew there was no way back. Those who never enjoyed the show might have taken pleasure from the decline but for those who relied on it for their entertainment the hurt ran deep.

Today we learn that a House of Commons committee is to propose a nationwide 9pm curfew for children with a whole series of penalties available to be used against the children themselves and their parents. The reasoning behind it is that a spate of stabbings of teenagers by teenagers has occurred during the evening and at night in public places, so to prevent this happening again all teenagers must be kept off the street. It seems to have received a warm reception from the government and we can expect a ministerial announcement imminently. Curfews are for true emergencies, to be imposed for a short time to combat the risk of looting or the spread of disease. They have no part to play in normal everyday life and are fundamentally inconsistent with government and policing by consent.

It is the type of authoritarian knee-jerk reaction we can expect from a government which has run out of steam. No longer able to inspire confidence through sensible measures it is donning fruit-adorned hats, flowery taffeta frocks and pink handbags and is mincing down the road hoping to raise a giggle. And let us not forget that this is not the first sign of terminal decline. We had a Prime Ministerial decree against plastic carrier bags (on goes the fruity hat), the u-turn over the 10p tax rate (zip-up the flowery frock), £100billion is to be spent on windmills (pick-up the pink handbag), Harriet Harman introduces a law to allow employers to do something they can do already (are my stocking seams straight?), the Prime Minister says we must not waste food (look, I'm wearing suspenders) and now a curfew (whoops dear, see how I walk ... mince, mince mince).

I hate to think what they will come up with next but it won't be The Office or Frasier, it will be Mr Humphreys dressed as Mrs Slocombe's pussy.

I don't really do god

Many years ago I went to church voluntarily. As a child it was compulsory, but as a young adult it was a matter of choice. My general opinion was inclined towards the concept of god and, as a chap who likes to seek out evidence to test his beliefs, it seemed sensible to take a closer look. The church I attended, for just a few weeks, was very popular among students and the vicar had a reputation as an excellent speaker. What struck me on my first visit was that his reputation was entirely justified. He spoke with clarity, humour, conviction and an unashamed evangelical purpose. It was advocacy not oratory. My friend who recommended that church told me the vicar had been invited to take a position higher up the church's hierarchy but had declined because he wanted to continue preaching at this particular church. I attended Sunday evening services and, on a couple of occasions, a midweek bible study course. Nothing could have done more to knock faith out of me than what I witnessed in those few weeks.

Looking back I cannot say whether I originally attended because I wanted my tentative belief to be affirmed or because I wanted an excuse to abandon it. What I can say, however, is that from my first Sunday evening there I felt uncomfortable.

The first disquieting thing was the makeup of the congregation. Looking around I identified several different categories of people.

There were the middle-aged, middle class people you used to see in the Church of England all the time. No one knew whether they had any belief and it really did not matter, attendance at church was something they felt was expected of them so they were there. It was a matter of social duty, like buying a pot of home-made jam at a village fete.

Then there were those whose belief was a result of rational choice. They had studied the biblical texts, done some research into the history and concluded that they believed what the texts said (or at least sufficient of what the texts said to justify hitching their wagon to the Church of England horse). No doubt some approached the exercise with a presumption in favour of believing and some with a presumption against, yet their conclusion was guided by the evidence as they interpreted it.

Thirdly and, for me, most worryingly, there was the Moonie-ist tendency. They got very excited and lifted their hands to the heavens as the vicar spoke. They were hearing what they wanted to hear from someone they seemed to view as their god's representative on earth. The impression I had was that their minds were completely closed and they would do anything he suggested. I wanted to find out more about them.

I could understand the first and second groups, their positions made absolute sense to me, but the third were a complete mystery - how could anyone just accept what he or she was being told without standing back and asking himself whether he really agreed with it? That question presupposes that they really were absolutists, a supposition proved correct at the bible study evenings where we were looking at the gospel according to (or is it "of"?) Saint Mark. During the second, and last, evening I went to the simplest linguistic examination showed that the words on the page could carry any one of several different meanings. Oh no, there was only one acceptable meaning. "Why" I suggested "can it not mean ..." and then gave one of the more obvious interpretations. All around me were people who had been insulted to the very core of their beings. A fresh steaming dog turd in my seat would have received a more cordial response. There was just no arguing with these people, they were not prepared to engage in rational debate, they had received the truth from the vicar and that was that.

That led me to ask why they had attended the bible study evenings. It cannot have been to learn something they did not already know because they did not hear anything from the leaders that they had not heard many times before. It cannot have been to develop their understanding because their minds were made up already and were closed to argument. It cannot have been to explain their interpretation to an ignoramus such as me because no explanation came forward, merely assertion that I was wrong. It cannot have been to gain confirmation that their views were correct because that would require them to have a doubt that needed to be allayed. The only explanation was that it was a social club, pure and simple. A social club into which they fitted.

This explanation corresponded with another observation I had made, which was that the members of the Moonie-ist tendency were, almost universally, the sort of people who did not fit in anywhere else. No ready wit, no charm, no ability to engage in discussion, no social graces. They were the children we all made fun of at school and called "Nobby Nomates" (or, usually, far worse). They would never join a cricket or rugby club, go to the pub for a pint and a chat after work, chew the cud with a neighbour over the garden fence or engage in any other activity which might be termed "clubbable". They would only ever be comfortable in one social club - a social club which requires no social skills and to which anyone would be welcomed with open arms of "fellowship" provided they believe. For the first time they were not Nobby Nomates they were among unquestioning allies for whom the act of belief was sufficient to make them bosom buddies.

The following Sunday I attended my last evening service. The vicar was talking about marriage. He decried sex before marriage and the misfits smiled smugly. So proud at their virtue. Unable to hide their pleasure in receiving praise for abstinence. And wholly unable to see that they wouldn't get any in a month of Sundays anyway. The sermon continued and the vicar asked a rhetorical question: "What is the most important thing to look for in a possible spouse?" I knew what his answer would be, and it was: "That they are Christian." More smug looks in the adoring audience. But did I see something else in their faces? Did I see them turn an exclusive proposition into an inclusive one because it held a promise of sex? Did I see them thinking "a Christian cannot marry a non-Christian, therefore if I am a Christian I will find a Christian spouse and finally get some action"? Maybe I did, maybe I didn't, maybe I just wanted to because of the view I had already formed that they were nothing but social inadequates in their own little club.

I walked out at that point and never returned, convinced of one thing if nothing else. When religious belief is used by its leaders to encourage the believers to treat others as a lower class, as lesser beings who are not worthy of marriage, it loses any claim it might have to being a force for good. One only needs to change one word in the vicar's answer to his rhetorical question to see what I mean. Substitute "white" for "Christian".

Friday, 11 July 2008

Is Global Warming a Left-Right Issue?

The classification of opinions as being "left-wing" or "right-wing" seems less fashionable these days than it once was but one area in which we regularly see people using these labels to denounce their opponents is the ever entertaining global warming debate. I want to examine one example of the attachment of the label "left-wing" to see whether it throws any light on the substance of the debate.

The example I will use is an accusation I see made quite regularly - that the IPCC, the UN, the EU and Al Gore are part of a socialist consipracy to overthrow international capitalism and subjugate the world to rule by totalitarian leftist diktat (to keep things manageable I will refer to the UN only in what follows).

It seems to me that such a view could be held before one has heard or read anything about the global warming debate or it could be formed as a result of the debate itself. If the view is held before one is exposed to the debate it could be either a concluded view or a presumption. If it is a concluded view then nothing in the debate itself can change it. On the other hand, if it is a presumption it could be rebutted by exposure to the debate.

That, of itself, tells us little of the effect of the presumption on the mind of the presumer. By definition presumptions can only be rebutted by evidence of sufficient weight to counter-act the weight of the presumption itself. When you are dealing with an individual applying a presumption it is necessary to know how he views that presumption. Can it be displaced by a moderate weight of evidence or do you need to utterly persuade him of the contrary before he will change his mind? One can often answer that question by examining the presumption itself. The nature of the presumption in this example is extreme - that there is a conspiracy to overthrow the established economic order - and it hard to see how anyone could form that view unless they were persuaded strongly by past events that the allegation is justified. Of itself that will tend to make a presumption to that effect a very strong presumption. In other words, someone who approaches the subject by applying that presumption will almost certainly require very powerful evidence that there is a reason other than the desire to overthrow the established order behind anything the UN does.

From this we can conclude that anything said against the anthropomorphic global warming theory by someone who entered the debate holding that view of the UN is likely to be influenced by his preconception. We bear that in mind when we assess how much weight we give to his opinions. It makes us less likely to accept what he says because we think "from his starting point, he would say that wouldn't he?"

In theory the position is different if someone only formed that extreme view of the UN after listening to the global warming debate. In that situation the criticism levelled at the UN is a conclusion from the debate not a preconception about it. We might be inclined give more weight to this person's criticism because we see him as someone who entered the debate with an open mind and was so swayed by what he heard that he drew an extreme conclusion about the motives behind one party to the debate. Nonetheless, the fact that he drew an extreme conclusion might make us treat him with caution because there is no difference in substance between drawing that conclusion from the UN's stance in the global warming debate and drawing it, prior to the global warming debate, from the UN's stance on any other issues. Our response is likely to be "that's a harsh conclusion, how can he justify it?"

I suggest that the mere fact that someone denounces the UN's stance on global warming as being part of a conspiracy is likely to cause most people to look with great circumspection at that person's analysis in the debate itself. If he entered the debate espousing that view we ask ourselves whether his preconception has skewed his conclusions and, therefore, examine his analysis more closely. If he entered the debate without that view but formed it during the debate we ask whether it is a fair and balanced conclusion to draw and, therefore, examine his analysis more closely. In either event we treat his analysis of every part of the debate - whether man is causing warming, what the consequences are, what can be done about it and what the consequences are of the cure - with a more critical eye than if we were examining the conclusions put forward by someone who did not seek to attribute a sinister motive to those with whom he disagrees.

The same approach can be applied to those who throw out other labels to seek to discredit their opponents - "liberal", "neo-con", "sheep", "fascist". Rational debate is about assessing facts and assessing the substance of arguments. Labels and insults both detract and distract from the debate and they cast doubt on the objectivity of the labeller. This does not mean that subjective matters are irrelevant, however, because only part of the global warming debate has an objective element, the science.

There has been such a concentration on the science that we seem, at times, to have ignored the rest of the debate and concluded that if the science supports the AGW theory we must do what Mr Gore tells us must be done. The conclusion does not necessarily follow from the premise. In order to reach that conclusion it is necessary to examine whether the steps Mr Gore tells us to take will alleviate the problem and, if so, whether those steps themselves are a price worth paying. That is a value judgment and is, therefore, a political issue. It is at this stage that global warming becomes a left-right issue, not before.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

What is the point of emissions targets?

Let us assume that Saint Al of Gore and the IPCC are correct in their direst predictions and that Lord Stern and his ilk are correct in their assessment of the cost of global warming. What possible benefit can result from slashing emissions in the west when India and China are committed to industrialisation and its consequential CO2 production?

And let us be clear about one thing, neither China nor India will allow Saint Al to stifle their efforts to improve the material standards of their people (and in China's case the status on the international stage of their autocratic leaders). The head of China's State Council said last year: “our efforts to fight climate change must not come at the expense of economic growth.” The Indian Council on Climate Change made the same point: “It is obvious that India needs to substantially increase its per capita energy consumption to provide a minimally acceptable level of wellbeing to its people.”

One can, of course, see that cutting emissions in the west will stabalise matters while the east is increasing emissions: one tonne saved in the west + one tonne produced in the east = no change. But India and China have vast populations and a long way to go before their people enjoy anything like the standard of living we have taken for granted for the last two or three generations. It is impossible to predict with any accuracy the level of emissions India and China will produce and, therefore, impossible to say how much we have to cut in order to maintain equilibrium.

One can also see, because we are presuming Saint Al to be correct, that maintaining equilibrium will not avert the imminent disaster. So what exactly do we have to do here in the west? On the face of it we have to cut our emissions by a vast amount very quickly. Consumption of oil, gas and coal must become a thing of the past almost in the blink of an eye. And even if that is achieved we must then keep our fingers crossed that India and China will reach their target of economic well-being and then ... well, and then do what? Switch instantly away from oil, gas and coal just as they have built prosperity on the energy produced by those very fuels and, significantly, when China in particular has vast reserves? There is as much chance of that as there is of me holing every tee-shot I play in my next round of golf. It's pure La-La-Land.

Then along come Brasil, Colombia, Mexico, Pakistan, South Africa, Egypt, Algeria and the rest, one by one as they create political stability they will aim for economic progress.

All the while our standards of living in the west will fall as our governments vie for the title of greatest grandstander in the alternative energy handicap. They will pump countless billions of whatever currency they wish into the speculative hunt for the miracle cure. Every penny of it will be raised by additional taxes which will hit the poor hardest.

I simply cannot help concluding that the approach of the British Labour Party government (and the Conservative opposition) is fundamentally wrong. They are looking at the matter from the wrong perspective and can learn a valuable lesson from the words quoted above explaining the Chinese and Indian positions. Instead of insisting that their first priority is to cut emissions they should recognise that their first priority is to protect the standard of living of their people.

Some would say the first priority of government is security, as it was in 1939. They are right, but security for what purpose? What is it that security defends? It defends our way of life against the risk of a less palatable way of life being imposed against our will. That is why we fought Hitler's Germany, it is why we armed ourselves against the USSR and it is one of the reasons why we maintain a military force today. There is no immediate military threat to Britain but there is a massive economic threat - the threat of material impoverishment at the shrine to Saint Al of Gore.

I started this musing by saying we should assume Lord Stern's armageddon scenario to be accurate. He said our continued pumping out of CO2 will have dire financial consequences for us all so how, you might ask, can we preserve our material standards if we do not cut our emissions enormously? On the hypothesis that Lord Stern is correct the answer is simple, we can't - on that hypothesis our CO2 will bankrupt us. If that hypothesis is correct for our CO2, it is equally correct for India and China's CO2 because CO2 does not hover in little packets above the country that creates it, like a catchy tune it spreads itself rapidly all over the globe. On his hypothesis we are going to go bankrupt come what may. The government wants to accelerate the process by introducing an additional crippling cost which cannot possibly provide a return if China and India's CO2 will destroy us anyway.

Why not let us enjoy the last brief moments of life as we know it?

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

What is a "Human Rights Lawyer"?

Whenever some nutty proposition is debated on my radio there seems to be a "human rights lawyer" on hand to pontificate on the effect of said proposition on human rights. I wonder what expertise they require in order to be called a "human rights lawyer" and to get airtime on the BBC.

Let us take a different case to examine the principle. Say someone has won substantial damages to compensate for injuries suffered at work. In case the radio audience does not know how the law operates in relation to industrial injuries it is common for a lawyer with particular experience in such cases to explain it. Not every lawyer is qualified to do so because that area of law involves concepts and procedures which do not arise in other fields. Similarly, if a question arises about why someone was given a particular length of prison sentence, a lawyer specialising in criminal law might be interviewed because he has the necessary specialist knowledge to guide the audience through the rat's maze of sentencing statutes and guidelines.

The problem with human rights law is that everyone needs to know about it in order to be able practice law in any field. Even the more esoteric areas, such as shipping and international electronic trading law, are affected by the Human Rights Act. Having said that, it is the case that some lawyers spend all their time putting forward claims based on alleged breaches of the Human Rights Act, these are the self-defined "human rights lawyers" we hear on our radios, see on our televisions and read about in our newspapers. But who are they and what makes them suitable spokespeople?

The first thing we can see about them is that they are the very same people who lobbied for the European Convention on Human Rights to be introduced into English law in the first place. It's quite a little gravy train. You lobby for a law to be brought in and achieve a public profile by doing so. When that law is brought in you are first in the queue for the work because of your self-promotion during the lobbying process. You know all along that one aspect of the new law is that Legal Aid will always be available for cases carrying the "human rights" tag and, abracadabra, you're coining it in until the trump of doom.

The second thing we see, as observed above, is that they are almost all dedicated self-publicists. Not for them just turning up at court, arguing the case and going back to the office to prepare the next one. Oh no, they feed on the bright lights of publicity and must let everyone know of their success or bleat about the oppressive, public school, old-boy-network establishment which caused their defeat. This does not make them experts, it just makes them loud.

Thirdly, they are almost all dedicated socialists usually of the champagne variety. Many, such as the absurd Harriet Harman, enter mainstream politics and show their true colours by introducing policies that cut to the heart of one of the most essential human right of all - the right to live your life without the government sticking its nose into your business every 5 minutes. They do so because they believe that the government's primary role is to define how people should live. Laws are passed to make that style of life compulsory and, as a necessary consequence, to give government the power to make sure we are all doing as directed. In their minds this does not impinge on our human rights because the defined lifestyle is the only right way to behave. If we are found not to be behaving as we should we are damaging ourselves and others and it is the job of government to step in to protect the human rights of those suffering through our wickedness.

Fourthly, the law they claim to know about is set out in a number of general principles - the right to life, the right to liberty and security, the right to freedom of expression and so on. These can mean just about anything depending on ones point of view. Some restriction of meaning is provided in the Convention itself and by judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, but not much, even the most closely defined is still incredibly woolly. Anyone claiming to be a "human rights lawyer" is simply putting forward their opinion of how the general principles should apply. Generally speaking they cannot say how those principles will apply because that cannot be predicted with accuracy. Their opinion is no more expert than that of any other lawyer who approaches the matters from a different perspective. They are hardly likely to suggest that the Act will be applied in a way that will restrict the number of cases they can bring at public expense.

Next time you hear one of the BBC's tame Human Rights Lawyers pontificating, bear in mind that you are almost certainly listening to a political statement not a legal analysis.

David Davis is just the start of the debate

Excessive control over our lives by both central and local government is a particularly topical issue this week, with the David Davis by-election being held on Thursday. Those of us who find these things interesting can bash-out a list of measures introduced since 1997 which have increased the intrusion of The State into our daily lives, but any such list only goes so far. It describes the problem but it does not define it.

If one is to define a problem it is always necessary to state one's starting point - the presumptions one makes and against which one measures the problem. It is wrong to start from a date, say the 1st of May 1997, because to do so legitimises the balance between the individual and The State as defined by the laws in place on that date. Any subsequent proposed changes in the law must then be measured against existing law rather than against principle. Principle is the key and, on a matter as important as the balance of power between the individual and The State, the principle can only be defined by language which carries a clear meaning to the people living in the country in question.

There is another aspect in which principle is important here, and that is a procedural aspect. Once the basic principles are established it is essential that they take effect as a different category of law, a category over-and-above all other law.

The USA's Constitution follows this pattern by defining certain basic rights which are inherent in the American people from the moment they are born or gain citizenship. In this respect the American Constitution is radically different from the UK Human Rights Act (which is suggested, erroneously, by some to be our equivalent to the US Constitution). In America the principles in the Constitution were laid down by the founders of the country as inherent rights and all Acts of Congress signed into effect by the President must not infringe those inherent rights. In the UK the Human Rights Act operates by granting rights.

The difference is fundamental. In the UK, enactment of The Human Rights Act took all power to The State which, in its benevolence, granted certain rights to the people. Those rights can be extended or restricted as a matter of normal law-making, whereas in the USA any attempt to change the Constitution brings into effect a different procedure. It is a matter of enormous nationwide debate and consultation; the exercise usually takes years and has no chance of success unless a clear majority of the people support the change. It is not accurate to call this a difference in emphasis, it is a huge difference in principle between (i) The State being supreme and the people having a say every now-and-then in elections and (ii) the people being supreme and The State being required to prove its case for change to a high standard of proof.

A constitution built on the American model makes politicians, and the organisations through which they exercise power, permanently subservient to the people. Of course they have the power to make laws in all sorts of areas but they must always look over their shoulder to ensure they do not infringe the central power - the inherent, fundamental rights of the people as defined by the constitution.

That last sentence, I believe, is at the heart of the matter. Who should be looking over their shoulders for fear that a higher authority might pounce? Should the law-makers be scared of the people or should the people be scared of the law-makers? This is not a left-right issue. David Davis and Tony Benn probably disagree on almost every issue of economic and social policy - when I say disagree I understate the position enormously, they feel in their very marrow that the other is wrong - but on one thing they are united. They both hold the view that law-makers should be looking over their shoulders for fear of the people and not vice versa. It is a view I also hold.

What then are the inherent, fundamental rights which should be undermined only for the strongest possible reasons? I do not know. I could draw-up a list but it would be far too personal, the debate is only just starting and my personal views are bound to change as it progresses. The worrying thing is that the debate is starting from a position in which our laws do not presume inherent rights at all, they presume that all rights are granted by The State.

David Davis, with the support of Tony Benn and many others, has started the ball rolling. He recognises that the snooping, nannying State is contrary to values the British people hold dear. He is right, but David Davis is just the start of the debate.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Rissoles anyone?

Today we witnessed one of the most patronising and irrelevant announcements yet from our hapless government. A Cabinet Office report has investigated many food-related issues including how much food is thrown away in the UK each year. It estimates the weight thrown away to be 4.1 million tonnes annually and the value to be £8 per household per week. Our news bulletins are leading with grinning Gordon telling us to put our houses in order and to stop waste because it is a fine way to save money. As we can expect these days, the statistics are not new, they were contained in a report by an organisation called WRAP published in May 2008 at which time the appropriate minister to speak about it was the one with the most grating, whiny voice, the odious Joan Ruddock.

In May it was an interesting statistical sideshow, today it is a really serious problem. So what, I ask, causes food to be thrown away and who does it?. We can divide the sinners into 3 categories: (i) sellers of food (shops, wholesalers, importers, farmers, slaughterhouses), (ii) restaurants and cafes (iii) people in their homes.

Why do sellers throw food away? I would suggest three reasons: some of it rots before it can be sold, some of it is unsaleable because of EU regulations and some becomes damaged or contaminated. The first and third of these cannot be avoided except by improved efficiency but the commercial incentive to keep such waste to a minimum is already in place. The second cannot be changed except by the Eurocrats. If Gordon wants to make a difference he can campaign to ensure that EU regulations preventing sales of some foods apply only to food which is not fit for consumption. Fruit of the "wrong" shape or size is still fruit and, save in quite exceptional circumstances, is perfectly fit for consumption.

Why do restaurants and cafes throw away food? The reasons are essentially the same. Some is not ordered by customers and goes bad, some is not finished by customers and must be discarded and sometimes even the best cooks get something wrong (perhaps adding a wrong ingredient or accidentally allowing a dish or ingredient to become contaminated). It is hard to see where there is scope for savings without the introduction of potentially dangerous practices such as allowing uneaten food to be re-sold to another customer (yes, I know this happens but that just keeps the current waste figures below what they should be).

Why do we throw away food in our homes? I might not be a perfectly average example, but let's assume I am, why do I throw away food? Sometimes I cook something that turns out to be vile. It was neither my intention nor my desire, but if it tastes awful I'm not going to eat it. Sometimes I buy something I haven't tried before and find I don't like it. Sometimes biscuits go hard or cakes go soft because I haven't got round to eating them. Sometimes a bad apple or potato causes others to rot. If I make too much of something and there is only a little left there is no point saving it because it's not enough to form another meal; if it is enough to form the basis of another meal I do save it. If I have guests at my communal trough and they don't clear their plates I'm certainly not going to save the leftovers and eat something that has been slobbered over by a chum.

These are all just normal incidents of everyday life. They are not evidence of a wasteful spendthrift existence and the scope for reducing or eliminating such examples of waste is minimal. So what can I do? One obvious possibility is making sure I use what I buy to its full potential rather than throwing out a remnant and buying a replacement. For example, if I roast a chicken I could make stock from the carcass every time rather than just occasionally but I still have to throw out the bones whether they have been used merely as support for the flesh while roasting or have then been put to a second use. It is hard to see that making a stock reduces waste, if I need stock I either boil some bones or I use a cube or pre-bought liquid stock concentrate, boiling the bones reduces waste to the extent of one little paper stock cube wrapper per 2 pints of stock and one little cardboard box per 6 or 12 cubes or one little glass bottle (which goes in the recycling) for every gallon of stock - big deal - and, don't forget, boiling bones for stock takes more time, more gas and more money than using a cube.

Of course we could only buy stuff we are going to eat, only cook as much as we need rather than providing jumbo portions and, if we have cooked too much, be fastidious about using leftovers. Surely most of those on a tight budget do this already for sound financial reasons. If Mr & Mrs Poor have not already dug-out Granny Poor's book of rissole recipes they are hardly likely to do so because Gordon and his entourage have flown half way round the globe (for a conference which could have been conducted by satellite link) and has chosen to berate them on television before heading off for a slap-up feast at the expense of the Japanese taxpayer. Equally surely, those of less modest means are hardly likely to respond to Prime Ministerial nagging if the fate of a few slices of last week's salami does not worry them already.

The silly man is tilting at imaginary windmills again. If he wants to help households save £8 a week he could get rid of the zillion quangoes he has established, sack all the political advisers and spin doctors currently pretending to be civil servants and stop taking pointless flights to unnecessary conferences. That should do it. Now stop nagging us you stupid little man.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Is teaching a profession?

Every job seems to be described as a profession these days. But it was not always thus. Three factors have been at work. One is good old muddle-brained egalitarianism - "Everyone is equal, therefore, if your job is called a profession so must be mine". The second is self-importance - "My job is more difficult than others, therefore, it must be distinguished from the easier ones by being called a profession." The third is a negotiating position - "If my job is not called a profession I cannot demand as much money as I could if it were a profession, therefore, it must be labelled a profession." Each factor is perfectly reasonable from the perspective of its proponent, but each has a practical flaw.

The egalitarian approach ignores the fact that "profession" is not a synonym for "job". Perhaps it will become so through usage, but it is not so yet. If the two ever become synonymous someone will invent a new way of categorising jobs to reflect the reality that not all work is equally demanding.

The self-important approach might well be the explanation for certain jobs being called "professions" in the first place, but it does not provide a definition of a profession it simply means that certain jobs become classified as professions when previously they were not. Because it is not definitive there is nothing to prevent every field of work other than the single most menial being brought into the same classification. Were that to happen the last would be brought in too because the synonym would be established.

The negotiating-position approach necessarily recognises that the job in question is not a profession but seeks to give it that title for a particular purpose only. Some jobs are generally recognised in our society as deserving greater pay than others. The criteria we use are many, varied and not necessarily substantive, but attaching a label to a job is not one of them.

So what is a profession? Conventionally (as reflected by dictionary definitions) a profession is a field of work which requires specialist knowledge acquired by academic training and a formal qualification. A set of standards (often called a code of conduct) to which each member of the profession must adhere is a necessary consequence of the basic definition because there is no point requiring someone to pass difficult exams to become a "professional person" if they can then act as they wish when conducting their calling. And it is a necessary consequence of the set of professional standards that there must be penalties (including disqualification) for those who do not perform their work to an acceptable standard.

I have long wondered whether teaching is a profession. The reason I am in a quandary is that I believe very firmly it should be a profession
because I was lucky enough as a child to benefit from the work of many highly skilled and highly dedicated teachers. Unfortunately I also witnessed a few who were simply incompetent yet remained employed because there was no mechanism for sacking them. My schools were state schools, a village primary and a grammar school. Each had the luxury of being able to select the (ostensibly) best candidates for any teaching vacancy from a huge number of applicants but, life being real and not a fairy story, some who appeared impressive turned out to be donkeys.

Unless and until the incompetent are excluded from teaching, teaching can never be viewed as a profession. After all, what happens to the incompetent lawyer or accountant? He sets up in practice but gets no work and cannot earn a living. OK, that's the theory, in fact many of them gain lowly positions with local authorities or central government where incompetence is not a bar to employment. That might do no harm in many instances because an incompetent lawyer or accountant can still do something useful within a large department, he just cannot be let loose on anything important.

Teaching is different because there is no equivalent to giving the incompetent lawyer responsibility for collating documents in a file or the incompetent accountant responsibility for arithmetical calculations. Teaching is nothing without an audience of pupils who need to learn. Retention of incompetent teachers in a school is always an unmitigated disaster and their incompetence drags down the standing of their colleagues who deserve recognition as professional people. Until they face the same practical requirement of good quality performance as lawyers and accountants in private practice I have to conclude that their field of work cannot be classified as a profession. That does not prevent the good teachers from claiming, justly, to be professional (adjective, not noun) people but it does hold back the collective body of teachers from deserving to be labelled a (noun, not adjective) profession.

This conclusions saddens me enormously. If I may (which I may
because this is my blog) let me tell you a true story from my schooldays to explain why it saddens me. I will name the teacher concerned because he deserves acknowledgment by name (incidentally I am not the one pupil to whom I make reference).

It was necessary for all of us to grasp a particular concept of mathematics in order for us to be able to understand the remainder of the year's syllabus. I was either 14 or 15, I cannot now remember which. Our teacher, Mr Colin Chubb, explained the principle in one way and one or two grasped it. Then he explained it is an entirely different way and more got the point. He could see who had "got it" and who had not, so his eyes concentrated on those in the latter category. Then a third different explanation came, then a fourth and a fifth until there was only one pupil who had not yet understood. We were not the best behaved of classes in general, but you really could not hear a pin drop because we all realised we were witnessing a display of skill equal to anything Federer and Nadal produced during today's amazing Wimbledon final. Mr Chubb produced his sixth explanation and asked the one remaining pupil in his eyesight a question which would show whether they understood; the answer showed they did not. The seventh explanation, again different from the previous six, did the trick.

Such an extraordinary display of skill might only have been required of him that one time in his whole career. He would have faced no sanction had he given up after three, four or five attempts and said "we must move on". There was no code of conduct by which teachers could be sacked if they did not do their work properly. But none of that was of any consequence to him, he applied a professional standard because it was the right thing to do and, I have no doubt, gave him great satisfaction. If ever I witnessed something that labelled someone a "professional person", that was it. Sadly the system retains hangers-on - time serving incompetents - and the Mr Chubbs of this world are demeaned by that system.

Housing and the underclass

I find it simply impossible to imagine what life must be like for the infant of a teenage single mother on a sink estate with little education, no family support, no marketable skills, no ambition, no drive, no money, no nothing. How is that child going to grow up? What chance is there is of its own future being anything other than a mirror image of its mother's life?

We hear idealists of the left tell us it is all about inequality. I have never understood how my winning the national lottery and thereby becoming a millionaire overnight would be to the detriment of anyone, nor have I understood how giving all my winnings to a Museum of Lightbulbs the next day would improve matters for anyone; yet each would have that effect if the mere fact of inequality is causative.

We also hear that the underclass need "support" through a vast army of social workers, advisers, and counsellors. If that cured the problem there would now be no problem. Yet the more "support" people are given the more they seem to need, not in every case but in so many that one has to ask whether the exercise is worthwhile.

One thing that seems to be a constant in the underclass is depressed and depressing housing, the "sink estates". There can be no better example of (possibly well-intentioned) socialist policies making things worse for everyone. It was claimed that these estates would give "the poor" modern housing they could be proud of and a strong sense of community. The theory was that "the poor" were victimised if they lived next door to the wealthy. The victimisation theory worked on many levels, the most often stated aspects were that poor people suffered a loss of dignity by seeing their neighbours enjoying a lifestyle they do not have themselves and the poor are always snubbed by the wealthy and made to feel worthless.

At heart it is all about the leftists' love-affair with social class, for them class is everything. Someone from humble roots who qualifies as an accountant and earns enough to buy a nice house and drive a nice car is a traitor to his class and must be denounced (unless he donates money to leftist causes in which case the only difference is that he will not be denounced to his face). Someone from a wealthy family who falls on hard times is not one of "the poor", he is a toff who has achieved his just desserts. Social mobility and the concept of a classless society are the last thing these people want to recognise because it destroys the very foundations of their beliefs.

Massive concrete estates built to accommodate the poor would be happy places, so the leftist theory goes, because everyone would be among their own class. Best of all would be to put them in a modern tower block with lifts. Not only would they live among their own class but they would have lifts which only the toffs had before. That's one in the eye for the enemy.

The reality, of course, was that bringing together the poorest people also increased the concentration of those who are poor because of their own unsociable behaviour. One yobbo in a terrace of 50 houses can only do so much harm and if he can be influenced by good examples there is a chance of changing his ways. Give him 40 yobbo neighbours and the power to wreak havoc is increased by far more than 40-fold, and the influences on him to change his ways are negligible.

Sink estates are self-perpetuating. Those unfortunate enough to be housed in them have their lives blighted by gangs of, frankly, scum. Some are able to escape but for those who cannot life can be a constant misery, prisoners in their own homes.

If we are to tackle the problem of the underclass our first priority must be to ensure that as few as possible join the group. Demolish the sink estates. Build new estates in small squares and closes with no more than 10 or 12 houses down each avenue or cul-de-sac. Build small houses with private gardens as well as flats. Spread the known trouble-makers as far and wide as possible and give the decent majority the chance of a decent life.

How will this help the child of the feckless teenage single mother? Nothing is guaranteed, but I suggest the mother will get more practical help from a houseproud matronly neighbour than she would from a dozen social workers and counsellors. In turn the child will have a chance of growing up surrounded by good influences.

Would it cost so much that it cannot be done? Quite possibly. Solving the mess left by socialist folly is always expensive and it takes time. We could aim at one estate a year to start with. I doubt that taxpayers' money would ever be better spent.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Will children's shoes become a priority?

With a general election two years away and the economy suffering deep torment I wonder whether we are likely to see a change in priorities from the major parties.

When the people are feeling good about the economy you do not grab their attention by saying "we propose more of the same" and you do not grab their agreement by saying "you might think it's working but it's actually a mess", the reaction to such policy announcements from the crucial Mr & Mrs Average is "it's working nicely for me thank you very much, kindly go boil your head".

Similarly, the once fertile ground of immigration had become pretty stony. Mr & Mrs Average are concerned about immigration if it either threatens their financial well-being directly or results in benefit scroungers bumming a free ride off the good British taxpayer. In recent times there has been enormous immigration from, in particular, Eastern Europe and the public's reaction appears to have been generally favourable. Mr & Mrs Average could suddenly get a plumber at an affordable price. And when they chatted to their new plumber they found he had not dragged over six generations of spongers in a large suitcase, rather he is sharing a small flat with five other chaps and sending home every penny he can; his intention being to return to his home country in 3 or 4 years once he has earned enough to buy some land and a car and saved enough spare cash to build a house. Perception of "immigrants" as a class was affected by these direct experiences and the perception was that immigrants were a benefit not a burden.

Politicians must often deal with perceptions rather than concrete facts because Mr & Mrs Average's perception of what has caused them to feel better-off is hard to dislodge by quoting statistics and academic theories. It is entirely logical and fair for them to presume that a sense of well-being and bon homie is caused by the government's policies, after all they now have no difficulty paying for their children's shoes whereas before it was a burden. Even if a theory or a statistic might make them think the government is in error, they will only accept that proposition if they are also satisfied that the alternative offered will make things better - always keep tight hold of nurse for fear of finding something worse.

So other areas had to be addressed in an attempt to tap the public mood and swing it in favour of the proponent of a new idea. David Cameron appeared to tap the public mood with his emphasis on so-called environmental issues. This was entirely understandable while Mr & Mrs Average were satisfied with the economy, he had to find something they were worried about and portray himself as the man who can allay their fears. While the only message being received by Mr & Mrs Average was that the seas will soon engulf us all, concern about their children's prospects was always likely to influence them in favour of the eco-friendly candidate.

But nothing brings a dose of reality and balance like a great big slap in the wallet. All of a sudden Mr & Mrs Average see prices rather than tidal waters rising fast, fixed-rate mortgage deals rather than fluffy animals becoming extinct and ordinary families rather than gas guzzling fat cats being hit with punitive motoring taxes. Because they have to live real lives in the real world their priorities will change, marginal issues will be downgraded in importance, economic policies will be examined more carefully, a more critical eye will be cast on the government's record but through all of this their children will need shoes.

We have recently seen an announcement that £100billion must be spent on such quaint oddities as wind-power generators. Yes, that is £100,000,000,000 of real money. Mr & Mrs Average remember that only a few weeks ago the government was criticised from all quarters for borrowing £2.7billion to pay for their miscalculation of the effect of abolishing the 10p tax rate. Suddenly 37 times as much must be found, that is another 37 tax increases identical to the increase required to pay for a partial cure for the appalling consequences of one of Mr Brown's ego trips. Mr & Mrs Average ask "is it really necessary? what is the real risk from global warming?" They become instantly more skeptical about Saint Al of Gore because a warm and fluffy policy has turned into a massive burden which will cause them to make real sacrifices. And it is all against the background of what they have been told about the economy. "You told us it was ever onwards and upwards Mr Brown. You told us there was no boom or bust just steady irreversible growth. You told us we could plan for the future because everything was stable. We did what you said and now you expect us to pay HOW MUCH?"

The winners at the next general election will be the party whose priorities match those of Mr & Mrs Average. "You must suffer so we can save fluffy polar bears" will be met not with a polite "kindly go boil your head" but with a stern "bugger polar bears, our children need shoes." Blaming the need to spend £100billion on an EU directive will be answered by "bugger the EU, our children need shoes." Children always need shoes.

Mr Cameron should do exactly what brought his party to power in 1979, he should reflect the concerns and perceptions of Mr & Mrs Average. The most successful single message Mrs Thatcher ever put across was that government budgets should be run like household budgets. Mrs & Mrs Average accepted that message because their children need shoes and shoes have to be paid for.

Let the government roll-out its hugely expensive eco-wonk initiatives. These will appear one-by-one not as a coherent single package because they want to show themselves as a party with new ideas, particularly when being accused of staleness. Stand back and say "we are looking carefully at every aspect of this issue". All the while there will be more and more properly researched scientific evidence undermining aspects of Saint Al of Gore's sermon. The time will be ripe, probably 6 to 9 months before the election, to say that the people are hurting too much and it is irresponsible to commit endless quantities of taxpayers' money to a cause which is now questionable.

Mr & Mrs Average will love it because their children need shoes.