Friday, 30 April 2010

Non-voters and democratic legitimacy

We are accustomed to at least 25% of eligible voters at a general election not bothering to vote and to a party winning a majority in the House of Commons with anything above 35% of the votes cast. Speculation is rife that the turnover this time will be lower than 60%, it hovered around 60% at the last two general elections and has been in general decline for decades (see here).

Some argue that a party receiving, say, 40% of votes cast on a turnout of 60% lacks democratic legitimacy because it receives less than a quarter of the votes available. Of course members of the House of Commons are elected for individual constituencies on a first-past-the-post basis rather than by total votes cast nationally, but it still seems a bit rum that a substantial minority of votes cast can result in one party being dominant in the House and even rummer that their share of total possible votes can be as low as a quarter.

This is not a post about proportional representation, it is a wibble about how the non-voters should count. The traditional number crunching that happens after every election tends to ignore the non-voters. They are treated as if they do not exist and have expressed no opinion by their decision to stay at home. I suggest a different approach is more appropriate.

It's a matter of presumptions. What should we presume about those who don't vote? Should we presume they are anarchists who don't want any government, Socialists or other types of fascists who want dictatorship and won't sully their principles by engaging in the bourgeois electoral process, religious fundamentalists who believe the outcome is dictated by their god and that they should not seek to usurp his good work? I think it more realistic to presume that they are content to go along with what everyone else decides. After all, what everyone else decides will be the outcome so if they are not content with that all they have to do is walk to the polling station and hope they can remember how to draw an X.

The reason I believe this to be a valid argument is that every person eligible to cast a vote can either do so or not do so, but their decision is made against the certain knowledge that MPs will be elected and a government will be formed whether they use their vote or not. On election day we each have the opportunity to give authority to one party or another to form a government. It is a round-about process because we do not vote directly for a national government or a party we vote for our choice of MP for our constituency, nonetheless each vote represents the decision of the voter to give authority in one direction or another. Because we all know we have the right to give our little bit of authority we also know that failure to vote means others are giving authority for us. Directly they authorise the successful local candidate to be an MP and indirectly they authorise the party with a majority of MPs to form a government. We could use our single cross of authority ourselves, if we do not do so others use it for us. If we do not use our individual little bit of authority ourselves we have no right to complain about the authority of the victorious candidate to be the MP for our constituency or about the authority of the majority party to form a government, they have authority because those who bothered to vote gave them authority.

If you are an eligible voter in a constituency of 92,001 eligible voters and you are the only one who doesn't get out of bed on election day, each of the others exercises one 92,000th of your authority. You are stuck with the result whether you vote or not because the votes actually cast will be counted, MPs will be elected and a government will result from the exercise. You have the opportunity to vote, so you can't claim the outcome is illegitimate because it does not include your little bit of authority. By your default it does include your little bit of authority, you allow others to exercise it for you.

How, then, should we interpret this implied authority given to other voters by those who don't vote? Should we presume it is given in proportion to the votes cast for the various parties? Probably not because none of them could give a proportional votes, each could only give one whole vote. We could, I suppose, presume that in 2005 35.3% would have voted Labour, 32.8% Conservative, 22.1% Liberal Democrat and 8.4% for others because those were the nationwide figures. But that presumes they would have exercised a choice for one candidate or another, or one party or another, and we know they didn't exercise a choice, they stayed at home. The more realistic approach is to presume they are content to give their authority to whoever is the victorious candidate in their constituency and to whichever party gains a majority in the House of Commons.

At the last election Labour won with 35.3% of the votes cast and 61.4% of those eligible to vote managed to do so. The votes cast for Labour represented 21.7% of all possible votes, but 38.6% of eligible voters failed to manage the task. On the presumption I have made, the government could legitimately claim to have the authority of 60.3% of the electorate.

Going back through the elections since 1974 this exercise gives the following figures (I rely on Wikipedia for percentages of votes actually cast and the link I have already given for turnout statistics). In 1979 the Conservatives won 43.9% of votes cast on a 76% turnout, giving them the votes of 33% and the tacit authority of a further 24%, making 57% in all. They followed that with 42.4% of 72.7% in 1983 which is 30.8% of the total electorate in votes and 27.3% by default, a total of 58.1%. Their support remained pretty constant in proportion of votes cast in 1987 with 42.2% but turnout was up to 75.3% giving 32% plus the silent 24.7% for 56.7% in all. 1992 saw a further increase in turnout to 77.7% and victory with 41.9% of valid Xs, which represents 33% to which we can add the 22.3% who found it all too complicated, resulting in the support of 55.3%.

One of the most interesting snippets about the 1997 election, which is claimed by the left to have been a watershed at which the British public rose up as one to demand a change of government, is that only 71.4% bothered to vote, the lowest percentage up to that time. Labour won 43.2% of votes giving them the direct authority of 30.8% and the presumed authority of the missing 28.6% for a grand total of 59.4%. In 2001 Labour secured 40.7% of 59.4%, just 24.2% of possible votes to which we add 40.6% to give a massive level of support at 64.8%. Turnout rallied a little to 61.4% in 2005 and Labour won 35.3%, which was 21.7% of all possible votes, adding the 38.6% who did not vote the total is 60.3%.

There might or might not be anything to my hypothesis but it might help to explain why we generally accept the authority of the governing party to govern despite each one for more than 30 years having received far fewer than half the number of possible votes. The non-voters can hardly complain about this, they had their chance knowing they would be stuck with the result of other peoples actions. Adding the implicit authority of the non-voters to the actual authority of those who did votes has given every government democratic legitimacy.

Immigration and the core function of government

The core function of government - the one issue that overrides every other - is the protection of the people. It is interpreted in different ways at different times depending on prevailing circumstances but it rests on the proposition that a government governs an identifiable mass known as "the people". In the UK it is "the people" that give government authority to govern. That is why, from time to time, we borrow a stubby pencil (that we have paid for) and mark a cross on a ballot paper.

There is a little bit of a problem here, though, because "the people" to whom government must give protection involves many more individuals than "the people" who have the right to vote for the government. Obviously children below the age of eighteen are entitled to protection but do not have the right to vote and the same applies to many adults who are in this country even if they have no legal right to be here.

Although it is the government's primary task to protect both the voting and non-voting public from harm, it is an unwise government that fails to recognise the voting public's definition of harm. Some of that definition is almost universally agreed, such as the duty to protect us from big mushroomy bombs (the potential harm being physical), from invasion by a foreign country (the potential harm being loss of the right of self-determination) and from murder and theft (the potential harm being obvious). Other potential harms are defined by current political consensus rather than involving physical damage to body or property, the most obvious recent example being discrimination on the ground of pigmentation.

In the real world the concerns of the voters are not limited to broad matters of principle. They include, and I would suggest are often dominated by, perceived harms which might or might not actually be harmful but are felt to be harmful by those who matter - the people with their fingers wrapped around a stubby pencil once every five-or-so years. Immigration is one such issue.

"We don't want none of them darkies here" is very much a minority view and can be ignored as a serious issue at the current election, not so for "they come over here, take our jobs and our houses, get us to pay for their children's education and use our NHS". This was, as I understand it, the point made by the redoubtable Mrs Duffy. Either politicians address these concerns or the failure to address them will be reflected in the ballot box.

Once an issue of concern to the voting public is ignored it will just fester. Actually it won't just fester, it will fester in a way that politicians who fail to address it won't like. In answer to the argument "they come over here and take our jobs" the position is either that they do or they do not. If they do but there are good reasons for allowing the immigrants in question to be here, or if they do not, politicians must say so or the disquiet of the voters will not disappear. The same applies to the belief that "they take our houses". Criticism of the use of tax-funded services carries the implication that those from overseas who use them do not pay a fair contribution in tax. This might or might not be so, I do not know. What I do know is that many people with the vote, particularly in areas of high unemployment, cannot be persuaded that their fears are misguided unless someone is prepared to debate the point.

You see, "the public" that has the vote also has the right to define the protection it wants to receive from government even if the potential harm they wish to be protected against is illusory. Ignoring their concerns or treating them as expressions of bigotry is to breach the core function of government.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Bigotgate - the power of a small blog

I suppose it had to happen eventually. A couple of weeks ago my modest corner of blogology was referred to in The Independent newspaper. Those with their finger on the national pulse were alerted to my presence. That much is obvious, now I must make some inferences.

On this blog I usually wibble on about matters of politics or economics, so who is most likely to have become engrossed by my humble offerings once their attention was directed this way by The Independent? I infer it must be people with an interest in politics and economics. Perhaps they read a couple of offerings and decided to delve further, I know I would when first presented with such rich fare. Were I a senior politician facing constant criticism for both his past policy decisions and his public demeanour I would seek guidance from those with better judgment. Is it fanciful to believe that Dr James Gordon Brown has turned to my humble self for that guidance?

Surely that must be the explanation for his outburst against the most famous grandmother in Rochdale. Faced by a supporter of his party who put her legitimate concerns to him clearly and politely he must have been full of thanks that for once he had met an "ordinary" person who didn't consider him a mendacious incompetent. On flopping back into the ministerial limo after the stress of having to talk to a normal person for five minutes he must have been overjoyed. My reaction in that situation would have been to say "how refreshing honest that lady was, clear, polite and ready to give me help on difficult policy issues without demand of a peerage in return; what a charming, insightful and positive person she is." No doubt that was also his reaction.

Then there was the hitch caused by his regular meetings with Dr Shrink from the funny farm, meetings that concentrate on word association exercises. The sumptuous leather of the ministerial vehicle must have matched exactly that of Dr Shrink's special therapy couch. For a moment he was transported to those restful sessions with the provider of his happy pills. He was in full-blown word-association mode. His mind said "charming, insightful and positive", it flitted from there to the charming, insightful and positive words I have offered here for his delectation and, as night follows day, he had to say "Bigot".

This explanation is corroborated by the forty minutes it took him to explain to his victim how the misunderstanding arose. He could hardly say "sorry Mrs Duffy I mistook you for a fat lawyer in North London" and expect her to know what he meant. It takes time to explain things to those who are, perhaps, not already acquainted with ones source of inspiration.

I won't be given credit, of course, such is the way of modern politics. Nonetheless it is gratifying to know that I have played my part in the great election pantomime.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Why politicians have to hide the truth

I am sure I'm not the only one to look on the state of Greece's public finances with a wry grin. It's not that I want the Greeks to suffer or take any pleasure in the fact that they will have to endure reductions in their standard of living for several years. What makes me smile is the absurdity of it requiring a full-scale collapse before political leaders are prepared to say that which everyone on a budget knows very well. A parallel can be drawn to the position in the UK in both 1976 and 1979.

1976 saw the government run out of money. It was spending shed-loads on wasteful nonsense and had extracted every penny it could through tax. Raising taxes further was not an option politically. Voluntarily cutting expenditure was not an option either because ideology prevented the governing party's MPs from voting for it in the House of Commons. Only by borrowing from the International Monetary Fund could the truth be faced because the loan came with conditions requiring reductions in government expenditure. The government said it was not their decision, it had been forced on them by the IMF and they had to do it to secure funding. Greece is in that position today. Decades of over-spending and fiddled accounts has left them virtually bankrupt and they know it, but they also know they couldn't sell it to the people, so they have had to seek loans from outside which (if made, and there are currently obstacles to that happening) will allow retrenchment to occur despite it being against the wishes of the Greek people.

The winter of 1978-1979 saw the UK in a state of virtual collapse. Thanks to the strict terms of the IMF loan two years earlier it was not government finances that were collapsing but much of the framework that makes life bearable was creaking under the weight of unaccountable union barons flexing their corrupt muscles. Their aim was nothing less than to place government under their direct control. At the same time loss-making nationalised industries continued to suck vast sums out of the productive economy. The usurpation of political power by union leaders was rife throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed the first general election of 1974 was described by the hapless Ted Heath as a chance to choose who runs the country, the government or the unions. He lost the election despite his description going to the heart of the main problem the country suffered at the time. It wasn't until we had endured five years of Labour being brow-beaten by their union paymasters, and the inevitable social problems that resulted, that sufficient people were persuaded it was time for a change of direction. That change did not need just a little tweaking at the edges but wholesale rejection of some of the central tenets of the socialist consensus that had existed for at least twenty years.

The Winter of Discontent was not only the last straw it was something that hit everyone very hard, except the union barons. Refuse was not collected, the dead were not buried; these core functions of every government's domestic work were not being carried out. It took something so fundamental and so shocking to wake people up to reality. Even then, the incoming Conservative administration only secured about 44% of votes cast and had a majority in the House of Commons of just 43 seats.

It takes something drastic to drive home the message that the incumbent government has got it very badly wrong and a big change is needed. In Greece there are protests in the streets about the prospect of government reducing its spending. Apart from the usual rag-bag of agitators the protesters appear to be people genuinely afraid that their standard of living will be affected adversely if they no longer receive the benefit of their government spending money it doesn't have. That is a perfectly valid position for them to take because no one wants to suffer a fall in prosperity. It is all very well me looking on from afar and saying the money they received was never affordable by their government, that is no comfort when they have bills to pay and are far more interested in their own well-being than in airy-fairy macro-economics.

People make plans and take on long-term commitments in the expectation that they will not get poorer. It is probably fair to say they also expect to get richer as they get older, but I believe expectations in that regard are generally modest. Certainly people expect pay rises because there is always some inflation and they expect their wage packet to recognise this and maintain the real value of their earnings. Some, perhaps most, will truly expect to get richer if they are in fields of work where they are able to develop skills and experience that make them more valuable to their employers. Whether or not someone hopes to get richer to any significant degree, no one hopes to get poorer over time. Faced with one party saying "sorry chaps, you will have to be poorer" and another saying "we will maintain your income" it doesn't take a genius to work out which is likely to find greater favour through the ballot box.

The difficulty comes when incomes have increased beyond what is affordable. At some stage the overspend will have to be eliminated unless one wishes to be in the position now faced by Greece. By that time, however, the overspend has occurred, usually for many years, with the result that real people have received salaries and taken on financial commitments in the expectation of continued employment at the same level. Had the overspend never occurred they would not have received that money and would not have planned their future in the expectation of receiving it. Once it has occurred the game changes. Then they have a direct personal interest in the overspend continuing. Their whole way of life might be in jeopardy if they vote for it to be eliminated even though they might realise that the current situation is unsustainable.

It is objectively bizarre that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are not saying "Labour has bankrupted the country by spending too much, we need to slash expenditure severely". Everyone knows that is true but the objective truth cannot mask the fact that millions of people with the right to use a stubby pencil on the 6th of May benefit from the overspend. Appealing to them about the need for retrenchment for the future health of the economy cuts no ice if it means they lose their jobs or face a reduction in income. At least it cuts no ice for so long as there is a major party in the election giving them hope that they will not suffer in that way.

We might be just weeks away from following Greece's example and having to seek financial assistance. Whether we are or not, the scale of the problem is not apparent to enough of the great voting public for it to persuade them to vote for a strategic change of economic policy. Were we to face a full-blown crisis after the election responsibility for the necessary reduction in public spending will be laid at the door of the lender coming to our rescue. None of the three major parties could afford to lay the blame anywhere else because none of them is putting the truth before the electorate now. They think, perhaps correctly, that the truth will harm their chances of success on the 6th of May.

What a terribly indictment it is that telling the truth about something of such huge importance can hamper a party's chance of election, but it will always be thus once money is in pay packets because most people will be more interested in their personal position rather than the wider public interest. Our current situation is a classic illustration of why it is so important for government to rule in the national interest rather than just trying to buy votes. No, I don't pretend that is likely to happen in my lifetime, but you can't stop me dreaming.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Recycling and the balance of power

Were I to take up the patio at FatBigot Towers and lay a new one I would have to dispose of the old paving slabs and incedental detritus. It's not the sort of thing you can put in the dustbin so I would have to hire someone specifically for the task. There are lots of such people around, for a few quid they will take just about anything. I have used them a few times over the years.

It was an interesting experience. By the way they carried on anyone would think they were providing a service and their customer was paying their wages. An appointment was made to my convenience, a couple of burly chaps wearing thick leather gloves traipsed over the finest tufted Wilton, followed by a boy with a little battery operated vacuum cleaner. The heavy stuff was collected, carried back the way they came and the boy ensured any crumbs of concrete or mud that fell to the floor were picked up immediately. I handed over some small paper portraits of Her Majesty, they said thank you and all was well with the world.

I wasn't doing them a favour, I was paying for a service. They weren't doing me a favour, the were providing a service in return for money. It was a perfect example of what a service is - the provision of something that one person wants or needs and either cannot do himself or cannot do as efficiently and easily as someone else.

The world of normal domestic refuse disposal seems to operate in a different way these days, but it was not always so. There have always been two aspects to refuse disposal, it not only gets rid of stuff that would otherwise get in the way but there is also a serious public health aspect by which waste products that might cause harm or attract vermin are removed and disposed of more safely. This is very much a service and, like my blokes with thick leather gloves, must be paid for or it cannot be done. I have no doubt that it is the single most important function of local government in the UK.

And to my mind it is a legitimate function of government because the health aspect is so important that only a branch of government, with the power of compulsion can ensure the risks of uncollected waste are kept within reasonable compass. Compulsion in this field is required for two reasons. First because the service must be paid for and that requires compulsion. Just as a private company providing a service can sue its customer for not paying the bill, so a council can take legal proceedings against those who fail to pay Council Tax (that Council Tax covers matters other than refuse collection is irrelevant for these purposes). Secondly because there can be risks to innocent third parties if someone does not dispose of waste there must be a back-up mechanism to ensure that potential harm is minimised. It might be that the waste itself presents a health hazard, or that it creates a nuisance through smell or that it attracts vermin; each of these is serious if you are living next door to it. But that is as far as compulsion should go in order for the council to provide the service we all want and need. By going that far and no further, compulsion is consistent with refuse collection being something done for us by the council.

Where things have become skewed is in relation to so-called recycling. I opined on recycling some time ago (here), the point I want to make today is not about the recycling process itself but about the way it has been used to change the very nature of refuse collection. Now it is not just a service provided by the council for us and for which we pay, now it is also an obligation we owe to the State and for which we pay even more than before. The additional payment is a result of the absurd EU landfill tax that requires councils to pay, I believe, £59 per ton (or perhaps tonne) of waste sent to landfill sites. Councils don't want to pay more of that tax than they have to, so they seek ways of reducing the amount they send to landfill.

It operates in different ways in different areas, according to what arrangements the council has made for recycling. Some take cardboard, others don't have a deal with a cardboard recycler; some find it more cost-effective to have householders separate glass from plastic, others find they can do it better and cheaper themselves; some take green waste, others think the cost of dealing with it outweighs the saving in tax; and so it goes on. I have no reason to think these things are not thought through and assessed very carefully by each council because the financial ramifications are significant.

Everything depends on what they can negotiate with recycling companies and whether the cost of recycling is higher or lower than the landfill tax. Actually not everything rests on that, some councils are so infested by manic Greenies that they happily waste money recycling despite it not being cost-effective. Nonetheless, the economics of the practice are important for all of them.

One consequence of the need to recycle (whether that need is driven wholly or only partly by the landfill tax) is that a new area of compulsion arises. If we little people do not sort our recyclable rubbish from our other rubbish there is a penalty for the council. That penalty is primarily through paying more landfill tax than is necessary although there is also legitimate democratic pressure on council officers to comply with every mad policy adopted by Greenie councillors; either way they either accept the penalty or they have to force us to help them avoid it. Of course they dress-up fixed penalty charges as necessary to "save the planet" when they are nothing of the sort, they are imposed in order to change behaviour so that the council keeps its costs down and does what elected councillors require it to do.

Refuse collection is still a service we pay the council to perform but it now has an additional layer in which the roles are reversed. Part of the process is now a service we perform for the State. Where doing so helps to keep down the cost of refuse disposal there is an obvious benefit to us, but only because of a tax that has no point in this country because we have centuries of landfill capacity. The cost of that benefit is that, in yet another area, our ordinary everyday lives involve an obligation to the State that previously did not exist whilst at the same time the cost of the State providing a service to us is increased. Isn't it odd how both EU and Greenie policies almost always result in that double-whammy for the little people?

There is a way out of part of the problem. Councils could collect everything, sort it themselves and make clear that the additional cost is due entirely to EU and Greenie initiatives. It might be more expensive than imposing obligations on householders and issuing fixed-penalty fines for non-compliance, but it would ensure that the balance of power between the State and the ordinary people is moved one tiny notch in favour of the latter.

The LibDem surge - is it income tax?

Before the election campaign began the Conservatives had a sturdy lead in most opinion polls despite not having put across a clear set of policies to distinguish them from the rotting putrescence of the incumbent government.

Could it be, I wondered, that they were keeping their powder dry with a view to unleashing a full-frontal attack on Labour once the race had really started? Yes, that had to be it. For years any good (by which I mean vote-winning) idea the Conservatives had promoted remained their policy for only a matter of days before the government announced it was doing the same and any significant electoral advantage was lost. Yes, wait until the real thing gets underway then we will see a clear plan for reducing government spending on pointless bureaucracy, dismantling the surveillance state, removing political interference from health care and education and so much more.

Oh dear. It looks like their distinctive policy document got lost in the post, just like my entry form for this year's London Marathon. There have been hints such as the proposal to free schools from political control and the general thrust of the "Big Society" notion, but no coherent plan to roll-back the State and certainly no courage to speak the truth about the real cost of both national debt and the additional debt that will result from a continued massive annual budget deficit.

I suppose I can understand why they have been so timid. The notion that only government can solve problems seems to have become so widely accepted by floating voters that any plan to reduce the role of government would cause people to fear a diminution in their quality of life. Politicians have to be realistic if they want votes rather than just the satisfaction of believing themselves to be correct. If reality is that the nanny state is seen as beneficial by the most important voters, then the nanny state it must be and no more than a little trimming at the edges can be attempted without risking the loss of numerous marginal seats. One argument I don't buy is that Mr Cameron and his merry men are ideologically dedicated to big government. Indeed I think this is apparent from the way the "Big Society" idea has been put forward. To my eyes it involves a concept of ceding control from central government in a number of fields whilst trying to ensure the result is genuine involvement of local people in local decision-making rather than it being removed from a remote central government and placed with an unaccountable local bureaucracy.

So far Mr Cameron does not appear to have succeeded in persuading large numbers that a Conservative government would be radically different from a Labour government. It would not be quite as full of time-serving incompetents but there is no point trying to draw any real distinction between the parties based on the moral rectitude of their MPs' claims for expenses. At the same time as we see the Conservatives apparently failing to make a big impression on the most impressionable part of the electorate we see a huge surge of stated support for the Liberal Democrats in the opinion polls. I am somewhat dubious about the chance of that surge turning into actual votes for the yellow peril, but there must be something of substance that the LibDems are saying that strikes a chord.

As far as I can tell there are only really two policies on which the LibDems stand out from the other parties. One is their support for the abandonment of the UK's nuclear weapons and the other is the raising of the income tax threshold to £10,000. The first does not seem to me to be a policy that would draw substantial additional support from either the Conservatives or Labour during the course of an election campaign. After all, it has been LibDem policy for a long time, those with strongly anti-nuclear views are unlikely to have been Conservative supporters anyway and Labour's strongly anti-nuclear faction lies predominantly to the left of the party and tends not to be floating-voter material.

That leaves the raising of the income tax threshold from the current paltry £6,475 to £10,000. Of course many other factors can lead to increases in support and it is said that the LibDem's main spokesman came across well in the first of the televised debates between the party leaders whereas Mr Cameron appeared somewhat uncomfortable. Try though I might I can never remember his name, I know it's something like Nora Batty. Nonetheless, it is hard to accept that even an electorate that voted for a party led by Tony Blair could switch allegiance simply because of the style of one politician. It seems to me it is far more likely to be based on policy and the only policy they have to attract floating voters is the income tax threshold.

There is a recent precedent for what has been seen. The Conservatives announced a proposal to increase the Inheritance Tax threshold substantially and enjoyed an immediate boost to their poll ratings, a boost that placed them well ahead of the other parties until Nora Batty appeared on the box and received rave reviews in the newspapers just a week or so ago. I might be wrong, there might be something else that is the main cause for the LibDems moving ahead of Labour, but I can't think what it might be.

Once it is clear that the overall tax burden would rise under LibDem plans the tide might ebb, I would certainly expect it to because they have no realistic prospect of forming the next government. It will be interesting to see whether the floaters currently wooing Mrs Batty will head towards the eternally high-taxing Labour Party or the generally slightly lower-taxing Conservatives.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

He'll ask how much I smoke

Tomorrow is the date of my annual visit to the GP for a dodgy-ticker assessment. There can only be three outcomes, the same pills, different pills or an appointment with the undertaker. It's always rather a fun thing. My GP is one of the sensible ones who knows which patients will react to nagging with either a raised eyebrow or a clenched fist.

I have been off the sauce for a few days to ensure my blood pressure will be lower than normal. There is no intention to mislead. Visiting someone who will measure your blood pressure causes a rise in blood pressure, so mine should be at about its normal level when he measures it. An unnecessary increase in the daily dosage of Amlodipine or Ramipril can then be avoided. The beta-blocker will always remain at the same dose as will aspirin and the statin, it is the blood pressure pills they twiddle. Having checked with chums in the medical world it is not normal practice to second-guess the blood pressure meter, so my breakfast and bedtime pill intake should remain the same as a result of a few days of painful abstinence.

One question he will ask is how much I smoke. He might or might not ask how much exercise I take or the general construct of my weekly diet but he will ask how much I smoke. For years I have told him that I buy one packet of cigarettes a day, I used to say a packet of ten now I say one packet because my consumption has crept up. It is a lie, then again it is not a lie because my medical chums tell me the usual practice is to either double or increase by half the level of smoking admitted to by the patient and my daily usage is usually between 30 and 40 little vitamin sticks (as I like to think of them).

What I never say or, indeed, lie about is how much I smoke. I only lie to him about how many I buy because I have absolutely no idea how many I smoke. The question "how many cigarettes do you smoke?" is really quite meaningless because there is no unit by which it can be measured. Some people are assiduous smokers, the ciggy is in the hand from the moment it is lit until the moment the last possible shred of tobacco has burned and puff furiously between those times. Others take an occasional drag and leave a long stub. Or you could puff furiously but leave a long stub. Or take regular but not incessant drags and leave any length of stub. Or the bus could come, requiring you to discard whatever is left of your heavily taxed sinful pleasure. Or or or. In each case a cigarette has been smoked to some degree or another.

The person who smokes every possible morsel of his little treat cannot smoke more than one cigarette for each cigarette he ignites. The person who takes one drag and then leaves it in the ashtray until it is burnt to the filter has also consumed one cigarette, although he has taken into his black lungs only a small fraction of the supposedly noxious fumes emitted by his conflagratory companion. If each of these chaps buys forty ciggies a day and treats each one in the way I have described how should they answer their doctor when asked "how many cigarettes do you smoke?" It would be accurate for them each to say "forty", yet that would tell the doctor absolutely nothing other than that his patient takes some tobacco smoke into his system forty times a day. How much he takes cannot be ascertained without further questioning, which rarely if ever happens.

Were such additional questioning to happen I wonder what the answers could tell the medical people? "I smoke forty a day and suck every last dribble of first hand smoke", "I smoke forty a day but only have one puff every ten minutes and don't inhale deeply", "I smoke forty a day, sometimes take a lot of the ciggy and sometimes take a puff or two and the rest drops as ash into my keyboard", "I smoke forty a day and have no idea how much of each ciggy I consume and how much burns gently in the wind" ... they are all forty-a-day smokers yet three out of the four probably inhale less tobacco smoke than a ten-a-day dedicated deep inhaler. There is no way in the world of any medical person being able to fine-tune treatment on hearing that someone "smokes" forty-a-day rather than ten or twenty.

Since my GP is not in a position to draw any clear conclusion, or to determine the appropriate treatment for my dodgy-ticker, from me saying I smoke ten, twenty, thirty, forty or more ciggies, I prefer to tell him the truth dressed in a lie. I will tell him I buy one pack of twenty every day (actually it's nineteen, not twenty but that just confuses things). He will note down that I buy/smoke thirty or forty and we will both be happy. His note will be correct, I know his interpretation of what I say will result in his note being correct, he won't waste time with advice on ways to give up smoking because he knows me better than to waste his breath like that, I will leave with a prescription for my pills for the next three months and life will go on. And neither he nor I will know how much I really smoke, nor will we really care.

Friday, 16 April 2010

I didn't watch it

You might not be surprised to know that politics is something that interests me. It interests me very much. When the prospect of televised debates between the main party leaders first arose my reaction was that it would probably be enormously good fun. The first debate has now been held. I didn't see it, I went out for a curry.

I went out for a curry specifically to avoid watching something I feel to be deeply damaging to the structure of politics in this country. I don't mean the debate itself, I mean what the debate represents, I mean the presumption behind it. That presumption is that elections are now about who will be Prime Minister rather than which party, if any, will form a government. More attention is paid to the person at the top of the big party tree than the policy platform. Of course that person has to argue policy and does so from within the confines of a published manifesto but the person is on display more than the policy.

To some extent the party leader has always been a highly significant part of his or her party's fortunes at the ballot box because the leader of the party gaining a majority in the House of Commons becomes Prime Minister, and the British public aren't keen on a patent incompetent holding that position. We last saw that in 1992 when Labour should really have won against a tired Conservative administration that had pretty much run its course. Their choice as leader and prospective Prime Minister was Neil Kinnock. The longer the campaign ran the more his inadequacies were exposed. As usual with those who prove themselves wholly unsuited to high office, he then cashed-in big time with lucrative positions in the EU. Kinnock failed because he was patently unsuited to the job.

Now we have moved to a new era, in which the position of Prime Minister is likened to that of the US President. It is an entirely false comparison. A President runs for election for that office and the people have a chance to vote directly for Presidential candidates. The US President is not a member of either House of Congress. He might find a Congress generally opposed to his position on many issues and there is nothing he can do about it (other than resort to blackmail, bribery and corruption). When he introduces a Bill to Congress he has to take his chance on whether it will be passed, even members of his own party cannot be guaranteed to give support. Over the pond they call it "checks and balances". The substance of it is the understanding that difficult issues require serious consideration and exposure to debate. Even an American President with a nominal party majority in both Houses would struggle to get some measures through Congess because the Representatives and Senators look first to their own prospects of re-election and only secondarily to party loyalty.

There are no checks-and-balances for a Prime Minister with a working majority in the House of Commons other than the occasional rebellion in the House of Lords. Commons business is so heavily whipped by the party machines that all sorts of absurdly bad laws can be forced through, as has been seen numerous times over the last thirteen years. That, more than anything else, is why it is wrong to hold Presidential-style debates between the party leaders. Of course we want our potential Prime Minister to be exposed to scrutiny, for fear that a Kinnock might creep through unnoticed. But giving them the trappings of Presidency without the checks-and-balances necessary to ensure they are leader but not dictator and exposes the country to a dreadful peril.

We are currently in the grips of exactly that peril as a result of less Presidential elections. An economic illiterate was allowed to dictate governmental economic policy for a decade as the price for Mr Blair enjoying the trappings of the highest office. For Mr Blair it was a price worth paying, as his present bank balance shows. Both Blair and Brown were unassailable in Parliament because there were no checks-and-balances to prevent strict party discipline delivering them a majority in every vote that mattered. That deficiency pertains today. It can only be made worse by the general election being promoted as a Presidential race because it will strengthen the power of the Prime Minister without weakening the power of his slavering party machine.

What makes it worse at this election is that everyone knows they are not telling the truth about how they will deal with the government's annual deficit. They are all scared to tell the truth for fear that it will cost votes. So we are being asked to vote for a President and can only guess at their central economic policy for the duration of the next Parliament. To make it worse still, if they did tell the truth the one whose position is most sensible in the long term would probably lose most votes.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Brillo brings the Knife from the Kitchen

I have a lot of time for Mr Kitchen, as I will always know him, the new leader of the Libertarian Party. I also have a lot of time for his blog although some of the language is not to everyone's taste. He occasionally wishes nasty diseases or a painful death on authoritarian bigots as a conclusion to his demolition of their arguments. What cannot be ignored, however, is that he does demolish their arguments far more times than not, exposes them for what they are and then adds some choice abuse. On many subjects he writes with care and authority, for example much of his writing on the great global warming hoax is now becoming mainstream. The "bad" language is little more than window dressing. There is no more chance of him visiting physical violence on the victims of his linguistic attacks than there is of me winning the lottery.

On the first 5th of November stroll I chewed the fat with Mr Kitchen over a few pints and found him every bit as sincere, serious and knowledgeable as I expected. At that time Ian Parker-Joseph was the LPUK's leader. On his resignation from the position a few months ago Mr Kitchen was elected leader. At the time it was obvious that his sweary blog would be used against him. A so-called interview on the Daily Politics show on the BBC consisted of Andrew "Brillo" Neil summarising some of the things said in one post on his blog and asking whether it was appropriate for the leader of a political party to write such stuff.

Some have commented that this was an irrelevant and unjustified approach, (for example, here) but I don't agree. Nor, it seems, does Mr Kitchen who has closed his old blog and started afresh as Mr Knife. Dabbling in politics as an observer and commentator is one thing, asking people for their vote is another entirely.

I know that my vote is practically powerless in a constituency occupied predominately by those dependent on the State, those naive enough to believe big government does good and those rich enough to put their money out of the way before spending other people's. That doesn't diminish my vote in any way in my eyes. It still puts me on a par with everyone else on election day, it is still something my parents' generation fought to retain and it is still something most of the world would love to have if only they could. It also counts in the overall voting statistics which have relevance above and beyond the result in any one constituency.

A new political party has a choice between being serious and being frivolous. I have no doubt LPUK is intended to be serious. It might only have 450-odd members now and it might only be fielding one candidate at the general election, but every party has to start somewhere and I agree with much, but by no means all, of the general policies it puts forward. It represents a serious line of political thought. And that is the problem. It is putting itself forward as a serious, albeit small, political party and is standing behind a leader whose intemperance of expression is so unorthadox that it distracts attention from what the party is trying to say.

Not only does it distract attention but it provides a different focus for attention. With politicians of the main parties we spend a lot of time asking what they really think. We hear them speak against a background of distrust caused by too many years of flim-flam, flip-flop and fudge, so we dig around and see what we can find about them when they are not "on-message". Much of the material dug up by such enquiries formed the basis for Mr Kitchen's vitriolic character assassinations. No doubt he wrote from the heart. He was not "on-message" because there was no message only a calculated analysis of the failings of others. Now he has stepped into the limelight and complaints are made (vicariously, I have not heard any complaint from him) that he should not be subject to the same treatment. Sorry chaps, it doesn't work like that. Sauce - goose - gander.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

The heavy price of stardom

Now that I have been recognised as a spokesman for Britain (I think that's what this article means) it is incumbent upon me to cast aside frivolous topics and launch even deeper than before into the national and international psyche. Topics of the greatest moment must now be addressed when previously I felt they were beyond my compass. Fame has a price and here is where I start paying. I must turn to matters of the trouser.

An American gentleman by the name of Eldrick Woods is rather good at hitting a small ball with a stick, indeed he is the best ball-sticker in the world and has been for some years. He is also rather proficient with a more intimate stick, on which his wife recently found the wrong colour of lipstick. Mr Woods felt it necessary to drive his car into a tree, take a break from work and hold a sickly press-conference at which he vowed never to do again that which he has never been able to resist in the past. Perhaps he really meant that he will never again succumb to the temptation of extra-marital fleshy pleasures, perhaps he really meant he will strain every sinew not to get caught again, only time will tell.

It should be so obvious that it need not be said, but I'll say it anyway. Some people require a lot of rumpy-pumpy to feel comfortable in life and others are perfectly happy with a little bit every now and then. Some prefer to rump and pump with a number of different people and others prefer to have just one intimate companion. Some prefer those younger than them, others like them older. Some prefer the same pigmentation, others prefer a more cosmopolitan life. Some prefer the same gender as them, others take a more conventional approach to the ins-and-out of human anatomy. Some grunt, some squeak, some moan, some sigh, some use objects other than bodily parts, some use bodily parts primarily designed for other purposes and some are happy just to put the kettle on and make a nice cup of tea.

I really couldn't care less what someone wants to do with their reproductive equipment provided they don't do it to me without my consent or to anyone else without their consent. And it utterly defeats me to see why it should be the business of anyone other than those involved.

Mr Woods played away from home. So what? His wife probably claims to be upset, shocked, dismayed, appalled, betrayed or disgusted and maybe she is one or more of those things. So what? What's that got to do with you, me or anyone else? He's not the first golfer to have got involved with a bit of rough or to have treated his wife in a less than fair way and their marriage is not the first to encounter this particular hazard. There is no reason for him to bunker-down out of sight or to give up his lucrative career. Two schools of sanctimonious humbuggery have condemned him publicly and each is a complete nonsense. The first is the "role-model" argument and the second is religious.

The "role-model" argument is that Mr Woods is the most prominent golfer in the world and should set a good example to the young in everything he does. What utter bilge. It supposes that impressionable youngsters will develop bad habits because their hero is a naughty boy. Find me an alcoholic who says "I do it because George Best was my role-model". Go on, find me one. Find me a youthful golfer who turned from placid to violent when John Daly won the Masters or the Open Championship or a rugby player who turned from beer to cocaine because his favourite player was Lawrence Dallaglio. Find me a man or woman who was turned into a serial adulterer after reading a biography of Frank Sinatra or into a kiddy-fiddler as a result of their love of the "music" of Gary Glitter. Go on, find me one. If you believe in the role-model argument please spend the rest of your life hunting for these invisible creatures, it will keep you from doing any greater harm by expressing your deranged opinions.

Then there are the religious zealots who damned Mr Woods for defying their god's law. They are right, of course. He did defy their god's law. So what? What has it got to do with them? If he is a member of their club they can cancel his membership for breaking the rules. If he is not a member of their club their views are a complete irrelevance.

The final round of the 2010 US Masters tournament will start with Mr Woods in third place. He has a very good chance of winning it. Whether he wins or not will have nothing to do with his willy and everything to do with the way he hits a ball with a stick. Whether he wins or loses he will still have rumpy-pumpy sensors that will guide some of his time when not on the golf course. Somehow I doubt that they will be exercised exclusively in the matrimonial bed. Either way, it will still be none of my business and none of yours.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Tax still matters to ordinary people

The single most significant policy announcement in British politics over the last three years was a call to reduce tax. Overnight the opinion polls delivered a substantial Conservative lead from a position of virtual stalemate. The announcement was, of course, the proposal to increase the threshold for Inheritance Tax to £1million.

As the formal election campaign started the first dividing line between the parties concerned a tax, National Insurance. The Conservative lead in the polls, which had been falling, appears to be increasing again after they said they would increase this tax less than Labour.

Everyone I talk to tells me they think they pay too much tax. I really do mean everyone, including businessmen engaged in cash intensive fields such as small shops and restaurants who have (and, I suspect, take) the opportunity to trouser a fair few quid out of sight of their accountants. The point made to me is always the same: "I work bloody hard and don't see why the government should take so much of my money".

There are some who add that others should pay more tax so that they should pay less but I have spoken to no one who thinks they should pay more. Were I to come across such a person I would inform them that voluntarily additional tax can be paid and ask them how much they plan to give. It is one of those wonderful damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don't questions. If they plan to give more they are damned for not having done so already, if they don't plan to give more they are damned for saying one thing and doing another. The question is not just a cute trick, it goes to the root of all arguments for more tax to be levied.

Whether that argument is put forward by an ordinary individual or a politician it is entirely legitimate to ask whether they practice what they preach. After all, what reason can they have for not volunteering additional tax if they believe the current level is too low? It seems to me there can only be two reasons.

They might argue that it is not fair that only they pay more. Were they to take that approach they would have to acknowledge that tax is a burden unmatched by a concomitant benefit. Were it beneficial there would be nothing unfair about an individual volunteering to give the Treasury an extra £1,000. It would be no different from that person volunteering to pay £1,000 to charity when his co-worker on an identical salary gives nothing. Give to charity and the least you can say is that you have done something that might benefit others, indeed there can be no other justification for doing so. They would never consider tax to be akin to charitable donations.

On the other hand they might argue that one person paying additional tax will make no difference whereas everyone paying more will provide sufficient funds for good things to result. This is a sound argument, to a point. Incidentally it is exactly the reason why any step taken to reduce the UK's carbon dioxide emissions is a complete waste of time and money. Even if human CO2 emissions are potentially harmful there is absolutely no point us doing anything about ours unless all the big players do something substantial about theirs, which they won't. That is beside the point but is worth saying anyway. Back to the point, the second reason for not volunteering additional tax rests on the presumption that more people paying more tax will have beneficial consequences.

The prospect of additional Inheritance Tax being put to good use did not prevent a policy of limiting that tax causing a surge in support for the Conservatives. I believe there are three reasons for this.

First, it is entirely natural for parents to want their children to have a more comfortable life than they lived. Leaving the material profits of your life to your children is part of that instinct and has become part of the culture of this country. Inheritance Tax does not lead to the question "why should the government take so much of my money" but a slightly different question, a question of greater emotional impact: "why should the government prevent my children getting my money?"

Secondly, whether you approve of current house prices or not the fact remains that an awful lot of people have a net worth substantially above the current IT threshold of £325,000. You can't get a one-bedroomed flat in many parts of London for £325,000. The proposed increase of the threshold to £1million is not about those with assets worth £1million or more, it is about those with assets worth between £325,000 and £1million. In many parts of the country that encompasses Mr Average. What is seen and promoted as a rich man's tax is hitting the non-rich and they don't like it.

Thirdly, it provided a first dab on the brake pedal after more than a decade of the tax accelerator being pushed ever closer to the floor. The view expressed to me in private discussions was suddenly out in the open as part of mainstream politics. People think they pay too much tax and a politician said, in relation to one tax, that he agreed they should pay less. It was an important moment because it broke the consensus in a way that accorded with the view of many voters.

Of course there are now enormous additional costs for taxpayers to bear as a result of the government spending billions of pounds it doesn't have. But that does not change the fact that people resent paying additional tax when they see no additional benefit resulting. We are not yet at the position of the people saying "we will pay this much and no more, you must cut your cloth accordingly". I can't help thinking that the effect on the opinion polls of the Conservatives' IT proposal and their position taken on National Insurance in the last week might result in that view coming to the fore.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Where is the leadership?

Now that Her Majesty has fired the starting pistol and the official election campaign is underway I am looking forward to a month of bluffs and blunders from both main parties. All politicians issue the occasional slip of the tongue or put forward the occasional idea that falls apart under close questioning, what seems different this time is just how many errors are being made by so many of the leading figures.

I try to tell myself that it might always have been the same and that I only notice it now because I am older and better able to detect these things. Yet I keep finding the same thought going through what is left of my mind - the people at the top of the main parties today are lightweights. We mustn't be too rosily-spectacled about it because there were plenty of pretty ordinary figures in the cabinet in the 1960s-1990s who have faded from memory and would appear just as hopeless as today's bunch, however they were not only few in number but balanced (and overshadowed) by a lot of truly substantial figures.

The current cabinet must be the weakest we have ever had to endure. State their names and the instant reaction of most of the country must be: "who?". Denham, Burnham, Woodwood, Alexander, Murphy, Cooper, Ainsworth, Bradshaw, Adonis, Royall ... who? These are totally insubstantial figures with no history of achieving anything, no notable speeches or policy idea on their CV and no public profile. The remaining members of the cabinet elicit recognition, usually accompanied by a laugh at the thought they could hold such high positions in government or a reaction of hostility resulting from years of incompetence and lies. The shadow cabinet isn't much better. Grayling, Spelman, Herbert, Lansley, Villiers, Hunt, Gillan, Clark and several more ... "who?"

Before the watershed elections in 1979 and 1997 far more names were known. In 1979 most of the shadow cabinet had either been in government under Ted Heath or had been well-known spokesmen for their party for several years. Most of the shadow cabinet in 1997 had been in one senior position or another since before the previous election in 1992. And in both cases they had been exposed to the public as their party's main spokesman in their designated area of policy.

Today the concentration of presentation into the hands of just a few people - Brown, Mandelson, Darling and Harman for Labour, Cameron, Osborne, Hague and Clarke for the Conservatives - ensures the continued anonymity of the others. Anonymity is not the only consequence, though. The concentration of publicity into a few hands tends also to concentrate the making of policy into those same hands and accentuates the recent trend for more and more governmental decisions being taken by fewer and fewer people.

And who are those people? What have they ever achieved? What is their vision for the future of the country? For all I know they might have a vision. People did so in the past and exposed it for debate and public scrutiny. Even the most subversive scum of Old Labour had a vision, we read about it in their 1983 election manifesto; they were not scared to put it forward and face the risk of being exposed as the hypocritical totalitarian filth that they were.

Today none of the political leaders dares say boo to a metaphorical goose for fear of a minuscule drop in the opinion polls or a "tut tut" from a focus group. Principle does not guide them so they cannot provide any real political leadership by letting us know where they want the country to go and what they want they want to achieve. If ever they start down this path they soon abandon it for want of an immediate bounce in the opinion polls.

Perhaps it is the lack of principled policy that causes me to look on them as lightweights, perhaps it is that far too few of them have had a proper job or excelled when they did have one, perhaps it is that I am now older than most of them, perhaps it is that I give unmerited weight to some of their predecessors, perhaps it is that I am frustrated by their desire to hide the truth about the long-term cost of the current state of the government's accounts. One thing is certain, however. You cannot lead a country effectively unless you have a clear plan because you will lurch from crisis to crisis by nothing other than the jerk of a knee. We've had more than a decade of that. Enough is enough.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Taking money out of the economy

Sometimes I read something so obviously upside-down that I think I must be missing the point. So it is with the result of the long weekend's thinking by the current government spin team. In a nutshell, the government plans to increase employers' National Insurance contributions whereas the opposition say they would increase them by less. The Prime Minister and Chancellor mounted a twin attack, both of them saying the Conservatives' approach would "take money out of the economy". It's so very bizarre that I have had to wrap a cold towel around my chins in order to try to make sense of it.

As a general rule it's sensible to start at the beginning, so I will. Employers' NICs are a tax payable by an employer as a penalty for having the effrontery to give someone a job in the private sector. Income tax and employees' NICs are deducted from the gross wage or salary so that the employee receives less than the headline amount they earn. Increases in these taxes do not require the employer to pay more for the same job. But employers' NICs are a tax payable by the employer in addition to the contractual wage or salary. Any increase adds to the costs of the business.

Call me a simple fellow if you will, but it seems to me that when Mr Patel has to pay extra to employ old Doris on the till that money must come from somewhere and go somewhere. We know it comes from Mr Patel because he's the mug who pays her wages. So, paying this additional tax takes money from the economy in that it reduces Mr Patel's spending power and might mean he has to satisfy himself with fewer extras when next he visits Madame Fifi's Sauna and Hanky-Panky Parlour. In the language so beloved of our Keynesian friends, it reduces aggregate demand. The other side of the coin is that the money goes to the Treasury to be spent on something, we know not what. On the face of it the reduction in spending power caused to Mr Patel is matched by an increase in spending power for the lucky recipient of his largesse. One set all, new balls please.

It follows from this that if Labour wishes to bleed Mr Patel for an extra £15 a week and the Conservatives want to take only an additional £7.50 nothing at all is lost from the economy. The same amount of cash is sloshing about except that on one proposal £15 of it sloshes at the Treasury and on the other that £15 is split equally between the Treasury and Mr Patel. You see my problem? Where is the loss?

No doubt you could invent ways in which leaving money in the private sector amounts to a loss to the UK economy, for example if it is paid as dividends to overseas investors and therefore leaves these shores (subject to such tax, if any, that they pay on it over here). There could also be a drop in aggregate demand if some of the money is saved rather than spent and, on a particularly warped view of reality, that could be said to be a loss to the economy. Again, however, that is to look at only one side. Marginal businesses can be tipped over the edge by modest increases in their staffing costs and a reduction in profits reduces the money available for investment (I mean real investment not government-speak investment). And what happens to Mr Patel's money once the government has it? We know it will be spent but also know that a lot of it will not be spent on anything that adds value. We also know that interest payments on government debt will not all stay within the UK economy.

The argument that taking less tax removes money from the economy is moronic humbug. If they were concerned about taking money from the economy they would not have racked-up hundreds of billions of pounds of debt on which interest must be paid. And if they were honest they would say "we need to take more tax because we are spending too much and we think there might be more votes in taking it from filthy capitalist pig employers than by raising taxes that the little people will feel directly."

It seems to me there is something more sinister behind this piece of spin. Taking it at face value they are saying that government spending is of net value whereas private sector spending is a net cost to the country. It is obvious nonsense and we know it is nonsense because they claim recovery from recession will be fuelled by private-sector economic growth. Nonetheless, it sets the scene and tells the lie they want the little people to believe, namely that everything government currently does is essential and beneficial and once we are over the current difficulties the government can be even more beneficial by doing even more things. There is not a hint of them looking to cut-back the number of things government does in order to balance the books and make a start on repaying the enormous debt their incompetent profligacy has created.

What is even more worrying is that the Conservatives do not seem to want to grasp this most essential nettle either. We can argue about the benefits of street football consultants, grants to the arts, five-a-day advisors and carbon footprint investigators until the cows stop farting. Perhaps there is some benefit perhaps there is not. What is certain is that these sorts of activities are fripperies, they are luxuries, they are most certainly not essential. The only way we can make any serious inroad into the annual deficit and then into the massive accumulated debt is by cutting out spending on non-essential things.

I wonder whether the heart of the problem is the seductive concept of aggregate demand. An awful lot of UK GDP depends on consumer spending. In the private sector wages and hours are being cut so that businesses can survive and one consequence of that is that the employees have less to spend and, therefore, their local shops and eateries are suffering. There is a superficial attraction in maintaining levels of public-sector pay and employment so that the detrimental effect of private-sector belt-tightening is not exacerbated by public sector employees also spending less. The attraction is only superficial because the private sector is dealing with reality whereas the public sector is seeking to avoid reality.

There is no escaping the fact, for fact it is, that we simply cannot afford all the things we enjoyed three years ago. One could say we couldn't really afford them then but that is beside the point. We did pay for them and now we can't so we have to cut them out of our budget. There is no escaping that in the private sector because there is no magic money tree - you cut costs or you go bust. If you go bust everyone loses their job so people have agreed pay deferrals or pay cuts or reduced hours or to cover a vacancy using existing staff without any additional pay because they know the short-term saving in costs might allow them to have a job next month and next year. It is a great example of the benefits of breaking union power, a task which cost lots of jobs in the 1980s. The result is that businesses which would have had to fold a generation ago can now survive. They will still have to keep their fingers crossed about what the future holds but at least they now have a future.

You can bleat as much as you like about aggregate demand but that won't keep alive a struggling business. Only cutting its costs will keep it alive. You can say "you must keep paying your people the same amount otherwise they can't spend and other businesses might fold" to which the answer is "so you want me to fold instead and guarantee that those other businesses fold too". That is the reality.

Maintaining public sector spending will mean more cash in the tills of the businesses the public sector employees frequent but it comes at a cost. That cost is the need to raise additional taxes to pay the shortfall between current tax receipts and government spending and that has an effect on future spending power which necessarily dampens future aggregate demand which, in turn, makes it all the more difficult to generate the income from which those additional taxes are paid.

I've been more than usually circuitous today, but we are now back where we started. Taking one amount rather than another in tax does not take money out of the economy. But taking money out of the private sector inevitably prevents as much wealth and money being generated as would occur if you left that money where it was. The reason for that is that only the private sector can make the stuff to replace what we consume every day. A factory making bread doesn't just pump-up aggregate demand by paying wages that are then circulated around the system, it also makes something that is needed. Take tax from the business and from its employees and you reduce their ability to spend thereby reducing aggregate demand. Pay that tax money to a five-a-day advisor and there is no change to aggregate demand because it is taken from one person who would spend and given to another who has exactly the same amount to spend. But you don't get any bread from a five-a-day advisor's work. We are worse off not better off by keeping these non-value-added jobs.

That is what the politicians should be debating because we simply cannot afford roughly a quarter of what the government currently spends and that proportion will increase as they continue to overspend and incur further interest charges.