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The Big Society, the market, and society: why deficit reduction might actually be a good thing

In Economy, Events, Ideology on July 28, 2011 at 2:07 pm

David Weber

I must admit that I originally intended this to be a full response to James Bartholomeusz’s recent article on working class politics and welfare reform. However, while reflecting on his various arguments, my response to his comment underneath the article quickly became feature length, and an article in its own right:

The problem is, [the Big Society] dovetails a little too nicely with the market fundamentalism that got us into this mess, and the tough deficit reduction plan which has ostensibly been forced upon the government against its will. [emphasis added] Read the rest of this entry »

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Question Time 23-06-11

In BBC Question Time, Ideology on June 24, 2011 at 8:46 pm

Part of a Question Time column

David Weber

Another week, another Question Time (and yes, I am aware that the last time I blogged about this was nearly a year ago).

Normally I only write about this show if a particular question, response or comment sparks a chain of thought, and this week is no exception. The comment, or rather comments in question came during the midst of a rather philosophical debate about the nature of U-turns and, if you accept my extrapolations, could be quite illuminating about the reasons for the proliferation of “big government”, and popular support for it.

The Philosophy started predictably enough. David Mitchell came out in favour of a Burkean view of democracy, with MPs and ministers elected to serve with principle, politely ignoring all populist indulgences and doing the best job they can until the next election. The slight flaw that comes with his argument, that it assumes that all U-turns are made on the basis of populism alone, rather than suddenly realising you’re about to make a rather serious error, wasn’t highlighted in Norman Baker’s opposing view, but it was the basic gist of it. However, more surprisingly, it was a point rather quickly lost on the audience.

Often in Question Time some form of consensus begins to emerge about half way through the time spent debating a certain question. What happened here followed this pattern, with three opinions in quick succession expressing a very similar view: 1 U-turn is careless, 2 unfortunate, and 3 either incompetent or unprincipled.

This is the kind of view that, in the exact spirit of such incompetence, manages to be both excessively cynical and naive. Not everyone realises that cynicism and naivity can go hand in hand, and are not mutually exclusive, but it is often the case. Cynics are often so obsessed with finding negative reasons for mistakes that they make naive assumptions. This is such a case, because in assuming that the only reason for constant U-turns is populism, these cynics assume that the MPs and ministers who rule their affairs are near deities in terms of their inability to make unintentional mistakes.

Whatever your view of democracy and meritocracy, any basic critique of government has to start from the assumption that the people inside it are hardly less incompetent or mistake-prone than ourselves. Or, if you really have a more optimistic view than I do, look at it in a more irrefutable way: 100,000 people collectively are no less likely to make a mistake, than 60 million people individually*, if both have the necessary information at their disposal.

Now, many people assume that the only rationale for government is that situations exist where a specific collection of 100,000 people are less likely to make a mistake than 60 million people individually. This isn’t actually true. The qualifier I added — “if both have the necessary information” — makes all the difference. Most areas of government are there because 60 million people have neither the time nor the patience to make decisions based on the necessary information during their own free time, so they employ others to do it. There are also areas where it has been decided, for better or for worse, that 60 million people should not have all the information to begin with, such as defence and policing.

But in most areas of government policy, people can get the necessary information if they motivate themselves enough, or at least something approaching it. So it is often for this reason that governments make U-turns when a public campaign reaches a certain level of intensity, because the collective wisdom of the public has outweighed the limited wisdom of the government. This does not deny the existence of cynical, populist U-turns — I would myself cite the abandoned Forestry privatisation as an example of one. An intense public campaign does not imply an educated public. But it can do.

Now this is why I fear that this combination of public cynicism and naivety is no certain good thing. For it involves the public not just elevating its politicians’, but also its own abilities. And if, despite their regular contempt for the motives of politicians, the public secretly believe them to be superior and wiser beings, then it is not surprising that big government prolongs itself, despite public dissatisfaction. It is this type of mentality that only opposes government for doing the wrong things, or doing things the wrong way, rather than questioning the need for it to do things to begin with. It can be summed up thus: “the world would be a far better place, if only politicians were less corrupt and did X, Y and Z instead of A, B and C”. This is not just a reason for the proliferation of big government, but it is also a reason for the proliferation of incompetent government, and arrogant government.; as governments which don’t admit mistakes are always the former and quickly become the latter. I don’t doubt that some of the blame lies with politicians — pride is a basic human weakness, after all — but I would suggest that if such a public attitude could be overcome, government might be a lot better for it, not to mention more democratic. (I lean towards the Norman Baker, rather than the David Mitchell, vision of democracy.) Like many problems, many of the reasons for big government start with and must be fixed by the public.

And, almost as if to reinforce my suspicions about big government and the public, the last question was about whether to ban live animals in circuses, and not one person who spoke, from the panel or the audience, questioned the need for a full ban. It’s not that I necessarily oppose a full ban, or support the use of live animals in circuses. I’m not exactly sure where I stand. But it would have been nice to have had the facts debated: I might have learned something, and begun to form an opinion. Instead, a politician proposes something which sounds principled, and no-one felt willing to explain their support for this proposal in any detail. Was this to avoid looking heartless on television? Maybe now I am being too cynical and naive.

*Estimations may not be 100% accurate. I’m no more a model of competence than any politician.

This climbdown is liberal, not Conservative

In Events, Home Affairs, Ideology, Judicial Spotlight, Law And Order, Party politics, The Media on June 21, 2011 at 11:53 pm

David Weber

I respect Ken Clarke, as a politician and more importantly as a political thinker, but some of his reforms weren’t liberal, just as much as they weren’t Conservative. At the heart of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill was a scandal, one which should have been obvious even underneath the noise and fury that erupted over Clarke’s ill-informed comments about rape, but has still gone largely uncommented on, which is deeply troubling. I refer to the damage that would have been done, to a fundamental principle of justice, by the proposal to cut sentences by as much as 50% in return for an early guilty plea.

This is precisely the proposal which the Guardian, in a typical bout of sheer missing the point, described as “a sensible move to relieve the pressure on Britain’s creaking courts”. The latter may be true, but the policy can only be described as sensible from a cold, bureaucratic, and morally corrupt perspective, the perspective of those who care nothing for justice and everything for money above all else.

Has the Guardian considered the stigma which is already attached to being falsely accused of a crime — particularly the most serious and horrifying of crimes? Has it occurred to the sadly anonymous writer of its editorial that there are already numerous incentives for the accused to plead guilty, not out of honesty, but as a gamble for the sake of an easier future? It should have, for such nightmares are frequently reported, and even more frequent in real life. Not only does plea bargaining already exist, but it actually goes far too far. In reducing the cost of justice it perverts the cause of justice, bargaining away the right to a fair trial. “Innocent until proven guilty” becomes “do you want to risk being proven guilty?” Far from it being “sensible” to increase plea bargaining, it would actually be “sensible” to abolish or at least reduce it — at least from a perspective of moral sensibility.

One would hope that it is for these principled, and most definitely liberal reasons, that David Cameron et al have decided to abandon this “reform”. One has to be sceptical, particularly given Ken Clarke’s reputation for liberalism, and the association of the Liberal Democrats with his agenda for reform in the Ministry of Justice. I suspect that if No. 10 had been motivated solely by liberal principles, it would have held back from interfering with Clarke’s agenda due to a mistaken association of liberalism with the Liberal Democrats. Additional policies announced at the same time, such as a new mandatory prison sentence for certain knife crimes, are distinctly conservative in nature.

More likely is that a tipping point of unpopularity with Conservative backbenchers, and with certain parts of the general public, has been reached; and that the rewriting of Clarke’s bill is a conciliatory gesture in the aftermath of the rewriting of Andrew Langsley’s NHS bill. It is certainly true that the bill had numerous “Conservative” objections to it, not least because the halving of sentences in some cases could have led to very short sentences indeed, for very serious crimes. But this merely demonstrates that conservatism and liberalism are not always mutually exclusive, and that liberals should not be associated with a policy just because conservatives are opposed.

But despite Downing Street’s arguably cynical motivations, the u-turn on this bill is something Liberals should be thankful for, not morose. Liberal Democrats should put their party’s ego (sorry, ‘influence in government’) to one side for a moment, and actually consider if, were they not in government, they would be supportive of or horrified by this particular proposal. Then they should put that response in front of any regrets they might have about their influence in the coalition, and whether the prevailing direction is conservative or liberal, because at the end of the day, it is more important. Real lives, real injustices, are always more important.

Two resignations. Two bad decisions?

In Events, Party politics, The Media on February 1, 2011 at 1:10 pm

David Weber

Before I begin, I would like to welcome our newest writer, James Bartholomeusz. I enjoyed reading his analysis of Labour’s past and future, and look forward to future articles.

On the face of it, Ed Miliband’s recent decision to grant the shadow chancellorship to Ed Balls following Alan Johnson’s resignation looks like bad judgement. It is the most potent way he could have gone back on his decision to sideline the Brown treasury team back in September, when he appointed Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper to shadow Home and Foreign portfolios respectively. Not only this, but there would have been a strong logic in offering the shadow Chancellorship to Cooper instead, given that she came first in the shadow cabinet elections and has taken a less vocal line over the economy. Given that Cooper is married to Balls, this would have been a less than meaningful decision, but it might have looked ever so slightly better.

The truth, however, may be more nuanced. We do not know that Miliband had any real choice in who to appoint to the position. Cooper and Balls, sensing weakness and a lack of alternatives, may have threatened to consider their positions if the outcome was not to their liking. Both have a significant number of supporters within the party, and Miliband must be keen to avoid the kind of infighting that characterised Labour’s last spell in opposition. Without knowing the internal politics of the shadow cabinet, which has arguably not been infiltrated by the media to the same extent as the government, or the previous government, it is hard to evaluate Ed Miliband’s judgement.

What it is possible to say is that events are increasingly conspiring against him. Ed Balls repudiates the nuanced and flexible position laid out by Alistair Darling prior to the last election. He stood for the leadership on a platform laying out his opposition to the need to cut spending at all. This article will not speculate whether or not he was right to do so, but merely note that the public disagreement between Johnson and Miliband over tuition fees will pale in comparison should Balls choose to disagree over deficit reduction. An agreed economic policy is essential.

It is all very well for the political freedom of ideas brought by coalition, but I suspect that this is more workable in government, where the need to make tough decisions is at least recognised by the public, than in opposition. And it is perhaps an irony of coalition politics that people may become more accepting of disagreements between parties, rather than inside them. The opposition’s task in the short-term is to bring a simple, well-defined and credible alternative to the table. Only then can it worry about the niceties of pluralism and diversity of opinion.

Incidentally, I do not agree with those who argue that appointing Johnson in the first place was a mistake. There are two lines of argument: one which points to Johnson’s mistakes since being appointed, which is obviously opportunistic, and another which points to his lack of economic experience or qualification prior to being appointed. The latter holds more weight, but fails to credit his experience in government, which is greater than most of the current government, and surely counts for much more than a degree in PPE from Oxford. The argument also has no evidential strength to back it up so far. If George Osborne, who has been criticised too for a lack of economic credentials, single-handedly wrecks the economy before long, it will be strong evidence that Alan Johnson’s appointment was not a good decision. But unless that happens, we will not know whether economic qualifications are needed to take the role of chancellor.

So much for Reddening Ed. What of David Cameron, whose judgement is now called into question with the resignation of Andy Coulson? For many commentators, the ongoing fallout from the News of the World hacking scandal shows David Cameron’s judgement to be highly flawed in allowing Coulson to continue, and actively supporting him, for so long. I will not pass comment one way or another on the case, however. I know too little about it. I will rather look at a tangent that stems from it.

I believe this is further evidence to suggest the tenuous theory that Cameron is a far more relaxed Prime Minister than either of his predecessors. Although Brown’s government was famed for dithering over certain matters; when it came to the continued existence of liabilities, it tended to be more because of the party political context than because of any evidence of the Prime Minister being particularly relaxed. And Blair’s behaviour earlier on in his tenure bordered on paranoid at times, so determined was he not to lose momentum through scandal. A particular example was the first Mandelson resignation, which was back-dated in an attempt to make it look as if he had resigned the previous day, to avoid the opposition taking credit.

Cameron, in contrast, has shown little evidence of paranoia or dithering. He has wisely kept himself further from the forefront of the coalition in the media than Nick Clegg, investing his efforts (as far as one can tell) in its smooth running behind the scenes. This has worked well for his political momentum, as it leaves those out of the know more confused about his political positions, leaving him more room for manoeuvre and minimising accusations of dithering and U-turns. It also avoids the impression that he seeks to control every area of government, which ironically ended up costing Blair so much control.

So both resignations are at present very open to interpretation. Both risk accusations of bad judgement, slow decision-making and lack of control. Yet as we have briefly discussed, there is in reality very little difference to the way previous resignations have played out, other than in spin. Both were of figures who their employers were less than willing to lose; Johnson because of the political significance of his appointment, and Coulson because of the importance of his job. Both Miliband and Cameron may have been wise to play a relaxed game, letting events unfold leisurely rather than spin out of control as a result of frantic behaviour.

True, the wind may be blowing more in Cameron’s favour than Miliband’s; after all, when have more parties been united in government than opposition? When has the collected opposition lacked not just a majority of seats but also of votes? The other conclusion, which I was uncharitably tempted to disguise, is that this is a key lesson in the limits of pluralistic politics, such a key feature of my reasoning in recent articles. Oppositions, as I pointed out earlier, have traditionally had to put up an artificially united front in order to be seen as credible. This is a problem which needs addressing, but which it is difficult to see a solution to.

Coalition: the free marketplace of ideas

In Constitutional Spotlight, Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Ideology, Party politics, Regional politics, The Media on January 8, 2011 at 9:24 pm

Celebrating 100 posts

David Weber

It is ironic, that a country so associated with the development of a free marketplace as our own, should find itself so paranoid of the notion of freedom of political ideas. I am being slightly cheeky here: I do not refer to political freedom with a capital P: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of movement or freedom of entry into political parties. All such things are long established, and do credit to our political system. I refer to freedom of ideas within the political discourse.

The terms ‘freedom of ideas’, or ‘marketplace of ideas’ are often misunderstood as only applicable in a binary, “1st Amendment/Police State” sort of way, where the only barriers to freedom to focus on are legal restrictions and the threat of violence. Such concerns are, of course, tremendously important, so important that it is easy to understand why they dominate conversation about freedom. But they are the skeleton, without which the structure would not stand, rather than the flesh. What determines whether freedom flourishes is just as much the complex, multi-layered cultural climate that surrounds it, as it is the legal rules which govern it.

Just as if you pump carbon dioxide into the climate unsustainably, you risk turning the climate into a hostile, unfriendly place; if the climate for freedom of ideas is not right, the marketplace will suffer. It is such concerns which are fuelling debate about such diverse subjects as copyright law and patents; libel; privacy law; media ownership; party funding; cuts to the arts and humanities, subsidies to STEM subjects and Tuition Fees; Parliamentary Privilege; Electoral Reform; Devolution; Question Time; and Nick Clegg.

And I find these discussions just as fascinating, if not more so, than the adrenaline-fuelling outrage stories such as that of Paul Clarke’s Shotgun last year, or the Twitter joke trial. Those were undoubtedly the more exciting, more thrilling stories to ponder and agonise over, but they lack the infinite depth and complexity that some of the others engineer. Indeed, that is why outrage stories are more thrilling, because a bare-faced, unbelievable simplicity has been violated, whether freedom of speech, innocent until proven guilty, or any other principle of decency. But one’s mind chews over the detail of a thorny problem much longer than the simplicity of an obvious one. Consider it a contrast between the headline of a newspaper and the quality of its crossword. Though the headline might be why you buy the paper, it is often the crossword which dictates how much time you devote to it.

In case you think I am joking by making an example of Nick Clegg (and I certainly was by making one of Question Time), think again. Nick Clegg, along with David Cameron, David Laws and collected others from their parties, have done more to further the interests of the free marketplace of ideas than any other politicians have this year. Although this may be a small order of merit compared to the champions of libel reform, and the heroes who fight bad laws in court, it is still an important one, and one which is quietly having a beneficial effect in freedom’s favour.

In case you think this is a political defence of the Coalition’s agenda, do not worry yourself. Feel free to hate the Coalition with as much passion as you can muster for what it intends to do. My interest is purely in what it is, for many of its members, unintentionally doing. It cannot be intentional for most of the Conservatives in government to fight against the collected traditions of cabinet government down the ages in stifling freedom of information, diversity of ideas and honesty of opinion. Nor can it be pleasing for the Liberal Democrats to have to expose the divisions in their own party, the limits of its honesty, its crimes of opportunism, and its members’ addiction to doing things together, like mythical lemmings.

Nevertheless, the Coalition is quietly but systematically dismantling much of what is wrong with British politics. It is testing the boundaries of what collective responsibility can censor. It is practically writing a textbook about the limitations of our political system for honouring promises, representing public opinion and giving people a democratic voice. And this is good, because it aids the truth. Britain does not have a particularly democratic system of government. It does not represent its people well. And promises are rarely kept in politics, they are merely normally managed better. There is a long and ignoble tradition of parties spinning their way out of promises, and it is refreshing to see some more bald-faced confessions.

The irony is that until the election, many would have spun these traditions as good things. Evasiveness and dishonesty lead to Collective Responsibility (with a capital C and R). Single-party and undeserved winners lead to strong government. Honouring manifesto pledges in letter but not in spirit is an example of a peculiar marriage between delegate and representative traditions, with MPs making fine independent judgements whilst scattering breadcrumbs of honesty to their constituents. Such is the balanced way in which the British constitution works, it would be argued, long has it functioned and long may it continue to.

Such arguments convey an inability to cope with uncomfortable truths. If what we are experiencing now is an example of constitutional imbalance, then I say we could all do with a continued dose of it. It seems to me ridiculous to assume that the average citizen will worry about the niceties of Constitution whilst being unable to cope with the occasional expression of honest ministerial opinion. It is equally ridiculous to think that people cannot prefer honest confession of broken promises to spin and obfuscation. And the very idea of coalitions automatically leading to instability and stagnation is already almost extinct after nearly 8 months of good practice.

But of course, the truth is that my opening premise works both ways. Coalition in the United Kingdom is being shown to work because the climate is already supportive of it. Radicalism is low, common sense in reasonable supply and if anything, our problem of apathy works to its advantage. If  you compared to Italy, you would find that it has historically failed to cope well with Coalition not because of PR, but because of a climate which has dominated its politics for decades. But even then, Coalition can arguably be used as a solution to division and extremism as well as being a freedom which mature nations qualify for, and benefit from. Part of Italy’s problem probably stems from choice of coalition. Whereas the strength of the Northern Irish system, as I argued in my previous article, is the lack of any such choice, and the democratic structure of the legal requirement, which automatically requires the largest two parties take part in government, and entitles smaller ones to cabinet seats. Of course, such a system would not have worked had Northern Ireland not been at a stage where, in general, it wanted it to.

So Coalition cannot always work, but the situations where it can are varied and diverse. It is a political freedom which requires maturity and a beneficial climate, but wherever it can work it has the potential to improve not only the freedom of political ideas, but the use to which such freedom can be put. Honesty has proved empowering. The Coalition is considering a faster pace of reform than single-party government has given us for a decade. You may disagree intently with what that is resulting in, but freedom is not defined by whether you like the use it is put to, apart from perhaps the consideration of its own long-term future.

It may yet prove that such freedom in political ideas without democratic reform to accompany it, and force it into greater accountability, is dangerous. But the indications are favourable, indeed, for democratic reform itself. The Coalition has a short-term rather than a long-term vision of reforming the House of Lords; a long overdue alternative form of representation, which will hopefully complement the purpose of the House of Commons rather than replacing it. It intends to introduce the Alternative Vote if the public vote in favour, which is a small but crucial reform for polite discourse during elections. At present, the system makes parties all too happy to turn their opponents against each other, which is a malicious and cruel incentive. And above all, the one way in which freedom of ideas is destined to flourish is the utter inability of the Prime Minister to habitually shuffle individuals between jobs like a pack of cards. His is truly the primus inter pares, not just technically.

I would also like to raise a glass to the Coalition for setting yet another example in the Daily Soapbox’s favour, of professional collaboration, courteous disagreement, and “an independent community, recognising that we all think better when people of different views express them clearly”. This is our 100th Post. Here’s to the future.

This is the second in a series of posts considering the nuances of democracy, intended as something of a response to polarii’s epic summer trilogy. Do take a read of that as well, if you have a spare week.

Concerning Devolution, and Democracy

In Constitutional Spotlight, Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Ideology, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics, Regional politics, The Media on January 6, 2011 at 12:49 am

David Weber

Warning: long article approaching

For a while I’ve been wanting to write something equivalent, or at least in response to polarii’s analyses of democracy, not just to outline differences in opinion but also to cover issues which, I feel, were not discussed. The cut and thrust of this article, and possible future ones, will mainly focus (through the prism of a leading issue) of on the general untidiness of democracy; in attempting to define it, assessing its qualities, and outlining solutions. We will start by looking at Devolution.

Devolution has been in the news recently, and for once it isn’t the arguments about a Scottish independence referendum. The new powers proposed by the Calman commission are (partially) being unveiled by the new government, which seeks to deliver a certain amount of tax-raising power to Scotland, presumably not least with the intention of forcing it onto a more equal fiscal footing with England. That Scottish Government ministers are protesting that it will make Scotland worse off in cash terms seems to be evidence in support of this.

I do not have a great deal of sympathy for the Scottish government here, not least because the level of Scottish spending seems unnecessarily disproportionate to England. Obviously, Scotland being in general poorer than England, a degree of higher spending is needed, but for that to extend to free University tuition seems ridiculous, when there is no evidence that English students are particularly disadvantaged by the system which applies to them. Clearly, in this place, if in no other, there is some fat which could be trimmed.

But while the Commission’s terms of reference were the fiscal imbalances in Scottish devolution, I will be looking at democratic imbalances of devolution in general. According to some schools of thought, these are so grave as to override any merits the policy may have, and make abolition of the devolved assemblies the only solution. I am not so sure. I will begin, however, by outlining the case against Devolution.

The first, and most obvious attack, is the “West Lothian Question”. This actually originates from a theoretical question asked by the eponymous MP for West Lothian, Tom Dalyell, in 1977, long before the 1998 Scotland Act came into force:

“For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable members tolerate … at least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on English politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?”

The word “decisive” is crucial, as some might hope this question away as an eternally theoretical one, with majorities never slim enough for it to truly make a difference. This is wishful thinking. Labour governments often rely on Scotland for a lot of their support, and indeed the Labour government in 1979 was brought down by the votes of Scottish National Party (SNP) MPs. More recently, in 2006, the vote on — you guessed it — University top-up fees was won based on the support of Scottish MPs; had they abstained, it would likely have been defeated. Democratic Unionist Party MPs voted in favour of raising detention without trial to 42 days in 2008, which passed by a majority of exactly the same number as the 9 DUP MPs, although that particular bill was rejected by the House of Lords.

Not only this, but there is also a more fundamental undemocratic charge against Devolution. It provides some people more representation than others, creating a two-tier or even a multi-tier system, where geography determines strength of political representation. Thus in Scotland, voters elect not only sovereign Westminster MPs, with theoretical responsibility for everything, but near-as-sovereign Holyrood MPs, with very real responsibilities for Health, Education, Justice etc. into the bargain. The voter therefore has two calls for help if something goes wrong, and, in theory, twice as much leverage in their everyday battles. In contrast, a voter in Herefordshire elects a sovereign Westminster MP and a couple of rather dusty councillors, if they even know that a local election is on. Voters in Wales have something of a half-way house between English anonymity and Scottish power. Voters in Northern Ireland — well, I’ll not get into that minefield (until later).

As suggested by the preceding paragraph, devolution is also unequal between regions. The Welsh Assembly does not (yet) have the extensive powers of the Scottish Parliament. London has the Greater London Assembly which, although weaker still, is far more powerful than most local government in England. So in summary, the picture painted by devolution is a very uneven and untidy one, resembling the sort of painting which attaches a lot of importance to the leaves of a tree but somehow fails to convey the basic structure of the trunk with balance and accuracy.

Such is the case against devolution. And before I go into any further, and consider the counter-argument, it is worth considering the fact that nothing argues for the current system quite so well as the inability of its opponents to outline sensible solutions.

One such solution is “English Votes on English Laws”: barring Scottish and Welsh MPs from voting on English legislation. This has a certain long-enduring popularity, and it is often assumed, most often by Conservatives, that this would solve the Question in a blow.

Now, if there is any one phrase I have grown to hate, normally because it is nearly always misapplied, it is “constitutionally illiterate”. Yet I am tempted to apply it here. Devolution, as some opponents evidently fail to grasp ten years after its implementation, is not the same thing as Federalism. The official power of the UK Parliament to overrule the Scottish Parliament is absolute. Parliament is sovereign. It’s political power is, of course, limited severely by devolution. But this is not to say that it will never overrule the devolved assemblies.

And whereas the ability of regional MPs to overrule the will of English MPs is limited, due to their small number, the scope for English MPs to overrule the will of the devolved assemblies, should they wish to, is far greater. Therefore the only way “English Votes on English Laws” would be constitutionally balanced would be to similarly ban English MPs from voting to overrule the devolved assemblies. Which would mean that for each of the four countries, there would be matters where the UK Parliament had no say. Far from strengthening the Union, English Votes on English Laws would go some way towards dividing it permanently.

There are also more practical objections. There is the fact that it probably wouldn’t lead to equality of representation in the first place, because it doesn’t address the “different quality of representation depending on region” criticism of devolution that I outlined earlier. Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish voters would still have far stronger local democracy than England, although I acknowledge that the situation is almost impossibly complex to assess when it comes to Northern Ireland. But the gravest objection is that it would throw up the possibility of two different majorities being available in the House of Commons, one for English legislation and another for UK legislation.

Such a possibility would not result in, say, a Conservative English legislative agenda put forward by a Labour UK government, because a Labour government would never allow it. The result would be stagnation, or at best, coalition between the two parties on English legislation.

Here is the fundamental problem. People seem to think, against all political observation, that the devolved legislatures are the only important part of devolution. The fact is, however, that without devolved government, devolution is at most a panacea. So quite apart from the constitutional issues, changing the rules governing English legislation would at best only be a half-way step towards the full-blooded localism which has transformed Scottish and Welsh politics.

It is, of course, possible to engineer a more low-key, slimmed down version of English Votes on English Laws. The Democracy Taskforce, set up by David Cameron in 2006 and chaired by Ken Clarke, recommended changing Parliamentary practice to make it convention for regional MPs not to be involved in English legislation during committee and report stages only, without banning them from doing so; thus avoiding the constitutional objections. and limiting the potential for deadlock (as all MPs would vote during first and second reading, thus the whole house would initiate English legislation). In seeking to be so reasonable, the Taskforce created an opposite problem: the solution would be far too limited to address the extent of the problems. Not only this, but the potential for deadlock and odd results would still be very real: a bill could be re-written or sabotaged in committee and report stage, creating a legislative mess and confusion about where accountability lies.

So what other solutions? English devolution holds some attraction and almost certainly far more merit, but would run up against some much stronger political roadblocks. The amount of power it would be necessary to give away even to grant it the same stature as the Welsh devolution would entirely transform the way UK government works, and might alarm even the most ‘radical’ of reforming governments, who rarely give away power with no thought to the consequences, which would be unknown in such a big step. More problematic would be the size of England: with approximately 80% of the people in the whole Union, an English system of government would operate very similarly to the UK one. Such an idea also ignores the political motivations behind devolution to begin with, which I will come to shortly.

So were, or are, the opponents of devolution right? Is it impossible for the system to work democratically, or ‘neatly’? Is it crucial for the future of the Union that the devolved assemblies be abolished? Should we offer the regions (and perhaps Cornwall) an “all-in/all-out” referendum? It is at this point where I realise that I am vaguely puzzled, because no opponent of devolution ever makes the case that before devolution, the UK was a model of democratic perfection. This is because it wasn’t.

In fact, the democratic imbalances inherent in UK government before devolution far eclipse any created by devolution since. In 1979, Scotland went from one extreme of propping the Labour government up to being positively ignored for the following 18 years. Wales was in a similar position during the mid-80s, with Plaid Cymru at one point selling “Tory-free” mugs in celebration of Wales’ utter lack of connection to the UK government. In contrast, in 1997 virtually all of Scottish and Welsh representatives supported the incoming government.

In fact, what opponents of devolution really fail to grasp is that the UK system of government has never been particularly democratic when it comes to a matter of detail. If you wanted completely democratic government, then all elected representatives would govern in coalition. Elections as we know them are about winning. Winning is incompatible with everyone being listened to. In a competition, there are winners and losers, which leaves some people with power and some people without it.

In fact, the only system which comes close to being democratic is the devolved Northern Irish assembly, where the two biggest parties must by law be in coalition, which ironically is as a consequence of their historic inability to co-operate with each other. Winning is only proportionate to a public mandate, and the voice of the loser is granted equal respect as the voice of the winner. The lessons learnt from Northern Ireland’s history should, I hope, actually go some way in helping people to appreciate the importance of taking note of everyone’s voice, no matter whether they conform to a majority, plurality, minority, or just form one person’s opinion.

And this is what devolution to Scotland and Wales also set out to do, to end the ludicrous situation where UK politics regularly left regions polarised and often marginalised. Opponents of devolution rather remind me of people stood with a magnifying glass in front of a work of art, moaning about a hairline crack in the middle of the darkest shade, while utterly failing to appreciate the beauty of the picture as a whole. In fact, in my dedication to creating a fair and exhaustive summary of the flaws of devolution, I have been rather complicit in this myself. No doubt there is still much room for improvement. England lacks the local voice that, in time, it may find it needs. Westminster could do much more to prevent regional MPs from acting undemocratically. And Scottish politics is still alarmingly close to polarisation, with a separatist party viewed as the official alternative to Labour. But Scotland has found itself open to far more political plurality than it ever understood before, with the Liberal Democrats finding a voice in its previous government, with the SNP winning Westminster seats which would previously have been considered solid Labour territory, and with a proportional legislature which has quite failed to self-destruct and has quietly governed on a cross-party basis. Far from being a thorn in its side, devolution could teach the Union quite a few lessons for its future.

Mr Bean’s revenge

In Events, Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Party politics, The Media on December 22, 2010 at 12:47 am

David Weber

Vince Cable famously said of Gordon Brown “from Stalin to Mr. Bean”. Yet it is Mr. Bean today, long since politically deceased, who must be celebrating (or at least mildly pleased). For Vince Cable has suddenly affected a transition of similar proportions himself, and the worst of it is that he can blame few people other than himself.

True, he can blame the Telegraph, which must be furious for failing to fell a second cabinet minister; and Robert Peston, and the BBC. But such a strategy will do little to comfort him: journalists are ever trying to sniff out facts to undermine politicians, parties and governments. And the manner of his falling seems careless: it is one thing to be secretly recorded having discussions with senior party figures and wealthy businessmen, but it is another for these quotes to slip out during constituency surgeries.

In fairness to Dr. Cable, we should take into account the Liberal Democrat fragility. It is understandable that members are particularly concerned about the impact of coalition on their majorities, given their national showings in the polls, and the sense that they will be punished for being the junior partner in the Coalition. It is also understandable that the people they find most difficult to deal with will not be their colleagues or department connections and interests, but party activists, members and voters. It is those people who will be the most difficult to win over.

Despite this, the effect on the reputation of Dr. Cable will be considerable. Having built a reputation for being a sensible pair of hands, long-sighted and competent, he now is dangerously close to Mr. Bean, and does not convey the same easy amiability. Rivals and ill-wishers will have serious ammunition, and his Liberal Democrat colleagues will probably take steps to distance the party from him. He may well no longer be seen as a pivotal figure.

Though superficially it may seem that the Daily Telegraph, and the BBC — who broke the most controversial comments concerning the BSkyB takeover — are the chief beneficiaries, this is not the case. In fact it may be that through being overenthusiastic in lighting the blue touchpaper, they have been somewhat burned. Both parties are opposed to the BSkyB takeover, and this leads to the significant problem that their own interests may be seriously set back in the near future.

The News Corporation takeover bid for BSkyB, the subject of Dr. Cable’s political near death experience, now looks healthier. Had Dr. Cable kept his cards to himself, he may well have been able to block the takeover even if few independent justifications were at hand. However, with his stated intention to “declare war” on Murdoch’s “empire”, and “win”, the government’s decision will be far more explosive. Add into the equation the EU regulator’s recent green light, and the future looks rosy for Murdoch.

The Telegraph, however, was one of the signatories to the letter opposing Murdoch’s bid, sent to the Business secretary, Dr. Cable himself, only recently. And this may be the reason why it was the BBC who released the most controversial part of the story, concerning Murdoch’s “empire”, and not the Telegraph. That certainly appears to be the claim of the original whistleblower, who complained about the way the Telegraph was releasing the information.

Yet it is difficult to see how the Telegraph could have avoided this story emerging, particularly after giving such a high profile to the first part of the story (concerning Dr. Cable’s relationship with the Coalition). Indeed, from the very moment when the investigation was successful, it must have only been a matter of time before the information emerged into the public domain. Perhaps they intended to make certain of Dr. Cable’s resignation, by releasing the quotes at a time which maximised damage. Or perhaps they intended to bury the more dangerous comments about News Corp, to favour their own interests. We will never know.

So who are the winners in this? It is David Cameron who must now be feeling pleased. Dr. Cable owes his position to him, which will make him far less of a problem for the time being, and easier to remove in the future, as his party will be keen to end their reliance on him.Thus the Liberals’ standing in the coalition is reduced, and Cameron’s control over his government increased. Better still, the issue of Conservative party relations with News Corp, a thorny issue, may yet resolve itself in his favour. If regulators continue to sign off the bid, his Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, might even be able to approve it with little controversy, and use it to testify to the Coalition’s political diversity of opinion, and the Conservatives’ independence from the Liberal Democrat party. Relations between News Corp and the Conservative party would improve considerably, and the approaching election in 2015 would look that little bit less difficult. Except for the Liberal Democrats…

Tuition fees round-up, part 2

In Education, Events, Home Affairs, Ideology, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics on December 15, 2010 at 1:39 pm

David Weber

Part 2 of 2

These articles were written as one, but split into two parts because of length. Click here for part one.

The next thing I want to focus on is the practicalities of this issue. If one assumes that fiscal austerity made Higher Education cuts inevitable (which I do), how justifiable has the Coalition’s response been? Were they wrong, as Aaron Porter, President of the National Union of Students, contends, to rule out a graduate tax as a viable alternative? How thorough have they been on matters of detail in ensuring fairness?

The first issue to look at is a graduate tax, as this is the basis of most constructive disagreements over the policy, such as the NUS’. It is worth noting as we start that despite quite a lot of strong arguments against it, not all criticism of the graduate tax has been worthy. Quite a number of criticisms have had something of a weasel nature, criticising the worst possible form of the policy without addressing any of the stronger proposals on the table. It would be all very well if these were merely the typical emanations of those who do not know better, but when they crop up in the Browne report itself, it is indicative of a more serious ideological agenda.

Arguments such as: “poorer graduates would have to pay back more”; “it would take time for the money to accumulate”; and even “you could avoid the tax by moving abroad” are simply not credible in the manner they are flung about by most opponents. Arguing that poorer graduates would have to pay back more under a graduate tax is simply childish. It assumes that a government would levy the tax directly on top of the basic rate of income tax, which it would be under no obligation to do. As for the money taking time to accumulate, given that student loans are paid back as a deferred graduate tax, this will already hold true. No new money will come in from the new fees until roughly three years after they come in. It is true that the government loans money upfront to the student by which they pay fees immediately, but the government could just as easily loan money to the University and wait for greater future returns from a graduate tax to pay it off. There is little difference. As for moving abroad, although graduates do now have to make repayment arrangements with the Treasury on moving abroad, this will prove difficult and the Treasury allegedly receives little money from graduates living abroad. If that wasn’t enough, there are also political difficulties. No government of a democratic and liberal nature will want to be seen to use student debt to force graduates to stay within the country, therefore proving that a graduate is not paying their fair share will be very difficult.

That said, I think that there are strengths to the fees system. The first is that it relieves government of the political control it has of University funding, at least to a degree (no pun intended). Any system with a cap on fees is of course going to incur a certain amount of co-funding by government, to prevent public Universities from losing out to private ones (although private Universities currently number only two in Britain). The fees system means that Universities are therefore less often under the danger of political tinkering or sudden funding cuts than they would be if they were funded by taxation.

It can also be argued that government control of the system of funding is more likely to lead to inefficiencies and wasted money than student control. I am somewhat more sceptical of this view than I used to be, however, mainly through my own experience of university and the knowledge that students are, in general, poor consumers. We do not know what the experience of a course will be, in full, until at least a year in, by which point a lot of money is spent. We do not know a great deal about educational methods ourselves, and are not likely to be able to assess university quality in our current positions. Add into the equation the distorting effects of a fee cap, and it is likely that some Universities over-charge by quite a degree for their own courses, confident in the knowledge that the cap makes it unlikely that students will disregard higher quality courses for a cheaper alternative. And just to cement this argument, evidence from America, which has the highest University fees in the world, shows that it is unlikely that an uncapped system would keep prices down.

But there are other flaws with a graduate tax system. There would be no incentive for Universities to invest in the future of their graduates — unless the student paid their taxes directly to their University, which would incur its own problems: high paying degrees would immediately become the market winners, distorting it beyond any level that a market in fees would. Arts and certain humanities courses would only survive by being subsidised by ‘winners’, which would be the death warrant for specialised colleges such as conservatoires and arts colleges.

With a fees system, funding follows the student in a rational way, where higher paid graduates merely pay back their contributions quicker than the lower paid — in the long term, there is little difference between the two. Admittedly, the new system is more skewed, interest means that many will pay back more than what they were loaned, whereas many will have their loans written off partially unpaid. But by taking on all or part of the risk, the government can tame this problem. And passing on a little of the risk to Universities would mean that they had a small incentive to offer high quality courses, without spelling the death warrant for Arts and Humanities.

So is the bill that has just passed in the Commons a perfect solution? By no means. The main criticisms I have, in fact, are a matter of far smaller detail than I have yet discussed, and therefore represent not so much an ideological difference of opinion (unlike many critics) than a practical one. I find myself uneasy about the impact of passing on the higher fees all at once. What private good on the market will suddenly increase in price by 200%? Indeed, if it is fiscally possible, the government would be well advised to accept a proposed amendment in the House of Lords, which would stagger the increases.

I am also concerned by the introduction of interest. Despite the fact that I can see good intentions behind this decision — a growing rate of interest will mean that the higher paid the graduate, the more they pay off — and an upfront penalty for early repayment will prevent the very richest from escaping their fair share. But interest is a clumsy way to ensure fairness, and already the possibility of stricter Muslims refusing the loans has arisen. Though I by no means believe the government should be accommodating of every religious value, this is a clear case where it should accommodate.

The fact that the government is fighting a losing battle in communicating the universalism of this system — the fact that everyone will be able to afford university — is also depressing. Here I am not just critical of the government, which only has so much influence with the public, but also the NUS, the media, and the countless people who believe that their own free University education was the only affordable way to go. No doubt such people would be perfectly happy to pay higher taxes to afford that opportunity to today’s generation of students.

In conclusion, then, there are a number of unpleasant factors behind the recent vote to reform university funding, and increase tuition fees. Not only that, but on some points the policy is wrong, and potentially damaging. Despite this, it remains for the most part a necessary, if unpleasant, reform.

Part one

Tuition fees round-up, part 1

In Education, Events, Home Affairs, Ideology, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics on December 15, 2010 at 1:13 pm

David Weber

Part 1 of 2

These articles were written as one, but split into two parts because of length. Click here for part two.

You’ll probably be pleased to know that I intend these articles to be my last on Tuition fees for a while. On the other hand, my record for sticking to pledges made in The Daily Soapbox is worse than the Liberal Democrat’s record of sticking to pledges made at election time. At least they’ve only broken one.

After a somewhat excessive and unfair rant about priorities of students marching in the recent protests, I intend to take a step back and analyse not just the overall picture behind last week’s vote, and whether it was necessary or not, but the cracks and flaws within the art-work as well. I generally think that despite last week’s vote being necessary as a policy in a time of public spending cuts, there are some less than palatable aspects to the whole debacle and one or two individual elements of the policy with which I disagree. When the government will clearly struggle to achieve the fiscal timetable it intends to and is already cutting deeper in some areas than I would like, it was the right decision to pass on some of the costs of universities to future graduates. But it is a pity that it had to approach it from such an unfortunate backdrop, and it has not got the question right on every level.

The first thing to note is the fact that a perverse situation exists where most of the protesters have the moral highground, despite the necessity of reform. There can be no question about this. Despite the fact that Nick Clegg was clearly more sensible about the issue before the election than most of his party, he not only emphasised a manifesto policy he knew not to be sound, but went to the ultimate extreme of signing a separate pledge in public, surrounded by students.

Some background about the Liberal Democrats’ political traditions is necessary to gain a nuanced understanding of this. The Liberal Democrats like to do things en masse. What better demonstrated this than the speculation that Vince Cable might actually abstain over his department’s legislation? This is somewhat ironic for a party wedded to the politics of compromise and coalition, of meeting people half-way — but we have seen ever since the coalition that there is a significant section of the party grassroots which prefers the purity of opposition politics to the practicality of government. And given the amount of time the Liberal Democrats, the Social Democrats and before it the Liberal party have spent in opposition, this is magnified to a far larger degree than in any party of government since 1931.

Nonetheless, the Liberal Democrats’ volte face can only be seen, in a moral light, as betrayal. They have performed the opposite action to that which they promised their voters, many of whom only supported them because of this. This is more than a simple broken promise, it is one of the highest order in a democracy. However, it is yet another example of the fact that the British constitution works far better when it comes to government than when it comes to democracy.

And unfortunately for the beliefs of democrats, this is not an example in democracy’s favour. The pledge the Liberal Democrats signed was naive and unsustainable, but they entered into government at a time when the interests of sustainability and hard-nosed decisions demanded it. They were caught between a rock and a hard place. To abandon their pledge would have been immoral, but no less so than to stand impotently by and engineer an impotent government. Viewed in this light, in choosing to sacrifice the pledge and join government they picked the lesser of two evils.

Does this lessen the betrayal towards many students, and from many students’ point of view? Not at all. The simple fact is that the Liberal Democrats broke their manifesto promise, and as such they deserve to be punished at the next election. Whether or not they should be is another matter. The British system of democratic government does not often serve the interests of justice well, contrary to the regular claims of its supporters. The 2005 election, in an ideal world and an ideal system, would have seen Labour more comprehensively punished for the Iraq War, but other considerations proved weightier on polling day. The 1992 election would, in an ideal world, have seen the support attained by John Major garner comparative rewards, but instead his party suffered a humiliating reduction in the size of its majority. Elections are often determined by a rag-bag cocktail of issues, which are often quite trivial compared to the verdict they deliver.

So much, then, for the Liberal Democrats’ shocking betrayal. History may attach little importance to it when judging their record in government. Such is politics. The next important moral issue which requires attention is the conduct of the Conservative and Labour parties during the election. Though these fine parties made no rash promises to renege on afterwards, in certain ways their conduct was more insidious than that of the Liberal Democrats’ recent betrayal. It is a fact that for an opposition party, the Conservatives kept surprisingly quiet about the Browne review, and its likely recommendation of higher fees.

This isn’t to say the the Conservative party should have come out against higher fees. But it could have built support for them, rather than merely using the Browne review as an excuse not to talk about it (“we will … consider carefully the results of Lord Browne’s review into the future of higher education funding”). In “considering carefully”, it colluded with the Labour party, by accident or design, to limit discussion and decrease choice on the issue at the ballot box. Such a course of action was, if intentional, clearly self-interested. Labour’s actions fare worse. Despite setting up a review clearly loaded, as shown by polarii’s recent article, to recommend higher fees, it refused to engage in discussion of the issue — then miraculously came out against the Browne review after the election.

So like MPs expenses, in many ways this is a ‘plague on all your houses’ issue, in spite of the visibility of the Liberal Democrats’ betrayal.

Part Two

What to protest?

In Education, Home Affairs, Ideology, Party politics on November 18, 2010 at 2:32 pm

David Weber

To those watching the news last Wednesday, the question of what to protest, and who should protest, was a key one. Those towards the right might wonder what the point is of protesting higher tuition fees, given that poorer graduates will be better protected and universities forced to ensure wider social access. Those further to the left might also wonder what the point is of forcing such a small issue so high up the agenda, when far worse cuts are around the corner. Both will have different priorities, and both will wonder why their are not the issues being protested.

I identify with both these sentiments. Indeed, I see little difference, bar the emphasis on different lines of appeal, between the two positions. They can be complementary. It is their attitude to other questions which sets them apart, not their attitude toward this one. I personally agree with the goal of deficit reduction, provided it attempts to protect the poorest. I also do not instinctively support every cut made in the name of deficit reduction, and I think some of the “smaller” cuts can actually be more harmful.

I think my attitude towards the student protests in London was cemented by a picture I saw recently of an old school acquaintance with a group of friends. Two of them had placards protesting the fees rise. But another had a placard saying “Save EMA”. My view is that if you can’t see the competing values here, you’re in need of some educating.

The fact is that people weren’t marching against the abolition of EMA. They were marching against tuition fees and university cuts. If you thought EMA was more important, you should have stayed away from that march. Also, the sheer lack of prioritisation annoys me. You think supporting university students is important? Supporting core schooling is far more important. That generally determines whether or not you go to University to begin with.

Not only that, but EMA, perhaps unlike quite a lot of University spending, was efficiently spent. It provided a hard-nosed set of incentives so that pupils attended lessons, worked hard and met their target grades. It should be a model for government spending. Instead, it’s being scrapped, and most university students don’t seem to have noticed.

Generally, unless you genuinely think that no cuts to public spending should take place, students should shut up about tuition fees. The settlement has been more generous than people dared hope when the Browne review came out, and the fact is that, to again quote Polly Toynbee, students are fairly low down the pecking order. In terms of upfront support and the ability to make ends meet, they are significantly better supported today than they were in the 1990s, before tuition fees were even introduced. The march against tuition fees might encapsulate student anger, but more than anything it encapsulates mismatched priorities.

Even worse is the rush with which some students have defended the property damage at Millbank. Students have been quick to use excuses such as “the democratic process isn’t working” as a blanket defence for all action “taken against the state”. But the action wasn’t “taken against the State”. It was taken against a private party with links to the ruling politicians, and even then, it was hardly affected. 95% of those affected did not work for the Conservative party. So the vast majority of people affected were ordinary, non-affiliated workers. There’s a less than flattering label aimed at those who disrupt those lives in the name of fighting a battle against the State.

I’m not one to exaggerate, so I won’t use it. But I will say to those telling us to “pick a side” — do you know what that implies? War. Do you know what war involves? Generally a surplus of death and suffering. So unless you can tell me what side I am on — a student from a middle income background, receiving a full maitenance grant, and getting into more debt than the average student — and convince me of it, stop comparing this to a war. It isn’t one. Most of us do not, and will never divide easily into “sides”.

One final note: I agree with people that the Liberal Democrats could actually have done more than they have achieved on this issue. My position is perhaps not the obvious one: I don’t think they could have reasonably kept fees much lower. But I do think they could have committed the coalition to a timetable for bringing fees back down as the public finances improve. I can understand why they don’t want to, however, and it gives me hope for their essential nobility: I’d say any extra money floating around is probably much better to spend on the real losers of public spending cuts, not students.