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Blogs 2010-2012

Publications archive

Contributions to Ideas@TheCentre, 2010-2012

Dutiful but defeated (23 November 2012)

Whenever anyone suggests tightening up welfare eligibility rules, the welfare lobby invariably attacks the idea as unnecessary and mean-spirited. People on benefits would much prefer to be working, they tell us. Life on benefits is hard, and nobody would voluntarily choose that over employment. There is therefore no need to tighten eligibility rules, for if jobs were available, benefit recipients would surely take them.

Statistics released last week suggest that, in the UK at any rate, this argument is wrong.

One set of figures relates to people claiming the Incapacity Benefit (the equivalent of Australia’s Disability Support Pension). There are 1.5 million people on this benefit in Britain, and it costs the taxpayers £13 billion every year to support them. Some of us have long suspected that a significant proportion of these claimants are perfectly capable of working, and so it has been proven now.

All existing incapacity benefit claimants are being reassessed in Britain, and those found capable of working are being transferred to the (less generous) unemployment allowance, where they are expected to look for a job. In the 18 months to February 2012, 431,100 claimants were re-assessed, and 145,000 of them were found to be fit for work. Almost 40,000 of these claimants had been claiming Incapacity Benefit for more than 10 years.

Many of those assessed as 'fit for work' appeal against the decision, and 9% of assessments are eventually reversed, but this still means almost one-third of claimants have been using the Incapacity Benefit to avoid looking for a job.

A second set of figures relates to unemployment benefit (the equivalent of Australia’s Newstart Allowance). A scheme was introduced in May last year under which unemployed claimants deemed lacking the ‘personal skills’ necessary to find and keep a job (i.e. those thought to be work-shy) are required to undertake a one-month work placement. If they refuse, or fail to complete the placement, they can lose their benefit for three months; repeated failures trigger longer sanctions.

In the first 15 months of the scheme, 90,000 claimants were referred to a work placement – but only 33,000 turned up. The rest either found themselves jobs, or simply stopped claiming (some undoubtedly already had jobs in the ‘black economy’ so they couldn’t fulfil the work placement as well).

Welfare analyst Lawrence Mead suggests that most people on welfare say they would prefer to work, but when it comes to the crunch, many fail to accept the employment opportunities on offer. Mead says they are ‘dutiful but defeated’ – they know they should be working, but they have given up.

These latest UK figures strongly support Mead’s analysis. The welfare lobby’s assertion that the vast majority of people on benefits would prefer to be working reflects what welfare claimants say but not what they do. To get welfare numbers down, it’s not enough to help claimants find jobs. You also have to hassle them into taking them. And that is the compelling case for tightening eligibility rules.

Too scared (19 October 2012)

Seven British soldiers serving in Afghanistan are facing a murder charge for shooting and killing a Taliban insurgent following a fire fight. The details of what happened are sketchy and the case is sub judice, but on the face of it, it seems odd to prosecute soldiers for killing insurgents when that is precisely what we sent them to Afghanistan to do.

The UK newspapers these days are filled with such oddities.

A 52-year-old female deputy head, confronted by a six-year-old who sat on the floor and refused to go into class, picked him up under his arms and dragged him in. She was dismissed.

So too was a 59-year-old male teacher who reacted to a pupil throwing a milkshake over him by aggressively pinning the unruly boy’s arms by his side, and forcibly pushing him into his chair.

The police, too, are in trouble for doing their job. At an unruly demonstration in London a few months ago, one officer shoved a man who had been told to move. The man (who turned out to be an alcoholic) fell to the ground, cracked his head on the pavement, and later died. The officer was dismissed from the force and put on trial for manslaughter (the jury acquitted him).

This week there was a report of another officer being dismissed after 12 years of service. He had arrested a youth with a long record of troublemaking, brought him to the station, and ordered him to turn out his pockets. When he refused to do so, the officer pushed his arm up behind his back and forced him over the desk.

Reading this last case put me in mind of the 1982 essay on ‘broken windows’ policing by Wilson and Kelling. What everybody knows about this essay is its recommendation of ‘zero tolerance’ – stamp down on the small infractions and you’ll stop the big ones from developing. What is less often remembered is the authors’ crucial insight about the traditional role of the police.

Policing, they say, used to be more about maintaining order than solving crimes. Police officers traditionally enjoyed discretion to nip trouble in the bud. A ‘clip round the ear’ was often more effective than a formal arrest and charge. But any copper who tries that nowadays will lose his or her job and quite probably end up in court.

Our problem is that big state bureaucracies – the army, schools, police – find it difficult coping with individual initiative or making room for commonsense. My favourite sociologist, Max Weber, recognised this when he distinguished ‘formal’ from ‘substantive’ rationality. Bureaucracies, he warned, are driven by formal rules. This leads to an emphasis on box-ticking, even while the substantive purpose for which they were set up goes unrealised.

Weber thought we can do little about this, for the only alternative to dull, bureaucratic conformity is dilettantism. But sometimes we need people to turn a blind eye, to fudge the strict interpretation of rules, to seek out the grey areas. Otherwise, we’re going to end up with soldiers too scared to fight, teachers too timorous to teach, and police officers too cowed to tackle crime and disorder.

A Fair Welfare System (24 August 2012)

There is a recurring tension in welfare policy between those who insist that the vulnerable and needy must be helped, and those who worry that too much help can weaken the work ethic and undermine self-reliance. The Left takes the moral high ground in these arguments by demanding that people in need be helped, even if this means higher taxes. The Right’s more practical arguments about costs and perverse incentives often seem mean spirited in comparison.

What both the Left and Right often overlook is that there are two core moral principles underpinning the welfare state. One is the care principle emphasised by the Left – nobody who needs help should be denied assistance. But the second has to do with fairness, or what Jonathon Haidt in his recent book, The Righteous Mind, calls the ‘proportionality’ ethic. People must be helped, but the way we do it must be fair.

Haidt shows that many of our fundamental moral ideas are instinctive, honed through thousands of years of human evolution. Studies on infants show that caring about the suffering of others is one such instinct – even at six months, we know it is wrong to harm others and right to help them.

Similarly, Haidt outlines a number of psychological experiments demonstrating that we also have an instinctive sense of fairness – a feeling that people shouldn’t take without contributing, and that it is wrong to free ride on others.
Our instinctive desire for fairness as well as compassion suggests that any welfare system should conform to at least three basic rules.

First, people on welfare should never be better off than those who work. This applies financially (work should always pay better than benefits) but also in terms of time (people on welfare should not enjoy more free time than those who work). Here is the moral argument for workfare. Research shows that activity conditions attached to welfare often fail to help recipients find jobs, but this is not their prime purpose (even though politicians pretend it is). The point of workfare is to make the welfare system fairer.

Second, everyone in need must be helped, but not necessarily in the same way. Those who have contributed through taxes should be treated more generously than those with weak or non-existent employment records, and people whose behaviour has led to their own misfortune should be subject to different conditions than those who are victims of circumstances beyond their control. People unable to work because of drug addiction, for example, should not be treated in the same way as other ‘disabled’ claimants but should be required to undergo treatment as a condition of receiving benefits. The Left often rails against distinguishing the ‘deserving’ poor from the ‘undeserving’ poor, but this distinction is actually fundamental to a fair welfare system, and today it is too often neglected.

Finally, we should not expect strangers (taxpayers) to help before people have tried to help themselves, and this includes seeking assistance from close family members. In Germany, the Civil Code requires children, parents and grandparents to support each other, so if, say, a father cannot or will not pay child support, his parents are expected to make up the difference. Similar rules apply in Japan and throughout Asia. Again, the Left is often resolutely opposed to policies like these, but they are an essential component of a fair system. As the adage has it, charity begins at home.

Britain's Olympic fever (2 August 2012)

Most people in Britain think the Olympic Games opening ceremony, staged in London last Friday, was spectacularly successful in projecting ‘Britishness’ to the world. In place of the regimented pomp of Beijing, we had Mr Bean sending up Sir Simon Rattle as he conducted the London Symphony Orchestra, and the Queen leaving her corgis at Buck House to parachute into the stadium with James Bond.

Although I suspect millions of viewers in Vladivostok and Tianjin would have turned off their television sets in complete bewilderment, the home audience loved it. The ceremony created an idealised image of a country that is basically liberal, decent, creative and a bit whacky, and most Brits were happy to endorse this self-image. For one night, millions of us were genuinely proud to be British – there was a euphoria in the air that many Australians would have recognised from Sydney 2000. In a country that is often deeply cynical about its own virtues, this was exhilarating.

Danny Boyle, the socialist film director who put together the whole thing, has been widely feted, and rightly so. Yet there were two or three bits of the show that struck a deeply discordant note.

One was the celebration of the National Health Service (NHS). It’s not just that it’s odd to kick off a two-week celebration of peak human fitness with a massed display of sick beds, complete with dancing doctors and nurses. It’s also that this segment was obviously propagandist – and in a way even Beijing avoided.

Earlier that week, UK newspapers reported the death of 22-year-old Kane Gorny, who died of dehydration in a south London hospital after nurses repeatedly ignored his requests for water and failed to check his fluid levels. The wretched man even phoned the emergency number to summon police to the hospital, but they were sent away by the staff. This is just the latest in a succession of horrific stories of neglect and ill-treatment in NHS hospitals.

British people like to think the NHS is the ‘envy of the world’ (just as Russians used to like being told about their spectacular grain harvests). But nobody ever asks why, if it is so good, no other country has ever copied it. This chunk of the opening ceremony was painfully embarrassing because of what it revealed about Britain’s ignorance of much better health care systems elsewhere. It drew attention to how backward, deferential and insular Britain can be.

A second jarring note came with the entry of the Olympic flag, borne by eight people chosen personally by Boyle. It was an odd bunch, including the barrister who leads leftist pressure group Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti. One couldn’t help feeling that most squaddies who have seen service fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan have done more to defend Olympic values than Chakrabarti, whose main battles have been fought in the studios of the BBC.

Finally, why did the segment celebrating British popular culture start with the 1960s? More than 1 in 10 Brits is aged 70 or more. Are they really now so marginal to our society that we can ignore the music and popular culture of their youth? Before they are wheeled away for the last time to their NHS wards, they might have appreciated a nod towards the Big Bands of the 1940s or the rock n’rollers of the ’50s. It didn’t all start with the Beatles.

Thought crime (20 July 2012)

Last week, Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London staged a five-day trial (cost to the taxpayer: unknown, but doubtless staggering) at which Chelsea and England soccer star John Terry successfully defended himself against the charge that he had racially abused an opposing player, Anton Ferdinand, during a Premier League game last season.

Ferdinand told the court that during the game, Terry had called him a ‘c---,’ so he called back him a ‘c---’ back and accused Terry of ‘shagging his team mate’s missus.’ Terry responded with the words: ‘F------ black c---,’ although Ferdinand did not hear him say it. The incident was later posted on YouTube, and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) started a criminal investigation, resulting in Terry’s arrest and trial.

It was not the foul language that landed Terry in trouble. The word that put him in the dock was the only part of his utterance fit to print without asterisks (and the only bit that was descriptively accurate). It was the adjective, black.

Ever since 1965, incitement of racial hatred has been a criminal offence in Britain. This was incorporated into the 1986 Public Order Act, under which Terry was charged. This Act has subsequently been extended to prohibit incitement of hatred of religious and sexual minorities as well, so if Terry had referred to Ferdinand as, say, a ‘f------ Muslim c---’ or a ‘f------ gay c---,’ he could have found himself in the same sort of trouble (calling someone a ‘f------ bald c---’ or a f------ old c---’ is, however, not currently illegal, so bald old Brits like me have no statutory protection).

This case has given middle Britain a ghastly insight into the depraved culture of England’s sporting elite. Foul-mouthed men like Terry earn around £150,000 per week and are revered as role models by youngsters up and down the country. They are gross, yet they are treated as heroes.

What is more disturbing, though, is that Terry was brought to trial simply for the language he used. The case shows how Britain’s race relations laws attempt to control, not just what we do, but the way we think. Words betraying negative emotions about racial (or religious or sexual) minorities are illegal, regardless of whether they have any influence on behaviour.

It obviously makes sense to prohibit language intended to stir up violence, but that was never the case here. Terry and Ferdinand exchanged gross and abusive insults, nothing more. Yet Terry was arrested – not for anything he had done, but because he added that Ferdinand was black. That was enough to get him charged with what Orwell would recognise as ‘thought crime.’ It showed (in the eyes of the prosecution) that Terry was a ‘racist.’

In the end, Terry got off because the prosecution failed to prove that he had intended to abuse Ferdinand when he mouthed the words he used. But this case is only the tip of a monstrous iceberg, and others have not been so lucky.

Since 2000, UK schools have been required by law to report ‘racist incidents’ to the authorities: 30,000 incidents were reported in 2008–09, more than half of them from primary schools. Even though 95% involved only verbal abuse or name-calling, the CPS launched almost 3,000 prosecutions against children aged between 10 and 17 for ‘hate crimes.’

Sometimes I wonder what has happened to the country that gave birth to John Stuart Mill.

Mutual obligation is not human rights abuse (22 June 2012)

The Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) has written to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights drawing attention to what it believes is a serious breach of international human rights laws right here in Australia.

Has the civilian population come under bombardment from government-backed militia, like it is in Syria? Has the opposition leader been arrested and tortured, as in Ukraine? Has a woman had her 7-month-old foetus forcibly aborted in a state hospital after refusing to pay a fine for breaching the one-child policy, as it happened this week in China?

Not quite. ACOSS is outraged that single parents with children older than 8 and have been claiming Parenting Payment for many years are now being told to look for work. If they fail to find a job, they will have their fingernails pulled out with pliers and ... er, sorry, no, they will be switched to a different welfare payment, Newstart Allowance, which is less generous than Parenting Payment. This, according to the ACOSS letter, constitutes ‘a violation of human rights, as defined by the core United Nations treaties.’

It’s important to be clear what the government is exactly proposing. In 2006, new rules were introduced requiring recipients of Parenting Payment to look for employment once their youngest child turned 8 (before that, single parents had the right to stay on welfare until their youngest child reached school-leaving age, by which time most parents had lost any skills and motivation they may once have had and become almost unemployable). The new rule only applied to fresh applicants, however. Those who were already claiming Parenting Payment were exempt. It is this exemption that the government now wishes to withdraw and save taxpayers about $685 million over the next four years.

In other words, we are talking about people whose children are at least 8 years old and who have been living on welfare benefits without a break for at least the last six years. ACOSS believes there could be as many as 100,000 of them. The government thinks it would sensible to require these people to look for work, just like all other parents do. But ACOSS thinks this breaches some inviolable human right for single parents to stay on parenting welfare payments until their child turns 16 as they would have been able to do if the government had not acted.

This ACOSS letter is ill-advised for so many reasons:

It is probably wrong as a matter of law (if ACOSS seriously doubts this, let them try running it past the judges at the Human Rights Court in The Hague);
It debases the language of human rights and is insulting to people around the world who are suffering from real ‘human rights abuses’;
It tries to subvert the democratic process by getting judges to overrule a decision taken by an elected government rather than campaigning politically to win over public opinion;
It ignores the ‘rights’ of taxpayers to have their hard-earned money redirected only to people who really need it;
It shows no regard for the long-term interests of welfare parents themselves, who will live more worthwhile lives (and will bequeath their children a better future) if they are encouraged to support themselves rather than relying on benefits for years;
It offers no good rationale for why people who started claiming Parenting Payment before 2006 should continue to be treated differently to more recent claimants; and
It is insufferably pompous.

The ACOSS letter is signed by 15 welfare and human rights activists and organisations with a long track record of opposing almost any welfare reform with the most breathtaking hyperbole. They include:

the feminist academic, Elspeth McInnes, who thinks asking single parents with school-age children to look for part-time work leads to ‘homelessness and starvation for infants and mothers and more beggars in the street';
the executive director of Catholic Social Services, whose predecessor (Joe Caddy) said that requiring single parents of school-age children to look for part-time work is ‘staggering in its harshness’;
John Falzon of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, who thinks welfare-to-work schemes force people to ‘participate in the very structures that produce their poverty.’

ACOSS is Australia's leading social policy pressure group. It should not allow itself to be used in this way.

Gay marriage, polygamy and the social order (1 June 2012)

What are we to say about gay marriage? Britain’s Coalition government is committed to introducing an Equal Marriage Bill before the next election. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg says it should not be a free vote because ‘we are not asking people to make a decision of conscience.’

Gay couples can already enter civil partnerships that offer the same legal rights and protections as marriage, but equalities campaigners say this is not enough. Equality requires that men must be allowed to marry other men, and women other women.

So what’s wrong with that? I can think of good arguments against allowing gay adoption, for there are third-party interests to consider (principally, the right of a child to both a mother and father). But gays already have the right to adopt children, and there will be no going back. Christian adoption agencies that do not want to place children with same-sex couples have had to close because such discrimination is now illegal under UK equalities law.

With gay adoption already legal, I can think of no good, logical arguments against also allowing gay marriage. If two people of the same sex want to marry, it harms nobody else, so on classical liberal principles, they should surely have the freedom and the right to do so.

Mind you, the same reasoning also applies to polygamy. I can think of no good, logical argument why one man should not be allowed to marry more than one woman, or one woman more than one man, provided they all freely agree to the arrangement. Indeed, there are cultures in the world where polygamy has long been practised and is legally sanctioned, which is more than can be said for same-sex marriage. The case for polygamy thus appears at least as strong as the case for gay marriage, and I would be amazed if the UK parliament does not come under pressure in the next few years to end the discrimination of marriage law against Muslim and any other men who want more than one wife.

The only possible argument against such a change is the rather lame response: ‘But this is not what marriage means in our culture.’ In the Western world, marriage evolved as a binding relationship between one man and one woman. But this cuts no ice with those demanding gay marriage, and it will mean even less in the future when demands surface for polygamous marriage to be legalised.
Two thoughts strike me about all this.

One is Friedrich Hayek’s warning about the vanity of the intellectuals. Intellectuals are affronted by social institutions (such as free markets and monogamous marriage) that have evolved over hundreds or thousands of years without people like them ever having consciously invented or designed them. They think evolved institutions are not ‘rational,’ and they believe they can do better. The only argument for leaving marriage unreformed is that it has been this way for a very long time, but that is never going to win the day with ‘modernisers,’ in whose ranks we have to include Prime Minister ‘Dave’ Cameron.

The second thought is that gay marriage will not bring the bourgeois social order crashing down, but it is one more step in Antonio Gramsci’s call in the 1930s for a revolutionary ‘march through the institutions.’ Gramsci, an Italian Marxist, realised that Western capitalism would not be destroyed by economic class struggle, for it is good at meeting people’s material needs. What was needed, therefore, was a long-term campaign against the core institutions through which bourgeois culture is transmitted to each generation. Break the hold of the churches, take over the media, subvert the schools and universities, and chip away at the heart of the citadel, the bourgeois family, and eventually, the whole system will fall.

Gay marriage. Drip. Drip. Drip.

Crippling cost of welfare dependency (25 May 2012)

Mission Australia chief, Toby Hall, has attacked the Gillard government’s budget decision that from 2013, single parents who claim Parenting Payment should look for part-time work once their youngest child turns eight years of age. Those who don’t find a job will be transferred to Newstart Allowance, which pays $120 less each fortnight.

According to The Australian (24 May), Toby thinks this is ‘harsh and unfair’. He wants the federal government to follow Britain’s lead by introducing a single welfare benefit (called the ‘universal credit’ in the UK) for all claimants so that everyone gets paid according to need, rather than by the category of claimant they happen to fall into. But he should be careful what he wishes for.

The new universal credit is being introduced in Britain next year. It is intended to ensure that everybody will be better off working than staying on benefits, so even taking on one extra hour of work always pays. This makes it a very expensive reform – estimates are that British taxpayers will have to find at least another £3 billion to fund it – for the benefits taper has to be flattened and extended to ensure that people are always better off as their earnings rise.

Given the Australian system’s well-known problem of high ‘effective marginal tax rates’ as people move from benefits to work, it might make sense to see if there are any lessons to be learned from Britain’s universal credit, but it would be expensive, and there’s no guarantee it will reduce dependency rates.

In an InCISe posting in December, I suggested that the financial incentives created by the change (a guarantee that you will be at least £5 per week better off working) will not be enough to encourage many welfare recipients to exchange their benefits for a wage packet. The carrot still looks pretty puny, so sticks will be needed too.

This is why the universal credit is part of a much broader welfare reform package being introduced by the British government. Its £3 billion cost has only been accepted because the program as a whole is making a serious attempt to reduce the crippling costs of welfare dependency.

One way this is being done is by reducing the amount of time single parents can stay on benefits without being expected to work. Hall thinks it is ‘harsh and unfair’ expecting single parents to look for a job once their youngest child turns eight, but in Britain, they are now being required to look for work once their youngest child starts school, at the age of five.

This makes a lot of sense. We know that people find it harder to get back into the workforce the longer they stay out of it, so the sooner single parents on benefits can return to the habits of a job, the better chance they have of avoiding a lifetime of dependency. Once the youngest child is at school, they have the time to work in a part-time job, and many already do just that. So if Hall wants to follow Britain’s lead, he really should be campaigning for the Commonwealth government to terminate eligibility for parenting payments much earlier than it is proposing, rather than complaining that the change introduced in the budget is too harsh. Eight is too late.

Australia could also follow Britain’s lead on reforming the eligibility rules for disability payments. In Britain, as in Australia, the number of people claiming benefits because they say they are too incapacitated to work has escalated since the 1970s, and many of us have suspected for a long time that much of this increase is phoney. We now know this is the case, because the UK has tightened up the rules and found that hundreds of thousands of claimants are perfectly capable of holding down a job.

The changes started under the last Labour government, which introduced a new Employment and Support Allowance with a tighter Work Capability Assessment. In the first two years of this new system, 1.3 million people applied, claiming to be unfit for work, and 39% of them were found to be capable of working and were redirected onto unemployment assistance (where they are expected to look for work). Another 17% were found to be capable of doing some work with additional support, and 36% dropped out before their claim could be fully evaluated. That left just 8% who quite genuinely could not be expected to work.

Having introduced these new rules so successfully for new applicants, the Coalition government has now begun the laborious task of re-assessing 1.5 million existing claimants against the new criteria. After ploughing through the first 140,000, the Department of Work and Pensions released figures in March this year showing that 37% had been found fit for work, although this figure may fall following appeals.

So yes, by all means follow Britain’s lead and think about introducing a single benefit for everyone of working age. But, Toby, don’t stop there. Tighten up the eligibility rules for the Disability Support Pension, take a second look at those who have been claiming the pension for years to see if they really need it, and get single parents back into the labour force once their children start school. There is more to welfare reform than amalgamating the benefits.

We hope, a win for sticking to our principles (7 May 2012)

Budget rumours have included the announcement that, from 2013, all single parents who claim Parenting Payment will be expected to look for part-time work once their youngest child turns eight years of age. Those who don’t find a job will be transferred to Newstart Allowance, which pays $120 less each fortnight.

Before 2006, single parents had the right to claim Parenting Payment until their youngest child turned 16, and many did just that. Spending years on welfare meant they lost their skills and the daily habit of getting up and going to work, so when eventually their children grew up, they themselves had often become unemployable.

In 2006, the Howard government changed the rules for new claimants, requiring them to work part-time when their children reached eight, but it left existing claimants undisturbed. Now Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten has extended the new rule to them too.

“We believe that, once children are at school, parents should be encouraged and supported back into the workforce,” Shorten said. “Public income support ideally should be a temporary measure and should not be a disincentive for people finding paid work.”

Quite so. Kayoko Tsumori and I argued for exactly this sort of reform back in 2003, in a CIS paper titled 'The Tender Trap: Reducing Long-Term Welfare Dependency by Reforming the Parenting Payment System.' We reviewed evidence showing that children develop better if they have a parent who goes out to work, and we pointed to the unfairness in expecting working parents to pay high taxes to support parents who stay at home even when their children are in school all day. We also pointed out that most Western countries expect single parents to re-enter the labour force once their children start school. We concluded by recommending that single parents on Parenting Payment should be expected to look for part-time work once their children started school.

When this proposal was published, the reaction from social policy activists and intellectuals was hysterical. Father Joe Caddy, the then Chair of Catholic Welfare Australia and now CEO of Catholic Care, condemned our proposal as “elitist” and “staggering in its harshness.” Dr Elspeth McInnes, then an ACOSS board member and a single mothers activist and now a senior lecturer at the University of South Australia, said we displayed “a rampant disregard for the needs of struggling families” and warned that our proposal would result in “homelessness and starvation for infants and mothers and more beggars in the street.” Ten years later, these and other similar criticisms can be seen for what they were: hysterical, absurd over-reactions.

There is a lesson here. The left are today’s reactionaries. When any change is mooted, especially in the bloated system of federal welfare, you can rely on Left intellectuals to oppose it in a hyperbolic rage of righteous indignation. No matter how indefensible the current arrangements, they will defend them (we saw another example only this week when Don Edgar writing in The Age refused to countenance any distinction between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ welfare claimants).

The wise thing to do when the Left lashes out like this is to ignore the hysterics and push on. If we stick to our principles and lay out the evidence, reasonable people across the political spectrum will gradually shift their position. Bit by bit, we can claw back some of the ground that has been lost over the last 50 years or so, and every now and then, when we register a small but significant success, it’s worth pausing to celebrate it.

Care, but responsibly (4 May 2012)

In common with many other people, I have been reading Jonathon Haidt’s stimulating new book, The Righteous Mind. Unfortunately, judging by his recent article in The Age, Don Edgar hasn’t.

Haidt’s book reports the results from a variety of fascinating psychology experiments that suggest we humans share some very basic and innate ‘gut feelings’ (he calls them ‘intuitions’) about how to behave. He thinks these intuitions evolved in us over hundreds of thousands of years as natural selection favoured those of our ancestors who knew without having to think too much about it how to respond quickly to the behaviour of others.

If his theory is correct, it means that our fundamental rules governing right and wrong behaviour are not arbitrary or artificial but reflect deeply embedded moral instincts. Of course, infants and children have to be taught the specific rules of their particular society, but they are born with instinctive feelings about the right and wrong way to behave, and formal laws and social norms are mapped onto these intuitions in the course of their socialisation.

Haidt’s book identifies six of these basic instincts, which he calls ‘moral foundations.’ We have (a) an urge to look after and nurture the weak and defenceless (‘care’); (b) a rage against people who don’t pull their weight (‘proportionality’); (c) a reaction against being dominated and pushed around (‘liberty’); but also (d) an acute sense of hierarchy (‘authority’); (e) strong feelings of belonging to a group (‘loyalty’); and (f) feelings of revulsion and awe triggered by exposure to external symbols and objects (‘sanctity’).

Haidt is a man of the Left, but he has come to realise the fundamental weakness in socialist and social democratic ideologies. Conservatism, he says, expresses all six of these basic moral sentiments, but the traditional politics of the Left express only two or three of them.*

Leftists feel the ‘care’ instinct very strongly, which is why their rhetoric and programs echo with calls for compassion for those who are less fortunate. They also emphasise the ‘liberty’ instinct in their hostility to big capitalist corporations and their support for minority rights. But there is little room in modern left-wing sentiment for the authority instinct (doing as you are told), the loyalty instinct (putting your own group or nation first), or the sanctity instinct (the religious sense of being part of something bigger and more important than yourself), and the proportionality instinct (ensuring people don’t take what they don’t deserve) is only weakly expressed.

Which brings me back to Don Edgar. Writing in The Age on 26 April, Edgar attacked Joe Hockey’s recent call for an end to ‘the culture of entitlement’ in the welfare system. But without realising or intending it, Edgar offers us a brilliant illustration of the problem Haidt identifies with the Left’s stunted moral compass.

Edgar’s article strongly emphasises the care instinct (‘The goal should be to raise up the disadvantaged’), and it triggers the liberty instinct with its attack on the ‘upper echelons of society,’ who are dismissed as ‘individualistic’ and ‘greedy.’ But the other four moral considerations are missing entirely in what he has to say.

In particular, what is missing is any recognition of the importance of what Haidt calls proportionality. Indeed, Edgar ends his article by explicitly denying that we should pay any attention to proportionality: ‘We should not pit the “deserving” against the “undeserving poor”,’ he warns.

A concern with ‘just deserts’ is precisely what the morality of proportionality is all about, but Edgar doesn’t get it. We humans share a strong gut feeling that, while it is right to help those who cannot help themselves, it is also right to ensure that free riders get excluded from sharing in the benefits of collective effort and cooperation.

This is why, in recent years, welfare programs in Australia, Britain, the United States and elsewhere have belatedly begun to be reformed to try to prevent claimants ripping them off. It feels right to try to distinguish between the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor, and it feels wrong when people like Edgar insist we shouldn’t.

Edgar should invest in a copy of Haidt’s book. It might help him understand where he and others like him have been going wrong all these years.

* Libertarians, or as we at CIS prefer, ‘classical liberals,’ are also lopsided in their moral values according to Haidt, strongly emphasising the ‘liberty’ and ‘proportionality’ foundations at the expense of the other four.

The Road to Broadcasting House (16 March 2012)

I heard an interesting interview on BBC Radio Four’s Today program the other morning. It was with The Guardian journalist Stephen Armstrong, who has retraced George Orwell’s 1937 journey to Wigan Pier and tracked down some of the sons of men Orwell interviewed for The Road to Wigan Pier. Here’s what Armstrong said:

Orwell met a lot of people on the road to Wigan Pier and he disguised a lot of names. We discovered that we know three of them quite well: a man called Gerry Kennan, who was a union activist, a man called Sid Smith, who was selling newspapers, and a guy called Jim Hammond, who was unemployed, a black-listed communist miner who really wasn’t getting any work.
So I went back to try to meet their sons. Gerry Kennan’s son, unfortunately, died at the end of last year. Sid Smith grew his shop into the largest independent retail newsagent in the north-west and his son Trevor now lives in a large house in green fields on the edge of Wigan. And Tony Hammond is now a retired High Court judge.

The BBC interviewer was astonished. These are only two cases, of course, but social mobility like this is not what The Guardian and BBC journalists expect to find when they go sniffing around northern, working-class towns like Wigan. This story just doesn’t fit with their familiar narrative of class privilege.

For years, I have been trying to convince anyone who will listen that social mobility in Britain is extensive. Like most other advanced capitalist countries, Britain is an open, meritocratic society where talent and hard work count for much more than social origins. Employers are interested not in who your father was but in what your competencies are.

But no matter how many times I set out the statistical evidence, politicians, academics and left-wing journalists refuse to believe it. Government is so convinced there is a problem that it is threatening to withdraw funding from top universities like Oxford and Cambridge unless they accept more working-class entrants on lower grades. Prime Minister David Cameron has appointed a social mobility ‘Tsar,’ Alan Milburn, who describes Britain as a ‘closed shop society.’ Milburn told the BBC last year: ‘In Britain, if you’re born poor, you die poor.’ This despite the fact that 80% of people born to parents under the poverty line in Britain avoid poverty when they reach adulthood.

We might hope that Armstrong’s stories of the retail magnate and the High Court judge might help correct some of these prevailing myths and misconceptions. But when a BBC interviewer gets together with a Guardian journalist, it doesn’t take long for them to revert to type.

Armstrong went on to tell of a 12-year-old in Wigan who thought that to become a High Court judge nowadays, ‘a magician would have to cast a magic spell.’ Armstrong concluded from this that mobility doesn’t exist anymore: ‘The opportunities that they [Orwell’s generation] had seem to have been closed off.’

He went on: 'Poverty is back to 1936 levels. I met a girl, Sarah, who is living on £2 a day.'

This does sound like appalling poverty. Except it turns out that Sarah had failed to attend an appointment at the Job Centre, so her unemployment benefit was docked. Instead of arranging a new interview, she was living in a homeless hostel and had apparently taken up with some undesirable men. Armstrong concluded from this:

'So Victorian style poverty and fates worse than death are increasing.'

'Yes,' said the BBC interviewer, now safely back in his comfort zone. And with ruffled feathers back in place, Radio Four moved on to its next story.

From welfare to work (30 December 2011)

An interesting article on the front page of Britain’s Daily Telegraph tells of research commissioned by the Department of Work and Pensions as part of the UK government’s welfare reform agenda, but since hushed up.

The Cameron government is embarking on an ambitious welfare reform program. At the core of it is a hugely expensive (£3 billion) revamp of the benefits system designed to ensure that moving from welfare into a job will always make you better off, even if you only work one or two hours per week. To achieve this, many different benefits which currently overlap each other are being rolled into one, a new payment called ‘Universal Credit.’ This will be structured so that, as earnings rise, the loss of benefit will never wipe out all the gains.

It’s clearly a worthwhile reform, and given Australia’s crushing problem of high effective marginal tax rates (caused by heavy means-testing of benefits together with a very low tax-free earnings threshold), it is something Canberra might learn from. It is desirable that people end up better off when they work, and we should try to minimise the work disincentives created by the welfare system. Britain’s Minister for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, is therefore to be commended for driving this reform through at a time of swingeing budget cuts in other departments.

But making work pay is not enough to get people off welfare and into work. It is a desirable thing to do, but not the key thing. For in addition to dangling the carrot, most people also need prompting with a bit of stick. I explained this back in May in a paper I wrote with Matt Oakley for the London-based think tank, Policy Exchange. There I expressed several reservations about the emphasis the government was placing on ‘making work pay.’ I pointed out, in particular, that the government’s message was threatening to erode the crucial moral principle that people should work if they can, even if it leaves them no better off than on benefits.

The government is implicitly acknowledging that it’s OK to stay on welfare if you can’t find a well-paying job. Take Iain Duncan Smith’s comment that: ‘It’s no good teaching [claimants] about moral purpose, or lecturing them about their obligations… The one factor that governs decisions at that level is money.’ This is a pernicious message. Suppose your family was supporting you through a bad patch, and then you had the offer of a job at the same rate of pay as your family was giving you in assistance. Would you think it acceptable to turn down the job on the grounds that it would leave you no better off than with your family bailing you out? Of course not. For Duncan Smith to give up on the ethical argument is appalling.

And even if the Minister were right that money trumps ethics, it will never be possible to devise a means-tested benefits system that ensures that people on welfare (a) receive an adequate income if they don’t work, and (b) get a big financial reward when they move off benefits to take a low-paid job. For all the claims that have been made about it, the new Universal Credit will only guarantee that you end up £5 better off working than on welfare, and even that is costing an extra £3bn to implement.

As I said in my Policy Exchange paper, a tiny increase in income will never be enough to prompt people to accept unpleasant, low-paid, low-status jobs emptying rubbish bins, cleaning lavatories, working night shifts, or whatever. If you don’t feel obliged to work and take responsibility for yourself and your family, the offer of an extra few quid per week isn’t going to be enough to get you out of the house.

This, in essence, is what the newly-leaked DWP report was warning ministers about. The department carried out focus groups with members of the public, and interviews with staff in the employment offices, and concluded: ‘The degree of financial incentive was not seen as sufficiently compelling to those who did not value work for other reasons.’ In other words, on its own, the Universal Credit will prove to be an expensive flop.

Ministers decided to sit on these findings rather than release them. But if we are serious about getting millions of people off welfare and into work, the only way to do it is by attaching conditions to the receipt of benefits so those who are capable of working have to undertake employment-related activities in return for their payments. In my Policy Exchange paper, I suggested that unemployed people who have a reasonably strong employment history should be supported unconditionally for six months before being required to work for their benefits, and that those with little or no work history should be required to join a work programme as soon as they sign on.

The Cameron government doesn’t want to go down this path. It prefers offering carrots to waving sticks, and it has put all its available funding behind the Universal Credit. This is the less politically troublesome option. But if it doesn’t work – and this leaked report suggests it won’t – British taxpayers will yet again end up paying out more money on welfare and getting nothing back.

Heart is where the shops are (23 December 2011)

Last Christmas, I ordered a turkey from the local butcher, but he went bust a few months ago. This year, I shall get the car out and buy a bird from an out-of-town supermarket. It will be a less enjoyable experience but a lot cheaper. The butcher’s shop is still boarded up.

For Christmas my grandson wants Star Wars Lego. My local toyshop had a small selection, each priced at £25.99. Back home, I went online to find Amazon had the full range for just £20.99 each, with free delivery. I bought an Ewok Attack, and it arrived the next day.

Town centre shops have been losing trade to the supermarkets and suburban malls for many years, but now, small retailers are being further, often fatally, squeezed by the double whammy of the economic downturn and the growth of Internet retailing. Less than 50% of all retail sales in Britain now occur in town centres. Bookshops, grocery stores, and electrical retailers are giving way to second-hand charity shops that pay no rent. Nationally, one in seven UK shops is now vacant, and in the most depressed parts of the country, the figure exceeds one in three.

Last week, the Cameron government published a report on the future of town centre retailing. Recognising that we shall never return to the 1950s townscape of the butcher, the greengrocer, and the fishmonger, the report nevertheless made 28 recommendations for resuscitating the High Street. Some – like easing trading regulations – made sense. Others – like business rates concessions and reduced parking charges – seem unaffordable at a time of local council budget stringency. There are whimsical proposals for attracting more market traders and health spas to town centres, and there is a touching faith in the wisdom of planners to come up with coherent renewal strategies. The truth, however, is that little can be done to turn the tide.

Does it matter if towns and cities are being hollowed out and left to rot? Economically, perhaps not. Supermarkets, suburban malls, and the Internet can supply almost everything we need at highly competitive prices, so why worry?

But there is a social, political and cultural dimension that should concern us. Historically, towns and cities evolved as autonomous centres of commercial activity bringing together merchants and independent professionals who challenged the traditional power of kings and popes. The great liberal sociologist, Max Weber, defined the city as a marketplace, and he showed how all our modern ideas of civil society – autonomous law, free association, individual property rights, democratic authority – arose out of this commercial nexus. Medieval urbanism was the birthplace of modern capitalism. As the old adage had it, city air makes men free.

It still does. Cities and towns are places where individuals come together, not just to buy Lego or turkeys (although this commercial activity is crucial to sustaining everything else) but also to drink coffee, listen to music, watch films, hold demonstrations ... The retreat to the suburbs, and now, via the Internet, to our own lounge rooms, represents an erosion of the bourgeois life, a disintegration of civil society. The market still functions, but it has no location. This leaves centralised authority confronting a fragmented, anonymised, privatised populace.

There may be little we can do to stop or reverse this trend. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be disturbed by it. Happy Christmas.

Pay for what is yours (2 December 2011)

In Britain and Australia, welfare rules now encourage and cajole single mums on benefits to find part-time work once their children start school. Absentee fathers are required to pay child support to help with the costs of raising their children.

But one section of the population is still allowed to evade the financial responsibilities of parenting –men on benefits who father children but have no means of paying for them.

The Daily Telegraph recently named Jamie Cumming, a 34-year-old unemployed man from Dundee, Scotland, as Britain’s ‘most feckless father.’ Cumming has fathered 15 children with 12 different women in 16 years. Two more of his babies are on the way. One of the mothers is Australian.

Nothing can be done to force him to take responsibility for the children he has sired. Nor can he be prevented from fathering even more in the future, if he can find women stupid enough to sleep with him. Most of his female partners have been young, and like him, few of them appear to work. Presumably he meets them in the dole queue when he goes to sign on.

How does Cumming support all these women and his children? He doesn’t, nor is he expected to. Being unemployed, the most he is required to give the mothers of his children under Britain’s benefits rules is £7 per week. That’s £7 in total, not £7 per child.
So who picks up the bill for all these ‘families’ he keeps creating? Not Cumming, nor the women he impregnates.

No, total strangers are paying to raise Cumming’s brood – people who (unlike Cumming and his partners) go to work, earn wages, pay their own way, support their own families, and are then required by law to support his multiple ‘families’ too. Such is the morality of the modern welfare state.

Obviously Cumming is an extreme case. But I estimate there are between one-quarter and one-third of a million absent fathers in Britain living on welfare and contributing almost nothing to the costs of raising their children.

Such men should be required to work full-time, no matter what kind of job it is, so they can start paying for their children’s upkeep. If that doesn’t cover the bills, their relatives – parents, grandparents, siblings, uncles, aunties and step-parents – should contribute (why should strangers be expected to pay for a child’s upbringing before its relatives?). And if that fails, these deadbeat dads of the welfare system should be locked up for the criminal offence of child neglect – for if failing to organise financial provision for the upkeep of your children doesn’t constitute neglect, I don’t know what does.

1-0 to the nanny state (14 October 2011)

Two interesting items caught my eye in the British press this week.

The first was a report that more than 3,000 families whose child has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are driving new cars leased to them free-of-charge under the government’s Motability scheme.

This scheme, which began in 1978, aims to provide cars for severely disabled people and their carers so they find it easier to get around outside their homes. But as Jessica Brown’s recent CIS report makes clear, ‘disability’ is a remarkably elastic concept, and the more governments spend on schemes like this, the more ‘disabled’ people there appear to be.

In the United Kingdom, Motability drivers have grown by 40% in just 10 years, and they are now costing taxpayers £1.5 billion per annum.

More than half a million people have one of these free cars (Motability is the biggest car fleet in the country). All you have to do to get one is ask your doctor to write a reference and submit an application. More than half of those who apply get a car with no further checks being made. You get a new car, modified if necessary, and the government replaces it for you every three years.

Among the beneficiaries of this scheme are 3,000 parents of badly behaved – sorry, ADHD – children. They not only get a car but also disability carer’s allowance. Indeed, the number of people claiming cash benefits because they care for a child with ADHD has mushroomed from 800 a decade ago to 43,100 today. It seems Britain has an ADHD epidemic on its hands. Soon the roads will be jammed with cars with children throwing tantrums in the backseat.

The second item that caught my eye this week also involved children. It was reported that the Telford Junior Football League, which runs soccer for 2,000 players under the age of 16, is recording all victories as 1-0 wins so teams that get hammered won’t feel bad about it.

When I was playing junior football (soccer), we once got thrashed 21-2. That result can now be expunged from the record books. From now on I shall insist we only lost 1-0 (even though we scored two goals). This new dispensation to fiddle with the scores could be great news for the England football team at the next European championships. But I do wonder what Telford’s famous footballing son, Billy Wright (the first player to win 100 international caps) would have made of it.

For richer, for poorer (7 October 2011)

Recently I attended a lunch in London, hosted by the think tank Civitas, and addressed by former Spectator and The Daily Telegraph editor, Charles Moore. As one of Britain’s leading conservative commentators, Moore picked a surprising topic: Has the left been right all along?

His concern was the left’s persistent claim down the years that those who argue for free markets are really only providing ideological cover for the rich. Against this, the right has always claimed that capitalism truly benefits everyone. Moore was worried that this may no longer be the case.

The politician who, more than any other, tried to make a reality of people’s capitalism was, of course, Margaret Thatcher. When she went to Moscow, and Gorbachev attacked her for only supporting ‘the haves,’ she responded: ‘I’m not trying to defend a class of haves; I’m trying to create a nation of haves.’ She went about it by allowing council tenants to buy their houses, opening up share ownership with a wave of privatisations, and extending private pensions.

But Moore worries that the intended ‘trickle down’ of wealth didn’t really work. In the last 20 years, the rich have grown much richer, but the rest of us have started to struggle. In Britain, private pensions are a disaster, small shareholders have no real power, and large swathes of the north have been denuded of private sector employment. Free trade has released the giant corporations to roam the world, but as Moore noted, local taxpayers get landed with the bills when they ‘come home to die.’ Everything, in short, seems to be run for and by the ‘big people.’

Moore offered no solutions. He simply wanted to alert us to the urgent need to re-energise the reality of ownership for ordinary people. If we cannot do this, he foresees either a growth in popularity for socialist, statist alternatives or the emergence of new fascist leaders offering to address the causes of people’s cynicism and despondency. Current events in Greece suggest he may not be far from the mark.

My own view is that Moore may be exaggerating the division between the rich and the rest. Some of us who are not bankers or multinational chiefs have nevertheless been doing very nicely in the last 20 years. As David Willetts’s book, The Pinch, makes clear, part of the problem that Moore identifies is more generation than class-based. Older people enjoyed free higher education when they were growing up; many have gold-plated, index-linked pensions and have accumulated small fortunes in the housing market. Their children, by contrast, are being saddled with huge university debts, have missed out on defined benefit pensions, and cannot afford to buy a home of their own. It is the younger generation that has been shut out of popular capitalism.

Nevertheless, Moore is right when he identifies a growing popular resentment about banks, big corporations, and rich individuals avoiding tax, receiving hand-outs, and deserting people at home by relocating overseas. He is also right in that the global crisis has ‘changed everything.’ The old certainties don’t seem to work any more, and Margaret Thatcher’s heroic vision of popular capitalism has a hollow ring to many people today. As Moore says, we have to explore new ways of connecting people to the system of private ownership and free markets, otherwise they will quite reasonably conclude that there is little in this system for them.

Hate crimes and the nanny state (23 September 2011)

In Britain, it has been revealed that more than 20,000 pupils aged 11 or under were reported to the authorities by their schools last year following ‘hate incidents’ involving racism, homophobia, or other forms of bigotry

Under the 2000 Race Relations (Amendment) Act, all public bodies in Britain were given the duty to ‘promote race equality.’ Since then, schools have been required to refer any ‘racist incidents’ to local authorities and to keep a record of all such occurrences. Because the definition of a ‘racist incident’ is vague and broad, schools tend to err on the side of caution and report even the most trifling incidents, and those which make nil returns get criticised for ‘under-reporting.’

The predictable result has been an avalanche of more than a quarter of a million cases of ‘racist incidents’ being reported by schools in the last ten years. And once a school has reported an incident, the police feel they have to investigate it, and the rest of the criminal justice system then grinds into action behind them.

In 2007-08, the Crown Prosecution Service prosecuted 2,916 children aged between 10 and 17 for race or religious ‘hate crimes’ (up from 404 two years earlier), and 350 primary school pupils were suspended or expelled for racist abuse. According to the Manifesto Club, a civil liberties group, most of these incidents were just ‘everyday playground spats.’

This criminalisation of ‘kids falling out’ is of course a huge over-reaction, sledgehammers cracking nuts. It is the result of an orgy of equalities legislation promoted by the last Labour government, and largely endorsed by Cameron’s Coalition. The original anti-discrimination laws passed in the 1960s were measured and proportionate. But since then, the left has stretched equalities laws to further its own, illiberal, objectives by criminalising those with whom it disagrees. Accusations of racism or homophobia are now routinely used to neuter opposition.

Like the witch-finders of the seventeenth century, equalities campaigners increasingly find evidence of evil-doing where the rest of us didn’t even realise we had a problem. Unsuspecting perpetrators are rooted out, confessions are extracted, and wrong-doers are purged before moving on to the next target. Not even our kids are safe, and as in the seventeenth century, a lot of people will get burned before we come to our senses.

Can't burgle your house from prison (19 September 2011)

The first statistics have become available from the rioting and looting that occurred in Britain last month. They make sobering reading for those who claim that ‘prison doesn’t work.’

Of the 1,750 people to have come before the courts so far, 90% have been male, and three-quarters are under 25. So far, so predictable. No statistics have been released on the ethnicity of offenders.

Three out of four of those arrested already had criminal records. Many had criminal careers. Between them, they had racked up a total of 16,000 offences, 11,000 of which were classified as ‘serious.’ Put another way, three-quarters of the thugs and hooligans who went on the rampage in August had on average committed about 10 serious offences each (and that is only the crimes the police know about and have had the evidence to prosecute successfully).

Statistics like these confirm what we already know from decades of criminological research in Britain, America and Australia – that a relatively small number of people (mainly young males) accounts for the overwhelming majority of the crimes that get committed. It follows that if these people could be targeted early and taken out of circulation, the crime rate would drop like a stone. The trouble is, our law-makers and judges have been bending over backwards for the last thirty of forty years to keep these anti-social trouble-makers out of jail.

In an article I wrote with Nicole Billante for Policy magazine some years ago, we showed how a growing reluctance to send offenders to prison has gone hand-in-hand with a rising crime rate. Britain, for example, locks up twice as many people as in the 1970s, but the crime rate has risen five-fold in that time, so the probability of a villain being put behind bars has fallen alarmingly. Conversely, when the Americans decided to get tough on criminals in the 1990s by locking more of them up, their crime rate dropped substantially.

So we know prison works. It may or may not deter people from breaking the law (the probability of getting caught tends to play on their minds more than the severity of the punishment), and it generally achieves little in reforming them while they are behind bars, but what it does spectacularly well is keep them off the streets. While they are in prison, criminals can’t burgle your house, beat up your kids or loot your local corner store.

And this brings us to the most interesting statistic of all those released in the UK this week. It turns out that, although three-quarters of those arrested in the looting and rioting had criminal records, and they had on average been arrested, charged and brought before the courts more than ten times each, often on serious charges, two-thirds of them have never seen the inside of a jail.

Faith in free trade (29 July 2011)

Should a country really be content to see its core manufacturing base disappear? Free trade is an article of faith for economic liberals.

The arguments that favour it are well known. The theory of comparative advantage tells us that all countries will be better off if they specialise in doing the things they can do most efficiently and then trade their products with each other. And history tells us that when nations start erecting barriers to trade, it can trigger recessions and even lead to wars.

And yet ...

In Britain recently, the country’s last manufacturer of railway rolling stock, Canadian-owned Bombardier, announced it was laying off 1,400 workers at its Derby works. Bombardier had lost its bid for a £1.5 billion government contract for new carriages to Siemens in Germany, so the work will go there instead. Look around the European Union: 100% of French rolling stock is built in France; 90% of German rolling stock is built in Germany; but now, in the country that invented the railways, British rolling stock will no longer be built in Britain.

Politicians shrug their shoulders and blame each other. They assure us Siemens can provide the carriages cheaper (mainly because they can borrow the capital at lower rates of interest), so British taxpayers will be better off than if Bombardier built them. Economists say the 1,400 redundant workers will find other jobs in sectors where Britain still enjoys a comparative advantage.

But in my lifetime, I have seen British manufacturing collapse and welfare dependency spiral as a result. Large parts of the country now have little or no employment outside the bloated public sector. Manufacturing has dwindled to only 13% of Britain’s GDP. True, there are other areas where the country performs much better. Financial services make up 10%, for example. But those redundant Derby workers are not about to find employment in the City of London.

I’m not an economist, but have the British taxpayers really gained by giving this latest contract to Germany? They may have saved a few million on the purchasing cost, but how much extra will they pay out in welfare benefits? When Smith and Ricardo were writing about free trade, governments weren’t responsible for almost half the nation’s GDP. Does the theory of comparative advantage still stand up when government is the major purchaser and supporter of those thrown out of work because of its purchasing decisions?

Should a country really be content to see its core manufacturing base disappear like this? It’s not inevitable in a globalised economy – Germany, for example, seems to have found a way to remain competitive in manufacturing, even against the rise of China, India and Brazil.

Of course, Britain is a member of the European Union, and EU rules prevent member states from favouring their own businesses. But the French and German governments seem to have found ways of ensuring that major public sector contracts go to their own companies, whatever the EU rules say, and their people do not seem to be worse off than the Brits as a result of their politicians massaging the free trade rules.

Crooked coppers, repulsive reporters ... and hypocritical readers (15 July 2011)

The News of the World, a Sunday tabloid with more than 7 million readers, has been in existence for 168 years and was, until last week, Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper. Last Sunday, Rupert Murdoch, the proprietor, closed it down. The paper had become embroiled in a scandal about the methods used by its journalists to get their stories, and Murdoch, perhaps in an effort to save his now withdrawn buyout of BSkyB - the country’s biggest satellite broadcaster, pulled the plug.

For years, the paper has been setting stings and laying traps for crooked coppers, bent vicars, corrupt politicians, dodgy businessmen, high-class hookers, unfaithful footballers, and drug-taking rock stars. Reporters have often got down in the gutter to gets these stories. Wrongdoers have been enticed by bribes, police officers have been given backhanders in return for information, and often, people have been filmed secretly, their offices bugged, and (it turns out) their mobile phone accounts illegally accessed. Every Sunday, millions of Britons have happily lapped up the results with their egg and bacon.

The paper’s downfall came with evidence that NOTW reporters had been hacking into voicemail messages on mobile phones. When celebrities complained that their privacy had been violated, nobody took much notice, but then it was revealed that the phone of a murdered schoolgirl had been hacked, and this was followed by allegations that relatives of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and the families of victims of the 7/7 London bombings had had their phones accessed too.

The anti-Murdoch media sensed blood, and advertisers started withdrawing their support. The public was said to be ‘disgusted’ and ‘appalled,’ and politicians queued up to tell us how outraged they were. Prime Minister Cameron announced a public inquiry, and demands were made to tighten government control of the press.

What the NOTW reporters did was clearly illegal. It is against the law to hack into people’s phones, and for police officers to accept payments in return for tip-offs to journalists. There is also something very distasteful about fishing around in the voicemail messages of dead schoolgirls and the relatives of terrorist bomb victims. But how on earth do people think the papers have been able to come by their stories, scoops and exposés down the years? We’ve been buying and reading this stuff all our lives, so isn’t it just a tad hypocritical for us now to peg our noses when we are forced to confront the methods used to generate it?

What is also disturbing are the cries for greater control over the press that this issue has provoked. There is nothing many politicians would like more than to shackle the papers. But there are already laws protecting privacy and criminalising corruption, and if journalists bend or break them, they run the risk of prosecution. If this scandal gives politicians the opportunity to further circumscribe the powers of the press, we shall all be the poorer for it.

The freedom to walk down the street in pyjamas (15 April 2011)

Going for an early morning walk last Sunday morning in the English town where I now live, I encountered a middle-aged woman coming towards me wearing pyjamas and a dressing gown.

I’m pretty sure she wasn’t mentally ill. I think she’d just woken up, found she was out of cigarettes, and nipped down the local tobacconist shop for fresh supplies. UK newspapers report that going out in your pyjamas is no longer unusual in this sad, benighted island. It used to be that the underclass couldn’t be bothered to go out to work. Now they can’t be bothered to get dressed before going out for a packet of fags.

Going out in public wearing only your nightclothes indicates a total lack of self-respect. That woman, and thousands of others like her, was showing she just doesn’t care any more. She has withdrawn from civilised society, and she doesn’t give a damn who knows it.

But it’s her problem, right? We liberals believe individuals should be left alone to lead their own lives, provided they don’t harm others. John Stuart Mill called this the ‘harm principle.’ That this woman was almost certainly living on welfare benefits is of legitimate concern to me, because it directly affects me. I have to pay more tax to support her. But her decision to go to the tobacconists wearing her pyjamas does not harm me. So how is it any of my business?

On issues like this, I encounter the limits to my liberalism. Deep down, I think this is my business. This woman’s refusal to conform to one of the simplest, least demanding yet most the basic of shared social rules – putting clothes on before going out in public – is confronting. She’s not just removing herself from mainstream society with this sort of behaviour, she’s putting two fingers up to it.

When Mill formulated his ‘harm principle’ 150 years ago, the mass of the population in England was ignorant and ill-educated. Mill believed that education would bring enlightenment. Give people a decent education, and they will strive to improve themselves and realise their full potential. Free people, and they will blossom.

Most Victorians thought like this. Matthew Arnold, the headmaster of Rugby School, believed education would transform barbarism into ‘sweetness and light.’ Karl Marx thought human beings would spend their time reading books and philosophising once they were freed from a capitalist system that had stunted their true natures.

But we now know the Victorians were wrong. Everyone nowadays gets at least 10 years of schooling, essentially all of it free of charge. But the brutishness seems almost as bad as it was in Hogarth’s London. There is little sign of Mill’s enlightenment in the welfare ghettoes of England.

This poses a serious problem for classical liberals. What do we do if, having freed and educated people, they still send our society into a tailspin, trashing conventional standards of decency and dragging the public sphere into the gutter?

I suggested in my 2008 CIS essay, Declaring Dependency, Declaring Independence, that liberty should perhaps be seen as a privilege that has to be earned by demonstrating responsibility. Maybe some people need to be told how to live. Of one thing I’m sure. When Mill wrote On Liberty, he never intended to defend the right to shuffle down to the tobacconists on a Sunday morning wearing only your nightgown and slippers.

Sympathy for the Devil? The Mayor of London wants Stones guitarist Keith Richards to be knighted (21 January 2011)

Rolling Stones guitarist, Keith Richards, recently published his autobiography. It has topped best-seller lists across the world and has attracted acclaim from the most unlikely sources. Writing in Britain's conservative Daily Telegraph, the Tory Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, was so impressed he called for Richards to be knighted!

Keef is an unlikely Tory hero. His book makes clear his disdain for authority and contempt for the governing classes, and it documents repeated clashes with the police, years of illegal hard drug use, and legendary promiscuity. But few of us nowadays are shocked by tales of sex, drugs and rock n' roll.

But what about thieving? Before he became famous, Richards tells us he was 'always nicking things from the other flats' where he lived. Later, he knocked around with gangsters and drug dealers, on one occasion unwittingly driving the get-away car in a jewellery heist. He boasts that 'all my close friends have been jailbirds.' How does Boris square all this with Conservative respect for law and order?

Richards is also a violent man. He boasts of booting one fan in the head and kicking a photographer for taking his photograph. He threatened a taxi driver with a knife, and attacked a man in a nightclub with a broken wineglass stem. A music journalist was told he'd have his hands smashed if he mentioned our hero's acne, and Richards threw a knife at someone in a recording studio for suggesting changes to the arrangement he was playing. He brags that the chauffeur who informed on his drug-taking in 1967 'never walked the same again.'

Richards carries a knife and packed illegal guns and ammunition for many years. He was twice involved in shoot-outs at drugs deals and discharged guns at parties. He tells us the best strategy in a blade fight is to slash your opponent's forehead so the blood gushes into his eyes. Is this really someone the Conservative Mayor of London should seek to honour?

In the 1970s, Richards took his seven year-old son on tour with him, charged with waking him from his drug stupors and helping him to stash his drugs at border crossings. His daughter was raised by his mother because neither he nor his increasingly violent and delusional junkie girlfriend could care properly for her. His second son died in infancy, but Richards didn't even go home for the funeral. In the most chilling sentence in the book, he writes: 'I don't even know where the little bugger is buried, if he's buried at all.'

Where do the Tories stand on family values nowadays, Boris?

Richards expresses contempt for the establishment, but he has made good use of it down the years, pulling strings and mobilising friends in high places to win favours and get him out of scrapes. Presidents, movie stars, aristocrats and tycoons have all prostrated themselves before our Keef, so the Mayor of London is in good company.

Why is a conservative like Boris Johnson so desperate to condone such a gross and vile lifestyle? The answer is that Keef is cool, and Boris wants to distance himself from the stuffy old establishment values that conservatives used to uphold. Never mind the lawlessness, violence, and destruction; better to appear cool than to be seen as dull and boring.

Of course, Richards would never accept a knighthood, and he is scathing about 'Sir' Mick Jagger for accepting his. He cherishes his image as a folk-rebel, so he'd never risk tarnishing his reputation by accepting a bauble from the Queen. But for leading conservatives to suggest he is worthy of honouring shows just how far Britain has slid into moral relativism and nihilism. Arise Sir Keef, so we may all pay obeisance to the base values which your life celebrates and which our leaders have lost the confidence to condemn.

The students who trashed London are paying high fees so their lecturers can lead pampered lifestyles (17 December)

Thousands of student radicals and hangers-on smashed up London last week, desecrating the Cenotaph (Britain's national memorial to the war dead) and besieging the heir to the throne in his car. Like toddlers throwing a tantrum, they were complaining about a decision to make them pay for their own degrees.

Cameron's Coalition is freeing universities to set their own fees for home students up to an annual maximum of £9,000 ($14,350 - considerably higher than the $8,859 maximum charged in Australia). As in Australia, British students will pay nothing up front, but will repay their debt after they graduate. Repayments will be phased according to income, starting when earnings reach £21,000 pa ($33,500, roughly comparable to the $36,185 income threshold here). Students from poor backgrounds will get the first two years of their studies free.

Parliament last week confirmed these changes. Labour voted against, despite having instigated the inquiry that came up with the proposals, and the junior partners in the Coalition, the Liberal Democrats, split down the middle (their candidates had all pledged before the election to oppose any fee increases). Student leaders vowed to continue their campaign, but Cameron says the increases (from a current maximum of £3,000 [$4,780]) are necessary if universities are to be funded adequately.

With some justification, students point out that their parents' generation got their university education for nothing. But they forget that higher education has mushroomed in the last thirty years. The UK now has 115 universities, and 44% of under-30s attend one. You can have a 'free' system, or a mass system, but no country can afford both.

Despite their red flags and Socialist Worker banners, the student radicals want their studies funded by other people whose lifetime earnings will be lower than their own. They favour the continuation of a system which redistributes income from people who haven't gone to university, to people like themselves, who have.

Students say higher fees will deter people from going to university. Nobody knows if this is true (the introduction of fees by the Blair government had no impact on university applications). But even if it turns out to be true, it would be no bad thing if people started to think more carefully about whether university is right for them, and what courses they should do when they get there. Currently, many graduates end up in jobs that do not require a degree, and there is no evidence that employers are crying out for more art historians, sociologists or media studies experts (despite politicians claiming the country needs more graduates so it can compete in the global economy). As Andrew Norton of the CIS has been explaining for some years, the absence of a market in higher education has meant that many youngsters have made ill-informed decisions from which they have not benefited.

Hopefully, the introduction of full-cost fees will also shake up the universities. With the exception of Britain's only private university (Buckingham), the other 114 teach for only about half the year. The other half is reserved for lengthy vacations so staff can carry out 'research'. This contributes to high tuition costs. The students who trashed London should reflect on the fact that fees are going up so their lecturers can continue to enjoy pampered careers.

Of course we need our best universities to do research. But this does not require every lecturer in every university to be given half the year off to produce skip-loads of third-rate publications. Most of what passes for 'research' in our 'universities' nowadays is of little value, and most lecturers would be better employed teaching for longer.

As the weaker institutions look for ways to reduce their costs and lower their tuition fees in order to attract customers away from their more prestigious competitors, they will have to use their labour more efficiently. This means their staff should have to teach more and write less. If that happens, it's a win-win outcome.

Why left-wing intellectuals are doing working class children no favours (5 November 2010)

I spent last weekend at the 'Battle of Ideas' conference in London, on a panel debating the relevance of social class in contemporary Britain. The topic was prompted by the election of the first Old Etonian Prime Minister since 1964.

I noted that British intellectuals are obsessed by class divisions. When television producers are not busy filming Edwardian upstairs-downstairs dramas, movie-makers are working on tales of plucky steel workers being made redundant by Thatcher, or colliery brass bands stoically playing on after the pit has closed, or miners' sons wanting to be ballet dancers as their fathers go on strike. As economist Peter Bauer put it in a pamphlet thirty years ago, British opinion-formers have 'class on the brain.'

So, nowadays, do British politicians. In the last three years of the Labour government, three official reports were commissioned on class inequality. They all concluded that Britain is an unfair society where lower class children are blocked from realising their potential. Former cabinet minister Alan Milburn claimed in one of these reports: 'Birth, not worth, has become more and more a determinant of people's life chances', and he described Britain as 'a closed shop society.' Not to be outdone, the Tories then produced a report of their own which proclaimed: 'Social mobility has ground to a halt.'

Very similar claims were made by my fellow-panellists at the Battle of Ideas debate. One, a journalist on the The Daily Mirror, told the audience: 'Your parents' occupation will almost determine your occupation.' Another, a sociologist at a FE college, told us: 'Upward social mobility is a total myth.'

Now, I recently wrote a review of the evidence on social mobility in Britain. It showed that social mobility is extensive, both up and down. More than half the population is in a different social class from the one it was born into; one-third of professional-managerial people come from manual worker backgrounds; 1 in 7 sons born to professional/managerial fathers end up as manual workers. Britain is remarkably meritocratic: somebody's raw ability, measured by an IQ test at age 11, is more than twice as important as their class origins in predicting their class destination.

Why, given this evidence, do intellectuals continue to claim Britain is an unfair, class-ridden country? And does this repeated falsehood matter?

I think the resilience of the myth may have something to do with the survival of the monarchy and aristocracy at the very top of British society. This upper class froth gives credence to left-wing claims that birth matters more than worth, even though this doesn't apply to the other 99% of us.

And yes, these claims do matter, because they send out such a negative and counter-productive message to working class children. The evidence tells us that, if you are bright and you work hard, there is nothing to stop you succeeding in Britain, no matter where you start out from. But working class families are being told by Labour politicians, Daily Mirror journalists and Marxist FE lecturers that it's all hopeless, the game is rigged, and their future is pre-determined. Nothing is more likely to prevent children from succeeding than being told by those in authority that there is no point in them even trying.

In someone else’s shoes (24 September 2010)

I’m sitting on the train reading. A young man sits down diagonally opposite me and puts his feet up on the seat next to mine. I look at his feet, then catch his eye. He doesn’t flinch.

Adopting as friendly and encouraging a tone as possible, I suggest he remove his feet from the seat. ‘Why?’ he asks. He sounds like an educated, middle-class lad, which comes as a bit of a relief. Hopefully, I won’t get stabbed or glassed.

I explain that shoes are dirty and those of us who wear a suit find it annoying having to sit where other people’s shoes have been.

‘But my shoes aren’t dirty,’ he replies.

I start to point out that he doesn’t know that, that he didn’t check before placing them on the seat, but it is a pointless line of argument.

‘I don’t want a confrontation,’ I told him. ‘And I can’t make you take your feet off the seat. I’ve simply requested that you do so. It’s up to you.’

He removed his feet. Ten minutes later we struck up a very agreeable conversation. He was a bright lad, and we ended up chatting amiably for the remainder of the journey. Arriving at our destination, he reflected on his earlier behaviour.

‘I still don’t think it makes any difference, putting your feet on a seat,’ he told me. ‘But I know it annoys some people, so I probably won’t do it in future.’

In one sense, I think he’s right. My concern about dirt was almost certainly exaggerated. I wouldn’t object if someone put a heavy bag on a seat, even if it had previously been placed on a dirty station platform. So why this objection to shoes? On reflection, I don’t think it’s about dirt as such. It’s about respect.

Do you remember that Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at George Bush during a press conference? We were told that in the Middle East, throwing a shoe at someone is just about the most disrespectful thing you can do.

Presumably this is because shoes go on feet, and feet are in many cultures regarded with distaste. When emperors of old required their defeated enemies to kiss their feet, both parties knew this was the ultimate act of subjugation. The power of the New Testament story of Christ washing people’s feet before a meal lies in the recognition that the son of God was willing to perform this most of demeaning of tasks.

I suspect our own culture retains vestiges of this ancient symbolism. Putting your feet on a seat, at the same level as other passengers are sitting, is disrespectful. It sends out a message that says you are the most important person in the carriage and that nobody else really matters. That’s why it provokes such an intense reaction – why I am willing to risk a physical confrontation rather than suffer in silence.

Does it matter if you fail to show respect to others? I couldn’t give my young companion a compelling, practical reason why he should not put his feet on the seat next to me. I just knew he was breaking a rule that most people of my generation were brought up to observe, without thinking. Lots of these petty social rules get broken nowadays, and in many cases they probably rest on the flimsiest of rationales we would struggle to justify.

But of one thing I am sure. The more these seemingly trivial norms get disregarded, the more the fabric of our shared society unravels.

Radical findings or radical propaganda? (13 August 2010)

Last year, two socialist academics, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, published a book called The Spirit Level which has had a huge impact in ‘progressive’ circles. In Britain, The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee likened Wilkinson to Charles Darwin, and The Independent was so impressed by the book it wanted to make ‘free-marketeers memorise it cover to cover.’

The book claims that the case for radical income redistribution in rich countries can be defended scientifically. It suggests that countries where incomes are more equally distributed do better on a range of social indicators – health, homicides, literacy, trustworthiness, teenage births, bullying – than more unequal countries. It concludes that even affluent people in unequal countries would benefit if incomes were spread more evenly.

Not everybody on the left has endorsed the book. Andrew Leigh at the Australian National University is one who has expressed caution, pointing out that life expectancy and infant mortality (two of Wilkinson and Pickett’s favourite indicators) have actually improved most rapidly in countries where incomes have widened the furthest.

But the real problem lies in Wilkinson and Pickett’s own data. I recently published a critique of their work available for free download here.

There is, for a start, a problem in their choice of countries. They say they selected the 50 richest nations, but they only included 23, and they excluded several unequal countries with strong social profiles that would have undermined the patterns they wanted to find.

They were similarly selective in their choice of indicators. Imprisonment gets in, but not crime (except homicides). Drugs are in, but alcoholism is out. Murder is included, suicide is excluded. Social capital is measured by whether people say they trust each other, but membership of voluntary organisations is ignored. Using a different set of indicators, we could demonstrate the opposite of their hypothesis, that social problems appear to be worse in more egalitarian countries.

Then there are their graphs, like their plot of international homicide rates. It shows that 22 countries have similar rates but one (the United States) has a much higher rate. They happily fit a straight trend line, which is inevitably distorted by this single outlier. The line seems to show that homicides rise as inequality widens, but it’s nonsense. Britain has a lower homicide rate than Sweden, yet according to their trend line, homicides in the United Kingdom are much higher than in Sweden. They even suggest that, if Britain reduced income inequality to Swedish levels, the number of murders would fall by three-quarters! Utter rubbish.

As well as making spurious international comparisons, The Spirit Level analyses the 50 US states, arguing that more equal states have better social outcomes. But what’s driving this is not income distribution but ethnicity. The proportion of African-Americans in a state is, for example, 18 times more powerful than income inequality in predicting its infant mortality rate. But Wilkinson and Pickett never control for ethnicity, and in The Guardian, they even called me a ‘racist’ for daring to suggest that they should.

This is shabby stuff, propaganda masquerading as social science. But that won’t stop true believers using the book to push an egalitarian agenda. Two weeks ago, I debated with Wilkinson and Pickett in front of a sell-out audience at the Royal Society of Arts. Many in the audience had been marshalled by Wilkinson’s ‘Equality Trust’ (a pressure group formed to drive forward the book’s agenda). At the end, the chairman asked if anyone had changed their mind as a result of the debate. One brave soul in an audience of 200 raised his hand.

World Cup of capitalism (2 July 2010)

Last Sunday, England’s football team once more crashed out of a World Cup at the hands of the ‘old enemy,’ Germany (who had thrashed Australia just a week earlier).

There’s nothing new about the English national team failing at the top level. The Germans have out-performed England at every World Cup tournament since 1966. But the disappointment was particularly bitter this time, for Germany fielded a young and inexperienced team while England’s ‘golden generation’ was expected to fulfil its destiny. In the event, they didn’t just lose – they were humiliated.

There were excuses and mitigating factors, but all the pundits afterwards agreed that something is profoundly wrong at the heart of the English game. Which is where the debate becomes interesting for those of us who believe in free markets.

The English game is awash with cash, mostly from the sale of television rights. In the Premier League, player salaries in excess of A$200,000 per week are common, and top players change clubs for fees of £50 million upwards. Crude, immature but rich football stars lacking any charm or grace provide the nation’s youth with its ugly role models.

To win the Premier League, a club needs a plutocrat chairman with bottomless pockets. Chelsea broke into the charmed circle after a Russian multi-millionaire bought the club as his London plaything. Manchester City followed the same route – it is now owned by a Middle Eastern sheik. Smaller clubs like Portsmouth bankrupt themselves in a desperate attempt to stay in this company, their proud histories counting for nothing.

Emulating the top clubs, the FA tried at this World Cup to buy success for the England national team by recruiting the world’s top coach, Fabio Capello, on a salary of $10 million per year (double what the next-best-paid coach at the World Cup gets). But Capello failed, just as all his predecessors failed, for the squad performed worse than ever.

In Germany, they do things differently. Instead of clubs harvesting the most talented players from around the world, the German FA invested in a network of regional nurseries to nurture their own. There are rules to stop clubs being taken over by carpetbaggers, and (unlike England) all games involving the national team must be broadcast on free-to-air TV. The national team is coached by a German, to encourage other local coaches.

These two contrasting footballing cultures reflect two different models of capitalism. On the one hand, the swashbuckling Anglo-American model of light regulation, global openness, and razzle-dazzle; on the other, the much more conservative Rhine-Japanese model emphasising long-term planning and national consensus. Personally, I’ve always been drawn more to the former. But on the football field at least, the evidence seems to suggest that the latter brings consistently better results.

UK election, Week 5: The wash-up (May 12th):

On election night, academic Peter Hennessy excitedly told BBC viewers, 'Today could be one of those days the British Constitution goes on heat.' It turns out he was right.

The deal between Tories and Liberal Democrats has given Britain its first peacetime coalition government since Ramsay MacDonald in 1931. As well as a referendum on voting reform (to introduce an Australian-style Alternative Vote for the lower House), there will be proposals for a reformed Upper Chamber elected on PR, and a commitment to introduce fixed-term parliaments (the next election has been fixed for May, 2015, with earlier dissolution possible only with 55% backing in the Commons).

The coalition partners know that if they don't hang together, they will hang separately. Labour is eagerly anticipating a swift return to power on the back of the huge unpopularity which will be triggered by Tory/Lib Dem cuts. The new government will need all of its five years to get the budget under control and then rebuild voter support.

It will be a rocky ride, for many Lib Dem activists and supporters are to the left of Labour, and a major European controversy could test this uneasy alliance to destruction. But David Cameron is socially liberal and Nick Clegg is economically liberal, so the coalition could work.

After all the excitement of the last week, it's important to remember that great swathes of the electorate don't actually care who governs. Last week I predicted that the To-Hell-With-Them-All Party would win, and despite reports of angry queues at polling stations, I was right. 35% of the electorate did not vote - about the same as supported the Tories and Lib Dems combined.

The fascist BNP fared much worse than I anticipated in my comments last week. So did UKIP and the anti-sleaze independent candidates (the backlash against greedy politicians was muted). I was right about the Greens winning their first ever seat, but like everyone else, I misread the Liberal Democrat 'surge.' They lost seats yet still ended up in government.

The Blair landslide in 1997 briefly eclipsed the sharp geographical polarisation of British politics, but now it's back again. Labour lost every seat in the south-east of England while the Conservatives won just one in the whole of Scotland (where they came fourth with just 1 in 6 of the votes cast). This electoral geography will make it even harder to drive through the cuts that are needed, for the areas where the new government has its weakest mandate are the areas where public expenditure is highest.

In the last 13 years, UK government spending increased from 38% to 45% of GDP - a huge rise. The test of this new government will be whether it manages to reverse this profligacy without tearing itself - and the country - apart. Interesting times lie ahead.

UK election Week 4 (May 5th):

By the time you read this, Britain will have gone to the polls. More accurately, perhaps two-thirds of Britons will have gone to the polls, for unlike Australians, Brits are not forced to vote, and in the last two elections, only 6 in 10 bothered to do so. This time, turnout may be boosted by the introduction of televised leaders' debates, which have stimulated some interest, and by an extension of postal voting, but disillusionment with politics remains widespread.

Disenchantment set in last year when we discovered that hundreds of MPs had been milking the system. Four parliamentarians are currently before the courts on charges arising from this expenses scandal, but it is widely felt that many more have got away with it.

Voters are also disillusioned by the failure of all parties to acknowledge the scale of the cuts that will be needed to put the public finances back in order. After four weeks campaigning, nobody is any wiser how the massive deficit is to be reduced. Not that we can really blame the politicians for their coyness; polls and focus groups all confirm that as soon as anybody mentions cuts, voter support ebbs away. In a democracy, the electorate gets the politicians it deserves.

Then there was the Brown gaffe. Describing a lifelong Labour voter as a 'bigoted woman' exposed the gulf that now exists between the political class and those they claim to represent. All the parties are run by well-healed, well-educated middle class people who only ever visit the proletarian badlands when there are votes to be harvested. In this election, this schism was exposed more vividly than ever before.

Many voters have had enough. But where is an electorate to go when it wants nothing more to do with corrupt, patronising or haughty politicians?

Some will have voted for the novelty of the Liberal Democrats knowing nothing about their policies. Some will have backed UKIP (the get-Britain-out-of-Europe party), or one of a flock of Independents standing across the country on 'clean-up-politics' tickets. Significant numbers of white, working class Labour supporters will have flirted with the BNP (the fascist party which pretends it isn't), and significant numbers of middle class intellectuals will have abandoned Labour for the Greens (who may win their first seat in trendy Brighton). Rusted-on Tories in the shires will have swallowed their misgivings about Cameron and done their duty with a heavy heart. But I'm guessing the overall winner will be the To-Hell-With-You-All Party.

Not that it will make much difference who gets elected. The dull logic of international market forces will drive policy-making for the next few years, whoever is in Downing Street, and if events in Greece are anything to go by, it's going to be a rough ride. The Governor of the Bank of England says that whoever wins is destined to become so unpopular that they could become unelectable for a generation. The victor from this election will be supping flat champagne from a poisoned chalice on Friday.

UK election, Week 3 (April 28th):

It wasn't just that it was a disdainful comment about a lifelong Labour voter. Nor even that it showed up the difference between the smiling, public face of the Prime Minister and his sour, private persona. No, the real damage done by Gordon Brown's dismissal of the inoffensive Gillian Duffy as a 'bigoted woman' is that it has exposed the chasm between the political and intellectual leadership of the Labour Party and the millions of working class people who vote for it.

Brown was campaigning in Rochdale (the town where the co-operative movement was born) when he was introduced to rusted-on Labour supporter, Mrs. Duffy. She told him her worries about the budget deficit, student grants and the number of East Europeans coming to Britain. Brown, who was wearing a mike, smiled, chatted, then got into his car and, with the mike still on, began criticising his team for organising the encounter with this 'bigoted woman.'

Immigration is the rumbling issue of this election. Annual immigration has more than doubled under Labour, and there are about a million illegal migrants here too (though nobody is sure since there are no checks on people leaving the country). It is an issue which many working class voters are angry about (including some black and Asian voters) and political pundits are worried that the fascist BNP will poll well next week.

The Tories have proposed an annual cap on immigrant numbers, but they won't say what it will be. Labour wants an Australian-style points system, but even before Brown's gaffe, few voters trusted Labour on immigration (we recently learned that in 2001, ministers deliberately boosted immigration to make the country more multi-cultural and to wedge the Tories on race). The Liberal Democrats' contribution to this debate is to offer illegal immigrants an amnesty, which would almost certainly encourage even more to come.

In reality, there is almost nothing any of these parties can do to limit numbers, for most foreign workers are from the EU (many, as Mrs. Duffy pointed out, from Eastern Europe). Under EU rules, they have right of entry.

The Spectator recently calculated that 92% of all the jobs created in Britain since 1997 have gone to foreigners, and that 1 in 8 workers is now from overseas. The reason they come to Britain is that, even in recession, they can find jobs paying much higher rates than at home. Meanwhile, almost 6 million working-age Britons are on benefits.

Welfare is part of the issue here. Many Brits won't do low-paid, unattractive jobs any more. They prefer to rely on state hand-outs. But there is a widespread belief that foreigners are 'taking our jobs' (a sentiment Brown himself seemed to encourage last year when he spoke of 'British jobs for British workers').

All mainstream politicians speak with forked tongue on the immigration issue, but Labour is particularly vulnerable given that mass immigration affects working class voters most directly. Brown's gaffe was probably the moment this election was lost.

UK election, Week 2 (April 20th):

The parties launched their manifestos this week.

The Tories showed they are serious by publishing their manifesto in hard-covers. Somebody said it looks like the Gideon's Bible you used to find in hotel bedrooms. Its title is: Invitation to Join the Government of Britain.

They are offering tax breaks for married couples and more spending on the NHS (how will all this be financed?), but their big idea is extending public participation (what the Conservatives call the 'Big Society'). They promise 'an army of independent community organisers to help people establish and run neighbourhood groups.' Local groups will be able to take over and run their own parks, libraries and post offices if they are threatened with closure. Businesses and community groups will be allowed to set up independent schools, financed by Swedish-style vouchers.

Most voters are bemused by this. They don't want to run a post office themselves, they just want it to offer a decent service. But some activists (Toby Young in the Spectator is one) are planning to take advantage of the schools proposal. One suspects they are not planning to set up new schools in the grim council estates and welfare dependency blackspots where they are really needed, but Cameron deserves credit for saying he'll allow for-profit businesses to run schools (expect Labour to make some class war capital out of this before long).

The Liberal Democrats' big idea is raising the tax-free threshold to take low earners out of tax (something close to the heart of the CIS). Unfortunately, it's very expensive, and the Lib Dems are not (despite their name) a liberal party. They will pay for it by increasing taxes on contributions to private pensions. Gordon Brown has already wrecked the UK pensions industry, and now the Lib Dems propose another bash at it.

They are soaring in the polls at the moment - not because of their manifesto promises, but because their leader, Nick Clegg, performed well in the first of the televised leaders' debates. Everyone loves an underdog, and nobody likes establishment politicians at the moment (especially as they all seem tainted by last year's expenses scandal). Clegg projected himself as an outsider taking on the Westminster insiders, and one poll has put his party in front of the Conservatives with Labour lagging in third place. It shows how volatile the electorate is that 22% of voters said they were switching their vote after one, highly-staged TV debate.

As for Labour, it's hard to come up with new ideas after 13 years in power because your opponents can always ask: 'Why haven't you done it already then?' So they are sticking to the idea of 'fairness' (which is Brown-speak for giving taxpayers' money to as many people as possible). Labour's manifesto cover depicts a family standing on a hill watching the sun rise. It looks like a piece of socialist realist art from Stalin's Russia. Hand-in-hand with Gordon, we are invited to march on to the sunlit uplands.

And the busted economy? None of the parties says what they will do. Will they increase VAT (Britain's GST)? Raise the basic rate of income tax? Cut public sector jobs? Nobody knows. All we get are vague statements about 'protecting front line services' and 'cutting waste'. Whoever wins, this country is in for a huge shock when it wakes up on May 7th and discovers this wasn't just another edition of X Factor.

UK election, Week 1 (April 13th):

'Let the baby-kissing begin.' With these words, the BBC announced the start of Britain's general election campaign. It is already turning out to be the most dishonest in living memory.

Everybody knows the country is bankrupt, but nobody will say what they're going to do about it. The deficit is on the same scale as Greece; the public debt is bigger than at any time since World War II. But the first week of the campaign was taken up with an absurd argument about £6 billion of National Insurance revenues. The budget deficit is £167 billion! The parties are fiddling as the country burns.

Both parties have promised to maintain 'front line services,' and neither is talking about tax rises. Conservative leader, David Cameron, has promised health spending and foreign aid will be ring-fenced (never mind that Britain is still giving China £170 million per year in aid!).

Cameron is desperate to convince voters that the Tories have changed. They are now the nice party. He says the Thatcher years were divisive and that he will be 'inclusive.'

Labour wants to convince us that Cameron is a Thatcherite wolf in sheep's clothing. This week it launched a nationwide poster campaign based on the popular BBC drama, Ashes to Ashes, in which a police officer is shot and wakes up in the 1980s. The poster portrays Cameron as Gene Hunt, the abrasive, politically-incorrect detective at the centre of the programme. The tagline warns that the Tories will take us back to the 1980s.

But the campaign back-fired. Viewers like Gene Hunt! Cameron comes over as a rather prissy Eton toff. By portraying him as a no-nonsense tough-guy, Labour has done him a huge favour.

Why do both parties think Thatcher is such a toxic brand? When she came to power in 1979, Britain was on its knees. The unions had made the country ungovernable, the Treasury was in hock to the IMF, and all the big industries were owned by the State and didn't work. When the Tories lost office in 1997, they handed over one of the strongest economies in Europe. At a time when the country's economy has again collapsed, you would think the Tories would be embracing Thatcher's record, not trying to distance themselves from it.

The country is bust, but the parties won't scare the voters with talk of nasty medicine to come. It may be time for the politicians to start kissing babies, but they are all determined not to frighten the children.

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