Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Shocking appalling scandals

The reaction of the British public to the latest party funding scandal
Let's see if I can get the timeline right. I suppose the first scandal was the allegation that donating large amounts of money to Labour could get you included on the honours list. Next was the revelation that MPs habitually treated their expenses as a way of topping up their income. Then we heard that tabloid journalists had used means both fair and dodgy to pursue stories, including breaching the privacy of celebrities. And now we hear that donating large amounts of money to the Tories gets you dinner with the PM.
I wonder what's next? A massive expose of the fact that away sides don't get penalties at Old Trafford? A searing revelation that England don't play spin all that well in the sub-continent? Nine page pull-outs in the Sundays pointing out that the Liberal Democrats use entirely different election literature in the south of the country to that used in the north?
The common feature of recent political scandals is that everybody even tangentially connected with politics (to the extent of reading the political pages in the newspaper) knew already that this was how things worked. Tabloid newspapers have been opening people's mail and going through their bins for a century. MPs expenses were deliberately jacked up instead of their salary back in the 1980s. And party funding has been a constant embarrassment since the days when Lloyd George knew my father. Literally none of this should have been a surprise to anybody.
When it comes to the latest scandal - that Tory donors were promised access to the PM in return for properly large donations - I really don't see the iniquity. Let's take it back to basics. How do political parties get funding? Either by personal donation, or from the state. If we're not going to switch to state funding (and we shouldn't) why should people give money to political parties? The ideal sort of donor is one who's politically closely aligned with your party, and therefore gives money out of a sense of patriotic duty, asking for nothing whatsoever in return. These chaps aren't so thick on the ground, however, that a funding strategy can be built around them. You need to be offering something in return.
Tony Blair's selling point was that giving money to the Labour Party was a way of proving what an upright moral citizen you were, and that you never know, but the more moral and upright you get, the greater your chances of getting some sort of handle to your name, know what I mean? Wink wink. And in any event, Labour had a way of looking after its donors - it was a mutually beneficial relationship.
A goodly proportion of Labour's scandals in office were related to the ever-pressing need for donations. And Labour have always had the comforting back-up of the Trades Unions, usually prepared to stump up the overwhelming majority of Labour's money, all in return for such minor favours as determining how Labour MPs vote, and who should be leader of the Party. It was Blair's attempts to diversify away from this that got him into trouble.
Without this back-up, the Tories have traditionally fallen back on business and the City of London for its funding. And since there's no obligation for such people to give money to the Tories, there has to be something in the way of a quid pro quo. I know it's an unpopular view, but personally, I thought that the non-explicit sale of honours wasn't a bad way of doing things. Peerages aside, all the honour system does is provide a snobbish sense of social superiority at practically zero cost to the state.
But if that's not allowed (and, to be fair, it definitely isn't) then surely the least harmful inducement that could be offered to donors is facetime with party celebrities (such as they are)? It's not as if Cameron is going to change party policy in return for a donation (although there is precedent I suppose). As Paul Goodman says, what will happen is that Cameron will be charming and gracious and Prime Ministerial at the donor, who will go home suffused with a sense of his own importance and status, and tens of thousands of pounds lighter in the pocket.
If you ban personal access in return for funding, you are pretty much making private fund-raising impossible. And, unless you're happy to see the death of the political party system in the UK, you will then have to implement state funding of the parties. And that will end the party funding scandals right? No, it won't. And since party co-operation on the reform of party funding is all but impossible (Labour won't countenance anything that endangers Union funding, Tories won't cripple their ability to raise money unless that Union funding is similarly shacked) we may as well get used to this sort of horrifying scandal cropping up from time to time - regardless of who's in power.

Friday, March 16, 2012


I think Larry Elliot's slightly missing the point of Greg Smith's now infamous Goldmans resignation letter. Elliot's angle is:

Resignation letters may be self-serving, but Smith's rang true: Wall Street is a conspiracy of the super-rich against the public

It may be, but Smith's letter wasn't about the public, or Main Street as Elliot goes on to call them. It was about Goldmans' clients.

I have always taken a lot of pride in advising my clients to do what I believe is right for them, even if it means less money for the firm. This view is becoming increasingly unpopular at Goldman Sachs. Another sign that it was time to leave.

And what sort of person is a Goldmans client? Well, it isn't the poor down-trodden masses. It's high net-worth individuals, and large corporations - "sophisticated investors" in other words, who should know better, but usually don't. From the perspective of the average man on the street, we are being invited to weep on behalf of massively wealthy people, who are being ripped-off by even more massively wealthy people. Sure, it's shitty behaviour by Goldmans, but I find it hard to get too worked up over it.

Oh, one more thing. Goldmans boys are more likely to be offended by this summary of their business practices than anything in the Smith letter:

The big structural change on Wall Street and in the City of London has been for the investment banks to become bigger and more integrated. That means that one team goes round trying to persuade companies to float shares, a second team of analysts then pens supposedly independent analysis suggesting the shares are a great buy, while a third team of traders makes money every time the shares move up and down on the stock market. There is a massive conflict of interest here.

I can hear the bond guys from here. "The fucking equities desk? Those losers? Is that what he thinks we do?" Equities lost their sheen in the 1980s, it's been bonds and derivatives ever since...

The power of poor writing

This is a strong contender for the worst political column of the year so far. Stiff competition, obviously, but I think it's in with a chance:

Samantha Cameron is not just flying the flag for British fashion in this photograph, she is flying it for President Cameron and the myth of liberal conservatism.

In terms of sheer, joyously bad writing, however, there can be only one nominee. Step forward Paul Taylor, of the theatre & dance section of the Independent. Lots of possible examples, but let's go with the "swallowed a thesaurus and then been violently sick on paper" approach illustrated in his review of Shivered.

When some artists affect to say the unsayable, the result is simply unspeakable. Likewise, when they make a show of thinking the unthinkable, the consequences are just flatly unconscionable...

It is not Ridley who is desentised; it is his attackers in their fixed and laminated indignation. They fail to take on board the generosity of spirit that impels his plays and makes them not a tragicomic reveling in the destructive element but bravura, abundant, tonally varied (there are always some great joles) tours de foce of the dramatic and narrative arts.
The typos aren't mine, by the way. I assume that the proof readers at the Independent simply lost the will to carry on past the first few sentences. Hard to blame them.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Why I like Dan Hannan

If for nothing else, then for this tag.

On the merits of the argument in that post, (with which I broadly agree) I would just say that thinking things through to their logical conclusion is an admirable intellectual pursuit, but not always a foolproof guide to successful politics.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Gay marriage

I have a feeling that when I first heard about gay marriage, way back when civil partnerships were being discussed, I was against it. Civil ceremonies were fine I thought, but marriage? C'mon, that was between men and women. Just call it something else, that way everybody's happy.

I like to think that I'm reasonably consistent in my views (I'd probably stand by most things I've written on here, and that stretches back more than six years now), but on this I really have had a sea-change. Like Hugo Rifkind (paywall...) I literally cannot think of a single cogent reason why there should not be civil gay marriage. Make it so.

The only proviso that I would make here, is that I think it would be unconscionable if religious institutions were compelled to provide a gay marriage service. But there's no reason why they should be. Marriage is now primarily a secular institution. In order to 'be' married, you need to fulfil the civic obligation of signing the register. There's no need for any religious involvement at all. As far as the state is concerned, the church is an optional extra, not a requirement.

In addition, churches are already entitled to refuse to marry people. Many Catholic churches won't marry divorcees - some won't marry across ecumenical divisions. Synagogues, I believe, will only marry Jewish couples. I'm sure that similar barriers exist in other faiths. It's not much of a step to extend this right to discriminate to same sex couples. (Equally, obviously, if there are churches that want to provide gay marriage ceremonies, then they should be allowed to).

You can argue, like Dan Hannan, that this isn't a terribly important argument - the major steps in fighting for equal rights have already been taken. Sure, I can accept that. But if this isn't a major point, then where's the harm in allowing it? I agree with Graeme Archer - marriage should be for people who love each other. it's not the job of the state to determine who's allowed to benefit.

Socialism in two pictures

The crowning achievement of state socialism was to take a nation of Germans and make them poor. Even bearing that in mind, these photographs comparing buildings in the old East Germany with how they look now are remarkable.

If there's a serious lesson to be learned here, it is this:
From the end of the war onwards the government had fixed rents in the GDR and in practical terms they remained constant -- at between 0.40 and 1.20 East German Marks per square meter. On average the estimated cost of restoring an old building in East Berlin was 75,000 Marks, the equivalent of 80 years' rent for a GDR citizen.
Rent controls: the most efficient technique presently known to destroy a city—except for bombing.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Why do women have legs...?


Tom Chivers, it appears isn't a fan of "banter":

Can we end it? Destroy it, cleanse it with fire, encase it in lead and hurl its charred corpse into the North Sea? It is, and I am speaking as someone who recently decried the use of hyperbole in public debate, literally and without question the single worst thing in the history of the universe.

Tom goes on to define banter as cruelty unleavened by wit but which is excused because it is a bit like wit, if you look at it from a certain angle and goes on to say

I'm literally and specifically saying that if you – you, the reader – like "banter", you are an idiot.

The difficulty of arguing with this is that Tom has defined the term quite narrowly to mean casual abuse (sexist, racist, homophobic, whatever) thrown around with the get-out clause that "it's only a joke" and that the recipient therefore doesn't have the right to be offended. Well, yes. That's really quite dickish, and the jokey get-out is really only a shield for a bullying demand that you ignore his rudeness.

But that's not all banter is, really. Before the Uni-lad exposure blasted "banter" into the headlines, my experience of it was generally the rather English thing that blokes tend to seek refuge in insulting each other if there's any danger of actual emotion being expressed. Compliments can only come in a reverse sugar-coating of insult. That's all bound up in the oddly English concept that you are only really friends with someone when you no longer have to be polite to them.

As with so many things, the acceptability of banter will depend on whether or not it is happening between equals. If it is, then it really is nothing more than another way of making social discourse that much easier. If it isn't, then it's bullying. Almost all the examples Tom uses (and really the way he defines the whole concept) falls into this latter category, and on that definition I'm happy to agree with him, except that I might go a bit further than "idiot".