Wednesday, January 29, 2014

More straightforward answers to simple questions

Ed Miliband's strategy at PMQs is pretty simple (now that the statesmanlike bi-partisan search for consensus has flopped): find a question the PM doesn't want to answer and keep asking it. He did this with his risible energy price freeze, and now he's doing it over the 50p tax rate for high-earners.

The question is: "Will the PM rule out a further cut to the top rate of tax?"

Each time this was asked, Cameron flannelled: saying that the priority was cuts for low and middle incomes. But by not actually answering it, he just gave the issue more resonance. It's baffling and bewildering, because there is a perfectly good answer that he could have given that would have put the issue to bed, and turned into a better springboard to attack Labour:
This Government has aspirations to cut taxes for everyone: we are a temperamentally low-tax administration. However, a further cut to the top rate, so that it returns to the level it was for all but a few weeks of Labour's time in office, is not our top priority. That is cuts to taxes on lower earners etc etc.
What we do not propose to do is to raise it further because, as HMRC and the IFS demonstrate, such a hike would raise no significant revenue and be nothing more than a gesture to show the world that Britain doesn't welcome investment, doesn't value success and doesn't encourage aspiration.
 Isn't that better?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Caitlin Moran on benefits

Caitlin Moran has another go at her poverty and benefits column in the Times today, pinned onto Benefits Street. It's the usual stuff - 60% of us are 'on benefits' therefore something something. But there's one thing that slightly yanks my chain:
When the irony is, of course, that the working-class benefit fraud costs £1.2 billion a year, while tax evasion — inevitably a middle-class crime — costs £14 billion annually. £14 billion! That it is often repeated does not dim its outrage. The fact is simple: richer people steal more. You cannot trust them. Hide your espresso machine when they come round, fellow peasant, lest they sneak them into their Cath Kidston tote and make their escape in a Prius.
It's not entirely clear where she gets the figure - the latest HMRC figures show a "tax gap" of £35bn, of which tax evasion makes up £5.1bn and the "hidden economy" makes up another £5.4bn. But that's really the least of her problems. She classifies "tax evasion" as "inevitably a middle class crime" like, you know, smoking rollies from rolling tobacco that happens not to have been subject to duty. Or selling goods at a market stall without registering each sale for VAT. Or getting a casual job as a cleaner or labourer, getting paid cash-in-hand and not declaring it to the taxman. Middle-class crimes like that.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Things I like to hear...

I still have no real idea what Britain should be doing about Syria. On that subject, though with wider application, Dan Hannan says something that I really wish more politicians would have the courage to say:
Which is really my point: there are things beyond our control, problems without solutions.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Like your dialectic materialism comrade...

Obviously cross that the debate about the causes of the First World War seems to have become stalled for many in about 1960, Seumas Milne boldly brings it back 40 years in today's Guardian. Milne, everyone's favourite Wykehamist Stalinist, writes that the war was:
A savage industrial slaughter perpetrated by a gang of predatory imperial powers, locked in a deadly struggle to capture and carve up territories, markets and resources.
Having shared the advantages of Mr Milne's first rate private education, I recognised this line of argument immediately - it is a straight lift from the preface to Lenin's Imperialism, the highest stage of Capitalism, which states that the Great War was:
A war for the division of the world, for the partition and repartition of colonies and spheres of influence of finance capital, etc.

There's something almost admirable in a world view that crystallised in 1917.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Tribal warfare

The current spat over the origins and nature of the First World War is remarkably odd. While Michael Gove was definitely being both overly confrontational and a bit broad-brush by describing as left-wing the view that the First World War was a mismanaged shambles, his overal thesis that the popular view of the war is shaped by Blackadder and Sherriff and is both inaccurate and unfair is, I think, pretty much right.

If you want to see, however, what a truly slap-dash historical argument looks like then let me direct you to Professor Richard Evans' less than magisterial response. Leaving aside the common-or-garden rudeness ("Perhaps Gove should attend some history lessons taught by the professionals he so belittles so that he can learn how to read and cite sources properly," "Gove has again shown his ignorance of history and his preference for mythmaking over scholarship," and so on), Evans seeks to demonstrate why Gove was wrong in claiming that Britain's war against Germany was a "'just war', a 'noble cause', fought by men 'committed to defending the western liberal order'" on the following grounds:

1. Britain was allied with Imperial Russia.
He seems to forget that one of Britain's two main allies was the Russia of Tsar Nicholas II, a despotism of no mean order, far more authoritarian than the Kaiser's Germany. Until Russia left the war early in 1918, any talk of fighting to defend "western" values was misplaced.
There are two points to make here. The first is that if being in alliance with a despotism automatically prevents any war from being "just", then the Second World War wasn't a just war either. The second is that being in alliance with Russia did not, in any event, prevent the war from Britain's perspective being about defending Western values. The key is to look at what the combatant nations' war aims were. Germany's were set out in Bethman Hollweg's September Program: large scale territorial annexations and economic dominance over Europe (there are objections to this interpretation, as it was never formally adopted. However, seen in conjunction with the implemented Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which was even harsher on Russia than the September Program anticipated, it looks almost modest in scope).

2. Germany was more democratic than Britain.

Britain wasn't a democracy at the time either: until the Fourth Reform Act of 1918, 40% of adult males didn't have the vote, in contrast to Germany, where every adult man had the right to go to the ballot box in national elections.
It's fairly astonishing to see this argument being made by a Professor of German history. Britain was certainly not a perfect democracy - very far from it. But it had elected executive Governments. Germany was an absolute monarchy (and was to become a military dictatorship), with an ancillary Reichstag, devoid of real power. The Kaiser appointed the Chancellor personally, and had exclusive jurisdiction over foreign and trade policy. He also had personal direct control of the Army.

The really good thing about this argument is that just after Evans rebukes Gove for overlooking the fact that Germany was more democratic than Britain, he goes on to say that there was overwhelming popular opposition to the war in Germany:

The largest political party, the Social Democrats, was opposed to annexations and had long been critical of the militarism of the elites. By the middle of the war, the Social Democrats had forged the alliance with other democratic parties that was to come to power at the war's end.
If only the opposition to the war of the majority of the Reichstag had mattered eh? There's a truly democratic state for you.

3. Germany wasn't really that bad.

German atrocities in the first phase of the war, in France, and the last phase, in the east, were real enough, but you can't generalise from these to say this is how the Germans would have treated the whole of the rest of Europe had they won. Imperial Germany was not Nazi Germany; the Kaiser was not Hitler.

I think we can be reasonably sure of how Germany would have treated the whole of Europe if they'd won - certainly it makes more sense to extrapolate from what they actually did do when they won in the East than to just pretend that a victorious military dictatorship, tempered by an absolutists monarch would have become magically become woolly liberals. Also, I'm not sure that there was such an uncrossable gulf between Imperial and Nazi Germany - after all a deliberate and orchestrated genocide of a group dismissed as untermenchen had already taken place, under German control, in South West Africa, not to mention the slaughter of some 30% of the total population of German East Africa.

There are good arguments to make about why Britain was wrong to fight the First World War, but Richard Evans has managed to ignore them all. Impressive really.