Wednesday, October 16, 2013
Saturday, October 12, 2013
In the wake of the former CIA analyst Edward Snowden's revelations about state surveillance, I thought I'd reread George Orwell's 1984, written nearly70 years ago on the Island of Jura. I was taken aback by how prophetic it is. When I first read this novel at school, before personal computers and the internet, the idea of two-way interactive “telescreens” in every home and workplace seemed like improbable science fiction. Not today. Orwell, through an extraordinary feat of imagination, had described the internet nearly half a century before it was invented.
But not even he could have imagined the sheer power digital technology would place in the hands of the state to record, store, search and collate information. In the Ministry of Truth they had voice recognition software – the “speakwrite” - but ultimately information was still retained on paper. Imagine Big Brother having access to Big Data , and acquiring the ability to hold and search petabytes of information, in the way GCHQ and the American National Security Agency apparently do. Or to monitor, record and search millions of telephone conversations like Verizon.
Winston Smith could still go off line, at least for short periods. But today, BB would know exactly where he was thanks to ubiquitous CCTV cameras and global positioning software on mobile phones. Then there is all that Orwellian-sounding “metadata” that can be and is mined from the net, allowing access to our very unconscious mind through algorithms that analyse what we watch, buy and read; who we meet and where we go. As for Facebook – Orwell would never have believed it. Millions of people ejaculating their private thoughts onto a public record that can never be erased.
But Orwell got the basics right. As Winston Smith's banned book explained, what differentiated 1984 from all previous repressive regimes was that: “in the past no government had the power to keep its citizens under constant surveillance”. Freedom has, since the dawn of civilisation, rested on our right to live our lives free from arbitrary interference and monitoring by the state. Orwell's message was that without democratic control and rigorous accountability – without a presumption of privacy and freedom of thought – the coming technology of surveillance had the capacity to extinguish most of what it means to be human.
Tuesday, October 08, 2013
Neil Kinnock made a speech before the 1983 general election in which he said: "I warn you not to be old. I warn you not to get sick. I warn you not to lose your job..." Today, he might have added a warning not to be young. This week an unprecedented assault was launched by the Conservatives on the living standards and prospects of Britain's under 25 year olds, a million of whom are unemployed.
Who would be young today? £9,000 a year fees (in |England at least) no jobs, zero hours contracts, unaffordable mortgages, ruinous rents and now you lose your benefits if you happen to lose your job. Think about it. If you are someone who left school, got an apprenticeship, worked for five years and then were made redundant, you would lose housing benefits and job seekers allowance for the crime of being under 25.
This is so manifestly unfair, I could hardly believe that David Cameron was serious about it in his conference speech. But this is going to be a major plank of their Tory election platform in 18 months. They are already committed to cutting housing benefits for jobless under 25s, and now they plan to take away jobseekers allowance too, which at £51 is already too little to live on.
I'm not entirely sure this is even legal. If I were a single parent, or a soldier back from Afghanistan, or a hospital worker axed in the cuts, I would be inclined to raise a court action for discrimination on grounds of age. These are adults were are talking about, not children. I feel genuinely sorry for the under 25s, setting out on lifetime of debt, their aspirations crushed by an generation of politicians who enjoyed advantages they can only dream about.
Friday, October 04, 2013
He may not move the voters, but Ed Miliband has certainly rattled David Cameron's cage. The PM name checked Labour no fewer than 25 times in his address to the Tory conference yesterday in Manchester. He mentioned Ukip not once and only referred to the Liberal Democrats as an albatross around the Tory neck. So, why has Ed got under Tory skins?
Well, obviously Milband's taking on the energy companies has annoyed the Tories because it is rather popular, as was a fair amount of Labour's new "red" agenda. Hitting property developers and energy monopolies and shifting taxation from small businesses to big ones is hardly striking at the roots of capitalism. This is the kind of policy agenda that some Conservatives used to rather favour - supporting the little man, the small business against powerful vested interests.
One Nation conservatism of the type Harold MacMillan largely invented and Michael Heseltine still advocates today was all about raising the living standards of the many and curbing the privileges of the few. It was about building houses, promoting welfare and extending economic activity to the 'regions'. It wasn't about rejecting Europe, victimising the unemployed and pandering to the prejudices of voters in the South East of England.
You only needed to look at the huge blue banners draped around the conference centre in Manchester to get the message: "Immigration Down. Crime Down. Welfare Down. Taxes Down". Mrs Thatcher would have been proud to discover that her legacy was so secure in the age of "liberal" Conservatism. Behind the emolient face of David Cameron, the Conservatives have defaulted to their true blue roots. This is a party tacking rapidly to the right.
David Cameron, we are told, is now planning to cut housing and possibly other benefits from unemployed people under the age of 25. This is a draconian extension of the welfare cap that has proved so successful for the Conservatives. He has committed his party to an in/out referendum on membership of Europe, a "go home" policy on immigration and a form of hair shirt fiscal conservatism by promising extending public sector cuts to 2020 in order to replace the deficit with a budget surplus. If he is serious, this would involve truly heroic spending reductions, since the Coalition has already failed in its original 2010 pledge to eliminate the deficit by 2015.
Wednesday, October 02, 2013
Is politics back in fashion? People like me have been moaning for years about how all the parties are the same at Westminster, crowding the centre ground and pursuing synthetic focus group policies. But after this week, just maybe, things have changed. Between Ed Miliband and David Cameron, a gulf in policy and ideology has emerged that, on the surface at least, looks as wide as anything we have seen in the last two decades
David Cameron attacked Ed Miliband's plans to freeze energy prices, build 200,000 houses a year and scrap the bedroom tax, as a lurch to the left. Tory ministers will accuse Labour of the politics of envy for wanting to extend the bank levy, introduce a mansion tax, axe higher rate pension tax relief and possibly restore the 50p tax. Worst of all, with Ed's threat to confiscate development land, end NHS privatisation, selectively increase the minimum wage and curb bank bonuses, the Labour leader will be accused of taking Britain back to the bad old days of the 1970s, of class war, nationalisation and state controls.
That is far from the case. However, before deconstructing "Red Ed", a word in defence of that much-maligned decade. 1970s fashions may have been execrable and industrial confrontation was out of control. But Britain was at its most equal, in terms of income and wealth, in 1977. It was an era of genuine social security, when houses were cheap, jobs were relatively abundant, Britain was an industrial nation, and there was genuine social mobility thanks to free higher education. Unemployment was thought to be excessive when it surpassed one million.
Countries like Germany and Norway have stuck essentially to 1970s consensus politics with great success. Britain left for the far side of Thatcherism and ended up with a dysfunctional economy dominated by a banking kleptocracy. But in our deracinated political culture, under both New Labour and the Conservative coalition, the bogey of the 70s has been used to close down political debate, in England at least.
In Scotland, the SNP adopted Labour's social democratic agenda almost wholesale - unilateralism, abolition of tuition fees, social housing - and has been successful, electorally at least. So successful that Ed Miliband wants to steal some of it back - on bedroom tax, even votes for 16 year olds. When Johann Lamont's "Cuts Commission" - launched exactly a year ago - reports on the "something for nothing society" it may find that it has caught up with New Labour just as it has been superseded by Ed Labour
But only up to a point. The Labour leader's radicalism is heavily circumscribed. He is not proposing a fundamental shift of wealth and power, nor will he back his conference on public ownership of rail and Royal Mail. He said nothing about nuclear weapons and isn't proposing to to redistribute wealth or restore the principle of free education. Miliband is responding to the despair of Middle England as it discovers, to its surprise, that it is no longer the poor who are being squeezed.
The general decline in earnings since 2008 has masked a profound shift in British social demography. With student debt, house prices and the collapse of the old career structure, the aspirant middle classes of the 21st Century are discovering they no longer have a foot hold on prosperity. The old distinctions between the middle class and the working class, as in that old Frost Report sketch with John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett, have eroded.
This is why Labour is banging on about the "cost of living crisis". That is something the working poor have always suffered, but now it is spreading across the social divide, leaving a gulf between 'us' and a super rich 1% 'them'. "Red" Ed has realised that this has revived the market for elements of the old social democratic consensus. His targeting of the energy companies is no accident: high energy costs hit the middle classes disproportionately because they have larger houses. Indeed, had the SNP proposed a price freeze Ms Lamont's Cuts Commission would probably have accused it of being regressive.
Whatever you think Ed Miliband's qualities as a leader, he has an astute understanding of political dynamics. He has drawn a line under the New Labour experiment and rediscovered the rhetorical power of fairness. Getting both the profiteering energy companies and Peter Mandelson to disown him in the same week was pretty good going. And this week, the Conservatives will be left defending the indefensible - bankers, energy bosses, property developers and people who live in £2m houses.
But what does it mean for Scotland? Well, it could mean that the SNP has a fight on its hands. It can no longer roam freely across Labour's abandoned terrain of social democracy. If there appears to be a genuinely left of centre party bidding for power in Westminster, the argument that Scotland needs independence to secure social objectives is undermined. It is much too early to tell yet because the Scottish Labour Party under Johann Lamont has moved in the opposite direction by defining her leadership through an assault on universal benefits. But the Nationalists may no longer have all the best tunes.
Voters in Scotland often despair at the tribalism of politics, where parties, Labour and SNP, berate each other instead of working together for common goals. On social housing, bedroom tax, green energy, NHS, apprenticeships, gay marriage, living wage etc Salmond and Lamont are on the same side. Much of their mutual antagonism can be put down to the fact that Scotland used to be effectively a one party state run by Labour. If you wanted to get on in Scotland, in public sector jobs, local government, quangos etc. you first had to join the Labour tribe. This power of patronage has been destroyed by two SNP governments and the destruction of Labour electoral monopoly of local government - though ironically it was a Labour FM, Jack McConnell, who sealed their fate by introducing fair voting in council elections.
Beyond that, there is the old antagonism of the Left to nationalism in all its forms, which goes back to George Orwell and socialist internationalism. Left wing intellectuals in England still instinctively recoil on any politics based on national identity, even though the SNP is a civic nationalist party that supports open borders and seeks independence for social objectives.
I don't think Alex Salmond will be losing too much sleep over Ed Miliband's rediscovery of social democratic rhetoric. The Labour leader's ignorance of Scottish politics was revealed by his suggestion, in his speech, that the NHS might be split by independence. It is already split, thanks to the Tory reforms - and in Scotland the SNP government has defended the integrated National Health Service that Ed Miliband says he wants for the UK as a whole. His attacks on Alex Salmond for being tax-cutting Tory are similarly wide of the mark.
The SNP will only find itself challenged in Scotland if the Scottish Labour Party discovers its voice, shakes off its antagonism towards popular policies like tuition fees and stops behvaing like the party of the council bureaucrat. And there is no sign yet of that.
Monday, September 30, 2013
It's not exactly been a happy pre-anniversary for the Yes Scotland campaign. Looking at the deluge of one-year-to-go opinion polls, the only sensible conclusion is that very little has changed and independence is set to be rejected by a substantial majority. Yes, the number of don't knows has gone up and there is a degree of fluidity about the supporters of devolution max. But there is no sign of an early breakthrough. Even Alex Salmond's Aberdeenshire school students blew him a raspberry by voting against independence in mock elections by a margin of three to one.
The economic argument rages on to no particular purpose. All sides accept that Scotland could be a viable economy on its own, but the £500 question remains unanswered. An opinion poll by ICM last week suggested that 47% of Scots would vote Yes if they could be assured that independence would make them richer by this amount, while only 18% would vote for independence if they were made poorer. Nicola Sturgeon welcomed this poll and insisted that “on the basis of the current Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland report Scotland’s finances are stronger than the UK’s as a whole to the tune of £4.4 billion – which equates to £824 per person”. Whether this fiscal arithmetic is right or not, I find it rather demeaning for the question of Scotland's national renewal to be reduced to the cost of a minibreak in Benidorm.
Anyway, the Nationalists are always going to be on the defensive with these arguments because of the uncertainty factor. It is impossible to say whether Scotland would be better off after independence, and the hard fiscal reality is that a short period of post independence austerity is likely, even with the benefit of oil revenues. The Institute for Fiscal Studies claimed last week that Scottish public spending, which it says is 17% higher per head than in England, would be squeezed in a transition period as Scotland tried to grapple with the debts inherited from the UK.
Now, the Nationalists rightly say that this is hardly their fault, and that is true. They are also right to argue that with oil and renewable resources, Scotland could be a viable and very effective economy. But it is hard to argue with the IFS calculation that there would be significant spending constraints in the short term. The IFS is the gold standard of financial accounting and its assessments have to be taken seriously, unlike the UK Treasury, which has been frankly producing propaganda in the guise of economic analysis.
Now, in any normal independence situation, such transitional costs would be seen as a price worth paying for national freedom. You didn't find the Slovakia, the Lativa, or any of the other countries which won independence in 1990s worrying over such trivial sums. In Barcelona today, Catalonian nationalists don't march in their millions demanding 500 more euros – they demand an end to domination from Madrid, cultural liberation, control of their own affairs. Scottish independence is in danger of turning into a bean-counter convention, where people are arguing over the small change in the national accounts instead of creating a vision of a better society.
Friday, September 27, 2013
From Herald, 26/9/13
Reaction to Ed Miliband's plan to freeze energy prices has been, well, electric. Energy UK warned of “black-outs”; Centrica said it might go out of business; press commentators accused “Red” Ed of taking Britain back to the bad old 1970s of price controls, shortages and nationalisation. I suspect most consumers, this one included, said: about time.
Price control is a pretty blunt instrument, but governments sometimes have to use blunt instruments to make industries behave. The energy monopolies have been racking up prices and profits in lock step for years, making a nonsense of any free market in energy. This has been noted by both the consumer rights group, Which, and the Commons Energy Committee.
Other European countries regulate prices including France, whose state-owned EDF charges lower prices to its domestic consumers than to consumers in Britain. This is why Miliband is so confident that his proposal is not going to break EU competition laws. The howls of anguish from business groups are unjustified. In 1997 Gordon Brown imposed a £5bn windfall tax on the privatised utilities – mainly energy companies again – and no one thought he was abolishing capitalism. Miliband's price freeze will cost them £4.5 billion, according to Labour.