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Monday, 27 January 2014

The morality of free markets, capitalism and self interest

Last year I had the very great pleasure of hearing the Ayn Rand Memorial Lecture at the Adam Smith Institute, delivered by Lars Seier Christensen, Co-Founder of Saxo Bank.

I was reminded of this today, when I read about Labour's plans for taxation. I also read Owen Jones' 'Agenda for Hope' (aka Agenda for Ruination), in addition, this particular Tweet caught my eye:
I will be honest, it stopped me in my tracks. I found it completely terrifying. He really believes that he (through the state) has a right to other people's money*.

And so I was reminded of Christensen's speech. His is an important message, and one we should all be spreading whenever we get the opportunity.

It's a long one, but extraordinarily inspiring. A transcript is available here, though I would urge you to find the time to listen to it properly.


I've selected a few quotes, to give you a bit of a flavour. I won't claim these are the most important bits, as the whole thing is important!

"Full blown socialism doesn’t work at all, and lesser degrees of socialism restrict to a higher or lower level the creation of growth and prosperity."

Saxo Bank's company statement includes its values, modelled on Atlas Shrugged - rationality, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productivity and pride - and based on these:

"You may not be guaranteed a successful career or a great life – accidents, illness or other random elements may interfere – by applying the values to your work, but it is difficult to imagine that anyone could live successfully if he or she continuously disregards and violates these values."

"Pick-a-winner, corporate social responsibility, employment rules, affirmative action, the creation of fictional jobs and plain political popularity and obedience will then rule who prospers and survives in all industries, not just banking. Beware of this development,  for it is poison to capitalism and growth and to prosperity for all of you."

"We need to change the values, the morality and the misunderstandings, and to undermine the deliberate lies our politicians feed the electorate about what constitutes solidarity, justice and the common good. Is it solidarity to make people into losers and victims and leave them totally unable to care for themselves? Is the common good to stop businesses and investors from creating wealth and prosperity? Is it justice to regulate every aspect of a normal person’s life and continuously monitor his every move?"


*Note: I'm terrified and I'm not even rich. Or a high earner. Or anything really. I just think people's property is THEIR property. 

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Nigel Farage was not being unreasonable

You saw the headlines. You know the story. Did you watch the full piece?


There are a number of issues raised by what Farage said, so I'm going to look at them point by point.

Women biologically make different choices to men


I believe that some of the gap between women and men choosing to stay at home with young children is down to socialisation. But to suggest socialisation explains it all, and biology nothing, is just ridiculous. Carrying a baby, giving birth, breastfeeding - these all increase the likelihood that a woman will want to stay at home with her child.

No, a woman is not a bad person if she wants to go back to work ASAP. No, a man is not less masculine for wanting to be at home with the baby. But that does not man biology has no part in this.

Note: Farage is not talking about women who give up their careers. He is talking about women who take maternity leave, which is often six to 12 months. He references 2-3 years in the above video, talking about women who take two lots of maternity leave.

Being out of work makes your value decline

Are we really having this discussion?

Of course it does. If you spend a year out of work, of course you will be behind when you go back. Being off work to look after a child doesn't change the 'out of work' part of this.

If, over a 10 year period, you take two years in maternity leave, you should not expect to be in the same position as a man or a woman who has worked for all of those 10 years. They have more experience and have done more work.

We need to be honest with women: career breaks can be damaging. I think most of us know that already. But at some point individuals may decide that taking care of their baby is more important to them than working through those extra years.

Fair play. Just don't expect your colleagues or employer to treat you as though you continued working.

In the City

Farage was speaking quite specifically about working in the City. And very specifically about roles where client relationships are important. His argument is quite clear: in that business the worker is worth as much as the clients they have loyal to them. When you take a break (for whatever reason) those clients still need services, and so go elsewhere. They then become loyal to that person, not you. Obviously.

Bottom line

If you take time out of your career, you are going to be playing catch up when you return to work, and may well never be able to fully achieve what you would have without the break. Looking after children during your leave does not change this.

And why should you expect it to? What of the men and women who make different choices and don't take time out: why should they get the same career results for more work?

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Reforming the NHS and the importance of private providers

"The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings. The inherent virtue of Socialism is the equal sharing of miseries."
- Winston Churchill

Nowhere is this 'virtue' more pronounced in Britain's modern left than on the subject of healthcare.

'The NHS is being privatised', 'the NHS has been sold', 'the NHS no longer exists'. These are all common phrases heard from the left.

They seem to be happy to accept substandard care, long waiting lists and real human suffering, as long as the horror is publicly run and equally shared. Private companies being involved in healthcare is considered to be awful. It doesn't matter if they offer shorter waits, better patient outcomes, and are even able to combine this with lower costs.

Impossible. How could they do all of that at once? (and make a profit on top? No way)

Welcome to specialisation, division of labour; the innovation associated with private enterprise that is incredibly difficult to replicate in bureaucratic government organisations.

The healthcare commissioner looks for the best price/quality combination they can find. The service provider realises that the only way to win contracts is to provide the best patient outcomes in the most efficient way. Having the proper people in commissioning positions is vital - as is having a multiplicity of providers to compete on price and quality.

When there is one monopoly provider, which knows it will get the business no matter how poor its service, horrific things like Mid-Staffs are sure to happen.

I leave you with the Aravind Eye Care System in India, an amazing business which receives no government or charitable funding, and has treated tens of millions of Indians - many of them for free or low cost. The business is successful because it has an excellent reputation and offers a tiered service. Those who can pay, do. And they receive a more luxurious hospital stay. Poorer patients pay little or nothing, and receive the same high quality care but more basic conditions.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

We must find a way to make assisted dying legal


Assisted dying must be made legal in the UK. It is vital that people have decision making power over their own lives, and ends, and that the suffering so many people wish to avoid is prevented.

As a libertarian, I have a number of beliefs about the individual's right to choose for themselves, but here I am writing from a deeply personal perspective, in reference to two of my own experiences.

The end of life

I nursed my Great Grandma to her death from metastatic cancer a few years ago. She had the very best of care - you could not expect more for any money. At home, with equipment provided including a hospital bed (making moving her around much easier), an excellent community care team led by specialist hospice nurses calling every day, and district nurses, GPs and paramedics all available 24/7 (all were required variously). There was an excellent system in place whereby all of her needs as she deteriorated were anticipated - equipment and pre-prescribed medications were kept at our house, so that any visiting medical professional could treat her without having to source these. Calling a paramedic out at 2am to reinsert a catheter was made much easier by having one on hand!

However, though end of life care can be done excellently (and I wish all families had the experience of ours), it doesn't take away the suffering. Dia-morphine does not take away the suffering. Sedation does not take away the suffering.

For the last few weeks of her life my Grandma largely lost the ability to communicate, but continued to have occasional heartbreaking lucid moments right to the end, where she wished to die (though I must emphasise in her case, her religious beliefs meant she did not want intervention to help her to die). She did not eat or drink and became skeletal. Her organs were shutting down. Her skin was breaking down, and nothing could stop the sores. It wasn't nice. Yes, she had the best care, and the best medication, but it didn't stop her hurting or knowing what was happening. She wanted to be peaceful, but we had to move her so very frequently to clean up messes as her organs shut down. For her, despite the vast quantities of dia-morphine, it was traumatic.

As I stated, she did not want intervention to help her die.

But me? I would. Absolutely. With certainty. Once it was end-days, the hope had gone, and the suffering outweighed what comfort I had got from my loved ones, I'd want to be off. I believe I should have to right to make that choice, and I believe it's right for people to help. What exactly would be achieved by preventing someone who is going to die and who has nothing but suffering ahead of them from making a choice to die sooner?

I am terrified that one day I will be in that situation, and no one will help me. Or worse, that my family will help me but risk prosecution. It is wrong that what could be a peaceful death, cutting out a big chunk of awful, is prevented by the law. 

Gathered in the kitchen the morning after she died, four members of the community care team who had been so excellent were gathering up leftover medication and equipment. "It's awful isn't it", they said "I wish we could help people along sooner".

They'd said the thing we'd all been thinking for weeks, but had been too scared to say out loud.

Living with pain

I'm no stranger to pain. I have Crohn's disease: a type of inflammatory bowel disease that affects any part of the digestive system. It can cause some pretty serious pain. I've had stays in hospital where ridiculous amounts of morphine have done nothing for me. Triple doses and I'm still climbing the walls.

And so I think, what if that were it? What if Azathioprine, my current treatment, or other medications for Crohn's disease had not been invented? What if, with absolute certainty, that pain was all I was ever going to have? Where the only way to actually stop it hurting would be to sedate me. What if something else happened to me that made that the case?

What then?

It's so very easy for people to say life is precious and that we must preserve it. But sometimes it isn't. Sometimes it's ending, and that ending is hell on earth. The person who has the right to decide whether their life is still or not, is the individual.

Protecting vulnerable people

I understand that people have concerns about vulnerable people being coerced into an assisted death. Or that assisted dying would lead to worse palliative care arrangements. Or indeed, that if palliative care were better, people would not wish for assisted dying because death would be smooth.

I strongly believe that these legitimate concerns can be worked around. We already have advance statements which allow an individual to make decisions about their care in the future. You can decide whether you want to continue all medications or cut back just to painkillers and sedation. You can choose whether to be artificially fed and hydrated, or not. You can make advanced decisions about things like resuscitation, or if you'd be taken to hospital in the event of an injury (for instance, if cared for at home, you can choose to just be put back in bed should you break a hip).

This kind of decision making process could, and should, be extended to allow people to choose assisted dying. The law must be changed to respect the rights of the individual, and this means protecting them from coercion whilst allowing them to make their choice.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

All Women Shortlists

This post was triggered by an interesting Twitter exchange yesterday evening, on the subject of All Women Shortlists (AWS). This practice ensures that particular seats have a female candidate (and in safe seats, a female MP) by making the selection shortlist all female. In the past it has been most widely used by the Labour party.

Proponents of AWS work from the idea that we need more women in parliament. They claim this is vital to ensuring 'female interests' are properly represented in parliament, and that change is not happening quickly enough. Therefore, they argue, AWS are needed to increase female representation to a more acceptable level, and when a 'critical mass' of women MPs is reached, it will become self-sustaining.

I am not a fan of AWS.

I have two objections. The first is as a women: I find it patronising. If I want to be an MP I am perfectly capable of competing with men on equal terms, and do not need special treatment because of my gender. I believe equality is about making things like gender, race and sexuality - whilst an important part of individual identities - irrelevant in political decision making. These groups are large: they are not homogenous, and nor do they have aligned interests.

My second objection is as a voter: I want the best person for the job. It is my belief that the best person for the job is the person that thinks most like me on important political issues (free market, individual liberty, small state), not the one who shares the most characteristics with me. I would always prefer a male who shares my political views to a female who does not. In the case of a man and a woman both sharing my views, I ought to choose who I think would be the most effective MP regardless of gender.

As I have written on this blog previously, I have a problem with feminist politics anyway. The very idea of 'women's issues' riles me. As a libertarian, I believe in equality. In my philosophy you must correctly define who is a citizen, therefore enjoying those equal rights, freedoms and liberties. Each must be addressed equally by the law, and each must make free decisions about their own life. Women should of course be full citizens (along with any other group characteristic one cares to identify, such as race or sexuality - very few people question that - the issue is with wanting special treatment. 

You can follow me on Twitter @thinkemily.

Friday, 31 May 2013

Conflating community and state

Libertarians and other people on the right are often accused of not caring about people, of adopting a laissez-faire attitude which protects privilege and confines others to the bottom of the income scale. In this school of thought the welfare of individuals within society is the responsibility of the state. The state ensures the wellbeing of citizens by providing. The degree to which the state provides varies by left-winger, but may include benefits in kind (healthcare, education, housing, childcare), benefits in cash (unemployment, disability, tax credits, pensions), and may extend to regulation of markets (minimum wage, job guarantees, state ownership of industry).

In contrast, libertarians do not believe in a large state providing all of these things for people. Libertarians believe in a small state providing the framework which allows people to do for themselves. Libertarians believe that a large state is inefficient, ineffective, and has perverse dynamic effects. Large states which intervene in the market reduce competition, innovation and growth. Large states which provide so much for their citizens help to make people lazy and irresponsible: a sense of entitlement with no sense of responsibility. Large state bureaucracies are inefficient and unwieldy, wasting tax payer’s money. Instead, the state should focus on providing a legal framework which promotes competition over monopolies, and social policies which allow people to engage in the market (e.g. many libertarians are passionate educationalists).

Disagreement over the role of the state leads to all kinds of accusations. These are particularly fierce in a society accustomed to handing over responsibility to the state. The left wing discourse suggests that anyone who does not think the state should do all of these things does not care about poverty or people, and only cares about privilege and maintaining the status quo.

That just isn’t true.
                                                                                                   
The point is that as a society – as a community – we are responsible for each other. We have a duty of care to our fellow citizens and human beings. We have a duty of care to our family, our neighbours and our wider community. In making the state responsible for so many things we have forgotten this duty. We expect a distant other to look after us and the needier members of society. We expect a distant other to pay the tax to foot the bill. We abdicate all responsibility and sense of power ourselves.

The state becomes regarded as an actor or a person itself. We forget that the state is just a collective expression of us all. The state is not above or outside of the community. The state is an expression of our national community.

The point is that we are responsible for each other. That is the principled stance. Depending on the need, the solution will be most effective at a different level. Sometimes that means the state is the most efficient way to provide. But sometimes it is the family, community, local government, or voluntary or charitable organisations. These methods of provision are not inferior or less principled. They too are an expression of our collective responsibility to one-another.


The problem is that we have now gotten so used to not being responsible for ourselves, our families, our neighbours, or our wider community. How do we restore a sense of responsibility and civic duty? Instead of thinking about what you should be entitled to, think about what you can do for yourself and for others. 

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Equal marriage

For me, and many like me (I suspect anyone under the age of 35 who is not evangelically religious) equal marriage is just a none issue.

Equal marriage is the 'shrug your shoulders and say "yeh, why didn't it happen years ago?"' policy.

Equal marriage is the 'we already call civil partnerships weddings, and their results husbands/wives, so what's the big deal?' policy.

Equal marriage is the 'actually, we're mostly not religious so you don't get to tell us what to do any more' policy.

The whole opposition movement is just baffling to me.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

My experience of the state education system

I am passionate about delivering high quality education to all. Lots of people are. But many (most?) of these people speak from a position of relative privilege. They attended fee paying schools, grammar schools, or high performing state schools. (or even just decent state schools)

I didn't.

My primary school was OFSTED inspected when I was in year 6, and placed in special measures. My first secondary school was closed half way through my GCSEs due to poor performance. A neighbouring school was expanded to take us all in. The result was that only 25% of my school year reached the benchmark of five good GCSEs including English and Maths (four years later, 26% achieved the same). Many of my peer group achieved no GCSEs at all. No qualifications at all. Some could only be described as, at the age of 16, functionally illiterate.

Such a failure of education has given me strong views on the subject. Sure, I can't assume that everywhere faces the same problems as my schools. Yes, it is important to take a macro view of education and analyse various case studies and factors. But it is also important to root your theory in the real world. A real world experience.

So in my real world experience, what were the problems?

Children running riot (on a couple of memorable occasions, literally). Teachers totally out of control. Poor quality teaching. Low expectations and low achievement. Lateness, truancy, and a general lack of discipline.

The attitude amongst staff in the school was that all of this was to be expected. Look at the community it served: the children were clearly no hopers. To be fair, it is a difficult community. The usual problems of unemployment, welfare dependency, substance (alcohol, drugs) abuse, absent parents (more then average numbers in prison). The classic sink estate.

However, the attitude amongst staff was inexcusable. Those children had real potential. Yes, they were bit of a tough crowd, but that doesn't excuse giving up on them before even trying.

The problem, ultimately? Poor leadership.

The head teacher and his team created a culture of low aspiration. They accepted sub-standard teachers. They did not demand more and better from staff or pupils, and they did not create a disciplined and supportive environment in which staff and pupils could succeed.

Labour's answer?

The same as always: spend lots of money. They rebuilt the school whilst keeping the same management and teaching team. A few years later OFSTED put the school in to special measures and closed it.

The school reopened as an academy in 2011 with an ambitious team taking a no-nonsense, no-excuses, aspiration approach.

In 2012 56% of students achieved five good GCSEs including English and Maths.

When people talk about Michael Gove and I say he is an hero of mine, they look at me like I am mad. But I know - I am certain - that the free schools program and expansion of academies is absolutely what schools like my former one need. These policies tell educators that they can no longer blame poor performance on a tough crowd: they must aim high and they must innovate. Furthermore, the reforms equip leaders and teachers with the tools to do so.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

If you think women should be equal, you should be a feminist.

This statement is frequently made and often accepted at face value.

I have a bit of a problem with it.

For one thing, I don't like being told what I should be. But putting aside that semi-childish impulse, there are further reasons to take issue with this statement.

Firstly, it assumes that feminism 'owns' the female equality discourse. That the only way to describe a belief in female equality is 'feminism'. I don't believe that is so. I think you can believe in gender equality without being a feminist.

For me, in labeling yourself a feminist, you're saying that gender equality is the most important struggle. Gender is the biggest barrier. Your gender is your most primary identity.

Now, lots of feminists will tell you that their belief in gender equality sits with their belief in equality by race, class, religion, or whatever other distinction you want to apply to human beings. They believe in equality, in all its forms.

I'm sure that is true for many feminists, but then why call yourself a feminist? Why not an 'equalist', or some other label? The impression you are giving is that gender is primary over all those other issues. I don't believe it is.

The identity part of this is important too. In identifying yourself as a feminist, you're saying something about your own identity. That on a personal level, in your personal interactions on a day-to-day basis, your gender is primary. For some feminists, maybe it is. Maybe they feel that on a day-to-day basis, their gender affects what they do, how people respond to them, and what opportunities they have. I don't.

The next big problem I have with feminism is something many people seem to see as a good thing. Its breadth.

You can believe in equality for all and be a feminist.
You can also be a racist and/or homophobic, and a feminist. 
You can believe any woman who has sex with a man is selling out, and be a feminist.
You can be a socialist and a feminist.
You can be conservative and a feminist.
You can believe women should have strong maternity rights, equal pay and equal position in the workplace, and be a feminist.
You can believe women really ought to stay at home with the kids, and be a feminist. 
You can be a lover of fashion and Cosmopolitan magazine, and be a feminist.
You can believe that bras are part of gendered control, and be a feminist.

It seems to me that you can be pretty much anything and be a feminist. Labeling yourself a feminist says nothing about your beliefs. It does not tell me your definition of what a woman is or what a woman should/shouldn't do. It does not tell me your view of equality (as good as men? better than men? free to do what you choose?). Nor does it tell me your view on gendered power structures.

To me, it is pretty useless.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Health inequality and personal responsibility

A discussion on Radio 4's Today program earlier in the week really caught my attention. I've been thinking about it on and off ever since.

The discussion surrounded public health inequalities. It was being considered in the context of the recent devolution of responsibility for public health to local authorities. A specific issue mentioned was heart disease, and the factors leading to heart disease. The contention is that heart disease is, broadly speaking, a lifestyle illness. That is to say that lifestyle factors such as poor diet, not taking enough exercise, smoking and drinking alcohol all make heart disease - a long with a host of other diseases - more common.

All of these things - poor diet, not taking enough exercise, smoking and drinking alcohol - correlate with having a lower income.

So why do poorer people take less care of themselves?

Do they simply not have enough money to make healthy choices?
Are healthy choices inaccessible for other reasons (eg no shops selling healthy foods)?
Are they not educated enough to know what is healthy?

I don't find these arguments convincing. Money can be an issue, but budgeting makes healthy eating much cheaper than takeaways. What's more, if money was the key issue surely smoking and drinking alcohol (non-essentials!) would disappear? This is an issue of prioritising spending.

I accept there may be a few small communities where the only food sold is from the local chippy (or similar), but I don't think there can be many of them. As we keep hearing, Tesco (or her competitors) is everywhere. And Tesco sells healthy options.

While there may be some confusion about the finer details of a healthy diet, I think we've all got the key messages: smoking, alcohol, high fat/sugar/processed foods = bad. Everyone knows what we mean by '5 a day'. Everyone knows regular exercise is good for you.

The reasons above call for intervention. The state should intervene to ensure people have a minimum income (which will magically make people more responsible with their choices).

Now, to Conservatives like me - liberal Tories - this just does not sit right at all. Especially when accompanied by quotes like this:

"And if people’s jobs are less stable, they may be forced to change their diet, or drink and smoke more." [emphasis added] - Dr Perviz Asaria, quoted here on heart disease.

Which to me, is just plain ridiculous.

These paternalistic attitudes are dis-empowering and strip people of personal responsibility. This is not helping people. The reason poorer people eat poorer diets, exercise less, smoke more and drink more alcohol is because they choose to do so. People are, or should be, responsible for their own choices. Taking out personal responsibility in this way is making healthy choices even less likely to be made.

On its own, this may seem overly simplistic. I accept that various factors (income, education, culture) may make it harder to make healthy choices. What I do not accept is that any of these things make healthy choices impossible, or unhealthy choices inevitable or forced.

If we are to tackle public health issues like this we must move responsibility downwards to the individual. Devolution of public health to local authorities is a welcome step. Not least because it means the variety of approaches will allow us to evaluate more and less successful methods.

I think it is time to consider the ways in which the NHS, as free and without judgement, is possibly contributing to these lifestyle illnesses. Does the sense of security created by the NHS make people less concerned about taking care of their own health, and preventing illness? Does medication to treat the early ill-effects of lifestyle disease lead to complacency from the individual? How can we introduce enough personal responsibility in to healthcare provision to mitigate these effects, without leaving people to suffer?

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Thatcher's grandchildren

There's this stereotype of Tories. They're all a bit posh. From the south of England. They have rich, or at least middle class, mummies and daddies. They like shooting things (animals). And destroying the lives of things (people: mostly poor and disabled, but anyone vulnerable). They are Privileged.

I'd like to say I'm the exception. The minority within the Tory party that is Normal. But I'm not.

I mean, I am Normal, but I'm not a minority. It is very noticeable within Conservative Future that though there are some posh boys and girls, there are also an awful lot of regular people. People who aren't born to it, but nevertheless are very much persuaded by Conservative ideology.

I'm from the north of England. An ex-mining town actually. The kind of place where Thatcher is a synonym for 'everything that is, and ever will be, wrong with the world'. I'm not rich. I'm from a single parent family, and while my mum does well now, there was very little money I was young. I definitely don't like shooting things. Tory confession: I'm a vegetarian. Please don't out me when I next attend a Countryside Alliance event. Even more shocking, I have my own disability (Crohn's disease).

I won't claim to be a 'Working Class Tory'. I'm one of those not really working class (education excludes me), but not quite middle class (no money) people (the BBC reckons I'm an 'emergent service worker'). But I do belong to a generation of young Conservatives who are, in a sense, Thatcher's grandchildren.

Thatcher's grandchildren love the free market. We simply adore the concept of a small state. Cut spending, cut taxes: Osborne should stick to Plan A. If he'd done Plan A properly we'd be doing much better. In the things we do think the state should provide (healthcare, education), we favour bringing in the market and the power of competition. Michael Gove; my hero.

Deeply skeptical about unions (they represent a niche interest, not the public good), many of us think Boris has the right idea. Actually, Thatcher's grandchildren love pretty much everything Boris says/does.

Like most Tories, we tend not to like Europe either (except for holidays and Camembert). The EU represents another layer of government, and Thatchers grandchildren share her horror of THAT.

However, Thatcher's grandchildren do part company from the great Lady somewhat. Perhaps it was inherent to her, or perhaps it was just the time she was in. But social conservatism? No. This next generation of Conservatives don't go in for that. We are liberal conservatives. All those things that get the oldies into a bit of a tizz (equal marriage?) are perfectly acceptable to us. Non-issues. 'Why-didn't-we-do-it-years-ago' issues. I believe in a small state, and that includes the state keeping out of people's private lives.

We are strong patriots and supporters of the armed forces, but since we missed the Cold War ordeal, we're a bit more relaxed about all of that.

I was born in 1989. I cannot claim to remember a female Prime Minister. So for us, for me, what is Thatcher's legacy?

In real terms: privatised industry, The City, weakened unions. Britain on the world stage, not a broken post-colonial failure. I'm sure you've read lots of these articles on economy, international relations, etc etc in this last week. These are important, of course they are. But let's be honest: it is all I've ever known. For me, that stuff is all really cool, but it didn't bring me in to politics.

The ideas are so much more powerful. The ideas are inspiring.

The idea that you can work hard and get on. That if you are determined, you can overcome. That you are responsible for your destiny. 

Of course, anyone can say those things set on their own. But Mrs Thatcher brought them down to earth. She demonstrated what determination can achieve in her own battles. She set aspiration in the context of limited state, lower taxes and an (unfinished) attempt to break dependency culture.

On Wednesday I will be going to pay my respects to Mrs Thatcher, but let it be known: her legacy lives not just in that lot in government now, but in the next generation of Conservatives too.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Class and politics

In many ways politics used to be simple. Labour, built around unions, was for the working man. Conservatism was for rich folks (or southerners). Things are different now. Change to a service based economy has all but destroyed the traditional Labour base, with the public sector now the most heavily unionised industry. This change has been accompanied by a broadening of the welfare state with many middle class people now net beneficiaries.

Changes to the economy have changed the debate too. Growth cannot be taken for granted. Britain's place at the top of the pile is no certain thing. This is no longer a discussion about sharing the proceeds of growth: we're talking about how to make sure the country survives with relative wealth.

The ideological conflict that results from this is not about class. It is about conceptions of the world and how to succeed within it. On one hand are state based solutions, where the state acts to pour money into the economy and into redistributive measures. This money comes from either borrowing or taxation. The other argument suggests the state steps back and allows the market (through the agency of individuals) to flourish.

These are not issues about where you are from, what level of education you have reached, or what your income is. You can belong to any socio-economic grouping and hold either of these views.

I am a Conservative. Not because I want to keep rich people rich and poor people poor, but because I believe in the ability of individuals to achieve. I believe in people keeping as much of what they earn as is possible. I believe in the market as being vital for creating incentives to work and innovate. I believe in the state as being a facilitator and a safety net.

This should be the message of the modern Conservative Party. It is about creating equality of opportunity through good quality education for all. It is about empowering people to set their sights high, and creating the economic incentives to do so. It is also about maintaining our commitment to care for those in our society who are vulnerable.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Referendum

It has been reported this week that a referendum on EU membership could form part of the Conservative election manifesto in 2015, with a view to being held within 18 months of that election.

It is now time for this referendum.

I am a believer in many of the economic benefits of the EU in terms of trade. I do not share the concerns that some people have around immigration. For many years I have been as pro-Europe as a Conservative could be. However, I do not believe in 'ever closer political union' and I do not enjoy the bureaucracy and lack of accountability in the EU. I increasingly feel that the core benefits of membership of the EU can be achieved from outside of the EU through treaties and other legal and diplomatic mechanisms.

A referendum is an issue of the democratic sovereignty of the people of the UK, and their right to decide on their membership of a multilateral organisation which is able to make laws and legally binding judgements. The argument for a referendum does not need to be pro- or -sceptic. It is an important constitutional issue.

The issue of Europe, hotly debated within the party and within the country, needs to be decided by the people. I support a referendum at the earliest opportunity.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Politics and Targeting Voters

There is a bit of an issue in British politics today, and that is an issue of policies targeting certain groups. Naturally parties wish to gain support for policies which will convert into votes and power, but it seems to me that increasingly the 'greater good' or the moral course is being sacrificed in favour of a few vocal voting groups.

It is no accident that those groups most targeted are also the groups with the highest propensity to vote. This means that groups of people already excluded from politics are excluded further.

All parties are guilty of this. The most recent example if that of 'the squeezed middle', who are gaining sympathy from all angles. I appreciate that many people in the middle are finding things difficult and having their finances squeezed in the current economic climate. However, instead of having policies and sympathy being directed towards this group I feel it is better to appreciate that the 'middle' are doing much better than the bottom of the socio-economic heap and continue to be advantaged in many ways.

It is a very sad state of affairs when the Labour Party, supposedly for the working classes, is more concerned with the people in the middle who are comparatively doing fairly well. This perhaps speaks to the dominance of public sector unions.

As a Conservative I am not about maintaining or reinforcing unequal social structures. I believe in equality of opportunity and gains as a result of hard work. That is why while my party is occasionally drawn in to this regrettable discourse of the squeezed middle, I am proud to support the rising personal allowance which takes many people out of tax, the academy and free schools programs which work towards every child having a good start, and enterprise zones to encourage industry and entrepreneurialism.

It really is time for people in the middle to understand their good fortune, and for policy makers to understand that the 'underclass', which was allowed to deepen under the previous government, is a serious challenge to fairness. The Conservative solution is not an oversized welfare state, but good education, a culture of aspiration, and policies (especially in tax) to facilitate this.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Why should Britain continue aid spending?


Today I spoke about the benefits to UK security of our development budget at the ResultsUK conference. Here is the argument:

There are lots of arguments for increasing UK development spending and often these arguments are humanitarian in nature, focussing on a moral duty to do something about suffering. I fully support these arguments. But development aid can also be self interested. At times this has manifested in propping up puppet regimes, or in opening up markets to exploitation.

I argue that self interest can be combined with what is morally right in international development policy. Specifically, I make the case for development aid’s ability to enhance UK security.

I believe that making a self interested case for development spending, alongside the moral imperatives, is extremely important, especially at a time when budgets are being squeezed. There is a strong public discourse which argues for the aid budget to be cut, and we need strong, persuasive arguments against that. 

DfID understands the connection between development and security and is orientating policy in this direction. There are some direct policies from DfID around governance and conflict resolution along with broader policies also feed into this benefit.

The task is huge and requires more in resources and commitment than the UK alone is capable of providing. This is what makes a multilateral commitment like the 0.7% of GNP target especially important. The UK must play its role in fulfilling this commitment and use all our diplomatic strength to encourage others to do the same. 

When talking about UK security we should understand it not just in terms of border sovereignty, but also in terms of the safety of British interests overseas. We should also understand that development aid in a general sense helps our security because unfairness can eventually lead to insecurity. 

Poverty and bad governance promote conflict and regional instability, so development aid which counters these not only benefits the countries in which aid is focussed but their neighbours as well. In turn this lessens the extended threat to the UK in our globalised world and helps to protect British interests operating in these areas.
It can be difficult to directly link development spending with specific outcomes, as security threats are diverse and uncertain. When working preventatively it is impossible to know which places would otherwise have developed counter to UK security. Some examples of areas in which development spending has a role in enhancing security are immigration, counter-terrorism, piracy and organised crime:

  •  Immigration can be perceived as a threat to UK security and is often caused by conflict, human rights abuses, famine and other humanitarian crises. Tackling these issues helps to reduce the ‘push’ factors of immigration.
  • Development is also part of counter-terrorism strategy, with the understanding that poverty, instability and failed states all increase the risk of international terrorism in the UK and against UK interests abroad. Even when terrorists do not originate from failed states, failed states provide space away from government in which training, radicalisation and planning can happen. Examples of this include Afghanistan under the Taliban and Somalia with Al-Shabaab at present. 
  • Another good example of insecurity affecting UK interests is piracy, which is allowed to continue through ineffective government in Western Africa. Keeping shipping routes accessible is vital to UK security and economic interests. 
  • Instability and failing states often provide fertile ground for transnational organised crime such as the drugs trade, people trafficking and similar. Accumulated power in criminal networks can be extremely difficult to break. In terms of UK security this is of greater concern when geographically closer. However, globalisation and trade bring distant concerns closer to home. For example, instability in Colombia has an impact here through trade in cocaine. These kinds of concerns are not always conceptualised as security issues, but as they represent a lack of state control over borders and are associated with criminality here, they can be conceptualised as a security issue. 

As you can see development spending and security is not a simple equation of certain actions and outcomes. Many of these threats to security may never happen no matter what we spend. However, working against the things which fuel these in a general sense is likely to have benefits for UK security and these benefits are enhanced by working in partnership with allies. 

A key part of enhancing UK security is good governance around the world. This should be distinguished from previous policies which promoted ‘strong’ governments at all costs, and also be distinguished from the idea that democracy itself solves everything. Good governance IS about democracy and civil liberties, but it is also about functioning economies, the rule of law and state provision of goods. 

Development policy under this government works closely with defence and diplomacy to ensure that UK interests are identified and worked towards coherently. 

Where the UK undertakes military interventions, development aid forms an important part of strategy, both in terms of enhancing the safety of troops on the ground and as part of exit strategy. This is an issue where the war in Afghanistan provides a lesson of what can be done better in the future. 

Development aid is also used as part of diplomatic strategy, enhancing UK influence abroad. This influence helps security in two key ways: by encouraging intelligence sharing (for instance on terrorism with Pakistan), and encouraging governments to take action in ways which enhance UK security (for instance through extradition treaties).  

So, from a security perspective what would happen if UK development spending was to be drastically reduced? It is difficult to argue that there would be direct attacks in the UK or to measure a specific cost in other areas of government spending. The link between development spending and security is too complex. However, I do have some suggestions:

·         Of key concern is the multilateral effect of development spending. If UK spending is withdrawn it is even less likely that other countries will seek to meet the 0.7% target, magnifying the impact on our security.

·         UK diplomatic influence could decrease as we lose some of our bargaining power. Diplomatic influence is not reliant only on development spending, but as we have decreasing hard power, the contribution of development is increasingly important.

·         There would be a cumulative effect of lack of funding of humanitarian causes and support of good governance, which in some cases would lead to insecurity and failing states. This in turn would have an impact on the UK in terms of terrorism, transnational crime, UK owned enterprise abroad and UK supply chain. 

I understand that some people may argue that this level of self interest in development policy is wrong and that people should be helped on the basis of need instead. From a humanitarian point of view I whole heartedly agree. However, policy makers have to consider two key issues:

  •  Firstly that there are so many people around the world in need that it is impossible to help all of them adequately. Our own interest therefore serves to narrow the field.
  • Secondly, in difficult economic times it becomes harder to justify the protection of, and increases in the aid budget with the electorate. Articulating a stronger self interested argument would help ensure that protection of the budget continues, which is surely better than being caught in a turning tide of public opinion.