Tuesday, May 27, 2008 

Of bank holidays, churnalism, and tax cuts.

Ah, bank holidays. Carefree days to share with the family while the heavens open outdoors. Or, alternatively, if you're a churnalist, a rather less carefree day struggling to fill up your newspaper. How about a story about a cat that's the only employee left at a Japanese railway station? Purrfect! Another middle class white teenager dies after an atypical drunken argument which happens across the land every weekend tragically gets out of hand? Time to restart the "Broken Britain" campaign in typically hysterical fashion! And, if you're the Grauniad, you can fill up the pages and your Comment is Fatuous blog site with all the news that's fit to flush from the increasingly tedious Hay-on-Wye book festival it just happens to sponsor.

If you're really, really desperate, you can even get an MP to write a comment piece for you. And lo, the Daily Telegraph comment editor saw it, and it was good, for he had managed to get Denis MacShane, from that bunch of socialist money thieves known as the Labour party to write an article calling for a smaller state and a cut in tax. Never mind that MacShane has always been on the right of the party, thought that the Iraq war was a fantastic idea and still thinks so, but this can be presented as a Labour MP speaking the unspeakable.

Or something. As it is, MacShane has produced an article almost as irritating as the Hay festival. In all his glory, MacShane tries to present the opinion that the poor should pay less tax as though no one on the left has ever said it, just as err, everyone realises that the tax credit scheme is hugely wasteful, costing a bomb and even then not working as efficiently as it should be. The answer has been obvious for quite some time: abolish the damn thing, raise the personal allowance significantly so that the poorest up to the middle-earners pay either very little or no tax at all, and fill the gap by raising the top rate of the very richest, taxing the non-doms, by ignoring the demands of the CBI, by not raising the inheritance tax threshold beyond the entirely reasonable £500,000, and imposing windfall taxes when companies such as oil firms make obscene profits because of the current oil bubble.

MacShane isn't finished there however. No, he also wants to target the waste in local councils, of the corpulent spending on press officers and consultants, on the ministers flying off on their jaunts. It doesn't matter that under Blair, who MacShane defended to the hilt time and again, this sort of spending got completely out of hand; he instead shrugs this off by saying that he doesn't know of a single minister "who doesn't privately despair of the waste of money" on the above. Why not publicly instead of privately despair? MacShane hasn't even mentioned the biggest and most egregious of the wastes: the private finance initiative, which has been used by Brown to keep so much of the spending and borrowing off the balance sheet.

If MacShane was hoping for a decent response from Telegraph readers he was wrong, as the Telegraph censors even less than the Grauniad (quite rightly, given some of the comments left for dear old Denis) and they let rip with both barrels, even if most of them are deluding themselves thinking that the new Blairites in the Conservative party are going to offer anything different whatsoever other than piecemeal cuts here and there while Whitehall remains just as bloated, if not more so, as the trend is for ever more spending on consultants and PR experts, not less, especially while the Conservative fightback is being helmed by ex-News of the Screws editor Andy Coulson. You can of course take completely the opposite view to MacShane and not be necessarily wrong either, as Bob Piper and Stan Rosenthal say:

What on earth is an ex-Labour minister doing writing an article for a right-wing newspaper that feeds into right-wing propoganda about the tax system?

Probably because dear old Denis is actually pretty right-wing himself.

Let's not kid ourselves though - this was partly to fill a gap after a slow news day and partly some of the thinkers outside the cabinet being let off the leash to suggest that there might be changes afoot. MacShane's offering is in fact probably more likely to be pursued than the course of action suggested by Compass for example, as to do as they suggest would have the tabloids and Telegraph in even more of a rage, even if it might, just might win back some of the support lost. And again, who knows, considering that the hauliers are throwing their rattles out of their collective pram again, while completely ignoring that even if tax makes up around 70% of the cost of diesel/petrol it's the oil price that has led to it spiralling to nearly £1.30 a litre, which the government seems ever more likely to give in to, tax cuts or the cancelling of rises could yet be back in vogue.

MacShane isn't the only way helping with the churning, as Dave Osler notes, with the Guardian bigging up a piece in Prospect by a former Blair speech writer who thinks that (yes, I realise it's just an example) if asthma patients want to spend their money on double-glazing, then they should allowed to be. It's a quite superb idea, it must be said, and shows where all the new thinking is coming from, and it isn't on the "old" left, that's for sure. Collins rounds it off by saying that the Blairites are increasingly impressed by David Cameron, which couldn't be because he's prepared to go the distance Blair couldn't, and that the real difference is "between the liberal and the authoritarian, not left and right". It doesn't seem to matter that by any scale, the new Blairites are just as authoritarian, if not more so than new Labour, as evidenced by boot camps for the unemployed, promises of zero tolerance and limits on immigration. If elected they'll probably have to stick with abolishing ID cards, although again, considering how much Labour have already spent on them, they (and us) might be stuck with them, but I don't believe for a second that they'll stick with their opposition to extending detention without charge once they don't have to pretend to give a fig about what Liberty thinks.

If the "new" new left is dead, then the new new new left is sure going to take some beating. Especially on bank holidays.

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Monday, April 14, 2008 

This is how an MP's mind fails to work.

You really would have thought that an MP would understand something as basic as the separation of powers, but it seems that Denis MacShane seems to have skipped that constitutional lesson. In fact, let's be fair here for just a moment: MacShane knows quite well the difference between the judiciary and parliament and why they're independent from one another, it's just that a little thing like that would get in the way of his argument. After all, just what sort of person who believes in democracy and not the obvious usurpation of power by unelected judges indulging in activism could fail to be angered by the three decisions of last week where the government's decision to stop the SFO inquiry into corruption in the Saudi-BAE al-Yamamah deal was torn to shreds, with the added embarrassments of not being able to deport Abu Qatada and soldiers being protected by the HRA adding to the beetroot-like pall of ministers' faces?

Let's for half a second then indulge MacShane's argument, or as it could be more accurately painted, obscurantism. His flourishing finish is thus:

I am no defender of ministers or of any untrammelled right to government to interpret the law in a way which may be illegal. But am I alone in wanting parliament to decide our law, elected politicians not unelected judges to execute them, and when judges are called upon to interpret the law an obligation that they listen to the will of parliament, not the passions and prejudices which they like all of us are not immune to?

Surely if MacShane had put slightly more thought into this he would have realised the very first sticky problem with his plea. The SFO inquiry into the BAE slush fund was not stopped by an elected politician; it was halted after the head of the SFO gave into the demands of Lord Goldsmith, the very much unelected attorney general, who himself was heavily lent on by the prime minister, who most certainly has no right whatsoever to decide which investigations should be continued and which should not, regardless of his being elected. Perhaps further evidence of MacShane's disconnection with reality is provided in this previous statement:

Thus when a British prime minister says he believes that national security may be threatened if a political-judicial process continues why must he be disbelieved?

It's difficult to know which metaphor to adopt in response to how easily it would be to mock this. Taking candy from a baby? Shooting fish in a barrel? Putting six past Derby County? It would of course be wonderful to be able to believe that a prime minister would be honest with us over such a matter, but when such a prime minister has such a dismal record of just that, and when the government as a whole has a reputation for using the security argument to justify almost anything, it makes it all the more difficult. It would have been easier to believe also if the person who delivered the threat wasn't the self-same man alleged to have been the one to have received £1bn in payments from the company being investigated. Then again, perhaps we're all just being shockingly cynical.

This is the closest MacShane presents to the will of parliament being involved in the SFO decision:

Parliament has endlessly discussed and debated the Saudi deal since it was first negotiated on the basis of mammoth commissions paid to Saudi princes back in the 1980s. Sir Ming Campbell has brought up the issue regularly in the Commons. The Commons has listened to him with respect as a QC who defends the primacy of lawyers and judges but have not agreed that an elected government does not have the right to decide that a prosecution should not proceed.

The government or indeed parliament though would never dare to interfere with criminal investigations and the decision to proceed in those cases if it involved a member of parliament, regardless of the severity of the crime. This is half the reason why the concessions over 42 days are so feeble - parliament has no business to be deciding whether someone should continue to be held beyond 28 days when they're still in custody. Parliament makes the law - it does not then decide whether or not that law should be applied. When faced with such an obvious conflict of interest with the Saudis and BAE both demanding that the investigation be called off, the government ought to have told both to get their tanks off their law and said that they simply couldn't interfere with the course of justice, as the judges' themselves said in their ruling. Instead they gave in to open blackmail, setting a terrible precedent.

MacShane's argument is equally threadbare on the other two cases. As he admits, the HRA is to be openly interpreted by judges as they see fit. Indeed, they're the best possibly placed to make such a decision, having heard all the relevant evidence and weighed up the opposing arguments, as well as the precedents set by other rulings. You can't have it both ways: you can't set the law and then demand it solely be interpreted in the way you demand, or in your best interests at the relevant point of time; some complain that the HRA and the ECHR are ambiguous, but almost all such documents are. Even the fabled American constitution, the one which set the standard for all that have followed, is being debated and argued about right down to now over exactly what the Second Amendment means and provides for.

Besides, even if all of the above were put to a vote, if MacShane would presumably prefer, how is he so sure that the position he sides with and advocates would be the winning one? The SFO inquiry would probably be stopped if put before the houses, or at least the Commons, as the Conservatives would support the government. On the other two though it's most uncertain: both David Davis and Chris Huhne called for Qatada to be tried in this country rather than deported, and both Lib Dems and Conservatives supported the decision over the soldiers' equipment. With backbench Labour support hardly to be solid on either, the government might well face defeat. It might be easier to take MacShane's point if Labour had been elected by something approaching a majority of the electorate, but it wasn't: only 22% voted for the current government, something that it ought to remember in everything that it does. Instead it continues to hardly govern by MacShane's own high-minded principles, forcing through such unpopular measures as 42 days while continuing to big up the terror threat.

The well-used, moth-eared, almost cliched quote by Orwell is that in times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act. Would it be too much to request that this government, its ministers and clingers-on actually propose doing the "decent" thing rather than blaming the judiciary and moaning about how parliament is being ignored and emasculated? How about putting Qatada on trial, equipping soldiers properly when you send them out on such unpopular missions, and not giving in to blackmail from those who have grown rich and fat on the money provided by the taxpayer and British companies involved in corrupt practices? Would that really be so difficult? For MacShane and much of New Labour, it seems easier to just blame everyone other than themselves.

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