Web Analytics Trust People (once an Englishman in Philly): 03/01/2005 - 04/01/2005

Thursday, March 31, 2005

We all need to take responsibility

A great post here by Militant Moderate about why people are disaffected with politics. He is quite correct that the way it is presented and the agenda is very much - especially post-1997 - driven by the press and the media. As such they have a clear responsibility, as we all do, as I argued below last week, to face up the issue themselves. It is not just politicians but all of us.

"If we are to have intelligent political debate in this country, then the means of conveying this debate have to act intelligently too. If all we get in its place is ignorance of issues and a delight in Labour's relentlessly mendacious and negative pre-election campaign, then it is no wonder that turnout is predicted to fall."

Of course a simple market-based view would suggest it is time to start looking at new providers and new means of communication too!

Grauniad: The word on the street is they're coconuts - white on the inside

Shocking election countdown report in the Guardian. Here are some of the lowlights:

"I don't feel fully British: non-whites are not yet completely first-class citizens. I see myself as part of the wider black diaspora, with as much in common with black French people or Americans as with white Britons."

If you don't see yourself as British isn't it tricky for others to see you as British?

"Even so, at Heathrow or Gatwick, you still feel you are a suspect. You can smell racism even if you can't see it."

I'm white and I feel like a suspect at Heathrow and Gatwick. It's largely the nature of the times.

"In the black community right now there's a crisis because the black politicians don't seem to be doing much for us. The word on the street is they're coconuts - white on the inside."

A kernel of wisdom from Benjamin Zephaniah. I'm sure that helps racial perceptions.

"I don't think we'll ever have an ethnic-minority prime minister. If it does happen, it'll be a Colin Powell-type figure who is nothing to do with his skin colour."

Isn't that a good thing?

"I'm the only black person at a party; and when I read a book it's assumed that all the characters are white, unless they're specifically described otherwise."

Well what's wrong with not having more black people at parties? I can understand how it can make people feel insecure, but ultimately we would all be helped if we didn't realise how many black people were at a party and it didn't matter either way because we knew nobody would consider invitations on the grounds of race. What's more if she assumes characters in a book are white what can society do? Isn't this her perception?

"I have a British passport and went to school and university here, but I was never taught history that covered me...the implication is that I only know half as much as others; in fact I know twice as much - their stuff as well as ours."

Isn't this whole "them and us" concept divisive and dangerous? Aren't we all us, or at least shouldn't we be? What's more, what's wrong with a British school focussing on British history?

"I see myself as a black woman of Indian origin."

Why then are you surprised when others categorise you on racial grounds?

I stopped with this statement though. Reading on could have induced a brain haemorrhage.

"Too many black people have embraced a racialist definition of themselves and can't let go."

Three words spring to mind: nail, hammer and head.

I never thought I'd say this...but oh for the IRS in Britain!

A couple of days ago I managed to thoroughly embarrass myself - and I was pleased about it, even though many of the Americans I know rolled my eyes when I told them.

Having printed off my tax return (which I could fill out on the forms online, in PDF and then print into a hard copy) I signed it, with my favourite blue fountain pen, confident that the elegance of my writing with it would increase my chances of avoiding selection by the inspectors. Then I had a sudden shock - what if I was supposed to complete the forms in black ballpoint! Having been well trained with years of forms for the Passport Agency, for the DVLA, for the Revenue, for Student Loans and myriad others I knew what a key part of the paperwork process using the right type of pen was: though I still have no idea why. I immediately got on the line to the IRS here in Philadelphia.

Now, apart from the annoying habit of having every operator you speak to parroting their "employee number" at you before they'll talk to you properly ("I'm not a number, I'm a free man"?) the experience was blissful. The chap and chapess that I spoke to on the phone were delightfully helpful. When I presented my dilemma to them, I had to explain it to them twice as they just couldn't understand what I could possibly be worried about.

"So, you're sure it doesn't have to be black ball-point, or blue rollerball, or entirely indelible?"

"So long as it's not invisible ink we're absolutely fine with it, sir."

What a refreshing change. What a shocking illustration of how hard under the bureaucratic thumb Britain really is by comparison.

Monday, March 28, 2005

What if Labour has a majority but fewer votes?

An interesting dilemma discussed at least discussed by "Independence". What if Labour did get fewer votes than the Tories but they were more focussed votes for a victory in terms of seats? Certainly we may see Mr Blair shipped out, but it would be a powerful whiphand to argue that the party certainly couldn't afford to risk the middle class by merely assuming its heartlands would return.

Flat reception?

Clear your diary and set aside ten minutes to read this. It is a detailed ASI report on the introduction of a flat tax and makes for very interesting and compelling reading. Whatever you think about the idea, it is set to be a big issue for Britain and the EU to face up to in the coming years, especially with the near revolution that seems to be sweeping Eastern Europe about it.

The ASI proposals would lift ten million of the poorest tax payers out of paying income tax, with a flat rate of 22% for everybody else. The rich would pay a greater proportion of tax in relation to the poorest tax payers than is the case at the moment.

Yes there are problems to be overcome - most notably in selling the short-term reduction in revenues and finding where the money would come from (though Gershon and James are good starts for this). The country isn't ready for it yet, as they need to see the impact of New Labour played out, or see a moral case, made for a smaller state, on the grounds of principles and effectiveness. However, as we see an ever more bloated state in the coming Blair/Brown years the battle is there to be fought and won. Certainly it is more compelling than the tinkering proposed on the Tory benches and would involve only a slightly greater amount of savings than currently outlined. The proposal's principle is certainly worthwhile and its practicalities certainly offer food for thought.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

"Tories to introduce charges on the NHS"?

Balls. This is the most duplicitous and disgraceful strategy yet from the Labour Party in an election campaign which is fast going downhill. Debate the impact of policies, argue, moan and swipe by all means but to deliberately misstate policy in such a deceptive way is shameful.

I also have a little to say about Howard Flight (I avoided the potential for yet another dire pun) and a little more to say about the sad plight of Terri Schiavo....hope to be back soon!

Thursday, March 24, 2005

STORY BELOW Posted by Hello

Liberal Democrats ARE ready to break through glass ceiling

Breaking news - An Englishman in Philly can exclusively reveal that Charles Kennedy is correct when he says Liberals are ready to break through the electoral glass ceiling! Posted by Hello

The boot is on the other foot, M. Chirac

There are two halfs to each side in the debate over the future of the EU. Those in favour of greater integration, although, obviously, in some disagreement over the precise final form of the EU are largely in favour of a federal state. Those against want less supranationalism and more of a co-operative union. However, what the news from this week's summit makes quite clear is that on both sides there is a tension between those who have a principled vision of the EU and those who wish to hijack principle purely for national interest on individual issues. The purported division between good "Europeans" in central Europe and selfish trouble-makers on the fringes may not be entirely fair.

I've been prompted to this post by the words used by beleaguered/embattled/nervous (insert suitable choice) French President, Jacques Chirac, in response to the relaxation of the rules of the Growth and Stability Pact. He said that the new draft included "more intelligent" monetary rules that will be "more accepted and more respected" because they are "more flexible". He stressed that it was important that the people of the EU didn't feel unreasonably bound by rules imposed for an earlier (read different) climate.

What so enraged me was that had I made a similar comment about any other aspect of EU governance then I would have been denounced as being an anti-European, small-minded, little Englander for allowing Britain, individually, to factor into my concerns. Yet, the only reason these rules are being relaxed now is for the (in the minds of their leaders) good of the French and German economies which won't stick within the original agreement, which was, after all, drawn up for a reason in dispassionate times. The hypocrisy. Now it is the Germans and the French who want flexibility and want get-outs to benefit their own interests then responsible Europeans have to support a change in the rules. Large German and French investment is for the "European" good and therefore the rules should be changed.

I say balls. The pact was so strict on deficit spending in the first place (in my view possibly too strict - but a rule is a rule, and the lack of adherence to the G&SP is the single biggest argument for me against British euro-entry) because the Germans feared abandonment of the mark being accompanied by profligate spending-out-of-trouble by southern Europeans. Oh, how things change. Would it be too cynical of me to suggest that much of the opposition to British concerns about unnecessary and poor centralisation comes not from genuine principled desire for a United States of Europe, but rather from a fear that such voices may lead to a European Union which doesn't give the impression of having German and French prosperity as its unspoken raison d'etre. Remind me, though, why was it first conceived?

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Chirac wants the UK's rebate back

Chirac must be getting worried about the referendum on the EU Constitutional Treaty in France if he has to start up on the Anglophobia! I find it staggering that this is being put on the table now, and also a political mistake to be so explicit by the EU. They have made it quite clear that we have a key bargaining chip in the UK, and it seems they do need us, despite what some say.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Nice stuff

Another reasoned response to a wholly reasonable policy proposition by the Conservative Party, whether you agree or disagree with it.

The people speak!

I appreciate good campaigning and compassionate charity, but, as I've blogged before, I have a tendency to get irritated by the moralising of some who deem themselves more worthy than us other mere mortals. One of these is the immensely wealthy Bob Geldof. Ugandans seem to have expressed their view of him though!

I don't believe it!

Can you honestly believe this latest from the LibDems? I didn't think they could possibly try to wheel out their "hohnest pohlitics" again this time - but they have.

"It is the style and character of the party's campaign which Mr Kennedy believes will chime more with disillusioned, disengaged voters.

Lib Dems cast themselves as real choice. He has insisted he will not engage in negative or personalised campaigning, claiming the British people are turned off by that style of politics."

Really? I probably agree, but it is a bit rich to pretend that you've not been negative at all after some of the comments of recent weeks, especially when you have someone else you can guarantee to criticise each of the other parties for you.

Here is positive and unpersonalised LibDem campaigning...

Ed Davey, yesterday: "Michael Howard's bandwagon opportunism has led him into hypocrisy of new heights.
"As home secretary it was Michael Howard who did most to reduce the number of legal traveller sites."

Steve Webb, yesterday: "Ministers have deliberately sought to delay publication of these figures and waited until yesterday to ‘bury the bad news’ amongst all the other Budget day announcements. The reason why they wanted to bury figures is obvious – they have a £456 million computer that can’t produce any numbers at all on the new Child Support Scheme. The pretence that they can operate, let alone improve the CSA has gone beyond a farce."

A stormer, just under a week ago, from Norman Baker: “Today’s call by Tim Yeo comes over a month after Charles Kennedy wrote to Tony Blair and Michael Howard proposing a cross-party consensus on climate change. The fact that he is yet to receive a response shows just how hollow Tim Yeo’s words are. When its comes to the environment there’s nothing more toxic than a Tory.”

Tom Brake, last week: "Today’s commitment to increase the aid budget does nothing but match the Government’s plans and is dependent on the Tory’s [sic] fantasy economics put forward in The James Review. Their pledge will not survive much beyond the date of the next General Election."

These are just a few examples which I remember noticing from the last week. Still they troop out this line about being "above the fray" and concentrating on offering a positive alternative, which they get away with solely because people have ignored their first silly attack. What tripe.

Monday, March 21, 2005


I've refrained from blogging on this up until now but I have become angry on the whole issue now.

Anyone who knows me will appreciate that one of the things I most prefer about British politics to American politics is the much lesser prominence given to "moral issues" primarily due to a smaller outwardly-committed religious base in the UK. I am also pragmatic on abortion, although if it was a situation involving me I would find it very difficult to counsel going ahead with it. Nevertheless, I still do not want church-based politics in the UK.

However, the recent attempts by some to clamp down on abortion is most distasteful. There can be no justification, other than the cynical, for taking it completely out of the realm of elections. If legislators are to decide what laws they will pass to restrict us then we have every right to know what they will do in relation to a particular issue. Do we really want to elect people to have ultimate sovereignty over us yet to have no informed say over it at the ballot box? It's all to easy to dodge the very difficult question about the interaction of religion, morality and politics by saying it shouldn't be "an election issue", but by saying that we are dodging it. Isn't it a fundamental tenet of democracy that we should have a say on this if we want to?

My anger was raised more by listening to Polly Toynbee on Radio 4's Any Questions, which is still raging on in the background. Apparently a woman ought to have absolute right of life or death over a foetus up until it is born - I just can't countenance this. To say that this should just be a matter for any individual to make up their mind over seem splain wrong. Yes, women have a very difficult decision to make. Yes, that must be terrible. The attitude of Polly Toynbee seems to say that the foetus needs no rights at any point.

"It's not about viability, it's not about differing levels of viability. It is about a woman's inviolate right to choose what is inside her....I think a woman has an absolute right and I don't think anyone can say you must bear a child" she said.

I cannot countenance that: and that is a political question. To her the question of whether something can live is irrelevant: what matters is a woman's choice over whether she has a baby or not. That is not the point. She has a choice when she has sex over whether or not she risks having a child. Then she has another choice as to whether or not she has an abortion. I have trouble with aborting a foetus which has a good chance of living.

Almost as angering is the slur against Michael Howard that he has deliberately tried to whip up a storm. I just don't believe this. Is the suggestion that he is in collusion with various Archbishops of different Christian faiths? He was asked exactly the same question, which he didn't request to be asked, as the other two leaders, and they gave deliberately evasive answers (see below) rather than his pretty reasoned, sensitive response.

Women should be free to choose up until the point when the foetus develops the vital characteristics of a child. Then it becomes something close to eugenics, which given the great problems over cleft palate and hare lip is not too strong a word. It shouldn't be a party political issue, but that should never be an excuse for not discussing at what point a moral decision can no longer be made that one is no longer stopping a pregnancy, but stopping a child having a life, just as a tool to preserve the status quo.

What do we do with the washed-up politicians?

I have a dilemma about the future of politics. I don't know where it's going. Will we be forever stuck in the gutter, with politics and politicians run down and political campaigns seen as a litany of one-upmanship? The reason I ask, partly after having read this article by George Trefgarne, is because I can't see the way out of the vicious circle we're in. At the moment we see one party put forward a policy (in the latest instance the Tory spending plans), the other party explodes in a frenzy of overstatements and misrepresentations, both are condemned as politicking by the third party, who then go on to politic with their own alternative in slightly less convincing terms, and we bemoan that this is debate.

As I have written below, I do think part of the responsibility falls upon us as the electorate. We are fickle enough to electorally bin a party which doesn't assert itself in this way (look at the assertions in relation to Iain Duncan Smith in the UK: for all his faults he did try to strike a better tone) and in a recent poll said that lack of trust would not influence how we would vote. Do we really want the same thing to happen but for everyone to engage in platitudes about "always talking straight so we'll be honest here"? Or do we, in the great British tradition, just like to moan? It's almost become a national refrain for the unthinking to slur against all those in politics. Politicians have perhaps become the scapegoat of our age because we cannot engage with their inner-minds in the same easy way we can with all sorts of other people in this electronic age. The problem is I worry we're here for the long-run. We just want to be careful no party ever tries to grab the powers they might think they need to deal with every problem in the country, many of which they're blamed for.

Friday, March 18, 2005

How progressive is 'progressive taxation'?

More good stuff about the flat tax from Madsen Pirie at the ASIblog. The problem which he doesn't deal with, from a political point of view, is the perceived impact on low-income people just above the payment threshold who currently are eligible for a range of help in meeting their obligations (perhaps the elderly or retired, large working families). I suspect this can be shifted, but it is best to be honest about it from the start.

I have a sad admission to make!

I have a sad admission to make. One of the highlights of my week is sitting down on a Thursday night to watch Question Time. I don’t know what it is that appeals to me the most: I suspect the prospect of not only political debate but also seeing politicians actually engage and interact live with (shock, horror) “normal people”.

This week though, I finished watching feeling profoundly depressed. A fiery and quite personal exchange between the dashing Tory, Julie Kirkbride, and the tenacious Labourite, Rhodri Morgan, over the exact details of who was giving how many freebies to pensioners was followed by a love-in of sneering by the other panellists. CBI Director-General Digby Jones declared a “plague on both your houses” and Sandi Toksvig, Liberal Democrat comedienne (neither description necessarily consequent on the other!), trotted out the standard Lib Dem line that all this bickering is unsightly and nobody wants it, but that that wouldn’t stop her leaping in herself with a bit of one-upmanship and a sneer about the poll tax.

As if this wasn’t enough to kickstart my weekend I woke up this morning to the chilling headline that 8 out of 10 voters don’t trust politicians to tell the truth and only 16% of those questioned thought that MPs aimed to do the best for the country.

As someone interested in politics this is a pretty sad state of affairs. If this is the genuine and real opinion of those asked then things look scary: how far are we from being ruled by an untouchable elite? That said, we’re surely partly responsible ourselves. If we allow ourselves to be swayed by our own short-term benefit, rather than seeing the bigger picture, is it any wonder politicians now specialise in pandering to this?

Then I cheered myself up a bit. These attitudes seem to have been around for a long time. In 1944, a similar survey showed only a third disagreed that politicians were all out for themselves, and that was during World War II! Politicians have always tried to concoct sweeteners for voters. The fact that it’s not a new phenomenon made me oddly optimistic; perhaps the public’s political pulse is not stopping, it’s just slowed.

What I put it down to is the lack of what George Bush Snr almost intelligently called “the vision thing”. The problem is that people don’t feel the parties can show how they’ll change Britain. People are influenced by single-issue groups and non-party-political political bodies because they see a vision and know what they’ll push for. When political debate is as impenetrable as the recent scuffles over percentages of GDP and a decade of politics when each election has seemed a foregone conclusion, perhaps it’s the lack of the “vision thing” which accounts for disillusionment with politicians as a group. We don’t mind it all so much when we feel there’s something bigger at stake.

Come a close-fought and engaging election, when people feel there is much at stake, then we’ll see this scepticism about politicians tempered by the instinctive interest most people have in where we want Britain to go and what we want it to be. This is the greatest pity of the Labour-inspired scrap about Conservative spending commitments. The last few weeks have seen some debate about the real visions each party had for the country and the election seemed to have more competition to it than at any point in the last ten years. This is now overshadowed by personalities, pettiness and details which ordinary people can’t see impacting on their lives. This is also why Labour’s pre-election campaign has been such a disappointment so far. With an odd twist of fate though, if this makes the result seem closer it might just help us reconnect with politicians and them to reconnect with us.

Aside from this prospect and on another tangent, football may hold a different glimmer of hope for Michael Howard, who’s recently played up his support for Liverpool. The draw for the FA Cup Semi-Finals, earlier this week, means that a Man Utd – Arsenal final is still on the cards. Why could this be symbolic? The last time Man Utd met Arsenal in the FA Cup Final was in 1979, the same year the Tories last left opposition for Government. The result? Arsenal lead 2-0 with 5 minutes to go, before Man Utd scored twice just for Arsenal to score a last minute winner… maybe not such a promising omen after all!

Thursday, March 17, 2005

To flat or not to flat...

As Poland brings in a flat tax rate of 18% I felt I ought to impart my own views on the purported "flat tax revolution". It involves a single level of taxation - set at a high enough level that those on the lowest incomes pay nothing - which can be so low because it does away with all the costly credits, exceptions and allowances with which our current system is encumbered. The low rate encourages payment, because the incentives for avoidance are so low, and there are therefore no "loopholes" which we have to spend more money on debating plugging.

A wide range of tax regimes are adopting it, and have found that the low flat rate actually gives them a greater tax revenue than their abolished and complicated predecessor. The theory is that when tax rates are cut the richest people end up paying a higher share of the total since they stop avoiding and evading taxes and put their effort into earning more instead. As such they have more money to be taxed on and will pay a greater proportion of the total. The economic expansion is supposed to render a greater total income (with less expenditure on the inland revenue) with a lower overall tax rate.

Now when I first heard about this, I have to admit I hadmy concerns. Would it really work? Or was it a right-wing economists fantasy? However, as I see more and more countries adopting it - especially those new EU members who have such potential for growth - I have to admit that it seems to work, and have been doing a fair bit of reading around the subject.

As I see it, there are a number of barriers which must be jumped on the way to introduction in Britain, which I hope to summarise and debunk over the next few days. Now, of course, in the throes of an election campaign is not the time we can expect to see such a radical idea on the political agenda.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

BBC Bias?

Spot the difference.

BBC News online coverage of leader of Her Majesty's official opposition, Michael Howard's, response to the budget

"Tory leader Michael Howard has dismissed Gordon Brown's budget as a "vote now, pay later" Budget.
The simple fact was that under a new Labour government taxes would go up to plug a financial black hole after the election, Mr Howard said.
Everyone could see the chancellor's "sweeteners", but these hid tax rises for hard working families, he added.
Mr Howard also predicted that this Budget would be the last the chancellor would deliver.
Mr Brown's spending plans were "all about the interests of the Labour party", not about what was good for the country, Mr Howard said."

BBC News online coverage of Charles Kennedy's response, the leader of a party with fewer than one third of the number of seats of the very small opposition

"Gordon Brown has failed to tackle the "fundamental unfairness" in the tax system in his ninth Budget, Charles Kennedy has said.
How was it right that the poorest 20% of society were still paying more as a proportion of their income than the richest 20%, the Lib Dem leader asked.
The new £200 council tax rebate for pensioners did nothing to fix the "unfair tax", he added.
The government could not go on "patching up" the system, he added.
Speaking in the Commons after Mr Brown had delivered what is widely thought to be the last Budget before the general election, Mr Kennedy acknowledged that the UK was one of the most successful economies in the world.
Council tax revaluation
But he criticised both the chancellor and the Tories for failing to address the "ticking bomb" of council tax revaluation.
He said the recent experience of Wales indicated seven million households in England would pay significantly more after revaluation.
The chancellor's announcement that he was to offer a £200 council tax rebate paid by pensioner households was merely a "sticking plaster" to a much bigger problem.
The Lib Dem plan for a local income tax would benefit the typical household by more than £450 a year, with half of all pensioners paying no local tax and about three million being better off.
On pensions, Mr Kennedy said it was a "scandal" that the system discriminated against women who had missed making National Insurance payments when they were having children.
He said a residency criteria would end "at a stroke this fundamental iniquity".
Mr Kennedy added his party's priorities of free long-term care for the elderly, abolishing top-up fees and replacing the council tax would be funded by charging 50% income tax to those earning more than £100,00 per annum.
He contrasted his approach with Mr Brown's pledge in 2001 not to increase income tax.
The chancellor went on to put up National Insurance contributions after the election.
"For most individuals, most families, most households, it adds up to exactly the same thing," said Mr Kennedy.
"And they wonder why people get cynical about their politicians when they give one impression before an election and do exactly the opposite after that election."

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Darling buds of March?

Back from Vermont where I had a fantastic time skiing. It feels as if spring is about to break through in Philadelphia. It's a wonderful feeling when the sun finally has some warmth in it again. Mind you, it's still pretty damn cold....

In the meantime I've been delighted by the continued Tory resurgence in the UK. As I have blogged before, the Party is on the right road, but it is a long road and they have to hold their nerve and keep moving. Nevertheless, I found Howard's speech to the Spring Conference rousing! In Philly, the big issue is the proposed 'public' smoking ban being backed by Mayoral hopeful Michael Nutter (who's actually a very nice man in person). I hope to be back and talk about these soon!

Friday, March 04, 2005

No new posts for a while as I am off to enjoy the delights of spring break skiing in Vermont. Pictures to follow!!

Good for a laugh!

There's an EU Commissioner blogging. Full credit to her for that, and she's even doing it in a second language. The content of the blog does, however, worry me in its non sequiturs and thin content. Is this really the unelected commissioner running a continent? It helps outline one of the big dangers of politicians blogging we get to see what they're really like, weaknesses and all.

Most interesting from the site, however, are the battles that rage in the comments sections - for me they show the benefits of a multi-speed Europe where we all, largely, achieve our goals of membership (apart from the nuttiest Eurofanatics!). Interestingly, that has been the consensus amongst the many Europeans I am friendly with and have spoken with at UPenn: why should Britain be forced to hold back a France and Germany eager for greater cooperation, and why should Britain have to choose between the French and German way or the highway? And people scoff at Michael Howard for building his plans around this.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

When teachers are no longer in charge

I was staggered by this report of the girl who wanted to be able to wear a full length jilbab to school rather than the shalwar kameez, on the wearing of which she had happily co-existed with the school authorities, and who won her appeal. I can accept it may be difficult for her religiously, but at the end of the day it is surely up to schools to set their own uniform codes, no? This may offend some people, but I do not see that giving people rights above that of a school to set its own reasonable uniform rules is either called for, necessary or sensible. Yet another reason to give people a choice of schools, and, sadly, another example of the problems of integrating established British principles (good or bad) with an increasingly self-confident Muslim population.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Tories are back?