Unilateral disarmament at work

What’s the chances ?

Lying behind all the kerfuffle about tax evasion lies a problem which is more profound.  This doesn’t mean I believe the issue is trivial, just that the governments of the world could solve the problem of tax dodging individuals and companies inside a month if they put their minds to it.  Taxing companies on turnover without any allowances would cut out the export of profit to low-tax jurisdictions.  Making all personal tax returns public documents – as I think has been achieved in Scandinavia without their obvious collapse into a North Korean tyranny – would crack the problem of evasive individual behaviour.  And declaring to the taxman the possession and size of overseas bank accounts is not something that would bother me, and I have one.  Compared to solving the Middle East conflicts, or curing malaria, or securing clean water for Africa, eliminating tax dodging is, as the young people say, a no-brainer.

No, the problem which is being obscured is the inequality of wealth.  We are seeing press and TV comment on the tax evaders – often critical and apparently radical comment – which takes as a given that it is OK for individual people to own millions, and in some cases, billions of pounds worth of assets, whilst the general standard of living is static or falling – and has been so for some groups for twenty or thirty years.  There is controversy about why this is happening – is it new technology, the wider use of South East Asian imports, the rise in unemployment, the increased dominance of finance industries, immigration, government capture by special interests – but no-one is, I think disputing it.  Thomas Piketty drew predictable hostility by pointing out the arithmetically obvious fact that if the rate of return on capital is higher than the growth of national income, wealth will flow to those who own capital.  And that is, unambiguously, what is happening.

Here’s a thought.  Might the ability of corporations to devote disproportionate resources to management salaries and bonuses, to impose obviously unfair zero-hours contracts, to destroy historic pension arrangements, to hide and off-shore profits, to maintain pay freezes at a time of rising corporate profits have something to do with the lack of trade union power ?  The ability of employees to resist adverse change has been substantially weakened – in a sense, the workforce has been unilaterally disarmed.  As in the days before trade unions, a single employer faces a disorganised group of employees.  Trade union numbers have been falling every year since Thatcher came to power – from 13m in 1979 to 6.5m today.  Part is down to privatisation, as public bodies typically have higher rates of unionisation than private.  Part of this is due to the legal disempowerment of unions, making it less advantageous to be a union member.  The US campaign against unions – laughably described as ‘right to work’ legislation – is based on this idea.  The reason that changes in the law – and Cameron promises more – are less controversial than they are (and should be) is mostly down to the national memory of misbehaviour by some union leaders in the seventies and eighties, especially Arthur Scargill.  I wonder if he ever considers his role as he maintains a reclusive existence outside Barnsley: probably not, given his capacity for reflection.

So, would it be possible to make progress by raising trade union power – by, say, following the German example and having compulsory workforce representatives on the boards of companies ?  As a friend said when I raised this possibility – “good luck with that”. (later insert – This became a Conservative policy, and I tweeted that it would never happen, and it never happened)

p.s. the day after writing the above, I saw this article via Twitter.  And then, this diagram:

An idea whose time has come ?


A Guardian reader, but …

I was once one of those people who was pretty happy to be described as a Guardian reader.  In favour of equality – check.  Against capital punishment – check.  Wary about the glory of markets – check.  Dubious about academies – check.  Not owned by a Tory magnate – check.  I retained an affection for the old rag even when I eventually gave up taking it because it did become an endless succession of moans about the awfulness of the world.  I used to buy it once or twice a week as balance to the Times (5 of whose last 8 lead stories have been about the awfulness of Labour) or Telegraph (editorial policy for sale to highest bidder).  I still do that actually – avoiding the Tuesday education special, to prevent opening old policy and career scars – but not sure I would want anyone to call me a ‘Guardian reader’ any more, for a number of reasons.

The first one is the way it has unquestioningly placed itself in favour of revealing government secrets.  Now, I’m no admirer of the blanket use of the Official Secrets Act, and would like to access to a wide range of information on policy issues, where that puts nothing at risk apart from some Minister’s career.  However, I am not naïve, and I do feel that some matters do need to be kept confidential.  I also think that democratic countries have enemies in the world.  No point in being needlessly adversarial, but sometimes you have to be needfully adversarial.  A foreign policy which was based on the idea that we have no enemies, only countries to whom we have not made enough concessions, seems likely to lead into deep trouble.  The recent article revealing that UK intelligence has tried to recruit North Korean spies seems to be an example. I (a) do think we need intelligence services – isn’t the critique of Iraq that our intelligence wasn’t good enough ? – and (b) do think that North Korea is an enemy.  A real story would be if our government was not trying to gain more information about North Korea.  Some of these stories have been actually dangerous to the very people who risk their lives helping us as informants.

The second problem for me is the consistent anti-Israel line.  Again, I am not a one sided fan of Israel, and Benjamin Netanhayu seems a particularly loathsome individual.  However, it is a democracy, and (unlike any Arab nation) has integrated its refugees into its population, finding jobs and homes and an education for all those expelled from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and so on, rather than putting them into refugee camps.  The Gaza episode was appalling, but it is difficult to see what else a country can do when a neighbour is lobbing rockets into it.  I also believe that abolishing Israel would lead to more human suffering than not doing so: I gather that makes me a Zionist.  The story yesterday – quite a big story – condemned Israel for imprisoning an adolescent girl for throwing stones at soldiers.  It even told us that throwing stones at soldiers was a practice approved of by Palestinian opinion, a curious paragraph in an article pleading her innocence.  Her family say she didn’t do it.  Hmmm.  The issue of adolescents in custody, and their interview by police, is indeed an issue, and it is one we have had to take a long time getting right in the UK, and we’re not there yet.  But if my daughter were to be arrested by any police force anywhere between Turkey and Australia, I think I would choose Israel.

And then we get extraordinary articles like Owen Jones’ effort recently, entitled “Is ISIS the ultimate evil ? They would like you to think so”.  Who, one wonders, are ‘they’ ?  Wicked western leaders who believe in democracy, the rule of law and welfare states, I guess.  And how much effort do they need to persuade us that men who behead, rape and burn their victims are actually not so nice ? Do we really need a beauty contest involving the SS, President Assad and the Spanish Inquisition ?  Jeez.  I was delighted to see I wasn’t alone when I read Tim Lott’s article – I could go through it and tick each point he makes.

There’s much still to cherish about the Guardian,.  Polly Toynbee is consistently good, and so is George Monbiot: it is the only paper that will question the modern religion of austerity.  Steve Bell is a great cartoonist.  But I’ve moved from being a fan to a neutral observer.  When I first wrote my will, many years ago, I asked that a barrel of beer be bought for the “Guardian” newsroom for the pleasure they had given me over the years.  That paragraph is no longer there.  Sorry, lads.


My favourite sports show how very English I am – rugby union, and cricket.  There is a wealth of wonderful writing on cricket, but not much on rugby.  The Six Nations Championship started this weekend – a cracking match between England and Wales, a tense one in Paris between Scotland and France, and in Rome, the unrolling of an unsurprising script as the Irish wore down the Italians.  The TV channels have to pretend they were all equally and enormously exciting, which they weren’t.  Maybe I should start with a primer on rugby union, similar to the ‘American football for beginners’ guides that were around when Channel Four started broadcasting the NFL twenty or so years ago.

Start here. A rugby union side has 15 players.  They are divided into 8 forwards – the pack – and 7 backs.  Broadly, it is the job of the forwards – big, rumbling psychopaths – to get the ball, and the job of the backs – dainty, skilled athletes – to use it to score points.  As the old joke has it, the team is made up of the piano players and the piano shifters.  Actually, things have changed a bit in recent years.  The forwards now get to run with the ball a lot, aiming to exhaust the defence, not by running around them but by running over them.  Never used to be like that.  When I was playing (guess which group I belonged to. Clue – 17 stone and size 18 neck), I guess I received a pass a year.  The other change is that the backs are no longer dainty: it used to be said that the great asset of the game was that it was good for all physiques, short and fat, tall and thin.  Not any more.  There are some exceptions, but many of the backs have become the sort of six foot, seventeen stone bruisers who would have been sent into the pack in the past.  They are, however, different from the forwards in the fact that they can catch a ball off their toes, and do an even time 100 metres.  Much of the modern game involves teams trying to find a ‘mismatch’, where a sprinter from the backs is up against a bricklayer from the forwards he (or she) can run around.

The thing about rugby union that distinguishes it from American football and rugby league, is that the game carries on when a player is tackled to the ground.  This is the source of some awful tedium, as the ball disappears into a heaving mound of humanity; it is also a source of frustration, as the referee discovers some bizarre offence that no-one else can see as the forwards burrow and wrestle.  But this continuity is also the source of the most exciting events in any sport anywhere, as play follows play without interruption, with twenty or thirty uninterrupted passes and tackles, as the ball is ‘recycled’ from the breakdown, and spins first to one side of the field, then to the other.  When this is combined with the other unique feature of rugby – that the game cannot end until the ball is out of play – you can have extraordinary endings, with the losing side playing on for minute after minute, throwing passes left and right, in a desperate attempt to secure a score before being tackled off the field.

So, have a look at a match and see if you can seem the different roles play out.  Regrettably, you will not get much help from the press.  Rugby journalists tend to be impressed with forwards who can run around athletically, catch and throw extravagant passes, without realising that is not their job.  They are there to get the ball from the opposition, wrestling often in dark areas.  It is salutary to look after a match to see the ratings that different journalists give to various players.  Like TV talent shows, it seems you can’t get below 5 or above 8, no matter how good or bad you are.  Here are the ratings given by the Guardian (G), Times (T) and Sunday Times (S) on Friday’s match.


Wales G T S England G T S
Leigh Halfpenny 7 8 8 Mike Brown 6 8 7
Alex Cuthbert 6 5 5 Anthony Watson 7 7 7
Jonathan Davies 6 6 6 Jonathan Joseph 7 7 8
Jamie Roberts 6 7 7 Luther Burrell 6 6 8
George North 6 5 6 Jonny May 5 6 6
Dan Biggar 7 5 7 George Ford 7 6 8
Rhys Webb 6 8 7 Ben Youngs 7 7 8
Gethin Jenkins 6 5 6 Joe Marler 7 7 8
Richard Hibbard 6 6 7 Dylan Hartley 6 7 7
Samson Lee 5 7 6 Dan Cole 6 7 7
Jake Ball 6 7 7 Dave Attwood 6 6 9
Alun Wyn Jones 6 6 6 George Kruis 6 7 7
Dan Lydiate 6 6 5 James Haskell 6 8 9
Sam Warburton 6 6 7 Chris Robshaw 6 7 7
Toby Faletau 5 7 8 Billy Vinipuola 8 6 8

So, there you have it.  Billy Vinipuola was England’s best or worst forward, according to who you read.  But then, so was James Haskell (who really was outstanding).  In the Guardian, Gethin Jenkins gets the same marks as Dan Cole, who pushed him all over the field.  Ben Youngs, who ran the second half, gets marked below his opponent Rhys Webb.  Toby Faletau was the best or worst Welsh forward.  Dave Attwood was man-of-the-match, or pretty ordinary.  There you go, expertise in action.  Ho hum.

Wren-Lewis & austerity

The idea that our Coalition Government (a) has to do unpleasant things because (b) things were left in a mess by their predecessors is just tosh. Sadly, it is tosh that I think will win the next election, but for those wishing to know the truth, there’s a fine article by Prof Simon Wren-Lewis in the current London Review of Books, debunking the austerity nonsense.  It is extraordinary that anyone is left arguing the austerity case – let alone the need to have further cuts in public provision – when there is not a respectable voice defending it any more.  By respectable, I exclude George Osborne or those that attended the Tory Black and White Ball last week.  Paul Krugman in America also points out the lack of any evidence that government cuts are expansionary, or higher borrowing will drive up interest rates.

I won’t spend a lot of time repeating what the Prof puts so well, but it would be wonderful if the press and voters could agree:

  • It is not possible for a country with its own currency to go bankrupt. The idea that Labour, or anyone, “nearly bankrupted the nation” is idiotic.
  • The 2008 crash was caused by the behaviour of financial institutions, mostly in the US, and had a worldwide resonance. It was not caused by Gordon Brown*.
  • The 1997-2010 government did not have a bad record on public spending, and the UK national debt to income ratio is no worse than international comparators, and better than many.

To which I would add

  • Reducing the budget deficit is not the major economic issue at the moment. The issue is raising incomes and growth, and the way that is done is by increasing demand (fiscal policy) and by improving productivity (much harder, but basically more capital investment and raising vocational skill levels).

*I’m not a mindless Labourite. I resigned from the Party in January 2008 because Gordon Brown was cosying up to financiers and industrialists.

Dying away

I’ve been attending funerals recently, too many, and it is a practice that makes someone in his seventieth year – the Psalmist’s “three score years and ten” – think rather more closely about death than one does earlier in life.  John Donne said no man is an island, and any man’s death diminishes me, but I hope we can agree some deaths diminish us more than others.  This is not to say that some dead people are worth less than others, but to reflect what we know, when we’re not feigning, to be the truth.  I hope that those involved in the events below can forgive me for using them as the basis of some thinking on an awkward area.

My mother-in-law died just before Christmas.  She was a quiet, organised woman, who picked up her life with dignity and calmness after being widowed.  She was always considerate, and got particular pleasure out of her family life: she’d sit in the corner of a family party and marvel that she was the start of so many and so much.  Her health began to fail this year – she was 88 – and she moved into a care home.  Just before Christmas, we had a small family get-together. She enjoyed a buffet snack and some wine, but said she was tired and wanted to rest.  She died in her sleep shortly afterwards without really waking.

My former Vice Principal died just after Christmas.  The family asked me for some remarks at her funeral, and I’ve posted them below.  Ruth was an extraordinarily capable person: we discovered at the funeral all the different areas where she took a lead.  It should have been no surprise, for example, that her local community bagged her as committee secretary.  Her family had a tradition of a New Year walk, and it was there that she had her brain haemorrhage.  She was in her mid 60s, and seemed fit as a fiddle – a tiny wisp of a woman, given to jeans and stout boots.  Her death was not just distressing to the family and friends who filled the crematorium, but bloody unfair – she was an inveterate traveller, and would have enjoyed the twenty years of globe-trotting she earned.

And then I met a former colleague who had lost her son last year – he committed suicide whilst suffering severe depression.  I think this must be one of the cruellest blows any parent is asked to endure.  My brother died in a road crash when he was 19, and that was awful, but in a way it is explicable.  Accidents happen, and sometimes they happen to people we know and love.  But they do not keep coming back with questions about what could have been done, and could we have done better.  There’s a view that ‘suicide is selfish’ because of the pain and distress left behind, but that seems to me self-centred:  the unhappiness (what an inadequate word for what must have been felt) which comes as the toll of depression must make us all generous in our judgements.

So, three deaths, and all of them different.  I could instance some more – the superb wife of a colleague, who worked tirelessly for opportunity and justice in Sheffield before and carried on, right through her terminal cancer.  What’s the message from all this ?  Nothing simple, I’m sure.  One is to be kind to people, and that’s not a bad piece of advice anyway. The things I most regret about my life are the times when I could have been kinder, and wasn’t.  The other message is carpe diem: enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.