Pete North asks if the Union can survive Brexit and “do we really care?” Personally I think this damp archipelago, including Ireland, belongs together. We Scots, Welsh, English and Irish are interbred beyond all separation. I never encountered an unmixed family. More importantly we are unarguably one people culturally. We teach our children the same nursery rhymes, laugh at the same jokes and share the same magnificent literature, art and music.
Most of us can’t tell without asking which of the nations our fellows “belong” to. I stopped calling myself Welsh after a vile nationalist was rude to my English mum and no-one but her noticed. It seems, if not crazy, then at least very petty-minded to separate politically — even leaving aside the economics of it.
What’s driving the Irish government nuts about Brexit is how obvious it will make it that the Republic is economically not independent at all. No more would Scotland be. As Pete unkindly says, it would be “Zimbabwe with fried Mars Bars.” That’s perhaps a little harsh and unhelpful in such delicate discussions as we may be about to have, but not entirely unfair
It is odd that people who think multiculturalism will unite peoples with the most profound ethical and ideological differences can also believe trivial differences between the Home Nations necessitate actual apartheid. Holding contradictory ideas in the same brain is a key postmodernist skill, I guess. Yet the Union is voluntary or it’s nothing. If the Scots want out, as the Irish did in their day, then that’s up to them and off they must trot. Sad though that will be for me and my Scottish pals (all of whom are economically-active Unionists).
I don’t see why only the Scots (and others who happen to live there) should be asked to decide though. The United Kingdom, not its component parts, is the member state of the EU. However Brexit goes, if Scotland leaves the UK it will then have to apply to join (not rejoin) the EU. Previous applicants had to demonstrate economic stability before admission. That would prove difficult for a Scotland deprived of English gold. Spain, afraid of its Catalans (and far less relaxed about separatism than England) would veto their application. Their path would be rocky and that would never do because we love them and wish them well. So wouldn't it be better instead to ask the other Home Nations if they want to leave the Union?
England would certainly do so. It contains 85% of the UK population but 95% of the economy. Even if it took a Barnett formula adjusted share of the national debt with it, it would be a far richer country and the threat of Celtic-fringe imposed Socialism would be removed forever. Goodbye Mr Corbyn.
I’d be relaxed either way but I imagine Wales would vote to leave the UK too. We Welsh like to rattle our sabres in imitation of the Scots in pursuit of subsidies etc., but we know which side our bara brith is buttered. If Northern Ireland voted to remain in the rump UK, then the reduced member state could withdraw its Article 50 notice and the Brexit divide would be neatly resolved. Leave-voting England (& Wales) would be free from whatever EU or post-Brexit treaty entanglements remained at a single bound. The Irish could stop bleating about backstops and deal instead with the other side of the sectarian terrorist violence they encouraged (and clandestinely supported) for so long.
It’s an actual opportunity for karma, no less!
My contempt for the farce that is the UN is so profound that the idea of Scotland on its security council actually quite appeals. If Saudi Arabia can be a member of the UN “human rights” council, why the hell should a nuclear-free Scotland not sit at the top table with Russia, China and the US? Particularly as the US has always meddled in the UK’s internal affairs on the side even of violent nationalists. It would be hilarious to see the US government’s reaction to the Scottish Peoples Republic wielding its veto. Yet more karma in fact! In an ideal world our old comrade Councillor Terry Kelly would be Scotland’s U.N. ambassador!
I offer this solution, as you will have discerned by now, mostly in jest. It’s far too sensible for the buffoons in power to accept it and of course far too much of a threat to their globalist agenda. But what actual objections — gentles all — do you see to it?
I try not to be provoked by ill-judged political outbursts by my friends on social media. Life’s too short to fix everything someone gets wrong on the internet. Or so my wife tells me. Today, for example, I almost wasted an hour of my life responding to attacks on Jacob Rees-Mogg on my personal Facebook page. This was from friends (one of whom is an English journalist in Russia) commenting on this article in The Independent about the style guide JRM issued to his parliamentary staff, which was leaked to ITN.
My journalist friend said it reminded him of the forlorn attempts of the Académie Française to hold back changes in the French language. One of his friends essayed a witticism by posting this image
Fair enough, that’s a mildly amusing comic exaggeration but JRM, while not a libertarian, is very much a small state man. Unlike his authoritarian opponents in both his party and others, he wants fewer rules and less state interference with personal choices. It’s ridiculous to compare an office memo to the control-freakery of the Académie Française. He’s not laying down the law, just giving stylistic guidance to his employees. Write to him in your preferred style and they’ll now politely respond to you in his. Where’s the story here?
Yet class-obsessed (though disproportionately posh) journalists have apparently spent hours counting how many times Hansard features JRM using expressions he’s asked his staff to avoid. I understand they’re bored of Brexit. Aren’t we all? But if a free press has value (and I think it does) this strikes me as a poor example of it.
JRM is eccentric. He’s different. He adds to the rich and varied warp and weave of our wonderful society. He very much enhances its cultural diversity, in fact. But as his politics don’t suit the media hive mind, look how intolerant of “difference” journalists truly are. One extra space behind a full stop and he’s a dangerous reactionary!
Let me try to match my friend in Moscow in the field of OTT analogies. It reminds me of how the gentlemen of the press piled in behind Carl Beech when he falsely accused many Tories (and one — Jewish — Labourite) of sexual abuse and even murder. Never mind the facts, never mind the effects on the people concerned and their families. There’s the hated “other” in our sights. Attack!
So much for the kinder, gentler politics the Magic Grandpa promised
These of course are the very same journalists who first systematically ignored and then, when the story broke, downplayed statutory rapes by the thousand so as not to criticise cultural difference in England’s poorer towns. These are the same journalists so carefully weighing the pros and cons of the Jessica Yaniv story in Canada (or in the case of Canadian media so carefully ignoring it). Such courage! Such independence of thought! What was that old rhyme again?
You cannot hope to bribe or twist, thank God! the British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do unbribed, there's no occasion to.
There. I haven’t wasted that hour. I’ve made a blog post from it. Now shall I send my friend in Moscow a link to it on Facebook ....?
I was brought up to respect policemen. I still do. Even a libertarian state would ask good people to put themselves in harm’s way to enforce its few laws. The harm they do is rarely the fault of the (mostly) good policemen enforcing our current monstrous state’s thousands of bad laws.
The same can be said for judges. They have an honest, important and necessary job to do that is foundational for civilisation but also apply and interpret thousands of laws that should simply not be. Their hands are dirty but it’s not their fault. Our soldiers too and perhaps (though here it gets murkier) even some of our civil servants.
Though my conscience might still (just) handle being a judge (and relish the chance to lean hard toward Liberty in interpreting our laws) I couldn’t be a civil servant, soldier or policeman in modern Britain any more than I could be a politician for a mainstream statist party. I could not serve a gangster state that interfered with the citizenry’s freedom while violently extorting from it the money to pay me and hope to sleep at nights.
Which raises the awkward question, who can? Being a judge, a soldier or a policeman is noble enough (and a civil servant harmless enough) in principle but to choose such a career serving the states we have now is morally questionable at least. Watch the French police currently beating up the gilets jaunes, for example. You’ll need to scour YouTube as the MSM is oddly reticent on the subject. These thugs are not conscripts. Each studied, applied, trained and freely signed a contract. Why would a decent human choose to do that job?
We have been watching Kiefer Sutherland’s Netflix show “Designated Survivor” and enjoying it well enough. I view it as the entertaining tosh it is intended to be but wince at its po-faced portrayal of its heroes. They are cynical foes of Liberty and (literally) murderous enemies of the Rule of Law but we are expected to see them as paragons of selfless virtue. Given the boundless power of modern Western states, and the extent of their control over our personal lives, just who else would we expect to work for them but narcissists and sociopaths?
A children’s home (or church trusted by parents with their children) needs to be particularly alert to the possibility of child abusers wanting to work there. A powerful state should be similarly so about sociopaths. Neither our children’s homes, churches nor governments seem to have shown any such concern. I fear the abusers are now in charge of recruitment.
This at least partly accounts for the relentless “mission creep” of the modern state. It certainly accounts for “Conservative” ministers, surfing smug tides of Liberty-minded rhetoric, interfering in the minutiae of our lives indistinguishably from openly authoritarian Labourites. There was a time when a moral man like this would become a civil servant but the people who staff our state now lack — almost by definition — any moral scruples about its rôle.
Please tell me I am wrong in this pessimistic analysis. If not, how can we hope peacefully and democratically to roll back the power of the state? If we can’t, then how does the story of our civilisation end?
I thought taking part in the Leave march to Parliament Square might have been my last political act. As I wrote afterwards, it actually gave me hope again.
The old political tribes in Britain are in trouble and deserve to be. They have long taken their members, supporters and voters for granted; becoming steadily more divorced from the everyday lives of most Brits. They were smugly secure that most of us would keep voting for one or the other of their parties regardless. So they could safely ignore us while they grew their power and enriched themselves by steadily growing the public payroll and the National Debt. They turned their backs on us and forgot we were here.
I never deluded myself about the nature of democracy. Grandiosity about “government of the people, by the people and for the people” made me smile. I take Tony Benn’s more practical view as stated in the last of his famous "five questions"
“The House will forgive me for quoting five democratic questions that I have developed during my life. If one meets a powerful person--Rupert Murdoch, perhaps, or Joe Stalin or Hitler--one can ask five questions: what power do you have; where did you get it; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and, how can we get rid of you? Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system.”
Simply, if (and to the precise extent) that a majority of us can succeed in getting rid of any given set of people in power, we have a democracy. The political obsessives and/or moral degenerates who are attracted to the idea of running for office are very unlike the rest of us so the practical point of any democratic system is to keep them honest-ish by forcing them at intervals to appeal to us normals, on pain of peremptory dismissal.
Brexit has broken this model because it transcends the old left/right divide. It’s an issue that speaks to us normals at a very deep level. It goes to our sense of who we are as a set of British nations. These are near-mystical matters that the grasping, narcissistic rogues in office can’t grok.
If they loved the peoples of Britain, they wouldn’t be feeding on us like so many plump fleas. If they gave the merest damn about our nations or their history or if they had the slightest respect for who we are, they wouldn't ever have wanted to lord it over us. Just as the feudal lords of medieval Europe dealt more comfortably with their counterparts across the Channel than with the serfs they saw as little more than cattle, so our political masters feel more at home with their parasitical brethren in the EU apparatus than with us. That hugger-muggery has not gone unremarked and has intensified our sense of being ignored at best (and despised at worst) by those elected to serve us.
In the end, Brexit’s historical importance will have nothing to do with our membership of the EU. That dubious institution will pass in time, with or without us. We would find our way forward in or out of it. The true value of the attempt to leave has been the way it has exposed the terrible weakness of our native institutions. Whether they atrophied because of our EU membership or have just withered from long neglect scarcely matters now. They are rotten, need to be fixed and the people tasked with their maintenance and repair have been shown to be utterly useless.
It's a challenge, but our economy is stronger and our demographics are better than any European rival. Despite Brexit, our legal system and the strength of our financial institutions continues to attract foreign direct investment on a scale our neighbours can only dream of. Once this farce moves on to its next act, the peoples of Britain — armed with their new-found understanding of what fools our masters are — now expect our institutions to undergo as thoroughgoing a refurbishment as the one planned for the physical fabric of the Palace of Westminster.
There is much to be done and new people must be inspired to do it. And new political parties will be needed as all faith in the Conservatives has been destroyed and Labour is a disunited rabble of cowards or fanatics.
Our first chance to put the fear of the fierce God Demos back into the black hearts of our politicians is on Thursday. For us Brits at least, the usually entirely pointless elections to the EU’s ludicrous fig leaf of a pretendy Parliament have an important use this time. This, even though our MEPs are not expected to serve a full term and will certainly be ignored even more than usual until we finally leave the EU. Since the elections are literally about nothing else, we can use them to signal to our wretched government and opposition that our democracy is not to be swatted aside when they don't like what we say.
I have joined and donated to the Brexit Party and will attend its London rally at Olympia tonight. Whether you voted Leave or Remain (and there were respectable arguments each way that no longer need rehearsing) I would urge you to vote for us this week. If you think the vote to Leave was a mistake and you don't give a damn about democracy, then your choice is easy. You must vote LibDem. Otherwise, please vote for The Brexit Party. Not for Brexit but for British democracy itself. Let’s not give the dastard Tories or the fence-sitting Corbynites any room for manoeuvre when they interpret the outcome in planning their General Election campaigns. On Thursday please add your voice to a full-throated roar of righteous popular rage that will make the villains tremble.
I returned yesterday from an impulsively-organised road trip to Northern Ireland. For those of us who grew up during the Troubles, it's not an obvious tourist destination. The names of its towns and villages meant nothing to me but violence and – Giant's Causeway apart – I had never seen a reason to go. However, the future Mrs P the Second's sister was visiting Ireland and is a fan of "Game of Thrones." The series was mostly filmed in a studio on the Belfast Docks and on location around Northern Ireland so we decided to meet her there and visit some of those locations.
It was a frivolous idea but it led to some good fun. Mrs P2-elect and I crossed from Birkenhead to Belfast on the 1030 sailing on Friday. I wasn't too happy that Speranza travelled on an outside deck, exposed to weather and spray, but the passage was calm and agreeable enough, if a little boring. We landed on Friday evening at 1830 and were safely at our modern hotel near the docks by 1900. Within minutes we were changed and in a taxi to a splendid restaurant recommended by my cousin in the catering trade. She had told me that the chef was on the cusp of his first Michelin "macaron" and after our experience there, I can believe it.
We met my fiancee's sister's train from Dublin at the railway station on Saturday morning and set off on our (as it proved) over-ambitious tour. Our first stop was Cairncastle, where the scene in which Ned Stark lived up to his motto that "the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword" was filmed. The photo below shows Speranza near the place.
A nearby hotel features one of the "Doors of Thrones". These are made from wood from trees at the Dark Hedges (itself a GoT location – see below) felled by Storm Gertrude in 2016. Local tourism promoters turned damage to one tourist attraction into ten new ones – all at pubs or hotels near to a location used in series six. All the locations can be found here.
From there we drove to the Cushenden Caves at Ballymena. They are open to the public but the locals didn't seem keen for us to find them. There are no signs until you have actually arrived. We persisted however and duly saw where the Red Priestess gave birth to the shadow creature. We lunched at a pub across the road before striking out, this time with the roof down, for Murlough Bay.
This location stands in for the region of Westeros (the fictional continent where most of Game of Thrones is set) known as Pyke. Inevitably, as GoT is set in an alternate medieval reality, there's little to see but windswept hills and ocean but our tour was getting us out into some beautiful scenery and involving us in lots of healthy outdoor exercise. The roads to this remote spot were not (unlike the winding B roads we enjoyed for most of the trip) ideally suited to Speranza but she coped.
We arrived too late to buy a ticket to cross the bridge, which was a disappointment, but made the walk there and back anyway to take a look and make some pictures. By this time night was falling and it was too late to go to our main destination for the day the famous Giant's Causeway. As we drove back to our hotel in Belfast however, we came up with a plan to return the next day.
We also had the chance on our way back from the rope bridge to park up near the Dark Hedges. My camera can shoot at very high ISO and so I was able to get one of my favourite shots of the weekend in near-darkness. Had we arrived in daylight it would have been crammed with tourists spilling off the coaches that were leaving as we arrived. As it was, it took me seconds to Photoshop away the few stragglers that remained.
After breakfast on Sunday morning, we drove directly to the Giant's Causeway. On well-maintained and (by English standards) lightly-used motorways and A roads it was a different experience from Saturday. The miles ticked away quickly and we arrived within 50 minutes or so despite a refuelling pit stop. The attraction is natural and free, but the National Trust is in charge and determined to rake in the cash. Essentially it charges £11.50 per person to park and kindly allow access to their gift shop and cafe where its polite and helpful staff can relieve you of more cash. The "visitor centre" is modern and magnificent and we did plan to spend some time there so as the NT is a charity and mostly (despite its political correctness and priggishness) does a useful job we decided to pay up with a smile. If you were minded to be more frugal you could drop your passengers at the entrance to the car park and they could walk for free to the Causeway. If you wanted to be really frugal, you could park the car down the road and walk in. There's nothing in the gift shop or cafe that you couldn't get online or nearby from some private business or other.
After exploiting the NT facilities we had paid so handsomely to use, we set off for nearby Dunluce Castle, a ruin that stands in for Castle Greyjoy in GoT, but is an interesting enough attraction in its own right. The owners clearly think so as, despite the constant GoT chatter of their visitors, they make nothing of the connection to the show.
We then had a late lunch in the nearby town of Portrush, before heading south again towards Belfast. We had hoped to visit another GoT location, Shane's Castle, on the way back but it is part of a working agricultural estate and is only open to the public for special events. So we called an end to our GoT tour and returned to town to visit the famous Crown Bar and then the cafe of the Europa Hotel (bombed 36 times during the Troubles but a pleasant enough place to pass an hour these days).
From there we dropped our guest at the station to return to Dublin and we set off to wait for our ferry home and a good night's rest at sea before a pleasant drive home to London. Given our early start – disembarking at 0630 – and a single pit stop to refuel at a motorway service station, we were home before 11am.
This week I had two conversations; one with a valued and respected friend and one with a total stranger. I found both of them profoundly disturbing.
My friend is Jewish. In the course of a conversation over lunch he told me that he and his wife have decided to leave Britain if Jeremy Corbyn becomes our Prime Minister. Not to avoid the avalanche of new taxes to be expected from an authentically Marxist Labour government, but because he is afraid that the growth of anti-Semitism will at best go unchecked, and at worst be encouraged, by Corbyn's government.
Think about that for a second. One of Britain's best claims to be the most civilised nation in Europe is that there have been no pogroms here since that at York in 1190. I have never heard an anti-semitic remark from a British person in my life. I am sure we must have the occasional nut-job who harbours hatred for the Jews, but have never met one. Given that for a while, I was a partner in a predominantly Jewish law firm, I have had better than average chances of doing so.
I am proud of the fact that Britain has been for centuries one of the safest places in the world for a Jew to live. I was shocked to hear my friend express his fears.
This is no shrinking violet neither. He is a distinguished lawyer; a former partner in another City of London law firm. He has a fine mind, strong principles and a courageous, forthright character. He is a clear thinker and a tough negotiator. He is not a man to cut and run, so I do not dismiss his concerns at all. He is making a rational calculation.
The second conversation was at my local petrol station. A well-dressed young black man driving a newish Audi accosted me as I refuelled Speranza. He felt I had cut him up at a nearby roundabout and had followed me to offer a critique. I don't believe his assessment was correct but let's pretend he was right because that doesn't affect my point. The conversation ran as follows (and I am rather proud that I stayed so calm);
"Do you know who a roundabout works?"
I think so, yes. Why do you ask?"
"You didn't give way to me back there"
"As soon as I saw the car [pointing to Speranza, my Ferrari] I knew it would be driven by an ugly c**t and here you are"
"What did you call me?"
"You heard. An ugly c**t" [He then spelled the C word out, letter by letter]
"That thing [pointing to Speranza]. It's to replace a tiny d*ck. That's what it's for. Your d*ck is tiny"
As he turned to storm off, I finally lost it a little and called after him
"What kind of man speaks to a stranger like that, you uncultured bastard".
His anger was genuine enough but it was not righteous. My impression was that I was the object of his hate not because of what I did but because of what he thought I was – rich, old "gammon". Outside the ranks of fundamentalist religions, only social justice warriors can behave so badly with such a righteous demeanour. This man was of the Left; consumed with envy and identarian anger.
Before you leap to a wrong conclusion, I an not seeking to join the identity politics jamboree. Far from it. The only "protected characteristic" I aspire to or recognise is "Human." Nor do I want legal protection from mere words. In the end, though I think he hoped I would offer violence so that he could beat me up, he did nothing but call me names. When I refused to rise to his bait (carefully calculating about how it would look on the petrol station's CCTV cameras, if I am totally honest) he walked away without converting his assault into battery.
He was throwing a tantrum like a spoiled child and a better come-back than I found in my distress would have been to laugh and ask him;
"What are you? 12!?"
What connects these two incidents apart from incivility and threat of violence? The politics of identity. An imperfect but, generally, safe country is becoming angry, violent and dangerous because the members of the British Left, in common with their comrades throughout the West, have deliberately fomented division. Their forerunners' attempts to turn class against class having comprehensively failed, they have spent the decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall (and some of them have spent far longer) trying to set race against race, sex against sex, faith against faith and so forth. That explains the anger of the young man with the Audi. He saw in me, not another human, but a category of oppressor. My driving error (real or imagined) gave him an excuse (as he would see it) to express his righteous contempt. His conduct was that of a medieval knight encountering – and expressing his scorn for – an actual villein; that is a person of an inferior class.
That, combined with the Left's quest for Muslim votes by its unholy alliance with Islam in support of the "Palestinians", accounts for my friend's calm assessment of the future for Jews on our sceptred isle. To them, he's not (as he truly is) one of the kindest, noblest and gentlest of men, but an enemy. A "Zio" to his face and God-knows-what behind his back,
This post is not a counsel of despair. To be clear, I believe in the future of our country. To be even clearer, I don't accept the stereotyping of the "Millennials" and "Generation X'ers". I know enough of both to see through that. There are unpleasant and dangerous trends in Britain's public dialogue but I accept none of them as permanent. There are straws in the wind suggestive of public resistance to this vile brand of hate-driven, envy-driven, divisive and – yes – racist politics. But we are at a dangerous juncture in our national story and many more of us than already have need to take a stand.
We will be a poorer nation if my friend leaves. We will be a poorer nation if young Audi-man doesn't grow up to see the humanity in all of his fellow-Brits. It's up to every one of us to do our best to make this land of ours safe again.
I have been reading another of the books I snagged at the recent Think! conference organised by the IEA. You can read it too, online for free. It's a well-researched, well-reasoned piece of work. It won't please those on the Right or Left who rage at Auntie's perceived bias because it reaches a nuanced conclusion. Yes, the BBC has a bias but it's not a crudely political one. It's the predictable bias of the kind of middle class professional person who chooses to work in a public service broadcaster. In the chapter "Why is the BBC biased?" written by Stephen Davies of the IEA, he explains why people with views as radically divergent as, say, Owen Jones and I all feel that the BBC is against us;
...certain views are marginalised and either misrepresented or even ignored. It is not a straightforward matter of either left or right views being treated in this way. Rather, all views that are not in the conventional wisdom are slighted, even if they are widely held among the public. Examples from the right would be support for radical reform of the welfare system or the NHS; from the left, it could be the popularity of public ownership of utilities ... Certain views are clearly represented as being uninformed or exotic, such as scepticism about man-made climate change, hostility to immigration or doubts about the benefits of formal education. Sometimes this judgement may be true, but to simply ignore and disregard a view is actually counterproductive if your aim is to inform.
In addition there is an intensification of the structural tendency of the modern media to see political and intellectual divisions in binary terms. This leads to many perspectives being simply ignored or misrepresented. In the last 30 years for example, it has become part of the conventional BBC view that opposition to the EU is definitively located on the right. This means that the continuing and at one time prominent socialist critique of the EU is simply not represented. On the other side, opposition to immigration is thought to be associated with other views conventionally placed on the right, so that left-wing opposition to labour migration is airbrushed out, despite being common among many Labour voters. At the same time, the strong support of most free-market advocates for freer immigration is ignored and glossed over. In other words, the very existence of certain kinds of combinations of views is simply ruled out, and they are not even considered, despite being perfectly coherent intellectually and widely held.
The last discussion I had on immigration, for example, was just this week with a new friend who is an active member of the Labour Party. He is of the same vintage as myself and is a "Old Labour" socialist from the provincial working class that founded the Party. He is uncomfortable with the "Metropolitan elite" now in charge and is more scathing about identity politics than any Tory I know. He is firmly in favour of restricting immigration; believing that it has reduced working class wages. I, on the other hand, would be in favour of open borders if we could first abolish the welfare system that distorts the labour market and attracts unproductive immigrants. For so long as that system exists, I favour a liberal immigration policy that actively encourages skilled workers to come here, regardless of their origins, but offers no welfare benefits to first generation immigrants unless and until they have paid a minimum contribution into the system.
Neither of us fit the simplistic right/left BBC narrative, so our views never feature. He and I haven't talked about the BBC yet, but it would be perfectly understandable if we both thought it was biased. That wouldn't matter so much if the BBC was not (a) funded by state force and (b) the provider of 75% of all television news viewed in the UK. Though the internet is undermining its near-monopoly it still shapes the views of most voters, who rarely ignore its narrative. Hence Auntie's conniptions at the result of the EU Referendum. A decision was made on the basis of opinions outwith her conventional wisdom. It's from "out of left field" as our cousins across the pond say and must be wrong, or mad, or both.
So who are these people who choose to work for a public service broadcaster, bringing their unconscious biases with them?
The initial factor is the very narrow and restricted background of BBC staff, both of presenters and producers. The proportion who are privately-educated (and, by extension, upper-middle class) is several times the national average (Milburn 2014). Generally they come from professional backgrounds rather than commerce or business, much less from working-class households. Much of the critical comment on the narrow base from which the BBC draws its senior staff emphasises the lack of ethnic or gender diversity; but, while there is undoubtedly something to this, it is swamped by the social origins phenomenon. The women and ethnic minorities who do work for the BBC in roles such as producer, presenter and senior manager are likely to come [my emphasis] from the same kind of educational and social background as their white, male colleagues.
What this naturally leads to is a common shared set of beliefs and attitudes, deriving from common or shared experience. In a very real sense the conventional wisdom referred to earlier is the shared outlook of a specific social group or formation. The problem, of course, is that, in the absence of challenges or dissent from people from a different background, all kinds of beliefs remain unquestioned, with the status of 'obvious truth' or 'common sense' attached to them. These kind of unexamined assumptions exist at the level of general principles rather than particular issues. Examples might be that it is always good to help the less fortunate or that most social problems should be understood as having structural causes rather than being explicable through individual agency or action, or that business activity is a zero sum game. Moreover, once a particular set of attitudes becomes widely shared within any organisation, it tends to attract people who share them, and so the situation becomes self-perpetuating and reinforcing.
Then there is the fact that no-one who disapproves of an organisation funded by force would dream of applying for a job there. This is a problem for all state organisations, not just the BBC. I could not live with knowing that every penny I "earned" had been taken by force from my fellow men. I would be as ashamed of working for the Government or the BBC as I would be to work for the Mafia – and for the same moral reasons. I derive my self-respect from taking care of myself and my family and from being a burden to no-one. I am proud of the fact that every penny I have earned came from voluntary transactions with clients who had plenty of other choices. That is why it's difficult to get classical liberals of any stripe into Parliament, Whitehall or the BBC. The self-selected political and administrative classes comprise people who have no moral objection to living parasitically on their fellow-men. We can't expect such people to favour a smaller government, privatisation of the BBC or less state intervention in private life. If they did, they wouldn't be there.
Some may go into politics, the Civil Service or the Beeb with the honourable goal of relieving the burdens of oppressed taxpayers. Few stick to that objective. They will find most of their colleagues bemused by them while they are junior, fearful when they are senior and downright hostile if they come near the levers of power. If not independently wealthy (and why would they work in such mundane roles if they are) they will find themselves under financial as well as social pressure to conform. Their advancement is very likely to depend upon the approval of people who share the conventional wisdom.
This is an interesting book and worth a read. I would love to hear your views on it, gentles all.
I am reading one of the books I snagged at the Think IEA conference last weekend. It's called A U-Turn on the Road to Serfdom and it contains practical suggestions, based on the 2013 Hayek lecture by Grover Norquist, as to how we might effectively work towards a smaller state. In it Norquist remarks on the electoral effect of the Tea Party movement in the US.
There have been some very good studies about how this affected the voter turnout in places where you had rallies, compared with places where they planned a rally, but it rained, so it was cancelled. You could see that we gained between three million and six million voters in 2010 because of increased political activism: the idea of showing up, seeing other people, realising you weren't alone and that you weren't crazy was very important.
This struck a chord. I am an activist by inclination. In my youth, I was regional chairman of a Maoist school students organisation, Chairman of the Conservative Association at my university, marched to legalise homosexuality in Scotland and Northern Ireland and campaigned on political issues. Once my career became serious and I had a family to take care of, however, I eased off and became politically very isolated. I fell prey to the propaganda of the Left-Establishment orthodoxy. With only the BBC and the mainstream media to guide me, I came to believe that I was – if not alone – part of an unfashionable minority.
Then came the "War on Terror". The Islamic terrorists were rank amateurs compared to the IRA whose campaign I had lived through without once feeling civilisation was in danger. The Irish Republican terrorists were highly-trained (by the Soviets), well-funded (by Irish-Americans) and well-protected (by the Kennedy dynasty in the US, by judges in Germany refusing to deport them, by the Catholic Church refusing to excommunicate them and by its priests providing them with safe houses). The Islamic terrorists have money from their Arab and Iranian sponsors and some of the older ones were trained by the CIA during the Russian campaign in Afghanistan but mostly they are laughable InCel losers. Films like Four Lions and plucky Glaswegians like John Smeaton ("We're from Glasgow, we'll just set about ye") constitute an adequate societal response while law enforcement deals with them as the simple (in all senses) criminals they are.
I mourned the losses of my American friends in 9/11 but feared (presciently as it turned out) the nature of their likely response. I feared (even more presciently) that authoritarian opportunists would cynically use 9/11 as cover to attack civil liberties. How was one classical liberal with a family to take care of and a demanding career to take on Tony Blair, George W. Bush et al. as they – by appearing to respond manfully to panicked calls to "do something" – set about dismantling our freedoms? So, my activism revived a little and I started this blog.
I know. It's hilarious. One man writing from Moscow about the PATRIOT Act, the Prevention of Terrorism Act and other such legal euphemisms, was going to make a difference, right? Well, I wasn't quite that dumb. I knew I was lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness. I had no real hope that I would make a difference but I felt a moral obligation to chip in my two cents' worth. To be honest, I didn't want to die having stood silent while the civilisation I believed in was damaged. I don't believe that I have changed the world for the better but I have changed me.
I have experienced the warm feeling Norquist describes, of realising that I was neither alone in my views nor crazy to hold them, through fellowship with the readers of this blog and of others like it. I am not sure I have illuminated much with it, but I have kept that "little candle" alive and with it the hope that one day it will pass to someone who will be able to make the difference I have not. I hope the fellowship that has helped me so much has also helped my little band of readers. We have huddled together in the darkness and, at worst, we are still here and still thinking freely.
Though my little candle has not started any fires, those of other bloggers have. To light a fire you need – it seems – more incendiary views than mine. I have just finished reading Fatwa : Hunted in America by Pamela Geller for example. Her blog Atlas Shrugs, now renamed as The Geller Report, found a readership large enough for its advertising to fund campaigns that made a real world difference. She has become enough of a threat to merit (and I do regard it as a high honour) an ISIS attempt to assassinate her. Her security team killed both of her attackers. Her blog revenue also paid for those trained professionals to be there and do that. I envy her that.
Geller is not afraid. She is a feisty, aggressive, Jewish lady and will not back down in the face of what she fears is an embryonic Shoah, instigated by jihadists and supported by the Left/Liberal Western Establishment. She goes too far with her conspiracy theories. I no more believe that the Blairs and Merkels of this world are secretly plotting the downfall of the West than I believe in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Blair and Merkel do exist, alas, and their conduct does threaten the West but they are greedy fools, not traitors. Despite her imaginative excesses, Geller does great work in exposing the weakness of the West's leadership and the bias of the West's media. Her reward has been for ISIS to try to kill her and for mainstream journalists to "victim blame" her for that! Even President Trump publicly wondered in the aftermath of the assassination attempt (and this really is a compliment from him) why she was so provocative!
Meanwhile the social media giants seek to demonetize her online publications and to smear her relentlessly. Yet she remains, and this I can only admire, a spirited activist. I would be proud if I had pulled just one of her stunts: the one in which she put up two near-identical "hate sites" on Facebook. Every word on the sites was the same, except that one said "Kill the Jews" and the other said "Kill the Palestinians". Then she reported both pages to Facebook's team monitoring compliance with its Terms of Service. The "Kill the Jews" page remains, Facebook having ruled that it was free speech in compliance with its ToS. The "Kill the Palestinians" page was (but of course, did you ever doubt it?) taken down. She has cleverly proved the sinister bias in not just "The" Social Network but all the social networks. For another small example of that bias, I use an aggregator called Feedly for my daily reading list of news and blogs. I can't add the Geller Report to that list because Feedly doesn't recognise its existence. Yes, her website is there. Yes, her free speech is unimpeded. But I have to remember to visit her site because Feedly silently declines to accept it. Yet it would (and quite rightly) let me aggregate any number of hateful anti-Western sites.
Geller's book is not well-written. It is in her authorial voice, which is a tiring high-pitched scream. It's repetitive and just a wee bit narcissistic but it's really worth a read. Her career, whether on any given point she was right or wrong, illustrates clearly the anti-Western bias of the West's political, intellectual and journalistic leadership. While most of our citizens remain proud of the West's achievements, it really seems our elites are are subconsciously intent on civilisational suicide out of sheer self-loathing. Reading it made me feel guilty that, in pursuit of comforts she has cheerfully exchanged for physical danger and vilification, I have sacrificed so little to its defence.
For the last four years, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) has held a conference targeted at students under the banner THINK. Despite my age and my not being in formal education, I attended the first in 2015. I felt a bit out of place but enjoyed it thoroughly. In particular, I have been thinking, talking and writing ever since about a speech by the IEA's Director of Education, Dr Stephen Davis about medical advances to extend human life, driverless cars and vertical horticulture.
When I saw that Dambisa Moyo, author of Dead Aid, would speak at this year's event, I signed up to go again. Yesterday morning I went to the Royal Geographical Society in London and, despite the bright sunshine (thank goodness the hall was air conditioned) spent an enjoyable Saturday. Quite apart from the content, I loved being in the company of so many earnest and intelligent young people interested in the key ideas of economic liberty. In my circle of contemporaries, discussion can sometimes be a Pessimism Olympiad driven by an economically-illiterate media and a governing elite whose hostility to liberty is played upon by parasitical, rent-seeking toadies. It was refreshing to be among youngsters full of hope and ambition. Even their naivety is not a bug, but a feature. It will lead them into areas of research that the cynical would dismiss too soon.
The full programme can be seen here. After introductions by the organiser Christiana Stewart-Lockhart (coincidentally a school friend of Miss Paine the Elder, whom I have known since she was a teenager) there was an amusing welcome speech by Mark Littlewood, Director General of the IEA. He referenced the late, great Hans Rosling's Ignorance Survey, which demonstrated that chimpanzees out-perform humans on multiple choice questions about key facts, because (as Rosling said) "Chimps don't watch the evening news". Fake news is not a new phenomenon. Mark quoted Gladstone as saying
Men are apt to mistake the strength of their feeling for the strength of their argument. The heated mind resents the chill touch and relentless scrutiny of logic.
Anyone who has ever attended a political debate in a calm state of mind will recognise the truth of that.
The next presentation was by Tim Harford. His book, Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy, was in the goody bag and I will review it here when I get around to reading it. Given all the other books I picked up yesterday, that might be a while!
He made an interesting point about why the economic future is so hard to predict. As Galbraith said
the only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable
Tim put up a still from the original Bladerunner movie of Rachael, the "replicant" with whom the hero falls in love. He then showed the pay videophone in a bar on which the hero calls her to ask for a date and we all laughed. We often fail to understand that new technologies will not just slot into the familiar world but will change it and us. We also often think the dramatic, expensive innovation is the most important, whereas often it's the simplest and cheapest. While we all think of the invention of the printing press as the disruptive technology that gave us the modern world, he argued the invention of paper was more important. The Chinese circulated many scribe-written books on paper centuries before printing. Had all Gutenberg Bibles been printed on animal hides (as some were) a modest print run of 3,000 copies would have required the slaughter of half a million beasts! It wasn't the press that made mass literacy possible, but a cheap medium on which to print.
He gave several examples of new technologies that had no marked effect on productivity when first introduced. Decades later, when people worked out their possibilities, the real change came. Replacing the huge steam engine that drove a 19th Century factory with an electric one had only marginal effects at first in the US. Many industrialists that retained their old steamers probably thought themselves wise not to waste capital. It was only when the government cut off the supply of cheap labour by restricting immigration that manufacturers realised they could put small engines on every workbench to maximise productivity. Tim suggested we may see similar effects with the "IKEA-isation of solar power", for example, as the technology becomes "cheap enough to change the world."
Roger Bootle then gave us his "positive view of Post-Brexit Britain". As I am always trying to explain to friends who oppose it, Brexit doesn't guarantee anything good or bad. It only brings the levers of policy-making back onshore. If Corbyn's Labour wins the next election, our post-Brexit future will be dire. If future governments decide to regulate commerce in the same way as the EU or worse, then it will also be dire. The positive is merely that we now have the option to aim for freer trade, less discriminatory immigration that allows talent from anywhere in the world to come to our shores and more economic and social liberty. He believes, as do I, that this is more likely outside the EU, but we can – and may – screw up our own future. There are no guarantees. After all, we have often screwed things up for ourselves in the past.
As evidence of the EU's propensity to screw up, he cited "the greatest self-inflicted wound in all of economic history", the Euro. Since its introduction, the UK's economy has grown 40%, versus results in the Eurozone ranging from 30% growth in Germany (in whose interests it was designed) through economic decline in Italy to catastrophe in Greece. By allowing Germany to run huge trade surpluses without its currency rising in value, it has disturbed the balance of international trade and inflicted pain on every other EU state. The Euro is one of the main reasons for the "populism" that has given us not just Brexit but Trump, Orban, PiS in Poland etc. The gains of globalisation are now under threat because of a piece of political idiocy from France and Germany.
He urged his audience to push back against the myth that the EU promotes freer trade. It is in fact a protectionist customs union, with over 1000 tariffs; 12 for coffee alone. I have long argued that it is a racist institution because, as he said, the tariffs are structured to reduce competition from the Third World. For example they penalise coffee-producers who try to add value by processing their beans instead of just selling them as good little peasant farmers to the First World. The massive corporate lobbying business in Brussels (of which the pan-European law firm in which I used to be a partner was part) is there to ensure the interests of European corporations (and rich white Europeans like the French and German partners in my old firm with hobby farms to exploit the CAP) are protected, while Asian and African farmers stay dirt poor.
Dr Linda Yueh spoke about her new book The Great Economists: How Their Ideas Can Help us Today. I downloaded a copy as she spoke and will review it when I finish reading it. After lunch the IEA's current media star, Kate Andrews debunked the Gender Pay Gap and told us how delighted she was to walk past the new statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square. Much has been made by militant feminists of the fact that she is the first woman to be honoured in this way, but they are too ignorant to realise that she was a free-marketeer economist and an individualist. She is by far closer to my own economic and political views than any of the men represented there. She would have been contemptuous of their distortion of statistics in a rent-seeking frenzy to keep alive a movement that has served its purpose.
The most difficult part of the day for me was a discussion between Chris Snowdon, Head of Lifestyle Economics at the IEA for whom I have a lot of time and Raj Chande of the Cabinet Office Behavioural Insight Team (aka the Nudge Unit) for whom I have none. Behavioural Psychology is fascinating and useful stuff. I learned a bit about it acting for retailers when I practised law. They use lighting, music, architecture and interior design to play with our minds and encourage us to spend more. In my case, they were never a match for my mother's frugal teachings, but I have smiled when walking around shops to recognise the games they play. I am using it on myself to change my habits for healthier ones and reached my target of losing 40 kg this year yesterday morning. It's all good stuff but both those examples are voluntary transactions. I don't need to go to a supermarket or shopping mall. I didn't (for 60 years) play mind games on myself to control my appetites. It's very different when government – funded by force with our money – uses it on us, its masters. There are now over 150 people in the Nudge Unit and it is exporting its programme of manipulation to the US and Singapore.
Mr Chande talked of the government respecting our liberties, while nudging us to behave "better" (as defined by it) and Chris Snowdon seemed prepared to accept that this was at least better than authoritarian regulation. I beg to differ. Law is the removal of liberty (for good cause one hopes). In our Common Law tradition the legislature is required to justify every new law precisely because it doesn't grant rights, but removes them. The state has become so huge and out of control that the debate each time has become perfunctory and too many laws are made, but at least there is a theoretical possibility of opposing them. There's no such democratic accountability for "nudges". They're tools of policy and wonderfully deniable if they go wrong. They are part of a trend for an over-mighty apparatus to become impatient with democracy and find ways to by-pass it. Over a thousand local electors in my London Borough have submitted protests over a new parking scheme for example, but the Council tried to sneak it through without any discussion at all. Only vigilant citizen journalists using local social media brought it to the attention of that thousand voters and made the bloody Council discuss it. They are clearly peeved at having to do so.
The bouncy, impertinent arrogant Mr Chande reeks of this attitude of contempt by the governors and their rent-seeking hangers-on like him for the people they are meant to serve. He told us that he was "a libertarian until I went into government". Power corrupted him and he's happy about it. I am very much not and for me he can stick his condescension where the sun don't shine.
The most disappointing part of the day was that Dambisa Moyo couldn't make it in person. She spoke to us over a dodgy Skype link from NYC and all credit to her for getting up so early to honour her commitment to speak. After the game-changing radicalism of Dead Aid, I was rather disappointed with just how orthodox her thinking is in other respects. She cited the fake Oxfam statistic of 8 billionaires owning more wealth than half the world's population (debunked later, see below). She expressed concerns over income inequality as a problem in its own right. She spoke of her concerns for the future of democracy because 138 people contributed half the money spent by candidates in the US Presidential Election, without noting that they mostly gave to Clinton and might be repenting the money wasted. She spoke of "populism" and declining turn-outs for elections in the West. In the typical style of the global elite, she seemed to think that was a failing on our part, as electors. We are not reading the right books or listening to the right experts, apparently. I asked her if she couldn't see that, as voters were not being offered real choices, their disillusionment and disengagement might be rational? I said
I have voted religiously all my life but will face a choice at the next election between two parties, both of whom want to steal more of my and my childrens' money and indebt still further my grandchildren yet unborn. Why is it wrong if I reject both?
This was the only question of the day to raise a cheer and a round of applause. She sympathised politely with my concerns but essentially restated her opinion unchanged. I am afraid she is not the ally friends of Liberty might have hoped for.
Tom Standage of The Economist (which has also lurched to the authoritarian left of late, leading me to cancel my subscription of 15+ years) spoke enthusiastically and knowledgeably about self-driving cars (or Autonomous Vehicles - AV's, as they have become known). Moving on from the naive enthusiasm for them expressed at the first Think conference I attended, he has given a lot of thought to their possible social and economic effects. As Galbraith's quote above makes clear, this is a thankless exercise in forecasting. As Tim Harford's talk illustrated such a technology will probably have more effects we don't expect than those we do. He told us that he expects the first driverless zones to be entire city centres like Seattle or entire cities like Singapore. The cars will probably be owned by the cities themselves and therefore integrated into public transport systems. Otherwise robotaxis are likely to continue the trend begun by Uber in taking as many people off buses and trains as they do out of private cars.
He waxed lyrical about the "opportunities" for governments to raise revenue from them. The technology requires them always to know – and signal – exactly where they are, so congestion charges can become far more localised and sophisticated. Surge pricing on the Uber model can control peoples decisions to use them so as to keep traffic flowing smoothly. A "zombie" tax on empty vehicles will stop operators keeping them on the road to avoid parking costs. He went on, chillingly, to outline some of the uses totalitarian governments might make of the technology. Ultimately it will allow government to control who goes where. China is currently engaged in herding a particular ethnic minority into an area which is "effectively an enormous concentration camp", he said and he can visualise a future in which AV cars, buses and trains simply refuse to take them anywhere else. In freer societies, he said it was as likely that AVs would generate "exurbs" (burbs beyond the burbs) by making transport very cheap ($0.70 a mile vs $1.50 for a private car and $2.50 for an Uber) as that they would lead to people living more densely in traffic-free cities. All would depend, as he had the audience repeatedly call out, "on pricing". To be more precise, on the pricing of such externalities through taxation.
In an afternoon session, Dr Vernon Smith – winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics and long associated with the IEA – was interviewed by Professor Philip Booth and fielded questions from the enthusiastic young audience. He was scornful about the very idea of using economics to predict the future and, as you would expect, enthusiastic about the approach that won him his prize; constructing practical experiments to test economic theories. I was very envious of the silver Western-Style bolo tie he wore; a gift from an academic friend when he won his Nobel, which featured the profile of Adam Smith.
The most elevating speech of the day was from Dr Jamie Whyte on "The Economics of Oxfam and Inequality". He thoroughly debunked the Oxfam statistic uncritically quoted by Dambisa Moyo. Yes, 8 billionaires have as much money as 3.5 billion people because those people have nothing. Divide the 8 billionaires' money amongst them and they would get a one-off $118 – hardly world-changing. A more valuable measure, never mentioned by Oxfam and their ilk is that in 1980, 40% of the world's population lived in absolute poverty defined (in today's numbers) as living on less than $2 per day. Only 8% still do. That's arguably the best progress in human history and it is ongoing.
Oxfam's numbers are systematically rigged to produce the most socialism-inducing envy. For example, a graduate of Harvard Law with a debt of $250,000 will feature in that bottom half of the world alleged to be victims of economic injustice, despite possessing a qualification guaranteed to make him rich. He or she is not a member of an impoverished class. He's just at a different stage of his life and will end in the top half or higher. The stats also ignore non-private income and benefits. "If I earn £200 per year and you earn £100, then I am only twice as rich as you if you ignore the value we both receive from the NHS, the state education system etc." Oxfam and other purveyors of fake statistics are in favour of redistribution, but never account for it in their figures.
He argued persuasively that if you look at individual welfare (in the broadest sense) you would be celebrating the achievements of capitalism in raising the living standards of us all. Equality of welfare matters, not equality of income or of wealth. He also gave a name to the phenomenon that led me to quit work at 54 - the diminishing marginal utility of income. I could earn more, but it wouldn't make my life appreciably better, so I stopped. More dramatically (I assure you) if Jeff Bezos lost half his wealth, or if his income halved, tomorrow his life would not be appreciably worse. The money in the hands of billionaires can't buy them more happiness and most of it is deployed in investments to try to make the world a better place for all of us. Do you pity George Soros for his massive income disparity with Jeff Bezos? No you don't because in practice it makes no difference to their welfare as human beings either way. A young questioner suggested that envy about income inequality was natural and that it caused real discomfort. Dr Whyte was too polite to tell him that was a choice. I was too polite to shout out that the problem would go away when his expensive degrees earned him some money.
The conference ended with a closing keynote from Dr Steve Davies of the IEA under the title "Dissecting Corbynomics" but he was in no way partisan. He was equally scathing about Theresa May's weak grasp of economics and said the next election would be (as I expressed it to Dambisa Moyo in my question) a contest between two economic idiocies. That was not particularly uplifting but it did ease me back into my usual world of the Pessimism Olympics.
If you have the chance to go next year, I recommend it. It's a great event, with serious speakers and listening to the young audience talking among themselves during the breaks will kill your pessimism about the future. That's good value for £100.
Having cancelled my longstanding subscription to The Economist, which I used to love but which is now staffed by halfwit conventional thinkers aligned with the Leftist Establishment, I take The Spectator instead. Its Editor, Fraser Nelson, chaired the above event at the Southbank Centre this morning and I turned up because I was invited. I am a real estate man but always focussed on commercial property. Housing was not my thing professionally. In my personal life I take the view that much wrong with Britain can be traced to our weird relationship with it; seeing it as more than shelter to keep the rain off while we are eating, sleeping or watching TV.
It's a key political issue now. The Conservatives fear that if a way can't be found for twice as many young people to become homeowners as are managing it at present a generation of voters will be lost to them. That's probably true. I have heard some seriously stupid suggestions about solving that problem from Tories recently. I was hoping to hear more intelligent ones today*
I did. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liz Truss MP, said some sensible things. She noted that housing in London now costs 12 times average salary. Given the UK's rising population (the only one in Europe) we must "let our cities off the leash" and allow them to expand. More importantly we must densify them. She noted that infrastructure was key to this and claimed that levels of infrastructure spending (as a proportion of GDP, the dubious way politicians always like to state such figures) is at its highest for 40 years. You could have fooled me but I suppose she would know.
She claimed, mystifyingly, that the Government was "generating more land". I assume she meant it is finding ways to encourage more of it (and Britain is only 8% built upon) into development. She said we need to overcome "the blob of vested interests" and "challenge the mentality of the comfortable" who would rather the fields near their homes stayed open while their children or grandchildren lived like students in grotty house shares.
She warmed the cockles of my old heart with talk of "streamlining the Byzantine planning system" and intervening if local authorities failed to implement their local plans to allow their communities to grow. All well and good and it was cheering to hear sensible talk emanating from the Treasury of all places. The problem is that key solutions are not in the hands of Central Government. Planning is a local competence and public opinion expects it to remain so. If a local council denied a planning permission only to be over-ridden by Whitehall, there would be hell to pay. Local electors (at least the kind inclined to make planning objections) are NIMBIES to a man and woman.
The most depressing work in my career was when I was a young lawyer in Cambridge. It's a beautiful city blighted by hordes of other-worldly academics with too much time on their idle hands. Any application for some sensible modernisation to make their medieval museum vaguely resemble a liveable modern town raises dozens of objections from such types. Some of them used to instruct me to lodge them with the Planning Committee. I vividly remember, for example, trying to stymie a slight increase in the size of the Cambridge bus station to accommodate vehicles that couldn't navigate the narrow medieval street without an increased turning circle. I was instructed to tell the planning committee that the tiny strip of land to be taken from "Parker's Piece" was sacrosanct because "WG Grace used to practice his cricket there".
In the recent local elections the Tories on my manor ran on a slogan of "keep Ealing low-rise". If London is to be more densely developed (and it's one of the least dense capital cities in Europe) then more multi-family housing is needed. Paris raises permitted building heights steadily the further one gets from the centre. At six to eight miles from Nelson's Column, Ealing would (if it were in Paris) be full of high rise buildings. The happy folk who would live here if there were a sensible planning policy, however, don't have a vote. The selfish incumbents who want to delude themselves that their pocket-handkerchief gardens make them heirs to the Romantic Poets do have a vote. They use it to ensure their grandchildren bicker over who nicked the milk in their student-style communal slums.
I am a radical on Town & Country planning as on other economic issues. I would abolish it. To me it is offensive that the value of a man's land is stripped from him by laws that deny him the right to put it to its highest and best use without grovelling to local politicians in thrall to his envious neighbours. If you fear the consequences, pray consider Prague. It's one of the most conserved and protected cities in the world. You can't move a brick without conservation types crawling all over it and – very often – bankrupting you by demanding you alter the scheme you spent millions on designing to make it a replica of some older structure, traces of which they have uncovered in their parasitical zeal. Yet almost nothing that is beautiful about that city dates from the era of regulatory prod-nosing. If a Prague building is worth conserving, it was built by free landowners who would have put any passing busy-bodies to the sword. If you want to see a screwed-up city, consider what was done to Birmingham in the 1960s by a massively empowered City Council.
Land is very valuable in cities and the people who own it are inclined to maximise that value. They may have bad taste or poor architects but some reasonable building regulations would be sufficient to ensure that whatever they build in their own interests is at least better than the sort of crap a planning authority would do.
The panel discussion that followed the Secretary of State's speech was depressing. Clive Betts MP, "token Bolshevik" and chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee in the Commons predictably denied that planning was in any way a problem. In fact he wanted more prodnosing because technical standards in the UK construction industry are low (sadly, true) and would be improved by pubic servants regulating and supervising them (sadly as false as Satan's smile).
The people on the panel from the productive sector were steeped enough in the way British planning is run to know that no radical solutions are on offer. They cringed to their public sector masters and blathered about new technologies and creativity and "careful thought". They didn't seem optimistic about technology however, For example, modular systems speed the process of housebuilding in other countries and reduce the cost but on the narrow, winding streets of Britain's cities (especially London) to deliver a house in three truckloads would involve taking down lamp-posts and other street furniture along the route. Because of traffic congestion such deliveries would even then only be permitted in the wee small hours when, of course, the local NIMBIES would raise hell at their sleep being disturbed (and to hell with their grandchildren in bedsits).
Successive governments' consistent failure to maintain and improve infrastructure to meet the needs of a growing population has created a bloody mess. It would take a generation to fix if we began now in earnest. We haven't and we won't. Hence the nervous looks as an enslummed millennial (who let him in?) asked "what can be done now to solve our problems?" The truthful answer (that nobody gave) was that what is needed to solve today's problems should have been done during the last twenty years. And wasn't.
Someone from the Adam Smith Institute suggested the "quick fix" of building on parts of the Green Belt around London based on such criteria as proximity to existing transport links. That would certainly help. The Green Belt was established in a different era for a smaller city and it's time for it to go. The city that has the most parks of any in the world is not going to choke if it expands onto that sacred turf. London is not a city in a bottle. It's surrounded by the lush, green Home Counties. The trouble with the idea (and it might have to be executed for lack of a better one) is that it involves London sprawling, rather than densifying when people increasingly want (and environmental factors suggest that they are right) to live in the cities and not outside them.
Another practical fix is to convert retail to housing. Shopping centres are emptying because of the ever growing online market. The representative of the Federation of Master Builders on the panel reported that the local authorities he works with think their high street shopping needs typically to be reduced "by half" to reflect this trend. But local busybodies will get sentimental about shopping centres they never use, just as they demanded that pubs be kept open whose doors they never darkened. Such people have votes that count disproportionately because of the low turnouts in local elections.
Market forces could sort all this more quickly than you imagine. I watched markets at work in in the post-communist capitals of the former Warsaw Pact, where things were screwed up by decades of Communism on a scale that Londoners could never imagine. My clients fixed things at an incredible pace because they could. The communist bureaucrats were banished to their dachas and there had been no time for the new democracies to build their payrolls. I remember telling an incredulous New York banker worried about where the "banking district" of the new Warsaw would be that "It will be wherever you put your building sunshine". He put one on the best site he could find and, sure enough, his competitors clustered around him.
But real estate is not a free market business in Britain or anywhere else with planning laws. Land worth X without a permission and worth 20 X with is a commodity whose true value is mostly in the public domain. Only investment in infrastructure and courageous deregulation can solve this problem in the medium to long term. Only the shattering of such shibboleths as the Green Belt can do some good in the short term. The current government lacks the political chutzpah, and I can't even blame it. Such are the demographics of its core voters that it would have to be more un-Tory than is survivable.
Which leaves Labour to "solve" it in catastrophic ways. Buckle up for a bumpy ride. And take your poor grandchildren out to a nice dinner from time to time to cheer them up in the squalor you've confined them to.
*Regular readers will have noted that, despite my advanced age, I am not so much a cynic as a very disappointed optimist!