Monday, 23 April 2012

In defence of dragon slayers

Today our Anglo-Saxon protestant nation celebrates the accomplishments of a Middle-Eastern Catholic in slaying a monster from Germanic folklore.

Personally I‘m all for it, especially the recent campaign to get us another bank holiday. We have the fewest in Europe and any excuse is a good one. This subject however gets tied up endlessly with a certain brand of nationalism.

While most of the country has a sort of absent-minded affinity (much like how we feel about Christianity in general) there is the annual verbal punch-up between those saying they’re being denied their cultural heritage and those who say the whole thing is a dodgy medieval relic.  Self-righteousness abounds on all sides. The really interesting questions about St George usually get missed. Why him, why here, why now?

Winners don’t need to tell people they’re winners. The quirks of the English class system mean that conspicuous displays of advantage or prowess are frowned upon. This is a subset of the ultimate sin of, ‘trying too hard’.

The best English heroes are the gallant losers; Robert Scott, Tim Henman, Frank Spencer. There is a reason our history starts with our defeat by William the Bastard of Normandy, why our national spirit is named after a full scale retreat from the beaches of Dunkirk, why ever since Charlie Brooker got his happy ending we’ve gone right off him.

The singular greatness of Englishness did not rely upon individual achievements, it just was. In many ways not celebrating St George’s Day was the perfect expression of English superiority. We know we’re better than you, why would we need a parade?

The real issue over Englishness is about this status. It’s over a century since Cecil Rhodes said: ‘To be born an Englishman is to win first prize in the lottery of life.’

Psychologically we still haven’t gotten past that, even as the triumph of the United States, the collapse of the Empire and the recent rise of the BRICs demonstrated that, at least financially, this might not be true.

Taking solace in our global language, place at the top table at the UN and key role in NATO, that easy assumption of superiority could continue. The fact that the French had fallen simultaneously made it even easier to keep up the pretence.

Eventually however, this imagined sense of superiority, this easy self-assurance, has started to fall away. As we travel further, meet more people and access ever more information, the doubts creep in.
The intellectual retreat from defining what it means to be English did not allow a new narrative to flourish, it just left us surrounded by the Victoriana that no longer made sense. Yet if we drop it, what else is there? Where do we find our national identity? The world offers two answers: revolution and victimhood.

Revolution is hard, messy, and requires a lot of effort. It’s also pot-luck. For every stumble to liberty and justice you have a hundred military juntas.

On the other hand anyone can be a victim. Victimhood is redemptive, it excuses your failings and protects you from future criticism. The American obsession with Irish identity, out of all scale with the actual genetic contribution to the nation’s make-up, is in part because it gives white Americans psychological access to the Famine. No one wants to be classed as the oppressor.

The historical and rhetorical gymnastics of the SNP are also part of this re-positioning. When MSP Sandra White called the Union flag a ‘butcher’s apron’ one felt tempted to point out the contribution of the Royal Highlanders to that apron.

I don’t think any living Briton is responsible for the terrible events of nineteenth century imperialism, but the idea that Scotland counts among its victims rather than its perpetrators is Braveheart-level mythology. The point however, is that myths have power.

So what do you do when reality doesn’t live up to Rhodes? What do you do when thirty years of stagnating wages, high unemployment and social exclusion mean that you, despite being a white Englishman, are not doing so well? And, crucially, when people in power tell you it’s all your own fault because we live in a meritocracy dontchya know?

People know when the game is rigged, even when they can’t say exactly how. The rise of aggressively nationalist groups always stems from the failure of social democrats to frame the intellectual debate properly.

Calling someone a bigot does not mean that you don’t have to deal with the problems that created that mindset, any more than saying, ‘they hate us for our freedom’ does. When there is no framework to express your identity as part of a positive social movement it is inevitable that other symbols of unity will come to the fore, whether they be faith or flag.

You can tell people their beliefs are stupid and antiquated, that their symbols are meaningless, or you can ask people to come with you. For those of us on the Left have a long road ahead, and a dragon-slayer or two may come in handy.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Love and Marriage

As the great man said, you can’t have one without the other. That’s the issue at the heart of the government’s reforms, and why calls for ‘traditional’ marriage are confused.

Traditionally marriage has little to do with romantic love, and only a passing dalliance with monogamy, at least as far as men are concerned. Marriage has historically been about blood and property, ensuring a father knows his children are his own and the inherited rights, privileges and titles he possessed were passed to the correct progeny. Indeed, this distinction is what led to the creation of the Anglican Church itself. Henry VIII could (and did) have as many bastard sons as he liked. No-one thought that was grounds for divorce, nor did they believe those children counted as a legitimate heir. This does not mean of course that no-one before the twentieth century loved their spouse. After all, social conventions to preserve property and noble blood only matter if you have either, and prior to The Marriage Act 1753 few cared what the poor did. But romance was not the point.

Slowly, and for a panoply of reasons, marriage has changed from a chattel contract to a union of equals in romantic love. Historians argue about the causes, but an interesting strain of thought is that it arises in that same post-enlightenment middle class that gives us the Protestant work ethic. Life is not a drudgery to be endured for the sins of Adam, but a gift to be celebrated. This was a lengthy process, trundling through the growth in the status of women, the decline of religiosity, contraception, and changes to divorce law. It was only in 1994 that the Law Lords put the matter of ‘conjugal rights’ to bed, saying a spouse could refuse their partner sex on demand. To stress this point, we now (rightly) send people to prison for an action which, until 18 years ago, marriage gave them every right to do. Straight people have repeatedly changed the definition of marriage as society itself has changed.

The understanding of family in which marriage plays a part has similarly shifted. The idea of the nuclear family itself is a nonsense, largely imported from the United States. It represents a curious moment in time when high wages and a still high birth-rate combined to allow some couples to have mum stay at home. Simultaneously, the spread of the motorcar allowed people to live far away from their places of work and previous small communities. Social security, in all its forms, alleviated the necessity for elderly parents or hard-up siblings to live under the same roof as their working relations. To reduce the definition of the family unit to two married parents and two kids, cut off from all else, is to do it a great disservice. It is hardly coincidental that the first generation in human history for whom this was common is the generation obsessed with trawling census records to find their ancestors.

Hence, defenders of ‘traditional’ marriage are defending a very recent institution on the basis that it is the foundation block for a very specific post-welfare state kind of family. The fact that many of these people simultaneously are the ones for cutting the very economic supports which allowed this (full employment, child benefit, state housing) makes the contradictions even more apparent. The biggest contradiction however lies with why these people are not campaigning for the abolition of divorce. After all, Mark 10:9, "What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” Whatever damage can be to the institution of marriage, both sacred and secular, is surely done via the half of straight married couples who break their solemn contract. And just as religious institutions are under no obligation to recognise this legal division, they will be under no obligation to recognise the legal contract between two men or two women. However it is surely an affront to religious liberty to say that the Quakers, who have the legal right to perform marriages and make no distinction between opposite or same-sex unions, will be prevented by law from having same-sex weddings in their meeting houses. Some Christian sects believe the entire world, as God’s creation, to be a place of worship. Does that make the local registry office one? You know a law is bad when its enforcement requires a theological debate.

We as a society bestow a contract. You can pick one other person in all the world to have it with. It is a symbol that this is the person you have chosen , because of romantic love, to spend the rest of your life with, and that they have taken the same decision. This isn’t about sex, in either sense. It is about all of us recognising that love. Because we are social creatures and recognition is important to us. Because we are a society of laws and legal status matters. Because finding that other person and making it work is hard enough without us putting other obstacles in people’s way. That’s a sentiment you can’t disparage.

This article was originally posted on the excellent

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Taxes, and the impoverishment of the Left

Today George Osborne has expressed his incredulity that some of the richest people in our society pay the least tax. This once again brings to the fore the idea of avoidance and evasion, a difference which even the excellent Richard Murphy was not entirely clear about on the Moral Maze last month.

Let’s get a few of the more dogmatic points out of the way first. Taxation is not theft, it is a charge levied for services rendered. Some of these services are tangible, like schools, hospitals and police. Some are more abstract, like the benefit from living in a peaceful and relatively harmonious society. While the poorest might well be more dependent upon the more obvious state services, interestingly the richer you are the more you benefit from the abstract ideas. After all, property rights give the greatest benefit to those with the most property. Being able to run your business without having to bribe petty officials, sending your kids to school without armed bodyguards, knowing that contracts will be honoured, all these benefit the businessman as much as the benefit claimant. Further, there is no Iron Curtain around Britain. The government has only just started keeping a register of those emigrating. If you no longer wish to avail yourself of these services, you can leave. If you stay, you’ve agreed to the social contract, and dodging it is free-riding.

Which brings us to the age old question, what counts as dodging? We’ve all spent the last few weeks bombarded with adverts not to miss the ‘ISA deadline’ of May 5th, a move whose sole objective is to avoid tax on savings. Anyone with a spare £5,340 to hand can have a bit of extra help courtesy of the exchequer (as someone operating in a permanent overdraft I don’t have to deal with such annoyances). From tax relief on pensions, to capital gains to running your money through Guernsey there are a plethora of ways to lower what you pay to HMRC. And they are perfectly legitimate. Indeed, the problem isn’t that this isn’t done too much, it’s that it’s not done enough.

Before they come to take me away for counter-revolutionary activity let me explain. Few ordinary people are aware of the allowances, benefits and reliefs they are entitled to by law. Indeed, £16 billion goes unclaimed each year just in means tested benefits. By comparison benefit fraud is estimated at less than £1 billion per year. Most of the advantages of our complicated tax code are taken by those with the time and financial acumen to find them or, more often, the money to pay someone else to find them. Indeed, the government’s accounts seem predicated on the notion that most of us will not take full advantage of the amount we are entitled to. Working some of the longest hours in Europe, most of us lack the time to scour DirectGov and fill in the forms for the chance of a couple of extra quid. This mixture of ignorance and inertia, which the government is entirely complicit in, is effectively providing a subsidy to the rich and financially literate, who know how to game the system. Notice how those adverts reminding you to claim your tax credits have disappeared? Thank you Mr Maude. Legal tax avoidance is estimated to cost the UK economy over £25 billion a year. The additional cost of thousands of clever and talented people spending their efforts on elaborate Easter-egg hunts as opposed to making things remain uncalculated. The scandal isn’t that clever people dodge, it is that the law allows them to do so.

The usual response has been an appeal to morality, the ‘spirit’ of the law. “We have a lower capital gains rate to encourage investment, please don’t funnel your income through your company and pay it as a dividend,” or, “We don’t want to bankrupt family farms but please don’t graze a few sheep in your garden to dodge inheritance tax.” This is a total abdication of responsibility. After all, the whole reason we have taxation in the first place is because people by and large don’t cough up if they don’t have to. By making payments voluntary, you are in effect taxing duty. Those who follow the spirit of the law will pay more than those that follow the letter. The good will pay more than the bad. That would appear to be a flaw in the system. As I’ve said before, charity is bunkum because it allows bad people to get the benefits of society without the costs.

If everyone claimed everything they were entitled to budgetary pressure would compel the government to change this situation. Transparency is good, as is simplicity. If reliefs, grants and exemptions are necessary let them be in the spotlight, not buried where only the potholers of KPMG can find them. Long term moves towards simplification of the tax code are welcome. It is the same argument for energy tariffs, mortgages and all the other expenses and financial instruments that dominate our wallets while boggling our minds. In the meantime, there are a couple of things which could be done.

First, ensure everyone you know, particularly those in vulnerable positions, claim what they’re entitled to. It’s their money, they earnt it. Older people in particular in my experience often forgo assistance because they view it as charity, or too intimidating to claim. Fill in the forms for them, Big Society and all that. The big Trade Unions already do this for their members. This will force the government to sharpen the dividing line between avoision and evasion.

Second, the point is often made that no matter how clever the government and HMRC are, the big consultancies and tax law firms find ways around them. The current game is rigged, we need to change the odds. The answer is not to fight the vast financial and legal industry of Britain, but to get it to fight itself. I would propose that any person or company which submitted evidence leading to a successful prosecution for tax evasion be entitled to a percentage of the capital recovered. The bigger the scheme, the bigger the incentive will be for someone to just turn you in. When I mentioned my idea to a friend at Price Waterhouse Coopers she replied, “The partners would turn over the accounts and retire tomorrow”. Will Barclays trust the Deloitte junior exec on 30k to read through a murky £100 million scheme knowing he can send the files to HMRC and pocket a fortune?

It is not hypocritical for a socialist to use the tools of a capitalist society. Similarly, the sack-cloth and ashes routine is unnecessary. Erstwhile left-wingers are not ideologically compelled to be ‘better’ people. Robert Tressell answered this point over a century ago, pointing out it was not that employers, companies or wealthy individuals were bad, but that the system encouraged, and often obligated, them to do bad things. The point is to change the system. The notion that it is an individual’s duty to be a light in the darkness, to follow a fixed code of absolute goodness regardless of the social setting does not come from the Left, it comes from the carpenter whose death just gave you a long weekend. But even he didn’t tell you to give more to Caesar than required.