Tuesday, 28 December 2010

A lie told often enough...

Ed Miliband: despite appearances, this man is no stranger to manipulation
One of the first things you learn in journalism is that there is no such thing as truth. In any given situation you've only really got peoples' opinions to go on and these more often than not conflict with each other.

That is, of course, a mantra to make your job easier but you could easily read it literally. After all, philosophers have long contended that everything we experience is governed entirely by the way our senses are interpreted in the brain - and that these can be easily manipulated.

It is therefore entirely possible that an isolated brain in a jar could be fed electrical impulses identical to those of touch, motion, taste and sight and experience them as though it were in a body. Theoretically, this could be happening to you right now but you have to ask yourself, does that make it real?

This isn't an existentialist blog and it's not my place to even attempt to answer such a loaded question but I'm becoming more and more convinced this principle is the basis of much modern political discourse.

You could argue that, with the amount of time we spend watching TV, playing video games and surfing the net, reality is something we are becoming increasingly detached from. I'd say the Internet is the principal culprit here but I've read on more than one occasion soap actors telling journalists they've been berated by members of the public for something their screen character has done - as though they were one and the same person.

Politicians, I am sure, are acutely aware of this and waste no opportunity in exploiting it. Ed Milliband is the latest in a long line to do so with his banning of the word 'Coalition' among his shadow cabinet colleagues. His logic is that if they say 'Tory-led Government' often enough, it will become the truth, for the simple reason that people will believe it, regardless of its accuracy.

It's up to you to make up your own mind, of course, but the evidence suggesting the Coalition is an equal, or at the very least, proportionate partnership is compelling. And it is worth pointing out the Liberal Democrats already have a disproportionately high number of Cabinet members.

Tim Montgomerie compiled his own comprehensive stock-take of Tory concessions to the Liberals (and vice versa) and the Telegraph tapes, if nothing else, do show Liberal MPs at least believe they have a great deal of leverage (see here and here). And you could very well go on to say, as many Tories have, that Vince Cable's retention as Business Secretary is proof of this co-dependency.

Of course, politicians deploying proof by assertion is nothing new. It was used with frightening success in the United States by the Bush administration in linking Saddam Hussein to Osama bin Laden - a partnership so ludicrous as to be about as likely as Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sharing a bath.

And so it will continue. Labour have already shown themselves to be completely devoid of any alternative to the Coalition's policies, despite shallow bleating to the contrary, so its unsurprising they should attempt to bend reality into something slightly more in their favour.

I feel Daniel Hannan, as a good Whig, would say the British people are far too smart to see through such nonsense but I am a little more sceptical. This is, after all, a nation which swallowed hook, line and sinker similar garbage along the lines of 'no return to boom and bust,' 'sharing the proceeds of growth' and the idea that throwing vast quantities of money at public services constitutes 'investment.'

Naturally I hope I'm mistaken in my pessimism. If I am, expect voters to reward Milliband with a resounding Tory victory in 2015.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Who do your children belong to?

Children: do they belong to you or the State?
Speaking as an Ulster Unionist MP in 1975, J. Enoch Powell said, "until the Conservative party has worked its passage a very long way it will not be rejoining me." I have to say, I'm beginning to understand how he felt.

Just as I am beginning to sympathise with those people I previously wrote off as nutters for saying British politics essentially involves the transfer of power from one social democratic party to another.

You see, at the age of 25, I have never conscientiously lived through a Conservative government, nor experienced, as so many have done before me, a party with my support so utterly turn their backs on the ethos with which they won it.

In a way I feel sorry for them in the cabinet. Scarcely six months in power and already they have succumbed to the lobbyists and the chatterers. Or was that the plan all along? Looking back, it seems as though the election campaign was based on one overriding assumption. That the quest for power so often constitutes a defeated resignation to what is perceived as inevitable. Reduced to a single phrase, 'better us than them.'

So what am I getting at here? Well, I forgave over Europe - it seemed perfectly reasonable to me to put off any confrontation while the deficit was a priority and europhiles lurked in the cabinet chamber. I wrote off the absurdity of keeping the 50p tax band a little longer as another vote-winner on a subject with which the public has previous little knowledge. I even overlooked Theresa May's 'Harman Lite' attitude to equality due to what I am now convinced is a curse on the Home Office.

But I nearly jumped out of the bath on when I read about Frank Field's child poverty report, which The Times claims has the support of the Prime Minister. It recommends children should have compulsory tests in 'cognitive, physical and emotional behaviour' and that parents themselves should be tested on how much time they spend reading to their child, teaching them the alphabet and helping them to make friends.

Most galling of all, it recommends mothers be assessed on their mental health and whether they 'bond well with their children.'

Now, he may be a maverick, but Frank is a still a Labour man so this statist, intrusive, blatantly fascist document does not in itself surprise me. What shocks and appalls me is that it has the backing of a supposedly Conservative prime minister.

I'm reminded of a certain Conservative poster from 1929, though it clearly hasn't rung any bells with David Cameron. It states: 'Socialism would mean inspectors all round. If you want to call your soul your own, vote Conservative.'

Chilling words, alarmist you might say, but were they not prophetic? Are we not, in this insane obsession with equality, condemning ourselves to a future of slavery, where all aspects of life are monitored and recorded in an effort to achieve the impossible?

There is a reason Sir John James Cowperthwaite, financial secretary of Hong Kong from 1961-71, steadfastly refused to record statistics in the colony. Statistics are fuel for egalitarians; egalitarianism demands state control and state control is only a whisker from tyranny.

The truth is, equality is an absolute. You cannot have more or less equality - people are either equal or they are not. In this country we pioneered the idea that all men, regardless of their social standing, were to be considered equal before the law. That is an absolute and one that is it be ardently admired. We pushed for equality of opportunity and there is now not a position in the land a British child cannot achieve - even, as Kate Middleton is finding, Queen of England.

The trouble is, this isn't enough for some people. For them, the only equality worth pursuing is equality of outcome and this feverish obsession has spread to all parties of government. They justify the expansion of the state into peoples' daily lives as part of their crusade to reduce the gap between rich and poor - to make them 'more equal.' But we already know this to be impossible, making absolute equality the only logical goal.

But history has very capably demonstrated that the only way to achieve this is to reduce all citizens (save a pampered elite) to slaves of the state. It was pushed to its horrifying extreme in Cambodia during the 1970s and it can still be seen, to a lesser extent, in North Korea today.

I had the displeasure at college of having an openly and unrepentantly Stalinist sociology teacher. We had a number of arguments and the hatred she was teaching pushed me to change classes but what absolutely appalled me was her assertion that parents do a terrible job of raising their children and that all responsibility should rest with the state.

So, when you're taking that parenting exam a few years from now, ask yourself this: who do your children belong to? You? Or the state? Because if these proposals become law, it may no longer be up to you.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Calm down, dear

Student protesters: had they read the Bill, they might not have been so angry
How would you like to start your working life with up to £40k of debt? This is a question NUS President Aaron Porter asked young people last month on the eve of the first wave of student protests.

It came as Lord Browne recommended the Government allow universities to charge up to £9,000 a year for tuition fees - a doubling of the current maximum that many will take up due to the massive cuts in their budgets.

The answer any sensible person would give is, of course, 'no thank you' but you could say that about anything related to money - nobody wants to stump up if they don't have to, it's human nature.

But let's take a good look at what exactly has sparked all the rage, hatred and violence spilling out onto our streets because, I have to say, I have as yet to hear a credible case against Lord Browne's proposals.

That Britain is in £4.3 trillion of debt is an inescapable fact. That this situation is becoming unsustainable and desperate is another. That cuts in public spending must be made to alleviate this is the most important.

Higher education is expensive. If you want to give people a top-class education you need money for good lecturers, high-tech facilities, research programmes and so on.

The state can no longer afford to contribute the lion's share, meaning the people who actually use the service have to stump up.

Here are some more facts - the money can be lent to you, it has no interest added and you only start paying it back in minuscule proportions once you can afford to do so.

Much more favourable terms than if you want to buy a house, for example, where you will borrowing well over £100,000 at often rather high and variable interest rates. Something most people manage to do without getting upset and smashing up police vans.

Furthermore, banks aren't particularly sympathetic to your ability to pay back a loan. A student loan, on the other hand, is paid back in direct relation to income. If you earn under £21,000 and university clearly hasn't worked for you, chances are you'll never pay back a penny.

If you do earn over £21,000 then the chances are you'll barely notice the repayment coming out of your account (at 9% of your income) and there isn't even any interest added until you earn £41,000 at which point you are - well done! - very rich indeed and really shouldn't mind.

Now, the NUS website isn't particularly useful at explaining why this is a bad thing. It seems to treat opposition as self-evident and thereby not worthy of debate or mention.

But perhaps the most frequent, and bizarre, argument is that higher fees will somehow 'put poor students off' university altogether.

Where is the logic in this? For starters, the poorest students currently have their fees paid by their local education authority, which will continue under the new proposals. Secondly, regarding debt, they would only start paying it off once they weren't poor anymore, so what is the issue?

There also appear to be some unusual moral objections.

Sally Hunt, the seemingly confused general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), for example, told the Guardian: "The extra fees being forced on students and their families is money universities are being denied by government. It's a simple case of robbing the public to plug a government funding gap."

Eh? Where does she think the money came from in the first place? The printing press? Magic? Taxation. A good a euphemism as any for robbing the public in my book.

This is, in fact, fairer because people who do not choose to go to university are no longer paying for those who do.

It is clear that the thrust of the protests, particularly the violent ones, are coming from ideologically motivated groups and individuals exploiting both ignorance over the proposals and the generally rebellious nature of youth.

It is worth asking the question, too, of why tuition fees were introduced in the first place - so more young people could go to university. A vote-winner, sure. But are we really better off for it?