From that spiteful 50p tax to Harriet’s mad sex war, Labour is blasting Britain back to the dark ages

A particularly gloomy take on current events this morning from Melanie Phillips:

“For with the economy in far worse shape than even the most pessimistic among us had imagined, we appear to have entered a time machine which is blasting us back to the dark ages of state control and economic paralysis.”

There are instantly problems with this comparison – to take the obvious, it’s only really the banking sector the state has started moving into, and you’d be hard pushed to say that it ‘controlled’ banks when it can’t even get those it owns to lend money to small businesses. The idea of the machine ‘blasting us’ towards a point where it’s not just the banks the state controls is scare-mongering – the state has no money to take over anything particularly impressive, we still remember things not working so well the last time it tried, the government is currently trying to offload the state-owned postal service suggesting little appetite for further state expansion and the likely candidates to form the next government are opposed to any such expansion. It also misses the way we got into this mess in the first place – through historically lax state control leading to a necessary take-over of the banking sector. Although there is some comfort to be gained from seeing current events through the prism of history, we shouldn’t let superficial similarities scare us into believing the two are the same – this focuses our fears on the wrong things, meaning we miss the real issues while paranoidly waiting for unrealistic evils to befall us. For example,

“The 50p tax rate has left the out-manoeuvred Blairites aghast for the very reasons that the fossilised Left is triumphant. By singling out the wealthy as scapegoats for the failure of government policy, it implicitly classifies as the enemies of society people whose efforts are essential to its prosperity.”

There are a few things to note about this. Firstly, the Mail was, not so long ago, leading a witch-hunt against the well paid (eg.), which arguably does more to mark out the well-off as enemies of society. More crucial though, the duties on fuel, cigarettes and alcohol all went up in the budget – these all disproportionately affect those on low incomes, making them at least equal targets of the Chancellor’s disapprobation.¹

“It punishes them for the crime of achievement and acts as a powerful disincentive to others to seek success or advancement, thus ensuring the stagnation of the country. It is a throwback to a primitive era of class prejudice and economic illiteracy. It is the dogma of political and economic cavemen.”

This is debatable – one could easily argue that they are being rewarded for high achievement by being offered the opportunity to contribute mote to society, adding additional incentive to succeed. On this argument, the problem here is not the tax, but the ideology pushed by the mainstream media that defines success in terms of materialistic self-aggrandisement. Possibly more compellingly, a 50% rate of tax (rising to 60% with various alterations to personal benefits announced at the same time) on £150,000 leaves the earner with 50p in the pound for every pound over £150,000. Although this is 10p less than they used to get, they still have 40p’s worth of further reasons to strive.² Unlike a salary ceiling, tax brackets do continue to offer incentives to earn, they merely make it slightly more difficult to do so.

“It is also, as the rest of us can clearly see, a fruitless act of cynical spite. Far from increasing tax revenues, it may even mean less money comes into the Exchequer as people resort to various tactics to offset their losses.”

It’s worth considering, at this point, the raft of steps the Chancellor announced in the budget to make it harder to avoid paying tax. More than this, however, is the general point that the Chancellor has to do something to increase the money coming in as the economy tanks. He’s not going to be coining it from corporation tax on the banks any more, what revenues came in from the employment of low earners will be eroded by rising unemployment, a new source must be found. So up go cigarettes and alcohol, increasing incentives for people to source them on the black market to offset their losses. It’s not an option everyone will take, as the costs of such evasion will, for some at least, outweigh the financial benefits – for the increase to result in lower tax-take the number of people evading, and so dropping out, would need to out-weigh the increase secured from those not avoiding. It’s a calculated risk, but to suggest that it’s a risk not taking purely because it is a risk is to say that no tax increase should ever be made as any tax increase will carry the risk of prompting evasion.

“With this huge and increasing burden of higher taxes, red tape and ruinous regulation, yet more entrepreneurs are going to pack up and leave Britain altogether for more hospitable climes.”

There are a few things to consider about concerns of a brain drain. One relates to the Mail‘s equivocal relationship with high-earners – by their lights, it is not just the brains that will be drained, the increase in tax-rate will rebate a certain amount from the public sector and the much demonised banking sector and possibly drive some of the ‘fat-cats’ away, presumably opening the way for thinner cats or people who aren’t cats at all. This is to say nothing about the sense or justice of the measure, but only to note that, from the newspaper’s point of view, this will do much to resolve some of its recent concerns. More pressingly, the evidence of brain drain in countries with high tax rates is equivocal – looking at research into Canada, for example, while there is definite evidence of people moving to the lower-tax regime of the USA to earn more, the numbers are low and appear to be influenced by more than just taxes. This makes intuitive sense – brains need somewhere to drain to (at bare minimum, a job market where they can gain more after tax for the same amount of job which at the same time offers a comparable or better quality of life, difficult to find in the face of a worldwide recession), and to be sufficiently mercenary to be willing to drop their current home and lifestyle to do so. Undoubtedly, some will, but the extent of this is unlikely to be overwhelming.

So the 50p rate of tax is not the obviously bad idea Melanie presents. Indeed, she herself seems confused on the import of it all:

“Indeed, since it was Tory Chancellor Nigel Lawson’s 1988 Budget that reduced the top rate of tax from 60 per cent to 40 per cent, last week’s travesty can be seen as not just burying Blairism, but reverting to the era before Mrs Thatcher came along to try to arrest Britain’s apparently irreversible decline.”

If we’re trying to conclude that Labour are reverting to type using Lawson’s budget, we must also bear in mind from the same that Thatcher was more than happy for the majority of her time in power with a taxation of the rich higher than that of the current Labour government, that this high rate coincided with the arresting of our ‘apparently irreversible decline‘ and that we’re now actually reverting to the dark days before the halcyon days of the Major government (which started in 1990). As such, we should be concluding that this is a bold return to Thatcherite tax policy, and not statism at all. In her attention to the superficial similarities, in this case that Thatcher got rid of a high tax rate, she misses the obvious differences in our situations, such as the fact that the rate of tax wasn’t Labour’s alone and it wasn’t the only thing Thatcher undid.

Nothing is ever as simple as Melanie makes this. After 12 years of Labour, we need a lot more than a 5% increase on the top-rate of income tax to herald a return to ‘the dark ages of state control and economic paralysis‘. The choice isn’t between the dark forces of socialism making us all poor and the bright Reaganomics of the future where the rich get rich and trickle it down. It’s not between a Thatcherite tax regime and a mass exodus of the long-suffering rich. At the moment, the choice is between definite lower tax revenues or possibly slightly less-lower tax revenues. It’s a gloomy choice to have to make, but not as gloomy as a time machine that only took us to the 70s would be.

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¹ The Guardian claims that “Early indications suggested the poor would still pay proportionately more than the rich because of a rise in fuel duty.” but don’t provide anything to back the statement up.

² This section is corrected as of 29th April, thanks to Ben (see comments below). The original, incorrect text, read: “with £75,000 after tax (£60,000) – this is still a fairly impressive reason to try and earn £150,000. Taking this further, the maths of the tax-bracket system also means that what disincentive there is only kicks in on a relatively small range of salaries around the £150,000 boundary – the previous 40% rate on a salary of £149,999 meant you took home £90,000; you would need to earn £30,000 more to take home the same amount at a 50% rate. This means that you have no incentive, at £149,999, to earn anything less than £30,001 more, but it would still pay you, increasingly handsomely, to aim at a job worth £180,001 or more.” As Ben kindly and correctly points out, this reading is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the tax system. Ben is too kind to call me an idiot, but he could very fairly have done so.

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We CAN turn back the clock and make our schools places of excellence. Here’s how…

An extraordinarily wrong-headed column on education today from ‘Peter’ Hitchens:

“All the solutions to all our problems are obvious but shocking.”

Which is reassuring, as I had previously thought that the complexities of life from which our problems arise would lead to equally complex solutions. I for one am quite glad that our fixes will be quick, and can only hope that the solutions ‘Peter’ suggests will also be effortless and painless with regard to me.

“Teachers need to be given back the power to use corporal punishment. We should leave the European Convention on Human Rights and other treaties which prevent the operation of commonsense British laws.”

One of the things which is interesting about the argument for corporal punishment in schools is that it’s never made in other areas – for example, if we take that most disciplined of institutions, the British Army, no one suggests that it needs to add slapping its recruits around a bit to its roster of punishments. Even in terms of convicted criminals, the debate tends to revolve more around making prisoner’s lives more difficult through enforced labour and harsher imprisonment conditions than it does around physical violence¹. There seems to be something special about schools and children that renders violence a useful solution to their discipline problems. Were this the case, it would be fascinating, as it would overturn the large body of psychological research that finds that positive punishments are less effective than either positive or negative reinforcement. ‘Peter’ seems to be unaware that research in this area (eg.) in fact suggests that this is not the case, and that corporal punishment is not helpful in putting children on the straight and narrow. We should be careful about enacting commonsense measures which the evidence suggests are ineffecatious.

“The school-leaving age should be reduced to 15. Secondary schools should be divided between the vocational and the academic, with selection on merit.”

This falls short of ‘Peter’s previous calls for a re-introduction of the grammar school system, but suffers from the same problem – its ahistoricity. If we assumed that everyone were the same and started from the same point, the segregation of children’s futures at 11 might not be so objectionable. However, in the world as we live it we have children who are naturally advantaged by supportive parents, nurturing home environments and access to stimulation and a culture of intellectualism at home, while we also have children without such advantages and with positive disadvantages such as family histories of academic non-achievement. To expect schools by 11 to have ironed out these advantages to such a degree that stupid rich children get the vocational education that they ‘merit’ while their intelligent poor counterparts are groomed for the life of intellectual activity that they ‘merit’ seems a bit fanciful. However, should schools not be able to do this we are left with a system which confirms educational and class divides, making them generational. The taxes of the underclass will go to confirming their status in the underclass, which is not so much a restoration of “order in our State” as a further corruption of it.

“The law permitting ‘no-win, no-fee’ lawsuits should be repealed. So should the Children Act 1989 and the other social workers’ charters which have robbed sensible adults of authority for two decades.”

Here I believe ‘Peter’ is referring to The Courts and Legal Services Act (1990) which opened the way for conditional fee agreements. The particularly interesting thing about these is that in the first few years since 2000 when Legal Aid was abolished for personal injury claims the number of people claiming compensation for personal injury fell suggesting that, rather than making it being easy to seek compensation, things are actually harder. It’s also worth remembering that ‘compensation culture’ isn’t about whingers getting money they shouldn’t, but about the realisation of a legal and social right which, in many cases, will largely go towards the costs of incurring an injury. Schools owe a duty of care to their pupils, and this will remain the case if it is harder for pupils to seek compensation for injuries incurred while at school. Making it harder merely introduces injustice into the system while simultaneously removing the incentive for schools to ensure that appropriate standards of care are met. Quite how abolishing the Children Act (1989) – with its seemingly sensible provisions insisting children are educated and protected from ill-treatment or neglect and that local authorities seek to reduce the need for interventions and, where possible, enable the family home to be maintained – will help the education system is unclear. This is somewhat weak – if ‘Peter’ is really proposing genuine solutions, he should at least explain how these solutions will resolve genuine problems, rather than just listing things he dislikes.

“Then we should embark on a Restoration Of The Married Family Act, which would end the many-headed attack on stable married families and restore the lost position of fathers in the home, one of the major causes of bad behaviour by boys.

Divorce should be difficult. Every social institution, every law, tax-break and benefit, should discriminate clearly and unapologetically in favour of those parents committed to each other by the marriage bond.”

Given the obvious benefits which already flow from being in a stable relationship if you have children, not to mention the unpleasantness of relationship breakdown and divorce, it is hard to see what difference tax breaks will make. Divorce is not easy, especially if you have children, representing as it does the failure of a common project with someone who was a major source of support and an independent arbiter of your self-worth. It would be interesting to know who ‘Peter’ is aware of who is having a happy and painless divorce but would have equally happily stayed together were there a little more money in it. Equally, while the incentivisation of stable relationships is understandable, how many people would actually marry for the money? It seems more likely that this would not disincentivise having a child out of wedlock, but merely penalise it further than in its natural state (and being a single parent is hardly easy), meaning further hardships for the child to cope with ensuring further difficulties in school.

“There are plenty of people still living who can testify that when such rules operated, millions of British people lived free and happy lives, learned useful things in orderly schools, did not need to be under police surveillance, pass through metal detectors on their way to classes or be watched by CCTV cameras.”

‘Peter’ is here confusing correlation with causation – the fact that things were different in the past does not mean that these differences are the causes of our current difficulties. For comparison, when such rules operated the Soviet Union held sway over the whole of Eastern Europe, but it is unlikely that the discussion and enactment of the Children Act brought about the end of Communism. Factors such as rising inequality, the generational compounding of such inequality, the lack of access to recreational facilities in our inner cities, changes in diet and  erosion of communities will have played a part. Simply making things harder for children and families on the margin, be it through punitive beatings, restriction of access to legal rights or financially penalising them will not improve the situation.

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¹ Although, if you can find a copy, Smith (1934) Corporal Punishment for Cruelty The Howard of Criminal Justice 4:15-18 gives an interesting view on the state of the debate at a point where people were still suggesting that flogging prisoners would do some good.

Torture is wrong but why, in the name of sanity, should we allow those who hate us to live here?

Nicely dovetailing into my last post comes an opportunity to discuss the rights and wrongs of torture, courtesy of Max Hastings:

“It is a wicked thing, if Binyam Mohamed has indeed been tortured during his seven years’ confinement, latterly at America’s Guantanamo Bay, and equally wicked if Britain has been complicit in that torture.”

Which, as opening paragraphs go, is quite a good one. It establishes, from the off, that some things are bad, are that being complicit in them is also bad. We can all agree with this, we can be friends. But wait:

“The pit in which Britain, more than any other Western nation, finds itself stuck is that our courts and the human rights industry reject removal from our shores of anybody to their own nation if it lacks ‘acceptable’ standards of justice and freedom.”

Suddenly Max wants us to be complicit in bad things. Here we disagree, and fall out. What happened between the first paragraph and that one? Why can we not assist in torture, but can send someone back to a country where they will be tortured? Max thinnks it’s sufficient to say:

“The right of residence is discretionary.

Why should it be extended to a man about whom there seems little doubt does not want to live here as a law-abiding person, committed to our values and way of life?”

Take a parallel example: You want to kill Max. I know you want to kill Max. You ask to borrow my sharp knife; while I can’t be sure you don’t just want to evenly divide your freshly made fudge for the orphans, the look in your eye, and your comment about needing it to kill Max,  suggests strongly that your motive is less friendly. I lend you the knife. You kill Max. You are now a murderer and I am an accessory, because I knew what you wanted to do and enabled you to do it. I didn’t kill Max, it’s true, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t do anything wrong, morally or actually. Even if I really wanted Max out of my spare room, or I felt Max’s journalism undermined my way of life. We should be able to agree.

If w can, we shuold also be able to agree that it is completely unimportant whether Binyam Mohamed left the UK because he didn’t want to live here (which he denies), it’s completely unimportant that he harbours resentment to the UK (although his statement on arrival certainly didn’t indicate that to me), it would be completely unimportant if he followed Max’s recommendation and built a bomb factory in Southall (although it would be fine to arrest him, try him and, if found guilty, imprison him).  If we can agree that torturing him is wrong, it is wrong to enable his torture by sending him back to Ethiopia.

Either Max has missed this inconsistency, or he’s ignoring it. That’s poor – to paraphrase his conclusion, he has ‘displayed pitiful weakness‘ in failing to consistently condemn or support abetting torture and, arguably ‘merits our contempt‘.

If Del Boy was around today, he’d be trading in carbon offsets

I suppose it goes without saying that I was surprised by Littlejohn’s column today, I’m not really his target audience, but I genuinely didn’t believe that there was still anyone out there who didn’t accept the evidence for climate change. After all, there is a scientific consensus behind it (see Oreskes (2004) for a brief introduction, this letter by various national academies in 2005  or this statement from the World Meteorological Association in 2006) and general governmental agreement (this is the text of the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and these are the signatories). Poor naive fool that I am, I took this on good faith and started adapting my life accordingly.

What I foolishly failed to notice is that it’s cold at the moment, and has been warm in the past. If we were really warming, you’d expect it to be the other way around. Ergo, as Richard bravely points out, we can’t be warming. The fact that scientists missed this is probably a sign of some sort of agenda.

“None of this has in any way deterred the ‘global warming’ fascists. They dismiss this glaring, incontrovertible evidence as a ‘blip’ and continue to insist the world is burning up.”

The short answer to this is that Richard has got things the wrong way around – we have consistent findings of global rises in temperature (glaring, incontrovertible evidence, as it were) which he is writing off as anomalous, based on some localised instances of weather that doesn’t fit with the general trend. The trend and the instances are not incompatible though – a trend reflects the set of instances, it doesn’t determine individual ones. It is more than possible to have an unusually cold winter in the midst of generally warming ones – for example, our current cold spell is attributable to the effects of La Niña, the cold end of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (see the Met Office’s explanation here). It in no way undermines the consistent findings that global temperatures have risen.

On one level I can understand Richard’s mistake – it seems common sense that if we’re warming we should be warmer. However, the obvious thing to do when faced with something that runs against logic would be to find out if there was any satisfactory explanation, rather than assuming that the scientific community were a bunch of lying chancers you’ve easily proved wrong. What is striking is not just the solipsism of this (which must be difficult to avoid when you’re being paid for any and all of your thoughts) but the misconception of ‘science’ as an authoritarian monolith.

I’m being slightly unfair here, because Richard isn’t really interested in the scientific consensus – he seems to assume that there isn’t one. His real targets seems to be politicians and busy-bodies who are seizing on poor evidence to justify impositions on honest, hardworking people.

“That’s because this isn’t about the planet, it’s all about them.

‘Global warming’ gives them a reason to believe, provides meaning and purpose to their dismal little lives.”

This, again, seems to be upside-down. I would argue that, given that those who will suffer most dramatically (and who are already suffering) from the consequences of global warming are the world’s poorest (see here for the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 working group report), acting to reduce carbon usage is actually about making sacrifices for others. Jacking up the heating because you’re damned if some government minister is going to tell you what to your own house is ‘all about you’, especially if you’re basing your actions on your own experience of the weather rather the evidence and opinions of those best placed to judge.

This kind of self-satisfied and wilful ignorance is irresponsible. There is a dishonesty in attacking a movement because it has the support of politicians when that support is based on apolitical evidence – however untrustworthy you think politicians are, some little investigation shows that in this case they are justified, a fact which should mitigate the mistrust. Instead, the lack of faith in them is extended sideways by association. Meanwhile, the fear of Richard and his readers is focused on the monster under the bed, when they should be worried about the water lapping at their door.

We MUST keep our Christmas spirits up

I make this the start of the ‘Erosion of Christmas’ season – I’m probably a bit late, but there will be plenty more for me to enjoy. From now on, we have nothing to look forward to but the generic complaints that the ‘Christmas is being taken out of Christmas’ as council killjoys, health and safety and political correctness undermine our healthy consumerist fun.

So here we go. Council kills joy as unlicensed premise attempts to hand out alcohol. Nativity plays fall foul of, erm, whatever¹. Christmas humbug says humbug:

“It has even become fashionable to sneer at the Christmas card which has done absolutely no harm, and rather a lot of good, for the past 150 years”

The syntax of that is interesting, it suggests its still unfashionable to sneer at the Christmas card which did do harm, but I digress. We are left to conclude that the world is changing, and it is no longer the happy place we used to know.

By ‘fashionable’, it turns out that Alison means that two people have made comments related to cards, one of whom was against them. The Bishop of Reading doesn’t believe in sending cards for the sake of it, but encourages you to send only to send cards with some sort of meaning. Which is actually quite a sensible position – there is a certain falsehood in making a single annual show of closeness at a time when tradition dictates we should. Those we are genuinely close to don’t benefit from the gesture, those who we are distant from see it as empty. All the while we’re costing carbon and cash when possibly meeting up or making a phonecall would have achieved more. We could possibly even extend it to some of our gift giving, reclaiming the season from the crushing embrace of modern consumerist traditions.

There’s something in the idea of in an age of instant emails and texts, to savour something that has been handwritten and costs practically nothing, except some effort and thought”, but it’s overdone. These aren’t the cards the Bishop is concerned about, he’s worried about the meaningless ones we send under pressure of tradition and obligation. There’s also something slightly uneasy about the ‘effort and thought’ taken over an annual one-off – however touching it is to be remembered when the list is drawn up, to be remembered at a non-specific point in the year would be more so.

The argument  certainly isn’t as clear cut as Alison would like it to be. And it doesn’t get any better when she starts trying to pep up the generic with the topical:

“Obviously, this year even Father Christmas is going to be shivering a little in the chill wind of recession.

Alistair Darling will slap a tax on laughter until poor Santa is down to his last Ho. Pretty much every family will have to tighten its belt.”

Surely the fact that money is tighter this year supports the Bishop’s contention that we should be thinking more carefully about the cards we send and not waste money on empty cards that devalue the sentiments behind them? And the drop in VAT brought in by Mr Darling should make it easier to buy cards. Increasing consumption was his stated aim. Dropping those sentences in is a cheap shot that undermines her argument while failing to engage with his.

Come to think of it, the reference to the lawn fertilising company is a bit clunky too – a long way to go for a ‘sniffy about … manure’ joke. It suffers from a similar problem – by saying she doesn’t receive many cards, she rules herself incapable of judging whether receiving a large number is a problem.

By now I’ve stopped expecting Alison’s columns to hang together, with coherent arguments and related points, but still, the conclusion she manages to draw from all this was somewhat surprising:

“If we’re lucky, there may even be a brief moment when we might hear the still, small voice of calm amid the wailing from the prophets of doom.”

Of all the places you might look for it, a story about the erosion of Christmas which portrays a moderate and defensible position as an attempt to undermine the one thing which roots us (“Christmas is the one time of the year when we still know what the rules are, and surprise ourselves by wanting to cling to them.”) is not the best.

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¹ Boredom, probably. It’s the same story every year, the acting is poor and it’s scab labour. You might as well be watching panto.

What my lost oboe tells us about trust and honesty – two principles that are sadly disappearing

A melancholy little column from Tom Utley, almost completely undermined by his observation that:

“There was always a strong chance, even 40 years ago, that a fellow passenger on that bus to Neasden would have picked up my forgotten oboe and walked off with it into the night. Hence my four days of panic and misery before it turned up.”

Which is an admission of the motivating thought behind this blog: the world wasn’t really better in the halcyon days of other people’s youth, other people just think it was. When you think about it sensibly, not much has changed. But not so hasty:

“But back in 1968, you could be almost completely sure that once an item had been handed in to an official in charge of lost property, it would be 100 per cent safe.”

How do we get from a ‘strong chance’ that nothing’s changed to ‘almost complete’ certainty that it has? On what basis are we suggesting that people in positions of trust are now less trustworthy than they were when Tom Utley was a boy? An anecdote about someone returning his lost oboe, and a survey by Which? in which lost property offices waited for people who’d lost things to contact them rather than the other way around. These two quickly snowball into

“How desperately sad that in 2008, so many more people in all walks of life look upon trust as something to be abused. They seem to think that if they can get away with it, that’s all that matters.”

This sort of apocalyptic thinking is almost too vague to attack – the evidence offered is so insufficient that it can’t plausibly the basis for the conclusion. To attack it would be to attack a straw man. More interesting is the way Tom himself explains the possible causes of his despair:

“I can’t believe it’s just because we’ve become a more secular society, less terrified of hellfire.”

The ‘just’ does allow that it is a component though, sitting slightly uncomfortably with his earlier assertion that:

“For the huge majority of people in positions of trust, whether they were rich or poor, it was a point of pride to show themselves worthy of the confidence placed in them.”

Unless they were taking pride in doing the minimum required to avoid the wrath of God, one of those positions is untenable. Also interesting (and this should be the last quote for a while) is the movement from the religious to the social:

“Perhaps it has something to do with the breakdown of the family, of local communities and national identity, which has made us feel more distant from the people around us and less inclined to see ourselves in their shoes or to do for them as we would be done by.”

Or, to call a spade a spade: single parents, urbanisation and immigration¹. Taken together, Tom is just listing things he doesn’t trust as a reason for not trusting people. Essentially people are less like Tom Utley than they used to be, their backgrounds and points of reference are not those he can understand.

The obvious point that he misses is that trust is something that is given. Whether or not we give it is based entirely on perception. Take his example of MPs abusing trust by registering their weekend homes as their main residences. As far as I can make out, the story he’s referring to is the listing of Ed Balls’ and Yvette Cooper’s house near their constituencies in Yorkshire as their main residence. The report from the Parliamentary Standards Committee is here. Points 43-48 (pages 18-21) serve as a decent summary of quite a long and involved report, which concluded they were not guilty of anything, had done everything they could to stay on the right side of the regulations and had acted in a way that actually meant they paid more in needless stamp duty than they claimed in expenses². Now I don’t expect Tom to have read this report, although he probably should. All he’s doing is reflexively repeating what he believes to be true. But he only believes it because he doesn’t trust MPs to start with. Thus his evidence that the world is less worthy of trust is that he doesn’t trust people.

This circularity quickly becomes self-reinforcing. The story about MPs second homes has become evidence of their perfidy, even though in reality it proved the opposite. MPs are now less trustworthy than when they started, when actually they’ve proven themselves to be honest. In the same way, the employees of the lost property office (with one exception, which Network Rail disputes) were not shown to have done anything wrong, they were just under-zealous in performing what Tom believes their responsibility to be. The lack of trust which is already there is the root cause of the untrustworthiness he finds.

It’s in this context that his own explanation sits. The world is different from the one of his childhood because the people around him are different. The government are from a different political background, the people working in lost property offices are disproportionately from different socio-economic (and so, in many parts of the country, ethnic) backgrounds, as indeed are the bankers. The difference translates as a lack of understanding and a suspicion.

All of which means the real question should be: When did we stop giving people the benefit of the doubt? If Tom Utley could find a way to start again, he’d probably be much happier.

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¹ Of the four, it’s the movement into the cities that is allows the other three. Tom’s real question should be how we secure the benefits of urbanisation without the social costs.

² London was designated as their second home for tax purposes, so they ended up paying Capital Gains tax when moving within the capital. Had they registered this as their main residence for Parliamentary purposes, consistency would demand them doing the same for tax purposes, meaning that they wouldn’t have been eligible. By deliberately registering their constituency property as their ‘main address’, they knowingly incurred taxes that they could have avoided, which were greater than the expenses claimed on the constituency house.

What sort of society have we become when a good Samaritan is kicked to death and a suicidal man jeered by a mob?

Stephen Glover has a problem with statistics:

“Crime, according to some statistics, has fallen in recent years. Others argue convincingly that violent crime has risen. We can bandy about figures as much as we like”

And who could blame him? By their very nature, statistics depersonalise events reducing them from one off incidents of personal significance

“My own teenage son was beaten up in [Oxford] centre a few years ago.”

to a series of numbers in a table

Number of violent crimes per 1,000 population

2002/03

2003/04 2004/05

2005/06

2006/07

Oxford City

24.57

24.51 26.54 28.04 31.82

[Source: Oxfordshire Data Observatory].

They reduce arguments to a counting of beans, as if the numbers themselves were what mattered and not what they represent.

But here’s a thing: I work in Oxford and am yet to be mugged, which presents a bit of a problem. In their isolation, we have conflicting anecdotes. Devoid of context, we can do nothing with them – they speak of an individual experience of crime, but not of the world in which that experience occurred. Significant personally, if anyone else wanted to draw significance from them, they would need to see how they fitted into a wider picture.

There are two ways to get our wider picture. This is Stephen Glover’s

“We can bandy about figures as much as we like, but Frank McGarahan died a shocking death all the same”

In one sentence we move from the thematic to the episodic. From there, it’s just a short jump into the narrative.

“Norwich does not yet have the reputation of Los Angeles. It is a cathedral city where a street murder of this sort would have been scarcely imaginable 20 or 30 years ago.”

Effortlessly, the anecdote moves from being part of a wider empirical world where we can ask questions like ‘how typical’ into being part of a story where typicality is a condition of inclusion. The import of the anecdote is taken as a given; the world is in decline and this proves it.¹

The problem with taking this approach is that by separating events from their context we can use them to confirm almost anything. ² With our conclusion already in place, we can draw on anything we like, drawing post hoc causal links as we go along

“How oddly symbolic, too, that Mr McGarahan’s murder should have happened outside a lap-dancing club.”

As with our conflicting mugging anecdotes though, we have a problem. On its own, each story is just that, a story. In the Mail

“the police sometimes struggle to maintain law and order, where they can seem ineffectual in turning the tide of mindless violence, and where there are terrifying gangs of amoral youths “

At which point, we might wonder whether we need argue. If Stephen Glover thinks the world is getting worse, for him it probably is. This is, in itself, no small tragedy. The story though, perpetuates. There will always be things that shock us, or social policies which offend us, which reflect our decline and feed our fear. Fearful people seek action to reduce their fear, and fear without context demands action which matches. By the time he’s finished, Stephen is applauding mob justice and ‘zero tolerance policing’, which is an easy position to take when you can be sure it won’t be you being mobbed or policed. He tells the story because it justifies his fear and in telling it he spreads that fear. We lose the faculty to evaluate, and the fear becomes free-standing. The risk of crime decreases while its fear increases.

Stephen Glover can never know whether he is right – all he has is perception and belief, unchecked against the real world. Given that the narrative approach he uses moves backwards from conclusion to evidence, he can only ever be right by coincidence, not design. Even if the statistics were as questionable as he claims, chances are he’d be wrong. Which might be something worth considering.

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¹ We can think of these approaches as ‘bottom up’ and ‘top down’ – in the former we take our facts an look for the conclusions we can base on them, in the latter we have our conclusion and look for bolstering evidence.

² From the same starting point, I could tell tale of the heroic rescue of a Lithuanian man by a stranger – someone who would give their life to save someone they’d never met before. Strangers are wonderful – there has always been crime, but it’s surprising how often strangers intervene like guardian angels. We hear about them all the time, from which we can safely conclude that there are a lot of them out there, protecting us.