Tax Cuts, the DUP and the Conservative Party Libertarian Counter-Revolution

Peter Brooks Tories
Source: Peter Brooks from The Times Newspaper

The likelihood of the Conservative Party coming to an agreement with the Democratic Unionist Paty to retain their Commons majority highlights some interesting pointers about the Neo-Conservative project. Moreover, viewed in the context of their election campaign confusion over tax cuts the deep Tory fault lines are laid bare.

In earlier blogs I described the abrupt change in the nature and direction of the Conservative party since the accession to the leadership of Theresa May.  In these blogs I pointed to a close meshing of ideologies  between Donald Trump in the United States and Theresa May.  You can read these posts here and here but the essence of my argument is the Conservative abandonment of the pursuit of neo-Libertarianism to a largely Neo-Conservative outlook.

Although the situation is a complex one the difference hinges on the size of the Government.  Neo-Libertarians want to shrink the State and cut taxes, with the austerity policies of David Cameron and George Osborne providing a perfect cover.  Nro-Conservatives, however, favour a much larger state (though not at the citizen level) with higher taxes to support it.  Like the Neo-Libertarians they want the state withdrawn from the business of extendeing personal rights and protections (the Welfare State) and see a big project (Brexitm for example) as the best way of mobilising patriotism, maintaining social cohesion and justifying the destruction of those rights.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this

What went wrong? In my posts I pointed to an influential figure in American David Brooks.  A central plank of his idea ifs that you cannot rely on consensus or inclusive politics to drive through a neo-Conservative programme, but instead it must be spearheaded by a closr-knit family (The Trumps) or a strong (and stable!!) individual (supposedly, Theresa May).  To the disappointment of the neo-Cons, in the US Trump is proving too incoherent, unpredictable and ill-disciplined to really make a really effective impact.  As we have seen in our UK election, Theresa Mat has proven to be uninspiring, uncharismatic and incompetent. Any similarity between May and a Boudicca/Britannia figure evaporated very swiftly during the campaign and she proved to possess almost no talent to persuade anyone to follow her in a bonfire of rights in exchange for national greatness.

The split surfaced during the Conservative election wobble over tas cuts and deficit reduction.  For example there was Chancellor Philip Hammond wanting to tear up the Osborne rule book on fiscal policy and not commit himself to deficit reduction.  The trashing of George Osborne’s policies led him to launch a vitriolic attack on May and her policies in a Radio 4 interview. The telling comment was:

Both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are offering in very different ways a retreat from international liberalism and globalisation

That Osborne would criticise the socialist Corbyn for being illiberal is predictable, but the attack on May was telling, partticularly this more pointed interview. He claimed the campaign had destroyed the work of himself and David Cameron in winning socially liberal seats such as Bath, Brighton Kemptown and Oxford West and Abingdon, which were won by Labour and the Lib Dems.

Tax Cut Dithering and a real Fault Line

Osborne’s comments could be dismissed as revenge for his sacking if it were not for a confusing few days where leading Conservatives seemed reluctant to rule out tax rises before settling on a vague and largely unconvincing statement of being the ‘party of low taxes’!  You can get a flavour of the debate from reading this short Daily Telegraph leader article. It stated:

In recent weeks, neither Mrs May nor Philip Hammond has been prepared to reaffirm the 2015 Tory promise not to put up income taxes or NICs. Now, with Labour apparently committed to keeping taxes steady for 95 per cent of earners, the spotlight will fall on the Tories to match the pledge. Yet an attempt by the Chancellor to increase NICs in the Budget was only blocked because it represented a breach of the 2015 election manifesto “tax lock”.

Interestingly, and amusingly, this article was written on 7th May with the article complacently assuming May would win an overwhelming majority. The Telegraph’s frustration (clearly, you will note, in the neo-Libertarian camp) hints at the surface cracks which revealed the profound split in the party below. Remember, Neo-Libertarians want a smaller Government with low taxes against the big Government neo-Conservatives whose plan requires more resources.

Enter the DUP!

So where does this leave the Parliamentary agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party? For Theresa May it is a two-edged sword. Although the neo-Conservative plan is for bigger Government, the spending should be targeted at ensuring a successful break with the EU whatever the financial cost.  The DUP, however will almost certainly demand spending for local communities in Northern Ireland, aggravating the pressure on the public finance at completely yte wrong locus for the neo-Cons.  Although the DUP largely avoided the issue of rights in their 2017 election manifesto their ethical background is clearly in favour of limiting same-sex and women’s reproductive rights.  This is much more palatable to a neo-Conservative project which rejects Government interference un extend personal rights as an unwelcome distraction.

Where does this leave the neo-Conservative projevct in Britain? Basically, badly damaged and on life-spport.  The whole plan was a presentation of Theresa may as a strong forceful leader rallying the British people to the sunny uplands of a global success story.  Unfortunately for them the fact that Theresa May was not that leader has meant that the plan has seriously unravelled. But the plan is still there and even if killed off could possibly be replaced by a return to the equally destructive neo-Libertarian ideology of George Osborne and Michael Gove. We can only speculate whether a stronger more charismatic leader could have repaired the split by simply securing a big Commons majority thus winning across the many Tory MPs who lack any ideological anchor but like the idea of a Conservative prime Minister issung orders.  For the moment we can just be thankful the the machine ground to a halt and with the ineptitude shown over the appalling Grenfell Tower disaster it appears as though the project may die altogether. But bewre the nro-Libertarian counter-revolution!

After Grenfell We Need A Complete Rethink of Rights and Resources – Not a Government Whitewash

The attacks in Manchester and Borough Market, the Grenfell Tower Fire. Confidence in Theresa May is now plummeting faster than the Pound after the Brexit vote. But Theresa May is not solely to blame.  Remember that the Conservative Party made her leader with no contest and Conservative MPs voted for a Government destabilising election on the eve of Brexit talks.  But beyond that there are issues of rights and resources in society which we must all confront.

The events of the past few weeks illustrate some vital points about the rights and resources wielded by different groups in this country.  During the election the Government, of course, tried to pretend that it was planning a great extension of rights while in reality presiding over a de facto trashing of them.

Firstly the terrorist attacks.  As usual following a terrorist attack various Ministers put in an appearance in front of the cameras and pretended to talk tough.  Once again the spectre of the repeal of the Human Rights Act was mooted along with withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights.  Dark threats of yet more snooping powers were mooted. Yet, it emerged that the terrorists were already known as a danger by the authorities.  The problem was much less to do with lack of information and much more a problem of lack of resources and, crucially, the reduction of 20,000 police officers which has hit local community policing hard. Despite what Theresa May and Amber Rudd say, the authorities are calling for more resources not more powers.  Judging by the election result it seems that people are getting this message.

Now look at the issue of the Grenfell Tower fire. Again, it was not a problem of lack of information, the residents were well aware of the dangers and local representatives tried to raise the issue of fire safety on numerous occasions.   Although far too early to tell there is every likelihood of criminal prosecutions being brought when the facts are assessed.  But while the idea of ‘Corporate Manslaughter’ is an attractive one it will almost certainly mean a fine and nothing will really change.  What is needed is a nationwide culture shift

So again, it is an issue of resources.  The wealthy, including those of Kensington and Chelsea can afford to buy the resources they require including legal assistance to get things don./ The less well-off cannot. We can do some things immediately. These include recourse to systems of contestability we have lost.  Access to Industrial Tribunals (removal of punitive fees) and restoration of widespread Legal Aid is imperative, especially after Grenfell.  Far beyond that there must be systems which allow for the support of groups and resources to take concerns to the highest level and get action.  The methods of putting such systems of support for local groups and enabling them to have proper and meaningful representation in the corridors of power are not unknown and cities around the world have been developing techniques such as citizens panels, peoples tribunals and active participation for years (although far from perfect, in the UK  the Peabody Trust points to a possible route forward as I suggest in this post).

Enough of the meaningless platitudes of an authoritarian Government and their ripoff landlord allies.  Time for true methods of contestability in this country.

Republican Inspirations; A Matter For the Heart And the Head

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Who knows not that there is a mutual bond of amity and brother-hood between man and man over all the World, neither is it the English Sea that can sever us from that duty and relation…

John Milton; The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1650)

Inspiration. One of my favourite words implying a positive  relationship with a person, event or entity. Among the various definitions of inspiration, this one from from the Merriam-Webster dictionary I find particularly useful:

…the action or power of moving the intellect or emotions

It sums up the dual nature of my enthusiasm for the Good Old Cause of republicanism in its broadest sense, an idea much richer than just anti-monarchism. Let me explain by starting with the emotions.

From Milton to Shelley….

Some  writers metaphorically light up my life. One of these is Richard Overton the seventeenth century radical whose pamphlet An Arrow Against All Tyrants changed my life and the way I think about freedom. He was a Leveller and the enduring influence of him and his fellow Levellers can be seen even in the title of my blog. For example, I find this passage very powerful:

I may be but an individual, enjoy my self and my self-propriety and may right myself no more than my self, or presume any further; if I do, I am an encroacher and an invader upon another man’s right — to which I have no right. For by natural birth all men are equally and alike born to like propriety, liberty and freedom…..

Richard Overton ‘An Arrow Against All Tyrants (1646)

Now, there is much in Arrow to feed the intellect, but more about that later.  Likewise with the wonderful prose and poetry of Overton’s near contemporary John Milton, an example of which I started this post.  Speaking of poets, one has come to embody a sense of defiance and optimism for a better world like no other – Percy Bysshe Shelley (OK, him again for any regular readers of my blog!!). But where did I encounter him? Some time ago I read a post by Cliff James (he can be found on twitter as @cliffjamester), Cliff’s post was centred on Shelley’s radical poetry; of which I confess I was then largely ignorant.  II started with England in 1819 a mightily powerful piece of radical writing.

Continue reading “Republican Inspirations; A Matter For the Heart And the Head”

Theresa May, Democracy and ‘unBritish Activities’

Over the past few months we have become accustomed to Donald Trump using the tactic of making wild, often unsubstantiated accusations about his political opponents, the judiciary and the media.  Such tactics are also familiar to us in the UK by the actions of a virulent corporate owned media.

Without doubt there have been times in the past when the Prime Minister of the day has joined in such activity, but political expediency, advisors or civil servants have eventually stepped in to provide wiser council.  Now, however, it appears that Theresa May has decided (assuming it is a conscious activity) that this behaviour is the new norm, implying that everyone from the European Union to Parliamentarians to the Trade Unions and beyond are conspiring to undermine her and thereby subvert the nation.

Along with the accusations come demagogic attacks on her opponents, attempting to stain their character as a dangerous saboteur or unpatriotic.  So what are the outcomes of such an approach?  Importantly, in keeping with the neo-Conservative mantra of a strong (and stable!!) leader driving through dramatic, damaging and possibly irreversible change to the fabric of society she can present herself as some sort of modern day Boudicca figure, holding back the hoards of hostile forces.

Whether by design or an unconscious feeling of powerlessness in the face of an unimaginably complex Brexit strategy, May is recasting disagreement as deviance, opposition as disruption, debate as subversion. Although more complex in its manifestation (at least until now) the phenomenon of McCarthyism in 1950s America shares many of these characteristics, with the original UnAmerican Activiities becoming UnBritish Activities; likewise, Senator McCarthy’s Soviet Bloc is replaced in May’s world by the  European Union. During the ’50s the main effect was to close down debate and usher in a climate of fear and suspicion of your neighbour.  The effects were felt way beyond politics in art, science and culture.

The rules of a democratic open society is disagreement in a dialogic manner.  May is trying to substitute new rules of Government by fiat and authoritarianism. The consequences are unpredictable, terrifying and the likely loss of treasured liberties

Duke of Wellington – Autocrat and Bully

If there is one thing everyone knows about Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington it is that he won the 1815 Battle of Waterloo bringing the era of Napoleon to a close. Debates over whether his victory (albeit facilitated out by the Prussian General Blucher) was a benefit or a curse are fun but gain little. Good or bad are less relevant than the historical fact. But here are some other things less well known about Wellington.

From 1797 Wellesley served in India rising to the rank of Major-General. He returned to Britain in 1804 having amassed a fortune of £42,000 the time, consisting mainly of prize money from his campaign. Prize money was mainly a naval matter, but existed in the British and  other armies as the proceeds of plunder especially when a town or city had been sacked. So in effect it was theft from the local population, but in reality Wellesley was only playing a part in the systematic ransacking of India during the less than glorious British Empire.

Move forward ro 1819 and Arthur Wellesley was Duke of Wellington, part of the Government led by Lord Liverpool. On August 19th a crowd variously estimated at being between 60,000 and 100,000 had gathered in St Peters Field in Manchester to protest and demand greater representation in Parliament. The subsequent overreaction by Government militia forces in the shape of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry led to a cavalry charge with sabres drawn.

The exact numbers were never established but about 12 to 15 people were killed immediately and possibly 600-700 were injured, many seriously. For more information on the complex serious of events, go to this British Library resource and this campaign for a memorial. Wellington fully supported the brutal repression and consequently the incident became known as ‘Peterloo’ as a mocking play on his victory four years earlier. As a result he was despised in many places (especially Manchester!) being spat at and physically attacked on the streets.

He was unrelenting and when the first Great Reform Bill was presented to the House of Commons in 1831 Wellington and the Tories worked to prevent its passage.  As a reprisal his residence at Apsley House was targeted by a mob of demonstrators on 27 April 1831 and again on 12 October, leaving his windows smashed.  Iron shutters were installed (hence Iron Duke!) in June 1832 to prevent further damage. His attitude was unsustainable and being removed from office shortly after the Bill was passed in 1832 by Earl Grey’s administration.

There is, however, a somewhat ironic twist. One positive act which Wellington carried out  was Cathiolic Empancipation in 1829, giving catholics full rights in Britain and Ireland.  But as the establishment was (and still largely is) protestant in nature that too is less well publicised!

Exceptionalism Corrodes the Relationships Which Drive Progress for Everyone

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Cassini’s copy of Newton’s Principia with inscription by Halley (© Observatoire de Paris)

In 1687 the great English astronomer Edmund Halley (of the comet fame) sent an inscribed copy (image left) of Isaac Newton’s freshly published Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica to Giovanni Domenico Cassini, Director of the Paris Observatory.  Think about this for a moment. A copy of the most important thesis of the day (the foundation of Gravitational Theory and Mechanics) by an English scientist sent to an Italian scientist working in a French observatory.  This pattern repeats itself decade after decade, century after century, right back to the dawn of civilisation. Indeed one theory of archeology now views Stonehenge as the epicentre of a Britano-Near European network.

Now, I am as proud as anyone of our great history of Shakespeare and Shelley, Newton and Darwin, Turner and Constable, Stephenson and Brunel, Locke and Hume.  I am also proud of the work the establishment wants to forget, by Tom Paine for example or James Harrington or Algernon Sidney. But in this post I want to place the work of these greats in context, as part of progress viewed as relationships cultivated with colleagues throughout Europe and beyond. They are classed as some of the greatest luminaries, but not exceptional in the sense that they stand apart from other greats. It is the relationships which count as much as anything.

Magna Carta was part of a pan-European movement….

My Halley-Cassini example dates from the 17th Century when the Age of Enlightenment was getting under way. But I want to briefly travel further back to 1215 and the iconic Magna Carta. A mountain of literature has been generated by the Great Charter along with some grandiose claims.  For example, it is purported to be the birth document of democracy, which it isn’t and a protector of liberties, but only for some. What is important is that it placed limits on the king’s power which was subject to the law.   But charters were common in early medieval Europe both individually in terms of personal wills and in more general terms through the granting of rights and privileges to groups of people such as towns and cities. Some included promises of protection and justice by a King but the most important charters were issued by the Pope as Papal Bulls.

Of importance was the so-called “Statute of Palmiers issued three years earlier than Magna Carta in 1212 and the earliest constitutional document of France.  Issued by Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester (his son, also Simon, is more well known to us as playing a crucial role in the founding of Parliament), the Statute was sealed and guaranteed by six French bishops. It includes more than fifty clauses, prohibiting the sale of justice, dealing with the rights of heirs and widows, and promising not to enforce military service from his tenants except in return for pay. Through de Montfort and others the Statute of Palmiers was known in England and covers much the same ground. But in turn, Magna Carta influenced Europe. For example, the  Golden Bull (a Bull was a kind of seal, by the way) of 1222 was a charter issued by King Andrew II of Hungary under duress from his nobles. Like Magna Carta this was one of the first examples of constitutional limits being placed on the powers of a European monarch. So though Magna Carta was unique in scope and ambition it was fully in keeping with developments elsewhere.

….while the Age of Enlightenment was truly international collaboration.

Now back to my first example.  The Age of Enlightenment was a supreme example of natural philosophers, political thinkers and artists collaborating across international boundaries, this time including North America. For example, American founding father Benjamin Franklin visited Europe frequently and contributed actively to scientific and political debates here, returning with the latest ideas to Philadelphia. Vital to the development of the Age of Enlightenment was a separate but associated phenomenon which has been termed the Republic of Letters.  It started in the literary sphere and was initially a purely intellectual exchange consisting of a network of thinkers such as Voltaire and John Locke. The Republic of Letters was facilitated by more efficient transport in the Seventeenth Century and secure postal services grew rapidly New associations such as the Royal Society provided centres where ideas could be presented and promulgated. Similar societies sprang up in France and Germany and were vital in helping local intellectuals contact like-minded thinkers elsewhere in the Republic of Letters

The political and social transnational effects were cataclysmic. The English  Revolution of 1642-1649, combined with the work of emigrant Englishman Tom Paine was a vital influence on the American Revolution which in turn hugely influenced events in Europe during the French Revolution. In science the aforementioned Edmund Halley travelled all over Europe before influencing Newton’s decision to publish his ideas on gravitation which changed the course of science, helping to bring about our modern world. English and Scottish thinkers were crucial participants, but were dependant on ideas gathered through the relationships with workers in other parts of the world.

So what is my point? It is not to belittle the contributions of British (or English/Welsh/Scots/Irish in earlier eras) thinkers and politicians to world developments.  But much of the rhetoric of the British press in papers such as the Daily Mail, The Times and The Sun is now devoted to an exceptionalist view of Britain as being unusual or extraordinary in every way. It is tied to an agenda which I drew attention to in an earlier post. For individuals a sense of exceptionalism damages personal relationships and the same is true of nations. This can only harm our position with the rest of Europe and the world which can only do us (and them) harm. Ironically one of the conscious aims of the Enlightenment Republic of Letters was a measure of independence from Governments and overbearing authority (partly why it was called a Republic).  Whatever the outcome of Brexit and the current sweep of neo-conservative nationalism it is vital not to lose sight of the crucial role of transnational relationships, no matter how brilliant or able the individuals of particular countries prove to be. Mutual respect is vital, relationships matter!