Forget Harmless Eccentricity, the Aristocracy Still Wields Enormous Unaccountable Power

Monarchy and aristocracy are often considered as a single entity by the British public, whether positively or negatively.  Yet they are two very different animals.  Aristocrats have a love-hate relationship with the monarchy. They hate it because it has historically been a rival for power, privilege and wealth.  In fact many aristocrats have been republicans and that remains so today, though their vision for a republic is slightly different to mine! Conversely, the aristocracy love monarchy as it takes the high profile flak and provides ‘top cover’ for their activities in return for a little bit of pomp and dressing up a few times a year.

Though not being a fan of the City A.M. publication, often finding its articles superficial, one feature published last week nevertheless demonstrated the point about the continuing power of aristocracy. Writing about the vast areas of London owned by a few very old families it stated:

This select group has several significant players. The Grosvenor Estate, owned by the Duke of Westminster, manages Mayfair and Belgravia; the Cadogan Estate, owned by the Earl Cadogan, has Chelsea; the Portman Estate, owned by Viscount Portman includes fashionable Chiltern Street north of Oxford Steet (sic); while the Howard de Walden Estate, owned by the Howard de Walden family, is its neighbour on nearby Marylebone High Street.

I blogged about the Duke of Westminster tax rouse on his Grosvenor Estate when considering the undemocratic nature of investment ptential in Britain. As might be imagined, the aristocrats have their own lackey supporters for this state of affairs who cite ‘long term stewardship’ and ‘tasteful development’ as justification. But let’s look more closely at this 21st Century version of feudalism.

Continue reading “Forget Harmless Eccentricity, the Aristocracy Still Wields Enormous Unaccountable Power”

Knowledge Must Be Decided by Investigation and Debate, Not Determined By Government

The enemies of freedom have always charged its defenders with subversion. And nearly always they have succeeded in persuading the guileless and well-meaning.

Karl Popper: The Open Society and its Enemies

Since Theresa May was appointed Prime Minister in the summer of 2016 we have seen an unprecedented attack on citizens and organisations legitimately voicing opinions counter to Government policy. There was the spectacle of Theresa May claiming from the steps of Number 10 that anyone opposing her view of Brexit was a ‘saboteur’. This was followed by the horrendous traducing of Gina Miller for exercising her legitimate right to ask the judiciary whether the Government was acting within its remit to bypass Parliament when triggering EU Article 50. Judicial Review is a fundamental freedom which everyone enjoys.

Now we have Conservative MP Chris Heaton-Harris, a Government Whip no less, demanding that Universities divulge the names of any of their academics working in the field of humanities who may lecture on the possible implications of Brexit. This chilling and dangerous move is the most recent of Government attempts to stifle academic examination of their policies.  During the Brexit campaign there was Michael Gove attempting to trash the value of expert opinion.  A little earlier in 2016 it was revealed by the Observer newspaper (during February in this article) that the Cabinet Office was imposing new rules from May 1st 2016 which would effectively censor recipients of Government grants from using their results to lobby for a change in policy.  After a high profile protest by senior scientists, including the Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees, the Government partly backed down (report here).

The Heaton-Harris attack bears a depressing similarity with the others.  The victim whether it be Gina Miller, an economics academic or simply a citizen exercising their rights of free expression, is accused of dark motives, of sabotage or subversion. The implication, often made explicit, is that the accuser, unlike the victim, is patriotic, democratic and the true defender of liberties.

Aside from the fear of persecution which this engenders, the general intellectual climate which this is producing is complete cynicism and disrespect for open debate. Attacks on academics damages a belief in independent inquiry and conviction arrived at by rational means. This means that knowledge becomes a political issue to be decided by Government rather than investigation and debate.

Heaton-Harris has been condemned and described as an ‘idiot’ for demanding information from University Vice-Chancellors.  But such ignorance cannot be accaptable for a democratic representative and Government Whip.  It is not often that you will find me mentioning classical liberal theorist F.A Hyek in this blog But in this case I think he was absolutely correct when he wrote in The Road to Serfdom (in a chapter entitled the End of Truth):

That in the disciplines dealing directly with human affairs and therefore most immediately affecting political views, such as history, law, or economics, the disinterested search for truth cannot be allowed in a totalitarian system, and the vindication of the official views becomes the sole object, is easily seen and has been amply confirmed by experience.

It is a mark of just how far liberal voices have been sidelined in  the modern Tory party to be replaced by an aggressive authoritarian conservatism. The fact that Heaton-Harris has not been relieved of his post is a testament to this fact.

 

 

The Article 50 Letter Focussed on Economics and Security; But Theresa May Was Threatenening Us Not The EU!

In her letter to the European Commission formally giving notice of the UK triggering Article 50 to withdraw from the EU, Theresa May made specific reference s to two areas of policy, economics and security.  Linking these was widely interpreted as a veiled threat to ensure a more benevolent negotiating position from the EU countries.  While this may be correct it is far from the whole story. There was another audience – us! Economics and security go to the heart of the disastrous policies which this amoral government is intent on pursuing.

Focussing on economics and security as a combination (as opposed to say, social policy or the environment) is entirely consistent with Theresa May’s pursuit of the kind of autocratic neo-Conservatism I have alluded to in an earlier post.  The implicit threats of a ‘bonfire’ of red tape presents a real danger to the rights and conditions of working people.  This means that Sports Direct and JD Sports warehouse conditions will become the norm rather than the exception. Add this to Chancellor Philip Hammond’s threat turn Britain into an offshore tax haven, effectively ending the possibility of adequately funding public service provision and the scene is set for wage slave conditions and the return of the workhouse. May’s clever move was to present such a prospect up front in an attempt to gain misplaced patriotic support at the expense of individual rights, as I pointed out here.  The argument will be that we shall need to work in this manner in order to show the big bad EU that we can run a ‘successful economy’.  You can almost hear the rhetoric now; cutting red tape to unleashing the creative potential of plucky Brits in the ‘gig economy’ to thrash those Johnny foreigners in the EU! In reality the only things unleashed will be the size of the bank accounts for the likes of Philip Green and Mike Ashley.

Consider the second point of emphasis, security.  As a result of the events in Westminster Parliamentary attacks, Home Secretary Amber Rudd is already proposing breaking into encrypted messaging services in the name of ‘security’. This is in spite of the evidence to suggest that it was a lone wolf attack, the most difficult to stop using correspondence surveillance.  But the revelations from the CIA reveals that without strict and accountable line of authority such technology cans be used for more than just extremist terrorism.  There is nothing to stop future governments (also conceivably led by that nemesis of Human Rights, Theresa May) broadening ‘threat’ to include the EU itself if negotiations go wrong (as seems likely) or ‘environmental activists’ as has already happened in local instances. As I mentioned in a previous blog, Government can harness the natural instincts of people to gather closer together for protection.

The autocratic part? Aside from continued attempts to exclude Parliament from taking an active part in Brexit, todays white paper on the Great Repeal Bill makes specific reference to the Government taking ‘delegated powers’.  Even as it stands it is anticipated that up to 1000 instances of Ministers making alterations to statute while bypassing Parliament will occur.  The likelihood is that number will explode with ample opportunity for the Government to sneak through legislation which is only remotely related to EU separation.

Make no mistake, the Article 50 letter was as much for our consumption as for the EU Commission.  Brexit has provided the perfect opportunity for the Government to pursue its neo=Conservative policies.  But they were going to be pursued anyway. If Brexit had not happened another pretext would have been found.

‘Let It Shine’ – On an Unsavoury World of Grace and Favour

graftFor the past month the focus of the world’s press has been on the new incumbent of the White House.  Understandably, much concern revolves around the firewall which separates Donald Trump the President from Donald Trump the businessman. The gossamer nature of this separation is, of course, worrying to those who value the liberty and dignity of citizens, since through the ages autocratic leaders have effectively facilitated the use of slave labour in private enterprises through tight political control.  But rather than looking  askance at the manipulation of the US institutions for personal gain it is worth considering an example much closer to home. Although in no way approaching the scale of Trump. the recent career of entertainer Gary Barlow provides a model of how a system of autocratic patronage operates and how it serves to subvert the aims and ambitions of an open society.

The murky background to Let It Shine

I am not a fan of Gary Barlow so I am poorly placed to judge whether his new primetime Saturday evening show, Let It Shine is good or otherwise. Undoubtedly he is a popular entertainer with musical talent as his many awards testify, but the quality or ability of Barlow as an artist is not the point of this post.  Rather, it is the place which he occupies in the British establishment and the effect this has on our society. Now, as this article by Hannah Furness in The Telegraph shows, I am certainly not the first to query the wisdom of the BBC in giving Barlow a brand new series. The problem is not wholly to do with Barlow’s tax-dodging past, although that will feature in my argument a little later.  The main issue is that the BBC is once again following a format (for example Any Dream Will Do) of using the production as a talent spotting content for a putative musical show planned by Barlow called The Band. This is semi-autobiographical, telling the story of the rise of boy band Take That, which projected him to wealth and fame.

As far as we can tell the BBC has no commercial stake in the forthcoming musical so our money is being used to provide national advertising for a private production. This issue has been raised before, most pointedly in 2008 by none other than director of the Old Vic Theatre Kevin Spacey who protested at the free promotion being given to Andrew Lloyd Webber (Lord Webber, by the way. one of Barlow’s collaborators) musicals, especially Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. Was Spacey justified? Apparently, as Furness points out, he was:

At the time [2008], a study by the Society of London Theatre found theatregoers were 47 per cent more likely to go to shows after seeing the musical television tie-in, dubbing it the “Saturday night TV effect.  

The Band musical is being produced by David Pugh Ltd and as no details have been released on funding or budget profile we are effectively ignorant of the commercial aspects of this enterprise.  We cannot know whether our licence money is directly lining the pockets of the less than socially conscious Barlow. The essential question is whether the BBC itself has any idea since it was they who approached Barlow to make Let It Shine!

A World of Grace and Favour

Should we have concerns about the financial activities of Barlow? I think so. It is less than three years since Barlow, along with two other members of Take That, was found to be putting money into a scheme ruled by the courts to be a tax dodge. The three band members were ordered to pay back  £20 million (!), a sum which they were clearly not keen to refund almost a year later as this report from April 2015 indicates. Bizarrely the BBC themselves highlighted a central issue of the debate which was the question of whether Barlow should be made to relinquish his OBE given to him by Elizabeth Windsor after he organised her ‘Diamond Jubilee’ concert in 2012. I have blogged previously about the iniquities of the honours system but here was a clear example of someone getting a gong for services rendered,  presumably the grotesquely privileged equivalent of mates rates!  Predictably, then Prime Minister David Cameron opposed a suggestion by Margaret Hodge, Chair of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee of removing the honour.

At this point it is worth remembering the citation of the OBE which states it was awarded to Barlow for services to the Entertainment Industry and to Charity. The argument advanced by Cameron and others  was that his tax-dodging antics had nothing to do with his charitable work so the OBE should still stand.  But things are not so clear cut and charities actually receive a lot of funds from the public purse. As Zoe Williams succinctly put it in an article:

In fact, paying tax and giving to charity are connected, and if you avoid the former, you leave a gaping hole in the social fabric that must be darned by the latter. It’s like overlooking all the landmines a person planted, then giving them an MBE for money raised in the service of prosthetic limbs.

Williams goes on to make the point that there were precedents for stripping titles under similar circumstances (e.g. removing Fred ‘The Shred’ Goodwin’s knighthood) so this action was entirely reasonable.

So its now possible to see just how the system works. Gary Barlow is famous through his membership of the boy band Take That which makes a lot of money partly because of the BBC (just as for most popular UK artists). Barlow’s fame gets him the gig to organise Elizabeth Windsor’s Golden Jubilee concert,  which favour nets him an OBE. As a by-product of all this Barlow is wealthy enough to employ experts and participate in a tax scheme which diverts money legally belonging to the public purse. Barlow is recently approached by a BBC, angry at losing The Voice show to ITV and prepared to overlook Barlow’s misdemeanours in an attempt to chase ratings, despite being told by politicians not to do so. Barlow’s Let It Shine is generating free publicity for his new stage show which will virtually guarantee its success.  The BBC is thus complicit in boosting audiences for a private venture, the funding of which is unknown (possibly even to the BBC).  The continued possession of the OBE effectively justifies the whole putrid arrangement.

What links Gary Barlow to the Windsors and much of the rest of the British establishment is the desire for a grace and favour society in which they choose which social causes receive support (and who should get honours!).  But such a society where resources are allocated on the whim and predilection of the wealthy and privileged  is inimical to an open society where we all decide where resources should go and, in turn, we can all canvas public support for causes which are important to us. As I pointed out at the start, Barlow’s activities are trivial compared with the possibilities which may open up to Trump. But bear in mind that Barlow is merely one example, though a useful one as the facts are in the public domain allowing us to see the mechanism in operation. Grace and favour should have died with the nineteenth century!

The City of London Corporation; The Solid Gold Woodlouse

Firstly, to put this post into some historical perspective. Of the many Clauses comprising the various versions of the 13th Century Magna Carta only a very few are still relevant, including Clause 9 which states:

The City of London shall have all the old Liberties and Customs which it hath been used to have.

Other cities are indeed mentioned (including the Cinque Ports) but these have long been absorbed into the mainstream of British politics and administration. Fast forward three centuries and in 1571 the City of London Corporation (CofL) created the Remembrancer post as a channel of communication between the Lord Mayor and the Crown (including Parliament). Now to 1647. The Lord Mayor and Common Council petition a recalcitrant Civil War Parliament to allow an expansion of its forces to oppose the New Model Army. Both the City and Parliament backed down when Oliver Cromwell threatened to destroy the city.

These episodes from history tell us much about the CofL. It is the woodlouse of British institutions – ancient, adaptable and a born survivor. It is these features which are the biggest obstacles in holding to account this blot on our democracy. The CofL itself points out that there is a considerable degree of misunderstanding regarding the City Remembrancer. For example, it is often stated that the Remembrancer sits in the House of Commons. He does not, as the CofL points out here; if he occupies any position it is in the Under Gallery overlooking the Chamber, but not part of it. It is not difficult to realise that a seat in the Chamber itself would be a waste of the Remembrancer’s time. He would not be allowed to take part in debates and I imagine pulling faces or looking disapprovingly at the Chief Secretary of the Treasury would not have a great effect. In fact, power is much more effectively exercised at the Reading and Committee stages of Parliamentary business. This sloppy thinking on the part of critics does nothing to help frame the urgently needed reforms.

Continue reading “The City of London Corporation; The Solid Gold Woodlouse”

Supporting David Cameron is Incompatible with Supporting Democratic Principles

Last month I blogged about the imprisonment and trial of four Levellers (for details of the Levellers see here) in March 1649 for publishing a pamphlet (England’s New Chains Discovered) which dared to criticize Oliver Cromwell and the military government. In effect this was the start of a determined programme of suppressing opposition and avoiding accountability which lay at the heart of the concerns articulated in the pamphlet. The warning which the event hold for us today was starkly illustrated a few weeks ago during Prime Ministers Questions in the House of Commons. This is supposedly a central event in British democracy where the Prime Minister is held accountable by our representatives. While all Prime Ministers in recent times have been known to dissemble, David Cameron has established a special notoriety for ignoring questions. In this instance he did it with a persistence, arrogance and contempt for the House of Commons which defied belief.

Continue reading “Supporting David Cameron is Incompatible with Supporting Democratic Principles”