Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Are burglars really "cowards"? Or was Judge Bowers right to say housebreaking requires courage?

A Crown Court judge caused a media hurricane-in-a-teacup back in September for claiming, during sentencing, that burglary required "a huge amount of courage". I remember thinking at the time that saying that aloud in open court itself required a fair degree of bravery.

This week Judge Peter Bowers was issued with a reprimand by the Office for Judicial Complaints for his comments, which he made as part of his justification for sparing the defendant a custodial sentence. Back in September op-ed writers threw their arms in the air in outrage and magistrate's son David Cameron duly took to the Daybreak sofa to froth self-righteously and declare from on high that "burglary is cowardice". Thanks for clearing that up Dave.

But few pundits at the time bothered asking: was Judge Bowers was right? At this point, it's worth looking at his actual wording:
I might get pilloried for it … it takes a huge amount of courage, as far as I can see, for somebody to burgle somebody's house. I wouldn't have the nerve. Yet somehow, bolstered by drugs and desperation, you were prepared to do that.
Firstly, it's worth saying that we have no evidence that this was a dearly held belief judge Bowers had been dying to share with the world for years. Maybe he spoke without thinking, or maybe he was suffering from postprandial somnolence. But let's suppose for a second that he meant what he said: that burglary requires balls.

Now let's look at what burglary entails: the brazenness to walk into someone else's property, knowing that if you get caught you face arrest or, if you're an American housebreaker, the possibility getting shot. Yes, it's an incredible violation of other peoples' personal space. And yes, offenders should be punished. But notice that at no point did Judge Bowers say "I think burglary is, like, totes jokes" or "people who have been burgled should just shut their mouths and just suck it up."

To say that burglars are cowards is to play into the conventional narrative that criminals turn to illegal activity because they are too lazy to make it straight. Which simply isn't true. Watch this video of an interview with an American burglar, and listen to the phenomenal level of detail he puts into the planning. Read about drug gangs or mafia bosses expanding their empires, and chances are they are working longer hours than your run-of-the-mill workaholic CEO.

While Judge Bowers was pilloried for his remarks, I think his real crime in the eyes of the tabloid press was compassion. He concluded his sentencing that day:
I think prison very rarely does anybody any good. It mostly leaves people the chance to change their own mind if they want to. I don't think anybody would benefit from sending you to prison today. We'd all just feel a bit easier that a burglar had been taken off the streets.
After all, to claim, even for a second, that criminals are anything other than worthless scum is to treat them as human beings, which opens a very complicated can of worms indeed.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Is the UK set to become part of the "post-developed" world?

Britain's politicians and business bosses like to paint our country as a "world leader": a thriving, socially-progressive First World hub of technological  innovation and ruthlessly efficient public services.

But the other day, as I sat at my computer writing a story about the cut to local councils' road maintenance budgets - further reducing their ability to patch up our ever more pockmarked roads - it occurred to me that a new term was needed to describe Britain's socio-economic status.

Just as we use the term "post-industrial" to describe a society that has moved beyond heavy industry and instead employs people to make flat whites and work in "creative design agencies", web start-ups and investment banking, we need a fresh phrase for a country that is dismantling its national health service, savagely cutting social care and even reducing weekly bin collections.

My friend, a fiendishly clever policy wonk (think Data in Star Trek) who works for a local authority, suggested "post-developed de-developing countries," which, while not particularly catchy, captures it quite nicely.

But while my friend and I were being light-hearted, the implications here are far from funny. Think this is just petty scaremongering? What the majority of people don't realise when talking about "the cuts" is that most of them haven't happened yet (as my friend put it: "we've only eaten a polo mint so far, but the main course is on its way").

Plotted on a graph, you can see local authorities budgets plummeting just as service demand from Britain's ageing population is set to sharply spike - and that isn't taking into account the extra demand created by the cuts to services (for example, cuts to adult social care will mean a rise in pensioner hospital admissions).

The satirical news site the Daily Mash ran a story this week headlined: "Britain to probably have some electricity in 2014." The scary thing is, I wouldn't have been that surprised if it had been genuine.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Why do we need elected police commissioners? Don't be fooled, this isn't about devolving power to local communities, it's a chance to shift the blame

After election fever comes the comedown.

As those days and nights spent sweating over the prospect of a Romney victory, watching Karl Rove's mathematical meltdown, and wondering whether Obama really could take Florida dissipate into the cold reality of "fiscal cliffs" and "grand bargains", elections junkies the country over are being forced to go cold turkey. The  psephologists have crawled back to their academic lairs and Nate Silver has been returned to his magic box.

But just when it seems nothing could top the thrill of seeing Romney vanquished and Obama re-elected as only the forth Democrat President to win two terms since 1900, a new election hoves into view. And this one you can actually vote in! Yes, that's right dear voter, this Thursday is the elections for England and Wales' 41 police and crime commissioners (PCCs).

Except, inexplicably, it seems the rest of the UK isn't exactly radiating with enthusiasm. Large numbers are completely oblivious to the fact it's even taking place, with voter turnout expected to dip below 20%, a record low for a national UK election, while the vast majority of people are unable to name any of their local candidates.

All of which suggests this was not a burning issue for the UK electorate. So why exactly is it happening? And what will the new commissioners actually do? According to the Home Office website, the PCCs will have influence over key areas like CCTV, street lighting, graffiti and tackling gangs, but their central purpose is to
ensure the policing needs of their communities are met as effectively as possible, bringing communities closer to the police, building confidence in the system and restoring trust.
In other words, it's all about local democracy: "Bringing more of a public voice to policing and giving the public a name and a face to complain to if they aren't satisfied."

Which is convenient, because with a 20% cut to the police budget in the pipeline and the loss of 15,000 officers by 2015, one would imagine there's a whole lot of people about to feel very unsatisfied. Notice a rise in anti-social behaviour or a drop-off in police response times a couple of years down the line? Don't bother the Government with your quibbling, your PCC clearly just hasn't been doing their job properly. Off with their head.

The idea that this is a genuine exercise in localism just simply isn't credible, because the Coalition is only interested in devolving power to two sectors: the private and the voluntary. If you want to know what Cameron and Osborne really think of local government, go and count the number of empty offices at council buildings across the land.

While I'm sure the individual PCCs will, once elected, work hard for their local communities, they ultimately look set, as Polly Toynbee put it in Dogma and Disarray: Cameron at Half-Time, to be "squeezed into insignificance between an interventionist Home Office and the private contractors lined-up to take over large slices of policing." This is, after all, a Home Office determined to decide where and how the money is spent like never before. Ironically, it's with the privatisation of the police that the PCCs could have the most - indeed, a worrying amount - of influence. As shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper pointed out in a piece for the Guardian:
The new commissioners will face serious decisions on the future of policing and private contracts. A strong push is under way both from Tory government ministers and from private companies to contract out large swaths of public policing, yet there has been no debate about the risks or the safeguards needed.
The introduction of PCCs also further politicises our police force. While the founder of the modern police force Sir Robert Peel's claim that the police should act "in complete independence of policy" was always a pipedream - the Battle of Orgeave, anyone? - there's no question that the PCC system has the potential to turn policing into a microcosm of party politics.

But let's not be pessimistic. My hope is that individual PCCs will use their position to hold central government to account: speaking up on swingeing cuts, vehemently opposing further privatizations and loudly voicing the concerns of their local communities. They might have been intended as political window dressing, but who's to say they can't make their voices heard?

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

A personal, last-minute letter from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to the American electorate

Dear America,

I think 47% of you are feckless types dependent on Government handouts. As a hedge fund manager I destroyed hundreds of thousands of jobs and my people skills are so poor that I actually told an interviewer I preferred data to people.

I look forward to your vote.



Saturday, 3 November 2012

Class, a new left-wing think tank, can help craft a coherent response to this Government's cruel indifference to inequality

Last Wednesday I attended the parliamentary launch of the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (Class), a new think tank set-up by Unite the Union to act as a lightening rod for left-wing debate and discussion.

There was a packed turn-out in one of the Commons' beautiful Committee Rooms to see speeches by, among others, Independent columnist Owen Jones, TUC deputy general secretary Frances O'Grady, and Professor Richard Wilkinson, co-author of the brilliant The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone.

The parliamentary launch centred around the release of Class's recent publication Why Inequality Matters (available to read online here), which draws heavily on the ideas of The Spirit Level. For those that haven't read it, the central thesis is simple: the larger a society's income inequality, the more devastating its social problems.

Whereas Peter Mandelson famously said that New Labour were "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich" as long as they paid their taxes, The Spirit Level empirically shows that material inequality actually leads to higher rates of mental illness, obesity, teenage pregnancies, and even murder, while severely limiting social mobility, trust and life expectancy.

Owen Jones rightly pointed out that a think tank can't single-handedly save the world, but the launch of Class is genuinely important as a means of helping the left present a coherent response to policy planners and journalists. As someone tweeted to me recently: "While the left thinks about things deeply, the right acts." And you know what? They're spot on. As right-wing economist Milton Friedman wrote in 1962:
Only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable. [my italics]
And that's precisely what a think tank can do: float ideas in the pubic sphere ready for when they are needed.

Take, for example, the banking crash in 2008, a time when the "politically impossible" certainly did become "politically inevitable" - large swathes of the UK banking system were nationalised in order to prevent the entire global economy going belly-up, something that even those on Labour's far-left could hardly have dared dream of.

Unregulated free-market capitalism was shown to be profoundly knickerless, but the financial system has largely carried on as if the whole thing was an unfortunate blip  thanks to the lack of a coherent left-wing response (I recommend reading Class's "think piece" on the effects of the crash, a brilliant summary of the idiocy of free market dogma: not only is it profoundly unjust, it's also economically unsound).

Faced with high unemployment, a rapidly vanishing welfare state and a shocking lack of social housing, Britain in 2012 is calling out for some fresh ideas. Let's hope Class can help deliver them.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Multinational organisations like Apple and Facebook regard tax avoidance as a moral imperative. Isn't it time we made them pay up?

In the midst of the Jimmy Carr tax avoidance scandal earlier this year (in case you were holidaying off-planet that week, Carr was left rather red-faced after it emerged that his accountant was channelling the comedian's earnings into a Jersey-based tax shelter), the BBC carried a fascinating interview with accountant Ronnie Ludwig. Yes, that's right, a fascinating interview. With an accountant.

As you might expect, Ludwig drew a firm distinction between tax evasion (trying to avoid playing tax by illegal means) and tax avoidance (attempting to mitigate the amount of tax you pay). But what most interested me was his answer to the question "Is morality part of your business?"
No, it isn't. We do not sit in judgment of our clients' moral values, nor do we preach morals to them. What we do is give advice based on the law. 
Pushed about whether a tax avoidance scheme designed to circumvent the intent of the law would bother him, he replied: "Probably, on a personal level, yes. But I'm there to advise on the legality of it, and if this particular scheme would work, and that is it." I have no doubt that Ludwig's stance is standard practice in most areas of professional life.

Jimmy Carr at least had the decency to be embarrassed once his tax arrangements became public ("I now realise I've made a terrible error of judgment"), but yesterday a gem of a press release landed in my inbox from Nigel Green, the chief executive of the deVere Group, the world’s largest independent financial advisors. Written in response to David Cameron's comments in parliament last week that he was "unhappy" with the level of tax avoidance by large corporations operating in Britain, Green retorts:
Mr Cameron is slamming companies who take legal measures to minimise their tax liabilities.  Of course businesses try and mitigate their taxation as they have a responsibility to their shareholders to turn as large a profit as possible, which is both honourable and economically responsible as profit creates jobs and wealth. 
That word "honourable" really leaps out - and not just because I've italicised it. Green and his ilk appear to believe, entirely sincerely, that tax avoiders are performing a morally laudable public service. This despite the fact that the "wealth creator" argument has already been comprehensively dismantled (for a quick overview, I recommend this brilliant column by the Guardian's Aditya Chakrabortty or this article by Salon's Michael Lind. For a longer view check out Matt Taibbi's long profile of Mitt Romney in Rolling Stone).

Better yet, Green goes on to say in his press release that the Prime Minister having the audacity to refer to massive corporate tax avoidance constitutes "demonising corporations" and could "incite protest groups to employ ‘direct action’ tactics against major brands". David Cameron: anti-corporate rabble-rouser. It's certainly a novel approach. 

Trying to frame a rational response to this level of brazen brass neckery (dictionary definition: "someone with no sense of shame about what they do") is extremely difficult. All we can say for certain is: Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas any more. The global financial elite is operating in a mirror world, one in which black is white and up is down and being asked to pay your full tax bill is not only a gross imposition, but as Green makes clear, to do so would be a gross dereliction of duty to your shareholders.

Appeals to corporate conscience or the public good are now worthless. The only way to clamp down on tax avoidance is regulation that honours the spirit of the law and an aggressive approach to closing loopholes.

But the problem with closing loopholes, as Amy Rosenbaum pointed out in reference to VP nominee Paul Ryan, is that it requires standing up to the special interests that benefit from them. In August there were calls for Google bosses to be hauled in front of the Treasury Select Committee to explain why they paid only £6m tax on UK revenues of £395m in 2011. 

This is, just to be clear, the same Google who it was reported in May had met with Tory ministers at least once a month since the last general election. Unless the cosy relationship between UK politicians and multinationals is severed, the prospect of getting large corporations to pay their full tax bills seems a distant blot on the horizon.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The court interpreting saga continues as Capita's £300m Framework Agreement with the Ministry of Justice is branded "unsalvageable"

As the old adage goes: if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Yesterday the Justice Select Committee (JC) held its first evidence session into the £300m court interpreting contract awarded to private translation firm Applied Language Solutions (ALS) by the Ministry of Justice (you can watch the evidence session here).

It's fair to say the contract, which came into play on February 1 this year, has been an unmitigated disaster (I co-authored a piece for The Guardian in March this year, one month after the new contract came into affect). Morale in the court interpreting community is dangerously low, with many highly-qualified and experienced interpreters drifting away from the profession in protest at slashed pay rates and what they see as a dangerous decline in the standard of court interpreting.

Back in March I also interviewed Mirela Watson, a Romanian translator with 15 years experience of court interpreting, who told me she was "extremely unhappy" with the new arrangements and that the standard of interpreting in some cases was so bad that a major miscarriage of justice was only a matter of time.

Rebranded as Capita Translation and Interpreting earlier this month, ALS's catalogue of errors is far too long to list exhaustively, but has included no-shows, providing interpreters with no court experience, and non-existent criminal background checks, with one man managing to register his cat as a qualified interpreter. While Capita insisted these were the inevitable "teething problems" encountered at the start of a new contract, the firm is still filling only 95% of bookings more than six months after the contract began.

The fact that bookings have levelled out at 95% - the MOJ's contract with Capita actually specifies they will meet 98% of bookings - is interesting in itself. Madeleine Lee, director of the Professional Interpreters' Alliance, suggested at the JC evidence session that, in cases that involve a long journey due to the lack of an available local translator, Capita bosses may be actively choosing to save money by paying the penalty fee for missing a session rather than stumping up for large rail fares.

While the number of bookings met has increased, serious problems remain. At the evidence-gathering session, the Law Society's criminal law committee chairman Richard Atkinson told of an arrested party with no prior criminal convictions being remanded into custody on three separate occasions as no interpreter had arrived to explain his bail conditions to him. 

Eventually police were forced to give up and release the man with no bail conditions set. Atkinson also told of a crown court trial delayed for a day, at the expense of thousands of pounds to the taxpayer, because no Albanian interpreters had been sourced.
All of which begs a simple question: why was the change made in the first place? In July a spokewoman for Capita told the Guardian:
The Ministry of Justice awarded the contract to ALS to address the weaknesses, lack of transparency and disproportionate costs of the previous service.
The idea that the new regime has fixed any of these factors is a joke. While John Fassenfelt, chairman of the Magistrates' Association, admitted the old system was far from flawless, he said he struggled to think of a single way it had improved since the Capita contract came into force. 

As for a lack of transparency, the new system has created a sizeable conflict of interest, with the same company now responsible for training, assessing and providing court interpreters. And as for "disproportionate costs" - the MoJ agreement has led to the collapse or delay of hundreds of trials, which will cost the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds.
So what was the drive behind the switch? The truth is that it seems to be yet another case of outsourcing on ideological grounds. The political credo of our times is clear: public sector, local, piecemeal = bad, private sector, multinational, overarching = good. It emerged last week that senior MoJ officials had failed to even read the credit report they commissioned, which warned ALS was too small to handle the full MoJ contract and should be given no more than £1m a year of business.
The decision to hand over the court interpreting contract to Capita is simply yet another example of the bull-headed belief that subcontracting out services to private firms always leads to a sleeker, more efficient service. The recent failures of ALS, back-to-work firm A4e and private security contractor G4S would suggest otherwise. Up in front of the Justice Select Committee next Tuesday is ALS founder and former CEO Gavin Wheeldon (pictured). He could be in for a bumpy ride.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Farewell then Andrew Mitchell. Now Labour need to capitalise on David Cameron's week from hell.

It has not been a great week for David Cameron. The PM has lurched his way through seven days which might inspire soupçon of sympathy in even the reddest of hearts.

In a turn of events straight out of a The Thick of It script brainstorming session, Cameron announced at Prime Minister's Questions that he would be forcing energy companies to offer all customers their cheapest tariff. The only problem being that he'd not mentioned this proposal to energy secretary Ed Davey. Cue armies of flustered aides frantically briefing to the press that, um, this had been the policy all along, except, er, if it wasn't.

Chief whip Andrew Mitchell became former chief whip on Friday after sustained pressure from the 2010 intake of Tory MPs, while walking cadaver Lord Tebbit popped up today in the Observer to lambast "this dog of a coalition government." No, that's right, it appears he's not a fan.

The cracks in the coalition appear to be showing. The Observer reported that the cabinet were split on whether Mitchell had to go, with Teresa May apparently to keen to get rid, and Michael Gove in favour of letting him stay on. Now the question is simple: after Ed Miliband's barnstorming conference speech, can Labour capitalise on disarray in the coalition?

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Can Mitt Romney make it to the White House on the back of the largest lie ever told by a U.S. President?

Whenever the cries for higher top tax rates, an end to astronomical bonuses, or demands for tighter regulation on finance become too loud, a Government minister will unfailing pop up to tell us that we can't be too hard on the rich, otherwise they'll all fly their private jets to a tax haven like Switzerland or Monaco on a permanent basis.

Ignoring for a second the moral appropriateness of allowing the super-rich to dictate the terms on which they're prepared to stick around, The Golden Latrine is taken with the idea of emigration as a means of expressing dissent. Thus, if Mitt Romney win the U.S. election race, a move elsewhere in the solar system is on the cards. Possibly Mars, although I hear Io is quite nice this time of year.

In a brilliant (if very long) piece in Rolling Stone magazine, Matt Taibbi looked at Romney's attempt to portray himself as a financial "turnaround artist" who has "saved" millions of regular Americans' jobs. As Taibbi writes:
By making debt the centerpiece of his campaign, Romney was making a calculated bluff of historic dimensions – placing a massive all-in bet on the rank incompetence of the American press corps. The result has been a brilliant comedy: A man makes a $250 million fortune loading up companies with debt and then extracting million-dollar fees from those same companies, in exchange for the generous service of telling them who needs to be fired in order to finance the debt payments he saddled them with in the first place. 
That same man then runs for president riding an image of children roasting on flames of debt, choosing as his running mate perhaps the only politician in America more pompous and self-righteous on the subject of the evils of borrowed money than the candidate himself. If Romney pulls off this whopper, you'll have to tip your hat to him: No one in history has ever successfully run for president riding this big of a lie. It's almost enough to make you think he really is qualified for the White House.
Those last two sentences are prefect. This is presidential politics as call-my-bluff and you can't help but admire the sheer shininess of Romney's brass balls. Given that a major news station like CNN was happy to wave away a number of outright lies by Romney's running mate Paul Ryan and instead spout some platitudes about how photogenic he looked on stage with his family, the chances of Romney pulling this off are not as remote as some liberals seem to think.

It might be time to start thinking of emigrating. Now where to go? Is the moon far enough away?

Monday, 6 August 2012

Winner takes it all: Is second place really just the "first place loser"? Or should Team GB athletes be proud of their silver and bronze medals?

Failure, it goes without saying, is a relative concept. For most of us mere mortals, failure is the feeling that creeps over you when you realise you've spent the entire day by yourself on the sofa, eating a whole packet of bakewell tarts and watching Jeremy Kyle reruns.

Olympic athletes, though, are cut from a different cloth. On Saturday afternoon British rowers Zac Purchase and Mark Hunter secured a silver medal in the lightweight double sculls final despite an engineering fault with Purchase's seat which forced a restart. Purchase was physically out on his feet after the race, and had to be propped up by Hunter, so I initially attributed their inconsolable demeanour in the post-race interview to exhaustion. But in his Guardian column, Purchase wrote:

I've never felt so totally and utterly gutted. We were there to win gold, nothing else. Even though I'm holding a silver medal, it still feels completely heart-wrenching. [...] I cannot imagine ever being able to derive any consolation from the race outcome. The whole point about sport is that you have winners and losers. It's important for people to keep that in mind. Getting medals for taking part is not what it's about; it's all about getting medals for winning.

The most obvious echo here is the famous sporting line, often attributed to NASCAR racer Dale Earnhardt: "Second place is just the first place loser". This is sport as Nietzschean struggle, inspired by Pierre de Coubertin's Olympic motto ("Faster, Higher, Stronger") rather than the Olympic creed, which begins: "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part." The winner takes it all, as Abba put it. The loser takes nothing. 

This was clearly a dictum taken to heart by British 400m sprinter Christine Ohuruogu. After forfeiting her Olympic title to the brilliant Sanya Richards-Ross on Sunday night, Ohuruogu said:

I was stunned, I was heartbroken actually. To lose your title like that was tough. I just wish I’d held on to my title — I really wanted to and I fought hard. She didn’t get an easy ride completely, at least I hope I made it hard for her. I always came here for one thing and one thing only and that was continuing my reign so I am disappointed. [...] I know I should be pleased but I’m just stubborn. I’m very stubborn.

In many ways such monomaniacal drive is commendable. Do we want to see British athletes just happy to be there, or do we want to see them win? The anxiety felt during the first couple of days while we waited for a goal medal at London 2012 suggests the latter. But is Earnhardt's line really true? Is second really just the first place loser? Isn't it possible to perform brilliantly but still only finish second or third when pitted against the world's best athletes? 

The answer, surely, is yes. In an athletics world of incremental improvement, where diet and training routines and sports science are constantly being refined, there's no shame in finishing second or third. As Liz Nicholl, the chief executive of UK Sport argued, commentators who aren't close to the high performance system think Team GB should be in the mix for every gold, but while we're progressing, so is the rest of the world.

This is what Rebecca Adlington articulated so eloquently in her interview poolside immediately after losing her 800m freestyle crown to 15-year-old American Katie Ledecky. 
Refusing to play the victim, Adlington said: "I am so proud and pleased to get a bronze medal – it's nothing ever to be embarrassed about. Swimming is one of the hardest sports to medal at. It is so, so difficult and I hope the public realise that."

However, perhaps the fact that Adlington was content with her two bronze medals at London 2012 isn't that surprising. Stanford University professor Bob Sutton blogged this week about the joy U.S. swimmer Brendan Hansen displayed at snaring a bronze in the 100m breaststroke. While Hansen's euphoria was partly down to his age (he was only the thirteenth swimmer to win a medal over the age of 30), Sutton also mentioned a 1995 study for the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which suggested strong evidence that athletes are happier with a bronze medal than a silver. Whereas bronze medalists are happy to have made it on to the podium, silver medalists are prone to counterfactual thinking, constantly beating themselves up about how close they were to gold.

As Sutton put it: "silver medalists see themselves as the first loser, while bronze medalists see themselves as the last winner." While that speaks volumes about the mindset of our elite athletes and their relentless desire to win, in the end Adlington was surely right. Silver and bronze medals aren't first and second place for losers, they're a reward for exceptional performance, a reminder that you are among the best in the world at what you do.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

How can the "flabby" public sector possibly compete with such ruthlessly efficient three-letter acronyms? All hail our private sector paymasters!

If the dignified, level-headed way G4S has handled London 2012 security has taught The Golden Latrine anything, it's that subcontracting out services that would normally fall under the public sector's remit to private 3-letter acronyms always leads to a sleeker, more efficient service.

hile cynics carped about the army and police having to be drafted in in their thousands to make up for shortfalls in the number of security guards provided by G4S, in a rational world the private security firm (sorry, "word's leading provider of security solutions") would have been applauded for allowing our brave boys to get in on the Olympic action. Yes, CEO Nick Buckles admitted that perhaps not all of the security guards provided by G4S would be able to speak English, but as the old adage goes: the baton is mightier than the vocal chords.

Likewise A4e, who did such a bang-up job in ushering our jobseekers back to work (and surely the point of work is the inherent dignity of labour, rather than actually getting paid?). And who could forget Capita-owned court interpreters ALS, whose minor "teething problems" in fulfilling their £300 Ministry of Justice contract have compassionately handed our nation's criminals a moment of respite when their trials collapse.

What else can the flabby public sector do when faced with such ruthless competency but genuflect in admiration of our corporate paymasters. God bless the private sector! May its efficiency savings be a shining example to us all!

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Was Vince Cable right to say banking was a "moral quagmire"? Or are the Barclays scandals really just the work of a few rogue traders?

The Golden Latrine can still clearly remember the pride he felt at setting up his first bank account. At the time it felt like a rite of passage into the adult world. Nowadays those au fair with the state of British banking might prefer to take the safe option and keep their money stuffed in a Hello Kitty pillow case under the bed.

It was perhaps naive, if not unreasonable, to hope that the greed, wishful thinking and excessive risk-taking which led to the banking crash in 2008 - an event, lest we forget, that came perilously close to derailing the entire global economy - might have taught the banking industry a lesson. Surely they would have no choice but to clean up their ways and embrace the need for tighter industry regulation, right? Wrong.

ankers have been under the cosh this week following two major scandals which demonstrate how completely the industry has failed to reform itself. The announcement that four high street banks had been involved in the mis-selling of complex financial products to 28,000 small businesses was dwarfed by the revelation that Barclays had received a £290m fine from regulators for participating in the rigging of the LIBOR (the daily rate set by the British Bankers' Association, governing how much it costs for London's banks to borrow from each other) and the EURIBOR (the same, but for lending between European banks). And in case this sounds like obscure inter-bank politics removed from the real world, consider this: these rates underpin contracts worth $350 trillion worldwide, while the Libor rate impacted on an estimated 250,000 British mortgage holders at any one time over the last decade.

usiness secretary Vince Cable penned a strongly-worded piece for The Observer on the need for greater regulation, accountability, and cultural change within the industry, as well as calling for the implementation of the Vickers report (which recommends that bank reinstate the traditional firewall between their commercial banking and investment banking arms, as well as being forced to maintain greater reserves of capital). But what was heartening is that this time the savaging wasn't just from the liberal press. The governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, and Lord Turner, chairman of the Financial Services Authority, joined the fray, with the latter decrying the City "culture of cynicism and greed that is quite shocking".

Barclays CEO Bob Diamond has been summoned to the Treasure select committee on Wednesday, although chances are he won't be sweating unduly. This is, after all, the m
an who, upon being questioned by the same select committee last year about the seemliness of him receiving an £6.5m bonus for 2010 despite woeful trading figures, memorably told them: "There was a period of remorse and apology for banks and I think that period needs to be over." This a mere two years after his bank narrowly avoided the need for nationalisation - although they did greatly benefit from the bailout of the other banks, as their former CEO John Varley acknowledgedHumility is not, I think it's fair to say, Diamond's strong point.

And the revelations continue to flow. 
In a fascinating blog posted today, the BBC's Robert Peston revealed that managers at Barclays believed they had the Bank of England's tacit approval to manipulate the Libor rate - based on reports of a phone call between Bob Diamond and Paul Tucker, deputy governor of the Bank of England. Tucker firmly denies that he authorised any such thing.

Whatever the results of Diamond's appearance in front of the select committee, what is becoming brazenly clear is that these are not isolated incidents. 
As The Guardian's Jonathan Freedland wrote
Just as News International's insistence that phone hacking was confined to a few "rogue reporters" has been revealed as a lie, the idea that a small number of Bollinger-swilling renegades operated unnoticed inside our great British banks is absurd.
Freedland is spot on. This isn't about a few traders overstepping the mark, but yet further evidence of a wanton disregard for rules and regulations within the banking industry. RBS today revealed that they sacked four traders between November 2011 and February 2012 over their alleged involvement in attempts to fix the Libor rate, and there's a sense that the banking profession has been protected from widespread public scrutiny in the past by virtue of its jargon-heavy impenetrability. In other words, whereas anyone can understand a newspaper paying a private investigator to tap the telephone of a dead child's parents, a large percentage of the population are simply too bored by the minutiae of banking to scrutinise the actions of bankers in any detail.

Now, though, there's a definite sense of the veil lifting. Barclay's chairman Marcus Agius has fallen on his sword, Bob Diamond is under pressure to follow suit and V
ince Cable is calling for a criminal investigation into the inter-bank rate fixing. For too long the banking industry was given free reign as long as it continued contributing to British GDP on such a lavish scale. The time has come to regulate the banking system properly, but it isn't going to be easy. Our financial sector has the best lobbyists in the game, and incredible access to Downing Street. The lobbyists have already watered down the Vickers report, let's make sure our politicians don't let them dilute it any further.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

"Compassionate Conservatism" was always a hollow phrase. With the welfare state now firmly in Cameron's crosshairs, should we be thankful for the Lib Dems?

Deep in his insalubrious past, The Golden Latrine claimed housing benefit for a period. The shame stills gnaws at his innards on a daily basis.

In a widely trailed speech delivered in Bluewater shopping centre in Kent yesterday, Cameron indulged in a spot of what his former sidekick Steve Hilton would no doubt have referred to as blue sky thinking. It was, he said, "time we asked some serious questions about the signals we send out through the benefits system," which is apparently encouraging a "culture of entitlement". The Golden Latrine would like to point out is in no way ironic coming from an alumni of Heatherdown Preparatory School and Eton, who is heir to a large personal fortune and was apparently given a helping hand into Conservative Central Office by a call from Buckingham Palace.

Among the ideas floated in the speech was a £20,000-a-year cap on housing benefit, a drive to make people on incapacity work harder at not being ill, and my personal favourite, the scraping of 
access to housing benefit for people under 25 - all with the aim of lopping £10bn off the welfare budget.

Tim Leunig from the liberal CentreForum thinktank was quick to debunk Cameron's ideas on scraping housing benefit for under-25s, rightly pointing out that simply building more public housing would reduce the government's housing benefit bill by forcing spiralling rent costs down (and, he might well have added, creating a large number of much-needed construction jobs). The speech did, needless to say, go down a storm with Golden Latrine favourite Melanie Phillips, who hailed Cameron's "important, bold and radical welfare reforms."

However, it should be stressed that this speech wasn't a set of policy directives but rather an attempt to discuss the "principles of debate," as work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith put it, adding: "
The details of these, of course, we have to be careful about. We have to be sensitive to the different reasons people have housing - people coming out of care, being in difficulties in foster care." It was, in other words, a transparent attempt to woo back the Tory hardline (although interestingly, a poll on the Daily Mail showed that a massive majority of their readership were against the under-25s idea - clearly Tories aren't overly enamoured with the idea of having to house their ageing offspring either). Openly admitting that these were ideas for a post-2015 Tory government, what the PM was ultimately saying was: "This is what I would do, folks, if only I didn't have to accommodate those pesky Liberals in the Coalition. Vote for us outright next time."

With Cameron a distant dot in Labour's rear window in the polls, his desire for eye-catching reforms is understandable. But if he really wants to cut costs, he should perhaps look closer to home. According to a report from The Guardian's Patrick Wintour, the Treasury has already accepted that the current creation of Universal Credit (which basically just merges benefits and tax credits into one system) will cost the government money, rather than create savings.

For now these policies remain voter-wooing pipedreams, but if we get a majority Conservative government in 2015, there might well be a large number of graduates moving back home with their parents. 
In a peculiarly nasty article  in the Observer a few weeks back, Barbara Ellen opined that anybody still living with their parents at the age of thirty should "get a life". It might be time for her to take another look at that one. 

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Are less well-off voters who vote Conservative just suffering from "false consciousness"? Or is the Right just better at talking about values?

Back in the days before he became a jaded roue, committed to a life of Tesco Cava breakfasts and loose women, The Golden Latrine used to get himself into a right old tizz over the idea of people voting for politicians because they were, quote unquote, "a strong leader".

The most famous domestic example of recent times was, of course, Margaret Thatcher. Watch footage of voters during her election campaigns, and you hear the same view expressed time and time again: she's a strong leader, even if I don't agree with all her policies. As a feisty young politico, this struck me as an inherently flawed outlook. Surely the worst possible combination you can have in a Prime Minister is an iron-willed leader who will enact the policies you're against with the utmost vigour. David Cameron has wreaked enough damage already, despite the fact he supposedly spends half his waking hours "chillaxing".

No, as far as I was concerned, the only reason the less well-off ever voted Tory was that old Marxist chestnut: false consciousness. If only the working class voters knew the truth, they would have no choice but to vote Labour (see this New Internationalist blog, which brands a working class Tory vote as "nothing short of a betrayal," as a shining example of this kind of thinking). Now, though, this position strikes me as fundamentally unsound. 

Jonathan Haidt's new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, examines this the question of why the working class frequently vote against what are, seemingly, their own economic interests. Why, for instance, was Ronald Reagan such an unstoppable hit with America's blue-collar workforce? Why did so many British working class families embrace Thatcherism? Was it simply  a sense of misplaced loyalties?

Haidt's conclusion, as he outlined in an article for The Guardian, is that the right are frequently better at articulating a moral vision for the nation, whereas the left is prone to over focusing on policies: there will be this many more NHS beds; we will lift this many people out of poverty. All very progressive and praiseworthy, but lacking an emotional pull - an important factor in politics, as The Golden Latrine has written about before. As Haidt put it:
It's more about a moral vision that unifies a nation and calls it to greatness than it is about self-interest or specific policies. In most countries, the right tends to see that more clearly than the left. In America the Republicans did the hard work of drafting their moral vision in the 1970s, and Ronald Reagan was their eloquent spokesman. Patriotism, social order, strong families, personal responsibility (not government safety nets) and free enterprise. Those are values, not government programmes.
There's still a portion of the left that has an extremely unfortunate tendency to treat the poor as an anthropological specimen, dismissing legitimate concerns about things like immigration or Islamic extremism. The poor are seen as noble savages, mislead by their lack of education, bless their hearts. As a result of ignoring these concerns, a lot of current left-wing thinking falls foul of an obsession with tolerance and what Slavoj Zizek calls the "culturalisation of politics", which he describes as the process whereby:
political differences, differences conditioned by political inequality, economic exploitation, etc., are naturalized/neutralized into "cultural" differences, different "ways of life," which are something given, something that cannot be overcome, but merely "tolerated.
What Zizek is really talking about is the retreat of politics, it's abdication of the idea that it can fundamentally change the way our society is configured. For example, the existence of a glaring disparity in living standards between the extremely wealthy and the extremely poor is no longer something to be challenged, only managed - encapsulated perfectly by Peter Mandelson's famous declaration about New Labour being "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich". The naked greed of much of the banking sector and the mega bonuses they receive are not obscene byproducts of a fundamentally unjust system that needs to be redrawn, but simply a fact of life. They can no more be challenged than a law of nature can. Hence four years after the banking crash which threatened to destabilise the entire world economy, many of the major players are back to their old ways.

If we acknowledge the above, it's not hard to see why people are disillusioned with politicians. A strong, charismatic leader begins to look ever-more appealing, someone who can resusrect a nation's self-esteem and inspire a sense of pride. But what Haidt is really talking about is the Right's ability to embody values: respect for authority; loyalty; moral red-lines that can't be crossed. The left excels at iconoclasm (and condescension), but is not always so smart at making people feel safe and secure.

Take, for example, Thatcher's selling-off of council houses - a disaster for long-term UK housing policy, but a political masterstroke, which played perfectly into the desire of the poor for upward social mobility. As Andrew Pierce wrote in The Telegraph: "Thatcher understood that even families like mine, who had been kept in their rightful place often on sink estates by successive governments, had aspirations of their own. It took a Conservative leader to understand that the working classes also wanted to get on." And Thatcher was more than happy to talk about her desire to return to "Victorian values": respect, decency, hard-work and, perhaps crucially, taking responsibility for your own life. Although her policies ultimately served to undermine those values, the fact she was talking about them at all is symbolic.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Brace yourself for the sequel - David Cameron and Nick Clegg return to the rose garden

The Golden Latrine frothed at the mouth in glee at the news that David Cameron and Nick Clegg are to host a joint event - working title "Rose Garden 2" - on Tuesday to try and polyfiller over some of the fairly hair-raising cracks that are beginning to open up in the Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition.

Cast your minds back, if you will, to that glorious sunny day in May 2010. The buds were blossoming, and so was their Dave and Nick's bromance as the newly elected leaders frolicked together in the Downing Street rose garden, shooting each other besotted smirks as they heralded the arrival of the "new politics".

Now, as every seasoned film fan will tell you, sequels are nearly always terrible - with the possible exception of the second Godfather film (besides her crimes against tweeness, my main source of animosity at the drippy girl in 'that' ad was the fact that she preferred the Godfather III. You're right, it's not considered the best one - because it's shit. Also, as it's only two decades old, I'm not sure if it even qualifies as an "old movie". Ahem.) This reunion, though, has the potential to be a true classic.

Back in 2010, Clegg undoubtedly saw Coalition government as a chance for the Lib Dems to cast off their "third party" tag and taste real legislative power. This would prove they were grown-up enough to play with the big boys. Now though, on the back of some eye-wateringly bad local election results (the Lib Dems lost 369 of their 767 council seats), that decision looks positively suicidal. To misquote Norwegian football commentator Bjørge Lillelien's famous rant: "Nick Clegg, as they say in your language in the boxing bars around Madison Square Garden in New York: Your boys took a hell of a beating! Your boys took a hell of a beating!"

And it's not just the Lib Dems rank-and-file that are being to get restless. As Plymouth Tory MP Gary Streeter said today: "We have got to be much more Conservative on crime, law and order – that is what our supporters are waiting, indeed gagging to see." Flogging benefit cheats? Imprisoning hoodies? Making all police officers dress like that nice Nick from Heartbeat? They are gagging for it.

Still, I think John Harris is quite right to point out that the drubbing handed to the Conservatives at this year's local elections doesn't represent any kind of existential crisis for the party. As Harris put it:
Conservatism – or, at least, support for it – remains something deeply rooted in the fabric of English life. It expresses a huge dislike of organised labour, a belief in private property as the foundation of civilisation, and a defining suspicion of the state. For the most part it is hostile to change – but at least once, it has risen to a moment that demanded it.
But could the rose garden offer Nick and Dave once last chance at happiness before the rots sets in for good? Well, maybe. The Guardian's Polly Curtis conducted an interesting investigation yesterday about whether bad weather did actually have an impact on voter turnout. Her conclusion (SPOILER ALERT) was that no, it didn't, but there's no doubt that we British are suckers for the pathetic fallacy. As soon as the sun is out, it's bikinis on and smiling faces aplenty. That whirring sound in the background might just be Tory HQ indulging in a spot of cloud seeding...

Thursday, 8 March 2012

KONY 2012: Yes, social media can raise awareness, but does "clicktivism" do more harm than good?

Adrift in a world of YouTube clips of cute kittens and the latest lulz-inducing memes, The Golden Latrine knows a thing or two about sharing links. But now advocacy groups are trying to reconfigure the act of cut-and-pasting a link into something altogether more profound - political activism.

So-called clicktivism is on the rise - although the ease with which the coalition government swatted aside the Drop The Health Bill e-petition shows its limitations. In short: it's easier to ignore Facebook clicks or e-petitions than a protester with a placard outside your constituency office.

The latest and perhaps most noteworthy clicktivist effort yet is KONY 2012, a film made by the Ugandan charity Invisible Children, which has gone viral globally thanks to an astonishingly effective social media campaign. The film asks viewers to help make Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony "famous" in order to bring him to justice at the International Criminal Court (ICC), who put out a warrant for his arrest in 2005.

Now, let's be clear, a 30-minute movie is never going to be able to capture all the complexity of the situation on the ground - and major simplification is probably required to engage the average internet user with an attention span shot to pieces by high-velocity browsing. But while it's slickly-produced and designed to tug at the heartstrings, KONY 2012 left me feeling distinctly queasy.

Forget the portentous opening voiceover about the power of the Facebook generation or the scenes of Invisible Children's Jason Russell "explaining" the conflict to his son, what really troubled me was watching Russell evangelically telling a lecture theatre of students: "Who are you to end a war? I'm here to tell you who are you not to".

In an ideal world, Invisible Children's millions-stong new army of latte-drinking clicktivists could swoop in to arrest the war criminal and liberate the child soldiers. Except Joseph Kony has not been in Uganda for 6 years and, as Joshua Keating put it in Foreign Policy:

the LRA now numbers at most in the hundreds, and while it is still causing immense suffering, it is unclear how millions of well-meaning but misinformed people are going to help deal with the more complicated reality.
There are already 100 US Special Forces on the ground advising Ugandan government forces, who have themselves been accused of serious human rights abuses.

With US military forces already enagegd, what, then, are the filmmakers hoping to achieve? KONY 2012 makes the case that without continued public backing, "international support could be removed at any time," which seems a bit of an airy claim to warrant such a lavish advocacy campaign. And why impose an arbitrary deadline (the end of 2012) for rounding up Kony?

The message of KONY 2012 is simple: military intervention is a necessary and good thing. This is, to put it mildly, extremely contentious. Previous attempts by U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) to get rid of Kony have provoked a brutal backlash from Kony's followers, as this piece in Foreign Affairs last November makes clear:

Operation Lighting Thunder, and other such missions to fight the LRA in the Central African Republic and in southern Sudan, served mostly to kill efforts to keep beleaguered peace talks going. And, far from neutralizing the LRA, they prompted a strategically effective and ferocious response. In January and February 2009, the LRA abducted around 700 people, including an estimated 500 children, and killed almost 1,000
While there's no doubting the good intentions of Invisible Children, KONY 2012 shows a definite refusal to acknowledge the Law of Unintended Consequences. I couldn't help but recall Live Aid: the same infectious feelgood factor, the celebrity advocates (Bono, Rihanna, Jay Z, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg) and political heavyweights (Bill Clinton, Condi Rice, George W. Bush), the same naive belief that action automatically equals a positive outcome.

Live Aid gives the lie to this belief. For all the cosy TV retrospectives reflecting on Saint Bob and how good Queen were, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) estimated that up to 100,000 people may have died inadvertantly as a result of resettlement programme made possible by the aid effort. Yes, Live Aid saved lives, but it cost lives too. As David Rieff put it, writing in The Guardian in 2005:

Isn't it better to do something rather than give in to cynicism and do nothing? This is the question familiar to anyone who has criticised organisations that view themselves as dedicated to doing good in the world. To those UN agencies, relief organisations and development groups working in crisis zones from Afghanistan to Aceh, any "non-constructive" criticism, especially the kind that implies that it might have been better to refrain from acting at all, is so much nihilist piffle.

Edmund Burke's dictum that for evil to triumph, all that is required is "for good men to do nothing" (a favourite quotation of Kofi Annan's) encapsulates this view. Yet an alternative case can be made: in the global altruism business, it is, indeed, sometimes better not to do anything at all
That doesn't mean we should lapse into cynicism though. Invisible Children's undoubtedly do a lot of good work in central Africa, but their enthusiasm for military action might, sadly, undermine all that. Military interventions, after all, tend to esculate. As Joshua Keating wrote:

One of the biggest issues with a simplistic "Stop Kony" message is that discussions of Navy Seals or drone strikes are inevitable when patience runs out with Ugandan-led efforts . But what about the dozens or hundreds of abducted and brainwashed kids? Should we bomb everyone? Will they actually stop fighting after Kony is gone? What if they shoot back?
Before any wannabe clicktivists rush out to buy a wristband or a KONY 2012 'Action Kit', they might want to have a think about that.

Note: For those that want to analyse the film further, there's an extremely amusing deconstruction of the KONY 2012 at Wronging Rights entitled The Definitive ‘Kony 2012′ Drinking Game.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Partying with the English Defence League - a disturbing glimpse into the mind of the EDL rank-and-file

"I'm not racist but..." Can there be another phrase in the English language more likely to make anxious liberal buttocks clench in queasy anticipation? Sometimes The Golden Latrine pines for those Alf Garnett days when racists were at least upfront about their prejudice.

Current doyens of the "I'm not racist but" line are the English Defence League (EDL), who insist they are charming, warm-hearted folk who like flowers and kittens and just happen to be against the creeping "Islamisation" of Britain. Definitely not racist.

The far-right group are planning a national demonstration at the end of the month in Hyde, an economically-depressed market town most famous as the home of mass-murderer Dr. Shipman's surgery (although oddly the local council haven't used that on the town's website).

As is standard procedure with the EDL, they have attached themselves to a local cause, in this case the attack of a 17-year-old white teenager and his friend by a gang of asian youths in Hyde town centre (you can read the Manchester Evening New's report of the attack here).

The Facebook group for the march quickly began to scour the area for similiar cases and muse about how the police would ignore the racial element of the attack (in actuality, the police treated it as a 'hate crime' and charged the alleged perpetrator with a section 18 assault). Perhaps more troubling was the persistent need of one poster to capitalise the first letter of every word ("I'm Unsure, But The Divisions We Are In Will Not Stand By And Watch This Happening In The Streets That He Lives In, Another Reported Case Tonight!"), presumably to ratchet up the drama and make everything he said sound like a headline. Or maybe he's just not that bright.

But endlessly rehashing the EDL's shortcomings is boring, and instead I'd like instead to offer a disturbing glimpse into the mind of the rank-and-file by means of a personal anecdote.

The Golden Latrine casts his mind back to Halloween a couple of years ago. That day there happened to have been a large-scale demonstration by the EDL in Leeds city centre, matched by a counter-demonstration by Unite Against Fascism.

The plan was to nip downstairs to our neighbours' party for a drink or two, before heading to our friend's place. Now, at the neighbours' party there was an EDL member and a Unite Against Fascism member in attendance. Let's call the EDL member Dean (if there are any liberal-minded Deans reading, I do apologise, it just seems like a good solid racist name) and the UAF member Tarquin.

The meeting with Dean did not start auspiciously. After sampling my limp-wristed greeting, his first words to me were: "That's a poofter's handshake". Never one to shirk a challenge, I decided to give him the eyes. Since it was Halloween, I had white facepaint on, with kohl eyes and ruby red lips. I tried explaining to Dean that it was Halloween make-up, but it did not compute. Squinting with the effort, metaphorical steam billowing from his ears, his continued response was: "To me, make-up is gay".

Now, I can honestly say that Dean was one of the least intelligent people I've ever met in my life. If most peoples' brains are Pentium processors, his was a plastic Fisher Price toy computer. But talking to him outside, he seemed far more confused than nasty. He'd clearly been well-schooled in the rhetoric of the Islamisation of Britain, although when I asked him to give me an example of this Islamisation, his only suggestion was that a Muslim on his estate had tried to convert him. I pointed out that a Christian had handed me some reading material earlier that day.

But here's the rub. While Dean was woefully undereducated, UAF's Tarquin was, if anything, much more of an idiot. Despite being university educated, his major complaint about the protest that day was how disappointed he was that the police had put the kibosh on any hope of a running street battle between the two groups. Which was a joke, because he was a skinny wisp of student and the fascists would have ripped him to pieces like a strongman with a phonebook.

At this point in the night, things began to go a little awry. My friend, a maths PhD student with a machine-like brain then pointed out, Spock-like, the flaw in Tarquin's logic. If Tarquin wanted to fight fascists, well, there was one right over the other side of the room. You know, the guy he'd just been chatting to and joking with for twenty minutes. His self-righteousness questionned, Tarquin confronted Dean and launched into a giant tirade about how ashamed Winston Churchill would have been of him.

A giant bust-up ensued in which Dean was, if anything, extremely restrained. As we left, Dean shook my hand and explained to me, with a sad frustrated face, that he was "basically just a very violent person". You had to admire his honesty, and we took that as our our cue to stagger off into the night.

EDIT: The family of Daniel Stringer, the assaulted teenager, have made quite clear that they did not invite the EDL to Hyde.

The Golden Latrine would also like to make clear that he is in no way implying that UAF are comparable to the EDL. This piece simply happens to shine a spotlight on the youthful stupidity of one UAF member.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Does it matter if Britain loses its triple-A credit rating? The opinion of the undemocratic ratings agencies is worthless

The Golden Latrine has sympathy for Greece. Although my overdraft doesn't quite yet run to the hundreds of billions, the pain of unpayable debt is something that is all too familiar to most of us.

News percolated through last night that the credit ratings agency Moody's has warned that Britain may have its AAA status downgraded. In laymen's terms, these agencies grade the security of debt i.e. how likely a lender is to be able to pay the money back, AAA being the most secure. Put simply, a downgrade would mean that in theory it was more expensive for the British government to borrow money. Last month France lost its AAA status and eight other Eurozone countries had their status downgraded in this way.

Britain hasn't been downgraded, or even put on "negative watch" (which implies there is a 50% chance of being downgraded within two years), but rather on "negative outlook" which suggests only about a one in three chance of a downgrade in the next year or two.

Nevertheless, this is news that will have the chancellor's heart (if George Osborne has one) aflutter and raise alarm in the City, but the average person will shrug over and carry on with their day. And you know what, the average person would be right.

These are the ratings agencies, after all, that completely failed to spot the 2008 global economic crash and, more amusingly given their pronouncements from on-high about the creditworthiness of the Eurozone economies, the Greek debt crisis. As the brilliant Aditya Chakrabortty pointed out recently, Moody's report on Greece in December 2009, six months before the country had to be bailed out by their Eurozone partners to the tune of $147bn, was entitled "Investor fears over Greek government liquidity misplaced." In other words: everything fine here, nothing to see.

The stark fact is that global finance has reached the stage where it is simply too complex to be properly comprehended. As screenwriter William Goldman said of Hollywood: "Nobody knows anything.”

And don't just take my rabidly liberal, frothing-at-the-mouth word for it. Watch this clip, for example, from Inside Job, Charles Ferguson's outstanding documentary about the economic crash. Asked why they had given a AAA rating to bundles of extremely risky sub-prime mortgage debt, the heads of the credit rating agencies lined up to tell a Congress inquiry that, in the words of Moody's CEO Raymond McDaniel, their ratings "are just opinions."

Nevertheless, these undemocratic purveyors of "opinion" are being invited into the heart of our public life. Only recently the NHS regulator Monitor floated the plan to scrap the current assessment system that rates NHS providers (hospitals, ambulance services etc.) on clinical quality and instead use the rating agencies to grade their "financial strength" - with those achieving a low grade liable to lose their contract to operate in the NHS.

The mind well and truly boggles. Chancellor Osborne's office is somehow trying to spin the Moody's report as a validation of his austerity measures (you can read BBC Economic's Editor Stephanie Flanders excellent editorial here), since the Moody's report suggests that the downgrade might go ahead if the UK eases up on the cuts.

But should the credit rating agencies, who are accountable to no-one and have shown time and again that there predictions are basically just a stab in the dark, have this level of influence over government policy? We complain about EU law violating British sovereignty, but the credit ratings agencies exert a far greater sway over national governments than Brussels.

Maybe there is hope though. Last summer Standard and Poor downgraded the US's triple-A rating, to which the market's response was largely: So what? It's time for governments and policymakers to stop running scared.