When is evangelism intolerance? A dilemma for some Christians

I have a great deal of sympathy with the article by Deborah Orr in the weekend’s Guardian: Whether you are religious or secular imposing your views on others is foolish.  Ms Orr complains about strident campaigning from Christians against abortion and gay rights, as well as secularists complaining about the mention of God in the Boy Scouts’ oath.  I disapprove of these strident attitudes too, and it doesn’t make me feel better about those who advance them.  But I fear the distinction between free speech and imposing views isn’t as sharp as she implies.

Ms Orr praises the “live and let live” Christians she knows, who don’t seek to impose their views on others.  This sounds perilously close to not wishing to convert others to their faith.   I don’t think that is necessarily wrong, but many Christians feel that it is their duty to spread the faith – to evangelise.  Now I have enough of a Christian education to enjoy picking holes in what many practising Christians say, in spite of my having lapsed from the faith.  But in this case I find the duty to evangelise a difficult idea to challenge – it’s solidly grounded in scripture both in  letter and spirit (unlike, I would argue, many Christians’ views on gays, and, indeed, abortion).  The Christian and Islamic faiths differ from others, like Judaism and Hinduism, in this.  You are not meant to keep your light under bushel.

So I quite understand the Christian need to proselytise – and probably that is what many Christians think they are doing when advancing their views militantly on gay rights and abortion.  It mystifies me why so many Christians think these things are so central to their faith – but clearly many do.  Ms Orr, of course, is quite happy about the idea of free speech.  she is happy enough for Christians to publicise their views, provided they show equivalent tolerance when people who disagree with them publicise theirs.  She is objecting to two things.  First the idea that conflicting views should be suppressed because they are insulting to those of faith – part of a process of secular persecution.  I have almost no sympathy for Christians (or Muslims) on that score – surely the duty to bear insults with good grace is the flipside of the duty to evangelise?  But she also objects to attempts to “impose” their views on others, by, for example, Christian registrars refusing to conduct civil partnerships between gays – or the Christian landlord refusing to accommodate a gay couple in a bed and breakfast.  Also, of course, the use of violence to stop people using abortion services – and the attempt to advertise “gay cures” on London’s buses.

Ms Orr doesn’t talk about Christian surgeons refusing to conduct abortions – but isn’t that similar?  I don’t think many people would object to that, though this clearly creates problems and may restrict freedom of choice.  This at least shows that there is some grey amid the black and white.

But, to be fair, Ms Orr uses the word “foolish” rather than “wrong” to describe this behaviour – and this is much nearer to the mark.  This behaviour seems to be much more about a rather modern habit of wallowing in victimhood to attract attention from others.  Christians should have the teaching and spiritual resources to rise above that kind of behaviour, even if atheists do not.  Many do of course, so it is does the churches no good when leading figures like George Carey and Cardinal O’Brien pander to the victim culture rather than showing spiritual leadership.



The death of a snack bar.

Last Monday evening as I was walking to the Tube I saw a bit of a commotion on nearby Clapham Common.  There was smoke and there was a fire engine.  A closer look revealed that the smoke was coming from the mobile snack bar on Windmill Drive.  As I cycled past it on the following morning, it was just a tangled mess.  By yesterday it had gone completely.

This snack bar was something of a local institution.  There would usually be a knot of people chatting nearby, with an assortment of vans, lorries, police cars and the occasional ambulance parked nearby.  The people were almost all white and working class (by which I mean the real thing, and not simple “white and poor” as some rather annoying bureaucrats have taken to using the expression) and male, the occasional police woman excepted.  It was a favourite spot when such workers had a few minutes to kill.

And it did nothing to challenge prejudices about white working class people.  Its fare was greasy.  I don’t know what its coffee was like, but I saw no espresso machine as I walked by.  It all looked pretty disgusting.  Which makes it very easy for nice middle class people like me to sneer at it.  But working class people are a beleaguered bunch, looked down on by so many – I don’t begrudge them their moment of relaxation.  Besides my relationship with disgusting food is not entirely innocent – though I find it hard to forgive disgusting coffee.

But the fare clearly wasn’t healthy, and unhealthy eating is one of the things that causes policy types angst – as demonstrated by a series of seminars Food can be the best medicine held by the Reform think tank – trying to emphasize the positive potential of diet, as well as decrying the effect of poor choices.  This, along with harangues on the subject of smoking and drinking, is one of the forces which is laying siege to the working classes.  In doing so, it raises some challenges to modern liberal thinking.

On the one hand liberals like to emphasise choice, freedom and empowerment – traditionally as values in their own right, more recently based on evidence that these things are key to overall wellbeing.  On the other hand there is a focus on outcomes and the use of evidence based policy formulations, which tend to prescribe the same solution for everybody.  If we make people free, they will choose different things.  A lot of these choices will be for things we consider to be inadvisable.  And it will often be that different groups of people will tend to make different choices some being less to our taste than others.  But we have to accept that people are by and large responsible for the consequences of their bad choices – and not governments or wicked multinationals or anybody else.  It’s an awkward fact that most people who make unhealthy choices are perfectly well informed about the consequences – studies have shown this for smoking.

The NHS gives some a particularly pernicious line of reasoning.  It’s that since the NHS is funded by taxpayers in general, it gives the public the right to force people to make better choices (or at least to bully people) so as to reduce NHS costs.  But the unhealthy pay their taxes too – and if they drink and smoke, they pay a pretty decent whack too (tobacco tax revenues easily pay for the additional NHS costs associated with smoking, for example).  Perhaps hot pasties and sausage rolls should not be exempt from VAT, but when all’s said and done I think we tax unhealthy lifestyles enough.

We (by which I mean the policymaking middle class elite) should just lighten up.  Who knows, if we respected the choices people make with better grace, it might just help people to gain that extra confidence to take control of their lives and make better choices.

So I hope that unhealthy snack bar on Windmill Drive returns, as it has after a previous fire.



Can our bankers learn from the charities?

My applause for last month’s Budget on this blog looks more out of touch by the day.  The Budget has led to a string of PR difficulties, for which the government seemed ill-prepared.  First it was the age-related allowances, then hot takeaway food, and now it is charitable giving.  Perhaps the back-and-forth of coalition deal making leaves the PR behind.   But what the last week shows above all is just how skilled the charitable sector is at public relations and lobbying.  There is quite a bit of fuss about corporate lobbying in politics, but businesses look flat-footed by comparison.

The wave of protest from charities over the government’s proposed minimum tax on income is building into an overwhelming tsunami.  How have they achieved this, over a relatively obscure rule that affects only a few people?

Inevitably, truth is one of the first casualties in a battle like this.  It’s not that anybody is putting out lies, it’s that a concentrated smokescreen has been built up, so that few people have any idea what is really going on.  There are a couple of fine examples from last week’s radio coverage on the BBC.  One was a survey conducted by one of the lobbyists of charity chief executives asking them whether their charity might be seriously affected.  This was a bit like asking them “Do you want tax relief on charity giving to be restricted?” – not surprisingly nearly 90% said that they were.  This 90% figure quickly did the rounds to give the impression that 90% of charities would be in serious trouble.  In another case one senior person from one of the lobbies was asked how much charities would lose; she replied correctly that this was very difficult to estimate, and then proceeded to give a rather large and rather precise estimate – which quickly got quoted all over the place.  Very quickly the impression has been raised that charities’ income is going to be affected drastically, with the result that all sorts help to the poor and needy was going to get cut back.  Since then a steady stream of charity, arts and university types have piped in to add to the overall impression of impending disaster.

Meanwhile the government response has been a bit weak.  Some Customs and Revenue types were allowed to air their prejudice that most charities were tax dodges – but this idea was no more based on substance than the charities’ claims, and didn’t really help.

And as for the truth, I await some rather calmer analysis from the rather limited number of purveyors of calm, like The Economist.  For now what interests me is the pattern of the PR effort.  The basic idea is common enough from ordinary business PR.  A new regulation or tax is proposed that might force your business to change the way it does things.  So you scream murder and claim that the change will bring an end life as we know it.  Sometimes these claims may be grounded, but most often they are not; the thing is not to think about it too hard.  Anti-pollution regulations offer an instructive example: these are usually opposed vehemently by the industries that they affect; and yet the air and water  gets cleaner while the economy continues to prosper (the most widely quoted example of egregious protest was against sulphur dioxide pollution, in the 1980s, I think).  The general idea is that policy is developed through an adversarial process, like the British legal system.  Make your case as effectively as possible: the truth is somebody else’s concern.

How have the charities been so effective?  First of all they succeed in creating the impression that what they do is for the benefit of poor and needy, both here and abroad. The huge amount of marketing expenditure by big charities like Oxfam and Cancer Research, plus all those public sponsorship campaigns involving celebrities (like the recent Sports aid) help here.  Of course the picture is more complex than this: a lot of charities are about providing elitist education and entertainment (i.e. art) and some are downright nefarious extensions of rich egos.

Given this complex picture, the key thing is to keep solid and keep the message simple.  The supporters of poverty charities have not fallen into the trap of criticising their elitist fellow travellers – as this would fatally complicate the message, as well as opening a can of worms.  A second important point is timing.  The charities waited for the fuss over age-related allowances and Cornish pasties to calm down, before launching an onslaught.  And that onslaught looked well coordinated.  Whether or not their was much coordination I don’t know – but all that’s really necessary is to play follow-my-leader, which needs very little pre-planning.

Positive image for a few key leaders and low profile from the rest; simple oppositional messages; solidarity.  Can that PR disaster that is the British banking industry learn from this?  Banking, after all, has done more to alleviate human poverty than the charities ever will, through easing the path of trade and investment, the two real enemies of poverty.

I don’t think so either.  They don’t care enough about their image, and are too rivalrous to do the solidarity bit properly. Better stick to their usual strategy: passive resistance – the slow, patient picking apart and undermining of reform when the politicians are looking elsewhere.



Are introverts on the autistic spectrum?

I haven’t blogged on psychology so far – it’s not a subject I know much about, academically at least.  But this blog by Sophia Dembling in Psychology Today (thanks to Nic Prigg @nicola_prigg on Twitter) has really set me thinking.

Ms Dembling highlights a recent suggestion by a young research, Jennifer Grimes on introversion.  Instead of thinking about it as part of a spectrum with introversion at one end and extroversion at the other, might these not be entirely separate characteristics?  Instead try thinking about introversion on an autistic spectrum – with autism at one end, introversion at the other, and Asperger’s syndrome somewhere in between.  That’s not to suggest that introversion is a disability, as autism can be, but as a more helpful way of thinking about both it and autism.  It also opens the door to thinking about people who are both extroverted and introverted at the same time.

This carries me way of my depth.  I am familiar with autism in theory, but I don’t now any people with more than mild personality characteristics that I would describe in that way.  But I do know what it’s like to be an introvert – as I am a rather extreme version myself.  This comes out of the various psychometric tests I have taken, as well as a life time of personal observation.  I am very shy, introspective and do like to spend periods of time alone to collect myself.  I also spend a lot less time than most grooming social and family contacts – which means that I have a smaller close social circle than most.

But I can do empathy – and rather well.  In the organisations I have worked with I often take up the role of reconciler and peacemaker, seeing both sides to a dispute.  I usually read between the lines quite well, leading to an ironical sense of humour.  My friendships are stable and long-lasting, and only wither if I don’t devote enough time to them (which unfortunately happens quite a lot).  I can do politics – rather well when I put effort into it.  This is all somewhat opposite to how I’ve understood autism.  I would say the same for other introverts I know too.

So my first reaction is to think Ms Grimes is barking up the wrong tree.  But then perhaps that’s what she means by a spectrum – I’m not autistic, but share characteristics with those that are.  It has certainly set me thinking.  Perhaps a lot of my empathising skills are learned rather than innate? It would explain flashes of extrovert behaviour when my inhibitions are overcome (very rare).  And I do sometimes miss things in social situations too.  Which is no doubt what the what a lot of this is  about – trying to think of old problems in new ways.

The other thing that strikes from this article is how difficult psychology is as an academic discipline.  You are chasing shadows the whole time.  We can’t physically see what is going on in our minds, and be sure what is generating the same symptoms in different people has the same cause.  There is little that objective analysis can grasp on.  But we know the subject is important – a better understanding of the mind is critical to the well-being of us as individuals, and of society as a whole.



A tale of two City rogues

Too often people condemn City financiers without asking what it is that they do.  But we must try to distinguish the good from the bad.  The tale of two larger than life City financiers who have got into trouble brings this into focus rather neatly.

The first is Conservative donor and hedge fund manager Lewis Chester.  He, or rather the fund he manages, has been hit with a massive fine by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for abusive trading in mutual funds, the US equivalent of unit trusts and OEICs.  These collective funds provide opportunities for retail investors to take a share in a portfolio of investments without owning the shares individually, and are one of the best ways for ordinary investors (even very wealthy ones) to invest.  But they aren’t priced real-time, and that can leave them open to abuse.  In this case Mr Chester’s fund is supposed to have bought stakes late in the day, after prices had been fixed but when there was reason to think that they were under priced.    The fund was able to make a handy profit by selling the stake back later – but it came at the expense of the fund’s ordinary investors.

Hedge funds are investment funds given an unconventional or aggressive brief compared to the plodding ordinary funds which merely manage portfolios of shares and bonds.  Often the exploit pricing anomalies.  This isn’t very pretty, but usually it’s a way of transmitting information across financial markets and ensuring that everybody gets a fairer price.  On balance this is positive.  But when it comes to exploiting anomalies in mutual fund pricing there is no such information transmission.  It is simply theft, and there are rules against it. And even if rules aren’t actually broken, it is unethical, and anybody perpetrating it should be shunned by respectable society.

In this case Mr Chester still seems to be denying wrongdoing, dismissing his rather juicy emails as “banter” (gems like: Poor souls, working past cookie and milk time…for once in your lives, you can work like real men and do a proper day’s work. (You really are a bunch of women of the first order).).  But it’s gone through four years of judicial process and the fine has ended up at $100 million – though an appeal may be on its way.  I really hope that our own FSA is on his case, as if this is true he is hardly a fit and proper person to be conducting business here.

The second case is receiving much more attention, including two opinion pieces in todays FT.  It is Ian Hannam, a specialist in mining investments and friend of David Davis, the Conservative MP.  Like Mr Davis, and unlike Mr Chester, he is not a classic City smoothie who came up through the usual channels.  He got his boots dirty by travelling out to various dodgy parts of the world to take a closer look at the investments he was advising on, and talk tot he people that matter.  This is a striking contrast to so much of the City game of trawling through statistics and devising new computer programs.  He advised on investments and facilitated big deals.  Not pretty I’m sure, but you can see how this type of work can justify a big salary.  The net result is that more resources get mined to keep the world going in the style to which it has become accustomed.

Mr Hannam has been fined by the FSA £450,000 for flouting rules on insider information, for revealing too much about deals he was working on to clients.  I have no feel for the facts of this case, and Mr Davis has leapt to Mr Hannam’s defence.  What I do know is that the rules on insider information are tricky, and that there is a lot of grey in amongst the black and white.  If well connected insiders are getting all the best deals and making money out of the outsiders, this undermines confidence in markets.  But information is the lifeblood of markets, and restrict it, even amongst insiders, and markets will suffer.  It is already becoming more and more difficult for smaller companies to go public due largely to restrictions on information flow – and this will have a baleful influence on innovation.  Regardless of the rights and wrongs of Mr Hannam’s case the rules seem to be drawn too restrictively at the moment.

The last few decades have seen astonishing advances in the battle against world poverty.  A more globally integrated economy has been a key part of this, and global finance has been a key facilitator.  It has also been wildly abused, with too many fortunes being made to no socially useful end.  The public needs to take a closer interest in what goes on, to condemn the unethical (whatever side of the law they are on), but admire the people that genuinely make new connections and keep things moving – even if they cross the odd arbitrary line and get themselves into trouble.


Earthquake in Bradford. Not many dead.

“The most sensational by election victory in history”.  For once it is difficult to argue with George Galloway’s comment on his stunning win over Labour in yesterday’s Bradford West by election.  But as the dust settles, has anything changed?

The Coalition parties did badly in this election, but can be forgiven for having a chuckle.  Labour’s loss was spectacular, and it has been a tough week for the government.  For whatever reason, the media had turned on them over a series quite sensible moves (pensioners’ tax allowances, VAT on takeaway food, preparing for a potential strike by tanker drivers), which were admittedly exacerbated by some presentational gaffes.  Labour had been taking some undeserved credit for this; and now they’ve been shown to be as out of touch with the real world as they allege the coalition parties to have been.

But Labour’s big problem is that they are seen as a party of government rather than one of protest.  This leaves them vulnerable in by elections like this to candidates that seem to embody anger and frustration more.  But it is a good thing if they actually want to win a General Election.  In the narcissistic game of trivia played out by politicians and political correspondents this is a reverse.  But no reason to panic.

Mr Galloway’s Respect party is a personal vehicle, not a convincing political movement.  It attempts the feat of allying left-wing (“Old Labour”) ideas with cultivating the Muslim vote; this difficult reconciliation seems only to be feasible through Mr Galloway’s self-obsessed personality.  He has tried and failed to broaden his appeal.

For the Lib Dems (not so implicated in the week’s gaffes, but having to share responsibility) the result is not a big deal either.  They lost their deposit in a seat where they were already weak; the decline in vote was not quite as spectacular as for Labour and the Conservatives, and they comfortably saw off the Greens and UKIP.  But it offers no particular hope of the party digging its way out of its poor standing in most of northern England, to say nothing of elsewhere.

By far the most interesting feature of this election has been the behaviour of the Muslim community – which seems to have been the main factor behind Mr Galloway’s success, harnessed by some very astute campaigning.  According to Nasser Butt, a former Lib Dem parliamentary candidate in Tooting, who spent the last week in Bradford, the charge was led by younger members of the community, who persuaded their elders to rebel.  This was reversal of the normally paternalistic way that politics is done in these communities.

This is an exciting development, even if it causes liberals some angst.  Muslim communities (in this case mainly Pakistani derived) have a strong sense of grievance.  This seems to be shaped by two things: the West’s ill-judged military campaigns in the War on Terror, and the generally liberal ways of the society that they inhabit, which runs roughshod over their conservative sensibilities.  The latter’s flashpoints are the toleration of gays, perceived insults to their religion from a free-speaking public, and the modesty of women’s dress.

If the Bradford dynamic can be repeated elsewhere, it means that the Muslim vote is much more in play, instead of being stitched up with elders in little local deals, or not voting at all.  The liberal fear is that it will put pressure on politicians in the wrong direction on issues like  gay rights and freedom of speech.  Maybe so, but I think it is a price worth paying.  As the communities become more involved in mainstream politics, they will come to understand the need for compromise and building coalitions.  And they will feel listened too.  They may also come to understand that liberal views are held with passion and principle, and are not merely the signs of decadent society.  In the long run this is good.

Meanwhile yesterday also saw a local by election in Southfields, in Wandsworth.  There was no earthquake here.  The Tories held off a strong Labour campaign, taking nearly half the votes cast.  The Lib Dems, who did not put in a major effort, were pushed back to under 6%, but beat the Greens (under 3%) – something that did not usually happen in Wandsworth before 2010.  Unlike last year’s Thamesfield by election, when the Lib Dems fought at full throttle to get 17%, Labour can’t blame their defeat on them this time.  The Tory one-party state moves on unruffled.  There was a Muslim independent candidate, but he made little impact, with 38 votes (1%), two less than UKIP.


Minimum unit pricing on alcohol – it’s all about cider

Perhaps to distract attention from the poor publicity surrounding last week’s budget (notwithstanding my general endorsement of it…), our Prime Minister David Cameron has moved the policy circus onto the pricing of alcoholic drinks.  A rather unedifying debate has ensued.  It’s worth trying to unpack this a bit.

The proposal is to force a minimum retail price on alcohol of 40p per unit.  The argument put forward in its support is highly paternalistic, in the way of modern British policy making (or “evidence-based” in the fashionable euphemism).  Alcoholic drinks are available very cheaply, especially from supermarkets.  It is thought that this has encouraged excessive drinking.  Although overall alcohol consumption is on the decrease there really does seem to be a problem with excessive drinking.  The most conspicuous problem is “binge drinking” by young people, which tends to disfigure many city centres at night.  There may also be a much less visible problem with middle class drinkers overdoing a daily dose of wine/gin-and-tonic.  This all comes out in increasing problems with liver disease.  It was reported by the NHS last week that deaths from liver disease in England have increased by 25% over the last decade, although alcohol consumption is only one factor, alongside obesity and hepatitis C.

It is, of course, the binge drinking that is creating the political pressure, upsetting as it this is to middle class and elderly voters.  Most of the noise and antisocial behaviour occurs in the region of pubs and bars where the prices aren’t particularly low – but the story goes that the youths get themselves tanked up on the cheap stuff first.  There may also be a problem with “happy hour” promotions by the bars to get people started.  The Home Office strategy paper launched by Mr Cameron (as reported by the BBC) makes the rather extravagant claim that the policy would mean 25,000 fewer crimes a year and 900 fewer deaths “by the end of the decade” (in a classic use of confusing statistics – I think this means 100 or so fewer deaths per year, or 1% of liver deaths).

For paternalists it’s a simple matter of costs and benefits.  The gains from reduced crime and health problems are set against the hardships and political costs for people who pay extra without indulging in antisocial behaviour.  The last government baulked.  Mr Cameron, it seems, is more determined to “do something”.

But liberals have a lot more angst about this.  People should be allowed to make their own choices as far as they don’t harm others.  Of course excessive alcohol consumption is antisocial – but there are two counterarguments.  First a lot (most?) drinking is not antisocial.  Second, taxes on alcohol are quite steep anyway, and surely cover all the extra costs, and more.  And there is a rather nasty class twist.  Few middle class drinkers will be affected, including the antisocial ones, but those less well off will be, including those that are not antisocial.

And that is about far as the public debate that I have seen gets.  But it isn’t so simple.  The big question to ask is how much profit are the sellers of drinks making?    This matters, because if businesses are loss-leading on booze sales we need to ask why.  Supermarkets aren’t charities.  If they are losing money on booze then they are making it up somewhere else.  I am deeply uncomfortable about this, and it undermines the argument that raising the price is an attack on the poor.  People may be underpaying on the booze, but at the expense of overpaying on other goods.  It may of course all be part of a careful segmentation strategy whereby middle class customers pay more for their supermarket goods than poorer ones, without the need for varying individual product prices.  Even so, the idea that for poorer supermarket customers to benefit they have to by lots of drink has rather difficult implications.  The issue of bars offering discounted prices in happy hours  seems to be more straightforward: to entice customers into a state where their judgement is impaired and they will accept overpriced drinks later.  This again will cause even liberals some angst.

So will a 40p per unit price just stop pernicious loss-leading, without impinging much on overall living costs?  Retailers must pay excise duty (and VAT on top) regardless of the price they charge the customer.  By my calculations this works out at about 20p per unit for beer, 25p for wine and 27p for spirits – but a mere 11.5p for ordinary strength cider (5%).  Leaving aside the special case of cider that leaves 13p to 20p (or 11p to 17p allowing for VAT) to pay for the product itself and make a margin.  That looks quite tight, but maybe feasible for beer at least.

But the case of cider is quite striking.  Duty is much lower (especially for strengths under 7.5%), and the impact of the 40p price could be quite significant.  In 2010 the dying Labour government increased the tax on cider – but this created such a stink that the change was lost when the election was called.

And that, I think, is the key.  The government thinks that cider is unhealthily cheap, but it is afraid of tackling the problem directly by harmonising the duty with that charged for beer. So this minimum pricing is an alternative.  The extra cost to the customer goes to retailers and manufacturers rather than to the state – but maybe that can be rectified at  a later date.  It will be easier to put up duty on cider if the minimum pricing policy is in place.

But liberals are right to be sceptical.  40p is a bit high to simply prevent pernicious loss-leading.  And wouldn’t it be more honest to tackle cider duty head-on?


The budget – the coalition at its best

George Osborne is gradually cementing a reputation as an effective Chancellor of the Exchequer and skilful politician.  He certainly understands coalition politics and how to play for the longer term.  Yesterday’s was a very interesting budget.

There a two schools of thought about coalition governments.  One may be characterised as “lowest common denominator”: all the bold ideas are knocked out and we are left with a few messy compromises that lack any kind of coherence.  The second is the “natural selection of ideas”  in which the ideas of the various parties have to compete on their merits and the weak ones don’t survive, the sum being better than any party would produce individually.  Britain’s first post-War coalition, formed by politicians unfamiliar with how coalitions work, has seen both types of policy formation at work.

The coalition started well.  The initial policy programme was full of bold ideas, while dotty ones (cutting inheritance tax for example) did not make the grade.  But things soon degenerated, as activists on both sides sensed betrayal.  This was especially evident on the NHS, where we are left with a messy compromise that is almost certainly worse than either party would have produced on its own.  But the 2012 budget shows a reversion to the “natural selection” model, for which credit must go to both George Osborne and the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg.

One of the interesting features of the budget has been the disappearance of budget “purdah” – the absolute secrecy surrounding budget proposals.  Mr Clegg made the early running in the media game with his bid for an acceleration of increases to personal allowances.  But Mr Osborne clearly understood this to be an opportunity rather than a threat – in this case to reverse the top rate of income tax of 50%, which until a month or so ago looked to be entirely off the agenda.  A few years ago the Lib Dems had a big conference battle over this top rate (before Labour introduced it, as it happens) and rejected the 50% – so there was evidently some Lib Dem ambiguity over the tax, which Mr Osborne was able to exploit.  And indeed world thinking has long since turned against such high marginal rates, even for the very rich.

Meanwhile, weaker Lib Dem ideas about how to tax the rich more efficiently did not make the cut.  This applied to the Mansion Tax on high valued property.  Such an idea (though based on land rather than total property value) appeals to theoretical economists, but has two major practical problems.  First is that property is not the same as cash, and that owners of such valuable properties may struggle to pay, and hence create a fuss.  The wider the scope of tax, the more of a problem this is.  The second problem is that it has to be based on a theoretical valuation rather than hard and fast fact.  This is one of those things that becomes more of a problem the more that you think about it.  Property (or anything else) is worth what you persuade somebody else to pay for it, which depends on many factors unique to the individuals taking part in the transaction and the time they make it.  A host of practical issues follow.  The eventual compromise of an increase in stamp duty for properties over £2 million, combined with a clampdown on stamp duty avoidance, looks like a much better idea to me.

The idea of limiting allowances to higher income people so that effective tax is no less than 25%, the “Tycoon Tax” – attributed to Mr Clegg in the proposal process, though not coming out of any Lib Dem official policy – also looks like a very sensible proposal – and this made the cut.

Mr Osborne was also able to push through further cuts to the main Corporation Tax rate.  I have some reservations about this: companies are sitting on too much cash – if they don’t invest it, then the best way of getting this wealth back into the economy is to tax it.  But there is logic to it to help retain footloose international capital, something that the country has been quite good at, but needs to stay in the game.  And it’s not as generous as it looks, since allowances have been kept in check.  In fact the big thing UK companies have been asking for is more generous capital allowances – but the footloose companies aren’t so bothered about this, and the Chancellor did not budge.  I’m not sure that capital allowances have been set at the most efficient level – but I do know that business leaders always ask for too much, and the game is often more about tax avoidance than real investment.

One idea was not leaked in advance.  This was the phasing out of the age-related personal allowances.  This “granny tax” has attracted most of the press attention this morning, with howls of protest that the Labour opposition are seeking to exploit.  Yet the reasoning behind this change is solid enough.  Pensioners have done pretty well under the reforms already implemented by the government, and this is a nasty, complicated piece of work.  Although it is true that many pensioners have been punished by the general reduction in the value of savings since the crisis began, this allowance is a bad way to deal with the problem.  What is actually needed is for the economy to return to health, so that we can get back to a real interest rate of about 2% or so from its current negative value.  It was brave to take on the pensioner lobbies like this, and Messrs Osborne and Clegg (to say nothing of the PM David Cameron) deserve credit.  Critics suggest it may go down as a fiasco like Gordon Brown’s cut of the 10% tax band, or the negligible increase to state pensions the last government implemented when inflation appeared to be very low.  Both were politically very damaging, to Mr Brown and to Tony Blair respectively.  But this policy does not create cash losers (denying benefits to those who haven’t got them yet – rather than taking them away from those that have).  It may even mark a turning point in the battle of the generations, as younger voters start to appreciate just how generous the state is to pensioners, and shift their ire away from the much less costly immigrants and benefit claimants.

The budget does nothing for macro-economists.  There is no bold, imperial stimulus to “get the economy moving”.  But nobody was expecting that.  Overall this budget is a credit to the Coalition government.


Rowan Williams’s legacy

Rowan Williams is stepping down as Archbishop of Canterbury. For all his faults he is one the world’s great intellectuals. Can the Church of England sustain its establishment status without him?

Archbishop Williams’s departure has drawn a lot of comment.  I’ve seen references in Twitter and such to some very negative views, but I must admit I haven’t given these much time.  I have read one of his books (Lost Icons, published in 2000); rereading the review of this book I wrote at the time reminds me of just how profound and disturbing (in a positive sense) I found it.  His language is over intellectual; he seems to idolise a past that never existed – but he poses challenging questions that modern agnostic liberals like me that I have no ready answers to.  He makes most commentators on religious and spiritual subjects seem utterly superficial – and I have feeling that if I was left alone in a room with him my comfortable agnosticism would end up in tatters and I would be going to my local (CofE) church the next Sunday.  I know of no other person that could have that power.  I have total respect for everything he says, even though I disagree with much of it, especially when it comes to politics.

As for his stewardship of the Church of England and the Anglian Communion, I don’t have much to say.  In spite of my tendency to lecture practising Christians on their own faith, I feel completely out of my depth when commenting on the ins and outs of Church affairs.  This post which I picked up via Twitter has the ring of truth though.

But though Church politics are not something I am part of, they do impact on general politics, of which I am.  And the Church of England has a special role, as it is an established part of the state.  This is much discussed, and generally thought to be a positive.  Apart from adding a decorous component to official ceremonies, it forms a link to the country’s past heritage.  Much good can come of ambiguity.  But it is under threat for two reasons.

The first is because the Church could fragment into a number of pieces, none of which is able to sustain its state role.  Tensions abound over the status of women and gays.  I find it impossible to understand why, of all the issues that the Church has to deal with, these are the ones that threaten schism.  Can’t they just agree to differ, as they do with so much else? But it is clearly a big problem.

And the second, related, threat is that the Church is losing its moral authority over the general, agnostic populace.  Most people in this country describe themselves as Christian at some level, and have customarily looked to the Church for moral leadership.  This is what prevents the Church’s establishment status from being just a sham.  But the population’s general sense of moral values has been changing.  So far the Church of England has skilfully adapted its own practices (on divorce, contraception and women priests, for example) to stay within touching distance.  On occasions it has even led the change from the front – such as on racism and inclusion.  But with the growing acceptance of gays in civil society, the Church has mostly lost the plot, not helped by its need to stay in touch with values of the flourishing African church.

Churches must be led by their spiritual calling, and not by the fashions of the society they inhabit.  But to preserve the Church’s special status as part of the political establishment it has to stay within a broad moral consensus.  If the Church, or strong elements of it, persist in teaching things that we, the rest of society consider to be morally wrong then it is up to us to exclude them from that special status.


What can Lib Dems learn from the NHS debacle?

The NHS is proving a political nightmare for the Lib Dems.  This reflects a failure to develop a clear vision for the service before the election.

The NHS is now a toxic issue for the Lib Dems.  This is not because the voters are turning against the party on the issue, as they did for student loans.  In the overheated rhetoric surrounding the issue there have been many claims that the public will abandon the party over this latest betrayal.  But the public judges parties on what actually happens to the NHS, not on the speculations of excited activists and commentators.  And so far as front line services are concerned, nothing much has changed, and probably not a huge amount will as a result of the reforms… a major difference with the student fees issue.

No, the damage is being wrought within the party’s activists and members, as this summary of blogs after the Gateshead Conference shows.  Many feel an acute sense of betrayal by the leadership, and a number have left the party; more may follow.  This weakness is being cleverly exploited by Labour; but they didn’t start it.  Lib Dem activists themselves have not required outside assistance.

The party is all over the place.  The outcome of the Gateshead conference last weekend (which I was unable to attend) merely added to the confusion.  The emergency motion to abandon the Bill was not called, the representatives voting for a compromise motion supported by Shirley Williams – but a key paragraph was taken out of this motion by a narrow vote, leaving it saying not much at all.  This has given rebels in parliament cover to break the whip, but not placed serious pressure on the leadership and those not inclined to rebel, who do not see it as a worthwhile expenditure of political capital in the coalition, compared to tax policy, say.

This confusion has deep roots.  What on earth do the Lib Dems want with the NHS?  There is no clarity whatsoever.  I can count four distinct factions.  Currently most the most vocal strand are social democrats (like Shirley Williams, a living saint to many members) – who want a strong, nationally controlled monopoly service, which is able to provide a uniform standard right through the country (England in this case – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been allowed to get away).  They are relaxed about centralisation, and indeed all the amendments made to the bill over the last year at their behest point to a highly centralised provision.  Next come the economic liberals, with whom the party leadership tend to sympathise.  While this group has not developed any clear vision, they like the idea of what economist John Kay calls “disciplined pluralism” – in other words preserving a choice of providers wherever possible, so long as they are properly accountable.  These people are very relaxed about whether the NHS uses direct employees, third sector organisations, or, indeed, private companies to deliver its service.  A third group consists of NHS insiders – who basically resist any change in practice if not in theory, and who mainly argue for allocating more taxpayer funding through existing structures, whatever they happen to be at the time.  This group was led by Dr Graham Winyard of Winchester (and a former NHS high-up), who has now left the party.  And lastly (because this group is now largely drowned out), we have community politicians.  These want to see much more devolution to local politicians, and a bigger role for local authorities in particular; this group is relaxed about the  “postcode lottery”, so long as it is balanced by postcode accountability.  This group is close to the heart of traditional post-War Liberalism, and closest to my personal views (in spite of my Social Democrat provenance).

The original Bill was essentially a product of the economic liberals and community politicians (amongst whom we should count Paul Burstow, the Lib Dem health minister) within the party, working with Tory Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, whose attitude is quite close to Lib Dem economic liberals.  The resistance was started up by NHS insiders like Graham Winyard, and quickly swept in social democrats.  This alliance overwhelmed the party leadership at last March’s Sheffield conference.  There followed the “pause” in the reforms, and a raft of amendments that took the reforms in a highly social democratic direction, leaving economic liberals and community politicians disenchanted but hoping something could be retrieved from the wreckage.  But then the NHS insiders dug their heels in, as one professional body after another advised killing the whole reform.  This fractured the whole process and left the party with a set of reforms that nobody is very keen on, and to which many are vehemently opposed.

The wider membership, and most activists, are pragmatists, who can’t be pigeon-holed into any of the four groups that have shaped the debate.  Their confusion and general scepticism is understandable .  But this reflects a vacuum at the party’s idealogical heart.  We can agree on liberal social values, internationalism and inclusiveness – but the party seems to have no settled views on how to run the state.

The party should not get too worked up about this of itself.  It shares this confusion with the other main political parties (just try to make sense of the Labour position), and I’m sure the minor parties too if they could ever be forced into making a stand.  All successful political parties are coalitions of one kind or another.  But the party failed to hammer out its own internal compromise before the election, in the way that Vince Cable managed to for tax policy.  Formation of policy at conference was too much a matter of seeking consensus.  There were some quite radical elements of official, conference approved policy (like abolishing Strategic Health Authorities), but little awareness amongst members of the implications of official policy.  The original Bill was probably quite a well crafted compromise between our official policy and Andrew Lansley’s ideas (Paul Burstow certainly thought so).  But as soon as the heat was applied, official Lib Dem policy counted for nothing – it had not been engrained on members’ and activists’ consciences.

So where next?  The first point is that Liberal Democrats must realise that they either hang together with the Tories, or else the two parties will be hung separately on the NHS.  The Tories will curb their privatising zeal; the Lib Dems need to stop being so destructive.  There is no future in the parties scoring points off each other on this issue -they both need to show that all the apocalyptic talk is hot air.  I expect this means that we’ll have to find some extra funding before 2015.

And Liberal Democrats need to forge their own vision for the NHS, hopefully in time for 2015.  In doing so each of the various interest groups will have to compromise.  The best way of doing this is to have some controversial debates and votes at conference – like we did with tax policy.  Much better to have the arguments before the policy is agreed than after we try to implement it.