Goodbye Scotland?

Three and a half years ago, the UK held a referendum on the way it wanted to conduct its politics. It was offered a new method of voting and a chance to end the current first past the post system. I remember it for two reasons. The first was that it was the first referendum I ever voted in. The second was because it was the first time that I became disillusioned with the concept that the side with the best arguments and ideas would triumph over status quo conservatism or party-political considerations.

I was wrong. By more than two to one, the voters of the UK decided that they didn’t want to use the alternative vote system. I had argued at length why this system was superior to first past the post: practically, mathematically, and morally. I had listened to the objections, many of them complete drivel (“it’s too complicated”, “it will require expensive voting machines” – and so on), and then patiently explained why these were groundless concerns. Two months out from the poll, AV still had a decent lead and I was hopeful. Yet over the following eight weeks, support collapsed and AV died a sad death.

Three and a half years later, and we are in the midst of another referendum campaign (albeit one that is profoundly more important than the AV vote). With the prospect of a ‘Yes’ vote all too possible, I cannot help but feel the same emotions that I did back in 2011. It seems like the side with the worse arguments are going to win again.

Unlike in 2011 however, I do not have a vote, for I live in England not Scotland. Yet the fact that I do not have a vote has somewhat puzzled me these last few weeks. After all, I see myself as a citizen of a single, unified country, with as much right to a say over the Cairngorms as Cornwall or Caenarfon. When a contract is signed, it takes the consent of all the parties to end it. Yet the social contract of the UK is potentially going to be torn up with less than 10% of the population having a say.

The arguments for independence are scant, and overall the package to voters appeals not to their sense of reason or decency, but to a raw emotional attachment to an ideal of a Scotland where all external adversaries, constraints and difficulties are merely wished away.

One of the political arguments for independence is that Scotland is more left-wing than the rest of the UK, and therefore is under the yoke of an government out of tune with its people. By breaking free, Scotland will become a social democrat’s utopia. But much of its supposed left-wing image comes from its rejection of the Conservative party, a fact more driven by the decline of religious sectarianism than by a rise in left-wing sentiment. Most of the decline in Conservative popularity occurred before Margaret Thatcher (often portrayed as the Scots’ bogeyman) even took office. There are also important fundamental differences: Scotland is also more homogenous (96% white compared with 85% in England), better funded per capita and considerably less dense (Scotland has 65 people per km2, compared to England’s 400). It accepts far less immigrants than England.

Yet the idea Scotland is more left-wing than England is total nonsense. Not just wide of the mark, but completely and utterly untrue. Here is a poll from January 2013 by YouGov. In it, more people in Scotland support the government’s benefit cap, keeping benefit rises at 1% (below the rate of inflation) and ending jobseekers’ allowance for those who refuse work than in any region of England or Wales. Questions on housing benefit, the standard of NHS care or the future of the Falkland Islands score almost identically to London or the North of England. Scotland elected a UKIP MEP at the 2014 European Parliament elections, like every other region of Great Britain.

Economically, an independent Scotland would be worse off. I’ve studied Economics for 7 years, and from where I can see things there is nothing in the independent Scotland package that will favour the people of Scotland. Firstly, there is the currency issue, and secondly there is the issue of Scotland’s borrowing.

The currency issue has been much discussed, but has often generated more heat than light. Scotland has basically four options in the event of independence: currency union with the UK; ‘sterlingisation'; a new currency or the euro. These are all terrible options. A currency union would impose UK monetary and fiscal policy on Scotland – the institutions would be the same as now, except Scotland doesn’t get a vote and the Bank of England can freely ignore Scotland’s economic situation when setting interests rates. Sterlingisation (the process of keeping the pound unofficially, like Panama uses the dollar), while good for existing assets, would again deny Scotland any form of economic independence and would require great austerity to build up currency reserves to help stabilise the currency. A new currency would be best for Scotland long-term but would require again currency reserves to be accumulated through austerity. The euro, if it is not immediately obvious, is a weapon of mass impoverishment that has no proper economic justification for existing, other than it makes people in Brussels feel warm and fuzzy and it makes it easier for you to compare how much a holiday costs in different EU countries.

Scotland’s borrowing situation would be substantially different to at present. Scotland will lose a considerable source of income in the form of its net subsidy from the rest of the UK, and while it may have some oil to tide it over for a few years, this will be a mere molehill in the demographic mountain that is Scotland’s ageing population. Scotland will have an accumulating national debt from this, and it will also be a new country joining the international markets. As a smaller and less well established country to the UK, it will pay higher rates of interest on its borrowing and this will cause money to be diverted across from more useful sources of spending, such as education or healthcare. In addition, the comments of Alex Salmond suggesting that Scotland will repudiate any existing UK debt allocated to it will hardly help matters.

While it is possible that in 30 or 40 years time, Scotland might be able to more closely tailor its economic policies to better suit its local population, the enormous costs incurred by the breakup of the Union and the creation of an independent state will be so large as to render this a false economy: it would be like cutting off your leg in anticipation of receiving a box of chocolates in sympathy from your work colleagues. Scotland will suffer a dead-weight loss. You can’t just zoom out to ignore this as a teething problem, for it will affect us significantly in the here-and-now; in the long run, as Keynes helpfully reminded us, “we are all dead“:

The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is past the ocean is flat again.

If Scotland left, what would England be left with? Today, a poll put the Labour lead at just 2%. Who is going to deliver a fair and progressive society? Is it the same government that introduced the bedroom tax, contemplated ending disabled students support and tripled tuition fees?

What do Scottish nationalists imagine will happen in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote? That David Cameron will stand up and say “I was wrong, I repent”? Or will he say “Scotland is an independent country now, it can raise its own money”, then slash its public spending (and terminate the Barnet formula) before riding back into No 10 six months later as the English knight-in-shining armour?

Both countries will be left with governments that are more prickly and nationalistic (and therefore more internally self-absorbed and indifferent to social justice), and social progress will be put on hold while the two governments spend the next three, four, five or more years trying to squeeze as many pounds of flesh out of each other as possible. Is it any surprise to learn that some ring-wing interests are keen to see an independent Scotland emerge so they can re-establish the ‘normal terms of debate’?

A fantastic example of this ‘lose-lose’ situation – the beggar-thy-neighbour principle writ large – is that of the nuclear deterrent. The SNP are committed to moving the Trident missile system out, and therefore the people of the rest of the UK are expected to shoulder the cost of moving the nukes south of the border. Meanwhile the newly independent Scotland will joins the NATO alliance and thus gets to free-ride on the NATO nuclear umbrella of the USA, (rest of the) UK and France. End result: exactly as now, except a bunch of Scottish people will be unemployed and the UK has had to spend a few billion pounds on the removal bill, which could have been spent on plenty of other more socially useful outcomes.

The coalition of groups backing the Yes campaign are so loosely held together that they haven’t got a cats’ chance in hell of getting on after independence – can the Greens and the oil barons really have similar visions for an independent Scotland – and the ethereal concept of independence has replaced any hard discussion of what such a Scotland might look like for fear of causing division or discord. Merely by believing that independence will bring about a better Scotland won’t make it happen.

What I find most pernicious about the whole referendum debate is the idea that if you’re not both Scottish by birth and a committed nationalist, then you have absolutely no right to comment on the debate and are actively trying to undermine Scotland. JK Rowling called this behaviour “death eaterish”, which was an excellent turn of phrase. The Prime Minister and the other party leaders, instead of representing 88% of the votes cast at the last general election, are portrayed as interloping day-trippers who lack all legitimacy (Ed Miliband was later mobbed). A journalist who dares ask Alex Salmond difficult questions in an unflattering manner and gives him an equally difficult write-up is portrayed as biased and faces calls to be sacked. The Office of Budget Responsibility (composed of fair-minded and dedicated people with no axe to grind) is slanted as a grouping of incompetent buffoons. Veteran journalists describe the situation as ugly and intimidating.

Nationalism is a pointless ideology (Orwell called it “the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’”). It is absurd to define yourself and your political purpose solely on the basis of your nationality or culture. It inevitably leads to sectarianism, bitterness and division. There is nothing wrong with being proud of your nationality; I am proud of being British. But my Britishness no more completely defines me or my views or outlook than any other single characteristic of my personality, such as the facts that I am gay, university-educated or able to speak Spanish.

We live in a meaningless world which lacks a defining truth or moral order. Instead we have to define meaning and create for ourselves purpose through our values and ethical principles. In watching the referendum debate from afar, I have come to the conclusion that nationalism, and building barriers through borders, is not one of my values.

My values lie in a vision and belief in a society where no matter where you come from, you can rise to do great things and live a happy and prosperous life. Is this objective more achievable under independence? It is not. It will set two at-present peaceful groups at daggers for the next decade, it will bring about totally unnecessary social costs, it will make it difficult for a progressive UK government to get elected and it will garb a damaging intellectual tradition with the cloak of democratic legitimacy. For these reasons, I can only urge a No vote in tomorrow’s referendum.



The irony of the AV referendum was that it was very strongly supported by UKIP (who were at the time still a marginal and obscure footnote to elections results), meaning that if it were re-proposed now, there might be all the chance that AV would pass.

It is hardly likely that this referendum will settle things. Aside from the enormous tumult it will unleash, if the referendum is close, the likely outcome is that just over the half the population will have voted the opposite to the other (just under a) half. What are the losers expected to do? Sit on their hands? Bow down and worship the new (or old order)?

What if there are regional imbalances? The North of Scotland votes Yes, the Borders (or Shetland) votes No? Would the Borders be able to stay with the UK and the rest depart?

Margaret Thatcher, quoting Clement Atlee, once stated that the referendum is “a splendid weapon for demagogues and dictators”. She argued that it was incompatible with our tradition of representative democracy, which sought to represent the views of all the people and not just the largest 51%.

It is hardly the case that referendums settle things conclusively either. In 1975, the UK voted to join the European Community by a two to one majority. Yet less than eight years later the Labour manifesto was calling for withdrawal, and a few years after that the Conservative party split in half on the issue of creating the EU as a successor to the Community. From then on the issue of Europe has never ceased to come up and continues to bubble away furiously with the rise of UKIP.

It’s interesting that Scottish people are quite favourable to independence and English people are not (opinion polls put English opinion on 81% No). How much of this is down to context? Scottish people will reap any of the (arguably few) rewards of independence, English people will suffer many of the costs. Is it morally fair to just allow Scottish people the say over whether Scotland should be independent? John Rawls, in his seminal work A Theory of Justice, argued that the only fair way of determining between (in this case) the Union or independent Scotland would be through a ‘veil of ignorance':

“If a man knew that he was wealthy, he might find it rational to advance the principle that various taxes for welfare measures be counted unjust; if he knew that he were poor, he would most likely propose the contrary principle.  To represent the desired restrictions, one imagines a situation in which everyone is deprived of this sort of information.”

The Anatomy of a Moment

The Anatomy of a Moment, by Javier Cercas

I. Preface

What exactly is a coup d’etat? It is a concept so foreign and inconceivable to us in the UK that we don’t even have a native word for it.

We often hear on the news that “the government of *insert country* has been overthrown/deposed/removed following a coup d’etat”, and often this is followed up with some colonel or upstart lieutenant in front of the cameras announcing that the constitution has been suspended and a curfew is now in place. Yet I have never understood what really goes on in one of these sagas – it is mystifying, and yet it surely can’t just simply “happen”, as if a coup were as commonplace as the passing of the clouds.

The idea of a coup d’etat to a liberal-minded person like me is absurd. Like many, I have a perhaps misplaced faith in the nature of democracy to take root, and once taken root, to enable that country to reap all the social, cultural and economic benefits of their new-found freedom. In the Anglo-Saxon world of the USA, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, there has never been once any real threat to democratic civilian control that I can think of (although I have now come across the “Rum rebellion” in New South Wales).

Tejero in the Cortes

Antonio Tejero brandishes his pistol at the delegates. 6:22pm, 23rd February 1981

It is a different story in Spain. Between 1874 and 1982, there were 7 coups or coup attempts. The most famous by far, is the 1981 coup attempt, commonly known as 23-F, although General Manuel Pavía bursting into the Parliament (Cortes) in 1874 on horseback must surely get points for style. 23-F is famous because it involved a seizure of the Cortes at gunpoint by a detachment of the Guardia Civil, which was captured on TV by parliamentary cameras. The most famous image is that of Lt-Colonel Antonio Tejero standing at the Speaker’s Rostrum of the Cortes (right).

Recently, there have been two important historical developments related to the actors 23-F: a fortnight ago, King Juan Carlos I abdicated in favour of his son, Prince Felipe, and in March this year Adolfo Suarez, the former Prime Minister, died.

By chance in the news following the former event I came across a book recommendation for Javier Cercas’s work, which looks in detail at the causes of 23-F and finally gave me a chance to understand what a coup d’etat actually entails.

II. Events

Looking back on the events of 1981, it seems as though it was a triumph of the moral force of democracy and civil liberties. Cercas refers to this as a contaminating “unreality”: 30 years on, Tejero is harmless, and now comes across like some sort of silent-film villain, with mustache to boot. The nature of television alters the images indelibly associated with the coup; Cercas contends that it distorts them and to some extent trivialises and demeans the way we perceive the event.

Yet when examining the events of 23-F however, it is striking how in reality the coup so almost succeeded; were it not for the actions of Juan Carlos in swinging the weight of the monarchy against the coup, the coup would probably have been able to topple a democratically elected government, and no-one would have batted an eye-lid. You need only compare the experiences of Thailand at the moment to the situation of Spain in 1981 to see that if the Palace were on side with the coup, it would have happened.

So why was the coup so close to succeeding?

Events in Spain in 1980 and 1981 had been dire. The economy was in a funk, ETA was bombing the life out of the regime (there had been a number of high profile assassinations) and the Prime Minister, Adolfo Suarez, was no longer capable of governing. He had narrowly survived a no-confidence vote, but was despised by pretty much everyone else: by the parliament, by his party, by his ministers, by the army (who particularly hated him for legalising the Communist Party), by the people and the “chattering classes”, even by the King, who had appointed Suarez in the first place.

It seemed as though Suarez, who was unideological as a politician could get, who Cercas describes as a “pure politician”, one who thought that “without power there was no politics and without politics for him there was not the slightest possibility of fulfilment”, had run out steam. He had been a tool of the Francoist machine who had been appointed by the King to dismantle Francoism and instill democracy in Spain, and he had accomplished this task which had astonished everyone, including Suarez himself. Now that this was complete Suarez seem to have lost his vision for Spain and retreated to the Prime Minister’s residence in Moncloa to hide.

Meanwhile, discontent grew, and the King, along with the rest of the political class, would moan in private that if only Suarez could be replaced, perhaps by a national government of unity, maybe led by a soldier, then Spain would be able to resolve its problems. Meanwhile the Army, having ruled Spain with an iron fist under a strongly right-wing ideology, looked on for the right moment to collapse the whole democractic circus and return to the glory days of Francoism under God.

This swirling maelstrom of events, in the context of a fledging democracy, gives rise to that which Cercas dubbed “the placenta of the coup”.

III. The Coup

The actual mechanics of a coup d’etat are quite straightforward, because the key requirement of a coup (as the book makes evidently clear) is that power needs to be concentrated in the hands of a few. Spain, shakily transitioning towards a parliamentary model after 40 years of military dictatorship, still had a King who had been running the country since the death of Franco and an army that liked to decide policy, more than satisfied this criteria.

There were three senior army officers who planned and executed the coup: Lt-Colonel Tejero (pictured above), General Armada and General Milans del Bosch. The historical record shows that the plot was entirely a military affair, as the army did not trust civilians and wasn’t planning to allow them much in the post coup world.

All three officers were in this for different reasons. Tejero, the ideologue, wanted an overthrow of the government and the King and a return to complete military rule. He wanted no civilians in charge and a return to hard-line Francoism. Milans del Bosch didn’t mind the King, but wanted a military government. Armada, who had been the King’s personal secretary for many years and was at heart a patrician aristocrat and monarchist snob, wanted a civilian government of unity led by a military person (who would most likely be him).

The plot was also relatively straightforward: Tejero would go to the Cortes on the day of the vote for a new Prime Minister (as Suarez had finally decided to resign) and capture all the delegates and ministers. This would provoke a power vacuum. Milans del Bosche would rebel against central control and order his tanks into the streets of Valencia on the pretext of keeping order until the crisis in the Cortes was resolved. Meanwhile, Armada would go to the Palace and subtly neutralise the King by giving him incorrect information. In addition, their allies would get the Madrid barracks out onto the streets and seize control of the city. Then, Armada would go to the Cortes as a knight in shining armour, relive Tejero and agree a government with him as Prime Minister.

The plan initially succeeded: Tejero took over the Cortes without difficulty. However, his dramatic intervention (with a hail of bullets) caused the coup to look less like a surgical intervention and more as a straightforward strike against democracy – although the military had seized control of the TV station, the whole takeover was broadcast live on the radio. Meanwhile, Milans del Bosche seized control of his region and imposed martial law.

The initial success faded rapidly, as key parts of the plan fell out. The station commander in Madrid (General Juste) was on the fence about the coup, and following inquiries to the Palace, he came out against it, preventing troops from seizing control of the city. However he managed to reveal implicitly to the Palace that Armada was part of the coup, which then led to Armada being blocked from coming to the King’s side.

The King’s strident objection to the coup undermined the coup and resulted in numerous telephone calls to the key military players: the Chiefs of Staff and the Regional Commanders. The Chair of the Chiefs was with the King, however, Armada was his Deputy and therefore his effectiveness was limited. Of the 12 regional commanders (apart from Milans Del Bosch), only two were explicitly loyal to the King from the outset (critically this included General Quintana Lacaci, the Commander for the Madrid region, who helped prevent troops from taking the capital), while the rest sat on the fence to see which way the wind was blowing. There were two countervailing forces for the Army: the fact that the King was in opposition, which was not what they had been told about the coup, and the fact that this was probably their best chance to sweep away the tawdry democratic experiment that has been irritating them for the past 6 years.

The situation seemed unclear. The coup had started at approximately 6:20pm on the 23rd February but was only definitively resolved the following morning. An attempt by the Head of the Guardia Civil to arrest Tejero for insubordination had resulted in that General almost being shot. Despite their senior commanders returning them to barracks, some troops from the Madrid station had been ordered out in secret by middle-ranking officers and had joined Tejero. The Security Services had set up a siege of the Cortes, and the King was anxiously weighing whether to send in Special Forces and risk a bloodbath.

What definitively made the coup collapse was an unexpected split between Armada and Tejero. Having been blocked from the Palace, Armada suggested by telephone to the King that he negotiate peace with Tejero in person and try to secure the release of the delegates: cover for him to install himself as Prime Minister. When he arrived at the Cortes, it seemed as though his plan was going to work; Tejero started to hand over power to Armada in accordance with the original design of the coup. Yet Armada made the mistake of his life when Tejero asked him what position Milans Del Bosch would hold in the new government. Armada, in one of history’s great unforced errors, instead of dodging the question replied that Milans Del Bosch would have no position, instead being promoted to Chair of the Joint Chiefs.

The penny dropped for Tejero: this was not to be the military junta he aspired to. It would have civilians in it, and socialists and – god forbid – even communists! He pulled Armada into a side room and the two rowed for over an hour. Eventually Tejero told Armada he was forbidden from seeing the Deputies and expelled him from the Cortes.

The pendulum swung against the coup when, at around 01:00 on the 24th, the King made a broadcast to the nation (having finally managed to persuade the troops blocking its broadcast to stand down) that condemned the coup and ensured the troops stayed at home. Over the next few hours, Tejero realised the coup was a failure and he surrended.

In the aftermath, over 20 officers were jailed, with the three senior plotters receiving long jail sentences, although these were only awarded after the longest criminal trial in Spanish history. In a jarring note, the sentences set by the military Court-Martial were perceived as excessively lenient and were massively increased in length on appeal to the civilian Supreme Court.

IV. The Book

I’ve probably got carried away in writing this review by overly explaining the content of this book, but frankly I find this event in history so intriguing. It has everything needed for a great film: drama, rebellion, guns, compelling personalities, personal conflicts, impressive settings. Yet in the Anglo-sphere, you are unlikely to have come across this subject in a way that you might not have done for say, the Storming of the Bastille.

Cercas writes in the introduction the book that his original aim was to write the book as a fictional story covering the events of 23-F. However, after two discarded drafts, he opted for a non-fiction approach, written in a style quite different to others I have seen.

Textually, he writes long, vivid sentences, with plenty of subclauses. With a deft application of the colon and semi-colon, some of these sentences extend for over a page. An example would be this almost stream-of-conciousness passage describing Suarez living out his old age:

“It was just then, at perhaps the darkest moment of his life, that the inevitable arrived, the longed-for moment of public recognition, the opportunity for all to show their gratitude for the sacrifice of his honour and his conscience for the country, the humiliating national din of compassion, he was the great man cut down by misfortune who no longer bothered anyone, was no longer able to overshadow anyone, who was never going to return to politics and could be used by this side and that and converted into the perfect paladin of concord, into the unbeaten ace of reconciliation, into the immaculate enabler of democratic change, into a living statue suitable for hiding behind and cleansing consciences and securing shaky institutions and shamelessly exhibiting the satisfaction of the country with its immediate past and, in Wagnerian scenes of gratitude for the fallen leader, homages, awards, honorific distinctions began to rain down on him, he recovered the King’s friendship, the confidence of the Prime Ministers who followed him, popular favour, he achieved everything he’d wanted and anticipated although it was all a little false and forced and hurried and most of all late, because by then he was going or had gone and could barely contemplate his final collapse without understanding it too well and begging everyone who crossed his path to pray for his wife and for his daughter , as if his soul had got definitively lost in a labyrinth of self-pitying contrition and tormented meditations on the guilty fruits of egomania and he had become definitively transformed into the old repentant sinner prince of a novel by Dostoevsky.”

Structurally, the book does not tell the story chronologically: it uses the device of the TV footage of Tejero’s entrance in the Cortes to examine events; narrating the picture, pausing, and then examining the subjects that arise: the stories of Suarez, his Deputy Gutierrez Mellado, Santiago Carrillo (the communist part leader), the King, Armada, and so on.

There are some incisive moments, and some of my favourite quotations are those relating to Santiago Carrillo. Carillo’s background was of the domineering General Secretary of the Spanish Communist Party, the only real opposition during Franco’s rule. Carillo’s seminal contribution to the Spanish democratic transition was to moderate the Party, initiating reforms that would make Blair’s “Clause IV moment” look utterly trivial and committing the Party to democracy.

Cercas succintly describes Carillo’s thinking as such:

“There was nothing more abject than practising an ethic that sought only to be right and that obliges people to spend time discussing the errors of an unjust and enslaved past with the aim of taking moral and material advantage of other people’s confession of guilt, instead of devoting themselves to constructing a just and free future.”

“Carrillo renounced [potential recriminations against Francoists], and not only because he lacked the strength to achieve it, but also because he understood that often the most noble ideals of men are incompatible with each other and trying to impose at that moment in Spain the absolute triumph of justice was to risk provoking the absolute defeat of liberty, turning absolute justice into the worst injustice.”

The parable of this book, if there is one, must be that for a democratic society to succeed, it cannot only function through the letter of the law or a constitution, but must be done through the cooperation of the elite of society (this may be succour for my Marxist friends to demand a vanguard of the proletariat). It seems that democracy cannot survive without the ‘spirit of the law’, the conventions and customs, being fully integrated into the habits of the well-to-do elite, both the actually powerful and also the chattering middle classes. An examination of any society where this condition is not fulfilled, tends to reveal that such societies either descend into civil war or authoritarian rule.

It is striking that if the King, or the commanders in Madrid, or any of the other regional commanders in Spain had supported the coup, or even if Armada had not been so pompous towards Tejero, it would likely have succeeded. In the face of potential tyranny, the trade unions, civil society and the general public of Spain did not spill into the streets at the abrogation of democratic rule; instead they boarded up their shutters and hid in their homes, potentially frightened by the prospect of the last civil war repeating itself.

I can only count myself lucky once more that I live in a country where our Army Generals do not have designs on the Ministries of Whitehall, or the Queen does not want to overturn laws she dislikes, nor do the editors of the broadsheets think that armed rebellion is the way to remove a Prime Minister you don’t like.

The Quiet American

Despite being on this planet for over 20 years, I have never read a word of Graham Greene. I knew he was one of the greats, up there with Orwell, or Joyce, or the Brontes, but I never knew why.

In the same way that Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London inspired me to go on an Orwell binge purchase (I now have his complete Essays), reading The Quiet American has driven me to go out and buy 4 other Greene works. It’s that good.

The story is set in the dying days of French Indochina (better known now as Vietnam) circa 1952 during the First Indochina War. We follow the exploits of Thomas Fowler, a British journalist who spends his time reporting on the war, enjoying the company of Phuong (his mistress of sorts), and loitering around the usual foreign press corps watering holes. Fowler is incredibly cynical about the situation and prides himself on his policy of “degagé” neutrality between the two sides.

Fowler’s pleasant world is shaken rather violently by the arrival of the American Alden Pyle, who is ostensibly there for aid-related purposes, but whose actual task is more mysterious. Pyle soon is disrupting Fowler’s world in all sorts of ways, starting a love triangle with Phuong, irritating Fowler with his fresh-faced personality and naive textbook-driven theories of the way the world, and saving Fowler’s life during an altercation in the field.

Eventually Fowler uncovers more about Pyle’s “special duties” and becomes increasingly horrified at his actions, leaving Fowler with the dilemma of either intervening and becoming “engagé”, or maintaining his policy of neutrality.

The political tones are fresh today and at the time of their publication (1955) the book was initially condemned for its anti-americanism. Following the Vietnam war however, it is now regarded as considerably prescient. I would imagine that it could be adapted easily to fit Iraq in the period between the Gulf wars.

What I find rather refreshing is that Phuong is not portrayed as some slavish chattel of the duelling male characters, but an independent character. Although not explicitly narrated, Phuong is given a universe of her own, with private interests, habits and routines that round her out to be more than just a simple sex object. It is her mesmerising and enigmatic personality that drives much of the story.

Pyle too is not the simple villain of some anti-imperalist fairy story, but someone who is driven by a conflict of their innocent idealism and the messy and corrupting reality of a country at war.

The book itself is simple, compact, following a relatively straightforward plot-line with an accessible writing style. Yet within this concision is a powerful and elegant choice of words that improves upon re-reading.

There are many phrases to quote; here are some of my favourites:

“Will you have a cup of tea?” “Thank you, I have had three already.” It sounded like a question and answer in a phrase book.

[The Pope's deputy] had a large ring on his finger, and when he held out his hand I really think he expected me to kiss it, but I am not a diplomat.

We make a cage for air with holes, I thought, and man makes a cage for is religion much the same way – with doubts left open to the weather and creeds opening on innumerable interpretations. My wife had found her cage with holes and sometimes I envied her. There is a conflict between sun and air: I lived too much in the sun.

Pyle said “It’s awful.” He looked at the wet on his shoes and said in a sick voice, “What’s that?” “Blood,” I said, “Haven’t you ever seen it before?” He said, “I must get them cleaned up before I see the Minister.” I don’t think he knew what he was saying.

Down and Out in Paris and London

Short note

I’ve decided that from now on, whenever I read a book, I am going to blog about it. The benefits of this scheme are two fold: firstly, I get to look incredibly well-read, and more seriously, I can actually look back at what I’ve read and jog my memory.

The human brain works in a way in which information is retained according to its importance and immediacy. There are some events – dubbed ‘flashbulb moments’ – in which their impact is so important that you are able to recall events for life. For me, seeing the Twin Towers collapse on TV was one of those moments.

For more mundane affairs your brain will store information in priority depending on exposure and necessity of recall. This is where book reading falls down. Typically, I read a book once and only once, and am never required to go back on the book to look something up: I am reading for pleasure and it is hardly likely that anyone will test me on my knowledge.

The sidenote above brings me to George Orwell’s short ‘memoir’ Down and Out in Paris and London, which documents his time destitute in Paris, then working as a hotel restaurant dishwasher, and finally his destitution again in London as a tramp.

A while ago I read Ahbijit Banjeree and Ester Dufflo’s Poor Economics (I didn’t finish it), which examined the economic impact of living in poverty, addressing questions such as why people in poverty buy flatscreen TVs but can’t lift themselves out of their circumstances. There were many complex reasons for this, but one of them was the fact that when you are in (extreme) poverty, you cannot thing for the long-term. You start shortening your time-frame of thinking and becoming increasingly desperate, and often make poor choices. In addition, some items which would benefit you over the long term (eg spices to make your food taste better) are completely out of reach.

This lessons of Poor Economics correspond to Orwell’s experiences DAOIPAL. The sheer desperation of hunger and the new short-termist approach when you do get an income again are all reflected in the economic research.

However, being in poverty is not just about poor economic judgement. It is also the fact that you are in a situation for which society is no longer built to serve. You have to descend into different habits, different ways of working, and reduce social interaction (for fear of exposing yourself to friends you wish to impress).

In a small way, Orwell’s time in poverty resonates with some of my experiences of being a student. Towards the end of last year, I ran out of money well before the end of term and consequently I struggled to live what might be described as a normal lifestyle. My diet started to consist of a 80p 5 pack of jam doughnuts stretched out into Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, all washed down with 17p 2L bottle of value diet cola. I knew to the penny the exact amount of money I had in my bank account at any given time, and often it wasn’t enough to . I would start to get anxious if people sprang unusual financial demands upon me, such as going to the Cinema, which are not in and of themselves unreasonable.

The petty humiliations I found of being in dire financial circumstances – having to constantly borrow money from friends, pacing up and down the supermarket looking for the cheapest possible meals for the next 5 days, making as many possible excuses to avoid going to a restaurant with friends, and when this is unavoidable, avoiding everything except tap water – are all experiences Orwell lives through.

It is not entirely clear how much of DAOIPAL  is fiction and how much is true. I find it hard to imagine that Orwell was both suffering the terrible conditions he described yet still keeping a sharp and witty contemporaneous account of events.

What is great about this book compared to other political writings is that Orwell always keeps a moderate tone and a friendly charm. When he criticises he does so in a manner that is entirely unthreatening yet is withering to his subject matter. His premises are so well laid out and his logic so reasonable that his conclusions are impossible to disagree with. His critiques of society are like those of a sagacious grandfather gently pointing out the errors of the ways of their newest grandchild.

Part of this perhaps is the subject matter he chose: Victorian-era vagrancy laws in London are hardly going to be judged well by modern day views, nor is the lack of unemployment insurance in France. But when compared with modern commentators, who often resort to shouts from authority or constant outrage over the state of everything, Orwell’s clear yet sharp writing is a fresh wind, albeit (rather depressingly) one blowing in from over 80 years ago.

I had thought Animal Farm and 1984 were the be-all and end-all of Orwell’s writing, but if anything, they are like the flowers on a cherry tree: marvellous and wonderful in their own right, but in reality supported by an unseen underlying abundance of strength and experience.

If anything, reading DAOIPAL has inspired me to go read everything Orwell has ever written.

Euro elections ’14

I was going to write a long set of thoughts on the 2014 European Elections, but in the end lots of other people came up with better and more insightful writings than mine, and considerably more quickly.

The only line that I thought worth retaining from the original draft is this misquote of Neils Bohr:

Anyone who is not utterly exasperated by the European Union has not properly understood it.

Free Education

This year at National Conference, ‘free’ education – and not any form of fees or a graduate tax – was adopted as NUS policy.

I was one of the many members of the NEC to vote against it, for a variety of reasons including the fact that I don’t see Higher Education (along with all non-compulsory education) of having a purely social value – there is a private benefit, which I think the beneficiary should pay for.

I’ve been a pendulum on this issue – swinging back and forth many a time. In 2010, during my first term of my first year, I remember joining in a public debate on the pro-side of the tuition fee changes (mostly for devil’s advocate reasons), before being outraged at the 90% cut that then followed on the public teaching grant. I was never outraged enough to go to Millbank in 2010 and watched the vote on Parliament Channel with indifference, but I went on a local demo in Newcastle. I was so incensed by the Browne review’s dismissive attitude to postgraduate education that I pushed doing something about it into national NUS policy.

I would just want to say one thing about the debate which was otherwise free, frank and fair – Scotland does not have free education. It is true, if you live in Gretna Green, that if you go to Glasgow Uni, you won’t pay a penny in tuition, but if you live 20 minutes down the road in Carlisle, it’ll cost you £9,000 to study there. Milking the 85% of the UK population who live in England to fund your universities does not make it ‘free education’.

There’s an idea in politics called ‘the Overton window’. This is the idea that there is a fixed range of discussion which is ‘realistic’ or acceptable. If ideas are proposed outside this window, then they are dismissed out-of-hand for being fanciful. It’s interesting to consider how much of my politics is down to my view of the Overton window, and how much down to principle.

Watching Question Time the day Conference finished, I was struck by how on discussion of higher education, literally no-one was suggesting that HE should be free – even Billy Bragg was basically calling for a reversal of the system to the 2006 set-up. Perhaps the reason why Free Education gets no serious consideration in the public sphere is because the ‘right’ people don’t advocate it (and thus it remains outside of the overton window).

Anyhow, I’ve crunched some of the numbers to show how much of a fundamental change to government spending. Personally, I am tempted to spend the cost of free education on other things, but each to their own I guess.

Free Education – the numbers

First off, the current crisis of arithmetic:

  • Free Education (ie the abolition of tuition fees) will cost about £15.5bn* each year, assuming current student levels.
  • If you follow the government’s current policy that 60,000 more students will attend University (under plans to lift the student numbers cap) then the cost will rise to £16.8bn.
  • The government intends to cut (under current spending plans, which Labour have announced they will stick to) public expenditure (excluding Health, Schools and International Development) by 1.2% of GDP, or £18.6bn over the next two years to 2015/16. Beyond that, assuming current ring-fences will still exist, unprotected spending will fall by 4.6% of GDP, or £75.6bn.
  • You therefore have a crisis of arithmetic – overall spending has to fall by £18.6bn over the next two years, but you want to increase spending on HE by £15.5bn (or more) per year.

The  solutions proposed to fund Free Education were to tax the rich by increasing income tax, inheritance tax and capital gains tax for the richest, by reducing tax evasion and by ‘taking the banks and their wealth into democratic control’.

  • Banks first. It should be obvious that this is a complete non-starter (a polite way of saying ‘total bollocks’). You can’t take the wealth of the banks without compensating the shareholders – else this is simply state-sponsored theft, and totally illegal. Nor would you want to, as the majority of shareholdings are not held by aristocrats or fat-cats but by trustee funds of many businesses and local authorities, paying the pensions of thousands of office workers, cleaners and librarians.
  • Increasing income tax to 50% is estimated to raise about £1.1bn more than at 40%. Beyond that, the effects of reducing productive activity through disincentives, people moving to more favourable tax regimes or by converting the type of income means that you start getting less back. Best estimates place the revenue maximising top tax rate somewhere between 33% and 57%. The government claimed in 2012 cutting the top rate of tax to 45% from 50% would cost only £0.1bn due to these behavioural effects.
  • Before the Labour government bowed to enormous pressure in 2007 and introduced a transferable couples inheritance relief, about 6% of the population paid inheritance tax: now it is about 4%. Reversing this relief might raise about £1bn. However, Inheritance tax is spectacularly easy to avoid paying, mostly thanks to generous rules written into the tax code (give it all to your spouse, for instance, or to charity and you’re fine, or just transfer it to a family trust seven years before you die). Additionally, thanks to the recession, annual revenues have fallen to about £3.3bn from IHT.
  • Capital gains tax raised about £3.9bn in 2012/13. When George Osborne raised the top rate of CGT to 28% from 18% in 2010, this increase revenues by about £1bn. Analysis produced at the time showed that this would not produce any more revenue, as the same diminishing effects mentioned kick in.
  • Using reductions in tax evasion and avoidance to fund revenues is like building a space station out of gingerbread: thoroughly unreliable. For example, a treaty with Switzerland to share information was estimated to raise £3bn in new revenue, but in the end it raised only £0.8bn. Additionally, much of tax ‘avoidance’ is just a normal reaction to the tax system – I can avoid paying tax by donating to charity (it’s called gift aid). HM Revenue and Customs placed the ‘tax gap’ at £35bn in 11/12, of which £9.1bn was due to combined evasion and avoidance, the rest being down to things like the shadow economy and criminal behaviour.
  • Therefore, we can raise up to £1bn by raising top tax rates and£1bn by reversing IHT allowance changes. We could even throw in another £1bn per year from scrapping the Trident upgrades if you fancy. We’re still about £12bn short, ie the same amount as the Environment, Energy, Culture, Transport and Foreign Office budgets combined.

So this is where it gets real. We need to find £12bn to increase (bear in mind total HE spending in 12/13 was £5.8bn) at a time when £19bn has to be cut from the overall budget in the next 2 years. Broadly, we can either increase taxes or cut spending. It’s likely a bit of both would happen.

Other departments would likely argue for cuts to the BIS budget (which has responsibility for HE), for example:

  • To reduce the cost of free education, student numbers could be cut – reducing them by 100,000 would save £2.3bn
  • Cutting Science and Technology research by 25% would save £1.4bn
  • Student maintenance grants could be converted to loans – saving £1.5bn
  • Total: £6.2bn saving. There is also the potential to save money from the £3.9bn spent on FE

In terms of tax rises, there are many possible ways of increasing revenue, for example:

  • Cancelling the cuts in corporation tax announced in the 2010 budget would raise £3.4bn
  • Cancelling the rise in the personal threshold to £10,000 would raise £3.9bn
  • Cancelling the government’s National Insurance cut  on secondary allowances would raise £3.7bn
  • Total raised: £11bn.

The two add up to about £17.2bn, so we’ve clearly got room to ease off a fair bit.

What might be more interesting to pursue would be a major reform of income tax – increasing the number of bands – to reflect the shift of HE funding from a graduate tax to income tax.

So it’s not infeasible to fund Free Education – it’s just going to require a significant re-alignment of the budget, and perhaps some unfair and unjust cutbacks to highly valuable areas of spending. Of course, this is only one example of how to raise the money realistically – just with such a big change to the overall budget (a 3% overall shift), you have to look at where you might raise taxes or cut spending.

* There are 666,165 first year undergraduates currently enrolled at UK Universities. The average cost of a degree (from arts to medicine) is assumed to be £7,500 per year. Assume 10% of degrees include a 4th year (eg year out or UG masters), so the average degree lasts 3.1 years. The three multiplied together comes to £15.488bn. This may be an overestimate – I’m finding it hard to find the average cost of degrees from anywhere.

Thoughts on protesting

On Jan 29th, a protest was held at Birmingham University. While reports differ, the basic outline of events is: people (not necessarily all students) gather at the Uni, try to occupy some buildings (and partially succeed), graffiti the place, allegedly release some smokebombs and eventually get allegedly kettled before being released a few hours later.

Now a number of protesters have been arrested and others charged with actually quite serious criminal offences. Meanwhile the police have been accused of using illegal tactics. The wider student body is seething because they’ve seen their own campus vandalised, and the students’ union is fed up that it has had to postpone its student activities fair because of the action.

All in all, a bit of a mess. Everyone, from the protesters, to the University, to the students’ union, are very angry. So how did we get into this lose-lose situation?

Well, we all have a right to protest. It’s one of the most important rights there are in a democratic society. But like all rights, including our human rights, they are qualified rights. You don’t have the right to protest by causing an explosion. Or by smashing a window. Or by punching someone in the face. Or by waving banners with racist remarks. Those are all rightly criminal acts, and it is the job of the police to investigate these crimes.

(In fact, the police cannot arrest anyone merely for being on protest. However some Universities have taken out injunctions, or court orders, banning protests on their campuses. If those court orders are broken, the police can be called to enforce them).

So we all have a right to protest, but not an unlimited right. Our personal behaviour will affect whether we are entitled to continue to protest. As Spiderman might have said, “with great rights, comes great responsibility”.

What happened at Birmingham is all about personal responsibility, or rather, the inability of some people to take responsibility for any of their actions.

For example, was it really necessary to dress up like terrorist hijackers, in black from head-to-toe, with a balaclava over your face and sunglasses over your eyes? Was it really necessary to storm a building? Was it really necessary to graffiti walls with incoherent slogans?

I would say the answer is a definitive no. After all, what’s wrong with a candlelight vigil? The best protests are those done with humour and politeness – case in point was the protest against fingerprint scanning on campus at Newcastle, where students set up a ‘checkpoint’ outside the University head office and asked management if they would like to register their attendance.

I have been on many protests during my time in the student movement, ranging from the tuition fee protests in Newcastle, to the Save the NHS Demo in Manchester. I have never broken into a building. I have never used aggressive or violent behaviour. I have never done anything other than what I came to do: turn up, make my point, and go home.

Perhaps consequently, I have never been arrested, kettled, or treated with anything other than the utmost courtesy and respect by the police. On the notoriously rubbish #demo2012, most my time on the leg from Parliament to Kennington was spent chatting to a policemen about the challenges faced in policing large protests. So I find it quite hard to comprehend how people get into these situations.

And it’s not just me: NUS and students’ unions holds numerous protests each year, and these pass trouble free. Dozens of “reclaim the night” marches have happened without incident. Only today, the LGBT campaign happily held a “Sports Gay” protest outside the Russian Embassy. Nothing remotely of the sort that happened at Birmingham occurred there.

Why? Because all these protests were conducted responsibly.

I know I don’t agree with everything the protesters at Birmingham were asking for, so I did a thought experiment: what if this were a bunch of public school rugby club lads? Or the UKIP youth branch? The BNP? I know what I’d be thinking if any of those groups caused half as much trouble as the on-trend lefties did at Birmingham: something along the lines of ‘give them what they deserve’.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the people who were associated with the protest have been criticising the students’ union and the university for not doing enough to defend them from what ultimately is the consequence of their own actions.

Some of that is down to gross intellectual dishonesty, a failure to police within these groups and call each other out for going too far. Perhaps some of the reason why the organised left has so few successes is because, without the ability to play the victim card, the justification of many of these actions would cease to exist.

But the attacks on the Birmingham Guild of Students got me thinking. What sort of organisation invades your campus, causes damage and upset, and then demands unlimited and unconditional support from you? What sort of organism invades your body, makes you ill, and lives off your blood?

I remember: a parasite.