Reagan tells it like it is…or was

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ULU President an embarrassment on Newsnight

On the far right

On November 10th over 50,000 students protested against the proposals of the Browne Review. Sadly it was hijacked and overshadowed by the actions of a few thousand hardcore trouble makers and over excited gawpers who broke into the building that houses Conservative party HQ and trashed just about every other office in the building. One rioter dropped a fire extinguisher from the roof narrowly missing Police on the ground.

Students turning into Newsnight that night to see ULU president Clare Solomon condemn this disgraceful and utterly counterproductive behaviour will have been disappointed. In a performance which was, by turns, embarrassing for her and dismaying for students seeking serious representation, she came across as a cross between La Pasionara and Michael Howard.

Jeremy Paxman asked Solomon five times “How does breaking into the building advance the cause of free education?” and didn’t get an answer, the final time, indeed, she chided him for “asking the wrong questions”. By the fifth time Solomon had begun asking her own questions, replying to Paxman’s question with “Why did I feel it necessary to be on the demonstration in the first place?”

The third time of asking prompted the following exchange

Solomon – “Well I didn’t break into the building and I don’t think anybody broke into the building, that is not…”

Paxman – “You were in the building weren’t you?”

Solomon – “I was in the building”

Solomon further claimed that the students had “voted unanimously against fees and against cuts”. When? Which vote is she referring to? I certainly haven’t been asked to vote on it.

She declared herself for “Free education all the way”. Bearing in mind that 37 year old Clare Solomon claimed on Newsnight to have been a student for four years but also claims on her ULU website to have “7 years experience in various union positions” it would seem there is no limit to the amount of taxpayers cash she feels entitled to.

As if this amateurish bumbling and naked self interest was not bad enough Solomon dismissed the violence which saw 14 people injured as “a few smashed windows”. She warned “This is just the beginning” and finished by saying “If the government go through with these cuts we are going to see what we’ve seen in Greece…and I fully support it.”

In May the protests, which Clare Solomon claims to “fully support”, claimed the lives of Paraskeui Zoulia, Aggeliki Papathanasopoulou, and Epameinondas Tsakalis, three bank workers burned to death when protestors set fire to their bank.

Nobel peace prize winning democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, imprisoned for 15 of the last 21 years, recently called for peaceful protest in opposition to the brutal Burmese dictatorship. Ms Solomon, professional activist elected to ULU presidency with just 748 votes, defends violence against a democratic government.

(Printed in London Student, 22/11/10)

Methods and madness part 2 – Legal aid


Hitting the buffers

A little while ago I noted, with reference to housing benefit reforms, how the shrill, hysterical reactions prompted by the coalition’s cuts often seem so out of kilter with the actual cuts themselves. As if to prove the point along comes a storm over cuts to the legal aid budget.

The Guardian yesterday rounded up four people to condemn the Con-Dems.

“If the government persists with these proposals it would represent a sharp break from the long-standing bipartisan consensus that effective access to justice is essential to underpin the rule of law”
– Desmond Hudson, chief executive of the Law Society

“The shrinkage of the justice system inevitably means a painful contraction of access to justice”
– Nicholas Green, chair of the Bar Council of England and Wales, which represents barristers

“People won’t get access to their civil rights. It’s unjust”
– Steve Hynes, director of the Legal Action Group

The fourth was from Scope, the mental health charity. But look again at these three, 75% of those quoted opposing the measures. Notice something in common? They all work in the legal profession, the very profession which is now facing the prospect of less taxpayers money flowing into it.

And flow it has. Mr Hynes once wrote a book called ‘The Justice Gap- Whatever
happened to legal aid?’ The answer is that between 1980 and 2005 the legal aid bill swelled from £138 million to £2.2 billion.

We now have the most expensive legal aid system in the world. According to figures from 2007 legal aid spending per head of population in the following countries is

£1 Sweden
£3 France
£4 Germany
£7 Ireland
£10 New Zealand
£34 England and Wales

A bit of number crunching. The coalition plans to chop £300 million off a legal aid budget currently at £2.1 billion per year. This represents a cut of 13%. Applied per head of population that leaves us with £29.58, still well above the figures for New Zealand, Ireland, Germany, France and Sweden, not countries noted for having hordes of people who can’t “get access to their civil rights”.

It will sharply curtail lawyers access to our pockets. Charles Salmon QC of London’s Hare Court earned £1,058,000 in one year for his legal aid work. Howard Godfrey QC of 2 Bedford Row got just £988,000 while David Whitehouse QC of 3 Raymond Buildings had to make do with just £959,000. These are the people that Desmond Hudson and Nicholas Green represent.

The Immigration Advisory Service received £14,134,000 from the legal aid budget in 2008 and the Refugee Legal Centre got £13,092,000. These are the people Steve Hynes represents.

Think how many nurses/teachers/policemen that money could pay for. Nurses or lawyers earning close to a million? In a real world where money doesn’t grow on trees, those are the decisions which have to be made.

The conscience of Barry Goldwater

Barry Goldwater, 1909-1998

On November 4th 1964 Barry Goldwater woke up to disaster. As Republican candidate in the previous day’s presidential election he had won just 36% of the vote, the lowest share a major party candidate had won since the four way election of 1824. His only success was in winning the states of Mississippi and Alabama, which hadn’t voted Republican since the 1870s, and Georgia, which had never voted Republican at all. That Goldwater managed to win even these was because some of his supporters, like many of his opponents, misunderstood him completely.

Mr Conservative

In June that year Senator Goldwater cast the vote that defined him for supporters and opponents alike, voting nay to the Civil Rights Act. For this he was branded a racist which was utterly unfair. As an individual he was a founder member of both the Tucson and Phoenix chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. As a businessman he opened the doors of his family department store in Phoenix to all races when few other shops did. As a city councillor he voted to desegregate the restaurants at Sky Harbor Airport. As Senator he voted for the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960.

Goldwater’s opposition to the Bill was not based on the simple, stupid racism of Southern Democrats like Strom Thurmond and George Wallace. Rather, he believed that the Act was ineffective and unconstitutional. Goldwater believed that racism dwelt in the heart so while legislation might push these feelings out of sight it would do nothing to eradicate racism itself. As he put it “No law can make one person like another if he doesn’t want to”.

Further, to Goldwater the titles of the Act which made it illegal for private businesses and landlords to discriminate on grounds of race threatened “the loss of our God-given liberties”. In Goldwater’s eyes “the freedom to associate means the same thing as freedom not to associate. It is wrong to erect legal barriers against either side of this freedom” “I am unalterably opposed to discrimination of any sort” he said in the Senate debate, “I believe that, though the problem is fundamentally one of the heart, some law can help; but not law that embodies features like these, provisions which fly in the face of the Constitution”

When he wasn’t being accused of pandering to racism he was being criticised for dodging the race issue. But if, as Goldwater believed, prejudice is a problem of attitudes then it was those who think that they can simply be legislated away who are dodging the real soul changing solution that is the only end of it.

His ideology had been elegantly laid out in The Conscience of a Conservative in 1960. There, in a slim volume of barely 120 pages ghost-written by Brent Bozell, the case was made for smaller government at home and stronger opposition to communism abroad. Coming out at a time when New Deal liberalism was the dominant ideology in US politics and communism held a third of the world under its heel the book was an iconoclastic bombshell. It became a publishing sensation selling 85,000 copies in its first month, mainly to the young.

Pennsylvania Senator Joseph Clark, a liberal himself, described liberalism as “meeting the material needs of the masses through the full power of centralized government”. Goldwater disagreed, Conscience arguing that “The Conservative knows that to regard man as part of an undifferentiated mass is to consign him to ultimate slavery”.

Instead, adopting a sort of ‘methodological individualism’, government should conceive of its citizens as individuals. As Bozell put it in Conscience, “man’s development, in both its spiritual and material aspects, is not something that can be directed by outside forces.  Every man, for his individual good and for the good of his society, is responsible for his own development.  The choices that govern his life are choices that he must make; they cannot be made by any other human being, or by a collectivity of human beings” It was precisely to allow the maximum scope for these individual choices that Goldwater supported the limited government of the Constitution.

Of course, liberals claimed to support freedom themselves but Goldwater argued that these claims were bogus. He held that personal freedom was intertwined with economic freedom; the freedom to choose where to work or what to do with your wages were, ultimately, personal decisions, and government intrusion into economic life was as corrosive of liberty as its intrusion into any other sphere. As Conscience put it “the economic and spiritual aspects of man’s nature are inextricably intertwined.  He cannot be economically free, or even economically efficient, if he is enslaved politically; conversely, man’s political freedom is illusory if he is dependent for his economic needs on the state”.

Barry Goldwater’s left turn?

Goldwater was proved right over the following years. The costs of expanding war and welfare broke the US economy and the world financial system with it. With the west mired in Stagflation the Soviet Union moved to the front foot in the Cold War. In 1980, with Americans anxious to escape the malaise, Ronald Reagan, who had got his big political break speaking in support of Barry Goldwater in 1964, was elected president, largely on Goldwater’s platform. Paul Gigot commented that “(Goldwater) won–in a way the votes in the 1964 election really weren’t finally counted until the 1980 election”.

But Goldwater, back in a Senate seat for Arizona, was not a happy man. Reacting to the social liberalism of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, exemplified by the 1973 Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision legalising abortion, Christians in the US began to get politically organised setting up groups like the Moral Majority under Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition. With memberships in the millions these groups sought to push the Republican Party down a socially conservative route.

‘Mr Conservative’ Barry Goldwater had no time for this. In 1981 Sandra Day O’Connor became Regan’s first Supreme Court nominee. Regarding her stance on abortion Falwell said “Every good Christian should be concerned”. Goldwater replied “I think every good Christian ought to kick Falwell right in the ass”.

In the Senate, shortly afterwards, Goldwater said

“I’m frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in “A,” “B,” “C” and “D.” Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me? And I am even more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate. I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of ‘conservatism’”

He made good on his promise even after retiring from the Senate in 1987. When Bill Clinton moved to allow gays to serve openly in the military, Goldwater, who had spent 37 years as a military reservist, said “You don’t have to be straight to be in the military; you just have to be able to shoot straight”. “The big thing is to make this country, along with every other country in the world with a few exceptions, quit discriminating against people just because they’re gay”, Goldwater told the Washington Post in 1994. “You don’t have to agree with it” Goldwater said, echoing his stance against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, “but they have a constitutional right to be gay. And that’s what brings me into it”

The liberal conservative

His savage denunciations of Falwell, Robertson, and their followers, surprised and puzzled many. The Washington Post described it as ‘Barry Goldwater’s Left Turn’. It was nothing of the kind. Goldwater was simply defending the social freedom of the individual as he had been the economic freedom of the individual since The Conscience of a Conservative.

Both liberals and conservatives in America claim to love freedom. Often they love a little bit of it only. Liberals have to square the circle of giving the individual freedom over what to do with his or her body while placing ever greater government claims over the individual’s payslip. Conservatives, on the other hand, want freedom for the individual to do what he or she wants economically but seek government limits on the social freedoms of others. Liberals want a woman’s right to choose and big government. Conservatives want a Constitutional ban on gay marriage and small government.

Neither side seems to realise the inherent contradictions of their position. This was not a situation Barry Goldwater found himself in. He didn’t want government to interfere in how you disposed of your payslip or your bodily fluids. His politics were consistent. He managed, at the same time, to be a consistent advocate of both liberalism and small government. He could be both liberal and conservative at the same time because the Constitution he sought to conserve was a truly liberal document.

Barry Goldwater died in 1998 and with it ended his second political life as grizzled champion of liberal social causes. By then the liberals had come to regard the man who said “I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom” as their favourite conservative. Conservatives, meanwhile, had adopted the man who said “I believe a woman has a right to an abortion” as the godfather of their movement. To the very end both supporters and opponents misunderstood him.

But its no surprise that Goldwater didn’t fit exactly into either camp, he was always an outsider. Born in 1909 the grandson of Jewish immigrants he was an outsider in his native Arizona. As a westerner in a party still dominated by easterners, he was an outsider in the GOP. As a small government constitutionalist he was an outsider in an age of big government liberalism. In the last two decades of his life he was an outsider in a Republican Party becoming more socially conservative.

In 1994 Goldwater wrote “The conservative movement is founded on the simple tenet that people have the right to live life as they please as long as they don’t hurt anyone else in the process”. That few were willing to apply this in both the social and economic sphere of life doomed Barry Goldwater to be an outsider. But if that was the price of consistency, the conscience of Barry Goldwater will be clear.

The Great Debate – University of London colleges would benefit from privatisation

The argument against privatized universities usually runs as follows; education is a right and, as such, should be paid for by the taxpayer.

Whether education is a ‘right’ is a question worthy of a discussion in itself. The Bill of Rights of 1689 lists, among other rights, freedom of speech and freedom from royal interference in Parliamentary elections. More succinctly the Declaration of Independence of the United States listed just three rights in 1776, those to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

Since then we’ve had a couple of centuries of capitalism, the greatest method of increasing living standards ever devised by humanity. As our ability to produce goods and services has grown, thanks to capitalism, ‘rights’ of access to these goods and services have proliferated.

But even if education is a right it still does not automatically follow that this means it should be provided by the state and paid for by the taxpayer.

Few would disagree that people have a right to food and clothing yet only the most lunatic left wingers would argue that these should be provided by the state. Communist China tried just this with clothing and 1 billion people got identical jim jams.

The clamour for the state (read taxpayers) to provide the food and clothing we each have a right to is dulled because the free market private sector does a very good job of providing them. Between 1982 and 2005, according to the Office of National Statistics, the percentage of income spent by the average family on food fell from 21% to 16% while the cost of clothes fell by 2.6% per year between 1998 and 2008. Indeed, some now argue the free market does too good a job. The problem facing the less well off in the UK is not malnutrition but obesity.

So we see that free markets in the private sector lead to lower prices and greater variety. But, for some mysterious reason, it is argued that higher education will be different, that price will rise and people will not be able to afford the education they have a right to.

This equity argument for taxpayer funding falls apart almost immediately. Under the current state system a child of professional parents has a 72% chance of going to university. A child of unskilled parents has just a 13% chance. Given that graduates will earn, on average, more than non graduates over their working lives the taxpayer funding of universities is simply a subsidy for the children of the well off to earn even more. Increasing private provision, making these kids pay more for their own education, would leave more resources free for the children of the less well off.

The comparative lack of access to higher education for children of the less well off is caused by factors, such as lack of access to good quality secondary education, which are already in place before they start filling in the UCAS form. There is no reason to think that this existing problem will be exacerbated by private university education. Indeed, looking at how private markets work in providing other rights like food and clothing and how higher education works in the US, with it web of scholarships and bursaries, that it may free up more resources to help the less well off. However, we shouldn’t be surprised if the kids of the middle class continue to defend their subsidy and call it social justice.

(Printed in London Student, 08/11/10)

Napoleon Bonaparte


On his horse which would have been better named ‘Desaix’

Contrary to popular belief Napoleon Bonaparte was the average height for his age. But if history understates Napoleon’s height it overstates his military greatness. Although routinely cited as one of the great generals in history Bonaparte was, in actual fact, a one trick pony who constantly flirted with disaster and was a bust when his trick was rumbled. He only fought one great battle, at Austerlitz in 1805, and one great campaign, against Prussia the following year.

This might seem a strange thing to say considering his extraordinary run of success until 1812; driving the Austrians from Lombardy at Arcola in 1796, the crossing of the Alps and Marengo in 1800, the defeat of the Austrians and Russians at Austerlitz in 1805, the Prussians at Jena-Auerstadt in 1806, the Russians again at Friedland in 1807 and the Austrians again in 1809 at Wagram. At its greatest extent, in 1811, the French empire and allied states covered modern day Spain, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Poland, Switzerland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Denmark and Norway. Surely this was down to more than luck?

Circumstance played a part. The 150 years of European history between the Treaty of Westphalia and the rise of Napoleon was punctuated by wars like the War of Devolution (1667-1668), the Franco-Dutch War (1672-1678), the War of the League of Augsburg (1688-1697), the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1713), the War of the Quadruple Alliance (1718-1720), the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) and the Seven Year War (1756-1763). In these wars the major powers of Europe; France, Britain, Austria, Russia and Prussia as well as a constellation of smaller states, slid like mercury from one short lived military alliance to the next, often fighting in one war their allies from the last one.

The wars were like jousts. They were fought for limited aims; no country was ever dismembered after defeat. They were limited in scope. Battles like Malplaquet and Landen were bloody but these wars did not bring the mass, prolonged immiseration of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). Any losses in one war could be made up with gains in the next one.

This was the political and military environment that allowed Bonaparte to prosper. His military philosophy was best summed up by American Civil War cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest; “get there firstest with the mostest”. Napoleon relied, first ,on moving quickly to secure a decisive battle and, second, on concentrating his forces at the decisive point to win it.

Despite saying that “an army marches on its stomach” Napoleon bought speed at the expense of logistics. To Bonaparte’s mind establishing supply lines and depots took up resources, limited your freedom of movement, and slowed you down. This meant that his army had to forage for supplies. This put them at the mercy of their surroundings and, to a large extent, made a quick decisive battle necessary. The risk was that if the decisive battle didn’t come his men would starve.

The early successes won with speed bought at the expense of logistics were the perfect passport to success in a Europe full of powers willing to throw their hand in and wait for the return fixture. But they were, to an extent, chimerical. In all but two of his early campaigns Bonaparte failed to secure a decisive victory in the sense of destroying the enemies capacity to resist. Instead he destroyed their willingness to resist. After his victorious campaigns in 1797, 1800, 1805, 1807 and 1809 the Austrians (four times) and the Russians (twice) could have carried on the war if they had wished. The exceptions were his ignominious disaster in Egypt in 1798-1799 and destruction of Prussia in 1806.

After the invasion of Russia in 1812 this trick never worked again. Napoleon’s Grand Armée of 422,000 men in heavy uniforms crossed into Russia on a sweltering June day. As usual Bonaparte had sacrificed logistics for speed and his men carried four days of rations with them. Unlike the fertile theatres of western and central Europe the French found food much harder to come by in Russia, its relative barrenness being exacerbated by the scorched earth policy of the Russians. Men began drifting ever further away from their units to find food, many falling victim to marauding Cossacks or vengeful peasants. Horses, which required far more feeding than a human, died in their thousands crippling the cavalry and placing further pressure on what supply lines there were.

And the quick battle didn’t come. Napoleon was advancing into the gap between one Russian army to north and their central army under his opponent, Marshal Kutuzov. Just as Bonaparte wanted to split these two forces Kutuzov wanted to unite them and so kept retreating to bring them together. As he did so he became aware of the advanced state of decrepitude of the French army. He began to think that he might be able to beat them without fighting them. So he kept on retreating and forcing the starving French to advance.

Contrary to the Napoleonic myth gracefully retold by Tolstoy that his army was defeated by ‘General Winter’ and froze to death during the retreat from Moscow the Grand Armée had, in fact, already lost 320,000 of its 422,000 men before reaching Moscow. The retreat accounted for another 90,000. The Russians had beaten Napoleon by not fighting him.


The deterioration of Napoleon’s army in Russia

The lesson was learned quickly. Sensing their chance for revenge after years of defeats and arrogant Napoleonic ‘diplomacy’ the Austrians and Prussians allied with Russia and Britain in 1813. Facing three armies in Germany Napoleon, a new army hastily assembled, went in search of quick decisive victories against each in turn. His enemies refused to oblige. When Bonaparte advanced against one enemy they withdrew and the other two advanced. When he turned to strike one of them that army would retreat and the other two move forward his army deteriorating with each forced march after a new shadow. In this way he was boxed in at Leipzig in October 1813 where, fighting with his back to a river and just one bridge as an escape route, he lost a second army in two years over three days in the biggest battle in European history to that point.

If Napoleon was firstest at the fatal price of neglecting his supplies he often failed to be mostest as well. Time and again, throughout his career, when the eagerly sought battle arrived it often found Napoleon unprepared and with his forces divided.

The battle of Marengo in 1800 became such a part of Napoleonic myth that he named his horse after it. It was so famous because Napoleon snatched victory from the jaws of certain defeat. Or rather he didn’t, his subordinate, Marshal Desaix did. Breaking his own maxim of concentration of forces Bonaparte had sent a corp under Desaix off on a wild goose chase and been ambushed by the Austrians. Luckily Desaix heard the gunfire, disobeyed his orders and headed for the battlefield where Napoleon had suffered a kind of breakdown. The battle was saved but, alas, Desaix was killed.

This was repeated numerous times but nowhere more notably than at Napoleon’s final battle, Waterloo in 1815. Defeated and banished in 1814 Napoleon returned to France the following year, toppled the unpopular Louis XVIII and was declared an enemy of Europe by his erstwhile foes. Again, his plan was to cross as quickly as possible into Belgium and defeat the British and Prussian armies there so he could prepare for the advance of Russia and Austria.

He crossed the border on June 15th in between the British and Prussian armies the aim being, as in Russia, to drive the armies apart and defeat each separately. It didn’t work, Wellington, the British commander, and Blucher, the Prussian, decided to hold their positions. On the 16th Napoleon threw his main force north east against the Prussians at Ligny while sending a smaller force north west to capture the crossroad of Quatre Bras from the British.

At Ligny Napoleon ground out a victory but his troops were so exhausted that they had to rest the following day. This meant that despite holding the French at Quatre Bras the position was now untenable. Besides, Wellington had picked a much better defensive position a few miles to the north at Waterloo.

It was here that Napoleon, the man who urged concentration at the decisive point, repeated the mistake of Marengo and split his force. Unsure of where the Prussians had retreated to after Ligny Bonaparte sent 30,000 men under Marshal Grouchy, one third of his army, to locate the Prussians. What they were supposed to do when they found them was unclear, Grouchy was ordered both to push the Prussians away from Waterloo and, at the same time, link up with Napoleon. Lacking the decisiveness to choose either Grouchy fought a battle against the Prussians at Wavre so half heartedly that most of them were able to get away to Waterloo to reinforce Wellington. It was the allies who concentrated at the vital point and Napoleon who left wailing “Where is Grouchy?” as his final gamble failed.

The battle of Waterloo itself was the usual gruesome Napoleonic affair. In the Thirty Years War a battle had been notably bloody when 20,000 died. In Napoleon’s battles this would count as a skirmish. 52,000 died at Jena-Auerstadt in 1806, 77,000 at Wagram in 1809 and a staggering 124,000 at Leipzig in 1813.

These figures were dwarfed by the First World War a century later but there had been a revolution in military technology in the meantime which produced, among other things, the machine gun. There had been no similar advance in killing power between the Thirty Years War and Napoleonic Wars. Armies had grown in size, 160,000 men fought at Malplaquet in 1709 while more than 600,000 fought at Leipzig, but the battles killed a greater proportion. At the exceptionally bloody battle of Breitenfeld in 1631 15% of combatants were killed, at Borodino in 1812 that figure was 29%.

Much of this was down to Napoleon’s battle tactics. For all his reputation for skilful manouvre, more strategic than tactical, his victories, when they came, were generally the result of sheer pugilism. Aside from the deft movement at Austerlitz which coaxed the Austrians into a trap Bonaparte often chose the simple bludgeon of frontal assault. The stories of Wagram, Borodino and Waterloo particularly are ones of waves of massed frontal assault.

But Napoleon wasn’t one to ponder these losses. After the battle of Bautzen in 1813 in which 40,000 died Bonaparte snapped “After such butchery, no result!” Wellington, on the other hand, reflected after Waterloo “Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won”.

Napoleon is one of the great figures on European history. His incessant warfare turned France into a nation at arms a mode of war and societal organisation which spread via conquest beyond his borders playing a major role in inculcating the nascent ideology of nationalism. But while his height may be understated, his military prowess is quite the opposite.

Obama could win as an ‘Eisenhower Republican’

Doh!

It’s little surprise that the Americans who voted for change in 2008 have shunned Barack Obama. George W Bush spent big and ran deficits a policy which Obama has vastly expanded. Where Bush vastly expanded Medicare spending Obama pushed through the monstrous Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. All Obama has done is double up on whatever Bush did but that, in fairness, is all he promised to do. The wonder is why they voted for him in the first place.

Obama can still rescue his presidency if he can learn some lessons from history. He faces a similar situation to the one Bill Clinton faced in 1994 when, in that year’s mid terms, Republicans took control of the House for the first time in 40 years.

In his first two years Clinton had taken some painful but necessary actions such as tackling the deficit and approving the NAFTA. However, he had also wasted political capital on pushing fringe issues, like the right for gays to serve openly in the military and grossly unpopular ones like the disastrously doomed Hillarycare. Along with the lingering whiff of corruption, Newt Gingrich’s resurgent Republicans with their ‘Contract with America’ looked to have scuppered Slick Willie.

Yet the Comeback Kid (Clinton generated as many nicknames as scandals) was easily re elected in 1996. Along with his advisor Dick Morris (reborn as a Republican and recently author of ‘Fleeced: How Barack Obama, Media Mockery of Terrorist Threats, Liberals Who Want To Kill Talk Radio, The Do-Nothing Congress, Companies That Help Iran, And Washington Lobbyists For Foreign Governments Are Scamming Us…And What To Do About It’), he invented ‘triangulation’ which, essentially, meant taking some items of the Republican legislative agenda, like welfare reform, smaller government and a balanced budget, and taking them for himself. “I hope you’re all aware we’re all Eisenhower Republicans” Clinton had sarcastically told staffers shortly after his election. After his re election he wore the tag with honour.

Haley Barbour, Chairman of the RNC, paid tribute to the ability Clinton shared “with the hummingbird the amazing ability to turn 180 degrees in a wink”. To a Democrat, like George Stephanopoluos, triangulation was “a fancy word for betrayal”. Obama must be prepared to court praise from Republicans and ire from Democrats. He could make a start by sidelining Nancy Pelosi and working as closely with Mitch McConnell as with Harry Reid. He needs to make at least a start on regaining control of the country’s catastrophic finances.

The situation has its challenges for Republicans. Representative John Shimkus admitted “We know that this really wasn’t a vote for us. It was a vote against the Obama agenda. We take on this responsibility very humbly”. On the other hand Mitch McConnell made an early bid for repealing Obamacare saying “The only way to do all those things is to put someone in the White House who won’t veto any of these things”.

This is the GOP’s dilemma; work too well with Obama and he gets re elected. Try to block him constantly and re fight the battles of the last two years and be seen as sacrificing the economy for ideology. A poll for the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 35% of Americans named the economy as the issue which would most sway their vote while just 10% named health. The Republicans would be as unwise to substitute their concern for healthcare for the public’s worry about the economy as President Obama was.

This has spooked some about ‘Gridlock’ which the Founders just called checks and balances. That is why the government is split between executive, judicial, and legislative branches with the last split in two again. Gridlock is constitutional.

Different parties holding the Capitol and White House can work well in practice. After initial clashes which briefly shut down the government in 1995 the uneasy relationship between Clinton and Gingrich’s Republicans produced welfare reform in 1996 and a balanced budget in 1997 and a fall in unemployment from 6% to 4%. As Madison predicted, the two act as breaks on the others excesses.

It can work again. An encouraging sign is that new House Speaker John Boehner is not Newt Gingrich. Less encouraging was President Obama’s half hearted mea culpa where he said “We were so busy and so focused on getting a bunch of stuff done that we stopped paying attention to the fact that, yeah, leadership isn’t just legislation, that it’s a matter of persuading people and giving them confidence and bringing them together, and setting a tone”. The failure of presentation rather than policy is an old excuse for ailing governments everywhere. But if this is just politics and he does move towards a working relationship with the Republicans we could well see another ‘Eisenhower Republican’ elected in 2012.

This article first appeared at Global Politics

Methods, madness, and housing benefit reform


Slum clearance?

The early months of the coalition government seem to have settled into a pattern. A ‘savage’ (sic) cut is in the offing, be it capping benefits at £26,000 per year, tuition fees or public sector pension reform, which the media puffs up into the spark which will ignite outrage.

Then something strange happens. Or rather, it doesn’t. Families on benefits receiving no more than the average income, the students who benefit paying more towards their university education or public sector workers paying more into their pension funds are all accepted by a public which sees them as the common sense they are. This dissonance was seen with housing benefit reform.

Part of this is down to the sheer madness of the hyperbole deployed by the opposition. Jon Cruddas MP took a deep breath and blew hard on his dog whistle when he spoke of housing benefit reform leading to “social and economic cleansing”. Even less tastefully Polly Toynbee spoke of the Conservatives “final solution for the poor”.

It’s hard to think what the coalition actually could do to justify conjuring up the ethnic massacres of Yugoslavia or the hell of Auschwitz. Certainly their plans to save £1.8 billion per year by cutting Housing Benefit don’t.

Currently you can claim up to £8,000 per month from Housing Benefit. In one recently reported case, Abdi and Sayruq Nur and their seven children get just that to rent a house in London’s eye-wateringly expensive Kensington. They previously lived in the less salubrious Kensal Rise area but, according to Mr Nur, “The old house was good but the area was not so good. It was a very poor area and there were no buses, no shops and the schools were too far”.

I, as an average salary earning full time worker living in London, cannot afford to live in Kensington. Yet I pay taxes that go towards paying for the unemployed Mr Sur and his family to live there. Rather than grotesque talk of ‘cleansing’ and final solutions, this is real social justice. As Nick Clegg said in the Commons on October 26th

“it is perfectly reasonable for the government to say that it won’t hand out more in housing benefit than people who go out to work, pay their taxes, play by the rules will do when they look for housing themselves.

We are simply suggesting there should be a cap for family homes of four bedrooms of £400 a week. That is £21,000 a year.

Does he really think it’s wrong for people who can’t afford to live privately in those areas that the state should subsidise people to the tune of more than £21,000? I don’t think so.”

To remedy this unfair situation the measures proposed by George Osbourne, and which have provoked such fury from the likes of Cruddas and Toynbee, will cap housing benefit at £400 a week for a four-bedroom property and £250 a week for a two-bedroom home.

Far from forcing people out onto the streets a quick search on rightmove.co.uk revealed that, even in expensive London, there are 624 properties available with at least 4 bedrooms for £400 per week. A search on zoopla.co.uk found over 800 properties. Coming down to two bedroom properties rightmove produced over 1,000 while zoopla turned up 3,126, including many in trendy areas such as Islington and Camden.

True, many of these properties are to be found in London’s outer areas, zones 3 and 4, which would seem to lend weight to the argument made in the Independent that “the result of the cap, which takes force next spring, will be an exodus of the poor from the rich centre to the periphery and beyond”.

But that is exactly the choice that many people are faced with now; much as they might like to live in Kensington they cannot afford to so they live somewhere else. These reforms are about applying the same cost constraint on housing benefit recipients as are placed on the rest of us.

This shows why there is such a discontinuity between the “sound and fury” of shameless, tasteless and exploitative cynics like Cruddas and Toynbee and the public perception. The British people are a generally generous and fair minded bunch. Many of the key aspects of the welfare state still command widespread support. But when they see their taxes being used to subsidise people living in houses they couldn’t afford, we see just how far the welfare state has moved from Beveridge’s safety net to become a hammock. A poll for YouGov found that the housing benefit cap had 72% support. Even 52% of Labour voters backed the measures.

This is why all of the cynical, shameless and exploitative rantings from the likes of Toynbee and Cruddas are likely to have so little traction with the public. They are tales, as Macbeth said, “Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”