Saturday, 27 February 2016

In, Out, or Shake it all About?

We're all doing the EU Hokey-Cokey, whether we like it or not.

Wait long enough, and the same old things come back round. Fashions come, go and return - we seem to be in a bit of a 90s Nostalgiafest at the moment, for example. This is bad enough, as there is nothing worse than one's youth and young manhood being repackaged as History, but I am damn glad that there is currently no serious attempt to bring back the 70s.

Cheesecloth shirts. Flares and platform shoes. Really BAD hair. The great smell of Brut. And, for me, the sheer terror that was any form of group dancing. The Hokey-Cokey in particular - you have no idea how much I hated that bloody dance. My seven-year-old self couldn't grasp why anyone would ever want to do it - I mean, what for? OK, here's my left leg you want me to take it out..right...and the same process with my right leg....why are we doing this, and why do we now need to do this again?
My Eyes! My Eyes! They're Bleeding!

I'll be over here with my book.
As you may be able to guess, I wasn't the most socially gregarious of children.

As with fashion, so with politics, and it's no less depressing than contemplating lobbing various body parts in, then out, then turning around and doing it all again - in fact, it's pretty much the same. It seems that debates that one thought had been consigned to oblivion have a nasty tendency to come back to life, rather like Phil Collins' musical career. The seemingly never-ending renascence of the debate on immigration is particularly grating - it's one that has popped up again and again, particularly over the last 120 years. Have a read of the papers from the late Victorian period if you don't believe me: the language is almost identical to that being used by Nigel Farage et al.

And now, of course, we have an impending referendum on whether to remain in the EU. I can almost hear the strains of 'Nights in White Satin' playing away in the background, as the 'Out' Campaigners talk about Sovereignty and the 'In' Campaigners discuss participation and trade. So, where to stand, and what to vote for - In or Out, and how long will it take before everyone gets so sick of the whole damn thing that they start going round punching campaign posters?

Taking the Out argument first, the strongest and most plausible claim is that of taking back sovereignty and control of the destiny of the UK. The idea is that national laws are subject to decisions made at the European level, made by politicians and groups over whom we have no democratic mandate to appoint or dismiss. For the Outers, leaving the EU is in line with the long democratic traditions of the country.
The problem with this is, as I see it, twofold. The first is that the very people who espouse this were the very same who campaigned for the 'No' vote in the Scottish Referendum, in particular Michael Gove. If you take the language being used and change 'UK' to 'Scotland', and 'the EU' to 'The UK', you pretty much have an SNP Independence Referendum campaign leaflet. How is it correct that sovereignty and independence is just and correct for the UK as a whole, but not for one part of it in particular?
The second point is that sovereignty itself is a very fluid concept, no more so than in the ever more globalised world market we find ourselves in. In fact, countries are always ready to broker deals that, in theory, compromise the independence of national parliamentary systems if that deal is ultimately in the national interest - and will get out of those deals if they are no longer advantageous. The notion that, with one bound we will be free of our Euro-shackles is plainly absurd - it's not as if, to torture an old headline from The Times, a fog will descend in the channel that will permanently cut the continent off from us. It'll still be there, much like Phil Collins.
The other point to bring up on this is that, if the No vote is successful, within five years there will almost certainly be no UK to speak of - Scotland would vote for independence and I suspect that even Northern Ireland would be weighing up its options.

Let's look at the In option. The core argument here, it seems to me, relates to the economic factor: The EU is our largest trading partner and for every pound we put in, it has been estimated that we receive back up to ten pounds of economic benefits. While this is very convincing, it should be pointed out that this reduces the whole of the EU to little more than business - it becomes all about the money, and not about the people. And that is the narrative that the INners are missing. Look at what's happening politically round the world right now: It's people angry at the traditional political narrative, that of jobs and money and stability and progress and blah blah blah - see, I even got bored as I was writing that sentence. Suddenly, there's a real sense of the personal about politics - that's why Jeremy Corbyn became Labour Leader, why people are flocking to Bernie Sanders and an angry Oompa Loompa in the States, why Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece are so popular. People are tired of watching the same old faces trot out the same old solutions, and the In campaigners haven't twigged to that.

So - In or Out? My instincts are to remain within the EU: It promises greater stability, more security, overall a better outcome, and the UK is likely to remain as a single political entity. That doesn't mean, however, that I am enamoured of the European Union as a system. It has clear structural issues, but then again, it did so when we voted to go in back in the 70s.

Which brings me back to the bloody Hokey Cokey. We've put our limbs in and out and turned around to face the arid stretches of the global dancefloor, covered in the sticky residue of a tortured metaphor. What we haven't done, I would suggest, is Shake It All About.

The EU is not, should not, be the plaything of big business. It was conceived as a way of preventing further wars in the continent, as a way of bringing peace and reconciliation between people. The institution, primarily, should be a thing for the people, of the people and by the people, just as a certain country across the Pond likes to think of itself. What is needed is a grassroots movement within the whole continent demanding reform for the whole system - one that acts locally but thinks globally, or at least EU-wide. Too much of the running of the show has been left to politicians who rely on weary tropes and arguments and, more importantly, lack any real vision of what a Europe united is truly capable of.

I'm still not going to dance the Hokey Cokey though.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Gimme Shelter!

We're in the middle of a serious housing crisis. Here are two ways we could fix it.

It's long been a maxim that the best place to invest your money is in bricks and mortar. That's probably never been truer than in the housing market in the UK for the last thirty years or so.

Have a guess how much market prices have increased since 1970. Go on.


OK, 25%?

Hmm.. let's try a bit more....100%


In fact, average house prices, in real terms, have gone up an eye-watering 346% since then. And that's the national average - it doesn't take into account regional variations. For example, in my home town the average home has gone up in monetary value by 6% in the last six months alone, and it is estimated that house prices may go up by 43% once the new Crossrail scheme becomes active in 2017. To put that in context, a property 'worth' £200,000 (just about a two-bed place) would be 'worth'  £288,000 within the space of a few months.

For home owners, this may seem great news - but the reality is that it is an economic and social disaster that is waiting to blow up in our faces. Cities and towns cannot operate if people don't live in them, and what we are seeing is that people can't afford to live in them, largely because they cannot buy or rent at a reasonable price. Cities such as London have seen absurd increases, and desperately needs housing stock. A report yesterday highlighted the fact that there are some 22,000 properties there that have lain vacant for more than 6 months, a number that seems likely to increase with overseas investors buying property as investment rather than letting. Even so, this is a tiny figure - many more homes are required.

Rural towns and villages are suffering form this paucity, too. With the increase in the number of second holiday homes, people have found themselves being priced out of their own areas, leading to a loss of economic input and activity in the area, which in turn impacts on goods and services available.

For the last thirty years, it has been clear that successive governments have been reluctant to intervene in this situation - after all, home ownership is a prized notion for both Labour and Conservative, and the increase in notional values makes for a happier electorate. However, non-intervention is still a political choice, and one that appears to be an increasingly bad thing.

I'd like to suggest two ways in which this issue could be alleviated - they may be seen as difficult initially, but I believe in the long run they can only prove beneficial to all.

To deal with properties lying empty first: Since 2014, local authorities have been able to levy an Empty Homes Premium on properties that have been unoccupied for more than six months. This premium is anything up to 50% of council tax extra on what would be paid had the home been occupied. I feel that this is inadequate: Instead, councils should be allowed to charge an 'Economic Activity Premium' - that is, they can charge the amount that an occupant would be typically expected to spend on local goods and services. Not only would this discourage having empty properties, it would also contribute into the local economy. This would be particularly beneficial to rural communities, helping to sustain core services and amenities. If people can afford to have second homes, they should also be expected to ensure that they contribute to the area that home is in. Whether they do so by paying a premium or letting their property out doesn't matter. Homes are meant to be lived in, not moulder for six months of the year.

The next proposal is more radical, but achievable. It is this: All two-bed properties are to be worth no more than 3.5 times the average domestic income of any given region. Where it is the case that they are currently carry more worth, this triggers a wave of local housebuilding with the specific aim of reducing demand. So, a two-bed house  in, let's say, Burnley, is worth £70,000: If the average domestic income is £25,000, then that house is within the affordable range I have suggested. On the other hand, two-bed properties here in Reading are in the region of £280,000, and average domestic income is approximately £40,000 - meaning that the house price is seven times more than the income. By my suggestion, this would mean that new properties would be built to counteract this imbalance between demand and affordability.

I've suggested the figure of 3.5 times the value of domestic income because it makes the prospect of home ownership realistic. I've also suggested two-bed homes in particular because these are the ones most in demand from prospective buyers. The aim is to create true sustainability and stability within the housing market as a whole, but with the added benefit, ultimately, of averaging house prices across the entire country. For those who say, well, it isn't the government's job to intervene in a free market, I'll say that the government did and continues to intervene anyway - only in a negative way. The selling-off of council properties seemed a great idea in the 1980s, but it was accompanied by a cap on capital building projects by local councils - in other words, regional housing stock was deliberately suppressed in order to create a housing price bubble.

Unless something is done soon, that bubble will most definitively pop, and the outcome is not likely to be pleasant.

edit: This concise article very clearly lays out the disparity between earnings and house prices.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

The Way to Wealth!

English is a funny old language. 

Being a long-term TEFLer, I've always enjoyed its idiosyncracies and foibles - the variable pronunciation of 'ea', for example, or the way that consonant combinations lurk in the linguistic shadows, waiting to mug any unsuspecting language learner (try getting students to say 'dwindle'. Or 'lengths'). Languages are in a constant state of evolution - by the time I've finished writing this article, at least one neologism or new meaning will have entered the English language. Words themselves have a habit of shifting meaning over time, in much the same way that rivers meander sinuously across a flood plain through centuries of ever-flowing movement. 'Enthusiast' started off as having heavy religious connotations, before becoming pejorative and then ending up as a way of describing someone with perhaps a not-too-healthy interest in a hobby, as in 'train enthusiast'. Likewise, 'silly' originally meant something like 'holy', then 'innocent', and now it's a polite way of saying 'bloody stupid'.

And seeing as words are the way in which we describe the world, it should come as no surprise that what we are able to say informs what we are able to envisage. The reason English doesn't have the alleged Eskimo 40 words for snow is because, generally speaking, it hardly has enough time to settle for us to get much further than 'wet snow', 'slush' and 'fluffy'. I, for one, would like a single world that describes the kind of snow that rubs your face red raw while cycling through it, although I suspect that it would sound like a prolonged swear word.

Now, here's a good little word to consider - 'Wealth'.

Come on, who doesn't think of wealth at least once a day? Look at the newspapers, look at the ads, looks at your social media stream: Odds are there'll be at least one advert there saying something along the lines of 'Get wealthy now!' or 'Person from [insert town here] shows how they got wealthy!', or 'Get this Wealth Creation Tool Now!'

But let's consider the word itself. 'Wealth', originally, didn't have a purely fiscal connotation. In fact, its root is the same as the word 'well', and 'health'. It really refers to one's well-being: When you congratulate a newly married couple with the phrase 'May you have health, wealth and happiness', you are not actually wishing that they be financially well-off, but in fact that they have an all-encompassing well-being.

I think perhaps it's time that the original meaning was somewhat reappropriated. That way, when someone talks about 'wealth creation', they won't be thinking solely about money. If we think of wealth only in this latter sense, can we say that we are truly wealthy? Should we, in fact, be talking of 'well-being creation?' Have you ever heard a politician talking of that without being dismissed as something of a hippy?

OK, and we segue slightly clumsily into the political bit. It strikes me that the primary role of any government should be the preservation, upholding and enhancement of the Common Wealth. Not the Commonwealth - that's a group of countries that resemble a particularly fractious family gathering at a dodgy wedding. By Common Wealth, I mean the well-being of all the people who live in a state - not merely financial, but educational, health-wise, happiness etc. If a government does not aim to preserve, uphold and enhance these things, then frankly, what good are they doing? If they, for example, don't ensure that companies pay their fair share of tax, or turn a blind eye to assets being salted away in tax havens, or ensure that a health system is not fragmented and parts sold off, or privatise key national resources, how can they be said to be caring for the well-being of all? A government that thinks 'wealth' just means 'money' is one that is wrong.

In my previous article, I talked about how sometimes we don't have a word for something. When we don't have a way of describing a thing, then we may never even be able to visualise it, to conceive of its very existence. However, when we have a word whose meaning has changed, then that can warp our view of the world - 'wealth' is a very nice example of that. To paraphrase myself earlier, language is a tricky bugger. And our words and what we mean them to, er, mean, are inherently political. Language, like politics, is too important to be left solely to the politicians.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

No Word For Water

I’ve been reading Boris Johnson’s biography of Winston Churchill, ‘The Churchill Factor’, and I have to say that I’m quite enjoying it - it’s zippy, well-paced and entertaining, written with Johnson’s typical brio and zest. I’d certainly recommend it - if you like your history having a bit more emphasis on the ‘story’ bit.

Johnson, being a journalist, knows how to write, and as the saying is, he doesn’t always let the facts get in the way of a good yarn. To be fair, he does state, quite early on, that he ‘isn’t a historian’, which should be enough to put the reader on their guard. He is also, quite clearly, a bit besotted with his subject: The book teeters on the edge of fanboy fiction, and it’s also obvious that Churchill, journalist, politician and serial self-publicist, has been a profound influence on journalist, politician and serial self-publicist Boris Johnson.

He races through the life of his subject, placing Winston under the relatively lightest of scrutiny and conveniently skating over certain topics - the seriousness of his heart attack when staying at the White House, for example, or the absence of a mention of his involvement with the Black and Tans in Ireland. Johnson breezily dismisses much of the criticism of Churchill without going into detail - good for keeping the narrative going, but bad for objectivity.

Anyway, enough of the book critique. It’s still what is often termed a rollicking read. There are two points that really got my attention, and which hopefully I can use to segue into the point of this little essay. Firstly, it was the well-attested phenomenal work rate that Churchill had - he genuinely never seemed to ever stop, even in the later stages of his life: millions of words produced, a mind fizzing with ideas almost to the end, a compendious memory allied to what was clearly a gargantuan appetite for life. Truly, he was one hell of a character, regardless of what light he is cast under.

The second point was what enabled all of that life to happen - an army of servants, cooks, cleaners, secretaries and whatnot, a regiment of enablers, all at Churchill’s beck and call at any time. A phrase from the late, great Terry Pratchett came to mind: ‘It takes forty people with their feet on the ground to keep one man with his head in the clouds’. And then another, from Small Gods: ‘I imagine that fish have no word for water’.
In the final chapter of the book, Johnson makes a  brief mention of historians who write from the perspective  of society and the narrative sweep of time, and dismissesthem rather grandly, stating that his subject is a refutation of their approach. However, his own fanboy biography makes it clear that Churchill could not have been Churchill without the invisible jelly of support that is a human community.

In a way, we could say that Churchill the individual did not exist. Rather, we have Churchill the symbiotic organism, made up of all those secretaries, notaries, servants and whatnot, all facilitating the whims and functions of the Winstonian head teetering at the very pinnacle of the multi-limbed being.
Great individuals do not, cannot, function alone. Rather, they are the product of a great deal of work by others. The veneration of the individual, while attractive to our mindset, is a false act.

My point is that talent and work alone are often not enough - very often, where you find success, there also do you find some network that has nourished and upheld it, be it never so poor. Knowing this, it is perplexing how some people think that they have achieved everything by themselves, and that those worse of than them must in some way be defective. The current government, for example, seems to have a mindset that everyone can be just like them if only they’d Pull Their Socks Up A Bit. They can’t see, because they don’t have a word for it in their minds, that they have been enabled by privilege and happenstance to be as they are: If you’re lucky enough, and it is luck, then the invisible fluid that is privilege will uphold you, keep you up and allow you to flourish with a bit of work - and it’ll give you the confidence to take risks. Some people are already in the sunny upper waters - but many are further down in the murk, and for them, the effort to rise is much, much harder.

Still, it was ever the case: It’s not just the fact that the poor are always with us - so are the rich. Churchill was somewhat aware of this - it's often forgotten that he was involved in the creation of a form of state-based welfare system, even if it was one rooted in Edwardian paternalism. I’m not so sure that the current government are even this aware. If they could find a way to give a name to water, then perhaps they could help us all to swim upwards.

A new home

Welcome to the Nth Columnist, my new home for matters domestic, political and things that are probably best filed under 'other'.
Why'The Nth Columnist'? Well, let's face it - all my blog writing up till now has had a largely journalistic flavour, so I felt that a title that reflected that would be a good idea. It's also a reflection of the idea of outsider politics - despite the fact that life itself is very much a political thing, it seems that getting one's voice actually heard above the hubbub is increasingly difficult.
And, let's be honest here, 'The Joy of Raki' wasn't getting that well read.
I'll be including some old posts from there on here in due course.
As to what you can expect from this, it will largely be a continuation of ideas explored and written about in the Joy of Raki, with the exception of the Turkish stuff - I'll be dedicating a new blog to that, once I've narrowed down my choices of name.
Hope you enjoy!