Iain Dale: The EU has no interest in Northern Ireland’s future prosperity. It just sees it as a mechanism to exert its power.

5 Mar

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

Most budgets are curate’s eggs. Good in parts. This one was no different.

Politically, it was a triumph for Brand Rishi. It was well delivered. His post-Budget press conference was slick and smooth. He comes across as a transparently nice and competent individual. That’s because he is.

But was it a budget with a narrative? Was it a “reset” budget? Was it a transformational budget? No, it was not.

It is possible to argue that it couldn’t be anything else than be a budget for the short term, given we have no idea where we will be this time next year, but even if you accept that argument, it disappointed on a number of levels.

The super-deduction measure was innovative and will have a massive event on investment over the next two years. And then it ends. It’s too short term, and should have surely been tapered.

Did corporation tax really need to be increased in one go by six per cent in two years’ time? Wouldn’t a gradual approach have been better, even if you accept it needed to rise. Which I do not.

It’s a tax rise which will inevitably make this country less likely to attract the levels of foreign inward investment in the long term. You can’t argue one day that lowering business taxes is a good thing and makes us more competitive, and then argue that by putting up corporation tax by a quarter still means that we are just as competitive.

Leaving the EU certainly gave some companies pause for thought about locating here, or increasing their presence here. We are lucky that most decided to go ahead anyway, but we do not need to give any company an excuse not to do so.

We may still have the fifth lowest rate of corporation tax among G20 countries, and yes, as Sunak argues, our rate will still be lower than in American, Canada, France, Germany and Italy.

But I’m afraid that argument cuts little ice in a world where the last thing the British government needs to do is do anything to put off businesses considering building a presence here.

Having said all that, two snap opinion polls show that the public approve the Budget with only 11 or 12 per cent disapproving. So from a political point of view, it was job done for the Chancellor. But I still wonder whether a bit more long term, “reset” thinking was needed and that both Sunak and the Government might come to regret that it was largely absent.

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If the pandemic hadn’t happened, surely this Budget would have been all about the post Brexit economy. Brexit wasn’t mentioned directly once in the Chancellor’s speech, although towards the end we heard a few oblique references.

What we needed was a pathway to the future, not just over the next couple of years, but over the next couple of decades. We needed a vision.

Businesspeople needed to be reassured about the future of our trading patterns, not just with the rest of the world, but with the EU. Too many businesses seem to be finding that the so-called “free trade agreement” with the EU is nothing of the sort. The inevitable bureaucratic teething problems in trading with EU countries are still there, two months on.

OK, there are no queues at Dover, but the attitude of (particularly, but not exclusively) of French customs officials leaves something to be desired. I hear time and time again reports that countries deal perfectly happily and efficiently with the US, China or even Russia, yet find it that deliveries to European customers are being returned to them by couriers with no explanation and on multiple occasions. They feel powerless to do anything about it.

And don’t get me started on the Northern Ireland protocol, whose only effect so far as I can see has been to effectively annexe Northern Ireland to the EU. Just as Martin Selmayr threatened.

The EU has no interest in Northern Ireland’s future prosperity. It just sees it as a mechanism to exert its power. It is a constitutional outrage that British companies are not free to trade without restriction to all parts of the sovereign United Kingdom. The checks that are now being demanded by the EU are so disproportionate as to be totally unreasonable. The British government bent over backwards to make a compromise to meet EU concerns that the Single Market could be compromised, but its goodwill has been exploited at every turn.

At some point this has to stop, and the unilateral extension of the grace period is the inevitable consequence of EU inflexibility. It is not, as the Irish government unhelpfully says, a breach of international law. What it is, is a sign that Britain’s patience with the EU on this issue is about to expire.

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I’ve been watching a new documentary on how Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election called The Accidental President.

It’s made by the British film maker James Fletcher, who is now based in New York. Fletcher will be familiar to many for his work filming David Cameron for the WebCameron project back in the day.

It’s a fascinating account of Trump’s rise to the presidency. There was no narration, no voiceover, just 90 minutes of original campaign footage together with lots of testimony from political commentators, eye witnesses and vox pops.

The most powerful moment was when commentators were asked to name Trump’s campaign slogan. They all trotted out “Make America Great Again”. They were then asked for Hillary Clinton’s campaign slogan. None of them could recall it, bar one, who recalled it was “Stronger Together”. He then followed it up with “whatever that means”.

If proof were needed that political slogans can be all powerful, then we now have it.

Macron and others played politics with AstraZeneca. The consequences for many EU citizens are fatal.

24 Feb

In January this year, many will remember Emmanuel Macron telling reporters, in no uncertain terms, what he thought about the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University.

Today we think that it is quasi-ineffective for people over 65”, he said, hours before the European Medicines Agency recommended it for adults of all ages. “[T]he early results we have are not encouraging for 60 to 65-year-old people concerning AstraZeneca”, the French president warned, as well as criticising Britain’s strategy of delaying the second dose of the vaccine to get the first one out quickly – in another act of incredible diplomacy.

Days earlier a German newspaper incorrectly claimed the AstraZeneca jab is only eight per cent effective in the over-65s. While the figure was quickly dismissed, several countries haven’t exactly inspired confidence in AstraZeneca’s efficacy. Germany advised that it should not be given to people aged 65 or above, citing “insufficient data”, and France, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway have also recommended it only for younger people.

Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission Chief, even went so far as to accuse the UK of compromising on “safety and efficacy” safeguards in delivering its vaccines. And Clément Beaune, France’s Europe Minister, warned “the British are in an extremely difficult health situation. They are taking many risks in this vaccination campaign.” You don’t have to be a Brexiteer to get the idea: British vaccines = bad. Even John Bell, a medical professor at Oxford University, accused Macron trying to reduce demand for vaccines to cover up the EU’s huge issues with procurement, culminating in its dangerous attempt to control vaccine exports across the Irish border.

So one wonders what the mood is in Brussels now that research has revealed just what a success the much-attacked AstraZeneca vaccine has been. A study in Scotland, where 1.14 million people were vaccinated between December 8 and February 15, showed that both the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines led to a “very substantial” drop in serious illness across all adult age groups.

Critically, researchers found that by the fourth week after receiving an initial dose of each vaccine, the risk of hospitalisation from Covid-19 reduced by up to 85 per cent (Pfizer) and 94 per cent (AstraZeneca), in a result that will please people who’ve had it – but raise serious questions about the language and policies of EU leaders.

Their actions have fuelled vaccine hesitancy. In Germany, for instance, people have failed to turn up to appointments for the AstraZeneca vaccine. As of Friday, only 150,000 out of 1.5 million doses of the vaccine had been used – leaving the country with less than six per cent of its population immunised (compared to 26 per cent for Britain).

There are also reports of hospital workers in France and Belgium demanding that they be given the Pfizer jab instead of AstraZeneca (one nurse in a Flemish hospital even told a publication she would go on strike if offered the latter). Politicians have failed to convey the bigger picture; that everyone is lucky to be offered one vaccine with high efficacy rates (50 per cent protection would have been a good outcome), let alone that several have been developed.

As Ryan Bourne and Jethro Elsden have already written for ConservativeHome, the EU’s difficulties in procuring vaccines is dangerous enough in itself – Bourne estimates the UK has saved around nine thousand lives by choosing its own vaccination programme, and Elsden says the country has gained approximately £100 billion from doing this.

The fact that some EU leaders have added to this chaos by planting doubts about AstraZeneca’s vaccine makes the situation even more alarming. The vulnerable are less protected, and – on a global scale – if we do not get transmission of the virus down, it can mutate and mean that the current vaccines do not work.

Some leaders realise the seriousness of the problem. Michael Müller, the mayor of Berlin, has warned that people could be sent to the back of the queue for vaccines if they refuse an AstraZeneca job. “I won’t allow tens of thousands of doses to lie around on our shelves while millions of people across the country are waiting to be immunised”, were his words, and Angela Merkel’s spokesman has pleaded with Germans to take the “safe and highly effective” jab.

It’s a start, but terrible that so much damage has already been done. Some might remember that in November 2020, MPs here debated whether social media companies should be doing more to remove anti-vaccine disinformation. Never could they have imagined it would be Macron spreading some of the most troublesome ideas.

Garvan Walshe: We can be sure that those who have been vaccinated won’t die of Covid. So the case for lockdowns is vanishing fast.

18 Feb

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.

Having detected three cases of Covid–19, Melbourne has been put into lockdown. The European Centre for Disease Control suggests it might have to be maintained until the summer. Germany is getting increasingly jumpy about new variants, despite never exceeding 300 cases per 100,000 people.

Spurred by vaccine delays – particularly acute thanks to the European Commision’s utter mess of procurment – a narrative is taking hold. It states that the vaccines are ineffective against new variants, and could be ineffective against variants yet to emerge. What is needed, the argument goes, is to prevent the circulation of the virus, and therefore the chance that these variants could ever emerge.

We know, of course that for the elderly, and for those with co-morbidities, Covid is lethal. In old and fat Western societies, these can easily be millions of people. For the rest of us, it, with a few exceptions, is not unlike other afflictions: it ranges from utterly harmless to deeply unpleasant – sometimes with long-term effects. We don’t shut society down to eliminate these in the case of other diseases.

For the last year, most of these populations have been deprived of their freedom. They have sacrificed their ability to pursue their normal life and exist as social beings in order to protect the vulnerable in society. Perhaps the introverted don’t mind do much: the other day I asked a friend, a writer of scholarly books who lives in America, how he was coping, and he replied “since I’m a hermit, I’ve nothing to complain about”.

But some of us like company, and have been hard hit. And since in our open societies people tend to gravitate to jobs that suit them, the inequality is sharpened.

Strict, long confinements like France’s and Belgium’s are the toughest to bear. In Spain, by contrast, cafes and restaurants have usually remained open, if for fewer hours. People with secure jobs in the public sector will come out of this pandemic with higher savings ,because there’s nothing to spend money on.

But if you run a small business, the difficulty in meeting people makes finding new clients extremely hard, even if you’re not in a sector hit by restrictions. It’s worst of all for workers in hospitality and travel – hugely improtant in sunny southern Europe.

The mental health effects of enforced solitude are only slightly leavened by our knowledge that everybody else is going through the same thing. Thankfully, Spanish and Italian authorities have been less draconian this time, and don’t restrict people from walking outside.

That’s not the case in Paris, where you are formally limited to staying within a kilometre of your home. It goes without saying that it helps to be richer: self-isolating in a cramped flatshare with unsympathetic housemates is much more difficult than in a spacious family home with a garden. For people trapped in abusive relationships, it’s a living hell.

It’s one thing to endure all this in order to prevent people dying, and for a relatively short period of time; quite another because something could happen that might return us to this situation. Our nerves are already wearing thin, capital running low and reserves of hope becoming exhausted.

As the most basic level, the aggregate effect of vaccination is to reduce the number of people susceptible to the virus. So what would happen if restrictions were lifted entirely once the vulnerable were vaccinated?

If 80 per cent of the vulnerable are vaccinated, instead of 10–15 per cent of the population being at serious risk, then two to three per cent are.  If their infection fatality rate is five per cent, they are all infected, and vaccination is 70 per cent effective, that would result in 0.2 per cent death rate – or around 90,000–120,000 deaths in the UK.

But in reality, their death and serious illness numbers would be considerably lower than that. For a start, they would not all be infected. Though vaccination is at least 70 per cent effective against infection, it is 100 per cent effective against serious illness and death: this is true even for the variants. We can be sure that anyone who has been vaccinated won’t die of Covid.

Indeed, evidence is now emerging that vaccination reduces transmissibility as well as severity of infection: this is good in itself, and also because it reduces the number of copies of the virus that are capable of generating mutations, and therefore the likelihood of more troublesome variants emerging.

Finally, with good surveillance of infection strains, we will have time to adapt the vaccine to variants that emerge. This is because the maths of exponential growth leads to an explosion, but only after a phase of slow expansion. That phase, which lasts several months with Covid, is enough time to refine vaccines, provided the mutations are detected early.

This changes the calculation that justified the earlier lockdowns. Last year, Imperial College’s modelling calculated that 550,000 people could die, and so justified the extreme restrictions that were imposed.

As the threat recedes, reopening should not be an all or nothing affair. Measures that don’t cost very much, such as tests before international travel, masks on public transport, working from home where possible, limitations on capacity for cinemas and theatres, bans on large events where superspreading can occur, and so on, should continue for longer.

But basic restrictions on seeing our fellow human beings, particularly outside, and on people who make their living serving food and drink while we do so need to be among the first to go.

Timing is critical, of course, because vaccinations take a few weeks before they generate strong immunity, but their effects can be tested by observing the number of more severe cases and hospitalisations. The dramatic success of Israel’s vaccination programme has been overshadowed by the ultra-Orthodox community’s refusal to take part in even basic social distancing but, even there, the make-up of hospitalisations has changed. As vaccines are distributed, the proportion of severe cases will go down, and pressure on hospitals will ease, allowing more opening up. This – not the mere fact of vaccines being administered, nor the complete elimination of Covid cases – is the essential metric.

Actual eradication of viruses is extremely difficult, and seems only to have been achieved with smallpox. Covid will stay endemic and mutate in the world population. However, that’s not as scary as it sounds. The virus only cares about replicating and finding new hosts. Mutations that help it spread harmlessly are much more useful to Covid than the ones that kill us.

As long as most of us are exposed to it while young, like the other coronaviruses that circulate and cause colds, it won’t cause a public health crisis. That, not zero-covid, is an outcome that we, and the virus can both live with.

Mattie Heaven: Iran’s government is a terrorist regime. British Ministers must face this truth – and act on it.

15 Feb

Mattie Heaven is a policy and advocacy advisor to the International Organisation to Preserve Human Rights. She was Parliamentary Candidate for Coventry South in the 2019 general election.

Having lived in the UK most of my life, I’ve been faced with the challenge of explaining why human rights violations in Iran should greatly concern our government and my fellow citizens. The short answer is that the extremism of the Iranian regime is not limited to Iran itself – but is exported across the globe.

Aside from the brutal violation of human rights inside of the country, the Islamic Republic of Iran has openly funded terrorist organisations across the Middle East, using proxy wars to gain further control of the region, and uses diplomatic channels to carry out terrorist operations against both Iranians living abroad and the international community, as a means of eliminating any opposing viewpoint that they may consider a threat.

For example, consider the recent case of the senior Iranian diplomat, Assadollah Assadi. According to reports released by German police and an indictment in a Belgian court, Assadi, the third secretary of the Iranian Embassy in Austria, attempted to organise an atrocity on European soil.

He smuggled half-a-kilo of explosives onto the continent, with the intention of bombing a rally in France organised by the exiled National Council of Resistance of Iran.  Had it gone off, the victims could have included four Conservative MPs – David Amess, Bob Blackman, Matthew Offord and Theresa Villiers, plus a Labour one, Roger Godsiff.

Clearly, the plan was not that of an individual carrying out an unauthorised act of terror, but a plot approved by the heads of the Iranian regime and organised through diplomatic channels.

If you want another recent example, mull the example of Mohammad Naserzadeh, a staff member of the Iranian Consulate in Istanbul, who was recently arrested by the Turkish authorities for his alleged involvement in the murder of Masoud Molavi Vardanjani, a vocal critic of the Iranian regime.

The extremist actions of the Iranian diplomats can be understood better when we ponder the ideology of the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, the most powerful official in the Islamic Republic, who has compared Israel to a “cancerous tumour, that must be wiped off the map”.

This is the state-sponsored radical and extremist ideology which led to the Buenos Aires bombing in July 1994 in Argentina. This terrorist attack orchestrated by the Islamic Republic of Iran resulted in the death of 85 innocent people, and injured hundreds.

It is clear that the Iranian regime, over the last 40 years, has consistently shown an unwillingness to reform, or even attempt to improve the quality of life of its citizens, its troubling human rights record and its relationship with the western world. So maintaining the current diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran would be a devastating mistake – potentially with fatal consequences.

The regime has resisted reform, since it is fundamentally an undemocratic, and has frequently persecuted and arrested not only its critics, but also those such as the diverse religious and ethnic groups throughout Iran who choose to live a life other than the one officially prescribed its fundamentalist ideology,

Moreover, the issue of women and children’s rights in the country are of serious concern.  Women, half of Iran’s population, are under consistent oppression, with the underage marriage of girls being encouraged by the Mullahs. Not to mention the sobering fact that more child offenders are executed in Iran than in any other country in the world.

Unfortunately, during recent decades, the EU has mostly ignored the suffering of the Iranian people in the interest of economic gain, and has thus largely turned a blind eye to the inhumane actions of the Iranian authorities. This short-sighted view has not only led to the abandonment of human rights principles that the EU is based on, but also has worked against Europe’s own longer-term potential gains, by fuelling and empowering Iran’s ruling regime, and the global threat that it poses.

A Global Britain, as outlined by Dominic Raab, must means establishing our own standards here in the UK, and reinforcing sanctions to hold those who commit serious abuses of human rights to account, as part of UK’s commitment to democracy, freedom, and the rules-based international system,

Systems based on dictatorship will not last forever, and the people of those countries will always remember governments that stood by their side. A free Iran with a truly democratic system will no doubt provide the UK with much more profitable and long-term investment opportunities than the current regime can offer – unleashing the true potential of its citizens, and becoming a productive member of the international community.

Furthermore, since Iran is among the world’s largest sponsors of terrorism, its resources – some 84 million people, with vast resources of gold, oil and gas – are currently being employed in order to facilitate the regime’s terrorist ideology. Which in turn can lead to the mobilisation of hundreds of millions of potentially dangerous people around the world, with an extremist agenda to destroy western civilisation, or take it hostage.

Finally, a note on the freedom of press – following Iran’s recent execution of the prominent journalist, Rouhollah Zam, during December last year, and the ongoing threats against Iranian journalists outside of Iran. A free press in a democratic system is considered the ‘fourth pillar’ that can prevent collusion amongst the other pillars of State.

So if the regime in Iran is pressured to enforce human rights standards, we can be sure that any dangerous action in Iran that could jeopardize world peace and security would then be thwarted by the free flow of information within Iran itself.  There then would be reasonable hope for meaningful dialogue towards stable economic and diplomatic relations.

Were Iran’s human rights to be put at the forefront of the Government’s foreign policy, those who control the Iranian regime would soon come to realise that its inhumane actions and spread of terror across the world has severe consequences for it – thus providing the only incentive that can bring about legitimate change within the country.

Anthony Browne: Why the UK’s fall in GDP is not the worst of the G7, but in the middle

13 Feb

Anthony Browne is MP for South Cambridgeshire and a former Europe Editor of the Times.

There is no doubt that the UK has suffered a severe economic hit as a result of the pandemic, but just how bad? In particular, is it true, as opposition politicians claim, that we not only have the worst death toll in the world, but also the worst economic slump? The short answer is: no.

Yesterday’s headline figure from the Office of National Statistics shows a fall in real GDP of 9.9 per cent in 2020, the largest in history, and certainly the largest among the major economies. There may be particular underlying economic reasons we are worse hit, such as that our service-based economy is particularly dependent on people being able to meet, compared to countries that are more dependent on manufacturing and mining. But the more significant issue is that we calculate our GDP in a different way from other countries, actually following what is usually agreed to be international best practice but is rarely followed.

We have been taking evidence about it at the Treasury Select Committee, and I asked the deputy national statistician to provide internationally comparable measures of GDP. The evidence provided by the ONS to the TSC shows that if you do that, it turns out we are no longer the worst hit in the G7, but right in the middle, with a decline smaller than that of Canada, Italy and Germany, but larger than Japan, France and the US.

The fundamental issue is that the UK measures the public sector from its outputs (eg how many hospital visits, how many school lessons) not from the inputs (money spent), which is what other countries normally do. So when we carry on paying for the public sector but close a lot of it down, then we show a decline in output but other country’s don’t. This does not affect the measurement of nominal GDP (ie in current money terms), but only when it is adjusted to create “real GDP” which supposedly has the impact of inflation stripped out. That real GDP is normally used for international comparisons, but because of the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic, it is presently highly misleading. The ONS letter to the TSC said: “Current Price or nominal estimates of GDP are not affected and therefore more internationally comparable”.

So what happens when we look at the internationally comparable figures? For most countries, there is little difference between real and nominal GDP. But because of the UK’s methodology, there is presently a huge difference: the decline in real GDP is more than twice the decline in nominal GDP. In particular, from the Q4 2019 to Q3 2020, the UK suffered an official 8.5 per cent decline in real GDP, but only a 3.5 per cent decline in nominal GDP. That is less than Canada and Italy, with declines of over four per cent, and Germany with a decline of just under four per cent. As the ONS puts it: “while the UK’s performance on the volume measure is the weakest, the current price measure puts the UK in a more comparable position.”

None of this makes any difference to businesses, many of which are genuinely suffering a real crisis or have already gone under. I absolutely don’t want to play down their difficulties. But it does mean that opposition politicians are wrong when they say the UK has the worst record in the G7 in its economic response to the pandemic. Despite being harder hit by the pandemic, large doses of government support have meant that our economic hit is in the middle of the G7.

One last thought: if you want to stick with the real GDP figures that makes our slump look exaggeratedly bad by international comparison, then when the system goes into reverse, real GDP figures will make our bounce back look particularly strong. I look forward to opposition politicians congratulating the Government on that.

David Gauke: Ten years for lying on a form. Misguided, disproportionate – and characteristic of our cavalier approach to sentencing.

13 Feb

No one is going to be sentenced to ten years imprisonment for lying about where they have travelled from. Such behaviour might be reprehensible and, in the current circumstances, it may be justifiable to make it a criminal offence which, on occasion, may need to be punishable by imprisonment. But ten years – on a par with threats to kill, non-fatal poisoning or indecent assault – is evidently disproportionate. Even Michael Ellis, the Solicitor-General, who is not exactly a signed-up member of the awkward squad, has let it be known that he questions the “credibility” of the sanction.

I make this point not as a sceptic of measures to control the spread of the virus nor as a critic of Matt Hancock. Some of his Parliamentary colleagues appear to take out their frustration at the existence of Covid-19 and all that this entails on our way of life on the Health Secretary. Implicit in some of the criticisms he receives is the view that, if only someone else was in charge, we would all be going about our business unimpeded by lockdown restrictions. This is obviously nonsense.

On the big issue about the need to suppress the virus until a vaccine became available, Hancock got it right. Not everyone in Government can make that claim.

Nonetheless, the proposed maximum sentence is far too long. It also revealed an attribute that is not unique to one Minister or one government but which has been prevalent in our politics for nearly 30 years – a cavalier approach to sentencing policy.

Before making my case, let me set out some data. When I was Justice Secretary, I asked for information as to how large our prison population was compared to other European countries. For every 100,000 people in in the Netherlands, 61 were behind bars. In Denmark it was 63, in Germany it was 76, in Italy it was 99 and in France it was 104. In England and Wales it was 139.

This high prison population is a relatively recent phenomenon. In 1993, we had approximately 45,000 people behind bars. Fifteen years later, we had reached 83,000, which is roughly where we have been since (the current exceptional circumstances has resulted in a fall to 78,000, but is forecast to rise rapidly over the next few years).

The increase in numbers has not been driven by higher levels of criminality, but by tougher sentences. Speak to experienced judges, and they will tell you of how someone who would have been sentenced to five or ten years in the 1980s would now get ten or 20 years. Our prison population has risen not because there are more criminals or that more criminals are getting caught, but because our criminals are locked up for longer.

Quite right too, many will say. Longer sentences tend to be very popular. Even this week’s announcement polled well – 51 per cent thought it ‘about right’ and 13 per cent thought it ‘not harsh enough’, according to YouGov. That does not make it a good policy.

We have to ask ourselves, when it comes to increasing the time people are imprisoned for any offence, why we are doing it. The first argument is deterrence, but there is little or no evidence to suggest that, say, the threat of ten years in jail is more of a deterrent than five years.

The second argument is about incarceration protecting society from reoffending. But, again, the evidence tends to be weak to support this (and, by and large, the more serious the offence, the less likely the chances of reoffending).

The third argument is about society articulating its feelings of repugnance at particular behaviour by the severity of the punishment. I certainly do not dismiss the need for our criminal justice system to reflect our shared sense of outrage over particular crimes. This is a legitimate factor in determining sentencing policy. However, as a society, in recent decades we have become noticeably keener to articulate our feelings of repugnance.

This process often starts with a targeted announcement that applies to only a small number of criminals. To give an example, a minimum sentence of 30 years for murder involving firearms or explosives was imposed in the 2003 Criminal Justice Act. This applies, thankfully, to very few cases but it made the minimum sentence for knife murders look low, so that increased from 15 years to 25 years in 2009, after a high-profile case. And then when it comes to determining the appropriate sentence for other offences – such as attempted murder, or grievous bodily harm, or possession of a weapon – judges will take that minimum sentence for a more serious crime as a reference point.

Consequently, we have a ratchet effect. There is a high-profile crime; there is tabloid outrage over the leniency of a sentence, the Government increases the maximum or minimum sentence for that specific crime, sentences for lesser crimes increase accordingly – by which time many offenders face a longer stretch and the prison population rises yet further.

I am acutely aware that trying to step off this escalator is enormously difficult. In my own time as Justice Secretary, I tried to resist routinely inflating sentences for serious offences, rather than going as far as trying to reverse the trend for the previous 30 years.

Instead, I focused on trying to keep minor offenders out of prison. These are people who are frequent offenders where the focus has to be rehabilitation. Prison – with the inevitable disruption to family life, accommodation and employment – makes that much more difficult. The evidence points to non-custodial sentences being much more effective in reducing reoffending. Politically, there is widespread support for such an agenda and – although my policy of scrapping most short prison sentences has been dropped – there is very good work being done by my successor, Robert Buckland, and prisons minister, Lucy Frazer on this front.

Nonetheless, the Government’s Sentencing White Paper, published in September, as well as containing many excellent policies on matters like Community Sentence Treatment Orders, also contains a long list of measures that will mean sentences become even longer.

No doubt these poll well – even better than locking people up for ten years for giving inaccurate information as to their recent holiday travels – and those who will face lengthy imprisonment are deeply unsympathetic individuals.

There is a constant pressure on Ministers to be seen to do something, to demonstrate their abhorrence at criminality and to take the side of the victim. But where does this end? If – when faced with an individual crime that cuts through to the public or a crisis that requires the creation of a new criminal offence – the reaction of Ministers is always to impose a yet more draconian prison sentence as a form of virtue signalling, or to win a political arms race, sentences will become disproportionate, our prison population even more of an outlier and the burdens on the taxpayer (assuming we want a secure and humane system, which we should) unsustainable.

Yes: ten years for lying on a form is a bad policy. But this is not the first time that a misguided and disproportionate sentencing policy has been set out in order to liven up an announcement and show that the Government is being tough. And it certainly will not be the last.

Julian Gallant: Politics can support the arts without disturbing the artist

12 Feb

Jullian Gallent is a conductor, composer, pianist, impresario and Treasurer at Conservative Friends of The Arts (Instagram; Facebook).

I’ve been actively involved in Conservative campaigning since 2013, fought the 2019 GE as candidate for Ealing Central and Acton and am currently a Londonwide candidate for the GLA. My profession, though, is music and I’ve never quite understood the stranglehold the left has had on the arts, ever since “left” and “right” have been political concepts.

Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro was certainly considered subversive; the star of the opera is a servant, not a prince. Beethoven’s belief in The Rights of Man, which he grandly expressed by setting Schiller’s Ode to Joy in the Ninth Symphony, probably raised the aristocratic eyebrows of some of his patrons. But this is nothing compared to the outright socialism espoused in the 20th century by artists like Frida Kahlo, John Steinbeck and Ken Russell. It became the thing to be “left-wing” as if the right was too interested in money-making, moralising and nationalism to care about the true, humanist religion of art.

The arts are the product of a natural urge to create in the abstract and a hunger for more than we see lying around us. It is hard to imagine a world without art yet, as Oscar Wilde said in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, “All art is quite useless”. People die if they don’t eat, therefore food production is bankable. Illness must be treated, so doctors must be paid. The same for teachers, soldiers and lawyers. And politicians?

Music starts with a heartbeat, a voice and then other voices; rhythm, melody and harmony. Some of the world’s greatest paintings are the ancient ones on the walls of caves. Fine, but professional music, theatre, writing and painting must be rewarded if they are to thrive and this is always uncertain. The first commercial opera theatre opened in Venice in 1630, yet opera and capitalism have never happily coexisted. Handel in the 1720s famously had to seek regal patronage because the fees of Italian opera stars exceeded the entire box office take. I’ve experienced the same when putting on a world famous classical singer in a major London hall.

And don’t think you can just increase the ticket prices; that skews the image of the venue and they won’t have it. People will pay up but they won’t pay over the odds, even at the Royal Opera House. Stall tickets are eye-wateringly expensive for the big shows, yet other seats are sold at much lower prices. On the cost side, there can be over a thousand souls working on one operatic production, all quite rightly expecting a reasonable wage.

So there must be an extraneous financial input, which means some combination of donation, commercial sponsorship and state subsidy. In the USA state subsidies are negligible; donating is at once the main source of funding for big arts organisations and a measure of your social standing. In Germany and France state subsidy is the mainstay. In Britain, it’s a more even distribution of all three; the fundraising departments, known euphemistically as development offices, work overtime.

The gap between ticket income and cost creates opportunities for interference, especially in our big-state era. It’s pointless to cite a smooth transition from rich sponsors like Tchaikovsky’s Nadezhda von Meck (whom he famously never met) to state largesse. The rich patron wants to outlay on creating something beautiful, hence Paul Sacher’s commissioning of Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste in 1936. The state wants something back, in the form of allegiance or national glorification or worse.

In the brave new world of the young USSR, artistic freedom and modernism was encouraged. By 1930 the picture was very different; professional writers, painters, actors and musicians had to join All-Soviet Unions. One of my heroes is the composer Nikolai Roslavets, who was published widely in the 1920s. By 1932 he had been forced into obscurity because an unpleasant and ideologically “sound” organisation called RAPM (Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians) thought his music was decadently complicated. He was accused of spying! Dmitri Shostakovich withdrew his Fourth Symphony from performance, aware of Stalin’s prudish criticism of his erotically charged opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The composer feared for his life.

All of that still happens, without the threat of the gulag of course. Artists are interfered with, because they do or don’t sign up to this or that ideology. And one of the worst of these ideologies is that public taste is vulgar and the enemy of true creativity. That wasn’t true for Beethoven or Debussy or Prokofiev, who were all big stars and marvellously original in their thinking. The state should carefully determine what needs support and then get out of the way, much easier said than done.

Politics has a constructive role to play, supporting artistic creativity without interfering with content, and there are some good things a-happening. Witness cross-party interest in establishing a 90-day touring visa for UK performing artists in Europe and vice-versa, which were debated in Parliament on February 8, 2021. That should transcend any post-Brexit blame game.

The APPG for Music, chaired by David Warburton, a former composer, has the largest membership of any such group. There’s another APPG for Music Education: one call I was on was attended by over 250 stakeholders nationwide. A £1.5 billion grant by this government, supporting arts organisations during the covid pandemic, puts the lie once and for all to the idea that true Tories are somehow closet Philistines.

I’m part of the recently-founded Conservative Friends of The Arts. We meet once a month to talk about the arts and to share short performances. One such was a recitation of Shakespeare’s sonnet No.18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) by Giles Watling, which sounded bizarrely wonderful over Zoom. I got the impression that day that Shakespeare had no idea at all where the line lay between high art and superb entertainment!

Kristian Niemietz: What difference does the size of the state make to how is deals with Covid? None.

9 Feb

Kristian Niemietz is Head of Political Economy at the Institute of Economic Affairs

We are not having a very good pandemic so far.

With over 1,500 deaths per million people, Britain has one of the highest Covid death rates in the world. You can quibble a bit with those figures, but only at the margins. The number of excess deaths – that is, the number of deaths over and above what we would expect in a normal year – matches the number of Covid deaths far too closely for this to be a statistical fluke.   

In addition to having a higher Covid death rate, we have also had a worse economic downturn than most comparable countries. The UK economy shrank by about 10 per cent in 2020, compared to a European average of seven per cent, and about five per cent in North America and Japan.

And it is not as if we had lighter or shorter lockdowns than others. Our only redeeming feature so far has been the very fast approval, procurement and rollout of the vaccine. But there can be no denying that at least until the end of 2020, the UK has been coping extremely badly with this pandemic. The question is why.  

Britain’s left-wing commentariat was quick to ascribe all this to “austerity”. For example, Polly Toynbee, the Guardian columnist, talks about “an incapacitated public realm, naked in the blast of this epidemic. It wasn’t just the NHS and social care […] but every service crippled by cuts: public health, police, local government, the army and Whitehall – all denuded.” 

Owen Jones, the arch-Corbynite writer, asserts: “a state hollowed out by austerity and market dogma is, in large part, to blame: it cannot be stressed enough that it is mostly because of these ideologically driven failures that Britain has been – is – one of the worst-hit countries on Earth.”

Michael Marmot, the “inequality czar”, wrote a Guardian article with the self-explanatory title “Why did England have Europe’s worst Covid figures? The answer starts with austerity.” 

I could easily find dozens of similar quotes, but you get the gist. It is a highly fashionable opinion. But as is usually the case with fashionable opinions, it is also completely baseless.

“Small-state Britain” is a myth. Despite all the waffle about “austerity”, in 2019, UK public spending still stood at about 40 per cent of GDP. This is a perfectly normal figure for an OECD economy, neither unusually high, nor unusually low.

But that is beside the point anyway. As I show in my new report Viral Myths: Why we risk learning the wrong lessons from the pandemic (published by the Institute of Economic Affairs), the size of the public sector is completely unrelated to how well, or how badly, different countries have been coping with the pandemic.

If the size of the state were the critical factor, Belgium, where government spending accounts for over half of GDP – one of the highest levels in the world – should have been superbly prepared for the pandemic. Alas, they were not. With a Covid death rate of over 1,800 per million, they did even worse than Britain, and their economy also shrank by over eight per cent.

In Italy, where public spending accounts for almost half of GDP, both the Covid death rate and the economic “growth” rate are about the same as Britain’s. France, which has perhaps the largest state in the world (unless you count North Korea and Cuba) fared somewhat better than Britain, but not by a huge margin.

Australia and New Zealand, on the other hand, fared better than most developed countries, with public spending levels that are (moderately) lower than the UK’s. South Korea, with public spending levels of less than a third of GDP, was one of the star performers, and so were Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, where public spending stands at less than a quarter of GDP.

It was not government largesse that saved the best performers. It was specific policy packages, containing measures such as early travel restrictions, a rapid roll-out of mass testing, effective test-and-trace-and-isolate systems, and a rigorous enforcement of quarantining requirements (combined with financial support to make this economically viable).

This is, of course, Captain Hindsight speaking. Being right with the benefit of hindsight is, admittedly, not very impressive. But it is still better than being wrong despite that benefit.

Ryan Bourne: How many lives will we save by choosing our own vaccination programme, not the EU’s? Let’s start at nine thousand.

3 Feb

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

Delay is extremely costly in this pandemic. When the post-mortems are written, lethargy will rank high on the list of consequential policy mistakes. With a rapidly spreading virus, procedural bureaucracy or a failure to grease the wheels for vaccine rollouts will be found to have cost tens of thousands of lives in each advanced country, alongside incalculable damage to livelihoods.

As I explain in my forthcoming book, Economics In One Virus, governments have certainly spent big on testing, tracing, and vaccines. But the sums are piddling in comparison to the amount allocated for economic relief.

The latter is demanded by voters, but it would have been wiser to put more funds into paying over-the-odds to encourage vaccine manufacturing scale-up, to overcome bottlenecks, and to facilitate around-the-clock rollout as soon as vaccines were ready. This would have handsomely paid for itself in a more rapid economic normalisation, not to mention the lives saved. As economist Alex Tabarrok has written, this was the easiest cost-benefit analysis in the world for policymakers. When the inquiries begin, governments will lament their relative stinginess on spending where it mattered most.

As of writing this on Monday, the UK’s vaccine rollout performance is improving still, of course, with nearly 600,000 jabs registered Saturday and England’s figures for Sunday up 45 per cent on the week. It might seem a bizarre time then to lament that we didn’t go quicker still. Yet two months after the first vaccine was approved, still only around 14 per cent of the public have received at least one dose. While the manufacturers and the NHS are (understandably and heroically) pulling every lever given where we are, we will surely regret in future not having had an Israeli-style mobilisation in place.

That’s not to say the UK’s performance has not been *relatively* impressive. The dexterity of the MHRA in understanding the trade-offs associated with the approvals process puts the US to shame, as that country stalls on approving AstraZeneca’s vaccine despite tens of thousands of Americans dying per week. The UK government’s willingness to stump up more cash has exposed the false economy of the EU’s haggling over pennies in contracts too.

For the costs of delay are exacerbated by the way this virus and the vaccines operate. An infection might take three to four weeks before it manifests as a death. Vaccines themselves take a couple of weeks before they are high efficacy. So now we see the consequence of the relative lack of acquired protection for many elderly people in mid-January. It is only in the next three to five weeks that we should start seeing the big vaccine-induced falls in mortality, if indeed vaccines really do have near the 100 percent touted effectiveness in preventing deaths.

The Covid-19 Actuaries Group (CAG) believes that if the Government delivers on its eminently achievable target of vaccinating all over-70s, care home staff, frontline health and social care workers, and the clinically vulnerable, by mid-February, daily Covid-19 deaths will fall by two-thirds by the end of the month. By the tail end of March, deaths should be down 86 percent against a world without vaccines. So one can understand the angst inside the EU—their tardiness in getting vulnerable populations vaccinated will cost lives that will be all the more observable if British trends go as expected.

How many extra deaths have we avoided through our speedier rollout? Calculating the exact magnitude is extraordinarily difficult. Lockdowns and tier restrictions perversely lower the immediate “lives saved from vaccines,” because without them more people would have been exposed. Working out how many lives the UK will save compared to the EU in the coming months is also muddied by not knowing the eventual speed of each country’s vaccination program or the underlying prevalence of the disease for the nations.

But comparing the UK to France, Germany, Italy and Spain (the EU-4) gives us an idea of magnitudes. These countries have only vaccinated between two and four percent of their populations respectively, and are currently vaccinating at a rate of 0.11 to 0.12 percent of their populations per day.

The UK has vaccinated 14 percent of its population, and is currently vaccinating over 0.55 percent of its population per day. If extrapolated forwards, the UK would vaccinate its four priority groups once by mid-February. The EU-4 would achieve the same proportion of population dose numbers by mid-to-late July. Indeed, even if the EU-4 were suddenly able to up their daily vaccinations to UK rates from now, they would not hit the same number of doses as a proportion of the population as the UK’s February target until early March—three weeks behind.

My calculations based on the Covid-19 Actuaries Group report suggests that, if the vaccine is 100 percent effective in eliminating death, the UK has already seen around 1,300 fewer deaths as a result of vaccines. Given the lags discussed between infections and deaths, as well as the time it takes for vaccine efficacy, this is almost certainly close to 1,300 more lives saved than would have been saved had we been as tardy as the EU.

Projecting forwards to how many lives are being saved from the recent and current vaccinations is more difficult. We have to try to model what cases and deaths would have looked like absent a vaccine. We would also need to know how fast the EU vaccination program will become, something that I profess no knowledge of.

But, for illustrative purposes, let’s assume that, absent a vaccine, deaths would otherwise have fallen through February and March as a pure reflection of how they rose in December and January. Under this scenario, the UK has already locked in 9,000 fewer deaths through mid-April than if it had moved at the EU-4’s vaccination pace to date (saving 20,000 lives overall). And that’s assuming the EU-4 countries wake up tomorrow and suddenly match the UK’s speed.

Realistically, of course, some of the EU-4 are not planning to widely vaccinate for a month or two, while they are sticking to the regimen of two doses sooner that will leave fewer people on the Continent protected in the near-term. So, it’s very safe to say the UK will have saved tens of thousands of additional lives relative to going at the EU-4’s pace over the coming months, with the gap especially dramatic if the EU does not up its game in the very near future or if, as a result of vaccinations, the UK then relaxes its lockdown restrictions. The costs of delay in public health and economic terms are clearly enormous.

Neil O’Brien: Trumpism in Britain. It’s time to call out those in the media who cynically feed the cranks, rioters and conspiracists

11 Jan

Neil O’Brien is co-Chairman of the Conservative Party’s Policy Board, and is MP for Harborough.

“Defoe says that there were a hundred thousand country fellows in his time ready to fight to the death against Popery, without knowing whether Popery was a man or a horse.” William Hazlitt, 1830

When supporters of Donald Trump stormed the Capitol building last week, many people in Britain probably thought that it was just the latest manifestation of a special sort of craziness that has gripped America. That sort of thing surely couldn’t happen here. Or could it?

The same evening, to far less fanfare, the Metropolitan Police arrested 21 people outside Parliament. On new year’s day, doctors leaving St Thomas’s hospital were greeted by a large crowd of protestors chanting “Covid is a hoax”.

These things are connected. They show that the same forces at work in the US are in some ways, already at work here.

Let me wind back a bit. Obviously, I mainly blame Trump for what happened in Washington. He did everything he could to incite the riot, in a brazen attempt to reverse his election defeat.

But other people made this possible too. The ragtag army of wannabe revolutionaries smashing up the seat of Americas democracy were radicalised by a whole ecosystem of shock jocks, social media cranks and conspiracy theories.

They’ve ended up living in a world of alternative facts, in which Trump is the sole bulwark against diabolical global conspiracies, and the President is the victim of an election “stolen” by a shadowy “elite”. In a world of such illusions, almost anything can be justified.
None of this is new. Trump was in a sense following the playbook of Lord George Gordon, who in 1780 whipped up fears of shadowy Catholic conspiracies, sparking vicious riots that left hundreds dead or wounded.

New forms of media often fuel revolutions. The printing press led to the reformation and wars of religion. The Cahiers to the French Revolution. The “Big Character Posters” spread the madness of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

New technology has again changed things. First, Twitter, Whatsapp and online news have simply made political organisation much easier. The ‘colour revolutions’ in eastern Europe and ‘Arab spring’ were early demonstrations of their viral power.

But now the second shoe is dropping. What we are seeing now is the power of these technologies to create communities of radicalisation. Islamism is the most obvious example. A constituent of mine who lives in a pretty, sleepy village (with a lovely tearoom) was recently charged with seven terrorism offences. More and more, attacks come from those who have radicalised themselves online.

But Islamists are just one community of radicalisation. I was chatting to an apparently normal man this summer, when conversation turned to the coronavirus. He told me, with a matter-of-fact air, that it was all a hoax, set up by the New World Order who were planning a Great Reset, in which Big Business would take over and we would all be microchipped. I’ve had several similarly alarming conversations.

When people got their news from mainstream TV and radio news with strong legal obligations to be neutral, people were exposed to both sides of most stories. As has often been pointed out, people can much more readily be wound into a frenzy if they get their information from Whatsapp groups, people they follow on twitter and from agenda-driven ‘news’ sites.

But the idea of “filter bubbles” doesn’t really do justice to what new media is enabling. People aren’t just passively consuming news they agree with. People are building communities. People they ‘know’ from chat and comment threads. Making likeminded friends on twitter.
Indeed, conspiracy theories like QAnon represent a kind of enjoyable ‘game’: crack the code to understand the shadowy conspiracy!

The US has gone further down the road of polarisation than other places. People increasingly live with in neighbourhoods with likeminded people. The national conversation has been curdling for decades into extreme left and extreme right bubbles, with disastrous effects on politics.

The same technologies are having similar effects here. If we had faced the current pandemic in, say, 1992, how would you have got news about it? Perhaps there would have been a “Covid-92” page on Ceefax.

But if you’d wanted to spread the idea that vaccines are poisons, dreamed up by Bill Gates, you had nowhere to go but Speakers Corner really. So the man I met this summer, who so readily absorbed all this nonsense, would simply have been unlikely to encounter such ideas. These days, someone like Toby Young can set up a website to give people a dose of covid-sceptic propaganda every day. Crank “scientists” can rapidly gain a huge following on twitter.

Social media has changed how we live. In my first job in politics, working for Business for Sterling in 2000, I used to fax a press summary each morning to about 20 people. At the time, there was a well-written Eurosceptic newsletter called Eurofacts, which was photocopied and posted around to about 1,000 people once a month.

Until the next month, that was your hit of single-currency-scepticism. You had to go off and think about something else. Sure, some newpapers campaigned hard on both sides of the euro question. But reading the papers, even daily, just couldn’t absorb your attention in the way social media does.

Looking back, those were the mild-ale days of political communication. These days, people can become hooked on the crack cocaine of issue-driven social media.

Take the SNP cybernats. They can read a daily newspaper promoting Scottish independence, then go on a website or twitter all day to chat with other cybernat friends and wind each other up.Did you hear the one about the “secret oilfields” the UK government is mysteriously covering up, to do down Scotland? When people form such intense groupthink bubbles, they can come to believe almost anything.

We can’t uninvent social media, which also has many benefits. But we do need to adapt to it. In the US, fringe ideas like the QAnon conspiracy theory built up online. But their spread has been accelerated by the willingness of broadcasters and politicians to flirt with them to gain clicks and exploit their energy.

If we are going to avoid our national conversation going the same toilet, we need strong mainstream media. But we also need those in positions of power in the media to behave responsibly.

For example, one of the best selling papers in the UK recently ran a piece promoting the views of an “NHS worker” who claimed hospitals were “empty” and Covid was a “hoax”. If it had taken a quick look at her Facebook page, they’d have seen her celebrating the burning down a Jewish-owned bank, as part of a “great awakening”.

We need people in positions of power in the media to practice some basic hygiene about whose views they are promoting. Parts of Britain’s media have spent the Coronavirus pandemic doing everything they can to downplay the seriousness of it and set bogus stories running by publishing the claims of cranks. Professional contrarians have fed people misleading nonsense to get clicks: carrying on their business-as-usual, even in a life-or-death situation. As hospitals hit crisis point, they should reflect on their actions.

The attempted putsch in Washington didn’t come out of nowhere. It has been decades coming. It happened not just because of one man, but because people in positions of power made short-termist decisions to feed the beast, and play along. Don’t think it couldn’t happen here.