Sexy taxes, jubilee fatigue and expat islanders in Swindon


It’s been quite the week for odd policy interventions by random busybodies. First came the leaking of the venture capitalist Adrian Bee­croft’s romp through red tape (sample recommendation: let employers “fire at will”, because removing hard-fought workers’ rights apparently will encourage consumer spending). This was swiftly followed by the TaxPayers’ Alliance report on, you guessed it, tax (I’ll summarise: they’re against it).

Soon after publishing the report – ambitiously priced at £50 a copy – the TPA’s directors embarked on a victory lap through the TV studios, omitting to mention some of their odder deductions.

My favourite has to be the suggestion, in a chapter written by the zoologist Matt Ridley (not only a viscount but also a former chairman of Northern Rock), that support for taxation is down to “sexual jealousy”. No, really. “Even in an age of working women, sexual continence and gender equality, the man with the most money still gets more sexual opportunities than the man with the least money . . . no wonder we want tax to take that money off a Vanderbilt before he grabs all the best women.”

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, chaps (and I mean that – only one of 16 “commissioners” named on the report’s opening page is a woman), but doesn’t that analysis rather depend on it only being men who pay tax? I think I need to have a word with HMRC.

The Swindon lot

The remote island of St Helena in the South Atlantic – at present accessible only through a two-day, 800-mile boat trip from Ascension Island – is building an airport and advertising in a newspaper for a statistician to deal with the subsequent transition “from a centralised economy . . . to a market economy” focused on tourism. (Currently, half the islanders work for the government and postage stamps are one of the biggest exports.)

I can’t work out my favourite part of this story. Is it that the advert promises a “relocation allowance”? Possibly. Or it might well be the discovery that the largest expat community of the wild, remote and windswept St Helena is in the not-at-all wild and remote, although occasionally windswept, city of Swindon. There are just 4,000 people on St Helena, but 800 expats in the Wiltshire city, winning it the nickname “Swindelena” in the Swindon Advertiser.

IPOcalypse no!

It’s good to know one sector of the British economy is experiencing a boom: the neologism industry. OK, “chillaxing” – the sport in which Cameron allegedly excels at weekends – doesn’t count, having entered the dictionary some years ago, but fans of crashingly awful portmanteaux (crawmanteaux?) have plenty of others to choose from. After Swindelena and “Grexit” – the potential Greek exit from the euro – comes the description of the flotation of Facebook on the Nasdaq. It has been dubbed the “IPOcalypse”.

Jubilympic madness

The closer we get to the Golden Jubilee and the Olympics, the more I’m feeling like an enormous party-pooper, unmoved by the faux-festivities. Mostly that’s because my in-box is being flooded daily with red, white and blue tat. (Brora was the latest, trying to flog me “Union Jack cashmere wristwarmers” for £45, which will come in handy as I’m watching the Jubilee celebrations in THE HOTTEST MONTH OF THE YEAR.) The official London 2012 online shop is a fiesta of patriotic piffle. Is there really a big market for “Team GB handbag charms” at £60 a pop? And how did the “host cities of the Olympic Games ingot set”, a collection of 27 gold-plated bricks at £775, sell out? Don’t even start me on the people flogging their Olympic torches on eBay. If selling overpriced souvenirs were an Olympic sport, Britain would definitely take the gold.

Spelling Bee

Back to Beecroft. I’m not sure that “evidence-based policy”, a Whitehall buzzword, has completely caught on. Following the publication of the report, Clive Hollick, co-founder of IPPR, the left-wing think tank, tweeted: “When I asked Beecroft for the evidence to support his recommendations, he told me that they were heresay [sic] based only on what he had been told”. Robert Peston, the BBC’s business editor, shot back: “Do you mean ‘hearsay’ or ‘heresy’?” Sadly, it was the former: the words “I” or “my” appear 20 times in 16 pages, while the words “research” or “studies” don’t feature at all.

Anatomic power

One upside of the Queen is that she doesn’t half own a lot of stuff. At the weekend, I went to the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, to see Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings. I haven’t seen much press coverage of the exhibition but it’s well worth a visit; the idea of Leonardo as a “Renaissance Man” is a cliché worn down to the stump but the drawings remind you of the scope of his intellect.

They remind you, too, of the strange beliefs he was brought up with, the most startling being that a foetus was conceived using elements from the father’s spinal cord, heart and testes. Sounds painful.

Ninja Dave

The revelation that David Cameron plays a “crazy, scary” amount of Fruit Ninja, the iPad game where you cut and cut (fruit) until you can cut no more, has had one unexpected bonus. The game is now number one in the UK iPad app charts; it wasn’t even in the top ten this past week. Shame its developers, Halfbrick, are Australian, otherwise Dave could legitimately claim to be boosting British industry as he sits on the Downing Street sofa, swiping away into the small hours. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who speaks for British Jews?

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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.