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?

Getty
Show Hide image

What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage