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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”