The TaxPayers’ Alliance isn’t soft on the Tories

We have praised and criticised all the major parties, and we will keep doing so.

The below piece is a response to Christopher Montgomery's post "The tame TaxPayers' Alliance".

Christopher Montgomery's article was very frustrating for two reasons. It was yet another example of "why don't the TaxPayers' Alliance talk about . . ." As if there is some great lesson to be drawn from our silence on the writer's particular passion.

People on Twitter have complained we were ignoring the hike in VAT hitting poor families. They clearly weren't paying much attention, as that is an issue we've campaigned on extensively with videos, reports and even paid ads. John Prescott complained we were ignoring the children of civil servants going to expensive private schools at taxpayers' expense, but it was one we had commented on years earlier. We were even castigated for not making the financial case for Spurs getting the Olympics Stadium once the Games are done.

There is a sinister reason for that last one, actually. Our research director is a Spurs fan and wasn't thrilled at the idea of us campaigning for the club to leave north London. Joking aside, we are a small team and we can't look at every issue. I don't say that to whine; anyone who is able to work full-time at persuading people and promoting political causes they care about should count themselves lucky. But with all the work we do, I'm sure there is something for everyone to disagree with. Criticising us for what we don't do sets an impossible standard.

Yet the specific case Christopher focuses on isn't where I would focus our work even if we did have four more researchers. The idea of the neutral, disinterested civil servant doesn't seem credible enough to be worth trying to enforce by chasing down those who don't fit the bill.

Some appointments have clearly crossed the line into taxpayer-funded politics, like Cameron's photographer. They do need to be called on it when that happens. In other cases, the answer isn't to hunt down civil servants with opinions, but to move towards a system more like that in the United States, where those views are acknowledged but appointments to senior positions receive proper legislative scrutiny.

It is hard to imagine the FoIs that Christopher hopes we've submitted. "Please provide a list of all appointments of staff who have, in the past, expressed political views." We just have to respond to individual cases when they are brought to our attention, when they cross the line.

The other really annoying thing about the article was the old complaint that we are somehow treating the Conservatives with kid gloves. That we are "tame". That is hard to square with our attacking them on VAT; the third runway at Heathrow; high-speed rail; complicated tax fiddles designed to encourage employment; Local Enterprise Partnerships; matching Labour spending plans; increasing contributions to the EU; hiking international development spending; and in innumerable cases at the local government level. Yesterday, I laid into Phillip Hammond for the egregious way he has conducted the debate over HS2.

At times, it is absolutely mystifying why we are left to attack the government over things like their plans to spend £17bn on a new railway line which, as well as having a whole range of other problems, is justified on the grounds that average passenger income will be £70,000. Why isn't everyone reading this website outraged at a proposal for a hideously expensive train set for the rich, at a time when there is huge pressure on the finances of ordinary families?

We have praised and criticised all the major parties, and we will keep doing so. We haven't been domesticated yet.

Matthew Sinclair is the director of the TaxPayers' Alliance.

Matthew is the director of the TaxPayers' Alliance

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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era