Bad banking, Lords reform and how I avoided David Starkey’s rage


David Cameron’s proposals for welfare reform are lacking not only in compassion but also in common sense. For example, it sounds perfectly reasonable to suggest that, rather than receive housing benefit, under-25s should live with their parents for just a few more years. Why should they live in independent households if they lack independent support?

But think about it for a few minutes and all sorts of problems arise. If they are confined to living at home, how are young people in economically depressed communities to move to areas where jobs are more plentiful? Are under-25s with children to be exempted? If so, will this not create a perverse incentive (which many people in poor areas believe already exists) to rush into parenthood? Are those whose parents abuse them, physically or emotionally, to be exempted? If so, how will the existence of the abuse be established, given that many sons and daughters are reluctant to “shop” their parents? One could go on. Has anybody thought about younger siblings of secondary-school age who may be deprived of study space if an older child remains at home?

The proposed reforms emanate from politicians and civil servants who mostly live in large houses with small families, ignorant of the struggles faced by those on below-average incomes. Behind Cameron’s strategy (if one can call it that) lies the implication that, if only people could be taken off benefits, hundreds of thousands of job vacancies would miraculously appear.

Tree market

George Osborne, the Sunday Times reports, has told Treasury accountants and economists to place an economic value on Britain’s natural assets, such as beaches, mountains, rivers, national parks and lakes. The idea, we shall be told, is that if you put a definite price on such things, they can be better protected against eight-lane motorways and high-speed railway lines.

But I wonder if there is another motive. The government was frustrated in its ambition to privatise forests. Don’t imagine it has given up. All the same arguments can be trotted out for beaches, etc: under private ownership (or at least management), everything will somehow improve, including public access. Then there is the clinching argument. Greece has already been told to sell a few islands, though it has so far done no such thing. Being more obedient to neoliberal economic dictates, we can start our own grand sale before the IMF gets here. Remember, you read it here first.

Transfer season

Though I have not myself been inconvenienced, I would naturally like, as a NatWest customer, to punish the bank for its gigantic cock-up. “Move to another bank,” the cogno­scenti tell me. But these are usually full-time salaried employees, who receive their income from a single source. As a married pensioner and freelance journalist, I calculate that my wife and I rely on regular bank transfers from at least 15 separate sources, and pay direct debits and standing orders to another 26. Now that one bank’s computers have proved vulnerable to catastrophic failure, can I trust the entire banking system to handle the transfer of so much data successfully? This is one of many instances where I find the theory of free markets doesn’t quite match reality. 

Healthy competition

Tory backbenchers’ chief objection to House of Lords reform, it seems, is that elected “senators” will be rivals for constituents’ loyalties. If voters have a gripe, it is argued, they may write to their local senator as well as their MP, causing endless confusion. In any other context, Tories would criticise this as an attempt to defend a public-sector monopoly. If competition is good for doctors, why not for MPs? Inefficient members, dilatory in answering letters and insufficiently assiduous in opening village fetes, would have to raise their game. Using data of expenses claims, numbers of speeches and time taken to resolve complaints, somebody could no doubt draw up league tables, telling us which representatives offer best value for money. Underperforming MPs and senators could, like underperforming schools, be put under special measures and told that, if they don’t improve fast, they will have to seek re-election.

You’re history

At the Sunday Times Festival of Education (Festival? Education? Murdoch-owned paper? Surely an oxymoron twice over?) at Wellington College, Berkshire, I missed the big story: a finger-jabbing confrontation between Laurie Penny of this parish and the historian David Starkey over the latter’s alleged racism. It required the intervention of the college chaplain to calm the protagonists. Alas, I was at the time chairing a debate on the curriculum, where fingers remained unjabbed and nobody thought to call anybody else a racist. Nor did anybody jab fingers – not even David Cameron’s former policy director, sitting next to me – when, at a later session asking “Is There a Crisis in Education?”, I said, “Yes, it’s called Michael Gove.”

I reminded the audience that, as they marvel­led at Wellington (boarding fees: £30,075 a year), with its 16 rugby pitches, 12 cricket pitches and 22 hard tennis courts, they should reflect that someone once calculated how to bring every state school up to the standards, in acreage per pupil, of the top fee-charging schools. The conclusion was that it would be necessary to demolish the nation’s entire housing stock. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Clegg the martyr