The meaning of freedom

. . . on meddling in Iran, pay cuts for bosses and wasteful words

Daniel Finkelstein, a Times columnist and a former director of the Conservative Research Department, writes: “I am a neocon . . . It declares my belief in two things – that in every country . . . whatever its traditions, the people yearn for liberty, for free expression and for democracy; and that the spread of liberty and democracy . . . is the only real way to bring peace to the world . . . What we are seeing on the streets of Iran now is a vindication of these neoconservative ideas.”

I find this paragraph offensive. I, too, believe in freedom and democracy for everybody – as well as in the potentially peaceful results – and the neocons have no right to claim a monopoly. Barack Obama, who has not yet come out as a neocon, used language similar to Finkelstein’s in his Cairo speech. “I do have an unyielding belief,” he said, “that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal . . . ; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas; they are human rights.”

Indeed. But as Obama largely recognises, America has undermined prospects for freedom and democracy in several ways. First, it coupled democracy with economic ideology, and rated most highly the freedom of American-owned multinationals to make money. Second, it overthrew leaders it disliked even where they clearly reflected the popular will (for example, Iran’s elected premier Muhammed Mossadeq, overthrown with CIA and British help in 1953 for wanting to nationalise the oil). Third, it tried to impose democracy, at the cost of millions of lives, thus allowing anti-democrats to pose as patriotic protectors of their peoples.

American and British support for Iranian protests is therefore counterproductive. If neocons really care about freedom and democracy in Iran, as opposed to privatisation and market “reform” (both advocated by the defeated election candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi), they should keep quiet.


If I were a worker in a firm that “invited” employees to take pay cuts or give up a month’s salary, this is what I would say to my boss. Reduce your pay (including bonuses and share options) to the same multiple of the average employee’s earnings as it was in 1979. Then sign a contract stating that your future percentage rises will be no greater than what the average worker receives. Who knows? If bosses are as much into sacrifice for the common good as they pretend to be, they might agree. As chief executives got about ten times the average salary in the 1970s against about 100 times now, Britain could regain the modestly egalitarian pay structure that it had 30 years ago.


A visit to Prime Minister’s Questions the other day reminded me of how impenetrable the House of Commons must be to members of the public. I could just about understand the perfectly timed Tory laughter when Gordon Brown, answering a question about police surveillance of Heathrow runway protesters, began: “I know nothing . . .” But I was baffled when David Cameron stated that “the recession is all over Europe” and the Labour benches went into what we journalists call uproar. I sought advice and was told Cameron had committed a significant gaffe because, for months, he has argued that the recession is a peculiarly British phenomenon. Which shows, as if we needed reminding, that MPs live on a planet of their own.


In some respects, however, MPs are beginning to get the message about how voters perceive them. For example, they are rushing to drop some of their lucrative second jobs before the 1 July deadline when all earnings from moonlighting must be declared in detail. Voters think that outside commitments distract MPs from their parliamentary duties. MPs insist that outside interests are healthy and even necessary to provide an insight into the real world and the problems of real people.

No doubt this argument will be heard again from those who hold on to second jobs. But it would be more convincing if the jobs weren’t usually directorships or consultancies. Wouldn’t MPs gain wider insight if they did early-morning cleaning shifts or flipped burgers in McDonald’s once or twice a month? Why, moreover, if they take directorships to broaden their horizons, do they need paying? If Francis Maude, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, gives up his directorship of Barclays’s Asian division (as he says he will), the bank would surely still allow him to attend committee meetings and tour its offices should he wish to know more about either banking or Asia.


Long experience has taught me that nearly all statistics that politicians and journalists quote as though they were received wisdom are, in fact, bogus. Many come from pressure groups or other bodies, including quangos, which have interests in concocting figures that make headlines. An excellent new website –, run by the science journalist Nigel Hawkes – provides a perfect example: the claim that “Britain wastes a third of the food it buys”. This comes from a report by the government-funded Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap), which would clearly be out of business if we all stopped being wasteful. Hawkes detected a bad smell, as it were, when the report estimated that consumers annually throw away 11,000 tons of pheasant, roughly equivalent to 15 million birds. Since only 20 million birds are raised a year, that seems unlikely.

To get its “one-third wasted” headline, Hawkes discovered, Wrap included potato peelings, bones and apple cores; measured waste by monetary value rather than weight (so that discarded lettuce leaves, for example, boost the percentage); and counted food used for compost or feeding pets as waste. After readjusting the figures, Hawkes estimates our true food waste at 18.4 per cent. Which may still be too much, but is nothing like that headline-grabbing one-third.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005

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 29 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Escape

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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 50p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.