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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 – www.straightstatistics.org, 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