In praise of the cash economy

Young Foundation Fellow Sean Carey argues that some

Mauritius has changed. Long feted by economists and political scientists as an example to other African states with its open economy and multi-party democracy, the palm-fringed Indian Ocean island which lies some 600 miles east of Madagascar, has become a victim of its own success and is now officially classified as a "Middle Income" country.

With GDP per capita expected soon to reach $6000 Mauritius, with its population of 1.2 million, finds that it is no longer eligible for the sort of aid provided to the world’s poorest countries. And with guaranteed prices from sugar exports to the EU also about to end there is an urgent need to raise revenue.

All sorts of new taxes have been introduced and Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam has brought in personnel from abroad to beef up the tax and customs services.

Amongst other things this has resulted in a clampdown on tax avoidance. Even the street vendors who sell snacks from the roadside, bus stations, busy market areas and beaches are feeling the pinch.

In Mauritius snacks are something of a cultural institution and bought by locals from all the island’s ethnic groups of diverse origins - north and south Indian Hindus, Gujarati Muslims, Chinese, French and ethnically mixed Creoles - and more adventurous tourists.

They include samosas, pakora, and gateaux piment, the small marble-sized balls of crushed dal, spring onions and herbs including a good amount of fresh, green chilli which are deep fried and have a wonderful, crunchy texture.

But no list of snacks would be complete without the inclusion of the dholl puri, an Indian-inspired soft, flat bread made from wheat flour, crushed yellow lentils, oil and water which is then wrapped around a dollop of chutney or vegetable curry. It is a Mauritian favourite, the country’s original fast-food.

The street vendors, mainly older men, hail predominantly from the Indian Hindu and Muslim communities and they are not happy.

According to one local commentator Saoud Baccus writing in L’Express, however, if expatriate personnel increase the amount of tax revenue and decrease the level of corruption in the customs service then this is an unreservedly good thing.

Furthermore, the considerable salaries of these new recruits are small when compared to the financial benefits, revenues and sound practices they deliver. "They are doing a wonderful job for the country ... for which we should be grateful", he writes.

It all sounds very plausible. If officers demand to be paid extra from private individuals or companies for clearing and checking goods, or bending the rules in some way, it is not advantageous to anyone -except, of course, themselves and the immediate beneficiaries of their activities.

We can all agree that customs regulation in particular should be a clean, honest and transparent endeavour.

And it is especially important in controlling the importation of illegal supplies of drugs and alcohol.

Comparative evidence suggests that the low cost and easy availability of such substances - particularly as part of an illegal trade - has a disproportionately negative effect on the behaviour and attitudes of members of the poorest sections in society.

It also has a massively adverse impact on their take up of educational and mainstream employment opportunities. This pattern is as true of paradise island Mauritius, which has a small but significant hard drug and alcohol problem among its urban and rural poor, as any other country with an open economy.

However, the issue of taxation is slightly different. Some Mauritian commentators argue that all responsible citizens should pay their fair share of taxes but I am not so sure.

Or rather I am in the case of billionaires and millionaires who, in any case, tend to employ a small army of very good accountants and lawyers to exploit the many and varied loopholes in the taxation system. So I don't feel too sorry for them - they are undoubtedly fair game and play their own game very well.

But I am concerned when the state wants to extend the reach of the bureaucrats to the people like street vendors and others like vegetable and egg sellers who have small cottage industries which supplement other forms of income and who are not rich by any stretch of imagination.

Put simply, I want to defend the little people who probably haven't had the social and educational advantages of the government functionaries who are busily pursuing them but wouldn’t mind securing the futures of their children or grandchildren.

In fact, I am a great admirer of the cash economy. Indeed, I have conducted research and seen at first hand its positive effect in certain sections of the catering sector in London.

The posh restaurants at the top end of the booming London market aren't really part of the cash (notes and coins) economy at all.

These include the Michelin-starred restaurants run by famous British restaurateurs including Gordon Ramsay, Gary Rhodes and Marco Pierre White as well as British-based ethnic minority ones like Vineet Bhatia, Atul Kochhar and Alan Yau.

Nearly all the transactions in these businesses are done by credit card and other forms of electronic payment. These enterprises undoubtedly pay their taxes and make a significant contribution to the advanced service sector of the UK and, thus, to the general welfare of society.

The phenomenal success of these restaurant groups led by celebrity chefs has even meant the appearance of gastronomic outposts in the last four or five years at some of the top-end hotels catering for the well-heeled tourists who visit Mauritius (and comparable destinations around the world).

A particularly good example is provided by Vineet Bhatia who was head chef at Zaika, the first Indian restaurant to win a Michelin star in London (or anywhere else) in 2001. He now owns his own Michelin-starred establishment, Rasoi Vineet Bhatia, in London's Sloane Square and also set up the highly acclaimed Safran restaurant (now run by fellow Indian chef, Atul Kocchar) at Le Touessrok, one of Mauritius' finest hotels.

However, the story is quite different at the other end of the catering sector in London. For example, it would not be possible to keep open all of the restaurants, cafes and take-aways in the ethnic enclaves of inner London and those that punctuate high street locations elsewhere in the capital if everything that was done was legitimate and above board.

These small catering establishments simply couldn’t continue to attract the hungry hordes of locals and tourists who turn up every day if they weren't involved in some creative fiddling, financial and otherwise.

Apart from anything else, the fixed business costs are often too high. Without cash payments to staff (thus avoiding the constraints imposed by the minimum wage) and tax avoidance, huge numbers of cafes and restaurants in the London area (and across the UK) would be forced out of business. And this would undoubtedly have massive and deleterious effects on members of the diverse local communities in the UK’s capital who often depend on the catering trade for work.

Let me be clear, these people really don’t have a choice of jobs. The vast majority come from poorly educated ethnic minority groups who migrated from rural areas unlike, for example, Vineet Bhatia who hails, as he proudly states on his website, from "an educated, middle-class family in Bombay " (although I bet that none of his sons and daughters will be following him into the kitchen).

Don't get me wrong - I don't think tax avoidance is an ideal situation but I don’t think it’s the end of the world either.

The cash economy often creates the social space and momentum for members of migrant and other disadvantaged groups, particularly the younger members, to achieve a degree of upward social mobility that would otherwise be denied to them.

I have long been aware of an interesting social pattern found among some relatively poor ethnic minority communities involved in the UK catering trade whose members have experienced a high level of social mobility.

Part of the economic surplus, legitimate or otherwise, has traditionally been used to pay for extra educational tuition (secular rather than religious) for the children of the family.

More recently, funds have also gone towards the purchase of technologies like the Internet which bring profound educational benefits to the younger (and sometimes to the older) members of the household.

This pattern of consumption is often absent or radically different in socially and economically comparable white families where a much greater emphasis is placed on the fun and leisure aspects of the technology.

An example of exceptional educational and social progress can be found in a section of the British Chinese community, the poor rice farming families who fled Hong Kong’s rice famine in the 1950s and moved into the catering trade.

The parents may still be running the restaurants and take-aways scattered across Britain but most of their children certainly aren’t. They have done very well at school, gone to university and have taken up senior positions from accountancy to law and medicine and all professions in between.

Something similar is beginning to emerge among some of the children in the British Bangladeshi community whose families come from rural Sylhet in the north-east of the country.

The men of the first generation of migrants - fathers and sons - operate around 85 per cent of Britain’s "Indian" restaurants.

Now after a relatively slow start, their children have overtaken Pakistanis in terms of GCSE results and are narrowing the gap with children of Indian origin, the most successful south Asian group whose older members like their Chinese counterparts, are already well represented in the professions.

So the UK can provide Mauritius with a useful lesson: while some areas of a nation's economy, like customs and excise, need a high degree of regulation, other areas are best left alone or very lightly controlled.

Turning a bureaucratic blind eye to financial irregularities in certain areas of the economy is often the smart thing to do and is certainly preferable to some of the possible alternatives - welfare dependency or livelihoods derived from drug, alcohol and prostitution-related crime.

The evidence suggests that too much of the wrong sort of government interference in the lives of a country's citizens stifles enterprise and may well have serious and unintended consequences not envisaged by those who champion the hard-nosed "audit culture".

Of course, another way of addressing these issues would be to reform the tax system so that, instead of focusing on avoidance, it positively encouraged behaviour that tends to generate educational success.

For example, tax relief on computers and fast Internet connections for poor and low income households with direct links to local educational institutions would boost income declaration and promote learning and social mobility in an increasingly information-based, commercial world.

Fleshing out the precise details of such a scheme is another matter and probably best left to financial and educational experts. But the overall direction could certainly be set by politicians - and that lesson is applicable to both Mauritius and the UK.

Now where can I buy a decent dholl puri?

Dr Sean Carey is a Fellow of the Young Foundation

A version of this article first ran in the Mauritius Times

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The Brexit odd squad

The Brexiters are resilient and have the support of some unlikely foreign allies. Can they really topple the political establishment and lead Britain out of the European Union?

Look at the troops arrayed on the Leave and the Remain sides in the June referendum and you might think that our continued membership of the European Union is assured. On the side of staying in the EU are Britain’s four living prime ministers, the International Monetary Fund, the Treasury, most members of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, the Trades Union Congress, the Confederation of British Industry, the governor of the Bank of England, the head of the NHS, Britain’s three largest trade unions and the US president. Leave has Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and the contested ghost of Margaret Thatcher.

Yet few expect the final result of Britain’s In/Out referendum to be as asymmetric as that roll-call would suggest. At the top of the pro-EU campaign Britain Stronger in Europe, there is no doubt: it could lose.

So what – and who – is responsible for the unlikely appeal of Brexit’s “odd squad”? And how do they work together when their side is so fractious and its big personalities seem so uninterested in teamwork?

The story begins on the morning of 20 February, when David Cameron summoned his cabinet to announce the results of his EU renegotiation and ask his ministers to support Britain’s continued membership of the Union. Those who did left by the front door; the six dissidents were asked to leave by the tradesman’s entrance.

Nipping out the back were the full cabinet members Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Theresa Villiers and John Whittingdale, plus the employment minister, Priti Patel, who has the right to attend cabinet meetings. They soon reconvened at Vote Leave’s headquarters, a nondescript tower block in Westminster, where they posed with a giant sign bearing the campaign’s slogan “Vote Leave, take control” – a sight more reminiscent of a group of local councillors vowing to protect a bus lane than the upper reaches of the British political class.

Then again, the cabinet Leavers are not, on the whole, an impressive bunch. Villiers and Grayling were among the casualties of the formation of the coalition government in 2010, moving from their briefs to make way for Lib Dems, and both had to be content with junior posts until the 2012 reshuffle. Since then, Villiers has been a competent if uninspiring operator in Northern Ireland. Grayling was widely held to be a failure at the Ministry of Justice and now serves as Leader of the House of Commons, historically the antechamber between full cabinet rank and the wilderness.

As for Whittingdale, he is that rare creature in Whitehall: a secretary of state for culture, media and sport who does not regard the post as a stepping stone to bigger things. As the recent white paper on the future of the BBC showed, the golden thread of his thinking is scepticism: towards the EU, the BBC and regulation of the press. He was Margaret Thatcher’s last political secretary in Downing Street and, after becoming an MP in the 1992 election, he set up meetings between the former prime minister and his fellow new boys from the 1992 intake – meetings that John Major blamed for fanning the flames of Eurosceptic rebellion in the dog days of his premiership.

Priti Patel also has impeccable Eurosceptic credentials. She cut her teeth as a press officer to the Referendum Party, set up in a doomed attempt to secure an In/Out referendum in 1997. Following William Hague’s election as Tory leader and the adoption of complete hostility towards the single currency, she joined the Conservative Party, becoming an MP in 2010.

She is best known for contributing to Britannia Unchained, a series of essays by Patel and four of her fellow 2010-ers (including Dominic Raab, widely expected to run for the Tory leadership next time). The book was intended to provide the intellectual ballast for a revivified Thatcherism, though the only part that attracted headlines was the claim that British workers were “among the worst idlers in the world”.

This dubious crew of ministerial heavyweights has grown marginally more likeable since Duncan Smith’s resignation as work and pensions secretary. Yet it is not his six-year tenure as a minister but his two-year stint as Tory leader that has left the biggest mark on the Brexit debate, with his former hires among the loudest advocates for a Leave vote – including the founding editor of ConservativeHome, Tim Montgomerie, now at Gove’s old newspaper the Times. (In the unhappiest periods of Cameron’s first term, when the Prime Minister was frequently criticised by Montgomerie in that newspaper, Cameroons would mutter about the irony that one of their sharpest critics had served as chief of staff to the least successful leader of the Conservative Party in its history.)

As for Michael Gove, though he is loved by lobby journalists, he remains a hate figure in the country at large and particularly among teachers, as a result of his belligerent tactics during his time as secretary of state for education.

***

The last of the senior Brexit-supporting Tories didn’t leave through the back door that morning because he hadn’t yet declared his position. That came the next day, in a media scrum outside his home in Islington, north London.

The former mayor of London Boris Johnson is still Britain’s most popular politician, surviving crises and scandals that would have left others dead in the water. He is also the only politician whom the Remain campaign truly fears. But Johnson is not a wholly congenial presence among Britain’s Brexiters. Although he is a far more adept planner than his dishevelled appearance – or his paper-thin record at City Hall – would suggest, he can be difficult to manage. His  weekly Telegraph column has largely been turned to cheerleading for Brexit but Vote Leave’s biggest gun doesn’t always point in the direction its chief strategists would like.

During Barack Obama’s visit to the UK in April, Johnson became embroiled in a war of words in which he suggested that the president had an ancestral dislike of Britain because of his “part-Kenyan” heritage. Having made this racially charged argument in the Sun, he extended the story needlessly by giving a similarly robust interview to the Daily Mail, much to the frustration of staffers at Vote Leave.

So there you have it. An unpopular firebrand, an unsuccessful former Tory leader, four relative nonentities and a blond bombshell who is considered clever but uncontrollable. It is less a huddle of Big Beasts than a grotesque menagerie – and these are among the sensible, mainstream voices on the Leave side. The other politicians who can get on to the Sunday shows to talk Brexit include Nigel Farage, who is adored by the four million people in Britain who voted Ukip in last year’s general election – and hated by the remaining 42 million. Yet he is a national treasure compared to George Galloway, formerly of Labour, who secured just 37,000 votes in the mayoral election. An unkind observer might say that none of the Brexit-backing politicians can stop traffic: half of them because they are unknown and the other half because most people would quite like to run them over.

There are also few compelling figures from business, sport, entertainment and science backing Brexit. Ian Botham is a rare celebrity Outer. “Cricket is a game where you achieve the greatest success when you are confident in your own ability to go out and stand proud,” he wrote in the Sunday Times. “Britain has that spirit.” In April, a slew of acts withdrew from a gig in Birmingham after finding out that it was organised by Leave.EU. Only Phats & Small, whose last hit was in 1999, refused to pull out.

Then there’s the infighting. To give just one example of the ongoing civil war, Vote Leave – the officially recognised campaign group for Brexit – believes Farage is so toxic to its cause that it regards his invitation to appear in a TV discussion alongside Cameron as an establishment stitch-up. “ITV has effectively joined the official In campaign,” said a Vote Leave statement to journalists on 11 May, written by Dominic Cummings, the campaign’s director. “There will be consequences for its future – the people in No 10 won’t be there for long.”

***

In the light of all this, why are the pro-Europeans so worried? Many feel that the current campaign is beginning to remind them of a nightmare year: 2011, when Britain voted decisively to reject electoral reform by moving from first-past-the-post to the Alternative Vote (AV). Around the time of the 2010 general election, polls had shown that Britain was in favour of the change by a 27-point margin. But on 5 May 2011, more than two-thirds of voters said No to AV, which ended up more than 35 points ahead.

What undid the Alternative Vote was a ruthlessly effective campaign against it – one that was almost completely fact-free. No2AV focused relentlessly on the cost of a new voting system; poster after poster made reference to its illusory price tag of £250m. “He needs bulletproof vests,” intoned one illustrated with a picture of a soldier, “NOT an alternative voting system.” Another came with a picture of a baby: “She needs a new cardiac facility, NOT an alternative voting system.”

As one veteran of the pro-AV campaign recalled recently: “It was impossible to fight. How do you repudiate it without repeating it? We never found a way.”

That appeal to economic interests was so powerful that Vote Leave has come up with a similarly memorable figure: the £350m weekly cost of Britain’s EU membership. This has been debunked by fact-checkers such as Full Fact, which estimates that the UK pays roughly £9.8bn a year once money back is taken into account. Regardless, Vote Leave keeps quoting the figure – and no wonder, because the chief executive of Vote Leave is also the architect of No2AV’s crushing victory: a 38-year-old LSE graduate called Matthew Elliott.

Despite Vote Leave’s anti-politics flavour, Elliott is a Westminster insider and well connected in the wonk world. He is the founder of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, the most high-profile of a close network of think tanks that are a proving ground for a rising generation of right-wingers. The Taxpayers’ Alliance, the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute together form what one alumnus jokingly calls a “Sorbonne for neoliberals”.

Much of Vote Leave’s staff is drawn from another Elliott creation: Business for Britain. The group was set up ostensibly to lobby for David Cameron to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU but was in reality designed as a Leave campaign in utero. Accordingly, many of its early recruits have ended up moving across.

Elliott is regarded as having a keen eye for talent and for being generous with his time. At each organisation where he has worked, he has taken care to bring on promising protégés. Alumni of the Elliott school include Susie Squire, who spent two years at the heart of Cameron’s administration as press secretary; Nick Pickles, head of UK public policy at Twitter; and Dylan Sharpe, the combative head of public relations at the Sun. Most of his favourite employees have three things in common: libertarian politics, a cut-throat instinct and loyalty to him personally. Those who have worked for Elliott largely speak highly of him.

The same cannot be said for the second leading player in Vote Leave who has the Remain side worried: Gove’s former henchman Dominic Cummings. David Laws – who, as a junior minister, worked closely with Cummings when he was at Gove’s Department for Education – describes him as a “grade-A political Rottweiler”. “As well as being bright,” Laws writes in his memoirs, “Dom Cummings was also blunt, rude, impatient and tactless.” According to friends of both, without Cummings’s encouragement, Gove would have been a mostly silent presence in the Leave campaign because of his close friendship with Cameron.

The former special adviser’s commitment to anti-Europeanism is a long-held one – his first job in politics was at Britain for Sterling, which lobbied against Britain joining the European single currency in the 1990s. Thereafter, he worked for Iain Duncan Smith during his brief and unhappy leadership. A former staffer from that time remembers him as an “abrasive presence”.

After Duncan Smith’s removal as Tory leader, Cummings retreated to his native Durham, where he helped to engineer victory for the No side in the referendum on whether to give the north-east its own devolved assembly. It was the tactics used in that referendum – an endless focus on costs, coupled with personal attacks on the credentials of the Yes side – which were taken on and extended by Elliott during the AV contest. Those tactics are once again on display in this referendum.

That partly explains why, on the Remain side, Cummings is respected and feared in equal measure. Yet his confrontational approach often proves his undoing: for instance, he understood the importance of giving a cross-party sheen to Vote Leave (not least to secure the official campaign designation), yet his conduct led to the departure of the Eurosceptic Labour MP Kate Hoey. “We live in a world where people get things by being nice to each other,” reflects a former colleague of Cummings, “and Dom doesn’t really work like that.”

Hoey’s walkout set the ball rolling on another, less dramatic exit: John Mills, Labour’s largest private individual donor and a Brexiter of many years’ standing. He feared the Vote Leave brand had become irrevocably Conservative. (Unlike Hoey, Mills remains on speaking terms with Vote Leave.)

Friends say that, for Elliott, who has been “planning this [campaign] for some time”, Cummings’s disposition is a price worth paying for his tactical nous. It was Cummings who was the architect of Vote Leave’s two-pronged strategy: claiming that the money we now pay to the EU could go towards the NHS, and suggesting that Brexit will allow us to cut immigration by “regaining control of our borders”.

The perceived cut-through of the latter message with older Labour voters was behind Vote Leave’s big tactical gamble. On 8 May, an official statement by the campaign declared that leaving the EU would also entail leaving the single market.

That decision is unlikely to find favour with big businesses that rely on international trade but it does allow Vote Leave to make strong and unambiguous claims about cutting immigration. If we are outside the European Union but inside the single market (as Norway is), we would have to accept free movement of labour. If we leave the single market, however, we could introduce a points-based entry system, or even finally achieve Cameron’s otherwise impossible cap on net migration.

Upset business but win over small-C conservative voters: it’s a big risk for the Brexiters to take. It represents a throw of the dice by Cummings, who sidelined Nigel Farage precisely in order to minimise the campaign’s focus on immigration. But with the vote scheduled to take place on 23 June and a repeat of last year’s refugee crisis in the Mediterranean looming, security and borders are likely to be at the forefront of voters’ minds. For all that those on the Brexit side have denounced Cameron for running a repeat of “Project Fear”, they know that they have to make change less terrifying than maintaining the status quo.

***

In their quest to take Britain out of the EU, the Brexiters have a simple, if high-stakes, strategy. They want to appear to be the underdogs (hence their repeated complaints about the government’s £9m pro-EU leaflet) and as a scrappier, grass-roots campaign taking on the might of the establishment. Naturally, this image doesn’t reflect an unvarnished truth: the press has been largely onside and senior editors and columnists are very willing to take Vote Leave’s calls.

There is also no concern about keeping the lights on. Arron Banks, the insurance magnate who bankrolled Ukip at the 2015 general election, might have refused to fund Vote Leave after it triumphed over his favoured vehicle, Leave.EU – he has called Matthew Elliott “Lord Elliott of Loserville” and threatened to sue the Electoral Commission for naming Vote Leave the official voice of Brexit – but insiders say that the campaign’s financial position is nothing to worry about.

If Vote Leave wins, it will have scored an extraordinary victory – and, it should be noted, defied the hopes of most of our allies in the rest of the world. The politicians backing Britain’s continued membership of the EU include not just Barack Obama but his likely successor, Hillary Clinton, as well as the prime ministers of Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

There is a vanishingly small number of international politicians who back Brexit. Like the inner core of Vote Leave, they are overwhelmingly drawn from the right-wing fringe – US Republicans such as Ted Cruz and Donald Trump and the French National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, who, unhappily for the Brexiters, is expected to visit Britain to support their case.

The only foreign leader who seriously supports a British Leave vote in June is a man praised by Nigel Farage and whose country Dominic Cummings spent several years working in: Vladimir Putin, who, as far as British voters are concerned, is even more toxic than Farage, Galloway or Gove.

When Britain’s odd squad looks abroad for allies, its options are few – but this ragtag collective is far from beaten. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad