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7 November 2018

First Thoughts: golden handcuffs at the Mail, the Condorcet solution to Brexit and the risks of a late death

A second referendum using a voting method that nobody understands would be a fitting end to the whole Brexit farce.

By Peter Wilby

Tony Blair wants a “People’s Vote” to thwart Brexit. According to the Sunday Times, more than 70 “City grandees” (that means people who, like Blair, used to be important but aren’t now) also want it. So, it is reported, do more than 1,500 “top lawyers”. None of these folk explains exactly what the people should be asked and how their “will” should be determined. If you’re struggling to grasp the Irish backstop, passporting rights, Norway-for-now and Canada-plus-plus, you will struggle even more to grasp the arguments that would begin if the government agreed to a second referendum. They are of mind-boggling, headache-inducing, lock-yourself-in-a-padded cell complexity. I can think of at least a dozen different forms that a “People’s Vote” could take, and there are probably many more. Which one is chosen would have a big influence on which side was likely to win.

The truth is that agreeing to hold a second referendum doesn’t solve anything. It simply transfers the government’s problem – that there’s no parliamentary majority for any single form of Brexit, including not-Brexit – to a different context.

Mogg’s method

The possibilities for the referendum include something called the Condorcet method, which, so far as I can discover, has never been used in any state election anywhere in the world. I won’t attempt to explain it but having done the maths (for which you’ll have to take my word), I can reveal that it is the most likely to deliver victory to the “no-dealers”. Expect Jacob Rees-Mogg to back it, particularly since it was invented in 1299 and later championed by an 18th-century French philosopher, the Marquis de Condorcet. The use of a voting method that nobody understands would be a fitting end to the whole Brexit farce.

Homes under the Hammond

It’s usually about a week after a Budget that a “stealth tax” is found in the small print. Right on cue, one has emerged from Philip Hammond’s Budget. After a death, bereaved families must apply for probate to administer the estate, paying an upfront fee of £215. Hammond proposes that the fee should depend on the estate’s value, rising to £6,000 if it’s worth more than £2m. Impecunious offspring may need to take out loans before they get anything from the estate. This may look like a good thing. It’s not. By all means tax asset transfers – short-term share transactions, for example – if you want to curtail them. But who wants to stop children sorting out their parents’ affairs?

The Tories use transfer taxes as alternatives to proper progressive taxation. They increase probate fees instead of raising inheritance tax and closing loopholes that allow people to avoid it. Likewise, rather than adequately taxing housing wealth (and scrapping the regressive council tax), they raise stamp duty on house sales, deterring homeowners from moving house. It’s politically cynical and economically illiterate.

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Green Whitehall

In our garden, the leaves on some trees still haven’t turned brown. Is it my imagination – fired up by stories about global warming – that autumn comes later every year? It’s hard to know: newspaper letters columns meticulously chronicle early signs of spring but not autumn’s advance. But look at the Remembrance Sunday ceremonies in London and Paris. You will see Whitehall and the Champs-Élysées lined with plane trees in full green leaf. A Coventry University ecologist, Tim Sparks, recently unearthed pictures of previous commemorations. At the first in 1919 and for decades afterwards, only bare branches are visible.

It’s a sinecure

It is two months since Paul Dacre stepped down after 26 years as Daily Mail editor to become chairman and editor-in-chief of Associated Newspapers, surely a sinecure if ever there was one. One imagines him seething with rage as his successor, Geordie Greig, eases the paper away from supporting the hard Brexit that Dacre passionately favoured. But in his first public speech since his, er, change of role – at the Society of Editors conference in Manchester – he directed his fury at the former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, accusing him of sanctimony, self-glorification, moral superiority, mean-spiritedness, economic insanity, paranoia, vanity, hubris and much else.

Rusbridger has a new career as an Oxford college principal while Dacre chews the carpets on the upper floors of the Mail’s offices in west London. Perhaps Dacre is just jealous. But if I were Greig, I would be thankful that the Mail proprietor Lord Rothermere has locked the old monster into golden handcuffs.

Ron’s long run

To Leicester, for the funeral of Ron, my last surviving cousin (my mother was the youngest of a large family), who died five months short of his 100th birthday. The genetic source of his longevity is a mystery. The family tree reveals no previous examples of long-lived men: his father (my uncle) died at 63 as did his paternal (my maternal) grandfather. The women did better but only one reached 90.

Given my not very abstinent habits, I expected to die well before 80. Now, the Office for National Statistics website tells me that, at 74, without taking account of lifestyle and my share of Ron’s genes, I have a 5.9 per cent chance of reaching 100, which is far better than my chances of winning the premium bond jackpot.

The state and the medical profession assiduously advise us how to avoid the risks of early death but offer little guidance on the risks of late death: loneliness, boredom and running out of money, for example. I shall follow the example of a friend who, calling for a second bottle of wine, habitually says: “It should take the last two years off our lives – and by all accounts, they are the worst.” 

This article appears in the 07 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the nation state