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6 October 2017

Las Vegas was a particularly American massacre

The US has a murder rate between three and five times higher than other developed countries.

By Peter Wilby

When the killers are Muslims, American politicians – particularly if they are Republican – move quickly to analysis and policy solutions. The problem, they insist, is Islam and the solutions are to invade Muslim countries, keep out Muslim immigrants and step up surveillance of Muslims already in America.

When a 64-year-old white former accountant kills at least 59 in Las Vegas with rapid gunfire, there is nothing to see here, move along please and pray for the victims.

Whether or not the issue is the easy availability of guns, the frequency of mass killings in America – and a murder rate between three and five times higher than in other developed countries – suggests that something peculiarly American is at work. But many Americans, including President Trump, don’t want to think about that.

The Catalan myth

I suppose it is all right for Jeremy Corbyn to denounce the Spanish government for its violent attempt to suppress an independence referendum in Catalonia, though I would have thought Theresa May has enough to do without appealing “directly” to the Spanish PM, as Corbyn demands. Yet I hope that he and his allies haven’t fallen for the narrative of a plucky, oppressed minority fighting fascist monsters for freedom. Catalonia is one of Spain’s richest regions (the Basque country, where some are also keen on independence, is even richer), with a GDP per capita 60 per cent higher than that of Andalusia. Its independence supporters resent their taxes going to poorer regions, just as many Londoners do. I trust that no Labour leader would back a breakaway from the UK by London and the south-east.

Universal blunders

A former minister told me recently how he was amazed to find, when a new policy was proposed in his department, that the civil service did not immediately produce briefings on previous attempts to address whatever problem it was supposed to solve, the results of those attempts and the lessons to be learned. This year’s bungled introduction of universal credit is surely an example of such failure.

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MPs report that many people face eviction from their homes because their existing benefits have stopped while they wait six weeks for the new one. Labour’s introduction of a tax credit scheme in 2003 went spectacularly wrong for almost exactly the same reasons. David Blunkett, then a cabinet minister, noted in his diary “tens of thousands of people without any money and no sign of their getting it in the near future”.

The story is told in The Blunders of Our Governments (2013), written by the late Anthony King and Ivor Crewe. Labour’s scheme required millions of indigent people, many of whom had never previously completed a tax return, to fill out complex forms about their previous year’s earnings, estimate their earnings for the next year and notify the authorities each time their circumstances changed. Nearly two million eligible people failed to claim. Some 300,000 who did claim didn’t receive their payments in time. Two million were overpaid, causing further distress when, at the end of the year, they received peremptory demands to repay what seemed to them enormous sums. As the ombudsman observed, the system created “in-built financial insecurity”.

Labour’s tax credits failed largely because the ministers and civil servants who designed them didn’t understand that poor families often live hand-to-mouth, managing their finances on a weekly basis not across a whole year. It seems incredible that such a recent lesson has not been learned.

The meanies’ money

The Tory leader of Westminster Council, Nickie Aiken, proposes to invite the borough’s richest property owners to pay a voluntary mansion tax. Don’t mock. The tax could work if those who didn’t pay up were named and shamed on internet sites, along with photographs (taken by tabloid newspaper snappers who are experts at making people look selfish and evil), full addresses and copious background details of how the meanies came by their money.

Street-fighting men

In all the finger-wagging commentary about Ben Stokes’s unfortunate encounters outside a Bristol nightclub, I have seen no mention of Ian Botham’s remarkably similar encounters outside a Scunthorpe nightclub just before Christmas 1980. After a man suffered head and body injuries, Botham, then the England cricket captain, was charged, along with his friend Joe Neenan, Scunthorpe United’s goalkeeper, with assault occasioning actual bodily harm. Though Neenan pleaded guilty at the local magistrates court and was fined, Botham denied the charge and opted for trial.

A few weeks later, still as captain, he led England to the West Indies. He eventually lost the captaincy because of several England defeats and a deterioration in his form, not because of off-field misdemeanours. He then returned spectacularly to form and became a national hero, winning three test matches against Australia almost single-handedly. During that summer of 1981, the assault charge was hardly mentioned. At the trial, conveniently delayed until September, the jury failed to agree. The judge ordered a “not guilty” verdict to be entered.

What are the differences between Botham’s case and that of his fellow all-rounder Stokes, the England vice-captain, released under investigation after police questioned him on identical charges? First, Botham went out on the town after playing in a professional football match, not, as Stokes did, in the middle of an international cricket series. Second, whereas a video emerged of the Stokes incident, there was no visual record of the Botham incident. Otherwise, I am struggling to think of significant differences. Yet commentators are almost unanimous that Stokes must be stripped of the vice-captaincy and dropped from this winter’s tour of Australia. As Americans would say, go figure. 

This article appears in the 04 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How the rich got richer