Category Archives: Politics

Housing policy or moral crusade?

Photo by Gabi Kent

Photo: Gabi Kent

David Cameron wants to replace “the country’s most run down housing estates,” with “attractive and safe homes.” It’s part of a package aimed at ending poverty, as the government puts it,  and “improving the life chances of the most disadvantaged.”

Well, that’s one way of addressing the housing crisis – with Victorian-style social reform. We’ll make old estates nicer and bingo! your life will be transformed.

Except – as anyone on a council house waiting list, or struggling to get together a huge deposit for a privately rented flat, or a monumental one for a mortgage will tell you – the housing crisis isn’t solved just by knocking houses down and starting again.

And regeneration isn’t as easy as Mr Cameron describes with characteristic trust-me breeziness in an article in the Sunday Times.

Many post-war council estates were badly planned. Others have fallen into disrepair because of wilful neglect or lack of funds. The Prime Minister’s right about that.

But one man’s sink estate is another man, or woman or family’s home. And experience tells us many residents, including owners, will be kicked out of those homes when the builders move in.

So before we rush headlong into Mr Cameron’s self-declared “mission” for a “social turnaround,” on our big housing estates, here are three essential questions that need to be asked.

1. What happens to leaseholders? Social tenants have a right to become owners under right to buy. But councils can force those owners to sell when they want to demolish an estate.

Photo Gabi Kent

Photo: Gabi Kent

They use Compulsory Purchase Orders to do it and offer shared equity or shared ownership in a new home in exchange.

Which sort of works as long as the owner is offered a reasonable price under the CPO or is willing to take on a new mortgage to finance their share of a much more expensive home.

Schemes vary but all too often, the CPO is way below market price. The leaseholder can’t afford an equivalent property on the regenerated estate and ends up having to move, sometimes many miles away.

2. Guarantees for tenants. Mr Cameron says guarantees will be binding. But for which tenants? Will the promise of like-for-like homes cover everyone? Experience says not.

2015-06-29 19.33.50Take the notorious re-development of Barnet’s West Hendon Estate where only those with secure (life-long) council tenancies are being re-housed. Council tenants on fixed term (temporary) contracts have been booted out – even if they lived on the estate for years.

3. Say you do get a new home, will you be paying Social or Affordable rent? Under this government, the terms have become synonymous. But they are very different things.

Social rents set by councils and housing associations are based on local property values and average manual job wages. “Affordable” means paying 80 per cent of whatever the average market rent is. The difference between the two, in weekly rent, can amount to hundreds of pounds.
We know all this because in London alone, 50 estates have undergone regeneration since 2005. Eight thousand homes for social rent have vanished in the process and some bitter lessons have been learned. They’re catalogued in a detailed London Assembly report.

I urge Lord Heseltine, Chair of the Prime Minister’s new Estate Regeneration Advisory Panel to read the report carefully and learn from it.

Unless of course providing genuinely affordable housing is not what this big announcement is really all about.

If it were, the government wouldn’t be steamrolling ahead with a Housing Bill that extends right to buy to Housing Associations, forces councils to sell their most valuable assets and ends life-time tenancies for new social housing renters.

Nor would it have starved councils of funds needed to improve their ageing housing stock.

None of this government’s housing plans to date have done anything to help the “hard working families” Mr Cameron is so fond of invoking. They are the people most affected by the chronic shortage of housing and astronomical rents. They don’t get a mention in Mr Cameron’s description of gang-ridden “ghettos” and “cut-off, self-governing,” estates.

That’s because what the Prime Minister’s proposing isn’t a coherent social policy aimed at fixing a deep-seated and complex housing crisis.

No. It’s a moral crusade against social housing.

 

Outraged by the Outrage

White Van ManHere’s how politics now works in the UK.

A politician sends out an ill-considered tweet. It is insensitive but not criminal. Politicians, political journalists, bloggers and academics comment on it. Twitter comes alive. The politician realises she’s been a bit of a fool. Her hapless boss has a meltdown and forces her out. The established media and punditocracy go bonkers.

And the rest of the country says – Eh?

Of course Labour’s Emily Thornberry shouldn’t have tweeted a picture of a white van outside a house draped with English flags. It was way too open to interpretations of condescension or snobbery – which is exactly what happened.

But who did those interpretations come from?

Well, amongst the first 15 to tweet responses were: A blogger for The Spectator, a UKIP local party secretary, two self-described “libertarians,” a Daily Star journalist, a “media planner,” a Tory government relations consultant and two more who call themselves Conservatives (one of whom adds for good measure “anti-EU”) though it’s not entirely clear what they do.

Not, as far as I can tell, the supposedly offended flag-flying working class.

Westminster’s mischief-maker-in-chief was quick off the ball too. Guido Fawkes put the offending tweet on his blog and rapidly followed it with an update, “The internet reacts.”

A bit of the internet anyway.

The reactions selected (from twitter) were those of a leading politics academic, a Telegraph columnist, a Telegraph leader writer and someone who’s twitter profile is a little opaque but includes the phrase, “not a fan of the EU.”

And then the Internet really did start to react – most noticeably with anxious Labour MPs already aware of their party’s failure to offer anything constructive to its core vote. And then with political correspondents telling us “what it all means.”

A twitter storm in a tea-cup was brewed. Ms Thornberry fell on her sword.

Elsewhere in the country meanwhile, nobody seems to be taking much notice. This morning’s (internet) editions of the major regional newspapers barely cover the story – if at all.

Nothing in the Liverpool Echo or the Northern Echo. I can’t find anything in the Norwich Evening News. There are a couple of lines buried deep in the Yorkshire Post’s story about UKIP’s win in Rochester and Stroud. Sometime after 9am, the Manchester Evening news added two sentences on Thornberry in its Breaking News section.

The Sentinel in Stoke ran the story. It garnered one comment from a reader who couldn’t understand why the MP had had to resign her shadow cabinet post. The only other public comment was on a Bristol Post account of the fracas – though in that case, the reader was critical of Labour and its “Champagne socialists”.

I couldn’t find much anti-Labour white male wrath on quick flick through local radio either.

BBC Radio Norfolk’s morning phone-in was discussing a local row about skateboarding. In Leeds the host wanted to hear listeners’ “claims to fame.” I tuned to Radio Newcastle just as caller and host reached a peak of indignation over the film board’s classification of the Paddington Bear film. In Cambridge meanwhile, they were talking politics. A female caller felt UKIP was dividing the country with its anti immigrant stance.

None of which is to justify or defend Emily Thornberry and her ill advised tweet. We all do stupid things sometimes, on Thursday it was the turn of the Islington MP.

She demonstrated all too visibly the disconnect between politicians and voters for sure. But the general public aren’t up in arms about a daft tweet – it’s the navel gazers in Westminster who decided on our behalf we should all be outraged.

Meanwhile, most people are trying to get on with making ends meet. It would be good to see a similar level of outrage from our politicians and pundits about just how hard that is.

Scottish Parliament

Scotland, Please Don’t Go

ParliamentFrontI20050217Never mind the squabbling over sterling and North Sea oil, Scotland. There’s a very simple reason to vote No in the Independence referendum next month.

We don’t want you to leave.

A few days in Edinburgh have reminded me of all that we have to lose if Scotland drifts away.

A more collectivist spirit for a start. It’s not just the free university education, free personal care for the elderly, or free prescription charges the Scottish enjoy. One could (and should) argue about the financial wisdom of offering such largesse especially during tough economic times.

But what those policies (plus vows to keep the private sector out of the NHS) demonstrate is Scotland’s admirable sense of social solidarity, something that is being steadily chipped away here in England.

One can attribute that in part to the dominance of left-of-centre parties in Scottish politics. But even the Conservatives north of the border have a more progressive tone than their southern counterparts.

Their  manifesto for the elections to the Scottish Parliament for example, was far less judgemental than anything published by their Westminster friends. Families did not have to be “hard working” to warrant support. Immigration wasn’t mentioned at all. And some of the policies offered (merging health and social care budgets for example) are currently being considered by the Labour party down here.

It’s not that Scotland gets everything right. Of course it doesn’t. That’s why life expectancy’s lower north of the border. The Scots drink and smoke more than we do, eat less healthily and suffer more heart disease, lung cancer and strokes.

And like any western society, Scotland has become less equal in terms of wealth distribution in recent decades.

But not as unequal as England. Nor is there anything like the same show-offy individualism that we seem to worship down south.

I may have been overly influenced by my visit to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. From the unreserved seating to the cheerful queues, there’s a strong egalitarian spirit.

The performers have to start bang on time and, however grand, must leave the stage immediately at the end – strictly no encores – to make way for the next act.  You can always tell them how much you enjoyed the show when you see them in the bar afterwards. No publicists, no paparazzi, no playing the celeb.

And despite the annual grumbles about commercialisation of the Fringe, there really isn’t very much. With the exception of a certain coveted comedy award, sponsorship is in the background, an afterthought to the main event. It all feels refreshingly unbranded. Still simply The Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Then there’s the Scottish Parliament. For all its weird design and odd angles, it’s a delight to visit. Open, transparent and above all, welcoming.

You can wander almost anywhere. Past the MSPs meeting constituents by the big glass windows. Upstairs to the rather beautiful chamber or, with a free ticket willingly given out by the front desk, into a committee hearing. That’s how a Parliament should be, a place for the people as much as for the politicians.

So, Scotland, the independence referendum is not all about you.

We may not have a vote, but we care what happens on September 18th. More than 300 years together make that inevitable. It hasn’t always been a happy union and you may not like what we’ve turned into.

But the answer isn’t to cast us adrift now. Please stay and help us become a bit more like you.

 

 

The Politicians We Deserve?

City Hall “Rubbish, rubbish, you’re talking rubbish!” cries the Mayor of the greatest city in the world.

“Boring, boring, boring!” chants an elected member of the assembly that’s supposed to be holding him to account.

Welcome to Mayor’s Question Time at London’s City Hall.

Labour leader Ed Miliband worries that the weekly bun-fight at Prime Minister’s Questions in Parliament “subtracts from the reputation of politics.”

He should take a stroll eastward and cross the Thames. He’ll see how Mayor’s Question Time leaves that reputation in shreds.

The Mayor is of course, Boris Johnson who sits at the centre of a horse-shoe of desks. Behind him are the sloping glass walls of the City Hall chamber. Stunning views of the Tower of London, the Gherkin building and the river frame his famous blonde head.photo[2]

The subjects under discussion, including sponsorship of the city’s bike hire scheme and the budget for building new homes, are serious.

The debate, if one can call it that, is not.

Questions from the Labour members are often lengthy and repetitive. Answers from the Conservative Mayor are evasive at best. Attempts to get any firm information from Mr Johnson are met first with bluster and when that doesn’t work, with tired attacks on Labour. Amongst other things, he accuses them of being “consumed with hatred for the private sector” and of wanting to deprive the people of Lambeth of access to the hire bikes.

Ever the performer, the Mayor sprinkles his responses with mild insults (Labour members are like “passive Buddhas”) and belligerent clichés (“So put that in your pipe and smoke it!”)

When the audience in the public gallery, at least half of them primary school children, start to giggle, you can see the light go on in Boris’s eyes. Previously slumped, he sits up straight, his voice rises, a smile spreads across his face.

After barely half an hour, the Assembly Chair is exasperated. “When the Mayor gets found out he resorts to abuse of Assembly Members,” he exclaims.

He’s quite right. Tory members ask questions too – of the “would the Mayor agree with me that he is marvelous?” type. Another half hour passes and despite a couple of informed questions, we’ve learned nothing from the Mayor at all.

But incredibly, it’s about to get worse.

It’s the turn of Green member Jenny Jones to ask a question. She and the Mayor talk across each other. She accuses him of “making things up to amuse the audience.” So far, so predictable.

And then, out of the blue she describes Mr Johnson as being “a proven liar to Parliament.” Boris is completely unfazed and barely responds, even when she repeats it. But a Conservative member asks Baroness Jones to withdraw the accusation  – or substantiate it.

“I don’t have evidence to hand,” is her airy response. She then adds that the Mayor has accused her in the past of being a liar and “I don’t see the difference.”

Ed Miliband said last week that politicians give the public “the sense that their kids behave better than we do.”

The children watching from the public gallery in City Hall must have been wondering when someone would tell these two to shut up and behave. (Jenny Jones did eventually withdraw the accusation of lying to Parliament and later acknowledged breezily via twitter, “Oh god I think I shall have to apologise to Boris.”)

Soon after this unedifying exchange, low rumblings amongst a group of grown-ups in the gallery erupt into shouts.

photo“Homelessness isn’t a crime,” yells one. “Homes not jails!” they start to chant. They’re protesting against Operation Encompass, a police campaign to deal with beggars and rough-sleepers.

The most vocal are hustled out of the chamber. One young woman is grabbed by the wrists and ankles and carried to the door after she refuses to budge.

“Boris is a wanker!” is the parting shot from the last to go. The stunned children let out a collective gasp, then start to laugh before being hushed by their teacher.

I really do think London is the greatest city in the world. But it has some massive problems, of which a dire shortage of affordable housing is perhaps the most acute.

I saw nothing in the City Hall chamber to suggest London’s representatives are working together to deal with that, or indeed anything else.

Surely, we deserve better than this.

 

Name Calling

David Cameron’s years in public relations weren’t wasted.

Whatever one thinks of his government’s policies, its mastery of linguistic tactics has been spot on.

Repetition has planted key words and slogans firmly in the public discourse.  A party not best known for its unity, not even capable of governing alone, has, with one voice, cleverly defined the political debate – and the Opposition.

First came “the mess we inherited,” the unrelenting mantra that cast Labour as the party of profligacy.  Out went any notion that millionaire bankers had brought the global financial system to its knees. Recession was caused by debt; debt was caused by the previous government’s giddy spending frenzy. What could the Conservatives do but “clear up Labour’s mess”?

Embarrassed by the chaos of the Brown years, stunned by the sudden ballooning of the debt after the 2008 crash, Labour was tongue-tied. So the public has accepted that the money was indeed wasted on fripperies as the Tories relentlessly implied.

Where was the counter-argument about improved public services? Yes, spending did increase under Labour and it’s true some of the money could have been better spent. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies points out, we didn’t always get bang for our buck.

But we did get a National Health Service transformed from the old Tory days of 18-month waiting lists for appointments in dingy, crumbling hospitals. Schools were rebuilt, their pathetic budgets increased. Teachers and nurses were recruited and, at last, properly paid.

Not that Ed Miliband and his friends had the wit or courage to say so. Nor have they countered the Conservatives’ re-labelling of one of the most important issues of our time. Income support, housing benefit, disability allowances – whatever the state benefit, whatever the level of need, it’s lumped together as “Welfare” these days.

And if you had any doubt about the pejorative nature of that term, imported from the US (land of the “welfare queens”, “welfare moms”, even “welfies”) just listen to Iain Duncan Smith. When the Work and Pensions Secretary scoffed at “Labour, the Welfare Party” on Radio 4’s Today Programme, he didn’t mean it as a compliment. (True to the Tory-PR style book, he’s used the phrase, or some variation of it repeatedly in recent weeks).

The party of welfare, of the unions, and of reckless spending on frivolous things. The words have been spat across the House of Commons or onto the airwaves so effectively that a paralysed Labour Party seems almost to have accepted the Tory labels. So have the media.

And now there’s another bit of slick PR sloganizing we’re likely to hear repeated endlessly in the run up to the next election. “From rescue to recovery” is how the Chancellor, George Osborne described the economy in his recent Spending Review. It’s the Treasury phrase du jour. Out it came again last week when the IMF said the UK could see economic growth this year of a pathetic 0.9 per cent.

Never mind that the “rescue” has seen falling wages and a growth in poorly paid, part-time jobs. Never mind the Local Government Association’s dire warning that budget cuts mean some basic public services could disappear altogether. Let’s not worry either about the doubling in the numbers of people turning to food banks in the past three months.

Of course, all governments try to tell the story their way. Labour were once Westminster’s masters of spin. Not any more. David Cameron is a much more accomplished communicator than people tend to think of a man who often has trouble getting his own party to listen.

His skill with language has changed the tone of debate and as a result, the substance.  Labour meanwhile, are all too often lost for words.

 

Me and Mrs T

Liverpool docks regenerationA former dock worker, 60-ish, ruddy-cheeked, and too big for the bar stool in this central Liverpool pub.  Not somebody I’d expect to find channelling my thoughts. But yesterday, we were in tune on Margaret Thatcher.

This past week and a half, I have avoided almost every word written about her. I have turned the pages of the newspapers unread, ignored the radio and television programmes, written nothing, and commented only once. (I was caught off guard when CBC Montreal called in the middle of lunch, broke the news of the former Prime Minister’s death, and put me straight on air.)

It’s not that I lack intellectual or even journalistic interest. It’s just that I simply don’t care. My fight with Mrs Thatcher was over long ago. It started in the sixth form of school, and raged through university when I marched against apartheid (she regarded the ANC as a terrorist organization) and her government’s homophobic Section 28.  I yelled ‘Maggie Maggie Maggie, Out Out Out!” when required, and stood quietly at the silent vigil that persuaded Oxford Dons to refuse her an honorary degree.  I did my bit as I saw it at the time. (My views have since benefitted from perspective: I remember what came before – and after.)

So forgive me, but my emotions are long since spent where the Iron Lady is concerned.

The former docker felt the same. “Don’t get me wrong, I hated her,” he said. “But that’s the past, what’s the point of going over it all now?” We agreed it was time to move on and talk about today. The bedroom tax (“not a tax, a benefit cut,” he corrected me). Unemployment – still higher than the national average in Liverpool despite regeneration that has physically transformed the city since I last visited nearly 30 years ago.

“Get rid of the current government,” my new friend said, adding with a disconcerting glare, “the whole lot of them.”

Not that he was a fan of Labour’s Ed Miliband. “Why isn’t he fighting?” he asked. “He should be shouting about what’s happening.” This ex-docker was getting dangerously deep inside my brain. I shook his hand and left.

Less than a mile away, in the vast neo-classical elegance of St George’s Hall, I found a tea dance in full flow. tea dance in St George's Hall Liverpool Couples waltzed and tangoed in a magnificent ballroom, with statues of great Victorians lining the walls. For decades this grand public building, once home to the courts, lay abandoned and decaying. A symbol of a city that, as Mrs Thatcher’s Chancellor advised her,  should be left to “managed decline”.

St George’s was brought back to life with a huge injection of lottery funds. Much of the rest of the city centre got up off its knees with government money leading the way. In 2008, Liverpool’s tenure as European Capital of Culture was a stunning success. Millions of visitors came, though one of the tea-dancers complained to me that “down south”, Liverpool didn’t get the credit it deserved.

But it survived, and according to residents is a better place to live now than before 2008. Maybe that’s another reason my ex-docker could let Margaret Thatcher go in peace.

As for me, I made a peace of sorts a couple of years ago when walking on a Saturday afternoon through one of the Inns of Court in Central London. There wasn’t a soul around. A car pulled up and a driver helped a beautifully turned out but frail old lady to her feet. Having gained her balance she instinctively looked around and seeing her public (my husband and me) smiled warmly and waved. I admit I was impressed and didn’t hesitate for a second.

I waved and smiled equally warmly at Mrs T.

Labour isn’t working (hard enough)

Whittington hospital cuts rallyRising youth unemployment, impending triple-dip recession, falling standards of living, the severely disabled stripped of dignity by disproportionate cuts to their allowances.  I could go on, for the list of this Tory-led government’s crimes is long.

Meanwhile, Labour is doing its very best to make sure I don’t vote for them.

Take our local council by-election, an excellent example of how not to campaign. Starting with the Labour candidate coming round to deliver, in person, campaign literature addressed to my husband.

Having made clear that I too would be voting and was interested in local issues, I thought she might at least have taken a note of my name.

She didn’t, and a week later another knock on the door heralded another Labour canvasser – with campaign literature addressed to my husband.

The canvasser looked wounded when I questioned Labour’s obsessive interest in communicating only with the man of the house. Off he scuttled without explanation – or a shred of interest in my vote.  I’ve heard nothing since.

Okay, my husband might (depending his mood) have expressed sympathy for Labour when canvassed in the past.  But the local Labour machine is ignoring something the most junior intern on an Obama campaign could tell you: turning out the base is important, but it’s attracting independent or floating voters that wins elections.

In other words, why wasn’t I wooed?

Next problem:  the message. The main one, front and centre in the first of those Labour letters to my husband, was disingenuous – at best.

The big issue locally is proposed cuts to beds and services at the nearby Whittington Hospital.Whittington Hospital Campaign

Or, as Labour puts it, the “Tory-led government’s threat to our hospital.”

It’s a charge they repeat in all their literature and interviews, never missing an opportunity to link “Tory-led” with what’s happening at the hospital.  A leading Labour councilor has even asked the health secretary to come to the borough to explain “how these cuts can be justified.”

But they’re not his cuts to explain.

The plans, which include selling off buildings, closing wards, cutting jobs and capping the number of births at the hospital, were made by the Whittington Hospital’s own, independent board. It needs to save £17 million in order to qualify for Foundation Trust status in a year’s time.

It’s true, the Tories are forcing all hospitals to become Foundations – which have greater autonomy than ordinary hospitals – by April 2014.  But who invented the Foundation concept in the first place?  Labour under Tony Blair.

One can argue about whether Foundation Trusts are a good or bad thing – and the Labour Party did, bitterly, when they introduced them in 2002.  But there is no arguing about the appallingly cack-handed way the Whittington Hospital devised and announced the cuts.

They made no effort to explain changes in health care delivery they believe will see far more people treated outside hospitals.  They didn’t discuss the benefits of getting rid of dilapidated old buildings, some of which haven’t been used for years.  Nobody in the community was consulted about any of it.

No wonder there’s been uproar and near universal condemnation.  And the local Labour party has jumped on the uproar bandwagon.

But a bandwagon is not a vision, especially when it’s not accompanied by any obvious alternative plan.  It’s a cheap gimmick that allows the party to side-step more complex problems.

This is mirrored nationally where Labour is having a “policy review.”  There’s nothing wrong with a bit of a think.  But the next election is only two years away. Surely by now the opposition party’s review should have moved beyond what the man leading the review calls “the first phase”?  The details of what Labour would do in government aren’t expected until late 2014.

They need to get a move on.

Labour was never expected to win the Eastleigh by-election last month (they came fourth). But given the unpopularity of the government, surely Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition should have picked up a bit of the protest vote?  But no, Labour’s share of the vote increased by a paltry 0.2 percent over 2010.

As Dan Hodges wrote about Eastleigh, Labour leader Ed Miliband has been concentrating on “earning the support and trust of his party.” Sure, its important for the party to feel better about itself.  But Hodges is right when he says the new-found spring in the steps of the faithful “isn’t translating into enthusiasm amongst the voters.”

And it won’t until Labour’s leadership gives its troops the ammunition with which to engage.  The Tories, with Lib Dems in tow, are wreaking havoc.  Labour must come out and fight.

That includes on my doorstep.

No more phony wars against easy targets like local hospital cuts – probably the only reduction in services around here for which the Conservatives alone can’t be blamed.

I asked the Labour Council candidate why there was no mention of the bedroom tax and other welfare cuts that’ll certainly affect residents of this borough, in her campaign.

“Ah,” she said, “watch this space.”

Two weeks later, I’m still watching.

 

Delusions of Empire

Honouring the Queen in the Turks and CaicosAll Empires like to think their colonial subjects love them.

Which is why the undying devotion of the Falkland Islanders is so satisfying for the British.

But it’s also dangerous. It helps us maintain the myth of benevolent motherland and grateful locals. And that in turn means we’ve convinced ourselves that Empire – and what now remains of it – is no bad thing.

For the Falkland Islanders, that may be true. Thirty years ago, they suffered Argentina’s sudden invasion and the trauma of the war that forced the invaders out.

The renewed (and remarkably bellicose) claims of sovereignty coming from Buenos Aires must be unnerving – hence the referendum underway right now. Islanders are being asked if they want to remain as a British Overseas Territory.

There’s no doubt at all that the overwhelming answer will be yes.

There’s no doubt either that many in Britain will view the result of this essentially anti-Argie vote as an affirmation of the UK’s good relations with the last scraps of Empire.

That would be a big mistake. There are 14 Overseas Territories (essentially colonies but with varying degrees of local autonomy). The Falklands is one of the smallest. And thanks largely to that constant Argentine threat, its rapport with Britain is unique.

In most of the others, the relationship is far more complex and uncomfortable.

We send them funds, grudgingly for the most part. But until recently, nobody in London was very interested in how they conducted their affairs. The attitude was that they should be grateful for British Citizenship and should get on with learning to look after themselves.

Except they didn’t. Take for example, the revelations of child sex abuse in tiny Pitcairn that affected almost every family and had been going on in some cases for 40 years.

Then there was the spectacular collapse of the Turks and Caicos Islands (see previous post). For years, residents of these Caribbean islands begged London to step in and do something, as government ministers allegedly sold off crown land to developer friends, renting private jets and building luxury homes with the proceeds.

It happened right under the nose of the British governor. Yet London said it had no evidence of wrongdoing and turned a blind eye.

Eventually (under pressure from Parliament and the global economic crash) the Foreign Office had to step in, sack the local officials and run the place directly. Initially pleased, the Islanders were soon accusing the new governor of ruling with a very heavy hand.

Then last November, after three years of direct rule from London, the Turks and Caicos Islanders were allowed to elect their own representatives again. Local government was restored. But rows with the Governor (who has a veto over all important decisions) have continued.

It’s a sign of a new, more paternalistic approach from a Tory government far less embarrassed by Empire than its Labour predecessor.

But the newly elected premier warned recently of “chaos” in the Islands if the relationship  doesn’t improve.

Meanwhile there’s trouble in the wealthy tax haven of the Cayman Islands.

Late last year, the Premier was arrested on suspicion of corruption and forced to resign. He denies the allegations and says he’s the victim of a witch-hunt – led by the British governor. The two men had been at loggerheads over economic policy.

In all the Caribbean territories (except for poor Montserrat, devastated by a volcano and totally dependent on British aid) there are sporadic calls for independence.

They won’t get very far – yet. The islands are too small and the benefits of UK citizenship too great.

But the affection for Britain is nowhere near as strong as we like to think.

Nor are the cultural links. In the Turks and Caicos they drive on the left as we do – but in cars that are all imported from the US.  Everyone’s steering wheel is on the wrong side.

Residents go for medical treatment in Florida. Many have dual US citizenship. The accents are American-tinged. The TV the kids watch, the music they listen to and the food they eat is all from North America.

There’s a picture of the Queen in the airport arrivals hall, and plaques marking her various jubilees. But there’s also a growing Haitian migrant population (now far outnumbering the native islanders). In truth, there’s little about the islands or their people that feels British at all.

But you don’t hear much about that in the UK.

We like news of flag waving by people who look and sound like us. More English than the English with undying loyalty to the Crown – the Falklands, in other words. (How else to explain the dozens of journalists now in the Islands to cover a referendum whose result was known long before the first vote was cast?)

We don’t want to be reminded that many of our remaining territories are inhabited by black or brown people, who resent being told what to do by white men sent from London. Just as they have for hundreds of years.

 

 

Don’t mention the C word

How should we deal with our remnants of Empire?

Some (the Falklands, Gibraltar) cling to us, more British than Britain, terrified of the alien nations next door.

Others grudgingly accept our existence (and our financial help) when they need it but feel little real affection for the UK – especially when we start bossing them around.

That’s the case today in the Turks and Caicos Islands, where I recently watched the very British governor open a new radar station as a choir of local school children sang “God Save the Queen.”

The Turks and Caicos are a string of flat, rocky islands atop stunning reefs in the Caribbean. The white sand beaches run for miles, the sea is warm, calm and crystal clear.

But the politics are a lot murkier.

The islands, one of 14 British Overseas Territories,  have been plagued by jaw-dropping corruption allegations and chronic mismanagement for years.  Though London knew of the wheeling and dealing that was plundering local resources and, allegedly, making certain officials (and foreign developers) very rich indeed, nobody did anything about it. (It was the same when I drew attention to serious human rights abuses there for a 2002 BBC documentary. The Foreign Office refused my repeated requests for an interview.)

Eventually the pleas of the local residents (and the collapse of the economy) couldn’t be ignored. An inquiry was set up and stories of corruption poured forth.

In 2009, the UK had no choice but to kick out the locally elected government and take full control.  Today, the Turks and Caicos are a proper old fashioned colony run by the Governor sent from London, supported by advisory bodies hand-picked by him.

The islanders, including some of those who screamed “Do something!” at London, don’t like it very much.

“They can’t just come in when it suits them and rule with an iron fist,” a young tourist guide tells me.

“They came in thinking everyone here is corrupt” grumbles an older businessman in the sleepy capital Grand Turk.

Certain people arrived “with a Big Stick approach” says a leading politician (in a thinly disguised attack on the current Governor). And so on.

Their grievances are many and varied. From complaints about the length of time it’s taken to bring alleged miscreants to court (trials start later this year) to the slowness in producing an economic plan to revive the islands. They were whacked in 2008 not just by the mess of their own leadership’s creation but also by the global economic crash and a direct hit from a Hurricane.

“There’s no hope on the horizon,” says the Grand Turk businessman, “nothing to tell us things are going to get better”.

Instead, islanders complain, what they’re getting is a very unpopular (and possibly unworkable) Value Added Tax and an even more hated European Union-standard Equalities Law which, rumour has it, will force recognition of same-sex marriage in this very conservative Christian territory (it won’t).

Plus, of course, many long overdue rules and regulations aimed at cleaning up politics, which were viciously cliquey and nepotistic long before the serious corruption appeared. In fact the entire public sector is being reformed and independent institutions given more clout.

The Governor says his administration does consult widely. That people always grumble about government and it just so happens that here, the government is him.  Another official suggests that when islanders say they haven’t been consulted, what they really mean is the discussion didn’t go their way.

But it’s more than that.

Next month, elections will see the restoration of local government. The campaign is in full swing and, with little to be proud of in their own past behaviour, the political parties are rounding on the British as a common enemy.

“The British government must know there will be resistance when these parties take office,” says one candidate ominously. Another islander says that because the Governor will retain significant powers even after the election, “the politicians will get frustrated and then they’ll mobilise the masses.”

To do what though? The former premier, Michael Misick (currently on the run from an international arrest warrant) used to talk of independence. But there’s never been a formal request for it. Lets face it, who wants to give up the benefits of British citizenship? Plus they all know investors gain confidence when they arrive in the hot, scruffy airport and see a picture of the Queen.

Local politicians talk of “personalities,” of how given the right type of Governor they could all get along just fine.  I think what they mean is the type who – with a neglectful London’s connivance – will turn a blind eye to some shameful goings on.

And what’s in it for Britain?  Nothing. We don’t want the Turks and Caicos Islands. We did once, centuries ago when they were the centre of Caribbean salt production. But that industry is long dead. Now there are just beaches filled with sun-seeking condo owners – mostly from Canada and the US.

We have been hopeless at helping the islands develop democratically, unable or unwilling to challenge blatantly outrageous behaviour in what one former UK official calls “a mini-failed state.” In part that’s because we’ve got a lot of problems of our own. Who’s got  the time or money for a scrap of territory in the Caribbean?

But it’s also because Britain is embarrassed by reminders of Empire. Particularly in a place where many islanders are the descendants of slaves. Our slaves.

Mr Misick used to play on that, warning his compatriots to watch what they said in front of UK officials he’d call “the enemy.” More recently, from hiding, his charges of racism have been more direct. London he said, wasn’t bothered when white expats were doing well. They only started asking questions when black islanders got their hands on Crown lands.

One should take Mr Misick’s Mugabe-esque rantings with a large pinch of the salt that used to be raked from Grand Turk’s vast salinas.

But he’s right about one thing. Call it cleaning up government and sorting out the finances if you like but there is no way around it:

There is something very uncomfortable about Britain’s pukka imperialism in this post-colonial age.

 

The not-so-Big Society

Who’s in charge of Britain these days? I don’t mean who’s in power, or who has the most MPs. I mean who is looking at the country’s complex economic and social problems and saying, “Here’s how we’re going to fix this.”

A few years ago, under Labour, the answer would have been, “The State, that’s who”.  And had a Labour government – once flush with cash – concentrated on the things the state does well, like providing good schools, health care and affordable homes, “government” might not have become a dirty word. But they couldn’t stop themselves. From ID cards to the DNA data base and an obsession with centrally mandated targets and red-tape, New Labour blew it, creating first the nanny, then the bully state and earning central control a bad name along the way.     

What then to replace it with?  The Tories agonised throughout their wilderness years, trying on new mantras like Ascot hats. Then in came Compassionate Conservatism . As defined by leading Tory thinker, now MP Jesse Norman, it’s a conservatism which “acknowledges the power of the state but insists on its limitations”. The Big Society was David Cameron’s riff on the same theme, a concept so vague it’s been relaunched at least 3 times.

In reality what we’re getting is an increasingly fragmented state. Not a Big Society so much as an atomised one. It’s not that power and responsibility have been de-centralised so much as they’ve been allowed to drift quietly away. Overall public spending cuts are decided in Whitehall but the dirty work, where to cut and how deep, is passed on to others. Take local authorities: bribed by the government to freeze council taxes, most have run out of cash. Now they’re abandoning some services completely, while scaling others back and handing them over to the charitable sector to do on the cheap.  

Camden for example has the full range of social and economic problems you’d expect in an inner London borough. But due to the budget crisis, it’s scrapping universal access to breakfast and after-school clubs, and to holiday play schemes. Some will close completely. Others will be run by “community providers” (charities) who’ll offer “a service for those children who most need help” (those already being helped by social services) and a few subsidised places for children of the working poor. It won’t be many,  for it can’t be – the charities are doing this for a measly one third of what the council used to spend on kids. What’s the result likely to be? According to a study Camden commissioned last year from the Daycare Trust, 95% of parents who use the play service are working or studying.  Paying more for childcare or not being able to access it, “is likely to push some lower income families out of the labour market and into poverty.” 

Of course, everyone has their axe-swinging budget tale of woe. But how does cutting any service for children sit with this government’s avowed aims of improving social mobility and educational achievement? Children from poor backgrounds do significantly worse in school than their peers from better off homes.   Children who do badly at school don’t get jobs – and so on. Surely it would be impossible to even contemplate cuts that reduce a child’s chances of future success if somebody were actually in charge?

And what about the charities the Tories want to hand responsibility to?  Which ones, and coordinated by who? There are literally thousands of them (a quick Google of those for disabled children alone brings up 235). To whom should they offer their services? To local authorities certainly, but their powers are diminishing – especially when it comes to schools. First academies, now free schools have spun off into isolated little worlds.  Michael Gove doesn’t really want local authorities to have any substantial role. All schools now have more control over their own budgets, but at the same time they have to buy in many more of the services once provided by the councils – and they have to do it on their own.  

And so it goes on. Take health, where thanks to recent reforms, different private companies will provide services in different counties. First up, NHS children’s services in Devon. Virgin and Serco are bidding for that contract. Look out for a hospital near you being handed over to companies that transport prisoners and run trains. As for who’s in charge –the architect of the reforms, Andrew Lansley, tried his best to make sure it wouldn’t be him. The original health reform bill removed the duty of the Secretary of State to provide health services at all, allowing the government to sidestep blame for any failings in the NHS. After an outcry (and pressure from the Lib Dems) that was scrapped, but the thinking behind it illustrates this new Tory laissez-faire gone wild. 

Thus the Big Society takes shape. Fragmented, chaotic, everyone scrabbling for their place while the state sits back, shunning responsibility and dodging the blame. This is not an argument in favour of Labour’s control freakery or against private and 3rd sector involvement in public services.  But someone needs to join the dots and come up with a plan that isn’t just about tackling the debt and which builds rather than destroys. That’s what government is for.

Come to think of it, that suggests an anti-Tory slogan for Labour at the next election: “Why vote for a government that doesn’t believe in government at all?”