Wednesday, 26 July 2017


From the Daily Mash:
THE middle classes have confirmed that they do not eat takeaways, even when buying food at an establishment and removing it to consume elsewhere.

Responding to concerns that the increase in fast food shops is fuelling an obesity epidemic, middle class people have explained that the Thai, Korean and street food outlets near them are different because they are fancier.
Almost the entirety of government obesity strategy and all of that from campaign groups is predicated on food snobbery. Nasty, smelly stuff that poor people eat is bad for them. Interesting, diverse stuff we eat isn't.


Writing elsewhere - on Bradford city centre

Guest blogging at Bradford Civic Society - here's a flavour:
The big question on my mind then, as it is now, is what’s Bradford’s problem? We can look at old photographs from the 1960s and 1970s showing a bustling, busy town filled with shops and shoppers. Talk to people who remember those times and they’ll reel off the shops that once were and are no more – Busby’s, Carter’s, Brown & Muff – and explain how all this was destroyed by a rapacious, greedy council run by useless councillors. I’ve a feeling that all this is, at least in part, meant to exonerate us residents for giving up on the city centre – deserting those shops for other places out-of-town, on-line and even, horror of horrors, Leeds.

Some people will tell you that Stanley Wardley’s dastardly plans for the city are to blame. “All the good stuff was knocked down,” folk will exclaim, “the Swan Arcade, Mechanics Institute, Kirkgate Market Hall – and look at the Odeon.” But is this really so? Did Bad Stan really kill the city or is this just another way of dodging the truth about us, the City’s residents? Go back to those photographs from the 1970s – the busy Arndale centre filled with shops, the old Broadway likewise. Was is really bad architecture and half a ring road that did for Bradford city centre or was it something else?
Do go and read.


Saturday, 22 July 2017

"They can pay more for their food" - Jay Rayner meets Marie-Antoinette

I'm going to leave aside accusations of vanity, self-promotion and smugness because we are all guilty of such vices. I'm going to focus instead on the vexed question of whether it is ever morally defensible to argue that governments should enact policies people should pay more for something as fundamental as the food we eat.

Here's the argument:
British consumers have become too used to food being sold too cheaply. In an age of austerity when many are struggling it is a tricky argument to make, but the fact remains. We need an agriculture sector in a position to invest in its base to help improve our productivity and therefore our self-sufficiency. The 10% of income (down from 20% in 1970) that we spend on food does not enable that. Many may find this unpalatable but the fact is this: unless we improve our self-sufficiency, we will be at the complete mercies of those international markets. Unless we pay a little more now, we risk paying vastly more later. This is an argument that farmers, retailers and the Government needs to engage with.
This is the core of an argument made by food writer, Jay Rayner, as a sort of cod justification for refusing to give the benefit of his knowledge and expertise to the UK Government. Now I know most people think Rayner's article is about the unfolding terrors of Brexit but it isn't, it's about how Rayner thinks the UK (note the UK not Europe or the EU) needs to be more self-sufficient in its production of food because lots of terrible things might happen if we're not - most of which, surprisingly, is about food prices:
...the UK sits with dwindling self-sufficiency, in a stormy world in which food has become one of the great economic battlegrounds. Added to that is the appalling folly of Brexit, forced through by a cabal of ideologues happy to trot out falsehoods about the sunny uplands of economic joy that leaving the European Union would bring.

Instead it has resulted in a devaluation of the pound, making imports more expensive and the exporting of our food more attractive.

If, as many fear, a bad deal is done for Britain resulting in huge tariffs and penalties on trade, food price inflation is going to be in double digits for years to come. That’s if we can get hold of food at all. The people who will suffer the most, of course, are those who already have the least. For them the buying of food will use up a massive proportion of their expendable income.
Now there are a few things here that do rather matter with the first being the presumption that a UK government would impose "huge tariffs and penalties" on trade in food. And, given that this would be necessary to have the policy he wants of greater self-sufficiency, why he has such a problem with such impositions? Or, to put the question a different way, how does Rayner propose to increase the proportion of UK food consumption produced in the UK? And wouldn't this be completely impossible if we remained a member of the EU?

To give Rayner his due, he refuses to wholly embrace the 'supermarkets are totally evil' line used by many of those supporting his mission of expensive food. Rayner also slaps down the urban growing fad:
They are interesting educationally. Allotments are good for mental wellbeing and general fitness. But the carbon footprint of the food produced tends to be appalling.
The problem is that, in criticising localism, Rayner undermines the basis for his argument on food production and self-sufficiency. not be fooled by environmental arguments around localism. What matters most when judging environmental impact of food production is the full life cycle: you need to look at the carbon (and other inputs) not just of the trucks getting produce from field to fork, but in the farm buildings and machinery, the fertilisers and the workforce.
It's hard to find a more compelling argument for international free trade in agriculture than this one. A world where food is grown in the place most suited to its production rather in a less fertile location just across the road. If food miles aren't the problem (Rayner cites transport costs as 2% to 4% of total food cost) then what are the arguments for self-sufficiency at any level below the whole world?

It seems to me that Rayner, if he is to make his argument for remaining in the EU, has to recognise that the shared competence on agriculture needs to be viewed at the level of the whole union not individual member countries. And just so we're clear what this means:
It turns out that the EU is not self-sufficient in terms of all the nutrients normally locked in agricultural products and principally available for different usages: The respective self-sufficiency ratio is only 91 per cent.
I hate to make Rayner's pro-remain argument better than he does but being 91% self-sufficient in food is better than being less than 50% self-sufficient in food - and this is without any change at all to our current approach on food prices. Rayner makes a localised and protectionist argument (one that, incidentally couldn't be achieved if we stayed in the EU) focusing solely on UK food production rather than EU food production within a single market.

Rayner doesn't set out how his proposal to increase food prices, perhaps even to double those food prices will be achieved. It seems from his article that the model is essentially to dramatically reduce the area under production through environmental regulation and, therefore, to increase the costs to UK farmers. Obviously such a policy can only be achieved if two things are done: huge tariffs amounting to de facto import bans on foods that can only be produced expensively in the UK and the introduction of VAT on food so as to fund, in part, the subsidies necessary to sustain newly uneconomic farm businesses. And, to be blunt, no government is going to get away with imposing a huge tax on food, so the only way to deliver Rayner's policy is through preventing (or at best, severely restricting) imports of food. Fans of the corn laws will be delighted!

It shouldn't surprise us that Rayner doesn't get to the financial and economic logic of his argument (preferring instead horror stories about horsemeat and vague suggestions that the European Food Safety Agency, EFSA, regime would be scrapped) because it makes almost no sense at all. Not only does the logic of his argument about the EU tell us we are already more-or-less self-sufficient but also that doubling food prices has to involve a massive tax hike on food.

To return to where we started - is it morally justified to argue for government action to hugely increase food prices? For my part, I don't think it is an ethically defensible argument. Food is essential (and especially the basic nutrients Rayner considers when he talks of the 2007/8 food price spike) and government should prioritise policies that reduce prices such as relaxing planning rules to allow more efficient supermarkets. Rayner, like Tim Lang, the lefty food policy wonk of choice, fails entirely to see that the very people who lose under their policies are the poorest. And to suggest otherwise as Rayner does, is to propagate a terrible misrepresentation - the massive hike in prices his policies demands can only reduce the quality of life for millions of families in Britain. I'll be OK, Jay Rayner will be OK, but the poorest and most vulnerable in our society won't be OK.


Saturday, 15 July 2017

"It starts with what you can see from your doorstep" - thoughts on conservatism

Conservatives don't spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a conservative. After all politics is boring, political philosophy doubly boring. So we don't spend hours discussing the nuance of our ideology, preferring instead to talk about the garden, the football or the state of the gulleys on Bingley Road.

The problem with us conservatives not thinking much about conservatism is that others decide to do it for us. And they really don't get it at all. A thoughtful consideration of conservatism get replaced by a set of negative stereotypes depending on who is doing the defining.

To our right we get faux-conservatives who pretend that they're the only real conservatives. Everyone but them are 'cucks', 'conservatives in name only' or, worst of all 'liberals'. The true conservatism for these people is a sort of warmed over nationalism peppered (or even pepe-ed) with sub-literate on-line memes and old-fashioned racist tropes.

To our left are a bunch of folk who range from considering us sad thickos to really, genuinely hating us. No chance of a positive press here, we're greedy, uncaring, elitist and even murderous. Conservatism is a bloated, red-faced man in a pin-stripe suit.

As conservatives we've allowed these oppositional stereotypes to dominate people's understanding of the ideology (insofar as it is an ideology - but more of that later) because we spend almost no time considering what we do believe and, more importantly, what conservatism means to the millions of people who simply toddle along to the church hall and vote for us.

Conservatism is ill-defined - it's felt rather than analysed, emotional rather than intellectual. Unlike the left there is no ur-text, no 'Capital' that provides a bedrock of religious certainty to ideological discussion. We have a set of populist aphorisms - 'hand up not a hand out', 'people who do the right things', 'choice and opportunity' - but these don't help except as a set of clues to what we believe.

The advantage, of course, with all this is we can, like the Red Queen, believe almost anything if we try hard enough. This is the problem that some absolutist free marketers (and those Pepe-loving nationalists) have with conservatism - it doesn't preclude a role for the state or assume that there is some perfect model of government that, if introduced, will lead us to the Fields of Elysium.

The disadvantage with the lack of that ur-text or even a recognised corpus of accessible conservative thinking is that there's no obvious ideological filter through which to assess policy. Conservatives literally wing-it much of the time at least in ideological terms. When people speak of some sort of conservative ideological mission they largely miss the point - it's mostly this is what we do not a case of this is what we believe.

As a starting point in understanding conservatism let me say that emotional meaning is more significant than philosophy, at least in its role as an ideological source. Place, people and values matter more to conservatives than the words in some book written in the 19th century. Where there are central texts to liberalism and socialism, there is no source book for conservatism - we can't get ideological reassurance from Marx or Smith or Mill.

As conservatives, however, we can take advantage of not being tied to a canon to dip into a wider range of sources, to use fiction - Austen, Trollope, Tolkein and even Disraeli - as well as philosophy. Above all though, conservatives should pay more attention to sociology than economics. Most of our problems are because we haven't done this, we've allowed ourselves to be captured by the dry logic of what Deidre McCloskey calls "Max U" - maximising utility, utilitarianism, metrics, technocracy, Plato's Philosopher Kings.

If you spend time with conservative people - and as a Conservative Party member and activist of forty years, I can say that I have done just that - you soon realise that the stuff of national debate and headlines is not the stuff of conservatism (not, as I've noted, that conservative folk spend that much time talking political philosophy). Boil it down and the core of our belief is about community, family, neighbourhood, friends - social capital, sociology. Yet we bang on as if economics is everything, dry and dusty emotionless numbers.

Because of this and because we don't think enough about what we're about, conservatives become pragmatic, technocratic and seem uncaring. If we don't ground our policy in community, family, neighbourhood and home, we end up sounding like the young man with the spreadsheet trying to tell the old publican why his business is dying. Or worse that it would be an improvement to close that business and turn the property into a convenience store or some flats. Apply this thinking to how we see the poor. Not benefits scroungers. Not immigrants. Not undeserving. But somebody's family. Someone's neighbour. Someone's friend.

The reverse used to be true about conservatives. The folk bothering about their neighbourhood, the town, the country were mostly conservatives. The sense of social duty and that 'we can't let things like that happen here' was what drove my grandmother and two friends to start delivering meals on wheels in the years after WWII - ferried round by the local curate who had a motor-cycle and sidecar.

In Britain, conservatism doesn't need a relaunch, we just need to literally go back to our roots as conservatives. To understand why we are what we are and to start talking about those conservative things - few of which, once we've got past thrift, have much to do with economics, at least in that Hayekian or Marxist "we've a prescription for the perfect society here in this book" sense of economics.

Firstly, everything is local. This is what matters most to people. Their family. Their friends. Their neighbours. Their community. Their place. As Kipling said:
GOD gave all men all earth to love
But since our hearts are small,
Ordained for each one spot should prove
Belovèd over all
Admitting our hearts are small is just the start - we must then be able to answer the questions people have about their school, their hospital, their road, their house, their family. It's not that people in Sevenoaks don't care about school and hospitals in Wilsden, of course they do. It's rather that those small hearts make them care much, much more about the things of their neighbourhood than they ever will about things in distant (even five milesaway) places.

Today this means giving people control of the answers to these questions, at the very least a say, a chance to hold the people running the services to account. So when we say we don't like the EU, it's not because it's evil or stupid but because it's simply too far away to understand what our neighbourhood, our community and our family needs except as numbers on a spreadsheet or a footnote in a think-tank report.

Even the local council is too far away to really understand what matters in our communities, to our families and for our neighbourhood. Yet the flattening of everything - creating Harm de Blij's 'flat earth' in the pursuit of Max U - makes that council just an outpost of the distant regime. And people know this and feel excluded. For some there's enough money to escape (or even to be an 'Anywhere' person, a 'Flat Earther') but for most people that's not an option.

If conservatives are to make a difference - and what's the point if that's not the aim - we need to stop trying to make everyone's lives better by centralised fiat. And start with making our and our neighbours lives better. Conservatives should apply that old shopkeeper's adage - 'look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves'. Look after communities - the bit you can see from your front door - and the whole of society, even the bits we can't see, benefits.

The Knight Foundation, an American charity that supports journalism and active citizenship, ran a programme called 'Soul of the Community' that showed how there is an "important and significant correlation between how attached people feel to where they live and local GDP growth" and what "most drives people to love where they live (their attachment) is their perception of aesthetics, social offerings, and openness of a place". If people love where they live, that place will succeed - it's Sam Gamgee going round The Shire planting a grain from Galadriel's garden in every corner.

For me this is the starting point for a conservative mission. We're not about grand schemes for the perfect society but rather for places that people love. I quoted Kipling's 'Sussex' above but I could equally have used Casey Bailey's 'Dear Birmingham' because it's exactly the same sentiment - I love this place for all it's flaws, mistakes and problems. It's my place.

This is where we start - with home, friends, family and the places we love. You want a conservative manifesto then it starts with how we give folk the power and the tools to turn the places they love into great places. For sure there are lots of other things about keeping people safe, about nation and stuff like that - even macroeconomics if you insist, but if we don't start with what we can see out of our front door we've missed the point.


Friday, 14 July 2017

On taking voters for granted...

Out in Ohio, in what was once Democrat heartland but ain't no more:

"Every 2 years, every 4 years, locally they'd come around and say, ‘oh, we'll fight for you and take care of you,’ and then they'd disappear. It was like an abusive relationship."

Eventually voters get fed up. And then something like Trump turns up and you lose them.


The pub, the cafe and the diner - the fraying of social capital

One of the features of society has been the shared social institution. Except this all sounds like some sort of terribly pompous concept in social anthropology. What we really mean is the sort of place that The Fureys sang about in the Red Rose Cafe:
Down at the Red Rose Cafe in the Harbour
There by the port just outside Amsterdam.
Everyone shares in the songs and the laughter.
Everyone there is so happy to be there.
Salesman, poet, dosser, docker, farmer and banker all enjoying the fact that they're sharing something - even something as mundane as a beer or a coffee. And, in a lot of places - perhaps even Amsterdam too - these 'shared social institutions' are dying out. Here's Aaron Renn on one of them - the American Diner:
But there are many other forces at work, including changes in the structure of our society. One thing the disappearance of diners illustrates is the loss of shared social infrastructure spanning across social classes.

Something I’ve always liked about diners is that they are the kinds of places that you could find people from all walk of life. There were cops and blue collar workers, college students, professionals grabbing breakfast, etc. It was the kind of institution that was broadly patronized across social groups.

These kinds of institutions are in decline. There has a been fragmentation of the shared American common culture that existed as recently as 1990 into a multiplicity of niche markets.
I touched on this when I wrote recently about the decline of rural Italy - every village with a tatty little bar at its heart serving up coffee, sweets and the occasional stiff drink. And plenty of people having been variously waxing poetic or raging with anger at the decline in the traditional English boozer. The thing here is not just that these places are going but that there are no new 'shared social institutions' replacing them, no new places that transcend barriers of class and age without it looking forced. Worse still we adopt a snobbishness about blue-collar institutions - either dismissing them as bad places, or else creating pretentious pastiches.

When McDonald's opens a new restaurant round the corner from St Peter's Square in Rome there's an outcry. I mean McDonalds - entirely the wrong aesthetic for such an iconic place. Yet the reality - as the video here reminds us - is that McDonalds is comfortable, welcoming and understood. The same goes for other places - the Pub Curmudgeon writes about those old estate pubs that only sell keg beer and what food they have comes in bags saying 'ready salted', 'salt and vinegar', and 'cheese and onion'. Not the sort of place you and I would ever go to, far too rough and common.

I've a feeling that, in places with fewer places to eat and drink, the sort of social mixing Aaron Renn sees dying in Manhattan still persists. But it's also true that richer folk have become more separated from their lower class cousins - not just the grandees who always lived a sort of sheltered life but all of what we'd call the better off:
There’s also been a gulf that has opened between the consumption and cultural practices of the upper middle class (the top 20% by education and income) and everyone else. They shop in different stores, eat in different restaurants, drink different beers...
I was in a restaurant in Shoreditch recently. Nothing too fancy just a bar-restaurant that has some live music. I joked to my wife that I was the only bloke in the place without a beard. I could also have said that I was the only bloke there over 50. Yet I'm pretty sure that, with a little effort, I could travel a short distance from that bar and find a pub where the reverse would be true - instead of well-off middle class thirtysomethings, I'd find poorer working class fifty- and sixtysomethings.

The problem for that traditional pub is that the agenda - social, political and cultural - is not being set by its customers. The agenda is set by that top 20% Renn refers too - a set of folk who are excited by trendy artisanship when it's done by their mates but not at all excited by the possibility of visiting the sort of place where those working-class folk are going (as an aside, the achievement of McDonalds has been to get beyond this class division despite the best efforts of food snobs to stop them). We tut a little at Wetherspoons, dismiss Pizza Express, and wouldn't be seen dead in one of those steakhouse type places run by regional breweries. But these places - chain restaurants and the like - work.

Does all this matter? And even if it does matter, do we care enough to do something about it? After all there's a little bit of romanticism in the idea of lords and peasants sitting down together sharing a foaming pint of ale. Those shared social institutions didn't remove class barriers but rather they permitted a little bit of understanding to trickle in either direction. And the traditional pub, those Italian cafes and many other such places were the haunts of men with the only women serving beer or filling up coffee cups. This probably isn't true of the American diner but even there we see a sort of rosy folk memory derived from old movies and TV shows more than from the reality (a lot of poor quality food served badly in a dirty environment).

What does matter, however, is that we think a little more about spaces and places where we're able to share something with whoever else is there. And that - like the pub, the diner and the cafe - those places contain the part of our culture that we all share. I've a feeling that those campaigns to save pubs are as much driven by that folk memory, the idea of the pub as the beating heart of a community, than by the reality of the pub being saved - a myriad of Vics, Rovers Returns and Woolpacks where the neighbourhood's shared events are mulled over, debated and laughed about.

There's a tendency to consider that bringing communities together requires some sort of publicly-owned place, yet the reality of cafes, diners and pubs is that they served this role (at least in part) while being straightforward for-profit businesses - and none the worse for all that. And a further tendency - I suspect Aaron Renn falls into this trap in his focus on Manhattan - for us to see the lack of social capital in densely populated cities as somehow the norm when, once we get out into suburbia, this starts to change to the point when we reach the exurbs of small towns and villages as see those very institutions we thought were dying actually thriving.

Yet again the thing that is driving the collapse of these social institutions, that is fracturing brittle social capital, isn't people no longer wanting these things but rather the brutal necessity of urban densification and the rejection of the suburb. Planners, designers, developers and cultural pundits see everything as a stark divide between urban and rural - it's either a city filled with breathless, high velocity living or else a bucolic rural idyll, gentle and somnolent. The death of the shared social institution is its death in the city where people quite literally don't have the time for such things and the nearest we get to such interaction is in the queue at Starbucks - assuming we're not the sort who goes to that really special coffee bar round the corner run by a bloke with a splendid beard.

If we're to have the strong society we always say we want, we need to pay heed to what these changes tell us - the decline of the pub, the cafes that close, the deserted Italian village, all send a message that the bindings of community, the relationships that make society real, are fraying. And on-line messaging, international travel and facetime don't begin to repair the tears in those bindings. We talk a great deal - or those of us in and around local government do - about how everything is local and how we need to build community. Yet the truth of our polity, culture and social approach is quite the reverse, geared to serving the economic needs of the great city rather than the lives of people in those communities.


Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Let's not let politicians get away with crying 'immoral' to justify their prejudices

It is always a worry when politicians start invoking morality in the promotion of their particular policy or prejudice. It doesn't matter much which side you're on, the objective is always to try and make out that those who support what you oppose are bad people. This applies as much to William Hague going on about the moral case for low taxation as it does to the latest piece of moralising from Labour's 'business spokesperson', Rebecca Long-Bailey:
Ms Long-Bailey told Today: "I don't personally use Uber because I don't feel that it is morally acceptable but that's not to say they can't reform their practices."

She added: "I don't want to see companies model their operations on the Uber model."
The objective here is to make you feel bad when you choose to use Uber - or, by implication, any other business using the 'gig economy' model. Obviously, Ms Long-Bailey has every right to choose the (usually) more expensive option of a hackney carriage or traditional private hire, but when she claims this makes her morally superior she is changing the argument entirely. Where we had an argument about working conditions and business models, we now have one based on making people who don't agree with Ms Long-Bailey feel bad.

Morality is a tricky area for politicians - after all arguments based on morality kept homosexuality illegal, brought in prohibition in the USA, helped keep women out of the workforce, and resulted in the unwarranted stigma of illegitimacy. In this case the appeal to morality is based on an assumption that Ms Long-Bailey knows precisely the minds and motivations of those people who drive for Uber.

The thing is that we know one thing that makes Ms Long-Bailey's argument false - no-one is forcing anyone to be an Uber driver. More to the point, the employment basis of most taxi and private hire drivers is pretty much identical to that of Uber drivers - they are self-employed. And Uber across most of the UK is licensed in the same manner as a private hire vehicle. This company is no more exploitative of its drivers than the typical Leeds, Bradford or Manchester private hire business.

What Labour and Ms Long-Bailey are saying is that it is morally wrong for a new business employing people on pretty much the same basis as the businesses it competes with to charge less money. This is about is protecting the local authority taxi monopoly and the excess rents earned by that monopoly and its employees - this is not about morality but about competition and the desire to protect one section of the market. All at the expense of the consumer - you and me.

Labour are entitled to make the argument for this protectionism using grounds such as safety, tradition, market stability and so forth. I think these sorts of arguments are wrong but that's an opinion. What is wrong here is that Ms Long-Bailey wants to make out that my opposition to her position on the technological disruption of public transport is somehow immoral. It clearly isn't.

This approach represents an unhealthy trend in recent left wing politics. It used to be the conservative right that would invoke morality as justification for policy but today we find this moral imperative used by socialists like Ms Long-Bailey. Whether it's the defence industry, disruptive digital technology, online distribution or Brexit, elements of the left turn quickly to an argument based on morals. We see this starkly with Ms Long-Bailey's unjustified attack on Uber but it's familiar to those who've witnessed arguments for 'ethical' procurement or investment, arguments based not on a real moral code but on the translation of political credo into an ethical platform. If I oppose 'Fairtrade', fossil fuel disinvestment or bans on tobacco advertising then I am a bad person because such policies are 'ethical' - opposing them makes me, in effect 'unethical'.

We need to start kicking back. Using Uber is not immoral, the 'gig economy' business model is not unethical, and to say so is to corrupt the meaning of ethics and morality by twisting it to serve a political ideology. Ms Long-Bailey's argument cannot be allowed to stand there without challenge, to become the presumed truth about self-employment in the UK because it is simply not true that it is immoral to use Uber, it misrepresents the business model and rather insults the folk who earn a decent crust driving for that company.