Saturday, 24 March 2012

How to curb binge-drinking...

There have been discussions about the minimum pricing of alcohol for years in the UK. In 2010, the Scottish government brought forward legislation but it didn’t find a majority in the Scottish Parliament. Alex Salmond’s administration has recently resuscitated it and this time it may get on the statute book in Scotland. 
While the Westminster government (which legislates for England and Wales in this area) has been reluctant to stride into this field of social engineering, yesterday it proposed legislation to the effect of forcing retailers to price every unit of alcohol at 40 pence or more. 
The government says that it has been persuaded by a close examination of the harm and the social costs that binge drinking causes in the UK. However not even the coalition government can deny that minimum pricing of alcohol is a measure targeted at preventing poor people from drinking. The reason is simple: at 40 pence per unit of alcohol, no up market drinks which are usually consumed by middle class people such as wine and expensive spirits are affected. Retailers would only be obligated to increase the price of alcohol in the lowest category of prices, which are traditionally cider and cheap beer. Many of those come as ‘special offers’ in six packs or larger.
While the argument about harm reduction is widely accepted, there are serious flaws with this proposal. One is of course that it targets a particular population group, which smacks of a revival of patronising ‘temperance’ ideas. 
The temperance movement was animated by the belief that alcoholism is a problem of the poor, which has always run counter to any evidence. Consumption of wine amongst the well-off contributes to significant health risks and NHS costs every year as previous campaigns of the government targeting this group testify. 
But there are other questionable assumptions that inspire this legislation. An important aspect seems to be that governments and scientists are not agreed on the causes of drunken behaviour. If, as often claimed, it is the amount of alcohol consumed then the evidence is contradictory. On average Germans consume more alcohol than Brits but German cities are not (generally) blighted by the sort of conduct we see in British city centres every weekend. So if it is not the amount of alcohol consumed that causes this problem, what is it? 
There is one observation that is often made by foreigners in Britain which may be a clue. People coming to the UK and enter a pub often note that punters in this country have to stand when drinking. I don’t remember a single pub in Berlin in which people would stand. 
Drinking alcohol while standing has several effects. First, it pressures people to drink up quick. But second it fosters an atmosphere of restlessness as the alcohol rushes into the blood stream. Forcing pubs to provide seating for every customer may sound like a small step but may be far more effective to enforce civility in the UK’s drinking culture than to ‘force’ the drinks industry to make more profit, which incidentally this new legislation does. 
In this context, it may come as no surprise that any increase in the price of alcohol has another beneficiary: the treasury which will gain through increased duty. Changing the drinking culture by forcing pubs to provide sufficient space for seats may be difficult, asking it to raise prices to make more money may just be the fortunate confluence of interests policy makers have been looking for in this area. Yet as so often, the easy things is not the necessarily the best thing to do. So if the government will get this legislation through binge drinking will remain a deplorable feature of British inner cities. I bet you a guinness!

A right to kill in self-defence?

The American networks are currently running the tragic story of the death of Treyvon Martin, a young boy who was shot dead by a neighbourhood watch guard on 26th February this year. The teen was walking home after buying some skittles and an icetea in the local shop as he was trailed, stopped and eventually shot dead by the guard. The guard claimed self-defense. The teen was unarmed. 
Yet the local police department says it cannot arrest the guard since under the Florida Law it is sufficient for somebody to claim that he or she feels threatened in order to use their gun. Apart from the odious racial undertones of the killing, it is the legal aspect that brings the British notion of common sense into sharp relief. 
The Florida Law is clear that the threshold for the use of a weapon in self-defence is 'the perception of being threatened'. This effectively privileges the perspective of the person who claims to act in self-defence, regardless whether or not any reasonable grounds of self-defence actually existed. As the original proposer for the law in the Florida Senate has made clear, he thinks that the law does not permit people to pursue, confront and kill. In other words, the local police department had sufficient grounds to investigate the killing and possibly to charge the guard with murder. 
However the intricacies of the law, this isn't the first time that the Florida law has highlighted the difficulty with self-defence legislation in the US. Last year a father was shot dead in a playground after being being confronted by a passer-by who started an argument. The passer-by claimed that he felt threatened by the father. The mistake of the father: having talked back. Needless to say that the father was black, while the killer was white. Americans are rarely far from racial controversies. 
Yet, although the racial dimension makes this law of 'standing our ground' controversial, it is the privileging in the law of 'perceptions' of one party that strikes one as odd. The police said that they had no reason not to believe that the killer felt threatened by his victim. This represents a fundamental legal change from centuries of juridical tradition: it dispenses with the duty of courts to deliberate on the correct version of events. 
In effect, if there are no eye witnesses, the Florida Law would stipulate in this interpretation that claiming self-defence is sufficient to have immunity for action. It seems fair to say that, whatever the merits of the latest development in the case, the Florida Law represents a strange over-emphasis of the rights of people versus their obligations not to aggravate situations. The sole stress on rights at the expense of personal responsibilities in any given situation must surely run counter to the need for mutual understanding and respect. 
The current campaign to bring the killer of Treyvon Martin to justice stresses that Treyvon was denied the right to live. That may be correct. But if we construe social encounters of strangers as a recognition of rights only, we fail to realise that living together with others in communities is about responsibilities just as much as it is about rights. One of those responsibilities may be to avoid harm to others and social confrontation. There is no fast rule about this, and no law will enshrine this; it is one of those resources of social life that are hard to codify: we conventionally call it civility. 

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

What's rail privatisation got to do with the NHS?

With the health and social care bill going through parliament, some commentators have likened the changes in the NHS with the privatisation of the railways under John Major in 1993. Besides the strange logic of this analogy, the argument put forward for the privatisation of the railways made much about railways competing for customers (or passengers) and this argument is now widely regarded as lost. So why can railways not compete against each other? And if this is so, is the privatisation of any public service bound to fail? 
The main case against railway competition rests on a specific understanding of the nature of the service offered and the way in which it is consumed. Railways require the use of tracks and hence, where they compete for passengers, they must use the same resource. Since they cannot use the same track simultaneously, competition can only occur where people are on non-essential journeys. This narrows the chances for genuine competition between railway operators significantly. No passenger commuting for work between Bristol and London can effectively delay her journey until the next train arrives which may be cheaper. 
But the issue on which competition between railways really falls down is price. Railways gain the approval to run trains on particular lines through franchises which are granted by the government. Nothing stops the government to grant two or more licenses for the same line in certain areas, say between Birmingham and London. Theoretically, train operators could compete for passengers by offering lower prices than any other providers for this section of the line. Why dont they? 
There are lines where two independent rail companies do operate services, London Victoria to Gatwick Airport is one of them. Now franchises explicitly prohibit railways to cross-finance operating costs, so they cannot, say run a line between London and Birmingham on a profit and transfer the profits of this line to offer prices below operating costs on another line. This means that bidding wars (such as the Murdoch price wars in the British press in the 1990s) are ruled out. 
Yet the railway system is also set up in such a way that even genuine price competition between operators on the same lines do not translate into lower fares. The Gatwick line is a good example. Despite the choice passengers have between two different train companies, both only offer (roughly) similar prices for the same route and distance, which are incidentally higher than for other comparable routes. Why is that? 
The reason is that choice is a blunt instrument for price competition once you do not allow providers to cross finance losses. Both operators on the Gatwick route know that passengers have no other option than to take one or the other operator. Journeys to Gatwick Airport are ‘essential journeys’ given the lack of alternative transport options. This means that, once the lowest ceiling is set through the franchise and the ban on cross-financing, both operators can safely cash in on whoever needs to get from London to Gatwick Airport (and back). 
In other words, the chances are stacked against genuine choice due to the very nature of rail transport. And so railway competition as a means to drive fare prices down is unlikely to succeed. This does not however mean that privatisation is wrong or that it would not have an effect on the costs of running railways. What the privatisation of railways did achieve in the UK is that the railways are run far more efficiently now than they used to. So, privatisation does have a positive effect, just not the one politicians often want it to have, leading to lower fares through direct competition for business. 
It is interesting that in the public debate the two things are often mixed up. Privatisation is taken to have failed since competition between train operators cannot occur to lead to lower fare prices. Yet privatisation is not just about competition, often more importantly it is about driving out inefficiencies that creep into any publicly run organisation funded through a guarantee of government funding. 
This is where the case for railway privatisation is relevant to the NHS bill. While competition on price between providers is highly unlikely to have the desired effect (of cutting health costs), running a large organisation as an efficient business drives down costs where publicly funded organisations are more likely to waste money.
Incidentally, this is what Tony Blair’s government recognised by pushing most NHS Hospitals into independent trusts that had to stay within their budget. And this is behind the recent warning of the Welsh health minister that trusts in the Welsh NHS that rake up significant losses wont be bailed out. The question is what works: wagging the finger at large public organisations or introducing effective drivers for change. I’m all for the latter. 

Monday, 19 March 2012

Should the state get involved in entrepreneurial risk sharing?

The economic crisis engendered a vibrant discussion about the best model of capitalism. British observers in particular find much at fault at the moment with the Anglo-American model of laissez-faire. Although I doubt that these purist models make much sense in the real world, there may be some milage in distinguishing between different approaches to do business. I have previously argued here that boosting manufacturing output requires a holistic approach that involves reform of the apprenticeship and vocational system, bringing Britain closer to the dual German system of vocational training in company placements. 
Will Hutton has once again contributed to this debate and spelled out some interesting thoughts about how to create a sustainable economy in the wake of the crisis of 2008. While his article makes a whole series of observations, the main point seems to be that in the UK investment risks are not sufficiently shared. Hutton argues that individual companies cannot shoulder the burden of risks anymore given the complexities of international industrial interconnectedness and volatility of financial markets.
There is much to be said for this point of view. Research and development costs have rocketed in some industries. Yet Hutton's suggestion that the state should adopt a critical role in accepting risks in the industrial and development cycle of products strikes me a odd given the latest crisis. Even 4 years after the collapse of the world economy, governments all across the world are still trying to extricate themselves from a string of disastrous involvements in the economy. 

Wasn't the indemnity that the US government provided for sub-prime mortgages peddled through firms such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac the cause of the problem? And what about the issue of moral hazard? Taking away from businesses the risks of investing in new solutions and techniques looks a lot like reducing the moral hazard in the banking sector by underwriting their debts. 
It seems to me that we should be skeptical about the long term benefits of sharing risks between business and governments in the economy. The last two decades do not provide us with the best record for governmental involvement in market economies.

East Germans dominate the top of German political system

So there you have it: two former East Germans now occupy the two highest posts the re-united Germany has to offer. Former East German pastor Joachim Gauck was elected President on Sunday with an overwhelming majority of votes of the Federal Assembly.

Although the former East Communists opposed his candidacy and put up a late opposing candidate (a West German whose claim to fame consisted in having once slapped a leading politician in the face at a public meeting), Gauck was elected with support from all other political parties.

The office of the president brings mainly ceremonial duties so speculations whether Gauck will be a critical voice to the current centre-right government are, I think, overplayed. Yet, Germans clearly wanted not just a safe pair of hands in the Castle Bellevue, the residence of the German President, but also somebody who had views and was not shy to articulate them.

If anything, this should close the chapter on the unfortunate string of candidates for this highest German office, with two presidents in a row resigning before their tenure ran out.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

What shall we do about the Rhondda?

South Wales today is dominated by the services in and around Cardiff and Newport. But that wasn’t always the case. What are large de-industrialised areas now used to be economically vibrant communities up to the 1950s: the valleys. You can detect the signs of former glory everywhere you go. It is not just the industrial landscape that hints at past prosperity, it is above all the sheer number of non-conformist church halls everywhere you look. The valley communities prospered up to the 1950s but suffered enormously as the mining industries declined. 
There is much debate about who should get the blame for the decline of coal mining in the South Wales valleys but the fact is that a whole region depended on a single industry which is never a key to sustainability and long term growth. 
The decline of mining however also brought with it the decline of communities and the statistics bear this out. The Rhondda valley is a region which offers low pay, higher than average unemployment and negative migration patterns, according to the 2006 report of the Welsh Assembly Government. 
Is this decline irreversible? Are the Rhondda bound to be a region of low economic growth where young people struggle to find a future for themselves? 
While Rhondda certainly suffered from a lack of industrial policy in the UK over the last 30 years, perhaps its decline was inevitable given that its ascent was based exclusively on a single product? Yet, paradoxically, the Rhondda is not the only region in Europe (or elsewhere) which suffered the fate of social and economic decline where industrial monocultures collapsed. The Ruhr in Germany experienced a similar period of decay in the 1980s, yet is now a region of stable growth and prosperity. 
So what went wrong in the Rhondda? I recently went up the Rhondda Valley and took the train back to Cardiff. Two things really surprised me: first how steep the hills and mountains are that frame the valley. The potential for tourism is substantial but there is practically no tourism infrastructure. The second aspect that astonished me was how close and yet how far Rhondda is from Cardiff. Close in terms of distance (as the crow flies) which makes it entirely reasonable to commute to Cardiff and back for work (as many people do). 
Yet, it surprised me how far away Rhondda is from the bustling Capital City. This impression of distance is exacerbated by extremely poor public transport. As I was sitting in a delapidated train carriage of the local railways, I struggled to think of trains that are similarly run down and slow even as far away as Bulgaria or Romania which I last visited in the 1980s. True, the railways cut through steep hills and bridge deep gorges at times, which only adds to the picturesque nature of the ride. Yet, the speed of the transport link between the valley heads and Cardiff must be on a par with steam trains of the 19th century. 
So what does this all mean for the Rhondda? There is a broad consensus amongst political parties in the Assembly that the South Wales valleys urgently need development. Yet, equally the billions of pounds that have been poured into the valleys in European aid since 1999 have had little positive effect. In fact, the figures demonstrate that the region is today poorer than before the European payments started. The money was largely used as funding for local authorities to alleviate poverty and engage in so-called development projects; but there is little to show for it. 
In addition, even among the political elite there are few concrete policy proposals. Recently the newly elected leader of Plaid Cymru Leanne Wood, when asked what she would do about the valley economies, pulled a blank. She stammered something about a new economy and people joining Plaid Cymru to revitalise communities. This sort of vacuous rhetoric doesn’t help. 
What may help however is to build effective and 21st century transport links between the valleys and Cardiff. The tracks are already there, and although transport policy is a prerogative of the Westminster government, the Welsh Assembly could, if it was serious about it, finance the electrification of the South Wales valleys railways. This would reduce transport costs and produce significant benefits to the people in the Rhondda. Let’s not wait for Westminster to act. The people in the Rhondda deserve it. 

Friday, 16 March 2012

Plaid heads for Groundhog day

Almost unnoticed by the Westminster village, one of the main political parties in the UK has a new leader. Any guesses? Yes, it is Leanne Wood who has become the leader of the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru. If you thought this is of no importance to UK politics, think again. 
In 2006 Plaid joined Welsh Labour in a coalition government in Cardiff. This is generally regarded as a tragic decision, not helped by the fact that the then party leader of Plaid, the uncharismatic Ieuan Wyn Jones,  acted as deputy first minister of Wales. Going into a coalition with Labour cost Plaid significant number of votes at the next election in 2011. Ever since, Plaid has languished behind Labour and the revitalised Welsh Conservatives who became the second largest party in Wales in 2011. 
So, for Plaid it is all change now. But where will the new leader take the party? There are few continuities with the previous leader. Ieuan Wyn Jones was widely regarded as an ineffectual leader and deputy first minister who struggled to free the party from working in the shadow of the Labour party in Wales. Whilst Plaid is the only openly nationalist party which aspires to take Wales out of the Union, Plaid had considerably moderated its nationalist stance and there was little talk about Welsh independence over the last years. 
This may change with Leanne Wood. During the hustings for the leadership election, the new leader has advocated full independence for Wales, and ruled out any coalition with the second biggest party in Wales, the Welsh Conservatives. She may come to regret this. 
Positioning Plaid in Wales’ political landscape wont be easy. Welsh Labour always haboured distinctly ‘old Labour’ sentiments, favouring a large public sector largely financed by the bloc grant it receives from the Westminster government. Despite some recent pro-business rhetoric, Welsh Labour retains socialist instincts and so do many Plaid voters. Which means Plaid will have to formulate policies that are different to Labour’s policies to set itself apart from Welsh Labour while appealing to roughly the same voting constituency. 
Given the abysmal record of the current Welsh Government (currently a minority administration formed by Welsh Labour only), Labour’s vote is likely to decrease at the next election for the Welsh Assembly and the question for Plaid will be whether it is serious about getting into government. Since even Plaid wont do the same mistake twice, another coalition with Labour is unlikely. And so the only alternative will be a coalition with the LibDems and the Welsh Conservatives. There is much that unites these three parties, not least their determination to call an end to Labour’s (then) 16 years rule in Wales. 
Yet the new leader’s socialist and nationalist rhetoric makes it difficult to conceive of such a coalition. Plaid once again may take the blame for letting Labour stumble on in Cardiff Bay in 2016. 

Public sector jobs for all! Labour promises Jerusalem to young people

Pretty much everyone agrees that youth unemployment is a scourge of modern societies. The figures of young people out of work across Western Europe are clearly staggering. The Labour leader Ed Miliband has now come forward with a proposal to get young people back into work. He wants to fund 100 000 jobs for people who have been out of work for more than one year. While this sounds a very agreeable idea, the question is where these jobs are coming from. As Harriet Harman struggled to explain the basics of the scheme on the Daily Politics show today, Ed Miliband was touting the programme in front of the party faithful. 
Now, the question of funding aside, where would Labour find the 100 000 jobs? It seems the question is not one the Labour leadership is particularly troubled by. If private businesses are not coming forward to offer these jobs, so the proposal goes, Labour will simply create them in the public sector. Sounds familiar? Labour doing what it does best: creating phantom jobs in the public sector at the expense of ordinary tax paying families. The logic is presumably that this will push unemployment figures down and reduce the benefits bill. 
Only, this is a false economy. Creating public sector jobs that lead nowhere is not likely to offer long term career prospects to young people. The proposal demonstrates how little Labour has bothered to understand youth unemployment. Not all young people are unemployed, and this should give them a clue. In fact, there are still hundreds of thousands of young people who are not British and who have found employment in the UK. 
What British young people lack are employable skills, suitable training and practical experience. As Labour tried to push half of all young people in this country into universities up and down the country when it was in government, their work skills and experience suffered and companies looked abroad for young people with the right expertise and training. Creating phantom jobs in the public sector wont raise the skills levels of British young people. The solution has to start with a radical reform of the training and education sector which has for far too long parked young people on Mickey Mouse degrees. But this would require some serious thought, not rapid mis-fire policies. 

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Welsh Labour wants to ban smoking - everywhere...

Early morning raids of homes in the Rhondda Valley, the local gaols filled to the last cell with mothers and innocent grandmothers, and an ever-present MI5 spying on teenagers going to school in the morning, this is Wales under Labour. Well, not yet, you might say, but soon if the Labour Government under Carwin Jones is getting its way. Why? Because it wants to make smoking illegal. No, not what you think: to ban smoking in restaurants and pubs, but to make it illegal everywhere, even in your own home. 
A spokesman of the Welsh Government tried to calm the nerves today, saying ‘we do not currently have the [legislative] powers to make smoking illegal’. But as and when they do, Carwin Jones will turn Wales into what he and the Welsh Labour Party always wanted it to be: a country where people are arrested on a whim and a rumour for having had the audacity to indulge in the personal preference to light up a ciggie. 
It is probably here that I should declare an interest, or a ‘non’-interest, to be more precise. I do not smoke, and I have never been a fan of any sort of tobacco based products. But count on it: if the Labour Government will outlaw smoking in Wales, I will take it up. 
I am more than happy to go to jail to protect the liberties of ordinary people across Wales against the vicious anti-libertarian instincts of this Labour government. A government that has, incidentally, failed to bring investment to Wales, is failing the Welsh NHS with rocketing waiting times and imminent hospital closures, but wants to crack down on the few pleasures some of its citizens still have. Do they have nothing else to do in Cardiff Bay than to think about how to make the lives of their citizens more miserable by the day? 
Well, as I said, if the Labour Government goes ahead with its proposals to ban smoking everywhere: see you in Cardiff Prison! 

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

The challenge of modern railways

Talking about the railways in the UK can get you into trouble. People are cross with the quality of the trains, overcrowding and, at times, livid with rage when the talk turns to fares. The public perception is that the privatization of the railways in 1993 was a shambles and resulted in a fragmented railway system, worse levels of service, and ever higher prices. It signified everything that was wrong with the privatization of public services under the Thatcher and Major governments. 
Often, this view goes hand in hand with nostalgic reminiscing about the glorious past of British Rail. Or. sometimes, people point to railways on the continent which seem to offer better service, for a fraction of the price of what people here pay in fares and subsidies. 
There is some truth in this picture. The railways in the UK are one of the most expensive in Europe for commuters who have to travel at peak times. The controversial fare policies of train companies mean that those who have no choice but to take the train to commute early in the day to work are most penalised. The fragmentation of the railways also prevent coherent local and regional transport policies. In the UK, it is virtually impossible to optimise transport systems across sectors, to integrate them effectively in regional hubs and design a consistent transport approach which would focus on reduction of bottlenecks in private and public transport networks. 
Yet, the ultimate failure of railway privatization may have to do with the promise politicians made when they embarked on this mad cap plan: that public subsidy to the railways would come down to, eventually, a level where private train companies would not require any public support. 
So where does this leave us today? Ed Miliband has said repeatedly that the train companies are ‘ripping ordinary people off’ by increasing fares above inflation. And Will Self has recently announced on Question Time (once again) that we should re-nationalise the railways. 
There is no doubt that the way in which the railways were privatized produced a fragmented rail system. There were good reason why the Major Government used the Railway Act to separate track and franchises for networks, the Swedish example of privatization along similar lines being one of them. However, the result in the UK was disastrous. This is less a judgement on privatization than on the type of privatization used. The German railways are fully privatized yet the holding company retains control over rolling stock, networks and tracks. 
But the nostalgia for a nationalized railway disregards the main fact of recent railway history: an unprecedented rise in the number of passenger journeys. In 1993 there were about 0.73 billion journey made in the UK. By last year, this figure had doubled to 1.4 billion journeys. 
This is a phenomenal rise which would prove difficult for any transport system. The newly privatized railways had to deal with a doubling of capacity within the last 18 years. Comparing the railways of the 1980s and early 1990s with the railways of 2011 simply tells us very little unless we acknowledge that today, railways are a profoundly different kind of fish to those of the past. Would the old British Rail have coped with these challenges? 
We wont know, but the fact is that privatization brought £2.3 billion in terms of investment to the table between 2006 and last year (Source at DfT website). This may be dwarfed by the figures of annual subsidy (in 2010 at the tune of £4.6 billion) but it is still something that we, the tax payer, would have had to come up with if the old British Rail was still around. 

Monday, 5 March 2012

Red Ken caught red-handed

I do not think most Londoners will have to look long and hard for a word when they hear about Ken Livingstone’s tax avoidance scheme that he set up in 2009 and has run ever since. I believe the word is ‘hypocrisy’ and, no doubt, he will be branded with it again and again throughout the electoral campaign in London. But how did we get here? Let us recap. 
Ken Livingstone has been more than straightforward when it comes to say what he thinks about people who use tax avoidance schemes. He repeatedly called them ‘rich bastards’. It turns out he included himself in this description. 
The easiest way to avoid taxes is of course to channel any of your income through a company over which you have complete control. You are the sole owner of that company, and the only one who brings in the income. The tax you pay on company earnings is 20% while income tax would have come in at the rate of 40% (or a whopping 50% if you earn more than £150,000). That is a pretty saving of dozens of thousands of pounds. Of course anybody can do this, but most people who do not have access to sophisticated legal advice and work as self-employed simply pay the tax on the income they declare. 
Not so Ken Livingstone. As it was revealed on the weekend, Livingstone channeled his income since 2009 through a company which allowed him to save income tax to the tune of £50,000. This handsome sum neatly describes the gap between his rhetoric and his own action on tax avoidance. 
While he castigated everyone who had such a tax avoidance scheme as ‘bastard’, he himself established the very same scheme, plus split the fees that he got for speeches and  his own media work between himself and his wife, which again saved him a pretty buck in tax. 
Very few people will be sorry for all the puns coming his way now, given that he has been caught red-handed doing exactly what he accused others of doing. Oh, and in case you wondered how his rhetoric stacks up on the 1% versus the 99% of which he so eloquently spoke, yes, you guessed right: he fairly and squarely falls into the category of the 1% top earners in this country with more than £230,000 income per annum (per company books of course). Only, so while he is one of the 1%, he chose not pay tax as many others in that group do. I guess, we can now safely label him with the word he used for others: ‘rich bastard’. 

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Why Western celebrity status is not enough to be a politician

What do the chess master Gary Kasparov, the boxing world champion Vitaly Klitschko, and the singer Yossou N'Dour have in common? They all have, at one point or another, tried to stand for election in their home country, after many years of living in the Western world, and been touted by Western media as the saviour of their country. The former cricketer Imre Khan has just joined the list, feted by The Observer today as the last hope of a country torn between rampant corruption, a failing political elite and an increasingly radicalised population. 
While the list of those who have lived in the West and re-discovered their roots and their electoral ambitions is long, the list of those who have succeeded in winning public office is short. Yet the love the West has for celebrity figures as saviours of their country continues unabated. This despite any evidence to the contrary that those who have lived in the West and are much appreciated by Western media are either qualified to hold political office in their home countries or that it, if they did, would make any difference. 
So what’s at the heart of the West’s infatuation with these celebrity exile politicians? At the heart of it lies a specific patronising attitude, an arrogance about the West’s values and practices, and an (un-)healthy dose of wishful thinking. Let me explain. 
First up is the view that any person who has lived in the West and enjoyed success here, must habour a deep commitment to Western values. It’s easy for all those potential electoral candidates to reinforce this view, all they have to do is to demonstrate their unflinching opposition to corruption in their countries. 
This is so, since our opinion of developing countries is shot through the prism of rampant corruption. So much so that often entire developmental strategies are said to be held up by corruption, while absence of the same is allegedly tantamount to unhindered development and prosperity. This of course is an enormous simplification of reality. Some countries that have made a fist of things after the war, e.g. Japan and Italy, have retained a staggering amount of corruption in politics and business. 
Yet, this is only half the story. Western observers often seem to think that if only the head of state would be incorruptible, everything else would fall in place. Hence the saviour role of these Western based celebrities in turning around the fortunes of their home countries. But corruption is more complicated than this. It is often a symptom of a lack of transparency that pervades the whole of society and unchecked governance structures. In addition, what goes as corruption in one part of the world, is part of conventional business transactions in another. Unclear tax legislation which can be used by the powers that be to persecute opponents and favour others, may equally contribute to corruption as an social ill woven into the fabric of societies. Changing the head of state may make little difference indeed. 
The upshot of this is that parachuting someone who allegedly symbolises Western values into highest office in a developing country is unlikely to show the desired effect. Not to mention the fact that widespread backing from Western media rarely endears these candidates to the local population. 
But there is an additional aspect of arrogance in the Western position when they back one of these celebrity politicians. It is the widely held belief that developing countries are somehow based on clear choices and options, of which the Western path of development and prosperity is the most obvious for the majority of the population. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is that any society in the modern world, developing or not, is highly complex and Western views of governance, democratic politics and regulated markets are often faring fairly low in domestic public discourses. Where they are talked about, they are often cited as synonyms of cultural decadence to be avoided, rather than to be accomplished. 
That is why celebrity politicians rarely succeed in gaining high office in countries from which they have often been absent for decades. And perhaps it’s the better for it. The fact is that success in politics anywhere in the world is a matter of finely balancing social and economic interests. Not to mention the need for a powerful constituency that can prop you up in times of trouble. 
Parachute candidates often lack the knowledge and the skills to negotiate this jungle of interests and influences. Their electoral programmes are often little more than ragbags of slogans and populist demands. In a sense, we in the West wouldn’t give them our vote, why should anybody in Senegal or Ukraine? 

Thursday, 1 March 2012

The dilemma of the NHS

The NHS bill for England currently going through the House of Lords is in deep trouble. If you had any doubts about this, note that the Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has volunteered to give an interview to Jeremy Paxman (who was uncharacteristically civil last night, you can watch his interview with Lansley HERE ). 
Whatever you think of the politics of the NHS reforms, there are some aspects that hint at a deeper dimension of how we think about our public services. What do I mean? Consider briefly how different the approaches are to the NHS in England and Wales. It is no secret that the Welsh Government has little appetite for radical NHS reforms. While there is a lot of 'policy noise' from Cardiff about improving public services, integrating health and social care and more community care, the Welsh Government has consistently rejected to give front line professionals the means to change things for the better. 
We know that, in order to reform public services, you need to introduce the things that drive positive change; well meaning policy is not enough given the inertia of established practices and the attraction of 'things as they are'. We are all creatures that value constancy and stability whilst trying to reduce risks. 
In public services this may result in a false dichotomy as the most recent developments in Wales may demonstrate. Leaving the NHS the way it is means effectively to shrink it in its scope and resources. Wales, more so than England, has a rapidly aging population, with the attendant problems of increasingly expensive treatments and medication. And I have not yet mentioned the issues of personal choice and care quality for which there is a clear preference amongst patients.  
This all creates a perfect storm for the NHS in Wales which is facing reduced resources, spiraling costs of treatments, an aging population and current practices that privilege highly inefficient and costly approaches to health with poor care integration, and preference for hospitalisations over community care. 
Now, contrast that with what patients want and you realise that it takes courage and an enormous amount of risk to drive through changes in the NHS. As the latest demonstrations in front of the Welsh Assembly show, patients above all want one thing: the continuation of things as they are. 
Incidentally, that is exactly not what is likely to happen if things are left alone.  
So, in essence, there are no easy solutions, with politicians more than ever trying to muddle through complexities of care systems and exploding costs. Whether we like it or not, the NHS will increasingly adopt the role of an emergency care provider (free at the point of use) with patients being signposted to private providers where non-urgent clinical care is needed. Should we regret this? 
Whatever we think about free health care, it is only free at the point of use. The aim should be to ensure it remains largely free for those most in need. That would be an accomplishment we could celebrate even if, in future, many of those who can afford it may have to pay something towards their health care costs.