jon wilkinson

  • How to vote Liberal Democrat with a clear conscience

    I am a liberal.

    I am not, contrary to the stereotype, woolly-minded. But then neither am I a simple-minded conservative, sticking rigidly to a set of discredited, outmoded rules in an ever-changing world. (Ah. That feels better.)

    To the dogmatic, liberals may seem unsure, self-doubting. But, as Sam Harris says of conservatives, "they often lack the corrective mechanisms of liberals". What appears to be woolly-mindedness is often open-mindedness (and not necessarily to the extent where the brain falls out). I would argue that a little cognitive flexibility is a good thing. This flexibility means that, as the political landscape changes, liberals might start to think about voting for someone different.

    I sometimes find myself flirting with different ideas. Maybe one of the other candidates seems to have integrity and deserves consideration. Maybe there are some attractive policies being floated by a party with which I wouldn't normally associate myself. In a country where the mainstream parties struggle to differentiate themselves on ideological grounds, this seems likely.

    The whole democratic process is horribly messy, of course. Imperfect politicians with imperfect policies are exposed by powerful, imperfect media. Life would be so much simpler in a totalitarian state. Just imagine: every day, news of success and progress all controlled by strong, inspiring leaders. And let's face it: if his PR is to be believed, Kim Jong Un is simply a dreamboat.

    But back in the UK, our political landscape is somewhat fluid, an astringently bitter gravy with dry, starchy lumps and the odd chunk of red meat. It changes, but often in slow, subtle ways. So subtle, in fact, that I think it unlikely I will vote differently next time around. I see no valid reason to change.

    So, here goes. Confession time.

    My name is Jon and I voted Liberal Democrat.

    Now, Nick Clegg and friends have made quite a name for themselves over the last little while, and not in a particularly good way. Over the past three years, the workings of the coalition have often been laid bare, much to the distaste of the public in general and Lib Dem voters in particular. Compromise with your enemies is unattractive. Capitulation is unforgivable.

    The thing is, it is likely I will vote for them again. The alternatives, as it turns out, are far more distasteful to me.

    I could abstain, directly, by spoiling my ballot paper or by joining the ranks of the lethargic unengaged and eschewing the polling station altogether. I could abstain, indirectly, by voting for a minor party whose candidate has little or no chance of winning a seat.

    I could vote Tory. But do I want to share political space with a party whose grassroots supporters are often far more right-wing than their leaders, perhaps chillingly so? Do I trust the Tory leadership to avoid pandering to Daily Mail readers? Or do I think they will have to lurch to the right on social issues in order to placate those more intolerant elements? Do I trust them to avoid being unduly influenced by big business and vested interests?

    Now, don't get me wrong. Business is important, vital in fact. This country's history is steeped in trade. Companies and individuals come to the UK to do business. But money begets undemocratic power, and our democracy needs protection against those who would use their plutocratic power to change our lives for their own gain.

    I could vote Labour. But do I trust them with the economy? Do I trust them to avoid blowing the budget on easing their consciences in the short term, with little consideration of the future burden? Do I trust the leadership to avoid succumbing to the demands of their own lunatic fringe? Do I trust them not to be at the beck and call of the unions?

    Now, don't get me wrong. Unions are hugely important. They help redress the balance of power between the employer and the employed. Great progress has been made in labour legislation with the help of union power. But I worry about the leadership. I worry that, even for those that start out with the best of intentions, ego takes the reins. Big statements in front of huge cheering audiences can do wonders for one's self esteem. Power goes to the head. Threats are issued and action is taken that may be more in the interests of leaders than members.

    Or, I could do what I did last time. I could vote Liberal Democrat.

    "What's the point?!" I hear you scream. They are unlikely ever to hold power on their own. They can, at best, only contribute the odd policy to their senior partner's portfolio. And they will be forced to tow the 'unified coalition' line for the sake of the country. They will have to turn their backs on many of their manifesto commitments, and start doing the sort of dirty deals behind closed doors that would make their grassroots supporters wretch in collective disgust. We know this. It's happening right now.

    But I ask: what are the Lib Dems for? Not in ideological terms, but how are they useful to our political system?

    Anyone expecting a huge Lib Dem surge followed by a First-Past-the-Post landslide victory should ask their doctor to increase their dosage. Clegg and co's route to power will, again, be as kingmakers to one of the two parties sitting snugly beside them. If an accommodation cannot be reached, they will likely play a significant part in a vociferous opposition.

    Frankly, I would rather they were in government, if only because I agree with their general principles. The alternative is an unchecked Tory or Labour government, neither of which would fill me with joy. (Please see comments above.)

    And the 'unchecked' bit is important.

    We all know they will only be a junior coalition partner in government, but they will often force their senior partner back to the centre ground. They can make it more difficult for the right-wingers to block liberal legislation or promote illiberal populist policies. They can rein in the left from splashing the cash on well-meaning but misguided big government projects, and give them some protection from undue union influence.

    I believe that many people's reluctance to vote Lib Dem is based upon the assumption that a coalition is a bad thing. I also think that the language used to describe the idea of coalition government in the run up to the last general election was often hysterical and laughable. I would argue that, like democracy in general, coalition government is messy and imperfect, but it can function. Over the last three years, the four horsemen of the apocalypse have failed to put in an appearance, in spite of various dire predictions from various sections of the media. So a vote for a credible* third party is not necessarily a waste. I believe it's a vote for checks and balances in government.

    Will it always work? Of course not. Consistent success in democratic politics is impossible. Try naming a government with a perfect track record. If you think you can, you're wearing the wrong glasses.

    So, given our current set of circumstances, the party wearing the yellow tie still has my vote. Goodness knows they're not perfect. But if perfection is what you demand, maybe you should move to North Korea.

    ---------------------------------

    * i.e. not UKIP

    For those who are interested, here's the party line on Lib Dem achievements in government:

    http://www.libdemvoice.org/what-the-liberal-democrats-have-done-new-party-booklet-30212.html

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  • The Morals of Tax Avoidance

    In times of economic affluence, people are less concerned or interested in politics. Tax policy attracts far more interest when times are tough, and especially when certain corporations are seen to be doing well without paying their fair share. With this in mind, one could say that the recent backlash was inevitable. It was just a matter of time.

    For most people, the ethics of tax avoidance are simple. But as happens so often with these things, those who hold fixed opinions stand on opposing sides of the debate.

    Recently, I have found it necessary to question my own standpoint, consider counterarguments and challenge myself to arrive at a firm conclusion. This is not meant as an attempt to solve the problem – it would be arrogant to suggest that I could. This is simply my defence of a moral position.

    Legality

    Let's address one obvious point: tax avoidance is legal.

    The legality of tax avoidance is enough for some to consider it perfectly ethical. In fact, to question behaviour beyond its legality could be seen as illiberal, nosey, or meddling. It’s certainly easy for us to settle into a moral position that preaches adherence to a set of choices that most of us will never need to make.

    Also, given the fact that much of the British right-wing press has jumped on the anti- Starbucks / Amazon / Google (et al) bandwagon, this may give a ‘British liberal’ pause for thought.

    Principles and Rules

    As Dickens' character Mr Bumble said, "the law is an ass – an idiot".

    Our laws are based on principles, but drawn up using rules. In a gross oversimplification, one could consider rules of law as lines of software code. (I admit there is much more to legal code, and case law enables interpretation and redefinition by fine legal minds.) My point is that a computer cannot understand overarching principles if they are not broken down into specific instructions. Tax principles are also broken down into specific instructions, and these rules are written into law.

    So, various and complex tax laws have been drawn up in the UK, with the intention that the legislation should enact tax principles decided upon by parliament.

    But rules have loopholes. A company can comply with the letter of the law whilst slashing and burning the original principles.

    So have I been imposing my own morals upon tax-avoiders when I have called for them to pay UK tax on their UK profits? No, I believe I have been calling for them to comply with the moral principles decided upon by the UK parliament.

    However, couldn’t it be argued that it’s the fault of the legislators for creating the loopholes in the first place? Maybe they share the blame. Certainly, the government must work harder to close these holes, through which billions of potential tax revenues slip each year. But I am also aware that throughout history many fine political minds have failed to achieve a set of watertight rules. In my opinion, it is intellectually lazy to blame the system.

    The fact is that corporate leaders who make the conscious effort to flout the spirit of the law know damn well they are doing so.

    Liberal Principle

    Here’s my overarching principle – the same principle I use time after time: you can do whatever you want to do, as long as you don’t harm anyone else.

    Avoiding tax by employing convoluted tax strategies means one of three things will happen:

    1. the public (and more 'ethical' organisations) will pay more tax to make up the shortfall;

    2. the government will cut spending, so reducing public services;

    3. the state’s budget deficit will increase, as will government debt over time, potentially increasing the tax burden for future generations.

    To call my standpoint illiberal is to ignore the second half of the liberal principle. I am calling for adherence to the spirit of the law because any contrary behaviour is unjust to those who have to foot the bill.

    Corporate Culture

    Many (most) corporate leaders will disagree with me. They will say they have a duty to their shareholders to maximize returns by minimizing the tax bill.

    I have a problem with minimization. It seems to mean ‘pay as little as possible, through any (legal) means’. It ignores responsibilities that many Chairmen and Chairwomen talk about in annual reports. In short, we seem to be walking around in circles in our journey towards Corporate Social Responsibility.

    One difficulty that seems to be discussed rarely is the sheer bravery it would take for a senior manager or board member to stand up and say ‘This is wrong – we should be paying more tax”. How will such a person be viewed by their fellow directors after delivering this thunderbolt? Will their views even be considered as serious? Is this person joking? Besides, what would our shareholders think?

    If you’re not a team player, you know where the door is.

    So it’s the shareholders’ fault. Well, that’s overly simplistic. But investors have power, and those who benefit from tax-avoidance will be hard-pushed to speak out against it. In fact, if a corporation announced a change in tax policy that would significantly reduce after-tax profits, you can imagine what would happen to the share price.

    It’s too difficult?

    It will take bravery and pain. But what kind of society do we want to live in? Can corporations finish the 'Corporate Social Responsibility' job and finally pay local tax due on local operating activities? Can the government do something to simplify the basic tax rules whilst closing the current loopholes?

    Yes, it’s difficult. Yes, it will get very messy. No, we should not shy away from this. We have an opportunity during this period of relative economic hardship to shout louder, to urge action, before things get too comfortable again for many of us to care.

    Those who engage in corporate tax avoidance share a lazy, immature ethical code that abdicates all moral responsibility in favour of simple compliance with the rule of law, whilst abandoning the spirit of the law altogether.

    Those of us in a position safe enough to stand up and say ‘tax avoidance is wrong’ should add our voices to the clamour. But we must also hope that those standing closer to power are brave enough to stand with us.

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  • Wikileaks and the Illusion of Perfect Democracy

    If you believe in democracy, it’s likely you believe in free speech and open society. I do.

    And so, presumably, does Julian Assange. In fact, Mr Assange is seen by many as being at the vanguard of an internet-powered democratic revolution. He is also seen as a menace by powerful people all over the planet.

    Democracy only works if the citizens are able to make informed choices when choosing their leaders, and when they know enough about the political landscape to make an educated contribution. Wikileaks was founded to expose the ugly truth, to inform the powerless majority about what was really going on behind closed doors.

    The Internet has enabled more information-sharing and real-time debate than has ever been possible, and this increases day by day. Since Wikileaks entered the scene in late 2006, it has made a brave contribution to global public knowledge, exposing hidden government decisions and publishing information on some of the world’s shadier organisations.

    I agree, in part, with Julian Assange when he says that when it comes to centralised power, "the simplest and most effective countermeasure is a worldwide community of informed users and editors who can scrutinize and discuss leaked documents." (from Wikileaks FAQs). I disagree that one can say for certain what will be 'the most' effective countermeasure. I tend to think this is only one piece of the puzzle.

    Whether distributing US government documents relating to Guantanamo Bay, exposing corruption by former African leaders, or publishing ‘the collected secret bibles of Scientology,’ their activities have shone a light into corners and niches previously hidden from the eyes of ordinary people.

    Imperfection

    Assange set up Wikileaks “to bring important news and information to the public…” through the publication of evidential material, usually from whistleblowers and journalists. And it has done this.

    But Wikileaks is ill. It is flawed. It needs a health check.

    Founders and leaders, more often than not, have big egos. Some see themselves as nothing less than messiahs. Non-candid photos of Julian Assange tend to take two different forms: gazing wistfully into the distance (the man who dares to dream); or staring intensely into the eyes of the viewer (the cult leader).

    Siege

    Currently holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Assange faces extradition to Sweden should he step back onto British soil. He claims to be in mortal danger, because he fears the Swedes intend to hand him over to the US authorities, who are hungry to put him in the electric chair.

    Assange is trying to convince us that: a) the Swedish charges are not serious (or they are just a smokescreen); and b) the US government has done a deal with the Swedes to ship him off to America, where he will be silenced.

    To be fair to Assange, although there is apparently a genuine case to answer, the allegations have been called into question by independent people, (example: http://marthamitchelleffect.co.uk/experience-is-knowing/4570290455).

    But if there is a case to answer, surely the correct process should be followed (see David Allen Green’s excellent Jack of Kent blog for more on this (http://jackofkent.com/blog). No amount of desperate whining by Assange or his supporters should be allowed to obstruct or obfuscate due process.

    Also, it occurs to me that no American political strategist worth his or her salt would demand that Assange be tried and sentenced on US soil. Anything the American authorities do that even smells like a cover-up will spark widespread condemnation and allow Assange's supporters to claim that they were right all along. It gives credence to the very campaign the US government would like to suppress.

    Assange’s personal difficulties are exacerbated by clumsy, ill-judged comments from his support base. It can hardly do his cause any good when the official Wikileaks twitter account issues such offensive rubbish as this:

    “By the US accepting the UK siege on the Ecuadorian embassy in London it gave tacit approval for attacks on embassies around the world” (Sept 2012)

    They are forcing their own shrinking credibility through the meat grinder, and the more Wikileaks’ credibility is damaged, the less they can fulfil their founding purpose. Potentially, public support could be waning.

    Closing the door

    The opposing argument (that which calls for reduced state openness) is that there are some things a government just has to get on with. Press and public scrutiny of the minutiae of state decision-making will slow the process to a crawl, and disable the government from doing what must be done.

    John Godfrey Saxe said ‘laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.’ In other words, politics is a dirty business.

    Another argument might be that, although there is a need for greater transparency, can we cope with the sheer amount of information? Where do you draw the line? Do we keep eating and eating until our intellectual viscera explode? How much time can the citizens spend ingesting information on which to base their political decisions?

    The alternative, perhaps, is to delegate the job of information attenuation to the popular media. In this way, we can offer the spoon to an organisation (or group of organisations) that can feed us their take on what’s important at any given time. But this happens anyway, and a media market will always favour popular, valuable, revenue-attracting stories over those that are less entertaining or even downright depressing.

    But here's another question: How do Wikileaks decide what is important and what isn’t? Did the participants all agree about what their focus should be? For whatever reason, there have been internal disagreements, resulting in the creation of spin-off organisations such as OpenLeaks.

    Other openings

    David Allen Green wrote (5th Sept 2012) “there is an important public interest in the continuance of the Wikileaks project, but its future really should be de-coupled from the personal matters of any one individual.”

    Wikileaks is certainly important, if only as an idea. But Wikileaks doesn’t have to be the only answer, and it won’t be.

    The disclosure service provided by Wikileaks is one piece of the greater democratic puzzle, and I expect to see similar organisations make an impact in years to come.

    Other puzzle pieces are falling into place already. Over the last few years (and months) we have seen growing numbers of web-based organisations like www.moveon.org and www.fullfact.org promote democracy by focusing on good information and engagement. In this time, when Western populations are suffering from political cynicism and disengagement, these sites represent a potential reversal of this trend. In my view, they are at least as important as Wikileaks in this respect.

    Perfect democracy is an illusion. We will never know everything. But though we may never reach a political utopia, we have an ever-increasing opportunity to engage, question and protest.

    The demise or reinvention of Wikileaks doesn’t have to be the end. Through participation in the myriad media of the internet we are creating a better global democracy, whatever happens to Julian Assange.

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  • Sunday School and the damage caused

    Ask people what they think about ‘Sunday School’ and you will receive a variety of responses. Some imagine an innocent group of children soaking up stories about Jesus, Noah and others, and colouring in pictures of biblical scenes. Some see a more serious attempt to instil Christian values in the young, perhaps through focused bible study. Others imagine something outmoded, an old fashioned throwback that has no useful purpose, but that doesn’t do any particular harm.

    The assumption of innocence, in my experience, is dangerously naïve. The bible, were it adapted into a film in its entirety, would be given a rating commensurate with the violence and terror contained in some of the more distasteful contemporary horror films. The ‘fire & brimstone’ element, especially in some of the Old Testament stories, is unpleasant to say the least.

    So what would happen if we combined some of the milder horror elements with the threat of eternal punishment and fed it to little children? How would they cope?

    During the early 1980s, between the ages of five and ten I had, in the most part, an idyllic upbringing. I lived in loving, stable family, in a small, quiet village in rural Northamptonshire, England. I had good friends and I loved school. Looking back, I don’t have many bad memories of my time there.

    But in our little village chapel, surrounded by friendly, ostensibly harmless neighbours and fellow schoolchildren, I received the foundations of irrational fear that would leave my young mind damaged in ways I am still discovering today.

    Early signs were missed by those around me (and no wonder – I never spoke about these things) but I am convinced I had some form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) from about the age of eight. I would count from one to seven with each step as I walked, because seven was ‘God’s number’ and so offered me some sort of protection. We had thirteen stairs at home, but I got around this danger by stepping twice on the first step, thereby taking fourteen steps to reach the first floor.

    My strange behaviour extended to geography as well as numerology. I slept facing north, or as close to north as possible. My rationale for this was that I wanted to sleep facing away from hell. I imagined the earth with heaven somewhere above and hell somewhere below. Facing north meant I had less chance of seeing something demonic, or being taken off to hell’s fire for eternal punishment.

    I imagined that these practices, among others, kept me safe from the horrors described to me by those in charge of my religious education. If I was unable to practise these habits for whatever reason, I would feel anxious and upset.

    I don’t believe OCD (or whatever it was) has stayed with me. At some point, rationality took over and overpowered the dogma and fear I had felt earlier in my life. Fire and brimstone no longer made sense, but it still took courage to admit I no longer believed in the existence of God, the Devil and the other supernatural characters in the biblical pantomime. I am now an atheist, a humanist. I reject religious dogma, although I accept people’s right to find their own beliefs and practise their own faith. I do not tolerate proselytising to children, however well intentioned the proselytiser may be.

    So let’s distil this story to a single point. What I am talking about is child abuse. Filling children’s heads with images of hell and telling them they could suffer this fate is a disgusting betrayal of trust, and a cynical (or deluded) way to control children’s behaviour.

    I certainly don’t blame my parents. I think they had a vision of perfect family life, and Sunday School was one piece of that picture.

    But I would like to find those who taught me to live in fear of damnation. I would like to sit down with them and tell them what I think. I want to search their eyes for signs of remorse.

    And tell them that, ultimately, they failed.

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  • Olympics vs. Football*

    After the two-week celebration of sport that was London 2012, most of the UK found itself trying to catch its breath. Over those 16 days, we surprised ourselves by our respect for the athletes, by our happiness, our optimism and our pride.

    And something else happened. Many of us started to talk about a lack of interest in the new football (soccer) season. So high was our esteem for the Olympic competitors, and so low was our opinion of many Premier League footballers, that some started to believe that a huge change was in the offing. Could we, after all these decades, after spending all those billions of pounds, be turning our backs on the ‘beautiful game’?

    For years the British media, driven by an angry British public, has been attacking footballers for their bad behaviour and their extravagant lifestyles. But as ever, the many continued to follow the few. As angry as we were, we stayed loyal. Loyalty, it seems, is a strong market force.

    But distaste is also a market force. Some feel so disgusted by the huge wages and the poor behaviour of footballers that they simply cannot enjoy watching a match. Obviously this means that, in aggregate, distaste has some sort of dampening effect on revenues.

    Of course, there are those whose distaste simply isn’t strong enough to stop them watching, either because they love the sport and want to follow the players they admire, or because they feel a deep-rooted need to follow their team, their players. For some, there is an ownership, a sense of belonging so intense that market forces get warped.

    When people reach this level of fanaticism, price elasticity of demand becomes rigid. The question is not whether or not to buy a season ticket, but what other spend will be sacrificed in order to afford it. Even in difficult economic conditions, with reducing disposable income and higher ticket prices, the fans’ cash gets handed over as easily as ever.

    In competition with football for the sports fans’ money, athletics (track & field) and other Olympic sports will struggle. The massive industrial framework and sheer colossal financial value of UK football mean that the ‘minor’ sports find it difficult to get heard above the booming voice of the Premier League.

    Personally, I will do my best to follow those Olympians who attracted my admiration and awe during early August. I will be watching Diamond League events, taking an avid interest in worldwide tennis tournaments and scouring the networks for the opportunity to see something different from the football norm. I am also really excited about watching the Paralympics, which looks likely to be more popular than ever.

    But I can’t help feeling that if I catch sight of ‘my team’ on the football field, I may not be able to resist. I don’t want to watch. I don’t respect these people. But I will feel compelled. And I know I’m not alone.

    Has Olympic fever changed our relationship with football? Are we about to turn our backs on the beautiful game? Not likely.

    *Soccer

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@WilkinsonJon

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