Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Sob

So, Ed Miliband will be Prime Minister, and we just have to get used to the fact that our Prime Minister says things like this:
You know what I think when I go round the country, you know? People are asking about the permutations in their own lives.
Of course they are. God help us.

Happy Times

God in Heaven but this election campaign is depressing. I appreciate that by following it mostly on Twitter I may well be getting a skewed vision of it, but has there ever been an election campaign that has been as uninspiring, and apparently mostly in bad faith as this one? In no particular order, here is a non-exhaustive list of the things that are actively making me miserable:
  • Every time I hear the Tories talking about the SNP;
  • Every time I hear anyone else saying that the Tories talking about the SNP is 'demeaning' or 'anti-Scottish';
  • Every time I see that the new Tory policy offer is another uncosted spending pledge;
  • Every time Ed Miliband makes foreign policy capital about reneging on the Syria vote;
  • Every time I see Alastair fucking Campbell saying anything at all;
  • Every time someone English says they wish they could vote SNP;
  • Every time I hear the SNP mentioned in any context;
  • Every time I see poor old Nick Clegg's wee face;
  • Every time one of those stupid pictures with more stupid words on it goes viral;
  • Every time someone shroud-waves the NHS;
  • Every time Ed Miliband makes foreign policy capital about drowning migrants;
  • Every time I realise that the little scrote will probably be Prime Minister in two and a bit weeks.
Just for balance, here's a full list of the things that are making me happy:
  • Ruth Davidson
At least we're nearly there.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Islamic Enlightenment

I missed this when it first came out, but there's a Guardian long read purportedly about Islam and the Enlightenment. It's a slightly odd read, because its title, and presumably its intended point is:
Stop calling for a Muslim Enlightenment
The basis in the article itself for this is as follows:
Whenever jihadi groups carry out an atrocity, or – as is happening a lot these days, western foreign policy failures lead to large areas of the world coming under the sway of oafs who claim to be acting for God – the call goes up for a Muslim Enlightenment. The imputation of Védrine, the French schoolteachers, and thousands of other commentators is that various internal deficiencies have excluded Islam from this indispensable cultural and intellectual event, without which no culture can be considered modern. Such views cut across political borders; they would find sympathy at the BBC as well as in the editorial offices of the Sun. Islam needs to get with the programme.
This call, ubiquitous as it is, is wrongheaded, de Bellaigue argues, because Islamic countries have in fact embraced modernity, on their own terms, at least since the 19th century. In support of this he enters into a (genuinely) very interesting discursion into the paths towards modernity taken by Persia, Iraq & Egypt, including early travellers to the West and later innovations like newspapers and street lighting, munitions factories and nascent rights for women. To the extent that modernisation failed it was thanks to Western imperialism (and the establishment of Israel, natch). The article makes a point reasonably well - that countries in the Middle East have adopted the trappings of modern life.

But that's not what the article set out to argue. The intended argument was that Islam is in no need of an Enlightenment. Throughout the piece, Enlightenment and modernity are treated as synonyms. They are not. I am no philosopher, still less a theologian, but although the Enlightenment is seen as a precursor to the modern era in the West (the 18th century is often known as the Early Modern Period), it was a distinct philosophical movement with two key ideas: that reason and empirical observation should be preferred to deference and divine revelation; and that being human itself brought inalienable rights, distinct from traditional divisions of nationality or religion.

How is this relevant to Islam? This was, I think, best put by the Pope Emeritus in his speech at Regensburg in 2006 (about which I wrote this, 9 bloody years ago). The Pope was discussing the role of reason (more strictly, of the interplay of Christianity's hellenistic roots with Enlightenment thinking) in religion. He noted that the central plank of the Gospels is from the first verse of John. "In the Beginning was the Word". Logos, which means both 'word' and 'reason' is the essential nature of God. As the Byzantine Emperor Manuel Paleologus put it "not acting reasonably (σὺν λόγω) is contrary to God's nature". This does not, however, read across to Islamic theology:
But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazm went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practise idolatry.
The argument that Islam (not Muslim countries, but Islam itself) needs an Enlightenment is based on the perception that Islam requires submission to faith (that's what the word means), not engagement with it. Its Holy Book is seen as direct divine revelation and therefore incapable of error (whereas Christian texts, albeit divinely inspired, are the work of men). While the direction of travel within Christianity has overwhelmingly been away from literalism, within Islam Quranic literalism is mainstream. Reason, which is so central a part of the 'Judaeo-Christian tradition', needs to play a much greater part in Islamic theology. If it did, then the more murderous aspects of Islamism would have an antipathetic force within Islam.

This may or may not be right (it's an argument for a theologian to make not me), but it is not an argument that can be refuted by the presence of street lamps in Cairo, or munitions factories (or centrifuges) in Tehran.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Yellow Cards

Zoe Williams has a piece up about Angela Eagle's idea to:
Introduce a system into the house to combat uncivilised behaviour: yellow cards, hour-long bans rising to three-session exclusions for more serious offences.
Because:
Barracking – being often sexual in content – discourages women from seeking election in the first place, and this lack of representation then alienates women from the political process.
 And she notes that Angela Eagle was
Once memorably told by David Cameron “Calm down, dear” to indicate that, being female, she was stupid and hysterical and should defer to people who, having penises, were better than her.
The first thing that struck me about this was that David Cameron said that to her because she was barracking him - was shouting from her seat to try and disrupt his answer at PMQs - and shouting so loudly that it distracted him enough to tell her to shut up. Hansard also notes that he said "calm down to dear" to Ed Balls to, doubtless to indicate that he too is in a state of penislessness. Equally, the reason that both sides barrack each other has less to do with a gendered desire to disenfranchise women, than a partisan desire to derail opposing MPs. You just grab whatever stick you can.

The second thing it triggered was a very faint recollection of a sketch about the House of Commons in the 19th Century. Usually descriptions of barracking and heckling in the House is accompanied by po-faced mutterings about how far we've fallen, and how much more serious we were once upon a time. After a bit of googling, I found what I had half remembered in a book called "Random Recollections of the House of Commons by One of No Party" - God knows where I read it:
A Scene from the House of Commons
I shall allude to only one more scene of this kind. It occurred towards the close of last Session. An honourable member, whose name I suppress, rose, amidst the most tremendous uproar, to address the House. He spoke, and was received, as nearly as the confusion enabled me to judge, as follows :
I rise, Sir, (Ironical cheers, mingled with all sorts of zoological sounds), I rise, Sir, for the purpose of stating that I have... ('Oh! Oh! Baa!’ and sounds resembling the bleating of a sheep, mingled with loud laughter). Hon. Gentlemen may endeavour to put me down by their unmannerly interruptions, but I have a duty to perform to my con- (Ironical cheers, loud coughing, sneezing, and yawning extended to an incredible length, followed by bursts of laughter). I say, Sir, I have constituents who on this occasion expect that I...(Cries of ' Should sit down," and shouts of laughter). They expect, Sir, that on a question of such importance... ('O-o-a-a u-' and loud laughter, followed by cries of 'Order! Order!' from the Speaker).
"I tell honourable gentlemen who choose to conduct themselves in such a way, that I am not to be put down by... (Groans, coughs, sneezings, hems, and various animal sounds, some of which closely imitated the yelping of a dog, and the squeaking of a pig, interspersed with peals of laughter). I appeal... ('Cocke-leeri-o-co!’ The imitation, in this case, of the crowing of a cock was so remarkably good, that not even the most staid and orderly members in the house could preserve their gravity. The laughter which followed drowned the Speaker's cries of 'Order! Order!') I say, Sir, this is most unbecoming conduct on the part of an assembly calling itself de-" ('Bow-wow-wow!, and bursts of laughter).
Sir, may I ask, have honourable gentlemen who can... ('Mew-mew!, and renewed laughter). Sir, I claim the protection of the Chair. (The Speaker here again rose and called out “Order! Order!” in a loud and angry tone, on which the uproar in some measure subsided). 
If honourable gentlemen will only allow me to make one observation, I will not trespass further on their attention, but sit down at once (This was followed by the most tremendous cheering in earnest). I only beg to say, Sir, that I think this is a most dangerous and unconstitutional measure, and will therefore vote against it." The honourable gentleman then resumed his seat amidst deafening applause.
Maybe the po-faced mutterers are right - the standards of heckling really have deteriorated since those lost glory-days.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Fallen Heroes

A properly respectful article by my fellow Aularian Bidisha:
It wasn’t a trip or a tumble. It wasn’t funny; it was terrifying and so brutal that the audience fell silent. It was the kind of accident that breaks necks, damages brains and haunts Cirque du Soleil performers’ nightmares...
But it’s not just about individualistic survival ability, brotherliness or externals like attitude. Mugabe is not worthy of respect simply for surviving, having sass or cannily working out how to play every capitalist angle. He has a brilliant and indeed record-breaking talent in his discipline, which is stealing elections. He’s been stealing great elections including 1979, 2000 and 2005 throughout his career, and the latest, 2010, is up there with them; he is “in the game again”, as The Telegraph says.
But he was brutally mocked in the reviews. And that laughter is growing louder and crueller and uglier, as the Twitter response to his fall illustrated. Mugabe’s longevity was first admired and is now actively sabotaged by editorials which never fail to mention his age, as though it is something to be ashamed of. I am shocked by the uninflected scorn, the derision and foul-mouthed trashing he is dealt, and how much of it is grossly visceral. 
In order to withstand this, one would have to be superhuman. Luckily, Mugabe is. But why should anyone have to swallow the world’s unstinting hatred when he wants to be remembered for his brilliant dictatorship?
Just appalling.


 Lest we forget

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

London calling

I do find the Guardian very hard to understand sometimes. Ian Martin (not to be confused with the infinitely sounder Iain Martin) has a piece in today's paper that is basically a squeal of baffled rage against modernity, and one that barely makes sense on its own terms to boot.
For a start, it takes as its premise that London has "privatised itself to death" and will, in 100 years, be abandoned to the wilderness. How this squares with the fact that London is growing rapidly (and is at its largest since 1939) and is the largest European city is unclear. How Martin's paean to the glory days of the 1960s and 70s squares with the fact that London's population was shrinking during that time is equally unclear.

These are mere details, however, compared with the glaring error at the heart of the piece - that the aesthetics and morals of London are destroyed by private architecture, while they were elevated by the lost days of GLC-sponsored architecture. The comparison he makes is between the "infantile, random collection of improbable sex toys poking gormlessly into the privatised air" that make up the new City and the "beautiful, brilliant, brutalist Hayward, part of a people’s South Bank that had started with the Festival Hall in 1951 and would end triumphantly with the National Theatre in the 1970s." In other words, this is the appalling, hideous monstrosity that private developers are forcing on us:


Ugh
 
And this is the beautiful Hayward gallery:
 
And the triumphant National Theatre:
 
 
In this context the infantile politics ("the reign of Margaret the Baby-Eater. Through John Major’s steady-as-you-go age of dinge") is just a detail. What's weird is that he seems to have no appreciation of the fact that the greatest crimes against London architecture have been done by the state. He cites the dismantling of the mosaics at Tottenham Court Road as a part of London's soulless privatisation even while blaming it on Crossrail - a public works project. He rails against the architecture of the Shard, and rhetorically demands why there's no hospital in it. Maybe because it's next door, and another shining example of London's public architecture:
 
 
He yearns wistfully for the lost space of Broad Street station, which, when it was finally closed, carried about 6,000 passengers a week (140,000 people arrive at London Bridge each morning). This was that great accessible lost public space:
 
 
And here it is now, with the public cruelly denied access:
 
I've had a few drinks there on a summer evening, and there were more people sitting, talking and laughing than used to commute from the old station. Private developers have turned a dead space, where public space amounted to disused concrete railway platforms, into an accessible and fun courtyard. I struggle to see how this is anything but a good thing.
 
This miserabilist paean for the lost glories of British Rail tea, and a three month waiting list for a crackly landline from BT, and the good old days where working class people could find a decent pit in which to catch silicosis and die at 50, while their middle class representatives could get a proper grant to explore post-modern themes of orientalist post-structuralism is reactionary bullshit that is fundamentally indistinguishable from UKIP's blinkered, one-eyed 1950s nostalgia. Both have their cartoonish enemies (for Martin it's, astonishingly, "Qatari, Saudi, Russian, Indian, Chinese, some UK hedge funds...dicks in haircuts 'doing business'") and both just wish we could turn the clock back, forget all this nonsense about globalisation and go back to those comforting days when Nanny would look after us (for Martin, that's a metaphorical all-providing state; for UKIP I get the feeling it's often a bit more literal).
 
This is a great time to be alive - the best there's ever been. Things are getting better still. London is bigger now than it was, richer now than it was, prettier now than it was and basically better now than it was. That's why everyone wants to come and live here.

Friday, February 13, 2015

More tax! Yay!

Oh, while I'm on the subject, Philip Collins makes the following point about the Tories and tax:
Last week, Mr Cameron refused to say why he would not force hedge funds to pay stamp duty on stock market transactions. I am sure the motives of the hedge-fund impresarios who donate to the Tories are as pure as the driven snow on the slopes of Verbier. No doubt they are all keen to see the national roll-out of universal credit rather than, say, a crony place in the House of Lords or favourable tax treatment for hedge funds. So why the reluctance?
PMQs is a spectacularly useless format for getting actual answers to good faith questions. This was the question from Ed Miliband:
Everyone pays stamp duty on stock market transactions except those involved in hedge funds, who are allowed to avoid it. That is costing many hundreds of millions of pounds. Why is the Prime Minister refusing to act?
It's a direct question. But it's a very difficult one to answer for two reasons. The first is that the premise of the question is untrue. Intermediary tax relief applies to institutions that deal in stock, and has done since 1997 (via the inserted s.80A Finance Act 1986). Hedge funds don't actually benefit directly from this exemption, what they do is trade exposure to shares held by the banks, rather than trade the shares themselves (so-called "contracts for difference"). Since the banks are exempt from paying SDRT on the shares at the heart of the CFD, there is no SDRT payable at any point in the transaction. It's not just hedge funds that do this either - probably the largest beneficiaries are pension funds. What Labour are asking for, therefore, is not that hedge funds should stop getting special treatment through the tax code, it is that hedge funds should start getting special treatment through the tax code.

As a bonus, there is no legal definition of "hedge fund", and so legislating to prevent them utilising contracts for difference would be non-trivial.

The second reason this is a hard question to answer is that it is a highly technical question on an obscure part of tax law that has been left relatively undisturbed since the late 90s. Without prior warning, there is simply no way that any Prime Minister could answer it. Given that warning, a competent answer could look something like this:
As the Honourable Member is surely aware, hedge funds do not qualify for the intermediary exemption on SDRT. That exemption applies principally to investment banks, and was introduced in order to increase liquidity in the stock market - to the great benefit of the economy. The Government has no plans to abolish this general exemption, which is of most benefit to our pension funds. It was, in fact, introduced in by 1997 by the Member for Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath. I must say it is rather surprising to see that the party opposite are so keen to reverse one of the few entirely sensible policies they introduced when last in Government.
As it is, it was just an excuse for yah-boo gotcha-ism.

Tax Avoidance

I nearly became a tax lawyer. The thought still haunts me. There is something chilling about the memory of trying to parse the 18,000 pages of Tolley's Yellow and Orange books, or of the hours spent waiting for someone at HMRC to pick up the damn phone.

What it did teach me, however, was an understanding of the fiendish complexity involved in navigating the English tax system. Any corporate deal is massively complicated by its tax implications - many transactions incur such a large potential tax exposure that they are simply not viable as a result. In most cases specific exemptions apply for precisely this reason - to prevent legitimate business activity being stifled by unintended tax charges. Structuring a deal, therefore, involves a great deal of tax advice, to ensure that the deal doesn't become liable for massive tax charges.

This, obviously, is tax avoidance, and sophisticated tax avoidance at that. Lawyers' and accountants' jobs are entirely dependent on piloting corporates and individuals through the weird and incomprehensible channels that a century's accretion of taxes, exemptions and anomalies have created. This is an area defined by its ambiguity - while tax avoidance measures will be held invalid if they were entered into solely to avoid tax, this is a pretty unclear benchmark. The 2009 Code of Practice for banking says that a bank "should not engage in tax planning other than that which supports genuine commercial activity", which goes some way towards clarity, but stops short of actually reaching it.

The long and the short of it therefore is that, as Lord Fink says, more or elss everyone avoids tax to a certain degree. This is obviously true of all companies and rich people - when dealing with large sums of money, unless you actually take positive steps to maximise your tax liability (and if anyone does this, I've never heard of it) you will be avoiding tax to an extent. It is also true of most people in more normal circumstances. Paying into an ISA, or into a pension avoids paying tax. Hell, if your definition of tax avoidance is just "not paying all the tax you possibly could" then buying orange squash instead of orange juice means you're avoiding paying VAT.

The conflation of tax avoidance with tax evasion, therefore, is pretty disingenuous. Ed Miliband is having a great time at the moment calling people "tax avoiders", but this as swords go, this is a pretty double-edged one. There are a lot of rich people in the Labour party, and I doubt any of them wish their tax activities being subject to that much scrutiny. Ed himself used a Deed of Variation to protect himself from a potential IHT liability on his parents' house (the fact that he didn't face an IHT charge is irrelevant - the purpose of the Deed was to avoid a potential liability). Tony Benn used a trust structure to minimise IHT expsoure on his death. More obviously, dozens of Labour MPs 'flipped' their second homes to avoid a CGT liability. There are very few clean hands in all of this, and no winners from a 'back to basics' on tax.

It may be, as Phillip Collins says, that linking Tories to tax avoidance is good politics for Labour in the short-term. In the longer term, however, I suspect that all it does is make life harder for everyone.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Is Smythson based in a tax haven?

There's a fun little story in the Daily Mail that plays perfectly to a whole string of prejudices.
Awkward! Luxury leather goods firm Smythson where PM's wife Samantha Cameron works is based in a tax haven.
Crivens! A tax avoider at the heart of Downing Street!
So there must have been an awkward conversation over the Number 10 breakfast table this morning after it emerged the Prime Minister's wife Samantha works for a company which is now based in a tax haven. Luxury leather goods firm Smythson, where Mrs Cameron is a creative consultant, is owned through a holding company in Luxembourg and linked to a secretive trust in the Channel Island of Guernsey, another well-known tax haven
The meat in this sandwich is down at the bottom of the page:
Smythson is owned and run by secretive Egypt-born Frenchman Jacques Bahbout, who bought the group for £18m in 2009 through his Italian handbag manufacturer Tivoli Group... Details in the firm’s annual accounts filed at Companies House show Holdsmyth is owned by ‘a company incorporated in Luxembourg’ and is ultimately controlled by ‘Ogier Trustee (Jersey) Ltd as trustees of the Barracuda Trust, a trust settled in Guernsey’


As a bonus, exactly the same story appeared in the Mirror more than a year ago.

Is there anything to this story? Not really. The Smythson brand and stores are owned by Holdsmyth, a UK-registered company with its registered office in Bond Street. So, the headline's not true - Smythson is based in London, which is only a tax haven if you believe Nick Shaxson. Any profits made by Holdsmyth will, obviously, be liable to corporation tax here. Holdsmyth itself is owned by a Luxembourg company (Greenwill SA), which is the Holdco for Tivoli Group SA, the Italian company owned by Bahbout.

All that's happened is that the Mail (and the Mirror this time last year) have read Holdsmyth's accounts and hyperventilated at the mention of foreigners. This one's a #QTWTAIN for John Rentoul's series.

Thankless jobs

Ben Stokes has made the national selectors look "ridiculous" for leaving him out of the World Cup squad, says ex-England captain Paul Collingwood.

In fairness, that was a ridiculous innings. 15 sixes, and 150 off 80. 3 wickets as well. Why on earth is this superstar not in Australia, instead of the useless Ravi Bopara, who's managed 57 runs in the Tri Series at an average of 14 (and a strike rate of 57) and hasn't taken a wicket in his last 14 games? What are the idiot selectors playing at??

Well, the last time Bopara was dropped, back in the summer, he promptly averaged over 50 for the Lions (and under 30 with the ball), and was re-selected for the Sri Lanka tour where he was England's third highest scorer. Meanwhile...

7.3, 10.7. These are, respectively, superstar Ben Stokes's batting average and economy rate from the last time he played an ODI series for England. I can't give a bowling average, because he didn't take a wicket. Stokes was beyond hopeless on that tour - he was unselectable. He couldn't get the ball off the square when he batted, and he couldn't pitch it on the square when he bowled.

Selectors take a lot of stick, often fairly, often not. But it's very hard to blame them for not picking Stokes for the World Cup. The fact that he's woken up in South Africa is fantastic news, and if there's a last minute injury, he looks a shoe-in as a sub. But don't blame the selectors for Stokes being crap in Sri Lanka.