Rest in Peace, Tony Benn

Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn has passed away today aged 88. It is a poignant commentary on British politics that Ed Miliband has praised him in memoriam as a “conviction politician”. He’s right, of course; but it speaks volumes that this is used as a curiously refreshing and distinguishing feature.

Tony Benn

Tony Benn was man born into privilege who, on the strength of his convictions, fought the establishment (left, right and centre) for the right to be treated as an ordinary member of the public. He railed against inequity and privilege, he championed the rights of the poor and the downtrodden, he never ceased to advocate his vision for a compassionate and socially equitable Britain, and he shall be missed.

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Red Ed misread this one

Ed Milliband seems to have forgotten that crime doesn’t pay: his choice of which Lib Dem electoral pledge to steal – imposing a “mansion tax” on homes worth over £2million – will ultimately come back to haunt him. Doing so is unlikely to fully offset the cost of reintroducing the 10p tax rate (a 10% tax on the first portion of taxable earnings, currently taxed at a basic rate of 20%). It is, however, likely to lose him critical votes in the South East, which Labour sorely need if they intend to win the 2015 General Election and form the next government (and implement the 10p tax in the first place).

I’m not saying the 10p tax is a bad idea; on the contrary, I fully support it. Current projections all seem to agree in their estimations that the economy will not fully recover for several years yet (see table). All three of the major rating agencies (Fitch, Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s) list the UK’s outlook as negative. If Britain’s least well-off families were ever in more need of this reduction in their tax burden, it’s now.

Growth ForecastsI’m also not averse to the idea of imposing a tax on the properties of the super-rich. When a multi-million pound home is just one of many in someone’s property portfolio, in which that person is unlikely to spend the majority of their time, he or she is unlikely to feel the pinch of a mansion tax anywhere nearly as an ordinary family in need of more space. But as Boris Johnson astutely remarked in the Evening Standard on February 6th, just 10 London boroughs account for more real-estate value than the entirety of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. It stands to reason, therefore, that imposing an arbitrary price tag, above which this tax would come into effect, will unfairly hit London and the South East – and, more crucially, will be interpreted as deliberately hitting the South East.

With London house prices currently rising at an average annual rate of 9.7% (17.02.13), the mean value of a property in the capital is set to hit £500,000 by the end of the decade. A total of 8 boroughs (including the City of London) have already exceeded the half-a-million mark; in two, Kensington & Chelsea and City of Westminster, average house prices are already well above £1m and climbing quickly – a whopping annual rise of 35.6% in Westminster. It’s not all champagne, caviar and frivolous spending there, either: According to the Smith Institute, the average house in the Royal Borough (at £1.25m as of July 2012) was 31 times the average annual salary – and in half a year it’s jumped by nearly another ¼ mil.

With this in mind, possibly even before the election, this arbitrary £2m price tag would hit a large swathe of the capital and cut into the swing voters that Ed needs to woo. It is worrying that, over two years into his leadership, Ed’s knee-jerk reaction to a glaring policy gap is to fall back on the largely unpopular Brownite politics that contributed to Labour losing the election in the first place. Continuing down this path of pseudo-Marxist reverse elitism will do nothing to warm the middle ground to him and only make him more enemies. Taxing those who have money is not necessarily a terrible idea, but he can’t be seen to deliberately target “the rich”. Besides, when George Osborne targeted £2m-and-above properties with his 7% stamp duty last year (and failed spectacularly) Labour cried pointlessness as “only 1,500 £2 million homes are sold each year.” How is this idea any different?

A fairer way of taxing the property market would be to tie this mansion tax threshold to average house prices in each borough or unitary authority; say, on all homes worth more than two or three times the local average. Another idea, given that over 60% of new homes in London are now being bought by overseas investors, would be to impose a tax on homes over a certain threshold (which could even be lower than £2million) that lie unoccupied for most of the year.

RikThis would end up raising a larger amount of revenue to divert to those on lower incomes, as well as help Ed avoid generating any more of an image of a Rik Mayall-esque deluded first-year politics student brandishing a sword and charging blindly at anyone with a bank account.

The day equality crossed the floor

portcullis1This article is admittedly lengthy, but I feel it would be disrespectful to those heavily invested in the debate’s outcome to deal with it spuriously. I have done my best to keep it succinct, but (constructive) criticism is welcome. Happy reading.

Tuesday’s debate over the legalisation of same-sex marriage in the UK has been one of the most heated, contentious and frustrating debates in living memory. Heated, naturally, because of the deeply-held, irreconcilable convictions of both opponents and proponents of this Bill; contentious because of the profound way in which it will affect the future of civil liberties in the United Kingdom; and intensely frustrating due to the fact that some of the same arguments were being repeated ad nauseam, despite their having been largely addressed and debunked hours earlier.

It would be pointless to attempt to summarise the entire debate on gay marriage from start to finish in one blog post. Instead, I have a simple question:

Are all citizens equal before the law, and the court of public opinion?

Sadly, not yet. But we’re getting there.

The times, they are a-changin’

Over the past century in this country we have had a programme of progressively liberalising politics with respect to what we consider to be fundamental human rights. One hundred years ago, in 1913, the UK was a rigidly stratified, aristocratically hierarchical and patriarchal society where most of the population had no established right to choose their government or the laws that governed their lives. This government and its laws permeated the privacy of people’s private lives, criminalising that which most people (at least, those under 50) in the UK would now agree is not a deviant lifestyle choice, but a fundamental and innate characteristic over which we have as much decision-making ability as we do over our own eye colour or allergies.

Since that time we have seen:

  • the partial enfranchisement of women, at first only to those married and over 30 years old;
  • universal suffrage, where everyone citizen over 18, irrespective of sex or level of property ownership, was given the right to vote;
  • a universal declaration of human rights that offered equality and protection from discrimination on certain fundamental grounds;
  • the decriminalisation of homosexuality, so that they would also count as “equal”;
  • civil rights acts granting eligibility for this equality to minorities;
  • laws strengthening all citizens’ protection from hate crimes; and
  • homosexual couples granted some measure of legal protection through Civil Partnerships.

Oppositional MPs rightly pointed out on Tuesday that the Civil Partnerships Act was not expressly intended as a precursor to gay marriage. They were wrong, however, to infer that this would categorically rule out any future consideration of gay marriage in perpetuity.

Married women over 30 being given the vote in 1918 was no doubt a pragmatic compromise at the time; this did not, however, specifically preclude suffrage being universalised ten years later. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights did not eliminate the need to then redefine “human” or “rights”, as evidenced by minorities’ subsequent struggles for full recognition of their equality and civil rights.

As Emma Reynolds (Lab) astutely noted during the debate: “Until 1991, it was legal for a husband to rape his wife. The law is neither perfect, nor sacrosanct.

Even a cursory reason of history shows that most of this change has been gradual, so as to allow time for prevailing public opinion to change. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that every stage of progressive liberalisation has met extreme resistance from traditionalists, only for the next generation to already take changes for granted, unable to conceive of a world otherwise.

Most of those opposed to this Bill time and again returned to the assertion that marriage is defined as the union between one man and one woman, and that were that definition to be challenged, it would profoundly affect the established Christian Church. Changing the legal definition of marriage, however, will not change religious freedom in the UK: in fact, I find it mightily convenient that the ‘quadruple lock’ (quoth Miller, “We are 100% clear that if any church, synagogue or mosque does not want to conduct a gay marriage it will not – absolutely must not – be forced to hold it”) slipped their minds during the debate.

Etymology be damned

Some have raised an etymological argument, which needs to be addressed. Yes, the roots of the English world marriage are shared with matrimony, meaning the entailment of a state of motherhood. Agreed. To focus on this as a legitimate reason not to allow homosexuals to marry, however, is to be wilfully ignorant of three significant points.

1. Words change. They are not magically imbued with concrete, inalienable meanings somehow tied to the very word itself; words have the meaning which we attribute to them. Topically, the word ‘gay’ used to mean ‘happy’, and ‘civil rights’ or ‘human rights’ encompassed a different set of principles to those we would typically think of today.

It’s therefore completely idiotic to think that the word ‘marriage’ is somehow impervious to the same changes – in fact it has been changed several times, in a variety of different ways, over the past two centuries. Arguing that changing the definition of marriage is automatically a bad thing is merely pointless, wilfully blind nostalgia.

2. Who says marriage is for the purposes of conception anymore? Many heterosexual couples enter into marriages and never have children; many enter into them knowing full well they either do not want or cannot have children. Many gay couples either have children by donors or adopt them, and more and more heterosexual couples are starting families without ever intending to get married. All of these observations point to the fact that the way in which people perceive the notion of marriage today (i.e. the legal recognition of a commitment to life-long relationship) is a far cry from the institution of creating genetically-protectionist procreation arrangements.

3. What gives religious organisations the continued right, in a secularising, liberalising, more tolerant, democratic and egalitarian society, to retain hegemony over the definition of a word like ‘marriage’? For one thing, the Marriage Act of 1836 made marriage a civil right, not a religious matter. Yes, religious organisations were still granted power to officiate them, and the state continued to recognise that which religions denoted was a marriage, but the fact remains that control of the legal recognition of marriage was stripped from the Church 177 years ago. Nor did the Church invent marriage, but assumed control over validating a pre-existing contractual process in 1215, at the Fourth Council of the Lateran.

Religious freedom: a two-way street

This Bill is not contrary to the wishes of all religious institutions in the UK. All this Bill will do with respect to religious freedom in the United Kingdom is allow those who wish to carry out same-sex marriages to do so in the eyes of the law. If that is not an argument for religious freedom, I don’t know what is.

Not in my back yard

What this issue ultimately boils down to in my opinion is a simply a question of perception and association.

The only change this law will effect with regards to heterosexuals in the UK – religious or not – is the way in which people see themselves, because the identity club of ‘the married’ is set to get bigger. Grass-roots religious conservatives and back-bench arch-Tories, who currently enjoy the cosy self-image of ‘being married’ may simply just not want to be made to feel part of the same group as homosexuals. Changing the keyword around which a fundamental part of someone’s identity – their sense of themselves and their place in wider society – may be threatening to some, but it needn’t be. Fearing the “Other” in this way is nothing more than the unconscious vestiges of society’s engrained, deep-seated homophobia, based on a lack of understanding and a self-righteous unwillingness to rectify this, now manifested as a reaction to a perceived external threat and dressed up in the guise of etymological piousness.

Religious conservatives do not want to be forced to see themselves in the same category as homosexuals. If that is so, come out [sic] and say so, but don’t insult others’ intelligence by quoting scripture (whose authority over dictionary definitions I vehemently challenge) and relying on blind insistence that perceptions and terminology are not in a constant state of flux.

I will be the first to say that religious people deserve to have their opinions heard. I have no problem disagreeing with people on religious grounds, as long as a stubborn reliance on nothing but unsubstantiated dogma doesn’t prohibit enlightened and respectful debate. But I will not accept someone hiding behind their personal faith and claiming religious persecution, whilst inciting others to hateful, discriminatory or otherwise alienating behaviour towards a particular section of society who love a particular kind of person.

To quote David Lammy during the debate, “separate but equal” is “an excerpt from the phrasebook of segregationists and racists […] It is not separate but equal, but separate and discriminated against, separate and oppressed, separate and browbeaten, separate and subjugated.”

If in doubt, ask George Bernard Shaw.