The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator’s Notes

23 February 2017

3:00 PM

23 February 2017

3:00 PM

Last month, at Policy Exchange, I met a charming, quiet American general called H.R. McMaster. In conversation, I was struck by his zeal for Nato and his concern wherever the alliance is now weakest, as in Turkey. In his speech to the thinktank, he said clearly that Russia and China are attempting to ‘collapse’ the post-1945 and post-Cold War ‘political, economic and security order’, with unconventional forces hiding behind conventional ones, subversion, disinformation, propaganda, economic actions and ‘proxies’ such as organised crime networks. The situation had echoes of 1914, and the risk of a great-power war was the highest for 70 years. He emphasised that, ‘despite public comments by our President’, the need to combat these threats by having strong alliances was ‘inescapable’. This week, Lt Gen McMaster replaced the pro-Russian Mike Flynn after his brief, turbulent stay as Trump’s national security adviser. The appointment looks like a belated outburst of sanity.

It is almost always unwise to postpone the introduction of a big, scheduled tax change, but often tempting at the time. George Osborne, when Chancellor of the Exchequer in the coalition government, postponed the revaluation of business rates, when it fell due two years ago, for obvious political reasons. So now it is happening, and it hurts more. The current rates are based on the rental value of business properties in 2010. Since then, the scene is transformed. The internet has called the whole concept of the ordinary physical shop into question. Values have vastly altered and the political problem — as with the poll tax in the 1980s — is that some rises are huge and losers are more vocal than gainers. The political assumption always was that you could get away with changes to these rates because businesses have no votes. But it turns out that the ‘just managing’ classes lauded by Mrs May are feeling aggrieved. After all, rates — unlike corporation tax — are payable whether or not you make a profit, and many small businesses aren’t doing so. The rates are also payable 100 per cent (again thanks to Mr Osborne) on empty properties, which is why you see so many charity shops, which get an 80 per cent discount, in run-down high streets. The difficulty for the government is that the business rate raises so much money — £28 billion a year, only slightly less than that raised by council tax. Philip Hammond will not want to imperil this revenue, let alone devote mental energy to business tax reform. But the fact is that, in the age without filing cabinets, the British economy needs ever fewer square feet of commercial property per pound of GDP. So he is seeking the same golden egg from a thinner goose.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse, which is currently chaired by Alexis Jay, has an entire ‘strand’ devoted to the case of Lord Janner of Braunstone. This is strange because his is the only ‘strand’ in the inquiry which concerns an individual, and because Lord Janner is dead, and because no sexual abuse has ever been proved against him, so the inquiry falsely implies an established guilt. It is also problematic, because a civil case is being brought against Lord Janner’s estate by his alleged victims, some of which will be argued in court next month. Can he get a fair hearing? Besides, if the civil case finds nothing against him, why would he be part of the inquiry? The overall purpose of the inquiry, as restated by Professor Jay, is to ‘examine closely whether institutions have taken seriously their responsibility to protect children…’ Despite its loss of three chairs and several lawyers, the inquiry is not allowed to admit its lack of an overarching theme and re-form better defined, because the person who thought of it was the then Home Secretary, Theresa May. But when it is finally over, an inquiry into the inquiry would be interesting. It would ask whether institutions have taken seriously their responsibility to act according to justice.

As Paul Nuttall, the Ukip leader, has recently discovered, there usually comes a point in a British political career when you have to apologise to Liverpool. The origins of this custom are obscure, rather like the rule that the Cap of Maintenance must accompany the Sovereign to the State Opening of Parliament, but it must not be questioned. It is no good asking why Liverpool should receive more apologies than, for instance, Runcorn or Milton Keynes: you must just say sorry. Rather than having to stammer an inconvenient ‘mea culpa’ at a by- election it would be more sensible to get your apology in first. I suggest that all election addresses and other political products should automatically contain a short line on every page saying ‘We apologise to Liverpool’, like notices that announce ‘We are an Equal Opportun-ities employer’ or ‘May contain nuts’.

On the subject of equal opportunities, I notice that the new rules for the appointment of Supreme Court judges will apply what is called the ‘Equal Merit’ provision. This means that when two candidates are assessed as being equal in the qualities required, the Commission may use the provision to discriminate in favour of ‘diversity’. The Commission will ‘consider race and gender only at this stage’. The sole race categories permitted are ‘white and BAME’ (black, Asian and minority-ethnic, where ‘minority-ethnic’ means non-white). Is it actually imaginable that, in a job of such refinement and importance, two candidates would offer nothing to choose between them except their race or sex? Will enough people of the necessary seniority apply if they believe they may be turned down because they are male and white? The rumour is that Lady Hale, the deputy President of the court, will be its next President. If so, it will be interesting to know whether she got the post through the Equal Merit provision.

In Parliament this week, the Green leader, Caroline Lucas, complained that Donald Trump had the ‘effrontery’ to question climate science. A revealingly haughty choice of word. ‘Effrontery’ is inseparable from democracy.

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