Freedom Back?

New era freedom

There are signs that people-power is beginning to flex its muscle. This coming weekend the World Freedom Alliance (WFA) is organising a series of ‘demonstrations for freedom and democracy’ – literally across the globe, with especially large ones planned for the major Western capital cities, including London.

The idea that governments can tell us to stay at home – and that we, as individuals, are unclean biohazards – is an idea that’s wearing rather thin. Freedom was hard won. Its demise isn’t being accepted by a growing number who just don’t really like the look of the new, reset, normal.

Many of us who have been opposed to lockdown as a policy response to a coronavirus have been doing as much as we can to register our view that liberal democracies just don’t do this kind of thing. It’s clear that agencies and corporations are pulling strings. The media (or, rather, the legacy media as activists in the WFA call it) hasn’t really been saying much about that. The BBC has become a propagandist. Other outlets are now so dependent on government advertising spend that their futures depend on not upsetting big brother.

So those of us with a tendency towards editorial ranting have done our bit by writing for the few independent media outlets that have had the courage to take a stand. I’ve written on my own blog, Medium, Spiked, The Conservative Woman – and have conducted pro bono work for some of the more active campaign groups. But there comes a time when new titles need to be spawned. And this is it.

The new era, as far as I’m concerned, isn’t about resetting. It’s about reclaiming: freedom of speech, freedom to associate, freedom to protest. Those are three of the most fundamental pillars of Western democracy and civilisation. Authoritarian governments lockdown and repress and force people to stay at home. Democratic governments don’t – or, rather, shouldn’t. When they have a manufactured excuse – a pseudo-pandemic – they seem to be able to do what they like.

But the police suppression of citizens claiming their right to protest was something of a turning point. The BBC’s Mark Easton implied as much in yesterday’s BBC news reports. And now attention has turned to parliament where, this week, MPs get to debate and vote on increasing police powers to clamp down on protest – and on the extension of the Coronavirus Act.

Like Easton I sense that the tide is turning. But we need to discuss what comes after the shock of the new: the new era after democracy was taken away from us without most people even noticing. Perhaps society was bought. Furlough payments, home working and cheap loan money has created a new dependent class. But the cost to the nation has been crippling – to the extent that many are even questioning whether money loses its ability to be a store of value (enter the negative interest rate).

Hence this site. I know that many have views and want to take part in the debate. Please participate. If you’d like to be published please send me your pitch ideas.

Met Ball

Today the Metropolitan Police is in disarray. The government is blame-gaming and the government’s lockdown policy is in tatters.

Yesterday’s vigils across the UK, in honour of Sarah Everard, were peaceful and dignified. It would appear that the vigil in Clapham Common was no different. But, despite that, the operational decision was taken and the police weighed-in to the crowd, arresting attendees, and wrestling some to the ground. This, apparently, was to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Today, AC Helen Ball, from the Metropolitan Police, issued a statement. Clearly the Met is spooked. Social media is awash with video footage showing young women being pinned to the ground by multiple officers. Several of the video sequences have had millions of views, across the world. Hardly surprising. This is the United Kingdom – until last March one of the world’s greatest liberal democracies where the right to protest was sacrosanct.

Last night, in our nation’s capital, the Met Police decided to weigh-in to suppress what it deemed to be a protest, not a vigil. In short, its justification for the over-the-top response was based on the claim that it was breaking up a vigil that had turned into an illegal protest – made illegal by the draconian Coronavirus Act.

There is much hypocrisy on display today. From the Mayor of London to MPs and various other lockdown advocates across the political piste, there is much criticism being heaped on the Met Police for excessive use of force. But this all rings rather hollow when, for over a year, there has been barely any dissent in response to lockdown. The Labour Party was clamouring for a national lockdown weeks before the current one came into force. And with the Coronavirus Act comes all the paraphernalia of coercive authoritarianism – much in evidence on Clapham Common last night.

AC Ball’s statement, probably without her knowing, is full of dodgy pseudo-science guff. She’s merely parroting what she’s been told. “Hundreds of people were packed tightly together, posing a very real risk of easily transmitting Covid-19.” And, therefore, close-contact violence was deemed necessary to enforce safety. This is policing in the UK 2021 style.

The government is, of course, to blame. The Coronavirus Act must not be renewed. The trappings of totalitarianism contained within it give the police the excuse to use the tactics it did yesterday to enforce rules that most people of right mind consider ridiculous.

The process of dismantling is well overdue. Lockdown is a failed, Chinese-designed, policy. It’s not the appropriate means of suppressing a virus. It’s killing our nation, our economy and our freedom. It’s time that it be locked in the prison of history.

Rishi’s Tax Dish

The UK Chancellor’s statement last Wednesday included lots of grandiose pronouncements about recovery and growth — but the most significant elements of his budget were tax rises that will stifle that growth.

The increase of corporation tax (business tax on profits) to 25% (for the largest and most profitable companies) will result in the UK’s headline rate being precisely twice the rate of Ireland’s — our nearest and most competitive nation for foreign direct investment.

Ireland has long played its hand as one of the most desirable places for large multinationals to set up shop. But the UK was (prior to March 2020) very successful in competing with Ireland given the importance of London as a money market. Our relatively low personal taxation rates helped too — as well as the relative size of the UK market compared to Ireland’s tiddly one. And why set up an operation in Ireland when staff would soon become disgruntled with higher rate tax kicking in (at 40%) on any income above around £30,000 (and tiny personal tax-free allowances)?

But with a Corporation Tax rate of 25% in play the semantic personal taxation differences between the UK and Ireland won’t matter that much. Twice the rate. That’s the headline. The Irish will be popping corks. And, of course, with everyone working from home what’s to stop businesses flip-flopping all over the place to suit their profit recognition needs? It’s not as though staff have to be where the office is.

The story was very different just over a year ago. The UK’s corporation tax rate of 19% was on a downward trajectory. The rate was supposed to be 17% by now, but that was cancelled once lockdown and furlough and the Covid regulation paraphernalia kicked in — and the associated spending splurge pushed sovereign debt ever upwards. It’s now at grotesque levels in order to support cripplingly expensive and ill-conceived interventions like track and trace and apparently endless furlough (i.e., generous unemployment payments in drag).

Therefore, pronouncements about recovery and growth ring pretty hollow when the most obvious basis for companies investing — having the investable profits to plough back into the business — is undermined.

Brexit was supposed to provide the UK with the ability to be independent minded and create massive competitive advantage. Some were even talking about slashing the CT rate. Northern Ireland was even provided special dispensation to set its own rate — to compete aggressively with Ireland. But that option is out the window now that it’s trapped in the EU single market — with a corporation tax now twice the rate of the nation with whom it shares a land border. And the so-called Brexit “deal” with the EU clearly isn’t yet complete when herb growers in Yorkshire are not free to export their products to another UK region. It’s pretty fundamental that all parts of the UK should be able to trade with each other unfettered. But fundamentals have been lost along with liberty during lockdown.

Where, in the past, Chancellors could talk about doing things to encourage growth we could argue the merits, or otherwise, of the policies in the context of a normal economy. Now we’re in a situation where a vast chunk of business is closed through no fault of its own. Indeed, many big/profitable businesses that would have been in the target frame for the 25% corporation tax hit have gone or are about to fall at the next hurdle. Profitable “major multiple” retail chains are like hen’s teeth and the travel and tourism sectors are decimated. Some tech has done well — but Amazon’s European operations are ostensibly based in Luxembourg (another low tax haven in the EU) and other beneficiaries of lockdown (like Zoom or Microsoft) will not be recognising the bulk of their profits in the UK any time soon.

Conservative chancellors have argued in the past that hiking corporation tax (when suggested by the Labour Party) would have the effect of substantially reducing the tax take. Businesses might move their HQ operations to other markets with lower rates. Or they might avoid excessive profits by recognising them in odd ways. Creative accounting is made more attractive if the consequence of reporting profit is a huge tax bill. All these arguments still hold. But now it’s a Conservative government that’s spending (and borrowing) at levels we’ve never seen before. Repayment of this debt will be impossible given the forecast paltry growth rates we’ll see after consumers deplete whatever savings they’ve built up during the last year of near constant lockdowns. Indeed, they may not spend it at all if they know that the ending of furlough will be followed by an extended period of unemployment or under-employment.

It could have been so different. Lockdown as a policy response was conceived by the Chinese and ill-conceived for a so-called liberal democracy. But to kick business and wealth creators when the trading circumstances are so dire for so many feels like sheer vindictiveness.

The dis-united kingdom of lockdown

Michael Deane is to Belfast what Rick Stein is to Padstow. But Padstow always had Cornwall on its side. Deane had to build his restaurant business against all the odds, in a place that was hardly associated with gastronomy. But his success and tenacity were astonishing.

Deane’s eponymous city-centre restaurant was one of the first in Northern Ireland to win a Michelin star. Restaurants bearing the Deane name sprung up across the city, from his brasserie just round the corner from his flagship eatery, to Deane’s at Queen’s, near the university in South Belfast. Deane, along with other pioneers of the Belfast food scene in Northern Ireland’s darker times, took huge risks. These entrepreneurs did so much more to restore civic pride and Belfast’s reputation as a place to visit than anything promised by a hapless Northern Ireland Executive and loudmouth politicians.

When the English lockdown was announced in March last year, it was left to the devolved administrations to implement Covid-response policies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Some of us clung on to the hope that lockdown might not be an obvious choice for the devolved regions. But the lure of furlough payments and other Treasury inducements (like Covid business loans) was too much. These Covid emergency provisions were top-ups to Whitehall’s already generous Barnett formula grants to the devolved regions.

Criticisms from the Labour Party that lockdown was too late in being implemented were echoed by the devolved health ministers. Covid, it seemed, was providing an opportunity for virtue-signalling on speed. Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon used the opportunity to be seen to take charge with daily, rambling media briefings, where she outlined Scotland’s uniquely Scottish response to Covid. Robin Swann, the health minister in Northern Ireland, suggested that people breaking Covid rules were metaphorically walking into ICUs and ‘slapping a nurse in the face’. In Wales, on the closure of non-essential stores, supermarkets were forced to cordon off non-essential items like books and sanitary towels.

Indeed, while the substance of Covid-response policy was pretty similar across the devolved regions (to an extent because London controls the purse-strings), the nuances and timing of local regulations made the situation in the three Celtic nations feel more ridiculous.

Let’s return to Michael Deane, for example. He quickly made provision for a covered outdoor area that would allow him to accommodate more diners outside his South Belfast restaurant – completed just in time for the second-wave lockdown in Northern Ireland that arrived in October. The outdoor area has never been used despite the tens of thousands of sunk costs.

And now, after Boris Johnson announced a bizarre four month-long phased programme of opening up for England (when most of the vulnerable across the UK have already been vaccinated), we have to wait for the devolved regions to cause even more local confusion and potential delay to our return to normal life.

Sturgeon complained that Boris Johnson’s briefing of the devolved nations clashed with her own daily briefing. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland announced – a week before Johnson’s much anticipated speech on 22 February – that schools wouldn’t reopen until April, and even then not all. This was in contrast to the decision in England to reopen schools to all on 8 March. Meanwhile, Wales’ chief medical officer announced that it was highly unlikely that freely mixing in nightclubs in Wales will be possible after 21 June, despite the English government saying it would be in England.

The result of all of this is a supremely complex web of Covid-nonsense regulation across the UK. More worryingly, it has resulted in policies that will damage business and the prospects for economic recovery. Many in the business community are exasperated, in particular, at the apparent randomness of the policies implemented by ministers and superannuated bureaucrats, who have never experienced the stress of making payroll every month. Never before have public servants across the UK acted so much against the small business employers in their local communities.

All three devolved regions are excessively dependent on public-sector employment. Private-sector employment in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is heavily skewed towards retail, travel and tourism – the sectors most severely impacted by lockdown. Westminster, under both Labour and Conservative governments, has tried to reduce public-sector dependency in the regions. But the response to Covid, nationally and regionally, has punished the very people who have contributed most to the building of greater self-reliance and community pride in those regions – single-minded and hard-working businesspeople.

The enthusiasm with which devolved ministers and their apparatchiks have robbed local populations of their liberty is really quite remarkable. The damage being done to education, business and people’s futures is unforgivable. UK devolution was a badly constructed project. But with Covid, it has become a grotesque parody of what government for the people should be about.

This article was originally published in Spiked.