Blogroll: Lustig's Letter
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I am a baby boomer, and there is something I want you to know.
It's not our fault.
We didn't vote for a low-tax, free market economy in which schools, the NHS, and social services were starved of cash and public utilities were flogged off to foreign-owned corporations.
Nor did we vote to strip trades unions of their powers, so that employees were left without job protection and at the mercy of zero hours contracts.
And we certainly didn't vote for a housing market which has effectively locked out young buyers in favour of buy-to-rent speculators and foreign buyers looking for somewhere to keep their cash.
It is, therefore, grossly unfair that, in the words of Yvonne Roberts writing in The Observer, 'Today, “baby boomer” is a toxic phrase, shorthand for greed and selfishness, for denying the benefits we took for granted to subsequent generations, notably beleaguered millennials.'
Next Tuesday, a major report will be published by the intergenerational commission of the Resolution Foundation, the social policy think-tank headed by former Conservative minister David Willetts. (A few years ago, he published a much-discussed book provocatively called The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children's Future - And Why They Should Give it Back.)
Lord Willetts (born 1956, and therefore a baby boomer himself) did much to encourage the idea that his generation -- and mine -- is largely to blame for the growing intergenerational inequalities that next week's report will address.
I plead not guilty. And I have good evidence -- hard facts -- with which to establish my, and my fellow-boomers', innocence.
Let's start with income inequality. It fell steadily during the forty years until 1979 -- and then rose again, sharply, over the next ten years. In 1979, about twenty per cent of the nation's income paid to individuals went to the richest ten per cent of the population; by 2010, that figure had risen to more than thirty per cent.
Housing costs? In 1985, it took on average three years for a first-time buyer to save enough for a deposit on a home; in 2015, it took on average 22 years.
Do I need to remind you what happened in 1979? It was when the Conservative party led by Margaret Thatcher was elected to government. Over the next decade, it reduced the top rate of income tax from 83% to 40%, encouraged the sale of council houses at discounts of up to 70%, and privatised everything from British Gas to British Airways, British Aerospace, and BP.
Did you know, by the way, that forty per cent of the council homes that were bought under Thatcher's right-to-buy legislation are now owned by private landords? So much for her vision of a property-owning democracy.
In the mid 1980s, the Tories deregulated large swathes of the financial services industry in what became known as the 'big bang', a name that detonated deafeningly in the crash of 2007-8. Margaret Thatcher was born in 1925, so she was definitely not a baby-boomer. Her economic gurus were Friedrich Hayek (born 1899, so not a boomer either), Milton Friedman (born 1912, ditto) and Keith Joseph (born 1918, ditto again).
Ah, you are thinking, but who elected Margaret Thatcher? Not baby-boomers is the answer. In 1979, more than half of voters aged under 35 (ie born between 1944 and 1961) voted either for the Labour party or for the Liberals, as they then were. In 1983, when the Tories consolidated their hold on power, it was the same story: 57% of under 35s voted either Labour or for the SDP-Liberal Alliance, as it had then become.
Conclusion? Thatcherism, which paved the way to greater income inequality, grotesque imbalances in the housing market, and obscene pay levels in the financial services industry, was not the choice of the baby boomers.
Boomer blaming is too easy. Yes, we have undoubtedly benefited from the profound changes of the past forty years, but they weren't our idea, nor did we vote for them. (Admittedly, however, now that we are retired and have paid off our mortgages, some of my fellow boomers are voting to hang on to what they've got.)
The crisis facing the millennial generation is a direct consequence of a failed ideology, a belief that a low tax economy benefits everyone because private wealth will trickle down from the rich to the poor. As we now know, it doesn't: all that trickles onto the heads of the people sleeping rough on the streets is the water that drips from the railway bridges under which they seek shelter.
Greater private wealth? Perhaps, for the lucky few who bought their homes before the market went berserk. But for the unlucky many, with no prospect of owning their own home, the picture is of greater public squalor: pot-holed roads, under-financed schools, shuttered youth clubs and libraries.
Verdict? Baby boomers not guilty. Ignore those who hope to turn one generation against another. Let's point the finger of blame at those who are truly responsible -- those who, like Boris Johnson, argue that greed is a 'valuable spur to economic activity' -- and let's hope the millennial generation learn the right lesson.
If you want to live in a decent, fairer society, you have to be prepared to pay for it. That's why taxes were invented.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, has been in the US on a State visit. While he was there, something very strange happened.
Their hands touched lightly. Their lips brushed against each other's cheeks. Even in public, they couldn't stop pawing each other. On the knee. The back. A speck of imaginary dandruff, flicked from a shoulder.
'We have to make him perfect. He is perfect.' The words were barely audible. If this wasn't true love, romantic fiction was dead as a literary genre.
But then, the very next day, such hurtful words, designed to wound -- how could the young Frenchman -- young? Oh yes, he was young -- say such terrible things?
'We will not let the rampaging work of extreme nationalism shake a world full of hopes for greater prosperity.' The words were like a red-hot dagger to the Older Man's heart.
Everyone was looking at him. They knew. The whole world knew. The Younger Man had known what he was doing -- it was so obvious, so deliberate.
The Older Man felt the ground sway beneath his feet. When they were holding hands, it was as if there was nothing they could not do together. They had even kissed. But now -- he was angry. Humiliated. Confused.
This was not how a Younger Man should behave. How big had the crowd at his inauguration been, after all? Nothing like as big as the Older Man's crowd. Everyone knew that. The Older Man's crowd had been the biggest anyone had ever seen. Anywhere. It had been the Biggest Crowd Ever Seen On Earth.
He had bared his soul. He had spoken openly of his feelings. What was it he had said? 'I like him a lot.' A lot. He had never said that about anybody before. Not even at New York Military Academy when he was thirteen years old.
The young Frenchman's words echoed in the Older Man's head. 'Commercial war is not the proper answer.' How could he? He couldn't have forgotten that only last month, the Older Man had said exactly the opposite.
'Trade wars are good and easy to win.' That was what the Older Man had said. Yet the Younger Man had ignored it. No, it was worse than that. He had contradicted it.
The Older Man had done everything he could to show his love. And this was how he was repaid. Before the Younger Man had left town, he had even called him 'insanc'.
Insane? I'll show him what insane looks like. Wait till he sees what I do to the Iran nuclear agreement. Wait till he sees how I twist Rocket Man round my little finger (which, by the way, isn't little at all. Fake news, folks!) when we finally get to meet. Correction: if we finally get to meet. Keep 'em guessing.
The Older Man was in a rage. He would not be treated like this. He was the Humiliator, not the Humiliated. He would never, ever declare his love again.
The Younger Man had said: 'I do not share the fascination for new strong powers, the abandonment of freedom and the illusion of nationalism.'
Yeah, right, fumed the Older Man. Just watch me as I hold hands with that virile young Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, or bare-chested Vladimir Putin. I even hugged prime minister Narendra Modi of India -- and he's got a beard! (Author's note: there is nothing wrong with hugging men with beards.)
Who knows who I'll hug next? But I can tell you this: whoever it is, I won't say I like them. Not in public, anyway. Never again.
(Note: every single word in quotation marks above was actually spoken. The rest -- I hope -- is largely imaginary.)
Theresa May learned an important lesson this week: words have meanings.
They also -- especially when spoken by government ministers -- have consequences. Real consequences for real people.
People like Dexter Bristol, who came to Britain at the age of eight from Grenada to join his mother, and who died suddenly last month at the age of 57 after being classified as an illegal immigrant and losing his job.
We'll return to him in a moment. But first, for the benefit of Mrs May, a dictionary definition.
'Hostile: showing or feeling opposition or dislike; unfriendly.'
Synonyms include antagonistic, aggressive, confrontational, belligerent, bellicose, pugnacious, truculent, combative, and warlike.
Let's bear those synonyms in mind as we consider Mrs May's now notorious promise in 2012 to 'create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration.' A really hostile environment? How about a really aggressive environment? Or even a really confrontational environment?
Words have meanings. They are conveyors of messages, both open and hidden. A hostile environment for illegal migration? What a neat, snappy phrase to aim at anti-immigration Tory voters defecting to UKIP. Not so much a dog whistle, more an obscenity yelled through a megaphone.
Look at the timing: on 3 May 2012, UKIP had scored an average 13% of the vote in local elections. The result was, according to one report at the time, 'more than enough to ruffle Tory feathers and put pressure on an already creaking coalition.' Just three weeks later, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Mrs May pulled her 'really hostile environment' rabbit out of her hat.
But when an incendiary phrase is translated into law (a law, by the way, which the Labour party leadership did not oppose, although Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott were among a handful of Labour backbenchers who did vote against it), civil servants are duty bound to do what it says on the tin.
Remember those words: 'Create a really hostile environment.'
Which brings us back to Dexter Bristol, whose story was told by The Guardian's brilliant Amelia Gentleman, whose meticulous and determined reporting over many months brought this whole sorry saga to light.
Mr Bristol was born in Grenada when it was still a British colony (it became independent in 1974). He was, therefore, a British subject when he arrived in the UK in 1968 to join his mother, who worked here first as a seamstress and then as a nurse. He believed, correctly, that he had every right to live here.
But then -- 'really hostile environment' -- things changed. At the end of 2016, his benefits were stopped, because he was unable to prove that he was in the UK legally. He managed to find a job as a cleaner -- but was sacked when his employers discovered that he had no passport. No other employers would take him on for the same reason.
In fact, his mother had tried to get a passport for him in the 1970s, but, according to The Guardian, 'the Home Office rejected her request because, although her passport included his name, it had no photograph of him and was not signed by him.'
How old was he when he came to the UK? Eight years old.
And what documents did the Home Office demand from him, when, in his late 50s, he tried to satisfy them that he was in Britain legally? Among other things, school records -- from schools, both primary and secondary, which had since closed.
Mrs May told Caribbean leaders this week that she is 'genuinely sorry' about the anxiety caused by her policy. After all, no one could have predicted that creating a 'really hostile environment' might cause so much anxiety.
Well, yes, they could. And they did. An 11-page internal Home Office impact assessment, first reported by the Daily Mail (a newspaper not exactly noted for its sympathetic reporting of immigration issues), warned: 'Some non-UK born older people may have additional difficulties in providing original documentation. Some may have had their immigration records destroyed. Some will have originally come into the country under old legislation but may have difficulty in evidencing this.'
So she knew. She was warned. But she didn't care. All that mattered was that she was seen to be creating a 'really hostile environment.' Because she and her party (and, let's be honest, the Labour party as well) were running scared of UKIP and its xenophobic, rabblerousing leader, Nigel Farage.
They could have confronted him. They could have pointed to the thousands of immigrants driving our buses and trains, staffing the NHS, providing care for the elderly and the vulnerable, picking and packing the food stacked high on supermarket shelves -- and paying their taxes.
Instead, they appeased him. To their everlasting shame, they adopted his rhetoric. They decided to create -- what was the phrase? -- a 'really hostile environment'.
The treatment of the so-called Windrush generation was not, pace Amber Rudd, the 'appalling' result of an unfeeling Whitehall bureaucracy -- it was precisely what the policy was designed for: to make immigrants feel unwelcome, to make it all but impossible for them to prove that they were entitled to be here, and to pander to the barely concealed racism that festers just beneath the surface of 21st century Britain.
Three weeks ago, Dexter Bristol, who had been suffering from depression, collapsed and died in the street outside his home. An inquest into his death has been opened and adjourned until July.
But we already know what the verdict should be. Dexter Bristol's death was caused by a really hostile environment.
It takes a truly spectacular level of incompetence for an opposition leader to allow himself to be labelled soft on anti-Semitism. What else can explain why it took Jeremy Corbyn no fewer than three attempts at issuing a statement of regret after it emerged that he had apparently supported an artist responsible for a grossly offensive anti-Semitic piece of public wall art in the East End of London?
Why else would he reply, when asked in a Jewish News interview whether he plans to visit Israel, 'At some point, yes, I will be in the Middle East,' so that it looked as if he was desperate not even to allow the word 'Israel' to pass his lips.
As it happens, I do not believe that Mr Corbyn is an anti-Semite. By which I mean that I don't believe he has an irrational hatred of Jews and all things Jewish. However, by his words and his actions (or, more often, his inactions), he has shown that he shares a mind-set that uncomfortably overlaps with those who really are anti-Semites.
In Mr Corbyn's case -- and in this, he is by no means alone, especially among those on the Left -- the thinking goes like this.
Israel is a major force of instability in the Middle East due to its fifty-year illegal occupation of Palestinian territory and its continuing oppression of the Palestinian people.
Israel was established due to the spread of a political ideology called Zionism, a racist creed that argues that Jews have more right than non-Jews to the land which they seized by force.
The vast majority of Jews are Zionists, and therefore, by implication, supporters of a racist ideology.
Conversely, anyone who supports the Palestinians must be an anti-racist, and therefore deserves to be supported, however much offensive nonsense they might spout about global Jewish conspiracies, the 'myth' of the Nazi holocaust, and how Mossad was responsible for 9/11.
Any self-respecting anti-racist must also, therefore, be an anti-Zionist. QED. (Why else, when he insists that he has always opposed anti-Semitism, does Mr Corbyn also insist that he has always opposed racism?) Correctly, he argues that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are not the same thing. Foolishly, he leaves himself wide open to criticism by consistently failing to make clear what the difference is.
Time and again, Mr Corbyn has found himself -- inadvertently, he insists -- in close proximity to the most obnoxious anti-Semites. He supported the East End wall artist without, he says, looking closely enough at his work. He belongs to closed Facebook groups on which all kinds of anti-Semitic garbage is spewed out because he doesn't have time to constantly monitor what is said there. It suggests a terrifying lack of concentration in a man who could soon be prime minister.
Time and again, those who swear allegiance to his cause slip across that line which they seem to have such trouble identifying. Christine Shawcroft, a leading member of Corbyn-supporting Momentum, and former chair of Labour's internal disputes panel, opposed the suspension of a local council candidate in Peterborough after he was accused of sharing on Facebook a piece of nonsense headlined 'International Red Cross report confirms the Holocaust of 6m Jews is a hoax.'
At Mr Corbyn's insistence, she has now resigned, although, bizarrely, it seems he's perfectly happy for her to remain a member of the party's national executive committee until the next NEC elections in June. As recently as last weekend, however -- yes, last weekend, not some time in the dim and distant past when no one seemed to bother about such things -- she apparently saw no reason why someone who shares Holocaust-denying drivel online should not stand for election under the Labour banner. Her excuse? 'I sent this email [supporting the candidate] before being aware of the full information about this case and I had not been shown the image of his abhorrent Facebook post.'
Well, excuse me if I don't buy it. Until this whole issue blew up in Labour's face, anti-Semitism among some of its members was so unremarkable that it routinely passed without comment. As recently as last Wednesday, a comment on a Facebook page called We Support Jeremy Corbyn referred to what it called 'the full onslaught of a very powerful special interest group [which] can employ the full might of the BBC to make sure its voice is heard very loudly and clearly.'
No prizes for guessing who the writer had in mind. Still, one anti-Semitic comment can hardly be evidence of a deep-seated problem, can it? Perhaps not, unless, as in this particular case, it was quickly approved by more than two thousand people, most if not all of them, presumably, supporters of Mr Corbyn.
The Labour leader insists repeatedly that not only is he a long-time campaigner against anti-Semitism but that he will not tolerate it in the party that he leads. I can't help wondering, however, why so many of his supporters seem not to believe that he really means it. Do they know something that the rest of us don't?
Perhaps they remember what he said in 2016, when he called an article by Jonathan Freedland of The Guardian, 'utterly disgusting, subliminal nastiness,' for having suggested that 'under Jeremy Corbyn the party has attracted many activists with views hostile to Jews.'
Which isn't quite the line he took this week in his letterto Jewish community leaders: 'I recognise that anti-Semitism has surfaced within the Labour party ... I acknowledge that anti-Semitic attitudes have surfaced more often in our ranks in recent years ...'
So which is it, Mr Corbyn? For a man of supposedly rock-solid principles, you are proving remarkably flexible. Or perhaps you're just slow on the uptake. Either way, it's utterly shameful.
Labour MPs who backed this week's Westminster protest against anti-Semitism are now being engulfed by torrents of threats and abuse. If Mr Corbyn wants to lead a party that embraces a kinder and gentler form of politics, the message is definitely not getting through to his supporters.
Why not? Because they know what he really thinks. They ignore what he says under pressure from the 'Murdoch press' and the 'Tory BBC'; they prefer to believe what they read on those closed Facebook pages that he supports: that the Holocaust was a hoax, the six million didn't die, and the world is run by a secret cabal of wealthy Jewish bankers.
And in case you were wondering: I am the son of refugees from Nazi Germany; my grandmother was murdered by a Nazi death squad in 1941; and I am not a Zionist.