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The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.
The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.

Bruges Group Blog

Spearheading the intellectual battle against the EU. And for new thinking in international affairs.

Fatal Traction: How Bad Ideas Gain Currency In Government


Three years ago today (2nd May) my MP wanted to demonstrate her responsivity to her constituents, which makes a welcome difference from the types that have allegedly represented me in the past. Unfortunately, we have locally an equivalent to Theodore Roosevelt's 'hyphenated Americans': some people who wish to embroil us in foreign matters because they still feel attached to the Old Country. Here is the text of her Facebook post:

I have long worked with the Kashmiri community to promote human rights and self determination for the people of Kashmir, and will be meeting with the leader of the Labour Party to discuss these issues next week.

Reader, would you care for us to go to war with China? For Aksai Chin, a territory in the north-east of Kashmir, has long been claimed by the Chinese as their own, and there are other parts of northern India in dispute also. Can you imagine the implications of success by Kashmiri separatists?

I hope and trust that Sir Keir - who had taken over the Party leadership only a month earlier - was able to chill her beans. But you can see the temptation to become an instapundit when you're elected; especially when HIGNFY makes a fuss of you (seven appearances to date) because you're entertainingly outspoken.

Nor is my hard-working and ambitious MP the only one in Westminster who overreaches and underthinks. Let me give you a couple of examples from the world of financial advice.

Someone in the Labour administration - it might have been in the Noughties - thought it would be a good idea to take the pressure on financial advisers up a notch. Already we had to disclose commissions payable - fair enough, though it was necessary to explain to the customer that the upfront amount was effectively a loan conditional on the business staying on the books for a number of years - but now it was time to get really good value for the consumer:

Important Bod: 'We're thinking of cutting commission rates to one-fifth of current levels. Your chaps can make it up by selling five times as much.'

Head of an IFA network: 'Don't you think that if they could sell five times as much they'd be doing it already?'

Collapse of stout party.

I guess this shows that lobbying isn't always a bad thing: there has to be somebody around to prick a particularly stupid bubble.

But there are other lobbyists ready to blow some worse ones.

Here's what I heard about how the personal pension initiative - and especially the scandal of pension transfers and opt-outs - started.

The boss of a certain major insurance company had the ear of somebody in Government in the later Eighties. He had a great solution to the problem of people tied to their employers by occupational pension scheme difficulties.

In those days, if you left a company partway through your career - say to take up a better, more highly paid position elsewhere - the final-salary pension rights you had built up with your existing company were 'frozen.' You might have decades to go before retirement and the value of your entitlement would be eroded by inflation (which hit 24% in 1975!) and wouldn't be boosted by subsequent salary increases in your new job.

Why not allow Mr X to transfer the value of his rights into a personal pension arrangement, with funds invested in the merrily fizzing stockmarket? This would liberate him, break the shackles that bound him to his employer, release the energy of a go-getter to the benefit of the economy generally as well as his own.

For after all, privatisation is always great. Deregulate bus services! Let schools manage their own budgets (and make the parking spaces bigger for the senior managements' limousines)! Have GPs run their practices like businesses and rationalise their services to maximise profitability!

The market is magic! What could possibly go wrong?

The people rushing to take advantage of this Klondike weren't just IFAs: the life companies' direct sales forces grabbed it with both hands. With a little training ex-tyre salesmen and former bookies using their interpersonal skills and enthusiasm were not just selling personal pensions to those who had no other access to a pension plan but getting clients to opt out of their occupational schemes while still in the job: teachers, for example.

Now as someone who had left teaching (more should - have you ever tried it?) I could see this was a terrible idea. It's not just that you were betting that the returns on shares were going to outstrip the results from dull old final salary income guarantees; you lost your death in service insurance, and the enhanced pension you would get if you had to retire early through ill health.

I pointed this out but, as Al Gore would say, it was an inconvenient truth. There was money to be made, and everything would be okay as long as you got the boss to sign off on the application - after that it was the company's problem, not yours.

On another occasion I told some bank reps that 80 per cent of new businesses fail, and bearing that in mind how did they feel about loading up hopefuls with debts and financial products as a condition of the loans? Answer: 'Are you a Communist?' As someone whose mother was a refugee from Red Army hordes in 1945, I was briefly tempted to offer a smack-in-the-mouth response.

All this could have been prevented much more simply, by changes in the law obliging pension schemes to uplift preserved pensions in line with inflation, and to transfer the equivalent value to another final salary scheme if desired.

But then, no banana for the smart guy talking to a Government keen to show what it could achieve.

Besides, the stockmarket was booming, and always would. There were several reasons for this, not that the salesmen knew or cared: electronic program trading in equities, loosening of credit controls to goose asset values (including houses)…

… and another Really Bad Big Idea from across the Pond: the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act that had separated retail banking from speculative investment since the early 1930s. Who signed off on that one? Why, the Punter's Friend, the Democrat President Bill Clinton - and please don't tell me he was too thick to understand what was going on.

We're all still paying for that. Ubi sunt insurance company salesforces? What happened to with-profits investments? How many final salary schemes still exist?

Why has the stockmarket in the UK halved on two occasions since the Millennium, and drifted down in real terms? At the end of 1999 the FTSE stood at 6,930; today it is 7,808 (3 pm BST); adjusted for RPI to March this year the latter equates to 3,557.

The superficially affable Bill aside, power fosters the illusion among politicians that they know what they're doing. I suppose this is because your acolytes want to stay on your good side - you are a fountain of benefits - and you are also surrounded by plausible lobbyists with their own agendae.

Oh, and experts. You'd think by now that we would be very chary of them.

Her late Majesty asked why no-one saw the Global Financial Crisis coming. Economics Professor Steven Keen estimated that of 20,000 professional colleagues around the world, 12 foresaw the debt crisis (he's since upped that to 20.) Funnily though, I did - not because I'm any expert, but because I was watching comments from certain American investors as early as 2007.

And don't let's get started on Covid with its socioeconomic and health disasters, and the biochemical mixtures whose acronym might be formed from My Respiration Needs Attention. Even now it is easier to suppress dissent - government has an ocean of the people's money and armies of censors - than to address it.

In short, nobody has a monopoly on truth and wisdom. The people must be heard and in conjunction with that the Fourth Estate must take far more seriously its duty to inform and educate, without fear or favour.

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