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Wednesday 24 November 2010

A Taxing Problem For Us All

So the Scottish Parliament has flexed its muscles in order to administer a rap on the knuckles to a somewhat penitent SNP Finance Secretary John Swinney over the Scottish Variable Rate (SVR) tax stushie.

Despite early attempts by the SNP to tough it out, yesterday in Parliament Mr Swinney expressed regret for an "error of judgement", acknowledging that the Parliament should have been informed from the beginning of the negotiations with HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) over the cost of collecting the tax.

It is true that some commentators, and no doubt a fair few voters, are struggling to care about who said what to whom over the Bill for an IT system to collect a tax that none of the major Scottish parties have any intention of implementing. It is also true that claims that the power had been "lost" or even that it had "lapsed" were inaccurate. The tax varying power remains a power within The Scotland Act. The issue is one of technical capability, not legal competence.

Still there is also force in the counter argument that a power in principle is no more than wishful thinking if no practical means of exercising it exists; and that a fundamental power such as this should not have been allowed to wither on the vine, certainly not without full democratic scrutiny.

The issue of funding for HMRC to support the collection of SVR appears now to be more complicated than was obvious from Scottish Secretary Michael Moore's initial letter. In some ways this plays strongly to the advantage of the SNP since it highlights the difficulty of a devolved Government achieving its objectives when the agencies tasked with delivery are not under their control.

Conversely however, the extent to which an apparently simple and clear objective (the ability to vary tax by 3p) has become mired in administrative detail is also a timely reminder that Governments can have all the legal powers their hearts desire, but they don't amount to a hill of beans without effective policy execution.

No doubt lessons will be learned from this saga to inform the implementation of the tax provisions contained in the forthcoming Scotland Bill, (which takes forward the proposals of the Calman Commission). Not least that a detailed and public memorandum of understanding about the roles of the Scottish Government, HMRC and the Parliament might be useful.

There is now talk of an inquiry by the Parliament's Finance Committee. Many issues are yet to be clarified, but it does seem that the funding decisions were complex, and quite finely balanced. You might well disagree with Mr Swinney's decision not to commit the necessary funding, but it is more difficult to see it as entirely unreasonable.

It is on the question of transparency that Mr Swinney and his Cabinet colleagues were arguably most vulnerable, and indeed in expressing regret he has acknowledged as much. It does now seem that his statement to Parliament that he did not intend to raise the Scottish variable rate was a little like proclaiming "Don't worry, I won't shoot!" when in fact there were no bullets in the gun.

However, the way in which this tale has unfolded also raises wider issues of transparency in the political context. Specifically the extent to which the business of politics can make honesty a risky policy. Had Mr Swinney come to the Parliament seeking views on the HMRC funding request, would this have been treated objectively and sensitively by the opposition parties? Maybe. Maybe not.

If the SNP had proposed refusing to provide funds their opponents could have challenged their credentials as the party seeking greater powers for Scotland. If they had argued in favour of funding, they might have been criticised for wasting public funds on a vanity project; shelling out cash in order to retain a power they had no intention of using, (partly because the new Calman inspired tax powers are waiting in the wings).

I have written before about how hard it is for politicians to meet the expectations of the electorate. We claim to want politicans who listen and respond and yet often they are castigated for indecision, "u-turns" or "flip-flopping". Senior politicans may be many things but most of them are not daft. They behave the way they do, they play politics they way they do, because they are rewarded for it.

We may decry knockabout politics but it gets headlines and it lands electoral punches. The difficulty is that clarity, openness and honesty can be the first casualties. To return to SVR, it has been very difficult as an interested, never mind casual observer, to follow the facts of this story.

The initial letter from the Scottish Secretary, whilst opening the issue up for debate, was scant on detail and arguably rather partial when it came to the facts of funding negotiations. For their part the Scottish Government were slow to release written details of what had gone on. At the time of writing, I have still not been able to find any mention of the SVR stushie on its website. It may be there, but it's certainly not easy to find.

All of this makes it pretty tough for a concerned voter to get a handle on the facts and who to believe. Why does that matter? It matters because it is an issue of trust. We are forever being told that trust in politicans is at an all time low. Much of the blame for that can be laid at the door of Westminster politicans who behaved so badly over their parliamentary expenses.

But trust is also a problem because too often the politicians seem only to be talking amongst themselves. The focus of their energy is on winning the argument, making a case, dodging a bullet. Sometimes you can do all of these things very successfully, but is that the same as making things better?

This week saw the broadcast of "Mandelson -The Real PM?" where the arch politician of our times described himself as a "professional politician". And perhaps that sums it up. That word, "professional". It prioritises politics for its own sake, rather than as an agent of positive change. I don't mean to suggest that politicians don't care about voters. In my experience they do. Only that sometimes they may need to be reminded not to behave as if the politics is an end in itself. And that's a taxing problem for us all.

Monday 15 November 2010

Why TV Eye Candy is About More than Botox

So, do you think John Craven has had botox? Or Huw Edwards? Or maybe Jeremy Paxman and Mark Lawson have been having fillers? What do you reckon? Maybe Kevin McCloud and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall are devotees of the chemical peel?

I imagine you probably think that a rather ridiculous idea. I imagine you probably had a wry chuckle at the notion of Paxo in a hairnet shooting the breeze about his greasy T-zone as the needle went in.

But what if I said that Fiona Bruce or Kirsty Wark or Mariella Frostrup had been botoxed up? Or that Sarah Beeny and Nigella had been having sneaky injections to plump out those frown lines? That doesn't seem so ludicrous does it? In fact it seems perfectly credible, if not extremely likely.

The need for regular injections of botulinim toxin if you are to have a successful career in televsion, has been in the rather unforgiving spotlight recently thanks to the age and sex discrimination case being brought against the BBC by former Countryfile presenter Miriam O'Reilly.

The ongoing employment tribunal has seen claim and counterclaim traded, with O'Reilly claiming that she and other 'older' female presenters were axed to make way for younger, prettier faces, while BBC executives have insisted that the issue was about relevant experience for the programme's new primetime slot.

Whether or not there was a breach of employment law by the Beeb in this specific instance is for the tribunal to decide. But the general question of whether there is increasing pressure on presenters to keep looking young, and whether that pressure is greater for women, is surely worth peering at in the magnifying mirror for a moment or two.

Why does it seem ridiculous to suggest that Jeremy Paxman or Mark Lawson might have had botox? Why is it not so for Kirsty Wark or Mariella Frostrup? They are all experienced, heavy hitters in their chosen field. They all work largely in 'serious' programming where commisioners might feel confident that audiences were willing to tolerate the odd grey hair and crow's foot.

One inevitably comes to the conclusion that the key difference is gender. We expect women in the public eye to go further in pursuit of eternal youth, or the best approximation of it that can be had by having your forehead frozen by a dentist in his lunchbreak.

On one level this is hardly news. We all know that most women put more effort into looking good than most men. As former Crimewatch presenter Nick Ross put it in a Daily Mail piece inspired by the O'Reilly case "We all know women are objectified more than men...it is women who reveal their breasts, midriffs and thighs, who wear the make-up, go to beauty salons, totter on high heels and are generally held up as the personification of beauty." In summary, since women's looks are more important in real life they're bound to be on TV too. Charmingly put I'm sure you'll agree. However there is no denying that factually he's pretty much correct. While recognising that some good looking women also have talent (round of applause) Ross goes on to take a swipe at "autocuties" who leap-frog more deserving male journalists because of their televisual appeal.

But hang on a minute here. The implication of the view set out by Nick Ross is that it is somehow inevitable that women will be judged on their looks to a greater degree and that this in many respects gives women an advantage.

But where is it written that women are to be judged on their appearance more than men? And why should the fact that you have to be pretty to get a job be seen as an unfair advantage rather than unfair discrimination?

I don't want to be flippant about this because the fact is we know it does happen. We know that sometimes, particularly in jobs where appearance is important, pretty women might get a job ahead of more deserving men and, indeed, unattractive women. And that does arguably give those women an unfair advantage even if they do not want it.

But that advantage given to a very few simply enshrines a wider discriminatory attitude that women have to be able and attractive in order to get on.

To return to the very wonderful Mark Lawson. Why does it seem ridiculous that he might have fillers or botox or a chemical peel? Well, the lovely Mark wasn't really going to be in the running for People Magazine's Sexiest Man Alive title in any event was he?

But much more importantly, it's just not about the way he looks. He didn't get the job because of the way he looks. His looks are irrelevant. No-one would be so crass as to assume that because Mark Lawson had put on a bit of a timber or was receding a bit or getting jowly that he wasn't still an intelligent, insightful, engaging and charming broadcaster. His age and attractiveness are not significant in determining his professional worth.

That's not the case for Mariella Frostrup. And that, in my view, is wrong.

In any event, I have a problem with the suggestion that having botox or fillers is simply an extension of everyday grooming, like applying make up or plucking your eyebrows. A friend of mine, a former GP, now conducts minor cosmetic procedures for a very upmarket chain. If I were going to have botox I would go to her in a heartbeat. She has spoken eloquently about how safe it is if properly administered and how natural it can look and for a period I thought, yeah, why not? In five years time everyone will be doing it. It will be just like dyeing your hair or wearing contacts.

Except that it's not really. I've seen some people who look fabulous after Botox. I've seen many more who look frankly, a bit bizarre.

Often people don't look younger, they just look like someone who has had botox. It can alter your face quite fundamentally. It is also rather disconcerting to see the mismatch between the bits that have gone under the needle and those that haven't: a glassy forehead untouched by the hand of time and jowls like Marlon Brando in the Godfather. Likewise with fillers which give the face an odd spongy quality, as if your cheek bones were in training to form the base of a sherry trifle.

I'm not having a go at people who choose to do it. I have never subscribed to the view that plastic surgery is simply a sticking plaster for deeper emotional wounds. I knew a girl at school who had the most absolutely enormous comedy nose which was the bane of her life. I met her many years later after a really super nose job and she looked amazing and was 200 per cent happier.

I certainly gave serious thought to botox myself. And maybe if they did it better and you still looked like you, I'd still give it a go. But when I thought seriously about having it done it struck me that that I wouldn't want to to tell my daughter. I spend a lot of time telling her that what matters is being kind, and working hard and that good nail varnish and shoes and fabulous jewellery is the very nice icing on the cake. And how does Botox sit with that philosophy? And when I realised I would be embarrassed to tell her I realised I probably shouldn't be doing it.

I'm also not averse to a bit of eye candy. No-one is suggesting that Mary Beard should be a judge on the X Factor. I get that for some jobs being beautiful and/or young is pretty essential. There's no dignity in playing the ingenue if you're knocking on 45. Though interestingly, in cinema and TV drama there does seem to be more room for diversity, for a range of facial and body types which help convey the emotional complexities of different characters; - you can be Keira Knightley or your can be Christina Hendricks; you can be Julia Roberts or you can be Julie Walters. Lets face it would Tommy Lee Jones be Tommy Lee Jones if he looked like a catalogue model? No, and we'd all be the poorer for it.

Perhaps that's my beef with Botox, it seems to me to be anti-complexity, Botox is both a symptom and a cause of the homogenisation of beauty. But then maybe, like McDonald's, they're only giving us what we want? It's all very well blaming the media for the promotion of unrealistic physical role models, for presenting us only with images of impossibly perfect human beings, but we collude in the odd mass delusion that these paragons are what humans should look like, denying the evidence that is all too obvious every time we step out the door.

That's why it is claimed that we only want to look at beautiful people, that we don't want ugly buglies cluttering up our screens. But I don't actually believe that's true. Apart from the number of national treasures who are not beauty queen material (Jo Brand? John Sergeant?) we love, and love to look at, people in every day life warts and all.

I look at my daughter with her grandparents. At the way she gazes at them and strokes the papery skin on their hands as they tell her a story or read her a book. She does not care that they are not young or conventionally beautiful. I spoke recently to a lady in her late 70's. She was very smart and entertaining company and when she smiled her age fell away and you could see in her smile and her intelligence and the animation of her spirit, the beautiful woman she still was.

It's easy to become blase about the increasing prevalence of cosmetic surgery, particularly that designed to keep us youthful. It's tempting to just rattle off a joke about wind tunnels or staples in the hair line.

But the question of whether we can live with ourselves as we grow older speaks to a deep and fundamental need in us. It is about the acceptance of ageing as a part of living and a recognition that we can be loved, liked and respected past our accepted sexual sell by date.

If we want storytellers and narrators of substance and value, on TV or elsewhere, why can we not be trusted to find that in men and women of all ages and appearance?