I’ve never been especially interested in Andrew Lloyd Webber, stemming from an acute dislike of musical theatre, and a deep-seated conviction that those over the age of twelve, who genuinely do enjoy it, must either be so vulgar that they should be cast from society, or that, mentally, they are still twelve years old.
Yesterday, however, the peer made a brief cameo into my consciousness, flying from New York to play his part in the omnishambles that is the Chancellor’s on-going Westminster End hit, ‘George Osborne Superstar’ (having scrapped previous working titles ‘Gideon Prefers Bonds’ and ‘Fiddler in the Treasury’). To the disappointment of everyone mistakenly of the opinion that musicals are all about compassion and triumphing over adversity, alas, Lord Lloyd-Webber was not voting to save the downtrodden from poverty, for barons, such as he, are rarely into that. Instead, he voted in favour of Mr Osborne’s proposed amendments to the Tax Credit system. It was the first time since 2013 that the multimillionaire had bothered to turn up – evidently, depriving working people of their benefits is a matter close to his heart. Either that or he’s taking the sentiment behind his song ‘Close Every Door to Me’ very, very literally.
Yet, somewhere along the line, someone went off-script. The nasty, undemocratic, bloated House of Lords decided that ‘George and his Technicolor Dreamsmasher’ wasn’t the merry song and dance they’d been promised, and that if they stayed silent, they’d be damned.
What we are now faced with is a peculiar spectacle. The Left never liked the Lords, but, under Tony Blair, held back from abolishing it. Instead they just hacked off arms, legs and other appendages, increasing the unaccountability of government. The remains of the Upper House were then left impaled on a spike at Tower Bridge as a grizzly reminder to all of the absolute infallibility of His Holiness, Pope Tony the Warmonger. What never occurred to New Labour, among many, many other things, was that maiming for maiming’s sake, whilst exhilarating (not unlike fox-hunting), wasn’t as sensible as reform. Left for dead, the Upper House had, until this week, largely gone about its business meekly, without causing a fuss. It seems on Monday, however, faced with a proposal (and a government) they could bear no longer, they summoned the strength to man the barricades for one last hurrah – a glorious kamikaze ride into oblivion.
Minutes after the Lords summoned their last vestiges of strength to spit one final globule into the government’s eye, the chancellor made clear that, for speaking out, their lordships were condemned; sentenced to inundation with new (and no doubt ghastly) peers favourable to his position. Ironic, as flooding the chamber with toadies was one of the ways His Holiness did for them first time round.
All this has generated a fair bit of outrage. Most of the ire has been aimed at the government for going back on their pledge during the general election not to tamper with Tax Credits. Anger also simmers within Conservative ranks among those adamant that Osborne’s song-writing leaves much to be desired (like soloist Heidi Allen). Other chorus members, David Davis being the most vocal, have suggested the impending attack on the Lords would ‘disgust’ the public.
Normally, a government disgusting the public would be received about as warmly as a Sphinx opinion piece, but times have changed. Lord Ashcroft’s raunchy novella Gaveston Farm failed to have the catastrophic effect many had hoped, suggesting that after years of over-exposure to Geordie Shore, the Great British Bake-Off and Newsnight with Evan Davis, people now really will put up with anything, so long as it looks shiny. The Tories could sing ‘Springtime for Hitler’ on repeat for the next four years and it would still be a rousing success compared to this years’ Christmas production of the Jeremy Corbyn Horror Show by the children of Islington School for the Gifted. That is, of course, the point.
The chancellor knows that the public, for all the protestations of student politicians, long and tedious streams of Guardian columnists and most BBC panel shows, are not instinctively left wing, and, rather than acknowledge this and shape their policy and leadership around it, the Labour Party has gone off in a sulk. The public, Mr Osborne reckons, will not vote for them now, and probably not even after they remove Mr Corbyn from the director’s chair – such is the extent to which people distrust it to act sensibly. All this could have been avoided, had Labour understood the necessity of a strong, reformed upper chamber to hold government to account. Without it, and without providing responsible, united opposition, they have betrayed those audience members in the cheap seats they have always claimed to represent.
For the foreseeable future, then, people should brace themselves as Mr Osborne takes centre stage, a vision in blue, and roars ‘I have heard such protestations every day for twenty years, let’s have no more explanations, save your breath, save your tears.’ The Lords have ad-libbed this bit, but free from the cumbersome Liberal Democrats in the first act and without capable opposition to pull focus, the curtain call is a long way off. It won’t be pretty, but for now, it’s the only show in town.
Another vote on Monday also demonstrated the need for strong opposition and accountability for those in power. The bill concerning the so-called ‘Tampon Tax’ was, outrageously, rejected on the basis that, as it would require the agreement of all 28 EU member states, it was a pointless endeavour.
Almost half of the UK population is affected by this, and even though private members’ clubs and pubs still (blissfully) exist, the majority of men do come into contact with women on a reasonably regular basis, which suggests that, indirectly, it affects the other half as well. It stands to reason, therefore, that at least half of the country opposes VAT on sanitary products, as only masochists would want to impose such a tax on themselves. Granted, the rise of Fifty Shades has made masochism more socially acceptable (it’s now open to the middle and lower classes, too!), and we await with bated breath Lord Lloyd-Webber’s musical version to hit Broadway, but tax, no matter how punishing and dirty, has no place in the bedroom. For that matter, it has no place in the bathroom; certainly, the treasury has no business in the nation’s knickers.
The simple fact is that at a time when our membership of the EU is under increased scrutiny, a tax that would (and should) have been scrapped in a heartbeat remains in place because elected (and too often unelected) people in other countries, unaccountable to the British public, have too great a say in our politics. Our own politicians, meanwhile, are too weak to stand up to them. What is the point of ‘having a seat at the table’ if no one will listen to you? If we can’t get them to scrap such an obviously unjust tax, which affects nearly half the citizens of the EU, what hope have we of influencing anything? Do we really want to be part of a union where these attitudes exist? It’s not even the Eastern European countries (who, if you believe some, are too bigoted to function) that are the problem: last week, that bastion of Western culture, France, declined reducing their VAT on sanitary products from 20% down to the 5% currently imposed in the UK.
My suspicion is that Europe is not really a misogynist’s paradise which doesn’t understand women; it’s a bureaucrat’s paradise which doesn’t understand anyone. EU countries don’t want to scrap the tax because it’s a nice little earner. This sentiment was hinted at by the French government in the aftermath of their Assembly’s vote, suggesting it was worth €55m to their annual budget. The British public shouldn’t have to be taxed for being born a certain sex. We already have to put up with an increasingly unfair tax system in just about every other aspect of life, a mildly damaged political system (whose participants seem hell-bent on irreparably trashing it) and a crippling epidemic of musical theatre. The last thing we need is for women to have their menstrual cycles taxed because the treasuries of Europe are no good at budgeting.