Wednesday. 27/10/2021

The Monocle Minute

Image: Getty Images

Opinion / Alexis Self

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One nailed-on certainty about the UK chancellor of the exchequer’s annual budget is the photo-call: Rishi Sunak will stand in front of 11 Downing Street, the chancellor’s official residence, today, holding aloft a shiny red briefcase in the manner of a young boy on his first day of school. But while its contents are usually a closely guarded secret, this year’s have been leaked to the press for weeks.

We know that the government will raise the UK’s minimum wage and remove a pay freeze for public-sector workers. We also know that it will cut Universal Credit (a social-security payment) and raise the National Insurance tax (which contributes to the UK’s state benefits and health service). At first glance, these four headline pronouncements seem to signify the delicate balancing act involved in responsible fiscal policy – give two and take away two – and fit with the government’s much-vaunted “levelling up” agenda to spread economic prosperity beyond London and the southeast of England to communities that feel left behind. But when you look a bit closer at who these cuts and rises will affect (namely, those earning the least), you might decide that this budget isn’t about levelling up so much as holding down.

The level of taxation in the UK has been among the lowest in Europe for decades and Sunak believes that continuing this is the most effective way to encourage growth. But as inequality widens and the cost of living increases, those earning the median wage or below now also carry the highest tax burden since the equivalent group in 1945. On Monday, a group of 30 British millionaires wrote an open letter to the chancellor expressing their desire for a tax on the richest 1 per cent – a cohort that includes Sunak himself. His refusal to countenance such proposals or introduce progressive economic measures designed to redress inequality proves that, like the budget photo-call, this government’s levelling up agenda is merely a pose.

Image: Getty Images

Health / Latvia

Viral load

While the number of coronavirus cases is increasing across many European nations, Latvia is emerging as a particularly worrying hot spot. Earlier this week the Baltic country of 1.9 million reported its highest number of people being treated in hospital for the virus. Latvia already entered a new month-long lockdown last week – the first European country to do so in the run up to winter – but it might not be enough to stem the latest outbreak. Health minister Daniel Pavluts has warned that international help might be needed in the form of additional medical staff; in the worst-case scenario, intensive-care patients might have to be transported abroad for treatment. Sweden has already promised to supply equipment for intensive-care treatment. But in order to get a real grip on the pandemic, the Baltic nation also needs to address its vaccination rate; with barely more than half of its population fully inoculated, Latvia is lagging behind most other countries in Europe as its case rates surge ahead.

Image: Shutterstock

Defence / New Zealand

Rocking the boat

When the US, UK and Australia announced their Aukus security pact last month – paving the way for Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines – New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern (pictured) confirmed that no such subs would be allowed in its territorial waters. But this week, Dame Annette King, New Zealand’s high commissioner to Australia, suggested that her country might be willing to join other aspects of the security pact, notably around cyber security. Any such attempt to climb aboard the agreement could require a partial retreat from New Zealand’s nuclear-free stance, which is born from the use of Pacific territories as nuclear testing grounds by postwar superpowers.

Decades of anti-nuclear sentiment – and the 1985 sinking of Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior in Auckland’s harbour by French foreign intelligence – culminated in New Zealand prohibiting nuclear-powered vessels in its waters in 1987. If King hopes to join the Aukus pact, the question is whether the benefits of doing so are enough to challenge the country’s well-established nuclear-free history.

Image: Getty Images

Automotive / Global

Charging ahead

After securing an order for 100,000 new electric vehicles from car-rental company Hertz, Tesla’s market capitalisation was nudged across the $1trn (€860bn) line this week. Under the agreement, Hertz customers will be able to hire Tesla cars from next month; a fifth of Hertz’s global fleet will soon be battery-powered. It’s the latest sign that the era of the internal combustion engine is quickly drawing to a close. A report from UBS in March suggested that all new cars could be electric by as soon as 2030, while Volkswagen recently announced that 70 per cent of total European sales will be for electric vehicles within the next nine years. Yet upfront costs of battery-electric vehicles and poor charging infrastructure remain road blocks. In Europe, the cheapest is often double the cost of its petrol equivalent. Electric vehicles for hire will allow more people to plug into this shift but they need to be made more accessible to the average commuter too.

Image: Sotheby’s

Arts / UK

Special delivery

An original Penny Black, the world’s first postal stamp, will be put up for auction by Sotheby’s in December and is expected to fetch up to £6m (€7.1m). The stamp (pictured) features an image of Queen Victoria and first went on sale in 1840. At the time it was typical for the recipient to pay postage upon delivery but the penny stamp pioneered prepayment, allowing people to send a letter weighing up to half an ounce (14g) anywhere in the UK for a flat rate.

The example up for auction is one of three that are understood to have survived from the very first sheet ever printed; the other two are in the British Postal Museum. “The penny stamp represents the very dawn of social communication, allowing people to communicate from all levels of society and for business to flourish,” says Henry House, the head of the Sotheby’s treasures sale. The ongoing reverence for stamps serves as a reminder of the critical role that old-fashioned mail has played in our societies, even if we’re unsure whether a piece of paper is quite worth the £6m price tag.

For more on this story with Chris Harman, chairman of the Royal Philatelic Society London’s expert committee, tune in to today’s edition of ‘The Globalist’ on Monocle 24.

M24 / Monocle on Culture

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