tag: Britain



9
Jan 2014

The Right’s not what it seems either

Just as our notions of The Left have shifted dramatically in the past forty years, a story caught my eye today that illustrates how The Right (and I’m talking here about the mainstream right) has made a shift of its own. The story is ably summarised by the headline: Firefighters In Tears As 10 Stations Close In London.

Few stories so perfectly demonstrate the Thatcherite transformation of the British Conservative Party. A transformation that itself helped galvanise a terrible global trend. Not so long ago, the Tory Party stood for two things… money and tradition. And while “money” would often win out – it did lose a surprising number of battles and certainly didn’t get things all its own way.

Then Thatcher came in and ripped “tradition” out of the Tories. Now it’s all money.

I’m not saying the Old Tories were a better breed of economic oppressor (in many ways they weren’t) but they were a very different breed. Yet the British media has allowed them to retain the appearance of a party that stands for “tradition”. Just as the media still calls Labour “left wing”.

This matters of course, because it permits people to be hoodwinked into supporting politicians they otherwise wouldn’t. The Conservative Party, pre-Thatcher, would never have expedited the closure of London’s oldest Fire Station – a grand old institution that served the city through the Blitz and more – and then added insult to injury by allowing it to be replaced by something so crass as “a block of luxury flats”. There are people out there who still vote for Boris Johnson and his ilk because they represent “the Britain of old”, something to be cherished, steeped in a history of True Greatness. Whether you agree with that view of British history or not is irrelevant, the point is – the modern Tory Party don’t. And lots of people still vote for them because they hide that fact.

Boris Johnson
Talk of budgetary constraints would have been seen as vaguely treasonous to the Conservative Party of fifty years ago. The survival of that fire station (and others like it) would be considered a top priority to those who take genuine pride in the history and traditions of Britain. A group of people that demonstrably does not include Boris Johnson, David Cameron or George Osborne.

So yeah, British friends… vote for the tories if you’re already very rich. That’s fair enough, they’re on your side. But don’t vote for them because they’re the party of your grandad who fought in the war. They really aren’t any more.

(and neither are that UKIP bunch)

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


22
Jul 2013

A new age of censorship

David Cameron gave a speech today in which he called on British Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to implement filters on the internet in order to block pornographic content. Certain types of pornography would be banned entirely (obviously those that are already illegal, but also “simulated rape” imagery) while other legal forms of pornography would require a person to explicitly “opt in” with their ISP in order to be able to view it.

Now, this is obviously a sensitive subject (particularly when we’re talking about something like “simulated rape”) and it’s not something I want to spend a huge amount of time on – the blogosphere is full of commentary on the subject and I probably don’t have a great deal to contribute to the debate. However, I do want to add my voice to the calls for extreme caution with regards to this issue.

I’m not going to deal with the moral issues surrounding pornography. They are ably covered, from all sides, by a myriad different writers. However, I would like to request that those who are calling for filters and bans, define their terms. Because nobody seems very willing to do so. A ban on “simulated rape imagery” would obviously cover some deeply depraved stuff. The kind of stuff that would turn the stomachs of most of us.

SRIBut such a ban would also ensure that a whole host of films and TV shows are banned from our screens. Jodie Foster’s powerful Oscar-winning performance in The Accused would clearly never be permitted in Cameron’s Britain. If you claim the film does not contain “simulated rape imagery” then you have not seen it. The same is true of Platoon, Pulp Fiction, A Clockwork Orange, The Outlaw Josey Wales and dozens of other excellent films (plus probably thousands of films that are less excellent but I’d argue are a long way from being worthy of a ban).

Hell, even Akira Kurosawa’s acknowledged masterpiece, Rashômon, while showing very little of the crime that forms the heart of the film, nonetheless contains what can only be described as “simulated rape imagery”. The entire film – as with The Accused – centres on the aftermath and consequences of a rape. Are we suggesting the subject is entirely off limits? Or that it can only be obliquely referred to as an off-screen event?

On the (very few) occasions that defenders of the proposed ban have tried to define exactly what it is they are banning, they fall back on the “intent” of the film or scene. If the simulated rape is intended to titillate or arouse a viewer, then it should be banned. Which means these people are willing to allow – nay demanding – the government be given the power to ban films based on their interpretation of the film-makers intent. If that’s not close to the definition of a slippery slope, then I don’t know what is.

I know, I know, there will be clear cases where a simulated rape scene is obvious pornography. But how do you write that into law in such a way as to ensure that the government cannot decide to use that same law to ban The Sopranos, Twin Peaks and Breaking Bad from our screens? And as someone has already pointed out on Twitter, David Cameron himself owns the TV series ‘24‘ on DVD. Yep, you guessed it, “simulated rape imagery”. Nobody is arguing that there aren’t deplorable things out there; things I don’t want to see and I suspect the vast majority of those reading this don’t want to see either. But I want to be able to draw that line for myself. I certainly don’t want David Cameron or Enda Kenny or any politician drawing it for me.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion


2
Jul 2013

Free Trade, Subsidies and the CAP

There’s a post over at the Liberal Conspiracy blog that’s getting a bit of attention today. It’s called Why are UKIP silent supporters of the biggest EU rip-off of all? and it is primarily an attack on the hypocrisy of the UK Independence Party (UKIP).

UKIP, it seems, are quite unequivocal about their support for the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and wish it to continue making large payments to farmers. And yes, given the stated aims (and general attitude) of UKIP, this does represent an interesting hypocrisy – one that appears to demonstrate UKIP’s allegiance to class above principles. Whether you agree with the principle of the CAP or not is irrelevant; it clearly represents a centralisation of power in Europe. Dishing out almost 50 billion a year makes it powerful. It’s enough to torpedo the economy of a small nation after all. The CAP should be against UKIP principles. They should be lobbying hard for its abolition (even if they believe food production should be subsidised, they should surely want it done by the UK government).
CAP
That they are not lobbying for the abolition of the CAP may well be because the CAP currently benefits, to a disproportionate degree, those who least need it… the wealthy. Where small farmers are being supported by the CAP – and yes it does happen – the argument is more fuzzy, but when the 8th richest man in Britain is being subsidised by the citizens of Europe to the tune of almost a million euro per year, clearly something is wrong with the system. The benefits – to the citizens of Europe – of giving a million euro of their money to the Duke of Westminster is surely vastly outweighed by the benefits of giving 100k each to ten struggling small-hold farmers. If you’re going to spend limited funds on subsidising food production, then do it properly. Otherwise just be honest and call it by its real name… theft.

The ultra-wealthy have gamed the system, and they have bought the support of – not the individual political parties, though they come with it – but the entire modern mainstream political system. Which is why a political party that all but defines itself by its opposition to European power can support those aspects of European power that unambiguously redistribute wealth from the bottom and middle to the top.

But what about The Principle of The Thing!?

Yes indeed. The principle of European food production subsidies… what about it? I have heard right wing ideologues argue that the CAP represents a distortion of the free market and should be abolished entirely. I’m not going to address that argument right now. The people who make it are fools. The citizens of Europe can distort the markets any way they damn well please. The citizenry is not subject to the market. It is subject to them.

On the other hand, there is the “global development” argument against the CAP. The Overseas Development Institute (anyone know how reliable these people are? I have a basic distrust of organisations that call themselves a “leading think-tank”, and an initial flick through their website revealed an awful lot of fluffy management-speak and PR waffle, but very little of substance) published a short paper in which they argue that the CAP could be damaging agriculture in “developing” countries. And while they admit that the damage can’t be quantified without further research, the fact that the CAP budget far exceeds the annual total value of African food exports does give a person pause for thought. And when you couple that with the fact that the African continent is a net food importer, you can’t help but think that the CAP might be giving European farmers an advantage that their African counterparts simply don’t have access to.

And while the sophisticated right-wing ideologues might claim that’s actually a restatement of their argument, they’d be wrong about that. One argument states that “distorting markets is primarily wrong, because free markets are in principle the best way to run things”. The other argument states that “distorting markets is not necessarily wrong, but in this specific case it may be because it might be causing some people to go hungry”.

The latter is a valid argument. The former is a dangerous delusion.

The trouble is though, I think the latter argument is a good deal more complex than it appears to be… as is so often the case. And this additional complexity gets lost when people on the liberal left shout about starving children in Africa and people on the neoliberal right insist that everything would be so much better if we’d only allow the market to be free*.

Of course, first there’s the issue of just how much of the CAP actually goes to the already wealthy. I genuinely doubt that the Duke of Westminster’s land is any more productive than it would be if he wasn’t receiving that million euro prize from Europe’s citizens for owning so much land. And realistically, I doubt he’d need to charge any more for his produce if he wasn’t receiving that money. If anything is distorting the market in the case of the Duke of Westminster, it’s his own vast fortune. A free-market argument for high wealth taxation? Not that they’d ever admit it.

So there’s that… if the CAP is truly an instrument of wealth redistribution within Europe (from poor to rich) then it’s unlikely to be affecting global trade all that much. Which, weirdly enough, suggests that those most concerned with overseas development may well want to abolish the CAP, but if that is unachievable then at the very least prevent any reform from which the European citizenry could derive benefit.

Here’s the thing though… I feel strongly that the CAP should be reformed precisely with that goal in mind. And yes, even if that distorts global markets. This probably puts me on the opposite side of the fence to almost everyone discussing the CAP right now, bar small scale farmers (of which I’m not one, by the way), but fact is, I’m not a supporter of the principle of global free trade. I believe very strongly that the essentials for life should be produced as locally as possible. Yes, the scale of modern population centres makes that vastly more difficult than it’s ever been. In some cases, impossible – the island of Britain would probably have some difficulty feeding itself if all food imports were to stop tomorrow for example. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon the principle completely.

Food shortages and poverty in large areas of Africa and other “developing” countries need to be addressed as a matter of urgency. But it should not be done at the expense of European self-sufficiency in food. Let’s everyone get self-sufficient and then we can trade our surpluses in a sustainable manner; I have no problem with that. But if subsidies help ensure food production thrives in Europe, then that seems like a damn fine use for our collective wealth. Of course, we need to ensure the subsidies are targeted at those smaller farmers to whom it would make the biggest difference. Giving our money to multi-millionaires is just bloody stupid. And I hope it goes without saying that we should also be helping our global neighbours achieve thriving and sustainable food production for themselves. It’s just so important on so many levels.

Helping others achieve sustainable self-sufficiency is a moral obligation. Ensuring we achieve it ourselves is just basic good sense.

* I can actually recall using the “but there’s no market for starving children” argument back when I briefly dallied with libertarian capitalism in my teens. As a political philosophy for a grown adult, it’s a distressing state of affairs… but it’s a useful enough way-station on the path to a fully rounded intellect I guess.

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10
Apr 2013

You could make it up (but they’d think you were high)

In a statement that took few by surprise, the world’s satirists today collectively announced their retirement. “There was some discussion about continuing in a more limited capacity”, said Armando Ianucci in an interview published in The Guardian, “I thought we could perhaps scale back to a bi-monthly sketch show on one of the smaller cable channels… but when Steve Bell read out the Downing Street press release again and the words truly sank in, well… I think we all knew it was time to pack up and go home.” Ianucci, Bell and Charlie Brooker have announced their decision to open a pub together in rural Dorset. Meanwhile the editors of The Daily Mash and The Onion have suggested that they intend to remain in digital media and will collaborate on a new website about kittens.

Margaret ThatcherThe decision by satirists to “call it a day” en masse was triggered by the announcement from Downing Street this morning that the funeral of the late Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, would have “a Falklands War theme”*.

Although details of how this “theme” will manifest are sketchy and much of the planning has yet to be completed, some suggestions have emerged from Downing Street.

  • The pall-bearers will be drawn from the armed-forces and will be selected from regiments and units that played a major part in the Falklands conflict.
  • A military fly-past will be scheduled to coincide with the coffin being carried into St. Paul’s Cathedral.
  • A representative of the Falkland Islanders who lived through the war will deliver one of the eulogies.
  • Service men and women who fought in the war will escort the carriage carrying the coffin. Those injured or disabled during the war will be asked not to attend per the original victory parade.**
  • A four second loop of Kenny Everett shouting “Round them up, put them in a field, and bomb the bastards!” will be broadcast over the national anthem on all stations throughout the day.
  • Footballers, Ossie Ardiles and Ricardo Villa will be placed in stocks outside St. Paul’s and members of the public will be encouraged to throw rotten fruit at them during the ceremony.
  • The late Prime Minister’s funeral procession will stop briefly in Trafalgar Square while a carefully selected group of Argentine nationals will be drowned in the fountains.

When contacted for comment, a spokesman for the Cameron government made it clear that while “the primary theme” for the funeral would be the Falklands War, “Lady Thatcher’s legacy will be celebrated in a number of other ways on the sad day”.

“The government has also arranged for several Irish nationals to be denied food indefinitely”, he said. However, officials are quietly concerned that, come the funeral, not enough time will have elapsed for them to have starved to death (“they won’t even be all funny and emaciated by then!” shrieked a demented Norman Tebbit from the cockpit of an RAF dive-bomber above Buenos Aires). George Osborne, however, pointed out that “they will still be pretty hungry” and also mentioned that “we can always deal with them with a tribute to Mrs. Thatcher’s [Northern Irish] shoot-to-kill policy”.

“We are also planning to torture some Chilean nationals as a tribute to Lady Thatcher’s deep friendship with Augusto Pinochet. And we’ll probably beat up some queers and Pakis for old times’ sake”, he concluded.

Meanwhile, plans to burn down every building north of Watford have stalled due to a lack of coal.

* Look, I don’t want to undercut the humour of the piece, but I think I need to stress that bit’s not made up. They really are having a Falklands War themed funeral. The mind positively boggles.

** This, too, also happened. In the end, injured and disabled veterans were permitted to take part in the parade after a media outcry, but the original decision was to exclude them for fear they might depict the war in a negative light. Heaven forbid war should ever be viewed as anything other than glorious.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


8
Apr 2013

Thatcher: On balance?

On the negative side there was…

  • Support for apartheid.
  • Scorched earth monetary policy – a vast proportion of what’s wrong with the world emerged in the 80s thanks to the Thatcher/Reagan axis of evil.
  • Rampant financial deregulation – and we’re still suffering from this
  • “We are being flooded!” – speech about immigration in 1979.
  • Shoot-to-kill policy in Northern Ireland.
  • Section 28
  • The Falklands War. I don’t support Argentina’s invasion, but the relish with which Thatcher exploited it for her own political ends was vile.
  • Massive increase in socio-economic inequality – an inevitable and wholly predictable result of her policies.
  • Fatally undermined local democracy.
  • Beginning of the end of the NHS.
  • “Make a quick buck” privatisation of essential services… introducing the profit motive where it doesn’t belong and making life worse for the average person.
  • Government contempt for a whole swathe of the workforce – social workers, teachers, NHS nurses, etc.
  • “There is no such thing as society”
  • Care In The Community
  • Support for mass murderer, Augusto Pinochet.
  • Ripping the heart out of local communities
  • Treatment of striking workers
  • Poll tax
  • Staggering increase in youth homelessness
  • Harking back to Victorian morality and constant use of the phrase “family values” from a government that included Cecil Parkinson, Alan Clark, David Mellor, Jeffrey Archer and Jonathon Aitkin
  • Beginning of the end of the UK’s genuinely progressive social housing policies.
  • Sheer, rampant viciousness.

On the positive side…

  • Before entering politics was part of the team that developed soft-scoop ice-cream.

… but as much as I like ice-cream… well.

7 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


31
Mar 2013

All fools

Tomorrow is April 1st. The day when, traditionally, we’re encouraged to play practical jokes on one another. Over in the UK, the Tory government (note: just because the Lib Dems are part of the coalition doesn’t stop it from being a Tory government… Clegg’s All-Star Sell-Outs are merely craven enablers) has got a truly hilarious jape up their collective sleeve. Because that’s the date when the new tax and welfare reforms come into force. “Hilarious?” Well, historically speaking, heaping misery upon the poor and vulnerable has generally provided an endless source of amusement for those in power.

Iain Duncan-Smith (the face of evil)Make no mistake, what’s happening in the UK tomorrow is not an honest attempt to reduce the deficit or “balance the books”. Rather, it’s the introduction of yet another series of policies aimed at transferring wealth from the bottom to the top. Tax cuts for the wealthy coupled with benefit cuts for the poor can’t be honestly interpreted otherwise. Especially when occurring in tandem with the wholesale dismantling of the National Health Service. It’s my contention that the UK is currently witnessing an extreme example of class warfare. One wonders when the poor will consider fighting back.

Certainly, social media is buzzing with exhortations to “rise up”. But in our digitally mediated world, that seems to translate to little more than adding one’s name to an online petition. And I’m sorry to say it, but I just don’t see the Tories changing their policies because lots of people type their email address into a website.

What’s more, the last polls I read suggested that a snap General Election would result in an overall majority for the Tories (with the Lib Dems facing complete meltdown, coming in fourth behind Labour and UKIP). This is not because the majority of voters are being made better off by these “reforms”; it’s because people are apparently easily persuaded to vote against their own best interests.

… under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.

Albert Einstein | Why Socialism?

Michael Noonan (the face of evil)Of course, it’s not just the British people who are guilty of this kind of self-harming behaviour. Here in Ireland the public have been reduced to a flock of turkeys consistently voting for Christmas. The heart was ripped out of the country by more than a decade of Fianna Fáil government. In response, we voted for Fine Gael – a slightly more right wing party whose policies were essentially identical to those of Fianna Fáil. And then we acted all surprised when nothing changed. Current polls suggest that Ireland is angry at this lack of change… and that as a result, Fianna Fáil are making huge gains once again. Seriously.

A Word About Cyprus

Meanwhile, on an island in the Mediterranean Sea something strange is happening. In an attempt to save their economy, the government of Cyprus (under extreme pressure from Germany and the ECB) is imposing a windfall tax on bank deposits above €100,000. The right wing see it as an outrageous attack on private wealth (though when they learn that the money will be used to prop up the banking system, some of them reluctantly accept it as a necessary evil). The left wing, meanwhile, find themselves backed into a contrarian naysayer corner. They oppose the policy because the ECB are in favour of it. And they warn that Cyprus is just the test-case, and that this policy will spread.

To which I reply… “Great!” I mean, isn’t this essentially a wealth tax? Isn’t that what the left have been calling for since this financial crisis began?

Personally I’d have set the limit a little higher than 100k (so that pensioners wouldn’t be hit quite so hard), but even at 100k this is a policy I would support not only for Cyprus, but for Ireland and on a pan-European basis. Of course, the extremely wealthy tend not to leave most of their wealth lying around in banks, so the policy should be introduced in tandem with a tax on stock-holdings and other investment devices. The fact is, Cyprus is the first nation to genuinely force the wealthy to bear some of the burden of austerity. Despite claims that “we’re all in this together” or “the burden must be shared”, European austerity measures have hit the poor and vulnerable hard while actively protecting the wealthy and powerful. Cyprus has turned that on its head and should be loudly applauded for it.

Meanwhile, here in Ireland (and across the water in Britain) our corporate media continues to push the market-capitalist, neoliberal agenda on the people. And we lap it up willingly despite the fact that it’s demonstrably against our own interests. April Fools… the lot of us.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


25
Feb 2013

Comparative losses to Irish exchequer

Earlier this month, a chap called Andrew Fisher posted a diagram to Facebook demonstrating the relative losses to the UK treasury produced by tax evasion / avoidance and benefit fraud.

Rather shamelessly, I decided to nick the idea wholesale and use it to illustrate the same point in an Irish context. The Irish government, however, makes the exercise far more difficult than their UK counterparts. They do not publish any estimates of unclaimed social welfare entitlements. Nor do they publish any estimates of income lost through tax evasion / avoidance. However, they do publish estimates of social welfare fraud. This fact alone is extremely revealing and seems to answer the question… is our priority to balance the books? Or to demonise the poor?

However, an international organisation called the Tax Justice Network does publish a country-by-country estimate of revenue lost to tax evasion / avoidance. So that figure is available despite the best efforts of the Irish government to hide it from us. The amount saved in unclaimed payments, however, is not – to the best of my knowledge – available anywhere. If someone has a reliable source for this figure, then please do let me know in the comments.

So the next time you hear a government minister lambast welfare fraud, or see a tabloid headline shrieking about “benefit cheats”… well, the diagram speaks for itself.

Priorities

Total social welfare budget: €19.797 billion
Estimate of “fraud and error”: 3.4%
(average of lower and upper estimates – 2.4% and 4.4%)
Proportion of “fraud and error” attributed to fraud: 31%
Proportion of “fraud and error” attributed to error: 69%

Tackling Social Welfare Fraud (an Irish government publication)

The estimate by the Tax Justice Network of amount lost in tax evasion / avoidance is reported in the Irish Examiner.

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22
Feb 2013

The UK Bedroom Tax

Here in Ireland the government is waging low-level war on the poor and vulnerable. Hiding behind the utterly false claim that their “hands are tied” by the conditions of the bailout, they inflict death by a thousand cuts on those least able to sustain those cuts. A few million off disability allowance here, a tax on child benefit there… a property tax here, a reduction in the rent allowance cap there… pretty soon the poor are even poorer and even those on middle incomes find themselves bled dry. Which in turn, of course, means the vast majority of people are spending less, with inevitable negative consequences for the local economy.

Meanwhile, Enda Kenny and Fine Gael along with the traitorous Labour sycophants who toe the right-wing neoliberal line (in return for a few years with their snouts in the trough) steadfastly refuse to impose any meaningful austerity on those who can actually afford to shoulder a greater share of the burden. Profitable corporations and high income individuals remain untouched by the vicious cuts imposed elsewhere. Ireland remains a wealthy country, but the wealth is all concentrated in the hands of a small minority who are not expected to contribute to the well-being of the rest. As much as I’d like to see genuine socialist policies enacted in Ireland, I don’t expect it to happen given how much the political spectrum has narrowed over the past few decades. I do expect a modicum of basic fairness though… but it seems even such a humble expectation is thwarted by craven politicians without an ounce of decency or honour among them.

And yet, despite this betrayal of the vulnerable by those entrusted with representing their interests, we Irish merely have to look to our nearest neighbour to see what happens when a low-level war on the poor turns into an outright assault. I genuinely don’t understand anyone who votes for the British Tory party. Seriously, I just don’t get it. Those who defend the Conservatives generally mutter something about “sound economic policies” or how “business friendly” they are. Or maybe they’ll use the phrase “the party of law and order” or mention “family values”. But all of this ignores the fact that choosing a Conservative government is choosing to be ruled (and the way they run the government definitely merits the word “ruled”) by a bunch of vicious bastards without a shred of compassion who appear to genuinely enjoy inflicting suffering upon those they consider “less deserving” than themselves (a category that includes damn near everyone in the country).

David Cameron’s party consists of a bunch of small-minded, nasty little shits. Every single one of them. And even if they did have “sound economic policies” (which incidentally… they don’t!) it wouldn’t compensate for them being small-minded, nasty little shits.
Small-minded nasty little shits
The latest wheeze being introduced by the Tories is the “bedroom tax”. Leastways, that’s how it’s now known. Essentially this slice of undisguised cruelty applies to anyone in designated social housing, or receiving rent allowance. If they have an unoccupied bedroom in their house, their social security is reduced by 14%. Two spare rooms results in a 25% reduction. These are people right on the very edge of poverty (hell, many of them are already over that edge). Cutting their social security benefits is likely to leave them either cold or hungry (probably both). It is quite deliberately inflicting extreme hardship on people whose lives are already pretty damn hard. Meanwhile the British government continues to spend more on their military than all but three other nations. They continue to allow large corporations evade tax and they reduce taxation on the wealthiest individuals… they even go so far as to heavily subsidise some of the most profitable companies in the country by offering them a large, free workforce (an utterly self-defeating strategy, incidentally, and one that’s about as far from “sound economic policies” as it’s possible to get).

Bedroom taxOf course, the bedroom tax will hit certain people disproportionately. People who require carers (i.e. those with disabilities or health issues) are likely to get the most vicious kicking. I guess the Tory Party (along with their obnoxious enablers, the Lib Dems) can at least claim to be an Equal Opportunity Bully. And while it’s completely understandable that organisations who represent carers and those with disabilities will campaign on behalf of their interests, it seems to me that this is a much wider issue of social justice. Of course it’ll be a good thing if the most vulnerable manage to win themselves an exemption, but it won’t be cause for celebration. It will merely be a further example of a right wing government successfully pitting one group of vulnerable people against another. Everyone in the UK should be angry about this tax being imposed on even one person; carer, disabled, ill, healthy, able-bodied, it doesn’t matter… this is a fundamentally evil policy and its imposition will make the UK a fundamentally less just place.

For a party that claims to be all about “small government”, it’s difficult to imagine anything more intrusive than a policy aimed at stipulating the number of rooms a person may have in their house based upon their economic circumstances. People who have perhaps lived for years in a house or flat with an extra room will now find themselves forced out of their homes (or go hungry… can’t say they don’t have a choice I suppose) by a government that insists it hates interfering in the lives of people. What they really mean, is they hate interfering in the lives of people who matter. In other words, the rich.

But if you’re poor; they’ll tell you what house you can live in, they’ll tell you what job you must do, they’ll take away your healthcare and force you into debt if you want an education. Small-minded, nasty little shits. And I’m sorry to say this… but if you vote for them, then so are you. There are no longer any excuses.

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28
Jan 2013

Just checking in

Hey folks. Just a quick post to let you know that I’ve not become fed up with blogging so soon into the new year. It’s just the fact that almost as soon as I pledged to post more frequently, I suddenly secured a work contract that has me snowed under. Which is a good thing from my perspective, even if it does mean I’m neglecting you, dear reader. Not to worry though, it’s a relatively short-term contract, so I’ll be back before too long. In the meantime I’ll try to add some short posts. Mostly links to interesting stuff elsewhere, I suspect.

Today, for example, my article on WB Yeats has come round again over at On This Deity (the relentless march of time keeps the calendar spinning). If you’ve not read it before, you can check it out now.

Meanwhile, both here in Ireland and across the sea in Britain, the hyping of shale gas continues apace. “Shale gas could be worth billions!” says a man with a vested interest in over-estimating the worth of shale gas. Let’s not mince words, the exploitation of shale gas could end up being one of the most environmentally damaging processes seen on these islands since the clear-cutting of the old forests between 2500 and 500BC. And the notion that it’s a case of “shale gas or coal” is just a nonsense. Yes, renewable energy systems may be slightly more expensive from a financial standpoint, but measuring environmental degradation in terms of an arbitrary monetary system is literally psychotic. As Kurt Vonnegut pointed out, “we could have saved it, but we were too damned cheap.”

A quick “congratulations” to Novak Djokovic, world number one tennis player and the first man to win three Australian Open championships in a row in the professional era. Sorry British / Scottish pals, but Djokovic thoroughly deserved his victory and there’s no shame in coming second to such an incredible player. Now, let’s look forward to the French Open.

Finally I’ll leave you with a video. It’s been uploaded by SWP Ireland (but don’t let that put you off). Feel free to watch the whole thing on YouTube, but it’s the short speech by Vincent Browne (Ireland’s sanest political commentator) which starts about 18 and a half minutes in that I’m linking to. Most of it will be familiar to those of you who have read Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, but it’s a worthwhile listen all the same.

“Common sense” in the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.- Albert Einstein

Have a good day y’all.

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14
Jan 2013

The best we can do?

I didn’t hear the statement first hand, but I’m reliably informed that last Thursday on BBC Radio 4 a Tory MP (Andrew Bridgen, MP for North West Leicestershire) lamented the pitiful remuneration that he and his colleagues receive for the sterling work they’re doing to further impoverish Britain. By choosing a life of public service, he claims that MPs risk “foregoing Christmas presents for their children”. The basic salary for a member of the UK parliament is £65,738 (almost €80k). They also – as we now know in some detail – have a pretty generous expense account should that £65k prove insufficient. And their pension package is second-to-none.

Andrew Bridgen

Andrew “the poor are too rich
and the rich too poor” Bridgen MP

Now, let’s analyse that statement. The average salary in the UK is a little under £30k (approx €35k). Most of the people drawing that salary don’t have an expense account, generous or otherwise. And almost none of them have a pension plan that comes anywhere close to that of an MP. This leads us to one of three conclusions…

  1. The vast majority of people in the UK don’t get Christmas presents for their children (thank god for Santa, eh Mr. Bridgen?)
  2. The children of MPs either require or deserve more expensive gifts than the children of the plebs.
  3. Andrew Bridgen MP, and those other MPs for whom he is speaking, are terrible at managing their money and/or have more important things to spend 65 grand on than their children.

Alternatively, I suppose he could just be lying.

Of course, when taken out of context, Bridgen’s statement seems to paint him as an over-privileged, out-of-touch tosser of the first order. However, when placed into the proper context things look somewhat different. Because you see, his statement came the same week as his party carried out a singularly vicious attack on the living standards of the poorest Britons. In that context Bridgen’s statement no longer paints him as an out-of-touch tosser. In that context, his statement paints him as an evil bastard.

Oh, and don’t for a moment think he’s alone in this. Though other MPs might have the intelligence (and/or instinct for self-preservation) to refrain from making such offensive and crass statements in the national media; in private a large majority of them seem to concur with Bridgen. The majority of sitting MPs, when guaranteed anonymity, suggest that they deserve a pay-rise of more than 30%. Once again, let’s not forget this is against a backdrop of the majority of them voting for a cut (in real terms) of the income of those at the very bottom of society.

Those poor MPs

At the same time as Bridgen is whining about the terrible sacrifice he’s making by earning more than twice the national average (plus expenses), a magazine has published a list of British MPs earnings from the Gulf region. Gordon Brown pocketed a tidy quarter million dollars from his four speeches in the region in 2012. David Miliband fared less well with his paltry $230k. And the list goes on. These are sitting MPs remember… this is what they’re picking up despite the pesky distractions of public service.

There are people – and I’m sure Andrew Bridgen MP is one of them – who point to this as evidence that MPs are underpaid (“look how much we could be making…!”). But the notion that David Miliband would be getting paid $100k to give a speech in the Emirates if he wasn’t a prominent British MP is beyond absurd. Also, my mischievous side would like to point out to Bridgen that if he was any good at being an MP he’d probably be getting paid lots to give speeches in Kuwait along with the rest of them. Then his kids could have that diamond-encrusted Playstation they so clearly deserve. Turns out though, Bridgen just isn’t good enough to merit such “performance-related bonuses”. Which I guess means that as well as being an evil bastard and an over-privileged, out-of-touch tosser, he also happens to be bloody terrible at his job.

But of course that’s just the mischief in me. In reality I don’t think any MP should be earning a small fortune by making themselves available to wealthy vested-interests. Not only is £65k and a generous expense-account more than enough to live on; it’s also more than enough to ensure your kids have a good Christmas. Damn near everyone else manages on less.

There are generally two responses to this line of criticism (a line of criticism, let us not forget, that these people invite upon themselves when they start whinging on the radio about how difficult their life is). The first is that we need to pay the best salaries to ensure we get the best people. The second is that the whole subject is something of a distraction given how small the total expenditure on MP salaries is compared with the national budget. Let us conclusively examine and address both responses…

And by the way, let’s not kid ourselves that this is a British thing. It’s just as relevant here in Ireland (where, astonishingly, TDs get paid more than their British counterparts yet are just as eager to impose massive cuts on the income of the poor – all the while complaining about how “difficult” the decision to further impoverish the already impoverished is for them. For them.)

But we need The Best

This argument is also frequently used to defend the massive bonuses of bankers. And it’s really quite simple. The job of an MP/TD is extremely important. Therefore we need to make sure that the best people for the job will be attracted to it. We do this by incentivising them with large salaries. Otherwise these “best of the best” would find high paying jobs in the private sector and the nation would be in a far worse state.

The stream of colourful expletives that rises unbidden to my lips whenever I hear this argument would be enough to make even the most worldly of you blush, dear reader. It’s an argument that not only contains a basic (and blatant) fallacy, but is also at its core utterly misanthropic.

Firstly let’s deal with the misanthropy. Anyone who believes that “the best people” are currently sitting in the House of Commons in London, or The Dáil here in Dublin, must utterly loathe humanity. Because their opinion of the rest of us must be so incredibly low. Seriously, Andrew Bridgen MP… one of the best and brightest in Britain? I’d wager that were he enclosed with a handful of slightly slow chimpanzees, he’d struggle to emerge as one of the best and brightest in that room.

Yes, I know the idea is not to attract “the best people” but rather “the best people for the job”. But even that’s utter nonsense. Given the ungodly mess that these people are consistently making of running their countries, the argument becomes “the absolute best that humanity can achieve is a society that lurches from one crisis of mismanagement to the next”. I know there are plenty of people out there who possess such a relentlessly negative view of the human race that such a statement makes sense to them. I just think they’re wrong. I think we could do better if we had better people making the decisions. No, I’m not suggesting utopia is within our grasp – but I’m pretty sure we could manage a society where substantially less people were killed in wars, driven into poverty and oppressed by the powerful. It wouldn’t be perfect, but it’d be better than the unholy mess created by the Andrew Bridgens (or Eamon Gilmores) of this world.

At the moment Ireland’s unemployment rate is hovering around the 15% mark (it’s probably a fair bit higher than that, what with all the Job-bridge internships and Back-to-Work training schemes artificially suppressing the numbers). Our parliament – The Dáil – consists of 166 members, known as TDs. Now, having collected my winnings from my Andrew Bridgens / slow chimpanzees wager, let me place it all on another bet… given moderate resources, I wager I could find from within that 15% of the population who are currently unemployed, 166 people who would do a much better job at being a TD than the current crop. On top of that, I could find 166 of them who would be willing to do that job for half the salary.

That’s not hyperbole. No, I don’t personally know 166 unemployed people who would meet those criteria but I know enough people to understand that the vast majority of those who currently sit in The Dáil are not even “above average” at what they’re doing, let alone “the best”. And I know enough to know that the 400,000+ unemployed people in this country includes plenty of genuinely excellent ones.

Because – and this is where the fallacy in the statement “we need to attract the best by offering huge salaries” is revealed – the people who succeed in politics are not the best people to run a country. No, they are just the most manipulative, self-serving, hyper-ambitious, back-stabbing bastards willing to negotiate the appalling party political system. The best people to run a country would have a combination of skills and characteristics that included a genuine acceptance of the occasional need for self-sacrifice in pursuit of the common good, a broad compassion for their fellow men and women, excellent management and administration skills, an analytical mind capable of grasping and weighing up the potential consequences of any decision, the ability to communicate their ideas to a wide audience, a willingness to consider seriously alternative viewpoints and change their position where the evidence demands, and finally a thorough understanding of the history of political philosophy (allowing them to understand the difference between fashionable ideology and the long-term needs of a society). Yes, that’s a pretty lofty job specification, but it’s a pretty lofty job. And yes, those people do exist. Just not within the modern political system.

Fat Cats

It wasn’t perfect, but despite initial misgivings, everyone eventually agreed that firing the politicians and
putting a “different bunch of fat cats” in charge had resulted in the country being better run

What’s remarkable is that the modern party political system actively excludes people with many of those qualities. So don’t tell me that we have the best people for the job sitting in our houses of parliament. Hell, pick 166 random people from the register of unemployed and you’d probably get a marginal improvement. Add a half-decent selection process and you’d do even better. And no, I’m not arguing for a particular electoral system / selection process here – just railing against the nonsense of the “we need the best” argument when used to defend a system that excludes them.

If huge salaries attracted “the best people for the job” we would not have had a massive collapse in the banking sector. OK? So let’s put that ridiculous argument to bed once and for all.

It’s just a distraction

This is the other argument. It emerged most recently in the political expenses scandals. Given the billions lost in the financial crisis (by the best people for the job) and the debt crisis it has revealed, getting in a tizz about a few million euro in political salaries and expenses is silly, and it distracts us from more important issues.

Here’s the thing though. I happen to think that the type of people we have running our affairs is extremely relevant when it comes to these kinds of crises and the strategies we might use to solve them. If we have people motivated by personal greed, rampant ambition and a hunger for power… people who are willing to fiddle their expenses and cheat the public out of money they have no right to… people more interested in scoring petty party political points and making the other guy look “wrong” than they are in solving problems and making themselves “right”… people who go on the radio and insist that earning more than twice the national average is not enough to provide for their children, while simultaneously trying to reduce that national average… if we have those people in power then we’re basically screwed. Permanently.

It’s not a distraction to point that out. It’s not a distraction to point out that we need better people, and more than that, we need people who are willing to set aside personal greed for the greater good. If you don’t think there are 166 people in Ireland capable of that, then fair enough. But I think you’re wrong. I think we can do better. Because I think we are better.

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