17 December, 2015

Buy One Get One Free!

Twinkling brightly - but what did the Christmas
 lights really "cost"those involved in getting them 
into my porch? Was £6 a fair price or did it mean
that workers in China or in  UK warehouses had to 
work in unacceptable conditions for unfair pay?
The other day Pat I dug out the plastic boxes filled with our Christmas decorations, struggled in with the tree and decorated the house for the coming festive period. All was going swingingly until I came to put up the set of coloured lights that we always have in our porch. We have had this set for many years – certainly over 25 - and they have done good service......until, that is, Sunday morning! No matter what I tried the lights steadfastly refused to glow! In the end, and reluctantly, I had to accept the fact that a new set had to be obtained so off I went to the local supermarket. As Pat predicted it was crowded –“goodwill to all men” was clearly in short supply on the car park as disgruntled shoppers fought for spaces. After wandering erratically around the supermarket, I found the required lights and as there were only a few boxes left, grabbed a set. The notice above said "100 LED coloured lights £6.00 – buy one get one free" . I didn’t need a second set but grabbed one all the same and as I put them in my trolley it suddenly hit home – how cheap these things were. When I got them home this thought grew for when I put them up I discovered that they had various settings so that I could alter the patterns in which they lit up. We were delighted, but one has to ask the question how could they be sold so cheaply? “Made in China” the label informed me and I asked myself how could this clever bit of technology be produced, packed and shipped from China to the other side of the world and then be sent to supermarkets all over the UK for only £6.00 – less than the cost of two pints of beer at my local pub, or just a few pence more than a portion of fish and chips from my local fish & chip shop? Following this I ordered three air beds from Amazon for our grandchildren to use when they come to stay at Christmas. The items arrived a couple of days ago – and we are delighted with them – but again, I wondered how these things could be produced, shipped and retailed at the price?

I am not an economist nor do I pretend to understand the finer points of retailing but in the end, I know that things like these can only be sold at these low prices because of the use of technology and more particularly by paring costs back to an absolute minimum. And, in the end, this has to mean that those people who make the items are paid as little as possible. This fact was highlighted a few days ago here in the UK.

He really needed those trainers or tracksuit - or did he
just want them. Is it really Sports Direct and Mike Ashley
who are the villains - or is our insatiable desire for more and 
more stuff at cheaper and cheaper prices?
A week or so ago the Guardian newspaper published the results of an undercover investigation that they had been carrying out into the giant sports retailer Sports Direct. The company has been the subject of media speculation for some time following reports of poor management and especially of unacceptable working conditions for employees. The company is owned by Mike Ashley, a rather reclusive billionaire who also owns Newcastle United Football Club. The headquarters of Sports Direct is sited in a fairly poor area or north east Derbyshire, right on the Derbyshire/Nottinghamshire border. It is not many miles away from where I live and is one of the most deprived areas in the region, with higher than average levels of child poverty and numbers children eligible for free school meals. Historically a coal mining area the district fell into decline with the move away from coal and since then unemployment has been a significant problem. Things have improved slightly in recent months and years but despite this Shirebrook still continues to have a higher rate of out-of-work benefit claimants and a lower proportion of economically active residents than elsewhere in the region. In addition educational attainment levels in the area are low – for young children attainment is amongst the lowest in Derbyshire and at adult level there is a significantly higher proportion of adults without qualifications than in other areas. Absenteeism from schools is high and life expectancy is low. A significantly higher than average proportion of people have their day-to-day activities limited by health problems or disability. Mortality rates are considerably higher than average, with early deaths from cancer being particularly prevalent. In short, Shirebrook and its surrounding environs faces a multitude of obstacles. The east midlands of England is not a wealthy area by national standards and Shirebrook is very much at the lower end of all indicators of wealth and well-being in the east midlands as a whole.

Into this environment in recent years has stepped Sport Direct opening their huge warehouse at Shirebook. A year or so ago the Daily Telegraph reported:”Sports Direct .....has publicly fallen out with one of its two biggest suppliers, employs the vast majority of its workers on zero-hour contracts and has stores that resemble a jumble sale.....yet it has also been hugely successful. Last year its shares rose 86pc and its sales were up more than 20pc...... It entered the leading share index for UK companies in September and is worth more than £4bn. The secret to the company’s success lies in the Derbyshire town of Shirebrook, which, fittingly, is an unconventional place to find the headquarters of a FTSE 100 company. Sitting on a desolate piece of land on the outskirts of the town, which is near Mansfield, is Sports Direct’s enormous warehouse. On a wet winter day, the area feels like the coldest place in Britain, but this is the beating heart of Britain’s largest sports retailer”.

Mike Ashley at Newcastle United Football Club
Since the opening of the HQ at Shirebrook there have been a series of reports and allegations from a variety of sources about working conditions in the warehouse – the latest being the Guardian investigation. Following the Guardian reports there appears to have been an increasing anxiety amongst politicians, London’s City dealers and the stock market generally about Sports Direct, its management style and its treatment of employees. This anxiety has been further fuelled by recent less that wonderful financial results. So, the business that only a few months ago was being lauded as cutting edge, the brave business face of modern Britain is now looking a bit tarnished. When reporters have tried to contact owner Mike Ashley he has become even more reclusive and invisible than previously.

This week the Guardian (and other news agencies) printed similar headlines and reports:”....Sports Direct crisis grows as MPs and investors question business......City hedge fund boss Crispin Odey, a leading Sports Direct investor who had previously called the retailer’s founder Mike Ashley a genius, also turned on the billionaire. Odey said Ashley was “difficult to house train”..... [and]“dangerous”. Undercover reporters found how thousands of the retailer’s warehouse workers are subjected to a regime of searches and surveillance, while local primary schoolteachers also told the Guardian that pupils are forced to remain in school while ill – and at the end of the school day return home to empty houses – because parents working at Sports Direct are too frightened to take time off work. The company is “a scar on British business” said the Institute of Directors and the Guardian went on: “......Odey, a City grandee who had once been a major supporter of the company, said: “I have every sympathy for [the Guardian’s] exposés. In the fund I manage, I have personally reduced our holding substantially over the course of this year. That is partly because of the company’s problems in Austria and partly because Mike is a difficult animal to house train.....“I think he should address these issues, I really do......”. Even the government got involved: Business Minister Nick Boles said (in what appeared to be a pointed warning to Sports Direct and Ashley) “I don’t care how famous an employer is. I don’t care how well connected they are. I don’t care, frankly, how much money they have made. They need to obey the law. If they don’t obey the law, we will find them and disqualify directors if necessary.......”. And Labour politician Chuka Ummuna  branded the retailer as “a bad advert for British business” and said it had “a culture of fear in the workplace that we would not wish to see repeated elsewhere”.

Amongst the criticisms of Sports Direct were: the zero hours contracts and agency workers who are employed and have no security of employment or employment rights – they can be laid off at any time. Its asset stripping operations, the naming and shaming (over the warehouse tannoy system) of workers for not working fast enough and threats of being fired for things such as minor errors, periods of sickness, length of toilet breaks, use of a mobile phone and time wasting were also highlighted. Certain items of clothing are banned for work, and there is, it is said, “a culture of fear and intimidation”. The list of unacceptable employment practices also included the imposition of various sanctions which breach national wage requirements, the constant use of surveillance cameras to monitor workers all the time, only two short 30 minute breaks allowed in a nine-hour day, poor eating and refreshment facilities and a legally doubtful system of searching employees when they leave work and which means that in order to undergo the mandatory search they are detained on the firm’s premises without pay.

A miners' demonstration in  Shirebrook in 1907
My thoughts on reading all this was to wonder if we have changed very much at all as a society and an economy? If one goes back to the historical records of the Shirebrook area where the Sports Direct HQ is now sited it is easy to see parallels with today: ordinary workers being harshly treated by companies anxious to maximise their profits. A look at the records of the local coal mines of a century ago says it all:

I n 1898 Shirebrook miners were in dispute over the “top hard price list”. Price lists were an agreed schedule of prices at every colliery which was part of the contract of employment and could, if necessary be enforced in the courts. The men complained that the roof was bad and it was impossible to earn a fair wage on the price. They asked for an increase of 2d a ton and the removal of the under-manager whose treatment of them had become intolerable. After months of friction the men came out on strike on May 25th. Extra police were drafted into the village and the strikers received notice to leave the Company's houses or pay a fortnight’s rent in advance. On June 19th. the enginemen and firemen joined the miners, the firemen agreeing not to descend the pit under any other winders and the enginemen agreeing not to let down the pit any non-unionist miners. On August 8th. the surface workers ceased work. The stoppage lasted 17 weeks.

Over the years there were other disputes in relation to the nature of the work. It's difficult for us to believe nowadays, but in 1895 the men were told to use forks instead of shovels when filling their tubs. This was to reduce the amount of small coal each miner sent to the surface. Practices such as this were usually brought in when there was a depression and competition was high. It had the effect of increasing the profits of the owner at the expense of the miner, whose earnings were reduced. Over the years owners introduced forks with wider spaces between the prongs or screens or riddles which had a larger mesh to reduce the amount of coal sent to the surface by each miner and so it make it an even scarcer resource thus driving up the selling price while minimising the pay of the miners. An official, known as the "slack bobby" was appointed who would go around to ensure that shovels were not being used by the men.
The wide pronged forks
to ensure that miners didn't send
too much coal to the surface
The opening of a colliery at Shirebrook led to a massive increase in its population. The census figures for 1891 revealed 567 inhabitants. By the 1901 census, the figure was 6,200. People were arriving from various parts of the country looking for work. A village was built for the mine workers and their families, but unfortunately the houses were not being built fast enough to satisfy the tremendous growth in population. Some people had to live in tents and huts which were erected in nearby fields. This in turn led to health and hygiene difficulties. In 1900 a typhoid epidemic led to a heated discussion on sanitation. In 1910 Herbert Peck compared the death and epidemic death rates for various types of housing. At Barrow Hill houses were built in small blocks with large gardens and a free circulation of air, the death rate was 8.1 per thousand. But in other areas of the district where back-to-back houses were prevalent deaths occurred at the rate of 47 per thousand. In 1901, infant mortality reached 236.4 per thousand births. In the nearby rural village of Ashbourne at the same time the rate was 88 per thousand.

On the March 26th. 1907, there was a cage accident and 3 Miners Fell to their Death. William Edward Limb, aged 45, and William Phillips, aged 27. Arthur Burton, aged 36 were killed in an accident when the bottom conductor of the cage carrying the men down for the start of their shift at around 5.40 a.m.broke after about 150 yards and tipped out the three men sending them to their deaths at the bottom of the pit shaft. Two others were injured. There were 14 men in total in the cage which was vastly overloaded.

As one reads of the conditions of the miners and compares it with today there are depresing similarities. People desperate for work are employed in the most basic of conditions for the least possible pay and job security. The area is a poor area anyway where relatively few have qualifications and where there are few other opportunities for work. It is for precisely this reason that business men like Ashley site their operations in places like Shirebrook. They are often cheap to initially establish since governments - anxious for businesses to move to these areas and so provide jobs – lavish the businesses with various grants to encourage them. But, once established, the desperation of the local labour market more often than not ensures the company are able offer the minimum pay and working conditions and still meet their workforce requirements. Of course, it is true that Sports Direct and similar companies do in the end offer jobs where none were available before but the point is that they are only on offer because the situation dictates that people are forced to take anything on offer. People like Ashley would never site their businesses in (say) the wealthy Thames Valley where wages, expectations and other job opportunities flourish. He would have few takers for the jobs and the conditions that he offers. If he wanted to employ people in the Thames Valley (from where Ashley originated) then his labour costs would be huge and so would his running costs - in Shirebrook, however, he can become a billionaire "on the cheap".

One might say, well, the way Sport Direct operates is the way it has to be: people come to work to work not to chat, not to use a mobile phone or to waste time; there is clearly something in this argument. In the end, one might also argue, the business is not primarily in business to make life easy for their employees, they are there to sell goods and to make a profit. If the working conditions are too easy and lax then the company may well produce items that will not sell – and then everyone is out of work. That, of course, was the argument much used by the coal mine and mill owners of Victorian England.

A demonstration at Sports Direct with participants
dressed as workers from the past
But, as a society we have largely moved on and have different expectations. Throughout the twentieth century the move was towards a work environment that was efficient and demanding but also increasingly respectful of the employees providing various measures to ensure greater job security, appropriate refreshment facilities, a fair wages, various perks and bonuses to encourage goodwill and extra effort, or flexible hours so that family commitments can be met....... and so the list goes on. In the twenty first century, when disputes about the labour market arise it is not long before we hear the phrase “workers' or human rights” mentioned – this might be an overused and often misused idea today but in essence it encapsulates well the modern acceptance that the employer/employee relationship is a balancing act of rights and responsibilities. The employer has a right to expect a good day’s work but a responsibility to provide appropriate working conditions for his labour force. For the employee they have a right to expect to be treated fairly and in a manner considered acceptable whilst being subject to the responsibilities of giving a good day’s labour and meeting the requirements of the job.

Rescuers scramble to help those trapped in a Bangladeshi sweatshop collapse
 - the factory building was unsafe, overcrowded and overloaded 
as it produced cheap fashion items for shops like Primark and Bonmarché
Sadly, however, there is, it seems to me a loophole in all this: our modern consumer society’s overwhelming requirement that we want things cheap. It seems to me that every minute detail of the consumer society is increasingly concerned not with value but with cost. We demand more and more things and in order that we can satisfy our lust for more and more things we need them to be cheaper and cheaper. Gone are the days when people bought items to last a lifetime; now we change with the latest fashion or technology and so cost is crucial. Whether one calls it “retail therapy” or ”binge buying” the vast majority of us are hooked in some way. I did not need a new set of Christmas lights the other day – I just desired them. Next week my family and millions of families across the UK and the wider world will binge on gifts, food, drink, little luxuries for ourselves and our loved ones. And we all want it at the lowest cost. It is for this reason that the vast merchandising phenomena like Amazon or Sports Direct have grown. We can blame people like Ashley – we can consider them to be rapacious, fat cat wheeler-dealers who treat their workforce like animals – and, indeed it probably makes us feel better to deflect the blame for this situation elsewhere. But in reality we are all to blame. In economic terms, Ashley and similar companies are just filling an economic need, supplying a commodity at the price that the market dictates. We might hold our hands up in horror at the zero contracts and naming and shaming occurring in Shirebrook; we might wring our hand at the dreadful conditions in the clothes manufacturers in the sweat shops of Indian cities; we can decry the cheap labour intensive digital toy factories of China; or we can condemn the use of cheap immigrant labour picking the brussels sprouts in the fields of East Anglia for our bulging Christmas dinner table. But in the final analysis these things occur because we want to enjoy the life that we do. And we enjoy it largely on the back of and because of the misfortune of others.
We all loved our Christmas last year - but I wonder what its real cost
in human as well as monetary terms was? And without being flippant -
what did it cost the turkey? What sort of life did he have in order to be
served up on my plate at a cheap price?

This point was well made by the hedge fund manager Crispin Odey – and although I can despise his business and all that he stands for I can respect his honesty. He put it in a nutshell: “It’s that old question of citizen versus subject. Do you have any obligation to your people and to the community in which you operate? [Companies like Sports Direct and Amazon]...... don’t do anything for the greater good. They are all part and parcel of the new capitalism, which is quite cut-throat in the way it does business.........[and]we have to recognise consumers’ desire for cheap shoes is how you end up with these problems. Shoppers need to understand that these prices are only possible because every cost has been analysed and reduced as far as it will go.” Odey is exactly right – although it pains me to say it! We only get our pair of designer trainers or our mobile phone or our cheap shirt because “every cost has been analysed and reduced as far as it will go” : labour is bought as cheaply as possible from people who have no other option but to take the work for it is all that is on offer in an area of poor employment and few other opportunities. Just as the miners of yesteryear were “screwed” so too, our modern equivalents are also in a no-win situation.

And as I write this blog I wonder what was the real cost of my set of Christmas lights? Did it really cost only £6.00 to be made and to travel all the way from China and into my porch? Or was it rather more in terms of the hard work, life and working conditions of all those employed in its production subsequent retailing?

Happy Christmas to all!

03 December, 2015

"Nothing to do with me Boss"

Last night I blogged about the comments made by David Cameron in relation to those of us who disagree with his desire to begin a bombing campaign in Syria. As expected after 10 hours of debate in Parliament the dogs of war were set loose. Within hours, war planes were bombing targets in Syria. The deal is done, the die is cast. There can now be no going back. In the end Cameron had his way and with a substantial majority. This was democracy at work, however much people like me disagreed with its outcomes.

But when, as I believe it will, things start to turn a little sour will the right wing press and those who sought retribution rather than resolution to this conflict take responsibility? When Isis refuses to do what good chaps at Eton do and pack their bags and go home, when London or some other place in the UK is hit by Paris style massacres or terrorist bombs planted in retribution, when the flow of refugees to western Europe inexorably rises presenting even greater social, economic and cultural problems in northern Europe and when we read daily in our newspapers or see on our flat screens dreadful scenes of carnage and destruction in Syria and the wider middle east  will there be apologies?

I suspect not. There will, I forecast, be much hand-wringing and crocodile tears shed but no admission of guilt. Those who last night favoured a show of force will, as always, deny responsibility. They will blame the intelligence they were given or the role or actions of other easy to blame parties - Putin, or China or the man in the moon - and quietly and subtly they will move the political agenda.........and the media and political circus will move on leaving another wrecked middle eastern country, thousands or millions of destroyed lives not only in Syria and its immediate environs but in the furthest reaches of northern Europe where refugees will live in some of our already most deprived areas. These will be the wrecked lives, the detritus of the war - and they will not be living next door to David Cameron in up-market Notting Hill or attending one of his dinner parties with the Chipping Norton set in the Cotswolds. They will be eaking out an existence in the middle of some of our poorest industrial cities or in the wasted suburbs of Paris or in Brussels or Dusseldorf or Hamburg.  David Cameron and his ilk will read of the problems of these people and these areas but will never experience them or recognise that the vote taken in Westminster last night was, to say the least, a contributory factor in a continuing spiral of social unrest and the inevitable growth of divisive parties like UKIP. Cameron's quick fix solution - using our high-tech bombs and our wonderful drones to "degrade and destroy Isis" (how easy that trite phrase rolls off the tongues of David Cameron and Defence Minister Michael Fallon!) - will at the very least give the middle east and northern Europe decades of social misery and political volatility for generations to come.

But, like the naughty schoolboy caught in the act  David Cameron will not apologise when, years hence he writes his memoirs. If he does refer to it then it will be within the context of: "It wasn't me it was the Commons wot did it. We all agreed. We had a massive mandate for bombing." Except we didn't all agree did we? But, that will be irrelevant, Cameron will get off the hook. He will not do what the cartoon burglar does and say "It's fair cop, guv. you caught me in the act, cuff me and I'll do my time". No, he will behave like the playground bully who when caught always tries to spread the blame. Just as did Tony Blair, Cameron will say  "Nothing to do with me boss it was Parliament wot decided". Last night  I suggested that Cameron's actions and words were, in every respect, the actions and words of the school bully. This morning when I opened my Guardian I saw that cartoonist Steve Bell thought so too (see cartoon).

This morning's Guardian cartoon.
We are moving into very dangerous and dark times. The stakes have been raised not only in Syria but in the wider world. With last night's decision  it is my firm belief that the effects of the destruction caused by our 500lb Paveway bombs, our Brimstone Missiles (which "Even the American's don't possess" boasted a psyched up Cameron!) and the intelligence built into our Raptor Surveillance Pods will be felt not only across Europe in the sense of increased potential for terrorist riposte but for generations to come with the social, cultural and ultimately political fallout in our respective north European societies. Cameron might be right - the "war" night succeed; Isis might do the decent thing and pack their bags. Pigs might fly! But what is certain is that however long or short the action in Syria and the middle east is, the after effects will be felt far longer and more insidiously in Europe as our societies become more and more a volatile cultural and social mix where displaced people of different faiths, cultures and expectations scramble for housing, jobs and security within an increasingly uncertain and demanding economic and social climate  We should be very, very afraid.

02 December, 2015

Letting Loose the Dogs of War

As our MPs tonight debate whether we should begin bombing Syria the situation seems to me to have an awful feeling of inevitability. We have heard passionate views expressed on both sides – and in reality there is no single simple answer. If there were then I have absolutely, no doubts any politician would take it. But, in my view, given the virtual insolubility of the problem – whether or not to go to war – it seems totally wrong to take the most extreme option and "go for broke" - bomb and to hell with the consequences seems to be the message here. All logic and ethical standpoints would seem to me to point to caution, to holding back, not to take the worst case scenario. But there......what do I know?

Within this darkening scenario, however, there are one or two distinct pointers which for me  confirm my position.

Firstly all I have heard today, and in the days leading up to this debate, is what amounts to the argument of the playground bully. The government is justifying much of the proposed military action on the basis of pre-emptive self-defence – the use of military force to prevent a perceived threat. In short, if we bomb Isis in Syria then it will deter or prevent them committing acts of terrorism in our own country. To say the least, this is a dubious rationale and on past experience unlikely to succeed. It certainly didn’t help in Paris three weeks ago. This rationale and justification has been used increasingly in recent years by the USA in various parts of the world – it has, in fact, almost become the sole justification for action. And yet when the Japanese used exactly the same logic and reasoning when they attacked the US navy at Pearl Harbour in 1941 they were vilified and declared to be “war criminals” by the USA. But whatever the historical context, for me this logic is the reasoning and the whining excuse of the playground bully – “I hit him first because I thought he was going to get me” – I’ve heard that many, many times over the years as I did playground duty. It never impressed me then and it still doesn’t today.

And secondly I am increasingly concerned about the language of the supporters of military action. It is nothing less than the language of the mob – “If you are not with us then you are against us”. There is no place for considered thought or nuance in their cries. This was made clear last night when David Cameron accused all those like Jeremy Corbyn and who hold anti-bombing views of being "terrorist sympathisers". As I heard this I thought “Well, that's me categorised then I await the knock on the door from the security services!

As I thought of what he said I wondered did he mean it or did he (as many commentators infer) make this statement in the heat of the moment or in a fit of anger. Whichever, it raises in my mind the question as to how fit Cameron is to be PM. If he said it intentionally then he is making an accusation that he must substantiate. It is a serious accusation that not only the leader of HM Opposition but many thousands of loyal subjects who have serious reservations about the wisdom or the morals of bombing another country are now to be labelled "terrorist sympathisers". And, this accusation is made by the country’s leader too. It is the sort of pronouncement that a mad dictator might make of those who oppose him. If, however, carried away by his own rhetoric and anger Cameron made this comment in the heat of the moment then it seems to me that he appears slightly unstable – a worrying quality for someone who might one day have to press the red button of nuclear war. If he did say this in a fit of anger then he is simply shooting from the hip and if that is the case then I would question whether he is a fit and proper person to lead this country in these delicate and dangerous times. It seems to me that there can be no greater qualification for a national leader than that he shows measured and thoughtful wisdom, does not jump to conclusions or does not make hasty comments and decisions; given Cameron's outburst (and this is not the first example that we have had of it during his time as PM) it seems to me that he fails on more or less every point.

There is, too, another issue. A major reason (as I understand it) for considering bombing Syria is to bring some form of stable democracy to that troubled part of the world. My naive understanding of democracy is that all people in a democracy may hold varied views on matters of government, religion, life choices etc. It is, I would suggest, the very basic “freedom” promised by democracy: that we will not be vilified, abused or injured by those in power for the sincere beliefs that we hold. It is the very essence of Magna Charta which David Cameron was espousing only a few months ago on the 800th anniversary of its “signing”.  I wonder, therefore, how David Cameron justifies his “terrorist sympathisers” outburst against another senior politician and many thousands of us subjects in what I thought, until today, was a democracy. As I understand it that is one of the very things that Isis supporters are doing in Syria and elsewhere – abusing and injuring Syrians and others who disagree with their view of the world. When one listens to Syrian refugees explaining their  flight to northern Europe the one consistent thread is that they want to escape the terrible and dictatorial Isis regime in their homeland. They seek not only a better life but a life based on the sort of freedoms that democracy is perceived to offer. And, yet, they are making for a place where increasingly all reason and dialogue is being lost as extreme views begin to surface in our politics and societies; a place where our own leader seems happy to vent his spleen at those who would disagree with him. In situations like this there is increasingly less room for nuance and understanding and as we tumble into a war situation I have a distinct feeling that the mob and its political rabble rousers are in the ascendancy.

Oh for some quiet and calm reflection and thought. Read and listen to Jeremy Corbyn and he is clearly no less horrified, critical and damning of Isis than Cameron but he is more measured and thoughtful. Corbyn is no Shakespearian Henry V who will inspire his troops to great valour in battle; he is not  a rabble rouser wishing or even desiring to lead the mob. But he is a sage who will tease out the real issues and try to resolve them. And I suspect, too, that the ex-Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, may be of the same persuasion. Williams famously said: “When I enter into a dialogue with a person from another religion, tradition, culture or belief I am not out to secure agreement, but to secure understanding" Amen to that.  But dialogue, discussion and understanding are, it seems, not now on the table – Cameron is keen to let loose  the dogs of war.

29 November, 2015

A Lazy & Stupid But Terrible Option?

There are few words more that could meaningfully be written or said on the “war on terror”. We have lived with this aspect of our world for so many years. Indeed, although, we might like to say that terrorism began on September 11th 2001 with the destruction of the twin towers in New York the reality is different; terrorism of some kind has a long and terrible history over the centuries. I could not begin to know how one might resolve the current violence most recently seen in Paris. Having said that I am equally sure that no-one else on the planet knows how to resolve the issue. Whatever politicians might say there is no quick fix. In an article in the Guardian (Nov. 27th 2015) French Minister of Defence, Jean-Yves Le Drian, pleaded with the UK government to allow British military to join with France to “work side by side...to take this fight to the very heart of Isis, defeating it and making our countries and peoples safer”. In  House of Commons debate (Nov. 26th) on whether the UK should become militarily involved with the bombing of Isis strongholds in Syria Prime Minister David Cameron told MPs and we the electorate that “We have to hit these terrorists in their heartland right now.....we must not shirk our responsibility....to degrade and ultimately defeat [the] Islamic state” Cameron went on to  say, amongst other things that if we (the UK) agreed to begin military action against Isis in Syria then we would bring to the war on terrorism  the “Raptor pod” – a surveillance camera system that attaches to the Tornado aircraft, and the “Brimstone Missile” which,  “even the Americans do not possess”. I have to say, when I heard Cameron say this my immediate thought was “Is this what it all boils down to....the mentality of the school playground?” It was almost a repeat of the argument I have heard so many times in 40 years of teaching: “I’ll tell my brother of you.......I don’t care ‘cause my brother’s bigger than your brother.....I’ll tell my dad then.....well, my dad’s bigger than  your dad”! Try as I might I could not escape the feeling that Cameron’s display was no more than  machismo vanity – he was, I felt, strutting his military stuff – and while this goes on I believe the spiral of violence will  go on. It was the logic and response of the codpiece - bullish and testosterone filled - rather than the logic of considered reflection.
I don't envy him his job but "methinks the man doth protest too much"
- he looked a lot like a man wanting to show who was king of the playground!

Don’t get me wrong I feel heartily sorry for politicians of all persuasions – they have an impossible task on this one – damned if they do and damned if they don’t. I do not envy Cameron, Hollande, Obama or anyone else. Although they might sound bullish, knowing that they have to do something to satisfy the growing clamour for some kind of action, equally I am absolutely sure that in the quiet of their beds they must have other thoughts, opinions and anxieties.  As Tony Blair and George W Bush found the past came back to haunt them and significantly damage their political legacy.

Cameron’s opposite number, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn has put the proverbial “cat amongst the pigeons” and not only made himself a few enemies but also alienated a number of his fellow Labour MPs by stating his position on the matter following Cameron’s House of Commons speech: “I do not believe the prime minister’s current proposal for airstrikes in Syria will protect our security and therefore cannot support it.”   Corbyn has been savaged in the right wing press and indeed many of the more left wing sections have, too, reported him negatively. But I wonder? I don’t have any solutions to these terrible times in which we live but I am becoming more and more certain that a continuing and reciprocating spiral of violence is probably not the answer.
Corbyn - he may not be an inspirational leader who would inspire troops into
battle - but is this a battle we want to fight? Would his considered
wisdom not be the better option for everyone?

As I watched Cameron and read of the position that Corbyn had taken up  a couple of thoughts came into my mind. Firstly, I well remember that day in September 2001 when the twin towers were destroyed. I attended a local non-league football match and as the news from New York continued to come in two things were soon apparent. Firstly, that there had been a terrible destruction in New York and there was that evening at our game not only one topic of conversation but a tangible feeling of horror and distress. The football was lost on everyone – players and spectators.  A few minutes prior to the kick off it was decided to hold a two minute silence in recognition of the people killed. We all stood, players and about 100 supporters in total silence, the atmosphere overwhelmingly intense. But there was a second feeling abroad that night and that feeling was quite simply revenge. Even on our little football ground in middle England far from the terrible scene in mighty New York one could feel it tangible and terrible. I can remember saying to a friend as we stood watching the game “Bush will send in the B52s against this bin Laden bloke”.  Looking back almost fifteen years on, I recognise now that what I meant was simple revenge. I wasn’t interested in resolution but in retribution. How naive we all were.

And the second thought that I had as I watched Cameron was of Southwell Minster here in Nottinghamshire – about 15 miles away from where I live. In the Minster is a memorial plaque to a young soldier from Nottinghamshire who did in Afghanistan in the wars of the late 19th century. Many other churches and Minsters up and down the country have the same sort of things. The soldier's bravery is commended on the plaque but each time I look at it I wonder what his parents would think if they were still alive today? Almost 150 years later our Prime Minister is  still demanding that we send troops and warplanes to that area and other middle east war zones like Syria just as we did to preserve the British Empire in the age of Lord Palmerston’s gunboat diplomacy. It is a sad verdict on our modern society,  politics and way of operating in this world that we all inhabit - be we Christian, Moslem or of no faith - that in so many ways we have not in all those years learned a great deal. At the end of the road violence is still, it seems, is the answer. And so I wonder if that Victorian soldier's parents – if they were still alive - might legitimately ask the question "What did our son die for when a hundred and fifty years ago we are still fighting and bombing to no obvious reason or gain?”

Within that context I am beginning to wonder if Jeremy Corbyn is not correct in his position and views. Why do we keep repeating the same tired and brutal orthodoxy that has failed in that region for generations. Political pundits tell us that Corbyn is a loser, unfit to be leading a great party like the Labour Party. Well, from where I am sitting he might indeed be politically naive, he may even be misguided and he will probably fail at the ballot box. But for my money, rightly or wrongly, he seems to hold the moral high ground.  And, I would add, the logical high ground too. He might eventually be booted from office – but I have a distinct feeling that he will be able to hold his head high as we continue to career down this path towards what looks increasingly to me like a terrible disaster.

There is, too, another dimension to all this. One aspect of which is I believe undeniable but another which is a personal viewpoint but important to my reasoning and ultimate position. In Friday’s Guardian (Nov. 27th) a correspondent wrote:  “.....[bombing]gives status to murderous cults, directs effort away from a political way forward and money away from a humanitarian response to relieve Syrian suffering. A political solution will have to be reached......” She was not wrong. And she further commented:   “... can everyone please stop and think what this means for people there who are like you and me....... Thousands of children, women and men will die as a result of bombing. I cannot imagine the horror of those living in Raqqa – they have been targeted by the Assad regime, they live in fear of Isis who control their lives and execute at will, and now they are being bombed by an international coalition.” In those few simple but telling words the lady got to the very essence of the political, military and moral problem. As we flex our machismo military muscles we should bear them in mind.
The right wing press just want a scrap. No thought just action.
But I wonder if these 60% would still vote for bombing if the question 

was framed thus:"Should we bomb Syria even though it will almost
certainly mean terrorists bringing carnage to the street  of our
 cities, a constant stream of body bags arriving at our airports from 
military action, your holidays abroad the subject of tighter security
 or even cancellation because many holiday areas of the world ma
become increasingly untenable and, there will be an inevitable 
and  massive increase in the number of Muslim refugees seeking 
sanctuary, aid and work in our cities and living  next door to you?"
I suspect that the 60% would soon diminish 
when the consequences of war were spelled out.

The second issue of this dimension is a personal belief. I not only believe that military action is likely to be of only limited success, morally questionable and maybe ultimately counterproductive in ramping up the spiral of violence but I am firmly of the view that it is not in the long-term desirable. Whilst we might have grave concerns about what is happening under regimes like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, or Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, or Isis and Taliban held areas of the middle east and Afghanistan, or politically volatile states in North Africa, and all the rest, in the final analysis the only meaningful settlement can and will come from the indigenous people themselves. It is a national trait of Americans and gives them an almost crusading Christian zeal to bring democracy to the furthest corners of the world. This zeal might be laudable (although I am equally convinced that at the bottom of it lurk more devious and less worthy motives concerning US power, influence, prestige and big business) – but however laudable it is not, I believe, ultimately sustainable. Democracy or any other form of government desired by a people has to come from the people – indeed if kit does not it is not democracy. For it to be in some way “imposed” by outside, support, influence or military intervention is not a sound basis for its establishment. The French had their revolution, the Americans their War of Independence and later a great Civil War, the English their Civil War and numerous other cataclysmic political and semi violent uprisings to create the United Kingdom, the Russians their revolution its aftermath seventy years later, the Spanish their Civil War and the Franco years, the Italians their Risorgimento, the Germans had to suffer two great defeats in war........and so the list goes on. The common theme was that in the end these countries had to fumble and often fight to create the political, social and religious climate that they wanted.  Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and every other middle eastern or North African state have to do the same. For the west to seek to intervene – other than to send succour to those in need – is, I firmly believe, counterproductive in the long term and both politically and morally unsound.
I bet David Cameron got a real macho buzz when 
he read this and saw his popularity rise
in proportion to the size of his macho codpiece!

This year marks almost fifteen years since the twin towers were destroyed and the so called “war on terror” began. Without being overly pessimistic I don’t think it would be wrong to say that little real progress has been made. Indeed, the areas of the middle east where alleged terrorist groups and ideas have spread seems to have widened. The vast amounts of money spent, security measures taken, concerns about air travel and the increased use of high-tech military hardware all seem to have had, at best, only limited success. From Afghanistan to Iraq bombs have been dropped, missiles shot and troops mobilised but I see no end in sight.  Even David Cameron in his speech to Parliament openly admitted that success in this area might take many years. As I read and think about this I can’t help coming to the conclusion that my comment to a fellow supporter at the football match on September 11th 2001 that “Bush will send in the B52s against this bin Laden bloke” was naive in the extreme. In saying it, it was implicit in my thoughts that a few massive US B52 bombers dropping their payloads would put an end to the bin Laden nonsense once and for all. How wrong I was. I’m sure that George W Bush and Tony Blair thought so too. How wrong they were too.

But of course, in those fifteen years things have changed. Despite the best efforts of military intervention and force terrorism is still very much alive and well. To argue otherwise is not an option. Indeed, one might argue that terrorism is more rampant – and certainly more violent. Its spread immeasurably aided with the use of modern technology such as the internet, mobile communications and social networking has ensured that the recruitment and planning of terrorist operations has moved to a level that probably couldn’t be imagined even in 2001. Then it was simple – find bin Laden and bomb him. Today’s game, I believe, is infinitely more complex and requiring of a more complex solution. John Maynard Keynes allegedly once said "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?". In these fifteen years the facts have indeed changed and we need to respond accordingly. To simply carry on or increase the same tired and failed formulas from 2001 is clearly not an option. It defies all logic and common sense.
Sunday's (November 30th) Observer - the report from the Syrian town of Raqqa
 reflects precisely what the correspondent in the Guardian said in her letter

two days earlier.

And that is my final point. Ramping up the violence through more bombing and pursuing a policy that whilst it might have made small dents has not stopped (and maybe increased)  the spread of terrorism is simply illogical. It is denying the facts of the situation. Jeremy Corbyn was not wrong. An unconvincing case for bombing has not been made by David Cameron. It might have machismo appeal, it might satisfy the popular press and those whose solution to most things is ultimately to resort to violence. But I do not see it resolving the problem and if past experience is anything to go by the chances are that things will deteriorate further. As the lady from Leicester who write to the Guardian on Friday so clearly said: “I don’t really understand what has happened in Syria and its wider region – it is obviously very complex. But I feel that Syrians will know what they want for their country and the UN must continue to put every last drop of effort into making this happen: ceasefires, UN-organised elections, UN peacekeeping forces, reconstruction. Speaking as a mother I think I do understand what Syrian mothers want for their children: to be able to keep them safe and, beyond this, education, a carefree childhood, a good future. Bombing does not achieve this, even for those it doesn’t kill”. Quite. Just as the school bully does when he comes up against someone who he dislikes or cannot fathom we are adopting a quick and easy solution to a complex problem – violence. It is the lazy option – and, I fear, a very stupid one. As the Guardian correspondent suggested Syrians (and any other of these war/terrorist ravaged states) must know what they want for their country and all that we can do is provide a positive framework to making his happen – even if their preferred choice is not what we with a western interpretation of democratic government would favour. 

For me, the path that we are almost inevitably embarking on once again proves the points made by Einstein many years ago:
  • “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe”
  • “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
  • “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding”
  • “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones”
We should be very, very careful – which in the end is I believe the essence of Jeremy Corbyn's response. He is not wrong to be so.

23 November, 2015

When is austerity not austerity?

I have just finished the first part of David Kynaston’s mammoth and monumental history of Britain since the 2nd World War: Austerity Britain 1945-1951. Its seven hundred pages are not only filled with a truly mesmerizing and detailed view of life in Britain in the immediate aftermath of war but they are also hugely readable, interesting and entertaining. The other two parts of the trilogy (Family Britain - 1951-1957 and Modernity Britain -1957-1962) sit on my office bookshelf waiting to be enjoyed. I understand that Kynaston is to continue the history beyond 1962 and as far as the election of Thatcher as Prime Minister. If that be the case then I will be a willing purchaser of the next volumes. The trilogy to date has received ecstatic reviews from both academia and the world of literature. Words such as brilliant, compassionate, erudite, powerful, marvellous, must read and magnificent have been common themes. I would endorse all those adjectives.
Three mammoth volumes

Both the broad sweep and the huge detail found in Kynaston’s work is truly awe inspiring and what, I think, makes the book so readable, enjoyable and illuminating is his massive use of primary sources – namely the writings and recorded comments of people who were actually there: politicians, the great and good but especially the ordinary man and woman in the street. This latter group’s comments give the whole thing a realistic feel; it is about ordinary people, their lives, their ambitions, their problems and above all their views on what was happening in the country and its impact upon them. It is not a history based upon battles won or lost or the great, good and not so good but rather a book about the common man and woman in the immediate aftermath of war. But, there is one other element that makes the book almost unique and at the same time riveting: it is history within living memory. So as I read the pages I was reading about an era that I was part of – just! It was part of my history and although I was too young to remember many of the things described and discussed by Kynaston I can certainly remember the general feel of the time and relate what I read to what I knew of the lives of my parents, my family and neighbourhood. As I read each page I was not reading a dry history of a long past and maybe forgotten age but I was reading of a time in history that was recognisable and still relevant today.
Giving out apples from America in 1948

When, for example, Kynaston discussed the problems and workings of rationing in the post war period this meant something to me – I remember it; I can still today vividly remember standing with my mother in queues when she went to get a new ration book. When Kynaston talked of the administration of the 11+ exam he was retelling my story. Reading the recollections of BBC Newsreader Peter Sissons I was suddenly taken back  to almost the exact same experience in my own life at 11+time. Sissons attended a school in Liverpool in the early 1950s and in his class with him were Jimmy Tarbuck – who would later become a  famous comedian,  and Beatle John Lennon. Sisson’s wrote: “The school was gathered together and those who had passed [the 11+] were called up to the podium one at a time with their own round of applause. The poor sods who had failed were left sitting in the hall – they only realised that they had failed because they were not called up. Actress Glenda Jackson’s recollections also stirred old memories. On the day that the results of the 11+ were announced in her school there was a mix up; those who had passed were applauded and congratulated in the same way as those at Peter Sissons’ school. Jackson, to her distress, was not one of these but when she went home that night she found that a letter had been delivered to her parents officially informing them that she had passed; the school had made a mistake. When Jackson went to school the next day she found things had changed: “I saw adults whom I had known virtually all my life change their attitude from the day before. Yesterday teachers cared nothing for me as they believed I  had failed; I had let them and myself down. But today I had praise poured upon me. On that day I learned a new word - contemptible”. As I read these and other similar recollections I was able to relate it to my own experience. I can still remember clapping my friends Billy, Brian and Barry as the head master, Mr Roberts, beamingly announced how well these three had done and what honour they had brought to the school by passing the 11+ exam at St Matthew’s Junior School. At the time I just accepted it, I didn’t think that I was hard done by I simply wished that I could have been one of those smiling at the front of the class.  But I also knew that Mr Roberts had another side to his nature not the beaming, congratulating man who stood at the front with the three winners of the educational race. And this other side  was often made plain to Victor  probably the least able pupil in our class of 53 boys. Victor was, I remember, punished mercilessly and violently by “Cock Roberts” [as we called him] for his academic failings and as I read Glenda Jackson’s comment I agreed with her word: “contemptible”. Similarly, when a Kynaston source described some of the great industrial towns of the north it was my north; “Our skyline [that of Sheffield] was dominated by hundreds of smoking chimneys and the city lived to the constant accompaniment of steam hammers and the ring of metal meeting metal”  My town was not a steel making town but a cotton weaving town  and like Sheffield dominated by tall factory chimneys. As you walked past the Paul Catterall mill at the end of the street where I lived or past one of the several great Horrockses mills in the town one could feel the pavement tremble with the sound and vibration from the thousands of looms churning out their cotton materials. As my auntie often said – and with some truth –“England’s bread hangs by Lancashire’s thread”. Occasionally, as teenager, I would visit my mother when she worked as a weaver at Horrockses, probably the world's greatest name in the production of cotton goods. The noise in the mill was overwhelming with no use of any kind of ear covers. My mother, like her fellow weavers could lip read, not because she was deaf but because it was a skill that was essential working in that environment. Most telling for me, however, was reading what parents in northern England said when interviewed in the early 1950s about their own sons and daughters entering the world of work: “No, it’s a collar and tie job for him”......”No, any boy that dons overalls when he doesn’t have to is a fool”......”He’s got a horror of tools because he’s seen what his dad’s life is”....”I don’t want my son treated like I’ve been treated, worse than an animal”.....”I won’t let him – I’d sooner he was on the streets” . Reading these comments I remember vividly (and I choose my words carefully here) the joy and pride from my parents and my wider family when I left school and got a job as a trainee draughtsman. “You’ll be clean and wear a collar and tie....you’ll get paid for holidays......nine till five not half-past six till half-past five....you’ll be able to save and maybe get a mortgage to buy a place of your own......” were all said to me by my parents and aunties and uncles.
Preston when I was young

I could go on – every chapter in the book it seemed was a part of my own history – and if  not mine then someone I knew!

There was, however, another element to the book that has given me cause for thought. The title of the book is “Austerity Britain” and indeed the years after the end of the 2nd World War were indeed a period of huge austerity and shortage for the whole of Europe. Much of the country was suffering the effects of war – destroyed buildings, shortage of decent housing or an industry that had been geared to producing war materials  and unable to quickly revert to domestic, peace time production. The country faced all sorts of problems – not least a disastrous shortage of money and basic raw materials – it was a real problem for any government elected to manage the situation. As one reads the comments of people at the time, it is obvious that they recognised the difficulties that the country faced but at the same time two other threads ran though the comments. Firstly that the electorate wanted something better – better homes, better jobs, a better life and future for them and their children. It was against this that the 1945 Attlee government were returned to introduce things like the health service and the like. And secondly, the belief that we had won the war and so deserved this better life. In many ways this became a problem for the government because people expected things to improve – they almost demanded it – and when in the early 50s things like rationing were still an issue people became disenchanted.
The queue for vegetables in 1948

There can be no doubt that the austerity of the immediate post-war years was profound and to use a modern term systemic. It affected everyone to a significant degree: power cuts, food shortages, shortages of other basic items such as clothes, limited medical provision, shortages of coal and other means of keeping the house warm, a widespread lack of what we today would consider absolute essentials for life: hot and cold water, inside toilet, bathroom .........and so the list goes on. This was austerity. Much of the problem was the direct after-effect of war but equally important was the fact that, just as today, the government had to direct the few available resources at things considered important such as goods for export so that the country earned much needed money. The result was that goods for home consumption were disproportionately hit. A few quotes catch the life and feelings of the time:

·         “Went out shopping. Woolworths like every other shop, lit by gas lamps and candles”
·         “Long queues for potatoes.....reduced clothing coupon allowances...no wonder people steal clothes and food”
·         “No soap to be bought anywhere. Managed to get 2lb of potatoes but will save them for Sunday’s dinner”
·         “In addition to my usual winter apparel I am now wearing four woollen pullovers and my waistcoat but house I am still cold [because of power cuts and a shortage of coal in a very cold winter]”.
·         “About 7 million dwellings lacked hot water, some 6 million an inside WC and 5 million a fixed bath”.
·         “Yesterday I queued for 2 hours for a packet of biscuits. Luckily I’m well stocked for clothes perhaps I’ll try to swap some clothes coupons for food coupons. I might get a new frock next year”.
·         “There is a feeling of despair in the streets. Rationing controls on materials and income tax of 9 shillings in the pound [standard rate of tax was 45%; the higher rate was 90%] all contribute to it”.
·         “A story that gained prominence at that time was of a nineteen year old woman who had no food coupons left and so “bought” a loaf of bread on the black market. When she got home she found that half the loaf was uneatable and filled with mould. She was frightened that if she threw it away and was caught she would be “in trouble” with the authorities. So, she tried to burn it by putting some petrol on the bread. Unfortunately the fire got out of control and she was burned to death”.
Rationing - real austerity

This was real austerity and although I am not old enough to remember much of this I can remember the effects. Until I moved to Nottingham to train to be a teacher in 1965 I lived with my parents in a house where we had no hot water, no inside toilet and no bath or shower. Until I left home my regular Friday night occupation was to visit my auntie’s house a few streets away where she had a bathroom. I had my weekly bath there. Each winter my mother would put a small oil lamp in our outside toilet at the top of the back yard to make sure that it didn’t freeze. We didn’t use toilet paper but each week mother would neatly cut up newspapers. I was not alone, this was the life of millions. My wife spent her childhood in a flat where they used an old tin bath to bathe in – reusing the same hot water. People of my parent’s generation got used to managing with very little in the way of food and for the rest of their lives found the wasting of food unacceptable. This was austerity.

No explanation required
Today’s austerity is different. In the post-war years the food shortages, poor housing and the rest affected everyone to a greater or lesser degree. And, importantly, it was all too often related to items which really were truly essential – not just desirable – to human life. Today’s “austerity”, however, tends to impact upon certain groups and although within those groups there are very many who are in genuine need of basic life essentials – food, warmth, shelter – the vast majority of us claim to be suffering a period of “austerity” because we have a little less money to spend on our life-style choices. Of course, “austerity” might be viewed as a relative term – what was “essential” to a man or woman of the 1940s or of (say) the 1890s would not necessarily be viewed in the same way today. It might be argued for example that access to a computer is one of the modern life’s essentials (see blog for November 10th: “A modern day Pandora’s box”) but I am equally absolutely sure
that if those millions of post-war [usually] women who spent hours each day standing in queues with their coupons to buy a small piece of meat or their sugar ration or their dried eggs could return to our present day they would not view our shopping experience as “austerity”. I am absolutely sure that if the housewife who felt she was “well stocked” for clothes and who might “buy a new frock next year” walked around my city centre today and saw the thousands carrying bags filled with the latest fashions she would rapidly conclude that this was an era of great wealth not austerity.

I will not labour the point. Certainly, the government has adopted policies which they feel will get the country’s economy back on track and it is absolutely true that the fallout from the financial crisis has impacted on world economies and upon the lives of people everywhere. Clearly, too, there are many individuals and sections of society who, for a variety of reasons, have been hit disproportionately by the financial crisis and its fallout. But for the vast majority this political and economic climate that we call “austerity” is in reality a reflection of society’s inequalities than any great shortage or true austerity.

The "austerity" word originates from the Latin “austeritas” meaning “severe”. Two definitions are typical: “conditions living without unnecessary things and without comfort, with limited money or goods” or “a situation in which there is not much money and it is spent only on things that are absolutely necessary”. Others may disagree, and clearly with the growth of foodbanks and tales of people struggling to make ends meet as they work on zero hours contracts and the like there are indeed many who are suffering considerable hardship. But I do not believe this is comparable with the post war years. Indeed, politicians have rightly pointed out that in terms of  pay, debt, government investment in social services  and the like we have merely returned to pre 2008 levels – in other words we haven’t “grown” and kept pace with inflation or expectations. It might be a hardship, it might be dreadful for many but it is not a general period of austerity.
People of the post-war years would not believe that
we buy these and think we are in a period of austerity

Four decades ago the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healey said that he would tax the rich until the “pips squeaked” in order to right the country’s economic and social ills – in my view we have an enormously long way to go before that happens in this period of so-called austerity. The UK, as with probably every other western country, is amazingly wealthy – wealthier than anyone alive during the post-war period could ever imagine. Our “austerity" is no more than a very mild inconvenience: interest rates on or savings are a little lower, taxation of varying kinds has risen very slightly, our pay rises have been rather less than we had got used to, and for a few years it has been a little harder to get credit........and so the list goes on. Very few of us have been on the bread line: walk through Nottingham any night of the week and see cafes and bars heaving mostly with young people; stand in any airport and see people flying off for their winter break; look at the vast crowds paying huge amounts for their 90 minutes of football at Premiership stadiums; count the new cars on our roads; stand in any super market and watch how many people buy a sandwich, a can of coke and a packet of crisps for their lunch rather than make one at home for half the price; join the throngs that fill the multitude of Starbuck like coffee shops every waking hour; feel your eyes water at the billions of pounds and dollars  that vast portions of the population feed into the coffers of SKY each month. I don’t begrudge any of this – indeed, many would argue that it is essential that we continue with this madcap consumer driven economy because it is what feeds the economic treadmill. If we all started to be more penny pinching then our UK economy based now upon consumerism rather than manufacturing would quickly begin to unravel. No, I do not believe it is in our interest to change all this, much as I would like to, but please let’s not call it “austerity”.
Today's front & back pages of the Guardian -
a disgrace anbd I told them so!

When I collected my Guardian newspaper this morning (Monday, Nov 23rd) I was at first bemused then horrified to see that the whole of the front cover and the back cover and the inside of these two pages was one long advert for Tesco supermarket. The headline was:”You’re gonna need a bigger tree......” and then followed four whole pages trying to encourage me and thousands of other readers to take advantage of the latest mobile phone offers at Tesco this Christmas. I have written a letter to complaint to the Guardian, advising them that this is not what I buy the newspaper for. But apart from my personal views on such an advert it proves the point I feel that this is not a period of austerity. If it was so then Tesco would be wasting their time – no-one would be in the market such luxuries. Last week I read in the newspaper that a consumer survey in the UK suggested that this Christmas the average child (if there be such a thing) in the UK would have some £349 spent on Christmas presents and associated items by his or her parents. How can that be described as a time of austerity?

Last week Pat and I dined with a cousin of Pat’s who we see only infrequently and who was visiting the area. As one would expect we spent time reminiscing about past family events and members of the family now long gone – aunts, uncles, parents grandparents etc. As we talked I thought back to Pat and Terry’s grandfather, Harry, who died many years ago. Harry like so many of his generation had had a hard life – First World War, the great depression, Second World War, the harsh post-war years and all the rest. Whenever we went to visit Harry as an old man his first words whenever a man entered his little kitchen were the always same: “Have you got plenty of work?” Harry knew from long bitter experience what hardship and austerity meant –  he had lived through it for most of his life. To Harry and millions like him who had suffered the unemployment of the great depression followed by the privations of war time and the austerity of that period and its aftermath work meant a few pennies in your pocket and food on the table - it was real austerity. It wasn’t about not having SKY TV or being able to buy a cup of Starbuck’s coffee; it wasn’t about paying many pounds to watch a football match.  And it certainly wasn’t about buying a “King Prawns, Salmon and Lemon & Dill Crème Fraiche Sandwich” (I kid you not – these are on offer at Sainsbury’s today!) for his lunch. It was about having enough money for a loaf of bread and maybe a bit of cheese (with butter as a luxury), or it was about having enough coal to keep warm or the money to pay the rent to keep a roof over your head.

Since I started writing this blog a couple of days ago I have begun the second of Kynaston's three books: Family Britain 1951-1957. In the opening chapter, Kynaston reviews life in Britain in 1951 and he relates a little story which has a telling "punchline". Winston Churchill had just been elected as Prime Minister, Attlee's Labour government defeated by a populace unhappy with the continuing austerity of the time. One of Churchill's first acts was to acquaint himself with what the ordinary man and woman was having to put up with so he asked one the Minister of Food, Gwilym Lloyd George, to bring him the rations that each person was allowed. A little later the Minister returned and placed the food on Churchill's desk. Official records show that Churchill looked at the food and said "Well this is not bad, you could make a reasonable meal out of these. What are people complaining about?". Lloyd George  replied "But these are not for one meal Prime Minister - they are for a whole week". Churchill was both lost for words and horrified but the country's situation was so desperate that despite this lesson he was forced to reduce the meat ration yet again, increase transport fares further and put up the price of coal.

Harry in his latter years
In the austere 1940’s and 50s world described by Kynaston there was a very significant impact upon every member of society. Of course, some were hit harder than others but such was its widespread impact upon the everyday life and conditions of the populace that although people complained and dreamed of something better most just got on with things – that was the way it was. It was survival. The book again and again gives examples and emphasises that people just accepted it as a way of life. Everyone was, to coin a phrase, in the same boat. And my recollections, such as they are, confirm this; I cannot remember ever feeling “deprived” that I had to go out in the cold and wet to walk up our back yard lavatory. It never felt like a hardship that we didn't have hot water in the house for it was all we had ever known. The vast majority of the people in the town lived as I did. And that is why I enjoyed David Kynaston’s book so much – it was about real people and how they made the best of some very difficult years in “Austerity Britain 1945-1951”. It was a  salutary reminder of how very well off most of us are today and what austerity really is. It was, too, a poignant, personal and important reminder of family heritage and just why Harry always greeted men in the family with“ Have you got plenty of work?”.

10 November, 2015

A Modern Day Pandora's Box

The king of the sound bite and the band wagon - does he ever, for one moment,
stop to think how shallow and ill thought out is the nonsense that he utters
The growth of technology  has, in the past two or three decades, transformed life: the internet, email, almost instant information from far parts of the world, medical technology, technology that we now take for granted in our homes, mobile phones......the list is endless. It is now impossible almost to comprehend life without mobile phones or internet access and although there may still be many who would dispute the value of this sort of technology I guess that most of us would now find life without it quite unacceptable. The Pandora’s box has been opened. Just this weekend David Cameron the UK Prime Minister and master of the soundbite promised (bear in mind he is a politician so we can take his promise with the proverbial “pinch of salt”!) that by 2020 every household in the country would have access to super fast broadband and this would make the UK the envy of the world. Well, we’ll wait and see on that one! Leaving aside, however, any arguments about the rights and wrongs of that particular political promise it is also interesting to consider what else Cameron said: "Access to the internet shouldn't be a luxury, it should be a right - absolutely fundamental to life in 21st Century Britain......Just as our forebears effectively brought gas, electricity and water to all, we're going to bring fast broadband to every home and business that wants it”. That for me is a seriously big claim – to equate the provision of broadband with the provision of water to the populace. I like the sentiment but I’m not too sure about its logic or its philosophical rationale; it might make an interesting philosophical disputation about the relative rights involved with the provision of water and broadband. At a basic level I am concerned with the naivety of Cameron’s  statement (especially bearing in mind he has a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Oxford); “.... to every home and business that wants it” – the important word here is “wants”. I can conceive that as far as broadband is concerned there may well be people (or businesses) that do not “want” it – on the other hand I cannot conceive that anyone would refuse the provision of water. As I say, I like the sentiment but am unsure about how well this has been thought through – in short, as with so many sound bites, it is a statement which can be easily picked apart. It is produced for the consumption of an unthinking electorate. It does make me wonder, however, if Cameron, who is a bright lad if his Oxford degree is to be believed, is either very naive and his degree is bogus or he is knowingly saying things which manifestly do not add up! I suspect a little of the former and a great deal of the latter.
Pandora setting free all the ills of the world

And this brings me to the  focus of this blog. Pandora’s box is indeed open and although I doubt there can be many people who could not honestly admit that technology has impacted and probably improved their life in some way the reality is there are many potential downsides – issues of security, surveillance,  or the impact upon our basic humanity as people relate to screens rather than to people. The list is, I think, quite endless and undoubtedly alarming. But increasingly in the past few weeks I have been increasingly aware of one downside that I find especially disturbing.
Hardly a day goes by it seems without my receiving on my computer or my mobile phone a request to support some campaign or other. All I have to do I am instructed is to “click here” to add my voice of support  to petition Parliament, my MP  or whatever group is being pressured. Of course, this is another aspect of the ubiquitous (and I believe quite mindless) plea on TV and in newspapers to “tweet us your views” or “let us know what you think” . The issues involved can be trivial or important but all I have to do is click the button and my support or views are immediately registered and recorded. We have whole organisations devoted to this canvassing of opinion and to putting pressure on government or various individuals or institutions. I received one today from an organisation called “change.org”  and specifically from an individual named Ben Bradshaw. The request asks me to “sign and support my petition for the Secretary of State for Transport to introduce compulsory age-appropriate retesting every three years once a driver turns 70” and is based on the story of this gentleman’s wife who, sadly, was killed when she was struck by an elderly car driver. At the bottom of the request is the legend "Want to change something? Start a petition" – and a link to allow me to access this opportunity. Other similar pressure groups might ask me to write to my MP about some matter or other. Now, I am not averse to writing to my MP – I have done it on numerous occasions (in fact I think the poor chap must be quite fed up of my mails, but that’s another story) – but for me the catch is that when one of these pressure groups ask me to do this, all I have to do is click the button and enter my postcode. The technology will then send a prewritten letter on my behalf to my particular MP – easy isn’t it!
One of the petitioning sites
And that, for me, is the problem and the thing that worries me about this aspect of technology. It is taking the thinking out of the issue. It’s easy – maybe too easy. No thought is  required, just instant response - press the button and “wham bang” your instant feelings are registered. It is the “democracy”  of the social media where, too often, trivial commentary tries to pass for great truths; where instant, heart on sleeve banality is poured out and instantly forgotten. It is gut reaction not considered thought.  When I write to Ken Clarke my local MP I feel it incumbent upon me to think through the complaints and issues that I wish to raise with him and in return I expect a similar level of consideration in his reply. If, on the other hand, I cannot be bothered to write a letter of complaint and am, maybe, only doing it because some pressure group has asked me to – and I register my complaint or petition by simply pressing the button I wonder why my complaint or petition should be considered at all. My view is that it should not. It is trying to influence policy, institutions and government not by the force of considered argument but by the use of large numbers. It is the democracy of the mob.
As I wrote the last paragraph my email alarm clicked – a mail from another pressure group - 38 degrees. This one asks me to “...sign the petition to stop 999 calls being handled by a private company with a history of getting it wrong”. It is a response to the proposal to allow the security company G4S taking over local 999 response centres. The email tells me that 38 Degrees member Vic, started this petition, and he says: “Such fundamental services are far too important to be given over to the interests of private capital. Their performance will always be compromised by the need for profitability....”  the email also gives a brief and very biased review of the government proposal to support their petition. Now, in essence I am very much in favour of the petition – the points made are, I believe, valid. Similarly I think that the  issues raised by Ben Bradshaw in his desire to ensure older drivers are monitored are perfectly reasonable.  I could very easily press the button on both of these petitions – but I am also worried about the direction that all this is taking us as a society. It seems to me that we are in danger of acting on impulse rather than reasoned and considered debate; clicking the “I agree button” is easy, too easy; instantly done and quickly forgotten. Writing a considered letter to my MP, rather like writing this blog, is a much more demanding thing but more a gauge of how I really feel since I have had to put some effort into it.

A year or two ago Parliament introduced legislation that sought (misguidedly I believe) to encourage this sort of thing. It’s rationale was, I think, to encourage popular participation in the process of democracy in an age when more and more people were not taking part – for example, increasingly people can’t be bothered to vote or specific groups such as the young appear to have little interest. Basically, if someone or some organisation can amass 10,000 signatures then the government is required to respond to the petition. If they can amass 100,000 signatures then the government is required to consider holding a debate in Parliament on the matter. Clearly that is what the examples I quote above are keen to get. Those two petitions may well be worthy,  and indeed the notion of ordinary people petitioning the king or the Parliament is not new – it has been around as long as there has been government of any kind. Now, mass communication makes it very much a real option and potential vehicle for change. But it seems to me that the ease of communication via modern technology means that just as worthy causes can be aired and become law so too can less worthy doctrines.
When the ancient Greeks began to develop their notions of democracy upon which our western systems are largely based they struggled with the sort of issues that this throws up. Ideally, they believed, democracy would be best served by everyone being involved in the decision making process; if everyone was involved, they argued, then no-one could complain. But they faced insurmountable obstacles: in those days they simply couldn’t communicate with everyone and in any case it was not practicable to get everyone together in one place at the same time. The Athenian response to this was that every free man (i.e. not women or slaves etc.) should serve a period of time in government - so that everyone had a go. They tried this but it failed abjectly for the very reason that I object to our current petitioning and pressuring via the internet – namely that although everyone had a “go”,  many did not undertake the task well and so bad legislation resulted. People didn’t bother to turn up, many were simply incapable of understanding the issues involved, bribery and corruption flourished as pressure was put upon those who were easily influenced and happened to be in government at the time – the whole system of government simply became a mess. The Athenians tried several variations on the democratic theme and in the end settled for something approximating to what we have in western societies today – a form of representative democracy where we choose people who we believe not only represent our views but also have the ability, wisdom and the integrity to undertake the required deliberations and decisions on our behalf.
Democracy, of course, is not perfect but it is probably the best we can do. I am not a fan of Churchill; the reverence with which he is held in this country is, I believe, totally misplaced and based largely upon Churchill’s own ability for self-aggrandisement which is so well reflected in his comment “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” But, I have to admit, he was the consummate politician and his commitment to democracy second to none. He famously said two things on the subject which I believe are pertinent:  “....democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” and “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”  He was right. There is nothing sacred about democracy – it is simply the best option that we have – or as Churchill indicated, the least worst option. But, secondly, democracy’s greatest potential weakness is the ability, the commitment or motives of the electorate. As the ancient Greeks discovered democracy fails if it is not founded upon a strong, committed and thinking electorate. If the electors can’t be bothered, are unable to make wise decisions or do not seek to ask pertinent questions then democracy is in danger – it can be easily pressured and  hi-jacked.

In his excellent book ”The Price of Civilization” American academic Jeffrey Sachs discusses what he calls “the epidemic of ignorance” that, he suggests, threatens democracy. Briefly, he argues that in America at least (but, I think, this is equally true of the UK), the growth of untrammelled commercial TV and its “race to the bottom” programming based upon lowest common denominator - "X Factor", "Strictly Come Dancing", Big Brother" type entertainment rather than instructive public education, the growth in internet use, mindless social networking based largely upon trivial and anecdotal comment, the demise of newspapers and reading as an activity has meant that his fellow citizens are increasingly ignorant of basic facts about important issues. He comments: “It would be a profound irony if the new information age coincides with the collapse of the public’s basic knowledge regarding key issues that we confront as individuals or citizens.” He goes on “The mindset of individuals who know precious little history and civics and never read a book or visit a museum is fast becoming a common, shame-free condition”. He further says that “....when the country must grapple with complex choices about taxes, spending, military involvement and outlays and all the rest, the lack of basic knowledge becomes dangerous. A poorly informed public is much more easily swayed by propaganda and much less able to resist the dark manoeuvrings of special interest groups that pull the strings.........”   In short, if the world is increasingly populated by Homer Simpson clones unable or unwilling to ask pertinent questions or use their knowledge and minds to make meaningful judgements upon what they are presented with by peers, politicians,  and the media, and if these Homer Simpsons are interested only in lowest common denominator, heart on sleeve views as expressed in social media and the like, then society and democracy is at risk of manipulation by powerful lobbies and potential extremist propaganda. 

One might argue, of course, that these on line petitions and the like are a vital way of counteracting the grim scenario that Sachs paints. After all, they are about getting people involved, which must be good, and their supporters would undoubtedly (and correctly) argue that they are another element in the modern battle for accountability and transparency in government. But I am not so sure that it is all good news. The growth of these potentially huge pressure groups, swayed by “heart on the sleeve” social media type arguments and based upon the "no thought required just click the button below it's easy" petitioning process is a serious concern for their growth brings the strong possibility that the political landscape and agenda, the party manifestos and the votes of the individual political MPs or congressmen or senators will be influenced by these big number uninformed petitions. It is a matter of fact today that MPs and leaders of all kind “listen in” to what social media and the like are saying. On one level this might be a good thing keeping them in tune with the concerns of the electorate. But at another level there is the undoubted potential for individual leaders and groups to reflect opinion more widely and aggressively when uninformed petitioning begins to drive political  decisions and policy. Following this there is the added danger of a fragmentation of the political landscape into sectional interests and maybe the spread of extremist philosophies.

In the last few years we have had numerous examples of great political and national/international movements being rapidly generated and often with unforeseen consequences: the “Arab Spring”  spread like wildfire across north Africa and the middle east; the “Occupy Movement” in response to unbridled capitalism  has similarly spread across continents and oceans; the current wave of migrants, be they war zone refugees or economic migrants to northern Europe, has been largely sustained by access to instant communication, smart phones, tablets and the like. I don’t say any of these are necessarily bad things – indeed, I have much in common with many of the ideals and perspectives that underpin them. But just as with our modern technology, Pandora’s Box is open – the ease with which people can now communicate, pass on information and  ideas, be influenced by strong orators, be aware of what is happening elsewhere means that we potentially live in explosive times. A hundred years ago it took weeks for the words of a great leader, revolutionary or dictator to spread and as a result there was time for the words spoken by (say) Lenin or Trotsky or Hitler to be considered by the wider electorate; a time for moderation and an opportunity for nuance. When Hitler whipped up Nazi ideology at the Nuremberg Rallies of the 1930s you had to actually be there or see one of the later propaganda films to hear Hitler and to listen to his message and thus be influenced. Today, with modern technology everyone across Europe and the wider world could, if they wished, hear and see him on their smart phones and tablets – from where I am sitting a terrifying thought - there would be no nuance or opportunity for considered thought; the mentality of themob would prevail.
Now he really would have loved the opportunities that technology
and social media offer - but would we have liked the results?

We live today in a very different world. Technology has brought us and will continue to bring us opportunities and benefits even today impossible to believe or comprehend. But, in my view there are dubious side effects that need to be carefully monitored and managed. Pandora’s Box in the Greek myths allowed, when opened, all the evils in the world to get out. Our technological Pandora’s Box has the same capacity. I f we behave like Pandora and do not act wisely do what is necessary then we run the risk of the potential evils of technology running amok. Like Pandora we will not be able to get them back in the box.