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.