Friday, 27 March 2015

War (what is it good for?)

We live in interesting times when it’s possible to say that the Conservative led coalition of the past five years have led us into less armed conflicts than the preceding Labour government.  While Blair’s excursions into the Balkans were done for the right reasons, as was the intervention in Sierra Leone, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were far from as clear cut and, ultimately, have tarnished his reputation.  His legacy stands little chance of being for the social reforms he ushered through, rather two costly, morally debatable, and fruitless conflicts.

The current government have been more timid.  Probably this is partly to do with the complicated nature of coalition politics – although they seem to have been able to steamroller their way through everything else.  And we have to give credit to Ed Milliband for keeping us out of Syria.  If his brother, David, had been leading the Labour Party in 2013 it is hard not to suspect our armed forces would find themselves back in the Middle East embroiled in another complicated conflict where you’re never too sure who the enemy is.

That’s part of the problem with the twenty-first century.  It’s not clear who the goodies and the baddies are.  Not that it’s ever been, but as a boy raised on black and white war comics and simplistic films starring John Wayne as a marine or any number of stiff lipped, firm chinned British actors flying Lancaster bombers, World War Two offered an easy narrative.  The Nazis and other Axis powers were aggressive, power hungry and the SS’ use of skulls as insignia gave a clear idea who was evil. 

I think a lot of the Conservative party have the same hangover of upbringing, but every other war in this history of man has been more complicated than that.  The Arab Spring uprisings initially gave us a clean story that plucky down-trodden citizens armed with twitter in one hand and an AK-47 in the other were throwing off the yoke of oppression all around the Mediterranean circle.  It was easy to send in the Typhoons as air support.  But as Libya continues to tear itself apart, Egypt threatens another bloody coup and Syria begins to resemble hell on Earth the narratives are confused. 

Isis’ sudden emergence as a new caliphate making lighting strikes which defied the nation borders drawn up by a French civil servant in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire defied expectation.  Yes, the despicable actions of its soldiers on unarmed prisoners and civilians shift them towards the baddie side of the spectrum, but we need to recognise how much their existence is our fault.  How much have our follies in the Middle East over the past century given ammunition to the cause?

I first wrote about Putin’s aggression in 2008 so it is particularly depressing to find him still on the agenda seven years later.  But the annexing of Crimea and shadowy supporting of Ukrainian rebels along the Russian border have to be put in the context of the Cold War’s aftermath and the continuing expansion of NATO as an organisation making itself essential to protect the West from the threat it antagonises. 

Still, our withdrawal from the occasional unnecessary armed intervention is a relief as the current government have slashed expenditure on the military to such an extent that we barely have one.  We find ourselves a nation with a new fighter jump jet but the two aircraft carriers which will maximise their effectiveness won’t be operational until 2022, in the meantime they sit in a field somewhere on the mainland.  Our armed forces are de-motivated and verging on the demobbed.  As someone who leans heavily towards pacifism, this is not one of my biggest concerns – although it does seem unfair to send under-resourced and under-supplied soldiers into battle.  If we’re going to have to go to war, I want it to be under circumstances where we have the highest likelihood of success with the minimal number of casualties. 

And yet, here’s the hypocrisy:  we under-resource in terms of conventional forces and continue to invest in Trident.  A missile system we can never use except in an instance of mutually assured destruction.  A deterrent to a threat no-one’s entirely sure is still out there.  A typically Conservative investment which benefits a small number, including themselves.  The claim is that nuclear weapons keep us in the premier league, helps to retain our permanent seat on the UN security council.  This is a fallacy.  For a whole raft of reasons, not least our cowering in the face of difficult decisions, the current government is not seen as an international world leader.  The rest of the world isn’t smiling at us out of benevolence or respect; they’re trying to stifle their giggles.

Nuclear weapons are too dangerous, the margins for error too tiny.  The 1962 Cuban missile crisis is usually referred to as the closest we came to mutually assured destruction.  Most will cite the gamesmanship and political acumen of both Kennedy and Kruschev for averting disaster.  Not many know that had submariner Vasili Arkhipov not disobeyed orders to launch a nuclear torpedo, then the chances of us being here today are slim.

The Tories traditionally sell themselves as military men, always men.  Along with the economy, they have liked to paint themselves as safe hands, as keepers of the imperial flame, their ranks littered with former soldiers, sailors and airmen.  Paddy Ashdown stood out as an anomaly, a major politician with an armed forces’ past not joining the Conservatives.  Maybe it’s a generational thing, but the current crop doesn’t seem to have the same natural instincts to grab a rifle and order someone else to storm the barricades. 

However, military types still lurk at the edges.  Cameron may be in need of special forces ministers to launch a Save Dave campaign while he’s losing a strategic hill to Age UK’s boos and heckles, the only social group over than the nauseatingly rich this government has actually helped, but others around the country are striking decisive action.  Afzal Amin cited his army background, his inherent skill at divide and conquer, in seeking to justify his attempts to get the English Defence League to threaten staging a rally in Dudley, which he would then talk them out of.  A scheme of ludicrously Scooby-Doo stupid that even the monumentally moronic leader of the EDL, Tommy Robinson, thought it was daft and shopped him to the cops.  Would you really put these people in charge of a kettle much less a government department?

When I was a young boy I wanted to join the army.  A ridiculous idea, in retrospect.  I was short and tubby with little athleticism.   I may have grown up tall, relatively scrawny and with good stamina, if nothing else, but I also abhor violence.  I was swayed, at the time, by what I saw as heroism.  It was the fault of all those war comics, John Wayne’s wink and actors’ square chins, who had probably seen it for real their own active service, stoically going down in black and white glory.

War is not glorious.  The armed forces are full of heroes, but they’re also full of broken, traumatised men and women who can no longer cope with the horrors humankind is capable of inflicting on each other.  The data suggests that the twenty-first century is proving to be uniquely peaceful, but that’s not telling the real story.  Nations rarely sweep across borders in petty moments of ego driven mania – Russia aside – but wars feel more protracted, more all encompassing and more destructive. 

It’s a long limp to hell, just like the end of the Liberal party, no matter what Nick Clegg thinks. 

Clegg may persevere with the idea that Liberalism is alive and well in British politics and there is no arguing with the back from the brink work done by him, Charles Kennedy and Paddy Ashdown.   Down to five members in 1957 and led in the seventies by a closest homosexual who may, or may not, have murdered his male lover, it is a remarkable turnaround to be the junior member of the coalition with 62 seats, but make no mistake: the compromises forced upon it mean that this is no party of traditional liberalism.

Liberalism has been disappearing over the horizon ever since David Lloyd-George staged his coup in 1916 against HH Asquith.   Asquith had become increasingly muddled and desperate as the First World War dragged on.  Trapped in indecision as every wrong move led to greater piles of bodies on the battlefield his inertia was crippling the country.  He was a man more suited to the gentle, innocent peacetime of the early century when he could indulge in his preferred habits of glamorous parties and feeling up the ladies.  

Lloyd-George, on the other hand, self-styled himself as a human dynamo.  He was a walking, talking ego who ousted Asquith by pushing through a war committee, which he chaired, and that quickly turned into a cabinet.  He led a coalition government for the remainder of the war and called a snap election after the armistice.  His decision to field a national coalition government on the ballot was a triumph which swept him back into power, but a disaster for the party.  The Conservatives took the majority of the seats in 1918, but the Liberal Party split in two, Lloyd-George’s coalition pragmatists versus Asquith’s loyalists.

Asquith lost his seat and returned a mere 39 MPs, many of which defected to the coalition, but steered by a Conservative weight on his back Lloyd-George fudged much of the next four years.  The 1922 election again saw two Liberal parties fielded, led by the old adversaries, and both were over-hauled by Labour, never to return to the front of the political pack.

It remains to be seen whether Clegg’s affair with the Conservatives over the last five years has done lasting harm to the party.  Many of their supporters will feel betrayed that they voted Liberal Democrat to keep the Conservatives out, but instead helped them to a working government.  Remember, tactical voting is a dangerous game; like all battles it depends on the bravery of the foot soldiers as well as the genius of the generals.

Politics can be a noble profession, but perhaps it should not be a heroic profession.  Or, at least, not in the way my ten year old brain imagined heroism.  It is not about self-sacrifice against insurmountable odds, about lobbing a last gasp hand grenade and bugger the consequence, about defeating the opposition and subjecting their supporters to the economic equivalent of marshal law.  Politics should not be divisive.  It should be collaborative and inclusive, about having the best ideas and bringing the majority of people along with you.  Politicians need to remember that and leave the machismo at home.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

All this green crap

Pretty much every teenage boy will, at some point, indulge in reading fantasy novels, or comics, or participating in role playing games, or become over-excited by films based on any of the above.  There is something about a realm filled with smelly, grunting orcs and elegantly refined elves which speaks to the pubescent male psyche.  For my own sake, I read Tolkien one summer holiday round about thirteen and then put it to one side.  Still, though, I came back for more, I felt the grizzly pull of dwarfs clanging tankards.  Where Tolkien felt like a drudge, I whizzed through Terry Pratchett’s novels, but then those were both fantasy and not fantasy.

I was greatly saddened to read of Pratchett’s death last week.  His Discworld novels were an important part of my teenage reading and were partly the inspiration for the dreadful fantasy novel of my own, which I wrote aged fifteen.  My book poached many of the scaffholding concepts Pratchett used for his deliciously realised universe -  a strange realm reflecting, like a cracked mirror, our own, provided you were on acid when you looked in it - only I managed to do it with a significant lack of humour.  Still, at some one hundred and fifty closely typed pages it was, at least, a novel of sorts.  The first part of a trilogy, obviously, for all fantasy novels have to form part of a larger tapestry.  Even this Pratchett managed to better than most with his Discworld series comprising some forty odd novels.

But of course Pratchett only used fantasy as window dressing.  They are really satires of the modern condition and the human frailty; monumentally funny, at times bordering on the simply silly, but delightfully so.  They are propelled along by an acute sense of drama, dialogue and the core stages of a novel.  To an extent, they were formulaic but wonderfully executed none the less.  Anyone wanting to understand how to structure a novel – and to enjoy a few hours of blissful mirth – could do no worse than read a Terry Pratchett book.

Meanwhile, our current Lords and Ladies, led by an Eton educated variation of the Patrician with Granny Weatherwax in the Home Office and theLibrarian in the Treasury are happily self-satirising themselves in an endless spiral to oblivion.  In 2010 the Conservatives campaigned on the slogan of vote blue, get green.  The stressing of their environmental credentials was crucial to helping sway portions of the middle ground, swing voters concerned about the impending environmental catastrophe. 

In the five year run up, from Cameron’s ascendency as leader of her Majesty’s Opposition to the last election, he positioned himself as the champion of the environment.  His much covered trip to see the melting of the ice caps and hug a husky, which probably overall caused more harm than good as trips to the Arctic are hardly carbon neutral, attempted to show his caring and sensitive side.  All that’s gone by the wayside now, little more than a barely remembered fantasy. 

Or a satire on how to present politicians as electable.  We’ve gone round in circles so many times now, I’m no longer sure which it is.

Admittedly the realities of government were always going to bite into a party’s ideals.  Just look across the Atlantic for the disappointments of Obama, who turned out, after all, to not be the messiah but a politician forced into compromise like everyone before him.  So any ecological aspirations were always going to be tempered by legal issues, big business pressures, pandering to backbenchers in marginal seats, but still it is hard not to be surprised at how utterly toothless the promise to be the greenest government ever has ended up.

The Green Bank which could have been such a force for good, has been totally handcuffed by Austerity Osborne.  It is unable to act like any other financial institution, not even permitted to borrow money to generate revenue to invest and supplement the paltry budget gifted to it by the Treasury.  So rather than pump-priming new businesses and giving initiatives that could be a real force for change the investment they need, it shuffles around the halls of power offering snippets of advice, a reassuring clap on the shoulder but no actual, real cash.  It’s a pointless waste of space other than to allow the coalition to say it met its election promise in spirit if not in any meaningfulness.

Instead we get exasperations of let’s “get rid of this green crap”.  In other words, fuck the planet, screw the promises we made to the electorate, let’s just make life easier in the short term.  Governing shouldn’t be about making easy decisions in the face of adversity.  It should be about identifying the right, honourable and best path to everyone’s future and leading us there, despite the braying hysteria of climate change deniers.

We’ve had a government that tried to sell off the national forests, because of course nothing could ever go wrong in selling a commodity like land the economic potential of which wasn’t being reached.  The buyers were being asked, like those who took over the Post Office, to give a gentleman’s agreement that they would maintain them as they are.  What could have possibly gone wrong?

We’ve had a government which has permitted the introduction of fracking for shale gas, despite the data coming out of the significantly less densely populated regions of the United States suggesting serious environmental subsidence as a result.  Don’t worry, the whole island might just sink.  And even it doesn’t, as Lord Howell pointed out, there’s nothing in the desolate North East to be affected.  Aside from, y’know, Newcastle, Sunderland, Peter Lee, Middlesbrough, Durham and countless other towns.  Oh, no, he meant the North West.  That’s okay, then.  The residents of Manchester and Liverpool will be fine with the earthquakes.  A few tidal waves will liven up the jewel in the natural beauty crown, the Lake District.  Fucking idiot.

At times it has seemed as though the only person in parliament to recognise how insane this is, is Caroline Lucas.  The UK’s solitary Green MP had the courage of her convictions to the point of being arrested protesting against fracking in Surrey. 

Lucas has a banner in her office which reads “Well behaved women rarely make history.”  I’m reminded of a Pratchett quote:  “Something is only worth doing if someone, somewhere would rather you didn’t.”

‘I think I love Caroline Lucas,’ my fully paid up Labour party member wife said the other weekend over breakfast, a dreamy glaze coming over her face.  ‘No, I mean really love her.’  That’s what real leadership inspires.  That’s what it means to take the difficult decisions, Dave.

Rather than sort out – ie renationalise – the existing rail service, this government has embarked on the biggest programme of road building in decades.  We do get HS2, a London centric service which obliterates a stretch of the countryside hitherto relatively unblemished by industrialisation, but refreshing and rejuvenating the existing rail network should have been the way forward.  To encourage rail travel – and therefore not car travel – we need a system of reliable, cost-effective trains.  It should not cost two adults going to Devon by train triple what it would in my eleven year old Honda Civic. 

The only fully functioning, profit making rail service in the country is the East Coast Mainline which was state run after a bungled attempt to retender the contract, caused by Civil Service lay-offs.  Except now it isn’t; the tender has been redone – at great expense reminding us that people employed generally do have things to do (even if you disagree with what those are) - with proper governance and regular users can look forward to a rapid decline in service any week now.

Similarly, the row over airport expansion is framed in a distinctly non-environmentally friendly fashion.  The dispute is predominately over whether to expand Heathrow or somewhere else (Manchester promoting greater diversity, Boris’ ego rubbing island out in the Thames estuary, Gatwick or Stanstead on the flimsy evidence that less homes would be under the flypath) but nowhere do we seriously question whether the extra capacity is needed.  Anyone who suggests as such is labelled anti-business, willing to surrender our status as a hub to Frankfurt or Amsterdam. 

Of course, as I write this I can see a steady chain of planes entering the Heathrow queue over Oxleas’ wood, banking at Lewisham and heading right over Hilly Fields where we got married and, before then, our house.  At their current height, some twenty miles out, it is not the noise levels which is problematic but the persistency of their passing.  One every fifteen seconds or so creates a continual low drone.  I barely notice the noise, but it drives my wife mad and what cannot be disputed is the volume already fills the sky.  So we have a vested interest in less not more traffic through Heathrow – or, even better, varied flight paths which share the pain around the city. 

With one hand we’re continually told that business is modernising; that it is all Skype calls and cloud computing.  That physical infrastructures are increasingly unnecessary and yet we must build another runaway to accommodate more and more expensive, international business travel.  t makes as much sense as Jeremy Clarkson’s continuing employment with the BBC.

At my parents’ house last weekend I found a blue ring-binder with The Seventh Son scrawled in black marker on it.  My first pseudo-Pratchett novel.  I’d been thinking about it during the week, but hadn’t expected to stumble across a copy.  I opened the folder to find reams of black paper.  The old dot matrix print had faded over the intervening years leaving just the faintest intent to suggest that something had once been there.

This lasting impression is the sort generated by Cameron’s choice of Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.   Caroline Spelman was so effective a minister that her Wikipedia entry doesn’t even mention the highest office that she held.  Owen Patterson is a climate change sceptic who refused to accept a scientific briefing while in post.

UKIP MEP for Scotland David Martin called climate change and environmental efficiency a “middle class obsession” on Radio 4’s Any Questions.  He appears to suggest that a preoccupation with planetary survival bears no relation on the lives of ordinary people, as though we all don’t have children and grandchildren whom we might like to live.  To not act is to betray our children.

In 1931 Ramsey Macdonald was seen as a traitor to the Labour Party.  The man who had led the first party to its first government, the first Labour Prime Minister, was vilified for becoming PM again.  He did so as the head of a National Unity Government.  The majority of the three parties went to the electorate and said the country was facing an emergency.  The rolling shockwaves of the Great Depression were continuing to cause instability and strife across the world and extremist groups to the furthest right and left wings of the political spectrum were making merry havoc in the ruined wake.  This was not, Macdonald declared, a time for playing party politics.  This was a time for unified, concentrated national action. 

Not everyone in the three main parties agreed.  David Lloyd-George and his massive ego were still hanging around and led a smattering of Liberals against the national party.  The Labour Party saw Macdonald’s actions as pandering to big business and the established class structures, of abandoning the working man to his doom. 

The National Government won the election by a phenomenal landslide and despite the predominately Tory make-up of the party, Macdonald returned to Downing Street.  If we want to save the planet, this is what we need again.  A national – and international – concentration of leadership.  A unifying presence which doesn’t bicker over the detail but which focuses on making systematic structural changes which will reduce carbon emissions and build a sustainable future for us all.  Climate change isn’t going to be saved by the small number of businesses willing to stick their neck out to be potentially punished by their share holders.  It doesn’t make a difference, in the end, whether individuals put their rubbish in different colour coded bins and cycle to Norfolk for their holidays.  What we need is fundamental change and legislation.  The state needs to lead the way and force, if necessary, people and business to follow suit.  Everything else is like believing in magic, it’s charming, but it isn’t real.

Most of Terry Pratchett’s best lines were given to the skeletal personification of DEATH who crops up in many of his novels.  In Good Omens it says DON’T THINK OF IT AS DYING.  THINK OF IT AS LEAVING EARLY TO BEAT THE RUSH.  I’d rather we all were able to hang around and enjoy the view a bit longer, thanks.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

It's a dog's life

In the late winter of 2000-2001, I was back living with my parents, having finished University and just returned from adventures in Turkey to a sense of directionless confusion.  I was, as is often the way when little else offers itself, tending bar in the pub where I was born, but had little idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

I have a cat now, but growing up I was a dog-boy.  When I was seven years old, I remember spending hours one Cornish afternoon throwing stones into the sea for a passing Collie.  Not a stray, just a local dog.  In and out of the cold water he rushed, and I was utterly smitten with his enthusiasm to endlessly play and the way his eyes appeared to be telling me something.  It was, apparently, that moment when my parents decided to acquiescence to my pestering for a dog of our own.  A few months later, for my eighth birthday, we acquired Sally. 

Sally was a mongrel, rescued from the Dog’s Trust.  She wasn’t a fancy breed; a nothing special dog, fuelled by an insatiable greed (demonstrated by a tendency to slavishly drool), disposition to honk of sweaty socks when wet and a cantankerous aggression towards any other dog which ventured into a square mile of her presence.  But she was fiercely loyal, adoring and grateful for her home.  She was always keen to play, go for a walk or simply hover while I bemoaned whatever minor crisis my small world was enduring, head cocked seemingly listening.  I loved her to bits.

Thirteen years later, that post-Turkey winter, she was deafer, fatter, less mobile and missing one toe, but still devoted to her owners.  She’d had a good day.  She’d been for a decent walk, long pink tongue slavering the way round, argued with a neighbour’s dog and chased an old tennis ball around the hall, the rebounding scuffing marks onto the freshly painted skirting boards.  She was fast asleep, sprawled on the lounge rug when she began to fit.  A series of sharp convulsions and an almost silent whimpering.

She’d had a stroke, but survived, of a sort.  A shadow of nothing.  In the morning, my Mum and I took her to vet, knowing she wouldn’t come back.  I was almost twenty-two years old and inconsolable.

It was those feelings which returned when I read about the Red Setter “murdered” at Crufts last weekend.  Whoever is responsible is, presumably, involved with dogs.  They must know what they mean to their owners.  All that grief, just for a petty trophy.  Some people have lost all sense of perspective.

Iain Duncan Smith is another man who has lost his sense of perspective.

A few years ago Duncan Smith had a much reported epiphany in Glasgow.  It was – he said at the time – a Damascus moment.  The media held it up as compassionate Conservatism.  This was how the party had changed.  It could hold Tory values, but still want to help the most desperate in society. 

Instead, it seems to have been a disguise.  Duncan Smith has been at the spearhead of a concentrated assault on the poorest people in the country, those most in need of our help.  He must be one of the few politicians to lead a consistent maligning in the press of the electorate while holding major office.  An eroding of benefits, ending in the absurdity of the so-called spare bedroom tax, have seen the government gleefully embrace their reputation as the nasty party.  There has been no pretence; their role has been to kick those already down.

Glasgow seems to not have helped Duncan Smith to realise that the death dive circle of economic hardship makes it even more imperative that the state support those in need.   Instead he seems to have seen people who would be only too willing to help themselves if only the government would stop giving them money and leave them to buck their own ideas up. 

He seems to have fundamentally misunderstood what life on benefits is like and who makes claims.  Most people want to be in work and are actively looking for work.  Duncan Smith wants an end to the so-called “life on benefits”.  He assumes that there are people who see making claims as an alternative lifestyle and they will be given short shrift.  The right wing media paints a picture of whole areas of inner-cities and run down rural communities awash with people putting their feet up and waiting for the cash to arrive.  But, in 2011 of the 1.5 million people claiming jobseekers allowance, only 4,220, or 0.3% had been claiming for five years or more (stat courtesy of Polly Tonybee and David Walker’s Cameron’s Coup).

The Tories want to reduce the benefits bill but refuse to acknowledge the two major elephants in the room.  By far the largest proportion of social security funding goes on pensions and related costs, free TV licences, free bus passes, etc.  The demographic most likely to vote Conservative has, unsurprisingly, had their benefits protected.

Of the remaining benefit pot, the biggest pay out is for housing benefits – again, unsurprisingly as this is most people’s largest expenditure.  Housing benefits payments have spiralled massively over the last thirty years thanks to right to buy reducing the social housing stock and pushing people into the unregulated, over-inflated private rental market, increasing the cost to the tax payer and decreasing the security and standards of living for many. 

A Conservative government is never going to instigate significant social housing construction nor sufficiently incentivise developers to build real affordable housing – as opposed to the sort that grudgingly does so to comply with planning regulations and installs a separate entrance for theless desirable tenants.  An increase in housing stock would move young high earning professionals who can’t scrape together a deposit because all their money goes on rent into ownership, but the lack of supply of housing is one of the factors pushing the prices ever upwards, especially in London.  It’s sustaining the whole false economic recovery Austerity Osborne is betting the election result on.

The so-called spare bedroom tax is absurd.  Leaving aside the very sensible reasons people may have for requiring a spare room and that their housing benefit payments may or may not be long term, it completely ignores the importance of people’s communities and assumes that there is an abundance of choice to be made in housing.  There have been stories of people being relocated to one bedroom flats in different cities because nothing is suitable in their current one.  Can you imagine how destructive to confidence and life it must be to be forcibly uprooted in this way, moved away from family, friends and a familiarity with the infrastructure which those already struggling need to help get them through it all?

The assumption here is that the state prevents people from working by offering them an alternative, but the real data doesn’t back this up.  Instead of opening up labour markets and incentivising people to go to work, all this government has managed to do is kick people when they’re down.  It has eroded away the support we offer those at their weakest, lowest moments.  People having gone through the shock and awe of being made redundant no longer have the benefit of getting their head straight for a couple of weeks with the state looking after them.  They have to go straight back out to seeking work, even if that work is a poor use of their skills.  Ten years experience in digital marketing and just laid off?  Never mind, here’s a zero hours contract for JJB Sports, now piss off.

Meanwhile Universal Credit stutters towards hugely expensive delays, another ludicrous government IT system no-one really understands nor necessarily needs.  Plus it assumes that you’ll have a computer and an internet connection at home.  Those are going to be sacrificed before food, I reckon.  Job Centre staff allegedly have secret targets to remove claimants from the benefits register for the most spurious of reasons.  The mantra piles down: we don’t care; we shouldn’t care; let them sort themselves out; they’re better off alone.

All this ignores the fact that national insurance, into which we all pay, is an insurance policy for when we’re down and out.  We are entitled to make a claim on it.  That’s how insurance policies work.

For someone who abhors claimants of aid as much as Duncan-Smith does, perhaps he should think twice before submitting a £100 expenses claim for wet wipes.  Unless they’re provide sanitation for Cameron as he hides out from the country’s media, and refuses to enter into televised debates he insisted become part of the national discussion.

Back in the autumn of 1964 Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the Conservative Prime Minister, could hold on no longer.  In audience with the Queen he asked for permission to dissolve parliament and seek election by the public.  The Conservatives’ thirteen years in power had hardly been smooth.  From Churchill’s bumbling towards retirement, showing himself to be ill-suited to peace time leadership, Eden’s disastrous rose-tinted Imperialist invasion of Egypt and while MacMillan may have been one of the most cultured, intellectual and moderate Tory leaders, even he couldn’t survive the Profumo scandal.  Douglas-Home had taken the reigns barely a year earlier and had been trying to generate a resurgence since the Spring.  It wasn’t coming and he was out of time.

Harold Wilson didn’t exactly romp home to victory, though.  A Labour majority of four was not to help him drive through reforms his predecessors had instigated in 1945, but a win was a win; power, however tempered, is still power.  Two years was enough to create a feel good atmosphere and a majority of 98 in the snap election of 1966.

The curious thing is that, like in 1997, Labour came to power at times of adversity – when the world looked, at least, politically, bleak - and steered the country through periods of social reform.   When outdated morals and misguided opinions are loosened.   While the notion of an uber-cool swinging society was mainly confined to London, in 1964 the rest of the country resembled something more akin to the Nottingham of Saturday Night, Sunday Morning.  A grind of back-to-back terraces and manual labour, interrupted by heady drinking and simple distractions.  As the decade progressed, the world lit up.

We approach 2015 in a similar state, only rather than an ill-informed view of pop music, the young, drugs or homosexuals the current government has fostered a hatred of the poor.  If we let them keep going, we we’ll have regressed back beyond 1964, back before national insurance was introduced in 1911 and to a time when being out of work meant being on the streets, being unable to pay your debts meant going to prison and being disabled meant you were better off dead. 

Governments are like dogs.  They’re supposed to do what we tell them, but always insist on heading off in their own direction.  And the ones you have the longest leave the most lasting impression.  Let’s leave this tied up on the motorway hard shoulder.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

It’s the economy, stupid


Our kitchen was installed in 1986.  It is fair to say it has seen better days.  The work surface is starting to come away from the wall.  It is a relentlessly brown colour which my wife was appalled by when we first saw the house, but I have become used to over the past two years.  Still, it needs replacing.  I never thought I would be the sort of person who buys a kitchen, although I also thought that I’d never own a property, so there you go.  It with some surprise, therefore, that I find myself heading to Croydon Ikea on a grey, miserly Saturday morning and as we grind through the slow moving traffic, I find myself thinking about politics in a grouchy, frustrated fashion.

1992 was a strange election.  It was the first I sort of understood.  I was aware of 1987, but it felt too vague.  I had no real comprehension that anyone other than Mrs Thatcher could be Prime Minister.  By 92, on the cusp of adolescence and beginning to listen to the six o’clock news, I at least realised that there were alternatives.

No-one expected John Major to be victorious.  A man seen as a bland compromise for a party unable to countenance Michael Hestletine’s flamboyance at its head, but recognised that Thatcher had gone past the rational.  It had no idea of what life after her would be like so played it safe.  Major was an experienced politician, but not considered his own man, many expected him to be a puppet for his forcibly retired mistress.  He was so anonymous that Spitting Image portrayed him as physically grey, saggy eyed and having a passion for boiled peas eaten in the gloom. 

On the other side of the floor, Neil Kinnock appeared confident of over-coming the characteristics middle England seemed so appalled by: being Welsh, ginger, left-wing with the misfortune to have, once, fallen into the sea at Brighton.  Even with those disadvantages it seemed inconceivable that the public majority wouldn’t swing for him.  The election process was merely going to be a coronation.

We all know what happened next.  Major, against all expectations, proved to be an exceptional campaigner trawling around small towns and cities carrying a soap box and a loudspeaker, willing to engage with and argue his case with anyone passing.  It was a piece of public engagement one can’t imagine David Cameron being willing to conduct, with his preference for carefully staged photo opportunities which add to his “I met a man” repartee on his travels “up and down the country”.  Backed up by a clever marketing campaign – “What can the Conservative party offer a working class boy from Brixton?” – and the support of Murdoch dominated press (If Labour win, will the last person in Britain turn off the lights?) the Tories managed to suggest that the party could be something for all people, that it had more than the interests of its wealthy backers at heart.

Kinnock, meanwhile, flew around the country by helicopter like some erstwhile President, shook triumphant fists with Roy Hattersley in arenas like he was in Simple Minds and preached to the converted with dull test group vetted phrases and not like the conviction politician inside him and probably not like a Prime Minister.  Not in those days, anyway.


Another missed opportunity.  Although to my young mind it simply felt like the natural order had reasserted itself.  Instead of something new we got another five years of Conservative government leading us into financial crash with Black Wednesday, a housing market bubble (again), and MPs who seemed less interested in supporting and developing public services than finding ways to discredit themselves through their personal fetishes and tearing their party apart over Europe.

It seems like nothing changes.

Ikea is as hellish as I remember it.  Insanely busy at ten o’clock, the majority of customers share the same dead-eyed, desperate expression for the whole experience to be over.  There’s a smattering of young couples setting up home for the first time, finding cheap furniture for their rented flat.  They seem to be enjoying themselves.  Let them; it won’t last long.

The Conservatives managed to keep the keys to Downing Street in 1992 even though the economy was sinking into recession, but it was close.  As we approach May this year, the current government are rushing out as many dubiously snaffled together statistics as they can to show that the economy is buoyant.   The reasoning is that if they could win twenty-three years ago with the country’s finances in the doldrums then harping on about wealth and growth being back up to pre-financial catastrophe levels will only help this time round.  And they’re right.  Nothing sells change like a recession, or a major scandal and they will do everything possible to prevent either occurring over the next few weeks. 

So, growth back to 2008 levels they cry.  The highest number of jobs created for any parliament.  But what does this mean, is any of it real and are we all better off than where we were in 2010?

The economy has undoubtedly improved.  Personally, my financial situation has never been more secure.  But both measures have to be put in the context of things being about as bad as they could possibly have been.  The fault for which rests, partly, with Gordon Brown.  Taking a greater interest in financial regulation at some point in the decade running up to 2008 would have helped, although 2008 was a global disaster and much of it was out of the UK’s reach.  Besides, Brown’s decisive action to refinance the whole system cleared some of the blame from his shoulders. 

In reality, just like every other statistic, the message being used for is one of over-simplification.

We have an economy and economic confidence (the latter of which is arguably, in political terms, the more important) overly reliant on an financial sector, which still (still!) sees itself as some sort of desperado ranger on the wild frontier with scant regard for anyone else, and that old British institution the value of our house.  Anyone would be excused for thinking that the global meltdown of seven years ago, which was caused by these two factors plus our own greed, never happened.  If the political market never changes, it would appear the economy’s chief drivers don’t either.

More jobs?  Well, probably, but that doesn’t mean they are the jobs which people want, or need.  There has been a significant growth in part time positions and the insane idea of zero hour contracts which not only put employees utterly under the thumb of companies but also, handily, restricts the benefits they’re entitled too because they are in work.  But not being paid.  The defence of this is that it creates a more flexible society suitable for the twenty-first century.  No longer should we just be expected to work nine to five, later for pub landlords.  Work is whenever you want it to be.  Except it isn’t.  The majority of data shows that those in part-time work want more hours to be financially stable.  Part time positions and zero hour contracts are skewed massively towards low paid and minimum wage roles, where less money on a weekly basis makes all the difference.

At my most financially stretched, I once ate boiled brown rice infused with gravy granules and some frozen spinach I’d had to scrape out of the freeze.  For three nights in a row.  An extra £20 would have made the difference.

If the rate of inflation for the minimum wage had risen to the same degree as senior directors, then it would be £15.30 per hour not £6.30.  In real terms, those on the minimum wage are a £1,000 a year worse off than they were ten years ago.  That’s not so far away from when I was last on the minimum wage and not so long ago that I can’t remember how little it felt in my pocket.  We’re creating a rich economy or those already rich.

So, average take home pay remains in doldrums and pay-day loan companies with interest rates worse than the Wiemar Republic’s inflation plug the gaps as people struggle to fill their shopping baskets, pay their gas bills, get their kids a new pair of shoes because the soles are hanging off the old ones, and besides they’re too small.  In the past few months prices have started to come down, but that’s more to do with economic sanctions on a Russia more interesting in dusting off the seventies approach to diplomacy and chaos in the Middle East both messing up oil prices than the economic genius of Gideon Austerity Osborn.  It is, however, fortunate timing and people are, understandably, more interested in the cost of their weekly shop than the global political picture.

Meanwhile, youth unemployment is stratospherically high as people emerge blinking and battle scarred from a university environment so terrified at the life buggering level of debts incurred that they’re turning to drugs, not for fun or escape but to get better grades.  How is this not storing up problems for the future?  Saddling everyone with levels of personal debt impossible to pay off when no-one wants to give you a job.  So what if it expires after thirty years?  You’ve still got it hanging around your neck like the heavy corpse of learning for a generation.

 Even if you could get a job, it would never as highly paid as expected.  Some politicians seem to think every graduate waltzs into the equivalent of a managing director’s chair when in the end, they’ll start on something around £19K just like everyone else.  So, people’s credit rating is screwed which will scupper their ability to buy a property – which they’ll be desperate to do because everyone tells them it’s the only guaranteed way to make money.  And when the property market, which is propping the whole fragile economy, tanks then where are we?

I can’t decide whether the current government really doesn’t care or just doesn’t get it.  Whether they’re verging on downright evil, only interested in short-term enrichment, or whether their world view is so distorted to their own privileged Cotswold set that they genuinely can’t see how much damage this sort of thing does to ordinary people.

In a recent speech, Cameron called on the private sector, on business to give Britain a pay rise.  Except Austerity Osborne has frozen public sector wages so he’s suggesting that the market should do the opposite of the government.  Unsurprisingly the market pretended not to hear and hoped everyone would forget about it.  That’s not how the market works.  High salaries erode profit margins, but if public sector wages look more desirable then the private sector will offer increases to keep hold of its best people.

There’s no reason for the public sector to be seen as inferior to or worth less than business, unless, of course, you have an ideological objection to the whole thing in the first place.  And so that means they have an ideological objection to me.  To you.  To everyone else, except those on the inside.  

The poor only have themselves to blame, they say.  If they don’t have enough money for what they want, then don’t buy it.  Except for when what you want is food for the first time in three days and there isn’t a penny in your bank account.  Eric Pickles has clearly never been in such a scenario.

A booming economy does not have a million people reliant on food banks.   Success is not having child poverty rates increasing for the first time in twenty years.

The Tories will say that we are recovered from financial disaster because their mates are doing okay.  There is a fundamental problem when this government gives, rather than loans, money to financial institutions for it to then be loaned to small businesses to kick start the economy, but when the banks kept the money instead the government simply gave them more.  On the flip side of the coin, local councils around the country are being denied permission to take on loans, not tax payer supported gifts, to invest into infrastructure projects.

My wife and I have never been to Ikea together, a fact she find remarkable and I attribute to careful planning. 

‘We should have done this before,’ she said when the South Circular ground to a standstill.  ‘It’s one of those tests all couples have to undertake to check they’re compatible.  If it all goes to hell this morning, it’s too late.  We’re already married.’

Inside, we don’t argue, but I do become grumpy and bored as for over two hours we examine the numerous barely distinguishable mocked up kitchens, with the same curiously uninspiring shiny cabinets and sympathetic lighting.  At one point I get my hand stuck in a handle, my wedding ring snagged between the curved aluminium and the slick drawer front.  There’s a metaphor in here somewhere, I think while I struggle to extract myself and my wife looks on, faintly embarrassed, once again.

‘What have you done?’ she asks, mildly exasperated.

Quite.  What have we done, indeed?  And more to the point: what are we going to do to fix it?