Monthly Archives: April 2016

Still Battling On

When I read a report of someone who’s died and see the phrase “battle with cancer”, I know the copywriter’s brain was on auto-pilot. Quite often the word “brave” appears before the word “battle”. (We all love lots of allusive alliteration!)

My first wife died of cancer at the age of 48. From my second hand perspective, neither “brave” nor “battle” gets it right. When diagnosed with terminal illness, after the initial shock, it’s only natural to try to spend your remaining days as fully and as joyfully as your health allows. Anything less would be a senseless waste of precious days. That’s not brave, that’s common sense. Moreover, cancer is an illness. It doesn’t convey any moral value on someone who lives longer than someone who dies sooner. “Battle” implies winners and losers – and heroes and cowards. Let people and their loved ones live their lives without some judgmental value being placed on their manner of living – or dying.

chemotherapy
Chemotherapy

“Battle” – and “hero” – are much abused – and overused – words.

Homeric Heroes

The ancient Greeks loved a good hero. Here’s a list of quite a few to choose from. Homer’s epic poems, the Iliad and Odyssey, tell morally uplifting tales of heroes and heroism, of wars and battles. They set a kind of model paradigm, an ideal against which to judge all people. During the 18th century enlightenment period, these classical themes were revived, in part as an antidote to the stifling religious conformism of the mediaeval period. These cultural influences survive in some form to this day.

Homeric heroes
Homeric heroes

Chivalric Knights

In mediaeval times, knights operated a code of chivalry as a guide to a good, heroic life. Some of the rules of this code reflect mediaeval thought: fear of God and a duty to serve your (earthly) lord, for example. But others still have a modern moral resonance.  “Fight for the welfare of all” and “protect the weak and defenceless” have modern equivalents. Some notions that were popular a generation ago but now seeming slightly old fashioned, such as men not swearing in front of women, can be traced back to the chivalric code. But physical, as opposed to verbal, battles were all the rage at the time of the knights. Heroes, too, were judged in military terms.

chivalric knight
Chivalric knight

Our Finest Hour

Britain clings nostalgically to “our finest hour” during World War II and the Battle of Britain in particular. It is viewed as a time when there was a sense of common purpose and the pain and suffering of war was shared by everyone, not just an elite band of knight warriors. It would be fair to say there were countless examples of heroic acts performed by both military and civilian populations during this period. In a real sense, we were all in it together. The battleground of the Battle of Britain threatened every part of the land.

London blitz scene
London blitz scene

Battles Physical and Metaphorical

Fortunately for us today, battles are generally verbal or metaphorical: few of us experience a real physical one. And its honourable counterpart, heroism, can take many forms. The stranger who risks his or her life rescuing a drowning child. A neighbour pulling someone from a burning house. Emily Hobhouse and others, who campaigned vigorously for a peaceful end to the First World War in the teeth of public opinion. Unarmed police officers risking their lives tackling armed criminals. The many different people from all walks of life honoured annually in the Daily Mirror’s Pride of Britain Awards. And of course the many campaigners fighting the British establishment for 27 years to get truth and justice for the Hillsborough 96.

Pride of Britain
Pride of Britain

So it will come as no surprise that I object to the British Legion’s choice of name for their fundraising campaign. It attempts to equate the word “hero” with service in the UK armed forces. There is nothing inherently heroic in agreeing unconditionally to fight for one’s country. This is especially so when I believe that hardly any British military action since 1945 has any moral or ethical basis. Most of it has solved nothing or made matters worse in the medium to longer term. The Legion’s branding is pure propaganda.

Battles and Heroes

So, what do I conclude? We should be grateful that most battles today are not of the military kind. It’s a positive sign of the progress of what we call “civilisation”. Heroism takes many forms, most of it far from a battlefield. And cancer is a disease, not a battle.

 

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Jobs, Not Yachts!

Philip Green, owner of retailer BHS from 2000 to 2015, is about to take delivery of a £100 million 90m-long luxury yacht. I’m sure it will look very impressive moored next to his other two yachts. Presumably he also has time to take a ride on his speedboat, private jet and helicopter as well. Handy for those commutes between London and his Monaco tax haven.

luxury yacht
What a yacht I got!

Green paid £200m for BHS and sold it for £1 to a City group headed by Dominic Chappell, twice bankrupt and with no retail experience. But don’t worry, Green doesn’t seem to have suffered too much. Within 4 years of buying the company, his wife was paid £400m in dividends. Over the 15 year period, the Green family received income totalling £586m. At the start of his tenure, the BHS pension fund was in surplus by £5m. The company’s pension fund deficit now stands at £571m, valued on the basis the company is insolvent.

Chappell lost no time in profiting from the ownership of BHS. It paid £25m to Retail Acquisitions, the company that bought BHS and which is 90% owned by Chappell. The £25m is a mixture of management, legal and professional fees, salaries and interest payments.

BHS was founded in 1928. It is now in administration.  11,000 employees await anxiously their fate: will a buyer be found so they can keep their jobs? If the company goes under, the pension deficit will be taken over by the government-backed Pension Protection Fund. Under the terms of the takeover, future BHS pensioners will take a cut of at least 10% in their pension payments. Iain Duncan Smith will now doubt blame the 11,000 former BHS staff as scroungers who made the “lifestyle choice” of choosing to work for morally bankrupt billionaires. This is, of course, if he takes time off from campaigning for the UK to leave the EU. If we leave, Britain will then have a free hand to weaken employees’ rights even further.

jobless queue
BHS workers?

One Pound, One Vote

I distinctly remember, a year or two ago, discussing the consequences of our government’s continuing economic policy of free market fundamentalism. I said that, over time, it inevitably leads to a situation where there are too many luxury yachts and too few teachers, doctors and nurses. By “too many, too few” I meant when compared with the public’s preferences if asked directly. The reason is simple. In a market-based economy, money talks. Gradually over time, the “invisible hand” of billions of transactions shifts the priority for the provision of goods and services ever more towards the needs of the super-rich and away from the rest of us. It’s hard wired into the logic of markets.

At a time when hospitals are clocking up record deficits and record shortages of medical and teaching staff are being reported, my comment – intended purely as a rhetorical device – appears to be coming literally true. What a morally despicable world we seem to have created.

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Free Market Thinking Is Not the Answer

It should be obvious by now that free markets are not the solution to every problem. Sadly, too many people in power still haven’t learnt this simple truth. Here are two examples, one recent, one ongoing.

Schools Need Planning

School signAbout two years ago, the Chief Executive of a Local Education Authority was expressing the frustrations of her job. The essential problem was that she was responsible in law to ensure that sufficient places were available for all children who needed them in her area, but did not have the powers to bring this about. This ludicrous state of affairs first came about in 2010 when Michael Gove became Education Secretary. Gove’s ideological obsession for free schools (inspired by a Swedish example already disowned in Sweden) had removed the power for local government to create or expand their own schools. The famous “free market” would somehow step in and do the job. It didn’t: free schools were built, at great expense, in the wrong places.

Hardly anyone agrees with govenment policy. Unions and professional associations are opposed. The Local Government Association is against forced academisation. In mid April, Conservative MPs in the Commons  opposed the policy too. A week earlier, councils warned that there will be a shortage of school places, with 40% of councils affected. Local authorities are not allowed to open new schools. The so-called “free market”, of free schools and academy chains, is somehow supposed to fill the gap. It hasn’t happened. It’s not going to happen. The proportion of parents getting their first choice school for their children is falling. Markets are no substitute for local knowledge and planning. The problems were largely avoidable, but for dogma and ideology.

Carbon Credits Don’t Work

School places are a problem for this country and the problem is contained. A much more serious, longer-term and globally important issue is that of man-made global warming. The evidence for this was first flagged up by scientists in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The first serious international conference on climate change was held in Toronto in 1988. 1992 saw the first UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Sadly, by then, the ideology of free market fundamentalism had really begun to take hold of the thinking of governments throughout the world.

If we had still being operating the kind of interventionist policies which were mainstream throughout the western world until the late 1970s, things may well have turned out differently. The 1960s and 1970s saw a series of strong government interventions in many countries. DDT was banned, various Clear Air and Clean Water Acts were passed, along with legislation protecting wildlife on land and in the oceans. Regulate, control and ban: these were the weapons governments were willing and able to use.

By the time a consensus on climate change had emerged, government attitudes had changed. Markets were the solution; governments must not interfere or enact “anti-business” policies. Instead of direct intervention, free market thinking created the concept of carbon caps, credits and emissions trading. This was a ridiculously roundabout way to achieve the intended aims of reducing carbon emissions. Variations in global economic growth added wild fluctuations to the price of carbon credits. The scope for fraudulent use of credits and of corruption quickly turned into reality.

planet earth
Planet Earth

Once again, the barrier to clearly thought-through policy development resulting from free market dogma prevented the implementation of effective solutions to an increasingly urgent problem: man-made global warming. Only this time, the problem is not confined to one small country. It affects everyone on the planet.

Markets Aren’t the Answer, Stupid

Markets are fine in their place. Choosing which can of baked beans to buy, for example. There are no significant externalities which escape the market mechanism. Such as the quality of education for a generation of schoolchildren. Or the future of life on earth. It’s high time governments woke up to this stark but simple fact.

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Play the Ball, Not the Man

Only a day or two before Barak Obama’s visit to the UK, I remarked to my wife what I saw was the general difference between the two sides in the EU referendum debate. Whatever I may think about the likes of Cameron and Osborne, the main statements made by the Remain camp seem to be based upon some form of rational argument. The Leave lot, on the other hand, generally resort to personal abuse.

Barak Obama in London
Obama in London

Then along comes Obama, who makes an impassioned speech about why he believes that the UK should remain in the EU. He also strongly debunks the Leavers’ fantasy that Britain will be able to negotiate, easily and quickly, a bilateral trade deal with the USA. And what do we get in return? A load of bollocks from Boris Johnson about a bust of Churchill in the White House (not realising there are two different busts) and some abuse of Obama. Johnson asserts, absurdly, that Obama just made his speech as a favour to Cameron. Can anyone really believe the President of the world’s superpower would actually do that?

There is a dark side to all this nonsense. Public opinion of politicians is already extremely low. This state of affairs was helped in no small way by the Daily Telegraph, who pay Johnson £600,000 a year for his newspaper column. I refer, of course to the paper’s exposure of the MPs’ expenses scandal. This was an important, but highly spun, piece of investigative journalism which tried, and broadly succeeded, in creating the impression that all politicians are as bad as one another. The continuing personal attacks, mainly from the Leave campaigners, can only serve to undermine our whole faith in politicians even further.

It would be a tragedy of enormous proportions if the decision on Britain’s future in Europe were made on a tide of the most despicable cynicism. For goodness’ sake, let’s raise the tone of the debate before it’s too late.

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