All posts by Jim Gunther

About Jim Gunther

Husband, father, grandfather, humanist, republican, (very!) amateur anthropologist. Interests: politics, education, ethics, comedy, eclectic music taste. Former corporate manager. School governor, charity trustee, volunteer adviser

Priti Vacant

Oh, so Priti vacant!

Priti Patel MP
Priti Patel MP

Priti Patel , you may recall, was International Development Secretary with plans to abolish her own Department. She lost her ministerial post after some dodgy business about undeclared moonlighting meetings in Israel. Out of office for just over a year, her extremist views on the UK leaving the EU have got her back in the news last week.

Leave Extremist

Those with longer memories will recall that Patel was one of the leading lights in the campaign for Leave leading up to the referendum in 2016. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see this fits in with her far right political views. She is an avowed fan of Margaret Thatcher, who she claims as her political hero. She now falls naturally into that group of MPs (mainly Tories, some DUP) who want Britain to leave the EU in pursuit of an extreme form of low tax, small government model for the UK. That is, by pursuing an ever purer form of Free Market Fundamentalism which has been responsible for low economic growth and a shocking rise in poverty and inequality. This is analogous to giving a sick patient stronger and stronger doses of a medicine that causes harm until the patient dies. (See my earlier posts Two Castles (part 2), Some Are More Equal, Inequality Damages Your Wealth, for example and background.)

Patel is back in the news because she was complaining May had not tried hard enough in her negotiations with the EU. Specifically, she advocated that May should have made more of the threat of food shortages in the Irish republic as a bargaining tactic.

The Great Famine in Ireland

irish famine
The Great Hunger

Patel should know more about Irish history than to make such an insensitive remark. Irish history is indelibly marked by the Great Famine in the 1840s, which led to a million deaths and a million Irish people emigrating from the ravaged country. The Wikipedia account of the Great Famine gives a full explanation. We were taught at school, under the name the “Irish Potato Famine”, that this was an unfortunate natural phenomenon, caused by the disease known as “potato blight”. Whilst this may be true up to a point, there was criticism at the time of the UK government’s inadequate response to the crisis (not reported by my history teacher).

Modern historians concede this made matters worse, but point to a more fundamental issue. Food continued to be exported from Ireland to Great Britain during the famine and English absentee landlords had benefited from the confiscation of land in Ireland from the 16th century onward. Landlords’ agents in Ireland saw their bosses’profits as more important than the lives of the Irish people.

Famine in India

Famine in India
Famine in India

If Patel had forgotten her Irish history, surely there is even less excuse in her apparent failure to understand that similar famines had occurred in the 19th century in India. I note from her CV that Patel’s parents were born in Gujarat. Did she learn nothing about her Indian heritage and history from her parents or grandparents? Has she never even been curious?

The effect of UK government policy exacerbated severe famines in India from the late 18th century through to the 1920s, in particular in the last 50 years of this period. The story is familiar: there was enough food in India to feed its population, but the distribution infrastructure was geared towards the needs of imperialist Britain, not native Indians. (This includes, incidentally, the much-vaunted railway system, whose routes were geared to the appropriation of India’s natural resources for export to Britain and for the convenience of the Imperial rulers.)

Modern historians estimate that, in total, between 20 and 40 million Indians died during the period of British imperial rule as a direct result of British government policy. And no, I wasn’t taught that at school, either.

A New Moral Low

Patel’s attitude is, ironically, imperialist in the extreme and shows the Brits’ traditional contempt for the Irish. To use the Irish people as dispensable pawns in some great game between the UK and EU27 takes us to yet another moral low point in the continuing sorry saga of this country tearing itself apart over EU membership.

Further proof, if proof were needed, that she is not fit ever to return to public office.

Contrary to expectations when my previous post was published, my medical treatment has been delayed. Hence this post!

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Taking Care

This post is a bit more personal than most.

Taking Care of Our Dog

Our Labrador is now three years old, nearer three and a half, in fact. We’ve had him since he was an eight-week old puppy. Pedigree Labradors are notorious for having dodgy knees, so we bought one whose ancestors had all passed the Kennel Club test for low risk for such a problem. So our dog has dodgy elbows instead, just to be different. At the age of seven months, he underwent surgery for elbow dysplasia and the vet bill was £4000. Fortunately, we had insurance, but the premiums were jacked up on renewal.

There was an element of controversy about his need for such invasive treatment at such a young age. My wife and I even debated whether his recommended treatment was motivated, at least in part, by profit for the vet. We trusted the integrity of the veterinary surgery, but some doubts lingered.

Taking Care of Me

Regular readers of my blog (are there any?) will have noticed a mention of my cancer diagnosis in an earlier post from August this year, A Slow Death. It’s not a subject I dwell upon, as most of my posts are about totally different matters. But things have moved on and I shall shortly be starting a further round of treatment known as a stem cell transplant. It has serious and unpleasant side-effects lasting several months. But it brings with it the expectation that my period of remission – and probable treatment-free life – will be extended by a useful amount. It is, however, somewhat risky: my consultant explained that, on average, 4 to 5% of patients die as a result of the treatment.

So I found myself on the horns of a dilemma: do I go ahead or not? I confess I dithered and changed my mind several times. I discussed the decision with my wife and I spoke to people who had been through the experience. Eventually, I decided to go ahead. For me, the deciding factor was this: that “small voice” inside my head said to myself (and I quote verbatim): “For fuck’s sake, this is the NHS! They wouldn’t offer it to me if they didn’t think it was in my best interests!” And so I said yes.

The contrast between our doubts about our dog’s surgery and my own treatment option could not be clearer. Unlike those poor people in the USA, there is no profit motive in the medical professionals advising me. I was given the facts, warts and all, and I was supported in coming to my own decision. It was then that I realised just how much comfort comes from the fact that we still have the NHS to look after us. Its values survive 70 years after its founding, even if the funding (under the Tories) is too low.

Taking Care of All of Us

The NHS is the biggest example of the collective ideals of human beings and, in the UK, its most popular. We must never stop reminding ourselves to take care of the NHS (through proper funding, sufficient trained staff and a taxation system that spreads the cost in a fair way). Then we can continue to be comforted by the thought that the NHS is there to take care of all of us, whatever our circumstances, when their help is needed.

With thanks also to the useful information supplied by the charity Myeloma UK.

This will be my last blog post of 2018. I hope to be posting again in the new year. Watch this space!

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Heartless, Spiteful and Unnecessary

The title of this blog post has echoes of the names of the sort of firm of solicitors employed by the rich and greedy to frighten and bully those weaker than themselves. But I refer instead to our government’s economic strategy since 2010, with particular reference to austerity.

UN Rapporteur’s Report

Professor Philip Alston is the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty, appointed by the Human Rights Council in 2014. He is a Professor at New York University School of Law with a doctorate from the University of California. He studied Law and Economics in his native Australia. Alston has worked in several roles for the UN since the 1980s. His current “job description” and background to his appointment can be found on the UN’s Human Rights website here.

Philip Alston in Newham, Clacton, Belfast, Scotland, Newcastle and Bristol

Alston travelled for 12 days throughout the UK to gather information directly from a diverse group of people most affected by poverty in the UK and those working to support them. He is an experienced and acknowledged expert in his field and took time to listen to the people whom he met. His conclusions were that the government had inflicted “great misery” on its people with “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” austerity policies driven by a political desire to undertake social re-engineering rather than economic necessity. “Poverty is a political choice,” he said.

Here’s just one extract from Alston’s statement: “The results [of the government’s austerity policy]? 14 million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty. Four million of these are more than 50% below the poverty line, and 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford basic essentials. The widely respected Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts a 7% rise in child poverty between 2015 and 2022, and various sources predict child poverty rates of as high as 40%.  For almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one.

Alston’s  longer, fuller statement which also explains the methodology, can be found here. It’s worth a read!

Government in Denial

And yet the government has wasted no time criticising his report. Mini-May Amber Rudd, recently rehabilitated by May as the new Work and Pensions Secretary, said the report used language of an “extraordinary political nature”. May’s spokesman said: “We strongly disagree with the analysis [in the report].” Alston also specifically criticised the government’s flagship welfare reform programme, Universal Credit. In this, he was adding his voice to those of a wide range of critics working with people made destitute by the changes. UC has hit disabled people particularly hard.

These criticisms are yet further examples of a government in denial. When someone criticises the effects of government policy, shooting the messenger is certainly not the right response. I agree fully with Alston’s comment that austerity was a political choice, for which former Chancellor George Osborne is principally to blame. This government, thanks to May’s mishandling of the negotiations, is totally bogged down in discussions with the EU and with bickering amongst themselves. Rising inequality and the resultant rise in poverty is just one result of a government wilfully blind to reality. And was the language extraordinarily political? Judge for yourself: the OHCHR press release is here.

Alston and Victims Hit Back

Clearly, those made poorer by government policy agree with Alston’s analysis. Of ministers, one said “They should get out of their cars. They are turning a blind eye. I was very happy with his report. He took the time to speak to everybody. He didn’t ask leading questions. He was fact-finding and the facts speak for themselves. If they are going to ignore the facts, I don’t see any way out of poverty and the food banks.” Another said “They are not in the real world. They are people who have no idea what is going on. Poverty is political. When you are suffering, you are going to get angry about it. What the UN envoy saw was anger. These people shield themselves from the anger and suffering.” And a third: “It’s a shame that Amber Rudd wants to deny our truth, although it is probably easier for her to dismiss the facts than to help fix them. The delusional approach she’s taking is absurd. I hope the government can now rectify and make a similar effort as Mr Alston to listen to how their policies are impacting on people.”

Philip Alston urged Rudd to instead act to make the welfare system “more humane” rather than dismiss the powerful language in his report. Alston told the Guardian: “I think that dismissing a report that is full of statistics and first-hand testimony on the grounds that the minister didn’t appreciate the tone of the report rather misses the point. I remain hopeful that Amber Rudd might actually take some of the steps needed to address the worst aspects of the existing approach.”

For that, we need a change of government.

 

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One Earth

A succession of recent news items have got me thinking about what human beings are doing to our planet and the inadequacies and contradictions in our actual responses to this key strategic issue.

planet earth
Planet Earth

The first item was on climate change, the second on the extinction of species, the third on air pollution and the fourth, and most recent, was last week’s Budget news. And, of course, the elephant in the room, which sucks all capacity for good governance from everything else. I shall not state its name: you know already.

Climate Change

global warming
Global warming

The main page of the official IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) organisation can be found here. It’s where you get the overall picture of the best information we have, direct from the scientists who study these issues professionally. More digestible summaries can be found from the Guardian and from CNN.

My crude summary is that we, human beings, have just 12 years to get our act together: to act decisively to reduce CO2 emissions. Our aim must be to limit global warming to 1.5° rather than the 2° in the Paris accord. It’s physically possible, but politically highly unlikely.

It’s now nearly 18 months since Donald Trump withdrew the USA from the Paris accord on climate change. Together with his promotion of dirty energy such as coal-fired  electricity generation and the emasculation of the Environment Protection Agency, Trump’s policies are a major threat to the planet. The recent election of fascist President Bolsonaro in Brazil has given the world a man who threatens widespread destruction of the Amazon rain forest. This will have potentially horrific consequences both for CO2 emissions and for biodiversity, as I explain further below.

Biodiversity

A new report by the World Wildlife Fund, Living Planet 2018, has prompted shocking headlines around the world that a 60% reduction in wildlife animal populations has occurred since 1970 – and all this has been caused by the collective actions of just one species: homo sapiens. Headlines such as this fall “threatens civilisation” do not appear to be exaggerating the threat to life on Earth. Never has there been such a dramatic decline over such a short period (Planet  Earth has existed for 4.5 billion years and human beings for the last 200,000 years).

In many ways, this report is even more shocking than the IPCC one on climate change. At least the existence of climate change has been in the news for several decades and most of the governments of the world are signed up to doing something about it. Real changes in practice, e.g. green energy, are gaining momentum and clean energy prices are falling relative to fossil fuels. By contrast, the findings in the WWF have barely entered the public’s consciousness, let alone the development of policies by governments around the world to address this threat.

rainforest
Rainforest

The WWF report concentrates on mammals: just one part of the diversity of life on Earth, animals and plants. A reduction of biodiversity threatens us humans and our lifestyles in a variety of ways. Biodiversity is important. I think we all probably learnt at school something about the food chains. Interfere with these and sooner or later you get a major catastrophe. A good example is the huge drop in bee populations in the UK in recent decades. The importance of bees in pollination and the harm from their decline is quite easy to imagine.

The other big area of importance for biodiversity is for the pharmaceutical industry. Many of the advances in drugs, for example, come from chemicals found in plants or animals, often in biodiverse parts of the world, such as the Amazon basin. Once a species is lost, so is the opportunity for finding new drugs from that species. We seem to be walking blindfold into a future dystopia where our indifference to the extinction of species harms our fight against disease. Nature, through mutation, e.g. of the cold or flu virus, will continue to present new challenges. And yet, we are indifferent to losing the very tools to fight these changes.

Clean Air

air pollution
Air pollution

A recent shocking report from the World Health Organisation reported that 90% of the world’s children are breathing toxic air. More than 40 UK towns and cities have air pollution levels above WHO limits. Back in May, the UK was referred to the European Court of Justice, after the UK government lost several cases in the UK courts. The referral relates to NO2 pollution levels, caused, in the main, by traffic. The UK government has fought a succession of rear-guard legal cases rather than tackle the problem seriously.

Perhaps the most egregious example of why the Tories can’t be trusted on air pollution was perpetrated by Boris Johnson when he was Mayor of London. His successor Sadiq Khan exposed the scandal in 2016. Johnson had “buried” a report showing that 83% of schools breaching EU air quality limits in London were in deprived areas of the city.

But the most polluted cities in the world are found in India, with Delhi at the top of the list. Agra was also in the top five. Having ridden as a passenger in a “tuk-tuk” (open-air 3-wheeled “taxi”) whilst on holiday in India, I can still recall the acrid taste in the back of my throat at the end of the ride. China also is slated as having poor air quality, although the Chinese government seems more active in taking remedial action, e.g. replacing coal-fired power stations with cleaner ones. The International Energy Agency ranks the top 5 polluting countries as China, USA, India, Russia and Japan.

The WHO calculated that air pollution causes 7 million premature deaths per year. The equivalent figure for the UK is 40,000 premature deaths, 10,000 of them in London. And still the UK government drags its feet. It seems that human beings, UK included, can’t be trusted to protect the planet at sustainable levels.

2018 Budget

And so we might have expected to see some announcements related to saving our planet in last week’s budget. And yes, I think there is one.

The trouble is that it heads us in the opposite direction. Chancellor Phillip Hammond announced a freeze in fuel duty for the ninth consecutive year. He had little choice as his boss Theresa May had made the announcement a month earlier at the Tory party conference. Compared to a policy of raising the duty each year in line with inflation, it now costs the Treasury £9 billion a year to maintain the freeze and £46 billion cumulatively since the freeze began. Tory MP Robert Halfon said it was “great news for motorists”. Don’t any of his constituents actually breathe? The policy makes the most polluting form of travel per mile (car driving) relatively cheaper each year whilst rail fares rise faster than inflation.

So, apart from the fuel duty freeze, there was nothing relating to environmental issues in this year’s damp squib of a budget. Other Tory policies also make things worse for the planet.

As the party of light-touch regulation, the Tories ensure that the UK has some of the worst housing in Europe when it comes to poor insulation and heat losses. Hostility on onshore wind turbines by this government panders to nimbyism, despite general public support for onshore wind turbines as a green energy source. Fiddling the rules in favour of shale gas fracking encourages more fossil fuel-produced energy, even in the teeth of local opposition. A truly green government policy would simply be to insist that the shale gas stays underground where it is now.

Above all, this government does not have the capacity to tackle these and other compelling priorities because all its energies are spent on its infighting over that pointless act of self-harm. You know, the one that begins with a B and ends in t…

Future generations may look aghast at our indifference towards these planet-threatening trends. And, for the UK’s contribution to the impending catastrophe,  the Tories, when in power, will be mostly to blame.

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Special Measures

About a century and a half ago, Britain was the undisputed top nation in the world. The British Empire spread geographically further and wider than any in recorded history. Following centuries-long policies of “divide and rule”, initially among the kingdoms of Europe and later the Princedoms of India, around 1870 Britain’s national income accounted for 9% of global GDP and our per capita income was the highest in the world. The “divide and rule” practices were augmented with repeated cases of breaking our word, and the phrase “Perfidious Albion” has come into common use as a pejorative term.

perfidious albion
Perfidious Albion

Theresa May’s nervous and embarrassing plea for help from EU officials and the EU27 at the Summit this week means that the UK has now been reduced to the state of a basket case. That plea for help was to find an agreed solution to our discussions that would find support from a majority in Parliament (Commons and Lords) and from the sane. The UK Cabinet’s inability to reach an agreed negotiating position, reflecting irreconcilable differences within the Tory Party over Europe, reinforces the centuries-old image of perfidy.

If the UK were a school, it would be in special measures and ripe for takeover by a multi-academy trust. (Does the MAT analogy accurately describe Trump’s USA? Shudder at the thought.) How have we let the Tories sink us so low? The UK is perceived around the world with a mixture of derision and contempt. So much for “taking back control”.

What Didn’t Happen

Immediately after the 2017 general election I wrote my post Enough Is Enough. It’s worth a re-read. The set of recommendations I made would have put us in an altogether better position than the current appalling mess. The principal recommendation was that May resign and be replaced by a Government of National Unity under Jeremy Corbyn. Such a government would take the close 52-48% referendum result into consuderation whilst genuinely looking after the National Interest. Healing the divisions between us – and the hatred stirred up – would also be a priority for such a Government. Recommendations about repairing the damage to public services caused by austerity policies are even truer today than when written. Alas, it was not to be.

Perhaps the most worrying element contrasting what I recommended and what has actually happened concerns what I called a “change of tone” from our politicians. The hatred and divisions in our society, fuelled by the ill-advised referendum, will continue to do harm for years, possibly generations, to come. A recognition that thinking we could lecture, bully and divide the EU and EU27 is still needed – and is so 19th century!

arlene foster
Archbigot Foster

Warnings about doing a deal with the DUP went unheeded. (Phrases involving supping with the devil and long spoons come to mind.) Archbigot Arlene Foster is threatening to turn the screw further on May by reneging on elements of the “confidence and supply ” arrangement, for which Northern Ireland got its £1 billion bribe. Foster, holding social attidtudes from the 17th century is about as nasty as a human being can be.

BBC Bias

The BBC is still giving far too much airtime (proportionately) to lunatics, bigots and the delusional. Discussion on TV and radio is still on the wrong terms: airtime for people supporting an even more extreme and damaging version of leaving the EU.

Boxed In

May imprisoned herself with her red lines, conceded in a pre-Conference panic last year, in response to the unreasonable (and unreasoned) demands of the far right.

Meantime, the clock keeps ticking. Deadlines come and go, all of them missed by a country mile. Future generations will never forgive us unless we find a way out of this mess.

Top Dog to Special Measures in 140 years. And it’s all down to the Tories. I hope they suffer electorally for generations to come.

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I’m All Right, Jacob

Question: what do all the people pressing hardest for the UK to leave the EU have in common? I’m thinking in particular of the politicians, newspaper owners (who set the agenda for their editors – and, all too often, for the BBC to follow) and the small minority of Leave-supporting business leaders.

Answer: they are either non-UK citizens or have made financial plans – being rich to very rich – to protect their own interests in the event of a “no-deal” departure. This generally means transferring funds to a secretive off-shore tax haven or moving (some of) their business interests outside the UK. In short, they have no concern about “the national interest”, even if many of them mouth the words without understanding their meaning.

A disproportionate number of them were privately educated, usually at the poshest of schools where a sense of “entitlement to rule” was taught above all else. The celebrated author John Le Carré recently condemned Eton alumni as “the curse of the earth”. See, for example, this article: (NB: I think this is a first for me! An article from Mail Online!)

Our Government

It’s likely that Theresa May is doing her best. The trouble is, her best is crap. As Polly Toynbee writes in today’s Guardian, “Never in living memory was Britain worse governed.” I agree. Since I wrote my post Hopeless just under a month ago, virtually nothing good has come from May. True, the Conference season has come and gone. For the most part, the Tory main hall was two-thirds empty, with activists crowding to fringe meetings to hear even worse Tory politicians. Oh, and May’s speech contained at least one big lie: the end to austerity.

EU negotiations continue to stumble from crisis to crisis: above all, no solution is in sight to the Irish border issue. It gives me no pleasure to say I warned on this in my February 2016 post We Are Entitled to Proper Government. And this was four months before the referendum vote (and when Cameron – who he? – was still PM).

The “confidence and supply” agreement by the DUP was designed to prop up the failing minority Tory government. Despite this, Arlene Foster has issued threats to vote against the budget later this month unless May conceded to her logically impossible demands. There has been no visible response to this from May and this weakens her position further.

EU Summit

And so, here we are, just two days away from the EU summit. The 18th of October was supposed to be the “absolute final” date when negotiations were completed in detail and the UK agreed terms with the EU27. It’s not looking like that. Talk of an additional “emergency” summit in November is conditional on “maximum progress” being made by the 18th. That doesn’t seem credible unless May changes tack and embraces the reality of what would pass a vote in the House of Commons. Held hostage by the DUP and the Leave extremists (and fantasists) in her own party, May’s actions and inactions make a failure to agree terms with our European neighbours ever more likely.

Who’s All Right?

Either way, those who fund and propagandise for the Tories will be all right, whichever way things turn out. Jeremy Corbyn has made sensible suggestions for compromise (with which I don’t entirely agree, but it’s better than anything May’s government has said). He was genuinely speaking in the national interest. When are a sufficient majority of people in this country going to wake up to the stark fact that the Tories work only in the interest of the privileged few?

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The Grown-Ups Are Coming

One of our grandchildren had her eighth birthday party last weekend. The party room was filled with balloons: dominated by two large ones. They were a huge figure 8 and a unicorn.

balloons at 8
Balloons at 8

“Why the unicorn?” I asked her mother. “No particular reason: they just seem to be popular with children of her age” she replied. Funnily enough, this reminded me of something.

Political Parties

Both Labour and the Tories are split over what to do about the result of the 2016 referendum. But their approaches to the problem seem very different.

Labour, and again at its Party Conference this week, seem to be engaged in an intelligent, nuanced discussion which directly addresses the tension between taking a principled approach – in the national interest – and an opportunist one – to take a narrow view in the interest of the Party. Discussion, for the most part, is civilised and evidence-based.

The Tories, by contrast, are tearing themselves apart on waves of an emotional, irrational shouting match. The lunatic fringe, variously called (by me) the Crazies and Dunces, abandoned reason long ago. Theresa May remains trapped by Parliamentary arithmetic and is being held to ransom by this insane bunch. How this chasm will play out at the Tory Party Conference next week, we shall just have to wait and see. Like peering in on a kindergarten, I expect.

It is clear that public opinion is swinging steadily behind the Labour position. Policies that were vilified as extreme left-wing ideas a few months ago are quickly becoming the new centre ground. People are tired of austerity and are finally seeing that this policy was a political choice and not a necessity, as previously asserted by Osborne and co. Corbyn’s Labour has captured the zeitgeist and giving hope to the 48% of us who voted Remain.

Children and Grown-Ups

So what’s the connection between the politics, unicorns and my granddaughter’s birthday party?

Firstly, over two years after the referendum, May’s government has still not come up with a realistic solution to the border issue in Ireland. Fantasy proposals from the UK Government have been compared to unicorns – they simply don’t exist! A “fantasy island unicorn model” was the phrase used by other EU leaders back in April. (The Chequers proposal is largely based on this fantasy model.)

Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry said earlier this week: “…we need to extend Article 50 and essentially turn up in Europe and say the grown-ups have turned up now, let’s sit down and talk’.” Labour is speaking like a group of grown-ups with the Tories like a bunch of noisy eight year-olds.

It’s time we gave a chance to the grown-ups to run the country before it’s too late, to avert the damage inflicted by May’s mishandling of the EU negotiations. And no more need for talk about unicorns.

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Hopeless

Donald Tusk says today that Theresa May’s plan for the UK to leave the EU “won’t work”. So do many others:

Laura Kuessberg tweet

This is May in her Little Miss I-Know-Best mode, at its worst. A few weeks from the key November EU summit, we still don’t have a solution to the Irish border problem – about which I warned 31 months ago! May’s mishandling from the start has got us into this hopeless mess.

So her ten-minute talk to the EU27 leaders at the end of dinner last night went well – not!

Even More Hopeless

There’s no Commons majority for Chequers or any other conceivable plan for leaving the EU. Tusk and Macron both said May’s plans risk undermining the EU single market. So it’s even more hopeless.

So far, May has obsessed about immigration to an unreasonable degree. This March 2017 post gives examples of the harm done long before anyone started talking about the Windrush generation. May’s proposals for immigration policy after leaving the EU have satisfied no one (apart from those similarly obsessed) – especially business leaders. She’s still acting more like a Home Secretary than Prime Minister (as I said back in January 2017).

No Tory MP Fit to be PM

Conservative alternatives to May are even worse: any credible candidate to replace her from within the Tory party simply sends shivers of horror down my spine. You know who I mean: there’s no need to name names. Cameron’s crazy plan for a referendum has divided the country and his own party. Civilised discourse has been squeezed out by extremist shouting and abuse.

A whole generation of Tory MPs fall under the long, toxic shadow of Margaret Thatcher, leading to a total lack of anyone statesman-like enough to govern in the national interest. Yesterday’s yes-men and women are today’s squabbling, hopeless idiots. No one would have predicted that the Tories, the self-styled “natural party” of government, would fall so low. “Fuck business” attitudes have infected great tracts of the party – unprecedented in my lifetime. Hopeless, hopeless.

Conference Season

So what next? Well, it’s Party Conference season. The Lib Dems seem to have vanished without trace this week. Most coverage centred on Vince Cable’s possible resignation as leader. Labour next week, then the Tories. Labour seems to be edging ever closer to endorsing a People’s Vote – so a bit of hope there. And the Tories? Last year we had May’s coughing and letters falling off the display board. And this year? Watch this space.

Some more schadenfreude might cheer us up for a short time, but it’s no substitute for running the country properly. Do any of this shower truly understand just how hopeless they are?

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Feel No Shame

Buried away on page 27 of today’s Guardian is an article about naming and shaming FTSE top 100 companies who overpay their bosses. The article fails to name all 18 of the companies implicated! But there’s a deeper problem. These fat cat bosses are highly unlikely to feel ashamed if they do get better exposure than this. Many studies have shown that company CEOs tend to have psychopathic personality types. Here’s one example of such a study. You can find plenty more online.

The Ultimate Psychopath

Do you want your country led by a psychopath? The Americans have one, whether they like it or not. Trump is the ultimate example. Beneath that thick, unctuous layer of narcissism lies a true psycho. See his comments leaked from a private meeting with right-wing evangelical Christians about Antifa. No, I hadn’t heard of Antifa, either. They’re an extremist, violent fringe left-wing anti-fascist group in the USA. Note Trump’s latching on to a violent tiny minority group to justify his own threats to democratic norms. That strikes me as psychologically unhealthy – psychopathic, perhaps? As Psychology Today puts it: “Psychopaths aren’t capable of feeling any genuine remorse. They don’t accept any responsibility for hurting other people’s feelings. Instead, they blame other people and deny responsibility.” Sounds familiar?

The recent Ed Balls series in Trumpland shows that many of the faithful continue to support Trump because he “acts like a businessman” and not like a politician. What they may not realise is that they actually mean they like a psychopath as their leader!

British Psychopaths

The extreme Leavers – naming no names – all exhibit the behaviours listed in the quote above. As the extremist-supporting papers thrash around blaming everyone else for the damage done by the UK government’s “plan” to leave the EU, think hard on that. And what do the extremist-supporting press have in common? They are all owned (or in one case edited) by people from the richest 1% – those likely to be psychopaths. They will do all right in the event we leave the EU, by hiding their money in tax havens, open a branch of their business in an EU country or whatever.

I wrote about Free Market Fundamentalism being a psychopathic economic system in Why George Osborne is Only Half Human way back in 2015. And I described what it means to be wholly – and psychologically healthily – human in Being Human II: The Four Cs a couple of weeks earlier.

Hey Now

It’s been said many times that a large chunk of the Leave vote in the referendum was a protest against feeling ignored and disempowered: “Shit life syndrome” is the term coined by GPs to label people whose life chances – or rather lack of them – create health problems. Many of them are in shit jobs: there’s even a hiring company which celebrates the fact!

Having trouble empathising with those suffering from shit life syndrome? I’ve often thought Noel Gallagher’s lyrics made little sense, but, hey now, try this for size:

I hitched a ride with my soul
By the side of the road
Just as the sky turned black (a)
I took a walk with my fame
Down memory lane
I never did find my way back (b)
You know that I gotta say time’s slipping away
And what will it hold for me
What am I gonna do while I’m looking at you
You’re standing ignoring me

I thought that I heard someone say now
There’s no time for running away now
Hey now! Hey now

Feel no shame ’cause time’s no chain
Feel no shame

The rich 1%, unlike the rest of us, can run away to their tax havens, or hide their money there. Nothing will change while the Tories are in charge.

(a) Air pollution kills 40,00 a year, 9000 in London alone. And Boris Johnson, when London Mayor suppressed the report for 18 months until Sadiq Khan found it in his bottom drawer.

(b) Decent, well-paid, secure working-class jobs have all but disappeared.

General Election

The other possible Tory leaders, as Prime Minister – assuming there’s a coup from the extreme right in the Party – would be worse. Psychopaths all.

I’ve said a lot of rude things about Theresa May, and justifiably so. The hostile environment policy and the practices it has spawned have her fingerprints all over them. Such actions would be evidence of psychopathic behaviour. But I think the truth is more mundane. The inhumanity of the hostile environment comes from May’s sheer lack of exposure to poor people and her lack of imagination. It’s her incompetence, rather that psychopathy, that’s the problem.

So we need a general election. But first, Conference needs to change Labour Party policy to Remain in the EU, with or without a People’s Vote – I don’t mind. As long as we stay in. Hey now, what do you say?

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Abraham’s Followers

God said to Abraham “Kill me a son…”

This blog post is prompted by the Pope’s visit to Ireland – a secular, utterly changed, country in the 40 years since Francis’s predecessor visited the country. I say good to that. Let’s talk religion.

As a humanist, I obviously reject all religions (although Buddhism doesn’t require its followers to believe in a non-existent deity, so I’m OK with that.) The rest contain some superstitious nonsense about God, Yahweh, Allah or whatever and generally also a belief in some form of afterlife. Neither is for me. The Humanist position is clear and simple. We have but one life, here on Earth. And people are free to believe and practice any religion as long as it does no harm to others. That’s the acid test.

There are some deeply troubling trends in India in relation to Hindu nationalism, leading to state-tolerated anti-Muslim discrimination – but that would be a distraction from my main arguments. So I’ll stick to the main Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). For reasons of brevity and familiarity, I’ll use “Abraham” rather than the Islamic form “Ibrahim” in this post.

abraham and son

Orthodox and Enlightened

Broadly speaking, Humanists like me have most problems with the orthodox / traditional wings of these three religions. That’s because they are “book” religions and the words are taken literally by the traditionalists. Liberal Jews, Christians and Muslims recognise that the world and social attitudes have changed since the words were written. So they “interpret” what’s been written in the light of what we’ve learnt since.

There is no shortage of enlightened, liberal and even secular Jews to engage in a debate. “Secular” doesn’t work for Christians and Muslims: it’s an oxymoron – despite Home Secretary Sajid Javid claiming he’s a “secular Muslim”: logically impossible! I suppose it helps him to be more accepted by the Christian traditionalists in the Tory Party.

Judaism

The concept of “secular Jew” works because Judaism differs from the other two Abrahamic faiths in one important way. The term “Jew” is conventionally applied as both a religious and ethnic grouping. It is part of the reason we can all get quickly into hot water over debates about antisemitism. I believe that, under Benjamin Netanyahu, the actions of the state of Israel make it a rogue state: a democracy with a coalition government dependent on right-wing extremist parties. But my fundamental belief in anti-discrimination makes it easy for me to distinguish between criticism of Israel and criticism of Jews in general.

I do also believe that Jews, as an identifiable group, have been discriminated against – including genocide – more than any other over the past 2000 years. About 90% of the discrimination was done in the name of Christianity: anti-Jewish sentiment and actions by Muslims are – with one or two notable exceptions – a relatively recent phenomenon. And the Holocaust, as the most evil state-sponsored event of the 20th century, behoves us all to be very sensitive in our choice of words.

Christianity

Again, taking a 2000 year view, Christianity has been the main culprit when it comes to killing and torture in the name of religion. The Renaissance, in Christian Europe, led to a rediscovery of classical Greek and Roman art and philosophy, secular in nature. The Reformation gave us Protestantism, which, via the Enlightenment, led to secularism. This and scientific discovery have brought progress to the point where over half of Brits have no religion. There are more non-believers than Anglicans.

And yet, the Church retains many privileges in Britain and certainly in England, thanks to a combination of factors. Detritus which needs to be swept away includes state-funded faith schools, the requirement for our head of state to defend the established church and the general legislative drag on enlightened, secular policies. It is a disgrace that a part of the UK (Northern Ireland) violates the human rights of women over abortion, for example. The UK and Iran are the only two countries in the world with clergy formally and constitutionally part of the legislature.

Islam

Which brings us to Islam. Humanists have one big problem which we cannot avoid. Traditional Islamic teaching states that the Qur’an, as told to the prophet Mohammed, is the final word of Allah / God, which cannot therefore be challenged. A lot of Islamic teaching and cultural practice is not in the Qur’an itself, but in the many additions, not least the Hadith, bolted on to the faith subsequently. It’s primarily about 7th to 12th century politics, when things in the Middle East were pretty patriarchal (see Misogyny below). But asserting the Qur’an as the unimprovable word of Allah doesn’t exactly encourage open debate.

I continue to strive to gain a better understanding of Islam, for two opposing motives. The first (and by far the more important) is to enable me to be culturally sensitive in my regular dealing with Muslim people, as a matter of respect for them and their right to practice their faith. The second motive is to use my greater knowledge of their religion to disagree with Islamic beliefs from a humanist perspective. Much of the culture in Muslim groups in 21st century Britain is highly socially conservative, and I am keen to gain a better understanding of where this comes from.

In the 10th century, a phenomenon known as closing the gates to Itjihad occurred: in plain English, the law-makers of the time “laid down the (sharia) law” and there it stays until this day. One thing I can say for sure: Islam has never had the equivalent of Christianity’s Reformation. But it’s more complicated than that! (Read on in the Wiki article linked above to get a brief overview of 19th century Islamic modernism and Salafism – but many of the most extremist groups in Islam and individuals such as Osama Bin Laden hark back to a mythical “Golden Period” of early Islam – which only makes things worse!)

I think what really matters is that nearly all Muslims living in Britain get on with their lives in such a way that they do no harm: that’s the Humanist litmus test. It’s a key tenet of Humanist thought that all people, of all faiths, are free to act this way without fear of discrimination.

Misogyny

All the Abrahamic faiths, but especially Christianity and Islam, seem obsessed about women and what they may, or may not, do with their bodies. There is a strong propensity towards misogyny. It’s easy to spot where this comes from in Christianity and orthodox Judaism. Women are unclean, as a result of menstruation and childbirth (Leviticus 12). (Incidentally Leviticus 18:22 is the only Biblical source of Christian anti-gay bigotry.) It’s worth reading Leviticus in full, as I have done. You’ll learn that it’s OK to eat locusts but not prawns, it’s a sin to wear a garment made with more than one fabric and how to deal with mildew as a nomad in the pre-Christian Arabian desert. And a whole lot more: how times have changed.

The other great driver of religious misogyny is the Adam and Eve myth. Specifically, it’s in the role Eve plays as temptress with the apple (Genesis 3:6). Echoes of this myth filter down to today in Islam around the issue of Muslim women’s right to wear what they choose or forced to by men(?). This Polly Toynbee article intelligently addresses the issue.

Misogyny and the violation of women’s rights remain the biggest example of what I meant by “legislative drag” in the earlier section on Christianity.

The Pope and Catholicism

Which all brings us back to the Pope’s visit. Good luck to Francis with his reforms – if he truly means it. Church politics will resist all moves towards a more enlightened position. Thought control is hard-wired into the Catholic hierarchy. And the interests of the Church always take priority over the victims of abuse. Steve Bell’s cartoon from 8 years ago got there first.

Sorry
Not really sorry…

The Catholic Church is intrinsically evil. It has caused more anguish and misery than any other man-made institution in the past 2000 years. (Its supporters will argue it has brought comfort too. That may well be true, but the evil is greater than the good). To be Catholic is to learn guilt at a young age. If I remember rightly, wanking is a sin in the eyes of the Catholic Church. So that gets 90% of Catholic schoolboys for a start!

The pope said some words earlier this week in advance of his visit to Ireland. But victims’ groups were unimpressed: it was just words with no sense that anything will change. A bit like the “prayers and thoughts” offered by Trump and other NRA apologists in the USA after each school mass killing.

I hope that everyone has a nice time in Dublin today, even those with whom I disagree over matters of faith. But, like gun control in the States, don’t expect real change any time soon.

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