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

The Koalition of Kaos

Recent evidence has emerged about a forgotten civilisation during the second century CE in the eastern Mediterranean. Historians and Archaeologists have been engaged in a five-year study on the small island of Kaos (capital: Mayhem). The inhabitants of the island were mainly Greek speaking, although there was also wide use of the Latin tongue, as we shall see soon.

Map of Kaos and Antikos
Sketch map of Kaos and Antikos

A short distance to the north-east of Kaos was the even smaller island of Antikos (capital: Duplicity), so called because the ideas of the Antikossians seemed very old-fashioned to the Kaotics.

The Tribes of Kaos and Antikos

bull maskKaos at this time was a warlike place, with tribal rivalries and skirmishes all over the island. The largest and most warlike tribe was called the Tauries. This was because, when they went into battle (which was often), they wore masks in the shape of bulls’ heads on their faces, to make them look more ferocious.

Almost as large a tribe were the Lavories. They saw themselves as morally superior to the Tauries, partly because they weren’t quite as warlike in their approach. In battle, they demonstrated the purity of their thoughts by each wearing a soap-on-a-rope around their necks. This was less effective as a battle tactic, but the Lavories all agreed they felt better for doing it.

There were a few smaller tribes, too. No one was really sure what the Liberalies stood for, but everyone agreed they were very nice people. There is some sketchy evidence that an extremist, fringe breakaway group from the Tauries existed for a time. Called the Kippies, a combination of inbreeding and infighting led to their extinction almost as soon as they were formed.

Confined to the north of the island, the Peskies were so named as all their leaders were named after fish. Across the waters in Antikos, two arch-rival tribes occupied the north-east corner of the island: the Dupies and the Shinbonies. The Dupies were usually known by their nick-name: the Little Willies. This was because the Dupies worshipped an ancient, but tiny, god called William, who was only the size of an orange. The Dupies wanted to be considered part of Kaos, whilst the Shinbonies thought they should all join in with the larger tribe in the south of Antikos: the Begorrahs.  (Cultural note: lazy racial stereotyping was all the rage in the 2nd century, under the so-called Davidson Doctrine. This was named after Jacobus Filius Davidus, a first century CE troubadour who lived under the shadow of a bigger tree than anyone else. )

Although the Tauries constituted well under half the population of Kaos, they generally held the upper hand in ruling over the affairs of the island. Although all the other tribes, except the Dupies, broadly agreed on matters of policy, the Tauries successfully applied a game of “divide and rule” to get their own way.

Kaos Weaponry

Weapon of Moss Destruction
WMD

It has already been emphasised that the Kaotics were a warrior race. Their weapon of choice was the Three-Pronged Fork. This was originally developed as an ideal tool for scraping the fast-growing moss from the rocks and cliffs of the island. During the wet season, these mosses grew rapidly, blocking tracks and access around the island. During an early skirmish between rival clans, the Kaotics soon discovered that Three-Pronged Forks were also good for killing people, and their use as weapons quickly spread. They came to be known as the Weapons of Moss Destruction.

The Elders of the tribes often told of the times of the Great Manufacture of the Three-Pronged Forks. The Forks were made of iron, and there were no deposits of iron ore on Kaos itself. Instead, the ore needed to be imported from the island of Ferros, a two-day journey away by their primitive sailing boats. The Ferrotics were a hard-nosed people, always ready to strike a hard bargain. Their island was rocky and barren, and their crops often failed. The only commodity they would trade for their iron ore was food, and lots of it. Just before the Great Manufacture of the Three-Pronged Forks, the Kaotics had traded so much of their own food with the Ferrotics that there was widespread famine throughout the island. Many people, mainly women and children, died. The women, of course, didn’t matter. (Cultural note 2: misogyny at this time was, of course, de rigueur.) But the sorrow at the death of so many children stayed in the people’s memories for many generations.

The Dirk

dirk
Dirk

One tribe, the Peskies, had adopted a different weapon from the rest: the dirk. This was named after the legendary Thespian called Dirkus, an erstwhile leader of a troupe of travelling players, who was born in the north of the island. He was often known – particularly by the womenfolk – as Dirkus Beauregardus, on account of his legendary good looks.

His troupe, the Circus Dirkus, travelled widely in the Mediterranean, performing their plays. (Eat your heart out, Will Shakespeare! Dirkus had a “Theatre in the Round” a millennium and a half before you were strutting your stuff in the Globe.)A favourite play was Medicus et in Domo, in which the great actor played Hippocrates, the legendary First Doctor. (No, it wasn’t William Hartnell.)  For stage props, they had the surgical knives used by Hippocrates, which were soon nick-named “dirks” after the great actor.

Many a fair lady fainted at the sight as Beauregardus pulled out his dirk on stage and held it aloft, glinting in the evening Mediterranean sunlight. (Cultural note 3: It’s well known that, in Classical Greek theatre, gratuitous smutty jokes were hugely popular. Just ask Euripides. “Euripides, I rip-a yours!” Who could forget – or even remember – the classic line by Chico in the Marx Brothers’ tribute to Classical Greek Theatre, A Night at the Hippodrome?) But I digress… (Cultural note 4: Whilst performing a particularly tricky surgical procedure, Hippocrates once pricked his thumb on his surgical knife. This was the moment of creation of the world-famous Hippocratic Oath. Yes, yes, I know! What did you expect? Wit and sophistication? We are talking second century here!) Dirkus died whilst on tour in Venice. Meanwhile, back on Kaos…

On Land and Sea

At first, the inter-tribal battles took place on land. The various tribes fought and slew each other with their Three-Pronged Forks, trampling all over the crops as they fought. The women of the island, who did all the hard work in the fields, cooked all the meals and cleaned and tidied up after their menfolk, got extremely annoyed by this needless destruction. So, gradually over time, the battles took place more and more in the shallow waters all around the island. They found their Three-Pronged Forks were quite good for catching fish, too.

The Tauries, at great expense, commissioned two great galleons with giant oars and galleys filled with captured slaves from the other tribes. The galleons were to transport the weapons to different parts of the shoreline for battles. But they found they only had enough Three-Pronged Forks to fill one galleon. Worse still, prolonged use of the Three-Pronged Forks in the salty seawater had gradually corroded the iron. Bits started falling off the now-rusty Forks and they became less and less effective as weapons. The Tauries were strongly committed to replacing the Forks. The people of Kaos were fearful of this. The great famine following the last trading with Ferros was still strong in their memories. All the other tribes, apart from the Little Willies, were against the idea of renewing the Three-Pronged Forks.

The Vote

The Tauries called all the people together, to get them to vote on who was best to lead them, thinking that they would consolidate their position once and for all. Unfortunately for them, the vote was ambiguous and left them weaker than before. It’s here that the historical record gets patchy. It seems that there was some other momentous decision that the leaders of Kaos had to make. What is known is that the Tauries themselves split into two camps, known as Brexitus Maximus and Brexitus Minimus.

Some historians believe this was to do with some Alliance with other islands in the area. But no record has ever been found of any plan by the Tauries to deal with this issue. One dissenting historian also believes that the Tauries were so desperate that they were led for a period by a woman! An even more unlikely tale is that the woman tried to cling on to power by holding fast on to the Little Willies. But mainstream opinion is that such tales are simply too implausible to be true.

Whatever the cause of the split, the Tauries were fatally weakened. This created the opportunity for the other tribes (except the Dupies) to forge an alliance and take over the running of the island. This alliance was known as the Koalition of Kaos.

The Aftermath

Notwithstanding the lack of information about the true meaning of the mysterious “Brexitus”, archaeological records are clear as to what happened next. Under the rule of the Koalition of Kaos, the renewal of the Three-Pronged Forks was cancelled, famine was averted, and peace and tranquillity reigned over the Island of Kaos for the next two hundred years. Such a long period of peace was, of course, of absolutely no interest to historians. This probably explains why the history of this early civilisation had fallen into obscurity for well over 1500 years.

(Literacy SATs Question: Why is Koalition spelt with the letter K? The answer is because the people of Kaos were GreeK, but they did not actually live in GreeCe. I would have thought that was obvious. You clearly haven’t been paying attention! Please see me after school for a remedial session of “Spelling and Punctuation for Idiots”. )

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Mr Men 2017

It has been some time since we heard about the Mr Men. Lots of exciting things have been happening! But first, there are some new Mr Men and Little Misses to introduce.

Mr Custard

Mr CustardMr Custard lives in another land over the sea. His brain is made out of custard. You know, custard is sometimes a bit runny. Sometimes it’s thick. Mr Custard’s custard is thick. Very, very thick.

One day, when he was a little boy, his teacher wanted to teach him a new word. It was an adjective: a describing word. Mr Custard only knew five describing words: great, bad, fake, false and failing. When his teacher tried to teach him the new word, Mr Custard’s brain got hot. Very, very hot! Some of the custard boiled over out of his brain and flowed over the top of his head. Oops! Because it was so thick, it set very hard on his head. It has stayed there ever since!

The fright of the boiling custard made other changes, too. Mr Custard’s hands stopped growing and stayed very, very small. And Mr Custard could no longer say the word “cat”. From now on, he could only say the word “pussy” instead.

Apart from his brain and hands, the rest of Mr Custard’s body kept growing until he looked like a grown-up. He had a job building big buildings. He tried building them out of custard first, so that he looked better standing in front of them. But, slowly, slowly, the custard buildings sagged. They sagged more. Then, slowly, slowly, they fell down, until they were just gloopy puddles of custard on the ground! The people who lived in the buildings were not happy.

Then he had an idea. His daddy was very rich and had a lot of gold. So, Mr Custard made his buildings out of gold. Hurrah! He stood in front of the gold buildings. His custard head looked less silly. And the gold was all shiny too! Mr Custard smiled and waved his little hands in the air.

Mr Custard lives in a land called Merry-Ka. Which is a funny name, because it’s not really merry. Every 16 minutes, someone in Merry-Ka shoots someone else dead. No so merry!

Mr God

Mr God knew everything. He was so clever that sometimes he thought he was three people! Funny Mr God! But there was a problem. The people couldn’t agree what he looked like. Some people thought he looked like a cloud. Others thought he looked like a slice of burnt toast. Others even thought he looked like a dog’s bottom!

Weather, Bum and Holy Toast
Weather, Bum and Holy Toast

But they all agreed on two things. First, he must have long arms. Very, very long arms. Because he could hold the whole world in his arms! Clever Mr God! And they all agreed he was good. Very, very good. Even though, if he was so good and clever, he let bad things happen. Oh dear!

Little Miss I-Know-Best

Little Miss I-Know-Best had a daddy who was a vicar. Daddy’s best friend was Mr God. Daddy had told her that Mr God was born in a stable. When she was small, Little Miss I-Know-Best wondered about Mr God. When he was born, did he float down like a cloud from the sky? Or did he just pop up, like out of a toaster? She tried not to think about her third thought about how Mr God was born.

Daddy wanted to be more like Mr God. So he knocked down his house next to the church. In its place, he built a stable. He did not want it to fall down on their heads. So he built it strong. A strong stable. And he didn’t want it to be blown over by the wind. So he built it stable. A stable stable. Little Miss I-Know-Best lived in a strong and stable stable.

Daddy told Little Miss I-Know-Best about how clever Mr God was. As he was Daddy’s best friend, she listened to everything Daddy said, so that she knew best. Then she wouldn’t need to listen to what other people thought ever again! She would know best. And she wouldn’t have to keep meeting people. She hated that! Unless, of course, it was just to tell them what to do. She knew best!

Mr Fox-Up

Mr Fox-Up lived in a den. It was a special den where all the clocks were a hundred years slow! In Mr Fox-Up’s den, the people in Room Number Nine were still the rulers of the whole world. They had big ships, big guns and went around telling everyone else what to do. More often than not, they had told him where to go!

Mr Fox-Up had a special friend, Mr Ferrity, who was a ferret. Mr Ferrity followed Mr Fox-Up wherever he went. He also ran up drainpipes and up trouser-legs and went into all sorts of places he shouldn’t go. Mr Fox-Up didn’t seem to mind. He had an important job working for Mr Two-Face. He was in charge of one small rowing boat and a pop-gun. This was all that was left of the great armada in Mr Fox-Up’s den. But Mr Two-Face said Mr Fox-Up had broken all the rules. So Mr Fox-Up had to go. Nobody expected to hear from him again!

Mr Breaks-It

Mr Breaks-It is one of the Nasties. Most Nasties are Posh. Mr Breaks-It isn’t Posh. He grew up in a place called Cow-n-Silly State. The Nasties think is a wild and lawless swamp. A long time ago, Mr Breaks-It and Mr Two-Face fought to be leader of the Nasties. Mr Breaks-It lost. (Mr Fox-Up was, true to form, knocked out earlier in the fight.) Mr Breaks-It didn’t do much in our story for a long time. But we will meet him again soon.

Little Miss Traffic-Light

Little Miss Traffic-Light’s favourite colours are amber and red. Sometimes, but not very often, she pretends to like green, too. Some people who really like green said she had fibbed to people in the Voting House about liking green. Little Miss Traffic-Light is Posh, like most of the Nasties. She was given a present by her sister: a money-making tree. But this and some other money-making trees died while she was looking after them. Little Miss Traffic-Light is a bit like a mini version of Little Miss I-Know-Best, as you will see soon.

The Other Mr Men

You may be wondering by now: what happened to the other Mr Men from our earlier story? When we left them, Mr Two-Face had just sulked off as leader of the Nasties in Room Number Nine. At the end of the story, we asked the question: “Will there be more creeping and back-stabbing?” Oh yes, there was!

After Mr Two-Face sulked off, the Nasties needed a new leader. Mr Look-At-Me was the favourite, because he had been shouting “Look at me!” for so long. Mr Look-At-Me thought Mr Mad was his best friend. Everybody was very surprised when Mr Mad said he wasn’t, and stabbed Mr Look-At-Me in the back and said he wanted to be leader himself!

So, five people put their hands up to say “Choose me please!” Mr Mad, Mr Fox-Up, Little Miss I-Know-Best, who we’ve met before, all put up their hands. And there was Mr Crab, who nobody had heard of. So he walked sideways all the time so people would notice him. And finally, there was Little Miss Loathsome. All you need to know about Little Miss Loathsome is in her name. Yeugh! Enough said!

When the Nasties voted, nobody was surprised when Mr Fox-Up had hardly any friends and was told to go. Mr Crab and Mr Mad were nearly as unpopular, and off they went too! Mr Crab scuttled off sideways. And Mr Mad sneaked off in the middle of the night. This just left Little Miss Loathsome and Little Miss I-Know-Best. All the Nasties were very excited! There were now just two Little Misses left in the contest! Then Little Miss Loathsome said something loathsome about Little Miss I-Know-Best. So, she had to go. That just left Little Miss I-Know-Best to lead the Nasties.

What Little Miss I-Know-Best Did Next

First Little Miss I-Know-Best said “hurray!” Then she chose her team of helpers. She told Mr Pale-And-Thin and Mr Mad to go far, far away. Mr Mad went to work as a writer for Mr Monster. But Mr Pale-And-Thin set about getting lots of jobs. He didn’t mind what the job was, as long as it paid LOTS of money! Greedy Mr Pale-And-Thin! Just a few weeks ago, he got ANOTHER job as well! This one is writing for a newspaper. There he can say lots of nasty things about Little Miss I-Know-Best, because she sacked him. Nasty, spiteful Mr Pale-And-Thin!

The New Helpers

Little Miss I-Know-Best chose some new helpers. She chose Mr Hammond-Organ to replace Mr Pale-And-Thin. Mr Hammond-Organ spent all day playing sad songs about how we had no money. These songs were often in a different key from all the other Nasties. This made Little Miss I-Know-Best cross. She thought she would get rid of Mr Hammond-Organ soon.

Mr Hammond-Organ was a bit boring. Little Miss I-Know-Best wanted to make things a bit more exciting, like running through wheat. How exciting was that! So she had a thought. “I know”, she thought, “I’ll choose some helpers that no one could have guessed!” And so she did.

The people in the other 27 rooms of the Big House bought most of the things the people didn’t buy themselves. After she burns the bridge across the little stream – which hasn’t happened yet – the people would need to find some new people to buy them instead. She needed someone to help. “Ah!” thought Little Miss I-Know-Best. “I’ll choose someone that no one will ever trust again! That would be fun!” So she chose Mr Fox-It for the job! Funny Little Miss I-Know-Best!

But her fun didn’t stop there. Oh no! She needed someone to make sure the bridge across the little stream was well and truly broken. So she chose Mr Breaks-It! “He has the right name”, she thought. “And it would teach Mr Two-Face a lesson for leaving me with all this mess to clear up.” Funny, funny Little Miss I-Know-Best!

But her best fun was still to come. She needed someone to talk to all the other leaders in the other lands, so that we could still be the best of friends. So she chose Mr Look-At-Me! Funny Little Miss I-Know-Best! What a joke! All the people in the other lands saw the joke too! They laughed and laughed until their sides ached and their heads turned to jelly! What fun!

Little Miss I-Know-Best smiled. What could possibly go wrong?

Next Time…

Next time, we will find out how Little Miss I-Know-Best got on with her new plans. Will it all be easy, like Mr Fox-It and Mr Mad said? Would we still be friends with everyone? Will everyone think Little Miss I-Know-Best knows best? Watch out for the next topsy-turvy part of the story!

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Desert Island Discs

Exclusive to Human Eyes!

desert island discs

I can now reveal the eight records Theresa May has chosen for her appearance on Desert Island Discs. They are:

Should I Stay or Should I Go? – Clash
Go Now – Moody Blues
Sling Your Hook – Jez and Labour
Our Day Has Come (original 1688 mix) – DUPey and the Rome-antis
No Woman No Rights – Bob M’arlene and the Wailers
Unsteady As She Goes – The Saboteurs
Is There Anybody Out There? – Barnier and Juncker
Give Jez a Chance – John and Yo-go

(May was forced into a U-turn on one of her choices when the BBC Record Archive could find no trace of The Laughing Policeman.)

wheat field

Book chosen to take to a desert island: The Desert of Wheat by Zane Grey, “to bring back those happy memories”.

spadeLuxury item to take: a spade, to bury all her hopes and dreams, and ours, too.

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Forever Walk Alone

A song for Theresa “No Mates” May: no mates in the Tory Party, no mates in the right-wing press, no mates in Europe…

If you stir up a storm, build your hopes up high,
But show you’re afraid of the Mail
At the end of the storm, we all say “bye-bye”
And tweet that you’re wrong and will fail.
Plod on: you won’t win
Plod on, say again
Till our screams are crossed with groans
Limp on, limp on, no hope in your heart
You’ll forever walk alone
You’ll forever walk alone.
Limp on, limp on, you won’t tear us apart,
You’ll forever walk alone
You’ll forever walk alone.

For pity’s sake, May, just go.

 

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Enough Is Enough

Theresa May must go. Enough is enough.

The UK has now reached the greatest political crisis since 1945. Article 50 was triggered in March. The clock is ticking down to March 2019. The EU and 27 other countries have discussed, agreed their approach and are waiting to begin negotiations.

May, with a workable majority of 17, in a fit of hubris, decided to crush all opposition. After consistently denying she would call a snap election, she called one. Her argument – always a lie – was that parliament was thwarting her plans for negotiating exit terms with the EU. And this was after Jeremy Corbyn had led his party to support the triggering of Article 50.

Theresa May contrite
Fatally damaged

So, after 7 weeks of unnecessary distraction, where are we? Hung parliament, with May proposing to govern propped up by the Democratic Unionist Party. This is the party that wants the hardest, the most economically damaging form of exit from the EU. The irony is that Northern Ireland voted 56% to 44% for Remain. So the DUP is the least representative party in Ulster to express the province’s wishes. Tragically, Northern Ireland’s politics is frozen in a 17th century time-warp. The DUP’s anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage stance takes us straight back to the Dark Ages. Being beholden to this lot is worse even than the Tories own “Irreconcilable” backbenchers. They’re way outside the UK mainstream. Enough is enough.

Nasty and Greedy

Nasty: May once famously warned the Tories about being seen to be the Nasty Party. Their election campaign was full of nastiness, or repeated personal insults and false accusations against her opponents, Corbyn above all. I trust that by now, her campaign coordinator Lynton Crosby will have had the sense to fuck off back to Australia. I hope too that 2017 will mark the low point in such vicious, nasty campaigning.

Greedy: The Tories have championed the economically and socially disastrous policies of Free Market Fundamentalism. Since the days of Thatcher, the cry has been “greed is good”. The election result clearly expresses the UK voters’ desire for an end to austerity, which has always been a political choice, not an economic necessity. (Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz’s article in the Guardian on 8th June states extremely clearly why Labour’s manifesto policies will be best for the country.)  Well, May got greedy. She had a Commons majority of 17 – she wanted 100+. Look at her now, sucking up to the most socially conservative, almost mediaeval party (the DUP) in Parliament to scrape a fragile majority of 2 or 3.

The sight of sociopathic, narcissistic Donald Trump in the USA should be a warning to all countries where Nastiness and Greed ultimately lead. Let’s hope this is the end of both. Enough is enough.

Apologies Required

The Tories got us into this mess, almost all by themselves, with a bit of help from their bigoted, xenophobic outliers, UKIP. The British people are owed an apology, from these three people in particular:

  1. From David Cameron, for being too weak to manage dissent in the most rabid, xenophobic ranks of his own backbenchers, by calling a referendum, thinking it would quell the infighting in his own party.
  2. From Theresa May, for failing to listen and consult more widely, for her instinctive authoritarianism and for her hubris, greed and poor judgement in trying to secure a crushing majority in Parliament.
  3. From Nigel Farage, for… well, for being such a fraud and total gobshite.

The Westminster Parliament collectively has a lot to answer for, too. In passing the referendum bill in the form in which it was agreed, needing only a simple majority of votes. Such a constitutionally momentous change would, in any well-ordered democracy, have included checks and safeguards such as a super-majority of votes cast and a minimum percentage of the electorate.

Will anyone apologise for this mess? Don’t hold your breath. Enough is enough.

UK’s Negotiating Position

May spoke recently of the danger of the UK going “naked into the debating chamber” in the event of Corbyn becoming Prime Minister. Well, where are we now? May’s authority is fatally damaged. With her leading negotiations, the EU and the 27 other nations will just laugh at us. They were already incredulous about the referendum result and May’s choice of the trio of ministers most involved in negotiation, Boris Johnson in particular. Referring presumably to the Berlusconi years, a senior Italian politician remarked last summer: “We though we were the crazies!”

To extend the metaphor, a May-led negotiating team will not only be naked, but the wounds on her back from the lashing she has just had from the British electorate will be red and raw for all to see. Talk about “strong and stable”: the opposite is the case. May has already got the backs up of Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier (the chief negotiator) before the election with her bombastic approach. Now she can be expected to be treated with contempt. That’s absolutely NOT in the national interest. Enough is enough.

The Way Forward

What IS in the national interest seems screamingly obvious to me. Well over 50% of the votes cast in this election were for parties wanting to break from the old orthodoxy. In particular, they want a move away from austerity and an approach to the EU negotiations that reflects the wishes of both Leavers and Remainers. The latter, 48% of us, simply haven’t had a look in so far. A little humility from those representing us wouldn’t go amiss, either. Oh, and, after the resignation of its joke of a leader, UKIP can just fuck off and die, finally.

What we really need is a Government of National Unity, where a progressive alliance of parties work together to take a fresh approach to the many issues which face us. And yes, the government should include a few of the more forward-thinking, liberal-minded Tory MPs.

Goodness knows, the problems arising from the old politics are real enough. The dire, crumbling state of our public services, and especially the NHS, need urgently addressing. Proper school funding to ensure we have the best possible educated future citizens is a priority, too. And the crisis in the lack of genuinely affordable housing is building to a crescendo – one 35 years in the making since Thatcher started selling off council houses. We need to get productivity rising again, by strategic investment in promising industries of the future. And, not least, we need to address the evil of terrorist attacks, including through adequate community policing.

We also need a change of tone from our elected representatives. The point-scoring, fear inducing, hate-fuelled approach of the last few years must stop. And we need politicians who speak proper sentences, like the rest of us.

A more consensual approach to EU negotiations will pay dividends and maximise the chance of a better outcome that we’d ever get from May’s gang of zealots and the delusional. We’ve seen record numbers of younger people engaged in politics and actually voting. It’s more about their future than mine. And we need a new kind of leader to take this forward and build on the momentum generated by this new blood. A person who’s shown he’s at his best when painting a better vision of the future for – dare I say? – the many, not the few. (His talents are wasted in opposition, where he doesn’t really shine.)

Jeremy Corbyn
A new PM for a new age

Step forward, Prime Minister-in-waiting, Jeremy Corbyn.

 

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Two Paths

Tomorrow, Britain faces what is, almost certainly, the most important general election of my lifetime. Two paths into the future are possible, depending on the choices we make. But hanging over the election are two dark and ponderous clouds. These are, of course, the impending EU negotiations and our reaction to the recent spate of terrorist attacks.

two pathsEU Negotiations

The first major issue will be the path we steer to leaving the EU (or not??), following the calamitous referendum result last summer. Neither of the party leaders has been straight with the British electorate on this point. Any conclusion to negotiations, short of changing our minds, will leave the UK worse off than now. The whole negotiation process is an exercise in damage limitation.

Recognising this, Jeremy Corbyn has been largely silent when it comes to reaching the “best” conclusion, or speaking of “success”. For this, Theresa May has accused him of being unpatriotic or failing to “believe in Britain”. These soundbites may play well as a dog-whistle to the Tory faithful – or, more cynically, to wavering Tory / UKIP voters. But the sheer vacuity of the comment exposes May’s own weaknesses. Her promise of a “successful” outcome means one of two things. Either she’s lying or she’s deluded.

Response to Terrorism

Following the shocking events in Manchester and at London Bridge, Jeremy Corbyn and other critics have challenged the government on cuts to police forces of 20,000 officers. Retired and serving senior police officers have explained the importance of community policing in building trust in communities. This is particularly important in areas where people feel marginalised and discriminated against.  The statement issued by Corbyn on Sunday evening was balanced, proportionate – even “statesmanlike” by one commentator.

By contrast, May’s reaction seems to have been twofold. Firstly, she has engaged in a series of personal attacks on Corbyn. These include questioning his patriotism and willingness to make hard decisions, often based on a distorted interpretation of remarks he has made in the past. (To his credit, Corbyn has not sunk to the level of personal attacks in return.) Secondly, she has made a series of what appear to be “on the hoof” policy announcements about the powers of police and security services. This smacks of panic and as an attempt to detract from her record over six years as Home Secretary and a year as PM. Comments about Human Rights legislation are particularly worrying. These seem to reinforce the strong authoritarian streak in May about which I have commented before.

The Leaders

All of which brings us to the contrasting personalities of the two leaders who could conceivably become Prime Minister on Friday.

Theresa May coffee

Theresa May has looked more and more uncomfortable as the election campaign has progressed. The first period was spent trying to build a personality cult: “Team Theresa”. We saw a series of set-piece speeches with selected party faithful hermetically sealed from the town or village outside. “Strong and stable” was the mantra repeated endlessly, to almost hypnotic effect. When May proved “weak and wobbly” over the social care spending cap, this entire strategy fell apart. Her “nothing has changed” squeaked out after this U-turn made her look like the proverbial rabbit in the headlights.

May’s now notorious lack of warmth has a number of consequences. Her inability to relate to people bodes ill for the EU negotiations. Her disastrous dinner with Jean-Claude Juncker got matters off to the worst possible start. His comment was “I leave Downing Street 10 times more sceptical than I was before.” Nicola Sturgeon described May’s lack of relationship-building ability in stark terms. “You literally go into a one to one with her and it’s like she’s reading from a script rather than having a conversation”, she said.

The same coldness means May’s personal support in her own party is thin, trusting and consulting with only a small circle of close confidantes. This could prove a serious problem when the going gets tough in negotiations. This also means that, too often, she is closed to wider advice. Many of her announcements seem to come as a surprise to the Minister responsible for the policy area: Education, Home Office and Foreign Policy spring to mind. Ministers support the party line on TV one day, only to find May has changed her mind the next. So the “Team” bit of “Team Theresa” is mostly a sham.

May’s wobbles, U-turns and panics during the campaign all seem to come from criticisms from the same quarter. The only pressure she responds to is her own right flank – the Incorrigibles as I call them – and the likes of the Daily Mail and other right-wing newspapers. She has never shown the slightest concern for other members of society – including the 48% of us who voted Remain. She’s deaf, too, to the particular concerns of those from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

May’s refusal to appear in a TV debate with the other leaders won her no friends and effectively killed off the “strong and stable” strategy. Her excuse – that she was too busy “preparing for Brexit negotiations” – was an open goal for an obvious riposte: “So why did you call an unnecessary election?” Theresa May just looks awkward most of the time these days, like she wishes she could be somewhere else. None of this bodes well for the next five – or two – years with May at the helm.

Jeremy Corbyn campaigningOn the other hand, Jeremy Corbyn seems to be enjoying himself. The crowds greeting him around the country seem to growing larger and more enthusiastic. For sure, he’s had some embarrassingly bad moments, Woman’s Hour being an obvious one. Corbyn stood up well to pressure in TV cross-examinations from Jeremy Paxman and the like. His interactions with members of the public appear to be genuinely warm and sympathetic. The one thing this campaign has given us, under media impartiality rules, is greater exposure to the actual Jeremy Corbyn, rather than the straw man caricature. (I see that that most rancid of rags, the Mail, is today throwing everything they’ve got from their hate-filled, distorting sewer, in an attempt to blacken the name of Labour’s leaders. Quelle surprise.)

It’s true that Corbyn is untested in high office, having spent his entire political career on the back benches until elected Labour leader nearly 2 years ago. But it does seem that the man has grown in stature during the campaign and he has said, somewhat modestly, that he’s giving the campaign “everything he’s got”. There seemed to be  a certain refreshing honesty in that remark. It seemed to have come from the heart, in contrast to May’s “I speak your weight” robot. And Corbyn does seem to have enthused and inspired significant numbers of younger voters, whose future is most at stake.

The Choice

And so, tomorrow, decisions are to be made, votes to be cast. The polls have been all over the place, but the odds still seem to be in favour of a Conservative win. Anything different will depend crucially on the turnout by younger voters, who appear to favour Corbyn by about a 3:1 ratio. I have no idea whether the apparent enthusiasm for Corbyn can be turned into a higher turnout from this notoriously “won’t vote” age group.

For me, the decision is simple. Two paths are open to the country tomorrow. The path to a win for the Tories leads to the certainty of economic pain and misery for most. Five more years of austerity, further deterioration to our underfunded NHS, schools and police forces, plus a continuation of the housing crisis. All this compounded with a disastrous outcome to the EU exit negotiations, with implications for generations to come.

The other path to a Labour victory is less certain. A Corbyn-led, more consensus-seeking approach to EU negotiations should lead to a less damaging outcome for our economy – if the City and the media give him a chance. But Corbyn at least offers the hope of a better future, particularly for those younger than myself.

Sadly, my vote will not count: like 80% of the country, the outcome in my constituency is not in doubt, thanks to our first-past-the-post system. But, token though it may be, my vote will be a small gesture towards the uncertain path to a fairer, more hopeful future.

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Which Theresa?

I’m confused. Which Theresa May is it we are supposed to be voting for?

Is it:

  • The “strong and stable” Theresa of Tory Party fantasies?
  • The serial U-turner Theresa who ditches part of her manifesto after only four days?
  • The “bloody difficult” Theresa who soured relations with key EU officials before negotiations even started?
  • The “financially competent” Theresa whose only costed manifesto policy is free school breakfasts – at 7p per pupil?
  • Or the scaredy-cat Theresa too afraid to debate with other Party leaders on live TV?

Which is it? I think we have a right to know before we vote!

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Curiouser and Uncuriouser

Just after she retired, my wife and I were at a social function. She was asked what she was now doing with her time. She replied that she was doing English Literature as a part-time student with the Open University. The questioner without hesitation responded: “Oh, I can’t think of anything worse!” This, as it turns out, is a great conversation killer! Where on earth can the conversation go from there?

Reflecting on this exchange some time later, I wondered why I felt at the time such huge contempt for her questioner. My conclusion was that the questioner and I are poles apart on one spectrum of human attitude: curiosity. I was appalled by the fact that someone would find offensive the idea of a mature woman gaining new knowledge and learning new skills.

Lifelong Learning

I started to think about the wider ramifications of all this. To start with, we all have some fundamental principles that underpin our outlook on life. Two of mine, relevant to this subject, are these. Firstly, the development of the human brain by the random march of evolution is a thing of wonder and celebration. Secondly, when it comes to the brain, I’m a firm believer in the “use it or lose it” principle.

Alice and the Mad Hatter

Just look around any primary school classroom. Just talk to, or observe, any 5, 6, 7, 8 or 9-year old child as they explore new things about the world. See the joy that comes from each new discovery, and the further quest for knowledge that it inspires.  Sadly, for too many of us, that joy, that quest for learning, withers and fades. But for many – and I like to consider myself as one such – that curiosity survives into old age. The popularity of adult education classes, of institutions such as U3A, of mature students taking degrees are all testimony to that. To quote a tired – but paradoxically energising – old cliché, “You’re never too old to learn!”

Left and Right

I’ve often pondered what underlying characteristics separate politically left-leaning from right-leaning people. It’s part of the old “nature versus nurture” debate. Perhaps it’s something to do with our faith in human nature. The right might take a view that, left to their own devices, people are selfish and can’t be trusted. The left, by contrast, may hold an unshakeable faith in the improvability of human kind. They criticize each other as being bitter, cynical and twisted or being hopelessly naïve and utopian. Such an analysis may explain a lot, but I think it gets us only so far.

argumentI think there’s another dimension, a spectrum which characterises the left-right character differences. And that’s this dimension of curiosity: the preparedness to use one’s own brain to challenge received ideas and think things through for oneself. My observations of human behaviour over nearly seven decades have noticed one thing in particular. Those on the right (politically and socially) seem much more prepared to take at face value the word of authority figures, such as politicians, doctors, priests and anyone in uniform. (Increasingly these days, these also include business leaders and the rich of all types.) The left are more prepared to challenge and seek alternative views on the subject.

This underlying difference has many manifestations. Divine revelation versus the scientific method. Theocracy versus secularism. Royalist versus republican. Tradition versus progress. Order versus creativity. Views on the environment and climate change. Rote teaching of facts versus “learning to learn”. Attitudes to race, gender and sexuality. Nostalgia for a mythical “golden age” versus optimism for the future. The welcome, or otherwise, for different cultures and the immigrants who bring them. Win-lose versus win-win. Daily Mail versus Guardian.

To sum up: “I have nothing to learn from you” versus “I welcome the opportunity to learn from you”.

Sticking Together and Schism

There’s a further point I’d like to make concerning this phenomenon. And that’s to do with political parties. It’s a well-observed fact that parties of the left love to have debates and schisms, factions and splits. It seems naturally easier for left-wing party activists to split and form a new party than split the difference. (Think Judean People’s Front in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.)

Sorry, I meant the People’s Front of Judea.

Parties of the right tend to keep their differences to themselves. Last year, nearly half of Tory MPs voted Remain. But with literally one or two exceptions, you never hear from them now. There’s a strong cultural pressure to stick together / avoid doing something that is “bad form” / don’t let the side down / support the regiment / rally round the flag / supply your own cliché. (The exceptions, of course, are the extremist right-wing parties like UKIP and the Front National.)

In addition to the huge disparity in funding, this phenomenon hugely disadvantages Labour and the left in UK elections, with our first-past-the-post voting system. To recall an old joke of two men chased by a lion, “I only have to run faster than you, not the lion”.

It Makes Me Cross

One last thing about all this that makes me cross. It’s when religious apologists rage against that non-existent oxymoron, the “militant atheist”. You know, the person who’s going to undermine all moral authority by brainwashing our children into becoming atheists too. All the atheists and humanists I know want nothing of the sort. We just want people to think for themselves and draw their own conclusions. The uncurious just don’t get that bit. So I say, rediscover your inner eight year-old. Try using your brain a little harder and discover something new. Test your opinion against some facts. You might even enjoy it.

“Curiouser and curiouser!” cried Alice. Well, amen to that, I might say!! (Or not.) And, by the way, Alfie, what is it all about?

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Who’s Playing Games Now?

A few weeks ago, Theresa May made a bid for the moral high ground by lecturing her opponents: “Politics Is Not a Game”. Indeed it isn’t. But she then played a cynical game by calling an entirely unnecessary general election. Following the tragic events in Manchester on Monday, she resumed hostilities by playing games with politics and the nation’s security.

Theresa Mat Andrew Neil
May losing it with Andrew Neil

At the G7 meeting yesterday, she is reported as saying “Jeremy Corbyn has said that terror attacks in Britain are our own fault”. No he didn’t.  She went on to lecture Corbyn thus: “there can never be an excuse for terrorism, there can be no excuse for what happened in Manchester”. Corbyn doesn’t need the lecture, as his own words prove.

What Corbyn Did Say

I’ve read Corbyn’s speech in full. It’s available here courtesy of the New Statesman. It’s worth reading in full, but to counter May’s untruths, here are a few key extracts from his speech.

Corbyn spoke first of the shock and grief in the country and of people coming together and rallying around. He praised the public and people in public services:

“The people who we ask to protect us and care for us in the emergency services, who yet again did our country proud: the police; firefighters and paramedics; the nurses and doctors; people who never let us down and deserve all the support we can give them. And the people who did their best to help on that dreadful Monday night – the homeless men who rushed towards the carnage to comfort the dying, the taxi drivers who took the stranded home for free, the local people who offered comfort, and even their homes, to the teenagers who couldn’t find their parents.”

He went on to present his political vision of striving for peace whilst recognising the need for strong action when needed:

“I have spent my political life working for peace and human rights and to bring an end to conflict and devastating wars. That will almost always mean talking to people you profoundly disagree with. That’s what conflict resolution is all about. But do not doubt my determination to take whatever action is necessary to keep our country safe and to protect our people on our streets, in our towns and cities, at our borders.

There is no question about the seriousness of what we face. Over recent years, the threat of terrorism has continued to grow. You deserve to know what a Labour Government will do to keep you and your family safe. Our approach will involve change at home and change abroad.”

He then states that Labour in government would reverse cuts to police and emergency services. And then comes the part for which he was vilified – judge for yourselves:

“We will also change what we do abroad. Many experts*, including professionals in our intelligence and security services have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home.

That assessment in no way reduces the guilt of those who attack our children. Those terrorists will forever be reviled and implacably held to account for their actions.

But an informed understanding of the causes of terrorism is an essential part of an effective response that will protect the security of our people, that fights rather than fuels terrorism.

Protecting this country requires us to be both strong against terrorism and strong against the causes of terrorism. The blame is with the terrorists, but if we are to protect our people we must be honest about what threatens our security.”

(*He could have also mentioned Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.) The emphasis above is mine, but you get the point. He then makes a clear statement of support to the armed services and gives them a clear commitment:

“I want to assure you that, under my leadership, you will only be deployed abroad when there is a clear need and only when there is a plan and you have the resources to do your job to secure an outcome that delivers lasting peace.”

There follows some sections about unity, coming together and British values:

“Because when we talk about British values, including tolerance and mutual support, democracy is at the very heart of them. And our General Election campaigns are the centrepieces of our democracy – the moment all our people get to exercise their sovereign authority over their representatives.”

Near the end, he states his hopes for the conduct of the debate in the remaining days before the election:

“So, let the quality of our debate, over the next fortnight, be worthy of the country we are proud to defend. Let’s have our arguments without impugning anyone’s patriotism and without diluting the unity with which we stand against terror.”

Some hope, given the abuse already heaped upon him by May, other Tories and the usual rabid elements in the press!

Statesmanlike

Jeremy Corbyn
Corbyn on foreign policy

Reading the whole piece, I was left with the impression of a carefully thought out, intelligent and balanced set of arguments. This clearly is a moderate and nuanced speech which could have been made by any number of mainstream politicians in other parts of Europe. But not by “Team Theresa” with their shrill, ranting comments and their disowning parts of their own manifesto. The narrowing of the Tory lead in the opinion polls is clearly rattling them.

Who’s playing games with politics right now? It’s Corbyn who is looking statesmanlike, possibly even “strong and stable”. Dare one say it, even Prime Ministerial??

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Sub-Prime Crash 2.0

We are still recovering, painfully slowly, from the global economic crash of 2007-8. Average real pay is still below pre-crash levels, with only Greece performing more badly than the UK on this measure within Europe. I fear we now have the conditions in place to sleepwalk into the next crash. The 2007-8 crash started in the USA, the trigger attributed to the collapse in the so-called “sub-prime” mortgage lending market. In other words, mortgage companies lent money to people who, increasingly, were unlikely to keep up with the payments. The Tories under Cameron and Osborne seem to have successfully (and unfairly) laid the blame on the Labour Party, on whose watch the crash occurred.

financial crash graph

Assuming the Conservatives win on June 8th, I reckon there is a greater than fifty-fifty chance the next crash will happen on Theresa May’s watch. Only this time, the causes will be more home-grown. We don’t have the same set of circumstances as we had just before the last crash, but we have some very similar problems – and the lessons of the last crash have not been learned.

Household Debt

The level of debt in UK households has been climbing to a record high whilst savings have fallen to a record low. The number of County Court Judgements (CCJs) against debtors has hit a ten year high. And now real wages are falling again. The FT reported this last week, along with the assessment that the last ten years have been the worst for wage earners since the Napoleonic Wars 200 years ago. The economy as a whole has been growing at less than half the rate it did for the first 30 years after the war, when economic policies very similar to those in Labour’s manifesto were followed by Tory and Labour governments alike. Such growth as there has been in the last decade has been snuffled up by the richest 1% of the population – leaving the rest of us worse off than a decade ago. And that growth has largely been funded by more personal borrowing.

Sub-Prime 2.1: Credit Cards

On top of this, there are strong indications that banks and other financial institutions are finding new ways to lend recklessly. Low, or zero, introductory interest rates are luring more people into the credit card habit. As well as the increasing risk of default, companies have been flattering their accounts by a new piece of creative accountancy. They are including future profits from when the introductory rate ends in their current income and so are flattering their financial position. This practice is very similar to an accounting trick used by Tesco for which it was fined £129m by the Financial Conduct Authority, plus a bill of £85m compensation to suppliers.

The risk here is that finance companies engaging in this practice are giving a false (and flattering) account of their financial position.

Sub-Prime 2.2: Car Financing

Over the past few years, motor traders have frequently been in the news – good news – for announcing record car sales. Much of the growth can be attributed to a new way of financing the cost of the car purchase, known as “personal contract plans”. An article here includes a quote from a finance expert that “Borrowing is a very bad idea when it is done against a depreciating asset … such as a car,” adding that there was a “serious level of fragility built into the system”. Something similar is happening in the US, prompting the article Will Cars Be the Death of Us This Time?

Don’t be surprised if the wheels drop off of this wheeze sometime soon.

UK’s Unique Vulnerability

Add to all this, the UK is uniquely vulnerable to disturbances in the global financial system. In my 2015 post Two Gamblers and a Pint of Lager, I explained just how exposed the UK is, with our extreme over-dependence on financial services. With 1% of the global population, we have 37% of the most risky type of financial transactions. Total City trading gambles our entire annual national income every day and a quarter. The right word for such behaviour is “madness”.

So, all it would take is a bit of a shock to the system. If the opinion polls are correct, Britain will vote on 8th June for the maximum possible risk of the biggest shock to our finances since at least the 1970s, and probably since the Second World War. I’m talking about the distinct possibility of the UK crashing out of the EU without a trade deal. Prime Minister May has already ruled out staying in the single market by her obsession on immigration. Add to that May’s character: stubborn, inflexible and with strong control-freak tendencies – look at how the Tory election campaign is being hyper-controlled by a small team of close advisers. Together with her lack of understanding of European sensitivities, egged on by a rabid right-wing press, a vote for the Tories is the maximum risk choice.

Strong and stable? My arse.

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