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

Respect

I’ve changed my mind about what my next blog post will be about. I hope you see why.

Respect for Bus Passengers

Those who have read my earlier blog post, Stop Breaking Down, will know that I believe Stagecoach treats its passengers with contempt. You will also not be surprised to learn that, once again, I was let down today by the non-arrival of the X5 bus. On this occasion, the Stagecoach App on my mobile, which purports to show real-time running information, lied. There is absolutely no point in having an app if the information it gives is wrong. Add that to the list of failures within Stagecoach’s control.

Respect for the Poor

Grenfell on iPlayer
Grenfell

But then I watched (on catch-up) the 90-minute film Grenfell broadcast on BBC1 on Monday night. It captures the lives of those affected by the Grenfell Tower fire starting on the night of the fire through to recent days. I found it harrowing to watch. I cried at least three times. Watch it! But it clearly makes my problems with the bus service pale into insignificant trivia.

The personal accounts were the most moving. But the most powerful message for me was the lack of respect shown by the Kensington and Chelsea Council (overwhelmingly Tory and rich) and central government, Theresa May in particular, was the underlying cause of the fire. If residents’ concerns had been listened to – and acted upon – the fire would never have occurred in the first place. 72 people’s lives were a price worth paying to keep council tax low for the rich folk in the borough.

Respect for Our Constitution

Returning to a well-worn theme of my blog posts, it’s apparent that there are a lot of people Theresa May doesn’t respect. The walkout by SNP MPs today shows May’s lack of respect for the devolved governments of the UK. The failure to plan for the UK’s exit from the EU by means of an all-party committee and her attempts to railroad legislation shows a disrespect for Parliament. It is the ultimate irony of those pressing for the most destructive form of exit that their “take back control” seems to exclude the very Parliament that our constitution says is sovereign.

It seems that May’s respect is only to try to avoid the inevitable split in the Tory Party. She respects the exit extremists and, of course, Paul Dacre. We have to wait until November before he fucks off – too late, the damage of the poison from the Daily Mail is done already.

Respect for Democracy

The farce of the Donald Trump / Kim Jong-Un “summit” yesterday further reinforces Trump’s lack of fitness to be President of the USA. His childish attitude to the G6+1 meeting in Canada has exposed the truth about whom Trump actually respects. It’s the “hard men”, the dictators and human rights abusers around the world. Trump has no time for the niceties of democracy. It’s as if the USA were being run by the mafia, but I may be doing the mafia a disservice. As a fan of The Sopranos, Tony Soprano (albeit fictional) came across as a much more rounded human being than the narcissistic blob we call Trump.

So Trump is a real threat to western democracy.

Respect for the Underclass

I’m sorry to have started with such a trivial example (Stagecoach and their crap, expensive bus “service”). But there is a common theme linking all four of the above. It’s lack of respect – lack of respect for all those who are not one of “us”. The USA has spent more than 40 years developing an underclass whose views are always ignored: the non-white (Black Lives Matter), the poor, those who want stricter gun control laws – I could go on. Tragically, here in the UK, we have been doing very “nicely” developing our own underclass and this can only continue unless we kick out this government.

For me, being a member of the EU implies some small bastion of resistance to the present order, some hope of retaining some civilised values. “Global Britain” is a smokescreen for making things worse – a whole lot worse – for all but the richest few.

We’re all human beings worthy of respect: Grenfell, Windrush generation, women, black, brown, Scottish, immigrants with skills we need: I could go on. But you get the idea. R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Aretha said it 50 years ago, and she’s still right.

Gimme some Respect.

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Barking

Our dog very rarely barks. So when he does, it comes as a bit of a shock. I found my wife in the garden this morning laughing at our barking dog. The reason that she was laughing was because he was barking at his own reflection in one of the house windows.

yellow labrador
Dog very like our own!

Barking. Own reflection. That reminds me of something.

Reflection

It reminds me of the current state of what laughably passes for our government. Theresa May’s indecision is like being in a hall of mirrors. She is torn in indecision between the sensible majority of her party and the barking mad: the Dunces as I have described them in an earlier blog. She takes more notice of the dunces and the barking DUP, who exemplify the worst of 17th century bigotry and hatred – not least over their attitudes to the rights of women. When it comes to representing public opinion in Northern Ireland, the DUP is certainly barking up the wrong tree.

Hall of mirrors
Hall of mirrors

Whichever way she turns, she sees just the Dunces, the DUP and Paul Dacre. What she will do after November when Geordie Greig takes over at the Daily Mail, we shall have to wait and see. Inside her hall of mirrors, she takes no notice of the 48% who, like me, voted Remain. Businesses, specifically the CBI, have reduced UK growth forecasts because of the uncertainty caused by the dithering and disagreements within the Cabinet. As Prime Minister, therefore, she pays no regard to the National Interest. That’s the behaviour of someone who is either scared or barking mad. Probably the former.

Up Shit Creek

May has wasted two whole years engaged in futile debates between the wings of her party. These arguments are usually between two options, both of which have already been rejected by the EU27. Every deadline has been missed. She has now announced that the government’s White Paper will be delayed until after the crucial European Council meeting on June 28-29. That’s barking.

So where does that leave the country? Up Barking Creek without a paddle.

up shit creek
Up Shit Creek

Barking. Woof!

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Making Things and Knowing Things

I’m old enough to remember when Britain made things. Thousands of people worked in factories. In my childhood, I lived within 10 miles of the massive Dagenham car factory and for much of my adult life within 25 miles of the Luton car factory. In their prime, they employed thousands of workers and dominated their local economy. Thatcher killed off much of Britain’s manufacturing industry with the ill-conceived free market fundamentalism, now finally recognised by many as the cause of rampant inequality and slow economic growth for the past 35 years.

1960s factory
1960s factory

There has been much hype about the new economy: the so-called “knowledge economy”. I contend that this shift has been reinforced by the marketization of thought. In its death throes, arch-defenders of FMF have simply lost the vocabulary to discuss moral, ethical and social issues other than in market terms. This is uncomfortably close to George Orwells’s Newspeak.

Making Things

In the days when we made things and no companies were larger than national economies, the traditional mode of thinking about markets worked quite well. Some craftsperson or manufacturing company would make something. A prospective buyer would want something. Via intermediaries (the supply chain), a retailer would offer the item at a (hopefully reasonable) price.

Let’s use a washing machine for our example. It would be fiendishly difficult for the average citizen to build one from scratch. It probably wouldn’t work: making all the parts requires tools of some kind. If it did work, it would probably leak all over the floor. So the obvious thing was to go to a shop, browse, seek advice and buy a machine that met the buyer’s requirements. Both parties gain from this. The buyer gets the washing machine (s)he wants and the seller gets paid and some profit for future investment.

This may sound very simplistic, but my point is that there was a mutual interest of some sort between buyer and seller. The opportunity to haggle over price, in UK culture, is limited to very few areas, but otherwise there is a measure of balance between the parties involved.

Knowing Things

In the modern Knowledge Economy, a tiny number of all-powerful (American mostly) companies hoover up information about all of us connected to their social media and online services. Technically, we gave our consent, but in all probability, not an informed consent. (Hence GDPR.) These companies then analyse and process mountains of data and sell it to companies to target advertising at us. All this you know already.

But my point is this: the business model used by the data-gatherers goes like this. “We know a lot of stuff about you. We’re going to make money out of that knowledge”. That reduces all of us who use their services to mere pawns in a bigger game where wealth in concentrated in very few hands. In extreme cases of negligence on Facebook’s part about Cambridge Analytica, the rule of democracy is subverted. There is a complete absence of balance between the de facto power of the Googles, Facebooks, etc. and the users of their services.

Capitalism Is What Capitalism Does

The directors of limited companies still act in a way which maximizes short-term profit and dividends for shareholders. Nearly everybody seems to disregard the requirements of section 172 of the Companies Act 2006, which states:

In carrying out their duty to act in the way he or she considers, in good faith, would promote the success of the company for the benefit of its members as a whole directors must have regard (among other matters) to the following factors:

  • the likely consequences of any decision in the long-term;
  • the interests of the company’s employees;
  • the need to foster the company’s business relationships with suppliers, customers and others;
  • the impact of the company’s operations on the community and the environment;
  • the desirability of the company maintaining a reputation for high standards of business conduct; and
  • the need to act fairly as between members of the company.

In practice, we get company directors who pay themselves vast sums of money for being, at best, barely competent and a focus on dividend returns and not on long-term investment in the future (and stability) of their companies. The result is the collapse of Carillion, with the public sector picking up the pieces. We also get the likes of Serco and Capita offering very poor services which have been ill-advisedly outsourced from the public sector. There is a clear disconnect between the short-termism and profit-maximisation mind set of those at the top and the poorly paid, if dedicated, staff at the sharp end. Public services like social care, probation, benefit assessment and the like should never have been privatised for this reason. Utilities like gas, electricity, railways and water are natural monopolies and should not have been privatised for that reason.

The government and local authorities now find themselves dependent on a private sector offering poor value for money and deteriorating services. The companies themselves are poorly scrutinised by civil servants overseeing their contracts. The whole thing is an appalling mess.

Win-Lose and Win-Win

The essence of Trumpism – if such an idea can be contemplated, given Trump’s excessive narcissism and inconsistency – is that of the deal. For every deal, there is a winner and a loser. Trump, naturally, wants the accolade and adrenalin rush of being the winner every time. It’s “I win, you lose”.

The new Knowledge Economy lends itself naturally to a win-lose mind set. Yet the win-win approach is still far more in tune with how we, as humans, think about our relationships and the kind of society in which we want to live. All of this takes us right back to the very early days of this blog. Three years ago, I wrote Being Human II: The Four Cs which attempted to summarise what it means to be human in four words, arranged in two contrasting pairs: Competition and Curiosity balanced by Compassion and Conscience. Subsequent posts demonstrate how the latter two have been neglected for 35 years by the false god of Free Market Fundamentalism. It’s time we all got back into a win-win frame of mind and started being wholly human again.

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Fed Up

Are you fed up with the way this country is being run? I know I am. Or rather, how it’s not being run. It’s certainly not being run by any government worthy of the name and, in my eyes, Theresa May has quickly overtaken David Cameron as the worst Prime Minister in my lifetime.

Here’s a random selection from recent new stories.

  • Theresa May refuses to do the right thing, morally and in accordance with international law, to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland following the overwhelming 2 to 1 vote in the Irish Republic. The UN has already declared this a violation of Human Rights, to be tested in the UK Supreme Court later this year. The wholly unrepresentative DUP, led by arch-bigot Arlene Foster is needed to prop up her minority government. There’s a clear majority in the Commons for reform, in line with recent Northern Irish public opinion polls. Let’s hope Parliament is sufficiently embarrassed and fed up to force a vote.
  • May refuses to sack Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary – too many gaffes to find a suitable web link for Johnson! We’re fed up with having such a clown as our chief diplomat and the UK’S official spokesman for Foreign Affairs.
  • Michel Barnier’s frustration is beginning to show. He’s clearly fed up with the UK government wasting two years and still not knowing what it wants out of the EU exit negotiations. His reference to Britain playing “hide and seek” is most telling.
  • Why is the arch-Dunce J Rees-Mogg given so much airtime? Here’s a post from January. Things haven’t improved since then. He was on Andrew Marr’s show on Sunday. Surely we’re all fed up to the back teeth of the sight of him.
  • I note that David Davis took time out from whatever he does instead of being our chief EU negotiator to visit the Hay Festival. He was in the front row to hear Margaret Atwood, author of the novel The Handmaid’s Tale, at the weekend. She famously writes dystopian novels, and was dubbed the “prophet of dystopia”. Perhaps he was fed up with trying to do the impossible and simply tried to imagine Britain after it had left the EU?

Laugh at the Idiot

This is really in the same mould, but worthy of special attention. I’ve always thought  that Gavin Williamson is a trumped-up little shit. Here’s more evidence of the “Spiderman”, chosen by May as our Defence Secretary, being a complete prat. Richard Madeley was clearly fed up with Williamson not answering his question and did a sort of Paxman on him today. Lie back and enjoy!

Here’s a link to the video

And this man is in charge of our military? Does that make you feel safe? No, me neither.

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Excluded by Policy

This post is dedicated to the memory of Tessa Jowell, who died on Friday. She has been lauded as the Minister who drove forward the UK’s bid to host the 2012 Olympics. But arguably, her greatest legacy was the introduction of the Sure Start programme. This was a valued and evidence-based programme to help disadvantaged children in their early years development. Sadly, this programme had been decimated by Osborne’s ill-conceived austerity policy.

Tessa Jowell
Tessa Jowell

I was speaking to a head teacher I know well recently. He told me that, sadly, he has had to make the first exclusions from his school this year, after previously succeeding for many years to avoid this. He made a direct link between curriculum changes and exclusions – a link I had not previously made myself.

I understand that exclusions are up considerably in other local schools, too.

School Budgets

As a Chair of Governors myself, I am only too aware of the effects of cuts to school budgets: difficult decisions have to be made. With the lion’s share of the budget going in salaries, this inevitably means fewer staff. With statutory requirements around class sizes, it is the support staff who tend to get reduced in number. This makes it more difficult to keep “hard to handle” pupils in mainstream school provision.

The vicious 40% cuts to Local Government budgets from central government have also severely reduced the capacity of second-line support to these vulnerable pupils. A double whammy.

Sure Start

The head reminded me – it’s a secondary school – that they are now seeing children who were unable to take up Sure Start schemes owing to the squeeze on LA budgets, when much of the Sure Start programme was cut back. Much of what Sure Start was about was to enable children from disadvantaged backgrounds catch up in their development with their middle-class peers, so they didn’t have to play catch-up during their school years. Prevention is always better – and cheaper – than cure.

Youth Services

One obvious effect of swingeing LA budget cuts is the decimation of Youth Services. It does not take a genius to work out that, if there is less for kids to do out of school, the temptation to get into trouble is correspondingly greater. Obvious, really.

Curriculum Changes

The one bit I hadn’t twigged was the connection between Gove’s curriculum changes and the rise in exclusions. It all stems from the higher status afforded to academic subjects by the English. The pressure on all 16 year olds to take subjects from the EBacc list narrows the curriculum choices – in particular, away from vocational subjects. These academic subjects are often less suited to children with learning and behaviour issues and further reduces their self-esteem. This, in turn, encourages poor behaviour and the risk of exclusion.

So, in summary, higher exclusion rates follow directly from a toxic cocktail of Tory policy changes (i.e. curriculum changes and budget cuts).

Grammar Schools

Meanwhile, the Government announces it will waste £50m on “expanding” grammar schools – an evidence-free Theresa May vanity project which solves nothing, a subject I first raised back in 2015.

Ho hum.

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Some Way Out

There must be some way out of here
Said the Maybot all alone
There’s too much confusion
I must do this on my own.

Rabid dogs have caught my mind
Sane men ground to earth
Remain was forty-eight percent
But fuck all now that’s worth.

Good reason to expedite it
Barnier he kindly spoke
There are many voters out there
Who feel that life is but a joke.

But you and I have been through that
We don’t have long to wait
Stop messing; make your minds up
The hour’s getting late.

Don’t forget about Good Friday
I heard the Taoiseach say
Unless you believe in unicorns
You must find a better way.

Outside in the distance
The CBI did growl
The exit day’s approaching
Rees-Mogg began to howl…

 

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Grudging, As Ever

On Friday, the Government announced another U-turn, this time on the composition of the Grenfell enquiry panel. In December, May had rejected this request from survivors. It’s the latest in a long line of resistance by the powerful for ordinary people to have more say in the political process. Let’s examine a few examples from the last 800 years.

Grenfell Enquiry Representative Panel

The Grenfell panel is to be widened to include people with the skills to examine the cultural and community reasons behind the fire. This follows a prolonged period of pressure from survivor groups.

Windrush Concessions

After six months of constant coverage by the Guardian, giving heart-breaking case study after case study, the Government finally admitted there was a problem with the Home Office’s hostile environment policy. But their solution was very, very narrow in scope indeed. They have commissioned Capita to set up a small, poorly trained group to handle any injustices that may have befallen this relatively small group of people. Everyone who has studied the institutional racism within the Home Office knows that the total number who may be affected runs to tens, if not hundreds, of thousands.

So far, May has done the absolute minimum required to keep the Daily Mail happy. How much more pressure needs to be applied, and how many more cases does the Guardian have to highlight, before the Home Office and May admit the problem is much wider? Grudging approach number two.

Lords Reform under Blair and Cameron

Now that the House of Lords has resoundingly defeated the government 14 times over plans to leave the EU, I find it highly amusing that the right-wing press has suddenly discovered that the Lords are unelected and therefore “undemocratic”! The leading exit extremists, including Rees-Mogg, were basically the same group who voted down attempts at reform under Blair’s New Labour and the 2010-15 coalition led by David Cameron.

Blair did succeed with a feeble compromise to reduce the number of hereditary peers to 92. Cameron’s attempts, half-hearted at best to appease his coalition partners, failed totally.

After over 100 years since the initial reform (see below), the Lords lives on as the largest unelected legislative chamber outside the People’s Republic of China. Resistance to the inherently corrupt Lords appointment system lives on.

End of Empire

After the costs of fighting World War Two, Britain was skint and heavily in debt to the USA. Our ignominious rush out of India and Palestine is well-documented elsewhere.

We did some pretty awful things as we finally left our colonial past, particularly in Africa. Here are a few examples of British Empire atrocities to be going along with. Independence for our former colonies, particularly those with majority non-white populations, was given grudgingly and often bloodily.

NHS Introduction 1948

Despite the lack of money and the high level of UK national debt, Nye Bevan pushed forward his plan to introduce a National Health Service, free at the point of use. He did this in the teeth of opposition from the Conservatives and (initially) the doctors’ professional body, the BMA.

Over time, as the people came to love – and treasure – the NHS, the Tories have tried to forget this part of our history. During the 1950s the Tories grudgingly accepted that the NHS was part of the fabric of our society.

Lords Reform 1911

The Parliament Act 1911, introduced by the Liberal Government, was passed in the face of bitter opposition and resistance. Its effect was to reduce the powers of the upper house and in its powers over budget setting. The preamble to the Bill included the words “it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation“. You can say that last bit again! I’m sure the original 1911 reformers would never have dreamt we would still be debating this issue 100 years later.

Once again, change was resisted and introduced grudgingly.

Women’s Vote

The Representation of the People Act 1918 finally brought the franchise to women over the age of 30 and extended male franchise. A vicious rearguard action against the suffragists and suffragettes had been waged for decades before; the issue was often bound up in Parliament with horse-trading over independence for Ireland. Measures, including the infamous Cat and Mouse Act 1913 and forced-feeding meant that women were subjected to treatment that would be classified as torture today. Resistance took on a very sinister tone.

Universal suffrage came very grudgingly!

Irish Independence

The fight for Irish Home Rule was resisted by the establishment at every turn, often entangled in the “and Unionist” element of the Tory Party. The Government of Ireland Act 1920 introduced the controversial border which created Northern Ireland as part of the UK from six northern counties of Ireland. We live still with the consequences of this decision.

True independence for the Republic of Ireland came in stages and finally in 1948. The changes were resisted for decades and the UK has never fully understood the colonial nature of its earlier relationship with the people of Ireland. Grudgingly again.

Electoral Reform 1830s

The 1832 Reform Act was the first small step to widening the franchise, passed by a Whig Government and fiercely resisted by the Tories at the time. It did also do away with the notorious “rotten boroughs” and introduced constituencies with roughly the same populations.

The number of people allowed to vote increased only by a tiny amount – grudgingly.

Abolition of Slavery

Practically everyone knows that compensation was paid to the slave owners, not the slaves, when slavery was abolished by the Slavery Abolition Act 1933.  The bribe was huge: £20 million: 40% of Government income for the year. It was paid as part of a grubby scheme to overcome resistance of those in the establishment who had benefited from the slave trade and slavery.

Glorious Revolution

The so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 saw King James overthrown by force and led to the Bill of Rights. Although much bound up in Protestant – Catholic antagonism, it was a case of Parliament challenging the absolute power of a monarch. During the machinations, James turned to the Tories for support.

Runnymede by force

Even in 1215, Magna Carta would never have come about voluntarily by King John. Although hardly a revolution by “the people”, the rebels used force (and the threat of it) to force the king to sign.

Tories inheritors of this tradition

None of the above is exactly news. And the last two examples pre-date political parties and are more examples of aristocracy versus absolute monarchy. But my general point is this: all progressive reforms have come about by fierce – and often bloody – pressure and have been resisted by authority figures. You can be assured that May’s recent grudging acceptance of the inevitable in relation to the Grenville Tower fire enquiry is just the most recent example of whose side the Tories have always been on. And it’s never the side of those pressing for reform.

If we want to see Britain as an open European-orientated, welcoming, diverse, multicultural country, we need to fight for it all the way.

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Split Down the Middle

Thanks to the uselessness of David Cameron, the split in the Tory Party has spread to the whole country.

Well I don’t know why I came here tonight,
I got the feeling that something ain’t right,
I’m so scared in case I fall off my perch,
And the Dunces leave me here in the lurch,
Clowns to the left of me,
Jokers to the right, here I am,
Split down the middle with you

Split?

Yes I’m split down the middle with you,
And I’m wondering what it is I should do,
It’s so hard to put a smile on my face,
Losing control, yeah, I’m all over the place,
Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right,
Here I am, split down the middle with you

Well you started out as Mayor,
And you’re proud that you’re been there,
And your fans, they all come crawlin,
Slap you on the back and say,
Please, please

Trying to make some sense of it all,
But I can see that it makes no sense at all,
Is it cool to show Jack Rees-Mogg the door,
‘Cause I don’t think that I can take anymore
Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right,
Here I am, split down the middle with you

Well you started at the MOD,
You’re as proud a Brit as there can be,
Your corrupt friends, they come crawlin,
Slap you on the back and say,
Please, please

Well I don’t know why I came here tonight,
I got the feeling that something ain’t right,
I’m so scared in case I do something wrong,
‘Cos all can see I’m really not that strong,
Clowns to the left of me,
Jokers to the right, here I am,
Split down the middle with you,
Yes I’m split down the middle with you,
Split down the middle with you, here I am split down the middle with you

 

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What Was It All About, Alfie?

There’s a sad postscript to the tragic tale of Alfie Evans, the little boy who died last week.

Extra Security

Alder Hey Hospital has set up a helpline and introduced extra security measures as a result of the Alfie case. Hospital staff were abused and attacked by ill-informed mobs after they cared for little Alfie for 18 months, in the most sensitive and distressing circumstances imaginable.

crucifix

It all sounds familiar to those who remember the equally tragic case of Charlie Gard. In both cases, the sound of people – Catholic fundamentalists and pro-lifers generally –  jumping onto bandwagons and hijacking proceedings were deafening. The Catholic Legal Centre bullied Alfie’s parents into letting them take over the legal case. Catholic fundamentalist activists posed as relatives to gain access to Alfie’s bedside. Even the Pope was in on the act: Alfie’s parents got an audience with him.

More Scary

So what is the result of all this?

Every child in Liverpool who is ill enough to need to go to Alder Hey Hospital, and their worried parents, will now need to go through extra security checks. That makes visiting the hospital that little bit more scary for every child at their most vulnerable. That doesn’t sound a very Christian thing to me.

What Is to Be Done?

The sad tale of Alfie seems just the latest in a long line of gross overreach and interference in our lives by religious fundamentalists. Christian evangelists seem the worst – the Catholics being richest and best organised – with some Islamic groups also to blame. It does seem to be a particular problem with the monotheistic (Abrahamic) religions, but Jewish groups and the good, soggy old CofE don’t seem to be in the same league. So we must choose whom to oppose with care and consideration.

I have always felt uneasy at the misogyny associated with these religions and the passion devoted to telling women what to do with their bodies. A quick read of Leviticus will remind us all that women’s bodies are inherently dirty. Leviticus 15:19 (menstruation) and Chapter 12 (Purification after Childbirth) would be good places to start for the uninitiated. Mary is fetished by Catholics as a virgin, but I assume she had periods! (Incidentally, Chapter 12 is sandwiched between “clean and unclean food” and “regulations about infectious skin diseases.”) Sorry, folks, times change.

So, what can we do? Pick our opportunities as best we can. Here are two ideas for focussing our lobbying and pressure.

Safe Zones for Family Planning Clinics

foetus image

The first area relates to the harassment of women considering abortions who get intimidated by Christian groups outside Family Planning Clinics. Congratulations to the councillors in Ealing for passing local bylaws to protect women from harassment at a vulnerable time. We now need central government to make this into an England-wide piece of legislation. But with May’s constant reminding us of her visit to church every Sunday, we may have to pick off the country one council at a time. There are, I believe, other councils considering their own bylaws.

Faith Schools

I obviously believe, as a Humanist and secularist, that there should be NO state-funded faith schools in the UK (the norm throughout most of the rest of Europe). But the 80% of the public who agree with me find ourselves in a hostile environment on this issue whilst May stays as PM.

But there is a good second best: ensure that the National Curriculum regulations, particularly in favour of teaching “British” Values and admissions policies are rigorously enforced with NO opt-outs for faith schools. (The “British” values are, of course, in reality European ones, but we dare not speak that word!). Amanda Spielman, Head of Ofsted, has said some encouraging words on the subject. Local governing bodies, sympathetic councillors, parents’ groups, teaching unions and the rest must use local opportunities to ensure no backsliding on this.

So there are a couple of things we can do to fight back and put religion back into its box where it belongs. Alfie, tragically, was just the tip of the iceberg. “First, they came for the Jews…”

One Other Thing

Oh, and one other little thing. We must strain every sinew to ensure that Britain stays close to its friends who share its values. That, of course, means the UK must stay a member of the EU.

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Telling the Truth

Theresa May is reported as taking the lead in consolidating the anti-Russia alliance of nations against “fake news” and propaganda (particularly via social media).

Common Ground

This seems like sensible politics. All the UK’s European allies, and several other countries, were convinced at Russia’s guilt in the Salisbury poisonings and were very supportive. This obviously included the “sanctions” of sending home diplomats. Russia’s response has been harsh words but no real action. Within the UK, there has been genuine bipartisan support. Pretty much everyone agrees that Russia is a key source of fake news. So far, so good.

 

There is, however, a major flaw in May’s approach. Her sycophantic approach to the US President, first in her dash to Washington soon after Trump’s inauguration, her offer of a state visit (subsequently downgraded to a working visit to avoid protests) and her continuing support for Trump’s deceptions are very worrying. The adoption of the hardest of hard terms and her silly red lines – to appease the Dunce minority in her party – in the negotaitions with the EU leave Britain hopelessly exposed to a man “not morally fit” to be President (so said James Comey, former FBI chief, on April 15th).  [At the time of writing this, The UK Government has not responded to Trump’s lies about knife crime and blood-covered floors at a prestigious London Hospital. This was in part of his love-affair speech to the National Rifle Association yesterday. Martin Griffiths, the apparent source of the Trump story (in an interview recently for Radio 4’s Today programme), has replied on Twitter. He said he is happy to invite Trump to visit his hospital to see the success in reducing knife crime. Will May speak out? We’ll have to wait and see.]

And the UK Government has got quite skilled in generating Fake News of its own.

Fake News: An Example

The most recent, and egregious, example is the success the Government propaganda machine had this week getting the NON-STORY about Breast Cancer screening top billing on  BBC TV and Radio and front page headlines in all the newspapers on 3 May.

AgeX breast cance trial
AgeX trial

The (inconvenient to Government) facts, given in detail below from the Guardian on 3 May, can be summarised as follows:

  • Running trials of this type has 3 effects:
    • It costs money
    • A few women have their cancer detected earlier and this reduces the risk of an early death
    • Several more women will get “false positive” results and will undergo unnecessary distressing surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy.

Following some inconclusive Scandinavian result, NHS England set up a project: AgeX to see if offering routine screening to younger and older women was cost-effective. The objectives of the trial are reproduced from the Official AgeX website.

“The National Health Service (NHS) routinely offers breast screening every 3 years to all UK women aged 50-70. In 2012, an independent panel concluded that, while routine breast screening at ages 50-70 confers significant benefit to UK women, the advantages and disadvantages of starting breast screening at younger or older ages were uncertain. The AgeX trial will assess reliably the risks and benefits of offering an extra screen to women aged 47-49 (who will all be offered routine screening anyway three years later) and, separately, of offering additional screening to women after age 70 (who will already have been offered routine screening every 3 years at ages 50-70).”

  • At most, 40,000 women lost out on an offer of an extra screening, not 450,000.
  • There was NO COMPUTER ERROR: it was all part of the trial’s design with a control group to make the results statistically valid.
  • There was nothing for Jeremy Hunt to apologise for!
  • If AgeX had screened all women over 68, about 200 would have been correctly diagnosed earlier with breast cancer. 30 would die within 5 years, but only a small fraction of this number, unknown and unknowable, would have been saved by earlier screening. Another 600 would have undergone unnecessary treatment because of the “false positive” effect.
  • Nobody in the know recognises Hunt’s 135 to 270 deaths figure.

A Mathematical Joke

As a maths graduate who spent the first seven years of his career in statistics and computer modelling, I am confident of the numbers. So let’s have an old mathematical joke to break the boredom.

An astronomer, a physicist and a mathematician were travelling by train through Scotland. They notice a black sheep in an otherwise empty field. The astronomer says: “Look! All the sheep in Scotland are black!” “No, no!” says the physicist. “All you can say is that SOME of the sheep are black.” There is an awkward silence. It lasts no more than a second or two, but seems much longer. The mathematician raises his eyes skyward, a look of utter contempt on his face. He intones, in a flat, monotonous voice: “In Scotland, there exists at least one field which contains at least one sheep, AT LEAST ONE SIDE OF WHICH is black.”

Mathematicians laugh at the joke. Everyone else laughs at the mathematicians for finding it funny.

Meanwhile, back to the politics.

Burying Bad News

Some clever person in 10 Downing Street (i.e. an adviser, not May!) obviously decided they wanted to bury some bad news on 2 May. It wasn’t the local election results, which were inconclusive and proved nothing. So my guess is that the bad news was this: May’s inner War Cabinet met to hammer out which of two competing options they wanted to create a (near) “seamless” border in Ireland. Both options had been rejected as unworkable, “magic” even, 18 months ago, and again rejected in early March. Barnier gave the UK until 18 April to come with a non-magical solution: the date has obviously been fudged a bit and the Cabinet meeting on 2 May was meant to sort this out: it didn’t. So my guess is that the Government needed blanket coverage of something else, and the non-news about breast screening worked like a dream.

So what has happened?

  • 10,000 worried women phoned the helpline on Friday, rising from 5000 on Wednesday. It sounds chaotic, with call centre staff insufficiently trained.
  • Up to 450,000 women will be unnecessarily worried, but with only a few worried enough to call the helpline or go their GP (although NHS England has specifically asked women NOT to go to their GP).

So, one question remains. Was Jeremy Hunt in on the game? We don’t know.

  1. If Hunt didn’t understand the numbers, that makes him even more incompetent than the eye-watering levels of incompetence already set by all the members of May’s Cabinet (including May herself). That takes some beating, but Hunt would have achieved it. In which case, he should resign.
  2. Or else Hunt is complicit in the conspiracy to spread fake news. In which case, he should resign.

Meantime, the EU negotiations descend ever further into farce and tragedy.

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