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

Catalogue of Errors

Over the past two and a half years, I have tried to imagine any plausible scenario whereby the government could have made a bigger mess of negotiations with the EU following the June 2016 referendum result. So far, I haven’t come up with any. In other words, Theresa May has made the biggest mess of these negotiations that I can imagine. With the results of the last two Tuesdays’ House of Commons votes fresh in our minds, I feel it is time to apply some analysis to May’s performance.

Hence my name for this post is Catalogue of Errors. I want to break down this sorry tale into 3 categories: strategic mistake, lesser errors and major errors.

Strategic Mistake

Lest we forget: the 2016 referendum showed a nation divided, broadly speaking, down the middle. The vote was 51.9% v 48.1% with 29% of the voters not bothering to vote. Our MPs are paid to represent our interests; specifically to recognise the closeness of the result and to act accordingly.

May got it wrong practically from day one. It is now crystal clear that she focussed her strategic objective on Tory party unity, not the national interest. In practice, this meant dealing with the chronic Tory infighting over EU membership, endemic for over 40 years, rather than seeking a broad consensus based upon cross-party cooperation. This is a major, major strategic error which has affected all else. It is only in the last few days where the extreme weakness in her authority has forced her, reluctantly and with gritted teeth, to make a number of unconvincing gestures to opposition parties. Nothing has come of them so far.

The decision to suck up to (and bribe) the archbigots of the DUP (who represent the opposite to majority opinion in Northern Ireland over EU membership) was a consequence of this strategic mistake and the hung parliament following the 2017 election. The hubris which led her to call the election was also a consequence of the original strategic mistake (party before country), aided and abetted by the right-wing press – remember the “crush the saboteurs” rhetoric?

Lesser Errors

I will briefly summarise a string of the more obvious tactical errors committed by May since becoming Prime Minister.

Perhaps the most obvious was in her self-preserving idea of “balancing” leavers and remainers in her Cabinet. This led to monstrosities like Boris Johnson becoming Foreign Secretary, a man so narcissistic and self-unaware that he single-handedly turned the UK into a laughing stock. David Davis, a lazy, brainless idiot and Dominic Raab, a swivel-eyed Leave zealot “led” our EU negotiations. These embarrassing appointments further downgraded our standing in the world, as well as wasting about 2 years of negotiating time.

May’s personality and reliance on a few close allies led to her isolation both within the Tory Party and worldwide. Contrast this with the open way in which the EU negotiators kept close contact with key politicians in the EU27, thereby ensuring there was transparency and a high level of agreement amongst those with whom the UK was negotiating.

Major Errors

But I return to the two major errors committed by May since the summer of 2016. Both have been, in effect, appeasing the insane Leave fanatics in her own party. The first instance was the speech she made to the Tory Conference in autumn 2016 with her famous “red lines”. That earned her the approbation of the 70-somethings in the conference hall but has boxed in her negotiating position ever since.

The second major error happened yesterday. She made a U-turn by supporting the Brady amendment which in effect trashed her own negotiated deal following her crushing 230 vote defeat last week. Leading up to this vote, May had said it was her deal or none: renegotiation was “impossible”.

Worse, the Brady amendment’s notorious “alternative arrangements” plays totally into the fantasies and delusions of the worst Leave fanatics. True, she has bought a few days’ grace as the nominal leader of the country (and a few deluded headlines in today’s papers – check out the Mail’s page one headline for an extreme example). In exchange, she persuaded the House of Commons to support the maddest of the Leave extremists’ fantasies. The EU had made it clear that renegotiating the withdrawal agreement was a total no-no. The “alternative arrangements” are straight unicorn-thinking.

Major failed to control his “bastards”. Cameron appeased them by holding a vacuously-worded referendum. May has played into the hands of these lunatics not once, but twice. Albert Einstein (or maybe somebody else) famously defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. If so, then we are being led into a fantasy renegotiation, already having been told “no”, by a mad woman leading a party of cowards and fantasists.

End of Democracy?

The UK famously claims it does not have a formal written constitution – not strictly true, some of it is written down, but not all in the same place. But the arrangement leads to a whole lot of making it up as we go along. Can UK democracy survive this apparent collapse of the past few days? That will be the subject of a future post!

Anyone betting on a happy ending?

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Culpable

I write this post just a few hours before the so-called “meaningful vote” on May’s EU exit deal.

Two Commentaries

I have today read two comment pieces which speak volumes in the “I wish I had written that” sort of way. The first is a piece in the Independent by Tom Kibasi today which gives an excellent overview on just how badly Theresa May has mishandled the EU negotiations from the very start. The second is a depressing piece in today’s Guardian” by Polly Toynbee stating that tonight’s vote in the Commons marks just the start of our problems: misery and division will beset us for a generation or more.

Two people are primarily culpable: David Cameron and Theresa May: sequentially each the worst Prime Minister (at the time) in my lifetime.

Cameron’s Culpability

Cameron’s culpability derives from his sheer uselessness. Being endowed with the sense of entitlement to rule taught by our most elite private school led to his gross error of judgement. This was to turn an internal Conservative Party rift (between the tiny band of “Dunces” exemplified by Rees-Mogg versus the rest of the Tory Party) into a national rift which split the country asunder. My earlier post David Who? satirizes Cameron’s weaknesses, inspired by Jeremy Paxman’s remarks calling Cameron “the worst Prime Minister since Lord North”. Those 40-odd maverick MPs have stirred up racist, xenophobic thugs who now roam the streets and violently threaten all who disagree with them. One such follower murdered Jo Cox MP. Several sitting MPs and journalists must now fear for their safety, just by doing their jobs.

Well done, Cameron.

May’s Culpability

May’s culpability stems from her personality type. My Mister Men caricature of her as “Little Miss I-Know-Best”, written in June 2017, was even closer to the truth then I realised at the time of writing! Even my post written just after she took over as PM, Who May She Be?, spotted the dangers. My suspicions were not misplaced that her fine words, spoken on the steps of 10 Downing Street on the day of her appointment as PM, were just that – words. Even my jokey rewrite of the song lyrics in Forever Walk Alone still rings true.

But the best analysis is in the Kibasi article referred to above. He summarizes how May, at every turn, misjudged and mishandled her own party, Parliament, public opinion, EU negotiators and leaders of the EU27. She even tried Perfidious Albion’s old trick of “divide and rule”. May is incapable of even understanding the concept of the “national interest”, no matter how many times she repeats the phrase in her Maybot mode.

Well done, May.

Fearful for the Future

However things turn out at the big vote tonight, the UK will still be broken. It will not heal in my lifetime, perhaps not even for 20 to 40 years. The future is not bright and definitely not Orange, even if the bigots of the DUP have had May in a bind recently.

May was foolish enough to refer in Parliament yesterday to how history will judge us. I confidently predict that history will judge this period as our worst in modern times. And the chief culprits will be Cameron and May.

Enough for now. The future, after the big vote, will be here soon enough.

Meanwhile, for all those who voted Leave, here is an interlude…

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Two Mindsets

  • Two countries

In this post, I shall compare and contrast two mindsets: monarchist and republican mainly by referring to two countries: UK and the Irish Republic. I argue that the former mindset has led the UK to its current post-EU referendum mess and has also led to a terrifying rise in the levels of intolerance. I contend further that the latter mindset has enabled Ireland to escape from the dead hand of the Catholic church to become a modern, secular, tolerant society.

Monarchists and Republicans

First, an important definition, to avoid any misunderstanding. I’m using the word “republican” in the “I want an elected Head of State” sense, rather than the “I’m a moron who voted for Donald Trump” sense. By that definition, it should be clear (from earlier posts) that I’m a republican. But the central point of this post is the sort of thought processes that flow from each position and the views a person is likely to hold.

My starting point comes from the USA, ironically enough – Trump as head of state is unlikely in a monarchy and would be a good argument against my position! I refer, of course, to the US Declaration of Independence and the words “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal…” The Declaration continues “…that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness….” OK, it’s not quite right: “People”, not “Men” for a start. And as an atheist and Humanist, I’d rewrite the bit about “endowed by their Creator”. But the overall thrust is in line with my starting point.

From these principles, it’s easy to see that phrases like “We, the People…” and “the People versus X” (in court cases) follow naturally. In the latter case, I’m contrasting this with “the Crown versus X” used in UK courts.

In monarchies, by contrast, the presumption is that we are not all born equal. Some enjoy privileges (and duties) simply by accidents of birth and of lineage, although the duties are often a matter of custom and convention rather than constitutional principle. The more traditionalist, conservative institutions police these conventions with a fierce conviction. Every democratic and progressive change has been resisted and delayed by a privileged elite.

The UK, Saudi Arabia and Other Monarchies

Any objective-minded person can see immediately how corrupt and bloated the royalty of Saudi Arabia is: I believe there about 7000 people who call themselves Princes and, by any objective measure, Saudi Arabia is the least democratic, worst abuser of Human Rights on the planet. At the other extreme, more “modern” monarchies, such as are found in Scandinavia, have a modest role for their monarchs with a small group of people labelled “royal” leading relatively modest lifestyles.

Andrew flogging arms to the Saudis

In some respects, the UK is more like Saudi Arabia than Sweden or Norway. Despite some democratic add-ons, we have a grossly bloated “royal family” (think Andrew – better still, don’t!) and an unelected second chamber in Parliament. Worse still, in the UK, it is possible to buy privileged access to power simply by having rich parents – or connections with the “right” people. The English public school system teaches – at least according to one alumnus – what he called “ESS”, an Effortless Sense of Superiority. From this flows an innate sense of entitlement to tell lesser souls what to do. Of course, the rules don’t apply to you or your rich chums or – better still – the rules (law, taxation) are biased to suit them.

A republican outlook can bring a different set of problems. In the USA, for example, it can lead to an excess of individualism and a cult of the “common man” or woman, no matter how ill-informed they may be. In France, there is a tendency for interest groups to gather together, block highways and generally make a nuisance of themselves. On balance, I’d rather live somewhere with republican-type imperfections than monarchist-type ones.

Distilling all this down, the two forms of government (or of national culture and history) lead to two distinct mindsets. Contrast these: “subject” v “citizen”, concessions reluctantly wrestled from the powerful v Human Rights, lip service v real democratic practices, secrecy v openness, etc.

Two Referendums

I turn now, as a prime example of my general point, to comparing recent events in two countries, one a monarchy, one a republic: the UK and its former colony the Irish Republic. The events are two contrasting referendums: on EU membership in the UK in 2016 and abortion rights in Ireland more recently. The UK referendum is a role model for how not to carry out a referendum and deal with its aftermath. The Irish referendum is a good example of how to do it right.

The UK is still in the thick of the mess caused by holding and mishandling the EU vote. Some obvious conclusions can be drawn so far:

  • It has effectively split the country down the middle: England, at least, has been revealed as consisting of two groups who see each other with mutual mistrust and suspicion
  • It has had a catastrophic effect on the level of toleration of people whose views differ from each other
  • It has encouraged acts of violence by fringe groups, encouraged by politicians’ ill-considered language
  • Jo Cox MP was murdered
  • It has given Archbigot Arlene Foster and her morally repugnant DUP de facto power far beyond their electoral support
  • It has sown the seeds of the destruction of the UK, principally by the Little Englanders’ total indifference to the views of the Scots and (Northern) Irish
  • And the economic impact, which has been well rehearsed elsewhere.

Compare this with the comparative ease with which the Irish Republic conducted the abortion referendum and the peaceful implementation of the decision.

The Irish Citizens’ Assembly

I believe a key component of the Irish success has been the creation of the Citizens’ Assembly. For more details on the activities of the Citizens’ Assembly, check out its website here. Briefly, the Assembly was set up in 2016 to inform public debate on a number of strategic issues. The most significant was to abolish the Republic’s 8th Amendment to the Constitution, thereby opening the way to legalise abortion. The Assembly is chaired by Mary Laffoy, a judge in the Irish Supreme Court. The 99 other members are “citizens entitled to vote at a referendum, randomly selected so as to be broadly representative of Irish society”. They worked using a combination of expert presentations, Q&A sessions and debate, roundtable discussion and a plenary session. It was an opportunity to deliberate topics, in an informed way, in marked contrast to the soundbite dominated shouting match which constitute much of modern political “debate”.

From these deliberations, the wording of the referendum question to be put to the Irish electorate was formulated. The Irish Parliament took great care to ensure the electorate was as well-informed as possible before the vote. Although the Cameron government consulted the Electoral Commission for expert advice on the wording, the whole process was much more “top down” than the Irish case.

I believe that this was no coincidence. A republican mindset is far more likely to produce solutions which are “bottom up”; a monarchist mindset is far more likely to impose “top down” ones.

The People’s Vote

So, where does this leave us, going forward? It’s far too soon to say what might emerge from the current mess and Parliament’s “meaningful vote” (if that goes ahead next week). One possibility is another referendum, the People’s Vote, notwithstanding the problems caused by the 2016 one and referendums’ poor fit with the UK convention of Parliamentary sovereignty.

Back in February last year, I came very close to writing a blog post satirising a People’s Vote, to which I was at the time opposed. I have changed my views since then: a People’s Vote may be our only chance to avert catastrophe. If such a vote were to go ahead, I would strongly advocate some form of Citizen’s Assembly to inform the wording of the question(s) to be posed. All of this would take time and require the Article 50 process to be suspended. There are many who would be bitterly opposed to this, but I say that’s their problem: the issues are to important not to get this right.

Two (or Three?) Barriers

There are two, or possibly three, barriers to this happening. Theresa May has ruled this out (though who believes anything she says any more?). Any likely Tory successor would only make the chances worse. Second, delaying Article 50 needs the agreement of 27 other countries. And the third, possible, barrier? Jeremy Corbyn.

Towards a Democratic UK

But let’s just be optimistic for a moment. It’s not impossible that a People’s Vote will occur in the way I have described. And that we are spared the disaster of crashing out of the EU. Surely then, the time will be right to question our entire semi-democratic, ramshackle constitutional setup. My “best case” wish list would be something like this:

  1. Democratise the House of Lords into an elected Senate;
  2. Specify what role, if any, referendums have in our democratic arrangements;
  3. Review our adversarial first-past-the-post voting system;
  4. Move to an elected Head of State using (again) the Irish system as a possible role model

And of course, demand of any political party that puts itself up for election as a future government to play a fully engaged, constructive role as a member of the EU. That includes making a clear case for the benefits – both to the UK and to the other member states – of EU membership. Infantile heckling of the EU and its institutions from the sidelines must become a thing of the past.

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English Lesson

Who is more to blame, Humpty Dumpty or Theresa May? I will leave you to decide, after reading through the words which follow. Students of English as an Additional Language are welcome to join in the game – in other words, “foreigners are welcome”. To my website, I mean: to many of my compatriots, perhaps as many as 52% of them, this phrase is an alien concept when applied “to my country”.

Words

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”  Humpty Dumpty, of course, is a fictional, fairy tale character who, by the time Lewis Carrol wrote those words in the 19th century, was drawn to look like an egg.

The original fairy tale has its origins in the First to Third English Civil Wars (with the Fourth now coming soon!) The real Humpty Dumpty was a cannon used by the Royalists to defend Colchester Castle during a siege by Parliamentarians. (You may remember the Parliamentarians, aka Roundheads: they were the first to die in their thousands in the cause to establish the concept that Parliament, rather than the King, is sovereign.) Parliamentarian forces successfully knocked the Cannon from the castle battlements and it fell into swampy ground outside the castle walls. As the story goes, “All the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again”.

Maybot- Speak

One of the most vacuous (unless you have mental age of eight) neologisms is May’s phrase “Brex*t means Brex*t”. To this, Leave extremists have given us “Leave Means Leave”. These tautologies, together with a commonsense knowledge of how language works, might lead you to the conclusion “X means X”, where X is any word. You would be wrong. There is at least one exception to the general rule. The assertion “Indefinite means indefinite” is false, when followed by the phrase “to remain” and stamped into a passport.

In her New Year message to the nation, May has added yet another empty, meaningless phrase to the lexicon: the country can, apparently, unite so long as we “turn the corner” together. Where exactly this corner is, and why it has such magical properties to unite us, are both unclear. But fear not, good people, the corner that will do the trick is out there somewhere. I assume that we all have to meet somewhere round the corner from the corner in question and turn the corner together to make it work. I await further information! See you there!

English for Foreigners

The ever-hostile Home Office last week launched an online registration scheme for EU nationals resident in the UK. This is to enable them to continue to receive their existing rights to move freely into and out of the UK. The fee is £76 (with exemptions for some). Without such registration, under the “hostile environment” policy created by Theresa May, such EU nationals would be liable to harassment by UK Border Force, denied benefits, free NHS treatment and fearful of unlawful deportation, just like the Windrush generation has suffered.

Reaction has been hostile. In a Guardian report, one long-term resident who is a Danish national wrote: “You absolute s****! I’ve lived here 35 years, got a stamp in my passport for ‘indefinite leave to remain’ in 1985 and now you want me to apply to stay in my own home.” Max Fras, a visiting fellow at the LSE, sarcastically expressed his “deep gratitude” at the opportunity to pay £65 “for the possibility of letting an app as reliable as Southern Rail on a snowy day to decide the future of my existence”. Even the Sun criticized government policy in a leading article headed “EU are welcome”. It’s a pretty pass when the government’s main tabloid cheerleader has turned against the May Government’s inhumanity.

One elderly holocaust survivor even compared this government to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews:

The accompanying text says “The last time my family qualified for registration and ‘settled status’”. There’s nothing more I can add.

English Coast

According to our Home Secretary, we’re facing a “crisis” because, since mid-November, an average of nearly 4 people a day have been landing illegally on our shores. (At the peak 3 years ago, an average of 2000 people a day were crossing the Mediterranean to enter Greece. From which I conclude the Government’s panic  is propaganda, not proportionate.)  I, for one, will be sleeping more easily now that I know Sajid Javid cancelled his holiday to return home to save us all. Better still, he’s getting 2 UK Border Patrol boats to sail back to UK waters to deter Johnny foreigner. According to Wikipedia, the length of the UK coastline is 12,429 km or, if you include the larger islands, 31,368km.

I’ve got a better idea, adapted from Trump’s Wall: why don’t we just build a higher sea around our island? That’ll keep ‘em out! Their flimsy little boats will never be able to climb over that: a quick capsize, problem solved! And all we have to do is just keep on pumping out the CO2. Sorry, East Anglia, it’s been nice knowing you. Seaside holidays in Norwich, anyone?

Fake News

The far right, particularly in the USA and increasingly here in the UK, clearly welcome any development which obscures the truth and confuses people. Russia under Putin would agree. So come along, all you people. Learn the New English where all words are stripped of any meaning and we call all march forward into 2019 united and happy.

A thought: why didn’t May take her Cabinet to The Corner instead of Chequers to teach them the New English? Then they could have all turned the corner together, united and happy!

Happy New Year everyone!

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Friendly Bombs

Come friendly bombs and fall on us!
Those numbers lied upon the bus:
It really wasn’t worth the fuss.
It wasn’t fair.

Come friendly bombs and drop on May
She shouldn’t last another day.
Yet staggers on still, come what may,
Till we despair.

Come friendly bombs and fall on Boz
A lazy, lying louse, because
His only aim: to be the boss
Must think we’re nuts.

Come friendly bombs and drop on Mogg
And throw his top hat down the bog,
Attack him with a rabid dog,
Tear out his guts.

Come friendly bombs and fall on Fox
Free trade? Just put him in a box
And take him to the nearest docks.
Dump him at sea.

Come bombs and smash up dour Arlene
Who thinks she’s higher than the Queen.
Her bigotry is quite obscene.
Set Ireland free.

While Putin smiles and rubs his hands
And Trump and all his right-wing friends
Make mischief in these weakened lands.
The little shits.

We’ve now become a laughing-stock.
The other leaders laugh and mock
At Britain, which was once a rock,
Now broke to bits.

We’ve pissed off all our dearest friends,
It’s too late now to make amends
And no one knows where all this ends
As pennies drop.

Come, friendly bombs and fall on UK
The country has run out of luck.
And who now really gives a fuck?
Just make it stop.

With acknowledgements to John Betjeman

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Priti Vacant

Oh, so Priti vacant!

Priti Patel MP
Priti Patel MP

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

Leave Extremist

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

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

The Great Famine in Ireland

irish famine
The Great Hunger

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

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

Famine in India

Famine in India
Famine in India

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

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

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

A New Moral Low

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

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

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

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Taking Care

This post is a bit more personal than most.

Taking Care of Our Dog

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

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

Taking Care of Me

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

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

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

Taking Care of All of Us

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

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

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

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Heartless, Spiteful and Unnecessary

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

UN Rapporteur’s Report

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

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

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

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

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

Government in Denial

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

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

Alston and Victims Hit Back

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

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

For that, we need a change of government.

 

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One Earth

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

planet earth
Planet Earth

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

Climate Change

global warming
Global warming

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

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

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

Biodiversity

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

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

rainforest
Rainforest

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

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

Clean Air

air pollution
Air pollution

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

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

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

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

2018 Budget

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Special Measures

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

perfidious albion
Perfidious Albion

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

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

What Didn’t Happen

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

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

arlene foster
Archbigot Foster

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

BBC Bias

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

Boxed In

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

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

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

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