Category Archives: Ethics

Posts about ethics and morality

Feel No Shame

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

The Ultimate Psychopath

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

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

British Psychopaths

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

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

Hey Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

General Election

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

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

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

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Hostile Means Nasty

Between 1990 and 1995, I needed to walk on many occasions to an office in Croydon for work meetings, passing Lunar House on the way from the station. Lunar House is where asylum seekers and others seeking to regularise their UK immigration status would queue up to speak to a Border Agency official. By the body language and blank expressions in their eyes, I could tell these were desperate people near the end of their tether in their quest to navigate the Kafkaesque nightmare of UK immigration.

Lunar House
Lunar House

Dysfunctional Home Office

The Home Office has been a malignant, inhumane Government Department for at least 30 years. It has seen off the more sane and humane Cabinet Members quite quickly. At the time of my visits to Croydon, it was Kenneth Baker (who lasted 16 months) and Ken Clarke (13 months), followed by the evil Michael Howard, who saw out the end of Tory Rule until the 1997 victory by Tony Blair and New Labour. Labour got through six Home Secretaries with ever-shorter tenures: Jack Straw (4 years), David Blunkett (3 years), Charles Clark (16 months), John Reid (13 months), Jacqui Smith (2 years) and Alan Johnson (11 months). [Home Secretary dates from this Wikipedia page]

In a class of her own, Theresa May lasted over six years. Amber Rudd, aka mini-May, lasted nearly two, until she was deposed by taking the rap for her predecessor and boss. It’s anyone’s guess how long Sajid Javid will last. But May’s long tenure speaks volumes about what sort of a person she is.

Little Miss I-Know-Best

In my earlier post The Modes of May, I described the three modes: Little Miss I-Know-Best is the most apt here. May clearly has a problem in mixing and communicating with “ordinary” members of the public. She has not the wit, imagination or empathy to see how life is for people outside the leafy, Tory-supporting, prosperous streets of her Maidenhead constituency. This was exemplified in her disastrous 2017 election campaign, where she stuck to addressing hand-picked supporters in near-empty warehouse buildings. It reached its nadir on the morning after the Grenfell Tower fire, when she shunned the company of grieving relatives of the victims and confined herself to speaking to the emergency services personnel.

Although no longer Home Secretary, the notorious Hostile Environment policy, first publicised for the Windrush generation but now seen to affect many, many more people, has May’s fingerprints all over it. This took the previously dysfunctional, nasty Home Office to whole new level of hostility. Her soulmate Ian Duncan Smith took the same hostile approach to benefit claimants. This can be seen most in the inhumane approach taken to the harsher sanctions regime. The same “assume guilty unless the asylum seeker / benefit claimant can prove innocence beyond all reasonable doubt” approach can be seen in both the Home Office and Department for Work and Pensions.

We’re Not Special

Although Theresa May tamely supported Remain in the referendum campaign, she switched to being the most rigorous supporter of the most extreme form of leaving the EU. She’s a prisoner of the DUP (of her own choosing) and the Leave extremists in her own party. Reality is beginning to bite: the extremists are blaming everyone except themselves and May is strangely silent on anything of substance. But her earlier, ill-advised “red lines” have left her no room to manoeuvre. What a fuck-up.

All of this, I think stems from the same basic delusion. Namely, that the British, and especially the English, are somehow special. This springs from a distorted, whitewashed version of our imperial past. The best comment I have heard as an antidote came from a Danish politician about six weeks ago. He said something like this: “The EU consists of small countries and of nations who have not yet realised they are small countries”. I wonder whoever he had in mind?

Post-imperial hubris and delusion drives the Leave extremists (Dunces I call them) who refuse to accept reality: in particular, the complexities of unravelling 45 years of ever-closer interworking between the countries of the EU. It’s not just about trade – and that’s not simple either.

Jeremy Corbyn

Owen Jones wrote for the New Statesman in 2015 about what would happen if Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party. Part of that was a concerted character assassination attempt by the Tories and their right-wing press outliers. The predictions are remarkable accurate, judged against what has happened since. For a balanced, sympathetic but not uncritical analysis of Corbyn’s foreign policy history as a backbencher, read this piece by Ewen MacAskill.

Over the past 30-40 years, the right-wing media and the Tories have been remarkably successful at shifting the Overton Window sharply to the right. Labour needs to start a campaign of decisively shifting it back to its proper position, in line with actual human experience for the many. John MacDonnell and Corbyn hold the middle-ground view on economic policy, not Hammond, austerity and the Tories. Public opinion is turning against austerity and supports most of Labour’s policies where they differ from the Tories e.g. rail and utilities nationalisation. But Labour is still seen as some left-wing cult in the eyes of far too many people.

Irony

It’s ironic that it was May herself who first warned the Tories 15 years ago that they were being seen as the Nasty Party. Yet her incompetence, rather than malice, has led her to introduce some of the nastiest policies seen from any government in my lifetime.

The referendum vote was almost evenly split and public opinion has swing sharply towards Remain or a proper People’s vote. Yet May plods on along her disastrous path. Favourites to succeed her are too awful even to contemplate. What have we done to deserve this?

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A Slow Death

I received good news this week. After 24 doses of my main chemotherapy drug at the cancer unit in my local hospital, I am in remission. They’re giving me an extra 8 doses, just to be sure. (Currently, I’ve just had dose 30.) The not-so-good news is that my cancer is incurable. But it probably won’t kill me. At my age, it will probably be from something else. I call that good news: you can call it what you like!

In my 30 visits, I’ve undoubtedly spoken to people who have been given a terminal prognosis and are receiving palliative treatment. For most in that position, they will find that dying of cancer is a slow death. Compared, I mean, to being shot, having a fatal heart attack, being run over by a bus, drowning – or any of the many ways we die.

It was 14 months between the time my first wife and I were told she was terminally ill and the day she died. She had with secondary breast cancer which had metastasised. The night following the news of her terminal condition was the worst of my life. The night following her actual death was a doddle, by comparison. Her death, at a hospice, was peaceful: what is known as a “good death” – albeit, tragically, far, far too young.

deathbed scene

But this talk of cancer is not the main point of this post. I want to talk about two other forms of a slow death which affect the whole country.

Slow Death of the Economy

I first want to nail, once and for all, that the Labour Governments of Blair and Brown trashed the economy. Gordon Brown played a leadership role internationally when he took decisive action to avert a 1930s style recession following the Wall Street crash of 1929. Read this Wikipedia entry if you don’t believe me. Some even think Brown may have saved the world from something worse. And remember, the crisis started in the USA and spread to all western countries, not just the UK.

So eight years of austerity, first by George Osborne and then by Philip Hammond, have precipitated our slow decline.

The UK economy is weak, even by the poor standards of the last decade. Productivity, the driver of real earnings growth, has flatlined. Today’s FT reinforces this point:

R&D expenditure is a big driver of productivity. UK R&D expenditure, already below the EU average, is further threatened by the referendum result: industries which are particularly vulnerable to the UK leaving the EU make up the lion’s share of business R&D spending.

The UK economy is lopsided. We rely too much on consumer expenditure for our GDP growth. Household debt, at 86.7% of GDP is way above the Eurozone average at 58% (December 2017 figures). As price rises squeeze median earnings, we are spending more than income for the first time in 30 years.

Every economist, except the one or two “true believers” in the Leave campaign, believes that leaving the single market and customs union will make things worse. Look forward to days of further decline. The changes won’t be dramatic – unless we crash out of the EU under a “no deal” position – but will be slow and inexorable.

Slow Death of Civilised Values

The damage to our economy from leaving the EU is well-known by all except those in denial – which includes some Cabinet ministers. But the fundamental reason I voted Remain concerns a deeper issue: about the values we hold dear in this country. I have written about this before: even before the referendum itself: see, for example, the closing paragraphs of What Sort of People Are We?, written just after the murder of Jo Cox MP by a far-right bigot.

Membership of the EU is not just about trade – although trade seems to be the only thing the Tories care about. A variety of EU-wide programmes recognise the mutual nature of our relationship with our neighbours and the values we hold in common. A good example is the Erasmus programme where ideas about education are shared between EU countries. Our school has been engaged in one such Erasmus project and I have seen the effect on staff in re-energising their approach to teaching and learning. Cooperation on an EU-wide GPS system and on security are other examples.

The Social Fund is based on the principles of additional help for the poorest regions in the EU from funds contributed by all 28 countries. But, above all, the EU has a set of principles to which all current and aspiring countries must adhere. (Enforcement has been patchy: Hungary and Poland are the obvious examples, but Italy has been an Achilles heel since the Treaty of Rome.) That’s why Erdogan’s Turkey has never had a snowball in hell’s chance of joining the EU any time soon. It is moving away from the principles laid down for entry. The Leave campaign’s scare story was just one of their many lies.

There is a danger that the Tory party is taken over by the Leave zealots. Far-right individuals from the USA are actively collaborating with these zealots to undermine our democratic norms. Membership of the EU, imperfect though it may be, is, in my view, a way of demonstrating we still hold civilised human values dear to our hearts.

When I heard the referendum result two years ago, something inside me died. It was a mixture of two things. One: I was wrong about Britain. It’s a nastier country than I thought. Two: the slow death of hope. Hope that my children and grandchildren could look forward to a better life than my generation.

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Burger Off

Burger, anyone?

Why would any sane person want a trade deal with Donald Trump’s USA?

Chlorinated Chicken

chicken factory farm
Chicken factory farm

Everyone seems to have heard about US chlorinated chicken. Basically, it’s OK in the States for chickens to spend their whole lives covered in their own and other chickens’ shit. After slaughter, they’re given a quick wash down in chlorinated water and put out for sale to the public. Food poisoning is three to five times higher in the USA than in Europe. That’s almost certainly an underestimate, given that, with no NHS equivalent, 20 million Americans have no health insurance cover. So incidents of food poisoning are almost certainly under-reported in the USA – by the poorest people. And the reason for the high levels of US food poisoning? Washing in chlorinated water doesn’t kill all the bugs.

EU food standards, which Theresa May and Michael Gove have stated they’ll keep, require chickens to live their lives in a clean, healthy – and shit-free – environment. US chicken, anyone?

Pig Farms and the Environment

aerial view of pig farm
Pig “Farm”

Let’s turn from chicken to pork. Pig farms in the USA are an environmental disaster. Here’s an (admittedly disputed) Wikipedia account. On long walks with our dog, we’ve seen some pretty disgustingly smelly, industrial-scale pig farms in this country. They were certainly not the romanticised picture of little piggies running free you see in children’s books. We need fewer, not more, of such monstrosities.

Despite the controversy, there seems little doubt about the effect on water quality through contamination of the water table. These effects cover an enormous area around the offending farms. US pork farm practices here? No thanks.

Beef Growth Agents

Beef production

The most worrying of all is not chickens, or pork. It’s beef. Do you want to live in a world before antibiotics? A world of incurable superbugs? Just welcome American beef and you’ll get it before long. Scaremongering? I don’t think so.

An American report (publication date unclear: probably less than 5 years old) entitled The Overuse of Antibiotics in Food Animals Threatens Public Health spells it out. A deeply troubling statistic in the report states that 80% of antibiotics sold in the USA is used in meat and poultry production, mostly beef I understand. And it’s just used as a growth enhancer. In other words, to improve the farmers’ profits. US food standards say this is all just fine: nasty government mustn’t interfere in businesses’ interests.

Superbugs are found in 80% of US supermarket meat. Superbugs: you know, the ones that are resistant to nearly all (or all) known antibiotics. The true-blue Daily Telegraph is worried. Even Jeremy Hunt, when Health Secretary, was in on the act in February.

I read somewhere that scientists had analysed faecal traces in US ground beef, i.e. what the Americans call the minced beef used in burgers. They could identify faeces from over 3000 different cows. This is as a result of the industrial scale of US beef production. This US Consumer Reports report gives an idea of the problem. I feel rather queasy about that level of mixing. We generally shop at our local butcher on a farm where all meat is traceable to individual animals. It just feels safer that way – and yes, we can afford to pay a bit more.

But the antibiotics issue is the real show-stopper.

EU standards

Both May and Gove, as I said earlier, have said they will stick to EU food standards. Although whether anything the duplicitous Gove says can be trusted is a moot point. But it should be blisteringly obvious that it’s either EU or USA standards. The two approaches are fundamentally incompatible.

Trump Always “Wins”

Trump, with his “America First” policy, is temperamentally hard-wired to be on the winning side every time. He doesn’t do “losers” and holds all those he sees as such in contempt. There is zero chance that Little Britain could “negotiate” a trade deal with the USA which is fair to both sides. And we all know who would lose.

Shit on Your Plate

shit on plate
What’s this?

Leavers wanted to “take back control”. Well, they’d better have plenty of toilet rolls handy. Just in case.

And surviving a simple, routine operation just might get a whole lot more (C) Difficile, as the French might say.

US trade deal, anyone?

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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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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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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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Equal Under the Law

We no longer live in a democracy. The UK is now more a sort of elective dictatorship – and will remain so for as long as Theresa May continues to be Prime Minister and she continues to approach her role as she does currently.

What Makes a Modern Democracy?

A common fallacy is that it is all about the voting. As long as all adults have chance to vote every few years, everything will work out in the long term. That’s just a tiny part. Modern democracies have evolved over centuries and it is the interplay of several components (which we take for granted) which are all needed.

The terms “democracy” and “liberal democracy” are almost interchangeable these days. Wikipedia, as ever, has a go at defining both: Democracy and Liberal democracy. Its components can be broken down in many ways. Here, I’m using those stated by political scientist Larry Diamond. I shall mention two of them only very briefly and concentrate on the last two.

According to Diamond, democracy consists of four key elements: a political system for choosing and replacing the government; the active participation of the people; protection of human rights of all citizens; and the rule of law.

Political System

Basically, this is a system for choosing and replacing the Government through free and fair elections. The British system requires that Parliament is sovereign. A basic requirement for any democracy is that the system produces a government broadly in line with the public’s wishes, i.e. that it is representative of the people who voted for it, but not beholden to their every whim and wish. This is not the place to discuss the merits of our “first past the post” electoral system, so I will say no more except, by world standards, I think we’re still pretty good. Obviously, the unelected House of Lords is a major aberration, but again, this is not the place I wish to discuss reform of the Lords.

Active Participation

Diamond’s view of this includes not only voting, but also embraces active “citizens”, i.e. active in politics and civic life. Implicit in this is that the electorate are reasonably well-informed about what they are voting for. I contend that this last point was simply not true for the EU referendum.

election turnout
Election turnout since 1945

The election turnout figures since WWII from Wikipedia show a broadly steady trend at about 75% until the New Labour years, which mark a significant fall to about 60% in 2001, followed by a slow recovery back to around 70%.

For comparison, the turnout for the EU referendum was 72.2%, only slightly above the figures for recent general elections. I draw no conclusions from these figures here.

Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights lists five fundamental rights: Right to equality; freedom from discrimination; right to life, liberty, personal security; freedom from slavery; freedom from torture, and degrading treatment. To these, for a “liberal democracy”, I would add the freedom of expression, which includes freedom of speech and of the press.

By European standards, Britain fares badly under “freedom of the press” with the vast majority (by circulation) of the media owned by foreign or non-domiciled billionaires with agendas far removed from public opinion. I have commented on this in the past and simply draw attention to this fact here.

But I do want to say some words on the right to equality and on freedom from discrimination. Linton Kwesi Johnson in a rare and interesting interview in Saturday’s Guardian, states “I believe that racism is very much part of the cultural DNA of this country, and most probably has been so from imperial times”. Evidence for this is overwhelming and endorsed strongly in an excellent book I read recently: Inglorious Empire by Shashi Tharoor. He has particularly harsh words – repeatedly – to say about the extreme racism of Winston Churchill, for example. The Windrush generation has just brought the institutionalised racism of UK immigration policy into the limelight. It affects many, many more than those who arrived on the Empire Windrush. UKIP (when it was a force to contend with) and the Tories (by adopting UKIP-type policies) have strongly encouraged the rise of the racists and bigots in our midst.

But this is still not the reason I say we’re living in an elective dictatorship.

Rule of Law

The rule of law divides into four key areas: an independent judiciary, the right to a fair trial, presumption of innocence and equality under the law.

A judiciary independent of the executive arm of Government is hard-wired into the Constitution of the USA and has, so far, saved us from the full evils of Trumpism. Britain succeeds in this area too, but more by custom and practice than anything concrete – until the European Convention on Human Rights was incorporated into UK law, by the Blair government. The Tories have threatened to overturn the Human Rights Act 1998, so beware.

I think we do fairly well on fair trials, so no further comments on this.

And so to the factors supporting my assertion we are becoming more like a dictatorship: presumption of innocence and equality under the law.

Presumption of Innocence

For centuries, this has had two practical effects. Defendants have the right to have their evidence considered by the magistrate, judge or jury (alongside all the other evidence). And the onus is on the state (i.e. prosecution) to prove (beyond reasonable doubt in criminal cases) the guilt of someone accused.

Theresa May’s hostile environment policy has effectively removed this right from immigrants, including the Windrush generation. The same problem has spread, via the DWP, to the much harsher sanctions regime for poor and disabled people applying for benefits. In both cases, aspiring immigrants and benefit seekers are disbelieved (i.e. assumed guilty) and it is they who must prove their “innocence”. This is a flagrant violation of natural justice and of the rule of law. Such practices can normally only be found in fascist-type dictatorships, not democracies.

Equality Under the Law

The hostile environment applies to undocumented (i.e. NOT illegal) immigrants and to the poor and disabled. It follows, as night follows day, that this is discriminatory: race, gender, disability, you name it. So we no longer have equality under the law. QED.

With Amber Rudd gone, the spotlight turns to Theresa May herself. Good. And about time. She’s at the dead centre of Britain sliding into some kind of elective dictatorship. I’ll leave it there.

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Facebook v Cambridge

You almost certainly will not have seen this.

10 April: Mark Zuckerberg testifies to US Congress – covered widely in US and UK media. Amongst other things, he said: “What we do need to understand is whether there is something bad going on at Cambridge University overall that will require a stronger action from us”. Zuckerberg, with probably no facts, tries to deflect the blame from Facebook to a third party, in this case Cambridge University.

Zuckerberg

Yesterday: Aleksandr Kogan appears before Parliament Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. He told the Committee all his academic work was reviewed and approved by the University. Got this from parliament.uk.

Kogan

A few hours earlier: Correspondence emerged that a Cambridge Ethics Committee had rejected a proposal by Kogan in the same field of data mining back in 2015. A member of the Ethics Committee said Facebook’s approach fell “far below the ethical expectations of the University”.

In other words:

  1. Zuckerberg cast false aspersions against Cambridge University to protect his own skin;
  2. Aleksandr Kogan omitted a key piece of evidence yesterday to Parliament.

A Google search at 14:30 today revealed only one place where this was reported: here in the Guardian.

Certainly the BBC, who published Zuckerberg’s speech fully, hasn’t picked this up. I’ve looked.

I thought you might like to know.

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