Category Archives: Ethics

Posts about ethics and morality

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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Whose Commonwealth?

Are you as bemused as I am about all the hype around the Commonwealth? Little Betty holds a meeting at Windsor Castle to engage in a pre-emptive strike by the House of Windsor to establish her much-criticized son as the new head of the Commonwealth, putting other Prime Ministers in an awkward spot. Not exactly democracy. It would appear she has got her wish: shame, shame, shame: missed opportunity.

charles windsor cartoon
New Commonwealth head?

What’s It Good For?

In “War”, Edwin Starr sang “War, huh, yeah, What is it good for? Absolutely nothing”.  I think much the same about the Commonwealth. Wikipedia gives a summary of the Commonwealth and a map of its 53 members, mostly former countries of the British Empire. I’ve always seen it as a nostalgia-fest for the Queen, which would be allowed to quietly die once she does.

commonwealth map
Map of Commonwealth

The Commonwealth doesn’t seem to be very good at anything. As Wikipedia says here, more than half the Commonwealth countries do not recognise LGBT rights and the majority of Commonwealth countries still criminalise homosexual acts between consenting adults. A proposal by the UK government to bring this to the CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting) was watered down before it saw the light of day.

The official Commonwealth website shows that it actually has a Charter! Here are the pages  for  Tolerance and  Human Rights. Fine words, but unenforced, just a load of bollocks.

Lenny Henry’s Commonwealth

I watched the Lenny Henry programme about the Commonwealth, where he revisited his Jamaican roots. He pulled several punches, but at the end of the programme, I was none the wiser as to what the commonwealth does. Everyone knows about the Commonwealth Games: there was much hype and extended coverage on the BBC, trying to make it look like a mini Olympics. There’s also a War Graves commission and some cultural and literary connections. The criteria for joining the club are suitably vague.

Barak Obama

Now that the bad news has been announced that Little Betty embarrassed her guests in a most unconstitutional way, the sooner the Commonwealth is laid to rest, the better. Under Charles, it will simply be a rallying point for the Leaver post-imperial deluded as a sort of Empire 2.0. With only 9% of our trade going to the Commonwealth countries, it will never make up for the loss of 44% with the EU. India, the most populated country, owes Britain no favours.

Barak Obama in London
A better choice

A few weeks ago, The Guardian put forward an interesting idea: that Barak Obama become the new Commonwealth leader. Now that would be an interesting idea, and a rallying point around those opposed to Trump. Sadly, that opportunity has been lost. Better to kill it off. Goodbye and good riddance.

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We Say No

About four years ago, I was returning to the UK via Luton Airport. I was struck by the number of Home Office signs on the approach to the UK Border starting with he word “NO”. I was half expecting to see signs stating “No Blacks”, “No Irish”, “No Dogs”. By the time I got to passport control, I felt ashamed and emabarrassed to be British. But never mind, my passport was the same colour as everyone elses’ in the EU Passports line, so I could merge with the crowd.

Windrush
Windrush

My thoughts today with the Windrush generation, I remember also the insincere PA announcement you get when a train reaches its destination. “Thank you for travelling with X today”. For X, insert your own privately owned monopoly supplier of train services – as if you had a choice.

So for the Windrush folk, we get “Thank you for choosing the UK to spend your life, work hard, bring up children and pay your taxes. Want something? Pension? Cancer treatment? Now fuck off!”

Timeline

A brief history, for Daily Mail readers, who joined the fight today.

  • Theresa May was Home Secretary at the time of my Luton Airport embarrassment, implementing a “hostile environment” for “illegal” immigrants. Schools, The NHS, employers, landlords and the rest were turned into Home Office police, to check the immigration status of all who dared use publicly funded services. Vans patrolled the streets of north London telling illegal immigrants to “Go Home”.
  • The Guardian published stories about the plight of the Windrush generation on 01/12/2017, 21/02/2018, 22/02/2018, 10/03/2018 (the £54,000 cancer story), 22/03/2018 (May’s refusal to intervene in the cancer case), 12/04/2018, 13/04/2018 and 16/04/2018.
  • 12/04/2018: Law Society says 50% of immigration cases are overturned on appeal to an independent panel. It says the system is “seriously flawed” and having a “devastating” effect on the families. Home Office said it was “meeting its targets” and some cases were “complex”. Both political decisions.
  • Theresa May resisted calls from Caribbean leaders for a formal meeting with heads of the 12 countries at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting until the early hours of 16/04/2018.
  • 16/04/2018 07:16 Penny Mordaunt MP says “We need to do a better job”
  • 16/04/2018 12:57 Caroline Noakes MP, Immigration Minister admits “some people were deported in error”
  • 15:54 Amber Rudd MP, Home Secretary, the Mini-May, is sent to the Commons to apologise and denounce May’s policy. Rudd blames her officials for getting it wrong.
  • At about the same time, May announces U-turn and will hold an “informal” meeting with the 12 Caribbean heads.

A special task force is set up to clear up the mess in two weeks. Oh yeah? So that’s all right then. Except it isn’t.

So how’s about a civil disobedience campaign where everyone who is forced by law to check immigration status just stops. As Chair of Governors of a school , I’d be happy to persuade my governors to do this – as long as a few others join in: like the Poll Tax in Scotland, the government can’t fine us all.

Sing Song

Bumsrush Martin Rowe Guardian 17/04/2018 (sorry about any copyright!)

In the meantime, here are some new words to a well-known song. All together now:

Land of “Nope” and Tory, Mother of the Free
How shall we exploit thee, those not born of thee?
Wider still and wider, may th
y checks be set
May, who made thee Nasty, make thee Nastier yet
May, who made thee Nasty, Make thee Nastier yet.

 

 

 

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Vassal State

Welcome to Little Britain, the Vassal State. May has used powers grabbed for themselves by mediaeval kings to wage “war” when England’s very existence was seen as under threat – usually from the French! It was bad enough when Blair chose to become Bush’s poodle – at least Bush was rational and he sought Parliamentary approval first. This, strategically for the longer term, is much worse.

Syria 14 April: Missiles and rescuers looking for civilian casualties

Is this what the Leavers intended when they said “take back control” – only to hand it straight over to a US president with the attention span of a gnat and the social development of a 3 year old? Let’s keep some sense of proportion. No, this is not World War Three by any means: a raid roughly twice the size of the last one, but limited. But peace now depends entirely on Putin’s reaction.

Two Egos

We’re now trapped, helpless, between two giant egos, both of whom have said some very stupid things in the (recent) past: Trump and Putin. Trump has done most of the provoking (in words), Putin, more sinisterly, by covert action (fake news, etc.). So the ball would appear to be in Putin’s court- as I write this. The problem is complicated by the uncertainty in the US position: 6 hours ago, CNN reported a contradiction between Trump’s comments and those of his Defense Secretary James Mattis. So uncertainty rules.

Brave New World?

Forget international law since the end of WWII, based upon the UN and lessons learnt from the collapse of the League of Nations. Trump has rewritten the rules – partly (some would argue mainly) because Putin has vetoed all attempts to use the UN Security Council to do its job. The putative New World Order is based purely on raw power. Using the average of two sets of figures on Wikipedia, the US accounts for 36% of all global military spending, at $607bn or 3.3% of its GDP, Russia $65bn (5.0%), France $52bn (2.2%) and the UK $49.5bn (2.0%). (The UK GDP figure is not declared on Wiki, so I used the BBC 2016 figures). By contrast, Germany spends only 1.2% of its GDP, or $41.4bn; the next highest EU figure (by amount) is Italy at $25.4bn (1.4%).

There is an obvious “push” factor here. The more a country chooses to spend on bombs, planes, aircraft carriers, troops and the rest, the more willing it is to use it. Eisenhower, at the end of his Presidency, warned of the lobbying power of the “military industrial complex”. The Wikipedia entry for “Why We Fight” refers only to the seven propaganda films made by the US military in the 1940s; it does carry a link to the 2005 documentary by Eugene Jarecki “Why We Fight” which I’ve seen. It gives a clear exposition of the “push” effect and is hard to come by in the USA. It’s available in the US on DVD, but hurry, Amazon has only one copy in stock! (At the time I write this.)Not quite censorship, but close.

So, frankly, the UN’s future hangs in the balance, suspended between the twin narcissistic egos of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. May has tied the UK firmly to the former, without any vote in Parliament. Is that democracy in action – or taking back control? Not for the 48% who voted Remain, nor many of the Leavers, I suspect, when they realise what has happened.

Timing and Parliament

The timing of the attacks was very convenient for May – two days before Parliament reconvenes. Macron was in a great hurry – for purely domestic purposes which are not clear. The trick was to get Trump’s attention long enough – and the famous US Constitution’s “checks and balances” to propose a measured attack. (One advantage of reading Fire and Fury – see my earlier post Book Review –  is that I have a better understanding about  how the Trump White House currently operates.)

Macron and Napoleon

I had my suspicions about President Macron: there was always something of the Napoleon about him. Previously, in true Nicholas Parsons style, I had given him the benefit of the doubt. But no more. We need to watch him like the hawk he has turned out to be.

The future stability of the EU now depends basically on the relationship between France and Germany: the UK has made itself irrelevant (other than as a destabilising force) by May’s mishandling of the EU referendum result. As a result of choosing to abjectly follow Trump’s tweet agenda (with political cover from France on timing), we have already left the EU, in all but name.

At the time of drafting (Saturday morning), it was hard to find any definitive news on Germany’s current position: Here’s a couple, from the New York Times and Samaa.tv  It seems the Americans and Pakistanis are better informed than the British via their media.

The Devil Has the Best Tunes

The mood music will clearly favour May in the short term. Simple, decisive action always looks attractive at first. As religious apolgists often say, “The  Devil Has the Best Tunes”.  It’s arguable that Cliff Richard’s Best track, during his 1977 revival period, was Devil Woman. The “measured attack” mentioned above included a great deal of use of hotlines and back channels between the USA and Russia. We know we’re in trouble when we don’t talk any more.

As a phrase that’s been around since Roman times, “bread and circuses” have been used to pacify the masses over the centuries. Karl Marx probably had a thing or two to say on the subject, as did his younger siblings (or not)…

At three and a half minutes, this video is a bit long: younger viewers may find the racist (Black and White Minstrel Show) feel offensive. This was standard for 1930s Hollywood.

When the Truth Emerges

No doubt, Parliament will have its revenge at not being consulted: we’ve just seen May in full-blown Little Miss I-Know-Best mode. I think there will be some debate in Parliament on Tuesday and there will be ample aopportunity during the committee stages of the Exiting the EU bill during the Autumn.

In the short term, the BBC will revert to its WWII comfort zone as Government propagandist, last used to good effect in the Falklands war. There’ll be lots of talk of “precision strikes”, but Trump’s (contradictory) tweets will ensure that Assad moved key assets out of harm’s way.

But the truth will slowly emerge, and who will you trust?

Those of us who wish to see a brighter future than as America’s supine vassal may need to find a little of the Bogart-style steel… Here’s looking at you – and you – and you, to keep up the pressure on May and her ragbag of a government.

Be very careful about what you wish for – and who you cheer for – in the days and weeks ahead.

 

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The BBC

The BBC is, by common consent around the world, the best broadcasting organisation – by about a billion miles!  At 40p a day, it’s also the best value on earth. We get multiple channels of uninterrupted TV and radio broadcasting, a definitive source to turn to on the internet, and much more besides. And we share our radio services with the world (World Service and domestic channels via the internet, for free. It’s called soft power.) (The news that children and young people spend more time on Netflix than the whole of BBC output saddened me considerably and shows what a difficult time traditional media have in this digital age.)

broadcasting house
Broadcasting House

Changes Needed

But some things need to change: the BBC, in some respects, has been bullied and starved of funds for so long that some of its output is cowed and subservient to Government propaganda.

The Good Stuff

Don’t get me wrong: there’s plenty of stuff on the BBC which reflects life in modern Britain. In drama, I particularly liked David Hare’s highly political Collateral, completed only recently on catch-up following my extensive hospitalisation. No exaggeration, but I think that Nish Kumar’s Mash Report is the best satire on TV since That Was the Week That Was, way back in 1963. Nothing else comes close in the years between, except possibly Spitting Image. That was on ITV in the days when the channel was obliged to observe its obligations as a Public Service Broadcaster.

On the Mash Report, I particularly like Rachel Parris, who very cleverly walks a wafer-thin line between satirising the inanity of much of today’s TV output and making some razor-sharp political points. BBC Radio has The Now Show and, more genteelly, The News Quiz, where Government stupidity is called to account. (BBC1’s Have I Got News for You, originally a spin-off from The NewsQuiz, has grown a bit safe and flabby with age, but has its moments.)

No, the problem is more narrow that this – but oh so important. The problem is not with the BBC’s output as a whole, but with BBC News.

New Labour and Beyond

New Labour under Blair didn’t exactly tell it straight. Every new initiative – and there were many – came with some form of spending target. Spending was announced again when plans were finalised and when funds were allocated to specific plans. Those working in the voluntary sector at that time quickly learned to keep an eye open for any financial commitments from which they could benefit, add it all up over time and divide by 3. (The same money, often grouped differently in different announcements, was typically repeated 3 times in different ways). Each statement was, in a sense, true, but the end result was always less than it seemed at first sight.

All pretence at honesty went out the window under Cameron and May – particularly under the malign influence of the all-powerful Osborne, for whom political machinations, rather than economics, was his strong point. Propaganda demonising the poor and deflecting the blame away from their friends (and Tory donors) in the City was broadly successful. The BBC didn’t seem to notice – or care – too much.

The Low Point

The BBC had a lamentable time during the EU referendum campaign. It was all over the place, trying to find a false “balance” between the arguments of the Remainers and the Leavers. There was no moral equivalence between the two sides. The Leavers (especially the more extreme Leave.EU) simply told lies after lies after lies. The two most notorious were this. The implication that we would be £350m a week better off outside the EU and the money could be used to fund the NHS was never remotely true. And the claim that Turkey was about to join was ludicrous, a piece of dog-whistle Islamophobia, very thinly disguised. To be an EU member, 32 boxes need to be ticked, Turkey had managed just two and was going backwards under the authoritarian rule of Recep Erdogan.

The Remainers, meanwhile, had Project Fear: a series of wild speculations about what might happen. There was barely a mention of the benefits 40 years of membership of the EU had brought to this country, nor indeed of its effects on other countries. I lamented this last point, in iambic pentameter, two days before the vote, in my post This Blinkered Isle. It was essentially Tory v. Tory. Cameron, in particular, made a wholly unconvincing convert to the cause with his magnificent negotiation of further “concessions”, having been happy to be a member of a party which had consistently slagged off the EU for the best part of 40 years. Corbyn’s evident lack of enthusiasm for the EU didn’t help and Labour’s Remainers were given about as much airtime as the handful of the Labour Leave rebels.

It was over 40 years since there had been a UK-wide referendum, a constitutional aberration in our “Parliament is sovereign” way of running the country. I guess the BBC’s over-cautious approach was partly through lack of skills and experience. With evidence now emerging of dodgy dealing between Leave.EU and Cambridge Analytica and a breach of the rules (which is a crime) in the arrangements between Vote Leave and BeLeave, the whole process looks increasingly shabby. As the brave Gina Miller said earlier this week: “If the referendum had been a court trial, a retrial would have been ordered by now.”

But the BBC did a piss-poor job of informing and educating the public in those crucial months in early 2016.

What’s Needed Now

There are some small signs that things are improving. The BBC website often includes “Explainers” and “Reality Check” links for those who want to get a more balanced perspective. But BBC News needs to find its mojo: to assert its independence from Government and show some courage.

But far, far too many news items on BBC TV and Radio take the following form:

  1. Some academics, researchers or lobby groups – beware the Thought Police! – produce some well-researched analysis of a problem and manage to get some BBC airtime, or an item on the news;
  2. The BBC gives the group a reasonable amount of time to make their argument;
  3. The report finishes with a bland reading of a statement that begins something like “A government spokesman said…” and what follows is some bland statement from a departmental Press office which, 90% of the time, fails to address the substantive issue. (You can feel for the poor civil servant obliged to churn out this stuff. The evident lack of conviction shines through between the words. Another little bit of the man’s or woman’s soul dies.)
  4. Move on to the next item; once again, the BBC lets an element of Government policy off the hook.

Must do better: it’s our BBC and we want be informed.

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