Thursday, 31 July 2008

Stepping Into A Parallel British Society

I am in the fortunate position of having leave to 'use up'. Many businesses force you to take a certain amount of leave in a year and partly due to my failure to have a holiday I have been compelled to take time off despite the fact that this is generally a costly experience. Anyway, it gives me some more time for blogging. Like today I was on leave yesterday and that enabled me to step into a very alternate British society. No, I did not slip through a portal into a world where Hitler had won the Second World War or even just where Callaghan won the 1978 election, I simply went to the New Forest & Hampshire Country Fair. There are many of these kinds of events, I used to run into much smaller ones in Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire when I lived in Milton Keynes, and I guess that I probably encountered the kind of people I am about to talk about there. I think the thing about this fair was the scale of it and probably Hampshire is more prosperous than those Midlands counties. Also the New Forest which I sometimes skirt while driving around the South of England, attracts the very wealthy. It is picturesque and comparatively close to London so probably no surprise. So scale, prosperity and the fact that unlike Buckinghamshire-Northamptonshire-Bedfordshire which for some reason are the realm of bikers, there were not the usual leather-clad bike brigade to leaven the mix of people.

Why did I find it so unsettling? Well, many of the things there you would probably find at any fete in a country area. There were stalls selling cakes, there were marquees of flowers and handicrafts, there were car dealerships and various charities with stalls too. So, far so normal. There were more livestock. Having recently re-seen the episode of 'Father Ted' featuring the 'King of the Sheep' contest it was fun to see one for real. There were a lot of horses and people show jumping or driving coaches very fast or pulling those commercial carts with shire horses. So, it was rural. However, it was the people that made the whole thing a little scary. The event runs Tuesday to Thursday rather than over a weekend, so this presumably filters out office workers and shop assistants for starters. I would normally have been at work. So walking around, for all the conservationis and the modern farm technology on show (and a great deal of older stuff like 'vintage' tractors and a huge steam-powered combined harvester) you felt as if you had stepped back to 1928.

There were middle class people there but they seemed mainly to be traders. However, predominantly the people seemed either to be squires and big landowners and their numerous offspring or they seemed to be farm labourers granted the day off and their families, greatful for a day's break, tugging their forelock in their gratitude. There was a clear pecking order with 'members' areas where men were wearing suits and ties (despite the heat) and there was a commissionaire in full uniform to police entry into these areas. Colonel and Mrs. Blimp seemed to be everywhere, he in a navy blue jacket, carrying a shooting stick and she in a floral dress and large straw hat. There is a younger version too, who presumably in time will grow into these people. Their dress code was different but equally as alien: young women in leather hats with jodhpurs and these peculair knee-length boots in a kind of hard suede. The young men dressed the way Princes William and Harry do off duty, I suppose unsurprisingly, because they belong in this same alternate reality. There were dogs, dogs by the score. Some were for showing in events, but the bulk were just brought by visitors. Many people had two or more, everything from beagles to labradors and the odd poodle or dalmatian. You could believe if someone started shooting pheasants from the air there would be a thousand dogs rushing to catch the kill. There was a stall with a whole range of shotguns sitting on it, so maybe they do that when 'outsiders' like me have gone home. Despite the hunting ban it was interesting to see the book stalls there had hunting books in great prominence.

I clung to the conservationists because at least they seemed to have come from a world I knew. They were put at the far end of the event from the groups like the gundog handlers and the Countryside Alliance that seemed to be more in tune with attitudes of the bulk of the visitors. I do remember in the 1970s people spoke of the Green-Brown alliance in West Germany. By this they saw some commonality of interests between the Greens and the Browns (brown was the initial colour of the Nazi Party) who represented landed interests and the people who are subservient to them. Both groups want to leave rural areas untouched, though for very different motives. The Greens (in this situation represented by conservation groups, and by this I do not only mean pressure groups, but also official bodies such as the Forestry Commission who weree there in force) are democratic and want to encourage all kinds of people to enjoy the rural areas of Britain and the more Brown tendency founded on exclusive access for the 'right' people and no interference from outside. Now sometimes there is overlap but it is an uneasy relationship on both sides. You could almost see that represented physically at the event I was attending.

My concern, I suppose, was that I had stepped into a society (in large numbers, there must have been thousands of people there) which bore no resemblance to what I know UK society is like. What was frightening, was that the people there whether they were from the top or the bottom of society seemed to believe in a society founded on strict hierarachy and privilege. Most alarming they believe whole-heartedly that their view of Britain and especially the rural areas is the correct one. They believe that the elites should control everything, should be free to exploit the rural spaces and block out anyone else. Of course they need poor people to work for them, but these people must be grovelling and grateful for the meagre wages and the minimal privileges that the elite grant them. I was reminded by what I read in the 'Metro' (a free newspaper in London and some other cities) which had a comment from Claire Armstrong of Safespeed (an organisation opposed to speed cameras who talk under madness in trying to get people to have the 'right' to speed) commenting on the need that near Preston in Lancashire, the local authorities have had to put a CCTV camera to guard a speed camera to prevent it being constantly vandalised. Armstrong said '[t]he culprits were probably law-abiding citizens taking direct action against speed cameras'. How can these people be 'law-abiding' if they are vandalising a piece of safety equipment? I am sure these same people would want young taggers birched for vandalising through graffitti. In addition, these people are disabling speed cameras so that they can commit more crime, i.e. speeding, without being penalised. Of course, in the screwed-up parallel society which lives beside our own, there is a very different sense of what being 'law-abiding' is. Their definition is about protecting privilege while keeping down those who lack power and wealth or will not kow-tow to them.

The bulk of the attendees of the New Forest & Hampshire Country Show, feel that their view is the correct one. However, they are fortunately only a minority. The bulk of the population lives in cities and suburbs and has at least a semi-democratic view of how UK society should function. What is alarming is that the ordinary people of the UK in fact have so little power and with David Cameron on the horizon as the next prime minister or the one after next, they are actually going to climb into the ascendancy once more. In that kind of society wages are kept low while bonuses are in their millions; people are free to speed and run down people with impunity. The bulk of us come into a kind of serfdom and forced to be grateful for that. An afternoon at a country fair has shown me a potential UK of 2015 and unless you are of the navy-blue blazer brigade, for us it is going to be a country with an unfair, oppressive and divided society.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

The Deserving and the Undeserving

The UK is now a country where there seems to be few bounds of morality on the basis that used to exist. People publicly take drugs, commit adultery, have illegitimate children, speed, lie in public, take bribes in monetary or other forms and this is just the politicians let alone 'celebrities'. Sixty-one Conservative MPs were improperly employing members of their families on salaries of around £40,000 paid for by the state; most of these family members did nothing to benefit the MP or the constituency, it was just a sinecure for them. People in the public spotlight seem to face only minimal censure. Possibly this is because so many newspapers and magazines rely on scandal to fill their pages and to press people too much to behave in a respectable way would be to cut off their supply of stories. The only journalist who seems to be raising these issues is Polly Toynbee and I am pleased at that, but she seems like a very lonely voice.

It is interesting that such moral constraints from which the bulk of the population are excused are still applied very heavily to the poor. The sense of the 'deserving' and the 'undeserving' poor dates back to the perceptions of the late Victorian era. These seemed to match social welfare with moral behaviour. More than that though, it was a sense that people could prove they were worthy of being lifted from poverty by adopting the correct frame of mind. They needed to compliant and grateful rather than seeking to challenge the situation they were in or the society that kept them there. Benefactors loved to see the needy bowing in supplication and gratitude for the benefits given to them. Anyone who did not behave that way was improper and so should be penalised by having benefits withheld.

Partly this association was due to the fact that it was felt that anyone could lift themselves from poverty if they just tried, so in fact, it was felt, the bulk of people still in that state were lazy, feckless or corrupt. This stemmed from the fact that having numerous children and drinking alcohol were seen as primary causes of poverty, when in fact they were more often the consequences of the things that people used to blot out the discomfort of living in poverty. In the 1930s when mass unemployment came to the UK, it was noted that consumption of alcohol and tobacco as well as gambling increased. In addition funerals became very elaborate. These are aspects that you can still witness in East London where I lived 1994-2001. Of course drugs have also long been part of the mix, laudanum was bought by the pint in the 18th century. These days that factor is more visible, but stems from the same cause. When you are living in a room in a bed and breakfast with no hope of work and little to do to pass the day, you just want to blot out the world in whatever way you can. I agree that addictions lead to poverty, but you must also recognise that poverty leads to addiction, and if you like, immorality. If you have nothing worthwhile keeping in the world, why bother to stay in the world? This is seen in the funerals. I have never seen so long corteges or as elaborate funeral tributes or horse-drawn hearses as when I lived in East London where people have the least money to afford these things. In more prosperous areas, people make less of a fuss. However, in poor districts it is a sense that at least at their death the person gets something decent in their life. It is a celebration too, that the deceased, unlike the mourners, has finally managed to shake off the burdens of debt and worry that continue to plague the living.

In the 20th century, from the 1910s onwards and especially from 1945, the state took over the role of aiding the poor. It tended to move away from moral judgement to a mechanistic approach. If you fit certain criteria then you receive the benefits, if you do not then the benefits are not paid. There is no question of how you use the money, whether you save it or what foods you buy. There have been some moves in this direction more in terms of health, which in the UK having a state-run health system which is often free at point of use, it can be counted as a 'benefit' though one that most people whether rich or poor, unemployed or in work, will use at some time in their life. There has been discussion whether the obese or the elderly or those who smoke should be refused certain treatments, notably IV fertilisation treatments or transplants. As yet this is still generally undecided, but it fits in with the growing attitude that there are people, who because of the lifestyle they lead, are more 'deserving' of treatment than others. How long is it before that extends to determining who gets treatment on the basis of the person's income or their ethnicity. This is a very slippery path, but one that many people in the UK are keen to progress down.

People in the UK often feel that they are both hard done by and that other people are getting more than they are, and usually without 'deserving' it. This is a natural gripe. It is difficult to comprehend how impersonal global economic forces impact on all of us as individuals. It is much easier to identify distinct individuals and blame them. Of course every single person you or I is going to meet today, tomorrow, next week, probably for the rest of our lives, has absolutely no control over the global economy. The people who do, do not mix with people like us. Even Gordon Brown and Alastair Darling should you meet them somewhere, have only limited power to influence what impacts on our bank accounts or whether we will be in a job this time next year. So, we blame other people and we assume, because we come from a superficially prosperous country, that if we do not have enough, then it must be that someone else is taking it from us. We do not blame the faceless ultra-rich who in fact are the ones squeezing it from us in the petrol we pay for (BP the largest British owned oil company post six-month profits of £6.75 billion [€8.5 billion; US$ 13.5 billion] today, equivalent to £37 million per day. They make enough money in profit in a year to pay the annual salaries of 225,000 school teachers, just under a third of the total) or the food we buy, rather we blame the immigrant family on the corner or that layabout family across the road.

If you ever work in a government department as I have done (the Department of Employment and the Inland Revenue as they were named in the 1990s) you know that every day letters arrive at every single revenue or benefits office from people telling on their neighbours who they are convinced must be defrauding the government. In the bulk of the cases they are wrong as the civil service is pretty efficient at catching people defrauding them, they do not need the public to keep pointing out people, in fact it wastes their time as they have to process these 'reports' from the public when they could actually be chasing down fraudsters. The popular media always talks about 'scroungers' and people (often foreigners) supposedly defrauding the state. It never talks about the billions of pounds of unclaimed benefits. In 2007, 2.1 million retired people were deemed to be below the poverty line, a rise of 200,000 from 2006. However, each year, that is each and every year, £5 billion in benefits targeted specifically at people over 60 years old, are unclaimed. People are either ill-informed about what they can claim, or, and if you know British people of that age group, reluctant to claim because of the stigma attached, that they would rather live in poverty than go for this money. Surely any person who has worked in the UK through this past decades 'deserves' all the help they can get, even if you stick to that criteria which I feel is an unsound one.

All of this is going to get work. David Cameron, from his elite public school background, is reviving the rhetoric of the 'undeserving poor' from the Victorian era and rehashed through the Thatcher years. There is no indication on how you can prove you are 'deserving', but as in the past it seems that you must be willing to enlist your family members as free childcare and then go and take lowly paid jobs with long hours in order to prove that you are deserving, that you have sufficient self-sacrifice for the state to deem to come and help you. As I have noted before, the bulk of the UK population, about 25 million of which are working age, want to work. Around 35,000 of them do not. This still leaves 1.55 million unemployed people in the UK who want to work. Many will work in jobs with poor wages, but of course they have to earn enough to live on and pay the ever increasing fuel and food bills. People forget that in the Victorian era a lot of the worst paid jobs came with food and housing as part of the pay, that is not the case any longer. You cannot move to a Victorian economy unless you go to it wholesale, which is to say, men dying at an average age of 45 so having no need for unemployment, children going into employment from the age of 6 onwards without having education, an infant mortality rate somewhere around 15-20 per 1000, accommodation that could be afforded even on pauper wages from factories, a 12-hour working day; cheap adulterated food, and so on. You cannot expect people in the modern UK to somehow behave as if they were living 120 years ago when the rest of society is enjoying all the benefits and advances of the 21st century and also dangling these things in front of people constantly, telling them they are nothing unless they own them.

Is 'deserving' or 'undeserving' a stamp to be placed on people's foreheads? The father of the UK welfare system, William Beveridge, was aware that all people go through ups and downs in our lives. All of us will be ill, all of us will get old, many of us will have children, many of us will find ourselves without work at sometime or another (even managing directors get laid off at times). So this is why he came up with 'national insurance', to insure us against the mishaps of life. There was no question of morality, we just paid in when we could and then drew out when we needed, that was the approach of the welfare state, not taxes feeding into benefits. Obviously it worked better when there was full employment, but it should be working now as employment is still reasonable. However, as with all insurance claims, there are people who feel that they should check the claims. Their judgements are to be not based on how much you have paid in insurance (nor how much you will pay in the future) but whether you have somehow lived the 'right' way to get the money. This is arbitrary. If this is the basis of judging benefits paid to poor people or those just temporarily without a job or with children, I think we should begin applying it to the rich as well.

How would the wealthy respond if we began taking away their salaries and bonuses if they fail to invest in their companies; if they take drugs, drink and drive dangerously; if they produce children who have not bothered to study for qualifications and are a burden rather than a benefit to the country; if they do not pay their workers a wage that reflects their contribution to company profits (no company makes any profit without workers)? I think it is time to come down hard on the undeserving rich. Make them feel embarrassed and guilty for what they suck out of the UK and waste on things that generally damage the environment - big cars, numerous flights, developments in tropical countries, the drugs they take. They do far more harm both to the UK and the world as a whole than any number of families or individuals below the poverty line. Of course we are going to move even further away from anything of this kind. Wealth in the UK buys you exemption from moral criticism. Poverty, however, thrusts you right into the spotlight and even if you do receive the measly benefits you are obliged to feel guilty and oh-so-grateful for them. That is a perverse state of affairs and riling me so much I am going to have to cease this post.

Monday, 28 July 2008

A Very Good Tour

Well, regular readers will know my opinion of Cadel Evans in the Tour de France and so will understand how glad I was that he was not able to pull back the time on Carlos Sastre on the time trial on Saturday and so went on to ultimate victory. Sastre is very self-effacing a trait which appeals highly to British viewers but probably seems perverse to US or Australian ones.

Commentators say fans of the Tour de France divide into two camps, those who like to see a champion like Miguel Indurain or Lance Armstrong tactically and strategically take apart the opposition and those, including myself, who prefer an open race in which it is uncertain who will win and there are chops and changes throughout. The 2008 race was in the latter category, often with less than a minute dividing the top 5-6 riders and there were others such as Denis Menchov and Bernhard Kohl with maybe some more luck could have won. There were days when successful breakaways won for heroes like Marcus Burghart of Stage 18 or Sylvain Chavanel of Stage 19 and there were stages for sprinters, notably the four victories by Mark Cavendish, the best a British rider has done in a single tour. There was excellent tension, such as on the first day in the Alps when Sastre staked out his claim for victory by breaking away in Alpe D'Huez and then again in the final time trial as he rode excellently to hold on to it. Seven people held the yellow jersey throughout the race this year and even when it seemed a foregone conclusion that Cadel Evans would win, there were still surprises, it was really edge of the seat stuff.

The interesting thing is that the man who won the Tour de France last year, Alberto Contador was not invited to compete this year. This is because the Central Asian team, Astana that he rides for were barred in 2006 and kicked out in 2007 when Alexandre Vinokourov, Andrey Kashechkin and Matthias Kessler were detected as having taken drugs. The Astana team is now run by Johan Bruyneel and he has a strict drugs checking policy, but clearly the team has to serve its time in exile before the authorities will let it back in. I do hope so as a Sastre-Contador-Evans (plus Menchov and Kohl) battle will make for exciting cycling.

The thing that stopped 2008 being an excellent tour for me was the continued presence of drugs. Of course it was nothing on the scandals of recent years. In 2006 Floyd Landis was stripped of his victory of the whole race for drugs taking. Last year two leaders of the race, Alexandre Vinukurov was kicked out for drug taking and then Michael Rasmussen for irregularities around his drug tests. Last year whole teams went, this year Moises Duenas Nevado and Manuel Beltran were removed but their teams remained, following the removal of Ricardo Ricco who had one the 9th stage and the departure of the Saunier Duval team with the winner of Stage 10, Leonardo Piepoli and Juan Jose Cobo who came second on that stage. Effectively the Barloworld team funded from South Africa will dissolve after Nevado on that team was caught, as they are withdrawing sponsorship. This is the shame as Barloworld were one of the few non-European teams. Interestingly the new approach of the authorities targeting suspicious riders seems to have paid off, maybe in future they should be barred from even entering. Three teams in this year's race have their own drugs monitoring on top of the official one and I think in future any team being entered into the race must be compelled to adopt this approach.

The thing that effectively lost Cadel Evans the 2008 Tour de France was his team, Silence Lotto. They were almost invisible in the race and you can contrast this with the strength of the CSC team which put first Frank Schleck and then Carlos Sastre into the yellow jersey. A team even half as good as CSC would have allowed Evans to claw back Sastre's gain on Alpe D'Huez which was a model of team working with the two Schleck brothers policing the people pursuing Sastre and breaking up any pursuit. Evans had no-one to help him counter that and he also lacked the gall of someone like Armstrong, who knew that even when he was in the yellow jersey sometimes he had to attack rather than simply defend. Evans has come second in 2007 and 2008. He can win the Tour (though given his acid personality I hope he never does) if he can get even 2-3 decent team members around him. He has the all-round ability which he has demonstrated throughout this race, but he lacks that added spark of a team that can haul him up a mountain or break up his pursuers that both Sastre and Frank Schleck could call upon. The Tour de France was won by the CSC not only in actuality, but in terms of performance and they are an example in terms of how they work on the road (and their drugs screening policy) that other teams should really seek to copy.

Though the race is just over, I am very excited about 2009. I trust that it will be a clean race and one in which there will a whole host of exciting riders battling out for victory. That will be the sport of cycling at its peak. It has been a long, hard slog to reach, but I feel we are finally getting there and that is all for the good. Walking around my home town, I can see the impact that Cavendish's wins have already had on British cycling, there are so many more people (all men interestingly, maybe we need to bring back coverage of the women's Tour de France) and also children rather than wearing football strips, are in cycling caps and outfits. In the long-run this is not only good for the sake of cycling as a sport, but, I feel, for the health of the UK population.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

A New Thatcherite Nightmare Approaches

With the overturning of such a large majority in the Glasgow East by-election last week, Labour's 25th most safest seat there are a lot of ill-judged statements that Labour will be down to only 20 MPs following the next election in 2009/10. As I state before, that is a very faulty conclusion to draw from the evidence, as was information from the recent by-election in Henley which is ultra-conservative and where Labour did not stand a chance (the relative success of the BNP there has been mainly overlooked and should not have been, especially for the Conservatives). However, it does seem that the Brown government is under siege especially from the media and that there is now a high chance that he will be pushed out by his own party before any election occurs. However, I believe that people are unaware of the hazards that the UK faces if Labour loses the next election whether under Brown or someone else.

One of Brown's problems, is of course, that in 1997 the British electorate did not vote the Labour Party into power, they in fact voted for the Blarite Party, a Christian Democratic party with authoritarian overtones and an excellent control of the media. With Blair's departure the government has lost those characteristics. Blair knew this would be the case which is why he hung on so long. On his terms, his great failure was not to groom a Blairite successor who was strong enough and not corrupt to face down Brown and continue the Blaritie legacy. In addition Brown plays fair in a way that Blair never did. Brown believes people vote for policies, whereas, in fact, as Blair and especially his media sidekick, Alastair Campbell, knew, people vote the way they are told or are frightened to do by the media. Brown has let go that control of the media. I would hate him to be as manipulative as Blair was, but at least he needs to be better about getting his message and items of good news (like falling crime rates in many parts of the UK) across.

This failure is why David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, has managed to get away with having no policies, because everyone is focusing on Brown, and for the past few months, in seeking on his removal. As they are not being prompted by the media, no-one is looking around to see what the alternative actually offers. Cameron could slide into power more easily than any British leader before. Of course his lack of policies puts him in favour with the ultra-rich who effectively control the UK economy. With the economic crisis the world is facing, Cameron, most likely behave like Stanley Baldwin during the economic chaos of the 1920s and adopt a kind of 'Safety First' approach, i.e. one that means sacrifices from the ordinary populous in order that the wealthy are not upset a great deal. In fact this has been the Bush Jr. approach right throughout, so perhaps it should not be expected.

Of course in their rush to find more nails to put into the coffin of the Brown administration, many commentators seem to have been lazy in interpreting what went on in the Glasgow East election. Yes, it was a 22% swing in the poll, but to apply that across the UK and say it would lead to 20 Labour MPs after the next election, entirely misses which way the swing went. This, to some extent, shows up the differences between England and Scotland, especially its cities. The SNP (Scottish Nationalist Party) is in theory a party striving for Scottish independence, but that is not why most people vote for it. The SNP is to the left of Labour and certainly has been since the 1990s so it gains support from those people wanting a more Socialist approach to policies. In Scotland whereas late as 1980s 60% of the population rented social housing, and where education is still seen far more importantly than it is in England, this is the natural environment for left-wing policies. In 1997 the Conservatives lost all their seats in Scotland. I hardly envisaged that we have seen such a shift to the right that suddenly all of Scotland is going to love the Conservatives. Of course as in the 1980s and 1990s a Conservative government in London encourages many more Scots to think about breaking away so that they can have governments more to their taste, which for the majority are to the left of the current government.

The governments in power from 1997 have done far less than they should have done. Even if it had been Brown rather than Blair who had come to power in 1997 and only remained until 2001, then I believe more would have been achieved than we have witnessed with even a further 7 years of power. However, there are things that will cause real pain to ordinary people when the Conservatives come to power and neglect or scrap them. You might say that they are not going to overturn this legislation, but the one thing that has come out of Cameron is to say this:

"The Labour Party for a long time said it could deal with deep poverty because it understood about transferring money from rich to poor. I think we have reached the end of that road."

Thanks to Polly Toynbee in 'The Guardian' for highlighting this. She also noted how pleased right-wing commentators were about how 'brave' Cameron was to highlight that the 'experiment' of moving wealth from rich to poor should end. This is even worse than Margaret Thatcher. I loath her, but at least she believed there was a 'trickle down' effect in that if people at the top were prosperous then money would shake slowly down to the lower people in the economy. It never really worked that way, but being a daughter of a grocer and having gone to grammar school rather than the elite public schools that Cameron and the buffoon Boris Johnson attended, she at least saw people worse off than herself. She also emphasised hard work, rather than wealth coming to people as a 'right' in the way that Cameron and his ultra-rich supporters believe. Of course people made obscene profits under Thatcher and will again under Cameron, but there will not even be a gramme of moral censure on them for living that way.

One of the most effective coups of the Conservative of the 1980s was to portray the Labour Party as unable to deal with the economy. They achieved this by also effectively shutting themselves off from the legacy of the Conservative government of 1970-4. Though Thatcher did not name it so, effectively the Conservatives post-1975 were 'New Conservative' and so different economically from the Heath government. They condemned the economic policies of Labour as leading to unemployment under the 'Labour's Not Working' slogan, though of course once they were in power, unemployment rose from 1.6 million to 4 million. The Conservatives also oversaw the ever biggest crash in UK house prices 1990-3. Of course given how tied the British economy is to housing this had severe effects all over the economy and effectively shoved many middle class people, the very supporters of the Conservatives, down the social ladder. The Conservatives these days are no longer the party of the comfortably well-off or even the prosperous, like the Republicans in the USA, they have become the party of the extremely rich but use those well-off people lower down society as their base of support though actually not benefiting them. Conservative supporters are surprisingly masochistic and you still hear that terrible lie about Thatcher, 'she did things that had to be done, everyone agrees about that'. That statement which I have been hearing since the mid-1980s is still infuriating. Thatcher wiped out the lives of many middle class people, they know that and yet they feel they had to sacrifice their prosperity and the futures of their families because it was 'necessary'. Dictators love this kind of sacrifice and the average Conservative supporter is lining up to sacrifice themselves all over again in the 2010s. Meanwhile the rest of us are going to suffer in their race for martyrdom.

There are two policies which the Conservatives will scrap or let become moribund that will have a vast impact on social inequality. I can tell you for certain that by 2015 the UK will have far more people in poverty and will be a far more divided society than it is now. The first policy is the minimum wage. This was introduced in 1999, more than a hundred years after it had come to Australia and New Zealand. I have not seen much written on the social impact of the policy in the UK. Of course businesses said it would bankrupt them, but that in fact was not the case, and many still get away with flouting the law. However, I was living in East London at the time, one of the poorest areas of the UK. The minimum wage came in at £3.60 (€4.53; US$7.20) per hour for workers over the age of 21. At the time I knew workers in shops on £2.00 per hour (before tax of course). My father, working in Newcastle-under-Lyme met a woman working in a fish-and-chip shop where the cheapest meal was £1.90 and she was only earning £1.80 per hour. That indicates how low such people's purchasing power was as fish-and-chips are the cheapest takeaway food in the UK. This October, the rate for over 21s will rise to £5.73 per hour (€7.21; US$11.46) but given that 1 litre of petrol now costs £1.20, a loaf of bread costs around £1.30 (€1.63; US$2.60), and 1 pint (about 0.45 litres) of beer costs £3 (and is expected to rise to £4 this year) no-one is going to be wealthy on that income.

One reason why there has not been such an extreme slump in consumption in the UK that people expected is because of the minimum wage. The week it came into force you could see the shift in East London, the supermarkets, the buses, the underground trains, hairdressers, newsagents, the laundrettes, the pubs, the takeaways all suddenly had new customers or customers spending more. This in turn meant they could cover their increased wage bill and even employ more people. Everyone forgets that the poor are far more numerous than people in every other social category. Even the wealthiest person wants only one dinner however expensive it might be, a block of flats housing say 2000 people, need 2000 dinners and even if they are just fish and chips, this stimulates the economy at the grass roots far more than the single rich person. It becomes even greater when people in that block start all buying a fridge or a television.

Of course the minimum wage, the ultra-rich feel, must wither away as they feel it is making the population too cocky and unwilling to work in low wage jobs and also to stay compiant when in them. In fact given that so few people in the UK can save anything (and utility bills in particular are strongly cutting into the benefits of the minimum wage) they are actually as scared as they used to be. The harsher benefit regulations being introduced will add to that fear.

The other thing is the Working Tax Credits. Tax Credits were introduced in April 2003 and brought together tax credits that had covered families and disabled people before with a wider scope. The thing is that the people affected by them is now vast compared to what it was before, 82% of UK families with children now receive tax credits. It is a major source of income for single parent families. As the rate is related to the amount people are earning encourages people to find work. It does not cover the cost of child care which is the prime obstacle to parents of either gender working, but primarily women. Child care workers earn about £3 per hour per child and can make a reasonable income if they take in up to their maximum, which is about 4 pre-school children per adult. However, the cost of such care even at the lowest rates (and of course many charge even more) is £24 per day, £6000 per year for a parent working full-time, which you can compare to the average annual salary of £24,000 which 80% of the population earns less than. So I believe there is some way to go with Tax Credits, especially from a government which supports people having children (though Brown does this less than Blair whose Vichy-like Catholic influenced attitude was much more active in this). Taking away the hundreds of pounds per month that the large majority of families gain would actually increas unemployment almost immediately and would lead to a shooting up of child poverty.

What is fascinating is that Tax Credits prove that salaries are far too low in the UK. Though we are a country of many multi-millionaires, we have reached a state where the cost of living in the UK is so high that the government has to effectively subsidise more than 8 out of 10 families to be able to keep them out of poverty. The British have faced a year-on-year decline in how much their salaries can buy. If a teacher had the purchasing power that profession had in the mid-1950s they would be earning £80,000 now rather than the £25-30,000 that they do. When people complain about wage inflation they forget that a £1 million pound bonus for some utility company boss could pay the salaries of 33 teachers for a whole year. The cost of basics in the UK is cripping, with combined gas and electricity bills reaching £1000 per year for the average family, we are all effectively going to become dependent on the state to be able to pay for these things. Of course the British are big consumers of luxuries, but given our service-sector faced economy the inevitable fall away in consumption of these as is already happening, leads to unemployment.

So, with the UK already seeing a rise in unemployment and in inflation we are on track to have a government from a party which has no ability to manage unemployment and all it does is point the blame at those who lose their jobs and make them feel guilty for being discarded by businesses. Even Labour has had no ability to rein in the greed of utility companies and it will be worse when the party that gave those utility companies such freedom returns to power, especially as many of their friends are on the boards of these companies. Of course the UK like every country is buffeted by global economic challenges, but the way you weather them depends highly on the policies adopted by the domestic government. Just at the time when we need the economic strength of Brown when he was Chancellor, we are facing having an elitist party that does not care a damn about the bulk of population. We are rushing headlong towards a revival of 1983 and anyone who lived through that era must fear its return.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Was Fascist UK Ever Possible? - The View of Fiction

This posting was stimulated by two things. While I was trying to find information about the 'Noah's Castle' TV series I came across a fascinating couple of websites. The first was Memorable TV which has a pretty full alphabetic list of interesting television programmes, primarily drama and soap operas shown on British television over the past few decades: Another was Television Heaven: which has a more erratic range of programmes featured. However, in terms of the kind of series I was talking about, the most useful was The British Telefantasy Timeline:
This is run by a journalist called M.J.Simpson and lists British television programmes with a science fiction or fantasy theme and when they were shown, year-by-year. Currently it covers the 1930s-1970s and there are plans to expand it into the 1980s and beyond.

What struck my attention were details of a number of dramas in the 1970s which envisaged Britain under some kind of dictatorship. This was further stimulated by the posting from Mitch which I found when I logged on today: it is on the tail of the posting about controversial counter-factuals from last month. He/she had emailed Eugene Byrne about 'The Matter of Britain' (a novel about the UK under Nazi control) which I mentioned in response to MCG's comment about Byrne & Newman's USSA stories. It is interesting to note that Byrne did not envisage a military dictatorship in the UK as being possible and also that he does not believe that in the past any Fascist party in the UK had a chance of coming to power. His model seems to be rather like that in 'V for Vendetta' (in comic form 1982-5, graphic novel 2005, movie 2006) which has the Norsefire party in control, but there is still civil rather than military control of society, though obviously the military works for the authoritarian government. There also seem to be competing factions within the system very much as there were in Nazi Germany between the SS and the Abwehr, Organisation Todt and the Four Year Plan Office plus the three branches of the military and the OKW which in theory oversaw them all.

Before turning to look at the background to these stories, I will mention the dramas from the British Telefantasy website that I had not heard of before and have not seen mentioned elsewhere on the internet, though I am happy if people correct me on this. There were two series each with two blocks of episodes, thanks to Simpson for the details.

The first was 'The Donati Conspiracy' first shown on 14th September 1973 on BBC 2 and had three episodes. Simpson summarises it as 'simmering discontent in a present-day Britain ruled by a fascist dictatorship'. A follow-up called 'State of Emergency' was another three episodes on BBC2 first shown on 4th December 1975, so over two years after the first series. Simpson's summary is 'in a present-day Britain ruled by a fascist dictatorship, a rebellion is planned'. Both were written by John Gould who wrote numerous TV dramas, many of them spy, conspiracy or science fiction, 1965-74. He died in 1974.

'The Donati Conspiracy' starred Michael Aldridge as Professor Donati. Other well known actors in it were Anthony Valentine as Paul Frederick, Richard Beckinsale (unusually for him, in a serious rather than comedy role) as Robert Sadler and Mary Tamm (she was also in the movie 'The Odessa File' (1974) as Sigi, John Voight's character, Peter Miller's girlfriend), who would later be best known as the first Romana in 'Doctor Who', as Sally Ross. What the story was and who these characters were I cannot tell. You can get the best detail, which is thin, from the IMDB website.

'State of Emergency' had Hugh Whitemore pick up Gould's reins probably due to his death. Interestingly almost all the cast had changed with Michael Gwynn now playing Professor Donati and Patrick Mower as Paul Frederick. Only Janet Key as Jane Frederick and Ian Gelder as Dave Dent returned. Interestingly, the early 1970s had seen more states of emergency declared than at any time in British history since the power had been gained by the government in 1920. Declaring such a state allows the British government almost unlimited power and it was used in the late 1940s to tackle dock strikes and in the early 1970s to combat strikes by coal miners.

The other two block series that Simpson highlighted for me was called '1990'. Maybe it aimed to suggest something like 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'. Again details are thin. This is what I have. Each block was eight episodes long. It was again shown on BBC2 the key channel for serious dramas that ran as series as opposed to one-offs. The first block of eight (or six, IMDB disagrees with Simpson) episodes that ran from 18th September 1977 and the second block from 20th February 1978. They both starred Edward Woodward (most famous for the bleak spy series 'Callan' which ran 1967-72, 'The Wicker Man' (1973), 'Breaker Morant' (1980), 'The Equalizer' series 1985-9.  He has been acting year-on-year on television since 1955 and is still appearing in things including the movie 'Hot Fuzz' (2007) and the TV series 'The Bill' this year).

Simpson's descriptions are for Series 1: 'Edward Woodward battles the authorities in a near-future totalitarian Britain.' and for Series 2: 'Edward Woodward continues his struggle against the Powers That Be.' Woodward plays a character called Jim Kyle and IMDB has a long list of other characters and the actors who played them, none of whom I am familiar with. Some of the characters hint at story elements and, interestingly, most characters do not appear for more than two episodes. There is the 'PCD Inspector' played by Stacy Davies and a man called 'Faceless' played by Paul Hardwick in the first series; 'The Surveillance Man' acted by Norman Rutherford and an 'Inspector Macrae' from David McKail in the second series, amongst more standard character names like Harry Tasker, Dr. and Mrs. Vickers, Kate Smith and Tony Doran.

As an aside I came across a three-part counter-factual drama: 'An Englishman’s Castle' which ran for three episoders on BBC2 starting 5th June 1978. Simpson says: 'In a world where Germany won the Second World War, a scriptwriter is forced to work on a propaganda-filled soap opera. Shown in the Play of the Week strand.'

Of course, many TV series are now inaccessible, but it would be intriguing to know what was behind these stories and how they went. I am particularly interested to know how they envisaged a dictatorship coming to the UK. Interesting '1990' was set only 12-13 years into the future of when it was produced. So, it was typical of the near future dystopias that seem common in 1970s drama, notably through the series 'Doomwatch' which ran to 38 episodes 1970-2 and attracted viewing figures of 13 million.

'Doomwatch' had an environmental angle and billed itself as 'science fact' rather than fiction. One episode I have seen part of featured intelligent rats attacking humans and another in which the flight paths of two supersonic jets crossed causing pain and death to the people below. Apparently other episodes showed the effect of growth hormones on staff working at a fish farm, pollution from non-degrading waste (which has come true) and the dangers of nuclear fallout (viz Chernobyl). Apparently the government of the time seriously considered setting up a Doomwatch committee to mimic the one shown in the series.

We are rather getting off track now but one thing that seems to occur when you begin to probe the varieties of British 1970s TV drama. The two stories envisaging a Fascist style Britain that we know most about (or I can find stuff on via the internet) are 'V for Vendetta' and the 'Inferno' epsiodes of 'Doctor Who'. Alan Moore began writing 'V for Vendetta' in 1982 and, like many people, could not envisage that Margaret Thatcher would win the 1983 general election. Of course she did, helped by the 'Falklands Factor' of the nationalism that followed in the wake of the Falklands Conflict. In addition the Labour Party was heavily divided and was fragmenting with the break away of its right to form the SDP. It was led by Michael Foot (born 1913, so 70 years old in 1983, he is still alive now, aged 95) who believed in unilateral nuclear disarmament at a time of heightened Cold War tension. Moore believed there would be full scale nuclear disarmament by the UK which would mean it would not be targeted in the nuclear war that would follow in the mid-1980s (at that time nuclear war did seem very close). Following this, as in my novel, 'His Majesty's Dictator' which envisaged a British defeat in 1916, Moore expected the subsequent crisis to trigger a Fascist seizure of power in the UK, presumably sometime in the late 1980s. This is assisted by them using a biological weapon to kill around 100,000 people in Britain and in this atmosphere of a 'terrorist' attack they are able to get the public to accept dictatorship and the party leaders make vast profits out of the 'cure' which is produced by pharmaceutical companies they control. The stories were set in 1997-8.

The Norsefire party is assumed to be a breakaway from the Conservative Party. It has the slogan 'Strength Through Purity, Purity Through Faith' emphasising the Nordic nature of white Britons. In the graphic novels it uses the sign 'N' or 'NF', the latter which of course stood for National Front, the neo-Nazi party which was active in the UK in the 1980s when the stories were being written; their newspaper was called 'The Flame' and fire symbols also feature a great deal in the story. In the movie the Lorraine Cross is used instead, this was used by the French Resistance but also features in Free Mason iconography. The Norsefire Party also has links to the Church of England, and so is rather more like the authoritarian regimes of Franco's Spain, Salazar's Portugal, Austria 1934-8, the Croat Republic 1941-4 than Nazi Germany. However, this may address some of what Byrne seems to have talked about that a British dictatorship would have to have British (or in fact in this case English) characteristics.

The regime, with its use of concentration camps against ethnic minorites and persecution of other minorities such as Quakers and gays, is the same as in Nazi Germany. Its use of surveillance and absorption of standard police into the party machine are also the same. Persecution of ethnic minorities (who make up 17% of the UK population and are very important in the medical and retail sectors) plus of homosexuals (who make up 10% of the population though clearly there is some overlap with the ethnic minorities) would disrupt the economy, but presumably that is compensated for by it being run rigidly by the state.

Clearly 'V for Vendetta' was written at a time of particular circumstances. However, by covering both the nuclear threat and also negative integration stimulated by a manufactured fear of terrorism, it covers many feasible bases. I certainly think that as in this graphic novel series, we would not have a new party coming to the fore, more that one which had already taken power would begin to become more controlling until it was in a position to reinvent itself with new iconography when no-one would be in a position to complain any longer. From there on, the rest is from a standard template of European (and some South American) dictatorships. In Moore's novel, the USA has become fragmented by the war, but given their support for dictatorships around the world anyway, it is unlikely they would intervene to topple one in the UK in fact some US Presidents would be happier with a less troublesome UK than a democratic one.

I will just mention the 'Inferno' story. This was a 7-part story in the long-running British science fiction series and was broadcast 9th May - 20th June 1970. It featured the third incarnation of The Doctor (played by John Pertwee). Importantly this incarnation had been exiled to Earth and was unable to travel through time and space as freely as he had done previously (the series had run since 1963) in his vehicle the Tardis. Many of the stories of this era feature UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce) a military force formed to combat alien attacks on Earth. Though the stories have contemporary settings in fact they are supposed to happen in the 1980s. In 'Inferno' there are really two parallel elements. The Doctor is marginally involved with the drilling for 'Stahlman's Gas' from the Earth's core that is supposed to be a new form of energy. It soon becomes apparent that the green slime which oozes from the drill head turns humans into 'Primords', ape-like creatures. The Doctor is tinkering with the control panel of his Tardis which has been removed from the shell (which has the form of a 1960s police telephone box). Rather than moving through time or space he is taken into a parallel UK and this is the element which interests us here.

In the parallel UK there are the same people carrying out the same experiment except that it has advanced further and more people are already infected and ultimately the core of the Earth breaks open ending the planet. What the Doctor learns in this parallel world enables him to halt the experiment in our world and so save the day. The parallel UK, the Republic of Great Britain, is under a form of dictatorship with soldiers armed with Soviet rifles rather than the Armalites which were used in the UK at the time. The UNIT Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart is a 'Brigade Leader', the Doctor's assistant, Liz Shaw is called 'Section Leader', rather than simply a scientist and the UNIT Sergeant Benton is 'Platoon Under Leader' [these are very like ranks in the SS: SS-Brigadeführer; SS-Sturmbannführer (equivalent to a Major) and SS-Unterscharführer]; Professor Stahlman is 'Director' Stahlmann (the extra 'n' emphasising the Germanic nature of his name, it means literally 'steel man'). Rather than work for UNIT they are part of the RSF - Republican Security Force.

We do not know how this parallel regime came about but it is said that the Royal Family were executed in 1943. Possibly the UK has been defeated though not occupied by Nazi Germany triggering a Fascist coup d'etat which clearly as with Spain, the Germans would have supported. In line with Nazi Germany it is not surprising that the RSF, like the SS, would be involved in scientific experimentation, especially of an extreme kind. Also interesting is that it is a Republic of Great Britain, obviously without a monarchy it could not be the United Kingdom but is also might suggest that Northern Ireland is outside this regime, perhaps combined with a puppet state in the Republic of Ireland (some Irish nationalists hoped a Nazi victory would lead to the reunification of Ireland). The rifles may have been developed in the RGB along the lines of Soviet models or perhaps the USSR has either reached an agreement with Nazi Germany or this is the rump that 25 years after the war is trading with the RGB. Of course, throughout history firearms have been made under licence in numerous countries sometimes on opposite sides in a war. Naturally with no United Nations following the Second World War (perhaps the USA stayed out) there is no UNIT. Perhaps the parallel world has faced the same kind of alien attacks as in shown in the series in our world, and the RSF like UNIT is charged with defeating them. Some have suggested that The Doctor himself is the dictator of the RGB.

The series did not use parallel universes very often, the next one featured in the series would not come until 2006. Partly this is because I think there is always a challenge of explaining parallel worlds to the average viewer and 'Doctor Who' has a very mainstream audience. 'Inferno' does adhere to the parallel universe convention as seen in the movie 'Sliding Doors' (1998) in which one of the versions of Gwyneth Paltrow's character has a plaster on her head, in 'Inferno', the Brigade Leader has an eye patch and facial scarring to mark him out from the more amenable Brigadier of our world. Of course, actors in long running series love alternate worlds as it lets them play different characters and show their acting range.

So, from the fiction that I can explore, it seems that dictatorship is not expected to appear in the UK except from a war then supplemented with an engineered crisis, notably one which presents a clear enemy and scapegoats and leads to a serious number of deaths. As I always argue, however, it is wrong to think that the UK is immune to dictatorship (George Orwell believed this emphasising the British focus on the Navy rather than the Army, though missing that Argentina was to have a naval dictatorship). Ordinary people generally go along with whatever offers them stability. The British, in theory, have no real enthusiasm for ostentatious ceremony and marching around in uniform, but as we have seen with the Queen's jubilees and birthdays and the funeral procession of Princess Diana, if they feel an affinity they will turn out just like any Fascist crowd. Interestingly, I would advise any would-be dictatorial parties in the UK to have a woman at least as the figurehead if not as the actual leader. Maybe the British have never got over the Boudicca/Elizabeth I/Queen Victoria (even, dare I say it, Margaret Thatcher) factor and are willing to lap up pomp and circumstance combined with aggression much more from a woman than they will from a man.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Is 'Noah's Castle' on the Horizon?

This probably sounds like a Biblical posting, but in fact it refers to a novel, 'Noah's Castle' written by John Rowe Townsend and published in 1975 which was televised as a children's series in 1980 on ITV. People often look back nostalgically at the drama series produced for children on British television in the 1970s. Some of the series were incredibly serious and not that appealing, there was a bit too much Victorian dullness to them, but fantastical elements were also common producing programmes which are seared into the memory of people who saw them. If you search the internet for information about 'Noah's Castle' you will also find references from people in their 30s and 40s saying how chilling it was.

Looking back on that time I remember quite a few dramas worth a mention and would point you to 'The Changes' (broadcast 1975; based on Peter Dickinson's triology of novels: 'The Weathermonger' (1968), 'Heartsease' (1969) and 'The Devil's Children' (1970)), 'The Owl Service' (first broadcast 1969; based on Alan Garner's novel of the same name (1969) still very frightening) and 'A Traveller in Time' (broadcast 1978; based on Alison Uttley's (1884-1976) novel of the same name which I believe was published in 1934 and re-released in 1977). These were dramas aimed at 'older children' which had a fantastical elements, respectively a force making people destroy machines, a kind of animal spirit trying to dominate a house, and slipping back into Elizabethan times, but also addressed the issues in an adult way, often looking at responsibility, loyalty, dealing with danger, etc. I know some of these issues are tackled by even cartoon series these days, but these series needed commitment. I think that their descendant is the Harry Potter series which combines fantasy and the serious and is also tied into novels. So, perhaps the demand for these things has not entirely disappeared.

It is a shame, that despite so much 'retro' TV getting on to DVD that these series are not available. There was a 4-hour video of 'The Changes' but I have not seen the others. Given how well 'Mr. Benn', 'The Clangers' and 'Catweazle' have all gone down with the 6-year old in my house I was thinking that in a couple of years he might be ready for this kind of series, he can recite the Harry Potter films back word-for-word (very irritating if you are trying to watch them!).

Sorry, I have wandered right of track now in typical mid-life nostalgia. The reason why I have picked on 'Noah's Castle' out of all of these is because it is set in the near future and focuses on the UK experiencing a period of hyper-inflation. Even growing up in the 1970s when pictures from Northern Ireland of riot police and soldiers in armoured vehiclers, those full-face helmets, with baton guns and real guns fighting against protestors, were common to envisage such things in a street in the Home Counties, protecting food convoys was startling, I think to adults as well as child viewers. Of course we had been through inflation in the 1970s triggered by the sharp oil price rises from 1973 onwards so it seemed quite possible that things would go further. Of course Thatcher had come to power in 1979 and soon we moved from inflation to mass unemployment as being the great social divider (does any of this sound familiar in the current situation?) It is nearly 30 years since I saw the series and read the novel, but some things stand out. The hero in the series is Norman Mortimer, the Noah character. He runs a shoe shop and in one scene a man tries to buy a pair of children's shoes but they cost £320. Nessie, who if I remember correctly is the elder daughter and her boyfriend become involved in an increasingly radicalised movement which supplies food to elderly people, a bit like a revolutionary meals-on-wheels service and all they can bring to this one old person is a handful of potatoes.

The Mortimers, who have four children and a large detached house, effectively begin barricading themselves in. Thus like Noah in the ark they would weather the 'storm' of food shortages and come out into whatever world would come after. Norman Mortimer has been stockpiling food for months during the lead up to the real crisis and feels he and his family can survive keeping outsiders back. Of course his family is divided over this especially the two sons Barry and Geoff, one of whom supports his father, the other who increasingly contests his views. So, like all the best of these series, it combines broad sweeps of drama with family tensions too. The issue of a father on a mission trying to get his children to come along with him is a common but interesting them that many readers/viewers can relate to. In terms of the series I thought the way it appeared to be just into the future, not only in terms of the police (remember this was before the UK police force outside Northern Ireland had any riot equipment as was revealed in 1981 during the Brixton riot when they relied on shields improvised from dustbin lids, so it was more startling than today) but also in terms of fashions, which was a clever touch. The teenagers wore things that were high trends in 1980, but seemed to have become as normal as jeans by the period of the story. In some way, though we did not experience food riots in the 1980s, the series was echoed greatly in clashes between police and protestors during the Miners' Strike 1984-5 and the Poll Tax Riots of 1990. By then of course the police had the equipment they had been shown with in 'Noah's Castle'.

To some degree 'Noah's Castle' was almost a 'what if?'. One could envisage that if James Callaghan had held an election in Autumn 1978 when he was expected to and so scraped a victory before the widespread public sector strikes of Winter 1978/9 that by, say, 1982 you could have had a situation as shown in the book/series. This would have come about, if, there was another sharp oil price rise (as in fact happened following the Iranian Revolution of 1979) and pay had not been restrained by mass unemployment and to keep the economy going on a pseudo-Keynesian basis consumption was kept up by wage settlements leading to hyper-inflation. I do not know if Townsend was a monetarist but his novel could have easily been used to show up the potential dangers of an unrestricted flow of money through public spending and consumption that the monetarists sought to counter.

Are we coming back to an era when 'Noah's Castle' again appears feasible? Possibly. Interestingly, I do not remember if there was reference to fuel costs spiralling, though I think I remember power cuts in the series. This of course is the big burden on the British public alongside petrol and food costs. Back in the 1970s in the UK all power supplies and utilities like water and sewage were state-run which meant that there was far greater control over prices. Now they are all run by very greedy private companies which make vast profits, so this factor comes to the fore in a way Townsend could not have foreseen. Petrol has always been a major factor in inflation across the world and prices since the late 1960s have been driven up by both the countries producing the oil and by the multinational companies which move it around and refine it. Interestingly the British seem far happier rioting about petrol than they are about food. In the 20th century there were very few food riots in the UK, someone might correct me on this, but the last one was probably in Liverpool in 1911 when the whole city was effectively under a state of siege with a dock and railway strike meaning food was not getting into the city and armed police and soldiers patrolled the streets, protected food convoys and defended bakeries from attack. Contrast this with blockades and fuel protests against the increase in petrol prices and duty on petrol that we have seen throughout the 2000s. In addition, farms are being raided by people trying to get hold of 'red' diesel which is sold at a subsidised price to farmers and they even follow tankers around to see where the fuel is being delivered. People are increasingly processing used food fats and oils at home to make bio-fuel and now even chipshops are being broken into to get hold of their oil. I think a lot of this comes down to the British being more concerned more about their 'right to drive' than feeding their families.

To some extent the impact of inflation has been reduced by competition among UK shops. Whilst £1 in every £10 spent in the UK goes to Tescos, there are four (five now with the Co-op takeover of Somerfield) large supermarket chains that seem happy to reduce prices and compete sharply between them. Of course we have lost the small shops of the 1970s but in times of inflation they cannot keep up because they lack the economies of scale. UK supermarkets still have a profit margin wider than that of equivalents on continental Europe which is partly why food price inflation bites harder in the UK than it does elsewhere in the EU/ Due to climactic factors and demand food prices are rising globally but in the UK the price to the consumer is affected more by the cost of moving the food to the shop than the actual food price, bringing us back to petrol.

What we are seeing which is characteristic of the 1970s is the circle of price rises prompting demand for salary increases especially in the public sector and we are seeing strikes as in the 1970s by everyone from school caretakers to coastguards and even the police are demanding the right to strike something they have not done in the UK since 1918. Public sector pay has been kept down during the stable period of New Labour rule and even without the current difficulties it is likely there would be demands for increases. The interesting thing is people expect inflation to come from high demand and so assume that it will mean a high demand for workers. However, a lot of the inflationary factors have become detached from demand, well certainly local demand as much of the oil price rise comes from Chinese rather than US or European demand for oil. Similarly the food price inflation does not come from any shortage of food, the EU still produces more food than it needs, it comes from factors such as transport costs. So, unsurprisingly we are seeing rising unemployment too. Another difference to the 1970s is that in 1974, a year behind the USA, for the first time more economic activity in the UK came from service sector jobs rather than manufacturing. This shift was accelerated by the Thatcherite policies. Service work is more responsive to shifts in demand from the public and the sector which is seeing the fastest fall, housing, is showing the quickest rise in unemployment as seen by falls in building and estate agency employment.

Of course it is weird that the single greatest contributor to UK inflation, house prices, are falling fast, an average house has dropped £4000 (€5040; US$8000) in the past month. To some degree this is beneficial because it means that once other inflationary factors cool, then the UK will not be as so out of step with the rest of the EU as it usually is. In addition, it should cool the vicious speculatory pressure that has been going on in the UK with loads of money being pumped into high-value developments, buy-to-let, etc. which overheats the economy. In some ways though we have not seen an abrupt crash, we are almost coming to the end of an era of over-speculation in a way that the Wall Street Crash of 1929 did in terms of shares. It will very much hurt those people who took out mortgages for 90%-125% of the value of their property, but for most people they will be able to hang on (unless they get made unemployed and there is more payment insurance these days than 20 years ago). It will be tenants with rents already rising in some cities I have visited by £80 per month (about an 8% increase) and those who lose out when the landlord/lady defaults on the mortgage and the tenants are evicted with no rights to remain under current UK law.

I do not think we will see 'Noah's Castle' as a reality in the near future, partly because in contrast to France and Spain the British rarely riot about anything and are easily cowed by the police let alone the Army. They see no common interests with anyone else and actually what is liable to happen in the UK as inflation rises will be communities turning against themselves, seeking out local scapegoats rather than the people behind the difficulties. Of course immigrants and ethnic minorities are going to be attacked, so rather than the assaults of food convoys as portrayed in the series I can see police defending the homes of Polish workers in the UK from violent mobs. What is certain is the relative peace and stability of say 1994-2007 is now at an end. Even the most positive see the problem persisting at least until 2009. It took 1990-3 before the problems with the housing market collapse shook themselves out, some perhaps 2011 is a more accurate prediction. In the meantime we are going to have a nasty mix of 1970s-style inflation and shortages and 1980s-style mass unemployment which is not going to make the last quarter of the 2000s a nice time to live. Maybe I should be stockpiling tins of food and candles now.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Not A Lone Voice On UK Society

Seeing how the UK seems to be falling rapidly into some cyberpunk scenario with a police state politcially and constant violence on our streets can be really disheartening. What makes it worse is the fact that the responses from average people are things which do not address these issues but exacerbate them: stronger legislation, more prisons, armed police, carrying weapons, etc. The populist-nationalist attitude that is really how the bulk of British people think will never blame the behaviour it fosters for so many of the problems it creates. Thus, these days it is seen as a God-given right to be able to speed in a car and consume everything with no restraint. Very few people see that they reap what they sow and the reason why they are mugged for their mobile phone or have their 4x4 broken into for the sat nav is because of the country they have helped to create. Above all, they condemn the 1960s permissiveness and laud the hard-nosed Thatcher years of the 1980s, without realising, it seems, that it was that latter decade that has caused these problems. People forget the 1960s (they are a decade that I do not like, but in comparison to the 1980s caused less long-term harm to UK society) meant greater availability to contraception and a beginning of more standing for women, so a move against underage pregnancy. It is the 1980s 'I don't give a damn' attitude especially among men which has led to the UK having the highest level of underage pregnancies in the Europe. People blame the welfare state, but in fact anyone who has lived on benefits knows that they do not make you complacent, they actually force you to work hard to get a better life. It is the greed that is so lionised in the UK that makes things worse as it is not about having a 'decent' or 'comfortable' life any more it is about 'having it all' or feeling you are failing. At no stage in history have all but a small slice of any society been able to 'have it all', the rest of us should be striving to 'having it decent' and feel successful if we achieve that.

Anyway, having been wittering on about this for so many, many years, I am finally glad to see some media coverage in step with my views. Have a look at this BBC website story from last week about greedy society: It looks at the report from Sir Alan Steer who has been investigating the issues since 2005. He shows that all adults have a role to play, not just parents, because so many of us indulge in greedy and violent behaviour as a norm. How, then, can we expect children to behave any differently. Bad pupil behaviour is the main reason why teachers leave the profession, and 40% leave after working for 2 years, so we get into an even worse spiral. Are we then surprised that there is so many stabbings of and by young people? Interesting it seemed to chime with another report from the same website about what girls attending the Girl Guides are now trained in: Organisers of the movement have noticed how girls feel compelled to dress older than they are, have the latest gadgets and indulge in fashionable neuroses such as self-harm and eating disorders in order to feel part of the 'in-crowd'. Again, they demonstrate how little the 'norm' is actually normal. We have got British society into such a state in the last 20 years that it may be impossible to pull it back from the crisis it is facing. I know things are not perfect in French, Belgian, Dutch or German societies, but it seems incredible that within an hour's journey of the UK are countries where things are not so dire as here. British people are so wrapped up in their own lives and whining about what is happening to them, that they do not see that it is they who have brought about the problems they are experiencing. Why is it alright for you to speed and to consume without end and then somehow not for a young man to try to do the same? UK is an archetypal 'do as I say, not do as I do', but in fact unsurprisingly young people behave just as we do and the whole of society pays the price.

What is the Problem with an Elected House of Lords?

Back in 1997 before the Labour Party was elected to power for the first time in the UK in 18 years there was much in their policy documents about their policies for constitutional reform. For a country that has had some form of democracy for a quite a long time, though only universal suffrage since 1948, the UK actually is not a very democratic country. Putting aside the fact that so much policy is made by the ultra-rich in UK society, in fact even at a base level it does not really count as a democracy. Like so many other countries in the World we have a bicameral system of parliament but the upper house, the House of Lords, is totally unelected and is made up of people, predominantly men, who have inherited their position in parliament, alongside 24 bishops from the Church of England, no other church, and then people who have been appointed for life by some politician in the past few decades. You could argue that this all frees them from political influence and that their age means that they can bring experience to the job, but the key problem for me, and for the Labour Party of 1997 is that they are all unelected.

Eleven years on, nothing has changed. There were attempts to reduce the number of inherited peers (as the lords and ladies are termed generically) or reduce their voting rights, but even that has not really come about. In 1999 the number of hereditary peers was reduced from 700 to 92, which is an improvement, but the house is still full of appointed rather than elected people. As you probably know, it is suspected that Labour, for some reason will lose the 2009/10 election, primarily because with the departure of Tony Blair they have stopped pandering to the ultra-rich as much as they used to, and money and influence turned all the media against the Brown government, even though their rivals, the Conservatives, lack any policies and seem content to simply have power handed to them. We actually might be moving into an era of policy-free politics. However much I loath Margaret Thatcher and how she totally wrecked the UK (to give her the state funeral she is now requesting would be a travesty) no-one could say she lack policies. So, in this environment, the slowly grinding steps to try to reform the House of Lords are now facing opposition from within Labour itself, because they think it may upset the electorate even further. Given that most Labour MPs think they will lose anyway, why are they bothered? I can tell you why, it is because the House of Lords is the most exclusive club in the World and even the majority of Socialists of the past were happy to become lords or ladies. Partly, I imagine, because it meant they could keep sticking their noses into politics for the rest of their lives. Full credit to Tony Benn for giving up the peerage he inherited in the mid-1960s and refusing one in his own right, though he is the one man I think this country still needs in parliament.

What angers me most is the feeble excuses which are being put forward to delay reform of the House of Lords and they show a stunningly patronising attitude to our friends and allies not only in the EU but also North America. The team supposedly leading the reform headed by Jack Straw and Lady Corston, argue reform now would be 'a knee-jerk reaction', how slow are your responses if it takes 11 years to react? In fact it is more than that as Labour was thinking along these lines back as early as 1994 and even before that. I met in the 1990s who had researched Labour's attempts in the 1970s to reform the House of Lords, so 30 years is a very slow 'jerk'. The really feeble response is that there might be split legitimacy in parliament if there was an elected upper house. I could understand this fear if nowhere else in the World had a bicameral system with both houses elected, but since Japan abolished its House of Peers at the end of the Second World War, not democratic country has an unelected second house. The Americans have had one now for over 200 years. In neighbouring countries notably France, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, have elected upper houses. The Norway, Sweden, Finland, Portugal, Luxembourg, Greece, all the Balkan states except Bosnia, Hungary, Slovakia, Ukraine have unicameral systems, so are entirely elected. Of course we could go unicameral, but if we insist on bicameral there are scores of successful examples across Europe and the English-speaking world: Canada, South Africa, India, Australia, only New Zealand is unicameral.

Straw whines that if proportional representation was used for the upper house then members there could claim greater legitimacy to hold their seat than many of those in the lower house, the House of Commons. Well, whose fault is that? Labour was very eager to have proportional representation when it was losing during the 1980s and 1990s and then when they came to power they forgot all about it. If they had introduced it when they said, we would not now be in that situation. The other issue is that there are loads of models of an elected upper house. The nearest, i.e. the Republic of Ireland, the only state to share a land border with the UK, has an indirectly elected upper house, Seanad Éireann is chosen by electoral colleges. The trouble is a lack of imagination on the part of the reformers. The UK could move first to an indirect model before a directly elected model, if they wanted, but even those charged with looking at reform seem stunningly ignorant of the different models available. I suppose it is the typical British thing, that as the 'mother of democracy' we have nothing to learn from ignorant foreigners who have instability leading to dictatorship. Of course this neglects how for over 60 years so many European models have worked well in securing political stability in times of upheaval. The British feel they must find a uniquely British model and given how many varieties are already in existence this leaves little to choose from. Straw's whining is pathetic. They should ask him to pay back any salary he has received from doing this work as clearly he has done less research than you and I can achieve through a Google search or a visit to Wikipedia.

The other problem is that many upper houses are based on a territorial pattern, examples include the states of the USA represented in the Senate and Germany with the Bundesrat. Belgium, Canada, India, Russia, Switzerland are other examples. Of course this would seem a good way forward now that Scotland, Wales and to some extent Northern Ireland are gaining more autonomy. However, again, despite their promises in 1997, regional assemblies for England where 83% of the UK population live, have been stillborn. Partly this is because regional identity is weak and in some areas it is on historic lines, in others on modern things like unitary authorities and these all come in different shapes and sizes. However, the other issue is that the British public do not like 'government' and feel they have no ability to shape it so they simply resist it as an extra level of bureaucracy. Thus, the parallel policy of having large geographical areas from which English senators could be elected itself has failed. A lot of this stems from the fact that so many British people are ignorant of their political system, they love historic models and would probably prefer simply the Queen in power advised by her housecarls, they have felt powerless for so many decades now too and so when reform comes about there is no engagement. Consequently the UK will struggle on with its truncated democracy, which clearly favours, rather than challenges, those who have power. Our upper house will remain an exclusive club rather than a strong tool of democracy.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

What is Cadel Evans's Problem?

For anyone who does not follow the sport of bicycle racing and in particular the Tour De France, this is going to appear an obscure topic. I have noted before how much I enjoy watching that cycle race which is running currently. The leader on time (by 1 second over the next nearest competitor) is an Australian called Cadel Evans who has been tipped as a contender to win the competition for the last 3-4 years. Australia has been producing very strong cyclists in the 2000s notably Robbie McEwan and Stuart O'Grady, but they tend to be good at sprints and winning one or two stages rather than have the mix of abilities needed to win the Tour de France which has flat and mountainous stages, urban and rural riding plus time trials. In addition you need a decent team to get you in position and protect you in the 'pack' of the peloton.

Cadel Evans won the yellow jersey which the leader of the race wears two days back, having had a nasty crash the day before. Crashes are a daily occurrence in the race, not surprising when 160+ riders are trying to charge down narrow streets or wind and rain swept roads. Evans pulled back and kept enough time to win. All very admirable. My problem with him is his attitude. Maybe I expect too much of the sportsmen. I expect them to be clean of drugs, which Evans and probably 95% of the racers are. I also expect them to have patience with the media especially when they are treating them fairly. If it was not for the media there would be no race. The Tour de France was first launched by 'L'Auto' newspaper in 1903 to boost its sales. It was the success in doing that which meant the competition continued. These days the event is run by the Société du Tour de France, a subsidiary of Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) which is part of the media group that owns 'L'Équipe', the newspaper that 'L'Auto' evolved into. So there has been a long association between the media and the race. The fact that teams get company sponsors is because those companies know their brand is going to be on televisions across the world for three weeks and the spin-offs in merchandising. Without this media coverage, again there would be no race.

Now, I know sportsmen, particularly successful ones can be aloof. Miguel Indurain was pretty silent throughout his career of winning races and Lance Armstrong, for an American, was quite quiet too; David Millar in no way as successful as either is known for being rather aloof but at least he speaks and answers questions without turning petulant. None of them was as prickly as Evans. Watching him push a police motorcycle or snatch away from a microphone and reporters even from his home country, in an incredibly petulant way shows how unpleasant he can be. Even in past interviews he has whined at reporters who have failed to see his greatness. The classic was a couple of years ago when a British TV reporter said at that stage of the race he was being considered a contender and he snapped back 'only now?' This is a common response from him as if we should all have known that he was great even when he was invisible in the pack and other men were attracting attention. I know you have to be confident to win, but you also have to be tolerant and accept that reporters are just doing their job and not chastise them for being aware of how super you were until you proved it. I have no problem if Evans wants to be frosty like Indurain but if he is going to continue like a spoilt child, he is unlikely to win any fans outside of his family. For that reason I do hope he loses the Tour De France and that that breeds some humility in him. Frank Schleck of Luxembourg sits only 1 second behind Evans and has proven to be amenable and noble even when denied the lead by such a narrow margin. I am certainly rooting for him to demonstrate that even when things are tough you behave as a gentleman not as a brat.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Caught At Speed 2: Swindon & Safety Cameras

Last year I did a posting in response to the rising hostility to speed cameras in the UK which has even led people to vandalise them, let alone constant whining in public and in the media about how they are a 'stealth tax' on motorists. Of course, in fact they are only a very visible fine on criminals who break the law by speeding. Yet, the British feel they have a right to drive at dangerous speeds unchallenged by anyone else. They blame the people they hit for the accident not their own poor driving. One of the highest rated irritations on the road is 'people not getting out of the way of faster cars'. If you are driving at the speed limit then there is no need to get out of the way. I have been driving through the road works on the M27 and there is a limit of 50 mph right through them and they are covered entirely with speed cameras, but this does not stop people trying to force me to go faster, constantly flashing their lights and hooting.

Anyway, this brings me to Swindon council. I do not drive as much in Wiltshire as I used to, but it is a rural, quite prosperous county in western England and Swindon is one of its main towns. In the town, the council has 16 speed cameras, 3 cameras to catch people jumping red lights (it is important to remember that not all safety cameras are speed cameras and some do other road safety jobs, I saw a man jumping a red light caught by one the other day and was very pleased) and 11 mobile units. They pay £400,000 for these to Wiltshire & Swindon Safety Camera Partnership for these. Now they want to scrap them all arguing that it is 'a blatant tax on the motorist' and again I emphasise, in fact they do not affect any motorist who stays within the law, who drives at the correct speed in towns and does not jump red lights. In fact what is going on here is that Swindon Council is actually annoyed that it does not get the money raised by the fines, this goes to central government. If it went to them I am sure they would be putting up cameras all over the town. Even if Swindon Council pulls out of the scheme the cameras would not go (despite what many in the media think) as £1.2 million comes from Wiltshire County Council. In its effort to get more money Swindon Council has foolishly lashed itself to the bandwagon of the virulent libertarians who seemed to be becoming dominant in the UK and insist they have the right to behave how they like unchecked by any authority. Of course people elsewhere will use the 'stealth tax' argument to campaign for the removal of other cameras when in fact it is simply criminals wanting the policing of their activities put to an end. Would anyone pay any attention if shoplifters insisted that CCTV cameras in shops should be removed because it was a tax on them as they have to buy goods instead of steal them? The relationship to speed cameras is no different.

A lot of this is about social class. Alongside the reports about Swindon council's actions is an announcement about more plans on behalf of the government to tackle youth crime. One proposed action is to evict families from council houses whose children behave in a criminal manner. Few people these days live in council houses as so many have been sold off, but clearly this is aimed at the poorest segment of society, it is not aimed at the 4x4 drivers whose children are equally as criminal, often spending far more on drugs because they have the cash. I think we must insist that expensive cars are repossessed in situations when it is the wealthy children who break the law. Who thinks making families homeless for the sake of their children's behaviour is a sensible policy anyway? It will just make the parents have to turn to crime too. Given the current love of the Thatcherite policies, no-one seems willing to face up to the truth of what those policies brought. The denial of society by Thatcher, very explicitly, and her emphasis on individuals and the popularity of 'greed is good' ethics, the sense that you are no-one unless you own things, especially a house, have all led to a society in which children behave the way adults to and bully others to get what they desire. In addition, no different to the adults, they feel they have to keep consuming all the latest items or be no-one. No credit is given in UK society for achievement in any other field except consumption and this is fuelled by the obsession with celebrity.

Some parents are bad at their jobs, but the bulk try their best. It is just that in our society they have very little control. The only way they can punish children is by denying them access to the consumer goods they want, and so what do the children do, they simply go out and steal or deal to get what they want. People blame the permissive 1960s for where we are now, but a lot of what is seen bad about that era, was in fact about gaining respect for people especially those from ethnic minorities and women. What we are seeing now is the consequences of the fragmentation, 'me first' culture of the 1980s. If the rich libertarians want to be free to commit crime, they have to realise everyone else will want to and in fact there is no difference between dealing drugs, shoplifting, speeding or running down a pedestrian, they are all crimes and are all about disrespect for other people and for society. The break down in law cannot be selective and the rich cannot be exempt and blame the poor for all society's ills.

I can see why Swindon Council has behaved as it has done, but the councillors have foolishly opened a can of worms which I believe will simply exacerbate lawlessness among all sectors of society in the coming months and years.