Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Your starter for ten…

Here is a little analytical challenge for a Monday morning. I produced it as a self-challenge to my preconceptions about the quality of life in other (mostly European) countries. The graph below shows the murder rate per million of population of selected countries. The data all derives from the same year, 2016 and is drawn via Wikipedia from apparently reputable sources. My source can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_intentional_homicide_rate

murder stats graph 2

The challenge I presented myself was simply to test the preconception that there are some countries that are much more socially stable than others. To my mind, that is a key determinant of a ‘successful’ country, one that might be held up as an example to others. Murder rates might be considered a suitable indicator of such. My experience, for example, of Germany and Switzerland is that they are so law-abiding and generally well-run that nothing truly, intentionally bad ever happens there. It is an illusion of course, and I know that.

But stereotypes are powerful. How easy is it to imagine a Swiss or German company being guilty of malpractice? The Volkswagen emissions scandal shows it can and does happen. Temptation is the same everywhere I guess, though the extent to which people act on it may not be. And temperament varies too.

Did I succeed? Well, only in part. There are considerable differences between murder rates (and that is without considering the absolute figures, which seem only partially reflect total population size).

I suggest that homicide rates are a reasonable indicator of social stability. The rise in knife-crime in the U.K. cannot be without its causes. So make of this self-created graph what you will. I know there are distortions introduced into the rankings, for example by the fact that I have not included all countries. In general, I have left out the smaller states except where they perhaps provided insight. In general, smaller nations seem to have lower homicide rates – from which we might learn something.

With my strong reservations about the way British society operates, I expected the U.K. to be towards the upper end of the European rankings – which it is. But so are France and Germany, the latter of which in particular I did not expect. On the other hand, Italy is not as much higher than the U.K. as might have been expected. I suppose we should also accept that the figures are only for reported murders; who knows what else goes on in some places…

Maybe we should simply conclude that there are certain factors at work in larger populations (increased anonymity perhaps) that affect perceptions of our fellows.

And it is also noticeable that some of the countries held up for their good social model seem to have higher than (I) expected murder rates, for example Finland and Sweden. I wonder if environmental factors are at work there – but then, Norway is lower. And even in the seemingly-model society of Switzerland (often held up as one of the world’s most civilised places to live), 45 murders happened in 2016. Personally, I have never met a Swiss who seemed capable of killing a fly… But it is necessary to remember that thanks to military service, the Swiss have loose gun-laws compared with the rest of Europe, and I suppose some people (including some Swiss I know, but not I) would instinctively blame their high immigrant populations. Who knows the truth?

Before jumping to too many conclusions, I suppose one should really conduct a much more detailed study of the circumstances and motives for murders, which might tell us much more than relatively raw totals.

The stark contrast with Russia and the USA are not a surprise – but might still teach us something about contrasting social models. The authorities in the U.S. had to deal with 17250 murders in 2016 alone. And spare a thought for Brazil, with its rate of 295 per million, or 61283 murders in that same year…

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Pinch-point?

The Britain I grew into in my formative years was a stable, safe and benign place. Green and pleasant, even. My parents were teachers, whose income permitted a secure if fairly modest way of life, and over time their hard work permitted progress to a better home and a more comfortable way of life.

From my South-Western perspective, general British life held every hope of my own following a similar pattern. But I was aware that the same was not true everywhere: journeys to family in the Midlands, and later further north revealed a country pock-marked by industrial decline, many of whose towns and cities were dowdy, declining places where life was basic, and getting worse. Despite my own good fortune, my memories of the period include images of national decline and industrial strife, not to mention the desperate situation in Northern Ireland; the trajectory seemed to lead inexorably downward.

Yet much of my recent reading has hailed the Seventies as the tail-end of the most egalitarian period in Britain’s history, when people like my parents had the best ever chances of social and material progress.

The about-turn of the late 1980s came as a welcome shock: it seemed that, after all, Britain was capable of being a positive, colourful and dynamic place where optimism ruled. Thatcher’s revolution did indeed seem to be turning the country around, something I encountered most strongly when I landed in the South-East in 1987, where wealth was clearly being generated and a revival was underway.

But it quickly became evident that a teacher like me had already been priced out: on my salary of £8500, at £35,000 even a terraced house was already out of reach, and I was forced to rent rooms for the first eight years of my career. But I could see people all around who were buying fast cars, furnishing desirable homes and taking glamorous holidays. Somehow I accepted the suggestion that it was not for the likes of me.

In the interim, we have been presented with an image of a Britain as the economic innovator of Europe, a thrusting buccaneer of the deregulated market. And the number of towers visible on the journey into London has indeed mushroomed ever since. Large areas of the East End are unrecognisable from the dereliction that I used to travel through. Even parts of the great northern cities have followed suit.

And yet mid-way through 2018, with Brexit a mere six months away, I feel increasingly bewildered about the nation of which I am a part. I wonder whether I really knew it all along – or whether the last forty years have been one enormous confidence trick. A recent visit to Italy only served to amplify this – and I made the ‘mistake’ of reading Danny Dorling’s blood-pressure-raising book Inequality and the 1% on the way home.

The great national revival of the last few decades seems to have got us – or at least most of us – nowhere. Much of the gloss put on the state of the nation ever since has done nothing more than paper over the long-standing structural weaknesses which have never been properly repaired, and are now all too visible again.

While life has continued to get better and better for the former Yuppies, everyone else has been left behind. It’s glaringly obvious to me that it was the same people who trashed the economy in 2008 who were racing their Porsches around the M25 a few decades earlier. They have been feathering their own nests at everyone else’s expense ever since – only now they control the system too. I find it all the more galling that they are the people who, as a grammar-school first-year I looked up to as the responsible sixth formers.

The Crash and Brexit have done nothing more than reveal the rottenness that has been there all along: the extent to which this country still mostly operates in the interests of a small elite of often-hereditary wealthy, who have been joined by a new breed of narcissistic sociopath who can only see the rest of the population as the suckers from whom as much should be taken as possible, and who lack even the social conscience – such as it was – of the traditional higher orders.

The great (financial) services sector on which Thatcher built our new economy has utterly failed to enrich the nation at large, or to deal with its structural and attitudinal problems. Those whom it did help have pulled up the ladders behind them. Beyond the newly-glossy city centres, not much has really changed either in the depressed places ‘up north’ – or the smaller towns have had even less attention from a polity whose entire focus was city – and mostly London – centric.

The hollowing out has picked up where it left off. It has become acceptable that services for the least fortunate have been pared back, that food banks are a fact of life, and that there is almost no welfare state to act as a safety net. Much of what passes for national life has been built on access to cheap credit that has ultimately only enriched the already-wealthy. And much of the rest of the country is being bricked over with amenity-less, community-free rabbit hutches whose main purpose is also to enrich the companies that build them and the landlords who let them.

This has been further driven home by my own circumstances: while we are hardly a priority case, the lack of realistic hope of accessing any support since I lost too my job (partly as a result of public-sector cost-cutting) has had a severe impact on our circumstances. Such is the over-demand, my G.P, recommended I go private for mental health services when I needed them quickly, at a cost well into four figures, when we could least afford it. It had to be done.

As someone who paid all his taxes and National Insurance, who did a demanding, socially-conscious job – and who made no call on that same ‘insurance policy’ beyond the odd bit of health care (having no children, we have never drawn even child allowances or used the school system), I can’t help but feel we were sold a pup. So much for the social ideals and ‘guarantees’ of the post-war period. So much for the customer being king: thanks to the free-marketeers, the British welfare state has become a rubbish product.

But this is not a personal sob story: my own situation is only (mildly) reflective of the real, deep difficulties encountered by too many in this country. But if it is affecting even a middle-class professional like me, there must be something deeply wrong.

One observation in Dorling’s book startled me. Rather naively, I believed that the riches hoarded by the well-off were somehow additional to the rest of the nation’s wealth. But it is not so: the more the 1% takes, the less there is for everyone else. There is a direct correlation between inequality and general means – and it explains why, in less unequal countries that I know, even my peers have noticeably more resources than their British equivalents.

To put it starkly: one person whose income is 20 times higher than the national average is actively depriving another nineteen of a significant share of the national wealth, that might be distributed amongst them, or spent on the general good. The enrichment of the 1% actively contributes to the impoverishment of the rest – and not only those at the bottom, for all that they fare the worst.

Trickle-down theories of wealth have been shown not to work: the more the 1% acquires the greater lengths it goes to, to make sure it keeps hold of as much as possible. The argument for high taxation is often rebutted on the grounds that it raises relatively little revenue; while this may be true, it does suppress the incentives for the avaricious, low-conscience few from hoarding so much in the first place. An altogether more convincing case.

It becomes increasingly clear that the self-image that this nation still holds dear is – as it always has been – almost entirely the fabrication of a small, extremely privileged group for whom life is very good indeed. Their brilliance was in selling it so successfully to the rest, to the extent that it is, even today, more ingrained than we imagine.

The approach of Brexit has led to more such drum-banging by those most likely to be insulated from its effects. They feel entitled to do so because they feel entitled about life in general, in a way I don’t encounter in more democratic countries – and they care little about the free-fall that the rest of the nation is experiencing.

But Brexit, as with the Crash and M.P.s’ expenses scandal has presented the privileged classes with crises that even they have not been able to cover up entirely. Above all, Brexit has faced our ‘exemplary’ democratic system with a dilemma that it simply cannot handle. It has not been maintained well enough by those self-same ruling classes to do so in any meaning of the General Good.

 

I sense this country is approaching a critical moment in its history: something dramatic which in itself, we never expect to experience in Britain. Brexit may well prove to be the trigger for even bigger changes to come. I don’t know what, but something is going to happen. And I don’t trust or believe that it will be brought about by the existing order, who show time and again that they only ever look after their own. May’s instincts are as authoritarian as Thatcher’s – itself ironic since neither came from the traditional ruling classes.

The double-nelson in which the elite holds the nation makes it likely that we will follow the U.S. down its lonely path to ever greater inequality, to depths that even this country has yet to experience. Or could it be that this will be the spark-point for something that puts us back on the path that almost all other advanced nations have been following while we and Uncle Sam were fooling with our free market nonsense? Nations where inequalities have fallen, and even now are being held in check to a degree that the British system (which actually fuels them) has failed to do.

What will be the effect of changing demographics and life-chances on the nation as a whole? I find it hard to believe that we can maintain business as usual for much longer.

It’s an illusion to believe that other countries don’t have problems. Italy has more than its share – but they have something right, because at least in the north, their towns are vibrant, thriving places, and their communities still seem to be socially connected. It is visible to anyone who visits. This in contrast to the atomised, hollowed out lives and places that are too much a feature of this country, even in parts that have sufficient wealth that one might expect them to be different.

And there are plenty of other countries nearby who seem to be weathering the challenges of our era far better than Britain. Post-War, they built stronger foundations.

My overwhelming sense at present is of confusion: of not knowing my own nation any more. Everything I thought I knew about it turns out to be built of the sand of blithe assurances and myth-building by a class who were working to an entirely different agenda all along. Even now they continue to present a public facade of implacable self-assurance. It’s all they know how to do, even in the face of a nation that can now see right through it.

At last they and their blathering have been revealed for what they are – but is it too late for a nation in a tail-spin? As/if we leave the EU (whose main ‘threat’ to this country is its tendency to undermine elites in the name of perhaps-idealistic democracy) how will we pull out of the nose-dive?

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Is the tide turning?

Britain’s long, febrile ‘continental’ summer seems to be affecting people’s minds. The campaign for a second EU referendum seems to be gathering pace, as it becomes increasingly clear that the supposed options and benefits of leaving are not on the table. Hard Brexiters and Hard Remainers are joining forces in their opposition to what is on the table.

Some Leavers are starting to conclude that life outside the EU is not going to be on the terms they claimed, and that May’s compliance-without-influence solution is not acceptable. With which I generally agree, except if the alternative is No Deal.

I want to consider here some alternative ways of looking at the issue of remaining in the E.U. I will start by conceding that they do depend on a certain perception of the players involved which not everyone shares. In particular, beliefs about the current efficacy of the U.K. as a sovereign nation-state and the reasons why the EU is pursuing the approach to Brexit that it is.

My own pro-Europeanism is not fundamentally political. For most of my adult life, I have travelled in other European countries at least two or three times a year. I have made lasting and in some cases close friendships with people in those countries (both ex-pats and nationals), to the point that nationality has all but disappeared as an issue. The mental map that defines my own life is now quite instinctively at least as often that of Europe as that of Britain. It feels a good way to live.

Those many, many visits to other countries have led me, despite my best efforts to shake off the effect of rose-tinted spectacles, to the conclusion that in general, life as a citizen of many of the countries with whom we might compare ourselves, is better than it is in this country. It is seen in part from the materially superior condition of those countries, where investment in infrastructure has been more consistent, where matters such as people’s living environments are generally more pleasant, and where higher material standards still seem to be balanced by a stronger commitment to matters such as social justice and the environment.

But it is also there in aspects that are much less visible. The mindset of people – even close friends – is different, in ways that even they may not realise. The embedded class-consciousness of Britain is absent: people simply do not have such a strong sense of social hierarchy, and it is liberating for one’s perception of one’s place in the world. Total equality of opportunity and income is never achievable – but the much greater sense of equality in people’s minds makes a significant difference. In my experience it means, for instance, that corporate structures are flatter, and people are given more agency to run their own affairs. One might claim that trust remains stronger: certainly I saw that when comparing the experiences of colleagues in my own field of education with experiences in Britain.

What’s more, structures are organised to push in this direction, rather than reinforce privilege. Policies such as legally-guaranteed worker representation in company board rooms makes corporate mal-governance less likely, while stronger environmental regulation adds different restraints. Quick-win shareholder gains are not top priority in the economy. But it is also the mindset that tends to make wrong-doing less likely in the first place: there is often a stronger sense of civic obligation than remains in Britain, where we have been fed ‘dog-eat-dog’ for four decades or more.

By comparison, revelations in recent years have shown just how rotten the British system has become. Even setting aside matters such as the parliamentary expenses scandal, the prevalence of lobbying, big-money influence, the too-close forms of patronage suggest that too much is done in Westminster for reasons other than democratic mandate. There is too much evidence for at least some of it not to be true. The mis-representation of the population in terms of the elected representatives and other top positions is more evidence that this country is not – and probably never has been – really run ‘for the people’ in the way post-War continental countries have come much closer to.

Another part of the problem is the Monarchy. Whatever one thinks of those individuals, the fact that the British monarchy remains the most influential in Europe distorts the mindset of the entire nation. Deference to a hereditary individual – and the existence of the whole associated hierarchy – is simply not compatible with running a nation in the name of ‘The People’.

Then we have the electoral system. As Vince Cable recently observed, in a first-past-the-post system, the formation of more than two parties distorts the process by dividing the vote, and can be seen as electoral suicide by anyone contemplating it. This creates a system where binary choices are the norm, and where far too much effort is put into winning power and discrediting the opposition. It operates on confrontation rather than consensus, and it means that the country is in a constant state of conflict between two power-groups. The effects can be seen everywhere in the utter inconsistency of national policy over decades, the frequent policy reverses and the vast waste of money, time and resources that accompanies it.

It is probably an integral feature of relatively educated populations that consensus will fragment as people gain more ability to make decisions about their own lives. Set against that, Britain has a large remnant of under-educated population, whose tribal instincts are increasingly manipulated by the media – and which ironically play to the status quo. And it is large enough to sway the political process.

For all its compromises and complexities, a system that accurately represents multiple viewpoints has to be preferable, and that means proportional representation. The fact that it is mis-sold in Britain cannot hide the fact that almost all other democracies now use it in one form or another. The fact that it requires compromise and consensus surely has to be worth the difficulties – and its tendency is to promote agreement where it can be found, rather than manufacturing disagreement even where there is none, which is a feature of the FPP system.

So much for Britain’s shortcomings. What about those of the E.U.?

It is certainly not perfect – what system is? But it seems to me to be the logical extension of co-operation between European nations. Indeed, what would that co-operation mean without some organ by which it is conducted? I do not believe that shifting bilateral agreements between nations would ever achieve the same thing. And we all live far too close to each other ever for Splendid Isolation to work.

Some have criticised the E.U. for its inflexibility in the Brexit negotiations. But it is a rules-based system – something that again the British system cannot understand. It means that the rules, once agreed, have to be rigorously but impartially applied, otherwise they are meaningless. And that means that Britain needs to accept that it cannot cherry-pick EU membership, however much the British Establishment might be used to doing precisely that everywhere else.

It would be naive to think that all other EU countries are perfect; of course they have their own inconsistencies and play for their own interests too – and this is why a strict framework of rules is necessary. But we should not forget that they have been agreed by all national legislatures, including our own. So they are not ‘imposed’ by some faceless third party. As any sport fan will hopefully recognise, any match only works if both sides accept the rules, even when they work to their short-term disadvantage. One might hope principled nations would accept the same. Or maybe some have difficulties with that; I really don’t know.

Personally, I have never seen the European issue primarily as one of competition.

There is always a case for reviewing the functioning of the EU – but it can only be done from the inside. Having studied the workings of the EU at length in order to teach students, they seem to me to be well thought out, and logical, in a way that the British system – which has never been fully modernised – just is not. I advocate the strengthening of the European Parliament, because it has a direct democratic mandate. But we should not forget that the European Council does too, as it is made up of national administrations.

While the E.U. may seem remote from everyday life, in some ways that is a good thing. For a start, it can hardly be otherwise when it represents such a huge populace – but that is not to deny that it still deals with issues of concern to all Europeans. It needs to have a degree of detachment in order to remain impartial.

But one might consider it to be the higher chamber of a bicameral system where the national legislatures constitute the lower house. In all such systems, the duty of the upper house is to be impartial, to take the larger, more principled view and remain above the partisan and often short-term priorities of party politics. That is in effect what the E.U. already does. Alternatively, one might perceive it as a collective European presidency – in the sense that a president remains above partisan loyalties.

I view it as the guarantor of trans-national stability and co-ordination in Europe, the defender of cross-border issues such as trade, travel and the environment – and the promoter of inter-national understanding – which I suspect is actually what a lot of anti-Europeans feel afraid of. My experience is that it is liberating and affirming to cross borders. The island-nation British would benefit from doing more of it – and I don’t mean just by going on more holidays. One way the EU could help this would be by diverting cohesion funds to drastically reducing the costs of cross-Channel travel. Although even there, many of the practical barriers to movement actually originate in Westminster rather than Brussels.

I do rather hope that the E.U. is deliberately playing hard-ball on the Brexit negotiations. But I also believe that it is not doing it to be cussed – or from megalomaniac tendencies. It has a responsibility to uphold the principles agreed by all member states – and that includes the indivisibility of the four principles of mobility. But I also hope it believes that by forcing Britain to make a hard choice,  it will bring this nation to its senses for its own sake, as to where its real best interests lie.

Because where the British have got a short deal from E.U. membership, it has often been due to their own insistence on semi-detachment and opt-outs. Who really loses out from the Home Office’s insistence on retaining frontier checks? Or indeed from the need still to change currency? Or from the exemption from the Working Time Directive? Or from the national failure to implement high environmental standards (such that we have been fined for it)? Who will really gain if Human Rights legislation is repealed in post-Brexit Britain?

One has to question why systems that suit 27 other countries (including Schengen) are so anathema to the 28th. Why is Britain so exceptional? I suspect the real reason is that the nation’s ruling classes realised that they were going to lose too much of their traditional hegemony if European standards and systems were given the free rein that have everywhere else. But from past and recent experience, perpetuating that is certainly not in the wider national interest. I would rather put my faith in remote but impartial bureaucrats than the entitled classes of the British Establishment.

The big problem that remains to be solved lies not in Brussels, but with those in the U.K. who cannot see that the real problems lie much closer to home in the unreformed way in which the U.K. still operates – and above all in their own heads.

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Speaking truth to power

I can find little to quibble with in Aeron Davis’ conclusions to his book; part is worth quoting:

We are long due an overhaul of many of our systems and institutions. So many have become something they were never intended to be. Yet leaders and the public continue as if they still operate as they once did. Progressive change in all of them would certainly rein in leaders and re-attach them to publics in various ways.

He singles out:

  • The electoral system which is ‘not one that any emerging democracy would choose now’.
  • The lack of a written constitution with poor checks and balances.
  • The secretive, insular and now market-orientated civil service.
  • The Financial Services sector that extracts far more from the economy than it contributes (and upon which, scarily, we have based our entire economy)
  • The system of corporate governance which is far too orientated towards short-term shareholder returns.
  • The news media which is (even) less independent and more in hoc to those in power and media moguls than it appears.
  • Intermediary professions whose role is too often to reinforce the system – for example accountants advising on tax law and then offering tax avoidance services.
  • The ability of many of these institutions to self-regulate, which is not sufficient to face down vested interests.

Davis avoids the error of demonising those at the top, many of whom, he says are complex, conflicted individuals often operating in a contrary and highly contradictory system.

His conclusions are not exactly new – but this book is the most substantial piece of evidence I have encountered to suggest that they are generally valid, and not just the product of an alternative political agenda. The pity is that he only dedicates four pages of 140 to solutions; that may be significant.

Events in recent times – including the last week – suggest that he is overwhelmingly correct. But what is to be done about a regressive, entrenched establishment that only ever argues for its own self-interest, dressed up as the status quo?

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Reckless opportunists

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It just isn’t done, even today (or perhaps that should be especially today) to criticise your country. Patriotism seems to be on the rise, rather than as one might hope, declining as people achieve wider world-views and realise that there is more to human life that binds than divides, everywhere.

I’ve never had an issue with pride in things that genuinely warrant it – but that is very different from the mindless, drum-banging jingoism that seems to be re-awakening. I am entirely serious about this: I recall one occasion when we took parents to a ‘replica’ Last Night of the Proms at the Albert Hall (sponsored by the Daily Telegraph, which had thoughtfully provided every seat with a branded, plastic Union Jack to wave at the appropriate moment). It was an uncomfortable experience, when that moment arrived, for my wife and me to be the only people in the Hall who felt unable to surge to our feet in what felt like an outpouring of cheap, plastic, branded jingoism – or more likely, a worryingly easily-induced expression of the national herd mentality. In fact, it was almost scary to be the refusenik couple in a crowd of several thousand – but I hope this incident in a small way vindicates the sincerity of my position – my national pride needs to be justifiable.

At present, it feels anything but. Britain is currently rocketing up my list of the world’s nasty countries. With yet another improperly-sanctioned military outing, this time in Syria, the Windrush scandal – not to mention the institutionalised, exceptionalist arrogance which still dominates relations with the rest of Europe (if not the world), it is very easy to come to the conclusion that this is a bellicose, toxic, hawkish nation, for all that it hides it beneath a supposedly-mild manner.

For anyone doubting the wider significance of all this, I suggest a read of Aeron Davis’ new book Reckless Opportunists: Elites at the end of Establishment. Davis is Professor of Political Communication at Goldsmiths, London. He has had over thirty years’ access to top people in the worlds of finance, business, politics and the media.

The book describes the vacuum behind the power-elites in current British society. The reviews on the rear cover accurately describe his findings as ‘terrifying’. What he describes is the utterly cynical way in which everything from hedge funds to government now function, the purpose of delivering meaningful services and support to wider society long ago having been subordinated to achieving and retaining power for its own sake. Almost as alarming are the changes that have taken place well out of the public eye in recent decades, which completely transformed the way the ‘system’ operates, from a moderately benign if elitist old-boy network, to something altogether more rapacious and vacuously short-termist.

Davis is clearly not without his own political stance, but I think it is visible enough to be allowed for, and I still find his accounts and conclusions deeply concerning. In any case, I am more inclined to trust a senior academic than the spin-doctors at the Mail, Express or Telegraph. Even for those who tend to support the status quo, the book’s strap line ought to be worrying, for he shows how in addition to everything else, the current arrangements risk destroying much of the system that supports it. Personally, I wouldn’t be especially concerned about that – provided it was possible to replace it with something more transparent and less toxic. But, if only for the fact that my patriotism simply takes a different form from normal, I would be extremely concerned that its collapse would drag the rest of us down with it as so nearly already happened in 2008.

The sad thing is, there has never been more coverage of the more benign conditions in other comparable countries. There is really nothing to stop Britain taking on the enlightened views of the Dutch, Swiss, Scandinavians or Canadians. Nothing at all to stop its hawkish drum-banging on the world stage, and to start it on a route of genuine social improvement. Except the self-important, puffed-up national mindset, and the corrupt systems that feed it, and on it.

It is not unpatriotic to face up to one’s country’s shortcomings: in the case of Britain, the worst of all is the delusion that it really is a proper, well-functioning democracy, when what we actually have is something between an oligarchy and an elective dictatorship .

Until this country changes to become a proper liberal, social democracy, with decent standards for all, adequate social and environmental protections, a less punitive attitude towards the majority of its own citizens, a more reasonable relationship with neighbours from whom it might actually learn a lot – and a more forward-looking approach to its problems, I am afraid I will not find much to feel genuinely proud of about Britain, no matter what the group-think might require. And no, appeals to history, even if justified, are not enough.

Strongly recommended reading for anyone wanting to know more about the way power now operates in this country.

 

 

 

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Authenticity and the modern Brit.

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I know: a post about Brexit and a Scottish folk band is going to have most clicking straight on past – but that is my point: hear me out!

There is much in modern life not to like; that ultimately seems to be what the Brexit vote was about. I am not however going to enter the fray here as to whether it is right or not – but it is unarguable that it has provoked a national debate in this country the like of which I have never seen. After several decades of somnolence, the conspiracy of ‘events’ has finally woken the British up to what their nation(s) have become – and plenty (on both sides of the debate) don’t much like it.

I would argue, however, that the reasons for this have little to do with our membership of the European Union, so much as the free reign that the forces of globalised capitalism have been given in this country – see the previous post. It is that which has really generated the crisis of identity currently being experienced in Britain. We have willingly been fed a diet of mass-produced, commercialised everything, whose main purpose is to hoover up as much of the nation’s disposable income as possible, as efficiently as possible. That means products that are cheap to produce and so bland that they will offend no one. As a result, they also come completely devoid of any cultural references that might make them distinctive – and this is no less so with the music industry as any other.

So it saddens me that for all the bashing many have been giving our country, perhaps justifiably, there are plenty of things of which we can still be proud – but which are regularly overlooked or ignored by the national mainstream. The fact that we have a vibrant folk and roots music scene is one – our musicians are in demand around the world within their own relatively small pool. Breabach, the subject of this piece are off to Australia next month, and regularly play across North America and continental Europe, where people seem to appreciate our native music if anything more than many British do. Possibly the strongest elements of a varied tradition are found in Scotland and Ireland – but while the Union endures, I am going to claim part of them for myself. In particular, the Scottish music scene has benefitted from the cultural confidence that devolution has brought, and a generation of young musicians has grown up shamelessly bringing new takes to something anciently British.

Breabach may well look like a traditional pipe-and-fiddle band – but that is not the half of it. Their music is almost entirely original, for all that they introduce traditional motifs and instrumentation. They are superb musicians, as tight as anything you would expect to find from people with a far higher profile. You won’t find much more than a hint of strict traditional music here – much of it ranges from a ‘wall of sound’ associated with much more contemporary genres, to lengthy pieces that verge on the symphonic on occasions. They are unafraid of sophisticated, syncopated rhythms, in amongst which they weave elements of Gaelic song and traditional tunes as well as many of their own compositions. There is even step-dance, used on an amplified ‘floor’ in part for its percussive quality.

They played to an appreciative full house and standing ovation in The King’s Place in London on Thursday, the first of a few warm-up gigs for the slack period between the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow and their Australian tour. There is little affectation and few huge egos about these people: for a first encore, they went completely unplugged on a Gaelic song – and in the interval and after the concert, they were out front-of-house in good folk style, chatting with their audience and selling the inevitable CDs themselves.

The Scottish scene is but one part of a lively music genre that is affirmative and authentic. It exists not in a few large stadia for the financial gain of large international promoters, but in small venues the length and breadth of the nation, where it is a real and distinctive part of community and national identity. Breabach, however, show that it can also put its best clothes on and become something of much more contemporary relevance – a mark of a newly-emboldened national consciousness – in a way that is entirely of the present, even as it pays its due respects to the long and ancient history of these isles. Those in search of genuine Britain for a dose of national pride could do a lot worse than listen in.

http://breabach.com/

Sceptics also see also: https://tommygirard.wordpress.com/2012/02/14/breabach-the-desperate-battle-of-the-birds/

Bb02

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

The cultural cost of Carillion

Carillion
source: Carillion plc website

 

(…and others like them).

As a child of the Sixties and Seventies, I have never shared the view that public utilities are a bad thing. I remember visiting the local SWEB electricity board showroom when we needed to buy new appliances, or to pay a bill (those were the days…) – and to a lesser extent, there was a consciousness that the basics of life were provided for all by a caring, social State. Even the much-maligned British Rail was somehow a benign entity, cash-starved and declining though it was. SWEB too may have been a bit dowdy, but even to a six year old, it somehow exuded a benevolence that a private company never can.

I was in my twenties when most of the privatisations took place. Even then, I had my doubts: why should the civic assets of our nation be placed in the hands of a few, for their private profit? Macmillan’s observation about selling the family silver was correct. And how can a private company, with shareholders to keep happy and a profit to make, deliver basic needs more cheaply and more equitably than the State?

We now know the answer: it can’t. Deregulated markets have come to mean one thing only: an opportunity for a small group of greedy individuals to enrich themselves at everybody else’s expense. It is no coincidence that the wealth of the richest has hit the stratosphere during this period. Deregulation primarily gave carte blanche to those people to devise ever more devious ways of meeting short-term shareholder expectations – thereby releasing huge rewards for themselves. And we won’t even begin on corporate tax avoidance.

A lot of this has happened below the radar: who knew, for instance, that almost all of the water utility companies are now de-listed and owned by private equity funds and the like? No opportunities there for the small investor. Then we have the executives of Persimmon reaping huge bonuses on the back of state-subsidised housing construction – and Carillion’s bosses brazenly altering rules to ensure their bonuses could not be clawed back even in the event of company failure. How much more evidence is needed? And yet there are those in government who still hesitate “to interfere in the affairs of the business sector”… The fact is, the private sector exists, as it always did, to make a profit for the few, not serve the many. It will not do anything that compromises its short-term profitability – and it will do anything that enhances it – immoral or illegal included – if it thinks it can get away with it. The myth of the customer being king has been revealed for the sham it always was, and the only surprise (to me at least) is that so many knowledgeable people apparently believed it would be otherwise.

For four decades, Britons have been fed the ‘wisdom’ that the private sector is more dynamic and more efficient than the state. A whole string of failures is now showing this not to be true, and as Polly Toynbee suggested in The Guardian recently, Britain is now lumbered with a toxic brand of unaccountable, amoral capitalism that will probably take more decades to rectify – or preferably dismantle. Public-private profit may be one thing, but working against the public interest is another. My impression is that things have not gone as far on the continent; few countries followed Britain down the wholesale-privatisation route – and it is now evident how wise that was.

Yet there are two elements of this disaster that are not receiving much coverage.

Firstly, many of the rogue individuals who are responsible for this wholesale malpractice are the products of one toxic generation, whose genesis dates back to a certain Prime Minister whose policies encouraged them: the almost-forgotten Yuppies of the Eighties and Nineties, the Nick Leesom clones who never got caught – but who still made their fortunes gaming the post- Big Bang deregulated City. They nearly ruined the system then; in the meantime they have gone on to become the captains of industry and are still lining their pockets – only from positions of much greater power and influence. The sooner they are brought to book, the better.

The second is the cultural change that has accompanied privatisation. I sense that the commercialised private sector extends much further into people’s lives – and the wider cultural institutions of this country – than has been permitted elsewhere. As a non-TV viewer, it is most evident to me on the few occasions I do see broadcast media – the level of commercial intrusion that people seem to tolerate shocks me. It seems there is no aspect of British life that the private sector has not been able to turn into an opportunity to make a quick buck. The homogenising effect on the population has, I believe been huge: people’s lives have increasingly become mere conveyor belts of pre-packaged, standardised offerings, from the homes they live in to the clothes they wear, from the holidays they take to the food they eat, to the music they hear – everything revolves around that which it is profitable for commerce to purvey. There is a huge difference between a citizen and a consumer; in Britain, we only have the latter.

It can be argued that people have choice – but I think the wider corporate case masks the truth here: it is the M&S white-knickers argument again. People will buy what they are given if it’s all there is, and the hassle of trying to go against the flow is too much for most. Most companies attempt to homogenise their markets around mass-producible products. And they are becoming ever more sophisticated – and ever more disingenuous – in persuading people that that is what they really wanted all along. Orwell’s Big Brother has turned out to be a private corporation.

It has gone too far when nearly all elements of our culture are now determined by their profit margins. There is, in my view, no case whatsoever for running schools and hospitals as even quasi-commercial operations. Quite apart from the inefficiencies that are the same as elsewhere, management has been diverted from providing basic services into meeting contractual targets; interpersonal relations on which such organisations run have been severely damaged by the target-chasing that results. It is also fundamentally morally wrong for profit to be made from basic needs, let alone misfortune. It amounts to the monopoly of the helpless.
Cornerstones of our culture, such as the intellectual independence of our universities are being subordinated to their need to run as increasingly rapacious businesses; this cannot be right. Unrestrained business appeals most basely to people’s greed; in that sense it is also responsible for high levels of debt, the psychological damage of over-consumption and the environmental disaster that services it.

I would also include wider cultural matters in this: is there really a need for art galleries, museums and even charities to be made to operate as profit centres? Why should welfare targets be determined by how much money they save, rather than disburse? Their benefit is of an entirely different nature, and in difficult times most of all, it should not be denied those who cannot make them pay. Contractual constraints and that same profit motive have made it impossible for ordinary people to do the obvious things in situations where the personal touch ‘going beyond the necessary’ makes all the difference.

Forty years on, it is inescapable that the promised Eden of high-quality, privately provided services for all has proved to be an illusion. It was always going to, not least because in the eyes of profit-seekers, the most vulnerable either merit only the most pared-back of loss-leader provision – or they simply don’t even exist. One might even consider it only marginally more ethical for the private sector to offer every last luxury to the wealthy – and then fleece them utterly for it. This country is now run as a private racket for the benefit of a small number of greedy, amoral people – and they need to be stopped.

I have great doubts that any politician will have the courage to tackle this; even Corbyn will probably find tackling the vested interests a lot more difficult than he expects, assuming he ever wins power to begin with. And even if we start making amends now, the cultural damage will take decades and generations to put right. It is one thing to have a market economy – but we now have a market society. It was never much of a ‘partnership’ to begin with – more of a mugging.