Thursday, 21 August 2014

Scare off the lions with a smile


A checkout operative at our local supermarket always has a beaming smile and seems genuinely glad to greet each customer.  When I commented on this to him he said that in his culture, presumably in some part of Africa,  children were taught from an early age to smile or "The lions will get you in the night."  gloomy faces, tears, were treated with the same injunction. He seems astonishingly happy in, and seems even to enjoy, what for many would be a thoroughly boring and lowly job.

Similarly the little corner-shop grocery where I now buy the morning paper (see previous post) is run by an elderly man from the Indian sub-continent.  Yesterday we both looked gloomily at the array of over-revealed bosoms and naked female thighs displayed on the front pages of many of the "redtops."  I felt ashamed of my culture.

"They do it for the money," he said, "and then they spend the money on drugs and things. It doesn't make them happy.  Me, if I can have two meals and two cups of tea a day, I'm happy."

"What, only two cups a day?"

"Well, three on a day like this," presumably because, even though it is still the middle of August, the temperature was more suited to the Arctic.

In yesterday's paper Tom Clark (whose "Hard Times" is well worth a read) finds it "breathtaking" that such young as can find work have suffered a 14% fall in real wages ,taking them back a full 16 years to 1998 wage rates.

Well, I wasn't young in 1998, but I was pretty comfortable, as I was in 1988 and 1978.  Even back in 1958, just before I started teaching, although I wasn't exactly living the life of Riley I was perfectly comfortable and having a pretty good time.  We are now between three and four times richer in real terms than we were then.  What's to grumble about?

Much gloom is expressed that the present young generation are the first for many decades not to be able to expect a higher standard of living than their parents. Yes, I admit that my own generation (I was born in 1937) have been lucky in that we've enjoyed the fruits of the most rapid period of economic growth in history.  But it cannot and needn't continue.  When a child is born we expect him or her to grow until the late teens and then ranch maturity and stop.  The same goes for trees, although maturity may take a little longer.

I understand that before and up to the end of  Middle Ages, maybe for longer, succeeding generations expected life to be much like that of the one before.  Given the state of technology, their economies had reached maturity.    We need to accept that our economy is now sufficiently mature that, given a bit more willingness to share, we could all be living the life of Riley at a level beyond the wildest dreams of my grandparents.  If we don't then the lions will come and get us.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The changing scenes of life


One very convenient services has disappeared from my life in the last few weeks and another is about to go.


The one that's already gone is the delivery of the morning paper.  We're all aware of the declining circulations of newspapers and magazines, not least from the frantic and often ludicrous attempts they make to try to maintain sales and revenues.   All those silly supplements.  There are so many  sections of the  Guardian   I dispose of unread that buying it is probably the most environmentally unfriendly thing that I do.

The "knock on" effect of this decline is becoming increasingly evident.  Within living memory there were four dedicated newsagents to serve our urban village.  The first one I used is, after the retirement of the owner, now an Indian take-away.  The second went bankrupt and is now a television repair shop.  The third struggled along until about two years ago, but their game efforts were torpedoed when the Co-op, opposite, itself began to sell newspapers. Retaliation by selling wines, sandwiches, milk and pop proved ineffective and the shop is now an estate agency.  The final one still continues in the trade because the owner can't find a buyer,  but the daily delivery of the papers  has been abandoned.

 I suppose it's a bonus that, by adding half a mile or so to my daily jog in order to collect the paper myself I get extra exercise.  Fine, but what about when it's raining::  I'm a fair weather only jogger.  But it's an end to the "paper boy", and nowadays,  girl.  How are future generations of school children to earn the odd bob by independent endeavour?

The second service which is about to to disappear, is, effectively, the "next day" delivery of mail.  I've been away for week  participating in the splendid Cranleigh Choral Week, which culminated in a stunning performance of Elgar's "Dream of Gerontius" in Guildford Cathedral last Saturday.  On my return I find a notice on the post box just round the corner that, from mid September, instead of the current "final collection" at 5.45 pm, in future the box will be emptied "no earlier than 9am on weekdays and 7am on Saturdays."  This means that anyone who posts a letter during normal waking and working hours can expect that it probably won't be collected until the following day, and, presumably, not delivered until the day after that.  This, says the notice, is to "increase efficiency."  Efficiency of what? Or for whom?

My first reaction was one of indignation.  It's difficult to remember what stamps cost  these days as they no longer display the price on the stamp itself (just 1st or 2nd class) but the prices were hiked upwards about a year ago to prepare the service for privatisation (or so most of us believe) and have been hiked again since part-privatisation to a mind boggling 62p (12/4d in real money) for a first class letter and 53p (10/6d) for second class.

But, on reflection, does it really matter? Is this not really just part of the changing scenes of life: a sensible reaction to the  changing state of technology?  Businesses with communications which need to be sent urgently will phone, fax, text or email them. The same facilities (perhaps not fax) are available to the rest of us.  The only written communication for which most of us really  need a guaranteed delivery date is a birthday card, and we can get around that one by posting well in advance and writing on the envelope: "Not to be opened until....". In fact, it's a curious convention that birthday cards should not be received  until the day, but Christmas cards are received weeks ahead and opened and displayed as soon as they arrive.

Even so, I'm a bit irked to have to pay over ten bob just to post a letter, and then receive a diminished level of service.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Scotland and the £


I find it sad that the current key issue in the Scottish independence debate is what I believe to be not a serious issue at all but a contrived debating point.

I strongly suspect that, if the SNP had argued that on independence Scotland would leave the pound and have its own currency, the British establishment would  be screaming blue murder about Scotland's pulling the plug on Britain's "greatness" by weakening sterling, compromising our financial influence, undermining our our financial industries and God only knows what else, and begging them to stay in.

The threat  that in the event of independence Scotland will not be able to retain the pound in a currency union is an outrageous piece of bullying. It is shameful that the Liberal Democrats, in the person of Danny Alexander, have joined with Labour and the Tories in issuing this "non-negotiable" ultimatum.  Of course it is negotiable, and will present few problems.

There are umpteen currency unions in the world trundling along quite successfully: see
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Currency_union for a list. (I cant be bothered to count them, but the list takes four screen-lengths of my computer).  The currency union  across the Channel, which I'm sure we'll both join eventually, either separately or together, is in spite of recent difficulties  doing very nicely* with its present 18 full members and about a dozen "extras", two of them British.

Indeed I believe the  SNP should have stuck to its original policy of joining the Euro which, in the event of a "Yes" vote, they could join at a rate of just  79p for every € (the rate at 07/08/14)  By the time what's left of the UK got round to it it would  probably be at parity: a whole £1 for every €.

Rather than argue about this purely fictional "problem" it would be so much better for the Scots, and indeed the rest of the UK, to be arguing about  real issues.  I restate my own view that, apart from  Trident, which the SNP very sensibly wants to jettison, a "No" vote would allow Scotland to  have its cake and eat it:  foreign policy, defence, the currency, regional equalisation funding, the BBC and the weather forecast in the hands of the UK, all other functions devolved to Home Rule.  This "devo max" would pave the way for similar levels of devolution to Wales and regions of England, so we'd all benefit.

* Our politicians and press make great play of the difficulties of the Eurozone, and, true, they are not inconsiderable.  But at its launch each Euro was worth 70p, today each worth 79p.  So which as been the more "successful" currency over the last 15 years?

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Remembrance of wars past.


The public commemoration of the centenary of First World War began a couple of weeks ago in my area with the launching of Project Bugle.  This is being organised by the local history society.  They will publish month by month short biographies of the combatants who died on the 100th anniversary of the months of their deaths.  If the soldier is buried in a local cemetery (some died before they left for the war zones, others after they'd returned, but of wounds or the effects of gassing) there will be a short ceremony and a wreath will be placed on the grave.  Attempts will be made to involve schools, youth groups and local organisations.  A regular bulletin will be issued with extracts from our local paper of contemporary reports of the events of the war and local reaction.

This seems to me an imaginative, though demanding, scheme, with the potential to be very effective.

 The launch was held in our town hall. For me an inappropriate mood was introduced when we were issued with Union Jacks which we were invited to wave as the event was opened  with half an hours' singing of music-hall songs popular at the time.  I suppose the excuse was that these were songs the soldiers would have known, but to me it seemed an excuse for cheap jingoism and nostalgic sentiment, the very antithesis for what is required.

I have similar reservations about the national and international events held last Monday, 4th August.  The speeches about reconciliation and now being allies, the reading of poems and poignant soldiers' letters, the  symbolic recreation  of the "lamps going out" by the snuffing of candles, are moving and appropriate. But the good they do is erased from my mind the moment somebody blows a bugle, a band plays a jaunty tune and soldiers go marching off in step.  This   injection of military "Shalloo humps and Shalloo hoops" as WS Gilbert aptly phrased it, has the effect of sanitising war,  removing the horror and asserting  that dulce et decorum est . . ..is not an "old lie" but what the powers that be would like us to believe.

As my walking companion, who is German, put it when I asked for his view: I don't like the creepy Remembrance Show, it's brought by the same people who  are gung ho for war.

There is much talk of "lessons to be learned."  The chief lesson to be learned is that war is a failure of politics, and politics, as we know, continues to fail.

The instigator  of Project Bugle has calculated that, based on the names on our war memorials, within a radius of a 20 minute walk in any direction from our market place, at least 202 young men died in the war.  He's  pointed out that, when remembering this tragedy, we usually concentrate on the lives lost, but we should also recall the  grief of  the families and friends left behind.

At the time Birstall was little more than a rural village with a few mills down the valley.  Nearly everyone must have been affected.

So here's one of the lesson to be learned.  How many of the two out of every three eligible adults who failed to vote, or the one out of three who voted to come out,  in the recent European elections, realise that the major purpose of the European Union is to ensure that the names of their children and grandchildren won't appear en masse on future war memorials?

 In the essential task of revitalising our politics drums, bugles, medals and and jaunty tunes are a distraction.  We need a form of remembrance which inspires us to want to create a saner world in which problems are solved through selfless patience rather than military pretensions.


Monday, 4 August 2014

Privatisation: Labour as culpable as the Tories


I have a great respect both for the views and communication skills of the Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang.  However his claim in an article in last week's Guardian that "[p]rivatisation was halted under Labour"  is an over-simplification too far, and surely he must know it.  

True Labour  sold only 51% of Air Traffic Control, but that means they privatised over half of it.  They also continued Norman Lamont's policy of Private Financial Initiatives, PFIs, using them to finance the London Underground, hospitals and schools.  Most of these contracts now turn out to be greatly  in the favour of the private contractors and we the public are lumbered with disproportionately expensive  repayments over as many as 30 years.  Large sections of the work of the NHS were also "outsourced" to the private sector buy New Labour, and they even tried, but failed, to flog off the Royal Mail

The truth is that the neo-liberal nonsense that the private sector exudes efficiency and the public sector is inevitably an ineffective bumbling bureaucracy has been accepted by the  political consensus for the last thirty years,  and is virtually unchallenged in the media.  


Ha-Joon Chang is right to attempt to expose the myth, and his article is very well worth reading, but  he is wrong to claim that Labour is or was untainted by it.


For those who would like further and better particulars on this issue the Public Services International Research Unit, based in the University of Greenwich's Business School, has extensive evidence of the relative efficiencies, however defined, of the public and private sectors in a host of countries, not just the UK.  Their findings indicate that the private sector is not invariably more effective than the public sector. They do not show the reverse either: it is "six of one and half a dozen of the other."


So it is a matter of political choice.  I think most of us would agree that highly personal services such as our prisons, probation service and the assessment of our fitness to work, should be carried out by public bodies and not farmed out for private profit.  And it is, or should be, plainly obvious that there is no point in subjecting an industry to the alleged rigours of market forces if it cannot be allowed to go bankrupt.


The rule of thumb should be: the market where possible, the "state" where necessary.  The "state", however, should not necessarily mean nationalisation.  There are ample variations possible for regional and local, co-operative and "not for profit,"  public provision.







Thursday, 31 July 2014

Fracking: consultation discounted.


In the early 1930s the powers that be proposed that Birstall, the urban village where I live, which then had its own independent Local Government Council, should be merged with (or taken over by) the neighbouring Borough of Batley.  A referendum on the proposal was organised and the worthy burgers of Birstall voted as follows:

                       
                                                          25  for
                                                     3 524  against
                                                        190  spoiled, abstained or did not vote.

So in 1936 Birstall was duly merged with (taken over by) Batley.

(This was followed two years later the German  Anschluss of Austria.  Whether Hitler took Birstall's experience as a precedent is not recorded.)

More recently our government has ordered a consultation on whether or not "fracking" for shale gas should be permitted.   Most of those involved in the consultation are opposed, including two of the government's own bodies: Public Health England, part of the Department of Health, are opposed  on the grounds that insufficient consideration has been given to the consequences for public health on the potential contamination of water supplies; Natural England, the environment protection agency, says that important natural habitats are insufficiently protected.  These in addition to the "usual suspects" such as the RSPB, the Green Party, and environmental groups and climate change campaigners who believe that the government should be concentrating on renewable energy sources rather than exploiting yet more carbon-based, polluting, non- renewable resources.

So, in response to a resounding "No" the government has decreed that fracking  is to go ahead.  It appears that those with the most money and the shortest time-scales, the (largely foreign owned) fracking companies keen to join the bonanza, speak with the loudest voices.

No wonder the public is increasingly, and justifiably, cynical about the political process, and their (our) disillusionment is shown by increasingly smaller turnouts in elections.


Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Miliband and Question Time


It's a bit rich for Ed Miliband to complain that Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) puts people off politics.  After all, he's responsible for almost half of it.  His suggestion that that parliamentary PMQs should be supplemented by a citizen's version is yet another example of our politicians, frightened of taking responsibility themselves, trying to slough it of onto someone else - as with the obsession with referendums.

The way to generate  seriousness in  PMQs and other Questions to Ministers is for parliament itself to reform the procedure.  Here are a few suggestions:

1.  Stop the silly nonsense of asking the PM for a list of his engagements, as an excuse for asking a supplementary question on any topic and thus hoping to catch him out.  We should leave "being quick on your feet" to the stand-up comedians
2.  Questions should be genuine requests for information and explanations, except in cases of emergency submitted 24 hours in advance, so that the PM or minister has time to research and give an informed response.
3.  The number of supplementaries allocated to the Leader of the Opposition, and, where appropriate, other party leaders, should be greatly reduced.
4.  More opportunities should be given for back-benchers to ask questions, with up to two supplementaries.
5.  The cringe-making toady questions organised by the Whips should be discouraged.

Something on the above lines has, I believe, been recommended by the Hansard Society.  Their adoption would help us approach "government by discussion" which is the essence of democracy.