politics

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Red or Dead?

Unlike the White Queen to Alice, I won’t be asking you to believe six impossible things before breakfast or indeed any other meal, but I will ask that you forgive my tenuous analogy. In hindsight, it would have been more appropriate if it were the Red Queen who imparted this nonsensical advice, as the two subjects of this contrast and comparison are closely associated with that hue.

I have an invested interest in, and have been closely following the fortunes of, two public figures and, in spite of there being few obvious connections between them, I decided to kill two birds with one badly considered article. They are Labour leader Ed Miliband and Liverpool FC manager Kenny Dalglish. Their red credentials are under no doubt – the former the younger son of a prominent Marxist theoretician, the latter an Anfield legend both on and off the pitch – but neither came into their jobs through a direct route and both have come under fire from sections of their supporters.Ed Milliband looking really fed up, in the run up to the local elections 2012

The former Energy and Climate Change Secretary ascended to his current position by the roundabout route of being the least offensive to his party members. His elder brother David, heir apparent, polled more first-choice votes, but due to the complicated AV form of polling Ed won through by being more people’s second choice. Not the most confidence inspiring way to become leader.

‘King’ Kenny took the reigns in a temporary capacity after the sacking of predecessor, new England manager Roy Hodgson, who had been a spectacular failure in charge, and hadn’t endeared himself to the Kop faithful. Dalgleish rode in on a tide of popular support, with his name being called out from the terraces.

For the first eighteen months in the position, if Ed Miliband’s record as leader of the opposition were expressed as a series of score lines, read from the old-school videprinter on a Saturday teatime BBC, they’d be a dirge of tedious no-score draws. Politically, he’s thus far squandered every gilt-edged chance he has been served up – and has been accused of bandwagon jumping when he did catch on – and missed more open goals than a blind, drunk, one-legged heifer (or, Andy Carroll, as his friends know him.)

Initially, his sporting counterpart in this shaky analysis, fared a little better. Dalglish stabilised the team, inspired confidence and invested in new and exciting talent. Results improved and the team crawled up the Premier League table.

But recently their fortunes have polarised somewhat. Where Liverpool and their popular figurehead had endured a run of poor form, the Labour leader has began to soar.

Up until the past few weeks, I got the impression when Ed Miliband was handed these golden opportunities to shine he wasn’t entirely sure what to do with them, like the ape at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey, picking up a bone and bashing the corpse until the light bulb above its head flickered into life. But, of late, the government has begun to resemble that corpse. Barely a day goes by without some new grief, some reason for embarrassment, so he isn’t short of material to thrash them with. There has been the débâcle that was the government’s handling of a potential fuel tanker drivers’ strike that caused chaos at the pumps; the resignation of party treasurer Peter Cruddas in the wake of the cash-for-access scandal; a budget that they could not even justify to their back benchers and included the memorable granny-tax, pasty-tax and caravan tax; the Leveson inquiry uncovering evidence of collusion between Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and News Corp in the takeover bid for BSkyB; and the devastating news that the UK economy experienced a so-called ‘double-dip’ recession, in spite of their claim to being the party with the correct formula to heal the country’s debt problem. An omnishambles, as Miliband catchingly described it. Not even Liverpool’s £35m Geordie statue, Carroll, could fail to hit a bullseye.

With each new mishap, Miliband has taken to the dispatch box at Prime Minister’s questions and has aggressively and effectively taken the Premier to task over them. David Cameron’s only defence, as it usually is, has been attack, rather than answering his opposite number’s questions. The mantra he repeats, regardless of the subject, is that the previous government got the country into these difficulties, and his government is taking difficult decisions to solve them. But how long will that wash?

The party’s defeat at the Bradford West bi-election was the only tarnish to this otherwise excellent purple patch. Labour lost the seat to one policy, professional agitator George Galloway, who was expelled from the party in 2003 and has oft come back to haunt them, like some embittered, shit-flinging, Scottish poltergeist.

Liverpool’s form has also caused them to part company with employees. Director of football Damien Comolli, along with some backroom staff, were given the bullet when results took a negative turn. Frenchman Comolli was the architect behind all ofKenny Dalglish looking fed up the club’s overpriced and under performing acquisitions, and, as in politics, when dismissals begin the minor functionaries act as a firewall around the person in the hotseat. Although the men on the pitch must take their share of responsibility, Dalglish’s tactical failings must shoulder much blame. He spent a decade away from management, years in which the game has changed radically.

The man is so adored the dilemma for the owners is, by appointing him they have given the supporters exactly what they wanted, now how do you get rid of him? To fire him would be like walking into a nursery with a basket of puppies then, in front of the delighted children, taking out a shotgun and blasting the dogs in the face with both barrels.

But in spite of his good run, I can’t invest much faith in Ed Miliband. It’s only weak opposition making him look good. His father was a socialist poster boy, but so what? My dad used to work for Heinz, but that doesn’t make me a go-to man for baked beans. All my instincts and reason are against his long-term prospects. He is a competent junior minister, but can you see him as Prime Minister? Some have commented he has the look of a Nick Park creation – I’m sure not helped by being viewed as a puppet of the unions – and a personality as dull and lumpen as one of those plasticine figures. It’s sad that personality should matter so much in a politician, but in this day and age of 24 hour multi-platform media it’s a must. A lack of a likeable personality was the downfall of dour, boring accountant Gordon Brown, who, fifty years ago, may have made a fair PM, but under constant, intense scrutiny he lacked the necessary nous. David Cameron, in spite of any opinions you may have about his politics, is very media savvy, although some are finding the smug, posh boy persona becoming very wearing.

Likewise, I can’t see Dalglish staying in his position either. It has become apparent he isn’t the man to restore Liverpool to the lofty successes of the 1980s. For a man who, to the club’s fans, could do no wrong, his reputation has been tarnished a little and perhaps the best result for all parties would be for him to fall on his sword.

If you’ve stuck with me this far, you’ll be relieved to know the connections between the two men do tie together a little neater than this article has so far given the impression. Both face stern tests of their leadership this week that could make or break their careers.

On Thursday 3rd May 2012, up and down the country, those not too apathetic will vote in local council elections. Parties in government usually suffer badly in mid-term elections, and with this government experiencing what can only be described as a crisis anything less than a Labour whitewash will be seen as a failure and an indictment of Miliband’s leadership.

On Saturday, the men in red shorts will face the toughest test of Dalglish’s reign so far when they face a enlivened Chelsea in the FA Cup final. They have already won a trophy this year – the League Cup – but this will be a make-or-break moment.

Good form in politics, like football, is fickle and fleeting. You can be riding high one week and plummeting the next. Unlike in football, this form is not so easily chartable, with no league tables to express results. The closest indicators would be polls conducted by the likes of YouGov and Ipsos MORI, but these are to be used only as a general guide. People are more willing to make a decision with no consequences, but when it comes to an election they tend to vote truer to type, so polls do not necessarily accurately represent an election result. But most polls are currently agreed that Labour are well ahead, with trust in the government ebbing away. Liverpool’s eighth position in the league tells a different story. They have fallen well short of the expectations of the owners and the fans.

The fear is that should both individuals succeed this week, it will buy them time in positions they have already outstayed their welcome.

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A Broadly Christian Debate

My daughter attends an excellent school.  It was the only one in the area with a place, but after a few nail biting weeks on the waiting lists, we were over the moon when it was the school offered.  It is also Catholic.  We are not.

I have had a few people ask me how I reconcile my belief in separation of church and state with sending my daughter to a school where prayers and church services are part of the school day.  I have no problem at all with there being Catholic schools, and with them including aspects of their religion in the school day (as long as the children are not restricted from finding out fair information about other belief systems and are not encouraged to make harmful choices).  We could have home educated her, or held out for a school that is less overtly religious.  What I have a problem with is the lack of choice for parents who wish to avoid religious instruction altogether.Nun with 1960's Catholic Schoolchildren.  Photo: Vin Crosbie

I start from the general principle that everyone should be free to practice their own religion or none at all.  As long as you are not harming anyone, you are respectful of others and you allow members of your religion access to other beliefs, then I don’t see why anyone could object.  I also feel that, if you use the facilities provided by a group, you should abide by the rules of that group, and as such you should also be able to get basic services with no special conditions.  This is why I do not think that the “collective worship of a broadly Christian nature” in mainstream schools is at all fair.

If we had not been ok with our child going to a school that does not fit with our beliefs as an atheist/agnostic family, we would have had to home educate.  There is no option in the state system for a school where no religion or religious practices are imposed on the children.  To me, the default should be no religion, as that leaves it to the parents and child to add on whatever they believe at home, or to find a school that does provide religious instruction.  As it is, in a country where an active belief in Christianity is very much in the minority, nearly every child is expected to take part in worship at school.

My primary school was a mainstream community state school, yet we had ministers from the local evangelical church in assemblies, holiday clubs and classrooms telling us that evolution was impossible and that non-Christians would burn in hell, which leaves a strong impression on an eight year-old.  We also had the standard vicar-with-guitar-and-beard singing hymns at us, and a teacher who told us that global warming is just a test from God.  I left primary school in 1996, but websites like Mumsnet are full of the same kinds of stories.  Of course, these people are more than welcome to hold whatever beliefs they like and to worship how they feel, but they shouldn’t be able to essentially force children to join in.

Yes, there is the option to withdraw your child from assemblies and religious practises, but why isn’t the default position that of the beliefs of the vast majority of the population?  A child is not given the option to refuse to participate, and so is dependant on their parents being aware of the school’s level of religious instruction.

I have no problem with teaching about religion.  In fact, call me Gove, but I do think that children should be familiar with the Bible, and the King James version is particularly useful.  I also feel that children should be familiar with classical mythology and the stories of other religions too – without religion, much of history and the arts would make very little sense.  I would encourage children to respectfully visit churches and other religious monuments, and to meet believers and leaders of all different faiths.  I just think that the beliefs of one particular religion should not be taught as fact in the vast majority of schools, unless the parents have specifically opted in by sending their child to a school affiliated to (and partially funded by) that religion.

Anecdotally, it would seem that most schools have very little religious instruction in the curriculum.  However, it is something that schools are assessed on by Ofsted, and a parent has no way of knowing if a school will suddenly start singing hymns or having religious talks. If a school is about to start sex and relationships education – in which a child will be told facts about their own body and how to keep themselves healthy – the parents are called in to discuss it and are given the chance to ask questions and raise objections.  Why can’t parents be given the same option when it comes to matters of a far less scientific nature?

Emergency Cuts

There are certain things that should be labelled as untouchable when governments want to make cuts. In any case, when cuts are made from public services they should be made where the effect will be felt least by the people the public is serving, if you see what I mean.

So if local councils do have to cut back on things, then shelters for victims of domestic abuse, public libraries and public loos shouldn’t be affected. They should cut their marketing budget, the publication of useless leaflets about recycling budget and maybe their bonus pool. (Recycling isn’t useless, but junk mail about it is.)

If the NHS, already under attack, has to make cuts, they should be slashing IT and management budgets, not medication and front line medical staff budgets.

I think you get my drift.Vintage NHS Ambulance.  Photo: David/Schofield

Now, have you ever needed the emergency services? I have. Last year they saved my life. Good job I am in France, and didn’t have to depend on good old 999. Because it is being reported that first response police officers have been axed in their thousands since the non-elected government came to power in the UK.

What else has been reported about cuts this week? Ah, factories giving employment to disabled people are going to be closed down. A few weeks ago we learned that women’s refuges are losing funding.

Soldiers are being killed in Afghanistan and the British people want their troops brought home. It would be a logical step as cuts to defence are being made. But if it is to bring them home and then send them off to Iran, which David Cameron won’t rule out, then heaven help us all. And not to say I told you so, but I have been worried about the idea of us attacking Iran for quite a while. For the record I am absolutely categorically against war unless we are really, truly, under threat of attack. I’m not going to say I would support a policy of non-intervention like the Chinese do, but I do get a bit fed up of Western politicians trying to tell the world how to behave. It’s bloody hypocritical.

But if we were to intervene in Iran, or the Falklands, or Syria, or anywhere else (and political leaders like military intervention, as cheering on the troops stops us thinking about the things that are going on right under our noses) surely, surely, the troops will need uniforms. And weapons. And money.

Cuts. Fed up of them. As the only people who are really paying for them are you and me. Well, you. As I live in France.

The Rail Users’ Uprising

Travelling by train can be wonderful or unbearable.

I do it every day, long and short journeys, for work and leisure, and a couple of months ago, the monthly season ticket just for my daily commute increased by 7.5%. Thank Christ I don’t live too far from work! I am so annoyed about this that I’m on the brink of turning into Michael Douglas in “Falling Down” so I can only imagine the level of resentment that my fellow commuters living further out of town must feel.Train on track.  Photo: IBBoard

The service provided by our rail companies – across the board – falls short of an acceptable standard, with sub-categories ranging from “could do better” to “surely you’re taking the piss?”

Now, I hear, there are proposals to increase peak time fares and close ticket offices.

  • Charge even more for a service not fit for purpose and cut jobs as well? Nice one, Justine Greening. That was well considered, wasn’t it?
  • Commission a report by some aviation fat cat with a knighthood? Check.
  • Report concludes that inefficiencies on the network cost Muggins the Train User AND Muggins the Subsidiser, of whom there are several million, a staggering amount of dosh.  (Insert a pithy phrase about a pipe-smoking chap who was rather good at solving crimes.)
  • Wait almost ten months to announce your response to the report? Oh yes. (Doubtless bricking it because your so-called “government” is so out of touch that even the unelected and over-privileged think you’re going too far with everything you attempt.)
  • Tackle the immense problem by increasing fares, thus metaphorically kicking in the teeth (and literally taking money out of the bank account) of the very people your government is supposed to be interested in keeping on side? Why the hell not!

The Tories are in power (and so are the Lib Dems, to a certain extent – but sadly, we can’t tell the difference, so let’s call them Tories, too) so we can’t expect policy geared to encouraging the use of trains. This party doesn’t give a damn about the environment and cares even less about the people paying its MPs’ wages (well, what’s a taxpayer-funded salary when you’re already rolling in money?). They’re not going to invest in the railway system. It’s Beeching v2.0 – completely unsurprising from the party that stands for the individual, the car, the choked motorway and the creation of more wealth for the already loaded few.

I have a proposal to increase the efficiency of the rail system. They’re punishing us for…well, nothing. Why not punish them in return? After all, we have reason enough. My fellow rail users, it’s time to fight back.  Here are my suggestions.

  1. Refuse to show your ticket to the ticket-checkers if;

a) The train you have travelled on is late
b) There is no space to sit or stand – without having to come into contact with a fellow passenger – in the usual standing areas in the carriage
c) The train is at peak time on a major route and there are fewer than four carriages.

2)      If conditions a), b) or c) are present, demand a refund, either partial or full.

a) if you are late for work
b) if you are late for any other appointment
c) because you have paid for a service that was not provided properly.

3)      If you incur any additional costs, send the rail company the bill. For example:

a) If your wages are docked because you were late for work
b) If you miss out on a deal (e.g. restaurant) because you arrived too late.

4)      If you are charged an increased fare or a penalty fare on a train because you did not buy a ticket before the journey, refuse to pay. Point out to the ticket inspector that you did not “choose” to walk past a ticket office before boarding the train; rather:

a) You arrived at the station with sufficient time to spare but there was a queue
b) You arrived at the station with hardly any time but you intended to pay.

Either of the above is a valid reason. You have a life that changes – sometimes, you have to go somewhere at short notice. They’re providing a service that should accommodate the needs of the passenger.

Then go on to point out that:

  1. They have the technology to process payments in their hand, so what’s the difference?
  2. You refuse to pay extra for the same journey – this is extortion, plain and simple

If Greening’s plans go ahead, tell them:

  1. There wasn’t a ticket office open – there are no ticket offices now, remember?
  2. You will only buy a ticket from a shop or post office if the ticket office is reinstated as well – it’s all about consumer choice, these days, right?

If we all did the above, then the traToy trains on a wooden track.  Photo: Carniculain companies would have to provide a decent service, more people would want to use the trains and they would be far less resentful about paying the already high prices. This bunch of heartless fools in power would have to realise that the public are not just willing to protest against them and everything they stand for, but are also willing to claw back their hard-earned cash. They would be forced to invest in the rail network so that companies could provide trains with carriages that were sufficient in number and sufficiently clean. They would be forced to limit the prices that the rail companies would charge. In short, they would be forced to stop having a bloody good laugh at us.

Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves…

Life goes on. The world turns – civilisation evolves and adapts. For the travelling community, nomadism – that intrinsic need to roam – is as much a choice as it is a survival technique.

From traditional Yurt communities, to Bedouin tribes and the Eastern European Roma, the gadjo (non traveller) represent a confusing mix of authority and conflict.

Settlement acts passed from the early 1960’s in former Communist states which intended for travelling families to establish themselves and work in the oppressive Land regimes forbade the use of identification as a Roma or Gypsy and forced integration into a society which, for many at that point in time, they neither had a natural affiliation to or comprehension of. Even British legislation prevented ‘vagabondism’ in most forms – causing the outlawing of occluding public by-ways and roads. Yet none of these techniques worked to incorporate a transient and Travellers on the Glen Road, Belfast, 1980. Photo: Bobbie Hanveymobile nationhood of people into host populations. Constantly persecuted, frequently misunderstood and a mystery to both the non traveller and themselves, the history of these people is a fluid and inflammatory story of optimistic struggle and straggling survival. One to which no one is immune, nor alien to.

Current popular interest in the lifestyle of traveller families has highlighted the differences between the old notion of extended support networks – which many Roma enjoy – and the insular autonomy of host nations which prevent, to an extent, the ability to disengage and re-engage at will into everyday life. The majority of Roma have settled due to financial stability which a permanent residence encourages; those that choose to continue a mobile livelihood face prosecution and persecution. This is undeniable. Media fear mongering – the idea of the gypsy as sly, dishonest, dirty – still permeates in news reports which ostensibly serve to both integrate and isolate the traveller community.

No solutions are advanced, the traveller community ‘travels’ and therefore it is perfectly reasonable to expect them to move on when the local community feels that this time has come. No other migrant community has such an uncertain future. Two days, three weeks, four months in one place at the most. When land is acquired, not only do they have to navigate a planning process which is confusing even to gadjo but they face the added suspicion as to how this would impact on local population. But does it really matter, in the long term? Surely a settled community – even one which flouts planning laws, is better than one who is hounded and hindered.

And this can be violent in its extremes. France and Italy have progressively legislated against traveller input into their respective societies. In Romania and Balkans areas violent attacks on settled traveller camps have increased according to the ERRC. Very few of these attacks are prosecuted, out of court settlements are meagre and do not reflect the severity of these. For instance, retributive justice, whether real or imagined, often take the form of burnings. Whole communities set alight. Maimed and broken. Women, children and men – those who have been neighbours – are targeted as embodiments of criminality and treated as such.

Trawling the archives of the ERRC and social sciences departments throw up truly sickening accounts, each followed by interviews by both victims and offenders. Offenders here is loosely used, frequently they miss the justice system. And similar justifications occur throughout these: we don’t want them here. They bring nothing to society. They dress provocatively. They don’t want to work. They have no respect. They deserve everything they get – taking our jobs, our benefits. It is a tale as old as time. One to which no minority community has been exempt. A basic lack of understanding of culture clashing, simplistic, indeed, but sometimes a simple statement starts a debate rolling.

Traveller children are instilled in respect of older generations, often they live in close knit groups and they have a very real feeling of family. In many areas there is a complete innocence toward everyday living. Education is secondary – and this is understandable to an extent. If no one is willing to see the person, the potential to excel, why invest in a system which is geared toward ideals they do not hold. Education is a key to future, a key to employabTraditional Gypsy Caravanility, but if no one will employ a traveller above a menial position, why bother? Why bother sending a child to school to be ridiculed, put in special institutes (a common practice) because they do not conform to a pattern of life which is so skewed against them? Isn’t it better to have the children close, to teach them what has been tried and tested as useful?

Gender is also an issue in traveller communities. Women are often not valued as autonomous people, but as glue to the community. They are an amalgam of mother and nurturer – an old fashioned premise but one which is diffused between all the group. Traveller women are usually proud of this role – and if lack of ambition is to be reviled then they truly lack a feminist impulse. But this is a contentious statement. Feminists everywhere will argue for and against, and here is not the place to pull this apart.

In times of recession scapegoats are easily found. Be they Jewish, Islamic, poor or rich…Aushwitz was home to over half a million Traveller families; marked by a ‘Z’ on entry. Hardly any were liberated. Mengeles systematically medically tested traveller people seeing them as subhuman, denying them an identity and a history. Denying them culture, as the Nazi regime sought to do with most disenfranchised groups, minority ethnicities.

Yet it is only within the last 30 years that the loss of life has been acknowledged by governments. They are a sideline in history, and for most travellers’ this collective amnesia has worked to preserve them. A people with no past or future can glide through life, but they cannot enjoy it fully. They cannot step proudly and say who they are. The controversy that has surrounded recent documentaries, the sensationalistic reporting denotes a change, a change in perspective in the gadjo community – could this be a recognition of the freedom that Roma enjoy – but with an ignorance towards the cost that this represents? Now is the time to see the bigger picture.

Workfare Slavery

Earlier this week it was seen that Tesco were (apparently mistakenly) advertising for permanent slaves. tesco logo on the side of a store to illustrate an opinion piece on workfareOops. In fact I believe the slavery contracts are supposed to be temp only. So, whatever, does anyone fancy going and working night shifts at Tesco for free? You know, learning really valuable skills that will look great on your CV? No? Well, I hope for you you’re not unemployed because you may actually not have the choice.

Anyway, there was justifiable outrage. There are calls to boycott Tesco. It’s a good reason to boycott them. Another good reason. If I lived in the UK I wouldn’t set foot in the place. For me it is the most despicable of the supermarkets, ruthlessly bullying farmers and small business owners in its quest for profit.

Other businesses are falling over each other to tell the world how they will not use Workfare. Tesco are mightily embarassed. They are working 24/7 furiously deleting critical posts on their Facebook page.

Tesco are not the only bullies outed by this furore. The world is finally opening its eyes to the government’s schemes to starve people back into work, to thieve back the benefits from those who need them most. The Department for Work and Pensions, led by Ian Duncan Smith are still churning out abhorrent policies which seem to be a deliberate attack on the most vulnerable.

What can you do? Not much actually. Write to your MPs, tell them how appalled you are at the government sponsored slavery and other initiatives aimed at stealing from the poor. Lend your support to the Boycott Workfare campaign. Boycott companies who are benefiting from the disgusting schemes.

And remember the Tories will not do anything to help you and me. It is all about helping the rich people. They may have squealed a little about the bonuses of the bankers a few weeks ago. But honestly? A few people’s bonuses aren’t going to change anything. Bonuses, despite what the press said, don’t create the recession. They may be pretty huge sums of money to you and me, but they are in fact peanuts in the whole scheme of things. Rich people are getting richer under the Tories. Which is fine. Nothing against rich people at all. It’s just when the government steals from the poor to enrich its friends that I feel very very very nauseous.

The State of the Union

The Scottish Parliament - ready to go it alone?

Scotland is going through the motions of divorcing itself from England. No counselling, no trial separation, straight to the severing of their union, followed by the ugly scene of dividing the spoils and arguing over who gets custody of their shared debts.

Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond was elected to the post with a mandate to push the agenda of further devolution. The SNP leader, independent of the UK government, this week set a rough date for a referendum on the constitutional future of his country for the autumn of 2014, in a bold move designed to bring the debate to the forefront of Westminster politics. Unsurprisingly, both sides of the House of Commons united in support of the continuation of the status quo, and made moves to ensure that, if the question of Scotland’s position within the union is to be on the agenda, then it is so on their terms. A unilateral move towards independence, it has been pointed out, would be illegal and illegitimate, and talks between the First Minister and Prime Minister David Cameron should be entered into before any decision is made by either government.

One of the main sticking points is what question or questions, exactly, should be on the ballot paper. The bottom line would be a decision on whether or not Scotland wants to remain part of the United Kingdom – a simple yes or no, in or out choice. The most likely outcome of that vote would be in favour of maintaining full membership. It would not be in their best interests to leave, nor is it quite yet the right time. David Cameron knows this, as does Alex Salmond. The First Minister is angling to change the paper to a multiple choice vote, with the aim of compromise being the outcome – more powers than are currently held by Holyrood, but short of complete independence; so called ‘Devo Max,’ until the Scottish people are better prepared to cope with the idea of freedom, and all the problems engendered by it.

A change as fundamental as the complete removal of Scotland from the British landscape is difficult to envisage. At no point during the life of any living person has Scotland not been tied to their English neighbours like an old married couple – sometimes bickering, sometimes sleeping with their backs to each other, but they’ve been together for so long it’d be unimaginable that they ever separated. You have to go back to 1707, when the Treaty of Union between the countries was ratified – before that, they were merely dating – to reach the point where the two were not officially joined. The shared history of our respective countries goes back a lot further than that, much of it conducted with feelings of animosity that occasionally makes good, if inaccurate, Hollywood fodder. It’s been a long and not always amicable relationship.

Much of the mental block comes from sharing this small island. It’s not like the whole nation can weigh-anchor and let itself float into the North Sea. We’ve always been physically attached, and that has proved problematic in overcoming many barriers. Were the countries to go their separate ways, it’s not as if it’d be necessary to erect another wall and set up check-points with border guards, but so many cultural signifiers are shared, as is co-dependence in terms of finance, defence, energy, and the infrastructure that has been built up in the past few hundred years of mutual habitation that no severance could be an easy or comfortable one for either party.

We are still just passing through history. The shape of the British isles may only be altered on a geological scale, but the boundaries within have been altered many times within the past two thousand years. The Romans drew their northern frontier a little short of where the current dividing line lies; the various Germanic and Danish settlers cohabited along different lines. The current map may have been settled for the longest, but that doesn’t mean it will remain the same forever. We have the habit of presuming change can’t and shouldn’t happen.

From an English perspective, only the most xenophobic, Daily Mail-reading nationalist would want Scottish independence. Politically, the Tories are unionists, despite it being against their interests, as, without its fifty or so Scottish MPs, the chance of there ever being another Labour government would be all but buried. I do wonder, however, how much of a role post-imperial collapse trauma plays – without its empire, Britain is desperate to hold on to whatever it still has.

If the split were to include a fair proportioning of debt and assets, it wouldn’t be favourable from the Scottish side either. Since the founding of its parliament in 1999, Scotland has been subsidised to the sum of 45 per cent more than the tax it generates, and, as of 2010, on average a Scottish citizen receives approximately £1,600 more of public spending per annum than an English one. Given the powers to raise and spend its own taxes, an independent Scottish government would have no choice but to plug the gap with savage cuts – with the loss of such generous policies as free university tuition – and make a substantial increase in personal contributions. Chancellor George Osborne has also presaged that Scotland would not be permitted to retain Sterling as its currency, and would be forced to adopt the faltering Euro. Historically, the Scots have been willing to fight for their freedom, but would they be willing to pay for it?

Where the ugliest and, literally, dirtiest disagreements will be encountered, will be in the ownership of Scotland’s oil industry. Alex Salmond has claimed ownership of 90 per cent of the precious black commodity on behalf of any prospective independent Scottish government. Technically, as Scotland is not a sovereign state, it has no claim over maritime boundaries, whereas the United Kingdom does. Were Scotland to suddenly become a sovereign state, its ownership would depend on international recognition of their latter claim over the UK’s current and long standing one.

I’m a nine-parts Englander, with some Scottish heritage on my father’s side – my first name was chosen as an acknowledgement of the family surname. I like to regard myself as Scottish in a shortbread-tin, touristy way – ostensibly so. I have divided opinions on the issue. I’m generally for giving people what they want, and if the Scottish people want independence I’d let them have it, along with everything that entails. It couldn’t happen without severe damage to both sides, and any negotiation entered into would have to be intended to minimise fallout, but I think it an accommodation could be reached.

A simile like the loss of a limb would be a little unfair – the body is stronger with it and the limb can’t survive on its own – as I believe the limb could survive, the question is if, after all this time, it’s really the right thing to do. As the Rolling Stones put it, you can’t always get what you want, but…sometimes…you get what you need. For the foreseeable future, Scotland and England need each other, and any decision taken now on their independent futures would have repercussions that could do untold damage to both for generations to come.

Photography, People and Politics

It’s a rare occasion that I leave the house other than to go to work, Greggs, or the pub. I went to see a photography exhibition this week.

Entitled No Redemption and showing at Northumbria University, it is a documentary by Keith Pattison of the miners strike in 1984/85. Pattison was commissioned by Sunderland Artists Agency to document the strike as it affected one small community in County Durham; Easington Colliery. He lived among the community and recorded the strike from beginning to end.

Photo Credit - http://www.keithpattison.com

Pattison was accepted by the community as they wanted him to show their perspective, and this proximity to the miners and their families helped him create many striking images. He was present on the picket line, in the streets of the town, in the miners welfare and in their homes. The shots taken on the picket line were particularly effective, as he witnessed miners being arrested and police escorting working miners home. Some shots were slightly blurred and out of focus which gave the impression of a photographer hard at work, battling with his camera to capture an expression on a face and the feeling of a moment.The shots showed how life had changed for local people in the village; police guarding street corners as old women shopped and a school girl returning from school with police marching past. This kind of photo puts extraordinary events into the context of the ordinary.

One of the first things that struck me, upon seeing small children innocently caught up in a very adult world, was that I could have been one of those children. I was 4 at the time. It’s strange to think that this was going on as I was growing up, not just in a village down the road but all over Britain.

I find fault with the exhibition at this point, as the images were all in black and white. If the shots were in colour, I think it would have brought the events to life. It was in my lifetime, it was the 80s. Displaying the events in black and white ages them, and perhaps keeps them in the past. At the time a lot of photographers were shooting in colour as part of the “social realism” style of the day. This project would have worked well in colour.

Still, the exhibition got me thinking again about the strike. I was too young at the time to appreciate what was happening but as I’ve taken more interest in society, politics, history, the media, class issues and all that kind of crap, the strike fascinates me.

The strike initially began as a response to Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government, announcing that many pits across the country had become unprofitable and would be closed. Many communities, especially in North East England, relied almost entirely on the pits. Without the pits there would be mass unemployment. Angry and fearful, many miners in the affected areas went on strike. Supported by their union, the National Union of Mineworkers led by Arthur Scargill, the strike was declared a national strike.

As it progressed the strike became increasingly bitter. Stung by a previous strike which effectively brought down the previous Conservative government, Margaret Thatcher brought down the full weight of the state upon the miners, their union and its representatives. She was determined to bring national industries into a free market and to crush the trade unions that prevented it.

Police were drafted in from around the country to oppress protests and used brutal and violent tactics, resulting in the injury and arrest of thousands of miners. MI5 was used to spy on union officials. The courts were used to freeze the assets of the union. Welfare benefits to strikers families were stopped. The right wing media condemned the strike on a daily basis, often editing events to make the strikers look bad.

Thatcher declared war on the striking miners and the union, calling them “the enemy within”. Scargill declared this to be class warfare, and for many miners struggling to feed their families and heat their homes whilst the middle classes thrived, it was. Millions of pounds of public money was spent on policing the strike – money that could have been spent on supporting the mining industry.

Support for the strike was much stronger in working class areas. Scargill was a hero to many, refusing to back down in the face of severe personal provocation from a government hellbent on destroying working class communities. To the ruling classes, he was a dangerous revolutionary intent on overthrowing their way of life with the intention of housing the Queen in a council house and creating a Marxist superstate.

Of course, there is only so long that a family can do without money, and the miners had to return to work. And of course many mines were closed, many jobs were lost, communities were torn apart and broken and lives ruined. The coal industry was privatised along with many other industries and unions damaged forever. Thatcher got her wish. The government was free to run the country at the expense of the poor for the benefit of the rich.

As in 1984, Britain in 2012 is divided along class lines. The Conservative led coalition government is continuing what Thatcher started, with a constant stream of policies protecting the privileges of their own class whilst simultaneously attacking the vulnerable working classes. The police continue to oppress demonstrations with brutal force and the right wing media continues to demonise those who go on strike to protect their livelihoods and their futures.

So when David Cameron talks about “Broken Britain”, he would do well to remember it was none other than his idol that broke it. But then, that’s exactly what they want, because when Britain breaks, it’s the poor people that suffer. And they ain’t poor.

Pattison’s exhibition is showing until 27th January. Here’s a link to the images if you can’t make it…

http://www.keithpattison.com/book

The Government Didn’t Inhale DLA … And Other Lies

When the government proposed to change the benefit system, from Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to Personal Independence Payment, a consultation period was begun.

The government itself has a code of practice for consultations, that it has quite clearly broken. It was two weeks shorter than recommended and took place over the Christmas holidays of 2010/2011. It was also not completed by the time the Welfare Bill was presented to Parliament, so it is clear that it was not taken fully into account.

This was not simply asking a bunch of people, this was a consultation based on the answers from 523 groups – local authorities, national charities, legal groups, user led organisations, health care professionals and businesses.

The government claims that the proposed changes to DLA to PIP has the support of a wide range of the public, and that they have consulted disability campaigners and charities.

It is a bit reminiscent of the old, “I did not inhale” excuse.

We consulted, but we did not listen.Raised hands, voting

Since the government was not willing to use the responses gathered during the consultation period, a group of campaigners decided to do so. They raised the funding through donations and requested the documents needed through the Freedom of Information Act.

What a surprise it was for them to read the statement from  London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson:

The Mayor would call for the Government to retain the (current) three-month qualifying period, as the increase to six months will mean that people with fluctuating conditions have increased difficulty meeting the qualifying period.

People with fluctuating conditions face the same barriers that all disabled face in relation to higher costs of living, and DLA is essential to maintain a decent quality of life.
The Government proposes imposing penalties if disabled people do not inform the Government of changes in their circumstances.
 ‘However, the overall fraud rate for DLA is less than 0.5 per cent. For those with fluctuating conditions, asking them to report every change to their condition would prove very stressful.

Further, the campaigners found that the other respondents were almost unanimous in their response to some points, and that

  • 74% of respondents were against the proposals but open to discussion
  • 19% had mixed views, agreeing with parts of the proposal
  •  Only 7% supported them fully.

Several points were raised by many respondents, including that the government’s motivation in proposing these reforms were perceived to be a saving 20% of disability benefits. When the overall fraud rate of DLA being estimated at 0,5%, surely it is clear that this will cut benefits from those who need it.

So why was the bill allowed to go ahead, with the government asserting that the proposals were supported by disabled groups?

Please read the Spartacus Report and pass it on to your friends and family (although I expect they will read about it in the newspapers).

I would like to point out several issues  that are often misunderstood by the general public.

1. DLA is an in work benefit. It aims to assist the disabled person in his or her daily life and often provides the means for them to be able to work

2. DLA is a highly efficient benefit, in that it saves the tax payer money. For every disabled person who is able to work because of the support, the country “earn” taxes.

3. DLA is not given out easily. It is a long and difficult process, and even someone as ill as Sue Marsh can fail to be awarded DLA

4. DLA does not automatically mean that the recipient gets a “free car”. Those on DLA who are awarded the higher mobility component of DLA. No matter what the Daily Mail tells you.

5. DLA recipients “pay” for their car using their benefit payments. So a person who has the highest possible award would pay half their DLA benefit toward a leased car. Only 30% of those eligible for a car take one.

If the government were more honest, both about the recipients of benefits not being lazy scroungers, and the response of those who replied to the consultation, I very much doubt that they would have been able to bring the Welfare Bill as far as they have.

And where the hell is our opposition party in all of this?

Why is it left to campaigners who struggle with their own disabilities and have to raise money on social networking websites to fund and produce this report?

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The Truth About DLA

A new report has been released today that shows that the government has been hiding the full scale of the opposition to the reforms of Disability Living Allowance.  I’m not surprised. There are an awful lot of myths about DLA that make it easier to persuade people that it should be replaced, but anyone who has claimed the benefit or has helped someone who has, knows what a lifeline it can be.

Disability Living Allowance, or DLA, is paid to anyone who has significant care or mobility needs. Care is split into three levels, and mobility into two, and a person can be receiving either care or mobility, or both, but only one rate of each.

For the care component, the lowest rate is only paid to people who have significant care needs at various points in the day – for example they may be unable to cook their own meals or deal with medication.

The middle rate is for people who have frequent and significant care needs, or need supervision either during the day or at night – they may need help going to the toilet, or could be a danger to themselves or others if left alone for more than short periods.

The high rate is for people who have significant care needs throughout the day and night – they could be unable to be left alone at all, or completely unable to perform even basic personal care without a lot of help.

The mobility component is paid to people who have significant problems with mobility and getting out of the house.  The lower rate is for people who regularly need help or experience severe discomfort or pain.  Person using a wheelchair in shadow

The higher level is for people who are completely unable to move around or be outdoors without assistance and/or long term risk to their health.  They may need a specially adapted car or specially made equipment to get around, and they have the option of using a portion of their benefit to pay into a car scheme called Motability so they can use an adapted car.

  • DLA is not an out of work benefit.  In fact, receiving DLA can be the thing that allows someone to work, as it is there to cover the costs of disability, which could include the equipment and support that someone needs to get a job.
  • DLA is not means tested – it acknowledges that anyone can be disabled, and that it is not fair for them to have to deal with extra costs because of it (of course, it doesn’t cover all the costs of disability, but it is an enormous help to many disabled people)
  • DLA is not for short term illness – it is for long lasting disability and/or life limiting conditions.  We are talking about people with missing limbs, downs syndrome, cancer.  People who need wheelchairs to get around.  Children who will never be able to live independently and who have the care needs of a toddler when they are school age.  People who have to deal with hallucinations, fits or blackouts.
  • DLA is not easily defrauded.  Current government estimates put the fraud level at around 0.5% – around 1 in 200 claimants get DLA when they shouldn’t, or a higher level than they are entitled to.  This is much higher than the amount of people who don’t claim when they should, or who are entitled but have given up when faced with appealing.
  • The criteria and claiming process for DLA is so strict that receiving it can mean you are eligible for other benefits and adjustments.  Different levels of DLA and circumstances can make someone be eligible for an extra part of working tax credit, a bus pass, carer’s allowance for a carer, help with the cost of an adapted car, disability railcard, a cinema discount card and so on.  All of these things are designed not to replace income but to try to minimise the cost of disability – they go some way to cover the costs that non disabled people just don’t have.

To support the report, please tweet “I support the #spartacusreport” and link to the report, press release or relevant articles and blog posts.  Send the report and press release to your MP and any media outlets that you have contact with.  Spread the word.  Add your story.  Keep an eye on twitter throughout today for more news and stories.

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