Category Archives: Society

Atonement: why the baby boomers should vote Green

Exeter, January 2015

It was Winter 1972. The lights started going out, thanks to the miners’ strike running rings round the Central Electricity Generating Board. As a university undergraduate I recall groups of us studying the power cut rotas and arranging to visit each others’ houses to carry on studying (and making instant coffee).

The other memorable event that winter was the publication of a paper entitled A Blueprint for Survival. It made up a special January 1972 edition of what was then a new magazine entitled The Ecologist. It argued that the planet was on a disaster course, with human behaviour disrupting ecosystems, exhausting natural resources and food supplies, and leading ultimately to social breakdown. Economic growth as we knew it was not sustainable. Radical social change was urgent.

A Blueprint for Survival was obligatory reading for anyone of even mildly progressive bent. Although some of its proposed solutions lacked conviction, the analysis was compelling.

But the mainstream world moved on as if A Blueprint for Survival had never been, with only a handful of marginalised evangelists pressing the case. The generation that reached adulthood in the 1970s – my generation – failed to respond to Blueprint’s challenges. There was some tinkering at the margins, since most environmental thinking and policy developed firmly in the mainstream: pollution controls, land use planning policies, wildlife protection and modest incentives to behavioural change, such as payments to farmers for environmental services. All important, but nowhere near enough. Even today, climate change deniers ally with big business to resist the costs of adaptation and mitigation.

Why did most of us do so little? The answers would make a fat academic tome, but my own brief take is something like this. We started to make our careers in a period of extreme (for this country) social instability. Mrs Thatcher offered an alternative, and the majority opted for it – again and again and again. That alternative was based on the perceived superiority of markets and the private sector over public provision, and the belief that those markets should be unfettered. The print media – largely owned by the rich and powerful – encouraged belief in the Thatcher prescriptions. And then we started to think that there might be better ways. New Labour offered them – or so we thought. Apart from a tendency to squander public money, it was business as before. All the while, we carried on working, having families, finding houses to live in. If we got involved in environmental issues it was by joining the RSPB or CPRE or the National Trust. Those in Greenpeace were anarchists.

It doesn’t matter whether this analysis is agreed or not: it’s a personal view. What is clear is that at the start of 2015, we have:

  • A government-led obsession with the privatisation of public services, leading to taxpayers funding profits for the few while losing control over essential services and staff either losing their jobs or working for a pittance.  This obsession pervaded the last Labour government (remember PFI?) as well as the present coalition.
  • A widespread conditioning that economic growth should take priority over everything else and that the way to achieve such growth is to loosen controls over “the market” and keep taxation to the minimum.
  • A National Health Service which is fragmented, under-funded and being cherrypicked by private contractors.  No mainstream party is prepared to increase taxation to fund it, despite the obvious benefits of a healthy population.
  • A  banking system which not only operates on the basis that we must go into debt but also skews funding towards the interests of the financial services industry [1].
  • Discrimination against small businesses who cannot afford to employ experts to keep up with (and get round) employment legislation, health and safety requirements, tax rules.
  • Increasing inequality of wealth, where those living in poverty are denied chances to climb out of it because of cost-cutting by big business [2].
  • A requirement on higher education institutions to dance to the economic growth tune, replacing the freedom to think widely with functional training – and charging students unprecedented fees for the service.
  • A feeble response to climate change, particularly on educating the wider public about the need for action.
  • A housing crisis, despite a National Planning Policy Framework which stacks the odds firmly in favour of house-builders wanting to build where they want (rather than where is most sustainable).
  • A major decline in well-being: between 1991 and 2009 prescriptions dispensed for antidepressants increased by 334 per cent in England [3].
  • A system of government which focusses not only on the short-term but also the trivial (have a look at the government’s announcements website) at the expense of confronting the challenges facing society and the planet, eg the failure of successive governments to develop a coherent energy policy.
  • Proposals for “devolution” which would do no more than hand more power to mainstream politicians at the local level.
  • The reduction of politics to a game of tactical voting ….

I could go on. There is a ferment of analysis at present of what’s wrong with our society and how we can put things right. Others explain it better than I do.

We, the baby-boomers, have had huge advantages. A world free from global conflicts; greater access to free education and knowledge; mass communications; a breaking down of deference and (almost) the old social barriers; opportunities undreamt of by our parents. We achieved much, but collectively lost sight of a moral compass. The legacy we leave to the next generations is not one we should be proud of. Just how bad it is is something I’ve only recently understood.

Putting things right must start now. The mainstream political parties and their allies (or bosses) in the media and big business have shown no interest in righting these wrongs. Only the Green Party has a progressive radical agenda – and policies to support it. That small number of people – more far-sighted than I’ve been – who have voted for them in the past have been prevented by our electoral system from making a proportionate impact.

It’s naïve to think that the 2015 General Election will see the scales fall from the eyes of enough people to elect a Green government. There’s strong evidence of substantial support among younger people for the Green Party, which is hugely encouraging.

But it’s not enough. Those of us who – by action or inaction – helped create the present mess have a moral duty to join in kick-starting change. We need to create a sustainable society – one in which there is no compromise on achieving social justice and on environmental salvation. The two are interlinked – if you feel society is giving you a bum deal, where’s the incentive to save the planet?

The Green Party stands for the common good. Now is the time.

Notes:

[1] See in particular the work of Positive Money at http://www.positivemoney.org/

[2] See for example the work of nef at http://www.neweconomics.org/publications/entry/inequality-and-financialisation

The Equality Trust provides a vivid graphic at http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/resources/multimedia/infographic-income-inequality-uk

[3] Quoted in the ONS publication Social Trends 41, Health chapter, at http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/social-trends-rd/social-trends/social-trends-41/health.pdf

A little bit of Ireland in Exeter

There are many good things about where we live in Exeter, and the existence of the Globe Inn a short walk away is one of them. Located off the main streets, it’s a comfortable and relaxed place, free of TV sports and High Street yobs. Eclectic but familiar furniture, subdued – but not gloomy – decor, and a decent selection of beers, wine and food. Follow them on Twitter @ExeterGlobe or on Facebook as The Globe.

The third Wednesday of each month is Irish music night at the Globe. Being married to a Dubliner means that this earns a slot in the domestic calendar. Being married to a Dubliner who is also a cousin of the direct descendants of the late and revered Leo Rowsome – the man who brought the sound of the uilleann pipes to a new and much wider audience– means it’s a must-go.

The band is a scratch band: a central core plus whoever else turns up. Last night was a thin evening, and the absence of the fiddle was noticeable, so the pipes were firmly in the ascendant. But we’ve been there when just about every band instrument was represented.

On their own, the pipes can be melancholic, evoking the remoteness, the unhappiness and the resilience of Irish communities over the centuries.  Speed up the tempo, or put the fiddle and a few more in, and it’s the jollity of John Wayne chasing Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man.  In keeping with the sociability of the Irish you can carry on a conversation while they’re playing. It’s not background music, but it doesn’t deafen you either. For me, it’s as good as actually being in Ireland.

The Globe hosts other forms of music more usually associated with city centre pubs in England. But it’s great to find a place that welcomes traditional Irish music, performed in the traditional way – no stage, but seated round tables in a corner of the pub. It’s a thousand miles from the cod “Irish bars” to be found in almost every city in Europe where the only pipes you’ll find are in the toilets.

The BBC should run a competition for a new national anthem

The United Kingdom’s national anthem has remained unchanged since it came into common use in the latter part of the 18th century. The underlying sentiments are summed up in its first line – God save our gracious Queen – and the theme continues throughout. We, the Queen’s subjects, pray to a god that many don’t believe in to keep the monarch safe, victorious, and long-lasting.

There are very few people indeed who don’t have some affection for the person of Queen Elizabeth II and – given the apparent successor to the throne – the words Long may she reign will strike a chord with many. Yet setting aside the personalities, is the current anthem really fit for purpose in the 21st century state?

Republics disposed of hymns of praise to their monarchs at the time of their formation. La Marseillaise originated in the French Revolution and is now enshrined in the Fifth Republic’s constitution. It is a song of praise to the people of France, though you need a strong stomach to gloss over some of the more nationalist, violent and racist bits of it. The German national anthem – the third verse only of the song beginning Deutschland, Deutschland über alles (the rest of the original having been perverted by the Nazis) – celebrates a fatherland of unity, justice, brotherhood and freedom. It too has formal status, adopted by Presidential edict in 1991 as the national anthem for the re-unified Germany.

Other countries with monarchies have recognised that their citizens may not always want to sing the monarch’s praises. Denmark, Norway and Sweden all have two anthems: a “royal” anthem and a national anthem. The former are similar to the UK’s; the latter celebrate the land and the people.

Within the United Kingdom itself, Scotland and Wales have adopted what are in effect their own national anthems: Flower of Scotland and Land of our Fathers respectively. These celebrate the nations, not the rulers. They are sung at international sports fixtures when the national teams are playing, leaving England, oddly, with the UK national anthem.

Views on the UK anthem’s music are inevitably subjective. Played slowly it sounds like a dirge. Played with vigour it can be stirring. Benjamin Britten’s 1961 setting of God Save the Queen is a moving and exquisite piece of music, but the delicacy of the first part will not play well at a rugby international.

There is nothing to prevent the UK anthem from being changed. We don’t need the government’s or Parliament’s permission. The British Monarchy website states: “There is no authorised version of the National Anthem as the words are a matter of tradition.”

So let’s have something fit for the future, and which won’t give some of us a pain in the throat when we’re expected during the next decade or so to sing God Save the King. Something which celebrates our natural and built environments, our scientific and artistic achievements, and our social progress. Something free of triumphalism and favour of peace rather than conflict. Something which appeals to all citizens, irrespective of nationhood, race and faith (and no faith).

How do we find it?

As we live in the age of media competitions – Eurovision song contest, X-factor, Britain’s Got Talent, and so on – there can be no more fitting organisation than the BBC to run a competition come up with a winner.  To avoid a race to the bottom, the first step would be for the BBC to set up a committee to determine the shortlisting criteria.

The committee would determine the process for inviting submissions and for judging the winner , and would consult widely on its proposals in draft. Its membership should include as a minimum a poet, a composer, a choir director, an independent-minded MP, a social scientist, an environmentalist, a historian and someone who knows about running large-scale competitions. Existing works would not be ruled out if they met the criteria or could be modified to do so.

There are two other reasons for asking the BBC to take this on. First, it has a truly national reach through TV and radio and on-line services, so offering the potential to involve as many as possible in the voting. Second, as the controlling body for the Proms, it is well placed to ensure the Last Night concludes with the winning entry, in place of the old.

If you agree write to Lord Hall, the BBC Director-General, saying so and spread the idea as widely as you can.  The time is right.

(Thanks to www.nationalanthems.info for some of the information used in this blog.)

Public lies and private greed

I’ve just finished reading Owen Jones’s polemic The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It.  Almost anyone reading it should come away angry.  Angry because if you’re part of the “Establishment” you won’t like the effective hatchet job done on your lack of social morality.  Or, if you’re like the rest of us outside the “Establishment”, you’ll be – or should be – angry because of the exposition of the various ways in which a small group of people are lying to us and screwing us.

The fact that Jones’s reasoning is at times specious, his selection of targets somewhat scattergun and his use of evidence all too obviously intended to support his thesis doesn’t detract from the impact of the book.  What he is saying – broadly – is that successive governments since 1979 have espoused the rhetoric of a “free market”, have deregulated and privatised, and in so doing have allowed big business – particularly the financial services sector – to exercise unaccountable power in society on an unprecedented scale.

And the irony, as Jones makes clear, is that big business in this “free market” is highly dependent on publicly-funded support, ranging from the provision of roads to the bailing out of the banks in 2008.  The lie of free market capitalism in the UK – supported by supine mass media whose proprietors and editors are themselves part of the “Establishment” – reaches its apogee in the handing-out of government contracts for public services, from weapons for the armed forces to cleaning services in hospitals.

It’s interesting that Jones doesn’t make more of privatisation in the utilities sector which is the clearest example of giving away state assets to private interests.  He tilts at the privatised railway, but train operator franchises can be revoked and much of the infrastructure is already back in public ownership by another name (Network Rail).

More worrying is the outright sale of the energy and telecoms sectors, where the infrastructure itself has been sold.  My local telephone network is old and has disrupted our phone and broadband service twice this year.  But it is owned by BT Openreach, an organisation seemingly beyond public influence.  BT Group as a whole has lashings of funds to promote sports and other optional digital services but clearly sees no profit in spending money to modernise the Openreach-owned cabling.

Similarly the failure of successive governments – yes, when the decisions are hard ones they’re for the government, not the private sector – to renew our energy infrastructure has led to panic measures such as the new nuclear generator in north Somerset to be built by the French in exchange for a guaranteed energy price of twice what would be expected in a “free market”.  Where is the investment risk in such a deal?

Of course with those corporations running what used to be public services, risk no longer plays a serious part. There will always be a demand for energy, transport and telecoms.  If the going gets tough, the company just walks away, as National Express did when it found it couldn’t make enough money out of the East Coast rail franchise.  Contracts are drawn up so that the private sector contractor is guaranteed a minimum level of income irrespective of the state of the “market”.  Ever wondered why there are so many unnecessary minor road schemes – a new traffic island here, a crossroads redesign there – even though your local council is cutting essential services?  Have a look (if you can) at the contract between the council and its highways consultants.

All these are profoundly serious issues.  But what is even worse is that the people running these risk-free companies have grown richer and the people who work for them have grown poorer. Recent studies have demonstrated this growing gulf beyond any reasonable doubt.  Yet instead of acting as a fair-minded distributor of wealth-generated public funds, government has become a means of channelling taxpayers’ money to its chosen “partners” in the private sector who retain it for their own bosses and shareholders rather than their workforce.

Much, much more could be said.  What is needed is action, to start rescuing this country from the moral sink it is drowning in. Jones comes up with some old die-hards such as a greater role for trade unions, or the Peoples’ Assembly movement that he is helping to set up.  The trouble with the unions is that when they did have power they abused it – remember the 1970s? – and the Peoples’ Assembly, however worthy, is destined to bring out the usual collection of lefty activists who fail to connect with the essentially conservative (small “c”) majority. In other words, with people like me.

So what to do?  A revolution, yes. But of what sort and how to achieve it?  I’ll post some ideas in a future blog. Meanwhile, read Jones’s book (and no, I don’t know him and this isn’t a plug) and get angry.  It helps.

Business as usual won’t be an option for Scotland

There will be no going back to business as usual after the Scottish plebiscite, whatever the result.

Short of a huge display of apathy on 18th September, the vote will force the Scots to decide whether they are separatists or unionists.  Thanks to the yes-no nature of the voting question – with no third option of “devo max” that might have persuaded more nationalists to settle for staying in the union – the choice is stark.

Whichever side wins the vote, the result will leave a large and disaffected minority.  A majority for separation sets in train a process which ends with the unionist minority becoming citizens of a foreign country.  If there is a majority for remaining in the UK, where does that leave the separatist minority whose passions have been inflamed by the campaign?

These are uncharted waters for the UK.  Can history help?

Comparisons with Ireland in the early years of the last century are risky.  The polls do not suggest any concentration of separatism or unionism in easily definable regions of Scotland.  There is no evident Scottish equivalent of the six counties which eventually became Northern Ireland because there was no settlement by foreigners of a particular part of Scotland.  Though sectarianism exists in Scotland, it is not driven – as was the case in Northern Ireland up to 1972 – by the discriminatory behaviour of a malevolent devolved government.

And yet could the conditions for civil strife arise in post-plebiscite Scotland?  Like the rest of the UK, Scotland contains people alienated from society by joblessness, poverty and lack of opportunity.  Could they form destructive and violent support to a few fanatics within whichever minority loses on 18th September?  As Ireland’s Easter Rising of 1916 showed, a very small number of people can set history off on a new, and painful, course if the rationale for discontent is there.

Irish elections and the visual impact of the personality cult

Waterville, Co Kerry

You always know when an election is in prospect in Ireland. You see it the moment you leave the Rosslare ferry terminal. Large, really large, poster-size photographs of grinning candidates attached to what seems like every available lamppost or telephone pole. It gives a new dimension to the meaning of roadside clutter.

This month, it’s a double dose: elections to the European Parliament and to Ireland’s county councils. It’s far from clear, at least to the outsider, which candidate is standing for which election. By driving from Wexford to Co Kerry via Limerick City – to take a random but real journey – the keen observer can deduce who the European candidates are because their faces recur and recur and recur. Just when you think you are safe from the enthusiastic youth who resembles a wannabe TV presenter, he pops up again at a remote crossroads in Kerry.

Party labels are visible but not prominent. The candidate’s face and name are everything. There must be a PR firm that teaches election candidates how to try to look earnest, honest, responsible, caring and cheerful in a single facial expression. I’d ask for my money back. One or two of them bring it off, but most don’t. As we drove past a smiling avuncular-looking figure my (Irish) wife said she wouldn’t trust him an inch. My favourite is the candidate whose expression looks as if her idea of a good time would be pulling the limbs off small animals, or worse.

Poster sites are myriad. Heavily used sections of road, both in town and country, find posters from different candidates competing for the best positions. Barely used country tracks are not exempt, since there may be a farmer or two living there. My award for the worst-taste location goes to a Kerry County Council candidate who placed a giant sized poster of herself at the top of Ballaghisheen Pass in the Dunkerron Mountains, right at the viewing point for a stunning rugged landscape and visible for miles. Since most of those pausing, or even passing, are likely to be foreign tourists it seems a waste of money and an unnecessary eyesore in the natural environment.

It may be advancing years, but despite five days’ incessant exposure to the candidates’ posters, I can’t remember a single name. Ireland, like the UK, has what passes for a “mature” democracy, and almost all electors will vote on party lines. So why the focus on what individual candidates look like?

One reason may be that candidates’ photos now appear on ballot papers alongside their names. This measure was introduced in 1999, partly to assist voters with reading and literacy difficulties but also to address the problem – held to be peculiar to Ireland – of distinguishing between candidates with similar or identical surnames. Subsequent research(1) produced evidence to suggest that some voters were influenced by candidates’ photographs rather than by their political affiliation.

This is a bit worrying. Tuesday’s The Irish Times carried a photograph(2) which illustrates how judgement by appearance can mislead. I have no views at all on the competence of either the Irish or Finnish finance ministers, but if I were being asked who looks the more trustworthy it’s a no-brainer.

More seriously, the Irish system seems to me to reinforce the gulf between politicians and the rest of us. Politicians are allowed extensive high profile publicity in spaces that would be denied to anyone else. Are we meant to gaze on them and admire a new form of celebrity? Why should they disfigure landscapes and townscapes with official sanction?

Of course we should respect the Irish people’s right to determine their electoral system. And there are many things about Ireland that Britain can and should admire. But the proliferation of photographic election posters is not one of them. However much I might respect my home city and county councillors, I don’t want to see the streets plastered with their mugshots at election time.

(1) Buckley, F., Collins, N., Reidy, T., 2007. Ballot paper photographs and low-information elections in Ireland. Available in an open access version at https://cora.ucc.ie/bitstream/handle/10468/31/FB_BallotAV2007.pdf?sequence=3 (accessed 7 May 2014).

(2) http://www.irishtimes.com/business/economy/european-commission-cuts-2014-irish-growth-forecast-by-0-1-1.1784453 (accessed 7 May 2014)