Tag Archives: Politics

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)