Saturday 29 August 2015

August impresions

I've been away on holiday for the past couple of weeks so have only a vague impression as to what's been going on, but here are a few things I've noticed:

The Labour Leadership Contest
  1. Jeremy Corbyn has announced that, if he is elected "Labour will apologise for the Iraq War."  I think this is a mistake.  These "apologies" (for slavery, for the misdeeds of empires etc) are largely  cosmetic PR stunts. Corbyn should be above gesture politics.  His opposition to the war, at the time and since, is well known, and there is no need to antagonise those Labour members who, however mistakenly, placed their faith in the promises and evidence produced by their then leader, Tony Blair. 
  2. I applaud Corbyn's opposition to the replacement of Trident, which should be the Liberal Democrat position, which I hope will be confirmed at our conference next month.  However, I think it is unnecessary at this stage to push also for withdrawal from NATO.  I'm sure there's a case for this, but one step at a time.  Again, no need to upset the timid unnecessarily.
  3. His fence-sitting on the European Union is probably the best that could be hoped for.  We pro-Europeans need to work for a Union that allows entrepreneurs to exploit the the opportunities of the single market whist respecting the rights and welfare of employees, and Corbyn could be part of that.  It will probably be up to we Liberal Democrats to make the political and cultural cases - the "vision thing."
  4. The attempt to smear Corbyn by attributing  anti-Semitic views to him is disgraceful but unfortunately par for the course.
Refugees and asylum seekers.

A friend asked me what I thought about migrants.  I replied that I admired them.  It takes enormous courage to uproot oneself, and sometimes one's family as well,  to escape a civil war, the violence of a cruel and capricious dictatorship, or even just to seek a better life.

The tragic fates of so many migrants and asylum seekers is heartbreaking.  Yet, following David Cameron,  the Daily Express has a front page headline today (29th August) referring to them as "swarms" - a word more appropriately referring to insects.  What a shameful country we live in.  And even more shameful, our government, rather than taking a lead in helping to negotiate a constructive pan-Europe approach, is one of those countries standing on the sidelines and refusing to co-operate.

(For further views on the migration crisis and what to do about it see previous post).

House of Lords.

Another friend writes:

I am wondering whether you intend to blog on the subject of the dissolution honours list?   It is increasingly my view that the British government is undemocratic, corrupt and incompetent, and it seems to me that the elevation to the Lords of an unrepresentative group of people is an example of all three attributes, even though some of the group might have a positive effect there.   Undemocratic because the group in no way reflects the general election result, even if the House of Lords is thought to be a democratic institution, which of course it is not.  Corrupt because cronies of the 3 party leaders have been presented with an income of £300 per working day for life.   Incompetent because it reduces even further the respect of most people for politics and politicians, which is likely to lead to the rise of extremism both on the left and on the right.

I fully agree: and would merely add:

  1.  Cameron justifies his list by a claim that the Lords should more nearly reflect the composition of the Commons.  Surely the point of a second chamber is that it should be different from the Commons: act as one of the checks and balances necessary in a democracy to avoid an elected dictatorship (especially when the electoral system is itself corrupt.)
  2. Some of those "elevated" are among the worst offenders of the Commons expenses scandals, thus bringing politics into further disrepute.
During the holiday I've read half of Owen Jones's "The Establishment....."   He refers to the British state as "corrupt", which I felt was a bit strong, but my correspondent quoted above  is very balanced  and rational, so maybe Jones is right after all, and I'm prepared to move in his direction.  Another highly suitable description is that our system is infected by "cronyism,." or, as a Guardian leader put it: "Government of the club, by the club, for the club."

The copy of Jones's book which  I read d was borrowed and had to be handed back, but I am sufficiently gripped to have ordered my own copy (via Foyles rather than Amazon).  In general Jones does not tell us anything we don't already know, but his book is well researched and referenced,and it is convenient to have available the supporting detail.  Highly recommended.

Saturday 15 August 2015

TTIP puts our democracy in danger

TTIP stands for Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.  It doesn't yet exist but negotiations, between the European Commission and the United States, are taking place now to create it.  The aim is to turn these two huge economic areas into one great a free trade zone.

Well, I'm a Liberal and very much disposed towards free trade.  However, there are several  very serious problems related to TTIP.  The main ones, to my mind, are:

1.  As with any free trade area, what is permissible in one economy is permissible in the other.   But the US's regulations to maintain high food standards are much laxer than those in the EU. For example, they use many growth hormones banned in the EU to fatten their cattle and pigs, permit over 80 pesticides which the EU bans, and grow genetically modified crops which the EU allows individual members to ban.

2.  It is possible that TTIP will open up Europe's publicly provided services such as our NHS to yet further privatisation.

 The argument in favour of TTIP is that it will create jobs, employment and growth.  And you could argue that we've already accepted the pooling of our sovereignty with the other members of the EU, and thus sacrificed some of our ability to act independently, for the economic, political and social  advantages we gain.  However, whether it is wise to accept  further pooling with such a massive economy as the US, with such very different standards on workers' rights, environmental protection, food safety and public health is  highly questionable.

What in my view cannot be questioned  is this third objection.

3.  TTIP will introduce a system of dispute resolution called Investor-State Dispute Settlements, or ISDSs, These are operated by by tribunals entirely separate from the legal systems of the countries involved, and have the power to allow private companies to sue national governments if the companies believe that the governments have made regulations which interfere with their making of profits.  ISDSs already exist in other contexts and the examples of their powers are bizarre.  For example, the tobacco company Philip Morris is to sue the governments of both Australia and Uruguay for the loss of profits arising from  anti-smoking regulations.  In the context of the North Atlantic Free Trade Association, the government of Canada has been successfully sued for daring to stop the building of a quarry on the grounds that it would damage their environment.

In other words, ISDSs place the profit making interests of international businesses above the sovereignty of governments.

For 200 years or so (longer if you want to go back to Magna Carta) we have gradually wrested control of our societies from monarchs, aristocrats, generals, dictators and suchlike and implemented, albeit imperfectly, government of the people, for the people, by the people.  We are now in the process of handing our sovereignty over to unelected  private corporations.

Protests about TTIP are to be held throughout the EU (and possibly in the US as well) next Saturday, 22nd August. To sign the petitions click here.  For details of how to take part in the action see

Thursday 13 August 2015

Britain gets nastier.

This week I've had the pleasure of entertaining a couple of friends from Australia.  They arrived on Monday and the younger one, who many years ago was a student  in a school where I taught,  was extremely indignant.  In Kings Cross station she had picked up a free newspaper and was horrified to see the headline: " 'Marauding migrants' threaten our standard of living, says Hammond. " 

"Anyone in public  office in Australia who said something like that would be forced to resign" she said.

That day's Guardian also ran the same headline.   Philip Hammond is, of course, our Foreign Secretary.

In order to assure her that not all we Brits are so crass I was able to show her a copy of Giles Fraser's article from last Saturday, in which I particularly like his final paragraph, beginning:

Thousands of people enter this county every year without papers or a little red passport.  They are called babies. And they are a drain on the economy for at least 20 years.

To put the matter into even greater perspective:
  • two thirds of all migrants to Europe are legitimate refugees fleeing from persecution or violence in dysfunctional countries such as Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan rather than simply economic migrants seeking a better life (though that in itself is to be admired rather than resented);
  • only 1% of recent migrants to Europe are at Calais: most are in Italy and Greece;
  • most Syrian refugees (about 1.2 million) are in Lebanon (population 4.5 million).
So by international standards we haven't much to worry about.  We're certainly not swamped.

(For more fascinating facts see earlier post and

In his article Fraser commended the BBC for planning to show part of next Sunday's BBC1 religious programme "Songs of Praise" from the church the refugees and migrants have built in the "Jungle" at Calais.  This has outraged the Daily Express, which ran a full front page  headline demanding why the BBC was wasting our licence fee in this manner.  I believe the Sun did something similar, though I haven't actually seen it.

It really is getting quite difficult to be proud of Britain and our contribution to civilising influence in the world.

Thursday 6 August 2015

Labour's establishment too chicken.

The Labour Party's establishment seems to be combining to defeat the only leadership candidate with (modest) vision, Jeremy Corbyn.

Two days ago  Polly Toynbee wrote* that she had dreams well beyond those espoused by Corbyn, but no one who stood on those policies could possibly get elected.  Yesterday the decent Alan Johnson wrote that voting for Corbyn would be madness, and urged support for Yvette Cooper.

I can see their point: they are terrified that if the Labour Party is led by someone whom the  Tories and their client press can depict as being from the "loony left" then Labour will be unelectable.

Relatively recent history shows this need not be so.

When in 1975 the right wing extremist Margaret Thatcher ousted the relatively moderate Edward Heath from the Tory leadership many on the centre-right probably felt that the Tories had made themselves unelectable.  Then look what happened.   Mrs Thatcher’s policies clearly struck a chord with the electorate.

In 2000 "Red Ken" Livingstone was so far to the left that Labour refused to endorse him as their candidate for Mayor of London.  So he stood as an Independent and won anyway.

And in 2015 the Scottish Nationalist came from almost nowhere and reduced the other parties' representation in their country to a mere one each.

So massive shifts in support can happen and I suspect Jeremy Corbyn’s personality, record, and  policies are capable of causing a similar shift now.  

I believe many of us are tired of sound-bite-spouting politicians all espousing the neoliberal consensus that reducing the government's internal deficit is top priority, that the banks, who caused the economic crisis, continue unscathed and underegulated, that the rich need to be further rewarded and the poor punished,  and that key sectors of the public realm should be handed over to the profit-maximising private sector.

 Not that Corbyn's policies are all that extremist, save in the eyes of that neoliberal consensus.  Taking the railways and utilities back into public ownership, retaining the NHS as a non-profit making service, asking the better off to contribute more to the costs of society, etc. are actually popular and supported by a majority, according to YouGov.

  Sadly, unlike Mrs Thatcher in the 70s and 80s, Corbyn will not have the support of the majority of the press: indeed quite the opposite – they will go out of their way to vilify him.  Nevertheless, if this relatively honest and decent man, untainted by the triangulations of New Labour and who speaks from conviction rather than in carefully-tailored sound-bites, is given the chance to face the disingenuous  and duplicitous Cameron and Osborne, I have the feeling his decency will shine through.  

The three other contenders for the leadership are doubtless worthy but all are offering Tory-lite and not one of them seems to have the personality to set the electorate on fire with enthusiasm.  Corbyn is different.  If he is non-tribal and keen to work with other parties of the left (and I don't know the answer to that) he could be the game-changer we need.

Labour's establishment should stop being lily-livered and "go for it."

*  This article, entitled "Free to dream, I’d be left of Corbyn . . . " appeared in the print edition of the Guardian on the 4th August, but seems to have been dropped from their website.

Saturday 1 August 2015

Asylum Seekers and Migrants at Calais

The issue of hopeful asylum seekers and migrants at Calais has brought out the worst in Britain's right-wing politicians, popular press and probably more than a few others as well.

A few days ago Nigel Farage, still UKIP leader, noted on the radio that nine asylum seekers had already died in attempts to get into the UK  (one young man only that morning) and demanded that "something should be done" or  it wouldn't be long before a British citizen was killed.  This is a nasty throwback to the gung-ho Boys' Own Paper attitude  of my childhood, in which one Briton  (probably Englishman, actually) was worth ten Frenchmen, umpteen Italians etc.

A death is a death, and is to be lamented , whatever the nationality.  It is, as far as I know, a feature of all mainstream religions that all are equal in the sight of God (or the Gods.)  In Christian writings, the adjective "precious" is often used.

Then our prime minister, David Cameron, referred to the "swarm" of people in Calais trying to get into the UK. As a former PR professional Cameron presumably knows the importance of choosing words carefully, so we can assume he's aware that "swarm" usually refers to insects rather than humans.  I think some weeks ago someone referred to "cockroaches" but I can't member who.

Now our Red-top press talks of sending in police dogs and even the army to control the situation.

A few facts should help to put the situation into perspective:

  • the UK is not the top,  preferred destination for most migrants - in Europe top of the list is Germany, followed by Sweden. Britain is half-way down the list;
  • if migrants are attracted by our "generous welfare payments they are sadly deluded - we pay £36.62 per week (yes, per week) to asylum seekers who need financial help, compared with Norway's £88.65, and Germany's £67.56.  Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands and France are all more generous than we are;
  • the overwhelming majority of migrants are fleeing death,destitution, mayhem  or persecution in "failed" states or those suffering from civil war, such as Sudan, Eritrea, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran.  It will not escape notice that US/UK foreign policy adventures may have  contributed to some of the chaos in these countries;
  • the migrants and asylum seekers are mostly young, courageous, ambitious, bold and aspiring for better things - just the sort of people the Tory party pretends  to appeal to.
I have no better short-run solution to the issue  than anyone else, except to say that:
  • any language used should recognise the humanity of all concerned;
  •  migrants and asylum seekers should be treated with dignity and in decent conditions, while awaiting either a welcome or return to their origin;
  • if that costs us money that is what civilisation is all about;
  • we can't blame the French when we have somehow managed to transfer the policing of our own  borders to French soil;
  • we need to share more equitably the privilege of offering succour to refugees, recognising that the vast majority, 85%, are at present accommodated in some of the world's poorest countries, and only 15% in our rich continent.
 In the long run, of course, and before we're all dead, we need to help create world conditions in which all people have a decent chance of a civilised existence in their own countries, so:
  • stop supplying nasty regimes with arms;
  • re-jig world trading rules with a balance in favour of the poor rather than the rich;
  •  be willing to share our own prosperity, and
  •  be thankful that we live in a country to which people want to come rather than from which people want to escape.