Friday 28 December 2018

The drones (?) of Gatwick

Gatwick Airport was put out of action for, I think, 36 hours over three days during the pre-Christmas rush  by alleged sightings of drones flying dangerously over the air corridors.  I have no informed comment to make over the obvious questions:

  1. Why is not the sale and operation of drones strictly regulated?
  2. Why is such a technologically proficient nation unable to catch and disable the drones within minutes?
  3. Why, with all our superior technology, are we now unsure as to whether there were any drones at all?
Doubtless there will be a full enquiry and in the fullness of time excuses will be given and we'll be told that no one was to blame (cf Albert and the Lion) but we'll be better prepared next time.

What interests me is, if there really were drones, who was responsible?

I hoped it would be some sort of Echo-warriors rather than a foreign power with evil intent.

Travelling by air is one of the most environmentally unfriendly this we can do.  If you need convincing about this then  look  here and here (there are plenty more) for facts, figures and suggestions.

During my "year abroad" when I was studying French in Pau I was surprised that many of my fellow students, mostly in their late teens and early twenties, used air travel as causally as I would hop on a bus.  For them it was quite normal to take a return flight to the UK (and perhaps elsewhere) for a birthday party, a family weekend, even just to see a Harry Potter premier.

Some years ago I subscribed to an organisation, I can't remember now what it was called, which had the motto "Live simply that other may simply live."   

Among the usual paths to virtue such as  wearing clothes  until they are worn out rather than just out of fashion, putting on an extra jumper rather than turning up the heat, eating locally produced food, even growing your own, walking and cycling rather than driving, etc., was the recommendation that we should limit ourselves to one return flight a year.

I dropped out of the organisation becasue, after a year or two, I found the newsletter  to be somewhat repetitive variations on the same themes, but I've tried to stick with most of the guidelines and especially of limiting myself to an average of one return flight per year.

Most of my friends are responsible citizens who worry about climate change, pollution and the depletion of natural resources, and bequeathing  a sustainable planet to future generations, and urge the government via their various political parties to do something about it.

Yet many seem to have a blind spot about air travel and happily go flying off  to exotic parts two or the times a year.

In this area, as well as many others, in addition to urging action on our governments we need to take action ourselves by changing our own lifestyles.  The usual excuse is, of course, that one individual or family is not going to make much difference.

But, as one of our supermarkets advertises, "Every Little Helps."

And every little helps to change the climate of opinion.

Illegal and disruptive action such as closing  down airports at holiday times may not be the best way, but, as the suffragettes showed, it may be a necessary way.

Whether environmental activists were responsible for the disruption we don't yet know.  But whether they were or not, I hope we will receive the message.  Whizzing hither and thither by air is not a God given right, put something that should be used sparingly, or not at all.

Sunday 23 December 2018

Education doublethink.

When I trained as a teacher in the later 1950s it was implied that we should  be proud that each individual school decided on its own curriculum  and taught whatever the professional teachers, in discussion with the school governors,  representing  the community, thought was most suitable for the young people in that community.  There were only two compulsory subjects: religious eduction (RE) and physical eduction ( PE.)  For  RE each local authority had an "Agreed Syllabus," presumably thrashed out between the local religious leaders.  I've no idea how the PE syllabus was determined.  At college, for primary schools we used a book called "Moving and Growing,"  universally referred to as "Moaning and Groaning."  I suspect that for secondary schools each PE teacher was free to be sadistic in his (or her?) own way.

This trust of the professionals was contrasted favourably with the French system , where we were told that  all schools taught to a rigidly imposed national curriculum, such that the minister of education could look at his watch at, say 10h50 on a Tuesday morning and know  that all collegians  in the 3rd grade would be  studying page 53 of the algebra book. We presumed this was something of an exaggeration, but took the point.

This English  system (Scotland was different and presumed to be better - I'm not sure about Wales), trusting professionals and local knowledge, was firs disturbed by the Labour prime minister, Jim Callaghan, who in speech in 1976, called for a great debate on eduction.  From this eventually flowed  a National Curriculum, micro-managed to something like we assumed happened in France, and ferociously policed by the grimly entitle OFSTED (Office for Standards in Education.)  the current system even specifies how children should be taught to read - by something called synthetic phonics* whatever they are.

Now comes the double-think.

The government has a policy of allowing, even forcing, schools to opt our of  "Local Authority Control" and become Academies or Free Schools.  These a freed from the constraints of the National Curriculum and can, presumably, do as they like. In other words, or so it seems, back to the status quo ante.

According to a recent statement by the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb:

Headteachers are using the freedoms afforded by academy and free school status to make [rising standards in primary schools] a reality, as illustrated by the progress disadvantage pupils in multi-academy trusts are making in writing and maths.

Well, maybe so, and maybe not.

Gibb's assertion is based on a statistic which shows that whereas 70% of comfortably-off pupils reach the government's expected standards in English and maths at the age of eleven, only 51% of those on free school meals do so, but that the gap between the two is narrowing.

A great deal depends on whether you think that such statistics are worth the paper they're printed on - not to mention the hours of boredom suffered by both teachers and pupils in practising for the tests.

But if you do think credence should be given to such findings,which Mr Gibb clearly does  here comes the double-double think.

The narrowing of the gap between comfortable off and those "on free school meals" applies to all schools, not just those experiencing, if not enjoying, "freedom." Only 61% of al children in free schools reached the government's expected standards, compared with 66%  of those in schools still maintained by local authorities.

According to the report on the Callaghan initiative cited above, educational experts were “deeply shocked” at the prime minister’s impertinence. [Callaghan's policy advisor] was asked to relay to Downing Street that education was not the business of the prime minister.
They were right.  Let's get the experts and communities  back in charge, and the fun back in education.

"  I had never heard of "synthetic phonics" until I read this article, but am very proud of having  actually taught a handful of non-readers, one of whom was about 11, to read.  Any parent of more than one child will tell you that all children develop and different speeds in different areas, and any infant and primary teacher (of which I was one for a very demanding three years of my career) that different children respond to different methods.  In my day most responded to what was called "look and say" - so that after page 5 of the Janet and John book every long word was "aeroplane." Some didn't and had to be encouraged to slog though every word phonetically.  The trick was to find ways of making that fun.

I might also add that until about two years ago I had never heard of a "frontal adverb": something which the current National Curriculum demands  that primary school kids  recognise and use in these unenlightened time.

Thursday 13 December 2018

The Bastards thwarted

 (The impolite word in the title is not mine, but is borrowed from John Major)

So, Mrs May has survived a vote of no confidence among Troy MPs by 200 votes to 117.  Last night I caught leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg on television explaining that in his view this was a very narrow majority.

I make it 63% to 37%. Yet Rees-Mogg regards the 52/48% vote in favour of leaving the EU as the sacred "will of the people" which it is almost blasphemous to question (even though the 52% represents only 37% of those entitled to vote.)

Is there no limit to Rees-Mogg;s chutzpah?*

 As mentioned in the previous past, three times towards the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Century  Liberal governments proposed Home Rule deals for the whole island of Ireland.  Broadly speaking Ireland would have had its own  government in Dublin with control of all domestic policies, leaving only the currency, defence and foreign policy to the UK government.

Had any of these offers been implemented much of the violence, death and destruction which afflicted Ireland throughout the last century could have been avoided.

But extremists in the Tory party (aka the Unionist party) managed to scupper each deal.  The Third Home rule Bill was actually passed by parliament. In the Curragh  Mutiny officers of the British army threatened  to refuse to obey orders, or resign, if they were required to take action to implement the provisions of what was now and Act of Parliament.

This  mutiny was actually endorsed and encouraged by leading Tories.We don't hear much about that in the Daily Mail.

The implementation of the Act was postponed becasue of the outbreak of the First World War.  When Irish Home Rule was eventually implemented, six counties of the North were excluded and became Northern Ireland, with its higgledy- piggledy  border with the rest of Ireland

It is perhaps poetic justice that this creation of the early 20th  century Tory extremist is instrumental in frustrating the aims of today's extremists.

The message is that, while it may be argued that some "one nation" Tories (of the likes of  R A Butler, Harold Macmillan and  Francis Pym  - I can't think off-had of any current examples) did have the interests of the whole nation at heart, though in a patronising and patrician way, there has always been a faction of the Tory party that puts its own selfish interests above the national good.  These, in my view, have done far more damage to our country than any extreme "red" factions on the left.

Where Mrs May's survival now  leaves us is anyone's guess. Even if she achieves a cosmetic "interpretation" of her deal, it cannot be anywhere near as good as our present highly advantageous arrangement. My own hope is that, now the European Court  of Justice has ruled that the UK has the right to withdraw Article 50 and carry on with membership on the same terms as before,  MPs will grasp the nettle and vote  to do precisely that.  Such a direct solution is now being mentioned by some commentators.

As a second best, we must hope that the implementation of Article 50 will be postponed to give time for a People's Vote,with Remain on the ballot paper.

Post Script

A letter from a Professor Jane Caplan in the Guardian 14/12/18 clkaims these exact qutoations:

June 2016: 52% support Brexit -"a resounding victory."  (Jacob Rees-Mogg)
December 2018: 63% support May - "a terrible result  for the PM." (Jacob Rees-Mogg.)

Tuesday 11 December 2018

Not so subtle racism

I'm not particularly y interested in sport so usually regard the sorts pages of the newspaper to be disposable tissue.  Hover, an incident involving a Raheem Sterling hit the main news pages yesterday.  Sterling is a footballer of Jamaican origin who plays for both Manchester City and England*.  In a match against Chelsea last week he was  subjected to racist  invective by a (presumably) Chelsea supporter.

Sterling has responded by accusing our media of helping to sustain the conditions which keep racism alive.  He cites two stories regarding two young footballers, one black and one white, who had both bought houses for their mothers.

Regarding a young black player, Tosin Adarabioyo, The MailOn-line reported:

Young Manchester City footballer, 20, on £25 000 a week splashes out  on mansion on market for £2.5m  despite never having started a Premier League match.

Regarding  a young white player, Phil Foden, the report (which may or may not not have been from the Mail stable -it doesn't say - was the much less judgemental, indeed favourable:

Foden buys £2m home for his mum.

There are of course many other instances of this "hint-hint, nudge-nudge"  style of reporting.  If criminals are from a Muslim background we are usually told so, yet rarely are indigenous criminals defined as Christians, or even  C of E.  Before the 2015 election great play was made of Ed Miliband's inelegant eating of a bacon sandwich (nudge-nudge; he's Jewish and shouldn't be eating bacon) and that his Dad was a Marxist.

And although it's nationalist rather than racist, before the 2010 election the Mail made a great fuss of the fact that Nick Clegg's great-grandmother was Russian  (and possible a spy and even double-agent.)  And, shock horror, his wife was (and is) Spanish.

The climate that legitimises  racism and nationalism was undoubtedly softened duning the Referendum campaign.  Nigel Farage shamelessly stood by UKIP's poster depicting a seemingly endless but entirely fictitious,  queue of foreigners coming into Britain.  The Leave campaign quite openly (but untruthfully) spoke of millions of Turks standing at the door.

Sadly our prime minister, she of the "Go home" display lorries sent to tour areas of high immigration, and creator of the "hostile environment," for immigrants, is in no position to combat this evil.  Nor are the chief Brexititeers.  It may not have been the dominating factor, but it was certainly a significant factor that many Leave voters saw "take back control" as closing our borders to foreigners. Even sending them "home."

And the peak in racist crimes after the Referendum result was announced, tends to confirm this.

 Last night some punning whiz-kid in the BBC sent a team to Deal, the coastal town in Kent,  to see what the people there made of Mrs May's deal.  One interviewee was blunt;  "We've got to go ahead to keep out the foreigners."

I hope he won't need  treatment on the NHS any time soon..

Closer to home  Chapeltown, a district  of Leeds, an area I know well becasue that's where the church is where I sing in the choir, and until recently, gave ESOL lessons,  has a young football team comprising  largely of  black players and youngsters from Eastern Europe.  They have been subjected to racial abuse, not so much by the players of the opposing sides as by their parents on the touchline.

We are living in a society which is becoming increasingly sick, and the media are at least in part responsible.  Racial innuendo sells papers.

*  This surprises me.  I had supposed that to play for England you had to be born here. Certainly within living memory to play cricket for Yorkshire you had to be born in the county.  Sterling was five years old when he arrived here.

Friday 7 December 2018

Taking back control

That the government has been defeated in the Commons,  not once but thee times, on its Brexit plans, is good news.  The votes, to  force the government to publish the formal advice it has received on the legal consequences of Brexit, to turn down a government compromise to refer that matter to the Privileges Committee, and to permit Parliament to suggest and debate alternatives if and when Mrs May's "deal" is voted down, show that Parliament is, at last flexing its muscles.

Ironically, this is exactly what the Brexiteers demanded in the Referendum: that we should "take back control" and re-assert the UK's "Sovereignty."  And under  the British Constitution sovereignty resides in Parliament (actually "the Queen in Parliament" but let's not be pumpernickel) .

 However, although these decisions are valuable, our MPs are still not debating the real and only issue, which Guardian columnist Raphael Behr identified in a perceptive articlee on Monday, namely 

  "given what we now know about Brexit that we didn't know then, should we still do it?"  

  Plainly this issue transcends party loyalties and personal ambition, and it is time to stop messing about, take off the Whips and allow MPs a free vote on this very question.  If they vote with their true opinions the answer will be a resounding "No."  Article 50 can then be  withdrawn and the error  can be disposed of before Christmas. 

Such a move would avoid  all the argy-bargy of concocting a suitable question for a second referendum: who should vote; the rules to be observed; the spending limits; honesty  limits; and and all the other things that were so glaringly lacking in the 2016 referendum.

Of course, if Parliament did indeed "cut to the quick" and dispose of the problem itself (which it is constitutionally and morally obliged to do) there would be hell to play, and maybe French-style riots on the streets.  But they would blow over 

And then Parliament could get round to tackling the real and urgent problems the country faces: growing inequality; tax evasion; a desperate NHS; acute poverty, especially among children; a crumbling social care service, especially for the elderly; inhuman conditions in our prisons: a frighteningly large  balance of external payments deficit  - all these and more which have been neglected i the past three Brexit obsessed years.

 If some MPs with Leave- majority constituencies eventually lose their seats, so what?  Last month we commemorated the hundredth anniversary of the end of another failure of politics in which millions of many nations, inducing ours, paid a much greater price.   It is time for MPs to show similar guts.

Wednesday 5 December 2018

EU, UK and the Republic of Ireland

As detailed in many previous posts, I believe  that no deal which could be contrived between the EU and the UK outside the EU could be anywhere near as good as we already have if the UK remains inside the EU, so  I  haven't bothered my head with all the minutiae of the alternatives, be  they Norway+, Norway ++, Canada + or whatever.

However, I am increasingly concerned that the apparent impasse over the "Irish Backstop" is being portrayed by the government and their supporting media  as an intransigent EU behaving unreasonably and frustrating the legitimate aims of the UK.

This is nonsense.

The "Backstop," as I understand it, is an arrangement whereby Northern Ireland will continue to shadow  many of the EU regulations unless and until some technological or other method evolves whereby goods leaving Northern Ireland for the Republic can be checked elsewhere than the border.

The UK want to be able to decide unilaterally when this aspiration is achieved.

The EU says it must be a joint decision.

Which seems to me to be very reasonable.

For  the EU in this context read "the Government of Ireland."  They, and the people of the Republic, are just as  much concerned for the effects of the new situation, if and when it is achieved, as the people of Northern Ireland, (and the UK government acting on their behalf.)

A premature unilateral decision which is ineffective could lead to a return  of the hard border and thus the Troubles. and the (relative)  peace which has existed since the Good Friday Agreement, of which the EU is a guarantor, could be dissipated.  The people of the Republic are naturally desperate to avoid this and thus anxious that no alleged "solution" should introduced without their agreement.

Naturally, they are backed by the other 26 members who will remain in the EU, becasue they are members of the Club, and that's what Club members do: support each other.

And so should we.

The people of the Republic of Ireland are our "kith and kin."  (Remember how that phrase was bandied about by the Tories in the Rhodesia crisis in the high-and-far-off days of the Harold Wilson?)  Not only that, until less than a hundred years ago they were our fellow citizens.  They still have freedom of movement into and out of the UK without even passports,  and even the right to vote in our elections if they choose to live here. If they want something special they are probably of all the citizens of the EU the most entitled to it.

But their demands are not special: they are legitimate and common sense.  The EU is not using the "Irish Backstop" as a device to bully or trap the UK: they are merely defending the peace and security of  of their members

Friday 30 November 2018

The amazing Mrs May?

I have only just come across this aphorism from Nietzsche:

There are no facts, only interpretations.

To that  I would add this quotation from a post "Brexit Redux"  by  Chris Grey on his  blog  on the  21st November

Our opinions are facts, your facts are just opinions is a logic doomed to infinite circularity.

Grey  attributes this attitude to the Brexiteers, though I suppose it applies to some extend to all of us.

However, I will try to assess Mrs May's current performance as far as possible on verifiable facts rather than just opinions.

I seems to be a fact that Mrs May is gaining a good deal of respect from the public for her doughty, determined fight, inside and outside parliament, to influence opinion in favour of her "deal."  She certainly shows guts. " GGD,Number 3 "  Guts Grit and Determination, was the cry of the Roedean girls to any member of their teams who appeared to be slacking off. or so  I've read somewhere.

Well, she's certainly showing that.

But is it determination in a just cause, or shear obstinacy  in a hole she has dug for herself?

In her favour, she didn't actually dig the hole -  David Cameron did that, but she did offer herself to make the best of the situation.

This is where I believe the facts show that she continued and continues digging.

1.  From the word "Go" she showed   no recognition that the referendum vote was far from decisive. (As spelled out ad nauseam on this blog and elsewhere , in an electorate of 45milion , 17 million voted to Leave, but 16 million voted to Remain, and 12 million who were entitled to vote didn't. Add to that the 3 million nationals of other EU countries living in the UK  whoweren't allowed to vote, as neither were the  one and a half million 16 and 17 year-olds.  Further, both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted strongly in favour of remain as did Gibraltar (overwhelmingly, I think).  

2.  Nor has there been any recognition of the flaws in the Referendum procedure as these have been revealed in the past couple of years: the lies told, the overspending,  the possibility of foreign interference.

3.  Article 50 was triggered prematurely without proper preparation or plan, presumably to placate the arch Brexiteers in he party, and hold the party together - thus placing party interest over the national interest.

4.  She drew "red lines" before the negotiations even began and has had to retreat on all of them.

5. She places great emphasis on the argument that "the British people just want us to get on with it."  I'm sure a lot do, but that is not a responsible basis on which to make the most serious decision of the last 70 years.

6.  She now appeals to all MPs to put "the interests of their constituents" above their personal preferences.  

That last point is pure hypocrisy.  As a Remain voter herself she knows full well that the best interests of all constituents is to Remain in the EU.  No deal (and certainly not no-deal) comes anywhere near the advantages we already have by being members of the EU. 

So in my view Mrs May's stamina and determination are not to be admired, but to be seen as bone-headed obstinacy in the mistaken interests of her own future and that of her party.

"C'est maggifique, mais ce n'est pas bonne pour la Grande Bretagne."  to adapt another well-known phrase.

Sunday 25 November 2018

Pesnioners' Perks

The UK's full state retirement pension  is currently £164.35 per week.  This is not an automatic payment for all.  It has to by paid for by what were called "stamps" in my younger days. The stamps were quite pretty -  purple or mauve I seem to member. When you changed jobs or got the sack you were told to collect your "cards."  The card  on which the stamps were stuck was your record of National Insurance Contributions.   I presume there are more sophisticated methods of recording them now.

Only those with a full record of National Insurance Contributions get the full pensions.  Once upon a time there was a "married couples" rate this has now been discontinued: the two two entitlements are calculated separately.

That £164.35 per week is pretty mean by international standards.  According to the World Economic Forum it represents only 29% of the UK's  working wage.  The US rate is 49% of their working wage, the OECD average is 63% and the EU average  is 71%  (so it will go up even higher if we leave.)

Rather than adjust the basic level UK pensioners have been mollified by ad hoc extras.  The first was a Christmas Bonus of £10 which began in the 1960s.  The ex 14th Earl of Home, who transformed himself  into Sir Alec Douglas Home and who was either Leader of the Opposition or Prime Minister  at the time referred to it loftily as a "donation" 

We still get it and it is administered separately to the next perk, which was a Winter Fuel Allowance of £200 (£300 when you're over 80) to help us keep warm in the winter.  That was introduced by the Labour Government in 1997.  I seem to remember it was announced just before the election but that may be unfair.

Free bus basses for pensioners were introduced, again by a Labour Government, in 2008

The current controversy relates to the free TV licence, which was introduced  by a Labour Government, in 1999/2000.  Not  all pensioners receive this: you have to be over 75.  The present Conservative Government has decided that as from 2020 the government will no longer continue to fund  this, but the BBC can if it wants to..

This is obviously an absurd shift of responsibility.

It is up to the government an parliament to decided whether TV licences for pensioners, those on benefits or whatever should be part of the Welfare State or not. And if they decide they should should  they should clearly meet the cost  from general taxation.  To foist the responsibility onto the BBC (it would cost them £745 million a year rising to £1 billion by 2029/30 due to the UK’s ageing population.) is clearly wrong.

It is hard not to see this move as  a Tory plot to make life more difficult for the BBC, whose success they seem to resent because it fails to fit in with their philosophy of  "public secotr bad public sector good."  Maybe that's unfair too.

My own view is that I would gladly forgo all these perks except for the bus pass. 

Like many pensioners, my state pension is supplemented by my pension from my employment.  (I paid for that too)  Together they do not add up to the mega-bucks ex bankers and CEOs seem to require, but they keep me comfortably  so that I have no need for either the winter fuel allowance or the free TV licence.  I have always given the former away to those who ware more likely to need it (half to Shelter and half to the Big Issue in the North). 

As the Free TV licence doesn't come in cash I've never passed that on and maybe I should.  Sadly I've never made any special arrangement for the £10 Douglas Home donation, which was quite a significant amount when it was introduced but trivial when I became entitled to it.

If these perks were withdrawn for all pensioners who pay income tax  but were continued to be paid for those whose pensions taken together do not exceed the tax free allowance,  (HMRC already has the record) this could be achieved without the stigma and extra bureaucracy needed for means testing.  No one outside the family would know whether the perks had been received or not

However if bus passes  were issued only to those on low incomes, than all pensioners using them would be adversing their relative poverty.  Hence I believe we should all continue to receive the free bus pass, though shouldn't mind a token payment of, say 50p pre ride. Indeed, I think there is a case for all public transport to be available at token rates, to persuade us  to use it in preference to cars and so cut down on both congestion and pollution.

In the longer term, we need to look seriously to the changes we need to make to provide  everyone one with an adequate retirement pension that doesn't  need to be supplemented bu perks.  If other countries can do it, why can't we? 

Monday 19 November 2018

SANWAT, the Big Necessity

Today is World Toilet Day.  No, this isn't a joke, WTD is observed every year on 19th November.  Last year's theme was "Wastewater" -  this year's is "When Nature Calls."

I urge (a common verb in discussing our need for toilets) you to look up the details here:

One of the things I do is give talks on behalf of "Water Aid."

Probably the most attractive feature of Water Aid's work, in both interest and fund raising,   is helping to provide safe, clean and reliable supplies of water to the 750 million people in the world who don't have them.  Water supplies  enable us to advertise with eye-catching  pictures of happy children playing around pumps gushing out lovely droplets of pure-looking blue-tinged water.

But equally, if not more important, is the provision of facilities to enable the 2.5 billion people (that's about one in three of the world's population) to have the facility to defecate with dignity, in private, in hygienic conditions with the waste conducted away efficiently and without contaminating the water supply.

Like most things today we have an acronym.  The most popular version is WATSAN (Water and Sanitation), which puts the most attractive part of our work first.    However it can be argued that the correct order should be SANWAT because if sanitation problems are not solved than water supplies are almost inevitably contaminated.

In rural areas of the less developed world nearly a billion people rely on Open Defecation.  That means going off and squatting in the bush, with all the problems of stepping in someone-else's mess, flies hopping from faeces to food, the possibility of being bitten by animals, spotted by voyeurs or raped by predators.

Women are particular susceptible to these dangers as they tend to "go" at dawn or dusk.  In May 2014 the Western press caught news that two young girls had been found hanged in a tree in Uttar Pradesh after they had been raped. Later it emerged that they had been in the bush for open defecation.

In some ways problems are greater in urban areas where one solution is to use a plastic bag and then throw it as far away  as possible.  These packages are called "Flying Toilets.

Much of my information comes from splendid book "The Big Necessity" by Rose George.  I can't quote directly from it as my copy is out on loan at the moment.  I can however deduce that M/s George is a local girl as she mentions the splendidly kept public toilets of her youth in Long Causeway, Dewsbury.  Sadly our cash strapped Kirklees council, victim of government cuts, has now been forced to close them causing considerable inconvenience  to those  of us whom the Prayer Book  describes as "of riper years," increasingly subject to both "frequency" and "urgency."

What are we supposed to do?  Stay at home, I suppose, and practise being lonely..

The domestic problem not only affects the elderly. The trade union Unite reports that lack of "toilet dignity" is affecting workers from bus drivers to, (would you believe?), bankers, an unexpected aspect of unregulated free-market capitalism.

We probably won't be much help to domestic workers in call centres, but if you'd like to facilitate "dignity in defecation" for the rest of the world Water Aid would welcome your subscription.  Go to:,RA/TPP,OnlineRG,RA/TPP/01A&gclid=EAIaIQobChMI46Ly2u7g3gIVwhUYCh26cAX1EAAYASAAEgIU2fD_BwE&gclsrc=aw.ds

Friday 16 November 2018

The Brexit deal

So, after 28 months of wrangling, excitement, two dedicated secretaries of state to accomplish it,  resignations, new appointments, secret briefings, an extra umpteen thousand civil servants at an estimated extra cost  of £500 a week, thousands of hours of mostly ill-informed speculation on the media, and gallons of printed ink:  we finally have the Brexit deal "on the table."

And, of course, it is entirely what was to be expected, and could have been predicted the day after Mrs May promised that  "the referendum result will be respected," come what may (no pun intended) no "ifs" no "buts".

Mrs May's decisions, then and now, are perfectly logical.  Her aim is to keep the Tory party together, if not exactly united, and it and herself in power.So, if  "I respect the result of the referendum," but she knows as a Remainer on which side the nation's bread is buttered,  then the logical thing to do is to leave the EU formally, but retain as many of the benefits of membership as possible by obeying most of its rules.

That, essentially, is what the proposed deal does.

There is therefore a sense in which Mrs may can be congratulated for sticking to her guns, but, as argued in an earlier post, this gives the UK the worst of both worlds: we remain tied to EU rules but have forfeited out tight to have any say in making them.

The whole Brexit fiasco has already done a great deal of damage to the UK.  The pound, considered a symbol of national virility for most of my career as a teacher of economics,  has already depreciated by 12%, so we are economically weaker.  Equally seriously we have dissipated our international reputation for decency, political and diplomatic maturity, and constructive pragmatism.  Most of our friends in  the world think we have gone bonkers.

The fault lies not just with the Tory party, which has allowed itself to fall into the hands of a small group, probably around 50, of rich and delusionally nostalgic egotists who, supported by a biased and largely foreign-owned press, wish to feather their own nests in a deregulated neo-liberal "free for all, "but with an Official  Opposition which has deliberately abrogated its duty to oppose.

This today from their 0n-line commentary:

 ". . . the Tory government fell apart yesterday as the Labour Party watched delightedly, popcorn in hand."  (Labour List, 16the November).

This simply is not good enough.

If Labour is serious about defending the conditions of their key working-class supporters, as well as the UK's international reputation, we "demand  better" as our latest Liberal Democrat slogan puts it.

At the very least we need the Official Opposition to come up unequivocally in favour of remaining in both the EU Customs Union and Single Market.

Better still would be an unwavering commitment for a "People's Vote."

But best of all would be for them to back a free vote on all options in the Commons, so that MPs on all parties can vote on what they know to be in the best interest of the country rather than their party, and put  put to the whole Brexit nonsense to bed  before Christmas

Sunday 11 November 2018

1914-18: things to reflect on.

 On Tuesday 4th August 1914 the Vicar of New Mill, near Huddersfield, called a meeting, summoned by the local "bellman."  About 500 people, almost the entire population of the village, met outside the church and unanimously resolved:

That this meeting of inhabitants of the Holmfirth Division of New Mill and district  urges the Government to maintain Britain's neutrality  in the present crisis unless her interests are clearly and plainly attacked. *

. . . [T] First Word War was in may ways more disastrous  for Russia than the second..  In 1914 she was not nearly prepared.  Even by the standards of the time he army was poorly commanded, antiquated in its methods and administered by  a Minister for War [General Vladimir Sukhomlinov] who was a military fossil . . . .  [H]e is said to have boasted that he had not read a military manual for twenty-five years: he believed in the bayonet. . . [He] had good reason to believe in the bayonet since all the other weapons were in hopelessly short supply.  In rifles, machine-gun, artillery and ammunition  there were deficiencies of every kind., and even the means of getting the soldiers up to the front were lacking. When the railways broke down  horses were used and the men marched.**

I can't give a reference as I can't find the book, but I clearly remember reading in another Readers Union book of the 1960s, "In Flanders Fields,"  that Britain's General Haig believed that  whilst a machine gun bullet could stop a man it couldn't' stop a horse.

Virtually every morning there are two or three new bodies dangling from telegraph poles and other improvised gallows around the Holy City.  Most of them are Arabs who have been caught after deserting from the Ottoman army . . . They represent the silent majority of those now in uniform . . they are men who have been forced into it reluctantly, questioningly, unenthusiastically and - last but not least -  mutely.. . .

 [T]he latest deserter  will be given a very public execution  by firing squad and die before the eyes of his comrades in the Jerusalem garrison.  The execution is to take place today.  The condemned man is yet another Arab, this time an imam . . . [He] is made to stand up and be tied to a post. .He seems "very little concerned by the fate that is awaiting him and is calmly smoking a cheroot.with all the scorn for death that is characteristic of Muslims.".   

A blindfold is put over his eyes.  He continues smoking calmly throughout the procedure.   When the command "Ready" is given  and the squad raises its rifles into firing position and takes aim, the man quickly moves his cheroot up to his lips.  The shots ring out, the two shades of red in the kaftan  and the body meet and the man crumples, his had pinned to his mouth by a bullet. ***

The officers and crew [in ships of the German High Seas Fleet] live together, are both metaphorically and  literally in the same boat,  but their living conditions are actually grotesquely different.  This is true of everything from their food and their living quarters (officers' cabins are furnished like upper-class homes with oriental rugs, padded leather armchairs and original art) to their working conditions and leisure (ordinary seamen are rarely given leave whereas officers can sometimes be excused from duty for months on end and, when in port, often sleep in their own homes.)  The proximity which is inevitable on board ship has revealed  these hitherto hidden distinctions with  unprecedented clarity.    At the same time the absence  of activity, of battles and victories - in short of blood - has made it possible to question the differences. ****

Why must I live in this grim age,
When, to a far horizon, God
Has ebbed away, and man, with rage,
Now wields the sceptre and the rod?

Man raised his sword, once God had gone,
To slay his brother, and the roar
Of battlefields now casts upon
Our homes the shadow of the war.

The harps to which we sang are hung,
On willow boughs, and their refrain
Drowned by the anguish of the young
Whose blood is mingled with the rain

This poem was originally written in Welsh.  The author, Ellis Humphrey Wyn, was killed on the first day of Passchendaele. *****

In [the mud of Passchendaele] even the much sought-after 'Blighty' wound could prove a calamity.  The commander of the 7 Seaforth Highlanders reported:

One man left the front line wounded slightly at dusk on the 12th and on the morning of the 13th was discovered stuck fast in a shell hole a few yards from where he started.  Repeated efforts were made to get him out with spades, ropes etc.  At one time 16 men were working at once  under enemy view,  but he had to be left there when the Battalion was relieved  on the night of the 13th/14th. 

His fate can only be surmised.******

The above random selection is offered to contract the "shallahumps and shallahoops" which often accompany  Remembrance observations, and to give support to:
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.*******

 *  Cyril Pearce :Comrades in Conscience; Francis Boutle Publishers, 2001, page 68

**Alan Moorhead: the Russian Revolution; Readers Union edition 1960, pages95/6

*** Account by Rafael deNogales, a Venezuelan cavalryman in the Ottoman army, quoted in Peter Englund; The Beauty and the Sorrow;Profile books 2011, pages 276/7

**** Observations relating to German High Seas Fleet seaman Richard Stumpf, ibid


****** Prior and Wilson: Passchendaele; Yale University Press, 2002,pages 168/9


Monday 5 November 2018

Remembering Them

Now that we've reached the final week in the run up to the centenary of the end of the First World War we shall hear  a great deal more about the horrors which resulted from that monumental failure of politics.

Yesterday I watched a BBC 4 programme, We will Remember Them with Huw Edwards.  Naturally there was a good deal of  information about the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and their very humane policy that all should be remembered equally, regardless of rank, religion, ethnicity, caste or anything else.

Each life was equally precious

I have been fortunate to have visited several of the Co mission's 2 500 war cemeteries and plots, one as far away as Papua New Guinea. Each visit provoked  a deeply moving and very humbling experience, and I suspect most others find the same, even if, like me they have no personal connection with any of the dead.

The centimetres are immaculately kept.  They exhibit  no bravado, promote no belligerence: just sorrow and tender loving care.

I have no means of knowing for sure but I suspect the Commission employs none of the devices which neo-liberal capitalism seems to believe is necessary to promote "efficiency."  No eye-watering "compensation" for the directors, nor obscene bonuses for hitting spurious Targets (though maybe an MBE or some-such on retirement).

Certainly there is no attempt to sweat their "asset" to generate the  maximum short term profit.  Entrance to every cemetery is free.

I suspect even the most right wing Tory government wouldn't dare privatise it.

If the Commission can achieve what appears to be close to perfection in its function without any of the misguided shibboleths of the free marketeers, why on earth can't we do the same for our railways and public utilities?

Tuesday 30 October 2018

The Budget: largely a PR Fest.

Mrs May had already announced "the end of austerity" at the Tory Conference in September/October.  The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, in his budget speech yesterday, was not quite so sure: "Austerity is coming to an end."  In other words we're not there yet.

Yet both of them imply that we, the British people, have endured eight years of "hard work" and are now to be rewarded as a result of its success.

What nonsense.

I've heard only snatches of Jeremy Corbyn's response in the Commons and have not yet found a written report, but in essence he said: the eight years of austerity were unnecessary; the economy has grown at a slower level than if the policies of the previous Labour government had been continued; the poor are poorer, the public realm (local government, education, health and welfare services etc) has been devastated; the richest have flourished.

I can't see anything to fault in that analysis.  The only downside is that it was delivered in a hectoring and belligerent tone, which may impress the House of Commons, but falls flat for the people outside who need to be persuaded.  He, and other politicians, need to take a hint from Gilbert and Sullivan:  "Quiet calm deliberation disentangles every knot." - and receives more attention than hot air.

In the past eight years:

  • real-terms funding for local government has been cut by 49%.
  • Home Office expenditure on the police has been cut by more than 20%  -  there are now 19 000 fewer officers that in 2010.
  • Legal Aid expenditure has been cut by £950m, leading to "legal aid deserts."  For the disastrous effect on the most vulnerable read "The Secret Barrister."
  • 475 libraries have been closed and 230 000 hours  of library opening have been lost.
  • expenditure on adult social care is falling while demand rises, leading to -
  • the NHS in (yet another) crisis.
  • cuts in school funding have led 2000 normally apolitical head teachers to march on Downing Street in protest.
  • the number of cyclists killed or injured has tripled, at least in part due to poorly maintained roads.*
As Polly Toynbee sums it up in today's Guardian:  "everywhere creeping public squalor."

So what is Hammond proposing to do about it?

Very little to replace the damage done to the public sector over this long period.

If the Tories are genuine in their claim that the austerity policy was solely motivated by an alleged necessity to bring the public finances into order, then the end of austerity should mean that the sector should be replenished.  If it is not, than we must conclude that the motive all along was to reduce the size of the state.

There's a bit of money to help ease the pain of the Universal Credit fiasco, and something for filling in the potholes.  But the big news is a headline "give away" (more accurately described as a "not taken") for tax payers of £3bn.  My share is to be £306, but not until 2019..  If I were a "higher rate" taxpayers it would be £800+

"Unto him that hath shall be given" seems to be one one bit of the Bible the Tories understand..

This is a "tweaking at the edges"  Budget of the sort which which could have been produced at any time in the last 60 years.  "Fiddling while Rome burns" and "Rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic" are metaphors which spring to mind.

Nothing to tackle the great issues of today:

  • shamefully, at a time when the threats of climate change become daily more parent, the "fuel duty accelerator" remains frozen for the ninth year running.
  • there is no move to reduce rising inequality and finance the increasing need for care for the elderly by taxing the unearned increments rusulting from rising house prices.
  • or land taxes.
  • or a Tobin type tax on financial transaction.
We may be 18 years into the 21st Century, but British political and economic thinking is still stuck in the last quarter of the 20th

* Most of these figures are taken  from the New Statesman, 12 - 18 October, 2018