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?