Wednesday, 31 January 2007

30th January - Democracy Day ?

Yesterday was the anniversary of the execution of Charles I in 1649. The first and only legal public execution of an English monarch as opposed to the mafia-style whacking of a rival that was commonplace in the middle ages.

As usual it passed by largely un-noticed. In France and the USA there are public holidays to mark the turning points in their political history. But in this country our Civil War is massively under-played, as if there was something embarrassing and un-English about it.

History of course is written by the victors. And the victors of the Civil War ultimately were the compromisers - moderate royalists and moderate parliamentarians. The royalists outraged at the king's preference for secret deals with Presbyterian Scots, Irish Catholics and even the French, just about anyone other than his own people, and the parliamentarian gentry and middle class scarred at the threat of actual democracy from below posed by the radical republicans and levellers.

The compromise was a protracted one that took about thirty years to work out. It spanned the restoration of the monarchy with Charles II, and ultimately the invitation of William II to come over from Holland and take the job as king when James II showed too many signs of following in Charles I's footsteps. This coup in 1689 is celebrated as the 'glorious revolution when of course it was actually neither of these things. But it does mark the settlement of a 'constitutional monarchy' with which we have been stuck ever since.

And of course the compromisers had a natural desire to play down the idea that there was any kind of conflict. As if the present day arrangements that pass for a constitution were the outcome of a gentlemens' agreement rather than centuries of struggle and conflict. In particular the Civil War(s) were almost fifty years of bloody and traumatic battles that touched every part of the country and every aspect of daily life.

As you might have guessed by now, the civil war has always been something of a passion of mine. It is the most significant period in English history, when for the first time we saw the ideas of democracy raised, and even implemented in the short-lived English Republic and Commonwealth.

So, let's start the campaign for the 30th January to be a public holiday in this country - Democracy Day. A celebration of the birth of democratic ideas ,and of the concept that no authority is above the law and the elected representatives of the people.

Amazing isn't it that to float such an idea is still controversial some 350 years after the event ?

Monday, 29 January 2007

Why bible studies ?

Eldest daughter had some homework this weekend to research the story of Abraham.

Which begs the question - why ?

For the moral lessons we can learn ?
My Old Testament knowledge isn't great but I do remember that God tested Abraham by asking him if he would sacrifice his own son' he passed because apparently he was willing to do so. Neither God nor Abraham come out very well from that one. The only moral lessons to be learnt are if you are some sort of child-killing pyschopath, and even then the defence "the voices told me to do it" will not keep you out of the loony bin.

Because it's part of our cultural heritage ?
Well ok maybe. I suppose these days it can't do any harm to learn that Christianity, Islam and Judaism all share a common starting point. But using the same argument we shown also learn about the Greek, Roman, Celtic. Saxon and Norse gods as well. After all our calendar and language has much more to do with these than any Judao-Christian tradition.

Because the bible is great literature ?
Have any of the people who argue this even read the King James Edition with the endless lists of 'begetting and smiting". Also the characterisation is lousy and the plot preposterous.

No - the reason schools insist on teaching bible studies is because we can't let go of the idea that we are a 'Christian ' country or that morality can't be taught without reference to religion.

Wrong on both counts - I am afraid.

Friday, 26 January 2007

Being A Liberal Takes Bottle

A convicted paedophile was spared a prison sentence yesterday because of a government directive to judges that UK prisons are full and of course the 'hang em & flog em' brigade are up in arms.

Actually in this instance they are right, but for the wrong reasons. The paedophile should have gone to prison but he didn't not because the government are mamby-pamby liberals or because they haven't built enough prisons.

No, it's because they are too trigger happy when it comes to sentencing policies.

It started with Michael Howard, the Tory Home Secretary who proclaimed in 1993 that 'prison works' and brought in stiffer sentencing guidelines. Since then the prison population has increased by 85%, but unfortunately he was wrong. Prison doesn't work - just under two thirds of prisoners re-offend within three years of their release.

But no subsequent politicians have the courage to question this received wisdom, particularly New Labour ones who are so keen to show that they are even tougher on crime than the Tories. So we continue to fill up our prisons with petty criminals and drug addicts at a cost of something like £40k per prisoner per year. And we do so at an alarming rate, for every 10,000 in the UK there are 148 prisoners - this is the worst rate in Europe compared to 85 per 10,000 in France and Germany.

To remedy this and to start ensuring that prisons are for the people that really belong there requires a bit of genuine bravery on the part of politicians. It is very easy to be a macho vigilante and proclaim yourself tough on crime, but it takes a bit more nerve to think about it intelligently. With the political compass oscillating so wildly that the traditional 'principles' of Tory and Labour have disappeared these days, mouthing platitudes about crime is an easy way of gaining popular support. But playing to the lowest common denominator is a dangerous game - remember the hysteria about paedophiles and the mobs who petrol bombed paediatricians' offices ?

To change this means having the nerve to think the un-thinkable and stand up to knee-jerk reactions: Decriminalise soft drugs and prostitution. Overhaul the remand system (only 1 in 5 prisoners held on remand are actually convicted). Look at alternatives to imprisoning those who fail to pay fines. And have a sentencing system that prioritises crimes against the person over crimes against property.

That's just for starters. Then we might have some room in prison for people who actually belong there.

Tuesday, 23 January 2007

Secret Fanatics In High Places.

Christian churches are uniting in saying that they would rather see kids up for adoption in children's' homes rather than with same-sex parents. And Ruth Kelly is in the headlines again.

Not this time for taking her son out of the state system and sending him to a fee-paying Catholic school. But because she has said that Catholic adoption agencies should be exempted from the recent legislation that prevents discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

Ruth Kelly is 'Minister for Communities' (?!?). She is also a member of Opus Dei.

Just because Opus Dei is the subject of a bad novel and an even worse film, it doesn't mean that it doesn't exist and that it isn't as sinister as it is portrayed. It is a highly secretive organisation that holds to a fundamentalist and very reactionary version of Catholicism. Founded under Franco's Fascist regime in Spain, it recruits lay Catholics in prominent positions to use their influence to do 'God's work'.

With a military-like structure and discipline, they are a modern day equivalent of Loyola's Jesuit vanguard in the sixteenth century counter-reformation. (Ironic given that modern Jesuits are now very much on the left of church, having adopted the liberation theology of social justice).

So just where do Ruth Kelly's loyalties lie ?

With the constituents she represents ? With the governments whose policy of non-discrimination she presumably subscribed to at some point ? With the wider community of all (and no) faiths that she is minister of ? Or with the shadowy and fanatical organisation she has taken vows with ?

Now re-read all of the above and substitute 'Moslem' for 'Catholic' and ask yourself if Ruth Kelly would still be Minister for Communities.

Thursday, 18 January 2007

Big Brother - racism & the class struggle (yes really)

It's a crazy fucked-up world when a dumbed down reality TV show in the UK can provoke the burning of effigies in India in protest at racism from the contestants towards Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty.

There's debate whether the attitudes of some of the white contestants are racism or ignorance. Well actually they are both - here's a few random examples:

• Indians are thin because they are always ill from the food they eat.
• Worrying about eating food prepared by the Indian star because Indians eat with their hand and 'you don't know where their hands have been'.
• Telling Silpa to 'fuck off home'.
Mispronouncing her name, or referring to her as "the Indian' (or "Paki' at one point).
• Asking her if she had a house or a shack back in India.
• Constantly taking the piss out of her accent (ironic when Shilpa is far more eloquent than her deriders)

Not the worst sort of racism - I'm sure most British Asians could cite far more offensive things - but racism nonetheless.

But maybe something positive can come out of this.

One bye-product of these reality shows has been the elevation of 'ordinary' people like Jade Goody to the status of celebrities.In fact what lies behind this is a caricature of 'ordinariness' as ignorance, and then turning it into a charming virtue.

Which is why I think Julie Burchill is wrong to defend 'chav culture'. Yes there is some snobbery behind the ridicule of 'chavs', which is really just a euphemism for what in the states would be called white trash. But to defend chav-ism from the point of view of sticking up for ordinary people is to give a distorted and patronising view of what it is to be working class.

It may buck a convenient stereotype, but working class people also read books hold opinions, and are just as capable of abstract thought as middle class liberals. If,for all sorts of reasons the school system fails someone, a lack of education still shouldn't be be worn with pride. It may be a cliche but knowledge is power and that's why it has been, and still is, a battle to get a decent education. It's no accident that trade union banners have carried the slogan 'educate - agitate - organise' for over a hundred years.

Apparently the bookies are making Shilpa the favourite to win the show - I can't say I am a fan, she seems a spoilt celebrity-princess much like any other. But at least she has exposed that ignorance is not charming, it's ugly and should be challenged.

Wednesday, 17 January 2007

Tesco homes.

Tesco is to build 250 'affordable' flats in South London. A certain proportion will be reserved for Tesco's own employees, and later whenever the flats are subsequently sold, they will first be advertised to Tesco workers.

There is a housing crisis in the UK, particularly in London and the South East. Ever since Thatcher came up with the idea of a 'property owning democracy' and got councils to sell off their housing stock, ambitions have been raised that cannot be fulfilled. House prices have risen at a rate that have far out stripped earnings. And councils have stopped building new houses - the 'notorious' Militant Liverpool City Council were the last to do so. Many low paid and not so low paid people under 35 are faced with either living at home or paying ridiculous amounts to landlords in the largely unregulated private rental sector.

So is this philanthropy* on Tesco's part ?

*(That's a Victorian concept by the way the modern management-speak bollocks would call it "investing in the ethical capital of the brand.")


Tesco are not in the philanthropy business. You don't get to have 34% of the grocery market with a charitable outlook. When you can buy a pair of jeans for under £5 there is a reason - Tesco's squeeze their suppliers dry. Whether they are a Welsh hill farmer or a textile firm in India, somebody is suffering to ensure that "every little counts". If you want to know more check out - good luck though because from time to time Tesco try to take the site down.

The truth is that cleverly anticipating the out of town superstore concept, Tesco brought up a lot of land which because of its increasingly monopolistic position it will be prevented from using for more stores, so it is looking for other ways to develop. And of course to have their employees living in company housing gives them even more leverage over their already poorly paid and badly treated staff.

The concept of 'tied-houses' is yet another way that we are truly turning the clock back over century. And for every enlightened owner like Robert Owen who built model towns for his workers, there were twenty others who built slum houses from which workers were evicted if they got at all uppity.

Monday, 15 January 2007

Future archaelogy

To the British Museum for the "Past From Above' exhibition, aerial photography by Georg Gester from archaeological sites around the world.

Incredible to see the obvious things likes monuments and structures, but even more so to see earthworks and man-made landscapes that would otherwise just not register from the ground.

I don't think that any of the sites were younger than 1,ooo years old and it makes me wonder what structures from today will still be visible in 1,ooo years from now. Or maybe more to the point, what would we want to be visible.

For some reason I can't help but think of Bluewater shopping centre at Dartford in Kent. Personally I think it's a monstrosity, but carved as it is out of old gravel pits I'm afraid it will probably leave a permanent scar that will be visible for a long time. And hideous though it is, and much as I hate visiting it, perhaps it is apt that it should endure. It may well be as symbolic of our own consumer society as Stonehenge is of our Bronze Age predecessors.

There is a running joke in archaeology that if we don't know how to interpret something that makes no sense from the perspective of our own world view, we decide that it has 'ritual significance'. Hopefully our decedents will have evolved sufficiently that they decide that shopping was a ritual activity.

Friday, 12 January 2007

Five shameful years.

The US detention camp at Guantanamo Bay was five years old yesterday.

Despite the operations there being condemned by the Red Cross, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the western world has become so desensitized to its existence that it rarely merits comment these days. But it should be an indelible stain on all our consciences.

There was a slogan going round of 'not in my name' at the start of the war. Maybe this seems like liberal sentimentality, but it was never more applicable than in the case of Guantanamo.

Our leaders tell us that our safety is assured by the use of such places and that however distasteful we may find them, for us to criticise them is just ungrateful squeamishness. And so acceptance of inhumane practices enters in the consensus of what is morally acceptable, if it is done in the name of western democracy.

For the first time in centuries, moral philosophers are again seriously debating whether the use of torture can be morally justified in the cause of the greater good.
But even on a practical level I have yet to see any good use made of intelligence gained from the 700+ unconvicted detainees who have passed through the camp.

It is a matter of record that information obtained under torture is often highly questionable. Witness the confession of one of the Tipton Three (UK citizens detained at the camp); he confessed to being in a training camp in Afghanistan whilst in fact he was proven to have actually been working at the time at Currys in the West Midlands !

Contrast all of this with conduct of the Nuremburg trials fifty years ago. Having defeated Nazism, the allies were at pains to maintain the moral high ground by giving due legal process to their former enemies. The process was not perfect, but it would have been unthinkable that no charges brought, or open investigations started for five years after the conflict.

I personally don't feel any safer because of the detention and torture of the men at Guantanamo; and I don't feel that anything done there is about justice for the victims of 9/11, or of the Taliban in Afghanistan, or of Saddam in Iraq, or anywhere else for that matter. When these arguments are used by our leaders to justify their actions, I think it is entirely appropriate to say ' not in my name'.

Wednesday, 10 January 2007

US air strikes in Somalia

US AC-130 gunships strafe a village in a dirt-poor corner of Africa that most Americans couldn't find on a map.

27 unidentified people are killed, and more hearts and minds doubtless won over to the cause of anti-american islamic fundamentalism.

It's hardly a surgical attempt to eliminate the al-Qaida suspects that are supposedly in hiding there. The AC-130 was first used in Vietnam; it's main purpose is to lay down an intensive carpet of 'suppressive' gun fire and the aircraft therefore bristles with 20mm and 40mm cannons and Gatling guns. Ironically during the previous disastrous 'Blackhawk down' operations in Somalia, Clinton rejected the use of so blunt an instrument because of the risk of collateral damage.

And it is this 'collateral damage' that means another swathe of people in the Muslim world with a passionate hatred of the US, and the west in general.

I grew up in the shadow of the final stages of the Cold War.

My generation faced the possibility of global destruction because of an escalation of a dangerous game of brinkmanship between two empires. But I don't remember having a sense that we were hated by ordinary Soviet citizens. In fact because we had a sense that mankind was trapped between the two superpowers, the effect was a radicalising one.

Twenty years on, and my children's' generation are growing up in a world where a sense of genuine hatred is all too visible. And the effect of this is not radicalisation but paranoia and knee jerk xenophobia.

Remember the scenes after 9/11 when Middle - America kept asking ' why do they hate us so ?'

Surely no one needs to answer that now.

Monday, 8 January 2007

But is it art ?

To Tate Modern this weekend.

As is often the case, watching the people is at least as enjoyable as looking at the art.

The main attraction is the installation by Carsten Holler - swirly metal and glass tubes that are also slides. Adults and kids alike seem to be queuing up for some time to take their turn to experience the ride.

All those poe-faced, middle class media-types who would shudder at the thought of a day trip to Alton Towers or Chessington World of Adventures obviously feel that their fun is legitimised by it being in an art gallery.

Looking at their faces as they go down the slides, some of the adults seem to be surrendering to the moment and are screaming and laughing as they spin down the height of the four floors of the turbine hall. Others manage to maintain the earnest and reverential look that is felt to be appropriate in a gallery.

I have seen it argued that public funding of the arts is a means by which the working class subsidises the middle class in their pleasures. I'm not sure I entirely agree with this but this is certainly some truth in it. The argument seems particularly appropriate when the middle class are given the chance to experience a 'chav day out' under the guise of supporting art.

Friday, 5 January 2007

(Dis)honours System

One of the most unique and talented British boxers for generations, 'Prince' Naseem Hamid has had his MBE taken away. Looks like the same arrogance that made his boxing style so distinctive has also led him to believe, like so many obnoxious celebrities, that he is above the law.

He's certainly not a likable character - after seriously injuring some people in a car crash caused by his dangerous driving, he fled the science and has since shown no remorse , despite some time in prison.

Meanwhile, the honours system seems bankrupt and I can't really see why anyone wants to be associated with the British Empire.

So does any of this really matter ?

Well, let's have a quick look at some other disgraced public figures who have kept their honours:

Lord Archer - corrupt politician and pathological liar

Dame Shirley Porter - corrupt politician who rigged voting in Westminster Council

Sir Mark Thatcher - corrupt businessman who also helped stage a coup in Equatorial Guinea

Anyone see a pattern here ?

Tuesday, 2 January 2007

New Year - same old hypocrisy.

A bit of decency from a surprising source:

John Prescott has condemned the handling of Saddam's execution, where apparently the guards taunted him with abuse and Shia slogans, before recording his final momemnts on a phone camera, which are now doing the rounds on the internet. This contrasts with Blair's refusal to break his self-imposed silence whilst on holiday in the West Indies.

It also makes plain what the execution was about; revenge.

This is not to say that you can blame the Shias, Kurds and other opponents persecuted by Saddam from wanting this revenge. There is no getting away from the fact that he was an evil bastard who only got the same fate as his victims.

BUT let's not kid ourselves that this was international justice.

It was a show trial by a puppet government that chose not to publicise how Saddam's regime was able to get away with tyranny for so long - because the US and UK bank-rolled it for years as an ally against Iran.