Friday, 26 January 2018

My half-full glass is emptying


I think I have always erred on the side of optimism, even if not always proved right. The world is full of fine people, lovely places and myriad opportunities, at least for many. To some degree I only became so upbeat when I had left the artificial structure of the world of work. Although navigating a career requires seeing and grasping opportunities and employing one’s creativity, the imposed hierarchies and procedures can dampen and hide human nature and personality.  Once exposed to people as people, my half-full glass began to fill up more. Already blessed with my family and friends, exposure to a community and groups of like-minded people has been revelatory and enriching. Men and women of wide diversity of experience have entered my life - or I theirs – offering the opportunity to learn from them and review previously held opinions. Life after work has been sweet. Human nature; kindness; community mutuality; individuals’ creativity and talents give hope for the future.

And yet: around this good fortune, a world has been evolving which is depressing to hopes and instincts and causes worry for the generations of my children and theirs. The legacy my generation may leave is a disgrace when compared to the opportunities we “baby boomers” have had.

Yes, life expectancy has improved all over the world and many more people have some share in the progress made by humanity. But we humans too have caused climate change and extinction of species which no action can halt immediately. It is people who start and fight wars for the sakes of their own egos, power and enrichment. It is people whose racism, greed and lack of perspective lead them to espouse nationalism, protectionism and self-serving elitism. Inequality of opportunity is perpetuated in a world of inequality of wealth and education. A world in which faith in fictions can defy scientific evidence is a world in which other irrationalities to be justified for the protection of power.

So wars continue, killing and driving millions away from the homes, peace and livelihoods to which they are entitled. States can invest more in arms than in education or care for the vulnerable, justifying the deprivation by claiming threats to stability whilst money is made from the supply of death. This too is a manifestation of human nature.

I became political because it seemed important to espouse and encourage the better human values in the governance of the country. It seems to me that there are more people in the world with goodwill than those who are malign and greedy. The trouble is that the latter seem the more powerful, more organised and more effective. The Right acts; the Left talks. That being the case, my glass is emptying and I feel very sad for the future. The only hope must be that the next generations are better than mine at instilling decent values in governance. Sorry kids!

Monday, 8 January 2018

Its not enough to be rational


It needs saying again and again until it is heard: people – consumers and voters – make decisions on irrational grounds. For all their inadequacies, simple answers to complex questions are seductive, especially to those who are not well informed.

You may think that, being rational, like I like to think I am, you decide what to do or buy having weighed up the evidence: value for money; public good; quality; experience. But the reality is that human behaviour is not immune to emotional influences. We make instant judgements on people we meet. We prefer one brand over others. We like one public figure we do not know more than another. We fail to weigh up the evidence in favour of rapid response to stimuli.

This is not to say that we should not act in a considered, rational way – just that we cannot always help ourselves and do not always have the information on which to base a judgement. Buyers of one brand of car over another are rarely competent to judge rationally the relative technical qualities of each, so make their choices on image or perception. A manufacturer must carry out research and develop sound technical design, before devoting similar sums to clever marketing messages to convince customers to prefer their resulting product.

Do people buy into a religion on the basis of scientific grounding or because it appeals to their emotional needs? So with politics. Rational self-interest is pleaded by Conservatives as grounds for their manifestos; but this is in reality an emotional, self-centred appeal. Labour’s appeal to the more altruistic or at least communal sense of the voting public faces tough tests when up against this self-interest. A political leader must think through costs and impacts of policies. But then – how to sell this dry basket of plans? S/he must develop an emotional pull as well, which appeals to the current experience of the voters. This may take the form of a barb against their opponents or a Big Idea. Certainly, a strong emotional antipathy to one party or another – or their leaders – whipped up by partisan media drives headlines and [too?] many votes. Whichever tactic is chosen must be crafted into instantly comprehensible messages - slogans. Slogans? As the basis for the serious business of voting? You betcha! Whether positive or negative, they stick in the minds of millions far better than budgets and dry policies, even if sometimes they become a stick with which to beat their utterers:

“Remoaners!”                    “Strong and stable”         “Take back control”         “Labour’s deficit”

Let us demand that skill and responsibility is applied to the drafting of policies, manifestos, trade deals and laws but let us also recognise that such detail is a turn-off to many, who will respond more keenly to simplistic messages; and make sure that Labour is sharper, in tune with the electorate and effective in its slogans. We should not need to do this – but we do. Tories have a habit of doing this better.

Monday, 1 January 2018

"The best revenge is to live well"


So said George Herbert [17th century poet] and who is to say he was not right? So much injustice is perpetrated by the powerful against those with no agency that living well is their greatest challenge. Lack of job, home, money afford little opportunity for a good life, though millions do their best to achieve this against their circumstances. They shame those who look down on them daily by their humanity and resilience.

I was born in the year of Nakba. Above all of the injustices of the world, the apartheid enacted against Palestinians in their own land is the one which has angered me most, exacerbated by the continuing support for its perpetrators by supposedly even-handed and humanitarian governments such as our own and that of the USA. Money and power always trump human rights, it seems, leaving yet again those without agency to live well against the odds. That power is increasingly today used to promote messages of self-justification and hostility to opposition. These are often simply lies and fiction. Typically, the Israeli government issues accusations of anti-semitism against those opposed to its racist policies and actions, citing “holy” texts as if they were incontrovertible truth; and uses the holocaust as justification and immunity from criticism for just about anything they choose to do to others.

Many who support the rights of Palestinians have neither the money nor the power though which to counter these fictions. Organisations campaign against injustice but this does nothing to help those affected to live well. Perhaps a more positive form of opposition to Israeli apartheid may be to find ways for Palestinians to live well. Support for medical aid in Gaza and the West Bank may offer well-being to some who would otherwise be ill or worse. Small loans to and buying goods from people trying to eke a living from their own business in those areas may offer a sense of independence as well as an income. Such interventions contrast greatly with the lavish military support and investments proffered so profusely by Western governments to the oppressors and may attune to the values of those concerned with this great injustice, in its 70th anniversary year; and offer those concerned the revenge of living well against the odds so stacked against them.

www.map.org.uk – medical aid for Palestine

www.lendwithcare.org – microfinance lending

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Who would you really want to run the country?

Among the tedious and misleading mantras of Brexiters is one which seems particularly seductive: "We want our own parliament to run the country instead of a lot of unelected European bureaucrats".
Well, of course we do..... don't we? In terms of accountability, there would appear to be no contest, when we the people elect our parliamentarians whilst EU civil servants are invisible and, worse, not British. This is, though, a false comparison, for neither do EU civil servants run our internal affairs nor do our MPs. The former administer the decisions and regulations of the Council of Ministers; the latter administer nothing but contribute to decision-making in this country. One group is of law-makers; the other of implementers. One group is insular; the other international in scope.

Leaving aside the falsity of the comparison, let us pretend they are competitors for the role of running our affairs and turn to the nature of those who constitute each group. Although a mere lowly industrial worker in my career, I have met examples of both categories. On this frail sample, I would say that both are generally intelligent and well-meaning types of people. But looking at the other evidence available to me - the media - and a very big difference manifests itself. One group is made up of highly educated, well-trained professionals, doing what they are tasked to do with little or no personal agenda. The other is a mix of self-seeking, egotistical amateurs [at least in governance], whose aims may include a well run economy but may also include climbing the party ladder, pleasing a bolshie electorate, greasing up to the media and furthering their own extra-curricular objectives.

On the basis of such a comparison, I know which set of people I would rather were making the country tick. Happily, we retain the vestiges of a Home Civil Service, despite the ravages of anti-Statist ideologues, which can and do their best for the country, often, in my experience, complemented by their EU counterparts. Accountability? They are all employees reporting to or acting upon the decisions of elected ministers. How accountable those ministers are to us for either their own or their departments' behaviours is a bigger question, for we seem to have very little insight into their competence, motivation or performance; nor the means to make them answerable to us in the pale sham we call democracy.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Religions make poor rulers but so does capitalism


From two different sources in recent days has come an idea I had previously not considered: that religious control of a State may affect its economic performance. How was it, one asks, that the Middle East went from being the intellectual and artistic powerhouse of the World, via the vagaries of history, to being an under-performing group of still tribal countries which perform economically less well than their neighbours to the North in Europe? What happened to that intellectual drive? The second source suggests something similar in respect of Spain in the 18th century: a State watching without emulating the scientific and artistic dynamism of France and Britain in the Enlightenment.

The answer posited by the respective authors lies in religious power in both cases: the Caliphate in the former; the Inquisition in the latter. In each, the defence of dogma is said to have prevented acceptance of new ideas, especially in science and technology, which elsewhere transformed communications, leading to economic growth among adopters. Religions, being based on fictions rather than reality, tend to defend the teachings of their hierarchies. Take the outlawing of Tyndale in the 16th century as an example closer to home. Allow the combination of translation into common language with the printing press, and suddenly the people, or at least those educated enough to read, can see or hear the words as written in the Bible instead of being given selective extracts which suit the aims of those in power. Suppression of innovations can have a dampening effect on uptake and on the impacts on daily lives which should follow from them.

This analysis seems to confront religion as Luddite, which may be fair. It also assumes, it seems to me, that economic growth is all; that a capitalist economy is desirable. Philosophies, including religions, are not there to support economies but to guide people into a better way of life. It may be that the ordinary people of the Arab countries in the Middle Ages or of 18th century Spain appreciated some aspects of the way they were governed or guided; and may not have been as comparatively badly off as their modern-day counterparts. Inequality is certainly plentiful in today’s capitalist model. Happily, modern, democratic Spain is a dynamic and cultural country. But look at the position of the Arab states, whether engorged with unearned riches, destroyed by religion-based wars or ruled by bigotry, they show little sign of restoring their intellectual capital or sharing wealth at all fairly among their peoples. Nor does secular, capitalist Britain.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Free labour? At whose expense?


Volunteering sounds like a thoroughly worthy occupation. It enables people with the time to do so to make a generous contribution to their community or some charitable purpose close to their heart. In doing so it benefits the organisation, its beneficiaries and the volunteer. What is not to like?

David Cameron started out his disastrous premiership propounding the Big Society, in which everyone would contribute to the communities in which they lived through volunteering, with these apparent benefits. This would enable government and councils to outsource public services to charities deemed to be specialists in their field, with savings to the public purse. Unfortunately, he accompanied this policy with swingeing cuts to Local Authority budgets, which had the result that funding for community projects and charities was severely curtailed, such that those which might have had the capacity to carry out contracts for services lost this.

However, the cuts to State delivery continued and public services were either digitised or simply reduced. Thousands of competent civil servants and council staff lost their jobs. Citizens were gradually deprived of more and more services on which they had relied. Many, appalled that parks and libraries were to close, stepped up to volunteer and keep them going. Others, seeing the plight of neighbours impoverished by the reductions in welfare, started and ran food banks, now helping sustain over 1m citizens of this country. More yet, often frail themselves, are driven by lack of alternatives within their compass, to act as full-time carers for their ageing loved ones. What a triumph for the Big Society.

So before accepting that volunteering role, consider whose job it used to be or should be; what skills and training it ought to have; and whether by taking it, you are helping the diminution of the State or local services on which we are all entitled to rely. Volunteering can be a good thing but should surely not supplant the livelihoods of fellow citizens, especially by a less professional alternative. Maybe that energy which would be used in volunteering could be devoted to demanding that the State does its job.

Friday, 14 July 2017

“Remain” is the option for failed negotiation, not no-deal Brexit


We were told by the Right that the economic crash was the fault of Labour spending yet for years after Labour failed to dispel this untruth. Now we are told that Brexit is the “will of the people” and nobody has the courage to deny this either.  Labour must, if it is ever to win again, learn the lesson that it must gainsay the mantras fed to the public by Lynton Crosby et al.

We are told that the Brexit negotiations are aimed at minimising the negative impact of leaving the EU.  By implication as well as by all available evidence, any other future model will be worse for the rights of citizens and worse for our economic future. Brexit “hard” or “soft”, Norwegian models or joining EFTA are all worse than where we are now, so why not say so? The negative impacts can be avoided completely if we stay, yet our leaders fail to say so, terrified of gainsaying “the will of the people”, the latest mantra of the xenophobes.

The referendum should not have been allowed to go unchallenged. Cameron should not have been allowed to decide that a simple majority could change our Constitution for ever nor that the vote should be mandatory. These went unchallenged and were accepted into Labour thinking, so much so that they joined forces with the Right to enable the signing of Article 50. This brought Brexit back into Parliament’s aegis and rendered arguments about the referendum’s validity redundant. We know that most MPs are Remainers yet allow them to continue to act as if we must now accept a second-best future or worse.  Anyone who dares to suggest that “the will of the people” makes Remaining impossible is shouted down. Are they all so pathetic that none will stand up for what they actually believe in and for the country’s best future?

Perhaps it would help those with vestiges of backbone if they were to see the triggering of Article 50 not as about accepting whatever outcome this weak government can negotiate but as being about starting the process of negotiation, to see if an acceptable deal is feasible. Thanks to Gina Miller, Parliament will have a say before we actually leave. To make this have any point, surely we have to have the option not of “no deal is better than a bad deal” – ie exit on the worst possible terms – but of staying a member of the EU – of saying, “we have tried to find a future outside but failed”? The EU will welcome us staying and so, one suspects, will a majority of the people by then.
Tom Serpell