Some issues are beyond debate

Although on the whole I try be polite, there are some issues that I now refuse to debate with people.  In the 21st century some of these should be a matter of simple morality:

1)    A person who uses the term ‘benefit cheat’ is either a bigot or a scoundrel; it’s as simple as that.  And of course they always have some anecdotal piece of ‘evidence’ to support their view.  Of course people should – if able – work for a living and I doubt anybody is arguing otherwise, but there is a trade-off here; is there any employment available and, if there is, is it suitable?  The people who shout the loudest about ‘benefit cheats’ would never dream of taking the kind of work they expect the unemployed to take, with little or absolutely no reward.  All jobs should pay a living-wage, because – after all – they are expected to live on it.  Business people who say they can’t afford to pay a living wage have no right to call themselves business people.  Until you agree that everybody deserves a living-wage don’t criticise the unemployed.  Furthermore, those who claim that the disabled are ‘benefit cheats’ don’t even deserve to call themselves human-beings.

2)    Profit-making has no place in education.  I would add to this that I don’t believe in private or public school education.  I have yet to hear a counter-argument that isn’t elitist or self-serving.  Ban private/public school education tomorrow and state schools would improve dramatically.  Our current system breeds inequality and should have no place in our society.

3)    Profit-making has no place in health.  Why should one person have better healthcare than another and why should a third person make a profit from it?  Why do I have to hear justifications for this?  There is no justification; there is just greed, pure and simple.  This is another example of the festering inequality in our society and the selfishness that drives it.

4)    Wealthy people should pay their taxes.  People who live in, work in, make money out of the UK should pay their fair share of taxes, unless they don’t earn enough.  Don’t tell me that ‘I had to leave the UK because Labour brought in 50% taxes’, because I won’t sympathise with you.  If you are in that tax-bracket, pay your way, because people who earn much less than you have to (if I had my way you’d being paying more).  Also, being a tight-fisted megalomaniac doesn’t qualify you to describe yourself as a Libertarian.

5)    Our system is outmoded, archaic and serves only a minority of people.  This is not a Democracy.

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Politics & Religion – A Dangerous Combination

Frank Field MP

Religion ought to be a personal matter, a matter of choice, and although many religions have a lot of commonalities, they also clash on a number of issues.  In the twenty-first century, we are a comparatively liberal society, but it has taken a great deal of work, and much bloodletting, to get us to this point.

I must declare at this juncture that as an atheist I don’t have a religion, but respect people’s right to choose their own faith.  I believe that in a tolerant society that is the way it should be.

Despite having the so-called ‘Spirit Lords’ in the House of Lords, our parliament is, by and large, secular and certainly our laws purport to be.  However, every now and then, religion creeps into the debate.

This is happening at this very moment.  Once again, women’s right to choose to have an abortion is being called into question.  This time it is being rebranded as a “Health Bill”, as women’s “Right to Know”.  Implicit in the proposed Bill, is the accusation that Marie Stopes and similar organisations have counsellors who “promote abortion” to pregnant women and that counselling should be provided by “independent” bodies.  The Guardian has a number of theories about who these “independent” bodies would be.

The two main protagonists behind this latest attempt to change the Abortion Act are the increasingly notorious Conservative MP Nadine Dorries and that well-known ray-of-sunshine, Labour MP Frank Field.  Both of these MPs would probably deny their religious views are behind the Bill but they seem to have taken a great deal of inspiration from the conservative and Christian movement of the USA in the way the Bill has been worded and presented to the House.  Furthermore, some months ago David Cameron already hinted that he would support lowering the legal-limit of the time-period of abortions (there was actually discussion of this during the last Labour government).  Thus, it looks like this time the fundamentalists might win.

Nadine Dorries MP

Am I wrong to think that religion has no place in politics or law-making?  Reason and the facts alone should decide how we are governed, not the chosen faith of individual MPs.  Abortion is a complicated issue and those who seek to simplify it on the basis of what the bible (or other religious text) says, are undermining advances society has made through intellect and tolerance of others.  Because that is as that the root of all of this – not the debate about when ‘life’ starts, nor the state of mind of women after having an abortion.  Marie Stopes and similar charities/non-profit-making organisations acknowledge all of those issues.  This Bill is about people who believe that they have access to some essential “truth” that only they, and others who share their belief, have.

For a woman to have an abortion, it is a hard and drastic decision; something that should be HER decision and not anybody else’s.  Putting more barriers in the way is cruel and inexcusable – no matter how holy the MPs responsible feel they are.

The True Meaning Of The Riots

The most shocking thing about the riots is that they were predictable – even inevitable.

Why?  Well first of all, our governments have ceased to bear any recognition with the people they are supposed to represent.  They hardly seem to try anymore.  In what parallel universe can a front-bench of production-line public-school boys be said to be the representatives of the British people?  There is even just one woman on the front-bench, in a country of at least 50% women.  Not that the opposition can be said to be truly represent the UK either.  Parliament is now made up of a so-called ‘political-class’, most of those in it have no experience of work outside the Westminster bubble and politics.  For some reason, politicians appear to think that this doesn’t matter.  It does and the rest of us know it does.

When asked difficult questions politicians will begin with insincere platitudes and if pressed, they will move onto obfu-speak; some random statistics perhaps, blaming the opposition.  Finally, they will resort to language that only the political elite can possibly understand, full of acronyms, etc.  Politicians should not be allowed to get away with this.  They are supposed to represent you and me.  If they can’t communicate with the general public, they should find another line of work.

The riots actually tell us that our political system is irrelevant to a large number of people in this country.  The fault isn’t with the people, it is with our politicians.  The media tells us that the expenses scandal is to blame for the lack of confidence in politicians, but it goes deeper than that.  Look at parliament, and then look at the people of this country.  There is not even a cosmetic similarity.  This isn’t a democracy and our political system is bankrupt.

This is a country where the Human Rights Act is under debate.  Does this make any sense?  If a person is against the human-rights of another human-being that person ought to be ashamed and should lack all credibility, but instead they are taken seriously.  The minimum-wage is also being undermined and phased-out.  In any decent society this should be unthinkable and, in fact, by this stage we ought to have a living-wage in the UK.  The clue is in the title LIVING-wage.  We all have the right to earn a living, not a mere subsistence.

While we have politicians and corporations debating whether we should have rights, let alone be paid a decent wage, we are force-fed advertising and ‘reality’ shows, often simultaneously.   We are encouraged to live like celebrities even if very few of us can afford it.  I, for instance, have never owned a car and don’t really want to, but am often led to believe that this makes me less of a person.  We are all led to believe that this we are deficient in some way if we don’t own the latest luxury item.  How are people who are marginalised anyway meant to feel about this?

We live in a culture that now values possessions way more than community.  Our politicians and our media constantly emphasise the importance of “consumer spending” and “economic growth” above everything else.  There is little mention of how we return hope to people who have been abandoned by politics (and everybody else) for decades.

What amazes me is that supposedly intelligent people are blaming ‘liberal’ attitudes for the riots.  Neo-liberal more like.  In a throwaway culture that respects nothing but greed, possessions, labels and consumerism, is it any wonder that people feel they have a right to take what they want?  They have witnessed their so-called betters doing it for as long as they remember.

And as for shock.  The thing that most shocked me about the riots is that many people who I used to respect started to label people as ‘thugs’ and ‘worthless’ – something I’m used to hearing from those I’ve been fighting against all my life.

Time To Explode That Time-worn Myth

There are many myths that have now become accepted truisms but one of the most damaging is that there are some people who “simply don’t want to work”.  It has become such an accepted point-of-view that it is now not only de rigeur Tory policy, trumped up by the right-wing media, but it has also been embraced by the Labour Party.

My problem with this is that it is reactionary, not constructed according to intellect but instead motivated by appeasing the media and public bigotry.  It is a policy that ignores that real cause of unemployment, the misery and poverty of expectations that it causes.  It avoids the reality of multi-generational unemployment, demonstrates no depth of analysis and in many ways does not even qualify as policy at all.  Why not address the needs of the needs of those who trapped in multi-generational unemployment by consulting those people affected by it, rather than adopting a sanctimonious and disapproving stance – Iain Duncan Smith style – and cynically manipulating the issue.

The public debate now surrounding the Murdoch Empire should not be perceived as any sign that politicians will cease to be led by attitudes whipped up by the right-wing media.  Politicians are aware that they are communicating through a 24-hour rolling news culture; this has been exemplified by the current government which often announces policies before they have been fully formulated and is forced to u-turn on them within days.  In the case of this government’s education and NHS policies that is to the better, but let’s not forget Tony Blair’s infamous suggestion that people guilty of anti-social behaviour ought to be frog-marched to cash-machines – not much thought went into that either.

The riots have prompted a free-for-all about attitudes towards those “who don’t want to work” and precious few people seem to be asking why.  The government tell us that there are plenty of jobs available but not very clear about what kind of work it is, and where the employment opportunities are.  Furthermore, what about those currently employed in public services who are about to made unemployed?  There is a real danger that this will lead to even more widespread multi-generational unemployment in some parts of the country.  Certainly I am not convinced by the government’s reassurance that the private sector will fill the void.

It is time that we abandoned this myth that some people don’t want to work and provided more adequate opportunities and social justice for people, before we all end up on the scrap-heap.

David Cameron’s Big Society Con Trick

Yes. We are expected to sacrifice ourselves for the wealthy... again.

The voluntary sector has always managed to function despite interference by government – particularly Conservative administrations.  David Cameron’s vocal support for the sector is only matched by his will to undermine it.

He and in his colleagues the coalition deliberately ignore the fact that such drastic cuts will result in the closing down of places where voluntary work is carried out, for example; libraries, day centres, and community centres.   Those who most benefit from the voluntary sector will be the hardest hit.  The disabled and the elderly, for example, will be further isolated at a time when they are overwhelmingly financially squeezed.

There is an additional affront to the intelligence of the British people in all of this.  The government claim that they are handing back power to the community, helping us control our own destiny; quite how we going to manage this with even less resources allocated to local authorities is deliberately unclear.  Furthermore, the more impoverished the community, the least financial resources given to it.  This is cynical in the extreme and ideological in its motivation.

The Conservatives have never believed in the Welfare State, the NHS or any of the reforms made by the post-war consensus, something that the Thatcher government was the first to break away from.  Margaret Thatcher was fond of espousing that the UK should return to “Victorian Values”, conveniently forgetting that such values resulted in workhouses, debtor’s prisons and child labour.   It is logical to conclude that the Cameron government are an extension of such Thatcherism and certainly this is reflected in their policy-making.  David Cameron doesn’t want to create a Big Society; he simply wants to shrink the state.

The local authorities in the most deprived areas of the UK are more often than not Labour controlled (proportionally, their budgets are cut the greatest).  They will not be able to function with such limited resources and this is already having devastating effect.  The coalition will blame these local authorities for any failures.  And what will happen when voluntary organisations are so cash strapped they can no longer function?  They will be also judged as failures and sold off to private companies.  That is David Cameron’s Big Society.  Big Profit-making for a small society of wealthy elitists.

Grotesque Governance

Not all in this - least of all together

This is one of the grotesque periods in modern political British history. 

Am I being a bit over the top?  Well consider the following:  The rallying cry of this government from its offset has been to proclaim that “we’re all in this together” as it begins to dismantle the British welfare state, the NHS and state education all under the cover of paying off the deficit.  These white, very wealthy males (and all but a few of them fall into this category) have rarely, if ever, depended on the state for anything and so therefore have very little understanding of the value of the state.  This makes them the exception rather than the rule.  To watch David Cameron on the Andrew Marr show yesterday still repeating the lie of “we’re all in this together” is absolutely grotesque. 

Too many members of this government share the same very narrow background of public/private school and Oxbridge university and this is why I feel that in order to prevent such a government achieving power again it is time that ‘public’ (really?) and private education needs to be banned once and for all.  Do the children of relatively wealthy parents deserve better education than others?  Surely the answer has to be no.  It merely leads to elitism, something this government displays in its cavalier attitude during every parliamentary debate.   Public schools are notorious for promoting the “born to lead” scenario and this has no place in a democracy; it bears more relation to feudalism.  Furthermore how can equality of opportunity ever flourish while these institutions still remain, making a mockery of the whole concept.

I truly hope that this government is an anomaly and that Cameron and his ilk will soon be consigned to the dustbin of history, but unfortunately this is very much a British government and could genuinely only happen here.  By holding on to such remnants of the past like the Royal family, the House of Lords, public schools, Oxbridge etc, we remain captives of our history and are doomed to keep making the same mistakes over and over, all the time expecting different results.   This is one of the definitions of insanity.  Is it about time we stopped?

A Home, Not Just A House

Some friends of mine, like many other people in the UK, are finding it hard to buy their first home.  In some ways this makes me feel guilty because my wife and I were lucky enough to buy our home just before house prices began to go stratospheric. 

Nevertheless, there is problem with the British psyche I think; all over the world people spend most of their lives in rented property and think nothing of it, but here we feel we must own the roof over our heads and are quite often made to feel inadequate if we don’t.  My father used to call rent “dead money” which is a bit of a cliché, but like most clichés it has more than a sliver of truth in it.  Rent is very much dead money, unless one is charging it.

There has been much furore recently, generated by the coalition, regarding people receiving lots of housing benefit.  The general dialogue being used by the Conservatives at this moment uses their twisted definition of ‘fairness’.  David Cameron furrows his brow and tells us that it is unfair the “hard-working families” are unable to afford to buy houses while those are on benefits are living in rented accommodation that “hard-working people could only dream of living in” (I’m paraphrasing him here).  This is being used an excuse to put a 10% cap on claimant’s housing benefit if they are still claiming it after a year.  This will inevitably cause much unnecessary grief and hardship to many families, whom often (through no fault of their own) are unable to better their circumstances.  Nor does it take into account the fact that people’s circumstances can dramatically change owing to unforeseen events, such as bereavement, divorce, and so on.

Most people who have lived in rented accommodation know that it is their landlords who are abusing the housing benefits system.  Many of them charge extortionate rent for very poor housing in very deprived areas (often crime-ridden) knowing full well that the rent will be paid via housing benefit.  They set their prices accordingly (at the maximum allowed).  What makes this situation even worse is that many of these landlords don’t even live in the UK, therefore don’t pay their taxes here.  Will the coalition target them?  I think not.

Regarding house prices, I don’t have the answer and I wish I did.  One thing’s for certain, if more are built then surely the prices must go down.  The coalition point to the fact that New Labour didn’t build enough new council houses while in office.  This is a typically disingenuous argument because the Conservatives are completely aware that it was their administration that sold off most of the available council houses during the Thatcher/Major years.  They would also have been the first to criticise any attempts Labour might have made at new council house construction with complaints about over-spending and building on the UK’s ‘green-belt’ (this indeed happened when John Prescott made such proposals).

One of the main problems can be found in the language used.  The Conservatives speak of ‘property’ and ‘houses’ (that is, capital), whereas those who originally built council-houses as part of the welfare state understood that they were building homes.  Those on the centre-left need to re-focus the debate to re-establish the purpose of such homes, to ensure that the Conservatives are not allowed to begin asset-stripping them as they did in the Thatcher/Major years.