Raymond Soltysek's Blog

The “Today” programme: smug, ill-informed… racist?

Posted in Kazakhstan, Media review, Politics by raymondsoltysek on November 7, 2012

Nursultan Nazarbayev

The “Today” programme took a swipe at Kazakhstan today – or, to be more accurate, President Nazarbayev – in a segment that revealed that an almost racist Borat attitude towards the country is alive and well at the smug old BBC.

Giggling like a posh toff at a boy on a bursary, Justin Webb reported that Nazarbayev is “looking for an elixir for immortality”, and the Nazarbayev University has come up with a yoghurt drink. How funny. You can just imagine the old git – he’s 72 – swatting flies away with his solid gold zuzu while proclaiming he’s the King of Scotland, can’t you?

Of course, that’s nowhere near the truth. Apparently, Nazarbayev was publicly praised at a national assembly meeting – he is immensely popular in the country, and the culture is one of respect for authority, without it tipping into subservience – and he jokingly suggested the scientists find an elixir that would allow him to rule forever.

This is no senile madman, no power-crazed despot. Kazakhstan is by no means a fully fledged democracy, but neither is it a dictatorship. Elections which return the president to power with almost unanimous support have been given as clean a bill of health by observers as the US and UK elections. Nazarbayev is a consummate politician who managed the Soviet state, managed the transition to independence, managed a period of hyper inflation when the country had literally no administrative infrastructure, managed unilateral nuclear disarmanent  and managed the development of a powerhouse economy that is growing a hundred times faster than the UK – all in 20 years. Whatever you think of his politics, he deserves respect for ensuring that Kazakhstan has not turned into a carbon copy of those other dysfunctional Stans in the area.

They interviewed a Kazakh and a UK scientist, both of whom said the Kazakhs were on to something, since the management of a human’s microbial balance in the digestive tract is crucial to health and well-being. But no: “The Kazakhs are on to something?” Webb repeated incredulously, with James Naughtie joining him in a gusty sarcastic guffaw.

I’m going to be very sensitive to this kind of thing from now on: I’ve made a commitment to Kazakhstan on the basis of what I’ve read about the place, and there are are a lot of things to admire about it, not least its 99% literacy rate. Stupidity is not a national characteristic, and the “Today” programme has no right to treat it like the country yokel.

Besides, I wonder how many people in the Webb and Naughtie households had a very fashionable Yakult yoghurt drink this morning?

Norway shows us how to deal with terrorism.

Posted in Justice, Politics, Terrorism by raymondsoltysek on August 26, 2012

“He is doomed… no one… can say otherwise… I do not need to worry about him anymore.” Emma Martinovic, Utoya survivor ((AP Photo/Heiko Junge/pool))

Just over a year ago, I saw at first hand the bravery and dignity of the Norwegian nation.  Susanne Sundfør, a young Norwegian singer, was performing in Wroclaw a matter of hours after her country had been rocked to its core by Anders Breivik’s cowardly attack on the children of its political classes. Despite having to sing songs that seemed so prescient of the horror that unfolded in Oslo and Utoya, she was restrained, elegant and proud, while at the same time in obvious pain. It was a humbling experience.

I think we’ve seen a scaled up version of that dignity in Norway’s treatment of the whole Breivik case, and it has shown the world how to respond to acts of terrorism that are designed to attack what we are and what we believe in. Breivik wanted to change the country, to make it turn away from openness and tolerance, to make it cower in fear and lash out against the forces of darkness he thought threatened it. The country’s reaction has been magnificent; they have responded by being even more open and tolerant, by refusing to cower or lash out or be afraid – of him.

Breivik is one of those delusional oddballs who believes in white supremacy because it allows him to bask in the myth of his own exceptionalism. Norway’s answer to him has been masterful in that it has refused to treat him any differently than any other criminal, no matter how petty. Thus, he has had exactly the same opportunity as anyone else to address the court, will have exactly the same restrictions and privileges as anyone else in a Norwegian prison, has received exactly the same maximum sentence that any other Norwegian criminal would receive. In effect, they have marginalised him, debased him, emasculated him by giving him the message that no matter how hard he strikes against their way of life, life will go on the same as if he were a pickpocket or a paedophile.

And what has been remarkable is the support this approach has had from the people. Even the families – those who I have seen or read interviews with – have been dignified and respectful and even grateful to the judicial system. There is no barking for revenge; just read the mature, sensible, rational but absolutely touching words of 19-year old Emma Martinovic, a survivor of that day:

“This means so much. Everyone has talked about how he would be judged insane, and I thought so too. But this confirms that he is sane and healthy, something we’ve known since day one. Finally someone who listens to us and understands us. It is absolutely amazing and feels very fair. This allows me to move on. He is doomed, and there is no one who can say otherwise. Now he is in the cell and I trust the police security. Now I do not need to worry about him anymore.”

That is the most eloquent one-finger salute that could ever be delivered to Breivik and his kind; you are done and dusted, and I will never think of you again, you little, little man.

Of course, posters on Huffington Post UK – which, unlike it’s generally liberal US counterpart, seems to have become a haven for Daily Mail readers and similar right-wing nutjob halfwits – went bananas with faux outrage. “21 years? That’s three and a half months per victim”, they chanted, as if justice can be reduced to a question of Primary school arithmetic. He’ll be out in ten years because of some go-gooder social worker. He’ll fool the psychiatrists. He’s be in his fifties at the end of his sentence. Insane. Norway should be ashamed of itself.

I wish fuckers like these didn’t annoy me as much as they do, but they do. Oh my word they do. Quite apart from the fact that Breivik received the maximum sentence allowed by law of 21 years, with the possibility of that being extended indefinitely by 5 years at a time if he is still considered a danger to the public – which ensures that he will undoubtedley spend the rest of his life behind bars -  the depressingly predictable calls for the rope, firing squad or being roasted on a spit totally ignored the fact that Breivik himself would probably embrace martyrdom like a long-lost idiot brother, thereby ensuring his immortality in the racist, survivalist community worldwide.

This outrage, based as it is in fear, is tremendously useful to the corporate governments of the west, since it validates a whole host of intrusive measures designed to “protect” us. Masquerading as “antiterrorism”, the governments of the UK and US have brought in a whole range of strategies that are more useful to them not because they control subversives, but because they control us. Phone-tapping, e-mail gathering, rendition, extra-judicial imprisonment, even worldwide torture chambers in countries that belong in the pits of hell are all part of a system that can seamlessly be tweaked to suppress the general population. And so hackers like Gary McKinnon and Ryan Cleary, whistle-blowers like Bradley Manning and even Julian Assange himself all find themselves up against a finely-tuned bureaucratic structure whose tentacles can now grasp anyone, anywhere, and whose outposts are as shadowy as anything in Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.

And, as such, we have been complicit in the victory of the terrorists to force us to change our ways, change our lives, abandon any pretence we ever had to democratic principles. In terrorism, the military, the secret services, the governments and the global corporate structures have found their best ever ally in their battle to control and to manipulate we, the people. And every time we cry, “String him up” or “What’s wrong with water boarding?” we cast our vote in support.

So, bless Norway for being the only Western country this century to truly stand up against terrorism, by mainaining its sanity and refusing to abandon its principles.  They have ensured their democracy which was so cruelly attacked has survived not just intact, but immeasurably strengthened.

 

No escape for Assange, but we let a torturer go.

Posted in Justice, Politics, Society by raymondsoltysek on August 19, 2012
link to Wikipedia Pinochet extradition

Pinochet

I can’t help comparing the hoo-ha over Julian Assange with that stain on the reputation of the Blair government, their failure to extradite General Augusto Pinochet in 2000 to Spain to face charges of torture.

I am as dubious as anyone about the case against Assange.  The charges against him rest largely on him not using a condom during consensual sex with two women, one  of whom threw a party for him after the event.  Both women are linked to the US security services, apparently.  But of course, charges of rape – even if that country’s definition of rape seems to be totally at odds with anything we would understand the term to mean – are hugely serious, and must be investigated.  Assange must answer the charges, and has offered to do so if Swedish officers will come to the UK or if they will guarantee him safety from extradition to the US.  They have refused.

But it’s nonsense to say it’s just about that: it is absolutely clear that the US has some stake in this, and will apply for Assange’s extradition when he is in Sweden.  We’ve already seen that, while refusing to acknowledge international law in a whole raft of ways, such as the criminal court in the Hague, the US believes its law can be exported to other judicial systems; hence their demand for the extradition of hackers from the UK.  In effect, international law for the US consists of US law being applied to preserve US interests wherever it wishes.

William Hague’s horrible “there will be no escape” pronouncements, then, are all part of keeping the US happy.  It has nothing to do with international law or extradition treaties; it’s all about what the US wants.  It was exactly the same in 2000, when, despite the highest court in the land ruling that Pinochet should be extradited to Spain to face torture charges and despite a swathe of international courts and governments supporting that, Jack Straw delayed and delayed and delayed the extradition until doctors could concoct a case for him being too ill to go to Spain.  Funny – he was too ill to go to Spain, but well enough to travel to Chile, which is a bit like me saying the journey to Edinburgh is a bit wearing, so I’ll go to Berlin instead.

But of course, Pinochet was a pal of George W. Bush, seen as a still  influential US ally amongst the red threat in South America.  There was a message to be sent out, since no dictator would ever cooperate with the US again if they were going to be held responsible for crimes condoned and actively supported by the US in the future.  Meanwhile, Margaret Thatcher saw him as the man who was willing to turn his country into one of the first testbeds of the Friedman economics that has dominated the world since the 1970s.  There was no way the politicians were going to accede to the demands of the law in that case; Pinochet had to be protected.

So: if it is permissible to let a torturer slip through the legal net, why is the government so vexed about the story of an albeit rather arrogant guy who might have slipped up with a burst prophylactic?  Of course, it’s to do with the establishment.  Pinochet was part of it, part of the global power elite who are prepared to repress and torture and kill to maintain the status quo;  Assange threatens it by providing a mechanism by which their grubby secrets – great and small – can be washed in public.

And by playing up the charges against Assange, it obviously draws attention away from and discredits Wikileaks.

The messenger is being shot.  Just what Pinochet would have wanted.

Aid, Spin and the votes of Little England.

Posted in Aid, Politics, Social justice by raymondsoltysek on July 15, 2012

It’s all his fault, you know…

Brilliant, Machiavellian press-management by the coalition government over the last few days, all of which has whipped up the Little England attitudes of the morons they hope will vote the Tories into power next time round.

On Tuesday, news websites carried the opinion of Alan Milburn, ex-Labour minister and now an adviser to ministers on “social mobility and improving youngsters’ life chances” (here’s some advice – give them real jobs and not unpaid ‘intern-ships’).  He warned the Commons Education Select Committee that there wasn’t a “snowball’s chance in hell” of the government meeting plans to eradicate child poverty by 2020. The price of success? £19 billion over the next eight years.

Now, nobody wants to be seen to be failing on child poverty in the UK, so what should a media-savvy government do in such circumstances?

Find a scapegoat. Works every time.

Twenty-four hours later, the government announced that it would be committing £1 billion of additional funding to family planning in the developing world, doubling the present amount. The time-scale? Spookily – over the next eight years.

Of course, the connection is obvious and has the neurons of those who have the attention spans of goldfish going into overdrive. One billion between now and 2020, while children are in poverty in the UK? Outrageous.

Two days later, Peter Bone, a Tory backbencher, became the new darling of Little England when he filibustered debate on a government commitment to raising the UK’s  international aid from 0.5% to 0.7% of GDP, thereby killing the bill. That, of course, had the social media in a frenzy. “Good for him!” came the cry.

It’s been fun taking part in the evisceration of that kind of attitude on websites like Huffington Post (though I have to say, I’ve probably got a bit carried away with it over the weekend). The attitudes are astonishing in their ignorance; a selection is enough to give you a sense of the nonsense.

Apparently, if we commit 0.7% of our GDP to foreign aid, various apocalyptic things will happen. Children will freeze in school classrooms; cancer patients will be denied life-saving drugs; our defence budget will be so stretched, we will open ourselves to foreign attack; old age pensioners will receive no heating allowance, and their bus passes will be taken from them; the health service and welfare system will crumble. Chicken Little meets Little England.

In addition, the cries are that we can’t afford it. ’0.7%? That minimises it.’  How about saying 7 pence in every £10? ‘That minimises it too: call it £14 billion, that’s what it is. £14 billion, plus the £1 billion for family planning – hell, that’ll almost solve child poverty here!’

Okay, let’s call it £14 billion – out of £1,714 billion. Whatever way you say it (and here’s where literacy and numeracy dovetail nicely) it still doesn’t sound a lot to me to try to save starving children. And economic powerhouse Norway does twice as much as we do.

‘Ah, but does it save starving children?  All of it goes into the pockets of corrupt officials and not one child actually benefits.’   Not one? Not a single penny gets to where it’s needed? There are no schemes which actually benefit people on the ground?

Now, I am aware as anyone of the fact that corruption is endemic in many countries. The government’s commitment was to raising the proportion of money we give; how we give it can be looked at later. But is the fact that some of that 7 pence in every pound given goes to nefarious individuals a good enough reason to give nothing?

Take this analogy. You are one one side of a busy road in a country in which you are a total stranger. The cars and trucks scream past, drivers shouting at you, clearly hostile to your presence. You don’t know the customs, the language, the culture.

You see a child on the other side of the road, obviously in distress, hungry and ill. You want to help, and you have £10 in your pocket, but you can’t get across the road and you don’t know how to reach that child.

Along comes a suspicious looking character carrying a Kalashnikov. You don’t trust him. However, he says to you, “I know how to stop the traffic, I can reach the child. Give me seven pence, that will help buy food. I will take it to him, but I want three pence for myself.”

What would you do?

It seems Little England would walk away. Me – I’d give the seven pence, take the chance. It’s seven pence. And even if four pence is all that reaches the child, then it’s worth it, for now at least, until we can find better ways of governance for aid.

I always love the “Charity begins at home” line too. In my experience, anyone who says that is usually amongst the most uncharitable people on the planet. It is the Misers’ Mission Statement.

What they fail to realise is that it allows a reductionist approach that might well come back and bite them. You have a family? Well, why should unmarried, childless people subsidise health systems that delivered your sprog, or pay more than their fair share for an education system your brats clearly don’t appreciate? It was your lack of control of your sexual impulses that got you in that position, so pay for it yourself: charity begins at home, and your kids don’t live in my home.

Of course, society functions because we’re all good citizens, and realise the inter-dependence we all have. That is why some of us actually think of “home” as the planet.  Little Englanders, on the other hand, see home as “Great Britain”, and believe that is enough to bind us all together – provided we are, of course, working, straight, married,  indigenous, flag waving and white.

I don’t for one moment believe that the announcement of imminent failure of our child poverty targets and the hoo-ha over foreign aid happening within days of each other is at all coincidental. It would have been catastrophic had the government announced, for example, tax cuts for the wealthy or bail outs for banks immediately after the child poverty news; better to give the howling idiots a much more convenient target to rail against.

Children in this country, is the implication, are not poor because of gross inequalities in wealth, or because of rampant unemployment, or because of banks’ failure to lend to small businesses, or because of private firms cocking up our services time after time; no, children in this country are poor because we give half a penny out of every £10 we have to children who suffer from drought and war and disease.

Poor children here are the responsibility, it seems, of the 16,000 children a day who die of malnutrition-related causes throughout the world. It’s obvious, innit?

Scottish Review: “The subtext of the jubilee is a celebration of serfdom.”

Posted in Politics, Social justice, Society by raymondsoltysek on June 8, 2012

I have a piece in today’s “The Scottish Review” prompted by the jubilee but which brings together a few threads I’ve been thinking about over the last few months concerning the increasingly vociferous “let them eat cake” attitude emanating from the power elite.  All comments gratefully received, you can find the article here:

“The subtext of the jubilee is a celebration of serfdom.”

Here are the opening paragraphs to whet your appetite.

Okay, I can’t help it. I have to comment on the jubilee, not because I object to it as such – although, being a Republican, I do – but because of the story that is hitting some of the headlines that clearly indicates the ‘let them eat cake’ attitude that is dominating discourse in Britain today.
     The Guardian reported that 30 jobseekers – along with 50 others on apprentice wages – were bussed in to steward the Jubilee celebrations. Working in ridiculous conditions under London Bridge with no access to changing rooms and toilets, these people were apparently offered payment when they got on the bus. That promise was later withdrawn and became merely the possibility of employment by the firm Close Protection UK during the Olympics, coupled with the very real threat of losing benefits; the managing director, an ‘entrepreneur’ called Molly Prince, said ‘the stewards who performed unpaid work did so voluntarily because they wanted to continue to claim benefits’. Does that sound like volunteering to you?
     Of course, these ‘work experience’, ‘intern-ship’ programmes have been a running sore for the government, especially since the fall of Cameron’s buddy Emma Harrison. Apparently, her firm A4e is merely the tip of the welfare-to-work market scandal floating off the government’s bows.
     But the whole rotten core is much, much greater than that. We have seen over the last few months an increasingly virulent condescension of the poor by the entrepreneurial classes that demonstrates just how much distance lies between us and them, a gulf almost as wide as that between French peasants and Marie Antoinette herself.”

Finally, please consider becoming a sponsor and “friend” of the Review: it’s a very significant space for Scottish thought.

“Make Bradford British” / “Proud and Prejudiced”, Channel 4, 1/3/12

Posted in Media review, Politics, Society by raymondsoltysek on March 3, 2012
link to Make Bradford British

Make Bradford British, Channel 4

It is, of course, trash TV. “Make Bradford British” is a crude amalgam of various reality shows, cheap and not so cheerful fare like “Big Brother”, “Wife Swap” and “Come Dine With Me.” The premise is simple: various cultural, ethnic and religious stereotypes from Bradford – “Britain’s most divided city”, is the fatuous claim – volunteer to spend time living with each other in some sort of half-baked and nasty social experiment.

It is an execrable, faux documentary. The “diversity and community experts” are little more than commentators, adding the occasional sound bite to tell viewers what they should be feeling (“These people have to live together” we are told, just in case we hadn’t got the drift) and pronouncing the annual Scottish New Year celebration as “Hoggamunny” (“I don’t understand the question,” says a white girl, “what’s a Mahoggamunny?”). Meanwhile, the production values clutch at the sensational like the drowning man clutches at the proverbial: cue Rasheed, the jolly Muslim fundamentalist, giving up mosque to spend a day in some stately home with the group, praying in the car park, his nose almost pressed against the side of the minibus (couldn’t they find somewhere with a little more dignity?) while elderly liberal Maura weeps her new found understanding.

And yet… and yet…

I have a complicated relationship with the concept of “Britishness”, and not because, like many Scots, I see my identity as lying solely north of the border. No, it is more to do with my genealogy. My father, born in Lipine, near Katowice, in 1913, was Silesian Deutsch Volk; his status as a Pole was merely an accident of politics. So, after 1939, he joined the Wermacht, fought on the Eastern Front where he got frostbite and was wounded and was then transferred to the Western Front, where he was captured by the Americans to begin a whole new time line in the UK.

That, as a boy brought up in the jingoistic days of 1960s Saturday afternoon cinema (“The Battle of the Bulge”; “The Great Escape”), was difficult to accept for a while. How could I be British when my father fought for the ultimate bogey man, Adolf Hitler? How could I be British when the British would quite happily have killed my father on the battlefield?

Let there be no doubt: I’m glad my father was on the losing side. I think World War II and the overthrow of Hitler was one of the few righteous wars in history I would have volunteered to fight in, like the Spanish Civil War or The Opium Wars (on the side of the Chinese, of course). Certainly, there was a moral dimension to it that has been lost in the corporate imperialism of most conflicts since, such as Haliburton’s invasion of Iraq.

But it does rather complicate things. In the TV programme, mixed-race bar owner Audrey talks of the “scales falling from her eyes” when she realises the impact her own racist language has on others: something similar happened the morning my father took the twelve year old me aside and showed me his Iron Cross and explained how he got it. I realised that, in the great game of international politics, a whole nation of people could one day be our allies supplying our Kings and Queens, the next day be our deadliest enemy, and the day after that become our family.

One character in the programme, a black man of West Indian descent called Desmond (yes, that’s right) is interviewed before he meets his house mates: he beats his chest and says that being British is “in me heart”. Later, after hearing an uncomfortable discussion about language with a harmless but insensitive old buffer called Jens who claims that he was only joking when he used to talk to his former police colleagues about going out “Paki bashing” and referring to blacks as “black bastards”, Desmond finds a hole in that huge heart of his. For decades, he had, in his own words, pushed the casual, unthinking racism “under the carpet” in order to just get on with it; obviously distressed, he finds that there is no longer any space under that carpet.

I have no wish to suggest my experience as a white kid was directly comparable to Desmond’s, but I grew up with similar casual references to my difference. I was regularly called a “Polack” by schoolmates and even by colleagues up until the 1990s; teachers referred to me as “Banacek”, a nominally Polish detective on TV played by George Peppard. I have become somewhat sensitive when, on introducing myself, I am asked, “What kind of name is that?” “It’s a surname,” I replied once to a parent who asked me that question in the middle of a busy corridor at a parents’ evening. “Yes, but where does it come from?” was the retort, my irritation failing to make an impression. “My father,” I said, and I was looked at as if I was an uppity moron.

Britain is, for me, simply an organisational entity, and I “owe” it nothing more than that I pay my taxes and obey the law; in that sense, I am a much better Briton than many of the beknighted movers and shakers held up as examples of “Great” Britain, the Sir Richards and the Sir Alans who tax avoid like crazy or the chief police officers and civil servants and MPs mired in corruption. I believe I am a good citizen – I regularly give to charity and am as kind as I can be to others – not because I am part of a Great British Big Society, but because it is the decent thing for an individual human being to do.

A later show, “Prejudiced and Proud”, continues the theme, looking into the lives of Tommy Robinson, founder of the English Defence League, and Sayful Islam, of whatever banned group he leads this week. Neither man has little substance outside his ego: both are filmed smiling with smug satisfaction in the midst of the anger and chaos and violence they preside over; both claim moral authority, yet a moderate imam points out Sayful’s total lack of intellectual credibility for the position he has set himself up in, while Robinson wanders the streets, drunk, baiting people with references to Anders Breivik who, of course, declared war not on Muslims but on the children of white liberals. The leads are merely self serving opportunists, but it is the wider cast of characters I find most confusing – the Muslim boys who look lost and terrified at the venomous reaction they generate, the tattooed skinheads who, like Hitler’s bierkeller shock squads, inextricably link bullying drunkenness with political agitation. The notion of finding common ground with such people based solely on a shared skin colour or language or religion or place of birth seems utterly strange to me; I see nothing that I would identify as my “culture” in any of them.

But I am undoubtedly Scottish. I cheer on the Scottish football team (and anyone who is playing against England) and, in certain situations such as English pubs, vamp up my Scottishness. I am as prone, I suppose, to tribalism as the next man or woman. However, I am also aware that I have no Scottish “blood” in me, whatever that means, and have therefore made a choice. Perhaps that is why we seem to have even more difficulty defining what is “Scottish”, why we feel Scotland as a place that includes all, why we find it impossible to define a Scottish writer any more clearly than as someone who was born in Scotland or who lives in Scotland or who writes about Scotland or who…

But would I die for Scotland? Never. I may fight for a moral or political cause I think is right, or to protect the weak, or to stand up for liberties I valued. But I cannot see myself ever putting my life on the line for some indefinable, amorphous collection of human beings whose only common bond is that they find themselves bounded by the same arbitrary geopolitical borders on a map. Neither can I imagine ever asking young people – who, it has to be said, are rarely the sons and daughters of the rich who start wars in the first place – to go off and put their lives on the line in my place

Britain, England, Scotland – whatever the country, that indefinable notion on its own just doesn’t seem to be worth it.

Scottish Review: “The ratings agencies are behaving like financial terrorists.”

Posted in Politics, Publications, Social justice by raymondsoltysek on January 17, 2012

I have  a piece on the Credit Ratings Agencies in today’s Scottish Review.    Given the catastrophic effect these bumbling, incompetent and dishonest financial players have had on sovereign governments and the lives of ordinary people over the last month, I thought it was time to update and develop a piece I blogged last year.

Why anyone believes these flim flam merchants, I’ll never know.

No – I do know.  Some people believe them because they can make a killing out of it.  And we suffer.

Scottish Review: “Why I went on strike last week. And why I’m on a loser.”

Posted in Politics, Publications, Social justice by raymondsoltysek on December 7, 2011

A version of “The anger behind the public sector pension strikes” has appeared in today’s Scottish Review under the title, “Why I went on strike last week. And why I’m on a loser.”

Find it here:  SCOTTISH REVIEW

The anger behind the public sector pension strikes.

Posted in Politics, Social justice by raymondsoltysek on December 1, 2011

A nice wee joke is doing the rounds on Facebook. A banker, a Daily Mail reader, a Tory MP and a teacher are sitting around a table on which there is a plate with ten biscuits. The banker scoffs nine of the biscuits and the Tory MP leans over and whispers in the ear of the Daily Mail reader “watch out, that teacher is after your biscuit.”

Yes, it’s a joke: but it sums up the appalling way ordinary people in this country are being treated, and why, along with millions of others yesterday, I went on strike. Unfortunately, though, I doubt anyone will listen.

Over the last two weeks, there has been a slew of government announcements and news items that have confirmed my belief that nobody in power gives a damn about people’s distrust of banks, or their sense of unfairness expressed through the summer riots and the Occupy movement, or their deep depression about their future prospects which, for the vast majority of the population, stare over the precipice at increasing relative poverty (in real terms, average Joes will be worse off in 2014 than they were in 2001).

Last week, the government announced a scheme by which they will underwrite part of the mortgages of first time buyers. But what exactly is this “concession”? It is, in fact, a subsidy to the banks. The promise is not that young people can buy their homes, but a promise to banks that they won’t lose out if they lend to those young people. Those buyers who lose their jobs will still lose their homes: unable to pay the mortgage, the fuel bills, the council tax, they will have to sell up anyway.  All the government underwrites is the debt they already incurred to manage a deposit. Tom and Sheila will still be homeless, while HBOS gets a bung and a repossessed property into the bargain.

This does not make homes “affordable”, it does not reduce the cost of owning a home: it actually props up scandalously high house prices which have been driven upwards by bank lending to the point where home ownership largely depends on two incomes (so much for a family values government) and where the average age of the first time buyer is set to rise to 43.

Mucking about with homes was, of course, the original New Right Thatcher spearhead campaign to change our society beyond recognition and beyond repair. By forcing councils to sell their homes to tenants, Thatcher ensured that, in the long term, a whole swathe of people who were happy in secure rented accommodation would become serfs to the banks, and all that public property would become private, not owned by the people living in those homes but, at the top of the food chain, by the mortgage lenders.

The way to reduce house prices is to build social housing to provide a viable market competitor, and to return to a time when living in a council home was an absolutely acceptable alternative to owing tens of thousands to a bank. We talk of the population taking on debt beyond its means, and we usually mean credit and store cards: but the main driver of that debt rise has been the loss of a social housing stock that forces people to buy their own homes and to take out the largest debt they will ever have – a mortgage. Buying a house is the only game in town thanks to the prevalent economic winds since the mid-70s.

This policy of subsidising the failed economic system that has brought us to this crisis is absolutely apparent in other government initiatives. At the beginning of this week, Osborne an co. announced a scheme to improve UK infrastructure by investing £50billion in rail links, broadband networks and roads. Where was this money to come from? Well, it was suggested, UK pension funds could be encouraged to invest.

Excuse me? I’m striking because the conditions of my pension have been changed largely unilaterally by my employers. Why? Well, they say, there isn’t enough in the pension fund to pay for all the demands the retired will make in the future. I need to pay more, accept less and wait longer for it.

And, I am told, I enjoy a much more favourable position than people in the private sector. The real issue is not why public pensions are so generous, but why private pensions are so scandalously miserly. However, that’s not quite the case. The median annual private sector pension, at £5860, is actually a couple of hundred pounds more than a public sector pension. The problem is that very few private employers (12%) pay into any sort of final salary scheme, and that private sector pensions are therefore individual gambles on markets and investments. So private pensions are, once more, a subsidy to the failed economic system, and the government would love to divest itself of any schemes that do what they should – provide a decent standard of living for people in their old age – in favour of pensions that funnel money into the financial services sector for profit, regardless of risk.

I listened to a few commentators on these infrastructure plans, and not one asked the obvious question: if pension funds are inadequate to look after our elderly population, and if people are taking strike action because they are being forced to pay more, accept less and wait longer for a living pension, how on earth can these pension funds then afford to build roads and rail links, enterprises that are notoriously slow at providing a return?

Why, indeed, are those infrastructure improvements not funded through taxation on those who have seen mammoth improvement in their living standards during this halcyon period for financial speculation? We all know the figures: last year, UK CEO pay rose by 32% at a time when pay freezes and cuts were foisted on workers on the basis that the companies those same CEOs lead are performing poorly. CEO pay has risen by 4000% in the last 30 years; we are told pension enitlements which rise at 4% per year are unsustainable, but, apparently, wage rises of 1,333% are just fine. These are, in the glib platitudes of the politicians, the people with the “broadest shoulders”, and yet Osborne’s ambition is to cut the upper tax rate from 50% to 40%. Meanwhile, he tinkers with tax credits and 3p fuel revenues and believes he can pull the wool over everyone’s eyes.

And, in truth, he’ll probably get away with it, just as all previous Chancellors have – including Brown and Darling who had no appetite for the fight – since the sea change of the Thatcher years, when we were convinced that we would all be better off if we believed that the public sector was the enemy.

Perhaps, indeed, the fight is already lost.

Occupy Wall Street

Posted in Politics by raymondsoltysek on October 10, 2011

Occupy Wall Street

Much kudos to Occupy Wall Street for bringing the spirit of the so-called “Arab Dawn” to the temples of Western corruption.

There has been much sniping at the demonstrators, mainly from the right-wing media which accuses it of having no focus.  This, of course, is the same media that feted the Tea Party, with its keep-our-guns, no-taxes, end-state-healthcare, reduce-welfare, end-immigration, sack-our-Kenyan-President-for-daring-to-be-black agenda.  How focussed was that?  Of course, the left will always have its principles knocked, because the right doesn’t have any.

And there’s the usual nonsense about disruption: clean up after yourselves and then we’ll take you seriously, cry the doubters.  Of course, they wouldn’t, but they’re much more happy to see assault rifles at a Tea Party demonstration than discarded coffee cups at an OWS bash.

And, of course, the police are doing their bit too, pepper-spraying freely; and even having been denied the use of a megaphone to get their message across, these dastardly subversives have come up with the fiendish ploy of repeating everything that’s been said to them in a rather ingenious version of Chinese Whispers.

They’re also attracting some heavyweight support in the form of the likes of Naomi Klein,  a writer I admire very much.  I doubt this will amount to much, but as long as it’s going, I’ll be cheering them on.  Good for them.

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