Raymond Soltysek's Blog

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 That promise was later withdrawn and became merely the possibility of employment by the firm Close Protection UK during the Olympics, coupled with the very real threat of losing benefits; the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.

The terrorist scam of the credit rating agencies

Posted in Politics by raymondsoltysek on September 20, 2011

Headline news this morning is that credit rating agencies have basically flushed the Italian economy down the toilet.  More and more regularly, these scam artists are hitting the news, afforded some kind of guru status in the world of finance; the US recently lost its “AAA” status, and the UK found itself described as performing at “A+” level rather than “AA-“.   Imagine bringing those grades home to your mum.  The moral and financial panic that follows such announcements wipes billions off of economies.

And yet these rating agencies failed to spot the biggest banking crisis in living memory just three years ago.  The US Department of Homeland Security reported last year that “credit rating agencies that investors relied on to provide impartial and accurate analysis of thousands of mortgage-linked securities instead used outdated models and inadequate data, were too influenced by investment bankers, allowed chronic resource shortages to undermine ratings, and delayed downgrading investments once problems in the mortgage market became clear.” 

The fact is that these agencies are just another arm of the cash-guzzling financial services sector.  They have no interest in accurate reporting – who holds them to account? – and merely help to create the conditions under which rapacious markets can fleece economies and bleed countries dry, leaving the ordinary populace to foot the bill with draconian austerity packages.  Credit rating agencies are merely one part of the self-referential cesspool that is international finance, and no more.

For that reason, it’s wholly appropriate that they be investigated by Homeland Security: terrorism can be financial as well as physical.  On the Today programme this morning, Nick Clegg defended his government’s obsession with the dismantling of the infrastructure of society by referring to the troubles of  Greece and Italy.  He spoke twice of those economies being “pushed to the edge” by the markets, and warned that the UK economy would be “harried from pillar to post” by the financial sector if it changed course.  Just why on earth are we then making government policy that specifically panders to these bastards?  When the mantra for so long has been that we don’t negotiate with terrorists, what is the justification for putting up with that kind of attack on our way of life?

We should call out these agencies for what they are: flim flam merchants who enable their fat cat buddies to rape worldwide economies. Every statement of theirs should be vociferously countered with any number of reports that show their incompetence and venality, and then we should tax and regulate the life out of them, and then, if that doesn’t shut them up, we should throw them in jail, regardless of whether or not they’ve done anything provably illegal: hell, lets rendition them to Guantanamo now that Libya won’t play torture ball with us.

Then we can all listen to their plaintive cries as they disappear round the u-bend.

David Cameron’s “rush to judgement”: hypocrisy personified.

Posted in Politics, Social justice, Society by raymondsoltysek on September 6, 2011

"Six months for pinching £3.50's worth of water? I say, jolly good show, old judge!"

In the light of news from Libya that British intelligence officers were apparently complicit in the illegal seizure, rendition and torture of foreign nationals at the behest of their US allies, David Cameron has taken a sober, sensible approach.  The allegations are “significant”, he says.  So serious are they that he will ensure that they are considered carefully, and there will be no “rush to judgement”.

What a thoughtful man he is, bravely resisting knee-jerk reactions to the revelation of  potentially horrendous crimes.

If only he applied such careful calmness all the time.  It’s barely three weeks since he was advocating a stampede to judgement in the aftermath of the English riots.  Courts should dish out “exemplary” sentences, he said.  Rioters should go to jail, he proclaimed, thereby preempting every court in the land from doing the independent job it is supposed to do: consider its judgement carefully.  He praised sentences which threw the sentencing rule book out of the window, including one ridiculous case of four years for two men who failed to incite a riot on facebook.

What has prompted such a terpsichorean change of direction?

Well, Cameron has nothing in common with the mass of underprivileged people in this country, whether they rioted or not.  They are, in the words of that other paragon of restraint in word and deed Kenneth Clarke, the “feral underclass” which must be corralled, contained, taught a tough lesson.  There’s nothing wrong with “rushing to judgement” of them now, is there?  Who ever complains about a hoodie being locked up?

Now the intelligence service, that’s another thing, isn’t it?  Just the name – “Intelligence”.  We’re taking about intelligent people here, aren’t we?  My goodness, many of them come from the same public schools and universities as Mr Cameron and his chums in both the Labour and Conservative parties.  They’re pillars of the establishment.  All round good eggs.

If kidnapping a man, flying him half way round the world, handing him over to Libyan thugs and psychopaths, standing outside the door while he is tortured to screaming point and then rubbing your hands with glee at the “information” he has offered just to please make it stop isn’t a “feral” act of abject inhumanity and barbarity, I don’t know what is.

“Rush to judgement”?  The gears of any inquiry will grind ever so slowly, and at the end of it, as in the de Menezes and Baha Mousa cases, no-one will be held to account, no-one will lose their jobs, no-one will spend time in jail – and the establishment will shrug its shoulders and carry on its hypocritical way.

No judgement.  No justice.  That’s the Cameron way.

Who is ever held to account?

Posted in Politics, Social justice by raymondsoltysek on August 28, 2011

Baha Mousa, died in Army custody, 2003

For Jean Charles de Menezes, Harry Stanley and a whole host of other ordinary people whose lives have been ended by apparently unaccountable British authorities, add Baha Mousa, killed not by the police but by the British Army.

The case is now well known, but an independent inquiry is about to exonerate the Army of systematic torture and mistreatment.  Ninety-three injuries were noted on Mousa’s body: one wonders if he had to top 100 to qualify for “systematic”.

The need, of course, is to preserve the system.   Chains of command cannot be brought into question, senior officers and bureaucrats and politicians must never be blamed.  If anything goes wrong, it must either be swept under the carpet as far as possible or blamed on a few “bad apples”.

But the system also depends on defending those “bad apples” in order to buy their silence and to ensure that the dirty work can keep going on.  We see that in a different context, with Glen Mulcaire’s legal expenses paid by the NotW, despite their apparent “horror and disgust” at his activities, or in the constant promotion through the ranks of police officers involved in the de Menezes shooting despite their incompetence being responsible for a conviction of the Met under the Health and Safety Act.  In this case, the “bad apples” were seven soldiers hauled up before a court martial in what was the army’s version of justice.  One of the seven – Corporal Donald Payne – was captured abusing prisoners on video; faced with such undeniable evidence, he pled guilty to mistreating prisoners and served one year in prison, three times more than a housewife who accepted a pair of shorts from a rioter.

I actually have a little sympathy for people like Payne: just like Simon Harwood – the PC who struck Ian Thomslinson – and the Abu Ghraib GIs, photographic evidence meant he had to be hung out to dry for a system which may well be rotten to the core.  The courts, unencumbered by such public evidence on the other six and faced by what the judge described as “a more or less obvious closing of ranks”, cleared them.

Baha Mousa, died in army custody, 2003

So, yet again, and ordinary man dies and no-one is to blame and no-one explains to Baha Mousa’s family how he came to sustain 93 injuries and end up looking like this.

And if I wonder about these things, how do they look to those who would use genuine anger at these kinds of incidents to fuel fundamentalism, extremism and terrorism?

Help protect the BBC

Posted in Media review, Politics by raymondsoltysek on August 17, 2011

For all its imperfections, The BBC  still provides the greatest and most diverse broadcast service on the planet.  I love it.  A commercial provider would charge us five times as much for a quarter  what we get.   Sign this petition to protect one important part of that service.

Save BBC 4! Petition | GoPetition


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