Raymond Soltysek's Blog

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?

Cyntoia Brown: a suitable case for compassion (2)

Posted in Crime, Justice, Social justice by raymondsoltysek on June 27, 2012

Cyntoia Brown

A pretty boring football match had me shuffling through programmes I’d saved, and decided on “The 16-Year-old Killer: Cyntoia’s Story”, recently repeated on BBC3.  Cyntoia was 15 when she found herself pimped out by a 24-year old drug dealer and addict with a history of violence and the nickname “Cut-throat”.  Picked up in a notorious red light district, something tragic happened along the way that resulted in her shooting dead the 43-year old man she met that night.

Tried as an adult, she was sentenced to life imprisonment.  Film maker Daniel Birman was given access to her and he followed the whole process.  The result is one of the most humane and heart-rending documentaries I’ve ever seen.

That Cyntoia was damaged is beyond doubt: there are times when, glassy-eyed, you can almost imagine a psychopath lurking inside.  But with a history of abandonment and sexual abuse, it’s hardly surprising she would develop a carapace, despite the obvious love of her adopted mother.  However, she matures throughout the course of the film, and what we actually learn about her is that she is stoic, sensitive and fiercely intelligent.   What did the men want, she is asked; “Sex… for money” is her initial response, but then she pauses and, in a moment of blindingly adult insight, she adds, “No… they wanted acceptance and admiration.”  No sixteen year old should have that kind of knowledge.

So Cyntoia’s compensation for all that abuse and pain and hurt was to be called a cold-blooded killer and to be sent down for the rest of her life.  A fifteen year old, unable to understand the complexities of the legal system and duped during questioning, then thrown on the scrap heap, no possibility of rehabilitation or redemption considered.  What a waste.

But that’s the great state of Tennessee.  Read the responses to the excellent Brantley Hargrove article in the Nashville Scene, and you’ll get a sense of just how inhumane they like justice to be over there.  How can you have any hope for a world in which people react to this kid’s plight with:

“This rotten, no-good little bitch will be out on parole in four years, so spare us the frickin’ violins. Public safety is more important than giving second chances to monsters”?

Of course, it’s also no accident that such people glory in the fact that Cyntoia is now locked up for the rest of her life in the “penile system”; with inhumanity comes ignorance.  Thankfully, looking at the “likes” and “dislikes” on the message board, such heartless bastards are in a minority.

I believe that justice must often include an element of punishment, but have never understood the notion that the more severe the punishment, the better the needs of the victim are served.  Of course, such a simplistic notion is attractive to politicians who want to avoid systems that truly take care of victims and their families because such systems – full compensation, counselling, relocation if appropriate, health and social care – are too expensive to countenance; the argument that says, “what about the victims; lock them up and throw away the key” is much, much cheaper, and then allows the next step, the “why should we pay for them to live in luxury; just execute them.”  It’s why restorative justice – which truly does look after the victim’s needs – is so valuable.

I can’t understand the mindset of anyone wanting to lock up a damaged and abused child for the rest of her life. A petition to release her pending review of her case can be found here: Free Cyntoia Brown Petition | GoPetition .  Please read her story and consider signing.

Ahmed Abdullah Ahmed: a suitable case for compassion (1)

Posted in Scotland, Social justice, Society by raymondsoltysek on June 17, 2012

Ahmed; this links to the Facebook group “Ahmed Must Stay”,

Ahmed Abdullah Ahmed is a 27 year old Somalian refugee with a heartbreaking story.  I won’t recount it here because I’d rather you go to the campaign site yourself, read about him and take whatever action you can to prevent his deportation on the 19th of June.  I’ve sent letters to Teresa May and called Qatar Airlines: many others are doing so much more and deserve our support.

I’ve always thought it anomalous that Scotland does not have control of its immigration policy.  Economically, geographically and culturally, we are very different from England.  But even while the debate about whether or not Scotland needs immigration goes on (I happen to think it does), here, socially, we have a young man who is respected, cared for and wanted by the community he lives in.  He makes a hugely positive contribution to the Govan community – but rules are rules, apparently, and he must go.

I won’t bang on about this being another example of the way the poor are abused, about how rules are bent all the time to support the rich, white men who have our economy in their back pockets while the disadvantaged have their spirits crushed at every turn.  Okay, I just did.

But the huge march in support of Ahmed that took place in Glasgow yesterday is evidence that people are more concerned about compassion than the government’s rules or my  rhetoric.  I really, really hope they succeed.

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.

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.