Friday, 29 January 2010

Opposition speaks out - it's the Edlington effect

ALL the boys from the little village school were grouped together in a tight ring. Their attention was focused intently on something in their midst. Something on the ground.
Intrigued, a little anxious, the girl edged towards them.
Something, or someone, in the midst of the group of boys was struggling, forcibly prevented from crying out.
The boys were wrapt, silent. Caught, it seemed, in that edgy place between fascination and horror. That emotionally heightened, disempowered place which is so often the group reaction to violence.
The girl, smaller than most of the boys, pushed in between their legs to see what was happening.
On the ground, held down by two or three of the bigger boys, was one young pupil. A victim, chosen apparently at random, now surrounded by those who were normally his friends.
His boots had been removed and thrown aside. His feet were bare.
And one boy, the largest and most powerful, the self-appointed leader of the gang, was squeezing and pulling the naked toes with a pair of pliers.
Experimenting, perhaps. Punishing, possibly. Probably simply enjoying his power to inflict pain and fear.
The girl, alarmed that the boy’s toes might actually be torn off, reacted rapidly, impulsively.
She threw herself at the ringleader and sank her teeth into the arm with which he was wielding the pliers.
She was seven and small for her age. He was two or three years older and big for his. But she had broken the spell and possibly saved a classmate’s toes.
This is a true story.
Broken Britain in the early 21st century? Or maybe the late 20th?
No, this was the Home Counties in the 1920s.
A shocking event, certainly, but not too far beyond the understanding – or recognition – of children in any land, in any era.
Perhaps because severe mutilation was averted, it never made the news. In fact, it’s probable no adult knew about it at the time.
The small girl was my mother. The memory was triggered this week by accounts of the horrors perpetrated by two other young thugs whose behaviour has made the name of their Yorkshire village infamous.
The point is that what took place at Edlington last year was appalling – and riveting – but something that could have happened anywhere at any time.
Such events are, thanks goodness, rare outside times of war. But not unknown.
In 1993, Tony Blair was horrified, like the rest of us, by the killing of toddler Jamie Bulger by two young boys.
It was, he said, “an ugly manifestation of a society that is becoming unworthy of that name”.
David Cameron, responding to the Edlington case, saw it similarly.
“We are in danger,” he said, “of becoming an irresponsible society.”
Cameron is, of course, leader of the opposition – as Blair was in 1993.
It is in his interests, as it was in Blair’s, to suggest that the sitting government is presiding over a breakdown in social order.
It is also poppycock. Grubby, opportunistic, self-serving poppycock.
The kind of knee-jerk nonsense that seems to be common fare among politicians of all parties.
And which does absolutely nothing to help the professionals – social workers, police, teachers, the care and justice systems – who actually have to deal with the perpetrators and victims of events such as those at Edlington.
For whom such events are exceptional, extreme cases of the kind of thing they deal with all the time.
Not because Britain is “broken”, but because human beings – a very few human beings – are like that. And always have been.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Disaster capitalism invades poor Haiti

WHAT the hell is going on in Haiti? And when I say "hell", that’s just what I mean.
I haven’t been there to see for myself, but if you can believe anything you see, hear or read, then I believe Haiti is about as close to Hell as life on earth gets.
The United Nations – an organisation which doesn’t exactly shy away from disaster spots – reckons the current state of Haiti is the worst it has ever seen following a natural disaster anywhere.
It’s not that the earthquake itself, though bad, was the worst ever. Just that Haiti, already just about the poorest country in the world, was so shatteringly ill-equipped to deal with it.
Decades – no, make that centuries – of desperately bad government have left a country without decent communications. Without proper organisation. Lacking, even before the quake, most of the services and support that we take for granted.
Already lacking decent housing, health care, sanitation, the people had nothing to fall back on when the buildings fell on them.
Reacting with horror to the crisis, the world (including you and me) rallies with what it can offer. Essentially, cash.
Which only goes so far in a place virtually cut off from the rest of us. A place with poor roads, one wrecked port and an airport that can only take one plane at a time.
What the Clintons thought they was doing blocking up that airport for their own photo opportunity, I can’t imagine. But it was one heck of a symbol.
The reasons why Haiti has been quite so poor and quite so corrupt for so long are many and complex.
It can’t just be down to America’s malign influence. If it were, how would you explain the comparative affluence of the neighbouring Dominican Republic, for instance?
But here’s a potted history from an informed North American commentator:
"Haiti has a longstanding history of US military intervention and occupation going back to the beginning of the 20th century.
"US interventionism has contributed to the destruction of Haiti’s national economy and the impoverishment of its population.
"A country has been destroyed, its infrastructure demolished. Its people precipitated into abysmal poverty and despair. Haiti’s history, its colonial past have been erased."
The words are those of author Michel Chossudovsky, an economics professor and head of the Centre for Research on Globalization.
It has to be admitted he takes an extreme, partial view. But it does seem a fair question why the United States, dominating and controlling the world’s aid effort, should see fit to send its military into Haiti - while making it hard for others, such as Medecins Sans Frontieres, to land.
What’s needed there desperately is emergency medical, engineering and food aid, not the US Marines. Yet a probably lasting effect of the current crisis will be an occupying force of some 20,000 troops.
Like asset-strippers in a credit crunch, those who hold the reins of capitalism don’t believe in letting a good crisis go to waste.
That guru of unfettered, uncaring capitalism Milton Friedman was explicit about it.
In his seminal 1962 book Capitalism And Freedom, Friedman wrote: "Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change."
In other words crisis is a good thing. Especially if it’s someone else’s crisis and you can exploit it (and them).
Apart from the attack on Pearl Harbour, the Second World War was not fought on American soil. But it turned the USA from an inward-looking nation crippled by economic depression to the richest, most powerful country the world has ever known.
Casting itself as the world’s policeman, with an assumed halo of holiness, America got very rich. And the rich of America have had a vested interest in keeping it that way ever since.
We’ve heard a lot, in these times of global economic wobble, about Casino Capitalism. Haiti is in the grip of its close relative, Disaster Capitalism.
And to see how that works, you have only to look at how countries devastated by the 2004 tsunami have "recovered".
Take Arugam Bay, which was a run-down fishing village on Sri Lanka’s east coast before it was washed away. It’s been rebuilt, but not for the villagers.
Like other displaced poor Sri Lankans, Arugam Bay’s former inhabitants were forcibly rehomed in inland barracks.
Tourist operators, however, were welcomed where common housing was forbidden. So the former fishing village has been transformed.
Today, according to the brochure, it is a "high-end boutique tourism destination with five-star hotels, luxury chalets, a floatplane pier and helipad". An eager surfer enthuses: "Some of the guest houses are now much better than before the wave." So that's all right, then.
Arugam Bay was a model for 30 other rebuilt settlements on a new South Asian Riviera, allowing Sri Lanka to join the jet-set economy.
The former fishermen and their families have been transformed into the wage slaves of the visiting rich. With labour laws carefully redrawn to assist in their exploitation.
The same pattern followed wherever the tsunami hit. It is the way of the capitalist world.
So what future for Haiti?
I suppose if you’ve spent days lying in agony under a collapsed building, without food, water or medical attention, any future at all sounds good.

Friday, 15 January 2010

At last, a proper winter

IT'S amused me these past few weeks to hear people referring to what we're going through in Britain as a "cold snap". This isn’t a snap. It’s winter.
A winter like I remember from my childhood. A winter such as I knew them in the north. (Of 16 winters in Suffolk, this is only the second proper winter I’ve seen here.)
I’ve talked in a cheery way with people – some of them near-neighbours – I’ve hardly if ever met before. I’ve joined with total strangers to push cars for other total strangers. Cleared snow and ice in a jolly community of folk who wouldn’t normally give each other a second glance.
Community, that’s the word. And one of the reasons I’ve been enjoying this winter more than any for many years.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many youngsters (and adults) having so much fun on sledges.
Pity the wooden tabogan we managed to pick up on eBay showed its 45 years by collapsing in splinters after about an hour’s use. But never mind. At a pinch, a plastic dog-food sack can be made to do the job.
Another of the satisfactions of these weeks can only be described properly by borrowing a word from German. Schadenfreude. Which, according to my dictionary, means "malicious pleasure in the misfortunes of others".
The pleasure really only comes when you can feel that people have brought their misfortunes on themselves. That it’s all essentially their own silly fault. And it’s even sweeter when it’s a case of smugness undone.
How many times at the beginning of this icy blast did you hear people crowing that their 4x4 vehicles would really show their worth now?
And how many of those same 4x4s have you seen since slithered off the road into ditches and verges?
I haven’t been counting, but I’ve seen several. I’d say they’ve made up at least half the cars I’ve spotted in trouble. Off-road when they didn’t want to be.
They don’t account for half the cars on the road, so that tells me that 4x4 drivers have actually been in greater peril than the rest of us, not less.
Not that I think 4x4s are less able to cope with snow and ice than other vehicles. That obviously isn’t the case.
Just that too many of their drivers swan around as if they’re invulnerable. Which they’re not – especially if they don’t really know how to drive their special vehicles in the special conditions.
I’m not saying all 4x4 owners are bad drivers. Or that every 4x4 is inappropriate.
For farmers, forestry workers and the wildlife trust, for example, they’re just the thing.
But I bet the bloke I saw fuming by the roadside after hitting an ice patch too fast and wrapping his 4x4 round a tree wasn’t any of those.
Neither was the chap whose monster Mercedes I helped shift after he’d blocked a street by slithering to a stop broadside on.
As computer help-desk people have been known to put it, PBSAT (problem between seat and terminal). In other words, it’s not the machine at fault, but the idiot at the controls.
When that idiot’s just been boasting about how much better his machine is than yours, it’s particularly satisfying.
I do, of course, hope none of the downfallen drivers have suffered serious injury to anything more than their pride. Even more, I hope they haven’t inflicted injury - or worse - on anyone else.
But the stupidest reaction to this bout of cold weather has come from those who think it puts the lie to global warming.
The very fact that this cold spell has been so notable shows real winters are becoming rarer here.
Then there was the claim that one night Britain had become "colder than the Antarctic".
If true (and it was a very partial, twisted truth) that might be taken as evidence that the Antarctic was alarmingly warm.
Above all, though, you shouldn’t confuse climate with weather.
Climate is immensely complex. It has long been suggested that by altering the Gulf Stream, global warming could actually make British winters colder.
Is what we’re seeing now evidence of that? It’s far too early to tell.


AND talking of smugness undone, what a jolly mess Peter and Iris Robinson have got themselves into.
The uncovering of dodgy loans arranged by the Northern Irish premier’s wife for her teenage lover was an entertaining story from the start. But it becomes really sweet when you consider how these holier-than-thou holy-rollers used to point judgmental fingers at others for their lifestyles.
As one man stopped in a Belfast street neatly put it, Iris is "an avaricious, mendacious hypocrite".
Few there, I think, will mourn the downfall of the swish family Robinson.
But I still want to know what the 19-year-old toyboy of then 59-year-old Iris got out of it. Other than the cash to set up his restaurant, of course.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Squaring the circle on farming and food

SPOT the difference:
The Tories call for a “new age of agriculture”, with an ombudsman to protect farmers from bullying by big supermarket chains.
Labour launches a 20-year food strategy, calling on farmers to move with the times.
Put like that, it might seem the Conservatives are more the farmer’s friends than the current government.
The apparent difference is traditional and class-based. Tories for the landowners, Labour for the masses.
But actually the positions taken by the two parties aren’t that far apart. And there’s no doubt that a new, coherent long-term approach to agricultural policy is needed.
Whether Labour or the Tories have either the courage or the clarity of thinking to produce it is another matter.
Some protection of food producers from the money-driven ruthlessness of the supermarket giants is long overdue. Appointing an ombudsman might be a small step in the right direction. A very small, tottering and unreliable step.
There is some truth in what the supermarkets’ PR people always claim, that it is “the market” – in other words everyone who goes through the checkouts – that ultimately makes the decisions. But only some truth.
It ignores the vast power of big-budget advertising and peer-group pressure to sway the consumer’s behaviour.
And it ignores the way the supermarkets manipulate the market by forcing smaller shops out of business. Which then enables them to set almost everyone’s purchasing agenda.
But here’s a thought.
If one Facebook group can make an obscure 18-year-old punk rock record the Christmas No.1, maybe we could organise ourselves to change the market in food too.
On the face of it, environment secretary Hilary Benn wants farmers to achieve the near-impossible. Over the next 20 years, he says, they must both increase production and lessen their impact on the environment. Sounds like a tough ask.
And if we consumers – through the supermarkets and fast-food joints – go on demanding ever cheaper, ever bigger, ever shinier food, it might indeed be an impossible circle to square.
But there is an answer. And it’s we, all of us together, who can provide it. By changing our buying and eating habits.
Sir Paul McCartney wants us to save the world by going vegetarian. It’s an idea that has a lot to be said for it.
I wouldn’t go quite so far. But we certainly don’t need to eat flesh at every meal. Or every day.
If we all ate a lot less meat we’d be healthier.
When we did eat meat, it would be meat of better quality.
Farmers wouldn’t be forced to mass-produce unhealthy animals under conditions of intolerable over-crowding and cruelty.
Greenhouse-gas emissions would arguably be substantially reduced.
Because it takes so much more land and time to produce meat than it does grain and vegetables, one man’s meat is another man’s starvation.
If more of the grain grown went directly to feed people, not to rear pigs, beef or poultry, it would be possible to feed us all.
Not just all of us in Britain, but potentially everyone in the world.
If the rich of the world – and that includes us – weren’t so greedy, no one need starve.
Now that, surely, would be a policy worth voting for. And shopping for.


IF I lived in Wootton Bassett I certainly wouldn’t want an Islamist march coming down my street. But then I don’t think I’d be too keen on all the military and funerary parades that pass through either.
Denouncing the protest plans by Anjem Choudary, the town’s mayor said he didn’t want anything "political" to happen there.
As if the flag-waving, trumpet-blowing honouring of every dead soldier flown home from Afghanistan wasn’t political.
It seems reasonable to point out that many more Afghans than British or American soldiers are dying in that country. And that the presence of the troops there is a political decision.
Choudary is right to want an end to the cycle of violence in Afghanistan. He is right that the innocent die there for political reasons, and that the stated reason for our troops to be there keeps changing.
But the irony is that if Anjem Choudary were taking the political decisions here, the right to peaceful protest would be a thing of the past. As would be the relatively free way most British Muslims enjoy their lives.
When he talks about Islam meaning "submission to the will of God", what he really means is submission to his particular idea of what that will might be.
No wonder the Muslim Council of Britain denounces his group as fringe extremists.
Because it’s ordinary Muslims he wants to submit to his repression first.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Noughty - but how nice were they?

For me, after an unpromising beginning, the Noughties turned out to be much the best of my five-plus decades so far. But what about the bigger picture?
Here is my list of things the Noughties will be remembered for:

9/11 – Though by no means the biggest horror of the age in terms of life lost, the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001 was notable for several reasons.
First, it took place in the USA, whose citizens are not used to coming under attack on their own soil (except by other US citizens).
Second, millions watched it unfold live on television, giving it unusual immediacy.
Third, we all thought at the time that it really was the start of a war that would engulf us all.
Most importantly, it set the tone for so much in international relations in the years to come. The ramping up of war in Afghanistan. The invasion of Iraq. The aggressive stand-off throughout the world between Muslims and “Western democracies”.

Tony Blair –
The pearly-toothed messiah who swept to power on such a wave of promise in 1997 revealed himself as a serial liar and unrepentant war-monger.
The supposed socialist became the fawning lapdog of the most right-wing president in US history.
The man who promised the resurrection of Labour became instead its executioner.

The Iraq war – How George W Bush (whose own election to the US presidency at the start of the decade was dubious at best) set out to “defend democracy” and ended up bringing the whole idea of democracy into disrepute. At the cost of thousands of American and British lives, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi ones.

The War on Terror – Not really a war at all, but a long-running publicity stunt by which the Western democracies set out to curtail the civil liberties of their own citizens. And, almost incidentally, make a lot of enemies around the world (see above).

Barack Obama – The man who restored at least a vestige of credibility to US democracy. And won the Nobel Peace Prize for showing promise.

“Reality” TV – Big Brother made voyeurism and surveillance the accepted norm in your living-room, as it is on the streets.
Simon Cowell became preposterously rich and famous by staging Butlins-style talent contests and playing on the desire of countless non-entities to become “celebrities”. Even Andy Warhol might have been surprised to see how excruciatingly true his famous remark about 15-minute fame had become.
“Reality TV” itself is an oxymoron. It’s hard to conceive of anything much less “real” than I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here. Or much stupider.

David Beckham – A likeable footballer of limited ability married a pop “singer” of even less talent and somehow became the most feted sportsman in the world.
Anyone who makes the most of a moderate natural gift deserves respect. But how a one-paced, one-footed winger who can’t head, tackle or dribble ended up with more England caps than Bobby Moore, twice as many as Paul Gascoigne or Jimmy Greaves, and 99 more than the wonderful Tony Currie, is one of the mysteries of the age.

The internet – From the mid-1970s to the late 90s, my social life largely revolved around a series of pubs. In the Noughties it’s become something I do at my desk.

Hurricane Katrina – Another disaster that seemed bigger and more shocking because it happened in the States.
The effect of the flooding on the ordinary folk of New Orleans, and a vast surrounding area, was even more devastating than 9/11’s impact on New York. And Bush, unprepared and without an enemy to shock and awe, failed to take advantage.
It’s impossible to say whether global warming – man-made or not – played any part in Katrina. Though it was a bad one, there have always been hurricanes in that area.
What it did show was that even big, modern cities are not immune to natural disaster. And that even big, modern societies are not well equipped to cope when they happen.
As they are likely to with increasing frequency and force.

Two things that will happen in 2010:
Labour will do better in a May General Election than anyone would have predicted a year ago. And still lose.
England will do better at the World Cup than any sane person would have predicted two years ago. And still not win it.
OK, that didn’t take much of a crystal ball, so let me try to put a little more detail on those predictions.
By the time the first ball is kicked in South Africa, David Cameron may be prime minister. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a return to rule by and for Old Etonian toffs and their mates.
Don’t be surprised to see a hung Parliament, with neither of the big parties having an overall majority.
And that would leave the reins in the hands of Nick Clegg, the least impressive leader the Lib Dems have ever had.
The wishy-washy holding the balance of power between two equally unappealing – and almost indistinguishable – alternatives.
Less important perhaps, but possibly more entertaining, will be the progress of Fabio Capello’s charges.
For whom I see a glorious progress to the semi-finals, there to lose on penalties to the Ivory Coast. Frank Lampard beaten at spot-kicks by his Chelsea mate Didier Drogba.
The other finalists? France, of course – cheats prospering to the full from Thierry Henry’s single-handed denial of the Irish.
Leaving us all rooting for the Ivorians on July 11.