Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Re-nationalisation edges onto the national agenda: will Labour please take note?

A poll on the website of one national newspaper gives 92 per cent backing to what might seem the revolutionary idea of taking British Gas back into public ownership.
Admittedly, the paper in question is not the Mail, the Sun or the Telegraph - but it's not the Communist Morning Star, either. In fact, it's Britain's third-biggest selling daily.
So perhaps a notion that gets that level of support isn't so far off the public radar as we might have thought. Which is rather encouraging.
And then there’s the declaration by Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, that he will re-nationalise the Royal Mail if Scots vote for independence in next year’s referendum. Which is by no means the first thing in Scottish politics that has made me quite fancy the idea of upping sticks and moving north of the border.
In the week the company announced price hikes of around 10 per cent, Chris Weston, the managing director of British Gas’s parent company Centrica (where do big firms get these meaningless names?), has refused to give up any of his £2million bonus.
But then he would, wouldn’t he? Because what used to be a public service until Margaret Thatcher flogged it off in 1986 is now a private company. And private companies exist for one reason only – not to benefit their customers, but to make as much money as they can for themselves.
This is capitalism.
And this is why the privatisation of such vital utilities as gas, electricity, water and telecoms was a Bad Thing.
And why the hawking of railways, health services, universities, colleges and schools – and yes, the postal service – is a truly rotten idea.
The fact that the Royal Mail shot up so far so fast on the Stock Market as soon as it was traded showed very clearly that it had been shockingly under-valued by the government.
It showed equally blatantly that it should never have been considered for selling off in the first place. It should be continuing to make money for the government – as it was doing – rather than putting it in private pockets.
The markets know a good thing when they see one. And – weirdly, almost surreally, for a country still nominally Communist – the people who seem to play the markets best these days are the Chinese.
If the mail, like the nuclear industry so gleefully handed to China by George Osborne last week, ends up being controlled from Beijing, I will not be at all surprised.
In fact, if China were to call in all its debts tomorrow, we might suddenly find that Britain, America and most of the capitalist West was owned lock, stock and smokeless barrel by the National People’s Congress. But that is another story.
This one is about the fact that re-nationalising industries scandalously sold off by the Tories appears to be creeping onto the political agenda. And about time too.
It may be early days to hail this as a real change in public perception. But it’s worth giving at least a cautious welcome.
The Labour Party, which has been a sadly timid beast ever since Thatcher moved the political goalposts so effectively around 30 years ago, should take note.
Ed Miliband scored something of an own goal with his recent promise, if elected, to freeze energy prices. The almost inevitable consequence is that energy companies will ensure prices are as high as they think they can get away with before he comes to power.
Perhaps what he should do is take a leaf out of Salmond’s book – and declare that every state asset sold into private hands under the Tory-led coalition will be re-nationalised under Labour.
At least then we would know that the next election would give us a genuine choice over how the country should be run.
As it is now: for the fat cats by their friends. Or as it should be: by the people for the people.


My brother, whose wife was born and raised there, and who has spent a lot of time there himself, knows rather more about rural India than I do.
So I take seriously his response to the piece I wrote here last week, in which I mentioned a possible conflict of interest between western conservationists and Indian villagers.
He told me: “Tigers do cause human deaths in India – but very, very few. Thugs employed by rich industrialists cause far, far more.
“The ordinary rural poor don’t worry much about tigers – they’re far more worried about being thrown off their land to make room for an opencast mine, a factory… or a tiger reserve. They’d rather share their land with a tiger than not have any land.
“My parents-in-laws’ village is called Baghdharia – literally, ‘Tiger’s place’. It was, 50 years ago,  and no one ever worried about it.
“It’s still shared with sloth bears, cobras, kraits... all dangerous, but much less so than motor vehicles.”

Friday, 18 October 2013

Who decides which species to save and which are doomed?

As I opened the curtains my eye was caught by a flurry of movement and for the next several minutes I stood transfixed.
My apple tree, as I mentioned last week, has not produced an exactly bumper crop this year. But here it was absolutely full of life.
During those minutes, my little patch of garden – especially the tree – played host to three chaffinches, two goldfinches, a greenfinch, two robins, four blackbirds, a blackcap, and a little brown job I could identify only as a warbler of some sort.
Plus – what had really grabbed my attention – a mixed flock of great tits, bluetits and the odd coal tit. They were flitting about much too quickly and eagerly for me to make an accurate count, but I reckoned there were between 20 and 30 of them.
It was a grey, overcast morning after a night of rain, and I could only assume that the birds had been attracted by a feast of insects.
Though I didn’t spot one, it wouldn’t have surprised me to see that the little birds had in their turn attracted a sparrowhawk to the bonanza.
I’ve recently seen several big raptors being harassed and driven off by other birds. The other day, on the A145 near Loddon, I was startled by a buzzard that flew out of the undergrowth right across in front of my windscreen – rapidly pursued by an angry crow.
These battles are, to me, among the most fascinating instances of wildlife in action to be seen in our midst. Some people, though, seem to be angered by the rise and rise of the buzzard, and the very existence of the sparrowhawk.
There have been calls for sparrowhawks and magpies to be “controlled” (i.e. killed) because of their habit of preying on the smaller birds we all love to see in our gardens.
Which misses the larger point that it is humans, particularly with our modern farming methods – pesticides, monoculture, lost hedgerows etc – who have done the most damage to populations of all kinds of birds.
Misses the point, too, about the huge numbers of garden birds massacred by pet cats.
But, the cat-lover will say, my moggy is only doing what comes naturally. As are the sparrowhawks, which – unlike your pet puss – need to kill to live and to raise their young.
Meanwhile harriers and goshawks are persecuted almost to the verge of extinction for their habit of preying on grouse and partridge – creatures bred to be killed by people for fun, not by wild things to preserve their own threatened lives.
These were among the points of dissension under discussion at the Royal Society in London on Monday evening at a debate led by the zoologist and TV presenter Chris Packham, patron of the World Land Trust.
The Halesworth-based trust does a phenomenal job buying areas of threatened land in vulnerable parts of the world to save them for wildlife. And it believes, rightly, that the growing list of conservation controversies should be opened up to public scrutiny not ignored or swept under the carpet.
Difficult questions such as which species are worth saving. In an era of multiple extinctions, does it actually make sense to allocate large sums of cash to try to keep alive rhinos, pandas, polar bears and orang-utans?
The gut reaction to that is an unequivocal ‘yes’. But who decides which species can be saved and which are doomed?
Can re-introductions to the wild really work – and are they worth it? Is it enough to maintain a gene pool in zoos and captive collections?
And if you’re looking for inconsistencies, here’s a big one that begs all sorts of awkward questions about us in Britain. About our attitude to people elsewhere in the world, as well as to our own beleaguered wildlife.
British conservationists tell people in India they should be protecting their elephants and tigers, even though they can cause human deaths, eat their cattle and destroy their crops.
Meanwhile we are gassing badgers, despite all the evidence that it’s totally ineffective as a defence against TB in cattle. India has no badgers, but it has bovine TB.
Perhaps, instead of telling the Indians what to do, we should ask what we can learn from them. Not, admittedly, a humility that comes naturally to Britain’s decision-making classes.
Among many questions stirred up by the Daily Mail’s vile and unjustified attack on Ed Miliband’s father is this: When and how did “socialism” become a dirty word?
Like the entirely admirable Ralph Miliband, I am pleased to call myself a socialist. But I am uncomfortably aware that the name is not always understood.
Contrary to the way Joe Stalin and Mao Zedong appropriated it – a perversion the Daily Mail chooses to think was the real thing – socialism is about equality, fairness and democracy. Common ownership and common responsibility, not repression of the majority by a rich minority.
Socialism, sadly, is not currently on the British political agenda. The Labour Party may be better social democrats under Ed Miliband than they were under Tony Blair, but socialists they are not.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Preparing schools for the national sell-off

I wouldnt want to accuse Michael Gove of hypocrisy or double standards. People do change their views, particularly over a span of years that amounts to half their lifetime. Tony Blair, after all, started out claiming to be a socialist. 
It’s interesting, all the same, to recall the four-month strike by journalists at the Aberdeen Journal in 1989-90. The bitter dispute was over the company’s refusal to go on recognising the National Union of Journalists.
There are a few surviving photographs of the NUJ picket line outside the paper’s offices. And in one of them, grinning inanely under a mop of curly hair, is an ardent young Michael Gove.
Union member, striker, picket. And the very chap now leading an all-out assault on the teaching profession.
The chap who refuses to listen to the teaching unions.
The same chap who claims to be worried that British teachers are not “held in the same high esteem” as those in other countries.
And that taking part in strike action will undermine the respect they do have.
Teachers across Norfolk were out on strike yesterday – which ought to increase, not lessen, your respect for them.
Teachers don’t take strike action without good cause or a lot of soul-searching.
The vast majority are dedicated professionals who wish to give their pupils the best education possible. Frankly, they wouldn’t do the job if they didn’t care deeply.
Some people imagine teachers have an easy life. Short days, long holidays. It’s what Michael Gove seems to think. But what does he know?
I’ve spoken lately to a few people who have re-trained to become teachers after having other jobs – in journalism, industry, publishing and business. They’ve all said the same thing: that they work longer hours and suffer more stress as teachers than they did in their previous careers.
It’s a matter of professional integrity – as is the decision by the two biggest teaching unions, the NUT and NASUWT, to hold yesterday’s strike across the Eastern region.
It is well put in a letter sent out by union members to the parents of pupils at my daughter’s school: “We do not take the decision to strike lightly and it is only ever a last resort. We always endeavour to put the students first – it is the reason we came into this profession – but we are concerned that the changes proposed by the current government affect the whole professionalism of teaching and therefore the effective provision of education to those students.
“Teachers who strike will lose a day’s pay and will not be financially reimbursed. However, we feel strongly that the current attacks on teaching pay, pensions and conditions are worth standing up for.
“We feel that it is necessary to take this stand to ensure the preservation of the education service for all.
“We are only able to strike legally on the issue of ‘pay, pensions and conditions’, but our grievances run much further and deeper.”
Headline issues include the workload of teachers burdened by ever greater levels of pointless bureaucracy; cuts to their pensions, along with increases in the contributions they must make, amounting effectively to cuts in pay; and job cuts.
Gove wants teachers to work longer for less.
He is causing chaos by rushing through a new curriculum which those who know believe will harm, not improve, our children’s education.
Crucially, he no longer requires teachers to be qualified – a regressive move that can only undermine their professional status and lead to poorer teaching.
The unions don’t say it in so many words, but these changes and others made by Gove – such as the creation of so-called “free schools” – all point to an underlying agenda.
That, just as with other vital services, the government is preparing our whole school system for privatisation.
Flogging off our kids’ education to make profit for private companies. Which is frankly despicable.


The International Trade Union Confederation represents 174million workers in 156 countries, which makes it a rather bigger and – dare one suggest – more important organisation than FIFA, which is merely the world governing body of football.
The ITUC says labour conditions in Qatar are so appalling that thousands of migrant workers could die building stadiums for the 2022 World Cup.
“More than 4,000 workers risk losing their life over the next seven years as construction for World Cup facilities gets under way,” according to ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow.
Which should matter more to FIFA than the commercial considerations of sponsors or the requirements of Fox TV.
More even, you might think, than the potentially deadly temperatures the world’s finest footballers will have to endure if the World Cup goes ahead in a Qatari summer.
Which itself was only one of the reasons FIFA should never have handed the tournament to a country less than twice the size of Norwich and with no football tradition.
They should now admit their mistake pronto and move the finals, not to winter (a relative term in the sub-tropical Gulf) but to a more suitable venue.