Saturday, 29 November 2014

A denunciation of injustice. From a surprising source.

How inspiring it is, and how refreshing a change, to hear a voice raised in defence of the poor and against the social injustice they suffer at the head of the wealthy. How much more impressive still when that voice speaks in tones of thunder, from the mouth of one of the wealthiest in the land. And how particularly encouraging when it speaks from within the ranks of government, where it can influence the direction of the country and drive forward a solution to the problems it denounces.

The strange perversion of Tory politics still continues, and the influence of wealth is daily exerted to prove—and with great success—how uneven is its distribution.

Indeed. So true. So necessary to be said. And here’s an abuse that particularly needs to be denounced:

We see the curse of unregulated casual employment steadily rotting the under side of the labour market.

Yes. As Ed Miliband has put it for the Labour Party, it’s time to do away with the zero-zero society, where many struggle on zero-hour contracts, technically employed but with no guarantee of either work or pay, while at the other end of the scale, the wealthiest pay zero taxes.

Opposing the curse of casual employment, underemployment,
unprotected employment
The impact of such injustice is particularly cruel on the young, but that in turn damages the future of the whole of society:

Thousands of children grow up not nourished sufficiently to make them effective citizens, or even to derive benefit from the existing educational arrangements.

Not that this voice speaks for the Labour Party. More, in his own own terms, for a radical, liberal position. Though, as he points out himself, there’s no reason to make any distinction, on this kind of question, between such views and those of Labour.

No true classification can be made in the abstract between Liberals and Radicals, or between Radicals and Labour representatives.

No, all three trends knew what needed to be done, and agreed on the approach to be taken:

Two clear lines of advance open before us: corrective, by asserting the just precedence of public interests over private interests; and constructive, by supplying the patent inadequacy of existing social machinery.

Solving these problems won’t be easy, and the burden will be heavy. But just as the aim is to tackle injustice, so the way we set about it must be just. And that has financial consequences, which have to be fairly shared:

Sacrifices will be required from every class in the population; the rich must contribute in money and the poor in service, if their children are to tread a gentler path towards a fairer goal. A fiscal system which prudently but increasingly imposes the necessary burdens of the State upon unearned wealth will not only be found capable of providing the funds which will be needed, but will also stimulate enterprise in production

Indeed. Service for all, and graduated tax on wealth. That will ensure the necessary resources are available, and that the solution will be equitable.

Isn’t it extraordinary that such views could be expressed at the highest level of government in Britain?

Unfortunately, and certain stylistic aspects of these quotations may have been given it away, the statements aren
’t recent and these views weren’t expressed by a member of the present government. Nor by a member of any Conservative government – though they were the opinions of one of the most emblematic figures of British Conservatism. At the time, however, Winston Churchill was not a Conservative, but a Liberal and about to take up a position as President of the Board of Trade in Herbert Henry Asquith’s great reforming government before the First World War. Presumably as part of his bid to be deemed worthy of that post, he published this article, which has come to be known as The Untrodden Field, in 1908.

Churchill in his Liberal days
A clarion call for radical reform
You may feel sad that such an outspoken champion for the victims of social injustice should in the end have joined the Conservatives, the very party he denounced here. Rejoined, in fact: he abandoned the Conservatives to join the Liberals in the 1900s, only to abandon the Liberals in the 1920s and return to Tories (you may remember his comment, “anyone can rat, but it takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat.”)

What’s far sadder is that nearly 107 years after Churchill penned that article, so many of the abuses remain to be overcome and indeed are being daily intensified by the political heirs of its author.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Ferguson: continuation not interruption

Hasn’t it been fascinating to follow the happenings from Ferguson? 

Ferguson. Curious spectacle
I particularly enjoyed the description of the events by Darren Wilson,the policeman who fired the shots that killed Mike Brown. 

He painted a picture of Brown that was nothing short of terrifying. This huge man had reached in through the window of the police car and rained blows upon Wilson. It must have been appalling. I suppose we should at least be grateful that the blows left so few marks on Wilson’s face; or perhaps he simply has a capacity to heal from his wounds that far outstrips any ordinary person’s.

It may be an effect of the internal glow Wilson derives from having such an easy conscience: he has, indeed, assured us that his conscience is completely clear.

Things got even worse after this first nightmarish incident. The colossus, Brown, came after Wilson, furious and petrifying in his power. Let’s not forget that Brown had massive physical strength, while Wilson had only a gun to defend himself. He fired on Brown several times, and must have hit him more than once, because, as he declared, he saw him “flinch” several times. Despite all that Brown kept coming on until finally Wilson had to finish him off with a bullet to the head.

It must have been terrible. For that poor Mr Wilson.

Wilson, cool and in control, fired twelve shots at Brown. Whereas Brown was really, really rude to him. And threatening. Why, he looked as though he might have been armed. Of course, Wilson actually was armed whereas Brown wasn’t, but hey, it might have been the other way round.

Gary Younge reported on all this for the Guardian. He quoted Barack Obama commenting on the Grand Jury’s decision not to indict Wilson, “we are a nation based on the rule of law so we need to accept that this was the special jury’s decision to make.” But Younge adds his own gloss:

The trouble is that the United States, for far longer than it has been a “nation of laws”, has been a nation of injustice. And in the absence of basic justice such laws can amount to little more than codified tyranny. When a white cop, Darren Wilson, shoots an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, dead and then is not indicted, the contradiction is glaring. For a world where it is not only legal for people to shoot you dead while you walk down the street, but where they can do so in the name of the law, is one in which some feel they have nothing to lose.

Gary Younge. Well worth reading in the Guardian
That struck a bell. It reminded me of something that I’d read before:

… the legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of Independence, show that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people, nor intended to be included in the general words used in that memorable instrument.

It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in relation to that unfortunate race which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted. But the public history of every European nation displays it in a manner too plain to be mistaken.

They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.

Who wrote these ringing words? Why, Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, speaking for the majority in its decision of what has come to be known as the Dred Scott case. Scott was a slave who claimed that having been taken from a slave state, Missouri, to a free state, Illinois, he was in effect a free man. The Court decided that as a “negro” he was not a citizen of the United States and had no right to sue in its courts.

Dred Scott. A slave from Missouri
And absolutely not a citizen, according to the Supreme Court
You’ll have guessed that this was not a recent case. In fact, Taney gave his judgement in 1857. It contributed to the outbreak of Civil War. It was partly in response to that judgement that the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments to the US Constitution were adopted, respectively abolishing slavery and establishing the civil rights for all US nationals, irrespective of their previous status of bondage.

What’s interesting is that the War and the Amendments clearly didn’t change that much. As Gary Younge points out, the Ferguson events are a continuation of an important trend in US history, not an interruption of it.

Roger Taney would have have been proud.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Ask not on whom the spooks spy – they spy on you

It was great to hear Lord Carlile, the former independent reviewer of UK terrorist legislation, talking to the BBC the other day. It was sheer nonsense, he pointed out, to believe that the security services could possibly spend their time checking on all our e-mails and internet activity. As if they had the time, he suggested, while they were engaged in the already daunting task of tracking down terrorists.

That sounds perfectly plausible. Of course the security services can’t possibly be randomly checking up on all of us, all of the time. But if anyone’s inclined to take comfort from that fact, I strongly suggest they think again. And consider how police states work.

Take a look at the Third Reich, the Soviet Union, perhaps most striking of all, East Germany. They worked on the basis of denunciation. Individual citizens denounced others. The details they supplied worked their way through the system to the Gestapo, KGB or Stasi. And those august institutions took a look into the matter.

This meant they weren't trawling the whole population, seeking out backsliders. They were focusing on specific individuals.

Protecting you – or just keeping tabs on you?
That’s what people who retain their quaint attachment to the notion of human rights find objectionable in the British government’s recent moves, to take to itself greater powers to act against individuals it suspects of not being quite nice. Because abuse of power doesn’t take place against masses; it takes places against individuals picked out of the mass.

Granting the security services the right to carry out mass surveillance grants them the right to target any individual. With governments who are increasingly arrogating to themselves the right to choose which individuals to target, it’s particularly worrying to see the security forces so effective at spying on anyone it chooses.

Our present government, here in Britain, is so thoroughly awful that I find it painfully hard to say anything relatively cordial about it. But, just for the sake of fairness, I have to admit that, while it would no doubt like to see its opponents vanish from the scene, it probably feels it ought to stop short of ushering in a fully-fledged police state to achieve that desirable goal.

But what if someone with fewer scruples – perhaps I should say, even fewer scruples – came to power, such as UKIP? Do you think they would hesitate to use profoundly anti-democratic methods against their opponents?

The process would work like this. They would start, with the full support of large numbers, by targeting minorities with undesirable proclivities – Islamist terrorist suspects, for instance, or illegal immigrants. From there, it would be easy to slip towards action against all devout Muslims and then all Muslims, or towards the immigrant friends of illegal immigrants, and then to all immigrants, and finally to anyone who sympathises with immigrants.

From sympathisers with immigrants, it’s a short step to embrace anyone who has no sympathy for the enlightened views of UKIPers. And when I say “embrace”, I’m not thinking mother and child, I’m thinking boa and rodent.

Our main aim has to be keeping them well away from power in the first place. But, just in case they get anywhere near it, perhaps we ought to do what we can at least to ensure that they don’t find a huge, well-oiled machine at their disposal to spy on us all.

Because don’t forget, as Lord Carlile made clear, just because the machine can spy on all of us doesn’t mean it will. Oh no. The truth of the mater is that, because the machine can spy on us all, it can spy on just anyone.

And that could be you.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Emily Thornberry and respect for voters: something they have to earn

The news in Britain is dominated by the offence that Labour MP Emily Thornberry did or didn’t cause by tweeting a picture of a house in Rochester with two flags of St George down the front and a white van parked outside.
The Tweet that caused all the stir
Most people would probably have trouble understanding how this could be offensive at all. You have to take into account that “white van man” is a bit of an emblematic figure in British – perhaps just English – society. He tends to be white and working class – vans are after all useful for carrying tools for manual labour. 

It probably won’t come as a surprise that “white van man” is not an expression generally used to endear, or to express admiration. It can be a way of displaying disdain of the working class, and the white working class in particular.

Flags of St George are not unrelated. That red cross on a white background is the flag of England, separate from the United Kingdom. You tend to see it most during those brief periods between the England football team inspiring shortlived hope in some international competition, and its crashing out of that competition.

It’s true that in between competitions, the flag has some unfortunate connotations. Firstly, it too is more heavily used in the working class than in other sectors of society. And “English” is something one can only be by birth: anyone naturalised is British, but not necessarily English, Scots, Welsh or Northern Irish.

Today there are increasing numbers of black or other ethnic-minority Englishmen. But for the moment, Englishness is still predominantly white.

The photo was taken in Rochester, where Thornberry had gone to campaign for Labour in last week’s by-election. The election was triggered by the sitting Tory MP resigning to fight the seat again for UKIP, the seriously harder right wing party that believes Britain’s problems are chiefly caused by immigrants and the EU – which is in any case responsible for much of our immigration.

Thornberry’s photo might imply that she believes the occupants of the house to be from a poor background and perhaps a little attracted to racist views. UKIP denies it, but its xenophobia is hard to distinguish from racism, and a great many spokespeople from the party have voiced racist ideas (alongside homophobic, Islamophobic, or anti-feminist ones).

So was Thornerry being dismissive towards that particular family? Was she writing them off as UKIP supporters unworthy of her attention as a Labour MP?

Certainly, her party leader (and mine), Ed Miliband decided that she had been unduly dismissive and – dismissed her. She had to resign the shadow Attorney General’s post she held in his Opposition team.

Some find that unfair. Thornberry was the first MP to back Miliband’s leadership bid. Her loyalty to the leader is unquestioned.

My feeling is that Miliband’s reaction was way over the top. Thornberry shouldn’t have put that Tweet out there. But Miliband should have said just that and let the matter drop. Instead, by declaring himself furious at her behaviour, he’s made all the talk of the last few days about Labour, instead of being about the Tories’ failure to hold the seat (yes, UKIP won) and the growing threat that UKIP represents.

Time for the Labour leadership to raise its aim
Curiously, Thornberry was brought up on a Council Estate, in modest circumstances, so she actually knows the world she’s said to have disdained rather better than most Labour MPs. It’s true that now she’s a barrister and an MP, living in – indeed representing – a part of London (Islington) which Tony and Cherie Blair once graced with their presence, until they made so much money that they could move to an even more exclusive neighbourhood. She’s not much exposed to “white van man” these days. Even so, she does know him and I’m sure understands him.

More to the point, I find it objectionable that she was accused of not having behaved with sufficient respect towards a voter. Now that’s code. Labour at the moment is trying to stem the loss of working class support to UKIP by, firstly, aping some of UKIP’s policies, such as getting tough on immigration, not realising that anyone who wants that kind of behaviour will vote for the real thing, not the imitation; and secondly, by putting up a false front of respect towards UKIP voters, as though an appearance of deference might draw them back.

Thornberry is being criticised for not having shown enough respect.

But respect isn’t an automatic entitlement. It’s something you have to earn.

Now, Owen Jones recently pointed out in the Guardian that “according to research by the academic Matthew Goodwin, 81% of UKIP supporters believe ‘big business takes advantage of ordinary people’; a slim majority want the government to redistribute income; and they overwhelmingly agree ‘there is one law for the rich and one for the poor’.”

And they believe that a party entirely bankrolled by big business, run by a man who used to be stockbroker and is on record calling for the NHS to be privatised, will do something to address those concerns?

I can’t help feeling that these views either mask something more fundamental, a xenophobia bordering on racism that UKIP expresses for them. Otherwise, I can only assume such voters have simply made no effort to understand the internal contradictions of their beliefs.

In a free society, their point of view deserves to be tolerated, and argued against in a civilised and peaceful way. But respected? What on earth’s to respect there?

Happy Liberation Day

Seventy years ago today, the city of Strasbourg fell to Free French forces, under the command of General Leclerc de Hautecloque.

French troops enter Strasbourg, November 1944
Strasbourg is the capital of Alsace, on the Rhine, as far East as you can get in France without finding yourself in Germany. In fact, for centuries many Germans claimed that once you were in Alsace (perhaps I should say Elsaß), you were already in Germany. 

The territory had been German until the seventeenth century, and became German again after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. It was only reincorporated into France at the end of the First World War. When it was retaken by German forces in the Second, it wasn’t regarded as occupied France, but as re-integrated Reich territory. One particularly painful consequence was that, unlike other Frenchmen, young men from Alsace were treated as Reich citizens and subject to call-up.

So to drive the Germans out of Strasbourg was to achieve not just a military victory, but a major symbolic one. It would mark the definitive end of German occupation, with only minor operations left to clear the final German positions.

But it was even more symbolic because of the words pronounced nearly four years earlier by the French commander, then Colonel Leclerc. He had captured the Italian position at Kufra, in the Sahara desert of Lybia, at the head of Free French forces brought up from Chad.

Leclerc and his officers watch the French flag being raised
over the Italian fort at Kufra, March 1941
In the great scheme of things, the battle of Kufra was unimportant. Fewer than 700 soldiers were involved. Its significance was that it marked France’s return to the war on the Allied side, and what’s more, marked it with a victory. It was an acorn; Leclerc had the vision to see the oak it could turn into.

So at the end of the battle, in March 1941, he had his troops swear what has come to be known as the oath of Kufra:

Swear not to lay down your arms until our colours, our beautiful colours, are floating from Strasbourg Cathedral.

He understood the importance of the capture of Strasbourg, and set it as his goal before he’d even left Africa.

On 23 November 1944, the goal was achieved. And, indeed, a young soldier took it on himself to scale the tower of the Cathedral and fly the flag from it.

Today, Strasbourg has become a city symbolising peace. No one challenges French sovereignty over it. Why, French and German military units even train together nearby. The Council of Europe, including the Court of Human Rights, brings together representatives from all over the Continent in the city.

We lived in or near Strasbourg for eight years, and I nurture the hope of moving back some day. Tonight, I’ll raise a glass to all my friends in and around that fine city, on the occasion of the seventieth anniversary of its final liberation.

And for now, put this note up to mark the day.

The French flag still flies frequently today
over the Cathedral in Strasbourg

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Keeping score in badminton. Better than counting lengths of a pool

One of the advantages of the weekend, is that the kind of exercise I take changes.

During the week, it’s swimming. But at the weekend it’s badminton. And that’s a huge improvement. Not just for the obvious reason that badminton doesn’t involve total immersion in cold water, or contact with any kind of water at all except perhaps in a bottle, but because badminton’s actually more fun. You score points in badminton – well, occasionally you lose them – so you can work out who’s won.

A winning point, as a shuttle dips over a net
It’s impossible to tell who the winner is in swimming, except that I have a sneaking feeling it’s the pool. Certainly, I always feel I come in second.

I suppose the reason I enjoy a game, as opposed to a sport, with a scoreline rather than mere endurance, is that I’m fundamentally competitive. That doesn’t mean that I expect to win or anything. I like to think I’m far too much of a realist for that. What I have is more a kind of potential competitiveness: the sense that in a competitive game, there is a chance that I might win.

After all, it does sometimes happen.

There’s a curious phenomenon that comes into play here. The same thing, I’m told, happens in childbirth. Clutching the little bundle of joy they’ve just received, and blissfully unaware of the 20 years of sheer ghastliness ahead, new mothers lose all memory of the pain they’ve just gone through to get that bundle of devilry into the world in the first place.

The same thing happens to me with badminton. I know I must have lost a whole bunch of games because I know, with my rational mind, that I played rather more games than I won.

Make that substantially more games than I won.

But the detail of any one of those defeats? Expunged from my mind as though they’d never happened. The victories, on the other hand, stay with me in glorious detail, to be replayed at leisure in my mind afterwards. For instance, in that wonderful bath into which I let my aching limbs subside.

With swimming, there’s no such joy. Just a vague sense of achievement. Though since I leave the pool by the same ladder that I entered it, even that is somewhat limited: all that effort to get back to place I started from? What was the point? Where’s the mileage in that?

It was like that in the days when I used to go running. However far I ran, I always ended up back at the car. Like one of those nightmares, or Alice in Through the Looking Glass: you run and run but you get nowhere.

So I’m enjoying the weekend. Badminton on Saturday. Badminton on Sunday. And some games I’ll win.

Then Monday, I’ll be back to swimming. And it’s a safe bet the pool will end up ahead. Again.

Friday, 21 November 2014

No wonder things are getting worse: the saints are all dying

Every generation claims, once it reaches a certain age, that the world has sadly deteriorated since its youth. 

It often seemed to me that this was just the perennial problem of the old complaining about the young. No generation gets old without finding that the next is exhibiting a deplorable loss of standards.

It’s particularly amusing in my own. I love it when people who were teenagers in the sixties, as I was, complaining about the behaviour of the young. It has a nostalgic quality. It reminds me of our elders denouncing us as long-haired layabout louts, who believed the world owed us a living and had never learned consideration for others (without wondering who was responsible for teaching us at the time we were failing to learn these invaluable lessons).

Still, there are times when I look at the news and it occurs to me that there might be a rational explanation for humanity
s gradual deterioration over time. This seems particularly clear when someone celebrated dies. Today for instance the press is full of tributes to Mike Nicholls.

“A mentor, friend, colleague. One of the best observers of life.”

“… the funniest, smartest, most generous, wisest, kindest of all… a truly good man…”

“… one of the most generous people I have ever known…” 

So far I haven’t come across anyone saying “we shall never see his like again”, but even so, it’s fairly clear that if such a man leaves the world to the rest of us ordinary mortals, the overall stock of mankind must inevitably decline in quality.

The best go here
and the average goes to hell
It’s even worse when a child dies, whether of natural or violent causes. Have you noticed how every teenager who dies was something of an angel?

“Loving to his family, cheerful to his friends, he would light up his class with his laugh and help anyone who needed it.”

“She will be missed for her kindness, her ready smile, her enthusiasm that inspired everyone she came into contact with.”

“The entire school is in shock. She was one of the most popular and kindest of people, as well as an outstanding student.”

If these are taken from us, it leaves us with just the common grind of teenagers, the kind that leads many to believe that teenagers are best drowned at birth. The ones whom the gods choose were already otherworldly even before they reached the other world; the kind who stay behind are all-too-this-worldly: noisy, truculent, angry or depressive in turns, contemplating their own deaths when their problems aren’t solved for them, contemplating death for others if anyone tries to help.

The ones who depart this vale of tears never left a dirty sock lying on their bedroom floor, or drank straight out of the milk bottle from the fridge, or finished the shampoo in the course of a shower that used up all the hot water anyway. They did their homework, got up early, wished their families well and left the house so promptly that they always got to school on time.

Late teenagers were never late.

The general picture is depressing. The best hurry off to the next world, while the one they leave behind declines still further. We stay to rot while they decompose.

At least until its our turn.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Scots: pleased you gave us English another chance?

Two months ago today, voters in Scotland rejected a proposal for independence.

The British government, which had done nothing for two years to persuade the Scots to stay in the United Kingdom, had woken up a few weeks earlier to the fact that they might actually leave. David Cameron, who has all the energy of a sloth with none of the charm, at least had enough self-awareness not to travel to Scotland himself – he knew that would only strengthen the “Yes” campaign.

Instead, he turned to his much-maligned and beaten opponent of 2010, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and had him revitalise a fairly moribund “better together” campaign previously led without inspiration by Brown’s former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling. To the surprise of those of us who had despaired over his lacklustre election drive four years ago, Brown managed to put some fire into the anti-independence cause.

He also managed to extract a promise from all the main leaders in the Westminster Parliament to grant more autonomy to Scotland, in the event of a “No” vote. This was published by the Labour-leaning Daily Record, which called it a “vow”, a name that stuck.

The “No’ camp ultimately won the vote, by a healthy but not conclusive margin of 55-45%.

Two months on, where do we stand?

Recent polls suggest that if the referendum were held now, the Scots would go. This seems far from unrelated to the fact that since 18 September, the English have done next to nothing about fulfilling the “vow”. With the immediate danger of Scottish secession fading, England has lost interest in the question, and moved on to consider other things, of more importance to it.

Hadrian's Wall is just a historic monument
But is it time to rebuild it as a frontier?
Among other matters, this includes its own secession from the European Union. David Cameron has promised a referendum by 2017 on EU membership, and it’s perfectly possible that the Scots, having stayed in the Union with England, may be forced out of the Union with Europe by the overwhelming power of English votes. It needs to be remembered that the great problem in the UK isn’t Scottish, Welsh or even Irish nationalism, it’s the English variety: its English nationalism that poisons relations with the other nations of the UK, it’s English nationalism that poisons relations with the other nations of the EU.

Leaders at Westminster were exercised by the Scottish questions for all of several days after the referendum. David Cameron, who has all the leadership qualities of a lemming with none of the winsomeness, decided that more autonomy for Scotland could only come at the cost of preventing MPs for Scottish seats voting on English questions. Coincidentally, one might say by sheer fortunate happenstance, that would deprive Labour of any hope of a majority in Westminster for a long time to come.

It may not come as a shock to discover that Ed Miliband, for the Labour Party, didn’t agree. 

The discussion ran into the sands. Since then, Cameron, who has the attention span of a moth with none of the elegance, has done nothing to revive the debate. So the bad feeling festers, the Scots become more restive, and the anti-Union feelings grow.

If nothing is done to meet Scots aspirations and, in addition, if the UK comes out of the EU, the pressure for a new referendum in Scotland will become irresistible.

In September, I was on the side of the “No” vote, for preserving the Union. But if England treats the Scots that badly, if we let them down again after that last minute appeal to trust us and give us one last chance, next time I’ll have to back independence. After the last chance, you don’t deserve another. 

Then we might discover how inconclusive a 55-45 margin really is. We might be forced to watch the Scots heading for the door. And I, for one, will have to admit they
’re right to go.

To be honest, I’ll probably not be far behind myself.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Sandwich man, stand up and call on us to stand with you

One story yesterday seemed to sum up the problem of lack of political focus in Britain today, and in the West more generally.

The story concerned the company Greencore and its operation in Northampton, in the English Midlands. Greencore make sandwiches for several of the major supermarkets, including Marks and Spencer. They’re growing strongly. Recently it emerged that they’d been recruiting unskilled workers in Hungary, much to the anger of many in the local population: Northampton, like a lot of Britain, indeed of Europe, is suffering high unemployment.

Greencore in Northampton
from the Guardian
Inevitably, this engaged what is now the common debate about immigration.

Is it true that the company simply couldn’t find enough staff locally prepared to take on this low-paid, difficult work (days can last twelve hours and, according to an employee, managers may pressurise workers to stay even longer)?

Locals say they never saw the jobs advertised and would apply at once if they had the chance, if only to get off the unemployment queue at last. But, some argue, the company prefers to employ Hungarians who are prepared to work for lower wages.

Nonsense, say the company. They are an equal opportunities employer. Everyone is paid the same. There is no advantage to the company to use Hungarians rather than Brits; it just can’t find enough Brits.

I have no idea who’s right and who’s wrong here. Nor, it seems, does the Guardian journalist, who simply presents both sets of arguments and leaves it to the reader to decide. What I do know, is that this is only tangentially a problem of immigration; that the tangential problem is easily resolved, without leaving the European Union or imposing tighter border controls; that meanwhile, there is far more serious problem raised by the case, which no one seems prepared to take on. Indeed, UKIP and their allies in the Conservative Party seem only concerned with diverting attention from it, while Labour is having trouble plucking up the courage even to raise it.

First, the easy problem. To ensure that the company is playing straight, all we need is legislation to impose on such operations that all staff should be paid equal rates for equal work. We could keep the companies honest, making them live by the standards Greencore says it applies already: to pay immigrants the same as locals so there’s no financial incentive to recruit abroad.

Will UKIP pick up this call, for equal wages for immigrants? Don’t hold your breath.

UKIP won’t pick up the demand even though it would solve the problem. Indeed, it would solve some other problems too: it would ensure that women or people from ethnic minorities are not discriminated against either. You make sandwiches, you get paid the same as any other sandwich-maker.

Now let's turn to the far more serious problem. Its nature emerges from the detail of the article.

The unskilled staff in Greencore are on minimum wage, £6.50 an hour. After they complete their three-month probation period, they qualify for additional payments to compensate them for working in the cold environment sandwich production requires. Where conditions are a little colder, the employee receives 24p extra an hour; if conditions are officially “cold”, they get 48p an hour more; if they work in a freezer, they get 68p an hour more.

The maximum such a worker could earn, therefore, would be £7.18 an hour. That’s for working in a freezer for up to twelve hours a day.

Meanwhile, last year Patrick Coveney, Greencore’s Chief Executive took £1.3m. That works out at a cool (pun intended) £788 an hour.

Putting it another way, assuming an average of 220 working days a year, a worker doing 12-hour days at Greencore would have to work for 69 years to earn what Mr Coveney took for a single year.

Putting it more simply still, Mr Coveney believes he is worth the equivalent of 109 of his unskilled employees.

That he contributes more than any one of those unskilled workers, I can accept. Even perhaps that he contributes more than ten of them – many have long suggested that no one in a company should be paid more that ten times what the lowest paid receive. But that he contributes more than 100 of these workers? I’m afraid that simply defies belief.

He takes as much as 10-12 General Practitioners, 20-25 experienced nurses. He may run the world
’s best sandwich-making operation, but does that make him worth 10 GPs? Seriously?

Now, that’s the real problem today. We live in a society dominated by, moulded by, people who believe they are worth as much tens, dozens, perhaps in some cases hundreds of the rest of us. They will do all they can to preserve that position. Over the last four years, a new report has shown, that has caused the least well paid 5% of the British population to lose 3% of its earnings, while the top 1% has increased its disposable income by between 1.2% and 2%.

Every moment we spend debating immigration is a moment we take our focus off that primordial question of our time. UKIP exists to keep our focus elsewhere; the Conservatives will do nothing to highlight the issue; the big question is, does Labour have the guts to wrench the debate on to that ground?

Because if it did, it could win the next election. And do something about the most shameful distortion of our economies today. Which isn't immigration, but inequality.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Charm and its effect, even late in life

Anne-Catherine de Ligniville, Madame Helvétius, known as Minette, was reputed to be quite a character, as well as being married to one of the more controversial thinkers of eighteenth-century France. 

Claude-Adrien Helvétius was denounced as an atheist, his book burned by the public executioner. Even his name has a story: he was called Helvétius because he came from a family with the surname Schweitzer, which they presumably regarded as altogether too Germanic. Helvetic means the same as Swiss, so they simply latinised the name, making it sound much grander and less Teutonic. 
Minette. Turned a few heads but not everyone approved
Madame Helvétius was, apparently, quite a looker, and as contemporaries might have put it, no better than she should have been. 

I’ve always had a soft spot for Abigail Adams, wife of the second US President John Adams, and in my humble opinion the more interesting half of that partnership.

To be more truthful, there’s nothing in the least humble about that opinion. I hold it with complete conviction. I have no qualms about putting it out there, right here.

What I can’t deny about Abigail is that she was of somewhat Puritan stock. Rural Massachusetts, don’t you know. Late eighteenth century. They liked things just so.

Abigail met Minette while she was in France with John, during one of the latter’s diplomatic missions on behalf of the emerging American nation. The senior American diplomat was Benjamin Franklin and it was at a dinner he gave that Minette, who was highly fond of him, met Abigail, who didn
’t become in the least fond of her. Franklin told Abigail that Minette was a “genuine Frenchwoman, wholly free from affectation or stiffness of behavior”, and:

… one of the best women in the world. For this I must take the Doctor’s word; but I should have set her down for a very bad one, although sixty years of age, and a widow. I own I was highly disgusted, and never wish for an acquaintance with any ladies of this cast. After dinner she threw herself upon a settee, where she showed more than her feet. She had a little lap-dog, who was, next to the Doctor, her favorite.”
Abigail Adams
"I must study politics and war that my sons 
may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.”
I'm a fan of hers, but she was none of Minette's

I have to confess that, attached as I am to her, these views of Mrs Adams’ don’t make me think any the less well of Madame Helvétius. 

Apparently many others, and not just Franklin, thought rather highly of her at the time. A generation before Franklin, another thinker had found her fascinating. Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle had been the grand old man of French science, in a life that in the end fell only one month short of a century long.

When he met Madame Helvétius, he was already in his late nineties.

"Ah, madame," he is said to have remarked, "if only I were eighty again.”

Not sure why I’ve devoted a post to that story, except that it’s Saturday afternoon. What time would be more suitable for a gentle anecdote? Especially in a blog devoted to random views.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Art for the pleasure of Art, thanks to Carl Randall

It was refreshing to hear Carl Randall speak about his paintings, at a new exhibition that has opened at the Berloni Gallery in London’s West End.

We first came across his work at the National Portrait Gallery, which had honoured him with a BP travelling prize that had enabled him to spend time in Japan and produce a series of paintings which kept us spellbound by their detail, their vivacity and their enchanting – sometimes humorous – ability to present Japanese life as it strikes a foreign visitor.

Exactly the atmosphere of bustle and liveliness of a busy Japanese station
So going to hear him speak about his paintings was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up. It proved well worth it.

First of all, because he talked plainly and simply about his paintings, about his time in Japan, and above all about what he’d been trying to do. On display were more of the works we’d come to associate with him: packed with people and places, breathing life and bustle, enjoyment or concentration.

Carl Randall introducing his paintings to us
at the Berloni Gallery
But we also discovered a new side of his art. There were some swift stolen sketches of travellers in trains, absorbed in themselves, their phones, their music, or just passing the time on the way to work. 

And then other pieces, as large as the ones we already knew, but largely empty – as he explained, he was working to a more Japanese idiom, in which “negative space” (what I’ve always thought of as “white space”) isn’t shunned, but used to heighten the impact of the detailed painting. He had several Japanese ink works, on Japanese paper, in which he’d used a single model or perhaps two models, repeatedly, sketching their heads over and over, but leaving wide areas untouched. The ink sometimes ran, sometimes splashed, sometimes simply soaked differently into the absorbent paper, giving an engagingly unpredictable effect to the final result.

Japanese faces in the Japanese style
Japanese ink on Japanese paper
He’s working now on a series of fifteen “portraits of London”. That’ll be fun, to see him take on with the same verve and gusto, scenes from another country and another city, and one he knows in a very different way, as his home rather than the objective of an outsider’s visit.

But I described listening to Randall as “refreshing”. One of the more refreshing aspects was the way he kept pointing out the almost gratuitous nature of some of his techniques. He often subverts perspective, showing a large figure in the distance and a smaller one in the front.

“I do it because I like it,” he explained, “I like the flattening.”

I enjoyed that because it reminded me of many conversations I’ve had with people who’ve earnestly assured me that Jane Austen, or Graham Greene, or Salman Rushdie deliberately wrote something or other. In other words, they want to tell me about the author’s intent. But they have no idea of what the author intended and in the first two cases, they certainly can’t even ask, as they’re both dead; even in the case of Rushdie, they’re unlikely to get the chance to check, and even if they did, they might be disappointed with the answer.

So I was delighted when Randall assured us that his flattening of perspective didn’t symbolise anything in particular, except for his pleasure in doing it. That doesn’t stop a viewer seeing symbolism in it, and perfectly legitimately – a viewer, or a reader, has every right to see symbols in a work of art, and it matters not a jot that the author or painter intended none of it. After all, what something symbolises is a matter for the observer, not for the creator; if you see it, then it’s there.

But it was highly refreshing to hear an artist assure us with great sincerity that it wasn’t there because he deliberately put it there.

So we passed great hour or two, in good company, with fine paintings. 

Want to know more? Check his website.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

For Remembrance Day: the Pity of War

In recognition of Remembrance Day, BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning broadcast an item on Rudyard Kipling. One of the guests quoted the passage:

When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An' go to your Gawd like a soldier.

Remembrance Day
It struck me as a coincidence to hear Kipling mentioned on Radio 4, for the second time in a fortnight. But then I wondered whether it wasn’t a coincidence at all, but a reflection of something in the air today, a changing attitude towards the Great War. It does sometimes feel as though we’re shifting emphasis from its wanton, wasteful butchery, to something older, extolling the qualities traditionally associated with warriors. 

“Go to your God like a soldier” seems to encapsulate a certain ideal of military valour, doesn’t it?

Not that Kipling was at all impervious to the notion that a soldier wasn’t a breed apart, but merely another human, in uniform. In Tommy, he denounced the attitude of a society which despised its often ill-behaved, drunken, riotous soldiers in peacetime, but was only too quick to push them into the front line in war (“Then it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, 'ow's yer soul?, But it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll”). Kipling countered:

We aren't no thin red 'eroes, nor we aren't no blackguards too,
But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
An' if sometimes our conduck isn't all your fancy paints,
Why, single men in barricks don't grow into plaster saints…

Even so, this still feels too much like a eulogy. These are the homespun, unsung men who defend us uncomplainingly and with hard steadfast courage. With no question asked as to what right British soldiers have to be in “Afghanistan’s plains”, a matter we clearly still haven’t satisfactorily settled today.

So when it comes to questioning the notion that soldiers are heroes, rather than plain men and women suffering harrowing inhumanity, I prefer a writer I’ve not heard quoted at all in the last few weeks. He wrote a draft, incomplete preface to his poems, before he was killed just a week from the end of the Great War:

This book is not about heroes. English Poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, dominion or power, except War.

Above all, this book is not concerned with Poetry.

The subject of it is War, and the pity of War.

The Poetry is in the pity.

The poetry’s in the pity. Kipling’s verse (he refused to call it poetry) is stirring, often moving. But as we think of the Great War, it seems to me the most appropriate emotion is pity, above all at waste, “the undone years, the hopelessness.”

For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled…

…I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now. . . .

It’s good to rediscover Kipling, to marvel at his verse. But when we look at World War One, let’s prefer the eyes of Wilfred Owen.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Commemoration of a futile war – and a peaceful victory

We went to take a look at the moatful of poppies at the Tower of London yesterday. 

Sea of poppies at the Tower of London
For the (British and Commonwealth) dead of WW1
It’s been criticised powerfully for being so fixated on Britain: the monument is made up of a ceramic poppy for every British and Commonwealth soldier to have been killed in the First World War. It’s true that ignoring the many millions from other nations to have died seems to be another case of putting nation above humanity. And I’ve often wondered whether in any case we focus too much on the dead: there were many survivors who suffered life sentences of mental or physical suffering as a result of the war, and far too little is said of them.

On the other hand, it was impressive. And beautiful. That flood of red beneath the walls was powerfully moving.

Oddly, today combines two commemorations. The British don’t like letting people’s noses off the grindstone, so while France has a public holiday on Armistice Day, 11 November, to mark the end of the First World War, but in Britain we have Remembrance Sunday, today, so that we can commemorate the event without having a day off.

The other commemoration? The 25th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall. Interestingly it too has been marked with flowers. Not poppies, but roses, one each for leading figures who placed them in cracks in a remaining stretch of the Wall.

Angela Merkel placing a rose in a stretch of the Wall
A still more interesting contrast is in the substance of the events commemorated. 

After all, these days few of us feel the First World War achieved much that we now value. We in Europe live in a continent dominated by Germany. I’m not convinced it would have been much worse, by now at least, had we in Britain stood back and let Germany win a Continental war. The war would probably have been short and cost far fewer lives. In all likelihood, we wouldn’t have been at each others’ throats 25 years later.

In 1961, the East German government, puppet of the Soviet Union which owed its existence to a revolution precipitated by the First World War, set up a wall through Berlin, ostensibly to protect the East from Western Fascists in the West. By happy coincidence, it also prevented people from the East falling into the trap of the West and defecting to it. 

It took 28 years for it to be breached – pretty much a generation. But it cost several hundred lives not several million. On the night the wall fell, that night of 9 November 1989, not a single shot was fired and not a single man or woman was killed. As a commentator told the BBC, a member of the then politburo of the GDR has admitted that the leadership was ready for anything at that time – except for candles and prayers, which is what they got.

Despite the many failings of the present German Federation, few of us look back on the Fall of the Wall with anything but joy. Mixed with relief.

Today we in Britain stand on the brink of the first year since the outbreak of the First World War that this country has been at peace. 101 years of continuous warfare. A big moment. Of course, there are still many opportunities to screw it up and get back into some fighting somewhere. But at least we can reflect today, day of two commemorations, of how much more we seem to have achieved by not going to war with the Soviet Union, than we did by going to war with Germany.

We wouldn’t have got that moatful of poppies. But that might have been a price worth paying. 

Part of the line of balloons set up in Berlin on the line of the Wall
before they were released to mark its fall

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Misty's diary: into every life a little rain must fall. But why at every door?

Another entry from Misty’s diary. In which he makes clear that he has no intention of being mocked, and will take action to prevent it.

November 2014

He's got a real cheek, has domestic number 2.

He keeps making what he thinks are smart comments at my expense. Smartarse comments, more like.

Maybe he thinks I don’t understand them. Maybe he realises I do and thinks this is a clever way of getting back at me for my judicious use of claw and tooth on him. Unwise, if that’s the case. I still have my teeth and claws, and I keep them in good order.

His latest wheeze started when the weather turned rainy. He thinks it terribly funny that I don’t like to go out when it’s chucking it down. Well, who would? He doesn’t. He grumbles about it all the time. And he’s got jackets and umbrellas to protect him. All I have is fur and let me tell you, when it gets wet it stays wet a long time.

Why, both domestics comment on it.

“Oh, poor Misty,” they say, stroking my damp back, “are you all wet?”

Yeah. Right. Duh. I’ve just been outside in the rain. Can’t hide anything from observers as acute as you guys.

That isn’t what makes Domestic 2 laugh though. He watches me get half out of the cat flap on the kitchen door and then come back in. He thinks that’s quite amusing. I suppose he thinks I’m undignified, wriggling backside first into the house.

But what really tickles him is when I ask him to let me out of the front instead.

“What?” he says, “you think conditions might be different there? That it might be raining at the back but fine, warm mousing weather at the front?”

OK, cut out the smartarse remarks
Just open the door. The weather might be nicer here

Oh wow, he thinks that’s so funny. He’s just so caustic. So bloody superior.

But I ask you? How can he actually know the weather’s going to be the same at both doors? I mean, until he’s looked?

OK, sure, it always has been. I admit that. But who’s to say it always will be? And wouldn’t we look stupid if we missed out, on the one occasion it was just glorious at the front, though it was chucking it down in the back garden?

In the meantime, let me make one thing clear.

I don’t appreciate being dissed, OK?

Now I’m going back to sharpening my claws. And making sure the teeth are filed and ready for action just as soon as I need them.

Winsome? Don't be fooled.
Just taking a break from keeping teeth and claws sharp

Friday, 7 November 2014

Happy birthday, Lise. Or how it's a man's world out there.

7th November. As well as being the 97th anniversary of the October revolution (yep, it happened in what the rest of the world thought of as November), this is the 136th birthday of Lise Meitner. Elise Meitner when she was born, but she later that she preferred Lise.

It probably doesn’t make a lot of sense wishing someone who’s been dead 46 years a happy birthday, but Meitner was a bit special, so why not? And I suppose we can have a happy birthday for her, can’t we?

Why was she special? To start with, she was an Austro-Hungarian Jew, not the most propitious of launchpads for an international career in science. Particularly for a woman. She set out to put that right quickly: she was the second woman to obtain a Physics PhD from the University of Vienna, and later she became the first woman to hold a chair of chemistry in any German university.

Lise Meitner at work
Working with a number of others, including in particular Otto Frisch, Meitner came up with the explanation of an observation of her fellow chemist, Otto Hahn’s. He had found that Uranium he was working on had a tendency to convert into the much lighter element Barium. He rightly concluded that some kind of fission, splitting, was happening, but it was Frisch and Meitner who came up with the theoretical explanation of the process.

They, indeed, came up with the notion of the “strong force” that holds protons together in the tiny space of an atomic nucleus, despite the massive repulsive power between them, caused by their all being positively charged.

After Hitler came to power, most Jewish scientists were driven out, but she was given a little breathing space because of her Austrian nationality, and stayed on right till 1938. It was a decision that nearly cost her dear: she only escaped to Holland thanks to Otto Hahn who talked the border guards into her letting her through.

She took up a scientific post in Sweden where she continued to work on the problem of fission. Many of her colleagues and fellow exiles from Germany, gravitated to the States, and eventually into the Manhattan project, designing the atom bomb. She refused to join, on the grounds that she had no wish to see her discovery used for the construction of a weapon.

In 1945, the Nobel Committee announced that the 1944 Chemistry prize was going to Hahn.

Yes, just Hahn.

Meitner didn’t get a look in.

“Surely Hahn fully deserved the Nobel Prize for chemistry,” Meitner commented. “There is really no doubt about it. But I believe that Otto Robert Frisch and I contributed something not insignificant to the clarification of the process of uranium fission – how it originates and that it produces so much energy and that was something very remote to Hahn.”

Yes. But she was a woman. A worse handicap, it seems, even than being Jewish in the scientific world of 1944.

Still. She won a lot of other awards and honours. Not least would have been Einstein's description of her as the “German Marie Curie.” It seems not unreasonable to add one more, however late, so: Happy Birthday, Lise.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

NHS Savings: where they could really be made

Britain, with its quaint attachment to the style monarchical, likes to organise its medical professionals into “royal colleges”. And there is an organisation of these organisations, called the “Academy of Medical Royal Colleges.”

This morning, we learned about its report on a possible savings in the NHS.

It seems that as much as £2.3 billion a year are being wasted on over-testing and over-treating patients. £466 million is accounted for by over-prescription of cocktails of drugs – which are associated, according to the report, with 6% of hospital admissions and 4% of hospital bed days. So reducing this kind of prescribing, far from damaging patient care, should actually improve it.

From the Academy of Medical
Royal Colleges report
The report also identifies areas where savings can be made by changing working practices. For example, according to the Guardian, the Royal Liverpool hospital has halved lengths of stay simply by requiring senior medical staff (consultants) to switch from twice-weekly ward rounds to twice-daily.

On the other hand, I’m not so sold on the idea that we test too much. I’ve watched too many conditions fail to be diagnosed, in Britain, for want of carrying out simple tests. The price has been avoidable suffering or even death.

In any case, today’s Guardian quoted Dr Ian Wilson, of the doctors’ union, the BMA, who pointed out that the NHS is a world leader in cost-effective medicine. “The Commonwealth Fund, a respected American health thinktank,” the paper paraphrased him, “recently rated the NHS top for both value for money and patient care out of 11 healthcare systems worldwide it studied.”

So maybe there isn’t quite as much space for saving as the Royal Colleges believe. Perhaps only part of the £2.3 billion can really be achieved.

’s why it was fascinating that it was also today that I read a letter sent by an MP to a constituent who had asked about the interest being paid by the NHS for “PFI” projects. The Private Finance Initiative was, shamefully, introduced by a Labour government. It was designed to push the NHS to raise finance from the private sector, for such projects as building new hospitals. It had the convenient effect of removing the loans from the total of government borrowing. 

Sadly, this wonderful advantage in pure bookkeeping was offset by a bit of a downside in the real world: it cost a great deal more in interest.

Labour introduced this wheeze, but the Conservatives, so keen on privatisation, though they denounced it in Opposition, haven’t touched it in office.

And what did the MP’s letter say?

In 2014/15, the NHS in England had an estimated £1.89 billion to pay in PFI unitary charge payments, and £1.95billion in 2015/16.

I’m sure there are savings to make by cutting out over-treatment and over-testing, or from changing work patterns. But how about eliminating that charge? It buys strictly nothing. And costs a lot.

So here’s an idea for government: suck it up and absorb that borrowing into the public debt, to free the NHS of the interest payments.

Don’t hold your breath.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Do we really want to give up on privacy?

Robert Hannigan, head of Britain’s GCHQ, the equivalent and partner of America’s NSA and therefore our principal snooping organisation, has declared that there’s no “absolute right” to privacy. Since his organisation has quite a track record for invading privacy, his is probably a remark worth taking seriously.

GCHQ: protecting us. But from itself
At one level, as it happens, I think he’s right. In my view, there is no absolute right to privacy. But that’s because I don’t believe there’s an absolute right to anything. Rights are granted by people to each other or, still more frequently, wrested by one group from another who make every effort to resist them.

Not everyone believes that. People of faith, for example, might well hold that rights are a gift from God. Certainly, the signatories of the US Declaration of Independence seem to have felt that way:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

It all flows from the Creator, you see.

On the other hand, I think we’re probably better-advised to be guided by what people do than by what they say. And from that point of view, it’s instructive that the man who drafted the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson, was a slave-owner, as were numerous other signatories including, most notably, George Washington.

So I take with a pinch of salt the notion that Liberty is some kind of absolute right. If it were absolute, how could some men (or women) deny it to others? The US founding fathers were apparently able to alienate the allegedly unalienable.

It took a long and bloody war – still the costliest in lives ever fought by American forces – to establish that no one could be enslaved in the US. A hundred years on, it took a bitter struggle to win Civil Rights for the descendants of the freed slaves. Even today, few can pretend that American Blacks enjoy the same degree of liberty as their White compatriots.

All this confirms me in my prejudice that rights aren’t absolute, but have to be fought for and then defended.

So I agree with Hannigan that privacy isn’t an absolute right, any more than any of the others. But, though we agree on the premiss, I draw the opposite conclusion. Precisely because it isn’t absolute, the right to privacy needs to be defended, above all against such as he who would trample it if he could.

His motivation, inevitably, is the fight against terrorism. Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, he claims, are now “command-and-control networks for terrorists”. It is his duty to spy on what’s said on the web to keep us all safe.

’s all the more vital, and all the more difficult, to resist that kind of thinking now that so many seem anxious to give up their rights. As frightened as Hannigan of terrorism, and hostile to Europe, many British voters seems intent on dropping adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights – nasty foreign meddling with good British custom, championed by such as Hannigan. 

Curiously, it’s article 8 of that Convention that guarantees:

…everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life.

Nothing absolute about that guarantee, though. We can give it up, if that’s what we decide we want. But with the likes of Hannigan out there breathing down our necks, is that really what we should wish for?

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Benign racism: the most pernicious form

There’s such power in Rudyard Kipling. 

The characters in Kim, for instance, are unforgettable: the red-bearded giant of a Pathan horse dealer, Mahbub Ali; the Babu, Hurree Chunder Mookherjee, self-declared a “fearful man”, but staking his life on serving the British Raj; and perhaps one of the most endearing figures in literature, Teshoo Lama from Tibet, seeking the river that will wash him clean of all taint of sin.

To say nothing of Kim, the epitome of the lovable rogue, constantly in mischief, whether his own or other people’s, a white but able to pass himself off as any of half a dozen Indian types. At least.

And yet, the pleasure of reading Kim comes with an uncomfortable trace of embarrassment. Because Kipling constantly refers to “the Oriental” way of being or doing things, and to certain characteristics as somehow “white.” Kim, for instance, is able to resist powerful, perhaps hypnotic, suggestion and see things the way they really are, and there is a strong implication that it is his European blood that gives him the strength.

Rudyard Kipling: fine writer, but the racism's no less toxic
Besides, it was Kipling who wrote a poem about the “white man’s burden”.

Take up the White Man's burden 
The savage wars of peace – 
Fill full the mouth of famine 
And bid the sickness cease; 
 And when your goal is nearest 
The end for others sought, 
Watch Sloth and heathen Folly 
Bring all your hopes to nought.

Doesn’t that sound like Bush and Blair in Iraq? We fought a savage war for peace, and look what those lesser beings have done with what we gave them…

Perhaps one of Kipling’s greatest gifts was the ability to give the common soldier a voice, not something writers had tried before him. Who can forget Gunga Din?

Though I've belted you and flayed you, 

By the livin' Gawd that made you, 
You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!

How enlightened is that? The white soldier admits that the Indian water carrier isn’t merely his equal, but his superior.

Except, except… he belted him and flayed him. And one can’t help feeling that it was Gunga Din’s darker skin that entitled the soldier, and Kipling who spoke for him, to do so. Indeed, when we look a little closer, the puzzle is solved: Gunga Din was a superior sort of man because, despite his brown skin, inside he was white:

An' for all 'is dirty 'ide 

'E was white, clear white, inside

There’s no denying the love Kipling had for India, and for Indians: it shines through powerfully in Kim. But it’s the love of a superior for an inferior. And the superior is there to rule the inferior. In the interests of the inferior, that’s Kipling’s message in The White Man’s Burden, but with a rule of iron (“though I’ve belted you and flayed you…”)

There’s something benign about the racial view propounded by Kipling. But that only makes it more pernicious. There’s nothing to wonder at in Gandhi’s swift denunciation of the notion of the 
white man’s burden as a yoke for colonial peoples.

Bas relief by John Lockwood of a scene from Kim
So when I re-read Kim recently, I rediscovered the pleasure I’d had as a child, at the spellbinding story and above all at the compelling characters, but with an acute sense of unease at the underlying message.

I suppose in a sense we’ve progressed since 1901, when the book appeared. The pretence that the Raj served the Indian people has been well and truly punctured, and the Raj itself ended; whatever the problems India still faces, and there are many, its people have made great advances since Britain left.

No ruler looks after the interests of the ruled as well as they would look after their own, if only he’d stop ruling them.

Back in Britain, we can take some satisfaction from the fact that racism is at least no longer hidden behind any kind of pernicious nonsense about its being good for the oppressed. 

When UKIP attacks Bulgarians or Romanians, it at least doesn’t pretend that it’s doing them some kind of favour. Instead, it makes it clear that it is targeting them as a group, just because they are Bulgarians or Romanians (“I was asked if a group of Romanian men moved in next door, would you be concerned? And if you lived in London, I think you would be,” said Nigel Farage to a radio interviewer).

They try to disguise their xenophobia behind an economic smokescreen: immigrants take our jobs (they don’t: they do jobs we can’t find native Brits for) although, somehow, at the same time they come here to live off our benefits (immigrants are 60% less likely to be on benefits than the native born). Underneath it all, they just don’t like people from abroad, and they know there are plenty of Brits who share their view, so they push it.

At least we can see the racism for what it is these days. Kipling disguises his poison, but in Farage it’s openly displayed. And there’s nothing benign about it: it’s wholly malignant.

It’s better to be able to recognise the toxin than for it to be hidden. Doing away with it altogether would, of course, be far better still. That would mean living in a world in which people were judged not as white or black or “oriental”, not as British or Bulgarian or Iraqi, not as Christian, Jew or Muslim, but as individuals. There’d be no space in such a world for the likes of UKIP.

Unfortunately, there might be no space for Kipling either. That would mean the loss of some great writing. Which would be sad, but if that
’s the price, it’s worth paying.