Monday, 29 August 2011

The French disconnection

Having decided to emulate a more sensible mode of existence, by maintaining silence for most of August and attempting not to fulminate about every single idiocy that has emanated from our beloved government since the riots provided the perfect shield for authoritarian posturing, my attention has wandered away from the cankerous UK domestic debacle.

Instead I found myself wondering whether anybody here would dare to suggest, as leading French business people have done, that the state of public finances is so dire that the rich ought to pay a bit more in order to accelerate deficit reduction.  The more mature nature of political discourse allowed this to be given a serious hearing, even in a country where public life has been diluted by the Thatcher/Blair worshipping that Sarkozy has adopted (albeit intermittently).

The English attitude to tax seems to be that it is something to avoid, evade and for other people to pay in order to provide the societal underpinnings that the pettifogging readers of mid-market tabloids seem to regard as their birthright.  I honestly can't imagine the parasitical and greedy being prepared to sacrifice some of their excess income to benefit the society that has allowed them to become bloated pustules on the face of social cohesion.  Would the City and their cronies in consultancy and politics go down the same route?  They'd rather cut services and entitlements for those below them in the income scale, kicking away the ladder and simultaneously bemoaning others' lack of entrepreneurial spirit.

That prime buffoon, Boris the Philanderer, has called for a reduction in the 50% tax band to keep these people sweet - and voting for him - while any economist would argue that the marginal benefit of keeping any of these selfish cretins (whose record in commercial and financial judgement would probably be equalled by a couple of monkeys pushing at a keyboard) in the UK is in fact a cost that we can ill afford.

Indeed the "mansion tax" idea, which the Liberals put forward at the election, is extremely attractive.  This would catch non-doms and bonus fraudsters equally as you can't hide land.  Add this to a suitable 50% threshold (say £100,000) and you have the basis of a plausible claim that "we're all in this together", especially as taxing those who have gained wealth without effort or who are managing their affairs to avoid any tax that repays the states that have given them opportunity is a clear signal that you can't evade your obligations.

Nothing changes - we continue to be misruled in the name of others' greed and expected to tug our forelocks to these people.  I remain convinced we need to be more European in outlook, and much less deferential to people whose vested interests are designed to maintain subjugation and destroy the quality of life for those whose moral scruples or misfortune mean that they are not acolytes of the selfish and venal.

Will we hear anything more about higher taxes?  I doubt it.  Turkeys don't vex their clients, especially when they're carrying a cleaver.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Tippler's Tales

For those of us versed in Orwell, his idealisation of the English pub remains a classic of its kind.  Unfortunately, the Euro-phobic, mullet-sporting Tim Martin has appropriated the name as a default for his Wetherspoon chain, which does not do the late Eric Blair any favours, nor does the atmosphere of Wetherspoon pubs even aspire to the mediocre in most cases.  My local Wetherspoon has been reviewed as resembling the DSS waiting room, which is entirely reasonable given that the clientele overlap strongly.

Meanwhile, the decent pub becomes a harder-to-find phenomenon under a dead weight of the companies who own them, always squeezing margins and always latching onto concepts that will enable them to increase their turnover per customer.  Since Thatcher's botched intervention in the licensed trade, which purportedly increased choice for the customer by restricting the vertically-integrated structure whereby brewers owned pubs and therefore controlled what they sold, the emergence of the ghastly "pubco" has continued and magnified the trend to reduce the pub into a machine where character has been eroded in favour of margins.

There is probably a direct link between this and the extent to which the small, individual local pub has been eroded - many closing on a weekly basis.  At the same time, vast drinking barns, targeted at maximum throughput and minimum social responsibility, have been responsible for making many town centres and suburban high streets virtual war-zones after dark, egged on by Master Tony's amazingly depressing Licensing Act 2003 that transferred real decision-making away from local communities into the hands of the pubcos, whose lawyers and PR people could usually browbeat local authorities into nodding through egregiously asocial establishments blasting out music and promoting drinking well beyond either reasonable or legal limits.

Yet there is still some cause for hope.  Many of the better-run small pubs have discovered that there is a niche for the kind of communal experience that the chains deny.  They have also tapped into localism, through sourcing food and drink from local, smaller producers - and worked out that in many parts of the country people are prepared to pay a modest premium for something slightly better than the standard re-hash of tired menus and indifferent drinks.  These are not necessarily the idyllic country pubs that one finds in the "Good Pub Guide", indeed that publication's skew towards olde worlde charm (probably with morris dancers and legionella in the water) is sufficient to ensure that it never darkens my door.

It is a sobering thought (literally) that CAMRA now has more individual members (around 120,000) than any of the major political parties - it has been a successful consumer lobby group on a scale that must still dumbfound people who founded it 40 years ago.  British ale brewing should be a matter of pride, as the variety and quality continues to increase now that the multi-national brewers have lost interest.  Only last week, at the Great British Beer Festival, I enjoyed drinking Fullers Brewer's Reserve No 3, which was as good if not better than the more celebrated Trappist beers from Belgium.  This is a cause for celebration - but there are still too many pubs closing, too many botched renovations that destroy the built environment and undermine the function of a space where drinking is incidental to the potential active or passive socialisation.

Orwell probably wouldn't recognise most contemporary pubs, and his shade should steer clear of Wetherspoons, but for once there are still green shoots of quality, as well as established excellence.  After a few days of really deep cynicism and depression about the wider world, sometimes remembering small mercies is a salutory activity.

Britain, in all its hypocritical splendour

As people batten down the hatches awaiting whatever fate awaits them, it is profoundly reassuring that Parliament will be reconvened on Thursday for non-partisan hand-wringing.  The queues of politicians lining up to agree violently that criminality is wrong will do precisely nothing to add to the stock of human knowledge or provide us with confidence that there is any mind, let alone, a controlling one, at work.

The profusion of spivs and inadequates at the top of the government is depressing.  Wheeling out Theresa May as Home Secretary and Eric Pickles, that most risible combination of Mr Creosote and Moby Dick, to opine on "communities" demonstrates the chasm between those who claim to rule and the rest of us.  There is something so palpably inadequate about their empathy, their sincerity and their intellectual capabilities to cause even the most hardened optimist to despair. 

Then there are the half-witted right-wing commentariat.  I daren't look to see what Melanie Phillips thinks about the current situation, but I'm sure that she will find some means of blaming the BBC.  Then you have the "shoot 'em before you string them up from a lamp-post" lynch-mobs, who inhabit the "comment" sections of every web-site, doing battle with the weird fringe who don't believe that any form of individual responsibility is part of the obligations for acquiring the status of citizen or sentient being.  Add to this the knee-jerkers who spend their lives blaming everything from the Black Death to Hampshire's woeful County Championship form on the Coalition and there is much noise but zero insight being added to the situation.

What is needed at this stage of the process is some narrative of a way forward.  Flooding the streets of London with police may or may not work tonight, but there needs to be something much more focused on rewarding people whose community spirit is spontaneous and generous.  This is Deluded Dave's "Big Society" at work, unifying people at times of crisis and expressing disgust, horror and determination, but without the low conceptual framework that has typified every initiative that has spewed out of his semi-formed ideology since he ascended to the Tory leadership.  Trying to annexe communitarian spirit is akin to wrapping oneself in the Union Jack and won't wash, when half the communities trying to recover from these outrages are in a position of losing essential services while the UK government continues to support foreign adventurism and the illusion that the UK remains a global military power, and allocate vaster sums of money to replacing a nuclear arsenal that is more and more irrelevant in the 21st century.

So we get politicians seeking photo opportunities, and the near lockdown of entire areas through either fear or voluntary retreat by those whose activities keep the economy moving.  I'm increasingly moving to a Hard Liberal position where once the consequences of lawlessness are spelt out, then the perpetrators of violence, theft and intimidation are effectively beyond the point where they can expect to be protected from proportionate responses to their actions; this includes much more assertive policing and exemplary sentencing, as the vast majority of the population have not resorted to lawlessness and thuggery despite the provocations of our intolerable political hegemony.  Grievances can be expressed peacefully, with much noise and creativity, if they are genuine, and nobody is arguing that the provisions of the Civil Contingencies Act (which are hideous in their assault on the liberty of the citizen) should be applied as yet.

If Cameron and Johnson were anything other than clowns in the pay of multinationals, floundering now that Murdoch's moral vacuum has deprived them of at least one noisy paymaster, then they would be peddling strong, zero-tolerance police tactics now as well as a narrative that examines the causes of social dislocation (inequality, lack of social and geographical mobility, poor education and the dismal state of much of Britain's social infrastructure and built environment are a few for starters) and comes up with a convincing vision as to how to address them and build some form of consensus.  Instead we get monkey-on-a-stick platitudes and the near-certainty that their arrogance will fan further discontent.

The best suggestion that I have heard today is that, given we are building aircraft carriers with no aircraft to carry, they could be converted to prison hulks.  An appropriately Victorian solution to a situation that bears more resemblance to something out of Engels or Mayhew than a supposedly modern world.  Not a solution, but a certain amount of whistling in the dark.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Let's cast Dave and Boris as Nero and Caligula

To describe the feral youth of London as anything other than criminal is to give them far too much intellectual and ideological clout.  Their trail of fear and destruction is an evil spree, not motivated either by a political grievance or a genuine desire for anarchy - a concept which relies upon positive human instincts and respect for others and the world around you.  Therefore by default it is only possible to have sympathy with the police's poor bloody infantry and the victims of gangsterism run amok.

There will doubtless be much hand-wringing about alienation and the continued failings of the police force, demonstrated admirably by the unravelling over Murdoch's tentacles extended into the higher echelons of the Met.  The social evils that exist are genuine, and need to be addressed as a matter of course, but without any intention of providing amelioration as some kind of reward for bad behaviour.  Liberal instincts must be to protect all individuals, which does not mean prioritising the rights of the violent and the disfunctional over the rest of the community.

Social cohesion has been systematically eroded through economic lunacy - that much is clear.  Creating a society based around material aspiration as the only means of self-validation has been deeply damaging, but the evils of unfettered neo-conservative social and econmic constructs create ghetto conditions and, for both those benefiting from the system and those excluded, exacerbate the fear of "the other" that has reduced most discourse to a sequence of hand-wringing platitudes.  On one side you get the dribbling semi-racist ravings of the mid-market Tory tabloids, and on the other a mirror image of intolerance, and never the twain shall meet.

It has been interesting to compare the response of Labour MPs to that of their Tory counterparts.  The latter tap into the middle class rhetoric of "mindless thuggery" (quite correctly in some cases) but listening to David Lammy and Diane Abbott (very glad I voted for her as Labour leader!) shows that they have a grasp of the underlying issues of social dislocation as well as a healthy anger against the morons who have been exploiting the situation for considerable personal gain and maximum disruption to the more socialised.

As a Liberal, I don't subscribe to the idea that one extends infinite tolerance, and it was good to see Simon Hughes making clear his views on what is happening in Southwark and the need for the community to assert discipline.  Even the hapless Clegg managed a decent fist of it, actually going to Tottenham to see for himself what had happened and engage with people affected by the criminality, rather than Theresa May's supreme vacuity and irrelevance, uttering Tory shire platitudes from the safety of the Home Office media room.  So there has been some good performance from most sides of the political spectrum.

The lacuna at the heart of Government has been the Bullingdon Boys, both of whom are now returning from their holiday haunts with something of chastisement.  Dave has been fiddling while London burns, while Boris continues to employ the smug, inadequate Kit Malthouse to act as a smarmy go-between.  He would do much better with a horse.

Time to pray things don't get any worse.

Invisible friends, invisible hands

Are we living in the End Times?  The gossamer-threads of the global economic system appear to be unravelling faster than you can say "co-ordinated bail-out", while our leaders engage in hand-wringing and exhortation that if we all pull together everything is going to be fine and dandy.  The myths of the unfettered capitalist system's innate superiority, peddled with extreme regularity and zealotry for forty-odd years as an excuse to dismantle and undermine the powers of the nation state, are exploding with monotonous regularity as the inability of a system founded on sand to right itself becomes clear.

Apologists for the market always argue that despite its manifest irrationality and tendency to over-react, in the long-run it always gets it right.  The only suitable response to that is to remind them that Keynes's definition of the long-run is at least accurate if not particularly encouraging.  The misreading of Adam Smith, perpetrated in the first instance by Hayek and increasingly by mainstream economists since the 1970s, and the veneration of the "invisible hand" is much closer to a masturbation fantasy than a harmless companion-in-delusion righting the wrongs of the state's inability to achieve omniscience.

My favourite joke about economists is that they will be able to tell you how the world functions, provided it is populated entirely by economists.  The pseudo-science brigade have been given another fillip by the invention of the computer, which enables vast amounts of spurious conjecture to be modelled, peddled as some form of insight without the slightest reality check - the initial premise is often so skewed as to be risible.  Yet because of the shamanic power of IT, coupled with a veneration for any algebra more complex than simple equations (a result of appalling teaching) and the desire not to be caught out by appearing not to understand things, managers and politicians alike get seduced by each blind alley of experimentation. 

Economics is at best a social science - and therefore needs to be put into a much broader context with respect to other disciplines.  For a start, there should be a requirement for all economists (employing their "skills" in exchange for gain) to have some form of knowledge of history.  The current situation is frightening as it resembles a strange hybrid of the 1929 Wall Street Crash and subsequent depression, the efforts to impose a monetarist orthodoxy that were imposed on the UK and other countries in the late 1970s, and the wider Industrial Revolution where power shifted from those countries with agrarian surpluses to those capable of levering competitive advantage out of the system.  Not understanding the parallels and differences with past crises, and the human and political factors tha go with them, makes economics blind to both its interpretive potential and to its obligations to have at least its little toe dipped in reality.

As someone whose political construct was formed in the early 1980s, it has been very disturbing to watch the unfolding of social breakdown in London this weekend.  There are some parallels with the early Thatcher period, before Heseltine decided that a showy giveaway of North Sea Oil revenue would pacify the natives, as the divisions and skewed distibution of wealth increase.  This has been leavened by thirty years of the myth-making around state impotence and the primacy of the individual - the flip-side, conveniently ignored by the Tories over the decades is that if the individual feels unable to achieve their aspirations then the castration of the state means that there is no outlet other than inchoate violence.

The reductionist theory of history will suggest that the rioting was triggered by one event, rather like the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.  However, the real cause is much more the dismantling of social fabric and letting the economists, traders and ambulance-chasers loose in the national sweet shop.  The peddling of the lies around the uselessness of state provision, the desire to cream off profits through further upward redistribution of economic welfare, and the apparent belief that the consumer society is in some way a better moral arbiter than a state founded on consent from the citizenry will all come home to roost eventually.

And as the financial system continues to buckle under the strain of its own illusions, it is hardly surprising that there is a mood of fear and anticipation around.  If people's remaining stake in society is about to become worthless to bail out a failed, unfettered capitalism, then I would not be surprised to see discontent fanning out further.  The architects of the neo-con lie will be secretly delighted with their legacy, I suspect.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Protect And Survive - no, it's the Olympics

It is difficult to evade the smug, self-congratulatory effluvia of Boris and Dave now that there is less than twelve months to go until the egregious folly of the London Olympics comes to pass.  The only crumb of comfort for our invisible Opposition is that, with the exception of rent-a-gob Harriet Harman, the Tories are drinking from the poisoned chalice without noting its provenance from Master Tony and Ken Livingstone, eager to wrap themselves in spurious nationalism to distract from the carnage in the world around them.

Despite protestations that London is well-prepared and agog with enthusiasm (you know the score, pictures of Pearly Kings with their knucles dragging along the carpet) the tone of official propaganda has taken on what can only be described as panic.  For the best part of six weeks next summer the impression is that the centre of London will be some sort of grid-locked war zone, where the hardy venture with a spirit of adventure, a week's supply of Kendal Mint Cake and the kind of forced bonhomie that will evade arrest when confronted with the Met's finest armed with instructions to watch out for dissidents who aren't actually either interested in the crass spectacle or enjoying the disruption to their right to exist.

The weakness of London's infrastructure is clear.  Transport for London is spending time, money and effort in trying to persuade people not to go into work - perhaps a simple bribe would be best - as there will be too many people travelling for its system to cope.  Warnings of delays of up to two hours on the Tube and apocalyptic predictions of congestion on main line trains and stations should probably be accompanied by a Durer engraving and a prediction that those mortals who are sustaining the economy will be struck down with a plague of boils if they dare to impede the progress of the State's idols.  The only positive side-effect may be that more working at home is possible, but that is probably unintended as it might encourage less surveillance and more independent thinking.

At the same time, the centre and east of the UK's capital will take on an appearance more akin to that of an Eastern European capital in the pomp of Communist misrule.  Huge swathes of roads will be cordoned off, bus lanes suspended and pedestrians impeded to allow the "elite" of Olympic bureaucrats, visiting dignitaries and, lower down the pecking order, competitiors, to rush around the city at high speed.  Money will be spent on enforcement - making a mockery of the normal indifference of the police to violations of traffic law - in order to allow the panjandrums the illusion that London will function.

All this is hardly new, but nevertheless worthy of a re-heated rant.  What finally astonished me last week, and it has taken this long to unlock my jaw, was the revelation that there is no confidence that food supplies will hold up as a consequece of disruption to deliveries.  Londoners are being advised to stock up on "non-perishable" foods before all the tomfoolery kicks off.  Not much consolation when you have not merely funded the folly, failed to secure tickets to the elimination stage of Bog Snorkelling, and been advised that your working hours will now be four a.m. until eight p.m. to avoid any chance of spoiling the Olympic experience for those who have no financial stake in the capital.

Stocking up with food may well be very well in any circumstances, although I would have thought that this exhortation should also extend to alcoholic refreshment to promote oblivion in the face of vapidity.  However, the resonances with the 1980s are chilling.  Clearly the Olympic Delivery Authority (no salary too low) has been dusting off "Protect and Survive" with its advice on how to survive a nuclear war using only a couple of doors, some sand and three packets of digestive biscuits.  All that's missing is for the ODA to advise people not to strain their local undertaking services and leave dead relatives outside, tagged, awaiting September 2012 and a return to normality.  Olympic fatigue doesn't rank with radiation sickness but it will be equally pervasive.

This insight into the minds of the Olympians should be a rallying-cry to those of us who fear the current direction of the state.  The callous disregard for the welfare of citizens in the face of a corporate behemoth, be it Murdoch or the East London Sporting Fiasco, and the rhetoric of concern and the mangy carrot of "regeneration" are allied to lies and double-speak.  Let it not be forgotten that the last European nation to host the Olympics was Greece, and they are hardly joyous about the continued legacy of debt and rotting real estate.

Civil disobedience is probable, and, provided that it is non-violent, should not be discouraged.  The act of going about one's onw business and attempting not to be disrupted or thrown off course by the entire farrago is probably going to be criminalised by next year, but in the meantime...  And Boris might not be there, forced to spend more time with his families and concentrate on his leadership bid.

Britain may not be world-beating in many aspects these days, but it is probably the leading proponent of naked emperors.