Monday, 17 December 2012

The US and Guns

I presume that if you're reading this, I won't need to tell you what prompted a post about gun control in the US. I presume that to have found your way here, you are already aware of the shooting of twenty elementary (primary) school children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. It is a deplorable act, but as we speak, investigations are still ongoing into the mindset of the individual deemed responsible. We have seen unhelpful talk about his mental health, seen him labelled a 'goth' and a 'loner', as though these tags are somehow cast iron indicators of derangement, bubbling under the surface, ready to erupt at any time.

At Sandy Hook, the media circus will quietly disengage when the answers to the questions on a million lips tell us nothing about how to avoid the same things happening again. As Sandy Hook on an innocuous December morning, so Virgina Tech or Columbine. Once the revulsion of the immediate aftermath of Sandy Hook wears off, there is a quiet resignation to what will happen next - the NRA-lovin' Good Ol' Boys flex their muscles and make statements about how if more people owned guns, more deranged individuals would get shot before they did serious damage. The political establishment wrings their hands, cries their tears, and declares that now is not the time to talk about gun control. We, safe behind a statistic that shows only 0.25 gun-related deaths per 100,000 people per year in the UK, can shake our heads and wonder why the States just don't get it.

So, to look at the underlying statistics, exactly how many gun-related deaths in the US are there each year? Wikipedia cites statistics from the World Health Organisation and gunpolicy.org, showing that the US, with 9 gun-related deaths per year per 100,000 people, you are 36 times more likely to die as a result of a gun-related incident in the US than you are in the UK. However, of those deaths, nearly two-thirds are suicides.

The US has 2.98 gun-related homicides per 100,000 per year. Assuming that the US has a population of approximately 350 million, this equates to 10,430 gun-related homicides from the years that these statistics were taken, and assuming that this trend continues, your chances of dying in a gun-related homicide in the US are 0.00298% in any given year. To put that in context, homicide remains the fifteenth most likely cause of death in the US, with heart disease claiming nearly 600,000 people in 2011, and cancer 565,000 of the 2.5 million people who die each year in the US.

If debate about senseless loss of life features in US political discourse, the figures suggest that it should be overwhelmingly focused on cheeseburgers and healthcare rather than gun control.

The statistics shown here are not an attempt to make light of any aspect of the killings in Connecticut, nor to play down the impact that such events have upon American society. However, they are a genuine attempt to try and extract some facts from huge walls of data and the emotive, political rhetoric that follows. Nonetheless, the arguments against assault weapons and weapons with large-capacity magazines would seem to be compelling. Your chances of dying in a car accident may be higher than your chances of being shot, but while a car is a functional method of transport, an assault rifle can really only be used for one thing.

There are signs too that the US is starting to ask the right questions. I followed the news surrounding Columbine and Virginia Tech, and at that time, there was much talk about youth disenfranchisement and almost nothing about mental health care. The fact that there now seems a willingness for such things to be discussed suggests that US society is now willing to accept that headway may be made by offering greater support to those individuals who might commit these crimes. The Republicans might do well to reflect that a legacy of Obamacare might be that they get to keep relaxed gun laws in the long term.

So if you'll forgive the unfortunate nature of the analogy, if the ongoing debate about mass killings is a lost battle for those opposed to gun control, are there signs that they are winning the war? The fact remains that however grim the media make gun crime in the US seem, the stats still show that the chances of the average American dying in a gun-related incident are miniscule - and that even then, the chances of said incident being a suicide are double the chances of it being a homicide. This may be small comfort for those families that are currently burying their children, but evidence suggests that such incidents don't severely impact upon public opinion about gun control.

Indeed, when you consider that there are supposedly nine guns in America for every ten people (that's 315 million guns, if you're counting), why is the murder rate not higher? Psychotic individuals will have the capacity to inflict greater casualties if they have access to guns, but statistics still suggest that the overwhelming number of American gun owners are responsible gun owners.

Violent crime is a reality for all societies, but whether we in the UK agree with it or not, the US still shows every sign of choosing their individual liberties over stricter gun controls. Despite this, perhaps the real unsavoury truth about America is that actually, despite appearances, statistics would suggest that it remains a very safe place to live. Unless you like cheeseburgers.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Guest Blogger: Sammie Faye Rogers - Christmas Reads

I would like to start this post by thanking Kris for his support and for allowing me to take control (ha) of his blog for one day to post this for you all. As a fellow writer and someone I met during NaNoWriMo, I have a lot of respect for Kris and am just so appreciative of his support. Today I have written a post on the books I plan to read this Christmas time.

Reading during Christmas is something that I love to do because I just love getting into that magical and spectacular feeling. Christmas has always been a big family holiday for me but it’s also a time for giving, loving, and there’s just this lovely magnificent feel to the entire season. Therefore, during this Christmas period I plan to read books that have the same kind of feel to them.

          

One Hundred Names by Cecelia Ahern
I have long been a lover of Cecelia Ahern’s books and so when I heard about her newest release, I simply had to get it. And as I know her books usually fill me with happiness and are full of magic, I am looking forward to saving it for Christmas.

Heart Waves by Danielle Sibarium
The synopsis of this book sounds so intense and heart-breaking and magical, and I simply cannot wait to dive straight into it! But with all the romance side of it, I think it’ll be a perfect Christmas read.

Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn
This book has such an amazing premise and the reviews of it have all said that it is amazing, plus I have read the first chapter and loved it. So I am looking forward to carrying on with this story but thought it best to wait until Christmas as it’s a wintry read!

             

The Wolf Princess by Cathryn Constable
I have had this book in my possession for way too long now without picking it up! It stares at me all the time and I just want to pick up because it is so pretty and purple. But it’s set in winter with a snowy cover and I have been waiting for the perfect moment to dive into it!

Night School by C. J. Daugherty
This I actually got almost a year ago and have been meaning to read all year but never got the chance. Because it’s about witches, sounds spectacular and has a sequel on the way next year, I really want to read this over Christmas.

A Witch in Winter by Ruth Warburton
This book has been on my radar for a really long time and it also makes me think it’ll give me the same feel that Christmas gives me so I’m looking forward to getting to it this month! It has also been recommended to me too, so I am really excited to start this.

As you can see, most of these questions aren’t your typical Christmas reads but that’s what I like about them. They’re different, unique, and can bring that Christmas feel to a person at any time of the year.

What books are you hoping to read this Christmas?


Did you like this blog post? Would you like to see more posts like it? If the answer to that question is yes, then I need your help!

If you have just one minute to spare, I would love it if you could watch this video. If I get the most-watches, I may win my chance to blog for Mira INK, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!

If you like the video and wish to comment, like or share it, I would be truly appreciative!

At the end of the competition on Dec 11th, I will be choosing one lucky commenter or sharer and they will win themselves a Christmas Surprise! So what are you waiting for?

All interactions are truly appreciated and I want to thank you all now for the wonderful support! If you would like to get to know me better, feel free to follow my blog, my twitter, add me on facebook or goodreads, or e-mail me!

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

The Giving Tree

Visitors to Waterstones in Norwich are being invited to be a part of an annual book appeal for children in care in Norfolk.

The Giving Tree, which is in Waterstones now, is decorated with tags that represent dozens of children’s book wishes. Customers then choose a tag, which includes brief details about a particular child and the book, or genre of book, they would like to receive, and take the book to the till. The books are then collected by the County Council and wrapped in time for Christmas. Last year, over 200 books were bought at the store for children in care.

I think the Giving Tree is a fantastic idea. Books are a magnificent present idea at the best of times and helping those children who are separated from their families to have something to look forward to at this festive time of year is a very noble cause. Please go along and support it!

Books need to be bought by 12 December in order to reach children in time for Christmas, though books bought after that date will still be passed to children in the new year.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Why Blog?

It's probably appropriate that after returning to Four Thousand Words from my successful Nanowrimo hiatus that my first blog entry for absolutely aaaaaaages is selling someone else's dream rather than my own.

My friend Sammie (also known as Faye), who I met through Nanowrimo, is attempting to win a competition run by teen fiction publishers MiraInk to win an awesome job - blogging for a wage.

Contrary to popular belief, those of us that bare our souls on the internet so that the rest of you have something to read that is slightly more informative than the Daily Mail or the Sun are, shockingly, not financially rewarded for our efforts. I know, I know. When I began this enterprise as a way of venting my spleen that wouldn't see me banned from public places or having an aneurysm at the sheer bloody awful state of things, I expected to have a following of millions of smiling, attractive followers within the week, and enough advertising revenue and merchandising to retire forever to Miami within a few months. After all, I have a IQ in three figures and a vicious sense of humour, which puts me on a rough social par with Frankie Boyle. But unfortunately, I'm also about as wealthy as a typical Glaswegian. Anyway, I digress.

Sammie is one of ten hip young things who have a chance to win the blogging contract, and it would really help her efforts if we could share her sixty-second entry far and wide to ensure that she nets this prestigious prize.

Click here to see Sammie's entry.

The question that Sammie asks in her entry is, 'Why Blog?' Unlike me, she has a slightly more in depth answer than 'if I don't get the crazy out, I'm scared I might pop a vein.' Sammie reviews books - those much vilified and sadly underrated cornerstones of civilisation that are disregarded by so many in an age of instant gratification and reality television.

In addition to a role contributing something positive to society, Sammie is sweet and friendly, and has lots of time for her audience. Her blog, 'A Daydreamer's Thoughts', can be found by clicking on the link.

Sammie is right that it takes guts to put a piece of yourself on the internet - that unforgiving, all-encompassing web that has access to all your drunken pictures and never forgets all the silly things that you have to say. But when you have the reward of knowing that something you have produced is enjoyed and shared with others, it makes the whole act of producing something so completely worthwhile. In short, it is what being a writer is all about.

Monday, 15 October 2012

I Aten't Dead

It's been too long. Too long since I wrote something new on here. But fear not, gentle reader, for the blog is not dead yet, and neither am I.

I've had a week off work but it has passed in the blink of an eye and I face a few short hours of fitful sleep before the rigmarole of modern life hits me like a freight train once again. In case you haven't guessed, this development doesn't thrill me, but there you go. That's how it is.

With November coming round, my thoughts turn once again to Nanowrimo and the challenge of forcing myself through 50,000 words in 30 days with the aim of doing most of the legwork in completing a debut novel. I've eschewed my traditional sci-fi standard position by going for something with a heavy literary foundation - but it is also something relatively controversial and comes with a separate topic that I'd like to discuss in the next few days. Hopefully I'll get to it before November begins, because the chances of me doing anything for the blog at all over November are remote to say the least.

I'm feeling a little cut-off at the moment - I am not doing enough for financial and personal reasons to keep my mind stimulated and I am not seeing enough of my friends and loved ones to feel alright about that. But I guess I'll have time to worry about that in December!

I've started playing Red Dead Redemption. I love it, espcially just getting to wander the desert with a six shooter in the moonlight. I always wanted to be a cowboy.

I have also bred my cherry barbs, which is of minimal interest to the world at large but a great personal victory for me. I'll hopefully get round to posting something about how I did it soon, as even Google seems to be woefully devoid of information about how to do this successfully.

Friday, 31 August 2012

My Mule Don't Like You Laughing...

As a boy grows into a man, there comes a time when he may look back upon the things he encountered in his childhood and reflect with sadness that maybe they weren't actually as great as he remembered. Morph, Johnny Ball, Knightmare...all staples of my childhood that when I look back on them now, turn out to be more than just a little bit naff.

But some things remain, because some heroes have to endure, rather than fading away and dying. And nothing is so indelibly burned onto my memory than my first true hero, who I discovered when I sat next to my father on our dilapidated sofa, and watched Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti western Dollar Trilogy.

What epic films these are. Can there be any villain more twisted than the evil Indio, his maniacal laughter ringing in our furious ears as he rapes Mortimer's sister and shoots her husband? Can there be anyone more shrewd than Eastwood's Man With No Name, playing the Rojos and the Baxters against one another in the cemetery before finally killing Ramon Rojo in the final shootout on Main Street? My childhood memories are full of Ennio Morricone's haunting musical scores, which drum up to an epic climax when a growling Eastwood demands that his opponent shoot for the heart.

Heroes stay with you, no matter how old you become. The music still plays, the shots ring out exactly on cue. The Man With No Name walks out onto Main Street and tells the undertaker to reserve three coffins, before single-handedly taking down a gang sent to kill him. He might just have been the first great action hero.

So what happened? I mean really, what happened? I've been trying to avoid as much coverage as possible of the Republican National Convention in the US, which seems to me to be a vicious collective of deceitful, religiously-motivated racist bigots. But self-defeating arguments about running the free world aside, why is an American national treasure like Clint Eastwood rolled out at the Republican National Convention to bumble his way through an incoherent speech that ends with him simulating a conversation with Barack Obama by talking to an empty chair?

The Twitterati and the liberal media have gone to town, with much being made of how the aging actor upstaged presidential candidate Mitt Romney with his bizarre behaviour. There are parodies, photo mashups and 'LOL's aplenty. But as much as I want Obama to win the election, I can't enjoy this moment.

You, moustachioed teenage photoshoppers...do you even know who you're mocking? How many bounties did he collect? How many evil men did he kill? You couldn't throw aside a poncho with one tenth of this man's casual disdain. And most of all, you couldn't deliver the line 'My mule don't like you laughing' without reducing an entire cinema audience to comedy tears.

Let's do a deal, Clint. Stop talking about politics now, while you're still slightly ahead of the game. You might be an old man, you might be as mad as a march hare. But when it comes to a Mexican standoff, no man alive is your equal.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

A Nation Enthused, A Pussy Riot and A Violent Slaughter

As I sit here writing my first blog entry for weeks, the world's Paralympians are smiling and waving to the assembled media in London. The Paralympics is a wonderful addendum to a massively successful summer of British sport, although there is less of the glitz that was seen in the opening ceremony of the Olympics proper a few weeks ago. There's a different mood to these games, one less to do with political arguments about playing fields, sport funding and infrastructure investment than it is to do with unique individuals who have overcome tremendous struggles simply to be here at all.

Of course, the Olympics were a complete success - though no thanks to the sponsors, or to the private companies who continue to fleece the taxpayer in the name of enterprise. Team GB surpassed all expectations, nailing down gold after gold. The Tories antipathy to the modern NHS was exposed by Danny Boyle's deviously clever opening ceremony, which won over journalists worldwide with its simple, understated charm. It turns out that Britain still does a few things well - and it's cheering to think that the army, the volunteers and the athletes all played a part in something that has been central to restoring the national pride.

There has been other news too. In Russia, the decision to imprison anti-Putin musicians Pussy Riot has been condemned worldwide but most curiously by the US, whose administration see no hypocrisy even though they have now kept Bradley Manning, the soldier suspected of releasing information to Wikileaks, in custody for over 800 days without trial. The decision by Ecuador to offer political asylum to Julian Assange is now unavoidably tied into the rape accusations from Sweden that he will not be able to answer without risking extradition to the US. These incidents, coupled with the British establishment's response to the peaceful Occupy movement in the UK, continue to raise questions about freedom of speech and human rights advocacy in the West.

In perhaps the most appalling news of the summer, a number of South African miners have been shot dead in a pay dispute at a Lonmin mine in Marikana. The events have been condemned by unions worldwide.

The strike began on August 10, with ten deaths, including police officers and mine security staff, reported within days. On August 16, following fruitless attempts to control the crowd with tear gas, barbed wire and water canons, police hit back in a three-minute live fire barrage that constituted the deadliest force used since the end of apartheid in 1994.

34 men died in that murderous barrage, and the police's use of deadly force is now being questioned as it has emerged that many of the miners may have been shot in the back while facing away from police. The time has come for a full public investigation into the events that transpired at the protest, and all sides to immediately move back to negotiation to resolve the dispute. If necessary, the government needs to become involved and mediate - there can be no acceptance of violence from either side to resolve a pay dispute. If it subsequently transpires that the police acted without due cause, murder charges should be brought against those responsible.

The dispute raises urgent questions about how to address inequality in the Rainbow Nation, questions that will also be asked in other countries as the economic fallout of the worldwide banking crisis continues to spread.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Why I Have Concerns About Military Schools

I must admit feeling just a little bit uneasy hearing Labour's Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg proposing in the Telegraph yesterday that the nation's children would benefit from a military ethos delivered by dedicated 'Service Schools'.

Twigg's initial point, where he claims that our military forces are central to our national character as well as our national security may be true but seems to me to be something of a moot point. Just because an institution forms part of a concept as undefinable as 'national character' isn't a justification for giving them a central role in education provision. Our NHS is at least as big a part of the British psyche as our army, but no-one is suggesting that doctors should be teaching in schools.

It can be safely assumed that only those individuals from a military background with teaching qualifications and experience would reasonably be suited to teaching youngsters, and comments from individuals on the Telegraph comments page attribute some credence to the notion that those teachers from a military background are the best at enforcing discipline in the classroom. Is the issue then simply that teachers could benefit from learning to impose that discipline? It is also a different matter imposing discipline on mouthy teenagers than on an army corps, where offending soldiers can face fatigues, loss of pay and other sanctions which are not an option in the classroom.

Twigg quotes 'responsibility, comradeship and a sense of hard work' as just some of the virtues that a military influence could have on schools. However, he never approaches the question of whether a veteran who has taken lives on a battlefield is the best example for children in a civilised society.

Twigg also makes no mention that those with a military background are more prone to aggression, depression and other mental illnesses than the general population. Of course, we would like to think that that no-one suffering from a life-impacting mental condition would find themselves teaching children. However, we must surely ask what it is about the culture of an organisation that results in a high incidence of mental illness, and whether imposing such a culture on an establishment is likely to be suitable for all children, especially given that a military-inspired culture is likely to be one where reasonable questioning of authority and challenging of accepted notions is actively discouraged.

The thing that causes me the greatest concern is the further encroachment of military influence on impressionable minds. What seems initially to be a plan to make use of those servicemen that are being rejected so comprehensively by our current government cannot be allowed to lead to people developing a rose-tinted viewpoint on the role of armed forces in society. One only has to look at a nation such as Pakistan to see how a ruling military party has resulted in economic and social stagnation, Burma to see how it has led to gross human rights abuses and international isolation, or the US, where militarism has invaded civil society to the point that it has created an inflated sense of relative value amongst the population that has resulted in tragically nonsensical foreign policy.

Perhaps the nub of the argument in favour of such 'Service Schools' is that offering the option of an educational system with an emphasis on discipline and comradeship to those for whom other systems have failed can only be beneficial. Whether this is necessary in a society where other options, such as the cadet movement, already exist remains open to debate. Given that children who are let down by conventional education will live almost exclusively in the poorest areas, the imposition of military education asks civil society uncomfortable questions. After all: would those in favour of such schools send their own children there?

Monday, 18 June 2012

Norfolk Reconsiders Tobacco Investment

It was widely reported in the media earlier this week that a number of local authorities in the Eastern Region had invested large amounts from their pension funds in international tobacco firms such as Philip Morris.

The BBC have since reported that Norfolk County Council are thought to be reconsidering the investment. The council were quick to point out that while they administer the fund, it is on behalf of 130 separate employers. The council does not invest in tobacco itself.

It is to the council's credit that they are willing to reconsider their position with regard to this investment. It is something of a difficult position for those on the pension committee, who are bound to deliver the best possible returns for those who will benefit from the fund. There is also the consideration that if increased employer contributions are required to boost the fund, this could have a direct impact upon council tax rates in Norfolk.

Other contentious investments such as arms and fast food companies have been the subject of investment scrutiny in the past, but tobacco investment is an especially contentious investment for Norfolk at this time as in 2013, local councils will acquire primary responsibility for local tobacco-related public health policy.

It is to be hoped that a more ethical alternative that still delivers value for pension fund stakeholders and Norfolk residents will soon become available.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Currently...

Current Read: Fahrenheit 451, by American author Ray Bradbury.

I got a telling-off only the other night from a friend for never having previously heard of Ray Bradbury, before I stumbled across Fahrenheit 451 in Norwich's Forum Library a few weeks back.

The story concerns a future in which society's obsession with television and other new visual media has led to the outlawing of the written word, and the role of firemen is to burn books. With all traces of their former role reduced to dangerous rumours, fireman Guy Montag meets his quirky teenage neighbour, Clarisse McLellan, in the aftermath of his wife's suicide attempt and begins to question the role he plays in society. What follows leads to murder and to a manhunt, and ends with the protagonist meeting a number of exiled academics, who travel from place to place, each with the memory of a single book held safely within their mind.

The written style is simple and it is not hard to imagine Bradbury typing away at a ten-cent typewriter in the basement library of a 1950s university, in much the same way as one might use an IT suite now. His story has since been subject to many interpretations, but the author himself observed how a love of visual media was leading to a loss of interest in books, information presented almost entirely without context, and the danger of not learning from past mistakes.

The week after I finished the book, Bradbury sadly died at the 91 after a short illness. I might never have previously heard of him, but news of his passing was greeted in an official public statement from Barack Obama at the White House.

Current TV Shows: This year has seen the end of two long-running TV shows that we in the UK had inherited from US networks - 'Desperate Housewives', which I have absorbed from my girlfriend via some kind of slushy, pink Stateside osmosis, and the seminal medical drama, 'House'.

I swear that when the latter series ended on Sky a few weeks ago, it felt like there had been a death in the family. I moped for days afterwards and clung desperately to the thought that there are still some episodes from the final series that I haven't seen and that I could always run through my old DVDs. But while I'll miss it, I'm anxious to see what project Hugh Laurie will work on next.

American TV never rests on its laurels for very long, and new series '2 Broke Girls' is looking like a promising sitcom. There's a cute premise involving a business startup and two likeable main characters, and I may be a little bit in love with Max, the sharp-tongued waitress from the wrong side of the tracks.

Current Food: Techincally it's a TV show about food - but in very few places outside of Heston Blumenthal's lab will you get away with cooking a goat curry with lotus flowers on British TV. When Eastenders gets too much for you, switch to the GoodFood Channel and watch 'My Sri Lanka' with Aussie chef Peter Kuruvita.

Peter Kuruvita - he cooks goat.

Part of this show's appeal is that Kuruvita is engaging and respectful, and he sticks seamlessly to the positive aspects of his journey despite visiting areas which were recently ravaged by civil war. It also certainly doesn't hurt that the landscape he is travelling across is some of the most beautiful I have ever seen. Stop reading now and go watch it!

Current Drink: If I'm going by what's in the fridge, bottled water. My partner has decided to set up an emergency kit containing lots of tinned food, medical supplies and the like so that we're covered in the event of civil unrest. I'm politely sceptical but if the zombie apocalypse comes now, at least I'll be able to stay under the duvet for a few days longer before I have to go loot the Co-op.

Current Blogs: The TUC Touchstone blog has some excellent articles, not least this one about why Colombia should not be offered a trade deal by the EU while trade unionists are still being intimidated and assassinated there.

Ireland - rubbish at football, but they've got great craic.

Current Excitement: Euro 2012! The Balkans have put on a fantastic show so far, with only a few banana-throwing Russians trying to spoil the party. The lamentably poor Irish aside, every team I have seen in the tournament so far has brought something, and I am cautiously optimistic about England's chances tonight when nippy Man Utd paceman Danny Wellbeck gets his chance to run at aging Swedish meatball Olof Mellberg. If the football is as impressive as the electrical storm above Donetsk, we're all in for a treat.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

And the World Turns

Three weeks away from my blog, a mostly forced hiatus due to moving house, and the world has become a very different place now to the one I was looking at when I last posted.

Of course, that last post was about the French presidential election and those of us that follow the news will know that socialist Francois Hollande was elected by what Alex Ferguson might call 'a squeaky-bum margin'. Of course, that means that despite the left-wing victory, France remains a deeply-divided country, and the sheer weight of debt across Europe means that no leader will be able to instantly approve large swathes of public sector spending. However, it was cheering that since the majority approval of Hollande's plan for growth on the night of his victory in Tulle, David Cameron has started slipping the 'g' word into his speeches. Of course, there is a big difference between words and deeds, but who knows, maybe the notion that you need growth to boost tax revenues is finally getting through to our leader. Meanwhile, for Hollande, there will be no time to settle into his new role. His first job will be finding an economic plan that mollifies the puffy German premier, Andrea Merkel.

And frankly, who would be poor Andrea at the moment? It's not enough that Great Britain continue to cock a snook at Europe and that she has now lost her closest ally in trying to preserve the fragile finances of the Eurozone (and I think we can agree that 'Merllande' just doesn't sound as sexy as 'Merzoky'.) She now has to contend with Greece's fractured election process, which sees the vote spreadeagled over a variety of left and right wing parties, some pro-Europe and pro-austerity, and others against. With the chance of a coalition being formed that can take the country forward virtually non-existent, there will most likely be further elections in a few weeks time, and a further period of political instability and economic stagnation.

Across the pond, American president Barack Obama has come out in favour of gay marriage, a view apparently shared by our own David Cameron but one which he is afraid to run past his own rumbling backbenchers. Nick Clegg has sold yet another portion of his party's soul for a vague suggestion that there might be a chance to reform the House of Lords, but I hope he's not holding his breath waiting for the discussions to begin.

Finally, I would like to offer my solidarity to the 400,000 public sector workers from PCS and Unite who have gone on strike today in the UK protesting at the proposed changes to their pension schemes. When will our government learn? They cannot continue to pay bankers fat bonuses while in the same breath claiming that the pensions of low-paid workers are unaffordable. It is a stance that lacks credibility and hopelessly undermines their 'All in this together' tagline. And while our own health workers are out on strike protecting their agreed terms and conditions, worldwide that trend is echoed. The foreign office notes that multiple social conflicts are ongoing in socialist Bolivia, where public transport strikes and ongoing health worker strikes have paralysed the capital city, La Paz, and other urban areas across the country.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Hollande Offers Hope to Progressives

As the afternoon votes in the French Presidential election are counted, it seems that it will be extremely likely that Presidential incumbent Nicolas Sarzoky will face off against socialist contender Francois Hollande in the second round on May 6th.



In the French constitution, unless any contender has a clear 50% of the votes in the first round, a second round is required when the two main contenders are pitted against each other for the spoils.  With those contenders rumoured to be virtually level-pegging, the significant factor could be far-right contender Marine Le Pen's monstrous 20% share of the first round vote.

It is amazing to think that less than a century after France was humbled by the war machine of Nationalist Germany during WWII, one in five French people can be found voting for a nationalist French party linked to fascists and extremists.  Having said that, at least the French contenders cover the entire political spectrum, giving voters a far better range of choices than that offered to us here in the UK.

Far-left contender Jean-Luc Melenchon has already come out in support of Mr Hollande, who favours a 75% rate of tax for high earners as one of his major planned policies should he win on May 6th.  In order to avoid becoming the first single-term president since the early 1980s, Sarzoky will now have to convince Le Pen's far-right voters that he is the man to tackle major issues such as national debt and immigration.  In doing so, he must be careful that he does not alienate his central-right supporters by adopting a racist anti-Muslim stance.

As in England with it's narrow, incestuous three-party politics, it is the small number of those in the middle of the voting spectrum which may have the decisive say.  The final reckoning in the election may be decided by the 6 - 8% of people who voted for centrist candidate Francois Bayrou.  The future of politics in Europe could decide whether those small number of potential swing voters land on the left or the right side of the fence.

France has the fifth biggest economy in the world and is one of Europe's two remaining economic powerhouses.  The outcome of this election will be felt worldwide, not just within the Gallic borders.  It's most pertinent for the United Kingdom that while we have opted for a conservative stance that sees us heading into double-dip recession, favouring lower taxes for the rich and reduced opportunities for everyone else, France may provide us with a comparitive position that would allow us to learn from our mistakes.

Whether our position improves or not, Hollande is a key step closer to ending the toxic austerity program in the heart of Europe and perhaps offering hope of an alternative to progressives everywhere.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Government Should Learn Lessons from Trade Unions in Conflict Resolution

So how was the fuel crisis for you?  You know, the one that the government started, with its bizarre, inflammatory rhetoric, while Unite, the tanker drivers' trade union, quietly and responsibly went about their business of consulting their members on a worst-case scenario, while negotiating a deal that wasn't primarily about pay or conditions, but one about training, conditions of service and the instigation of health and safety regulations designed to keep the public safe.



The spectacle of drivers queueing for hours on forecourts to drain every last drop of petrol from rural petrol stations is one that is bemusing at the best of times for pedestrians like myself, but at a time when there is no petrol shortage and when there can legally be no strike for at least a further week, it is a jaw-dropping sight.  When I see Government ministers like Francis Maude advising people to fill jerrycans with petrol and keep them in their houses (advice swiftly retracted once the Fire Brigade Unions pointed out that this was a fire risk and an obviously bad idea), I find myself wondering if the people in charge of our country have any practical knowledge or skills whatsoever.

Make no mistake, the government is itching for a strike so it can have a 'Thatcher Moment' and be seen to clamp down hard on unions.  However, it's rather difficult for a government of incompetence to pick a fight with an organisation that is instead focusing on doing its job.  Nick Dennis from Unite diplomatically described the government's stance as 'unhelpful' but I'm sure that he could have, had he been pressed, found a dozen other words that described the government's involvement in the self-created crisis more effectively.

Ed Miliband has been asked about his position with regard to strikes and has sensibly sought to avoid a position of outright support for Unite.  However, he has rather missed the opportunity to strike at the heart of the government's utter incompetence.  I remind you that Francis Maude is in charge of the Cabinet Office, whose purpose is to provide support and advice to Cabinet Ministers.  The notion that contingency planning for all possible outcomes should be something that happens quietly in the background at all times is lost on our leaders, who are ever ready with a soundbite but are able only to be reactive in times of crisis.

It is sad that at a time when the government's slogan is 'We're All In This Together' they cannot trust organisations to resolve industrial disputes through an agreed process without generating media hysteria.  I mention this only because when the hours of drivel spouted by ministers are long forgotten and the appallingly militant headlines spouted by our disgusting right-wing media are sent back to the recycling centres for responsible disposal, I am certain that a deal will be struck that will suit both sides and avert a crisis that only ever existed in the feverish minds of our supposed elites.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

French Police Hunt Anti-Semitic Executioner

French police are linking an attack by a gunman on a Jewish school in Toulouse earlier in the week to previous attacks on military targets in the south of the country.

The attack left a 30 year old teacher and three children under the age of nine dead. CCTV images reportedly showed a lone gunman dressed in black stepping from a scooter, pursuing one of the children through the school before cornering her and shooting her in the head, execution-style, at point-blank range.

The most recent attack, coming so quickly after the murder of two soldiers of North African origin at a cashpoint in Montauban last week, have prompted one of the largest manhunts in French history. President Nicolas Sarzoky said of the killer that 'everything, absolutely everything, will be done to track him down.'


At the moment, it seems that the gunmen has the upper hand. His lethal hit-and-run tactics have now claimed seven victims, with a 17-year-old still in a critical condition in hospital. Authorities fear that it is only a matter of time until he kills again.

With the first round of the French Presidential election a little over four weeks away, the notion that the murders may be racially and politically motivated is a compelling one. With international focus very much on the recent political tensions between Israel, Iran and the US, it is not hard to imagine a hardline Islamist extremist pre-empting perceived aggression against the Islamic regime by targeting Jews and soldiers from a pro-US government.

It also adds another unwelcome strand to the election campaign itself. With Socialist candidate Francois Hollande having been very much in the ascendancy in the last few week, Nicolas Sarzoky has responded with a tough stance on immigration that he believes will secure him re-election. The idea of a foreign killer with a grudge against the state stalking the streets of Southern France might yet impact upon the consciousness of the French electorate.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Where Does It End?


George Osbourne's announcement about the 2012 budget must surely blow a final, fatal hole in the notion that 'we are all in this together'. In the same breath as cutting the 50p tax rate so that those who incomes are already excessively high can keep yet more of their undeservedly vast wage, he has torpedoed public sector workers in low-income areas of the country by announcing that he intends to do away with the national pay structure.

If you are Welsh, or living in counties more northerly than Oxfordshire, this is a grim two-pronged attack on your way of life. Not only are you as a public sector worker going to see your pay reduced to bring it in line with an amount that a millionaire in a distant city-state deems appropriate, those same social workers, doctors, nurses and so on will reflect that they can earn more in London, so you will gradually see your services disappearing. Nick Clegg must be looking at his Sheffield constituency and reflecting that it was nice while it lasted.

One of the most significant aspects of this government is the way in which they are using a stick at a time of hardship to force the hand of workers. The disabled have been forced to work, even when they are not capable of doing so. Public sector workers have been forced onto the dole despite having skills and being willing to work, vastly increasing the national benefit bill (and in turn, the debt.) Those living in London in houses partly funded by council tax benefit have been told that they are no longer welcome and should live elsewhere.

Every day I reflect upon the government's public-sector blitzkrieg and look at the society that will result. Some services may improve, but the overwhelming majority of those will only be accessible to the wealthy. Private sector companies will become far more involved in healthcare (for comparison's sake, under Gordon Brown's government, it was capped at 2%, while under this government it could rise as high as 49%) and hence the costs of administering these systems could increase to twenty-five times as much as they are at present. This is millions that could be spent on healthcare and will instead be paid to - you guessed it - private sector admin companies, who are vastly inefficient, but don't really care as long as the profits come in. (For an example of this sort of company, type 'Capita failure' into Google and have a look through the first dozen or so of the 20,000,000 results.)

So in the not too distant future, if you want efficient or emergency healthcare, it's likely that you will have to pay a premium for it. We can expect see a move away from free healthcare and a move towards a system like the US one, which is inefficient, wasteful and vastly expensive, without actually generating better outcomes. What it does do is generate vast incomes for those shareholders in the House of Lords and the House of Commons - the same masters that we appoint to rule us.

There are some distinct inequalities in the way that this government treats people. The notion that 'entrepreneurs' (fast becoming a euphemism for anyone who earns a high sum, regardless of whether they are active investors or not) need to have tax cuts and more money so that they can create jobs for the rest of us is a fallacy that needs to be shot out of the water sooner rather than later. The profits made by businesses in Britain are vast, and the only ones whose profits have fallen during the financial crisis are the ones that are inefficient and treat their staff badly. Business has plenty of money to invest - it is about time they started to do so.

The continual pressure on public sector pay means that if current trends continue, it will not be longer before public sector workers are on minimum wage. Then, logical continuation suggests that we will see a gradual reduction or even abolition of that minimum wage, and that will be the coup de grace that sees a return to the days of workhouses and cap doffing. Perhaps we'll even do away with the word 'chav' and start using the word 'serf' again.

The message from this government of bankers and millionaires is clear. Move to London, get a job as one of us, and you'll be well looked after. Choose to live elsewhere, or try to get a job that actually improves society rather than creating wealth for its own sake, and you truly are on your own.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Why Churches Should Celebrate Gay Marriage

In the Sunday Telegraph this morning, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the most senior member of the Roman Catholic Church in Britain, has criticised the government's stance on gay marriage.

There are some who would argue that given its history of defending clergy who were accused of child abuse, the Roman Catholic Church has lost the rights to the moral high ground on pretty much any issue of significance. Regardless of your position on the Roman Catholic Church, they still have millions of followers worldwide, and are keenly resisting what they see as government-sactioned efforts to marginalise worship in the UK. David Cameron has made clear that he supports gay marriage as he believes commitment in all its forms is in the interests of society. It is a demonstrably progressive position, and one that means conflict with the church is inevitable.

O'Brien's article makes a clear distinction between the arrangement that already exists for homosexual partners to have civil partnerships and hold equivalent legal rights to married couples of different genders, and marriage, which he points out is legally defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as being between a man and a woman.

The article follows on from comments by other high-profile clergymen, such as those by Anglican Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, who insisted governments did not have the moral authority to redefine marriage. This is an interesting point, and one that I'll come back to.

Cardinal O'Brien worries about the rights of teachers to teach what they believe - specifically suggesting that freedom of speech has more to do with the political orthodoxy of the day than genuine freedom. He also reminds us that the tradition of marriage predates governments and states, raising the question of whether marriage belongs to governments or churches. It is an interesting question but I would argue that the concepts of teaching and marriage fall into the same category as common law, a concept that brought civilised society into existence. All are defined by the representative governments of their ages to meet the purposes of society at those times. However, I would argue that the rights of minorities to receive equal treatment fall within the realm of natural law, which has heavily influenced common law in both the UK and US. The purpose of this should be to define the overriding principles that protect the interests of those who would otherwise be prejudiced against.

O'Brien argues that gay marriage forcibly denies a child a mother or a father, but he completely overlooks that a gay couple can offer two positive role models that circumvent the traditional gender roles that society still defines. Research suggests that a child with two parents is less likely to misbehave than their peers from single-parent families, but there has been limited research on whether having two gay parents has an impact.


When he refers to the idea of gay marriage as 'madness' and mentions the 'tyranny of tolerance', O'Brien weakens his argument. I see nothing wrong with primary school children seeing books that suggest two people of the same sex can be in love in just the same way as two of different genders. He refers to marriage as a stabilising influence but misses that it is the strength of the bond that creates the stable environment, rather than who it is between. By narrowly defining who may feel love in ways in which he deems acceptable, he implies that those who already feel love outside of his definition should be excluded. This does not help to build a coherent society.

It makes me sad to think that there are those who see the advent of gay marriage as somehow weakening an age-old tradition. As far as I can see, extending the definition of marriage will help to make society more inclusive, which can only help all of us at a time when we need to pull together. Surely in a time when the number of marriages has been falling and the number of divorces has been rising, when inequality is growing and demand on services increasing, the church should be welcoming a growing cultural subset of people who wish to participate in bringing love and companionship to the world?

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

'Vote for Me, It's Like Losing Your Virginity'

Does anyone else remember 'Tarrant on TV'?  For those whose memories of Chris Tarrant only go back as far as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or the tabloid pictures of him being kicked out of his mansion by his furious ex-wife for having it away with a youthful TV researcher, he used to have a show where risque TV adverts from around the world were shown for comedy effect.

Of course, away from the stiff upper lips of flaccid grey Britain, adverts full of innuendo are used for party political broadcast purposes.  In Russia, Vladimir Putin's ruling party have released the following video that compares a young female voter's decision to vote for Putin for the first time with her decision to lose her virginity.


Am I alone in finding this sort of thing slightly sinister? I suppose that people who complain that living in the digital world means that your children are sexualised before the appropriate age will now at least find that they become democratically inclined as well, even if the vote itself is less than democratic.

Still, there's a part of me that would respect an advert for the Conservative Party that ran with the honest slogan - 'Vote for David Cameron, he'll screw the NHS!'

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Workfare, or 'Work Unfair'

You know that the Tory ministers - they of the rolling Oxfordshire estates, of trust funds and the Bullingdon Club - are getting desperate about flagship policy when they resort to calling those who oppose them 'snobs'.

The JobHits website posted an ad last week that showed that Tesco are in the process of taking advantage of that same government policy, which is known as Workfare. Under the terms of the policy, people are asked to work for six weeks at Tesco or other similar employers 'to gain work experience', but without being paid or with any guarantee of a job at the end.

The irony of the situation should not be lost on the British public. Until a change of law under the coalition government, taking unpaid work experience could actually result in you losing your benefits. Employment minister Chris Grayling was quick to accuse as 'hypocritical' those same organisations who were attacking the policy, such as the Guardian newspaper and the BBC, who were themselves signing people up for unpaid work experience.


Now, there are a number of problems here.

Yes, the scheme is supposedly voluntary, but a number of people have supposedly been told that unless they participate in the government's Mandatory Work Activity programme, they will lose their right to benefits entirely.

This is hardly the supportive approach that will be required to help those who have been out of work for long periods to regain their self-confidence. Also, it must be a terrifying prospect for those disabled people who face virtually-discredited ATOS disability evaluations to think that as well as being accused of being malingerers, they might be forced from their sick beds to work for three months in a work placement without pay or left to starve.

Tesco are trying to fly below the radar of angry opposition, claiming they never would have become involved with the scheme if it had been mandatory. The question I would ask them is: why get involved at all? Tesco face flak regularly from a number of quarters; they are supposedly anti-union, their contracts ban workers from discussing their terms and conditions with others and their minimum wage contracts mean that workers regularly require state benefit top-ups just to allow them to survive.

Regardless of your feelings about them, it should be remembered that Tesco are a fabulously successful business and a UK business success story on the world stage. They are reputedly the second biggest supermarket chain in the world based on total profits earned but they cannot avoid the negative PR that comes with their position.


Tesco are seeing falling market share in the UK and that is affecting their profit figures, but there is no reason why they cannot afford to pay the Workfare staff an equivalent wage to their other workers. More to the point, there is no reason why they cannot pay their current staff a living wage, and seeing as their position on the matter of their low wages is uniformly 'we comply with minimum wage legislation', it is clear that this will have to be the route by which a responsible government forces their hand. Of course, to do so would see unemployment jump again, and we know that this will not be a position that our government adopts. What is clear that is the taxpayer should certainly not be subsidising a successful business by paying people benefits so Tesco gets their labour for free.

And I'm sick of making this point, but only because nothing ever moves on the issue - why oh why is the coalition government not attacking financial sector speculators with the same iron fist it reserves exclusively for the poor and downtrodden? Whey are we not pushing for the financial transaction tax that seemingly everyone else in Europe wants to put in place but us? The only reason that our government is against it can surely be that those same irresponsible millionaires who were shored up by successive failing governments now stand ready to defend the government that looks after their interests.

That same government also has to accept responsibility for the unemployment figures in the first place. The private sector has not stood up and filled the gap left by hundreds of thousands of public sector redundancies. Regardless of your feelings about the public sector, would you rather they were working for you or being paid benefits for doing nothing? Perhaps the decision to force them to do non-jobs for free in Tesco is a logical continuation of the government's chronic dislike of public sector employment. Regardless, that doesn't mean that it's a policy that makes sense.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

My Old Master

The following amazing letter by an emancipated slave to his former owner has gone viral on the internet since it was first published on cult website Letters of Note earlier this week. I heartily encourage you to read this and to visit the site for more wonderful missives.

Past times: The letter

Dayton, Ohio,

7 August, 1865

To My Old Master, Colonel PH Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee

Sir,

I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin's to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy – the folks call her Mrs Anderson – and the children – Milly, Jane, and Grundy – go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying "Them colored people were slaves" down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor's visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams's Express, in care of V Winters, Esq, Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve – and die, if it come to that – than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

From your old servant,

Jourdon Anderson

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The £10m Gesture

I have to admit, I've never met a banker socially, but I like to think that despite their current position as collective national pariahs and convenient scapegoat for neoliberal politics, bankers are human somewhere. I watched Stephen Hester at Royal Bank of Scotland reluctantly forego millions of pounds in bonuses with a degree of grim satisfaction but while seeing Fred 'the Shred' Goodwin stripped of his knighthood is mildly amusing, seeing him occupying press columns next to luminaries who have suffered a similar fate - Robert Mugabe and Nicolae Ceasescu are two prominent ones - is slightly disturbing. Odious they may be, and indirectly responsible for much misery, but bankers are not in the same category as those responsible for genocide.

So put yourself in a banker's shoes - do you take the bonus, or not? I serve the public and so in my current role, bonuses are not an option. If they were, I would snap them off at the wrist. But then, I don't receive a six-figure salary offered, so maybe I would feel differently if I did. I'm tempted to suggest that enough is now enough - the triumphalism surrounding the humbling of individual bankers sickens me as much as the bankers themselves, and I feel the time has come to stop focusing on individuals and start dismantling the culture that surrounds executive pay in this country.

Fortunately, there are still others out there who very much believe in sharing the wealth, and Australian transport tycoon Ken Grenda is clearly one of those.


Mr Grenda sold his bus company to rival outfit Ventura this week for an unspecified sum. Immediately following the sale, the company announced that its employees would each receive a share of the proceeds based on length of service. According to the Australian news outlet Herald Sun, the total sum of payouts is worth £10 million, with some individual payments worth over £100,000.

So here's an idea that would put the cat among the media pigeons - rather than shelling out £2m to Stephen Hester, who clearly won't be losing sleep over it - how about dispensing it instead to the low-paid employees at RBS, where it might actually go to use stimulating our economy?

Monday, 30 January 2012

Sometimes...

Sometimes I get tired of campaigning.  If I'm not defending freedom of speech on the internet, reading about massacres in Syria, or retweeting information about reforms of the NHS or of the benefits system, I'm leading a campaign for my trade union about day service cuts in Norfolk.  Add to this an ever present group of friends with varying degrees of personal problems, a girlfriend with the patience of a saint and dare I add, a full-time job to boot, it's no wonder that I rarely get a chance to stop and catch my breath.

It's hard sometimes to really judge what impact campaigning has on the world at large. All the blogs in the world won't stop innocents being shot down by military forces, or stop governments from denying medical care to civilians in need. All you can do is raise your voice, time and time again, tell people what is going on and hope that the collective rumpus applies enough pressure to make decision makers think again.


On the international side of things, the looming showdown between the US and Iran over the future of the latter country's nuclear program is a chilling one indeed, and one only has to read about the promises coming from the Republican side of the US presidential candidacy process to reflect that we should be glad that economically, things are improving in America, which should make things a little easier for Barack Obama this autumn.

The Eurozone splutters on, like a balloon sagging as the monetary crisis slowly squeezes the remaining air out of it. TV news stories about the Euro look increasingly like sketches of the Three Stooges, with Nicolas Sarzoky ducking and shrugging as David Cameron pokes Andrea Merkel in the eye. The only successful business left in the Eurozone these days seems to involve hosting summits. It's no real wonder that Scotland want independence from the UK. Alex Salmond might get a seat of his own at these events then.

In these increasingly uncertain times, it's good to be able to campaign on local issues as you're much more likely to be able to generate positive outcomes for all parties.

The grant that Norfolk receives from central government has meant that the cuts we have already seen at the County Council will continue into another year. The County Council is hoping to save an amount in excess of £3m this year in day services for the elderly and physically disabled, and with the increasing reliance upon personal budgets to fund care packages, there is a real danger that our day centres, valuable community resources, could be forced to close. Our campaign is encouraging Councillors and local MPs to oppose the cuts, and advising those service users who may be affected to consider using their personal budgets to contribute towards shared day services - which would be a positive outcome, given that such centres are already up and running!


I'll be chairing a closed media event between politicians, community representatives and members of the media at the Forum next Friday lunchtime and I'm really looking forward to hearing what opposition politicians will have to say to service users who could see the services they rely on for care and socialisation forced to close. We will also be holding a lobby of Norfolk County Council's cabinet outside County Hall on Monday 13th February from 8:30am, and we would like as many people as possible to be there, so please come along!

We have already had initial successes with our campaign, and we need your help to keep day centres open and available to all.

We are encouraging as many people as possible to write letters to their councillors and MPs. The text below is a suggested wording that you can use.

Norfolk County Council has over 20 Day Centres across the County.  These provide a vital service to people with learning difficulties and the elderly as well as giving a much needed break for those who care for them in their homes.  On 13 February the Council will set its budget, which proposes to cut over £3.5m from Day Centres.  I strongly fear these proposed cuts will lead to closures of the Centres.  Please do all you can to stop this from happening.

Day Centres are a valuable asset because:

* They provide a social community for people who could otherwise feel isolated in their own homes;

* They ensure care professionals have regular contact with service users, acting as a valuable care prevention measure;

* Many service users live with carers, lots of whom are elderly.  Attending a day centre gives carers much needed respite.

Closing or cutting back on Day Centre provision risks:

* Vulnerable people being isolated in their own homes;

* Preventative care not being undertaken. This could lead to later medical analysis which is worse for the patient and more costly as it could lead to an increase in hospital admissions;

* Some carers feeling they can no longer cope with caring for the person. This then leads to the service user ending up in more costly residential care and thus losing the regular contact with people who love them.

I understand the County Council have no detailed strategy on how they will save £3.5million.  This leads to the reasonable conclusion that such significant savings can only be made by closures.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Internet Blackout


For all those who aren't aware, key sites on the internet including the English language version of Wikipedia have been taken down today in opposition to the American political bills SOPA and PIPA.

These bills, set up with the initial intention of protecting copyright in the entertainment industry, will not stop piracy but could seriously curtail free speech and change the way we use the internet forever.

American viewers should contact their local congressperson, and all others should do what they can to raise awareness of the issue and oppose the change.

http://www.openrightsgroup.org/blog/2011/why-were-joining-the-black-out-protest

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Switching Decks

I was playing some cards and reading some online articles last night in the handy window between Match of the Day and bed, and one of those articles was about the government drive to modernise. It got me thinking: if the deck of cards had been designed in the modern day, how would it be different?

Of course, the numbers 2 through 10 would likely remain as they are, but I think the suits and special cards would be due for a review, especially given that most monarchies are constitutional these days. I am also keen to retain the original notion of each suit representing a pillar of society. I therefore suggest the following changes:

Clubs are the weapons in the deck, and a modern card deck would surely represent how warfare has moved on. War these days tends to be more tactically-based and politically-sensitive than it was in the days when large numbers of kilted men in chainmail would line up and hack at each other with claymores. A modern claymore is a type of anti-personnel mine activated by motion-sensors, but a card of war, while remaining no less visceral, would still need to remain somehow personal. The advent of Soviet-era small arms fire means that even the poorest revolutionaries have access to AK-47s, while modern armies are equipped with M-16s and similar. I would suggest that clubs would therefore become rifles in the modern deck.

If you believe Sting, the spades represent the swords of the soldiers, but I believe that there is an alternative, more subtle meaning.  The old notion of breaking up swords at the end of war and melting them down to make plowshares, which are useful in peacetime, suggests that this suit is both an instrument of war and peace, or can be viewed as a resource (in the case of the old deck, the right to command labour) that you are fighting to attain.  Depending on your viewpoint, spades would become column inches in the news media, or oil if you prefer the resource meaning.

Diamonds remain diamonds; thousands of conflict diamonds - those mined from areas where there is forced labour, civil war and great suffering - still make their way onto markets every year.  Nonetheless, in the global climate that now exists, in our modern deck we might prefer a move to another more commonly-considered resource, the place that global financiers go to hide - gold.  Failing that, the world's largest currency still remains a staple worldwide, so the dollar would be an appropriate alternative - but if you were remaking the deck a hundred years from now, the likely replacement would be the Chinese currency, the yuan.

Finally, modern politicians still think of the run-up to the ballot box as a battle to win hearts and minds - but while previously, people could get swept away with the urge to fight for their country or in democracies, could get away with voting for the candidate they chose with their gut, in the Information Age, it is becoming increasingly necessary to make clear, rational decisions on an informed basis, and now minds are arguably more important than hearts.  Goodness knows how they would represent these on the cards...perhaps a tiny picture of a brain, maybe?

In the modern world, you will hardly ever hear mention of a Jack or a knave, so a suitable alternative might be the Mogul, or baron, the influential individual at the top of his commercial profession with the links to lobby governments and more money than God.

The Queen represents an interesting challenge, as a modern deck would surely not be gender-specific.  Nonetheless, the alternative would need to be strong enough to topple said moguls and change their minds through the application of irresistible public pressure, while still not being of government origin themselves.  Time Magazine gave us the perfect suggestion - the Protestor - but for our purposes, I believe we can extend the definition to include any dissenter, campaigner or high-profile humanitarian.

The King has long since become a figurehead in a constitutional monarchy, and his place at the head of the table taken by the head minister of a democratically-elected government.  The very top of the tree is therefore reserved for the prime or first Minister of state - though American decks would be likely to feature a President.  And why not?

Finally, and most appropriately for a card which undercuts the poorest and trumps the richest, the Ace would be replaced by the Crisis.  Financial, nuclear or any other - these are the moments in life that make heroes or villains of us all.  The crisis would represent those things that are beyond anyone's control - and indeed, in some parts of the world, there are those that would doubtless argue that the Ace should represent a deity, as the only one with the power to topple Kings.  The modern age however, cries out for a secular card.

What of individuals?  It has been theorised that the picture cards in the deck represent genuine figures from history, so how about Rupert Murdoch as the Mogul of News Media?  Aung San Suu Kyi as the Protestor of Minds?  Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao as the Minister of Gold?  No doubt you will have ideas of your own...

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Greek Parents Forced to Abandon Children due to Financial Crisis

You work hard. You sweat, you toil, you put in long hours. You tell yourself that it's worth the sacrifice because then you can provide what's best for your family.

Then, there comes a financial crisis, the like of which the world has never seen. It is a crisis that topples dictators and opens the eyes of millions around the world to the ways in which they are being exploited.


But while the turmoil brings awakening and freedom for many, there are casualties in every crisis, and you are among the hardest hit. Your entire country is bankrupt. How does a country go bankrupt? What does it mean for people? What does it mean for you? Will everybody starve? This is a prosperous, sun-soaked corner of one the richest continents in the world, not a third-world dictatorship. How has this been allowed to happen? Was no-one paying attention?

Your government changes from one democratically elected to one imposed upon you to enforce a neoliberal agenda. You campaign and demonstrate but you are no longer master of your own destiny. Prices skyrocket. Self-interest proliferates. Everyone looks to one another for a solution.


Finally, you lose your job. Alone, a single parent in a suburb of Athens, how are you supposed to support your family? Maybe if you lived somewhere wealthier, you could tighten your belt and get through it. Perhaps you'd give up your car, or your satellite television. Here, in modern day Greece, you might have absolutely no other option than to give up your children.

How heartbreaking must it be to love your children so much that you feel that they would be better off without you? In a country where the welfare state has been devastated, most people in financial need are forced to turn to charities for assistance. However, charity donations have naturally plummetted as a result of the crisis. The sudden increase in need is shocking a country where family ties are strong, and failure to look after children is socially unacceptable.

International charity SOS Children has received 800 requests in Greece alone in the last calendar year for assistance with supporting children, and many of these cases are requests from parents to have the children taken into care. This number is an explosion from previous years and is almost 100% attributable to the financial crisis.