Sunday, 31 July 2011

Discipline and Fear

Oh, I was doing so well. It's been a beautiful few days and I've been taking the opportunity to get outside, watch some sport, enjoy the sunshine and generally not get upset or offended by anything. Of course, then I happened to flick briefly through the liberal press, and at the risk of mixing my metaphors, I discovered a proverbial turd in the ointment.

Enter Oliver Letwin, Conservative MP for West Dorset. This craven Thatcherite relic, exposed by his regressive plans for local government as far back as 2001 when he occupied the position of Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, has already been a policy leader in the government's proposed breakup of the NHS. If that were not in itself a reason to despise him, he has now attacked those very workers who are responsible for ensuring that the country's most essential services are delivered for the benefit of those who need them the most.

The Guardian yesterday reported Mr Letwin as having said the following:

"You can't have room for innovation and the pressure for excellence without having some real discipline and some fear on the part of the providers that things may go wrong if they don't live up to the aims that society as a whole is demanding of them."

Firstly let us bear in mind that Mr Letwin is a banker, and by extension of his profession, can probably teach us all something about letting society down. We should also bear in mind that he went into hiding in 2001 as a result of his disastrous work on that year's Conservative election campaign. Yet, in a manner contrary to his own suggestion that failure should carry consequences, he has now risen phoenix-like to a position specially created for him in the Cabinet Office.

It is also worth mentioning that Mr Letwin's ill-advised comments were made at a report launch at the headquarters of KPMG, a private consultancy firm that has been among the first to benefit from tendered NHS contracts. In these times of cuts to health and social care budgets, I'm comforted to know that consultancy firms are still raking in hard-earned money from the taxpayer. As everyone familiar with consultancy firms knows, they rarely recommend that you waste less money on consultants.

I could go on and on about how Letwin is a figurehead in a government whose policies are in no way ameliorating the UK's perilous financial position, or that it is a truly horrible thing to expect fear of joblessness and resultant poverty to act as a motivator for excellence. The reason that this matters so much is that the changes proposed by this Tory-led government will have a massive effect on how the UK develops over the medium to long-term future. It may seem obvious to state, but many of the cuts being made by the coalition are resulting in real hardships for many and the services and expertise being lost are not easily replaceable.

Public sector workers will shake our heads and batten down the hatches. We are used to continual abuse - both from our paymasters and the public we serve. Tomorrow they will attack us again - threaten our conditions, our pay, our pensions, always spreading lies about how much better the service will be when it is being provided by a private firm with a profit margin and absolutely no duty of care. No doubt if he ever needs an ambulance, Mr Letwin would want his privately-paid paramedics to be highly focused on their jobs as a result of his proposed reign of terror. Let's just hope that they're not too scared to go to him in the first place.

Public sector workers - your doctors, nurses, taxmen, binmen, social carers - know that we deliver a great and improving service on a consistent basis, and it is only a flagrant and unforgivable lack of resources from central government that prevent us from improving further. No matter that we are already disciplined enough to put the needs of others above the opportunity to earn higher wages elsewhere. The public sector already feels the fear, and does it anyway.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Every One's a Tragedy

I had been watching the news on TV with a friend earlier this weekend, and was away from the set making a cup of tea when he called over to me and said, 'Rupert Murdoch must be thanking his lucky stars.'

The news, of course, was the bomb blast from Oslo, and anyone who has watched the news in the last forty-eight hours will know what happened next. Regular readers of my column will know that I have written in the past about my interest in the psychology of mass killings so I'll be preparing an entry on Anders Breivik later in the week (specifically because he does not fit the typical mass-killer profile, and evidence has since emerged suggesting that the killings were politically motivated.)

Amidst a maelstrom of confusion and contradictory reports about the scale of the killings abroad, on the same afternoon a small black bodybag left a house in Camden, and the reaction to Amy Winehouse's death has been less charitable than that afforded to those murdered on the tiny island retreat of Utoeya.

I will admit that I had never been Amy Winehouse's biggest fan. Sure, she could sing, but the talent belied a career that despite two well-received albums and five Grammy awards, never came close to scaling the heights that it could and should have done.

The thing that amazes me most since Winehouse's passing has been the campaign of vitriol towards her on Facebook and Twitter. I have seen posts actively celebrating her death and further comments encouraging Pete Doherty to join her. I have also seen comments suggesting that people who have posted positive things about her since her death should be ashamed to do so in the context of the Norwegian violence and the general state of the world at large. I feel that this misses the point somewhat.

So why does the death of a young and talented musician due to her self-destructive urges cause some of us to react in this manner? Part of the context of these comments reflects Winehouse's reported spending on drugs - suggested by some Sunday newspapers to be several thousand pounds a week - and money is typically a key factor that inspires jealousy in others.

There is also the sense of wasted talent that some will view with intense frustration. Given the nature of her troubled personal life, it may be going too far to suggest that Winehouse was a role model, but as most of us do not share her talent, we feel that if those same opportunities had been afforded to us, we would have treated them in a more responsible fashion and been somehow more worthy of them. This sense of frustration then increases with every cancelled concert, poor stage performance and front-page newspaper appearance.

Of course, there is a key difference between Winehouse's death and those who died in Norway - a murder victim will naturally be viewed more sympathetically than someone who loses their life due to substance abuse (assuming that this turns out to be the case for Winehouse.) That said, there are similarities too - the sudden, shocking nature of the end, the youthfulness of those that died, the sense of needless waste and loss. Also, to many, the proximity of an British celebrity will naturally pique more interest than a number of anonymous deaths in a foreign country. Of course, to observe this is not a suggestion that those deaths are any less significant or worthy of our attention.

'Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.' These sentences are borrowed from the American Society of Addiction Medicine and would seem to me to be an accurate description of Winehouse's illness. They should force us to examine the assumption that one can overcome substance abuse and psychological dependence by simply applying willpower.

The purpose of this post is not to play down the significance of the terrible violence we have seen this weekend in Norway, or in any way to glorify or condone the actions that led to Amy Winehouse's demise. It is simply to remind us all that each person who has died in these separate tragedies is someone's son or daughter, and in death each of them deserves the same respect and dignity.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Guest Blogger: Karen Michael - Keep Britain Rolling!

Four Thousand Words is pleased to present another guest blogger and fellow local government employee. Karen Michael is a UNISON steward and native of Indiana, USA.

Keep Britain Rolling!

Great Britain – the country that brought you the industrial revolution and Fred Dibnah's lovely obsession with steam trains faces the closure of the last factory where workers have the skills to manufacture locomotive rolling stock.

This goes to the heart of the question of what makes a nation state viable and what the impact of allowing essential industry being manufactured at a distance: will we always be able to afford the energy to import these goods? Is this reliance on trading with companies who are at significant geographical distance not an unnecessary exploitation of a limited energy resource? Could we, inadvertently, be putting our own neighbourhoods at risk?

Sustainability is commonly thought of as being an issue relating to the provision of a continuing and generous supply of energy in a way that does not loot the natural resources nor pollute and cause global warming or other environmental damage. Part of the way sustainability can be enhanced is by limiting the length of manufacturing supply chains.

Back on 30 October 2006, journalist John Vidal wrote this in The Guardian:

'The biggest ship afloat is due to arrive in Felixstowe, Suffolk, this week on its maiden voyage from China with nearly 45,000 tonnes of Christmas presents and fare for the holiday season.

'The Emma Maersk, which is 400 metres long (1,300 ft), 56 metres wide and 60 metres tall, and dubbed the SS Santa, will unload more than 3,000 containers for supermarkets and stores before heading to mainland Europe.

'...the ship...[had a] cargo of crackers, DVD players, toys, puzzles and clothes....”

I well remember the reporters on Look East salivating with glee over the cocktail shakers that that famous Christmas-loving nation, China, sent to us in the spirit of the season. Had Great Britain lost the technical ability to manufacture Christmas tat?

Of course not! It was simply that the monetary cost of a British-based labour was much higher than that of Chinese-based labour. However the actual cost of the full productive and delivery cycle of this merchandise was not reflected in the price of the goods we purchased from that charitable enterprise, the “SS Santa.” The market didn't factor in the cost of the ecosystem damage that is caused by such a long supply chain. It also misses the fact that greenhouse gases produced in China damage the ecosystem just as surely as those pumped out by Manchester industries; both the manufacturing and shipping costs of environmental damage were missing from the price tag attached to the cocktail shakers. Economists call such hidden costs 'externalities.'

Extending this principle to the matter of Bombardier and the construction of rolling stock, it is therefore advantageous to manufacture essential goods as close as possible to home. If GB PLC (as it could be described in a capitalist context) is to remain viable, it is imperative that the supply chain either be as short as possible or are kept at home for crucial industries. The capacity to build infrastructural technology is a matter of profound national, regional, and local interest. The real argument is – yes – Bombardier should be cranking out rolling stock as quickly as its assembly lines possibly can; AND so should Siemens. There is a desperate world wide need for green-friendly mass transport and the improvement and extension of the rail stock and lines is one rational way to begin answering that requirement. The competition between these two manufacturers is an illusory necessity created by an absurd system of capitalisation that bases all decisions on how much paper (money) is created by a series of transactions and manufacturing rather than the usable values of those products.

In addition to the ecological and viability issues, the labourers of Bombardier are victims of the same capitalist system that is currently creating economic mayhem in Greece, Ireland, and Portugal: the credit rating industries. Siemens, German-based, has a triple-A credit rating; Canadian-based Bombardier has a B+ credit rating. Therefore when Bombardier borrows money, it pays a higher interest rate than its competition. Without regard to quality of product, the workers at Bombardier are disadvantaged in this ridiculous marketplace because of the shenanigans of their capitalist masters and their competitors, and of course, the ridiculous zero-sum environment in which the current regime forces them to operate.

Bombardier, the only UK-based manufacturer of locomotive rolling stock is facing the real possibility of closing because the UK government has found a 'better value' (for that, read 'cheaper') provider in the corporate person of German-based Siemens. The externalities (remember that word for the uncounted costs) in this case includes the costs of transporting the new stock to Great Britain; it also doesn't factor in the domestic externalities: unemployment (1,400 job losses – enjoy your new customers, Ian Duncan Smith!) and, as significantly, the potential loss of an entire and critical industry.

Bombardier is a Canadian-owned company located in Derbyshire. However, labour gives value to the product, not some multi-story office building in Montreal. Workers living in Britain must be allowed to retain the skills needed to keep the British region of Europe as economically independent as possible; it is a logical and necessary part of the road to sustainability and sensible stewardship of our planet's endangered resources. Saving Bombardier is a beginning of a potential strategy to ensure both the longer term survival of Great Britain and our larger human family. This is not protectionism or xenophobia: rather, it is common sense.

Messrs. Cameron & Clegg say they want GB to be a country that 'makes things'. Perhaps the first thing they should attempt to do is make sense of their own policies.

Monday, 11 July 2011

London, Burma, Sushi and Science Fiction

The ants were out in force today in London. They crawled over the kerbs and pavements in their millions, threatening an invasion in the heat.

They have obviously had a bumper year. Some of them were two or three centimetres long and the generals had wings with crinkly translucent edges, tied behind their backs but ready to be deployed at a moment's notice.

Of course, central London is not a good place to be an ant, and simple foot traffic inflicted a terrible toll on the troops. Their corpses, crushed and splayed, were littering every second inch of ground, and yet still their numbers seemed endless.

Those of you who remember the halcyon Amiga days of a nineties childhood may remember a computer game called 'It Came From The Desert', about a small town in America which is invaded by giant ants. I was reminded of its magnificence today as I visited the British Library, which has an excellent exhibition about the origins and cultural influence of Science Fiction.

As well as giant ants, the show takes in Arthur C Clarke, HG Wells, and George Orwell, as well as contemporary influences like China Mieville, Lauren Beukes and their equivalents from other cultures around the world. The list of subjects explored goes from mankind's first imaginings of valleys full of dragons and seas full of hideous monsters, takes in trips to the moon via catapult or on the backs of swans, little green men with laser guns and mind-bending powers, and evil police-state governments supporting Machiavellian dystopias. At the exhibition, you can shake hands with robots and absorb social commentaries from the last two hundred years. Plus of course, the exhibition is free, so check it out if you're in the area.

There is something absorbing about London. The sheer volume of people is fascinating for a people-watcher like myself. Today I was able to stroll through the parks around Russell Square and Montague Place at my leisure in the warm evening sunshine. Along with Camden Market on a Sunday afternoon, it's definitely one of my favourite parts of the city. I even discovered for the first time today that the Brunswick Centre nearby has an arthouse cinema, which wouldn't be worthy of mentioning if I hadn't walked past it a hundred times in my life before today and never noticed.

Of course, I don't typically spend my weekdays in London and I was there for business rather than pleasure. Today was my first experience of being a regional international committee member - this won't probably be of much interest to anyone else, so I won't elaborate too much but just say that each of us is assigned a key area of interest and work, and mine is Burma. The charity we're working closest to is the Burma Campaign UK and I can expect to be learning a lot more about the military dictatorship there and the growing demands to free political prisoners as well as the life of Aung San Suu Kyi. It should be very interesting for me and hopefully I can bring something constructive to UNISON's involvement in the country.

One final bonus of having a couple of hours in London before the train back is that I get to indulge in one of my favourite things - food at Yo! Sushi!

I love everything about Yo! - the explosive colours, the tiny touches in the presentation, the single edamame bean that they always slip into salads, the way that you watch the food coming past on the conveyor belt with anticipation and then move away from you with regret. And of course, this is before you actually get to eat it. I honestly believe that I could eat sushi every day of my life and never get bored.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

A Little Drop of Poison

It is so easy, as a member of the left-leaning community, to see Rupert Murdoch as a figure of hate that you sometimes forget that he's a human being. It doesn't help that as he has aged, he has acquired an increasingly cadaverous appearance, and at the age of eighty, some might think that his former vigour would be waning. Make no mistake though, his desire to make money and to cement his family's position at the centre of international power-broking goes unabated. Not for nothing did Tony Blair's deputy director of communications, Lance Price, once write of the last Labour government, "No big decision could ever be made inside Number 10 without taking account of the likely reaction of three men – Gordon Brown, John Prescott and Rupert Murdoch."

When considering the actions of fellow human beings, one wonders if those tawdry souls at the heart of the phone-hacking debacle ever stopped, even briefly, and questioned if there was a line that should be drawn. Even-minded individuals may or may not feel that public figures have a right to privacy, but either way, at least those public figures have a degree of control over their public profile. Today, printing the antics of a footballer, celebrity or politician risks lawsuits, super-injunctions and worst of all, public indifference. However, if evidence shows that you hacked the phones of dead servicemen or murder victims, you can expect the kind of public backlash normally reserved for the perpetrators of vile crimes.

If Murdoch thinks that throwing the News of the World (NotW) to the lions will bring about the end of the phone-hacking saga, he is going to be very disappointed indeed. Public opinion has now reached such an uproarious state that his every action will be called into question and every statement released by NewsCorp, his beleaguered media empire, will be scrutinised fully by those who would love to provide evidence of his insincerity.

There is an ominous and growing sense of public discomfort about Murdoch's close presence to successive UK governments that is starting to make the BSkyB takeover look like a sideshow. Ministers, MPs and the head of the opposition, figures who would once never have dared to criticise Murdoch or his empire for fear of media reprisals, are starting to garner political capital by biting chunks from the beleaguered carcasses of his former charges.

Regardless of his claims to have known nothing of the actions taken by his newspapers, Murdoch hired Rebekah Brooks. Where Brooks is, Andy Coulson was. Coulson's former employment with the current Conservative government ended when it seemed likely that the scandal would break. David Cameron has publicly declared Mr Coulson to be a 'friend', which is a politically-inadvisable statement given that the possibility seems to be increasing that Coulson will be joining ex-NotW Royal Editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glen Mulcaire with a spell at Her Majesty's pleasure. They may not be the last. Police have raided the offices of the Daily Star, and there must surely be further unsavoury revelations still to come.

The irrepressible taint that comes when a man sells his soul at the altar of capitalism has become an insidious drop of poison for all those connected to Murdoch. It can no longer be tolerated that this poison flows, unfettered and unseen, in the dark halls that lead between Fleet Street and Whitehall. The time has come for a full public enquiry that will blow the whole sorry mess apart.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Guest Blogger: Alun Jones - Policing in the USA

In a(nother) break from ordinary service this Independence Day, Four Thousand Words would like to present guest blogger and fellow local government employee Alun Jones. His previous observations on Tahrir and Tiananmen Squares can be found by clicking here.

If anyone else fancies a stint in charge of the editorial desk here at FTW, please let me know, I'm delighted when other people want to be involved (not least because it means I can take a day off...)

Policing in the USA

The plethora of films and television series that come from Hollywoodland got me thinking the other day. I know they're not meant to do that, but this isn't going to be another discourse on the mind-numbing qualities of main-stream entertainment. It's just this; how many bloody law enforcement agencies does one country need??

In the course of my brief research on this subject, it seems that at any one time in the home of the 'free', 68 different agencies at federal, state and local level could take an interest in your affairs!! I tried to think of a scenario where you would involve all of them, but that was too much! However, if you were a native american former convict and discharged soldier driving a lorry whilst drunk to deliver contraband alcohol, bush-meat, counterfeit currency and books stolen from the Library of Congress to the University in Fairbanks, Alaska having previously made threats against the President you would be in trouble with at least 13 different agencies! All of them of course would resent the others and mouth the immortal line, "And don't give me any of your jurisdiction crap!!"

Similar counts yield the following information. The UK has 14 layers of law enforcement, whilst the North Korea has only 5 or 6!

Does this mean that we are 3 times as paranoid as the North Koreans and that the USA is 5 times more paranoid still? Not really, as the numbers in each arm are widely different, especially when you take into account the size of population they are meant to serve. But there must be a high degree of paranoia, otherwise why would we have so many different agencies? After all, the right-wing governments in control both here and in the USA are dead-set on cuts.

I'm not a big fan of cuts. I work in the public sector and believe that you need it to make the state run efficiently. For example, how would Mr Cameron's army of 'hungry' entrepreneurs be able to generate wealth if they had to stay at home to look after their elderly parents? Or if that simple cold became double pneumonia because there was no healthcare? However, I believe that both here and in the USA, concern about crime levels and the possibility of terrorist attacks means that we have allowed this proliferation and the erosion of many liberties. So come on Theresa May and Janet Napolitano (Secretary of Homeland Security), make some cuts, save some money and restore some sanity to our law enforcement.

Shame about the films though...