Monday, 30 June 2014

How to win the EU debate

One of the reasons I seldom engage in any EU debate is because I have been a Eurosceptic all my life and I have read every cliché, every hackneyed mantra, every block capital rant, every slimy press release and every glossy brochure.  I am so utterly sick of the sight of it I would be happy to leave the EU purely on the basis of never having to see such drivel again, regardless of the more delicate matters therein.

Further to this, if there is one thing more tiresome than your opponent distorting the truth, it's watching your own side engaging in the debate and getting it wrong. So single-minded are they in their ignorance that they interpret any criticism of their arguments as an attack from a "Lib/Lab/Con Europhile Gramscian Marxist traitor" (whatever that means). This is particularly evident among the Ukip fraternity. It's boring, it's lame, and more to the point, it is not going to win us an EU referendum. The aggressive and bullying posturing of "cyber-nats" has tainted the Scottish independence debate and it has not won anyone over. It is that same stunted attitude that will lose us an EU referendum.

The way to win the debate is with rational, measured, realistic answers. The outcome of the referendum will be less about why we should leave the EU, but what will happen if we do. That is why it is important to have a grasp on how we leave the EU. Ripping up treaties and walking away is not a realistic proposition. Decades of political and regulatory integration will not be undone overnight, and not even in a few years. Anyone making the case that we can is someone who probably doesn't understand the complexity of EU regulation or the necessity for it. Leaving the EU does not mean we are free of international obligations in the way we trade with the world either.

Our side needs to be prepared and it needs to have good answers to difficult questions. This is why I have so relentlessly attacked Ukip which is still failing to answer the more nuanced questions with anything other than flimsy conjecture. Ukippers say it doesn't matter but it very much does.

The way the pro-EU camp will fight this is with scaremongering about trade and jobs. To engage in top-trumps arguments on trade and jobs is to immediately fall into the trap because it plays along with the lie that the EU is a trade organisation. It isn't.

From the beginning the EU has been a federalist, supranationalist project. "Ever closer union" is written into the DNA of the EU and the final destination is an EU superstate, with a flag, an anthem and army, complete with a president and foreign policy capable of starting wars of their own. Were the wording of the referendum entirely honest the question would be "Do wish to abolish Britain as a nation to become part of a United States of Europe?" It is fundamentally a question of who governs us and it's about democracy.

The scaremongers will repeat the old mantra of three million jobs depending on the EU. It cannot be said too often that those jobs depend on the single market, not the EU - and the EU is not the single market. It is entirely possible to be independent of the EU and still trade with the EU and Europe. They will bleat about us not having a seat at the top table, failing to recognise the EU is no longer the top table (if ever it was). Most regulation now originates at the international level, and if we leave the EU we get more influence since the EU presently negotiates on our behalf.

The warnings of economic disaster also do not stand up. For sure, there would be a major economic disaster were we to suddenly rip up the law that enacts the EU, but that is why we must not fall for this straw man and be able to point to a workable exit scenario that covers all the bases. The lack of such will be the Achilles heel of the exit campaign.

We have to recognise that leaving the EU is a long term process, not an event, and whichever solution is advocated it must be one that maintains access to the single market. That is the only scenario that will not scare the horses enough for us to win the referendum. The Ukip notion that we will suddenly switch over to trading with the rest of the world is not a serious argument, not least because we are always going to trade more with our neighbours, and as an argument, any half way informed Europhile will drive a horse and cart through it. And rightly so.

Our side needs to be very careful not to overstate the advantages to leaving because it will not lead to a miracle recovery or a bright new dawn and few (apart of from the Ukip obsessives) will believe it.  I certainly don't. Even outside of the EU we are a long way from real democracy, and anything the EU can do to us we are perfectly capable of doing to ourselves.

In the short to medium term leaving the EU will not mean we miraculously regain control of our borders nor will be be junking vast tranches of regulation or abolishing VAT. This pie in the sky stuff isn't going to happen. Nothing in policy and politics happens at the stroke of a pen and not all of our deep rooted problems can be blamed on the EU. Pretending otherwise is not a credible argument.

If we are going to win we must be reasonable, pragmatic and ready to respond with watertight arguments. The coming debate will see the pro-EU side enlisting big business to warn against "uncertainly" with grave consequences for pulling out. This is where the "Flexcit" plan comes into play as an off-the-shelf solution, seeing us join the EEA & EFTA. This means the day after we leave the EU, nothing whatsoever changes as far as industry is concerned, but we then have the power to start reasserting our sovereignty.

We might prefer more drastic and faster methods, but business and the public will need reassurances to vote the right way and these are the compromises we will have to make if we want to win. Leaving the EU is like turning a supertanker and we will have to do it in stages.

This does mean we will still have open borders, but we are then free to take the necessary domestic measures to reduce the pull factor for immigrants, while negotiating with the countries of origin to take measures in preventing the flow. Closing our borders in not a realistic option and nor would we want to. There are more nuanced and creative solutions.

Essentially the "little-Englander" Ukip approach to the debate (of pulling up the drawbridge and turning us into an island fortress) is not a vision we can sell. It has limited appeal and so do the sorts of people who push that line. They tend to be the "Mr Angry" ilk who are absolutely poisonous to speak with and horribly tiresome - the very reason I can't bring myself to join Ukip.

We can only win the debate using skillfully crafted arguments. Mantras and conjecture is insufficient. We must show the opposition and the world that we still believe in international co-operation and freedom of trade and movement, and that we have better solutions to our problems than the EU.

Moreover, we must have broader ambitions than simply leaving the EU. Leaving the EU is not the end of the fight. Leaving the EU is only a milestone on the road to democracy, and just because we have shift the establishment from Brussels back to London it does not mean we have any greater control over our affairs. So we will need bigger ideas than the wholly negative premise of leaving the EU and sticking twos up to Europe.

That is why The Harrogate Agenda, a total revolution in the structure of UK governance, has been included in the Flexcit plan, not only as a deal sweetener, but also as a destination where government serves our interests and not those of an ever distant elite. It is a positive vision that makes leaving the EU more than a dull technical procedure and something that might inspire a movement that lives beyond the referendum campaign. If we leave the running of the campaign to the likes of the IEA and the Tory think-tank fraternity, they will waste the cash, lose the referendum and let the movement fall flat, as every campaign they have ever managed has.

In that respect, those who are serious about winning this referendum will be fighting on three fronts. We will have to deal with the underhanded lies of the pro-EU camp, the brain-capsizing ineptitude of the Ukip, and the selfish, self-absorbed right-wing think tank grandees who are neither use nor ornament. We can only win this if Eurosceptics up their game and start doing their homework - and most of all, do not allow the campaign to be hijacked by Westminster careerist campaigners who get paid either way. I don't know about you, but I would like to win.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Councils have forgotten what they are for

Having finally bitten the bullet and waded into the Twitter swamp I have been picking up on various announcements by councillors throughout the land praising a central grant of millions per authority for the fixing of potholes.

More than £3m has been granted to Gloucestershire County Council which will be "invested" in larger patching repairs and small sections of resurfacing, as well as more gangs to carry out the work. Note the word "investment". If you dig around Google news on the subject, Gloucestershire isn't the only council to be decribing what you and I would call "maintenance" as "investment".  If council tax isn't for such work then what is it for?

Well, let me enlighten you. In these times of rampant austerity, a dramatic spike in funding will see Shire Hall chiefs pump almost £1 million into making Gloucestershire a better place to cycle over the next two years. The county council is planning to spend £486,000 on infrastructure and bike training in the current financial year - more than double the £200,000 it spent on the same tasks in 2012/13. And with £489,000 earmarked to be spent in 2014/15 "the county is putting its money where its mouth is to get more people out of cars and onto bikes".

Now I'm no cyclist, but I would hazard a guess that roads without giant fucking holes in them would really make Gloucestershire "a better place to cycle". Assuming I even want to get out of my car and onto a bike that is. I don't recall being asked.

Freedom of speech conundrums

Free speech. No ifs. No buts. But... What would be the reaction if I inferred in an email that I was going to burn down the council offices, preferably with all council employees still in it, and then I actually did it, and there was no investigation of the threat?

As it happens, I was once arrested for writing (in the context of the democratic "we"), that we should "burn down the offices of South Gloucestershire Council, preferably with the occupants still inside". This was in an email sent to the council chief executive. Probably not the smartest thing I've ever done, and not one of my more sober moments for sure. I still stand by the sentiment, but given the recent arson attack on North Avon Magistrates Court (a building I am familiar with for all the wrong reasons), the police probably made the right call in investigating.

I was held in a cell for several hours and then cautioned under the Malicious Communications Act. I could have argued the context in court, but the way they get you to accept a caution is to keep you banged up so long that you will do almost anything to expedite the process. Moreover, as I have recently discovered for myself, the cost of losing in a magistrates court is extremely high due to the parasitic nature of CPS. In hindsight I wish I had defended myself but I certainly concede it was a fair call for the police to at least investigate.

Then there is the one moment I am not especially proud of.  Readers will know that I have a special loathing and contempt of the police, not least because my one proper conviction is the result of the police failing to investigate a complaint I made against rogue bailiffs. I also have many other reasons to hate them and what they have become. Some years ago, in a moment of sheer vitriolic spite I happened to remark on my own Facebook that I was pleased a police officer had been murdered. I'm sure I'm not the only person to have ever thought this, but still, I am ashamed that I said such a thing in that context. What complicated matters was that the said officer was killed in Northern Ireland.

The next morning I awoke to a bulging inbox of hatred, most of which was pretty boiler plate troll material but one or two were death threats, and if you're a writer or blogger and you get a death threat from an Ulsterman, it's something you take deadly seriously. For a few days at least I was checking under my car to see if it had been tampered with.  It was a most unpleasant experience. Further to this, my then girlfriend, who was linked to me via Facebook, received some unspeakable messages that scared her and made her cry - exactly as they were calculated to do.

Now you can argue that I was a idiot and got exactly as I deserved, which in all fairness is probably absolutely true, but it speaks a great deal about the power of words, which can be more terrifying than any face to face threat, and it does have consequences that ripple outward. You have the right to offend, but not to terrorize.

You can imagine that going to the police would not have elicited much sympathy given what I said, but the police would still have been obliged to act, especially in the context of Northern Ireland and terrorism, where people have been murdered for saying much less. Such stupidity would have taken up police time at great expense. But let us extrapolate for a moment...

Outside the context of the internet, the police would also likely have brought a charge against me for Breach of the Peace, which in the case R v. Howell (1981) is described as: actions which harm another person, or harm his property in his presence, or actions which are likely to provoke such harm. A breach of the peace may occur on either public or private property. However, in the context of the internet, the Malicious Communications Act is invoked, which is presently not well suited to social media since it predates mass adoption of the internet. But is the tool the authorities have to work with and is employed to the same effect as breach of the peace law.

So now I ponder the case of Jake Newsome was jailed under the Malicious Communications Act for posting a Facebook comment about the murdered teacher Ann Maguire. Newsome had written, "I’m glad that teacher got stabbed up, feel sorry for the kid… he shoulda pissed on her too". This is a cruel and cretinous thing to say, calculated to cause gross offence. Like my own inane comments, he posted them on his own Facebook rather than directing them at the victims family, but his comments, like my own, reached their target and caused a great deal of upset.

Here's where things get a little muddy. British law is derived from British values and sentences handed down in courts balance the deed with the intent. Aggravating factors in the case of the one-punch killer in Bournemouth resulted in a mere four years sentence. We may not like it, but it's about right. While the the pitchfork wielding public demand hanging, our courts still meticulously consider all the facts and balance the demands of the public for punishment with the need for justice. The courts don't always get it right, but I very much prefer it to the alternatives. The public are not always tolerant of nuances. It is good that the courts are.

So when it comes to matters of trolling, which is a unique internet phenomenon, not least because of the psychology of anonymity and the solitude in which such thoughts are formed, it requires closer examination. Words used in trolling are offensive, but not casually so. I may say things that upset a few people online, and so what?, but trolling is a fine art and the deed is calculated to cause maximum offence and maximum disruption. The intent matters. The real life equivalent would be the obscene protests by Westboro Baptist Church at the (private) funerals of war casualties.

The hijacking of a funeral, is possibly the most tasteless and gratuitously callous thing I could possibly imagine and was designed to be so. It was likely to cause a breach of the peace and it very much did. As it happens I don't think their right to protest trumps the right of the family to grieve for their loved ones in a dignified setting. Protest the war if you will, but please do it somewhere else.

Similarly, living in the same town, such remarks in an online community, calculated to cause offence, where the motive is clearly to cause distress, that has real life consequences, with public order implications. In this context, the individual is responsible for what they say and the disorder that follows. This is why we have incitement laws.

To say that we have totally free speech is to say that words do not have power and consequences. The weak minded can be willfully exploited by the charlatan, the fraud and the tyrant. Powerful figures can have great influence over the deeds of others, and such sociopaths very often know when they have that degree of control. They do share responsibility if those they have manipulated then go on to a suicide bombing or some other atrocity.

In sentencing, as much as we judge intent, we judge the severity of the crime. In the case of Newsome, the intent was there, but as it happens the consequences were little more than some people being offended. In this instance, not by any stretch of the imagination can I see how a jail sentence is warranted. Sentencing must always be proportionate to the crime, and not be of an exemplary nature.

That said, trolling is a distinct activity that is abstract to free expression and should be treated as a public order offence where there is a likelihood of civic disruption. Given the robust hyperbole I have employed in my campaign against my local council and their bailiffs, were I to say on Facebook that I would stab the next bailiff who darkened my door, given my colourful record, the police have probable cause to take me seriously. They would be negligent not to, and Facebook threats have to be taken seriously. They have an impact on quality of life.

We also have to recognise that society is changing. There has been an unprecedented (and not properly explained) drop in violent crime and property theft in the last decade, and that is not a result of more police activity. There are multiple factors which deserve a discussion piece of their own, but one of the contributing factors is that while social interaction has moved online, a great deal of crime has too and social media is one of the tools that internet criminals employ.

Consequently, we learn from the BBC that complaints originating from social media make up "at least half" of calls passed on to front-line officers, a senior officer has told the BBC. Chief Constable Alex Marshall, head of the College of Policing, said the number of crimes arising from social media represented "a real problem". He said it was a particular problem for officers who deal with low-level crimes and about 6,000 officers were being trained to deal with online offences.

Now we can complain that the plod are pandering to the very worst aspect of British curtain twitching fascism, and there is a good case to answer, but the police do have to respond to the demands of the public and if times change, they must change with it. We do need a police force that is social media savvy, capable of reacting to changes in how we communicate.

That we get poor decisions from the police and the courts is not because there is some higher agenda to stifle free speech. I think that is a symptom of a broader malaise that has gradually reduced the quality of police (and their overall average IQ), and the justice system is so proscribed it has lost its autonomy - to such a degree that it has lost touch with justice, not just in matters of free speech.

It's a bit much to expect that these matters will be resolved any time soon without a revolution in governance, and even if we update the law it is still going to be clumsily worded, as very often law is. What is perfectly rational to a civic minded individual sounds spine-chillingly sinister to men of words like me. So there is one very simple measure we can take to protect both the victims of trolling and protect free speech at the same time.

We do need policing of social media because philosophical absolutes regarding free speech are too simplistic, but in order to stop these frivolous and draconian convictions we should insist that all arrests made under the Malicious Communications Act be subject to a jury trial, thus ensuring the CPS only bring trials they are confident they can win.

Over the years jury trials have been superseded by speak-your-weight machines (aka magistrates) because the lawmakers know they would have difficulty securing convictions were they to entrust assessments of guilt to the people. Moreover, jury trials and justice are horribly inefficient and messy for the state so, in the name of efficiency (for them), justice has taken a back seat. I wonder how much money councils would make if bus lane fines were put before juries? But that would be too much like democracy. And that is the basic problem with our government and our courts. Our rulers simply don't trust us.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Ukip's direct democracy plan

Ukip: A house built on sand

This is one of those posts I was not in any great hurry to write since Ukippers will no doubt assure me I will be bowled over by the incandescent brilliance of their manifesto, when it eventually comes out, and I should reserve judgement until then. But since I am in the business of saying I told you so, I suppose I ought to put this on the record.

Ukip has today announced that it favours direct democracy with more referendums and such. I cannot list how many ways I am underwhelmed by this particular announcement, since the timing is not coincidental, and on their track record, if there is a wrong end of the stick to grasp, Ukip will grasp it with both hands.

Unless direct democracy features as part of a broader package of constitutional reforms, what direct democracy will turn into is a democratic appendage, and more of a consultative process by the establishment, rather than the expression of democratic will. On its own, it is little more than a gimmick, and unless regions have greater sovereignty, central government will always find ways to subvert it. We have seen this as charges, fines and fees have ramped up to compensate for the council tax referendum lock. Some councils now take more in fees and fines than they do in direct taxation.

Moreover, if too much falls to popular sentiment then very often the worst decisions will be made for the worst reasons with terrible consequences. Like leaving the EU, broad sentiments, ill-defined aspirations and political gimmickry very soon clash with the technicalities of an ever more interconnected world. Very often these clashes come with unsolvable paradoxes and conundrums of democracy that require flexibility.

There are various complications where international trade agreements sometimes mean concessions that are unpopular, not least foreign aid, but very much in the national interest. Thus, in addition to direct democracy, a constitution is required that sets out the limits of government power but also the circumstances whereby regional and national sovereignty can be compromised.

Direct democracy has to be an aspect of reform, not the whole of the reform - and that requires a particular policy making architecture and a holistic (that dreadful word I swore I would never use) approach to it. This is beyond Ukip. What we will see is the usual half-baked Ukip scatter-gun crapola.

Very little has changed within Ukip in recent years, and now that Ukip is naked of policy it is grasping at every passing fig-leaf as it coasts toward a general election. When asked to identify the thread that binds them all, they will come unstuck, because there is no such thread. Again it comes down to the need for detail from a party and a leader with an allergy to it.

What is particularly evident to me is that Ukip lacks the ambition to come up with something really radical. It has scores of councillors now but little idea how to direct them or what to do with them. The whole focus is about getting bums on seats and nothing more. It has no ongoing co-ordinated campaigns, it isn't pushing an agenda within local government, and it has no strategy for making those things happen.

My own view would be to use the councillors to bring down council tax as far as possible (within their limited powers) and frustrate spending of any kind until concessions are made toward a bigger agenda. But Ukip hasn't got one. This is why, as I have routinely observed, Ukip is not going anywhere and has had its night in the spotlight. If it hasn't developed a strategy by now, it never will and it's probably too late even if they do.

Polls indicate that Ukip's phantom surge is already on the wane and the only thing it can do to tread water is to fight high profile local campaigns and win them - then report them back. But with Ukip lacking an agenda, and communications strategy being so utterly weak, largely obsessed with Nigel Farage and the MEPs, it is focused on an aspect of politics that is mostly remote from the public.

Without co-ordination, all it can do is stagnate as its rudderless councillors bounce from pillar to post, doing pretty much what all the other ones do in pandering to the moans of their constituents without tackling any issues of substance. Not least the absence of power locally.

So what we're looking at is panicked policy harvesting from a deadbeat party that has overextended itself and wasted everyone's time. If you were hoping for a new dawn in British politics, I'm afraid you are going to be very disappointed. Pretty soon, it will be back to business as usual. Ukip is beyond salvation.

Education: too important to leave to educators.

An interesting piece from Spiked today asserts that working-class kids’ low grades should not be an excuse to bash their parents. Joanna Williams examines this phenomenon...
The extent to which white children from poor families are being let down by the British state-education sector was revealed last week with the publication of a parliamentary report, Underachievement in Education by White Working Class Children. The findings show that white children on free school meals (an indicator of economic disadvantage) are ‘consistently the lowest performing group in the country’ with only 32 per cent achieving five or more good GCSEs, compared with 64.5 per cent of white British children not on free school meals. This attainment ‘gap’ is wider for white British children than any other ethnic group. 
Williams argues that schools can and should do more and the educational establishment has a natural tendency to blame bad parents. I would not disagree, but that doesn't let parents off the hook. As with all statistics, one must be cautious. Household income is probably not the metric to be looking at. I have seen plenty kids from low income families turn into well rounded, successful people. But I have also known kids from poor backgrounds who ended up on heroin and in jail. The apparent difference to me is how much the parents care.

There is not a lot a teacher can do if a child is not prepared for a day at school - and if we're in the position where an increasing number of parents are not feeding their offspring at breakfast, and in some cases sending their kids to school in pajamas, expecting qualified teachers to dress their children, then there is something deeply amiss.

I have a strong suspicion what lies at the heart of the matter. Williams remarks that "schools are encouraged to interfere in the minutiae of their pupils’ home lives, from bedtimes to diet, at the same time as parents are corralled into engaging with schools". Therein lies the clue. The dead hand of state welfarism.

Teachers I have met have rightly identified that kids are eating crap, have no boundaries imposed on them leading to poor discipline, and are largely left to play X-Box until late in the evenings leaving them with gerbil like attention spans - and not enough quality sleep in order to engage in learning activities. As to schoolwork, there is little interaction where parents are concerned, with parents believing this to be the domain of teachers. Parents are not engaging with their children's education because they have been encouraged not to.

As schools have identified where parents are dropping the ball, they have created provisions to deal with it, such as breakfast clubs, rather than sending the children home and notifying the authorities of neglect. As with the rise of food banks, supply creates its own demand. This then erodes parental responsibility.

The more schools attempt to take over the role of parent, the more parents are happy to abdicate their own responsibilities. The more the state does for parents the less they will do for themselves. Moreover, the state is ever willing to let parents become more dependent, especially evident in Scotland where every child now has a state guardian. Children are becoming the property of the state. This is part of the ever encroaching nanny state, where we all become helpless serfs who need our rulers more than we need them.  It makes us docile, obedient and dependent. For them, what is not to like?

This is part of a gradually growing trend that coincidentally ballooned about the same time as New Labour coming to power, where everyone was defined as living in poverty and in need of state support. We all became clients of the state rather than citizens, and this trend in education is a similar symptom to other parts of public life. But it's all part of the same disease.

The link between low grades and free school meals needs a great deal more scepticism. British definitions of poverty are not set by any pragmatic assessment but rather an NGO and charity influenced definition, which is largely massaged to increase the scale of the problem.  They need large scale poverty to exist and so we have learned helplessness drilled into parents, telling them they qualify as living in poverty.  It is not that they cannot afford school meals. They simply refuse to. I happen to know a lady whose offspring qualify for free school meals. She is on at least 23k a year as a qualified engineer and takes holidays in Barbados. Doesn't sound much like working class poverty to me.

The bottom line is that education will not improve until parents improve, and that won't happen without seriously readdressing the relationship between the public and the state, starting with a massive overhaul of how we define poverty, and cuts to the welfare state as a whole. Parents (and the population as a whole) have ever growing demands of the state, and are all to keen to hand over vital aspects of their personal sovereignty if it means doing less for themselves. The state is determined to assume the role of parent and guardian and we are far too ready to let it.

Meanwhile, schools become ever more strangled by the doctrines of the political education establishment (the blob).  The syllabus is becoming so statistics driven, bogged down with alien nomenclature and procedure, that the joy of learning is beaten out of children years before they come to sit exams. So much so that home-schooling is on the rise among parents of all incomes because they want their children to do well. Home schooling used to be the domain of freaks and weirdos.  Now it is becoming a serious prospect for anyone who cares for the future of their offspring.  Caring parents are voting with their feet and I don't blame them either. Better that than entrust your child's education to this perverse system run by public sector ghouls.

As it stands, if kids do get good grades from a school, it probably has a great deal more to do with parental engagement that it does the school, which in most cases is simply daycare so parents can earn a living. The best teachers are called Mum and Dad and that was always the case. When parents care, the quality of the school is almost incidental. The teaching establishment holds itself in too high a regard and the very nature of the system freezes out exceptional people.

Joanna Williams concludes that "We need to keep parents out of schools and enable teachers to concentrate on providing all pupils with a first-class education. At the same time, let’s also keep the state out of the home and leave parents to get on with parenting."  Interesting that. Williams (who could not be more part of the educational establishment if she tried) would prefer (it seems) to keep schools the exclusive domain of the state. A scary thought. I agree that it's time to keep the state out of the home, but I think it's time the state got out of the classroom too.

One thing I am certain of is that those who work deep in the education establishment should be the last people we consult on education policy. I no more want these people setting education policy than I would have generals dictating our foreign policy.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Tom Pride: Hypocrite

Blogger Tom Pride is being a pissy little bitch today because people are apparently trolling him.

"I think the real reason I’m being targeted is because journalists and the media in the UK are so arrogant that they just can’t stand anyone who dares to criticise them" he speculates.  Further to this he observes "In fact, in my experience, national newspaper hacks have the thinnest skins imaginable".

A short memory has our Tom. Below is a screenshot of the first time I encountered him. Charming fella huh?

Thursday, 19 June 2014

I am the extremism in British politics

Having attended a Ukip public meeting last night, largely for my own entertainment, I was struck by the fact that if there was a completely unhinged, dangerous extremist in the room then I'm pretty sure it was me. Apparently stringing up the council CEO from a lamp post is not a policy Ukip can officially endorse. A real pity.

Having established that major decisions are made about vital services with none of our elected representatives being consulted, and the influence they have is token in nature; to maintain the outward illusion of democracy, there is no better description of our present system than "kleptocracy".

If there is a penny to be scratched with petty authoritarianism they will take it, and employ violent means to collect it if necessary. There's no question about it. We live in a corporate dictatorship. It is for this reason I often contemplate what it would be like to ransack the council offices, throw the CEO out naked into the street, burn their homes to the ground and cancel their pensions. We can notionally get rid of our councillors but these overpaid town clerks remain in place, sometimes for decades without ever being held to account. These parasites are immune from democracy. 

I'm in a minority whenever I suggest this, but there is little in my moral inventory that says we shouldn't. The problem is, as far as dictatorships go, this isn't a bad one so far. Unless they're keeping it well hidden, I have yet to see South Gloucestershire Council using mustard gas to suppress protests and I'm fairly certain there aren't torture chambers in the basement of Kingswood Civic Centre. The cost of living at moment is a concern for most people, but we still have public order, and savvy consumers can still get by to a standard the majority of people on the planet would envy.

Our public services are creaking, but apart from the occasional NHS massacre such as Staffordshire, on a day to day basis they function about as well as you could expect any government run services to function. We don't have raw sewage spilling in the streets, bins are collected (albeit less frequently), we don't have electricity blackouts for days on end, and the roads in the main stay clear of debris. 

If there are floods, we have adequate rescue services and deaths in such occurrences are rare. Sure the police are absolutely useless and are more state revenue collectors than keepers of the peace, but if you are in immediate danger, in most instances, the police response is fast and relatively effective. If you're a working, self-sufficient and in good health you have very little contact with any branch of the state unless you work for it. And that's how things should be. I've almost convinced myself  there is not enough to get worked up about that would warrant a pitchforks and torches revolution - especially on a glorious summer day like today.

If we look at British media and what the public get worked up about, and how highly politicised bin collections are, you could be forgiven for thinking that life is good, we are spoiled, and the rest of the world must be looking on with incredulity.

But all is not tea and crumpets on this rainy little island. There is something quite sinister bubbling away beneath.  The changes are slow and incremental so if you weren't paying close attention, you'd not get any real impression there has been a fundamental switch in how we are governed. Things have changed radically, and not for the better.

For Jeremiahs such as myself, it's difficult to be taken seriously. During the financial crisis I was saying that the sky would fall in, public order would collapse, money would become worthless and everyone would lose their jobs. Well, it hasn't happened. The big cataclysm was the dog that didn't bark. I can be forgiven for thinking there was a chance of this, because the then chancellor, Alistair Darling, thought the thing same during the worst of it. But somehow we have muddled through. That is not to say that we are not in deep trouble.  

Rather than a crash-bang collapse, we have set upon managed decline, kicking the can down the road each time when it comes to reforming the state. We have heard much talk of cuts and there has been much hyper-ventilation over them, but when you look at the size of budgets and the number of job cuts in the public sector, budgets haven't been trimmed to any level worse than about 1997, when the state was already dangerously bloated, running massive deficits and in a heap of debt. 

At the very worst we have only lost sixteen thousand police officers, most of whom were not needed in the first place due to a global fall in crime. There is a gulf between the cuts narrative and the reality. We are seeing restructuring, not cuts.

We have heard much talk about creating greater efficiencies, but somehow, as our services notionally become more efficient, they serve us less well at greater cost, and the more we pay, the less we get.  Somehow our money is being siphoned off. Of course much of it goes toward the public sector pension black hole, affording retirement perks for public sector workers that the rest of us will not get, and the rest of it is being drained by a parasitic executive class. The cost of living crisis is not caused by "austerity" in that the state is still splurging as ever it did. It is the state that makes us all poorer. 

Meanwhile, there has been no meaningful reduction in the deficit and there is a whole class of well-to-do public sectoroids whose comfortable lives come at the expense of our own. So much so that the criminally inept former NHS chief had private healthcare in his remuneration package. In short, we are being fleeced, but will still have to face the consequences of not addressing public finances.

As far as the average Joe is concerned income tax and council tax makes up the individual tax burden, but National Insurance is now general taxation, and the whole social security system is now a Ponzi scheme. We are told there will be radical reforms, but these so-called radical reform are little more than timid accountancy, because each government knows that biting the bullet and telling the public they can't have everything for free is not an election winner. But then neither is raising taxes or cutting public sector jobs and pensions.  

So instead, we end up with greedy councils and self-financing government departments raiding our wallets by the back door, meaning services we notionally pay for through tax, we pay for twice in fees. Some local authorities collect more in fines and fees than they do in council tax.

Various think-tanks have but the overall individual tax burden somewhere around 46% but if we add what we now pay for which used to be "free", then it's a great deal more than that. Our energy and water bills are of such mind-blowing complexity that we can easily say that half of it is somehow appropriated by government, and if you're a motorist your wallet is being violated like a public school altar boy.

We hear much talk of privatisation, applauded by Tories, but what we are seeing is not marketisation. It is outsourcing and corporatisation of services, affording powers of fines and forfeiture to unaccountable private companies. These fines are being issued on an industrial scale and there is no human influence in the system, and no democratic oversight. All running like clockwork away from the prying eyes of the Freedom of Information Act too. 

To avoid messy and complex things like justice creating inefficiencies, the right to a trial by jury is being eroded, and local courts are being closed down, while the police turn into an occupying force. Everywhere the state assumes guilt and ordinary citizens are being criminalised for being poor, and we must watch what we say to our masters to avoid jail.

To the politically disengaged it all looks like modernisation, but in reality it is the progressive abolition of democracy, where the state machine sees us as economic units to be herded and milked as dairy cattle. You are free so long as you remain docile, do not ask and questions and pay what you are told, when you are told to.  Since conformity is in the DNA of the British, very few notice what is going on, but as someone who on principle does not watch what he says, refuses to pay, and asks impertinent questions, I frequently find myself falling foul of the law.

We can shout at our politician if we like. But they are passengers in this the same as us. Some are defenders of the orthodoxy, others are apologists, and a rare few see things as I do. But they are all powerless and can offer us little more than a frustrated shrug. We can vote them out if we like, but what does that achieve?  As Ukip is about to discover, the system is rigged to prevent the people gaining control of their institutions. We are sleepwalking into totalitarianism, under the ever watchful eye of CCTV, with our every transaction recorded, scrutinised and taxed while our basic rights are gradually eroded.

Our voting rituals will not save us, and nor will Ukip. We will have to take matters into our own hands, and we will have to withdraw consent to be governed. We shall have to make them fear us and force them to recognise the sovereignty of the people. The blueprint for this is under development. We are calling it The Harrogate Agenda and we base ourselves on the Chartists. They showed us the way. It is our one opportunity to take back what is ours before we have to take extreme measures. 

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Ukip public meeting: A review.

This evening I attended a Ukip public meeting and met my local councillor, Mr. Ben Walker.  I always have time for ex-Royal Navy people so I figured he can't be all bad. In fact, he's a thoroughly decent bloke and it's nice to know that somebody who represents me at least speaks the same language. As much I as I have made arguments as to why voting is a total waste of time, this man has my vote since while he can't change very much, what with councillors having very little power, it cannot possibly make things worse.

If I must bow to the archaic system of representative democracy then he at least represents me in most of the ways that matter. However, I do not come away enthused for Ukip. I raised several points about the lack of democracy and how councillors have zero influence in the big local decisions that affect us. They agreed but have not detailed any policy that addresses this.

Paul Nuttall in his speech pointed out that he has even less power than local councillors.  If that is what an Member of the European Parliament says then Ukip, while it has many elected members, does not hold a single lever of power worth having. The levers they have been given are not attached to any rope.

Nuttall can recite his twist on the election results, but more thorough impartial analysis does not support his optimism, and even if Ukip sweeps the boards in local elections, it accomplishes very little. I know Mr Walker heard and understood every point I made, but even with a Ukip dominated council, the council lacks the power to do anything. That is how the game is rigged.

When it comes to local politics my expectations of councillors are already so low they would have to work hard to disappoint me, but for what it is worth, Ben Walker is quite a good stick. I may even vote for him in a general election. It is my view is that if you vote, you should vote locally for the man, not the party. Given that Jack Lopresti MP is an absentee landlord of an MP, who delegates his official duties to his office junior and has a Patton complex, I'd rather have Ben Walker than someone who makes Ukip's more egregious councillors look sane.

Sadly I can't extend the same good will to Paul Nuttall. He is Farage's man through and through and his speech consisted of the same tired mantras Ukip has been preaching for years (even back when I was a Ukip candidate). If I can drive a horse and cart through his arguments, the pro-EU camp most certainly will in a referendum debate.

On the question of jobs and trade, he recited the usual Ukip tract, but it is wildly out of date and he falls into the same trap Farage does. I don't know how many times it has to be said that jobs depend not on the EU, but the Single Market. The two are not one and the same, and some nations enjoy access to the Single Market without being shackled to the corpse of the EU.

If Nuttall (and Ukip) had done the homework he would have been very easily able to bat away such questions without reverting to unfounded optimistic mantras.  Sure, they might well be entirely plausible mantras, but why use conjecture when you can use cold facts? But he could only do that if Ukip had a thoroughly researched exit plan.

As with the euro-election campaign, we got the same geo-polically illiterate spiel about foreign aid and immigration as though there were no connection between the two. I had hoped to outline to Mr Nuttall the precise relationship as I have detailed here, but it seems he was in a hurry to leave the venue without accounting for himself. This is the behaviour of agency DJ's on the clock, not party leaders.

I very much got the impression that he was a sophisticated Ukip android, going through the motions, possessing a degree of artificial intelligence so as to absorb any factoid that reinforces his mantras, but does not do much thinking of his own. That is not to say he is a bad man and on a personable level, I kinda like him, but he's not hardcore material. He's a man who will not pose any real threat to Nigel Farage, which is how Farage likes things.

Readers of this blog will know that I am pretty anal when it comes to details and that's because details matter. The coming debate on our future will be a detailed debate across social media and because Ukip is light on detail they will harm the debate. I challenged Mr Nuttall on these points and he made passing reference to the botched and discredited IEA Brexit Prize, which means Ukip has either not read it or has failed to understand the implications. Neither of which is acceptable for a party claiming to lead the anti-EU movement.

That is what I primarily went to the meeting for. I wanted to know if Ukip had real ideas about how we are going to exit the EU.  It hasn't because at the very top of Ukip there is a lazy charlatan who is allergic to thinking. I now have it from the depty leader of the party that it has outsourced that kind of thinking and has done none of its own, and hopes to wing it on the back of work it has not made any effort to absorb. This is not good enough.

So I guess this is a tale of two Ukips. There are the grassroots with whom I share a great deal in common, and then there is the party machine which I believe to be unprofessional, lazy, disorganised, venal, arrogant and superficial. Nuttall mouths the platitudes of the need to professionalise but that has been said for years now, and there is still little evidence of it happening.  If I wasn't so adamant that we need to leave the EU I would find it funny, but with friends like Ukip... one doesn't need enemies. While Ukip is doing superficially well in the polls, it does look like things are sliding and as Ukip gains, the polls indicate we would lose an EU referendum.

It is my sincere wish that Ukip would up its game, but I do not see that happening under the current leadership and I certainly won't hold my breath. Like the Iraq invasion, deposing Saddam Farage might well have plausible benefits, but the power vacuum may lead to something worse.

It is for that reason I think Ukip has reached the high water mark and I do not hold much hope for a scenario where we actually leave the EU without resorting to more drastic measures.  Personally I have given up on voting as a mechanism for change. I still think The Harrogate Agenda is the best blueprint we have.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Those British values

British values: Not rocket science.
There has been much debate as to what constitutes British values. There are many puzzled faces since few know how to even approach defining them.  But really if you want an insight into what British values are, one need only go as far as the local law courts and look at the sentencing of criminals and how it priorities offences.

The fact that we did not sentence the murderer of Lee Rigby to death says that we are a tolerant and merciful society. The fact that we balanced to aggravating factors in the case of the one-punch killer in Bournemouth resulting in a mere four years sentence says that, while the the pitchfork wielding public demand hanging, our courts still meticulously consider all the facts and balance the needs of the public for punishment with the need for justice. We don't always like it, but the public are not always tolerant of nuances. It is good that the courts are.

Of course our courts can and do get things wrong but we have mechanisms of appeal and a mechanism of judicial review. It isn't a perfect system, but it's better than the alternatives, and it is preferable to the summary justice of China which employs mobile execution vans.

Then when it comes to petty crime such as speeding, the letter of the law is followed without mercy. We value the rule of law. It pisses a great many of us drivers off, but if we want to change it, we notionally have democratic mechanisms by which we can change the law. We can campaign and lobby because despite the constant encroachment of paranoia and petty officialdom, we still have freedom of speech.

My own criminal conviction turned not on the morality of the case, but the procedure of the law. We value due process and we frown on cavalier expediency. The pitfall of our system is that law and morality are not always on the same side.  The state protects the order of things, because we value order.

But then we also value courtesy and patience. We British have a reputation for needlessly queuing  because it speaks to our need for fairness and orderliness. We frown on road-hogs and we dislike inconsiderate behaviour such as spitting and swearing. We don't like inconsiderate people who cause delays at the ticket machine on the underground and we're terribly sniffy about people disturb the peace.

We also regard those perpetual welfare cases as lazy. That's because we value self-sufficiency and we do not like to be a burden on our neighbours.  The Twitter feed "Very British Problems" tells you an awful lot about who we are.

But these values are slowly being undermined by the mechanisation of justice and the bureaucratisation of policing. Our justice system depends on fairness and as computers slowly take over the administration of out lives we become slaves to computer algorithms where human judgement is eradicated from the system. This is obliterating fairness in our justice system, so evidenced by me being sent a demand for £85 in charges for being nine pence in council tax arrears.

Further to this we have a standard fare story from the Daily Mail whereby a van driver pulls over to let police bikes pass - only to be hit with £512 fine for driving in a bus lane. The problem was made all the worse when he failed to receive the letter ordering him to pay the fine, meaning his vehicle was later clamped. He was left facing a fine to prevent bailiffs towing the vehicle. Justice has left the building. That vital human element is now missing from our justice system.

This will be further aggravated by legal aid reforms, which I will go into another time, but essentially they mean our once great justice system, the model for all liberal democracies, will be reduced to little more than a speak-your-weight machine. The entire system is being corporatised, not for greater value, but for the convenience of the state - without reducing the burden on the taxpayer.

Because we place undue trust in the system, and do not hold it to proper democratic scrutiny, and after centuries of it being a reasonable system that has kept the peace, we have become complacent, docile and obedient. And that is why we are sleepwalking into tyranny. Whatever laudable British values we have, we are in serious danger of losing touch with them.

While we have enviable values, there is an emerging ugliness to the British character and unless we rediscover our inherent "awkward squad" tendencies, the state will walk all over us. After sixty years of statism, in most Brits there is an inner curtain-twitching fascist who lives in the constant paranoia that somebody somewhere might be getting a larger slice of the pie, and is ever keen to report their neighbour to the law machine. Consequently, we are a nation who spits on success and worships mediocrity. It is telling in the television we watch and the people we elect.

Now it is time to act. We have to make a stand against petty officialdom, and it is long past the time we started hissing over our eye-watering tax burden. If we do not wake up and start speaking up for British values, we will lose them.

The politicians may not be able to define British values, and maybe things are not so clear cut as I have defined, but we all know there is something exceptional about being British that makes somehow just a little bit better than the riff raff, and that is why we have exported or values to the world. But given the rapid decay of those institutions that make us great, it is little wonder then that we have lost confidence in exporting our values to the developing world.  Soon there will be little left of them that we can be proud of.

Non-intervention also has a price

I like simple straightforward answers. They are good. They require no risk, they don’t require analysis and it’s usually the easy option. But this is the real world where there aren’t any absolutes, very little consistency, and there’s that inconvenient fact that if we do not intervene somebody else invariably will. That is the reality we face.

Insomuch as we have national interests we also have common regional interests with our neighbours and trading partners. Their problems are our problems. For right or wrong, immigration has been a growing concern for many in Britain and Western Europe. There is a growing feeling that it is unsustainable and undesirable. Many of us don’t like rapid change and it’s clear that many of our systems and our infrastructure cannot keep pace. So it then becomes an issue of management to which international solutions are needed.

Recent unrest in the Middle East has lead to a growing refugee crisis, and while Egypt and Turkey have signed the UNHCR refugee convention that defines them as refugees, it is with heavy restrictions and limited effective protection, which means refugees migrate further afield. The natural destination is the EU, where we all then feel some of the pressure. It is a fact that half of the cost of any civil war is met by neighbouring countries and that has wider regional implications for immigration, especially in this instance, so we need the co-operation of Turkey.

If we respect the sovereignty of Turkey, a useful ally in the world, we have no right to demand that they sign up in full to the UNHCR conventions. It is a relatively poor country and less able to cope with a sudden influx than we are. But we can persuade them to take off some of the pressure by way of trade deals, tariff concessions and international development aid. The same can be said of Egypt in managing refugees from Libya.

In 2012, the UK gave £80m in aid to Turkey to upgrade their sewer system, which has obvious benefits for health and disease prevention. If we can develop Turkey collectively with the rest of the EU, in exchange for concessions on refugee status, then compared with the costs of population growth on our own sewers and civic infrastructure, international development is then an investment - and a degree of protection against unsustainable population growth.

The Ukips of this world don’t want to spend money on international aid, but at the same time wishes to slow immigration, and are happy for our neighbours to bare the stresses expecting that there will not be consequences, assuming that the world can go to hell. In our splendid isolation we be immune from those effects. But the world does not work like that. We need co-operation.

That is not to say that we need to be shackled to the EU in order to affect international agreements, and in fact we would have more influence at the top table were the EU not negotiating on our behalf. But it is in our own best interests to help the rest of the world develop. It’s good for trade, it’s good for our security and it’s good for humanity.

Now we can argue that Western intervention may have aggravated the war in Syria, but with Russia having a regional influence and a strong suspicion of militant groups funded by Iranian/Saudi petro-dollars, it’s hard to quantify our own adverse influence when everyone is meddling. We face consequences in either case. Therefore intervention is a means of shaping the outcomes to our advantage (notionally).

All too often it doesn’t go to plan because our preferred outcomes are not the same as other regional powers. In a perfect world nobody would be interfering but this is far from a perfect world – and a mess like Syria was always going to create problems that we are not divorced from. We can fairly say that our diplomatic interventions have been clumsy and ill-directed, and quite probably the refugee crisis is in part a consequence, as is the mass migration across the Mediterranean as a result of intervention in Libya. But there is nothing to say that failed states will not produce similar levels of immigration in any case, and the kleptocratic regimes like those of North Africa do inevitably fail.

In the case of Italy, the mass migration from North Africa is a worrying development and an expensive one, with the capacity to destabilise Italy. Being that we live in a connected world, that has consequences for Britain and it has consequences for trade in Europe. So we have international agreements to take our share of refugees. It is in our national interest.

But the bottom line here is that it is in nobody’s interests for states to fail, and it is certainly in no-ones interests to let civil wars like Syria becoming regional wars. So what do we do about it? Well there was that Iraq thing: Installing a constitution that distributes oil revenues and creates a democratic assembly for an Iraqi federation, which affords sovereignty to the distinct regions. The Iraqi constitution also has its own equivalent to Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty whereby a region can secede. It is an entirely voluntary union. In bringing that constitutional entity to maturity we have been coaching the administration in modern systems of governance so as to prevent the hoarding of wealth by a corrupt elite. Whether it is working is a whole other debate. It is certainly not without problems to put it lightly, but it isn't a total disaster either, especially compared with Syria. Saddam wasn't going to live forever and a conflict of this nature was an inevitability.

Curiously the number of refugees from Syria were greater in last two years than Iraqi refugees throughout the whole of the Iraqi occupation. I suspect the presence of American forces has a great deal to do with that. While conditions on the street mean that women have to adopt Islamic dress codes, the violence is no longer happening behind closed doors as it was under the Hussein regime and most excitingly, since the occupation ownership of mobile phones has skyrocketed. That is the bedrock liberty and I think that is the most significant metric of all.

Many cite the incursion of ISIS as evidence that the big project has failed. Not necessarily. This is the first real test as to whether there is the political and democratic will to reclaim their territory and assert their sovereignty. What we are seeing in ISIS is the Croydon looting writ large, and it is a loose coalition of tribes that will soon fracture as they begin to divide the spoils. It's little more than a rolling bank heist, and if the post-Saddam Iraqi government cannot fight and win this, then it was never going to survive as a nation with or without US intervention, and some would say it doesn't deserve to and shouldn't anyway. I hope it can and I believe it might.

Moreover, regional factionalism was always going to mean cross border incursions into Iraq from Syria, with or without the US invasion, and had it been so, would it even have been newsworthy? Would it have been reported? It goes with the territory and wars like that in Syria often spill out. The big surprise to me is that it hasn't engulfed Lebanon.

The question for the West was whether whether a mass uprising resulting in a bloodbath in Iraq (worse than what we saw), and whether an all out civil war in the region (without the presence of US forces) was in the Wests interests. Arguably it was not. And I can think of several good reasons why it wasn't. We are talking about a regime that has fired Scud missiles on Israel.

As to whether the disintegration of order under the occupation could have prevented, well, with hindsight, having examined the military failings in detail rather the political ones, I rather think it could. We saw retreats into ethnic identities largely as a matter of safety, because occupying forces, namely the British, could not provide it. This is a lot to do with the fact British forces were penned up in barracks because they did not have the necessary equipment to fight a full blown insurgency. So Iraqis turned to forces that could keep the peace.

It has to be stressed that this was not the fault if Tony Blair or the MOD because when the generals were asked if they had the kit they needed, they said yes, because they thought they were running an NI style peacekeeping operation rather than fighting a full blown war. That's why, if I recall, US Stryker Brigades had to race South in an emergency to bail the British out. We started out with some flawed assumptions but lacked the necessary flexibility to change the mission profile in the time required.

There are institutional failings within our forces that mean we keep losing our small wars, but that is not to say that such issues aren't resolvable. I don't buy the consensus that the Iraq war wasn't winnable, nor am I yet willing to write the whole thing off as a bad job when contrasted with how bad things could have been otherwise, and certainly not without seeing if it stands up to the ISIS threat, which it may yet do.

But let’s look at the non-interventionist approach of continued trading without intervention. Two great examples in modern history have been Nigeria and Saudi Arabia where oil revenues have gone to corrupt and violent minority ruling elites. In the case of Nigeria it has caused pollution, war, ethnic cleansing, piracy and poverty. Piracy is a new threat to global trade and while we can mop up the symptoms at great expense, we could use international development to cure the disease. But not without military protection.

In the case of Saudi Arabia, our unrestricted trade has produced vast wealth for another minority elite but has also given them dangerous levels of influence on our own economies as we are dependent on them for oil, and much of that wealth goes toward undermining our own ambitions of sovereign, democratic nations trading freely with a respect for human rights (with all the caveats). That is what the West notionally stands for, hypocritical and clumsy though it may be in its execution. It would have been better to supervise the evolution of Saudi Arabia through occupation to prevent it becoming the monster it is today.

So why do our modern interventions fail? Some would have it that there are no interventionist solutions, but I wouldn’t let the Romans or the Chinese hear you say that. The Romans managed to build a civilisation in Britain, bringing roads, aqueducts and new technologies and here in the modern era, China is making impressive developments in Africa, building roads and civic infrastructure. What is missing from our interventions is a priority for the national material interest. If it's about oil, we need to say so and not pretend otherwise.

You will not find a more glowing example of Western stupidity that the effort to rebuild Afghanistan, where Western NGO’s with their "liberal" Western values sought to change the social orthodoxies overnight by installing schools and educating women and taking children off the land. All that succeeded in doing was to piss off an awful lot of the menfolk enough for them to take up arms. One of the more egregious examples of Western stupidity was DfIDs Women only theme-park: An actual Ferris wheel in the middle of the desert. No really! But no roads, bridges or airports to speak of, and no infrastructure to maintain them. The Taliban will have no trouble reasserting control because, unlike Iraq, we left no legacy worth defending. We will feel consequences.

Contrast that with Chinese efforts in Africa (using the British Colonial model), acting entirely in their own interest, building roads and infrastructure to get at materials they need. In so doing, the economy grows up around the new roads and airports, and then local goods have access to a global market. Give them the means to trade and the means to create wealth and soon enough those liberal “Western” values will arrive in their own good time as wealthier nations develop a better educated population.

Meanwhile Western efforts in India extend only as far as building “Fair Trade” plantations and getting rural farmers to reduce their Co2 emissions by converting their paraffin cookers to solar energy. The lunatics have taken over the asylum. Our foreign policy is dictated by the idiotic and childish fixations of unaccountable climate-change obsessed international NGOs who put gender equality issues ahead of the basic need to feed people.

But yes, there is a case for economic and military intervention. It serves our needs, it develops other countries and it reduces the immigration push factor. But not until we get back in the habit of putting the national material interests first rather than touchy-feely, feel-good sentimental fluff, we will continue to fight wars of intervention with all the wrong objectives - and continue to lose them. If we recognise that liberty and prosperity is a superior way of life we need to stop being ashamed of it, lose the post-colonial guilt, and recognise that free nations (stop laughing at the back) advancing their own interests is advancing everyone's interests.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

The last chance for democracy

One of my chief complaints about government is that it is slow to respond, slow to act, and prohibits any meaningful change. But with our democratic mechanism putting the "power" in the hands of our political parties, that is not altogether a bad thing. It is better to have a system that dilutes the power rather than enabling extremism of any stripe.  I no more want the extremes of the Labour Party running things any more than I would want the hang-em and flogg-em Ukipists in total control. Government at all levels has to muddle through on consensus within the many constraints placed upon it. That's life I'm afraid.

But as our system has creaked on through the years it has acquired its own brand of much more pernicious extremism. Rather than being a system that pleases some of the people some of the time, we now have a system that pleases nobody ever. In the name of efficiency we have seen services growing ever more distant and computerised to the point where decisions affecting our lives are made entirely by computer algorithms, where good sense never enters the equation. Soon enough I expect to have bailiffs banging on my door for the want of nine pence. We are drifting into a new tyranny.

As governance becomes more data driven and more standardisation is written into the system, its failures are magnified and replicated many times, with no democratic recourse as one is merely directed to a junior administrator, who may sympathise, but has no autonomy to act. It all adds to the growing feeling that we have no influence in the decisions that affect our lives directly - and nor do the people we elect. This is the age of managerialism.

This is why I refuse to engage in the empty voting rituals we have to replace those people every four years. If we are merely electing apologists and press officers to the system who cannot (and in most cases do not want to) change it, why have them at all? We need to drop the pretense that this system is a democracy.

A reader sent me something that inspired me to write this post and the views expressed here very much mirror my own...
The 36% UK turnout tells its own story. People are giving up on conventional democracy because ticking a box once every few years doesn’t really constitute a conversation between equals. And that’s what they get in most other areas of their lives. Only the way they’re governed (and, less so, the way they’re employed) is still so autocratic.

Politicians aren’t talking about what voters are interested in and voters aren’t interested in what politicians are talking about. And when people do talk, politicians don’t listen. Letters get batted back with delegated, form answers and the real questions unanswered. The results of consultations seem pre-decided. Protests are increasingly ignored.
My own campaigns in the last few years confirm this.  I have a cupboard bulging with form letters that say absolutely nothing, but the subtext is always the same: "go away little pleb and stop bothering us". I have lately found that Twitter is the only way of addressing these people directly, but one must now be careful who you criticise and how because saying the wrong thing to the wrong official, in the wrong way, can land you in jail. One would like to have a free and frank discussion with this politicians but they do not speak our language. They are in transmit mode only. They speak, we must listen.

Whenever you read social media content by our politicians you find that what they are transmitting is entirely divorced from the day to day concerns of voters. None of it speaks to my world, not least the witless prattle of Bristol mayor George Ferguson.  If it isn't "Fair Trade", recycling, green energy, cycle paths and street performances, it's something equally banal. There is no point of entry for a serious discussion about serious matters because they simply don't engage in serious matters. It is precisely this kind of banality that makes me want to take up arms and slaughter them all to the last man. There is nothing left in my moral inventory that says we shouldn't.

I would very much like to take someone to task this week having learned that two hovercraft could be given or loaned to voluntary rescue groups in Gloucester-because they have never been used in an emergency. They were bought by Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Service for a total of £110,000 in 2008, using money from Severn Trent Water’s community recovery fund. It followed the disastrous floods that hit the county the year earlier when an Italian hovercraft search and rescue team helped out with the relief effort. But the two craft, one of which is based in Dursley and the other in Newent, have been virtually redundant.

As a friend points out, "In fairness, if someone saw fit to firehose me with money and not hold me to account over how it was spent, I'd buy a fucking awesome hovercraft too." And therein lies the problem. I don't recall the public being consulted, and nobody will be to blame - and nobody will suffer consequences. For sure in government terms £110k is chump change but when viewed through the prism of council tax (and the grubby means of extortion they use to get it), that's one hundred households who were deprived of a big chunk of their income. I can protest, but that's all I can do.

Similarly, I have written at length on what is happening to our police forces as they become ever more remote and corporatised. Apart from those within the power structure I've not happened upon anyone who thinks it's a good idea, and for all the protests, it's going to happen anyway regardless of who we elect.  It was decided long ago and we did not get a say.

For sure I can join the Ukip fun for a bit of token resistance. Last week Councillor Philip Garrett hit out at cash being spent on Wednesday night's £2,700 celebration of the investiture of a new mayor.  He was voted into the Princes End seat in Tipton in last month’s elections. His decision followed fellow UKIP members on Dudley Council acting similarly. Fair play to him. It is rare to see politicians who have a healthy understanding of where this money comes from. But the system is designed to prevent such people making any real difference.  This testimony from a Bradford councillor really hits home at what an utterly futile position it it, having no power to speak of.
The truth of all this is that 80-90% of the spending and activity undertaken by your council (or councils if you live in the shires) is simply given - determined by regulation, set out in statute or otherwise required by central government. And three-quarters of what your council spends comes in the form of central government grant - with all the strings and restrictions that come with this. Ministers and bureaucrats down in London will always want to make sure that, wherever possible, the agenda of the national government is met by the local council. As a result we have had restrictions of borrowing, limits to tax-raising powers such as rate capping, the use of regulation or ring-fencing to direct spending and, if all else fails, simply removing any power for councillors to control or change what the council does. We even got an instruction this year to hold a 'named vote' on setting the council tax!

So when, as we did in Bradford yesterday, councillors get together and "set the budget" bear in mind that what you're seeing is a finely tuned political row about a few million quid out of a budget totally over a billion. The budget debate - "we've found £200,000 to invest in saving kittens", "the Tories are casting old people into the darkness by reducing the walking stick budget by £50,000" and "Labour are failing youngsters by removing the swing seat cleaning service" - this debate isn't really about the budget at all, it's about the tiny bit of the budget that our system of local government allows us to control.
This is why I can't get too excited about the Ukip "surge". If voting made a real difference, they wouldn't let us do it.  As much as that party has won respectable local gains, the game is so rigged that it will not change a thing. But supposing it did make a difference, unless the system is reformed, there is nothing to stop us arriving here again with bad and wasteful people at the helm.

I can only echo the words of MMC. "We don’t really need elected representatives. We are now better informed, educated and connected thanks to the internet. Direct local democracy is possible and indeed, becoming more common. People can contact their local representatives, take part in consultations and lobby as never before. But their participation is still very much for form’s sake and, because of that, only a minority take part. Worse, most politicians seem to either fear or ignore this participation." He continues...
"We’ve moved on in so many other areas. We choose our own direct, fragmented media, the news we read, the subjects we engage with, the style of reporting we want. Why shouldn’t we do the same with politics? Labour, LibDems, Conservatives – even UKIP – are becoming as irrelevant and archaic as just four channels of terrestrial television.

Democracy still consists of a pre-internet model where a few groups of people give pre-determined answers to a set of vague, general questions and ask people to elect them on that basis. Doesn’t it make more sense to ask the people the real, live questions directly and let them answer? If we don’t begin to do this and educate the electorate (that’s all of us) to do so, ‘four channel’ party politics will continue down its slope to irrelevance. "
I agree entirely. Our politicians idea of more democracy is more politicians. We now have elected police commissioners, an elected mayor in Bristol, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament but these are all outstations of the same oligarchy, where overpaid stuffed shirts can make decisions over the heads of the people without ever facing consequences for being wrong - and swan off into the sunset with a fat public pension. I don't want to be represented by any of these people. None of them can represent me nor do I consent to it. Anything short of direct democracy simply isn't democracy. We now have the technology whereby these questions can be asked and answered directly - and that voice needs to be binding. And that is why we need The Harrogate Agenda.

My tolerance for being robbed blind by the government machine is wearing thin. We have taxation but no representation, and we have no voice in how our money is spent. I am wholly sick of being told by a machine to pay up, and I am wholly sick of the persistent reply given to us taxpayers, which is invariably "Foxtrot Oscar". I know I am not alone.

We cannot go on like this, and unless we get the six demands of The Harrogate Agenda then there will be no choice but to disobey in every conceivable way. If the police work of the oligarchy and put the states interests first over those of crime victims, then the police are the enemy. So too are the politicians who squander our money and are rewarded for doing so. They are slowly tightening the noose, affording themselves ever more control to spend ever more of our wealth without consultation or consent.

We have to start saying no to their demands for tax, we have to stop obeying the rules and we have to stop asking for permission to live our lives. We have to prevent them from making laws and prevent them from enforcing them. They have no moral authority to govern.

Voting simply isn't going to get us what we want. We will have to force the issue. We can do this because there are more of us than there are of them. They know we are coming for them. Why else would the police be retreating from our neighborhoods and into mega fortresses out in the sticks? We could bring government to a standstill if we all went on tax strike. That would get their attention more than voting Ukip, which is in itself an empty gesture.

The coming general election to me represents the very last chance to avoid unrest. There is a chance of an EU referendum which is the fist stepping stone on the road to democracy, and if we don't get that referendum (and win it), then it spells the end of even the "representative democracy" as we know it. After which I will have voted for the last time and, like our local police force, I will be gearing for war. Think it could not happen? Ask a Ukrainian.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Police on the retreat

UK Police: Now an occupying force

A Bristol MP has said plans to close 27 police stations across the Avon and Somerset force area leaving no police presence in some areas is "a mistake". Something of an understatement. This marks a total retreat from neighbourhood policing - and not just in Bristol. This is happening everywhere. Across the nation, local police stations are closing and police are moving into mega-fortresses out in the sticks, changing their operations from neighbourhood policing to being an occupying force.

One of the more alarming examples is Bath. With Bath, a city in its own right with its own policing needs, losing its own police station and instead being serviced by Keynsham near Bristol, much of a police officers time will either be spent processing criminals or making the 30 minute journey between the two cities. Criminal lawyer Ed Boyce said the move could turn police into "expensive taxi drivers". That is exactly how I see it.

Bath Police Station is a main station in the very centre of Bath, near to a very busy railway station. Under the plans anyone arrested, instead of being held in Bath, will be taken to one of three new "police centres" at Bridgwater, Keynsham and Patchway (not within walking distance of any major population centre), which house "custody suites" - even though stations with perfectly adequate "custody suites" are to be closed.

Sue Mountstevens, Avon and Somerset Police and Crime Commissioner, said "the new police centres would enable officers to serve people better". Which people exactly? Certainly not the vulnerable people that police thugs lock up for speaking out of turn, and certainly not the taxpayer. As much as local police stations are necessary for obvious reasons, they are also places of storage for equipment not carried by patrol cars. Ms Mountstevens seems to think that having police fighting through rush hour traffic to central booking stations at excessive speeds (in pimped out BMW's), causing a noise nuisance, to retrieve equipment in an emergency, somehow better serves the public.

"People are not using some of the buildings we have got - the public are not visiting them," she said. In fairness in the age of internet and smartphones there are fewer reasons to go to a police station, and in an emergency, the telephone is the first point of contact, but even so, it is unlikely that police stations will be used to report crime when for some years they have been keeping irregular desk hours. Further to this, when reporting crime largely means a fat tattooed thug issues you with a crime number, why on earth would you bother? But supposing you were in central Bath and been mugged or raped and your phone stolen, are the citizens of Bath supposed to walk to Keynsham, or use one of the non-existent payphones?

But this is about more than just bean counting. This is about a retreat from our neighbourhoods. The excuse used is that police have faced cuts since 2008 but in reality, this has been the direction of travel for a very long time.  It has been happening so slowly that few have noticed. It is only now that local and central police stations are closing for good, being sold or demolished, coinciding with the opening of police fortresses like Patchway, that the retreat is visible.

Rather than policing being integral to the community, policing is now abstract to the community - and is set only to get worse.  The policing tactics now more resemble an occupying force, similar to that of the Iraq occupation. We will now have central heavily defended police barracks with flex-squads sallying out at night to do snatch operations - probably to arrest people who said the wrong things on Twitter.

Neighbourhood policing has died a death, with day to day offences and minor breaches now dealt with through use of fixed penalties and fines, rubber stamped by magistrates court computers, without any intervention by a human being, enforced by private bailiff companies (who have free license from the police to break the law), the public henceforth will be the cash cow by which to finance their para-military operations.

Ms Mounstevens would argue that this reconfiguration makes for a more efficient police force, but one would ask "more efficient at what"? It is an efficient way to manage livestock but it is not an efficient way of policing a community. And for all the "efficiencies", why are council tax bills going up? Now that the police are totally divorced from us and our communities, offering a figleaf of community policing over a Twitter account, it creates a separation that makes policing an "us and them" equation. This is totally at odds with the Peelian principle that the "police are the public and the public are the police".

Of course our police commissioners may pretend they have an influence in this, but this was decided long before Police and Crime Commissioners even existed. Being that the case, there is no way we can pretend that the appointment of a commissioner through a voting ritual (based on less than 10% of the electorate) is democratic - and certainly not for a region larger than a hundred countries in the UN - with a population several times larger than Iceland. They are overpaid press officers in place to pretend there is some kind of democratic accountability, and to manage expectations when complaints are made.

This all makes me wonder if this retreat coincides with the purchase of water cannon by the London Met. Now that the police are retreating into their mega-fortresses, it suggests the police are preparing a move into a defensive role - and that they are afraid of us.

Just this week I had a visit from a policeman who himself was a fat, ill-mannered, tattooed thug, just itching to start a fight, who had come to my house not to offer any help, but to reiterate that the police will not investigate an epidemic of fraud I have complained about (even when government guidelines have categorically specified that fraud by state enforcement agents should be reported to the police and treated as a criminal offence). Said police officer was clad in riot gear and bulletproof vest (as far as one can tell the difference).  Just now I have seen three obese plod in bulletproof vests crammed into a Ford Focus, and recently I saw a policeman at the local Tesco filling station carrying a sidearm. Does this suggest community policing to you? This is Filton, not Camp Bastion. 

The picture this all paints is that the police are being re-tasked not as servants of the public, but the defence force for the oligarchy that now rules us, with a slick PR operation designed to give the impression they are still public servants, who will serve the public if it serves their PR needs, but only if the victim fits the demographic of their latest targets.

In most cases now, certainly reflecting on my own experiences, the police profession has been slowly hollowed out to the point where any decent, moral and capable individual would never want to join the police. Consequently we are now at the stage where police lapel cameras are being rolled out to officers because the police simply cannot be trusted, and calling the police now has the potential to make a bad situation much worse and the public need the footage for protection from the police.

For most people, they who live largely apolitical lives, pay what they are told when they are told to pay it, and rarely encounter any serious crime, this gradual shift in the make-up of our society is barely noticeable. It is the result of a decade of salami slicing public services. It only becomes noticeable when you stick your head above the parapet and stop behaving like docile cattle.  It is then one realises that the police are not public servants. They are policy enforcers who, when not serving the oligarchy, are serving themselves. They are the enemy. Perhaps then it is better that the police are retreating into barracks. It makes them all the easier to contain when the people wake up and realise what is being done to them. We do not want this filth in our neighbourhoods.