Cruel Sports

April 15, 2012

İbrahim AratNot far from here, the European weightlifting championships are taking place. This is apparently very important to the Turks: the triumphs of their countrymen Sibel Şimşek and Fatih Baydar are matters of national pride, lauded in newspapers and on television. I watched some of the competition on Eurosport in my hotel room (much to my other half’s chagrin): the camera panned to the crowd whenever a Turkish competitor took to the stage. Flags waved, the crowd roared: I think I saw Mr. Baydar’s mother cheering and praising her son from the stands.

Weightlifting is like many other highly competitive sports: there is an element of cruelty in it. Earlier today, I saw other parts of the contest: a young woman from Slovakia took up her stance before the bar and as she began to strain, a vein started to bulge and throb on the right side of her head. It looked alarming, as if a blood vessel was about to burst. Fortunately the ordeal did not last long. Eurosport had the courtesy to show her coach’s reaction: he urged her on, and looked crestfallen when her arms sensibly decided to drop a weight that was far too heavy. This was by no means the most alarming spectacle: a Turkish woman, perhaps inspired by the crowd’s enthusiasm to take risks which were obviously too much for her, missed being struck by the bar by only a matter of millimetres. After her, German woman wobbled as she hoisted the weights, collapsed and nearly escaped injury. The competition looks simultaneously insane and impressive to an outsider: the athletes have striven for years to reach the peak of physical condition, and are risking a great deal the moment they leap onto the stage. A sensible person would step out of the way, the brave push it to a point, and the obsessed teeter on a precarious pivot, tempting disaster to strike. However, ultimately it is the choice of the athletes to do this; they pick the cruelties to which they subject themselves, whether it lay in physical pain or the zealotry of an aggressive coach. Those who earn gold medals here in Antalya are no doubt deserving of their prizes.

In contrast, the news about the Grand National race reached me via Twitter: two horses dead, and I’ve read rumours about three others being injured. Apparently it was the closest final for some years and thus was a thrilling spectacle. Certainly the jockeys deserve both credit and sympathy for the race they’ve had to run, but what about the horses?

It’s impossible to know the precise emotional state of a horse in such a situation: however, one can make some educated guesses. The horses are lined up in such a way that they are quite close to one another; the scenario is quite unnatural. There is a human on each horse’s back. The human brandishes a riding crop. The race begins, the crop flies and strikes the animal repatedly: it is possible that a sense of panic ensues as well as pain. The crush of horses together perhaps heightens the tension. The sound of galloping hooves is deafening, the mud flies, the push onward from the human becomes more insistent. The heart races, the lungs can’t take in enough air, the legs hurt and strain. Obstacles are in the way, leaps are made despite whatever risks may be. Sometimes the calculations are wrong, there is the hard landing, the cracking of bone, the rush of blood and agony, and eventually eternal sleep. Other times there is the breaking free of the pack, the finish line, the long slow trot back to the stable and quiet at last. The horse doesn’t know why it is subjected to such trauma: it never had a choice in the cruelty to which it submits. It can only be terrified, run, and survive. If it’s very lucky, one day its sole duty will be to sire other horses.

Why do we like this? Why do we tolerate it? What is wrong with human beings that we cannot accept the kind of personal risk we see in weightlifting as sufficient sport, rather we need to subject animals like horses and fox to our need for entertainment?

It is straightforward to ascribe some of the blame to the legacy of the class system: after all, indulging in sports such as pheasant shooting, fox hunting and horse racing tend to be the purview of the landed aristocracy. Certainly, betting on the horses has extended into other social castes, but nevertheless, the aforementioned sports and in particular events like the Grand National and Royal Ascot are primarily associated with the old upper class. Could it be that since the old aristocracy no longer feels itself the master of the land or its people, that their appetite for dominating something still needs to be whetted? Could it be that the class system has had the after effect of creating a “utilitarian” view of both people and human beings: that their worth lay in their utility to the user? Is it some ritual that is preserved merely for asserting privilege which no longer exists?

Turkish Fighting CocksThat said, it’s probably not fair to blame solely the aristocracy; certainly they are no help. However, yesterday afternoon in a Turkish market, I saw two cockerels locked in a wire cage. I presume that this was not for the purpose of serving them for dinner later. Dog racing is not a particularly posh activity, nor is badger baiting. It may be that there is a terribly ugly streak in human nature which suggests that we treat the gifts of the earth as our property rather than something that is on loan while we reside here.

To be fair, there are sports in which human and animal work together in partnership: I refer to polo. Thanks to Michael Palin’s documentary series about the Himalayas, it was possible to witness a relationship between horse and rider which suggested that something other than raw terror was going on. The purpose of the Himalayan polo match was to stretch both horse and rider, but neither was taken to breaking point. Respect was key: the rider cared about his horse’s emotions as well as his health; it is difficult to see how that could be the case in a scenario in which the metaphorical gas pedal is always pushed to the floor.

The arguments for preserving fox hunting were overcome, eventually. Its elimination from the British countryside is not just a matter of law, but also a change of heart: some did so enthusiastically, more are shifting with reluctance. No doubt there would be howls of protest if Ladies’ Day at Royal Ascot ended: hat designers will be up in arms, celebrities will be mortified, gossip columnists will write seething calumnies. But think of the horses, think of their terror, think of responsibility humans have, as the only animal capable of the stewardship (as well as the destruction) of the earth, to be wise and kindly caretakers of the land. Yes, the Racing Post may go out of business and Sir Clement Freud may spin a few turns in his grave: but better that than to preserve cruelty, even if it bears the name of sport.

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The Mosque in Göynük

April 14, 2012

My other half captured some of the scene in Göynük with her iPad; hopefully this brief video can convey some of what words fail to express.

The Mosque in Göynük

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A View from Antalya

April 14, 2012

Göynük MosqueThere’s nothing quite like the Muslim call to prayer. I heard it earlier this afternoon while walking through an open air market. The air was full of the sharp scent of citrus, the earthy smell of fresh vegetables, and the spiky odour of fish out on display. Mothers and grandmothers manned their stalls, haggling with patrons and keeping an eye on children who played at their feet. Chickens strutted and clucked in the background. The occasional stray cat poked his nose around corners. A small boy in a red sweater snuck his hand into a tray full of green almonds, snatched a prize and his diminutive naughty face broke into a smile as he devoured his treat. Then the voice of the muezzin rang out true and clear from the silver, white and lilac mosque: his voice didn’t waver, but wrapped around the Arabic words in a close, loving embrace. I don’t speak Arabic, but I did catch references to Allah; there was no mistaking the praise for Him from all His creation.

I am not a Muslim, but it was at that moment that I understood the faith most clearly: if the universe can seem a void, then the words, or rather the Word, effectively fills it with God’s presence and meaning. He may seem distant, but He is simultaneously close. The universe can seem random, but the Word reassures us there is a plan beyond our reckoning and we should grant all honour and glory to Him for it and granting us a place in it.

The call finished. The voice changed. What I presume was a sermon began in Turkish. This is apropos: I am presently in Turkey, and I was on an expedition to the town of Göynük, which is just a few kilometers away from the city of Antalya.

It had been my hope that I would take a trip to Turkey some day, but the genesis of this trip lay more in necessity than desire. Sometimes it’s essential to take a break and open up the gift of free time: Turkey is a wonderful place to do so. While the Mediterranean sun has been an inconsistent companion during this trip, the hospitality shown to myself and my other half has been outstanding. For example, after our trip to the market, we wanted to have a snack. We found a small restaurant which served lamb meatballs (Köfte), fresh Turkish bread, and a garden’s worth of salad. We were attended to by a young man who literally ran from table to table, taking orders and serving customers. Did we want more food? Ice cream? Turkish tea? We chose the tea and weren’t charged. I also believe this is the only occasion in which a waiter has shook my hand after he finished serving me. Nevertheless, the restaurant itself was half complete: as we sat and ate, welders were working on the roof: sparks flew onto the pavement below. I thought it was a miracle that nothing and no one caught fire. However, the workmen pressed on.

The Turks are working relentlessly to make their nation into a rich country. My trip to the market was in two parts: prior to the food section near the mosque, which was where the locals did their shopping, there was a street’s worth of stalls full of handicrafts and grey goods, e.g. Louis Vitton and Polo knockoffs, which were intended for tourists like us. We were pursued by the stall holders in multiple languages: every time we were offered a good price on something special, something brand name, something, anything they could sell. This entrepreneurial spirit is not the prerogative of the open market: yesterday, I along with my other half experienced a Turkish bath. The bath house appeared to be a new establishment: it was a gaudy building clad in white and obviously intended to resemble the Taj Mahal. We paid a basic price for a sauna, steam treatment, a wash and a massage, but just prior to going in, we were given an entirely new menu of options. For an additional €60, I could have had a longer massage which no doubt would have excellent health benefits. A polite refusal did not deter the salesmanship later in the process: after being roasted in the sauna, frozen in the bitter shock pool, steamed like a lobster (albeit with menthol vapours) and then washed by a man who possibly tenderised veal as an additional employment, I was massaged. During this, a worried looking colleague of my masseuse came in carrying in a clipboard and told me my body was tired (which given that I was obviously on holiday wasn’t much of a guess) and loaded with toxins. Was I sure I didn’t want the extra massage in order to get rid of them? No, no thank you. After the event was over, I overheard one of the managers say to another customer that at peak times they had between 600 and 700 patrons a day; assuming that a significant portion of that crowd is more susceptible to men with clipboards, they’re making a fortune.

Entrepreneurship displays itself in less “in your face” ways. En route from the Antalya airport, I noticed that there were several miles of very large car dealerships for nearly every conceivable make, ranging from Chevrolet to Mercedes. The size of the dealerships as well as the width of the road were American in scale: what caught my attention also was that dealers of the same make were so close to each other, no doubt locked in fierce competition.

Quee ElizabethIn the city of Antalya itself, it appeared that every last portion of commercial space was crammed with shops. Virtually any good or service that one wanted, whether it was an Efes pilsner or a Turkcell phone was on offer. And despite it being late afternoon, there was no indication that the commercial activity was tailing off for the day. It doesn’t matter if a few sparks fly or if too many hotels are being built in the vicinity of Göynük, of if the Queen Elizabeth hotel in Göynük centre has lost the “N” on its sign and the fountain pumps don’t work fully leaving the hotel resting in a stagnant pool – there is an energy and dynamism that shows that the nation is pushing ahead. I have no doubt that the N will be put back, the pumps repaired or the hotel will be simply demolished and replaced with another, which will be bigger and better.

I wonder if part of this raw ambition comes from the Turks’ stated desire to join the European Union. If we accept the idea that symptoms are messages arising from the subconscious, then two items will suffice in this instance: first, Turkish license plates are already in a European format. On the far left hand side, there is a blue strip with the country’s abbreviation in white letters. All that’s missing to make it in line with virtually every other EU license plate is the circle of yellow stars.

Turkish Lira and Euro coinsI can find another bit of evidence by opening my wallet. There are striking similarities between the 1 Turkish Lira coin and the 1 Euro coin. Furthermore, most merchants in this area will take Euros just as readily as they take Turkish money: one shopkeep told me how he and his colleagues wanted to serve “Europäisch” customers (As a student of the German language, I’ve found it interesting how German and English cross over each other here). However, lately, most of the tourists were Russian.

This leads to some troubling messages for those who still believe that Western Europe and America dominate the world; this is not the case insofar as the people of Antalya are concerned. I’ve seen a Turkish barman speak fluent Russian to a customer at my hotel. Many of the shop signs are in Russian as well as Turkish and German. If I go back to my hotel room, I’ll find more Russian than English channels on the television and one of the English channels is Russia Today. We are broke, and as a result, the entrepreneurial and progressive Turks will turn to those who do have money. We are broke, and fewer of us will be able to indulge in the distinctly middle class privilege of the all inclusive holiday to sunnier climes; the market signals are clear, the raw capitalism that predominates in Turkey causes a course correction. We are broke, and this perhaps will eventually feed through to the Turkish consciousness: their revered leader, Kemal Atatürk, whose likeness is to be seen throughout the country, pushed the nation on a modernising, European course. But what’s the point of being European if it means you burn up like Greece? Cast aside the English and the Germans and the French, Russia is open for business. If Turkey isn’t offered a European destiny, it may choose one which means that Europe will not get the benefit of its zest and dynamism. The French and Germans may be under the impression that Turkey needs the European Union more than the European Union needs them: a view from Antalya suggests quite the reverse.

No doubt I will uncover more wonders prior to my departure. On Sunday, I will take a trip to Antalya old town; on Tuesday, there will be a visit to the Roman ruins in the vicinity. I am hoping some touches of the ancient and Byzantine will make themselves evident on the latter trip; will I get a glimpse of the places where Hadrian, Diocletian, Heraclius once stood? It all seems possible, and then I’ll return to a comfortable hotel where a Pina Colada is one order away and the sounds of America’s heyday, Sixties rock and roll, will echo in the halls. This is Turkey, a broad, diverse, and fascinating place. No doubt, I’ll be back.

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A Mayor for Bradford? No, Thanks!

April 4, 2012

Boris and KenI don’t think anyone ever thought there was much love lost between Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone. The explosion of expletives that Johnson let fly at Livingstone in a lift yesterday merely confirmed matters. It’s unedifying to say the least: London is an ancient and venerable city, and yet it finds itself potentially in the thrall of either a right wing buffoon or a firebrand who is well past his prime. Some may challenge this description of Ken, however, let’s be honest: if he was still gripped by the same fervour as he was in his youth, would he be structuring his tax arrangements so carefully and evasively? Whatever happened to being the tribune of the people?

I look at these two, Eeney and Meeny, Miney and Moe, Larry and Curly, and think of the opening line of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” – “I celebrate myself and sing myself”. While they couldn’t be more different ideologically, they do share one unappealing trait: rampant egotism. They both wish to stand astride a colossus, to inflate self-regard with every press appearance and poster that is stamped with the mark “Mayor of London” with the “on” printed in a different colour. They celebrate themselves and sing themselves through public office; meanwhile, London is a mess. I am sure that the mayor’s office would love to throw out all sorts of statistics about crime and public transport, but step out of a dirty, teeming London Underground station and breathe the air. Look at the traffic. See the homeless selling the Big Issue. Try to ignore the thought that much festers in the great city, and Boris and Ken, Zipedee and Doo Dah, are not the likely purveyors of a cure.

Meanwhile, mayors have been tried out in other cities with similarly questionable results. In Hartlepool, they elected the mascot for Hartlepool United FC: literally, a man in a monkey suit. In keeping with this, he ran on a platform of free bananas for all. In Doncaster, a representative of the peculiar English Democrats became mayor. There are very good reasons to prefer the monkey. The mayor of Doncaster, Peter Davies, is notable for ending his city’s twinning arrangements with European towns. He also wanted to get rid of community cohesion officers: however Doncaster doesn’t have any. Among his more intriguing beliefs is his faith in the use of the birch as a tool of discipline in schools. To call his views antediluvian is to lend them a modernism they lack. Never mind, Davies presses on, enjoying the trappings of office as he celebrates himself and sings himself, at least until a referendum on May 3, in which the citizens of Doncaster may decide to abolish his post.

On the same day, Bradford will be voting on the exact same issue: the city has been offered the option of an elected mayor. David Cameron more or less threatened Bradford with isolation if the vote went against the proposal: he stated that only elected mayors would get a seat at the top table. To be fair, there are other advantages: councillors tend to get lost in a crowd, a single mayor is easy to identify. As a former New Yorker, I know that a good mayor can be a rallying point at a time of disaster, as Rudy Giuliani was on September 11th, and like Ed Koch, can be a great salesman and promoter of trade. But note the difference: the powerful, well-regarded mayor is primarily an American institution. In other words, this is an alien transplant, and its graft onto the British political system is yielding truly strange fruit. The British way of local governance may be more anonymous, but deliberation by committee seems much more democratic, as layers of elected representatives have to decide on issues of local import; the rise of mayors is indicative of a fad or fetish. We have seen this motif in business as well: there remains a widespread belief that a single high-profile individual can somehow dramatically improve the running of a large organisation in a short amount of time. With the collapse of Sir Fred Goodwin’s reputation along with that of many other CEOs, the “heroic” form of leadership should be discredited. But here we are.

There are particular pitfalls for Bradford. The Respect Party said last week it wants to capitalise fully on its success in the Bradford West by-election; it stands a greater chance of winning the mayoralty than the English Democrats did in Doncaster. Perhaps sensing this, Respect wants a “yes” vote in the referendum; this may be the only issue upon which they’ve found agreement with the Tories. A Respect mayor could end up being more focused on setting up Bradford as a “rebel citadel” than attending to the city’s needs. Given the genuine poverty and unemployment that exists here, Bradford needs to show that it’s open for business. A good mayor would perhaps try to work on making the city into a hub for high tech startups: Bradford has low rents and high availability of fast broadband. It is difficult to stimulate interest in these advantages if you’re telling entrepreneurs, and by no means are all of them in it for achievement of pure avarice, that their property is theft.

Of course the current council has many failings; furthermore, it’s often difficult to discern their agenda let alone gauge their successes. However, there is a safety mechanism: should a council leader step out of line, they’re responsible to their peers and can be swiftly removed. Meanwhile London languishes as it waits, and then it seems it can only replace Boris with Ken.

The drive for mayors does have the admirable goal of improving governance; however, it’s rare that big structural alterations in either government or business yield prudent changes. Prudence rather suggests that the citizenry should become more involved in their own governance by becoming acquainted with local issues, joining political parties, standing for election, and participating in the open meetings which are one of the many admirable features of British democracy. This is a sedate form of progress, almost boring, and thus unappealing to politicians addicted to the narcotic of quick wins. But a silver bullet is neither necessary nor desirable: it’s a remedy prescribed by quacks and charlatans. Vote no.

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A Plague of Hobgoblins

April 2, 2012

No Fuel SignWhat a difference a panic makes. Last Thursday, I decided I’d go shopping on my way home. As I approached the turn, I noticed that there was a queue of cars going the same way; they were coming in from every conceiveable direction. Reluctantly, I joined the stuttering, coughing procession and turned up Radio 3 to pass the time. After all, it was a bright afternoon and there were worse places to be than behind the wheel.

Slowly, gingerly, I proceeded towards the gates of the car park. I saw that there was a young man dressed in a flourescent vest. He leaned in and interrogated each driver in turn; I had a fair idea what it was about. I wasn’t surprised when I arrived at the front that he asked, “Are you here for fuel or to do shopping?”

“To do shopping,” I replied. I was directed to enter via an exit; I drove in, parked and cast a glance at the petrol station forecourt. There were cars of every type: Ford Transit vans, small Japanese compacts, a highly polished Mercedes, a couple of careworn Peugeot estate cars. The drivers pumping fuel were as diverse as their motors: middle aged mums, grey haired executives, an Asian man in a skull cap, a teenage girl in sunglasses. Surrounding the forecourt was a messy lump of cars, unable to form into an orderly queue. More supermarket staff in flourescent vests ran from car to car, trying their best to direct and guide.

“You idiot,” I said. My comment was directed at Francis Maude. His ill advised statement about stocking up on fuel had led to this. People can’t afford to not get to work: unemployment here is above the national average. Jobs are precious; my local surgery recognises this and has late opening hours to accomodate. A young woman who waited on me at Akbar’s Cafe on Saturday couldn’t do enough for my girlfriend and myself; I assumed it was because she felt lucky to have a job and was clutching the opportunity as tightly as possible. People must get to work: to do that they must have fuel, and the petrol station was overrun.

I shook my head as I walked into the store. Had David Cameron acted quickly and prudently, this situation was entirely unnecessary. He could have sacked Maude and said without equivocation that there was no reason to panic. After all, no fuel truckers’ strike had actually been declared. What was more, the Fire Brigade was incensed by Maude’s remark about storing fuel in jerry cans; this had the sickeningly sad result of a woman in York suffering 40% burns this past Friday.

I did my shopping and then headed for home. The queue was as long as ever: if anything, it was getting bigger. I shook my head again. Cameron, Maude, Osborne, et al, they are all educated people, surely at some point they must have learned about the power of words and how they convey meaning even if it isn’t explicitly stated. Saying there was potential for a fuel crisis brought the possibility forward in the minds of many people: they could foresee the feeble excuses they’d have to make, their pay being docked, the ever increasing bills not being paid. Oh no, oh no, must get fuel, have to work, cannot be immobile.

48 hours later, the panic had dissipated. I went for a shave at my usual barber and went to fuel up at the same supermarket. En route, I noticed that Murco still was charging 10 pence over the odds for a litre of fuel, whether diesel or unleaded. I found the supermarket forecourt now to be nearly deserted: I didn’t have to wait. I got out, took in the cool early afternoon air, and fuelled up. The price had spiked up by 1p a litre since last time; my eyes still water when I think of the costs involved. But nevertheless, I was done quickly, and I drove off, ready for all the driving the week ahead would require.

Later, I perused the internet and found that the Conservative Party was telling itself that the fuel crisis was its Thatcher moment, comparable to the war waged against the National Union of Mineworkers in the 1980’s. My instant, sarcastic reaction was that it was difficult to see this comparison being valid unless the police were set to deal with queuing motorists with truncheons. More seriously, the idea that one would seek or exploit such a crisis to some political end, indeed to “humiliate” the union, while at the same time risking lives and livelihoods was disgusting. I couldn’t help but think of the sage words of H.L. Mencken:

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

This government has decided to wreck the existing arrangements for the running of the National Health Service; in other words, they’re privatising it. The effect is already being felt: the Yorkshire Post weekend edition made clear that the local health authority is going to have to find £250 million in savings. It’s difficult to see how this will be achieved. I once went with my girlfriend to the Bradford Royal Infirmary: the waiting room was full to bursting with patients of all kinds, some writhing in pain. The average wait for these patients was 5 hours.

That scene is not the forefront of the government’s mind. One of its major priorities is cutting tax rates for the most well off. Furthermore, it has blessed Vodafone’s avoidance of paying its back taxes in full, yet simultaneously has decided to penalise the most poor and vulnerable by reducing their benefits.

Miliband and Balls Buying PastyCities like Bradford suffer from such despair that they are willing to turn to the likes of George Galloway, a human megaphone, in the hopes of being heard. Yet the media’s attention has mostly been transfixed by an entirely imaginary and avoidable fuel shortage. The Labour Party has abdicated from its responsbility as the opposition by focusing its attention on how Cornish pasties are going to be taxed more, provided they’re served above ambient temperature. The hobgoblins dance and weave and do pirouettes in front of the television cameras, while the giants of want, greed and neglect ravage the land. When a seismic event such as the Bradford West by-election happens, the leaders of both the Conservatives and Labour try to dismiss it as a one off: the current spin is that Galloway is a formidable campaigner whose ideas found a willing audience with both “young Muslims” and “Muslim women”. Of course, Bradford West is a diverse constituency and the Muslim vote alone can’t explain his 10,000 plus majority, but never mind. Look at the pasty tax, look to the fuel shortage: don’t look at genuine poverty and true grievance. Stick to existing arrangements and vote Labour if you’re in an industrial town or Conservative if in an affluent suburb: the present order must be preserved.

I would like to present the internet as a means by which the hobgoblins can be slain: however they just as frequently run amok. Yet, to borrow a phrase from the “X Files”, the truth is out there. The truth can be acccessed, cross referenced and verified. There is no fuel shortage. A pasty tax is irrelevant. Our National Health Service is worth saving. Bradford speaks for much of the nation. The Conservative Party represents a gilded elite and the Labour Party speaks increasingly for no one except themselves. And yes, we can do better.

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Why Galloway?

March 30, 2012

Galloway SpeaksGeorge Galloway shouldn’t be a Member of Parliament. Apart from his overblown theatrics, his comic turn as a cat on Big Brother, and his incessant desire for the limelight, he simply is not an effective representative for his constituents. As the non-partisan “They Work for You” website makes clear, when he was the MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, he had a well below average rate for speaking in debates and attending votes. His average turnaround of 2 to 3 weeks in response to a low amount of correspondence is troubling. This record suggests that the regular, routine duties of being an elected representative bore him. Perhaps it’s because there’s no glamour or headlines in it: worthy, sober and responsible – these are not adjectives which could apply to him. It may have been this lassitude which prevented him for standing for re-election in Bethnal Green.

Galloway definitely shouldn’t represent Bradford West. Bradford West has an 8.2% unemployment rate and youth unemployment has tripled in the past year. Furthermore, 32% of young people are in poverty. It is difficult to see how a man who has no roots in the community can be fully acquainted with such problems; Galloway’s most consistent place of residence is his holiday home in the Algarve. Furthermore, he apparently lacks the diligence to learn and the application to work in an disciplined manner to try to solve the grave issues facing his new constitutency.

What perhaps makes his election even more inexplicable is his party’s platform. The Respect coalition appears to be more focused on preventing war than solving Britain’s ongoing economic crisis. A simple glance at their website shows that the latest newsletter for the party has the headline, “The Drumbeats of War Are Getting Louder”. A graphic on the right hand side of the page highlights the “Palestinian Right of Return”. Galloway slams the recent budget in a blog post that appears below the fold, but Respect’s main focus has consistently been about the futility of military conflict. This is out of step with today’s concerns about cuts in public spending, questionable reforms to the NHS and out of touch with a populace that is ready to panic on the mere suggestion of a fuel shortage.

So what happened? Labour bears a large portion of blame: when I moved to Bradford last year, I made an effort to acquaint myself with the three MPs who represent the city. For Labour, there was (the now retired) Marsha Singh in Bradford West and Gerry Sutcliffe in Bradford South. For the Liberal Democrats, there is David Ward in Bradford East. Out of the three, David was the only one I’d ever heard of, largely because of his campaign against excessive motor insurance charges. Marsha Singh hadn’t even bothered to set up a website, which struck me as odd. Somehow, the Labour MPs for Bradford had a transparent quality to them, they blended into the background; yes, Gerry Sutcliffe is the shadow minister for immigration, an important post, but somehow he hasn’t turned this into a great platform for discussing the issues which matter most to his constituents. This is symptomatic of a deeper problem: Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, Harriet Harman, all seem to be of a type that doesn’t “speak Bradford”. They’re from the south of the country and appear alien to the people who live here.

I would add that Labour hasn’t done as much for Bradford as they could have. For example, I can see the effect of the Blair / Brown years on Leeds: there have been a lot of regeneration projects there such as the splendid Victoria Quarter . The effect on Bradford is more difficult to discern; the town centre features an odd mix of tired discount shops and palacial banks. Worse, the local Labour council is viewed as incompetent: the most prominent instance of their perceived incapability is the botched Westfield Bradford project which has still not been completed 8 years after it began, despite numerous false starts. There is now an empty space in the centre of the city which residents un-lovingly refer to as “the Hole”. Labour’s candidate for Bradford West, Imran Hussain, is the deputy leader of the council. Labour appears to have assumed that anyone donning a red rosette was a shoo-in.

The Conservatives should not escape some of the opprobrium. They were the main opposition to Labour in Bradford West; their vote collapsed by nearly 23% in this by-election. This was greater than Labour’s decline. David Cameron has much to answer for: he came to Bradford in support of his candidate, Jackie Whiteley, and proceeded to demonstrate he simply doesn’t understand Bradford’s problems. I was aghast when he said during his visit last week that the Tories had “done a lot” for the city; I don’t believe I was alone in being appalled. Given the statistics for unemployment, youth unemployment and poverty, this was an unbelievably complacent and arrogant statement. Furthermore, Mrs. Whiteley was a particularly tone-deaf choice: when she recently appeared on an item for BBC Look North, it was clear that she didn’t “speak Bradford” either. Hers sounded to me like a voice belonging to the shires, upper middle class, and drives a Range Rover. One wonders if the Tories were deliberately trying to fail and fail badly.

Given these circumstances, it is difficult to see what the people of Bradford West could have done: when the two main parties offer no good choice, the Liberal Democrat presence isn’t what it should be (and hindered by coalition), and you want to cry out to a distant establishment that isn’t listening, what do you do? Galloway may not be effective, disciplined or even rational, but he certainly is loud. He has already had an effect: the eyes of the country are focused on Bradford this morning. The best that may come out of it is that in the process of examining the why this has happened, the real reasons will be uncovered. Maybe the establishment will realise that any area that elects grandstanding, pompous and arrogant George Galloway is issuing an SOS, whether it’s in the slums of Glasgow, the impoverished terraces of East London, or in the faded neighbourhoods of Bradford West. Maybe, just maybe, in order to prevent someone so obnoxious and loathsome holding office again, they will do something about it.

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Springtime in Bradford

March 27, 2012

Blue Skies Over BradfordIt is generally far easier to criticise than to praise; however the reverse is true at the advent of Spring. Perhaps it’s due to sunlight coming in at a more direct angle, the dawn being brighter, the days being longer. Perhaps it’s because of the evenings during which cool, rather than cold, breezes sweep across the back porch and the bedroom windows are kept open: this means when the morning hour comes, birdsong wafts in. The cherry tree in which the birds’ nest resides has adorned itself in white and pink blossoms.

Here in Bradford, Spring is especially welcome. Winter in West Yorkshire is a sullen, leaden affair: it’s punctuated by grey skies and long nights illuminated solely by orange sodium lamps, chill that cuts to the bone, mornings which are dark and the only sound that echoes is the scraping of frost off of car windows and the frequent patter of rainfall. Spring is resurrection: yes, there are setbacks, mornings when the scratching of ice off of glass is still heard, but then there are blue skies and warmth. Last Sunday, I drove past Bradford Moor Park: families were out playing. Fathers pushed their children on swings, people from a broad spectrum of origins and socio-economic groups lay in close proximity on the vast expanse of green, soaking up the sun’s rays. I drove on and noticed the explosion of daffodils in and around the city. Winter kept us in a deep and sombre sleep, but now the earth itself seems to be telling Bradford and its denizens, “Wake up, wake up.”

This past weekend also marked another fresh start: the new City Park opened on Saturday. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend the event myself as I was with family. But nevertheless, I was in its orbit: I was at the Leisure Exchange with my significant other, her sister and her partner and their two kids. It was the birthday of one of the children. We ate at Frankie and Benny’s and went bowling. My performance was pathetic, the result of years of being out of practice: nevertheless, a good time was had by all. As we emerged into evening air, there was the sound of fireworks. Bradford was awake; it was as if no one wanted Saturday to end. Teenage couples were holding hands as they walked through the narrow avenues of the Exchange to the Cineworld: dads let toddlers sit on their shoulders. Shirt sleeves were shorter than they had been. Clothing colours were brighter: browns and greys traded for azure, yellow and lilac.

I look around me as I leave for work in the morning: despite the clock change to British Summer Time over the weekend, my eyes are not quite dimmed by the resulting fatigue. The plants that my other half planted are in bloom: crocuses, clematis, azaleas. I found out yesterday that my partner left a hydrangea in the downstairs shower prior to heading off to St. Helens for an overnight trip; apparently this was to give the plant more moisture. Normally, I would have thought it being indoors in such a place wouldn’t be good for it: however, perhaps the air itself is vivifying. Its pink blossoms were in full bloom, the leaves almost bursting with green vitality. I will put it out on the back porch tonight, so it can greet the dawn tomorrow.

Spring enhances detail. I notice little things: the landscape itself seems to have softened; green fields have turned a brighter hue. In my mind I can almost hear the opening bars of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (No. 6). Any sudden downpour seems to be only there as a prelude to rainbows. I confess that since arriving in Yorkshire, I’ve seen more of these brilliant spectacles of colour than I’d seen in many years.

Amelia the CatSo the earth renews, invites, becomes more gentle, and beckons us out of doors. My cats Amelia and Sarah Jane are not immune: last night, I let Amelia out the back door. She paused before leaping out; she sniffed the air as if she was appreciating it, and then bounded over the garden fence with a running leap. She came back later, yawning, and then curled up in the spare bedroom: sleep is easier for both cats and humans, perhaps, because one is merely drifting off to dreams rather than fighting against the chill. No doubt her dreams were punctuated by chasing more birds and sitting quietly, as is her wont, amidst verdant plant life.

The earth challenges us to be as fresh as it is. Over the weekend, my partner urged me to get a hair cut and we went to the establishment owned by Mr. Imran Khan on Killinghall Road. I sat waiting for his colleague’s attention as he finished up trimming the resplendent beard of another customer. In an adjacent chair was a young boy getting his Spring trim. His father was standing closely by, watching the proceedings: he had his arms crossed but a smile on his face, and he urged his son ever to be brave amidst some light teasing. I looked out the window: the shadows were in retreat, the sunlight glanced off of passing cars. The bearded gentleman was finished first: he threw off the barber’s smock and revealed grey shorts, a blue t-shirt saying “Italia” and a pair of sandals; I took his place. I was trimmed and lathered and shaved as if the gentleman doing the work was a sculptor trying to massage more attractiveness out of my lumpen features. He did all he could do. I felt better for it afterwards, as if I had shed an old skin.

Not far from the barbers is Habib’s restaurant, and as I drove past it on Sunday, I noticed their doors were open and the windows folded back to invite the season in. What looked like a wedding party was there: out of the corner of my eye, I saw women dressed in fine silks, smiling and chatting to each other. My other half told me that there was a bride carrying flowers. Perhaps it was an arranged marriage and love was just as fresh and new the day itself. Perhaps it was a long standing relationship which had achieved the ultimate milestone and a point of renewal.

My imagination wandered: I considered paths strewn with white rose petals as a bride and groom stepped out into the sunlight. I thought of the gigantic fountain in the new City Park and it shooting jets of water into the air. I thought again about the families enjoying the sun at Moor Park: the people cycling, the children playing. I came to the conclusion that Spring is a romance. It is like a cheerful visitor who lands on the doorstep bearing a bouquet as a surprise. It is a poem written in nature. It is a song without written notes but full of tuneful melody. I have seen many before, but as I delve deep into memory, I cannot recall one that I have been happier to see, nor felt was more rewarding. Springtime has come to Bradford. No doubt its attractions will fade and desiccate in the heat of summer, but for now, it is there to be loved.

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A Modest Proposal

March 25, 2012

Corrupt CashI remember 1997. I know what it was like to live under the last Conservative government. I recall when “Tory” and “sleaze” were synonymous. I recollect with disgust the antics of Neil and Christine Hamilton, Graham Riddick and David Tredinnick and “Cash for Questions”. I also remember Jonathan Aitken and Jeffrey Archer perjuring themselves and going to prison.

I remember 1997. I remember the arrival of the New Labour government. I recall Tony Blair’s promises of a fresh start: “Things Can Only Get Better” playing in the background and Blair asking, “A new dawn has broken, has it not?” Then there was Bernie Ecclestone and the Formula One exemption from the ban on tobacco advertising. There was “Cash for Honours”, and questions from the police. There were loans to Peter Mandelson on terms that were all too favourable to be considered kosher.

Corruption is nothing new. Read history: a Whitehall fixer named Maundy Gregory sold peerages on behalf of Lloyd George from 1918 onwards. There has been a bad odour lingering over politicians for some time, a result of the rot of immorality; it’s also a stench arising from a decayed and decrepit establishment. Cameron supposedly had learned from all this, and suggested that his Conservative Party was no longer the “nasty” party. And here we are: Peter Cruddas, £250,000 gets you “into the Premier League” and apparently policy can be directly influenced.

Perhaps what’s worse than the corruption itself is what it signifies: there is a class of politicians who live a life quite detached from that of their constituents. Does David Cameron know what it’s like to go shopping at Aldi? Has he ever wondered if Rossini beer is a good accompaniment to a takeaway curry? Has Ed Miliband tried to secure a rental flat in Barnsley while living on the minimum wage? Does he look at Gumtree to find furniture? Does George Osborne know what it’s like to claim benefits…in Hull? These “Right Honourable” gentlemen live a life that is smoothed by a certain knowledge: it’s highly unlikely that anything truly bad will ever happen to them. William Hague won’t get too deep in hock to Wonga.com, Harriet Harman won’t struggle to pay her electricity bill, Michael Gove will regard the rise in fuel prices as a mere blip on his radar. If they’re deprived of office, it doesn’t matter: directorships, lucrative positions with think tanks and lecturing tours await. Theirs is an existence which will feature custom-made suits and polished black limousines with cream leather interiors to the end of their days. If they make mistakes, well, that’s too bad: but infamy isn’t something they feel on their skin. Hubris is a way of life and we’re definitely not all in this together.

Modesty is a possible antidote. There are few instances of this in modern politics, but one in particular stands out: Dave Nellist, a former Labour MP and now Socialist councillor in Coventry, refused to take a wage that exceeded that of the average skilled worker in his constituency. No doubt, given the peripatetic nature of being a Member of Parliament, this proved to be costly at times. Nevertheless, he retained a basic link to those he represented: he had to make ends meet with a salary that didn’t make the task easy. It was information that helped him draw conclusions about what policies he should favour. While I disagree with many of Mr. Nellist’s proposals, at least he set a good example. We need a political class that follows suit: I suggest that every MP and minister should be paid the average salary of a skilled worker in the poorest city in Britain.

Location is also important. My father once said to me that he thought the President of the United States should be forced to leave Washington and settle in Minot, North Dakota.

“Why?” I asked.

“There’s nothing there,” he replied. He had been there once, apparently.

My father then identified an additional benefit: at least the President would live among real constituents rather than a coddled and champagne swilling Washington elite. A North Dakota based Presidency would also be less insulated from rural poverty, the effect of food prices on people’s livelihood, and the implications of directives from on high. This stands in stark contrast to the present scenario: there is one world “inside the Beltway” as Washington insiders would say, and a very different one outside it.

Similarly, the Westminster elite presently have access to the glittering attractions of the capital, from West End shows to high class restaurants. It is possible to lead a life there that entirely bypasses squalor; it proceeds down a golden corridor stretching from Whitehall through Belgravia to brick terraces of Chelsea. They can turn a blind eye very easily, as there is nothing to see.

I suggest my father’s proposal be adapted for British circumstances, namely, the Prime Minister of the day and Members of Parliament should live in the poorest city in the country. Their housing should reflect the relative affluence or lack thereof of their location. Their assets and income should be placed in a blind trust, which will only be returned upon completion of service.

I imagine that the enforced modesty of income and circumstances would raise a howl of agony from many Members of Parliament. No doubt they feel that their present rewards are a just return on their commitment to public service. However, public service should resemble Holy Orders in one respect: it should be a vocation, something one does for one’s community in exchange for the privilege of living in a free country. Furthermore, the imposition of stringent conditions of service might mean that there would be more turnover: without money and all the accoutrements of office, politics is less of a career option. Finally, and most important of all, it restores the link between the government and the governed. Samantha Cameron might have to pick up something for the weekend at a Middlesborough Lidl. The members of Parliament might have to contend with the decay of decrepit town halls. Perhaps proceeding to and from legislative sessions they’d finally see homelessness, unemployment, alcoholism, drug addiction, despair and actually do something about it. After all, it’s one thing to endorse policies from afar that drop an economic bomb on a community that’s far away: it’s quite another to do it to people with whom you interact on a daily basis. Furthermore, the addition of the accessories of politics, i.e., journalists, broadcasters, television production companies, would provide an economic stimulus to communities which need it most.

I know that these proposals will never reach fruition, though it’s amusing to imagine the likes of Zac Goldsmith trying to pick out a flat in St. Helens: the best option on the table at the moment is the Liberal Democrat proposal for campaign finance reform. Changing how parties are funded is both beneficial and worthwhile: but even if a comprehensive programme of reform were enacted, it would not be the end of the story. The gap will remain, and given the history of Conservative scandal, there is every chance it will widen in the coming years. This is supposed to be a democracy, namely, we are supposed to govern ourselves: but the government is not us. Until we have a proposal for modesty, the fundamental inequity of this situation will remain as entrenched as ever.

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Requiem

March 23, 2012

Requiem CandleFrom time to time, I look over my shoulder. Along with years, experience and memories, I have accrued mistakes and sometimes those errors have been associating with people I shouldn’t have. As a result, I find that it’s best to check if someone is sneaking up behind me, just in case they’re ready to deliver a nasty surprise.

Nearly 8 years ago, I got to know a young woman from Australia. We met on a politics forum: I thought she was sharp, witty, and funny, if a bit rough around the edges. For some reason she liked me too and we proceeded to become better acquainted. We even wrote a humorous piece together which compared John Kerry’s salute at the 2004 Democratic National Convention to the one used by Arnold Rimmer from “Red Dwarf”. However, it didn’t take long for the lustre of fresh companionship to fade: after a trip to the dentist for a root canal, she was less than coherent. Her conversation was full of trailing off sentences, as if her thoughts were ascending into the ether before she could get them out. I assumed it was due to a bad reaction to the novacaine.

“No,” she replied, “I took something for the pain.”

“Good grief,” I said, “what did you take?”

“Heroin.”

Worse was to follow: I had previously encountered people with bipolar disorder, but in her case the condition was particularly pronounced. She had manic highs that required a metaphorical spatula to scrape her off the ceiling: the future was full of endless technicolour possibilities and the achievement of pristine dreams. Yes, she was certain, it was all going to happen, and she’d carry with her a glow of success as radiant as a garden path bathed in Antipodean sunshine.

Her contrasting lows were spent in the blackest pits of despair. There was no hope, she was getting older, she was losing her hair and teeth and gaining weight, she saw ugliness whenever she looked into the mirror, she was hopelessly unemployed, and life had no meaning. I can only assume that her dependence on illegal narcotics made her condition more acute. Furthermore, anyone who was within her gravitational pull: family, friends, even mere acquaintances were sucked into the vortex with her. It got so wrenching that I finally broke off relations; her reaction was extreme. She knew where I worked and repeatedly phoned my office: it was humiliating, but I was eventually forced to explain the situation to the telephone operator, who kindly assisted me. It didn’t let up: she kept on phoning my home phone to the point where I had to unplug it from the wall. She left messages every single time she called: some were pleading, often she issued threats, occasionally she was lost in a narcotic haze. I could not go online: I pulled up every virtual drawbridge in the hopes that if I didn’t put any energy into the situation, somehow it would burn itself out. But she persisted: I tried contacting her family, which wasn’t helpful. I eventually called the police in her municipality. They were less than thrilled, but sounded unsurprised. I can only assume that I wasn’t the first who’d had this problem; they said they would speak to her but it didn’t stop. I remember lying in bed awake waiting for dawn to come. In the darkness, I could see the outline of my phone sitting on the night table: the cord had been yanked out of the wall, it was silent. Nevertheless, I wondered how safe I was. Was she so angry that she would try to hurt me? Would she have the resources to get on a plane? Could she find where I lived? Would this ever end? I eventually resolved matters by changing jobs and moving home: I recall being in my new apartment, with its laminate floors and serene cream coloured walls and reflecting on the silence. I subsequently tried to purge myself of the experience by composing a horror story which contained elements of this episode: it didn’t achieve its desired intent, though it added to my writing portfolio. It took a long while before I re-emerged onto the internet and I stopped being jumpy whenever I heard the phone ring. Up until fairly recently, I regarded the telephone as somewhat menacing. I still harbour an irrational dislike of it.

Years after this incident, I occasionally looked over my shoulder, mostly by utilising Google. When any particular bit of good fortune descended, I’d do a quick check just to make sure that my happiness was secure. Now is a golden spring of sweet content. I have landed at the end of my rainbow in Yorkshire: I have a warm home, I have found someone with whom I could share my life, employment that suits me and even two wonderful cats. Yet the instinct to preserve means I cannot be entirely free from fear, so I cast a glance backwards. I had read at one point that she had gotten married, which I thought was good, as wedded bliss would surely be the best form of distraction. However, I just found out she died, in the words of the obituary, “suddenly at home”. I assume that narcotics were either directly or indirectly responsible.

I don’t feel relieved. There is little to be said for such a sad, short life, except that I hope she’s at peace wherever she is. She had suffered a plague of torments in life, though many of her tortures were self-inflicted. I feel most for her parents, who must have suffered terribly at seeing their child destroy herself. My mind’s eye averts its gaze from the moment when they discovered she was gone. I look over my shoulder and see the shadow of memory: a passing thought occurs to me, was there more that I could have done? Was there more that anyone could have done?

My recent embrace of Anglicanism provides some solace: scripture suggests that God knows and forgives all, and perhaps released from the shackles of this careworn world, she has found a place in His plan. Yet faith also inspires some guilt: perhaps if I’d been more tolerant, had “not me, but Christ in me” (in the words of St. Paul) been magnified, she might have been steadied by the knowledge at least one person wouldn’t recoil from her. This sense is also enhanced by my time as a union activist and my interest in politics: I’ve long tried to believe that nothing is hopeless.

But this is a gross overestimation of what one person can do: the main lesson I’ve carried from this episode is that some people are beyond redemption. Yes, we can improve society, we can make it fairer, more just and make righteousness our chief virtue. We can alleviate poverty, feed the hungry, roll back the damage that has been done by avarice. We can legalise drugs and make it the public health problem that it so definitely is. We can pour more money into mental health services and pull many out of the midnight of despair. But we won’t save everyone: no matter how much we care or how pure our idealism or how much money we give or how hard we push, the demons that lurk in human souls will always be powerful enough to drag off some into the darkness. Oblivion, for some, will always be preferable to existence. The requiem will sound even in a happy land.

As politicians argue about who is going to be President or what constitutes a Granny Tax or how many bailouts to fund, they may be convinced of their omnipotence. It would be refreshing to hear about their limitations: not the constraints of the public purse, but rather the frontiers of their intelligence and influence. I doubt any well-meaning public policy would have saved the lady in question. I doubt anyone could have. All that is left for the living to do is reflect on how precious life truly is, and for a time, mourn.

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The Irresponsible State

March 21, 2012

David Cameron In An Awkward MomentOn Monday, David Cameron made a rather rambling and long winded speech; my other half and I watched snippets of it on the BBC News at Ten. I sighed; she said, “I’ve been to so many of these,” with a touch of weariness in her voice. While I don’t have her experience of working for the government, I also felt fatigue upon seeing Cameron’s media-friendly visage and his jowls quivering as he spewed polished, meaningless syllables: I noticed that he lacks the worry lines and worldly wise glances that mark out a life full of experience and wisdom. Yet this is our Prime Minister: worse, his opposite number is cursed with the same lack of gravitas. We’re stuck.

Content is more important than form. Cameron daubed his rhetoric with purple passages such as the one which stated his desire to leave a legacy of “Victorian” proportions: sarcastic commentators instantly suggested this would involve the reinstitution of workhouses and the repeal of child labour laws. That said, his plan for greater private sector involvement in building and running roads was the item which was taken most seriously. Utilising the threadbare excuse of public penury, he suggested that private firms could charge tolls in some instances and be paid out of taxes in others in exchange for modernising and expanding the transport network. His assertion that the plans were “not about tolling” probably resonated with most people as it did with me: it most certainly is about tolling. The BBC suggested that his proposals were easier said than done: after all, a petition against toll roads had been one of the most successful ever deployed on Number 10’s website.

Nevertheless, if one will pardon the pun, the roads strategy suggests a direction of travel. This impression was further enhanced when the controversial National Health Service reform bill finally passed through the House of Lords on Monday night. The frontiers of the state are being aggressively rolled back, the private sector’s involvement in delivering public services is being just as determinedly ramped up. The dreams of the most radical Thatcherites in the 1980’s have been far exceeded. Perhaps best of all from the Conservatives’ point of view, a shrunken state is also closer to being irreproachable.

Put simply, a state that is responsible for nothing cannot be blamed for anything. For example, when water was in public ownership, should something go wrong with the pipes or sewage, it was the government that was condemned. Similarly, the government was held accountable if the trains didn’t run on time. In both instances, the British public would write to their MP or lobby the relevant ministry to get matters sorted out; there was a clear line of responsibility. By privatising both water and the railways, the government put itself at a remove. Now if something goes wrong, it’s the government’s prerogative to cajole, pressure, regulate and push rather than actually fix. If the companies don’t amend their policies or remedy problems, well, the headlines will disappear after a day or two, and then life will carry on as normal. The government, in its own mind, has fulfilled its obligations by issuing a protest. The companies have shown obedience to the bottom line by ignoring these objections as much as possible. All is well, except for those actually using the services.

No doubt Conservatives would argue in response that the private sector operates more efficiently than the state. It is certainly true that the effect of applying business disciplines is easier to quantify than results accruing from the desire for public service. And indeed, some private industries are fine: it’s great that the Heinz company makes soup, for example. If the state got involved, there would likely still be ongoing parliamentary enquiries about the proper amount of salt to put into the UK’s cans of Cream of Tomato. Actually, there are, but at least the soup was produced prior to the enquiry.

That said, we need to ask why the private sector appears to achieve its aims in a more frugal way: is it that the motivation to maximise profits spurs innovation and efficiency, or is it because a fearful and emasculated workforce is cheaper and easier to motivate? The situation is complicated by the business culture which currently prevails in Britain: more managers appear to be focused on cost cutting than strategic investment. It is, of course, self defeating, because it means Britain is less competitive in comparison to other European nations. For example, Germany has a tradition of investing in apprenticeships and education, as well as a focus on quality: were the privatisation of public services to be done there, one could be reasonably confident that the business culture would focus attention on building long term, positive relationships with customers rather than maximising quarterly earnings. This disparity in perspective means that Germany’s economy is much more sustainable. Germany thus thrives (and would likely do so even without the benefit of the Euro) while Britain languishes.

No doubt an ardent Conservative would retort that privatisation provides better leverage of intellectual capital. According to right wing economists, it utilises the collective hive-mind of the market. However, contrary to what doctrinaire capitalists believe, the market is not solely a composite of rational intellect, it is also magnifier of the prejudices, passions and quirks of individual human beings. Take pet rocks for example: in December 1975, an advertising executive named Gary Dahl sold 1.5 million stones in cardboard boxes, marketing them as the ultimate pet (it would never need to be fed, vaccinated, given water, nor would it die). The fad wore off, and sales dropped off after the Christmas season. As this indicates, while some level of basic rationality exists and is possible, the market is not always the best means of making logical decisions. This was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt by the credit crunch: bankers, people who took out mortgages and investors all believed that they could spend beyond their means and somehow there would be no consequences. This simply wasn’t true; nevertheless, market necessity meant logic couldn’t reassert itself until it was too late.

The arguments and objections to the extended use of the free market are relatively easy to understand, yet the Conservatives persist in their desire to privatise without hesitatation. Perhaps this urge is driven by a lack of imagination as well as an absence of introspection: it does seem as if the Conservative Party is stuck in a catastrophic ideological feedback loop, whereby privatisation is seen as an answer to all economic and social problems. Maybe we can accuse the government of merely being stupid: one is tempted to believe that the Tories privatised their thinking and it’s now being done by the lowest bidder. And certainly, privatisation delivers some members of the cabinet from the burden of thought. The problem is that while the functions of the state may transfer into the commercial sector, its responsibilities and duties remain, regardless of what the Conservatives may believe or even what the public may perceive. No dreamy talk of a “Big Society” can fill this gap.

Put another way, after the Thatcher years, it would have been apropos to talk about a hollow state, a government stripped of many of its functions: as Harold Macmillan remarked in a salty speech about privatisation, “First the Georgian silver goes…” The current and ongoing abrogation of responsibilities indicates it is a vacant and irresponsible state. Instead, what we require is a balanced state. A balanced state ensures that there is a role for itself and for the market, it does not elevate one or the other to the level of fetish. It looks at matters soberly, admits market failure as well as bureaucratic bungling and proceeds carefully before deciding what is the right means to achieve societal ends. However, a genuinely balanced state is a responsible and serious entity: it doesn’t easily lend itself to media-friendly slogans or the dreaded “eye-catching initiatives” of the Blair years. It operates best in an environment that doesn’t suffer from cognitive dissonance: however, this is unlikely to occur when discordant and disjointed thought appears to be the latest Westminster fashion.

A Vigil for the NHSAccording to my Twitter feed, there was a vigil on Monday for the NHS in a number of cities throughout the country. In my mind’s eye, I can picture it: people of all ages and from all walks of life, quietly gathering, holding up signs, talking, and lighting candles as dusk approached. The occasional passing motorist or lorry driver probably honked in approval. When the sunlight finally faded away, and the candles burned out and the protestors went home, we were still left with the fact that a Conservative fetish, however well moderated by Liberal Democrat manoeuvres, had prevailed. A terrible shame: the NHS was a product of a balanced state. Upon seeing that market mechanisms were not delivering sufficient health care, the post-war Labour government stepped in and subsequently improved the lives of millions. In this age of the irresponsible state, it is difficult to envisage a situation in which a future government would be quite that courageous. Genuine courage means one is willing to risk failure: the smooth, polished, media-friendly generation of politicians which reign over us now are unlikely to ever want to do this, not when they have the option of divesting themselves of responsibility. Rather like with the credit crunch, we may only realise their improvidence long after the hour of reckoning has struck.

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Picture of meI'm a Doctor of Creative Writing, a fiancée, a son, a brother, an uncle, a published novelist, a technologist, a student, and still an amateur in much else.

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