Tag Archives: politics

Today’s political madness

Between the time of starting to write this (1:38pm on Monday the 11th of July) and publishing it, I should imagine that an awful lot has happened in British politics. Andrea Leadsom just pulled out of the Conservative leadership, leaving Theresa May as the de facto prime minister. Meanwhile, Angela Eagle has launched a leadership bid against Jeremy Corybn, just a few days after he lost a vote of no confidence by the parliamentary Labour party (PLP).

I’m a some-time Labour voter, but not a member of the party. The recent fiasco puts me off even more. But if they are to have a chance of winning sufficient seats in Parliament to form a government and implement some sensible left-wing policies, then they need to have a decent strategy to win, and that seems to be lacking at the moment.

I like Jeremy Corbyn. He’s a centre-left moderate and I agree with many of his views. What I don’t like is the short-sighted vehemency of some of his supporters, who mistake a fervency of support for widespread support. Having thousands of people turn up to a pro-Corbyn rally is very different from convincing Conservative voters in marginal constituencies in England or SNP voters in Scotland. In particular (and this was highlighted last week, with the eventual publication of the Chilcot report) there is the toxic legacy of Tony Blair. The last Labour leader to win a general election propagated a war that left hundreds of thousands of people dead.

The idea then is that no Labour leader who voted for the Iraq war could ever become prime minister. Though Blair still won in 2005, after the war started. David Cameron voted for the Iraq war, as did Gordon Brown and Theresa May. So the idea that someone who voted for the Iraq war (as horrendous as it was) cannot win an election, is simply untrue.

But Blair’s toxicity is double-edged. The term “Blairite” has spread far wider than those MPs who supported Blair over Brown in the 2nd half of the last decade. It has become a pejorative term for anyone on the left who someone else on the left doesn’t like, though in particular of anyone who might subject Jeremy Corbyn to any level of scrutiny or criticism. I’ve lost the link [update: I found it], but I read a piece yesterday that referred to the author JK Rowling as a Blairite. The other side of this is now generally “Corbynista”. In my view, these very terms, used as insults, are part of the root of the problem. It is a case of “Othering” – whereby, in the desperate desire for simplicity in a complicated world, the whole view of a group of diverse people is summed up in a single word that is used to demonise.

As things are at the moment (now 2:07pm), the Tories have an open goal. The British political left’s idea of unity is “[well, if we’re disunited now, then you must agree with me in order to be unified]” – with no one willing to compromise, jostling to be an opposition of protest, rather than a government in waiting. When Gordon Brown became leader of the Labour party, he was wrong not to call a general election. My opinion is that was fear of losing that stayed his hand. There ought to be no such fear on Theresa May’s part if she were to do the honourable thing by calling an election, though it has been made more difficult since the coalition government introduced the ill-thought-out fixed-term parliaments act. Difficult, but not impossible, though.

I just pray that this whole ruddy mess gets sorted out, but that in doing so, we don’t see a further rise of the far right. Good government needs a strong opposition. The ideal situation would be for a left-wing government with a strong Conservative opposition holding them to account, but we seem to be a long way from that. For now, we need a Labour party that is willing to cooperate with itself, as well as with, inter alia, the SNP, the Lib Dems and the Greens to hold to account and oppose whatever shape of Conservative government will emerge from the rubble.

Thoughts on the EU referendum

With the date for the referendum announced and campaigning underway, I wanted to try to enunciate my thoughts on the subject. I’ve written before on my desire to have a referendum. 3 years ago I said that I “would likely vote to remain in Europe”.

Likely, but not certainly. I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument from either side. So I wanted here to think aloud, as it were, and hopefully either prompt you in some questions you may not have thought of, though I’d rather like to start a reasonable discussion.

By ‘reasonable’ I have in mind cutting out a lot of unnecessary bickering, demonisation of the other and acknowledgement that there may be good reasons on both sides. I’m fine for someone to have made up their mind, but not for them to become belligerent in putting forward their case at the denigration of the opposite view.

The idea of “project fear” has been touted quite a lot. There’s a problem with it, though. It is right for the Remain campaign to point out the risks that are associated with leaving the EU and to ask questions about how those risks would be mitigated. Some of that has been worded a bit too strongly, possibly with the intention of trying to scare people into sticking with the status quo, but it is wrong for every legitimate concern raised and question to be dismissed as part of this “project fear”. Thus far, the Leave campaign has used this as a means of not answering questions which I, and others like me, want to hear the answers to.

An interesting thought I had regarding the referendum centred on the Scottish National Party (and, by inference, other nationalists around the UK). On the Andrew Marr Show, Nicola Sturgeon said that she would be on the side of the Remain campaign but that were the UK to vote Leave, then that would likely trigger a 2nd Scottish independence referendum (you remember, the “once in a lifetime” referendum that we had about 18 months ago).

So it would make a kind of sense if the SNP were to not be too persuasive in their case for remaining in the EU. i.e. be seen to be supporting the Remain case, but don’t actually try to win (rather like Manchester City’s team selection in the FA Cup). That way they get a second bite at the independence cherry, even though it would then be their intention to apply for membership to the EU.

I say “a kind of sense” because I must admit I don’t understand the view of some nationalists who want to be independent of the UK but not independent of the EU. If anyone can explain that one to me, I’d be most grateful.

Finally, I wanted to look at the theological perspective. Which of Leave or Remain better fits the maxim: Love your neighbour as yourself.

My issue with the Leave and Remain campaigns is that both have, thus far, put a large amount of stock in the idea of which makes Britain “better off”. But no one’s saying at what cost. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the UK is better off leaving. Does that mean also that our neighbours in France, Greece, Hungary  or Ireland will be better off? Or is it a case of making ourselves better off and choosing to not care about others?

When you try to dig into the matter, what does “better off” mean anyway? Is it purely a cold measure of macroeconomics, or are we factoring in the cultural and the spiritual? If it is purely economic, then one must be careful that the “better off” argument isn’t merely a form of prosperity gospel.

Possibly the strongest argument the Leave campaign has (in terms of appeal to the general public) would be that it would signal the end of UKIP. They would have achieved their aim and then all could see whether or not their myth of withdrawal from the EU being the panacea to all our ills would bear out in reality.

The strongest argument for the Remain campaign has actually come from one of the cheerleaders of the Leave side: Michael Gove. He claimed that the Conservatives have been stymied in pushing through some of their punitive measures because of the European legislation. In my book, anything that helps to tie the hands of Tories from hurting citizens is a good thing.

For now, I lean slightly inwards, but that lean is ever so slight. Those who promise than a UK outside of the EU will be a land flowing with milk and honey are not people to be taken seriously. Neither are those who speak as though withdrawal from the EU will be the end of civilisation. It’s a choice between two different shades of beige.

Persuade me, entice me, allure me to your point of view. Just don’t beat me about the head and call me an idiot. Such tactics rarely work in evangelism, whether religious or political.

Book Review: The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek

Disclaimer: This is published under the Routledge Classics label, an imprint of Taylor & Francis, which is a wholly owned Division of the company that, at the time of reading and reviewing, I work for. I bought it at retail price and was not asked to review it by anyone I work with. As ever, I review it of my own volition and the opinions expressed here are wholly my own and should not be taken as indicative of the publisher or the parent company.

At the start of the year, I wrote a blog piece about books that would challenge my worldview. This was one I chose myself, rather than having it suggested to me by anyone else. Known as one of the fathers of neoliberalism, Hayek’s economics stand is stark contrast to my kind socialism. And I am a firm believer that one should, from time to time, read and engage with those who hold a vastly different opinions than you do.

Hayek’s opening premise is one that is a distinct product of his time. The Road to Serfdom was first published in 1944. As such, many of the horrors of fascist Germany were known to the world. An Austrian by birth, Hayek was living and working in England at the time. His opening assertion is that the rise of fascism was the natural outcome of socialism in Germany. He is here issuing a warning that England is in danger of following along the same path.

He speaks of socialism as having, as its essential feature, the idea of planning. i.e. that central government decides what needs to be done and then plans to do it. This view rather misses the point. He mistakes process for outcome. In order for the realisation of a socialist society (i.e. one where people are paid fairly, where none are left behind, where people are treated fairly instead of being exploited and where those who gain from the benefits of living in a civilised world pay their fair share of taxes) it is inevitable that some planning is necessary. But Hayek is too short-sighted and sees only the planning, not the goal. It like saying that the construction of a block of flats is all about cranes and heavy lifting. There is some truth in that, insofar as it is the means, but it omits from the narrative the idea that there will be homes where people will eventually live.

While it is absolutely right that any number of political/economic systems should come under scrutiny, there are further flaws in Hayek’s reasoning. Implicit in his writing that there are two possible systems: liberalism and socialism. He frequently puts capitalism into scare quotes, implying that there’s no such thing. This seems to be because he so keen to appropriate the positive connotations of the word ‘liberal’ that he wishes to push aside other, more accurate terms, in favour of a terminology that puts his own views in the most rosey light. In so doing he sets up the logical fallacy of a false dichotomy. He posits these two ideals and attempts to trash one, thus leaving only one left – Hayek’s neoliberalism. Yet this in itself is assumed by default. It is an early example of the ide of TINA (There Is No Alternative), yet the consequences of neoliberalism are not adequately explored in Hayek’s work. Like a mediocre chess player he considers possible moves, rules each one out in turn and opts for the one he has thought about the least, not examined with the same critical eye that he has applied to the others.

Hayek is, in effect, telling us a ghost story. It is the story of how evil has come to rise, and it is because of certain views that have been held in the past. Like John the baptiser, he calls us to repent of our socialist ways and make straight the way for free enterprise. But Hayek’s messiah is not Jesus, it is a certain kind of freedom. It is the freedom for any individual to do as they please. Here, he comes up with the ultimate statement of laissez-faire fundamentalism: “It is necessary in the first instance that the parties in the market should be free to sell and buy at any price at which they can find a partner to the transaction, and that anybody should be free to produce, sell, and buy anything that may be produced or sold at all.”

Wow, that sounds good doesn’t it? Yes. Until you think about it. If followed through, there is nothing here to prevent a manufacturer from making weapons of mass destruction and selling them to terrorist organisations or hostile governments, providing they pay the right fee. There’s nothing here to prevent the sale of narcotics to children, if they’ve got the cash on them and can negotiate a price amenable to all. There’s nothing here that protects the rights of workers, ensuring that they are given a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work or any legal protection as to whether they can rely on the ongoing nature of their employment.

Another underlying assumption that the kind of liberty Hayek is so desperate for exists and is readily attainable.

Here are just a few more quotes that demonstrate the paucity of Hayek’s thinking:

On individualism:

“…recognition of the individual as the ultimate judge of his ends, the belief that as far as possible his own views ought to govern his actions, that forms the essence of the individualist position.”

Here, Hayek shows his contempt for the rule of law. It’s no different in substance from the philosophy of Sheryl Crow (“If it make you happy, it can’t be that bad”).

On property & privilege:

“It would indeed be privilege if, for example, as has sometimes been the case in the past, landed property were reserved to members of the nobility. And it is privilege if, as is true in our time, the right to produce or sell particular things is reserved to particular people designated by authority. But to call private property as such, which all can acquire under the same rules, a privilege,  because only some succeed in acquiring it, is depriving the word privilege of its meaning.”

This misses the point by an almost unbelievable amount. We may have the same rules, but not all have the same means. Private property remains (and possibly more so than ever) the reserve the richest elite in the country. I’ve written before on the generational gap that those under the age of 34 will possibly never be able to own their own home.

Probably no part of the book turned my stomach as when Hayek came onto the subject of inequality. In it, he states that a person who loses their job out of sheer misfortune is bound to feel less hard done by than someone who has had their job taken away from because of the actions of the state. That may have some truth in it, but if we dig under the surface we find a level of denialism firstly that the state may be the provider of jobs and secondly that private enterprise is ever in any way at fault for causing people to become unemployed. It is merely attributed to market forces. Further, Hayek states a flat contradiction to a statement of Jesus that “the worker deserves his wages”. What Hayek proposes is that if a person, employed to do a job, does it, only for the end product to, for some reason or other, be rendered redundant, then the worker should not be paid. In other words, the worker should bear the cost of the labour, while his employer takes no financial hit. This is an idea that I find morally repugnant and should be shunned by any person who takes seriously the idea that workers should be treated with dignity and fairness.

Hayek acknowledges that his form of economic liberalism will inevitably result in ineqaulity. In effect, though, he says “[tough titty]” to this, as it is of little consequence compared to the dangers inherent in striving for a fairer society. For in Hayek’s view there is no such thing as moderation; any economic planning that is designed to curb the increase in, or reverse, inequality must be wholly totalitarian and therefore the temptation to go down this route must be resisted. In effect, Hayek holds the liberty of the individual to do act as they want is the highest, most sacrosanct of all things, and that inequality is a justifiable expense of maintaining this freedom, even if it is the freedom of the individual to economically oppress another.

In a chapter entitled ‘The End of Truth’, Hayek puts forward the idea of the power within narratives and that such narratives may be constructed as a post hoc rationalisation for the prejudices which one holds. In this, he is quite correct and I understand the theme was later picked up by the philosopher Mary Midgely in The Myths We Live By. For example, he states, “The need to rationalise the likes and dislikes which, for lack of anything else, must guide the planner in many of his decisions, and the necessity of stating his reasons in a form in which they will appeal to as many people as possible, will force him to construct theories, i.e. assertions about the connections between facts, which then become an integral part of the governing doctrine.”

Hayek is here speaking of the speck in the eye of his opponents. But the log is own eye is just around the corner. It is somewhat apt that immediately following ‘The End of Truth’ we catch Hayek doing exactly what he has just warned about. For he rationalises his dislike of socialists by stating, in ways that are designed to appeal to many, a theory that socialism is at the heart of Nazism. This is indeed the heart of Hayek’s doctrine. In so doing, he makes the foolish mistake that many on the right still make, by supposing that because the German regime was called National Socialism, that that is demonstrative of what socialism is. Such thinking would also lead one to look to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as a model of democracy. It is sheer idiocy.

As he tries to make his case, one will note some absurd statements. For example:

“”The ideas of 1789″ – Liberty, Equality Fraternity – are characteristically commercial ideals which have no other purpose but to secure certain advantages to individuals.”

This displays a crass ignorance of the French Revolution. Equality is one of the things that Hayek denounces over and over in this work. As for fraternity, that is by no means a bad thing, but it is the very opposite of the individualism which is the hallmark of the society Hayek wishes to build. It should be plain by now to the reader that Hayek’s view of liberty is a rather warped one indeed; a kind of liberty where one individual or corporation should not be prohibited from economically oppressing another individual, a community or even a democracy.

“To regard war as inhuman and senseless is a product of commercial views.”

Frankly, this bullshit. To regard war as inhuman and senseless is a product of humanity and sense. Loss of life is far more important than loss of profit, but Hayek seems not to have grasped this.

In what passes for analysis, such non-sequiters are not in isolation. Though it is interesting to note what Hayek doesn’t say as what he does. In his account of the rise of Nazism, the figure of Hitler is barely mentioned. Neither are the crippling war reparations that were imposed on Germany after the first world war. Nor is there any sign of the great depression. These are all vital factors that any reasonable person would need to consider amongst the many circumstances of history, culture and geography that saw the rise of the Third Reich. So why might Hayek have missed them out? It seems that he has already found his scapegoat: socialists. Those democratically minded lovers of justice and equality must have been the cause of the the totalitarian, evil regime, convinced of its own superiority over other races that the 20th century ever witnessed.

These are but only a glimpse of the flaws in Hayek’s thinking.

So what became of his fears? Ultimately, Hayek was proved to be wrong. His warnings weren’t heeded and Labour ended up leading a socialist government after the end of the second world war, just a couple of years after Hayek wrote his thesis. Did this result in the inevitable slide into totalitarianism? No. It resulted in the most progressive government this country saw in the 20th century. It kick-started the rebuilding of the country, established the welfare state and the National Health Service, under the leadership of Clement Attlee and with the vision of Nye Bevan. It wasn’t really until the 1980s, under Thatcher, that we really saw the outplay of Hayek’s philosophy, though usually through the lens of Friedman. Mass privatisation and deregulation of the markets sowed the seeds for the 2008 crash, the biggest economic failure since Hayek’s time, which came about not because of socialist planning, but because of the neoliberal lack of good governance and oversight that is dismissed as “big government”.

So read Hayek, not because he speaks a warning from history, but because he is a warning from history. Sadly, it is a history that is still being played out today.

Book Review: The Social Contract by Jean Jacques Rousseau

This is another of the Penguin ‘Great Ideas’ books that I’ve picked up on the off chance and had hidden away in my drawer at work for some time. After having moved office recently, I have been able to read at lunchtimes (previously I had one particularly obnoxious colleague who would talk all through lunchtime – often with his mouth full – and there was nowhere else to go) so this has been read in the middle of the working day.

Rousseau’s work is maybe not one that the majority of people have heard of. Amongst those who have an interest in political philosophy, though, it is regarded as something of a classic work.

So what is this social contract? Well, let me attempt to sketch an answer by contradiction. I recall a conversation I had with a fundamentalist libertarian where they argued that they had no duty to pay tax because they had not entered into any contractual arrangement for goods or services with the government. Their argument was that they should only pay for the precise goods and services which they have requested and have agreed a price with the supplier. As this individual did not have a contract which they had signed, they argued that they should be exempted from any obligation to society, including the paying of taxes.

While this was a ludicrous argument, based on a narrow view of contract law, applying to arenas of life where it does belong, it is interesting to consider what the best route is to take in countering it. One such answer is the idea of the social contract. This isn’t a paper contract that one signs, but is a tacit agreement between two sets of people, which we might broadly call the government the people, on how best to run a country.

I say “broadly call” because Rousseau brings in his own definitions, which are quite alien to a 21st century Englishman. For example, I would regard the term “sovereign” to denote a single person, the head of state. In our monarchy, that is the queen. In a republic, it would be the president. Yet for Rousseau the sovereign might not be a single person. A magistrate is not a low-level person who presides over a civil court. A prince is not a male member of the royal family.

What this leaves us with is a work that is rooted in a very different politics from that which we find ourselves in. If you wish to guide someone from A to B, it can be a little perplexing for someone who is starting from C; even more so when both A and C use the same terms but mean different things by them. As such, I cannot say that I fully understood the points he was driving at. Here and there, I found something to ‘hook into’ and find my bearings again, but it probably deserves to be read somewhat more slowly than the rate I rushed through it.

The book gets bogged down in some of the detail at times, such as how to conduct elections and the nature of dictatorship. On the latter point, Rousseau derives much of his understanding from the Roman Republic, which I was fortunate to be (by no design or specific purpose) reading Livy’s Early History of Rome at the same time. So while the historian of political thought may find Rousseau useful in tracing how modern western democracies view the nature of the relationships between citizens and their government, I cannot say that it has an enduring value in terms of the specifics of what Rousseau proposes.

If there is to be any application, it is in America where government is split into two arbitrary sides, entitled legislature and executive. In the UK, there is no such clear division, there is one government. Yet Rousseau contradicts himself on this particular point, as he states early on that to artificially separate the two functions (which are poorly defined) is not recommended yet he goes on later to talk about them as though they are two separate arms of government, but again with insufficient detail as to how someone is meant to discern between them.

The one major point where I disagreed with Rousseau is on the matter of taxation. This is something Rousseau sees as a burden on the people, but I couldn’t help but question whether the taxes he was subject to were the same as we have today. If you go back as far as the Roman Republic or the Roman Empire, then taxes were raised to keep the aristocracy in luxury and to fund wars. Indeed, our modern income tax began to take its current form as a way to finance the wars against France in the decades after Rousseau was writing. It seems he had little concept of the mechanics of a welfare state. While his opinion differed from mine, his view also wasn’t the same as my conversation partner alluded to above.

So what do I make of it? It’s a bit frustrating, as it’s dying for a re-write. If we clear up the muddled terminology then we could clarify the priorities of government, its democratic mandate and how it is funded. As it stands, it is a testament to the old adage that “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Rousseau’s world seems quite alien to 21st century Britain.

Opinion regarding Jeremy Corbyn’s bid to lead the Labour party

By stopwar.org.uk [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By stopwar.org.uk [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

It has been with some interest that I have viewed, as an outsider, the Labour leadership contest. One name has been spoken of far more than any other: Jeremy Corbyn. It seems quite possible, as is often the way by self-fulfilling prophetic medium that is the media, the attention paid to him may result in the success of his leadership bid.

Because the media has, under the direction of a small number of men, moved to the political right, that which is reasonable and formerly regarded as “centrist” is now called ‘the left’, often with a pejorative overtone. After all, how often do we hear of politicians or political commentators being introduced as ‘right wing’? The reason they’re not is that it is the assumed position. It is only those who differ from the prescribed political view who need to be labelled as different, as an outsider, as a threat.

It is precisely in this role that the media has cast Jeremy Corbyn, which has certainly gone some way to dilute attention paid to the campaigns of Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall. As has been evidenced by the ‘Tories for Corbyn’ campaign, the Conservatives are taking a risk that the media on whom they have been able to count for faithful support (in return for certain favours) will be able to cast such aspersions upon Corbyn that he will be seen as unelectable. And if anyone is seen to be unelectable, then they become unelectable.

Yet it is a gamble.

If it doesn’t come off then we will have, for the first time in many decades, a prime minister who doesn’t kowtow to the god of neoliberalism. What support Corbyn has is strong, but is it widespread? For a widespread but half-hearted support will always win an election against a fervent minority. For an example of this, I would point you to the result of last year’s Scottish independence referendum.

Corbyn’s campaign has undoubtedly stirred up the imaginations of those on the fringes of the party whose views have been marginalised in the last 20 years. But is he likely to win over the floating voters in the marginal constituencies in England and Wales that Labour would need, as well as win back the voters of Scotland who voted SNP in May?

The idea that Corbyn would be unable to do so is the main argument used against his leadership bid. There are some within the Labour party who think it is better to choose someone who could win an election; so long as they are in charge of a party called Labour, it doesn’t matter what their principles are. The idea being that a party called Labour is better in charge than the Conservative party, regardless of whether or not their policies are indistinguishable. Such a view is indicative of the collective move to the political right where power is the end goal, not service to society.

So for some, there is little good about Corbyn. To some in the Labour party, he must be stopped as he represents a possible hindrance to regaining power. To this end, he ought to be demonised and every flaw pointed out and made known so as to dissuade people from voting for him. Appeals are made back to Tony Blair, the only leader of a party called Labour who has won any general in the last 30+ years. The argument goes roughly like this: people may have hated Thatcher but she won elections; people may hate Blair but he won elections; people hate Cameron and he’s won an election; so it doesn’t matter what your policies are – so long as you have a good PR machine you can win power. That is far more important than having The Other Party in power.

It is partly because Corbyn represents a break from this hegemony that he is so popular, though one would be naive to think that he doesn’t have some advisors in his ear, telling him what to wear, how to make sure he is listened to and how to combat any negativity he may face.

Yet there is a danger inherent in choosing someone who makes a break from the norm. That is, that the reason they get chosen is because they are the only alternative. This can foster the belief that they are the best person for the job, when in fact they may not be, but the novelty factor may supersede any scrutiny that they may be placed under. With Corbyn, one factor that has been brought up is his unwillingness to condemn some terrorist organisations such the IRA and Hamas.

That said, the ‘Friends with Terrorists’ label never did Thatcher too much harm, given her support for Pinochet’s reign of terror in Argentina or Blair’s endorsement and participation in the illegal war against Iraq.

Still, the fact that he represents something different, could attract those who want ‘just anything different’. i.e. that people are so fed up with the norm that they accept the first new thing that comes along.

Whoever does win the Labour leadership (and at this point, my expectation is that Corbyn will win), they will not be perfect. They’ll make errors of judgement both in matters of policy and of PR. They are not the person who will be able to undo the Conservatives’ legacy of public sector cuts, underfunded services, selling off government property to the private sector at cut prices and a massive increase in the use of foodbanks.

The only advice I have is to beware of those who speak uncritically of Corbyn or any other candidate. If they portray their chosen candidate as the person to solve all of Labour’s ills, then they are not a person to listen to. For support is not the same as sycophancy and no one is perfect.

End Austerity Now: The Witness of One Participant

Gathering by the Bank of England

Gathering by the Bank of England

On Saturday the 20th of June, I took part in a protest march in London. It was the first march I had been on since the days of the Blair government introduced top-up fees and launched an illegal war against Iraq. Organised by the People’s Assembly, it was an anti-austerity protest directed against the planned cuts to public services.

Here is my account of the day.

The itinerary on the People’s Assembly website stated that we were to gather together outside the Bank of England at midday, there would be some speeches and then we would set off at 1pm through the City of London, down Fleet Street and Strand to Trafalgar Square, then turning left onto Whitehall, past Downing Street and finishing in Parliament Square.

I got off the train at London Bridge shortly before 12, where the first signs of a protest were visible. One or two banners were visible, but they were furled up, their messages hidden for now. Walking out of the station, there were pockets of people gathering together. In the shadow The Shard was a group of about a dozen people, with a very prominent NHA (for the National Health Action party) in its familiar shade of blue.

Going across London Bridge, there were far fewer people than expected. I recall my days of commuting this route and the east side of the bridge would be packed with medium paced, middle aged, middle class white men in suits. On Saturday, we had more guitarists and the first of the placards were visible.

Getting across to the north end of the bridge the first of the road blocks was visible, so I was able to wander down the middle of the road, which was quite liberating. Though I soon discovered it was only closed to motorised traffic as a cyclist ting-ed their bell before passing by in close proximity.

Getting to the bank of England, the crowd was huge. The junction with Mansion House is a very large one, and there were people as far as you could see (which, admittedly, as a little limited due to the banners having been unfurled). A few opportune salesmen were offering whistles for a pound. The stewards in their fluorescent tabards were encouraging people to move towards the front which I duly did until I could go no further.

I had been hoping to join with the Quakers for some of the march, but at no point did I see any sign of them. In the throng at the start, I found myself standing alongside the anarcho-Marxists and the members of the Socialist Worker’s Party (SWP). They’re not groups that I would readily identify with, but it was testament to the unity in diversity that we could stand shoulder to shoulder. From where I was stood (just between Mansion House and Poultry), I could see the big balloon that was suspended from the Fire Brigade Union’s (FBU) and there were a few Green Party signs dotted about.

The organisers had made sure there was something of a carnival atmosphere to it, with plenty of music. Every now and then, for no apparent reason, there were whooping cheers and mass whistle-blowing. It was a difficult balance to strike, as this was a protest, not a celebration. So I didn’t cheer, nor did I dance. In fact, I was quiet pretty much the whole time, apart from the occasional conversation with those around me. I was most vocal on Twitter, where I was providing updates, primarily for those who wanted to be there but couldn’t. There was some very heartwarming feedback, saying that people felt I was marching for them.

Looking round, there were some who (purely due to my own prejudices) thought might have been there to cause trouble. With any mass protest consisting of tens of thousands of people, there are often a handful who do something daft and who draw the attention of the right wing press. In this case, it was those wearing black bandana-style covers over their mouths and noses. On closer inspection, each had a logo and some words on them, and it was clear that this was to protest against state surveillance. Chatting to one bloke near me who had one on, he said that it was a reaction against the kind of surveillance that was revealed by Edward Snowden and also against the proposed snooper’s charter, which Theresa May has recommended, after its previous incarnation was scrapped during the coalition. To get the negative out of the way in one paragraph, I wasn’t in agreement with some of the tones of the banners. There was one that read ‘Fuck the fucking fuckers’ and another that called for unilateral free markets. I’m more in favour of protest by education (making sure that those to whom you are protesting understand what your complaint is, why you are making it and what you are proposing they do about it) rather than insult and I am also not a free market fundamentalist, preferring good corporate governance and a strong regulatory system in place to ensure that the business sector acts for the good of all society, not just the narrow segment of investors and analysts.

To that end, I was much more in favour of a group entitled ‘Economists against austerity’ and I’ll take a look at that group later this week.

In contrast to what had been promised, there were no speeches at the start of the march. We eventually started to move at around quarter past one, as a few people had started to complain about the prolonged standing and wanted to get their legs moving. As we got going, the throng thinned out a little, so it was less like rush hour on the Underground and a bit more civilised. The main upside was that I no longer got the whiff of cigarette smoke from nearby chimneys.

There was a sort of MC who was reading out some of the placards. A lot were from the People’s Coalition and a variety of trade unions. Some construction workers looked down on us, as did a couple of helicopters. The route was dotted with police, though their presence was unnecessary. Some looked on with seemingly stern disapproval written across their faces, others were much friendlier, chatting to the crowds and helping to direct people to the nearest public toilets.

Once we got beyond St Paul’s cathedral (we didn’t go immediately next to it, but another road down), the chanting began to subside and people marched on in relative quiet. Occasionally, there’d be pockets of noise, but being the City, we were going through an area that is generally deserted on a Saturday anyway. Off to the side of the main crowd, the route was dotted with some side shows. There was a brass band, some Hari Krishnas, a rat pack style singer doing a piece of satire on Iain Duncan Smith and someone dressed as a crab. In many ways, it reminded me of the Great North Run in terms of atmosphere.

One place in London I’d never been to before was the Royal Courts of Justice. It’s a really spectacular building, and I couldn’t help but think that justice was a theme that underpinned so many of the strands of protest.

As I went along, I marched alongside a number of different groups. There was the group Disabled People Against Cuts. One of their big concerns is the scrapping of the Independent Living Fund, which currently helps to pay for the costs that allows disabled people to live with the independence and dignity that many of us take for granted. The Conservatives wish to take this dignity away from disabled people.

Another group was Sisters Uncut. They are primarily concerned with the effects that cuts have on women, arguing that they have been unfairly targeted, as well as that not enough is being done to prevent violence against women or to adequately prosecute those who perpetrate such violence.

Coming down Whitehall, past Downing Street, the volume began to pick up again as people made various chants and songs, mainly directed against the incumbent government, some against particular members (David Cameron, Iain Duncan Smith, George Osborne, Theresa May and Michael Gove being those mentioned most frequently) and a few that were bordering on the abusive. The police by Downing Street were the most densely packed and the most stony faced. Previous to this, it was their guarding of Coutts bank that was the most superfluous (7 officers in uniform). It struck me as more symbolic, verging on the futile, to aim slogans at Downing Street directly, since it’s likely the weekday residents would be spending their Saturday at their 2nd homes in the country.

Arriving in Parliament Square, the place was pretty packed. I found a tiny spare patch of grass and sat down at about quarter to three. It wasn’t long before the speeches started. Most of the speakers I hadn’t heard of. The only one I was familiar with was Len McCluskey, the democratically elected leader of the Unite union. As I have the foresight to take a notebook with me, I couldn’t catch all the names or the details of the speeches. So I can only convey the general sense that I picked up. They were all passionately given, with a mixture of well-researched evidence and rhetoric. All were strongly pro-trade unions. It seemed to be fairly standard fare. The question was, who was listening? Because unless the anti-austerity message gets beyond those of us on the left and has the positive effect of educating and persuading those in government and those who voted for this government, then it will all be for naught.

As I had made sure I was well hydrated along the march, it became necessary to make a visit to a nearby pub to use their facilities. As I left the square, I checked with a policeman that the figure of 250,000 was correct, as had been claimed by Len McCluskey. To be precise, he said that that was the police estimate, though later reporting in the media said that the police did not make an estimate. The officer I spoke to confirmed verbally to me that “that was the estimate we were working with.” However, there were signs of an increased police presence around, with them massing in large groups outside Westminster Abbey. To me, it looked like they were getting ready to instigate a kettle. So I made the decision to not come back for the rest of the speeches (missing out on Jeremy Corbyn, whose praises had been sung throughout the march, in contrast to Liz Kendall who was roundly booed every time her name was mentioned). I headed down to Victoria to get a bus home.

There was a small group of vocal protesters (about 15-20) outside Westminster City Hall. They were being very closely watched by the police, in a ratio of 1 police officer to every 2 protesters. On hand also were the legal observers, seemingly taking the numbers from the epaulettes of the officers nearby and talking with them. Earlier, the same observers had been handing out cards advising people what to do if they were arrested. I simply stated that I would give no cause for possible arrest. As it turns out, no one else did at all as the whole event went without any trouble whatsoever. Any suspicions of possible mischief-makers were unfounded.

Here ends my observation of the day.

Reflections

It was a fantastic day to be out and extremely heartening to be part of such a diverse group of people, united in standing up for what is right. Yet the point of it was not to make us feel good. This was to ensure that the message was delivered: Austerity isn’t the best way; there are fairer ways to do politics.

There are many sub-stories that make up this narrative, many of which were represented on Saturday. Yet effective protest has to not only be large and loud, it has to be clear and clever. If the only ones who listen to the message and understand are those on the political left who would never dream of supporting Conservative neoliberalist ideology, then we are speaking to an echo chamber. We need to demonstrate the human cost of austerity to those who tacitly or openly support it, in order to bring about a change of mind.

Key to this is ensuring that the press are not allowed to twist the message. If you read the reports of the march in the Mail or the Telegraph, then you will end up with a highly distorted understanding of what went on. Many doubted the BBC would report on the march, though to their credit they did. Yet the only person they interviewed was the one chap from the right wing pressure group The Tax Payers’ Alliance, which is hardly representative of the views of the thousands who marched. This is partly why I’ve written my eyewitness account, and I hope that others will do too.

Earlier I stated that it one needs to state 3 things: what your complaint is, why you are making it and what you are proposing those in power do about it. It seems only right then to finish with a brief summary of these 3 points.

My complaint

The last 5 years of austerity and the current plans for further cuts to public services is not the result of sound, well-thought out economics. At the end of the last Labour government, after the 2008 crash, the economy was recovering. We had growth in GDP and falling unemployment. So Conservative claims that their policies were the sole factor in the recovery are untrue; things were getting better.

Some cuts were necessary, that is clear. We needed to try to reduce the debt and the deficit, very few deny that. But the manner in which the Conservative-led coalition did this was not fair. The burden of the cuts fell hardest on disabled, the unemployed and the poor. There was some good here (the raising of the personal allowance, as championed by the Liberal Democrats) but the bad far outweighed the good. This is why we have a country where around a 1/3rd of children live in poverty, where over a million meals have had to be provided by foodbanks.

This is not right. This must change.

Why make it?

I am not one of those who has been badly affected by the cuts. But that is not sufficient reason to refrain from protesting. I am compelled by a sense of decency to stand up for my fellow human beings. Many couldn’t make the protest because they were housebound. Right now, I am healthy and employed in the private sector on a salary that is more than the national average. But there is no security in this position. If I become unemployed again, or homeless, or ill or disabled, who will stand up for me?

My proposal

I have laid out my ideas at some length in A Voter’s Manifesto. In short, we first need to ensure that government supports those who most need it. This includes an NHS that provides universal healthcare, free at the point of need. It means a system of social security that helps people to have a decent standard of living when they are unable to earn enough. It is also ensuring that employers provide a living wage so that there is an end to the need for in-work benefits.

To fund this, there must be a fair tax system, where those who earn more than they need to live on pay their fair share. Where companies providing valuable goods and services at a fair price are managed and regulated well, allowing them to do business and to earn sufficient, but not excessive, profits from which they may pay their fair share of tax.

We may also need to cut some aspects of spending, but not those that the current government proposes. We can phase out the renewal of our weapons of mass destruction and scale back expenditure on those industries and government departments whose function is warfare and death. Yet this need to be done in a careful manner, so as to not increase unemployment.

In short, I want a fairer, more just society where no one is left behind.

Book Review: Magna Carta – A Very Short Introduction by Nicholas Vincent

Today, the 15th of June 2015, marks the 800th anniversary of the meeting at Runnymede when the Magna Carta was first ‘signed’. 3 weeks ago, I visited the British Library which is running an exhibition all about the Magna Carta. Just before I did, though, I thought I ought to try to get clued up a bit about it. My aim wasn’t to become an expert, but just to sketch in a rough form where there was a massive space of ignorance in my knowledge. This VSI by Nicholas Vincent, then, was the book I chose.

Those of you with good memories may recall that I picked this up when I was last at the British Library in February, having been somewhat disappointed by the VSI on the British Constitution.

Here, Vincent was keen to put Magna Carta in its context. That context takes up more than half of the book, so the contents of Magna Carta are somewhat relegated to an appendix. It wouldn’t be too unfair then to say that this is much more about politics of the late 12th and early 13th centuries. So if you expect this to a summary of the Magna Carta and a discussion thereof, then you will likely be very disappointed by this work (don’t worry, though, there are plenty of publications available at the moment; I’m sure some of them take this approach). This is likely because Nicholas Vincent’s specialty is medieval history. So rather than foregrounding Magna Carta and filling in the background detail, he spends a lot of time and effort bringing to life the background, seeming to hope that the Magna Carta speaks for itself.

In favour of this last statement, a modern translation of the Magna Carta is provided in an appendix, though it seemed slightly unfair to relegate it to this position. It is only when one is about 2/3rds of the way through this VSI that we get the occasional reference to specific clauses, though there’s no specific instruction to the reader to turn to the appendix, so one might be a bit wrong-footed by this.  Even then, we are not exactly guided through it, but instead we are given a scattergun approach.

As an overview of the politics of north-western Europe in the medieval period, it is a very good work. It’s not a period of history that I could claim any expertise in, nor even much familiarity, so cannot really comment on Vincent’s accuracy or choices of emphasis in his portrayal. As an amateur reader then, I came away with a better appreciation of the circumstances that led to the Magna Carta’s formation, though this wasn’t really a magnification of it. Rather, one could see a developmental stage that led towards it. This was later added to by my visit to the aforementioned exhibition at the British Library which is very well done (apart from the actual copies of the 1215 Magna Carta which I must say were a tads disappointing). There were several videos running in the exhibition, one of which featured Nicholas Vincent talking, so when I listened to him, it rang strongly of this book that I had finished reading the day before.

One thing that is picked up on by both the book and the exhibition is that almost as soon as the Magna Carta came into force in 1215, it was annulled. So we ended up with a slightly farcical situation whereby it went and came again, with there being various versions going about, each differing slightly different from the last. Only Durham Cathedral (I miss seeing it from the dining room window) has a copy of each edition. We get an overview of which sections got dropped from the statute book over the years.

The thing is, the Magna Carta is more often invoked by name than in substance. How relevant is it that clause 33 calls for the complete removal of fish-weirs from the Thames and Medway? Well, a lot less than clause 39: “No free man will be taken or imprisoned or disseised or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor shall we go or send against him, save by the lawful judgement of his peers and by the law of the land.” The book finishes then with an evaluation of the legacy of Magna Carta. It is somewhat brief, and might perhaps have been better written by a legal or constitutional expert, rather than a medieval historian. As a starting point, though, it’s not bad.

You may well hear a lot about Magna Carta at the moment, but a lot of it comes with an assumption of a knowledge and understanding of its background and content. If you think you have a gap in your education around this, then I would certainly recommend this as a very short remedy.