Category Archives: Politics

Muddying the waters

The Welsh Assembly Government is reviewing the permission that it has previously granted to allow the dumping of mud from the Severn Estuary near Hinkley Point onto existing mud flats nearer to Cardiff Bay. The review comes following claims that the mud may be highly radioactive following years of exposure to low level waste from the old nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point. The scheme to move the mud now is part of a much larger project to build a new nuclear plant on the same site. The project is being developed by a joint venture of French and Chinese firms, with some direct UK government backing and a contract guaranteeing an eye-watering minimum price for the electricity that will be generated once the plant is operational.

The story is another example of the insidious erosion of trust in science and scientific data that has blighted many areas of life in recent years. Detailed reports by independent expert analysts have shown that the impact of additional radiation exposure to somebody sitting on the foreshore at Cardiff for four hours a day for a year, and eating many kilograms of shellfish harvested from the area, would be the equivalent to eating twenty bananas during that same year. Interestingly, people living in Pembrokeshire are already exposed to higher levels of radiation from naturally occurring radon that leaks from the geology of that county.

We have seen similar attacks on science and the scientific method by climate change deniers; by those who advocate for the efficacy of homeopathic remedies; and by those who claim a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. In every case, the scientific evidence is extensive and compelling; and yet there are still those who willfully choose to ignore it, denigrate it, and launch personal attacks on the scientists. It’s almost as if we are living in a kind of reverse age of enlightenment, where instead of broadening horizons and increasing the frontiers of knowledge, we are instead casting shadows and narrowing the influence of facts, logic and intellect.

It’s in this environment that those with the loudest voices can proclaim that smoking isn’t that bad for you, really; that Britain is some sort of terrorist nirvana; and that reducing the tax burden on the very richest is the best way of helping the poorest. It emasculates public discourse and reduces all debate to the level of the pub bore : “All tbose fancy qualifications are fine and dandy, but I gained all my knowledge from the University of Life.” It’s the mentality that leads people in areas where immigration is negligible to believe that they can’t get an appointment at the doctors because of all those people coming over here, swamping public services and filling all the houses. It’s illogical, irrational and flies in the face of the hard facts, but people believe it.

We have now got to the stage where half-truths, misleading statements and outright lies are given equal billing with objective facts; where the opinions of people who have a platform but no expertise are treated as equal to those who have studied the subject for years and have empirical data to support their conclusions. It’s a form of collective madness that can lead to no good whatsoever.

The old saying goes that empty vessels make most noise. Allowing that noise to drown out the quieter voices of people speaking from positions of authoritative knowledge, simply muddies the waters for everybody.

Advertisements

It’s not all equally bad news

It’s been too easy recently to assume that we are all going to hell in a hand-basket. Austerity and its impact on the poorest members of our society; Brexit and the feral, anti-immigrant sentiment that it stirred up; abuses of position and sexual harassment in the corridors of political power – all suggest that we are becoming less tolerant, less social, less equal as a society.

Its good to be able to reflect on two pieces of very positive news today. The first details a change in maternity and paternity leave policy by the UK’s largest insurance company, Aviva. In future, both parents will be able to claim up to 26 weeks leave at standard basic pay in the first year following the arrival of a new child or completion of an adoption. Where both parents work for Aviva, this could allow a full year of child care to be provided by the parents without any reduction in basic pay. This is not only great for the child, but has the potential to significantly reduce the negative impact on the woman’s career of taking time out of the workplace after childbirth. What’s particularly encouraging about the Aviva initiative is the recognition that changing the policy alone won’t achieve the sort of cultural shift that they are seeking to achieve. “Aviva [will] use male role models to show it is acceptable to take up the offer of parental leave, to encourage a change in perceptions and foster a cultural change. Otherwise, male employees may still be reticent about taking time off, even if paid.” I genuinely hope that this is the start of a wider review of maternity and paternity leave policies across the private and public sectors. It’s in everybody’s best interests to support women and men equally as parents and employees.

aviva

The second ‘good news’ story this Friday comes from an unusual source. Swansea City FC and AFC Bournemouth have become the first Premier League football clubs in the country to formally recognize transgender and non-binary supporters in the way that they are addressed. In future, supporters will have the option to choose to be addressed as “Mx” as an alternative to the more ususal Mr, Miss, Mrs etc.. Explaining the change in policy, Swansea City’s equality and diversity manager said : “We’re continually looking at ways to make our services more inclusive. Language plays a really important part in delivering this and ensuring that everyone feels welcome – regardless of age, gender or gender identity, sexuality or ethnicity.” Too often, football and football clubs are associated with a laddish culture in which minorities and ‘difference’ are seen as fair game for ridicule or humiliation rather than celebration. It’s great to see some clubs now taking a much more enlightened attitude to these issues. This weekend also sees the launch of the Rainbow Laces campaign, promoted by Stonewall, and designed to tackle homophobic, biphobic and transphobic attitudes in sport more generally. Of course, as with the challenges of cultural change at Aviva, adding Mx to a list of prefixes won’t suddenly lead to premiership football becoming a safe space for transgender and non-binary fans, but it may encourage those have been reluctant to attend football matches for fear of how they would be received, to go along. And that’s good for the fans and the clubs.

Have a good, equality-filled weekend!

rainbow_laces_2017_graphic_1920x500-1

Quite disappointed and rather upset about this

blog pic 1

This report resonated strongly with me today. My natural preference is to write in the passive voice. I try to avoid writing or speaking in absolutes. This is because there is rarely a position on anything that I am comfortable in taking absolutely. I like to weigh both sides of an argument. It’s often instructive to try to see and understand things from the other person’s perspective. I may disagree with you, but I am much more likely to be able to find common ground with you if I have some appreciation of why you may be feeling the way that you do. It’s also why I struggle with the concept of ‘no-platforming’, or denying a voice to opinions that may be abhorrent to many people. Allowing opinions – however distasteful – to be heard, challenged and held up to close scrutiny, can be an effective way of testing the extent to which they have any validity. This shouldn’t be confused with the current obsession with ‘balance’ in our media. Holding a demonstrably wrong opinion does not entitle you to equal air time to voice that wrong opinion – whether it’s about climate change, smoking, autism and vaccinations, the holocaust, or any other topic.

In the article pictured at the head of this post, Prof Baker, Linguistics Professor at Lancaster University, suggests that the decline in use or gradable adverbs may be linked to a desire not to be associated with a middle- or upper-class way of speaking. I would suggest that another factor may that social media, political soundbites, slogans and strap-lines now so dominate our discourse that there is no longer room for nuance and finesse in the way that we communicate. “£350m for the NHS”, “Make America Great Again”, “Oh! Jeremy Corbyn!” are all examples of the way in which chants and slogans have become the pre-eminent way in which politics and political discourse is now conducted in the UK and US. In this atmosphere, those who seek to develop a more considered commentary are dismissed as ‘experts’ or the ‘elite’ who are somehow trying to hoodwink the public with clever words and complicated thinking. It’s the Orwellian vision of Animal Farm realised : “”Four young porkers in the front row uttered shrill squeals of disapproval, and all four of them sprang to their feet and began speaking at once. But suddenly the dogs sitting round Napoleon let out deep, menacing growls, and the pigs fell silent and sat down again. Then the sheep broke out into a tremendous bleating of “Four legs good, two legs bad!” which went on for nearly a quarter of an hour and put an end to any chance of discussion.”

In this context all discussion gets boiled down into binary distinctions : are you for us or against us; for Trump or against him; Leave or Remain; White or Black; Man or Woman; Gay or Straight; Muslim or Christian; and so on. The concept of common ground, of finding what unites and how to build from that, becomes anathema to the sloganeers.

For myself, I rather long for the day when demonstrators will rally around banners proclaiming : “What do we want? The best for us all. When do we want it? Once we have all agreed what it is!”

 

Check your privilege

Some facts. There are 650 members of the UK parliament. 442 of them (68%) are men. According to the 2011 Census, approximately 51% of the population of the UK is female. There was a 21% increase in police recorded sexual offences between 2015 and 2016.

These facts are important because to listen to some of the (mainly white male) responses to the allegations of discrimination against and bullying of women at the heart of the UK legislature, one could be forgiven for thinking that men are somehow under siege.

A particularly extreme version of the siege mentality was described by Charles Moore in yesterday’s Daily Telepgraph. Under a ridiculous headline and a picture of the Russian anarchist group Pussy Riot, Moore launches into a bizarre tirade which includes the following, astonishing, assertion : “It would now be highly unwise in many work situations for a man – especially an employer – ever to share a room with a woman without the presence of a witness. It makes men more reluctant to give women jobs.” This astonishing statement is presented with no supporting evidence whatsoever.

It appeared in the press at the same time as another one about a school in New Zealand where girls have been instructed to lower the hemline on skirts to “keep our girls safe, stop boys from getting ideas and create a good work environment for male staff”. This prompted the only response possible from one Twitter commentator, who wondered : “At what point, when protecting your male staff from the seduction of children’s knees, do you think you might have hired the wrong staff?”

The simple truth is that, for far too long, women in the workplace, and women and girls of all ages and at all stages of life, have been subjected to unfairness, discrimination, and oppression at the hands of men and as part of a society that is stacked inexorably in men’s favour. The lack of women in the boardrooms of major companies, the absence of women at the top of Universities and public bodies, the under-representation of women in legislatures and law-making bodies across the globe – all points to a system that is structurally unfair. Worse than that though – it points to a system that is necessarily under-performing. If 50% of the candidates are at a structural disadvantage in reaching their full potential in the workplace, politics, and wider public life, then we all lose out as a result.

That’s why the current furore at Westminster and in Hollywood is so welcome. Shining a light on an area of discrimination and abuse that we have all known about for far too long, must now lead to positive, decisive action to end the casual oppression of women in all walks of life, and at all stages of their lives.

First they came for…

Martin Niemoller was a First World War German U-boat commander turned Christian protestant pastor who had initially welcomed the rise to power of the Nationalist Socialist (Nazi) party in 1933. He subsequently became an outspoken and high-profile critic of Nazism, leading to arrest and imprisonment from 1938 to 1945. In 1946, Niemoller made a speech to a church meeting in Frankfurt that was later adapted to become a poem which has appeared in various forms since :

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.

The core message is powerful and poignant. When any group is scapegoated, discriminated against, singled out for oppression or abuse, then the whole of society is diminished. We cannot be bystanders to prejudice and hate, and claim neutrality. Failure to call out the acts of those driven by hate and prejudice, and failure to stand up to those who abuse positions of power and influence, is to collude in that hate, prejudice and abuse.

For too long, free speech and freedom of the press have been used as trump cards to justify hate-filled and bigoted opinion pieces that have fuelled the prejudices of racists, sexists, and homophobes. More recently, the so-called newspapers that publish this hate have targeted their bile towards experts and universities. It is clear that they see knowledge, understanding and critical-thinking as major threats to the fact-free propaganda that they pump out to support their narrow agenda. It’s no longer enough for us to sigh and wearily dismiss such attacks as coming from the usual suspects; or somehow not mattering. Brexit, Trump, anti-immigrant hatred, increasing anti-Semitism – are all partly or wholly the result of a failure to call out the lies, exaggerations and half-truths of a press that has abused its freedom for too long.

We can no longer stand by and allow the hatred and bile to spew out unchallenged. It is the duty of all of us who believe in a fair and decent society to challenge the propaganda and lies whenever and wherever they are repeated. There are still far more decent and fair-minded people than bigots and hate-mongers. Our voices need to drown out the discordant cacophony of the haters.

 

Yearning for a glimmer of hope

I promised myself that I wouldn’t sully this blog with any reflections on the UK General Election, but not to write something would be to undermine why I started blogging in the first place. Having just finished drafting what follows, I can say that it really does feel good to have got it off my chest. Better out than in, indeed! Fear not, there will be no more election stuff here during this campaign.

It’s a miserable time to be a wishy-washy liberal. In a complex, networked world, it is a cruel paradox that everything is now seen in strictly binary terms. You’re either with us or against us. Brexiteer or Remoaner. Patriot or saboteur. Strong and stable, or an agent of anarchy. Metropolitan elite or northern working class. One of ‘us’ or one of ‘them’. The pragmatism and pluralism that have underpinned UK politics for most of the past 100 years are no longer respected values. Instead, we have a cruel parody of a democratic process that sees the two main parties peddling lies and half-truths, supported by a press that long-since abandoned any pretense at impartiality. There is an irony in the fact that broadcast media is now so dependent on politicians to fill the endless of hours of live news programming that it can no longer risk alienating those politicians by actually holding them to account. There seem to be no checks and balances to the abuses of process that have become common-place in UK politics. And all this while sneering at the events in Washington. Look first to the plank in your own eye.

Both Labour and the Conservatives (aided and abetted by most mainstream media outlets) are determined to downplay Brexit in the General Election campaign. This is not surprising. In less than two years, the UK will leave the EU. Both Labour and the Conservatives appear to believe that this momentous change in our relationship with our most important trade partners can be negotiated in a way that will leave us better off at the end of it. This is delusional and amounts to a monumental fraud against the British people. It is possible that UK plc will be able to survive outside the EU. New trading agreements with Europe, the USA, other members of the Commonwealth, may well emerge. If we’re really lucky, they may take less than ten years to conclude, and at the end of the process we may be in a position that is no worse than we have now. What nobody seems able to answer, is what the impact of the intervening period will be. And there will be a long gap between the end of the Article 50 process and the signing of significant new agreements. Ask the Canadians. There are some clues. Wage growth is stagnating; house prices have flat-lined; the initial ‘boost’ to exports following the devaluation in the pound is now balanced by escalating raw materials and food costs, hitting household income and driving up inflation. City firms are planning to move staff and operations to European capitals; others are reviewing decisions on new investments. Sweetheart deals with the likes of Nissan are providing a having a short-term palliative effect, but there are only so many holes that can be plugged in the dyke before the water comes crashing through. In this context, to be making claims for increased investment in public services or defence or preserving the pensions triple-lock, or committing not to increase taxes, is at best irresponsible and delusional; at worst, it is cynical and calculating. And the analysis applies to both the hard left and the hard right, Labour and Conservative, in this campaign.

What’s a wishy-washy liberal to do in the face of this seemingly hopeless situation. I’m lucky. As an exile in a foreign constituency for the time being, I can at least vote for an anti-Brexit candidate with a realistic prospect of success. It’s possible that I might even have the unusual thrill of casting my vote for the winning candidate in a General Election (this hasn’t happened much in my lifetime to date). Admittedly, the Greens won’t be forming a government any time soon, but at least I won’t be voting hopelessly.

Truth stranger than fiction

I caught the end of a fascinating news report on BBC Breakfast this morning. Author Jeanette Winterson had visited a school in the Cotswolds to help the children there critically review the Cinderella fairy-tale, and then re-imagine it for the 21st Century. You can see the report and watch the video here. In part, the purpose of the visit was to explore the inherently sexist nature of the traditional narrative, and the version created by the children brilliantly re-writes the story’s ending to create a vision of an empowered and independent Cindy becoming co-founder of a successful business in partnership with the prince. The sassiness of shortening the name to Cindy, and the ambition shown for her by these primary school children is charming and inspiring in equal measure. The opprobrium of many of the viewers who contacted the BBC following the story, declaiming the ‘ruining’ of traditional stories, was as depressing as it was predictable.

Juxtaposing this story with the “you couldn’t make it up”, real-life story of Donald Trump promoting his public-school educated, merchant banker buddy Nigel Farage, as a potential UK Ambassador to the US,simply proves the old adage that truth is often so much stranger than fiction. But the sexist, racist, elitist messages that both Trump and Farage openly endorse, make the work of Winterson and a whole host of other, less prominent, people who are continuing to promote ideals of equality, fairness and justice, even more vitally important.

It is Edmund Burke, 18th Century parliamentarian and philosopher, to whom is attributed the saying that “for evil to triumph it is only necessary that good men do nothing”. Of course, taking our lead from Winterson, we need to change the “men” in the quote to “people”; but now more than ever, Burke’s sentiment must be a clarion call to everybody who opposes the narrow-minded, myopic, xenophobic, homophobic, mysogynist narrative of Trump, Farage and the motley crew of ultra-right wing ideologues that cling on to their coat-tails.

Fairy tales are quaint and can be indulged more liberally when the prevailing wisdom in society sees them as artefacts of a by-gone era when we were less enlightened. When the core messages of a ‘woman’s place in the home’, economic dependence on men, and a good marriage as the principal means of future security, are now part of mainstream political discourse, then its time for all of us to re-write the fairy tales.