Some genuinely good news today. Results from the 2021 census show that for the first time, less than half of the UK population profess to be Christians. It has taken a long time to get to this point. It’s a Eureka moment in the sense that when the right question is asked, and people honestly answer it, we get to the truth. Many people simply do not believe. Of course, there are some caveats. Whilst fewer people reckon they’re Christians, there are many others who are constrained to say they are Muslims—and that category has increased judging by the census results. But overall, religion is losing its grip, a grip that was based on falsehood. The biggest part of that falsehood was of course that by being born at a certain time and in a certain place you are automatically conscripted into a belief system which is at best an amorphous concatenation of various bits and pieces of so-called ‘received wisdom,’ rather than a clear commitment to a self-defined adoption of a personal faith. I’ve no objection to people adopting a personal faith (how could one object to that?) but when it comes to forcing that faith onto others, or even just assuming general conformity to it, then such a faith must become pretty worthless, a mere cultural obligation which belies the very point of having a personal faith. And if it isn’t to be a personal faith, what the hell is it? Perhaps on the basis of these census results, we can look forward to the dismantling of the whole system of state support for religions—let’s start with the disestablishment of the Church of England (and the Lords Bishops), an end to faith schools and the full recognition of those without religion in our civic functions.
Are we in a winter of discontent or not? I’m worried the Daily Mail is missing an opportunity to set the tone here, in its difficulty rediscovering this phrase. But I’m not a regular reader so I may have missed it. And since to my knowledge bin collectors haven’t yet gone on strike, there are few opportunities for photographing rubbish piling up in the streets. Perhaps with the nurses going on strike somebody will concoct a picture of body bags piling up.
How does the winter of 2022 shape up with that of 1978/9? Inflation then was just below 10%, which to a degree reflects the success of the Labour government reducing it from the 20%+ it inherited from the Tories in 1974. And how was inflation tackled by Thatcher in 1979? One of her first fiscal measures was to break a promise not to increase VAT. She promptly did just that—and electorally, four years later, got away with it (thanks to the Falklands War as luck would have it). A much mocked approach of the 1970s Labour government was to introduce the ‘Social Contract,’ in other words to agree that if pay rises were kept to an agreed level, then there would be price controls too. Such an approach now of course is (almost) totally anathema—not just for the Tories, but for Labour too. All agree that the market alone should be the judge of prices—although this time round we do have elements of a social contract with the government’s price cap on the unit costs of energy. Not all Tories like that—it’s a universally applied policy which disproportionately benefits the undeserving poor more than it does homeowners in Park Lane.
The problem for Labour is that it has been permanently scarred by talk of the winter of discontent, and I suspect of any mention of a social contract too. Its rhetoric reflects its philosophy, which is to say governments cannot control markets—this is not just a legacy of the perception that the 1970s Labour government was an abject failure about which nobody should be reminded, but also the New Labour embrace of globalisation, which would be the great free trade equaliser and leveller-upperer. The UK in this scenario was meant to maintain its economic prowess through the comparative advantage of its ‘knowledge economy.’ Like the Chinese couldn’t possibly catch up (I think there is a fair degree of racism caught up in assumptions about comparative advantage). New Labour was also scarred by Bennite attempts at industrial recovery. Meriden et al. It therefore had to introduce the notion of ‘we don’t pick winners.’ It’s one reason we stopped e.g. building ships. The loss of certain industries could be blamed on gold plated E.U. competition regulations. Still, France and Italy managed to carry on building ships. I wonder how that happened?
We live in a curious world where we’re told on the one hand that the state is powerless and on the other that it is doing everything that is necessary to save us. I wish they’d make their mind up and act accordingly. But we’re living with governments that have, for decades, demonstrated a kind of split personality. Not encouraging.
I received the following comment on my blog (18th November) regarding climate change direct action targeting artworks in art galleries:
You might have said that no paintings have been targeted. It was a stunt. The Van Gogh Heinz soup incident involved soup on glass. It has made a big impact in getting people to talk about existing and impending climate catastrophes - and we should all do what we can to steer the debates in that direction. I think you are wrong about the current approach to direct action and I am happy to talk with you about it. These are desperate times.
It was implicit in my blog that paintings HAD been targeted. But also that this particular activity so far was futile. The debate that these actions have sparked has been more about whether targeting old paintings in art galleries is justified, rather than the ins and outs of stopping anthropogenic caused climate change. In my view direct action is justified if it is aimed at the right target. So, if it is felt that the art world can provide a suitable vehicle for protest, why aren’t the burgeoning number of high-end art fairs, which generate huge carbon emission trails the subject of attention? Or the billion dollar auction market in art, the patrons of which include the worst carbon emitters of the global elite? Chucking something at a Van Gogh in a public art gallery may hit its protective glass but completely misses the point. No argument is made by futile actions, which seem random and inexplicable to most observers. Yes, they attract attention but for all the wrong reasons, which is to say their ephemeral nature evaporates as soon as the fickle media moves on. Knowledge of climate change is definitely not enhanced. Most people will simply—if they clock the action at all—see it as a prank.
As I suggested, the real target should be those who have the power to change the course of policy, namely, in the first instance the lawmakers, and secondly those who keep the lawmakers in power—corporations, banks, the City, the whole gamut of the financial establishment whom most political parties are loathe to cross. As it is, if MPs and their cohorts think about this activity at all, they will be grateful that the real target—them—is being routinely ignored.
It was a heart-warming experience today to see a clip from a Starmer video which featured one of my own creations. A commemorative mug. This was one of my fundraising products from 1997, after Labour won all eight Leeds constituencies and I was the city’s Labour organiser at the time. Would it have happened without me? Only history will tell. I think I ordered 500 mugs, with a design by me and the run sold out. They must now be treasured rarities. I’ll have to check ebay, especially now that Keir himself has gingerly held one in his own hands! (I should have kept a few back.) N.B. The screen shot I have taken here contains a caption which has nothing to do with my mug. Check out the whole thing at Keir Starmer's journey to Jewishness - YouTube
+A debate has been raging—if that’s not over-egging it—about the targeting of artworks by climate change activists. Does throwing custard at an old masterpiece advance the cause? Or is it just attention seeking? Is it morally justified? A whole range of questions are thrown up. One might ask how many artworks will be damaged by climate change itself—a sudden flood in a low lying city perhaps (Venice?) or an out of control fire? Or just new financial pressures facing museums, which can be big energy consumers? Fossil fuel wars are another possibility—think Iraq and the destruction of its cultural heritage. These are things which climate change activists rightly draw attention to. The question is, are these actions effective in changing public/political thinking? I would say probably not, and if they aren’t effective in that sense then they might be intellectually valid but practically useless, in which case they serve no real purpose. And in which case I cannot bring myself to support them. Direct actions which garner public support and pressurise politicians would be far more beneficial.
Politicians have a weak point. They’re not popular. Perhaps a few custard pies aimed in their direction would persuade them to do more on climate change. The public would not object. N.B. Vegan custard pies only, please.
+In light of the fact that some potential Labour parliamentary candidates have been excluded from shortlists for committing such crimes as ‘liking’ (whatever that means) a Tweet by Green MP Caroline Lucas, I wonder what steps the Party will now take against former Labour Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt, who has been appointed the Tory government’s NHS ‘efficiency’ (cuts) supremo. What a choice. Back in my time I described her as a Maoist for her continual inability to stop ‘reforming’ the NHS. She couldn’t stop meddling—a bit like a manager searching for self-justification.
An old ethical-philosophical question is what would you do if by letting an oncoming train run over one person you save five people lying on the other track? Of course, it is an artificial scenario, only designed to eke out the answer of what is a human life worth? The question doesn’t address the context, which could vary from situation to situation. The one life you let go could be that of say the discoverer of Penicillin, Alexander Fleming. The five on the other track could be escaped convicted rapists and murderers. Is one life worth more than five? The issue is a live one now, with Pentagon war-gamers no doubt figuring out if they could somehow assassinate Putin. Why not? It’s what they, along with the CIA and various others do. If by getting rid of Putin, outwith any legal process you save the lives of thousands, isn’t that a fair deal? Perhaps if the 1944 plot to kill Hitler had succeeded maybe a million or two lives could have been saved. What’s the problem? Or to put it another way, what’s wrong with extra-judicial killings if they get rid of mass murderers? This is a purely transactional question and applied in a range of circumstances can lead to all sorts of conundrums. If say the captain of the Titanic (not a bad person) disagreed with the warnings of his first officer about the threat of that big white thing looming up on the starboard bow, should the first officer have reached for a pistol and shot the captain? It all depends on what one thinks the solution is. In the case of Putin, whose missiles the media yesterday were keen to assert were landing on NATO territory, would his assassination encourage his coterie to leave off and head for the negotiating table? Or would they say ’we’ve nothing to lose now, press the button.’ ? Context is everything, and if the protagonists are spoiling for a fight, then finely tuned ethical questions will be put to one side as things escalate beyond control. If there are any survivors they may wonder around afterwards scratching their heads asking ’could we have done things differently?’ They will say yes, perhaps, before post-catastrophe possession syndrome (PCPS—that’s a new one) sets in again. At times like these ethics don’t come to the rescue. It is merely the game show host’s job to ask the audience to either press red ‘KILL PUTIN’ or green ‘ask him to pick up the phone.’ The train’s coming. No time to think. What’s your answer?
I learnt from the BBC’s Today programme this morning that Ukraine has a law against collaborators, which in the circumstances is fair enough. Perhaps we ought to have such a law here too. Against collaborators with the Tories (only joking). Later in the programme my bête noire slot--Thought For The Day—an excuse for religious propaganda, featured the Bishop of Birmingham talking about sacrifice, in the context of Thursday’s ‘painful’ statement from the Chancellor revealing how we’re all going to have to tighten our belts. Which means a lot of people will increasingly rely on food banks and/or face hypothermia, etc. The Bishop seemed to think this wasn’t such a bad thing, since the experience could bring us all closer to God. He began his five minute epistle with references to animal sacrifice. He completely failed to grapple with the elephant in the room, viz Thursday’s announcements will all be about political choices, not spiritual nourishment. He made no mention of fairness. He could have done well to visit an online calculator Tax Reform Revenue (arunadvani.com) which allows one to adjust various taxes which would extract more from the wealthy—and more than fill the alleged ‘black hole’ in the public finances. This so-called hole varies depending on who you listen to (which tells you a great deal about the reliability of any guesstimate) but seems to fall between £40 billion and £60 billion. Using the calculator, quite modestly adjusting things like Inheritance tax and National Insurance (e.g. extending it to investment income), and increasing top-rate income taxes, I raised £70.5 billion in extra revenue—very little if any of it from middle income people. There is no nationwide sacrifice necessary. Nor is there any need to further shrink the state. But that’s the name of the game, and the Right Reverend seems to have reverted to type, i.e. the Church of England being the Tory party at prayer.
Whilst looking for something else, I came across and old USB stick from 2012. Scrolling through the files I found an article dated 5th November 2012 which could almost have been written today, in the light of Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s promised attempt to the balance the books, i.e. insist on more pain for everybody with Austerity 2. Reading it, I struggled to wonder what has changed. Yes, my local MP has sold his shares in Russian fossil fuel businesses, and Hunt’s language will perhaps be more subtle than what we heard from the ConDem coalition, but that’s about it. Here is said article:
I’m sure there must be some symbolism in this somewhere. My local Conservative MP has made two of his three largest personal investments in two Russian oil and gas companies. His choice perhaps reflects the moribund state of UK energy policy and a lack of faith in the ‘greenest government ever’s’ ability to ensure the North Sea takes off as a source of renewable wind energy. He represents Scarborough and Whitby, communities perched on the edge of this green abundance, but both communities now find themselves perched on the edge of an ideological experiment which is surely unprecedented – at least since the 1930s. The last time the Tories were in power of course, they could pay for their failed economic policies with the North Sea oil bonanza.
These are not places you would normally associate with economic experiments at the heart of the British economy – what happens in the great industrial connurbations or the throbbing capital are rightly accorded the most attention. Our gentle seaside resorts are often idealised places of escape on the fringe, surrounded in our case by some of the most beautiful countryside in Britain. What happens here won’t make much impact on the national statistics. And it is perhaps because of this remoteness that we go unnoticed and perhaps why our Tory representatives believe they have the freedom to behave with scant regard for the wellbeing of people a lot worse off than themselves. But our seaside resorts could be like canaries in a mine – our local economies tend to be seasonally based, low waged and low inward investment destinations. We attract higher than average numbers of the retired, so there are higher demands on social and health services. A superficial glamour can conceal a lot of issues.
So the imminent stripping out of the welfare safety net could be a devastating blow to already struggling local economies, which will almost certainly be made worse by the war on local government initiated by this government in the name of ‘localism.’ What’s happening to Council Tax benefit is a good example of how this new ‘localism’ works. The government says councils should develop their own arrangements for delivering Council Tax – they say local councils can exercise this ‘freedom’ in order to devise incentives in the system to help people back to work. At the same time the ConDems are cutting by 10% the money available to support Council Tax benefit, a cut in effect only for people of working age. Pensioners will not see their benefit reduced. Hence in a place like Scarborough with a higher than average elderly population, the cuts to benefits for claimants of working age will actually be in the region of 25% to 35%. This will be on top of all the other cuts they face.
Now we know the Tories hate unemployed people, but the irony here is that one third of our Council Tax benefit claimants are already in work, albeit low paid. For this group one wonders how the ‘incentive’ of a lower benefit is meant to get them into work? And for this group of people, there is a double whammy. Many of them are part-time and their Working Tax credit will be entirely removed if they have the temerity not to be working 24 hours a week. The current qualification for WTC is 16 hours. Of course, we are told that low paid people will pay less tax with the increase in the personal tax allowance. But I doubt whether many of these people earn enough to pay income tax in the first place.
What of the work available? Is there a glut of vacancies for all the work-shy to move into? In September our local job centres had 771 vacancies. There were 2,491 people claiming Job Seekers’ Allowance. The number of long term unemployed (over two years) has exactly doubled from 415 to 830, so the vacancies we have couldn’t even satisfy that demand. There will undoubtedly be many more seeking work who are not claimants. In an area with a higher than average number of older people, the number of those seeking work is also bound to rise as the retirement age is put back – another move which will disproportionately affect women.
I’ve not touched upon cuts to housing benefits, the under-occupancy rule now commonly known as the ‘bedroom tax’ nor a host of other measures which can only be described as punitive. Cameron’s talk of withdrawing housing benefit altogether from the under-25s shows how merciless this agenda is. The concept of a safety net is clearly one which this government doesn’t grasp, and whereas large cities and towns may still have local government sizable enough to cope, in the smaller areas like ours, particularly on the coast, the problems multiply. In the search for work, transport is an issue and in Conservative controlled areas public transport is not the priority it is say in Manchester or Leeds. People’s access to health services is similarly restricted. Support is thinner on the ground.
Who will notice if the canaries drop dead?
There’s been a big welcome for Peter Kay’s decision to return to live performances. Tickets are selling like hot cakes. But he has stiff competition from the new(ish) comedian on the block, Keir Starmer (oh no, not again). In the context of nurses’ pay Keir had this cracker, saying on ITN news that he won’t “make promises I can’t keep.” His biggest fans will welcome this new line, since a couple of years ago he was happy (implicitly) to say ‘I’ll make promises I don’t intend to keep.’ Keir’s a subtle performer who’ll keep his audience waiting for the punch line until the very last minute, by which time it will be too late to know whether to laugh or cry. But seriously. Nurses are leaving the NHS faster than they can be recruited. Retention is a big issue. Nurses’ pay has shrunk since 2010. Labour has promised more nurses (just like the Tories regularly do) but where will they come from? And how will they be retained if their pay is crap? Find the money Starmer and give them what they deserve!
+Keir Starmer’s promise to ‘unite the Labour Party’ seems to be based on the premise that this can be achieved by completely eviscerating the left. Anyone who has shown any leftist inclination now appears to stand little chance of being selected as a Labour parliamentary candidate, and many members have been suspended for trumped up crimes, such as having once or twice shown sympathy with organisations now proscribed (n.b. not crimes that were ‘crimes’ at the time—before such organisations were deemed unacceptable. I thought this kind of retrospective ‘justice’ was outwith the bounds of the great British sense of fair play). The mass scale of this purge would make somebody with Stalinist inclinations proud. It is pretty unprecedented. There have always been efforts to keep certain individuals off Labour’s promotion ladder (I should know) but what is happening now is taking place on an industrial scale. It suggests that Starmer is a vulnerable kind of leader, the sort of person who can only lead if his troops are all entirely in his mould and demonstrate blind loyalty.
Despite views to the contrary this was never true of the New Labour years. Members of the Socialist Campaign Group were tolerated (if being entirely ignored amounts to toleration). That egregious example of rebellion (and future leader), Jeremy Corbyn was never taken as a threat by Tony Blair or Gordon Brown. Many MPs who weren’t vetted prior to the 1997 landslide (because nobody thought they would win) weren’t subsequently deselected. Another word for leader is ‘dictator’ and that is the road Starmer has chosen. He feels this way not just about individuals on the left, but also anything the Party’s conference may decide which he doesn't agree with, for example showing solidarity with the Palestinians’ subjugation under the Israeli government’s apartheid occupation (and where is Starmer’s condemnation of the recent Israeli election result, with its inevitable dire consequences for Palestinians?) The internal democracy of the Labour Party is falsely touted as one of its strengths especially compared to the Tories, but this comparison has less and less substance as this current leadership exercises its priorities.
What are those priorities? Yes, obviously priority number one is to get the Tories out. That’s the priority that binds a lot of members to the party, that keeps them wedded to it. But beyond that, what? I don’t detect any great ambition to make the transformational change our society needs. There are some reasonable if timid policies slowly emerging, but Labour under Starmer doesn’t have the spine to take on ‘the establishment.’ Why would it take on itself, after all?
+My jovial suggestion yesterday that Elon Musk could replace Trump thankfully can’t become a reality: Musk was born in South Africa, so he is ineligible to become US president. And Musk’s future prospects can’t be rock solid. After predicting a red wave tsunami, his prescience must be questioned too. Perhaps in response to Musk’s pro-Republican stance, Biden has just announced that Musk’s businesses' deals with Saudi Arabia and China may have to be scrutinised on national security grounds. And then there’s his purchase of Twitter . . .