Politics of … what ?

Now that the parties are jockeying for position at the starting gates of the next general election, the same old tired arguments are coming from each side, and from the press.  One of the tiredest allegations concerns ‘the politics of envy’.  This is an expression used to describe any attempt to make our society more equal, and has been rolled out by the business editor of the Times this week.

Now then.  I have been in or around progressive politics most of my life .  I was a Labour councillor in the 1970s in Middlesbrough, stayed a member of the Labour Party for most of the Blair years, only giving up when Gordon Brown persisted in his kow-towing to business interests and bankers.  Yep, I actually spotted that one before 2008 crash.  My work has involved meeting community groups, trade unions, and I have always operated in deprived areas – the West Midlands, Teesside, Manchester, industrial Yorkshire, Inner London.  I worked on European programmes to help those affected by the steel closures in Sheffield.  I’ve met some superb people – my ward chairman in Middlesbrough was a security guard at a chemical works, humble family grandpa  who revealed to me over a pint one night that he had fought in Spain in the 1930s.  I’ve been involved with policy debates on all sorts of topic and in all sorts of places.  But I have never, on any occasion, thought that the arguments for greater equality, or better public services, or fairer taxation, were motivated by envy.  The very idea that an unemployed steelworker trying to pay his gas bill, or an inner-city Londoner struggling with the rent, are somehow attracted by Richard Branson’s lifestyle, or Philip Green’s behaviour, or the Duke of Westminster’s property portfolio, only has to be stated to be seen to be absurd.

What people on the progressive side of politics want is a society where everyone has a fair deal.  It goes beyond fairness, the idea that our common humanity gives us an obligation to ensure that all our fellow citizens can lead a decent and dignified life.  A more equal society can be shown to be healthier, and happier.  You can even find Nobel Prize-winners like Joseph Stiglitz who would argue that more equality will lead to a more prosperous society, making it easier to end the slump.  None of these arguments is about envy, and those that say it is should sit down and spend some time washing out of their brain the clichés used by the rich to avoid thinking about their responsibility to contribute to common decency.

(p.s. any progressive person who is well off is, of course, a champagne socialist. They get you both ways)

Curse of Coinage

You may have heard of the Curse of Hello.  This describes the way that couples who sell their story (or, worse, pictures of their wedding or the birth of their child) head pretty rapidly for the divorce court.  There is a similar phenomenon in football, where the unfortunates who win the Barclays Manager of The Month award see their team plummet with a batch of poor results.  This is, of course, explicable by simple statistics – wins and losses are not equally distributed, and a series of good results will not go on forever.  Fixture lists also follow matches against a number of poor teams with a clutch of more challenging ones against table-topping opposition.  But the manager-of-the-month curse is still out there in the popular imagination.

I have now discovered an equivalent to the curse of Hello in the public sector, in the shape of the humble 50p piece.  Time was when our coinage was boring – well designed but unchanging – a little like pre-1960s UK stamps.  In recent years we have had coinage that is more ambitious and jazzy,  The 5p and 10p pieces feature only part of the national coat of arms, for example.  The 50p piece, being a bit bigger, can be changed to include tributes to historical events or references to current affairs.  Britannia will sit on her rock on one side, but the other will pay tribute to Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary or feature the sports of the London 2012 Olympics.  However, have you noticed that other commemorative editions celebrate the UK membership of the EU and the signing of the Single European Act (now under threat from Cameron’s referendum) ? The anniversary of the NHS (currently being privatised by Jeremy Hunt) ?  150 years of public libraries (value them whilst you can – they’re being shut in droves because of local government finance cuts) ?  Kew Gardens (Admission fee in 1971 – 1p, today £13.50) ?

So next time you see something being ‘celebrated’ on your coinage – National Parks, Technical Colleges, Public Transport, Social Housing – be afraid.  Be very afraid.

Ukraine

“The biggest crisis in Europe this century” says William Hague, and he may be right.  The economic consequences of 2008 in the Eurozone might run it close in wealth lost – and even lives lost – but whatever you may think of the European Central Bank, it hasn’t got nuclear weapons and hasn’t sent in any paratroops. What is to be done ?

Well, reflection first of all.  We should remember that the word ‘jingoism’ was coined to describe bristling nationalism against Russia on a previous occasion.  Don’t get me wrong – the actions of Russia are plainly out of order.  The issue is – what do we do about it ?  Sending in the US Marines would be, shall we say, ill-advised.  The idea of using economic sanctions is attractive, particularly if we can hit the Russian rich who seem to own homes across most of West London and can buy British visas for what to them must seem small change.  There do seem to be glitches.  Germany imports vast quantities of Russian gas and oil, and has a massive surplus on manufactured exports with Russia: may not be keen on giving up either.  Worse, the weekend papers reported that the City of London is worried that sanctions would interfere with their business as the money laundering capital of the world.  You may imagine, then, how effective will be the measures our city-dominated government is likely to implement.  How far away their morality is from the cotton workers who were prepared to starve rather than weave slave-traded raw materials in the American Civil War.

This next bit will not be popular.  Yanukovich, the ousted President of Ukraine appears to have been a tyrannical plutocrat, using state revenues to enrich his family and build palaces for his own use.  He approved the use of armed troops to shoot at demonstrators.  Not a nice man, we can judge.  However, he was elected.  There are a number of examples recently of elected officials – Egypt, for example – being ousted to Western applause.  We are also getting a head of steam to disapprove of the Venezuelan government, equally elected.  It does seem that our leaders are all in favour of democracy as long as no-one we disagree with gets voted in – or, if they do get voted in, they do nothing of which we might disapprove.  Of course there are problems with defining ‘democracy’ when it puts opposition leaders in jail (Ukraine, Russia), oppresses minorities (Hungary, Uganda) and dominates the press and TV (Italy, anyone ?).  And a leader elected by fiddled votes or intimidation – as in Zimbabwe – is no democrat at all.  But the Ukrainian people were going to have an opportunity in a reasonably well-organised election to dump the guy.  Why do we think they were right to act now ?

I guess because we agree with the views of the activists that Ukraine should build more links with the West, including trade deals with the EU.  But, to drone on again, the elected Ukrainian government considered this issue and decided not to.  I guess it decided not to because to do so would annoy, possibly fatally, relations with an extremely influential and powerful neighbour.  Seems to me – and no-one in the press seems to be saying this, despite it being blindingly obvious – that that was a judgement that has been borne out by the facts.  In an ideal world, all nations would be able to decide policies without any reference to the wealth or military powers of others.  We have not, however, been in such a world for a while. We are all, to a degree, Finlandised. Before you protest, let me remind you of the possibility of corruption in an arms deal that we – in Britain – were not allowed to investigate because it would have offended Saudi Arabia.  And the more mess we get in the Middle East – Syria, Iran, Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt – the more insistent the little voice at the back of my head that reminds me of the cynical old CIA hacks who said this would happen if we rocked the boat, just as us students were on the street advocating social democracy for the world.

I think what I am saying is that power politics hasn’t gone away, and what we must do is try to inject as much ethical conduct as we can without being silly.  This is not an argument for appeasement – genocide, torture, invasion are not acceptable at any point.  However, short of that point, let’s reflect on the old Latin saying – ‘let justice be done even though the heavens fall’.  If your child is starving in a Beirut slum, if Russian storm-troopers take over your local airport, if education is being withdrawn from women, you might feel that whether justice is being done depends very considerably on how much heavens fall, and on whom.