14 April 2014

Week 16 2014

Tendring Topics……..on line

Maria Miller

            When I learned that Prime Minister David Cameron was giving his full support to Ms Maria Miller in her defence of her job as Culture Minister, despite clamour from the press and some MPs for her resignation, I wondered if it might be the kiss of death.  She wouldn’t be the first to have been forced into resignation within days of the Prime Minister offering similar support.  Her case had been considered by the independent Commissioner appointed to investigate alleged fraudulent claims for expenses by some MPs.  He had ruled that there was no evidence of deliberate fraud but that she should apologise to the House of Commons and pay back £46,000 that she had been paid to her but to which she hadn’t been entitled.  He also commented that she had been less than co-operative during the course of the investigation.

            It was though, not the commissioner but the Parliamentary Standards Committee consisting of fellow-MPs, who made the final decision.   They agreed that Mrs Miller should make a public apology but they reduced the amount she would have to repay  from £46.000 to just over £5,000!   Isn’t it the members of that committee rather than Ms Miller who should have been considering resignation!

            It was this remarkable reduction in the sum that Ms. Miller had to pay back, plus her very half-hearted and perfunctory apology to the House of Commons, that caused the outcry – not least from members of her own Conservative Party – and ultimately led to her resignation from her Cabinet post.

            My interest in the case is that it draws attention, once again, to the very different standard of behaviour expected of MPs of all political persuasions, and that of other professional servants of the public in central and local government, and the very different code of discipline that rules their behaviour. I know very little about the Civil Service but I do know that local government employees who had been revealed to have fiddled expenses or claimed allowances to which they were not entitled, to the extent of thousands of pounds, would be lucky if their penalty was only the loss of their job – more likely they would be prosecuted, face a possible prison sentence, the loss of their pension entitlement and the probability that they would never work again in a responsible job.  They would certainly never have been given the soft option of returning the money they had fraudulently obtained and making an apology.  How nice it must be to be able to do as Mr Cameron suggested, and ‘draw a line under the past’.  No doubt every arrested burglar, confidence trickster and rapist would like the same! Why shouldn’t erring MPs be treated exactly the same as erring civil servants and local government officials?

How about genuine mistakes and misunderstandings?  For goodness sake!  MPs make the laws that we have to obey.  We can surely expect them to understand their own rules – and to know the difference between right and wrong!  How strange that ‘mistakes and misunderstandings’ are always in one direction.  Has there ever been a case of an MP accidentally or mistakenly paying a substantial un-owed sum of money back to the government?

A Not-Unhappy Ending

            Those who have been concerned about Ms. Miller’s financial situation now that she is no longer a Minister of the Crown will be relieved to know that I have just heard on the tv news that as a former member of the Cabinet she’ll get a £70,000 golden handshake on her departure

Suffering from Depression?   Or just depressed?

Almost every week we get new, and often conflicting ‘health advice’ or ‘health warnings’ from this, that or the other ‘expert’, on the front pages of the popular press.  Any alcohol intake is harmful. A glass of red wine every day will guard against heart disease and will halt the progress of macular degeneration of the retina of the eye. All smoking is harmful and inadvertently inhaling some-one else’s second-hand smoke is no less dangerous. The whole nation is suffering from obesity as a result of eating too much and exercising too little.  Eat too little and you’ll become anorexic. Over-exercise could give you a stroke or a heart attack.  Try to eat at least five portions of fruit or vegetables every day. Eat more fruit or vegetables every day – seven is better than five and vegetables are better than fruit!

The latest health scare – though it claims to be stating a fact rather than issuing a warning – is that most elderly people are suffering from depression and that the NHS ought to do something about it.  Well, I am 92 and, God willing, I shall be 93 in about six weeks time. I just don’t believe that many of my contemporaries are suffering from clinical depression. Depression is a serious and very unpleasant mental illness.  Some years ago I was acquainted with someone with what we then called manic-depression (now I believe bi-polar disorder is the pc expression). When that person was in her depressive phase she was quite incapable of doing anything at all but sit and weep, totally convinced – whatever her actual circumstances at the time – that all the world was against her and that she faced a future of total misery.  Very unpleasant as it undoubtedly is - clinical depression is a definite medical condition that can be treated.

There may, for all I know, be some old people today like that – but I am sure they are a  small minority  Most of us oldies are depressed from time to time, but that’s not the same thing at all.  We are depressed because many of us have plenty to be depressed about.  Imagine what it must be like to be old, helpless and housebound, with no family left and few if any friends. You’re living on the state pension and any benefits you can get hold of.  You’ve really got nothing to do all day, no purpose in life, and you speak only to occasional tradesmen, perhaps to a welfare worker or a meals-on-wheels deliverer. To be depressed in such a situation is not a condition  that can be remedied by anything the NHS can offer. Goodness – anyone who isn’t depressed under those circumstances must surely be suffering from some other mental illness!

I’m glad to be able to say that my circumstances are not a bit like that.  I’ve a comfortable if modest home and an adequate income (when you’re in your nineties the opportunities for extravagant living become a little limited!)  I have concerned neighbours and reliable friends whom I see regularly.  No member of my family lives nearby and some live and work overseas – but I see some of them regularly and all are in touch by phone or email. I would be housebound if it were not for my electric mobility scooter (my ‘iron horse’) on which I visit local friends, do my shopping, and go to church and to our local Quaker Meeting.  I receive and answer emails, and I write this blog and try to publish it every week!   I think that, for a nonagenarian – I lead a pretty full life.

I know that I have a great deal to be thankful for.  I am sincerely grateful - but I can’t pretend that I don’t sometimes feel depressed and dispirited.  I miss my former physical strength and dexterity.  Every movement that I make is now an effort and everything I do takes three times as long as it once did. I can’t climb a step-ladder and stairs are very difficult for me.  It takes me a long time to cross a room to answer a phone or to go the front door for a caller.  I am clumsy.  I accidentally knock things onto the floor and find it increasingly difficult to pick them up again.  My short-term memory (particularly for people’s names) is bad and getting worse.   I’m truly grateful when people are extra kind and helpful towards me (as most people certainly are) but I resent my frailty that prompts their kindness!  In old age it really is more blessed to give than to receive.

I’m often told what a host of happy memories I must have to fall back on.   It’s true and, in the past I have enjoyed sharing them with my wife who featured in most of them.  Sadly her life came to an end nearly eight years ago – just three months after we had celebrated our 60th wedding anniversary.  Now I find that it is the very happiest memories of the past that are most likely to bring tears to my eyes.

I don’t think that very many of us oldies suffer from clinical depression.   Most of us would much rather be known as ‘Cheerful Charlies’ rather than ‘Moaning Minnies’. Even those like me though, blessed with steadfast and caring friends and loving relatives, a purpose in life, and all the material things that we really need, are sometimes depressed. This is simply because living through very old age can be a depressing experience. There's no denying it and I really don't see what the NHS - or anyone else - can do about it!

Happy Easter!

Yesterday (13th April) was Palm Sunday, when Christians remember that Jesus Christ rode on a donkey in triumph into Jerusalem, cheered on by the same crowd that a few days later would be howling for his death.  Next weekend comes Good Friday when we remember his sham trial, torture and cruel execution – followed on Easter Sunday by his glorious return from death.  I sometimes lose patience (another symptom of old age perhaps!) with those, usually very well-meaning and reasonable people, who say, ‘Of course I’m sure that we should all try to follow the example and teaching of Jesus, but I really can’t accept all that supernatural stuff, and as for his return from the dead – I ask you!’

I prefer ‘miraculous’ to ‘supernatural’.  Jesus was brought up in a remote and insignificant part of the Roman Empire.  In early adult life he preached and healed the sick for no more than about two years.  He was then arrested, publicly humiliated and tortured to death by crucifixion – a word so familiar to us that we may not appreciate what a cruel and agonising method of execution a first-century crucifixion was.  Does anyone imagine that this unsuccessful preacher and healer, judicially murdered in his early thirties, would have featured even as a footnote in the pages of history, had not a handful of very ordinary down-to-earth people been quite convinced that he had walked with them, talked with them and shared meals with them, days after his cruel execution - and were prepared to die for that conviction?

Had there been no Resurrection there would have been no teaching to hear, no example to follow. Christ is risen!   He is risen indeed, Alleluia!



07 April 2014

Week 15 2014

Tendring Topics…..on line

Reviving the Poll Tax?

          It was the introduction of a Poll Tax, a government demand for an equal sum per head from every adult without consideration of ability to pay, that provoked the Peasants’ Revolt in the 14th Century, a revolt that was put down only by the treachery and cruelty  characteristic of rulers in ‘the age of chivalry’.

It was the Poll Tax (the government preferred to call it the Community Charge) that in 1990 finally led to Mrs Thatcher’s downfall as Prime Minister.   She had long promised to get rid of the rating system – raising a proportion of local government finance from a local tax levied on households calculated on their home’s estimated rental value.  It wasn’t popular (no taxation system ever is!) and by the 1980s was out of date. It had been years since there had been a revaluation.   However, imperfect as it was, the rating system meant that there was at least a rough relationship between the amount on the ‘rate demand’ (that was an unfortunate word if there ever was one) and the wealth, or lack of it, of the ratepayer.

            Mrs Thatcher abolished the rates and, as had been promised in her party’s election manifesto, replaced it with the Poll Tax levied equally on every adult resident in every flat, bungalow, dwelling house, mansion, or palace in the local authority’s area.  The rate per head (per ‘poll’) was set by each local authority.  There were modifications.  The unemployed paid only 20 percent of the local poll tax for instance but generally speaking ‘the rich man in his castle’ paid exactly the same as ‘the poor man at his gate’ or in his tied cottage or squalid tenement.  ‘What could possibly be fairer?’ –  that’s what the rich man in his castle asked!

            As in the 14th century there was fury among the have-nots. There were protests all over the country and, particularly in London, demonstrations that evolved into riots.  Mrs Thatcher faced a revolt from her colleagues in government. She resigned as Prime Minister and Party Leader and was replaced by John Major.  He abolished the Poll Tax and replaced it with ‘Council Tax’, very similar to the old ‘rates’ except that there were ‘bands’ according to the estimated value of the property; undeniably less unfair, though still very generous to those in really palatial homes.

            Now, Lord Warner, a Labour Peer and one time Health Minister in Tony Blair’s New Labour government is suggesting something very similar to the old discredited poll tax to fund the NHS which, he says, is facing financial collapse.

            He thinks it would be a good idea if every adult in the country paid £10.00 a month for their ‘membership of the NHS’ and their right to NHS services. He also suggests that adult patients should pay £20 a night for stays in hospital.  There are a number of exemptions including us pensioners!  I’d like to think that this is out of genuine concern for the old and not just because all politicians (including those who have safe seats in the Lords) are aware that it is us greybeards who actually bother to vote at elections.  We’re the ones who can decide election results. 

            Supporters of Lord Warner’s idea say that there’s a black hole of insolvency in the finances of the NHS – and how else is it to be filled?   I believe that this can be done, without reducing anyone into either homelessness or starvation, by using the income tax system.  Income tax is the one form of taxation that, by its very nature, can never reduce anyone to penury.  Thanks to the latest budget no-one whose taxable income is less than £15,000 a year has to pay it at all and even the highest rate taxpayers,  those with a taxable income of £150,000 a year or more, only have to pay in tax 45% of their income above that level.

            First of all I suggest that all state benefits – children’s allowances, disability allowances, job seekers’ allowances, attendance allowances, pensioners’ winter fuel allowances, free tv licences, NHS prescriptions and bus passes be added on to any other taxable income, and income tax at the appropriate rate charged.  The state retirement pension is taxable so why should other benefits be tax-free?    Those with an income below £15,000 a year (and there are plenty of those, both in and out of work) would be completely unaffected by this change.  The rest of us would have to pay a little extra.  I, for example would have to pay income tax at the standard rate on my winter fuel allowance, my attendance allowance (that I get because of my very limited mobility), my free tv licence and an estimate for the cost of my free prescriptions.  I wouldn’t have to pay it on the cost of my bus pass because my mobility is so limited that I can’t use one.  I think that that is all.

            I wouldn’t enjoy paying that extra tax, but it would only be a percentage of my total income and wouldn’t leave me either hungry or homeless.

            It may be that that reform alone would be sufficient to fill the ‘black hole’ in NHS finances.   If not, then an extra penny or two on income tax would certainly be unpopular – but not, I think, as unpopular as the imposition of a new ‘Poll Tax’ on every adult to fund the NHS.

            I am beginning to think that the big divide in our society is not between black and white, between atheists and believers, or even between rich and poor – but between those who believe that ‘fair taxation’ is achieved when everyone, wealthy and poor alike, has to pay the same amount (poll tax, VAT, customs payments and so on) to finance the purposes of central and local government, and those who believe that we should all pay the same percentage of our income   The strange thing is that those who are most opposed to taxation being based on an equal percentage of taxpayers’ income are those who are most insistent on percentage rather than flat rate pay increases!

‘We won’t play with you – so there!’ 

            That childish playground threat came to my mind when I learned from a tv news bulletin that, because of the Ukraine/Crimea crisis, NATO was ceasing all co-operation and ending all communication with its Russian equivalent.   I’d have thought that a time of crisis was just when it was important for the two sides to get together and each try to see the other’s viewpoint.  The Presidents of the USA and Russia have recently had an hour-long telephone chat and their foreign ministers have also met – sadly fruitlessly – but this is the time to try, try and try again!   It is not the time to draw apart, start to mobilise forces, and make vague threats.
            I had feared that, in suggesting that Russia’s claim to the Crimea might have some justification, I was a loan voice crying in the wilderness.  Agreement has come from unexpected areas. In an interview on tv, a right-wing American Republican Senator has affirmed from his visit to the Crimea last summer that most Crimeans were either ethnic Russians or wanted closer friendly ties with Russia.  He fears that NATO is dragging the USA into distant squabbles in which the USA has no interest.  I had thought that Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, was blinded by his Europhobia when he suggested that the EU was partly responsible for the riots in Kiev that had preceded Russia’s recovery of the Crimea. He had even found a kind word to say for Vladimir Putin, the current favourite bogyman of the press. However, a thoughtful email from a regular blog reader has made me wonder.  Here it is:

Crimea is a problem isn’t it?   I do think though there has not been much effort to see it from the Russian point of view. Putin sees the “enemy” – NATO – getting closer and closer – and in the end threatening to take over his main naval base.  The pattern is always the same; first of all the EU woos nations with promises of open markets, infrastructure investment, a stable currency etc.,  and then the NATO boys come in behind and sign them up to an organisation which was actually set up to confront the Soviet Union. So ‘annexation’ without a shot being fired has been a pattern of NATO for the last 2 decades.   As a result the Baltic States which border Russia and have large minority groups of Russian workers, become part of the enemy – in Putin’s eyes. Clearly he could see Ukraine going the same way, and I think he may have been right.  Even the EU trade deals will probably disadvantage Russia by cutting off its access to Ukrainian products.  He probably thinks Belarus might go the same way, leaving Russia isolated economically and militarily.   He comes over as “tough and dictatorial” but do you really imagine he could have secured his Naval bases in the Crimea by negotiation?

On top of that, the “democratic and legal high ground” is not all with the West. After all, the elected government of Ukraine was overthrow.  There has not yet been an election to confirm a new mandate, yet already deals with the EU are being signed. It looks very much as if when the Pro-Russian government came to power, the EU continued its discussions with an opposition that had no legitimacy. They thereby aided and abetted civil unrest. Now that Crimea is not part of Ukraine, remaining Ukrainians will probably vote to go West.  That might not have been the case while Crimea was still part of Ukraine.
The most important part of that email is right at the beginning.  No effort whatsoever has been made to see the Russian point of view.  Fortunately we do know how the USA would react under comparable circumstances.  In the Cuban missile crisis the then USSR wanted to put missile launchers on Cuba to protect it from the very credible threat of an invasion from the USA.  There had been such an attempt at the Bay of Pigs, that had been foiled.

            The siting of missiles capable of striking into the heart of the USA was sufficient for President John F. Kennedy to threaten the USSR with armed retaliation and the world with nuclear war.  Fortunately Nikita Khruschev, the Soviet President, was wise enough to communicate with John Kennedy, and to withdraw his missiles; but – no doubt as a result of that friendly chat between the two Presidents – there was no invasion of Cuba.

            ‘Treat others exactly as you yourself would wish to be treated’, is sound advice for Nations as well as individuals.   How many bloody conflicts might have been averted had governments followed that advice!

Late comment

I have this morning (7th April) heard on the tv news that there have been riots in several towns in the Eastern Ukraine.  The suggestion was made that Russian Agents had provoked them.  This just as likely (and just as unlikely) as the suggestion that British and/or American Agents provoked and encouraged the riots in Kiev and elsewhere in western Ukraine that led to the overthrow of the elected pro-Russian President.

I think the situation is a very dangerous one and I hope, for the sake of all of us, that both Russia and NATO will refrain from interfering and from encouraging either side.  Certainly this is not the time for threats or promises of reprisals or other 'consequences'.









31 March 2014

Week 14 2014

Tendring Topics………on line

Crimea – and after

            Has it occurred to you – as it certainly has to me – that the reaction of ‘Europe’ and of the USA to recent events in the Crimea has been out of all proportion to the events themselves?

            There has, for instance, been a general agreement that Russia’s claim to sovereignty of the Crimean peninsula has no validity whatsoever – and that Russia acted solely out of self-interest and in order to add a few thousand acres and some two million mostly unwilling Ukrainians to its enormous ‘empire’. This simply isn’t true.  Crimea was recognised as an integral territory of Russia, not of the province of Ukraine, during the time of the Romanov Tsars. After the revolution of 1917, the communist government of the Soviet Union continued to recognise the Crimea as being part of the Federal Republic of Russia, not of the Federal Republic of the Ukraine.  It was not until 1954 that Nikita Khruschev, then Soviet president, transferred its sovereignty to the Ukraine without any consultation with local people.  He presumably did this for administrative convenience – though the fact  that Mr Khruschev was himself half Ukrainian may have had something to do with it!

            A few weeks ago the Crimea’s pro-Russian faction, taking advantage (all right, using the pretext, if you prefer) of the ousting of a President who, whatever his faults, had been democratically elected, took control. Russian Forces entered Crimea and besieged the Ukrainian military and naval bases in the peninsula. They then organised a referendum which, although derided in both London and Washington, almost certainly reflected Crimean public opinion in producing a substantial majority in favour of becoming Russian rather than remaining Ukrainian citizens. Russia then ‘annexed’ the Crimea or, as they would probably prefer to put it, restored the situation that had existed prior to Khruschev’s arbitrary action in 1954. Eventually, the Ukrainian government in Kiev accepted the inevitable and ordered their besieged troops and naval personnel to return to Ukraine.  It seems too that the Russian and Ukrainian Foreign Ministers are now prepared to meet each other to discuss the situation.  I hope that they do so and reach a peaceful conclusion.

            All of the above was achieved with minimal bloodshed.   There were, in fact, far fewer casualties in the Crimea than in the demonstrations/riots in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities that had preceded the Russian action.

            Why on earth then did the EU, the UK and in particular, the USA make such a fuss about it; banning Russia from an international gathering in which they certainly had an interest and a contribution to make?  There have been limited ‘sanctions’ and threats of ‘further consequences’.  I notice that that in the field of space exploration and research, co-operation between Russia and the USA remains unchanged – possibly because Russia is now alone in being able to send material and personnel to and from the international space station! I can well understand the Baltic States – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania being concerned, as they have considerable ethnic Russian minorities whose members feel they are treated as second-class citizens.  Will those states face a fate similar to that of Ukraine?  

Our government seeks to quell those anxieties by increasing arms supplies to enable those states to defend themselves against any Russian incursion.  It’s no doubt good for the British arms industry, but it might also have been wise to urge that all residents in those countries, of whatever ethnic origin, are treated equally, and the Russian language accorded equal status with the local Baltic tongue.  Several countries in the world have more than one official language; Canada, Switzerland, Belgium and of course, Wales, come instantly to mind.  The Baltic countries would be wise to join them.

 Why is the USA so concerned about the Crimea?   Geographically the USA and Ukraine could hardly be further apart. I can think of at least one US President in recent years who would have had difficulty in finding either Ukraine or the Crimean peninsula on a map of the world! Could it have been because a compliant west-oriented Ukraine would have joined the NATO alliance?  They might then have welcomed a NATO naval base on the Crimean peninsula. This would have given the US Navy a presence in the Black Sea that Russia would certainly have seen as threatening.

At last week’s public debate about our membership of the EU, between Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrat Party and Nigel Farage of UKIP, Mr Farage made the extraordinary suggestion that the European Union was responsible for the demonstrations in Kiev that led to the overthrow of Ukraine’s President and – indirectly – to Russia’s recovery of the Crimea.  That’s almost as daft an idea as that of the UKIP disciple who wrote to our local newspaper claiming that the EU was responsible for the recent flooding of the Somerset Levels!

I have little doubt that those demonstrations and riots were what they purported to be – a genuinely popular protest against a President who, though democratically elected, had abused his office. However, those who love a conspiracy theory and are devotees of ‘cold war’ fiction could surely make a much more convincing case for the involvement of the CIA and its British counterparts in a successful effort to replace a Russian-oriented Ukrainian President with one more to NATO’s liking, than Nigel Farage’s attempt to blame it on the EU.

Further News

I have just heard (Saturday 29th March) that Presidents Obama and Putin have had an hour-long chat on the phone and have agreed that their Foreign Ministers' will meet to discuss the current situation and try to find a solution. Here are some ideas they might want to consider.

Russia should immediately cease its military manoeuvres and reduce materially its troop concentrations near the Ukrainian frontier and any other frontiers that seem threatened. In return, 'the west' should withdraw its sanctions, resume normal diplomatic and commercial relations with Russia and accept that Crimea is de facto and possibly temporarily, part of Russia.  In twelve months time hold another referendum among the people of the Crimea, asking  if they wish to remain within Russia or revert to being part of Ukraine.  This referendum to be managed and policed by the United Nations so that there could be no question of its being held 'under the shadow of the kalashnikov'.  All concerned would need to agree in advance to accept the referendum's verdict.

              Ukraine should then join neither NATO nor Russia in military alliance, and its future neutrality should be guaranteed by both.  This would not only be conducive to world peace but would also spare Ukraine maintaining armed forces on a scale that it can ill afford.
I wish that I really thought there was a possibility of anything as sensible as that emerging from the Foreign Ministers' talks!   It would be a bit tough on the armaments manufacturers (there’s nothing like a bit of international tension for pushing up the profits) Perhaps they could find out if there’s a demand for ‘plowshares and pruning hooks’ or their 21st century equivalent!

Even later news

The Russian and USA Foreign Ministers have met - and, surprise, surprise - have not reached agreement.  The USA wants Russia to accept that its recovery/annexation of Crimea was illegal.  Russia wants Ukraine to be neutral (I'd endorse that) and to have a federal structure - presumably with East Ukraine as a federal state within Ukraine.

But what would happen if the Federal parliament of East Ukraine voted overwhelmingly to join Russia!  I've no idea - but I do know quite definitely that no possible outcome would be worth a war - not even a 'cold' one!

The real peril facing all humankind

          While humankind quarrels about who rules this that or the other piece of land, nature – oblivious to national frontiers, alliances, human rights and ultimate deterrents, and unconcerned with ethnicity or creed - inexorably proceeds with its own catastrophic plans for the future of  our planet and its inhabitants.

            Last year, the scientists of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the first part of their report on the impact that the changing climate will have on the world in the coming years.   It examined the atmospheric science and raised the panel’s level of certainty that climate change was being driven by human activity to an ‘almost certain’ level of 95 percent.  The second part, officially published today but well-leaked beforehand, translates that science into the physical impact likely to follow a further increase in greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide.

            Member states of the United Nations have agreed to take action to ensure that the global temperatures do not exceed two degrees above the pre-Industrial Revolution levels, the level described as causing ‘dangerous climate change’ by scientists.  Writing in the Church Times John Ware says that two degrees doesn’t seem much to ask, but  changes in climate currently being experienced are at a rate of 0.8 degrees.  Unless substantial action is taken in the next few years, that very modest two degrees target will not be met.

            The IPCC report points out that acidification of the world’s oceans is happening at a faster rate than at any time in the past 65 million years, a large number of species face an increased risk of extinction, and  climate change’s impact on food production is already visible in several regions.  Yields are expected to drop by as much as two percent during each decade from 2030.  Child malnutrition will be a key risk as not only food quantity but food quality will be affected. Small island-states will be at increasing risk from the rise in sea levels.

  The report predicts more rainfall in Northern Europe and that much of the infrastructure of North America will be vulnerable to extreme weather.  This is already happening with unprecedented floods in the UK, and unseasonal tornadoes, arctic conditions and snowfall in the USA.   Who can doubt that the heavy and continuous rain that caused the recent tragic mud-slide near Seattle in Washington State, was just one more local effect of climate change? It resulted in the destruction of a township and the loss of over 100 lives.

Coinciding with the publication of the IPCC report Christian Aid, always in the front line when catastrophes occur,  has published its own new report;   Taken by Storm: responding to the impacts of climate change.   This points out that this is not just a problem for future generations to solve. Death and destruction caused by climate change are affecting people here and now. World-wide communities are being forced  to change their way of life or to perish.



24 March 2014

Week 13 2014

Tendring Topics……..on line

The paths of glory………’

          Last week in this blog I discussed the approaching referendum on the future of Scotland.  All residents in Scotland over the age of sixteen (now that is a revolutionary change in electoral law!) will be given the opportunity to declare whether they want their country to remain part of the United Kingdom or become an independent sovereign nation-state.  The UK government has stated that the majority decision will be accepted and acted upon, whatever it may be.

            Just over a week ago a rather similar referendum was taking place in the Crimea about the future of that peninsula.  Crimea is a federal state of the Ukraine and voters were invited to declare whether they wished to remain part of the Ukraine or to become part of the Russian Federation.  That was certainly not an option that they were given in 1954 when Nikita Khrushchev’s Soviet Government had decided, presumably on the grounds of administrative convenience, that Crimea would no longer be part of Russia as it had been from the days of the Tsar, but of the Ukraine.  It had made little difference then, because both Russia and the Ukraine were constituent republics of the USSR.

             The referendum has been declared by Barak Obama to be ‘illegal’ (it may have been 'invalid', but how can establishing whether voters would prefer to be Russian or Ukrainian possibly be against any law?), William Hague, our verbally belligerent Foreign Minister described it as ‘a travesty of democracy’, and our Prime Minister has declared colourfully, but with no evidence whatsoever, that the result was obtained 'under the barrel of a Kalashnikov!'  I have seen no reports of ballot-rigging, multiple voting, or bullying of potential voters, as there have been after elections in Afghanistan and countries in the Middle East and Africa. We can be quite sure that any such reports would have been given full publicity by the Russo-sceptic press. The pro-Russian majority of 96 percent established what had already been made obvious  The way in which the Crimeans had welcomed Russian troops and had voluntarily displayed Russian flags; provided ample evidence that the population of Crimea preferred a future with Russia rather than Ukraine.    Since ethnic Russians are said to comprise only some 58 percent of the population of Crimea, that enormous majority suggests that quite a few ethnic Ukrainians and Tatars also voted for the Russian option.

            It would be that sort of majority we would expect to get if the inhabitants of Gibraltar were asked if they wanted to be citizens of the United Kingdom or of Spain  – and for much the same reason.

            Russia’s subsequent ‘annexation’ of the Ukraine has been described as an illegal ‘land-grab’. Perhaps it was, but it was surely unique in the fact that the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of the land that was ‘grabbed’ had wanted it to happen. It has also been unique in the fact that so far (even, it seems, after the forceful Russian take-over of the Ukrainian naval base reported this, Monday 24th March morning)  has been achieved with remarkably little bloodshed – less bloodshed, in fact, than in the violent demonstrations in Kiev that had preceded the Russian action.

            I recall that when it was decided to support the separatists in Kosovo (where I doubt very much if a referendum would have revealed over 90 percent of inhabitants wanted to break away from Serbia) the campaign included the RAF's bombardment of Serbia’s capital, the City of Belgrade.  When the UK government, after deceiving parliament and the British public about Iraq’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’, decided to join the USA in enforcing a regime-change in Iraq, the campaign began by inducing ‘shock and awe’ with terror air-raids on Baghdad.  As a direct result of that illegal invasion thousands of innocent lives were lost. Iraq is still a divided country in which terrorism flourishes; the same terrorism that perpetrated 9/11 and had been unknown in Iraq prior to our invasion.  I really don’t think that Crimea faces a remotely similar future.   I have referred in earlier blogs to the USA’s illegal blockade of Cuban ports, the use of chemical weapons in the Vietnam War and the totally unprovoked invasion of Grenada in the West Indies (then part of the British Commonwealth!)

            No doubt Russia has broken international rules by recovering its lost Crimean province without having first attempted negotiation, but ‘Let he who is without sin among you cast the first stone!’

            I was not impressed with Vladimir Putin’s triumphal announcement of Russia’s recovery of Crimea in the Russian Parliament. Painstakingly staged, it resembled too closely George Bush’s premature announcement of victory in Iraq from the bridge of a US aircraft carrier.  All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Successful leaders surround themselves with flatterers who feed their egos and lead them on into folly. To suggest that Putin is another Stalin is ridiculous, but I do think that he may see himself as ‘Vladimir the Great’, a worthy successor of the Romanov Tsars.

            He has promised ‘to put the glory back into Russia’. I can only hope and pray that the eight million Russian dead of World War II remind him that the paths of glory lead but to the grave.  The rest of the world's leaders, every one of whom is too young to have personal memories of World War II, also need to remember it.

The Budget

          I once would have described myself as a ‘democratic socialist’. I was for a short while a member of the Labour Party and was, in fact, accepted as a Labour candidate for a county council election.  How glad I am now that I withdrew my candidature, believing that I could do more for the causes that I support in my weekly Tendring Topics column in a local newspaper, than in the Council Chamber at Chelmsford, where I’d have been expected to toe the party line.

            One of those causes (regular blog readers will probably be all too familiar with some of the others!) arises from my conviction that many, perhaps most, of Britain’s problems arise from the enormous and ever-widening gap between the richest and the poorest in our society.  To the New Labour Party’s shame that gap widened during their ten years in office and has continued to widen ever since.   I think that I am well qualified to comment on this subject because my own income and possessions are sufficient for my life style. At 92 the opportunities for extravagant living become somewhat limited! I have no desire for more than I already possess – and I certainly wouldn’t be happy with much less.  I now describe myself, not as a socialist but as an egalitarian and I don’t much concern myself with how greater equality could best be achieved. In some fields public ownership (either national or local) would probably be the best way forward, but co-operative ownership and employer/employee partnerships may also have a valuable part to play.  I support – very modestly – the Equality Trust www.equalitytrust.org.uk  that works toward that end.

 My idea of a ‘good Budget’ is one that narrows the gap between rich and poor and a ‘bad Budget’ is one that widens it.  It follows that it is many years since I have seen a ‘good Budget’ and I despair of ever seeing one produced either by our present government or any currently conceivable successor.

Both parties in the coalition government are eager to claim the credit for taking ‘millions of low paid workers out of the tax system altogether’ by raising the personal allowance (the level at which income tax becomes payable) from £10,000 to £10,500 a year.  It does, of course, help low earners but it also helps everyone who pays income tax (including me!) right up to those on £100,000 or more a year.  What’s more it perpetuates the false idea that there’s a hard-working group of ‘tax payers’ whose labours subsidise an underclass of non-taxpayers.  It’s not true.   The non income-tax payer pays tax (VAT) every time he has his car, or his bike or his house repaired.  He pays tax every time he buys himself a pint, fills up the petrol tank of his car or motor bike, or is foolish enough to buy a lottery ticket or scratch card, to put a few bob on a horse, or to play commercial bingo!   He probably pays a higher proportion of his income in tax than bankers or stock brokers with their inflated salaries and bonuses! 

Regular blog readers will know that I believe that every adult citizen, from the poorest to the wealthiest, should pay the same percentage of his or her gross income in income tax as their annual membership fee as a citizen of the UK – and that those who go abroad to escape that responsibility should automatically forfeit that citizenship.

A somewhat controversial feature of the budget would permit those who are saving for a pension on retirement to withdraw all or part of that ‘pension pot’ without financial penalty, at any time.  Fears have been expressed that ‘live-for-the-day’ fifty-year olds might draw out the lot and spend it all on a cruise to the Caribbean or a glorious boozy party, rather than leave it to  mature for a meagre pension that they may never live to enjoy!  I think there’s a much greater danger that responsible middle-aged people faced with a domestic crisis, might draw out a smallish sum from the ‘pension pot’ to deal with it, rather than go to a payday loan firm – or a loan shark.  No-one would criticise them for doing so -  but it wouldn’t take many such crises to empty that ‘pot’! 

I don’t think Mr Osborne and his colleagues realize how their policies have brought so many families to the edge of a financial precipice – and how little it could take to render them jobless,  homeless and relying on the local food bank for their survival.  But then I don’t suppose that the members of a government of millionaires who spend much of their time with fellow-millionaires can be expected to know much about the struggles and the anxieties of the less well off.

17 March 2014

Week 12 2014

Tendring Topics……..on line

The Scottish Referendum

            The date of that referendum that will decide whether or not the Scots will remain in the UK or become an independent sovereign nation is getting nearer and nearer.  I think that the top politicians of our main political parties, once certain in their own minds of an overwhelming NO vote, are now a little less sure of the result.  Why else did they arrange for the head of BT to publicly announce his disquiet at the possibility of Scottish independence (a pity that he isn’t even British)?    Then there was the all-party announcement that an independent Scotland couldn’t hope to keep the pound sterling as its currency, would have to make a fresh application for EU membership and would find the process long and difficult, and that many financial institutions would probably relocate south of the border.

            Had I been a Scotsman and resident in Scotland I have little doubt that I’d have been an enthusiastic YES voter.  It is clear to me that public opinion north of the border is strongly opposed to virtually everything that many supporters of the Coalition Government stand for – payment for medical prescriptions, university tuition fees, indirect taxation that penalises the less-well-off, bedroom tax, and giving up our membership of the European Union.  Nigel Farage may get a triumphal reception in England but his one excursion into Scotland was brief and inglorious. How many Conservative and Lib.Dem. MPs are there north of Hadrian’s Wall?  How refreshing it must be to realize that a simple yes vote could shake off that Cameron/Osborne yoke for ever.  And, of course, I find Alec Salmond more honest and straightforward, and more convincing than any of that lot at Westminster.

            But I’m not a Scotsman and I live in East Anglia.  Consequently I rather hope for a NO vote in the referendum because I value the successful alternative course of action that the Scots display before us, and the fact that the Scottish vote makes it unlikely that David Cameron and his ilk will have a permanent majority in the UK parliament.

            I have just received what seems to me to be a very balanced view of the situation from a regular blog reader who is also a successful business man with interests on both sides of the Scottish border.  

I am now convinced that what the Scottish people want is autonomy, not separation.  It really is surprising that they want to keep the £ and the BBC and the Queen.  , It was wrong of Cameron to rule out that third option from the ballot paper.  All they want, is for the wealth which Scotland generates to be spent by the Scottish government, to raise their own taxes on whatever they consider to be appropriate, and spend Scottish taxes on whatever they think is right for Scotland – even if that means extending the welfare state.  They should also be seen as a “Partner”, not a “Regional council” on foreign affairs, EU policy etc. Currently it seems to me there is absolutely no consultation at all with them on National issues and, as a result, decisions are constantly made which almost everyone in Scotland disagrees with – but many in Scotland could finish up dying for.

I think when you are in Scotland, it is much clearer that this is a vote against “Westminster” – an expression they constantly use; not against Manchester, Newcastle or Liverpool, but against the political elite from both parties who have run the whole of the UK from a South-Central perspective for decades.  I think people in England feel either slightly offended that the Scots want to do their own thing, or else are completely uninterested – let them do what they want -  and don’t realise that it isn’t really a rejection of the “English people” or its traditions or way of life, but of the Westminster political system.  Maybe there should be wider support for that point of view, because the majority of people north of Milton Keynes and west of Shrewsbury think the same.  You wouldn’t believe the venom with which the staff of our East Durham customer regard the Tory government, with memories of pit closures still very raw

Actually I don’t believe that they will vote for independence, but if they do, I think that really will be the Cameron legacy. He played hard-ball, took a gamble and broke up the UK in the process.

I just hope, that if the vote is close, as I expect it will be, politicians will realise that they cannot just go back to business as usual and ignore the feelings of 2 - 3m people who may vote yes

I wrote the above on Saturday 8th March.  Today (Monday 10th) I have heard on the tv that former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has suggested much the same idea as my blog-reading correspondent.   Mr Brown is a Scotsman and I have to assume that, as a politician, he has a pretty good grasp of Scottish public opinion.

Perhaps then, as a southern Englishman who has nothing but good will for the Scots, I should be hoping that the No vote will prevail but by a sufficiently small majority to make ‘that lot at Westminster’ appreciate they’ll have to grant Scotland greater autonomy, and consider Scottish opinion before making pronouncements and decisions about foreign policy (including relations with the EU) and defence.

 Ukippers – ‘They’re dangerous, not just a laugh’, says article in ‘The Times’ .

            I have warned in this blog of the similarities between the rapid growth of Ukip during the past year or so, and that of the Nazi Party in Germany in the late 1920s and early ’30s.  Could Nigel Farage be a sanitised and Anglicised version of Adolf Hitler – and every bit as dangerous?  A well-researched article by Rachel Sylvester in The Times (still authoritative though now part of the News International Empire) suggests that he may be.  Here are some extracts from it:

It’s easy to sneer at Ukip. David Cameron called them “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”, Michael Howard dismissed them as “gadflies and cranks”. Nigel Farage’s barmy army looks like a one-man-pint-in-hand-band, combining golf club bonhomie with shock-jock prejudice — reactionary, swivel-eyed, out of touch.

Although the country is struggling at the edge of recession, Ukip has no economic policy and its leader has disowned his entire 2010 manifesto. Of the party’s 21 MEPs elected since 1999, almost half have defected, resigned, been suspended or gone to jail. The Ukip headquarters has been described as “Carry On Politics” — ill-disciplined and unprofessional. Even the leader’s wife, Kirsten, has described the party’s operation as a “freak show”. These rebels with a cause seem to revel in their eccentricity: at Ukip’s recent spring conference in Torquay there was fruit cake on offer to delegates at the door!

 This is not just harmless fun, a Monster Raving Loony Party in pinstripes. There is bigotry behind the comments blaming the floods on gay marriage and suggesting that women are sluts if they do not clean behind the fridge. There is cynicism and hypocrisy lurking below the surface, with MEPs happily riding first class on the Brussels gravy train even as they express their disgust at the House of Commons expenses scandal. They stay in smart Strasbourg hotels and dine in fine restaurants, slurping Ch√Ęteau Margaux at taxpayers’ expense, while condemning the waste of money by the EU. The party is also facing a European Parliament investigation into allegations that it improperly diverted public money to pay its staff in London. With a higher profile comes greater scrutiny and there is a bad smell around the Kippers.

I have spent the past two months investigating Ukip with Alice Thomson and it is clear that these anti-Establishment insurgents are guilty of appalling double standards. There is also a clear streak of nastiness running through the party. And yet, I can’t help feeling that it would be foolish and dangerous for the mainstream parties to ignore the Faragistes. It’s not just that the insurgents could steal their votes at the European elections in May, almost certainly forcing the Tories into third place and possibly beating Labour to the top spot. Nor is the issue that Ukip is expanding its base in local government, raising the prospect that it could soon be involved in council coalitions, wielding actual power.

What really matters is that the rise of Ukip exposes deep social and economic divisions in Britain. It points to a profound sense of alienation among certain sections of the population. Mr Farage may be a flawed character, more knave than fool in my view, but he is like the canary in the mine who is picking up on the poison gas of class and wealth inequality. His party is full of idiots, but its success is a serious warning to the political establishment and the “metropolitan elite” that includes the media.

It is striking — but no coincidence — that, according to YouGov polling for The Times, Ukip is the most working-class party, with 52 per cent of its supporters coming from the C2DE social groups, compared with 46 per cent for Labour, 43 per cent for the Tories and 32 per cent for the Lib Dems. Its voters are also the least well educated of any party apart from the BNP — 52 per cent of Ukip backers left school at 16 or earlier.

Mr Farage is completely wrong in his analysis of the problems the country faces and the solutions he proposes. His party is cynically exploiting vulnerable people and playing on their worst instincts and fears. But the rise in Ukip reveals a deeper truth that cannot be laughed off or ignored. Britain is still two nations.

            It is only weeks now to the elections for the European Parliament.  Funny, isn’t it – that those who moan about the undemocratic nature of the EU Executive in Brussels and the Council of Ministers, are strongly opposed to increasing the powers of the European Parliament, the one unquestionably democratic European institution.  If you value freedom and democracy, turn out and vote in that election – but do not vote for UKIP!


10 March 2014

Week11 2014

Tendring Topics…….on Line

Echoes from 1982

          On 10th July 1982, over forty years ago, bombs planted by the Provisional IRA exploded in London’s Hyde Park and Regent’s Park killing eleven soldiers, members of the Household Cavalry, and seven of their horses.  Echoes of those explosions have travelled down the years to 2014 – to make press headlines and to cast a little light on a feature of the Good Friday Agreement, that was apparently unknown to thos now responsible for governing that troubled province of the UK.

            John Downey, a former IRA member, had been arrested and was about to stand trial on suspicion of implication in those bomb outrages, but was released on the orders of the Judge when he produced a letter from the Northern Irish Constabulary assuring him that he was not ‘wanted by the police’ for any offence committed during the ‘troubles’.  At first it was suggested that this letter had been a one-off error made by the Northern Irish Police but it later became known that some 180 similar letters had been sent to other suspected republican terrorists ‘on the run’.  It was a promise amounting (at least in the recipients’ minds) to an amnesty.  It had been sent to republican suspected terrorists only and not extended either to ‘loyalists’ or to the British soldiers involved  in the ‘Bloody Sunday’ event in Londonderry.

            Peter Robinson, Northern Ireland’s First Minister, who has the almost-impossible job of holding together an uneasy power-sharing government of loyalists and republicans, claims that he had known nothing of these letters. He is said to have been ‘incandescent with rage’ when he heard of them.  He threatened to resign his post unless there was an immediate judicial enquiry into the whole matter – and David Cameron has agreed that there should be one, reporting its findings at the end of May

It has been suggested that the letters were promised to Sinn Fein by Tony Blair in order to ensure their compliance, without involving others involved in the Good Friday agreement, They were kept secret, rather like the contents of the cosy chats between Tony Blair and President Bush that took place before a majority of members of the House of Commons were deceived into endorsing the illegal and disastrous invasion of Iraq.  

It could be that it was only by means of that distinctly one-sided agreement that the present uneasy peace in Northern Ireland was secured.  I ask myself though whether a good conclusion can ever be achieved by dishonest means.  Some time ago I commented in this blog that making Tony Blair the United Nation’s ‘special peace envoy’ to the Middle East was rather like making one of the Kray brothers a Chief Constable.  Nothing has since happened to alter that opinion.

‘Why don’t they eat cake?’

            If, during the final decade of the twentieth century, you had asked an acquaintance or friend their opinion of Food Banks, they would probably have thought you were deranged.  Banks deal with money, not food. We had yet to experience the brave new world of the 21st century!   You might have received a more positive answer in the USA because Food Banks, providing basic sustenance for the hungry poor, had been established there from 1967.   They were ‘wholesalers’ rather than ‘retailers’ though – collecting and storing donated food items and sending them, in bulk, to approved charities for distribution to those in need.

            European countries, including the UK, generally had better national social services than those in the USA and the need for Food Banks didn’t arise until nearly four decades later – in 2006.  Now they are the United Kingdom’s fastest growing voluntary service, with over 400 such banks nation-wide and growing every week.  In 2013 they fed nearly 347,000 people!  The number of applicants has grown as the Government’s welfare cuts have taken effect.  To obtain help, applicants need to get a voucher from a professional such as a local authority social worker. On presenting the voucher to the food bank they are given sufficient food for three days.
            Most Food Banks are co-ordinated by the Trussell Trust and are associated with Christian Churches, in accordance with Jesus Christ’s declaration that we should treat other people as we ourselves would wish to be treated.  It is very heartening that the Bishops of the Church of England and Roman Catholic Church, together with the leaders of the Free Churches, are giving their enthusiastic support, while at the same time criticising government policies that have created the need for the food banks.   Some fifty percent of the food distributed is donated by members of the public.  Some is given by private enterprises such as supermarkets and many Food Banks are supported, in one way or another, by the local authority of the district in which they are situated.
                                                         A cartoon from the ‘Observer’
In my own town of Clacton-on-Sea (which includes the Brooklands area of Jaywick, said to be the UK’s most deprived area) the Food Bank is run by the Salvation Army with the support of other Christian traditions in the town including, of course, Clacton Quakers of which I am a member.

            The need for Food Banks has increased as the Chancellor’s attacks on the meagre incomes of the poor have begun to bite, though the government insists that this increase is simply because ‘scroungers’ have discovered in them a source of free food and that ‘there is no robust evidence of a link between the increase in demand for Food Banks and the welfare reforms’. It has even been suggested that some recipients of food parcels have sold on their contents!   How robust, I wonder, does evidence have to be to convince those who don't wish to be persuaded.  The fact that food parcels are dispensed only to those presenting a voucher from a welfare professional, is surely a deterrent to ‘frivolous and fraudulent applicants’.

            I have just watched a very striking programme on the tv about Food Banks and the valuable service they provide.  To provide ‘balance’ a number of denigrators of Food Banks were interviewed, including former Cabinet Minister Edwina Curry.  I’d be very surprised if any one of them has ever felt the pangs of real hunger.  Some of their comments made Marie Antoinette’s alleged suggestion that if the poor of Paris couldn’t get bread ‘they should eat cake’ seem positively liberal and benign! 

The Price of Postage Stamps

Like me, you may have thought that that massive increase in the cost of sending mail that we endured last year (First Class minimum postage 60p, Second Class 50p!) was the last we’d have to put up with for a year or two; especially as privatisation, which took place just a couple of months ago, was supposed to be going to be giving us a better, more efficient, service.

We were wrong.  Postage charges are going up again - from 1st April which is not an inappropriate date!   First class stamps are to go up to 62p (an increase of 3.3 percent) from that date, and second class ones from 50 to 53p (an increase of 6 percent).   I’m glad that I bought enough of those attractive Madonna and Child Christmas stamps to see me through several months of the new financial year.  They’ll prove to have been quite an investment, though nothing like that of the investors who bought shares in Royal Mail at the ridiculously low price of 330p a share.  They have seen their investment almost double to £6.00 a share since they made their purchase.

It is easy to forget that whenever a public service is privatised its main purpose changes from serving the public to satisfying the shareholders!

Spring is here!

A fortnight ago I published a picture with my blog, of a few daffodils around the eating apple tree in my garden, just coming into bloom in late February.  Now in early March, as you can see, they are all in full bloom. 
 Spring 2014 really is here!  

 These daffodils have a special significance for me.  From the kitchen window of our bungalow, my wife Heather watched them grow, bloom and wither, year after year, It was where those daffodils bloom that, nearly eight years ago, I scattered her ashes after sixty years of happy marriage. I hope that when the time comes my ashes too may be scattered there.