17 December 2014

17th December 2014

Tendring Topics…….on line

‘Lord, make me chaste and celibate…….
          but not just yet!’

            This was said to have been a prayer of St Augustine of Hippo (no, not the St. Augustine who brought the Christian faith to the heathen English) and proves that saints are 'only human'!.

            I think of St Augustine’s prayer whenever I read, or hear on tv or radio, about yet another international conference on climate change resulting from global warming.  There’s always a remarkable unanimity about these conferences.  The leaders of almost every nation accept the reality of global warming resulting in extreme weather conditions throughout the world.  The northern polar ice-cap is shrinking as are glaciers world-wide. There have been killer typhoons in the South Pacific Ocean and unprecedented monsoon floods on the Indian sub-continent. North America has had searing heat and drought as well as floods and unseasonal arctic spells that have stretched most of the way from Canada to the Mexican border. 

The Rhone Glacier, photographed by me in 1979.  There is now no ice to be seen.

Africa has had prolonged droughts and Australia has had both floods and bush fires, laying waste to hundreds of square miles of land. 

Mainland Europe has had floods, mud-slides and avalanches. During the winter of 2013/2014 the UK’s weather was unseasonably mild but heavy storms battered and broke the sea defences on Britain East Coast while elsewhere – particularly on the Somerset Levels and the Thames Valley – hundreds of acres of land, together with farms and homes, were flooded for weeks as a result of continuous torrential rain.  Last month, our government produced plans for flood prevention to be carried out in the next two or three years.  If only nature proceeded at an equally leisurely pace!

            The latest international conference on climate change was in Lima.  The world’s leaders heard scientific experts explain that a major cause of climate change is the steady increase in ‘greenhouse gases’ produced by fossil fuels; coal and coal products and fuel oils used in industry, in road transport and for warming our homes.  We must, say the world’s scientists, urgently reduce the use of fossil fuels – leaving some reserves untouched – if we want to save our planet for our grandchildren and their grandchildren

            The world’s political leaders agree.  Reducing the use of fossils fuels must be a priority – but not just yet.  The Chinese want to wait until their industrialisation has caught up with that of the USA.  The UKs leaders have got a general election coming up.  They certainly don’t want to take any precipitate action that might cost them votes – or the support of those giving generous donations to the ruling party.  Beside in shale oil, another fossil fuel obtained by ‘fracking’, the Americans are sending us cheaper fuel – and encouraging us to wreck our own countryside by producing our own.  Producing a cheaper fuel (never mind that it produces greenhouse gases) is certainly a vote winner.  There are very few votes to be gained in the pursuit of clean and sustainable energy.

            The result of the International Conference in Lima?  Well, no worth-while action will take place this year.  Next year, perhaps something positive will be agreed – but I’m not holding my breath.

        We’ll never know whether the prayer of St Augustine to be made chaste and celibate – but not just yet, was answered.  Perhaps it was.  It is the nature of the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ to forgive sins of the flesh, particularly those who have acknowledged and confessed their fault.   ‘Perverse and foolish oft I strayed, But still in love he sought me. And on his shoulder gently laid, And home rejoicing brought me’   I think God may be a little less forgiving towards those who, from greed, national pride or fear of election defeat, ignore the warnings of the wise, and are prepared to sacrifice future generations to their own self-centred interests.

‘It’s not what is done……..it’s who it is does it’

       The American Senate’s report on the conduct of the CIA in the aftermath of ‘9/11’ has brought the whole policy of the USA at that time into the limelight.  As well as the torture of suspects under interrogation, there was their ‘rendition’ to countries, Libya for instance, where torture could take place without as much as raised eyebrow, and there was the establishment at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, of a concentration camp of which Himmler would have been proud!

        I find myself interested less in what the CIA and their political masters did, but what they didn’t even attempt to do.  The outrages of ‘9/11’ were planned and carried out by El Qaeda, the dominant jihadist terrorist organisation of the day. At the head of El Qaeda was Osama bin Laden whom the CIA tracked down and killed, without so it seems, making any attempt to capture him.  It certainly stopped him from revealing, in the dock, the support El Quaeda had from the CIA in their campaign of terror against soldiers and civilians of the Soviet Union.

          Osama Bin Laden was a Saudi Arabian, so were the overwhelming number of the terrorists who had successfully planned and carried out the destruction of New York’s ‘Twin Towers’ on ‘9/11’.   There was not an Iraqi or an Iranian or a Syrian among them.  Saudi Arabia practises and preaches the noxious perversion of Islam that has been taken up by El Quaeda and their successors IS or Islamic State.  Compared with Saudi Arabia, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and President Assad’s Syria were havens of freedom and tolerance.  Furthermore, it is known that prominent Saudi Arabians helped finance Islamic State in its early bloodthirsty progress in Syria and Iraq – and possibly continue to do so today.
            The USA, and the UK the USA’s ‘special relation’, invaded Iraq on the pretext that the Iraqi government had been involved in ‘9/11’ and that it possessed ‘weapons of mass destruction’, neither of which claims had even a scintilla of truth.  Hundreds of British and American service-men died as a result, together with thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians.  Nor did we bring peace and prosperity to Iraq.  Since our departure Iraq has never been at peace and is currently under attack by Islamic State.  We have now sent in hundreds of British troops ‘to train Iraqi forces’.  How long will it be before those troops have to defend themselves against IS attack and we find ourselves dragged unwillingly into a third ‘Gulf War?’

       Again, in support of the USA, we went to war in Afghanistan because their Taliban government was protecting the bases of El Qaeda.  Within months El Qaeda had moved those bases to Somalia and Yemen – but the Taliban fought on.  We have, after ten years and goodness knows how many deaths on both sides of the conflict, withdrawn all our combat troops.  They may not have been defeated but I am quite sure they wouldn’t claim to have gained a great victory.  My guess is that in six months time a fundamentalist Muslim government (it may not be called Taliban) will be ruling Afghanistan and all those mini-victories, for education, for women’s liberation and so on, will have been lost.

              Meanwhile Saudi-Arabia, the inspiration and (I believe) clandestine supporter of Islamic terrorists, remains unchallenged as one of our ‘trusted allies’.   We buy their oil and we sell them our armaments and don’t ask too many questions.  As I have said before, nowadays it isn’t ‘what is done’ but ‘who did it’ that is of greatest concern to our Government and that of our American allies.  What a pity that not even the combined efforts of the CIA and MI6 can manage to establish that Vladimir Putin, Saddam Hussein and President Assad, conspired together to carry out ‘9/11’!

Merry Christmas?

     This will be my last blog before Christmas, probably the last blog in 2014.  It’s the season of good will and I’d very much like to wish all humankind a Happy Christmas and  New Year.

       Sadly the news seems to get worse from day to day. World-wide no early effective action will be taken place to counter climate change.  On the other side of the world, in Sydney Australia, a jihadist fanatic has held the customers and staff of a busy café hostage – a situation that resulted in the death of the fanatic, of the café’s  manager and of one of the customers, a barrister in her thirties with two children.  Worst of all was the massacre by the Pakistan Taliban of 132 children, and nine members of the staff, at a school in Peshawar in north-western Pakistan – a crime even more heinous than that of  King Herod’s slaughter of the 'Holy Innocents’ in Bethlehem two thousand years ago!

     For ‘good news’ we are told about the new vessel –  half a kilometre long! – that is being built in South Korea to exploit new fields of (greenhouse gas producing) oil that lie beneath the ocean floor off the north of Australia. The production of similar enormous vessels to extract and process submarine oil fields is planned for the future!

     It’s the ‘season of good will’ and I have to  confess that I feel very little good will towards politicians who are prepared to sacrifice future generations in their pursuit of immediate economic or political advantage.  I feel even less good will towards those who torture or murder their fellow men and women in the blasphemous belief that their crimes will earn them the favour of God, and none at all towards those, whoever they may be and whatever their cause, pretext or excuse, who harm or kill innocent children.

     That said, I do wish a very Happy Christmas and a New Year of Peace and Hope to all readers of this blog and to all those who, with love for humanity in their hearts, are striving to make this sad world a happier place, and to work towards an answer to our prayer, Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven’.


13 December 2014

13th December 2014

Tendring Topics…….on line

The World’s most polluted spot!

          A few weeks ago I quoted, at some length, my elder son’s concerns about air pollution, particularly in London.  Now air pollution – from motor vehicles – has become a matter of national concern. Even towns in our largely agricultural East Anglian Region are seriously affected.  It has, so it is reported, become almost as serious a killer as tobacco smoking.   Last year in the UK air pollution was responsible for nearly 20,000 preventable deaths.  In some towns pedestrians are being advised to walk along the footpaths as far as possible away from the carriageway, not because of the danger of being struck by a vehicle mounting the pavement – but because a distance of even a few feet further away from the vehicle exhausts can reduce the risk of lung damage.

            Where, do you think, is the most polluted air in the whole world?  My guess would have been somewhere in Beijing – or possibly in Rio de Janeiro or Chicago.   I’d have been wrong.  It is, in fact, London’s Oxford Street – the home of Harrods and of other quality retailers where the seriously rich do their shopping.  In Oxford Street the high-rise (by British standards) buildings create an artificial canyon to retain the polluted air while continual starting and stopping of the diesel engines of buses and taxis inexorably add to the pollution.  

            The first reaction of Mayor Boris Johnson was to question the findings of the scientists who had revealed that Oxford Street’s air was the most polluted on earth.  He now accepts the report’s validity – but hasn’t so far done anything about it.   Sadly, it’s one of those issues like climate change.  Hardly anyone now doubts that climate change is taking place, and scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates that it is largely a result of human activity - but to take effective action would cost money, and possibly lose votes!  So would taking effective action against vehicular air pollution.

            In our free market society where everything and almost everybody has a price, short-term profit will always triumph over long-term benefit.   So polluting motor vehicles will not be banned from city centres in the near (or middle-distant) future, and we’ll carry on – and speed up - fracking!

The Consequences

          On Monday 8th December the local Daily Gazette had the front-page headline We’ve got to build 21,000 homes by 2032.  The headline didn’t relate to the Gazette’s complete circulation area but simply to the borough of Colchester.  The adjacent authority of Tendring District – comprising the coastal towns of Clacton-on-Sea (where I live) Brightlingsea, Walton-on-the-Naze, Frinton-on-Sea, Dovercourt and Harwich and the rural hinterland of the Tendring Peninsula, has a similarly ambitious building programme with one substantial housing estate to be built immediately adjacent to the boundary with Colchester.

            Wonderful news for those of the homeless who are willing and able to buy their own homes.  I suspect though that very few of those dwellings will be ‘social housing’ – owned by the local authority or a Housing Association and available for letting at a reasonable rent.   Good news too for workers in the building industry who will have the promise of work for nearly two decades – and I have little doubt that the major supermarket chains will increase their stake in the area, providing new branch retail outlets to meet almost every need of the new home buyers and their families.

            But it will only be almost every need.  We have so far heard nothing of the provision of other essential services that do not yield an early profit for the provider, such as education and the Health Service.   21,000 new homes in Colchester and a similar number in the Tending district suggest that there may be as many as 30,000 extra children all needing education in the next decade and a half.  Are there any plans to build new schools for them?

            As for the health services in the Clacton/Colchester area; the currently available services are already proving woefully inadequate for the existing population.  They are quite incapable of dealing with perhaps an influx of perhaps 60,000 new residents.  Colchester General Hospital is under ‘special measures’.  Appointments for diagnostic examination of serious medical conditions are postponed and then delayed indefinitely because of a failure of the medical staff to be present when promised and of the administrative staff to find a locum.  Less medically serious but affecting a great many patients and their friends and relatives, is the inadequacy of the car parking facilities at the Colchester General, whether for keeping appointments at out-patient clinics or for visiting in-patients.  This has been made worse by the transfer of services from the Essex County Hospital which is to be demolished and the site used for bungalow building (more potential patients!) in the future.

            In the ‘front line’ of our health services are the many medical practices throughout the district.  It seems that the situation is much more serious in Clacton, Frinton and Walton than it is in Colchester.   I have been with the same medical practice in Clacton since my family and I moved here in 1956.  There were then two doctors (both Scots and astonishingly similar to the Dr Finlay and Dr Cameron of tv’s Dr. Finlay’s Casebook!).  Since those days the practice has doubled the size of its premises and had many changes of doctors. I have been very pleased and happy with the service that my family and I have received from them.  They have seen my two sons through their childhood illnesses.  They cared for my wife who had recurring ill-health.  I particularly appreciated the doctor who called every day as my wife’s life was ending, and (against the advice of the district nurse) supported my determination to keep her at home and to care for her to the end.   They have patiently and professionally looked after me through the health problems of old age.  

However I have seen the number of doctors grow from two to, at one time, six and then decline to the three that it is today.  I am quite sure that if I had a serious medical condition one of those three doctors would see me without delay but it is becoming increasingly difficult to get an appointment with the doctor of my choice. They badly need at least one more – preferably two more – doctors.  They are obviously quite incapable of dealing with an added influx of patients. It’ll be wonderful for there to be a home for everyone who needs one – but I hope that some thought has been given to the inevitable consequences.

The Ukraine

            The conflict in eastern Ukraine isn’t the bloodiest or the most devastating war in today’s sad world (though it has the potential of developing into World War III, if the world’s political leaders are even stupider than I think they are), but it is of particular interest and concern to me.  That’s because it is possible that  some of those on both  sides of the conflict, could be the grandchildren of the friendly ‘Ostarbeiters’ (men and women from Russia and the Ukraine) who, as 'forced labourers' were often my fellow workers when I was a prisoner of war at a small working camp in Germany from 1943 till 1945.  We shared our labours and we shared our work-breaks. Often, in broken non-grammatical German, we shared parts of our life-stories too.  We were all good friends and good comrades against our Nazi bosses.

            An uneasy cease-fire currently exists over eastern Ukraine but my interest was revived when I heard a tv commentator remark that the ill-fated Malaysian air liner, shot down with the death of all its crew and passengers, had been a victim of the ‘cross-fire’ between the warring factions. ‘Crossfire’?   It was surely flying several thousand feet above that!  The black boxes, examined by international experts revealed that  the plane had been shot down by a surface-to-air missile but that there was no way of telling which side had fired that missile.  One thing is quite certain.  Neither side deliberately shot down a Malaysian passenger air-liner.  Whoever did so had wrongly imagined they were targeting a high level enemy bomber.

            Most people in ‘the west’ probably believe that the eastern rebels (aided and encouraged by Russia) were responsible.  One snag about that idea is that the rebels possessed no ground-to-air missiles or the means of projecting them to their targets.   There were unconfirmed reports from the Kiev government that a Russian missile launcher had been seen passing surreptitiously into Ukraine. However, the American CIA found no evidence that Russia had been involved in the plane’s destruction. Had there been any such evidence I have little doubt that the CIA, with very few scruples and spies in every country, would have found it!

 The rebels are also said to have delayed the United Nations inspectors in their examination of the wreckage, mostly in rebel-held territory.  The fact is that the rebels didn’t delay the UN inspectors – it was the Kiev government’s continued shelling of the search area that did that.  The rebels found and handed the plane’s ‘black boxes’ over to the UN authorities (they could easily have ‘lost them’ had they thought they might establish their guilt).  Immediately the ‘black boxes’ had been despatched to Britain for opening and examination, a spokesman for the Kiev Government announced that they had established the rebels’ guilt.  At that stage they hadn’t even been opened!  It is clear that the Kiev Government was desperately eager to persuade the world that the rebels were guilty.    

            Suppose though that that  government, knowing that the rebels had no air force of their own to respond to their  continual air attacks, had expected them to seek Russian help.  They may well have possessed ground-to-air missiles, the means of firing them, and the skill needed to do so  As a ‘sovereign state’ they could purchase any weapons that they chose to, and train their soldiers to use them.  Those in charge of their air defences might well have been ordered to look out for high-flying Russian bomber aircraft – and have been told that any large unidentified aircraft flying in Ukrainian air space was likely to be Russian.  So – it is surely at least as likely that it was Kiev Government forces as the the pro-Russian rebels, who brought down that Malaysian air liner, believing it to be a Russian bomber. Their eagerness to blame the rebels with little or no evidence, adds credence to this idea.

              Most responsibility though for that tragic accident must surely be borne by those in Malaysia who had routed a vulnerable passenger air liner directly over a conflict zone.  Only a month or two earlier another Malaysian air-liner had been lost without a trace – and still nothing has been discovered about the cause of that air liner’s disappearance.   Nor do we know, even approximately, where the disappearance took place.  I don’t think that Malaysian Airlines would be my first choice were I to be considering long-distance air travel!  

            For the sake of Ukraine, of Russia, and of the whole world, I hope and pray that those who may be the grandchildren of my friends from long ago, will come to an agreement acceptable by both sides, stop killing each-other, and co-operate to maintain the peace and increase the prosperity of the whole region.  I wish them all a very Happy Christmas and a New Year of Peace and Hope. 



06 December 2014

6th December 2014

Tendring Topics………on line

The time draws near the birth of Christ………’

          We are in the Christian season of ‘Advent’, the few weeks before Christmas when it was customary for Christians to prepare for the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ ‘In a lowly cattle shed’ in Bethlehem some two thousand years ago.

            Sadly, except in churches and chapels, there’s little evidence of the celebration of one of the most important events of the Christian year, though there are plenty of reindeer, toboggans, Christmas Trees, Christmas fairies and Santas to be found.  It is though, difficult to find unequivocally Christian greetings cards in the shops. News bulletins on tv and radio tell us that primary school children nowadays perform in ‘mid-winter festival’ plays at Christmas time instead of the traditional Nativity Plays that have been part of the pre-Christmas life of primary schools for generations. Ask at any post office for Christmas stamps and you’ll be shown the, admittedly very attractive, secular ones.  You have to make a special request for some of the ‘Madonna and Child’ first or second class stamps that are now available every year.  They’ll be found for you, though it may be made clear that it’s an unusual request.

            It is said that the female partner (at one time I’d have said ‘the wife’) of a young couple on a pre-Christmas shopping trip was attracted to a particularly bright display in a shop window.  She returned disgusted to her partner, ‘D’you know; over there, they’re even trying to drag religion into Christmas!’   All of this is said to be because we are a multi-faith and multicultural society and public celebration of a Christian festival might cause offence to those of other or no faith.  I’m convinced that that is total nonsense.   It’s a strange religion that takes offence at the story of a young woman who takes shelter in a cattle-shed to have her baby on a cold winter’s night in Palestine.   In any case we don’t mind Jews, Muslims and Hindus observing their holy days.  It is surely patronising and insulting to suggest that we Christians respect the faith of others and they do not.

            The real enemy of the Christmas story is the spirit of consumerism and greed which does its best to replace the real Christmas with an artificial one of greed, selfishness, gluttony and booze – one in which folk of any faith (but preferable of none!) can take part wholeheartedly.  I find it useful to personify that anti-faith spirit as the great god Mammon, manifest to us mortals in his unholy trinity of productivity, profitability and cost effectiveness.  Mammon’s Christless festival is centred on 25th December but its true unholy days are appropriately named Black Friday the last Friday in November, and the week following 25th December, when devotees queue for hours, then riot and quarrel with each-other in their eagerness to acquire the very latest consumer-desirables a little cheaper than they could get them at any other time of the year. Meanwhile the thousands rejected by Mammon (he is quite arbitrary in his choice of favourites) have to queue at Food Banks to keep themselves and their families from starvation and, as they shiver in the December winds, have to choose daily  between eating and heating.

             Sixty years ago former Poet Laureate the late Sir John Betjeman wrote a satirical poem Advent 1955 about the commercialisation of Christmas in those days. Here are a few lines from it:

We raise the price of things in shops,
We give plain boxes fancy tops
And lines which traders cannot sell
Thus parcell'd go extremely well
We dole out bribes we call a present
To those to whom we must be pleasant
For business reasons. Our defence is
These bribes are charged against expenses
And bring relief in Income Tax

 The devotees of Mammon have learned a trick or two since those days.  They no longer ‘raise the price of things in shops’.  They temporarily reduce them and call it a pre-Christmas Sale.   There’s more profit on lots of things sold at a lower price than on just a few things sold at a higher one!  And those who manage to persuade potential customers that there’s a special, ‘pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap, day called ‘Black Friday’ are on their way to becoming  millionaires.

Chancellors of the Exchequer have also learned a trick or two!   I began spare-time freelance writing in the early ‘50s and by the end of the decade had acquired several regular clients. In those days editors would send regular contributors a bottle of single-malt whisky, or something equally worth-while, as a Christmas present.   When such presents became no longer ‘tax deductable’ those annual editorial offerings dwindled to ‘a really nice Christmas card’ or perhaps ‘a useful commercial calendar’!   Sir John finished his poem with a rhyming verse that has stuck in my memory as summing up, not only the real meaning of Christmas, but what it is that is unique – and very special – to the Christian faith:

The time draws near the birth of Christ,
A present that can not be priced,
 Given two thousand years ago.
And if God had not given so,
He still would be a distant stranger
And not the baby in a manger.

Our God is not a distant stranger.  He is still to be found in the baby in the manger and in the suffering man upon a cross - and today, in those who serve and love their fellow men and women, who prefer co-operation to competition, and who make peace not war.  We Quakers believe that everyone in the world of whatever race, colour or creed, has ‘that of God’, a divine spark, within his or her soul.  It is that within us that leads us towards kindliness, forgiveness and peace and away from anger, vengeance and greed. That divine spark is, says St. John in his Gospel, ‘the true light of God’ that shines in the darkness and cannot be overwhelmed by it.

29 November 2014

29th November 2014

Tendring Topics……..on line

'That’s the way the money goes…….'

        .  I was mildly surprised last week to get a communication from H.M. Revenue and Customs telling me, in some detail, how much money I had paid to the government in income tax during the last financial year and how that money had been spent. To make sure that I read it, the document announced in bold print This is for your information.  You do not need to contact us as this is not a demand for payment.   That was quite a relief.   

          It really was an admirable, easily readable and enlightening document and I understand that all income-tax payers will get one every future year.  On the one side was a summary of my taxable income during that year (state pension plus public service pension), how much of it was subject to income tax at the basic rate (20 percent), how much had been deducted from my total income and how much was left.

            On the other side was an estimate of how my contribution had been divided among fifteen sources of public spending.  The biggest was Welfare to which I had, so it seems contributed £513 and the very least (which must come as a surprise to Ukippers) was £24 for overseas aid and just £16 towards the UK’s contribution to the EU budget.  I don’t grudge a penny of it because I know that I’m extremely fortunate to have an income large enough to be liable for income tax.  By its very nature the payment of income tax, which is a relatively small percentage of total income, never has, nor ever could, result in homelessness or serious deprivation to anyone.

            But, of course, income tax is by no means the only way in which the government extracts money from our bank accounts, wallets and purses.  During the Thatcher years and continued by New Labour there was a shift from ‘direct taxation’ – income tax and death duties – to indirect taxation (they’re called ‘stealth taxes’ by political parties when in opposition!) such as VAT and customs duties.  They are regarded as ‘fairer’ by the wealthy because they do not depend on ability to pay.  The ‘rich man in his castle’ pays exactly the same amount of VAT on most goods or services and exactly the same customs duties on his petrol or bottle of Scotch as ‘the poor man at his gate’.  It will, of course, be a much larger percentage of the poor man’s income than that of the rich man – but that’s just his tough luck.

            Often we’re hardly aware that we’re paying 20 percent more on our bills for goods or services and that that 20 percent is going to the government in Value Added Tax (VAT).  When it’s a big bill though, we become aware of it.  A couple of years ago, for instance, I had to replace my existing central heating boiler with a new one.  Taking out the old boiler and fitting the new one cost £3,000.  Twenty percent of £3,000 is quite a lot of money and I bitterly resented having to pay the government for having carried out essential work on my home.  It would, of course, have been exactly the same had I paid for mending a leaking roof or repaired a car or a bike needed for work!  That extra 20 percent is just petty cash to the millionaire banker with his Rolls.  It’s a lot more than that to the workman with his car or bike

VAT is the most obvious indirect, or ‘stealth’ tax, but it is by no means the only one.  We contribute to the government’s coffers whenever  we fill up our car with petrol, buy a packet of cigarettes, some cigars or some tobacco, buy a glass, bottle or can of beer, cider, wine, whisky or any other alcoholic drink,  take a flight in an aircraft whether on holiday or for business, or are silly enough to buy a lottery ticket or a scratch card in the vain hope of winning the fortune that we know we’ll never acquire by hard work.  That’s how it is that someone who pays little or no income tax may in fact pay a bigger percentage of his or her meagre income back to the government than does a fat-cat higher-rate income tax payer.  I am not a teetotaller but I no longer drive a car and no longer fly away on holiday.  I don’t smoke and I have never bought, nor do I intend ever to buy, either a scratch card or a lottery ticket.  I don’t avoid indirect taxes altogether (that must be really difficult!) but I have reduced my payments to a bare minimum.  

Indirect taxation barely gets a mention in the Annual Tax Summary that I have received.  I am advised ‘For more information or for a list of indirect taxes such as VAT go to our web site; www.gov.uk/annual-tax-summary.  That yields little more information that the fact that VAT is currently 20 percent but that there is a lower rate for some items and other items, of food for instance, are VAT exempt.

One small piece of information on the Annual Tax Summary that particularly interested me is that the amount that I paid in income tax during the year was just 10 percent of my taxable income, so that for every £1 of taxable income I paid 10p in income tax.   That’s a tenth (or as they used to say ‘a tithe’) of my income – and that’s the proportion of everyone’s income that the medieval church expected to receive from from its members.  It is interesting to reflect on the fact that the medieval church then undertook many of the responsibilities that we now consider are those of the government – education, helping the poor, the provision of hospital services for instance – as well as, so it was believed, holding the keys of Heaven and Hell.

I reckon that today, if everyone (including Richard Branson, Lord Sugar and the like) paid a tenth of their income to the government as I do, George Osborne would find that ‘deficit’ that causes him so many headaches, disappearing without the need to penalise the poor and the disabled.  I believe very strongly that all adults, rich and poor alike, should pay the same proportion of their income to the government as a universal tax (or annual subscription for citizenship of the United Kingdom).  Furthermore that tax should be levied on gross income, before the taxpayer has a chance to channel it into offshore accounts or charitable trusts or some other tax avoidance dodge.

It should also be levied on all state benefits and allowances.  Currently the state retirement pension is taxable but other state benefits like children’s allowances, winter fuel allowances for pensioners, the cost of free tv licences, an estimate of the cost of free prescriptions, attendance allowances, job seekers allowances and so on are all tax free.  Under the present system, if these benefits became taxable those who pay no income tax would continue to get all those services free and unchanged, while those who do pay income tax would pay just a little bit more – but certainly not enough to cause serious deprivation.  I personally would have to pay extra tax amounting to one tenth of my winter fuel allowance, my free prescriptions, my tv licence and the attendance allowance I get for my very limited mobility.  None of that would distress me if I could be assured that top bankers and their equivalent in other fields of activity were paying the same proportion of their gross incomes as I was.

Ideally, I’d like to see every British adult – the wealthiest and the very poorest – paying this universal tax of the same proportion of their income.   This would mean that the minimum wage, job seekers allowance and other subsistence allowances would need to be increased so that recipients could pay their proportion without their being rendered either homeless or hungry.

Then that shameful gap between the wealthiest and poorest in the land would be seriously reduced, we would be a true ‘commonwealth’ and we could truly claim, to quote George Osborne,  to be all in this together.  Yes, I know I have said all this before – and I’ll no doubt say it again because it is so important for Britain’s future, if Britain is to have a worth-while future.

'What's in a name?  That which we call 'a rose' by any other name would smell as sweet'

      So asked the love-lorn Juliet in one of Shakespeare's best-known tragedies.  Her family, the Capulets, thoroughly detested that of Romeo, the Montagues.  I am quite sure that neither family, dislike each other as they did, ever thought for a moment of sneering at them as 'Plebs'

I am astonished at the importance that has attached itself to the word 'pleb' in the long-running 'Plebgate saga'.  My trade is words.  The only real skill I have ever possessed is that of stringing words together to create a readable narrative. I thought too that, thanks to seven years as a gunner in the Royal Artillery including three as a POW in Italy and Germany, I was familiar with every word of abuse in the English language, and quite a few in Italian, German and Russian. I feel almost ashamed to admit that until I learned of the heated exchange between the government's then chief whip and the policeman on duty at the gates in Downing Street, I had never heard the word Pleb used by anyone.  It is presumably short for Plebeian the name given to the underclass in Ancient Rome; not much of an insult really.  After all, it was those Roman plebs who did all the hard work and the fighting that made Rome great.

Perhaps I'm just showing my age by suggesting that I would have expected one of the Eton-and-Oxbridge 'upper class' to display his anger and contempt for someone he regarded as of the ignorant lower classes by referring to or addressing him as 'an oafish Oick!'    Now had I been that affronted copper, that is a phrase that might have found me searching my mental vocabulary for an appropriately insulting response!

But 'pleb'?   Mr Mitchel really used much more offensive words than that during his fit of bad temper, but it's his use of 'pleb' that has cost him his job, lost him his libel action and is - according to press reports - going to cost him millions of pounds in legal fees!  In the 21st century there can be more 'in a name' than 16th century Juliet Capulet could ever have imagined possible.




24 November 2014

24th November 2014

Tendring Topics…..on Line

Bankers Bonuses

          The previous Governor of the Bank of England said publicly on several occasions that the financial crisis in the UK and world-wide was not due, as Messrs. Osborne and Cameron would have us believe, to the policies of the previous government, over-generous welfare benefits, nor even the activities of immigrants and the machinations of ‘Brussels’.  Fairly and squarely to blame were the activities and incompetence of ‘the Bankers’, obviously not the management and staff of your local Barclays, Lloyds or what-have-you (they’re as much victims as we are), but the ‘super-brains’ at the top – and the Governor of the Bank of England really should know.

   Mind you, I think that a considerable measure of blame does lie with the previous New Labour government – not because they were too eager to spend money on social services, but because, blinded by billionaires, they were just as keen to seek the favour of the bankers, the money lenders and the financial fiddlers as the present lot at Westminster.   They should have spotted what was happening and curbed it.  I don’t recall that the present Bank of England Governor has ever publicly blamed the banking fraternity as had his predecessor – but then he has never suggested that his predecessor was wrong.

            What is particularly infuriating to the ordinary British citizen – the ordinary voter – is that throughout the period of recession top bankers have shed a few hundred junior staff; carried out mergers; effectively reduced the value of savings (including mine!) by paying savers an interest rate below the rate of inflation - and have continued to draw eye-wateringly high salaries for just turning up at their offices.   For actually doing their best at the job for which they are paid those enormous salaries, they expect to receive even more gargantuan bonuses!

            Quite apart from causing the world-wide financial crisis there have more recently been the muck-ups and illegal fiddles in which some of them have been involved.  Millions of pounds had to be repaid to bank customers who had wrongly been sold insurance.  For weeks I had regular phone calls from ‘ambulance chasing’ lawyers assuring me that they’d get my money back for me despite my assurances that, as far as I knew, none of my money had been involved!   Then there was the fiddle with interest rates that led to huge fines – all passed on to customers I have little doubt.  Yesterday we learned that one of the biggest banking groups had been heavily fined for having a faulty IT system that resulted in customers being unable to access their own money for several days.    Rents, mortgage repayments and direct debit payments were not paid!  No doubt this was the fault of someone well down the line in the banking hierarchy – but the top people claim the credit for success, so they should also be prepared to accept the blame for disaster.

            Something should really be done to cut those huge salaries and abolish those enormous bonuses  but, so we are assured, market forces demand that we offer those rewards if we want the ‘best’ brains.  If we don’t they’ll just go elsewhere.  Well, we’ve seen the disasters that ‘the best brains’ can cause.  Who knows?  The ‘second best’ might be less successful – or they might just be less disastrous!

            One way that ‘the best brains’ could be discouraged from migrating in pursuit of a few extra millions would be to limit or reduce the number of places to which they could migrate.   The European Union probably had this in mind when they decided to put a legal limit on Bankers Bonuses.  Throughout the EU, they suggested, no banker should receive a bonus in excess of his or her annual salary.  They then added a rider to the effect that the bonus could be up to double the recipient’s annual salary if the Bank’s shareholders agreed.

            It doesn’t take a financial genius to see how utterly feeble that is.  It means that a banker with an annual salary of £500,000 (common enough among top bankers though at least ten times more than a salary that most of us would consider very high) he would be able to receive another £500,000 as a bonus.  He’d be receiving a million pounds for his year’s work!   But that’s not all.   If he could persuade a majority of the bank’s shareholders to agree, that bonus of £500,000 could be doubled, making his total pay for the year  £1.5 million. That’s nearly £29,000 a week!  You could hire quite a few doctors and nurses for that.

            Would you believe it? – pathetic as the EU’s decision is, Cameron and Osborne were determined to  oppose any limit to bankers’ bonuses on the grounds that it would only lead to their being offered even higher salaries!   I understand that they have now withdrawn their opposition, having been told they haven’t a leg to stand on.

            No wonder the UK electorate is sick of all the existing political parties!

UKIP triumphant?

          I concluded my comments about Bankers’ bonuses by saying that the UK electorate is sick of all existing political parties.  Their members in Kent demonstrated that distrust last week when they followed the ‘Clacton example’ and, in a by-election in Rochester, returned another defecting former Conservative  to the House of Commons as a Ukipper.

         Once again I see parallels between the situation in the UK today and that in Germany in the late 1920s, early 1930s.  In Germany too a dynamic and charismatic leader, first thought of as ‘a bit of a joke’, transformed a struggling political party into a dynamic, powerful and all-conquering force that struggled into shared power and then became a ‘cuckoo in the nest’, turning out members of all other parties and establishing the Nazi one-party state. ‘One People, One United Kingdom, one Leader!’  I can just imagine Nigel Farage acknowledging that Nazi acclamation when he and his party finally acquire the power they covet!
             A month or two ago, during the run-up to the Scottish referendum, I wrote in this blog that the worst-case possibility in the event of there being a majority YES vote, could be the creation of a Conservative/UKIP coalition government after the May 2015 general election; a coalition that the more ruthless and determined Ukippers would quickly dominate.   Well, there was a NO vote majority and the United Kingdom remains united.

            I now think though that, despite that NO vote, Ukips’s continuing success means that a very dangerous Conservative/UKIP coalition could emerge from the general election (I can’t tell you how fervently I hope that I am wrong!) and that Ukip members, with their vigour and ruthlessness  could dominate the coalition, so that the situation could end with Nigel Farage as a 21st century Oliver Cromwell.  Conservatives proclaim that a vote for any party other than the Conservatives makes it possible that Ed Miliband will be the next Prime Minister.  I very much fear that a vote either for the Conservatives or Ukip will make it possible that, sooner or later, our government will be headed by Nigel Farage.

            However, another – to me more cheering – future seems possible.  An  unexpected result of the Scottish NO vote has been the increasing popularity of the Scottish National Party that has, since the referendum, more than doubled its membership.  Alex Salmond, a dynamic and charismatic leader  has retired and has been followed by a forthright and politically experienced still-young woman who promises to be a worthy successor. She has taken his place both as Party Leader and as Scotland’s First Minister.

            Conservatives and Lib Dems. have been all but eliminated from the Scottish scene.   Ukip has never gained a foothold there – and the machinations of New Labour have little appeal.  It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Scotland, still part of the UK thanks to that No vote, returns a solid block of Scottish National Party MPs in the new Westminster Parliament.   It is possible that they might make common cause with MPs from Wales and Northern Ireland and join with Labour to create a formidable coalition that could well outnumber the combined Conservative and Ukip forces.  Who knows – the fervour of the Scots might inspire Ed Miliband at least to attempt to narrow that yawning gap (no, not the deficit) between the wealthy and the poor and induce the wealthy to carry their fair share of the burden of taxation.

            There's another quite different matter about the Rochester and Clacton by-elections that’s worth bearing in mind. In both by-elections (and in the earlier European Parliament elections) the Green Party Candidates received more votes than the Lib-Dems.   Nick Clegg in his urge to become Deputy Prime Minister has effectively finished off his once-great Liberal Party.  Gladstone and Lloyd-George must be turning in their graves.  Yet the BBC and other  tv channels are still inviting Nick Clegg, and not the leader of the Green Party, to take part in televised debates before the General Election.  The only conclusion that I can come to is that the BBC and whoever funds the independent tv channels doesn’t want Green Party policies to be considered by the public because the Greens are the only party working towards real change.  He who pays the piper calls the tune.


14 November 2014

14th November 2014

Tendring Topics……..on line

Greed and Self-interest Rule – OK?

        When our two sons were children, my wife Heather and I never tried to indoctrinate them with our ideas and values.  On the other hand we did make our ideas known to them and made sure that they knew that there were values that were important to us.  Looking back over the half-century that has elapsed since then I am very pleased, as I know their mother would be were she still with us, that both of them have lived socially useful lives and that their outlook on matters of importance is much the same as my own.

                      Sons to be proud  of!  Left Andy, then aged 13; and Pete aged 15, on holiday in Cornwall 1968 

 Last week, for instance, I received an email from my older son Pete, who founded and runs a successful and expanding consultancy, about one his major concerns. He expressed thoughts that could well have been my own.  Here are a few paragraphs from it: 

            This week started with the most explicit and extreme warnings and recommendations from world scientists about climate change, clearly and unambiguously saying for the first time that we have got to stop burning fossil fuels by the end of the century and halve our output by 2050 and that means that much of the known resources of coal, oil and gas can never be burned.

 But the BBC, instead of making a feature of it, and trying to explain the gravity of the situation to the ignorant British public, gave it a five minute slot on the National News, with a weary tone, saying that we have heard all this before but politicians never deal with it and won't this time. That instead of reducing carbon emissions global emissions are actually increasing year on year.  And then there was the ‘feel-good’ information, Britain and Europe are doing their bit, but China and the USA are the biggest emitters. After that, we could move on to the next news item.

I just despair. The climate change debate really does seem to encapsulate the problem of human greed where we are actually prepared to sacrifice the quality of life of our grandchildren for the sake of short term financial gain for this generation. Also, that we measure quality of life by the Gross Domestic Product, not by the environment in which we bring up our children. From the big global issues to the small local ones you see the same mentality. In London doctors are saying that 4000 people every year die prematurely from breathing disorders directly caused by pollution from cars, which is far higher than agreed European levels in London's hot spots. Millions of children at school also have breathing problems and need to use inhalers. This seems shocking to me and surely demands swift and uncompromising solutions.

But - with general public support - Boris Johnson has dragged his feet, postponed and watered down measures to deal with this. Why? Because it might damage the London economy or the livelihood of Taxi drivers or the financial health of road hauliers or upset the motoring lobby to act too swiftly.  

While I can see the economic need for Delivery vans and Lorries to drive through central London, 50% of the traffic consists of private cars owned by people wealthy enough not to care about the Congestion Charge, who have a company car park to go to and "prefer to drive". How can that be justified or dealt with by a higher charge? It should just be banned!

My sentiments exactly – and I couldn’t have put it better or more forcefully. This is not just a British or just a European problem. I watched last week a tv programme about the Mekong river, one of the greatest waterways in south-east Asia, that flows through the countries of Cambodia and Vietnam.  Along its course is an enormous freshwater lake, the level of which is raised several feet during the rainy season. Communities with homes built on stilts exist round this lake and for generations they have lived by harvesting the fish with which the lake teemed.

            Recently though both Cambodia and Vietnam have been introduced to free-market competitive capitalism.  Local fishing methods were anything but cost-effective.  Big corporations are now using modern mass-market fishing methods – reaping, for a year or two, a rich harvest and enriching their share holders. They’re also depleting the fish.  Tough luck on the lake-side communities!  They clearly have no future in the world of the 21st century.

One of the verses in Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam says

Ah Love, couldst thou and I with fate conspire
To take this sorry scheme of things entire.
Would we not shatter it to bits, and then
Remould it closer to the heart’s desire?

 In 1945 our world had been shattered to bits by world wars.   I believe that with the welfare state, the foundation of the United Nations and the beginnings of the foundation of a united Europe, there was a genuine attempt in many countries, including our own, to create a world of peace and justice, closer to the heart’s desire.  This vision of a better, fairer, co-operative rather than competitive society persisted, in this country at least, through the governments of Clement Attlee, Harold Macmillan, Harold Wilson and Ted Heath (I look back on that time as a golden age!) until the 1980s and the advent of Thatcherism and, the other side of the same coin, Tony Blair’s New Labour.

It was during this period of privatisation, of the development of the idea of a world-wide market free of bureaucratic regulation, that greed and naked self-interest took over. I like to personalise it as the triumph of the false god Mammon with his unholy trinity of profitability, productivity and cost-effectiveness.  I wonder how many well-meaning Labour supporters realized that in erasing ‘Clause 4’ of Labour’s constitution, they weren’t just voting that not everything should be nationalised but opening the door to the privatisation of all public services.   I remember being quite shocked when the Daily Telegraph, a newspaper for the ‘responsible citizen’ if there ever was one, carried as a keynote feature an article entitled A Defence of Greed!

I have been proud of my country but now I am ashamed. It is a land in which the gap between the wealth of the richest of us and the poverty of the poorest is the widest in Europe, in which conspicuous and flaunted wealth exist while many hard-working people have to rely on charity and food banks to keep their families from starvation; where an army of lawyers and accountants earn a parasitic prosperity by making sure the very rich pay nothing like their fair share of taxation; a form of ‘immoral earnings’ that is risk-free and richly rewarded!

I can only hope that our fellow men and women will come to their senses and repudiate Mammon and all his evil works before the unbridled greed and selfishness of a minority drag, not me at 93, but a future generation to disaster.

A fateful Decade

Writing about the decade that I think of as the ‘avaricious eighties’ has brought to my  mind the fact that it was during those fateful ten years that  Home Office files, that are said to have implicated members of ‘the establishment’ in child abuse disappeared – were lost or destroyed.  No, I am not suggesting for a moment that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was in any way responsible for their disappearance. It unlikely that she was even aware of their existence.

I do think it possible though that someone with authority in the Home Office who was a fervent supporter of the ‘iron lady’ did glance through them, saw some of the names mentioned, and recognised their potential ability to hinder – or even halt - Mrs Thatcher’s revolutionary crusade of privatisation and removal of every trace of what she considered to be the taint of socialism.  The last thing that she would want would be a major public scandal possibly involving some of the government’s most enthusiastic and generous supporters.  

So, those potentially damaging files ‘disappeared’.  Who would have imagined that anyone would remember their existence over thirty years later?

‘We’re better together!’

I had never expected to get very excited about the progress of space exploration.  Much of it is really beyond my comprehension.  However, the fact that the European Space Agency has succeeded in placing a man-made object on the surface of a comet millions of miles away and travelling at breathtaking speed, really does deserve heartfelt congratulation. 

I am particularly pleased because it was achieved by fellow Europeans, working together.  Some components were manufactured in an Essex factory.  It is an achievement that neither the Americans, the Russians nor the Chinese have managed to accomplish – and you can bet your life they all would have if they could have!  This European achievement in the field of space exploration could be repeated in the fields of politics and economics.  Europe could, once again, lead the world!

This is no time for the United Kingdom to think of leaving the European Union.  As the leaders of all Britain's main political parties proclaimed on the eve of the Scottish referendum:

                                       We’re better together!

Dear Blog Readers,

When, a few weeks ago, I wrote that I would no longer necessarily publish this blog on Mondays I had in mind that it would sometimes be later in the week.  However, this week 'next week's blog' was completed and it seemed to me that I should get it published as soon as possible because it has important messages.  So here it is - published on Friday 14th November instead of Monday 17th.  I've no idea when the next blog will be published.  It all depends on what happens in the world!