27 February 2015

27th February 2015

Tendring Topics……on line

Is our economy safe in their hands?

            One of the main points of the Conservative Party’s election campaign is that the country’s economy is safe in their hands.  Vote for any party other than the Conservatives, they say, and you’ll have Ed Miliband as Prime Minister. Our economy – your money – is safe with David Cameron.   Well, I’m not all that keen on Ed Miliband but I really don’t think his economic policies are materially different from those of David Cameron.  It doesn’t seem to occur to either of them (or perhaps they’re both too scared of well-off voters to mention it) that cutting essential public services is neither the only nor the best way of reducing that deficit. 

The deficit is the difference between the government’s income and its expenditure.  Why not try increasing its income?   A penny on income tax would hurt no-one (even with the skewed-in-favour-of-the-wealthy income tax system we have today) and would have an instant effect on the deficit.  Instead David Cameron is talking about cutting income tax!  Both he and the Liberal Democrats are convinced that they’re doing a tremendous service to the poor by raising the level at which income becomes liable, thereby taking some low-paid workers out of the income tax system altogether.  Sometimes they say, ‘Out of the tax system altogether’, as though income tax were the only tax we all pay.

In fact, by raising the  threshold at which income tax becomes payable, they are helping everyone who pays income tax – but they are not in the least helping those whose income is already too low to be subject to taxation.

 One way in which the Government has wasted our money is in the maintenance of our Trident Nuclear Submarine ‘independent Nuclear Deterrent’.  It is not independent (can you imagine us using it – or even threatening to use it – without the OK of Washington?) and it hasn’t deterred any of the many acts of aggression that have occurred in the post-war years.  When the Falklands were invaded by Argentina neither our ‘nuclear deterrent’ nor our ‘special relationship’ with the USA were the least help to us.  Nor does everyone think that the lavish cost of an all-but-a-state-funeral of a politician who deeply divided the country and whose flagship ‘right to buy’ legislation is responsible for our current housing crisis, was money well spent.

Perhaps though the most absurd and obviously crazy way in which the Conservative dominated coalition government has frittered away our money has been the replacement of area Police Committees with directly elected ‘Police and Crime Commissioners’ with power to appoint and sack Chief Constables and to determine the general direction of police work though operational control remains, thank goodness, with the Chief Constables.   The former Police Committees were, so the coalition claimed, ‘undemocratic’.   How can one man or woman, elected by a tiny fragment of the total electorate, possibly be ‘more democratic’ than a committee, at least some members of which had been elected locally?

The obvious way to make the police answerable to the local public was to make them the responsibility of the local county or unitary authority council. They would elect some of their members to serve on a ‘Police and Crime Committee’ with the same responsibilities as those of Police and Crime Commissioners.  These police committees would be more representative of their whole area than any single individual could hope to be.  They’d also be much better able to co-ordinate police activities with those of other local or regional services such as education, social services, highways, and parks and gardens, for which the County Council or Unitary Authority is responsible.  What’s more, they’d cost less, which I would have thought would have been a prime consideration of our Prime Minister and Chancellor.

You’ll recall that the public showed its contempt for the whole idea of directly elected Commissioners (an idea imported from the USA) by failing to turn up at the polling booths.  Nationwide the percentage of those bothering to register their vote was the lowest recorded in any election – and Essex set a splendid example by having the lowest turn-out of the lot!

Of course there has always been the possibility that those of us who were convinced that the appointment of Police and Crime Commissioners was a costly mistake were quite wrong. There could have been a dramatic fall in crime and rise in the detection rate, and we might have all been sleeping easier in our beds in the knowledge that we had a Commissioner looking after our interests.  Essex’s own Commissioner – Nick Alston - seemed a pleasant enough chap.  Perhaps he could work miracles.

Headlines in the local Daily Gazette suggest that he can’t; It’s official……crime is rising in Essex.   In fact, that is only partly true.  The number of domestic abuse cases rose from 9,222 to 10,825 in 2013 and there was 35 percent rise in prosecutions against Class A drug dealers. The solved crime rate fell to 27.63 percent.   On the other hand there was an 11.6 percent drop in the number of burglaries and there were 900 fewer incidents of rural crime.

 While the government exercises tight control of the purse strings there is little that either the Crime Commissioner or a Police Committee can do to reduce crime.  Mark Smith, chairman of the Essex Police Federation is quite sure that the politicians are to blame:

 It is quite clear that what we are being told by the politicians is not true.  They say crime is down.  It is not and we are not even recording new crimes like cyber crime and ‘grooming’.

We have already had cuts of £72.5 million and have heard that in the next five years we are going to have to save another £80 million. We will probably lose 200 officers this year, so we will have gone down from 3,600 to 3,000. In five years there will only be about 2,000 if the cuts go ahead.

I’m not a great Ed Miliband fan and intend to vote Green in the General Election. However I’d support Ed Miliband’s promise that a future Labour Government would put more coppers on the beat and pay for the change by scrapping those expensive and largely impotent Police and Crime Commissioners.



Yet another NHS reorganisation?

In this blog I have again and again criticised the action of successive governments – both Conservative and Labour – of stripping local authorities of the powers and responsibilities that were theirs in the 1930s.   When in 1937 and aged sixteen, I stepped onto the very lowest rung of the staff ladder of Ipswich Corporation’s Public Health Department in 1937 the Department was responsible for a General Hospital, an Isolation Hospital (infectious diseases like diphtheria and scarlet fever were much more common, and deadlier, in those days), a Maternity Home and a Tuberculosis Sanatorium. The department was also responsible for the domiciliary midwives and district nurses and the school medical service, as well as the environmental health services for which it is responsible today.  There may well have been other services of which I was not aware.  I was very young, on the very lowest staff level – and my local government career was interrupted after just two years by the outbreak of World War II!

After the war I was older and, I hope, wiser than I had been.  I was one of the returning servicemen who voted for Clem Attlee’s Labour Government – but I was a little dismayed when all those local health and medical services were taken over by the NHS.  However I thought that the advantages of a truly National Health Service outweighed the disadvantages, and – until the last year or so – I have had no reason to think otherwise.   I wasn’t impressed with the Government’s last NHS reorganisation.  It sounds wonderful to make GPs responsible for all their patients needs – seeing a consultant, getting a bed in a hospital and so on.  But GPs are fully occupied examining patients, treating them and passing them on to consultants when necessary.  They really didn’t have the time for administrative work.   I wrote in this blog that they were getting rid of one layer of bureaucracy and replacing it with dozens of smaller layers as GP practices took on extra staff or formed consortiums to deal with this work.  Now it seems the Government is really trying to localise the Health Service in at least one part of the UK.  They are making the local authorities that comprise Greater Manchester a single comprehensive Health and Welfare Authority, responsible for both Health and Social Services.  It sounds a brilliant idea but there are several matters on which I’d like further clarification.

The government will fund this new authority.  This government isn’t famous for its lavish support of public services.  Will there be adequate funding?

He who pays the piper calls the tune.  Are we quite sure that this new authority will not find itself directly under the thumb of bureaucrats in Whitehall?

Just now the new authority will be under democratic control by elected councillors.  But I understand that within a few years the area will have an all-powerful ‘Mayor’.  Will a Mancunian equivalent of Boris Johnson dictate Health Service policy?

   Services inside the new authorities’ area will inevitably be different (not necessarily either better or worse) that those outside.  What will happen when someone complains that ‘That woman over the road got into hospital immediately.  I’ve been told I’ll have  to wait two months – it’s just a post code lottery?'













      



           














20 February 2015

20th February 2015

Tendring Topics…….on line

‘Immoral Earnings’

          Tax evasion (strictly illegal) and tax avoidance (legal but often distinctly dodgy) have been a recurring theme in this blog. I regard income tax as our annual subscription for the privilege of British citizenship. We should be proud to pay it, not reluctant. There is nowadays a thriving business in advising already-wealthy clients how to avoid paying anything like their fair share of income tax – in some instances how to avoid paying any income tax whatsoever.  This new ‘profession’ is surely parasitic and ’living on immoral earnings’, much the same as brothel keepers and the like; and deserving the same punishments as them if or when they are brought to justice.

             I was astonished when I learned that BBC investigative journalists had discovered that Britain’s largest Bank HSBC, was among  the foremost of these ‘financial pimps’ – and that one of their multi-millionaire clients had lived in luxury for years without ever paying a penny in income tax.  HMRC – the government department charged with the collection of taxes and customs duties believed that this particular client was living somewhere in Spain, but – surprise, surprise! – had been unable to contact him.

            There seems to have been a remarkably cosy relationship between HSBC, the HMRC and the government that employs the latter to collect money owed to them (our money in fact).   A former Chief Executive, later chairman of HSBC, on leaving the bank was ennobled (just like our own Lord Hanningfield!) and given a job in the government.  Nothing wrong with that perhaps – I have always thought that the Kray brothers would have made excellent Police and Crime Commissioners!    Rather more worrying is the fact that, on retirement, a former senior official of HMCR was given a senior position with HSBC.  Poacher becoming a Gamekeeper is one thing – but Gamekeeper becoming Poacher is something quite different.
           
            I wouldn’t pretend to understand exactly how multi-millionaires were advised on avoiding the taxation that the rest of us have to pay.  It seems though that at the centre of this operation was a Swiss ancillary of HSBC. We are told that that ancillary has now been thoroughly reorganised.  ‘Lessons have been learned’ from the mistakes.  They were made a few years ago and we must now draw a line under the past and move forward into the future.

            I bet that those ‘celebrity paedophiles’ who are serving prison snentences for incidents that occurred forty or fifty years ago, are wishing that they could have said the same thing – and got away with it!

The Prime Minister’s response

          David Cameron’s response to the revelations about HSBC and HMCR was as we have come to expect.  No government, he claimed, has done more than his has to stem aggressive tax avoidance and tax evasion.  That says no more than that no government has ever done very much in that field.   Understandable enough – start taking money from the super-rich and they’ll be less inclined to offer financial support to the party that they had relied upon to look after their interests.

            Probably though Mr Cameron, like me, doesn’t really understand how tax avoidance works, and how it can be prevented.   He swiftly moved on to a field in which he and his chancellor have become experts; penalising the poor and vulnerable to avoid inconveniencing the really wealthy.  They hadn’t previously noticed that some of those who receive benefit do so because they are suffering from obesity or alcohol or other addiction.  These are curable conditions.  Cut their benefit unless they are positively seeking a cure and you’ll not only improve their medical condition but you’ll encourage them to seek work and save a few quid to reduce that deficit.

            I’m reminded of a somewhat cynical story that was circulating in Germany in the early post-war years when every firm and every organisation was struggling to rid itself of the taint of Nazism.    One keen German gardener meets another:   ‘What have you been doing today Fritz?’ ‘I’ve been denazifying my carrot patch’. ‘Denazifying?’   ‘Yes, denazifying – you know; pulling out the little ones so that the big ones will thrive and get bigger’. 

Ukraine

           Three times I have started to put on paper my thoughts about the situation in Ukraine and three times I have failed.  The situation changes day by day, almost hour by hour.  Hope of a peaceful settlement almost dies – and then flickers into life again. One thing that is certain is that the outlook on both sides has hardened as a result of the conflict. Before the killing started I am quite sure that the rebels would have been satisfied with a limited autonomy within a loose Ukrainian Federation.  Now, I think, they’ll be striving for full independence.   Similarly, many on the government side would, I think, have been willing to grant that limited autonomy.  Now hard-liners will be satisfied with nothing less than the ethnic cleansing from Ukraine of all Russophiles (hundreds have already been killed and thousands driven into exile) and the obliteration of the Russian language and of Russian culture from the country.

In this conflict it is the rebels (always referred to in BBC news bulletins as  ‘Russian-backed rebels!) who are the victims.  They feared that the Kiev Government intended to destroy their language and culture.   At first they tried to prevent them by peaceful means – do you remember the tv pictures of unarmed civilians, men, women and little children trying to stop the progress into their country of Kiev government tanks and armoured cars?  Since the fighting started it is the rebels’ homes that have been flattened by shellfire.   The million people driven from their homes and seeking refuge in Russia are all from rebel held towns and villages.  I have little doubt that they comprise most of the 5,500 dead.

Angela Merkel and the French President are at least trying to keep the flame of peace alight.  Our government?   Well, we’ve supplied the Kiev Government with sixty second-hand armoured cars.  They’re unarmed at the moment but the Kiev government can soon mount some machine guns onto them and send them into the conflict.    Oh yes – and our Defence Secretary has announced that any armed Russian incursion into the Baltic States will be resisted by NATO.  Over a quarter of the population of two of those three Baltic states are ethnic Russians. The Defence Secretary (who clearly isn’t old enough to remember the true horror of a European War) would be better occupied urging the governments of those Baltic States not to treat the ethnic Russians as second-class citizens, and to give the Russian language the same status as the local tongue.  Switzerland, Belgium and Wales all have more than one ‘official language’.   So could Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.   

If the Baltic ethnic Russians have no grievances they’ll have no inclination to revolt and seek Russian help.

Some later thoughts

This morning (Friday 20th February) I have just heard that an influential committee of the House of Lords has declared that, due to inept policies pursued by inexperienced foreign office officials, we have ‘sleep walked’ into the situation in Ukraine.  My own fear is that we may be sleep-walking into World War III.

 Nations, as well as individuals, should make a real effort to see the world through the eyes of their opponents.  Russia sees itself surrounded by a hostile NATO alliance extending from the Baltic, round the frontier of the Russian Federation to the Black Sea.

We may well think of that NATO alliance as being purely defensive – but how would we feel if the Irish Republic, the Netherlands, Belgium and France were to become part of a potentially hostile alliance?   How would the USA feel if Mexico and Canada did the same?

In the case of the USA we know what would happen.  In the 1962 the Soviet Union attempted to supply its ally Cuba with missiles to defend itself from the very real threat of invasion from the USA. President Kennedy – by no means the most bellicose of American presidents – was prepared to bring the world to nuclear war to prevent it.   Fortunately Nikita Khruschev, then President of the USSR, had more sense.  He withdrew the missiles – but there was no further attempt to invade Cuba from the USA.

















13 February 2015

February 2015

Tendring Topics……..on line

Tendring Topics……..on line

The tragedy of Ukraine

            Regular blog readers will know that I have a personal concern about the conflict in Eastern Ukraine because of the thought that those engaged on both sides in that conflict may be that grandchildren of the Russian and Ukrainian conscripted ‘slave workers’ who were my good friends and comrades in Germany from 1943 till 1945 when I was an ‘other rank’ British POW also compelled to work there.

            I was delighted when the political leaders of France and Germany, having had talks with the President of the Kiev Ukrainian government, discussed with Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, their plans for an immediate cease-fire leading to a permanent peace   I had hoped that these talks would be successful though I was not convinced that either the Ukrainian President had absolute control of the government forces (there are, I believe, a number of private ‘militia’ groups supporting the Kiev government)  or Vladimir Putin control of the rebels..

            There have now been over 5,000 fatal casualties in this unnecessary civil war.  Although we don’t know who these casualties are I’d be very surprised if the majority of them are not civilians and victims of the relentless shelling by the government forces of towns and villages under rebel control.  Certainly most of the thousands of  refugees whose homes have been destroyed and who are seeking refuge in Russia, are from rebel-held areas under constant attack.

             It wasn’t really surprising that that first peace initiative failed. It was never likely that an agreement that had been welcomed by the Ukrainian President could possibly be immediately acceptable to the rebels.  Both sides needed to compromise if there were to be a lasting cease-fire.  A few weeks ago there had been hope as the prisoner of war exchange agreed in Minsk in September took place.  Since then the fighting has flared up again.  It is assumed by our press and the BBC that the rebels were responsible – but were they?  It really does take two to make a quarrel – or a war.

            After the failure of the German and French peace initiative, hopes of a cease-fire flickered but were not totally extinguished.  Fortunately, neither Angela Merkel or her French counterpart were prepared to take ‘no’ for an answer.  They arranged a meeting on 11th February, this time with both Vladimir Putin and Barak Obama, Presidents of the Russian Federation and of the USA, taking part. Once again there were no representatives of Russian speaking East Ukraine present.  This was not because no representative of the rebels was prepared to come, nor yet because President Putin had advised them against coming; but simply because the representatives of the Kiev government refused to speak to them!

It must have been a strange peace conference that barred one of the combatants from participation.  However it permitted the Kiev government to persist in the fiction that the rebels were under the direct command of Russia, and effectively prevented them from publicising their reasons for armed resistance to a government take-over.
           
            Discussions went on throughout the night.  With the dawn came news of a hard-won agreement that German Chancellor Angela Merkel said gave ‘just a glimmer’ of hope.  There is to be a complete cease-fire effective from midnight on Saturday 14th February.  Both sides are then to withdraw their forces to leave a ‘peace corridor’ between them.  Prisoners are to be exchanged and talks to begin about the degree of autonomy that is to be accorded to East Ukraine.

            The Foreign Minister of the Kiev Government has already said publicly that the plan will fail and, of course, his government has the power to make sure that it does so – and to put the blame squarely onto the rebels!

            The only way to ensure that the peace plan has any chance of succeeding is for the cease-fire to be rigorously policed by a considerable number of neutral observers from France and Germany.  They might, at the same time, see if there is evidence of the Russian Army Units that ‘the west’ seems to be quite certain are now fighting in Eastern Ukraine.  On the BBC tv news recently we have had several reports from correspondents behind the rebel lines in Eastern Ukraine. None of them has mentioned the presence of Russian Military Units.

            My own guess is that the Russian government probably has given the rebels some artillery because we have recently heard of the rebels shelling government army positions.  Previously it was the government troops doing all the shelling.  I think too, that it is probable that Russian Army volunteers have been granted leave to allow them to support their brethren across the frontier.  Had the Russians sent an armoured division in to help the rebels – as has been claimed by the Ukrainian President – I believe that the Russian flag would now be hoisted over the Kiev Parliament!

            I believe that by far the best solution would be for both sides in Ukraine to be disarmed and for Ukraine’s neutrality to be guaranteed by both NATO and the Russian Federation.  Further I believe that both the Russian and Ukrainian languages (are they really very different?) should be made official languages in Ukraine and given equal status, and that Ukraine should be given free trading access to both the EU and the Russian Federation.

             Without the financial burden of defence spending, with easy access to the world’s markets, and with the financial help needed to rebuild their shattered country provided by their fellow Europeans both in the EU and in Russia, Ukraine’s recovery could be spectacular, and a model for other defence-burdened countries to follow. No – of course I know it isn’t going to happen.  It would spell the end of civilisation as we know it.  Think of all the jobs that would be lost in the ‘defence industries’ (not to mention the loss of dividends to share holders!) if it did!

            Late News – I have just (13th February) heard that if the cease-fire to begin at midnight on the 14th is broken, further sanctions will be imposed on Russia by the EU.   Don’t those blinkered idiots even consider the possibility that the cease-fire might be broken by Ukrainian government forces?
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05 February 2015

5th February 2015

Tendring Topics……..on line

 Eye to Eye with ‘Private Eye’
           
On 24th January I wrote critically  in this blog about the Westminster Abbey authorities flying our national flag at half-mast in mourning for the death of the King of Saudi Arabia, and of the Prime Minister and the Prince of Wales, a future Defender of the Faith (our Faith!) flying to that benighted country to present their condolences.  I asked if we really needed oil – and arms sales – so desperately that we were prepared to take as an ally a country whose ethos is the exact opposite of the ‘British values’ that our Prime Minister claims to be so keen to promote.

            I have just read the copy of Private Eye published on 23rd January, just the day before I published that blog, in which they gave their view of the United Kingdom’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.  Here it is:

            While David Cameron stands shoulder to shoulder with world leaders protesting at extremist assaults on freedom of expression on the streets of Paris, his government continues to ignore such intolerance when practised by a government with which the UK wants to do business.

            As ‘Charlie Hebdo’ was attacked, Saudi Arabia was meeting out the first of 1,000 lashes to blogger Raif Madawi.  Yet so keen is Cameron to cultivate the despots in Riyadh that, not only did he not denounce the flogging, but his government continues to cover up the corruption that sustains the barbaric regime there.

            ‘Private Eye’ is currently engaged in a freedom of information battle with the Ministry of Defence for details of its complicity in corruption on a £2 billion defence contract.  The government refuses to provide it on the grounds that exposing such dirty secrets would harm relations with Saudi Arabia.

            Given that the oppressive state spawned the group that claims responsibility for the Paris attacks (not to mention the 9/11 bombers) al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, perhaps the ‘relations’ so highly valued by the British government would be better served by exposing the Saudi regime rather than covering up for it.
          
                King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia died on 23rd January, the day that Private Eye went on sale. In that issue it commented on the jihadist murders in Paris and on the world-wide demonstrations – led by the western world’s political leaders - supporting ‘free speech’.  It was unable though to comment in that issue on the obsequious haste with which some of those same leaders flew to Saudi Arabia to offer their condolences on the loss of the leader of a country that prohibits free speech, bans the practice of any religious faith other than its own fundamentalist version  of Islam, inflicts cruel and  barbarous punishments on it own people, holds democracy and human rights in contempt, and generally makes Saddam Husseins's Iraq, Colonel Gadafi's Libya and President Assad's Syria, seem by comparison to have been earthly paradises of liberty and tolerance.
          In view of this, the cover of the Private Eye of 23rd January shown above, was remarkably prophetic. The  'speech bubble' shown emanating from the world's leaders is surely more accurate than 'Je suis Charlie', the slogan of the 'free speech' protesters!


Man’s inhumanity to man!’

            I can’t imagine a crime more heinous than that of IS (Islamic State) in burning alive, in a cage, the unfortunate Jordanian airman who fell into their hands.  The wickedness of the action was made worse by IS’ pretence of negotiating his release in exchange for a captured failed suicide bomber.   These ‘negotiations’ ensured IS the publicity for which they had hoped, and gave false hope to the victim and his friends and relatives.  I have little doubt that his fate was sealed from the moment of capture.

            The airman’s dreadful death brought to my mind another shameful incident almost exactly seventy years ago.  I was a prisoner of war at a ‘working camp’ in Zittau in eastern Germany.  Throughout the bitterly cold winter of 1944/’45 we had watched civilian refugees from the inexorably approaching Eastern Front pass through the town; old men, women and little children. Many were trudging through the snow pulling little carts with all their belongings.  They were making for Dresden, 60 or 70 miles to the west where they’d be sorted out by the German Red Cross and sent to relatively safe areas for refuge.  It was obvious to all that Germany was defeated and World War II coming to an end.

            On the night of 13th February 1945 Dresden was flattened by high explosive and incendiary bombs dropped by hundreds of RAF bombers.  The centre of the town – not the railways and factories on the outskirts – was the bombers’ target and it was crowded with hapless refugees. The RAF bombers departed before the dawn but bombers from the USA continued during the following day. The number of dead is estimated to have been between 22,000 and 25,000.  Many of them were killed by collapsing buildings, others were asphyxiated by smoke.  They were the lucky ones.  A substantial number, men, women and little children will have been burnt alive – just like that unfortunate Jordanian airman.

            The crews of the RAF and American bombers were ‘just obeying orders’.  They didn’t know on whom their bombs were falling and anyway, the Germans had done much more dreadful things.  The bombing of Dresden took place just a few days after the Soviet Army had liberated the Auschwitz death camp in Poland and had told the world of the horrors they had discovered there.   Those aircrews were quite different from the killers of IS who had allowed their victim to hope for release and had then murdered him in the cruellest way that they could devise – a way that was guaranteed to torture not only their victim but those who loved him.

            Those aircrews were quite different from the cold-blooded torturers and murderers of IS. But their victims, whose bodies were found among the still smouldering ruins of Dresden, suffered exactly the same agonies as that Jordanian airman. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the events of that February night almost exactly 70 years ago set my mind on a course that ended with my repudiating all acts of violence and, just three years later, joining the religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and embracing the Quaker testimony against all wars.

Late Note.  The action of the Jordanian Government in hanging two jihadist prisoners (including the woman whom the government had been prepared to exchange for that airman) was understandable but regrettable.  It is only by breaking the cycle of vengeance that we can hope to achieve peace.









           











































30 January 2015

30th January 2015

Tendring Topics……on line

Jaw, jaw is always better than War, war!’

            Sir Winston Churchill, the fiftieth anniversary of whose death was remembered last week, was best known as a great war leader.  Perhaps it was his own personal experience of two world wars, and the South African war before them, that inspired him to declare that ‘Jaw, jaw’ (negotiating with the perceived enemy), was always better than ‘War, war’ (confronting that perceived enemy with the weapons of death and destruction).

            It is advice that the world’s leaders really need to heed today.  The news that the Russian Ambassador had been summoned to explain why Russian bombing aircraft had flown round the United Kingdom some 25 miles from our shores, had been shadowed by our fighters and had disrupted air traffic over the English Channel wasn’t one of the first items in the BBC’s news bulletin today (29th January).  It could well have been the most significant news story though, because it is just such provocative acts that could, unless those concerned are prepared to ‘jaw, jaw’,  trigger the outbreak of World War III.  

            One doesn’t have to be either a psychic or a James Bond to guess the answer of the Russian Ambassador. The flight of the Russian bombers was a direct response to NATOs provocative military manoeuvres in Poland and the Baltic States during the course of which I have little doubt that NATO military aircraft had on many occasions flown up to – and perhaps beyond – the Russian and/or the Belorussian frontiers.

            The NATO manoeuvres were a response to Russia’s recovery of the Crimean peninsula (which had been welcomed by the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants), and Russian support for the Russian-speaking rebels of Eastern Crimea demanding freedom from the rule of the Ukrainian Government in Kiev.  Tit for tat – just as in a primary school playground, but possibly with rather more dire results!

            The NATO response had not been to discuss the possibility of a joint demand for a cease-fire from both Russia and the NATO countries, and a discussion of possible remedies of the grievances of the people of Eastern Ukraine. Nor have they suggested a referendum, under United Nations auspices, of the people of Crimea to enable them have the same right of self-determination as – for instance – the people of the Falklands, Gibraltar and Kosovo.  Instead ‘the west’ immediately gave wholehearted backing to the Government in Kiev, decided that Russia was entirely responsible for the rebellion in the east, and imposed economic sanctions on Russia.   They gave no credit to the Russians when they managed to achieve a cease-fire and peace talks between the two sides, but now that the ceasefire seems to have been broken (by which side I wonder?) they are proposing further sanctions.

            As a lifetime supporter of the BBC I have been bitterly disappointed that they have reported nothing of the Kiev government’s relentless shelling and bombing of towns and villages under rebel control nor, as I discovered from quite another neutral source, of the thousands of civilian refugees from the shelling who have fled into Russia to seek asylum.
         
 I remember our foreign secretary (it was William Hague at the time) declaring darkly that Russia must realize that its actions would have consequences.  Indeed, and so they did.   But, of course, in the Kremlin other politicians were saying exactly the same thing – in Russian.  

            There’s no doubt that EU and American sanctions have damaged the Russian economy – but Russia has, as might have been foreseen, imposed counter-sanctions against us.   A few days ago we heard how British dairy farmers, struggling to keep their heads above water, had been hit a devastating blow by the Russian ban on the import of British dairy products.  A regular blog reader has suggested that the whole country, not just the dairy farmers, should bear the financial burden of this ban, perhaps by an increase in income tax, not likely to be a very attractive idea a few months before a General Election!

            Now the EU and NATO are meeting to discuss further sanctions on Russia.  How the terrorists of IS (Islamic State) Islamic State – in Syria and Iraq, Africa and  Afghanistan – must be laughing to see their enemies, in Russia and ‘the West’, impoverishing themselves, and treading the very dangerous path that could end in war.  How delighted they’d be if World War III did break out!  And all because the leaders of ‘the west’ were not prepared to ‘jaw, jaw’ with Russia the possibility that a substantial minority of Ukrainians should be granted the right to determine their own future; a right that ‘the west’ has supported in other parts of the world.

Eton and Oxbridge?   Try North Essex!

          I wasn’t particularly surprised when I read in the local Daily Gazette that exam results had revealed Colchester Royal Grammar School and Colchester’s High School for Girls to be the best schools in England.  They have both had an unrivalled reputation for years.

            I was totally astonished though to learn from the same Gazette that Yanis Varoufakis, a Ph.D graduate at Essex University (just on the Colchester side of the Colchester/Tendring District boundary) is the Finance Minister of the new Greek Government; that Rena Dourou, another Essex University Graduate who had been the elected governor of Attica (the part of Greece surrounding Athens) is also a member of that government, while a third Essex Uni. Graduate, Fotini Vaki, has been elected to represent the island of Corfu in the new Greek parliament!

            Nor, records the Gazette, is it only in Greece that graduates of Essex University have achieved distinction.  John Bercow, Speaker of our House of Commons, graduated there in 1985. Daniel  Libeskind, world-renowned architect and master-plan architect for the reconstruction of the World Trade Centre site in New York after the destruction of 9/11, graduated in 1972,  Lord Triesman who graduated in 1969 is Labour’s shadow minister for foreign affairs.  David Yates,  BAFTA winning tv and film director, who directed the final four episodes of the Harry Potter film series, graduated in 1987,  Oscar Arias Sanchez who graduated in 1975, was twice President of Costa Rica and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987; Baroness Virginia Bottomley, who graduated in 1970 was a Conservative MP for twenty-four years and held two Secretary of State roles in the ‘90s, and Sir Christopher Oissarides who graduated in 1971, was awarded the Nobel prize for his contribution to the theory of search frictions and macroeconomics!  (No – I’ve no idea what that means!)

            It is clear that Eton and Oxbridge isn’t the only route to the top.  Essex University may have arrived rather late on the scene but it has certainly made its mark. I have no doubt that, less than twenty miles from my front door, there are more future cabinet ministers and Nobel prize winners in the pipeline!



24 January 2015

24 January 2015

Tendring Topics………on line

Keeping things ‘in proportion’

          I am not one of Lord Mendelson’s greatest admirers.  He was one of the creators of New Labour which, to win elections, surrendered the Labour Party’s soul and converted British politics into a pale imitation of the politics of the USA. There is precious little difference between the objectives of the two main parties.   They only differ in how best to achieve them.  In office Tony Blair, Lord Mendelson’s friend and political colleague, continued the process begun by Mrs Thatcher of turning the UK into a Prime Ministerial dictatorship.

            However, I am inclined to be on Lord Mendelson’s side in his current disagreement with Ed Miliband and his shadow Chancellor Ed Balls.   It is, I think, shameful that multi-millionaires in this country are likely to pay a much smaller proportion of their income in taxation than those whose income is so low that they pay no income tax at all, but do have to pay the government every time they buy an object or service that is subject to VAT or purchase something that is subject to customs duty, like a packet of cigarettes or a pint at a pub.  Multi-millionaires also, of course, pay a much smaller proportion of their income in taxation than do those mythical beings who David Cameron always claims he is eager to help – average hardworking wage earners who pay income tax and, of course, the indirect taxes and custom duties that this government prefers

Ed Miliband’s mansion tax may not be intended to be a one-off tax to help the NHS – or any other good cause – out of its current crisis, by taking a few hundred thousand pounds from the bank accounts of the super-wealthy, but that’s how it sounds.  I think that the government should be fair to both the wealthy and the poor by claiming an equal percentage of the gross income of all of us to fund public services.   The obvious way to do this is by means of the income tax system, the only tax that is linked to ability to pay.  I think we should consider it not as an imposition but as a privilege to pay our annual subscription towards the not-inconsiderable benefits of being a British Citizen, or towards our permission to live and work within the UK.  We would then all have an equal stake in the prosperity or economic failure of our country.  We really would be all in this together!

            Income tax is the obvious means that a government could use to level the economic playing field but another way that would help to do this would be – as Lord Mendelson suggests – adding additional tax bands to the Council Tax system.

            Blog readers past the first flush of youth will recall the ‘bad old days’ in which local authorities, County, Borough and District Councils raised part of their income by means of ‘the domestic rates’.  These were an annual charge on each dwelling within the district.  Nobody enjoyed paying them but they were based on the estimated rental value of the property. They therefore had at least a rough relationship to the income of the occupier of the occupier or occupiers

Mrs Thatcher’s government changed all that.  Instead of the rates we were to have a ‘community charge’ (almost instantly rebranded ‘the poll tax’) which taxed each individual equally regardless of whether that individual was a millionaire or a refuse collector.  It took no account whatsoever of ability to pay. The rating system may have been disliked but the poll tax was actually hated.   It was just such a tax that had provoked the medieval ‘peasants revolt’.  In the late twentieth century it produced wide-spread demonstrations, riots and the eventual fall of the Thatcher government.     

The Poll Tax was replaced by the ‘Council Tax’. This is based on the estimated purchase value of the property and therefore makes a pretence of bearing some relationship to the income or wealth of the householder.  Properties are classified as being in one of eight ‘tax bands’, the lowest of which is under £40,000 and the highest £320,000 and above.  A glance will make it clear that those bands are hopelessly out of date.   I suppose for £40,000 you might, just possibly, get some kind of a shack in an area like the Brooklands Estate, Jaywick  just a couple of miles from my home – but that estate has been declared to be the most deprived area in the UK!

At the other end of the tax bands the situation is even more ridiculous.  The highest tax band for Council Tax is £320,000 and above. I agree that in the Clacton area you would get a very nice property for £320,000 – but not in many other parts of the UK

Do you ever watch ‘Escape to the Country’ ­on BBC tv.   Briefly it’s about very fortunate (and often very hard working and gifted) folk who have made a fortune in London, or Manchester or Sheffield or wherever and are now seeking a residence ‘in the country’.  A BBC presenter introduces them to three or four ‘desirable residences’ in the area of their choice.   It’s not a programme I like to watch.   I have spent too much of my professional life trying to help people who are homeless, or overcrowded or living in squalid conditions, to enjoy seeing well-heeled folk looking over a luxurious home and complaining that ‘the view isn’t quite what we’d hoped for’ or ‘the paddock isn’t really big enough for Rosalie (their spoilt brat!) to exercise the pony we’ve given her for her birthday’.

It’s very unusual for one of those very comfortable and very desirable homes ‘in the country’ to change hands for as little as £320,000.   That sum would probably buy a roomy three bedroom home in one of London’s more pleasant suburbs.  That means that an executive officer of a biggish enterprise or a middle-grade civil servant, living in a comfortable but hardly palatial home in Cheam or Twickenham would pay exactly the same Council Tax as the owner of a ‘Downton Abbey’ or similar stately home or family mansion.

There should be at least three higher tax bands, ending at homes valued at £2 million pounds or more, to bring something like fairness to the Council Tax system. The Council Tax bands, like the income tax system, need urgent reconstruction to make sure that those who have done best from our market economy should pay at least as big a proportion of their wealth in tax as those who have been less fortunate.

A trusted ally – or a ‘pariah state’?

In recent months I have been quite proud of the fact that I am a member of the Church of England as well as of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).   I welcomed the Church’s decision to ordain women as Bishops as well as Priests.   I have applauded the Archbishop of Canterbury’s campaign to replace ‘pay day lenders’ with local ‘credit unions’ and his criticism of economic policies that have led to the proliferation of Food Banks throughout the UK.

That enthusiasm suffered a severe blow this (23rd January) afternoon when I learned that, to comply with government guidelines, the authorities of Westminster Abbey would be flying our national flag at half-mast in mourning for the King of Saudi Arabia.  It suffered a further blow with the news that the Prince of Wales (a future ‘Defender of the Faith’) together with our Prime Minister were to fly to Saudi Arabia to express their condolences.  I suppose that the Prince is aware that any expression of the Faith that he will pledge himself to defend is strictly forbidden in Saudi Arabia and that any Muslim in that country who converts to Christianity is likely to be executed!

Saudi Arabia’s disregard for democracy and human rights makes North Korea seem like a liberal Paradise!  Torture is routinely practised in Saudi gaols and public executions, amputations and floggings are daily occurrences.  The case of a blogger who considered the possibility that Saudi Arabia might become a secular state and who is being publicly flogged with fifty lashes every Friday until, if he survives long enough, he has received a total of 1,000 lashes, has recently made the press headlines.  Women in Saudi-Arabia are said to be much more free than they were a decade or so ago – but they are still forbidden to drive cars or leave their homes without a male escort (husband, father or brother).

Most of those involved in the 9/11 outrages in New York were Saudis.  Saudi Arabia is the home of the noxious fundamentalist Islamic faith that IS (the Islamic State) is trying to impose in Syria and Iraq and that Boko Haram is imposing, even more blood-thirstily, in sub-Saharan Africa. Donations from oil-rich Saudi millionaires financed IS during its early days. They possibly still do so.

Do we really need oil (and arms sales) so badly that we are prepared to befriend a state whose philosophy is the exact opposite of the British values that David Cameron and his colleagues are so eager to propagate?

   









































17 January 2015

18th January 2015

Tendring Topics……….on line

The Parliamentary General Election

          There was a time when political parties existed to promote specific policies – the Conservative Party on retaining the status quo and, in general, observing the sage advice, ‘If it ain’t bust, don’t fix it’.  They were naturally the party of the ‘haves’ rather than the ‘have nots’.  The Labour Party on the other hand, was the party of change.  They wanted a fairer, more equal Britain, a Britain without nuclear weapons and without imperial pretensions or ambitions.  They argued that these objectives could best be achieved if most or all public services were owned and run by the public.   They were the party of the ‘have nots’.  Both parties tried to persuade a majority of the electorate to support them.

            Now both main parties, and what’s left of the Liberals, claim to serve the interests of the whole country.  In reality they all have just one overriding policy. It’s the same policy; to win elections, gain political power – and keep it.  To this end the Conservatives under Mrs Thatcher became a party of revolutionary change; among other things selling off most public services to private enterprise and compelling local authorities, who had built houses to rid their districts of overcrowding and homelessness, to sell them to sitting tenants at bargain basement prices; thus very cleverly buying votes with other people’s money.

            New Labour, ‘to make itself electable’, sold its own soul by going along with the retention of a nuclear ‘deterrent’, accepting the revolutionary changes that had been introduced by Mrs Thatcher and erasing ‘Clause 4’ from its own constitution.  I have little doubt that many party members voted for the removal of Clause 4 imagining that they were simply acknowledging that some activities were best carried out by private enterprise.  If fact they were accepting the wholesale privatisation of every public service.  In addition, they allowed our country to become the puppet of the most reactionary American president in living memory.  This resulted in our engagement in two ‘colonial’ wars – one illegal and the other unwinnable – resulting in the loss of billions of pounds and the sacrifice of hundreds of British lives

            Party policies are decided nowadays, not by principles or by the exercise of reason and compassion, but by the findings of the latest opinion polls.  And influencing opinion polls is the popular press, owned largely by foreign billionaires who owe no loyalty to the United Kingdom and care only about ‘circulation and profit’. I don’t find it in the least surprising that thousands of electors are now disillusioned with the traditional political parties.  It is upon the way that they react to that disillusion that the future of our country depends.

Don’t bother to vote

            Probably the commonest reaction is to decline to vote.  What’s the point?  They’re all the same – feathering their own nests.  If voting changed anything they’d ban it. Our first-past-the-post electoral system makes sure that the voice of those who can’t bring themselves to vote for any of the main parties, is never heard. The Chartists of the nineteenth and the Suffragettes of the twentieth century must be turning in their graves.  They suffered and died to make sure that everyone had a vote – and they really believed that universal suffrage would change the world.
           
Those who don’t bother to vote have no right to complain when they find themselves represented by someone whose views they thoroughly detest.  Those who can’t bring themselves to vote for any of the candidates must surely be able to select one of them whose policies and attitudes they detest more than those of the others. Vote for the candidate most likely to defeat him or her.  For the much-publicised recent Clacton-on-Sea by-election I voted Conservative for the first (and probably only) time of my life.  Although I disliked the Conservative candidate’s policies, he seemed to be a nice enough chap and I thought he was the candidate most likely to defeat Douglas Carswell who had defected to UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party).   He didn’t do so and Clacton had the dubious honour of returning the very first UKIP MP to Westminster!  Still – I did my best. 

Vote for one of the ‘minority’ candidates

            We don’t yet know how many candidates there will be for our own constituencies in next May’s General Election. In every English constituency there will certainly be representatives of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal-Democrat Party.  There will almost certainly be a Ukipper (in my Clacton constituency he’ll be the sitting MP) and a Green Party Candidate.  Also there’s likely to be a variety of fringe party and special-interest candidates ranging from the Official Raving Loony Party to those eager to publicise local or special concerns like ‘saving a hospital from closure’, ‘building a new bypass’ or, as we had for the Clacton by-election, a lady who wanted to raise the status and ensure the safety of ‘sex workers’.   

            My guess (and you can’t exaggerate how much I’d like to be proved wrong!) is that in the Clacton-on-Sea Constituency Douglas Carswell (the sitting UKIP MP) will retain his seat though with a smaller majority, The Conservative Candidate will come next but with only a few more votes than  his Labour opponent, followed by the Green, the Lib.Dem. the Official Raving Loony Candidate and the various ‘special interest’ candidates who will get only a tiny handful of votes each.

UKIP versus GREEN

            In my constituency (Clacton-on-Sea) our sitting MP is a Ukipper.  That is true of only one other constituency in the United Kingdom.  In most other constituencies there will be a Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat MP who will be looking nervously over his or her shoulder at the UKIP contestant and wondering what effect this new and apparently growing party will have on the election result.

            UKIP and its leader Nigel Farage, remind me uncomfortably of the NAZI party and its leader, Adolf Hitler, in Germany in the 1920s and early ‘30s.   There too, the electorate was disillusioned and tired of the old political parties and their failing policies.  In Adolf Hitler they found someone who was a fervent German nationalist, just as Nigel Farage is a fervent British Nationalist, who disliked the ‘old politics’ and offered a new path for Germany of action rather than talk.  What’s more he assured the Germans that they weren’t to blame for their country’s problems – it was all the fault of ‘the Jews’.  At first most Germans thought that he was a bit of a joke,  Then the wealthy thought they could manipulate him for their own purposes.   One morning though they woke up to discover that he and his brown-shirted followers had taken over their country. – Hitler’s Third Reich had arrived.

            Nigel Farage also assures us that outside forces – the European Union (demonised as ‘Brussels’) and all those foreign immigrants for which the EU, so he says, was largely responsible – were the cause of Britain’s problems.  Shake off the European yoke and get rid of all those foreigners, and Britain would be great again!  At first everyone thought that Nigel Farage – usually seen holding ‘a fag and a pint’ to assure those who saw him that he was ‘one of us’ - was a bit of a joke.  Then, as with Hitler, the wealthy and powerful thought they could use him for their purposes. They have poured their spare thousands of pounds into his party’s coffers. The story is on-going……….. UKIP is essentially a ‘one-objective party’.   The EU and immigrants are its main target.  Other causes are taken up as seems opportune, but generally UKIP policies are those of the extreme right of the Conservative Party.  Abolish ‘green taxes’ and cease subsidising solar and wind power schemes.  Encourage ‘fracking’ for cheap oil and gas.  Ignore the warnings about climate change and global warming.  It either isn’t happening or, if it is, it’s got nothing to do with human activities so there’s nothing to be done about it.  Vote for UKIP and cheaper fuel oil!  I have little doubt that thousands will be short-sighted enough to do so.

            The Green Party is almost the exact opposite of UKIP.  Below is a brief account of their policies and intentions.

We live in unsettling times. Many of the securities that our parents and grandparents fought for – a functioning National Health Service, free education, and an affordable home – now look out of reach for most of us. Coupled with this, climate change is bringing unpredictable and threatening weather patterns. People feel let down by politicians, and yet there has been an explosion in political activism. People want to do things differently and aren’t afraid to be bold and challenging.
We believe that public services should be for the benefit of the public, not sold off in bits; we believe that education is worth investing in and not something that should mean a lifetime of debt; we believe in leaving behind a better world for our children and grandchildren. This is the only world we have and its welfare, above all things, should be the highest priority for us all.
Politics should work for the benefit of all, not just those who shout the loudest or have the deepest pockets.  We believe in “The Common Good”. A vote for the Green Party is a vote for The Common Good.
            Like UKIP, the Green Party is growing.   They have just one MP – in Brighton – but in the European Parliament elections and in recent by-elections (including that in Clacton) Green candidates received more votes than the Liberal Democrats. Currently there is controversy as to whether The Green Party’s President is to join with the leaders of the Conservative Party, Liberal-Democratic Party, Labour Party and UKIP in public televised debate before next May’s general election.  David Cameron is refusing to take part in the debate unless the Greens are also invited.  He is probably wise to do so.   Green arguments, persuasively presented, are far more likely to draw voters from Labour, Liberal Democrat, and even UKIP than they are from the Conservatives.

            If (and it’s quite a big ‘if’) I’m still around in May, I shall vote for the Green Candidate.  I hope that a great many other people will do the same.