I’m sure you can all think of better things to do with your weekends than to visit this place, but in the unlikely/unfortunate event that you can’t, I’m afraid I won’t be around to provide entertainment. I’m off to Bolton for a housewarming, only to return on Sunday.
In the mean time, I’ve updated the blogroll, partly to acommodate some excellent new discoveries, and partly because I’m trying to swot up on environmental/science/energy issues and foreign affairs. It’s only a work in progress, so if there’s anything you think I’ve missed, do let me know.
Tags: Damian Green
Now this is just silly. Does it really take nine counter-terrorism officers to arrest one Shadow Immigration Minister? Did they have trouble figuring out how to use his home’s electric gates, or something? Or were they worried he might resist arrest by barricading himself in with piles of briefing papers, boxes of blue rosettes and old “Back Boris” election tat? Well, at least they’ve now taken to nicking politicians during business hours, unlike the awful dawn raid they pulled on that aide to Tony Blair.
The arrest follows a series of leaks to the Conservatives about Government policy, including a sensitive memorandum from the Home Office’s most senior official on crime figures earlier this month.
Green has been arrested after obtaining leaked Whitehall documents. Police searched his family home and his office in the House of Commons.
Of course, Mr Green hasn’t even been charged with anything yet, so he’s innocent until proven otherwise, etc etc. Nonetheless, I did find this bit funny:
In February this year, Mr Green criticised the Government over leaked documents at the Home Office.
He said: “Ministers like to talk tough about cracking down on employers but it is clear that the system is failing in our most sensitive buildings. What makes this even worse is that ministers’ first instinct was to cover it up.”
In other words: “all unauthorised Government leaks are just disgraceful, unless I get my hands on them first”.
Update: Much like David Cameron intends to break out the Tammy Wynette and Stand By His Man, I stand fully behind the godawful punning in the post title. I think the occasion merits a little silliness.
If the plight of the humble British pub was in a bad shape at the time of writing this post, I think its safe to say that Alistair Darling’s decision to stick an extra 8% on alcohol excise duty will contribute to even more old-fashioned boozers being bankrupted.
Sniffing an opportunity to make nice with their alcohol-soaked community-minded constituents, posts have popped up on both LabourHome and Lib Dem Voice protesting the move and imporing the government to reverse the tax hike, less more small businesses be forced to call last orders for the final time. I’ll let Liberal Democrat MP Don Foster take things from here:
Britain’s community pubs have been closing at an unprecedented rate in recent months. And all too often, in the debate about the small minority of premises that give the trade a bad name, we forget all the good work that pubs do in their local communities. Local pubs do a great job in raising money for charity and good causes, acting as the heart of their community, and drawing tourists to Britain.
However, there is genuine concern about excessive alcohol consumption, particularly that caused by people buying large quantities of very cheap alcohol from supermarkets and off-licences, and the impact that this is having on behaviour in public places. I share those anxieties, but I do not believe that year-on-year, above-inflation tax increases on beer are the solution to the problem. That is why the Liberal Democrats tabled amendments to the House of Commons Finance Bill to try and prevent these increases.
I am concerned that these rises in beer duty will harm pubs which are already struggling in difficult economic circumstances. There is also little evidence to suggest that these higher taxes will have a significant impact on binge drinking. (More here)
Every good cause needs a website, of course, and so if you click your way over to Axe The Beer Tax you’ll find all sorts of information with which begin the rearguard action against our puritanical, tax-happy technocrats. You know what to do.
Image by Flickr user Happy Dave (Creative Commons)
It’s been a good week for fans of abbreviation. A few days ago a website told me that this blog is characteristic of an INTP, and now I learn that I’m also A TIMI. Personally, I’d prefer to be refered to as a FAB, which, in addition to being a pleasant adjective, works as an abbreviation of ‘Faltering At Business’, or ‘Fumbling Along Bravely’. Both of those would be pretty accurate at present.
Anyway, there are millions of us TIMIs pottering around the country, and it turns out that we’re all doomed:
The current financial landscape is bleak for anyone. But the culture shock is biggest for the TIMIs: the increasing numbers of those in their twenties and early thirties who find themselves indebted, mortgaged and insecure about job prospects. TIMIs are the first generation to get easy loans, starting with student loans. In fact, because of booming numbers of credit providers, the average under-35 now owes more than £9,000 in credit-card debts, student loans and other borrowings. Their repayments average £206 a month, three times as much as the archetypal TIMI is investing in a pension.
Now they find themselves in the front line for redundancy.
Sarah Walker, aged 23, and one year into her career as a strategy consultant, was made redundant a week ago. Having worked hard and received positive appraisals in her City position, Sarah thought her job safe. It was not.
“They didn’t explain why they’d picked me. At the time I was too shocked to ask. Now I’m starting to feel angry. After we’d worked so hard we deserved an explanation.” About a third of Sarah’s colleagues were made redundant on the same day, but those in the early years of their career were hardest hit. This is emerging as a pattern.
These twentysomethings, graduates, often with excellent degrees, high-achieving and socially successful, did not foresee misfortune. Graduating from top universities, many achieved Firsts, presided over the Union or captained the rowing team.
Well, this certainly fits with my own experience, but at least we know there’s enough of us to start our own Facebook group.
On a more serious note, one of the most popular interpretations of the credit crunch & attendant recession (such as that advanced here by Andrew Sullivan) is that it’s all attributable to decades of living beyond our means: constantly accumulating consumer goods we don’t need, buying houses we can only afford until our luck runs out, putting everything on credit cards and believing we can get along by paying the bare minimum each month.
There’s undoubtedly some truth to that, but I think it’s also important to recognise that whilst we’ve all leaned on the credit crutch to enhance our convenience or comfort, debt has also been the only means for most of us to achieve our aspirations.
For most people of my age who saw university as the path to a prosperous career, the only way we could afford the tuition fees was by taking out a student loan. Sure, the repayments are manageable and only kick in once you’re earning a certain amount, but that still saddled us with thousands of pounds worth of debt before we’d even found employment. Add in the overdraft and credit cards which a great number of us needed to live on, and you’ve got a generation of young people who graduated knowing they’d be incurring the costs of their education more than a decade later.
On its own this wouldn’t have been too big a problem, but at the same time the Blair government actively encouraged an increase in the student population. We could argue for hours over whether this was the right or wrong approach, but what we do know is that when the number graduates in the jobs market increases, the value of that degree to employers will decrease.
As a consequence, we have thousands upon thousands of graduates doing the kinds of mid-level office admin jobs which don’t really require a degree and which used to be filled by people who didn’t have degrees. All whilst trying to chip slowly away at a stifling debt. Oy vey.
But despite the realisation that a university education is not the guarantee of success that it once was, it can still be a ladder of opportunity, and if we’re ever to re-order our financial system so that an excess of bad debt never cripples the economy again, we need to figure out how we can do it without removing that ladder. If we can’t find a way of doing that, then the generation which follows us will find things even harder than we have.
The old Santayana maxim that ‘those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it’ seems painfully appropriate in this case:
For years, the earth in this Siberian city had been giving up clues: a scrap of clothing, a fragment of bone, a skull with a bullet hole.
And so a historian named Boris Trenin made a plea to officials. Would they let him examine secret archives to confirm that there was a mass grave here from Stalin’s purges? Would they help him tell the story of the thousands of innocent people who were said to have been carted from a prison to a ravine, shot in the head and tossed over?
The answer was no, and Trenin understood what many historians in Russia have come to realize: Under Vladimir Putin, the attitude toward the past has changed. The archives that Trenin was seeking, stored on the fourth floor of a building in Tomsk, in boxes stamped “KGB of the U.S.S.R.,” would remain sealed.
The Kremlin in the Putin era has often sought to maintain as much sway over the portrayal of history as over the governance of the country. In seeking to restore Russia’s standing, Putin and other officials have stoked a nationalism that glorifies Soviet triumphs while playing down or even whitewashing the system’s horrors.
Global reactions to Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri’s controversial condemnation of U.S. President-Elect Barack Obama as a “House Slave” (or, alternatively, “House Negro”) have begun to pour in — including via the top jihad web forums used by Al-Qaida to disseminate its propaganda. Though hardcore Al-Qaida supporters have predictably dismissed any criticism of Dr. al-Zawahiri and are fiercely backing his choice of words, there is a rather ironic (if not entirely unfamiliar) twist to this issue. After observing international press reporting on the incident, these same supporters are now bitterly attacking the media for its “unfair” pro-Obama bias and for deliberately “confusing” the meaning of al-Zawahiri’s message.
Yeah, that line of attack didn’t work too well for John McCain either.
Memo to terrorists: Don’t ever mock the Obamessiah. You have no idea of the kind of adulation you’re up against…
First, the ‘good’ news: whilst our economy continues to slump, our national debt becomes ever more eye-watering and a myriad known unknowns lurk menacingly in the distance, public spending is – for now, at least – being seen as an aid to Britain’s recovery, rather than an encumbrance. The money set aside for transport infrastructure, social housing and school building should aid a construction industry suffering badly from the credit squeeze, and the greater funding for ‘Warmfront’ will help people make energy savings. With each of these policies, the economic and social benefits of state spending are clear.
But there’s going to come a time when the scene will seem less sunny, and whilst Labour & the opposition squabble over the imagined tax ‘bombshell’, we should also consider the cuts in public spending which are all but inevitable.
In its analysis of the pre-Budget report, the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that the government’s spending after 2010 will be slashed by around £37 billion, which is a bit ironic when you remember that in 2005, Labour said the Tories’ plans to cut £35 billion could “only be found by cutting deep into frontline services such as schools, hospitals and police”.
This puts the government in something of a bind: they have to save money across the public sector, but if the electorate even suspects that the banks were bailed out by cutting frontline services, there’ll be blood at the ballot box. So where should we make savings? Well, since you asked, I do have a few of suggestions:
- Scrap identity cards. Loathed by bloggers, civil libertarians and all those who just don’t fancy being listed by barcode, the government’s habit of losing sensitive data should have killed ID cards many moons ago. In today’s climate, the idea of funding this lavish Orwellian indulgence at the expense of a department which could put the money to good use is even less defensible. Estimates for how much this crap is costing vary, but we’ll go with £5bn as a conservative estimate.
- Scrap Trident. The equivalent of buying a Fabergé Egg when you’ve just lost your job, the Trident weapon system is a sop to the remnants of the ‘rule Britannia’ brigade who think we should boast a military arsenal far greater than our stature as a global power. Estimates for a new 3/4 boat system are between £15 and £20bn, but given a history of delays and overspending, you shouldn’t expect the lower estimate to be the correct one. We just don’t need it.
- Scrap government advertising. Not content with taxing the fun out of drinking & smoking, or telling food, drink and tobacco advertisers where they can and can’t place their adverts, New Labour has instigated a massive increase in the amount of money it spends on giving orders to the general public. ‘Stop smoking!’ they demand, ‘and cut the drinking, whilst you’re at it! Oh, and if you’re a benefit thief… we’re coming to GET YOU’. They’re patronising, infantilising, don’t tell us anything we don’t already know and scrapping them would likely save over £200m.
- Closing time for MPs. As you might’ve read, the Chancellor is trying to raise tax revenue by putting an extra 8% on alcohol duty. Well, okay, but if we’re going to live in a ‘fairer society,’ I think the burden of this tax hike should be felt equally, don’t you? Great, so let’s stop using public money to subsidise our MPs boozing habits to the tune of £5million a year. No, this one won’t save us much, but it’d make us all feel a lot happier.
You’re not going to recover all the state needs to save just by scrapping these policies. Nevertheless, if Labour truly believes that public services shouldn’t suffer for the banking system’s folly, then before it starts making the kinds of cuts which could hamper frontline delivery, it should first put an end to some of its own expensive indulgences.
If it’s true that location is everything in property development, then the architects who designed the Park Hill Flats could not have made a better – or a worse – choice. From its position perched on top of one of Sheffield’s eight hills, these endless concrete promenades boast some of the best views money can buy – a landscape stretching from the busy bustle of the city centre all the way out to the green idyll of the Peak District. To take a walk round there in recent years has been to survey a much-changed city: post-war insults & old industrial derelicts have made way for new office space and accomodation, artificial waterways, indoor gardens and beautifully-designed public spaces. And yet, whilst Sheffield began to enjoy the fruits of regeneration, these council-owned properties were left behind, glowering over the city like a grumpy concrete giant, forever maligned as an eyesore that’s far nicer to look out from than to actually look at.
Like Rachel Cooke, I grew up hating these flats, as much for the false impression they gave of the city as for their unpleasant artifice. But regardless of how it might be regarded by both Sheffielders and strangers, Park Hill still retains a special charm for those who have lived there, as the area’s caretaker – and former resident – explains:
‘The way it all fits together,’ he says. ‘It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. I look at it as a feat of engineering. It was so clever. It had a district heating system – the only place with one like it was in Norway, where they’d capped a geyser – and a communal waste disposal system [this survived until the advent of disposable nappies]. When the new developers did a concrete survey, they found that it is not yet a third of the way through its life.’
At its peak, Park Hill was the self-contained community its creators had envisaged – amenities included several pubs, a supermarket, a butchers & a shoe shop – and the residents’ living conditions were decades ahead of the pre-war slums which once stood in its place. As another resident puts it:
‘It was luxury. Me, my husband and our baby were living in a back-to-back. My parents were there, too, and my brother. We had no bathroom, just a tin bath on the back of the door. So when we got here it was marvellous. Three bedrooms, hot water, always warm. And the view. It’s lovely, especially at night, when it’s all lit up.’
Yet Park Hill’s fate was ultimately inextricable from that of post-industrial working class Britain. With the wrecking ball of progress, its residents lost their jobs, its image fell foul of fashion, its exterior suffered from neglect, and its public reputation – like the reputation of the city it looms over – became one of poverty, decay & despair.
Under normal circumstances a council would’ve decided to write it off as a failure, send in the bulldozers and build something new in its place. But because it is the largest listed building in Europe, the flats had to be protected, and so Sheffield Council advertised for someone to begin the unenviable job of turning this unloved concrete carbunkle into something the city could be proud of again.
The renovation work is underway as we speak, and – admirably, considering how these things are often sold in their entirely to private developers – the council has insisted that a third of the flats must remain social rented, offering good quality, low-cost accomodation to the same kinds of working class people who first took up residence over 40 years ago.
I have the tendency to wax a little too lyrical about my part of the world, but the underlying point is that social housing is of huge importance in fostering strong local communities & slouching towards that elusive goal of social justice; its decline is always the most visible sign of the increasingly intolerable conditions being endured by the low paid & unemployed, and its slow, faltering and uneven revival is but the first step towards ensuring a more equitable outcome for society’s most vulnerable.
Quite endearingly, considering the times in which we live, the Park Hill caretaker remains ebuillantly optimistic about the building’s future:
She’s lovely [the building]. She’s my mistress, the only lady who’s fetched me from the marital bed at two in the morning and made demands. She has come on hard times, but all she’s got to do is wash her face and put on a new dress and she will be fine.
Despite reservations about how far you can dress this mutton up as lamb, I hope they succeed in giving these flats the renaisance they need, and recapture their creators’ unfairly-derided dream of building ‘streets in the sky’.
Image of the Park Hill Flats in Sheffield, taken by Flickr user Jrim (Creative Commons)
Via the essential Gristmill, this MSNBC report explains the process of ‘carbon capture’, as well as its pros & cons, in under three minutes. Which makes my job pretty redundant.
History is filled with brave souls whose struggles for freedom & justice were frequently met with state oppression: Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi and, apparently, Conrad Black. Here, the vainglorious old crook writes from his cell about the the “putrification of the US justice system”. Pity him.
Over at Next Left, Sunder points out the rather delicious irony of Peter Oborne using the Daily Mail to pronouce that Caroline Kennedy’s grandfather’s ‘Nazi past’ – and not her rather tenuous claims of diplomatic experience – should disqualify her as the next American Ambassador to Britain:
Were Oborne right about the central releavance of what Caroline Kennedy’s grandfather did as Ambassador seventy years ago, it would surely then be the height of hypocrisy to use the Daily Mail to prosecute that argument.
Joe Kennedy was a staunch advocate of appeasement as Ambassador to London from 1938 to 1940.
So, “notoriously”, was Lord Rothermere. Among the British elite, there was probably no more prominent, enthusiastic or valued public advocate of appeasement, European fascism and Mosley’s British blackshirts than the founder and propreitor of the Daily Mail.
Clearly both Caroline Kennedy (born 1957) and the fourth Viscount Rothermere (born 1967), chairman of Associated newspapers today, find themselves at the centre of public life because of what, in different ways, they have inherited.
Even so, there must be a limit to how far either can be held responsible for everything in their family histories.
Indeed, and if we were to follow the logic of Oborne’s argument and disqualify politicians for the supposed sins of their parents & grandparents, then this man’s allegedly pro-Nazi business links would’ve disqualified two men named Bush from serving as American Presidents.
And just think what a terrible waste of talent that would’ve been…
Update: Oborne’s argument about the Kennedys’ support for the IRA is also a little shallow. Sure, the Kennedys were supporters of Irish Republicanism, but then so was most of the Boston & New York police departments. Furthermore, if there was a more staunch supporter of the Northern Ireland peace process in Congress than Edward Kennedy, then his or her name escapes me.
Update #2: I’m actually not crazy about Caroline Kennedy’s rumoured appointment; I think ambassadors should be experienced diplomats, not glorified party fundraisers who’re being rewarded for their support. Still, the post itself is not a particularly important one, as most of the dealings which have a real bearing on the ‘special relationship’ will either be handled by the President himself, or the woman who looks set to become the Secretary of State. I’m also confident that Obama’s appointments in those more volatile parts of the world will have had some prior diplomatic experience.
- Thanks to being immortalised in art, most of you know the story of Joseph Merrick. But much less well-known is the story of Saartjie Baartman, a South African woman whose physical deformities led to her being spirited away to Britain & France and exploited as a circus freak. This wonderful post tells her tragic story, and reports on the good which is now being done in her name.
- Today in ‘Corporations Aren’t Always Evil’: Thumbs up to Merck and GlaxoSmithKline, whose donations are helping cure the world of the quite nasty-sounding filarial worms, which infects 120 million people worldwide, but may be eradicated by 2020.
- The Obama/Democratic Congress’ green agenda seems to be shaping up quite promisingly. The new economic stimulus package should include considerable investment in ‘green infrastructure’, such as mass transit projects and upgrading electricity transmission networks. More of this, please.
- Question of the day: Whatever happened to Anne Coulter?
- John Rentoul tries to explain the ideological link between the Green Party & the BNP
- The Ting Tings are rather baffled by their success. Well, that makes three of us.
- To celebrate the 40th aniversary of The Beatles’ White Album, PopMatters gives it an exhaustive, track-by-track retrospective.
- In perhaps the most important netnews of the year, those generous Monty Python gents have started putting their videos on YouTube, putting an end to all those rubbish quality (and slightly illegal) TV rips. To mark the occasion, here’s a sketch which is quite close to my heart.
INTP – The Thinkers
The logical and analytical type. They are especialy attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into. They are great at finding subtle connections between things and imagine far-reaching implications.
They enjoy working with complex things using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality. Since they are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people, they might come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about.
Errm.. okay. Not too keen about the ‘arrogant, impatient and insensitive’ bit, though I’ll grant that I do have a category called ‘Idiot Hall Of Fame‘. But that’s only reserved for real losers, not people who disagree with me.
And this, apparently, is what my brain looks like:
Nice, but I suspect that if I had the kind of logic & mathematics skills they think I have, I’d be earning a lot more money than I am now…
Whilst I was still at university, I carried out research into the effects of testing in primary schools, and came out of it with the rather unpragmatic belief that all standardised examinations should be abolished. We’re still a long way from that ever happening, but the recent termination of SATS for 14-year-olds should still be seen as a progressive step away from testing our kids into form-filling oblivion. Here, The New Statesman carries an article by a teacher of nearly 20 years experience, explaining the damage this fetish does to children’s education:
The Sats have not only led to a marked decline in standards, they have broken children’s zeal for learning. They have alienated pupils, teachers and parents alike without making schools properly accountable. The root of the problem is this: the Sats have made children better at passing abstruse exams but in so doing have bludgeoned out all enthusiasm for learning, leaving them lacking in initiative, floundering when confronted with unexpected challenges, unable to construct sustained arguments and powerless to think imaginatively. At a stage in their education when pupils could be reading great literature in English, exploring the wonder of numbers in maths, understanding the forces of the universe in science, they have instead been plodding through tedious practice papers and learning the wording of the relevant mark schemes. They have not been educated; they have been trained simply to jump through the hoops of the exams.