Jul 282014

Bit of a serious title today – but I think the topic is serious too.

Gordon Brown finished off an interesting article the other day with this phrase:

Girls should be able to study in a classroom, free of fear and without the need to demonstrate on the streets. This is a basic right; ensuring that it is respected cannot come soon enough.

The article was about the dreadful mass-kidnapping of girls in Nigeria by extremists.  It describes a situation which in no way is comparable to the UK.  However, even so, I am minded to remember these stories on the Big Society and compare and contrast in the following way.

For starters, when in 2012 David Cameron said the arrival of food banks proved the Big Society was putting its best foot forward – “First of all let me echo what he said about volunteers and people who work hard in communities, part of what I call the ‘Big Society’, to help those in need” (further observations six months later from the Guardian here) – I don’t suppose those he imagined to be in such desperate need were going to be his political and business sponsors and cronies.  But exactly this, so it turns out, would now seem to have been the case all along:

An investigation has begun into the use of taxpayer-funded grants by the charity set up to lead David Cameron’s “big society” initiative.

The Charity Commission was examining whether funding for a childhood obesity project was used to pay the debts of a linked company, the Independent reported on Saturday. The commission was also seeking more information on payments allegedly made for consultancy services to two directors of the Big Society Network (BSN) and its chair, Martyn Rose, a Conservative Party donor.

News of the investigation comes days after a public spending watchdog issued a critical report about how National Lottery and government funds were handed over to and used by the BSN.

I have to say I was suspicious of the Big Society idea and its concrete implementation from quite early on.  As long ago as 2010, I suggested that:

Meanwhile, as a secondary question to the thrust of this post’s thesis but of obvious relevance nevertheless, if it does rather more eagerly include the retired and semi-retired – curiously enough, those generally most conservative in outlook and interests – the question then will be why?

Thirdly, because any institution, community or nexus of people will lose its ability to stay free of corruption and its resulting inefficiencies, the more similar and alike its component parts become – something all of us should surely wish to avoid.  Yet, the profile – or ratio – of inclusion versus exclusion as described above would seem to suggest that the Conservatives do not anticipate giving everyone an equal handle on the levers of power.  And this is why I suggest the big society idea may lead to what I also called the Mediterraneanisation of our communities – where families and personal contacts are far more important and far more highly prized in the governance of our society than those transparent, and supposedly more objective, processes and procedures that belong to a more technocratic way of doing things.

So to come back to my initial question and add a second: is there evidence that the big society idea aims to exclude?  I would suggest that it is beginning to appear – would seem to be evermore patent, in fact, as the big society idea’s definition and coalescing inevitably allows us to better understand the ambush of ideas it has involved.

As a by-the-by, then, and in bloody irritating hindsight, it would seem that the aforementioned “ambush of ideas” – designed not only to forestall fears of the abandonment of compassion by the state and all its works (and that many of us suspected would be the case from 2010 onwards) but also to proactively fill the deep pockets of Cameron & Co’s ideological partners with the public dosh thus leveraged – was indeed sprung on us, for a precious four years during which the Tory right have operated with a calculated impunity.

Yet what is most galling about the whole process is that precisely this clicktivist activation of our democracy – from the efficient and hugely competent organisation of food banks to online petitions to virtual communities of mums, the disabled and the poorest in society, quite unwilling to take all this rubbish lying down – has been advertised by Cameron & Co as a demonstration of everything they’ve been looking to unleash in the British character.

Yes.  Despite the #gagginglaw, the #bedroomtax, the destruction of so many disabled support mechanisms, #DRIP’s appalling process and colluded agreement, the scapegoating of immigration, benefit recipients and the poorer in society in general, the destroying of the NHS, Legal Aid and other parts of the welfare state, the fiddling of unemployment figures and economic data and so much more … despite all of this, what’s been and what’s to come, we’re all supposedly so much freer than we were before because – precisely by the art of Coalition magic – we’ve all become incredibly engaged with the very essence of what it is to be a democratic citizen.  That is to say, the very fact that we’re demonstrating day after day is proof of the Coalition’s pudding of ideological wisdom and strategic ingenuity. 

And this proof I describe?  Where does it lie?

In the levels of activity that manifestly exist, of course.



This brings me back to Gordon Brown’s conclusion that I quoted at the top of today’s post.  And here I paraphrase and amend slightly:

Democratic citizens should be able to participate in a society, free of fear and without the need to demonstrate on the streets. This is a basic right; ensuring that it is respected cannot come soon enough.

For that, dear reader, is where we stand right now.  There are levels of activity and levels of activity.  What Cameron & Co have done to our democracy is not to democratise, free up or unleash a natural instinct to participation.  If only that had happened, we wouldn’t be in the mess we currently find ourselves in.

No.  What Cameron & Co have done is transfer to a wider society, impose upon a broader citizenry and implement aggressively the destructive dynamics that all Westminster’s politicians eventually become accustomed to.  And whilst I’m sure Ed Miliband’s heart is in the right place when he suggests that people are bussed to Parliament to take regular part in a carefully controlled PMQs, created (I suppose) for the acceptable face of the voting populace and plebs out there, he really does need to go much farther than that: it’s not the people who should be allowed gingerly into Parliament but Parliament which needs rapidly to understand the noxious effect its traditions are having on a nation of once already sincerely participative and constructive subjects – people brought up to believe in collaboration, and who’ve been retrained in a sadly Pavlovian way to use “social-media screech” as a placebo for true political involvement and consensus.

Our democracy is not healthy at the moment, simply because so many of us are screaming our pain.  It will, however, of this I am sure, one day revert to a rude and welcome wellbeing when, finally, we get the political class we deserve – that class, I mean, which comes ultimately from the people themselves, and understands – from personal experience – that noise and communication are not things we should ever carelessly confuse.

May 232011

This is the the real #SpanishRevolution which Carl refers to over at Though Cowards Flinch.  This number represents not those who chose to ignore the vote but, rather, those who actively registered no vote for anyone (2.54 percent of the total who could vote) or whose vote was unable to be counted (1.7 percent).

You can find more on the numbers themselves here from El País today (in Spanish).  In all, a miserable night for the Socialists.  But, interestingly, in victory, the conservative Partido Popular hasn’t insisted on the need for immediate general elections.  Such elections would more than likely be a poisoned chalice of unpredictable consequences.

Meanwhile, the Spanish “indignados” continue to protest their disillusionment with the current system of politics in Spain, where – if I am to believe the placard Carl posted a photo of on the piece I linked to above – more than fifty corrupt politicians had put themselves forwards for re-election yesterday.

I love Spain as only anyone who has lived, worked and loved there can do so.  My wife and children are Spanish.  It is a part of my blood now – a part of my heart and soul.

Which is why I weep at the brazenly corrupt practices which public figures who should know far better are happy to contemplate over and over again.  And in the meantime, general unemployment rates of over 20 percent (at the time of writing) – rising to over 40 percent for Spanish youth – leave the most defenceless at the mercy of those in power.

This story repeats itself across the Western world.

So does no one at all with the power to act care enough to pay attention to the people who flood the streets?

People who act in peace but with every right to insist with that wisdom of the downtrodden and regressively discarded.

People who, as a result of their economic and social pain, are beginning to fill the ballot boxes with their active rejection of all party political alternatives …

Jan 292011

I was writing this tweet:

Funny how when they bomb country to bits to liberate it, freedom is fine – but when students take streets & make connections, it’s worrying.

when this one popped up in my feed:

Why hasn’t US called for free & fair elections in Egypt & Mubarak’s resignation? They invaded Iraq for democracy & killed thousands

The truth of the matter is that this kind of story abroad always makes us sing the praises of democracy for all even as this kind of story will surely make some of us argue that students are in danger of becoming unfocussed connectors of random events.

Just to underline the West’s commitment to such freedoms abroad, Obama could have said the following today:

I want to be very clear in calling upon the British authorities to refrain from any violence against peaceful protesters.

The people of Britain have rights that are universal. That includes the right to peaceful assembly and association, the right to free speech, and the ability to determine their own destiny. These are human rights. And the United States will stand up for them everywhere.

I also call upon the British government to reverse the actions that they’ve taken to interfere with access to the internet, to cell phone service and to social networks that do so much to connect people in the 21st Century.

At the same time, those protesting in the streets have a responsibility to express themselves peacefully. Violence and destruction will not lead to the reforms that they seek.

When I was in London, shortly after I was elected president, I said that all governments must maintain power through consent, not coercion. That is the single standard by which the people of British will achieve the future they deserve.

Except of course that what he really said – in the speech I quote almost verbatim above – related in every instance to the people of Egypt and their very own and homegrown journey towards democracy.

So I do end up asking myself the following question: if the people of Egypt are seen to have every right to exercise such universal rights themselves and, what’s more, be praised for standing up for such freedoms, why – when we do similar things here in Britain as we battle against the rolling back of so many freedoms we once took for granted – we get criticised in the mainstream media for taking democracy into our own hands?

For isn’t that precisely what democracy should be all about?  The people taking the whole damn caboodle into their own hands?

And isn’t anything else surely a question of selling those freedoms short?

Nov 282010
Mr Spock – Wikipedia

From the reaction I’ve been following on Twitter, opinion would seem to be unevenly divided.  Most people seem to be in favour of the leaks currently being released by the Guardian, El País, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and the New York Times.  A few see it as an unreasonable development which will, in the future, affect the ability of governments to carry out the due process of diplomacy and international relations.   I myself have expressed the belief that such indiscriminate revelations change the ground rules unfairly halfway through the game.  If freedom of information policies had indicated prior to these revelations that working in government would be a goldfish bowl, everyone I am sure would’ve been more likely to be on their best behaviour.

And government – for better or worse – would have been conducted in a different manner.

The truth of the matter is that at lowly levels in both business and public office, control systems, procedures and processes make it very difficult for such workers to get away with anything politically incorrect, abusive or telling.  It’s only higher up the food chain that such activities begin to reproduce themselves with an unfortunate frequency.

Thus it is that those against organisations such as WikiLeaks might suggest this is a battle to protect the anonymity and freedoms to do good of millions of people across the world – from bloggers to journalists, from diplomats to politicians.  (And it is quite easy to hold the position that international relations require ambiguous areas of greying intercourse.  The easy blacks and whites of demagogic exchange most definitely do not suit the inexactitudes of cross-continental morals.)

Whilst others might equally argue that this is simply a battle of the lowly versus the high and mighty – that is to say, a battle between those who must always play by the rules versus those who generally get away with breaking them.

What is undeniable is that indiscriminate acts of any kind rarely serve a long-term useful purpose on their own.  However, in this particular case there are far wider implications for the body politic in what is going on than the red faces of a few diplomats.  And it’s not only WikiLeaks I’m talking about it when I suggest the consequences are deeper.  The contrast could not be clearer here in Britain at the moment: from the obfuscations of Coalition politicians as they currently spread their lies – on a range of subjects from tuition fees to economic recovery – to the openness with which protesting students are conducting their protests, what I think we are really beginning to witness is nothing more nor less than a much more profound and integral demystification and deprofessionalisation of the act of being a public servant.

Whatever your level, WikiLeaks is telling us, you must act in private as you would prefer to be seen in public.

For some, generally the young, this still comes easily.

For others, generally the experienced, this is no longer an option.  And the experience that makes them unable to act coherently on the frontiers that divide their inner and outer Chinese walls is precisely what, to date, governments and companies have valued.  The experience that imposes a loyalty to a cause over a loyalty to a truth.

But in a world of massive leaks of classified and secret information such as these, power is no longer in the hands of the rich, wealthy and knowledgeable – for, as the rest of us were relatively without possessions, it is now their turn to become the dispossessed.

Dispossessed of the information which – before – gave them such power.

Thus the rule-changing moment that I now surely feel will divide generations.  The students now protesting the evils of ideologically charged government feel no obligation not to intervene, despite their lack of training in such matters as professional political discourse – that is to say, that discourse of restricted access.  Instead, they feel free and empowered – with every right in the world – to take part in such a discourse, to participate in such policy-generating dialogues; even as they see no need to experience the greasy pole of professional political devices.

They are participating because they are fighting for their lives – fighting for their lives as they know them.

Thus the process of demystification and deprofessionalisation I identify above.  Thus the wider implications of WikiLeaks – which transcend the short-term miseries of the professional politicos amongst us.  Thus the reality that such politicos must not deny: this is a historical trend that will not be bucked.


One final point before I sign off tonight: whither now those freedom of information policies I mentioned earlier?

For if everything is now potentially to end up in the hands of the electorate, what’s the point of having such legislation in the first place?  Wouldn’t it be easier simply to do politics on the basis of assuming everything will be known sooner or later – and, presumably, these days, in the light of recent events, sooner rather than later?

Shouldn’t any politician or public servant with any degree of foresight choose to give in to the inevitable and begin to work for a world of far truer transparencies?

Wouldn’t that, as our dear Mr Spock might inform us, be the most logical thing to do?

Nov 242010

For those of you who’ve been at all attentive, Paul Chambers has recently been convicted of tweeting an “obviously menacing” tweet.  House of Twits held a poll today on the matter and it’s clear, at least to a majority of Twitter users, that “obviously” isn’t the right word.

Which made me wonder what exactly a clearly signalled fake @pauljchambers account would constitute for the real world.  Let’s say such an account existed (which surely, by now, it must).  My musings essentially would then lead me to ask myself what the legal implications of such an entity might be.  If, at any point, such an obviously ironical and self-referential device threatened, for example, to do something nasty to a piece of privately-owned property, would the person responsible for running the account be taken to a magistrates court or a kangaroo court?  That is to say, to a court of law or a court of lore?  Or would he or she not be taken to court at all?  Surely, with such a frame around it, there could, in this case, be no mistaking of intentionality.  This version of Chamber’s persona would be interpreted as having been set up exclusively as a piece of satire.  And you’re not going to tell me that the state is now outlawing the right to satire.

Where, in fact, the satire is clearly and duly signposted as being so.

Even in medieval times, the jester had his place.


Perhaps it is entirely apposite that the airport mentioned in Chamber’s unhappy tweet was named as it was.  For both this matter of ill-advised tweets and today’s demonstrations by students against government cuts don’t half make me think we’re back in the times of Sherwood Forest’s Merry Men of yore. 

You know what I mean: that time when an Englishman’s home (“obviously”) wasn’t his castle – and the Sheriff who held sway had an absolute and arbitrary control over everyone who ever dared move a constitutional muscle:

#Gove on the BBC: My heart and mind is changed by reasoned argument and debate. Emily: so your mind could be changed Gove: No #demo2010

Enough said you say?  Personally, I think we’ve only just begun.  And “obviously”, I would argue. 

Now wouldn’t you?

Nov 242010

People demonstrating in the streets under circumstances which lead to violence are a symptom which needs understanding.  Human beings become violent under extreme pressure.  The more intelligent you are, the more that pressure may be inferred instead of explicitly brought to bear.

This is the intellectual pressure that is being brought to bear on our future, highly educated and intelligent generations:

Understanding Schools White Paper like trying to separate two mixed up decks of cards. Two opposite approaches combined. http://goo.gl/RFSdH

As Anthony indicates in his subsequent tweet:

You read one para which is all about freedom and autonomy. And the next is prescriptive centralism. It’s a mess basically.

And as I read this morning about the finer detail of the Schools White Paper as per Anthony Painter’s Twitter feed, I found myself simultaneously transported to a completely different scenario – here it was Laurie Penny’s turn as she described the horrors of being kettled by the police:

The cops have blocked us off at the back. This is a kettling now. It’s gonna get nasty. #demo2010

Mind you, if any police officers involved in policing the demonstration had been tweeting the same events from their own point of view and responsibilities, I’m sure there would have been a similar – if perhaps more contained – terror at what it all meant.

For police officers have sons and daughters who would like to go to university and they can hardly be too happy with the turn of events.

So let’s nail this lie once and for all.  Violence in the streets is a symptom not a cause.  And, as political animals who profess to be human beings first and foremost, we need to understand such a symptom rather than take easy political advantage of it.  If one of your first political acts is to encourage people to believe you want to make it more difficult to bring down the Coalition from within the House of Commons itself, then – for the disaffected at least, of which there are now clearly many – extra-parliamentary action is essentially all that remains.  And where there is no Speaker to ensure order in proceedings that often go awry even in his or her presence, extra-parliamentary proceedings of an initially orderly nature will inevitably acquire their elements of pain.

In lieu of the educated acts of the Speaker, then, we have the police.  Ordinary people with extraordinary demands placed on them by their superiors, the public and their political masters.  Ordinary people who find themselves having to mediate between the force of the state in all its intellectual cruelty and the emotions of the wrongly-done-to who often find it hard to express all their ire correctly.

As Penny also tweeted today:

This is the new children’s crusade. There are no leaders. Epic and tragic. #demo2010

And it’s true.  An element of “Lord of the Flies” perhaps.  Except that, instead of our students, the wayward children in question are becoming those politicians who, at the very highest levels, choose to impose their will upon us because they think they mainly can – rather than persuade us of their positions with a considered strength of conviction and measured intelligence.