Mar 012013
 
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At Eastleigh, we discover that in a by-election of such characteristics, local behaviours can out-gun what we might perceive as more significant national issues.  Sex scandals notwithstanding, it would seem the Liberal Democrats had a good and effective infrastructure of ward councillors.  Sometimes, grassroots politics does move mountains.

Meanwhile, as the unpleasant leader of UKIP incoherently proclaims:

UKIP’s Nigel Farage said the surge in support for his party was not a “freak result”, telling the BBC: “If the Conservatives hadn’t split our vote we would have won.”

“Something is changing. People are sick and tired of having three social democrat parties that are frankly indistinguishable from each other,” he added.

But then incoherence never stopped too many politicians out there.  It could seem, to an unpractised eye, that UKIP were about to follow in a long and hallowed tradition of English politics: wrap yourself up in the Union Flag; declaim your dominion over the peoples and nations of these islands; and, ultimately, concentrate all wealth and effort down London-way, as power and the various world stages beckon.

The incoherence I mention?  Either the Tories split the UKIP vote because they (ie the Tories) are not indistinguishable social democrats – or they are indistinguishable social democrats, in which case the vast majority of the nation continues to vote in favour of a much criticised – yet still valued – tradition.

You can’t have it both ways, Mr Farage.

*

A couple of tweets I posted yesterday, and which sort of indicate where – at least politically – I currently find myself.  The first, on the subject of politicians and their relationship with the truth, as follows:

@ChrisClose50 We live in a world where spin no longer describes what is happening. This is a kind of politico-psychosis.

And the second, thus:

@ChrisClose50 If s’one with no parliamentary privilege was caught saying things that those who do have it say, they’d surely be put away.

It’s true.  Whilst teachers, doctors, lawyers and other professionals have professional codes of conduct they must abide by, politicians are loose cannons able to get away with almost everything in the blessed and casual name of freedom of speech.  You describe a disabled child as a burden on your council, fit only to be put down?  A couple of days later, maybe a resignation statement of sorts.  But you find yourself struck off no register of practising professionals – and, maybe, even continue to justify in private your words as those of a silent majority.

One example amongst many out there, in our indistinguishably social democratic landscape.

Which brings me to my final point.  One aspect of the recent horsemeat scandal has been weighing upon my mind: the issue has been couched and understood, by both politicians and consumers, as mainly one of mislabelling.  At no time has anyone seemed to care that contaminated factories which have lost their contracts with major supermarkets mean employees out of pocket – and even out of work.  Certain individuals out there – managers, buyers, negotiators, workers – knew what was going on; were even a part of what was going on.  Did they benefit?  I wonder.  I’m pretty sure they weren’t out of pocket whilst the contamination continued on its merry way for so many years.

And in a way, our politics is now the same.  Our expectations of probity are now so very low, any scandal fails to cause the corresponding reaction which in other times we might have expected.  Sex scandals?  Abuse of power?  Contamination of public discourse through a psychotic relationship with reality?

Who cares?

In the end, we voters become forgiving souls – we become about as Christian as any soul could ever be.

Even as secularism invades more widely our society.

We turn the other cheek to our politicians; we allow them to beat us and smack us to the ground.  And yet we get up and smile encouragingly – and continue to argue in favour of a better way.

In truth, what the horsemeat scandal – and now, it would seem, Eastleigh too – tell us about voter motivation is that in times of fractious societal distress, emotional triggers and appeals to the visceral sides of the voting public are as effective and manifest as they ever were in supposedly less civilised times.

We haven’t changed so very much since those times of fascist imposition.

We don’t really care so very much about the abuse of power.

We just want to ensure, when push comes to shove, that we find ourselves on the right side of such abuse.


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Feb 232013
 
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I know it shouldn’t any more – but what people say, the words they use and the underlying assumptions such words reveal still has the power to shock me.

Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic, for example, has this to say of the future nature of the priesthood:

“It is a free world and I realise that many priests have found it very difficult to cope with celibacy as they lived out their priesthood and felt the need of a companion, of a woman, to whom they could get married and raise a family of their own.”

I notice two things here – both of which serve to shock me.  Firstly, the reassuring reminder that it’s women these free spirits are looking for as companions.  Secondly, that it’s a free world Cardinal O’Brien is observing.

Amazing, isn’t it?  And there was I, thinking the real problem has been a not insignificant number of priests who – through the decades – have demonstrated how they’ve wanted anything but the onerous obligations of marriage and family, when engaging in the perverse delights of illicit flesh.

These words are almost as revealing as the following comments on the poor.  Again, we get a representative of the powers-that-be uncovering their most primitive prejudices:

Germany’s development minister has suggested food tainted with horsemeat should be distributed to the poor.

Dirk Niebel said he supported the proposal by a member of the governing CDU party, and concluded: “We can’t just throw away good food.”

A German church concurs:

[...] Prelate Bernhard Felmberg, the senior representative of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), has backed the proposal.

“We as a Church find the throw-away mentality in our society concerning. How and whether to distribute the products in question would have to be examined,” the priest said.

“But to throw away food that could be consumed without risk is equally bad as false labelling and cannot be a solution.”

Quite.  No solution at all.

So how about, instead, we serve it up for as long as it lasts to all those politicians, church representatives and other moneyed members of society who believe, in their innermost sanctums, that the poor are truly deserving – but only of the crumbs from the high tables that clearly plague us?

This is verily beyond the palest of pales.  If the poor are deserving right now of receiving “tainted” beef, if – as the German development minister argues – “unfortunately there are people [in Germany] for whom it is financially tight, even for food [...]“, then these very same disadvantaged were also just as deserving before recent events took their sorry course.

That the powerful now argue the poor have suddenly become deserving of our charity, and at exactly the same time that metric tonnes of mislabelled horsemeat need to be summarily shifted, is a rank duplicity of the very worst sort.  One hardly needs to be an expert in stratospheric spin to understand that heavy business interests will be pulling in all sorts of favours from their meek and puppet-mastered politicians, as someone tries to salvage as much resource as possible from the disaster.  And what better way than make the poor pay for their poverty?

What better way than via taxpayer-funded graft?

We’re back, I fear, to those prejudiced Tories of yore – for they’re all the same, whatever political allegiances they pointedly profess – who are always trying to slap taxes on plebeian caravans, Cornish pasties and grannies.

We’re back, in fact, to those very plebeian sausage rolls.

Money buys everything.

It just doesn’t buy it for everyone.

Now does it?


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Feb 112013
 
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Our blessed government seems to still be selling us the donkey (many apologies to any donkey-lovers – and, indeed, donkeys – reading this post) that those ladies and gentleman responsible for the horsemeat scandal are a group of murky underworld elements quite different from anyone in respectable public or private office.

Of interest, then, to my naturally suspicious self is the following quote from the Telegraph article in question:

Mr Paterson [the British Environment Secretary] yesterday said: “As we speak this morning this is an issue of fraud and a conspiracy against the public I think probably by criminal elements to substitute a cheap material for that which was marked on the label.

As he goes on to point out, in language all politicians are prone to understand (the bold is mine):

It is a labelling issue. Now we may find out as the week progresses and the tests begin to come in, we may find out there is a substance which is injurious to human health. We have no evidence of that at all at the moment.”

Once again, we see that branding (probably literally in this case) raises its ugly and foolish head.  For politicians do love to define every problem in terms of how it’s being communicated – and never in terms of how objectively grave it might be.  To say that the issue is simply one of labels is – really – to argue the empty-headed toss about one of the most significant concepts in 21st century business: just think of all the money and effort massive corporatesprivacy groups and other interested observers are expending in justifying their different approaches to issues such as the integrity of intellectual property, its differentiation and its intrinsic right to earn an exclusive income from its authenticity.

So it is utter bollocks for anyone these days to argue that anything is ever just a matter of labels.  If it were absolutely nothing else, it would be more than massively a matter of great preoccupation.  If such arguments are good enough to justify oppressive Internet intrusion in order to protect film content and DVD sales, surely a little more hands-on attachment to the integrity of our food chain is also fairly going to be warranted.

But back to my first quote tonight, and this phrase in particular (again, the bold is mine):

“As we speak this morning this is an issue of fraud and a conspiracy against the public I think probably by criminal elements to substitute a cheap material for that which was marked on the label.

Criminal elements – or standard business practice?  Isn’t the drive that is continuous improvement – which perpetually looks for ways to substitute a more expensive “material” with a functionally similar but far cheaper equivalent in every single process, procedure, product and service – exactly what 21st century business is exactly about?

In reality, these “criminal elements” are only doing what every good businessperson, CEO and team leader does every single day of their working week.  The objective of their respective marketing actions is to match perceived customer needs to such processes, procedures, products and services – and deliver the outcomes in question at both the lowest possible cost and highest possible price.  So perhaps, as the Telegraph does indeed suggest today, the behaviours which are coming to light at the moment are rather more distributed, widespread and “endemic” than the furious distancing techniques of recent government statements would tend to give lie to.

As I have already noted on these pages, both the banking and food sectors’ regulatory bodies share the same abbreviation: the FSA in each case.  This is, of course, a total coincidence – but not an irrelevant or specious one.  That such crises of propriety, probity, confidence and honour should assail banking in recent times has led many of us to assume the problem is sectoral.  But that similar patterns should now repeat themselves in our food chains should, surely, make us begin to think more than twice.

In each case, we have perhaps necessarily top-down institutions with about as heavy a governance as one could expect, failing lumberingly to inspire the sort of trust one would hope for in their respective consumers and users.  In each case, it would also seem that through the habit corporate organisations always exhibit of building, little by little, every element of their precious practice on the assumption that preceding and successive practice is coherent, correct and contained, the tenuous connections thus finally constructed lead them almost inevitably to criminal downfall.  Part of the problem, of course, is that companies are made up of people, and people cement their understanding of whether other people are behaving themselves on the basis of what these other people manage to do to appear trustworthy.

You can never entirely remove from any process or procedure the need to trust that another is doing what they are supposed to do.  And when you add to the mix the Chinese walls that are designed to ensure we all behave ourselves – but which, in the event, seem to be leading more and more of us to misunderstand the acts of other specialisations to the terrible detriment not only of the companies we work for but also of the societies we operate within – it would seem the mix is becoming dangerously explosive.

Don’t get me wrong.  Corporate organisations are potentially magnificent tools to organise a globalising century of many billions of human beings.  But when they become as fragile as they have of late, we might rue the day we decided to construct our societies around them.

They have, I fear, become corrupting in what many of us saw as precisely their greatest virtues: those very paused and structured mannerisms we assumed would guarantee – at the very least – some kind of enduring sense and sensibility.

*

When businesspeople and criminals both use the same structures to such an extent that it becomes practically impossible – from the outside looking in at least – to tell clearly enough who is who, maybe it’s time we decided on a different set of approaches.

For maybe the day business and criminal practices first began to use the same tools is the day we should have decided – in some way – to shut up this stable for good.

Before all these bloody horses had their chance to bolt our systems and – in that process – perhaps ended up criminalising us all.


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Feb 092013
 
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The Observer reports tonight on a story which will no doubt run and run (in an equine sense if no other):

Sources close to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Food Standards Agency said it appeared that the contamination of beefurgers, lasagne and other products [with horsemeat] was the result of fraud that had an “international dimension”.

Substitute some of the actors with our friends in the financial services community – even the Financial Services Authority shares the same TLA with the Food Standards Agency – and you’ll see why I’m beginning to get the feeling that horsemeat DNA on a criminal scale bears an uncanny resemblance to Libor fixing on a criminal scale.  In both cases, it would seem that insiders have been stuffing outsiders – and the outsiders have been suffering the consequences, generally unknowingly.  A mafia is a mafia, however genteel or besuited it may show itself to be.  We are, it would appear, in the grip of such mafias.

In fact, to state – as the Observer does in its headline – that the “Horsemeat scandal [is] blamed on international fraud by mafia gangs” is just a tad disingenuous: it may be true, of course, but a) it doesn’t half let the government and the regulatory authorities off the hook of ultimate responsibility and b) it doesn’t half beg the question why whoever’s doing the blaming didn’t realise this any earlier.

The process and sequence of events is exactly the same as that which assailed us during the 2008 credit crunch.  All of it essentially down to light-touch regulatory mindsets which believe stupidly in the magical powers of utterly unleashed corporate environments: environments which start out – in our hopeful and ever-optimistic politico-economic models – as virtuous circles of efficient business, only to end up being populated with dysfunctionally greedy individuals, systemic failures no one could have predicted or even – as in this case – Eastern European mafias.

The all-too-predictable result of a hands-off and responsibility-abdicating approach to the business of government and governance.

By trusting the market to run itself, by not inspecting the opportunities for greed and irresponsible behaviours, by believing that organised crime won’t care to get involved in the daily operation of customer choice, these latterday governments of ours are destroying the very integrity of our economic checks and balances.

And that their mentality should argue that customers vote freely with their purchases every day of the blessed week is appalling in the extreme: whilst we cannot take our own personal DNA testers to every prepared meal, and prick them and poke them before every purchase, we are at the mercy of those processes we should surely have every right to trust.

The Independent concludes in the following way its report on the obfuscation currently at play:

‘Bute’ aside, the unlabelled horse may indeed be safe to eat. But that’s not to say that people wanted to eat it, nor, more importantly, that anyone in the food supply system was aware of the existence of what seems to have been a massive undetected fraud.

It was just the presence of an unknown substance –  prions that caused BSE (and the ensuing complacency and cover-up) – that led to a collapse in confidence in British farming.

Judging by the events and attitudes of the last few weeks, the lessons have not been learnt.

Not learnt indeed.  That is all too clear.

But what’s even more clear to me tonight is that business today, whether white collar or abattoir, needs a massive kick up the backside from about as fearsome and heavy-touch legislative and inspection regimes as we can possibly manage to invent and devise.

If for no other reason than to guarantee the safety of hapless human beings in a complex and interdependent century – human beings who still don’t come complete or supplied with their own portable laboratories.

A market for cheap and easy-to-use DNA testers then?

Perhaps the need is wider than that.  Maybe the market that’s really waiting to be exploited is for an algorithmic comparer of prices and products, which automatically suggests the potential presence of fraudulent behaviours in any supply chain.

For until we as consumers get far more access to information about what goes on behind the scenes in such B2B transactions, there is little we can do but to resign ourselves to further and ever-increasing fraud in banking, technology and food products various.


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Feb 282012
 
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This story beggars belief

In a twist that even the brain of Chris Morris couldn’t have dreamt up, the Met Police is revealed to have “loaned” Rebekah Brooks a police horse in 2008. The Evening Standard reports that Brooks “rode the retired horse for a year at her farm in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire before it was put out to pasture.”

In the light of the above, then, the following Wikipedia page seems really appropriate:

Hack within the activity of equestrianism commonly refers to one of two things: as a verb, it describes the act of riding a horse for light exercise, and as a noun, it is a type of horse used for riding out at ordinary speeds over roads and trails.[1]

Although the latter part of the definition does beg the question whether the behaviours then mentioned have actually been shown by the parties to the agreement:

The term is sometimes used to describe certain types of exhibition or horse show classes where quality and good manners of the horse are particularly important.

A case of a hacking horse loaned by a hacking police force to a hacking editor?

Hacking in a horsey sense, of course.


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