Politics

WW1: Here is why I dread the centenary

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Jeremy Paxman in the filming of Britian’s Great War

Less than three minutes into the documentary. Sombre violins. Zoom-ins towards black and white photographs. Paxman’s voice: “For the first time in the nation’s history, ordinary people were being dragged into total war ” Close up of a little girl. “This is the story of how that conflict transformed the lives of everyone in Britain.”

Tense drums and brass flood my ears. Fleeting shots of advancing troops, women carrying sacks, men putting on coats. “Each man and woman would have to play their part. The nation would have to change utterly and change quickly to have any hope of victory”. Yes, because Britain was the underdog. A crescendo. The titles, set to melancholy piano and layered sepia photos of soldiers kissing babies and ladies paddling at the seashore.

BRITAIN’S GREAT WAR, it proclaims. This is the tip of a four year iceberg.

I think it important here to say a true and much needed sorry to all Germans living in the UK, or can see the fuss being made here from Germany. All of you, watching our television, hearing our radios, reading our websites, attending our churches and (worst of all) talking to us are about to see the British at their worst.

It won’t even have been a hundred years until late July 2014, but already Centenary Fever has poured into our lives. Telling us to feel: to feel self-congratulatory and sanctimonious and sympathetic and grateful for our lives and liberties. Books will be released (there are already 8000 on topic). A historical blockbuster. The bloodshed, the leadership, the love stories, the relatives, all of it will be reviewed, revived and rehashed “lest we forget”.

Westminster and the BBC are leading the march (there will probably be a march) with countless nationwide history projects being funded and a four year season packed with television and radio from familiar faces revealing not a huge amount. The Prime Minister has coughed up £50million to celebrate the centenary, comparing it to 2012’s Jubilee. He has even hired a minister, Andrew Murrison, who would find it “remarkable if the Great War wasn’t woven into practically everything that goes on”.

Though what’s inexplicable to me is why the beginning of the war is being celebrated. Millions died in World War One, but instead we’re hearing of isolated stories picked out to make us tear up, which trivialises a horrible period of our recent history. Britain’s Great War spoonfeeds viewers with the hard work of British men and women right here and the sacrifices of our boys abroad. But it was so much more than that.

We, most of us, make up a country trapped in a loop of nostalgia for our past military triumphs, feeling their pride as if we won them but insulated from their cruelty and it’s beginning to get rather pathetic. We must understand our history, both the successes and the losses instead of wallowing in a chauvinistic hangover of imperial times.

For now, Britain’s Great War continues. The next episode will be shown at 9pm, Monday the 10th February on BBC One.

This post was written by Shiven Limbachia. For more information, follow him on Twitter@ShivenLimbachia or contact him here
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State of the Union 2014: Obama is voicing his limits

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A matter of hours ago, President Obama gave his annual address on the State of the Union. It marked the end of one phase of his presidency and the start of another. Gone is the shining vision of the second term we hoped for. Gone is the gifted orator who campaigned on change. In his stead is a leader well aware of the scope of his control.

Looking out over a chamber full of military personnel, disobliging Democrats and obdurate Republicans (not to mention a television audience in the tens of millions, and #SOTU being tweeted about by most people in most places), Obama delivered a safe speech full of themes of continuity, perseverance, and the promise of prosperity, albeit slight, around the corner.

Even with a dreadful 2013 which saw his legislative plan stymied and his approval ratings slump to a historic low, the President decided not to chart a new route. Instead he outlined plans to clear his to-do list before an already spiritless administration prepares for another election.

The largely domestic, fiscal-based speech was scattered with well-worn ideas and economic policy, which Obama has relied on time and again, without actually making them happen. Though the focus on economic disparity and a call for better upward mobility does echo that wave of populism piercing through the Democrats, and it’s uncommon to see that from a party in government.

The hike in minimum wage, which will only affect half a million Americans, (from $7 to $10.10) does follow his rhetoric on needing to strengthen the middle classes, but it was disappointing that he didn’t go near the pressing issues, like gun control or Syria.  There was only one newly-issued concrete number: this Presidency’s immigration reform (which can’t begin without the consent of congress) would cut the deficit by $1 trillion over twenty years. It sounds like a lot before you consider Obama’s adding $1 trillion to the deficit every four years.

But the soberest theme across the entire address exuded optimism and an approaching directness. With or without congress, you the people are with me. Everyone knows my relationship with the House is not good, but we can do it together. I will get it done “with my pen and phone”.

And yet the opposition won’t go away. After Obama’s first year, with a fast burst of dramatic legislative accomplishments ushered though during a brief phase of one-party Democratic rule in DC, the Republicans have set their eyes on precluding the President. That is why we all feel so underwhelmed in Obama’s actions now. They’re slowed.

Doubly bad because it hasn’t come off well for the opposition either. The government showdown/shutdown of 2013 has meant the Republicans and the Tea Party members have had to go back to their states and explain to their constituents why they let the US government be threatened, and haven’t come up with a decent excuse.  So congress might let Obama have this one, since congress doesn’t always make the best decisions.

But has the President made the best decisions, considering his first promise in the job was to close Guantanamo Bay prison, and it still hasn’t happened? He said, hours ago, that 2014 would be the year in which Gitmo would be gone. What’s been stopping him these past four years?

The full text of the State of the Union address is available here.

Lord Rennard: The inflexible winner against the silenced many

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Part One: To Recap

He’s smiling. He’s powerful. He’s clearly smart. He’s responsible for the steady growth of a main political party for the last 30 years. He’s an MBE. He’s fat and jolly. He’s been owed the very success of the Deputy Prime Minister. He’s wealthy. He’s the catalyst in the centrist portion of the coalition. He’s a Baron. He’s Lord Rennard.

And he has his hand on your leg.

He asks you to join him upstairs. He’s the chief executive of a cause for which you work. He’s not your boss: he’s the boss. He’s admired by everyone around you. You’re at a work event. How dare he? You say no, of course and move yourself away.

You report the incident and nothing happens. Even he’s acknowledged nothing has happened.

I’ve waited to write about the Rennard allegations. The way it has all unfolded has been conventional and shocking. It began, as we all remember, with an exclusive Channel 4 News report, breaking the stories of allegations of inappropriate touching and propositioning by Chris Rennard to activists, candidates and colleagues spanning years.

Within minutes the Liberal Democrat party issued the classic response, explaining that there would be an investigation into these matters. Only days later did we realise how the party would threaten and hector and warn Rennard to say sorry. Yesterday he issued a lengthy and petulant statement in which he made clear he will not apologise.

He has been suspended from the party.

Part Two: The Why

HashtagRennard has been called a scandal, largely because it reveals a disgusting and taboo alleged pattern of behaviour from a senior, decorated, venerated public figure in a political party; the people who are supposed to remain honest and unblemished.

But I consider it a scandal for what came after. It took a national television news crew, countless newspaper updates and the typical storm on Twitter to suspend the apparently indecent peer.

When you see the affected women speaking, their shaky words, their nervousness, their total embarrassment and bravery involved in talking about this, it becomes clear how wrongly shaming the experiences they describe were for them.

They had their jobs at stake. One has wished to remain nameless, for she still wants to work for the Liberal Democrats. Quite rightly; she’s done nothing wrong so far. Rennard should be turned away.

But they did speak out. To the entire nation, because the nation is interested.

And what of the rest, those in ordinary jobs, those treated inappropriately by their seniors, those silent to protect their livelihood, or ignored for their bullies aren’t public officials? It does happen, and all the time.

Of course, this case is a typical one in that it involves a man in seniority supposedly mistreating his women colleagues, but such stuff takes place across and between both sexes. Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism Project shines a telling and horrible light, having collected 50,000+ confessions, complaints and chronicles of similar and much worse endured.

My hope is that the Rennard debacle teaches us all that indecency, to put it mildly, now exists in all echelons of employment and is pandemic. Perhaps this final square shaded in will be enough for us to look at the entire picture, and acknowledge that those affected need a voice, and society will prioritise this, to take it seriously and stamp it out

The most violent election day in Bangladeshi history

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Sheikh Hasina (right) has been sworn in again as Prime Minister of Bangladesh

One hundred people in Bangladesh were killed on their way to vote in the recent elections. There will be some people, connected and in power, who will celebrate and consider this a good day for democracy. How wrong they are.

Sheikh Hasina, the first woman prime minister of Bangladesh, resumed the office she has held since 2009. But what has happened in the last two weeks? The leader of the opposition, Khaleda Zia was put under house arrest, and 21 political parties were banned with night raids on the homes of opposition supporters. Voting was stopped at over 400 polling stations, and more than 100 people were killed in the run-up to the ballot, mostly in rural areas. Fears of violence kept many voters away, and fewer than half of parliamentary seats were contested.

Most international observers have shunned this election as incredible.

The human rights abuses and “rampant corruption” (see below) under Sheikh Hasina’s regime is not to be overlooked, and it is unnerving that the pro-government newspapers and elite spectators in Bangladesh ignore it.

Worse, the Hasina administration’s support for the Shahbag movement, whose demands include hanging those accused (not convicted, accused) at the domestic war crimes tribunal, banning opposition political parties and arresting writers who are critical of them is deeply chilling.

Last year the government’s security forces ransacked the offices of human rights activists for reporting abuses against protesters, whilst two activists of the Bangladeshi human rights organisation Odhikar were taken into custody and are now appearing before a cyber crimes tribunal.

There have also been violent attacks on journalists, including the murder of a blogger. That disturbs me. All from the same government forces who charged with batons and opened fire on grieving protesters who were demanding compensation for the loss of their loved ones after the Rana Plaza factory tragedy in which over 1,100 people died. 

It was the worst accidental structural collapse in human history, and it was preventable. Sheikh Hasina’s response was “accidents happen”. She spoke on CNN shortly after, reading from a sheet of paper.

In the way that the regimes of the middle east have been scrutinised, serious questions must be asked of this government. There are estimates that less than 10% of voters turned out in the elections. The EU, USA and Commonwealth did not send observers to monitor the polls, which were not deemed to be “transparent, inclusive and credible”.

Whilst allies of Bangladesh keep silent on the record of human rights and corruption, they usually laud the progress of Bangladesh in the 20th century. But the real test will be whether and how they deal with this administration in the coming years, and if they can legitimise the problems they have just called out.

George Osborne and Britain’s poor: Is he flogging a dead horse for money?

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The Chancellor’s new plans for cuts will push spending on public serviced to a level unseen since 1948.

The last time I think George Osborne spoke and the nation heard what he had to say was September 2013. At the party conference for the Conservatives last year, the theme of his speech was evident.

Don’t forget what a shambles New Labour made of Britain. Ed Miliband is not fit for politics. And it is the Tories who have brought the state of this country back to par, just in time for Baroness Thatcher to notice. 

But the most telling and memorable mood he was in was of accomplishment and, with his hindsight, complacency. The final paragraph of his address brought home that accomplishment: Osborne’s Recovery.

We rescued the economy together. We’re going to recover together. And together, we’re going to share in the rewards. For the sun has started to rise above the hill. And the future looks brighter than it did, just a few dark years ago.

But it’s January now. George has sobered up, and travelled to a Sertec factory in Birmingham to deliver a sombre message detailing a future full of hard truths and further storms ahead. He uses metaphor quite often, a bit euphemistically as if we’re in for something we’ll hate, but it’ll work out in the long term. Because we are.

Those “hard truths” mean cuts in spending. £17bn this coming year, £20bn next year and over £25bn further across the two years after will be taken out of the economy should the Conservatives win the next election. What we’re hearing for the first time is that £25bn across the 24 months will be cut, and that half of that money will be taken from working-age benefits.

Osborne stated that if by the end of the next parliament, we are to stop borrowing money and start paying it back (while government spending falls by 2.3% per year) then “you are going to have to find billions of pounds of welfare savings, and I think that is what this country needs to do, personally”. 

The Institute for Fiscal Studies analysed Osborne’s autumn statement, and implied most of these figures, but this is the first conformation from the Treasury. 

The explicit argument is that The Plan which was pushed for in the 2010 general election must continue. The deficit must be cut. Taxes must not rise. Spending must be reduced.

The implicit message is that the British economy is still not totally stable, and that the next election should not be the moment to return power to people who see the state as a tax collecting, service buying system.

And the public are getting wind of that. Labour have got alarm bells attached now, most probably because of every other major political party has personally and completely turned against them.

Trust in the left has been worn down over the past five years, and it’ll take more than shiny spending policies like wraparound childcare and a price freeze on energy to win the people’s confidence. Responsibility, sensibility and all-round prudence with the public purse have got to be sold, talked about and displayed in policy before 2015 to stop the grudging shift (as recorded in recent polls) to Ukip, and to the notion that cuts are frustrating, expensive, and downright painful… but needed.

Back to the Chancellor, though: to get his message into the right ears, this weekend it was David Cameron who vowed he would keep what he calls a “triple-lock” on pensions. This means having pensions rise steadily, corresponding with inflation, wages, or 2.5% per year, whichever is highest. To be told that the Conservatives will get the most out of your pension for you will surely be favourable with all those influential OAP voters.

And there’s the political move involved: polls published this weekend conducted by the former Conservative vice-chairman Lord Ashcroft told us that 46% of undecided voters say they’re seriously considering the Conservatives or Ukip. This will help the Tories shine a little brighter.

However, those pensions take up half of the entire benefits budget. This means the £12bn of welfare saving I mentioned will, as Osborne has confirmed, be taken from working-age claimants.

After all, he has also insisted that none of that money could come from higher taxes, for that’ll scare wealthy taxpayers away, leaving the people of Britain poorer. I would call the irony delicious, were it not so shameful.

The reason for such austerity, such austerity unprecedented in recent times, such austerity which we’ve experienced for four years and will continue to experience until 2030, is because growth since the economic crash has not nearly been as visible as expected. We have not seen such a prolonged period of fiscal weakness since before even the depression of the 1930s. 

And despite spending cuts and further spending cuts, coupled with raised taxes, borrowing is still expected to be at historically high levels of over £100bn this year. Osborne tells us he is trying to get that number lower and lower until it’s zero over the next six years by cutting public spending further and without any tax rise. And let’s be clear, the spending cuts are monumental:

Even without the further cuts in welfare I’ve mentioned, total spending on public services will be 20% less in 2019 than it was in 2010.

The Office For Budget Responsibility has warned Osborne that such cuts on such scale would take spending on public services to a level lower than at any point since at least 1948.

I understand austerity. I support austerity. Anything other than austerity would be reckless. Yet Osborne’s mindset on this issue, the economy, his job, is so short-term that he’s trying to squeeze all the hard times into a one, perhaps two-term parliament. Another decade of curbed spending and better tax policing without cutting the services, help, lifelines, healthcare, police, libraries, housing and pittances of the poorest in our society so brutally might be easier for us all.

Whatever the nation wants, there are no easy solutions. Serious and sensible discussion of balance between austerity, tax and spending should be the stuff of debate and discourse until the next election. Perhaps someone, somewhere will throw up a fix. But I don’t think it’ll be George Osborne.

Spousal Immigration: an ignored homewrecker

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Theresa May has said the right to family life was “not an absolute right”

A friend of mine is in love. I recently found out she’s engaged to the man she met years ago, and they are to hold their wedding this year. But here’s the twist: the man in her life wasn’t born in the UK, where my infatuated friend was born, and lives. This means that their love has had conditions placed upon it. Not by her, and not by him but by the UK Border Agency.

Their relationship is ransomed at £18,600 per annum.

Ostensibly, this requirement of salary is designed to stop my friend’s beloved from sponging off the state, though government statistics show migrants to be less than half as likely to claim benefits than those born in Britain (whilst paying the same taxes of course).

Theresa May has said this move was not about numbers. She’s right, of course; it was about winning favourable headlines, about scapegoating, about blaming the monetary and healthcare and employment shortcomings of the British state on people who can’t repudiate any of these measures because they’re in a land far away.

This move also came into force in July 2012, but it has largely been ignored since then and it is still forcing families apart. My friend’s recent engagement brought back home that this is an issue, and will continue to be.

The manifesto commitment of the Conservative party could hardly have been clearer. Britain will be the most family-friendly country in Europe.

“Strong families are the bedrock of a strong society. Britain’s families will get our full backing across all our policies. We need good, strong families to help our society work well. We will support families to stay together.”

And yet the Home Secretary has boasted of her intention to split up thousands of families each year. But only the poor ones. And those with a foreigner in their midst.

Have ministers not considered the inimicality, implications and incredulity of this move though?

  • It’s not only heartless to force an estimated 15,000 families a year to emigrate or live apart, it gives lie to their manifesto claims of supporting family, a pillar of society.
  • It brings back that old worry that you’re only relevant to the Conservatives if you’re rich enough.
  • UK-born sponsors are claiming benefit which would not be claimed if their foreign-born spouse was able to join them in the UK and take care of the children involved.
  • British children are spending years away from one parent. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (enshrined into UK law in the Children Act 2004) play no part on Home Office decision making.
  • Those born in the UK, even if they have a wealthy partner and don’t need to work can’t live together. An Australian man who is a CEO of a multi-national company in Dubai earning £250,000 a year and has a £3.5m property in London is unable to live with his wife and children as she, his sponsor, does not work and his earnings and assets do not count.
  • Other countries allow British citizens to join their spouses in their home countries relatively easily. In the western world, only Norway has a higher financial requirement than the UK and most other countries have no requirement, a requirement that is not fixed or a requirement between £5000-12,000.

I’ve read the case studies by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, and I’m simply upset. These people are in love and have had their lives forced apart whilst trying their best to make a good life for their children. The JCWI calls them United by Love and Divided by Law; that’s exactly how it is.

On a more pleasant note, my besotted friend is a chemist, so earns enough, and will be joined by the love of her life next year. I know they’ll be very happy together.

Nick Griffin declared bankruptcy, but how?

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The BNP leader owes nearly £120,000; an amount he claims holds “no political significance whatsoever”

Yesterday Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party, was declared bankrupt but confirmed he will stand again in May’s elections for European Parliament. The far-right politician was named on a list published by the Insolvency Service after being declared bankrupt at Welshpool and Newtown county court on Thursday.

I simply can’t figure out how, though. The Daily Mail (a publication which the BNP most likely regards as a socialist rag) wrote last year that the average European Parliament member can make a salary of £182,826 including attendance and transport allowances.

Such a pittance was not enough for Nick Griffin however, who has been “ordered to pay what amounted to nearly £120,000 in outstanding monies and costs to Gilbert Davies & Partners”.

How could this have happened? Surely a man with an income of near £1m over five years, with a law degree from Cambridge should have more sense than to squander it away so quickly? And from the leader of a political party, proudly sporting the (all too specific) policy of “encouragement of savings, investment, worker share-ownership and profit-sharing”.

The irony is delicious, and best summed up on Twitter. The unabashed amusement, and supercilious glee of the “softly-softly politically correct yobs, asylum seekers and immigrants”, as the BNP calls them on their website, is fantastic reading. Tons of gags being cracked about moral bankruptcy and dry-cleaning his white robes, to name but two examples.

Yet in the end, we the British people are assured that Nick Griffin MEP is in touch with our feelings: he’s going to write a booklet on managing debt, for that’s precisely what we’ve been crying out for in these times of economic uncertainty. Perhaps one chapter could be dedicated to holidaying, and how if you’re in a bit of debt, Syria’s a nice place to go. A recent “fact-finding” mission was undertaken by the BNP leader. He rushed back with the revelation that it was “normal” in Damascus. I’m sure the booklet will make it to the bestseller list.

I do wonder what Mr Griffin will do, should his booklet-writing career not pan out, and his “professional” campaign for the European Parliament not succeed. It is worth considering now.

Matthew Goodwin, an expert on far-right politics at Nottingham University has said that “The BNP is finished in elections, and at the European elections this May Griffin is almost certain to lose his seat in the north-west, which will mean for the first time since 2001 Britain will be effectively BNP-free.”

I do hope he doesn’t end up unemployed and (more) bitter, seeing foreigners, immigrants, asylum seekers and the two-million plus illegals in Britain conscientiously placed ahead of him in the queue at the local Welshpool welfare office. It’s not like he deserves that…

Nonetheless, it’s a possibility. Nick Griffin has never gone in for proper work, and although he’s quick and frequent to boast about his university boxing days, at 54 years he may be a little too old to get back in the ring. Although I’m sure, unlike his upcoming booklet, there would be people who would pay to see it.

Nick Clegg’s New Year Message: Don’t vote Ukip

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In his new year message, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has warned voters not to vote for anyone other than the yellow dove in May 2014’s European Parliament elections. The Deputy Prime Minister said that a vote for a euroskeptic party, or any other party for that matter would be the “surest way to throw our [economic] recovery away”. 

“Ukip want out. The Conservatives are flirting with exit. And Labour just don’t have the courage of their convictions on this,” he stated. “All three would put narrow political interests ahead of the national economic interest. So, in a few months, I’m going to ask you to make a different choice. The Liberal Democrats are Britain’s Party of In. Not because we’re in love with the EU, or we think it’s perfect but because being in Europe means jobs, trade and prosperity”.

What does this mean then? Well, it all comes across a bit tired. He’s used the well-worn “different choice” and “The Liberal Democrat’s are Britain’s…”, but the message comes across thinly. He nigh-admits the EU is not perfect, Parliamentese for seriously bad but I still want it.

And it feels as if Mr Clegg is trying with desperation to wave away conceptions of his party which seem, well… correct. The Conservatives aren’t flirting with exit, they’re clutching for popular policies with the British people, and “having their say” in a referendum will be an important factor in the next election.

As for Labour, the Liberal Democrat leader understands that Labour is even more pro-EU, but wouldn’t dare shout about it, since it’s unpopular. And we all know that Labour, having lost much credibility in the financial crisis of 2009, can’t afford to say out loud how they want to keep paying for the EU,  and wouldn’t bet something so important to them in an in-out debate at all.

Then Ukip, who’ve been outscoring the Lib Dems and their policies in polls consistently, and are tipped to make great successes in next year’s European elections. Nick Clegg, whilst enjoying coalition now, may not see power again without a handful of policies which look shiny and radical and achievable: sadly, the Liberal Democrats just aren’t that sort of politics.