Friday, 29 April 2011

The Royal Wedding - Free Speech and the Windsors' Humour Bypass

The media has been saturated for days now with the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. And today, if you were outside at 11 am as the nuptials were being undertaken (as I was), it was as silent as the opening scenes of "28 Days Later". Just empty streets, the wind, cats...

Of course, like the zombie hordes that emerged in that film, the "Nation", the only collective noun permitted to be printed in the Daily Mail, was obediently devouring not quite the flesh of the living but rather the pomp and spectacle of the House of Windsor hopefully adding some welcome new genetic material to its dwindling pool of DNA. Albeit that this is from a woman allegedly of "common" background (though equally notwithstanding that her great grandfather once owned most of Leeds).

It has been taken as read that the Royal Family remain unquestionably ascendant in their role as Head of State. The Monarchy remains the symbol of the social and political hierarchy that runs our country, its institutions and economy. It retains perhaps residual political authority but buttresses the autocratic powers of Her Majesty's Government which both now and probably by the end of next week will continue to be elected by one of the most undemocratic electoral systems in the world.

So you would think in such an apparently unassailable position, the Royals might at least relax in terms of allowing their opponents (supposedly an irrelevant minority) to be able to criticise them, at least in a jocular fashion. Satire about the royals has been an integral part of British humour since the vicious cartoons of Gillray and his ilk back in the 18th century. So, with, the media assures us, the love of the Nation pledged to the young couple at the altar today, surely some of us pathetically marginalised and miserable republicans might, in this land of freedom, be permitted a little, well, fun.

Not a chance!

On a purely sycophantic level, we had Camden Council a couple of weeks ago refusing to permit a Republican street party to be held today as not conducive to public unity - a rather Stalinist approach to the subversive act of eating tea and scones at a trestle table. Sorry, or was that a traitors' table? In the end, it was permitted to proceed, but the concept that if you don't support the monarchy somehow you are not permitted the same rights as people who do is worrying.

Gillray's depiction of the Prince Regent kissing his wife, c1790
And then yesterday we learn that the Royal Family has secured a worldwide ban to prevent anyone using the footage of the Royal Wedding in any way that might involve any humorous take on it. Critics of the monarchy have in the past been scolded by royalists on the grounds that apparently the Royals can't answer back. This was never the case, but now they won't have to because there will be nothing permitted that they might feel the need to respond to.

But by far the worst incident of today has been the dawn raid on the house of a retired Professor and pacifist, Chris Knight, and the arrest of the said Professor for conspiracy to cause a breach of the peace. As twenty policemen descended on his home, the Professor and his companion were separated, handcuffed and driven off, their house keys refused to a friend who wanted to check on their pet rabbit.

The Professor, it turns out, was conspiring to undertake the highly dangerous and seditious act of Street Theatre. Indeed, caught red handed alongside him (and also arrested) was a man in a plastic knight's costume with a plastic toy sword.

Clap them in irons and take them to the Tower!

The Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police declared that today was "a day of national celebration and we will move fast to deal with any criminal behaviour" in relation to any demonstration of anti-royalist sentiment. The media helpfully played footage of the English Defence League chanting at a small group of Islamic radicals, usefully bracketing them with the likes of the Professor.

It is increasingly sinister that we see peaceful protest being squashed in the UK. Another activist, Charlie Veitch, was also arrested yesterday for conspiring to cause a breach of the peace at the Royal Wedding in spite of his going to the police to assure them of his peaceful intentions and discuss with them how he could carry these out. He remains in custody today. As posted previously, there have been similar cases around the environmentalist movement, and also with the banking and student fees protests. In line with what many warned about a decade ago when Tony Blair rushed through more and more powers allegedly to combat terrorism, the State is increasingly using the law to crush dissent of any kind - even the humorous.

So, as William and Kate drive off to Clarence House in the pseudo-environmentalist Prince Charles' Aston Martin, spare a thought for three people who have spent today detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure for daring to consider wearing fancy dress costumes on the streets of London. On the upside, at least there wouldn't be a TV in their cells...

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

The No sense of Nuclear Nonsense

Russia Today interview on the many high costs of nuclear energy and the myth of abundant atomic power.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Bloody Oil

So, in one sense it is not news. Ask anyone why the West gets involved in overseas wars and the answer nine times out of ten is "oil". The public know this, and somehow cynically accept it, bemoaning the fact, but often simultaneously setting it to one side, perhaps in the hope that, while it is necessary for the sake of our current carbon fuel-dependent societies, it can't really be that bad. Can it?

Well, yes it is, and worse. We heard earlier this year, Tony Blair's sanctimonious defence of his toadying up to George Bush over the bloody war in Iraq, shifting from his original claims about weapons of mass destruction to defending the objective of regime change, allegedly because this would be good for the Iraqi people. The tens of thousands of deaths, the millions of refugees and the immense damage to infrastructure caused by his activities were all apparently worth it on these grounds.

And this week, we have found out for certain just exactly who all this mayhem was for.

The "Independent" newspaper in the UK published a series of emails showing how in the months up to the Iraq invasion - when Blair was publically insisting that war might still be avoided - BP and other oil companies were busy petitioning the UK Government for a slice of the anticipated post-war bonanza. They even went so far as to claim that if the Iraqi oil fields were privatised (rather than kept in the hands of the new supposedly democratic government to hel rebuild the country) this would represent an apparent reward for the UK's support of the American invasion.

So now we know, our troops were there to kill and be killed so that, in return, BP, a big multinational company with a deeply tarnished history of involvement in killings and corruption in the Middle East, could get a reward.

And it duly has. Unreported, unfocused on by the complicit western media, the Iraqi state was dismantled following the war. Its assets were sold off to foreign companies and individuals - many of them Israelis - and among these BP benefited with good deals on acquiring huge stakes in large tracts of the rich Iraqi oilfields. Even where they don't own the fields, the oil companies make a killing, extracting oil at less than $1.15 per barrel and selling them on at over one hundred times (or, put another way, 10,000%) that cost. They were by no means the only oil company involved, and the American government was even more generous to its friends, such as Halliburton and Blackwater, in doling out Iraqi money, largely unaudited and unaccounted for. But Blair's sickening insistence that he acted out of pure motives and a desire to do the right thing finally stand exposed as nothing more than a squalid deal with big corporations - both of the oil and non-oil varieties.

And what of now, in Libya? Again and again in recent weeks, the Gaddafi regime has been portrayed as somehow uniquely brutal among Middle Eastern despots and so deserving of unique treatment by the West. Even although Gaddafi's government has now offered an internationally monitored ceasefire and elections for the leadership of the country run by the UN, the mysterious coalition of rebels continue to receive unqualified western aid in spite of rejecting the offer. We are indefinitely underwriting a bloody war with allies of dubious provenance even although the other side have accepted more than the original demands of the United Nations.

Why? It could be for oil - but with just 2% of the world's reserves, while rich, Libya does not represent to carbon cornucopia that Iraq offered. And BP was already well-ensconced with the Gaddafi regime, so regime change could potentially disturb rather than assist their exploitation of the country's richest natural resource (although, of course, any Middle Eastern war is handy for oil companies in facilitating a rise in prices at the pumps - entirely unnecessary and unjustifiable, but easily sold to an unsuspecting public).

Libya offers other delights for western companies, however, just as Iraq did but other states like Bahrain and Egypt did not. Both Saddam and Gaddafi, for all their brutal faults, came from socialist backgrounds. Acquiring power was not purely about self-aggrandisement, though both men clearly revelled in it. It was also about using the state for the benefit of the citizens, however totalitarian in their control of their citizens they sought to be. Consequently, both Iraq and Libya under their respective tyrants had large public sectors and enjoyed some of the best education, health and welfare systems in the world - all free of charge. And, of course, all hanging like ripe fruit to fall into the bags of privatising privateers when the American juggernaut crashed into town.

Under the neoliberal philosophy that continues to inform American and British foreign policy, "freedom" is not at the end of the day expressed via the ballot box or by the mass of citizens. When they talk of freedom, it is in  fact about free markets - about private enterprise and the supposed freedom to buy and sell, accumulate, speculate and profit. Hence, under this philosophy, oil as a bounty for blood is more than acceptable - indeed, it is necessary, it is the whole purpose of the exercise. And not just oil - just as whole segments of Iraqi public services have been auctioned off to western-owned interests, so Libya now holds the same tempting prospect.

It is for this reason that so much of the opposition to the West in the Arab world stems from a religious starting point. Although castigated in the West as wild-eyed bearded ones lusting for blood and vengeance for ancient slight, groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hizbollah in the Lebanon are widely supported by their people because they are grounded in ethics and principles diametrically opposed to the corrupt regimes such as Mubarak's sponsored and sustained by the West (the USA for example, paid for Mubarak's brutal security services for most of his rule).

Old Friends - The British Queen & The Blood-soaked Emir of Bahrain
It is also why the West is so deeply distrusted in the Arab world - every time Arab people have agitated for freedom, they have been opposed by dictators whose strings have been pulled very firmly either by western governments or by western oil companies or, more often than not, by both. The brutal regime in Bahrain is probably the epitome of this, but in the West, it is exempted from the fate of the Libyan regime. Bahrain is sanitized by the approval of its regime by the British monarchy and the repeated visits by members of the Royal Family (who invited the ruler of Bahrain to kate and William's Big Day just hours after the massacre of 45 protesters on the streets of his capital city), - and besides, we already own everything there anyway; there is nothing left to sell.

But in Benghazi...never mind the crosshairs; its dollars that are in western sights.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

O Fortuna, I think I am becoming a god: the hubris of Humanity

The head of the allegedly "greenest government in (British) history", David Cameron, announced yesterday his intention to repeal a raft of environmental legislation, including laws protecting wild bird's nests and eggs, as well as, crucially, the Climate Change Act. This latter law currently requires the Government to take steps to ensure that the carbon emissions of the UK are 80% below their 1990 level by 2050 - this is the minimum reduction many climate change scientists argue will be necessary across the world to prevent runaway climate change and the destruction of human civilisation.

Why has Cameron, aided and abetted by his supine Liberal Democrat Orcs, decided on this?

Well, apparently such rules are "red tape" which hinder the onward march of British industry. They crush creativity and damage our competitiveness with overseas trade rivals. Much better to set our resource-gobbling entrepreneurs free to sate their lust for profit on the altar of profligacy and excess.

Cameron and his free marketeer allies like David Laws and Nick Clegg claim of course that this is the genus of capitalism unbound - free to develop, to cater for every human demand and whim, somehow, by magic, it will find the answers to our environmental problems, invent amazing new technologies that will defy the laws of physics and breach resource limits. Hence the move towards freeing up GM food and the view of Climate Change regulations as a hindrance to the mystical Invisible Hand of the Mighty Market that will mysteriously provide for us all. In doing so, it might ravage the planet of its natural beauty, destroy its ecosystems and rape it of its resources, but that won't matter - somehow, as long as we work hard enough and don't think of some free ride on the state benefits express, Capitalism will provide.

And so we have a government informed by neo-liberal economics and the freak theories of people like the Campaign to Repeal the Climate Change Act. See a video interview with one of their leaders here (click here to link)...a man so breathtakingly arrogant in his ignorance that he defies belief outside of the realms of bad science fiction movies. This man feels that any suggestion that we might limit our use of resources or seek to limit or even just slow the exponential growth rate of humanity is a slight to his warped version of reality. By his arguments, the more the merrier - more humans will not bust the planet, but rather somehow create the ingenuity that will allow us somehow to cram more and more people onto our tired piece of space rock, forever gobbling resources, flying everywhere, driving everywhere, living like Americans everywhere...

Of course, he is in a fantasy world: one where anything that might rain on his parade is in fact a socialist plot. Peak Oil? Nonsense, he scoffs, if we begin to run out of oil, having another three billion people on the Earth will not massively increase demand for the dwindling black stuff and make its price rocket, but rather provide the creative brainpower required to invent new ways of miraculously creating and consuming more and more outputs for fewer and fewer inputs. Anyone who disagrees is just a havering hippie.

But then this denial of reality also invents any kind of excuses or explanations for our current realities - of rising energy prices, of rising global temperatures, of billions living on the edge of existence shorn of the ownership of anything of value. Doubtless, all these will be down to the failure of a state somewhere to implement full-on market capitalism. All they need is to let business and industry find a way.

This is the hubris of humanity, exemplified as never before by our strange advocate and the men he stands proxy for. Somehow, we will always find a way out, create something that will make it right, even if it is just on time and millions may suffer in the meantime. Somehow, we have reached a stage in our history where government policy and the cultural zeigeist do truly hold that creativity is spawned far more effectively by seeding it with the prospect of dollars cash rather than by the prospect of public service or even simple satisfaction.

The transient Triumph of Vespasian
In ancient Rome, Emperors were declared gods when they died. When Vespasian heard the Shades whispering to him in AD79, he wryly observed, "O Fortune, I think I am becoming a god" before passing away.

Our modern Masters may sadly no longer worship Zeus and give thanks for the planet the gods bequeathed them, but they clearly see themselves and their favoured sons and daughters as capable of godly deeds as the Earth spins towards catastrophe. To rein them in as they wipe out our rainforests, jet the world over day after day and continue with conspicuous consumption, would by their argument amount to heresy. To suggest that industry might serve people and planet rather than the other way round can be to invite the full Inquisition, castigation as a utopian dreamer or schemer. Rather, it is time to unite around the consensus that somehow Capital will find a way, no matter how pyrrhic its inevitable Triumph.

But Rome is long gone, and the halls of Olympus lie empty. And our modern would-be gods, just as they claim to hold the very key to knowledge, in truth stand empty, nothing more than false gods and hollow men.

We make our obeisances and sacrifices to them at our peril.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Happy Birthday Mr Chaplin

As Google has reminded everyone today, it is Charlie Chaplin's birthday - he would be 122 if he was still with us.

He is remembered as the clowning Tramp for his many silent movies along that ilk. Like many stars of the silent era, he struggled once the "talkies" came along, although he continued in films until his final commercial venture in 1967, "A Countess from Hong Kong" (which he also directed).

As well as the talkies, he had to contend with the political bigotry of the McCarthyite era in the USA, forcing him to leave the ever-dubious "land of the free" and settle in Switzerland until his death on Christmas Day 1977. McCarthy had assailed Chaplin for his left-wing political views, and leaving Hollywood was in effect the death knell for his acting career.

Yet it was his politics and his concern for things far removed from the slapstick comedy he is famed for that forged what many consider to be his finest work, "The Great Dictator" made in Hollywood in 1940 as the Battle of Britain was raging. In this (talkie) satire, written and direced by Chaplin, and in which he played on his mustachioed similarity to the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler (who was born just 4 days after Chaplin), he used the medium to demonstrate the illusory allure of fascism to those without hope and to expose its ultimate naked brutality, culminating in a powerful call to arms for a better, fairer, democratic world. It was controversial not least in that the USA was still at peace with Germany when it was released and there was a powerful lobby in American politics to ensure that remained the case right up until the attack on Pearl harbour over a year later.

Rightwing hostility towards him grew with the release of Chaplin's first post-war film, "Monsieur Verdoux", a dark comedy, satirising capitalism as essentially pyschpathic.In due course, it was all apparent grist to Senator McCarthy's view of Chaplin as a man too dangerous to remain in the United States of America.

The FBI had kept him under constant surveillance and even a degree of harassment during the war, identifying him as a possible communist. In due course he was accused of "un-American activities" in the late 1940s, although the Senatorial Committee baulked from calling him to testify, fearing he might lampoon them. Another way was found when he went on a business trip to his home country of Britain in 1953 and FBI Chief J Edgar Hoover seized the opportunity to have Chaplin's right to live in the USA revoked (after 39 years). He was never to return, writing soon after that:

"I have been the object of lies and propaganda by powerful reactionary groups who, by their influence and by the aid of America's yellow press, have created an unhealthy atmosphere in which liberal-minded individuals can be singled out and persecuted. Under these conditions I find it virtually impossible to continue my motion-picture work, and I have therefore given up my residence in the United States."

Chaplin's message in The Great Dictator remains as clear and vital today; while the intolerance and paranoia of McCarthyism remain as constant a threat as ever in its new forms of Islamophobia and a crushing consensus around state surveillance and restriction of individual liberty.

So it is all the more worth watching again the nemesis of the Great Dictator. And being thankful for Charlie Chaplin, the clown who made the world think.

SMILE (composed by Charles Chaplin)

Libya war IS about regime change / Britain / Home - Morning Star

Libya war IS about regime change / Britain / Home - Morning Star (click for full M.S. article)

The West has gone far beyond the concept of a protective no-fly zone and is now advocating regime change - even although the rebels are a very uncertain band containing some rather unpleasant passengers. In addition, they have refused to even contemplate any negotiations with Tripoli and gave the recent African peace envoys an incredibly hostile and violent reception when they visited Benghazi to sound out the possibility of peace talks.

Why is such intransigence now being underwritten by an open-ended guarantee to the rebels from Britain, France and the USA for continuing and increasing military support and aid with arms supplies?

What has gone largely unreported is that the revolt against the Gaddafi regime developed from rallies called by religious groups to commemorate the 2006 publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed, which upset Muslims around the world given their faith's injunction not to make representations of any human form, let alone such an important one. Most fundamentalist Muslims see Gaddafi as an enemy of their faith given his closure of Islamist schools, his taunting of the veiling of women and his call for Arabs to "put the Koran away on the bookshelf" as a relic of a former age.

Whilst the Transitional Rebel Council is composed of a rather motley bunch of academics, lawyers and army commanders, many of whom were senior members of the Gaddafi regime until just a few weeks ago, there is much evidence of more radical religious elements running through the revolt. What is for sure is that this is no democratic uprising like the ones in Tunisia and Egypt - where, especially in the latter case, the West were so incredibly hesitant about calling for Mubarak to resign. But, of course, as history has shown time and again, the West's interests and frequently violent intervention in the Arab world has never been about democracy, and indeed as often as not has been to squash the demands of the Arab people for reform.

Gadaffi, of course, is no democrat either. But the West is not concerned about that. His sin, unlike Mubarak and the Saudis, has been to not always toe the line with the West. That makes him no saint, but equally, it begs the question as to why Libya is such a special case as to now require our active intervention, not merely to provide some sort of protective no-fly zone around Benghazi, but to continue every day to bomb large tracts of Libya and say that this will continue until Gaddafi is gone.

Our Masters have decided Gaddafi must go, but sit on their butts in Bahrain as the political opposition is destroyed and people shot on the streets - in the same city as the largest overseas US naval base in the world.

Yet there again, they're Our Bastards, and he isn't.  At least, not one of Ours.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Green Party Election Broadcast: No Joke

What is happening in Britain is no joke. Caroline Lucas MP, Green party leader, at the Comedy Club.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Local Lies

"The time has come to disperse power more widely in Britain today."

A portentous call to arms, these words rang from the Coalition Agreement signed by David Cameron and Nick Clegg back in May 2010. The Liberal Democrats especially hailed it as a declaration of intent to devolve power to communities and give back control to local people. The Tories gleefully portrayed it as a decisive step away from the centralism of the defeated labour Government, its years tarnished by control freakery and an anal obsession with targets.

Key to the process has been the Localism Bill, currently due to become law later this year. The Government has trailed this as doing away with Westminster control of what happens in our communities, especially in areas like planning and development, and putting people in charge of their local area. Local referenda on a host of subjects will be able to be called by local people.

Just last week, I took part on a panel of local election candidates debating the Local Development Framework proposed by our local Council Planning department under the Labour Government's rules on strategic planning for most of the next two decades. Tens of thousands of new homes are proposed - with several thousand on greenbelt land and more on greenfield land - even although the statistics used to forecast need are, at least, unproven. Needless to say, everyone on the panel agreed with the angry audience of some 150 local people that the local greenbelt/greenfield should be protected and the houses not built. But local people and even the local councillors would not have the final say - this would be taken instead by the full council for the district, where these people and their representatives would have only a small say and represent 3 votes out of 99.

Step forward the local Tory MP with his brilliant solution - delay the vote, delay any decision. The Government is about to do away with the old targets and although local authorities will still need to plan ahead, local people can develop their own neighbourhood plans and even hold local referenda to prevent buildings they don't want.

Sounds good. Almost too good to be true?

Indeed, it is at best a case of blatant "over-selling". Localism and the legislation enacting it, on closer inspection, turns out to be little more than a messy "pig-in-a-poke". No surprise given its provenance on the desk of Communities Secretary Eric Pickles and his trusty Orc, Grant Shapps, the Housing Minister.

The Localism Bill proposes to give communities - either Parish Councils or undefined "Community Forums" - the right to establish Neighbourhood Development Plans. Under these, these groups will be able to identify where they want houses to be built and what types of houses are required - "providing the plan is in line with the strategic vision for the area set by the local authority", local people can then vote on it and if they pass it, the houses (or other types of buildings) can be constructed more quickly than under the current planning regime.

Save our fields from the Sontarans - Pickles at work
Nothing there about stopping unwanted developments. Indeed, the Bill goes further to create a "right to build" to community groups wanting to construct small developments (no definition of small, or of community groups).

And if some big developer decides they want to plop a giant housing scheme in the local area, what powers to resist will local people have?

Well, the developer will have requirement to consult with local people before submitting their plans. Consult? That's all. People can be as against it as they like, the developer can still go ahead and submit the application. And with new Government rules creating a default "yes" to development, it will be difficult to stop the process. The guidance is unclear - it does seem there may be some right for locals to demand a referendum, but the local council will only have to take its outcome into account - it will not be binding.

With the Government now offering cash-strapped councils bonuses for each new house built, and opening up a potential scandal with proposed land auctions, the momentum will be with the developers and what little new "power" local communities may have will be swept away under a thick layer of concrete and tarmac. Little wonder that, after some initial concerns, the British property Federation Chair has welcomed the Bill on the grounds that they are: by the emphasis that the Government is now placing on growth and the way in which localism is to be used as the vehicle for encouraging communities to opt, not for nimbyism, but for the sustainable development of both the homes and commercial property that our economy so desperately needs.

So much for power to the people and so much for protecting our green and pleasant land.

A grim future for the green belt?

Saturday, 9 April 2011

When the Porterhouse Blue comes to Westminster

In the excellent Channel 4 TV adaptation of the Tom Sharpe novel, "Porterhouse Blue", the deferential College Porter Scullion, played by David Jason, reveals what in 1982 was seen as the ultimate scandal: a British university was selling university places for money!

How times change, when we hear this week the apparent "news" that nearly every English University has put its  fees at or near the new, trebled maximum of £9,000 per academic year, to the apparent shock of the Con Dem Government. It seems no one mentioned it too them - or, rather, they truly were deaf to the protests of students that were so violently suppressed by the authorities last autumn on the streets of London.

The Government is now clearly panicking on two fronts - there is a wealth of evidence that, contrary to all their platitudinous assertions, the new fees policy is deterring potential students from applying for courses. Nil points for social cohesion and mending "broken Britain".

Secondly, and far more galling to this regime of neo-conservative financial pygmies is the prospect that the Government won't be able to afford its own policy! Sound strange when we've heard so much funding is being slashed from Universities, including public support for the humanities - apparently pointless subjects like History, English, the Arts - being reduced to absolutely nothing, zilch, not a penny?

Well, in the debt-ridden world of contemporary students, the Government is committed to lending them the cost of their fees up front, expecting them to pay it back, with interest, through most of their working lives. But it has to find the money first, and with so many Universities taking the increasingly incompetent Vince Cable at his word and charging the maximum permitted, the Government's bill is soaring. It had banked on Universities charging an average of £7,500 per student - not the 20% higher rate that is emerging.

Hence the panic this week.
Scullion: the Nick Clegg of Porterhouse?

Of course, they were warned, but they ignored their opponents, preferring to cast honest young people as bloodthirsty anarchists and revolutionaries. We face the surreal prospect that British Universities are increasingly enrolling more and more overseas students with the cash to help them survive, while the hysterical rightwing press, who supported the Government's policy changes, carp on about too many foreigners in UK educational establishments. Meanwhile, with India now emerging as a new world superpower, its well-regarded Universities are offering British students degree courses which will cost them 40% less than going to a UK establishment. Even the Mexican President has offered sunnier university options at lower than the UK cost to British students - immediately after talks with Clegg.

So well done to Vince and the Cleggeron. If there is any advertisement more clearly speaking against Coalition Governments, its this hybrid Lie that passes for the British Government. They are dismantling our Welfare State, our NHS and our education system piece by piece allegedly to save us from a non-existent economic catastrophe. The levels of outright dishonesty are beyond belief.

But of course, just as Scullion ends up as the enfeebled puppet of the Establishment in Porterhouse Blue, so the Liberal Democrats have sold their souls out even faster than they have sold the country down the river. As the Dean says in the final scene to the stricken Porter-become-Master, "Master may not have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but he will certainly die with one in it."

And die they will, starting with the elections on 5 May. And deservedly so.

On the day Parliament debated the new fees regime for English Universities, thousands of young people and their supporters demonstrated peacefully in London. The only significant casualty of the day was student Alfie Meadows, who was left brain damaged after being assaulted by a police officer who has never been identified. Watch the horsemen cometh on this video, see the fear induced on the faces of British citizens asserting their right to stand and protest. This is Liberal Democrat Britain. I hope they are proud of themselves while they still can be.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Porridge for Profit - Privatizing Prisons

The announcement yesterday that a Birmingham prison is to be moved into the private sector is yet another huge and disgraceful step towards the total dismantling of the public sector by the Con Dem Government. Ethically, it is a terrible social decision to allow companies to profit from the incarceration of prisoners and raises many deeply troubling questions about the future of the prison system and rehabilitation of offenders.

It is not the first case of privately run prisons in the UK - 11 have been contracted out since the 1990s, and about 12% of prisoners are already held in the private sector, not that you would know from the condemnation by Labour MPs in response to yesterday's news. But this is first case of an existing public sector prison being privatized, and Group 4 Security, who have won the contract, operate as a profit-seeking company. They do not have social objectives in what they do - an outgrowth of private security guard operators, they are known for low wages and operational mismanagement. They do make nice profits for their shareholders, and in this context, what genuine interests might they have in running a prison?

Far from wanting to rehabilitate offenders, a private prison operator will inevitably see much merit in repeat offenders - guaranteeing a continued supply of business. Likewise, facilities for prisoners during their stay in jail would be kept to a bare minimum to drive costs down and again increase returns - the track record of existing private jails pretty much confirms this. And of course, doubtless arguing that this might save the public purse costs, the operator would logically look to maximise the financial returns to be had from cheap/free prison labour.

Unlikely? Well, take a look at the USA, where so many of this government's ideologically-motivated initiatives have their origin.

The USA has privatised scores of its prisons, precisely as, under the barbarically inhumane "three-strikes-and-you-are-out" rule implemented by many states, the prison population has trebled in recent years, with even minor shoplifters (like Gary Ewing) now imprisoned for life. Deploying the cost argument, these prisoners have been conscripted into all sorts of labour - the bulk of US armed services uniforms and ordinance is now manufactured, free of charge, by (disproportionately black) prisoners. The private company Unicor "employs" 20,000 prisoners in 70 US jails to carry out work which even includes making components for Patriot missiles.  Wages can be as low as 23 cents (or 15 pence in UK terms) per hour. Prisoners are also used for a huge range of contracted-out services, including corporate payrolls and call centre work, sometimes placing customers data privacy at some risk, but keeping plenty of income flowing into owners' pockets. The twisted "three strikes" policy ensures a continuing supply of such handy, exceedingly low-cost labour.

If this was happening anywhere else, such as Iran or Zimbabwe, it would be condemned as slave labour. But instead, the US example is being used as a model for Britain. With foaming rightwing papers like the Daily Mail and the Sun backing the move precisely as a means of saving the taxpayer money and vindictively dehumanising prisoners, the Lib Dem Minister, Sarah Teather, blandly states that it doesn't matter who runs prisons, as long as prisoners are rehabilitated effectively.

Prison: no such thing as a free bowl of porridge...
This more than anything betrays her lack of understanding of what is going on in the minds of the corporations bidding for contracts like this, and others in services like health and elder care. This is a company that exploits the staff who apply to work for it voluntarily, minimising wages and maximising working hours - is it suddenly going to be infected with some sort of social concern virus when it takes on prison work? Or is it going to drool at the prospect of virtually free labour and an endless supply of new business?

How we treat prisoners is a mark of how civilised we are, or not. Not only should many of those in prison not be there to begin with, but anyone in a prison is still a human being. They deserve dignity, even if in some cases they are there for removing dignity from others, because the prison system should not be about vengeance or humiliation, but about correction and support to find a better life when they come out again. There are many examples of former prisoners going on to make good and contribute very effectively to society, not least in helping younger people avoid getting into the sort of trouble they have experienced themselves.

But if we give prisons and their inmates over to the likes of Group 4, the emphasis on rehabilitation will no longer be at the heart of the system; rather it would be viewed by corporate executives as being like turkeys voting for Christmas - leaving us with the real prospect that, in future, prison may well work, but only for the purpose of filling the pockets of Group 4 shareholders.