Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Proud to Pay Their Taxes

A curious item pops up on social media this evening - an anti-Scottish independence group called "Proud to be Scots, Proud to be United" offers "volunteers" £25 to help out at events, plus £10 towards travel costs.
"Right guys for anyone that wants a quick buck we are now paying volunteers £25 to help out at events. Its very easy work (just giving out car stickers to those who want them) Let me know if you are interested!" says Jack.

It's an odd thing and you just sort of hope that these respectable adherents of the union are not getting themselves into a fluster as they try to buy their help. So a few gentle words of advice to them. No suggestion at all that they haven't already sorted all this out, but it is a potentially complicated area, so just as a wee reminder of the pitfalls of paying "volunteers"...

1. "Paying volunteers". Erm, not really - paid volunteers are more commonly known as "staff" or "employees". And while I am sure neoliberal Unionists are quite keen to do things like abolish taxes altogether and have unlimited labour from folk for £25, when you pay someone like this, it is pretty advisable to have a clear, written agreement about their employed or self-employed status, including any liability for tax and who pays it.

2. Watch the national minimum wage (NMW) - again, something the neoliberals are not happy about, but the law is the law and, for now, we have the national minimum wage. How many hours are they making these poor souls leaflet for continued communion with David Cameron and wee Cleggy in the U of K?

At £6.31 per hour, I reckon four hours or so of shouting against Wee 'Eck for 25 quid and you're right on the borders of British law (sorry folks). Unless of course you are using folk under 21 or, even better, kids under 18 - you can pay them less and get more out of them in the finest tradition of British fair play. And let's face it, with Britain the third most unequal society on the face of the Earth, these youngsters need to get used to grinding poverty if the Union continues, so they may as well start now.

Important to ask: what would Ian do?

3. Expenses - you can pay towards or even all of volunteers' travel expenses. But only if they are real. If someone spends £5 getting there and you give them £10, sorry but that's a payment, not an expense. Tax, tax, tax. (yes, I know...)

4. Benefits - do remember to advise your volunteers that if they accept payments for work done, it may affect their benefits. At times like this, you really need to ask, what would Ian D-S do? After all, he's on record suggesting that £25 for a few leaflets and you are set up for the next three days and a fourth one, up until about lunchtime. We don't want the Union being campaigned for by people in breach of social security rules, however inadvertently, now do we?

5. Declare to the Electoral Commission - I'm not fully au fait with the finance rules of the referendum, but if they haven't already, it would be a good idea to check about declaring these costs. It is a public vote and campaign. Any expenditure incurred needs to be accounted for usually. Even if its paying people to do stuff most other campaigns, charities, churches, sports groups, coffee mornings, etc don't pay for - because their volunteers work for free doing stuff they believe in.

Yes. All in all, it's quite complicated once you start paying people to work for you. Of course, give the Westminster mafia another few years with "benefits reform" and welfare to work, and I am sure it will get a lot easier to bung folks some cash and get them to do whatever you need for a total pittance. But in the meantime, the last thing we need is for some bunch of progressives to come along and point out that there are pesky, bureaucratic rules and red tape preventing the sort of entrepreneurship that wants to save the Union.

For obvious reasons.

Monday, 28 July 2014

No Wind Turbines to Spoil the View

The British Government, which once upon a time audaciously and falsely claimed it would be the greenest government in history finally today slipped aside the very little last shred of its minuscule fig leaf and revealed its truly appalling dark side - it has opened up half of the UK's land, including national parks and major cities, for applications for fracking  licenses. If granted, oil and gas companies such as Cuadrilla hope to drill for shale gas by pumping huge quantities of water and chemicals under ground to force the fuel upwards.

The proponents of fracking claim it is safe - but we know from numerous studies  now that there is both anecdotal and scientific evidence that this is far from the case, with water courses poisoned, minor earthquakes and major disruption and damage to the environment. Both energy companies and the Government admit that the heavily state-subsidised process will not lead to reduced costs to the consumer. Nor will it cut carbon emissions at a time when global warming is reaching and breaking through more and more dangerous thresholds infinitely earlier than anticipated - both May and June of this year, for example, were the warmest May and June since records began and 2014 is set to be the warmest year on record. After what scientists had warned would be a temporary pause in warming, the seas, the largest carbon "sink" in the planet, have suddenly begun to warm exponentially - with serious threats to marine life and to global warming-inducing emissions.

North Dakotan fracking looks like a city from space
Greens and environmentalists have offered a range of alternatives especially around investing public funds in developing cleaner energy as Germany is successfully doing, with ownership in community hands and generation decentralised to both protect supply and undercut the oligopolistic powers of huge energy firms. An energy mix focused on solar, wind and wave energy, as well as supplemental sources such as waste and biomass, and perhaps above all, energy conservation (we waste about 40% of our energy), would be both clean and free us from needing to pay either big energy companies AND the likes of Vladimir Putin for our power.

By contrast, the Coalition, with Labour's blessing, are open to drilling in places like the centre of archaeologically highly sensitive York, or in supposedly exceptional circumstances (no explanation of what these might be is given) in the middle of our precious national parks. The Government has tried to portray the decision on national parks as protective, as pro-fracking Communities Secretary Eric Pickles will have the power to veto applications approved by local authorities - what it doesn't mention is that he will also have the power to over-rule local authorities who don't find circumstances sufficiently exceptional to justify fracking.

The irony of this advocating of massive fracking, which will involve potentially tens of thousands of wellheads popping up across the country, is that the very MPs backing it are in large measure the same ones who complain about wind turbines blotting the landscape.

Well, if they have their way, at least that won't be a worry in the future landscape of our once-green-and-pleasant land.

Well-heads and access roads across the Wyoming landscape

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Bloody Brothers

The last few weeks has seen a seemingly exponential upsurge in violence not only across the Middle East but also in Ukraine and west Africa. Most have been going on outside the gaze of western media for some time and a wide range of very different interests and outlooks are involved - from the "Caliphate" of ISIS in the north of the Fertile Crescent, through the Syrian and Ukrainian civil wars to the pummelling of Gaza by far superior Israeli forces and the kidnapping of girls and others by Islamists in Nigeria as part of a wider cross-border conflict.

But one thing unites those taking part, whether the neo-fascists aligned to Kiev, or the religious fundamentalists of Boko Haram - a belief that spilling the blood of others is a legitimate way to impose their version of the world on others. It is an outlook that cuts across the religions involved - the extremist Jews who this week have called for the mothers of dead Palestinians to be killed as well and their houses destroyed; or the Koran testing of terrified Nigerian villagers by insurgents who separated those they deemed to be unbelievers before shooting them; or the "White Christians" supposedly championing European civilisation against Russian "Asiatics" as they ethnically cleanse eastern Ukraine.

Whether religion drives this behaviour or is incorporated to sanction it, isn't the issue. What is, is the willingness to deny the humanity of opponents - the Israeli Prime Minister breathtakingly complained about "telegenically dead" Palestinian corpses, while Boko Haram decreed the girls they seized from a school to be the "property" of their male captors.

This first video powerfully evokes the fundamental problem that drives the conflict - the belief in divine sanction being on your side consequently sanctions just about any form of behaviour, no matter how inhumane or extreme. I might disagree towards the end about the apparent equivalency portrayed between Israel and Gaza (Hamas do not have missiles like that, although they may well wish they did), but the video is about motive as much as method.

The second video isn't a cartoon. From Syria, it is real life for millions of people, including huge numbers of children - over half of Gazans are under 25- right now. It isn't as graphic as some of the recent footage from Gaza, but it is deeply upsetting and perhaps more powerfully than some of the more explicit images we have seen, it sums up the truly ceaseless tension and terror and the inhumane, dreadful and totally unjustifiable cost exacted on the innocent by the bloody brothers who would make this world their own.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Balkan Echoes

The Mothers of Srebrenica - the surviving relatives of the 7,000 Muslim men and boys butchered in 1995.

A Dutch Court has today ruled that the Dutch state is liable for the actions of Dutch soldiers, operating as part of the UN peacekeeping forces during the Bosnian war, who delivered some 300 Bosniac men and boys into the arms of their Serb murderers in Srebrenica back in 1995 were guilty of war crimes. The decision, taken following a case brought by the "Mothers of Srebernica", is welcome and long overdue. But it also highlights the ongoing hypocrisy and disregard of western governments towards the victims of European wide nationalist and neo-Nazi groups.

Who can forget these days back in  late June and early July1995? TV cameras covered the crowds of scared and hungry civilians crammed into the supposed safe zone; while the Dutch UN commander promised that he would not leave the terrified Muslims, mostly unarmed and surrounded by heavily weaponised Serbian paramilitaries. For months, they had been terrorised and starved until now their tormentors moved in. In the midst of this, 300 men ad several thousand women took refuge inside the UN compound itself - only to be herded out by their supposed protectors, the Dutch troops. They were assured that General Ratko Mladic himself had guaranteed their safe passage in spite of the obvious hollowness of his many, casually proffered previous promises.

Forced out of the compound in untypically decisive action by the UN in Bosnia, the three hundred joined the queues outside. Ominously, the women were separated from the men, supposedly to go to safety on different buses.

Except, as we know, the men's ones never turned up on the other side of the warring lines. Instead, 7,000 males, from teenage boys to crippled elderly men were led into the hills and then, as Christian priests blessed their executioners, they were shot and bludgeoned to death in the single worst act of genocide in Europe since the close of the Second World War. Their bodies were abused and dumped in mass graves and down old mine shafts in a clumsy attempt to put any evidence beyond the reach of any future investigators.

And, of course, the Dutch commander did not stay, instead getting as far away as possible.

The media of course was more than equivocal about the whole event - just as with Gaza now, the one sided nature of the Bosnian war, in which over 85% of casualties were Bosniac Muslims, the BBC and other western outlets suggested that the arms embargo favoured by the EU somehow "levelled the playing field" (or killing zone would have been more appropriate). In truth, given that the Serbs started with the full panoply of the well armed former Yugoslav army behind them while the Bosniacs started with a few police pistols and partisan rifles from World War 2 museums, the embargo in fact ensured ongoing Serb supremacy. This was only brought down when, finally shamed into action by the shelling of Sarajevo market, the UN finally approved the bombing of Serbian gun emplacements around besieged Sarajevo. A ceasefire and peacetalks leading to the Dayton Accords swiftly followed, but, of course, it has taken nearly twenty years for the families of the men butchered at Sarajevo to find even a smidgen of recognition of the UN's collusion with the Serb rebels.

And, as this Court finding is finally given, another tragedy with very similar traits and motives is playing itself out several hundred miles to the east of Bosnia - on the steppes of the Ukraine, the rightwing regime that came to power by overthrowing the democratically elected President has, with much western backing, more or less consolidated its hold over Russian speaking areas in the east. In spite of much hostile media coverage of Russia's attempts to protect ethnic Russians from the predations of fascist and far right vigilantes favoured by the Kiev irredentists, Putin has not overtly intervened and the Russian militias portrayed as extremists by the west have been almost completely eliminated.

But one look at who is busy fighting for the Ukraine regime immediately raises serious concerns about what is going on, and where Ukraine is headed - Scandinavian "volunteers" proclaiming that they are engaged in a race war for "the white Christian people". This statement does seem all the more odd given that most Russians are fairly white; until you reflect on Hitler's views of the Russian Slavs as what their name originally meant - an underclass, or under-race of slaves.

The Azov Unit uses the Wolfsangel banner once favoured by the Nazis.
Operating as part of the Azov militia, an outfit echoing the Serbian Arkan Tigers of the Bosnian genocide, they openly parade Nazi flags and symbols. Indeed, Nazi views are widespread among the European right - anti-Muslim, anti-Jewish, persecutors of the Roma minority, many of their proclamations make the chilling "manifesto" of Utoya murderer Anders Breivic seem like a children's book by comparison.

The West, keen to get its hands on Ukrainian shale gas (the new regime has signed a 50 year deal with western energy bosses, including the son of US Vice-President Joe Biden and a close friend of Secretary of State John Kerry, which hands over their national treasure to big foreign corporations), has happily backed all manner of misfits and extremists. The coup d'etat in the Ukraine by a mob including racists, anti-Semites and out and out neo-Nazis, some of whom are now members of the Government, highlights very much what the true focus of western interventions in states around the world are actually about. As John Bolton, former US ambassador to the UN under the Bush Presidency said of the Iraq war, it was never about freedom and democracy; it is about American (Western) interests. And money.

Dangerous genies were let loose two decades ago when Britain in particular connived in the destruction of Bosnia; and as we remember the ghosts of Bosnia today, the news from the East remains as grimly unsurprising as ever as the tragic cycles of history repeat, again and again.

Chilling echoes - right-wing militia round up ethnically suspect Russians.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Global Warming - Seeing the Unseen

As our emissions of carbon dioxide continue to rise, perhaps one of the biggest problems in getting across the impact it has on our planet is the fact that it is invisible. Particulate pollution, often from burning coal, used to cause smog to visibly affect day to day life in many large western cities, leading to public demands and support for clean air action - and we can see similar developments, including public protests, in emergent economies like China now.

However, by sharp contrast, the very fact that we cannot see, smell or taste CO2 somehow relegates the immediacy and scale of what we are doing to our habitat. We don't need to turn a blind eye to what we cannot see.

This video (below) by the US Environmental Defense Fund sets out to show what it would be like if we could indeed see greenhouse gases. It takes the CO2-equivalent emissions of New Yorkers over a timescale from one hour to one year and represents these with very visible one tonne spheres to show the spread of these gases.

The cumulative effect is powerful, to say the least, and silently exposes the folly of the global warming deniers who continue to claim that somehow we are having no effect on the planet, on this, the only place we have to live.

And, bear in mind, it is not only C02. Other invisible greenhouse gasses like methane are just as transparent, but many, many times more warming - and around us in ever greater quantities every moment of the day. Time to stop denying and start acting.