This morning I worked hard at getting my ducks in a row – successfully it seems.
Our present political life is seriously damaged. Many people are now looking for the centre having found that the main parties have migrated away from them to the edges. Life on the edge has damaged our mainstream parties. The Labour Party has become increasingly censorious and illiberal seeing a need for the state to increasingly intervene in the lives of us all. Further, following the principle of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” it has developed nasty antisemitic traits in response to the problems in the middle east. The Tories on the right, on the other hand, have seen its perfectly correct support for freedom of speech and individual liberty used as a cover by racists and bigots (people less concerned with the right of free expression than pleased with the opportunity to say hateful and spiteful things under the cover of free speech). Neither of the main parties now are without problems and I am sure that many, like myself, find themselves politically homeless.
You can find the centre by going left from the right-hand side or by heading right from the left-hand side. However, the centre is distinct from both of its containing edges. I am not sure if these movements from the two sides will ever find the middle but it was in the hope that they may that I read the flowing two books over the last month or so. From the Left there is “Blue Labour: Forging a new politics” and on the right we have “Red Tory : How the left and right have broken Britain and how we can fix it“. I read these in that order, Blue then Red, although this is the reverse order in which they were published. There was five years between the books; Red Tory was published 2010 and Blue Labour in 2015 but despite this they tackle largely the same themes.
The similarity of the books is the most striking aspect; large aspects of either book could be transposed into the other with little upset whatsoever. Both are aware that the traditional working class has been abandoned by the main parties and we have a major problem of an large portion of our population in the post-industrial areas feeling alienated and ignored. They both also recognise the increasing disengagement of this group, who feel and behave as disenfranchised, and the danger that this poses to our society through the mechanism of populist parties from both extremes.
Both books see the need to review our approach to nationalism. Both feel patriotism and nationalism can act a valuable bulwark against the problems of globalisation. Both books promote the nation state and internationalism as the antidote to the excesses of global capitalism. On the left by limiting the powers of the state and corporations, and on the right by limiting the excesses of the market when corrupted by monopolies, cartels and state intervention. Both agree – ‘smaller is better’.
The fate of the family is prominent in both books and both are alarmed by the damage that has been done to it. Blue Labour views the family as a basic building block of society which is particularly important to the poor and working as it provides the best support and safety They bemoan the weakening of the family in pursuit of greater economic productivity and also express concerns that the traditions of mutual support and communalism which grew in the working class movements are declining (Trade unions, mutual societies, building societies, friendly societiesare all examples of working class organisations). The Red Tory also worries that these aspects of our society are changing, and fears that welfarism is replacing mutualism with the consequent risks of dependency and loss of autonomy.
Both books see the increasing inequality in our society as a major threat to our future. We are splitting into a society of “haves” and “owes”; the rich are becoming much richer and the poor are increasingly in debt. So even though we have more possessions it is hard to see that we are that much richer. As Red Tory reminded us of Belloc’s view :-
“For to own something on credit I not to own it at all, and since no security of tenure is available by rent, those who seek some primary foundation or asset in the world have little choice but to buy into a form of ownership that converts its possessor into a debtor”Red Tory pp49
The housing bubble that first burst in 2008 has left most of us in debt and working to serve this. All members of the family now have to work in the market, there is no room or members to stay at home and care for others, and despite this increased work we are not wealthier. The cheap goods that capitalism generates a little but increasing debt wipes this out and adds to the growing inequality. This has worsened since the mid-70’s and the boom years of Thatcher and Blair :-
“Little wonder then that the golden age for waged workers in the OECD was not in this recent allegedly great age of prosperity, but between 1945 and 1973, when they gained the greatest percentage share of GDP for their labour and enjoyed greater real purchasing power“Red Tory, pp 49
It is interesting to note that both books have strong religious influences. Blue Labour has a number of essays by prominent Christian thinkers and an introduction by Rowan Williams the prior Archbishop of Canterbury. Red Tory is written by an author who is an Anglican theologian as well as political theorist. There are shades of “distributionism“, in both books, as they try to find a path to more widely distribute assets between us all and steer a way between socialism and capitalism. There are perhaps modern echoes of the “Three Acres and a cow” proposed by G.K. Chesterton.
Both books are worth reading and I hope will have influence on their respective groups. I found the “Red Tory” more readable than “Blue Labour” as it was written by a single author and was consequently more consistent and coherent. But the ideas in both, on the need to curb increasing inequality, to promote society and constrain the state, and to use nations and locality to limit the influence of global capital, are well addressed in both books.
You never know when good luck will find you. This week it appeared when I was standing aimlessly in the charity shop while my wife was looking at curtains. There seemed to be an enormous amount of inspection required to check these window hanging and my spirits were beginning to flag. I thought I had checked all the possible wares on display that might interest me. But I was wrong. Hiding in amongst all the paperbacks, concealed between the Lee Childs and the Judy Picoult’s, was a little gem : “Trees: Shown to Children” by C.E. Smith.
This little book, probably published around 1910 as far as I can determine, was one of the “Shown to children series”; a series of short educational works for children. Other works concerned ‘Beasts’, ‘The Seashore’ and ‘The Farm’. It is a simple book; each chapter is the description of a tree and these are accompanied by 32 colour pictures (by Janet Harvey Kelman) of the tree, its leaves, flowers and nuts.
The descriptions are wonderfully vivid and really make it very easy to identify tree types. The descriptions are followed by detailed information about the tree’s life cycle, its place in the local ecology and the uses of its produce and timber. Consider a little of description of the aspen below :-
But you will always know an Aspen tree by its leaves. These are never still unless when a storm is brooding and the air is perfectly calm; at all other times they shake and quiver incessantly, and you can hear the gentle rustle they make as each leaf rubs against its neighbour. In the Scottish Highlands the country people tell you that the Aspen trembles because at the Crucifixion the cross of Christ was made of Aspen, and the tree must always shudder at the cruel purpose it served.
In addition to evocative portrayals of the trees there are also passages which promote an interest and sympathy with nature. Any child (even one in his 60’s like me) will find pleasure from reading this.
And do you remember what secrets the trees told us as we lay under their shady branches on the hot midsummer days, while the leaves danced and flickered against the blue, blue sky? Can you tell what was the charm that held us like a dream in the falling dusk as we watched their heavy masses grow dark and gloomy against the silvery twilight sky ?
He had learned that the mystery of tree life is one with the mystery that underlies our own; that we share ths mystery with the sea, and the sun, and the stars,and that by this mystery of life the whole world is “bound with gold chains” of love “about the feet of God”
I hope I am wrong but I fear that books like this, heavy with information and lacking in action and adventure, will be found to be less interesting to young readers today. I have, instead, to hope that google and the internet will kindle their interest in the natural world and start them on their journey outside to look at the beauty of the world around them.
In any event, the child in me really enjoyed being shown these trees and this has certainly been the best 50p I have spent in a long time. I will certainly keep my eyes peeled for the other books in the series. And, as a further stroke of good fortune, my wife didn’t buy the curtains in the long run)
We were fortunate in that we lost our broadband and telephone service a couple of days ago. In the high winds a branch was blown off an ash tree and as it fell to earth it brought the fibre optic cable with it. This was fortunate as this was the only real damage we sustained in the gales. It could have been much worse; property could have been damaged, fences could have been breached or livestock harmed. All that did happen was that we lost some communication and our access to the Internet. It ha also be useful and instructive to discover how reliant we have become on the web and how much time I wasted with it.
The first thing I noticed the number of times I could not immediately Google the answer to multiple pointless questions. Was Ed Shearan in Game of Thrones? Is Baghdad bigger than Tehran? When did GK Chesterton die? I am in the habit of checking these as they arise. It is so quick and easy, a trivial task, that I never remember the answers I get and thus never become truly wiser. There were more important questions (Can goats eat Christmas trees?) but we were able to look these up in a reference book where there is a handy reference list(*) which will still be there should the electricity follow the Internet in deserting us. This was a minor annoyance and easily circumvented by more traditional sources of information.
The second thing that was missing was also information. I realised that I was receiving a great deal of my news through this medium. I world start each day reading the news in my bed on my mobile phone and often end the day in the same way. A newspaper, the radio and television not only sorted this problem but also gave me better quality news. It gave me a wider range of information and opinion that had not been filtered down to appeal to my biases and prejudices. This points to a news years resolution – I will wean myself away from reliance on the internet, and especially social media, for receiving my news.
The other things I realised was how much of a toy the internet is for me. I was not using my phone or computer as a tool but as a toy to amuse me. It was something to fritter time away. Rarely was my use actively constructive, usually is was simply as a diversion. I realised how hooked I was on this as it reminded me of when I stopped smoking. For months after my last cigarette I would find myself reaching into my pockets for cigarettes and a lighter. Now I was performing the same motions, patting my pockets, to check my phone rather than my next nicotine fix.
The most fortunate part of losing this distraction was the amount of time it liberated. Not just time spent in pointless activity, but it removed the diversionary attractions which often sideline plans.
I had a large amount of goat dung and bedding to deal with, which is never a fun task and one that can nearly always be postponed or sidelined. With the new free time I felt best to make some use of it. I gathered up some residual side cuts of timber, left over from the last time we were making planks, and decided to make some raised beds. The lining was made of old plastic feed bags and the preservative was two old tins found in the garage (Hence the two different colours). After a couple of days work and no special expenditure I had a couple of fuctioning vegetable beds. These may not look much now but wait until the summer when they start to be productive.
I think I can say, quite definitely, that I was fortunate to lose the broadband connection. I now have beds, have used some rubbish and have formed a new year’s resolution. It is true that I am not up to date with what is happening with Kim Kardashian’s buttocks but I think I will survive this loss.
(*) They can, in moderation, indeed it can be a useful vitamin supplement.
I have not found a book so initially distasteful as this since I read Bret Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho“. I had to persevere at the beginning as much of the content was so unpleasant that it created a visceral emotional response. However, I am glad I persevered as, after a time, the satire of capitalism and consumerism was well worth reading. There are similarities between American Psycho and this book but Houellebecq’s satire is much more wide ranging and scathing. Rather than having an aspect of our society in its sights this book takes aim at the entirety of Western Culture.
This is a book about the end of our culture; a look at the end of a millennium that ‘had previously been known as Judeo-Christian’ and one that appears to be ‘one millennium too many, in the way that boxers have one fight too many’. This is a book about a culture which has lost its sense of love and purpose and has been left only with its desires and the consequential emptiness that this brings.
The narrator, of this story, has little that makes life worth living and only survives, after a fashion, by taking antidepressants to try and keep his brain biochemistry in the range where life is tolerable. He has lost love, both personal erotic love and also agape: the positives of life are absent. Similarly the negatives of life are no longer felt. He knows (intellectually) many things are wrong but he cannot feel appropriate anger or disgust. This is truly a nihilistic story. This is the story of a man, and a culture, who have huge gaping holes at the centre of their being which no amount of sex, pornography, eating or violence can fill. They are left with suicide as the rational options.
Despite these themes the book is well written and at times beautifully lyrical. It is also often very, very funny. A black desperate humour runs through this tale. This may be a problem to some readers as the author’s misanthropy and disgust with our cultural changes is very well described and it can be difficult to see, in back and white, just how debased some aspects of our lives have become. Many will find this story too excessive and gruesome, however, if you can stomach it, then it is a worthwhile read. Indeed, by the end, of this torrent of sadness and depravity the narrator, and reader, discover that only love and self-sacrifice really matter.
“Families come in all shapes and sizes” , a common saying and one which is largely true. However, as I watch adverts in the run up to Christmas (such as the one for frozen chips below) I realize that there is a problem; we are so keen to promote one thing that we lose sight of something else. Our recognition of what constitutes a family is being eroded and chipped away.
These adverts obviously celebrate the diversity which exists in our culture and we are happy to see such differences welcomed and minority groups presented in a positive light. However, the idea that “differences” are what make a family is clearly wrong. Family, if it means anything, means similarity and relationship. Families, as we are all aware, are not something we choose but a non-optional group into which we are born. We choose our friends, our colleagues, our partners but not our family.
Left and right political thought has been chipping away at the idea of the family for some time. The family is an awkward social unit for both sides of the debate.
On the right, the desire to maximise economic growth sees the family as an inefficient unit – much better to have two adults working than only one and the other staying in the family to rear and nurture children. Even better, if this childrearing and nurturing itself can become an industry and profit gleaned from the labour of others by providing childcare and rearing services. The right matches the approach of economic freedom (we are all free to make money as best we are able) with individual freedom (our relationships are only valuable in as far as they make us happy). Ideas that duty and responsibility could be superior to profit or happiness are an anathema to those of a neo-liberal or libertarian inclination. The right undermines the family by promoting greater material wealth and promising greater individual choice.
On the left, the family is seen as a reactionary unit and a bulwark against the influence of the state. Families protect and support themselves, a task increasingly seen as a job for the welfare state. Even worse families educate and instruct their children; in the state’s eyes this tends to be seen as indoctrination, and that is better done by them. The left’s understandable desire to tackle such problems as gender inequality or religious intolerance lead it to see the family as largely in negative terms; something from which we need to escape!
These views ignore that facts that for most of us the family has been our greatest support and protection. During our evolution the family group has allowed us to avoid the limitations of our weak and limited bodies and provide a structure which keeps our infants and children safe and provided for at their most vulnerable time. Families also unshackled us from our genes; by being able to teach our children and pass on the wisdom that adults had gathered we were no limited to a knowledge set that was hard-wired in at birth.
This doesn’t mean that we have to look at families askance if they don’t have the traditional make-up of mum, dad and kids; but it does suggest that we should promote the basic idea of the family. That is, of a group comprising parents and children bound together in a permanent, mutually loving bond. This unit is formed by the decision to have and rear children and to take care of each other. It is not formed simply by desires; you may love who you will, but simply loving someone does not make them family – family is a much deeper commitment. Fortunately our nature helps us here, we have literally evolved so that we have innate love for our children and family we don’t have to work that hard at it – usually.
Permanence is key here, the contract is such that it takes major steps (and usually death) to leave the unit. To all intents and purposes, once you are a member of a family, that is it, for good. No matter how much you may wish it you can never stop being a son or a brother or a mother. These roles are non-optional. Even though we may stop being husband or wife we do not stop being mum or dad. It is because marriage is the traditional first step in family formation that it is an interpersonal contract very different to all the others we may make. Now that we have decoupled sex and reproduction we need to give more thought to this area. There is still a need for a special contract, essentially permanent, which we need when we intend to create a family but do not require when we simply seek mutual pleasure and happiness with another person.
With our current progression we may manage to replace the family with material abundance and a benevolent welfare state. We may hope in doing so we also find greater happiness as we have greater individual freedom and more choice. However, it is not how much choice we have that matters most but whether we are able to make good choices. For ourselves, for our race and for our planet it is probable that our best choice would be to eschew the desire for more and better, and aim to find our pleasure in small groups, adequacy and fairness, mutual respect and toleration or, put more simply, in family life.
In times of crisis, our instincts are to try and return to our families. In essence this is what families are. They are the place we feel safe, where we are tolerated whatever our differences, and where we can be forgiven whatever has befallen us. They are the place we will be cared for regardless of our wealth or ability. They are our refuge when the whole world seems to be rising up against us. A family is not simply eating chips together, nor is it a place where we eat together with a familiar group, that is a usually termed a canteen. We may manage to replace the family, but if we do, we should prepare to spend our emotional lives in works or community canteens eating chips. We may be adequately fed but this may be much less satisfying than we hoped for.
Things came to a head this morning; early this morning at about 4 a.m. in the small hours. Since the end of last week I have been having problems with toothache. At first it was an episodic pang when I bit down on something, followed by a dull ache which last up to an hour or so. On Friday I tried to see my dentist before the weekend started but discovered that he was not at work due to ill-health on his own part. I took the receptionist’s advice on how to contact the emergency NHS dental services, should I need to, and got ready to cope over the weekend.
Friday night was bearable. I slept fitfully and the pain only required me to rise once to take painkillers. Through Saturday there were few gaps in the pain other than those obtained by generous doses of paracetamol and ibuprofen. These two in combination seemed to work for about 4 hours and although this was adequate through the day it meant I was not prepared for the night.
Saturday night/ Sunday morning was dreadful. I woke in the early hours and took my meds (a dose over the maximum for paracetamol) to discover now that they only afforded 3 hours relief at maximum. The hour after they have stopped working when you have to wait to take the next dose is one of the longest hours I have known. Time passes even more slowly in the dark of night with no distractions. By 6 a.m. I was on the phone to the emergency NHS line and discovered where the three emergency clinics were in my area. I was told they opened at 9a.m. but to get there as early as possible as treatment was on a first come first served basis and there was a limit to the number of slots available.
Now the three clinics were hardly convenient, this is one of the penalties of rural life, and all required a 1 1/2 to 2 hour drive to reach. We chose the nearest and after a quick milking of the goats we were off (The goats were quite surprised to be milked in the dark but took this in their stride. The roads were empty on an early Sunday morning and we made good time. We arrived at 8:15, well in time for a clinic opening at 9a.m., or so we thought. As we left the car, a lady walked up to the car parked next ours. “There’s no chance of an appointment” she said “I’m just back from the other clinics and they are all fully booked too“. Ever optimistic we went into the clinic anyway.
In the waiting area were at least 20 people all clutching their head or face, some showing signs of having been crying and other with facial swellings suggesting dental abscesses. Then we realised we had seen a similar number of people outside. Car were parked and couples inside sat with their heads in their hands either through pain or despair.
This is where I met the lady with the worst job in the world. The receptionist behind the desk listened politely and kindly to my tale of toothache and early morning long-distance drives to get help and then, very nicely, told me that there was nothing she could do. 20 patients had arrived earlier than me and that was their limit, perhaps I’d like to try again tomorrow ? As she told me this, she took two phone calls during which she informed the caller that they were too late (08:30 for a clinic that started at 09:00) and there was no point in coming in. As we were finishing up an elderly lady, with a swollen cheek, and in clear pain arrived at the desk and started to go through her story. I didn’t want to watch but as we left I heard the words “sorry” and “too late” and I could guess the rest. Walking back to the car we saw two more cars arrive the occupants looking optimistic when they saw the sign for ‘Dental Clinic’ and realised the lights were on (as it was till dark). I could not dash their hopes and left them to walk down to reception.
I can not imagine a worse job that that receptionist’s. She had to sit and meet people suffering pain, and seeking aid, and let them know there was nothing for them. She had no sops she could offer and no excuses. The service just isn’t there. She was excellent at her job. She was kindly and I fear anyone less skilled, or perhaps curt, would have run the risk of provoking violence form their distressed clientele. The idea of starting a shift knowing that the morning will comprise of telling people in pain that they must go away, as there is no help available for them, would fill me with dread. It needs somebody kind and compassionate to do this job but I fear the job will harden the heart of the worker and make them unsuitable for the post. Hopefully the lady today will be moved to another post where her excellent people skills will be able to be used in an more positive manner and she might get some of the feedback she deserves.
Anyway the hunt for a dentist restarts tomorrow and tonight I have a cunning plan which involves quite a bit of whisky – wish me luck !
Donald Trump is the president of the United States of America. This is a difficult fact to comprehend. How did this come about ? What changes have occurred in American society that lead to this ? This book as been touted as having some of the answers to this; how large groups of voters came to feel alienated from regular society and shifted to voting for Donald Trump. In the hope for answers, and some possible clarity, I thought I’d give this book a try.
First things first, this book does not answer this question. The answer to the question on the lips of people across the globe is not to be found in this autobiography. I fear that decades from now we will still be debating and analysing the changes that occurred , across the globe, and trying to formulate answers as to how right-wing, rather than left-leaning, populism captured the public spirit.However, despite this I’d still think that you should read this book as it does give a valuable insight into cultural changes that have occurred in the last few generations in America and which are important in the populist revival. The political analysis is slight, and debatable, but the social commentary is very valuable.
This is an autobiography written by a relatively young man. His story is interesting as he has overcome considerable adversity to improve his lot, to ensure that his troubled upbringing didn’t determine his future. It is a life that has shown the promise of social mobility and how it is possible to break from the grip of poverty. As such, it is a very emotional story with pages of great sadness when we consider his tempestuous and troubled early days, but great warmth when we discover that he does manage to overcome these.
It is a little like ‘Angela’s Ashes’ with prescription drug abuse taking the place of alcoholism and Appalacia taking the stead of Ireland. Perhaps the most striking thing about the story is how universal it is. This is the story of disadvantaged working class people. Although set firmly in Hillbilly territory I could read it as the story of the Scottish working class, the marginalised black working class, or any of the other groups who now form the inhabitants of “fly-over country“. The ex-heavy industry workers in the North East of England, those who have deserted Labour and voted Brexit, will see echos of their actions in the actions of the American ex-steel workers leaving the Democrats and voting for Trump.
J.D. Vance perhaps thinks that these changes are too universal. He doesn’t recognise that he is rather unusual in that he has managed to break free from this system. He tends, at times, to sound as if he is saying “if I did it, so can you” and not to recognise that he is a rather unusual individual who has managed to do what most of us do not.
But his description of life at the bottom is very telling and helpful. Poverty is still with us. Relative material poverty is possibly inescapable but this continues to bedevil our society. However, this is the type of poverty easiest to deal with it is simply a redistribution of wealth that is required. But there is a worse form of poverty, which is harder to treat, and this is cultural and moral poverty. This is the type of poverty which keeps the inequality and worsens it.
This is the poverty of ambition and expectation when people think there is nothing better to be had. It is the poverty of labour when people do not have work to give their lives meaning. The importance of work can not be overestimated, it is not chance that the name of the socialist party in the UK is “the Labour Party” as it is labour which gives us meaningfulness in our lives. Even if welfare states met our every material need, if we do not have work we can’t develop relationships, develop a feeling of status in society, and a sense of pride. In the 70’s we campaigned on the left for “The Right to Work” this is much more important than any handout, however organised.
The poverty of family and community is also factor. The family has always been a bulwark against the excesses of capitalism and our refuge. We now find support for the family as an uncomfortable idea feeling it is antiquated and old fashioned moralizing. However, before we jettison the family it might behove us to think what is going to replace the support it clearly gave.
Working class communities used to be a bedrock of support for those at the bottom of the heap.They organised burial societies, cooperatives, unions, savings societies, education groups and a myriad of other societies to offer mutual support. These will never be adequately replaced by a centralises state offering. This may replace the bread but it won’t replace the love or the dignity.
‘Bread and circuses‘ were used to keep the lower orders in their place in the past and in an increasingly unequal society this strategy is again coming to the fore. We are offered drugs, alcohol and pornography to keep our senses satiated and our desires low. If we are sedated, doped or post-coital we will be less likely to think our lives could, or should, be better. It is no surprise that the major dystopian novels of the last century warned us of a future when easy sex and easy drugs kept a population docile and cowed with the minimum of force.
This book does reveal what is happening to our culture and is a useful ‘view from the bottom’ about this. While it may not explain Trump, the advice to try and regain some of our working class ideals; the love of family, the sense of community and togetherness, the dignity of labour, and the importance of mutuality, might allow the left to rediscover it roots and help prevent the coming of a second Trump.
I was listening to an online debate which considered the topic of panpsychism (The idea that everything is conscious to some degree) when I heard about this book. As it seemed to consider that perennial, but vital, problem for philosophy of the “mind-brain” problem I decided to give it a try.
It is quite clearly a book of two parts. The first part considers the problem that are encountered when we try to take a simple materialistic viewpoint of the mind and the limitations that still exist when we adopt any of the dualist positions. These arguments are well described and the strengths and weakness of each position well delineated. In particular the problems we encounter with the issues of free will and personhood, when we adopt a unitary materialistic (You are your brain) position, are well made. This is a useful counterpoint to much of the current media which feels that this issue has been solved.
I can remember working through this period when the advances in the neurosciences seemed to leave little room for the mind. There seemed to be little need to consider the psyche as we could now explain everything by looking at the brain. Certainly this approach played great dividends in my specialised area (dementia) but it never seem to offer any hope of help to those poor souls troubled by purely turmoil in the mind. Indeed the only real change was that psychiatry seemed to change from being ‘brainless’ to become simply ‘mindless’.
The first part of the book is successful but the second half is, unfortunately, less so. The latter portion of the book takes the stance that, if there is evidence that consciousness is best looked in a non-material way (qualitatively rather than quantitatively), then we can take this as proof for the Christian beliefs. I found this much harder to take for two reasons. Firstly the arguments were less well laid out and argued and secondly I felt she presumed faith on the reader’s part. I think someone who is already a believer would find the statements convincing. However, a reader who does not already have religious faith (especially if this is not Christian) will find this half of the book heavy with statements lacking convincing support.
Overall, an interesting read, brief but engaging, initially at least.
This is the most unusual election I can remember. It has been brought about by parliament’s inability to come to a decision on Brexit and most people think it will be an instrument to register their opinions of Brexit. The main parties have gone into official and unofficial pacts about Brexit. The Unite to Remain pact of the Liberals, Greens and Plaid Cymru is the most obvious pact, but other remain alliances are being forged in Ireland and Scotland. Although no clear pact has been formally announced, the Conservatives and The Brexit Party are making non-hostility arrangements to try and solidify the leave vote. So, in essence, the Parties are making sure that the only way we can vote is either with a ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ candidate. It is very clearly an election caused by, and about, Brexit.
Unfortunately this poses a problem for the two major parties. The smaller parties are all in the clear as they all have a consistent and unambiguous Brexit policy : to remain in the EU from the Lib-dems, SNP, Plaid Cymru and Greens or to leave the EU from the Brexit Party and UKIP (remember them ?). But despite all the prevarication and word-play the two major parties remain split on the Brexit issue. Labour wants to appear a leaver party in its old northern heartlands but to appear to be a remain party in the metropolitan areas. The conservatives, similarly, want to appear to be leave party to appease its right wing members while, at the same time, wishing to try and peddle a partial remain treaty (BRINO – Brexit in name only) to placate its more centrist majority.
The end result of this is that both Labour and the Conservatives want to talk about anything other than Brexit in this very Brexit Election. This has had a predictable effect. Both parties now want to shower us with gifts. They seem to be saying “Forget all that about Brexit, we’ll deal with that, but look at this huge amount of money we have found to fix the real things that worry you“. Both parties are now promising huge spending increases for the NHS, Police Force, Infrastructure projects ; you name it they will put money towards it at the moment. The only difference between the two parties at the moment seems to be whether you measure their largesse in billions or trillions of pounds.
Now it is quite possible that this is the correct time for some spending on infrastructure to give a boost to the economy. After all lending rates are low at present and borrowing is cheap. Further, a long period of uncertainty has dampened activity and an improvement in infrastructure could help boost productivity which has remained stubbornly low in the U.K.. But we have to remain careful if we are to use this type of stimulus that it has the effect that we want and that any loosening of the pursestrings doesn’t lead to waste or increased inefficiency in public spending.
So while I’ll not lose much sleep over more money being spent on hospitals, transport, police or education I do have some concerns about some aspects. I am concerned about the policy to give free broadband to everyone in the U.K.. Why on earth would I want to look this gift horse in the mouth ? Free broadband – what’s not to like ? Surely this is a clear vote winner, nearly as good as a policy of “A free iPad if you vote for us!” which must surely be next.
My main concerns are that internet penetration in the UK is already 92% (Only Japan and the UAE are higher). At present at least 80% of households have personal internet and 90% of these have some form of fast broadband. The problem that exists is largely one of needing to deal with the urban-rural divide. There are still areas, in the countryside, which are badly served by current broadband providers and here is the rub – this provider is Openreach. Openreach has an essential monopoly on providing the infrastructure for broadband internet. It has never been properly separated from BT and has never been exposed to healthy competition. Our ongoing problems in the rural areas might have been dealt with some time ago were we able to call on more than one provider.
Labour’s plan for free broadband will require nationalisation of openreach and also of divisions of Virgin, EE, Sky and Vodaphone. This will reduce competition and slow development in this area. I am old enough to be able to remember the BT monopoly and the wait to get a phone line installed, or indeed to gat any type of service from them. People are obviously happy to pay for their broadband at the moment and this has helped develop services; it would be foolish to stop this. It also makes little sense to single out this communications tool – why not free mobile phones or free instant messaging ?
But while I fear nationalisation will slow the spread out of broadband internet to remote and rural areas (which is the main infrastructure problem) this is perhaps my smaller worry. Just imagine if the state did have a monopoly of internet provision. If the state ran all the DNS servers and knew every ISP address you visited, hosted all of your email communications, knew all your social messaging opinions and knew every online search you had made – would this make you feel happy ? Looking at the opinions, as far as they can be heard, in China it seems that this is a very bad move. This could be the first step to serious loss of liberties.
It has been a common theme in the world of high tech. People come and promise lots of nice things for free while at the same time taking away a lot of our data without us noticing. Google helps us know millions of facts but in return we supply Google with gigabytes of personal data about ourselves. Facebook help us keep in contact with friends but they cost is that they now know all our interests and social networks. Amazon makes shopping easier but in return they know our wants and desires as well as our finances. These sweeteners are nice but we need to look in the horse’s mouth and check what we are getting ‘for free’. Free broadband might be the most expensive gift, if we are silly enough to accept it, if it means the loss of our privacy, our rights to free expression and free association. This policy might just look like a bribe but it is much more dangerous than that.