Just slip on these lovely handcuffs.

Just slip on these lovely handcuffs.

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.

A place in the sun.

A place in the sun.

Day time television has always looked like a punishment for the unemployed. It is as if this diet of crude pap is put on during the day because it might push those out of work back into the labour market just to avoid the constant reruns of failed programmes. Or perhaps this dross is ladled out because the channel heads don’t care about this audience, thinking they are old or disabled, and knowing they don’t have enough disposable income to warrant expensive advertising. Hence the cheapest programmes are gather together and broadcast to fill airspace.

Unfortunately when I break my working day I stop for a cup of tea and a biscuit and to relax sometimes make the mistake of turning on the TV. I tend to avoid the news channels during the day, as they steal to much of my time, and hence make the mistake of watching the mainstream channels. This has lead me to see the interminable repeats of house renovation programmes, countless Judges remonstrating about the morals the modern world, and far too many tales of neighbours or landlords from hell. But the worst of these, by far, are the repeats of “A Place in the Sun” and related second home shows.

I feel these are the worst because they tend to draw me in. They show wonderful locations and interesting houses which capture my attention, before I know it I have spent half an hour watching a couple buying a second home. But why is this so terrible ?

If you have been fortunate to have avoided these programmes I will explain the format. An elderly, often just retired, couple with a large amount of money decide that they would like a holiday home. They try and appear nonchalant and unassuming while the presenters show them a number of properties which will really suit “you guys“. Usually they see four houses in their chosen location and the presenter try and whip up enthusiasm to purchase within the couples’ usual budget of £250,000.

This is the issue. I am watching a programme in which a rich person is thinking how they will spend a quarter of a million pounds. If the programme followed a man trying to decide between the Lamborghini, Aston Martin or Ferrari we would know instinctively this is the rich buying toys but we tend not to notice it when it is a second home. However, this is buying a home to occasionally live in for fun, perhaps 2 to 4 weeks of the year – this is a toy, not a house.

Had they been buying expensive cars the situation might not have been quite so bad. If you spend £330,000 pounds on a Ferrari Dino GT it does say a lot about you. It says you have more money than sense, little awareness about the plight of the poor, an ignorance of the inequality in our society, and probably also a small set of genitals.

When people buy there holiday home they are also going to have to double a lot of running costs. In days when we are meant to worry about climate change buying something that requires either a long-haul flight or long-distance drive to use seem very unwise. These houses are normally bought in areas much poorer than the area the purchaser comes from, thus they parade their wealth amongst people much less well off than them. This is extreme conspicuous consumption; consumption made all the more conspicuous by being broadcast on television.

Despite the buyers wish to immerse themselves in the culture of the new area they will never be anything other than wealthy tourists. If they want to experience the culture then they could learn the language and take a job working as a cleaner in the town. In many of these areas the second home market is the very thing that is destroying the local culture and turning what were fishing towns, or farming villages, into ghost towns. This market prices houses out of reach for the locals, there is no real need for schools or factories when the population is largely elderly, and off-season these towns are deserted with a large section of the houses empty and shuttered.

Now I am aware that this is ‘their money’ and the people on this show have the right to do with it as they wish. But all of us, as members of our communities, have a responsibility to think of how others may see our actions. If I was to spend a large sum (on the show often 10 times the median family disposable income) purely for my own pleasure I think I would be rather shamefaced. I think the reason the couples on the show look so unassuming and diffident is because they know this. They know it is unbecoming to display your wealth and that there are many ways to gain pleasure from your position of privilege that are not as self-centred or ecologically damaging. I feel a little sorry for them, but I feel angrier at myself for having watched this drivel.

However, this and similar programmes do show the degree to which our society is unjust and unequal and it is a sense of moral injustice that underpins many revolutionary changes. The French were horrified when it was suggested that Marie-Antoinette said “ let them eat cake” on hearing of the peasants starving, the excesses of the Russian royal family helped prompt the Soviet revolution and, more recently, the decadence of the Shah in Iran lit the fuse that exploded the Islamic Revolution lead by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. So, looking on the bright side, perhaps these shows with their bouncy presenters and wealthy participants revealing their wealth and ignorance to the populace might help build the sense of moral injustice we need to force a change. Hopefully.

However many ‘o’s you want to use.

However many ‘o’s you want to use.

The sad death of Harry Dunn has given me cause for thought. This young, 19 year old, man was killed when his motorcycle was struck by a car driving on the wrong side of the road. Annie Sacoolas was the woman driving the car and she left Britain, before police had completed their enquiries, claiming diplomatic immunity. Attempts to coax her to return to Britain and take part in the investigation have so far proven fruitless.

This case is obviously sad : a young man has lost his life, his family have been left bereft and the investigation into this event has been stymied. The feelings of hurt his family must be feeling must be great. It is likely that now there are unnecessary feelings of anger and frustration which have been laid on top of this family’s already considerable suffering.

Anne Sacoolas may think she is avoiding hurt to herself by using the cloak of diplomatic immunity to flee from further involvement in this case but sadly this may not be the case. Were this a tragic accident with no culpability then an enquiry may have revealed this. By thwarting the enquiry she has removed the chance that she herself could ever be exonerated. Indeed, she has ensured that there will always be a cloud of suspicion around her; that not only was she involved in Mr Dunn’s death but perhaps she was implicated and in some way responsible or culpable. There will always be the doubt that she has evaded justice.

I would like to think that most people carry their moral code with them as part of their psyche as an integral part of their personality. When we do wrong we feel guilt and need to atone and make amends. We don’t see justice as something external to us, as something we can avoid, we need to own our own actions (good and bad) and to live with them. Mrs Sacoolas may feel that if she avoids the enquiry she might not be found culpable but I think it is very likely that this will not help her avoid feelings of guilt, though it may impair her ability to make amends. I presume Mrs Sacoolas has read the American classic Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”; she should then know that we can never flee our conscience, if we have one.

This is part of a utilitarian trend in our society to see our morals and ethical code as something separate from us. As if it were a tool to be used in the calculations of whether we will take certain courses of action. It is not strictly whether something is right or wrong which matters (whether it accords with our inner, integral moral code) but rather whether the action will benefit us or harm us, whether we will be caught and punished or if we may get off scot-free. It is often not fear of feeling guilty (an awareness of failing our own code of ethics) but fear of capture and punishment which curtail our baser instincts.

There is often a clamour for more visible policing, and stiffer sentencing of those found committing criminal acts, in the hope that this tougher justice will keep us better in line. But this is rather putting the cart in front of the horse. We shouldn’t ask to have more guardians of our behaviour we should be asking how can we change our selves and society so we have less need of them.

Poverty has always played a role in the genesis of crime. Hunger and want can drive people to do things they themselves hold as wrong, but thankfully absolute poverty is declining in the developed world (although problems of inequity are probably growing). But moral poverty, not having an adequate internal moral code to rely on, is growing. Our increasingly affluent but unequal society, fostering avarice and greed, has tended break up small communities and traditional family models which did help foster the development of morally aware individuals.

The basis for a better society in the future is to promote better individuals. We have progressed as a species and have learnt to control some of our bloodthirsty, rapine and debauched tendencies. We have done this by accepting, and internalizing, a moral code. Indeed, the whole history of man’s religious thought and actions probably reflect our growing understanding of morality and of the issues of right and wrong. We need to continue to foster and expend this if we want our society, and species, to prosper.

We can’t run away from this. We need an internal vision of how we view the world and decide which of our actions would be right and proper, and which would not, so that we can act without needing a policeman or guardian to tell us. Other people telling us what to do is for children. When we are mature, we take that onus upon ourselves and try to pass on our learning to our children in return. We all need an inner knowledge and vision of the good, no matter how many ‘o’s you spell that with.

A simple test for nationalists.

A simple test for nationalists.

Brexit has changed everything. This seemingly simple referendum on our membership of a trading club has had effects much larger than many had anticipated. These are not just simple economic effects, the strength of the Pound or the change in our GDP, but major political and social changes as well. Our ‘two party’, ‘First Past the Post” parliamentary system has creaked and groaned with the strain of trying to contain the effects. The two major parties have lost their support bases and also their raison d’etre and at the same time the public has witnessed just how tawdry and self-serving the whole mess has become.

However, perhaps the biggest change is that the possible dissolution of the United Kingdom itself no longer appears improbable. It looks increasingly likely that Scotland will vote to secede from the Union, Northern Ireland may consider that a way to remain in the E.U. is to reunite, and following shocks such as these the increasingly ‘indy-curious’ Wales may follow suite. As an opponent of Big Government I will be happy to see all, or any, of these changes. However, while I share the joy of the nationalists in recent events, I am still rather reluctant to consider myself a signed up nationalist.

Nations have been created over the great span of history. While it is true that they represent some common interests such as language, culture or even kinship the main motive force in their generation has been power and authority. Wars and revolts have been fought to draw lines on maps which define nations and state who controls what happens in certain patches of land. This was obvious when it was King against King but it is no less true when it is State against State. Nations are there to define the edges of power; to say who controls what happens where.

However, any boundaries which we create should not be based on power and authority they should be based on assistance and support. Our instincts are to live in communities not political structures or economies. People naturally find ways to band together to their mutual benefit and to share common interests and goals. Such groupings are natural and should be supported. If people of a certain language, or religion, or cultural practice want to voluntarily band together then, as long as they don’t infringe on others, they should be encouraged in their mutual venture. The smaller these communities are, the more democratic they are; as each individuals voice carries a greater weight. Further, as they are voluntary people can vote with their feet if they see changes in their chosen community which they can’t tolerate. Nations tend not to be voluntary. Entry to and exit from the nation tends to be controlled and nation states tend to enforce their view of the national culture on any dissenting members.

Whenever nationhood affords a smaller block for democratic organization this is usually a good thing. If nations seek to expand their areas of control this is universally bad. This is the question for nationalists. Does your vision of nationhood bring democracy closer to people, make the demos a smaller group, and reduce the power and authority that others have over people ? If it does, then your nationalism may be beneficial. Are you also happy that, once nationhood is established, the people may decide that an even smaller unit for self governance makes more sense (e.g. “North Wales”, “Y Fro Gymraeg”, “The Shetlands”, “Yorkshire”, “Gaeltacht”) ? If your answer is not ‘yes’ to this then you are missing the point; you are just redrawing lines on maps rather than expanding peoples’ freedom.

If your view of your nation is monolithic and you see it as something good in itself you are following a dangerous path. There will be the risks that you will enforce your views on the national culture, or tongue, or religion on all those who live in your newly defined patch. There is the danger that you will see yourself as better than others who have the misfortune not to live in your nation and, finally, there is the danger that you might think you have the right or duty to export your nation’s benefits to your neighbours whether they want them or not.

So the question for nationalists is easy. Do you want to take a big power structure and break it down into smaller pieces, or, do you want to take your small nation and make if bigger and stronger ?

If it is the former then go ahead and get on with it but remember once you have created a smaller national group there may be scope for further reductions (counties, cantons, districts) which you should also embrace.

If it is the latter, an urge for a stronger bigger nation, then stop ! Remember it was precisely this drive for power and expanded authority which lead you to want to fight for your nation in the first place. You needed to throw off the yoke of another’s power, don’t start fashioning another yoke for others.

It has been said that “Small is beautiful” and there is truth in this statement. In the age of globalization nations can be the smaller building blocks which allow us to build a better future, but sometimes nations themselves can be too large and need to be broken down into smaller, more beautiful communities. I remain a nationalist but only in as far as I am an anti-imperialist, anything more starts to become rather risky.

Forget Minority Rights

Forget Minority Rights

It will probably appear counter-intuitive but I feel that we are making a serious error with the idea of minority rights. I know it sounds as if these could only be for the good, something to be protected and promoted, but I fear that we have got wrong of the wrong end of the stick.

The concerns about the rights of minorities started around the Congress of Vienna in 1814 in response to concerns about the situation of Jewish and Polish minorities following partition. Over the subsequent years further declarations have been made to protect minorities and the most recently the United Nations and the European Union have codified some minority rights and brought them into international law.

What could be wrong with minority rights, surely we all want to protect endangered minority groups ? Yes, of course we do but minority rights are not what do this. The rights which protect minorities are the same universal rights that every individual has. If you are a Christian in an Islamic State, or vice versa a Muslim in a Christian State (or any other permutation of religions) it is not your right as a Christian or Muslim which protects you but your individual right to freedom of thought, freedom of religion and freedom of association which protect you.

Universal human rights protect individuals and this is the smallest minority – the minority of one. All societies have a mix of peoples and some groups will be in the majority and others the minority and over time these groups will change in nature and composition. We can never predict who the next minority will be (I’d wager 100 years ago that no-one anticipated needing rights for people who changed their gender from male to female or vice versa) therefore it is important that we have rights that are so basic and clear that they protect all of us no matter what sized minority we inhabit.

In essence universal human rights are minority rights. If we give special rights then they are not universal and it is doubtful if we could consider these rights. If these minority rights compel others to act in a special way these are not so much rights as legal duties on others. If these are legal constructs rather than rights then they are much more fragile. If we select one minority for special legal treatment we can later change and select some other group. These ‘rights’ are not unalienable because they are given and consequently can be taken away.

The risk to all minorities is the Tyranny of the Majority. The safeguard against this is that every individual has the same rights and freedoms; the smallest minority is the minority of one. We are all in this minority, and it is because we are protected as an individual that we are protected as a member of a minority group no matter how many, or few, individuals are in that particular group.

I am not advocating that we do not consider special treatment for groups we might consider vulnerable. We may as a society feel we need to create legislation to protect them. However, we should be aware that these are special laws with special legal benefits or responsibilities. Creating law this way means that issues be properly discussed and designed and adapted over time. Laws operate under the framework of rights and play second-fiddle to them. Laws must conform to our rights, our rights can never be made to conform with our laws.

The safeguard for everyone in a democracy is the liberty of the individual, and no minority right can usurp the right of any other individual who may be in the majority or in some other minority. So lets forget about minority rights and instead respect, promote and safeguard the rights of the individual : they are the rights we all share.

Post-apocalyptic Lathe Shifting

Post-apocalyptic Lathe Shifting

Yesterday my neighbour had a large lathe, to turn and mill metal, delivered to his door. Four guys pulled the palette off the lorry and drove off leaving it in his drive. It was enormous and heavy, and he was unable to move it. Luckily, shortly after this, a van with some local youths, on their way back from shearing sheep, passed by. They noticed his dilemma, stopped and helped him lift the crate up to his workshop.

After unpacking the lathe and assembling its stand in the workshop another problem became apparent. The machine weighed 300kg it was going to be difficult to lift it up, through the door, and onto its stand. I was passing, walking the dogs, and started to help. We fashioned a moving shelf with a car jack and a metal plate but, even with crowbars, we couldn’t get the machine up onto the shelf.

Luckily another farmer was passing bringing hay back from a field recently cut. We flagged him down and asked if he would help us with the last leg of the lathe’s journey. This was no minor request. This weighed over quarter of a ton, was difficult to handle and could cause serious injury, or death, if it toppled and fell. But none the less we all set to and after an hour of panting, groaning and swearing the job was done. We gossiped for a while about politics and Brexit, then I completed my walk with the dog, the farmer finished his journey with the hay, and my neighbour settled down to read the lathe’s handbook.

What struck me, as I was walking the dog, was how ready people are to help each other. Happy to help for no reward other than to be helpful. It struck me how often I see this. Or local community hall is run and shared by volunteers who maintain the grounds at their own cost and who give hours of time to organize local events. I recalled spending an afternoon with a man I did not know as we cut and cleared a tree which had fallen and blocked the road, and a prior evening when a different stranger had helped me round up someone’s sheep that had got out through a broken fence and were wandering the lanes. I have an evening booked, later this week, to go to the pub with some people in the town who, like me are Community First Responders, and give up some of their free time to help should anyone be in need.

Life would scarcely be liveable were it not for these multiple acts of kindness from strangers. If I drop my wallet, or leave my phone on the table, as I leave a cafe someone will call to alert me or run after me to make sure I don’t lost my property. Anyone with the misfortune to be in an accident will recall the offers of help from bystanders. Anyone lost knows you can ask a passerby for directions. Every day our interactions with others is usually helpful. When we walk on a busy pavement in the city we do not jump and jostle for space but step aside and ensure we can all move as freely as possible. It’s the way we are made, it’s our nature, we are designed to be helpful.

It is for this reason that I get annoyed with post-apocalyptic films and novels which suggest that when the state is destroyed we will all descend into barbarism. The usual scenario is, that after a disaster, man-made or natural, all the authorities have gone and our heroes have to travel across a land populated by villains intent on rape and murder. These dystopias paint a bleak picture of life without the state. The message is clear, without the state to protect us we world all be at risk from the murderous impulses of our neighbours.

This runs counter to our general experience. We rarely call on the state to defend us and every day we experience pleasant or useful communal interactions with our fellows. Our instincts to be sociable and create society are so innate and quotidian that we fail to notice them. Rather, we only notice when people fail to be nice and are, on rare occasions, rude to us.

There is a misconception that the state creates society. It does not, individuals by their nature create society. The state, by contrast, creates power; rather than fostering cooperation it creates compulsion and obligation. Humans do not by instinct kill each other, if you want to see violent and cruel behaviour you need a ruling class to compel it. The mass killings our species has seen (wars, genocide or pogroms) have always been instigated by a state and a call to the authority of a God, King, Nation or ideology. We have to compel people to go to war and sometimes shoot them if they won’t go – to encourage the others. People spontaneously build communities and society not war and oppression, you need a state for that.

Even the benign aspects of the state carry their risks. If, ‘for or own good’, the state looks after our welfare it takes it out of our hands. It means we do not make the choices and priorities, and we do not make the social bonds and links to promote our welfare. Charity, locality planning and fraternal organizations all become weakened when the state steps in. As the sociologist Frank Furedi noted :-

“Indeed, it can be argued that state intervention in everyday life corrodes community life no less, and arguably even more, than market forces. In many societies, people who come to rely on the state depend far less on each other and on their community. When what matters is access to the state then many citizens can become distracted, and stop cooperating and working with fellow members of their community”

In a practical sense, here is some free advice. If you ever find yourself lost in the desert, or jungle, or crossing barren windswept plains after a nuclear holocaust, and you see other people don’t run away from them. They are your best hope, do what all your instincts tell you to do and run towards them shouting for help; they probably will.

If we ever do see the breakdown of the state then I will be even more reliant on my friend and neighbours. We would quickly reorganise our local community again and people might take the opportunity not to return to power structures that we had lost, with all the inequality that accompanied it. The world would go on but sone of those who leeched of our backs would now have to fund a way to be helpful and productive.

The state might tell us whether we can buy a lathe or not, or might put taxes on its purchase to fund its own agenda, and it may punish someone if they steal it from us, but it doesn’t do much else. It didn’t design it, make it, or transport it, individuals working cooperatively did that. The state didn’t help us move the lathe in the past and we will still be able to move it, despite its weight, once the state has gone.

Drug Deaths in Scotland

Drug Deaths in Scotland

Deaths due to drug abuse in Scotland have hit an all-time high. In 2018 1,187 people died in Scotland as a consequence of drug abuse a rise of 27% on the already frightening figures of 2017. This places Scotland in a class of its own in Europe with a level of drug-related deaths twice that of the next nearest country (Estonia). It would be difficult to underplay the size of the problem. The drug-related death rate in Scotland is now three times the size of that in the U.K. as a whole and last year more people died in Scotland from drug misuse than from the direct effects of alcohol!

BBC News, Graph of drug deaths by EU country

The figures did unnerve me but unfortunately they did not come as a surprise. In the decade before I moved to Wales, I worked as a consultant psychiatrist in a deprived area of Scotland and had witnessed first hand the growing problem. More importantly, I had also seen the developing drug strategy which was being pursued. This policy seemed doomed to failure and almost guaranteed to increase the amount of death and injury due to recreational drug use.

The main reason for this was that the strategy in Scotland had only one string to its bow and that string was Harm Reduction. This took a number of forms including needle exchanges, methadone prescribing, safe spaces and the like. While harm reduction can be valuable it is not enough on its own unless you can reduce the harm to negligible levels (which is not going to be the case with something like drug use). The simple logic is that if you reduce the rate of harm to half of what is was before then this will look impressive, but if at the same time you triple the number of people taking the risk then you will have increased, not reduced, the total amount of harm done. The evidence is that Scotland has many, many more people abusing drugs than previously and thus as a consequence many more deaths. It is important to note that about half of these deaths involve methadone which is the prescribed opiate which was intended to reduce the harm.

More people taking these drugs leads to more deaths and a false sense of security by harm reduction strategies may compound the problem. The need is to reduce the harm, but more importantly, to reduce the usage of drugs. It is unlikely that laws against usage will make any great headway, there is little evidence that laws deter people from drug use. Indeed, there is a little evidence that illegality enhances the cachet of drugs in some groups and promotes their use. This cachet is further enhanced by our culture’s tendency to glamourize drug use; watch any late evening chat show or read any interview with a modern media star and see the use of drugs being used as a badge to garner respect. In the recent race to become the Tory party leader, and hence Prime Minister of the UK, had the unedifying spectacle of all the candidates competitively ‘confessing‘ their drug misuse in an attempt to win the youth vote.

In addition to this cultural acceptance of drug use there is the further problem that, now, drug misuse is an access route into welfare benefits. In a country, such as Scotland, with high levels of unemployment and poverty there will be some pressures to look at the problem of addictions differently – when being on the sick role as an addict could mean being prescribed opiates (methadone) by the state and receiving money in the form of Personal Independence Payments. (Addictions UK for example have a service to help secure payments when you have an addiction). The biggest problem facing those with addiction problems is securing autonomy and independence again, compounding a drug dependency with a welfare dependency will simply amplify the problem.

In an ideal society people would be free to decide on their use of drugs but also responsible for the consequences of taking them. There is little to suggest that the state will be able to make this aspect of our behaviour disappear but there is good reason to think that it has the capacity to make problems worse. Prescribed opiates are now killing as many people as illicit ones, and we have developed a large industry which lives on the backs of those trapped in cycles of dependency. The last decades have seen Scotland move to a much more authoritarian and controlling nation state. This change has important social and cultural effects and these figures showing a dreadful loss of life, and hinting at even worse disability and hurt, should act as a wake up call to the risks involved.

Resource

Closeup of young girl in heroine overdose holding syringe and lying on pavement. Copy space

Grubby lessons

Grubby lessons

Over the last few days I started to get ready to be able to take a crop of hay. The last time we did this we had major problems – when we were on the last small field the power scythe blade appeared to jam and stop working. We tried, with limited success, to get the remainder of the field by hand but this really didn’t work and I needed the power scythe working before the end of the month. The grass has been growing well and looks like a fair crop, we have to be ready should there be a dry sunny period long enough to do the work.

The power scythe is an implement which attaches to the front of our two wheeled Goldoni tractor. It is quite expensive so buying a new one is not a prospect I wanted to consider. The companies who sell these machines are keen to sell the kit but, I discovered, much less keen to get involved in repairs so it was down to me to get it working again. I had the instruction manual so what could go wrong ?

Firstly, the manual itself could throw an obstacle in my path. These machines are made in Italy (the small farms and olive groves make two-wheeled tractors popular there) and the manuals likewise.  Thus my manual was written in Italian which made the first step an attempt to decode the booklet. It had few diagrams or schematics to ensure that there were no unnecessary visual clues.

Over two days I, with the help of a neighbour, stripped the machine down to all its constituent parts. We inspected and cleaned every piece and then reassembled the machine checking all the settings with feeler gauges to the millimeter. With new grease and oil the machine moved smoothly with no jamming or hesitation. We hooked it up to the tractor and proudly set forth into the field for a celebratory and confirmatory cut of some long grass. It cut smoothly and effortlessly through the sward for about a yard then jerked and the sickle blade seemed to seize. No further cutting was possible. No amount of rocking, shaking, cajoling or threatening, coaxed even an inch of movement from the machine’s teeth.

Back in the barn we disassembled the blade to seeimg_20190611_1533491793820467678928354.jpg where we had gone wrong. This is not a fun job. The piece weighs about 80kg, is oily and slippery and has two rows of menacingly sharp iron teeth.  I have seem those teeth slice effortlessly slice though the legs of an iron park bench – it is no fun to handle! After having looked everywhere there was no sign of any jam. No sign of anything that could block the transit of the blades. The problem had to lie in the connection between the power unit and the appliance but we had checked this twice. In additon we had checked with two other appliances to be doubly sure that the transmission linkage worked properly.

While we had the machine upside down we noticed a small hole and wondered what is that for. Peering in we could see nothing of note, just black think molybdenum grease. Five minutes later, after poking our fingers down the shaft and pulling out all the grease img_20190614_0852139102052722490262669.jpgwe could, we were able to see a small circlip around the drive shaft. As we rotated the drive shaft we saw that this was held in place by a small set screw – a small grub screw about 3mm across with a hexagonal allan key head. We checked and this grub screw was loose so we tightened it up.

We realized that when slack this grub screw would not stop the driving spline from being pushed back just far enough to allow the connection between the power unit and the scythe to be lost – the two connecting faces img_20190612_2005567828267653246616948.jpgwould no longer be sufficiently close to carry the power down to the blade and instead they would just bump over each other. After tightening up the screw we powered up and returned to the field where the unit ran perfectly. We cut grass, tried on an area of brambles, and pushed over rocky ground and through dense scrub – it didn’t waver. It just ploughed on cutting as it went, it was well and truly fixed.

This episode taught me a two lessons. Firstly, be careful no to jump to conclusions. Had we spent more time at the beginning thinking about the problem we might have realized the problem lay further back in the chain from power unit to cutting blade. We might have saved ourselves a lot of work. However, I am glad I have dismantled and serviced the machine, it needed it anyway, and I feel much better knowing exactly how it is made and how it works. Even when we did realize the problem was to do with the power take off it would have taken us a while to find this small screw that appears no where in the manual.

The second lesson is perhaps more important. I often wonder if there is any point in trying to be green in my daily life as I try to reuse and recycle. I wonder if my attempts to reduce my consumption make any great difference. What does my level of consumption matter in the greater scale of things. On a wider basis I wonder if it makes any point that I, as a fairly insignificant and powerless individual, try to do my bit for a better society – can one person make a difference ?

This little grub screw was only about 0.0001% of the metal parts of the mowing machinery;  of the parts it clearly was the “least of these“. Hidden down a shaft in the bowels of the machine, in the dark, covered in oil and grease this little screw had slackened off, stopped doing its job, and the whole hay making project shuddered to a halt. In the interconnected system it lived within it was as valuable as any other. And so it is with all of us. We might often feel small and powerless in comparison to our rulers, or the celebrities we see daily, but we all play our part and it may be our part which proves to be the vital step in how things change.

Let’s say a big thank you to all the w@nkers !

Let’s say a big thank you to all the w@nkers !

I know that my blog title appears possibly crude, especially the inclusion of an ampersand in the text. However, I have no wish to offend and do indeed want to offer my thanks to people who have been horribly maligned over many years. I had been thinking recently about the importance of attitudes to sexual behaviour in our modern society. We have known for many years how potent the sexual drive is in guiding human behaviour. This potency has lead been used to sell everything from apples to zinc baths, advertisers know that the our sexual urge is one of the strongest tools in their armoury. Generations of young men and women have striven and improved themselves in the hope of attracting mates and society has had untold benefits from this as they sublimated their sexual urges into self improvement, artistic endeavours, sporting success or charity. Unfortunately it has also been used to drive men to war and nations into conflict. It is indeed our primal and basic drive.

I have been concerned, however, on a rather different method of influencing us by our sexual desires. For millennia the state, usually through religious bodies, has used sexual desire to control us. It has stated that some very basic impulses are to be shunned, to be avoided and to be shameful. By telling us that those who fornicate wrongly, and don’t limit their desires to the prescribed form and frequency, are damned and the lowest of the low they created shame and fearfulness. Every young boy or girl whose hand slid to their waist knew they faced hellfire and eternal suffering. Or, if they escaped the horrors of hell then they would succumb to the secular terrors of insanity or blindness. Indeed after the priests had lost their hold over the public the medical experts were there ready to step into the breach and warn us of the terrible fates that would befall us if we were one of these morally weak degenerates.

The intention of these concerns about sexual behaviour was never the well being of the individual, despite the medicalization of the ‘problem’. The intention was always precisely to cause anxiety and doubt. To take something everyone did (to lust after a beauty, to fantasize over others) and to make it shameful turned us all into sinners whose only escape was to ask forgiveness from our betters. So shameful were our thoughts that we could not discuss them with our family or friends we had to admit them in the privacy of the confessional or the discuss them behind the doctor’s closed doors. It meant we all knew we were failures, we all carried a secret shame which could be revealed to our harm at any point, we all had the anxiety of being found out as morally imperfect.

This strategy is still being used today though the vendors of our shame and anxiety have changed. It is no longer the church that inculcates our doubts and shame. Now the elite in our media ensure that we know the mantras that we should repeat and the sins that we might harbour. We know, that now, it is a sin to say “A lesbian doesn’t have a penis” and hateful to exert that “Woman: noun, adult human female” might be a statement of fact. Apart from some specially chosen ‘facts’ it is now impossible to consider that there may be some innate differences between men and women. Anyone doubting this had best keep their tongue still if they wish to keep their friends and job. There is a veritable minefield of ideas about what is, and what is not, normal sexual behaviour, so difficult is this area, that it is best avoided all together.

All these statements do the same old thing. They keep the public anxious and ill-at-ease, fearful of saying the wrong thing. It makes us watchful of our superiors so we might be given the cues of what is permissible to think and to say. This keep our superiors in a position of strength over us. They hold the keys to the ideas that imprison us and can unleash the hounds when they decide we have transgressed. It can be terrifying to watch social media these days when people are pilloried for statements that would have been commonplace a decade ago. It is alarming when we see someone cast as a heretic for ideas that are similar to our own.

As in prior times, the easiest thing to do in these situations is to say nothing and keep your head down and bowed. It is even safer to agree with the inquisitors and to call out the heretics. After all while they are persecuting them they will be too busy to get round to you. This silence is now palpable. In politics across the globe the common people are afraid to voice their true opinions. They know they are viewed as the uncultured, immoral mob and worry, if they say what they think, they will be dammed. This means no one takes their opinions seriously and nobody discusses their concerns. It is adequate just to say that these are just deplorable, uneducated and unrefined folk who haven’t recognised the error of their ways. So when pollsters call, or interviews are held, we all toe the line and confirm what we know is safe to say. Many elections recently have stunned the pollsters when the results have been very different to predictions. Just as in years gone by nobody ever admitted to masturbating or lustful thoughts nowadays nobody doubts it is better today to use the term “pregnant people” rather than “pregnant women”, and that sometimes it is best to place a rapist, with a penis, in a female prison, when they are asked by someone holding a microphone or notepad.

As these inanities multiply I often become depressed and worry people are loosing their rational facilities: How can people not see the contradictions in these statements ? Why do people not speak up ? Do people believe this guff ? Then I remember the wankers; the millions of young men and women who over the years heard the dire warnings to their bodies an souls (Even today I had some trepidation using the word in the title such is the fear that has been instilled in us). downloadI remember them facing with the eternal torment of the demons and fires of hell as their parents and elders had warned them. I remember them thinking of a life of blindness or of dribbling insanity that the medical profession had clearly warned them lay ahead. I remember that despite this, these wankers slid their hands below the bedcovers and ignored them all. They knew, not with 100% certainty, that it was guff that they were being told. They doubted what the authorities told them and then went and did what came naturally.

So I am optimistic that as we move forward people will still think that their desires are normal, their common sense is indeed sensible and common to most of us, that though our superiors may demand lip-service to current sexual shibboleths we know they are wrong and maybe in the future we might be able to talk honestly about our opinions. We will look back, have a laugh, and feel sheepish about what we said. Perhaps one day the time will come when we can recognise that we don’t need this guidance and we can talk and interact as free individuals, unashamed to express our opinions. Then, if our opinions are wrong, we have a fighting chance of learning this and correcting them, rather than spouting the incorrect opinions of others.

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Over the last week I had a project to complete. In the lull period in the middle of lambing I wanted to extend our goat yard to create an adjacent sheep and goat pen, with hard standing and some cover, where we could undertake activities like drenching, shearing or foot clipping. We had a good area just next to the barn for this and all we needed to do was make planks and create a post and rail enclosure. While doing this kind of work I like to have a good book with me. It can be a handy companion when the work is laborious, or the weather turns foul. I found “Sapiens” by Dr Juval Noah Harari, who lectures in history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and saw that the majority of reviews had been favourable. I thought it might be a good choice.

I was glad I did. This is a book written on a huge scale, as the title proclaims it aims to be a “brief history of humankind” and it does not shirk from trying to cover a broad story and starts millions of years ago with the evolution of groups of humans (Neanderthals, erectus, sapiens, etc) and the commences in the stone age. The bulk of the book concerns the last 200,000 years and sapiens’ history and covers the periods through the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution, the development of religion and money, the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution. Obviously with such a large filed to cover he needs to use a broad brush. However, this keep the book readable and lively and there are many things covered which will challenge the notions that you had held of our past. Harari has a deft writing style and make difficult concepts easy to comprehend without, I believe, oversimplifying them. He also has a good sense of humour so even sections on potentially leaden subjects become enjoyable.

There are two main strands to the book. Firstly he proposes that “inter subjective realities”, shared beliefs that humans hold (money, God, femininity, Nationhood, etc) act as the foundations of our cultures and these and the cultural impact they have are what have allowed our species to develop to extensively. The second strand of the book is to remind us of just how recent the majority of this development has been: the cognitive revolution and the emergence of language started about 70,000 years ago, but the scientific revolution only 500 years ago, and the industrial revolution only 200 years ago. The last 20 years has witnessed, with the development of the internet, a further revolution with major changes in our species’ community structures.

There is a warning running throughout the book. There is always a tendency to view the world from the viewpoint of humans and to marvel at our progress, our expansion in numbers to every corner of the globe, the domestication of our animals and the taming of our environment. However, if one looked at the history from the viewpoint of other animals now extinct, or enslaved, by our activities; or from the viewpoint of other humans in our genus (Neanderthals or Homo floriensis for example) who we probably drove to extinction; or from the viewpoint of the planet as a whole; then the picture is not as rosy and perhaps history will not be kind to our species. As our powers increase, and our desires also, we have become a very rapacious and dangerous animal. Capitalism, our current stage of development, demands constant growth and expansion to generate increasing wealth and this growth is based on ever increasing consumption. Though there are many benefits from this growth, there are also many dangers, and it is far from clear that this system makes us happier as people. Our religions served us well in times of scarcity and upheld our morals, but they do not seem to have weathered the passage of time. We are increasingly rootless individuals, atomised and alienated, and requiring the state to replace the families and communities we evolved, as a species, to rely upon. In planning for our future, we need to know of our past as blindly ploughing on carries huge risks. As Harari ends his book :-

We are more powerful than ever before but have very little idea what to do with all that power. Worse still, humans seem to be more irresponsible than ever. Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one. We are consequently wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction. Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want ?

Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (p. 415). Random House. Kindle Edition.

I finished the yard and the book in about the same time and, having thought about our species handling of animals, was glad I’d done something that hopefully will improve their lot.