Monday, 31 May 2010

Distraction

It is easy to be blinded by suffering. In the latest misadventure off the coast of Israel / Gaza, the latest reports available list sixteen dead at the hands of the Israeli commandos. Why did they people have to die?

Of course, the easy answer is that they didn’t have too. This morning on the Today Programme the beautifully-voiced Mark Regev defend the Israeli actions that led to the deaths of these unfortunates, along with injuries to many more; both flotilla crew and Israeli personnel. Naturally he claimed the Israelis were attacked first. I must of missed the event that led to members of the flotilla trying to board the Israeli warships. He also reminded the world that the Israelis had offered to take all allowed goods through the Israel-Gaza border. Since the central purpose of the flotilla was protest against the joint blockade by Israel and Egypt and to remind the world of the very real suffering of the Palestinian people, that is hardly the point.

It is easy to become hardened by suffering. Fear does that and fear is the state that the Israeli people are encouraged to live in. The world is against them, misunderstands their plight and that is why their forces, of which they all must play their part, must be aggressive because that is the only language that their barbarous and less sophisticated neighbours understand.

The rest of us, onlookers of various degrees, are asked to take sides by the competing and extremely sophisticated propaganda machines of all sides. For instance, this morning the BBC website initially reported the source of this morning’s tragedy as a Hamas report, despite the live streams coming from various Arabic news organisations onboard. Hamas = terrorists therefore their word is not to be trusted. As a quoted source, the link to Hamas has now been dropped and for the moment it is still reporting only ten deaths, as reported by the IDF.


Why does this matter and why should we onlookers care? I’ve been to Israel several times over the years and it is my opinion that all populations are being misled. Despite being a democracy, Israel in my opinion is also a police state. The population are under the heaviest possible surveillance from the internal security forces. One waitress I met in Haifa was an Arab Christian and formally worked as a receptionist at the hotel where I was staying. Her story was that she made a bad joke concerning the conflict to a guest. Next day, she gets a phone call.

"Hey Girlfriend, how are you?"
"Who is this?"
"You can call me David and I work for the Misrad Habitahon [internal security].  I hear that you have been saying things that you shouldn't have."
"What is it to you?"
"Next time that I hear such things, it won't be a friendly chat over the phone.  We will want to know more about you.  A visit to our offices.  Am I clear?"
The girl laughed at David.  "You are afraid of little me?  Some silly girl?  This country is weaker than I thought."

She kept her dignity but not the job.

The hotel where she used to work was often full.  On the last occasion the visitors were athletes and sports people from all over the world for the the Jewish games held last year.  Before that, I overheard many snatches of conversations.  The arms dealers were the ones that frequently drew my attention though.  On one flight across I was lucky enough to be upgraded.  My companion was a banker and the file he was perusing was for pilotless light aircraft, used for reconnaissance and attack roles.  It was his business to provide the money.  I remember reading Robert Fisk's accounts in his book The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East ; of how he traced the history of one missile used by the Israelis in Lebanon back to the US Marine Corps and thus how the US tax pater is secretly being used to subsidise Israel's conflict with their neighbours.

So to my mind, this is why there is never peace in the Middle East: too many people are making too much money out of war.  It is not just the arms dealers, it is their financiers also.

The deaths this morning were totally unnecessary unless their purpose is to keep the fires of hatred burning brightly.  The secret fuel for this hatred is money and until the profit is cut, the war will continue.  I say this to both sides and of none.  Look up and see who among you are getting richer from this conflict.  To protestors for peace: research the companies who are making the profit.  Now most people don't tend to pop down to our local friendly arms manufacturer for a couple of SAM missiles, so look into the companies that they are dowing business with and the banks that are providing them with the finance and expertise.  Target these companies and people for protest, boycott and blockade, not normal people who are just as much victims as anybody else.  Governments who want peace, cut the flow of weapons to all sides and refuse entry to the warmongers.  If you won't then it up to your populations to hold you to account.

Protests like the flotilla are just a distraction from what is really happening.  In fact, by providing opportunities for needless death, they help to prolong the war.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Just received my pay slip and seen my tax go out....you’re welcome Britian

The title of this blog is actually a tweet by chrisjw133 and I am grateful for the inspiration because he just reminded me why we pay our taxes.

As some of you may know already, I work in the oil industry.  Okay, I can hear to booing from here but somebody has to do it as it: at least for the time being it is the basis of our global trade and economy. I look forward to the day when this is no longer the case but I digress.  One of the benefits of working in this industry is the travel.  It is a fact that people like me see places that only come into wider focus in times of disaster or political unrest.  For that reason, I am glad that places like Angola has fallen out of the headlines and when I mention Mauritania, most people have to ask where it is.  What such places have in common however, is either low taxation or a tax system that is easy to evade.

For instance, when I worked in Egypt, it reminded me of nothing more than a giant building site.  Why were the houses unfinished?  At the top of many residences the steel that reinforces the concrete is clearly visible but the buildings are obviously occupied.  The answer lay in tax avoidance.  Apparently property tax is not payable until the building is deemed complete.  The tax is not based upon occupancy.  The outcome is that roofs remain unfinished.  Don’t tell me that the Egyptians are stupid; of course they are not.  It is just that the government has colluded with the population to reduce taxation.  It is their decision whether they want their country to look like a tip or not.  Or is it?
 In many such places the general population are not encouraged to engage in politics beyond attending the often mandatory rallies.  One such instance I personally witnessed was Equatorial Guinea.  EG, as it is usually abbreviated to, is a popular destination within west Africa for immigrants and this is despite being a dictatorship and having higher tax levels than its neighbours.   I asked some people why they had settled in EG and they told me that compared to the countries they had come from, EG was better run and that ordinary people had some chance of seeing the benefits from the nation’s wealth.  Certainly while I was in Port Harcourt there was a lot of infrastructure building going on.

It is easy to forget the benefits of taxation.  In Uganda for example, education has to be paid for; denying vast numbers of the population anything beyond the most basic levels of literacy.  There is an alternative for them however.  If the poor were to join one of the many different religious groups that are flourishing in the nation, they have  chance of getting their children educated for free.  It doesn’t matter whether it is the one of the Christian or Muslim traditions: most have representation in the country.  I was very impressed by both the grand (and recently built) Sunni and Shi’ah  mosques that are to be found in the capital Kampala.  Liberals like us are then up in arms when the Ugandan parliament, with popular support, propose to introduce the death sentence for homosexuality or when in Malawi sentences the unfortunate men Steven Monjeza  and Tiwonge Chimbalanga to fourteen years hard labour for wishing to marry each other.  After all, who do you think are teaching the bulk of these populations?  It is for such reasons that I welcome the Liberal Democrat and Conservative policy of raising international aid to 0.75% of GPD, despite the straitened circumstances we all find ourselves in and would encourage other rich nations to uphold promises that they have already made. 

Of course it is not just places like Africa I see these things.  The problems are the same across the developing world whether in Central America or parts of Asia.  Colleagues of mine live in low-tax regimes, residing in beautiful houses behind their walled compounds and armed security.  I’m not casting blame; they are merely taking advantage of the opportunities that life has presented them with.  For me though, I prefer to pay my taxes and live in north-west Europe.  Here we have the schools, the hospitals, clean water and food, the houses, roads fit to drive modern cars upon, train and air travel, relatively low levels of crime, and cheap communications.  Not all of these are paid for out of taxation but far greater numbers of people can enjoy the benefits of such things because most people do pay their taxes and that the Inland Revenue is free from corruption.  That is why fair taxation is vital to a nation’s wellbeing and the fairer the taxation, the greater the general benefit.  I welcome the Liberal Democrat input on capital gains tax for example.  Buying a flat to rent is a form of speculation and thus it is only fair that a person who starts a business up from scratch and sells it upon retirement, who has risked much and employed others, has a better deal than somebody who just hopes to benefit from the next property boom.

There is a flip side to high taxation though.  The government is responsible to me and you, dear reader, for spending our money.  Hopefully this new parliament is acutely aware of this on an individual level but, more importantly, on the grand scale too.  The past ten years has seen billions of pounds wasted on invading other countries.  Trident should be included in the latest Strategic Defence Review and, in my opinion, scrapped altogether.  Hospitals have thankfully seen cases of superbug infections fall but this was only after misplaced privatisation of cleaning services in the NHS was re-examined.  Thousands of deaths should have been prevented by ensuring basic standards of cleanliness that were laid down over one hundred years ago.   Many PFI schemes are not getting the scrutiny that they deserve.  Despite all the subsidies being paid out, how many of us are really satisfied with the state of our railways?  I could go on and on.   

The point is though I just got my tax bill and you really are welcome to part of my earnings Britain.  Spend our money wisely though, because the British people are looking to see where the money, our money, is going.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

How did we get here again?

Recovered from election night yet?  I don’t think I have.  Sitting through that evening as the results were coming in returned me to every other disappointing election night.  The grim analysis is that the people of Britain were faced with the possibility of real change, retreated to the safety of the familiar.  Overall it was a good night to be an incumbent.  What was also clear is that the Conservatives failed to engage the voters with either their vision or policies.  Cameron’s strategy of being elected through the simple expedient of not being Labour nearly led to his undoing.  Labour on the other hand must have been much satisfied with the result.  The normal sequences of affairs would have surely led them to be slaughtered on election night. 

As we all know however, these are not normal times.

Much has been made of the Liberal Democrat failure to break through.  I reckon such an event was not likely to happen, although in the heady days after the first leaders’ debate it felt like anything was possible.  The reality is that the Liberal Democrats did well not to be squeezed further.  Overall our proportion of the vote was slightly up, even if that was translated into five less seats under the current disreputable voting system.  This success, such as it was, is due in large part to Nick Clegg.    As libdems, we all love Sir Menzies Campbell but I shudder to think of the result  if Ming the Merciless had been still our leader and front-man on the debates.

Once the counting was over and the shock had settled on the country that there really was no clear winner, things started to get interesting.  In my last blog I warned of the dangers of coalition should these circumstances arise.  As Nick had said himself, he was honour-bound to talk first to the largest party if they were interested in coalition.  In terms of both popular UK vote and number of Commons seats, that is the Conservative Party.  I never believed that a coalition with Labour would have been a safe course for the Liberal Democrats to follow so it was with some relief that the quickest of glances at the parliamentary numbers showed that it was a near-impossibility.   It was my greatest fear for the Liberal Democrats that we would be swallowed and slowly digested into the Labour party.

It is a failure of character I know but when it comes to politics I am in my heart very tribal.  I despise Labour’s cynical abandonment of socialist principles in pursuit of power just as much as Conservatives’ pessimistic outlook on human nature which gives rise to their relentless championing of profit over people.  Both are negative reinforcements to my choosing to be a Liberal Democrat. It is therefore no great delight to me that the Tories are now our coalition partners.  Currently I am in a state of sadness that feels like it may have an enduring quality to it.  That is my heart speaking but what of my head?

Much surprise has been made on just how generous the terms of the coalition have been to the Liberal Democrats.  Really?  I don’t think they are that great.  The position of deputy Prime Minister is to my mind an unenviable one.  Apart from a great-sounding title and standing in at Prime Minister’s Question Time, what else does the post actually offer?  Nick Clegg is not leading any ministry nor are our other Libdem ministers in charge of any of the great offices of State: the Exchequer, the Home or the Foreign Offices.  I am glad that both Vince Cable and Chris Huhne are in good offices but of course I would have wished to have seen at least one of them in the position they were actually shadowing while in opposition.  Of course though, congratulations to all our people who have positions in the new government.

What is perhaps more important though is that many Liberal Democrat policies are now in prominent positions.  What is the use of impotent politics?  The best reason for entering politics is seeing that something is wrong with society and wanting to change it for the better.  And here we are, doing it for real.  Besides, it would have been hypocritical of the party to talk about doing things differently, to say that it doesn’t have to be this way with the two old parties and then, faced with the opportunity of making a real difference, slink back fearfully to our old corner of protest.

What is another interesting question is why so many of our policies made it through?  Certainly the right-wing of the Conservatives are furious with the level of concessions made to the Liberal Democrats.  If that is indeed the case it gives me a degree of grim satisfaction: certainly it is due payback for the vicious mauling we suffered at the hands of the right-wing press.  That aside, I think the reason why Cameron was so generous was because he had to be for his own survival.  He came very, very close to snatching defeat from the jaws of certain victory in the last election.  No political party, no matter what colour, tolerates abject failure from their leader.  In a minority Conservative government, Cameron would have been at the mercy of his party’s right wing who would have pointed out the failure of a central message and is only too ready to steer the party back into deep blue waters.  Instead, Cameron’s Conservative ship is now being trimmed with Libdems sails, allowing the government to keep close to the popular havens of the centre.  Cameron must hope that this will push the Labour Party out to towards the reefs on the Left come their leadership elections later this summer.

Where does that leave us Liberal Democrats?  First of all, on the receiving end of some understandable but unjustified accusations.  The policies that we campaigned upon are still our parties’ policies.  It is just that instead of being in opposition and not being able to implement any of them, we are now junior partners in a coalition with the ability to implement some of them.  It doesn’t mean that we are reneging on things like the abolition of tuition fees in higher education.  It does mean that we have agreed not to bring down the government about this issue by voting against them in the Commons.  I still want to see Britain give up it’s nuclear deterrent and will be actively campaigning for the party to get rid of Trident.  Coalitions do not last forever: it is important that good, sound policies are still in place once the parties do go their separate ways as they surely will in the end.

Labour backed out of serious coalition talks with us, calculating that come the next elections, the Liberal Democrats with be severely punished by the electorate, especially those who voted tactically for the Liberal Democrats.  What Labour never really understood is that in advocating the changes to the voting systems that we do, it was never really about given an advantage to just the Libdems.  If this country had a practical form of proportional  representation, then the people of Britain would be free to vote for the views that they really support and not just be shoe-horned into giving their mandate to either Labour, Conservatives or even ourselves.  It is about fairness, real democracy; not cynical control of the levers of power.  Tactical voting should not be necessary in a functioning democracy and it is a sad indictment of the current system that so many people had to resort to it in the last election and that Labour are relying on people to use it again come the next one.  In fact, a proportion voting system will probably lead to the wholesale reformation of all three major Westminster parties.  This may not be a bad thing either.

At the moment though, proportional representation is not on the agenda but rather the Alternative Vote system.  As Simon Hughes commented, it is a start; a move away from First Past the Post and should be welcomed as such.  It will be interesting to see though whether Labour will keep to their pledges on AV or whether their old regressive instincts will win out in the end.  

So here we all are.  Good luck to all the delegates at tomorrow’s special conference in Birmingham .  Tell the country that we are still who we said we are.  As for me, I feel like Coleridge’s wedding guest “a sadder and a wiser man, he woke the morrow morn.”