Please Sir, I Want some more.

Mary Ann's Lane, MoretonThis year, as part of the commemorations (they wanted to say celebrations, but couldn’t pluck up the brass neck), we are to be asked by our government to hark back 100 years to remember the start of the first world war.  In order to get us in the mood and generate the right atmosphere, they’ve spent many months creating the realistic conditions.  They’ve reduced real wages almost back to the value they held in 1914; they’ve reduced the amount of “red tape” that was stopping those poor, unfortunate employers from indiscriminately sacking people and flouting health & safety; they’ve given the rich a whopping tax break and they’ve stopped  those scrounging, poor, disadvantaged and disabled so-and-so’s from claiming benefits, leaving them in the hands of food banks.  I also have to admire the realistic finishing touches: the window tax – sorry, bedroom tax – sorry, spare room subsidy and the loan sharks – I mean pay-day loan companies.  And, genius, three men were charged with, wait for it, “stealing” food from a supermarket waste bin.  The supermarket, who had not called the police, quite rightly refused to press charges.  However, the interesting fact here is that the Crown Prosecution Service chose not to charge the men with, say, burglary or theft, but the Vagrancy Act of 1824 (they stopped short of cutting off their hands or transporting them to Australia).

No effort has been spared then, to engender the realism required for our four-year celebration – whoops I said it once but I think I got away with it, sorry, commemoration.  In fact, it’s tempting to think that this  nostalgia roller-coaster of nationalistic jingoism is an elaborate attempt to divert our gaze from just how vicious and intense this effort has been, but the government wouldn’t be so cunningly sly, would they?  And while we’re wallowing in our sepia-tinged 1914 memories, it’s worth considering some Edwardian facts of life.

  • At the time, Britain was imposing itself around the world, keeping lots of plates spinning and generally occupying and interfering in the running of numerous countries.  There was a lot of sabre-rattling happening and Britain was making sure that hers was one of the loudest.  Indeed a school of thought exists, that this posturing and chest-puffing between empires, coupled with the unprecedented worldwide stockpile of armaments was the true cause of a war which was just looking for an excuse to start.  It could have been anything; it just happened to be Gavrillo Princip’s starting pistol in Saraejvo.
  • At home, there was no job stability for the working class.  People were exploited by ruthless employers; they were working long hours for low pay and in conditions that were appalling and downright dangerous.
  • Working people had little or no access to the legal system and could not claim legal aid
  • The best education was available providing you could pay.
  • The best health care was available providing you could pay.
  • The poor and disabled were an underclass.  As late as 1930 Julian Huxley, chairman of the Eugenics society wrote, “What are we going to do?  Every defective man, woman and child is a burden.  Every defective is an extra body for the nation to feed and clothe, but produces little or nothing in return.”

Britain was pursuing an expansive foreign policy then, whilst at home, it’s own human beings were valued only in terms of profit.  Ring any bells?  Every point in the list from 1914, 100 years ago, is valid today, yet the government will have you believe this is a civilized country.  Expect the next 18 months to be a nostalgia-fest of how great ‘our country’ is to sweep us along to the election.  You’ll be told at every opportunity in between the war hysteria that, ‘the country’ has turned the corner; ‘the country’ is in growth; ‘the country’ this, ‘the country that’; anything to divert your gaze from what they are doing to people – what they’re doing to you.

The NHS is being prepared for total privatisation, care for the elderly is decimated, our children are being charged £27,000 to educate themselves – a birthright in my day, fire stations are closing, coastguard stations are closing, libraries are closing, the terminally ill are being told to find a job, people will be forced to work ’til they’re 70, young people will be forced to work for nothing.  Nixon bugged one office and was impeached; our government is spying on all of us and laughs in our faces, whilst they order water cannon in case any of us take exception to our treatment.  At least we can still find the money to keep three wars on the go at once and cut taxes for the rich.

If this was going on in another country, this government would call it a banana republic and keep a straight face.  In 2015 they are going to ask us to vote for them again, in their words, “to finish the job.”  The scary part is, with our record at the polls it might well happen.

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If We Shot Ourselves in the Foot, We’d Miss.

unions make us strongThere’s an old joke about a Martian landing on Earth and seeing someone walking with their dog before scooping up the ‘poops’.  The joke ends with the Martian leaving under the impression that dogs rule the Earth, with humans as their lackeys.  First impressions count for nothing, eh?  Or do they?  That same Martian landing today would get a much more surreal view of things than that.

Picture the scene: millions of people struggling to survive, wondering where their next meal is coming from.  Queueing up in their thousands to clamour after five low-paid jobs.  Some relying on handouts, food banks and the generosity of people who can’t afford to be generous, whilst the few hundred very rich people they elected to represent them strip away everything that could support them in their hour of need, including their human dignity.  The disabled and terminally ill are pronounced fit, their entitlements stopped and they’re told to stop whining and get to work.  Taxes are spent instead on warships, rockets, bombs and other weapons, which are used to force ‘democracy’ down the throats of people around the world who’ve seen it in action and don’t want it thank-you-very-much.  Then, instead of staging a concerted movement to take back their lives, the people elect, in a slightly different arrangement, these same, rich few hundred to represent them again for another five years.  The Martian would go away scratching one of his heads and think that the world is inhabited by a population of barm-pots, who had no idea what was in their best interest.  And this time, he’d be right.

It would seem that the populace has fallen victim to the nationalist card on several issues.  This wily, though simple ruse merely requires enough people to be convinced that the misfortune about to be visited upon them, however unpalatable, is for “the good of the country” and that people who protest or argue against it are feckless, “red”, socialist wasters trying to bring the country to it’s knees.  If this can be achieved, then said populace will be persuaded to vote against it’s own interests for policies which actually damage their lives.  How is this achieved?  Well, having the ear of the editors of two of the largest circulation “newspapers” in the country is a good start.  People read the same message day after day, drip, drip, drip, and hey presto!  They’re ringing radio phone-ins quoting the sound bites from these papers and informing us that every immigrant arriving at our border is given a four bedroom house and the keys to a Bentley; that everyone on benefits is a serial fraudster bleeding the country dry; and that because we couldn’t deport some manic extremist to a country which may torture either him, or the witnesses to be used against him, the human rights act in its entirety needs throwing out!

This claim “for the good of the country” needs a bit of qualification, in particular the phrase “the country”, for in this context it can actually mean different things depending where in the food chain you sit.  In most cases, when a politician says “the country”, or “our country”, you can usually safely substitute the words “unscrupulous employers” and the actual meaning becomes clear.  The finest example of this, and perhaps the best incidence of people being tricked into backing policies which are clearly damaging them is the current attitude to unions.

It is no coincidence that in the late 60s and throughout the 70s, when the unions had record memberships, were able to organise properly and use industrial action when employers tried to take advantage of people, that wages were at their best and health & safety was revolutionised.  Employers had to pay the proper rate for a job and the unions also saw to it that every workplace had to comply with the highest standards of safety. It is also no coincidence that at this time, Britain was booming.  Because of the decent wages, people had money in their pockets and, unlike banks, when people have money they spend it – business was thriving.  Employers were making good profits, but, capitalism being what it is, they were aghast at what they were paying in wages and safety.  This outgoing represented extra profit that they were losing, and they couldn’t get their hands on it until the unions were either out of the way or emasculated.

And so the drip, drip, drip began; unions were “holding the country to ransom” (if we make our substitution, this becomes holding unscrupulous employers to account).  Eventually it was felt enough people had been convinced that, despite the relative prosperity they were enjoying, the unions were actually bad for them and should be curtailed.  This was the go-ahead to take the unions on head-to-head and, with a Tory government in place from 1979, their donors felt free to wage war.  Disputes were deliberately engineered and, as we’ve discovered with the release last week under the 30 year rule of contemporary documents, the government lied to the public so that the miners could be defeated.  The unions were targeted in their strongholds: the mines, shipbuilding, printing and manufacturing.  Industries which are now all but non-existent.  We used to make and build things: now we merely sell each other mobile phones and coffee (which incidentally, are made elsewhere for even lower wages).

Even today, after the brutal anti-union legislation of the 1980s (followed by Labour’s shameful failure to modify it) and the decline in union membership which resulted, one of the right-wing papers or politicians will casually refer to the bad old days “when the unions were holding the country to ransom”, just to keep the drip-feed going.  Amazingly, people are still ready to accept this comment, despite the appalling attacks on pay and conditions that legislation has allowed employers to perpetrate with impunity in the absence of any organised union resistance.  We also accept lots of other things the big, bad unions would have protected us from: zero-hours contracts, pay freeze after pay freeze, frequent changes to terms & conditions and the privatisation and exploitation of essential utilities.  We accept all this and more, whilst we watch the people who control our lives and keep us in a permanent state of insecurity and worry award themselves multi-million pound bonuses.  They don’t even bother trying to keep a straight face any more.

With all this in mind, what will happen in 2015?  Revolution?  Rebellion?  Redistribution?  No, the same few hundred rich people who maintain this state of affairs will be re-elected to govern us once more.  Our Martian friend will be left scratching both heads.