ofthewedge

rooting around for grubs in diverse soils

Tag: theresa may

About Grenfell Tower

On Wednesday probably around one hundred human lives (they still haven’t said how many) were sacrificed on the altar of English extreme inequality. The religious analogy is appropriate: the idea that there is nonatural or moral limit to the potential disparity between decadent wealth and grim poverty is tantamount to a tenet of a faith which, apart perhaps from a brief moment around the end of World War II, has always been held to fast by the British state irrespective of its political colour. The richest council in the country, gluttoned on surplus revenues extracted from global billionaires stashing their mysterious assets in empty real estate in a city facing a perpetual housing crisis, chose to save money by using flammable materials in a Brutalist tower block inhabited by poor people including ethnic minorities and refugees. Theresa May’s Tories provide a convenient proxy for the nation’s collective culpability.

I did a day’s training as a fire warden many years ago. For most of the day we did theory, and the Grenfell Tower disaster has reminded me of the trainer’s sudden interjection, almost as an aside, that sprinklers were the one thing which will almost certainly stop you dying in a fire. After the theory, interspersed with many tea breaks (such is the life of a firefighter in between emergencies) we were rewarded with some controlled fire-dousing using ‘different extinguishing medias’ (see below). He brought us to the empty yard of 1 Queen Anne’s Gate, which had just been vacated by the Home Office pending arrival of builders to transform it into the headquarters of the expanding Department of Constitutional Affairs, the precursor to the Ministry of Justice.

Here are my notes from the day.

Key concepts

‘Backdraft’ – if you introduce oxygen to a room on fire, it becomes ‘entrained’ and combusts

‘Flashover’ – ­this occurs between 650º and 1000º. It’s only 3 minutes to pyrolysis.

‘Small incendiary device’ – a cigarette lighter

‘Different extinguishing medias” – fire extinguishers, blankets etc.

Main cause of fire in the work place

Arson – 46% of all fires. The English are particularly partial to this cause of fire. Culprits range from pyromaniacs, those doing it to make phony insurance claims, disgruntled employees, those suffering from hero-syndrome, to casual fire-setting chavs.

Electrical defects – 40%

‘Heat producing appliances’

Fire prevention tactics

Ensure premises are secure

Good housekeeping: a big pile of paper is an ‘opportunity’

Vigilance

Key quotes

“Is your building sprinklered? There has never been a fire death in a sprinklered building”

“People get over zealous with fire door stickers: they appear stuck on places which aren’t even doors.”

About the trainer

Wizened old fire hand. Nothing in the world of flames could surprise him – he has seen it all before. His North London voice bounces around with ‘facts n’ figures’ to instruct and entertain. To pack out the day’s training, he makes sure there are plenty of tea breaks. He speaks with sincere affection about tools and devices to combat the fiery menace. With a roll of the eyes and a wry smile, he refers to people who ‘helpfully prop open fire doors with extinguishers’

Banter

“We’ve just our ‘owse done” said a crumpled eastender from the Courts Service. Then she went into a bit of a coughing fit.

“You alright?”, the trainer, out of amused obligation, inquired.

Recovering, she slapped the shoulder of the hitherto silent young man sitting next to her, apparently a colleague. “That’s your fault!”

“Don’t you start again!” he replied.

“We’ll have to give you an abdominal thrust”, interjected a Liverpuldlian member of the class.

“You what?”

“I bet you can’t wait to get your hands on one of those extinguishers,” added the trainer.

“Shut up you tart.”

Avoiding death by fire, like avoiding human crushes at a football stadium, is not complicated if you can be bothered. After a year of rabid, McCarthyite vengefulness directed at the Other, the pendulum of public opinion is shifting back towards compassion and accountability, but it has come at an appalling cost.

Who put my man i’ the stocks?

LEAR: Who stock’d my servant? …

O sides, you are too tough;

Will you yet hold? How came my man i’ the stocks?

CORNWALL: I set him there, sir: but his own disorders

Deserved much less advancement.

KING LEAR You! did you?

REGAN     I pray you, father, being weak, seem so.

If, till the expiration of your month,

You will return and sojourn with my sister,

Dismissing half your train, come then to me:

I am now from home, and out of that provision

Which shall be needful for your entertainment.

There was me thinking the UK or rather England was about to elect its first robot for Prime Minister. Theresa May’s bizarre performances during the election seemed a distillation par excellence of the politician’s art of honesty-avoidance. I had all the same begun to worry for her mental state. On the few occasions she deigned to take a question in public, she would look at her inquisitor still and expressionless, apart from the odd involuntary shake of the head, perhaps signally scepticism, perhaps involuntary. At the end of the question, there was always a small pause, a jerk into response mode, like a crude voice-activated device, and she would launch into a non-answer of clichés and slogans which by the end of the campaign even her cheerleaders had grown weary of. Then there was her awkward leaning forward gait, those sharp uncomfortable limbs, and a face looking constantly on the verge of vomiting. She seemed a person increasingly ill-at-ease in her own body.

People were anticipating her eventual comeuppance, though few expected it was imminent. I foresaw a big Tory victory followed by years of attritional conflict with a growing body of the disaffected. The population would start to despise this government like they grew to despise the long Thatcher-Major regime. Instead the cards are being reshuffled again in this inscrutable, post-financial crisis, Brexit chapter of British democracy.

In the Middle Ages the English had a reputation among the French as a people who killed their kings with unsavoury frequency.  Now the full arsenal of the Tory machine, and the plutocrats running its propaganda in the print media, has suddenly stopped insulting Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott and trained its attention on their faltering monarch herself.

Shakespeare’s Lear is in the opening act flattered by his sycophant older daughters until, once he has divested himself of his power, he is by turns emasculated, impoverished, humiliated, imprisoned and ultimately murdered.  It begins with the banishing of the entourage, the malevolent advisers who have corrupted the prince’s noble intentions. Prime Minister May had become umbilically dependent on Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, two proper bastards who had enabled their mistress to boss the Home Office for six years. These two were not svelte, cunning Etonians, nor had they proven their calibre by passing through the best universities. (Future political science PhDs might compare them with Piers Gaveston or William Catesby, the reviled confidents of Edward II and Richard III respectively.) Hill and Timothy have now been shoved from the shadows to the public pillory – “i’ the stocks” like the loyal Kent disguised as a peasant who assaulted Goneril’s servant for disrespect for the king. Lacking the appropriate breeding for a Tory courtier they failed to show requisite deference to those who did, and so this weekend has been a bit of a revenge orgy for embittered Conservatives.

Now this shell of a Prime Minister is left mouthing the empty platitudes of power, no longer in a bid to entrench herself, but rather like a hostage forced by her captors to read out a script on camera.  She knows, everyone knows, that she will be put out of her misery at some point soon.

I struggle to muster much sympathy for May. Her entire life has been openly directed towards attaining the highest political office, a bit like Gordon Brown, though unlike Brown she had to contend stoically for decades as a woman against the patronising party establishment of the chaps. Also, unlike Brown, she doesn’t appear to possess much moral fibre, given her craven obeisance before the barely inaugurated President Trump and her preparedness to sacrifice human rights in order to appear tough on terrorism and to divert attention from her downgrading of the police.

This ritual un-kinging of May is an exquisite form of political torture of which only the Conservatives, in their unbridled urge to run the UK at all costs, are capable of inflicting on their own. They will morph now back again into a more apparently emollient, pragmatic party that tries harder to avoid offending foreigners and gays and to resist letting its instinctive xenophobia interfere with the imperative of GDP growth.  But their core brutality will be undiminished, as we shall shortly see once Boris Johnson and all the other scoundrels start to devour each other in a bid to succeeed their zombie of a leader.

The race to the centre of British politics is back on and, given the self-righteous jubilation of Corbyn and his friends, I can only still see one winner, though I would love to be proven wrong again. The prize is likely a working majority after yet another election in the autumn. Meanwhile the ousted Theresa May and her erstwhile henchmen will have plenty of time to recraft their public personas, and probably, in the cases of Hill and Timothy, return to the arena. It is a preferable denouement to the gory ends which befell their equivalents on the Jacobean stage, I suppose. 

 

 

Es riß! (Notes on everything)

rope

When Trump was sworn in as President yesterday it started to rain on Capitol Hill, raining on the modest throng of snowflakes and deplorables clustered on the first five segments of white tarpaulin along the National Mall, barely reaching the Smithsonian Information Centre, so far as I could tell. The rain was a sign of God’s blessing, according Franklin Graham, Trump’s evangelical gimp.  (I wrote last about how American evangelicals with their obeisance before Trump have now squandered what little hope remained that they might still deep down, after all, be Christians.)

I remember Trump Day in November. The morning in Brussels was replete with objective correlatives, spitty rain, mist, dark greyness. Soon after it was Armistice Day, with its soggy leaves and desperate branches. Leonard Cohen died around the same time, and I played some of his latter songs which with his gravel voice went up like a dirge for 2016. Tough guys are in the ascendant. Death and decay was everywhere.

I was on my own that week, my family with the inlaws, nothing left but work and beer, may be a game of football.  On the plane heading over to bring them home, I wrote some notes trying to untangle these strange happenings, and I have added to them this week.

Why politics?

People want to be able to live, have a family, have prospect of social advancement, be generally left alone and generally free from fear. Some people by their actions harm other people.  There is the butterfly effect or the law of Cleopatra’s nose (which, said Pascal, had it been shorter, would have changed the course of human history). All actions have effects, impossible to predict. That is why we have invented government and politics, law and judiciary, the separation of powers, rule of law, human rights. All life is evolutionary and selfish. It wants to survive and prosper. It is difficult, may be impossible to prosper, except at the expense of other people, other sentient creatures and the environment. We step on insects unintentionally or trivially, we breath in microorganisms, we farm and slaughter animals. Most humans have lifestyles which systematically harm the environment and it is now in big trouble. So some things need to be provided or prohibited by the collective. Though there is nothing unique about human cruelty in the Universe.

It’s hard to conceive of a human life outside society. If you are outside society then you might expect to live with your family beyond the laws, no taxes. Trump channelled this instinct with his schoolyard tubthump of America First at the Inauguration. But even if you isolate yourself then you cannot be allowed to visit cruelty on animals and the rest of the environment.

Humans have invented rules, laws and conventions to legitimise and prohibit certain behaviours. These laws, to have effect, require enforcement.  So you cajole, punish or dissuade – Obama and Cameron wanted to believe you could just ‘nudge’.  A given society is made up of so many people that not all laws will be what you want, not all people to your taste will be in positions of power, not all referenda and elections will go the way you voted.  But in peaceable democratic society, you accept these outcomes, that is the Social Contract.

On welfare versus looking after one’s own

Life is swings and roundabouts, ups and downs, you win some you lose some. But certain excesses are considered to be unjust, so must be contested, restrained, outlawed. Over the long term a person can lose so much, take so many knocks that they end up in a nasty situation.  If such a person has reached that position through wilfulness, then they are considered reckless and you have little sympathy for them. Otherwise they may be compulsive, a gambler, and you think they need clinical assistance.

To varying degrees, depending on where they position themselves on the left-right political spectrum, politicians will say you need to support such people. To be your brother’s keeper is assumed best practice if you are in church or family but for the abstract political state it’s more controversial.  What should you do if an entire neighbourhood, region or country becomes an impoverished and unhappy place?

As animals, our instinct is to survive. Protect yourself, live as long and happily as possible, procreate yourself for your legacy. You know that you need a support group to protect you – that is your partner and your family and best friends.

Christ subverted this.  He told his disciples to give up everything and follow him.

And going on from thence, he saw other two brethren, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in a ship with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and he called them.

And they immediately left the ship and their father, and followed him.

And he answered them, saying, Who is my mother, or my brethren?

And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren!

For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.

Virtually none of us, least of all modern Christians, is capable of or willing to conform to these strictures. I could not and would not do this, partly because I don’t know what it implies.

Beyond family, you have an affinity with a wider network, your town, your school, your work colleagues, political party, nation, co-religionists. It is arrogant to assert that people are wrong in their beliefs and value systems, and require enlightening.  There is no objectively right or wrong value system.  But surely the human race has learned to seek to minimise harm to others in how we live our lives. So when you see someone strong hurting someone weak, you step in, or you at the very least feel as though you should step in. You disarm the strong man committing harm. You move him away, may be even put him in a prison. Sometimes the only way to stop the strong man behaving cruelly is to kill him, but since St Augustine we have developed theories on when such drastic action can be justified.  The classic radical left which now have their champion in Corbyn, says that states should not wage war.  What do you do if you are in England and you know that people are being abused tortured and killed somewhere else in the world?

Taxation

Taxation is taking things away from the people to enable the state to exist on behalf of the people.  What is a fair tax? If you have you should give. If you don’t have, you give less.  You should ideally tax things which are costly. For instance, unhealthy foodstuffs which make it more likely you will need state health care, pollutants which will damage the environment.  We ought to start taxing meat production and consumption. By any reckoning, we eat too much meat. It is intrinsically cruel and unnecessary, and the state should provide disincentives.

Inequality and unfairness

Hapless Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn stuck his neck out last week about European freedom of movement and then put it halfway back in again. Like me he cannot address immigration without talking about inequality.

When you sell something, you want to get as much from the buyer as possible, if you get a lot for nothing then you are a good businessman. If you get something for nothing you are an astute customer.

Everything always comes at someone’s expense.

You cannot escape the Selfish Gene. If you work for a non-profit organisation, the government, a civil society organisation, a church, you still want to be better than others, to advance. Not all can advance so you must advance at the expense of others.

Moreover, every job in every workplace is an attempt to be better at something than others. When you employ someone, you want to get more value from him than you pay him in salary. And when you are employed, you want to get away with minimum effort for what you are paid for. Or you put the extra effort in because you are using the job as a stepping stone. People who just work diligently for years in a single job are considered to be mugs, suckers and pigeons.

Inequality is usually the result of generations. Things are the way they are. When you are born, you get whatever your parents are able or willing to give or bequeath you. If my father gives me money, I take it. It’s for me. It’s not for anyone else.  Trump took millions from his dad.  It is a lottery.  It is not fair, but attempts by the state to interfere with this seem more unfair, and communist regime attempts to regiment family life have been barbaric and cruel – and have failed.

The laissez-faire politics espoused by politicians on the right means accepting the cruelties and harm of an unequal society from which they have benefited. They basically say that the way things are should be accepted. They use as leverage the predicament of poorer voters to pile blame on immigrants, and then cream off their votes. It is an extraordinary hoodwink, and it works every time.

This is exactly what Theresa May did in her Brexit speech last week:

In the last decade or so, we have seen record levels of net migration in Britain, and that sheer volume has put pressure on public services, like schools, stretched our infrastructure, especially housing, and put a downward pressure on wages for working class people. As Home Secretary for six years, I know that you cannot control immigration overall when there is free movement to Britain from Europe

There is pressure on public services because the government has not put enough money into them.Wages are low because of the market economy. Wealth in Britain is even more unequally divided than income. The richest 10% of households hold 45% of all wealth in the UK, the poorest 50% own 8.7%. May cannot talk about this. In her schizophrenic week of keynote speeches, her subsequent Davos speech implied that it that inequality was a problem of perception, not reality.

More May:

But just as we need to act to address the deeply felt sense of economic inequality that has emerged in recent years, so we also need to recognise the way in which a more global and individualistic world can sometimes loosen the ties that bind our society together, leaving some people feeling locked out and left behind.

Those ‘ties that bind our society together’ in her mind probably include the erstwhile sense of deference to social superiors which has always been relied on by Conservatives to hold the poor in check.

According to Thomas Piketty, American and European societies have become much more unequal as a result of the absence of full scale war for the past half century. To a degree, inequality is inevitable.  Everything is different. The fittest, the canniest, the best connected survive and thrive. It is not ‘fair’, it does not feel fair. Merit is also a fiction. But stark inequality destabilises society, so all suffer in a way.  Sixty-two people are as wealthy as half of the world.

Piketty and his former tutor, the recently-mourned Antony Atkinson (he was another to escape the world just in time), have proposed a global tax on wealth.  Global, because the French attempt at such a tax at national level has not worked.  You could instead have an upper and lower of wealth and income, set by Parliament and reviewed every year. The canny rich would move to another country. The canny poor will move to that country to enjoy the generous state.

What is the big deal with immigration?

Identity is important to us. We are generally wary of someone unlike you moving into space near to you.  People take possession of areas of the planet and become landowners. Their ‘right’ to such areas is a fiction, invented by humans.

People who want to improve their lives, may be even to save their lives, move around the world. Animals generally don’t want others moving into or close to your space. That’s why stags rut, and why blackbirds sing from the highest branch in the month of June. The social effects and grief felt as a result of immigration are exacerbated when new people move into densely populated areas with low wealth and income, and where the existing population have not experience inflows for some time. Immigration, from this localised perspective, threatens identity (intangible) and access to services that you want (tangible).

Objectively, peaceful movements of people enrich humanity. It makes lives more interesting and generates economic wealth. But most people do not have the luxury of enjoying objective, abstract truths.

How can you tell if a country is ‘full’? Let Parliament decide each year how many people are needed in the country.  Count the number of births and deaths and net migration. Then figure how many should be able to apply for residency and citizenship accordingly.

Responsible government wishing to improve the economy by mixing up the pool of labour with immigrants without exacerbating social tensions, could cause least damage by requiring immigrants to settle in wealthy, more sparsely populated areas. Germany has been trying to do this with refugees, though it is hard to square with EU law. The problem is that you cannot talk about immigration without talking about social inequality. So when you allow immigration to areas where people are already pissed off with life and politicians, you stoke the flames of social unrest and you play into the hands of right wing cynics.

People are also worried that immigrants do not share the ‘values’ of the host society. The Pavlovian first response whenever a lunatic goes on the rampage is to inquire of their ethnic origin and citizenship status.  So what can you do? Require them as a condition for crossing the border to take a solemn oath to respect women, renounce all violence, care for the natural environment etc.  Make it so if they are found to breach these undertakings they will be penalised and may be expelled from the country. But where do you expel them to?

Security

You cannot have 100% public security unless you instigate ‘1984’. Everyone is different and unpredictable. You cannot control them. They must be free as long as the harm they cause is not excessive: violence towards another person is clearly not acceptable.

In any case, the state should not control individuals. It should be local structures that keep nutjobs in check. But how can you force a man’s mother and father and wider family to take responsibility? How can the state assume responsibility for the deranged Tunisian who drove a lorry into a crowd in Nice on Bastille Day?

In the first half of the Prelude to Götterdämmerung, the three Norns, daughter of the Earth Goddess Erda, are weaving the rope of destiny. The women unwind and fasten singing of the past and present. The rope begins to fray; they struggle to grasp its strands. Then at last they try to stretch it and it breaks. Events are no longer following their expected course. The Norns disappear in terror.

No more speaketh our wisdom!

The world now shall hear us no more.

Nothing is too good for asylum seekers

There came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat at meat . But when his disciples saw it , they had indignation, saying, To what purpose is this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor. When Jesus understood it , he said unto them, Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me. For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always. …

Matthew 26:7-10

It did not take long for the wheels of the Great British Hug-A-Refugee bandwagon to fall off.

Yesterday in response to a rabid Daily Mail headline the story occupied the airwaves of a Home Office contractor using a luxury car to ‘transit’ asylum seekers from one hovel in London to another in Manchester. The BBC served up an earnest reporter to explain to concerned viewers in their sincere voice saying that the firm had apologised for the error of using inappropriate transport for asylum seekers and that the premium which presumably usually attaches to such taxiing would not be passed on to the public purse. And so the nations anger is quelled. 

Inappropriate. When has there ever been an appropriate use of a limo? The rapid transiting of Russian kleptocrats or Chinese autocrats through foreign capitals? Lary hen parties giving it large in Basildon and environs?

In August David Cameron and his foreign secretary Philip Hammond spoke respectively of ‘swarms’ of ‘marauding migrants’ threatening our ‘standard of living’, in a sort of imagined reverse siege of Calais, where England’s island tranquillity had to be shielded from the unshaven hordes in ‘the Jungle’. Then in September the images of a three-year-old Syrian washed up on a Turkish beach made it suddenly fashionable for politicians and journalists to substitute ‘migrants’, with its connotations of mischief and opportunism, for ‘refugees’, more redolent of unfortunate strays in desperate need of our pathos and donations. It has not lasted long. Yesterday the familiar dehumanising lexicon made its exuberant return, with ‘intimidating’ groups of migrants ‘overwhelming’ an English village.

First of all this should not be a story at all. So what if a carload of the world’s downtrodden have happened to travel in a posh vehicle for a few miles. And so what if it was a mistake and they should actually have been bundled into a minivan?

Second, if it was to be of journalistic interest, it could have been a semi-humorous, saccharine piece of journalism about how Mr Whatshisname had within weeks gone from fleeing torture and barrel-bombing in Syria to leather upholerstered chauffeured stretch Hummer.

But no, in England there must be outrage that the government may have funded a one-off expensive taxi ride for an asylum seeker. The implication that these are the least befitting of any form of luxury. That they ought to be grateful for even being admitted to detention in the country, pending an asylum decision. Any upgrade on a shithole is an insult to hard-working taxpayers and to unemployed servicemen. It is now necessary to issue public apologies for inadvertently dispensing modest and ephemeral privilege upon displaced Africans.

In other words, asylum seekers are subhuman.

This was a week after Theresa May cynically inverted facts about economic benefits of immigration. From a Home Secretary who has attempted to curtail freedom of expression on grounds of ‘incitement to hatred’, this was brazen, inflammatory and divisive right wing politics at its most contemptible. The Tories are sowing and cultivating animosity between poorer sections of society, diverting frustration at inequality and injustice towards the most defenceless. I heard the other day Emily Dugan, a thoughtful and conscientious investigative journalist, documenting the social fracturing which afflicts Boston Lincolnshire, the town with the highest proportion of people from post-2004 EU enlargement in Britain.

We are told that this is an overcrowded island. Bollocks. It’s like food shortages, famines and malnutrition when two thirds of the affluent west are overweight or obese and where waste enough food to feed the planet. Of course there is room for immigrants, the thousands or hundreds of thousands who are committed and resourceful enough to find their way to this wet corner of Eurasia. I would offer them temporary digs not on former inner city council estates, or in Longford, LB Hillingdon, or Boston Lincs, but on country estates, in the Prime Minister’s bucolic constituency, or in the west London penthouses left empty by oligarchs in order to launder their ill-gotten wealth. I would even offer a family my spare room while they get themselves set up.  Why, in the 21st century, should the indigenous, relative poor of western countries be burdened with accommodating the migrating poor?

It is often speculated in pulpits around Christendom that Jesus, had he appeared today, the suffering servant, would appear in the guise of a stateless unshaven migrant, or a trafficked prostitute: ‘despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not’.

Jesus did not have an easy life, but he did not make a virtue out of misery.

John Reid, one of the fix-it-men of the late Blair years, though certainly  not a star of the first magnitude in recent political life, did to his credit trot out some memorable – albeit overworked – clichés. One of his commonplaces seemed to paraphrase partially the sentiment expressed by Christ in the house of Simon the Leper when he was annointed with perfume, a vignette indicating the nervous restiveness among the disciplines; the last anecdote in the Gospel of Matthew before Judas sloped off to offer his betray for thirty silver coins and the story of the passion gets underway. ‘Nothing,’ Reid once said to me, with a twinkle in his eye and a twitch in his neck, ‘nothing is too good for the working classes’.

Nothing is too good for the tired, the huddled masses, yearning to be free.

immigrants