Friday, 18 September 2009

Political Assimilation of the UK Police: A Third Reich Model?

People always jump whenever I draw parallels between any state at the moment and that of Nazi Germany. To some degree everyone tends to simply think about Nazi Germany as it was by 1944: a state at war carrying out extermination of millions of people. Obviously, that is an important aspect to remember, but the obsession with that phase means that people overlook very important lessons from earlier in the Nazi regime, for example 1933-6 before the state moved to a war setting and the authoritarian period that preceded it, 1930-3. It is unlikely that the UK or any other European state will ever return to the kind of behaviour of Nazi Germany in the mid-1940s (though the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s showed how easy it can be) but it is far more possible that states will take the first few steps towards an authoritarian or totalitarian regime and it is those steps, those policies being put into place that people looking at democracies in the 2010s need to be aware of.

With that caveat, you might wonder what issue has attracted my attention that I see parallels between the UK today and Germany in the 1930s. The issue is the apparent seizing of control over the (London) Metropolitan police service by the Deputy Mayor of London, Kit Malthouse. Malthouse is an elected member of the Greater London Authority (GLA) and was given the position of deputy mayor for policing by the directly-elected Mayor, Boris Johnson. Malthouse was formerly Deputy Leader of Westminster Council responsible for the council's finances, 1998-2003.

It became clear earlier this year that Johnson and his team wanted greater control over the Metropolitan police service. Unlike all other constabularies in the UK the Metropolitan Police is not headed by a Chief Constable, but by the Home Secretary, who, however appoints a Commissioner as operational head. To some degree all of this goes back to the role the Metropolitan Police played historically as I have highlighted in my articles on the Great Upheaval of 1910-11. Being the largest force they often supplied officers across the country to bolster local forces in times of trouble. They were often called in to investigate serious crimes particularly murders, in various parts of the country, often far from London. Thus, whilst not being a national police force they used to often play that role though it is one that has declined greatly in the post-war era.

Thus, a contest over who controls the Metropolitan police is really a battle between Conservative-run Greater London Authority and the Labour government with the police service as the 'football' between them. Ironically this turns on its head the similar tension between the Labour-run Greater London Council (GLC) under Ken Livingstone and the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher which led to the abolition of the GLC in 1986. London was without a central authority until the creation of the GLA in 2000 and ironically the last leader of the GLC, Ken Livingstone was elected the first Mayor and head of the GLA. Trying to run London without central authority caused immense difficulties as anyone who lived or drove through London witnessed in that period (roadworks were not co-ordinated between different boroughs and in London with population so high you cross borough lines every few minutes at that time often from one set of roadworks to another).

The first steps to greater GLA control came with the resignation of Sir Ian Blair, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in October 2008, citing lack of support from Johnson who had been elected five months earlier. To a great degree it was believed that Blair was resistant to Johnson's wish for greater political control of the London police and so was pressured to leave. Things, this month, have taken a step further with Malthouse, saying he and Johnson now 'have our hands on the tiller' of the Metropolitan police and have an electoral mandate to influence what it does. Furthermore he said that they had had 'elbowed the Home Office out of the picture' and would not simply comply with Metropolitan Police proposals: 'We do not want to be a passenger on the Met cruise' he said. Despite his ineffectual nature and the corruption of many of his deputies, it is clear that Johnson relishes power. However, it has become quickly apparent that Johnson is the pioneer for further steps of this nature.

David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party who seems absolutely confident that he will become prime minister in 2010, has outlined the policy of having elected heads of all constabularies. This is sold on the basis that it will reduce Home Office bureaucracy and allow greater accountability to the local community (or certainly to those who are not marginalised and can make a fuss). Of course, you will find quite strict controls over the electoral process as Cameron would not want an active Muslim as the new head of the West Midlands or the Greater Manchester constabularies as might be the case in a free election.

Unsurprisingly, these steps have attracted resistance from the police. Ian Johnston, President of the Police Superintendants' Association (superintendants and chief superintendants run local police and detective units; they can be considered middle management in the police structure) has portrayed the approach as risking the world renown of the UK police service for 'short-term political dogma'. Now, people on the left like me, see the police as a very conservative force in society anyway and their response to the G20 protests this year which resulted in the police murdering a passerby as well as the fatal shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes by police in 2005, just heightens that sense. So, if they feel that a right-wing Conservative policy is going too far, then you know it must be pretty extreme. Back in the early 1990s I remember talking to liberal police officers (they do exist, there are police who do still see themselves as having a role in guarding rather than repressing society) who were worried by what they saw as the politicisation of the service back then and we have gone much further since.

So, what has any of this to do with the Third Reich? Germany in the 1930s had a police system very similar to the UK model, i.e. decentralised. This in part had come about because the German state was a federation of various other states which retained their own police forces. There was an imbalance as after 1866 Prussia constituted two-thirds of Germany so Prussian police forces covered a great deal, if not all of the country. As in the UK, detectives from the capital, Berlin in Prussia, would be called into to tackle serious murder cases in other German states.

When the Nazis came to power in January 1933, they obviously were keen to take full control of the police system. They created a rival body in the SA (Sturmabteilung), their paramilitary group which almost immediately set up their own illegal prisons and the first concentration camps. However, step-by-step 1933-6 the Nazis began to bring the police forces of Germany under political control. In March 1933, Heinrich Himmler became Police President of the Munich police and Commander of the political police (these units had existed in a number of German states since the late 19th century and were responsible for monitoring revolutionaries and reactionaries and anyone who threatened the political status quo) across the whole of Bavaria, the largest of the German states outside Prussia. In September 1933 Himmler became head of the political police in all German states except Prussia. In Prussia he became Head of the Prussian Police and its political division (the 'Gestapo' from GEheim STAats POlizei, i.e. secret state police) though in theory he was under Hermann Goering who had been Minister of the Interior for Prussia since January 1933. It was not until 17th June 1936, three-and-a-half years after the Nazis had come to power that Himmler became head of all police forces across Germany. He merged the detective units, the so-called Kripo (KRIminalPOlizei) with the Gestapo to create the Sipo (SIcherheitsPOlizei - security police). The Orpo (ORdnungspolizei - order police), the uniformed sections remained separate but still under Himmler.

Himmler already headed the SS and had created the SD (Sicherheitsdienst - security service) as an intelligence organisation to monitor Nazi party members though it turned into a counter-espionage unit. The final stage of politicisation of the German police came in 1939 when the RHSA (Reichssicherheitshauptamt - Reich Security Central Office) merged the SD and Sipo effectively making the police an arm of the Nazi party.

Now, I am not saying that David Cameron intends that by 2015, the UK police will be an arm of the Conservative Party, but what is important to note are the steps that led up to Himmler taking control in 1936. Cameron would contest that he would weaken the Home Office and reduce centralisation. However, given the people likely to be elected to run the different constabularies, it is likely that they will get guidance from the Conservative government, and recognising that they need to maintain their position by popular vote are going to press policies that they know the public are sympathetic to. We all know that in a referendum the UK would be compelled to leave the EU, the death penalty would be re-introduced, paedophiles castrated and all people from ethnic minorities would be expelled from the country. Thus, the likely step is that we see more radical policies aimed at those that people that the 'silent majority' despise and are whipped up to hate by the tabloid media. What would be interesting is, if in some areas of the country where left-wing radicalism lives on a truly liberal head of police was elected and police policies such as use of the over-use of sus laws against ethnic minority men and the blocking of protestors from reaching sites would be challenged. I could imagine that happening in Liverpool and Glasgow. Presumably in that situation, the Cameron government would find some excuse to take direct control away from that particular elected head. Do not be deluded that election of heads of police means no central control, it will just be a different approach to a more explicit control.

To some degree I do not know why Cameron feels he has to grab this control of the police. They basically follow a very conservative line anyway. Individual chief constables may not follow the Conservative Party manifesto to the letter, but as we saw with the G20 protests they are more than happy to intervene forcefully against and perceived threat to the status quo. The police have not balked at imposing the anti-terrorism legislation though it has effectively brought house arrest to people who have not been convicted of anything; similarly they have no trouble tracking 'escaped' asylum seekers from places like Campsfield House. To some degree because Tony Blair took a number of steps towards an authoritarian state and Gordon Brown has not reversed these, to appear more conservative, Cameron has to go further. Perhaps he genuinely believes in democracy, but I am increasingly feeling he sees it as a faulty system that gives too much of a voice to those people he feels should not have a voice because they only make foolish decisions.

The UK will not become the Third Reich reborn, but there are lessons from German history about how a decentralised police service can be centralised and politicised step-by-step that are useful for us to bear in mind at a stage when Boris Johnson begins to assert political control over the largest police force in the UK, not that different from what Hermann Goering did in Berlin in 1933.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The Return of Battles on the Streets of Britain?

I did think of titling this 'Panic on the Streets of Britain' but thought that would imply this was something about records by the band The Smiths. Ironically I was recently told about a single released by comedy trio The Goodies (Graeme Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie) in 1975 called 'Panic' which apparently sums up the British response to crises which seemed as prevalent in the 1970s as they do today, notably concerning over-population, oil prices and industrial unrest and as a response to all three, shortages. Today's topic is very much about the concerns of living in Britain and is more serious than these media examples focus on. This is the potential for street battles involving fascist groups, notably the English Defence League (EDL) and anti-fascists and the police (who sometimes take up a position in the middle). The well-known plan last Sunday was for the EDL to disrupt the annual Quds Day march from Marble Arch to Trafalgar Square in London, concerning the Palestinian situation notably by the Islamic Human Rights Commission. You can read reports on what happened all over the internet. The Metropolitan Police skills in handling demonstrations may not be highly skilled as the murder at and the poor handling of the anti-G20 demonstration this year showed, but fortunately were capable enough of keeping the small groups of EDL away from the demonstration though they were still able to shout abuse at the marchers. There were about 40 anti-fascists who had arrived to interpose themselves, and appear to have been welcomed by the marchers (who themselves included members of the Stop The War (in Iraq) campaign) and the police said they could not guarantee their safety, but fortunately the day passed off without the violent clashes that the media had feared.

An interesting eye-witness report from one one of the anti-fascists can be seen at: The blog is called Lenin's Tomb and seems to be run by an old-fashioned British Communist (or maybe more accurately Bolshevik) but does not get hysterical. The report by Sadie Gray in 'The Independent' gives quite a different impression of what happened: indicating that the Quds March ended up in Pall Mall on police direction with the fascists holding Trafalgar Square. Fortunately the numbers of EDL seem to have been limited.

Obviously there have been fascist movements in the UK bubbling in the background and flaring up as in the 1970s and again in the early 2000s. I am sure that the degree of success of the BNP (British National Party) in the last European Parliament elections and Nick Griffin their leader scheduled to appear on BBC1 political show, 'Question Time' in the next few months, has given heart to fascists. It is a shame that the BNP has not been faced with legal challenges on the basis of its racially restricted membership, as was raised back in 2004. However, as we have single-ethnic professional groups (as the BNP pointed out itself in reference to the Black Lawyers' Association) as well as single-gender ones, I guess that it would have been hard to make such cases stick.

Current developments seem to be alarming politicians. I suppose that this is because the EDL is a new kind of fascist grouping, not seeking the respectability of the BNP and yet far more visible than terrorist (or would-be terrorist) groups like Combat 18 (the 18 comes from the numbers of the letters AH in the alphabet; AH standing for Adolf Hitler). The fact that the Greater London Authority (GLA) diverted the Quds Day march from Trafalgar Square where it has assembled since 1982 indicates to some extent the fear of racial battles. To some degree the GLA under Boris Johnson is a captainless ship and never knows how to cope with real issues as opposed to sentimentalist, headline grabbing initiatives. The GLA's playing with control of the Metropolitan Police and so many of Johnson's aides having to resign must be distracting them from effective approaches to the issues which are arising as the recession persists.

John Denham, Secretary of State for Communities, so in charge of governmental response to racial issues did point to the history of fascist marches in East London through Jewish areas in the 1930s, notably the so-called Battle of Cable Street. I used to live very near Cable Street, though in fact the 'battle' was spread right over a large area of East London from Aldgate underground station, North-East to Victoria Park and then South to the Burdett Road-Mile End Road junction where a tram was turned over and farther South to Cable Street itself, now a quiet street primarily distinguished by the commemorative mural (interestingly there had been race riots in the area as early as Summer 1919). Back in 1996 I took part in an anniversary march through Whitechapel then round to Cable Street. It attracted a wide range of people and I was most privileged to meet three German volunteers who had fought on the side of the Republic in the Spanish Civil War thus risking death both in Spain and if they ever returned to Nazi Germany.

The Battle of Cable Street is a complex event. The battle was not really between Sir Oswald Moseley's British Union of Fascists and anti-Fascists but between each of these two groups and the police. Anti-Fascists secured Victoria Park as the rule was whoever was speaking there first had the right to remain there, so they occupied it from 6 a.m. to keep the Fascists out. The park had long been used for political rallies, especially around dock strikes and is still a venue for liberal-minded events. Police were seized by anti-Fascists and some had hot water poured on them from houses, some were locked in garages and had their helmets confiscated. The police remain as popular in the area today! However, the fact that police persuasion and direction kept the two groups apart actually reduced the danger of a full-scale riot. What could have happened was seen after the war in the Nottingham and Notting Hill race riots of 1958. Of course, the absence of full-scale riots tends to blind us from the day-to-day racially motivated violence that happens against individuals and small groups. We also seem to have very short-term memories about race riots and those of us not living in the particular towns have already forgotten the riots in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham in 2001. The pattern of racial riots is also becoming complicated by fighting between British Asians and newer immigrants from Asia and Eastern Europe. Denham is right to remind us of Britain's troubled history, but there are more recent examples he can point to as well.

Unlike the BNP, the EDL established by football hooligan groups, notably from Luton, is looking for confrontation by carrying out marches and notably contesting Islamic and Islamist demonstrations. Their focus is very much anti-Muslim rather than anti-Black but this may simply reflect the nature of the towns members are drawn from. The BNP has distanced itself from the EDL but unsurprisingly former BNP members are members of the EDL. As the BNP becomes seen as more 'respectable' those young men who want an excuse for a fight will turn to other more active groups. There have been clashes in Luton, Birmingham (on two occasions, leading to 125 arrests) and London, notably in Harrow which has a large South Asian population. At the Harrow Central Mosque 2.000 Islamic youths gathered to defend the location from an EDL march.

It is unsurprising that as in the 1930s, with unemployment high (today reaching 2.47 million, the highest since 1995), there are numerous young men around, brought up in the very macho culture for males (ironically influenced heavily by rap culture from American blacks) and now with little hope of work. They see foreigners as being to blame and easily equate local Asians with recent immigrants. Of course, propagandists from the fascist groups give them that easy lie. In fact people from ethnic minorities can be four times as likely to be unemployed as their white equivalents, but may have more family support. Football hooliganism always appealed to such men, especially in the 1970s before it became an issue of dressing in designer wear to carry out violence as it became in the 1980s, but the desire for violence remains. Give the tacit racism which is so prevalent in the UK, these men can even feel they are doing 'the right thing', something noble that will be respected by their white neighbours. For these men, to some degree unlike the 1930s Fascists, there is not really any political creed just a hatred that has been stoked up. Social networking sites can make members feel they are part of a large and sophisticated organisation which may keep them loyal and active whereas in the past their interest may have wavered.

In addition, the government has played right into the fascists' hands since 2001. By trying to alarm us to the supposed dangers of Islamist terrorism as basis for a war to secure Iraqi oil, they have legitimised racist attitudes towards Asians, whether they are Muslim, Hindu or Sikh or even atheist. When you see the prime minister going on about the threats and you hear about policies to make entrance into Britain harder and teachers and university lecturers are expected to monitor their students for extremist activity you are almost compelling British people to be prejudiced. Naturally this fans the flames of anger and violence in those predicated to being racists anyway. When the government says it is alright to combat Islamists and to a great degree suggests that anyone from an Asian background can be under suspicion, then naturally fascists feel they have no need to curb their behaviour; they have a green light from the government.

Are we going to see a repeat of the 1930s as Denham expects? These things were never as severe in Britain as they were say in France or certainly Germany of the 1930s and the British never seem to adhere to any kind of political extremism for long. Rioting in Britain typically occurs during hot summers and the desultory weather of the past couple of years has probably dampened the kind of violence we might have seen if the promised heatwave had actually appeared this year. What happens next depends on many factors, not simply the weather. If the war in Iraq really begins to wind down, and more importantly people like Gordon Brown and even Tony Blair who has recently been whining on about how terrorism remains the greatest threat, stop seeking to scare the population and using Islamic people as an easy target we may stand a chance of dousing the current fad for anti-Islamism. There will always be extremists in any population, they reckon at any one time 3-4% of the UK population is on the extreme right and the same percentage on the extreme left politically, though that balance seems to have shifted a great deal and the fascist figure is probably climbing well above the revolutionaries' one. Of course, only a fraction of this fraction will be out of the street with the others being sympathisers providing funds and succhor to the real radicals.

Referring back to the 1930s, Denham forgets one key factor, one that was even present in the 1970s and that was popular anti-fascism. I came across an Anti-Nazi League badge from the 1970s in a retro shop the other day. I remember slogans like 'Black and White Unite Against Racism' and that is an important element, it cannot simply be white liberals (if there are any left) to oppose racism, there needs to be an alliance across races and generations. This is what the commemorative Cable Street march showed in 1996 and why we have seen success with campaigns as diverse as opposing power stations, the Iraq War and even in support of fox hunting. Of course, the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) formed in 1977 and still in existence today is an adjunct organisation to the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP) a Trotskyite revolutionary party, but an incredibly visible and active radical party in the 1970s and 1980s not least in being the key supplier of placards for protest marches. SWP have a broader revolution than simply contesting fascism but formed a bedrock for such activity.

Not associated with any political party, it is vital to mention the monthly anti-fascist magazine 'Searchlight' which started in 1975 and has links across Europe to anti-fascist groups and UK trade unions: ACCORD, ANSA, AMICUS-AEEU, AMICUS-MSF, AMO, ASLEF, BFAWU, BECTU, CWU, CYWU, CONNECT, FBU, GMB, GPMU, MU, NAPO, NASUWT, NUM, RMT, NUT, PCS, PFA, T&GW, TSSA, UCU, UNIFI, USDAW and UNISON, helped by their Trade Union Friends of Searchlight (TUFS) campaign which began in 2004 and which has its own periodical. It has support from people like Glenys Kinnock, MEP and the General Secretary of the TUC (Trades Union Congress). For more information see:

From this site I followed a link to Philosophy Football, a company which makes political teeshirts: The ones I find most interesting are those with designs drawn from banners and slogans of the Soviet side of the Eastern Front of the Second World War (which seems rather hypocritical as even though Stalin was fighting Nazis, he was a tyrant and racist). More appopriate appear to be those from the Spanish Civil War, I imagine Clement Attlee (UK prime minister 1945-51) never envisaged he would have his name on a teeshirt in the 21st century via the Banner of the Number 1 Major Attlee Company, British Battalion of the International Brigade. Attlee had been a major and was leader of the non-National Government Labour Party at the time of the Spanish Civil War. Someone said that fascism often wins supporters by its 'glamour' and so I suppose in attracting young people anti-fascists have to at least appear 'cool'. Money from the sale of these teeshirts goes to the International Brigades Memorial Trust.

Since beginning this posting I have been looking at the group, Unite Against Racism (founded in 2004; acronym UAR), possibly sceptically because I feared that they might be a front for another revolutionary party, but given the backing of various unions (who are usually not revolutionary, in fact can be pretty conservative in outlook): Communication Workers’ Union (CWU), National Association of Schoolmasters and Women Teachers (NASUWT), National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), National Union of Teachers (NUT), National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO), Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), University and College Union (UCU) and UNITE (many of whom also back 'Searchlight') and the fact that the email connects to a UCU email address suggests this is really a Guardian-reading kind of group. They even have a list of pop bands who are allied to the movement, more mainstream than those that backed Rock Against Racism (RAR) in the late seventies and early eighties. Some I have never heard of and some you would expect like Madness, Bernard Butler, Jarvis Cocker and Franz Ferdinand; perhaps David Gray and the Kings of Leon are less expected. I have also just noticed that there is also a list of MPs which usually suggests it is not a Trotskyite body!

The point I was going to bring out about the difference from the 1936 or 1977 to today is how little political activity there is today. The people selling 'Socialist Worker' newspaper on Saturdays in shopping precincts or at campuses have long gone. In student elections there are no political parties, just individual independent candidates. Grass roots political parties seem non-existent. The most political activity is focused on environmental concerns such as power stations and airport expansion and conversely opposing wind farms and in support of fox hunting. In some ways environmental concerns, though vital, are apolitical and certainly can straddle across a wide spectrum of people. What I fear is lacking over contesting fascism in the past are the people to get out on the streets and oppose it. I am not saying we should have street battles as in Germany of the early 1930s, what I am saying is that people need to show that fascism is unacceptable in every town and that people opposing it are not just from ethnic or religious minorities but from all sectors of every community. The absence of that kind of resistance means that it is more likely that violence will appear. In addition, the police attitude seems to remain as ambivalent as when ANL member Blair Peach was murdered in 1979. I am not expecting special privileges for the anti-fascists over the fascists, just equitable treatment and to not see every protest as inherently violent and thus needing to be met with pre-emptive violence as was the case at the G20 protest. However, I think that in our apolitical age, when people are referring to Socialism as extinct and thinking about your society and people in it does not even cross the mind of the bulk of the population, the EDL and other extremists will find minimal or no resistance to their marches and if they do it will only be on the basis of self-defence from minorities rather than founded on disgust on the part of broader society.

UAR is not a cool, radical group that young people want to be part of, partly because our society has had politics flushed from it and they simply think about their own comfort. Even students now have to worry about getting to their job to pay their fees rather than protesting against prejudice and injustice. Middle Britain, never happy with anything politicised, thinks it likes it that way, but seems oblivious to the fact that it has drained away the balance that extremism has to face if it is not to spread further and so, in turn, those Middle Britons will find cars in their street smashed, they will find the corner shop burnt out, they will find strict police regulation that they will get caught up in. Thus, to John Denham's statement about a risk of returning to 1936, I would argue that if it went back to what happened in 1936 it is not going to be half as bad as what I fear may happen in 2009 with only 40 protestors against rising numbers of fascists. I am not one for censoring fascists, they can hang themselves by their own statements, but the government is wrong if it thinks that as in 1936 popular resistance and time will make the problem go away.

Researching this posting I noted that Garry Aronsson, a leading member of the BNP lists as one of his hobbies: 'devising slow and terrible ways of paying back the Guardian-reading cunts who have betrayed the British people into poverty and slavery. I AM NOT JOKING.' So I have a lot to look forward to if he ever comes to power! It is funny to think that reading 'The Guardian' is an act of defiance and begs the question: are readers of 'The Independent' exempt? I wonder who Aronsson thinks he is enslaved to that he can make such horrific statements without being arrested or silenced? As to the poverty, well, I think he should knock on the door of many white American mortgage lenders before he looks elsewhere. In the current climate, if he was black he would be four times more likely to be unemployed than he is as a white man. In addition, Aronsson seems to have a low opinion of the British public if he thinks that they could be 'betrayed' by people like me, I certainly wish I had the power. Looking at the history of Britain the country over the past decades has been run by readers of the 'Daily Telegraph' and more recently 'The Universe' rather than 'The Guardian'. Of course they have all done a great deal more for this country than Aronsson could even dream of achieving.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Slavery: Blame, Guilt, Liability and Reparation

I am probably coming to this issues 7-8 years too late, but my interest was piqued as is often the case by an article by Naomi Klein in 'The Guardian' newspaper's magazine last Saturday. The article was about the racial policy of US President Barack Obama. It appears some people feel he has let down blacks in the USA or African-Americans as they tend to be called there now. I think a lot of people both black and white had fantastical expectations of what Obama wanted to achieve and certainly what he could achieve. At the time of the election I discussed the issues with some white Americans who were convinced the moment Obama came to power that the USA would somehow turn into Zimbabwe with blacks in control and the country facing hyper-inflation. It showed the lack of faith they had in democracy in the USA, its political checks and balances and also their ignorance of how established cultural attitudes are in the USA. This persistence of cultural attitudes now seems to be upsetting black Americans who appear to have expected Obama's government to have over turned decades of racism in a few months and suddenly open up vast opportunities for people. I suppose part of the problem is that Americans believe that the USA is a classless society and the 'land of opportunity' whereas in fact it has never been either of those things. I think Obama is moving fast to reform the USA and even if he simply gets his health care programme passed he will have gained an enduring place in history. However, as I have commented on before, there is harsh, hysterical reaction even to Obama's plans and it is clear that he will have to battle hard to get even this one policy into operation let alone achieve any greater changes in the USA.

Klein's article asked 'Has Obama turned his back on black America?', but immediately notes that even trying to introduce a Hispanic judge to the Supreme Court caused reactions that Obama was being racist towards the USA's white population. As I have noted before, this appears strange in itself to Europeans who would never consider white people from Spain and Portugal to be anything different from a white person from France or Germany. To some degree, the racial stratification that the USA so easily falls into betrays its history and a language which for so long used very precise racial categorisations, e.g. terms like mulatto or octoroon to define how many black ancestors a person had (in fact, portrayals of Obama still subscribe to this definition of a person by their blackness rather than any other racial input, because strictly Obama is not a 'black' person, he is mixed race; with one white parent).

Obama is always going to be attacked if any policy is seen as even going close to giving advantages to black people. To some degree this shows how distorted what is seen as acceptable in US politics and society as the previous president, George W. Bush was not hammered for policies that blatantly favoured the wealthy. Commentator Juan Santos argued that Obama would be compelled to remain silent about racial inequality in the USA in the way many blacks in the country are, it is a kind of contract with white society that they will be accepted if they do not stir up the issue. However hard Obama tries everything he does will be seen as Klein notes, 'through the lens of racial obsessions'. Right-wing radio presenter, Rush Limbaugh argued that Obama was wrecking the US economy (and he blamed the President not the global recession) so that blacks could benefit black people through more unemployment benefits and food stamps. How twisted the logic of that viewpoint is incredible. Limbaugh clearly thinks no black American can work for themselves nor have any aspirations to work, despite the number of black run businesses; he sees them as simply wanting state handouts. Such an attitude comes right out of the 1920s not the 2000s. Limbaugh is not a patriot because he disparages a large number of Americans to fit in with his distorted world view. I think this fear was summed up by the album title from rap group Public Enemy: 'Fear of a Black Planet' (1990). It is an irrational fear that denies the humanity of people no matter what their colour. However, such fears are clearly accepted and driving the actions of a whole swathe of Americans, no matter how irrational they are. I pity Obama in such a hostile environment but wish him well for the sake of millions of people.

The other thing which attracted my attention from Klein's article was her reference to the issue of reparations over slavery. Perhaps it is unsurprising that given such irrational, distorted perspectives bandied around as 'fact' in the USA by racists, that many blacks should find solace in harsh, somewhat irrational responses. The demand for reparations for slavery reached a peak in 2001-2 notably in Randall Robinson's book 'The Debt: What America Owes To Blacks' (2000) and at the Durban conference of September 2001 which Klein writes about. Robinson said that 'white society' had to 'own up to slavery and acknowledge its debt to slavery's contemporary victims'. Robinson clearly is ignorant of history. If he wants to help contemporary victims of slavery then he should travel to Middle Eastern states or China or Western Sahara where forms of slavery are still in existence. Of course, Robinson is an American, so assumes that the only things of importance happen to Americans. His use of the word 'slavery' does not refer to the pratice as it has existed in history but to a particular element of that history in the 18th and 19th centuries through which West Africans were brought as slaves to the Americas. In fact, he simply focuses on those who ended up in the territories of what is now the USA, whereas in fact more slaves went to Brazil (35.4% of the total shipped from Africa) and the Caribbean islands (18.4% to British American colonies outside North America; 17.5% to Spanish colonies which did include states that are now part of the USA, but also most of Central and South America) than to the USA (British North America got 6.45%; English-speaking America then got 3.25%; French America which included Caribbean as well as beofre the mid-18th century and briefly in the 19th century some North American regions got 13.6%), but of course being an American none of them are his concern.

Even if we stick with just the slave trade to North America, at the start of the 19th century Britain turned from being a leading slave trade nation to the most vigorous opponent of the trade and yet it was supportive of the Confederate States of America in the American Civil War 1862-5. So, should the British feel less guilt than other states because its government was proactive in ending slavery? Remember too, that to argue that white 'society' is responsible for slavery neglects the fact that Britain was not a full democracy until 1918 and states like Spain and Portugal were similarly not fully democractic until the 20th century. France was a democracy with slavery, but of course the bulk of the population of all of these states had no control over what the elites were doing especially overseas. To blame the bulk of the population of any European state when they had so little say in their states' policies is wrong. None of my family, I know for certain due to genealogical research, ever owned slaves or participated in the slave trade, so why should I 'own up to' the slave trade. Conversely, 29 kingdoms or other states in West Africa in the years of the Atlantic slave trade 1502-1853 collaborated in the export of people. Many Americans are shocked when they find that two days' walk inland from the slave ports are markets where African slaves were traded between Africans before being taken to the coast to be sold to first Arab then European traders. Should elites in West Africa, 'own up to' the involvement of their ancestors in the export of people to the Americas?

The other fact is that 'slavery' was not simply about the Atlantic slave trade. Around 40% of the Russian population before 1861, about 70-80 million people, were enslaved through the serfdom system. This compares to 3.95 million slaves in the USA in 1860 out of a total population of 31.4 million. Slavery was used in the Roman and Greek empires, by Arab states of North Africa and the Middle East, in the Chinese Empire as well as by modern European states. Of course, for modern day Americans, none of this is really that important. What matters for them is a basis for litigation. Yes, slavery was a crime against humanity, but neither the perpetrators nor the victims of the Atlantic slave trade are alive today. Yet, there has to be an emphasis on blame and resposibility even so long after the event as it is felt no debt, even a perceived moral one, can be paid in the USA unless it can be processed through legal procedures and lead to some financial settlement. This is why organisations such as the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America appeared. Whilst tabloid print and broadcast media played on the concept of payments to black individuals (how mixed race people would be addressed was not really analysed) those campaigning for 'reparations' saw group solutions. Yet, all of these approaches are based on the concept of one sector of society feeling guilt towards the treatment of another.

The bulk of people alive today in any country are the descendants of people who were exploited as workers or peasants. Millions of white Americans came from regions like Ireland and Poland where people were oppressed and the bulk of white immigrants into the USA were people fleeing economic exploitation in Russia or Italian or German states or poverty in Sweden; they were never slave owners. Why should these people feel guilt about what the elites did? Yet, for litigation in the USA there must be guilt, blame and hence liability, no matter how this ignores history. Even if you can point to a specific family involved in slavery like the Tate family of sugar producers in the UK, the people alive today are not the ones who owned or traded slaves. To try to compel the majority of white people to accept responsibility for something neither they nor their ancestors were involved with, is as distorted as me trying to sue the current government of Germany because my great-grandfather died early as a result of a poison gas attack he suffered on the Western Front in the First World War, some fifty years closer to us in time than when slavery in the USA was ended.

If we move away from the US fixation with the blame-litigation-compensation procedure, we can look more productively at persistent racism in societies and the inequalities in trade between the developed and developing worlds. Energy could be put into campaigns such as Make Poverty History, Fair Trade, the Jubilee Campaign to cancel Third World debt (which of course encompasses numerous African and non-African states), for scholarships for people for under-privileged households in the USA (and Caribbean states and Brazil) which would encompass the descendants of slaves as well as descendants of simply poor and exploited. To try to apportion blame for slavery in the past in fact distracts from critcism of current US policies and those of other states which lead to exploitation. Zimbabwe was a British colony where people were exploited but that gives no justification for how President Robert Mugabe is treating blacks and whites in that country now. To some degree seeking compensation in the narrow way that Americans consider all things it seems, no matter what their race, lets too many people off the hook for the future. If the abolitionist campaigners of the 19th century were alive today you can guarantee that they would not be bemoaning that slavery existed once, they would rejoice in the fact that it had gone and would move on to the next campaign, in many cases, I expect, they would be with those opposing capitalist exploitation. Of course, for any American to be seen as against capitalism is felt to be unAmerican, but in fact, the slavery that they are most indignant about was driven simply by capitalism's need for cheap labour that has no died, just mutated.

I accept that if an individual can show that their ancestor was exploited at the hands of another ancestor of someone today, there may be basis for compensation, but you cannot compel millions of people who had no hand in the exploitation process to be feel responsible just because a minority of people of the same ethnicity as them were involved. Even if you feel that is justified, then many black people should be compelled to feel equal guilt for supplying the individuals to slavery. If you begin to move down the path of 'racial guilt' as some of those seeking reparation seem to be doing then Mongolia had better look for the claims from those people whose ancestors suffered from the Mongol invasions of the 13th century. How many millions of dollars and how much guilt would the entire population have to pay up and feel to recompense them. By focusing on contorted issues of a kind of 'original sin' that white people cannot wash from them, we dangerously move away from attention of current suffering and real solutions that can rectify the situation. That, of course, plays into the hands of the wealthy of today, who feel offended if anyone considers reining in their current exploitation. We can remember the past and its evils, it is vital that we do so, but redistribution and opening up opportunities needs to address responsibility now not some umbrella blame for past events for which like the vast majority of white people my family had not involvement with and I feel no guilt for. Just as I was a member of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in my own time, you can guarantee that in the 18th century, if I had lived, I would have been campaigning to end slavery. Reparations for slavery are a distraction tactic that pussyfoots around current US policies which are doing little to make things better for millions of people and in fact often treat West Africa little better than two centuries ago.

P.P. 16/09/2009: Interestingly, former US President Jimmy Carter, a supporter of Barack Obama, has said that he feels that opposition to Obama's reforms especially in health care stem from too many Americans not accepting that a (half-) black man can be legitimately in the White House (the so-called 'birthers' still argue that it is illegal given Obama's parentage). Whilst Obama is not going to comment on Carter's statement, I believe Carter is right and that whatever Obama did, for many people it would simply be wrong, not because of the policy itself but just by who carried it out.

The fact that Republican Senator Joe Wilson felt that it was permissible to heckle Obama with 'you lie!' during a televised address to Congress. His comment not only shows how the right feel it is legitimate to attack Obama even when doing so demeans the position of President, but how twisted they have become in their opposition to health reform. I have noted how they somehow liken it to Nazi and Soviet extermination policies and Wilson believes Obama would give free health care to illegal immigrants. Wilson has got caught up so much in the fantasy that Obama is some anti-Christ that he has forgotten all manners and has slighted the very decorum of government I assume he would have rushed to defend under Bush or if McCain had come to office. To some degree the political maturity I thought I detected when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama became the Democrat frontrunners may have been being too generous to US society.

To some degree just being who he is, is one of the greatest changes Obama has brought to the USA. Ironically, the bulk of people who whine about Obama's legitimacy would be suffering more in the current climate if John McCain had won.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Steampunk Resources I Have Spotted

Back in January 2008, I did a posting about online steampunk resources. These have grown rapidly since and whilst some have become a little moribund, the content they carry remains interesting and entertaining for anyone interested or simply curious about the steampunk genre. I read recently Michael Moorcock complaining about the state of the genre when reviewing Jebediah Berry's (the author's name in itself would be a great one for a steampunk character) book 'The Manual of Detection' (2009) See:

Moorcock complains that '[t]hese days, you can barely pick up a speculative fantasy without finding a zeppelin or a steam-robot on the cover. Containing few punks and a good many posh ladies and gents, most of these stories are better described as steam operas.' To some extent Moorcock has been thus writing 'steam operas' for many years notably in his 'Nomad of the Time Streams' series (1971, 1974, 1981). I would argue that they never really had any 'punks' anyway and as I have shown in my discussions on steampunk pirates even in the 19th century, the pirates were amoral rather than immoral.

I suppose if your definition of punk is someone who challenges or rejects the norms of 'polite' society they could be seen as punk, but in style they subscribe to elegant dress and are usually hight mannered. As I have noted before, the challenge for steampunk, is whilst it may shake up the technological world of the 19th century it does little to challenge the nature of society. Perhaps we need a steampunk story in which those who make and maintain the machines overthrow the upper classes. To some extent is that to work in a technological world (and steampunk sees technology as even more pervasive than it was in reality) needs discipline even if you are subsequently reckless with the results. A steam-powered airship will crash into something if its pilot is stoned.

Thus, I think Moorcock is expecting too much to see many punks in steampunk. Perhaps the title was wrong and if some other authors rather than the doyens of cyberpunk, Bruce Sterling and William Gibson had been responsible for re-invigorating the genre as they did with 'The Difference Engine' (1990) we would have had a different suffix. I really respect Moorcock as an author and think he is the one who could really inject some punk into the genre if he so feels it is lacking. There is capacity for it. Just look at Sherlock Holmes, as morally ambivalent, with as much difficulty with authority and as much a drug addict as Sid Vicious; you could debate their relative misogynism.

Anyway, whatever Moorcock may feel, steampunk is alive in so many facets, notably in terms of fiction but also in art including sculpture and in clothing, something no doubt I will see again in the flesh when I head to Whitby at the end of October. That sentence just gave me the idea of a steampunk Whitby with huge whale processing machines and men living on the margins in the smoky industrial town (in reality it is a small place with no factories and with a history in whaling but in the steampunk world it may have grown) in casual labour minding the huge machines churning out whale oil and whale bones for corsets. Anyway, I am off track again. What this posting was to be about was a few online steampunk resources I came across that struck me as interesting. I found the first one because it refers to this blog. I recommend all bloggers searching once in a while for reference to your own blog not for some egotistical reason but to make sure your comments are not being abused especially out of their original context.

The first is a blog called Strange Dreams, run by a Dr. Damon Molinarius. There is a main site which covers everything steampunk, especially at present, transport: w For some reason, unbeknown to the author it has become listed as a blog for marketers who want to matter! I know steampunk fans tend to be well off, but it is interesting that marketers see steampunk as the 'future'! There is a sub-blog of the main one which makes regular references to steampunk media in particular written fiction and movies: This is the one which gave my novella, 'The Skyborne Corsair' a mention. Interestingly Molinarius characterises me as 'a somewhat shy individual' who has 'ventured' into steampunk writing. Okay, I have one steampunk novel, one novella and one short story, but a blog running for more than two years with over 550 postings, I hardly feel is 'shy'. Anyway, it was very nice to get a mention:

From the same posting on his blog I went to see the Aldersgate Cycle of US writer Natania Barron (another genuine name which would be excellent for a steampunk character). See: She not only has produced a series of novels in a steampunk setting (sensibly using Creative Commons; despite having attended lectures on this, I have been too lazy to get involved with it) her blog has interesting discussion especially on facets of different people in stories, such as on the position of women. She is also a member of the Outer Alliance, which aims to have authors use gay, lesbian and trans-sexual characters in a normalised way in stories. She wrote the Aldersgate Triology: 'The Aldersgate', 'Pilgrim of the Sky' and 'Queen of None' in a single year and is now seeking publication for them. They blend fantasy and steampunk, with a character finding a clockwork world. Clockworkpunk, probably 18th rather than 19th century influenced is an interesting area that I would like to work on in time.

Certainly worth reading is Barron's list of 'gripes' about steampunk writing: and the contrasts between US and UK steampunk: She has also got involved in podcasting her work. Ironically I have made numerous podcasts in my job but never even considered it in my writing.

The third resource I came across soon after I completed 'The Skyborne Corsair' is The Smoking Lounge which has been running since January 2008:
In many ways the set-up is like that of Gothic Steam Phantastic which I have mentioned before, though with a US rather than Dutch slant on things. It also covers dieselpunk which I imagine is mid-1950s style technology. There is the usual line in discussion and cultural referencing here. The contributors seem well informed and articulate. Dr. Molinarius is active on here. I probably would be a regular contributor to the The Smoking Lounge if it had not been for the prickly reaction I received when I posted 'The Skyborne Corsair' there. In theory they welcome fiction contributions so I thought a complete novella would go down well. I was very wrong. I was told it should only be submitted a couple of paragraphs at a time to invite comment on. Given that it had 793 paragraphs spread over six chapters, I would still be posting it bit-by-bit now, nine months later. In addition, such a fragmentation of the story would make it difficult for the reader to follow. With such a vigorously petty attitude prevailing, there seemed no point in participating further and I immediately distanced myself from the site. However, others are likely to find it of interest, just make sure if you comment or contribute you tread carefully so as not to provoke the ire of the site moderators.

This is just a sample of a few sites I have come across that you might not have noticed. I am always on the hunt for more, and in particular an active steampunk-focused site where you can contribute and discuss without fear of being patronised.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Visas: Delay, Humiliation, Expense and Economic Suicide

As I was sitting in a taxi yesterday travelling to a job interview, I got the usual diatribe from the driver about how foreigners are coming over to the UK and taking our jobs. Ironically, I always hear this from white taxi drivers who are clearly in work. This one added a new twist to his complaint by going on about how the foreign workers here send all their money home so they bring no benefit to the UK at all. Of course, bigots always jump over the facts to get to the most extreme aspect they can find. For a start the driver forgot that British workers overseas all around the world send money back to the UK and he would be offended if anyone tried to stop that. Secondly, when it comes to foreigners, all bigots somehow think that those people are exempt from all the laws that everyone living in the UK come under. The key one is that the bulk of workers are taxed at source through P.A.Y.E. (Pay As You Earn) taxation so they are contributing to the British economy every time they are paid. Only those working in the grey or black economies do not pay tax and that goes for anyone in that kind of work no matter their nationality. The third thing is that the driver seemed to assume that all migrant workers subsist without food or accommodation. Foreigners pay rent and in fact are often ripped off; they buy food and other consumer items, so in this way contribute to the economy. Of course, these basic facts never penetrate the minds of these bigots.

I suppose facts never got in the way of prejudice, as in the recent headline from the 'Daily Express': 'Immigrant Baby Boom Costs £1bn' with no realisation that the baby boom is actually among British middle class families who now insist on 3 children to fill up their 4 x 4 rather than having 2 children that they would have had 10 years ago. In addition, it forgets, that whilst immigrants do bring families with them, most economic migration is still by single young males. As the return of thousands of Poles to Poland at the start of the recession proved, these are often not people who have come to Britain to settle and raise a family. What we are seeing in terms of rising population is a long period of prosperity and to some extent a fashion. In the past glamorous celebrities would never talk about children or be photographed with them, now the trend is for them to breed or assemble large families and basically what celebrities do, the rest of the population will ape, when they can afford to. Already the recession has slowed the UK's birth rate.

As an aside, I wonder if there will ever be a taxi company that will advertise itself specifically as having non-racist drivers. I would certainly use them as I am getting sick of having to listen to 20 minutes of racist claptrap which stresses me out when I am on my way somewhere important. I would just love to have someone give me some feminist attitudes or some anti-capitalism campaigning when I got in a taxi. (I suddenly have this image of campaigner-comedian Mark Thomas running a taxi firm in which passengers got a blast of liberal ethics every time they travelled!) These days I tire of trying to catch the taxi drivers out by coming out with some line more extreme than theirs; a favourite was that seized heroin should be made available free to old aged pensioners on the National Health Service having the twin benefits of making the elderly happier and keeping down on future care bills. The other one is to revive Jonathan Swift's sharp satirical essay 'A Modest Proposal' (1729) on the consumption of babies to keep down the Irish population. See:

Holiday Visas
As usual I am wandering away from my chosen theme. To some extent this reflects the way my mind works, one thing sparks another and the posting reflects that. I come to visas, and there are lots of facets to these. I cannot tackle all of them so will focus on a couple of factors. Leaving aside work or study, many countries require visas even if you simply wish to go on holiday. The USA's 'War on Terror' has lifted this to a new level effectively forcing other countries to adopt the biometric approach that the US authorities feel is necessary and to some extent spreading US anti-Arab/anti-South Asian bigotry to other countries by default. When the Cold War ended many East European countries realised they could make good money out of enforcing visas that people had to pay for. This had nothing to do with regulating the movement of people, it was simply a national version of local councils' residents' parking schemes, it raised revenue.

France, which in the past was seen as a country sympathetic to peoples of different races, especially non-whites, now has a rigorous approach for visas even just for holidays. To get a visa for a holiday in France you have to go to the special office in South Kensington and are given a time, this is not the time of your appointment, it is the time when they open the doors to the tens of people waiting each day. Typically you will have to wait 7-8 hours to be processed. There are no facilities in the office, so make sure you take a lot of food, water and entertainment especially for children. The place is filled with sobbing, bored children. I suppose the French authorities do this to try to put off people from applying. Any British/EU friends you might have are barred from entering. Once inside applicants are called for interview. They expect children of 5 years old to attend interviews and from a woman I know who went through this process, she had to fight to be able to go into the interview with her 5-year old son who was naturally terrified of being questioned about his holiday plans by strange people in a formal office. I know this approach has long been used by Israeli authorities when families arrive in Israel on holiday, to check for terrorist intentions of the parents, be prepared many innocent people cannot take this level of questioning especially of their children. The attitude is: if you do not like it, do not try to come to our country.

Also be careful in trying to go to France if you are self-employed. You will be seen as unreliable. They assume that people who have work in another country such as the UK, will want to come back to it, but they seem to assume that any self-employed person will happily uproot their business and seek to establish it in France. Anyone who is self-employed needs a letter from their Chamber of Commerce, which in the UK is a club whereas in France is a regulatory body, but the French authorities seem not to understand national differences in this respect. They do not accept letters from a bank and in the case of the woman I know contested whether the branch she used was a genuine one, which would have enraged the manager who signed the letter, I am sure. Often at the South Kensington office, they will forget that they have actually processed you, so the office may close at the end of the day leaving you without your passport and no visa, again you have to fight often to get the documentation you need. It is quite easy to come away from a day there without your passport and no visa, despite paying for it, and having to make another appointment of the same kind. Once you have gone through all of this you get a 6-month visa. If you need another you have to start again. Clearly France is unhappy at receiving tourists from outside the EU and wants to put as many obstacles in the way as possible. These people are not potential immigrants, they are holidaymakers. When applying from the UK rather than an African, Asian or American state, you can assume they have a life in the UK that they are not going to throw over to move to France, though clearly the French authorities think their country is so wonderful that people would give up their legal right to live in another EU state to move there illegally. My suggestion is, if you are a non-EU citizen who wants to go to France, travel instead to Belgium or the Netherlands and simply drive into France as there are no border checks between these countries, you simply pass the border as you drive along the motorway.

Visas for International Students Coming to the UK
The other aspect about visas which has come to my attention is how much a mess the UK has got into over student visas. The 240,000 international students (i.e. students from anywhere outside the EU) form 14% of the university student population of the UK and even in 2004 this brought £4 billion per year (through paying rent; consumption of food, computers, etc. and fees) to the UK economy. The level rose 60% 1999-2004 and by 2020, it is expected that the number of international students in the UK will reach something like 600-700,000. Many universities are heavily dependent on the fees foreigners pay which are usually three times the level a UK student would pay. Income from fees alone amounted to £1.7 billion in 2008, a rise of 58% since 2003. There are 14 universities that have more than 5000 students from outside the EU and given that the average student body of a UK university is 20-24,000 this shows that they are vital to particular institutions. Given that many universities are shedding staff in their hundreds: Exeter got rid of 330 in 2008; Bournemouth 200 between 2007-8; London Metropolitan will be shedding 550-800 with some departments losing 40% of their teaching staff, it is clear that for many universities to survive needs the income international students bring in.

The UK has long been a popular destination for international students but has always faced competition from the USA and Australia. To some extent, the USA reduced its appeal with its harsh policies towards foreigners after September 2001, but eight years on it is recovering its market share. Even Tony Blair recognised the benefit the university 'industry' had to the UK economy. In 1999 and 2006 he extended rights for international students now to stay up to 2 years after completing postgraduate courses (most international students come for Masters courses, not undergraduate ones) and enabled them and their families to work more. He saw that attracting intelligent people to the UK not only had immediate income benefits but longer developmental benefits too.

Contrast that attitude to what is happening now. Reports show that the UK is facing far stiffer competition from across Europe. Portuguese universities have been compelled by their government to teach courses in English; Germany which is aiming to have 7.2 million international students by 2025 charges equivalent to only £55 for student visas compared to £145-325 for a UK visa and the fees are roughly the same as German students will pay rather than three times as more; French universities charge less for foreign students than domestic ones; courses are being taught in English in institutions as far apart as Belgium and Finland. So, in this competitive marketplace, the Border Agency introduces far more stringent entry requirements for students. Each university now has to sponsor each international student who wants to study with them leading to increased bureaucracy; they are also responsible for getting the Border Agency in to expel failed foreign students. There is the cost of the new visa, but the biggest problem is that even students who have got through all the hurdles are not getting their visas. Students from Sri Lanka have to travel to India to get a visa to the UK, those from Malaysia to the Philippines, where the embassy has admitted they are overloaded. Apparently the backlog is 20%, which by my calculation works out as at least £340 million lost to UK universities in fees this year. In addition, there will be lost custom in subsequent years as students opt for cheaper, more efficient rivals to the UK.

Of course, people will say all of this was necessary because people were coming and attending bogus language schools and in fact then working illegally in the UK. The purge of such bogus institutions has been very thorough and has closed down 124 across the UK. However, in the wave of anti-immigrant hysteria the UK is currently experiencing that was not seen as enough and students were caught up in the procedures really designed to limit the number of builders and waiters coming to the UK from outside the EU. As is typical of UK and US policy, legislation is rushed and then regretted at leisure. People might argue: 'well it is fine, university semesters do not begin until October', not realising that most international university students are compelled to attend pre-sessional courses over the Summer to prepare them to study. Those courses have been running, sometimes already for weeks, with many students missing. Ironically, many potential UK students have been turned away this year because of capping on recruitment. Even if these people were let in you would need three of them to replace every single international student, in terms of fees.

Just at the time when universities are struggling the anti-immigrant hysteria has meant they are being kicked while they are down. This will damage what has effectively become a distinct sector of the British service sector. The Border Agency could not have timed their new approach worse. In addition, as is typical in the UK, they totally under-estimated how involved the process was going to be and how many staff and resources it would use up. They knew how many international students came to the UK in an average year but did not bother to put a machinery in place that could cope with it. It seems that British policy is tearing itself in two directions: to promote international students coming and yet make is far harder than ever to do so. International students are keeping many UK universities afloat especially in the recession and I am sure this blunder will mean some closing or certainly contracting severely. Effectively we are handing this billion pound business to Germany, the Netherlands, USA, Australia, etc. on a plate. With such a fiasco at such a competitive time, the UK may never recapture its market share and thus the UK economy as a whole will suffer. I was told that Portsmouth reckons that simply visits by the parents of international students to the city brings it £26 million each year. I did not hear the figure for how much the students themselves will bring. Portsmouth will lose £5.2 million in missed parental visits this year and probably many millions more in international students who are not there.

I think the lesson of these two examples is, fine have visas, but make sure the operation of them is fit for purpose, otherwise you will be damaging your country's business and will give the income such visitors would have provided for you, right into the hands of your rivals. That is a bad move at any time but is a woeful approach in time of recession.

P.P. 09/10/2009: Interesting to read from the BBC that 5000 students from Pakistan have yet to receive their visas to take up their places at British universities and a further 9000 are awaiting the outcome of appeals against the refusal, not by universities, but by the Border Agency, to give them a visa to study in the UK. The government has said the delays are not the fault of moving the visa office for Pakistanis from Islamabad in Pakistan to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (2087 Km; 1297 miles from Islamabad; almost equivalent to having a visa office moved from London to Kiev (a distance of 2131 Km; 1323 miles). The time to process visas has been 60 days, four times the 15-day target and has not been helped by computer failure. Improvements mean that the target should be reached next month, but this is too late for students, who as foreigners, were expected to start vacation classes back in September to begin proper study this month. See:

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Dork Supreme: Dappy of N-Dubz - What is He Thinking?!

One of the advantages of being unemployed is whilst I am totally uninspired to write anything or even think very much, I have far more time to keep in touch with popular culture. Now that the 7-year old in my house has returned to work I can sit down over my lunch break (even though I am out of work, I try to keep to a routine that resembles being in a job) and watch television. Despite having something like 50 channels to choose from, the lunchtime programming seems to be packed with people bemoaning the eating disorder they are suffering or shouting at people in a studio when DNA results reveal who was the father of a particular child. These are probably important things in people's lives but I find I can only watch very little of this kind of programming before getting stressed and/or depressed myself. The alternatives are shopping channels advertising stuff I would not buy if I even had any money and the news, which I usually know off by heart by the time it gets to the middle of the day, having had the very few stories on the list thrust at me from the moment I have woken up on radio and the internet (it is always fascinating when you travel around continental Europe to see how much more news they get on television than we do in the UK. I have counted it up and we seem to have 4-5 stories at national level and 3 at local level, whereas they are likely to get 12-13 stories and probably 6 at local level and often have a regional level of programming between that). So, what am I left with? Music video channels.

The consequence of this is that now rather than simply hearing tunes on the radio I get to see the videos as well. A lot seem to be soft porn like in nature or in the case of the Number 3 'hit' by DJ Ironik featuring Chipmunk and Elton John, 'Tiny Dancer (Hold Me Closer)' out-and-out erotica with lesbians in black-and-white collared and leashed. The one that has made me laugh most though, is the video by Tinchy Strider featuring N-Dubz, 'Number 1' which reached that position in the UK charts. It is at Number 40 having been in the charts for 20 weeks, but Strider (born 1987; graduated this year with a BA in Moving Image & Animation) has followed up with another Number 1, 'Never Leave Me' a rather mawkish hit featuring Amelle Berrabah, so is clearly hitting the mark with his records. 'Number 1' is successful as a pop hit, very catchy, with energy whilst being romantic at the same time 'from my homey to my only' is going to appeal to teenagers of both sexes.

The thing that makes me laugh is the contribution of N-Dubz member, Dappy, the stage name of Dino Contostavlos (born 1987; son of the late Byron Contostavlos, member of 1970s one-hit wonders, Mungo Jerry). In fact he looks like a young version of comic actor, Dr. David Schneider (train guard in 'Mission Impossible' (1996), star in slapstick series 'Uncle Max' (2006) as well as numerous comedy series with Armando Iannucci and Steve Coogan; he is a black belt in judo). Schneider's larger-than-life facial features are suited to the comedic roles he plays but are less suited to Dappy's supposedly cool rapper image in the video. Added to this, the ridiculous hats he wears which may be a trade mark, but just make his rather pale, comic features look even more foolish.

I accept that image is not everything and N-Dubz have won a MOBO (Music Of Black Origin) and a Silver Clef award, but you think with the money that was presumably spent on the 'Number 1' video, Dappy could have gone in for a bit of restyling. As well as the ridiculous flappy-eared hats (that I have heard his mother say she bought for him and wears himself), in the video he wears a 1970s red-with-white-piping track suit for much of the video and walks around as if he was mimicking men walking on the Moon, looking pretty uncomfortable and utterly lacking in rhythm or style. I feel sorry for the man, but he has the last laugh, even if he achieves nothing else in his life, he has topped the British charts, something I will never do or even come close to. I just wish he could get an a gram of style or cool in him. some ways, Dappy reminds me of Rick Astley, a British pop singer who had some hits in the 1980s mainly on his rich voice, but when performing really lacked the style and grace, I suppose you could call it, that marks out strong performers especially if you are recording music that falls into the MOBO arena.

Reflecting on this, though, it almost seemed that in Dappy, as if the nerdy guy from your school class had come good. The trouble with terms like 'nerd' and 'geek' is that they suggest that there is some intelligence behind the uncool exterior and with Dappy I do not feel that is the case which is why I settled for 'dork'. All horrible Americanisms, but I could not find a UK version that fitted. Thus, Dappy embodies all those young men who stand in front of the mirror and think they will be a pop/rap/rock star and attract all the ladies, yet, of course, due to popular demand (topping Channel U - satellite, urban music channel - for long periods) he has actually got that kind of break, even appearing in a Channel 4 series 'Dubplate Drama'. Unfortunately it probably means that many more young men looking like Dappy and with his lack of style but without his talent, will think they can reach Number 1 and will be exploited/disappointed. I am not saying Dappy should not succeed, I am just saying he should try to look more like a star than some guy hanging around at the bus stop.

P.P. 05/11/2009: I suppose not all 22-year old men get to perform in an award-winning group, but somehow Dappy seems to have achieved this whilst having a cool by-pass.  He still resembles teenage boys hanging out in shopping centres looking moody and thinking they are the coolest people on the planet without realising that in fact they are dorky and seem rather silly.  Dappy does not seem to have caught on to the fact that just asserting that you are the trendiest thing on the planet does not make that true and he needs to pay attention to how he presents himself.  Presently he comes across as a weird hybrid between wigger, Ali G. played by Sascha Baron Cohen (as in the movie 'Ali G Indahouse' (2002)) and Kevin, the teenage DJ played by Harry Enfield (as in the movie 'Kevin and Perry Go Large' (2000)).  My dismay at Dappy was only reinforced by reading an interview with him in 'The Guardian' of 24th October.  I include some extracts from the interview to emphasise my points (capital letters indicate shouting):

Interviewer: Hello Dappy! If your new album was a person, who would it be?
Dappy: Ah! RAMBO! Because it's adventurous and it's exciting and it's everywhere and it's RRAOOW! [raw] It's a big adventure and you can sing along to every tune. That's my point.

Of course, Rambo is a fictional character, played by Sylvester Stallone, featured in three movies, beloved of teenage boys, for reference see 'Son of Rambow' (2007).

I: You v. Blazin's Squad. Who'd win?
D: Us v Blazin' Squad? WHAT? Are you mad? We'd muller them! We'll trample all over them in any way there is! You mean musically?
I: No. In a fistfight.
D: A FISTFIGHT? What? Woo? WHAT? Us lot against them lot? Really? That's what the Guardian is asking me? We'll bury them.  WE'LL BURY THEM. We'll make them look small.  We're animals, we're animals.  We're from the hood innit.  From the H-O-O-D. We're respectable people, we're humble.  But we'll BURY THEM.

In this aspect Dappy is being very bullish like many young men.  Like many wiggers (white youth aspiring to be black) he pretends that he comes from a much tougher background than he actually does.  This is actually often the case when you see interviews with black American rappers.  Many of them taken back to their childhood districts say 'oh, it was much worse when I was a kid' when the pictures show they came from a working class, but far from rundown district.  I recognise credibility in rap music comes from showing how far you have come and how tough you are, but Dappy is unable to pull this off in the way that a 140 Kg American rapper might.  His attempts continue with:

I: In your song you say that you've got love for the slums.  Why?  Aren't slums a bit rubbish?
D: We class slums as like SLUMS, the GHE-TTO, the bad bit of town that people don't like to walk down.  They made me who I am today.  They made me clean up and humble.

Dappy was being interviewed in Haselmere, an expensive bit of Surrey that even on £35,000 per year I cannot afford to live in.  He was brought up in an equally rich area in London, St. John's Wood.  Having lived in Mile End and Poplar, I know his perception of the 'ghetto' though correctly characterising it as a place where people get trapped, is far from the reality of urban living.  Dappy's very juvenile approach appears in other answers, making him sound 13 rather than 22:

I: What does the N in N-Dubz stand for?
D: North.  North-West W, then we cut it down to N-Dubz [the 'dubz' bit from 'double-ewe' i.e. 'w'].  You get it? You get it! YAY! That's really amazing! Now you understand what it means.  You were in the dark before.

Fascinatingly, Dappy's explanation makes it less interesting than before.  People assumed 'Dubz' had some relation to dub music or dubbing and that whole culture and that the N was some classification of that, now we find it simply comes from the postcode of where they lived.  Of course, they are not the first group to use their address in their name; East 17 the 1990s boy band took their name from the E17 postcode of Walthamstow where they lived.  It is astounding how much the Post Office has contributed to popular music in Britain!

I: Lastly, what's the secret to being cool, Dappy?
D: Come and meet us and, trust me, a couple of hours later you'll leave and you'll be straight up gully man, you get me? Spend an hour with N-Dubz and you'll go back thinking crazy stuff, how about that? Not BAD crazy stuff. You're gonna enjoy it. Simple as.

I suppose you have to admire the young man's self-confidence but he seems to have his head so far up his own backside that he thinks he is a) cool, b) God's gift to the population, so sleek and sophisticated that his presence bestows cool on anyone in his presence.  Such self-obssession and arrogance may be a pre-requisite for being a rapper but it is likely to come before a very sharp fall to the ground.  Do not take this man as a role model!  My advice to him would be: get a life!

P.P. 22/01/2010: This man reaches knew heights of moronic behaviour.  He had been part of a government anti-bullying campaign in November 2009.  However, he showed his true, nasty side this month when he texted a 22-year old woman, Chloe Moody following a text she had sent to the Radio 1 Chris Moyles show on which Dappy had appeared.  She had called him 'a little boy in a silly hat'.  His response was to get her number and text back 'Your [i.e. you're, spelling is not a strength for Dappy] gonna die'.  Not content with this he continued texting: 'U sent a very bad msg towards N Dubz on The Chris Moyels show yesterday Morning and for that reason u will never be left alone!!'  Then he called her a 'fucking chicken', and 'U dum fucking dickhead u can call me names over the radio but when I call u direct u chicken out u punk! nana fucking niiiii, Dappy.'  This shows both his juvenile attitude and even setting aside the nature of textspeak, it shows a lack of imagination.  Most alarming is his assumption is that in response to a mild criticism he could make a series of insulting remarks especially a threat of stalking and death.

Interestingly, his behaviour shows up the basis of the problems that the UK is facing with bullying.  There is an assumption that the natural response to even mild criticism should be threats of violence.  Naturally the campaign BeatBullying has dropped him and has broken of all contact.  It is clear that he had not taken on board any of its messages and clearly had simply attended the events in its name because a publicist thought it would be good for his profile.  We are not going to truly tackle the UK's casually violent culture if influential young men think it is alright to threaten to take people's lives.  Perhaps BeatBullying should take Dappy in for analysis to see what makes him behave in that way.  I cannot really see him remaining famous (as opposed to notorious) for long if he keeps shooting himself in the foot behaving in the way that the campaign he has supposedly subscribed to, seeks to stop.

Cracking the Whip of Unemployment

Well, as I had feared, just as has been the case, unemployment has completely sapped my inspiration. Despite having more time to blog, the spirit has gone out of me. Unemployment is terribly insidious it saps the will to do anything much. I suppose this is because most of us are people of routine. When you are unemployed, you can make yourself a routine: I rise at the same time each day (7.30am) and look for jobs in set locations on set days of the week, but I know it is false and it is only because I am compelling myself to do it that I do not let the apathy of unemployment completely swallow me. Of course, I have only been unemployed for two months, so it might be tougher in the future to overcome this. I have heard that women find it easier to cope with unemployment than men do, because their lives change much more than men's; every month their period throws them off track to a greater or lesser extent and they learn how to overcome feeling tense or tired or washed out and yet continue with the daily chores much better than men do. Perhaps this is why men are becoming obsolete in modern society, but that is a topic that I have already tackled.

One thing which is not the case is that I have not lost the desire to work. To some extent the more unemployment saps me the more I want to escape the effect it is having on me and I know that will only come from having a job. Consequently, when I do have a focus, i.e. a particular job to apply for I put lots of work into it. I have an interview tomorrow and I have spent a day reading all I can about the company and the people who are going to interview me, so that even if they are not well prepared for the interview and like many interviewers even uncertain about what they actually want, I can hopefully demonstrate that I am the person they need to employ. Of course the job is temporary, not permanent and pays £9000 per year less than I earned in my last job, but that is what happens when unemployment rises. It provides an excellent opportunity for employers, especially in the UK, to force down salaries (though prices are not falling as fast, of course) and to reduce job security.

British employers always feel their workers are lazy and over-paid. It may have been proven that when compared to workers in eastern Europe, British workers do not work the longest hours, but certainly when compared to neighbouring states such as France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, post-industrial, western European economies which we should be on a par with, UK workers do work long hours. In terms of pay, well, we have the added burden that the price of housing, food and petrol exceeds the costs in neighbouring states and we receive only 12 salary payments per year compared to the 14 they get in Belgium and the 13 workers even get in South Africa. Despite this, the xenophobia and lack of language skills of the British, means most of us are ignorant of these facts so sit back while employers tell us we are lazy and greedy and should be grateful that they deign to give us any work while they take salaries and bonuses equivalent to the combined pay of large sections of their employees.

Last year, I wrote about how many employers felt that with the prosperity of the UK since the 1990s, they had lost the 'whip' of unemployment to frighten workers into being compliant and accepting poor pay and conditions without complaint. Ironically, even immigrant workers especially from elsewhere in Europe were unwilling to take what employers felt was 'fair'. People complain about migrant workers but forget they would not come if employers did not seek to bring them into the UK as a cheaper alternative to training British workers and skilling them. You notice that there is a sector of society which despite being right-wing, is pretty quiet on the immigration issue and these are employers who want the cheapest labour they can get. Now that Poles and other migrants are returning to their own countries now that the UK economy is in downturn, their only option is to pressurise British workers to take lower wages.

Radio news broadcasts today have reported that 'the economy is picking up' and that there are more jobs available. UK unemployment remains at 2.4 million, the highest level since 1996 and conflicting reports say it will worsen. Peaks in unemployment tend to lag behind the economic crises. The economy in the UK nosedived in 1981 but unemployment did not touch 4 million until 1983 (of course real levels were concealed by the Thatcher government's distorted methods of reporting the figures). Unemployment did not start falling until about 1987 and still remained around 2.2 million in the supposed boom of 1989. There was another peak in the recession of 1990-3 getting back to 3.5 million briefly before a steady decline through the remainer of the 1990s and into the 200s, returning below 1.5 million around 2004 for the first time since 1980; 24 years earlier.

Such broad figures conceal the fact that often the people in work were in part-time or temporary jobs rather than permanent ones and at lower salaries than they had been previously. Of course, such factors dent consumer confidence and slow down the economy so holding up recovery in other elements of the economic system outside employment. Ironically, I have not seen any figures on how many jobs the introduction of the minimum wage created. Right-wingers whined that it would wreck the economy, whereas in fact by increasing consumption it helped stimulate service-sector orientated Britain in the late 1990s and most of the 2000s.

To me it seems that employers do not feel that the recent recession has stung hard enough yet. I think most would love to get to a situation where they could say 'we could employ so many more people if there was no minimum wage in the way, it needs to be suspended or scrapped'. Though this is not in David Cameron's list of policies (assuming he actually has one; it is not visible) but I could imagine him being sympathetic to such arguments if he comes to power in 2010. British employers always think they pay too much tax even when it is at historic lows, far below what they paid in 1981. They always feel salaries are too high, even though if they fall further consumption in Britain will continue to be suppressed. I know of no country where business is so indignant about what it sees as its rights and the fabricated 'uppity' nature of its workers that it would cut its own throat in terms of sales to get back at employees. Greed in Britain blinds employers to the fact they are part of a complex economic machine and if they keep banging one part of the machine the rest of it will not work that well. Just look at the German government's policy of paying businesses to keep people in work compared to the slash-and-burn attitude with jobs in the UK.

Anyway, this brings me to my main point about today's 'news' about recovery. If everyone believes that there are more jobs available, then employers can whine 'anyway unemployed is not trying hard enough to find work; they are demanding too much in terms of salary/security'. This happens through individual behaviour already. I am applying for jobs that last only 2 years (so far I am ignoring maternity cover jobs as I know it will cost me more to move to the area than I could make back in 9 months) and at salaries two-thirds of my previous level. Thus, even if I get work, I am still going to be going on no holidays, not buying any clothes or DVDs or a new car. My contribution to the economic recovery is going to be minimal, it is just that I will not lose my house. I know we consume too much, but until you can work part-time locally and travel on wonderful public transport to reach your job and still afford to pay rent on even a small house, then I need to push for better terms. The bulk of us will never be self-sufficient and live in a yurt, so we have to make living in 3-bedroomed terraced houses with a 10-year old car out front at least feasible on an income which is 50% above the national average salary. Heaven forbid that some of us might want to take time to train as a teacher or a social worker! No way of doing that without becoming homeless. Saying this, as someone pointed out after training as a social worker (which the UK is desperately short of) you can earn £28, 000 (€31,640: US$46,200) per year and get attacked in the media at every turn whereas if you train as a manager of the discount supermarket Lidl you can earn £45,000 (€50,850; US$74,260) per year and get hassle only from the occasional irate customer not newspapers selling millions of copies.

We will all jump at the poorly paid, insecure jobs because the bulk of us want to work and any work is better than unemployment. However, again we will have allowed employers in their delusions about their own personal greatness and our supposed greed, to knock us back into living a life that is nerve-wracking and does not permit us to plan or save or experience life. The whip of unemployment is being cracked by this latest claim that there are jobs and the only people not taking them are the lazy or the too-demanding. It is a lie. Unemployment is high and rising and forcing people into temporary, low paid jobs is going to continue that situation for far longer than would be the case.