Week 7: Youngstars youngsters

Lizzie

Week 7 saw the arrival of Benny’s replacement to our small team – ICS alum Lizzie from Mokhotlong, as well as the festivities of International Youth Day.

As our timetable has become less fluid, so we’ve got into routine. Visits to the ECCD and local schools come thick and fast Monday to Friday, but we’ve been able to find time to work on our vegetable garden projects with the support group at Lebohang and home for OVCs at Mathouleng.

On the agenda this week was ‘stigma and discrimination’, with the focus of the sessions upon highlighting the different types of discrimination (e.g. that based on race, gender, sexual orientation, disability or HIV status) and its forms. Our message? That discrimination is founded only upon our own ignorance. Prejudicial thinking is only our projecting our own insecurities onto others.

This theme of empowerment was especially pertinent given the coinciding of International Youth Day. Saturday’s United Nations Youth Volunteers festival at a local school – themed throwback to the 1980s included – was a great opportunity to mingle with fellow volunteers from across the district, from a range of different organisations.

Eventful from start to finish, the dustbowl setting amidst a sandstorm was pretty inhospitable. Setting up of the tent was precarious at times, but ultimately achieved (however perilously insecure the structure may have seemed). But with a tent full of enthusiastic youngsters, including a charming theatre group, and hotdogs and squash for all, it was a charming afternoon.

Sunday was spent in the scenic heritage town of Morija, half way between Maseru and Mafeteng. The site of the first French missionary Church and with dinosaur footprints (we didn’t all attempt the ascent…) it really is a hidden gem.

                                                                                                                                                               Chillin’

un volunteer meeting saturday

clinic

“The last week has changed my life through clarifying what I already knew: I’m a Labour supporter and every young person should be too.”

I’ve always been a sucker for the underdog; maybe that’s why I joined the Labour Party at 17. Underperforming in the polls and with a leadership that was the running joke of the red tops, there nonetheless remained a morsel of moral reassurance- I was on the right side. I was fighting the noble fight.

The resurgence of “hell yeah” Ed has therefore been problematic on a number of fronts: the Tories much feted surge ahead hasn’t materialised, whilst the right wing press’ ‘Labour pantomime’ gag is getting a bit hollow. At the end of the day, he’s just not that weird. My moral authority of inferiority has been fatally undermined.

Sentimentality aside…. part of the reason behind the Labour Party’s renaissance has been its championing a vision of sustainable, credible change. For young people – further to the cutting of university fees to £6000, the Party has presented a number of admirable priorities, such as guaranteeing an apprenticeship to every school leaver if they get the grades and reinstating the requirement that school teachers be qualified to be in the classroom.

Neither of these examples of Labour policy are particularly ideologically charged. I would even go as far as to say, that for a party in opposition the Labour Party hasn’t done enough to win the votes of young people. That 6 of the 8 policies listed on the ‘Young People’ section of the website’s manifesto are copy and paste jobs from the ‘Education’ sector, isn’t good enough.

In the face of this, the Liberal Democrat’s announcing of a £1500 “help to rent” scheme for the ‘clipped wing generation’ seemed suspiciously innovative, progressive even. The subsequent Tory announcement of a plan to abolish inheritance tax on all properties under £1 million may have been read by some filicidal youths as one last means to scramble onto the property ladder. ‘Right to buy’ on housing association homes- the icing on the cake?

Yet beneath thin façade of benevolence there may be exposed the brazen ignorance or even malevolence of a political elite detached. The Liberal Democrats pledging of scarce little in financial terms is not a solution to the housing crisis, whilst its offering credit for rent will do more to line the pockets of already prosperous private sector landlords, than any youngsters credit rating.

Equally, the Conservative Party’s enabling housing association tenants to buy their own homes on the (relative) cheap is a nice idea –Leftist ideologues aside, who doesn’t want to own the roof over their heads? Yet the current, growing, hundreds of thousands of families long waiting lists for social housing expose the utter stupidity of the idea, all the worse for the stark lack of affordable housing in the pipeline.

But surely it’s the Conservative Party’s planning to abolish inheritance tax, completely, on any properties up to a million pounds, that truly stinks For right or wrong, inheritance tax collection is the kind of cash cow, which in a context of urgent deficit reduction, the Treasury can ill afford to do away with. Instead, perhaps a starting point would be to actually start building some homes to address the chronic national shortage? Even better, stop making uncosted spending commitments and actually get down the national debt my generation, through no fault of their own, stand to inherit.

Yet I’ll reserve my incredulity for the Green Party. The Establishment’s lack of vision is unfortunately predictable, but the Green Party’s blind incompetence having billed itself as a bold alternative voice is depressing. Their gizmos and gimmicks are financial fiction precisely because they know they can get away with it: they’ll never see office and so they can promise the undeliverable. Now that’s a more familiar, cynical politics, isn’t it?

I may no longer be backing the underdog but that’s alright. I’m backing the Party with (some sort of) vision for tomorrow. ‘I’m standing up for the many, not the few’. Come May 7th will you do too?

The Politics of Aspiration

Miliband,_Ed_(2007)

‘The Labour Party has a bad relationship with aspiration’. Progressive taxing ‘stunts ambition’, benefits ‘incentivise fecklessness’ and the NHS is only ‘haemorrhaging our taxes’.

Labour stands indicted of punishing success, rewarding failure and committing the cardinal sin of incompetence by the Exchequer. Feeding the feckless from the paypacket of the hardworking. The clichés flow forth.

To those who dare to check the tide? The not a little patronising charge of being ‘well-intentioned but misguided’. It can be a lonely road trying to preach Miliband’s mantra, cyberspace suicide to get caught tweeting ‘#forthemany’.

So why do Labour get such short shrift, whilst a Conservative Party, whose front bench form very caricature of privilege, gets away with their narrative of being the way toward ‘securing a better future’? A real term fall in wages under the coalition government coupled with record levels of economic inequality betray a Conservative Party fundamentally failing its core vote. The path to socio-economic advancement has rarely been so precarious.

On the back of five years of failure, why then the Tory campaign promise: ‘together, we’ll secure a better future for you, your family and everyone in Britain’? An attractive soundbite, yet isn’t the implication of universal prosperity (‘everyone’), regardless of whether people work for it, tantamount to Labour’s propping up the unemployed, supposedly so contentious?

Hopefully we’ll never find out what they really mean. The catalogue of Con-Dem calamities give hope that come what May, the Conservatives will be out on their ear. Political point scoring on tuition fees, the NHS and public sector cuts are, quite rightly, well versed and may get some swing votes.

But perhaps the Achilles heel of the Conservative Party this General Election campaign will be the popular realisation that it no longer represents the interest groups whose vote it takes for granted.

Take small businesses and entrepreneurialism, yesterday’s political priority. The Conservatives have become grubby sell outs to the corporate world, hoping to pull in a £26 million election campaign pot from the unofficial lobby group that is the Square Mile elite. Failing to close a £100 million a year hedgefund tax loophole whilst leaving small business high and dry? It’s just not cricket.

The ‘death of the high street’ isn’t myth, but the prohibitively high business rates which small business face are a fantasy. The Party once headed by the greengrocer’s daughter may boast of record numbers of tech start-ups, but the proportion of small businesses actually employing people is at a record low. Chuka Umunna whilst in opposition has done more for the profile of small businesses than any Tory.

Typical of thinly veiled Tory impotence on the issue may be the gimmick enlisting of Mary Portas to lead a crusading ‘independent review into the state of our high streets and town centres’. Her ensuing project with just £1.9 million of Whitehall backing was unsurprisingly dismal failure, cue Daily Mail proclaiming ‘Mary, Queen of (fewer) Shops’.

Entrepreneurial spirit then sapped, what of populist home ownership? Cornerstone of Thatcherite policy it too has remained unresolved as the 31st January City Hall mass protest showed. Chronic London housing shortages and an inflated house price bubble threaten to leave a generation of young adults dependent on their parents for a roof over their heads. Whatever happened to helping hardworking families secure a better start for their children?  The swelling number of 95% mortgages awarded as stop-gap in in an overheating market threatens to explode.

Less abstract for the typical student is the issue of education. Definitive to where we are and how we got here, education is elemental to ‘social mobility’. So let’s not forget the 1997 Labour pledge of ‘education, education, education’ that arrested over a decade of Tory underinvestment in our schools. The contribution of the five years of our current Tory-led coalition? The pushing through of legislation allowing unqualified ‘teachers’ into the classroom and an expensive social experiment of ‘free schools’ and ‘academies’, which have allowed inevitably privileged and affluent local interest groups of ‘yummy mummies’ to open up prep schools on the cheap. Michael Gove may have got the headlines, but it was thirteen years of Labour government that made a legacy.

Let’s bring some revisionism to the debate on aspiration. Parties and people change. The Conservative Party’s claimed monopoly over the professed ‘aspiration classes’ is wafer thin. New Labour did more for social mobility than David Cameron’s Party ever will, and judging by their powerful City lobby within, ever can. The small man with big dreams would do well to remember this at the ballot box.

The Problem with the Growth of Gambling

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Perhaps it’s the (usually supressed) moralising Christian within me; maybe a self-confessed thrifty instinct. Whatever it is the result is the same – unequivocal scorn for the gambling industry, in all its guises. Not least its callous class targeting those least equipped to pay for the consequences of taking their ‘fun’ too far.

As a newly ‘adult’ young male I should form part of the demographic fodder of the industry. Indiscriminately preying upon the whimsical fantasy of young eternal optimists, the bevy of ‘flutter’ pushing bookmakers has, amidst World Cup festivities, reached epic proportions.

In a new tech-savvy App-driven culture, the ‘online gaming experience’ is more readily available than ever; as of 19th June 2014 7 of the top 100 free Apps were high street bookmakers on digital platforms.  Potent new facilitators of instant betting, it reflects a broader shift online, with all its enticements of real time betting, constantly adjusting odds and of course instant transfer of money out of the users account. A new smartphone equipped 18-30 demographic lie prey to a virtual reality that sees at the innocuous tap of a button or swipe of a finger, the ready dispatching of a day’s wage.

Central to the ‘normalising’ such behaviours is the media’s aggressive campaign of marketing. During the recent World Cup, the ITV ad breaks were punctuated by the relaying the latest odds at frenzied speed. We’re long since acquainted to the Cockney ‘charm’ of Ray Winstone informing us the latest ‘in play odds’ across an array of markets; the adverts of said bookmakers competitors similarly dubious, not least in implicit appeal to a certain social grouping.

The infiltration of the betting industry into conventionally ‘working class’ football is stark, typified in the emblazoning of a recent tabloid World Cup score chart with promotional enticements for yet another gambling brand. Perhaps most infuriatingly, said wall chart is likely to adorn the walls of many a young eager football fan’s bedroom wall. Gambling companies adverts frequent interruptions before, during and after the football matches threaten to fatefully synonymise football with gambling. Perhaps the poster’s small writing: ‘We take your fun seriously. 18+ Bet responsibly’ tacitly alludes to the age indiscriminate ploy that threatens to taint the Beautiful Game for all spectators.

The gambling industry, in seeking to build upon successive year’s revenue growth of 7% against an otherwise subdued backdrop of other sectors stagnation, has unashamedly targeted the relatively deprived areas of the UK. In the face of Recession era business closures, local authorities across the North, as well as the more disadvantaged London inner boroughs, have all too readily licensed the big bookmakers to fill the void.

Mass openings have set a recent record of 9128 betting shops across the UK, yet crucially these are spatially concentrated in the most deprived corners of the country – Tower Hamlets alone has 81 licensed betting shops for a population of little over 250 000, working out at one shop per 3000 or so residents. The comparative figure for leafy, affluent Richmond upon Thames?  One betting shop per 7200 residents.  However crude a barometer, particularly in the new technological age, it nonetheless surely shows the broader focusing of betting companies upon poorer socio-economic groupings.

 Gambling sector boom is a loss for us all. The fact that it brings in £700 million a year to the Treasury surely reasons the cross Party impotence on clamping down on excessive gambling promotion. However, the consequences of threatened addiction; even in cold monetary terms, are much greater than the perils of taking action. The case for central governmental paternalism has never been so strong and the necessity for local government to dissuade the invasion of the thinly veiled money drains never so urgent as it is now.

The concept of gambling is of course nothing new – the appeal of earning ‘something for nothing’ has intoxicated countless cultures and civilisations, whilst the regulated gambling market globally is currently worth some $355 billion a year. Yet surely it’s the profound growth of the UK domestic betting market, as of yet uninhibited by Westminster that causes alarm.

 The combined growth of store quantity, online traffic and total revenues of the big gambling firms is damning indictment of all the major Parties. Technologies eroding the barriers of rationality, through facilitating impulsive gambling via new App mediums has resulted in an unmitigated social disaster for Britain. Concerted industry advertising still only meekly regulated must end, else the 43% of Briton’s who currently regularly gamble may well swell the already estimated half a million UK addicts.  Let’s not allow the ‘flutter’ to snowball.

 

This article was published in Dermot Neligan’s July/August Youthview column in the bimonthly ‘Chartist’ magazine (http://www.chartist.org.uk/chartist-magazine/).

‘No Frills Society’: Nah’, you’re alright.

Pensioners at bus stop

Should the M and S frequenting cohort of better off seniors lose their bus pass?

For far too long the narrative on welfare has been negative – fundamental Attlee era entitlements vilified, with the most prominent scrutinisers inevitably the affluent. Benefits claimants have become both the source of popular judgement and ridicule – the infamous Benefits Street surely the nadir of a media tide decrying an alleged ‘Benefits Culture’.  But with institutions such as Channel Four appearing to side with crude, condescending portrayal, there lies scant hope for an informed debate on welfare with a General Election looming

 Bigoted extremists such as Katie Hopkins, or rather the growing airtime she accumulates across the daytime TV schedule, surely heralds in a new era of aggressive scepticism. Whilst her overt snobbery may even inflict the ire of the portion of aloof society she claims to represent, her outbursts on welfare claimants are not alone, and the response from the Left is often woefully poor. Clichéd responses are not enough to tackle popular disillusionment with what welfare really is -a lifeline for many. Perhaps a less patronising prime time chronicling of what life on benefits really is like, could help educate the employed as to the realities of life on the ‘dole’. 

Yet a curious divergence from mere scorn for the welfare entitlements of the less well-off is occurring. A growing lobby, from the top of the socio-economic food chain have begun to bring into question their own entitlements, as highlighted last year with the campaign to strip well off pensioners of perks including the free bus pass. Iain Duncan Smith’s recent avowal that no pensioner benefits are ringfenced could on one level, highlight how under David Cameron, we really are ‘all in this together’…

 More likely it could constitute an alarming shift toward a no frills society.

Why is a subtle shift toward a Ryanair-esque culture of hidden surcharges permeating beyond mere Tory ranks? How can a squeezed middle be expected to top up their taxes by now having to pay add-ons for entitlements enshrined within our proud welfare state?

A recent Social Market Foundation report, headed by the Master of £32,000 a year Wellington College, claimed that parents earning over £80,000 a year should be forced to pay school fees for any children attending the best state schools. His logic? Unconvincing – yet it does hinge upon the not entirely false notion that the best schools are monopolised by the sons and daughters of the affluent. The fees, he believes, would force such parents to consider either  sending their children into the independent sector (freeing up places in good state schools), or ‘paying nothing at middle- and lesser-ranking state schools’ (implicitly arguing that this might drive up overall standards).

 Aside from a litany of flaws – one being his thinly veiled assumption that parachuting in middle class kids to inner city comps might benefit the intellectual development of their hard up classmates, the precedent is thoroughly un-British. The idea of the economic elite subsidising the education of the comparatively poor is surely populist, and to an extent, justifiable. In isolation, such a move toward school fees for the wealthy might well appeal to certain groupings on the Left. 

Yet why stop at school fees? Why not push for the wealthiest patients to be made to pay for their using of currently free NHS core services? Shouldn’t those requiring expensive, yet vital, operations be made to pay toward the cost of their treatment?

No. In Britain, we’re blessed with one of the most comprehensive provisions of healthcare and education in the world. That the quality of care or of teaching is not uniform is starkly apparent, yet it remains a noble goal to aspire too. Nonetheless, such world leading services are not God given, or as the Tories would have you believe – ‘something for nothing’. Rather, it forms the centrepiece of a British social contract where taxpayer contribution is reciprocated by the state; a consensus for collectivism unparalleled.   

 The precedent of introducing a tier based system for vital services provision, or with expensive add-ons for certain members of society, is toxic. Our welfare system is founded upon values of universal access to health and education as important as the sliding scale of tax contribution, depending upon income bracket, which finances it. When Lloyd George first envisaged the framework for his then radical Liberal Reforms package over a century ago, he included universal Free School Meals. Sentiments of universality within education and health provision should remain sacrosanct – it’s our challenge to keep it so.

Youth Manifesto 2015

At last the tedious humdrum of the Westminster parties’ baseless slanging match is ceased. Sort of. Personality politics on the backburner, policy back at the fore, early Autumn saw the unthinkable happen: all three parties articulating their 2015 vision. Even the Labour Party, after months of hiding behind vague excuses of not knowing the fiscal state of the nation by May 2015, were compelled to remind us what they actually stood for. That meant policy announcements.

 Whilst pledges to control the cartels gas prices might appeal to vast swathes of the population (my parents included), it is perhaps a mark of the stale state of domestic politics, that such a policy monopolised the newspaper columns. A stark lack of inventiveness in either policy or rhetoric is threatening to define today’s Labour Party. There is a necessity to spell out both policies that are original, and that are targeted to each level of the electorate.

 In a democracy that favours the top heavy demographic – over 65s form the largest voting group – it is imperative that young people are not short-changed. Whilst archaic legislation such as the Winter Fuel Allowance and the Older Person Bus Pass go largely unchallenged in the interests of keeping the ‘grey vote’, there remains a distinct complacency in not seeking out the votes of the under 25s.

Damningly, Labour’s 2010 Manifesto omitted to include a chapter dedicated to young people. To have however a chapter dedicated to outlining policy on ‘Families and Older People’, surely serves to prove this political disconnect. Yes, ‘Education’ inevitably formed a detailed component of the said manifesto, but to overlook the much broader issues facing young people today, is naïve and a disservice to the 6 million voters under 25.

Thus, in the absence of any party ‘Youth Manifesto’ I spell out my own vision. Mr Miliband would do well to take note…

1)      Votes for 16 Year Olds

A personal favourite! There is no better way to fostering youth engagement within our democratic system. Further, enfranchising a further 1.6m young people would make youth policy, long overlooked, a vote-winning priority for the big three parties.

 

2)      A Universal Minimum Wage

As highlighted by the Labour MP Alex Cunningham, “It is wrong for two people of different ages, who sit alongside each other doing the same job, to receive different wages.” In an era of squeeze on small businesses, I suggest that the government subsidies the difference between the current under 18 rates of pay and the new Universal Wage.

Under 18s deserve the same pay, yet with youth unemployment at record levels, it’s crucial that businesses are incentivized into recruiting them. Admittedly, from 2015 under 18s will only be in part time employment, owing to the raising of the age of compulsory education, yet a universal minimum age will ensure young people can gain a vital first stamp on their CV, early on.

 

3)      Personal Financial Management as Part of the Post 16 Curriculum

Amidst a credit card culture, society’s love affair with plastic exemplifies unsustainable economics. Astronomical interest rates have crippled many a student’s budgeting, with the common place targeting of credit card providers and pay day loan sharks on young people, deeply unsettling. It is vital that young people are given independent financial education from the age of 16 so that the next generation might avoid the bane of UK Plc. – debt.

 

4)      Special Youth Savers Account

Integral to safeguarding financial sustainability is the practice of saving. Whilst university education might make borrowing inevitable, the availability of a high interest saving account for under 25s would form a long term route to getting on the property ladder, whilst establishing a saving ethic. With an annual interest rate of 5% (paid for by better government enforcement of corporation tax), the money would be invested in new small businesses, and guaranteed by the Chancellor.

 

5)      Online Gambling

Following the Labour Government’s relaxing of gambling regulation back in 2007, the UK online gambling market has swelled, fuelling a ‘habit’ that has enveloped millions of Britons. The charity Gamcare’s 2011/2012 statistics show that a third of its callers seeking help for an addiction are under 25.

 A preponderance of free smartphone apps has made gambling easier and apparently more socially acceptable than ever.  Greater regulation is vital – the Chancellor’s economic self-interest in the wealth of tax revenues the tainted industry brings, must not come first. 

 

Such a five point manifesto might have its flaws – yet in just a few paragraphs it targets genuine youth issues more comprehensively than many Party manifestos to go before. With less than 18 months to go before the next General Election, one can only hope that a Party finally takes the initiative to serve the nation’s youth – not merely playing to political pragmatism and charming the largest voting cohort.   

‘Progressive’ Britain: Bland Consensus!

Keen to Please: Progress Stunted by Unchecked 'Patriotism'?

Keen to Please:
Progress Stunted by Unchecked ‘Patriotism’?

Maybe it was my being reared on a diet of ‘The Daily Mail’ that ‘put me off’ patriotism. The nauseating plethora of tales chronicling dubious abuses of the Human Rights Act, and the daily litany of questionable statistics on the implications of immigration, all made pretty dull reading. Equally, perhaps my Catholic Irish background contributed to my aversion to deifying an unelected monarchy. Perhaps being born and bred in a diverse, modern, cosmopolitan city, made it hard to associate with the archaic sentimentality of ‘traditional patriots’, who to this day seek to justify stubborn colonialism (Gibraltar, The Falklands).

A myriad of contradiction underpins the modern British state. Over recent decades British society has really taken to the notion of ‘progressive politics’. Where Blairites quivered at the labelling of their party with the tags ‘left wing’ and ‘socialist’, they soon swarmed to this softer umbrella brand that indicated an ambition for positive reform, and liberalisation. Although relatively ambiguous, the implication of the word is positive, and all the Westminster parties have gradually latched onto the notion.  An example might be found in Labour’s ‘innovation’ of ‘One Nation’ that brings connotations of a collective responsibility and unity – strikingly similar to Cameron’s botched ‘Big Society’.

Thus the passing this year of a gay marriage bill is symbolic of this tide of ‘progress’, and conducive to Britain’s pursuit to become a bastion of democracy and a champion of its citizens rights. The offering of asylum to the Pakistani heroin of women’s rights and education, Malala Yousafza, is surely indicative of a noble progressive social agenda at the heart of both government, and society.

Yet this belies a pervading rot at the heart of British politics. Amidst the headline grabbing populist passing of gay marriage, there is an undeniable, potentially unstoppable, emergence of a bland cross party consensus on issues fundamental. Recent Miliband wrangling with the unions has only further fuelled fears that party politics is rapidly descending into a centrist monotony. Elections will be won not on policies, but on spin alone.

For too long the primacy of tackling fiscal ill health, and the getting back into the black of UK Plc. has led to constitutional debate being hijacked by superficial token gestures like the AV referendum. Parliamentary wrangling has long been more concerned with Number 11 and the Chancellor.  Even the opposition has of late drifted reluctantly toward Coalition fiscal policy, with red-faced backtracking on the few existing party distinguishing policies. The failure of the opposition to clarify their own stance on Coalition cuts affirms this farcical state of affairs.

Finance aside, puppet liberalisation has failed to challenge the status quo. Core institutions to the national identity go unchecked by the political elite, with no party willing to openly challenge the overtly archaic and outdated features of the Crown and Commonwealth.  The sheer hypocrisy is damning – there exists a cafeteria approach where, celebrating antiquated ideas of Empire, the Establishment simultaneously acts as a ‘just’ authority on issues international.

Recent wrangling over the rock of Gibraltar epitomises the hollow diplomacy characteristic of modern Britain. Flying in the face of all of the pragmatism of 21st century ‘enlightened’ foreign policy, a cultural encoding of the defence (at all diplomatic cost) of Her Majesty’s territories is both unreasonable and illogical. Bellicose comments from senior British politicians only further underlines the shallowness of our proclaimed progressiveness – not a single (sitting) Westminster party would dare to challenge the outdated British line.

The recent birth of the third in line to the throne, and rather the press reaction to it, was further evidence of this systematic disjointedness. The epitome of privilege and antonymous to the meritocracy widely championed in greater society, the media circus surrounding the heir’s birth was bittersweet. Whilst column after column rapidly exhausted any meaningful information, press attention was concentrated upon a private hospital wing charging £6265 a night. The irony of such lavish expense, at a time of unprecedented NHS cuts, whilst avoided by many of the right wing media outlets, was surely not lost on the British public altogether.

Perhaps we can hope that one party will seize the initiative, and challenge the ‘yes-man’ politics of today. A diverse Britain needs to rediscover itself – and this can only come from a frank re-appraisal of the institutions that reign over it. Political consensus can be a tool for progress, yet the danger lies in a convergence of political parties that is contrary to the varying opinions that characterise democracy. Meaningful debate should not be shied away from; it should be embraced. Genuine progress will be found in questioning the unquestionable.

60 Second Comment: Snooty Wimbledon?

The end of June once again saw the annual pilgrimage of the union jack donning middle classes to the hallowed lawn tennis association of SW19, following on the tradition of generations of the well to do, who flock to the Wimbledon Lawn Championships year after year. Many see this particular ‘Grand Slam’ as one of the few last examples of great sporting heritage anywhere in the world.
Lush green lawns and suit clad staff amidst a leafy green south west London suburb, this two week-long event is ‘a cut above’ the partisan dominated football, or even rugby, equivalents. None of the modern football stadia, or even the lavish Olympic Park can quite come close to its’ aesthetic charm.
Reflective perhaps of this being a quintessentially British event, there is a permeating privileged character and snobbery about the tournament, and the crowds it attracts year after year are decidedly privileged too – as far as their finances and background are concerned. The distinct absence of ethnic minorities, bizarrely overlooked by the otherwise often vehement politically correctness shoving press, is curious.
Largely white and middle class crowds infamously delight in being part of this status symbol of a sporting contest; for those who both have the time and money to spend working hours spectating sport one would think, amidst economic decline, are a dying breed.
To be fair- the sport on offer really is world class, and some of the protracted duels on Centre Court peculiarly mesmerising. Perhaps the tournament deserves credibility and (genuine) popularity not for the archaic principles for which it appears to stand, but for the superior entertainment it offers.
Alas this potential blockbuster will go unfulfilled. Our national hero for the fortnight? A dour Scotsman with all the charm of a wet British summer –not quite a Beckham-esque man of the people.
Truly inescapable, it soon colonizes the telly – the annual constipation of the BBCs TV schedule with exhaustive coverage and commentary of the tournament is truly exasperating. The reality is that there exists a stark apathy for this tournament in the wider public…something that not even the isolated yet vocal outbreaks of Murray mania within this enclave of south east England, can hide.

The Rise of the Right: Xenophobic ‘Clowns’

UKIP On The March

Whilst the positively pagan youths of today might not speak of a ‘New Jerusalem’, the nationalist vision preached by UKIP and the like now threatens to resonate. The tough labour market has led to a new generation feeling particularly peeved with our parliamentarians, whilst the recent shocking murder of Drummer Lee Rigby, has fuelled a rising tide of Islamophobia. It is imperative that society tackles the damaging, hate driven ideologies of groups such as the EDL as a matter of urgency. Social cohesion isn’t just a flowery left wing ideal – but a cornerstone of a peaceful, functioning democracy.

The right wing of the country is in the ascendency – indicative of a wider scepticism for the current political class of professional politicians, and its increasingly popular opposition to the European Union. Record unemployment and a real terms decline in wages over a five year period has hit the British public hard – and so the finding of a scapegoat i.e. cheap migrant labour from Eastern Europe, is an age old self-deception.

At closer inspection, the fact that UKIP has been able to gain any form of popular support, beyond the old Tory heartlands of South-East England, is peculiar. The knee jerk reaction of the public, following the 2008 recession, was to call for a purge of the banks, at fault for the abrupt grinding to a halt of years old economic growth. Ironic then, how the leader of the new force within British politics should be the very caricature of public disdain: a cigar wielding, ex-public school boy and city trader.

The stark incoherence of a wider manifesto outside of the populist message proposed in its’ very acronym will surely mean that UKIPs days as a force will be limited. Rudimentary policies on restoring grammar schools, even with the trump card of a referendum on the EU, won’t win an election. The rise of UKIP is small beer – it is the rise of the far right that forms a much more compelling threat.

The recent brutal murder of a British soldier on a London Street was despicable, and the reaction that followed -the rapid flocking of EDL members to intimidate Muslims at mosques throughout the country – equally disquieting. That Britain’s Islamic community should feel in any way targeted because of the deranged actions of two lone individuals is sickening.

Successive governments have rightly incorporated social cohesion and tolerance into the curriculum yet more can, and must, be done. So often criticised as artificially segregating society into the kind of one dimensional atmospheres that foster ignorance and bigotry, faith schools have in fact made genuine attempts to promote a greater understanding of others faith and cultures.

Education is central to tackling the spread of the toxic mantra of thugs- and averting the radicalisation of a vulnerable group of our society.

The Iraq War 10 Years On: Death of British Popular Protest?

Image‘The War on Terror’, and its’ legacy, have undoubtedly had a profound impact on a truly global scale. Precipitated by the 9/11 atrocities, successive American governments have spearheaded an aggressive, international pursuit of Islamic extremists that have enveloped (most notably) the nations of Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the Blair government’s shunning of popular opposition to, in particular, the invasion of Iraq, has left a tangible scar on the British psyche – fundamentally undermining the perceived effectiveness of peaceful civil protest.

The damage to the credibility of western states (not least the United Kingdom), on an international stage, through our going to war citing their possessing of non-existent weapons of mass destruction, has been severe, but not as severe as the whole sagas undermining of our own democratic system at home. The sheer populist opposition to the Iraq war was graphically highlighted with the enormity of the 2002 and 2003 public marches against the war, where hundreds of thousands strong throngs marched on British streets.

One of the greatest single examples of British grassroot activism was quickly eclipsed with the political elite’s shunning of the vociferous public calls for peace – thus illustrating the truly distorted power balance that so favours parliament over the people.

Democratically elected and with the mandate to rule in consideration of the will of the masses, the failure of Tony Blair’s government to then recognise the will of the people (an early February 2003 Guardian poll put support for an invasion at just 29%), may be sited as a precursor to what is now reality: a culture of popular discontent with the political establishment.  What sort of precedent does it set to the nation’s youth, when an elected government takes a nation into a war which the majority of the people oppose on moral (or other) grounds?

True, disestablishmentarian sentiment is not new, yet resurrecting Thatcherite disunity amongst the population, through the pursuing of overtly unpopular policy i.e. war, is damning, and as much culpable for contributing to our ‘Broken Britain’ societal image as anything. The perceived ignorance of parliamentarians to their constituent’s views, permitted to go unchecked by the three party’s monopoly over the House of Commons, has fostered a culture of resentment– only furthered with the revelation of collective dishonesty, as the expenses scandal came to light.

 A common distrust and a growing wedge between politicians and the people is not the only legacy of the decision to get involved in an unwanted war. The explicit shunning of mass peaceful protest has surely only furthered the innately dangerous notion that violent protest is the only way to support a cause. A generation, witness to the 2011 London riots, have grown up in an atmosphere where a sizeable minority feel the necessity to fight ‘the system’, rather than to try to work with it – albeit not always for an express aim, or as an organized force.

 The protesters of 2013 are not nearly so vast in number, with even the recent financial crisis and subsequent anti-government cuts protests, failing to inspire anywhere near the dizzy heights of the two million who flocked to London for the mid February 2003 Stop the War march. Instead, a new era of more militant activism has emerged, with groups such as Anonymous testament to the new generation turning toward more damaging, confrontational tactics.

Surely though, with the tenth anniversary of the US led invasion of Iraq passing in February, and a year on from the killing of Osama bin Laden, it would seem that the Bush administration initiated assault on Islamic militancy to its’ very hiding places, has been a success? Could one not argue that a certain degree of social disharmony at home was necessary for the establishment of global peace?  No. The continuing stark domestic instability of the nations that saw coalition troops (namely Iraq and Afghanistan), is surely proof as to the chaotic and ill-conceived notion of forcefully implementing western modelled democracy upon such states.

 State building, and the American government’s interpretation of it, has surely been damned through its failure to address the unique sectarian sensitivities within the wider region, and the scope for internal conflict that ethnically or religiously affiliated political groupings can bring. The aim of bringing democracy to a region is surely noble, yet the disharmony that plagues Iraqi domestic politics in 2013 is evidence that the framework delivered by the west has not worked.

The failure of the British government to heed public calls for peace ten years ago, has undermined the United Kingdom’s credibility in more ways than one. Social fragmentation at home is one of many implications the Iraq War has had on a domestic scale, ushering in a new era of concentrated militant activism, but more commonly, a tragic apathy to events that affect us all.

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