Tolerance in adversity

When I was at school the exams that we sat at sixteen were called ‘O’ Levels. I sat the usual mix of arts and science subjects and particularly enjoyed History, mainly because I could relate to the curriculum which covered key events in Europe in the early to mid twentieth century. It was the first time that I was told the historic reasons for the trouble in my home land, and it encouraged me to read much more widely on the subject.

Growing up in Belfast I was exposed to the rhetoric of the local politicians almost daily as they were interviewed on the television news bulletins following the bombings or shootings that were commonplace at the time. Protestants and Roman Catholics lived in different parts of the city and went to different schools so, although my family did not discuss the political situation a great deal, I absorbed the biased reactions from my peers and their families. Some had very strong views.

When, at fifteen, I started to study for the first time why the fighting was happening, I was perturbed to discover that I didn’t necessarily agree with the side I was supposed to be on. I wasn’t at all sure how to deal with this. From my very naive start point it looked as if both sides were fighting for a lost cause. I did not see how there could ever be a winner when the arguments had been brewing for so long, and so many atrocities had been perpetrated by both sides.

Whatever the cause, when fighting occurs with guns and explosives there is going to be injury and death. Parents are going to lose their beloved children; lives are going to be changed forever. I can see very few causes that can be worth this terrible cost. Armchair generals have long sent their troops into battle and counted the cost by number; lives lost versus territory won. Political protests can follow much the same approach; collateral damage is measured against progress made in achieving concessions by the activists who encourage the dissent from their supporters.

I left Belfast before the current, uneasy peace was achieved. On my occasional visits I notice a huge change for the better. It is not just the removal of the barbed wire, search barriers and army patrols in the streets; the young people seem to mix much more freely which can only help to encourage understanding and tolerance. There is still an undercurrent of violence that manifests itself around seemingly foolish things such as when to fly a flag from a public building or which streets to march down when publicly parading allegiances; each side will still loudly and bitterly blame the other for provoking or reacting inappropriately.

I am very uncomfortable with extremism. There is no easy solution to the situation in Ireland which has been centuries in the making. Neither is there an easy option to sort out the insidious political problems in this country which have developed over the last few decades. Deciding whether the rot started with Margaret Thatcher or with her predecessors and the arrogance of the unions at the time makes for interesting debate, but is now largely academic. Attaching historical blame does not help to improve our current situation.

When trying to enter into a political discussion there are some who will try to take ownership of policies that most will support at a basic level, even if they disagree with the best way to implement them. One does not need to be a socialist to wish to help the needy and vulnerable; capitalists are not the only people wishing to benefit personally from the work they do.

If a country is to support those in need then it requires resources which most often come from taxes. For taxes to be paid, businesses need to be allowed to flourish and provide employment. There was much debate last year about large, successful businesses that had managed to avoid paying tax in this country. This was not tax evasion (illegal) but avoidance. I do not know anyone who would willingly pay more tax than they had to. If a company is able to avoid tax then it may be that tax legislation needs to change. If the company is acting within the law then I can understand it wishing to minimise it’s tax liabilities. I would do the same.

Wishing to pay only legally required tax does not mean that I am against helping those in need. I may not always agree that some needs are vital enough to require support from the public purse, but I agree with feeding the hungry, housing the homeless and treating the sick. I would like to see a much simpler system of taxation and support, a lot less waste in state run organisations and a lot less interference in how I live my life, but none of this precludes me from wishing to offer state support to those who truly need it.

Sometimes my socialist friends seem to suggest that their ideals have a monopoly on compassion. They are no more willing to pay additional tax or offer their spare bedroom to a homeless stranger than I am. They wish to be paid for the work that they do and then to be free to spend their money for their own benefit. This does not make them bad people any more than my political allegiances make me a bad person. We can generalise and point out individuals with similar views who may not be admirable, but it is possible to do good from many stances.

The real difference between how my friends and I think becomes more apparent when considering wider issues such as how best to fix the mess that the country’s economy is currently in. Like the problems in Ireland, I do not believe there are straightforward answers, but life will be better for all if we can manage to move forward with a compromise solution that may not offer anyone exactly what they want but will keep the peace.

Of course I would like to see real change in support of my views, just as my socialist friends would like to see real change in support of their views. I think I could cope with either though if we could have honest politicians representing the people rather than their own interests, who were voted in on policies that they would then implement. The deception that pervades the higher echelons of power is much harder to accept than any honest ideal. It is unfortunate that the one thing that is obvious from studying history is that power corrupts.

Band-aides support

Putting Iain Duncan Smith on benefits

There has been much comment in the British media this week about the Conservative politician Iain Duncan Smith (also referred to as IDS). He is Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and claimed, on the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday that, despite earning a reported salary of £134,565 per year from his role in government (£2,587 a week), he could live on £53 per week if he had to. This low figure represented an amount that a market trader named David Bennett believed he would have to live on once the tax and benefit changes being discussed came into effect. An online petition was promptly started urging IDS to try living for a year on £53 per week. So far, it has attracted more than 350,000 signatures.

Both IDS and David Bennett have since been subjected to personal and often vitriolic examination as their brief encounter on the radio show has been discussed and dissected. The speed with which the petition has attracted signatures has undoubtedly been impressive but is, as IDS put it the following day, nothing more than a stunt. Even without his government salary, IDS is a very wealthy man. A temporary curtailing of his lifestyle is unlikely to change his self confidence, aspiration or overall circumstances; it would merely prolong the publicity surrounding a probably foolish, throwaway remark and thereby encourage the detractors of both the wealthy and the benefit claimants to dig deeper for more personal examples and details with which to stoke the public fires of hate.

This latest, political storm in a teacup has reminded me of the 1995 song Common People by the band Pulp. The song was written by Jarvis Cocker who described a fad for class tourism as a sort of ‘patronising social voyeurism’. If IDS were to take up the challenge he would know that, at any time, he could bail out.

‘But still you’ll never get it right
‘cos when you’re laid in bed at night watching roaches climb the wall
If you call your Dad he could stop it all.’

IDS may not call his Dad but, if reports are to be believed, he could certainly call his wealthy wife.

The Champagne Socialists love to draw attention to the wealth of those in government. If they believe that Members of Parliament’s salaries and benefits should be cut then perhaps they should campaign for that and accept the consequences. It requires a great deal of time (campaigning) and money (publicity) to become a Member of Parliament so those who also need to hold down a regular job are at a disadvantage already. Whatever his detractors may think of IDS, at least he has some previous experience of working outside of parliament which is more than can be said for many of the current crop of career politicians from all sides. IDS was voted in by his constituents; it should be their choice whether he stays or goes.

The tax and benefits system in Britain is convoluted and complex. The impact of change is always going to be hard to understand allowing clever critics to come up with individual examples of the apparently undeserving beneficiaries or the cruelly ignored and abandoned. We are regularly subjected to stories of large families from foreign climes living in luxurious properties at tax payers expense; of large families who can buy a huge new television, take a holiday abroad and still have money left over each week to go drinking with friends; of families who have never worked because there is no need when their benefits are so generous.

Then there will be the stories of the disabled and maimed or those with serious mental health issues who have had benefits removed but have no hope of being offered any sort of job; of those who hold down a low paid job topped up with benefits so mean that, however carefully they budget, a requirement for new shoes for their child or a repair to the car needed to travel between school and work can mean that there is no money for food or heating. We are led to believe that children starve and old people freeze purely because the benefits system is so stingy.

I do not doubt that these individuals exist but are they representative of a wider population? It can be very hard to know the scale of the issues being dramatised in sound bites and vitriol. Public perception can be moulded and existing prejudices fed by the extremists on both sides as they whip up hate and judgement. It seems that no economic policy change can be implemented without an outcry from at least one side of the political spectrum.

Most people recognise that the way the economy is currently being run needs to change, but it seems that nobody wishes to suffer those changes; they always want someone else to pay. The wealthy are criticised for making money and the poor for claiming it unearned. The needy are not given as much support as they require while others who already have plenty claim benefits because they can. As attempts are made to address apparent loopholes and waste, the critics will find those who are being unfairly made to suffer. Those who shout the loudest drown out the voices of reason as the politicians chase the elusive, vote winning policy that always seems to dance just beyond their grasp as public opinion is shifted and manipulated by the media and those who seek power and influence.

I do not believe that answers will be found while reason is ignored. More people need to listen and try to understand rather than just react. Alternatives need to be discussed and sometimes hard policies applied. A solution that does not sound immediately fair or right can still benefit those who need help the most.

As an example, critics of universal credit cite the unfairness of giving benefits to the wealthy as a reason not to introduce a system that would free up so much money in savings by removing the bureaucracy of establishing entitlement that the needy would receive more than they can currently claim. What are they trying to achieve if not to help those in need? A stronger argument against, in my view, would be that government cannot be trusted to use the money saved as promised rather than on an alternative pet project. Vast sums are already being poured into so many dubious schemes that benefit only a few. If these pots of money could be used instead to directly help the less influential but poorer members of society then there would not be the need for so many controversial changes to wealth redistribution.

Asking a particular politician to do without the luxury lifestyle he is used to for a limited period is not going to improve the lives of those already living in poverty. The speed with which the petition calling for him to do so gained support shows that many people are angry with how the country is being run. We have a number of opportunities to vote for representatives in this year’s council elections, next year’s European Parliament election and the following year’s General election. Perhaps if we can find some people who agree with our views to stand in these we might have a chance of influencing the changes needed. The main political parties have skewed the way the voting system works to their advantage so a lot of people will need to act if change is to happen. It will be interesting to see how engaged the majority of the population become when they are asked to risk the unknown or accept the status quo.

English: Iain Duncan Smith, British politician...

Playing politics

Yesterday the British Chancellor of the Exchequer presented the governments Budget for 2013. The details were not announced in parliament until the afternoon but the mainstream media covered the story all day. Potential changes to taxation and spending had been mentioned in news bulletins from early in the week as is now common practice on these occasions. Contentious changes in government policy can lose politicians votes so they like to leak their ideas to the media to judge public reaction. If the media can whip up a frenzy of concern and protest amongst potential voters then the idea may be amended or quietly dropped. This can be less embarrassing than dropping a policy after it has been introduced, although this seems to happen with increasing regularity. Politicians are looking out for themselves rather than those they are paid to represent.

I read the budget headlines yesterday evening, but will study what has been announced more closely in a few days time when the various accountancy firms have managed to sift through the small print. Many of the changes are not openly announced but are buried beneath a complicated layer of obfuscating legal speak. By the time the paperwork has been digested and the impact analysed by those who can understand these things the media interest will have moved on. Politicians rely on this to push through economic policies that will not be well received. Just as they wait for the big, bad news days to announce policy changes that could result in a storm of protest, so they will try to introduce potentially vote losing economic changes in the Budget by hiding them away and hoping that nobody has time to understand the true impact until general interest has waned. Unfortunately a lot of people have a short attention span or no interest in the detail of complicated economic policy. They will welcome the penny off the pint of beer and the cancellation of the proposed increase in fuel duty and not notice the monetary losses they will incur that are difficult to understand and that have not made the headlines.

I have friends of all political persuasions, from Marxist socialists through to liberal capitalists and many views and variations in between. All are intelligent, well educated, informed, eloquent and, just sometimes, appear to be deluded and hypocritical in their beliefs. I use the word beliefs deliberately. In discussions, the most ardent political supporters come across as fervently as religious believers. I am absolutely in favour of an individual’s right to believe what they want so long as they do not try to force their views on me. I am happy to listen to their arguments as I can learn from these, but I do not appreciate being put down or held in contempt for not agreeing. I may not fully understand the implications of all the issues (do they?) but I am not a fool.

My own political views may appear to be somewhat ambivalent. I try to gain an understanding of  all sides of an argument and will then tend to swing one way on some issues but not others. It makes it difficult for me to support any political party. My biggest problem with modern politics is finding a politician, any politician, that I could trust. When I see how they operate I am in danger of screaming, apoplectic with rage. Few things make me feel so angry and impotent as the way in which we are supposedly represented in the cradle of democracy. I have yet to become so despairing that I have decided not to exercise my right to vote, but the futility of the exercise under the current system has brought me close.

Of course, I recognise that it is unlikely that any of us will be able to find someone who is willing to be a politician, who will represent our views on every issue and who is standing in our constituency and therefore eligible to benefit from our vote. When the big parties differed markedly in their policies I could round up the issues that mattered to me and vote for the closest match. These days they all seem as bad as each other. The dishonesty and denial that the politicians get away with is breathtaking. Do people notice? Don’t they care?

In many ways I can understand why so many people simply shrug their shoulders and switch on the TV; there seems to be little that can be done by any individual. There are still some who will shout loudly for their own pet causes, but central government is not addressing the big issues. If money is to be found for public sector pensions; for NHS funding; for the arts, then less must be spent elsewhere. No politicians are willing to tackle this in a meaningful and sustainable way because it is seen as vote losing. Better to bumble along and hope that the system doesn’t implode under their leadership. Let’s blame everyone else, especially Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair, and ignore the fact that today’s batch are probably causing at least as much damage to the long term good of the country. Stop looking back and blaming others people! By all means learn from history, but we need to look at where we are now and move forward.

And no, I have no answers; no quick fixes; no easy solutions. What I want to see though is leadership amongst our leaders, honesty in what they are doing and courage to push difficult, vote losing policies through for the good of the country rather than for their mates from school. There are some sound economic ideas to explore (e.g. Universal Credit and a much simplified tax system) that may not be popular but would support the needy and save money. I am well aware that even the expert economists do not agree on the best way forward, but borrowing more and repeated QE is not sustainable.

I will only mention Europe in passing. I love Europe. I love its peoples, its culture, its food, its architecture, its common heritage, its cultural diversity, its trains, its art, music and drama, its literature and poetry, its history and the richness of its land. It’s just the EU that I loathe. If I go any further on that then it might be me that implodes. Pouring money down a drain comes to mind but I know that there are many who would strongly disagree.

Soundbite manifestos, policy decisions backed up by dodgy statistics, rebound legislation and trial by media are all symptoms of the tumours growing in British politics. I feel that I am in danger of becoming DJ Steve Wright’s Mr Angry (although how do you slam a modern phone down?). It would be so easy to give up and disengage as too many have done already. If those who are willing to think through the implications of our situation give up hope of changing things for the better then the politicians gain total freedom to strip the assets of the country, and we risk losing not only our freedom, but also our integrity.

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