Thanks G4S! You’ve Reminded Us All Why The Private Sector Ain’t The Answer.

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on July 14, 2012 by Jonathan Kent

G4S’s abject failure to keep its side of the bargain over Olympics security ought to act as a damned great neon warning sign when it comes to the private sector taking a public role.

We’ve had to put up with the bleating of the ideological right for way too long.  “The private sector is more efficient,” “the private sector delivers value for money,” “the state shouldn’t be taking on roles that business could fulfil.”

The G4S debacle ought to serve as an object lesson in how the private sector serves its own interests and not those of the nation.

Yes they’re likely to pay a penalty for not having delivered on their contract, but a fat lot of good a penalty would have been if the state hadn’t been able to make good G4S’s mistake by calling in the military.  If we didn’t pay for the armed services through our taxes then the whole £8 or 9 billion corporate binge that is the Olympics could have been fundamentally compromised.  G4S’s liabilities however wouldn’t have covered a fraction of that bill.

Just as with the banking bail-out the state provides a safety net for the private sector just as it does for citizens.  But while the government is quick to act against people on benefits for relying on that safety net they’re a lot slower to act against big business.  Of course they government points the finger but it doesn’t follow up the rhetoric with concrete action.

Rather than do that they throw a couple of high profile scapegoats to the wolves – Fred Goodwin and Bob Diamond being two fine examples – but once the public appetite for blood has been sated the rest get to breathe a sigh of relief and carry on much as before.

And not only does the state cover the fat behind of big business when it screws up, it allows it to get away with a far lower degree of scrutiny and accountability.

Companies providing public services are allowed to claim ‘commercial confidentiality’ to avoid answering questions.  They are far slower to answer in the media than our elected representatives.  The G4S story cropped up last weekend but it took the company’s boss Nick Buckles a whole week before he buckled to public pressure and went on the Today Programme to face an appropriate grilling – for days we didn’t get so much as a proper statement.

We’re seeing this right across our public services these days.   Even after a Coroner slammed St George’s Hospital in Tooting for killing a patient suffering from dehydration by sedating him after he called police to complain rather than giving him water, no one from the damned trust would go before the media.

What happened was little better than corporate manslaughter and they don’t have the decency to face questions.

The absolute minimum for private sector companies providing public services should be that they are held to the same standards as the public sector – no commercial confidentiality, no refusing to answer questions, complete transparency and direct accountability to the public.  If you take on a public service contract you contract to become a public servant – not a service provider.  Why?  Because if the public are paying for you to serve them then the public is the boss, or do we have to explain the basic customer/retailer relationship to people in the business world?

But even with proper transparency and accountability there is still a major flaw in the whole notion of private provision of public services.  It’s not addressed often enough – it comes down to contracts and it’s very simple.

With any contract, public or private, you set a budget and you agree a level of service.  With public provision of services if you achieve greater efficiency you can raise the level of service and deliver more for the taxpayers contribution.  With private provision companies deliver up to the agreed level of service and no further.  Efficiencies don’t result in a better deal for the public, they result in bigger profits for shareholders.  You don’t get to drive up the level of service until the contract comes up for renewal – and in some cases that could take up to 25 years.

And that’s just the start of the problem because while it’s relatively straight forward to agree a budget and build it into a contract, nailing down a level of service in an operation as complex as a hospital is far harder.  And when the right witter on about how much better equipped the private sector is I’d unhesitatingly agree with them in one respect above all others – they have better lawyers.  If the public sector is bad at one thing it’s contracts.  Nine times out of ten the private sector runs rings around government and once a bad contract is in place we’re stuck with it.  So drawing up an enforceable service agreement is tough enough, but arriving at one that delivers ongoing and incremental service gains to the public is nigh on impossible to frame.  We can only lose.

So perhaps it’s time that we started to think about how the public sector can take the best of the private on board, encourage innovation, reward excellence at every level, make staff a real part of the public enterprise, so we can start to deliver what the private sector can’t – for while listed companies are bound by law to deliver for their shareholders, public enterprises can be bound by their having to answer to all of us so that they deliver better and better for the communities and the society they serve.

And when we hear Conservative ministers, in the wake of the G4S farce, praise our armed forces as the best in the world we shouldn’t let them forget that it’s an unashamed admission that the state, the common weal, the public collectively through our taxes and the work of our public servants, can deliver unrivalled excellence.

Merchant Bankers, the lot of ’em

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on January 30, 2012 by Jonathan Kent

Every seasoned television journalist knows that TV is good with people, personalities and emotion and bad with complex ideas, facts and figures.  It’s why TV news reports hang big topics on individual cases; TV can’t make us care about 100,000 disabled people losing their benefits in the abstract but it can make us care about one disabled person struggling to get by, trying hard to get a job, being shafted by the system.  And by making us care about the one there’s a chance it’ll get us to care about the many.

Pity then Stephen Hester, boss of RBS, trying to turn a publicly owned bank back into something that private investors will want to take off our hands (albeit at a giveaway price if George Osborne has anything to do with it).

Hester has become the unwilling poster boy for everything that’s wrong with our increasingly divided society.  Bob Diamond, Barclays’ Group Chief Executive last year got a far bigger bonus (£6.5 million) than the one that Hester has just turned down.  But that’s not the point is it; Barclays is doing fairly well and is private, RBS is struggling and publicly owned.  Hester is our man, Diamond belongs to the market.

So why pity Stephen Hester?  Hester is the victim of the fact that the three big parties can’t address the real issues, the big issues.  That would require too fundamental a critique of what has gone bad with our society.  Hester has become the target over a narrow issue that the Tories, LibDems and Labour feel they can address without getting into really uncomfortable territory.

So, at the risk of being a pariah on Bright Green, I’m going to start with a defence of Stephen Hester.  Hester was brought into RBS to sort out its problems because he had a track record with Credit Suisse, Abbey National and, briefly, with a newly nationalised Northern Rock.  His task was to salvage an RBS which, briefly in early 2009 was the world’s largest company by asset value (£1.9 Trillion) with liabilities of £1.8 Trillion – and we; you, I and every other British tax payer, we own 84% of those assets and, by extension, we are underwriting 84% of those vast liabilities.

Clearly we don’t want a numpty sorting out RBS.  The trouble is that people with the skills needed to avert a disaster big enough to warrant a poem from the late William McGonagall are sought all over the world and they’re sought by very, very rich institutions.  Anyone capable of getting RBS back on track could take their CV anywhere are get a very large pay packet.  Hester’s problem is that RBS’s shares have fallen over the last year, the bank has shed 11,000 jobs and that, notwithstanding the fact that he may have prevented the situation being far worse, a bonus for a result like that looks, in political terms, very bad.  Above all though Hester has become a public servant running the kind of enterprise that no state would have chosen to run, let alone create – a high octane, aggressively acquisitive financial institution that mixed dull retail banking with highly speculative investment operations.  As a public servant he finds himself judged not next to his peers in banking but next to nurses and dinner ladies and cabinet ministers.  The criticism levelled at his bonus by the three big parties is founded on his being a public servant and the poor headline indicators of the bank’s performance.

So Stephen Hester gets it in the neck, faces calls for a Commons debate about little old him, and waves goodbye to almost a million pounds in share options.

The reason I feel sorry for Stephen Hester is that the real issue is not one man’s bonus but a system that consistently rewards ‘top people’ with sums of money that are beyond the imagination of most of those who work for a salary, if they’re lucky enough to get one.

So how has that happened?  Banks like to say that they need to attract the best and the brightest.  It’s long struck me as funny that when we reach for a profession that acts as a metaphor for intelligent we come up with terms like ‘rocket scientist’, ‘brain surgeon’, ‘boffin’, ‘quantum mechanic’.  We don’t say ‘merchant banker’.  If we say ‘merchant banker’ without meaning it literally we’re likely to be using it as rhyming slang as a substitute for something a little more offensive.

I happen to know an astrophysicist.  He’s very clever and paid very badly.  I know a few doctors.  They’re paid a lot better but they’re not paid anything like as well as people in banking many of whom have studied far less hard and do far less good.

Banks don’t have any sort of monopoly on talent.  Plenty of bright people do more useful things with their lives.  Banks do enjoy the greatest proximity to absolutely mindblowingly large streams of virtual cash.  The crumbs that fall from the tables of banking giants are, by mortal standards, huge.  As a result they suck in quite a lot of talent much of which is interested, above all, in those huge crumbs.  So remuneration in banking reflects more the availability of cash with which to reward people (and those people’s ability to make cash), rather than intrinsic worth.

None of this you’ll hear from LabDemCons.  Nor will you hear any fundamental criticism of the way banks operate, of the effect that banking remuneration has to divert useful people away from more socially useful professions, of what it does to a society when tens of thousands of people are propelled into a stratospheric earning bracket creating a vast pay divide (with all the social ills that follow in its wake) and distorting asset prices (such as housing) in a way that positively impoverishes those outside that world.

So let’s have a sensible debate about banks.  Banks can be very useful.  They handle money – money being a clever invention that saves people having to stick a cow in their pocket when they want to buy an iPod and saves Apple having to parlay a cow with a software developer who has time to offer but only a balcony on which to graze a cow…

OK, I’m being flippant, but financial institutions can act as flexible links to ease fluctuations in demand, spot and invest in new trends, facilitate trade between nation states, allow people to save the proceeds of a lifetime’s work against old age and sickness and so forth.  In Germany banks traditionally forged long-term relationships with companies, in which they’d invested, installing a representative on the board to offer advice and provide oversight; it was hands on banking focused on encouraging the production of real and useful stuff that people need and want.  Banks can have a useful, though often rather dull, role in society.

The trouble began when banking started to get rather exciting.  The biggest practical issues to have arisen in the Anglo Saxon world in recent decades have been the increased ability of banks to create cash on their balance sheets and to (supposedly) offload risk, and their tendency to engage in making profit through speculation rather than investment.

Since big bang in 1986 UK banks have typically reduced their capital against their liabilities (what is generally termed increasing their leverage).  With the extra dosh they’ve ‘invented’ they’ve been able to bring US style consumer credit to the UK and Europe (allowing consumers to run up more debts doesn’t of itself lead to more houses being built but it does create more cash to chase the available stock of houses pushing up prices while increasing their exposure to defaults).  They’ve magick’d up financial instruments (of which CDOs were merely the most infamous) that are essentially ways of disguising how bad the quality of debt they’ve been trading amongst themselves is, removing the risk from the lender but not transferring meaningful oversight of that debt to its new owner.

On an international level markets have gone beyond their traditional role of helping to determine true value to a state where they can create crises in order to profit from them.  One could make a cogent argument that what we’re seeing at the moment is disaster capitalism writ large – with markets demanding that states downsize and hold a fire sale of assets (which can be bought cheaply by those able to raise cash) and that governments are unable to take sensible Keynesian measures, such as investing in capital projects that upgrade infrastructure and make an economy more competitive, for fear that they’ll be held to ransom.

The banks aren’t alone responsible for their being too much cash sloshing around and with the asset price and localised wage inflation that’s gone with it.  Technology has also allowed people to become more productive.  Rather than result in a more generalised increase in living standards it’s benefitted those who are in a position to pitch their skills into the biggest and most lucrative markets.  Globalisation works to push up remuneration for those at the top and push it down for everyone else.

Likewise international corporations are able to shop around in a beggar my neighbour search for the lowest tax rates.  Of course any suggestion that global capital needs global regulation provokes cries of ‘new world order’ from the libertarian right, a political movement funded by, of course, big corporations (c.f. the Tea Party and the Koch brothers).

A single article isn’t the place to discuss the answers to such big problems.  One article doesn’t even allow room to set out all the problems.  However it should illustrate that Stephen Hester isn’t the problem.  He’s a symptom.

The reason the flock throws one of its number to the wolves is to keep the wolves distracted.  We can’t take down the rich one at a time (we’ll we could but we’d be about it for ever).  It’s even morally highly questionable whether we should as a society turn on one person – rich though he may be, Hester is but a single human being.  Following the mob won’t lead us to the new Jerusalem.

No, we should refuse to allow our focus to be drawn from the biggest issues of an increasingly divided society and a world where the nation state is being outmanoeuvred by transnational corporations to the detriment of the many and the benefit of a very few.  We shouldn’t be happy about Hester’s bonus but nor should we make him a scapegoat.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – Review

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on January 29, 2012 by Jonathan Kent

Warning contains spoilers

 

Steig Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy raised the bar for crime writers the world over.  Part thriller, part noir and highly political, it gave us two enduring characters who stepped away from the page and became almost three dimensional.

The first is Larsson’s alter ego Michael Blomkvist.  Larsson was a left-wing activist, journalist, the editor of an investigative periodical Expo, a Swedish counterpart to Searchlight and an expert on far-right groups.  Blomkvist is co-founder of an investigative periodical, Millennium, that takes on the rich and the powerful and as a result regularly finds itself in trouble.

The second is the extraordinary Lisbeth Salander, one of the most captivating fictional creations in modern literature.  Victim of a violently abusive father, she’s thrown into state care after she sets fire to him for beating her mother and leaving her with brain damage.  Sexually, physically and pharmacologically abused through her incarceration she remains a ward of the state though she’s in her twenties, and making a living as an investigator through her ability to hack into computers.  As the novels unfold we come to know someone who is deeply scarred, vulnerable and yet possessed of an awesome facility for self preservation.  Salander becomes a modern avenging angel.

Not only did Larsson produce great characters and a truly gripping plot (I read the third volume in a little over 24 hours, stopping only to sleep), but Swedish friends attest to its being beautifully written (though I suspect the translation has rendered it rather more work-a-day).  So it’s a series that despite its popularity one would hope a film maker would approach with a degree of respect.

As a result I went to see the English language version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo wondering just how big a hash director David Fincher would make of it.  I couldn’t see Daniel Craig as Blomkvist.  Blomkvist may find himself in the role of action man from time to time but he’s an idealistic softy at heart.  Craig doesn’t make a convincing journalist.  Journalists spend days chained to their computers.  They eat doughnuts and drink coffee.  They don’t have abs.  OK a few have abs but very few journalists are very good journalists and have abs.  There isn’t time.

Rooney Mara on the other hand was a surprise.  I could believe that her Lisbeth Salander had been systematically maltreated.  She managed to capture quite convincingly a combination of low self esteem, fragility and rage.

However my biggest issue was with the directing.  The settings, the cinematography, the degree of fidelity to the original story were all commendable.  I’ll set aside the fact that the film opened with a striking but meaningless pop-video-like CGI sequence set to a godawful cover of Led Zeppelin’s sublime Immigrant Song.

What really bothered me were the sex scenes.  I know that the ubiquity of porn has changed the way sex is shown on screen.  Directors parade more flesh – female flesh of course, no penises – and Rooney Mara’s flesh was put on a float and paraded down Main Street.

That’s widely accepted these days if the sex shown is supposedly between two consenting adults.  But in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo the sex involves someone who has been profoundly traumatised throughout her adolescence and young adulthood.

In the book when Salander slips into Blomkvist’s bed and the two make love it’s an act of considerable trust on her part, while Blomkvist, who one is led to believe is romantically rather cavalier, seems unaware of just how vulnerable Salander is making herself to him and how big a deal that is.  Needless to say Fincher passes on the subtext in favour of straight sex, with the result that it loses much of its emotional power.

If that scene is a missed opportunity then the scene where Salander is manacled to a bed, raped and sodomised by her legal guardian is just plain shameful.

Portraying rape on screen places a huge responsibility on the film-maker.  To eroticise rape is essentially to condone it.  Not only does it ignore the fact that rape is nothing to do with sex and everything to do with power, it also validates the act.

Film-makers who want to show rape for what it is show us faces not bodies.  They allow us to look into the eyes of the victim and see their suffering, their powerlessness and to identify with the emotional impact that sexual violence has on them.

Fincher shows us Mara largely naked, chained face down to a bed.  We never look into her eyes.  We only see her face in profile.  We see her writhing around.

After the attack, when she limps away, we see her from behind, Rooney shuffling so as to underscore the physical impact of anal rape – but again we don’t see her eyes as she processes what has happened to her.  The act is objectified.  We watch.  We aren’t helped to empathise.

Frankly having sat through what seemed to me the eroticisation of the forced and violent sodomy of a much abused woman I felt not a little soiled and complicit for having watched it.

I’m quite surprised that more fuss hasn’t been made about the scene.  It’s all the more shocking because Larsson’s own position seemed pretty clear to me.  The depiction of the rape scene in the book was of an act of violence, not sex.  The incident was about power and domination and we were never allowed to forget what Salander was going through.

Indeed the Swedish title of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is “Män Som Hatar Kvinnor”: “Men Who Hate Women.”  At the start of each section of the book is a page blank save for a fact about violence against women in Sweden.

I hope it’s not pushing the point too far to suggest that Larsson was a feminist writer, or at least hoped that was what he was.  (Nick Cohen in the Observer disagrees though as he bases his argument on remarks quoted without proper context it’s hard to know if he has a case).

I can’t help but feel that Fincher’s movie was a betrayal of the book’s core values and that we’ve somehow contrived to overlook the fact that he’s turned an explicit protest against violence against women into a spectacle which we’re expected to secretly enjoy.

If there’s one thing above all about big money entertainment that saddens me it’s its apparent determination to pander to the worst in us rather than to appeal to the best.

 

Pissing On The Flag

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on January 12, 2012 by Jonathan Kent

Another day, another scandal involving United States servicemen.  This time its four marines pissing on the corpses of Taliban fighters they’ve killed.  Each time this happens we’re asked to treat it as an isolated case.  What we’re expected to believe is that when US troops misbehave it’s captured on camera and everyone knows about it.  When the cameras aren’t rolling they’re the honourable warriors Americans believe them to be.

Counterintuitive doesn’t begin to describe it.  In the wake of Abu Ghraib, the Iraq Helicopter Video, all those instances of collateral damage, the attack on a Pakistani border post and too many others, we’re expected to believe that these represent terrible exceptions, exceptions that just happen to be caught on video.

A far more credible explanation is that there is a far deeper problem, one stemming from an increasingly inhumane culture that, in the wake of September 11th, has gripped American forces.  The US military has become brutal and, dare one say it, fascist in the proper sense of the word – that it wields the power to punish and execute and sees itself as the final arbiter.

In the wake of the Vietnam War the US military drafted a ‘Soldier’s Creed’.   You can see the degree of emphasis put on protection, creditable behaviour and the importance of not disgracing one’s uniform.

 

I am an American Soldier.

I am a member of the United States Army – a protector of the greatest nation on earth.

Because I am proud of the uniform I wear, I will always act in ways creditable to the military service and the nation it is sworn to guard.

I am proud of my own organization. I will do all I can to make it the finest unit in the Army.

I will be loyal to those under whom I serve. I will do my full part to carry out orders and instructions given to me or my unit.

As a soldier, I realize that I am a member of a time-honored profession—that I am doing my share to keep alive the principles of freedom for which my country stands.

No matter what the situation I am in, I will never do anything, for pleasure, profit, or personal safety, which will disgrace my uniform, my unit, or my country.

I will use every means I have, even beyond the line of duty, to restrain my Army comrades from actions disgraceful to themselves and to the uniform.

I am proud of my country and its flag.

I will try to make the people of this nation proud of the service I represent, for I am an American Soldier.

 

In 2003, at the height of the war on terror a section of the US military responsible for the Warrior Ethos rewrote the Soldier’s Creed thus:

 

I am an American Soldier.

I am a Warrior and a member of a team.

I serve the people of the United States, and live the Army Values.

I will always place the mission first.

I will never accept defeat.

I will never quit.

I will never leave a fallen comrade.

I am disciplined, physically and mentally tough, trained and proficient in my warrior tasks and drills.

I always maintain my arms, my equipment and myself.

I am an expert and I am a professional.

I stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy, the enemies of the United States of America in close combat.

I am a guardian of freedom and the American way of life.

I am an American Soldier.

 

All those references to protection and honour and avoiding disgrace have been stripped out.  It’s as though the task of writing the code has been handed to the teams responsible for Gears of War or Call of Duty.  There’s no ethos there just a cartoonish and brutal rant.  The actions of US troops pissing on their dead enemies fly in the face of the original Soldier’s Creed but they’re wholly consistent with the current version.

If the US military wants to defeat its enemies rather than see its soldiers acting as recruiting sergeants for new ones it needs to recognise that it is in the throes of an ethical and cultural crisis.  If it wants to take a step back towards a US military that projects American values, values that might have been recognised as American by the four men whose faces look out from Mount Rushmore, they could do worse than scrapping the current Soldier’s Creed and replacing it with the original.

Lawrence Verdict; Fingers Crossed, Tightly

Posted in Uncategorized on January 3, 2012 by headstrongclub

Doreen Lawrence said that today’s verdict is no cause for celebration.  It certainly isn’t.  At best it represents a belated attempt by our criminal justice system to right the dismal wrong that was the original investigation into her son, Stephen Lawrence’s murder.

At worst, and I hesitate to say this, I fear there’s latitude for a miscarriage of justice.  Don’t get me wrong – I really hope they’ve got the right guys.   If they have then a lengthy spell inside will underline the message that, even if it takes a while, justice will catch up with racist thugs.

My misgivings are more down to two factors.  Firstly the conviction rests heavily on forensic evidence.  Although forensic evidence appears to offer empirical proof, a more reliable alternative to the memory and eyesight of human witnesses, it too is capable of being abused, compromised and misrepresented by lawyers and by ‘expert witnesses’.

Above all though I am mindful of the wider context of this trial.  Just like the trial of the Birmingham Six and of the Guildford Four there’s been huge pressure for a conviction.  That pressure is many fold; from a public that was, rightly, disgusted by the way the entire Lawrence case had been handled hitherto; from a political class that wants to convince people, not least our fellow citizens, neighbours and friends from the black community, that the system serves them as much as it serves anyone; from the campaigning media (not least the Daily Mail); from the police, who have had their fill of the flak this case has brought them and who want to be seem to be capable of doing their jobs.

The point is this –so many stood to lose much face had this trial resulted in a not guilty verdict.  That’s not an environment in which we can feel absolutely, one hundred percent certain that justice has been properly done.

I’ll say it again – I really, really hope they got the right guys.  I see no reason to believe they didn’t.  I certainly don’t want to get some particularly vile people off the hook.  However I am also reminded, worryingly, of situations where someone got banged up because someone had to get banged up.  God help us all if that ever turns out to have been the case.

Sometime a Great Contrarian

Posted in Democracy with tags on December 16, 2011 by Jonathan Kent

The fact that we saw Christopher Hitchens’s death approaching with a crushing inevitability makes it no less sad its day has arrived.

Hitchens was an aberration; a popular public intellectual from a country that abhors intellectuals who moved to another Anglo Saxon country that abhors intellectuals.  And yet he thrived.

The man known to his friends as Hitch couldn’t stand cosy consensus.  He subjected every shibboleth to ruthless dissection.  No argument was ever settled in Hitchens’s mind, every debate was in flux and warranted review, no flummery was ever tolerated.  “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence,” is just one of many great Hitchens lines.

Many of us in the green movement will disagree with positions that he took.  He supported Margaret Thatcher over the Falklands War.  Many ‘progressives’ would find that a hard place to be, yet I cannot see how we can disagree with his point that a free democratic nation has no choice but too defend its citizens against subjugation by a brutal military dictatorship.

Likewise he supported the invasion of Iraq reasoning that a tyrant like Saddam could not be tolerated.  Indeed, though the West didn’t merely tolerate Saddam but encouraged him when it suited, just as it forged a rapprochement with Gaddafi when the possibility of doing business arose.

These are difficult issues for the left.  Hitchens asked the right questions though he often supplied no answers or the wrong ones.  But is there a right answer to dictators other than to remove them each and every one?  And if we cannot do that in such a way that causes less suffering than leaving them be are we not then corralled into a position where we’re making less than principled choices about which we depose and which we live with?

But he also supplied good answers.  To understand Hitchens it helps to understand the great figures of the Enlightenment that he was so drawn to; Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine.  He realised that America’s true power lay not in its military might but in the ideals that it embodied.  “In America, your internationalism can and should be your patriotism,” he wrote.  Sometimes he could have been harder on contemporary America for having left many of its founding principles so far behind.  Sometimes he simply put the boot in.  “How dismal it is to see present day Americans yearning for the very orthodoxy that their country was founded to escape,” he despaired.

Many saw his journey away from the left and apparently towards the right as a betrayal.  I think his own assessment of it is rather fairer.

“There are days when I miss my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb. But in general I feel better, and no less radical, and you will feel better too, I guarantee, once you leave hold of the doctrinaire and allow your chainless mind to do its own thinking.”

Hitchens was a radical in the tradition of Lilburne, Wilkes, Paine, Jefferson and Cobbett.  They were all men of affairs, of business yet valued liberty, justice and had a profound sense of the equality that our shared humanity implies.

Hitchens poured his writing into that river of thought.  He never stopped challenging not just others beliefs but his own.  As he put it: “Time spent arguing is, oddly enough, almost never wasted.”

I suspect his reputation will only grow with the passing of years.

The Distant Thunder of Water Cannon

Posted in Uncategorized on December 8, 2011 by Jonathan Kent

Over the last couple of years the conversations I’ve had with friends in the city have been defined by their unremitting gloom.

Just this week a neighbour who works as a market analyst pointed to a recent paper by a senior economist at a major bank that suggests Europe may not get itself back on a firm financial footing until 2020.  If the author is right then we will have been through an on and off recession lasting 12 years.

Where the living standards of the 99% who have to work for a living will be at the end of it is anyone’s guess but for almost all they will be lower than in 2001.

That’s bad, yet my neighbour fears worse.  She sees the possibility of complete social meltdown.

Of the many ‘lessons’ supposedly drawn from the summer’s riots the most demonstrable is surely this; that with the advent of new technology the police no longer have the organisational advantage they once enjoyed.

In August things came very close to a tipping point where the police had to surrender the streets to the rioters.  In some cases, arguably, that tipping point was momentarily passed.

The police rely not just on their immediate physical response, their ability to put officers, vehicles and riot equipment on the ground at flashpoints, but also on the sense that even if crimes are committed unhindered now the law will inexorably close in on those responsible.

Yet if future disorder does spiral out of control and if public anger is such that a larger and larger minority sides with rioters, not just passively but actively participates, then the realisation will dawn that the police simply won’t be able to track down most of those who have taken part.  The more widespread the rioting the more would-be rioters will feel they have impunity, the more that those on the fringes will put aside their fear of retribution and join in.

And that, I suspect, is what the government really fears.  Faced with a surge of anger at the way our economy has been pillaged by the super rich and financial institutions the authorities pull their one club from their golf bag and use it to threaten or beat anyone who gets off their posterior to protest.  Ignore comments that the British are not supposed to protest sitting or lying down, the establishment doesn’t like protest full stop unless it’s sufficiently polite that they can afford to ignore it.

They seem unable to distinguish between protest that expresses legitimate feelings of injustice, something that should prompt the government to act to address those grievances, and civil disorder in the making.

The phrase that I keep reaching for is ‘in denial’, for through the disaster that is the current crash the 1% and the politicians that support them seem to be expanding the maximum effort to preserve the status quo and doing the minimum required to appease the rest sufficient to forestall further rioting.

The same pattern can be seen time and again.  Those insulated by wealth and power from the reality experienced by everyone else never grasp the seriousness of the situation until it is too late.

Just as with Mubarak and Gaddafi, so too in their own way the mighty of the City of London and the cabinet.  Rather than seize the initiative and do sufficient to properly address the despair of the many, rather than ensure that the pain is borne proportionally by those best placed to weather it, they will do the minimum; forever reactive, forever on the back foot, never in control.

This is a time to demonstrate the hard way that we’re all in this together.  But what we will surely see, time and again, is that we are not.  Rather than listen to dissent they will suppress it.  Rather than help the poor they will keep them down.

So when (I fear it will not be if) they resort to water cannon and rubber bullets we will have reached a point of no return.  They will have created a wound in our society, a divide between an ever larger number of us and an ever smaller number of them, that will not be healed with warm words.  The consequences cannot be fathomed but we should be afraid.

Very few of us have anything to gain from more riots.  They will play into the hands of the far right and the authoritarian left.

The government needs to wake up to the fact that change is inevitable and manage that change.  Doing nothing will simply hand the opportunity to do something to some very ugly people.