Archive for Democracy

Even Neo Nazis Should Get Due Process

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on September 29, 2013 by Jonathan Kent

The test of democracy and of the rule of law, both here and in Greece, is not how it treats the best of us but how it treats the worst.

For that reason the Abu Hamzah case did not leave me aghast, but rather reassured.

If an objectionable, foreign thorn in the side of the British establishment could get due process to the point where the UK government was forced to push for a change in the law in Jordan to make inadmissible evidence gained through torture, then decent citizens here have good reason to expect justice.

That doesn’t mean we should be complacent. There are real threats to justice in Britain, such as cuts to legal aid. However the battle is clearly not yet lost.

Meanwhile in Greece the authorities have moved to arrest members of the Neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, including its leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos and four other Golden Dawn MPs. They’ve been charged with belonging to a criminal organisation and it’s claimed that guns and ammunition were found in Michaloliakos’ home.

Recent posts by reservists belonging to elite Greek military units calling for a coup, the killing of a prominent leftist musician, sustained attacks on immigrants and left wing protesters, had all brought things to a point where the state seems to have felt it had little alternative other than to act.

I feel obliged to say two things.  Firstly that I believe in muscular democracy; in other words I do not believe that a democracy, in the name of democracy, should hand the means of its own destruction to non-democratic forces. When Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared at one point that he saw democracy as a bus, ‘you use it to get to your destination and then get off’, he associated himself with autocrats everywhere, from Hitler onwards, who have exploited democracy. The minimum qualification for being allowed to seek power through the democratic process must be a commitment to surrender power democratically when citizens demand it. For that reason it’s hard to justify allowing Golden Dawn or any other anti-democratic group an electoral platform.

The other thing I would say is this; however odious Golden Dawn the party and its members may be they must get due process and a fair trial. It’s not so much a concern about creating martyrs. Most knuckle dragging far right thugs would fetishise a rotting dog’s carcass if it served their warped cause. Nope, it’s because the damage done to Greek democracy by further degrading its already damaged institutions would be almost as bad as letting Golden Dawn damage them.

There’s a passage in A Man For All Seasons, where Sir Thomas More is debating with his son-in-law William Roper, that puts it better than I could.

Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

Bang ‘em up, throw away the key and all that, but do it proper and do it so a better, more confident, more self-respecting, more honest, more democratic Greece can come out of this.

(Thanks to Mr. James Mackenzie for directing me to the passage above)

Time To Change The Game

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on November 14, 2011 by Jonathan Kent

Growing up, did you ever play Monopoly or Risk?  Did you ever get to a point where you simply picked up the board, chucked the pieces in the air and told everyone ‘this is a stupid game’?

I did and I feel I’ve reached the same point now with the much bigger game that we’ve been suckered into; mindless materialism. Suckered because it’s a game that creates 99 losers for every winner and for 150 years the traditional left has been playing along, simply trying to ensure that more people win.

The time has come to stop playing an unwinnable game and play a different one entirely.

Looking back 150 years to an age when working people had been driven off the land and into the cities, when live expectancy was short, when malnutrition and slum housing were rife, when education was accessible only the a minority, when social security was almost non existent and universal healthcare yet undreamed of; that early socialists saw the problem in almost purely material terms is understandable.  Confronted with such deprivation the only decent response was to feed, clothe, house, educate and cure.  There are many parts of the world where that still holds true.

But the left has moved beyond trying to meet people’s needs in order to ensure that everyone can live with dignity.  The traditional left has bought into materialism – the mindless pursuit of consumer crap – and in doing so, it has condemned millions to misery.  Misery because the material hierarchy for which they’ve signed up condemns most of them to be losers, and it’s the conscious or unconscious knowledge of this that leaves so many people in modern Western societies feeling dissatisfied, adrift and depressed.

Leftist materialism found its purest voice in New Labour.  New Labour worshipped the rich.  Blair and Mandelson embodied that final capitulation.  They didn’t just feel intensely relaxed about others getting filthy rich, they felt really very chilled out at the prospect of getting filthy rich themselves.

I’ve often wondered what the attraction is.  Of course most of us can understand why people lust after the first million or so; a nice house, a decent car, big TV, all that stuff – not having to worry about paying the bills.  But the second million?  Or the tenth?  Even the one thousandth million?

Looked at in purely quality of life terms the relationship between wealth and wellbeing rises steeply from zero but reaches a point pretty fast where it more or less flat-lines.  A BMW gets you from A to B in relative comfort (I prefer the train, so long as I can sit down and not get charged a fortune), but 5 luxury cars don’t get you there any faster or more comfortably.  The difference in wellbeing between having four homes rather than three is miniscule next to having one home rather than none.  A wardrobe full of the latest Versace dresses and no friends is a poor substitute for a chest of drawers full of hand-me-downs and a dozen people you can turn to when you’re feeling low.

A recent survey concluded that the Mexican telecoms magnate Carlos Slim is the richest man in history because his income equals that combined of more of his fellow countrymen than even legendary rich figures such as Crassus- in Slim’s case his wealth equals that of 440,000 average Mexicans.

Yet Slim doesn’t have 440,000 homes.  He doesn’t have 440,000 cars or even 440,000 fried eggs for breakfast.  The same is true of Warren Buffett, a shrewd investor but an unassuming man whose modest lifestyle belies his vast wealth.  Redistribute their capital and you don’t free up additional resources to be redistributed.  You only pump more money into the system and change the price of goods.  Take away Slim or Buffett’s fortunes and spread around their cash and you redistribute power, not least buying power, but you don’t create more stuff.

Because here’s the thing.  Past a certain point money has nothing to do with standard of living and material comfort; past a certain point it’s about status and then it’s about power.

We are, on a very important level, still the children of our animal selves – with our need to survive, reproduce and to have a place within the group.  It’s just that these days all that evolutionary programming is at work in the city rather than on the savannah.

Status and power are intimately tied up with survival and finding the best possible mate.  Our need to be valued and to be with others that are valued is as hardwired into our brains as is the need to eat, sleep and go to the toilet.

But here’s another thing – value doesn’t have to be measured in financial terms.  There are plenty of circumstances where people have won status, respect and even a more desirable mate not through being rich but through giving more – through being indispensible to the group.  When your people are starving being the person who knows how to grow food gives you a value that being able to hand out gold coins does not.

The trouble is that the left has capitulated and plays a game where value is measured in purely material terms.  As the Archbishop of York John Sentamu said the other day; “it is hard to imagine a more powerful way of telling someone that they are of little value than to pay them one-third of 1% of your salary.”  Yet even if we manage to reduce income disparities – which we most certainly should – in a world where value is ascribed in purely monetary terms, nurses, carers, teachers and so many others are never going to be paid enough to reflect their real value to us.  We have to change the game.

Just think; if we refuse to run on the materialist hamster wheel, if we refuse to coo and ooh and aah over someone’s new car, bigger house, shiny handmade kitchen and designer clothes, those things start to lose their value.

If the natural reaction to someone with five cars was ‘what a wombat’ (apologies to wombats everywhere btw) rather than ‘wow, like your cars’ the incentive to own five rapidly diminishes.  Of course if you’re reading this you’re probably the kind of person that would tell the owner of five cars that they’re a wombat (you’re so polite – I’d expected more anglo-saxon).  If we can persuade all the other people who have been conned into playing this sucker game to do the same then we’re onto something.

It’s tough.  It’s tough to tell people, especially ones you like, that you think the rubbish they buy is just that.  After all when someone has bought loads of stuff to bolster their self esteem it’s pretty crushing to be told it’s just so much tat.  Perhaps better to tell them you like them for themselves but that their tat gets in the way.

So just imagine what it would be like if we were valued for what we gave rather than what we took, not so much for financial giving as the giving of time, concern, support and love.  Imagine the sort of race that would produce to be top dog – and there would be a race because we’re programmed to want to be valued, however that value is handed out.

I’m talking about a system which creates lots of winners because that sort of value generates more value – we become valued because we give of ourselves and those we give to feel valued because they receive our love, time, concern and attention.  It’s a virtuous circle and the resources involved are infinite not scarce.  It’s a recipe for a happy, sustainable society.

It won’t be easy.  Not only have millions invested a lot of their hopes and dreams in stuff but some very big and powerful companies have invested millions (upon millions upon millions) in creating an addiction to things, anything that can be sold to them.

But we can make a start.  Let’s stop complimenting people on the stuff they’ve bought and start complimenting people on the good things they do – or just for being a good person.  A pebble rolled down a hill…

So much for financial status addiction, but as for what money buys you when you already have status – power – the answer there is hardly new.  We want democracy.  We want power to rest with the people and we want those we elect to govern on our behalf to do just that – to govern for the 100%, not just the 99% and certainly not just for the 1%.  Where corporations and the super-rich have accrued power for themselves, we want it back.  They can have their share, like the rest of us; a ballot paper, a pencil and if they want to use it – a voice.  But they don’t get to use their money to buy a megaphone to drown out the voices of the 99%.

But whatever we do we should remember this; human nature is what it is – it may not be quite a constant but it evolves at the speed at which continents drift – very slowly.  We mustn’t aspire to perfect people.  As Christopher Hitchens noted; “It is only those who hope to transform human beings who end up by burning them, like the waste product of a failed experiment.”  Mao and Hitler and Pol Pot all hoped to transform people and ended up slaughtering them.

Rather we should aim to improve society so that it brings out the best in people rather than the worst.  We’ve found that while greed may be a powerful force for growth, it’s also a poisonous, polluting force that corrupts those it touches and crushes those that stand in its way.  If we want a society driven by more wholesome urges; the desire to help, to care, to nurture, to discover, to create, to beautify, to understand – then we must reserve our respect and reverence for those who embody such values.

So let’s focus on needs and let’s focus on deeds and let’s stop measuring our worth by the stuff we own – as someone I once loved said to me; you don’t own your possessions, they own you.

‘How Much Is That Minister In The Window…’

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on October 17, 2011 by Jonathan Kent

We don’t want capitalism, we want democracy.

Capitalism is not simply people going about their lives setting up businesses, providing goods and services and jobs.  Most of us need some of the stuff that businesses offer.

Capitalism is one-dollar-one-vote.  The more dollars you have the more votes you get.

This power of money goes to the heart of the Fox scandal.

Liam Fox travelled the world with a man whose time was paid for by people with vested interests in the defence industry.  That man, Adam Werrity, arranged off-diary meetings for Fox away from the gaze of civil servants.  In short Fox travelled the world with a man who constantly whispered in his ear on behalf of weapons manufacturers.  He didn’t travel the world with someone gently reminding him about injured service personnel, about retired veterans, the Ghurkhas, or the ex-service people sleeping rough on Britain’s streets (ex military personnel reportedly make up the largest group of homeless after those brought up in the ‘care’ system).  There was no one there reminding him about Deepcut or speaking up for Iraqis or Afghans who felt the rough end of British Military ‘justice’.  His ear was open to those with the most cash and, by extension, the most power.

It also goes to the heart of the Murdoch scandal.  In the 14 months following the election George Osborne met with senior News International figures 16 times, Michael Gove met the Murdochs or Rebekah Brooks 21 times and Baroness Warsi, the Tory Chairman had dinner with 14 senior NI. Executives last October.

It’s consistent with the picture painted by figures in today’s Guardian.  It identifies more than 1500 ministerial meetings with corporate lobbyists in the first 10 months of the coalition alone.  Aside from education corporate ear bending sessions make up the lions share of meetings with outside interests.  Even in the education department there were 70 meetings with corporates and only 14 with unions.

The education department’s official figures for meetings also hint at what we don’t see because only one meeting with the media is listed, though we know Michael Gove went on bended knee before the Murdochs and their henchwoman 21 times.  Those meetings were ‘informal’ and are thus not included.

Given that ministers want to be seen to be meeting charities and the public and given also that one might expect any potentially questionable meetings to be ‘informal’ and thus not included in these figures, we might not un-reasonably suspect that corporate lobbying dwarfs anything else in ministerial diaries.

All most of us want is for our elected representatives too govern for all of us.  Yes that means they will spend some time listening to business and trying to create an environment where it’s possible to create goods and provide services and jobs, but that has to be in balance with the wider needs of our society.

I met a senior tax lawyer late last month who declared that what had happened with the banks had started to make him feel like a communist.  A less likely would-be-communist you could not hope to meet.

It’s simply one small sign of the depth and breadth of the anger out there.  It comes from a realisation that our system is out of balance, that the needs of the very wealthy have been overly tended to and the needs of the 99%, for housing, health, education, food and the means to live with dignity and in reasonable comfort have been relegated to at best second place.

This anger isn’t the province of what might once have been called ‘the working classes’ alone.  If anything the artificial divide between those of us who work with our hands and those who work with our heads is withering away.  The ‘us’ is almost all of us, and the ‘them’ those very few whose assets have transcended mere wealth and have bought them power.

It’s not a revolution if you’re simply asking for what you have by law, by tradition and by right; a one-person-one-vote democratic system whereby our elected representatives govern for and on behalf of the nation, or at least for those who elected them, and not simply for those interests whose financial power allows their voices to drown out all others.

A Thousand Questions But Just One Issue

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on July 18, 2011 by headstrongclub

There is a single issue at the heart of the News Corp. scandal from which all others emanate, and that is the influence that the corporate world and the very, very rich have over supposedly democratic institutions and a supposedly democratic society.

So when we ask why MPs were too scared to stand up to Murdoch we’re asking about the power of a corporation to cow a legislature.

When we ask about a newspaper’s bribes to policemen we’re asking about the power of a corporation to illegally buy information and compromise officers of the law.

When we ask about the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police receiving £12,000 hospitality from a luxury spa company we’re asking what the business or its friends get in return.

When we ask why a disgraced former editor from the country’s biggest media group is hired to advise the Prime Minister and why that Prime Minister has sixty odd meetings with that media group in 18 months, we’re asking about that media organisation’s influence or even power over the Prime Minister and his government.

But it goes further.

When we ask why perhaps up to a dozen undercover officers, such as Mark Kennedy, were detailed to infiltrate Green groups and why the Association of Chief Police Officers ran a business selling the information such officers gathered too corporate interests we are also asking about the relationship between the police and big business.

When we ask about heavy handed policing at arms fairs and at Kingsnorth, we’re asking the same question; how much power does big business have to get the police to do its bidding?

When protests are peaceful and when the only real threat to an organisation is to its bottom line, when officers subvert those protest groups where there is little threat to the public interest but where there is a market for intelligence on them, we know that it is driven by a form of corruption.

But let s go further still: when governments, in a time of crisis, make cuts to reduce deficits and thus hurt the poor, yet allow the super-rich to avoid paying their share, we must ask who calls the tune?

When the Republicans in the United States insist that 85% of the budget deficit must be addressed through reductions to America’s pathetic welfare safety net and only 15% through tax rises that don’t even roll back the Bush tax cuts for the super-rich, we must ask who really rules America?

When inflation runs at 5% yet interest rates are set at 0.5% to allow the banks who caused this crisis to rebuild their balance sheets at the expense of savers who lose money in real terms simply by keeping it in one of those banks we must ask who really calls the shots from Tokyo to London to LA.?

I believe in democracy.  I believe that entrepreneurs, inventors, innovators and honest business-people deserve the opportunity to provide the jobs, the goods and the services that society needs.  But I don’t believe that in a democracy that should give the super-rich a greater voice or more influence and certainly not more power than anyone else.  Yet that is what is happening.

And that is why all this matters so much; it is the moment when the curtain moves aside and we see Oz, wizened old Oz with his hands on the levers and his smoke and mirrors and we have a chance to question this illusion of democracy that we’ve lived with all our lives.

Democracy isn’t about the rule of the rich, it isn’t about the dictatorship of the proletariat; it’s about each and every one of us, by virtue of nothing more than our shared humanity, having an equal voice in determining how our society is run.  We should settle for nothing less.

The Mouse That Roared

Posted in Democracy, Media and Technology, The view from London with tags , , , , on December 12, 2008 by headstrongclub

We owe the Barclay brothers our thanks. In trying to use their money to buy an election and then throwing a hissy fit, punishing the electors for making a choice of which they do not approve, they have highlighted a wider malaise; the vulnerability of democracy to manipulation by the powerful.

Thankfully on the small Channel Island of Sark the electors said no to the list of candidates backed by the billionaire brothers. They used the first democratic election in this last Western bastion of feudalism to vote for continuity. There is no shame in a democracy of voting for more feudalism; because the truly important thing is that in the years to come they will be able to review their choice regularly.

On this first occasion, however, their independence of mind looks set to cost the island hundreds of jobs.

What has happened on Sark is, in microcosm, what is happening in many other places, most of them far larger and better known than Sark. A healthy democracy is a strong a flexible form of government. It reflects the mores and aspirations of the majority of electors whilst allowing for the voices of the minority, in its various guises, to be heard.

Yet democracy is not difficult to manipulate. Money, control of the media, control of business can all be used to shape the result.

The cynical might suggest that Western powers have sought to bring democracy to the developing world because democratic governments can be replaced or recast more easily than dictatorships if those governments don’t promote Western interests (not withstanding the fact that in a democracy those governments should be promoting the interests of their own citizens.)

Equally in the West the penalties for manipulating a democracy are rather less serious than the price that can be extracted for meddling in the doings of a dictatorship.

So democracy has an appeal both to the democratically minded and to the undemocratic at heart.

In capitalist societies there is a balance to be found. We do not wish to constrain enterprise and innovation too greatly both because they benefit many of us and because many also dream of one day using their own talents to create a business. It’s like the lottery; winning big is the good fortune of relatively few but the dream of winning big and the sustaining hope that it offers touches many.

Yet beyond a certain level wealth offers few discernible material improvements. The Barclays have reached a level of wealth where they have a choice between gold plated bathroom taps and solid gold bathroom taps; a choice barely worth making. However the brothers, owners of the Daily Telegraph and worth an estimated £1.8 billion, had hoped to buy power, or at least influence, and that power, in a democracy, belongs equally to all of us.

Sark may be a Duchy of Grand Fenwick for our times, it may have struck a blow for the status quo and to retain some of its outdated principles, but it also said no to the influence of big money and in doing so has reminded the rest of us what democracy is for, and what it is not.