St. Georges Day: annual opportunity for dimwitted malcontents to indulge in the dark fantasy that you’re not allowed to be English anymore.
Important: an authentic St. Georges Day post must end with “repost this if you dare”, thereby implying that mentioning St. George has been banned in case it offends the muslims. Don’t sign off with “white power” though, as that rather gives the game away.
Now, I’m fully aware that if you’re hoping to be inspired by great acts of human endeavour, British politics is not the best place to be looking, but by anyone standards this last week has been a fucking shocker.
Our millionaire chancellor awards tax cuts to the wealthiest whilst making stealth grabs on pensioners and the NHS budget. The treasurer of the Conservative party is caught red handed auctioning government policy and touting David Cameron as our first “Pay Per View” Prime Minister. Smarting from the exposure of this scandal our PMs shiny ham-face reddens, and so he attempts to divert attention towards Ed Miliband’s union connections by provoking panic buying of fuel. Hence the fuel shortages, a remarkable feat achieved in the absence of any actual strikes.
That all this happened in the same week might cause the most sanguine of us to conclude our version of parliamentary democracy is irrevocably fucked, board up our windows and declare our properties autonomous zones subject to martial law, like some post-apocalyptic version of the Good Life. But fuck no, that wasn’t the worst of it. For sheer bollock-crushing despair, you’d be hard pressed to beat the dark, tragi-comic pantomime of “the pasty tax” affair.
Jesus. I can hardly bring myself to describe it, so soul-tarnishing was the whole tedious episode. Wish me luck. Here goes.
Last week Osborne’s budget contained a seemingly innocuous item, closing a supposed “loophole” which allows supermarkets and bakeries to sell hot food without incurring VAT charges. Predictably, businesses directly affected by this change, such as Gregg’s, soon started issuing concerned, disgruntled statements. By Tuesday, a bewildered Osborne (who presumably only recognises pies and pasties as some sort of working class version of an “en croute” dish) found himself the butt of jokes in the Commons when he meekly volunteered that he “couldn’t remember the last time he had eaten at Gregg’s”. Well quite. Cue much tittering on the interweb, the customary hilarity when a priviledged toff stumbles awkwardly whilst attempting to feign the common touch. A brief comic interlude during a week of unremitting bleakness then?
Hardly. By this time a hundred PR drones and political hacks had detected the shit-sweet scent of cheap political gain in the air and the Westminster media bubble went into giddy overdrive. The next day, Wednesday, was like a day staring directly into a high-pressure sewage outlet. The stream of viscous, stomach turning shit hitting you directly in the face just did not stop.
First off, the Sun newspaper, previously silent or open openly contemptuous about issues such as student fee increases, NHS privatisation or cash for access, decided that an attack on pasties was the final straw and made this unlikely foray into Marxist rhetoric.
Shortly after, a camera crew fortuitously chanced upon Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and Rachel Reeves at the Redditch branch of Gregg’s, “stocking up” on sausage rolls before relentlessly tweeting about it like demented, pastry obsessed spam-bots.
Not wanting to appear out of touch, Call-Me-Dave issued a statement saying that he too was very much partial to a pasty and remembered eating a lovely one at Leeds railway station once. The veracity of this anecdote was almost immediately brought into question and so Number 10 took the remarkable step of issuing a statement confirming the Prime Ministers commitment to pasty-eating in general whilst indicating that his recollection of specific pasty-eating incidents may have been inexact. Yes, that actually happened.
Soon every MP was crawling out of the woodwork to declare how much a fan they were of hot pastry goods. Energy Secretary Ed Davey went one further by revealing that not only did he like Cornish pasties, he once worked in a pork pie factory. Beat that mother-fuckers. He WORKED in an ACTUAL twatting pie factory. Know this: his commitment to pastry goods is beyond fucking repoach, so all you haters try to come at him if you dare. He will be ready for you. Like Chuck fucking Norris but with Cornish pasties for feet and pork pies for fists. Bam! Feel his hot pastry wrath!
Where would it end? By the evening, my febrile imagination had a Sky News reporter outside Number 10, casually reporting on a Ginsters van delivering the cabinets “usual daily consignment of assorted pies and pasties, like they’ve always enjoyed, since, erm, forever. No, shut up, it’s true.” How long would it be before Nick Griffin was claiming a samosa exemption favoured immigrants? How would the LibDems find a way to betray their core values on an a pie-related matter? When would a fearful Guardian article appear, ruminating on whether a “pesto tax” could soon follow and decimate the middle classes? No matter how far I let my imagination run, nothing seemed fanciful when measured against the lunacy of the day. I had a bit of a lie down.
I suppose if you’re an embittered politico, used to wading knee-deep in this sort of bullshit, the days antics probably seemed a bit of a wheeze. If you were forced to defend it you might even make a half-hearted stab at arguing the “pastry tax” is emblematic of the political establishments lack of connection with the working man, and so it’s therefore reasonable for a politician to try to position themselves relative to it in a favourable way. But really, FUCK THAT SHIT. If this is modern politics, pratfalls and posturing, disposable PR opportunities cooked up by a shoe-gazing media bubble, snatched at clumsily by opportunistic little shit-weasels then we are well and truly shafted. There has to be something better than this. There just has to.
Apologies for the all the swears. I’ll make it up to you later with a back rub or something. Fairs fair.
I’m always irked by the “slippery slope” arguments against gay marriage favoured by the hard-of-thinking and stupid-on-purpose. You know, this kind of thing:
"If you allow gay people to marry each other, where do you stop? Before you know it you’ll be allowing dogs to marry each other. Or cars. Or bits of fluff. Or abstract nouns. See? This course of action has ludicrous consequences. Ergo, everything should stop just the way it is."
Where do you stop? Well that’s for us to decide isn’t it? We’re not dealing with a runaway train here. We’re talking about us, enlightened human beings, making reasoned decisions about what rights we should collectively enjoy. We can amend these rights at our own pace and stop when we think they’re fair for everyone. We might make a consensual decision that people should be a certain age before they marry or, more contentiously, that you can only marry one person at a time, but those decisions should be up for discussion and revision. What we’re trying to err towards is universal rights for our species, in all its wonderful flavours. That’s the point we want to get to, and that’s where we’ll stop. That’s not such a difficult idea is it?
Here’s a historical example to demonstrate that we can trust our judgement when it comes to amending rights: in 1918 Britain extended voting rights to include women. Since then we have sensibly resisted the temptation to extend suffrage to spaniels and motorbikes. See? We reasonably acknowledged that voting rights should apply to all genders but not to other species and inanimate objects. We made a modest step in the right direction and then we stopped*. It turned out to be not such a slippery slope after all. Far from it. Experience tells us the path to equality is a grinding uphill struggle on which progress is pitifully slow and halting. In reality our problems are of friction and inertia. The “slippery” slope is a fallacy.
*Note: the subject of voting rights, like marriage, is not a settled one. For example, should votes be extended to prisoners? I think yes, but I can understand why that might be seen as contentious. Similarly, should a company (a legal entity, not a person) be allowed to vote? I think not. The fact that companies resident in the City of London currently enjoy voting rights (24,000 votes versus the 8000 votes of the residents) is an unsavoury hangover from Londons guild-controlled history and one that has thus far resisted democratic reform. But that’s a rant for another day.
A story in the Guardian today looks at some immediate effects of the plan to turn NHS budgeting decisions over to front-line GPs. This has been a mantra of Lansley and Cameron: “empower the GP”. They tout it as an axiomatic good. But is it?
What is so desirable about transferring budgeting decisions to the hands of people who trained to practice medicine? After all, these are specialised management and accountancy activities you’d presume could be handled more effectively by centralised bodies of experts right? Well here’s Lansley’s justification for this wingnut scheme, try it on for size: GPs sit right at the apex of a pyramid of health care. Lots of complicated and expensive health care interventions may happen as a result of a GP’s interaction with a patient (an operation for example), but GPs currently don’t care about those cost implications. They just want the patient to get better so they’ll refer a patient for treatment, regardless of what that does to the overall regional or national health budget. “So,”, reasons Lansley, “what if we made GPs responsible for the entire budget? Then they’d think twice about sending patients for treatment! If a GP is responsible for every last penny of their budget and has the possibility of running out of cash half way through the year, they’ll make damn sure they pick the cheapest suppliers of everything and only dole out treatment when they absolutely have to. What’s more, these GPs know their patients inside out, so they’re best placed to make budgeting decisions that best fit the demographic of the folk they serve. Even better: we can do away with a whole bloated layer of accountancy and management civil servants now we’ve got our GPs to do that stuff . Massive savings eh? Ker-ching! Knighthoods all round?”
Well, no. To highlight the strangeness of this idea let’s apply the same thinking to another large organisation: Tesco is a similarly monolithic entity, operates stores all over the uk, has to make lots of complicated purchasing decisions about its supply chain etc. Let’s imagine Tesco decided to make its operations more efficient by proposing the following to all its local stores: “Here’s your budget for the year. You’re on your own. You’re now in charge of negotiating the best prices with the thousands of multi-national corporations whose products stock your shelves, contracting haulage, ensuring health and safety, maintaining your own building, attracting customers. The whole kaboodle. That’s all up to you now. You know your customers best, do whatever you need to do to be profitable. You’ll probably need to retrain some of your check-out staff and trolley-boys to be accountants and marketing executives and whatnot, but that’s your call. Yeah, we know it sounds scary but we’re certain the prospect of going bankrupt will focus your mind nicely. Also: you’ll be competing against all the other Tesco stores in the area now, so you’d better hit the ground running.”
Is Tesco likely to do this? No, absolutely not. They know that to run a large organisation efficiently you need a) collaboration not competition b) some centralised planning c) specialists to handle specialised tasks. Now I’m no particular fan of a corporate monster like Tesco but that’s how they got to be a market leader: by consolidating function, applying global strategies and taking advantage of economies of scale. It’d be a cold day in hell before Tesco announced a strategy of making its two thousand stores autonomous. It’d be seen as a move of jaw-dropping commercial lunacy.
So why is Lansley proposing this for the NHS then? Either a) he’s dangerously incompetent or b) he actually wants it fragmented and primed to fail. I suggest it’s the latter. This is an intentional strategy that covertly lays the groundwork for an ultimate goal. Think about it: if Tesco engaged in the suicidal scheme I outlined, how long would it be before the stores started individually going bankrupt? No time at all. What would happen then? They’d start getting bought up and bailed out by a variety of opportunistic corporations (in fact some of the more canny stores would invite in the big-boys pre-emptively, from the outset even). This will be exactly the case with GP commissioning groups in the aftermath of the NHS “reforms”. The private health care mega-corporations who helped draft this legislation are waiting in the wings, salivating at prospect of the killing they can make. They know this “giving power to the GPs” plan is a plan destined to fail and one they can profit richly from. What’s more, the GPs know this too. Thats why they, the very people supposedly “empowered” by this plan, are actively opposed to it. They know it’s a stitch-up. They’re being set up to fail, and they know they’ll be blamed when the greedy corporations swoop in to pick up the pieces. This is what Lansley wants: to carve up the NHS and hand it over to the private health care companies that have so richly funded his party. He can’t tell us that though. Privatising the NHS, whilst desirable to a minority of small-state idealogues, would be seen as a toxically treacherous act by the majority this country. Hence this convoluted scheme to “empower the GP”.
This might be the biggest privatization of state function the country has ever seen. We’re being told it simply isn’t happening, that we’re being alarmist, but yet here it is, unfolding slow-motion, right before our very eyes.
I read Julian Baggini’s articles in the Guardian from time to time. He writes considered pieces on the subjects of religion and atheism and, as a professional philosopher, obviously brings a great deal of erudition. But yet, I’ve never really got on with his articles. Depending on how cantankerous my mood, they’ve elicited reactions of indifference, puzzlement or mild annoyance that my time has been somehow wasted. His style has a surfeit of nuance that I’ve, at times, tetchily interpreted as wooliness and a magnanimous, conciliatory attitude to religion that prods at my latent prejudices towards wishy-washy relativism. On the whole though, I’ve taken my inability to engage with his writing as a lack of patience on my part and settled into a cosy ambivalence. Not today though. Today he annoyed the living crap out of me.
"Yes, life without God can be bleak." runs the headline, followed by: “Attempts to brighten up atheism’s image miss its unique selling point – life can be brutal, yet we live in recognition of that.”
Atheism, Julian points out, has been getting it a bit ahead of itself in recent times. Various misguided individuals and organizations have been promoting the idea that denying gods existence could be harmonious with a positive world view, rather than the bleak embrace of a terrifying truth it so obviously is. All this talk of “enjoying life”, “happy humans” and calling ourselves “brights” is just just nervous bluster, displacement activity as we stare into the horrifying abyss of eternal obilivion. No, says Julian, atheism is “massively overcompensating” if it promotes the idea of being happy in a godless universe. If we atheists are to be honest we cannot stray away from our essential type i.e. brave and stubborn, clinging to the edifice of mental well-being by our fingertips. If we start promoting atheism as a cheery world view we’ll appear as vain and foolish as the man who desperately cultivates his few remaining strands of hair into a comb-over.
No. Screw that. I’m not buying into this for a second. For Julian, the fact he’s not immortal and doesn’t have the friendship of a super-being might be a crushing disappointment, but I think that’s rather down to his own childishly high expectations. I, for example, each morning have to deal with my own lack of telekinetic powers and the fact I’m not bestest buddy with Spiderman, yet I don’t take this as evidence of a relentlessly bleak universe and sink into a nihilistic funk. Of course it’d be great for me and Spidey to go out and fight crime together together with our neato powers, but it’d take the petulance of an infant for me to imagine this was my automatic right and that anything less was cause for existential dread. Why is eternal life and continual protection by an omnipotent super-being considered a reasonable pre-requisite for happiness? Why is that expectation any more reasonable than to demand society make us all billionaires and friends with our favourite movie stars? I’m not so fragile that my happiness is dependent on infinite wealth and fame. The same goes for infinite life and infinite safety too. Happiness is possible by modest means, financially and spiritually.
It shouldn’t need stating that it’s is possible to derive great comfort and wonder from the universe just as it is, without the need for a spangly supernatural wizard operating all the controls. We have the immense privilege of being sentient creatures living on world of astounding natural beauty, inhabited by a mind-bendingly diverse variety of lifeforms, at a moment in history where our ability to understand and control the mechanisms of the universe has begun to accelerate to the degree that our potential as a species seems to defy limits. This seems to me as good a foundation as anything on which to build my happiness.
Of course, as Julian points out, life on this planet of ours can be fragile and capricious. Disease, car-crash, earthquake, tsunami: all these can strike without warning and can rob us of life in an instant. How can we be happy when pain and death stalk us indiscriminately? In a godless universe how do we cope? I’m inclined to ask those who purport live in a universe inhabited by a supreme being exactly the same question. How do you cope, knowing that such horrors occurred on his watch? Tens of thousands of children die every day of hunger, disease and violence. By design or omission of action, god allows the deaths of innocents to take place. What comfort or happiness can be derived from this fact? The religious may point out that god will reward such suffering with a place by his side in heaven, but what kind of morality is that? If a parent gave their child an unwarranted beating but promised they’d get a lollipop later, what could we conclude about the fitness of such a parent? Would you want to spend eternity with someone capable of such abuse? If god were to exist, regardless of his promises of deferred reward, his actions (and omission of actions) here on our planet should lead us to rightfully judge him a monstrous criminal. Wouldn’t it be more comforting if he didn’t exist at all? Normally, at this point a religious person will point out that we cannot know gods mind, and that his plan for us with regards to evil and suffering is ineffable and beyond our comprehension. If this is the case, then they are damned out of their own mouths. If god’s mind is unknowable to us, then how can they claim that he is both good and kind? How can they simultaneously say he is unknowable and they they know he is good rather than evil? No, you can only judge god like you can a person: by his words and deeds. I’ve read the old testament from back to front and know by his words he is not a kindly god, and by his actions every day he shows himself to be uncaring and callous. If that’s the kind of super-powered sociopath you’ll be spending your eternity with then your universe looks a good deal bleaker than mine.
In the meantime I’ll be admiring the view out here in my godless universe and it won’t be “bleak”. Neither will it be “brisk” or “bracing”. The weather is just splendid thank you very much. I have no need of an umbrella.