OccupyLondon poster made me less supportive of the tube strike

TubeIt’s one thing for the RMT union to ask people to be reasonable and try to understand why they need to strike, in which case they should really be cogently outlining their demands and explaining why they have had to resort to strike action.

I agree with the theoretical principle of striking – it’s a necessary evil to prevent Government from steamrolling over the rights of the workers. But striking is supposed to be the nuclear arsenal of the moral high-ground, not touted about at first opportunity like a … well, a Cold War nuclear arsenal.

This sign, however, is the worst kind of counterproductively vapid, populist politicking imaginable and RMT should be ashamed of stooping so low.

Let’s deal with the “claims” of this poster sequentially, shall we?

  1. Ticket machines take cash. There’s little difference, then, between manned service booths and ticket machines, except that one has higher running costs (whilst admittedly providing a job) and the other is faster, more convenient and doesn’t inflict its bad mood and haughty rudeness at you when you’re already late, stressed and feeling shitty.*
  2. Yes, the machines sometimes go out of service. In all the circumstances I’ve experienced this, no member of the underground team has been on-hand to fix them or man the ticket booth. Furthermore, doing away with ticket booths won’t do away with maintenance engineers.
  3. There are already many rail stations on the Oyster network which have ticket machines that can top up your card, but where staff members can’t update your Oyster card. When the machine breaks, they shrug. So no change there, either.
  4. TFL have regularly deducted too much money from my bank card, and I have yet to see any refund or genuine attempt to rectify this mistake from TFL staff. The existence of on-hand staff had no effect whatsoever, save to piss me off – because when I informed them about it they told me to phone the hotline. The hotline told me to email. The email response sent me an itemised list of my Oyster usage, with overcharging clear as day (totalling £26 in one month), but conveniently had no record of this when I emailed them back the same PDF a day later and asked for a refund. I fail to see in what way ticket booth operators have any influence over the Oyster network’s failings and abysmal customer service.
  5. Paragraph two is a farce. There are already countless delays to the tube service. Neither drivers nor in-station staff have anything to do with resolving this. At most, a driver will apologise for the delay when you’re stuck inside a tunnel. I’m fairly sure a pre-recorded voice could do that.
  6. Equally, staff cannot and do not prevent the “accidents, emergencies [and] incidents” that they so glibly ask future users to avoid. Regarding evacuations: this is why we have public address systems, evacuation notices and other signs – and emergency services, which will still be on standby in the event of some non-specific cataclysm; that’s what they’re there for. If the absence of TFL staff would mean fewer safety measures than anywhere else, the Health & Safety Executive would have a field day. This is scaremongering pure and simple.
  7. Trains drive themselves just fine on the DLR. Google can make cars navigate 435,000 miles of two-dimensional obstacles without incident; I’m fairly sure the technology exists to allow a train to move on a one-dimensional track and make fewer mistakes than a human.
  8. Disabled? I have yet to see an RMT member cure the sick and lame.
  9. Poor? I have definitely yet to see an RMT member alleviating someone of their poverty. First, at a basic £44,000 salary (plus perks), tube drivers earn a two-thirds greater salary than the average Londoner. Furthermore, I see a fundamental contradiction between using the stress of the job and the unsociable hours as a reason to justify the high salary, whilst simultaneously defending such jobs as absolutely necessary, in the face of overwhelming technological evidence to the contrary. After all, a tube driver’s basic is twice that of a newly-qualified airline pilot, which has much higher training costs and similar work stresses, and the only working driverless plane ever seen was in the spoof film Airplane!.
  10. New to London? Bless. Join the throngs of Londoners and others travelling to other metropolises and having to discern foreign transportation systems on their own. But seriously, buy a map. Or download a FREE app to your phone. Or look at one of the many maps on all tube stations. Or ask ANYONE.
  11. Young or old? I have yet to see an RMT member accelerate someone’s growth, or provide an elixir of youth.
  12. Harassed? Naturally, the only people in London who would step in to help someone being assaulted or harassed are members of the Underground Team, single-handedly defending London’s streets from incivility. Please.
  13. Lucky number 13, this is the only one I may be willing to concede would be possibly made worse by not having so many staff on hand. But it’s sad to say, property and children get lost and/or taken in London all the time.
  14. Please provide assistance.*
  15. This poster contains no advice. This is (in this penultimate paragraph, sequentially) glib and sarcastic commentary, a statement of impotence, and a callous disregard for others’ feelings. So no change there, then.*

I say again – I’m not against striking in general. Teachers’ unions? Yes. Firefighters? Probably. But the RMT? Instead of this populist diatribe, OccupyLondon and RMT should be publicising their history of negotiations with Boris if they want to garner public support. Then we’ll see who’s being unreasonable. But, admittedly, even before this poster they had a long road ahead before they’d convince me of their need to exist.

Yes, these changes will come at a loss of thousands of jobs. Yes, that’s unfortunate. But that in itself is not (or should not be) enough of a reason to strike on this side of the Channel. The money saved will go onto urgent modernisation of the tube system (parts of which are a century old) and, in the long run, free up capital for jobs elsewhere – with a faster way of reaching them.

* I will make one small edit: there was once a very nice person who works for TFL and who helped me once at Farringdon station. He stood at the intersection between underground and rail entrances, knew every connection from that station imaginable. Good for him.

Rest in Peace, Tony Benn

Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn has passed away today aged 88. It is a poignant commentary on British politics that Ed Miliband has praised him in memoriam as a “conviction politician”. He’s right, of course; but it speaks volumes that this is used as a curiously refreshing and distinguishing feature.

Tony Benn

Tony Benn was man born into privilege who, on the strength of his convictions, fought the establishment (left, right and centre) for the right to be treated as an ordinary member of the public. He railed against inequity and privilege, he championed the rights of the poor and the downtrodden, he never ceased to advocate his vision for a compassionate and socially equitable Britain, and he shall be missed.

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French protectionism startles Eurosceptics

So whilst everyone’s eyes were diverted eastward at the Sochi Winter Olympics (or the unfolding insanity in Ukraine), the French ski resort mafia was out in force trying to drive these pesky British immigrants off their pistes and stop them from teaching skiing in English or something. Seriously, armed police – despite the “offenders” in question having satisfied all the relevant paperwork to the letter, so we are told.

First, it’s a not just blatant but flagrant breach of a supposedly core tenet of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union – freedom of establishment, which is specifically designed to allow self-employed Europeans to set up their businesses where they wish (subject to some specific and proportionate exceptions, of which “our snow, our ski schools” is not one), provided they pay their respective taxes – and it will no doubt be struck down as a prohibited measure soon. (There may even be a case to be argued for there having been an infringement of their ECHR Article 3 rights to liberty and security, this having been a case of false imprisonment by a public authority, but that is a case for French law.) If the case gets successfully prosecuted, then we have a more serious problem.

But what I really wanted to draw attention to today was the reaction of UKIP to the whole affair (reported in the Daily Mail, of course), sallying first into the breach with a ‘We told you! They’re evil! (EVIL, I tell you!)’:

Commenting on the latest case, UK Independence Party deputy leader Paul Nuttall said: ‘Those raging Europhiles who claim there is a single market should read this story and weep…’

So, the better plan is to leave? And how will that help Mr Butler continue his profession as a skiing instructor in France? It won’t. The red tape will be significantly increased if he attempts to work there as a non-EU national. By the same logic, one miscarriage of justice in the UK would be grounds to launch a full-scale anarchist movement ‘because it obviously wasn’t working anyway’.

Salmond shouts “Shotgun!” on Sterling

Oh, Alex. Not this again.

Game of Salmond

Ever since Alex Salmond published his delusions personal manifesto independent, totally unbiased and completely logically feasible account of what an independent Scotland would look like, he has dug his heels into the ground in the truculently recalcitrant perfectly reasonable belief that Westminster would accede to his demands recommendations, even though he has absolutely no authority to compel it to do so.

Two key areas concern the EU (not discussed here) and the economy.

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All aboard the Milibandwagon?

Emboldened by his (sort-of*) success attacking the “Big Six” energy companies, Ed’s next target is the “Big Five”. I sense a theme here.

Well, hasn’t this one got us all talking? I suppose that was the point.

Labour Party leader Ed Miliband’s latest quest is to force a fire sale of bank branches come 2015. The idea is to inject a little more competition into the market (of which currently 85% resides in just five discrete banking groups) by setting up independent “challenger banks” – and, in so doing, give consumers the ability to vote with their feet (or wallet) and keep the “Big Five” (HSBC, Barclays, RBS, Santander and Lloyds Banking Group) in check.

Naturally, this announcement has prompted a wide range of reactions, from vociferous agreement (columnist Simon Kelner’s ‘righteous vengeance and furious anger’) to predictable dismissal (City A.M. editor Allister Heath’s silly Milly… run along and leave economics to the grown-ups), to some lighthearted lampooning by the BBC.

Cheap shot…EMRH

It’s a populist move, no doubt; as the economy starts to eke towards recovery, questions echo louder about where all that austerity has really got the general public. With much of the electorate still struggling to make ends meet, news of hundreds of Barclays staff being paid over £1m in bonuses (£) is an understandably easy and common target for public ire.

Banker-bashing is a predictable source of short-term political capital, but it’s a double-edged sword. Playing this card will work against Miliband unless he maintains his momentum – either he gets the ball rolling on some viable social change on which he can capitalise in a year’s time, or it’ll fizzle out and he’ll lose some serious political face. I see why he’s chosen to do so: Ed had a moderately successful Q4 last year, gaining sympathy from the Daily Mail’s ill-advised hack job about his father and using that to finance his push to tackle the Big Six energy companies.

*Whilst this resulted in only limited success (any savings passed onto the consumer would be at the expense of the environment – if indeed there are any actual savings), Ed managed to steer the debate towards addressing the monopolistic titans in market sectors previously deemed too critical to national recovery to touch, and got token concessions from David Cameron. His motives even received some earnest cross-party support from Sir John Major. It’s a start – but not enough to win an election. He may have stolen a march on Cameron and forced him to react, but he failed to generate enough public anger to actually change much.

And so he turns to the banks. A likely target, and one with a history of manifest public anger. Repeatedly.

…or bullseye?

It’s not entirely misplaced. Heath’s exasperated protestation that

[Labour’s] first target is RBS, even though the bank has now changed beyond recognition since Fred Goodwin’s disastrous days

is utter codswallop. In the past year and a half alone, RBS has been accused (so far accurately) of Libor manipulation, mis-selling exchange rate swaps at their customers’ expense and, of course, flogging PPI. In addition, it has yet more scandals in the pipeline: not only is it not lending enough to small-and-medium sized companies (making those taxpayer-funded bonuses even harder to justify), but it is also apparently “deliberately and systematically” pushing them into default so it could harvest their assets on the cheap.

There’s also some precedent to this. Back in late 2008, Lloyds TSB was only allowed to acquire collapsed rival HBOS with special dispensation from the Government (For The Good Of The Realm), despite strong anti-competitive reservations from the Office of Fair Trading. Barely one year later, the resultant entity (Lloyds Banking Group) required further stimulus and, in return, agreed to sell 600 branches within four years in order to allay EU (and OFT) anti-competition fears by allowing new blood into the market. Together with some divestiture by RBS, roughly 10% of the UK consumer banking market was to be auctioned off to make way for “at least three new banks”, to provoke lenders into actually courting their customers with competitive offers. We’ve yet to see this happen, although, despite the Cooperative’s disastrous attempt at buying 628 branches falling through, plans are still underway to separate TSB from its parent as soon as a new buyer can be found.

Finally, there’s a related legal argument to be made here, which arguably applies to all the Big Five. In essence, anti-competitive behaviour is a big no-no both in the EU and here in the UK. The current Treaty Articles prohibiting cartel behaviour and abuses of a dominant market position (101 and 102 TFEU respectively) have been around in various guises since 1972, and expressly forbid any such cross-border nastiness:

Article 101 prohibits practices which may affect trade between Member States [resulting in] the prevention, restriction or distortion of competition within the internal market, and in particular those which:

(a) directly or indirectly fix purchase or selling prices or any other trading conditions;
(b) limit or control production, markets, technical development, or investment; [or]
(d) apply dissimilar conditions to equivalent transactions with other trading parties, thereby placing them at a competitive disadvantage…”

Article 102 prohibits “Any abuse by one or more undertakings of a dominant position within the internal market […] in so far as it may affect trade between Member States. Such abuse may, in particular, consist in:

(a) directly or indirectly imposing unfair purchase or selling prices or other unfair trading conditions;
(b) limiting production, markets or technical development to the prejudice of consumers;
(c) applying dissimilar conditions to equivalent transactions with other trading parties, thereby placing them at a competitive disadvantage;

Substitute “between Member States” with “within the United Kingdom” in Article 102 and you’ve pretty much got a verbatim copy of s.18 Competition Act 1998.

Is it just me, or aren’t these provisions somewhat familiar? I swear I heard of something like this (alleged to have been) happening in the banking sector recently…

So, what does this mean for Ed?

Is there a point to all this? Is it leading anywhere? Does Ed have a plan at all? Well, it’s certainly consistent Miliband M.O. As Polly Toynbee points out:

“Miliband has hammered out from the start his critique of a system that delivers for the top few while squeezing everyone else.

“Plainly, he is making headway: why else would the ultra-political George Osborne snap out his wish to raise the minimum wage on the eve of this speech?”

For that, at least, you have to have a modicum of respect for the man: consistency is hard to come by when discussing electable political “values”. Whether you agree with them or not, Miliband’s politics can be seen to stem from an academically coherent, rigorously thought-out political ideology. That’s the key word, long since left to mothball: ideology. It’s Old Labour with a modern twist – redistributive socio-economics that attempts to balance meritocracy, mobility and morality – “Responsible Capitalism”, as he calls it. The crux, however, lies in challenging the very ethos on which Cameron and Osborne are rebuilding Britain: on the backs of the electorally irrelevant.

Taking on the economic system as a whole is a massive gamble, but it may well be the one wildcard he has to play. For when the political middle-ground has a counter-move for every move, how is he going to make his mark? After all, as Toynbee points out:

“If he can’t convince voters that the economy is seriously awry for future growth and for ordinary incomes, why would they choose Labour?”

Either that, or it’s a colossal mistake which will only lower his credibility for clutching at straws. Only time will tell.

Really, Nadine?

So Nadine Dorries has yet again reached new heights of hypocrisy.

The Conservative – I’m sorry, independent – MP for Mid Bedfordshire, who was suspended from the Conservative Party on November 6th as a result of her decision to take part in the reality TV show I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! (lasting a week and making her entire joyride away from Parliament a brazen insult to everyone everywhere who would give anything to take an extended holiday for no reason without getting fired), has accused fellow Conservative – ha, there I go again…silly me – Louise Mensch “trying to diminish her role as an MP”! Ha!

Wait, wait – it gets better!

Ms Dorries, who has been suspended from the Tory party for going on I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! without telling the chief whip in November, told Metro quitting politics to follow fashion sets a bad example to young people.
‘You sign up for five years as an MP. It is unheard of for someone to walk away from their post halfway through to do something as trivial as this,’ she said.

*snorts derisively*

It’s fairly clear that there may have been bad blood between them before. Despite affirming that she wasn’t “singing [Dorries] out”, Mensch accused otherwise nameless would-be supporters of an amendment – tabled by our jungle-roving hypocrite herself – to the Health and Social Care Bill in 2011 of tending to “demonise” the women considering abortion whom it would have required to receive independent counselling. A post-Parliamentarian Mensch was also one of the more vocal critics of Dorries’ foray into the forests, saying:

Nothing sadder than a politician, or ex-politician, on any of those shows […] Just imagining the scene in the whips’ office if I said I wanted to skip parliament for weeks to go on a celebrity TV show.

I sense this only getting uglier.

Even though Mensch’s departure from her Corby constituency seat in 2012 did herald a crushing win for Labour, the contrast between Nadine Dorries’ relationship with the Conservative Party given behaviour over the past few months and those of Louise Mensch is palpable. Dorries, no stranger to the ugly spotlight of an expenses inquisition on more than one occasion (for travel expenses in 2011 and 2012, no less), has squawked derision at Mensch for quitting her post back in August. The brazenness of this wild, gasping thrash for credibility astounds and slightly horrifies me, when exactly two months later – and mere days after the Corby by-election – she herself jetted off to the Australian bush to eat goat testicles and fantasise that people would find her interesting.

Because she’s not well liked in her own party, either. Dorries has always seemed the whiny rebel that no one seems to like or take seriously, in fact actively going out of her way to made her own party hierarchy dislike her and making the most asinine comments and decisions at every turn. Mensch, by comparison, was lauded as a rising star in the Cameronite ranks who (despite her ‘defection’ in the Blair honeymoon following a Thatcher funereal procession) retained a fierce grip on the party whip.

She showed shrewdness early on in her political era by expressing the freedom to change political parties when she no longer agreed with their politics. If Wikipedia can be trusted, a growing disaffection with the Church of England was a contributing factor in her decision to join the Labour Party, but in any case it was a disaffection with an out-of-touch Conservative party as well as her take on Blair as “a social liberal and an economic conservative” that convinced her to join. It may have only lasted a year, but in doing so Mensch proved that she wasn’t afraid to adapt to changing circumstance.

She criticised a pointless and expensive waste of Parliamentary time and mandate – the ban on fox hunting – for what it was, citing an irrefutable argument for civil liberties as opposed to the usual useless traditionalism diatribe of the 1922 Committee.

Finally, Mensch had the decency to resign when no longer able to function effectively in her capacity as MP. Not that she ever gave any indication that she’d become a veteran MP, still wandering the halls of Westminster well into her seventies, dispensing advice to young whippersnappers who never even knew Thatcher. A year into her job she already identified problems fighting to keep her seat even once, come 2015:

I haven’t made up my mind […] If I were a single woman with no attachments, I would be fully committed, but I’m not.

D’you know what, Louise? Maybe it’s not for everyone, but I could’ve taken it off your hands; no problem. I lived in Oundle for the full five years once, and I rather liked it there.


Red Ed misread this one

Ed Milliband seems to have forgotten that crime doesn’t pay: his choice of which Lib Dem electoral pledge to steal – imposing a “mansion tax” on homes worth over £2million – will ultimately come back to haunt him. Doing so is unlikely to fully offset the cost of reintroducing the 10p tax rate (a 10% tax on the first portion of taxable earnings, currently taxed at a basic rate of 20%). It is, however, likely to lose him critical votes in the South East, which Labour sorely need if they intend to win the 2015 General Election and form the next government (and implement the 10p tax in the first place).

I’m not saying the 10p tax is a bad idea; on the contrary, I fully support it. Current projections all seem to agree in their estimations that the economy will not fully recover for several years yet (see table). All three of the major rating agencies (Fitch, Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s) list the UK’s outlook as negative. If Britain’s least well-off families were ever in more need of this reduction in their tax burden, it’s now.

Growth ForecastsI’m also not averse to the idea of imposing a tax on the properties of the super-rich. When a multi-million pound home is just one of many in someone’s property portfolio, in which that person is unlikely to spend the majority of their time, he or she is unlikely to feel the pinch of a mansion tax anywhere nearly as an ordinary family in need of more space. But as Boris Johnson astutely remarked in the Evening Standard on February 6th, just 10 London boroughs account for more real-estate value than the entirety of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. It stands to reason, therefore, that imposing an arbitrary price tag, above which this tax would come into effect, will unfairly hit London and the South East – and, more crucially, will be interpreted as deliberately hitting the South East.

With London house prices currently rising at an average annual rate of 9.7% (17.02.13), the mean value of a property in the capital is set to hit £500,000 by the end of the decade. A total of 8 boroughs (including the City of London) have already exceeded the half-a-million mark; in two, Kensington & Chelsea and City of Westminster, average house prices are already well above £1m and climbing quickly – a whopping annual rise of 35.6% in Westminster. It’s not all champagne, caviar and frivolous spending there, either: According to the Smith Institute, the average house in the Royal Borough (at £1.25m as of July 2012) was 31 times the average annual salary – and in half a year it’s jumped by nearly another ¼ mil.

With this in mind, possibly even before the election, this arbitrary £2m price tag would hit a large swathe of the capital and cut into the swing voters that Ed needs to woo. It is worrying that, over two years into his leadership, Ed’s knee-jerk reaction to a glaring policy gap is to fall back on the largely unpopular Brownite politics that contributed to Labour losing the election in the first place. Continuing down this path of pseudo-Marxist reverse elitism will do nothing to warm the middle ground to him and only make him more enemies. Taxing those who have money is not necessarily a terrible idea, but he can’t be seen to deliberately target “the rich”. Besides, when George Osborne targeted £2m-and-above properties with his 7% stamp duty last year (and failed spectacularly) Labour cried pointlessness as “only 1,500 £2 million homes are sold each year.” How is this idea any different?

A fairer way of taxing the property market would be to tie this mansion tax threshold to average house prices in each borough or unitary authority; say, on all homes worth more than two or three times the local average. Another idea, given that over 60% of new homes in London are now being bought by overseas investors, would be to impose a tax on homes over a certain threshold (which could even be lower than £2million) that lie unoccupied for most of the year.

RikThis would end up raising a larger amount of revenue to divert to those on lower incomes, as well as help Ed avoid generating any more of an image of a Rik Mayall-esque deluded first-year politics student brandishing a sword and charging blindly at anyone with a bank account.

The day equality crossed the floor

portcullis1This article is admittedly lengthy, but I feel it would be disrespectful to those heavily invested in the debate’s outcome to deal with it spuriously. I have done my best to keep it succinct, but (constructive) criticism is welcome. Happy reading.

Tuesday’s debate over the legalisation of same-sex marriage in the UK has been one of the most heated, contentious and frustrating debates in living memory. Heated, naturally, because of the deeply-held, irreconcilable convictions of both opponents and proponents of this Bill; contentious because of the profound way in which it will affect the future of civil liberties in the United Kingdom; and intensely frustrating due to the fact that some of the same arguments were being repeated ad nauseam, despite their having been largely addressed and debunked hours earlier.

It would be pointless to attempt to summarise the entire debate on gay marriage from start to finish in one blog post. Instead, I have a simple question:

Are all citizens equal before the law, and the court of public opinion?

Sadly, not yet. But we’re getting there.

The times, they are a-changin’

Over the past century in this country we have had a programme of progressively liberalising politics with respect to what we consider to be fundamental human rights. One hundred years ago, in 1913, the UK was a rigidly stratified, aristocratically hierarchical and patriarchal society where most of the population had no established right to choose their government or the laws that governed their lives. This government and its laws permeated the privacy of people’s private lives, criminalising that which most people (at least, those under 50) in the UK would now agree is not a deviant lifestyle choice, but a fundamental and innate characteristic over which we have as much decision-making ability as we do over our own eye colour or allergies.

Since that time we have seen:

  • the partial enfranchisement of women, at first only to those married and over 30 years old;
  • universal suffrage, where everyone citizen over 18, irrespective of sex or level of property ownership, was given the right to vote;
  • a universal declaration of human rights that offered equality and protection from discrimination on certain fundamental grounds;
  • the decriminalisation of homosexuality, so that they would also count as “equal”;
  • civil rights acts granting eligibility for this equality to minorities;
  • laws strengthening all citizens’ protection from hate crimes; and
  • homosexual couples granted some measure of legal protection through Civil Partnerships.

Oppositional MPs rightly pointed out on Tuesday that the Civil Partnerships Act was not expressly intended as a precursor to gay marriage. They were wrong, however, to infer that this would categorically rule out any future consideration of gay marriage in perpetuity.

Married women over 30 being given the vote in 1918 was no doubt a pragmatic compromise at the time; this did not, however, specifically preclude suffrage being universalised ten years later. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights did not eliminate the need to then redefine “human” or “rights”, as evidenced by minorities’ subsequent struggles for full recognition of their equality and civil rights.

As Emma Reynolds (Lab) astutely noted during the debate: “Until 1991, it was legal for a husband to rape his wife. The law is neither perfect, nor sacrosanct.

Even a cursory reason of history shows that most of this change has been gradual, so as to allow time for prevailing public opinion to change. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that every stage of progressive liberalisation has met extreme resistance from traditionalists, only for the next generation to already take changes for granted, unable to conceive of a world otherwise.

Most of those opposed to this Bill time and again returned to the assertion that marriage is defined as the union between one man and one woman, and that were that definition to be challenged, it would profoundly affect the established Christian Church. Changing the legal definition of marriage, however, will not change religious freedom in the UK: in fact, I find it mightily convenient that the ‘quadruple lock’ (quoth Miller, “We are 100% clear that if any church, synagogue or mosque does not want to conduct a gay marriage it will not – absolutely must not – be forced to hold it”) slipped their minds during the debate.

Etymology be damned

Some have raised an etymological argument, which needs to be addressed. Yes, the roots of the English world marriage are shared with matrimony, meaning the entailment of a state of motherhood. Agreed. To focus on this as a legitimate reason not to allow homosexuals to marry, however, is to be wilfully ignorant of three significant points.

1. Words change. They are not magically imbued with concrete, inalienable meanings somehow tied to the very word itself; words have the meaning which we attribute to them. Topically, the word ‘gay’ used to mean ‘happy’, and ‘civil rights’ or ‘human rights’ encompassed a different set of principles to those we would typically think of today.

It’s therefore completely idiotic to think that the word ‘marriage’ is somehow impervious to the same changes – in fact it has been changed several times, in a variety of different ways, over the past two centuries. Arguing that changing the definition of marriage is automatically a bad thing is merely pointless, wilfully blind nostalgia.

2. Who says marriage is for the purposes of conception anymore? Many heterosexual couples enter into marriages and never have children; many enter into them knowing full well they either do not want or cannot have children. Many gay couples either have children by donors or adopt them, and more and more heterosexual couples are starting families without ever intending to get married. All of these observations point to the fact that the way in which people perceive the notion of marriage today (i.e. the legal recognition of a commitment to life-long relationship) is a far cry from the institution of creating genetically-protectionist procreation arrangements.

3. What gives religious organisations the continued right, in a secularising, liberalising, more tolerant, democratic and egalitarian society, to retain hegemony over the definition of a word like ‘marriage’? For one thing, the Marriage Act of 1836 made marriage a civil right, not a religious matter. Yes, religious organisations were still granted power to officiate them, and the state continued to recognise that which religions denoted was a marriage, but the fact remains that control of the legal recognition of marriage was stripped from the Church 177 years ago. Nor did the Church invent marriage, but assumed control over validating a pre-existing contractual process in 1215, at the Fourth Council of the Lateran.

Religious freedom: a two-way street

This Bill is not contrary to the wishes of all religious institutions in the UK. All this Bill will do with respect to religious freedom in the United Kingdom is allow those who wish to carry out same-sex marriages to do so in the eyes of the law. If that is not an argument for religious freedom, I don’t know what is.

Not in my back yard

What this issue ultimately boils down to in my opinion is a simply a question of perception and association.

The only change this law will effect with regards to heterosexuals in the UK – religious or not – is the way in which people see themselves, because the identity club of ‘the married’ is set to get bigger. Grass-roots religious conservatives and back-bench arch-Tories, who currently enjoy the cosy self-image of ‘being married’ may simply just not want to be made to feel part of the same group as homosexuals. Changing the keyword around which a fundamental part of someone’s identity – their sense of themselves and their place in wider society – may be threatening to some, but it needn’t be. Fearing the “Other” in this way is nothing more than the unconscious vestiges of society’s engrained, deep-seated homophobia, based on a lack of understanding and a self-righteous unwillingness to rectify this, now manifested as a reaction to a perceived external threat and dressed up in the guise of etymological piousness.

Religious conservatives do not want to be forced to see themselves in the same category as homosexuals. If that is so, come out [sic] and say so, but don’t insult others’ intelligence by quoting scripture (whose authority over dictionary definitions I vehemently challenge) and relying on blind insistence that perceptions and terminology are not in a constant state of flux.

I will be the first to say that religious people deserve to have their opinions heard. I have no problem disagreeing with people on religious grounds, as long as a stubborn reliance on nothing but unsubstantiated dogma doesn’t prohibit enlightened and respectful debate. But I will not accept someone hiding behind their personal faith and claiming religious persecution, whilst inciting others to hateful, discriminatory or otherwise alienating behaviour towards a particular section of society who love a particular kind of person.

To quote David Lammy during the debate, “separate but equal” is “an excerpt from the phrasebook of segregationists and racists […] It is not separate but equal, but separate and discriminated against, separate and oppressed, separate and browbeaten, separate and subjugated.”

If in doubt, ask George Bernard Shaw.

What’s the worst that could happen?

So, Dave decided to take the leap.

He’s not getting remarried or anything, although he certainly seems to have divorced himself from his stance from late last year, that giving the British public an in/out vote on Europe was a “false choice”…whatever that is supposed to mean.

After all that, the gauntlet has been thrown. Seemingly emboldened by Holyrood’s acceptance of terms for the Scottish independence referendum set for 2014 (either that, or he is simply taking the only – albeit short-term – face-saving measure left to him by an increasingly belligerent UKIP and ever-audacious backbench Arch-Tories and assorted Eurosceptics) Cameron has decided that now is the time to declare the referendum. Oh wait, no … that’s 2017. IF re-elected. IF he remains Prime Minister. IF otherwise unforeseeable events don’t cause him to Clegg it and issue a retraction with a brief apology over untenable promises…again.

But surely a final referendum is a good thing? Yes…in theory. I’m not saying I think an EU referendum would see as poor a turnout as for A/V (although with voter apathy in the UK still leading the flock of the European disaffected [statistic], who knows). It is, however, in plebiscites such as this that the fringes mobilise. UKIP, a single-interest-group-cum-political-party, was founded with the sole purpose of seeing the UK government put such a referendum to the British people (and it ending in their favour, I am assuming).

Naturally, therefore, UKIP can already chalk this up as an initial win. Eurosceptic-in-Chief Nigel Farage said of Cameron’s decision: “The very fact that we are talking about the possibility of Britain leaving the European Union is Ukip’s biggest victory to date. Even five years ago the thought of this issue being even discussed was an anathema”.

“But what is the worst that could happen?” I was asked the other day. Well, what happens if Scotland opts for independence? The squabbling that would inevitably ensue over who gets what (oil, debt, assets, the family pet, etc.) would last well into 2015 and surely affect the outcome of a general election. Given that all three major parties (I’m giving the Lib Dems the benefit of the doubt here, even if their approval rating places them on a par with UKIP) in Westminster are supporting union, I would find it very hard to believe any of them scoring political points from Scottish secession.

Who would? Reactionary, nationalist, protectionist, conveniently I-told-you-so UKIP. (Or would that be EWIP by that point?) Then what will Dave do?

  1. Chicken out on his pledge for a second referendum? Half of the Conservative grass roots vote UKIP.
  2. Insist on the referendum and bring the issue front and centre? Conservatives look weak next to UKIP, who will still benefit.
  3. Conveniently let the issue fall by the wayside and not bring it up? Every other party will, especially UKIP.

So, however Cam spins it, a lost Scottish vote will cripple him and his party right before the election, and the only benefactors (south of the Wall, at least) will be the far right.

The curious case of the big green onesie

In his début phone-in interview on LBC radio, Nick Clegg spent half an hour being harangued by callers citing his myriad of broken electoral promises, before (providing urgently-required comic relief) revealing that he once received a big green onesie – although he has yet to wear it. Coming a mere two days after political aide Patrick Rock was photographed outside No.10 with a clearly visible document spelling out the extensive list of this government’s discarded electoral pledges (causing them to take a cheeky tactical leak on the web), the timing could not have been more apt if it had been staged.

In the two and a half years since taking office, the Coalition has had mixed success in making their lofty promises a reality. I recognise that these unequal partners each campaigned on a different set of policies, naturally including some contradictory stances. I also accept that when building a consensus from which to govern, the two parties were understandably forced to make certain compromises. The Liberal Democrats, for their part, are due more credit that they have been given for climbing into bed with the Tories if it meant their cornerstone policies reforming our voting system and the House of Lords were ever going to see the light of day; that they squandered those opportunities is a separate issue.

That which does deserve wholehearted criticism, however, is the government’s abysmally poor record of bringing about environmentally friendly legislation. Both Liberals and Conservatives alike sought to woo the section of the electorate who care deeply about protecting the environment, claiming to be the UK’s foremost (mainstream) pro-green party* (the Tories even changed their “we are the pathfinders” torch logo into a “look at us, we’re green” cartoon tree). So whither the lip service? Where are either of these parties’ green credentials?

Every primary school pupil is taught what you get if you mix primary colours. Sadly, however, the only thing resembling green in this blue-and-yellow government is Nick’s unwanted gift.