The Plastic Hippo

April 15, 2010

We have nothing to fear…

Filed under: History,Politics — theplastichippo @ 12:19 am

Thucydides and Herodotus

More than a week in and it has already descended into farce. The half-wits that offer themselves as our next political leaders remain gripped with the self-delusion that people actually believe what they say and like drowning men clinging to the thought that someone somewhere must trust them, they bluster and connive.

“Death Tax” scream the Tories. A hung parliament will result in riots and civil disorder bellow the Liberal Democrats. Labour has targeted women suffering from breast cancer and suggested that vital treatment will cease if the victims vote for the opposition. Devoid of any coherent policies, fear is the key to winning elections as a frightened electorate is a compliant electorate and, more importantly, when you are out of ideas the only option is to have a go at the other bunch.

None of this is anything new. There is a direct line of scare mongering that can be traced back through Enoch Powell, Machiavelli and Plato. Even earlier, Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War states that fear, honour and profit are the main motivations in acquiring power. Governments need to keep their people in fear in order to impose control and crude dictatorships tend to directly threaten their citizens. The possibility of a door being kicked in at the dead of night by the Gestapo or the KGB makes the populous fear that they will suffer the same fate that befell “los desaparecidos” of Argentina. More mature democracies are far more subtle and invented threats are used to keep folks scared and pliant. Domestic and international terrorism, swine flu, bird flu, HIV Aids, weapons of mass destruction and even the millennium computer bug are hyped out of all proportion to keep us frightened and trusting of those who lead us.

In the longest parliament since the Second World War, the expenses scandal has dominated the legacy of those who sat in Westminster. More than a third of MPs are standing down, either through shame or disgust and the change is likely to be as seismic as the Reform Act of 1832 when the rotten boroughs were disfranchised. One might hope that politicians would have learnt the lesson that moat cleaning, duck houses and the unfortunate choice of a pay-per-view movie requires some contrition. It seems that this is not the case as all the political parties who have ignored the electorate over the last five years now want to hear our views because they want our vote.

In 1933, at the deepest trough of the last great depression, Franklin D Roosevelt, in his inaugural presidential address misquoted Francis Bacon saying:
“Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Six years later, at the outbreak of the Second World War, W H Auden published a poem called September 1, 1939.

“Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.”

April 9, 2010

The revolution will not be televised

Filed under: Media,Politics — theplastichippo @ 11:58 pm

Something very interesting took place in Dudley over the Easter week-end. Now, anything actually taking place in Dudley is newsworthy but when the English Defence League and Unite Against Fascism invited themselves for a punch-up, trouble was on the agenda. However, it seems that a single police officer, armed only with a mobile phone and a Twitter account, quelled the likely riot.

DCI Mark Payne of West Midlands Police was able to follow the rival groups on Twitter and was able to refute rumours of mosques being attacked and stewards being stabbed. He was then able to report in real time to other twitter users and the press. By stifling the fuel of malicious rumour, the levels of violence seen in Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Nottingham and Bolton were avoided in Dudley.

So instead of being a social medium where the middle classes publish photographs of their lunch and details of the ensuing bowel movement, Twitter is a force for social good. This is confirmed by the Twitter campaign to lift the super injunction imposed by lawyers representing Trafigura who dumped a load of toxic waste on the people of Cote d`Ivoire. At about the same time, Facebook, Twitter with acne, managed to make Rage Against the Machine the Christmas number one instead of the drivel cynically exploited from the X Factor. Big business and governments became worried.

On her first visit to the United States as a newly elected Prime Minister in the very early 80`s, Margaret Thatcher was given a guided tour of the Pentagon and the concept of something called the internet was explained to her. A senior BBC correspondent following the PM on the tour recalled her reaction years later after he, and she, had retired from public life.

Apparently, a five star general explained how computers could be linked together and that, one day in the future, an almost infinite amount of information would be available to every inhabitant of the planet. Our correspondent recalls that the Iron Lady turned pale and then directed her trademark steely gaze at the then Vice President, George Bush Senior. After a pregnant pause, she is reported as saying: “Stop it…NOW!”

Thatcher was right to be frightened of the internet. Information is power and cannot be left in the hands of just anyone. Just a few days after major civil disorder was avoided in Dudley, parliament rushed through the Digital Economy Bill as part of the “wash up” process of a dying administration. The future of digital media was decided with a scant two hour debate based on ancient copyright tradition and the vested interests of long dead industries. Washed up seems particularly apt as sites like Wikileaks are likely to be closed down under the new act. Wikileaks brought us horrific footage of civilians including children and Reuters photographers being blown away by helicopter gunships even as the authorities deny the incident.

Twitter has now claimed its first parliamentary hopeful. Stuart MacLennan, who at 24, intended to represent that hotbed of political thought, Moray in the north of Scotland, made some inappropriate comments on Twitter a year ago when he was still a student. His crime was to slag off Cameron and Clegg with (OMG!) rude words. He described the elderly as “coffin dodgers”, reported on the number of chavs at Sterling station and observed that he was sober for the first time in four days. He sounds like my kind of MP. Winston Churchill was understandably drunk for most of the 40`s and his description of Clement Attlee would have embarrassed a Sterling chav.

The political parties now have a dilemma as the election approaches. They realise that the internet will for the first time have an impact on the way that people will vote, especially those of tender years who may be voting for the first time and are comfortable and expert with the technology. Politicians have to be seen to be getting down with the kids but cannot actually express an opinion on social media platforms. The fate of young Stuart in Moray will limit any meaningful engagement with the internet for fear of, heaven forbid, expressing honesty.

Here in Walsall, a handful of brave councillors started blogs and opened Twitter accounts. Sadly, it didn`t last long as the individual and accessible voices were stifled when the leadership realised that accountability was a very bad idea. The website operated by Walsall Council peddles stories that show the administration in a favourable light but is practically impenetrable when it comes to searching for relevant information. Information is power and information will not be freely available.

In 1971, the sublime Gil Scott-Heron recorded The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, thought to be the genesis of what became known as Rap. Those early pioneers of the genre gave a voice to the oppressed and the victims of injustice and the tragedy of Rap is that it developed into the only known overtly right-wing form of popular music.

Our politicians, both locally and nationally, have not grasped the fact that we are all becoming more connected. Last year, an illegal government in Iran almost fell to a popular uprising. Amid heavy censorship and a news blackout, the attempted revolution was organised using Twitter. The madmen in charge of Iran then accused the BBC of fermenting sedition by daring to report the facts. Political parties, Walsall Council and the print media should note that this tactic does not work. The genie is now out of the bottle and the indecent haste with which the Digital Economy Bill was forced into law will haunt whoever attempts to rule the country after May 6.

The revolution will not be televised, it will be Twittered.

April 6, 2010

The darling buds of May

Filed under: Politics,Walsall — theplastichippo @ 11:51 pm

May 6 is the anniversary of the sack of Rome, an event in 1527 that is forever associated with the final end of the renaissance. It is also the birthday of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, a person currently described as a “peace envoy”. Oh, and apparently some elections are going to take place on May 6.

The long awaited confirmation that the general election will coincide with the first local poll in two years will have the ruling Walsall Tory group hugging themselves with delight as the battle of the big beasts will certainly overshadow a few local difficulties. Mike Bird and his chums must think that Christmas and birthdays have come at once as all they need to do when asked a tricky question is bellow in the style of Father Jack:
“Iraq war…economy…Hoon…Hewitt…Byers”. The convenience of electoral purdah will also help smother some of the colossal embarrassments with a cloak of silence.

The catalogue of disaster that has befallen Walsall Tories over the past few years is monumental. Overspending £5million on a white elephant ring road might appear unfortunate and loosing £3million in EU funding could be considered as careless, but the good and the great in cabinet are happy to brush these gaffes aside as footnotes of history. Similarly inconsequential is the admission that the council cannot provide the services that it has a duty to supply. Education, social care and highways maintenance are in the hands of private companies who make substantial profits at the same time as providing sub-standard services. In spite of not being in control, a further £5million is cut from social services and our value-for-money education provider has overseen more schools going into special measures.

Now the council wants to throw in the towel at swimming pools and will continue to pay out millions in out of court wrongful dismissal cases where honest public servants have had the temerity to blow the whistle on wasted public funds and wrong-doing. Responsibility, it seems, does not extend to elected members. The calamitous state that the borough finds itself in is the result of an incompetent administration unable to carry out even the most basic of civic tasks whilst at the same time denying its own inadequacy.

Our elected representatives seem to have conveniently forgotten what their actual role is. They should be there to represent those without a voice, to champion the vulnerable and at least make some attempt to enrich the lives of the people who happen to inhabit this part of the planet. Instead we have a cohort of inept and rather pathetic failures who expend infinitely more time and effort on diverting responsibility for their own misdemeanours than actually working towards any meaningful corporate leadership.

April is usually considered to be the cruellest month as half-hearted daffodils and lilacs force their way to the surface giving us false hope that spring will be better than winter. If the events of March are anything to go by, April in the waste land that is Walsall is likely to be particularly grim with more and more cuts and an increasing denial of ineptitude masked by the main event of the appointment of a national administrative manager.

But, as that bloke who once to live in Strafford-upon-Avon said:
“Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer`s lease hath all too short a date…”

The short election campaigns, both local and national, are certain to turn nasty and, it seems to have already begun. Voters in Walsall South received a leaflet over the weekend introducing them to their Conservative candidate, Richard Hunt. Mr Hunt clearly cares for the people of Walsall and the local Labour party as his leaflet claims that local people have been overlooked in the selection of the Labour candidate and quite rightly points out that Valerie Vaz has been parachuted in and that she is the sister of somebody. The rest of his leaflet, promoted by someone called Adrian Andrew, criticises the government but gives no policy statements.

Richard Hunt was born in Chesterfield and educated in Yorkshire. He stood unsuccessfully in Barrow and Furness for the Conservatives in the 1997 election and was a district councillor in Hart (Hampshire) between 2000 and 2006. He is certainly familiar with Walsall as he has used the M6 and is a supporter of Leeds United.

The danger is that the 20 council seats up for election in Walsall will be all but ignored as we watch the spectacle of skydivers trying to kick the air out of each others parachutes. This woefully inept, morally and financially bankrupt council will attempt to get off the hook by focussing on national issues and council opposition parties will miss the chance of holding them to account. As for those standing to be our next MP, slavishly following the national party line might not be such a good idea. With the reputation of Westminster at an all time low, there are votes to be had in a commitment to cleaning up both the Council House, and the Houses of Parliament.

The battle lines are drawn and this next election is likely to be the closest run for years. But it will not be won or lost on policy or vision. It will hinge on negativity, smears and invective. Great oratory is a thing of the past and the vote will be decided by which party makes the most gaffes. Whichever identical administrator stands on the steps of number 10 on the morning of May 7, having inherited a kingdom of debt and necessary cuts, he will see fear in a handful of dust.

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