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Thursday, 29 August 2013

Note to the Editor of The Guardian: Politics is Not Just About Lobbying

I get my News from three main sources: The Financial Times (my first choice), The Guardian and The Independent. The latter two both employ numerous columnists to comment on current affairs and to argue for positions. Increasingly, I skip these columns. Too often, they interpret their task as that of advancing some sectional interest.

Recently, I was talking to someone about  the International Workers of the World (the IWW - the Wobblies), the American-based and (historically) anarchist-leaning trades union. In contrast to most unions, which based themselves in one industry or trade - rather as if they were successors to craft guilds - the Wobblies sought to recruit all workers into its organisation. This wasn't megalomania. It was a strategy to avoid sectionalism and factionalism; to avoid the situation in which unions advanced the causes of their own members without too much regard to the legitimate interests and needs of other groups. In other words, they were opposed to people who were only interested in their own backyard. Britain's self-destruct National Union of Mineworkers was a good example of what the Wobblies were against (the Wobblies still exist, but "were" is probably more accurate than "are").

Guardian  and Independent columnists don't advance the backyard interests of miners or typesetters or panel beaters. They concentrate on women or  blacks or Muslims or gays or cyclists or the disabled or dog lovers (the last I include because of a recent Independent piece urging dog owners to use the power of the Hound Pound to force department stores to allow their pooches through the doors). More often than not, columnists focus on sub-sections of sections of society: gay Muslims, female cyclists. Sometimes the backyards are even smaller than that.

From a Wobbly perspective, this is all wrong. It places what differentiates people at the forefront instead of what they have in common. At worst, it is about pushing the case for Jobs for the Girls as a variant on Jobs for the Boys. But what is really needed is a robust sense of equal rights in general, not particular rights for some group or other. Those rights follow on from the general commitment, they don't precede it or create it.

This is not to deny that some people have legitimate grievances and that they need advocates, vigorous and noisy ones. But the danger at present is that if you take your line from The Guardian or The Independent you will end up thinking that politics is only about lobbying, advocacy and backyards. It isn't.

Monday, 5 August 2013

The True History of Gibraltar

The British Government bases its legal claim to Gibraltar on the Treaty of Utrecht 1713 - so this year is the 300th Anniversary of the colony. We won in the War of the Spanish Succession and Gibraltar was part of the Booty.

So here we are in 2013 basing a claim to an enclave across the ocean on having beaten the Spanish in 1713: "We won the War, so Tough". We don't nowadays say that to Germany, so what makes us think that it's a good argument to use with Spain? After all, Spain is also a member of the European Union and allows many thousands of UK citizens to buy homes and live in Spain and many more British citizens to holiday there, unmolested.

We prefer Gibraltar to amicable relations with Spain because it controls the entrance to the Mediterranean. That used to be very useful in war time, especially if Spain was neutral (World Wars One and Two) or potentially on the other side. Actually, whether or not we can now use the Straits in war time depends on the Americans not on Spain. This we have known since 1956 when the US (Eisenhower, Republican - those were the days) pulled the plug on the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt. Straits or no Straits, we can't go to war any more unless the Americans at least tolerate it.

It may be that the Americans prefer us to hang on to Gibraltar - they probably reckon we're a more compliant touch than the Spanish. We will let them land planes, dock ships and install listening posts on the Rock. But if the Americans change their minds and conclude that Gibraltar should go to Spain, then probably it will go to Spain.

That would be tough for the on-line British gambling businesses who have installed themselves there, not to mention the money launderers and the gun-runners and ... well, all those activities which drive up local property prices so that ordinary Gibraltarians find themselves forced to live over the border in, er,Spain - hence the importance of the border crossing.  Gibraltarians commute to work cross that border. So do Spaniards, in quite large numbers: the Gibraltarian economy is bigger than Gibraltar. That's the general idea of such enclaves, as Spain knows from its own African enclaves of Ceuta and Mellila.

The Treaty of Utrecht also ceded Minorca to Britain. We had more difficulty hanging on to this and ceded it back in 1783 by the Treaty of Versailles and back once again in 1802 by the Treaty of Amiens. We weren't doing very well in the fights we were picking at that time. Yes, but if we got it Fairly by the Treaty of Utrecht then it was Unfair that it was taken away from us in 1783. Think of all those poor Minorcans born between 1713 and 1783 who grew up thinking that they were Brits, born to celebrate the birth of royal babies on their postage stamps (if they had had postage stamps then). How cruelly we abandoned them!

Surely, Mr Cameron and Mr Hague, time to demand back Minorca so unfairly wrested from its rightful owner!

Finally, by the Treaty of Utrecht, the British got something much more valuable than Gibraltar or Minorca. They got the Asiento.

The what? They got the right to sell people as slaves to Spain's colonies. They broke the Spanish monopoly on supplying slaves to its own colonies and opened the trade to their own traders and their own ships. That's the kind of Booty you get when you win wars. The Asiento lasted until 1834, the British government assigning its trading rights to our South Sea Company.

Ain't British history glorious?

HSBC and the Vatican: A Lesson to Our Politicians

HSBC has been reviewing the accounts of some of its dodgier London-based clients. This follows on from some rough handling by US authorities, who have fined it heavily for carelessness in monitoring money flows through US and Mexican based accounts.

As a result, HSBC has told the London Embassies and Consulates of  forty countries to take their banking business elsewhere. Not all the names seem to be in the public domain yet, and the British media are unlikely to  pursue the story, but three unwanted countries have already been identified: Benin, Papua New Guinea - and the Vatican. Yes, the Papal Nuncio to the Court of St. James has been told to take his money and clear off. I am sure this will be done with much gathering up of Nuncial skirts.

But it's a fairly obvious account to not want to have. The Vatican's Bank in Rome - the so-called "Institute of Religious Works" is as dodgy as they come, under heavy pressure right now from international regulatory authorities to clean up its act. Basically, it's a bank of choice for criminals - including criminal priests. Cleaning it up is easier said than done - throw out the bathwater and you may discover there never was a baby. This is what the regulators suspect. As a result,  all Vatican accounts come under suspicion.

In contrast to HSBC, British politicians of all parties can't get enough of the Vatican. Prime Minister Tony Blair cosied up to Pope Benedict and begged him to come to Britain. Blair's hapless successor, Gordon Brown, renewed the invitation. Eventually, under David Cameron, Pope Benedict arrived. Politicians - without exception - behaved as if it was the second coming. The Catholic news media - the BBC, The Guardian, The Times, followed by all the rest - worked round the clock to hype the visit. The entire Establishment toadied to Pope Benedict.

The worst of it was the insult to the Republic of Ireland such behaviour implied. There was our near neighbour, its government and people, in the middle of such a bitter struggle to hold the Roman Catholic Church to account for its crimes that Pope Benedict could not have set foot in that country. And there were we treating him like some supernatural celebrity when all we were getting was a reactionary Professor and former member of the Hitler Youth who had no intention or no ability to clean up the Vatican stables.

Well Done, HSBC! But I fear we won't hear very much more of this story.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

What Does An Illegal Immigrant Look Like?

The United Kingdom Borders Agency is in the news for sending its officers to hang around some London underground rail stations to stop people (randomly, but they stop only non-white people) and ask them to prove that they have a right to be in the UK. This is not much of a departure from the traditions of this organisation. A few years ago, UKBA used to send a charabanc of officers to Brighton every summer. Accompanied by police and a tame local news photographer, they would raid restaurants and the side shows on the pier, looking for people working illegally. On one occasion they circled the pier with boats in case any terrified illegals sought to escape by hurling themselves into the sea.

I don't think the results were much to boast about. At best, a few Brazilians with tourist visas who could be deported back to Rio to spread the word about how much fun Brighton is and how awful Britain.

Anyway, What does an illegal immigrant to the UK look like? This is not a topic on which I have any expertise, but I find I have a very large number of beliefs. I will number them and you can shout "True!" or "False!" or anything else you feel like this morning:

1. There are a lot of illegal immigrants in the UK, and "a lot" means "at least 100,000"
2. Some are people who have overstayed their student or tourist Visas and no longer have a right to be here
3. Some entered in the back of a lorry, evading border controls, and never had a right too be here
4. A few could have entered legally but didn't realise that and chose the back-of-a-lorry route
5. Most are working
6. Most are working in cash-in-hand jobs
7. Many are coerced or exploited by those who provide them with work
8. Most are under 40
9. Most are under 30
10. Most are male, though in recent years the proportion of women has increased.
11. Most are non-white, for the simple reason that the biggest countries and the poorest countries have non-white populations, many of whom dream of better lives elsewhere - for which reason, we impose stringent visa requirements on nationals of those countries.
12. A significant minority are white from educated and affluent backgrounds; this includes many Visa overstayers
13. A few are engaged in serious criminal activities
14. Those engaged in serious criminal activities do get caught by the police
15. Most illegal immigrants are in south east England, especially London: this is where there are most jobs available
16. Most illegal immigrants knew someone who was already in the UK, legally or illegally, before they came here

17. If you granted an amnesty to all illegal immigrants who can show that they have been working and supporting themselves, nothing terrible would happen.
18. If you amnestied the group identified in 17, there would be a net gain to the UK Treasury from taxes they would start paying in excess of any benefits they might claim - simply because most of those amnestied would be young, single and fit.
19. An amnesty of the sort just described would reduce the number of people you needed to worry about by at least 90%
20. So why not accept that Boris Johnson got it right and that instead of posting UKBA Trolls at London Underground stations, we should use most of our resources  to set up a fast-track Amnesty Office
21. And, OK, then use resources to tackle problems created by illegal migrants who have other reasons for being here than the desire to work.