Homosexuality. An attempt to educate.

This is a chapter of the book I published back in 2011 (The Asylum of the Universe, pgs 81-91),  that I hope deals with the subject in a way that most people will be able to relate to. I might choose to put a few things in a slightly different way today, but I stand by it as is.

IMG_5475I have been prompted to post this at this juncture as we approach Cardiff Pride this weekend and getting horrendous regular reports of institutionalised homophobia in my father’s land of Poland at the moment. The Chapter below ends with concerns about what was happening in Uganda at the time.  That such concerns are now happening within the EU horrifies me to the core. It’s not just Poland, but throughout Eastern Europe in particular, especially Russia. And we have seen a 150% increase in homophobic attacks in the UK, alongside the rise in racist incidents, since the infernal Brexit vote. 

I hope this essay can help in some small way.

HOMOSEXUALITY

But I don’t care what they say
And I don’t listen to people
Who say that all actors are gay
Not that I don’t think that’s OK
As far as I’m concerned
Although it’s not my bag
If you wanna be a fag
Be a fag y’know?
Who am I to say
Where you come
And where you go (88)

Here is another topic surrounded by bigoted nonsense. Why people can’t just mind their own business and live and let live is beyond me. Living a fairly closeted childhood, I first became aware of homosexuality as an issue in the 1970’s when the Naked Civil Servant (89) was shown on television. My reaction was that of initial curiosity, followed by the conclusion that although it wasn’t for me, what was all the fuss about?

I guess it is a combination of the usual suspicion and fear of anything people struggle to relate to – like black skin, turbans etc. – and the disgust engendered by Leviticus and other religious scripture. It is a vile sin, end of story. But herein lays the essence of the problem. It is a sin because supposedly sacred texts say it is. Why? Because it is, so there! No rationale; just small-minded prejudice.

Religious homophobia has a huge influence on people’s attitudes. It is just one strand of my antithesis to faith schools. Michael Cashman MEP, who played one of television’s first gay characters, Colin in Eastenders, has made the following point:

“Within faith schools we are still getting a message of anaesthetised hatred – ‘we don’t hate these people but they are not equal’. If that is said enough, it softens the brains of young people and that’s so dangerous. And it’s a message echoed by sections of press.” (90)

88 From Mitsubishi Colt by Tim Minchin.
89 Quentin Crisp’s autobiography, the same title, is still worth a read.
90 Reported in a BBC News Magazine article entitled ‘Is Gay Bashing on the Rise?’

p81

 

A recent report by the gay rights group Stonewall (91) found that bullying of gay pupils rose significantly in faith schools. I wonder what queer- bashing kids grow into as adults. Onward Christian soldiers perhaps.

Just what is the problem with homosexuality? If you don’t like celery, then don’t eat celery. But you cannot label everyone who then eats celery as weird/evil/perverted, can you? (92)

The problem rarely seems to be with someone loving someone else of the same gender – loving in the sense of the emotional bond and mutual dependence between two people who care about each other. It is, after all, unreasonable to knock such positive feelings, isn’t it? So instead we are asked to focus on things that can be seen as stomach turning and threatening by those of a sensitive disposition. Yes, I am referring to cocks in bums.

At this point you may be recoiling in horror, and those of you tainted by religion are probably uttering a quick prayer of contrition for even reading such words. Alternatively, you may be chuckling to yourself. But in either case, why? It is a patent absurdity to be personally threatened by anyone else’s gender orientation. Be threatened by a rapist or a paedophile, not a homosexual.

Personally, I will admit to being somewhat anally retentive. I don’t like anything near my bum hole (other than my right hand and loo paper) in much the same way that I hate people touching the soles of my feet. But I have no problem with other people enjoying their feet, or their rings, being tickled, their toes being sucked and/or their anus being rimmed and probed. Whatever floats your boat.

Another strange thing is that many heterosexual men find the idea of buggering a sexy woman very appealing. I am not totally sure, but I don’t think the Bible has anything to say about this particular sexual permutation. But is there any significant difference between fucking a female arse compared to a male arse? Am I missing something?

Personally, I find it a little odd to want to shove your cock in any shitty hole, but especially when there is a nice pussy just inches away. But hey! Each to their own. And who am I to deny the pleasure patently enjoyed by most willing buggerees? Many men often view women that enjoy it up the bum as some sort of ‘holy grail’. As Ali G pointed out to the Beckhams, football crowds chanting ‘Does Victoria take it up the arse?’ can actually be construed as a compliment. Respect!

91 Reported in The Independent on 13/01/2010.
92 I have to confess to being a celeriphobe – it makes me want to vomit!

p82

 

The bigots get so hung up about these things that they seem to assume that every gay man wants to bugger them. How conceited can you get? Do they think every heterosexual woman fancies them? Do they think every heterosexual male wants to fuck their wife? Some are so small- minded, deluded and arrogant that they possibly do!

This focus on buggery is presumably the reason for the much greater tolerance of female homosexuality. In fact, show me a heterosexual man who says he doesn’t/wouldn’t enjoy watching lesbian sex, and I will show you a liar or religious bigot in denial. It is such a visual feast, that few men can fail to be aroused. Visual stimulus is highly important to men. Maybe this is why godly scripture, while often raging incandescently about male-on-male action, feels no need to condemn the girl-on-girl equivalent.

This allowed our lawmakers, who (historically at least) based their judgements of right and wrong on the Bible, to completely overlook consent laws for lesbians. These same lawmakers had no problem discriminating against gay men though. It is not that long ago that their age of consent was reduced from 21 to 18 yrs old – still two years older than for heterosexual girls. Just look at the mindset of these old fart lawmakers – they have no problem with girl-on-girl action; girls (their daughters) cannot consent to heterosexual sex before 16 yrs old, but boys (their sons) technically can; and boy-on-boy action is a real no-no. What inconsistent nonsense.

There is, of course, a line of argument that sees homosexuality as abnormal and even unnatural. If we were all to become homosexual, then we would, indeed, become extinct within a generation. This is one line of argument the bigots like trotting out. But it has a couple of pretty obvious flaws. Firstly, people do not ‘become’ homosexual and, secondly, homosexuality is perfectly natural.

On the first point, psychiatric and psychological research around the world tends to be pretty much unanimous. Most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation. It exists as part of the whole spectrum of human sexuality from exclusively heterosexual through to exclusively homosexual, via a mid point in the spectrum that would be completely bisexual. As such, sexual orientation is seen to be generally impervious to attempts to change it. (93)

93 www.apa.org/topics/orientation.html Answers to Your Questions About Sexual Orientation and Homosexuality. American Psychological Association.

p83

 

This is not to say that there is an even distribution of people along this spectrum – far from it. It is certainly not the bell curve that represents a statistically ‘normal’ distribution. This would infer that bi-sexuality would be the norm. It would, perhaps, be nice if it were so that more people could enjoy ‘the best of both worlds’.

Estimates of the occurrence of exclusive homosexuality vary considerably from one study to the next. It is a notoriously difficult topic to elicit frank, honest responses on. I have found estimates ranging from 0% to 20% of the population. The truth inevitably lies somewhere in between. Surveys over the last 20 years in the UK, however, seem to yield pretty consistent responses around the 6% mark. Figures for the U.S. tend to be around 4%. Remember, this is for people claiming to be exclusively homosexual.

Far more people will have had some degree of bisexual experience. In the UK, a 2008 poll revealed 13% of Britons have had some form of sexual contact with someone of the same sex (kissing or threesomes included) (94) but do not identify themselves as homosexual. Add on people who may have had homosexual urges or feelings, but not acted on them, and you can certainly imagine a figure of 20% being realistic.

The 0% figure is the patently anomalous one. This figure comes from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, during a speech at Columbia University in 2007. He insisted that there were no gay people in Iran. He is, of course, wrong! (95) It may not be cock up his arse, but that is probably due to his head being up there already!

Whatever the figures, the reality is that sexual orientation is part of who we are, in a similar way that hair colour or body shape is. There is no rationale for persecuting ginger hair or rotund people, but the ignorant do so nonetheless. The fact that sexual orientation tends not to emerge until puberty and may not be identified until much later gives scope for some people to conclude that there is an element of choice, or even that indoctrination might be involved. Ironically, it is the ‘indoctrinaires’ of the church that most often suggest this.

94 Sex uncovered poll: Homosexuality. Guardian.
95 New York Times article of 30/09/2007 entitled Despite Denials, Gays Insist They Exist, if Quietly, in Iran by Nazila Fathi.

p84

 

In the narrow-minded and bigoted world we live in, homosexuality would not be a rational choice. This is why virtually everybody I know to be gay has had periods of torture and denial to cope with before coming to terms with the reality and ‘coming out’ (96).

This business of coming to terms with your own sexuality when it is different to what you are surrounded with must be difficult at best, and it is little wonder that it can prove traumatic. I think that one way in which it is even harder than it is for other minority groups (such as ethnic and racial groups) is that most people are brought up in heterosexual environments. The vast majority of parents will be, almost by definition, essentially heterosexual. Add to this the levels of ignorance and hostility towards homosexuality in many communities and it becomes easy to see why the adolescent homosexual finds it difficult to know where to turn for support, understanding and role models.

I guess that there must be several stages to go through in terms of the awakening and coming to terms with ‘being different’ in terms of one’s sexuality. Based on people I know and have spoken to, as well as things I have read, most homosexual people would not have been aware of their sexuality at all before puberty, although some claim to have had an awareness of being different in some way. Puberty is the time for sexual awakening for all of us.

In terms of coming to terms with one’s self, the ease of this must depend on your circumstances. However liberal and open your family and friends are, there must still be difficulties in coming to terms with being different. By your teenage years it must be obvious to everybody that heterosexuality is the norm and that homosexuality attracts bigotry and hostility. This is why, I suspect, many enter a period of self-denial. By the end of puberty – young adulthood – we all generally know who and what we are. So, what next?

The next stage must be sharing the realisation with others. If anyone of any sexual disposition is ever going to experience satisfying relationships in their life, they cannot deny or hide their sexuality forever. So, at some stage there must be a ‘coming out’ to your nearest and dearest. Again, just how easy this is will very much depend on your circumstances.

96 The term ‘coming out’ seems to stem from the use of the term ‘closeted’ for people that choose to keep their homosexuality away from other people. Thus, those that decide to disclose their sexuality to others are thereby ‘coming out of the closet

p85

 

How this phase goes will probably determine how quickly and easily going the ‘whole hog’ is and deciding to live openly without feeling the need to shy away from the truth of your sexuality. I would hope that this would not be the hardest step in this day and age.

There are not many circumstances where a person’s sexuality and sexual preferences are of any relevance whatsoever. Modern legal statutes make it increasingly difficult to negatively discriminate on the basis of sexuality. Indeed, many large organisations undertake positive discrimination in favour of all sorts of minorities and demographics to ensure their organisations reflect the national demographics (and tick all the boxes on their Investors In People application – but that is another load of bull I might come back to).

In some ways it is a sad reflection that some people feel uncomfortable about sharing their sexual disposition with the world, but I would fully defend their right to do so. As I said at the beginning of the chapter, it really is nothing to do with anyone else at all. So the practice of ‘outing’ people has to be seen as utterly despicable in most circumstances.

The exception to this would be with people who display homophobic attitudes in public while indulging in homosexual activities in private. Research (97) suggests that around 80% of homophobic men have homosexual tendencies to some degree. It supports long held theories that homophobia is often indicative of repressed, self-loathing homosexual feelings; and that they use their public homophobia as a smokescreen for their own homosexual activities.

In this situation, groups like OutRage! and their supporters, such as Peter Tatchell, feel justified in outing these people. It is justified in the following terms:

  • The gay community is entitled to defend itself against homophobia of any sort.
  • Homophobia from closet gays is particularly indefensible on the grounds of hypocrisy and the additional harm caused by not only under-representing the size of the gay population, but in the duplicity and bigotry exhibited my members of that population.
  • Such behaviour is often most damaging from people in positions of influence who out of (often misguided) self-interest are prepared to pervert their authority to harm other gay people to protect their position.

97 The biggest study appears to have been undertaken by Prof. Adams at the University of Georgia in the 1990s – reported in an article entitled Most Homophobes are Gay at www.ipce.info and in the US Journal of Abnormal Psychology, in 1996.

p86

 

I accept these arguments. I hate hypocrisy more than just about anything. Outing in these circumstances is going to make people face up to their hypocrisy and is therefore likely to be in everybody’s long-term interests. The “outing” of ten gay bishops in 1994 forced the Church of England to begin a serious dialogue with the homosexual community for the first time. It has heralded a period of critical self-evaluation by the Church that has significantly changed attitudes to gay clergy and led to a wider review of attitudes to issues like women clergy. The whole establishment has been forced to become more circumspect with regard to overtly homophobic attitudes.

Thus, in exceptional circumstances, outing can very definitely be a catalyst for good. Following the outing of the Bishops, hypocritical, homophobic, closet gays in politics, business, the military, the judiciary and the police will need to tread more carefully. This should not be a threat to closet gays in general – just the hypocrites among them that need to reconcile their homophobic personas with their homosexual dispositions. Enough said.

Moving on to another thorny aspect within the nature versus nurture debate, there are some legitimate questions as to how a genetic propensity for homosexuality can persist. The answer to this can be found in the in journal Evolution and Human Behavior (98). The authors of a 2008 study revealed that there is considerable evidence that human sexual orientation is genetically influenced. What is not known is how homosexuality, which tends to lower reproductive success, is maintained in the population at a relatively high frequency. They hypothesised that genes predisposing to homosexuality could confer some advantage in heterosexuals who carry them.

The research into this hypothesis showed that masculine females and feminine men exhibit two relevant traits. Firstly, they are more likely to be non-heterosexual (gay or bi-sexual). Secondly, when heterosexual, they tend to have significantly more opposite-sex partners. I can certainly relate to effeminate guys I know who seem to have constant strings of female partners.

98 Evolution and Human Behavior vol.29 pg 424-433 entitled Genetic factors predisposing to homosexuality may increase mating success in heterosexuals by Zietsch et al.

p87

 

It is possible to imagine all sorts of psychological issues involved in these trends, but most pertinent would appear to be the subliminal inferences that a relatively effeminate male makes a more attractive mate from the point of view of likely contributions to child rearing perhaps. This could also be behind the ever-growing body of evidence that homosexual couples are at least as good as heterosexual couples when it comes to parenting (99).

All this merely confirms that a tendency towards homosexuality is perfectly natural. Indeed, a growing body of research reveals that homosexual and bisexual behaviour are widespread in the animal kingdom (100). Would you believe that homosexual behaviour has been witnessed in close to 1500 species and is well documented in around 500 of them?

Some of the behaviour witnessed would boggle even the most liberal of minds. (That has aroused your curiosity, hasn’t it? Perhaps that is why the book referred to in the footnote is out of stock at Amazon as I write!!) Just to give you a little flavour of the rich diversity out there, how about gay whales fucking their partner’s blowholes! The whale song afterwards translates, I speculate, as ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles’!! Perhaps this is also what generated the slogan ‘Nuke Gay Whales for Jesus’ (101).

The motivations for and implications of homosexuality in nature are far from fully understood. But what is clear is that there is much greater sexual diversity in the animal kingdom – homosexuality, bisexuality, masturbation and all manner of non-reproductive sex – than the scientific community has yet studied in any detail and far more than the religious bigots would be prepared to accept.

Having said this, there have been homosexuality-embracing human societies at various points in history and dotted around the world.

99 See Wikipedia article on LGBT parenting. (LGBT = Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender)
100 A particularly impressive review of the subject can be found in Bruce Bagemihl’s enclopaedic book (almost 800 pages) entitled Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity.
101 The phrase was coined to offend as many people as possible in one fell swoop in an irreverent parody of trendy political causes. Makes for a great t-shirt!

p88

For example:

  • In pre-colonial Africa, women in Lesotho engaged in socially sanctioned lesbian relationships, known as ‘motsoalle’. The Azande warriors of the Congo routinely took young men into their households as home helps and to shag when wanting sex without the risk of a pregnancy. The first recorded homosexual couples in history were depicted in ancient Egypt.
  • The indigenous people of the Americas had a form of same-sex spirituality centred on the concept the Two-Spirit individual. Overtly homosexual and transgender individuals were common and accepted in Latin American civilisations including the Aztecs, Mayans and Quechuas. Indeed, the Spanish conquerors (Catholics) were so horrified by such open practice of sodomy; they crushed it with stiff penalties that included public execution by burning or being torn to pieces by dogs. What else would you expect from good Christians?
  • In eastern Asia, homosexuality has been recorded throughout history. It is an integral part of monastic Buddhist life and the Samurai tradition in Japan. In Thailand, Kathoey (more commonly known as ‘ladyboys’) have been a feature of society for many centuries. Thai kings are known to have taken male as well as female lovers.
  • Attitudes to homosexuality were quite liberal in ancient Greece and ancient Rome. Plato equated the acceptance of homosexuality with democracy and its suppression with despotism in his Symposium. All Roman emperors, bar Claudius, are known to have taken male lovers. Renaissance Italy was renowned for widespread same-sex relationships – although frowned upon by the (Catholic) authorities.
  • In Persia (modern day Iran) public displays of homosexual and homoerotic expression were common in the Middle Ages. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism has pushed it ‘back into the closet’ with Iran, along with Muslim nations Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Mauritania, Sudan and Nigeria, now being among the only 10 countries with the death penalty in place for same-sex intercourse.
  • In many Melanesian societies, especially Papua New Guinea, homosexuality has been celebrated. Until the middle of the last century, the Etoro tribe, for example, regarded homosexuality as a preferable state to heterosexuality. In some tribes, young boys would be paired with older adolescents as mentors who would ‘inseminate’ the young boys to ‘help’ them achieve puberty!

p89

 

So, here in western ‘Christian’ societies (Europe and USA) our attitudes to the natural phenomenon that is homosexuality tend to be inconsistent, bigoted and riddled with unnecessary guilt and anxiety. Things may be changing slowly, but it can still be painful to watch. There is even some evidence that gay bashing may be on the rise in parts of Britain. (102)

I was amazed to find that Catholic Poland was one of the first countries to de-criminalise homosexual acts, back in 1932. It took until 1967 for the UK to follow suit, just after the Scandinavian countries.

Prohibiting discrimination has been even slower. Quebec was the first place to legally ban discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, in 1977. Most developed countries caught up in the 1980s and 1990s, but the situation is still grim in many parts of the world. The war against narrow- minded bigotry is still to be won.

There is current uproar about Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill, going through its parliament as I write, in early 2010. It is the most draconian attempt at fascist legislation since God knows when (he says with deliberate irony). It has been encouraged by local Christian leaders and funded, according to Peter Tatchell (103), by US evangelical ministries. So, just what are these nice Christian folk proposing?

The bill before the Ugandan parliament proposes the death penalty for “aggravated” and/or “serial” homosexuality. Aggravated homosexuality is defined as gay sex involving under 18s or disabled people, or by anyone with HIV, irrespective of condom use. Serial homosexuality is having same sex relations more than once. Life imprisonment used to be the more lenient punishment for same-sex intercourse, but that is now the fate for anyone caught indulging in any form of homosexual behaviour, such as kissing or holding hands, or even living together in a same-sex (but possibly sexless) marriage. Condoning or promoting homosexuality will get you five to seven years.

102 BBC News Magazine article entitled Is Gay Bashing on the Rise? There was an 18% rise in reported attacks in the East End of London in the summer of 2009. The police claimed that this partly reflected improved relations with the gay community making them more comfortable in coming forward and reporting incidents.

103 See Peter Tatchell’s letter, on behalf of OutRage!, in the Jan/Feb 2010 edition of New Humanist under the heading ‘Witch Hunt’.

p90

 

Why, oh why, oh why? They are not far from a ‘final solution’ to eradicating the perceived menace. Sound familiar? Hopefully the international community will get its act together sooner rather than later this time around. But then again, I expect we will see the Christian and Muslim fundamentalists sitting on their hands on this one, much as the Roman Catholic Church, and others, sat on their hands when faced with the Holocaust.

Welcome to the asylum of the universe.

 

p91

Factfulness – The EU’s racism and anti-refugee agenda.

I’ve just finished reading Hans Rosling’s incredibly important book “Facfulness”. For the most part is a very uplifting and positive take on the state of the world today – and thereby a welcome antidote  to the prevailing negativity and doom and gloom that pervades the news and social media. It is, after all, subtitled “Ten reasons why we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think”

Screen Shot 2019-02-11 at 23.19.18However, towards the end, in a chapter entitled The Blame Instinct, he examines the situation, in 2015, of the 4,000 refugees who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea as they tried to reach Europe in inflatable boats. I’m sure we all remember the images of children’s bodies washed up on holiday beaches. That were splashed all over the news media and evoked outpourings of horror and compassion. Well, of horror at least. How could it happen? Who is to blame?

Over to Hans Rosling (Factfulness pg212ff):

[W]hy weren’t the refugees traveling to Europe on comfortable planes or ferry boats instead of traveling over land to Libya or Turkey and then entrusting their lives to these rickety rubber rafts? Screen Shot 2019-02-11 at 23.23.20.pngAfter all, all EU member states were signed up to the Geneva Convention, and it was clear that refugees from war-torn Syria would be entitled to claim asylum under its terms. I started to ask this question of journalists, friends, and people involved in the reception of the asylum seekers, but even the wisest and kindest among them came up with very strange answers.

Perhaps they could not afford to fly? But we knew that the refugees were paying 1,000 euros for each place on a rubber dinghy. I went online and checked and there were plenty of tickets from Turkey to Sweden or from Libya to London for under 50 euros. 

Maybe they couldn’t reach the airport? Not true. Many of them were already in Turkey or Lebanon and could easily get to the airport. And they can afford a ticket, and the planes are not overbooked. But at the check-in counter, they are stopped by the airline staff from getting onto the plane. Why? Because of a European Council Directive from 2001 that tells member states how to combat illegal immigration. This directive says that every airline or ferry company that brings a person without proper documents into Europe must pay all the costs of returning that person to their country of origin. Of course the directive also says that it doesn’t apply to refugees who want to come to Europe based on their rights to asylum under the Geneva Convention, only to illegal immigrants. But that claim is meaningless. Because how should someone at the check-in desk at an airline be able to work out in 45 seconds whether someone is a refugee or is not a refugee according to the Geneva Convention? Something that would take the embassy at least eight months? It is impossible. So the practical effect of the reasonable-sounding directive is that commercial airlines will not let anyone board without a visa. And getting a visa is nearly impossible because the European embassies in Turkey and Libya do not have the resources to process the applications. Refugees from Syria, with the theoretical right to enter Europe under the Geneva Convention, are therefore in practice completely unable to travel by air and so must come over the sea.Screen Shot 2019-02-11 at 23.21.21

Why, then, must they come in such terrible boats? Actually, EU policy is behind that as well, because it is EU policy to confiscate the boats when they arrive. So boats can be used for one trip only. The smugglers could not afford to send the refugees in safe boats, like the fishing boats that brought 7,220 Jewish refugees from Denmark to Sweden over a few days in 1943, even if they wanted to.

Our European governments claim to be honouring the Geneva Convention that entitles a refugee from a severely war-torn country to apply for and receive asylum. But their immigration policies make a mockery of this claim in practice and directly create the transport market in which the smugglers operate. There is nothing secret about this; infant it takes some pretty blurry or blocked thinking not to see it.

We have an instinct to find someone to blame, but we rarely look in the mirror. I think smart and kind people often fail to reach the terrible, guilt-inducing conclusion that our own immigration policies [those of the EU] are responsible for the drownings of refugees. 

Thank you, Hans.

So there you have it. I wish I had had this to hand a couple of years ago when the toxic Brexit debate was at its height. Yes, of course, there were, and are racists heavily involved in the Leave camp. But to try to label the everybody on the Leave side of the argument as small-minded, xenophobic racists, was always despicable in itself and even more so when you accept the fact that the the racists on the Remain side are even more in denial, hide in the shadows and successfully enact racist, anti-refugee policies in blatant contravention of the Geneva Convention.

I am not saying that this, in itself, is grounds for supporting either side of the Brexit campaign. What I am saying is that it kind of invalidates the whole topic from the debate. There is little to choose between the two sides in the final analysis (this story could be about UKIP with just a few words changed), other than one side is a bit more brazen and honest about its stance than the other. All the bollocks talked about freedom of movement boils down to simply shifting the barriers around.

Talking of barriers, perhaps the EU could sell the design for this one to Donald Trump: Screen Shot 2019-02-11 at 23.02.09

P.S. I fully expect a torrent of abuse from rabid ‘Remainers’, indignant at the mere suggestion that their wonderful EU could compared to overtly racist UKIP. I’d invite them to take a good look at the facts first, then in the mirror second. By all means stand by your ‘Remain’ convictions, but take some responsibility for cleaning up the focus and level of the debate.

Fracking Banned in Wales? Almost, but not quite.

As someone who has been campaigning against fracking for just over 7 years now, and who been involved with Frack Free Wales since its inception in 2013, today is a momentous day.

Screen Shot 2018-12-10 at 21.54.21

Today saw the publication of a written statement by Lesley Griffith, Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Planning and Rural Affairs, of the Welsh Government’s new Petroleum Extraction Policy. In this context, we can safely assume that references to petroleum cover the full range of petroleum products, namely oil and gas hydrocarbons (effectively all fossil fuel sources except coal.

The full policy statement can be found here.

The key section, as far as I am concerned, is this:

Screen Shot 2018-12-10 at 21.57.29“Having considered the evidence, the risks, and the responses we have received to the consultation, I confirm today hydraulic fracturing “fracking” of petroleum will not be supported in Wales.
To help deliver on my commitment in 2016 to reduce the use of fossil fuels I also confirm we will not undertake any new petroleum licensing in Wales.”

Hip, hip, hmmm….

Hang on a minute. What is it with wording it “fracking of petroleum will not be supported in Wales”? Clumsy at best!

Bleddyn Lake of Friends of the Earth Cymru seems happy to interpret this thus, on their web page today:
“This ban is great news for Wales, great news for the communities who are campaigning tirelessly against fracking, and great news for our planet.”

Screen Shot 2018-12-10 at 22.00.04.pngYou will note a statement from Donal Whelan on behalf of Frack Free Wales on the same page, as we have worked closely with FotEC on this campaign. I helped Donal put this statement together. FotEC didn’t like this in our first draft:
“We regret the Welsh Gov’s choice of words in ‘not supporting fracking’, we would have preferred more emphatic language including the word ‘ban’”. They wanted it to ‘sound a bit more positive and celebratory’, which I guess is fair enough.

Or is it?

What’s nagging at me and Donal, and the rest of our FFW colleagues, is this question:
Why is Lesley Griffith so reluctant to simply say that fracking is now banned in Wales?

Not supporting something is patently NOT the same as banning something. I can say that I will not support Manchester United, but in no sense is this even suggesting that I want them banned.

So what is going on here?

Inevitably, until we get clarification from Lesley Griffith, this is a matter of conjecture on my part, but I think there are enough clues to give substance to what I am suggesting here.

I believe the problem lies in the Wales Act 2107 that has devolved certain matters to Screen Shot 2018-12-10 at 22.04.32Welsh Government, and led to this opportunity to reframe Petroleum Extraction Policy.

When the Wales Bill was being published, Professor Richard Wyn Jones, director of Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre, was excoriating in his verdict on the Bill. In October 2016, he described it thus:

“The Wales Bill suffers from two fatal flaws: it’s a piece of legislation that has been both poorly conceived and badly drafted.They combine to fatal effect to outline a system of devolution that would not only be as cumbersome as its predecessors, but in some important ways would be even more restrictive and frustrating.”

“…it has insisted upon a system of ‘ministerial consents’ of such mind numbing complexity as to cause bafflement even amongst seasoned constitutional experts. Its effect, though, is clear enough. It will require Welsh Ministers to go cap in hand to Whitehall in order to act even in areas that might otherwise be regarded as devolved.”

In simple terms, Westminster retained the ability to thwart, or even veto or over-rule issues supposedly under Welsh Government control, if they felt strongly enough about it. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t just Prof. Wyn Jones who was unimpressed, but attempts to resolve these reservations do not appear to have succeeded.

I’m no legal expert, and I’ve no intention of picking apart the whole Act, but page 1 has this to say:

Screen Shot 2018-12-10 at 20.57.43

So, Westminster “will not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters”. But it can’t guarantee it won’t.

So this creates the context for the similarly wishy washy statement in today’s Policy Statement.

Welsh Government “will not support fracking”. But it can’t guarantee a ban.
Because Westminster reserves the ability to over-ride any ban.

This is all hugely frustrating semantics. I am sure that Lesley Griffith, Mark Drakeford et al share our frustration. We know that Lesley Griffith’s predecessor, Carl Sergeant, certainly shared similar frustrations over the convoluted measures that were needed to try and ensure fracking related planning applications were rejected (the mythical ‘fracking moratorium’ in Wales)

I have no real doubt that Lesley Griffith would have preferred to use the word ban, but I strongly susp[ect that legal advice steered her and Welsh Government away from using such an emphatic and unambiguous word. All the time we have fracking Tories in Westminster, I can kinda see where they are coming from.

Screen Shot 2018-12-10 at 22.07.37Thankfully, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have both been unequivocal, despite some union opposition, in stating the next Labour government in Westminster will BAN fracking. Rebecca Long Bailey MP, Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary, commenting recently on the Government’s announcement to try and make planning applications easier for fracking projects, said:

Screen Shot 2018-12-10 at 22.11.50

Rebecca Long Bailey (centre) at Preston New Road, Blackpool

“Fracking should be banned, not promoted….. Labour will ban fracking and boost renewable energy projects. We will fix our broken energy system by creating publicly owned, locally accountable companies and co-operatives.”

This is true music to my ears.

So, yes, Welsh Government has ‘effectively banned’ fracking today. It could and should have been more emphatic about it in its choice of words. The potential legal loophole could and should have been faced down. They should know by now that we would not let it happen, no matter what. They surely should have more confidence in Labour sweeping into power at the next general election.

I guess we have come to expect, under Carwyn Jones, for the Welsh Labour Government in Cardiff Bay to take the lame approach whenever a bold one is called for.

Screen Shot 2018-12-10 at 22.15.41.png

You’ve got the job now, so let’s hear it loud, clear & unambiguously!

So, I await the public declaration that the last seven years have been all about; the clear, unambiguous, public declaration that fracking is now banned, be it in Wales, or even better, across the whole UK.

Maybe Mark Drakeford will make my day tomorrow, but for now, the champagne stays on ice.

Understanding the UK’s abject poverty

A close friend of mine works as a Jobcentre manager and has worked for the DWP most of her adult life. She has been heavily involved in the roll out of Universal Credit. As you can probably imagine, this has led to us having some interesting, indeed heartfelt discussions at times.

Screen Shot 2018-11-20 at 13.40.04One such discussion has come about recently with the publication of the UN’s special envoy on extreme poverty’s hard-hitting report on poverty in the UK.

She always seems to find herself conflicted when such news hits the headlines, especially when it references Universal Credit, her area of work expertise. She gets frustrated by what she sees as unfair criticisms of it, and she had these observations regarding Philip Alston’s comments on it in his UN Report:

“The recommendations at the end in direct relation to UC are….1. soften the approcach of work coaches. This is already being extensively addressed and he found evidence of that. 2. Make payments to each member of a couple. This is already available and can be found in guidance published on gov.uk. 3. Make payments weekly or fortnightly. Ditto – already available and in public guidance. 4. Abolish 5 weeks waiting time – his only valid suggestion….but it didnt exist on other benefits and poverty rates were no lower so I would want to see more analysis”

Screen Shot 2018-11-20 at 13.45.01This is typical of the frustration she, and other Jobcentre staff that I know, feel at lack of recognition for the good work that they do and also their frustration that people so often don’t even seem to ask for the help that exists and is available to them. Indeed, the conversation above ended with her making two pleas to me:

“I ask two things of you in the spirit of working towards our common aim to help the most vulnerable in society…
1. Help promote the postive efforts being made by the jobcentre. Raise complaints through the official channels where you see examples of poor work. Praise where you see good. 2. Send me pen pictures of the people you know who are having to rely on foodbanks etc. What has happened and how has the benefit system failed them. I really do want to understand.”

This blog piece is my attempt to do just that.

Most of the case studies that I know about come through my involvement with Unite Community. Britain’s largest trade union, Unite, launched community membership Screen Shot 2018-11-20 at 13.42.01scheme a few years ago now. This new type of union membership scheme allows ‘grey economy’ precarious workers, the unemployed, disabled and community based activists to join a union although they may be out of work. Anyone is able to join, unless they are signing up as an alternative to a Unite industrial branch at their workplace.

For £2 per month, members are offered services and benefits  that are extremely useful in Britain’s difficult economic environment. A phone number provides members with free legal advice, benefits advice, gas and electricity price comparisons, the Unite jobs board and even a benevolent fund for those that qualify.

I am one of the community based activists that work directly through Unite Community, and under their banner, in going out into communities to help people navigate the system, apply for the benefits they are entitled to and help with appeals. I was particularly active a few years ago in the campaign against the Bedroom Tax, Screen Shot 2018-11-20 at 13.41.10but I have good friends within Unite Community who continue to give up huge amounts of their time, voluntarily and unpaid, to continue helping people in need. They are finding much of their time taken up these days by issues with the roll out of Universal Credit.

The big strength of what Unite activists do, in contrast to the Jobcentres and Citizen Advice Bureau for example, is that we go out actively looking for the people in need of help. We go into the hardest hit communities and intercept people leaving Jobcentres bewildered. Jobcentres and CAB do great work for people that show up and engage, but they struggle to do much for those that, for all manner of reasons, do not or cannot.
This is what my good friend is struggling to understand and so here are a few case studies to try and shed some light on how the system fails people and they end up having to rely on charity such as food banks.

Screen Shot 2018-11-20 at 13.50.39

These stories are based on real people that I have encountered over the last 10 years, in my capacity as an adult literacy and numeracy tutor (dealing with functionally illiterate an innumerate adults referred from Jobcentres) and as a Unite Community community activist. I haven’t sought people’s permission to publish their stories, so names have been changed to protect their identities.

GARY’S STORY
I first met Gary at age 19. He had had a troubled childhood, and was eventually taken into foster care at 15. He had lost count of how many places he had lived and how many different adults he had lived with. He had just split from a girlfriend, who he thought might be pregnant, over some substance abuse issues. He was living in a hostel at the time I met him.
He was very angry and uncooperative at first, but as I got to know him slowly, he calmed down and it became clear that he was, despite appearances, a bright young man trying to sort himself out as best as he knew how. This involved him changing who he mixed with to avoid temptations of serious substance abuse and the all-too-frequent occurrence of getting into sometimes-violent conflict situations. But it left him surviving primarily on a diet of cigarettes and cheap energy drinks.
Screen Shot 2018-11-20 at 13.45.48He wasn’t eating properly, and was constantly unwell with something, so when Bridgend’s first foodbank opened, I nagged him to go along and see what they could offer him. His reluctance was in no small part down to the fact he had neither the facilities or the skills to cook anything. I eventually managed to buddy him up with someone who had registered with the foodbank already and he nervously went along.
He was overjoyed, well as close to overjoyed as I ever saw him, the next time I saw him. He had felt welcomed and understood. They had helped sort a few other things for him too, like cooking facilities, some foolproof recipes and getting some laundry done. (He was a bit odorous!)
The biggest problem that Gary had was a complete lack of family support and an inadequate friendship group that led him into a downward spiral. Through his involvement with the foodbank, he realised that there really were people out there prepared to make time for him and show that they understood and cared. This was probably more important to him than the actual food. It is something the Jobcentres are simply not in a position to provide.
With some encouragement and support from this point, he started applying seriously for work, and last I heard had a job in the NHS.

SHARON’S STORY
Sharon was someone we first met outside a Jobcentre in tears. She had been in to try to resolve issues around her change of circumstances. As a 33 yr old single mum (the dad had died suddenly) with a four year old daughter, she had been excited to have a new relationship and someone to share the burdens of life with. When Bob moved in, she never dreamed that it would be the start of a living nightmare.
They both worked; Sharon a few hours a week as a cleaner, and Bob on a zero hours contract in a warehouse. Screen Shot 2018-11-20 at 13.51.44When they notified the Council and Jobcentre of their change of circumstances, their benefits were changed (they were being moved onto Universal Credit) and therefore delayed, and left them in dire straits very quickly. Winter was setting in and they were struggling, with Bob’s hours going down unexpectedly, to feed the gas and electric meters and themselves. Something had to give.
It was their housing association that referred them to their local foodbank as a condition of negotiating a rent payment plan, as they acknowledged that the postponement of their benefits could take weeks to resolve.Screen Shot 2018-11-20 at 13.51.02

Sharon’s mental health suffered badly. She felt that, through no fault of her own, she had lost control of her life and let her daughter down badly. She had thought getting together with someone ought to have made life better. Love might do that to an extent, but it doesn’t put food on the table.

RHIAN’S STORY
Rhian is a friend of a friend, aged 54. Until recently, despite mental health issues her entire life, she had always managed to work (including 12 years in the Armed forces as a driver) while raising two kids alone. However, a couple of years ago, her doctor advised her to stop work permanently after a major mental breakdown.
She was reluctant to do so, and even more reluctant to claim benefits. It went against her whole life ethos. She went on long term sick leave and survived on sick pay and her savings well enough, but was eventually forced to give up her job. She still deluded herself that she’d get another job despite her doctor’s advice.
After countless failures with job applications and after her life savings had run out, she bit the bullet and went to her Jobcentre who put her on Employment Support Allowance (ESA), but there were interminable delays in her getting any money through. She began to feel her life falling apart all over again. She found the Work Capability Assessment particularly stressful and humiliating. Her problems were mental not physical. This was not helping; in fact it was making her worse and she even started contemplating suicide. (This is not an uncommon scenario, as this report suggests)
She felt further humiliated and worthless when the Jobcentres response to the delays in processing her claim were met with a referral to the local foodbank. This was her final proof that she had transitioned from a proudly independent woman to an officially destitute burden on society. Those years of service seemed pretty pointless now.
She had been someone who had regularly put things in the foodbank collection points at the supermarket, but had never thought she might end up having to go herself. Going that first time was one of the hardest things she had done in her life. However, it did bring her welcome relief, and again it was not just in having some food in the cupboard. She found the volunteers very warm and caring. They had seen her come in looking very agitated and sat her down with a cup of tea and a biscuit and put her at ease before helping put together some groceries that accommodated her dietary requirements.
Rhian is not unusual in hoping to become a volunteer at the foodbank when her health is good enough.

Tories out there (like Rees-Mogg) will see these stories as uplifting proof that David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ does a brilliant job of looking after people, and that this excuses the state from having to do so.

But for every Gary, who turns his life around, there are many that never escape that downward spiral into drug abuse and criminality.

For every Sharon, who always tries to do the right thing, there are many who give up on that idea as a mug’s game and will look to exploit the system before it exploits them.

For every Rhian, there are those whose self-esteem never recovers and whose thoughts of suicide become their only way out.

Screen Shot 2018-11-20 at 13.50.19

Those who are employed by the state to do the state’s bidding are caught between a rock and a hard place. How can you show compassion and generosity when delivering a system designed to be harsh and mean?

I guess you end up trying to square the circle and convincing yourself that those accusations of being harsh and mean are ill-founded; that Gary, Sharon and Rhian made bad choices and had other options available to them.

The fact of the matter is that if Foodbanks can make people feel better, then Jobcentres, or other state provision, ought to be able to do that to. It involves demonstrably caring, giving people time and genuine empathy, and being generous by default. In a service over-stretched, under-resourced, variably staffed and managed and dealing with a clientele with such complex issues, this may seem like a pipe dream. But it really doesn’t have to be the way it is. And the UN Rapporteur agrees!

Credits: all graphs taken from The Trussell Trust website, trusselltrust.org.

 

It’s no laughing matter, of course, but here is some light-hearted perspective with a deadly serious message:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mqhEtwgof6k

P.S. The DWP has a new boss as the repugnant Esther McVie (a.k.a. Fester McVile) quit over May’s Brexit deal being too soft for her liking. That means we see the phoenix that is Amber Rudd rising from the ashes of her disgrace in the role of Home Secretary. Within days, the message from her Department is re-enforced by one of her ministers helpfully suggesting that families affected by the benefit cap (that was lambasted by the UN Rapporteur) should ‘move house’ or ‘take in a lodger’.

So Amber Rudd looks set to continue her inglorious track record:

Respect – what is it good for?

Coming to the end of this year’s summer exam season, here is an interesting exam question and my response to it:

Respecting people does not have to include respecting their opinions or beliefs, no matter how sincerely they hold them. Discuss.

Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 11.53.19It is not uncommon for me to be accused of disrespecting people when I lay into their beliefs. I generally see this as them wanting to to either close down the discussion, or else them exhorting me to have more respect for those beliefs essentially on the simplistic basis that they hold them and a kind of implied assertion that I should therefore be trusting them in their respect for those beliefs.

Please note that I haven’t, so far, differentiated between categories of opinion/belief; religious, political or whatever. That is because I cannot see justification for doing so. Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 12.14.17Opinions and/or beliefs to do with anything should be treated in the same way; with healthy scepticism until backed with evidence and/or a coherent rationale. This is, hopefully, not very contentious, and I know that it is the manner of the debates that needs addressing in order to ensure that mutual respect remains possible despite differences of opinion and/or beliefs.

This is something that I admit to finding very challenging at times, and something that the nature of social media makes all the more difficult to maintain. Trolls, in particular find sport in going out of their way to wind people up and provoke disharmony and disrespect. I do not see it as a problem in responding directly back to these people in less than courteous manner once their troll status is clear, but it is when they provoke disrespect between others that they can do real damage. More challenging is having any sort of respect for people who subscribe wholesale to dangerous (usually right-wing) ideologies. Maintaining Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 12.24.25respectful dialogues with Tories and fascists is something most people reading this will have found beyond them at times. Strangely, however, many of of the self same people seem to have less problem with extending respect to religious beliefs that are just as dangerous and often intertwined with the political opinions/beliefs they happily slag off.

Be it politics or religion, as a teacher I have come to understand that people’s worldview (incorporating their political and religious beliefs) are shaped in their formative years and by three fundamental things:

  1. The circumstances of their birth
  2. The environment/places in which they are raised
  3. The nurturing/guidance/indoctrination they receive from trusted adults around them.

On this basis, very little about a child’s beliefs and worldview comes from within them; from their intelligence, personality and character. These factors come into play as they mature and learn to evaluate and reflect on these three factors (or not as the case may be). Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 11.55.30This is the basis, after all, on which we have notions of reaching an age of adult responsibility built into legal systems (although this opens yet another can of worms in itself).

This means that, as responsible adults, we need to acknowledge that children are not responsible for their circumstances or even their behaviours, attitudes, beliefs or actions. Thus, whenever admonishing children, we need to be clear that it is the behaviour that we have issues with not the the child as a person. We should feel compelled to maintain our respect for all children, no matter how challenging that may be, in the knowledge that they are not the finished article, the fully developed human being, and recognise that treating them unfairly for things that are not their fault is potentially hugely damaging. Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 12.26.55This is why the Trump administration’s appalling treatment of refugee children is so utterly contemptible to any decent person.

Adulthood, in my opinion, is when the young person not only completes the physical transitions brought about by hormones, but also the character transitions, brought about by self-analysis, developing intellectual capacity and the forging of their own identity. This transition is the tumultuous phase we know as adolescence. It is naturally difficult for both the individual and those around them. Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 11.59.15Acknowledging this should lead us to respect what is going on and allowing them space and no little empathy as they go through it. After all, we have all been through ourselves.

It is, however, a very dangerous phase that has the potential to set, (almost) in stone, the persons character, attitudes and beliefs throughout their adult life. This is the phase in which so-called radicalisation is most likely to happen. Not that becoming a radical is necessarily a bad thing. Au contraire. Radicalism in the arts, culture, society, science and politics can be a hugely progressive and positive thing. Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 12.02.28But when it gets tainted with, in particular, fascism and/or religion it can becomes a hugely negative thing.

This raises questions of how much freedom should give to explore radical alternatives. There is, of course, a world of difference between investigating and exploring radical alternatives and actually committing to pursuing them. A rounded and progressive education should never shy away from critical analysis of extraordinary viewpoints. We have been doing it for years in subjects like Religious Studies (although I’d argue that the critical analysis has been inadequate). As pointed out already, radicalism can be hugely positive, and in those instances we need embrace it and facilitate it. But where should the line be drawn? I would argue that it should be determined by whether or not the consequences can be undone easily or not. Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 12.03.49Radical fashion, music, literature and art are all fine. Radical surgery (perhaps ranging from tattoos to gender reassignment) perhaps needs to be deferred until the end of adolescence (although I know there are good arguments for allowing it sooner in some cases) for reasonable fear of significant regret.

Such liberalism is anathema to our conservative establishment. This is why institutions such as our schools put so much weight on conformity and discipline. Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 12.06.03We hear arguments that it is vital to a conducive learning environment for all, while in the next breath often the same people lament the lack of initiative, independent learning and invention in our kids. The truth is the system knocks it out of them at an early age, as the desire for an easy, manageable life prevails.

We need to learn to respect every individual, be they conformists or radicals, because, at the end of the day we are all fundamentally the same; the same species, homo sapiens, human beings. It would be helpful, therefore to extend that principle of admonishing behaviours rather than individuals into adulthood. Easier said than done, admittedly.

When I lay into that fascist or religious bigot (a label that describes attitudes/beliefs being exhibited – so ok in my book), I really need to focus on the views and beliefs expressed rather than attack the person. A person patently does not have to be an idiot (a pejorative sleight on someone’s intelligence – so not ok to use casually) to express idiotic views, opinions and beliefs. None of us is immune from making idiotic utterances at times, but few of us would self-identify as idiots.

Of course, simplistic labelling of anything (people or ideas especially) is never adequate. For ideas/opinions/beliefs to merit respect, however, they need substantiating with verifiable evidence (which allows them to be considered knowledge) or else supported by robust rational argument (which allows them to be considered legitimate theory). Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 12.09.09Education needs to focus on these core skills of evaluating evidence (the scientific method) and critiquing theory (philosophy). Deficiencies in these skills have allowed the phenomena of fake news to distort many people’s understanding of the world (not that it is a recent phenomena, as religion illustrates). A person that is intransigent about holding onto beliefs and ideas in the face of substantial evidence to the contrary is my definition of a fundamentalist. They are behaving in a fundamentally idiotic way, despite rarely being idiots.

Thus, I really ought to apologise to the UKIP supporter that I recently described as a moron for suggesting that I wouldn’t have the freedom to travel around the country in a Marxist state. He turned out to be a reasonably well-educated civil servant. Patently not a moron, but someone who had simply makes moronic statements and simply needs to read a lot more!

Religion (of any and all varieties) is the foremost example of something that flies so blatantly in the face of logic and contradictory evidence, that I have no issue with it being described as idiotic, while simultaneously knowing full well that few of its adherents are idiots.

What we see with religion is copious evidence of the truth about people’s beliefs and perspectives being the product of those three key factors: the circumstances of their birth, the region in which they grow up, and the guidance/nurturing/indoctrination that they receive in their formative years. It is undeniable that the vast majority are brought up to follow the beliefs of their parents and/or to conform to their community’s norms. I know that it is hard NOT to be a Catholic in Poland and to NOT be a Muslim in Saudi Arabia, for example. To follow a different path in such places leads to consequences ranging from discrimination, to ostracism, to beatings, through to death in some cases.

I therefore struggle to respect attempts to enforce conformity and have the utmost respect for ‘radicals’ prepared to stand up and challenge the absurdities being thrust upon them. Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 12.10.58It is a brave and noble attitude that speaks to the character of martyrs throughout history (despite the questionable causes that some people have martyred themselves for). I can respect the conviction and selflessness of religious martyrs, for example, while simultaneously being bemused at the stupidity and futility of such an act. In contrast, Emily Davidson’s martyrdom at the feet of the King’s horse proved far from futile and took the world forward, such that we have recently been celebrating the centenary of what was achieved. I am sure we could still argue as to whether that act itself was an idiotic thing to do.

In conclusion, if we wish to be considered to be a fully-fledged, well-rounded, independent free thinker, we have to undertake the appropriate self-analysis to understand where our views and beliefs stem from and be willing to challenge their robustness and worthiness. We then need to have the courage to act on the conclusions of that analysis – despite the huge challenges and obstacles this may present. There is no point in martyrdom, but it should at the very least inform some of our actions, such as how we treat others, how we vote, causes we choose to support etc.

Some people will be incapable of such an undertaking. Few are good at it. Whatever, we should maintain respect for them as individual human beings while being prepared to constantly challenge their views, be they fascist, religious or some other such nonsense. At the same time, we need to keep our minds open enough to be receptive to evidence that challenges our position on things. This ability to change opinion and beliefs is a huge strength, not a weakness, and should be acknowledged as such.

Having said all this, if you ever see me becoming a fascist or ‘finding God’, you have my permission to call me an idiot and I promise to thank you rather than take any offence. Amen.

Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 12.13.41P.S. For those who may think I go too far in apparently equating religion and fascism, I’m not saying they are in any way the same beyond both being objectionable and misguided ideologies. However, this definition below, does it define fascism or religion?

“Characterised by authoritarian views and strong central control, with little or no tolerance of opposing opinions.”

An ecosocialist case for an independent Wales

YES CYMRU BRIDGEND launch meeting address.Screen Shot 2018-04-19 at 23.15.33

BACKGROUND

I was born in Kent, but moved to Wales 26 years ago; I was a geography teacher for twenty years, and then an adult literacy and numeracy tutor about 10 years.

I was heavily involved in the Green Party for quite a few years, even standing to be leader of Wales Green Party in November 2014

I have since parted company with the Green Party in order to get on the Corbyn bandwagon, in the hope that he may actually bring about some socialist change, although in recent years I have found it easier, as a socialist, to vote for Plaid Cymru than some Welsh Labour candidates.

I am here, therefore, in order to outline an ecosocialist’s view of the potential for an independent Wales.

It is my desire to create a fairer, more equal, safer and healthier society that motivates me and leads me to want to get involved in the Yes Cymru campaign.  Let me try and explain why in a bit more detail.

ENVIRONMENT

Firstly, let me make a few points about environmental issues. In general, independence has to be about long-term questions rather than short term ones, but with regards to climate change, they are pretty much indistinguishable.

Screen Shot 2018-04-19 at 23.20.27Coal from Wales has played its part in creating the crisis we face, but in the global race to reduce emissions, Wales has huge potential to not only do its bit, but to also be a pioneer and leader in renewable technologies, especially the water-based technologies of tidal, wave and hydro power.

Currently energy is a reserved matter, with just planning policy devolved. The new powers over energy policy coming later this year, while welcome, still have a Westminster veto in the small print and it remains to be seen whether the Welsh people can exercise their will and have fracking and nuclear power banished from Wales, or see the necessary investment in giving Wales, not only complete energy security, but virtually free domestic energy to boot.

My son is a Mechanical Engineering graduate of Cardiff University, so I know that Welsh universities currently struggle to get adequate funding for their pioneering work in wave and tidal technologies. With the right backing and support, Wales could, indeed should be at the forefront of these industries of future global importance.

Independence would take control of decision making in these vital areas into the hands of the people living here, but it would also benefit our precious and distinct ecosystems.

Screen Shot 2018-04-19 at 23.24.28.pngWith 3 National Parks, and many Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, including the UK’s first ever AONB, along with other precious environments across the land and around the coast, it may be tempting to think that the UK does a good job of protecting Welsh landscapes.

However, the picture is far from rosy. National Park priorities are more attuned to the needs of wealthy city dwellers, especially Londoners, and/or the MoD, than the needs of local people and wildlife.

Sheep farming and conifer plantations decimate biodiversity. Draconian planning restrictions may have their place, but allied to free markets in land and housing, locals are priced out of their communities and off the land.

Too many of the relevant powers still reside in Westminster or with Crown Estates. With full control over its land resources, Wales can become a better home for both its people and its wildlife.

Welsh resident, George Monbiot hopes that independence can decentralize land ownership and be a key to restoring our wilderness. There is every reason to believe that Wales’ distinct ecosystems, from coastal seas to mountaintops, will flourish more in an independent Wales.

Ultimately, however, it is looking after the people better that matters most and why I identify as a socialist even more than as an environmentalist. And this is where I feel the strongest arguments for independence lie.

SOCIALISM

For socialists, the central question regarding self-determination and independence has to be ‘What is best for the vast majority of the people – the working class and middle class people of Wales?

Screen Shot 2018-04-19 at 23.26.16This has to set in the context of the economic decline of British imperialism and the un-remitting neoliberal class war that we have come to know as ‘austerity’.

The collapse of capitalism has long been inevitable, built as it is on the illogical premise of continuous growth on a finite planet.

In it’s death throes, what we now see is the insidious ‘race to the bottom’ mentality we see in the tearing up of workers’ rights, environmental protection and human rights against the backdrop of free trade agreements that hand ultimate economic control to multinational corporations above even national government’s control.  It is all driven by the need to keep the capitalist elite’s gravy train on the rails.

It is therefore understandable why socialists see independence as a potential way out of the capitalist downward spiral.

Screen Shot 2018-04-19 at 23.32.58.pngThis viewpoint also informed the so-called Left Exit (or Lexit) position in the Brexit referendum.  The rightward drift of social democratic parties across Europe and beyond would have us all believe that there is no alternative to the market and the neoliberal model. I say this is patent nonsense.

It is no coincidence that the demand for independence is strongest among the youth, the radicals, socialists and the most oppressed sections of our society.  For us on the Left, then, it is crucial that we do not separate the demand for independence from that of building a mass movement to challenge austerity.

In terms of party politics in Wales, this is complicated. There are supporters and opponents of this position in all the relatively left-looking electoral parties in Wales: Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party.

We therefore need to weigh up every candidate carefully regarding their positions on self-determination AND socialist alternatives to austerity. Either/or simply does not cut it!

Crude nationalism of the ethnic variety has to be avoided at all costs, despite its appeal to the intellectually challenged.

Screen Shot 2018-04-19 at 23.36.11.pngUKIP have successfully used this approach to tap into sections of the population that would be best served by a socialist, independent Wales. Their brand of British nationalism is patently dangerous and needs to be countered and not mimicked.

Inspiration can instead be drawn from the success of left reformist movements across Europe in recent times: Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, Die Linke in Germany, Front de Gauche in France and the Pirates of Iceland.Screen Shot 2018-04-19 at 23.40.43

We have to be seen to be advocating genuinely radical alternatives, or what is the point?

The temptation might be to present independence as “the evolution of devolution”,but this is not a radical move. Retaining the monarchy, keeping the pound, remaining in NATO and, yes, even remaining in the EU, all leave us constrained and unable to change anything truly significant.

Being tied to the pound and the Bank of England, in particular, leaves us tied to UK economic policy, dictated by the City of London. The very best outcome we could wring from this scenario would be ‘austerity lite’.

Screen Shot 2018-04-19 at 23.42.19With a clean break from the UK, virtually from Day 1, we could have: a fairer tax system, a Bank of Wales and our own currency, a decent citizen’s income that eliminates poverty, public ownership of energy, transport and all key utilities and infrastructure.
We could also have proper investment in green technologies and industry providing quality employment; and properly enforce bans on fracking and nuclear power.

The potential is limited only by our imaginations and ingenuity; not by externally imposed restrictions and constraints.

Of course, these freedoms could well be used and abused by groups wanting to drag Wales in a far less desirable direction.

This is has been part of the essentially negative No and Remain campaigns in Scotland and Brexit. ‘Project Fear’ it has been called, and how very appropriate. Fear paralyses and the No campaign is all about maintaining the status quo and supporting the Establishment – none of which serves us well at the moment. Their core message is a self-deprecating one of  “We cannot go it alone”.

It is saying that there is no alternative to austerity so we should just suck it up and be grateful for what we get.

In conclusion, ecosocialists would not naturally start from a position of self-determination, but this is the question being posed and it offers undeniable opportunities to end austerity and enhance the lives and interests of the working and middle classes of Wales.

As such, a Yes outcome would represent a serious blow to the corrupt and arrogant UK elite, and could even become a beacon of hope whose impact could be felt across the British Isles and beyond.

Screen Shot 2018-04-19 at 23.49.54.png

 

The problems with Christian charity

Screen Shot 2018-03-06 at 08.25.34

Nothing is more likely to press my buttons and get me responding than misguided praise of churches, and the Catholic Church in particular. It is something that I think is particularly appropriate for any green leftie to address as it is central to how religious belief has become a key tool of right-wing regimes around the world, but especially noticeably in the USA and UK currently. Religion is fundamentally right wing in nature because it is based on oppression, control and superiority complexes. The fact that the Jesus dude would appear to have made a good socialist, if you actually listen to what he was purported to say, is an irony that escapes most because it is irrelevant.

I have recently had conversations with a couple of people that I greatly respect, who are not particularly religious (I can respect religious people btw – just not religious beliefs or institutions) but who were being apologists for the Christian churches on the basis that they do exceptional charity work, especially in places like Africa, or in giving shelter to the local homeless (for one particularly cold night only). My robust challenging of this perspective on social media didn’t go down particularly well, leading to one of the threads being withdrawn, I suspect because the owner of that thread was wary of who else may see it given that she feels she has no choice but to send her children to a Catholic school. I guess we all have our crosses to bear!

But what of the assertions themselves?

Firstly, let’s address the meaning of charity.

Screen Shot 2018-03-06 at 09.03.08

When you break these definitions down you begin to realise that charity is not the unqualified good that many seem to believe it to be. Indeed, many ethicists have major issues with the whole concept on, among others, these grounds:

  • Charities tend to target symptoms, not causes.
  • Charity often becomes a substitute for real justice, being used to patch up the effects of fundamental injustices in societies. In mitigating these injustices on a small scale, they help perpetuate them on a wider scale. (American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr is worth reading on this topic)
  • Charity supports the establishment rather than challenges it to change. The effort and expense put into charity would be better spent pressurising governments to bring about the necessary change. Governments (like ours) would be forced to address the worst effects of of poverty if charities stopped bailing them out.
  • The state is the main beneficiary of charity. Dr Neil Levy, among others, has argued that charity is often self-defeating as it allows the state to escape its responsibilities. Charity to support essential services is bad because it switches provision from government to charity rather than actually increasing the benefits to the needy.
    Screen Shot 2018-03-06 at 09.30.54
  • Charity leads to favouritism, not fairness. Donors, not unreasonably, choose to give to causes that appeal to them, rather than the causes in greatest need. Should there be donkey sanctuaries while we still have hungry children? And what is so different about a hungry child than hungry adult in a world where there is more than enough food for everyone?
  • The preferential tax status of charities is harmful, in that it reduces the revenue the state has for social projects. Allowing tax exemptions for private schools, invariably having charitable status, can be seen to be an indirect reduction of revenues to state schools and thereby a cause of greater inequality. It is transferring money from areas that are politically accountable to organisations of, at best, highly variable accountability.
  • Charity is essentially a selfish act designed primarily to make us feel good about ourselves than to actually achieve any lasting good. (See this)
  • Charities are very inefficient, with often excessive proportions of funds raised spent on administration, advertising and fund-raising.
  • Charities are generally more accountable to the givers than the receivers.
  • Is it ethical to give charity with strings attached? Richard Nixon was occasionally honest to a fault, such as when he said, in 1968, “Let us remember that the main purpose of American aid is not to help other nations but to help ourselves”

This last point brings me back nicely to my issues with Christian charity. It always come with strings attached, usually for both the distributors of that charity and the recipients.

Why do Christian do charitable work? Because they are told to. They do it primarily through their own charities rather than join in the work of secular charities with different agenda. They do it because it is part of the reward and punishment regime imposed on them by their church, as set out in many biblical quotes:

  • In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ Acts 20:35
  • Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. Hebrews 13:16
  • Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed. Proverbs 19:17
  • Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1:27
  • Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 2 Corinthians 9:7

I swear I remember this last one so well because I heard it so often (just before the collection plate was passed around) in my days as a church goer. If all this cheerful giving was so beneficial, its hard to see why there is so much poverty and strife in the world. But then again, the Catholic Church is that bit more hypocritical than most. You don’t become, arguably, the wealthiest institution on the planet by giving all this money away frivolously!  It has a long and well-established history of shameless wealth accumulation. Churches have historically sought tithes of around 10% of its parishioners earnings, and I’d be surprised if they spend more than this % of their vast incomes year on charitable works. Getting figures for any of this is nigh on impossible of course.Screen Shot 2018-03-06 at 14.05.51
The quote from James 1:27 is particularly poignant. The Catholic Churches ‘work’ with orphans has, of course, been particularly pernicious. The endemic pedophilia amongst the clergy has highlighted the wisdom of hanging on to substantial reserves. Compensation claims run to many billions of pounds for claims that are just the tip of an iceberg. And of course, that most celebrated of orphan preyers, Mother Teresa, has long since been exposed (but such sound minds as Christopher Hitchens and Tariq Ali, among others).

As for Africa in particular, a paper entitled “The impact of Christianity on Sub-Saharan Africa” by Matsobane Manala of the University of South Africa came to the following conclusions:

  • It has done serious harm to the African way of life leading to a serious identity crisis for many, resulting in self-hatred and self-denigration.
  • It has seriously undermined women’s roles in all levels of society, with the imposition of the Christian family model of the “male breadwinner, dependent housekeeping wife and mother, dependent school-going children”.
  • It was the starting point for racial discrimination, that lead to things like church-supported apartheid in South Africa, for example. Indeed, apartheid can be traced back to a decision by the Dutch Reformed Church in 1857 to instigate separate eucharist services for white and black parishioners.
  • Christian churches and charities have played a key role in improving literacy standards and has been at the forefront of education services. But this has been at a price. The driving forces of change were the churches and the colonial industrialists and the education provided reflected their agenda accordingly.
  • Similarly, involvement in health care programmes has been substantial, but with inevitable strings attached (especially regarding abortion, family planning and sexual health) that may have exacerbated rather than helped major issues such as the HIV epeidemic.

Screen Shot 2018-03-06 at 14.10.08This last point has been thrown into greater focus with the recent ‘epidemic’ of violently oppressive homophobia in Africa, in no small way fanned by the ‘charitable’ works of US evangelical Christians. But this is not a new phenomenon. Anti-gay laws were introduced to Africa from the earliest days of Western colonialism.

 

In conclusion, charity of any sort is a dubious and ill-conceived enterprise more often than not. It diverts attention and resources away from achieving lasting solutions to humanitarian issues. But when it is driven by religion, it is particularly pernicious. It trades a vaccination or meal for the imposition or entrenchment of misogyny, inequality, bigotry and abuse. And all for self-indulgent motives rather than a genuine desire to change the world for the better.

A good starting point, for that better world, will be ousting Christian Conservatives like Teresa May and Donald Trump and replacing them with atheistic (understandably reluctant to label themselves outright atheists) socialists like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. These elections are where we need to focus our charitable instincts and cash!

P.S. I do support a few carefully chosen charities that focus on lobbying Governments directly, and/or direct action, for the kinds of change humanity as a whole needs to see. These include Amnesty International and Greenpeace, for example.