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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.

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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 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.

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 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 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.

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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,


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

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


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.


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.


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.

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The problems with Christian charity

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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.

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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.
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  • 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.

AFC Fylde working in partnership with Cuadrilla, Centrica and BAE Systems

Sent to the club, the supporters club and a range of local newspapers s around the club.

Dear Sir/Madam,

On visiting members of my family that live around the Fylde coast area, and being a keen lower league football fan (an Ebbsfleet Utd fan exiled in South Wales), I decided it was time I took in a game at AFC Fylde. IMG_2318With a nephew being a Barrow fan, the televised Bank Holiday fixture was perfect.

We enjoyed the game (me more so than my nephew, of course), and were hugely impressed with the Mill Farm stadium and the quality of the pitch. However, the evening was sullied after reading the programme in more detail after the game. The problem was found at the foot of the wholly inappropriately named COMMUNITY COUNTS page.

Why inappropriate? Well, it transpires that David Haythornthwaite, AFC Fylde chairman and owner, has no idea what COMMUNITY COUNTS means. The five sponsoring ‘partners’ of the AFC Fylde Community Foundation include the Fylde communities biggest threat, the disgracefully incompetent frackers, Cuadrilla; fellow frackers Centrica; and just for good measure, unscrupulous arms manufacturer and peddlers in violent death, BAE Systems. (See links at end of post)

Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 22.39.12

This would all be shockingly inappropriate in itself, but children are the focus of the foundations work, with its website proclaiming this lofty goal: “to educate, motivate and inspire future generations to build better communities for all”. It would be hard to imagination less appropriate ‘partners’ in pursuing this goal that Cuadrilla, Centrica and BAE!

Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 22.42.10

For all the impressive work that Haythornthwaite has done in building up the football club, I cannot help but question this man’s moral compass and what his long term vision actually is. I recently visited Forest Green Rovers FC. The parallels in terms of the progression of the respective football clubs are obvious enough, but the contrasts in the values and integrity of the respective owners could not be starker.

Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 22.45.48FGR are owned by Ecotricity boss, Dale Vince, and it is heralded as one of the ‘greenest’ and most progressive clubs in the world. It is the world’s first totally vegan club, for example. This is the sort of club that can draw families from a huge catchment area. I would urge families in the Fylde area to think long and hard about getting involved with a club that is happy to take your kids and ‘work in partnership’ with such a truly appallingly bunch of of filthy frackers and death merchants.

Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 22.50.57

The Fylde area is blessed with plenty of good football clubs to choose from. Community does indeed count, so pick wisely. Boycott AFC Fylde until Haythornthwaite gets the message that your support is not at any cost to your community and your kid’s futures.

Andy Chyba

PS – I’ll post any responses as comments on this post.

Supporting links:
Cuadrilla incompetence:
Centrica fracking:
Centrica and Cuadrilla:
BAE arms traders:
AFC Fylde Community Foundation:

GCSE Religious Studies – I couldn’t resist.

I invigilated a GCSE Religious Studies exam today. I had to have a go, didn’t I?





Time: 1 hour


1. Beliefs and Teachings

a) State two beliefs about Jesus (2 marks)


1.   He was alleged to have been born to a virgin woman; a story spun to hide his mum getting pregnant out of wedlock.

2.   In similar vein, his dad was purported to be a non-human deity who impregnated his mum via the ‘holy spirit’.


b) Describe Christian beliefs about the Trinity (5 marks)


This is the somewhat ridiculous concept that despite their belief that there is only ONE god (the several thousand other claimed gods being dismissed as nonsense), this one ‘true’ god somehow manages to divide itself into THREE distinct manifestations.

These manifestations are held to be two male figures – the ‘Father’ and the ‘Son’ – and an asexual/non-sexual entity variously known as the ‘Holy Spirit’ or the ‘Holy Ghost’. Although thinking about it, this must also presumably be male if it did get Mary pregnant (with her consent?). This probably explains why Christian Churches have a long history of sexism and misogyny.

The only one that is claimed to have ever taken any physical and/or visible form is the ‘Son’ a.k.a Jesus Christ. Having supposedly been born to a virgin, the story goes that he grew up to become an itinerant Jew preaching largely socialist principles of social justice and equality. Not surprisingly, the Roman authorities had him down as a trouble maker and eventually lost patience with his impudent claims and had him executed. But all good stories need a happy ending, so he allegedly rose from the dead, only to disappear off the face of the Earth a few days later to join and ‘be one’ with Father and Spirit i.e. never to be seen again.

Many believe that he will come again, presumably by similar methods. So if your daughters ever get pregnant and claim to still be virgins, perhaps you shouldn’t be too hasty in jumping to the obvious conclusions.


c) Explain why Christians believe in life after death (8 marks)


The obvious reason is that it is because they have been indoctrinated to believe this from a very early age. Only by perpetuating this myth can people be persuaded that they will face some sort of post-death judgement of their lives; a judgement with eternal consequences no less!

This has been a classic tool of control by many, if not most, religions throughout history. We have yet to devise a better myth to subjugate people and keep them subservient. This deceit persuades people to put up with all manner of injustice and pain on the basis that, so long as they keep the faith, do as they are told and repent for their ill-deeds (and ill-thoughts even), then they can expect eternal joy/happiness/paradise/orgies etc in the ‘next life’.

The beauty of this con is that it can never be categorically disproved. As with Bertrand Russell’s ‘Cosmic Teapot’ analogy, it is a logical impossibility to prove that something that does not exist actually does not exist. This is the only plausible reason why this nonsense still persists.



d) ‘The Resurrection is the most important belief about Jesus’

Discuss this statement showing that you have considered more than one point of view. (15 marks)


To the believer, or perhaps more accurately, to the churches, this is probably the most important tenet as it reinforces all the ‘life after death’ nonsense just discussed. It also engenders the myth that this character was more than a mere mortal man, but was actually some form of superhero.

It is certainly one of the less trivial and trite ‘miracles’ credited to him; after all David Blaine and Dynamo (and the like) regularly trump tricks like walking on water and turning water into wine. Dynamo’s trick with the bucket pouring out ‘impossible’ quantities of fish would probably have had him deified back then too.

Jesus appears to have outdone Dynamo at levitation though. It was cute of Dynamo to levitate 40 odd meters above the ‘Christ the Redeemer’ statue in Rio, but Christ apparently levitated up into the clouds and was never seen again.

There are, of course, many other important beliefs about Jesus that can be argued to be more important, depending on your perspective. Many, for example, believe that the Jesus character is purely a work of fiction.  They point to the lack of consistent, irrefutable evidence.

Others (of which I count myself) are prepared to believe that all the extraordinary legends and myths are loosely based on the life of a charismatic dude living in that era (a bit like Robin Hood).



2. Practices

a) State two roles of the Church in the local community (2 marks)


1.   Church buildings act as ‘beacons’ in the local community to signify that there is a group of that particular sect in that community.

2.   The church thereby creates divisions and degrees of segregation in those local communities by competing with all the other religious brands pitching up in that community for a congregation to fleece and manipulate.



b) Describe a Eucharist/Communion service (5 marks)


This is probably the most obscenely repulsive concept in the whole pantheon of repulsive concepts promoted by Christian churches, but especially the Roman Catholic church.

The service involves a priest uttering a few words (a magic spell) over a wafer and a goblet of wine. The RC church would have you believe that this spell, through the obsequiously grand sounding but impossible process they call ‘transubstantiation’, ACTUALLY turns the wafer into the ACTUAL flesh of the long dead Jesus, and the wine into ACTUAL blood (without actually looking, smelling and – thankfully – tasting like anything of the sort). Believers are then encouraged to cannibalistically consume this supposedly now raw meat and blood.

Slightly less deranged Christians hold that this service is, of course, merely symbolic rather than actual, as if that makes the whole concept significantly less hideous.



c) Explain why Easter is an important Christian festival (8 marks)


First and foremost it is a hugely important festival for the chocolate industry in many Christian countries. It produces a huge spike in their revenues and profits that can help sustain them through the rest of the year. It does of course focus on pagan symbols such as eggs and rabbits as nobody wants to munch on a chocolate crucifix with a dying man on it.

It can be argued that this emphasis on pagan symbols (seen in Xmas traditions too) shows a degree of admirable inclusivity and multiculturalism on the part of a Church that has a history of forcing itself upon folks in the aftermath of conquests.

Alternatively, it can be argued that this absurd mish-mash of symbols and ideas embodied in modern day Easter celebrations underlines the inherent nonsense we have been ‘sold’ throughout the Christian era.

To believers, it should be pointed out, Easter is supposed to be (from the Churches’ point of view at least) the most important festival in the calendar, as it acts as an annual reinforcement of the Holy Trinity and ‘life after death’ myths previously discussed.



d) ‘Christmas is a more important festival than Easter’

Discuss this statement showing that you have considered more than one point of view (15 marks)


To the vast majority, this is certainly true. The whole set of myths and traditions (again largely pagan) that have been built around Christmas make it a lot more fun than Easter overall.

In theory, Christians are supposed to rate Easter as more important (due to reasons just expounded by the controlling church hierarchies). However, despite the attraction of chocolate and hot cross buns, Christmas wins hands down in terms of joy and fun.

As is often key in the capitalist world we now live in, the marketing people have done a brilliant job of taking the naff story of three supposedly ‘Wise Men’ proffering useless luxury goods as gifts, and turning this in to the ultimate festival of excessive consumerism imaginable. On this basis, the economic importance of Christmas simply dwarfs that of Easter overall.

How can we understand homophobia and especially the persecution in Chechnya?

I’ve just re-read the chapter of my book, The Asylum of the Universe, on homosexuality and it still does its job of helping to understand homosexuality and railing against homophobia. Its closing paragraph is, however, more pertinent than ever. Screen Shot 2017-04-15 at 11.47.42It was written in 2010, at the time of the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill going through its parliament. (I’ll post the chapter at the end of this article).

That bill proposed the death penalty for “aggravated” and/or “serial” homosexuality. Aggravated homosexuality was defined as gay sex involving under 18s or disabled people, or by anyone with HIV, irrespective of condom use. Serial homosexuality was having same sex relations more than once. Life imprisonment used to be the more lenient punishment for same-sex intercourse, but that was to become 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.

Screen Shot 2017-04-15 at 11.53.57I ended by suggesting that this was all just a short step away from the sort of ‘final solution’ (genocide) policies we have seen elsewhere to eradicate perceived menaces. And now we see ‘concentration camps’ and the rounding up of people in Chechnya.

As with so many spheres of life, we are clearly making no progress and the waves of fascist intent sweeping around the globe are taking us backwards alarmingly fast. It is time, I would suggest, to try and change societies mindset on theses issues.

For too long homosexuality itself has been thought of as ‘the problem’. In fact, the real problem is not homosexuality, but homophobia. Any phobia is an extreme, unjustified and/or irrational fear; it is a psychological problem that needs to be overcome and in so doing enhances the lives of all concerned.

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An alternative view

Homophobia is a pervasive, irrational fear of homosexuality. Homophobia includes the fear heterosexuals have of any homosexual feelings within themselves, any overt mannerisms or actions that would suggest homosexuality, and the resulting desire to suppress or stamp out homosexuality. And it also includes the self-hatred and self-denial of homosexuals who know what they are but have been taught all their lives by a heterosexual society that people like themselves are sick, sinful and criminal.

As I describe in my book, homosexuality is as valid a lifestyle as any other and found throughout the animal kingdom. Screen Shot 2017-04-15 at 11.57.21Homosexuality has been practiced in all societies throughout history and has been openly accepted in many cultures. The taboo on homosexuality in so many parts of the world has largely been the result of the widespread dominance of the Abrahamic religions, with their inbred repression of any form of sexuality unrelated to childbearing.

Thus, we need to alter the discourse and stop asking questions like:

  • What are the causes of homosexuality?
  • Can you tell if you are a homosexual?
  • Can homosexuality be cured?

The questions that really need to be asked are:

  • What are the causes of homophobia?
  • How can you tell if you are a homophobe?
  • Can homophobia be cured?

In tackling these questions, we really need to look at them in different contexts. At the scale of us as individuals, the answers can be fairly obvious. But at the scale of the nation state, where things get enshrined in law, a whole set of other issues has to be involved. But a common denominator is invariably religiosity, as this piece of research shows:

The 40 or so countries examined show a statistically significant correlation that has three main exceptions: Philippines (a lot more tolerant than may be expected in a strongly Catholic country) and China and Russia (both a lot less tolerant than may be expected in supposedly atheistic states). I want to focus on Russia as it is very much in the forefront current homophobic atrocities – especially in its federated republic of Chechnya.

Russia started following a similar path to Uganda in 2011. The Russian Duma unanimously approved a law that prohibited the distribution of homosexual “propaganda” to minors. Holding gay pride events, speaking in defense of gay rights, or equating gay and heterosexual relationships can now result in massive fines. Screen Shot 2017-04-15 at 11.58.45Before the vote, gay rights activists who attempted to hold a “kiss-in” outside the Duma were pelted with eggs by Orthodox Christian and pro-Kremlin activists. Anti-gay protesters also gathered, with one holding a sign that read: “Lawmakers, protect the people from perverts!”

The argument that a young person can be “propagandised” into turning gay may seem outdated, but it’s actually not out of place in modern Russia. In the Soviet Union, homosexuality was a crime punishable by prison and hard labour, and Stalinist Screen Shot 2017-04-15 at 11.59.35anti-gay policies persisted throughout the 60s and 70s. Gays were considered “outsiders” and homosexuality was thought to be the domain of pedophiles and fascists. Reports child sex scandals amongst the churches and right wing elites of the West in recent times can only have reinforced these prejudices. Measures like the propaganda ban show that many Russians still haven’t shed these views, even decades after the fall of the regime that kept homophobia in place.

Since the 90s, Russians have faced incredible economic turmoil, a loss of public services in many areas, and widespread corruption — all factors that combine to reinforce negative stereotypes. “To the degree that a given society that is insecure about its political, social, economic, and uniting cultural identity, it will mask that insecurity with a swaggering show of gendered strength,” said Yvonne Howell, a Russian professor at the University of Richmond. We can relate to the propensity for hard times (austerity) to lead to an increase in scapegoating (immigrants) in what we have seen in the UK in recent times. Homophobic hate crimes in the UK have dramatically increased simultaneously.

But let me return to the apparent fact that Russians buck another major trend in modern homophobia: more religious countries are far more likely to be less accepting of homosexuality. As pointed out, the data suggests that Russia and China seem to reject both God and gays. Russia ranks as one of the least devout countries on earth, with only 33 percent of Russians saying religion was very important in their daily life in 2009. But this hides the reality of the people’s religiosity. Even though Russians aren’t churchgoers in the traditional sense, most (80-90%) are still incredibly supportive of the Orthodox Church, which wields power both politically, as an ally of the Putin government, and as a symbol of national pride in much of the population. In satellite republics like Chechnya, the same role is played by Islam. In 2010, a poll revealed 95% of the population were muslim adherents, predominantly of the more the more homophobic Sunni Islam.

Indeed, many Russians/Chechens today view Church affiliation as a way to reaffirm their national identity. In a 2007 (Russian) poll on the subject, the majority of respondents said religion for them was a “national tradition” and “an adherence to moral and ethical standards,” while only 16 percent said it was about personal salvation. The two great ills of the world, religion and nationalism, reinforcing and supporting each other!

Screen Shot 2017-04-15 at 12.00.48It’s no coincidence that the punk band Pussy Riot was sent to jail for performing in an Orthodox church, specifically. Orthodox Church elders have also served as occasional Putin campaigners, issuing bizarre declarations that mash together Christianity and the longevity of United Russia. One said that “liberalism will lead to legal collapse and then the Apocalypse” and referred to Putin’s presidency as “a miracle.” Archpriest Dmitry Smirnov warned once that “one needs to remember that the first revolutionary was Satan.”

In some countries, homophobic laws might seem like a sign of religious influence run amok. But in Russia, it’s part of a broader anti-opposition push and a crackdown on a wide array of civil liberties. Homophobia, more often than not, derives not just from one’s faith, but from being anti-liberal. Russia is an illiberal country, and Putin’s government capitalises on the illiberal sentiments expressed by the church. Chechnya may be a different context, but the same forces are at work.

Screen Shot 2017-04-15 at 12.04.26We can all, fortunately, challenge individual homophobes we encounter and help them to enlightenment. But when it gets embedded in politics and law, reinforced by religion, it is hard to envision any painless solutions. The pain in Chechnya right now, is however, intolerable.

I am not a huge fan of petitions, but we are limited in what we can do to affect things in Chechnya. Voicing our disgust and abhorrence, through any and all of the many petitions that have emerged on this issue, is therefore important.  Amnesty International are consistently at the forefront of these campaigns, so I commend this one to you in particular (and please join them, if you haven’t already).


TRANSCRIPT OF ‘HOMOSEXUALITY’ CHAPTER FROM ‘THE ASYLUM OF THE UNIVERSE’ (apologies for issues with page formatting). Click the link:


Berlin – some lessons

I have recently returned from a 3 day visit to Berlin. It was in the company of three generations of the same family: grandfather, father and son/grandson. The grandfather was born in the late around the start of World War II. The father was born just after the Berlin Wall went up. The son was born in the last few days of the 20th Century. This is of little relevance to what I am about to write other than adding, perhaps, some additional poignancy to impressions the city gave me.

The first thing that struck me was just how exceptionally flat the whole city and surrounding area is. It makes Holland seem, well, bumpy at least. The next thing I noticed was the network of blue pipes going around the city centre at about 4 metres off the ground. It turns out that these two things are connected. The blue pipes are not, as urban myth would have it, carrying beer, but are temporary installations carrying vast quantities of melt water away from deep building sites. You see, Berlin is built in the middle of a vast glacial outwash plain and is fundamentally unstable to its very foundations. That is a  major analogy for the city’s history for you!

Historical instability is evidenced at every turn in the city centre, focussed around Potsdamer Platz, which was at one time the busiest road junction in Europe. Google its name and look at images over the course of the 20th Century. There are plenty of these historical images all over the place in central Berlin. One old building caught my eye in particular.

Where had I seen something very similar? Where else but Hiroshima.

The main difference between these is that in Hiroshima, the building has been preserved within the boundaries of the Peace Park, whereas in Berlin, it has beed razed to the ground and replaced with impressive modern high rise edifices. But these have been a very recent addition (since the wall came down). Prior to this the site was in (or adjacent to) the notorious Death Strip – the barren empty wasteland, c.150 metres wide behind the Berlin Wall. Peace Park v Death Strip; a very different post war experience.

The situation in Hiroshima and Berlin in 1945 was, of course, very different. Hiroshima was pretty much abandoned initially and had to pick up the pieces with negligible foreign assistance. Berlin, on the other hand, was overrun by foreign forces from both East and West. As the capital of the Third Reich, it was a prized token of victory for all involved. It was to be carved up, in a faintly ridiculous compromise, as the tensions between the communist ‘Victors from the East’ and the neoliberal ‘Victors from the West’ manifested themselves.

As Europe found itself divided down the centre of Germany by the Iron Curtain, Berlin found itself 100 miles behind the curtain. The Western Allies were not having that! Berlin was too symbolic to be ceded entirely to the dastardly commies! Thus it was that a bunch of politicians sat around a table, a bit like they once did to crudely carve up Africa, to rip Berlin in two, half to the East and half to the West, with the Western Allies further carving their half up into three portions – British, French and American. Was this absurdity the work of the same fools that conjured up the State of Israel? Probably not, but it was symptomatic of the imperial arrogance of the victors that they felt empowered, by military success, to do pretty much as they liked with territory and people for whom that territory was home.

Not that I have a great deal of sympathy for Germans, and especially Berliners, of the time. In the final analysis, they facilitated the Nazi rise to power; they provided the massive labour to create a formidable war machine; they were complicit (by, at the very least, turning a blind eye) with all the atrocities of the regime. I have always struggled to get my head around how that could ever have happened. A visit to the Typography of Terror exhibition (on the site of the SS HQ) helps to shed some light on this. Here some extracts on display.screen shot 2017 02 19 at 11 45 48

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I have studied such material before and struggled to conceive how it actually happens like this. But the politics of the UK and USA over the last few years has seen this sort of history repeating itself via the Tories/UKIP in the UK and the Republicans in the USA. It confirms all my worst suspicions that we are on a very slippery slope indeed.

The stark clash of ideologies between the left and the right, and its ability to divide people, is graphically in your face the moment you walk out of the Typography of Terror exhibition. For there is one of the longest remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall, preserved for posterity.

screen shot 2017 02 19 at 11 56 58

This is 200m of what was once 150km encircling the whole of West Berlin. It was put up in a matter of days in 1961 by the communist East German authorities, calling it the “Anti-fascist Protective Wall” (they saw the Western neoliberals as tantamount to fascists). They had grown impatient of way the existing borders were proving porous and allowing literally millions of East Germans to ‘escape’ to the West. The reality was that prior to the wall going up, Berliners were commuting backward and forward across sectors, for work or visiting relatives, largely unhindered. This came to an abrupt end as the Cold War’s icy grip took hold of the city.

The symbolism of this outpost of western liberal values in a sea of communist oppression made West Berlin an irresistible magnet for many, especially musicians and artists; the likes of David Bowie, the Beatles, Lou Reed, Brian Eno, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen and many more all took inspiration from time spent there.

A visit to the GDR Museum gives the lie to the propaganda that life was unremittingly grim in the East. Living standards for the poorer working classes were probably higher than the west with good quality, well equipped homes for most. But the inefficiencies of the Soviet economic model meant that access to a good range of what might be considered ‘luxury’ goods was pretty pathetic and bound to generate discontent when things were so patently different just across the wall. Nothing embodied this more than cars. While West Berliners had their Mercs, VWs and BMWs aplenty, East Berliners had 15 yr waiting lists to get their hands on a Trabant!! That today you find Trabi World just along the road from Checkpoint Charlie, paying tongue-in-cheek homage to this piece of shite simply underlines the farce of the situation.

Farce played its part in the moments that led to the wall finally coming down. Russian President Gorbachev was leading a peaceful revolution based on glasnost (creating openness) and perestroika (economic reconstruction) but the East German leader, Eric Honecker was a hardliner who was having none of it. It was a botched news conference that tipped the dominoes. Under growing pressure to make concessions similar to those in Russia, some minor changes to travel rules were to be announced. The bumbling Politburo member running the conference, Günter Schabowski, read the news release for the first time on air. Much of his reading was garbled, but a few phrases popped out: that trips abroad would be “possible for every citizen,” starting “right away, immediately.” Shorn of their context, these phrases mistakenly gave journalists and TV viewers the impression that the wall was open. With the public awaiting news eagerly and with confidence that the times were a-changing, huge numbers descended upon the wall in Central Berlin and the sheer weight of numbers forced the guards to stand aside, despite a lack of instruction to do so, and the Wall was joyously overwhelmed, and Honecker’s regime was swept away with it.

Today, fragments of Wall dominate the souvenir shops. ‘Wallpeckers’, as they came to be known, hacked away all around the wall, creating holes and breaches very quickly. It was a symbolic act and everyone would have wanted a piece of the action and a piece of the wall. Some stretches have been preserved, but even those bear the scars of the Wallpeckers.

This ‘pecked’ hole is in the preserved section that runs along where the SS HQ once was. Across the road that was once part of the death strip, is the former Nazi Air Ministry building, that survived pretty much unscathed. That authoritarianism has not been banished is symbolised by the modern CCTV on the wall. Layer upon layer of oppression in one image!

This is what I have found, looking back at my pictures from Berlin. Most of them tell multi-layered stories. These were taken from the top of one of the modern skyscrapers in Potsdamer Platz, built on the east side of the wall, in what would have been in Death Strip less than thirty years ago.

This is looking due north towards the Brandenburg Gate. Built in the 18th Century as a monumental gateway to the Prussian monarchs’ palace, it survived two world wars to then find itself just on the east side of the Wall that ran up the road from Potsdamer Platz, with Tiergarten Park on the west side of the wall. The wooded parkland extends for 210 hectares (520 acres). Originally part of royal hunting grounds, they were completely stripped of all trees towards the end and after WWII as the Berliners desperately needed firewood to survive the bitter winters. The cleared land ended up as vegetable allotments as they fended off starvation too. The trees are back today, largely replanted by Berlin residents apparently, but it still comes as a surprise to learn that none of the trees there are much more than 60 years old. The area to the east of the road/wall was once the fortified communist-imposed Death Strip. That it now has the Holocaust Memorial and huge US Embassy on it, side by side, seemed appropriate and disconcerting in equal measure. Just off picture in the Tiergarten (in the old West Berlin) are much smaller individual memorials to other groups targetted by the Nazis: homosexuals, Sinti & Roma, Russians.

To the SE of Potsdamer Platz is the what was the nerve-centre of the Third Reich. It used to be called Prince Albrecht Strasse, but was renamed by the East Germans after a prominent member of the communist resistance to the Nazis, so is now Niederkirchnerstrasse. It was a sector border street and had the Berlin Wall built along it in 1961, running up to Checkpoint Charlie.

The Government building dates back to the Prussian Landtag but was subsequently used for Berlin City government functions right up until very recently, including during the Nazi era. The Exhibition Hall, built in the late 19th century has been a cultural and art establishment throughout the turbulent times around it. It is severely pock marked by gunfire, but avoided major damage. During my visit, it was the central venue of the annual Berlin Film Festival, not that I had chance to partake. The one film that did catch my attention will not surprise regular readers – an Israeli comedy called “Holy Air”. It is set in the Arab Christian community of Nazareth, and tells the story of a man who, after his wife gets pregnant, decides it is time to make it big and provide for his family by selling bottled holy air to tourists. Sounds like the perfect scam – as bits of Berlin Wall will run out eventually. (Or will they?) The juxtaposition of this film being promoted literally next door to the exhibition describing the systematic programme to eliminate the Jews, which in turn leads to the formation of the Israeli state got my head in somewhat of a spin.

Walls, barriers, divisions. Separatism, fascism, communism, neoliberalism. All in evidence, often simultaneously, from many vantage points, but especially around Potsdamer Platz. The line of the wall is marked on the ground along its full length, except where it has been built over. This mostly takes the form of a double line of cobbles. Around Potsdamer Platz alone, this threw up some incongruous and/or poetic images.

Here we have the double line of cobbles crossing a footpath and road before disappearing for 30m or so under a new office block. Parked across it is, facing east, a woman’s bicycle; facing west, a brand new BMW i3 electric car on a free charging point. Two very different perspectives on sustainable transport staring at each other across an entrenched divide.

Here we have the line of the wall interrupted by the modern reincarnation of underground station. An historic site, it saw the city’s first rail terminus in the 1830s and the city’s first underground lines in the 1930s. The Nazi’s wanted to have it complete before the 1936 Olympics to demonstrate the magnificent state-of-the-art technology and efficiency of the Third Reich. Technical issues – largely related to the difficult geology eluded to at the beginning of this piece – meant it was not actually completed in time, much to Hitler’s intense annoyance, no doubt. In the Cold War era, it was seen as a possible weak link in the barrier that the wall represented and as such was heavily patrolled underground by GDR soldiers throughout the time of the Wall. Its ultra modern technology and efficiency today would have had Hitler purring.

There are just a few small fragments of the wall left in Potsdamer Platz today, with them utilised to give information about the sites history. Smack bang on the line of the wall in the foreground of my picture is another of those incongruities that mess with my mind. For lo and behold, it is the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

It is really difficult to assimilate all the stories and messages to be gathered around this historic city. Very little of it is uplifting. Even the big shiny modern tower blocks remind me of instability as soon as I realise they belong to banks (e.g. Deutsche Bank)!

The two most uplifting things I saw may not inspire many. During my visit to the Espionage Museum, amongst all the 007 nonsense and displays of gadgets, was a story that ought to be more familiar to us all. At the height of the Cold War the Americans undertook some provocative military exercises that had Russian militarists convinced that the Americans were about to launch a nuclear first strike conquest. Pressure quickly mounted for a pre-emptive strike to be launched from Russia. It was only the intelligence received from spies within the American military that convinced Russia that the manoeuvres were indeed no more than exercises. In other words, the spies averted a nuclear apocalypse.

In what sense is this uplifting? It tells us that it is secrecy that is dangerous. It is the preserve of tyrants and crooks. All the time we know what is going on we can have rational responses. So hooray for all the spies, all the whistle blowers, for Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, Chelsea manning et al. There is no place for secrets of any sort in democratic government. National security can never be enhanced by allowing governments to keep secrets from the people. This much we have to learn from the Nazi era. In the digital era, relationships between people and the powers that be are evolving fast. This is why we should  all be broadly supportive of the Anonymous network of activist and hacktivist entities, and why I was pleased to see the Espionage Museum promoting this too. I convinced my 17 yr old Government and Politics student companion to this viewpoint I think – such that we bought some souvenirs that will hopefully see much future use.

The other uplifting sight was to see thousands of people taking to the streets and marching on the Brandenburg Gate – this time in protest at rising violence against women. (See below)screen-shot-2017-02-19-at-19-59-18

If Berlin has anything to teach us, it is that putting our faith in governments to act in our best interests is foolhardy at best. Glasnost/openness, transparency and accountability has to be the bedrock of any true democracy. Any thing less is a sham. We live in a sham. And shams can quickly become shameful. Freedom is only possible when the masses grasp it.

The Norman Foster designed dome (the top of a gherkin anybody?) on top of the Reichstag building was added in the 1990s to symbolise the reunification of Germany and a new era of open, transparent democracy. Well, that was the theory at least.