Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Camp Bestival 2009

Family festival? Well, yes, but that doesn't really describe what Camp Bestival is all about. There are kids, yes, loads of them. And plenty of stuff for kids to do. But for those who haven't yet experienced the delights of having their lives ruined by a sprog or two, this festival offers plenty by way of fun.

First of all, thankfully, non-families don't have to camp with the families. There is a handily positioned campsite for those without little ones, right next to a bar and the entrance to the arena. There are also plenty of other people looking to enjoy a relatively child-free weekend.

Last year, Camp Bestival was voted best new festival. This year, it did nothing to dispel that billing. The weather held, for the most part. The music, Will Young aside, was excellent. Highlights included a UK-exclusive 2009 set from PJ Harvey, a bouncy performance by Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip and, perhaps best of all, a brilliant dose of Phoenix on the Saturday night. As with most things like this, my memories are slightly nullified by excessive amounts of £3.70 cans of Tuborg and lack of sleep, the latter of which was hardly surprising since I left my sleeping bag at home.

All I can say, really, is when you see it advertised next year, go. You won't regret it. Hi De Hi!

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Strange old world

A couple of interesting news stories today, not least that nobody wants to buy the infamous Watergate Hotel in Washington. Shut since 1997, you would have thought the hotel's past would make it an attractive prospect, but clearly prospective buyers are put off by its past. Maybe the U.S. government should buy it and open a museum dedicated to the criminal activities of American Presidents throughout history? That should fill a large proportion of its 250 guest rooms and 146 suites.

Today also sees the return of Sven-Goran Eriksson to English football. Notts County may be the oldest football team in the country, but last year they finished 87th in the football league. Arab investors have seen an opportunity, however, and Sven has been persuaded to sign up. He cites the challenge of advancing Notts County as his reason for joining, cynics will say it was the money. I'm a born cynic. Either way, it's a fascinating story, and I certainly applaud everyone involved for investing in a club that is still some way from being the finished article rather than taking the easy option and buying an already well-established side. Success will be all the more fulfilling, should it come. This is by no means assurred, however, and you have to feel a little bit for County manager Ian McParland, who has been granted what can only be considered a stay of execution and must cope with one of the most successful club managers in European football looking over his shoulder.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

The legacy of 'labour'

A report into social mobility led by uber-Blairite Alan Milburn has concluded that 'glass ceilings' are preventing young people from less affluent backgrounds from establishing themselves in top professions.

This hardly comes as a surprise. After twelve years of a Labour government, Britain is more unequal, not less. The gap between rich and poor has grown at a rate that would make a Conservative government blush, a point made by Lord Hattersley on last night's Newsnight. What will it take to make this government realise that the only way to reconnect with the general public, and win back some much-needed support, is to take a turn leftwards and make Britain a fairer place to live and work? There is a special need for such a change in this time of economic crisis, yet the only people making this point seem to be on the fringes of the party, such as Charles Clarke or John McDonnell, or already compromised, like Milburn or James Purnell.

Maybe it's about time that those of us on the left gave up on this party as a vehicle for our aims and ambitions for this country. New Labour sold its soul to big business and the Murdoch media over a decade ago, and it seems that the new guard is unable or unwilling to reverse this sellout, even when the alternative is a class-ridden society that would make any Conservative proud and electoral desecration.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Off With Their Heads?

The New Statesman was extremely brave last week when it went out on a limb by demanding the end of monarchy. Republicanism as an ideology has been dormant in this country for far too long now, yet the magazine felt able to dedicate an entire issue to why this country would be better off without Queen Elizabeth II and her extended family.

The extraordinary position and power of the Queen, though somewhat concealed by the ability of Elizabeth herself to appear to reflect the views of the population at large, is evident from the smallest glimpse of any official websites. She owns huge swathes of land across the country, 340,000 acres in all. The royal family is indicative of a wider situation in the United Kingdom, where 69% of the land is owned by 0.6% of the population, and where the gap between rich and poor is increasing every year. Yet this remains largely undiscussed by politicians, the media and the population in general.

Not only do they own so much land, but they also expect the British taxpayer to help with the upkeep costs. Kensington Palace, St James Palace, Buckingham Palace, Clarence House and Windsor Castle cost a total of £14.2 million per year to run, and the royal family itself contributes very little towards this. At the best of times, least of all during a recession, should the state be paying millions of pounds to maintain the propertiws of a family that has not been elected by the British public?

The silence of the Windsors during the recent MP expenses outcry was notable, as a glance at their own expenses serves to incriminate them, along with the majority of Westminster, in the outrageous waste of taxpayers' money. A recent poll by Republic, whose campaign for an elected head of state is to be commended, demonstrated that 62% of Britons want the expenses of the royal family to be published. With the Queen currently in the process of asking for a significant increase to the civil list, this demand doesn't seem too unfair, especially as little of the money handed over to the Windsors does anything at all to benefit her 'subjects'. The little we do know about the spending of the royals makes the mouth water over the juicy possibilities of a full disclosure. Prince William spent £86,000 on 'training' flights to a stag party and to visit Kate Middleton's family. His father's trips to the Far East and South America cost £700,000 each. Princess Beatrice has recently obtained a place at Goldsmith's, but she will be quite unlike any other student at the college when she moves into an apartment at St James Palace, renovated at the princely cost of £256,000. The Queen's total income from the state is £41.5 million, and yet she still wants more to keep her vast family living comfortably. Surely there is something more worthwhile that this money could be spent on?

The Queen's own personality has been vital in maintaining respect for the royal family, even after her annus horribilis of 1992 and the death of Princess Diana in 1997. Yet it is unlikely that her successors, and let us not forget that the Windsor dynasty has been a particularly mediocre one in terms of abilities and achievement, will display such abilities. As the New Statesman points out, we are within one explosion of King Harry, a circumstance that makes the idea of King Charles III seem positively ideal.

What I have written above suggests that my main issue with the monarchy is its cost. Yet this only forms part of my objection. The monarchy as an institution, as long as it remains, prevents Britain from becoming truly democratic. As I write, we are 'subjects' of an unelected head of state, and our laws are subject to the wants of 92 hereditary peers in the House of Lords. After twelve years of a Labour government, this is unsuccessful. I wish to be a citizen, not a subject. I will bow to nobody, least of all because they had the good fortune to be born into a 'higher' social status. Traditionalism is not a reason for keeping the monarchy, and neither is tourism, given that the likes of Versailles continue to be flooded with guests years after their royal inhabitants have departed. Therefore, as the time grows ever closer where King Charles III will rule over us, is it not time to consign the monarchy, as other countries have done, to history and elect a head of state of our own?

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Is it real this time?

After spending the last few months writing off the chances of swine flu causing the human race any major issues, and comparing it to the likes of bird flu in terms of what a fuss over nothing it was, I am no slightly concerned that it might, after all, be a serious problem.

One third of us may be affected by it this summer? This figure is so startling that at the moment I heard it on the news I was actually silently debating which of the three family members in the room at the time I would have contract the illness rather than myself (if you're interested, it was all three). But, scary as the figure sounds, not everyone that gets swine flu will die of it. That should help you sleep a bit easier at night, even if you are slightly concerned about that niggling cough.

If you think you might have swine flu, check your symptoms here.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Working in the belly of the beast

This summer I have sold my soul to the devil. Socialist by word, I am confirmed capitalist by deed. In desperate search of money, this holiday period I am 'earning' money in one of the only businesses in the land actually making money out of the economic downturn, the insolvency business.

Insolvency practitioners are actually nicer than you might think. Yes, they profit from the financial misery of others, but they're actually quite decent people to hang around with. They are friendly, generous and in possession of an impressive gallows humour. My favourite example of such humour was when a colleague, reflecting on the financial collapse of one older lady who had lost her house and most of her savings, almost shed tears at the sheer sadness of such a thing occurring. The moment briefly passed, however, as said colleague then strolled over to a large bell attached to the office wall in order to ring it loudly and mark the arrival of another few thousand pounds of profit for the devil.

I console myself with the fact that I myself am not pickpocketing these poor souls, but merely packing boxes and filing papers for those that are. I also like the people I work with, so will not judge them too harshly. I just hope that in the future, whether I be writing leftist polemics, earning a wage at the Socialist Worker or unsuccessfully running for election as a 'labour' candidate, by dark capitalist past does not come back to haunt me.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Impotent UN

Aung San Suu Kyi is back on trial today in Burma after a failed attempt by the UN to have her freed.

Did anyone really expect the UN to help in the slightest? Surely this is just another example of how impotent and inept it has become?

And how about this for a bit of irony, with UN Secretary General telling junta leader General Than Shwe: "I appreciate your commitment to moving your country forward."

You just couldn't make this stuff up. Meanwhile a country remains enslaved and its democratically elected leader, who has lost everything through her commitment to freeing her country, imprisoned.

The Dark Side of Journalism

It comes as a shock to nobody that the News of the World is in hot water over an alleged phone hacking operation. Such activities on behalf of the paper were exposed more than two years ago when editor Andy Coulson was forced to resign after the paper's royal editor Clive Goodman was sent to prison for four months for illegal phone tapping. The paper is also so obsessed by celebrity scandals (obsessions with the private lives of the likes of David Beckham, David Blunkett and Sven Goran Eriksson have been par for the course over the past few years) that it does not come as a surprise that the paper would go to extreme lengths to dig dirt on prominent public figures.

But the scandal leaves a bad taste in my mouth for two reasons. First is the great disservice that the News of the World has done to journalism. Often journalists are unpopular, yet I feel this unpopularity is unfair given the great service that most journalists provide to the public. A free and active media is an essential part of any democracy. Yet when journalists entirely lacking in morals employ the likes of Glen Mulcaire to illegally dig up dirt, trust in the profession diminishes and every other journalist, however honest or fair they may be, is tarred by the same brush. Honesty and integrity within the world of journalism are essential if the reputation of the profession is to be upheld and journalists are to be able to do their job properly, and the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Piers Morgan and Andy Coulson (not that they'll care) besmirch the reputations of journalists everywhere.

The second reason why this story is important is that it has exposed the hypocrisy of the Tory party. For all the party's complaints about the role of Alistair Campbell within New Labour, David Cameron was remarkably keen to hire Andy Coulson, damaged reputation and all, in the first place, and even more keen to stand beside him as more allegations regarding his crooked past emerge. What what Cameron be saying if it was Campbell who was facing such allegations? Would he be arguing that "everyone deserves a second chance"? Of course not. This issue has emerged not long after Damian McBride, an advisor to the Prime Minister, was forced to resign after a failed smear campaign. McBride's actions were despicable, and Cameron correctly demanded that he be removed from his job and questioned the morals of a government that allowed such people to operate within it. What, then, does his continued dalliance with Coulson say about his own party? With backbenchers expressing discomfort over Coulson's role, the next few days are sure to be interesting.

The phone hacking scandal has damaged the reputation of journalists and also, though perhaps to a lesser extent, the reputation of the Conservative Party and its leader. To my mind, it would be a great shame if excellent and honest journalists, of whom there are many, had their reputations damaged by poor standards at an appalling paper, as not all journalists are as bad as each other. Cameron's hypocrisy, however, shows that the same cannot be said for the politicians.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

End Elitist Education

It emerged yesterday that the government is considering "no fee degrees", a scheme whereby students in this country would pay no tuition fees but also be ineligible for any sort of financial support from the government. The plan would primarily benefit students who choose to remain living at home with their parents, as well as students continuing their education beyond their initial degree.

I choose to ignore the obvious point that students remaining at home during their time at university miss out on vital aspects of university life, such as the process of leaving home, making new friends and living an independent life away from the watchful eyes of their next of kin. This point is crucial, yet I believe it to be relatively insignificant when we consider the larger issue- the elitism that has becoming noticeably predominant in Britain's education system.

It is my position, and that of many on the left, that education should be a right rather than a privilege, and therefore New Labour's introduction of tuition fees was one of Blair and Brown's greatest betrayals. Student loans make the fees slightly more bearable, but in some cases they are not enough, and most students still leave university with crippling amounts of debt. Saddling the future of this country with such debt is criminal enough as it is to my mind, but leaving poorer students who have shown great ability and work ethic to better themselves in such a sorry financial state is unforgivable. Young people seeking to further their minds and their experiences should, in my opinion, not have to pay for it, particularly under a so-called 'labour' government. The same goes for private schools. Privately-educated myself, I run the risk of being labelled a 'champagne socialist' here, but in the interest of fair play it seems to me that one child should not be entitled to a better education than another simply because their parents earn more money.

The latest review of the university system looks set to increase the levels of elitism that are already evident. The debate regarding tuition fees is not over whether they should be disposed of, but rather whether the fixed cap on fees should be raised or, god forbid, removed completely. Such a move would only serve to make the best universities less accessible to less privileged young people. The "no fees" system being mooted currently would make it easier for poorer young people to study at university, but at the same time deny them the chance to leave the communities in which they grew up. Also, in spite of the government's arguments to the contrary, I find it impossible to believe that such a scheme would not simply lead to a system whereby those entering higher education through receive a lower quality education and a less valuable degree.

I am in agreement with James Greenhalgh of the UK Youth Parliament, who argues: "It is frightening to think how many students would end up choosing a local university, regardless of whether it is the right option for them, because they want to avoid paying tuition fees." Rather than allowing a gulf to open up between those able or willing to pay and those who are not, why not revert back to a completely fair system where anyone who wants a university education can get one, funded by the government, regardless of their wealth or social status. Those who argue that there simply isn't the money for that are either blind or stupid. Our government spends lots more money on fair more useless things every year. Some people argue that too many people are going to university, especially in times of job sparsity such as today. Many even refer to current levels of university applications as a 'crisis'. I don't buy these arguments. Young people wishing to educate themselves is something that should be encouraged, especially in a recession. They should be encouraged by a free and universal education system with the potential to benefit each and every young person in exactly the same way. It is these values, my values, which make it so depressing to note that current rethinks of the way people are educated in this country will serve only to alter, and most likely further entrench, Britain's elitist education system, with the real shame being that it was Tony Blair and his 'labour' government that took perhaps the most decisive step.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Are we approaching the time of the Liberal Democrat?

Much has been written about the impending fall of the Labour Party and the seemingly inevitable rise to power of David Cameron's Tories. The press focus on the death throes of Labour while questioning what exactly a Conservative government would do. Analysts debate whether next year's election will be about spending vs cuts, as Brown would have it, or honesty vs dishonesty, as Cameron would). Yet, though the polls show a significant lead for the Conservative Party, a Cameron premiership is by no means inevitable.

Current polls suggest that the Tories hold a lead of ten points, or thereabouts, over Labour. Should these polls prove correct, then Cameron's party would indeed be the strongest in Parliament. Yet the party is by no means guaranteed a majority. Labour ministers are by all accounts seriously contemplating the possibility of a hung Parliament, a scenario which would result in Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats holding the balance of power. The possibility of a so-called 'progressive alliance', such as the one that Tony Blair unsuccessfully attempted to build after the Labour victory in 1997, would then rear its head. The difference between 1997 and 2010, however, is that Labour would need Lib Dem support to stay in power. In order to guarantee this, they would have to give in to some long-term Lib Dem demands, most notably proportional representation.

A Tory victory, it seems, is very likely, though a year is a long time in politics and there is no real evidence that the unpopularity of Labour necessarily means popularity for Cameron, Osborne et al. There is no positive aura around the Tories now of the sort that surrounded New Labour pre-1997. Smaller parties could yet gain more than one might expect, and we saw the signs of this at the recent local and European elections. Even if the Tories do win, however, an absolute majority is by no means guaranteed, and the Liberal Democrats would then find themselves in a pivotal position to determine the course of British politics. One should not rule out a Tory-Liberal agreement, but the smart money would be on a progressive alliance between Brown (if he survives) and Clegg. With both Brown and Cameron still not at all certain of their own power within both the country and their respective parties, it could just be that Nick Clegg, a figure so seemingly powerless that he is for the most part neglected by the media and by the leaders of the two major parties, becomes the most powerful man in the country come May next year.