Sunday, 26 June 2016

Notes on a Shambles

Since absolutely no one is fed up of hearing what every man and his canine thinks about the recent referendum, I have decided to drop in my 2p worth. (It was about £1 worth, but the currency has since devalued.)

Firstly, to my European friends: sorry about this shit. We’re not all racist twats. My own feelings on this run to bitterness and disappointment. I feel ashamed of the place I have called home for so long, but optimistic at much of what I have heard from Londoners and others since the result was announced.

Secondly, to my friends and family who voted leave: sorry for implying you’re a racist twat. I’m sure some of you aren’t, and are doing what you think is best. But to those of you who are embracing the Xenophobia Warrior Princess vibe, well, fuck you. Not only is your position illogical, it’s breaking up the band, Yoko.

I was at a lecture at the LSE a few months ago, which was focused on the consequences of immigration, based on data from long-term studies in the UK and elsewhere. Interestingly enough, the conclusion was that immigration overall has but a tiny (positive or negative) effect on the economy of the country concerned; that is, results are negligible. That is, nothing to be worried about.

The lecturer pointed out that the main reason people from the EU want to come to the UK (or indeed, other places) is because the economy is doing well. Therefore, he added, if you want to stop immigration, all you have to do is destroy the economy. It was a joke at the time, but now it seems like some kind of cruel prediction.

See, in the days since the vote, the pound dropped to a thirty-one year low, the country’s credit outlook has been downgraded from ‘stable’ to ‘negative’, the UK’s economy dropped below France’s in the world rankings, and the value of a UK passport decreased significantly. And this isn’t including the billions of pounds which were pulled out of the country before the vote even happened.

While all this was happening, figures from the Leave campaign, like Farage and Johnson, all came out to tell us that (surprise) the things they’d promised probably weren’t viable after all. I am used to politicians breaking promises, but the efficiency with which it occurred this time must break some kind of record.

Funnily enough, the £350 million figure splashed across the side of that big red bus has always been untrue. The number was something closer to £120 million, and of course doesn’t take into account all the benefits we got for being a member, as well as the fact that it will cost approximately that much to access the single market. As well as requiring concessions (notably on free movement of peoples) over which we will no longer have any say.

Also occurring was a renewed push for a united Ireland (in and of itself, not necessarily a bad thing) and another push for a referendum on Scottish independence. Since all the areas in Scotland voted to remain, they must feel particularly shafted right now, and I can’t see any way another referendum there wouldn’t spell the end of the UK as we know it. It seems like taking the country back means taking it all the way back to 1707. And I cannot blame our northern cousins in the slightest.

Boris Johnson is our version of Donald Trump. Besides the obvious similarities of ugly mugs with bad hair, they’re both looking to enact disastrous policy based on xenophobia and outright lies. ‘Take back control’, should probably just have been worded ‘make Britain Great again’.

Figures have also been quoted around the difference in the way people voted, given their age. Put simply, the younger you were, the more likely you were to vote remain. It’s hard not to feel like this vote has been a betrayal of the youngest by their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, people pining for a past which will never come again (and which, to be honest, probably wasn’t all that great anyway). The future of the nation have been denied the future they so clearly wanted. Other interesting parallels include the fact that areas with high immigration voted to remain, perhaps seeing the benefits it can bring, and that the more highly-educated someone was, the more likely they were to vote remain. Draw your own conclusions.

There are already movements in place: the idea that London could secede from the rest of England (though this seems like a pipe dream, it’s not the worst idea I’ve heard), the petition calling for a second referendum, which is nearing three million signatures (based on the idea, not enshrined in EU law, that the majority should have to be at least 60% and turnout 75% for the result to count), and calls from David Lammy MP and others to simply ignore the result, given that the result is not legally-binding. The Lib-Dems, in a genius piece of promotion, have promised to keep the UK in the EU if the Brexit triggers a general election.

While I do think that such a momentous decision should require more than 51.9% of the vote in order to be enacted, I wish the rules for such would have been stated when the referendum was announced. In terms of actually dismissing the result, while I am not normally in favour of ignoring the will of the people, in this case that there would indeed be valid reasons to do so.

  1. The monstrous amount of misinformation provided (and subsequently admitted) to the public during campaigning. Decisions founded in ignorance should not shape the future of the nation.
  2. The aforementioned slim majority.
  3. The fact that if sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds would have been allowed to vote, the result would have been different. The future of the country belongs to the young, and it’s fair that we give them a say in it.
  4. The disastrous consequences already occurring, as well as those to come, both for the economy and stability of the country, and for the future of the UK (not to mention the EU) as a whole.

Sometimes the people are wrong. I hate to say it but, sometimes democracy fails.

Now, a lot of this may sound like sore-loser talk, and I can understand that accusation. ‘We won,’ they say, ‘so let’s get over it and move on’. Funnily enough, this from a group of people who still moan about the ‘hand of god’. I think though, that to concede defeat and move on would be a mistake. There’s too much at stake, for people inside the UK and out, for Britons who voted and those who were too young to be allowed to, or able to. If the Brexit happens, it hurts us all. Maybe we can prevent that, and if there’s a chance we can, then we damn well need to give it a try.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Glorified G

Here’s the topic on everyone’s lips of late: gun control. Having had the good fortune to live in two countries where gun laws are relatively strong and sensible (that is, New Zealand and the United Kingdom), it might seem at first that I have nothing useful to say about gun control. However, I can dodge this argument by stating that anyone who has an interest in avoiding seeing their fellow humans murdered by legally-obtained weapons ought to have something useful to add to the argument.

I am talking, of course, about the most recent mass shooting in the US, in Orlando, FL. At this time it may be useful to throw around some statistics. The BBC has an interesting article stating that there were ‘372 mass shootings in the US in 2015, killing 475 people and wounding 1,870, according to the Mass Shooting Tracker, which catalogues such incidents’. It provides comparisons with the UK, Canada and Australia for relatively recent gun homicide rates, and quotes another source, which says that ‘So many people die annually from gunfire in the US that the death toll between 1968 and 2011 eclipses all wars ever fought by the country. According to research by Politifact, there were about 1.4 million firearm deaths in that period, compared with 1.2 million US deaths in every conflict from the War of Independence to Iraq.’

Thing is, though, even though Pulse was the latest (and bloodiest) in a string of mass shootings going back for years, other websites can be found holding data which seem to suggest that per capita rates are higher in parts of Europe than in the US. Whether or not this is true, to me is in some sense immaterial. After all, police forces don’t respond to victims of burglary by saying, ‘well, look at that other city, they have much worse rates of theft’, and if they did, the victims would probably reply, ‘who cares? I need you to solve the problems we have in this city, right now.’ So, the following thoughts can be applied to many countries equally.

Having said that, the US still stands out as having much worse gun crime than comparable Western nations, and I don’t think that the stats can really mask this fact for long. Also, the US has some of the more, shall I say, interesting arguments against gun control that I have heard. Then there is the fact that, when even the most modest proposals for reform are put forward, they are twisted, misquoted, and torn down with such vigour that no change is possible. Even though there seems to be public support for ideas like a gun sale database, or preventing people with mental illness from buying guns, any reforms are blocked in Congress. A cynical man might suspect that for the will of the people to be so openly defied, for the people to be so rashly endangered, either the relevant politicians are stubborn, stupid, or have another motivation altogether for the way they behave.

Omar Mateen, the man who pledged allegiance to Isis (or, as I like to call them, Daeshbags), before the attack, was very possibly a closeted homosexual whose religious beliefs caused him to hate himself and those who lived the life he secretly desired but could not bring himself to embrace. It seems that those at the club were deliberately targeted because of their sexuality, and the club was a place Mateen had visited previously. His homophobia is framed within the larger narrative of intolerance promoted by the religious ideology the attacker pledged allegiance to before the attack.

Certainly Mateen was known to the FBI, although he was not deemed a threat. It might be logical, though, to prevent such persons from having access to automatic weaponry.

Add to this the sickening behaviour of religious persons in the US who have praised the shooters’ actions, and you see why the issue of gun control is even more urgent in such a country. The man who may be President also took the chance to say a nonsensical ‘I told you so,’ exploiting the horrors of the moment. (Fortunately most Americans seem to disapprove of his response.)

There is information suggesting that most gun deaths in the US are accidental, and many involve children. This is another place where you would think people might pause to think it may not, in fact, be worth having guns in the home after all, no matter how well-secured they are.

I also dislike the argument that people are generally safer with more guns around. This follows no logic that I can find, except maybe in the event of alien invasion or zombie apocalypse (though if either of these happen, the NRA will be too busy fighting to yell ‘I told you so!’). To take the most extreme situation, if no one in a country has a gun, then no one in that country can be killed by a gun.
If guns are limited to law enforcement officials and the army, then, again, it means citizens are much less likely to be shot illegally (discounting for a moment the issue of skin colour). Of course, the US is a country flooded with guns, and many argue that in such a situation, where criminals will not follow gun laws anyway, they are safer and more protected from said criminals if they themselves are armed. I can see their line of thinking, but if someone breaks into your house in the middle of the night while you’re sleeping, are you really going to have time to get to your well-secured gun? And if you are, are you then able to engage in a Lethal Weapon style shootout with armed robbers without some collateral damage, or with your children in the house?

Another issue is the sheer type of weaponry available. There is an argument for allowing responsible gun owners to have hand guns, hunting rifles, and shot guns for clay pigeon shooting, but why on earth would they ever need an AK-47 or Sig Sauer assault rifle? What kind of deer are they hunting?

One of the biggest obstacles to change is the Second Amendment, which states ‘A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.’ To me, the phrase ‘well regulated Militia’ denotes both the need for good regulation, and the need for guns to be held by a body or organisation for a particular purpose (such as civil defence) rather than simply held by whoever wants one at the time. Still, much ink and many hours have been devoted to this argument, and I am not going to solve it here.

Finally, I have been told that the people need guns should they ever need to stand up to the government. In response to that, I would simply say, the government of the US has machines that can kill you from a hundred miles away, at the press of a button. They have (arguably) the most well-equipped and well-trained army in the world. If they want to get you, your small arms stash will not stop them.

Now, it is not, and probably never will be my place to decide on US law, or even to vote on who should run the country. Thing is, as I mentioned, these shootings are a human problem as well as an American problem, and therefore I find it helpful (if not necessarily effective) to think about what could be done to solve it. The power, though, is with the people with the votes, the people in the position to make changes. The question for them is, what if it’s your child’s school next? Or your sibling’s workplace that suffers a mass shooting? And sadly, at the moment, the real question is: how long until the next one?

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Brexit or Bremain?

As the debate about leaving the EU or staying in rumbles on, one thing becomes readily apparent: the lack of real information with which to make an informed choice. It’s true that we know what life is like inside the EU now, and that, for all the rhetoric, we have no idea what life will be like outside the EU if we leave; and although this, in and of itself, it not a reason to vote remain, it does provide a good starting point for examining how things might go. This truth is, things could be much better in some ways, and much worse in others, and I don’t feel like we get a lot of the best information about these scenarios.
One caveat before continuing: the below are just my general views and thoughts. As mentioned, a lot of the ‘information’ provided to us is guesswork, and so I will do the best I can with what I have.
Ok, two caveats: my views on the EU will be clear by the end of this post. I don’t claim an impartial or unbiased view, and I am setting out to express how I feel about various points.

The hot button issue for Brexit campaigners is immigration. One issue I have with all the focus on immigration is that it’s not really the most problematic, expensive, or serious issue facing the country, although it is often portrayed that way. That aside, I think it’s fair to say that several truths emerge from the debate around immigration:

  1. The UK is a relatively small country, and, given the current stretches being applied to public services, can only afford a modest amount of immigration.
  2. Immigration places burdens on the welfare state; abuses of which are often highlighted and do need to be curtailed.
  3. The majority of people who come to live and work in the UK from the EU pay more in tax than they take out, and this will only increase when new restrictions on claims to public funds come into place.
  4. UK citizens have benefitted from being able to live and work in EU countries. It’s unclear exactly what would happen if we leave, but there is the distinct possibility of large numbers of retired Brits having to return home, people who by and large contribute less to the economy than EU citizens of working age.
  5. The UK already has a different agreement to the rest of the EU when it comes to immigration, including exclusion from the Schengen free movement principle, and an opt-out of an otherwise compulsory acceptance of refugees.
  6. There also seems to be a conflation (though this is just based on people I have spoken with) of the problems of non-EU immigration with EU ones. Leaving the EU will have no direct effect on policies about people from non-EU nations.
  7. Leaving the EU won’t deter illegal migrants from trying to come here. Remaining in the EU allows greater collaboration with other members (particularly France) on how best to control and curtail dangerous and illegal migration.

The majority of scientists in the UK wish to remain in the EU (source), and have warned that leaving could have a disastrous effect on funding and research. This seems logical to me, given the inherently collaborative nature of scientific research; even in this age of electronic communication, face to face association is invaluable. The importance of such research in a world dealing with challenges as diverse as climate change and the growing resistance of bacteria to any form of antibiotic cannot be underestimated.
And I know this argument may be simplistic, but if Stephen Hawking, one of the cleverest people alive, thinks remaining is a good idea, that’s something to take into consideration.

Differing opinions have been offered on whether the NHS would be worse or better off if we remain in the EU, but I think the argument that money sent to Brussels could be channelled back into the NHS is overly simplistic, and ignores the benefits which accrue from such payments (the price of food and other commodities, the effect on wages and workers’ rights, investment in services, and so on). It’s also the case that many of the doctor and nurse positions are currently filled by EU workers, who will have to be replaced in the event of a Brexit. This task isn’t impossible, but I haven’t heard any explanation yet as to where those workers will come from, and if immigration isn’t a solution, what is?
In addition, UK citizens abroad benefit from access to European health services through the use of the EHIC card. This is a valuable safety net when travelling.

Trade and the economy
The effect a Brexit would have on the economy is not known. Speculation abounds. It does seem likely that import and export deals would have to be renegotiated, both with the EU and EU trading partners, and that tariffs would follow. This is not a good thing for British trade in either direction. 61% of small business exports go to the EU; they are our major trading partner.
Again, there isn’t a consensus on what the effect on jobs, taxes, spending cuts and so on. Economists have come out arguing for either position. I am not savvy enough with the details to really know which way things will go, but it seems that no one else is either. On balance, I think that the risk to the economy is higher if we leave than if we stay, and the weakening pound suggests that uncertainty about the future is damaging to the economy in and of itself.

A YouGov poll indicates that support for the EU is higher in Scotland and Wales than in England. This is not surprising given that these countries are used to being the junior member in an alliance of nations. They are used to seeing their sovereignty diminished for the greater good of the alliance. Perhaps the English have yet to understand that teamwork requires compromise, that balancing local needs against the needs of the many is not always an act than can be achieved to everyone’s complete satisfaction. Perhaps the way that Scotland and Wales think of England is the way that many English think of the EU.
I also saw a poll which said that the younger you are, the more likely you are to be in favour of Bremaining. This gives me hope. I like the idea that integration and tolerance will become the norm, that in fifty years, people will think of Europeans as allies and cousins, to be worked with towards common goals, rather than viewed with suspicion.

The EU is often lamented as a production machine for regulations, but much of the regulation it produces is to the benefit of Brits, as well as other Europeans. Cheaper cellphone coverage and air travel, protections for workers under employment law, protections for human beings in line with the human rights act, environmental regulations to reduce emissions, invest in renewables and protect wildlife, the list goes on. Being in the EU enables Britain to help fight climate change, tackle international criminal networks and humanitarian crises, fosters military co-operation, thus reducing the strain on our armed forces, and keeps commodity prices low. Add to that the influence of the bloc in world affairs, an influence the UK benefits from despite her different currency, and you have a pretty good list of reasons to Bremain.
The EU is a success story, and it has managed to take countries which were at each other’s throats less than a century earlier, and turn them into allies between which war is now unthinkable. This is progress by any definition. Of course, the UK was not part of this initial arrangement, and so views the EU from a different perspective - that of a trading partner. This view is not inherently wrong, but shapes the expectations we have for what the EU is and should be.
It’s also true that the EU is not without problems, unnecessary expenditure and red tape. Abuse of welfare systems and NHS tourism are valid concerns. No human institution is free of problems. It is my personal feeling that the world is becoming smaller, more connected all the time. It is also my feeling that this trend is positive: collaboration and cooperation among nations draw us together, and help us form common purposes and solve problems which may otherwise seem insurmountable. To withdraw from this union would be a reversal of a great achievement, a step towards isolation in a world where such a thing is impractical, a highlighting of differences when what is needed is an expression of solidarity. The essence of the Brexit is the politics of fear and division, and I cannot believe that such politics will ever be the right way to proceed.