Archive for May, 2015

BBC 2 On Why Britain Voted Against Churchill after WW II

May 25, 2015

BBC 2 at 9.00 O’clock tonight is showing a documentary on how Britain rejected Churchill for the Labour party in the 1945 general election.

The blurbs for it in the Radio Times state

Surprise election results are nothing new. As this documentary explores, a few weeks after celebrating VE Day in 1945, Britons went to the polls for the first general election in a decade. The Conservatives were widely expected to win, a grateful nation rewarding Winston Churchill’s wartime leadership. Instead, Labour won by a landslide and set about creating the Socialist welfare system Churchill had warned against.

As historians relate, there were good reasons the electorate delivered a humiliating snub to their wartime hero. And we’ve forgotten how unpopular he was with sections of the public: striking footage shows crowds jeering a perplexed Churchill at Walthamstow stadium. “Most people saw him as a Boris Johnson-type figure,” claims one contributor. “A buffoon.”

And

Just weeks after VE Day, Winston Churchill went to the polls confident that the nation would reward him for his leadership through the dark days of the Second World War and re-elect him prime minister. In the event, he suffered a humiliating defeat by Labour under Clement Atlee. Historians including Max Hastings, Juliet Gardiner and Antony Beevor explore what prompted the nation to reject its great war leader in such vehement fashion.

This will no doubt annoy the Churchill family, who have been effectively living off the great man’s legacy since the War. They got very stroppy a few months ago with Paxo, for daring to state that Churchill was not some kind omniscient, super competent superman.

In fact, Churchill was and still is bitterly despised by certain sections of the working class, despite his status as the great hero of World War II. His own career in the armed forces effectively ended with the debacles of the battle of Jutland and he was widely blamed for Gallipolli. He fervently hated the trade unions and anything that smacked of socialism and the welfare state. Originally a Liberal, he crossed the floor to join the Tories when Balfour’s government introduced pensions and state medical insurance based on the model of contemporary Germany. ‘It was Socialism by the backdoor’, he spluttered.

This continued after the War, when he fiercely attacked Labour’s plan to set up the NHS and unemployment benefit. Because the latter meant that the state become involved in the payment of NI contributions by the employer, he denounced it as a ‘Gestapo for England.’

He is widely credited with sending in the army to shoot down striking miners in Newport. According to the historians I’ve read, he didn’t. Nevertheless, this is still widely believed. It’s credible, because Churchill did have an extremely aggressive and intolerant attitude towards strikes. During the 1924 General Strike he embarrassed the Tory administration by stating that the armed forces would stand ready to assist the civil authorities, if they were called to do so. This effectively meant that he was ready to send the troops in. When it was suggested that he could be found a position in the Post Office, the then Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, readily agreed on the grounds that it would keep him out of the way. The hope was that without Churchill’s militant intransigence, the Strike could be settled peacefully.

And despite the mythology of the country uniting under a common foe during the War years, there was still considerable working class disaffection. Indeed, according to one programme, there were more strikes during the War than hitherto. I don’t find this remotely surprising, given that the sheer requirements of running a war economy meant rationing, shortages and, I’ve no doubt, the introduction of strict labour discipline.

Nor was Churchill a particularly staunch supporter of democracy and opponent of Fascism. Orwell wrote in one of his newspaper pieces that the spectre of war was doing strange things, like making Churchill run around pretending to be a democrat. According to the historian of British Fascism, Martin Pugh, Churchill was an authoritarian, who actually quite liked Franco and his brutal suppression of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. His opposition to the Nazis came not from a desire to defend democracy from tyranny – in that respect, Eden was a far better and more convinced anti-Fascist – but from the fear that a re-armed and militarised Germany would be a danger to British power and commercial shipping in the North Sea and the Baltic. He did, however, have the decency to consider privately that Mussolini was ‘a swine’, and was not impressed when the Duce declared that his Black Shirts were ‘like your Black and Tans’ when he visited Fascist Italy.

The British working class therefore had every reason to reject Churchill and his reactionary views after the War. And scepticism towards Churchill and his legacy was not confined merely to the working class. Nearly two decades later in the 1960s Private Eye satirised him as ‘the greatest dying Englishman’, and attacked him for betraying every cause he joined. Churchill was all for a united Europe, for example, a fact that might surprise some supporters of UKIP. He just didn’t want Britain to join it.

Even now there are those on the Right, who still resent him. Peter Hitchens, the arch-Tory columnist for the Daily Mail, has frequently attacked Churchill for bringing Britain into the War. His reason for this seems to be his belief that if we hadn’t gone to War against the Axis, we’d still have an Empire by now. This is moot, at best. Writing in the 1930s about a review of Black soldiers in Algiers or Morocco, Orwell stated that what was on the mind of every one of the White officers observing them was the thought ‘How long can we go on fooling these people?’ Orwell came to Socialism through his anti-imperialism, and so represents a particularly radical point of view. Nevertheless, he wasn’t the only one. When the British authorities set up the various commercial and industrial structures to exploit Uganda and the mineral wealth of east Africa, Lord Lugard cynically stated that they now had all the infrastructure in place to pillage the country for a few decades before independence. Despite Hitchens’ nostalgia and wishful thinking for the glories of a vanished empire, my guess is that many, perhaps most of the imperial administrators and bureaucrats out there knew it was only a matter of time before the British Empire went the way of Rome and Tyre.

In his book attacking atheism, The Rage Against God, Hitchens also attacks the veneration of Churchill as a kind of ersatz, state-sponsored secular religious cult. It’s an extreme view, but he’s got a point. Sociologists of religion, like Clifford Geertz, have a identified the existence of a ‘civil religion’, alongside more normal, obvious forms of religion, like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism, for example. This civil religion is the complex of beliefs and values that shapes civil society as a whole. In America, this is a belief in democracy, centred around a veneration of the Constitution. In Britain, you can see this complex of beliefs centring around parliament, the Crown, and also the complex of ceremonies commemorating the First and Second World Wars. Including Churchill.

The programme looks like it could be an interesting counterargument to the myth of Churchill as the consummate politician, the great champion of British freedom and democracy. He deserves every respect for his staunch opposition to the Nazis, regardless of the precise reason for doing so, and his A History of the English-Speaking Peoples is one of the main texts that have created the belief that the British are uniquely freedom-loving. Nevertheless, he was also deeply flawed with some deeply despicable authoritarian attitudes. AS the blurbs for the programme point out, the British were quite right to vote him out at the post-War elections.

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Simon Pegg and SF and Comic Book Infantilism

May 23, 2015

I was on holiday last week, which was why I haven’t put anything up for a few days. Never mind – I’m back now, and ready to pour more scorn, criticism and bile on the Tory government and the establishment sycophants and global corporate exploiters that support it.

But before I do, I’d like to tackle one issue that’s been bothering me, ever since I read about it in the papers and Radio Times last week. Simon Pegg got in the news for claiming that contemporary culture was being infantilised through Science Fiction, comic books, and the movies that were based on them.

As Pegg himself admitted, this is deeply ironic comic from him. He’s made his name as an SF and comic book nerd. In Spaced, the comedy he co-wrote, he played a struggling comic book artist/writer, who worked behind the counter at his local SF and comic shop. As well as the zombie rom-com, Shaun of the Dead, he also wrote Paul, his homage to science fiction geekdom, in which he and Nick Frost play a pair of SF geeks, who stumble upon the real alien that the US government has kept secret ever since the Roswell crash. The interview in the Radio Times, in which he made the comments, begins with a discussion of his role as Scotty and one of the writers on the new Star Trek movie.

Pegg made his comments about the infantilising effects of comics and SF when talking about how he was trying to smarten up and not be a ‘slobby husband’ for his wife, Maureen. As part of which, he had stopped drinking, turned to living a healthier life style, and stopped dressing as a teenager. The Radio Times then went to state how this new, adult perspective had changed his view of Science Fiction and comics. It said

This new grown-up perspective chimes with Pegg’s views on the culture in which he made his name and plies his trade. As Mark Gatiss said in Radio Times last month, “The geeks have indeed inherited the Earth.” On the other hand, this empowers the fanboy who wrote an autobiography called Nerd Do Well.

But on the other… “Before Star Wars, the films that were box-office hits were The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Bonnie and Clyde and The French Connection – gritty, amoral art movies. Then suddenly the onus switched over to spectacle and everything changed.

Now, I don’t know if that is a good thing. Obviously I’m very much a self-confessed fan of science-fiction and genre cinema. But part of me looks at society as it is now and just thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste. Now we’re essentially all consuming very childish things comic books, superheroes … Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously!

It is a kind of dumbing down in a way, “he continues. “Because it’s taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions that might make you walk away and re-evaluate how you felt about … whatever. Now we’re walking out of the cinema really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot.”

Now Pegg hasn’t said anything that a multitude of other, SF writers haven’t said before. Ray Bradbury, the author of The Martian Chronicles, famously said that the ‘Golden Age’ of Science Fiction was thirteen. Brian Aldiss, who amongst his various works wrote the short story, Supertoys Last All Summer Long, on which the Kubrick/ Spielberg film A.I. was based, was highly unimpressed by Star Wars. In his history of Science Fiction, The Trillion Year Spree, he made the sneering observation of its massive fan popularity that ‘a thousand throats thirsting for escapism must be slaked (if not cut)’. Many SF authors moved away from writing SF over their careers, such as Christopher Priest. Priest denies that he was ever an SF writer, but does not despise the genre or its fans. He’s said that he still has affection for the genre. Michael Moorcock, the editor of the SF magazine, New Worlds, leader of the SF ‘New Wave’, and author of the cult Elric novels, in the edition of the 1979 series on SF writers, Time Out of Mind, also stated that Science Fiction was essentially an immature form of literature. Moorcock then considered that the reason why so many SF writers had stopped and gone on to other forms of literature was simply that they’d grown up.

The great Polish writer, Stanislaus Lem, made pretty much the same point from his own personal experience in his book on Science Fiction, Microworlds. Lem’s an extremely highbrow Polish writer, who amongst his various works wrote Solaris, which was later filmed by the Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky. Lem has been very strongly influenced by the South American ‘magic realist’ writer, Borges, and was deeply impressed by Philip K. Dick. In Microworlds, he talks about the ‘transformation of trash’, in which the shop-worn props of Science Fiction – robots, aliens, mutants and spaceships – were transformed into a new kind of serious literature by Dick. He hoped, through his own writing and literary criticism, to make a similar contribution and raise the literary standards of the genre so that it could take its place as serious literature. He abandoned this, and the genre itself, as impossible.

Moorcock also began his career keen to raise the literary standard of Science Fiction. He was keen to import the experimental styles explored by William S. Burroughs and other, contemporary, literary writers. Again, in Time Out Of Mind, he talks about how he find his attempts to do so rejected and condemned by the SF old guard, particularly Frederick Pohl.

Now it’s fair to say that much Science Fiction is escapist fantasy, as is much literature generally. Nevertheless, much Science Fiction literature and cinema has tried to tackle serious issues. SF at times has been the ‘literature of warning’, exploring the terrible consequences that could arise if a particular political, social or technological course is pursued now. It’s also been used to critique and criticise existing society. This was particularly true of SF in the former Soviet Union, where writers like the Strugatsky brothers wrote in the ‘Aesopian mode’, to present Science Fictional fables to say obliquely observations about the true state of Soviet society, that could not be said openly.

It’s possible to draw up a list of Science Fiction novels, films and short stories, that have made serious points about human existence and the state of society. Most fans of the genre undoubtedly have their own favourites, or can think of others, that also do this. This is just happens to be the list I’ve drawn up at the moment.

1. War of the Worlds.

H.G. Wells’ novel of the devastation of Earth by Martian invaders had its origins in a discussion between Wells and his brother about the destruction of indigenous, primitive societies, by European colonialism. Wells wondered what it would be like, if a similarly technologically superior invader came and did the same to Great Britain, the leading imperialist power of the late 19th century.

The book remains relevant to contemporary society even today, more than a century after its publication. Stanislas Lem has praised the book for its depiction of the nature of total war, and what it feels like to be the victim of an invader determined to wipe you out utterly. Lem lived through the Nazi invasion and occupation of his home country. Apart from their aim of exterminating the Jews in the Holocaust, the Nazis also saw Poles, along with Russians, Ukrainians and the other Slavic peoples as ‘subhuman’, who were to be worked to death as slave labour. Their treatment of the Poles was similarly brutal. Lem felt that Wells’ novel of alien invasion gave a far better depiction of what the Nazi occupation was actually like, than many purely factual accounts of this dark period in his country’s history, to the point where he got annoyed with them and discarded them.

2. Brave New World.

Aldous Huxley’s classic dystopian novel of the dehumanising effects of biotechnology, in which humans are artificially gestated in hatcheries. In this technocratic, hedonistic society, real culture has withered away and society itself grown static because of the concentration on the purely sensual.

3. Rossum’s Universal Robots.

Karel Capek’s stage play introduced the word ‘robot’ into the English language. It was one of the very first to explore the possibility that humans could one day be overthrown by their mechanical creations. The robots in the play aren’t mechanical so much as artificially created humans, very much like the Replicants in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Capek was writing at the time working class, radical Socialist and Communist revolutions had broken out in central and eastern Europe, and the play can also be read as a parable about their threat to the bourgeois European order.

If anything, the book has become even more relevant today, as scientists and social activists have become increasingly alarmed at the threat that robots might shortly do exactly as described in the book. Kevin Warwick, the Reader in Cybernetics at Reading University and former cyborg, begins his pop-science book on robots, March of the Machines, with a chilling depiction of the world of 2050. In this world, the machines have very definitely taken over. The mass of humanity have been exterminated, with those few remaining either living wild, if lucky, or enslaved as domesticated animals by their mechanical masters.

Some international agencies share this alarm. There is a pressure group actively campaigning against the construction of killer robots. A few years ago the international authorities were so alarmed that they actively forbade the use of such robots on the battlefield after one country made the suggestion that such machines should be used today, based on existing technology.

4. Silent Running

After working on 2001, Doug Trumbull wanted to produce a less coldly-intellectual, more emotional SF film than Stanley Kubrick’s epic. This was film is one of the first with a ‘green’ message, about humanity’s destruction of the environment. It’s about one astronaut’s quest to save the last green spaces from Earth, now preserved on spaceships, from destruction. He disobeys the command to scupper his ship and return to Earth, and takes them to safety in the rings of Saturn.

Other films exploring similar themses include Zero Population Growth and Soylent Green. In Zero Population Growth, the world is massively overpopulated to the point where most animal and plant species, including domestic pets, have become extinct. The government therefore mandates a total cessation of reproduction for a generation. The film tells the story of a couple’s attempts to preserve the life of their child after the wife finds out she’s pregnant. The husband and father is played by Oliver Reed, who was a brilliant actor as well as notorious drunk.

Soylent Green, starring Charlton Heston, and based on Harry Harrison’s book, Make Room! Make Room!, was the first SF book to explore the possible consequences of the global population explosion and mass starvation.

5. Solaris

Based on Lem’s novel of the same name, Tarkovsky’s novel explores the problem of communicating with a genuinely alien intelligence, and what this would say in turn about human nature. The story follows the attempt of an astronaut to find out just what is happening aboard a space station orbiting the eponymous world. The planet itself is one vast organism, which creates replicas drawn from the human explorers’ own minds to try and work out what they are. One of these replicas takes the form of the hero’s ex-lover, with whom he begins a second, doomed romance.

Among its comments on space and humanity’s place in the universe are the lines ‘There are only a few billion of us. A mere handful. We don’t need spaceships. What man needs is man.’

The film was remade about a decade or so ago by Steven Soderbergh. His version is shorter, but apart from adding a sex scene and making Snow, the physicist, a Black woman rather than White man, there really isn’t much difference between the two, to the point where in some places they’re shot for shot the same. I prefer Tarkovsky’s original version, but you may feel differently.

6. Stalker

This is another movie by Tarkovsky, based on the novel by the Strugatsky brothers. The stalker of the title is an outlaw, who makes his money taking people into, and retrieving objects from, a mysterious, forbidden zone. In the book, the normal laws of nature do not apply within the zone, and its hinted that it is due to the crash of an extraterrestrial spacecraft. In Tarkovsky’s version, the zone is result of some kind of disaster. Tarkovsky’s film explores the nature of guilty and responsibility as the various characters attempt to venture further into the zone. The highly polluted, dangerous environment has a destructive effect on the biology of those entering into it. The Stalker himself has a disabled daughter, Monkey. Some hope for humanity is indicated by the fact that, although she cannot walk, Monkey nevertheless has developed psychokinesis.

Although this is another classic of Soviet, and indeed SF cinema generally, I think it’s seriously flawed. Tarkovsky cut out most of the special effects sequences from the books on which Stalker and Solaris were based, in order to concentrate on the human characters. As a result, the film suffers from a lack of genuine, shown menace, and instead is verbose and actually rather boring. Also, the central character in the book is far nastier. In the final scene in the novel, he wilfully sacrifices his accomplice to one of the Zone’s traps, so that he can retrieve the central, alien object coveted by everyone venturing into the zone – a golden ball that grants wishes. This is a film, which in my view does need to be remade by a director like Ridley Scott.

7. Blade Runner.

Apart from its sheer immense style, and the beauty of some of the scenes, this is another film that attempts to explore human nature through the mirror of its artificial, bio-mechanical opposite. Although it’s told from Deckard’s perspective, in many ways he’s actually the villain. The Replicants he hunts are bio-engineered slaves, who have escaped their bondage and come to Earth in the hope of extending their extremely short, artificial lifespans. They can’t, but in the process grow and develop in psychological depth and as moral beings. To the point where they are morally superior to their human creators. The penultimate scene where Batty saves Deckard from falling shows that he has passed the Voight-Comp test, which judges a subject’s a humanity according to their empathy and desire to save a trapped, struggling animal. It also has one of the most quoted poems in SF cinema – I have seen things you people wouldn’t believe, ships on fire off the shores of Orion…’

8. They Live.

This alien invasion drama is also a sharp satire on modern, global capitalism. A homeless construction worker discovers that the world is secretly dominated and exploited by skeletal aliens, who are at the heart of global capitalism. While it’s a low-budget action piece, Carpenter has said in interviews that he intended to give it an extra element by using it to criticise contemporary politics and economics. In the film, humanity’s exploitation by the interplanetary corporate business elite and their human shills and partners is responsibility for mass poverty, unemployment and homelessness – all to boost profits. If you cut out the aliens, this is pretty much what the bankers and global corporate elite have done and are still doing today. And it’s got the classic line, ‘I’ve come to do two things: kick ass and chew gum. And I’m all out of gum.’

9. V For Vendetta

This is another film, which has been denounced by the author of the work on which it’s based, in this case the SF strip of the same name by Alan Moore, which first appeared in the British anthology comic, Warrior before being published by DC in their Vertigo imprint. The strip was very much a product of its time – Thatcher’s Britain, and the new Cold War with the former Soviet Union. The strip envisaged the emergence of a Fascist Britain following a nuclear war between the US and the Eastern bloc. Moore has said in interviews that the strip attempted to explore the moral ambiguities of violence, whether it can be justified against innocents as part of a wider campaign against an unjust system. He also wanted to make the point that many of the supporters of the Fascist regime could be considered otherwise good people, just as many otherwise decent Germans supported the horrific Nazi regime.

It’s a superhero movie, which does nevertheless accurately show the realities of life in a Fascist dictatorship – the mass internment of political prisoners, arbitrary censorship, and experimentation on those considered subhuman or ‘dysgenic’ – in the language of eugenics – by the authorities. It lacks the contemporary relevance of the original strip, as Margaret Thatcher and the Tories did have strong links to the far right. Thatcher was an admirer of Pinochet, for example. The strip explored many of the issues thrown up by contemporary stories of corruption in the political, social and religious establishment, like paedophile clergy. Despite Moore’s rejection of the movie, it’s still a piece of genre, comic book cinema that does try to make an extremely serious point about Fascism and intolerance by placing it in modern, 21st century Britain.

10. Children of Men

Based on the book by P.D. James, and starring Clive Owen and Thandie Newton, this is another dystopian yarn. This time it takes a completely different view of the future and its perils from Soylent Green and Z.P.G. In this future, humanity has been afflicted with mass sterility. No children have been born for 18 years. Owen plays a policeman, charged with protecting an immigrant woman – Newton – who carries the only child to be conceived for over a decade. As a consequence of the sterility, society in volatile and unstable. Only Britain has a relatively stable system thanks to the establishment of a Fascist-style dictatorship.

Although fiction, James’ book nevertheless explores a genuine social issue. Globally, populations are falling, to the extent that some demographers have predicted a population crash sometime in the middle of this century. In Britain and much of Europe, they’re below population replacement level. This is particularly acute in Japan, and is one of the causes of that country’s massive investment in the development of robot workers. Much of the fall in birth rates is due simply to people limiting the number of children they have in order raise their quality of life. There is, however, the additional problem in that the sperm counts of western men is falling, to the point that during this century a significant number will be considered medically sterile. Children of Men is another dystopian work that is chillingly plausible.

It’s possible to go on, and add further works of serious SF cinema, such as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and The Zero Theorem and Gattaca, with its depiction of a stratified society ruled by the genetically enhanced. Now I have to say that I agree with Pegg that an awful lot of SF films since Star Wars has been escapist fantasy, and can see his point about some of it having an infantilising effect. This is by no means true of all of it, as I’ve attempted to show.

Even films like Star Wars that are pure, or mostly spectacle can be worth serious discussion and consideration, if they’re done well. For all its escapism, Star Wars was astonishing because it showed a detailed, convincingly realised series of alien worlds, machines and space craft. Moreover, the second movie – The Empire Strikes Back – did present Luke Skywalker with a genuine moral dilemma. His friends Han Solo, Leia, Chewbacca and the droids have been captured and are being tortured by Vader and the imperials. Skywalker is faced with the choice of trying to help them, and in so doing losing his soul, or preserving his moral integrity by letting them suffer and die. His confrontation with Vader present him further with another, particularly acute moral dilemma. Vader reveals himself to be his father, and so if he kills him, he commits parricide, a particularly abhorrent crime. This also has literary antecedents. In one of the medieval Romances, the hero is faced with the revelation that the leader of the foreign army devastating his lord’s realm is his father, and so he is confronted with the terrible dilemma of having to kill him.

Now I don’t think that the potential of Science Fiction to explore mature issues and genuinely relevant problems has been fully explored in the cinema. One of the solutions to the problem is for fans of genre cinema to try and support the more intelligent SF movies that are released, such as Moon, which came out a few years ago. This would show producers and directors that there’s a ready audience for genuine, thought-provoking, intelligent SF as well as the gung-ho, action escapism.

TV on Tuesday: Celebs in the Workhouse

May 17, 2015

The past five Tuesday evenings, the Beeb has been showing the series 24 Hours in the Past. This is pretty much a reality TV show with an historical slant. Instead of being thrown into a jungle and then made to survive, or compete against each other to produce the finest cakes or dishes, each week the programme’s cast of celebrities are required to go back to a certain period in history and do some of the nastiest, dirtiest or most unpleasant work from the period. It’s like Tony Robinson’s 2004 Channel 4, The Worst Jobs in History, but with a crew of six as the unfortunate Baldricks forced to labour and grub for their living like the inhabitants of Victorian slums. Or the rookeries of 18th century London. Or whatever.

This week, however, they reach the very nadir of poverty and desperation: the workhouse. The blurb for the programme states that the workhouse was partly intended to reform the corrupt and indolent character of its inmates. It’s therefore a kind of irony that Ann Widdecombe is so bolshie, that she finds herself placed in solitary.

The blurbs for it in the Radio Times state

As the six celebrities stroll up to an impressive redbrick institution for their final Victorian experience, Miquita Oliver reckons it looks like somewhere she’d go for a weekend spa. Hardly. It’s the workhouse, where there are no rewards, only punishments, explains Ruth Goodman. So immediately bolshie Ann Widdecombe is put in solitary confinement.

In order to “reform the moral character of the undeserving poor”, workhouse inmates were degraded,k overworked and mistreated, taking the time travellers almost to breaking point.

Tempers are definitely fraying but to give them credit, nobody shouts “I’m a celebrity … get me out of here”. It’s been a filthy, gruelling history lesson.

And

Hungry and penniless after stirring up a worker’s rebellion in the Victorian-era potteries, there’s only one place left for Ann Widdecombe, Zoe Lucker, Colin Jackson, Alistair McGowan, Tyger Drew-Honey and Miquita Oliver. Clad in rough uniforms and clumsy clogs they enter the harsh world of the workhouse – the 19th century equivalent of the benefits system – where they are immediately stripped of their belongings and indentities. Filthy and exhausted the celebrities must endure relentless graft and grind for their basic necessities. Will they rise to this most daunting challenge and prove they can work their way out of the workhouse and back to the comforts of the 21st century?

As left-wing bloggers like Tom Pride, the Angry Yorkshireman, Johnny Void, Stilloaks, Jayne Linney, Mike from Vox Political and myself have pointed out, the ethos underlying the workhouse – that of ‘less eligibility’ – has returned to 21st century Britain in the form of the various tests, examinations and ‘work related activity’ benefit claimants are forced to go through in order to show that they really are looking for work, if fit, and genuinely deserving of invalidity or sickness support if they cannot. And as the government has made it very plain it wants to cut down on welfare expenditure in order to shrink the state back to its size in the 1930s, conditions are being made as hard as possible so that increasingly few people are considered deserving of state support.

And although not confined within the prison-like environs of the workhouse, its drudgery has been brought back in the form of workfare and the other requirements to perform ‘work-related activity’. This consists in performing unpaid, spurious voluntary work for particular charities, or big businesses like Tesco and so boosting their already bloated profits.

So far, conditions have not become quite so appalling as the Victorian workhouse, but real, grinding poverty, including starvation and rickets has reappeared in Britain, brought about by the Tories’ and Lib Dems’ atavistic desire to return to the very worst of the ‘Victorian values’ lauded by Maggie Thatcher. So far, 45 people have starved to death due to the withdrawal of their benefits, but the true number is probably much, much higher, perhaps 50,000 plus.

And it’s significant that while celebs, including a former Tory MP, are prepared to participate in a programme like this, the Tories have most definitely refused to experience its modern equivalent for themselves. Iain Duncan Smith was invited to try living on the same amount as a job-seeker for a week. He flatly refused, declaring that it was just ‘a publicity stunt’.

Well, what did you expect from ‘RTU’ Smith, the Gentleman Ranker. He’s a wancel (hat tip to Maxwell for this term), whose cowardice in facing his policies’ victims has been more than amply demonstrated over and again. Such as when this mighty warrior, who, according to David Cameron, ‘can crack skulls with his kneecaps’, hid in a laundry basked to hide from demonstrators in Edinburgh. Or when he sneaked out the back of a Job Centre he was opening in Bath to avoid meeting the demonstrators there.

Now I’ve no problem whatsoever with history programmes showing how harsh conditions were the bulk of people in the past, who didn’t belong to small percentage that formed the aristocracy or the middle classes. It gives a more balanced idea of the past in contrast to those programmes, that concentrate more on the lives of the elite. These programmes can give an idealised picture of previous ages, in which social relations were somehow more harmonious, and the lower orders were properly grateful and respectful to paternal employers and aristocratic masters. There’s been a touch of this, for example, in the Beeb’s Sunday night historical drama, Downton Abbey.

For most people, life was not a round of glamorous society balls, or a glorious career in the armed forces abroad, or in parliament at home. Most people did not have the luxury of fine food, wines and spirits, with their wishes attended by legions of dutiful servants.

Rather, the reality for most of the country’s population in the past was hard work, grinding poverty, and the threat of a very early death through disease and malnutrition.

However, there is also a danger with programmes like this in that they can give the impression of continual progress and improvement. There’s always the risk that some will look at the hard conditions of the workhouse and Victorian Britain generally with complacency. Well, that was terrible then, but everything’s somehow much better now. Things have improved greatly since then, and we have nothing to worry about. Indeed, the standard Tory attitude is that conditions have improved too much, to the point where the ‘undeserving poor’ have returned and are living very well from the taxes of ‘hard-working people’ like themselves, and other aristocrats, financiers and bankers.

For others, however, the programme may provide a salutary object lesson in the kind of country ours will be come once again, if the Tories aren’t stopped. One of the commenters on either Tom Pride’s or Johnny Void’s blog dug out a ConDem proposal for something very much like ‘indoor relief’ – as the workhouse system was called – for the disabled in the form of special units to provide training and accommodation to the handicapped.

In actually fact, the workhouses weren’t just a feature of Victorian England. They lasted right up to 1947, when they were made obsolete under the new welfare state.

Now with the Tories trying to destroy state welfare provision completely, and sell off the NHS, there’s a danger that they’ll return. The Tories have already brought back unpaid labour and less eligibility. They just haven’t got round to putting everyone on them in a prison-like environment yet.

In the meantime, it should be very interesting indeed to see how six people from the 21st century fare in the harsh conditions of the 19th. And especially a former Tory MP, like Ann Widdecombe.

A New Parlour Game: Obsolete Words to Describe Iain Duncan Smith and the Government

May 16, 2015

Earlier today I posted up an article about an obsolete term I’d found in the Dictionary of Historical Slang, which I thought pretty accurately described the current head of the Department for Work and Pensions. This was ‘Gentleman Ranker’, which referred to ‘a broken gentleman, serving in the ranks of the army’. In other words, this was a middle or upper class man, who had lost his money. Unable to buy a commission, he was forced to serve in the ranks as an ordinary squaddie.

This indeed suits Iain Duncan Smith, as unfortunately, although he has retained his wealth and landed property, he is rumoured to have been Returned To Unit after failing to pass the officers’ exams at Sandhurst.

Since I posted it, I got this comment from Maxwell 1957. He says that there’s another obsolete term, ‘Wancel’, which also aptly describes IDS. This is 18th century slang for a person, who was so incompetent that they were beyond redemption.

This could be the beginning of a new parlour game!

Older readers of this blog may recall the BBC panel game, Call My Bluff. This was a how on BBC 2 in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in which two teams competed to try and deceive each other over the meaning of obsolete words in the English language. The teams gave three definitions of a particular old, and now disused word, only one of which was correct. The opposing team then had to guess which was the correct answer. It was somewhat like the round in the Griff Rhys Jone’s show, The Quizeum, on BBC 4, where the two teams each have an object, and try to deceive them by offering a false explanation along with the object’s correct identity.

The show was led by that stalwart of British comedy, Frank Muir and with Patrick Campbell, heading the opposing team and they were accompanied by various guest celebrities. The questions were set by Cliff Michelmore, Muir was later joined by Dennis Norden and Arthur Marshal on the music quiz, My Music, and a similar game show, My Word. In the first quiz, they were asked to identify various pieces of music by the question master, Steve Race, and were joined by a Scots opera singer, whose name unfortunately now escapes me.

And in My Word, Norden, Muir and co competed to offer various shaggy dog stories to explain well-known quotations from literature. For example, they once gave a very long, and entirely spurious tale, to explain that the line from Pepys’ diary, ‘And so to bed’, really was ‘And saw Tibet!’

‘Call My Bluff’ ran from 1965 to 1988, but was revived in the late 1990s with Sandi Toksvig and then Fiona Bruce. The panellists included the great satirist and editor of Punch, Alan Coren.

So, if you know any further ancient and obsolete terms that fit Iain Duncan Smith, his massive ego and even greater incompetence and rapacity, please feel free to send ’em in. It’ll be interesting to see how many terms describe this poltroon, before the more obscure byways of the English language are exhausted.

Here’s a clip of the show from the 1970s, with Cliff Michelmore, Patrick Campbell, Edward Woodward, Frank Muir, Joan Bakewell and Mr Blobby’s criminal accomplice, Noel Edmonds, to remind you what it was like in its heyday.

This Fortnight’s Private Eye on IDS’ Bullying of John Pring and the Disability News Service

May 16, 2015

Iain Duncan Smith, the Gentleman Ranker, is in this fortnight’s Private Eye. Their article, ‘DWP’s Mute Point’, reports the way Iain Duncan Smith is refusing to answer Mr Pring’s requests for information on his department’s highly discriminatory and murderous policies towards the disabled. As the Eye’s article reveals, this involves RTU’s usual tactics of responding as late as possible to Mr Pring’s questions, and then making unreasonable requests in return.

The Eye therefore begins its article by asking the pertinent question

Will the bright not-so-very new dawn see the team at the Department for Work and Pensions stop its scandalous bullying of the campaigning journalist who runs the country’s only disability news agency?

It goes on to report how Smith was infuriated by the News Service’s revelation that his department was refusing to publish the fact that it had carried out 49 secret reviews into the deaths of claimants on benefits. It also reveals that Smith was further angered by the Service’s report that Smith and his government are being threatened with even more humiliation by a UN investigation into ‘grave or systematic violations’ of the rights of disabled people in Britain.

According to the Eye, Smith’s excuse for refusing to give answers to Mr Pring is that when the Department’s own press office misses the deadlines set by Mr Pring, he should update his website and alert his subscribers. This applies even when he receives their answers days after the deadlines have expired.

Mr Pring has said in response that this would make his workload simply unmanageable, as he would have to do this for every individual and organisation he contacted to comment on a story.

The Eye’s article concludes with the statement ‘Some might argue that the DWP’s treatment of Pring, who is himself disabled, might amount to discrimination.’

The article just further confirms what a thug and bully Iain Duncan Smith, or ‘Tosser’, to his army buddies, is. Other campaigners, like Mike over at Vox Political, and the other disability campaigners requesting information on his department’s murder of the disabled through benefit sanctions, have received similar stonewalling and denials. This comes from the very man, who was afraid to enter a parliamentary committee room to present his testimony before the Work and Pensions Committee without a guard of armed goons.

Cameron said in the run-up to the election last week that Smith was tough, and that he could ‘crack skulls between his kneecaps’. This suggests the opposite. He’s terrified of searching gaze of public exposure, and his response is only to bully those weaker than himself. This shows what a massive coward he is, and how unfit for any kind of governmental post he and his master, David Cameron, really are.

Iain Duncan Smith – Gentleman Ranker?

May 16, 2015

I think I may have discovered a phrase, which neatly sums up IDS’ career in the forces.

Looking through Partridge’s Dictionary of Historical Slang last night, I found the phrase ‘Gentleman Ranker’. This meant ‘A broken gentleman serving in the ranks’.

Until quite late in the 19th century, officers bought their commissions. This policy was abandoned after the mass incompetence of the British officers during the Crimean War, and competitive exams were brought in, so that aptitude, rather than just material wealth, gained you promotion and a position of leadership in the British army. This was duly sent up by Gilbert and Sullivan in their song, ‘I am the Model of a Modern Major General’.

It also seems to describe the military career of the current mass-murderer now head of the DWP, Iain Duncan Smith. Despite his claims to have been an officer in the British army, there are rumours that he never passed as the course, and was instead Returned To Unit, hence his nickname on this and other blogs as ‘RTU’.

Smith clearly fancies himself as an aristocratic gentleman, complete with a farm in Scotland. Unfortunately, he hasn’t lost all his money, and so had to face poverty and actually having to go out and work for his living like the rest of us. But if he was Returned To Unit, to serve as a soldier in the ranks, then clearly he was a ‘gentleman ranker’.

It more or less accurately describes him. Plus there are the overtones of the Cockney rhyming slang term, ‘J. Arthur Rank’, which also fit him and his squalid personality and policies.

Cameron’s Totalitarian Tweet

May 16, 2015

I’m not on Twitter, and this comes from word of mouth, as I remember it. It may not be entirely accurate. Nevertheless, if even the slightest gist of it is accurate, then it’s one of the most ominous and frightening things a British politician has said in recent years.

Mike from Vox Political last night read out to me a tweet from David Cameron, in which the Prime Minister announced that the state of affairs, in which people were allowed to get on with their business, provided they broke no law, had gone on for too long. The chilling implication was that it needed to be curtailed.

One of the most basic, fundamental principles of political freedom is the rule of law, under which the citizen should be allowed to do or think what he or she pleases without interference by the state, as long this doesn’t contravene any legislation. This is so basic to western ideas of traditional liberty, that I honestly couldn’t see how any British politician could make a statement like this, unless it was in the context of combatting extremist ideologies, such as radical, violent Islamism. I wondered if Cameron had uttered this as part of the government’s campaign to protect British children from radicalisation through a counter-campaign against the propaganda of groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda.

But no. Cameron was not merely discussing the radical threat of extremist ideologies peddled by Islamist terrorist organisations. He was speaking generally, in order to justify the scrapping of the Human Rights Act. And in so doing he had expressed the fundamental principle behind the great totalitarianisms of the 20th century.

What made Fascism and Communism modern dictatorships, what distinguished them from the despotisms, absolute monarchies and dictatorships of previous centuries, was that they called for the active support, involvement and approval of their citizens. We were taught at College that they differed from ancient Rome, for example, in that the streets could be empty when the emperor or dictator drove through it in his chariot. All that mattered was the supreme ruler’s safety.

This wasn’t totally true, as the Roman emperors put on a series of spectacles in order to win popularity with the masses, and to demonstrate the power of the Roman state. It was Nero competed as a charioteer at the circus, and why he entered the Greek cultural festivals in the south of Italy as a bard and harpist. He was also careful to make sure he had his own claque in the audience, to give them their cue when to give their master the massive applause he demanded.

Nevertheless, the statement is largely true. The traditional, Conservative, medieval and early modern view of political freedom considered that the monarch should have absolute power. This was partly justified on the grounds that the head of state needed the widest range of action and powers available in cases of national emergency. In the 16th century this was compounded with the notion that a monarch’s subjects had no right to resist his authority, although they could flee persecution from a tyrant.

Nevertheless, in England it was felt that law emanated from the king in parliament. Only the two acting together could properly government the kingdom. It was also felt that while the king possessed absolute power, in practice he should give his subjects the greatest possible degree of personal freedom and so interfere as little as possible in their affairs.

Charles I said as he was about to be executed that he had done everything he could to preserve his subjects’ freedom, but government was no business of theirs. By the standards of the Liberal view of political freedom, this is nonsensical. Liberal political theory, following John Locke, considers that political freedom consists of the citizens being allowed to make their own laws through the election of their governors. Under the older, Conservative view, Charles’ statement made perfect sense. Even if the king acted alone, purely on his own account, without the constraints of parliamentary government, he could still preserve and serve his people’s freedom through actually passing as little legislation as possible, and allowing them to get on with their own business.

This changed with the French Revolution and the emergence of the activist style of politics. The nation consisted of those who actively supported the regime and its ideological programme. This meant that every citizens was required to give their absolute support to the government. Thus in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Stalin’s Russia, the individual had to join the party’s organisations, which permeated into every aspect of society. Hitler declared that citizens shouldn’t be left alone, not even in a cribbage club.

Cameron’s demand that it simply wasn’t sufficient that ordinary Brits should be allowed to get on with their lives, so long as they obey the law, takes him well into the ideological territory of the totalitarians. He and his Lib Dem enablers have already established ‘secret courts’ to try those accused of crimes, the details of which are too sensitive for the press and general public to know. This has largely been justified under the pretext of preserving national security from the threat of terrorism. Previous governments have tried to prevent certain details from being presented as evidence in open court, and the identity of vital witnesses from being revealed, on the grounds that they were gathered by and were members of the intelligence services. The publication of such evidence, or the intelligence operatives involved, would seriously compromise national security and weaken the government’s ability to counter the threat of further terrorism.

Cameron, however, has gone far beyond that. This is no longer about national security. This is about drumming up and enforcing absolute support and unquestioning obedience for the Conservatives and their programme. Not to give your support, to maintain that people have a fundamental right to freedom of belief and expression, now appears to make you an enemy of the British state, at least as Cameron now conceives it.

Centuries of traditional British freedoms are under threat, even those predating the formal establishment of democracy. Cameron and his minions must be stopped from scrapping the Human Rights Act. If he succeeds, it’ll mean the beginning of a Tory despotism similar to that of the Fascist states of the 20th century. Remember, Hitler too stated that private industry needed strong, authoritarian personal rule, and Mussolini declared that Fascism consisted fully embraced the free trade economics of the Manchester school.

The Worst Of Margaret Thatcher Meets The Worst Of Tony Blair, We Need To Fight These Bastards Like Never Before

May 16, 2015

Johnny Void here urges that the real, brutal oppression that will be introduced by this Tory government means that people need to get involved in a comprehensive campaign of protests, demonstrations strikes and general civil disobedience if we are to retain even a semblance of decent, civil society. He points out that that the Tories are creating a Britain, where a diabetic man died because he could not afford to heat his insulin, and the poor or being socially cleansed from areas of London, pushed out in favour of the rich. The government also intends virtually to ban strikes and round up dissenters, even if they have actually done nothing wrong under the law. He points out that Cameron’s government combines the worst of Thatcher’s ideology of greed with Blair’s concern for absolute control. He also points out that most people did not vote Tory, and the Votes for UKIP, the Greens and SNP did so as a protest against the present parties. He believes that the rise in UKIP was not accompanied by an increase in racism. He also places the excesses of the current Tory administration in its historical context. It’s part of the centuries long oppression of the poor by the aristocratic elite, beginning with the enclosures, the rise of the highly exploitative factory system in the 19th century, and the wars fought by the working class to increase the profits and wealth of the rich.

He provides links to further information about forthcoming protests in Glasgow, Peterborough, Manchester, Sheffield, Cardiff, Winchester, Newcastle and Leeds. There is also a link for information about other protests Class War and the National Coalition Against Fees and Cuts have called for on May 27th, and a protest by UK Uncut on May 30th. This is the day Cameron hopes he will repeal the human rights act. Mr Void also states that there is another demonstration planned in the City of London on the 20th June.

Johnny Void is right about voters turning to UKIP, the Greens and SNP to protest against the mainstream parties. UKIP are a nasty, bigoted, racist party, but most people, who voted for them in the parts of Bristol nearest me – Hengrove – did so out of fear of losing their jobs, not because they were afraid of Blacks, Asians and Eastern Europeans. Similarly, many of those, who voted for the SNP in Scotland did so, not because they hate the English or wish to leave the UK entirely, but because the SNP offered a far better welfare programme than Labour.

And Cameron is certainly a totalitarian. The fact that his government has already set up ‘secret courts’, like those in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Stalinist Russia, should deeply concern everyone seriously concerned with defending this country’s traditional freedoms. He intends to scrap the Human Rights act, partly because so much of it conflicts with the way his government crushes, degrades and kills the poor and disabled. He wishes to destroy the welfare state entirely, and leave nothing but a sham, a façade of democracy to disguise his government’s highly authoritarian nature.

It’s definitely time he was stopped, and the traditional parties of the left need to be shown that, whatever Blair said or believes, the mass of citizens in this country do not support the ‘aspirational’ politics of selling off everything for the benefit of rich, whilst denying the poor the help they need simply to keep body and soul together.

the void

five-more-years-no-wayWhen the richest 20% of people vote to attack the poorest 20% – a crude but not unfair summary of what just happened in the election – then any talk of democratic mandates or majorities is redundant.  What we are left with instead is human decency – do we want to live in a society where diabetics die because they cannot afford the electricity to chill their medicine?  Or where children are socially cleansed away from their schools, friends and families because neither benefits or wages are enough to pay soaring rents?

Do we want to live in a country where strikes are virtually banned, or where dissidents can be targetted by the full force of the state even when they have committed no crime?  And if anyone complains they will be smeared as thugs by the bullying right wing press and told they have no right to protest? …

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A Complaint from Martin Horwood, Former Lib Dem MP

May 13, 2015

In my post, Blogging and the Tory Victory, I mentioned that the former Lib Dem MP for Cheltenham, Martin Horwood, ran a charity fundraising firm. I understood this employed people to stand on street corners, canvassing for donations, who were paid on commission. This struck me as unfair, and so I wrote about it.

Mr Horwood has since then posted this comment below, stating that while he has worked several charities, he does not employ charity canvassers.

Dear Beast, I’m happy to confirm that I don’t employ any charity canvassers, on commission or otherwise, and I neither own nor manage any firm that does so. As I have already told you, I have only ever worked in the charity sector for the charities themselves or as a consultant. Best regards, Martin Horwood.

I am therefore very happy to amend the posts accordingly, and apologise to Mr Horwood for posting what has turned out to be a nasty piece of hearsay.

The Bankers’ Party of True Working People (Rich Bankers)

May 13, 2015

Yesterday on the new, Cameron trotted out once again the line that his party was ‘the true party of working people.’ It’s the same line that was trotted out a few years ago by Grant Shapps, alias Mr Green. It’s supposed to appeal to the working classes, to show that the Tories actually represent their interests and aspirations, rather than the doctrinaire demands of elite Socialists like Ed Miliband.

I wrote an angry piece about it at the time Shapps first used it, making the statement that there was about the same amount of truth behind it as that Nazi’s inclusion of the words ‘Socialist’ and ‘Workers’. It was all propaganda, designed to give a populist appeal to a party which hated Socialism and the Trade Unions, and which represented the interests of the middle classes against the working class.

Unfortunately, there are some people, who will be taken in by it. The same people, who decided that Maggie was really working class, because of her tales of living above her father’s shop. I know people, who blandly believe that the NHS was set up by the Tories, rather than as it actually was, by Clement Atlee’s Labour party. These are probably the same people, who believe the Tories’ propaganda that they will find another £8bn for the NHS, rather than selling it off to their friends.

What actually came across most strongly was that this was a party of the usual Tory demographic – toffs, bankers and the minions of big business. Covering the new Tory cabinet ministers bustling to work, the BBC showed Javid, intoning that he was ‘the son of a busman’. This piece of working class cred was then qualified with what Javid actually does. He was, reported the Beeb, ‘an investment banker’. Ros Altmann, the new pensions minister? Banker. Lord Freud, another Tory stalwart, and the one who claimed that the working class should be more flexible than the upper classes as ‘they had less to lose’ from the recession? Banker. George Osborne? Toff and banker.

One of the major weaknesses of British politics is that ever since Thatcher, economic thinking has been geared to the financial sector, rather than manufacturing. One of the few high-ranking Tories under Thatcher noted that Thatcher had no idea how keeping the pound strong harmed British manufacturing by making our goods more expensive. The authors of Socialist Enterprise, as well as Ken Livingstone and Neil Kinnock, before he rejected Socialism for fundamentalist free trade, all recognised that the British financial sector was geared to overseas investment, rather than supporting domestic industry. They wanted to reform the financial sector so that it channelled more investment into the UK. The presence of so many bankers in the Cabinet represents the continuation of the present economic orthodoxy, so that we can expect British domestic industry to decline, no matter what the Tories will scream about being the party of business.

During the Revolutions of 1848, the revolutionaries in France, to show that they did represent the workers, included one – Albert – in their government. it was a token gesture, and the administration eventually fell. But it was there. There was not one solitary working man or woman in the Cameron’s new cabinet. Javid’s background is working class, but he long ago left that behind him.

There is actually no-one in the cabinet, who has actually done any kind of manual work, or who is a lower middle class employee, and certainly none from any working class organisations, such as the trade unions, which the Tories desperately wish to destroy. Cameron’s party is certainly not a party of ‘true working people’ by any stretch of the imagination.

I’ve no doubt, however, that some people will believe them, taken in by Javid’s supposedly blue-collar background, and Cameron’s endless refrain that ‘we’re all in this together’. The slogan’s empty, except for the way it reinforces the Tories’ anti-welfare policies. They claim to represent the ‘true, hardworking people’, who are threatened by the unemployed, who are, of course, all idle scroungers. It’s designed to play on the class insecurity and petty vindictiveness of a certain type of voter, who feels threatened by those just below them, and who feels they are already given too much. The average Daily Mail and Express reader, in fact, though the same line permeates the Sun, Star and Sport as well.

This needs to stop, and stop now. It needs to be shown to be the lie it is, a lie to justify putting further cuts and pressure on the working class, and demonise the unemployed under they’re starved to death under sanctions. We want a proper government representing the working class, with its members drawn from that class. A party, that believes in giving ‘hard-working people’ a living wage, proper free healthcare, and support to the unemployed, who are not idle scroungers.

A party, in other words, which is everything Cameron and his toffs and bankers aren’t.