Recent Blog Articles
At the End Hunger Fast vigil yesterday evening, which marked the end of a 40-day-fast to raise awareness of rising poverty, several people read out Christian prayers. In their prayers they called on the government to deal with rising poverty and act like a Christian for once.
I don’t think this is what they had in mind though:
Britain should be unashamedly “evangelical” about its Christian faith and actively hand churches and other faith groups a greater role in society, David Cameron has insisted.
In a declaration of his personal beliefs, he said he had experienced the “healing power” of religion in his own life and insisted that Christianity could transform the “spiritual, physical, and moral” state of Britain and even the world.
The bizarre thing is that Tory commentators think this is something to do with criticism Cameron has had about the rising number of food banks, and from Christian leaders for doing little about it.
I think that’s unlikely.
Cameron’s problem isn’t bleeding heart Christians abandoning him over rising poverty, but conservative Christians abandoning him over the gay marriage vote.
Tory commentators seem to have (deliberately or inadvertently) swallowed the line that this is about poverty, but I doubt that very much.
The Tories are in the process of shoring up the core vote so that they can make a wider pitch just before the election. Right now its all about welfare, immigration, ‘scroungers’ and anything else that will bring back the voters who have abandoned Cameron since 2010.
Conservative Christians are a large part of that core vote, and they were uniformly angry over the gay marriage vote. Cameron is trying to bring them back. Rising poverty has little to do with it.
It feels like the calm before the coming storm. The situation in Ukraine is likely to escalate very quickly, and yet there seems to be worrying lack of urgency about it everywhere.
Three things happened over the last week that have set the stage.
1) Rather than going home after taking over Crimea, Russia started amassing troops on the Ukranian border. It also started directing its people inside Ukraine to take over various towns and cities in the east of the country. There are obvious examples of this: well-armed and well-trained ‘militias’ have sprung up everywhere; the newly appointed police chief in Horlivka admitted to being a lieutenant colonel in the Russian army.
2) In response, Ukraine said it would launch a military operation to take back its own territory unless the militias left peacefully by Monday morning. Fair enough: any government would want to fight back against armed (and foreign) militias who have taken over its towns without any democratic mandate.
3) The deadline passed and the Ukrainian govt did nothing. Then, it asked for UN peacekeeping forces to maintain order. Today, the Ukranian govt belatedly launched military operations, but there are reports that some troops in the east are defecting to the pro-Russian side. Meanwhile, the Ukranian economy is near collapse.
The key problem here is that Ukraine is too weak against Russia. If Ukraine gets bogged down in a long battle against pro-Russian forces in the east, it would only hasten a collapse of its economy.
Putin is betting that the Ukranian economy collapses before his does, which would trigger a crisis for the EU and force them to agree to his demands.
This is why we have to get involved now rather than later. This could mean all out trade sanctions, UN peacekeeping forces or NATO forces. If Ukraine collapses then Europe will feel the full force and force us to agree to Putin’s demands. It would be the worst crisis for Nato and the EU in a generation.
Hoping that Russia will back off from strong words is foolish – Putin’s only hope now is that Ukraine goes down before him. And he’s doing his utmost to make that happen.
‘Ukraine stands on the brink of a possible military showdown with Russia this morning,’ says Human Rights Watch today.
This isn’t an exaggeration either – the acting President of Ukraine issued a warning to pro-Russian forces yesterday, calling on them to lay down their weapons.
That deadline has now passed and there are no signs that the militants are giving up. In fact, they are bolstered by Russian money and weapons and the build-up of Russian troops on the border.
So what happens now? This is where confusion reigns and why Putin is resting easy for now.
Ukrainian forces will try and take back government buildings occupied by pro-Russian forces, but are likely to face heavy resistance and won’t be able to take them back quickly.
That will give Putin more time to create disorder and to reiterate his claim that Ukrainian forces are harming ordinary ethnic Russians. It would give him internal justification for more explicit military action in Ukraine.
If Putin then takes stronger military action in Ukraine, what do the UK and USA say then?
Calling on him to withdraw is not enough clearly, Putin has ignored them so far. I suspect Ukraine is looking for promises of military backing from the United States and European states before it continues.
But sooner or later we will have to confront the question: what do the USA and UK do is Ukraine goes to war with Russia? We cannot just sit on the sidelines and watch because it has huge security and energy implications for us.
But there seems to be no appetite for such promises from the West to guarantee Ukraine’s safety. Our politicians want to avoid answering such questions. Some of them are busy holidaying in Lanzarote. I don’t suspect Vladimir Putin is too worried for now.
The first time I was invited on to a debate on TV, I was so nervous I couldn’t stop myself shaking. It was partly nerves and partly the topic. It was Christmas 2005, and a theatre in Birmingham had to abandon a play because a large mob of angry Sikhs had gathered in protest outside, and some had broken the windows. All this because they said it insulted their religion.
Of course, the play – Behzti (‘shame’) – didn’t insult Sikhism, it merely depicted rape in a Gurdwara (temple) on stage. Self-appointed community leaders were aghast and spread rumours that the writer, a Sikh woman, was 1) an attention seeker 2) had a black boyfriend and wanted to deliberately insult Sikhs 3) wasn’t really a Sikh. I wrote angry editorials (as editor of the industry journal Asians in Media mag, then) that Behzti should not be shut down and angry Sikhs should learn to live with perceived insults to their faith. The play got shut down because the theatre and the local police were too scared to stand up to fundamentalists.
There have been plenty of controversies since, involving British Hindus and Muslims too.
The latest one involves Maajid Nawaz, a Lib Dem candidate and head of the anti-terrorism think-tank Quilliam Foundation, who tweeted a picture of the Jesus & Mo cartoons, which depicts both figures as stick drawings. Some Muslims are outraged and want Maajid de-selected. One of the instigator, another self-appointed ‘community leader’, boasted that he would inform Islamic countries in the Middle East about Nawaaz. It doesn’t get more comical than this.
If there’s one lesson I’ve learnt: it’s that most religious Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims in Britain still don’t understand freedom of speech. They pay lip service to free speech, of course, but the minute they feel their religion is being insulted, they want to see it censored. I’m not referring to ordinary people here – I’m referring to the ones who are more religious than normal. They are the ones who go the extra effort of mobilising others to be offended.
Let me be blunt.
If you appreciate the freedom to practice religion, then you should embrace freedom of speech.
If you appreciate the fact that Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims broadly have the same right as Christians, then you should embrace freedom of speech.
If you think people shouldn’t be locked up for expressing fringe and perhaps unpopular opinions, then you should embrace free speech.
And yes, all of these mean you have to accept the right of others to say things you may find hurtful or insulting to your religion. That’s how it works.
You cannot have a relatively free society without the freedom to insult and antagonise religious people. You cannot create a well functioning secular society without the right to insult religion. Otherwise, you end up like Pakistan, which plans to execute a mentally ill British man for being ‘blasphemous’.
I’m not saying Christians understand this fully (the Daily Mail constantly whines about insults to Christian sensibility); neither am I saying that non-religious Brits have this nailed down (people have been harassed for saying offensive things or just making jokes).
I am saying that minorities should be especially pro-free-speech, because when freedom of speech is curtailed, it is used against minorities first. And that freedom speech does and should always include the right to insult religion and religious figures.
You have a right to be offended.
You don’t have a right to censorship. You don’t have the right to shut down a play, close down an exhibition, stop a book being sold, or stop someone from speaking peacefully or holding a demo. And yes, that includes the likes of the EDL.
I’m really sick of some people acting like village thugs and demanding people listen to them because they feel insulted. No. No one cares if you feel hurt, especially if its over your religion. The rest of us don’t care how important it is to you – the right to insult and have free speech is far more important.
At the time of the Behzti play controversy, I was invited to a debate on BBC Asian Network where some Sikh ‘human rights’ organisation claimed they were going to sue the writer (herself a Sikh!) for inciting violence against Sikhs. I kid you not. I laughed in their face, on radio. That is how seriously these people should be taken. Their proposed plan never got anywhere of course.
Is sex-selection among British Asian families a big issue? We should be wary of the Independent’s campaign
Yesterday the Independent splashed on the news that between 1,500 and 4,700 girls in the UK had been ‘lost’ due to sex-selection, primarily among Asian families. Sex-selection is usually defined as parents determining the gender of a foetus before its born, and aborting it if its female because they don’t value girls.
Like most people I was shocked and horrified by the relevations. I have researched and written a lot about on 60 million ‘missing women’ in India, which is partly a result of extensive sex-selection there. There are cases in the UK too, as a phone-in for BBC Asian Network illustrated.
But the more I look at the Independent’s campaign and reporting on sex-selection in the UK, the more sceptical I get. I would go as far as saying that Asian organisations campaigning on this issue should be wary of lending their name to it.
Why? Four reasons.
First, the campaign looks like an attempt to restrict abortion rights in the UK, which also happens to be an aim of our Tory government. Any restriction on abortion rights would be counter-productive and hurt Asian women too. The article by the Indy today quotes two MPs, Fiona Bruce and Jim Dobbin, co-chairs of the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, who want to ban any abortions in the UK.
It is highly irresponsible of the Independent to quote extremists in a report on a very sensitive issue. It gives them credence and pushes the debate in the wrong direction.
Second, the Independent’s numbers need more scrutiny. A few years ago the Department of Health looked at birth registration data from 2007 to 2011, and found no conclusive evidence of sex-selection among ethnic minority families. The Indy takes a different approach, looking at ethnic minority families with dependent children from the 2011 census. This means, as Unity points out,
As such the data set requested by the Indie will only provide data on children born to a particular family only if those children are classed as dependants and usually reside with their family, which means it will include students under the age of 20 in further, but not higher education, and schoolchildren who live away from home during term times.
The reason why these girls don’t appear in the Census may or may not be down to sex-selection, it’s simply speculation, as even the Indy admits.
UPDATE: As @AbdulAzim points out, South Asian women who get married relatively early and move to South Asia would also drop off the Census and wouldn’t be counted by the Indy’s method.
Third, sex-selection is infact not the main reason why so many girls in India (and other countries across Asia) are missing. In India sex-selection is estimated to be responsible for around 12-15% of ‘missing’ girls. Girls dying young through neglect is a much bigger problem (India has the highest differential in the world for mortality rates between boys and girls). The same could be an issue here.. which means the focus should be on challenging Asian attitudes that value boys over girls, than restricting abortion rights.
Fourth Parents don’t reliably know the sex of their child at the 13-week scan (thanks @bex_tweets), and the number of abortions after the 20-week scan are minuscule. Again, this either suggests other factors are responsible for why there are more boys than girls, or this is a statistical anomaly.
I’m not playing down the problem of sex-selection, but we have to know more about this issue.
The Independent only looks at families where the mother is born abroad. But most British Asian families now have mothers born in the UK, and we don’t know if there is a problem of sex-selection among these families. The data may reflect attitudes 20 years ago that are now outdated.
This is why I’m sceptical of taking the Independent’s reporting at face value. It certainly does not justify any restrictions on abortion rights.
Nigel Farage said something vaguely interesting today, on the subject of immigration into the UK:
If you said to me, would I like to see over the next ten years a further five million people come in to Britain and if that happened we’d all be slightly richer, I’d say, I’d rather we weren’t slightly richer, and I’d rather we had communities that were united and where young unemployed British people had a realistic chance of getting a job.
I think the social side of this matters more than pure market economics.
I actually agree with Nigel Farage that the social side of immigration matters more than pure economics.
In fact, what I find it frustrating when people talk about immigration solely in economic terms because it dehumanises people and reduces them to their economic value.
I suspect many lefties have traditionally ignored discussing the social impact of immigration on fears it would bring up more racism and that is a harder debate to win. They prefer pointing to the facts on the economic impact on immigration.
But, my fellow lefties, throwing facts at people (on immigration or even social security) is mostly a waste of time. And besides, a debate about economics excites no one except economists.
I’ll tell you what has changed people’s minds on immigration though. Pictures of Amir Khan (above), Linford Christie, Kelly Holmes, Mark Ramprakash, Ashley Cole and others draping themselves in the Union flag have done far more to ease fears about immigration than any reports on the economic impact of immigration.
A debate about the social impact of immigration is a debate about questions like: ‘will these people fit in to our communities?’ / ‘will they care about this country as much as we do?’ and so on.
And the undeniable fact is that on the social front, we have won the immigration debate. Of course, racism hasn’t gone away, but there’s also far less of it around now than just 20 years ago. A majority of Britons think multiculturalism has been good for Britain.
If Nigel Farage wants to debate the social impact of immigration – in fact I’d be more than happy to. That’s the real debate and it’s one we can win.
Labour MP Tom Harris has an article today in the Telegraph titled ‘Object to mass immigration from the EU? Join the Romaphobe club!‘.
You know what the article is going to say before you even read the first line. It will appeal to and be detested by the usual suspects. Although, in this case, Harris is attracting criticism even from the right.
I won’t go over the entire piece. There are the usual stereotypes…
But a consistent pattern of complaints took shape quite early on: filthy and vastly overcrowded living arrangements, organised aggressive begging, the ghetto-isation of local streets where women no longer feel safe to walk due to the presence of large groups of (workless) men, the rifling through domestic wheelie bins by groups of women pushing oddly child-free prams, and a worrying increase in the reporting of aggressive and violent behavior in local schools.
…and the usual straw man:
It’s simply not good enough for our leaders to say that it’s all right to talk about immigration, and then when they do exactly that, to call them bigots when they think no one’s listening.
Memo: the problem isn’t talking about immigration, the problem is the deliberately negative stereotypes.
There’s nothing new about how Tom Harris MP scapegoats and scaremongers about immigrants.
I took part in a debate recently on media portrayals of Asian immigration from Uganda during the 70s.
Guess what – the stereotypes are astonishingly similar.
(images courtesy of the National Archive).
The funny thing is, these days the Tories are always hailing the ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ of Ugandan Asians.
There was a similar gaggle of Labour MPs then too arguing for a race to the bottom on the subject.
How quickly people forget history.
The comedian Russell Brand was on Newsnight last night, and although I was sceptical about watching the interview at first, it turned out to be much more entertaining and insightful than I expected.
Like the rest of Westminster, my first reaction to hearing that Brand had never voted, and didn’t feel like voting, was to pour scorn all over him: what right does he have to preach about politics then? But after watching the video, I realised that I was missing the point. Brand isn’t apathetic about politics, he is apathetic to our current state of affairs.
One of my maxims in politics is, never blame the voters. Yes, they’re frequently contradictory in their views and generally clueless about policies, but they behave on instinct and emotion, and that is important because the world would be an awful place if cold rationality drove politics.
Politicos usually agree that you shouldn’t blame voters, but they invariably do so anyway. They’re criticised for voting against their own interests or supporting other parties or sitting at home on election day. It’s tempting to criticise people for making different decisions to you, but it’s also silly.
My defence of Russell Brand is that he’s simply articulating this contradictory anger. People just want a better world and they’re not seeing anyone offer them to it. They’re just seeing people in Westminster talk in incomprehensible language while offering solutions that sound roughly the same. It has become a system geared towards the remaining voters, not all citizens.
Our political system is too narrow. If the proportion of people who didn’t vote were all captured by one party, it would be the largest in Parliament. Non-voters are the majority party, and their proportion has been growing steadily since 1945. And yet, even to a close watcher like me, Westminster politics frequently feels like two bald men fighting over a comb. There are no bold solutions on offer because the system has been captured by middle-class wonks and those paralysed by narrow interpretations of polling.
As someone who feels trapped tween (Iraq-war-starting, civil-liberties-destroying) Labour & (fucking) Tories, I loved it RT @ Whatdjathink?
— Graham Linehan (@Glinner) October 24, 2013
Even Tom Watson said this recently:
It’s been missing from the Labour Party since Tony Blair marched us into the arid desert of pragmatism that was so electorally successful. It’s belief. Belief in ourselves. Belief in the great cause of social progress. The marketing men, the spin people and the special advisers: they’ve won. For those brief minutes of Drenge I wanted to sack them all.
Brand will find sympathy for his frustrated outpouring because he is articulating a deep frustration, even among people who do vote. They don’t necessarily want a whole new system, they just want someone who emotionally engages them.
Politicos scoff at the fact that Brand hasn’t offered a comprehensive alternative, but that’s not his job that is the job of people who do this for a living.
Boris Johnson loves property investors because they help developers build homes. But homes for whom? The reality is that these expensive homes benefit rich investors and developers far more than ordinary Londoners, who are seeing their city sold off chunk by chunk.
Today I asked the Mayor about One, The Elephant, a 37 storey tower block with 284 flats built on council owned land. He signed it off last November, and launched the construction on site this August saying it would “bring quality homes into the area”.
But its studio flats will start at £330,000, and were marketed in Hong Kong and Singapore before they went on sale in London. That price is twelve times the average income in Southwark, and even further from the incomes of residents in the Elephant area.
There is no affordable housing at all, just a contribution towards some affordable homes elsewhere in the local borough of Southwark.
In the officer’s report to local councillors, the reason was clear. If they mixed affordable and private housing together, it would have “significant implications on the values of the private residential properties” – the developers wouldn’t get as much profit because investors don’t want flats next to the hoi polloi of London.
Some developers have actually put separate entrances and lifts in for affordable housing, like servants having to enter via the back door in Edwardian times. But the council officer’s report said the “practical and financial implications” ruled this out.
Elephant and Castle used to be called the ‘Piccadilly of the South’, and at the moment seventy per cent of the residents in the area live in secure, affordable social housing. In the new “regeneration” projects around the Elephant, only eight per cent will be social housing.
Londoners just get crumbs from the property feast, as I argued in a detailed report published last month.
The Mayor should threaten to refuse these applications unless they offer enough affordable housing. He should also lobby for taxes on investors to damp down demand, for a social housing budget big enough to actually meet London’s needs, and for regulation to stabilise private rents.
When I broke my shoulder skiing in Italy last Christmas, I received excellent care at the local hospital, including a speedy x-ray and an overnight stay for observation (in case of head trauma) in my own room.
It wasn’t until after I was discharged and flying home that I realised my EHIC card, which had authorised my ‘free’ treatment, had expired. I was worried that this would mean I’d be liable for all the costs of my treatment – including the long ambulance ride from the top of a mountain.
I quickly renewed my card and hoped the hospital in Italy wouldn’t notice my treatment had occurred during the period when I wasn’t covered or wouldn’t bother to chase me up. But they did. ?As soon as they realised I didn’t have a valid EHIC card, they came after me, wanting me to pay for my treatment.
Luckily, a call to the EHIC office in Newcastle established that an out of date EHIC card didn’t actually matter, as long as I was a bona fide British national. Crisis – and huge bill – averted.
The point though is that the Italian hospital clearly deemed it worthwhile chasing me for payment when they thought I, rather than the UK government, was liable. Is the same happening in this country? How much money is the UK government claiming back from EU countries for treating EU nationals in our NHS , and how many UK hospitals or GPs go chasing after individuals who aren’t entitled to ‘free’ treatment? We need to see the figures.
There’s nothing wrong with our government trying to claw back money from other governments or individuals, but not if the costs of doing so exceed the amount of money clawed back. And nor if the time taken up by hospitals or doctors is diverted from patient care.
But there is everything wrong with our government trying to claim that ‘health tourists’ are costing the NHS £2 billion when researchers have admitted uncovering only “anecdotal” evidence of health tourism and “no statistically valid samples to generate estimates”.
Even the very term ‘health tourism’ is misleading. It is conveniently used to lump together all legal AND illegal visitors and migrants who happen to need the NHS while in the UK, as well as the actually tiny but hugely publicised proportion who come to this country with the intentional purpose of using our NHS.
Until we have concrete evidence of the scale of each of these different ?categories, as well as our success rate in getting reimbursed for NHS treatment, it’s hard to assess the scale of the problem or take effective action.
But one thing is certain: the government is being highly effective in pinning the blame on migrants and will continue to hype the catch-all ‘health tourism’ issue so it can impress UKIP voters with its tough stance.
?It also suits the government to divert attention away from its own chronic underfunding and creeping privatisation of our NHS. It’s time to give this government’s distasteful blame-game the cold shoulder.
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