Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Oh God, we're voting again... *opens wine*

Way to kill the long weekend buzz, Theresa! There we all were, eating chocolate and hot cross buns, getting drunk, and generally enjoying a four-day weekend when - BOOM! - the Prime Minister calls another sodding election.

Theresa May strode out the front of 10 Downing Street looking for all the world like she was about to declare the Hunger Games open, and took on an increasingly megalomaniacal tone as she announced that on 8 June, Britain is again going to the polls. Whoop-de-doo! She won't give a flying fuck if there is a low turnout due to sheer voter fatigue as long as she can shore up her majority and continue to drive us over the hard Brexit cliff.

It has been said already that she is gambling on an increased majority to quell the noisy Eurosceptic Tories but that would depend on how many Eurosceptics end up getting elected. She may well find herself with more hard Brexiters to contend with on her side of the house.

Her delusional rhetoric about how the country is united behind Brexit but Westminster is not is laughable. Or it would be if it wasn't so damn effective. For weeks now, she has been implying that if you are not 100 per cent behind her car crash of a Brexit, you hate this country and you are an unpatriotic scoundrel who probably uses bunting for bog roll.

Of course this is some serious short-termism on the part of Theresa May. She can bang on until she is blue in the face about how a Conservative victory will give her a strong Brexit mandate but basically she is pouncing on her 20-point poll lead. She knows she can win this thing in the next few weeks. She is out-UKIPping UKIP so those votes are hers, except for a few hardcore racists, there are the safe Tory seats that she can still count on, there will be Labour seats that will fall to the Conservatives - and she knows there are plenty of ardent remainers who cannot vote for Corbyn and won't vote Tory, but she is banking on there not being enough of these people to topple her.

The simple fact is that  Corbyn has never been pro-EU, has so far enabled Theresa May's hard Brexit, and he has outed himself as drinking the moronic lefty Brexit Kool-Aid. His recent comments on how great a post-EU Britain will be show he is trying to scoop up UKIP votes by being the third choice for UKIP voters after UKIP and the Tories. He has all the political acumen of a slow-learning kitten and, as such, he is a gift for the Tories.

If Labour lose the election in the predicted landslide, one can only assume that will be the end of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership. Or will he be the party's unflushable turd? If he does step down after an electoral annihilation and someone who is not a Russia-and-Iran-and-Venezuela-and-Cuba-dictatorship apologist nor an overgrown student protester is put in charge of Labour, that may well give Theresa May something to lose sleep over. But not for now. And "for now" is her focus.

"For now" means that not only can she capitalise on Corbyn's terrible polling but she can also nip the threat to the Tories by Arron Banks in the bud. I'm sure she will pull something out of her craven bag of tricks to appeal to the worst racists.

For the remainers who would not trust Corbyn to lead Brexit negotiations any more than they'd trust May and her incompetent clown car of Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davis on such a massive task, this election is quite the pickle. (Disclaimer: I count myself to be in that pickle).

There will be plenty of voters willing to overlook Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron's religious conservatism on abortion - after all, he has not shown any signs that he would override the pro-choice views that prevail within the party. He abstained on the same-sex marriage vote and now says he regrets that decision and would now vote in favour. People seem to be forgiving of him on these two issues. Whether there will be enough voters to forgive the party as a whole for the 2010-2015 coalition with Conservatives remains to be seen. It is on that issue that the potential success of the Liberal Democrats will hinge in this election.

Will the Greens gain any traction or are they a step too far to the left for many of those who will vote to oppose - or at least soften - Brexit? Brexit casts such a long shadow over pretty much every aspect of policy-making that for many, it will be impossible not to vote with this as the foremost issue. For those who voted remain, there will be some serious nose-holding in polling booths across the country on 8 June.

In any case, on any given day between now and 8 June, it will never be too early to start drinking. What a time to be alive!

Photography by Wojtek Szkutnik

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Nuance: the first casualty of war

Nuance is in very short supply at the moment. All over the place, sledgehammers are being used to crack walnuts. Binary thinking is commonplace. Seeking a sensible middle ground is out of fashion. Extremists at either end of the political spectrum gain traction. We are truly living in pathetic times.

And this brings us to the disgusting spectacle of Assad gassing his own people once again in Syria. This was followed by Donald Trump ordering airstrikes without the permission of Congress, although this latest intervention has now received conditional bipartisan support. This is in sharp contrast to Trump's campaign rhetoric about not dragging the US deeper into war in the Middle East. But apparently he saw some distressing footage of gassed "children of God" on telly and now it's bombs away!

This, in turn, caused further astounding spectacles. Trumpian cheerleaders, such as Milo Yiannopolis, Paul Joseph Watson and Ann Coulter, all felt betrayed by their phlegm-haired father figure and swiftly announced their disappointment to the world. They seem genuinely stunned that Trump changes policy like he changes his socks, even though it was clear before the election that his foreign policy was always going to be a hot mess. The poor little snowflakes.

Then there was Friday's Stop The War debacle. Stop The War should perhaps be named Stop The War If It Is Waged By The West But Let's Never Call Out The Crap From Tyrants We Cravenly Apologise For Particularly As Our Chairman From 2011 Until 2015 Is Happy To Cash Cheques from Iranian State TV And Russia Today, but honesty is seldom catchy. @STWIIIWBTWBLNCOTCFTWCAFPAOCFTUTIHTCCFISTART is a rubbish Twitter handle,

For an organisation that professes to believe in dialogue instead of bombs and guns, and claims to support the rights of refugees, they were shockingly disinterested in constructively engaging with Hassan Akkad. He approached the protesters to ask them why they weren't protesting against the Assad regime but he was shouted down.

It was a disgrace. Megaphone-wielding, placard-waving fools, the lot of them. Some tosser yelled: "Keep chanting!". Because that is all these people have. They are part of a particularly loud but pointless element of left, and they are as devoid of nuance as Trump's one-eyed fanatics. And, just like Trump's disciples, they hate constructive discussion and seek to silence anyone who might have a different take on things. They are ferociously pro-censorship unless it's something they agree with, something else they have in common with alt-right lunatics.

Hassan Akkad is a Syrian refugee living in the UK. He has been imprisoned and tortured under the Assad regime. He knows first-hand that Syria is not a triumph of secularism, an offensive and ludicrous claim made by many an Assad apologist.

Akkad is an intelligent man who is worth listening to. Here he is sharing the story of his escape from Syria:

Everyone who howled him down at the Stop The War fiasco should watch that video, hang their heads in shame, and personally apologise to him for failing to engage in dialogue or to even try and understand the story of a refugee. Everyone there was a hypocrite.

The protesters refused to listen to a word he had to say. Akkad knows that Trump has no great affection for the Syrian people. He knows that Trump has his own agenda. He also knows that to oppose Assad is to not be an automatic jihadist. And he understands that destroying the airbase in Syria from above is not necessarily a bad thing. Unlike the Stop The War protesters, he is capable of nuance.

Click here to watch the video he tweeted, where he articulately explains his version of events from the protest.

The simple truths are that Assad and Daesh both need to be stopped. A military campaign solely made up of airstrikes will not achieve this. I am not going to pretend that I am sitting here at home in London holding all the answers to the appalling situation in Syria. War is awful but I do think boots on the ground are needed to wipe out Daesh and quite possibly to help the oppressed people of Syria overthrow Assad. Indeed, it has been reported today that US-supported rebels in Syria, with Jordanian and US support, fended off a Daesh assault. The very nature of the conflict, of the geography, of the joint enemies of Assad and Daesh, mean any military action will be long and grinding.

A humane solution for the people displaced by the conflict is also essential. Syria has degenerated into a place where it is hard to tell who the bad guys are and anyone who whines about young, able-bodied men fleeing the conflict would do well to remember this before shooting their damn fool mouths off from the comfort of countries that are not currently war zones.

Boris Johnson has done the right thing by cancelling a trip to Moscow and attending a G7 meeting instead. Anyone who thinks Putin is not in bed with Assad is either naive or stupid. Johnson is in no way suited to the job of foreign secretary, although at least this means he is not behaving like Basil Fawlty in Brexit negotiations. Whether the G7 meeting will lead to a ceasefire and whether any ceasefire will last longer than a New York minute remains to be seen, but it is better than kissing Putin's arse.

Dialogue is essential, military intervention will be a necessary evil, nothing will happen quickly. And if we listen to the experiences of people like Hassan Akkad, people who have lived through the long-term horrors of life under Assad, it might become clear that removing Assad from power and neutering the outrageous influence of Russia are essential to this tragic, horrific process.


Image by zio fabio/Flickr

Sunday, 2 April 2017

NHS reform for dummies

Amid this week's entirely justified furore about the Daily Mail's "legsit" front page in which Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon's Brexit/Scottish independence discussions were reduced to body parts, there lurked another steaming turd that demanded closer inspection.

Directly below the calf-obsessed photo of our two most senior politicians, there was a deafening headline about NHS reforms that will apparently fix everything and save billions of pounds. The Daily Mail was selling the story as if the reforms are a good thing, the Daily Mirror was taking the opposite view, pointing out longer waiting times and no extra money being spent on the NHS by the current government.

But without an electable opposition, this does not really amount to a hill of beans. That said, shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth did a solid job when he was interviewed by Sophy Ridge on Ridge on Sunday this morning. Whenever Jeremy Corbyn quits hanging around the Labour Party leadership like a fart in a car, I'd urge his replacement to keep him on.

In the meantime, however, people continue to prove the notion I put forward last time I blogged on the NHS which is that there is still plenty people will tolerate in terms of stupid healthcare reforms before they will get angry.

The Tories currently own the "free at the point of use" rhetoric - as long as people are not noticing any real difference to the healthcare they receive, it is very hard to get people to care about issues such as taxpayer money going to private companies to provide services formerly provided by the NHS, or private companies getting away with all manner of crap because they are exempt from Freedom of Information laws. The cost of administration of NHS contracts, which renders any cost savings meaningless, is not being discussed especially widely and the billions that are sucked into the PFI debt vortex each year is a problem consigned to the too-hard basket.

The cold reality is that stories such as the Daily Mail's splash about a "blueprint to save the NHS" are swallowed en masse without too much thought. If only more people got their news about the NHS from Private Eye instead.

"Dramatic drive to cut costs unveiled that will see dolling [sic] out of painkillers scrapped and GPs ordered to crack down on health tourists" is the online headline that sets the tone and the agenda.

The health tourism line is routinely trotted out because it appeals to xenophobes. Sure, there is an argument for ensuring that those who are not entitled to NHS care pay up but it is delusional to expect that to magically fill a funding hole - it makes up around 0.3% of NHS spending. Additionally, since 2015, non-EEA citizens who come to the UK for more than six months as students or temporary migrants have paid a health surcharge as part of the visa process. But because the figure is estimated at £300 million, the outrage ensues. Daily Mail readers are held in utter contempt by the paper with the editor and his acolytes assuming they will be dazzled by a big number, the kind of figure very few of us will ever see in our bank accounts.

And the Daily Mail is at it again in this week's report, dazzling its readers with the claim that Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, has a plan that will "save the Health Service up to £1 billion in two years". So all these plans might save around half a billion per year out of an annual budget of around £120 billion. Meanwhile, PFI has left the country £222 billion in debt.

As ever, people are getting excited over plans for the NHS that are the equivalent of getting 20 plumbers over to fix a leaking toilet while nobody is being called on to look at the house's crumbling foundations.

As for the painkillers crackdown, if the NHS simply used its enormous purchasing power better, it would be procuring painkillers far more cheaply. In any case, painkillers will still be given to patients in hospital and the whole "make people pay for their own Panadol" rhetoric is pretty lame. Don't tell Simon Stevens this, but most of us already do buy painkillers for ourselves.

The plan also includes making people pay for their own indigestion and hayfever remedies. Again, millions of us across the country already do this. Even the most die-hard NHS defender probably just pops a pill from the bathroom cabinet in the event of a hangover, a springtime sneezing fit or a growling stomach after too much curry.

The move by Stevens to crack down on GPs prescribing gluten-free food is another pretty stupid distraction. At a cost of £25 million a year, it is far from the NHS's biggest cost pressure but the NHS does get ripped off by suppliers charging it more than supermarkets, but a voucher system for supermarkets would solve that problem - or, once again, better procurement.

In any case, prevention is better than cure, for patients' wellbeing and in terms of cost-efficiency, and ensuring coealics have access to gluten-free food is a good example of this. But it's another easy, lazy headline if people think the NHS has become a gluten-free outpost of Greggs.

Then there is the scandal of the NHS funding unscientific, non-evidence-based homeopathic treatments. It is hard to come by exact figures on how much of our money is spent on woo and bunkum but the excellent Good Thinking Society estimates it at around £5 million per year. Again, it is a drop in the ocean - although still a dazzlingly large sum of money in Daily Mail land - but any plans to entirely scrap this bullshit from the NHS is absent from Stevens' plans. At least the funding of gluten-free food and painkillers is based in science. But with Jeremy Hunt being a homeopathy-loving health secretary and Jeremy Corbyn being a homeopathy-loving ageing student protester, this won't change any time soon.

Unsurprising to anyone who has been paying attention, Brexit will cast a long shadow over any attempts to fix the NHS, including this latest blueprint from Simon Stevens. It is all well and good to desperately tweet "FORGET ABOUT BREXIT! THE NHS IS BEING DESTROYED!" but the harsh reality is that Brexit is now inextricably tied to the future fortunes of healthcare in this country.

The plan includes trying to ensure NHS managers don't hire expensive locum doctors but we are facing a Brexit-induced doctor shortage. A British Medical Association study found that 42% European doctors are considering leaving the UK following the Brexit vote and another 23% are unsure. Out of 10,000 EU-trained doctors, that is a significant number we could lose.

On top of this, from July GP surgeries will be acting as border control when they will be obliged to check if all patients registering have a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). These are issued by one's home country and entitle EU citizens to NHS care on the proviso that their government pays back the costs. If someone is turned away from a surgery for not having the EHIC, they can simply go away and obtain one and then register. But this alleged reform sounds like it's going to be punitive for EU citizens so it holds appeal for Brexiters.

Additionally, we in the UK are entitled to the EHIC so we can receive medical treatment in Europe. It is a wonderful thing because it works both ways - but once we leave the EU, we will probably lose that entitlement. Possibly. When the blisteringly incompetent Brexit secretary David Davis was quizzed on this by Hilary Benn at the Brexit Select Committee this month, he said he did not know what would happen to our access to the EHIC. He admitted that his department had not looked into this not-insignificant matter.

So there you have it, kids. A blueprint to save the NHS that merely tinkers around the edges, with bonus features that will probably be rendered pointless thanks to the idiocy of Brexit, all brought to you by the Department of Smoke and Mirrors.

Photography by Elliott Brown/Flickr

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Sexist legsit for Brexit...

Women MEPs are concerned about the impact of Donald Trump bringing back the global gag rule.

The Daily Mail - at least for England and Wales - reduced Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon to their pins yesterday. Accompanying a rather leg-oriented front page picture, the eternally asinine Sarah "Don't you dare accuse me of feminism" Vine felt the need to write a piece about how the legs of the Prime Minister and Scotland's First Minister were their greatest weapons in their ongoing wrangling over Scottish independence and Brexit. A "light-hearted" take on it all, according to the Daily Mail

"Never mind Brexit, who won legs-it?" was emblazoned across the front page.

Nothing screams "serious journalism" like a line that is basically the world's creepiest Dad joke. 

It was just like the time the Mail reported on the peace agreement between Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak back in 2000 and Sarah Vine wrote that hilarious piece about who had the firmest arse in the Middle East. Or her witty ode to Putin and Obama after their awkward handshake in Lima last year in which she declared each man's biceps would be used to forge a bold new relationship between their countries.

Except that never bloody happened. Instead, Sarah Vine wrote a parody-defying load of tripe for yesterday's paper, the journalistic equivalent of taking upskirt photos on a tube station escalator. She came across like a sex pest. Well played, sister!

The Daily Mail issued an explanation. It was just a joke and, anyway, we did loads of serious coverage on Brexit! Bags of it! The crazy feminists clearly need to lighten up! 

Except that every time female politicians are belittled, reduced to their body parts, when their legs or their tits or their clothes or their hair or their faces are the focus, not their policies or ideas, it makes it that little bit harder to encourage smart women to enter politics. And it makes it that little bit harder for women in general to be taken seriously.

The Mail's explanation also pointed out that they're an equal opportunity body snarker - they've also run photos of David Cameron looking a bit portly while on holiday, that sort of thing. Er, yeah. Two things, Dacre. Firstly, it's still gross to reduce male politicians to their body parts too. Secondly, even when the Mail runs such nonsense, it's not usually tied to the biggest political story of the week. The coverage when men do politics is far more respectful.

Of course, plenty of right-wing anti-feminist apologists piped up with their latest lame zinger. "Why are women angry about this when there is FGM and IS is making Yazidi girls and women sex slaves?". Er yeah. Two things, dickheads. Firstly, IT IS POSSIBLE TO CARE ABOUT MORE THAN ONE THING AT A TIME EVEN WITH OUR LITTLE LADY-BRAINS! Secondly, when you are the same people who would deny foreign aid to help stop FGM or to offer shelter, healthcare and employment training to Yazidi girls and women, you are monstrous hypocrites with zero right to tell women how to do feminism.

And when women are belittled out of putting themselves forward as leaders because of the constant sexist noise over which they must shout to be heard, there won't be as many women in positions of real power who are able to stand up for oppressed women everywhere.

In any case, the "Never mind Brexit, who won legs-it?" debacle, it really is a microcosm of the Daily Mail/Daily Express/Sun mentality on the issue of leaving the European Union. The one-liner encapsulates perfectly the simplistic Brexiter mentality, the one where self-serving con artists like Nigel Farage convince people that there is nothing to worry about, that the process of making trade deals and sifting through EU law will be a piece of cake. These people say without irony that it could all be sorted out in a month. These people are irresponsible idiots who make Britain a dumber place. 

Worse, it reflects the mentality of the right-leaning Brexiter of not wanting to take any actual responsibility for the whole shit-show - they do not want to acknowledge the inevitable problems it has caused and will cause and they do not want to do any of the tedious dirty work involved in ensuring leaving the EU doesn't reduce Britain to a joke nation.

Nope, these pathetic dinosaurs are the deluded fools who voted to leave because of some misguided notion that it was better in the good, old days, even though the good, old days were, frankly, a bit shit. But, hey, at least back then, we could all could openly ogle a woman's legs in peace without those feminazis getting upset, am I right...

Image: European Parliament/Flickr

Friday, 24 March 2017

It's OK to be a bit scared

I'm not scared. This week, some loser in a Hyundai senselessly murdered four innocent people about a mile from where I work but I'm not scared. Sad, yes. Appalled, yes. Sickened, yes. But not scared. I simply don't see the point in being scared, I don't see what being scared will achieve. 

But this does not make me a superior London resident. Some people here are scared and that's OK too. 

Amid the usual bluster about how we won't be cowed, about how we got through the hideous era of IRA terrorism and the Blitz, this week's awful events, and others like it, have spooked some people. Not everyone is walking around London singing jaunty wartime ditties and behaving like a "Keep Calm And Carry On" poster that has come to life.

The people who are scared are not necessarily massive racists or inane bigots. They are not idiots who freak out because a mosque has been built in their borough or change tube carriages because a woman in a hijab has got on board.

They are people who are simply scared because none of us know when terrorism will strike again. Will it impact on us? Will we lose friends or family members? What if some twat kills our kids? 

And that is why terrorism is effective - it is all about the grotesque element of surprise. 

The people who died in London this week were not expecting an inadequate dickhead would kill them. Equally, people do not expect to be killed when they go to a concert in Paris, have a boozy holiday in Bali, pop out for a coffee in Sydney's business district, go to work in New York, do their job as an MP in Yorkshire or any number of things for which death should never be the penalty.

It might be true that cancer or heart disease or the pollution of London is more likely to claim our lives than a terrorist but fear is not always rational. Hell, I am scared of entering a public toilet and discovering it is a pull-chain loo. My rational brain tells me the toilet probably won't hurt me but, after one such toilet in Turkey juddered away from the wall when I pulled the chain, my fearful fearful brain tells me I should hold on until I can find a low-level loo with a button or lever.

Within hours of the attack, it was indeed business as usual in London. That is the way it should be. Last night as I was on my way to the tube after work, a Spanish couple asked me for directions to the Houses of Parliament so they could pay their respects. It was a properly moving London moment and I hope my directions made sense to them. 

If anyone is scared, they deserve compassion and reassurance, not scorn. If anyone marks themselves as safe on Facebook, they are simply using a modern form of communication to reassure others who might be worried. Now is not the time to tell people how to react to a tragic event. We all react to tragic events in our own ways. You only need to look at the varied faces of people at any given funeral to work that out.

Predictably, Daesh has claimed responsibility for this week's fuckery even though they probably had no idea who the murderous thug was before the news broke on Wednesday. They don't need to know him personally because anyone with an internet connection can be disgracefully inspired by the acts and warped messages of Daesh. 

I'm not going to name the terrorist. He does not deserve the attention or the posthumous fame. He was last seen by us all as a bloated, middle-aged turd dying on a road. He is not a hero or a martyr. He is nothing. Instead, we should remember PC Keith Palmer, Aysha Frade, Leslie Rhodes and Kurt Cochran. We should honour the paramedics, the police, the doctors and nurses who ran towards the incident from a nearby hospital to help, and, yes, we should honour the journalists who were on the scene reporting responsibly.

And if you're still a bit scared, that's OK. We've got your back, we are with you.

Monday, 20 March 2017

No ifs, no buts, no excuses, there is a global problem with rape

"No punishment for man who raped girl, 12" was the stark headline on the BBC News site on Friday. Never mind that since 2009 under British law, anyone under the 13 is deemed unable to give informed consent to sexual intercourse. This negates the defence of consent in such cases, except the judge Lady Scott decided it was not in the pubic interest to punish Daniel Cieslak, who pleaded guilty to rape, saying it would be "disproportionate given the nature of the criminal culpability here". 

The girl in question said she was 16 and CCTV footage confirmed to Lady Scott that it was reasonable for Cieslak to assume this was the case. He procured alcohol for her even though he knew she was, at the very least, too young to legally consume it.

Well, if that decision isn't a goddamn gift for paedophiles as well as rapists in general, I don't know what is. What is the bloody point of even having age of consent laws when the line in the sand can be easily washed away on the strength of CCTV footage and a tearful defendant?

Still, the same judge has form here. In 2013, she sentenced Hamadache Hamza to just six years for weekend-long rape ordeal that took place in the victim's flat, despite the Crown Prosecution Service guidelines suggesting five years as the starting point for a single offence rape sentence, eight years for rape with aggravating factor, and life imprisonment as the maximum sentence. Lady Scott's reasoning was that Hamza had come to the UK from Algeria, overcome a difficult background, and set up a successful hairdressing business and this had to be taken into account.

Never mind that most people who are either immigrants or have come from a difficult background, or both, manage not to rape people. In the world of Lady Scott, these two factors lessen the severity of the crime of depriving a woman of her liberty and her right to personal safety and bodily autonomy for 48 awful hours - and she insults every law-abiding immigrant and every law-abiding person who has come from a disadvantaged background in one fell swoop.

These are just two of the endless cavalcade of examples of rape-related bullshit from all over the world. They are examples are from Britain but Britain is not unique in the ways it fails women and girls.

Rape is not unique to any particular race or religion or social class or profession. That is what makes the problem seem so insurmountable. To single out any one group is to throw the bodies of women under countless other buses. It is a grotesque game of whack-a-mole - while we villify one group based on the example of a few, women are still being raped by other men in other places and in other circumstances, whether it is at the hands of a stranger, as a weapon of war, or in the depressingly likely scenario of being raped by someone she knows.

What is particularly tiresome is the constant minimising of women's anger by men. Just today, a friend of mine from India posted an opinion piece on her Facebook page which advised women not to come to India. It was written by an Indian woman, it was an agonising cry from a woman who does not feel safe in her home country. Pathetically, a man jumped on the page to tell us that there was no use in getting angry.

With all due respect, sir, fuck off. When you are not feeling threatened on a daily basis, it is easy to wonder what all the fuss is about. But it is something women live with every day of their lives in every country in the world. I completely understand why millions of American women choose to take advantage of the second amendment and carry a gun.

The reason why women collectively roll their eyes when they are told to be careful when they leave the house, is not because we are obstinate little flakes. It is because we know already. We bloody know. We make a habit of being careful all the damn time. We carry our keys in a position that is suitable for jabbing an assailant as we walk from the bus stop to the house. We install sensor lights near our front doors so we're not fumbling about in the dark for too long. We tell each other to text as soon as we get home safely. We help each other into taxis. We feed each other water and kebabs and paracetamol when we've had too much to drink. When Judge Kushner said that we are entitled to "drink ourselves into the ground" but our "disinhibited behaviour" could put us in danger, she was not saying anything new.

Still, at least Judge Kushner didn't compare women to cars or houses by using the horrible "You don't leave your car or house unlocked when you go out" rape analogy. Reducing our bodies to a comparison with the contents of a glove compartment or a jewellery box is appalling, reductive nonsense. And if you do get burgled because you forgot to lock a door, you might just get more sympathy than a rape victim who was drunk or wore a short skirt or wore a long skirt or only drank water or left the house or caught a bus or went to work or had the temerity to leave the house in possession of a vagina.

"You silly bugger; leaving the house with the door open!" is hardly on par with the disdainful spite of "Well, you were asking for it, walking around that part of town at that time of day..." when you've just had your body violated in the worst possible way, shy of actually being murdered.

And then if something horrific does happen to us, we'd better hope and pray our assailants aren't wealthy, privileged, or have a great future as an athlete or a city trader because they may just get a sweet deal from a judge.

That is if you report the crime at all. I know plenty of women who have not reported rapes. This is usually because of fear: fear of being disbelieved, fear of ending up on the wrong side of the law in countries where premarital sex is illegal, fear of spending a lot of time being humiliated and reliving a repulsive experience for no justice to be done, fear of bringing shame to the family, fear of the reaction of one's partner, fear of simply making a fuss...

Please do not start with the "But men get raped too!" line. Yes, they do. They do not get raped in quite the same numbers as women but male rape is no myth. And guess what? They are usually raped by other men.

And male rape is, like female rape, drastically under-reported. Oh Lord, I wonder why that might be? When men see what crap women are put through when they attempt to get justice for being raped, where is the incentive for them to report the crime when they are raped?

If more women are confident to come forward without being accused of "asking for it" when reporting a rape, perhaps it will follow that more men who are raped will come forward too. This is a prime example of how achieving justice for women and girls has the potential to help men and boys.

Indeed, the eternal pit of dick-driven ignorance was fed by the unctuous Philip Davies MP recently when he tried to derail the passing of a bill to recognise the Istanbul Convention in a bid to prevent violence against women and girls.

Predictably, all the douchebros came out of the woodwork to cheer Davies on because men get attacked too. Except clearly none of these intellectual bankrupts bothered to look into the finer points of the Istanbul Convention which quite plainly recognises that men and boys are victims of violence too. But that would require doing some research, becoming informed, not simply believing everything a pig of an MP tells you because it suits your hateful little narrative.

These are the same men who disbelieve the low rates of false accusation and see nothing wrong with someone who admits to grabbing women by the genitals, someone who feels so permanently entitled to access women's bodies, is now the president of the United States. Indeed, yesterday it emerged that Theresa May thought Donald Trump was "a gentleman". Brilliant. Britain's second woman Prime Minister has been gaslit by a self-confessed sex pest.

And so we continue, the women and girls of the world, to constantly take precautions against rape, to be constantly on our guard, because that is our normal. For some, normal means regular rape by a partner. For others, normal means rape at the hands of terrorists. For some, it just means never quite feeling safe.

If you have never felt that fear, you are automatically privileged. It is your duty to stand alongside those who are not so fortunate, the women and girls of the world.


"Nightmare of a Gang Rape Victim" image by Syed Ali Wasif/Flickr

Sunday, 19 March 2017

George Osborne insults us all

George Osborne's appointment as editor of the London Evening Standard while refusing to stand down as a member of parliament is ridiculous, offensive, corrupt and insulting. It has already been said over the last couple of days that it is impossible to be an effective MP and newspaper editor at the same time. They are both demanding full-time jobs and the people served by both jobs deserve so much more than a part-timer. It has already been said that doing these two jobs represents a massive conflict of interest. His appointment demeans the role of an MP as well as the role of a newspaper editor.

Of course there are inane apologists for this steaming truckload of bullshit.  

"But he'll just be a figurehead editor!"

Great. Super. Wonderful. So he'll be on an inflated salary to waft in and out of the office when he can be arsed, doing the bits of the job that amuse him, while the rest of the Evening Standard staff have to do the real work? Will he be there for boring parts of the editor's job? For the negotiations with the sales team that require decisions about balancing revenue with editorial credibility? For refereeing a dispute over the style guide? For the inevitable staff member who appears at the editor's desk in tears?

As well as propping up the notion that only the privileged get the top British media jobs, Osborne's appointment reinforces the myth that journalism is an easy job that anyone can do. 

"It's all about his great connections!"

When he first aspired to be a journalist many moons ago, his rampant privilege and connections could not get him entry-level positions on The Times or The Economist. He did a freelance stint writing the Peterborough diary for the Telegraph. This means anyone who has done a competent enough job on more than one publication has more experience as a journalist than George Osborne. And in a city the size of London with its large media market, there are plenty of well-connected journalists with genuine runs on the board. 

It should not be beyond the wit of Evgeny Lebedev to find someone who has a full contacts book and the ability to run the daily news conference without having to refer to Journalism For Dummies or surreptitiously Google "what is the splash?" on his phone.

"But Boris Johnson did a great job as a journalist!"

Yeah, that'd be Boris Johnson, the same irresponsible spoiled flake of a journalist who got a bit bored trying to report accurately on the European parliament so he started simply making shit up instead. He is largely responsible for starting the "bonkers Brussels" myths that so many leave voters fell for in the EU referendum. He wrote stories about the EU declaring snails as fish, and EU directives to standardise the smell of manure, ban prawn cocktail crisps and standardise condom sizes. This nonsense was published unchecked and people believed it. Boris Johnson was a purveyor of fake news. 

"But Michael Gove is a Times columnist!"

Yeah, that'd be Michael Gove, the man responsible for an embarrassingly sycophantic interview with Donald Trump that was about as hard-hitting as a headbutt from a sea-monkey.

And perhaps most inane of all...

"Oh, it is just delicious that George Osborne can make mischief by trolling Theresa May in the pages of the Evening Standard!"

This is not what a newspaper is for. No newspaper should exist for a self-serving editor, particularly one who already has plenty of opportunities to publicly air his views, to settle scores, to use it for his own personal vendettas. This is not the same as holding the government to account. It is all about George Osborne's ego. It is about him being arrogant enough to assume he can do some newspaper editing in the morning and a spot of parliament in the afternoon and do justice to both jobs.

There is no way George Osborne can do a credible job of editing a newspaper for London. It was bad enough reading the Evening Standard on the commute home when Boris Johnson was mayor. The level of arse-kissing was off the chain. I honestly don't know what Boris would have had to do to be criticised by the Evening Standard in that grim era. Deep-fry a few live kittens outside Buckingham Palace,  perhaps? Then the paper backed Zac Goldsmith even as the wheels fell off his mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan won the election convincingly and ever since, the coverage of his time in City Hall has been very fair and balanced.

Whether fair and balanced coverage of City Hall will continue when Osborne takes the reins remains to be seen. But it is impossible for him to be an objective editor overseeing the stories that affect Londoners when he has been responsible for votes in parliament that affect Londoners. He is a mess of conflicting ideologies and competing priorities.

He is arrogant enough to think he can remain as MP for Tatton, in England's north-west while editing a London paper. George Osborne has been the mouthpiece for the largely vacuous Tory policy of creating a "Northern powerhouse", of developing the north of England and moving away from a London-centric economy. This is at odds with the unabashedly pro-London stance of the Evening Standard. Can readers expect to be urged to leave the capital for the north? 

He voted for the Health and Social Care Act 2012, an act which led to the creation of Clinical Commissioning Groups, which are putting health services and, in some areas, entire hospitals under threat in London. Will he ensure the government is held to account in the coming months and years if and when London loses essential health services?

Despite being pro-remain, he voted against seeking to protect the residence rights of EU citizens lawfully resident in the UK post-Brexit, despite London being a city that will be seriously depleted in multiple professions if we cannot guarantee the rights of EU citizens to stay on here after the negotiations to leave the EU are complete. Osborne can claim all he likes that he is offering resistance to a hard Brexit but on this issue, he is on the same page as Theresa May. There were two votes on the same issue last year and he was absent for both, hardly the actions of a man committed to wanting the best for London. Yet he is set to edit a paper in a largely pro-remain city where plenty of readers will be uncertain of their own fate or that of friends, lovers, colleagues and neighbours.

He has voted consistently for a reduction in spending on welfare and for a reduction in housing benefit for council tenants with a spare bedroom (the so-called bedroom tax). Unsurprisingly, these laws have done nothing to alleviate poverty in London or address the shortage of affordable housing in the capital, particularly for workers in essential services and low-income earners. 

Will he as editor of the Evening Standard be able to look such tough issues squarely in the eye and ensure they are covered properly? Or will be simply play-act at editing a newspaper, leave the hard work to the rest of the staff and return each night to one of his lovely, warm houses, secure in the knowledge that there will be people on the streets of London using copies of the Evening Standard as bedlinen? 

Photography: duncan c/Flickr

Sunday, 5 March 2017

The day after the NHS march...

As most people in the UK are probably aware by now, there was a rather large march for the NHS in London yesterday. Most people know this because it actually was covered by the much-derided mainstream media, including the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, the Mirror, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, the Evening Standard, the Guardian, the Telegraph, Sky News and Metro.

This did not stop the internet lighting up with people claiming the march was not covered or seeking out conspiracies where none exist.

"It's the mainstream meeja's fault!"

On the Big Up The NHS Facebook page, one person thought it was suspicious that the Evening Standard and the Mail Online used the same photograph, even though it was an agency photo which would be available to any major news outlet with a PA subscription, which is all of them. 

On the same page as well as on Twitter, multiple people pounced on the inverted commas used by the BBC in an online headline about the march, with "hospital cuts" in inverted commas. If anyone bothered to read the story, they would see that the inverted commas are used to refer to quotes from the protesters rather than any specific cuts and it is, therefore, accurate journalism, but the left-wing media bashers are not interested in accuracy or learning about how journalism works. They'd rather scream about media conspiracies, as if we journalists spend our spare time in a darkened bar, smoking unfiltered cigarettes, drinking whisky neat, and colluding with each other about how to create a Tory dictatorship. 

This is a shame because such paranoid nonsense only serves to distract from the very real issues facing the NHS. And speaking of distractions, one of the biggest and dumbest banners at yesterday's march, bafflingly, said: "SICK OF MEDIA LIES ABOUT JEREMY CORBYN". 

Firstly, Jeremy Corbyn's address to yesterday's march was very well covered, including by the right-leaning Daily MailExpress and Telegraph. The brutal truth is that marches are usually not that interesting to cover unless violence breaks out. In terms of media coverage, you have images of marching, shouting people with placards and banners, footage or quotes from the speeches and, er, that's about it. From a journalistic point of view, it is pretty limiting as to what can actually be said about a march before it gets repetitive. So for yesterday's march to glean the coverage it did should be seen as a positive. Whining about media conspiracies makes campaigners look certifiable.

Secondly, that banner is absurd at a march specifically about the NHS. Campaigners who want people to seriously focus on the many things that are bringing the NHS to its knees and want to attract people of all political persuasions - as well as the apolitical and apathetic - need to look outside the Corbyn-loving echo chamber in which many of them are stuck. These people (and I hasten to add this is not all NHS campaigners) need to realise that NHS campaigns which come across as Corbyn fan clubs, when he is simply not resonating with people outside the Labour Party and Momentum in particular, will not be effective.  

And then it gets complicated...

On top of all this, the Health and Social Care Act 2012 devolved all responsibility for health services to local Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) and that is where the real lobbying and engagement needs to take place, with elected MPs and local councillors along to ask hard questions about where money will be spent in their regions. In theory, CCGs make sense - the healthcare needs of a seaside retirement town will be vastly different to an inner city borough of young families, for example, so one size does not fit every area. 

That said, the basics such as accessible A&E, cancer treatment, and GP services should be available to people equally across the country - although in the case of GP services, this also varies between different areas. The retirement town won't have the same demand for GP services on evenings or weekends that the inner city area full of time-poor working people will. 

If the message that engagement is required locally at CCG level as well as nationally has not been properly communicated to the wider community as a result of the march, better communication from campaigners is required. This is also needed from Labour at all levels if they are serious about being a proper opposition and forming a government at the next election. 

Yes, the future of the NHS is about adequate funding at the Westminster level, where plenty of MPs have vested interests in private healthcare, just as much as it is about CCGs being financially responsible and lobbying the government if there are local shortfalls, particularly if people cannot be discharged from hospital because of inadequate social care. The financial interests of CCG members are as important in this equation as that of MPs because right now there is nothing to stop members commissioning from businesses or non-profits in which they have an interest.

It is complicated and it is not simply about throwing money at the NHS if it will only end up mismanaged at a local level and the CCGs are not held accountable. 

Do not be naive - we will have a Conservative government in this country until at least 2020 and therefore we will have CCGs at least until then.

So, what next for the NHS?

What happens next for the NHS will depend on what is seen as politically expedient because, like it or not, the NHS is political. 

It is pretty clear that there is an appetite for destruction when it comes to the NHS under Theresa May's government. If she genuinely cared, one of her first orders of business would have been to ditch Jeremy Hunt, the failed marmalade mogul who has been play-acting at the Health Secretary job since September 2012.

The government is smart enough to know that British voters will not stand for a complete replication of the American system. While there are always calls to charge so-called health tourists for NHS services, the free-at-the-point-of-use mantra has been effective. Except it has been effective for the Conservative Party and this is a hurdle for the opposition.

The privatisation conundrum

As long as health services remain free at the point of use and people are not filing for bankruptcy because of medical bills, it is really hard to get people to care about whether the services are being provided directly by the NHS or the NHS has farmed it out to a private company.

On top of this, Corbyn's rhetoric about stopping all NHS privatisation is simplistic. For starters, GPs have always been privateers. Any attempt to nationalise GP services, forcing GPs to work certain hours and potentially reducing the flexibility for GPs to work part-time, will result in a shortage, particularly among GPs who are parents - this will disproportionately affect women GPs so hardly a great victory to be had there. 

The big financial pressure here is the cost of administering the tender process, with estimations between £4.5 billion to £10 billion per year. But if we keep farming out services - which can be anything from cleaning the loos to cancer treatment - the government has to run a proper tender process, which is not cheap. Thus the government needs to acknowledge that this will be the case as long as services are open to tender - this is not an expense it can pretend doesn't exist.

Additionally, the NHS is not subjecting private companies involved in bidding for contracts to the same freedom of information rules that government departments are subjected to - so this makes transparency much harder. Indeed, I tried and failed to get solid information from my local hospital trust on whether the rise in MRSA infections had anything to do with farming out the cleaning services to a private company, but I was stonewalled. This government is not going to do anything about this given it already has form in trying to restrict existing FOI access. 

Similarly, there doesn't seem to be any bans on companies being able to bid for or keep contracts after catastrophic events. G4S should have been banned from any government contract after the Olympics security debacle and they continue to run the patient transport services at my local hospital despite killing an amputee in one of their vehicles owing to insufficient staff training. Virgin, meanwhile, has also done an abysmal - and lethal - job of running the Urgent Care Centre at Croydon University Hospital, yet continues to hoover up NHS contracts, including a £700 million contract over 200 hospitals late last year. 

These are fundamental problems with the way things are run at the moment but even if all NHS services were returned to the NHS, the NHS still has to procure stuff it can't make itself. 

It is absurd to expect the NHS to set up its own factories for bedlinen, cutlery, crockery, windows, uniforms and the thousands of other things it needs to purchase in order to function. 

While one idiot once said to me with a straight face that the NHS will indeed make all its own things once the workers control the means of production, that is clearly ridiculous. Instead, the NHS should use its huge purchasing power to get the best possible deals on all it procures. There is no excuse for waste here and the NHS will continue to buy stuff from private companies. Sorry, it will. It's just that the procurers should do a better job of it.

The technology conundrum

Actually, this should not be a conundrum at all. If there is good technology out there that can contribute to saving lives, money and time in the provision of healthcare, the NHS should look into procuring it for the best price possible. 

I have noticed a rejection of technology among elements of NHS campaign groups. There was a placard at yesterday's march that said "TECH IS CHEAP BUT AN APP CAN'T WIPE YOUR BOTTOM". This is very true - there will always be a need for human beings in hospitals to perform such tasks but if there are apps that can improve the way care is provided, this should be looked into.

I've seen NHS campaigners complain about advances such as telemedicine, even though it can be used as a way to improve access to care and relieve pressure on GP surgeries. Again, it cannot always be used as a substitute for an in-person physical examination but it can play a role and this sort of thing should not be dismissed out of hand.

I suspect nostalgia for the good old days of the NHS comes into play here instead of recognising that society has changed since the NHS was established in 1948, the population has increased, amazing advances have been made in medical science, and technological changes have happened and a modern NHS needs to be about making all this work for everyone.

And again, if there is technology that can be used to improve patient care, it will have to be purchased from private companies. Like I said, Corbyn's anti-privatisation rhetoric is simplistic.

The Australian model?

As I said, if services are still free at the point of use, there are millions of people who won't care if the services are provided by a private company.

What I do see happening is a move towards the hybrid Australian system rather than an all-American system, with a mixture of public and private services side by side. I dared to suggest this on a local campaign Facebook page last year and was howled down. I never said the Australian system was perfect in my comments, merely that, as someone who has experienced both the Australian and UK systems, I could see the trends happening over here.

It is important to bear in mind that just as we have postcode lotteries with care in the UK because of differences in how CCGs spend their money, the American system is actually multiple systems on a state-by-state basis - so to simply say: "We're going all American!" is also simplistic. We will see more involvement by American companies in the NHS, particularly if we are left wide open to this in a post-Brexit trade deal with the US. It is important to remember here that American companies are very nimble and thus good at adapting to trading in diverse markets. 

From McDonalds varying its menus across cultures to big oil companies making money in countries with a wide range of tax and regulatory systems, it's what American companies do. Healthcare is seen as no different by American companies.

Like America, Australia has differences in health systems between states but with public-private hybridisation across them all. I can see this Australianisation happening in microcosm form at my local hospital, St Helier.

St Helier could well lose its A&E department in the near future, which will be disastrous, forcing people to spend longer in ambulances or in traffic or on public transport seeking medical attention. 

But I predict it will keep its maternity unit, bolstered by its expanding assisted conception unit. Currently, IVF patients undergo pre-IVF testing and appointments as well as egg extraction at St Helier but the eggs are fertilised at Kings Hospital. The transfer of fertilised eggs also takes place at Kings. When St Helier's assisted conception unit expands to include its own embryology department, it will become a one-stop shop for IVF patients. Under local CCG rules, one round of IVF per patient is funded on the NHS but there is nothing to stop St Helier from receiving paying private patients - this should prove a handy source of income for the hospital and I suspect we will be seeing more and more of this across NHS hospitals all over the country. This sort of thing is not unusual in Australia and the funds raised from the private business helps keep the public services afloat.

The IVF example is an interesting one because, like privatisation but services being free at the point of use, it is also an example of what the public will tolerate here in the UK. In Australia, there are some Medicare rebates on fertility services but, by and large, it is an expensive undertaking with plenty of couples spending thousands in their quest to have a family.

It would not surprise me if, in the coming years, IVF on the NHS becomes virtually unheard of. I believe this is something the public will tolerate overall. Breast implants, unless they're for mastectomy patients, is another service I can see being chipped away, along with transgender procedures. Prochoice activists will also need to be vigilant about any attempts to limit abortion access - Jeremy Hunt has publicly said he'd like to see the time limit reduced to 12 weeks and if the government thinks it can save a few more pennies this way, or give the impression of being fiscally sensible, without taking too much of a hit on election day, I wouldn't put it past the May regime. Hunt was shot down in flames by people across the political parties last time but that was 2012. Britain has become a more conservative place in just five short years. 

I am not saying any of this is right - especially as such cuts would target women disproportionately - but it is the kind of thing this government can get away with if it doesn't anticipate harm at the ballot box. Hell, you've only got to look at Labour's catastrophic humiliation in the Copeland by-election, losing a safe seat to the Tories at a time when local maternity services are under threat to see what resilience this government has right now in terms of withstanding removing NHS services. 

The other Australian trend that has already gained plenty of traction here in the UK is increased take-up of private insurance. The advertising is ubiquitous, the deals often sound affordable, there is an increase in employers offering private cover as part of the package for staff. Around 50% of Australians have private health insurance, compared to an estimation of around 8.7% of people in the UK. Figures up to the end of 2015 show a surge in uptake of private health insurance in the UK. Again, plenty of people will not see this as a bad thing, especially if they find they can be treated faster if they go private.

Apologies for the long blog post

I have ranted for longer than usual this time but it is a complex subject. Just as there needs to be follow-up after the women's marches in the wake of Trump's election, there is a long road ahead if the NHS is to be preserved. I do not expect the NHS to survive in its current form and, despite yesterday's impressive march turnout, there is plenty that voters will tolerate in terms of cuts particularly if it doesn't affect them directly. Too old for an abortion? Not a woman? Intolerant to transgender people? These are the people who probably will turn out to vote in 2020 and they might not seek to punish the Tories over the NHS. 

It's a massive issue and none of it fits nicely on a placard.

Photography: Loco Steve/Flickr

Sunday, 12 February 2017

In defence of John Bercow

Poor Donald Trump. When he visits Britain, he is going to be no-platformed everywhere he goes, the media will completely ignore him, nothing he says will ever get reported, and the people of this country will have absolutely no idea he is even here. Poor little Donny won't have any freedom of speech.

Except that will not be how it pans out when he takes up Theresa May's embarrassingly fast invitation to pop across the pond and say hello. His visit will dominate the news cycle for days. His views will be heard by millions. This is a man who makes global headlines every time he tweets. He has more platforms than an Olympic diving team.

But none of this has stopped Trump's British apologists from demanding John Bercow resign. This is all because Bercow plans to use the power he has as speaker of the house to not invite Trump to address MPs in Westminster Hall. Please note that Bercow has not called for Trump to be refused entry to the UK or to never speak to anyone or for press conferences to be called off.

All he has done is refuse Trump an invitation to speak at Westminster Hall as a statement against Trump's racism and sexism, and to send a message of British support for equality before the law and an independent judiciary, both concepts that seem to elude the wit of Trump. Bercow had the opportunity to take a stand, to speak out on behalf of British values and he took it. He can look back on this in years to come and be very proud. Good on him.

Bercow's upholding of support for an independent judiciary is particularly important. This week, a 44-year-old man from Hertfordshire was arrested at Gatwick Airport on suspicion of planning a terrorist attack when he disembarked from a flight from Iraq. British idiots, who are apparently experts in US constitutional law, started saying that this was proof that Britain should copy Trump with travel restrictions for people with passports from Iraq - except that at this stage we don't know if the arrested man had an Iraqi passport.

It is entirely possible that the arrested man only has a British passport, in which case a travel restriction would not work. And even if he does have an Iraqi passport, he has been arrested before committing a terror attack on British soil. This would indicate that we don't need to copy Trump because our intelligence services and police are already being effective.

The same idiots who called British judges "enemies of the people" for ruling that our democratically elected MPs should have a vote on triggering Article 50 for leaving the EU are siding with Trump instead of the independent judiciary on the issue of the travel restrictions yet, curiously, they also have a lack of respect for our counter-terrorist forces, even when they do their job properly.

Trump's apologists have also pointed out this week that Bercow has shaken hands with leaders of such undemocratic regimes as China and Saudi Arabia. This is true but these leaders were not invited to speak at Westminster Hall. In any case, plenty of people who are supporting Bercow have also publicly objected to the human rights abuses of both countries and plenty of others with whom Britain breaks bread.

Barack Obama only got the opportunity to address Westminster Hall in 2012, after he had already served an entire term as president. Aung San Suu Kyi has addressed Westminster Hall, which made a powerful statement against the despotic forces in Burma that have imprisoned her and attempted to silence her over the decades. Nelson Mandela has also had this honour. While there are debates as to whether he was a freedom fighter or a leader of thugs, it is hard to argue that he was not a towering figure in ending the official policy of apartheid in South Africa.

In this historic context, for Theresa May to offer Trump a state visit within moments of his election is desperate, premature and completely embarrassing. In the wake of public pressure as well as an outcry that has transcended party politics, it looks like Trump will still be coming over here but his visit will be scaled back.

The latest news is that instead of London, the visit will move to Brexit heartland of the Midlands and Trump will use the opportunity to raise funds for British veterans. Oh good. So basically Trump is employing the same tactics of far right hate group, Britain First. They gained a lot of social media traction by posting things many people who are by no means extremist will agree on, such as support for our troops when they return from war zones and memes about not being cruel to dogs. But Britain First, like Trump, also holds plenty of despicable views. It would appear they are both playing the "But I support the troops!" card as a distraction and in an attempt to mislead people.

In any case, charities such as Help For Heroes should not have to exist in the first place.

If a government sends men and women to war, to risk death and life-changing injury, the least they can do is ensure that injured veterans are housed and do not slip into abject poverty. If Trump was going to schedule a meeting with the defence secretary on how the US and British governments can better help injured veterans when they return home, that would at least deserve some respect. The latest reports indicate Trump wants to host a mass rally with tickets at £10 a head.

Trump can expect protests wherever he goes. Moving the visit away from London won't stop that. People will travel to make themselves heard and it is simply wrong to assume that everyone in the Midlands will be delighted about Trump turning up in their neighbourhood. If anyone wishes to exercise their right to protest when Trump arrives, that should be respected. This will not impede Trump's right to freedom of speech.

Peaceful protest has long been a hallmark of British democracy. With the latest anti-Trump protests, there have certainly been some potty-mouthed banners, especially in Scotland, but peaceful does not mean colourful language is verboten.

In any case, Britain has outdone itself in the last few weeks with the most polite online petition ever.

At the time of writing, 1,853,814 people signed up to the following: "Donald Trump should be allowed to enter the UK in his capacity as head of the US Government, but he should not be invited to make an official State Visit because it would cause embarrassment to Her Majesty the Queen."

To say that Donald Trump is free to visit this green and pleasant land but that it should not cause embarrassment to an elderly woman is adorable. And, if Trump doesn't get to meet the Queen, that will really grind his gears. But it does not mean for a second that his freedom of speech is being denied. Seriously, Trump apologists of Britain and the world, get a grip.

Photography by Matt A.J/Flickr

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Vegetables and the age of entitlement

Spanish spinach. Spanish peppers. Dutch tomatoes. Dutch onions. Irish mushrooms. These vegetables all found their way into the pasta sauce I made for dinner last night. They were all readily available for a reasonable price at the supermarket yesterday afternoon. This is despite the signs on empty or near-empty racks apologising for a shortage of other items of fresh produce because of climate conditions in southern Europe.

In unsurprisingly idiotic news, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express lost their collective shit over this, whining about vegetable price increases. Yesterday's Mail splashed with pictures of well-stocked supermarkets in continental Europe while we suffered here in Blighty with sad emptiness in our fresh produce sections.

Sheeple of Britain! Be woke! Those terrible Europeans are denying us our God-given right to eat cheap iceberg lettuce, courgettes, broccoli and aubergines at all times of year!

But surely the Mail and the Express, two of the emptiest vessels making the most noise on behalf of the Brexit campaign, should be welcoming these scenes of vegetable rationing in our supermarkets. Why aren't they delighted that Britain is having to import vegetables from California and Arizona to fill our supermarkets and our bellies? Why aren't they thrilled that Spain is keeping more fresh produce for itself rather than sending it all our way?

After all, this is what they convinced people to sign up for when they voted to leave the EU.

Without free trade with Europe - and this will happen with a hard Brexit - European countries will charge us more for the myriad fruit and vegetables that we currently enjoy even when they are out of season.

We will have to rely on markets further afield, such as the warmer states of the US, to make up for any shortages, and there will be increased costs and an increased carbon footprint. Even if Theresa May can get Britain a good free trade agreement with the US (excuse me while I laugh so hard my bladder explodes...), the cost of transporting fruit and vegetables from the US to here means it won't necessarily be any cheaper - and those costs will be passed onto consumers. Fruit and veg growers are businesses, not charities.

As well as the rank hypocrisy of pro-leave newspapers whining like fussy-eater toddlers about direct consequences of leaving the EU, the vegetable furore shines a light on our collective sense of entitlement. The howls of protest in supermarkets across the nation when suddenly people couldn't access whatever vegetable they wanted are pretty pathetic when considered in a global and historic context.

There was a time in Britain when lettuce was generally only available from mid-May until the end of October. This weekend, we have people panic-buying lettuce.

We are now accustomed to simply popping down to the supermarket and expecting all the produce to be there all the time. Sure, some of us prefer to buy from the independent greengrocers, the farmers' markets or grow our own, but overall, we expect to see everything from asparagus to zucchini every time we pop into the shops, whether we want to buy it or not. We are ridiculously privileged.

The age of entitlement is right there for all to see in Sainsbury's, Tesco, Morrisons and Asda stores up and down Britain, and in supermarkets of developed countries around the world.

Indeed, in my native Australia, I grew up with the rise of all-year-round fruit and veg in supermarkets. Supply grew along with the Australian palate growing up. I remember, with retching horror, the khaki-coloured, flaccid tinned asparagus of the 1980s. But I rediscovered asparagus as an adult in its fresh, green glory, pan-fried in butter, wrapped in proscuitto, maybe sprinkled with a little grated fresh parmesan, available at Sydney supermarkets whenever I wanted...

It wasn't until I moved to Dubai in 2006 and was working on an entertainment and lifestyle magazine that it really occurred to me that asparagus season was a thing. I started getting press releases in May from five-star hotels with asparagus promotions at their restaurants. I had to ask my British colleagues why I was suddenly overrun with asparagus press releases and I discovered that asparagus season runs from St George's Day - April 23 - until the June 21 summer solstice.

Asparagus season seemed so quaint to me at the time, but we now expect to have all the fruit and vegetables at all times. The very notion of produce being in and out of season, and hard to come by when it's not in season, seems pretty damn retro too. Just as well the bad weather on the continent only represents a blip to our entitlement to the vegetables of Europe. Oh, wait...

Photography by whologwhy/Flickr