Posh Tea

Part of second language learning is re-exploring your first language. Through this re-exploration you come to better understand your first language, in my case English. Furthermore you start to explore how certain words and phrases have a distinctive cultural meaning away from the standard dictionary definition. Sometimes i find it very strange when second language English speakers start to experiment using these cultural expressions, it’s often very funny. I’m sure I am making some very amusing sentences in my Welsh.

A word I commonly use and was a frequent word used within my family when I was growing up was ‘posh’. However i use it slightly differently to the standard definition. My use is widely understood in Wales, but when I travel I have found it isn’t so.

The standard definition is that posh means luxurious, cultured, refined, of the upper class. However my definition is a nuanced version of this definition, with posh as needless, but enjoyable adornment, or affected ostentation.

I was driving a new car last week which had one of those automatic handbrakes, ‘how posh’ I thought. There is no need for an automatic handbrake, when new to using them it is fun to explore how it works, hence posh. Once you have got used to it it is no longer posh [my definition]. However if they remain a feature of ‘luxury cars’, then they become part of posh driving [standard definition].

Perhaps it is better explained with cups. We have a tradition of posh cups which have exquisite patterning and shape to be used with saucers of a Sunday afternoon or when we have guests around for tea. The idea is that these cups are ‘for best’ or to honour special occasions.There is a whole set of rituals involving their use, which is very enjoyable when you enter into the spirit of it. For me it is just wrong to make tea with bags to be put into posh cups. If you are going to the trouble of using the posh cups, you should also make the effort to make the best tea, which involves teapots and loose tea.

I wouldn’t use these cups for everyday as they would lose their special value, they would no longer be posh by my definition, but would remain posh. For me posh is the fun of using a pointless ostentation for the sheer fun of it. for me, the idea of using posh things everyday is just a waste. I regard it as a token of a developing friendship when you can visit someone and not be given the posh cups, but are graced with the everyday, more relaxed cups.

Thinking about it, this posh cultural tradition is dying out, people rarely pop around for tea anymore as friends and family live ever further apart geographically. My parents and grandparents generation were given several posh tea sets when they got married and everyday tea sets by their close friends. They carefully stored these tea sets, away in the attic, but keeping an everyday set and a best/poshest set. As wedding gifts they were highly valued and usually the very best set was stored away, maybe to be got out if the Queen happened to pop around.

A friend of mines mam recently decided to tidy up her attic and got down box after box of tea sets. A tea set being a posh teapot, a posh cake stand, tea plates, cups, saucers and a sugar bowl [though why anyone would befoul tea with sugar is beyond me]. She was minded to get rid of them, however, there are thousands of these tea sets in peoples attics, you can’t even give them away to charity shops for the shops have so many,  they are ‘too good’ [posh] to be thrown away and too posh to use as everyday cups. So she carefully cleaned them, wrapped them up and put them all safely back into boxes and returned them to the attic, ‘you can deal with them when I am gone’ she said. I get this, my fathers attic is also full of various posh tea sets and I remember well how much value was placed on them by my parents and grandparents, they could remember who had bought them each particular tea set even after fifty years. My point is that these posh things have no monetary value, posh is not equivalent to expensive or good quality, as I said, it”s needless adornment for special occasions.

The thing is that people and especially children break tea sets. I have smashed a fair few in my time, this is fine  and they become chipped and worn through use anyway. So when a tea set loses it’s posh value it is thrown away to be replaced by an exciting new tea set from the store of posh tea sets. Some tears are shed for the old tea cups that have faithfully served the family for years. In my family when a tea set was changed it was such an event in the family, to change the vessels of our cups of tea to new colours and new shapes! The trouble is that a posh tea is a rare social even these days, so in the course of life, people get through a lot fewer tea sets.

These traditional Welsh tea ceremonies, with their teisen gri (Welsh cakes), posh tea sets  and unfathomable family tea etiquette are not well known outside my native culture. There have been countless times when I have used the word posh and people haven’t grasped what I was saying. It’s only now, reflecting on my English that I notice such these things.

I haven’t found a standard definition of posh to refer to special occasions. Regular use of posh things, or visiting ‘posh’ places quickly lose their value with over-use and even so, you would miss out on all fun and diversity of everyday things. There are ‘posh people’ who are wealthy enough to use posh things everyday, but they have posher things for their special occasions. There are also those ‘trying to be posh’; who purposely buy and use posh things everyday to create some false mark of class. However these more standard uses are quite removed from my use of posh.

The things have the quality of being posh as a noun, but poshness is relative. When somethign is used on those rare occasions it is posh in use, as a verb. But with overuse, it loses its value as different to the everyday and is no longer posh in use.

It is difficult to understand a language from books. It is through listening to lived experiences of the subtleties and nuances of language that deeper meanings can be appreciated. However, when I looked up the Welsh word for posh in a dictionary, it came out with ‘swanc’ much like the English word ‘swank’.  Swanc just sums up my understanding of posh perfectly. That posh/swanc is a relative term for occasional ostentatious behaviour.

 

Advertisements

Alcohol & Anxiety

Having grown up in a drinking culture, I do enjoy the occasional drink or three. Drinking allows people to weaken the social rules we have for a few hours to lubricate social interactions and have some fun. Drinking is an appealing way of spending time, to celebrate life  rather than spend too much time contemplating the bleakness of existence. It has been society’s way of escaping the sheer craziness of human life on planet Earth.

Drinking is an escape from the social norms, unfortunately it has consequences. Those whom do not have a pleasant existence can overly turn to alcohol as the escape becomes addictive.

When I was a much more anxious person, I did enjoy the escape into drinking as this allowed me to be a normal person, unconstrained by the ties of anxiety. As an anxious person it probably took an additional pint to achieve that state of relaxation, free from inhibition that the non-anxious could do with fewer or even no alcohol. I was fortunate to never rely on alcohol to function, which alcoholics do. However, I quite often needed to drink to actually enjoy social interaction. In Britain this kind of works as much larger social functions generally include availability of alcohol.

Now that I am less anxious, I don’t feel that need to gain the effects of alcohol to enjoy socialising in large groups, though alcohol does increase the enjoyment, it just adds emphasis to enjoying socialising.

I’m sure everyone, whether they suffer from mental illness or not has that nervousness about going across to chat to the pretty girl. Alcohol helps us say ‘Why not, it’s hugely unlikely that they will humiliate me’, which I think is the fear everyone has. Alcohol has been allowing people to get together and form relationships for centuries. The thing about anxiety is that the anxious have this fear with everyone,they fear social interactions with everyone whether they are attractive or not. The normal social rule of anxiety about speaking to attractive women is simply exaggerated to the point where normal social function becomes a huge strain.

Overcoming anxiety is a journey, much like a night in town where the effects of alcohol get to the point of insobriety where we can enjoy ourselves fully, but still function. Such a state has a cost in the morning! The difference is the longer timescale and leading to a more permanent non-anxious state. For me, way back when the only time I felt  happy was when I was drunk. As I overcame anxiety i started to have moments of happiness or just feeling relaxed without drink. Over time the frequency and length of these spells increased. Happiness is never a permanent state, but a state of feeling relaxed within oneself increases in time until it is the majority of the time and eventually becomes the normal state. Eventually you no longer fear waking up in the morning feeling anxious. I used to have the idea that being happy always meant that the depression and anxiety would always be the worse afterwards, much like a hangover. However there does not need to be a hangover, you can just carry on the next day being not anxious. i still go ‘wow’ sometimes/

This state of relaxed normality is still a fairly new concept for me, but one I gather that most people have always had. It is kind of like when getting drunk for the first time and realising you can do this again and again. Gaining more experience of not being anxious is great and so enabling and having a few beers is even more enjoyable. It’s the feeling of being able to escape without a constant desire to escape.

In Defense of Free Markets

Last week there was the Labour party conference and their leaders speech. Jeremy Corbyn spoke about his policies of re-nationalising the railways and capping rents. These are sensible pragmatic policies in my view, which are also popular. The government response was Theresa May stating that free markets are the best way to deliver economic growth, and that she should return to winning arguments for free markets as she thought that her party had already won this argument.

This is an example of what I despise about party politics. The meaningless soundbite triumphing over the deeper truths. It has been argued that this is due to people receiving news via a 144 character tweet or a headline. So, that people don’t read deeper to uncover what is more accurately going on.

I agree with Theresa May on the first point that free markets are the best way of delivering economic growth. However she then muddies this statements that distort the truth. The Tories never won the argument for free markets, instead they created a political bubble for a market fundamentalism, where simply injecting elements of free markets into unfree markets will produce economic growth. This doesn’t work, you either have free markets or unfree ones. Regulating markets to make them more free is a good thing, but arbitrary market elements can make markets less free, which is what Tory governments have implemented. Which is why the UK housing and  railway markets are not free and in crisis.

So what is a free market? There are many definitions and it is a much abused phrase as it means different things to different people. My definition is that a free market is one where there is an interplay between producers and consumers, competition between providers, where forces pushing price up and down achieve balance, where supply and demand achieve a sustainable balance. A free market isn’t influenced by external actors.

For example, baker shops. A baker shop provides a service, making bread and cakes and delivers a profit for the owners of the business sufficient that they are better off continuing to run the business rather than seek easier money elsewhere. The bakers shop has costs: maintenance of the premises, maintenance of equipment, staff costs and ingredient costs. So must work out the price by adding to the cost of making a loaf of bread a sufficient margin to sustain the business. There will be other baker shops they compete. If costs rise too much people either buy less bakery products or make their own bread. If price is too low, then the bakery will go out of business. Thus forces on price achieve a balance. The rival bakeries will differentiate to maintain market share, either by being the cheapest or producing a higher quality product. Such a system allows for innovation, for example investment in new technology enabling costs to be lowered and thus we have economic growth. In this simple free market, every aspect of the market is free to influence the market. There are open dialogues between producers and consumers

This can be contrasted with an unfree markets, the semi-privatised UK railway network. On the Uk rail network , private companies bid to run selected services on the network. So a company will run the train services between A & B. The company has little control over the track, it has limited choice in what train carriages it can use. It has to charge government regulated fares, but is allowed to sell it’s own tickets too which of course have to be lower than the regulated fares. It has no competition as no other company is running a service between A&B. Technically it is competing against alternative forms of transport, such as motor cars, buses and aeroplanes, however the price differential between these forms of transport is massive. The railway company would have to alter fares by large factors to increase or decrease demand. Essentially there is no free market mechanisms in this fairly unfree market. Interaction between provider and consumer is quite limited.

Hence the argument for nationalisation of the railways is that private providers simply take profits away for no benefit to the market. A state railway could run the service more cheaply as it doesn’t have to make a profit.

What bugs me about the market fundamentalist position is that it’s too theory pure and lacks understanding of the real world. In the real world businesses are not interested in promoting or maintaining free markets. Real world businesses are concerned with providing a service and maximising profits, which is fine. Businesses may exploit rules or market position to prevent action of free market forces, particularly monopolies, so there is a role for the state to regulate markets to make them more free.

Railways and indeed housing are key industries as they provide infrastructure to the wider economy. They enable labour to move around the UK and in doing so enable other markets to be more free. For example a business isn’t restricted in it’s activities by the inflated costs of rail travel or housing. Such key industries can be free markets, but they are not close to being so anytime soon. Hence state intervention such as nationalisation or price capping, can help ease some of the problems and free up the wider economy.

We all want to live in an ideal world and that ideal world would consist largely of free markets. However there needs to be more  understanding that the world is not ideal. It would be better to move in the direction of the ideal rather than exacerbate existing problems in unfree markets. The ideal of free markets should not be tarnished by increasing use of the phrase ‘free markets’ to describe unfree markets. This is a problem because politicians use phrases such as ‘ we support free markets’ when it isn’t clear that they are talking about free markets and use the phrase merely to imply that the other lot are against free markets. This phenomena has reached the state where you hear politicians say ‘we want to make things better’ implying that the other lot wish to make them worse. Basically I think we all deserve  our politicians to act more like  grown-ups, rather than a class whom besmirch the ideal of free markets.

Social Feudalism

720px-Flag_of_Powys.svgWhen I was young and started thinking about politics the idea of Social Feudalism appealed to me. The basic premise is to take the  Middle Age system of regional Princes and Kings, such as Gwynedd or Powys, who extracted taxes from those who lived in their domains to live lives of culture and refinement in return for the rule of law and protection from raiders. Such systems was sustained for millennia. My modern twist on the system was to interject democracy into the system, the ruling class were restrained from over exploiting the serfs or imposing rules the populace wouldn’t accept through a democratic system, which I dubbed at the time the ‘Council of the Elders’.

These ancient Kingdoms perhaps had a tendency to expand, and in doing so become more efficient and offered greater protection to more organised bands of raiders. This perhaps led to the idea of establishing supranational entities for beneficial cooperation to be even more efficient, to have a Kingdom of the Britons. What happened was that the English/ Anglo-Saxons established a King of England first, who over, arguably, the more exciting  bits of history (Battles, court intrigue, which religion should we have debates etc) expanded influence to eventually create the United Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland (the UK), a modern nation state.

Historically the nation state is a fairly recent development in human history and is perhaps one whose time is passing. If the primary purpose is to protect populations from raiders, maintain the rule of law and share the advantages of scale, then it seems the nation state truly is in decline.

Modern raiders, or wars between nation states are now rare, so there is no need for nation states. Indeed the raiders now are the jihadist terrorists, who plot to destabilise nation states and use tactics that nation states struggle to counter but for no financial gain. Indeed the systems nation states established to counter terrorism reduce the freedoms of the subjects that nation states were able to protect.

Law is now global. We live in world of trade agreements and mega corporations who effectively set the rules or lack of them, rather than democratic or aristocratic bodies.

In the Uk the benefits of cooperation are no longer shared, living standards are in decline and the global rich, no longer attached to the land, just keep taking more of the pie.

The establishment, the modern day aristocracy, who have been kept in luxury by the nation state system is under threat: international trade agreements, jihadist terrorism and the end of the era of economic growth as the challenges of climate change and over-population prevent further economic growth, so they just seem to be asset stripping nations all the harder like there is no tomorrow.

Instead of the nation state investing in its poorer regions, such as Wales and ‘Yr Hen Gogledd’ (The Old North / Northern England), to deliver  growth and rise everyones living standards. In the UK, in recent decades we have seen the  UK establishment class asset strip the country for the gain of their group, rather than invest for the future. The nation state of the UK has lost it’s coherence, if it ever truly had it, where wealthier regions subsidise the development of poorer regions. Successful federal nation states, which maintain coherence and identity across the regions through regional governments, such as in Germany or the United States. I get the impression that those people much more comfortably identify as Germans or Americans, whilst we in Britian are more ‘I suppose I am British but…’. The UK has never really done this nation state building, being more obsessed with the development of Empire, power has always been centralised in central London and the regions plundered for their resources, coal, cheap labour and soldiers. Now the coal industry has died nations such as Wales have never received the investment it has needed to grow it’s economy to develop away from the old heavy industries. Wales has lacked the confidence to say, this really isn’t fair, the UK isn’t working for us, we’d be better off managing ourselves.

The answer seems to be more local accountability, to find solutions for local problems locally and not be subservient to protectors who no longer provide protection, rules that work or economic growth that is shared.

I have often encountered critiques of devolution, who argue reductively that eventually everyone is a king of their own tiny private kingdom. This position misses the whole point of bottom up democracy. Deciding where decisions should be made isn’t a case of always smaller, it’s finding the right size. The right size is where there is an optimum balance between the advantages of pooling resources for efficiency and retaining local accountability. An ‘area the size of Wales’ with our population of just over three million people may be the right size, because Wales’ leaders can’t get too removed from the people, it is possible if you want to to speak with members of the Welsh government and make your point and if they don’t listen to reasoned argument you should be able to vote them out of office, but our current electoral system doesn’t quite work. As long as you have democratic systems that allow power to be moved up and down, to and from regions then the best balance will be achieved and those decisions need to be made at a regional level. Statically leaving power at one level is not sustainable. It may be that recreating the Kingdoms of Dyfed and Monmouth is the right level for law making. Democracy should be about a fluidity of decisions that remains accountable to the smallest area. For example: My bit of Wales ( King Squimple I) – my region of Wales – Wales – Britain – Western Europe – Europe – The World government.

It has been a week where I’ve been catching up on Welsh history and reading about the grievous attacks on democracy in Spain. In a world of instability it’s very disturbing that the Spanish government is raising troops to attack democracy in Catalonia. If a region wants autonomy, it should demonstrate it clearly (by holding a monitored referendum or suchlike) and then regain autonomy. So I condemn the Spanish government for its actions to defend the nation state against democracy. The democratic right to self-determination is what allows humanity to be free of tyranny and bad kings /rulers.

Wales also needs independence or something that will deliver democracy, protection and rule of law. So, there are many parallels between Wales and Catalonia, also an ancient Kingdom and has it’s own language and culture. However there seems to be a big difference between Wales and Catalonia. The economic argument doesn’t seem to apply in their case.

Catalonia is one of the richest regions in Spain, whilst Wales is one of the poorest in the UK. So the nation-state redistribution of wealth to poorer regions, such as Andalusia  is how things should be, to gain the economic efficiency across what is now Spain. I don’t think the independence movement in Andalusia is very strong, perhaps because it is respected and invested in by the Spanish state. I wouldn’t be advocating independence for Wales if was benefitting from being in the UK and being respected as a nation for our language and culture. I don’t know all that much about the situation in Catalonia, these things are often complex and there will always be many reasons for the people there deciding independence is in their interests, look elsewhere for more information,  maybe they are just being greedy in seeking independence but even so, a heavy handed approach from a central government just sends shivers down my spine. Self determination and democracy are too important to give up upon. The Spanish government should be welcoming democracy and the chance to point out how Catalonia benefits from being in the Spanish family of nations if that is the case. Then again we no longer seem to have mechanisms for making the best solutions clear, we no longer live in the age of reason, but one of petty media barons.

Maybe, maybe, the time is coming for Social Feudalism, for the ancient Kingdoms to rise again, but this time with democracy and accountability to the people who live on their lands.

yescymruEstelada Catalan flag | Catalan flag | Estelada flag ...

 

 

 

The Fall and Rise of Respectability

My parents and grandparents went to some lengths to instil in me the importance of respectability. This concept was one I struggled to understand when I was young and then realised wasn’t important as I got older. What I did learn was that it was important to my older family and the older generation and discovered through my friends  that our generation didn’t give respectability any real value. So what I learned was how to play the game of respectability to not upset older people.

I think my main objection to respectability was that it was so complicated and seemed to lack a coherence or a logically related set of premises, it seemed like a fairly random set of rules and thus required commitment to learn. Really respectability had been important for generations, bound up with the issue of class that bound society together for a long time. Respectability is about showing that you have learned this very complex set of rules. Hence it is showing that you have been educated. This was an important badge of respectability during a period when a large chunk of society didn’t receive any formal education. The older generation are very impressed when our generation wave around degrees or have letters after our names, when my generation isn’t at all.

Much of these complex rules were not just about respectability and education but also about our culture and it’s traditions. I think the older generation have been fearful of the way my generation unpicked all the traditions and worked out which ones had sense or useful purpose to them and which were remnants of things that had once been useful but no more. I think they feared we would lose our culture and sense of who we were.

I kind of get that fear, but the rules are so harsh that they hold a culture bound to arbitrary rules that actually inhibit cultural growth. What I mean is that you can spend so much time and energy following the rules that you lack  the time to realise why something is valuable.

To illustrate this idea by example. As a child I was taken to a music concert, great, but this involved such things as dressing in uncomfortable clothes that I wasn’t comfortable wearing, sitting still and receiving instructions on how to appear I was appreciating the music. So, being an anxious child, I felt obliged to follow all these bizarre rules to keep my parents and grandparents happy, so much so that i didn’t get to enjoy the music! It was only later that I was able to relax and open my ears and really start to appreciate what the musicians were doing. So I now look down on anyone who suggests there should be ‘dress codes’ at musical concerts, if you like dressing up, great, if it’s not your thing, that is just as cool. I personally, make a point of not dressing up at all as all music should be accessible to everyone, whatever helps you open your ears is what is of paramount importance.

The other issue my cohort had when growing up was that we realised that we were growing up in rural Wales. We could look back on our families tilling the land for generation after generation and for me that meant I was one whole generation away from the land and that tradition.My cohort have been realising that in European terms our local culture hadn’t undergone the rapid changes experienced by those who went to the large towns and cities, that we also needed to learn the new etiquette of a more globalised world, especially those of us who had lost the farming tradition.

For my generation the world isn’t one of knowing the arcane rules of respectability. Perhaps we are more interested in what things are valuable and useful and disparage those things which aren’t. In a way all this is is just a completely new set of rules of respectability, with the difference in that the rules relate to the world we know rather than old traditions.

We live in rapidly changing times. Rural Wales was late in awakening to industrialisation, so when my parents generation realised that they weren’t to continue the agricultural tradition, Europe was beginning to struggle with post industrialisation, we had missed out perhaps almost entirely on the industrial era, apart from tractors replacing horses. Tractors replacing horses was surely progress, saving so much time and not needing to grow crops to feed the horses. However these very changes meant that fewer people were needed to work the farm. Many farms became one or two man operations and the rest of the family had to go and find work elsewhere, which almost invariably meant moving away.

Until that is, broadband came, and the transport network got so congested that staying at home for administrative jobs started to become the best option. Furthermore the beginnings of the effects of climate change are starting to have real unignorable impacts and the era of cheap oil and indeed it’s tractors is coming to an end. Perhaps I am witnessing the end of that  flight to cities to find work and all in just one generation.

Welsh farmers have largely always looked down their noses at all the city people, sitting in offices not producing very much of any real use. They are largely right of course. Whilst they have been spending all their days proudly producing food for people to eat. After all owning land was the height of respectability. European history has always been about the those at top of society who own the land.

The thing is anyone can farm. Humanity for most of history has been made up of farmers. It was only during the industrial period when modern conveniences enabled rises in living standards that land, farmland, for a time lost it’s value, enabling a generation of farmers to finally own their own land. It can be viewed that they got lucky to have ended up with the the thing that meant respectability to the very last generation that valued respectability.

I grew up with the concept of ‘look smart and wear a collar and tie’. The dual meaning of smart of being educated and dressing well, is perhaps no accident as both meanings are really about respectability. There is some evidence of this word ‘smart’ flipping in meaning as the meaning of respectability changes. We now talk about being ‘street smart’ and making smart decisions. These newer meanings of smart are not about old respectability but more about being a useful individual and contributing to rather than exploiting society.

The great irony for me growing up of wearing of ties is that the people who wore ties all the time were and still are the big business executives and politicians who made decisions for their personal gain and failed to appreciate what the communities they effected needed. It seems to me that the wearing of a tie is a mark of the disrespectful. I grew up during the Miner’s strike, and the baddies were all wearing suits. I only wear them when etiquette and tradition demands though.

Anyone who analysis society realises that the things that respectability valued, such as land or education are largely acquired by luck or an odious obsession with garnering the facets of respectability through acting in a disrespectful way, such as the acquisition of land to be a rentier, rather than actively working the land. Somewhat paradoxically respectability regards those who are respectable by luck of being in the right family  in the right place much more highly, rather than those who have acquired respectability by behaving disrespectfully by the new generations definition. Perhaps because the mistakes of the previous generations of the powerful were more innocent and on a smaller scale than those made by those in power today.

So, whilst my generation watch as the old respectability does, we are witnessing the rise of a new one where what is regarded as respectable has flipped and  is utterly different and instead values being true to yourself and your community, rather than learning the rules to be someone different and of entering a sub-community. Where diversity and difference is at last valued and conformity isn’t. The interesting question now is whether or not respectability will flip again in a new direction with the next generation or whether we stop valuing people’s acquired traits at all. I’m sure if either of these two directions is more worthy than the other.

 

Why I am not a Tory

I am a Social Democrat, a centrist, so I both get the idea of conservatism and socialism, yet view the two as both being fundamentally flawed when applied in the extreme. A good economy an da good society is I believe best achieved by taking elements of both creeds and applying a pragmatic analysis of what works where.

So, part of me is conservative and I know many conservatives, yet I kind of feel pity for them because of the Tory party in the UK. The Tories post-Brexit immigration plan leaked this week, it is just so typical of the kind of ill-thought through damaging policy I expect from the Tories, it’s so extreme, which should be an anathema to conservatives.

The issues with the Tory party is that is a party with three competing dogmas struggling for dominance: Firstly, old school conservatism which hasn’t had the chance to develop, and has become the backdrop, or a shared idea between the other two factions:

The market fundamentalists, neo-liberals or whatever label you wish to apply. The belief that markets can solve every problem, that all the world needs is less regulation and less services to be prosperous and healthy. It’s simple and a pure idea, but it just doesn’t work.

Then there are the nationalists, the people who hold that there is an exclusive club of people, of people just like them, or people who are prepared to act like them who deserve all the fruits of labour of society. This British nationalism harks back to the glory of Empire, of Imperialism. People with the idea that they’re lot arer simpler fundamentally better than everyone else for some unstated reason.

The problem for the Tory party is that these two beliefs are incompatible with each other. You can’t have an anarchy of free trade and provide protection for your privileged group, the idea of ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it’ that we hear mentioned so often these days. What perhaps holds the Tories together is that it was once possible to square this circle, Empire!

The British Empire was essentially a large free trade area, controlled by the British state, which was run by the privileged classes. So there was free trade and protection at the same time. The days of Empire have gone but the Tories get stuck thinking that somethign similar can still be achieved.

This war between the Tory factions has often bubbled over on the issue of the Common Market, The European Community and now the European Union. The Nationalists hate the idea of the UK being subservient to a supranational organisation, yet some of them believe that it is a modern equivalent of the Empire; a large free trade area and protections for the privileged few, provided you are on the top table of the club. The nationalists however really dislike the social side of Europe, the community aspects of the club, the regulations. That the free trade aspect means that EU citizens come to the UK and have successful careers appals them, simply because they are not like them. This group have never liked the EU, because they have never been in enough control of the Eu to satisfy them.

On the other hand the market fundamentalists have mixed views of the EU for different reasons. They like the free trade aspects and want the EU to less regulated and more fundamentalist (these groups loved TTIP and CETA) and also this group hate the social and community side of the EU, not because they hate other people but because a working community rubs against their fundamentalism.

Generally both groups of Tories have, have mixed views of the EU, but have a mistrust of it because they don’t have full control over it, like they do with Westminster government in the UK.

On Brexit, Britain exiting the EU, the two groups are really coming to blows as neither group can get what it really wants, the British Empire back. The market fundamentalists eye up a deregulated Britain that can be the most market fundamentalist state in the world. However they are constrained that Brexit also means losing access to the huge free trade area of the EU. This group want access the the single market and also not have to obey the markets rules. This group could probably get a deal with the remaining EU that would suit their dogma, but the nationalists want somethign else:

The nationalists want very strict immigration controls, hard borders, restrictions to free trade and protectionism and this is the opposite of what the fundamentalists want. Hence we have this internal war within the Tory party, constrained only by the innate conservatism of their membership.

The divisions within the Tories over Brexit and lack of a coherent Brexit plan encapsulate the whole question of the EU. Outside of the Tory party the people of the Uk are also divided. There is the social EU and the market fundamentalist EU. The left object to the market fundamentalism and the right to the social Europe. Traditionally the political centre supports the EU as a mixed bag as it balances these two competing forces, which is what centrists want. However the EU isn’t perfect and even those of the centre have misgivings with it. My support fro remain is the the EU is better placed to provide some balance than the UK is. After all both the EU and the UK are supranational organisations. There can be no good Brexit until the UK has electoral reform and the Tories and Labour are kept out of absolute authority.

The recent EU, post Lisbon treaty has been ‘free’ movement of people within the EU, which is a new concept in economic terms. People have rightly objected to this free movement as it doesn’t deliver economic growth, it perpetuates problems. For example the UK doesn’t train and retain enough doctors and nurses, so the UK imports them rather than make sure it produces enough of them domestically, however the immigrant medical professionals only partially go where they are most needed.

It’s this ideological dogma that causes many problems, there are very few genuine free markets. Trying to impose free market reforms on imperfect markets doesn’t work. Look no further than the UK railways for examples of overpriced poor quality service in comparison to similar states. People may desire Brexit for ideological reasons as the EU is far from perfect, but there is no mechanism at the moment to make markets function better outside of the EU.

I’ve lived under this dreadful Tory party my whole life and I’ve never understood why ordinary conservatives and centrists have kept propping them up in election after election. Partly the FPTP electoral system is fairly rigged to keep the Tories or someone very like them (‘New Labour’) in power. Really the Tory party are the very worst people to be attempting to negotiate a workable Brexit solution.

Hopefully the Tories will collapse, but don’t bet on it, their resilience  is astonishing. Maybe, just maybe, we can but hope and we can forget this whole Brexit business, reform our electoral system, have autonomy for Wales and have decisions about our communities made for the benefit of those communities, to cooperate as widely as possible, to make decisions  that make economic sense; essentially to give democracy a crack!

 

Chlorine Chicken

A lot of fuss has been made about the suggestion of a post-Brexit allowing such things as chlorine chicken onto UK shop shelves. The issue is indicative of the perils of international trade deals potential to override democratic control.

The issue also exemplifies the separation of truth and perception. There is a kind of mob-rule going on, where the mainstream media perpetuate a myth and truth isn’t arrived at. People say ‘people don’t trust experts anymore’, but this is partly because experts are misrepresented by the media. Clickbait, a catchy headline to get people to a page is more important than good content.

As a scientist, the misrepresentation of science in general irritates me. The popular media refrain of ‘Science says’ is nonsense, Science doesn’t say anything. Science is a means of answering questions through undertaking experiments to establish if there is a relationship between things or not. Often the conversation goes something like this:

Media: Is Chlorine Chicken safe?

Science: Define safe

M: Is it safe to eat?

S: Define safe to eat, what is the question you are asking?

M: If someone eats chlorine chicken will they suffer poorer health straight away?

S: Ah ok, you want to know if chlorine chicken is has similar effects as a poison?

M: Yes

S: Okay we’ll look into it…

Okay, No, chlorine chicken is not like a poison.

M: Thankyou,  so the answer is that Chlorine  Chicken is safe .

S: Yes, if you define safe as not being poisonous.

The media then announce to the world that chlorine chicken has been scientifically proved to be completely safe.

Society: Really, science says that chlorine chicken is completely safe? what about long-term effects of such a diet. We don’t agree, we have lost trust in science.

Science: Hang on media, we didn’t say that it was completely safe, all we established was that it wasn’t a poison, using your very narrow definition of safe, there may be long term effects on health of introducing chlorine chicken into human diets, there is indeed some evidence that this is the case and…

Media: Sorry Science, that wasn’t what we asked and we haven’t time to discuss it, you’ve done your job and we’re too busy writing articles attacking people who are against chlorine chicken.

Scientists: Face… Palm.

So trade deals can then be set up, with their own judicial systems, that don’t allow actual safety to be an excuse for not being able to freely trade dangerous food or machinery, because they ticked the box of scientific testing, even if that testing was fairly meaningless.

This is why CETA, TTIP and potential UK post-Brexit “free trade” deals are a concern. The great Brexit irony of taking back control only to give away more control than was lost through membership of the EU.

Rather than society decide it’s own rules, that power is given up to corporations, who are only concerned with making money. The people in the corporations may have moral scruples, but these are very easily side-tracked in the fast pace of business, which is why we have regulations in the first place. Regulations so we don’t all have to spend money on our own research over whether a product is safe or not, with regulations that need only be done once, scientifically, through resolving exhaustive lists of questions.

Chlorine chicken is the pertinent example, it should not be brushed aside, because resolving the issue allows everything else to be more easily resolved. It doesn’t effect me because I’m never going to eat it.

 

 

 

Waiting for the bus that never comes

I used to hate waiting for buses. It was the not knowing how long you had to wait, whether it was worth getting my book out, whether I had time to pop to the local shop, an answer to whether  the bus had been cancelled so I could go to the pub for a pint or two whilst waiting for the next one. Often these days you can use an app’ on your phones which will tell you where the bus really is and how long it will be, which solves all these problems of lost time waiting and makes bus travel a lot less annoying.

Unfortunately there is not an app’ for the UK government. Brexit is like waiting for the bus that never comes; We know the service will be crap but at least we may soon be on the ruddy thing and we are no longer waiting.

We are in this strange Brexit zone. No-one talks about Brexit anymore, I think we are all fed up of going through the same tired arguments yet again, the arguments that frustratingly never get around to their logical conclusion. There doesn’t seem much we can go about it and we don’t want to open up those divisive arguments again. Of course we do make lots of jokes about how pathetic the UK is being by not having a Brexit plan and trying to wing it and keep the important electoral demographics happy during the process, rather than formulate sensible policy. I’m sure those outside the UK are making the exact same jokes.

It’s not only Brexit fatigue, it’s this whole three year period whilst the UK negotiates Brexit on the fly, with no plan of what to do with it. We kind of want to know what will happen at the end so we can start preparing for it and start thinking about how to adapt to it. We are waiting again without knowing when the bus will turn up. With this Tory UK government having decided to take all the responsibility for Brexit and secured government by a gnat’s wing to do so, there seems little to do but get on with our lives in the meantime.

When and indeed if Brexit does happen, I expect the vast majority of people to be disappointed, only a particularly bizarre few are going to get what they want. The big issues of the “debate” over Brexit of immigration and better regulations are not going to be tackled as there is unlikely to be any agreement of how best to resolve these problems. Of course we could actually have a debate, work through the issues and come up with sensible policies, but that isn’t how the British state works. The EU doesn’t work that way either of course, but is perhaps less likely to do anything truly daft, which was always my argument for remain; that the UK can and should do more to sort out our problems rather than waste years on Brexit with no plan for post-Brexit.

I am still aware of all the problems with the EU: economic migrancy, regulations that don’t really apply and are a hindrance to the UK economy, the Eurozone holding back the economies of Southern Europe, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) etc. The problem with Brexit was that acknowledging these problems but not offering an alternative, not looking at what the alternatives are, the arguments never got beyond this beginning of forming an argument, taking the first premise as a conclusion.  A great weakness of the EU was failing to sort out the CAP. The CAP was a strong argument for Brexit, however the UK has not promised to replace it with anything better, instead suggesting that agriculture won’t get any subsidies, but don’t worry we can import lovely unhealthy foods like chlorine chicken and hormone beef from the US, making food regulation even more complicated. How is this better than staying in the EU?

The other powerful Brexit argument was that the UK would never be offered a choice on the EU again, so Brexit should be voted for to give Britain the chance for modern democracy and reform of our failing institutions. However instead of preparing for this, instead we hear about binding ourselves to a different set of damaging “free trade” deals.

We know that both of the major Uk political parties are slaves to their focus groups, rather than what is best for economy. Tory Bliar’s  [Tony Blair] “Labour” government, only implemented limited devolution to gain votes and the Tories only had Brexit to win an election as well. Britain just needs to end this ghastly Westminster system, have true democracy and that means Wales getting to decide it’s own affairs, rather than decided by these two lots of political careerists.

Much of the motivation for Brexit was hope, hope for new systems that actually worked and performed their function to be developed, rather than continual decline in living standards. Paradoxically, the only way for Brexit to work is bring Westminster government crashing down and allow genuine reform from the bottom up. We are still waiting for that but anxious that that day may never come.

The Future of Commuting

Traditionally people lived and worked in the same community, where travel from home to work was a relatively simple short walk . However the phenomena of commuting, living at a distance from the place of work has a history and in Britain has fundamentally changed how our society works. Where is this trend headed?

In the early days of commuting, it was simply that the better off could afford to travel every day and desired to live in bigger nicer homes a little further out from the centre of town. Roads had spare capacity for this and public transport was built around the idea of allowing people to travel into a town from further afield. The consequence of this was that inner city areas lost their middle class populations, became where the poor lived and became areas with high crime and social problems. This led to more people desiring to escape such ghettos and live further out.

This led to differentiation in cost of living, housing costs raised at different rates, mainly housing as transport networks began to reach capacity and travel in became slower. This meant that housing near travel hubs, whether railway stations or major roads became more desirable and costs increased. Then only those near the top if income brackets lived in the desirable hubs, leaving others living where they not only had to travel into the town but also travel increasing distances to the commuting network of railway stations and major roads.

As the economy specialised, larger corporations replaced numbers of local smaller businesses as they could initially produce the same goods more efficiently.  Subsequently, more and more jobs became based in hub cities, as smaller towns lost their local providers. Which further increased pressure on housing around the hub cities.

Today, we have a situation where living costs have become so high in the hub cities, the commute to work longer and more expensive, that people desire to escape, to regain the hours lost every day in expensive unpleasant travel. Partly this is a consequence of the economy separating our working lives from our personal lives.

Those able to, in particular for senior staff, with the rise of broadband internet  has enabled people to work from home. The ability to access files and use communication tools such as Skype has meant that there is no actual requirement to be in the hub city itself, except for an occasional meeting to facilitate the need to sometimes meet people face to face. This means that increasingly people can live where they want to, rather than where work needs them to be.

Often the choice is to live in the countryside, but not work there. To live somewhere away from transport bottlenecks is desirable and this makes it easier to travel to places away from the hub office when work demands such visits.

The interesting thing about this is that the effect of commuting on housing has had a reverse effect on areas. Where once people headed to the major towns and cities for work, they now leave them for a better life. Where once the suburbs around the big cities were once seen as the most desirable places are increasingly becoming the least desirable places to live. Really there is no longer anything requiring big towns and cities anymore as long as broadband internet and long distance travel options remain. Indeed a more evenly distributed population removes bottlenecks from transport infrastructure.

Having lived in both big cities and in the country, I can confirm that life is just easier in the smaller places. Getting food and satisfying daily needs takes less time as travel times are much lower than for people in cities.

Of course there are people who actually like living in cities. These people now occupy the inner city suburbs and price the poorer folk out to the suburbs, which is the reverse of the case twenty years or so ago.

The consequence of this is that businesses only need a nominal hub office and hire meeting space when required, the centres of cities become solely entertainment/ cultural hubs, where those who have travelled long distances to the face to face meeting can enjoy an evening of culture before heading back home. Those attending the meeting will arrange to meet so that they can travel in outside travel bottleneck times, when the junior staff still suffer commuting in from the suburbs.

Companies in London and the South East of England are already experiencing recruitment problems; British natives are reluctant to take jobs there and suffer the reduction in living standards/ costs to live there. Furthermore people are leaving London specifically to raise their standard of living, which isn’t good for a city hoping to maintain a it’s status as a living city.

It would seem that the era of daily commuting is coming to an end. Hub cities will remain for cultural pursuits (personal) rather than business (work) pursuits. The medium size towns, which struggle at the moment, will further decline.

As these trends continue they will impact on the UK housing crisis. Essentially people moving out of expensive cost of living areas, find relatively cheap housing and push up local pricing to the point the local people can not afford the housing and are forced to move away, so young people don’t live where there are opportunities to start their careers or learn the skills to home. It’s not all bad news, it will help the local high street, the butchers and bakers we have left that have survived, will benefit from  all the people who now can take a quick break to pop out to the local shops, rather than forced to rely on the supermarkets!

The Lights that Blind

Often on this blog I’ve highlighted the importance of diversity, that we as humans are all different and we have differing needs, that one size fits all approaches never work. So, I wish to discuss a very disturbing recent development with cars, that has failed to respect diversity.

In recent times there has been a trend towards ever brighter lights on cars. I used to think that it was just a few modders not considering other motorists, but they seem to have become standard on many new cars. I am talking about Xenon and LED lighting.

The idea behind these lights is that they are more energy efficient (which is great) and enable the driver to see more with there headlights (which by itself is also a good thing). However such lights dazzle other road users. Technically this is illegal:

UK Highway Code Rule 114

  • use any lights in a way which would dazzle or cause discomfort to other road users, including pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders

However this rule is as far as I am aware never enforced and there is no upper brightness limit in law, so dazzle is defined as being subjective. So if I experience dazzle then technically a vehicle with these lights is illegal. Yet nothing is being done about this!

It’s all of the lights on a car thus fitted, which does cause problems:

Headlights

More powerful headlights allow the driver to see more and may decrease some accidents. There has always been the problem of headlights at night causing reduced visibility to on coming drivers and drivers have developed strategies to cope with this. However when the brightness is increased the danger of decreased visibility to other drivers is increased which may increase accidents. There is a balance to be achieved here. However there is no mechanism in place to ensure the safest balance is achieved.

Day Running Lights

What is the point of these, other than to dazzle other drivers? They offer the driver no increased clarity, merely decrease other drivers vision.

Rear Running Lights

These are essential at night so other drivers are can be aware of other active vehicles. However, dazzling the car behind doesn’t help anyone. Most rear running lights are not too bright until brakes are applied

Rear Brake Lights

Perform the vital role of signaling following drivers of braking, that the car is slowing down and that the driver may have spotted a hazard ahead. However id they are too bright, as many of them are now, they dazzle the following drivers, causing them to be able to see less, which has no advantages.

Stationary Brake Lights

When I learnt to drive, the importance of Handbrake – Neutral was drummed into me. This action switches off the rear brake lights, mainly for safety in a collision but also to stop dazzling the driver behind.

Now, sometimes, we are lazy and we hold our cars on the foot brake. This didn’t cause dazzle problems for most people as the lights were not overly bright and on older models of cars the lights were lower down on the car body, more importantly below eye height, so the light wasn’t directly in the centre of the field of vision. This is an increasing problem as most drivers where I live have dropped the Handbrake – Neutral action when stopped temporarily and more worryingly some modern cars which switch the engine off to save fuel when stationary keep the rear brake lights burning holes in following drivers retinas, well give us sun spots anyway. The problem with this is that the following drivers eyes adjust to the bright light, so for a while afterwards their vision is dimmed, which has safety consequences.

So how did we get to a point where new cars are not designed to be safe?

Part of the issue is that we are all different and have different light sensitivity. I raised this issue with friends and colleagues and most people don’t find these brighter lights dazzling or a problem, even though their vision is still dimmed. However I realised that I am not alone, there seems to be a significant minority of people who are more light sensitive, for whom brighter lights are more dangerous.

Remember we are all different and even see the world in different ways. For example, I didn’t realise quite how prevalent various forms of colour-blindness are. So the needs of the light sensitive should be taken into account when designing and regulating cars on the roads.

There doesn’t seem to be any action on this front. I wrote to the government and they are not even looking into this issue. The difficulty is that the car manufacturers lobby governments for minimal regulations, as surely the market will regulate for safety as it is what drivers want.

However, in this case, market forces don’t work. If your car dazzles others it doesn’t affect you as driver, all you see is your slight improvement in visibility, the negative effect is suffered by other road users. But other road users have zero influence on your choice of car and it’s lighting. Having a really bright car that is more noticed may mean that there is a decreased chance of other people running into you, however when all cars are overly bright this advantage is lost and everyone is left with overly bright cars and the roads are overall less safe places.

It is simply dangerous to not consider the needs of others, especially when no wider advantage makes up for the loss of a particular minority. Everyday I witness inconsiderate driving that may cut a few seconds off someones journey only to slow down everyone else. What is more disturbing is when these issues are built into the cars themselves.

There is a potential solution. Driving spectacles have been developed to reduce light glare. Basically they have a yellow tint which filters out the UV/ blue light spectrum which reduces headlight dazzle. I’ll have to check these out!