Friday, 24 May 2013

One Wednesday in Woolwich

I think it was the late Margaret Thatcher who talked about denying terrorists "the oxygen of publicity". In that she was wise.

The media machine and Westminster politicians have gone to town over the act of savagery that took place on the streets of Woolwich on Wednesday. It was a bloody and brutal crime with a young father being hacked to death in broad daylight and his murderers showing no remorse, but rather the reverse. It was an egregious crime. The two young men clearly wanted maximum coverage for what they had done and for their godless slogans of hatred. They clearly wished to be numbered with the dishonourable company of terrorists. And thanks to the media and the united declarations of our politicians - indeed of no less an ally than President Obama - their wish has been granted, beyond, I imagine, their wildest dreams. No doubt they will wear the title "terrorist" as an accolade for their rest of their incarcerated lives - with satisfaction.

What we actually witnessed too many times on Wednesday was no more than a grubby vicious murder by a pair of deluded and feral young men, who dressed up their murder most foul as a political quasi-religious act. The very broadcasting of the murderers themselves was questionable. The repetition of it ad nauseam was merely dancing to their agenda and in my view played to the basest instinct of voyeurism. The elevating (if elevation it is) of the crime to an act of terrorism has been merely to achieve the young men's aim on their behalf, to instil fear. The continual media headlining of the incident merely maintains the spotlight (as, in a small way, I admit, does this - my only comment on the subject).

The East End Imam, Ajmal Masroor, potently denounced the murderers on Sky News. I can't find the clip on YouTube, but the terms he used were very similar to his reaction to the tube bombers in 2005:
An imam talks about so-called terrorists, which is well worth listening to. 

From the Levison enquiry we learned about the positive symbiotic relationship that can exist between press and police - where the publicity given by the press is able to help with official investigations. In this case it seems that the publicity given by the two estates of government and the press have merely added oxygen to a horrible immolation on the streets of Woolwich. It wasn't great news. Last year about a hundred people were murdered in London. But Wednesday was a tragedy for one young man, Lee Rigby, his wife, Rebecca, their toddler son, Jack, and their close family. And they probably don't need to have the details of Lee's death endlessly pored over by the rest of us. May they all have some peace.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Where angels fear to tread

People sometimes ask me if I've ever been to Israel - or to the Holy Land. And the answer is that I have, in 1966! That was before the Six Day War, when the political map so radically changed. As a family we did something which would be impossible nowadays, I suspect: drove overland across Europe, through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, in a black Ford Consul 375, spending a week in East Jerusalem (as it then was) before crossing through the Mandelbaum Gate into West Jerusalem (as it then was). The political arrangement seemed to be working quite peacefully, as far as I in my teenage  years could tell. However the uneasy equilibrium was destroyed when less than a year later Israel launched preemptive strikes against the perceived threat of hostile forces gathering on all its borders.

I'm not one for pontificating on the rights and wrongs of the present situation in the Middle East. I do suspect that meddling by external "powers" only exacerbates the mess. The British establishment has not learned the lessons of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, it seems, with its careless encouragement of the Syrian uprising over two years ago. I've just been listening to Katie Melua's thoughtful song:
"If a black man is racist, is it okay
if it's the white man's racism that made him that way,
'cause the bully's the victim, they say?
By some sense they're all the same,
'cause the line between wrong and right
is the width of a thread from a spider's web...". Apportioning blame is a mug's, or a thug's, game.

One thing I am certain of is that isolation and non-communication is not a productive policy. Which is why I am sorry that Stephen Hawking has decided not to attend a conference next month in Israel. At first it was announced "for health reasons"; then it was because of a boycott of Israel by British academics - New York Times report. It's sad, because dialogue is always more productive than silence. It's ironic, because the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem appears to be on the threshhold of a breakthrough in an ethical stem-cell treatment for ALS/MND (from which he and I suffer) and other neurodegenerative diseases, and I personally wouldn't want Israel to boycott me or fellow MND patients with the fruit of their research. A further irony is his nifty speech-generation device which is so well known as his "voice" has at its heart "a fiendishly clever silicon chip that was designed in . . . yes, Israel" (Rod Liddle, in The Sunday Times yesterday).

I much prefer the Jewish conductor, Daniel Barenboim's approach with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which he co-founded in 1999 with Palestinian American, Edward Said, which brings together musicians from all over the Middle East, including Israel and Iran. "The aim of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is to promote understanding between Israelis and Palestinians and pave the way for a peaceful and fair solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Barenboim himself has spoken of the ensemble as follows:
'The Divan is not a love story, and it is not a peace story. It has very flatteringly been described as a project for peace. It isn't. It's not going to bring peace, whether you play well or not so well. The Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance. A project (for) the fact that it is absolutely essential for people to get to know the other, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it. I'm not trying to convert the Arab members of the Divan to the Israeli point of view, and [I'm] not trying to convince the Israelis to the Arab point of view. But I want to - and unfortunately I am alone in this now that Edward died a few years ago - ...create a platform where the two sides can disagree and not resort to knives.'" (Wikipedia) 

I was recently sent a link to this fascinating YouTube clip about Ulfat Khaider, an Arab-Israeli athlete. On Facebook, she's described as reaching high peaks "not only as a mountain climber, extreme sportswoman and volleyball player (she played for the Israeli national team), but as a remarkable woman striving for peace": YouTube Ulfat Khaider. This comment followed on Facebook: "Et on dit qu'il y a l'apartheid en Israel?! Pas seulement qu'il n'y a pas d'Apartheid, bien au contraire: dans quel pays arabe elle aurait pu devenir la champion qu'elle est? la femme libre et moderne qu'elle est? Bravo Ulfat et merci!" (And they say there's apartheid in Israel! Not only is there not apartheid - quite the contrary. In which Arab country could she have become the champion she is? The liberated modern woman that she is? Bravo and thanks!)

I try not to be naïve about the complexities of the Middle East and the Palestinian "question". Of course, I don't know the solution, but I would say, whether you're a scientist, musician or sportsman, that fighting ignorance is the better way than colluding with it. In Barenboim's words, "It is absolutely essential for people to get to know the other, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it." 

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Family-friendly government

If you choose to stay at home to bring up your children or care for your aged parents or an ailing spouse, things don't look too good for you, after yesterday's Queen's Speech. They were already looking grim for you, in fact, as a result of the government's child care plans.

Should you choose to do anything as old-fashioned and quaint as to keep your children at home until statutory school-age or even forego employment so that you are there when the kids come home from school or available when they are ill, it will affect your state pension - for the worse. How come? Hitherto, when you were a stay-at-home mum up until your children finished at school (or aged 20 if they were still in education), you were counted in on your husband's national insurance contributions (in effect his salary counted as both his and yours, which of course is what it was). That meant that the years you were busily employed caring for your children counted towards your state pension. This could be worth up to £66 per week, plus pension for years when you had been in employment up to a maximum of £110 per week. (

The new scheme will discriminate against those who stay at home to care for their children, as the state pension will be based solely on your national insurance contributions from employment. It's yet to be announced what the minimum number of years' contributions will entitle you to any state pension (between seven and ten?). If it was seven, you'd get £28.77 pension a week. Less than that, you'd get nothing. To me this sounds as though the Government, for all its fine words, sets no value on mums or dads staying at home for the sake of their children. Certainly the usual pattern of family life has changed since the 1940s, but the jury is still out on the benefits or otherwise of that change for children. Incidentally I heard this proposal first mooted, leaked, poisonously on the BBC as a measure to prevent immigrants cashing in on our welfare system - no contributions: no pension.

This morning I heard Laura Perrins, barrister and stay-at-home mum, talking on Woman's Hour about the Government's discrimination against people like her. She hit the headlines in March taking the Deputy Prime Minister to task over the double injury inflicted on those in her situation by the new child benefit and childcare policies. As a barrister married to another barrister, she took a big cut in income to stay at home. Since her husband earns over £50,000, they are now no longer entitled to child benefit (Fair enough, they thought; times are tough), even though couples who are both out at work earning up to something over £90,000 are entitled to child benefit. To add insult to injury, the Budget introduced a provision for up to 15 hours' free childcare - but only where both parents are employed.

To quote Laura in her exchange with the oleagenous Nick Clegg:

"Well, Mr Clegg, child benefit was a fair way of recognising everybody's legitimate choice either to work outside the home or to work inside the home. You've essentially abolished that for families like me and replaced it with this, which applies only to mums who want to go out to work.
"I've absolutely no problem with mums who want to do that – there are plenty of my neighbours who do that and I support them fully. But they also recognise that I do a difficult job at home, and by taking away our child benefit and not replacing it with anything you are clearly discriminating against us.
"And then, secondly, in relation to the 15 hours of free childcare or the free early-years education, which I knew you would say ... that doesn't just help stay-at-home mums, that is as you know a universal education provision that is for the children, not for the parents. That's like saying free primary education helps mums, or free secondary helps stay-at-home mums
"There is absolutely no provision within the tax system to help families like myself, and our family is no doubt a net contributor to the Exchequer.
"I just feel that this provision is to bump up the GDP numbers, because if I was looking after someone else's children that would count as a GDP number, which is all that I think the Treasury care about. They know the price of everything and the value of nothing." (Stay-at-home mother, Laura Perrins, talks to Nick Clegg)

I seem to remember Mr Cameron trumpeting his intention to lead "the most family-friendly government Britain has ever had". Well, it seems to promote the model of family of its leaders, where both parents go out to work and "delegate the care of their children to paid strangers" (Milli Hill, Letter to Nick Clegg), and to penalise the alternative. So much for the espousal of "choice" that we hear so much about. Choice - but it will cost you dearly. Of course it won't cost our PM or his deputy or his cabinet for whom state pensions and childcare costs are irrelevancies.