Sunday, 27 March 2011

There is no power but your vote

Full credit to the 250,000 people who marched peacefully through the streets of London this weekend, that they care enough about the way the country is governed to do so. No credit to the berks who occupied Fortnum & Mason, by the way, inconveniencing at best and frightening at worst entirely innocent tourists, and shop workers who are probably low paid, are certainly not the cause of the problems they protestors are complaining about, and are already having a shit weekend by having to work it.

But I never join these marches, however much I admire the commitment of the people who do. It's not entirely down to apathy, there are two main reasons in my case. Firstly, almost inevitably in these things, apart from when there's a large crowd drawn from a specific social group such as the students, you end up with a disparate group of people who have vaguely similar sets of ideals and ways of thinking about politics, government and society. So you get a whole wide range of different agendas being pushed, different slogans being chanted, different aims from the protestors and different views on what form that protest should take, with some being more fond of direct action than others. And there's always the element of those who join in looking merely to cause trouble, stir up direct action against authority generally, any authority or establishment figure, however poorly defined that may be. And then there's the group who are there just to break shit. Anarchists, class war activists, and people who simply enjoy smashing things up. So with all those different ideas and motivations going on, it's inevitable that the central message, the original reason most people were there in the first place, gets watered down. It certainly doesn't get covered by the media in the way people would hope. You can imagine the turmoil in the mind of the newsman agonising over whether to show Miliband's speech or shots of Fortnum & Mason getting trashed. Quite so - none at all. An unequal contest if ever there was one. "Miliband, you'd better start throwing some petrol bombs or something pretty sharpish or we're cutting back to F&M for the next round of fois gras jar throwing."

Secondly, and much more importantly, it simply doesn't change a damn thing. Ever. "But if the government sees so many people rallying against the cuts, sees the depth of feeling out there, they MUST change their mind." Not so. I accept that some protests have forced councils to make some concessions over spending cut plans in various parts of the country. But, firstly, that's the councils - mainly local people making decisions about spending in areas they know, that affect people they know. And secondly, the councils can't change the government's policy, they can't change the general ideology behind the cuts. Nor can, or will, the protests. When have they? Poll tax riot in 1990, 200,000 people on the streets. Change? Nothing. Only three years later, under a new PM, was the tax was finally changed. Fifteen million people protested against the Iraq war in 2003. Didn't change a damn thing.

And the fact is, the Tories simply don't care about the votes of the type of people who frequently make up the bulk of the numbers in many of these marches. I realise there will of course have been some Tory voters in such a large crowd as gathered this weekend, but in the main, it's the same type of crowd as were protesting against the poll tax, against the wars in the Middle East and so on. Tory loyalists they ain't.

Tory ideology is not about listening to or understanding the concerns of this sort of demographic. Never has been, never will be. They are simply not going to change their spots when they know there are not enough votes even in that group of 250,000 to make any difference to them in the long run. The only hope of success is to trust that the Lib Dems can be swayed by such feeling and pressure that, in turn, pressure from them on the Conservatives to moderate the cuts can be brought to bear. So far, though, they've been little more than lapdogs to their 80's-style, Thatcherite Tory masters. Who's heard so much as a peep out of them lately? When was the last time you saw Nick Clegg make a speech or a statement of any importance? He's basically toeing the line, or he actually agrees with the depth and pace of the cuts as they're currently formulated. They're not going to do anything about it, meaning all those people who gave up their time and money to come and make their feelings known have completely wasted their time.

The only power we have is at the ballot box. Ultimately, the politicians are slaves to those little crosses on bits of paper - in Britain, punishment for complacent, uncaring, incompetent or stale governments has been meted out forcefully that way during my lifetime, most notably in the 1997 election. So I don't march, because I don't think it'll do any good. But I always, always vote. If enough people vote for change when the time comes, it will put the relative power of the vote and the march into very sharp contrast.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Wonder what Samuel Johnson would have made of this

I spent Sunday afternoon at the Royal Albert Hall, watching one of the finest orchestras in the world, the Royal Philharmonic, performing a selection of what would best be described as 'populist' classical pieces, alongside the band of the Welsh Guards and the City of London Choir. Pieces that even the likes of me, a complete musical ignoramus, of classical particularly, would recognise, though not necessarily name correctly. Throw in a laser show, indoor fireworks, cannon for the 1812 Overture, you get the idea. With celebratory greetings for birthdays and the like thrown in by the conductor, kids noisily eating popcorn even in the posh seats and the audience clapping in time to some of the pieces, Götterdämmerung at the Vienna New Year concert it wasn't.

Nonetheless, these were some of the finest musicians and singers anywhere, and it was an amazing spectacle and a display of musicianship which awed even my ignorant ears. But there were bits mixed in which I really, really didn't like. This was, after all, classical music for the British masses, and as such included a fair bit of the flag-waving, breast-beating, last night of the Proms type stuff. Thousands of little flags being waved furiously, repeated verses of Elgar's most bombastic pieces, that sort of thing.

Now I just don't like this stuff. My sense of Britishness is simply not bound up with it. Don't get me wrong, I'm of course proud to be British, but my feeling of belonging does not come in this shape. It was lapped up by the almost entirely white, largely middle-aged or older audience, but it smelt of insular, island mentality, nationalistic, Daily Mail-reading anachronism to me, and I simply don't recognise it in my own sense of national identity. I know I shouldn't let this wind me up - this was, in one respect, an extremely British affair - it wasn't taken entirely seriously, and a few paper flags, a bit of a sing-song and a few red, white and blue balloons is about as nationalistic as we get. But I felt, nonetheless, uncomfortable during those bits. Not as uncomfortable as when I almost blubbed during a stirring rendition of Nessun Dorma (yes, it was because of memories of my 19-year-old self's desolation at defeat in the World Cup semi-final at Italia 90, I freely admit), but that's probably another entry altogether.

One thing did make me laugh about it, though. Leafing through the programme bought by a friend on the way home, it turned out that the superbly-talented opera singer belting out Rule Britannia several times, wearing a union flag waistcoat, with a larger union flag held aloft behind him like an Olympian, chest puffed out, strutting around the stage like a popinjay with too much to be pleased about, was an American. Perhaps this was not nationalism after all, but biting satire...

Ninja nutters

I freely admit that I'm not down with the kidz, but I am led to believe that the new craze for wrapping items of street furniture is known as 'yarn bombing'. Well, such an explosion has taken place in my 'hood, with a group of what one can only hope are harmless eccentrics posting a video of their activities, undertaken in an effort to brighten up a dark and forbidding walkway that some locals know as the Tunnel of Death.

The film can be found here: Ninja Knitters

While I, of course, applaud all locals' efforts to cheer up their urban environment, you do sometimes think that, with the video and everything, some people do have just a little bit too much time on their hands.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Count your blessings

Partly because I've been fortunate enough to be spending a pleasant week in Galicia, getting drunk a lot and eating way too much extremely high quality grub, I've not really felt like saying too much about what's been going on in what feels like a tormented world at the moment. It has, frankly, been easy to feel extremely detached from it.

But those of us who are detached from the daily realities of such torment should not forget how good we have it. It's bad enough seeing the natural disasters in New Zealand and now, even worse in magnitude and destructive power, in Japan. But now the feared civil war in Libya is made real, there's developing violence in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and who knows what else yet to come in the Arab world. None of this is likely to happen in Britain on any even vaguely comparable scale.

It's all made me think how fortunate not just I am, but all of us are who live in a stable, tolerant country, in which we're free to criticise the politicians who may be deceitful, grasping, insincere careerists, but are not Gadaffi. Where the problems which face us as a country at the moment, hoever acute they may feel to us, are largely of a financial nature. We are not seeing our society rocked by State-sponsored violence and murder, nor are we having to watch distressing pictures of entire cities laid waste by nature's indifferent killing power, or wait for news of hundreds of deaths to take shape from patchy details in the wake of an earthquake or some such.

I'm flying back home to London tomorrow, from one stable and still comparatively wealthy country to another. To see friends and family I count myself privileged to know, to return to a job I feel fortunate to have, and to a roof I'm grateful to have over my head. Watching the suffering of those in other parts of the world at the moment, I can't quite believe how lucky I am. Think on it.

Monday, 7 March 2011

No smoke without ire

I took a flight to Porto on Friday, on the way to Spain for the annual (and entirely bonkers) carnival in Galicia. Your standard EasyJet pack 'em in, fly 'em cheap affair - nothing out of the ordinary. It was noteworthy only for one thing - a chap set off the smoke alarm in the bogs by nipping in there for a sneaky gasper.

He was a Portuguese fellow, and will not therefore necessarily have understood the warnings from the English-speaking cabin crew not to smoke on any part of the plane, and that the toilets were alarmed in case you were tempted to do so.

But he can't have missed the 'No Smoking' signs plastered all over the place, which are clear to speakers of any language, nor the recorded announcement in Portuguese issuing the same dire warnings. So the crew announced that somebody had smoked in the bog, and we were told to remain in our seats when the plane reached the stand. They clearly knew who had done the deed, and had obviously called the police. On they got, and removed the miscreant, before the rest of us more law-abiding citizens were allowed to grab our bags and disembark.

Trouble for him, I thought. But, being one of the last ones off the plane, I found myself walking alongside the same figutive from justice as we made our way into the terminal. He seemed chipper enough and even, spotting the police who'd removed him from the aircraft through the terminal window, gave them a cheery wave. And they waved back! Now I don't for one moment think the bloke should do porridge with hard labour for sneaking a fag on a flight, but given the hysteria surrounding security on any flight these days, is it a risk you'd have taken? And can you imagine the reaction of the British police, had he been flying from Porto to London instead of the other way round? I seriously doubt he would have got away with what looked like a warning, and at worst an on-the-spot fine, and a cheery wave from our own boys in blue.

Also, never having smoked, I simply do not understand the imperatives which drive smokers. But is it so vital to have a fag that you can't wait for the three hours or so between them that a flight of this length requires? Is it so vital that you would risk the wrath of the security forces to sneak a cheeky one on a flight, in an age where any small misdeed on an aircraft could see you being viewed as a potential terrorist nutcase by passengers, staff and security alike?

I think, given the possible response to such an act, in the circumstances I would have waited. But then, like I said, I've never smoked.