Author: Sacha Ismail and Esther Townsend
12.50pm, Friday 29 April: This morning about ten anti-monarchy protesters, students and young workers who are mostly socialists and anarchists, were stopped by the police outside Charing Cross station, searched and handcuffed. When we left to write this report, they had been held outside the station for about an hour.
Trafalgar Square was tightly controlled, with the help of the police, and it was not actually possible to protest. The group of comrades were preparing to leave to attend the Republic street party in Holborn when the police stopped and searched them. Another thirty police were then called in, arriving in four vans, and surrounded them.
This paranoid, over the top action by the police is part of a wider assault on civil liberties in the run up to the royal wedding.
Update, 5.30pm: The comrades were arrested for 'breach of the peace', even though there was no possible way this could be justified. They were then taken to Sutton police station, in deep south London, where they were eventually released - of course - without charge. This was essentially an act of kidnapping by the state to prevent a protest.
Thanks to everyone who got in touch to express solidarity or offer support
Friday, 29 April 2011
Monday, 25 April 2011
The hype around the Royal wedding will reach fever pitch this week, culminating in the nuptials on Friday. Every broadcasting outlet will act as the ventriloquist’s dummy for the public at large, informing us that we are unreservedly and uniformly delighted for the happy couple.
There will be little in the way of dissent in the printed press either. Without irony they will superimpose images of Prince William and Kate Middleton a few pages from photos of “our boys” fighting for “democracy” in the Middle East.
Those of us who see a contradiction in such sentiments will barely be worth a mention.
A straightforward comparison with the ruling elite of, say, North Korea - a country where millions starve to death - would of course be preposterous. For several consecutive days, however, aesthetically at least, it will feel a little like living in the "People's Republic".
This week will also see the climax of the Alternative Vote debate, leading up to polling day on May 5. Initially utterly disinterested in this referendum, I’ve developed a palpable disgust at the parameters in which the debate has been conducted. Not the various tactics both sides have used to smear the other, which have indeed been disgusting, but the fact that the entire narrative has been along the lines of who a change in the voting system might “help” - as if the purpose of an electoral system were to give an advantage to a specific political party, rather than simply to count the votes of the electorate.
The debate over which system sufficiently disenfranchises smaller parties is equally fatuous, and not simply undemocratic, but profoundly anti-democratic. It also makes the unwarranted assumption that it is centrist politics (which is, in reality, deeply subservient to right-wing free-market ideology) that has served us well in recent times. The huge financial crisis, now being paid for by ordinary voters, who played no part in causing it, makes that assumption look rather foolish. That certain social classes increasingly don’t even bother turning out to vote is hardy an advert for good representation, either.
In the case of the monarchy and AV, proponents of real democratic change will be written-off this week as “spoilsports” and “unrealistic” respectively. It is worth remembering for those of us who wish to see a flowering of genuine democracy that at one time almost all radical change was considered “unrealistic”. As for the “miserable little compromise” that is AV, as Nye Bevan once said, "We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road. They get run down."
Thursday, 21 April 2011
The Casa Grande Hotel sits on the corner of Parque Cespedes in the very centre of Santiago de Cuba, Cuba's second largest city. The hotel was built in 1914 to cater to wealthier Cubans from Havana and visitors from the United States. It is also rumoured to have hosted its fair share of Mafioso in its 1950s heyday; until, that is, Fidel Castro came down from the mountains and drove them out at the barrel of a gun.
Fifty years of Communist revolution having passed, and aside from what would once have been American accents today being distinctly European – ‘Ein Cerveza por favor’ - the dynamic is very much the same: one marked by a distinct separation between those who have and those who have not.
For a society that supposedly abolished racial discrimination some half a century ago, the patrons of Cuba's hotels are overwhelmingly white and foreign, even if the ‘tourism apartheid’ that previously prevented Cubans from sleeping in them was recently abolished. While I sit in the Casa Grande's balcony restaurant and digest my meagre lunch, I notice several thin and mawkish faces looking up at the terrace begging for change. I also notice that almost all of those begging are black.
Blacks and people of mixed-race officially make up a third of Cuba’s total population of 11 million, according to the latest census carried out in 2002. Cuban academics, however, estimate that between 60 and 70 per cent of the population is black or ‘mulatto’ (mixed race). The Cuban cultural journal Temas published studies by the Government's Anthropology Centre in 2006 which showed that on average, the black population has worse housing, receives less money in remittances from abroad, and has less access to jobs in emerging economic sectors like tourism. White Cubans of Spanish descent also often have relatives in Miami from whom they receive remittances (the vast majority of the wealthy who fled Cuba in the early 1960s to Miami were white), leaving, as during Batista's day, the Cuban blacks and Mulattos to cut the sugar cane and roll the cigars.
All over Cuba right now there is very much a sense that people are waiting. Waiting for what exactly, nobody seems to know; but everywhere you go people seem certain of one thing: things cannot go on as they are. In the early 1990s the Cuban economy was in trouble. The collapse of the Soviet Union saw a 35 per cent decline in the country’s GDP almost overnight. Shops were increasingly bare and food was scarce. Stories abounded of cats and dogs being cooked and eaten in central Havana. Rolling blackouts became the norm and many factories were closed through want of raw materials. Onlookers spoke of the inevitable demise of Fidel Castro and his Communist regime, not least the Miami exiles, many of whom were salivating at the prospect of their nemesis finally being swept from power in a popular uprising.
At the time of the last Communist Party congress some 14 years ago, the Government grudgingly introduced a series of market reforms in an attempt to stave-off economic collapse. New hotels financed by Canadian and European companies went up, and Cubans were granted licenses to rent rooms to foreign tourists. People were also for the first time permitted to turn their homes into Paladares (small private restaurants). The reforms were modest, but gave the country the necessary economic breathing space the Communist system simply could not provide.
A decade on, and coming on the back of reports that Cuba is in dire economic straits after the global financial crisis, President Raul Castro is attempting to free up Cuba's sclerotic economy once more, with plans released by the Confederación de Trabajadores de Cuba (CTC) - Cuba's only legal trade union - detailing the lay-off of up to a million workers from the state payroll.
Since taking power in 2008, Raul has implemented modest reforms at a typically Cuban pace. A recent well publicised change has been the hand-over of a number of state barbers to their employees. Not everyone in Havana has jumped at the chance to embrace the private sector, however. Socrates Barrero, a 65-year-old barber, decided to remain on the state payroll at his shop in Havana Vieja, remarking: 'I'm too old and have been around too long to want to go to bed every night worrying about where the next meal is going to come from.' Others, such as Migdalia, a 50-year-old resident of Havana Vieja, were more enthusiastic: ‘I would like to begin a restaurant business in my home’, she said, ‘I have four grown-up children who are just hanging around the house most of the time, and together we could really make it work.’
While Raul Castro is reportedly an admirer of the Chinese model, the Cuban leadership are said to view Chinese and Vietnamese reforms as having gone too far; and like Gorbachev some 25 years earlier, are looking to tweak and improve Socialism, rather than do away with it. Reform, however, has brought with it its own share of problems. During the ‘special period’ in the 1990s when the country modestly opened up to the market, corruption became endemic. Anyone who has visited Havana in recent years will tell you that this is a city where everybody is on the take. The legal economy barely functions; improvisation is how people survive. ‘No es facil’, you will often hear Cubans saying; it’s not easy. Prostitution has also resurfaced on a disturbing level; and the economic lifeline provided by the tourist industry has considerably increased domestic resentment, as ordinary Cubans come into contact with westerners whose ostentatious wealth has created new and visible inequalities on the island.
The modest economic opening led to an improvement in the country's financial situation as the country entered the new millennium. Towards the end of the decade, however, the global economic crisis and the damage wrought by hurricanes Gustav and Ike contributed to a worsening economic picture once more. Wikileaks cables sent by the U.S. Interests Section in Havana in February 2009 detailing discussions between some of Cuba's main trading partners, including China, Spain, Canada, Brazil and Italy, as well as France and Japan, said diplomats agreed that ‘the [Cuban] financial situation could become fatal within 2-3 years’, with the country becoming ‘insolvent as early as 2011.'
On the back of last week’s Party Congress, the first since the mid-1990s, the Government announced that it is planning to lay-off around 500,000 state employees and open up the economy further to private enterprise. There are also plans to make cuts to the social safety net, eventually eliminating the ration card and large food subsidies altogether. The question now is whether economic transformation will bring with it a degree of political change. Cuban labour rights are virtually non-existent. There are no independent unions; and aside from the mention of co-operatives in some areas of the economy, there is little talk by the regime of an increased role for workers in the running of their enterprises - even less about the right of workers to organise independently of the state. Nor are there any plans to open up the media, its printed organs being most accurately described by the late Argentinean editor and dissident Jacobo Timerman as ‘a degradation of the act of reading’.
Judging by the two million tourists who flock to Cuba every year, the allure of the island to outsiders appears not to have worn off. Many visitors are indeed attracted by the time-warped element of the place, summing up their desire to visit with the phrase ‘before it changes’, as if talking about a laboratory experiment. Havana itself has become a virtual living museum, its citizens being at times little more than artefacts with almost no chance of interfering in their own internal affairs until the Curator kicks the bucket. Real change would probably bring with it a trashy and course influx of fast food and consumerism. Right now, however, Cubans would probably very much like a McDonalds in Havana. After all, plastic food is better than no food.
Monday, 18 April 2011
Anyone perusing a British newspaper or turning on a television a couple of weeks from now will be encouraged to leave one’s critical faculties at the door. For several consecutive days, aesthetically at least, it will feel a little like living in North Korea. We will be greeted with infantilized, wall-to-wall coverage of the wedding of two individuals none of us has ever met, none of us elected, and (if a recent poll in the Independent is anything to go by), most of us could not give a damn about.
Those of us who do not subscribe to the innate superiority of the House of Hanover already stoically put up with a lot; and we have done considerable mental preparation in readiness for endless “Royal correspondents” telling us we are delighted and thrilled - not to mention glad of our servitude - when proceedings kick-off on April 29. While we quietly ask for a Republic, we readily accept we will be on the receiving end of this barrage of unapologetic monarchist triumphalism without abandoning the notion that one day a flowering of genuine democracy and equality may come about – the very concept anathema to hereditary succession and monarchy.
The groom may not be the buffoon-like figure his prematurely-aged father has become - talking to plants and blaming humanity’s problems on the enlightenment – but this rather misses the point, and is akin to evoking the benevolence of a dictator to justify dictatorship itself. The tabloids continually attempt to negate this rather obvious glitch in the hereditary principle – you cannot simply pick and choose. Thomas Paine put it best when he said “One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in Kings, is that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule, by giving mankind an ass for a lion.”
“Wills”, as the gossip-sheets refer to him, (I can’t bring myself to, for I do not know the man) is, if not exactly a lion, certainly not your archetypal aristocratic ass. His courteous and charming manner brings to mind his late mother, Diana, the aftermath of whose death saw the nearest thing to mass hysteria Britain has ever seen. The public memory of Diana is that she was generally a good egg, driven to despair by the Prince of Wales' infidelity and the paparazzi. “She did a lot for charity” is a commonly heard refrain, ignoring the fact that she left almost all of her vast estate to two of Britain’s wealthiest families.
There can be little doubt that for the Coalition the Royal wedding is a God-send, offering a dose of feel-good exultation and patriotism just as austerity begins to bite. We know how the Tories feel about monarchy; and apart from a few honourable exceptions, the middle-class Lib Dems embody a soft-subservience to the crown that talks-up the economic benefits of the monarch while dismissing republicans as spoil-sports.
The thing about monarchy, though, is that like dictatorship and religion it demands you stop thinking. There will be no comment on the BBC or Sky news as to the contrast between the vast wealth on display on April 29 and the services being cut because they are “no longer affordable”. Nor will the media report on the large number of us who feel completely alienated from the cartoonish spectacle of this childish institution and its big day out.
Prince William will one day become the head of the church as well as head of state. As an atheist I don’t often find myself quoting from the Bible; but if there are words that sum up just how I feel about this carnaval of the irational they are these: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” - Corinthians 13:11
Thursday, 7 April 2011
The British political right is preparing for a pro-cuts rally in central London next month in response to the anti-cuts March for the Alternative that took place on 26 March. The “Rally Against Debt” is being organised by the Taxpayers Alliance and has attracted celebrity-backing in the form of Toby Young. Annabelle Fuller, a former adviser to the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, is also a leading organiser. Fuller said: "It will be a major demonstration highlighting the importance of tackling the huge public sector deficit, and the need for substantial spending cuts."
Not only are the organisers of the rally calling for the deficit to be reduced, but the wording of their various statements suggests they wish to see "substantial spending cuts" regardless of Government debt. A case in point is their website, which features no calls for an increase in taxes for the rich, no calls for a collection of unpaid taxes and no mention of the bankers who caused Britain's financial crisis. What they do in fact is trot-out the well-worn myth that "public spending got out of control" – implying that spending at least a proportion of working people's taxes on working people (rather than blowing it on "free schools" and other luxuries for the rich) is akin to a “loss of control”.
The section of society that really did lose control – the rich, with their profligate gambling of other people’s money – are unworthy of even a mention.
The March Against Debt is in reality nothing more than an opportunity for a gloat by right-wing ideologues at the slash-and-burn cuts about to hit public services. Their website even goes as far as to praise Vodafone, whose infamous billion-pound tax-avoidance schemes are apparently unrelated to the gap in public finances. This sort of brazen hypocrisy confirms what many of us have long known - that while the state compels working people to abide by laws protecting the rich and powerful, when the idea of compulsion is evoked to collect the taxes of the wealthy, the trend is increasingly towards a form of volunteerism. Mention to one of the motley collection of oddballs organising the march that a person on the dole gets £50.95 a week however, and you will be met fairly quickly with white-noise about “making work pay”.
Do not suffer under the illusion that you are listening to a call for higher wages.
Toby Young sees no problem in using Government cash to indulge his ego-driven “free school” project; and one of the directors of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, Alexander Heath, does not even pay tax in the UK – he lives in a farmhouse in France. When the cuts really begin to bite, the preposterous sight of Young and his ilk parading around London may actually boost the anti-cuts movement more than we might at-present imagine – and more than any Thatcherite caricature perched on the Tory back-benches ever could.
Public opinion is already turning against the Coalition, and the sight of the wealthy celebrating job losses and benefit cuts will be too much for many to stomach. That being said, it would be highly pleasurable to see Toby Young hit with an egg, regardless of the subsequent publicity.
Tuesday, 5 April 2011
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg says he wants to stop people getting on in life purely because of "who they know".
A worthy aim but one that is, along with rhetoric about "fairness" and "progress", devoid of meaningful content. We all want people to be able to pursue their talents, regardless of who they know or their family background - but what concrete measures are being proposed to achieve this? None of course. When it comes to policies which may put the brakes on unearned privilege even members of the Labour Party are loath to challenge the vested interests of the rich and powerful.
No mention either by Clegg of banning unpaid internships, which would in-reality not be a ban at all, but a lifting of a ban on those from poorer backgrounds following their dreams too (if of course you ignore for a minute the existence of private schools and educational-selection by house price, to name but a few).
All talk of "social mobility" and "getting more kids from poorer backgrounds into university", while admirable in the latter instance, misses the point entirely, in that society still needs people to do traditional, working-class jobs. To live in a country which treats those in low-skilled occupations shoddily because they should, in the eyes of some, "work harder" so as to "get on" is to accept a permanent and entrenched class-system, based on the fact that nurses, cleaners, carers and refuse collectors will always be needed. The same of course could not be said of bankers.
I tend to agree with Owen Jones that social mobility is a dead end, and a distraction from narrowing income inequality - which might require genuine political courage. If Clegg wants some indication of how un-meritocratic Britain actually is then he should take a look at his cabinet colleagues. It was Alexis de Tocqueville who once said that "The surface of society is covered with a layer of democratic paint, but from time to time one can see the old aristocratic colors breaking through."