Thursday, 28 July 2011
Sir Richard Branson is widely held up as an example of entrepreneurial success. Not in the mould of the ruthless tycoon sat atop a shiny tower counting piles of cash, but as the face of a new breed of capitalist who, at the end of the 20th-century, “tore off their ties, threw open their shirt necks and fretted about their employees’ spiritual well-being," as Terry Eagleton puts it.
Richard Branson is essentially a man of the “Cool Britannia” era. "We are seriously relaxed about people becoming very, very rich," Peter Madelson said at the time; and this was reflected in people like Branson. It was no longer a source of shame to have “loadsamoney”. Class, that old chestnut of 20th-century politics, was no more, or so the establishment liked to think. Still lingering here and there like a bad smell, but on the way out, nonetheless.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, it didn’t take long before the rich began to view the payment of tax as something they could be seriously relaxed about, too. What would at one time have been shameful became over the course of 30 years something like a badge of honour. This did not restrict itself to those at the top of society, either. Even members of the working class - those on the receiving end of today’s government cuts - can at times be heard referring disparagingly to the “tax man”, implying a dark, shadowy figure in it simply for what they can get. Perhaps it is indeed language that is of greatest importance in this respect, for one can hardly boast of “asset maximisation” when well-aware they are depriving not an anonymous and shadowy “tax man”, but terminally ill children of otherwise affordable cancer treatment, or pensioners of the ability to heat their homes for more than a few hours a day.
Recently I wrote an article highlighting the behaviour of Bono and U2 when it came to the payment of tax. In it I quoted Jim Aiken, a music promoter who helped stage U2 concerts in Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s. What he said epitomised Bono and the new breed of ego-driven capitalist in a sentence: “U2 are arch-capitalists - arch-capitalists - but it looks as if they're not.”
Looking beyond the self-glorification and ferocious publicity campaigns that characterise Bono’s “charitable giving,” U2 were simultaneously cutting the feet from under their own government’s ability to provide for the very poorest in the world – the very people Bono feigned the greatest concern for.
A similar thing could be said of Branson, whose first company, Virgin Music, started amid a sophisticated purchase-tax fraud that Branson himself admitted in 1971. The company was sold in 1992 for £560m and Branson went on to build his business empire from there. Despite a public persona as the amiable People’s Capitalist, Branson, according to Tom Bower, author of the book Branson, has spent “a lifetime building a fortune on hype, misrepresentations and...a criminal conviction for tax evasion”.
Branson’s business interests would always come ahead of any notion of the public good. For years Branson campaigned in Westminster for the privatisation of the rail network, one of the most disastrous sell-offs of public assets during the Thatcher era. Today Virgin Rail remains dependent on state money, aggressively protects its monopoly, and is subject to an exorbitant number of passenger complaints. (Bower, 2005)
Another of Branson's obsessions, his “lifetime ambition,” according to a millennium lecture he gave at Oxford, was to take over the running of the National Lottery. As Bower points out, “possessing the lottery would bequeath a vast cash flow in management fees and endless free publicity to Virgin by association while Branson anointed the lottery’s millionaires. By controlling the lottery, Branson would never again need to bother with dicey enterprises like cola, clothes, cosmetics or even mobile phones. Most important, he would reverse the crushing humiliation he suffered by two rejections”.
News surfaced today that Branson is planning to move Virgin’s brand division to Switzerland in a switch that is likely to save the company millions in tax revenue. The move is being undertaken, in the words of Virgin, “to co-ordinate... international growth and brand management,” whatever that means.
Commenting on Virgin’s historical tax record in Britain before the latest move was announced, Richard Murphy from Tax Research was already less-than complimentary, saying: “I didn’t think Virgin paid any tax here, let’s be blunt about it. It’s been remarkably poor at doing so.”
Whatever the case, the British treasury – and by that I mean hospitals, schools and care homes, to name but a few - is about to become several million pounds lighter, and no amount of rolling-up the shirtsleeves, hairspray or aspirational rhetoric is going to change that.
Monday, 18 July 2011
After living in London, life in a small, seaside town can come as something of a culture shock. For one thing, the evenings are extremely quiet; and when you do go out, to the pub say, it is quite unlike going to the pub in London. One thing I’ve noticed since being here is the sheer number of fights that occur on a Friday or Saturday night, usually over some trivial thing such as a person’s eye lingering a fraction too long on another drinker’s girlfriend. It seems fair to say that this is not helped by the fact that everyone consumes a tremendous amount of alcohol in this neck of the woods.
Being from a small town myself I always assumed the city was where the real violence took place; and when it comes to murders I have no doubt that it is. If it’s good old fashioned beatings you are after, however, small towns win hands down. In the last two weeks I’ve already heard around half-a-dozen stories of X hitting Y because he was disrespecting Z; not to mention the three or four men I noticed in the pub on Saturday evening with bruises and cuts to a large proportion of their faces.
This may all sound incredibly like snobbery on my part. “Look at those imbeciles fighting”, you might be hearing me say. There is, after all, a page on Chavtowns, the nasty spin-off of the cult hate-site Chav Scum, dedicated to this corner of the west of England, which it unendearingly describes as “the northern chavs’ number one holiday destination”. The creators of such sights are deep down probably quite jealous of the fun their working-class counterparts appear to be having. For while the middle-classes suck up to the boss for less and less money, those they write-off as “chavs” spend their time smoking, drinking and fucking like rabbits. All-in-all far more pleasurable and productive ways of spending one’s time.
There appears to be an unhealthy obsession at Chavtowns with what the working classes spend their money on. The affluent of course love to tell the poor what they should and should not be buying, as you will soon discover if ever in the company of someone giving money to a beggar. “Well I don’t mind, so long as they don’t spend it on drugs”, you will hear them say, ignoring the fact that sleeping on freezing cobblestones is probably quite difficult without the aid of at least some narcotics. The less affluent are inevitably written-off as feckless and lazy when they stay at home too; and with their love of “Burberry, Von Dutch and animal print" labelled hyper-materialists when they have the temerity to visit the shops. Some would say they can’t win.
One thing life does revolve around in the countryside is the Sunday newspaper. Unsurprisingly it is not the hedonistic youth of the night before but their parents who awake at six thirty in the morning to stand outside the local newsagents for their copy of the Mail on Sunday. The strangest aspect of all of this is that if you visit the shop later on in the morning, at 11 say, there continues to be a large pile of newspapers, including the Mail on Sunday, sat on top of the counter. Situated very much in Tory heartland, I can’t help but feel that the competitive society also extends to who can be the first out of the newsagents in the morning clutching their right-wing tabloid. After spending at least 20 of my 28-years living here this strange phenomenon continues to be something I am unable to fully understand.
Just down the road from Burnham is Weston-Super-Mare, a slightly bigger seaside town of comparable shabbiness. It was here the Kaiser Chiefs had in mind when they penned their hit single “I predict a riot”, due to the willingness of the locals to fight at the drop of a hat. Passing up on the opportunity of a duel and heading out of town and into the countryside highlights the contradictory nature of provincial life. Living in these small, seaside towns can be mind-numbingly awful at times; but it is right beside exactly the sort of scenery you don’t get in London.
It is often assumed that the poor in Britain live in the inner cities or on the outskirts in sprawling council estates. In fact there are thousands of small towns like Burnham where many inhabitants live incredibly downtrodden existences without the prospect of “regeneration”, nor the corresponding influx of jobs many cities receive. Even McDonald's is unlikely to set-up shop in Burnham. If you are lucky and have qualifications you may get a job as an estate agent or go into sales of some kind, hawking junk over the telephone to naive pensioners. Failing that it’s work in a residential care home or one of the local factories on the minimum wage.
The class system, along with a full complement of social ills, exists probably more strongly in the countryside than in the city. The myth of rural virtue and urban vice is an old one; but just as there are aristocrats in government awkwardly dropping consonants there are similar folk in the countryside whose snobbery is not quite so carefully calibrated. Those who, to quote Terence Blacker, “will judge you not on who you are, or what you say, do or believe, but on the things you happen to have in your house and whether they conform...”.
Being surrounded by all of this again feels, for me anyway, something like the return of an old friend.
Wednesday, 13 July 2011
In a matter of weeks the political class has gone from cap-doffing servitude to outright hostility to Rupert Murdoch and News International. It feels almost surreal watching Ed Miliband and David Cameron publically attacking Murdoch when until recently they would have stopped at nothing to curry favour with his newspapers. Tony Blair's former special advisor Lance Price even said in his memoirs that Mr Murdoch was the “third person to be consulted on every major decision” during Blair’s time in office. Asking who voted for this – after all, the most obvious question for any serious democrat – was apparently off-limits for our politicians until last week. Now they are asking nothing else.
Anyone who has ever read a copy of Rupert Murdoch's Sun newspaper, if read is the correct term, would be hard-pressed to find any worthwhile contribution to British cultural life within its pages. Those who have felt the wrath of the Sun in recent years have ranged from asylum seekers to benefit claimants to the straightforwardly eccentric. The Sun and the NOTW also tap very successfully into a layer of public veneration of the military and a proud hatred of anything remotely French or German. This mentality can be seen most visibly during football World Cups or on the eve of a war, when a failure to applaud or cheer at the correct volume is treated as high-treason or a sign of closeted homosexuality.
The problem for the left - and it is a real problem - is that the public buys this sort of thing in droves. Several years ago the then-editor of the Mirror Piers Morgan tried to include more “serious” news in his paper, only to see circulation decline dramatically as a result. Going by the sales figures at least, if it’s a contest between hard news and peado-bashing the latter tends to shift more copies.
Some on the left are celebrating Murdoch’s setbacks as if the destruction of one man will solve the problem of a biased, corporate media and usher in a new, progressive era. In reality, the problem is not so much Murdoch but a notion of “freedom” that allows wealthy barons to use the media as their business propaganda-wing. As Hannen Swaffer, one of the early 20th century pioneers of British tabloid journalism, put it, “freedom of the press in Britain is the freedom to print such of the proprietor’s prejudices as the advertisers don’t object to”.
The resulting copy often brings to mind the description given of the Cuban Communist newspaper, Granma, by the late Argentinean editor and dissident Jacobo Timerman, who described his morning encounter with the newspaper as "a degradation of the act of reading".
It is of course a simplification to say that media barons set the political agenda and journalists jump into line. For a start there are many journalists who would refuse to do such a thing. What newspapers and television stations do very effectively is reinforce orthodoxy organically through the reproduction of their own economic interests. Should the media accurately report voices of dissent it may in theory cannibalize itself through a transformation in society’s economic structure. According to Gramsci, we may judge ideology to be effective if it is able to blend with the “common sense” of the people.
Despite what the political right will inevitably say, the call for a democratisation of the media to prevent a few wealthy barons controlling the entire political and cultural information-gateway is not a call for the destruction of freedom of the press, but a demand for a genuinely free and democratic mass-media.
In the clamour to get rid of Murdoch, though, let us on the left not forget the real issue here: media plurality. When Murdoch is gone, it could quite easily be someone else.
Thursday, 7 July 2011
Dedicated to those who lost their lives to religious fascism on this day six years ago
Yesterday I moved from London to a place called Burnham-on-sea, a banal coastal town in the South West of England where they still sell Donald McGill-style postcards in the summertime. I moved because my family live here; and with family comes a degree of financial security. I still intend to spend much of my time in London, but I cannot afford to live there any longer. Not that is, until I find gainful, paid employment.
Getting a job is notoriously difficult for the unemployed at present. A man I recently sat next to at a recruitment fair told me and others he had applied for 10,000 jobs in the past two years. He was almost certainly exaggerating – overdoing one’s own misfortune seems to be a particularly British characteristic - or perhaps disastrous at writing job applications, but nonetheless, the fact that many present were prepared to believe him speaks volumes about the state of the job market.
As it happened, I was able to land a job with my previous employer, Royal Mail. Getting the job proved to be the easy part. More difficult was getting sufficient hours to pay the rent as well as buy enough to eat. Being a Postman today is a very different job to what it used to be. Almost all new contracts are temporary and based on 25-30 hour weeks; and the amount of junk a postman is required to carry around on his back in the form of advertising is rising exponentially year-on-year. That was my impression at least. Unable to eke out anything other than an extremely meagre existence in London on £200 a week, I left the position after only two weeks in the job.
The part of London life that is perhaps the biggest burden is the cost of rent. Being shown around dingy, mould-infested bedsits only to be told you must pay £100 a week for the pleasure of living there is soul destroying, especially when it comes with the prospect of giving half your weekly pay to someone whose “portfolio” ensures they will never have to sleep in mould infested dwellings, nor break their back for £200 a week. With very little chance of ever owning a house, those with inadequate living quarters must instead navigate the rental free-market, where at the end of every tenancy getting your deposit back can be like trying to extract teeth from a bad tempered dog. Life in London can be hugely enjoyable, but it can also leave you feeling a little like Gordon Comstock, the character in George Orwell’s novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, his living conditions grim, his job boring, and his impecuniousness a frequent source of humiliation. The difference in my case is that I am not actively trying to sink to the lowest levels of society.
London famously attracts its fair share of those attempting to “make it” in one sense or another. As someone who has recently completed a course in journalism at City University, I am fairly sure I fit into this category of person myself. Although fully aware that moving to London would not open some golden path into the journalistic profession, I did view it as the correct place to be, which it undeniably is, most of all perhaps because of the opportunities to meet people you only get in the capital.
One thing you soon start to notice in London is the extraordinary extent to which everything is about “connections”, not least in journalism. The major newspaper titles no longer advertise positions, instead preferring to find employees who are in the loop, so to speak. Most graduates instead pursue internship placements, working anything up to a year for free on a major title, performing menial tasks such as tea-making in the almost millenarian hope that one day they may get the chance to contribute something worthwhile to the paper.
National journalism has always been something of a middle and upper-class pursuit of course. The term “BBC accent” was coined during the 20th century to describe a recognisable Home Counties diction the corporation now likes to pretend most of its employees do not in fact possess. What certainly has changed is that most of those successfully entering the profession today have postgraduate qualifications and lengthy internships under their belts, affordable only to the relatively affluent; and unlike a Home Counties accent, something which cannot be faked. The resulting journalism that invades my own cramped bedroom every night via the television could perhaps most aptly be described as the political establishment talking to itself.
If you can handle all of this and come out of it with your sanity you may be rewarded with a job, or you may not be. What will almost certainly be the case is there will be less in the boss's pot with which to pay you, the worker, whether in the newspaper business or elsewhere. In hard times employee’s wages inevitably take the hit before chief executive final salary pension schemes; and if that means newsrooms becoming increasingly stuffed with wealthy individuals who can partake in journalism as a leisure activity, then so be it.
The days always seem to go by at a faster pace in London. What I mean to say is that the time actually feels like it is moving faster. I think because so much of each day is spent under the ground scuttling along, I would say at great speed, but often at a crawl, on an overcrowded tube train. The conditions often bring out the worst in people, myself included. Just the other day I got into a quarrel with a man over some trivial thing (he bumped into me as I was walking round a corner), resulting in a situation that could quite easily have resulted in a physical confrontation, foolish on my part though that would have been.
It was of course in Keep the Aspidistra Flying that Gordon Comstock declared his own personal war on affluence. Riding on the Docklands Light Railway first thing in the morning having practically embalmed my liver the night before, sat next to the businessmen with calculators working out their cash flows on the way to Canary Wharf, I have gotten, I like to think, a small insight into Gordon Comstock’s disdain for the capitalist vulgarities he sees around him, oscillating between self-admiration and self-loathing.
Six years ago today a group of deranged fanatics declared not a war on affluence, but a war on London. Without dragging up tired clichés about “never forgetting” (although you shouldn’t) and lionising the “spirit of the blitz”, remembering that 52 innocent people were murdered for a fascistic ideology puts my own London-induced neuroticism into perspective. Despite his (to me anyway) disagreeable political views, Samuel Johnson was right to say that “by seeing London, [he had] seen as much of life as the world can show”, and it was this that so disgusted the murderers of 7/7 – the sheer diversity of life in the capital, whether represented by “those slags dancing around” (as some other would-be murderers called them), or the insufficiently pious Muslims who practiced at their local Mosques.
Returning to Orwell, Gordon Comstock always had to share his room with aspidistras which continued to thrive despite his mistreatment of them. Despite what happened on that day in July 2005, London continues to thrive, and is a place I will return to live soon, I hope.
Monday, 4 July 2011
"The road to Jerusalem passes through Cairo." - Ayman al Zawahiri, the current leader of Al Qa'ida (1995)
Program for Marxism 2011, the annual get-together of the Socialist Workers' Party:
Program for Marxism 2011, the annual get-together of the Socialist Workers' Party:
Friday, 1 July 2011
Girl, 13, crushed to death by a falling branch as she sat on park bench because her teachers were out on strike
Not content with portraying striking teachers as militants “holding the country to ransom”, the Daily Mail has published a story implying teachers and their union are to blame for the death of 13-year-old Sophie Howard, who died yesterday while playing in a park in Yaxley, Peterborough.
The incident happened when a large branch fell from a high tree and hit her. She was rushed to hospital but died of her injuries.
While unconsoling to the young girl’s family, this tragedy appears to be just (if that word can ever appropriately be used to describe the death of a child) one of those things. It happened after a horribly unfortunate coming together of factors that left Sophie Howard in the wrong place at the wrong time. It could have happened to anyone, and it could have happened at any time.
Not satisfied with straightforwardly reporting the incident, however, the Daily Mail has tried to blame the young girl’s death on striking teachers. The logic, if you can call it that, runs that if Sophie Howard had been in school, and not sat on the park bench, she would not have been killed by the falling branch. Sophie’s school was closed yesterday due to industrial action. It is therefore the fault of striking teachers that she was killed.
In reality of course, the girl died because she was hit by a falling tree branch. She was not at school yesterday, just like she was not at school on the day of the Royal Wedding. She had instead gone to play in the park with her friends. Blaming striking teachers for her death is akin to blaming headmasters for opening schools when pupils are killed by speeding motorists on their way to the classroom – a far more common occurrence (and the prevention of which the Mail actively opposes).
Not satisfied with a straightforward write-up, though, the Mail decided to insult the bereaved family of Sophie Howard by using the death of their little girl in a sad attempt to smear striking teachers. Some hack, probably an unpaid intern, had to sit there and think of a way to use the death of a child to push the newspaper’s anti-union agenda.
How fucking pathetic.
P.S. The Mail has not always showed the same level of concern for accidents caused by falling trees.