Friday, 29 May 2009
It's not long until the European elections, and one of the frequently voiced worries by those with an interest in these things is that the ongoing Westminster expenses fiasco might result in 'extremist' parties doing rather well, either for offering an alternative voice to mainstream politics or by the electorate casting protest votes in disgust at the money grabbing shenanigans of everyday politicians.
That's certainly the view shared by the UK Independence Party, who hope to take advantage of the public's disaffection with politics by making real gains in the 4th June poll - despite their own questionable record over expenses. They're certainly working my area of Leeds hard; UKIP has already popped a leaflet through the door and has splashed out on a large billboard at the end of the street. Both proclaim that the people of Britain should "say no to unlimited immigration".
Now I hate to have to be the one to point this out but the United Kingdom does not actually have an 'unlimited' immigration policy, Brussels-orchestrated or otherwise; I'm pretty sure a quick 'phone call to the UK Border Agency would confirm this is the case. Nor can I find a single major political party standing in the European elections that advocates such a policy. It would appear that UKIP are pledging to end a practice that doesn't actually exist in the first place.
Friday, 22 May 2009
Bit of a personal gripe, today's post. I try to avoid it wherever possible but there are times when it just can't be helped. It's to do with that modern-day scourge of environmentalists, the budget airline. One budget airline in particular.
My mother had booked two return tickets to Vienna from Gatwick with Easyjet, at a shade over £140. Not unreasonable, you might think. Unfortunately she found herself unable to go, and so offered the tickets to me. Given that the tickets were non-refundable it made sense for me to take them. I've always fancied a trip to Vienna.
However, when I attempted to change the names on the tickets on the Easyjet website I discovered that the fee demanded in addition to the money already paid was an eye-watering £356 - more than double the price of the original ticket.
Had I attempted to change flight times or destinations then it might be understandable; it would, in effect, be a request for new tickets. But all that was changing were the names of the people boarding, a minuscule administrative chore in which I did the bulk of the legwork anyway by altering the thing online.
In response to an angrily worded email I was told that "these charges are in place to reduce the risk of anyone buying the bulk of our flights and adding the passenger names when selling on the seats at a later point without any further charges."
Understandable, perhaps, if someone had bought a dozen seats or so on the 'plane and then submitted twelve name changes; but a return trip for two? Not exactly the most plausible (or profitable) ticket touting scam I've ever heard of.
Easyjet? Easymoney, more like...
Wednesday, 20 May 2009
It looks like that despite its apparent willingness to go into government - in Stormont at least - Sinn Féin really hasn't changed all that much from the party widely viewed as the political wing of the IRA back in the bad old days of the Troubles.
Alerted by another blogger, I had a look at some of the items for sale on the Shinner's online store. Among the various books and assorted Republican paraphernalia were some items that can't fall far short of breaching the Terrorism Act. Take, for example, this delightful t-shirt - 3rd on the 'bestseller' list - declaring the IRA to be an undefeated army, and featuring paramilitaries holding an assortment of weaponry. Or this one, with a quote from Republican idol Bobby Sands - he who adorns the side of Sinn Féin's Falls Road offices - underneath the letters 'IRA'.
The Irish Republican Army, need I remind you, is a proscribed terrorist organisation in both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. It seems almost unreal that a political party that operates legally within both these countries should sell material that openly glorifies the actions of an illegal paramilitary group. One could only imagine the uproar that would occur if mainstream British political parties carried such items on their websites.
Now we all know that Sinn Féin has enjoyed explicit links with the IRA in the past. But the party claims that it has left the armalite behind and is now dedicated to pursuing its aim of a united Ireland purely by democratic means. It's time for them to show that they really mean it.
Tuesday, 19 May 2009
After more than a quarter of a century of violence the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, that tear drop of land off the south coast of India, have finally been defeated. If reports are to be believed - and so far not everyone does - Tamil leader Velupillai Prabhakaran has been killed. It marks the end of a bitter final campaign that has drawn international criticism of both the Tigers - Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE for short - and the Sri Lankan government for the numbers of civilian casualties. In 26 bloody years some 70,000 people have lost their lives.
It's been a conflict that has been distinguished by its brutality; Tiger tactics included suicide attacks - such as the one that killed former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi - and the use of child soldiers. Sri Lankan government forces have also been accused of committing atrocities.
But the military defeat of the Tigers will not necessarily bring peace to the country. The Tamil minority does hold very real grievances against their Sinhalese overlords, and any sense of triumphalism will only serve to fan the flames of existing resentment. Foreign secretary David Milliband's attempt to articulate this view was met with derision by mobs surrounding the British embassy in Colombo denouncing Britain's supposed support for the Tigers.
The ball is in the government's court; the focus must now be on reconstruction, on healing bitter ethnic divisions, on ending discrimination, and persuading the Tamil minority that they have a future in a united Sri Lanka. The language of war has no place in a country of peace.
Monday, 18 May 2009
Although it didn't merit many column inches there was a small but important victory for workers over The Man last week. A Court of Appeal ruling stated that restaurants could not use tips to top up wages which were set below the minimum wage.
I've worked in a few bars in my time, and it's fair to say that tips to workers can be spread out unevenly - usually in direct proportion to relative attractiveness - or can vary greatly in value, or often both. No-one, bar staff or otherwise, should have their take home pay dictated not by their employers but by the charity of the customers they serve.
The whole purpose of the minimum wage is to halt exploitation of workers and enable people to work themselves out of poverty. In this, the tenth anniversary since its introduction by Labour - amid predictable opposition by the Conservatives - it's good to see that the safeguards put in place to catch out employers who seek to exploit those that work for them are doing exactly that.
Happy birthday min wage.
Wednesday, 13 May 2009
Worrying news from north of the Border. Ian Watson, a Church of Scotland minister, compared a campaign against gay clergymen to the war against the Nazis. In a sermon delivered at Kirkmuirhall church in Lanark he claimed homosexuals would not "inherit the kingdom of God" and "therefore must be resisted."
Now although I don't hold any religious convictions I've always had a soft spot for Protestant interpretations of Christianity. Perhaps it's the empty crosses - the emphasis being placed on Christ's resurrection - found in Protestant churches, rather than the rather morbid fascination with Jesus's suffering as depicted on the Catholic crucifix. Or perhaps it's the rejection of overt ostentation that I find attractive; there are no indulgences for sale here. Or maybe it's that the Anglican church - the branch of Protestantism that I'm most familiar with - has always seemed much more genuinely inclusive and less reactionary than other branches. Female christian priests are, after all, pretty hard to come by outside the reformed faith.
And yet the Church of England - and now, it seems, the Church of Scotland too - appears to be on the brink of imploding over the issue of homosexuality. The various members of the Anglican Communion - the association of national Anglican churches - have been roughly split between those that are staunchly opposed to gay ministers, and those who are not. It's a festering problem which will certainly be given fresh impetus by Reverend Watson's remarks.
But if the Anglican churches do not tear themselves apart over the issue then it might well be done for them. Increasingly young people, brought up in a more diverse and tolerant society, are incredulous that the Church has not kept up with the times. The view that the Church is irrelevant to modern society will only gain ground.
And yet there is hope. The lack of similar debate in other branches of Christianity is noticeable all the more for its absence. That Anglicanism is openly having this discussion - and that the homophobic remarks made in Scotland are so unappetising to so many of the Church's congregation - says a great deal about the inclusiveness that has set this version of the Faith apart. It'd be awfully sad to see it go to waste.
Monday, 11 May 2009
Talking of the tabloid press, it's been surprising to see so many newspapers profess support for Joanna Lumley's Gurkha residency campaign given their usual anti-immigration drivel. Whether this is driven more by the marked public support for the Gurkhas then by any real conviction is open to debate, but the word 'bandwagon' certainly springs to mind. Attacking the government is not only par for the course; it sells papers too.
But the press is not the only party guilty of playing realpolitik over the issue. The Tories, in league with the Lib Dems, inflicted a stunning commons defeat on the government on Gurkha settlement rights. And yet by the end of the last Conservative government in 1997 only five ex-Gurkhas had been granted residency, as opposed to the 6,000 who have have been given these rights under the current Labour administration. Indeed, it was the Conservatives who took away the right of most Hong Kong residents to settle in Britain and thus by extension the Gurkhas, who were based there at the time. The only exemption was for those with provable assets in excess of £1 million, which precluded Gurkha settlement pretty much in its entirety. And before 2004, when Labour granted post-1997 enlisted Gurkhas the right of British citizenship upon retirement, no government had granted permanent residency. That David Cameron and co have diverted so markedly from policy that they themselves implemented when they were in government - and have so far failed to allude to in the current debate - smacks of political opportunism, plain and simple.
Sunday, 10 May 2009
Startling headlines on the front page of today's copy of the News of the World. Nothing to do with the ongoing saga of MP's expenses or the war in Afghanistan. It was, in fact, what appeared to be an 'exclusive' report of a major diplomatic incident. "BOYLE SNUBS OBAMA", it screamed in big black capital letters.
So who is this Boyle who dares to turn down a meeting with the Leader of the Free World, a man who has had global leaders tripping over themselves in the scramble to meet him? Is she some Chavez-loving South American tinpot dictator? Or perhap a Middle-Eastern Ahmadinejad wanabee trying to stick two fingers up at the West?
Nope, it was neither - she's a contestant on formulaic TV reality show Britain's Got Talent. And she isn't even the winner yet, seeing as the competition has only just started and is still some way off finishing.
Susan Boyle, aka the 'Hairy Virgin', has become something of an internet sensation; the Youtube clip of her audition on the show has been viewed over 54 million times. The report detailed how she turned down an offer to meet the president because she was 'too nervous'.
But - and here's where I think some perspective in all of this is needed - why would Barack Obama want an audience with a contestant from a glorified karaoke show?
I can't help thinking that a lead along the lines of "Shock - US President seeks to dumb down - we ask why" would have been far more relevant. I honestly can't imagine why the NOTW didn't take this rather obvious angle. Can you?
As an aside - more revelations over Sinn Féin's Westminster expenses claims. It was splashed all over the front page of today's edition of The Torygraph. The paper demanded to know why its MPs were claiming so much in expenses for London flats when the party has a long established policy of abstention from the British parliament - a full month after I asked the very same question. Remember, you read it here first...
Wednesday, 6 May 2009
Interesting news for those concerned with Basque affairs. The government of the Spanish region and hotbed of secessionist activity has voted in its first non-nationalist government in thirty years. Socialist Patxi Lopez is expected to be the region's leader, and his coalition will turn its back on demands for sovereignty, focusing instead on security and the economy.
Somewhat predictably ETA militants have described Lopez as a "priority target". Their contempt for the democratically expressed wishes of their fellow countrymen is almost overwhelming.
Now I've already mentioned that the Irish Republican movement has been supportive of Basque independence for some time now; indeed, links between various incarnations of the IRA and ETA go back decades, and expressions of solidarity with the Basque cause profusely adorn Republican literature. It's going to be interesting to see how they react to this latest rejection of the bullet by the ballot box.
Tuesday, 5 May 2009
Britain, it seems, likes to create controversy when trying to avoid exactly that. In a performance that closely mirrored the recent debacle that surrounded Dutch politician Geert Wilder's failed attempt to enter the country, Australian doctor and euthanasia champion Philip Nitschke was detained and questioned at Heathrow airport over concerns that his lectures might breach UK law. Nitschke, as you can imagine, was not best pleased; as he put it: "This is an important cutting-edge social issue and to find people thinking about deportation because the message is supposedly so worrying says something about changes in British society which are quite troubling."
Euthanasia is a controversial topic, and it also provides us with one of the strangest aspects of UK law. It is, after all, perfectly legal to commit suicide. It is, however, very much illegal to assist someone in their bid to kill themselves. You’d be hard put to think of another situation where it’s against the law to help someone undertake a particular activity that’s entirely permissible in statute.
It wasn’t that long ago that this very anomaly was in the news; local multiple sclerosis sufferer Debbie Purdy had her Appeal Court case rejected after being told that the law on assisted suicide could only be clarified – or altered – by the House of Lords. She wanted to know whether her husband would be prosecuted back in the UK if he helped her end her life in a Swiss clinic.
Choosing to end one’s life is a decision that many people, myself included, could never imagine wanting to do. But hundreds – if not thousands - of people, suffering from terminal illnesses and with a rapidly deteriorating quality of life, wish to die before it worsens further. It seems utterly wrong to have a system in place that forces people that wish to end their suffering to travel to Switzerland and run the risk of prosecution of anyone else involved for something that supposedly isn’t illegal in the first place. It’s time the law was changed.
Friday, 1 May 2009
It's been and gone for another year. The London Marathon; 26.2 miles of pure unadulterated pain winding its way through the Capital.
I did a marathon once, up in Edinburgh some three years ago. It was possibly the most excruciatingly painful thing I've ever done - if anyone's thinking of doing one then I've got one piece of advice for them: train properly beforehand. Hindsight, as they say, is a wonderful thing...
For most people who attempt a Marathon, myself included, the distance itself is the very raison d'être for taking part; it's the ultimate test of endurance. Or is it?
The Tarahumara are an indigenous people of Mexico, and are renowned for their running ability; indeed, the very name they use for themselves - Raramuri - is thought by some to mean "runners on foot". And running is central to their culture. 150 miles in one stretch? No problem.
And it's not just the Tarahumara who can run long distances. Ultramarathons - a race of any distance over the 26 mile standard - enjoy a cult following by a committed group of people who dedicate their lives to running. And whilst some of these are competitive events, many of them are not; athletes take part merely for pleasure. There are no medals to be won here.
I have enormous respect for everyone taking part in the marathon in London; for many, it's the culmination of months of preparation and will be the most physically demanding thing they ever do. But, it seems, distance is truly relative; just remember that for some it's only a warm-up...