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Chris Bertram

Cash and freedom

by Chris Bertram on February 16, 2016

Paul Mason has an article today about the impending end of cash. The subtitle asks “But what would a cashless society mean for freedom?” but sadly the article itself has little to say on the subject. It isn’t hard to see, though, that the end of cash would give governments almost unlimited power to deny resources to those they consider undesirable. We’ve already seen this with the way that the Obama administration successfully pressured the major credit card companies to block donations to WikiLeaks. And it is a key component of the UK’s rather horrible Immigration Bill 2015 which has as a central purpose to create a “hostile environment” for people who lack authorization to be on the territory of the state by, inter alia, “working with banks and building societies to restrict their access to bank accounts”. In practice this means that people whose right to remain is cancelled could almost immediately lose access to the resources they need to fight the administrative decision against them. History shows that technologies that are first piloted against one group of people can be extended to others. We face a future where people deemed by the executive to be problematic in some way could lose access to all means of payment. At least with cash you can subsist on the margins of society; without it, government control is potentially total. Perhaps this is coming sooner than we think?

I wouldn’t normally post two pictures of the same scene in consecutive weeks, but this one seemed worth it. The Avon is tidal at Bristol and the river was also swollen by the heavy rain from Storm Imogen (yes, we’ve started doing that US thing of naming our weather). So, the same view, shot from the same place at the same time of day, but quite different.

Redcliffe flats and the Avon (2)

I posted the other day about the UK government’s proposal to ban charities from using government funds to try to influence policy. Many commenters thought “nothing to see here, no big deal”. Now it appears that the clause applies quite generally to organizations receiving government grants, stating:

The following costs are not Eligible Expenditure: Payments that support activity intended to influence or attempt to influence Parliament, government or political parties, or attempting to influence the awarding or renewal of contracts and grants, or attempting to influence legislative or regulatory action.

The implementation guidance then includes the following:

Q12: Where departments use third party organisations (either public, private or charity sector) to administer grants on their behalf, will the clause need to be included in the T&Cs between the third party and the grant recipient? A: Yes. Departments will need to ensure that the clause is included in all grant agreements that the Department ultimately funds, subject to exceptions signed off by Ministers. This guidance should be shared as necessary.

Unless ministers grant specific exceptions then, government grants to bodies like the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research to conduct research into policy, must not aim to “influence legislative or regulatory action”. The same would go for university-based researchers in receipt of government money vie HEFCE or the Research Councils. Still more absurd than this is the picture that emerges when the clause is combined with the government’s own “Impact Agenda” which forms part of its “Research Excellence Framework”. Under this, university researchers who apply for grants are required to demonstrate “impact” which may include influencing government policy, but it will now be a contractual condition that you may not do this thing that you must do.

Given that this is so irrational, I’m tempted to conclude there must be a misunderstanding here. The alternative is that the clause will be enforced selectively against bearers of unwelcome news.

(Alerted to this by Martin O’Neill on FB).

The English columnist Nick Cohen had a piece on immigration in yesterday’s Observer. For those who don’t know his work, Cohen is a former left-wing radical journalist who has now renounced “the left” for its supposedly regressive views and who, post-epiphany, lashes “liberals” and others in the pages of the Spectator and Standpoint. A Paul Johnson for a new generation.

His latest effort is full of his trademark jibes that “the left” is soft on Putin, together with swipes at stock figures such as the “no-platforming student dogmatist”. But let’s leave the fluff and the fury aside and concentrate on the substance of his piece. [click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: Redcliffe flats and the Avon

by Chris Bertram on February 7, 2016

Redcliffe flats and the Avon

I blogged a few months ago about the various moves the UK’s Conservative government has put in place that seek to cement its ability to govern without effective opposition. Since then there have been various developments, including the entirely predictable loss of a million voters from the electoral rolls. Some of those names may be restored, but they will have been absent from the register at the moment used to calculate the size of constituencies with the consequence that MPs from leafy affluent places will represent populations much smaller that poor post-industrial ones. Restrictions on trade unions are steaming ahead (including “reforms” that will deprive Labour of most of its funding), and plans to repeal the Human Rights Act are still on the way.

This morning’s atrocity involves government plans to prevent charities and the voluntary sector from using any funding they’ve received from government to lobby for changes in policy or expenditure. The proposal is the result of lobbying from the right-wing think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs. Charities won’t be completely silenced. If they have funds that are raised from private sources then they can use these for advocacy. It isn’t clear from the reports whether funding from sources like the Big Lottery or local government (what’s left of it) will be covered. The effect of these restrictions will be that there will be fewer voices advocating for the poor and dispossessed in areas like housing, mental health provision, or policy towards refugees and asylum seekers. Charities who point out the effects of benefit sanctions on welfare claimants or the conditions in immigration detention centres may find that they are under a duty to demonstrate that the salary of their talking head on radio or TV didn’t come from public funds. Meanwhile, the corporate sector, being “private” can lobby away all it likes.

Of course ministers don’t like being told about the effects of their policies. But good government, as opposed to good politics, requires that they find out what those effects are. And that means they need independent people to tell them. And it means that the voiceless need advocates to counter the lobbying of corporate-sponsored think-tanks and lobbyists. In other areas of policy, the government is keen the vaunt the “independence” of those who advise them, frequently mentioning this as a feature of, for example, the Migration Advisory Committee, a body consisting of economists appointed by government, who answer questions set by government, according to criteria devised by government. There, “independence” has a legitimating function for policy. What the UK government doesn’t want is independent voices who give it accurate information about the effects of its policies. It wants the public conversation to be dominated by supine journalists fixated on the Westminster narrative who work for private media conglomerates. The voices it wants are those who don’t care about the people who don’t matter. When the consequences are horrendous, ministers will probably complain that nobody told them.

6 Nations!

by Chris Bertram on February 5, 2016

Another year, and the Six Nations has rolled around again, a competition between the also-rans and second-bests in world rugby. Thoughts? Predictions? For me, being an England supporter will be harder than ever. England have decided that the solution to their endemic problems is to appoint Eddie Jones. Well, I suppose he did somehow get Japan to beat South Africa. Jones promptly picked the odious eye-gouger and biter Dylan Hartley as captain. Though I’m tempted to insist on the Scottish and Irish bits of my family tree at this point, I fear it is too late and I will simply have to live with the shame.

EU to criminalize those who rescue drowning refugees?

by Chris Bertram on February 3, 2016

There is disturbing news via Statewatch that the EU is drawing up plans to criminalize the many independent volunteers who have been working in Greece to assist refugees making their way from Turkish to Greek territory. The plans involve a deliberate conflation of “people smuggling” and “trafficking” and a requirement that all volunteers be registered and placed under the control and direction of state organizations at designated hotspots. Those who stay outside of these structures and go to the beaches where people are actually arriving and assist them by, for example, towing their boats, will be prosecuted. In fact, this is already happening in the case of some Spanish lifeguards on the Greek island of Lesvos. There is a petition, which I’ve signed, though internet petitions are not a particularly effective means of resistance.

Sunday Photoblogging: Stop! (San Francisco 2009)

by Chris Bertram on January 31, 2016

Stop! (San Francisco 2009)

Finally upgrading computer and software means that I have the memory and speed (at last) to go through my photo archives and rework things. Here’s a shot from San Francisco in 2009.

Sunday photoblogging: Washington Monument

by Chris Bertram on January 24, 2016

Washington Monument

A note on Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet

by Chris Bertram on January 18, 2016

I finished Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet yesterday. I know there’s been a lot of hype about these novels, but it is entirely justified. Actually, I write “these novels” but this is actually just one long novel, distributed across four printed volumes. For those who don’t know, it concerns the relationship between two women, Elena (or Lenu or Lenuccia) – the narrator – and Lila (or Lina) from childhood to early old age, and their mutual relationship to “the neighbourhood”, a working-class district of Naples and the many other families who live there. It is a difficult friendship, infected with rivalry, jealousy and resentment from the start. Lila is both intelligent and impulsive, spiky and demanding, capable of both extraordinary determination and of self-neglect and remains forever tied to the district; Lenu eventually enjoys worldly success and social evelation, but, in her own mind, is forever in the shadow of her “brilliant friend”.
[click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: Llanberis

by Chris Bertram on January 17, 2016

Llanberis,  Snowdonia

Sunday photoblogging: Washington Monument with plane

by Chris Bertram on January 10, 2016

Washington Monument with plane

Sunday photoblogging: the centre of attention

by Chris Bertram on January 3, 2016

The centre of attention

Monday photoblogging: Anfield taxi

by Chris Bertram on December 28, 2015

With the time of year, it is hard to remember which day of the week it is. So here, one day late, is a shot in our cab on a rainy night after watching Liverpool beat Leicester 1-0.

Anfield taxi