Thoughts of a fly on the bar wall

It is 50 years since I started visiting bars, since then I have sat in more bars, in more places than I want to remember. I have worked behind, cooked in, served in, and managed pubs. I have conversed and argued with painters, Pakis (Ladies and Gentleman from Pakistan if you must), parasites, Parisians, parliamentarians, peers of the realm , perverts, players, pleaders, plebs, plumbers, Poles, poofters, prime ministers and prostitutes. I have written and broadcast about far cities, elegant restaurants, bordellos and mismanaged disasters.
I have heard absolute rubbish, absurd claims, downright duplicity as well as much good sense and enormous doses of reality.
Put it all these conversations together with my last few years thinking, reading and writing about the way we live, about our governance, our mistakes and our future and you get to this blog.

Sam Worthington

Monday, 24 November 2014

The adversarial system

Am I the only one who wonders about the adversarial system that so much of our politics and jurisprudence is dependent upon? Anybody who has been involved in debates will understand how it works and how it can on one side be good – because it allows for a thorough examination of the subject – but it can equally introduce deviousness and irrelevance to what can be a very serious matter.
Of course in a court there is a judge to make certain the rules are observed, and in parliament there is a speaker with much the same role. But when passions are running high the invigilator can be manipulated along with anything else. This is double so in an age where instant communication and all kinds of new media from tweets to Facebook can be used to neuter the arbitrator.
In Europe new – some would say extreme - political parties are making significant inroads into the established parties and, in the USA, the president has now lost control of both the congress and the senate. But there seems to be little appetite for anybody to form a consensus.  On the global stage there are often calls for co-operation between states; that appears hypocritical when political parties in the country making the suggestion cannot even agree among themselves.
A few times in my life I have been involved in a public debates – in all cases I was co-opted on the basis of my debating skills not just my belief in the subject to be discussed. In practice I could have argued either side of the debate. Barristers in the UK can be a prosecutor one week and arguing for a defendant the next. In civil law that is even more likely; in fact all lawyers will be involved in cases as both plaintiff and defendant. Needless to say, in order to be a good lawyer, it is necessary to understand both the case for, and defence against, the argument. And in a court before a judge the proceedings are controlled and the judge can intervene if a spurious argument is put forward. But in a political debate who is to say what is irrelevant? I remember one debate I was in - I had to oppose a proposal I generally agreed with – and was party policy -  and for some reason I hit on a line that had the audience laughing – and I managed to play up on this line. As a result of my knock about speech the Chelsea Conservative Club voted against a key policy of the then Conservative GLC (long time ago) – I was not a popular bunny but surely my jobs was to win the debate – by any means fair of foul – or was it? And that was a friendly affair for only a few people in an era when it was unlikely to be reported. If that had happened now people would have been tweeting and bragging on Facebook.
For a while politics was less about an idea and more about ideology – the debate was between left and right or between the state and private ownership. That debate has generally moved on and among the established parties it has become more about pleasing the electors with one party claiming to be offering more than the other. There is little or no real debate about core issues as there is a ‘sort of’ consensus. And that has been aided and abetted by political correctness which deems certain ideas, and even thoughts, as risible.
Political correctness must surely be against the concept of advocacy politics but it is defended as a way to stop extremism. The biggest forbidden subject is discussing race and, as most immigrants are of another race, possible the most sensitive issue to ordinary people - mass immigration – has been banished from main stream politics. But surely this is a subject that should be discussed sensible and without with usual adversarial attitude. Instead it has led to the rise of new parties who openly question the desirability of mass immigration. There is no better example of the divisiveness of immigration than Obama’s recent edict on long term illegal immigrants – in a way I have to sympathise, with the president, as the matter has got bogged down by petty politics but trying go round the road block has infuriated those who have constructed the block. And the block is because of the adversarial system!
Unfortunately an adversarial political system does not guarantee good governance, quite the reverse in my experience. In the UK as we pay the leader of the opposition as it is an official function. I understand that and yes the job of the opposition is to oppose in a public gallery – the Houses of Parliament. (Personally I would prefer a good lunch to discuss the matter - but I cannot have it all my way.)
So it is worth thinking about the alternatives to our argumentative system. But maybe the issue is not the system but the people – the politicians – operating the system. Or is it simple politics itself? The worst part of the adversarial system is the challenging of something simple because it has been proposed – it is one thing to have a debate and lose; another thing to keep using every trick – legal and not so legal – to stop something happening. So at what point should the opposition accept what has been agreed – I suppose that should be dependent upon how significant the change is. And who makes that judgement?
So the problem with the adversarial system is not the concept but the way it works. Or maybe it would be better to say the way it has evolved, or has been allowed to evolve. Court cases that take 20 years are a travesty of justice to at least one party, and governments that get deadlock are no good for anybody.
I must therefore presume - as Winston Churchill said about democracy – the adversarial system is not perfect but it is much better than any alternative!

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Why are politicians so useless?

I was sitting ruminating on why our politicians are so bad?
In the Philippines, where I live, they all appear to be corrupt and even the Filipino press calls them that – but they still get re-elected. Of course getting elected costs money – the people have to be ‘encouraged’ to vote the right way. To a certain extent I understand a Filipino politician – assuming he or she can actually get into some kind of power position then riches are assured - it is not a bad career move. For the people of the Philippines the total corruption of their governance is a disaster; that is evidenced by the abject poverty of vast swathes of the country, power shortages, regular avoidable disasters, shanty towns and a very rich elite.
It is in all of Asia, not just the Philippines, where politics is a business – pay enough money to whomever you need to get elected and then steal it back once power is achieved. And somehow they seem to be able to square that with having powerful religions – Buddha, Mohammad and Christ make strange bedfellows when it comes to corruption. But no South East Asian politician can survive without at least paying lip service to their country’s deity.
But what about the west? I do not think many will contradict me when I say most of our politicians appear inept at best and downright stupid at worst. And as the whole point of democracy is that we get to vote for a politician: if all the choice are bad what is the point?
The aspect about politics that irritates me the most is its pettiness. Big issues are reduced to an argument between parties who simple will not agree because it was the other guy’s idea, or it will give somebody an electoral advantage, or something equally crass. And when there is a coalition no single idea is allowed to go forward – it always has to be a compromise. Compromise inevitable means that a good concept is watered down to being a half good concept: even if total contradictory concepts are often better than the compromise.
I was having a lively discussion the other night with a German colleague who was convinced the problem is that western politicians are not paid enough – his contention was that if the CEO of a multi-national gets a 7 figure salary so should the country’s leaders – that way the best people would want to be politicians. My view is the opposite – I fall back on the public service concept. People who have made a career can retire early and give something back to the community by going into parliament and offering their experience – I want semi-professional politicians who have experience. I suppose the compromise is what we have at the moment – politicians paid a middle managers wage: thus we have got middle managers running the corporation.
I can see the attraction to wanting to lead your fellow man – years ago I was involved at the very junior level of politics. But I could see even then that the party system did not really want officers it wanted foot soldiers first and foremost. If I behaved and did all the right things – which included staying on side with the position of the party – even if I disagreed – I might weasel my way up the system. I decided that to me the whole point of being in politics was to promote my views on how things should be done – and if in order to get near enough to the top to do that meant I had to abandon all my principals on the way – then what was the point. By the time I got anywhere I would have been honed into being a party foot soldier.
I understand the point of the party system – it is rather the same in a corporation – there need to be common objectives or there is no direction. And rather like a corporation the direction comes from the top and those below are supposed to carry on as directed – and not complying is not a an option for those wish to stay in the employment of that operation. But it is a poor business that does not listen to its employees – however modern political parties tend to use opinion polls, rather than their members, to manage direction. That inevitable makes the process soulless and directionless. People join a political party because they consider its approach matches their own believes. When I was young there were fundamentally two directions – those who believed in the free market and those who did not. Now there seem to be many shades of grey and not much commitment one way or the other. I suspect that is because modern politicians are not, nor can they be, principled – they are simple in it for what they can get out of it. In the Philippines we talk of corruption in its most direct way, however in the west the bloating of bureaucracy has created thousands of jobs for the party faithful and those who need to be rewarded. An Asian politician may get it in readies, but a western politician just get 5 years on an unimportant QUANGO at a generous salary.
Needless to say politics is only really about one thing – getting elected. A person has to be selected by his peers before he can direct those same peers. So modern politics has become all about working out what to say, and or do, that will persuade people to vote in a certain direction. That is part of the problem – there is little or no passion. Politicians no longer lead by instigating debate and striving to win that debate.
With November 5th. almost upon us it is worth wondering what would happen if in the UK we had a modern day Guy Fawkes – a successful one who blew up the Houses of Parliament when they were full. The UK would suddenly need a large number of new members of parliament – would they be better than the current crop. I doubt it. And I suspect the same would apply to any parliament in the world.
So the realities are the only a thief can survive in Asian politics – which is hardly conducive to getting the best – and in the west the system weeds out the principled. Not a wonder our politicians are so bad! 

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Is helping always a good option?

Anybody who has lived in the Philippines will know what I mean when I say yesterday there was (yet another) family emergency. That means a family member decides that they cannot handle a problem and they need another family member’s help – inevitable the help is financial. The whole process usually takes a few hours and it starts off with a text message, which is followed by a tirade of ‘why must I help them again,’ I say it is about time they stood of their own feet. Then a decision is made to help them - but this will be the last time – I point out that last time was the last time as was the time before and the time before that.
I was sitting nursing a beer some hours later reflecting upon the issue – not really angry I have been in Asia long enough to know that family is the support system. In Thailand we used to call it the sick buffalo syndrome – buffalo sick please send money. Of course the buffalo may have been symbolic but it was also the all-important farm implement – no buffalo equals no rice.
The family support system is an essential in a country with little or no social security. For most people there is no free doctor, no unemployment pay, no free drugs, and no pensions: instead there is an extended family that are bought up with in the belief that family is all important; and you must support your family whatever happens. Part of the idea is that what comes round goes round; so a family member helping another will, in time, have the favour repaid. But like all families there are good and bad members, and reality is only a few work hard and do well. Almost inevitable as soon as one starts doing well the rest of the family persuade themselves that the one rich relative has a duty to look after all the poor family members. This is particularly so when the poor family members live in abject poverty in the provinces, where they live from hand to mouth often struggling to earn 100 pesos ($2.20) per day.
As I reached for the second beer a thought occurred to me – what happened 25 years ago before the age of the mobile phone? The one item even the poorest Filipino has is a mobile and text messages are cheap so for a peso virtually any Filipino can ask for help from a family member. And my thoughts went back to that first contact and how easy it had been for somebody to unburden themselves of a problem by passing a text message. Then it became somebody else’s problem. But 25 years ago they would have had to handle that problem themselves – or write a letter which would take 7 days to arrive.
Then I thought of the UK and my discussions over the years with a few doctors I have known. The older ones in particular were horrified by how more and more people came to them with comparatively minor ailments – when they started in practice most people who came into their surgery were sick – after 50 years of the National Health Service most people were not really sick. But of course now it was free and the patients knew their rights. But it is not just doctors but the whole UK social service system which was designed as a safety net to ensure people were looked after if all else failed, has now has become a system that is expected to solve any and all problems. As a result the whole system is overloaded and creaking and those who are honest, will look at the economics, and say it is not sustainable. The main reason it is not sustainable is because too many people are abusing the system.
And getting back to yesterday’s family crises one day it really will be the last time – the reason will be because the system is being abused.
Communication has bought the world together - most of us see that as an enormous plus. Years ago I remember traveling to France from England and that narrow waterway meant I was out of touch with what was happening at home. If I had a problem I had to use my bad French to resolve that problem. When I travelled to Asia for the first time – after two weeks I feared my home and everything around it had somehow disappeared. Of course it had not; but no communication plays on the mind. Only a few generations ago traveling to the Philippines from Europe would have taken months. Communications makes us all feel safer – it means we feel there is help at the end of an email, a text message or Skype: that maybe reassuring but we are still responsible for our own actions and our own welfare. If this new interconnected world means we can no longer look after ourselves - and every time something goes wrong a begging hand goes out – then I fear we will all become poorer for it.
Consider the comparison: in December 1897 a typhoon swept through Tacloban causing massive carnage and destruction – it took weeks for the news to reach Australia. No help was sent and the survivors simple picked themselves up and got on with it. In 2013 Typhoon Yolanda swept through Tacloban causing massive carnage and destruction – three weeks later survivors were still waiting for help and nearly 12 months later the rebuilding process is still getting underway.
In a politically correct world we are told that helping others is a duty: is it?
It goes back to the line about giving a man a fish makes him a dependent – teach him how to fish and give him a fishing rod makes him independent. A thought that we should all consider as we hand out aid!