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

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!

Friday, 3 October 2014

Is the best government really the one the people have a say in?

It is said we live in the sound bite era – there is little of no debate - politicians simple have to use a few words to expound an idea. Needless to say that means there are few new ideas which need expanding, or even good ideas that need defending – instead politics is wedded to fixed ideas and the mantra for political correctness makes certain of those ideas are sacrosanct.
However there is a growing concern that democracy is not working as more and more people are looking at western style democracy and saying – is this really the best way to run a country? In part the reason they are saying that is because of the economic success of the non-democratic countries – China in particular – as opposed to the western democracies where economic growth has stagnated on the back of high welfare costs and burdensome regulation; all compounded by administrative inertia.
Universal suffrage has been highly successful and has seen the living standard European style countries rocket over the last 200 years – but is that because they were democratic or because of technology? Steam engines were new idea in 1814 – the industrialisation of Europe started around 1830 which coincides with the beginning of political reform. Whether there would have been one without the other is a moot point. Once industrial centres started appearing - bringing together armies of people-  managing those peoples perceived fairness and rights was essential. Socialism tricks the people by saying it is working for them – by the people for the people – but in the end it is about management of people’s expectations. You can argue that religion is the same – people need to believe they have rights and there is an achievable objective. So along came democracy as the solution to managing people – if people believe they are selecting their leaders, then they cannot complain when those leaders screw up. 
But as Alex De Tocqueville pointed out “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy.”
Winston Churchill was equally scathing about democracy but concluded it was the best of a lot of bad options.
When in the mid 1830’s De Tocqueville wrote his definitive works - Democracy in America – he was comparing that system with the aristocratic system – or a ruling class - as Europe had before the political changes mentioned. Needless to say there were good aristocrats and bad aristocrats – and those aristocrats who understood the words duty and responsibility did a good job and visa a versa.
Democracy limits what politicians can do – it can stop them making good decisions, as well as bad decisions. The voters will not always support the best way forward; and that is particularly true when it comes to free government services. But there is worse: the cut and thrust of politics is not for the feint hearted. At one stage there was an implied duty to public service – now politics has become a lifetime career which means not only do politicians have little idea of the real world; the profession itself does not attract good people.
The world is confronting several major problems which require individual countries to make very tough decisions. Planet plundering – asset striping our planet – is one; but maybe another just as important is outlined in this article by Jeremy Warner; he points out, too many countries are living on borrowed money – few governments are even pretending to run a balanced budget because that would mean depriving the voters. And the interesting point about Jeremy Warmers article is that China is just as guilty; because even though it is not democratic - in the sense of one man one vote – the communist party needs to keep the population onside. That means much the same consideration must be given as in a democracy.
In this article Ambrose Evans-Pritchard suggests that China cannot move forward without allowing universal suffrage. His contention is that China now needs to be inventive and creative in order to grow beyond simple being the factory of the world – that means letting the creative juices flow and the demand for democracy will inevitable grow out of that.
The only way the undemocratic can keep control is by holding the development of their country back – North Korea springs to mind as does Zimbabwe but I was reading an article by a Philippine commentator saying much the same thing – the title says it all ‘fake-democracy.’ The Philippines are by no means the only country where democracy is firmly controlled by a wealthy cartel – who buy votes and generally fix elections.
Many will say the ideal system is a benevolent dictatorship (or a good aristocrat) – but in this era of enlightenment and communication would anybody accept such an arrangement; and who says what is good and bad? As the current demonstrations in Hong Kong show young educated people always think they know best. In many ways HK is a phenomenally successful city state – is a change of leadership going to improve anything?
So there is the dichotomy: the best governance will not come from democracy but the people will always demand a say in their government
It was the problems of government that led me to write the Aquitaine Trilogy. The three books trace the development of new society – new because nuclear Armageddon had devastated the world and killed off all governments. That was a fascinating exercise to think through how to govern a people – what to set up when looking at history. In my opinion western democracy is failing – or you could say has failed – but it is also clear that people who have lived in a democracy – for better or for worse – are going to insist upon living in one again. So in my new society the people had a parliament but members were only allowed 3 terms and had to be over 40 before they could become a member. The real government was technocratic in nature with a strong civil service that supplied the ministers. The Elders were appointed for 10 years, must be over 45 and should hold a senior position in a major institution. There were strict controls on what the government could borrow and spend – the two parliaments (The Elders and the Representatives) and the civil service formed a triumvirate which had to agree on any change of direction. Otherwise the civil service brief was to steer the ship of state in a straight line. The constitution was approved by a popular vote and could only be changed by a referendum with a super majority.
I am sure readers will all have different ideas. Of course the reason I killed off the world before starting my brave new community was because, as the old Irish joke goes, if I wanted to rearrange the world order and governance, I would not start from here!
So how would you rule?

Monday, 18 August 2014

Fighting fanatical Islam.

David Cameron has stated that “Isil poses a direct and deadly threat to Britain.” And that statement, I presume, means we can expect more police controls on freedoms in the UK, and more military involvement in Iraq and the Middle East. It has already been stated that anybody flying the black flag of ISIL will be arrested. Recruiting jihadists fighters in the UK is now illegal.
Many will say the Prime Minister has taken a long time to get to the ‘bleedin’ obvious,’ whilst others will say we should have nothing to do with Iraq – it is not our war. I suspect most people will be vaguely supportive.
There is little doubt we are partly responsible for this whole miserable situation. We were co-creators of the the Sykes–Picot Agreement, which arbitrarily created the modern Iraq and Syria. And of course we were party to the infamous 2nd Gulf war, which removed Saddam Hussein, and is arguably the reason for the mess that Iraq is now in. Our fingerprints are all over the crime scene – we can barely deny responsibility. And on that basis we should at least try and help – particularly those people who are being terrorized by genocide minded terrorists. It is interesting to note that the Yazidis have been living in this area for 3,000 years – they have been under many different regimes (Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman) including Muslim ones, and nobody has before demanded that they change their religion: certainly nobody else has slaughtered them because they did not support a specific religion.
An interesting article by Seam Thomas likens the ISIS to the Cambodia’s Khemer Rouge – and they were some truly illogical and evil bastards.
Cameron makes a great play on the dangers of a fanatical Islamic state so close to Europe. He sees a real danger of the Islamic State running riot through the whole of the Levant and then turning its venom on the west. It is thought there could be as many as a 1,000 UK citizens fighting in their ranks. And that raises the spectre of home grown terrorism: shades of 7/7 and worse.
Whether or not ISIS actually get round to targeting countries outside the Middle East could well depend upon how easy a ride they get in the Levant – and as nobody wants them I suspect they are going to get neither an easy ride, nor peace in any form.
Certainly I have always thought one of the biggest threats to the West would be a fanatical single Muslim state that dominates the Middle East and North Africa. But the word single suggests united and for the moment ISIS is a Sunni based regime; and the Shia’s are not going to join it without a fight. People I know, who understand the Middle East, believe that ISIS are more likely to set off a full scale conflict between the Sunnis and the Shias: dragging in Saudi Arabia on the Sunni side and Iraq on the Shia side. The whole region could explode in civil war which will take years to resolve. Thus the biggest mistake of the UK and the west would be to get dragged into fighting for one side, and in the process alienating the other side.
There is little doubt that in general western involvement in the Middle East – in recent years – has been based on opportunism and perceived fears. Oil has been the major consideration – followed by arms sales and other commercial opportunities. Then there has been the fear that Iran might get a nuclear bomb. Almost every time the west has interfered in the region it has created more problems than it solved. That started with the Sykes–Picot Agreement – following the end of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, and then there was the creation of the state of Israel after the Second World War, the support of Shah of Iran, the second Gulf war and the doubtful support of the Arab spring – which generally speaking has made matters worse. We have tried to impose our religion – democracy – on a divided society that was totally unprepared for egalitarianism as it is neither understood nor wanted.
In a limited ways the west has opportunities to help – firstly it should try and foster a political settlement in Iraq. It appears doubtful that will happen and it will depend on the Iraq Sunnis, who are not fanatical, driving out ISIS – assuming they can. If they cannot then Iraq will split up and the Shia part will become a reduced state – one suspects it will be looked after by its neighbour; Iran.
To the north are the Kurds who have always tried to look after themselves. They clearly need support if they are to resist the Islamic State. The biggest problem to the formation of a Kurdish state has been the objections of Turkey to such an entity – there has been a prolonged terrorist campaign in Turkey by the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party). Kurds have already taken over their part of Syria; and they have a significant population in Iran and Armenia with the largest Kurdish population being in Turkey. One suspects that Turkey may now prefer the Kurds as next door neighbours to the Islamic state. Most Kurds are also Sunni Muslims but of the Shafi school. It is in the Kurdish region that the Yazidis live, as well as many Christians. The Kurds are clearly sensible secular. Supporting the creation of proper Kurdish state, and making certain it can hold it own against the Islamic State, looks a sensible policy.
Ending the civil war in Syria would be a great help – that almost certainly will mean a reduced Syria but, if the fighting in the west can be stopped, Syria can start rebuilding and take back its refugees. The only way the war can be bought to halt is by supporting Assad – otherwise it will simple drag on. The west needs reality and pragmatism when dealing with Assad.
Jordon has been one of our oldest and loyalist allies – if the Islamic state come knocking we have a clear duty to make certain Jordon remains intact.
The creation of Israel may have been a mistake; however it is one we must live with. Israel deserves our support – it is a bulwark of dynamism and good governance in the Levant. The situation in Gaza is there because the Palestinians will not stop fighting. I have no idea what proportional response means – if somebody is trying to kill me I reserve the right to kill them first. The one thing we can rely on in the region is that if IS attack Israel: Isreal will use whatever it takes to stop them.
Cameron talked about the ‘poisonous ideology of the Islamic State.’ What he did not talk about is the fact the UK, and most of Europe, has allowed Islam to grow and flourish in Christian countries to the detriment of the core religion. It is not just a question of rooting out fanatics – it is a question of who we really are. Secular we maybe but our beliefs and customs are based on Christianity. The government needs to make it quite clear that is the position – Muslims are welcome, they can have their own church but that is as far as it goes. Anybody who wants Shia law can go to a country where Shia law is practiced, we do not want Islamic missionaries and they are not welcome.
If, as not long ago, we were all Christians we would not fear Muslim extremists. We have let the enemy in – now we need them to leave: or stop being our enemy. The only alternative is that they go: either home or into internment of some form.
Let us be honest with ourselves at least – we are paying for our mistakes. How much we pay will depend upon how soon we fully recognise those mistakes.