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

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Is Putin to be admired?

A comment by the leader of UKIP – the UK’s strident anti EU party – has evoked the fury of politically correct (PC) politicians. He had the temerity to say he admired Putin most among contemporary (I presume) politicians. This is as all other western politicians are comparing Putin to Hitler and Crimea to Sudenland. Farage went on to suggest the whole Ukraine crisis was, in part, due to the EU. A jolly jape indeed by Farage who is certainly not publicity shy – and for outraged of SWI (where the Parliaments buildings are) it is even worse – many people agree with him. Just read the comments under this article by Malcolm Rifkind a formerminister of defence who I always thought was one of the better guys. On top of that Farage never said he thought Putin was right – what he admires is the way Putin is standing up for Russia, and what he believes is in the best interests of Russia. Putin is not about to apologise for something Russia did a century ago, or avoid confrontation if he believes it is in Russia’s best interests. Putin is actually proud of his country’s victories; which is at odds to many European politicians. That all means Putin is a nationalist; this is at a time when leaders of the EU are trying to persuade all and sundry that nationalism is over – it is about Europe and not countries. If you do not believe that read this article by Daniel Hannan - the quotes, at the end, are particularly revealing. So the juxtaposition of Farage – who like Putin believes in his country above the EU - and western leaders is diametrically contrary – barely surprising they jump on anything he says!
The question I posed is should Putin be admired? I believe the place to start is 1999 when he first became prime minister under Yeltsin – he was not expected to survive for long – and Russia was in state of turmoil after the end of Communism, the coup against Gorbachev followed by the erratic rule of Yeltsin – Russia was going downhill fast. There is similarity here to Hitler who essentially came to power because the state was failing – Putin leapt into a similar situation and over the years has stabilised a waning country. Of course Russia is a vast country and it still has a significant military; not to mention an enormous nuclear arsenal. Thus it is barely surprising that a population bought up in the USSR -which they were led to believe was (with Russia at its heart) the greatest nation of Earth - deplored the decline of that country. They wanted it back as a significant force in the world. That is what Putin has done – he has restored Russian pride and, whilst democrats may deplore his methods, the majority like the result. It could be said that Putin has bought Russia back from the abyss of a lawless state run by local strong men – the wealth and the number of oligarchs is evidence of what was happening.
Needless to say it is on the foreign stage that Putin has come into our lives – jailing a few punk singers got publicity but stopping the west from bombing Syria and annexing Crimea has changed the way Russia is perceived in the world. Ironically there was little democratic support for intervention in Syria; western politicians may have wanted it but few outside politics did. And having looked at the mess the Arab spring has created I understand why. Putin’s motives may not have been altruistic but he may well have saved the west from yet another messy entanglement in the Middle East.
So on the plus side Putin has saved his country from anarchy – which given its nuclear weapons is not something anybody wants to even think about – and he has stopped the west getting into yet another unnecessary war.
The annexation of Crimea is understandable – it does contain Russia’s only warm water port – even if it broke several international agreements. But the west takes a cavalier approach to such agreements when it does not suit them. However you dress it up the annexation of Kosovo is about as legal as annexation of Crimea.
Ukraine is a mess – it never took on the market reforms of the rest of Eastern Europe and was in a limbo land partly supported by Russia whilst looking wistfully to the west. In reality Ukraine needed to get off the fence and it found itself as the rope in a tug of war between Russia and the EU – and neither side was playing by the rules. In the end one has to quietly admire Putin for taking the initiative and grabbing Crimea whilst he could.
I, for one, have always said beware of the Russian bear – because like all bears Russia will take what it can get when it can get it. Putin has simple embolden Russia with his highly nationalistic attitude – and make no mistake he is dangerous and the west ignores Putin and Russia at their peril. And again the comparison with Hitler is there – many in the US and Britain admired Hitler – they thought he had repaired a great nation. And that did not end well.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Corruption in Asia– why it will never be eradicated.

Asia is notorious for corruption – and that is not an unfair perception. So why is it so hard to eliminate?
I suspect the main reason is because it is genuinely endemic – in the end it effects far too many people and to an extent it works both ways. Somebody wants a permit and the rules will specify the requirement – very often those rules are badly drafted – often to abet corruption – thus the exact interpretation can be subject to manipulation to make them stricter, or laxer, so the applicant comes to an arrangement with the person who issues the permit – there is a lax interpretation of the rules and the permit is issued in double quick time. In the end that little piece of corruption has suited both the issuer of the permit and the person who needs the permit.
Police corruption is well known and documented and of course that again suits many because misdemeanours can be overlooked for a consideration – in the West a drunk driver killing somebody is likely to end in jail for a few years – in Asia a quick payoff of family and police will clear the matter up very quickly. And the police will broker the whole deal. How many erring motorists would prefer to slip the police a few notes rather than go to court and risk having their licence suspended?
But these little examples have little to do with the vast sums of money syphoned off by the guys at the top – that is where the poor of the country are really disadvantaged. You will not find a poor Asian politician. Of course getting elected is expensive – votes need to be bought – in part by patronage – which costs money – but also by buying head men and in many cases paying for individual votes. A Thai politician was quoted as saying, “When it cost a Volvo to get elected I could afford it – it now costs a high end Mercedes.” And the point about the people running the country is they that like it exactly as it is. Political dynasties are very common in Asia – son often follows father into politics and this goes on for generations with same constituency staying in the family. This builds up a strong local following that is difficult to dislodge. Why on earth do anything to endanger the family business?
The saddest point about this state of affairs is the people who might do something about it – the average voter – do not because they are badly educated – on purpose maybe- and invariable sell their vote or vote as instructed. On top of that there is apathy as nobody believes their vote matters - they do not believe it will change anything. And it is a sad fact that when a poor person gets richer and joins the next layer up; they too get on the gravy train of corruption.
Salaries in government departments are very low and the numbers employed are invariable far more than really needed – but those salaries are topped up from the corruption pool. The logical way to rid the system of corruption is to double salaries and halve numbers employed. The wretched reality is that that suits nobody!
Corruption can be an enormous problem for foreign investors – getting to grips with it and being properly advised is never easy – not to mention the fact that many have to get round anti-corruption legislation from their home domicile. Taxes cause problems as most Asian tax departments prefer to ‘negotiate’ the level of taxation with the final figure being an arbitrary one as a result of those negotiations - trying to fix tax by the book of rules increases the tax bill dramatically.
Needless to say everybody knows about corruption and there will be much talk of eradicating it; but when there is a change of government nothing alters. Quite the contrary: all too often the biggest anti-corruption campaigners are much worse than those they take over from – even if change is bought about by a revolution the new guys simple want to get their snouts into the same trough. There are plenty of stories of arrests and crackdowns – as ever the biggest crime is getting caught, that is closely followed by upsetting your peers. In such cases the fall force of the law may be applied – just to make certain everybody understands the rules of the gravy train as well as a sacrificial lamb to convince voters something is being done about corruption!
If corruption is discussed with an old Asia hand it will be quickly suggested that corruption is just as rife in the West as it is in the East – but it is a different type of corruption. Generally it is corruption at the highest levels – particularly within the political system. People are bribed with unnecessary jobs often at absurdly high salaries – think quangos, research organisations and public corporations. And I always suspect that the more petty rules and bureaucracy created the greater the chance of corruption at lower levels – having suffered at the hands of public health officials I know that many would be very tempted to pay up to get the necessary permits rather than go through the hassles of box ticking and expensive maintenance and upgrades.
That really is the point; once people are used to corruption, and can use it to their benefit, they kind of support it. They seldom look up and realise quite how much of their wealth is being stolen by the guys at the top. They never consider how much better their life could be if their government spent all the money it receives on its peoples rather than its leaders. 

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Modern politics and responsibility

There was an interesting article by Janet Daley on Sunday suggesting that modern politicians are narcissistic because they look after their own in preference to all else. She was writing about Ukraine and the complete lack of serious response from the west despite the fact that Russia had broken several international agreements. Of course there is little political appetite to do anything that might cost money and or impact on our supposed cushy world. We are NIMBYs in the sense that it is me me me first however sorry we feel for the other guy. Our politicians take the view that providing we sit and talk all will be well – and if it is not well we will simple pretend it is not there.
It starts with the great lie about democracy. We lecture people about democracy and ‘one man one vote’ and as long as they go through a process that looks like that then we patronisingly pat people of the head and say aren’t you a great democrat. This is despite the fact many votes are either paid for, or as result of intimidation or the polls are simple fixed. And even our own democracy is now seriously flawed as a political elite, with little reference back to the people, play the game and are kept in power by vast sums of money from interested parties. And the newest political behemoth – the EU – is as far away from democracy as they can get whilst still pretending to be democratic.
When I was young the undisputed number one responsibility of a government was to keep its citizens safe – from outside aggression as well as in their home. Outside aggression meant defence of the realm – but of course over the years what that might mean has changed. In Medieval times invasion from a competing monarch was the threat, as communications improved – as well warfare – the threats became more clarified as in the Napoleonic war, and later the big wars of the last century. Nobody, in Europe, really imagines one country is going in to invade another now the cold war is over. That is why Ukraine has come as such a nasty shock to complacent western governments. Our armed forces have become less about protecting the integrity of our country and more about protecting trade and strategic interests. Many governments have concluded that paying people off – overseas aid – is cheaper and simpler. Of course for countries in Africa and Asia the same is not true. Africa is still a melting pot that was stirred up by colonisation which kept a lid on the problems – that simple exploded once that lid was removed. Asia had settled once the communists’ insurgencies were either dealt with, or were successful. However the emergence of China as a regional super power with a growing military, as well as several disputed claims, has destroyed that complacency.
Which all raises the question of what is really important to modern western politicians and I suppose there is only one answer – getting re-elected. No brainer you might say but what about that old fashioned idea of principal and responsibility. The World does not look a safe place – there are Muslim extremists who aspire to changing us into good Muslims (or failing that ashes); there is China who covets our allies land (islands and reefs); there are still plenty of communists who would not mind imposing their will on us and of course boys will be boys or maybe in this PC world people will be people who aspire to an empire. I do not think Putin threatens us seriously but if we were un-united with minimal forces - who knows? And if history tells us one thing there will be another Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Napoleon or Hitler – and you could certainly add Stalin to that list.
But modern politicians are more interested in home politics – in welfare, health, houses rather than undefined threats. The peace dividend it has been called. Contemporary politicians do not want to make the case – they go with the flow. A questionable invasion of Iraq and a badly managed Afghan campaign have persuaded many that war is not only a bad thing – but unnecessary. But the trouble with this populist policy is it leaves a vacuum into which people like Putin jump.It is still the primary responsibility of government to secure the borders of the country as well as to look after the welfare needs of its people. One thing is certain a major war would destroy the welfare state quicker than an aging population and a ‘I know my rights’ attitude already is.
 Ultimately cutting back on defence and ignoring other people plight in favour of social welfare risks even the most basic welfare. It would be ironic if our cushy world is destroyed by a confrontation abetted by selfishness instead of responsibility.