Nelson Mandela and LGBT Rights

Having just finished reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom (unsurprisingly, one of the most inspirational books I’ve ever read – if you’ve not read it yet, stop reading this blog and go do so right now!), I’ve been pondering a lot on the man who has indisputably become one of history’s most revered individuals.  I never fail to be impressed by his capacity for tolerance and forgiveness, by his ability to see the humanity in every human no matter how cruel their actions or by his pragmatic approach to every problem, putting aside his personal feelings.  He was by no means perfect, and prone to as many failings as the next person, yet in a sea of corrupt and tyrannical political leaders, when compared to the likes of Robert Mugabe or Muammar Gaddafi in Africa – or frankly, any leader taking power after a period of intense turmoil – he’s a saint.

One area many revered political leaders tend to have less than admirable records, however, is that of LGBT rights.  Margaret Thatcher, a hero to Britain’s current government – which recently legalised same-sex marriage – introduced strict rules against the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality not unlike what Putin’s doing in Russia today.  This isn’t confined to right-wing ‘moral values’; even George Orwell regarded homosexuality as unnatural.  The argument is often given that these attitudes are a product of their upbringing and common to all in their generation.  While this is true, it cannot wholly serve as an excuse.  Despite being seven years older than Thatcher, and only fifteen younger than Orwell, it was under Nelson Mandela’s presidency that South Africa adopted one of the most liberal approaches towards LGBT rights not just in Africa but in the entire world, even extending to guarantees for transgender people (often left out of the LGBT banner).  Mandela belonged to the very same generation as Thatcher and a similar one to Orwell.  Granted, his cultural background greatly differed, though homophobia was prevalent in both Britain and South Africa in the early 20th century.

This is just another example of Mandela’s astonishing ability to overcome opinions and reactions which he would have been socially-conditioned into.  To be clear, he was never a vocal advocate for LGBT rights – South African journalist Mark Gevisser portrays him as not ‘always comfortable’ with the idea.  Which, given the society he grew up in, is perfectly understandable.  But the point is that he overcame these ingrained prejudices and accepted that the universality of human rights includes the LGBT community.  Sure, he never pushed for these rights as president (though in fairness his list of impending priorities was pretty large), but nor did he offer any opposition when it became ANC policy.  This is in stark contrast to so many other leaders who have allowed their gut reaction to colour their opinions, and just another example of why Mandela deserves so much respect.  It’s easy for the liberals of today to accept LGBT rights as natural and correct, but we must bear in mind how much of a cultural leap it would have taken for previous generations. That South Africa retains, by far, the best record of any African country regarding LGBT rights, is due in no small part to Mandela’s decision to embrace the winds of change in public opinion.

Government to Privatise the Royal Mail

Have I understood this right?  Is the Royal Mail to be thrown to corporations and investors in the same way as the railways were, as energy was?  I don’t know much about the issues involved but this just comes across as a ridiculous decision.  The blog Left Foot Forward discusses the problems with the plan well here.  The point about railways is particularly pertinent; privatisation is often seen as a solution to economic problems, but what good has it done the railways?  We’ve since had to put up with overpriced fares and overcrowding.  Will stamps simply rise further as a result of this?  I’d like to believe that it’s a decision which has been thought through but I suspect it’s a further part of the government’s agenda to privatise everything.  What is perhaps surprising is that this plan is largely being headed by business secretary Vince Cable, a Liberal Democrat.  The illusion of the Liberal Democrats being a centre-left party is rapidly fading, and I’m wondering whether I should take back the vague compliment I granted them recently.

If the government does carry through with this, you can be sure this will stick.  Sure, Labour whinges now, but I have no doubt they’ll soon accept this as willingly as they accepted Thatcher’s privatisations in the 1980s.  I’m beginning to see why Labour’s achievements in power tend to be undone to a greater extent than the Conservatives’; Labour always seem to get dragged into accepting the policies of Conservative governments.

I can’t help wondering, what next?  Will the next Conservative government privatise the NHS?  Education?  That seems ridiculous now but it’s the direction we appear to be heading in.  Another economic depression, another right-wing government, and nothing will be seen as too valuable to have spending ‘saved’.

Am I wrong?  As I said, I don’t know enough about this to comment with certainty.  Please let me know how you feel about this!

Related articles:

(All this said, would privatising it remove the ‘Royal’ from the title?  That might almost be worthwhile…)

My Issues with Westminster Politics

I’ve noticed that, other than to discuss opinion polling (a post on which is overdue), I don’t tend to speak about British politics very much on this blog.  This isn’t because it doesn’t interest me, nor because I don’t follow it.  I just don’t tend to have much to say, for some reason or another.  I think this may partly be due to the fact that, regarding Westminster at any rate, I tend to feel a general antipathy towards the entire system.  I dislike our monarchical system, I blame the electoral system for a large number of problems our country faces – or, at least, for limiting our solutions – and I don’t feel inspired by any of the major parties:

The Conservative Party
My views tend to veer to the left so, clearly, the UK’s main right-wing party does nothing for me.  I oppose our current Conservative-led government’s obsessive drive to enforce austerity upon us, thereby punishing the weakest of our society for a crisis they didn’t cause.  While recognising the private sector has its place I oppose the relentless agenda of privatisation they’re enforcing upon us.  Ridiculous assaults on people in need of benefits with policies such as the ‘bedroom tax’ are disgraceful.  While I am thankful for David Cameron’s somewhat moderate leadership, trying to reign in the Eurosceptic backbenches and pushing through gay marriage, I still think he is a poor prime minister.

UKIP
Same as the Conservatives, but worse.  As someone who is pro-Europe, pro-immigration, pro-renewable energy but not particularly fond of pubs, I don’t think I have a single thing in common with this party.

Labour
I really want to like Labour.  In theory the mainstream party of social democracy, my amateur opinion is that it abandoned this title long ago.  New Labour did some great things – most of which were before I became politically aware – my favourite of which is introducing the minimum wage, but it seemed to bow to the concept of privatised, unadulterated individualism which Thatcher imposed upon the country.   More shockingly, I’ve read a few criticisms from Labour supporters at the flimsiness of Labour’s policies which, after a whole 13 years of being implemented, are easily being torn away in a fraction of the time by our current coalition government.  If Labour were to promise some real, left-wing progressive policies – nationalisation of the railways,  ambitious cuts to carbon emissions, the scrapping of Trident and a proper, growth-focused alternative to austerity, to name a few – I might change my mind.  As it is, we have a shadow cabinet which has stated it will more or less continue the coalition’s austerity drive and is currently tearing itself apart over the role of unions in the party.  I’m not well informed enough about this issue to make a detailed comment but, without the unions, what would be the point of Labour?  They’d simply be a less scary version of the Conservatives.

Liberal Democrats
I think people have been too harsh to the Liberal Democrats at times.  As a junior partner in a coalition, with less than 1/5 of the seats the Conservative party have (they should have three times as many but, you know, our electoral system…) they really can’t be expected to live up to all of their promises.  That said, Liberal Democrat policies have taken such a beating in this government – tuition fees, changing the electoral system, reforming the House of Lords, etc – that I’m amazed any of their MPs see the coalition as still being worthwhile.  I suspect they’re staying in only in the hope that their abysmal poll performance improves.  The last three years has been proof that a vote for the Liberal Democrats is in reality a vote for either Labour or Conservative, depending whichever performs better.  That said, of the four they would still probably be my preferred option, if only because they are the only party seeking to reform the electoral system and end this straitjacket upon British politics.

It’s not the only reason, but an electoral system which only lets our vote count for two almost identical parties is why I largely feel disillusioned with Westminster politics and why I have far more confidence in the Scottish system.  I’m sure I can’t be the only person being pushed by this charade towards viewing Scottish independence as a positive thing.

Nevertheless, I will try to pay greater attention to developments in both UK and Scottish politics, and I’ll make an effort to blog about them a little more.  I doubt that will do much for my lack of faith but it might make it more justified.  If you disagree with any of this, please let me know why!

Problems with First Past The Post

I’m really not fond of the First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system, used in many elections around the world.  I’ve just found an excellent video which details the severe flaws of this broken system.  The video explains it far better than I can, but to summarise its points:

  1. It nearly always results in minority rule.
    Elections very rarely result in majorities.  Usually opinion will be divided between a number of candidates and parties, meaning that the winner will nearly always have less than 50% of the vote.  This is how the UK generally ends up with a government the majority don’t want, an extreme example being the Labour Government from 2005-2010 which was only elected with 35.2% of the vote but won 55.2% of seats in parliament.  In more complex systems you can get candidates elected who actually won less votes then their rival – George Bush in 2000, for instance.
  2. Creates a two-party system.
    Due to the ‘winner takes all’ nature of FPTP, many parties or candidates who regularly poll in 3rd or 4th place have virtually no chance of winning an election, despite having a modest level of popularity (perhaps 20% or so).  Over time the voters for these parties will realise this and shift their votes to more popular parties, leaving only the very faithful continuing to vote for these parties.  This results in the growth of two parties- usually one left-wing party and one right-wing party.  Why is this a bad thing?  Well, it polarises political debate and suggests that there are only two options for governance, when in reality there may be many different opinions going unrepresented.  It makes it more difficult for individuals or ideas to gain representation and, in some cases (such as the USA… again), allows businesses and corporations which support the parties to have disproportionate influence.
  3. Can result in gerrymandering.
    I would hope this isn’t that great an issue in democracies which use FPTP today, but it does recur every time plans are made to create new electoral boundaries – which must happen regularly to keep up with demographic changes so that all constituencies or voting areas have the same population to ensure no areas have greater influence than others.  For more corrupt and authoritarian governments it provides an easy means of rigging elections but even in healthy democracies, creating boundaries all parties can accept is an added complexity which can be costly and time consuming.
  4. Voting third party is always a bad idea.
    Unless you dislike both major parties or candidates equally, this is a huge problem.  In the UK most people have a preference towards either Labour or Conservative (despite often blurring lines between them), even if they wouldn’t like either party to be elected.  It’s the same with Republicans and Democrats in the USA.  Say you’re a left-leaning liberal in Fictionland and decide to vote for the Liberal Party.  Most people who vote Liberal are also left-leaning.  Unfortunately this splits the left-leaning vote and allows the right-wing Free Market Party to form a government with less than 50% of the vote.  Therefore, by voting for the Liberal Party instead of the Socialist Party, these voters – who make up a majority of Fictionland’s electorate – allowed a government to be formed which they didn’t want.  This is, in my opinion, the main reason Margaret Thatcher got elected so many times in the 80s, because the left-wing vote was split between Labour and the Liberal-Social Democrats.  On the other hand, it is speculated that the rise of UKIP will benefit Labour because many Conservative voters will shift to them.

Any one of these reasons alone is enough to make FPTP a terrible system, but together it is shocking that we still use it.  There are many alternative systems to FPTP but my favourite of these is the Additional Member System which, happily for me, is used in Scotland.

Once a FPTP system is in place it is very difficult to remove because, obviously, it works in favour of all the major parties.  In such a strict two-party system as the USA it’s unlikely that the electoral system will change for a very long time.  In the UK things are a bit more optimistic: the pro-reform Liberal Democrat Party, for instance, became a part of a coalition government in 2010 and managed to push through a referendum on the electoral system.  This was defeated for a number of reasons – the most significant being that the alternative system was pretty poor – and electoral reform seems to have gone off the agenda since.

I’ll admit that there are also benefits of FPTP system: the most convincing of which being that it provides stability and limits the influence of extremist parties.  This would be particularly useful for new democracies which often collapse due to weak governments (this is a major reason Hitler was able to take power in Germany in 1933).  There are also a few occasions where I think it would benefit a long-lasting democracy, such as Israel which produces such inconclusive results that political and religious extremists nearly always play the role of ‘Kingmaker’ and are often included in coalition governments.  But in nearly every other case, FPTP is an inherently flawed system.

The Bridge (Review)

Contains spoilers.

It was this tragic announcement which inspired me to read an Iain Banks book.  I knew very little about him beforehand, but recognised his position as one of Scotland’s, if not the UK’s, best general and science-fiction novelists.  I scoured the local library for a good book to start with – his only one I was aware of at the time, The Wasp Factory, scared me – and came across The Bridge.

My first impression was admiration towards his incredibly talented writing style.  The novel begins with a strange, contorted section from the perspective of the protagonist (I’ll call him John Orr for convenience after his Bridge persona, though we are also introduced to The Barbarian and it’s suggested, though never made clear, that his real-world name is Alexander Lennox) within his crushed car.  It glides through broken up sentences, curses, confusion and philosophy with great skill.  The rest of the novel continues this way.  Sections on The Bridge, John’s coma world, are written in a surreal and vaguely disembodied manner, as are the dreams; The Barbarian’s sections are written in broad Scots dialect and follow his exploits in a fantasy world of Greek mythology, but are nevertheless highly readable; his real-world history is heavily nostalgic, switching to third-person past tense for a biographical account of his life, interspersed with historical events to adds layers of realism.  In literary terms, this novel is a masterpiece.

The world of the Bridge is an incredible creation.  John, am amnesiac, finds himself on the world of the Bridge where an entire civilisation live suspended above the railway track in corridors and streets and buildings.  He spends his time undergoing dream therapy with Dr Joyce, before being moved – ingeniously coinciding with his real-world shift in hospitals – socialising, and searching for the labelled library.  It doesn’t make a lick of sense, and nor is it supposed to.  I have a hard time sifting through what’s intentional symbolism and the random fragments included to show the state of his brain.  The hospital-TV screen and beeping on the telephone are obvious; the warplanes leaving braille messages in the sky and his obscure dreams are less so.  Some of the dreams focus on an attempt to overcome warped laws of Physics – my favourite was his trying to pass through a narrow path when a stranger traveling in the opposite direction mirrored his every move – which symbolise how trapped John is within his own head.  Building up the mythology of the Bridge makes me really eager to discover what lies beyond, and Banks doesn’t disappoint; the prisons, the warzones, the sadistic generals… Beautiful writing, though again, difficult to determine their meaning.  I thought it might have been his mind fracturing as it splintered apart, but this is near the point where he finally awakens, so I’m not sure.  This is not a flaw.

John’s, or rather Alex’s biography is fascinating to read.  It was actually quite unnerving for me at moments: here we have a teenager with an interest in history and English who moves away from home to study at the University of Edinburgh, having fallen in love with the city; he later develops an intense dislike of right-wing politics and joins Amnesty International.  Uh – I hope this is where our similarities end!  I particularly enjoyed following his unusual relationship with Andrea.  She spent a large portion of her life in Paris and each had romantic partners within that time, yet they continued to be a ‘couple’ of sorts.  The definition of an ‘open relationship’, I guess.  Couldn’t comment on whether it’s healthy but it’s certainly refreshing from most of the gooey loved-up couples you find in fiction and reality.  These sections are not written in a particular narrative style; they flow up and down as any life would.  I really, really liked the bits of historical flavour Banks added.  He would begin a section by mentioning, for example, the election of Margaret Thatcher, or the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and go on to describe things like John’s donation to the African National Congress as an ‘apology’ for his company’s operations within Apartheid South Africa.  Reading John and Andrea staying up to watch Thatcher elected once, twice – and their resultant anger – felt so real.  These are deviations, but they add so much.

The characters are another strength of this fantastic novel.  The trinity of the protagonist’s psyche: despondent, political Alex; laid-back, casual John; and primal Barbarian, together feel like a whole, realistic person.  Andrea is a likeable yet flawed love interest, whose relationship with John I became totally invested in.  The characters in the Bridge world were also fascinatingly developed: from enigmatic Abberlaine Arrol (who vanishes from the novel 2/3s in, perhaps symbolising Andrea’s irregular presence in his life) to Dr Joyce (again vanishing), and even the characters who only appear once; each feels properly crafted and real, even when they’re not.

One curious response I had to The Bridge was a resurgence in my normally dormant sense of Scottish nationalism.  Iain Banks is one of Scotland’s greatest advocates for Scottish independence, and it shows.  Typically, my idea of Scots literature is either idolised figures like Robert Burns and Walter Scott – who I always presumed were raised on such a pedestal because we had no one else – or highly interesting but also repetitive ‘rural, Highland, Jacobite’ culture.  For the first time, I have fallen in love with ‘Scottish literature’ as a genre.  It stills feels a little wrong to separate it from ‘British literature’ – I would very much like to continue claiming Shakespeare and Orwell were writers from ‘my’ country, despite their English identities – but less wrong now than it once did.  Not that reading this has swayed my opinions on independence or anything – which I am hesitantly opposed to, though technically still ‘undecided’ – but I feel more proud of being Scottish having made this discovery.  Also, it was very exciting to discover that the Bridge is supposed to be the Forth Bridge near Edinburgh, a bridge I have travelled across many times in my life.  Perhaps this pride is born out of actually having settings and situations I can relate to on a personal level?

All in all, I was hugely impressed by Iain Banks’ The Bridge.  I think I must dive into more of his work as soon as I can – I’m very tempted by his ‘Culture’ series of science fiction books.  His imagination thrills me, and I can’t wait to find out what else it includes.  My only criticism is that the book was slightly difficult to understand at times, but perhaps that is a limitation on my part rather than his.  The tragic news of his cancer will hit the literary world very hard indeed, and he will be loved and missed by many.  But that’s a negative way to finish off; he has a final novel, The Quarry, still to be released and adored by his countless fans.

Final rating: 9/10

Changes to the Minimum Wage (2013)

Good news, everyone!  The UK government has announced that the minimum wage shall increase!  For over 21s it shall increased from £6.19 to £6.31, and for 18-20s from £4.98 to £5.03.  The minimum wage was introduced by Tony Blair’s Labour government in 1998, and has virtually put a stop to any exploitative employment which may have been seen previously, by ensuring all workers earn a decent rate.  It has been criticised for being too low, so, surely, this is good news?

Well, no.

These increases (1.9% for adults) are well below the current national inflation rate of 2.8%.  Sure, wages are increasing, but the cost of living is rising faster.  If we assume that poor, working people are not the government’s greatest priority (it’s been obvious for quite some time), this doesn’t even make economic sense.  The economy is not going to get moving unless we increase the spending power of the population as a whole, but the government seems set on boosting the wealth of businesses and the upper middle-class, over the misguided belief that making it easier for the wealthy to become even more wealthy will cause some of their wealth to ‘trickle down’.  These ideas were first majorly implemented by Prime Minister Thatcher and… well… The figures really speak for themselves.

Wealth has been getting progressively more concentrated since Thatcher’s Conservative government was elected in 1979.  Labour, to their shame, did little to reverse this concentration, and the current Conservative-led government is clearly, day by day, continuing these disastrous policies.  Look at that chart.  Very soon, if not already, we’re going to be back to Victorian levels of inequality – unless someone does something about it.  Cameron and Clegg certainly don’t seem particularly bothered.

Margaret Thatcher Dies at 87 (reaction)

I’ve just recently been alerted to the news that Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the UK from 1979 – 1990, has died.

Now, from what I have heard and read about her time in power, I believe her to have left a truly terrible legacy for Britain, in terms of what she did to the country’s industry and the damage its very social fabric, as well as her dubious international record (the sinking of the Belgrano and her support of Apartheid spring to mind).  Others – many others – will disagree, and likewise, I’m sure, a lot of people will agree.  Thatcher, even now, proves to be a controversial figure.

However, I don’t see myself either mourning or celebrating her death.  Despite my opinions on her political record, I think it would be utterly wrong to celebrate the death of another human being.  While now might be the time to have a political debate on the legacy she has left, I personally feel inclined to look back how exceptional a Prime Minister she was – for better or for worse.  Firstly, she was the UK’s first – and, to date, only – female Prime Minister.  Her 11 years in power have been the longest uninterrupted premiership since Robert Jenkinson left office in 1827.  Even considering Prime Ministers who were in power more than once, she is still has the 7th longest time in office of every Prime Minister in British history, as well as the longest tenure in the 20th century.

The Iron Lady may be gone, but she has earned herself a very secure place in the history of our country.