Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

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TRIDENT: Not fit for purpose

In A.Graham, C.Spiby on April 27, 2017 at 12:31 pm

We offer no apologies for returning to the topic of the Trident missile system – and its questionable role in our so-called defence system.

It seems that technically it is no longer fit for purpose. It has outlived its effectiveness (if it ever had any), and should now either be scrapped or at the very least phased out.

According to the latest issue of The Spokesman (the quarterly journal of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation),  the Trident system has now completed 26 years of deployment, and has now  “reached its original design life goal” – as the US Department of Defence puts it.

HUSHED UP:

The failed test highlighted in the last issue of the Clarion was hushed up by the Americans, though Theresa May was informed. She chose not to pass on the news to Parliament. It was only revealed through a US press leak.

WHAT ABOUT “DE-COMMISSIONING”?

There are other concerns about the Trident system, apart from the effectiveness of this ageing system. How do we get rid of nuclear submarines when we no longer need them?  The Spokesman reports that HMS Tireless has now joined eighteen other nuclear submarines awaiting dismantling.  “With Dreadnought rusting in Rosyth since 1980, the cost of maintaining them is rising and space running out as the Ministry of Defence struggles to find an environmentally safe and cost effective means of disposal. “

As Laurel and Hardy may well have said, “A fine mess you’ve got us into!”  Yes, Trident should be phased out. As “a defence system” it was never fit for purpose. But even if we do scrap this over-priced system our worries are far from over.  How do we safely and securely scrap our redundant nuclear submarines?  It could be a problem that remains with us for decades – if not longer.

Below is web-only edition of the Clarion bonus material…


 

THE HISTORY OF ‘PROTECT AND SURVIVE’

Professor John Preston will be hosting a discussion on the infamous 1970’s pif ‘Protect and Survive’ on June 29th at the University of East London. Click here for more details on the FREE event (limited numbers so you will need to book).

In Prof. Preston’s own words:

In this workshop we will consider the origins, nature, reception and fate of the 1980s UK government civil defence campagn “Protect and Survive”. We will discuss the following issues:-

  • What were the origins of Protect and Survive? How did the original plans arise and how were they realised? How exactly did it arrive in the public domain?
  • What was the nature of Protect and Survive? Was it a campaign / public information ‘package’? How would it have been used in practice? What types of media would it have used?
  • How was Protect and Survive recieved? How was it portrayed in the media, popular culture, government and internationally?
  • What happened to Protect and Survive? Did it become ‘civil protection’? Does it still exist in some form?

This is a workshop rather than an academic seminar. The format will be to spend one hour (approx.) on each of the four issues (with a tea break at some point) and for perhaps one person to ‘lead’ each area (if anyone would like to volunteer to lead a particular area that woudl be great) by giving a five minute introduction to that topic.

The conference is open to anyone: academics, historians, collectors, policy makers, practitioners and anyone who is interested in “Protect and Survive”

Lunch is not included but you will get a cup of tea / coffee and a biscuit or two. At the end of the workshop you are welcome to join us for a drink.

Incidentally, a seminal BBC Panorama has found its way on to YouTube (available at the time of this posting, at least), which looks into the role of Civil Defence in Britain in 1980, at a time when ‘Protect and Survive’ was still secret and intended for viewing only in the event of impending nuclear war.

Watching this again (I remember seeing it when I was only 9 years old first time around) – this programme has lost none of its potency. If anything it acts as an important reminder of the futility of nuclear war – no less relevant today – but also just how far we’ve come in terms of documentary film-making. An hour long and in-depth this is a far cry from today’s glossy but often light handling of topic on mainstream tv. Panorama on BBC used to occupy the 8pm or 9.25pm slot on BBC1 (just after the 9 o’clock News with Angela Rippon or Kenneth Baker!)

END

DANGER: NUCLEAR WASTE STORAGE

In A.Graham on April 24, 2017 at 11:51 am

According to the latest newsletter from “STAND” (Severnside Together Against Nuclear Development) the threat from nuclear waste being stored at the old Berkeley Nuclear plant is increasing ominously.

After the plant ceased producing power it remained operational as a nuclear waste storage facility. The original planning application was for a “Low Level” waste store, confined simply to waste from the Berkeley plant itself. But now, according to STAND, it holds the far more dangerous “intermediate level” waste from such nuclear power plants as Oldbury, Sizewell and Dungeness – as well as Berkeley itself.

This is despite the fact that those who live in the vicinity were assured that it would never happen!

2007_fire at Oldbury nuke power station

Across the Severn – and on fire.

 

Initially the nuclear waste was stored using ductile cast iron containers – but these are now to be replaced by concrete, on the grounds of cost. How safe this will be in the long term remains to be seen. Concrete, of course, does corrode over time (as of course does cast iron).

All this is at present “work in progress” and may not be complete until well into 2018. Meanwhile, Coun. James Greenwood has been asking whether there would be any public consultation on the plans.  He was told that there was “no need” (after all, it would only frighten the natives!).

THREATS:

It might be that local inhabitants have good reason to be apprehensive.  Back in 2005 the Government’s own nuclear watchdog, Nirex, produced an official report which stated that the Berkeley site was unsuitable for nuclear waste storage. The dangers posed by this site on the Severn included tidal flooding and the threat of storm surges.

Meanwhile it has taken five years to remove waste from the bottom of the chambers on the site. We’re talking about highly radioactive sludge here.

The danger of accidents at nuclear power plants is of course an ever-present threat. It may not seem many, but there have been four critical disasters since the nuclear age began – and that’s four too many. The problem of storing radioactive nuclear waste is more of a long-term threat. It’s like a ticking time bomb.

WHAT ABOUT OLDBURY?

Meanwhile, what’s happening on the Oldbury site?  There has been no news from the developers, Horizon, for some time, despite attempts by STAND to contact them.

According to the latest STAND newsletter, the questions that need answering include:  How many cooling towers will be included in the plans?  Do they still intend to build up a base seven metres above the river level before they begin work on the plant?  How will they bring all the concrete in before the work starts?

And, last but not least, when do they expect to start producing electricity?

To date there has been no response to these questions. Meanwhile for further details, go to STAND’s website: www.standagainstoldbury.org


NUCLEAR ENDPIECE: MAY’S TRIDENT COVER UP

Towards the end of January (as this issue of the Clarion was being prepared), the media dropped a bombshell. In the summer of 2016, just before the crucial vote of whether to renew our Trident system, a missile had gone off course and ended up off the Florida coast.

Theresa May chose to bury the news. She said nothing about it during that heated debate in the Commons. The Labour Party split on the vote to renew our fleet of Trident nuclear submarines and the decision to renew the fleet was passed overwhelmingly.

If it had been known then that a test missile had been fired and gone careering  off in the wrong direction, ending up near the coast of the USA, maybe, just maybe, the result of the vote might have been different. But that, of course, is now water under the bridge.

Incidentally, the Trident nuclear warheads are supplied by the USA and are effectively under American control. The missile that went astray was not actually armed with a nuclear warhead – but it does say something about the fallibility of the missile delivery system.

BURYING BAD NEWS:

More important was the cover-up that followed the vote in the Commons. News of the rogue missile was only revealed in January. The source was the Sunday Times, backed up shortly afterwards by American television.  But even then May’s cover-up continued.

When she appeared on the BBC Andrew Marr show, she was asked no less than four times whether she’d known about the stray missile. Four times she failed to answer.

CND general secretary Kate Hudson described the incident as “a very serious failure,” and added, “why has the Government knowingly committed us to spending £205 billion on this demonstrably unreliable technology?”

A Government spokesman, however said, “we have absolute confidence in our independent (sic) nuclear deterrent.”

bomb_tree

Co-op In The Forest Under Attack

In A.Graham, Uncategorized on February 23, 2017 at 1:31 pm

According to its critics, the Co-op in the Forest of Dean has been stifling competition, and forcing shoppers to travel out of the area to get a decent deal.

The brunt of the attack on the Co-op centres on plans for a new supermarket on the Steam Mills quarter of Cinderford.  This would of course pose a threat to the Co-op store in the town – as well as the many smaller shops in Cinderford.

The site was once earmarked by Tesco, as part of its expansion into the Forest – but after a long fight (led initially by Somerfield) planning permission was finally rejected at government level.  Later Asda submitted plans for an out of town store at Steam Mills – but then withdrew.

The current application appears to be developer-led. At present no particular supermarket chain has expressed specific interest, but the developers (Trilogy Development)  believe that Asda could be tempted back.

ACCUSATIONS:
At the time of writing there has been no challenge to what looks like a speculative venture.  But one (Labour) councillor from Cinderford has declared his belief that the Midcounties Co-op would mount a legal challenge.  He went on to say “All people want is choice and I believe the Co-op in Cinderford should be penalised for stifling trade.”

Such accusations seem at this stage to be somewhat gratuitous, and it might well be that it wouldn’t only be the Co-op that would suffer in the town.  It would be all retail trade in the town centre, the small shops, convenience stores, and all the outlets that have offered choice.  It could also affect other such alternative food sources as the“Forest Hub”.  Their future is bleak if more of the big supermarket chains are foisted on the Forest.

It should further be noted that Cinderford had already gained another supermarket. There is also a Lidl in the town, and it’s been trading there for some years.

But the attacks on the Co-op continue.  Another angle is that because of its obstructionist approach it’s forcing shoppers to travel out of town (to Ross-on-Wye for example) in order to do the “shopping of their choice”.  The aforementioned Labour Councillor was quoted in the Forester as saying: “anybody who goes to Morrisons in Ross on any Friday or Saturday afternoon will see more Cinderford people there than on Cinderford High Street.”

This comment is speculative to say the least. As far as I know, there’s been no scientific survey on the weekend shopping habits of Cinderford folk ~ though of course it may be that such shoppers are happy to take a day out in a town like Ross, regardless of such an ambiguous concept as “choice”!

COMPETITION INCREASING
The Co-op is of course deeply rooted in the Forest of Dean. These roots go back to the late 19th Century.  Even today it has four supermarkets in the Dean council area, as well as a number of convenience stores.

But it’s only natural that competition should be increasing. In Lydney there are two other supermarkets apart from the Co-op. In Coleford there’s also a Nisa, and a smaller convenience store – Tesco – in competition with the Co-op.  And much the same pattern is seen in Cinderford.
But still, it seems, some folk want even more supermarkets, and to blazes with the consequences.

First, there’s only so much “competition” that our Forest communities can absorb before retail outlets start to go to the wall. The first will be the smaller specialist shops, such as butchers. bakers, clothes shops, and the smaller retail “general” stores. Then the weaker supermarket stores will suffer – and only the more voracious giants will survive.

It’s not up to me to speculate on the fate of the proposed Steam Mills development.  But a retail economy based solely on supermarket shopping is not a happy trend – particularly when we consider the next trend – one in which all shopping is done “online”,  goods are just shipped from the relevant warehouse to the customer, and we never have to go near a shop or supermarket again.

Then, of course, all diversity will have vanished, and the finger-pointing as to who did what to whom will vanish with it.  And you won’t be able to blame the Co-op!

ON THE DAY FARES GO UP: Getting our Railways back on track!

In A.Graham on January 3, 2017 at 5:17 pm

Question: why have rail workers, though their union the RMT, been in dispute with the company that owns and runs Southern Rail?

And what are the implications for passengers?  In the short term many commuters may complain of the inconvenience. Indeed, many no doubt have. But looking at the industrial action and its causes, RMT members are campaigning for all passengers on our trains. The issue is over the need for guards on our trains.

Southern Rail is one of a number of companies that wants to get rid of guards on their trains. Which means that there will just be a driver to deal with any problems that may occur en route, check tickets and ensure that journeys go smoothly. How passengers get their tickets at any unmanned stations (like Lydney) isn’t explained.

POOR PERFORMANCE:

Maybe it’s because the poor performance of Southern Rail (part of the Southern/Govia-Thameslink Group) that it’s found itself in the front line. But there are other rail companies that aspire to getting rid of their guards on their trains as well. Scot Rail, Richard Branson’s Virgin East Coast trains, and even Eurostar would like to go down that track,

But it’s not the only point of complaint that travellers may have with the current rail system. Indeed, it’s more a case of “how long have you got?” But the dispute over the employment of guards on trains is a glaring example of what’s wrong with our privatised system.

When the rail network was de-nationalised in 1996 (by John Major), it turned out to be a botched job.  All British Rail’s assets were taken over, and the network of tracks on which the trains ran were placed in the hands of a new company called Railtrack. In order to give as many aspiring rail companies as possible a bite of the cherry, routes were parcelled out and awarded as franchises to different bidders, all eager to milk the opportunity to make loads of money for their shareholders.

PATCHY:

The results were, to say the least, patchy. A few companies soon lost their franchises through sheer incompetence.  Others were taken over. There was little co-ordination, and the whole system became fragmented. And fares continue to rise across the whole network.

And it continues to fray around the edges. Meanwhile the major companies continue to make nice profits. – All helped by generous subsidies.

In 2014-15, for example, rail subsidies came to £4.8 billion. In the same period, Network Rail (the successor to Railtrack)  managed accumulated losses of £40 billion.  We could also add to the taxpayers’ bills the overall cot of such vanity projects as  HS2 (the high speed rail link to the north). Meanwhile, Southern Rail has been given a nice  fat handout  to help them over their “troubles”.

Incidentally, many of the companies running our train services are now foreign-owned.  The two companies who cater for passengers through Lydney , for example, are both owned by Deutsche Bahn (the German State Railways. Both Arriva and Crosscountry are part of the German company’s portfolio.

All this surely increases the case for taking the railways back into public ownership.  And to reinforce the point, in successive polls, public opinion has been firmly in favour of returning the railways to public hands.

LOOKING BACK: Saving the Party from Socialism?

In A.Graham, Uncategorized on October 4, 2016 at 12:34 pm

THE ONSLAUGHT ON MICHAEL FOOT

Michael Foot was a much loved leader of the Labour Party and a highly respected writer and journalist He’d edited Tribune for many years, inherited Nye Bevan’s old constituency of Ebbw Vale, and had held a number of posts in the Labour Governments of Wilson and Callaghan.

After Labour’s defeat in 1979, he became leader of the Party the following year, after Callaghan’s resignation.  Thatcher was now in power, but the country was in recession and she was at that point in her career far from popular. Michael Foot was able to provide a clear Socialist alternative to her policies – policies that were welcomed by those on the left, but not by all in the ranks of Labour. Those opposed to Foot soon set out to undermine his leadership.

BREAKAWAY:
This culminated in the breakaway by the “Gang of Four” Labour MPs who split, to form the Social Democrat Party (SDP), led by Shirley Williams and David Owen – both of whom had held Cabinet posts in the previous Labour government.

As far as the media was concerned, the glossy new SDP was flavour of the month. But the new party soon realised that if it was to take the “centre ground” that it cherished it would have to come to some accommodation with the Liberals. And so the SDP/Liberal Alliance was soon cobbled together.

As for Michael Foot, he was by now 67. But despite the right-wing split in the Labour Party he still maintained an impressive lead in the opinion polls. Sadly this was to melt away, and in 1987 he led Labour to crushing defeat. The Party recorded its lowest vote since before the war – and Thatcher remained in power.

There were two factors involved in Labour’s defeat. First, of course, the new SDP/Liberal Alliance siphoned off a significant number of former Labour votes. And second, the Alliance had the backing of the media, spearheaded by the Murdoch conglomerate, which worked tirelessly to undermine Foot. He was given the nickname “Wurzel Gummidge”, lampooned for his dress sense – and the image stuck.   Few will forget the charge in the Sun that Foot had turned up at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day wearing a “donkey jacket”. In fact it was a smart coat bought for the occasion by his wife Jill Craigie.  Be that as it may, the charge stuck.

IN THE FOREST:
Incidentally, one of those who joined the SDP band-waggon was the former Labour MP for the Forest of Dean, John Watkinson. By splitting the vote he allowed Paul Marland to gain the seat for the Tories. Marland was to hold it well into the ‘nineties, before Diana Organ regained it for Labour.

After Labour’s election defeat, Michael Foot resigned as Labour leader.  His place was taken by Neil Kinnock, a one-time left-wing MP who had re-branded himself as   a “middle of the road” sort of guy.  But, standing against John Major, he still managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

And the rest, as they say, is history. The SDP was completely swallowed up by what became the Lib Dems, whilst the untimely death of Labour’s leader, John Smith allowed a cabal led by Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair to take over the Labour Party, re-brand it as “New Labour” and win the ensuing election.  Labour would have won anyway, as by this time the Tories were looking and acting like a party whose time in office was over. And no doubt they knew it.

As for Michael Foot, he retired gracefully and returned to his west country roots (including his support for Plymouth Argyll football club). He finally died in 2010, well in to his 90s.  As a republican, he  refused a peerage, or indeed any honours. But he remained a man of honour and integrity to his dying day.

CONCLUSIONS:
Conclusions may be drawn, comparing the events surrounding Michael Foot’s leadership bid and those of Jeremy Corbyn – but none are intended. In order to do so, the brush strokes would have to be very, very broad indeed.  And history rarely repeats itself in the same way.  So, any conclusions drawn by readers would have to be their’s alone.

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TRIDENT: What use is it?

In A.Graham, Uncategorized on October 4, 2016 at 12:20 pm
Once again, on July 18th, we  witnessed the Commons in full cry, debating whether we should renew our (small but no doubt beautifully formed) fleet of Trident nuclear submarines.
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We’ve watched the same old arguments trotted out – this time, though, by the new Tory Prime Minister, Theresa May. We also witnessed the un-edifying sight of serried ranks of Labour MPs all doing their best to show that they didn’t support Jeremy Corbyn on this issue (or, indeed, much else).  What were they trying to prove, I wonder? And we also watched Theresa May trying to do a Cameron by slapping down Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas as she spoke against Trident.  It wasn’t a pretty sight, and we can do without it in any serious debate. Carolyn Lucas by the way was making the point that the logic of renewing Trident was that “every other country must seek to acquire nuclear weapons.”  After all,  If we had to have Trident, why shouldn’t they? Renewing our own nuclear submarine fleet  Is hardly a move towards preventing proliferation!
When it comes to who supports what, Trident presents us with a tangle of opinion. The SNP don’t want it in their back yard – understandably. On the other hand, Unite the union (particularly its members in the Barrow shipyards) want the Trident project to go ahead. After all, their jobs are at stake. Having said that, wouldn’t it provide more security if marine “jobs for peace” could be guaranteed at Britain’s remaining shipyards? There are plenty of naval vessels that need building.
In effect, what we got from supporters of Trident in the debate were cliches that steered clear of the reality of the situation. For a start it’s not “our” independent nuclear deterrent.  And it would hardly be of any use against any of the opponents who we face in those conflicts we’ve got ourselves involved in. We may have built our fleet of Trident subs ourselves but the nuclear warheads are a different matter altogether. The missiles are American, and no way could we take unilateral action without seeking consent. From the USA.  Basically, our Trident subs tie us firmly into US nuclear/military strategy.
CAMPAIGNING:
I have to confess that I’m something of a veteran peace campaigner – and well remember one particularly fraught action which saw us on the march to Holy Loch  where our nuclear missile system squatted like a giant toad on the waters of the loch. In those days we relied on the Polaris nuclear submarine, to provide our deterrent. It was to be replaced by Trident in the 1990s without  firing a single missile in anger.
Most of our attempts to get to the loch and board the submarine were thwarted. We were dragged away by sweating, disgruntled policemen, and we ended up in the Glssgow central police cells.  But we believed then that we’d won a moral victory.
Nowadays, older and maybe wiser, I believe that moral victories are not enough. The “Cold War”, as it was then, is no longer with us, but we still live in a very dangerous world, even if the dangers are more fragmented. And it’s because of this fragmentation that old theories based on “mutually assured destruction” no longer have the same validity.
IRRELEVANCE:
Our nuclear missiles were completely irrelevant when it came to the Iraq War, spearheaded by Bush and Blair. They are even more irrelevant in the trouble zones of the Middle East today, or in the campaigns to contain and overcome the outrages committed by self-styled jihadists in Europe.
The list goes on. But meanwhile we’re determined to spend billions of pounds so that we can be seen to be playing with the big boys.

NEWSPOINTS: Probation & Scotland

In A.Graham on August 8, 2016 at 11:44 am

PROBATION TO BE PRIVATISED? YOU’RE JOKING!

It’s likely that few people noticed a recent report by the National Audit Office. Even if they knew where to look they’d probably regard the whole as a switch-off. Suffice to say, the report received little attention.

Yet the National Audit Office’s “progress report” would appear to be concerned with the proposed privatisation of the Probation Service by the Government. In other words the whole framework of rehabilitation would be subjected to market forces. It doesn’t need a lot of thought to work out what this might mean.

We are talking here about the National Probation Service for England and Wales (both Scotland and Northern Ireland operate there service through different frameworks). Its remit is, roughly speaking, the supervision of offenders in the community through a number of different roles and activities with the aim of rehabilitating the offender and getting him back on his feet.

HOW IT WORKS:

The Probation Service was first set up as early as 1907, but was re-formed through the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act in April 2001. And the Gloucestershire Probation Trust is just one of many county-based bodies responsible for its operation on the ground.

As most people will appreciate, those offenders affected both before and after conviction suffer from a variety of problems. Just suggesting that we should “make them see the error of their ways” doesn’t come anywhere near dealing with these problems in the wider community.

The Probation Service has a wide scope. To give some examples it‘s responsible for education and learning, including such areas as apprenticeships and work training. This can go right up to further and higher education, if appropriate.

There could also be issues of childcare, or mental problems to deal with, not to mention problems with housing.

As Andreas Whittam Smith wrote in a recent issue of the “i” newspaper, “the essence (of probation) is the establishment of a relationship between a probation officer and an offender.

“The idea that probation work should become a commercial activity began to surface in the early 2000s, In 2004, Tony Blair’s Government accepted a report that recommended… using ‘providers of probation from across the public, private or voluntary sectors.”

Then, in 2007, under Blair’s government, probation boards began to be changed into probation trusts – all ready for privatisation. Here the Government went a stage further by suggesting that the probation service could be paid to reduce re-offending, with any savings to the criminal justice system paying for this.

But how can we know how far a particular probation service was solely responsible for a reduction in re-offending? It could be due to a range of factors – such as rehabilitation in the prison itself, or personal factors affecting the offender.

COMPETITION??

But the Government seems to have brushed all this aside (along with the other duties that involve the service) and made it clear that the probation service would be opened up to competition. Perhaps such bodies as S4C would like a crack at it?

It was revealed by the National Audit Office that many successful bidders for contracts were “new to probation”. But, maybe for such companies experience isn’t the object of the exercise. It’s profit.


TAKING THE ROAD TO THE ISLES

Scotland votes for a new assembly – ALISTAIR GRAHAM reports

A short holiday break, by air and coach early in May, from Bristol to the Outer Hebrides off the coast of mainland Scotland, fortuitously coincided with the elections for the Scottish Assembly.

Not surprisingly, I suppose, I took some time off from admiring dramatic scenery and soaking up the local colour to follow the electoral campaign as it unfolded. The SNP was, naturally enough, riding high in the polls, and most commentators expected Nicola Sturgeon to emerge as the next First Minister. There was more speculation over who would be runners up. Would Scottish Labour cling on to second place, or would it be overtaken by the Tories, who were feeling pretty chippy under a new leader?

QUESTIONS:

A decade ago the very idea of the Tories coming second in the polls would have been unthinkable – though if we go further back, when the Conservatives campaigned under the name of the Unionist Party, they had a respectable core of support in middle class Scotland. Until, that is, they were swamped by the rising tide of Nationalism.

As for Labour, what happened to its support? Where did the “Red Clydeside” vanish to? The likes of Jimmy Maxton and John Wheatley? Scotland, the birthplace of Keir Hardie, was the cradle of the Labour Party. As for Maxton, they used to say that at election time they never bothered to count his votes – they simply weighed them. But Scotland as a whole never took to “New Labour”, or the concept of Blairism. And the Blairites merely took its votes for granted (Indeed, Blair himself once described Scotland as merely “a county”). I would say that this was the time when its roots really started to wither and die.

It would be unkind to blame the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Kezia Dugdale, for the collapse in Labour’s vote. She was fairly new to the leadership role, and her Party fought a vigorous campaign. Indeed, I saw more many more Labour posters displayed than I did Tory ones. But such visual evidence can be deceptive. Labour fought a left-wing campaign, but somehow the message failed to get through.

As for the Tories, their leader Ruth Davidson fought a personalised campaign that tended to promote her rather than the Party she was leading. She’s what might be called a “larger than life” personality (though not necessarily an attractive one!). She did promote herself as the one party leader capable of countering the philosophy of nationalism and the policies of the SNP.

Incidentally another party that did well in these elections was the Scottish Green Party. It registered an encouraging increase in its vote and a modest rise in the number of seats.

FERRIES TO THE ISLANDS:

Our trip north took us on over to Skye and on to Lewis and Harris. The trek inevitably involved ferry trips. All the major ferry routes along the west coast are operated by the state-owned Caledonian MacBrayne company (“CalMac” as it’s affectionately known) – but now the SNP Government is intent on selling on this vital (and much loved) concern to a private company (Serco was at that time the favoured bidder).

There is strong opposition from the unions, who fear that not only jobs and conditions could be threatened but indeed the services themselves. These ferry routes are vital to the communities that they serve, and it goes without saying that CalMac is not an undertaking that is run for profit! Serco doesn’t exactly have a shining record when it comes to running its franchises successfully. Indeed Union leaders have dubbed it “Serco, Bound to Fail”.

LANGUAGE ISSUES:

The Western Isles are, of course, bilingual. The traditional language of the people is Gaelic, and road signs etc. tend to be in both languages. But since the 1970s the Gaelic has been on the decline, until in the last census the number speaking it had fallen to around 57,000.

But there is hope that there may be a re-vitalisation in the language. Not only had the decline levelled off but there’s been an encouraging increase in the number of young people speaking or learning it.

Of course the spread of Gaelic medium schools (those where subjects are taught in the language, and Gaelic becomes the language of the school) has helped the trend enormously. But there also seems to be a move towards taking it up because those involved see it as part of their roots. Young people see it representing who they are.

And long may it continue!

 

Media Focus: “THE INDIE” BITES THE DUST

In A.Graham on May 3, 2016 at 4:44 pm

The Independent, both its daily and Sunday editions, is being phased out – at least in printed form . Both papers are now going “on-line” only.

The daily edition of the paper first appeared in October 1986 as a soberly produced broadsheet (the Sunday edition was to come some years later). It attempted to provide a progressive, independent coverage of news and opinion, and soon settled down to provide a “quality” take on issues of the day.

In more recent times financial problems  forced it to lose some of its independence when it was taken over by Russian oligarch, Alexander Lebedev. But, to be fair, his role was to bank-roll the papers involved without interference in the content of the “Indie”.  The papers maintained a non-party-political line and continued to provide a voice of sanity in a media world increasing dominated by the right-wing press. It goes without saying that there will be jobs lost.

Sadly, the Independent was no longer in the business of making money. As losses mounted, the owner decided to pull the plug. The print edition would cease – and the cut-price “i” would be taken over  by the owner of a string of regional newspapers, including the Yorkshire Post, Sheffield Star and the Scotsman – Johnson Press.

TILTING THE BALANCE:

And so the balance in the press tilts even further to the right. And such papers as the Sun, the Mail, Telegraph and the Daily Express, now dominate the print media whilst spewing out a daily diet of anti-trade union and xenophobic rubbish that often bears very little relationship to the truth. Out of the major players only the Guardian and the Daily Mirror remain to attempt to redress the balance.

It wasn’t always thus of course. Before Murdoch arrived from Australia to launch his newspaper empire in Britain, there was a much more level playing field.

The first major casualty was the News Chronicle. It was a progressive liberal paper, owned by the Cadbury family. It still had a circulation of over a million – yet, without any warning, its owners abruptly decided to sell it to the Daily Mail for a derisory sum.

Whether the Mail gained any readers from the purchase is doubtful. News Chronicle readers were outraged. A packed meeting was called to protest – but there was little that readers could do. They were presented with a fait accompli.

CONSOLIDATION:

The next left-of-centre newspaper to fold was the Daily Herald. The Herald had once been the paper of the Labour Party, and in its infancy  had been edited by George Lansbury. Although its trade union backers had sold out, it still maintained a sizeable circulation – and still backed Labour. Until it decided to transform itself into the Sun.

The new Sun was not a success and was easy pickings for Rupert Murdoch when he came looking for a daily paper to add to his portfolio. He soon transformed it into what it is today.

Another casualty during those years was the long established Sunday paper, Reynolds News, owned by the Co-operative movement. Until, that is, the Co-op decided to close it down.

This shift in the balance of the press has taken a few decades to achieve, but the result can be seen on any news-stand or in any newsagent. And we’re all the poorer for it as a result.

However, the newspaper industry remains in a state of near crisis, with circulations falling.

Take the Guardian, for example. This long established journal of the metropolitan left has seen its sales sink to critical levels. In 2000 it was selling 401,560 daily. Today it’s sunk to a circulation of 164,163.

Alarm bells are now ringing. Faced with this situation, the Guardian is cutting back. It is seeking 250 redundancies (including one hundred editorial jobs). It’s hoped that these job cuts will be achieved by voluntary means. But, of course,  cuts on this scale could well be the start of a downward spiral.

Few newspapers, it seems, are immune. Even the Murdoch camp has been affected. During the same period the circulation of the Sun has sunk from some three and a half million to 1,787,000.

The drain in sales has been blamed on the rise of the “social media”.  In the circumstances, it seems strange that the Mirror group chose to launch a new newspaper – a rather anodyne daily called the New Day. Having read the odd copy, it’s difficult to know what niche market it was aimed at.

THE TRASHING OF YORKLEY COURT FARM

In A.Graham on May 3, 2016 at 4:33 pm

On March 10th bailiffs and security guards, acting on behalf of local developer, Brian Bennett stormed Yorkley Court Farm. They were there to stage a forcible eviction of the “eco-gardeners” who’d been in occupation of the site for some years.

This was the second attempt by Bennett to evict the occupants – and this time it was in earnest. Farm buildings were trashed, and the iconic tower that stood at the farm entrance was demolished.

Since Mr Bennett mounted his first attempt to take over the farm from the occupants the “eco-gardeners” have gained quite a lot of sympathy from those in the area – many of whom saw the re-vitalisation of the once derelict farm as both a credit to those who’d been working it and an asset to the wider community. Harassment by hired security guards hadn’t helped Mr Bennett’s cause.

SUPPORT:

Indeed, after the eviction was mounted a walk along a right-of-way through the farm’s fields was hastily organised in sympathy with the “eco-gardeners”. The right-of-way had long been used as a route for local folk to take a stroll or to exercise their dogs. But there’s been a number of complaints of threatening behaviour by security guards towards those engaged in such harmless pursuit.

This support was reflected in the columns of the local press. On the letters page of the Forester, for example, Coun. Andrew Gardner (Lydbrook and Ruardean) reminded readers that the occupants at Yorkley Court had been in residence for six years, “growing organic food and following an environmentally friendly lifestyle”.

yorkleyCourtHe reminded us that the previous owners of the farm had died intestate, but that “relatives gave permission for the community to reside in the grounds”. He went on to suggest that a public inquiry into the whole affair “must urgently be implemented”.

Another letter suggested that scenes surrounding the eviction would lead onlookers to think that it was Al-Qaeda in occupation of Yorkley Court.

Over 70 police officers were counted at one point, some in riot gear. A helicopter flew overhead for the best part of two days. A police presence may well have been justified (if only to keep an eye on Bennett’s security guards), but in this case it looked as though the numbers were there to intimidate.

Letters of support for the eco-warriors continued in the following week’s issue of the Forester – with an added news item pointing out that a footpath adjoining the farm had been closed without notice, “at the request of the police” – in order, it said, to help in the eviction of the occupants.

WHAT NEXT?

At the time of writing, the eco-gardeners have left Yorkley Court farm with the defiant message, “our homes are gone but our community will live on.” 16 arrests were made and the homes of the occupants were demolished.


WHO’S BRIAN BENNETT?

BRIAN BENNETT, the man behind the eviction of the occupants of Yorkley Court Farm, is a developer. His major achievement was the transformation of Vantage Point near Mitcheldean into a busy industrial park after the closure of the Xerox works on the site (Xerox, incidentally, once employed over a thousand at its works there. By the time it closed it was down to about 80).

BENNETT INTERESTS:

Over the years Mr Bennett has accrued a wide range of interests to add to Vantage Point. The number of companies he has registered are too numerous to mention here. Some indeed may at present be dormant. But they include the following:

  • Allaston Developments Ltd.
  • “Bee Green Energy Ltd., which was set up to develop wind farms.
  • Whitecroft Properties Ltd, registered in May 2003
  • And, last but by no means least, Yorkley Court Farm Ltd. which was registered on 27th April 2014.

Incidentally, it was on the 29th June 2014 (the same year) that bailiffs and security guards first entered Yorkley Court Farm to try to evict the occupants. On this occasion the confrontation ended in a stand-off, and the security guards were withdrawn. Mr. Bennett, it would seem, has collected a range of irons in his fire.

EDITORIAL: Poverty Knocks

In A.Graham, Editorial on March 9, 2016 at 1:15 pm

Clarion Comment: What’s all this about a “living wage”?

“The poor are always with us” is one of those platitudes that was once popular amongst those who had plenty of money. Nowadays, of course, they don’t bother. Far too many have swept the whole topic of poverty under the carpet. And far too many of them are in the present Government.

But there are means to, at least, ameliorate the impact of income differentials on families and allow them to lead a more acceptable life. First, we need to ensure that all those in work are paid a decent wage. And second, to maintain an adequate welfare system to look after all those in society – regardless of age, income or social position.

WORK AND WELFARE:

Britain’s welfare state was, when it was first implemented following the Beveridge Report, a great social leveller. Not only did it provide comprehensive health care but also ensured homes for all and relatively full employment. Of course it didn’t happen overnight. And neither was it perfect. But when we see the callous way in which it’s been dismantled we can also see how fundamentally necessary it all was. Today it no longer provides even a sufficient safety net.

The second point is of course to try to ensure that all families receive at least an adequate income, and prevent them being prey to the vagaries of a capitalist market place. It was to deal with this point that Gordon Brown (under a Labour Government) first introduced the “minimum wage”.

Since then, of course, the notion that the minimum wage comes anywhere near meeting basic requirements has been torn to shreds. Work patterns have changed (usually for the worse), the welfare state no longer provides the kind of succour it once did – and poverty has risen steadily, in tandem with the increase in wealth enjoyed by those at the top.

TALKING OF A LIVING WAGE:

That’s why politicians have been bringing up a new concept of a living wage. One that would take families beyond that of the basic minimum wage.   At the beginning of November, a new group calling itself the People’s Movement was launched to campaign for a real living wage. It was a response to George Osborne’s announcement that he was to introduce a new “national living wage”. But this isn’t due to come into force until next April

For many campaigners the levels he announced simply weren’t considered enough. There are claims that it’s merely the existing “minimum wage” dressed up in new clothing. Not only that but his new “living wage” doesn’t stretch to those under the age of 25, and it will also depend on how the Low Pay Commission estimates “what the market can bear” (the Observer, 1st November).

One can appreciate that many campaigners feel that this just isn’t good enough. Some would go further and suggest that it’s all smoke and mirrors. In reality this Tory Government isn’t interested in dealing with the problem of starvation wages – where an increasing number of working people are paid less than the living wage being promoted by the People’s Movement (23 per cent at the last count). The Government is more concerned with maintaining profit levels for the rich whilst massaging figures on pay.

As for the People’s Movement, it is a commendable campaign. But it would seem to rely on trying to persuade employers to “do the decent thing” and pay their workforce appropriate wage rates. Admittedly, as a pressure group, its role is limited – but in the present climate, is this sufficient?

UNEMPLOYMENT:

Meanwhile unemployment rates are also massaged to present the kind of statistics the Government wants. From our viewpoint they remain disturbingly high, but according to Government figures they’re falling – which should be good news if we could take them at face value.

However, such broad statistics don’t take into account part-time work (particularly those on zero hours contracts), or those who’ve been forced off the unemployment register by harsh, bullying conditions or the negativity of those who now work at Job Centres throughout the country. There are many who are prevented from taking up jobs because the infrastructure that would allow them to do so just isn’t there. Others simply drop below the radar and are no longer part of the Government’s statistics.

LOW WAGE ECONOMY:

Maintaining a low wage, poverty-fuelled economy is not good for society. It does none of us any good. But that is what the present Tory Government is doing. Whilst it remains in power we will continue to see people forced to sleep on the streets. Food Banks will stay in business, as a necessary (but hardly adequate) prop for those who no longer have the means to feed themselves.

Is that really what we want?

ENDNOTES: Testing Times for Jeremy

It’s been a challenging couple of months for Jeremy Corbyn. Not only has the Tory press (led, naturally, by the Mail and the Murdoch minions) been stepping up its attacks on the Labour leader but also there’s been the rising surge of public expressed dissent from certain Labour MPs, plaintively calling for a “change in direction”.

Considering this scenario, it’s not surprising that Labour slipped somewhat in the opinion polls. Indeed, everything considered, Labour’s by-election victory in Michael Meacher’s old constituency in Oldham came as a morale booster for all of us.

The poison that’s been coming from the right-wing press is to be expected (though surely it went too far when a commentator on Sky News referred to Corbyn as “Jihadi Jez!), though its corrosive influence should not be under-estimated. The atmosphere created by the horrifying ISIS attacks in Paris has been bound to have an impact, and here, Jeremy’s position was grossly misrepresented. To give an example, unless we believe in a policy of lynch law, surely it’s better, where possible, to arrest terrorists and try them in a court of law rather than just gunning them down?

But what’s even more dispiriting are the activities of those in the ranks of the Labour Party who have chosen to attack him – and to hint that the Party needs a change of leadership. With friends like these, where do we think we’re going? Whatever happened to that old Socialist slogan, “Solidarity forever”?

Of course events in Paris plus the ongoing refugee crisis in the Middle East had tended to overshadow those domestic policies where Labour should have been able to hit the Government hard, as it did with Osborne’s budget attack on tax relief for the low paid. We also need to go on the offensive against the continuing privatisation of what’s left of the public sector, and the treatment by Jeremy Hunt of junior doctors within the NHS, not to mention the disintegration of the Health Service as a whole – to give a couple of examples. But there have been a host of examples where Corbyn’s leadership has been frustrated by the antics of right-wing Labour MPs whose notions of solidarity seemed sadly lacking. They seem more concerned with infighting than facing up to the real enemy.

What’s necessary within the Parliamentary Labour Party is unity – unity in the face of a vicious, uncaring Tory government that has no scruples when it comes to deepening the divisions in our society. “New Labour” is dead in the water. It has been for some time. Now’s the time to give Corbyn the Party’s backing, to fight the real enemy – the Cameron/Osborne Government.