To be in that number…

This is the trade union contingent on the COP26 demonstration in London yesterday, bearing down on the Bank of England from the North along the otherwise deserted canyons of the City of London. Behind the magnificent purple banner was a corps of massed drummers whose deafening hammering had us all bouncing. A smaller brass section behind them struggled bravely to compete. This was only my second time in Central London in the last two years. The rush of colour, noise and the exuberance of meeting old friends in person – having got used to seeing them on zoom – was almost a sensory overload; even without the bands. On the way down on the Metropolitan line a woman speaking loudly was making me flinch; so two years of being reclusive and living in a narrow range bounded by Tesco in the West, Sainsburys in the East, Morrisons in the North and never venturing South and getting used to a limited range of sounds – the steady menacing rumble of a neighbour’s Harley Davidson being counted out in the morning and in in the evening – the squeals of night time foxes and chatter of our local big wing of jackdaws – has made me a bit too attuned to quiet for the “return to normality” that we’re not going to get.

Outside the Bank, a crush of marchers in different sections – from Gay to Faith – streaming past from one side of the road to the other. Mostly young. Lively and friendly. Immediately behind and above the marchers is the solid Georgian architecture of the Bank, from the early days of capitalism when they thought they had to emulate classical styles to give themselves standing. Above that, the soaring glass towers of neo liberalism, expressive of the way wealth and power is being pumped up, up and away from those of us on the streets, higher and higher, faster and faster, to the 1% and the 1% of the 1%. Immediately in front of a banner reading “In God’s Name DO something” a small boy earnestly reads the Beano.

Marching through the middle of the City past many of its labyrinthine hidden gardens and snaking alleys, I keep expecting to see a sign for Scrooge and Marley. On past St Pauls and up the slope of Fleet Street – the silent ghosts of Newspapers Past haunting the old buildings; the black 1930’s art deco modernism of the old Daily Express HQ seemingly in mourning for itself. The DC Thomson London outpost is still functioning – and proudly proclaims Sunday Post, People’s Friend, People’s Journal and Dundee Courier in its brickwork; three of which are still being published. But the old bustle, the pubs and chapels thronging with half cut journalists and compositors are long silent.

On the pavement by the Law Courts, walking in the opposite direction in more ways than one, an impossibly elderly gentleman who must be at least 90 years old, wearing a three piece suit in a cloth of grey so soft and clean that it looks as though he has been montaged inside it, strolls past with slender elegance and a slightly disparaging, possibly alarmed, look; his poise barely disguising his fragility.

Outside the Ritz, a queue of smartly dressed middle aged men and women stand waiting to be let in for afternoon tea. Immediately behind them, a homeless guy lays on a sleeping bag in the pose of Michelangelo’s Adam on the Sistine chapel; staring out at them and us with studied balefulness, and munching on a Snickers bar.

Standing on the other side of the road from this contingent, I can’t hear what they are chanting properly. It sounds like NO TOILETS! NO PIZZAS! then something inaudible in rhythm. Crossing the road to hear properly it turns out to be “No nations! No Borders!” and a call for reparations to the developing world for the damage the CO2 that the rich in the rich world have put into the air we share has done. Why my brain took those sounds and turned them into the words I thought I heard may indicate an unhealthy preoccupation with personal bladder comfort and feeling hungry.

The balloon has gone up! This is the National Education Union inflatable that acts as a rallying point for NEU contingents. Behind the drummers, still thundering along Aldwych, NEU banners from Islington, Brent, Ealing, East London, Redbridge and Lambeth jumbled along with banners from the UCU, Unite, RMT, PCS, BECTU and many more.

As we swarm into Trafalgar Square, filling it all the way up the steps and across to the National Gallery, a middle aged naval officer in full dress uniform, a row of medals you could play marimba on swinging on his chest, a cap full of scrambled egg and a proper Senior Service beard marches briskly up the far side, wife in tow looking nervously at him sideways as he stares straight ahead, away from The Admiralty pub, which was full of full dress other ranks, one or two of whom chat earnestly to some demonstrators, expressed that view that “we’ll be all right if we get enough nuclear power”; which I suppose would serve to keep their missiles in warheads.

DFE’s Section 28 moment on climate?

The reporting of the Department for Education’s draft strategy for sustainability and climate change flagged up an attempt to gag teachers and repress student protest in a way that gave the impression that that’s what the Department was briefing when it released the document. This impression is reinforced by Nadim Zahawi’s speech in Glasgow in which he threatened fines for students who took part in actions. At a time when 72% of young people in the UK are afraid of the future and 39% considering not having children in response, this shows a characteristic failure to grasp the magnitude of the crisis.

The limited new proposals in the DFE document are considered below, but the extent to which putting the toothpaste of student protest and teacher awareness back into the tube of normal school functioning is foregrounded, indicates that the government is less concerned with resolving the crisis than putting anyone pointing out the inadequacy of their response back in their box. With fines and disciplinary action if need be. With this approach, confronted with a new Greta Thunberg, we appear to be being advised to try to discourage her (and to fine her parents).

This indicates that they know that the measures they are planning are inadequate, that the crisis will intensify; and because that will generate anxiety and protest, they propose to limit debate and quash any action. In so far as progress is being made on this issue it is a result of thousands of students and teachers expressing their “personal views”, while government ministers have stalled and obstructed for years.

In a similar way, in 1988, the Conservative government reacted to schools teaching that some children had two Dads, or two Mums, or some just one, that this was ok and all should be treated with respect, with legislation (Section28) that made it illegal to do so. As social attitudes have moved on despite this, and Section 28 is long gone, they don’t want to talk about that now, but their reflex to try to chill debate on issues that make them uncomfortable or defensive is evident here.

As the transition is partly about the values of society, it is impossible to make it without debate on why we have our priorities so wrong that they will kill us if we don’t change them. As we will be going through a very rapid transition, we will need the widest and most open discussion about how we do it – including in schools.  Let a hundred flowers blossom. There should be no freeze or threat to debate from on high. 

Their argument that “Teaching about climate change, and the scientific facts and evidence behind this, does not constitute teaching about a political issue and schools do not need to present misinformation or unsubstantiated claims to provide balance,” implicitly damns the views of a significant number of their own MPs – who peddle “misinformation” and “unsubstantiated views” in pursuit of climate denial

Their warning that “political issues and partisan political views, for example on social and economic reform” should be handled in line with existing legal duties on political impartiality in the classroom requires that this issue is approached in a way that denies controversy and is likely to chill it. For example, it is a fact that fossil fuel companies have known about the greenhouse gas for decades and have spent most of that time funding climate change deniers in defence of their profits. This is a fact. I wonder if former petroleum executive Nadim Zarhawi would consider it “unbalanced” to point it out.

While the science of climate change is clear and undeniable, even though all too many of the government’s own MPs continue to deny it, how we deal with it is a matter of live controversy that requires the widest possible debate in which people should – in some circumstances – be free to explore, even think aloud. Its not as if anyone has all the answers already. What are they afraid of?

I think this quote from Graham Frost, National Association of Head Teachers national executive member and head of Robert Ferguson Primary School in Carlisle sums it up (my emphasis)

“Education is almost universally considered the means by which we build for a better future, so we simply have to equip children with the knowledge they need to challenge politicians and business leaders to act urgently on climate change.

“School leaders cannot ignore the growing pupil voice on climate change, and children cannot articulately challenge the powers-that-be without being educated. I have seen young people speak truth to power. I have also witnessed their despair with elected officials who think personal changes such as using a different soap or recycling plastic is sufficient response to looming environmental catastrophe. Equipped with scientific knowledge, our pupils can see that system-wide technological, political, sociological and economic changes on at a local and global level are urgently and desperately needed.”

What follows is slightly edited a list of the new commitments in the DFE’s document, originally published in Schools Week, My comments in italics are towards a response to the consultation that will take place between now and April. This consultation will be “selective”. It remains to be seen who they will select to consult.

The Department for Education says it is aiming to become the “world-leading education sector in sustainability and climate change by 2030”and that it will develop “clear measurable” objectives and publish milestones and targets for 2025-30..

The concern here with being “world leading” mistakes status for achievement. Its not a matter of where we are in relation to the rest of the world, but whether what we are doing is going to be enough to save is from disaster. At present the UK is 42 out of 73 in Education International’s league table of climate education achievement. Getting up that list from mid table mediocrity is going to need some qualitative thinking and action.

Climate education policies

By 2022

1. Review subject-specific training to ensure all teachers are “equipped to deliver a knowledge-rich curriculum and improve climate education”.

Given that the emphasis throughout the draft strategy is on climate education only in STEM subjects, Geography and Citizenship it is crucial to establish that this will review ALL subjects; as the social challenge of dealing with climate breakdown affects everyone in all aspects of life and therefore has the be addressed and understood by everyone. The overall problem here is looking at climate breakdown as an issue that can be siloed and/or added to an otherwise unchanged curriculum. This runs in parallel with their approach to skills – which is all about generating a green sector of the economy – seen as something distinct and separate from the rest of it – not about having to rethink and retool the whole of society. There is no recognition that, as the Anthropocene is so called because human impact on the planet is apparent in its GEOLOGY (if there are geologists in the future they will be able to identify it by a thin but dominant layer of soot, plastic, concrete and chicken bones) dealing with it is an overarching question for the whole of society and therefore the whole of education. So, it’s not a matter of adding supplementary items, but rethinking the whole process. The same applies to training. It should not be a bolt on for those interested, it should be integrated into the core of everything we do.

2. Develop a primary science model curriculum focusing on nature and the recognition of species, including those native to the UK. This will ensure all children “understand the world around them”.

This is so limited! Its not just about Science. The potential for thematic learning in Primary is enormous and should be grasped , e.g. the grasp of the world in “If the World were a Village” would give a deeper understanding and pose philosophical issues to be explored in a way that is open to possibility. Just on Science, how far does this suggestion differ from the existing curriculum, which includes exactly these points? Identifying a species is not the same as understanding it, let alone the world. This retains a hangover of the Michael Gove approach: “37 lists to learn before breakfast” – or too often, instead of breakfast. The “model curriculum they envisage for primary will be “voluntary”, so, not that important then.

3. Science CPD for teachers will include climate change and sustainability.

Again Science CPD. And the rest of us?

4. Explore with schools the “best way to identify champions” to provide leadership on climate change activity.

This one is easy. A combination of an SMT member or lead teacher with a TLR and the convenor of a student Green team/Eco Club/Climate Committee along with a dedicated governor.

5. Share examples of “effective, evidence-based climate education” from all education settings so schools can “consider how best to adapt to their own settings”.

We are already doing this ourselves and there’s loads of it out there. The question isn’t having lots of available material, or even whether it is officially approved of or not, its how central it is to the day to day concerns of the school. Add ons tend to drop off.

Overall, this does not make the grade. There is so far no overarching curriculum review, nor commitment to train all teachers in all subjects, nor a commitment to restore sustainability as a pillar of the curriculum, which they could have easily done by giving time to Jim Knight’s Private Members Bill that would do just that.

By 2023

6. Provide free, “high-quality” curriculum resources so all teachers can “confidently choose those that will support the teaching of sustainability and climate change”. Will be delivered through “clearly signposted and approved platforms”.

Having an approved list is probably a way to try to control the limits of what can be said.

7. A virtual “National Education Nature Park” will allow pupils to better understand biodiversity and develop analytical skills. Youngsters are encouraged to do things like install bird feeders and then upload progress and compare against other schools in the virtual park. DfE says this will increase the number of youngsters becoming data scientists and biologists “needed for nature’s recovery” by 2030.

And greening schools grounds, outdoor learning, forest schools, growing vegetables providing real – not virtual – hands on learning – especially in urban areas is crucial. Does care for other species get a look in here; and what that means for care for ourselves and each other? Feeding the birds should be primarily about feeding the birds, not the collection of data. Perhaps that’s a clash of values?

8. Provide framework for the Climate Leaders Award, a Duke of Edinburgh-style scheme.

The point is for everyone to be engaged for intrinsic reasons and in collective ways which is part of a transformative process for the school and the community it serves, not the extrinsic motivation of getting a medal from someone with a title.

9. Encourage partnerships to support children learn more about the environment, for example universities linking with schools to share green spaces and climate expertise.

And environmental NGOs and campaigns.

By 2025

10. “Review, refine and build on” the activity within the National Education Nature Park and Climate Leaders Award.

By 2025, we should have a fully reviewed curriculum and fully reviewed teacher education and CPD programme for all subjects and year groups – and an outreach programme for community and adult education firmly in place. Keeping the central challenge for humanity siloed in a limited number of subjects, and having a national digital Nature Table and a system for giving out gongs to a few keen students doesn’t hack it.

Education estate policies

By 2023

11. All new school buildings delivered by DfE – not already contracted – will be net zero in operation.

Any existing contracts should be reviewed and designs modified to avoid more expensive retrofitting later on. It beggars belief that we are constructing any new buildings that are not zero emissions.

12. Test new “energy pods” in schools to provide innovation and replace coal and oil burner heating systems.

Let’s hope these work well. But if they don’t work? What’s plan B?

13. Provide feasibility studies for schools with end-of-life boilers to switch to new low-carbon heating systems, funded through the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s decarbonisation fund.

The funding should be available for every school in this situation not simply to carry out a feasibility study, but to do whatever is feasible to reduce or eliminate its carbon footprint.

14. Start evaluation of UK’s first “biophilic” primary school, including long-term research on effects of green infrastructure on pupil wellbeing.

“Long term”. How long do they thing we’ve got? There is already a lot of evidence that greener environments are good for people, even on the level of plants in classrooms. Every school should be greener. We need an action plan for that now.

15. “Support” schools to transition to low-carbon technologies like electric vehicle chargers.

Having EV charging points could facilitate a switch from a petrol/diesel vehicle but this begs some questions in relation to 16, in that this could be seen as encouraging the use of personal vehicles. A lot of schools in urban fringe areas have had to turn large parts of their playgrounds into car parks so teachers can commute in. That poses questions about the affordability of housing too.

16. Increase active travel to school via schemes such as Bikeability, Walk to School Outreach and School Streets.

17. Develop “locally-tailored presentations” on flood risk and resilience in schools in partnership with the Environment Agency and the Geographical Association.

Schools Week reports that over 10,000 schools already have a significant flood risk and this will rise to 15,000 by 2050as a resuklt of climate breakdown; so this is an example of the sorts of things we have to do if we are failing to solve the problem at source.

18. Trial delivery of smart meters in schools to reduce energy bills.

If these are known to reduce energy bills, and use, we need a national plan to install them in every school, with training for the appropriate people in their effective use.

By 2025

19. Evaluate the best value for money approaches for retrofitting education buildings. Develop standards for retrofit and repair to “empower the education estate to make change”.

So, by half way to 2030, we will have worked out what’s the cheapest way to do it and may well have formulated “standards” that match what the building companies think they can deliver without incurring extra costs for themselves, with enough loopholes built in to enable them to cut corners in the usual way. There are examples all over the world of this being done properly that we could learn from. We need to have clear standards by the end of the year and a budget to allow the work to start; including an element for training up the additional workers we will need for an expanded retrofit programme. New York State aims to have all its school buildings carbon neutral by 2035. We need a similar commitment, an earlier end point of 2030 and the investment to match. The capital budget for this should be routed through local authorities, which should also have the same role for domestic retrofit, to take advantage of economies of scale. Redirecting funding from the perverse decision to put £27 billion into building new roads would cover it and also cut carbon emissions in construction and transport at the same time.

20. Help schools create “Climate Action Plans” to increase “sustainability literacy” and inform government on rollout of “nature-based solutions” to stop flooding, provide solar energy and improve air quality”.

All schools should have climate action plans, and these need to be made within a framework of a national plan for greening school grounds, insulating school buildings, supplying renewable energy (generated on site wherever feasible) with the locally administered investment that is needed to make them a reality. This won’t happen from the bottom up, because there is no money at the bottom.

21. “Encourage” all schools to sign up to flood warnings and have emergency plans in place.

Given the growing flood risks, all schools identified as being at risk should automatically be signed up for flood warnings and training given in emergency procedures as part of Health and Safety requirements.

Within a similar approach to this, the government has failed twice with domestic retrofitting. Time to learn from experience.

Operation and supply chain policies

By 2023

22. Collect data on food waste in schools and share best practice to improve it.

23. Develop “sustainability and climate change analytical capability” in DfE.

24. “Consider ways” to make the period products scheme greener.

By 2025

25. DfE and all its arms-length bodies will mandate that suppliers bidding for £5million-plus contracts commit to achieving Net Zero by 2050. They must also publish a “Carbon Reduction Plan” showing how they will meet the target.

This should apply to all suppliers.

26. Review school food standards to “consider the impact of food emissions on the environment”. Will also look at whether more flexibility can be offered for schools to “support local sustainability and provide more plant based and meat free options”.

This should be brought forward. Schools should be mandated to introduce more vegetarian and vegan options and meat free days involving a community education drive and cooking skills classes.

27. “Engage” with schools to “embed sustainability in buying and ensure ‘green’ frameworks are available to support sustainable purchasing”.

As with 25, these should be mandatory.

Green skills and careers policies

By 2025

28. Include career opportunity guidance for pupils in relation to technologies used as part of the net zero building programme.

This is very narrowly defined. Crucial that this should also encourage girls and other underrepresented groups to take up this sort of work.

2030

29. Improve take-up of STEM subjects “ensuring that anyone, regardless of their background, has the opportunity to pursue a rewarding career” in a STEM occupation.

This is a technical view of transition to sustainability that is part of the government’s obtuse inability to recognise the value of Arts and Humanities (in life in general let alone imagining and organising a green future).

Who will oversee what?

Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi will be the department’s “climate change minister”. He will directly oversee the Climate Leaders Award.

Schools minister Robin Walker will take on climate education, while academies minister Baroness Barran oversees the biodiversity of the education estate and net zero building targets.

DfE will also identify a non-executive director to lead on climate change.

This makes the lead Minister responsible for the least important – possibly superfluous -initiative. You can have all the award ceremonies you like, but if we leave our schools uninsulated and the curriculum unreviewed we will not be doing what’s necessary. But, at least we know where the buck stops for these things.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step” Chinese proverb that had became a bit of a cliche by 1973. The key point is to see any steps proposed in the context of the journey, to be able to quantify how far forward they take us and how fast – given that we have to be in a sprint to get to the end in time. We can’t afford to see these initial toddles as either the end point or having sufficient momentum to go the full 1000 miles by 2050. We are long past the point at which options should be being “considered or “explored” (possibly in the hope that it will all be too much of a faff to do anything about once the heat’s off). This is out for consultation and has “Draft, not government policy” written all over it – so the question is, after COP, will they be pushed beyond what’s in it, or relapse to an even weaker position? The education unions and others need to engage and keep the heat on them to press for the former and – above all – never concede that half measures are good enough.

“When Melancholy Autumn comes to Wembley…”

We get a lot of spiders.

These were everywhere throughout September and October. Its hazardous to be a flying insect.

The wild flower meadows in the Park stay in bloom long into November. Its a lovely splash of colour but a bit unnerving to be out this late. This photo was from August, hence the stronger light, but there’s a comparable number of flowers still out.

They start drilling for oil at Sainsburys. Actually they are pile driving for the blocks of flats they are building on the old car park. Presumably they will make a fortune selling or renting the flats, and have an almost captive customer base that just has to pop downstairs to get to the shop. One commercial version of a 15 minute neighbourhood.

Diwali at VBs cash and carry – where you can buy spices by the hundredweight and jute sacks of Jagari – and the fireworks are mostly sold out; the check out workers are all wearing Saris, lipstick and dripping with jewellery. The elderly people queueing outside Pooja and Gayatri sweetmarts are contrastingly dull in anonymous anoraks in different shades of mud.

The local library puts on a display for COP26. This is a rather pretty selection from the children’s section. What we really need is something large, serious and adult and maybe some talks. Perhaps next year – as these discussions will get more and more urgent and the need for popular awareness and commitment more and more apparent. In a “red alert for humanity” it seems to me that we should be hearing the sound of klaxons permanently as we walk down the street to wake us all up.

When melancholy Autumn comes to Wembley
And electric trains are lighted after tea
The poplars near the stadium are trembly
With their tap and tap and whispering to me,
Like the sound of little breakers

Spreading out along the surf-line
When the estuary’s filling
With the sea.

From Harrow on the Hill by John Betjeman.

An argument with Auntie over Zero Covid.

My complaint to the BBC on 26 October

A small outbreak of COVID in China was used by your presenter and guest as an opportunity to sneer at China’s Zero Covid policy and to simply assume (not argue) that “Covid is here to stay”. As the application of this policy has kept deaths in China below 5,000 – and, had they applied the same approach as that of the USA they’d have lost 2.7 million people and, had they been as lackadaisical, callous and incompetent as our government it would have been worse – you’d think that they’d be entitled to a bit more respect and – perhaps – we might have something to learn from them if we are not to be in this mess forever.

Their reply

Thank you for contacting us regarding The World Tonight, broadcast 25 October on BBC Radio 4.

Having reviewed the broadcast, Ritula Shah was speaking to Dr Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, after raised concerns over China’s ability to maintain its zero-tolerance approach to the virus, due to a recent surge in infections causing the postponement of the Beijing Marathon.

During the interview she asked Dr Huang about how China would be able to keep up with this approach coming up to the 2022 Beijing Olympics and whether there, “is there any kind of internal discussion going on about the possibility of accepting that covid is here to stay, and lifting restrictions in the way that Australia and New Zealand have began to do?”

In the case of some interviews it is often understood by audiences that the interviewer will play “devil’s advocate” in order to pursue a line of enquiry with an interviewee.

It is important to recognise that a fundamental part of Ritula’s role is to offer analysis, using her experience and knowledge, but this is not indicative of bias.

Please be assured that BBC journalists seek out information and strive to present it accurately, clearly and objectively, we would never intend to mislead our audience, but we appreciate that you feel that we got it wrong on this occasion.

We do value your feedback about this. All complaints are sent to senior management and we’ve included your points in our overnight report. These reports are among the most widely read sources of feedback in the company and ensures that your concerns have been seen by the right people quickly. This helps inform their decisions about current and future content.

My reply to them

Thank you for your reply, which I take to be written in a spirit of post modern irony. An argument as a Devil’s Advocate is usually introduced when there is a cosy unquestioned consensus that is sorely in need of a challenge. In the interview, the dominant narrative in the West that COVID is here to stay and we just have to live (and die) with it was taken as read by both interviewer and interviewee. In fact Dr Huang expressed some incredulity that China insists on hospitalising “even mild cases”. Because, as we know, no one with a mild case has never known to infect anyone else with a severe or lethal case. It is this somnambulist and perverse presumption that constitutes the bias. May I suggest that Ritula, or one of your other presenters, tries out the following question on the next Minister who appears trotting out this complacent fatalism. “You say we have to live with the virus. The Chinese have a different approach and have kept deaths down below 5,000. We are currently losing that many every five weeks. Why have we got it so wrong?” This could be done sincerely, or as a Devil’s Advocate, or just in the Laurentian spirit of kicking over the apple cart to see which way the apples roll.

I await their answer with baited breath. this one could run and run.

To baldly go. Jeff Bezos’s final frontier.

“With great power comes great responsibility.” Possibly Voltaire, definitely Spider Man, but not, it seems, Jeff Bezos.

Jeff Bezos, in an interview with Business Insider in 2018 (when he was “worth” $132 billion) said, “The only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel. I am going to use my financial lottery winnings from Amazon to fund that.”

There is a current among the uber wealthy to project space as their future – as though they can avoid the problems involved in destroying the conditions for human survival on Earth by getting “off world”.  As though they were exposed to too many plays of “The Final Countdown” at an impressionable age. The fantasy in that song, that – having trashed the Earth – everyone could head off to live on Venus (not an enticing prospect with an surface temperature hot enough to melt lead, air pressure at ground level 92 times greater than Earth’s – and enough to crush anyone unfortunate enough to be standing on it – and an atmosphere largely comprised of dense clouds of sulphuric acid) and that the Venusians would be welcoming to a species that had just destroyed their own habitat and wanted to have another go in theirs; is only marginally less absurd than the idea that life on Mars (with virtually no oxygen, no water cycle, no vegetation, an average temperature of -67C and dust storms thousands of kilometres wide that last for months) would be remotely desirable compared to living – say – in an upscale part of Seattle.

In an interview with CBS News in July 2019 Bezos said “Human beings are in the process of destroying this planet” and – in a leap of imagination that treats planetary destruction as a given premise instead of an avoidable problem – produces a wild fantasy of off world manufacturing, with factories on the Moon within a few hundred years. Seeing William Shatner echoing these delusions this week was like hearing an echo of the blithe optimism of the 1960s that his character in Star Trek embodied- in which the future was all flying cars and galactic exploration – well out of its time. Kirk out.

What Bezos seems to be missing here is that the Amazon – the other one – is on fire NOW; and we don’t have a few hundred years to deal with keeping our planet habitable. We have a decade to make a serious dent in greenhouse gas emissions if we are to have half a chance of getting through to the end of the century with a civilisation intact. Recognising that business as usual – including his business as usual – is “destroying this planet” would probably make most people think that anyone with a spare $132 billion might want to put most or all of it into stopping the destruction. This does not seem to have occurred to him.

Its the phrasesmy financial lottery winnings from Amazon” and  the only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource” that stick out from his original quote (my emphasis).

His “winnings” from Amazon are not a lottery but the result of profoundly ruthless and dehumanising management systems that are part of the reason our planet is being destroyed in the first place. Mr Bezos’s “winnings” are the flip side of the following.

  • Amazon pays 15% below average wage rates for warehouse workers.
  • Workers employed at the Amazon depot in Dunfermline were found sleeping in tents near the factory because the cost of transport took such a huge chunk out of their meagre wages that they couldn’t afford to commute.
  • In Ohio, 700 of their workers are on food stamps.
  • Workers are often employed as “permatemps” to minimise their legal rights at work.
  • Delivery workers are paid by the package, putting them under huge pressure to zip round as quickly as possible – the implications of this for safe driving should concern everyone.
  • In 2013, they had the second highest turnover of workers of any company in the Fortune 500 Index. According to a Study by Pay Scales, the average Amazon worker can’t stick it out beyond a year.
  • Warehouse workers are tied to electronic monitors that keep them to targets that are set just beyond what they can do if they work flat out without a breather. Some workers have taken to peeing in bottles so they don’t lose the time taken in going to the loo.
  • As a result, in the UK, there have been 600 ambulance calls to Amazon Warehouses in the last 3 years. Just over one every other day. The Rugely depot in particular looks like a place to avoid getting a job if you possibly can – with 115 call outs.

The “logic” of this is – while the company is waiting for robots to take over, they will treat their workers as much like robots as possible. Seen this way, people are robots with needs that present as flaws.

Treating workers as throw away resources is of a piece with treating the Earth’s resources in the same way.

Amazon made $3 billion profits on $180 billion in sales in 2017. It paid no Federal taxes in the United States in 2017 and 2018. In the UK between 2016 and 2017, even though business increased by a third, the tax paid was halved – to a tiny £4 million (about the same as the annual budget for one medium sized secondary school).

So we have a company that treats its workers like robots, burns them up and spits them out, does not contribute to the social costs of creating its labour force or the infrastructure that sustains them, or the transport infrastructure along which the company’s goods are delivered, or anything else. An essentially parasitic relationship.

And we have an owner who thinks he, personally, has the right not only to keep his “lottery winnings” but to blow them on space exploration rather than the million and one tasks that face us in keeping this planet habitable for the next generation.

The sheer entitled self indulgence of people like this shows them up as unfit to control such concentrations of wealth; and any society that sets them up as “aspirational” role models – because what else should you aspire to if not to become filthily, selfishly, rich – is dooming itself to self destruction. A future future determined by people like this is not  good enough for humanity, nor is it viable. Saving ourselves means becoming more human, more social, less robotic, less exploited and exploiting.

We can do better than them.

Round the twist and up the spout. Why the mental health crisis?

Keir Starmer’s pledge in his Party conference speech that a Labour government would make sure that anyone needing mental health support from the NHS would get it within a month, is a reactive response to an increasingly evident mental health crisis that until recently hardly dared speak its name. However, it is also a fire fighting response to symptoms; implying no attempt to look at causes.

That requires a deeper look at what’s going on, what is the scale of the problem, why it is happening, what are the “solutions” that are currently being tried; and what are they trying to do and whether they work (and who for)?

What’s going on?

The MHFA in England reported the following before the pandemic.

  • 1 in 4 people experience mental health issues each year.
  • At any given time, 1 in 6 working-age adults have symptoms associated with mental ill health.
  • Mental illness is the second-largest source of burden of disease in England. Mental illnesses are more common, long-lasting and impactful than other health conditions..
  • People with a long-term mental health condition lose their jobs every year at around double the rate of those without a mental health condition. This equates to 300,000 people – the equivalent of the population of Newcastle or Belfast.
  • 75% of mental illness (excluding dementia) starts before age 18.
  • 70-75% of people with diagnosable mental illness receive no treatment at all.

When considering young people.

  • 12.8% of young people aged 5-19 meet clinical criteria for a mental health disorder. 
  • Women between the ages of 16 and 24 are almost three times as likely (26%) to experience a common mental health issue as males of the same age (9%). 
  • The percentage of young people aged 5-15 with depression or anxiety increased from 3.9% in 2004 to 5.8% in 2017.  
  • About 20% of young people with mental ill health wait more than six months to receive care from a specialist.
  • In a 2018 OECD survey of 15-year-olds, the UK ranked 29th for life satisfaction, out of a total of 30 OECD countries.
  • About 10% of young people aged 8-15 experience a low sense of wellbeing. 

Not surprisingly, research carried out in the UK by NHS Digital between February and March 2021 found a very high and incidence of sleep problems, eating disorders and loneliness among young people aged 6 to 23; and that these had risen very sharply since 2017.

Four things jump out from this.

  1. It is widespread.
  2. It is damaging.
  3. It is expensive.
  4. It is growing fast.

Why is it happening?

It is apparent that, as a general rule, people with less social standing, wealth and power get more depressed than people with more. The Joseph Rowntree Trust reports:

Across the UK, both men and women in the poorest fifth of the population are twice as likely to be at risk
of developing mental health problems as those on average incomes.

Material disadvantage (with low educational attainment and unemployment) was associated with common mental health problems (depression and anxiety) in a review of population surveys in Europe… and is more marked in women than in men”.

So, the worse off you are, the more likely you are to suffer depression and anxiety.

So, though individual mental frailty or a chemical imbalance, or genetic predisposition can be factors, the main underlying factors are primarily social conditions that can be exacerbated or ameliorated by policy.

Its not hard to work out why. If you have resources, a comfortable place to live, assets in the bank, secure well paid employment, a role in society that confers respect, smart clothes, time and money to pursue culture and (sometimes) power over others; you live in a different world to someone who has no job, or a zero hours contract, or casual employment, scraping along on benefits, owing money to a loan shark, having to use a food bank, paying rent at an extortionate rate with no security of tenure for a gaff with mould that is ruinous or impossible to keep warm, wearing clothes until they wear out, and looked down on as a person worthy of no respect or value, no matter how much they graft. Being in the “Precariat” can be like standing on the edge of a precipice being relentlessly nudged towards it, while a rock capable of crushing you hovers over your head; and every system you try to use to navigate your way out presents itself as a labyrinth of tricks designed to frustrate you. Not this office mate, down there…Hopelessness, powerlessness, frustration.

And, women get more depressed than men. Which reflects the patterns of wealth and power, in society and the family.

And People on the receiving end of racism, are also hit harder than average.

  • “Black men are more likely to have experienced a psychotic disorder in the last year than White men
  • Black people are four times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act than White people
  • older South Asian women are an at-risk group for suicide
  • refugees and asylum seekers are more likely to experience mental health problems than the general population, including higher rates of depression, anxiety and PTSD.”

So far, so structural.

When we look at trends, its clear that increased impoverishment combined with disempowerment lead to an epidemic of mental ill health in the last decade; as any notion that the future offers hope to people at the bottom of the heap is closed off. Hopelessness tends to depression or rage, or sharp veers between the two.

Increases in child poverty since 2010 are continuing, and sometimes given a push by government legislation – like the restriction on benefits to larger families that came in in 2017. The Joseph Rowntree Trust has these figures for before the pandemic.

  • Poverty rose from 13% in 1996/97 to 22% in 2018/19 in lone-parent families working full time.
  • Between 1998/99 and 2010/11, the child poverty rate in lone-parent families working part-time more than halved from 52% to 22% but it has since risen back to 41%.
  • Poverty among single earner couples where one parent works full-time rose from 29% in 1996/97 to 38% in 2014/15 and remains at this level in 2018/19.

This is what the UN Special Rapporteur concluded about the UK in 2018.

14 million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty. Four million of these are more than 50% below the poverty line, and 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford basic essentials”.  

The pandemic is reckoned to have put a further 200,000 children below the poverty line.

The impact of the pandemic has also generated greater inequality and mental illness, hitting the poorest, women and ethnic minorities hardest – in cases, deaths, long Covid, bereavements, job losses, increased debt, increased workloads. This study in the Lancet shows that the countries with the worst infection and death rates have had the greatest increase in depression and anxiety and spells out the reasons this has hit women harder than men. “Women are more likely to take on additional carer and household responsibilities due to school closures or family members becoming unwell. Women also tend to have lower salaries, less savings, and less secure employment than men”.

At the same time, the number of billionaires in the UK increased by a quarter; and people with secure settled jobs they could do at home on a laptop piled up additional spending power. The combination of being more vulnerable to illness and increased insecurity on the one hand, and declining social standing on the other is potentially devastating for those losing out and left below.

And hovering over everything, the impact of the climate crisis is now unmissable. Even the Murdoch press in Australia has began to wake up and move in. Turn on the news and there are pictures of cars being flooded down German streets like so many paper boats, Chinese tube trains filling with water, London streets flash flooding, towns in the North Western USA burned out in minutes, plagues of locusts in East Africa. As a consequence, recent survey of young people showed that 75% globally (and 72% in the UK) are frightened of the future, 54% think that humanity is doomed and 39%, as a consequence, are planning not to have children. “No Future. No Future. No Future for you” as the song went. Climate anxiety is a live discussion in schools. This is not a false anxiety, not a mental disorder, but a completely rational response to a real threat.

The consequence of a continued failure to develop a social mission to avert climate breakdown is likely to be an increasingly pathological society; as a fatalistic or defeatist acceptance of impending civilizational breakdown leads to a last days of Nazi Berlin hedonistic frenzy. The field full of discarded single use plastic tents at the end of the Reading Festival at the end of August could stand as an early sign of this.

None of this is down to chemical imbalances or personal frailty. All are consequences of political choices.

These are huge over arching issues. There are other, smaller but no less real factors gnawing away at people’s self respect and security bound up with the way work is organised. All advanced economies are predominantly service sector. Thomas Piketty has pointed out that improvements in productivity are relatively straightforward in manufacturing. Invest in more modern and effective machinery and the production per worker increases. This is not so straightforward in services.

In education, for instance, it has been argued that, although the quality of learning has gone up, the scale of input needed to squeeze each additional measurable point in performance from students gets greater and greater. So a class of 30 kids with one teacher in 1990 would get to a level lower than a comparable class in 2020. But that has required a massive investment in IT – whiteboards etc – and additional personnel, Teaching Assistants; which is positive and gives children a richer experience. But it has also come with a bunch of people in the Senior Management Team whose role in life is to walk round with clip boards measuring everyone’s performance.

This application of Taylorism to teaching has made it increasingly mechanical, squeezed the life out of pauses and reflection, put enormous pressure both on educators and students, both of whom have been disempowered by the process; as appraisal is constant for the staff and testing constant for the children. UK children are the most tested in Europe. Tests for 4 year olds (imagine trying to do one – have Ministers ever met any four year olds?) and a return of Key Stage 3 SATs are the latest wheezes. Is it any wonder that children in the UK come 29th out of 30 in life satisfaction in the OECD. To put it another way, we are a world leader in the unhappiness of our children.

At the same time there is an equally relentless pressure – and this is common to the entire service sector – for compulsory happiness. What might be called a “smile though your heart is breaking” policy.

I stress this point about education because another reference in Starmer’s speech was to a return to the formulas of the Blair years; that squeezing additional performance out of the education system would underpin the programme of any future Labour government. If this is to be done in the same way, what might be summarised as OFSTED, OFSTED, OFSTED; this will compound the problem.

Particularly when you consider that what comes to the front of Starmer’s mind when considering curriculum review is that students should get “life skills” training, like how to fill out a mortgage application – indicating an imaginative horizon bounded more by Moneybox Live than IPCC Reports. The need to review the whole education system, so that our society can rise to the challenge of climate change, passed him by.

But this loss of control is widespread and counterproductive. Even noting that working from home, which gives workers more control over pace, timing, cutting themselves a bit of slack when they need to, working intensely when in the zone, has led to an increase in productivity of around 15%; companies are investing in software that enables supervisors to check up minute by minute on what their workers are doing; thereby killing the autonomy and (accidental) sense of trust that has generated the productivity increase in the first place. Its as if they are afraid that people will notice that this sort of role isn’t needed.

Its even worse for workers in warehouses denied union representation, controlled by wrist monitors dictating a pace of work that has them peeing in bottles, who are not in much condition to generate a sense of well being and fulfillment from their work.

So, the mental health crisis is being driven by the dynamics of the system we live in.

What is being done?

Driven by the economic costs – estimated to be £105 billion a year – and the need to keep the show on the road, the approach is to aim to patch up the people who crack up under the strain enough to make them once more functional, productive members of it – or at least not out of control and a danger to themselves and others; like the nearly 60,000 that were sectioned in 2019-20. This might be described as the Craiglockhart method; after the centre that treated victims of shell shock (PTSD) in the First World War; so they could be sent back to the front line and shelled again. The problem is individualised and the task is to make the patient fit back neatly into the systems that caused them distress in the first place. Starmer’s pledge is an indication of how far this inadequate framework is under resourced and under strain.

According to the Mental Health Foundation in 2014;

“The proportion of people with a common mental health problem using mental health treatment has significantly increased…. It is estimated that 75% of people with mental health problems in England may not get access to the treatment they need.” 

There are two main methods. Tablets or talk. Sometimes both.

Prescribing tablets is the first reflex.

This report from NatCen in 2019 shows that

  • The number of antidepressant prescriptions dispensed each year in England doubled between 2008 and 2018
  • Survey data show that the proportion of adults reporting use of antidepressants in the past year increased in the 1990s, and again between 2007 and 2014
  • The average length of time that antidepressants are continuously prescribed to people for has increased over time.

Public Health England reported “that, in 2017 to 2018, 11.5 million adults in England (26% of the adult population) received, and had dispensed, one or more prescriptions for ….antidepressants, “.

Confirming the analysis above they continue “Prescribing rates for opioid pain medicines and gabapentinoids had a strong association with deprivation, being higher in areas of greater deprivation. Antidepressant prescribing had a weaker association with deprivation. For benzodiazepines and z-drugs, prescribing rates slightly decreased with higher deprivation. For all medicine classes the proportion of patients who had at least a year of prescriptions increased with higher deprivation.

The questions that arise are obvious;

-if a quarter of your population has to be prescribed drugs to be able to cope with everyday life, what’s wrong with the system and what changes need to be made?

At the same time, 1.4 million people were referred to talking therapies in 2017 and just under a million started treatment. The most common form of this is Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. These are time limited sessions, geared to teaching mental techniques to help people cope with pressures that might otherwise prove overwhelming. Its not the same as psychoanalysis and doesn’t seek to cure anything deep seated; more to train the brain in mindfulness and relaxation methods to make the otherwise unbearable bearable. While this is often essential so that a lot of people can cope with everyday life as it is currently lived – and preferable to old fashioned coping strategies like getting drunk – which never worked but had a massive negative knock on effect on personal health and domestic violence – its role is to enable people to get by, not to remove the source of their problem.

So, the approach to mental health is the same as the approach to COVID. Find ways to live with it.

What else might we do?

“We need to stop pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they are falling in”. Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

We might add, many of them are being pushed.

If the underlying sources of anxiety and depression are primarily social, so are the solutions. Poverty, inequality, sexism, racism, disempowerment of people at the bottom of the heap (and the individualisation of their problems) are built into capitalism and daily regenerated by it. So, we can’t expect a top down solution.

However, societies with a shared collective purpose at times of danger have lower levels of mental illness. We are at such a time of danger now with climate breakdown. Anxiety is the only sane response to it. Taking collective action to transform our world is the only way to stay sane while it is happening.

And that applies to every other form of oppression and exploitation. We need to reach out and join up. Humans become more human, creative, empowered, respected when acting in solidarity. Acting together to put things right gets us out of the black box of solitude.

Avoid the tabs, organise!

Insulate Britain. Wrong targets. Right demands.

Listening to Boris Johnson make his conference speech, as inverted a pyramid of piffle as any he has made; anyone would think 72% of young people in the UK were not afraid of the future, and almost two in five planning not to have children because climate breakdown means that they would be bringing them into a world that will be nightmarish by the time they are adults.

Barely addressing the climate crisis – for what could he say -and skidding swiftly over thin ice – as he tends to do – he tickled a few reliable rabid reflexes of the Tory faithful instead.

No reflection at all on the gravity of the situation, the impacts that are already hitting home. That there has been more disruption to normal traffic from flash floods in the last couple of months than from the actions of Insulate Britain. Yet we have no reflection on the former, just a little dig at the latter.

And no comment – of course – on the government’s abject failure to retrofit the leakiest, draftiest, most expensive to heat homes in Europe. They have tried twice since 2010, and failed ignominiously both times. And they currently have no plan at all.

Insulate Britain have two demands.

1. That the UK government immediately promises to fully fund and take responsibility for the insulation of all social housing in Britain by 2025

2. That the UK government immediately promises to produce within four months a legally binding national plan to fully fund and take responsibility for the full low-energy and low-carbon whole-house retrofit , with no externalised costs, of all homes in Britain by 2030 as part of a just transition to full decarbonisation of all parts of society and the economy.

This is because, as they put it

The UK has some 29 million homes and they are the oldest and least energy efficient housing stock in Europe. Every year vast amounts of precious energy are wasted in heating and, increasingly, cooling our buildings. 

In order to meet UK commitments under the Paris Agreement to stay below 1.5C, and legal obligations under the Climate Change Act 2008, as amended in 2019, emissions from heating and powering homes must be reduced by 78% in less than 15 years and then to zero by 2050. 

​Nearly 15% of the UK’s total emissions comes from heating homes: an overhaul of the energy performance of the UK’s housing stock is needed to reduce the energy demand.

The UK needs a nation-wide programme to upgrade almost every house. The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) 2018 report, Scaling Up Retro fit 2050, advises that nearly every home in the UK needs to be upgraded with energy efficiency measures. That is 1.5 homes per minute to the year 2050.

Any government serious about the scale and urgency of the climate crisis would be doing this already.

People supergluing themselves to motorways is a desperate measure for desperate times, coming from a justified anxiety that the scale of the response from a blustering and blithering government is completely out of whack with the scale of the problem. People not in denial about the implications of “code red for humanity”- and alarmed by it – will increasingly take actions that disrupt the flow of normality. Because it is “normality” that is stoking the crisis. As the Dennis Price character says in Kind Hearts and Coronets: “The prospect of impending execution concentrates the mind wonderfully”.

The problem is that action directed at people just trying to get by in someone else’s world annoys them directly and gives those responsible for the crisis a way to divert anger at it onto the people trying to change it; thereby diverting attention from their failure to deal with it and giving them a chance to bring in more repressive legislation directed at protest, with the general public cheering on the restriction of their own rights. The Conservatives are very practiced at this.

Polling indicates overwhelming support for insulating homes, but equally overwhelming condemnation for the actions. YouGov Polls show 53% have an unfavourable view of IB, with just 16% favourable. The scale of this varies from a 7:1 unfavourable view from Conservative voters to a 2:1 unfavourable view among Labour and Lib Dem voters; just over 4:1 among over 65s and 2:1 among 18-24 year olds. YouGov put their questions about the protests first, and the issue second – just so everyone can be prompted in the most negative way. In a local poll in Newbury Today framed as “Would you take tougher legal action against the Insulate Britain environmental protesters” 87% voted “Yes, their tactics are too disruptive to the public” and just 11% “No, they are fighting to save our planet”. The framing of the narrative is the “Eco mob” vs you and me. Anyone arrested at a protest who has ever driven a diesel vehicle or cooked with gas is gleefully “exposed” as a “hypocrite” in the written lynch mob tactics the tabloids have honed to perfection over the years.

The issue here is that the initial framing of XR’s direct, peaceful disruptive action strategy was that it was designed to be disruptive enough to make the powers that be accede to their demands as a easier option than carrying on with business as usual. This always over estimated the potential for this and under estimated the determination of the ruling class to keep their show on the road even as they began to see that it is running over a cliff. However, even this strategy was contingent on the generation of mass support. The tactics deployed therefore needed to be carefully chosen, so that mass sympathy for the issue could be further generated by the example of the sacrifice of the people carrying out the actions. The actions of the most conscious, determined and disciplined people had to act as a catalyst for mass pressure in the right direction. A misjudged action – like the attempt to stop the tube at Canning Town in November 2019, which led commuters to physically attack protestors – acts as a catalyst for reaction.

Action to insulate homes is a priority. For reducing carbon emissions. For creating jobs. For cutting bills. It is being blocked by a government unwilling to invest in it. As a demand it has mass support. The question for the whole movement is how to mobilise that support in campaigning on a mass enough scale to make continued delay politically impossible.

Stephen Kinnock goes full Royston Vasey.

Change the word “British” to “American” in this quote from Stephen Kinnock’s pean to Keir Starmer’s Labour conference speech, and you get a sentiment that could easily have been expressed by Donald Trump or Steve Bannon.

“Turning to our sense of national security, there is an equally compelling story to tell. For decades, unfettered globalisation has been allowed to rip through our communities, off-shoring jobs, tearing at the social fabric of our towns, and complacently inviting Chinese state-owned enterprises to dominate our supply chains and insert themselves into our critical national infrastructure. The British people are crying out for a government that will stand up for their interests on the global stage.”

Lets look at this in detail.

It follows a paragraph in which he rightly notes “there can be no doubt that for decades people’s sense of local and national security has been eroding, to the point where we now live in what the economist and author Paul Collier calls the ‘Age of Anxiety’. But he does not examine what it is that is causing that anxiety – and indeed, growing mental health crisis – particularly amongst those being impoverished and disempowered.

That is probably deliberate, because spelling them out would lead to very different conclusions from the ones he wants to draw.

People in the developed world are now on the receiving end of tactics long employed by business in the Global South. In the same way that soldiers in Europe in the First World War found themselves on the receiving end of military technology previously deployed exclusively by them against “lesser breeds without the law” in the colonies. In the end, it all comes home to roost. So, insecure employment, zero hours contracts, hire and fire, weakened unions and bullying managements, stagnating wages, “in work benefits” as a subsidy to employers, food banks, a social security system worn so thin that the fabric is long torn, are all a feature of workers experience across the entire system; regardless of locality or nation. Its not China that is “tearing at the fabric” of our high streets, its Amazon. Its not China that is “offshoring Jobs” its businesses like Dyson. People are anxious about whether they will keep their jobs, whether their children will find decent work or housing, how they will be cared for in old age. All this is global. Not local. Not national.

People are also anxious that the future feels more like a trap than a promise. Since 2008, neo liberalism has been incapable of inclusive growth. Climate breakdown is increasingly apparent. 75% of young people globally say they are frightened by the future. 39% say they are planning not to have children. This is global. Not local. Not national.

For Kinnock, this is not about capitalism, its about “unfettered globalisation”; an enemy of the local and national. That would be the “unfettered globalisation” that Tony Blair argued for in his 2005 Labour Party conference speech. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation. You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer.” This was before the 2008 crash. When Blair and those like him believed that it was possible to eliminate “boom and bust” and sail ever onwards and upwards, and the accession of China to the World Trade Organisation would slowly but surely turn the entire world into one gigantic American suburb. It didn’t turn out like that.

so, now, we find economic nationalism back in a big way. A dog whistle in Starmer’s speech about how awful it is that wind farm components are “towed in from places such as Indonesia”. So, workers in the developing world, getting a toe hold on industrialisation, are the threat to workers here; setting them head to head in a zero sum competition rather than complimentary parts of a global division of labour that could be win win for all of us. And what a wonderful phrase that is; “places such as”. Places that were once colonies, places that “we” could once happily disregard as far away countries of which we knew nothing and cared less, but now that they are getting uppity and wanting work, should be put firmly back in their place.

Starmer seems more concerned with jackets and towers for wind farms being made in Indonesia and Vietnam, than he does about the more lucrative and skilled jobs making the motors being done in Europe. This is a dangerously misleading trope with a racist whiff. A study on the reality of offshoring by multinationals carried out by the University of Nottingham in 2005 found that of 925 UK Multinational firms in manufacturing and 1,928 in services

  • 96 per cent of UK multinationals in the manufacturing sector had at least one subsidiary within OECD member nations, while just 20 per cent had subsidiaries within non-OECD countries; only eight per cent had subsidiaries in either China or India.
  • In the services sector, 95 per cent of UK multinationals had at least one subsidiary in OECD member countries; only 18 per cent in non-OECD countries; and just 4.5 per cent in India and China.
  • They concluded that “these findings refute the common misrepresentation that the UK is offshoring jobs largely to ‘cheap labour’ markets” and that “the truth is that the most frequent locations for foreign affiliates are other developed countries, mainly other European nations and the US.”

And Kinnock does not notice the irony in his speech. “Chinese state owned enterprises” have done rather well since the crash, primarily because they are state owned. Time was, Labour was in favour of that. Kinnock is painting a paranoid picture – two parts “Yellow Peril” to three parts “Red Menace” -akin to that of the Base Commander in Dr Strangelove. It was, of course, a dreadful thing that Chinese steel maker Jingye invested £1.2 in saving British Steel in Scunthorpe, and the 3,000 jobs that went with it. And China’s offer to build HS2 in 5 years at a fraction of the cost currently projected is obviously an evil plan to infiltrate our precious bodily fluids.

On the basis of seeking truth through facts:

  • In 2020, China accounted for 12% of the UK supply chain (imports) – the same level as Germany. The problem for Kinnock is that this proportion is growing on the basis of normal trading relations. If he wants to launch a trade war on Trumpish lines, the net effect would be the same as in the US, increased costs for consumers and an increase in economic insecurity.
  • This graph shows the sources of FDI into the UK in 2019. China’s contribution is somewhere in “other” and below that of France. So, less than 4.6% and and not exactly “commanding heights”. Kinnock seems unconcerned that US capital is inserting itself “into our critical national infrastructure” on a very large scale indeed.

It is his final sentence that is most concerning. “The British people are crying out for a government that will stand up for their interests on the global stage.” It reads like a Daily Mail or Express headline. Its as if he watches Henry V every morning before breakfast. “The British people”. As though it were a single entity with a single voice, with no contradictions and no arguments on the way forward. This is unreconstructed nationalist populism; a leading Labour politician allowing himself to be used as a ventriloquist dummy for the posturing imperial nostalgia of Boris Johnson; a kind of viagra for a sense of resentful national decline. The belief that we still live in a time in which sending a big gunboat to the South China Sea and being a mini-me for the New American Century is a route to “security” is deluded. There is nothing quite so dangerous as a faded imperial power trying to strut its stuff and strike postures “on the world stage”.

This isn’t a performance. If we want security, we have real problems to deal with – climate breakdown, Covid, poverty, racism, stopping a new Cold War. At the UN last month, Xi Jinping called for global co-operation to deal with all of them. That is the path to security for all of us.

A Mask and a Bowl of Mince

In the 1990s, there were just two curry houses in our local drag of shops. The one nearest the park was a rather dusty, sleepy place called Lahoria that had had the same decor since it opened at some point in the seventies; and almost certainly the same menu. It was run by a plump, tired old bloke, with a rumpled face and rumpled tank top, who presided over the small groupings of tables from the sanctuary of a hatch; beyond which lay the mysteries of the kitchen. The food was similarly tired. It was usually empty. We went there occasionally because life can sometimes be too exciting, and we liked the old bloke; who was always friendly and a bit wistful. At the other end of the strip was the Lahore Kebab House of East London. A strange title for a restaurant in NW9. Part of a very small chain of two. This place was hopping. Spiced up to the pain threshold, sizzling on baltis, crowded out with the first generation of Asians who didn’t feel they’d be better off making it at home for nothing. It was a gold mine at the time.

As the Millennium turned, unviable small businesses – a plumbers emporium, a newsagent, an old established hairdressers (Lord Andre) that all seemed a bit like time capsules – gave up the ghost and were replaced by Lahore Kebab House clones. Lahore Spice busy and bustling on the corner, Sheikhan overextended and smart minimalist, stretching across two shop fronts in the middle, affecting an upmarket style but padding their dishes with chick peas quite a bit we thought. Lahoria was bought up by a bloke who renamed it Chili Masala, tore out the partition, set up outside tables, plugged in an ice cream fridge and sold it from the pavement outside; opened late, late, put in a big screen showing Bollywood films and ran lots of promotions to get bums on seats at the formica tables. Even the big old white pub opposite the Green, with its air of lonely desolation, was reborn as one of those upmarket places with fake marble floors and big screen TVs showing the football, or films with the sound down; and a Shisha bar for the smart young set at one end (migraine inducing milkshakes and strobe lights a speciality).

Lahore Kebab House was suddenly empty. About ten years ago, just before he sold it, we had a chat with the owner. He was managing to get by, but talked sadly about how he’d lost a huge part of the money he’d made by investing in a flat that hadn’t been built yet in Dubai. The sky was the limit. But, along came the 2008 crash and the company building the block went bust, taking the money he’d already paid with it.

Last night, after sunset but before it got properly dark, venturing out to get a take out on a Friday night I walked down the hill into into the delusions of the “post pandemic”, in which everyone seems to think that if they act like its all over, it will be all over; and the strip is as lively as it ever gets. What looks like a hen do queuing at the cash point. A steady trickle of shoppers in and out of Costcutter. Vans parking on mysterious business. Cars accelerating a little too urgently. A jumble of people at the bus stop. Passing buses are crowded. The passengers seem edgily lively in the orange light. Few masks. I venture into Lahore Spice for a variation on our usuals – if it has paneer in it, we’ll eat it – and I am the only person with a mask. I get looks. I feel like an unwelcome reminder that is probably bad for business.

As the restaurant is built on the side of a steep hill, what’s ground level at the front quite quickly becomes cellar like at the back. The kitchen is crowded with burly men in their forties, busily manhandling steaming woks and sizzling kebabs over hellish grills and flames, all clattering metal and hissing steam on one side and deftly and industriously wrapping food containers for the take outs with kitchen foil on the other. The skinny young lad who waits table and is definitely at the bottom of the pecking order, manoeuvres elegantly, if nervously, around them. He is the only one watching where he is going. The others move like they are in their own world and it is everyone else’s job to get out of their way. Beyond the kitchen there is a set of prolapsed stairs climbing up to a narrow nether region out the back lined with doors to unmentionable places. A worker carefully comes down them carrying a large plastic bowl of raw mince; which makes me very grateful to be a vegetarian.

Laundrie van, and other psychic shocks

On the way down the hill, a small white transit van of the sort driven by Brian Laundrie heads past, giving rise to a small shudder of false recognition and slight fight or flight response. Its obviously not that van, as the FBI has impounded it and will be going over it with minute forensic attention, but its identical appearance gives rise to a shudder. It must be disconcerting to have to drive it. It would be hard to feel affectionate to a van like like now, sweet and dinky looking though it is. A bit like the way that actors who play characters who do abusive things being treated with caution; as if it were them really doing it.

The pavements outside the library are being roped off and sawed up again. Blokes in hard hats and high viz jackets stand, shake their heads, rub their chins and suck their teeth. They have a plan, but seem to be making it up as they go along. An elderly Gujerati gentleman stands looking on with his hands behind his back and an air of lugubrious despair – as though he is dying to say “I suppose you know you’re doing that all wrong”, but can’t summon up the energy.

Outside Aldi, a four or five year old girl is perched atop one of the new stone benches with the local history notes built in. The Aldi, which used to be a Sainsburys was originally an Odeon cinema. She is playing at reading the newspaper*. Perhaps she can read the headlines, big enough print, short enough words, if not the text. She gives the pages a shake, then turns them carefully over and smooths them down, a pitch perfect imitation of her elderly relatives who still read newspapers. That’s the way to do it.

I see that Nadine Dorries, our new “Culture Secretary”, has accused the “snowflake left” of, among other things, “dumbing down panto”. I’m not sure how that might be possible – it would be like dumbing down the Metro – so all I can say is “OH NO THEY’RE NOT!”

*It’s the Metro, so that’s a loose description.