Tag Archives: democracy

Council and Accountability: whom serves whom?

This is a double post

We’ve been through a time where two key matters are raised: who is sovereign, and who is accountable to who? They are of course related.

I’ve taken up sovereignty here, but the two questions are stacked: who has ultimate power and agency, and who holds that to account?

Governments have the power to intervene in as well as to provide for many aspects of our life: what we consume, what we learn, what we can do and what can be done to us; where we live, where we work, where we walk, where we ride and where we rest – our cars, and our bodies, when they go wrong, we when can’t look after our own, and when we leave them behind. Our government forces taxes at a rate which it chooses – not us – from all but those deemed on too low an income. It also takes from the goods we buy – those whose pay is not docked for National Insurance and income tax do contribute to the treasury, as there’s no such thing as VAT benefit. [Value Added Tax, for any non British readers – added onto goods we buy here].

We might be happy to contribute to both national and local government in order for them to provide the above services. But if you look at how I described them, and consider that tax is paid on pain of punishment, one might feel less comfortable with assumptions about our state.

We made heroes of our ‘keyworkers’ during the lockdown. We’ve even put out thank you notices to our bin collectors, whom we may’ve hitherto taken for granted. But mine have frequently, in ordinary times, not only strewn bins across the streets and muddled them with our neighbours (like elsewhere in this city), but not bothered to collect. I’ve frequently had mine missed, and Norwich city council and their contractor always tried to blame me. They averred that I’d got the date, time and place wrong – I hadn’t – but I noted the many rules and variables they created which made it possible for them to deem that I, not they, were at fault.

Is a missed bin so terrible, even if it’s over 40 times and you need to spend an hour cleaning due to the rot caused by their remiss behaviours? Actually, the bin service is a synecdoche for our relationship with our council. It’s the most obvious service we (as a household) receive from our council in return for our nearly monthly tax to them. We have no choice about paying it, or who provides the refuse service. If it were privately contracted to us, we’d demand money back or sack the refuse collectors if they often failed to collect all our bins. But if we tell the council that this, or any other problem brought to them, has been such for so long that we’re withholding payment, we are liable for prosecution resulting in bailiffs or prison.

Thus this is a massively imbalanced relationship, showing the one more generally between us, the people, and all tiers of our government.

Now as government rules about the virus are being devolved onto shops and services on pain of closure, this becomes a serious problem. In England, shops are given permission to refuse entry if we don’t wear masks. Bars and libraries are told to take our contact details for tracing and self isolation, or they can be shut down.

Is this the benign provider of publicly owned services that I’ve heard left wingers say they are protective of, and won’t hear criticised?

I believe that the council is accountable to me – and to you. Not the other way round.

During the lockdown, some celebrated civil servants came into work, not to provide but to harass. I know someone who was assured that their housing benefit would continue throughout, but days later, a dreaded green chevron edged envelope appeared demanding details of income on pain of benefit stoppage. The council confirmed that no it wasn’t an automated letter going out by mistake, which would be bad enough; but that they did actually require the information within a month, or the benefit would cease… in the middle of a pandemic! The council failed to action the information – which took some gathering – reluctantly provided and then sent another auto letter saying that this claimant was suspended. If they didn’t get the barcoded form with mostly irrelevant questions within another month, benefit would be terminated, and this household would be expected to henceforth pay full rent and council tax (when both were fully provided by the council). Like so many, this person had lost their income and the stress made them ill.

I find this disgraceful, and what’s even more so, is that the council often sends random letters out like this. It doesn’t write bespoke letters – in fact it often takes the involvement of a third party such as a councillor or Citizen’s Advice to get the council to explain themselves. They talk to the third party, without permission of the claimant, and spout bureaucratic rubbish that doesn’t even match the situation.

I do wonder if there is a training course for this style of response, since I’ve seen it so often. It belittles the complainant, making the professional and their organisation sound entirely reasonable.

Like other benefit providers, this East of England city council didn’t confirm if the award was reinstated or not. You just have to check your bank each day, and wonder if they’ll change their minds again next month.

The council so far won’t apologise. It doesn’t understand that it acted deplorably.

Staff should have only come into work during lockdown to put and keep claims into payment – not to take it away. This cut made me highly suspicious: at best, it’s an inefficient system – the same person said it’s their 10th such stoppage. At worst, it’s deliberate draining and straining, trying to recoup from the centrally set ideological austerity budget from the poorest and most in need.

The council swiftly stops talking to complainants – they’ve only a two tier internal system. There’s a free external dispute resolution organisation, but the ombudsman is infamous for further unsympathetic timewasting bureaucracy. The grassroots website holding the Local Government Ombudsman to account has been replaced with a false URL and I saw an LGO report about how to ‘manage’ this troublesome group. So you and your complaint can feel not very heard.

Meanwhile, this council wasted its austerity budget on unnecessary road renewing and ever more security cameras, and new things on poles which I suspect are connected to 5G. I’m perturbed that we’re expected to accept ever greater watching and intensified harmful electromagnetic rays. It is us who need to be vigilant and the watchers need to have the lens turned on them. What are they doing?

The post viral world is demanding this fairness ever more loudly, asking who is this body who controls so much of ours (especially recently) and whether it really is in our or their interest that they act; and if it’s not time to restructure or recreate from a fundamental level. Starting with those apologies…


I’d like to develop this notion of accountability further, taking it to our local representatives of our next level: our member of parliament.

We of the Western world are proud to speak of living in a democracy, and of universal suffrage, but voting is a passive act: you put a prescribed mark into a prescribed box on a form with preset answers. Most of us did not influence the options given to you, and nor can you make a proviso, suggestion, or say: none of the above. It’s expensive to stand for local or especially national government, and it’s as much about marketing – and which party you’re in – than your own suitability. Our first-past-the-post system in the UK ensures that half of the five main parties, and the many smaller ones and independent candidates, have no realistic chance of being elected. The proportion of overall votes for a party doesn’t translate to seats; and the systems at Westminster are so archaic – as described in Caroline Lucas’ Honourable Friends? – that it’s not easy to stand or get things done.

The public can perhaps contribute a little more at both national and local level than we may realise, but it usually involves going via our representative. We in Britain can attend meetings of either government, but we cannot speak – only watch. For Westminster, there’s a queue and a frisk, putting some off and also adding gravitas to the theatre of state in action – just as there is with its twin pillar: law.

We can make suggestions, either to be discussed at a sitting, privately considered by a minister, or just let our rep know how we feel about an issue. There are some personal problems we might want to bring to them – such as the housing benefit stoppage above, which we can take to a local councillor. To our Member of Parliament, there’s a broader range of issues; we’re often fobbed onto them when we can think of nowhere else to turn. This might include complaints procedures we’ve exhausted, before having to consider media or court action. Their portcullis-headed letters are supposed to have weight. But getting a sympathetic and timely one sent out is not easy.

The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman covers the public health service and many government ones in the UK – court administration, the valuation office, regulatory offices like OFGEM for energy, and the tax office. Unlike the other public alternative dispute resolution organisations, you can’t complain directly yourself: you must contact your MP, get him or her to sign the form and pass it to the PHSO. This means that if your MP is not sympathetic or efficient that you do not get your final chance for free redress.

I feel that many MPs are show people who make the right speeches, tweets, and appear at the right gatherings…but are less concerned for the very kinds of people they publicly supported when needy individuals appear in their mailbag.

Working Tax Credit is a top up from the tax office for those working full time on a low income. Now being phased out in favour of controversial Universal Credit, WTC was infamous for huge and often spurious overpayment claims, vociferously chased, to the point of ruin and breakdown. It – like other government support – could disappear suddenly, for specious and mysterious reasons. A random ‘compliance’ check can mean the end of your award – even if you fulfil the arduous and often immaterial request (read, demand) timeously.

Speaking to others in consumer forums and the self employed and creative community, it seems that one or both of the above is very common. I suffered both a demand and an axing 7 years ago, and still do not have an award or the backpay I am due – now several thousand pounds. This sudden cessation – which happened twice more – made it very hard to move forward financially, or in any other way. We even wondered if government cuts are related to your conformity. Are they wary of creators who question the system, but reward – with furlough pay during lockdown – those whose contribution to society (read, GDP) they approve? Has the Chinese system of social credit scoring in fact begun here in Britain, and is ‘compliance check’ rather telling? Do systems of redress only work for those whose work is recognised, who accept the money that they are, or are not, given, and do not assertively complain with threats of taking it further if not satisfied?

My MP, Clive Lewis, was slow to act and failed to send the 40 page supporting document with my PHSO claim. I found out over a year later, when the case was finally assessed – it wasn’t upheld, and nor was the review. But joining PHSO: The True Story, I discovered that this wasn’t unusual. Through freedom of information which I and someone I know obtained, the PHSO confessed that out of 33,316 cases in 2014-16, it financially awarded to a mere 845; in 2014-16, 8% of review requests were upheld, and only 1% awarded to. https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/percentage_of_review_requests_fo#incoming-927328

It was only through receiving the FOI request on my case that I realised that most of it was missing – as were the papers to the tribunal. PHSO invited me to re-enter for another round of unsatisfactory rigmarole, but Clive, who’d only once written personally and not sympathetically during that year, would not. His aide Adam was rude, stating: we’ve given you alot of time (actually not); we have many vulnerable constituents. I replied incredulously that someone living off half benefit level, literally fighting for her existence due to this cut, who had every part of her life affected, was as vulnerable as any. I came to see it as constructive demise.

But they stopped talking to me. I found out that there’s no way to report, complain about or to de-vote an MP, save the next election. Due to the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn, and the desire to stop inequality and Brexit, Labour kept its seat in Norwich South. Hence, when there was another round with HMRC and a related matter, again jeopardising my wellbeing, I had only Clive to turn to. Unlike councillors where there may be a couple in your ward, we only have one MP; and although we can approach any member of the house of lords [lack of capitals deliberate], they cannot become personally involved in our case. Hence we are stuck with one another and I now feel that I do not effectively have an MP, which means no representation in parliament, no voice, and no-one to turn to for those myriad of issues which we have only our MP to recourse to. I can’t go to the PHSO, even if they reform, nor even for the inevitable compensation for their own failings (they did at least cede that – I was one of a dozen that year).

I hope that this has shown that the much vaunted democracy that we try to protect is not living up to its name. It’s a sham elected oligarchy and plutocracy, and our member of parliament shows that our governance not a membership for the people, and our MP is not ‘ours’ in any meaningful way – they’re just who we’re delegated.

I don’t think we’ve moved far from the rotten boroughs supposedly outlawed in the 1832 reform bill. It’s time that we have a far reaching reform, asking fundamental questions, rather than tweaking and repainting what is.

I’d like to ask those in another post, but for now I summarise that both local and national government seem to give and take as they see fit; and now we have global organisations doing the same, and devolving their decisions. I have found that many other institutions and companies – from law to energy providers, banks, and especially those government agencies meant to regulate them – are not meaningfully possible to hold to account. That means that the complaints procedures, and alternative dispute resolution, if there be one for that industry, just don’t work. And that puts us rather at their mercy – and they’re not often very mericiful, as I can personally attest.

In these current times, when the ‘they’ gets greater and more distant and faceless, it is all the more imperative to restore accountability and meaningful dispute resolution.

A site to list Britain’s MPs is called They Work For You; this feels like a timely reminder for our elected representatives, but also a misnomer.

It’s time that name – They Work For You – described exactly what our governments, councillors and MPs (or whatever your country’s equivalent is) do, and that the balance between the people and those who have the privilege of serving us is restored. We do not work, in any sense, for you.

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Watching the watchers

The Guardian wondered why there’s not a bigger outcry over the GCHQ/NSA public spying revelations. A quick search shows that news sites across the world are talking about it. I would like to make clear that we (royal if need be) are not at all happy or prepared to accept the situation. I admire The Guardian for speaking out and am delighted that GCHQ will be taken to the court of European rights and hope the US and other affected countries does likewise. I think this calls for some questions about the accountability and purpose of secret services. Australia’s Green Party has some interesting ideas and also defines what national security should really be about. I ask: how can you be legitimate or moral if your actions compromise your supposed reason for being – namely, to keep us safe and free in a country run by the people in a transparent way, we lose basic rights in all the above? It’s a paradox that cannot be.

The title comes from the tagline of British MI5 drama, Spooks.

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Elspeth on Elections – Council 2013

My analysis (yes I’ve had an extra day) is quite different from any local and national paper I’ve read – and it’s not all about a leader whose name recalls a Count Duckula Episode*

The English county election results this week have been exaggerated by the press. They all focus on UKIP, blurring the overall picture. A letter to the Independent said that the press’s coverage of the Purple Party caused their profile to be raised and helped them win votes – why couldn’t they have focussed on other parties, particularly the Green one? And what might our outcome have been then?

The i helpfully published a nifty before and after map of all the counties going to the vote, with statistics about changes (which didn’t add up and some misprints). It was clear that UKIP actually lost seats and its entire presence in places where it once held them – Bristol, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire. Leics is not +2 for UKIP – it’s merely maintained its 2 seats; Staffs lost one seat.

UKIP won no overall control of any council and in all cases was considerably under the minimum seats needed to do so, even where they came second (eg Norfolk, Lincs, Kent) were a third of the requirement needed to gain control. Mostly UKIP came 3rd-5th place winning only 2-4 seats, and did not feature everywhere – there’s none in the North save North Yorks, or in Bristol, or Essex, where other parties grew.

I suspect that disaffected Tory voters would feel uncomfortable choosing a left wing party and there is, save the BNP (who lost its only council seat), but one for them to pick; and nor would they want to choose the other half of the coalition, the Yellows.

I picked a couple of counties to analyse in detail (from their own council interactive websites), and found that only a few actual UKIP seats had been won, and that these had been Purple previously. I also noted that it happened in areas where only red, blue and purple stood – I don’t remember any Greens or independents or small parties candidates in anywhere UKIP were most successful.

The Greens have long been in my view the 4th party (which reminds me of the AA advert that called themselves the 4th emergency service). They held on to their presence in all of their councils bar Cambs, doubled their number in Bristol and Worcestershire, and introduced themselves in Essex, Warwickshire, and Cornwall. They lost a couple from their hotbed in Norwich, but gained back the seat held on to by defecting local leader. But the Greens put up only a small proportion of seats, whereas UKIP were widely represented.

I also see a welcome rise in independent candidates; already the majority in Cornwall and Anglesey (the only non English election); they are now top in the Isle of Wight, 2nd in County Durham still by a large margin (though smaller than it was) and North Yorkshire; and sizable in Lincolnshire above the Lib Dems, although coming 4th overall.

I note a huge loss for the two parties in government, both in seats and county favourites which I’d like to think shows disillusion with them. I am glad that the colour of the political map has changed – there are three red counties instead of one, 10 less blue and 12 (not 4) not being under no overall control – which is how I would like to see politics done.

I am concerned that UKIP has been chosen (note I do not spell it the annoying Guardian way) by several as its protest vote, hoping it took seats from Tories and Lib Dems whilst not swapping them for a recent government which frustrated even its own supporters. As I said above, there was not always anyone else to put an X beside. And I think that’s why 70+% of the population once again did not vote. Do they feel all parties are bad, none are different, that their voice won’t be heard, whoever’s in power?

I’ve seen little focus on the silent majority in news reports. I feel that having to pick this or that and not being able to say ‘none of the above’ or suggest anything else makes voting very limited, especially with first past the post voting system that favours the two original parties.

I am dismayed by the presumption (which I do not fully believe) that all these purple crosses mean that the public want more severely right wing policies. When it’s already so right wing it’s farcical if it weren’t so dangerous and frightening, when you wouldn’t believe it if you put it in fiction, some are asking or harder welfare rules (how could there be?!) and tougher stances on immigration.

I read UKIP’s policies as I am a fair minded person – as I did for 9 parties, not keen that they should plant cookies on me and think I am in any way a supporter. The “milder BNP” epithet still stands. Some of their tax ideas were interesting, but badly put with poor sentences (now I feel I’ve set myself up!). I definitely detected a Thatcherite “everyone pays the same” over income tax – something which lost her even staunch Blue sympathisers. And as for Trident… I wondered if I were reading an anti Green party parody instead of a serious manifesto.

What I do hear is that racism should not be linked to national pride or wanting a sense of identity. It is true that we have lost our sense and right of being a distinct nation apart from our Celtic neighbours, who have gathered more strength in that. I have heard the comment that it’s racist to be an area where there’s no other nationalities and ethnicities – but that seems to be reverse racism, attributing judgement and narrowness, as if positive discrimination is to be applied to where people live. We should never feel awkward, discriminatory or lesser for having more indigenous people than not.

But UKIP and its cousins (BNP,  English Democrats) are linking multiculturalism to our problems, making outsiders causes to be repatriated rather than seeing them as potentially enriching. Remember the freedom we’d like to move abroad, especially if we needed refuge.

The work ethic that the right wing wants clashes with what they say about foreigners. They want us to get any job and work hard, but they’re cross when immigrants do it instead of original peoples; and don’t see that the very work ethic they wish to promote to benefit claimants creates a culture of poor working conditions, even kinds of slavery. No, getting round minimum wage and working an unhealthy amount of hours is not acceptable, and if one person accepts a bully’s terms, so will the next… And life is not about toil and the taxable income you generate, or submission to hierarchy…

I am glad the ruling parties have got a message that people are turning from them. I am glad there is more shared power and co-operation (what I’d hoped from the 2010 general elections) in the county councils. I am glad more independents are gaining voices.

I’m alarmed that several have chosen to vote for a further right wing party, and that (looking at comments online) that some do support harsher regimes (which don’t affect them, of course).

But I am sorry that we have a system where so many don’t feel it’s worth their while going to the booths – and that’s the statistic that should speak the most. It’s what can’t be said in a ballot box that really counts.

* a 1990s cartoon:  episode No Sax Please, We’re Egyptian  “I am the One they call Nigel”

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The Lady, the Playwright and the Telepath

I have watched three films in short succession on oppressive regimes where freedom has been curtailed. One was a fictional story about a writer in East Germany, being spied on and censored by the secret police – something that happened to some of the cast of the film, one of whom died suddenly. This was the excellent Lives of Others or Die Leiben de Anderen. Then came The Lady, the Luc Besson film on Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent the best part of 20 years under house arrest, unable to take her voted in position of leader because the military rulers did not wish it. Lastly was Salman Rushdie’s novel brought to the screen, Midnight’s Children, about the struggles of India to regain independence from British rule, and then its own battles under Indira Gandhi. In all these, interrogation, torture, imprisonment, death were unleashed upon those who would speak out against the regime.


And much of me felt grateful to have never lived in such circumstances, but also great sadness and anger at the injustice – one my country has not faced in living memory.


But as much as some of the horrors in these countries and others are things I cannot say are experienced here, I also felt fearful. For some of the issues indeed resounded: bans against public meetings; surveillance (ever easier with the internet) of subversives; people taking power against the people’s wishes and making policies that clash with the values of the country, but are overridden for ideological reasons in the name of the interests of the people; and those who stand up to it being bullied into silence.


Just a peek at recent news reveals abuses of growing police powers – infiltrating political groups and having sexual relationship to gain information; and then wanting this to be tried in secret courts – if at all. I don’t feel free and safe in my country, where there are camera on every street corner, police have powers for compulsory stop and search; where the law that is meant to be part of the bedrock of a just and equal society is often not allowing ordinary people to claim that justice; creating poverty and increasing the power and wealth of the rich; forcing people into effective slave labour if they are not working or in a way that the government sanctions; forcing mind and body altering operations without consent. Our votes don’t get us who and what we ask for, and petitions and letters are often ignored or met with standard, disinterested responses. We too encourage fear of certain groups that are deemed a threat to those in authority who can be searched and arrested for vague reasons.


Countries like the above might look to those of us who have a supposed developed and running democracy, a freedom of speech, and their hopes and battles are to make their countries more like ours. We should be ashamed that I am not sure any country could really be a model for fairness and liberty. We’ve allowed a global system of greed to take over; we settle conflicts with warfare, and perhaps none of us can really feel we trust our leaders to be doing what they say and doing the best for us. Is anywhere above corruption yet? I cannot say my country is.


We should make this the year that we all strive to be the kind of democracy that has and is still being fought for – truly a rule of the people, for the people, without fear of reprisal for speaking out and wanting something different, achieved without the violence that sadly has come with so many other struggles.  We want the world to follow an example of transparency, not be impressed by a veneer of deceit. What is the best kind of family – the one that rules by iron rod, or the one that supports its diverse children to grow, even if that means questioning the parents sometimes? For a true, strong leader can cope with questions; only the insecure and fearful try to quell the queriers.


I know what sort of country I’d like to live in, one that we all should strive for – and if even a shadow of this oppression resonates in our leaders, they need to be changing away from these old orders and into the fair, just and peaceful lands we all deserve and desire.

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is a 2010 film starring Rachel Weisz about the true story of Kathryn Bolkovac.

It’s the flip side of My Age of Consent post on Socyberty (link in previous post). I want to make clear that I take abuse very seriously. Whereas some young women manipulate older people and it is inappropriate to call what might be unwise and unhealthy relationships child abuse, this film is clearly a story of what is.

In fact the legal ages are irrelevant, as what is happening is horrific and wrong for anyone of any age. It would not be less shocking if these were over 21s, and no less horrible for those that suffered.

I am not going to make any explicit comments here, should anyone be alarmed. The film too conveys horror without detail.

One one level, I am impressed by the film. It is based on the memoir of an American former police woman who was sent to Bosnia in the late 1990s as a peacekeeper, and who uncovered wide spread trafficking overlooked and often used by personnel of international military, law enforcing and peacekeeping organisations.

First of all, I want to back up. Why is an alien country going into one already torn with civil war, to have a foreign military and police help them sort out their problems?! What right does another country have to go barging and interfering, setting themselves up as world police?! Do any of these countries exemplify a perfectly just, libertarian society? No!! In fact as I shall write in the future, I don’t think democracy is the best system; I am intrigued by Isonomy as suggested by a former lecturer. (This could end up going back into another summer of Wonder Woman, who upheld democracy – see my earliest posts). And I feel that the US particularly* is not in a position to show another country how fairness works; there’s enough corruption at home without spreading it to a land limping after years of guerrilla warfare.

Spreading that corruption is exactly what seems to be happening.

Even Kathryn’s contract was dubious – $100,000 for 6 months work – tax free. After the global financial problems and cuts, such pay makes me livid – why should anyone work even indirectly for a government and be exempt from contributing with such a high salary?! “Is this even legal?” Kathy asks in the film. It shouldn’t be.

Next, there is legal “immunity” for those working for the various organisations. In the film it is called Democria, a British registered international company recruiting army and police officers. There should never be immunity – if you’re wrong, you should be brought to justice.

I feel like I did after the Valerie Wilson Plame film, Fair Game – that I both admire the person for sticking up to a powerful system and telling the world what’s really happening; and dis-ease for their jobs. As much as I don’t support the work of the CIA, the peacekeepers (ironic title) are another shadowy force supposedly for the good of civilians. Anyone reading this very much will know my thoughts on the irony of suppressing liberty to protect it, of opaque organisations off public radar who want to hold secret courts  – yes I opposed that British proposal. (See https://elspethr.wordpress.com/2011/11/28/justice-is-restored-but-the-chickens-are-gone)

The verb ‘police’ is one I am uncomfortable with. Although I have seen police strap lines claiming role is support for the public, practice is one of non action when needed with heaviness when it is not.

Kathy wants better recruitment and training for those doing her work – and clearly she took her police role seriously and genuinely, as I’m sure many others do. But that shouldn’t be a surprise – people shouldn’t be getting through the recruitment net who don’t. She recognised the need for better cultural understating in her role, but I really feel outsiders should not be there, especially as she’s shown the UN to have serious corruption at its core. She claims some officers were actually running the sex rings, while the organisation wouldn’t allow inquiries.

Death threats are are sure sign that she’s right. Officials have made statements that Kathy is wrong, even that she deserved her dismissal… but why the threats if she was erroneous and had a genuine reason to be sacked? Why would she make such a thing up, and go to such a risk, especially if it only over sour grapes for a job loss?

I was pleased that the book has been published and a film made, with many well known actors keen to be involved, as well as being an opportunity for a first time director. But I can’t see that the Whistleblower got an airing in Britain, or perhaps as widely internationally as it might have been. It wasn’t nominated for any of the usual film awards, though it did get some humanitarian type ones. I can’t find a British release date for it, and I have checked my own film magazines and brochures – I don’t think it came to my city nor was it picked up by the major cinema chains. I found it in the library, a single copy, unlike the mass orders of some new films.

I am writing this partly to say, this is a film that needs to be seen. This is an issue that needs to be known – but what can be done to stop it?

And I am also voicing my mixed views. Portrayed by a favourite actress, it was easy to sympathise with the actions of Kathryn. Reading more about her, I felt conflicted and this is as much about keeping out of other countries and the immunity/tax free corruption as it is the atrocities being inflicted on young women.

*PS that was not meant to be an anti US diatribe. You know I criticise my own country enough!

Someday, I shall write an article called “Things I love about America”.  Several individuals will feature, including dear friends.

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Justice is restored but the chickens are gone

by me

I have been researching for my next post and I wanted to get it right. I have views on Poppy Day which passed before I had consolidated them. I had read various stories relating to war and the secret service, but also felt frankly afraid to voice them.

You will notice by now that I write against harmful systems and for justice and liberty. I am against control and propaganda. What I have to say this time particularly concerns those, linked by my unlikely sounding title.

‘Justice is restored’ refers to a missing statue. In that same town, something else that’s a known local feature has disappeared – the wild chickens who refused to move when their home became a roundabout on a busy bypass.

I saw a local news headline that ‘justice has been restored’, but then I wondered about that in larger terms. Each time I pick up a newspaper, I read something else which makes me angry because justice is being evaded or distorted. The people meant to protect justice curtail or suspend it for the citizens they are mean to be servants of. Policing of riots and protests; secret courts; laws coming in by a government we didn’t choose to make it ever harder for the public because of actions by rich people who are still rich. I suspect whatever country my readers are from, you can relate to this in some way.

I read Robert Harris’ wartime code breaking novel Enigma and again felt anger at the secret service. It may be fiction, but it is based on some truth. The public are recruited by a crossword competition; in the book Hester is told to sign the Official Secrets Act and stick to it or the gun on the desk beside the form will be used on her. She has not yet volunteered nor understands how her cryptic puzzle solving skills will be used or what threat she may be under. Tom is also recruited in an underhand way that leaves him little choice. He is threatened by security service officers who appear in his home to scare him off something he accidentally discovers.

It struck me that in the name of protecting democracy, secret services go against the very values that the countries they serve are built on: openness, honesty, trust; protecting the public so that we can go about our lives freely, without fear. I am always appalled when I read of how much control the military and government exerted in the war. What system can be worth fighting for when refusing means that your own side turns on you? Why does an army find the resources to harm conscientious objectors from its own people? In the 1970s TV series, Wonder Woman turns a Nazi through demonstrating that the German army did not care for its own and were happy to kill them. Wonder Woman implies that hers is the better side for its contrasting ethics and treatment. I did some wondering of my own.

After being shocked again at the Katyn forest massacre of Polish prisoners of war and how that the British knew but pretended not to, I decided to watch the Polish 2010 film Katyn to see what they had to say on it. I was horrified at how anyone could shoot thousands of men and dump them in a mass grave, as I was to see a country’s own police demand entry and haul its own people out of their homes to concentration camps in Sarah’s Key. Note none of this was Nazi doing.

Nationalism frightens me when it threatens to make us hate other people and to incite acts of cruelty against them. It is one thing to be proud and loyal of one’s country, another to use that to create otherness instead of brotherness (girls included). The world is our neighbour, not just those with the same passport.

I am struck by the propaganda about war in my own country and am wary of how public statements may be used to influence peer pressure and curtail dissent.

The head of Britain’s MI6 gave a speech about how secrecy is necessary for our country and the rest of the world to go about safely. Yet I don’t feel safe – not because I especially fear terrorism, but the shadowy world of government endorsed crime fighters. I am appalled that the tax office can use spying and that financial safety is a reason to for secret intelligence  – along with that much used slippery phrase ‘threat to national security’.

To complete my trilogy, I watched Fair Game, from the memoir of Valerie Plame Wilson, the former CIA agent (starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn). She was deliberately outed after her ex-diplomat husband Joe spoke out that he found no weapons of mass destruction and therefore the basis of the 2004 Iraq war was spurious. They fought a long battle against the CIA and the US government. I am unsure exactly where she stands on some issues – in her DVD commentary she does not comment on the question: ‘have you killed people’ or that the CIA bound and beat recruits as part of a training exercise to find their breaking point. Or that she recruited people by manipulation and stealth and that they were not protected by the agency but killed.

I did like her line: security should not stop freedom.

If people fear police and military and security agencies more than terrorism; if liberty is curtailed in the name of keeping us safe, then security ‘services’ are no longer morally or operationally justified as it is acting against their very raison d’être. I read that there have been calls to abolish some secret services. I wonder if any such an agency is really necessary or the best way to combat these problems.

A service built on secrecy and deception is not sound and clashes with the morals and codes of many faiths and ideologies. It involves falsely presenting oneself not only to the adversaries but to one’s own loved ones, meaning isolation for employees as well as anyone who is recruited or who accidentally has a brush with one.

Just as a faith and its true believers are more than and separate to the official church, a nation is not its government, its laws or its leaders and figureheads. These organisations do not get to say what it is we are defending or believing in.

A national interest is not something than an agency or minister defines.

You can’t have equal opps laws and boast of your diversity on one hand whilst enforcing conformity on another.

I am glad of the attempts by the intelligence agencies to be accountable in my country and of the laws which govern them. But then we don’t chose or scrutinise the ministers that call into account or make the laws. Democracy means ‘rule by the people’ but many of us in those kinds of societies don’t feel we get to do the choosing and have the input that so titled society ought.

The  ‘C’ of MI6 speech speaks of enjoying public confidence – which it needs. But stories about Guantanamo Bay, like those on the Canadian Homes Not Bombs site, and Britain’s foreign secretary’s ideas undermine that. I believe that is just part of what many of us are speaking out against. (I have also seen Friday’s news about US police and Occupy protestors).

If secret services fight threats to economic stability that harm the public, I consider they ought to be busy – at all those who caused the recession and its effects. There’s more damage done there by our own  supposed legit institutions than terrorists.

And lastly to those chickens. What do they represent? Freedom despite control. Not being part of the regime. A reminder of nature and how we try to dominate it. A Unitarian hymn at first shocked me by its triteness – but there’s something affirming about ‘the grass that breaks through the concrete’ and the chickens that roost despite the tarmac and concrete built round them. I see those chickens as a symbol of a simpler, more natural life, a refusal to let human bureaucratic control spoil their lives. Their absence therefore concerns me.

After calls to remove them, they were poisoned and attacked and then were rehoused reluctantly by the man who had been feeding them. I know what I infer from that.

And my final word for today on security:

To paraphrase what the Governor of Oregon said today regarding execution:

“I do not believe that these made us safer and certainly they did not make us nobler as a society.”


You can even buy a board game of it!


Filed under cinema, literature, society

Policing protesters

Police heavy handedness is all too common a feature of our broadsheets. Today’s Independent and Guardian reported how protesters in the spring at a London department store were held for many hours and had their homes searched under the terrorism act; over 100 people face trial. There is rightly an outcry from many quarters. I am alarmed and angered that the reasoning is wasting of ‘court time and resources’ as one MP put it, or police time. What matters is that the freedom to peacefully protest is being taken away; and that bullying tactics make this not a free country. This is abuse of power, of law, and an assault to liberty.

Protesting againsta company’s tax evasion is nothing to do with terrorism. That should be tightened to a very slim definition of those using death or the threat of death to make a political point – such as bombings, hostage holding, siege by gunpoint. It is not for people camping out in a commercial premises who had no intention of harming anyone. The phrase ‘national security’ needs to be tightened to mean the above or foreign invasion. The MI5’s other remit, of threats to the economy, should be scrubbed as economy is not part of our national security and comes across as being more concerned about finance than liberty of its citizens.

When, like so many other countries, we are faced with insupportable cuts to deal with a so called debt caused by greedy and irresponsible financiers and our own government’s mistakes, we do not want our already heavy taxes being spent on taking away free comfortable livin. It makes one wonder what other  will be eroded. We want the right to speak up against losses to pension, student support, and all the other services that are suffering. And anything else that matters to us. Conflating demonstration with terrorism means the means to speak out is receding. That is not democracy, it is tyranny.

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