Monday 27 April 2009

We can celebrate St George's Day

Last Thursday was St George’s Day, and I’ve noticed over the last few years a real attempt to raise the profile and significance of England’s Patron Saint day. The main event I witnessed in celebrating the day, was a convoy of White Van men driving along Kennington Park Road, South London, with various St George’s flags flying! How typical some people may argue.

The common argument goes something like this; the English aren’t allowed to celebrate their national saints day in the same way that other countries do.

It isn’t seen to be politically correct for the English to start flag waving and telling anyone who’ll listen how proud they are to be English. To do so they’re being xenophobic, racist, and excluding the country’s ethnic minority communities. It’s all so totally unfair!

I don’t agree with this idea at all! I think the reality is that for many years the English have rarely shown any great interest in asserting their English identity or have given any serious thought to what being English is all about.

I’ve always been really interested and fascinated about the culture of England. What is Englishness? What does it mean to be English? One of the reasons for saying that the English haven't always shown an interest in Englishness, is that for so long Englishness was tied in with the idea of Britishness.

Britishness not only included the English but also the Scots, Welsh and Irish. The difference was that in this political union of Britain, the Celtic nations knew that they were junior partners so to speak, they could never be seen as the dominate political force within the union.

They were the ones being dominated politically. It’s only to be expected that nations of people that have been politically and socially dominated by another group use their culture, language and history as a way of asserting themselves, of building up a sense of pride and creating some form of identity.

This is something that the English have rarely had to do in their history. The last time England was invaded and controlled by a foreign power was back in 1066 and the Norman Conquest. The Second World War probably provided the last great example of this country exerting its identity, ideas and values in the face of a foreign enemy, which threatened the country's sovereignty.

During the age of Empire the Brits went around conquering much of the world spreading their ideas and beliefs, Britain became the most powerful and richest nation on earth through the industrial revolution, the slave trade, and its navy.

In doing so they went about laying down the foundations of much of what we know of the modern world. Whichever way you want to look at it, during the age of Empire the English as part of Britain were always on the ‘winning side’ conquering and dominating others! Was there any real need for soul searching as to who the English really were?

This is an important to remember, because I think that with the end of Empire, the end of the War, Post War immigration and the Celtic nations asserting their own cultural and political independence. It has left the English all by themselves thinking ‘Who or What are we?’ There’s a certain confusion about who the English think they are.

I always remember when I was younger and started watching football, during the World Cups of 1986, and 1990, England fans routinely flew Union Jack flags at matches, then around the time of Euro 96 it suddenly became important to fly the St George’s Cross. As trivial as this may seem, I think it represents the confusion of what being English was all about.

It's right and important that England celebrates St George's Day, but we need to find a more diverse way of celebrating England's culture and history.

Instead of always focussing on Two World Wars and a World Cup, we should make more of an effort to have a more rounded view of Englishness by celebrating our language, the political and cultural institutions that have evolved over the last 1000 years. We should focus on all the great writers, artists, musicians and inventors the country has produced. Our sense of fashion, style, and youth culture.

There’s loads of English culture out there, but to acknowledge it, it doesn’t have to involve people marching down a street flag waving or having a clich├ęd group of middle aged men morris dancing in a local town centre.

The English can't have the exact equivalent of St Patrick’s Day, we cant do national pride in the same way that Americans do, as we don’t have their history of setting up a new country and constitution in order to escape the influence of a foreign power (in their case the British).

We just need to find a way celebrating Englishness in our own unique and specific way. How about making St George’s Day a national holiday, so that it immediately elevates the importance of the day.

What about teaching kids at school who St George actually was. I hardly know anything about the bloke! There’s loads of stuff that could be done, but we just need to be creative and imaginative about things.

Sunday 26 April 2009

Was this the most depressing budget in history?

I couldn’t possibly let this week go by without commenting on the budget, which took place last Wednesday. I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that it was quite possibly the most important and significant budget that’s ever taken place during my lifetime, and probably since the end of the Second World War.

If someone asked me for my first thoughts and reactions on the budget, I think the polite way in which I would respond is by saying ‘What an absolute total mess we’re in. How did we get into this situation?’

For the past 18 months or so we’ve all known about the credit crunch, we’ve seen the economy slip into recession, but Wednesday’s budget seemed to take the seriousness of the situation to a completely different level.

Last Thursday, I scanned the front pages of the daily papers. Every newspaper these days seems to interpret news events through their own prism of how they see the world. So for the right wing press such as the Mail, Express, and the Telegraph, the budget was a return to bad old days of class politics, in fact judging from the Telegraph’s front page, you’d think we were on the verge of another Bolshevik revolution!

In contrast the Guardian seemed generally more supportive of the budget, whilst the Daily Mirror painted Alistair Darling as a Robin Hood figure, taxing the rich to help the poor! The Sun amused me though, with its front page, which listed all the bad things we can focus on before noting that at least the sun was shining!

I’ve really tried hard this week to read as much about the budget as possible, to listen to all the different reactions, and analysis and to find out just how good or bad this budget really is and what this means for the UK’s economic position.

Having done this to the best of my ability, I’ve come to the conclusion that overall it was a pretty bad budget on the day, and will prove to be a bad budget over the next few months and years. The Chancellor's predictions for economic growth over the next few years appear to not only be overly optimistic but have also been totally discredited by economic experts, the City and in particular the IMF. I’m not quite sure how the Chancellor and the IMF can come to such widely different estimates in economic growth! Obviously someone has got their figures wrong.

Alistair Darling claimed the 50% tax rate on high earners was not politically driven, reports say that Labour had conducted a number of focus groups which the results suggested that this was a popular measure with key Labour voters. Seeing as Labour has spent so long ignoring is traditional working class support base it’s of no surprise that they’ve introduced this measure. People are rightly angry with the banking class that is partly responsible for getting us into this mess, they’ve become Public Enemy No 1.

The argument against this is that the revenues received form taxing those earning above £150,000 won’t make a significant difference, and that in reality we are penalising those who are responsible for generating wealth in the country. I get pretty tired of hearing this argument about wealth generators.

It gives the impression that only this elite group of high earners are making a significant contribution to the wealth of the nation, surely all of us in employment paying taxes are contributing to the country’s wealth? Generally I’m not overly concerned about those individuals earning over £150,000, I’m sure many people on low incomes still pay a significant amount more of their incomes in tax then those high earners.

What I would like to know is why this government isn’t making more of an effort to claw back some of the millions lost in corporation tax that many major companies seem to be avoiding. Only the other week, The Sunday Times reported that the Internet company Google has avoided paying £100 million in UK tax despite annual revenues of over £1.25 billion!

What has really stood out for me about this budget was the amount of government borrowing that will be required over the forthcoming years, and the increase in national debt, and the unavoidable tax increases which will occur. The whole thing has made me incredibly disillusioned with our political class. I just struggle to get my head around some of the figures and to understand how we’ve ended up in this mess. It seems that for 10 years of so we were happily going along with continuing economic growth, easy credit, rising house prices, the supposed end of ‘Boom and Bust’ economics but all along we were sitting on a ticking time bomb!

From what I can see that main reasons why Britain if facing such a difficult recession in comparison to other countries is that our economy has been over reliant on the financial services industry which has collapsed, a level of personal consumer debt which has been too high for far too long, and an over-inflated housing market.

I’ve always been generally quite optimistic about politics and our politicians. I’ve never been the sort to say ‘They’re all just the same, they’re all as bad as each other’ But I have to say that at the moment I’m feeling very let down by everyone. The Government for being in power over the last 10 years and the Opposition for failing to highlight or see any of these problems.

The only politician who I think has emerged with their reputation enhanced is the Lib Dem's Vince Cable. He’s the only person who I have real faith, confidence, and respect for in his views on the economy. Not only do I think that he should be running the Lib Dem party, but I’d feel much more confident about things if he was actually Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Who ever wins the General Election next year, I believe that not only do the have the problems of dealing with the worst economic conditions that most people can remember in their lifetimes, but there is also the issue of trying to restore public faith and confidence in the political establishment and their ability to competently run the country’s finances. For me I’d just like to see some genuine honesty and respect from politicians which seems to have been totally lacking at times when it comes to running the country’s finances.

Monday 20 April 2009

A New Phase of Politcal Spin?

Following last week’s revelations that the Labour party spin doctor Damien McBride had sent emails to a Labour Party blogger, suggesting smear stories to use against leading Tories. The Sunday Times yesterday published more stories claiming that the school’s secretary Ed Balls had previously used McBride to smear ministerial rivals in order to advance his own political ambitions.

When Gordon Brown took power in 2007 it was meant to be an end to the era of spin within this government, but what seems to have happened is that political spin within the Labour party has not only continued unchecked, but has mutated into something even more cynical, more aggressive and unscrupulous then anyone could ever have imagined.

Having read these stories it made me think a bit more on the culture of political PR, communication and spin-doctoring and how political debates and battles are increasingly being fought in a war of information. I fully accept that political briefings and spin have always been a feature of politics, but I’m beginning to think that we’re entering a new phase in these ‘dark arts’ that we have not witnessed before.

Previously I had viewed political spin as a method by which one could distract attention from unfavourable stories, promote stories through intentional leaks, concealing bad news stories by releasing them on busy news days, suppressing news stories in order to provide exclusives at a later date.

But following the Damien McBride scandal, political spin now appears to include promoting rumour and lies in order to de-stabilise political enemies both within and outside of the Labour party. Part of me finds the whole thing unsavoury, I know that politics is a dirty and at times brutal business, but even I’m beginning to think this is a step to far.

These types of strategic communication techniques and strategies are not really new and have actually been used by intelligence agencies around the world for many years. During the Cold War the CIA routinely fabricated stories for release with the aim of putting pressure on the Soviet Union and to attack those groups that were perceived to be unfriendly to the US and nations that were viewed to associating closely with the Soviet Union.

Since the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and the subsequent war in Iraq and Afghanistan the US has intensified its use of information and communication as a weapon in its ‘War on Terror’ Surely the biggest form of fabrication and disinformation was the supposed ‘Weapons of Mass destruction’. But now many of these same methods are being used in party politics.

I thought it was really disappointing that it took Gordon Brown so long to actually come out and apologise by saying sorry when to begin with he merely expressed his regret at the incident. I except that Brown would have been unaware of the emails from McBride to Draper, but according to many reports there have been a number of Labour ministers and cabinet members who had complained previously about the practices and behaviour of McBride.

It’s hard to believe that some of these reports did not make there way back to Gordon Brown. He must take some form of responsibility as head of the government in which this sort of practice and behaviour is clearly part of the culture and tolerated.

Reading in yesterday’s News of the World, they reported an exclusive Ipsos Mori poll, which showed that almost 40% of voters and 1 and 4 Labour voters believed the affair had damaged the government. I don’t know what other affect it could have had, but you would think the government had more pressing concerns at the moment.

We have the worst economic conditions since the Second World War, stories of ministers abusing the parliamentary expenses system, and as a government deep into its third term there is the natural challenge of trying to appear fresh and new to the electorate which understandably as grown tired with a party which has been in power now for 12 years. Instead we get political gossip, rumour and unscrupulous methods of political manoeuvring within government.

Although the Tories are leading in the polls it seems to be more because people are now tired and dissatisfied with the government, rather then because there is this huge wave of enthusiasm and belief in the Tories.

There are still large areas of policy that the Tories do not seem to have formed a coherent opinion, but the events of the last few weeks gives the impression that the government is not interested in such things.

I can’t really see the government recovering from this latest scandal which seems to be just another nail in the coffin, but although the next election will not be won and lost on this incident alone, it shouldn’t be forgotten, as the public need to show our political establishment that they are not prepared to accept this sort of behaviour.

Saturday 11 April 2009

The Middle-aged Club Revival

Middle-aged clubbers are apparently coming out of retirement to relive their glory days of clubbing from the early to mid 1990s. Reading in the Times last week, the famous Leeds club Up Your Ronson that closed over a decade ago, has now re-emerged for a number of monthly one offs catering for clubbers now in the late 30s and early 40s.

These were the types of people that raved hard in the 90s but then got married, had kids, mortgages and decided to become sensible grown ups.

Having discovered House music and dance music culture back in the late 80s and early 90s the article immediately interested me. Most of my clubbing glory days were back in the 90s and there are many nights that I will remember for the rest of my life, although at the age of 33 I’m not quite ready to consider myself middle aged, my clubbing days are now becoming fewer and far between.

Most of the clubbers and promoters interviewed in the article talked in terms of nostalgia and reliving their youth, and trying to recapture special moments from the past.

I thought about this myself. I’m still interested in going clubbing if and when I get the chance, and I still love good House music and a bit of Drum and Bass when I'm in the mood. It’s music that’s been a big part of my life since I was a kid, but if I started going out clubbing again on a regular basis it wouldn’t be because I’m trying to recapture my youth, but because I still enjoy dance music culture and clubbing.

For me, the article confirmed something that I’ve suspected for sometime now and that is, we no longer appear to live in a society where we have generation gaps in the ways we used to.

There was a time that when people got married, settled down, had kids and got a mortgage, they were considered middle-aged. They no longer took an interest popular culture, cutting edge new music, or kept up to date with the latest fashion, but this doesn't seem to be the case anymore.

Many of the DJ pioneers and originators in House music and dance music culture are still around today djing and producing music. Many of them are now well into their 40s and 50s. In rock music you have 30 somethings dominating the attendance of the country's biggest music festival Glastonbury; and of course you can't forget the Rolling Stones who are still going strong despite most of them all being in their 60s. The fact that they haven’t really produced anything new or original of any note in the last 25 years doesn’t seem to matter to people. Nobody is telling them they should be at home looking after the grand kids!

I’m sure that back in the 1960s people would have struggled to imagine that in 40 years time men in their 50s and 60s would still be playing this new rebellious form of popular music known as rock and roll!

In my own family my dad has always been a huge fan of Rhythm and Blues, Jazz, Soul, 50s Rock and Roll. I love this music! Having discovered Hip Hop at an early age, it always amazed me the number of records that my dad would play that made me think, ‘I know that bassline, Tribe Called Quest sampled it’ or ‘I know those vocals, didn’t Wu Tang Clan or Jay Z use them in such and such a track?’

My dad’s music is my music. The generation gap simply doesn't exist. Equally my dad doesn’t mind electronic forms of dance music, jazzy Drum and Bass a bit of Soulful House, he can relate to it! He can even pull off wearing a pair of my old Paul Smith jeans cast offs without a problem.

Maybe I just have a hip dad, but I do believe that today we now have more freedom to do what we want to do, to be what we want to be, without worrying that we might be considered too old, or concerning ourselves with what other people might think.

Of course you can’t avoid the aging process, In the Times article the Liverpool DJ John Kelly spoke about how he had to pace his sets in accordance with catering for an older age group, he said in relation to older clubbers:

“They haven’t got the energy that they used to have. You’ve got to give them little breaks. They’re certainly not taking as many E’s as they used to. It’s more about the music.”

For me its always been about the music, the House tunes I discovered back in the late 80s and early 90s I still love and I hope to pass them on to my kids in the same way my parents have passed on their music to me. The article gave a list of classic House tracks that are supposedly appealing to this new breed of middle-aged clubber. I have therefore decided to list a few of my own personal classics that all middle aged clubbers need to know.

Tears: (feat. Robert Owen) Frankie Knuckles Presents Satoshi Tomiie

Let the Music:( Use You) The Night Writers

The Promised Land: Joe Smooth

Alison Limerick: Where love Lives

Marshall Jefferson: The House Music Anthem (Move Your Body)