Monthly Archives: May 2015

Ireland’s so gay

One of the schools down the road from my children’s school runs a programme for year 5 (nine and ten year olds) aiming to tackle homophobic language. The simplest example is using “that’s so gay” to mean “that’s a bit rubbish”.

When it comes to denigrating same-sex relationships, there is a long and ignominious history that dates back dozens of centuries. Even in Athens, hotbed of gay sex in the ancient world, if you did it “wrong”, you could be stripped of your citizenship. In ancient Athens, the politics of sex didn’t focus on with whom you were sleeping, but who did the penetrating (it wasn’t sex if it didn’t involve a penis going into someone, apparently). It didn’t matter if you were having sex with a man, a woman or a child, as long as it was you doing the poking rather than being poked, you were fine. If anyone was to discover that you had been poked, you could be thrown out of society.

Fast-forward a thousand years or so, and watch as Christianity spreads across Europe. Christianity with its phobias and taboos. St Augustine of Hippo (the famous one, not the guy who converted England) spent much of his life getting his end away in a variety of ways and generally partying hard without heed to the consequences. After his conversion to Christianity, he set aside his lecherous ways and spent the rest of his life deciding that asceticism was the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Augustine’s thoughts and writings continue to influence the church of the today, and have largely prevented any wide discussion of the theology of sex anywhere outside the closed doors of university theology departments. indeed, whenever such discussions do leak outside, the church is quick to silence any discussion that sex might be fun and that gay people might be allowed to enjoy some.

Living today, and still influential, the cardinal I love to hate, Raymond Burke, continues to mouth off about the evils of gay people and gay relationships. In fact, he equated gay people (and straight people who have re-married) to murderers as recently as March this year.

This is how strong asceticism is within the Roman Catholic church even today. Sex for pleasure is wrong. The only justification for any sexual activity at all is for the procreation of babies. Put the two of these together, the only people who are allowed to have sex are fertile straight married couples.

In the course of its long and distinguished history, the church has never shied away from blatant hypocrisy, and it can be found here, too. The church doesn’t pour scorn on infertile couples having sex, neither does it proclaim the sinfulness of old people getting married. No, the asceticism rules seem only to apply to unmarried couples, separated/remarried people and gay people. 1968’s Humanae Vitae underlined the church’s attitude towards sex for pleasure even amongst straight married couples. How much more scorn, then, is reserved for (cisgender) gay couples who, biologically, cannot have their own children?

If this was just a little sect that nobody paid attention to, there wouldn’t be much of a problem. The Catholic church, however, is hugely influential across the world stage (although it is panicking about how rapidly it has lost its voice in the rich West), and its attitude towards gay people has shaped cultural development for centuries across half the planet. This has left us with a legacy of homophobia which remains embedded deeply in our societies, even when we are too embarrassed to admit it.

Panti’s revealing TEDx talk has much to say about society’s lingering hatred of all things gay (actually, about gay men, but we can sweep lesbians and bisexuals up in their wake too). Maybe, the next time we hear someone complaining about gay people, we should simply challenge them to admit that what they are really complaining about is the fact that they find the idea of anal sex between men to be icky and unpalatable. Regardless of whether or not any particular gay person has ever even done it (or has ever wanted to do it).

In the wake of staunchly-Catholic Ireland becoming the first country in the world to adopt same-sex marriage by direct popular vote, maybe we can begin to put that history behind us. Actually, I think that we, as a people, are doing just that. My interpretation of Diarmuid Martin’s comments in reaction to the vote, however, suggest that the church is content to wed itself to that history, even as it is left behind.

Sorry. Nothing this week.

The sun is rising slowly and the house at the bottom of the garden is brightly lit. The BBC promises some showers later, but not just yet.

I turned 40 last week. This is, allegedly, a significant age. I am supposed to stop being a kid now, and embrace adulthood. Or maybe I’m supposed to let go of pretending to be grown up and embrace my inner child. Or something.

In reality, being 40 seems to be much like being 39, only with fewer syllables. Life marches forward, seemingly without any interest in whether or not I am trying to keep up with it.

I am due a mid-life crisis at some point in the next ten years. Actually, I think it arrived ten years ago and is ongoing, but never mind.  I don’t have the money to buy a 1970 Pontiac Firebird or even a Tesla Model-S. On the other hand, my parents are buying me a flying lesson at the airfield down the road, so all is not lost for expensive whimsy. It’s all part of my plan for taking over the world. I need to be able to fly planes to do that. Minions are too expensive and error-prone: it’s best to do the work yourself. And to shoot James Bond on sight rather than put him in a laughably escapable situation and then act surprised when he confronts me later.

I’m afraid, that’s all I’ve got this morning. I’ll leave you with an eminently sensible TED talk about why I think British Home Secretary Theresa May is utterly wrong in her quest to give our intelligence services more powers to deny us any shred of privacy. Perhaps she will list all of her private e-mails (just the headers, mind, not the contents) and phone calls (just the numbers and the times, not the actual conversations) on her website. She’s not doing anything wrong, after all, so she should have no reason to fear the scrutiny.

Take it away, Glenn Greenwald.

The electoral reform issue

So, the results are in. David Dimbleby stayed awake. Jeremy Paxman did an all-nighter on Channel 4. We have a new government.

As is traditional in UK elections, we got a single party with a majority of seats in the House of Commons. People (politicians usually) always say that this is a good thing. They speak of strong leadership and stable government. They blithely assume that we agree that these are good things. Personally, I think that both of those are bad things and I’ll tell you why.

Stable government is something that the government likes a lot. This means that they can do more-or-less whatever they want and get away with it. There is no danger that the government will lose a confidence vote in the Commons, so they can swan along doing their thing without any real recourse to the UK population until the next election rolls up. This swanning includes changing the boundaries of electoral constituencies to make it less likely that the other guys will get in.

Strong leadership is where “tough decisions” get made “for the good of the country” or “in the national interest.” Sounds good, but what it means in practice is that the annoying Human Rights Act gets repealed, £12bn of cuts get dumped on the poorest members of society, and Theresa May gets to gift wrap all of our communications data and hand it over to the intelligence services. Oh, and sell off the NHS and turn as many publically-funded schools as possible into privately-owned academies.

The last government was held in check to some extent by the Liberal Democrats. Amazingly, it lasted the full five years (sounds stable to me), but still had an Education Secretary who hated teachers, a Health Secretary who hated nurses a Home Secretary who hated privacy and a Work-and-Pensions minister who hated poor people.

So, this time, the Conservative party has an overall majority in the Commons, so will not need to keep any other party happy in order to pass laws. Sounds great if you are one of the 36% of Britons who voted for them. Yes, that’s right. They have a majority in the Commons on the basis of a third of the popular vote. Nice work if you can get it.

An unlikely alliance of UKIP and the Green Party stands there to remind us that the electoral system with the unpronounceable acronym (First Past The Post) is definitely not a proportional system. Of course, the Conservatives are delighted, as are the SNP. Even Labour has a reason to smile. Again, as is always the case, the Liberal Democrats have been denied anywhere close to the representation in the house suggested by the number of votes cast for them. You see, it takes about 34,000 votes to elect a Conservative MP, about 300,000 votes to elect a Liberal Democrat and the best part of four million to elect a UKIP MP.

Now, I have no truck whatsoever with UKIP. They are a nasty party filled with nasty people espousing nasty views. That said, they did get 12.6% of the votes in the election. Fairness dictates that they have a voice to share their bigotted views with the rest of us. With any luck, they’d show themselves to be the bigotted bastards they are and they’d lose out next time.

The Green Party managed 3.8% of the popular vote. Like UKIP, they also get a single seat. Between them, they got something like 5 million votes. For two seats. The people who voted for them are, effectively, disenfranchised, with nobody in Parliament seeing the need to even listen when they speak. That is 16.4% of the British population voted and got two Commons seats (0.3%).

“Oh, but stable government!” they cry.

Frankly, this kind of stable government makes a mockery of democracy.

The House of Commons is a place where MPs debate new laws. If one party has an overall majority, what happens is that opposition MPs make speeches, and the members on the Government benches bray like donkeys instead of listening. Then government MPs make speeches and the members on the Opposition benches take their turn to bray like donkeys. After that, there’s a vote and the government wins. It (almost) always does, because they have an overall majority and the system of party politics means that the members of a party are expected to vote along party lines. It means that debates in the Commons are almost entirely pointless. The government doesn’t need to persuade anyone on the other side that its proposed policies are good, fair, reasonable or even just. The Opposition cannot do anything about it. The whole system turns into a public display of hot-air production and animal noises where grown adults shout at each other in a big noisy room and nothing anybody says makes a single shred of difference.

Because the government has an overall majority.

On 36% of the national vote.

The alternative would be a system of proportional representation. Under this, UKIP would have 12.6% (ish) of the seats. This wouldn’t be palatable to anybody (except UKIP supporters), but it would mean that the issues they raise would need to be addressed by MPs and the reasons that people voted for UKIP could receive the airtime they deserve. This, in turn, may well, leave people feeling represented and possibly less likely to vote for the more extreme parties next time around.

The Greens would get a stack of seats; the Liberal Democrats wouldn’t have been stripped back to 8; the SNP would be cut back to about 50% of Scottish seats (reasonable, since only 50% of Scots actually voted for them).

Then we would almost be guaranteed that no single party would ever command a majority in the Commons. The incumbents always tell us that this is a bad thing. This is because politicians in this country think that compromise is the worst insult you can throw at someone. To build a government under these circumstances would require a coalition, and coalitions require compromise. They tend to favour the middle-ground. If you have to actually persuade people to vote for you policies in the debating chamber, then you get an actual debate where the merits and demerits of a proposal can be debated, changes can be made and the resulting legislation can be much better as a result.

If the ruling party is constantly scared of being voted down, they will be forced to be reasonable. The opposition parties then have the opportunity to grow up and act like adults, too. If they keep voting down the government, the voting public will get annoyed at constant general elections and will punish the dissenters for being unreasonable and vote them out. The result is that fewer laws are passed and those that do are well-scrutinised and substantially more reasonable than what happens under “stable” and “strong” governments. The course the country follows is closer to the centre and no longer sharply zig-zagging left and right with changes of “stong” government.

And the “but with FPTP, you get a single, well-defined representative” doesn’t convince me either. Last time around, I tried writing to my MP to suggest that a piece of legislation was unfairly gagging public debate. The problem I faced was that my MP was the person who introduced the legislation in the first place, so my voice never made it to Parliament anyway. Had I been able to write to one of several MPs who represented my constituency, I could have chosen an MP who would have been more receptive to my argument, who could then have raised the issue during a debate.

So here we go. Five years of strong, stable government backed by slightly over a third of votes cast. It’s going to be a long slog. Enjoy the ride, people.

(sources used: The Economist, The Telegraph, The BBC)

The general election post

The UK goes to the polls on Thursday. The politicians are all reverting to form and slinging mud at each other, giving almost no reasons to vote for anyone. It’s almost as if they all secretly agree with Russell Brand and his complete apathy when it comes to elections.

My nine-year-old child asked me about the main parties, this week. When it comes down to it, this is the best summary I can come up with:

The Conservative Party believes in low taxes and “small government”. This means that people keep more of their income and can spend it on whatever they choose, but the government has less money to fund social policies like unemployment/disability benefits and healthcare. They seem to be keen on dismantling the NHS, and pushing people towards funding their own healthcare directly. This is, of course, fine for people with lots and lots of money, but people who don’t earn much get left out.

The Labour Party believes that some people need more help than others. It was the Labour Party (the government who came in after Churchill’s Conservatives got booted out after the war) who invented the NHS. They believe in higher taxes, which gives the government more money to fund social care for those that need it the most.

The Liberal Democrats sit somewhere between the two primary-coloured parties, taxing a bit more than the Conservatives but spending less than Labour. Their biggest problem, as I see it, is that their five years in coalition with the Conservatives have made them look like dirty turn-coats who look to be much more on the right than most people thought. Historically, they have been seen as centre-left (what’s that? that’s tending to side with people who need help rather than with people who want more money). I can remember a record-scratch moment when I heard Mr Clegg speak of the time being over when his party was not on the left. Oops. Great way to secure your core electorate there. I also remember being utterly dismayed when that same Mr Clegg was trying to sell us university tuition fees as sensible, fair or right. Why he didn’t come clean and simply admit that he was the junior partner in the coalition and he didn’t have the clout to prevent this one is beyond me. Here was the leader of a party whose manifesto pledge was for free university education selling the idea that students should pay through the nose for the education that he had said should be free. It simply came across as him selling out the soul of his party and trying to convince us that it was the right thing after all. Maybe he’ll prove that black is white and get run over on the next zebra crossing.

Then there’s this article (quite a long one) in the Guardian that suggests that the only thing that austerity does to a troubled economy is to further suppress growth and stymie any recovery. Mr Cameron’s genius here is that his government only actually did austerity in the first two years of their term, and allowing the economy to recover somewhat from that is making it look like he has led a recovery. It could be that he has simply eased off on the brakes and is now claiming credit for gaining speed as the whole thing is no longer being actively suppressed.

In school, the class teacher brought her class up to speed on the general election. She showed short videos from all seven of the parties who appeared in that famous TV “debate”. All things considered, my son said, he’s more aligned with the Green Party, because he would quite like the planet to survive long enough for him to have grandchildren of his own.

As for me? Well, I’ve had a conversation on Twitter with my local Labour candidate, and he sounds eminently sensible, and his views appear to align with my own. Combine that with my disillusionment with the Lib Dems and my visceral hatred of every policy ever suggested by Mr Cameron’s Conservative party, and we have a strong suggestion about where my X will land on Thursday. The hardest fight in my mind at present, however, is with swing. In the 2010 election, Labour got 10% of the vote, to LD’s 34% and the Conservative’s 47%. Do I believe that the Liberal Democrats have shot themselves in the face sufficiently hard that the Labour candidate stands a chance of beating the Conservatives? Will UKIP divide the Conservative vote enough to give either challenger a chance? Will UKIP beat the Lib Dems? Does Labour have a chance?

Where is the Alternative Vote system when you need it? Where is Proportional Representation when you need it? That said, I’m not all that happy with the prospect of UKIP getting 14% of the seats in Parliament. Then again, that might just convince the electorate that they are a bunch of muppets and need to be destroyed in 2020.

In short, I’m still undecided. I may take a coin with me into the polling booth.