Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Category: Echelon

Kathmandu

A version of this article appeared in the October 2014 edition of Echelon magazine. This version only includes photographs taken by me in 1985.

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All those trekking boots leave a huge environmental footprint however lightly a trekker treads.

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The first hippies arrived in Kathmandu round about 1967. Numbers increased as western interest in eastern mysticism and exoticism grew in the west, in part thanks to the Beatles. A Kathmandu street south of Durbar Square called Jochen Tole became “Freak Street”. The hippies tended to spend more time interacting with the local population than traditional sightseeing tourists.

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Today, the neighborhood of Thamel is still Kathmandu’s main tourist haunt, packed with guesthouses, restaurants, shops, and bookstores. Freak Street is still there in a different form and online booking sites offer 114, hotels in the area.

 

Tourism is a major source of income for most of the people in Kathmandu, with several hundred thousand visitors arriving annually. Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims from all over the world visit Kathmandu’s religious sites such as Pashupatinath, Swayambhunath, Boudhanath and Lumbini, the supposed birthplace of the Lord Buddha.

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Has Nepal benefited from tourism? The direct contribution of tourism to GDP was Nepali Rs 67bn (4.3 % of total GDP) in 2012, and is forecast to rise to Rs112bn in 2023. In 2012, tourism directly supported 553,500 jobs (3.6% of total employment). This is expected to rise to 829,000 jobs (4.2% of total employment) in 2023.

 

I visited Kathmandu a long time ago, in 1981. I visited again in 1985. The changes I observed during that short time were a sign of the negative effects of tourism. I will offer a little anecdotal evidence. On my 1981visit, the place seemed relaxed and safe, with little motor traffic. On my return in 1985, the traffic was much worse and there was a discomfiting edginess in the air. It was impossible to walk around the city without being hassled by young men selling drugs.

 

The first approach was “Want some grass?” A polite “No thank you” would raise the stakes to “Want some cocaine?” Rejection of the cocaine option would elicit an offer of heroin. It got to a point where I angrily told one pusher to leave me alone. Those may not have been my exact words. He in turn angrily told me to get out of his country.

 

Although Kathmandu in 1981 was no longer the hippie-haven it had been in the 1970s (events in Afghanistan and Iran had put the kibosh on cheap overland travel) there was still a residue of hippiness. By 1985, the hippie delusion had finally gone sour and declined from grass to heroin.

 

Nepal was a closed country until 1950. In 1956, air transportation was established and the Tribhuvan Highway, between Kathmandu and Raxaul (on the border with India) was started. I crossed from India at Sunauli, which is now a venue for violent scams. The Nepalese government set up organisations in Kathmandu in the 1950s to promote tourism. Tourists started to trickle in. Today tourism is the most important aspect of the country’s economy. From a mere 6,179 tourists in 1961-62, the number jumped to 491,504 in 1999-2000. With the end of the Maoist insurgency in 2009, there was a significant rise of 509,956 tourist arrivals. Tourist numbers have further increased since the country discarded the monarchy and became a Democratic Republic. Today, Kathmandu boasts several five-star hotels like Hyatt Regency, Hotel Yak & Yeti, the Everest Hotel, Hotel Radisson, Hotel De L’Annapurna, and the Shangri-La Hotel. Some of the five-star hotels have casinos.

Despite that, one could feel wandering in parts of the city that one was back in medieval times. Some dwellings have living accommodation upstairs and cattle on the ground floor – an integral cowshed rather than an integral garage. Butcher shops have rows of shins and hooves standing outside like shoes in a hotel waiting to be polished.

On both of my visits, I left Kathmandu to go on organised treks in the mountains. In 1981, this was a gentle stroll in the Annapurna region accompanied by a BBC crew making a Holiday programme.

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The 1985 trek was more strenuous, going close to Everest Base Camp and camping at Thyangboche Monastery. We had started the trip by flying in from Kathmandu to Lukla in a Cessna light aircraft. A programme titled Most Extreme Airports, broadcast on The History Channel in 2010, rated Tenzing-Hillary Airport as the most dangerous airport in the world. On arrival, it seemed as if the plane was just flying straight into a mountain.

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The return trip was worse. We arrived back at Lukla to find that the Nepalese royal family had commandeered all the planes in the country for some holiday junket. (In 2001, the heir to the throne, Prince Dipendra, killed nine members of his family, including King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya, and himself). We had to wait a few days until an army helicopter came to rescue us. To show my appreciation, I gave a bottle of duty,-free Johnny Walker to the pilot. I had not expected him to drink it as he was flying. The helicopter was zigzagging through huge walled chasms of rock. The pilot was cheerily turning around to chat and taking huge gulps of whisky.

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That trek was made more strenuous because what was described as “freak weather conditions”. Heavier rains than usual had caused mountain lakes to flood and landslides had blocked the usual trails. I still have nightmares about one particular stretch. I had to inch my way along a very narrow path feeling sand dropping on my head from above and the ground crumbling under my feet into the precipitous ravine way below. I realise now that the presence of freaks like myself may have contributed to “freak weather conditions”.

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Since the 1970s, 97% of all visitors to Nepal have been trekkers. Today there are more than 900 legitimate trekking companies in Kathmandu. All those trekking boots leave a huge environmental footprint however lightly a trekker treads. In theory, the government grants protection to the 13% of Nepalese land designated as National Parks. The Sagarmatha National Park, which includes Everest, suffers from pollution and deforestation directly related to the impact of tourism. Sherpas use local forests as part of their subsistence lifestyles and management of their tourist lodges. One trekking tourist in Nepal can account for five kilograms of wood a day.

 

Nepal has little in the way of easily-extractable natural resources. Its greatest asset is its spectacular scenery and tourism has been described as an extractive industry. In particular, Nepal has Mount Everest, also known in Nepal as Sagarmatha and in Tibet as Chomolungma. At 8,84,8 meters above sea level, it is Earth’s highest mountain.

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Tourism brought changes to the Everest region in particular, making it one of the wealthiest areas in Nepal. In 2012, Mount Everest expeditions contributed over 911 million rupees to Nepal’s economy. Many Sherpas have enjoyed prosperity through tourism-related employment with jobs for trekking agents, tour operators, sirdars (trekking field managers) high altitude climbers, porters and cooks.

 

Mount Everest itself is getting crowded and littered with abandoned tents, sleeping bags, oxygen cylinders, coffee makers and gear to watch movies inside tents – even the corpses of climbers who never made it down add to the refuse. All trekkers need a government permit but there are currently no limits or quotas on permits issued by the government of Nepal to climb Everest. In the spring of 2012, thirty permits were issued for foreign Mount Everest expedition teams comprising 325 climbers, 358 high-altitude climbing Sherpas and 230 kitchen staff. Nepalese tourism authorities said recently that climbers must bring down 18 pounds of trash when they descend.

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Tourism has undoubtedly enabled many Nepalese to improve their lives. Some research has suggested that families who are involved in tourism are likely to achieve more in education. Tourism-related funds have contributed towards schools being built in the area by NGOs such as the Himalayan Trust. In many villages, tourism has helped improve water supply, but this can lead to greater inequality, as only those villages near tourist centres have improved infrastructure.

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Tourism brings an insidious corruption. Trekking along  a remote mountain trail, I encountered a young woman carrying a small baby on her back. she looked so careworn and downtrodden that I felt deeply sorry for her. The only way I could think of to help was to give her some money. She was clearly offended- she was not a beggar and she had not asked this foreign interloper for money. All along the trails, small children ask for pens. If you say you have not got a pen, they ask for sweets. If you have not got sweets, they ask for money.  Even in an urban setting this can happen. A group of children was going through this routine near the Nyatapola Temple in Bhaktapur. Our local guide scolded us for giving anything: “Our children must learn to fend for themselves, not learn to be beggars”.

In spite of the efforts of NGOs and the money coming in from tourism, Nepal still ranks 138th in the world in overall human development. Half of the Nepalese population lives in poverty. Poverty in Nepal is concentrated in rural villages and among lower castes and ethnic minorities. Villages are often located in remote, mountain areas that are geographically isolated and far from basic services. Rural healthcare services are at best rudimentary, with government health posts often going unstaffed and undersupplied for years.

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Plucky Little Belgium

This article appeared in the October 2014 issue of Echelon magazine.

 

Belgium is a strange concept, more of a vague idea than a real country. There is a joke that there is just one real Belgian, and he is the king, (currently King Philippe, who is married to a speech therapist). Everyone else is either Flemish or Walloon. General de Gaulle described Belgium as a country invented in 1830 by the British to annoy the French. The dominant powers in the 19th Century constructed a neutral state to prevent an invasion of England from Antwerp harbour.

For rich French people, including Gerard Depardieu, the idea of Belgium is as a tax haven. The village of Nechin – which has a street known as Millionaire’s Row – is less than two minutes drive from the French town of Roubaix.

There is a tired old joke about the only famous Belgians being fictional characters like Tin Tin and Hercules Poirot. Let us not forget Plastic Bertrand, born in Brussels of a French father and Ukrainian mother. There are major real Belgian talents such as Georges Simenon, Jacques Brel and painters like James Ensor, Paul Delvaux and René Magritte. Jonathan Meades observed that when you go to Belgium, Rene Magritte stops looking like a surrealist and starts looking like a devastating social realist.

Magritte often painted enigmatic men holding umbrellas. In his recent novel, Christ’s Entry Into Brussels, (the title of one of Ensor’s paintings) Dimitri Verhulst wrote: “the inhabitants of this kingdom value the anonymity provided so perfectly by an umbrella”. In the novel, Jesus Christ announces his return to Earth, and his selected point of entry is Brussels. The citizens of the Belgian capital receive the news with equanimity. There is no reason to get excited.

Centre of the EU Enterprise

One hundred years ago it was thought of as “plucky little Belgium”, a small powerless nation bullied by German military might. The country is about the same size as Maryland, with a population of 10,839,905 people on January 1, 2010. Today, it is the epitome of what EU haters hate about the EU. For Eurosceptics the name of the Belgian capital, “Brussels”, is shorthand for oppressive, anti-democratic, bureaucratic dictatorship.

Belgium was an early adopter in the European project. It was one of the six founder members of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951; in 1957, it was among the founding members of the European Atomic Energy Community and European Economic Community. Today Brussels is the home of the European Commission, the Council of the European Union and the extraordinary and committee sessions of the European Parliament.

As well as 20,000 EU civil servants, Brussels attracts a large population of lobbyists, lawyers, and other professionals. The EU has brought an estimated 115,000 extra people to live in Brussels. These people tend to have few or no Belgian friends. There may be some resentment among Bruxellois because of Eurocrats buying up houses with their large tax-exempt EU salaries. People who had lived in Brussels for years suddenly discovered that the best idea to earn is to rent their apartments to the officials and leave the city.

Let’s Talk about the War.

Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg used to be the Low Countries. From the end of the Middle Ages until the 17th century, the area covered by Belgium today was a prosperous commercial centre. It was also a battleground between European powers. The British ‘invented’ Belgium as a neutral state, a buffer zone against the French. Britain intervened to defend Belgian neutrality when German troops invaded in 1914. Before the war, Belgium had one of the world’s most successful economies. The war displaced a third of the population and in the first months of the war, as many as a million Belgians faced starvation because of German requisitions. Around 6,000 Belgians were executed, there were as many as 60,000 military and 23,000 civilian deaths, 25,000 homes and other buildings were destroyed. One and a half million Belgians (20% of the entire population) fled from the invading German army.

Belgium as Oppressor

Belgium is a young country that grew rich suddenly during the industrial revolution, thanks to coal and steel. It also acquired wealth from looting the Congo. Plucky little Belgium was particularly vicious in Africa. Sir Roger Casement, a British diplomat executed by the British for his part in the 1916 Irish Easter Rising, exposed Belgian crimes in the Congo. King Leopold II of Belgium founded the Congo Free State, which covered the entire area of the present day Democratic Republic of the Congo and ran it as a personal fiefdom and business venture. Labourers were not paid but they were beaten, mutilated and murdered.

The province of Katanga seceded after Congolese independence from Belgium in June 1960. Belgium-based mining interests engineered the rebellion so that they could continue mineral extraction. Belgian settlers and former Belgian Army officers provided military support. Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba demanded that Belgian troops withdraw and, when they refused, Lumumba expelled Belgian diplomats. On October 6th, the Belgian Minister for African Affairs sent a cable that stated clearly that Belgian policy was the “definitive elimination” of Lumumba. Lumumba was, indeed, assassinated. A case has been presented that the Belgian government also had a hand in the killing of UN General Secretary Dag Hammarskjöld.

Rwanda was also part of Plucky Little Belgium’s empire. In 1933, the Belgian authorities issued identity cards classifying every Rwandan as Tutsi or Hutu. In 1994, these ID cards helped Hutu to identify hundreds of thousands of Tutsi and kill them. The ethnic cleansing and genocide of twenty years ago were horrendous extensions of the trend that began in the 1950s under the Belgians.

Economy

Belgium was the world’s 15th largest trading nation in 2007. There is still a highly productive work force, high GNP and high exports per capita. Belgium’s main imports are raw materials, machinery and equipment, chemicals, raw diamonds, pharmaceuticals, foodstuffs, transportation equipment, and oil products. Its main exports are machinery and equipment, chemicals, finished diamonds, metals and metal products, and foodstuffs.

Poverty

Belgian Premier Elio di Rupo has questioned the EC’s commitment to austerity and has raised concerns about the best way for Belgium to balance growth and austerity. Political tensions have prevented him doing anything about this in practice. Between 1990 and 2009, the poorest 30 per cent of Belgians saw their share in net taxable incomes fall (from 11.2 to 8.3 per cent), while the richest ten per cent saw their share increase (from 27.3 to 31.9 per cent).

According to the EU Statistics on Income and Living Conditions survey, 15.3 per cent of Belgium’s population in 2011 was at risk of falling into poverty. In Flemish-speaking Flanders, the wealthiest region in Belgium, this was 9.8 per cent, whereas in Wallonia, a poor French-speaking region, this was 19.2 per cent.

In 2012, nearly one in seven Belgians had a monthly income that was lower than the official poverty threshold (€1,000 for a single person or €2,101 for a couple with two children).Twenty-one per cent of the Belgian population is at risk of poverty or social exclusion, according to the new European poverty indicators.

An Experiment in No Government

During 2007-11, cultural and linguistic tensions resulted in the state being without a government for 589 days. In 2011, Elio Di Rupo became Belgium’s first French-speaking premier; He is of Italian origin and he is gay and socialist. Despite reforms, tensions remain; the formation of a coalition government took 18 months following the June 2010 federal election. However, the hiatus did show that the country could function with just a caretaker government and the civil service.

Federalism

Verhulst sees Belgium a pantomime horse of a country, puzzling to outsiders and infuriating to its inhabitants. Belgium is a federal state divided into three regions: Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north, francophone Wallonia in the south and Brussels, the bilingual capital, where the French and Dutch languages share official status. There is an ongoing political crisis, which may lead to the country splitting, as did Czechoslovakia. It is ironic that the country seen by eurosceptics as the seat of a federalist plot, may itself fall apart. This would provide encouragement to separatist groups throughout Europe. Wallonia is the poorer segment of federal Belgium. How will it survive without the efforts of the industrious Flems? Wallonia will probably need EU subsidies.

Conclusion

A persistent note in cisitors’ accounts is that Belgians are discontented and rude. Some might feel guilt at the barbarity of the Belgian colonial project. some feel uncomfortable about the presence in their midst of migrants from that empire.

 

To end on one positive thing about Belgium – it was Belgium that helped soul genius Marvin Gaye to recuperate, if only for a little while. A sojourn in Ostend gave Gaye the breathing space to reach one of his greatest achievements, Sexual Healing.

Plucky little Belgium is in dire need of some kind of healing. One wonders whether this will be possible given Belgium’s central role in the EU project. The EU project itself seems to be increasing the natural disgruntlement of its people.

On 28 July 2010, Plastic Bertrand finally revealed that he was not the singer of any of the songs in the first four albums released beginning in 1977 under the name Plastic Bertrand.

Inequality -Europe and the Precariat

A version of this article appeared in the July 2014 issue of Echelon magazine

 

European Values and Inequality

In theory, the core of the EU project was opportunity. Free movement, competition, a single market and non-discrimination should be pillars of an equal society. Nevertheless, socio-economic inequalities in Europe are greater today than in the 1980s and many who oppose free movement were recently elected to the European Parliament.

 

Five years of austerity policies have led to a further deterioration of living standards. Europe’s social model of welfare will no longer be sustainable if a majority of citizens can barely scrape by and have no security or opportunity. In Greece, infant mortality is up 43% because of stringent cuts to healthcare services. In Spain, over 400,000 families lost their homes. There were 4.5million people in Ireland on Census night (10th April 2011). There are an estimated 1,300 ghost estates in Ireland with 300,000 houses lying empty. There are plans to demolish these estates. In 2012, Focus Ireland, a charity for homeless people dealt with 8,000 customers.

 

Spending on education has effectively dropped in most EU countries. Youth unemployment affects a quarter of young Europeans and in Greece and Spain, 50% of the young are unemployed.

A study launched by UK deputy PM (at time of writing) Nick Clegg (educated at the private Westminster School and Cambridge University), shows that in Britain, one child in five is on free school meals. Only seven per cent of children attend private schools, but these schools provide 70 per cent of High Court judges and 54 per cent of FTSE 100 CEOs.

David Boyle, a fellow at the New Economics Foundation think-tank, warned that rising property prices would effectively render the middle classes extinct as the dream of home ownership becomes ever more distant. The “squeezed middle”, would need to take three or four jobs just to make ends meet and no longer have time for cultural activities.

Causes of Inequality

Over the last few decades, large international corporations have been powerful generators of inequality. By the early 1980s, the CEOs of the largest 350 US companies were getting 30 times as much as the average production worker. By the start of the 21st century, they were getting between 200 and 400 times as much. Among the 100 largest UK companies, the average CEO received 300 times the minimum wage.

The EU encourages cuts in social spending, even presenting them as preconditions of recovery. They argue that recovery depends on “employer-friendly practices”. “Labour flexibility” really means crushing trade unions. More than a third of all workers in the private sector were union members forty years ago; now, fewer than seven percent are members of a trade union. France and Spain used to have powerful unions, but today less than ten per cent of their workforce is unionised.

Precariat

Employment is becoming increasingly unstable. Privatisation of government services, short-term and part-time contracts, temping agencies and low wages undermine job security. The British economist Guy Standing has coined the term precariat. Professor Standing argues that the dynamics of globalization have led to a fragmentation of older class divisions. The precariat consists of temporary and part-time workers, interns, call-centre employees, sub-contracted labour – those who are engaged in insecure forms of labour that are unlikely to help them build a desirable identity or career or guarantee them secure accommodation.

Spirit Level and Malignant Growth

The Spirit Level is a book by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, published in 2009. The book argues that there are “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, (and) encouraging excessive consumption”. The authors claim that for each of eleven different health and social problems: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in unequal rich countries.

Piketty

Capital in the 21st Century, by French economist Thomas Piketty, focuses on wealth and income inequality in Europe and the US since the 18th century. The book’s central thesis is that inequality is not an accident but rather a feature of capitalism that requires state intervention to reverse. The book argues that unless capitalism is reformed, the democratic order is in danger.

Piketty predicts that the rise in inequality under neoliberalism will increase throughout the 21st century, reaching Victorian levels by 2050. He argues that if growth is low, labour’s bargaining power weak, and the returns on capital high, this will encourage speculation rather than entrepreneurial risk-taking or working hard to accumulate wealth.

Arguments against Promoting Equality

Companies are reluctant to implement equality measures because of what they see as heavy costs, which reduce their profit margins and impede their investment capacity. Equality and anti-discrimination contradict the ‘freedom’ of their enterprise, as executives would not be free to hire and do business the way they choose. They argue that inequality is not systemic but a failure of individuals to be resilient.

The engine of the neo-liberal system is widespread discrimination, and inequalities of class and geographical location. Globalisation so far has ensured that cheaper labour can always be found somewhere else. Some entrepreneurs have been cynical enough to claim that discrimination makes perfect business sense and should be acknowledged as such. From this perspective, removing inequalities would bring this very profitable system (for a few) to collapse.

Arguments for Equality

Almost all production and wealth creation is the result of cooperation. Society as a whole and its infrastructure contributes to everyone’s income and living standards. Accumulated technical and scientific knowledge, an educated population, transport systems and electricity supplies help the wealthy to become and remain wealthy. The combined efforts of vast numbers of people affect the living standards of even the rich.

Promoting equality is an investment. Excluding able individuals entails a huge loss of talent and skill when the economy needs to harness all potential creativity. A 2012 talent shortage survey found that around one in three employers around the world found it difficult to fill vacancies. Talent is often wasted because of discrimination.

Conclusion

In a speech to the Sutton Trust, Mr Clegg admitted that the Coalition “cannot afford” to leave a legacy like the current position. “Morally, economically, socially: whatever your justification, the price is too high to pay. We must create a more dynamic society.” Clegg’s statement is part of thetherapeutic management of inequality”- the officially sanctioned smokescreen of seeming to promote fairness, social justice, social equality, and equal access to education. A fear of what UK PM David Cameron called a “broken society” is the organising principle behind a wide range of measures to regulate supposedly dysfunctional behaviour. The “middle” sees itself as living in a nightmare world being ripped apart by greedy bankers at one extreme and sub-human Chav ‘trailer trash’ at the other.

Standing noted that, lacking any work-based identity, or sense of belonging to a labour community, the psychology of the precariat is liable to be determined by anger, anomie, anxiety, and alienation. Perhaps the precariat will rise up but they are not the real vandals. The one per cent or ten per cent’s constant looting of the middle classes as well as the working class engenders resentment. In a context of too much debt and slow or no growth, austerity weakens the body politic rather than strengthening it. Austerity only really helps those who are wealthy enough to take advantage cheaper asset prices and sell the assets back later.

The EU needs to remember its founding principles and take action to complete the banking union, protect small savers from the banksters, create decent jobs, implement a realistic investment policy, and protect consumers and the environment. Equality must be at the heart of every European policy.

 

Tired of London? London in the 21st century. A tale of two Sams.

A version of this article appeared in the July issue of Echelon magazine although they forgot  to  put my name on it. I originally used a strapline – Capitalist capital of crap. London in the 21st century – but the editor did not like that.

 

 

“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” — Sam Johnson

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Dr Samuel Johnson’s biographer, James Boswell was a Scot. Johnson was not a Londoner. He came from Lichfield and spoke with a harsh Midland accent. Boswell and Johnson were discussing whether or not Boswell’s affection for London would wear thin should he choose to live there, as opposed to the zest he felt on his occasional visits from Scotland. Boswell wrote in his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides “By seeing London, I have seen as much of life as the world can shew.”

 

‘London claims to be a world city – a modern, 24-hour metropolis – but this is mostly just a pretence put on for visitors.” – Sam Jordison.

 

Another Sam, Sam Jordison came up with the idea of a league table for crap towns of Britain. The original Crap Towns was a publishing sensation in 2003 and came out of a conversation between Jordison and Dan Kieran, deputy editor of the Idler magazine, (Dr Johnson published a book of essays called The Idler) about the respective awfulness of their own home towns.

The city of Kingston-upon-Hull proudly sat at the top of the league for five years. Hull was Hell and “smelt of death”. It may come as a surprise that London was the city that toppled Hull.

How can London be crap? London is a major world metropolis. It has recently also been voted top city in the world in terms of overall attractiveness in a survey organised by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, in cahoots with the IMF and other multinational financial groups. Financial houses, multinational corporations and management consultants form a major component of what makes today’s London unattractive to humans.

The PwC’s survey boasted: “The women and men of PwC reflect the highly skilled, globally mobile services sector whose personal investment of themselves and their family is so critical to the ongoing progress of urban communities worldwide.”

 

So, all urban dwellers should be grateful to PwC? Many people in London are less blessed than the golden PwC employees are. Significant numbers of families across Britain are skipping meals in a bid to make ends meet. Every region of the country is affected, but in London, the proportion rises to 28 per cent of families.

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When I moved to London from Manchester, I had to double my mortgage to get a much smaller house. True, I was able to drink alongside Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones in the Leather Bottle pub, but he lived in a six-bedroom house on the posher side of Kingston Road in Merton Park. Back in 1982, I wondered how the lowly paid people, whose contribution was vital to the operation of the city and the comfort of PwC’s golden employees, managed to find homes. The situation is worse now.

 

I lived in London from 1982 to 1998. I visited it many times before and many times since. I still love many things about the place.

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I can also understand the perspective of those who voted it crappest town in Britain. I was living in London at the time of “greed is good”, when Thatcherism was forcing many to sleep on the streets. Travelling to work on a jammed up underground train, I witnessed an incident that epitomised the tenor of the times. A pregnant woman was straphanging. A gentleman of the old school stood up to offer her a seat. Before she could sit down, a Yuppie type slid underneath her and claimed the seat with a look of triumph.

 

Towards the end of my stay in London, I was paying GBP 2,000 per year for a season ticket to commute to central London from Lewisham (posh Blackheath/Greenwich side).

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It should have been a ten-minute journey but took longer because all the trains were full after six a.m. With privatisation the trains got shorter and shorter. I never got a seat – on these cattle trucks we were just grateful for a small pocket of breathable air away from armpits. One day I thought I  saw an empty seat and made my way towards it. As I approached, I saw that the seat was occupied by a pile of human turds. People were standing all around this without complaint. That is my enduring image of London.

Sam Jordison said that many who live in London are fed up with queuing, rocketing house prices, the chore of commuting, “the dangers and pure exhaustion of living there”. I once enjoyed a memorable night at Charlie Gillett’s World Music Disco but getting home after was a problem. I was a member of Ronnie Scott’s Club and saw many jazz legends perform there. Ronnie’s shuts at about 3.30 am, but the Tube closes its doors around midnight. People complained to Jordison about city bankers and a transport system that abandons late-night revellers to the mercy of rickshaws, minicabs or night buses. Cab drivers do not like going “south of the river”. Taking the night bus is a not recommended- it is a vomitorium on wheels full of drunks and psychopaths.

The annual Cities Survey, organised by the website Trip Advisor, collates the opinions of travellers to the top 37 urban tourist destinations around the world. Moscow came last. London came 11th, but achieved a respectable second place for nightlife and third for shopping. London’s worst performance was in value for money – visitors voted the city 34th in terms of how far a pound will stretch. London came 32nd of the 37 cities when the question was “how helpful were the locals?” The Trip Advisor website provides many horror stories of squalid and expensive London hotels. The horrors experienced by the Griswold family in Chevy Chase’s film National Lampoon’s European Vacation understate the awfulness of the reality.

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London was rather drab in the 1950s and took some time to recover from the war. Years of decline and depopulation made much of the centre affordable. Artists, writers, musicians flocked in. It was possible, even up to the 1970s, to leave university and get a flat with your mates in Notting Hill, Marylebone or Camden Town. I stayed with people just as poor as me in Islington and Hampstead and Kensington. These days, only rich Arabs or the Russian mafia can afford those areas. Central London is a ghost town that only benefits absentee investors. The art students, musicians, and people starting out in the creative industries can no longer walk home from clubbing in Camden. The young creative class will continue to move further and further out. Soon there will nothing cool left about London. Cool will be residing in Bristol or Falmouth or Newcastle.

London has already changed irreparably. Rich financiers have made it unaffordable for the working class. The real threat comes from governments giving incentives to wealthy elites to take up residence. Russians receive a quarter of the “investor visas” that the UK gives to those who can pay a million pounds. The proprietor of the London Evening Standard is Alexander Yevgenievich Lebedev, a Russian oligarch and former officer of the foreign intelligence directorate of the KGB.

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To end on a more cheerful note: If you do decide to visit London, there is still much of interest (if you can manage to find somewhere decent to stay). I have many happy memories of walking around central London and the periphery. I was lucky enough to have done several jobs in the heartland of the metropolis, which enabled me to walk easily to Lincolns Inn Fields, Holborn, Bloomsbury, Clerkenwell, Smithfield, and Covent Garden and to eat my lunch to the accompaniment of brass band concerts on the Embankment near the Adelphi.

Half-Moon-Putney

My first residence was in Putney and on long summer evenings I could walk from Putney to Barnes, stopping on the way to enjoy Young’s ambrosial nectar at the Half Moon (also purveyors of excellent live music – I saw Dr John and Maria Muldaur there among many others). The Bull’s Head at Barnes also purveys Young’s ales and fine live jazz.

Iain Sinclair on the south bank of the river Thames, London, Britain - 26 Aug 2011

Before you visit, I would recommend reading the writing of people like Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd who explore the psychogeography of London and examine the prehistoric atavistic mind of the city that entranced Dr Johnson, Dickens, Blake, and TS Eliot. Ackroyd and Sinclair explore the mythic strata upon which contemporary Londoners walk. Much of Sinclair’s recent work consists of a revival of occultist psychogeography of London. In London Orbital he wrote about a trek around the M25, which JG Ballard described as: “A journey into the heart of darkness and a fascinating snapshot of who we are”. Andrew Duncan’s walking guides provide practical help for those wishing to explore this magical world. Duncan’s Secret London tells you how to find London’s buried rivers, underground tunnels, abandoned tube stations, elegant squares, dark alleyways and cobbled courtyards and explains who owns most of the freehold property. Duncan, Ackroyd and Sinclair help to keep alive the magic of London.

 

 

The Duality of Edinburgh – the Light and the Dark

This article appeared in the August issue of Echelon magazine.

hyde

For its role in the 18th century enlightenment Edinburgh earned the title “Athens of the North”. As well as enlightenment, Edinburgh has darkness – and cold- and rain- and wind. Getting off the night-sleeper from London at Waverley Station, I felt I had landed on another planet- a cold, wet, windy planet. Waverley rests in a steep, narrow valley between the medieval Old Town and the 18th century New Town. Climbing the hill (Robert Louis Stevenson once called Edinburgh a “precipitous city”) from the station, battling in the face of a cyclone, I noticed huge pieces of metal and large dustbins flying all over the street. On my right, I saw a shop sign that said “Brass Monger”. This brought to mind the old saying: “Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey”. Was this shop in the business of fixing them back on again? (There is also a pub called the Brass Monkey  on Drummond Street,  close to the University’s  Old College).

waverley_station0206a

Enlightenment

In the 18th century novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett, one character describes Edinburgh as a “hotbed of genius”. By 1750, Scotland’s major cities had created an intellectual infrastructure of mutually supporting institutions, such as universities, reading societies, libraries, periodicals, museums and Masonic lodges. The Scottish Enlightenment had numerous dimensions, including architecture, art and music. The central achievement was a new capacity to recognize and interpret social patterns.

hume

David Hume

Intellectual life in Edinburgh from 1710 revolved around gentlemen’s clubs. One of the first was the Easy Club, co-founded by the Jacobite printer Thomas Ruddiman. The Political Economy Club created links between academics and merchants. Other clubs in Edinburgh included The Select Society, formed by artist Allan Ramsay, and philosophers David Hume and Adam Smith.

adam_smith

Adam Smith

David Hume (1711–76) was a major influence on later Enlightenment figures. His Treatise on Human Nature (1738) and Essays, Moral and Political (1741) helped outline the parameters of philosophical Empiricism and Scepticism. The influence of the movement spread beyond Scotland across the British Empire, and onto the Continent. The political ideas coming out of Edinburgh had an important impact on the founding fathers of the US. Representative of the far-reaching impact of the Scottish Enlightenment was the new Encyclopædia Britannica, which was designed in Edinburgh and published between 1768 and 1771. While the Scottish Enlightenment is traditionally considered to have concluded toward the end of the 18th century, Edinburgh made large contributions to British science and letters for another 50 years.

Resurrectionists

Even in the 18th Century, Edinburgh had a dark side comparable to that conveyed in the writings today of Irvine Welsh and Ian Rankin. By the first half of the 18th century, despite rising prosperity evidenced by its growing importance as a banking centre, Edinburgh was being described as one of the most densely populated, overcrowded and unsanitary towns in Europe. Various social classes shared the same urban space, even inhabiting the same tenement buildings.

The Edinburgh Medical School was established in 1726, and soon attracted students from across Britain and the American colonies. It is one of the oldest and best medical schools in the English-speaking world. However, it relied increasingly on body snatchers for a steady supply of “anatomical subjects”. The activities of these “resurrectionists” were so profitable that they progressed from grave robbing to murder. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about Burke and Hare in his short story, The Body Snatcher in 1884. The story was the basis for a 1945 film directed by Robert Wise and starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.

Hare_and_Burke_drawing

Duality

Brodie

 

Deacon Brodie was a member of The Edinburgh Cape Club. He was a cabinet-maker, deacon of a trades guild and Edinburgh city councillor, who maintained a secret life as a burglar, partly for the thrill, and partly to fund his gambling. He fathered five children to two mistresses (who did not know of each other). Brodie was hanged on 1 October 1788, before a crowd of 40,000. Robert Louis Stevenson, whose father owned furniture made by Brodie, wrote a play (with W. E. Henley) entitled Deacon Brodie, or The Double Life, which was unsuccessful. However, Stevenson remained fascinated by the dichotomy between Brodie’s respectable façade, and his real nature and was inspired to write The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886)

In 2004, Edinburgh became the world’s first UNESCO City of Literature, an accolade awarded in recognition of its literary heritage and lively literary activities in the present. Waverley Station is named in honour of Sir Walter Scott and his memorial watches over the main shopping thoroughfare, Princes Street, like a Victorian Gothic space module. Scott was the respectable face of Edinburgh writing and was the first English-language author to have a truly international career in his lifetime.

There is a darker side to Edinburgh literature. James Hogg published Confessions of a Justified Sinner anonymously in Edinburgh in 1824.The book is an early example of crime fiction with the story told partly from the viewpoint of the killer. It was greatly praised in the 20th century as a representation of the power of evil and a case-study of totalitarian thought. It inspired RL Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. One interpretation of Stevenson’s novella sees the Jekyll and Hyde duality as representative of Scotland and the Scottish character. There is a further parallel with the city of Edinburgh itself. Edinburgh consists of two distinct parts: the old medieval section historically inhabited by the city’s poor, where the dark crowded slums were rife with all types of crime, and the modern Georgian area of wide spacious streets representing respectability.

The novella has also been noted as “one of the best guidebooks of the Victorian era” because of its description of the fundamental dichotomy of the 19th century “outward respectability and inward lust”. Edinburgh was once called a city of “public probity and private vice”. Morningside, a late-Victorian suburb on the south side of Edinburgh, epitomises this hypocrisy and has been described as “propriety in built form”. The area has been caricatured as being patrolled by curtain-twitching killjoys. In fiction, it was the home of Muriel Spark’s Miss Jean Brodie. In real life, Ian Rankin lived in Morningside (or rather in nearby Merchiston).

Drugs, AIDS, Poverty

Welsh’s novel Trainspotting is set in Leith, Edinburgh, in the mid-1980s, when heroin use there was just taking off. Pure opium arrived in the city in 1693. By 1877, it was widespread among the middle classes. Heroin was first synthesised in 1884, and Edinburgh factories were soon manufacturing it. By the end of the 19th century, Edinburgh produced most of the world’s opiate drugs, heroin included. Production continues to this day.

There were 584 drug-related deaths in 2011, 99 (20 per cent) more than in 2010. This was the highest number recorded since the series of figures began in 1996, was 10 (2 per cent) more than

the previous largest figure (which was 574 in 2008), and was 252 (76 per cent) more than in 2001. The number of drug-related deaths has risen in six of the past ten years: the long-term trend appears to be upwards.

In the 1980s, Edinburgh was known as the AIDS capital of Europe. The Muirhouse council housing estate was the centre of the 80s drug scene in Edinburgh. Junk devastated many families and completely ruined a community. Even today more than 30 per cent of households in Muirhouse are  on low income.

The Duality of Inequality

Ian Rankin has written: “Edinburgh has always seemed to me a furtive place. Throughout history it has made its money from invisible industries such as banking and insurance.” Edinburgh’s relatively buoyant economy, traditionally centred on banking and insurance but now encompassing a wide range of businesses, makes it the biggest financial centre in the UK after London. However, a new report on inequality describes Edinburgh as “a city divided” with average incomes nine per cent above the rest of the country, yet 50,000 families below the poverty threshold. At the end of last year, the Trussell Trust estimated there were 6216 people in Edinburgh and the Lothians relying on food banks. The report said 22 per cent of households in the city live on incomes below the poverty threshold Eighteen per cent of all children in Edinburgh live in low income households, a total of some 17,600 young people, and 19 per cent of workers were paid below the living wage.

The Enlightened Future

Scotland decides on September 18 whether Edinburgh becomes the capital of an independent Scotland with Alex Salmond as prime minister. Salmond maintains that Scotland is a rich nation held back by being part of the UK. He calls on the values of the Edinburgh Enlightenment. “Our national story has been shaped down the generations by values of compassion, equality, an unrivalled commitment to the empowerment of education…I ’m going to argue that our international policy – like our domestic policy – should be governed by another enlightened Scottish idea – the one Adam Smith pursued in the Theory of Moral Sentiment – of enlightened self-interest. By helping others, we will help ourselves.”

Will Scotland Go It Alone?

This article  appeared in the August issue of Echelon Magazine.

 

Billy Connolly said: “I don’t want to influence anybody so I shut up. I think the Scots will come to a good conclusion in the referendum. They’ll get what they deserve.”

 

Voters in Scotland will go to the polls on 18 September to answer the “Yes/No” question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” Scotland has had its own legislature since 1999. The Scottish National Party, led by Alex Salmond, who is first Minister for Scotland, dominates the Scottish Parliament. Those arguing for full independence say the current arrangement does not allow sufficient powers to govern Scotland effectively.

Who Can Vote?

Residence is the important factor. Around five million people aged 16 or over living in Scotland will be able vote, while 1.15 million Scots who are living outside of the country, including dedicated Scottish nationalist Sean Connery, will not be allowed to vote. Certain foreign nationals living in the country can register.

Separatism

With independence, Scotland would leave its centuries-old political union with England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, taking with it nearly ten percent of the UK’s population and one third of its landmass. Scottish soldiers, engineers, and merchants played leading roles in building the British Empire, for example, in establishing the tea industry in Ceylon. Edinburgh and Glasgow became global centres of finance and industry.

UK Education Secretary Michael Gove said Scottish independence would invigorate Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader would think the UK’s split puts him in a “stronger position” to dictate to the world. Enemies of the West would cheer a “Yes “vote because the “second principal beacon of liberty” in the world would become more unstable.

Spain will be watching the outcome in Scotland with interest. The EU has taken the position that issues such as those currently posed by Scotland and Catalonia are for member states to resolve internally.

Scotland’s New Status

The “No” camp sees dangers in Scotland going it alone. In international negotiations, it will, they say, be a small unimportant nation of five million, instead of being part of an important nation of 63 million. All agreements previously created were with the UK as a whole. Scottish independence will mean a need to renegotiate membership of NATO, the UN and the EU. The president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, said it would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible” for an independent Scotland to join the EU. Spain may be reluctant to set a precedent for separatists in Catalonia. The “Yes” camp argues that independence will mean that Scotland will get a new seat at the UN, its own EU Commissioner and twice as many MEPs. Salmond insists that a newly independent Scotland would effortlessly take its place as the twenty-ninth member state in the EU.

Alistair Darling, leading spokesperson for the “Nos”, predicts that Edinburgh’s large financial sector will migrate south on September 19 because it will not want to remain in a country foreign to the 80 percent of its customers who live in England. Darling warns that the remaining UK might not keep paying for Glasgow’s Clydeside shipyard to build UK naval vessels.

Postive Aspects of New Status

Scotland did not buy into London’s abandonment of the post-war consensus of universalism and the welfare state. Scotland has only a few private schools. Its National Health Service remains in state hands, while, in England, the involvement of private companies in the provision of medical treatment has long been underway. The “Yes” camp believes Scotland has more in common with the high-tax, high-spend social democratic welfare states of Scandinavia than it does with the “greed is good” capitalism of the City of London. London and the southeast have effectively seceded from the rest of Britain and devised a post-industrial economy based on financial services and neoliberal tax policies. These which have caused a widening inequality that appals many Scots.

If even a strong Labour government in Westminster—one headed by two Scottish-born prime ministers, first Blair and then Brown—only made things worse, then maybe Scotland has to go it alone.

The “Yes” campaign’s manifesto, Scotland’s Future, promises “a transformational change in childcare,” the scrapping of London-imposed changes to welfare benefits, and, in the move most likely to attract international attention, the removal of the UK’s Trident nuclear weapon system from Scotland.

Alex Salmond wrote: “I’m going to argue that our international policy – like our domestic policy – should be governed by another enlightened Scottish idea – the one Adam Smith pursued in the Theory of Moral Sentiments – of enlightened self-interest. By helping others, we will help ourselves… We seek a Scotland where sustainable prosperity goes hand in hand with solidarity and fairness.”

The Economy

Salmond claimed: “The reality is Scotland is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, more prosperous per head than the UK, France and Japan, but we need the powers of independence to ensure that that wealth properly benefits everyone in our society.”

Alex Salmond told a US audience: “Scotland’s economy is highly competitive – it’s one reason why we outperform the rest of the UK on inward investment. We are confident of our ability to succeed in the international marketplace. … Our prosperity is bound up in the wellbeing of others. We should see ourselves as a partner to other nations, not just a competitor.”

Oil

If oil revenue had been put into a Norwegian-style sovereign wealth fund (for the whole of the UK) rather than squandered on tax cuts, there would probably have been no referendum. Salmond says North Sea oil revenues would boost Scotland’s economy. Mr Darling underlined that while oil revenues currently accounted for about 15% of Scotland’s tax income, the North Sea’s reserves were in decline.

Pooling of Sovereignty

Idealists in the “Yes” camp are hoping for a new kind of country, not a nineteenth-century nation state, with hard borders and an army. They are looking for a state that embraces the pooling of sovereignty, as committed to interdependence as to independence.

Through the British Irish Council and the Common Travel Area, the Irish Government; UK Government; Scottish Government; Northern Ireland Executive; Welsh Government; Isle of Man Government; Government of Jersey and Government of Guernsey all work together. The SNP propose an expansion of these ties. A “yes” vote is a chance to balance out power across the archipelago.

Some in the “Yes” camp favour closer ties with Scandinavia. The Shetland Islands are closer to Oslo than London. Nordic Horizons is an informal group of Scottish professionals who want to raise the standard of knowledge and debate about life and policy in the Nordic nations. What can Scotland learn from the innovation systems in Sweden and Finland to support Scotland’s economy?

Who Is For, Who Against?

The SNP has the sharpest, most effective political machine in Scotland. Salmond is a wily strategist and a charismatic speaker. Scottish Labour’s biggest talents made their careers by leaving for London long ago. The Spectator has observed, “Alistair Darling’s ‘Better Together’ campaign seems quieter than a Stornoway playground on the Sabbath”. Darling’s association with Blair and New Labour taints Darling. He was the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer who presided over the 2008 recession and predicted it would be “over by Christmas”. He is also very dull. Most of Scotland’s artists, writers, and musicians lean towards “Yes”, as do the young. Sixteen-year olds will have a vote. It is not cool to say “No”.

What if the Answer Is “No”?

Privately, well-placed Nationalists are girding themselves for a narrow defeat. They are sanguine about this. If the “Yes” side gets more than 40 percent then, they say, a new process of negotiations about devolution will begin. What has begun in Scotland is a rebellion against the highly centralized Westminster state, which still hands Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the English regions a “block grant” of cash rather than letting them raise and spend their own funds as they see fit.

Conclusion

The Nationalist campaign has not been a sentimental business about tartanry and Braveheart. It has lacked even the faintest hint of anti-Englishness. The case for “Yes” has been presented in mild, technocratic terms. For the Nationalists, Scotland has become a land of social democratic consensus. The Conservative Party is now negligible as a political force in Scotland. In the 1955 election, the Tories won more votes in Scotland than any other party did, but decades of decline followed, culminating in the disaster of 1997. Today, of the fifty-nine members of Parliament Scotland sends to Westminster, just one is a Conservative.

Salmond speaks of the “democratic deficit” that still afflicts Scotland, and indeed the UK as a whole. It is ironic that a “Yes” vote for Scottish independence would have a drastic effect on England. If Scotland no longer sends fifty-nine MPs to Westminster, many of whom represent safe Labour seats, then Labour’s chances of forming a UK government diminish sharply. An England-dominated UK could be a one-party state, a permanently Conservative polity.

Gesture Politics and the European Parliament

A version of this article appeared in the June 2014 issue of Echelon magazine.

 

Parliamentary Privilege to Pry- Members of the European Parliament have little power but have licence to meddle.

 

At the time of writing, I do not know the results of the May 2014 elections to the European Parliament (EP). Writing about the elections for the April 2014 issue of Echelon, my researches showed that, although real power in the EU lies with the European Commission and the European Central Bank, this does not deter the EP as a body, or members as individuals or groups, interfering on a global scale and having an opinion about everything under the sun.

Sri Lanka

Back in October 2011, GOSL refused Paul Murphy, an MEP representing Dublin, a visa to visit Sri Lanka. He wanted to teach Sri Lanka about democracy. “The whole of the working class, poor farmers and poor people, Sinhala and Tamil, are victims of this repressive government in my opinion.” As well as complaining that he was refused a visa, he raised the issue of an Irish citizen, Gunasundaram Jeyasundaram,  whom he said had been held prisoner by the Sri Lankan authorities without charge for four years.

Soon after Paul Murphy’s fulminations against GOSL, I had dinner at the Gallery Café with a delegation from the Irish Development Authority. They were keen to improve business relationships with Sri Lanka in order to further Ireland’s recovery from the economic crisis.

At the time GOSL refused Murphy a visa, he had been an MEP for only eight months and was 28 years old. Murphy was already supporting striking Kazakh oil workers, trade unionists in Columbia, Syrian revolutionaries, Bahraini and Chinese dissidents, oppressed Palestinians (he took part in the flotilla to Gaza); he protested against a high speed rail link in Italy.

Murphy certainly has no mandate from the Irish people to take on the entire world’s problems. Mind you, he does not have a mandate from the Irish people to address domestic issues either. He has no electoral mandate at all. How many people voted for Paul Murphy? None. Joe Higgins of the Irish Socialist Party handed the Dublin EP seat to Murphy when he was elected to the Irish national parliament.

Africa

I read recently in the Somaliland Sun (I read it constantly) that the Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the EP has scolded the government of Ethiopia accusing it of using humanitarian aid as a political tool. The MEPs said that the EU should use sanctions against Ethiopia to stop human rights abuses against Ethiopian and Ogaden civilians. This may be a worthy cause, but the comment thread in the Somaliland Sun shows that this is a more complex situation than MEPs think.

In April 2014, an EP delegation planned to visit Morocco to assess the human rights situation there but the government refused them entry.

 

Syria

The EP, in its last plenary session before the May 2014 elections, adopted a resolution expressing its concern on the latest developments in Syria. The resolution specifically condemns the attack against the Armenian town of Kessab. The resolution also takes note of the rich diversity of ethnic and religious communities in Syria and expresses concern about the Al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front capturing a number of Christian and Kurdish villages on the Turkish border. Some MEPs wanted the resolution to mention Turkey’s role in the attack against Kessab and in doing so raise again the issue of the Turkish genocide of Armenians in 1915. This may not be the best way of handling the complexities of Turkish-EU relationships.

Iran

On April 3, the EP passed a resolution expressing grave concern over the human rights situation in Iran and the “continued, systemic violation of fundamental rights” in the country, and called on the members of the EU to “mainstream human rights in all of its relations with Iran.” The resolution claimed that the presidential election in Iran in July 2013 did not conform to European standards. Whatever about EP opinion, world opinion generally regarded the election of Hassan Rouhani as a positive step.

The Iranian government was not too pleased about this. An Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman described the resolution as “unfounded and unacceptable” and other senior figures accused the EP of “blatant intervention in Iran’s internal affairs” and called on the Iranian government to reject the EP’s idea of establishing an office in Tehran.

Destabilising Influence

Is it sensible for a body that has little democratic legitimacy, no army, and no tax-raising capability to conduct foreign policy through gesture politics? There is no common EU interest when it comes to foreign policy.

European politicians grandstanded on the Ukraine crisis. This was destabilising rather than helpful. The EU won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. Nevertheless, it is not a force for peace if it pursues interventions divorced from differing national interests based in different histories, economies, geography and territorial relationships. If Ukraine were in NATO, EU countries and the West would be obliged to go to war over the Crimea. What European would want to die for Sevastopol?’ Many Russians would be prepared to die for the Crimea.

It was bizarre and rather alarming that Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council, could blithely admit to Putin’s face that Ukraine’s membership of NATO could be “part of the process”. The prospect of Ukraine joining NATO has long been recognised as impossible on geopolitical grounds. Ukraine was considered too close, historically and economically, to Russia, and home to strategically important Russian military bases. Putin told Rompuy that he was playing geopolitics.

Russia has effectively integrated Europe into its system of crony capitalism and corruption. Most European capitals, especially London, depend on vast amounts of Russian money for their financial systems to thrive. Ukrainian membership of NATO and sanctions against Russia would not be good news for the City of London.

 

Conclusion

In a non-binding resolution (aren’t they all?), the EP called on the EU authorities to impose immediate sanctions on Russian energy providers in the European market. The EP called for a freeze on the construction of the South Stream gas pipeline, which serves to ensure the supply of Russian gas to Europe, bypassing Ukraine. All the countries along its line – Hungary, Bulgaria, Serbia, Italy – want South Stream because they know that it is the best way of guaranteeing cheap gas supplies.

At a time when a new president of Iran is thawing relations between his country and the US, is it wise for a powerless body to irritate the Iranians? Iran has the world’s second largest natural gas reserves after Russia – about 15.8% of world’s total reserves. Iran is one of the few countries capable of supplying much larger amounts of natural gas in the future. Iran’s overall gas exports in 2009/10 reached a record high of 6.8 billion cubic meters, increasing 44% over the previous year. Is this a good time to be annoying Iran as well as Russia?

I am against sin. I would not argue that the EP should ignore human rights violations but there is a danger that the EP’s meddling could be counter-productive and destabilising. Doing business with dodgy regimes might be more effective than isolating them through

Beautiful Bristol – Based on Smuggling , Sugar, Smoking and Slaves

A shorter version of  this article appeared in the June issue of Echelon magazine.

Much of Bristol’s wealth historically came from dodgy dealing.

bristol-1

The London Sunday Times recently named Bristol number one in its Best Places to Live in Britain poll. Bristol, it said, has “one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, varied and beautiful housing stock, decent schools, buzzy culture and night life and access to some fantastic countryside”. The city also has strong transport links, and by 2017, even faster rail networks will cut journey times to London to just 80 minutes.

Victoria_Rooms_(750px)

I was interested to read this news, as I know Bristol well. I was born only 30 miles away in Gloucester. When I was a child, my parents took me to Bristol Zoo to ride on Rosie the Elephant. I took my first plane flight from Bristol Airport. Bristol was the go-to place for we yokels to enjoy nightlife and daytime shopping. The city’s Colston Hall played host to big name artists like Bob Dylan and this month presents Jeff Beck and Don Williams among many others. Bristol has a vibrant musical culture – Portishead, Massive Attack, Tricky.

Warp and Woof

In order to get a sense of the warp and woof of Bristol life in 2014, I have been undertaking an exhaustive study of the local press, mainly the Bristol Post and the BBC’s local Bristol radio station. Here are some of the exciting things that I found.

Woof. A police inquiry is to begin into an incident in which a police dog bit a man as he was being arrested.

Warp. A man from Mexico who murdered his former girlfriend at her home in Bristol has been jailed for life.

There were 2,028 burglaries in Bristol between April and March this year – 430 fewer than the previous year.

Bristol is now a major housing hotspot. With demand far outstripping supply in the some of the most popular parts of the city, many properties are being sold within a matter of days.

Bishopston Fish Bar, based on Gloucester Road, owned by Nick Lomvardos, has made it into a list of the top 50 fish and chip shops across the UK compiled by Fry magazine. Nick said: “I work very hard and do a lot of hours. We have a slogan here – Cooked with Passion, Served with Pride – and that says it all. I’m so passionate about what I do and try to give the customer the best experience possible.”

Famous Bristolians

cary grant

Cary Grant was born Archibald Leach in Horfield, Bristol, Grant’s first role in theatre was working at the Bristol Hippodrome. Bristol unveiled a new Cary Grant statue in Millennium Square.

Dave Prowse (Darth Vader) was brought up on the Southmead housing estate in Bristol, winning a scholarship to Bristol Grammar School. His voice was not used because of his Bristol accent.

Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor was born in Bristol and lived there for most of her life.

Samuel Plimsoll (1824 – 1898) was born in Colston Parade, Bristol. He campaigned against overloading ships with cargo, resulting in the introduction of the Plimsoll line on every ship to show its maximum load capacity.

Billy Butlin lived in Bristol as a small boy and attended St Mary Redcliffe School. He returned to Bristol as an adult and had his first taste of entertainment for the masses when he opened a hoop-la stall in Lock’s Yard, Bedminster.

Paul Dirac (1902 – 1984) was born in Bishopston, Bristol in 1902. He was considered to be one of the greatest and most influential theoretical physicists of his time. He formulated the Dirac Equation, and was responsible for leading the way towards the discovery of antimatter. He was a close friend of Albert Einstein’s, and during his life won a shared Nobel Prize in physics with Erwin Schrödinger.

Banksy, controversial local graffiti artist famed throughout the world for his street art. Some of his pieces have sold for hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Blackbeard the Pirate (Edward Teach)

My Facebook friend, the brilliant writer Julie Burchill, was born in Bristol and educated at Brislington Comprehensive School. Her father was a Communist union activist who worked in a distillery. Her mother had a job in a cardboard box factory.

Bristol’s musical output has been varied:

 

Acker Bilk.

Portishead

Massive Attack

Tricky

Russ Conway

The Cougars – they played at our school dance.

Adge Cutler and the Wurzels

Roger Greenaway

Nellee Hooper

Nik Kershaw

Roland Orzabal

Rip, Rig and Panic

Andy Sheppard – brilliant jazz sax player whom I have seen many times.

Fred Wedlock

 

Speaking Bristol

Bristol natives speak with a rhotic accent, in which the post-vocalic r in words like car and card is still pronounced, having been lost from many other dialects of English, notably BBC English, or “received pronunciation”. The unusual feature of this accent, unique to Bristol, is the so-called Bristol L (or terminal L), in which an L sound appears to be appended to words that end in an ‘a’ or ‘o’. “Area” becomes “areal” or “areaw”.

Current Economy

The economy of Bristol fared comparatively well during the Great Recession of 2008-10 and continued to grow while most cities shrank. Compared with other major cities, Bristol enjoys the fifth highest GVA in the UK (Gross value added is a measure in economics of the value of goods and services produced in an area, industry or sector of an economy).

Bristol is the largest centre of employment, culture and education in the South West region. The city’s economy is reliant on the aerospace industry, defence, information technology, financial services, tourism and the media. Financial services employ 50,000 people in the city and the high tech sector has 50 micro-electronics and silicon design companies which employ around 5,000 people. The city houses the regional headquarters of BBC West, the BBC Natural History Unit and Aardman Animations.

 

Previous Economy

Bristol was particularly associated with the noted Victorian engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He designed the Great Western Railway between Bristol and London Paddington and the Clifton Suspension Bridge. He also designed two Bristol-built ocean going steamships, the SS Great Britain and SS Great Western.

brunel

At Filton, the Bristol Aeroplane Company built the World War I Bristol Fighter, and Second World War Blenheim and Beaufighter aircraft. In the 1950s, it was a major manufacturer of civil aircraft, with the Bristol Freighter and Britannia and the huge Brabazon airliner. In the 1960s, Filton played a key role in the Anglo-French Concorde supersonic airliner project. On 26 November 2003, Concorde 216 (G-BOAF) made the final Concorde flight, returning to Filton.

Bristol is still the headquarters of Imperial Tobacco Group, the world’s fourth largest international tobacco company. In 1901, Sir William Henry Wills et al formed Imperial Tobacco from a merger of WD & HO Wills with seven other British tobacco companies. The Wills tobacco company began as a shop in Castle Street, Bristol in 1786.

(c) Bristol Museum and Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Economic Foundations

Bristol’s geographical position at the confluence of the rivers Avon and Frome gave it easy access to the Atlantic. When John Cabot arrived in England from Venice, Bristol was the only English city to have had a prior history of undertaking exploration expeditions out into the Atlantic. From 1480 onwards, several expeditions had been sent out to look for Hy-Brazil, an island said to lie somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. There was a legend that Bristolians had discovered the island and then mislaid it. From Bristol, Cabot made voyages to Canada, looking for a North West Passage. Although he failed in that endeavour, John Cabot claimed North America for England, setting the course for the imperial rise to power in the 16th and 17th centuries.

john cabot

Fishermen from Bristol had fished the Grand Banks of Newfoundland since the 15th century and began settling Newfoundland permanently in larger numbers in the 17th century establishing colonies at Bristol’s Hope and Cuper’s Cove

Bristol merchants’ trade to Spain and its American colonies included the smuggling of ‘prohibited’ wares, such as foodstuffs and guns, to Iberia. The scale of the city’s illicit trade grew enormously after 1558, to become an essential component of the city’s economy.

By the 18th century, sugar was Bristol’s most lucrative traffic but sugar refining industry drifted into relative recession after about 1780. In 1800, Bristol’s merchants failed to foresee the utter ruin of the sugar industry in the West Indies that was to occur during the next fifty years. The city continued to concentrate on trade with the West Indies where many of her most important citizens had large capital investments, and so it was that Bristol’s prosperity declined along with that of the West Indies.

Slavery

Bristol’s hospitality industry caters for nine million visitors each year. Tourists who admire Bristol’s elegant houses should reflect on the misery behind their establishment. Guinea Street, a terrace of five-storey houses on the dockside, was home to the slave traders and owners Edmund Saunders and Joseph Holbrook. Nearby is Queen Square, with Georgian houses built by slave traders. The Sugar House hotel was one of many refineries that processed sugar harvested by slaves.

Colston Hall, Bristol’s major music venue, was named after Edward Colston, a philanthropist and merchant who paid for several schools, churches and hospitals. Much of Colston’s wealth came from the slave trade. The Bristol band, Massive Attack, pledged never to play at the venue until its name is changed.

edwardColstonColour

The city’s involvement with the slave trade peaked between 1730 and 1745. Bristol, along with Liverpool, became a centre for the Triangular Trade. In the first stage of this trade, manufactured goods were exchanged for Africans. The Africans were then, in the Middle Passage, transported across the Atlantic in brutal conditions. Then plantation goods such as sugar, tobacco, rum, rice and cotton were brought to Bristol. Slaves were sold to the aristocracy as house servants.

It is estimated that Britain transported more than three million African people across the Atlantic (500,000 on Bristol ships alone), an epic trade that involved some 10,000 voyages and swelled the coffers of the owners. By the Victorian era, as many as one in six of the wealthiest Britons derived at least some of their fortunes from slavery. Few seemed to have any qualms. Quakers, for example, had been enthusiastic investors. It should not be forgotten that the notable philanthropic families – Frys, Rowntrees, and Cadburys – made their fortunes from chocolate, which depended on slave labour.

What of the Future?

The European Commission named Bristol as the European Green Capital for 2015. Bristol will receive £7 million of additional funding to deliver a range of projects that will help Bristol remain at the centre of green investment and urban sustainability. A report, commissioned by Bristol city council, found the initial investment should generate around £215 million of additional economic activity for the UK, through inward investment, additional business turnover, higher exports and tourism.

cathedralsofsteam2

In the March 2011, Budget, Chancellor George Osborne announced the creation of 21 enterprise zones, including one in the area around Temple Meads railway station in Bristol. The idea was that relaxing planning and tax rules would attract businesses to regenerate areas. The West of England Local Enterprise Partnership has published a plan to create 17,000 jobs within the Temple Meads zone. The Engine Shed business centre opened in December 2013, following an investment of £1.7 million. A £7 million private sector investment created Temple Studios, which houses around 150 people working for architects, web designers, music producers and marketing agencies.

 

 

Leaving the Heart in San Francisco

Hipsville to Nerdsville

 

This article was published in the May 2014 edition of Echelon magazine.

gold rush

Modern San Francisco was born raffish and rebellious. The prospect of gold increased the population from 1,000 in 1848 to 25,000 by December 1849. Crews deserted their ships for the gold fields. Silver discoveries further drove rapid population growth. A transient population encouraged lawlessness, with the Barbary Coast quarter seething with prostitution and gambling. In the 1950s, Kenneth Rexroth and the Beats revolutionised poetry. In the 1960s, The Grateful Dead transformed music. Today the pioneers of the digital revolution are changing the character of San Francisco yet again.

port_rexroth

Districts

San Francisco is a walkable city, measuring about six square miles. Not so square – it is still a cool place to be in 2014, but perhaps not as hip as it was in 1967. Many neighbourhoods are dotted with boutiques, cafes and nightclubs as businesses, restaurants and venues cater to both the daily needs of local residents and for tourists.

nob hill

The historic centre of San Francisco is the northeast quadrant of the city anchored by Market Street and the waterfront. The Financial District is located here, with Union Square, the principal shopping and hotel district, nearby. Cable cars carry you, if not quite halfway to the stars, up steep inclines to the summit of Nob Hill, once the home of the city’s business tycoons, and down to Fisherman’s Wharf.

fishwharf

cable car

The large Western Addition, which acquired a large African-American population after World War II, survived the 1906 earthquake with its Victorian mansions mostly intact. It includes smaller neighbourhoods such as Haight Ashbury, which was a hippy haven in the 60s but is now home to some expensive boutiques and a few chain stores, although it retains some bohemian character.

Haight Ashbury2

Working class immigrants from Europe populated the Mission District in the 19th century. In the 1910s, a wave of Central American immigrants settled there but in recent times the demographics of parts of the Mission have changed from Latino, to twenty-something professionals.

Diversity

With 39% of its residents born overseas, San Francisco has numerous neighbourhoods with businesses and institutions catering to new arrivals. In 1870, Asians made up eight per cent of San Francisco’s population. The Chinatown quarter around Grant Avenue developed from around 1848 as businesses sprang up catering for Chinese railroad workers. Chinatown is an enclave that continues to retain its own customs, languages, places of worship, social clubs, and identity (and crime).

chinatown-san-francisco_s345x230

According to an FBI criminal complaint, behind the restaurants there is a sinister underworld. The federal charges, which allege a California lawmaker accepted money and campaign donations in exchange for providing official favours and helping broker an arms deal, cast harsh light on Chinatown’s tight-knit network of fraternal organizations and one of its most shadowy characters, Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow. Chow’s gang is said to have lured state Sen. Leland Yee into its clutches through money and campaign contributions in exchange for legislative help, as Yee sought to build his campaign coffers to run for California secretary of state.

castro

West of the Mission, the area now popularly called the Castro was once a working-class Scandinavian and Irish area, which became North America’s first gay village. San Francisco has a LGBT-friendly history. The city’s large gay population has created and sustained a politically and culturally active community over many decades, developing a powerful presence in San Francisco’s civic life. San Francisco is the only city in the state to cover gender reassignment surgery for the poor and uninsured.

Literature

A circle of writers turned 628 Montgomery Street into a literary bohemia during the Civil War. Bret Harte was successful with “The Luck of Roaring Camp” and “The Outcasts of Poker Flat.” However, his friend Mark Twain’s achievements eventually outweighed his.

bret harte

The original “Beat Generation” writers met in New York and migrated west in the mid-1950s, when they linked up with the San Francisco Renaissance, which made the city a hub of the American avant-garde. The poet Kenneth Rexroth was the founding father. Lawrence Ferlinghetti met Rexroth in Paris and went with him to San Francisco where he established the City Lights Bookstore and publishing company.

ferlin

Music

The British-born philosopher Alan Watts wrote that by around 1960 or so “… something else was on the way, in religion, in music, in ethics and sexuality, in our attitudes to nature, and in our whole style of life.” Many of the songwriters of the upcoming rock-music generation of the mid-1960s appreciated City Lights writers. The hippie culture on the Haight absorbed elements of the Beat movement gravitating around North Beach since the 1950s.

Some of the songwriters of the upcoming rock-music generation of the mid-1960s and later read and appreciated writers like Kerouac, Snyder, McClure, Ferlinghetti, and Ginsberg. In the 1960s, elements of the expanding Beat movement were incorporated into the hippie culture.

dead

Haight Ashbury bands played with each other, for each other, for free and at Chet Helms’s Avalon Ballroom and Bill Graham’s Fillmore. By 1967, fresh and adventurous improvisation during live performance (epitomized by the Grateful Dead) was one characteristic of the San Francisco Sound. In San Francisco, musical influences came in from not only London and Liverpool, but also the American folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s and the Chicago electric blues scene, as well as poetry.

quick

Banking

In the 19th century, entrepreneurs sought to capitalize on the wealth generated by the Gold Rush. Wells Fargo was established in 1852 and the Bank of California in 1854. San Francisco became the main finance centre of the West Coast and Montgomery Street, which had nurtured literary bohemia, became known as the Wall Street of the West. In the wake of the 1929 stock market crash, not a single San Francisco-based bank failed. Bank of America completed 555 California Street in 1969 and the Transamerica Pyramid was completed in 1972, (on the site of literary bohemia) igniting a wave of extensive high-rise development that lasted until the late 1980s.

pyramid

Start-Ups

During the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, large numbers of computer application developers moved into San Francisco, bringing marketing, design, and sales professionals in their wake. Many popular and prominent Internet companies such as Craigslist, Twitter and the Wikimedia Foundation established their head offices in San Francisco. In August 2013, Forbes named San Francisco among its list of Best Places for Business and Careers. However, the number of San Franciscans employed by firms of more than 1,000 employees has fallen by half since 1977. Small businesses with fewer than ten employees and self-employed firms make up 85% of city establishments.

The blow-ins gentrified poor neighbourhoods and the city’s property values rose, creating a large and upscale restaurant, retail, and entertainment scene. Many families have been leaving the city for the outer suburbs of the Bay Area, or for California’s Central Valley.

 

evictions

Nerdsville

In the early-90s, tech workers made up less than one percent of workers in San Francisco. In 2000, tech employees had risen to three percent of the workforce. By 2013, that number had passed six percent.

Internet developers like to think of themselves as creative rebels while the real cool people might see them as geeks. Go into any bar in San Francisco and you will hear people bragging about their start-up, or a titanic struggle with a line of code. These people rarely interact with people outside the tech world. Silicon Valley workers seem to want to inherit the cachet of the anti-war, social-justice, mutual-aid heart of historic San Francisco.

Google Buses

According to the Brookings Institution, after Atlanta, San Francisco has the second-highest level of inequality in the US. Software engineers at Google, Facebook, Apple and Twitter make on average up to $120,000 a year plus bonuses.

homeless

The city estimates there are about 7,350 homeless people now living in San Francisco and has allocated $165 million to help them. It has succeeded in offering 6,355 permanent supportive housing units to the formerly homeless. Nevertheless, the number of homeless people on the streets has remained unchanged. Techies living in condominiums constantly express their deep disgust that city policies provide a magnet for homeless people, spoiling an otherwise lovely place for all the hardworking taxpayers.

rsz_homeless_charities

1386632641-gentrification-protest-blocks-google-bus-in-san-francisco_3462184

google-bus-photo.jpg w=600

The rising presence of company-funded buses in densely populated neighbourhoods has led to protests and occasional violence in a city formerly known for tolerance. Luxury coaches 45 feet long, outfitted with tinted windows, plush seats, TVs and wireless Internet, chauffeur programmers around the Bay Area. Passengers scowl or text from behind tinted windows. The Google bus and the Apple bus do not reduce commuting impact. They just transfer it to poorer people.

 

googlebus

Coda

In order to buy a home, your income needs to be nearly one and a half times higher in San Francisco than in the next most expensive city in the US. Many people can no longer afford the city they have lived in all their lives. Bookstores, bars, Latino businesses, black businesses, cannot afford high rents or purchase prices. The current boom is destroying what made San Francisco attractive in the first place.

 

 

Turkey-taking democracy too far?

This article was published in the May 2014 edition of Echelon.

 

America’s diminished role in the Middle East has created a leadership vacuum that Turkey has sought to fill with a model combining Islam, secularism and democracy. US critics say Erdoğan’s popularity is subverting Turkey’s institutions and threatening its relationship with the US.

 

 

Turkey’s Place on the World Stage

Turkey was a founding member of the OECD and the G-20 and has been a member of NATO since 1952. In 2012, Turkey became the world’s fourth largest government donor of humanitarian aid, distributing US$ 3.5 billion in 2012. The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) was founded in 1993, mainly to direct aid to former Soviet states along Turkey’s eastern border that had been part of the Ottoman Empire. TİKA now operates in 32 countries, including nine in Africa. Humanitarian aid was an efficient tool of foreign policy contributing significantly to a perception of Turkey as a peaceful mediating power.

Once, Turkey held the unusual position of a mainly Muslim country friendly with Israel. However, at the UN in October 2011, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan emphatically stated his support for the recognition of a Palestinian state while also continuing his condemnation of Israeli behavior.

America’s diminished role in the Middle East has created a leadership vacuum that Turkey has sought to fill. When the Arab uprisings started in 2011, Turkey, with its remarkable economic growth and increased profile in global politics, offered the prospect of a successful model where Islam, secularism and democracy could coexist.

EU Bid

The ruling AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, the Justice and Development Party), strongly supported Turkey’s application for membership to the EU. According to Eurostat, Turkey is the only country to have increased exports to the EU last year. Public opinion in EU countries generally opposes Turkish membership, though with varying degrees of intensity. In 2006, EC President Barroso said that the accession process would take at least until 2021.

A recent survey showed a large drop from the 73-percent in-favour response in 2004. Today, every third Turk is against EU accession, while ten years ago this figure was just nine percent. Many see the the long drawn-out accession process as a snub.

Turkey’s Economic Success

Turkey was one of the great economic success stories of the 21st century, overtaking China in overall rate of growth. Erdoğan came to power in 2003, after a decades-long struggle by Islamists against the oppressive tactics of the army and judiciary. The military had overthrown four elected governments since 1960. Exploiting the strong majority enjoyed by the AKP in parliament, Erdoğan stabilized and liberalized the economy, making Turks richer than they had ever been. Erdoğan restructured the economy and attracted more foreign investment in a decade than in the entire 90-year history of the Turkish Republic. The economy grew strongly for ten years, inequality shrank and Turkish companies became regional powerhouses. Turkey climbed from 71st to 44th in the WEF competitiveness table

Last year, the Turkish economic miracle came to an abrupt end with political violence in the streets of Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara. The lira became the third-most volatile currency in the world. In April 2014, the IMF said Turkey’s economy is set to grow 2.3 percent this year, reducing its forecast from 3.5 percent. It predicted a “sharp slowdown in private consumption” driven by the lira’s slide, the central bank’s emergency rate increase in January, and efforts to rein in bank lending. Growth last year was 4.3 percent.

Foreign investors would be deterred from investing in Turkish lira bonds knowing that Ankara has only $40 billion in central bank reserves (two months’ import cover), but has to refinance $210 billion of debt in 2014. Ten years of economic growth financed by massive credit expansions could prove risky. Turkey also has a $70 billion current account deficit. Scrutiny of Turkey’s credit rating is increasing after Moody’s put ten banks on review for a downgrade.

Rising wages have eroded the low-cost advantage enjoyed in textiles, furniture, white goods and automobile manufacture but productivity and skills are not good enough to switch easily to higher-value production. Turkey ranks at a lowly 69th in the World Bank’s “Doing Business” rankings. Sri Lanka is at 85.

Triumphalism versus Conservatism

In May 2013, there were nationwide protests at plans to replace Gezi Park with a shopping mall. A Muslim youth movement calling itself “Anti-capitalist Muslims” had already articulated criticisms about hyper-development. The Gezi protesters were not the victims of financial crisis. They benefited from a decade of rapid economic growth but still expressed a malaise and they do object to the elite urban development projects undertaken by the AKP government. The Gezi Park movement seeks to defend public space against commercialization and the transformation of urban life into a mere generator of profit.

For all these problems, Turkey’s economy is still big, its citizens 43 percent better off than they were when Erdoğan came to power. Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy wrote about this in his book The Rise of Turkey: The Twenty-First Century’s First Muslim Power. Cagaptay dwells at length on the political and economic advances of the Erdoğan years, but he does not go into the tensions within Turkish Islamism, which are likely to define the country’s politics for some time, or the corruption that underlies the country’s capitalist successes.

Corruption

The AKP created a state-supported bourgeoisie through distributing state resources to their cronies. The judiciary initiated a corruption probe against four of Erdoğan’s ministers and their relatives in December 2013. Police raided the homes of several sons of ministers and recordings have emerged on the internet supposedly implicating Erdoğan himself in dodgy dealings. The Government quickly tightened control through reassigning police officers, prosecutors, and judges, and enacting new laws to increase political control of the judiciary.

Repression

Instead of completing a consolidation of their democratic advances, the AKP government sought to dominate the Turkish political system. Many liberals withdrew their support from the party after the government harshly suppressed the Gezi protests. While Turkey’s press is theoretically free, Erdoğan’s government has imposed billion-dollar fines on media holdings hostile to the government, bluntly told editors how to tailor their coverage, and deported critical journalists. Reporters have been jailed. Twitter and YouTube have been blocked. Erdoğan has portrayed the opposition as traitors who live in lairs like animals.

Elections

The AKP’s authoritarian turn since the 2011 elections has much to do with the lack of a viable parliamentary opposition. Erdoğan has responded to criticism with sneers at the foreign media. He believes that he has an unassailable defence: the voters like him. The AKP retains strong support from Turkey’s increasingly educated new middle class. Ever since his party achieved power in November 2002, it has gone from strength to strength. AKP’s share of the vote rose to 47% in 2007 and almost 50% in 2011. Erdoğan has adopted a fiercely majoritarian attitude: so long as voters back him, he is entitled to do whatever he wants.

At the local elections on March 30, AKP won 46% of the nationwide vote. Far behind in second place was the centre-left, ‘Kemalist’ Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (CHP, the Republican People’s Party), with just 26.15%. Leftist and socialist parties, together with democratic societal organizations, have called for a return to the streets and the strengthening of the extra-parliamentary struggle to overcome the AKP.

Regime Change?

Some in the USA are making noises about regime change for Turkey. Morton Abramowitz and Eric Edelman are former U.S. ambassadors to Turkey. They wrote: “Erdoğan has exploited Turkey’s partnership with the United States and his close personal relationship with President Obama to burnish his legitimacy.” They assert that Erdoğan is doing great harm to Turkey’s democracy. It seems likely that US strategists will be working behind the scenes to foster a new coalition based on the dynamic business class that is independent from the state.

Erdoğan’s reaction to EU and US criticism has become more dismissive. “The financial crisis, the global crisis, the Arab Spring and the events in Syria and Egypt show that the EU needs Turkey more than Turkey does the EU,” He said that he was indifferent to the international community’s opinion – and that everyone would realize the power of the Republic of Turkey one day.

 

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