Tuesday, 20 March 2012

French Police Hunt Anti-Semitic Executioner

French police are linking an attack by a gunman on a Jewish school in Toulouse earlier in the week to previous attacks on military targets in the south of the country.

The attack left a 30 year old teacher and three children under the age of nine dead. CCTV images reportedly showed a lone gunman dressed in black stepping from a scooter, pursuing one of the children through the school before cornering her and shooting her in the head, execution-style, at point-blank range.

The most recent attack, coming so quickly after the murder of two soldiers of North African origin at a cashpoint in Montauban last week, have prompted one of the largest manhunts in French history. President Nicolas Sarzoky said of the killer that 'everything, absolutely everything, will be done to track him down.'

At the moment, it seems that the gunmen has the upper hand. His lethal hit-and-run tactics have now claimed seven victims, with a 17-year-old still in a critical condition in hospital. Authorities fear that it is only a matter of time until he kills again.

With the first round of the French Presidential election a little over four weeks away, the notion that the murders may be racially and politically motivated is a compelling one. With international focus very much on the recent political tensions between Israel, Iran and the US, it is not hard to imagine a hardline Islamist extremist pre-empting perceived aggression against the Islamic regime by targeting Jews and soldiers from a pro-US government.

It also adds another unwelcome strand to the election campaign itself. With Socialist candidate Francois Hollande having been very much in the ascendancy in the last few week, Nicolas Sarzoky has responded with a tough stance on immigration that he believes will secure him re-election. The idea of a foreign killer with a grudge against the state stalking the streets of Southern France might yet impact upon the consciousness of the French electorate.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Where Does It End?

George Osbourne's announcement about the 2012 budget must surely blow a final, fatal hole in the notion that 'we are all in this together'. In the same breath as cutting the 50p tax rate so that those who incomes are already excessively high can keep yet more of their undeservedly vast wage, he has torpedoed public sector workers in low-income areas of the country by announcing that he intends to do away with the national pay structure.

If you are Welsh, or living in counties more northerly than Oxfordshire, this is a grim two-pronged attack on your way of life. Not only are you as a public sector worker going to see your pay reduced to bring it in line with an amount that a millionaire in a distant city-state deems appropriate, those same social workers, doctors, nurses and so on will reflect that they can earn more in London, so you will gradually see your services disappearing. Nick Clegg must be looking at his Sheffield constituency and reflecting that it was nice while it lasted.

One of the most significant aspects of this government is the way in which they are using a stick at a time of hardship to force the hand of workers. The disabled have been forced to work, even when they are not capable of doing so. Public sector workers have been forced onto the dole despite having skills and being willing to work, vastly increasing the national benefit bill (and in turn, the debt.) Those living in London in houses partly funded by council tax benefit have been told that they are no longer welcome and should live elsewhere.

Every day I reflect upon the government's public-sector blitzkrieg and look at the society that will result. Some services may improve, but the overwhelming majority of those will only be accessible to the wealthy. Private sector companies will become far more involved in healthcare (for comparison's sake, under Gordon Brown's government, it was capped at 2%, while under this government it could rise as high as 49%) and hence the costs of administering these systems could increase to twenty-five times as much as they are at present. This is millions that could be spent on healthcare and will instead be paid to - you guessed it - private sector admin companies, who are vastly inefficient, but don't really care as long as the profits come in. (For an example of this sort of company, type 'Capita failure' into Google and have a look through the first dozen or so of the 20,000,000 results.)

So in the not too distant future, if you want efficient or emergency healthcare, it's likely that you will have to pay a premium for it. We can expect see a move away from free healthcare and a move towards a system like the US one, which is inefficient, wasteful and vastly expensive, without actually generating better outcomes. What it does do is generate vast incomes for those shareholders in the House of Lords and the House of Commons - the same masters that we appoint to rule us.

There are some distinct inequalities in the way that this government treats people. The notion that 'entrepreneurs' (fast becoming a euphemism for anyone who earns a high sum, regardless of whether they are active investors or not) need to have tax cuts and more money so that they can create jobs for the rest of us is a fallacy that needs to be shot out of the water sooner rather than later. The profits made by businesses in Britain are vast, and the only ones whose profits have fallen during the financial crisis are the ones that are inefficient and treat their staff badly. Business has plenty of money to invest - it is about time they started to do so.

The continual pressure on public sector pay means that if current trends continue, it will not be longer before public sector workers are on minimum wage. Then, logical continuation suggests that we will see a gradual reduction or even abolition of that minimum wage, and that will be the coup de grace that sees a return to the days of workhouses and cap doffing. Perhaps we'll even do away with the word 'chav' and start using the word 'serf' again.

The message from this government of bankers and millionaires is clear. Move to London, get a job as one of us, and you'll be well looked after. Choose to live elsewhere, or try to get a job that actually improves society rather than creating wealth for its own sake, and you truly are on your own.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Why Churches Should Celebrate Gay Marriage

In the Sunday Telegraph this morning, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the most senior member of the Roman Catholic Church in Britain, has criticised the government's stance on gay marriage.

There are some who would argue that given its history of defending clergy who were accused of child abuse, the Roman Catholic Church has lost the rights to the moral high ground on pretty much any issue of significance. Regardless of your position on the Roman Catholic Church, they still have millions of followers worldwide, and are keenly resisting what they see as government-sactioned efforts to marginalise worship in the UK. David Cameron has made clear that he supports gay marriage as he believes commitment in all its forms is in the interests of society. It is a demonstrably progressive position, and one that means conflict with the church is inevitable.

O'Brien's article makes a clear distinction between the arrangement that already exists for homosexual partners to have civil partnerships and hold equivalent legal rights to married couples of different genders, and marriage, which he points out is legally defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as being between a man and a woman.

The article follows on from comments by other high-profile clergymen, such as those by Anglican Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, who insisted governments did not have the moral authority to redefine marriage. This is an interesting point, and one that I'll come back to.

Cardinal O'Brien worries about the rights of teachers to teach what they believe - specifically suggesting that freedom of speech has more to do with the political orthodoxy of the day than genuine freedom. He also reminds us that the tradition of marriage predates governments and states, raising the question of whether marriage belongs to governments or churches. It is an interesting question but I would argue that the concepts of teaching and marriage fall into the same category as common law, a concept that brought civilised society into existence. All are defined by the representative governments of their ages to meet the purposes of society at those times. However, I would argue that the rights of minorities to receive equal treatment fall within the realm of natural law, which has heavily influenced common law in both the UK and US. The purpose of this should be to define the overriding principles that protect the interests of those who would otherwise be prejudiced against.

O'Brien argues that gay marriage forcibly denies a child a mother or a father, but he completely overlooks that a gay couple can offer two positive role models that circumvent the traditional gender roles that society still defines. Research suggests that a child with two parents is less likely to misbehave than their peers from single-parent families, but there has been limited research on whether having two gay parents has an impact.

When he refers to the idea of gay marriage as 'madness' and mentions the 'tyranny of tolerance', O'Brien weakens his argument. I see nothing wrong with primary school children seeing books that suggest two people of the same sex can be in love in just the same way as two of different genders. He refers to marriage as a stabilising influence but misses that it is the strength of the bond that creates the stable environment, rather than who it is between. By narrowly defining who may feel love in ways in which he deems acceptable, he implies that those who already feel love outside of his definition should be excluded. This does not help to build a coherent society.

It makes me sad to think that there are those who see the advent of gay marriage as somehow weakening an age-old tradition. As far as I can see, extending the definition of marriage will help to make society more inclusive, which can only help all of us at a time when we need to pull together. Surely in a time when the number of marriages has been falling and the number of divorces has been rising, when inequality is growing and demand on services increasing, the church should be welcoming a growing cultural subset of people who wish to participate in bringing love and companionship to the world?