Energy suppliers and the price comparison websites take us for fools.
I've drunk Malt Whisky with Saudi Arabian friends in private homes in Jeddah. I've been taken to see the open square in Riyadh where public executions are carried out (called, oh so wittily, “Chop Chop Square”). I’ve travelled along the highways where bored, rich Saudi youth drive their fast cars at terrifying speeds and not infrequently kill themselves. I've waited an hour in a line at Airport immigration only to have the window closed as I arrived and had to start again.
I've met Saudi women in their homes, beautiful in Paris fashions, who have completely to drape themselves in black, and veil their faces, if they venture outdoors. I've met Phillipina maids who have suffered sexual abuse from their masters but would be the guilty party if they had the temerity to complain. I've visited a millionaire Sheikh in his mansion in Marbella where his wine cellar is famous, and his tarts are many and varied. I've sat all day with another Sheikh in Riyadh, a holy man, who leaves meetings to pray five or six times a day.
I've been told about ageing Saudi men who add to their collection of “wives” by taking a “bride” just out of puberty for their pleasure, and then discarding her at a whim. And other men who are in the forefront of the homophobic assault on gays, whilst secretly having sex with boys available to anyone with the money to pay.
I've met the Saudi who claims to run the largest distribution agency for a famous brand of whisky in the world, and the financial beneficiaries of which were members of the Royal family. I’ve seen conclusive evidence of fraud and bribery by Western companies anxious to ingratiate themselves with corrupt Saudi princes. I’ve watched as the commercial rules which apply to the rest of the world are bent and broken to get greedy hands on Saudi riches.
I’ve stayed behind high compound walls in expatriate housing where drunkenness and sexual licence is rife and where the claim is often that “this is the best posting I ever had”. I’ve seen collusion, protection and sleaze distorting normal commercial practices.
Let’s be clear these are not random acts of dysfunctional behaviour - these are symptoms of a sick and crooked society. A nation which for all its faux-tradition is only fourteen years older than I am! A country which follows the “Divine right of Kings”, which has not even the vestige of proper democracy and which concentrates immense wealth in very few hands indeed. A country which practices a “law and order” that was abandoned by a civilising world shortly after the Middle Ages era when it was standard.
Behind the front of religiosity which provides the rationale for a totalitarian control of the population is institutionalised hypocrisy. It is a misogynous society where the rights of women simply don’t exist, where there is no freedom of worship or expression and where anyone who challenges the status quo will be imprisoned, or worse.
Remember Osama bin Laden was a Saudi and 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis as well. Of course they were at the lunatic fringe of religion-driven madness, but they grew up in a society where religion theoretically dictates every aspect of behaviour. But this is to a large extent a front for an Orwellian control system which keeps power in a very few hands indeed.
And what of the West? Well many of us do condemn what we know to be happening in this sordid apology for a society. Amnesty International and others publicise the daily obscenities – like the public torture of Raif Badawi. Brave journalists have exposed the evil imperative of the House of Saud and of the institutionalised corruption that emanates from it. But the death of the Saudi King has brought cringe-making tributes - and the British Prime Minister and Heir to the British throne will be jetting off to Riyadh to “pay their respects”.
Let's be clear – my objection to the Saudi regime and how they run their country is not cultural insensitivity or ignorance on my part. I lived in the Middle East for six years and travelled widely including, for a time, to Saudi Arabia every month. I had my eyes and ears open and talked at length with Saudis - many of whom became friends. Islam is the State religion across the region but nowhere is it so insidiously distorted as in the Kingdom. It is the shield which protects the leaders from the people – the King is the “Keeper of the Two Holy Mosques”, one of which is, of course, in Mecca to which devout Muslims travel for the Haj. This, his unchallenged power, a formidable Army, and an extensive security apparatus make the King invulnerable. And there are plenty of Mullahs around to provide a quasi-spiritual justification for any and all of the daily atrocities committed by this vile regime.
Kow-Towing to the House of Saud demeans us all.
Current Party choice
Socialist Left (Green)
Green Party. Left of Labour Party. Some LibDems.
Mainstream Labour. Some LibDems (esp. Ex SDP)
One Nation Conservatives
Mainstream Tories (Esp. Europhiles). Orange Book LibDems
United Kingdom Independence Party. Eurosceptic and Libertarian Tories. Social conservatives.
In this article for the American website Blogger News Network I argued that there are four distinctive streams in English politics - to which can be added, in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, local Nationalist (or National) streams. The four main streams present across most of the United Kingdom, and their current Party relationships, are shown in the above table.
As we can see this analysis shows up the fact that since its formation at the merger of the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party the LibDems have been a curious construct spanning three of the four political streams I identify. Indeed virtually every type of political leaning has been accommodated – except hard-core Euroscepticism or social conservatism. As the Liberals, the SDP/Liberal Alliance and finally the LibDems gained votes and eventually seats it did seem that a third force in British politics had arrived in a significant way. Remember at the height of Margaret Thatcher’s years in 1983 this third force gained 7.8m votes (25.4% of the vote) but only 23 seats. By 2010 the (now) LibDem vote had fallen to 6.8m (23%) but the seat count had risen to 57 (a fall of 5 seats compared with the highpoint of 2015). This was a reflection of the LibDem success in working at a local level – although the seat count was still hugely short of what they would have had under a strictly proportional system.
In 2010 the three main parties gained 88% of the vote between them. The choice, except in the Celtic fringes of the Kingdom, was broadly between the Conservatives and Labour with the LibDems being the only serious “Neither of the above” choice. The latest (22nd January) opinion poll from YouGov shows how this has changed:
In 2010 the Conservatives and Labour secured 65.1% of the vote – this has risen, due to Labour’s recovery, to 67% - not a dramatic change. What is dramatic is how the “Neither of the above” vote is now split between three parties rather than residing just with the LibDems. Its composition is also different. Some Eurosceptics and social conservatives have moved to UKIP along with a strong element of the “plague on all their houses” population. Many of these will be previous Conservative voters, some previously voted Labour and many may not have voted at all. The Greens will have gained support from disaffected LibDems and more Left-leaning previous Labour voters. The remaining LibDem loyalists are perhaps residents mainly of constituencies where there is a LibDem MP who they like along with a residue of tactical “Stop the Tories” voters (always a good source of LibDem votes in Conservative/LibDem battlegrounds where Labour was a poor third.
So in the past to vote LibDem was strongly a protest vote and across England it was really the only one available. This is not to denigrate those for whom the LibDems’ wholehearted commitment to Europe, their opposition to the Iraq war and their convinced social liberalism was an attractive combination. But in truth in 2010 it wasn’t really distinctive policies which gave the Party nearly 7m votes but more an “I agree with Nick” feeling - and a rejection of the Conservative and Labour parties.
The Coalition has caused a fragmentation of public attitudes with the LibDems being clobbered. To fall from nearly 7m votes to 1.7m – as implied by the latest polls – would be a change unprecedented in British politics, at least over the course of one Parliament. (My own view is that the LibDems will probably do better than this and that the “incumbency factor” will see around 30, possibly more, MPs hold their seats. But even that would be a 50% fall in seats.)
As the LibDems have declined so UKIP and the Greens have grown. In both cases the choice is more than “None of the above”, though it is certainly also that. The LibDem protest vote was for a Party which was a very broad church indeed embracing shades of opinion from the neo-liberal economics of the Orange Book (Clegg, Laws, Alexander) to the broadly Social Democratic (Cable, Ashcroft, Campbell, Williams). For many LibDem voters these differences were largely unknown and the fact that the LibDems were not the Conservatives (or Labour), were pro Europe and were socially liberal was enough. Hence the shock that in the Coalition Clegg, Laws, Alexander and other LibDem Ministers have been obviously comfortable with the Conservatives economic neo-liberalism. The support for the rise in Tuition Fees was perhaps the eye-opener for many that said not only could LibDem promises not be believed but that the LibDems in the Coalition bought the Conservatives “Austerity” case one hundred per cent.
But whilst the LibDems were the only credible “None of the above” choice, confused though the nature of that choice in truth was that is no longer the case. If the choice to vote LibDem was not really mainly a policy choice the reverse applies to UKIP and the Greens (and to the SNP in Scotland). These parties have grown in significance precisely because of the clarity and simplicity of their offer. UKIP is anti-Europe, anti-immigration, anti-multiculturalism and deeply conservative. The Greens are pro-environment, pro the return of some privatised utilities into public ownership and take broadly strong Left/liberal position on most issues. They are also pro EU. Both parties, but especially UKIP, see the three main parties as being too similar. The idea of “LibLabCon” frequently referred to by UKIP gets to the heart of this. The public, from Left and Right, seems to be responding to this by favouring two parties (three in Scotland) who are distinctively not part of this consensual mainstream.
So where do these changes leave the LibDems? If we look again at the table at the head of this article you will see that these four distinctive political streams do not include a “LibDem” one at all. This is because there is no distinctive and coherent and different LibDem message any more – and certainly not a united one. Take away the “Neither of the two above” imperative, factor in the fact that three of the new main streams are both overtly socially liberal and pro Europe and the LibDem message is not unique any more. Add the fact that the LibDem leadership is itself split between opposing economic models and you see a Party which is unlikely to avoid a split and a decline. Nick Clegg and David Laws are neo-liberal One Nation Conservatives in all but name. Vince Cable is unlikely to be uncomfortable with a return to his Social Democratic roots in a mainstream Labour Party. And for the voters it is the same, along with those previous LibDems strongly driven by Environmental issues who will no doubt be more than happy with a resurgent Green Party. For the LibDems the Party’s over.
So how should we react to Eric Pickles’ letter to the Mosques? It is worth reading carefully because it either deliberately or inadvertently raises more questions than I think it answers. There is no doubting its sincerity, albeit that the language is mostly carefully chosen and almost achingly moderate!
Lets start with the key phrase in the first paragraph
“The hijacking of a great faith to justify such heinous crimes sickens us all”.
I'm not sure that this is is true. That is because it implies understanding on the part of us “all” about what has happened. Has Islam been “hijacked” and if it has does that sicken us? Most of us are ill-equipped to judge whether Islam has been hijacked, and indeed what this means. Those perpetrating the crimes don’t think they've hijacked anything. It is certainly true that
“Muslims around the world have made clear, such actions are an affront to Islam.”
But it is also true that this does not apply to all Muslims, even here in Britain. One man’s “hijacking” is another man’s “true faith”. Islam is divided, not just the Sunni/Shia divide but within these subsets there are huge divisions. Anyone claiming that there is one true Islam, which is non violent, and that all the deviations from this are not representative of the
“true nature of British Islam today”
is indulging in wishful thinking. The truth is that a significant body of Muslims do indulge in a violence driven, as they see it, by their faith. Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan and of course Al Qaida and ISIS among others. As I argued here Islamic Terrorism is a malignant subset of Islam. Sadly the “men of hate” do speak for some Muslims in Britain and around the world. To go into denial about this is unhelpful and potentially counter-productive.
Then Pickles says he wants Muslim leaders to
“explain…how faith in Islam can be part of British identity”
and even that
“British values are Muslim values”
I have no idea at all what this means. Surely all that we really want is that our laws are obeyed by everyone here of any faith or of none? We don't want some sentimental and rather improbable coalescence of “British values” and “Muslim Values” – not least because both are rather spurious concepts. Under the law we demand non-violence from everyone but there is plenty of room for cultural variations. If by “British” Pickles means, as he seems to mean, our Anglo-Saxon, Christian heritage then this is different from the heritage of (say) a Pakistani family who worship at the Mosque. What are we saying here? That there should be some sort of Melting pot in which the Pakistani heritage’s culture is modified to make it a bit more Anglo-Saxon and a bit more Christian? Is that what “making Faith in Islam part of British identity” means. If so it’s nonsense.
If we define “British values” as being something different from the Anglo-Saxon/Christian heritage that we mostly have then they really do become meaningless. Can you create a co-mingled set of British values that is part Christian, part Jewish, part Hindu, part Muslim, part Rastafarian, part Polish…of course you can’t!
We have a pluralist society with a wide variation in cultures. The dominant one is our traditional White, Anglo-Saxon, Christian one but why would you expect anyone whose culture and heritage is different to abandon theirs and adopt ours. They can if they want to, but you can’t force them to and you shouldn't try.
The message to British Muslims is surely not about “Values and identity” but about the rule of law. As a society we expect total compliance with our laws. So child abuse, or rape, or mutilation, or bombings etc. will not be tolerated whatever the underlying twisted rationale of the perpetrators. They may say and believe that they are being truer Muslims by committing acts our law says are illegal. We say that they are being criminal and that we will pursue them and try them and punish them if they are found guilty.
And if they obey our laws, as the vast majority do, they can live peaceful and valuable lives whether they buy “British identity” or “British values” or not.
19th January 2015
This is a piece I wrote in December 2002 well before UKIP and Farage and his Men of Kent and Kentish men came so malignantly into the public eye. It is actually substantially about them, though of course I didn't realise it at the time. Its a bit of a rant, something I needed to get out of my system I think! Anyway I share it with you now, twelve years on, for what it’s worth. It may explain one or two things!
One of the reasons that I could never vote Conservative is that to do so would link me (however tangentially) with a group of Tory voters that I cannot stand. I call them the “Men and Women of Kent” (the “Mawoks”), although they are to be found throughout the Home Counties and variants of the type can be seen across the length and breadth of England. In declaring this bias I can be accused (as we shall see) not only of biting the hand that fed me, but also of a prejudice bordering on racism. Over the years I have tried to rid myself of this unworthy intolerance, but unsuccessfully. The time has come now to reveal my problem and to seek guidance as to whether it is curable.
Sometimes prejudice is based on ignorance and fear (the most racially intolerant people I have met have rarely ever mixed with people of races other than their own) but my personal bias is the opposite. I am of these people that I despise - born and bred. I was born the year after the end of the Second World War in Orpington, Kent. Orpington is known for chickens, for one spectacular By-Election win for the Liberals in 1962, and for being the archetypal London suburb. I was only born there because it was where, pragmatically, my parents chose to live. They were not of the area (Dad was a Lancastrian and Mum was a real Londoner) but Dad needed to live somewhere where he could commute easily to the City where he worked. Orpington Station had regular services to Cannon Street – so Orpington it was to be. The town lacked anything that was remotely interesting. An architecturally anodyne High Street, housing estates built during that great splurge of speculative house building of the 1930’s and schools and other facilities necessary to serve a dormitory suburb. It was, then and now, on the cusp between London and “the country” – the extensive and (I must admit) beautiful “Garden of England” started just south of the Town. Just north was the beginning of the ugly sprawl of South London. Orpington was classic Mawok country – a fertile land for that key Mawok provider, the Estate Agent.
The Mawok has many obsessions, but housing is the main one. Between 1946 (when my parents bought a small semi on a “Davis Estate” off the Sevenoaks Road) and 1968 (when they reached the heights of a detached house with substantial grounds in the prime area of Keston), we moved every four or five years. Upward mobility was measured by the house you lived in and my father’s successful career funded my mother’s aspiration to have a bigger house in a better road. The phenomenon I have described is, of course, as prevalent today as it was forty years ago. The drive to have bigger and better housing is the main Mawok motivator. Our first house cost around £800 in a very tight housing market in 1946 (£21,000 in 2002 money). The same house today would sell for around £250,000 – a more than tenfold increase in value in real terms! No wonder today that the wealthiest members of the Mawoks’ Golf Clubs are the Estate Agents.
As the Mawok moves upwards so other lifestyle elements develop as well. For my Father his car, his Golf Club and my education were the most important (in that order). My father always had a car – a “Company Car”, naturally. Before Government began to tax company cars at their real value this was the most sought after of all the employment perks. Like our housing obsession the phenomenon of getting your employer to pay for your car is a peculiarly English thing – particularly for Mawoks. So every three years or so Dad would have a new and bigger and better car to go with the bigger and better house. And like the house this reached its ultimate apotheosis in the late sixties when he secured a Rover 2000 – truly the first of the “executive” cars. At the age of Fifty Dad had the detached house in Keston, the Rover in the drive and (to keep him busy on Sunday mornings) a long standing membership of West Kent Golf Club.
For the male Mawok (and for some of their women) the Golf Club was and is the centre of their social world. My father took up the game in the early post war years when golf was a traditional and rather elitist game. He joined “West Kent” a members’ club which used pricing and prejudice to keep out players who were “undesirable”! I remember driving with Dad to the club one day and as we approached the road which led to the clubhouse I noticed a prefabricated, metal roofed building on the course. I asked my father what it was and he said (somewhat shamefacedly) that it was the “Artisans” hut. He explained that the Club committee some years earlier had decided that there was a potential source of revenue available from “Artisan” (working class!) players. These players paid a small subscription for which they were allowed to play on the course on weekdays (when it was not so busy) - but they were not allowed to use any of the club’s member’s facilities or to play at weekends. The Mawoks were not, of course, Artisans. All of them had (like my father) solid, well-paid white collar jobs and they were the ones who colonised the 19th hole and ran the committee. In some ways the sport was incidental to the social component – the Mawoks joined the club not just to play golf, but to be able to socialise in a milieu, carefully protected by the application of strict membership rules, in which they would be comfortable.
The next Mawok fixation was, and is, private education. Here we begin to move away from the social part of the Mawok lifestyle to an area which borders on the political. The Mawok does not believe in the governance of the State in areas which directly affect his health, wealth or prospects (and those of his children). He is against progressive taxation (he doesn’t see why he should pay more income tax just because he has an above average income – he has earned it after all!). And he certainly doesn’t see why he should use (and pay for through taxation) what he sees as sub-standard public services. My father not only sent me to fee-paying schools from the age of five onwards, but he was also sure that he should be rewarded with a tax rebate for doing so. Curiously, although my father had convinced himself that it was essential that I received a Public School education, the same did not apply to my younger sister. She went to a State primary and Grammar school, was very well educated at them and became a successful teacher in state schools as an adult. But for me private education was essential and my father made many “sacrifices” to pay my school fees. Looking back I’m not sure what those sacrifices were (the upward mobility didn’t seem to suffer much) but I was very conscious at the time that I was seen as a financial burden. Today’s Mawoks will also do their damndest to fund private education for their children, but if their means don’t quite run to this they will move (if necessary) to those Mawok areas where the state schools are better (distorting even further the property market as they go). The perceived quality of local schools is one of the key influencing factors on property prices.
Private education has always been part of the Mawok dream (I was the second generation of my family at my school) and paying for private health care is also accepted by the Mawoks as a necessary burden. My parents opposed the setting up of the NHS in the 1940s and took out private health insurance as soon as it became available. In the pubs of Tunbridge Wells, where the Mawoks gather, you will hear them running down the Health Service and the State education system and bemoaning the fact that they have “no alternative” but to pay privately for medicine and for schooling. In this they are being disingenuous – Mawoks, in my experience, have always taken the option of paying for these things themselves. It is a bit like the Golf Club membership – the Mawok can afford to pay for such privileges.
Sometimes the Mawok has to rely on the State and there is no opting out. For the commuting Mawok, like my Father, the principal reliance was on British Rail, Southern Region. Occasionally Dad would drive his Rover to his office in Eastcheap, but even in the fifties and sixties the traffic and the lack of decent roads, did not make this a real option. So at 8:08 every morning (and at 5:36 every evening) he would be on the Orpington /Cannon Street train. But at weekends, for holidays and for other trips my father would never think of using public transport. When once, much later, he had to go with me on a bus it was clearly the first time for many years – he described it as being like a “Sunday school outing”. Today’s Mawok reserves his strongest vitriol for the condemnation of public transport. The commuter trains are dirty, unreliable and too expensive but he is trapped in that he has to use them. Like my father years ago he never uses a train where he can use his car and he is most unlikely ever to be seen on a bus. The Mawok was a fervent supporter of the sale of public assets first instigated by the Thatcher government of the 1980s. He argues that there is now more choice and better value than when there were monopoly state owned suppliers of electricity, gas, water and other services. When challenged about the decline in standards on the railways since they were handed over to Virgin and Stagecoach and their like the Mawok will blame Mr Blair and Mr. Prescott conveniently forgetting that it was the Mawok in chief John Major who created the railway mess that New Labour has struggled to clean up.
The Mawok is not really a political animal, any more than he is committed to any other sort of voluntary service. He is not a generous supporter of charities and once the key things in life are paid for (see above) he is a bit of a cheapskate. I know many Mawoks who refuse to subscribe to satellite or cable television (despite the fact that the sports they want to watch are increasingly on these channels) claiming that they cannot afford the thirty or forty pounds a month subscription. Whilst they are only too happy to benefit from corporate hospitality that is often on offer to Mawoks at work (the box at Lord’s or Twickenham) they rarely pay for sports tickets out of their own money. Holidays are important to Mawoks and they will book the crossing for the BMW months in advance so that they can get to the favourite hotel in France or Spain on schedule. And today’s Mawoks buy second homes in Southern Europe – increasingly a key element of the Mawok lifestyle.
Although most Mawoks are not politically active this does not stop them from having robust political opinions, but there is usually an inverse relationship between the strength of the opinion and the real relevance to them. So Mawoks will sound off in the saloon bar about the “appalling” standards of public education or healthcare, despite the fact that they have protected themselves and their families from these services by going “private”. But nothing riles a Mawok more than something that affects their most valued “right” – their personal mobility. So if you ask a Mawok what they think about the price of petrol (or some of the other high costs of private motoring) be prepared for a tirade against the Government which (in their view) takes far too much from them in motoring taxes and builds too few roads.
The Mawok is a privileged species, but this does not stop them from seeking ever new ways to protect and enhance their privileges. They see Conservative politics as being more likely to do this and this is the sole basis of the Mawoks’ unwavering commitment to vote Conservative. If you look at the blue swath across the constituencies of Southern England you can be sure that not only has it always been so, but that it always will be. The Mawok is not a floating voter; he tribally supports the Tories through thick and thin. This does not mean that there are not outposts of Mawok land in the Celtic fringes (the West Country) or the more enlightened suburbs (Richmond, Kingston, Surbiton, even Guildford…) where a progressive anti-Mawok movement has ousted the Conservative and elected a Liberal Democrat. But in the hard core Mawok dominated country of Kent, Surrey, Sussex, and Hampshire hell will freeze over before they elect anyone but a Conservative.
I hate the Mawoks because of their ignorance and their prejudice. I hate them because notwithstanding their advantages they spend so much time complaining. I hate them because they close their minds to any argument which challenges their view of the world. I hate them because of their narrow-mindedness and their meanness. And above all I despise them because they have no idea how awful they are and because they assume that since I was raised in Mawok country, the progeny of Mawok parents, then I must embrace their values. I will never vote Conservative lest somebody mistakenly thinks that I do.
Patrick S Briggs