Sunday, 10 January 2016

Clean for the Queen: A load of rubbish

If anyone spots me putting rubbish in a bin, ensuring my rubbish and recycling are separated, or not throwing crisp packets and banana skins out of car windows, I would like to make it perfectly clear that I am not doing it for Queen Elizabeth II.

I do it because I really hate littering and I believe in taking responsibility for my small role in keeping Britain tidy. As far as I can remember, I've only littered twice in the almost-40 years I've been alive. A plastic wine glass blew out of my hand when I was on a boat off the coast of Cyprus in 2014. I still feel awful about that. And one night in 2006, I was walking home from a film screening in Dubai while eating Burger King. A man attacked me, tearing my tights and putting his hand down the neckline of my dress, leaving scratches on my decolletage. I got away by elbowing him in the chest, throwing my burger at him, ducking under his arm and running away, leaving a trail of meat, bun, lettuce, tomato, onion and sauce in my wake. I don't feel quite so bad about that one.

The reason why I am making this bizarre statement about not being motivated by the Queen in my quest for cleanliness is the pathetic, embarrassing, forelock-tugging load of toss that is Clean for the Queen.

According to the absurd Clean for the Queen website, the campaign aims to "clear up Britain" in time for June 2016, when apparently it is compulsory to celebrate Liz's 90th birthday or else risk being sent to the tower for high treason.

The website is urging schools, local councils, community groups, businesses and individuals to "do their bit" and clean up the country. Without a trace of irony, the website asks us: "What better way could we show our gratitude to Her Majesty than to clean up our country?".

Oh, I dunno. How about we let her retire, declare a British republic, have an elected upper chamber instead of the bloated farce that is the House of Lords, and grow the hell up?

Or how about instead of just keeping Britain tidy for a few days in June, why don't we ensure that local councils are properly resourced and people are educated so that we can keep Britain tidy at all times?

And while we're on the subject of keeping the place spick and span, perhaps the Queen herself can show a bit of damn gratitude herself and pay her cleaning staff a living wage? The arse-kissing sycophants will say it's an honour to clean Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, and it's great experience (always the excuse of apologists for poverty line wages or, worse, working for free). But if you clean places such as Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, not only are you expected to do more than a cursory turn with a feather duster, you will also need to live in commuting distance of your place of employment - and neither place is renowned for cheap rental properties.

Another look at the laughable website reveals the weird claim that when the Queen came to the throne in 1952, "litter was not the problem that it is today" and goes on to blame "food packaging, plastic bottles, takeaway meals and cigarette butts".

Did people really only start dropping fag ends after 1952? Before plastic bottles, did everyone in Britain really dispose of all their rubbish responsibly? And even if 1950s Britain was a litter-free utopia, it was also a time of coal fires and cars powered by leaded petrol. Fifty-five new coal-fired or oil-fired power stations were opened after Elizabeth II ascended to the throne.

But the mentality behind Clean for the Queen is about rose-tinted nostalgia, of harking back to the so-called good old days, even if there were plenty of things about the good old days that were actually pretty crap, and even if things that have improved since 1952, such as literacy levels, life expectancy and child mortality rates, have precisely nothing to do with the existence of the Queen.

Instead, we have a Clean for the Queen campaign that unsurprisingly, is robustly supported by the government. The Environment Minister, Rory Stewart, is admittedly one of the more sensible people on the government's side of the House of Commons but he still said, in support of Clean for the Queen: "Her Majesty The Queen is an inspiration to all of us. Her 90th birthday is a unique opportunity for people to come together in celebration of Her Majesty's long service and dedication to this country."

Yes! What an opportunity! To pick up litter that litterers should have put in the bin in the first place! To do for free what people should be employed to do! It's scarily similar to businesses such as Tesco taking advantage of work-for-unemployment benefits as a source of free labour instead of being the job creators they profess to be! Well, fancy that!

As a bonus, Clean for the Queen is supported by the Countryside Alliance, those champions of hunting foxes in the most cruel way possible. Let's forget that these people think setting dogs onto foxes is an actual sport and instead congratulate them on picking up some litter.

No. Just no. Clean for the Queen? I'll settle for my local council collecting my rubbish, food waste and recycling every week regardless of who's on the throne.

Photo by Circe Denyer.

Time for Oliver Letwin to come out of the shadows

Two days ago, the Mirror newspaper "revealed" that Oliver Letwin wrote the blueprint for the privatisation of the NHS. Except this has been known by plenty of people for quite some time now. The Mirror made no mention of a book on privatising everything that he wrote back in 1988. It was called Privatising The World: A Study of International Privatisation in Theory and Practice and it has had enormous influence on Conservative party policy ever since.

But who the hell is Oliver Letwin and why should anyone care about him and his 28-year-old book?

Oliver Letwin usually only appears in the public eye when he fucks up. He, like many of his colleagues on both sides of the House of Commons, has been caught up like the vile hypocrites many of them are, in expenses scandals. And he is probably best remembered for being the colossal bellend who threw important papers in a London park bin. It turned out they were letters from his constituents. Apparently, in the minds of his apologists, this somehow made it OK, not quite as bad as tossing official business out with the rubbish.

And, pitifully, apart from a few dissenters, his constituents didn't seem to mind their views being treated with such utter contempt by the man they pay to represent them, because he is still, like a smug and brattish barnacle, their MP. He has been the MP for West Dorset for 19 years, a seat which has been held continuously by the Conservative Party since 1885.

Because he is such a gaffe-prone car crash of a man, he is not trotted out during election campaigns, he does not appear much on telly, and the fact he has written a book, even though it has been a blueprint for Tory policy for more than 20 years, is certainly kept quiet on purpose.

And Letwin was back in the news the other week because he did something embarrassing and made a non-apology apology. He revealed his contempt for black people in a memo when he was a policy adviser to Margaret Thatcher in 1985, saying that assistance for black communities would help the "disco and drug trade" and Rastafarian crafts. Frankly, Oliver, you may as well legalise the drugs so people can make money there as well as encouraging disco and Rastafarian craft businesses, if you are truly the free market libertarian you claim to be.

Except that for Letwin and many of his colleagues in this current wretched government, they are only interested in money-making opportunities for themselves and Conservative Party donors. There is certainly an ideological drive towards this government's drive towards privatising everything but we are also being governed by a party whose MPs are up to their eyeballs in vested interests and serve the needs of their party donors rather than their constituents.

Letwin's 1988 book, Privatising The World: A Study of International Privatisation in Theory and Practice has an interesting title, to be sure. "Theory" rather than "practice" is the operative word for Letwin when it comes to his career. From childhood until he was 26, he was at Eton and then Cambridge University. Academically, he is clearly no fool. Morally, he is a vacuum.

After Cambridge, despite zero experience in the real world, he joined Margaret Thatcher's policy unit. He has also been a bank director, written a few other things, and from 1997 onwards, he has been a constantly promoted MP, albeit one who is not given much media prominence by the party. This is clearly deliberate.

In particular, Letwin has advocated for the privatisation of the NHS. But this is not happening in any blatantly obvious way. It's not even happening in a vaguely competent way. If that were the case, we'd be on a clear path towards the mixed public-private system of Australia - it's not a perfect system, it is currently being messed around with by the current Australian government, but it does not generally leave people in terrible debt, as happens in the US.

It is happening in a way that is far more insidious than that and the incompetence is deliberate. The Health and Social Care Act 2012 paved the way for Clinical Commissioning Groups across the country to make decisions for their local areas. Local people making local decisions sounds great in theory, but in practice, we have CCGs in many parts of the country stacked with members with vested interests in private healthcare and it is not uncommon for them to commission these companies.

Additionally, the administration of the private tenders for the NHS marketplace is one of the biggest cost pressures on the health system. It is difficult to get an exact figure on how much the added bureaucracy costs but estimates vary between £5 billion and £20 billion per year. The other big cost pressure is PFI debt which, unless all the contracts are renegotiated or declared null and void through some excellent lawyering, will probably never be paid off.  In short, PFI (private finance initiative) debts on construction work for hospitals mean British taxpayers are getting such crap deals as one hospital for the price of nine. The billions and billions of pounds that PFI and the marketised NHS cost the system means the "health tourists", women undergoing IVF, and New Year's Eve drunks, and anyone else that the Daily Mail, the Sun, and Daily Express uses as scapegoats, are drops in the financial ocean.

Even when incompetent (but Tory-donating) companies such as G4S get NHS contracts and do things such as kill patients in "never" events, they tend to keep the contracts, even though in the private sector, that kind of thing might well lead to a contract being torn up. Virgin has been running vast chunks of Croydon University Hospital very poorly too, but this has not been the front page news it should be either. A woman died in agony at Croydon after being triaged by a receptionist.

But it doesn't matter to Letwin et al because these fuck-ups, even when a private company is at fault, all serve to whet the public appetite for cuts, closures of essential services and entire hospitals, and selling stuff off, usually to private companies who make vast donations to the Conservative Party.

This government quite literally does not care if people live or die as long as they can continue with their agenda.

And other privatisations are completely cack-handed. Atos has done an abysmal and expensive job of fitness-for-work assessments for the Department of Work and Pensions, for example. All this should be a gift for Labour. But it seems "kinder politics" may be getting in the way. After Letwin's racist gaffe was revealed a few weeks ago, the only real resistance from Labour was to trot out Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, to make a few comments and that was it.

If Labour is at all serious about winning the middle ground back - and winning the middle ground means winning elections - an attack dog approach to Oliver Letwin is essential. Instead of embarrassing, backfiring stunts like throwing Mao's Little Red Book around the House of Commons, Privatising The World needs to be thrown at the government benches. The major news channels and newspapers should request interviews with Oliver Letwin and tell the readers and viewers if he refuses to be interviewed/is not given permission from Tory spin doctors to be interviewed.

We need to see more of Oliver Letwin's Alfred E. Neumann-like face in the media, as a constant reminder of what this government is really up to.

Photography by Peter Griffin