Spiderman and Ukraine

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King Edward VI School Sixth Form Journal, April 30th 2014

You’ve probably noticed that, in the last month, the news outlets have once again become fixated with the idea of Western powers going to war. It would seem that the rules of international politics are created in line with the 2002 remake of Spiderman – countries who are militarily superior tend to think that they have a remit to get involved in other nations’ disputes just because they have the ability to. In essence: “great power comes with great responsibility”. But does this responsibility actually exist? Is it right for us to intervene?

You could argue, like Uncle Ben, that having military force and significant global influence means that if you’ve got the potential to stop something like the persecution of Kurds in Iraq or the Rwandan genocide, then you should. The real issue, of course, is that Western nations are self- interested and hot-headed, and as a result, singular intervention is often unhelpful.

Iraq and Rwanda, for example, are two of the most severe humanitarian crises of recent years. But intervention in Iraq by the West was motivated by tenuous evidence of WMDs that could threaten us, and not by the obvious suffering of the Kurdish people. Rwanda was largely ignored by the people who could have helped, aside from some UN Peacekeepers that gave too little, too late.

The UN, incidentally, should be the body which regulates international conflict. There’s certainly a case to be made for the right of the sovereignty of a nation to fight its own battles, but most would concede that some form of international unity is needed. It’s then frustrating when nations on the Security Council ignore the the veto and wade in anyway.

With that in mind, you’ll excuse me for being skeptical about the West’s condemnation of Russia’s intervention in Crimea. Putin’s been accused, quite rightly, of putting his own interests before those of the citizens of Ukraine and Obama waded in with sanctions and embargoes that Westminster was initially reluctant to agree to (remember the secret papers that got ‘papped’ on the doorstep of No.10?).

In my view, any intervention from the West should be done through the UN and dealt with through summits that include Russia, not through shady strategy meetings that prove it’s a two-sided game.

Europe can’t afford to fall on the wrong side of Russia – Germany alone takes 36% of its gas from Russia and the continent as a whole took 185 million tonnes of oil from it last year.

Having said that, nor can Ukraine. Russia holds an enormous amount of their currency, giving it practically the power of a central bank, and it takes the majority of Ukrainian exports. Without Putin, Ukraine is stuck with no power, no money, and no trade links. The EU has already ostracised Ukraine with the introduction of a tariff that non-EU nations must pay to trade with us – so Ukraine is not in a position to burn any more bridges.

Crimea has been formally annexed and re-joined to Russia, following an illegal referendum not sanctioned by the government in Kiev – leaving no Ukrainian troops in the region and what seems to be official political secession.

The question, then, is whether or not we can allow this sort of manoeuvre in Putin’s ex-Soviet ‘sphere of influence’. If we can’t, then what can we do? Russia and the West both have power, and a clash of perceived responsibility has led to an international escalation. Uncle Ben would tell us to intervene – but I suspect the moral high ground that Spiderman has the liberty of taking was lost long ago.

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What’s On The Menu?

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Bury Free Press, 25th April 2014

You can lead a horse to water, so they say, but you can’t mince it up, disguise it as beef and sell it to Tesco in a Findus lasagne. The fake food scandal has waved its ugly, undetermined body part at us yet again– this time in the chilling light of a West Yorkshire investigation. The food industry, it seems, is cooked

The horse meat scandal, we know, had a huge public profile, even when there was actually nothing harmful in the meat, per se. It’s now been revealed that in smaller shops with an incentive to stock cheap and unregulated foods, the contaminants are much more shocking. Amongst the worst examples were vodka with industrial antifreeze ingredients and ‘brominated’ vegetable oil, used in flame retardants.

Government restrictions on council budgets have been partially responsible for the drop in standards, the investigation said, making it more difficult to regulate on limited funds. Food safety is something that affects us all, and the reputation of the food industry shouldn’t be damaged as a result of suppliers that don’t conform to the rules.

It’s also worth noting that Bury’s Premier Foods’ products were not pulled up in the investigation, an encouragement for the business, and that the ‘false’ food was mostly in independent retailers. Many large food retailers conduct their own checks on food safety to try to avoid this sort of problem – Tesco was not the culprit this time.

Without wanting to get too political, it’s fascinating that the government can find money to pay to clean out Douglas Hogg MP’s moat, but are at the same time slashing council budgets to investigate food fraud. Something more should be done to keep the dinner on our plates safe.

Prosecuting or Persecuting?

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Bury Free Press, 4th April 2014

If you’ve seen a police officer on the television in the last six months, it’s likely to be for one of two reasons. My first guess would be that you’re watching an accusation of a historic cover-up, backed up by evidence that’s recently emerged. If not, then you’re probably staring at Arthur Selby, the charming plasticine constable from Postman Pat.

Given that good news is often not ‘news’, it’s maybe not surprising that we don’t regularly see national bulletins that praise our police force. But the effects of a pessimistic outlook are alarming – recent statistics suggest that as a result of developments in the Hillsborough and Stephen Lawrence cases, public confidence in the police has tumbled. We don’t trust those who are there to keep us safe.

Fair enough, you could say – there has been significant oversight and deliberate cover-ups in the police force in the last fifty years, as well as evidence of institutional racism. That’s just not how we protect people. The problem really lies in the fact that confidence in a modern, reformed police force is undermined because of new information about its flawed predecessor. And more importantly, the majority of corruption cases, past and present, happen in the larger, inner-city forces.

The impact is unfortunately that we – in Suffolk – are feeling more vulnerable as a result of the actions of those who’ve already hung up their helmets for the last time, or those who face entirely different circumstances elsewhere. It might even surprise you that Suffolk’s detection rates are actually very good, even considering that we’re predominantly a rural county. 

On reflection, there’s another reason you might hear about police officers: when one is killed on the job. Obviously the acknowledgement of the past is important, but perhaps we should appreciate now the officers who face that risk every day.

Trophy Candidates: Female MPs

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Bury Free Press, Friday 28th March 2014

Take a collection of schoolboys. Add them to a mixture of other wealthy children in the private education system, making sure to add substantial parental funding. Stir in a pinch of power and prove in the colleges of Oxford. You may wish to embellish with a clipped, southern accent before serving in the Commons.

That, it seems, is the recipe for British government. I think it’s more of an Eton Mess.

The issue of female parliamentary representation reared its overwhelmingly masculine head again recently, with yet another Labour attack on the gender imbalance on the front bench.

The statistics do stand against the government. With half of the proportion of female MPs when compared to the opposition and only four female cabinet members, the coalition has a shoddy record for women’s representation and Labour looks to be well in the lead in the race for equality. The MP for Suffolk Coastal, Theresa Coffey, is a rare example of a female Tory in parliament.

But having said that, Labour might be just as much in the wrong.

They employ what are known as AWS, or ‘all-women shortlists’. This essentially means that when selecting a certain number of candidates for seats, the party chooses from a shortlist comprised entirely of women. This equalises their gender proportions and give them grounds for explosively critical PMQs. It means that in those constituencies, men have no opportunity to run, and women are given a leg up into the seat.

You might be surprised to hear that feminists everywhere aren’t hurriedly extinguishing their bras in emancipation. Rather than solving the problem of the glass ceiling, Labour have created an arbitrary hatch through it – a hatch guarded by men. This doesn’t solve the problem of an entrenched political patriarchy – it disguises it.

Of course, the women that Labour subsequently promotes are very gifted politicians – but the best way to demonstrate that would be by making the race fairer, rather than handing women a tokenistic trophy at the start line.

The Tories, in some constituencies, employ a more sensible 50:50 shortlist policy – so the decision on a candidate must be made from a list of 50% women. Coffey, from Suffolk Coastal which employs a 50:50 system, advocated this approach last month – saying she’s “not in favour of all-women shortlists” and feels she has “benefited from the 50:50 shortlist.”

Which would be ideal, except we’ve seen the numbers and they show the Tory solution just doesn’t work. Neither party accepts that the problem of entrenched political attitudes cannot be changed by forcing women into the House and therefore neither party has provided an adequate solution to the problem. Whilst the government build their cabinet on the male-based governance they have done nothing effective to remove, Labour have tried a quick-fix solution that simply patronises.

The attitude that women ‘can’t do politics’ is doubly harmful: when the message sent to aspiring female politicians is that the Commons are unattainable unless the seat is handed to you on a plate, we cause a decline in potential candidates and make it even harder for ourselves in the future. The status quo doesn’t represent women and doesn’t encourage them to get involved – the problem is that nor do the solutions from either side.

Women need representation, but they need legitimacy more, and that comes from an attitude change – not from a quota of any kind. Any meaningful change needs a new approach, and soon.

The Right to Harm Our Children

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This week, West Suffolk MP Matt Hancock voted in favour of the smoking ban and the Bill was passed – he was completely right to do so.

 The primary argument against any sort of ban of this kind is to do with the infringement of liberty by an oppressive ‘nanny’ state. But the way I see it, there are two reasons why this Bill just makes sense.

 I don’t agree with the idea that the government shouldn’t be able to take away some sort of civil liberty. We remove people’s rights all the time – I don’t have the right to stand on Angel Hill and hurl abuse at tourists, and nor should I.

 Simply by living in Britain, we enter into a contract with the state whereby we trade some liberties for protection against others who seek to harm us. In other words, I shouldn’t expect to be abused on Angel Hill any more than I should expect to be the one doing the abusing.

 The debate, then, lies in whether or not the government has a responsibility to protect people from smoking.

 And that brings me to the second reason why we should stop puffing in our cars: it’s about children. The government certainly holds an even larger responsibility to children, because kids often don’t have the ability to defend themselves, and that makes them far more vulnerable.

 If someone started smoking in a car I was in, and I didn’t like it, I would ask them to stop. Often children don’t know the (significant) risks of being the victims of second hand smoke in the enclosed environment of a car – and that is why it’s the responsibility of our government to make that decision for them.

 This Bill might not protect our right to harm our children, but I would rather protect the children at stake – Matt Hancock voted the right way.

‘Friends’ for much longer? David Cameron’s Facebook Movie

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It was once said that the pen was mightier than the sword – we now know that the keyboard is mightier still. Whichever way you look at it, social media has been a catalyst for debate, opinion and comment.

And, of course, the world most impacted by this paradigm shift in the way in which we form our opinions is politics. Like market traders coming to terms with the existence of Amazon, politicians have watched helplessly as people move their thoughts, opinions and campaigns online – and away from Westminster influence.

The people who run our country exist on the woodpile of ‘social’ public accountability that threatens to ignite and destroy them at any moment. At last, a maverick tweeter with a penchant for vigilante political justice can snapshot their views in 140 characters and share them with the globe.

Perhaps it’s unfair to condemn our ruling elite as the Luddites of social media, trying to grapple with the elusive power of the Twittersphere. Perhaps we’re wrong when we say that they can’t tell their meme from their hashtag.

Because sometimes, sometimes, they get it right.

Facebook’s new ‘movie’ feature, somewhat like a cheap burger, reconstitutes the scraps of your social media profile and squeezes them together in a dubious-looking cinematic patty – heavily flavoured with false nostalgia and joy. It’s exactly the sort of online tripe that fills up your timeline and makes you want to smash your laptop into 50 pieces, throw it into a skip and urinate on it.

And that’s what made it perfect for parody.

In a combination of satire and political attack, Labour this afternoon released ‘David Cameron’s Facebook Movie’. Using a montage of the coalition’s most embarrassing blunders of the last four years, Labour have crafted a provocative video that ‘pokes’ Cameron right in the pride.

By taking a look at the ‘most unliked posts’ – pasty tax, an NHS re-org hash-up and tax breaks for the wealthy, Labour sat back with a straight face and unashamedly took the mickey out of Cameron and his government.

Here was an example of a party breaking the traditional convention of politicians not making jokes and exploiting it to the full. In this country we don’t always like to get involved in politics, but today we engaged in the age old British tradition: having a good old chuckle at someone else’s expense.

Have a look for yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3clUh-S2M9Y

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