Monday, June 26, 2006

"satanic mills" or "Blame the system"

posted by k

The mills on the River Derwent in Derbyshire look peaceful and monumental today. Together they have been designated a world heritage site to show the wonders of the Industrial Revolution. On Saturday, I visited North Mill, in Belper.

The Strutt family - principally Jedediah and his son William - who ran the mill were regarded as enlightened, generous and charitable employers for their time. They preferred not to employ children under the age of 9 and insisted that, from their 12-hour day (6 in the morning until 7 at night, with an hour's unpaid break for lunch) two hours be devoted to schooling within the mill. Of course, this led William, in the end, to defend child labour on the grounds that child-employees were so much cheaper than adults, but that's another story.

The tale told at the Mill is one of model cottages for employees (the hands had space to keep chickens while the foremen, in their superior homes, could also have a pig-sty in the garden), a hospital, school and entertainments. It's also a tale of discipline and control with hands punished for a range of offences including "ill language" and calling out to soldiers. But, as bosses go, the Strutts were good employers for their time. They were thoughtful and inventive, always improving the efficiency of their machines. William Strutt's friends included Erasmus Darwin, Matthew Boulton, James Watt and Robert Owen - all seen as people in the vanguard of progress.

Behind this story, there are others. Nowadays the weir and canals look peaceful, but then the works - and the coming of the railway - wrenched the river from its course, disrupted the osier-beds, and hacked into earth and farmland. When Stephenson's railway was brought to Belper for the sake of the mills, the Strutt family insisted on deep cuttings so that their personal peace might be preserved.

There must have been an effect on the nailers of Belper, known for their drunkenness and the quality of their product. The small community with 500 residents suddenly grew, with farms and shops run by owners of the mills. Power came from wealth and ownership.

The mills processed cotton. It was a global industry. Slaves picked raw cotton in the West Indies and southern states of America. Supplies came from India, where weaving was to be forbidden to protect the British mills. The progress of the Industrial Revolution was built on slavery and colonial expansion. The Strutts' benevolence as employers was possible only because some human beings owned others as property.

Blaming the Strutts would be pointless. They lived, as we do, within a system of global economics and routine plundering of the environment. Within that system, they probably did their best. They were generous and charitable people by the standards of their times. I doubt it occurred to them to give their workers an equal say in their decisions. As far as they were concerned the wealth was theirs - they made it.

I wouldn't question the generosity of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, who are donating much of their wealth to charity. The concerns of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are laudable. But a world in which individuals are richer than countries and in which the budget of philanthropic organisations rivals or exceeds the United Nations is also a dangerously undemocratic world. We need to consider where power lies - and where it belongs.

Friday, June 23, 2006

"there's no knowing the effect of a vote"

posted by k

Parliament will debate the renewal of Britain's nuclear deterrent. It's a generous concession - it maintains the facade of parliamentary democracy.

Des Browne, Defence Secretary, has followed his leader Tony Blair, promising "a full parliamentary debate" but adding, "We may not need a Parliamentary vote."

This major decision wasn't announced in parliament. There were "indications" from Tony Blair, then a statement in the Mansion House from the heir presumptive, Gordon Brown. Renewal of Trident is decided (work began at Aldermaston months ago) and our elected representatives will one day be allowed to talk about it.

Do we need a nuclear deterrent in "the war against terror" when we are told we are fighting groups rather than nations? (Nations are still invaded and bombed.) Once
we were told that "mutual assured destruction" would save the world. Now political leaders argue for pre-emptive strikes.

In the new climate, the need for public and parliamentary debate seems clear. The public don't vote for the Prime Minister but for Members of Parliament, whose power diminishes daily. If we or our representatives are ignored, democracy is lessened. Our role as electors lacks purpose. We are merely the governed.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

"let's kill all the lawyers"

posted by k

The British government is trailing reforms to the criminal justice system. They've lined up the usual suspects: "out-of-touch judges" and "human rights defence lawyers". We're promised a force of "public protection advocates" to work in the police and courts to counter the threats from judges and lawyers.

I don't know how these "public protection advocates" will work. They sound like a cross between super-heroes and bureaucrats: Arnold Schwarzeneggger in a pinstripe suit. They're pitting the interests of the public against human rights.

We are all, individually, human. The public is always a group. It can be a community of shared interests (the Latin res publica which gives us the word "republic' has roughly the same sense as "commonwealth"). The public can also be a group of supporters or admirers. Stars can refer to "my public" and works of art go on public view.

I am often one of the public. I am always human.

Judges are an easy target. Their questions in court can sound foolish: "What is Linford Christie's lunchbox?" one asked, causing public hilarity. But courts can set precedents; fifty years on, lawyers may need that explanation.

Judges can be foolish. Sometimes they behave heroically. On occasions - in many parts of the world - judges have been killed for conducting fair trials.

The real target isn't human rights lawyers or judges. The target is the law.

Lawyers and judges follow laws that parliament can change. Governments make and amend laws. New laws may be read and debated before they are passed. Some members of parliament try to protect human beings as well as "the public". Debate can delay or halt new laws.

Will the next Criminal Justice Bill protect all of us, equally, as humans?

Whose rights - and whose powers - will Public Protection Advocates uphold?

Monday, June 05, 2006

"Take physic, pomp"

posted by k

The British government rushes on with its "Respect" agenda. Councils must set and meet targets for "Respect" on penalty of fines. People must show "Respect". Failures face rehabilitation - or cuts in housing benefit.

What does "Respect" mean? "Anti-social behaviour" is its opposite since "Respect" is being judged on how many Anti-Social Behaviour Orders have been handed out. Councils must find and punish "Anti-social behaviour" to show they're enforcing "Respect.

My head spins. Are there quiet areas? Must "Respect" police penalise unruly umbrellas or wilful showers of blossom?

There's no such quiet. That's a detective fiction facade - quickly unpicked by Holmes and Marple. The violence lies behind.

Cutting housing benefit gives the game away. "Respect" isn't about equality. It's about keeping the poor in line.

Most people don't get housing benefit. Bad behaviour isn't confined to a single class. We're being sold a myth of undeserving poor, guilty of all wrong, needing to be taught "Respect". Line up - forelock-tugging classes start here.

We used to dream equality. Now it's a new age of chav jokes and open sneers. There's a skeletal rhetoric of olden charity , but just round the corner the workhouse looms as the Lord of the ASBO proclaims, "Never darken my doorstep again."

Don't look down - look up. Look behind those who want our "Respect". See the warmongers, traders in shoddy goods, thieves of our safety, robbers of health. What have they done for society?

Real respect matters. It's not for society's wreckers. Save respect for those who struggle. That man sleeps rough, needs a dose of cider to get him through day and night, smells foul, swears at passers-by and urinates in public - maybe he needs more respect than our polite, clean, smiling leaders. I bet he's faced more hardship and heartbreak. He didn't order bombing of babies. He doesn't sell schools or peerages - or sell a people short.

Risk conversation. Think. Perhaps it's better to listen than to punish. Maybe the daft and desperate need our respect.