Thursday, 31 December 2015

New Year Honours

So here we go again - the annual circus that is the New Year Honours list, with the usual list of nominal rewards given to 'the great and the good' for services rendered to something or other. And, as usual, there's controversy about the Westminster bubble patting itself on the back in various ways, handing out the gongs to it's own people with a hearty 'haven't they worked so very hard at their public service'. And rightly so, I reckon.

I'm not going to launch into some tirade against individual honours here - there's plenty of people doing that already, and I'm not going to speculate over how justified each of these specific complaints is. Suffice to say that I, like many, still feel that the system is geared towards giving honours to people essentially for doing the job they are paid to do on the basis that those who decide the award distribution happen to be the same people who see the work they do first (or at least second) hand. And that is really the point, for me - not that it is always necessarily deliberately incestuous (or 'corrupt'), but simply that assumptions of 'worthiness' in this context seem all too often to be made on the basis of personal proximity and knowledge in a way that should have been deal with years ago.

We've been told, of course, that the days of 'automatic honours' are over. That's not the point, though - people seem to still be getting them for nothing more than doing their paid job quite well. This isn't a party political issue - it's a general problem that seems to apply, at least to some extent, right across the political spectrum and the political 'class'. The idea that a civil servant who happens to be both a senior and a reasonably good civil servant should get some kind of honour for it because 'public service' seems as ludicrous to me as the idea that an MP, or ex-MP, should get something special just because they were supposedly a good, hard-working MP and/or minister even though they haven't really done anything outside the MP-ing that they were being paid to do. Special honours like this shouldn't ever work like that.

Now that's not to suggest that MPs and civil servants from Westminster should never get such awards, of course - if an MP rows single-handed across the Atlantic to raise money for charity, or a civil servant spends their off time over decades helping youngsters in deprived areas by running youth clubs, they should get the recognition they deserve, just like anyone else. That's the point, though, recognition should be for actions above and beyond the day job, even if that day job is considered 'public service'. Indeed, the same should apply to teachers (and I'm sure it more often does!) - retiring from teaching after a lifetime of 'service' doesn't automatically add their name to the honours list, and nor should it. What should add a teacher's name is something 'a bit special', above and beyond being a good teacher and doing what a good teacher is paid to do. I think that the ones who deserve special awards from society are the ones who do those things above and beyond just fulfilling the role they are paid to fulfil - those who give extra time to help their pupils in extra ways - that truth should hold true for everyone across the board.

I do think these kind of awards should exist, so that 'the people' in the form of 'the state' can reward individuals in some way for making that extra-special effort to do things for others or for the wider good of society (or particular aspects thereof). The current system of awards quite obviously needs a bit of attention, though - we really don't need to be issuing medals in the name of the 'Empire' any more! I'm not going to go along any kid of 'republican' nonsense about it being all about 'bowing to a monarch' or anything - republics have similar systems of public 'honours', and the royal connection is really nothing much more than a convenient customary ceremonial one. I don't think that's an issue worth making a fuss about, particularly because doing so detracts from the main point about making sure that we are only issuing such recognition to those who actually deserve it.

We have to get away from the idea that these awards should be decided by the Westminster political elite according to their own internal standards, even if they are doing so partly according to suggestions that they are receiving from others. The reality is that it is still our senior politicians, however well meaning, giving things to 'their own', and that is surely wrong. We need to overhaul the system, in my opinion, so that it is made absolutely clear that nobody should get any such special recognition for just doing their paid job really well. Nobody. That applies equally to celebrities and sports people, though I accept there is some argument that in the latter case it is recognition for their lifelong dedication to achieving a goal that sometimes sees them putting in many, many hours of unpaid training 'work' from childhood onwards. It should be about someone having done something really 'special' that contributes to the wider world in some way, not just about someone being good at whatever it is their are supposed to be good at because they are paid to do it.

Currently, like many others, I feel that it is still not the case, particularly when it comes to Westminster assuming itself to be a 'special place' where their kind of 'public service' puts them in some kind of different moral bracket to other people, and puts them in a position where their job itself makes them worthy of being given a special honour by 'the people' (when in fact the honour is given to them by each other, of course). Public service should certainly be a primary consideration for everyone in politics and the associated mechanisms, but in itself it doesn't make those people worthy of special extra rewards. It may be a 'public service' job, but it is still a job for which people are paid. In fact they are often very well paid compared with the average wage, even if sometimes they are not quite as well paid as some comparable workers in the private sectors - they often do get other relative 'benefits' in their 'terms and considerations'. To an extent they should be considering 'public service' itself as a kind of reward in terms of being able to help people and make the world a better place (as they see fit) - personally I'd be slightly concerned at any 'public servant' who doesn't consider that to be the case.

The entire system of honours as it stands could be said, with some justification, to be somewhat anachronistic in the modern world. That certainly doesn't make the idea of special public recognition for doing special things to be a bad one, even if some of the inconsistencies in it need to be ironed out. It does, however, need to really be 'for doing special things', and not just 'for doing things that someone was really supposed to be doing anyway as a matter of course', or even 'for doing the things that someone was supposed to be doing really, really well'. It has to be for things 'above and beyond' what could reasonably be considered simple as 'duty', or as 'reasonable duties of the job'. All 'politicians' should be doing things 'for politics'. All 'public servants' should be doing things 'for public service'. To put it bluntly, that's what they are paid for. If they are going to get special recognition via the honours system, they need to have been doing, or to have done, something really special that goes above and beyond that normal 'duty'.

Happy New Year!

Monday, 14 December 2015

My Top 20 CDs of 2015

Having put together this list, I thought I might as well post it as a blog post too. It has no particular relevance, of course, and I as usual claim no particular expertise other than being a lifelong music obsessive who always tries to take in as much new music as possible every year, but for what it's worth here it is. I originally did this in no particular order, but having had to order a 'top 10' for something else I thought I might as well try to put the whole thing in some kind of sequence. I make no promises about the precise relative positions matching exactly what I'll feel about them relative to one another in future, but here they are anyway:

20. Searching For Zero - Cancer Bats
19. The Congregation - Leprous
18. Holy War - Thy Art Is Murder
17. Curious Volume - Pentagram
16. Ire - Parkway Drive
15. Guilt (EP) - Shields
14. Under The Red Cloud - Amorphis
13. Brainwashed - While She Sleeps
12. Volume - Skindred
11 VII: Sturm Und Drang - Lamb of God
10. The Anthropocene Extintion - Cattle Decapitation 
 9. Wolflight - Steve Hackett 
 8. Xeno - Crossfaith 
 7. Drones - Muse 
 6. Meliora - Ghost 
 5. Juggernaut (Alpha/Omega) - Periphery 
 4. Reprisal - Continents
 3. Polaris - TesseracT 
 2. Soul Sphere - Born of Osiris  
 1. Coma Ecliptic - Between The Buried And Me 

If you want to have a listen to a sample from each, I have a Spotify playlist of one song from each, in the same order, here:

Also, very honourable mentions for a few that very, very nearly made it onto the list:

The Book of Souls - Iron Maiden
Node - Northlane 
V - Scale The Summit

Note: The photo is one I took watching Muse at Download Festival this year - a tremendous set that will live long in my memory.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Where should the UK's parliament be?

This post has really been prompted by two considerations. Firstly, there is the simple fact that the current main building that houses parliament and its necessary associated functions is, to put it bluntly, in the process of falling down. In addition to that, the other associated buildings are barely fit for purpose, and any form of expansion in the centre of one of them most crowded and expensive cities in the world is obviously going to be a problem. Now is a perfect time for considering exactly what we do about the location of parliament, and I don't think we should be afraid to point out what is probably blindingly obvious to most people outside the 'Westminster bubble' itself.

The second, and more important, is the fact that the UK's parliament has long been tucked away in one corner of England, pretty much as far as possible from the other constituent nations of the UK (there may some sound historical reasons for that, of course!), and far from being central to England itself. This has had a clear effect on the way that the regional economies have developed within the UK, and in the modern world it's creating a problem for everyone. London has long been an effective drain on the resources of other parts of the UK with its centralisation of economic activity around the area of political power. This is not a coincidence, of course, though it's not an issue for which anybody should really be blamed either, since it has grown over centuries where transport communication was nothing like what is possible today. Many of the things that were centred on London really needed to be geographically located in close proximity, but that is quite clearly, I think, no longer the case.

But let's not pretend that this has all been great for the London area itself - it certainly hasn't. Overpopulation has caused massive issues for living costs, transport, housing, pollution and air quality, not to mention the fact that London also happens to be in one of the worst spots in the UK for enabling effective collection of large amounts of water. Though it's easy to look at the overall figures and say that the London area is doing just fine, the reality is that everyone is suffering in some way, and the less well off the more they are suffering. The UK has plenty of land to home its population and more, but the south East of England, and London in particular, cannot realistically sustain the population levels it has. The answer to that issue seems to me to be fairly obvious - we have to look at how we distribute population less ludicrously unevenly across the UK.

There is also a political cost of having the centre of power located in the the big city in the far corner of the union, and from two perspectives. Firstly, while there is an inevitable 'bubble' around any centre of power that skews political debate and over-emphasises the importance of some issues (and under-emphasises others), this certainly isn't helped by this particular kind of location. 'The North' really can be a long way from the life experience of many of the people who hold the strings of power, let alone such weird, foreign places as Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. The reverse is also true - London is about as remote as it possibly could be from these places, and the people there know it. It's really not a healthy situation for the UK state as a whole, and for our various parts to work positively together in an atmosphere of mutual trust. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the location of parliament, with all that results from it, is a significant factor in issues like the potential break up of the Union by Scottish Nationalism - if London hadn't been so physically remote that it was able to become so politically (and socially) remote, I think things might very well have been very different over history of the Union and its government.

It would be nonsense to pretend we can burst the 'bubble' entirely by simply moving parliament, of course. There will always be an element of that situation, no matter where parliament sits. It is a reality that every country has to live with, and that everyone involved with politics should remind themselves about constantly (many, in all political parties and associated hanger-on groups, do not do that nearly enough, but that's perhaps a slightly different issue). At the moment, though, we have a 'bubble within a bubble' - London is so different and remote from the rest of the UK that it has its own bubble issue, and Westminster has another bubble inside. Double-bubble equals double-trouble (sorry - couldn't resist that bit of cheesiness!).

It would also be nonsense to pretend that we would solve all the problems of London itself overnight by simply moving the politicians out. That's not going to happen either - it will still very much be the economic heart of the country in many ways, and almost nothing will change that (if something catastrophic enough to change that comes along, the niceties of 'bubbles' will be the least of our worries!). We can do other things, of course - we can look at the concentration of government departments in London too. The historical growth of them around parliament was obviously inevitable, but times have changed - to but it bluntly, we no longer need to communicate by horse and carrier pigeon. There is no real need for government departments to be next to parliament, or next to each other, so let's spread them about a bit. Does it really make sense, for example, to have a Ministry dealing with Agriculture to be located in the middle of one of the largest cities in the world? I'm going to say not! While we can't solve London's over-population issues overnight, we can potentially spark a process of change that would gradually reduce the problem over time.

Of course, there will be those who take an attitude of 'you can't possibly do that', but many of them will be people living within the 'bubbles' who fear any change that might see them having to move just a little bit out of their own associated personal bubble. 'But I might have to move to....THE NORTH!', well, sorry (not sorry!), but so be it! We need to take action to address the problem we have, and we could also do with distributing our high-paid civil service and political posts around the country a bit, for the good of everyone. There is obviously a case for leaving some functions in the London area - since most embassies are located there, for example, it would make some sense to have the Foreign Office functions continue in their current location. We shouldn't be dogmatic about doing things that make no sense, of course, but I don't believe that that means we should do nothing to address the current situation.

So that all brings me back to where we started - where should the UK's parliament be? Well the obvious answer is 'somewhere in the middle'. that's not as easy as it sounds to work out in a place that happens to be as oddly shaped as the UK, though. There are various opinions as to what constitutes the exact middle of the UK. In considering the question, I thought I'd take a fairly blunt approach in the first instance - get a map, and start drawing lines between significant points at opposite 'ends' to see where they crossed. They don't all cross at the same place, of course, but a significant number do seem to cross around one particular place. Many of them cross in the sea, in fact, which led me towards further considerations of where was close to that bit of sea, and about communications with the various parts of the UK. I did, in the end, come to a firm conclusion as to where was the best place to put parliament.

Before I specify that, I'm just going to speculate that some people will really not like the answer, but that is more down to their own ideas of the place than its reality, and doesn't take into account the benefits that would inevitably be brought as a result of becoming the seat of government for the UK. So there we have it - my answer is Liverpool. Roughly central-ish to the UK as a whole, with pretty good links to all of it (including direct links to the capital of Northern Ireland, which all too often gets overlooked in such considerations). Much closer to Wales and Scotland than London is, obviously, but still close to the large centres of population in the Midlands and North, as well as being reasonably easily accessible to the South East.

In the current situation of over-centralisation and building on the point of collapse, I think we should be seriously considering moving parliament, and building it a new home in (or more specifically on the outskirts of, where expansion would be possible) Liverpool. Whether such a thing happens, however, will ultimately be in the hands of the already multi-bubbled, and the cynic in my suspects that they will dismiss the idea any way they can, on the basis that they would rather not have to go there (as much talk as there is of a 'Northern Powerhouse', I'm not sure that translates to our political 'elite' wanting to actually have to be located within it!), and would rather stay in the city that some people laughingly refer to as 'the centre of the World'. It isn't 'the centre of the World', it isn't even the centre of the UK. It is, quite frankly, a dreadfully unsuitable place to have our parliament. It's not where anybody should really have chosen to put it, and now we have an opportunity to make that choice again we should use it, and I think we should put it where it makes some kind of practical sense, which I believe would be Liverpool.