The mantra of ‘business knows best’

Mantras are not usually popular in Baptist circles. But there is a mantra accepted by far too many Christians and non-Christians alike, a mantra whose chanted rhythms are becoming more pervasive by the day. It says: ‘Big business knows best,’ and it’s been echoing for decades throughout the western world. A recent amplification came from Tony Blair and it has found something of a devotee – no, a Swami in David Cameron (with side-kick Fakir assistance from Nick Clegg). If (to extend the metaphor), during the years of New Labour, Westminster became something of a flower-power teen’s bedroom of tentative occasional chanting, the Con-Dem government has turned it into an Ashram.

Everywhere, in almost every decision our new government takes, one hears it and variations on it: ‘Big business knows best.’ ‘Profits mean progress.’ ‘The private sector is our salvation.’ Businessmen are appointed to oversee restructuring of public departments and business principles deployed in spending public money. Indeed, big businesses will soon be running much of what used to be publicly owned. The chanting of the mantra has become so loud, so ubiquitous, that ordinarily balanced people, even economic ‘atheists’ seem to have got religion, at least in terms of believing in the mantra.

Even when discussing the war in Afghanistan, NATO last week complained that all the positive stories are missed by a negative media. Examples given on the radio included building projects and economic recovery. So much of the proverbial Kool-aid has been imbibed that we are really willing to see the destruction of homes and infrastructure (with the loss of life that entails) as a positive thing, because it is good for the business of reconstruction.

But let’s not be unfair. Big business does know best about some things. Making a profit, mostly. And if a profit is what you want, the big business world has some pretty good ideas to offer. But most of those ideas involve charging as much as possible for what you provide, cutting jobs or paying people the very minimum you can get away with to cut costs and focusing every decision about quality on whether it will, in the end, make more money.

This is all perfectly respectable within the narrow world of commerce. One would not run a family that way, though. Asking little toddler Jimmy how he has contributed to the family bottom line and regretfully informing him his services will no longer be required is something most parents would prefer to avoid. When a mother becomes pregnant a second time we don’t immediately commiserate because her costs have gone up. The very idea of applying big business principles to the family (at least exclusively) is obviously ridiculous. And yet, there are many in our government who believe that big business knows best for public services and parts of government. Their faith in the infallibility of big business is amazing. After all, the economic crisis was caused by big business, and their network, the markets. The oil-spill in the Gulf of Mexico? A business called BP.

The high-priests of this mantra would have us believe that we have to choose between a world in which everything is run by big business or a totalitarian state. This is not true. Many things work better without business and don’t result in us becoming North Korea. The police are not privatised, ambulance and rescue services are not expected to make profits and making the fire department a business would obviously return us to a world where only those with money would receive help when they needed it most. It’s unthinkable in terms of burning houses. But when it comes to the lives of those who rely on public services most, we seem pretty open to it. I wonder if that’s the fault of the mantra, or just because we’re selfish and indifferent to change that is unlikely to threaten ourselves. Either way, as the Beatles eventually lost faith in the Maharishi, a little skepticism might be healthy about now.


Powell to the people?

enorchpowellEnoch Powell: Was he: A) A dangerous bigot and blot on the history of the Conservative Party? Or B) A bit of a hero?

To answer ‘B’, you have to one of those people who think it was a mistake to intern British fascist leader, Sir Oswald Mosley, during WWII. Or a regular reader of The Daily Mail. Or Daniel Hannan.

Daniel Hannan is a Conservative MEP, who last week, on American TV, cited Enoch ‘rivers of blood’ Powell as one of his political heroes.

In the American context, that would be like praising Strom Thurmond, a symbol of America’s struggle against civil rights and for segregation of the races. In Britain, Powell’s name carries similar baggage, and while there may be aspects of his politics or career that were untouched by racism, praising him (let alone calling him a ‘hero’) sends as clear a message as a Communist who praises Stalin for his agrarian policies or a Cambodian who thinks Pol Pot was a snappy dresser. No unlobotomised British politician could fail to see what praising him suggests.

The point is that even though America may have missed the significance of the remark, we should not.

The reason we should not ignore the remark is because Mr Hannan represents Britain in the European Parliament and he represents a political party that is widely tipped to win the next election. What he says and how he is treated for saying it by his superiors should be of concern to us. A few weeks before praising Enoch Powell, Daniel Hannan was also in the American media, this time attacking the NHS, calling it ‘a 60 year mistake’.

At the time, David Cameron distanced himself from the comment, calling Hannan ‘eccentric’.

And the fact that Hannan has not been punished or even reprimanded by the Conservative Party at the time I write this makes me wonder about the polls that show the Tories in the lead in public opinion. Labour has certainly made gross and disgusting errors during its time in power. So many, in fact, that many disillusioned leftists, liberals and citizens concerned with the social justice that Labour has traditionally fought for have deserted the party and are dismissive of its politicians as hypocrites, liars, and, worst of all from their perspective, Tories.

In many ways, unfortunately, they are right. But is the answer, for a liberal, to vote for a party that has many of the same faults you despise in New Labour, just amplified? Is the answer, for a Christian who is more concerned for the lives of the poor in Asia and Africa than the bankers Gordon Brown has supported rather than punished, to vote for a party that has consistently decreased the UK’s international aid budget and whose members don’t see international development as important?

Who do we vote for when none of the three main parties are even considering a platform of zero economic growth (essential, many academics believe, if we are to combat climate change and the worst excesses of unfair trade)?

I refuse to believe that the answer lies in doing nothing and absenting ourselves from politics to pray in a corner. If party politics is how decisions are made, then that is what we must get involved with, denouncing racism, a lack of concern for the poor and unjust wars as we go, in whatever party we support.

I know who i’m not going to vote for.

Blue Screen of (Literal) Death

blue-screen-of-deathOh. My. Goodness. WTF.

I just caught up with this story.

My excuse for being late is that I’ve had Swine Flu, apparently (who knows? The lady on the phone thought I did).

In short, this is how the Tories want to outsource our medical records. No biggie there. The Conservative Party, for all it’s recent nice-guy posing, still seems to have that particular brand of capitalist faith in markets that will not rest until we have pay-as-you-investigate policing and top-up fire and rescue services.

But it’s who they want to re-place the NHS with the medical histories that mean diabetics are not prescribed lengthy courses of sugar-pills that is troubling.It’s Microsoft.

Microsoft! Seriously.



Without wishing to sound like a form-over-substance-ooh-look-it-has-pretty-colours-and-decides-how-I-want-it-to-run-because-it’s-SO-INTUITIVE-Steve-Jobs-Worshiping-Apple-Slave, Seriously? Microsoft?

Have you heard of the blue screen of death?

We are all going to die. I’m telling you.

And, for slightly more serious reasons (even ones that involve Google, who, with their record in China, would in no way pass the files of Muslim patients to MI5 for the coming biological war. Nossirree Bob) other people think it’s a bad idea too.

Of course, the NHS is no doubt all based on Windows and there is nothing particularly wrong with Microsoft prodcuts that isn’t wrong with others (in theory). But what is wrong is handing more and more of our public services over to a seemingly insatiable corporate sector that is motivated by profits for shareholders, not the public good, and which keeps on encouraging lazy, apathetic semi-citizens to’vote with your feet.’

Screw my feet. I want to vote with my vote. But I am old-fashioned and believe in Democracy. I also believe that for that democracy to mean anything it should certainly not be mediated by organisations who only care for those who can afford to matter to them. But, then, I am a Christian. And if I am scared of ‘big government’ and the totalitarian nightmare that phrase seems to suggest to some people (‘Honestly, mate. First step: free health-care. Next step: Stalin’), I am at least as scared of where the worship of Mammon will take us.

Ha. Listen to me talking like it hasn’t already happened.

Save the minimum wage!

I recently signed a petition about saving the minimum wage. Yes, hard as it is to believe, in ‘the current economic climate’ (and there’s a phrase that just doesn’t get old, does it?) some Tory MPs ar putting forward legislation that would mean an end to the minmum wage. Visions of Dickensian working conditions and the lowest paid workers in society being paid even less spring to mind.

Christians can not accept this as a positive move. If you believe in justice, please read the message below and take some time to do what it asks. It will take a few minutes, but it will also probably never benefit you directly. With that kind of sales pitch, what Christian can refuse?

Messgae from John Prescott and Wage Concern:

Firstly, I want to thank you for all your help in our campaign to save the minimum wage.

Thanks to you, our Wage Concern shamed the Tories into pulling the Employment Opportunities Bill last month.

But it’s still not dead – it’s down on the order paper for this Friday, June 12th in the House of Commons.

That means the proposed legislation to effectively abolish the minimum wage is still very much alive.

We still need your help to raise awareness of this retrogressive and unfair bill.

So can you spare me five minutes to send an email to the 11 Tory MPs sponsoring this bill?

Step 1: Draft an email

Here’s a draft email you can use to send to the Tories:

“I am very concerned to hear about the Private Members Bill, Employment Opportunities, down for its second reading on Friday 10th June, that will seek to abolish the mandatory national minimum wage.

“You are listed as one of the Bill’s sponsors.

“The national minimum wage has benefitted more than a million people since it was introduced and your Bill would effectively undermine it by allowing unscrupulous bosses to pay what they like.

“Please could you let me know as a matter of urgency whether you still plan to support this Bill and if so, why you back it. I am respectfully asking you to withdraw your backing.

“Could you also let me know whether you believe it is right for paid MPs to call for the minimum wage to be effectively abolished whilst holding second jobs themselves as many of the Bill’s sponsors do.”

Step 2 – Send the email

You can send it to the 11 Tory MPs sponsoring the Bill. They are:

Christopher Chope (Christchurch)
Peter Bone (Wellingborough, Northants)
Philip Davies (Shipley, West Yorkshire)
Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley, Wales)
Greg Knight (Yorkshire East)
Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Lincolnshire)
Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater, Somerset)
Brian Binley (Northampton South, Northants)
William Cash (Stone, Staffs)
Robert Syms (Poole, Dorset)
David Wilshire (Spelthorne, Surrey)

Or you can cut and paste the email addresses and send it to them all

Step 3 Get your friends to do it too

Forward on this email to your friends, asking them to do the same.

Let’s see if we can get the MPs to withdraw their support and send a message that though times are difficult, scrapping the minimum wage is not an option.

Thanks for your support and I’ll keep you updated. You can also find out more at

News: too depressing. Video games: virussy

‘David Cameron: Scrap the Human Rights Act’ was a Telegraph headline last week. So much to say. So depressing to think about. Let’s talk about video games instead.

I hate Second Life. And not because it is a virtual world you access via your computer and spend hours of your real life talking to imaginary friends while ignoring flesh-and-blood humans. I am after all addicted to Facebook and spend a good deal of my life on YouTube. I don’t even hate Second Life (in case you haven’t gathered, it’s a website in which people create virtual versions of themselves and interact in a semi-realistic computer-graphics environment) because people there pay vast sums of real money for make-believe houses, clothes and body parts.

I hate Second Life for two other reasons. One: I came to it too late and my inexperience makes me feel stupid and clumsy and ignorant and nobody likes me and I have no friends and I’m gonna have a little cry. And two: I am plagued by a question: ‘Why?’ Why would you create a world that is fairly like this one, characters that are (barring some special individuals who create animal-like characters called ‘furries’ who are a whole column of nutcase-baiting on their own) fairly like normal people, doing relatively real-world things? Why not walk outside? If it’s blameless, amoral, irresponsible fantasy existence you want (and assuming you’re not Paris Hilton), Second Life is nice, but World of Warcraft is better.

If at this point all this is getting a bit much and you’re feeling lost, fear not! Feeling ignorant of online fads is a symptom of a very common disorder known as ‘having a life’. World of Warcraft is like Second Life, only with more killing, orcs, wizards and warriors than property lawyers. Its fantasy role-play nature makes its escapism so obviously unconnected to real life that it seems less likely to replace real life than Myspace, Facebook or the next big thing: MyFaceLifeTube™ (it’s only a matter of time).

News last week of a Princeton University study published in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases has made me slightly paranoid though. The study, in the real-world medical journal, was about the spread of a pandemic within the Warcraft virtual world. The ‘disease’, ‘Corrupted Blood’, made news last week as commentators wondered what it taught us about real pandemics. The study showed that it originated in a remote forest region of the ‘world’ and was spread partly by malicious or careless players, but mainly by what the report called ‘the stupid factor’, a neat term for not-to-be-left-out people essentially saying: ‘a highly infectious deadly disease spreading like wildfire? I’m there!’

In a week when it has been revealed that Britain has the worst cancer-survival rate of any comparable European nation, is there anything we can learn from this, aside from the obvious fact that I spend too much time on the computer? No. But I will tell you this. In the 1995 bestseller The Hot Zone there is a story of how a bunch of control-study monkeys that had not been in direct physical contact with the Ebola virus were mysteriously infected and died of the disease while in isolation in their cages. The author suggests one possible explanation is that for a time the virus went airborne. And it could do it again. So even if we’re feeling smug about our lifestyle-choices making us less likely to contract HIV, I’d call that a potential Pestilence to add to the War and Famine rampant in the world. Facing realities like those or the one in the Telegraph it’s no wonder some people prefer escapism to eschatology. We should probably pray about that.  

Snow news is good news

News can be like a house-party. It can be staid, civilized, focused and ultimately edifying, like cocktail parties you have when you’re thirty, or it can be good. By good I do not mean inherently, transcendentally, ontologically good. I mean good like the parties you had when you were 18, reckless, good looking and stupid were good. There may not have been helpful or important, but they were entertaining. Last week’s news was like that. We had David Cameron umming and ah-ing about whether he smoked cannabis at eton (is that what is meant by a ‘Green Tory’? I’ve always wondered), and all the associated questions that inevitably flow from such a story: ‘Is he fit to be Prime Minister?’, ‘Do we really care about his past?’ and ‘Dave, could you pass the Rizlas?’

Also last week came the ‘good’ news that actor Ryan O’Neil was arrested for assaulting his son, who was allegedly coming at him with a fire-place poker. The incident started out as a family disagreement and spiralled out of control. Not surprising, if you consider that O’Neil’s most famous role was in Love Story, the film that famously postulated: ‘love means never having to say you’re sorry.’ Tell that to the judge, O’Neil.

Saying you’re sorry is the cornerstone of Restorative Justice, a complex approach to justice that, in some of its interpretations, aims to provide an alternative to prison in the form of making restitution to the victims of crime rather than the state. A study released last week showed that the Restorative Justice approach (which uses the Christian principles of forgiveness based on repentance and righting the wrongs you have committed), can greatly reduce the incidence of both re-offending and victims’ desire for revenge. The report, backed up by a former Chief Constable, came in the same week it was revealed that violent incidents in prisons had increased by 500 per cent over the last ten years and just weeks after the row about prison overcrowding and the appalling conditions it creates. Tory MP David Davies was on Radio 4 denouncing the scheme as ‘a soft option’ and ‘having a cup of tea with a social worker rather than going to prison,’ and stopping just short of shouting ‘kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out!’ (well, that’s how I saw it, I might be wrong). Which was ‘good news’ because it showed just how far the Conservative Party has come in changing that ‘nasty image’.

But the real news from last week was the snow. It caused delays, school closures and traffic disruptions, and everyone around me loved it. And that was ‘good news’ because it provided amusement (the youth arrested for sculpting four-foot snow genitals in the street and the Scots in my office calling everyone else a bunch of ‘jessies’, striding around bare-chested, saying ‘this isn’t snow—I’ll show you snow.’) as well as an insight into culture. Personally I could have done without the ‘sky-dandruff’, as I like to think of it. I was on a train that had not moved for one and a half hours at about 11pm on Thursday night. In my home country, South Africa, the train would have been on fire and I would have been dancing half-naked round it. But the British are more patient. Nice English people made phonecalls to loved-ones explaining the situation without the slightest hint of bitterness, saying that this was nobody’s fault, just bad luck. Some of them were saying goodbye. ‘You’re the man of the house now, son. Be good to your mother. I love you very much.’ It was tragic. Yet nobody seemed to complain. No-one was standing on their seat shouting that it has snowed in this country’s winter for quite some time and yet still we have not learned to protect whatever it is that malfunctions in snow by putting a heater next to it or covering it with a bit of plastic. Myself, I’m of two minds. Yes snow is cool (no pun intended) but it is also flaky (okay that was intended). But then that is true of dopey politicians, angry actors and prison-loving activists too. And from my point of view, that’s good.

Pity to the powerful

It’s not fair. It is also not right. Right now I am stamping my foot, shouting “no, no, no!” and pouting, so you know I’m serious. I’m expressing my intense, yet mature exasperation at the deep injustices facing a few people in last week’s news. And no, I’m not talking about starving Africans, those imprisoned without trial or victims of violence. Those people are the voiceless. They have Bono. But what about the rich, the powerful and the obscenely privileged? Who will speak out for them? They are the ones I want to talk about. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: people you might find it hard to feel sorry for.

The first of the waifs and strays selling matches in the merciless blizzard of international news are Barclays Bank. Barclays (and, to be fair, the other high street banks too) sought our pity last week because more and more people are opting for Individual Voluntary Arrangements (IVAs). IVAs are agreements that enable people with massive debts they cannot repay to have part of their debt written off in exchange for regular repayments. Banks have accused private debt advice firms of encouraging people to go down the IVA road just to secure commissions for themselves. What? Companies profiting off the misery of unsustainable debt? Surely banks have the right to defend their monopoly? I know you may find it hard to side with an industry that is once again boasting of record profits (Barclays alone unveiled £5.2Bn profits last month) and has recently faced criticism from the Office of Fair Trading for overcharging customers. But try.

Try also to feel sorry for that nice David Cameron, leader of the Conservative party, baby-kisser, hoodie-hugger and cyclist without portfolio (it’s in the car behind him). Yes, I know he is ahead in the polls. But pity him. Because last week a dastardly Labour MP put a video on the YouTube website that aimed, hard as it is to believe, to mock the Tory leader’s attempts at being “down with the kids”. The rather amusing spoof was removed from the site (though copies are easily found through searching YouTube for “Sion Simon” I hear), but don’t feel sorry for YouTube, fans of political satire or even the unfortunate Labour MP who has caught it in the neck for being funny. Think of David, his thin skin and hurt feelings.

Think also of Walmart (the struggling little company that owns Asda and almost everything else in the world) as it has to pay $78 million to employees who were lazy and greedy enough to expect not to be pressured into giving up lunches and breaks guaranteed by law. Think of Kim Jung Il, too, as crushing sanctions against his nation cut off supplies of essentials like lobster, French wine, jet-skis and caviar to his administration in North Korea. Think also of George W Bush, as he tries to deal with a country that not only has nuclear capabilities but may be willing to go against UN wishes and attack other nations. It must be hard to deal with a concept that foreign.

But most of all, pity Christians in our country who may soon face outrageous discrimination concerning the expression of our faith, as experienced by a British Airways worker who was forbidden from wearing a cross with her uniform last week. Pity especially those Christians who thought Muslim women were making a lot of fuss about nothing concerning a supply teacher forbidden to wear the veil last week. Yes, irony can be harsh.