Friday, 19 December 2008

Letter to The Times on Zimbabwe (unpublished)

The Editor
The Times

Dear Sir,

Historic precedent shows it is highly unlikely that there will be a credible military intervention in Zimbabwe to prevent further human suffering. Let us recall other recent examples which prompted little more than high rhetoric at summits and low levels of moral courage: at least 200,000 died in Darfur; 250,000 died in Bosnia; a million died in the Rwanda genocide and up to 5 million have died in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In each case the response of the regional powers, powerful Western nations and the UN was pathetic, shameful inaction in the face of preventable suffering and death on a biblical scale. Sadly, this is unlikely to change in 2009, but I live in hope.

Yours faithfully,

John Slinger

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Letter to The Times on Zimbabwe (unpublished)

The Editor
The Times


Sir,

Zimbabwe is a failed state whose malicious government through design and omission is bringing about conditions of starvation and disease. The Zimbabwean people are tyrannised and are unable to rise up. The neighbouring African countries, with a few brave exceptions, have utterly failed to modify Mugabe's behaviour, are unwilling to intervene and are militarily incapable of the task. The UN has been supine as it was in Rwanda, Darfur, Saddam-era Iraq and Bosnia. Western powers have ruled out military intervention, citing practical difficulties and overstretch while hiding behind the convenient shield of colonial guilt. Is there anyone left? I contend that the answer might be nearer to home than we think.

The collective outrage of ordinary citizens throughout the world ought to be channelled into toppling Mugabe. If enough people donated money, it should be possible to assemble a mercenary army using established, highly trained security companies which do so much quasi-military work in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. With the correct leadership and resources, such a force could inflict a serious blow on the Mugabe regime, which might shame other actors to intervene. We must not allow our Governments and the UN to abdicate themselves, in our name, of their responsibility to protect the people of Zimbabwe at their time of need. Most people would view this as a ludicrous suggestion. I need only remind them that when fascists rose up in Spain, 30,000 civilians from over 50 nations formed the international brigades and put their action where their mouths were. Would today's generation show such courage?

Yours faithfully,

John Slinger

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

My letter in The Times re Haringey Council and Baby "P"

The Editor
The Times

3 December 2008

Sir,

Much venom has been poured on to Haringey Council for the failures of its child protection system (report, Dec 2). Social workers, local authorities and councils are each predictable targets for opprobrium, sometimes with good cause. But in seeking out individual and institutional targets for our collective rage, we are missing the root causes of this tragedy. Simply expressing shock and outrage, conducting an inquiry and demanding that its stringent recommendations are implemented in the hope that this will “never happen again” will not work. Until the societal malaise in which violent, irresponsible, unintelligent, idle, evasive, manipulative so-called adults are under the impression that they can carry out such cruelty unimpeded by society’s laws and moral codes, Baby P will sadly not be the last to suffer and to die.

John Slinger

Rugby

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/letters/article5275366.ece

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

PBR - not enough about the community

The Government have taken the robust action which we all hope will be sufficient to limit the extent of the downturn and limit the pain caused to those who are least able to deal with financial hardship. They are to be congratulated on this. It is perhaps inevitable that Government's of any tinge become bold and dynamic in a crisis. It is however, a little sad that it has taken such a crisis to bring about this sea-change in the Government's attitude to the power and role of the state.

Listening to the Chancellor, it struck me that even now, the Government is not saying enough about communities - the communities we all live in. The Government is understandably trapped in the headlights of an impending recession, so I am not going to berate them for their actions. Far from it. I would just suggest that now might be the time for Labour to seize the political initiative in a space which the Tories have been cleverly occupying - communities, volunteering, the so-called Third Sector. Perhaps the Government could spend large sums of money in building community centres, youth centres, as part of scheme akin to Surestart. We have seen how well this has worked for babies and toddlers. Why not show the Government's commitment to giving youths something constructive to do, as well as providing communities with the resources necessary to achieve this - physical buildings in each community. Not only would this piece of Keynes-inspired public works put people to work, but it would be evidence that the Government is willing to spend large amounts of money on ordinary people, and on young people, not just on propping up banks (no matter how important such action are to avoid economic meltdown).

What we need are positive suggestions in these dark and uncertain times. Places where young people can come together to do constructive things like make music are far more important than policy-makers think. The Tories would never invest Government money in them, so now is a chance for us to place some clear red water between us and them. Such centres would be open to all parts of the community, but could perhaps operate on the proviso that ethnic groups are not allowed to run events or courses which cater only for their own ethnicity. I.e. this is publicly funded space in which all citizens should mix TOGETHER, rather than build walls around themselves.

These are just some early morning ramblings which need much more thought...

To all three readers - "over and out".

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Need for a "fairness stimulation package" in the PBR

We are led to believe that the Government is planning to announce tax cuts as a key component of the Pre Budget Report fiscal stimulus package on Monday. We are also reliably informed that the Government is to focus these tax cuts on the lower paid. So we are to see what most champions of redistribution could only dream of – tax cuts for the poorest in society. Notwithstanding that any tax cuts would be temporary and will almost certainly be reversed once the recession has eased, some interesting ironies spring to mind.

Here are a couple:

The Government is briefing that the justification for cutting the taxes of the less well off is that this sector is more likely to spend the extra cash, will spend it more rapidly and will spend it on goods and services which will provide a boost to the real economy. This is doubly ironic. Not only is it incredible that the solution to a recession itself caused in part by imbalances caused by excessive, debt-driven consumer spending, is to seek to stimulate even more spending.

But more noteworthy is the reasoning offered for this strategy by the Government. Their reasoning is not that cutting taxes for the lower-paid is morally the right thing to do (as they are less able to cope with a downturn caused in large part by the risk-taking of the excessively paid in the City), but that these lower-paid people will spend more. I would have thought that we in the Labour Party should be purposefully extolling the virtues of assisting the lowest-paid at a time of crisis, rather than basing our arguments on some Treasury computer model which has deduced that the measure will provide a shot in the arm to consumerism ahead of Christmas.

I’m not much of an economist, of course, but then economists haven’t had a great run recently. Perhaps now is time to inject a “fairness stimulus package” into the economy. One through which ordinary, hard-working people on modest incomes will receive more assistance from the Government and yes, receive more respect. I hope the days when the political class fawns at the feet of the highly paid are well and truly over.

This doesn’t mean that the Government is misguided in seeking to do what it inevitably will do next Monday. Far from it. I support them and I oppose the Tories, who are willing to allow the ravages of a recession to inflict pain on ordinary people rather than take the necessary remedial steps. I would just like to hear some more human voices rather than the voices of the economists, the bureaucrats and the technocrats, for whom tax-cutting for the poorest in society looks more like the mechanical flicking of a switch designed to resurrect the happy days of obese consumerism, rather than something which should happen because it is right and it is fair.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Ross and Brand

Many apologists of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand, and commentators argue that "generational" differences about humour and morality make it impossible to define the Sachs phone messages as offensive. The argument goes something like this: my 14 year-old daughter thought it was funny, while I thought it was crass. Yet when I was 14, my parents thought That Was The Week That Was or Monty Python's Flying Circus was crude and vulgar. This is moral relativism at its worst, and it will (if it hasn't already) mean that literally any obscenity can be justified and no editorial or moral standards are worth enforcing.

If we allow rule by lowest common denominator to infect the attitudes of our national broadcasters we collectively lower ourselves into the gutter and will soon find that what for very good reasons was held to be reprehensible, is now the norm. It is much harder to raise standards once they've been allowed to fall, than it is to maintain a sense of decency, respect and fair play in public life.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Shock horror - radical party proposes high speed rail lines

and do you know what the shock is............?


......it is that the Tories are the ones who are pledging to spend £20 billion on a new high speed rail network between London, Birmingham and Manchester.

And the tragedy.......

....that after 11 years of my party being in power, with two landslide majorities, with often unpopular privatised railways, with ever more clogged roads, with growing concern about CO2 emissions and a Tory party which, whatever the spin, is at its core less concerned about the environment - my party failed to even suggest this policy.

I would bet that 99% of Labour members and voters would back the Tory proposal to scrap Heathrow's expansion and build a high speed rail network.

Not only is it common sense, environmentally sound and dynamic, but it is also extremely politically shrewd. It may succeed at doing what we should be doing to the Tories. Namely, it smokes out the true nature of a political movement. We are in danger, unless we match or better this policy proposal, of being shown to be timid, while they will be able to present themselves as radical.

I cannot believe that I am typing this...as it is all so unnecessary. Please Gordon, throw a few more scraps of meat to the hungry membership base and, frankly, the public at large. People like Governments to take action sometimes (as you're discovering).

Now is the time for us to be radical, or else we will be exposed on all flanks by the Opposition (who of course have the luxury of not actually being in power)....

New arrival and other things...

Yesterday I became the proud father of another beautiful baby daughter - Annabelle May Slinger.

Mummy and baby are both doing very well.

I wonder if she'll fuel my radicalism as much as her sister has? Every minute that passes I feel less inclined to believe that 'the Establishment' is particularly concerned with enabling individuals, families and communities to create FOR THEMSELVES a better society.

There was almost no mention of community in Gordon Brown's conference speech last week. The subtext to almost all he says is "macro, macro, macro". To coin a rhetorical technique 'threes' which Tony Blair made his own, one might say that for the Prime Minister (and seemingly most of the Cabinet) the priority is "macro, macro, macro". As we try to water down the EU's carbon emmissions targets, what was there from the PM about empowering communities and individuals to save energy and generate their own. Very little. And why? I suspect that the Treasury (and DBERR) is instinctively hostile of micro solutions to problems. With all the vested interests and powerful lobbies keen for its ear, I doubt they are institutionally inclined to spend money in rigging the market in favour of renewables (in the way that, for e.g. the Germans have shown is eminently possible). On a day when the Government pledges up to £20 billion of our money to nationalise Bradford and Bingley (admittedly our money will only be used as a last resort and the banking sector itself is liable for £15 billion), it is clear that public money can be found to shore up private banks. Yet the amount we invest in renewables is, frankly, peanuts. Whatever the Government says, it is not enough to do the job - i.e. to rig the market in favour of renewables rather than rigging it in favour of nuclear, gas and coal (all of which are necessary fuel sources in themselves).


I've no time to go into my thinking on this now, as I'm too busy tidying up our house for the new arrival, but it does strike me that my party, the Labour Party, is far too in thrall to the macro solution. I do not advocate the Tory, neo laissez faire option of granting money and power to the Third Sector as the solution. Indeed I am suspicious of it. But why are we as a party seemingly afraid of uttering sentences such as "parents ought to be able to work fewer hours, so that they have more of their evenings free to look after their children, volunteer in their communities, run sports teams, etc, etc." We shouldn't need schools to act as a state-sanctioned automated parenting system between the hours of 8.00am and 6.00pm. We should start to reconfigure the debate in the interests of families. We should stop from repeating the cringe-making mantra of "hard-working families" as if it is some God-given virtue that mothers and fathers devote all hours to working hard in order to buy material goods and expensive houses, in order that this spending props up our economy.

I may be mistaken, but we are perhaps reaching the moment when a new paradigm comes into being. I don't think anybody knows what it is (LEAST OF ALL ME). But with financial capitalism's certainties and dogmas collapsing or being propped up with the ill-disguised techniques of socialist interventionism, with the gap between the rich and the poor (in the UK) expanding, with no politician actually having the guts to say that a fall in house prices could be a good thing or that lower consumption and people actually realising that they needn't spend money to enjoy themselves - perhaps the above and more might provide space for us all to reconsider what our collective and individual priorities are. I'm not sure that the situation we had allowed to be built up by 2007/8 is what we would rebuild.

--------------------------

My band, The 7.20s, supported the superb Exit Calm on Friday. We had a great gig and gave our free sample CDs from our forthcoming EP - Aquarian Charm. Watch this space (all 4-10 of you)!

Over and out,

John

Letter published in The Rugby Observer (Warwickehire) on litter

The Editor
Rugby Observer

23 September 2008


Dear Sir,

Having lived on King Edward Road for nearly two years, I would like to comment that the amounts of litter and dog mess on my road and many of the streets between the town centre and the train station are a disgrace to Rugby. The council cleans the streets too infrequently, and appears not to employ litter wardens. Were they to do both of these things, they would address both the symptoms and the cause of the problem.

On bad days, it is no exaggeration to say that the litter and general detritus makes parts of central Rugby look like the Third World. We in the community should take more pride in our streets, our parks and recreational areas. If the council is incapable of doing so, I respectfully suggest that individuals start to challenge those who litter and allow their dogs to foul. Don't forget, they are breaking the law, damaging the image of Rugby and endangering public health. We should perhaps all consider picking up litter rather than walking past it. If we all did so, those who litter and allow their dogs to foul might feel a little embarrassed.

Litter clearly isn't the biggest challenge society faces, but if the community can send a clear message that our streets belong to the vast majority of decent people, we would be taking a small step towards challenging the antisocial behaviour of a minority which blights our community as a whole.

Yours faithfully,

John Slinger

Monday, 22 September 2008

The PM

Gordon Brown's supporters have been talking up what, accorduing to them is the Prime Minister's great strength - his years of experience in running the economy. Now there are many holes in this stategy, but there is one which immediately springs to my mind. Isn't it a sad indictment of the Prime Minister and his accolytes, that it requires the worst financial crisis since the Wall Street Crash in order to give a boost to his prospects for survival?

Looking at things from another perspective, the current leadership crisis in the Labour Party also paints a depressing picture for people like me of a party which has allowed itself to be dominated for far too long by two political giants (Blair and Brown). Discovering that Gordon Brown is ill-suited to be Prime Minister is particularly galling because the party has become so emasculated under the influence of the New Labour duocracy of Blair and Brown that there are no heavyweights remaining to challenge the Prime Minister and there is no clear groundswell of support amongst the membership for an alternative vision, or even the same message, presented in a manner which inspires confidence. Not only is there not a clear challenger (unlike in 1994, when Blair was the clear favourite), but neither is there a credible alternative vision to the big business-friendly, timid, cautious on the environement, pro-Establishment technocratic style of governance which Brown seems to have perfected and that voters seem to have shunned.

I wish there was. And so, I suspect, does the public.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Excellent article on inequality of opportunity in the UK and the role of public schools

http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/johann-hari/johann-hari-oxbridge-walls-that-cant-be-scaled-918002.html

This excellent article by Johann Hari in yesterday's Independent is well worth a read if you are interested in trying to do something to make Britain a true meritocracy rather than be content with a system which allows people with more wealth to ensure far greater educational life chances for their children, irrespective of the child's ability.

I've had a couple of letters published in The Times on this issue in the past:

The Times

October 23, 2004, Saturday

'Social engineering' by universities

From Mr John Slinger

Sir,

There have been shrill outbursts from the Russell Group of leading universities, Oxford University's Chancellor Chris Patten, Trinity College Oxford's Master Michael Beloff and others attacking the Government's intention to engage in what they term "social engineering". This "social engineering" intends to redress the imbalance in university admissions whereby, in the case of Oxbridge, approximately 10 per cent of the post-16 school population who attend independent schools account for nearly 50 per cent of the undergraduate population. Surely those who spend significant sums of money on an independent school education for their children, with the advantages including an increased chance of attending a leading university, are themselves engaged in blatant "social engineering". The NHS was created specifically to prevent the wealthy from leapfrogging their less fortunate neighbours in receiving the healthcare that each citizen needs, and in so doing "socially engineered" our country into an infinitely more civilised place. The Government should not feel afraid to apply similar principles with regard to a right that is arguably even more important.

Yours faithfully, JOHN SLINGER, Balham, SW12
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/letters/article2962851.ece
---------

The Times

November 28, 2007

Opportunity for all

We would condemn a country which turned someone away from A&E. What is so different about education?


Sir,

In Britain it is possible to buy an education for your child, thereby increasing their chances of reaching a top university. This is possible either through the private school system (report, Nov 27) or by owning a house in the catchment area of a good state school.

This understandable parental instinct has hugely damaging repercussions for society, ensuring as it does that no government dares to treat access to educational opportunities in the same way as access to healthcare or the criminal justice system. We would rightly condemn a country which turned someone away from A&E or denied them a lawyer on the grounds that they couldn't pay. What is so different about education, which perhaps more than anything determines an individual's life chances?

John Slinger

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Thursday, 21 August 2008

The Times publishes my letter re Russia and Georgia

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/letters/article4575356.ece

Sir,

It is astonishing that the British media have so wholeheartedly swallowed the default position of hostility towards Moscow expressed by the Western security establishment, without critiquing this stance, or analysing the Russian perspective. Any survey of Western coverage will show the paucity of balance on an issue which is self-evidently not clear-cut. Western journalists (and politicians) seem to take the view that Russia has no right to influence the Caucasus, or exploit its own mineral wealth, while the West has every right to intervene in the Balkans or influence (and even occupy on occasion) countries in the Middle East in pursuit of its political and economic interests. Such hypocrisy is no basis for a reasoned argument with a country that is an increasingly important power in the multipolar international system we are moving towards.

John Slinger
Rugby

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Russia / Georgia - the case put brilliantly by Michael Binyon...

From The Times August 14, 2008

Vladimir Putin's mastery checkmates the West
Russia has been biding its time, but its victory in Georgia has been brutal - and brilliant


By Michael Binyon


The cartoon images have shown Russia as an angry bear, stretching out a claw to maul Georgia. Russia is certainly angry, and, like a beast provoked, has bared its teeth. But it is the wrong stereotype. What the world has seen last week is a brilliant and brutal display of Russia's national game, chess. And Moscow has just declared checkmate.

Chess is a slow game. One has to be ready to ignore provocations, lose a few pawns and turn the hubris of others into their own entrapment. For years there has been rising resentment within Russia. Some of this is inevitable: the loss of empire, a burning sense of grievance and the fear that in the 1990s, amid domestic chaos and economic collapse, Russia's views no longer mattered.

A generalised resentment, similar to the sour undercurrents of Weimar Germany, began to focus on specific issues: the nonchalance of the Clinton Administration about Russian sensitivities, especially over the Balkans and in opening Nato's door to former Warsaw Pact members; the neo-conservative agenda of the early Bush years that saw no role for Russia in its global agenda; and Washington's ingratitude after 9/11 for vital Kremlin support over terrorism, Afghanistan and intelligence on extremism.

More infuriating was Western encouragement of “freedom” in the former Soviet satellite states that gave carte blanche to forces long hostile to Russia. In the Baltic states, Soviet occupation could be portrayed as worse than the Nazis. EU commissioners from new member states could target Russian policies. Populists in Eastern Europe could ride to power on anti-Russian rhetoric emboldened by Western applause for their fluency in English.

Nowhere was such taunting more wounding than in Ukraine and Georgia, two countries long part of the Russian Empire, whose history, religion and culture were so intertwined with Russia's. Moscow tried, disastrously, to check Western, and particularly American, influence in Ukraine. The clumsy meddling led to the Orange Revolution.

Georgia was a different matter. Relations were always mercurial, but Eduard Shevardnadze, the wily former Soviet Foreign Minister, knew how to keep atavistic animosities in check. Not so his brash successor, Mikheil Saakashvili. From then on, hubris was Tbilisi's undoing.

It was not simply the dismissive rhetoric, the open door to US advisers or the economic illiteracy in forgetting dependence on Russian energy and remittance from across the border; it was the determined attempt to make Georgia a US regional ally and outpost of US influence.

Big powers do not like other big powers poaching. This may not be moral or fair but it is reality, and one that underpins the Security Council veto. The Monroe Doctrine - “hands off the Americas” - has been policy in Washington for 200 years. The US is ready to risk war to keep out not only other powers but hostile ideologies - in Cuba and Nicaragua.

Vladimir Putin lost several pawns on the chessboard - Kosovo, Iraq, Nato membership for the Baltic states, US renunciation of the ABM treaty, US missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic. But he waited.

The trap was set in Georgia. When President Saakashvili blundered into South Ossetia, sending in an army to shell, kill and maim on a vicious scale (against US advice and his promised word), Russia was waiting.

It was not only Mr Saakashvili who thought that he had the distraction of the Olympics to cover him; the Kremlin also knew that Mr Bush was watching basketball, and, in the longer term, that the US army was fully engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan. From the day that the Russian tank brigade raced through the tunnel into South Ossetia, Russia has not made one wrong move. Mr Bush's remarks yesterday notwithstanding, In five days it turned an overreaching blunder by a Western-backed opponent into a devastating exposure of Western impotence, dithering and double standards on respecting national sovereignty (viz Iraq).

The attack was short, sharp and deadly - enough to send the Georgians fleeing in humiliating panic, their rout captured by global television. The destruction was enough to hurt, but not so much that the world would be roused in fury. The timing of the ceasefire was precise: just hours before President Sarkozy could voice Western anger. Moscow made clear that it retained the initiative. And despite sporadic breaches - on both sides - Russia has blunted Georgian charges that this is a war of annihilation.

Moscow can also counter Georgian PR, the last weapon left to Tbilisi. Human rights? Look at what Georgia has done in South Ossetia (and also in Abkhazia). National sovereignty? Look at the detachment of Kosovo from Serbia. False pretexts? Look at Ronald Reagan's invasion of Grenada to “rescue” US medical students. Western outrage? Look at the confused cacophony.

There are lessons everywhere. To the former Soviet republics - remember your geography. To Nato - do you still want to incorporate Caucasian vendettas into your alliance? To Tbilisi - do you want to keep a President who brought this on you? To Washington - does Russia's voice still count for nothing? Like it or not, it counts for a lot.

Friday, 15 August 2008

An excellent article in The Independend by Mary Dejevsky about the Georgian crisis

You won't find many Western commentators writing like this...I must say I share Mary Dejevsky's views and wonder whether the Western media isn't guilty of blindly reinforcing the view promulgated by Western etablishments which preferred Russia when it was an enfeebled and economically defunct former superpower, and simply doesn't know how to handle their resurgence...

http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/mary-dejevsky/mary-dejevsky-russia-the-bad-guys-who-are-the-west-trying-to-kid-897498.html

Monday, 11 August 2008

South Ossetian Realities

The west can be extremely hypocritical. We claim the right to intervene (in Bosnia, Kosovo or Sierra Leone for example), or to invade (in Iraq), with or without UN authorisation. We also, correctly, see it is our right to use military force to protect our national economic interests (e.g. our naval presence in the Arabian Gulf). We also arm or give diplomatic backing to allies when they are surrounded by implacable enemies (e.g. Israel).

And yet when Russia is aggrieved that the seductive moves by NATO on its borders may well see it surrounded by pro-western states and a missile shield which renders its own strategic missiles defunct while preserving Western capability – we perceive the Russian stance as aggressive and unreasonable.

We in the west viewed it as our inalienable right to have bombed Russia’s ally (Serbia) over Kosovo, and then recognise the right to national self-determination of the Kosovan Albanians. And yet when Russia acts in South Ossetia to protect the interests of ethnic Russians who clearly do not wish to remain part of Georgia, the west calls this an outrage. When the west is in possession of huge economic power and advantage, and seeks to exploit it in its own interests, this is perceived as acting in legitimate self-interest. When Russia starts reminding its former Soviet satellites that they can’t continue to buy oil and gas at Soviet prices, while seeking to join NATO or put in place US radar stations, the Economist runs a front page with a picture of a menacing Putin, standing in the shadows and an apocalyptic headline along the lines of ‘Should We Fear the Russian Bear’ (I forget the exact phrase, but you get my gist). There wouldn’t be an Economist headline saying, “Evil California Exploits the World Through Dominance of Computing Technology”.

It seems that we in the west just cannot get over our delusion that we are the only true great powers, the sole arbiters of when an intervention or military action is just. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia was so enfeebled that it spent all its energies trying to avoid economic meltdown and so let us perpetuate western hegemony over international morality. But now, things have changed. Whether we like it or not, Russia is a proud, powerful force again, which is not going to dance to a tune penned by the west. The sooner we realise this, the better. It is hard to imagine how the US would act if an enclave of Mexico, populated almost entirely by US passport holders, were being forced to remain part of Mexico. It is unthinkable that the US would tolerate Russia lecturing it on how to resolve issues of national self-determination, within its sphere of influence.

I do not know all the facts of the current crisis. But I do believe that the above sentiments are rarely expressed in the western media. This is because our supposedly unbiased media does in fact perpetuate an anti-Russian viewpoint in many of these cases.

Russia is certainly not as democratic as the west, and it is certainly not blameless in the current crisis. However, we are fools if we think that Russians, of all people, will accept Western hypocrisy.

And for the record, I am not anti-western. I believe that western liberal democracy is the best form of governance known to mankind. I believe in human rights and in defending them wherever possible. I supported the interventions in Iraq, and in Kosovo. I would have supported invading Rwanda to prevent genocide. I would support invading Sudan to prevent genocide there now. I believe in spreading freedom as far around the world as possible. I am also a realist (an idealist one). Regarding Russia, there needs to be a little more realism.

Friday, 8 August 2008

A Christian viewpoint on the Beijing Olympics

Here is a short piece my father penned to deliver at his church (he's not a vicar). I'm not a Christian myself - I'm a humanist, but I must say that I agree with the sentiment of this piece. I think it's a really interesting and unusual perspective amid the hyperbole of Olympics coverage. I personally wonder why sporting events such as the Olympics, or the Premiership, etc are hyped so much. Do they really inspire ordinary people to get involved in grassroots sports? Or is their main function to generate prestige for the host country and revenue for the sponsoring companies?

A Christian viewpoint on the Beijing Olympics
By David Slinger


The Beijing Olympics open today. Tens of billions of pounds have been spent to stage them and tens of thousands of participants, members of support teams and officials will be attending. For China it will be a major showcase of its economic and social progress.

But what is the essential Olympic message and ideal? Is it:

- to win at all costs
- to excel to the best of one’s personal capacity
- to share in a friendly, international contest bringing the peoples of the world together?

Is here any spiritual dimension to all this? In what ways, if any, will the spectacle inspire us to pursue goals which Christians might hold dear?

The honest answer – at first sight, at least – might well be, very little.

In 1924, an outstanding Scottish athlete by the name of Eric Liddell, surprised the world’s press and sporting fraternity by refusing to run the 100 metres relay at the Olympics because the race was to take place on a Sunday. To compete in this way offended Liddell’s conviction that Sunday was a day for quiet reflection and worship of God, not a day to focus on men’s physical sporting prowess. I suspect that he viewed his great sporting achievements not so much as personal ones, but as fulfilment of a God-given gift.

The Olympic torch should not be seen as a kind of shrine to physical fitness and strength. These are worthy enough pursuits, but are not ends in themselves.

Christ did not single out high performers, the strongest, wealthiest and most commercially successful, to become his Olympic-style top performers. He focussed on ordinary people, the weak, the old and the sick. His idea of strength was more about an inner moral strength than a desire to outperform others.

In the Sermon on the Mount, you will not find a call to the faithful to triumph over others. He challenged them to serve God and their fellow human beings, to cooperate and serve peace.

Yet we are called upon on innumerable occasions in The Bible to use our talents to the full. For a sportsman or woman this means hard training, courage and endurance if victory is to be achieved at a high level – especially the Olympics. But does winning and the victor’s rostrum bring the winners any closer to God than all the other competitors? I think the answer must lie in the effect the whole process has on the winner’s perception of his or her true motivation. Is it for the personal strength of character which may flow from the pursuit of excellence as an end in itself, or is it about an exaggerated sense of self-importance?

To reflect differing perceptions, innumerable dictums have emerged, for example:

- it’s better to lose well than to win badly
- it’s not winning, but taking part that counts

Or, to put the other point of view:

- who wants to be a loser?

We should recall, perhaps above all statements, one which Jesus is reported to have made about the ultimate judgement of performance in that most important of all events: living itself.

“But many that are first shall be last, and the last shall be first.”

Also: “What profiteth a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his soul?” For which we might substitute “gold medal” for “the whole world”.

For a Christian, then, the Olympic message does not appear to be a very promising one, that is, unless it leads to the transfer of sporting skills to other areas of human endeavour and to an equal determination to seek a true meaning of life, not just Olympic medals.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

More thoughts about things at the top of our great party...

I'm a Labour member and have been since I was 16. I worked for Ann Clwyd for 3.5 years in the Commons. I am very sorry to say that while I believe we need a new leader, I'm not sure that I see anyone with the necessary vision, although David Miliband's article in today's Guardian (www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/jul/29/davidmiliband.labour) suggests that at last, Government Ministers are beginning to come out from beneath the shadow of the Prime Minister, and offer some light at the end of a very long tunnel. Thank heavens someone is starting to do that thing which top politicians worth their salt should be able to to - offer vision!

However, perhaps we should be saying something truly radical that will distinguish us from the Tories? Here are a few suggestions, which I admit, are rather radical, but hey, I feel like stimulating a debate with all 10 people who read this blog! Please post a comment! The Government have to worry about getting re-elected, so I understand that they cannot be quite as radical as this, but I'm allowed that luxury...!

Here are some suggestions from a man who is becoming more radical with every day (maybe it's being a father to a little girl which makes you ponder whether the old certainties are so solid?...)

- scrap holding the 2012 Olympics, write off the money that has been spent, and spend whatever can be saved on small scale, local sporting projects in communities throughout the UK.
- re-nationalise the entire railway network and pledge to build a high-speed, subsidised network (as in France, Germany and Spain. This will reduce commuting by car and will encourage people to live outside London and the South East (thus redistributing economic wealth to poorer parts of the country). The knock on effect of this will be to reduce pressures on housing and services in the South East and to allow more people to enjoy lower house prices and more countryside.
- challenge the assumption that the Green Belt is sacred. Why should people be bundled up into grotty towns and cities, or the suburban sprawl?
- scrap the replacement of Trident and spend the vast sums saved on cutting class sizes in the state sector, or matching private spending on education to finally tackle the gross inequalities of opportunity within our education system, perpetuated by the public school system. Or spend the money on employing youth workers in EVERY ward of the country, or by building more facilities for young people.
- offer tax cuts for anyone earning less than £50k in return for their volunteering in their local communities. People earning more can of course volunteer (and often do), but by doing this, we will offset the imbalance in status derived from salary, whereby a teacher or ambulance driver earns a fraction of the salaries of those in the private sector. We need to be seen to be respecting those who earn less but do more for society.
- offer discounts on graduates' loan repayments if they offer to become a mentor to youngsters from deprived areas
- establish a system of mentoring whereby graduates from top universities are given paid holiday jobs tutoring young people from deprived areas on how to get into Oxbridge or other top universities (so that these children receive the same level of expert coaching as is provided by public schools)
- state unequivocally that it is not big money that transforms communities, but the bonds people create and build through actually helping one another in their communities. Not top down, but local. Not macro, but micro. The best thing the Government could do is to be on the side of those who wish to work fewer hours, earn a little less, but have the time and the enthusiasm to contribute more to their communities and to their family life
- stamp on the statist tentacles of the Treasury, which the Prime Minister has seemingly transplanted into No 10. A recent example of which is the Treasury's efforts to oppose feed in tariffs and other measures which would encourage local communities, businesses and individuals to sell energy generated through renewable methods back to the grid at a preferential rate (as happens in Germany)
- Why not be truly radical in allowing all employees the right to go part time in order to look after their children? Why not state that consumerism and materialism are not necessarily good things per se?
- spend some of the money saved by scrapping Trident on reinforcing the infantry so that we can carry out more humanitarian interventions where necessary. Perhaps instead of being a member of the nuclear club, we could become world leaders at expeditionary intervention and peace keeping (perhaps we are already). Surely 500 more helicopters is better than 1/10 of a nuclear-armed submarine which will never be used?
- I'll leave reference to foreign policy until another time. Readers may be surprised to know that I was and remain in favour of the Iraq war...

Of course the charge against many of these suggestions is that they're impractical. So was founding the NHS! I stand for pragmatic idealism. Where that takes me is somewhere a little more radical than where the party is at the moment.

Thousands of activists, like me, are wanting to go out there and campaign for a Labour Party which offers more than good (or bad) technocratic government. We must offer hope for a better future, based on fairness. To spread fairness and equality of opportunity throughout the land, we need more than 'new' new Labour. Now is the time to debate what it is which drives this party. Until we have that debate, and are led by someone who can articulate a convincing vision and actually deliver it, people like me will become more and more disillusioned. Please note, I am a very loyal Labour Party member, so if I am typing this, we are in deep, deep trouble.

All the best, John

PS if any of you are in Coventry next Monday (4 August), my band is playing at the Kasbah Club - www.myspace.com/720s.

Monday, 28 July 2008

The joys of rail travel in the UK...

Having got up at 05:30 for my daily commute to London, I decided to return home and work from there after Network Fail's engineering works over-ran to the extent that no trains even got near my station for over an hour and they're still delayed as a type. While checking National Rail Enquiries' website for live updates, I must say I was grateful for their thoughtfulness in explaining some key definitions which rail travellers sadly encounter too frequently:

http://www.livedepartureboards.co.uk/

Delayed = This service is delayed
No report = There is no report on the progress of this service yet
On time = This service is on time
Starts here = The service has not yet started the journey
Cancelled = The service has been cancelled



Is a rational, functioning human brain employed in devising this or was it generated by a badly programmed computer?....

I would suggest the following addition:

Nationalised railway = uses less subsidy than privatised railway and allows the Government to design services which people need, such as cheap, high-speed commuter routes - please see France, Germany and Spain for more details.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Glasgow East and our prospects for the future...

Following the debacle of Labour's defeat in the Glasgow East by-election, there will be a predictable clamour for Gordon Brown's scalp. As a Labour activist since the age of 16, what is happening to my party and to this Government is nothing short of a tragedy. But what is truly galling is that the vacuous and timid nature of our own party, over many years, is the root cause of our current predicament, and is the reason why the proposed solutions for improving our prospects seem so flawed.

That Gordon Brown was the heir apparent, whose dominance of the party was such that he was unopposed in the leadership elections spoke of a crisis of mammoth proportions at the top of our party. While the Tories held an open and exciting leadership election, which engaged the public, we held a moribund coronation followed by the ultimately misguided crowing which preceded the election that wasn't to be. That there were no senior or junior cabinet members prepared to offer a vision of the future of Labour politics in the UK was sad, and will now cost us dearly in the next General Election. The Labour Party seemed happy to accept this as a fait accompli. We hypnotised ourselves into believing that we were virtually destined to remain in power by virtue of the man who brought us prudence with a purpose.

That he may well have done. But the economic miracle of the Blair / Brown decade is unravelling, and what is left in its wake, is a vacuum , where there ought to be vision, and purpose. Those who talk of a leadership challenge later in the year, are tipping David Miliband and James Purnell as favourites. But here lies the danger, brought about by the lack of radical thought and policy discussion in the party during the last decade. If the solution to our current problems is to elect an overtly Blairite member of the Cabinet to lead the party and the Government, what hope is there that they will offer the vision necessary to reinvigorate the party, and more importantly, to reconnect with a completely disillusioned electorate.

We have allowed ourselves to become the party which, under Gordon Brown’s leadership, has acted most swiftly, when trying to ram home huge ‘establishment’ projects like replacing Trident, or nuclear power stations. We have shown an almost complete lack of dynamism on environmental issues, until only very recently, with the renewable energy proposals. We had appeared to be almost entirely in the pocket of both the large energy companies, and their supporters in the office marked ‘macro is best’ at the Treasury. This allowed David Cameron to do the unthinkable – successfully present the Tories as the party most concerned about the environment. We abandoned the little man, who would have liked to be supported by his Government as he sought to take individual action by installing a wind turbine. We allowed the Treasury to convince the Government that big is always better – small ‘c’ conservatism of worst, and most dangerous kind. We enfeebled ourselves in thrall to huge economic interests, and in so doing showed the electorate our true colours.

On communities, we still seem to think that top down is best. In education, we persist with the over-burdening and over-testing of both children and teachers. On housing, we have quite simply failed to provide enough new, affordable homes for the private sector, or social homes for those who cannot get on the housing ladder. Why? Because we were in thrall to the market, and the boom in house prices. Why did a Labour Government allow the housing market to so singularly fail those who should be our core supporters? Why, because we were seeking to appeal most of all to the property-owning hoards of so-called middle England. We allow the perception to take hold that we care more about the wealthy, than those who are struggling to make ends meet, despite the admirable efforts of the Prime Minister to tackle poverty.

On welfare reform, we ignored the one Labour MP who actually possessed vision and the steadfastness required to enact it – Frank Field. In fact, the Prime Minister’s belief in statism led to Field’s sacking and thus our party presiding over the perpetuation of welfare dependency. It all could have been so different. The Prime Minister has a Business Council, but he doesn’t have a council of public sector workers to advise him on how to deal with their concerns and improve services.

And yet we are faced with the prospect of a paralysed Brown premiership, lumbering on until May 2010, or that of a young leader such as David Miliband or James Purnell, both of whom are arch-Blairites and have done very little outside of politics. Do they offer the vision required to provide some radical solutions to the problems which Britain faces. I sincerely hope so, but in my heart of hearts, I must confess that I do not have much hope of this. I do not believe that the party knows what it stands for anymore. I know for sure that those talked of as potential future Labour Prime Ministers, have not done anything to show that they have what it takes to offer leadership and vision, or to do anything to rock the applecart in a way which leads to a fairer Britain. That is why the propects for my party are truly bleak.

These are just some early morning ramblings. I’ll no doubt cheer up later!

John

Friday, 20 June 2008

Letter to The Times re Zimbabwe - NOT PUBLISHED

The Editor
The Times

20 June 2008

Sir,

The Times' call for the international community to warn the junta running Zimbabwe that it is "collecting evidence of what is happening for use in war crimes trials" is well-meaning but will not succeed in preventing future atrocities (Atrocities mount in Zimbabwe, 20 June 2008). The evidence for the deterrent effect of the International Criminal Court or other tribunals is sadly lacking. For example, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, set up following a genocide in which up to one million civilians were murdered by thousands of their countrymen, has resulted in only 28 convictions, with 28 cases still in progress and 8 awaiting trial. If after nearly 15 years, this is the best that the international community can achieve, it is surely no wonder that genocides and widespread human rights abuses by states and non-state actors continue unabated. One need only look at Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma and yes, Zimbabwe, to see this. The sad truth is that the West will not intervene solely on the grounds of human rights abuses, or even to prevent genocide. Mugabe and the other thugs around the world know this.

Yours faithfully,

John Slinger

Monday, 16 June 2008

New letter published in The Times

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/letters/article4143973.ece

Sir, I visited Baghdad twice in my capacity as a member of staff of the Prime Minister’s special envoy to Iraq on human rights, Ann Clwyd, MP. On both occasions I was hugely impressed by the professionalism, dedication and bravery of the Iraqi interpreters. They would return with us to the safety of the green zone in our armed convoys after meetings, but at the end of the day would have to leave the green zone to travel home through the streets of Baghdad. One interpreter showed me how he secreted his British Embassy identification documents on his body in case he got caught up in an “incident” on such a journey.

It is a tragedy that their bravery, in the service of our country and in the face of possible abduction, torture and murder, is matched only by the cold indifference of British bureaucrats and their political masters. To my mind, the decision to assist the interpreters was not made willingly on the grounds of principle and compassion, but was a half-baked concession made reluctantly after public outrage. This attitude is reflected in the unnecessary delay in taking the decision to relocate the interpreters, which surely cost lives, and in the bungled way the practicalities have been handled.

John Slinger
Rugby

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Letter published in The Times, Saturday 9th February 2008

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/letters/article3337066.ece

The Editor
The Times

Sir,

Religious institutions, such as the one led by Dr Williams, set their individual followers apart from those of other faiths and non-believers. Contrastingly, our secular, universal law is a manifestation of what is best about advanced, enlightened, progressive, liberal democracy. It treats all as individual human beings with equal and unalienable human rights, making no reference to ethnicity or religious creed. Thanks to the law and the progressive and enlightened forces that have forged it over the centuries, the conditions of life in Britain are far superior to those experienced in much of the rest of the world. All citizens, but particularly women, children and vulnerable groups such as gay people, are protected by our law from the forces of moral conservatism and bigotry, which organised religions used to foist on society in the past.

The vast majority of the population shun the pews each Sunday morning, and I have little doubt will reject the Archbishop's sermon on the law as off target in an age when we need integration based on common values, rather than separation along religious lines.

John Slinger
Rugby

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Unpublished letter to The Times re nuclear weapons policy

The Editor
The Times

22 January 2008

Dear Sir,

Our strategy for countering nuclear proliferation seems to have escalated over night from one of vigorous international and bilateral diplomacy backed up with the implied threat of conventional military action in a worse case scenario, to one where our top NATO generals are countenancing pre-emptive nuclear strikes. The public should be very concerned about the dangerous, apocalyptic threats being made in their name, and should speak out against them before Dr Strangelove is resurrected and fiction becomes fact.

Yours faithfully,

John Slinger

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Letter to The Times - NOT PUBLISHED - re consumerism

The Editor
The Times

10 January 2008

Dear Sir,

The reporting of a possible reduction in consumer confidence on the British high street always implies that less consumer spending is a bad thing ( Sainsbury's sales rise defies retail gloom, The Times, 10 January) . In an age when we consume more, waste more, spend more, have more personal debt, pay more for our mortgages on ever more expensive houses, work longer hours than ever before and cause more damage to the environment, perhaps it would be in the interests of us all if we consumed less. No politician could ever utter such a heresy against the cult of consumerism, so the merry-go-round continues unabated.

Yours faithfully,

John Slinger

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Kell & Slinger songs online at Amie Street

Hi,

I play in an acoustic - electric duo with Ryan Kell. We used to play in a band and are currently writing and recording new material with a view to gigging and releasing songs this year.

If you're interested, you can find some of our old songs, both our duo and from our old band, on http:amiestreet.com/kellandslinger.



If you like them, please spread the word and watch this space!

Regards,

John