Thursday, 3 June 2010

Unfathomable. The Cumbria Shootings

It is hard to believe. Unfathomable. There is something more deeply shocking about a gunman on a rampage in a quaint English town, than, say, a major terrorist attack in a city. The motives behind the shootings are currently unknown and perhaps will never be ascertained. But it is wholly disturbing to read or hear about Mr Derrick Bird's sudden, ruthless killings. 12 people dead. 11 people injured. And within 3 hours.

With any other act of 'terror' we can simply attribute the causes to the illogic of religious fanaticism. With these killings, illogic seems not even plausible. We are instead left only with the incredulous, the indefinable; something more primal. This wasn't about a clash of ideologies per se, but, as reports suggest, it concerned a dispute over a will and problems at a taxi rank.

The night before the Wednesday attacks in Whitehaven, Mr Bird apparently told a taxi colleague, after a row: 'you won't see me again.' The next day, however, Mr Bird killed his twin brother David and then his solicitor, Kevin Commons, before taking aim at a fellow taxi driver. Eye witnesses claim that Mr Bird had a shotgun with a telescopic aim. How can a man just go on a killing spree, using a precision weapon, when the motives were simply due to a will and a taxi rank? (I use 'simply' here with some doubt.) The only way to course any kind of logic is that Mr Bird's anger from the night before escalated, grew overnight, so that by morning it had possessed him with primordial aggressiveness. His first victims were clear: his brother, solicitor and taxi colleagues. These killings must have completely consumed him, fanned his demonic fury, until he subsequently killed at random before finally self-destructing; killing himself. It may sound perverse, but I cannot help thinking that this resembles the character played by Michael Douglas in 'Falling Down'. However, there is nothing funny about this, no redeeming feature. Mr Bird was tipped over some edge and went berserk, and killed. Surely, there has to be more to the story?

Recent interviews have revealed that Mr Bird was rather well-liked in Whitehaven, that he had become a grandfather and enjoyed motorsports and scuba diving. His taxi friends has known him for years. Glenda Peers, the owner of the taxi firm, said that 'the lad that's been killed was friends with him - they used to stand together having a craic on the rank.' A local land-lady said that this was not the Derrick Bird they all knew, that he was quiet, but friendly. A local neighbour said that he was known as 'birdy' and would often sit on his doorstep, sip a tea, and start conversations with passers-by. And nearly everyone interviewed has expressed deep shock; that Mr Bird, 'birdy', was completely normal.

It is sometimes possible to imagine a commuter, in perhaps London, getting stressed out beyond measure and throwing a punch at someone. We have all been there when we've been tipped over the edge and we are fuming with anger. It is part of being human. Mr Bird, though, went beyond human, or perhaps sub-human. Is this all we can say of it? That his rational, good side was taken over by something else? Unless more evidence is revealed to prove the contrary, I reckon that Mr Bird's actions will be viewed purely as an indescribable, unfathomable 'possession'. This is what shocks us more than anything; that we are all suspectible to irrational urges, but to commit such brutality is beyond comprehension. It is at the limits of human experience; a place that greatly disturbs.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Just Playing with Words?

The Queen's Speech. New government. New policies. 22 Bills. And all wrapped up in a convenient 8 minute speech. Everything hinges on three magic words: 'Freedom, Fairness and Responsibility.' The queen begins: 'My government's legislative programme will be based upon the principles of freedom, fairness and responsibility.' It's all very simple really. Isn't it?

It's something we take for granted, but the sloganeering of government is more akin to Wittgenstein language games or the rhetoric of advertorials. All the parties have used power-words like 'Change', 'Fairness', 'Future' to some extent. It's just about getting them in the right order. But this coalition is dependent on being united behind those three magic words: freedom, fairness and responsibility. As the BBC's Political Editor, Nick Robinson, puts it: "'Fairness" is Nick Clegg's favourite word and "responsibility" David Cameron's.' They should almost have name badges... Cameron sits in the Commons attempting his Prime Minsterial frown with a shiny name badge pinned to his neon blue tie: 'RESPONSIBILITY'. Cleggers sits like a dog under his legs, trying hard to get noticed, with a broken badge clinging to his 'gold' tie: 'FAIRNESS.'

So what about 'FREEDOM'? Well, I think it means us- the Big Ole Society. We're all like Mel Gibson screaming freedom, while our guts are hanging out because of the cuts. And there will be massive cuts. After the Queen softens us she declares that the coalition's main priority is to tackle the deficit. These three magic words are simply the executioner's buttering-up; the sugar coating before the axe comes down. It's an attractive word 'freedom'. Yet I can't help feeling that by arguing for a Big Society and not a Big State the new government is essentially saying: 'Bugger it. Let the public sort it out themselves. Push all the problems away to them. They'll like it... Power to the People. Freedom.... lovely. And it'll appease the Scots cos there's only one Tory seat up there!'

The real question to ask this government, though, is how those three words will play out. At what point will there be a clash of jugulars, a clash of name badges? What will happen when something is fair but not responsible? Or society has freedom but it is not fair? At the end of the day it is a clash of abstracts. Is it, however, an irresponsible, unfair use of the freedoms of the English language?

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Cameron Banned from the City

Ok. Not the Cameron, but Johnny Cameron. This man was the boss of RBS's investment banking arm and he was a key 'casino-player' with Fred Goodwin. From today, he's been banned from having any major managerial role in the City. This is a life-time ban arranged by the Financial Services Authority (FSA). Should all such bankers be scalped?

Firstly, let's get some things clear. The government apparently owns 83% of the Royal Bank of Scotland, which amounts to 46 billion pounds worth of bail-outs. In 2008, the year the markets crashed, RBS made a loss of around 24.2 billion. This, some have remarked, is due mainly to its global markets division; something that Mr Cameron had a great deal of sway over. Good old Johnny was responsible for securities trading, which included the US mortage market. And if we are to believe Gordon Brown's continual assertions that the recession started in the US, then we have good reason to hold a finger up at Mr Cameron.

The nationalisation of RBS was necessary. If the government hadn't intervened then the bank would have collapsed and it would have affected all our NatWest accounts too (as NatWest is an arm of RBS). The national debt itself is a hard number to estimate, but with George Osbourne yesterday admitting to Labour's sheer ludcrious irresponsibility, that there 'was no money left', then we can assume our national financial situation is a little bit buggered. Some figures suggest the national debt is 890 billion pounds. Surely, someone like Johnny Cameron is responsible for adding the 46 billion to this?

But, let's face it, the numbers are ridiculous. No-one really knows what the debt levels really are. But, the fact is, is that Mr Cameron isn't just a graduate owing 15,000 pounds plus. He's responsible for causing one of our major banks to nearly collapse. So should he be scalped? Well, the FSA have implemented this life long ban, but only in a full-time capacity. He could take up a part-time role as consultant or an advisor in finanical services. Let's also not forget what Mr Cameron was also paid: a whopping £902,000 in his last year at RBS. He also recieved around 3.2 million pounds worth of bonuses in his last two years for effectively buggering up the global arm of RBS. No wonder he's smiling. So, although, he has been banned from "full-time" work in the City, the FSA have not admitted that he has done any wrongdoings in the past and so he could take up some kind of part-time role. And, let's be honest, that part-time role could involve a potential salary of what £500,000 a year? Who knows?

Ultimately, Mr Cameron has got away with it. RBS has been bailed out massively. And some people think I'm wrong to suggest that tuition fees should be scrapped; that tax-payers couldn't possibly pay for the education of society, when in the end tax-payers will be paying more than they can imagine to pay off this national debt. Then again, perhaps Mr Cameron's education needs reviewing. After all, who taught him? Probably Caesar's Casino Academy. I heard Fred Goodwin was the Harry Potter of his year.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

New Era in Politics. But what of the 'lost generation'?

It has been a fascinating week in politics. For the first time in 65 years we are seeing a coalition in government. While I am pleased to see Gordon Brown gone, will the Lib-Con coalition be any better? As a fairly recent graduate, I am wary of this 'new politics'.

I am quite stunned to see two leaders of opposing parties getting on and making jokes in the sunny grounds of Downing Street. Admittably I have quite a lot of respect for the Cameron-Clegg love-in; there seems to be a sincerity in their approach and a realism to the vast problems facing this country. This is all very refreshing and hopeful. Surely, it is much better for parties to simply get on than to bicker, especially in the current economic climate.? So far the signs are good, the parties are united, and I do hope it lasts. However, the media are already speculating on how long this amicability will endure. I think this is mostly unsupportive and negative. After all, haven't we wanted this kind of politics before? Haven't we wanted a more open, cross-party, honest and compromising approach to government? I, personally, just want them to get on with it and be the judge as time takes its toll. And while I don't agree with certain policies in each camp, I think the centre ground looks promising.

Yet, while we should be supportive of this new kind of politics, we must also be wary. As a fairly recent graduate, who has been a victim of the recession, there are certain policies I would like to see implemented. Firstly, and let's be clear about this, tuition fees cannot rise. The prospect of graduates leaving university with up to £30,000 worth of debt is frankly ludcrious. Are we not learning the lessons of debt? Is it not simply unfeasible to allow young people to start their lives with so much debt hanging around their necks?

Some recent graduate surveys throw light on the questionable value of a degree. Why should graduates suffer such large debts when the prospects facing them after education seem so poor? For example, a recent YouGov survey shows that 58% of recent graduates are not in employment relating to their degree. A further 24% had opted to continue education to avoid the pitfalls of the job market (and further education, as I have found out, only amounts to more debt and not a significant change in employability.) Shockingly, a TotalJobs/ ONS survey reveals that only 6% of recent graduates have landed a relevant graduate job. Two-thirds of graduates have simply got any job to help pay bills and begin to tackle the debt. From my own experience, I know so many intelligent graduates who are working in bars, coffee shops or are even on the dole to help get them through this recession. There is, I feel, a great feeling of disillusionment. We are an unlucky generation.

So, for me, I feel greatly let down by Labour. New Labour in its varying forms always had education at his heart. After all, what do we remember most of Tony Blair's 1997 campaign? Oh yes: 'education, education, education.' But, while it is true that more students have gone to university than ever before, the system simply isn't working. There is a generation of young people stradled by debt and unable to find work relating to their qualifications. I myself worked incrediably hard to be the first person in my family, and extended family, ever to go to university. In was my belief that if I worked hard and gained the grades, I would land the job of my choice. Indeed, I have a degree and a postgraduate degree and yet I am on and off Jobseekers Allowance. I desperately want a job relating to my skills, and yet with debt around my neck and the current economic climate taking its course, I dare to believe I will have any luck.

This is why I think it is imperative that the Lib-Con coalition makes every effort to ensure that the next generation will not suffer in the same way. It is my belief that the Liberal Democrats policy to scrap tuition fees should see the light of day. You should be able to go to university not because you are privileged or are accepting of a lifetime of debt, but because you should be given the opportunity because you aspire to learn and grow to your strengths. For me, this ultimately means that university places will be much harder to gain. A degree needs to be held in high esteem again, like it once did, and dumbed down courses (David Beckham degree anyone?) should be abolished. This means that although it would be much tougher to secure that university place, the rewards are well-deserving and meaningful. It also means that even the poorest person can make it all the way up the education ladder, minus the worries of funding and future debts. It means, ultimately, that the country's workforce are made up of a class of people who worked hard to get to their position, and that their skills best suit the need in society. At the moment, who's to know that the best engineer the country has ever seen is stuck at home, unable to find work because he is 1) laden with debt or 2) needs expendable income to gain valuable experience at an internship or 3) has taken any old job just to make ends meet. I think it is of uttermost importance that the Liberal Democrats get their way and that the Conservatives are not allowed to raise tuition fees. Otherwise, we will be educating only the privileged classes or quite simply letting down the poorest who just want to succeed.

On top of this, it is also important that the LibDem's policy to suspend income tax under £10,000 be implemented. Why? Because it is unfair to allow any recent graduates to pay taxes on the first £10,000 they earn while trying to make ends meet. If it is true that two-thirds of recent graduates are in any job to pay the bills, then why should we be taxing them on top of the Student Loans, the large overdrafts and credit card bills to pay off? In my case, I am well into my overdraft, I have credit card bills to pay (which my parent is helping to pay off) and I have the prospect of one day chipping away at my Student Loan. I am in this state of affairs because I opted to take a Masters degree, as I was under the impression that a postgraduate qualification would stand me in a far better chance to get the job I desired. Not so. Instead, I have had the misfortune of working as a barista at a well-known coffee chain, while being insulted indiscriminately, and then had to paid taxes. (I was insulted for being a 'waster'.) I have to keep telling myself that I did the right thing; that education is good. Yet, I am mostly left with a feeling of guilt and low self-esteem.

Overall, I think we should be supportive and positive for this 'new politics'. But, while Labour has let many of my generation down, I hope that the new government will aspire to improve the situation for the young and set the groundwork for better things to come. The bankers have been bailed out and are still raking in the bonuses. Who will bail out the lost generation of graduates and youngsters?