Trickle Down to Revolution?

The thought-provoking and slightly hysterical BBC documentary series, The Super Rich and Us reached its climax on Thursday 15th January with a chilling warning of possible REVOLUTION if the divided society continues to widen.  With 85 individuals owning more than half of the personal wealth of the World, things have simply gone too far, and the super rich are now starting to fear a backlash from the disenfranchised majority.

The overriding theme of the new millennium has been a widening divide between the super rich 1% of the UK and USA populations and the rest, with Britain becoming a haven for the World’s richest people in higher concentrations than any other country due to successive Government’s covert policy of allowing tax avoidance.  This is done in the belief that the richest people generate wealth for everyone, with a trickle-down effect putting money in the pockets of the rest of us – a kind of return to feudal patronage in a society based on greedy exploitation and misinformation.

The stark warning of the programme makers is that we are heading for a crash, with 1% of the population having most of the wealth and charged with the task of growing the economy through capitalist and consumerist activity.  It is unsustainable and the cracks are showing.  The mouthpiece of the super rich in the UK is Chancellor George Osborne, who is ruthlessly driving through an austerity programme aimed at taxing the poor to subsidise the rich.  The middle classes are suffering as never before, with declining income and a growing cost of living.  Those interviewed on the programme give the impression they now realise that they are being excluded from the orgy of excess being enjoyed only by the super rich elite.

The programme charted the history leading up to the financial meltdown of 2008, starting with a nostalgic description of the 1970s as the most egalitarian decade ever.  Wealth was more evenly shared with a relatively modest gap between workers and bosses wages.  But wait…wasn’t the 70s the decade of power cuts and strikes?  Yes, it all went horribly wrong for Ian Callaghan’s Labour Government, with an oil crisis leading to recession and striking workers bringing the country to a standstill.

This opened the door for Margaret Thatcher’s capitalist revolution in the 1980s, and the age of greed and borrowing was ushered in.  Britain’s bankers mimicked their American counterparts, who were making millions on Wall Street gambling on stock futures and the securities market – creating massive wealth which eclipsed the value of all manufactured goods worldwide.  Thatcher cheered it on, encouraging the cynical asset stripping of British businesses and the cheap privatisation of national assets.  Fortunes were made and ordinary people were encouraged to get on board the consumer boom by borrowing beyond their means.

It was unsustainable and reached a peak in 2008 when the securities market gave way under the weight of too many defaulted mortgages, causing a domino effect across the banking sector, collapsing the property market and triggering a global recession.  What have we learned from this?  Not much it seems, as the same capitalist greed model remains in place, and the programme presenter solemnly reported that the super rich made profit from the big crash.  Most Government bailout payments ended up in the pockets of the wealthy elite who saw opportunity in disaster, and the gap between the wealthiest and the rest has continued to widen over the past five years.

The last five minutes of the excellent documentary deals with stark warnings from a UK military chief and a US IT billionaire, that our two societies are reaching a tipping point.  Already austerity protests in the West are hinting that the people have had enough.  If you exclude the majority to the extent that they feel they have nothing left to lose then watch out.  President Obama talks about the “Great Divergence” being the “defining moment of our times.”  “A highly unequal society is a recipe for revolution or a police state”, says a wide-eyed billionaire, who is already thinking of ways to increase security on his mansion.

The programme concludes with a piece on exploitation of workers through zero hours contracts, and an increasingly dog-eat-dog society where people must scavenge to survive.  The super rich have made money out of both ends of the market – luxury goods as well as pound shops, gambling and pay day loans.  We live in a modern capitalist culture that encourages people to aspire and better themselves, but is now seen by many as unattainable as the reality of inequality leads to increasing frustration and anger.

The solution lies with a re-balancing of values in our society, before our weak and easily manipulated politicians lead us blindfolded into a police state.  We are losing not only our jobs, quality of life and self respect, but also our hard-won freedoms.  Obama is right – it is a defining moment, and we need to fight for our rights if we want a better life.

Memories of Michael Sata

In the international news this week is the announcement that the President of the Republic of Zambia, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital. The veteran politician, aged 77 when he died, was known as ‘King Cobra’ for his willingness to strike out at opponents.  His determination to succeed finally saw him win an outright election in 2011 and achieve his life’s ambition of becoming President of his country.

I first met Michael Sata in 2004 in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. At that time I had an office in Farmer’s House on Cairo Road (grandly named by the British former colonists to be part of Cecil Rhodes’ Cape to Cairo highway) for my publishing and advertising businesses, Concept Marketing Limited.  The office opposite me across the hall was Michael Sata’s base for his opposition political party The Patriotic Front (PF).  At that time he looked doomed to be in opposition forever, as opposition parties rarely win an election in Africa against a firmly entrenched ruling party.

We were both smokers, and would stand outside the building chatting about this and that over a fag. He was inquisitive and wanted to know about my business.  I did not know it at the time, but I was employing his nephew as a Graphic Designer.  One morning he burst into my office without a knock and asked to use my fax machine.  It was his way.  Not a request that you could decline, more of an order.  I told him what I would charge for a local and international call and he brushed me aside with a wave of the hand, saying he would send his Accountant over later to pay.  The fax was sent and the Accountant duly paid.

On another occasion I was queuing in the bank and he swept in, walking straight to the window and demanding he be attended to straight away by the startled young female Teller. There was a murmur of discontent from the long Friday lunchtime queue, and to her credit, the young lady refused to serve him and told him to join the back of the line.  A spontaneous round of applause broke out from the queue and words were spoken in Nyanja.  Sata left in a huff, unused to not getting his own way.

He had a well earned reputation for being someone who Got Things Done, and was respected for it. He had served as a Minister under first President Kenneth Kaunda and second President Frederick Chiluba, before forming his own political party and going into opposition.  His successful election campaign in 2010/11 was based on political opportunism and, ultimately, false promises.  Jobs for the disaffected youth, economic recovery and the expulsion of the hated Chinese.

It was rumoured at the time that his election campaign was funded by the Taiwanese, based on the promise that once elected, they could replace the Chinese as Zambia’s new friend. A shrewd move by Sata was to appoint Guy Scott, born in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) to British parents, as his vice presidential running mate.  He had been a farmer in Zambia and involved in politics since the early days of the MMD, and was acceptable to both Zambians and the international community.  All was set for a high energy, high impact and emotional election campaign.

His election victory on 23rd September 2011 was indeed historic, sweeping past the struggling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), whose twenty year reign was staggering to a halt under unpopular President Rupiah Banda, despite a reasonably good set of economic figures.  Perhaps a warning to the ANC in South Africa?  The MMD was hurriedly set up in 1991, with US and British support, as a vehicle to topple the creaking Kaunda administration, and restore Western economic interests back into the country.

Fast forward twenty years and the Chinese have become the bed fellows of many African States, offering infrastructure development in exchange for minerals. They wanted a slice of Zambia’s copper and cobalt output, and their preferred approach is to side-step Western free market economy rules and head straight for State House for behind closed doors negotiations.  In Zambia’s case, the Mines and Minerals Act was amended in 2005 to force mining license holders to return a proportion of their land to Government.  These reclaimed mining concessions were duly handed over to the Chinese.  African Leaders love the personal attention and the feeling of being important the Chinese bring to negotiations, oh, and their personal wealth tends to increase as a result.  The West are left feeling uncomfortable and rejected, like a jilted bride at the altar.

Sata’s manifesto was therefore greeted with a mixed reception by the business community and internationally. To throw out the Chinese would please the West, but carried with it the possibility of further draconian measures including more expulsions of foreigners or the return of the dreaded Nationalisation.  Poor Zambians were hopeful of a better life, and turned out in large numbers to vote in the PF and Michael Sata on a wave of nationalism.  In my office in 2009, I had caught his nephew designing a PF newspaper advert and admonished him for doing a private job on company time.  Perhaps it was just as well that I wound up my business and left Zambia in 2009 to return to the UK, and watch political events unfold from afar!

There was ultimately a sense of anti-climax after Michael Sata’s ascendancy to the Presidency. He was an aging man in declining health, and had just achieved his life’s ambition.  As with many in his situation, he was forced to accept compromise to keep various interest groups happy.  The Chinese were the first to make their way to State House, and shortly after their presentation to the new President, all was rosy in the garden and their friendship with Zambia was re-affirmed.  Business as usual, and the youths hopeful of employment were left with the harsh reality of taking low paid jobs for Chinese and other foreign investors on the minimum wage of less than two US dollars a day.

Michael Sata’s story is one of endurance and determination. His road was long and hard, perhaps mirroring the post-colonial experience of many Africans.  But he proved that it is possible to succeed, and that under the scrutiny of the international community, it is less easy for ruling parties to fix the election to stay in power…..well, at least in some countries.  Congratulations to Zambia on recently celebrating their 50th year of Independence.  I remember my time in Zambia with warm and deep affection for the country and its people.  I wish them happiness and success as they tread the thorny road between self determination and the pressures from the international community, both East and West.

Marriage Counsellors Work Overtime

The party looking for a divorce is usually the one who will get over it quicker and suffer less heartache, desiring to move on and make a fresh start.  In the case of the impending vote on Scottish Independence, it could be the jilted party, the rump UK, who shrug their shoulders and say ‘we’re better off without you’.

Divorces are charged with emotion, often boiling over into bitterness and name calling.  History is dragged through the mud, often interpreted differently by each party.  There has been hurt on both sides, but what about the good times?  Surly there was a time when things were going well, when we laughed together, cried together, had a united front against all comers.

We come from different cultures, ones that have frequently fought bitterly, and our union may have been forced on us through a joining together of the two thrones of England and Scotland by the boy king James.  Son of Mary Queen of Scots, held prisoner for many years and never visited by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth of England.  A royal embarrassment, finally executed.  A Union born in bitterness and hatred.

But the Act of Union held strong, and the combined power of both kingdoms led to industrial revolution, an age of enlightenment, invention, trade and military conquest.  Half the population of New Zealand have Scottish surnames!  And now there are many words earnestly spoken, much soul-searching and hand-wringing, as the Scots face the vote to end more than three hundred years of union.

Should the Scots vote for Independence, their path is uncertain, and they must be prepared to negotiate afresh with the international community.  A new nation an the northern edge of Europe.  As for the English, it will be business as usual.  A minor dip in the stock market, a few jokes at their neighbour’s expenses, and back to work.  The political map will change significantly south of the border, and there will be shifts and posturing, but ultimately the same relentless shoring up of the status quo.  For the rich to get richer, the poor must pay.  And this is the cornerstone of English politics, packaged in a number of different ways.  I wish the Scots would stay to help us fight for social justice and a more egalitarian society.

As an English man of Scots descent, via Northern Ireland, I see myself as British – A British Islander.  I would feel sad if the Scots break away.  We will all lose something in the process and feel lesser in some way.  Politics brought us together and now threatens to divide us.  We are not strangers, more like cousins constantly arguing.  But ultimately we are better off together.

Bravehearts and Coronets

Today, Prime Minister David Cameron takes a political gamble by daring to go north into Scotland and face down the Scottish nationalists.  Will they eat Cameron or just stun him with their indifference?  He is making a mistake by going because no matter what words tumble out his mouth, they will have the net effect of confirming the Scots’ view that he is from a different planet, representing a tiny rich elite on whose behalf he harvests the dwindling income from ordinary folk and gleefully dismantles their Welfare State.  Add to this the unpopular Bedroom Tax following on thirty years after the Scots were humiliated by Thatcher’s Poll Tax experiment, then… well, you get the picture.  Scottish Labour Party members have turned their back on muppet Ed Milliband, who has spectacularly failed to seize the moment and speak up for the hard-pressed citizens of an increasingly disenchanted UK.

It has taken the Scots to show the rest of, south of the border, that our political leaders in the Westminster Bubble represent only the interests of the financial sector, the cornerstone of our flaky economy.  Greed is good and kick the unfortunate, sick and poor.  Their financial advisors have now told them that a vote for Scottish Independence may result in a stock market crash and a run on the Pound.  THAT’s why they are now scurrying north of the border.

I’d vote for Independence from Westminster, and I’m English!  Should Scotland vote for independence, I predict the break-up of the United Kingdom.  They will show us all the way – Wales, Northern Ireland, then the English Regions – The South West, The North, the Midlands, East Anglia.  All will go independent, leaving the ridiculously pompous and self-serving South East, friendless and broke following the inevitable flight of the brokers and bankers, to sink beneath the weight of a massive population that makes Hong Kong Island look like a desert.

The Scots are right to reject The Westminster Three, for they have collectively failed in the first duty of elected office – to represent the interests of the majority.  By leaving the United Kingdom the dominos will start to fall, one knocking into another, and we will all suffer from the fallout from the break up of the United Kingdom.  My appeal to the Scots is ‘Don’t do it’.  Chances are, things will get worse for all of us.  Stay in the Union, go for greater devolved powers, and help the rest of us elect a more equitable and socially responsible leadership.

Read to Write

Read to become a better writer.  There is much free advice around, but this is certainly true.  Not to copy, perhaps to imitate or customise, but mainly to feed off the ideas and develop your own style, or Voice, as the How To books call it.

I have just finished reading the excellent and refreshingly brief ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ by Mohsin Hamid.  It’s a clever and concise first person monologue with a subtly delivered message. A thought leads to an association, and I found myself re-reading Shelley’s poem Ozymandias.  A tenuous association, I hear you cry.  Either way, I put finger to key board and came up with this re-working of Shelley’s timeless classic:

I met a traveller from an ancient land

Who said a temple now a pile of stones

Stands in the desert on the sand

Around are strewn sun bleached bones

At which the vultures pick and plunder

The mighty unseen strike by drones

Tribesmen gaze in awe and wonder

At such a sight and whisper things

The hand that mocked and the heart that fed

His name is Obama, King of Kings

Look on his works yea humble and despair!

Nothing beside remains around the decay

Of that once holy place, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.