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The Dilemma of Thatcher's Children

Sometimes we just have to sit down and ask ourselves, “What sort of a person am I?”. I recently asked this question of myself on a bus, in the morning, heading to Peebles. I was in a particularly antisocial mood; this was mainly due to the time of day and the distance walked to catch the bus and, anyway, it seemed like a good opportunity to do some much needed reading far from anything that was breathing.

The book is “The Great Shark Hunt” by Hunter Thompson. I enjoy reading Hunter although you wouldn’t think it given how long it’s taken me to read this book (not that I’m finished) but, to be honest, stuff that gets my mind moving just isn’t relaxing at bed time. Anyway, I digress. The particular article I was reading referred to the ‘nonstudent left’, and their role in student demonstrations in the seventies. A militant student? As if! But why aren’t we still politically active as students?

I present myself as the perfect candidate for this examination of the missing sentiment of the “educated classes”. I was born 145 days after Margaret Thatcher came to power (at least I can say I was conceived before she came to power – in fact December 1978 is a really exciting month in history which I’m glad to add to the history of) and have since known two governments: one Tory, one New Labour. Luckily, also the communications revolution blossomed during that time and I can now reach out to the few who wish to subject themselves to my ramblings. Yet, things are much different in my generation than compared to my mother’s.

In 1979 the peoples of Britain chose a Tory doctrine that resembled the core of the American dream in order to repair the economic damage of the seventies. Margaret Thatcher would set the individual and business free to accumulate wealth as best they saw fit. She would deconstruct social ownership of utilities and she would empower the new businesses by protecting them from the unions that had crippled British industry for the past decade. And thus Britain grew rich. Rich? To quote wikipedia,

“The term was originally an adjective to describe the possession of great qualities.”.

Are we rich? This may seem a mute point in the face of the financial crisis, but I think it’s still fair to say that monetarily average Joe and a few more are better off now than in the late 70s. Business runs like clockwork: we don’t complain too much and the lights rarely go out. But surely any educated person can see that the social experiment has been an utter failure? The gap between rich and poor stands farther now than ever since the war, the deregulation of markets has caused death (network rail), poverty (the banking system) and could see us face ecological disaster (referring to the difficulties of building green energy technologies to to the grid market). Yet, the amazing thing is that we don’t see it or want to do anything about it.

In the 1960s and 70s, in American and British Universities, it was the student that were the greatest enemy of the Government. The heartbeat of change rang from the halls of learning and it put fear in many an American administration. Even my Mum spent a day throwing rocks at an American embassy. They called it then “the moral revolution of the young”. In this country the unions wielded massive power, crippling the country in the famous “Winter of discontent”, a key driver in Margaret Thatchers vision for Britain. Now there are but whispers from the halls of learning and the unions have little impact on the government’s policy. So what’s changed?

The subtle effect on the minds of the young of growing up in an economically driven society can now be seen to it’s full extent. Where once the educated would campaign against the ills of government and the for the rights of the individual, the university system is built as a conveyor of flesh to the corporate management mincer. Why rock the system that will soon be writing your pay cheque? Why risk your Porsche? More shocking still, mass demonstration has no influence on policy anymore. For instance, the Gulf War demonstrations showed that not even 750,000 people could waiver Tony Blair’s conviction to go to war and the worse part is that at the time I didn’t blame him.

You see, I see it in me that somewhere along the line we lost the conviction to question the government or even to care. We have been taught to harbour the belief that to look after number one is best and that the problems of others are not for us to deal with personally. I give money to charity, but I don’t wish to see the faces of the people the money helps, my time is better spent on facebook. I was willing to believe all of the government’s rhetoric without question yet in theory I’m supposed to be in the top ten percent of intelligent people. I didn’t believe I was supposed to question it.

Disconnecting with the socialist side of our lives has led to other problems in society. For one thing, voting. For every election I have voted in, the majority has been won by those who didn’t vote, by a huge margin. The paradox is that the people that choose not to vote tend mainly to be those that are worse served by the government; the poorest people left behind by the growing riches. So if those that are disaffectedly by your policies are those that choose not to vote why, as a government, would you be worried about the response of the electorate? Maybe the simple answer is that politics is no longer afraid of the people it represents because we don’t care enough to change it?

Thatcher’s Children, where have we come from the moral revolution of the young? Have we let it all go? Does anyone care for what we have to say? Are our parents better people than we will ever be? I hope that soon we can open our eyes and change ourselves in order to embrace the social values that our parents were willing to fight for. We may have missed the moral revolution of the the young, but if we can catch the moral revolution of the middle ages maybe we can make our leaders respect us again. And then maybe we can make a country that is truely rich, in the best sense of the word.

What a day for the news...

Southampton airport, 7.30pm, September 30th. After purchasing a banana I decide to return to the shop to buy the last lonely copy of The Guardian sitting on the rack. What a great decision that was; for once I had boarded my plane and moved to a seat away from the melee (why do Flybe stuff everyone at the back of a half empty plane?) I was treated to a meal of news that had my head racing with ideas.

Of course, we are all aware of the problems in the markets and the front pages were dominated with the shock decision of the US congress to turn down Paulson’s rescue bid (go the American people!). There were also notes that HBOS was undervalued, which sadly was an opportunity missed as I went to the not too fantastic Supergen annual instead. Doh! Anyway, the lead story had pointers to the comments section and they took me to George Monbiots article on page 33.

Monbiot himself is about as lefty as they come. He advocates far stronger action against climate change than I could personally sanction and is formerly a member of Respect, George Galloway’s current soapbox. To be fair to Monbiot, however, most of this article refers to a report from the Cato Institute, a Washington DC based think tank working on the principle of liberal markets. The gist of the article is about the reaction in the US congress to the Paulson bailout. It has created the feeling in political circles that the US is swinging dangerously close to the old enemy, socialism. Monbiot uses the Cato report to prove that this type of ‘socialism’ is an old bedfellow of the American administration, the administration that has been bailing out or handing out to big business for years. Monbiot lists a host of instruments and development funds that get sponged off from big business (and bloated farmers) without an eyebrow being raised. Frankly, this arse-endedness seems to be what American politics is about. More for the rich and less for the poor and sadly Britain seems to be getting worse at redistribution too. God help us if the Tories return to power (probably won’t be any worse than Labour staying in power however).

Monbiot goes on to explain the mechanisms in US politics and it’s a simple system – money. When political campaigns cost you millions of dollars and party funding is so vital to survival, being in bed with big business is the only way to get along in US politics. Firms spend huge amounts of money lobbying against regulation and against the will of the people. Those lobbying the most money are likely to win and commonly this is big business:

“Campaign finance is the best investment a corporation can make. You give a million dollars to the right man and reap a billion dollars’ worth of state protection, tax breaks and subsidies. When the same thing happens in Africa we call it corruption.”

I personally believe that money should not directly influence political decision making, thus I want to make a few proposals about how to deal with this problem. With regards to campaign funds a simple cap on the level of funding available to a campaign should level the playing field. With regards to lobbying, there should be a rule where both sides of the floor are forced to spend the same or, alternatively, the government could be the sole benefactor of lobbying campaigns. These rules would ensure a fair representation of the arguments and then maybe people and politicians would get a fair choice based purely upon the political problem facing them.

Back to the paper and two pages further on and Ann Pettifor, Jubilee Debt campaigner, delivers a small comment on the economics that brought about the credit crunch. She advocates a return to Keynesian economic standards and although I don’t understand the mechanics of the argument, I do understand that an economy run on debt is no economy at all. The most frightening point comes late in the article where she points out that there exists an,

“… orthodoxy that unemployment helps keep wages low and is a good thing; and that wage rises are inflationary. It is this orthodoxy that had caused wages and other forms of compensation to fall as a share of GDP… …over the past three decades. This fall in compensation has forced people to supplement incomes by borrowing more.”.

This sends a shiver down my spine. Our own economy has been working to make us poorer in real terms for the past thirty years. Surely this has to stop now.

The fun continued on page 7 where it was pointed out that with Bradford and Bingley being nationalised people could now face the unenviable position of having their home repossessed by their own government. The government probably sees this a fantastic opportunity to solve the council housing shortage.

Page 8 steered away from the lack of capital to the lack of moral substance in schools. The chairperson of the headmasters and headmistresses conference has said that children in schools are filling the moral vacuum left by God with X-Factor. But what else are they going to fill it with? Greater freedom for head teachers, or creating religious schools, is not definitely going to replace the moral void, is it? It’s a complicated world we live in so why not start teaching some of the subjects that explain it? Kids are clever and many go on to do sociology and psycology in further education. Why not explain religion and morality in this context? Science cannot replace faith, but this may allow children to make concious decisions about how and why they should behave a certain way. Empathy was taught to me in a history class when I was 14. Ten years of religion had tried to do the same thing, but never managed to explain it quite as well. Anyway, turning to page 21 shows a real moral vacuum. I don’t know what the Austrian education system is like, but if it produces a country voting 30% fascist, then perhaps an X-factor based faith is not such a bad thing.

Married to the Motherboard

So here I am typing in openoffice about to publish the first story to my blog. It was a little hard to decide how to do this, however. Should I pre-prepare (a word I have made up and like) or should I write directly into some sort of web based form? I think after the heart crushing sickness of losing work typed into web based forms coupled with the usual terrible results produced by may lazy English have prompted me to use a word processor at first. Perhaps I can weed out the terrible mistakes before presenting to the world? That’s an exercise for the reader.

It’s interesting (for the geeky amongst us) that neither the word ‘blog’ or ‘geeky’ are listed in the openoffice English dictionary. Neither is ‘openoffice’ to be honest, so the programmers must just be idiots. Of course, ‘blog’ is not in fact something squishy and nasty like the images that appear in my head when the word is uttered. Web and log are the contributing words to the contraction as wikipedia (another unknown word) points out. So what the hell is going on? Oh yes, well even the geeky among you are probably bored by now and are wondering, like me, what’s the point of all this drivel? I suppose I’m struggling to admit my sad realisation that over the years I have become virtually married to computers.

We had a BBC micro in my home from not long after I was born. My teenage years were lost to an Amiga 500. As a university student I got hold of a Compaq PC and a rebuilt IBM machine that I proudly got my first 56k internet connection working on. I have assembled two PCs from parts for personal use – I have built one for work. That machine had my first Linux distribution on it, and a Gentoo one at that. I have since rebuilt my dad’s clapped out laptop and brought it back to life with a version of Zenwalk Linux. It reads like a list of girlfriends and at many times in my life I have treated these machines as my closest companions. And now I have accepted other peoples machines too in the form of the internet. Yet, these relationships are not the same.

I am not an avid reader, I know this. I know I would look for almost anything as a child that was not a book. I was ‘hyperactive’. I wanted to be on the move. I wanted stimulation and quickly and had not the patience for literature or the efforts involved in its discovery. So the machines provided a perfect companion. I was programming by the time I was 10. The BBC BASIC manual was as much as I was willing to read and could be approached on a section by section basis. I had no imagination as a teenager so I stopped programming and took to gaming. My favourite games were and are still strategic. Driven by the desire to learn and defeat the opponent I removed the reliance on skill to focus on reasoning and deduction. The games would reward me quickly and when they didn’t I just loaded another. These were cold relationships. The thrill was in the learning. The winning led to disappointment. I could learn no more or the marginal thrills were not worth the stresses.

Looking back, the machines were never a cure for loneliness. Would I have been more or less lonely without the machines, however? I don’t know. Having spent my teenage years in a small village, my attempts at interaction were difficult, but perhaps it was just easier to sit stare at the machine all night, score a goal, torpedo a ship than spend time working on a new friendship. Would the internet have changed this for me? Would I have been more popular, happier?

I consider myself one of the first ‘mainstream’ users of the internet. I came at it from a purely superficial point of view at the start of my university career. I was surrounded by people that had used it for years before I. These were the IRC users, the LAN-partyists, the uber geeks. There was I with ICQ, (WTF? <- thanks Lucy, it’s a messenger service) an email address and the internet at hand. What a thrill! I got involved in a student web forum. I started to hunt out the email addresses of my friends and those I wanted to be friends with. This could revolutionise my life. But why? Why would people who would not give you the time of day face to face choose to interact with you over an internet connection?

Who do we become when we are connected to the machine? The people we wish we were, perhaps? I don’t lie or intentionally mislead, but do I really reveal an accurate representation of me? Can I provide any answers? Well, I was not normally as open or as chatty in real life but on the internet I could circumvent the fear that caused this. On the net I can say ‘hi’ to whoever I choose and say whatever I wish whenever I choose. In real life I have been the boy in the room who hides in the corner waiting, hoping to be engaged. Yet, I don’t want to be that person. I want to be able to easily approach people. To dazzle with charm and delight with a witty anecdote or two. However, the crazy thing about the internet is its parity with real life, the total opposite of my previous sterile experience with computers. The put downs, the disappointments, the bigotry and naivety. It’s as prevalent on the web as anywhere else. Possibly more so. And it doesn’t matter what site you go to, it’s still there. I’m left with the realisation that it’s not really me that changes but instead I imagine the internet as a place where everyone else will be different.

Throughout the years I have learnt some lessons to deal with other peoples’ reactions to me away from the internet and have tempered some of my own, more suspicious, habits as a result, but the internet will always be a fantastic new world in my mind, without hate or prejudice. That race of people I’ve tried so hard to find all my life. Yet I know now the net’s make-up. The net is powered by the same human race as the non-digital world and each connection is a unique individual among it. Some you will like. Some you will hate. Some may even like you. Some will be honest and some will lie. I have met far fewer genuine friends on the net than in real life, although they are not any less cherished.

As I approach thirty I hope that my love affair with the machine is now over. The question is, can we maintain a happy friendship throughout the coming years? I know computers will always be a draw for me so now I want to change the way I use them. I wish to harness the obsession and use it for positive means. Thus, here I am starting my blog. I shall now flex those intellectual muscles that I like to boast about. I shall use the internet to have a go at something that perhaps I’ve found a talent for.