Thursday, 15 October 2009

Corrupt, Corrupt From The Bottom To The Top, They tell Me It's The Law....

Once again the row over politicians expense claims has kicked off in Britain, with the Westminster Parliament still mired in sleaze and echoing to the sound of whining MPs. It seems that our elected representatives still don't get it. At all!

They have been told by an independent investigator that they should not have been able to claim unlimited amounts for items such as cleaning and gardening, and they should pay back any amount above a certain limit set retrospectively by that investigator. They have also been told to justify some of the items on their claim forms. It is likely that, in the future, the mortgages and designation of second homes will come under further scrutiny, with far larger sums due to be repaid. Furthermore, criminal investigations are under way against a number of parliamentarians.

The MPs have reacted with outrage, and some are publicly denying the right of the investigator to judge them retrospectively, as the claims fell within the rules when made. There may be some justification for that position, if there was no question over the integrity of those rules, and the MPs interpretation of them. However, that is not the case, and the simple fact is that, no matter how the rules were interpreted by the Fees Office and the MPs, the accepted business practice is that only those expenses that directly and wholly relate to the conduct of that business can be claimed. MPs have claimed for food, cleaning, gardening, home improvements etc. Only the expenses that arise directly from running their offices and from representing their constituents should ever have been legitimately claimed, no matter what the rules were. Yet, the MPs still don't see this. They think they are entitled.

In turn, the public are disgusted by the MPs, and fed up with their antics. They point out that had they behaved as the MPs have, then they would have been disciplined, or dismissed, or possibly prosecuted. They resent that MPs are still spending so much time on this, when they should be devoting themselves to improving the economy and saving their constituents jobs. They feel that MPs are setting a poor example when so many services and employees face cutbacks, and wish they would admit their faults, pay back the over-claimed money, and then get on with their jobs, until such time as they face the verdict of their electorate in the coming year.

They find it absurd that MPs have the right to decide these things for themselves, anyway. The perception is widespread, if not unanimous, that the vast majority are in Westminster to line their own pockets and further their own interests, instead of representing the people who sent them there. There is also the perception that many represent the lobbyists and vested interests over their constituents. Politicians reputation is at an all-time low!

This matters for a number of reasons. Firstly, the continued devaluation of the reputation of our political system calls into question the very legitimacy and relevance of that system. The longer that continues, the further participation rates in the electoral process will drop, and that undermines the foundations of a liberal, parliamentary democracy, leaving the door open to extremists and anti-democratic tendencies.

Secondly, the individuals concerned seem unable to discern the moral basis for rules and law-making. This calls into question their integrity, and their ability to make laws in a just, wise and impartial manner. This undermines the legitimacy of the laws passed by such a legislature. It should not have to be explained to those seeking election to high office what the moral requirements of serving the public interest, and safeguarding the public resources, are.

The recent scandal of the Attorney General's housekeeper reinforces the view that those in power have no regard for the laws they, themselves, pass, and seem not to think that they apply to them. Even when caught breaking the law, they seem to have no shame or sense of responsibility. How can they then expect that of those for whom they make those laws?

Thirdly, our political leaders, like it or not, do set an example to the rest of society. How are we to instill the correct values into the younger generation, if our leaders seem to have their eyes firmly on the main chance, and not on serving the common good? How can we hope to shame the financiers and bankers into acting lawfully and morally, if those leading the call are seen to be just as corrupt and grasping? We can not expect our politicians to be whiter than white at all times, but we should expect far higher standards than those they seem to wish to adhere to.

It is not what the rules allow, or what can be got away with, that our parliamentarians should regard as acceptable, but what is obviously right and proper. If there is any doubt, then simply don't do it! Our parliamentarians should be suitably remunerated for the job they do, which is undoubtedly stressful and demanding, if done properly and full-time. I would prefer them to be linked to a multiple of average earnings; that would motivate them to govern towards an equitable and prosperous society, instead of in favour of the corporations and rich individuals who fund their parties. They should be able to claim legitimate expenses arising from running their offices and the necessity to live in two places, but they should not profit in any way from those arrangements. Any gains should revert to the taxpayer, and not be pocketed by the MPs, and they should not be able to claim anything which is considered a normal living expense for the rest of the population. And the regulation and oversight of the whole system should be taken our of MPs hands once and for all.

As a footnote, I can't help but wonder how different our Westminster Parliament and the political system might be if run by Quakers, according to Quaker testimonies and methods. It might take a little longer to get to decisions than the current system (then again, maybe not!), and it would certainly not be perfect (we are only human), but it would have far greater integrity, and would govern with a commitment to equality, fairness, compassion and justice, which, I hope, would leave the current system far, far behind. Just a pipe dream, but, hey, no harm in dreaming.....

Johanna Sallstrom - A Modern Story.

The BBC are currently repeating the wonderful Swedish detective series "Wallander" on BBC4, and it is one of the few programmes I watch and look forward to. The series is quite unlike most other detective series in that it is relentlessly downbeat, and pervaded by a sense of melancholy and world-weariness; a feeling enhanced by the washed-out colours and the dilapidated bleakness of the locations selected. There is more than a suggestion of an inherent disgust with a society that allows the mundane cruelty, suffering and pain, and the many petty indignities which the Ystad police witness with such regularity.

One of the lead characters is the detective's daughter and fellow police officer, Linda Wallander, played by the Swedish actress, Johanna Sallstrom (pictured above). Linda is a young, fit and healthy woman, starting out on a career as a newly recruited policewoman, who has obtained rapid promotion to detective. Yet her character seems haunted by the same sadness that affects her father, the experienced and worn-down, Kurt Wallander, whose face is a mirror of the toll his job has taken. Somehow, this trait never quite rang true with me, despite her father's character. Very few women in their twenties have that quality overshadowing them, and especially not when advancing well in their chosen profession, and living a full and active life.

It is revealed later in the series, however, that Linda's mother is a psychotic alcoholic and is in a psychiatric hospital, and that Linda, herself, had tried to commit suicide when her parent's marriage fell apart. I was quite in awe of Johanna's ability to transmit this so consistently in her portrayal of Linda, whilst being a busy and dedicated police officer. A rare talent, indeed.

The mystery was solved for me recently, when I happened to read an article about Johanna Sallstrom. Johanna's was not a happy life, despite her great talent and burgeoning success. She was a teenage star of soap operas and films, winning an award for her part in Under Ytan (Beneath the Surface). Yet, she found it hard to cope with the attention this brought, and in 1997 she took a break from acting and moved to Denmark, where she worked in a cafe.

She returned to Sweden in 2000, and resumed her career. She struggled financially, landing only occasional bit parts and faced eviction from her home, even as she was pregnant with her daughter, Talulah. She divorced from her husband shortly after Talulah's birth, and later confessed she was so lonely that she welcomed the visit of a court official, assessing her eviction She invited him in for coffee, as he was the first human contact she had had in so many days. She was at the lowest possible ebb when she landed the role of Linda Wallander.

This should have been a turning point for her, and she seemed set for happiness with her young daughter and a dream role, but in December 2004 she was holidaying on a beach in Thailand when the Indian Ocean tsunami swept in, devastating the coast and, as it turned out, Johanna's life. She managed to save her own, and her daughter's, life by clinging to a tree, but saw many hundreds of people killed around her, including friends and dozens of fellow Swedes, who favoured these resorts.

Johanna seems never to have recovered from that experience, and a naturally shy and fragile person, who already struggled with the demands of her chosen profession, was haunted by what she had experienced and seen in Thailand. Much of that trauma seems etched on her face in the Wallander films. In filming some of these episodes, she must have been faced with many of her personal demons to do with death, mental illness and the tsunami. The shock and distress we see on Linda's face was probably all too real at times for Johanna.

Although intensely private, Johanna gave an interview early in 2006, in which she revealed that she had not expected to live to 30 (she was then 31), and implied suicidal thoughts in the past, but that she was looking forward to her future career, and enjoying life with her daughter. Sadly, her mental state rapidly declined after the filming of Wallander ended, and she was admitted to a psychiatric unit in Malmo.

It was some months later, on 13 February, 2007, whilst on an unsupervised visit to her flat, that Johanna took her own life by a prescription drugs overdose.

It is tragic that a young mother should have been so traumatised by her 2004 experiences, and by the demands of the public spotlight and life in general, that she should have chosen to leave her young daughter alone in that manner. It is even more sad when that woman was a beautiful, gentle and talented woman, who had so much to offer, and so much to look forward to, and who was finally achieving the career success and stability that she had struggled so hard for.

This story affected me deeply when I read it. Henning Mankell, who wrote the "Wallander" books and scripts, was so upset by her death, that he has not written another "Wallander" story since, and swears that no-one will ever replace her in any future "Wallander" books or films.

I feel a tangible connection with Johanna through my own experiences of clinical depression, my appreciation of her talent, and love of her work, and through my regard for the Skane region of Sweden where she lived. I was unaware of her death when I first saw "Wallander", and my second viewing is now highly coloured by my knowledge of it.

Like Kurt WallanderSallstrom should have felt the need to take such a step? It is clear that the tsunami paid a large part in her subsequent illness, but Johanna was already in trouble long before that.

Our obsessive individualism has robbed us of much of the support and solace we could traditionally have turned to, and even the best medical systems are not adequate to replace them. Our celebrity culture places intolerable burdens on those who seek to use their talents, but do not seek the fame and attention that that now entails. Our vicarious interest in their every word and deed seems guaranteed to drive many others down that path, as it has so many already. But, it is not just the celebrity elites that are so afflicted.

All the indications are that such mental illness is afflicting more and more of us throughout society, and across much of the world. It afflicts young and old, rich and poor. It corrodes the families, communities and organisations that should be the foundations of our lives. Is this society and culture the best we humans can devise when it drives so many of us to the brink of insanity, and all too often beyond?

Climate Change Action Synchronicity - Blog Action Day 2009

The science shows that climate change is now an undeniable reality, and the evidence indicates that the effects are already happening now, and will be far worse than many people realise, if we don't take significant action very soon. Just today we have a new report from a distinguished researcher on the Arctic sea ice depletion, which confirms that the impacts are happening faster and more extensively than anyone anticipated even a few years ago.

However, climate change is only one of several potentially disastrous crises facing humanity. We are seeing peak oil approaching rapidly, if not already with us, and the depletion of many other finite resources. This challenges our current way of life, particularly in the industrialised nations, on so many levels. We see food production, itself increasingly reliant on fossil fuels, in conflict with fuel crops. Water shortage, desertification, salination and soil erosion are already major problems for agriculture, which climate change will only exacerbate, and threaten our ability to feed the growing population. Our food production and distribution systems are grossly wasteful and inefficient, and so much other economic activity is frivolous and damaging.

Humanity, itself, is threatened by global health crises due to ever faster moving and mutating viruses, obesity, persistent chemical pollutants and the mental health problems associated with either poverty or the stress of modern urban existence. Our societies are breaking down as communities and families become ever more fractured, and inequalities and injustices proliferate. And our population continues to multiply, threatening the already depleted resources on which we rely.

The choices facing us are clear, and shocking to many, but what is significant is that many of those changes needed to tackle climate change are also those that will alleviate many of the other ills enumerated above.

We need to learn to use far less energy, and use it more wisely. So many of the power-intensive gadgets in our homes are unnecessary. Designers continue to produce new products that are ever more energy hungry, in use and production. We have the technology to build and renovate homes that need little or no external energy inputs, but little is being done to utilise it, even though this would release many from the thralldom of ever increasing fuel bills.

Food and other commodities need to be localised, wherever possible, and businesses need to find new ways of engaging with customers, and each other, to reduce the endless treadmill of sales meetings and conferences, which together contribute so much to the transport demands of our society. Not only would this reinvigorate local economies, and remove many of the absurdities of the globalised trade system, but it would allow many to achieve a more humane work-life balance and reduce the inherent stress of modern life, addressing both the mental health impacts and strengthening families and communities. Perhaps then we would feel less need for so many overseas vacations, usually by heavily-polluting plane, and perhaps, also, epidemics would spread less quickly and widely.

We need to learn to consume less, and consume more considerately. So much food is wasted by consumers, in addition to the massive waste of the industry and retail sectors, and that which is consumed is often highly energy-demanding to process, and full of chemicals, fats, sugars and salt, ingredients necessary to the processed food production. Simpler diets, with less processed food, and less meat and dairy products, would not only significantly reduce the global warming impact of out food, but would massively reduce the incidence of obesity, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.

Eating local and seasonal produce wouldn't just result in less waste and energy consumption, but would reduce the pressure on farmers to produce ever more from their land, which leads to destruction of the soil and pollution of the water cycle. It would mean we could ensure those farmers receive a commensurate return for their production too. It is absurd that farmers are going out of business whilst supermarkets make ever higher profits. It is ridiculous and wasteful that so much of the food we grow is used to feed animals for meat and dairy production, instead of feeding humans. It is unjust that peasant farmers are forced from their land in Africa, no longer able to feed themselves or their communities, so that western consumers can enjoy beans, sweetcorn and flowers out of season. Not only are we stealing their food, but their water and soil too.

It isn't just food that we mindlessly throw away without using either. Our western societies have adopted a disposable attitude to so much of our consumption. Products are designed to last ever shorter lives, and are made of complex materials, discouraging their reuse or recycling. Goods are designed to be unrepairable, so we have to purchase replacements, and the marketing gurus insist on ever more new "must have" gadgets and fashions, to replace their predecessors before we really need them. And many we just don't actually need at all! And all this leads to ever greater stress and angst amongst consumers! Consuming less would not only be good for the planet, but for all of us too. It would also ensure the continued availability of resources for the generations to come, and allow the more equitable distribution of those resources across the globe, and within our societies.

Consumption of less would release many of us from the long hours and stressful work we undertake to fund our bloated consumption. Buying less would also mean each of us could afford to spend a little more on what we do buy, so as to ensure it's producers were paid a living wage, and could work in safe conditions, using methods that respected the environment. We could afford goods designed to be reusable, recyclable, and with less reliance on high energy inputs and finite resources. We need to expect less and value it more.

The campaigns to grow food locally, to reduce waste, to consume less, to embrace fairtrade etc etc are helping reinvigorate our communities, and people are rediscovering the value and joy of working together, and sharing time, goods and ideas. The technologies we need to enable a sustainable future will create new jobs, replacing those in the destructive old industries, and the localisation and simplification of our economy will create more opportunities for small businesses and trades, which provide far greater employment potential than large companies.

The steps we need to take to address climate change will not only reduce future damage from that threat, but will deliver healthier, saner, more humane, more just, more equitable, and, ultimately, more sustainable and enjoyable lives for the majority of people on the planet, whilst safeguarding the ecosystems on which we rely for our very existence.

That's the message we need to deliver to our political leaders and the whole population today. Don't do it because it's worthy; do it because it will mean a better life for you and your fellow citizens, in this country and throughout the world.

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