politics


london-brexit

It wasn’t so much a problem when human beings lived in small hunter gatherer tribes of 20 to 40. Then, they worked together, sharing the tasks of hunting, foraging, making fire, cooking, shelter, defence to ensure their survival. The dilemma occurred after they learnt how to grow, harvest and store food and to domesticate wild animals and were able to settle in stable communities that grew to hundreds and then thousands of people. This necessitated the allocation of roles for purposes of food supply, trade, defence and public health and a system of laws to regulate societies.

Initially such city states were ruled by strong or powerful kings; warlords who defended the community and organised the people by force. As the threat of invasion receded, this type of leadership could so easily become tyrannical and burdensome. Democracy or ‘rule by the people’ was introduced in Athens in about 500 BCE. Plato, writing at the time, feared that allowing people to govern themselves would lead to anarchy or mob rule, which would inevitably revert to tyranny or dictatorship. It is perhaps no surprise that he favoured a benign oligarchy of philosophers, but what arose in Athens was a somewhat larger more representative ruling body of ‘free’ citizens, that excluded slaves, foreigners, women and children.

As states increased in size, direct rule by the people led to chaos and inertia. It had to be managed. Democracy’s dilemma has always been how to guarantee the right of every citizen to have a stake in the running of the state, while ensuring that decisions regarding defence, food supply, trade, property and public health could be made under sound logistical and moral principles without undue argument and delay. The answer was to elect or appoint people who could represent different factions within the community. However, only those with sufficient political and moral training were considered able to supervise the legislative, executive and judicial functions of the state. Some states created an extra tier of organisation to safeguard effective governance. The government of ancient Rome offered power to the people through the election of tribunes, but political authority was held by the senate, who listened to the tribunes and transformed the will of the people into workable laws. America’s congress is based on the Roman model with a house of representatives and a senate. Each state within the union appoints two senators. While representing the interests of each state in the political process, they review and debate bills, treaties, and proposed legislation and oversee the president’s administration.

An ideal democracy, while acknowledging the diverse opinions of the electorate, must, none-the-less modify voter preferences to ensure good government. Such transformation of popular needs and concerns into effective legislation needs to be conducted with transparency, honesty and equity, ensuring that the opinions of different factions are heard and debated in order to attain a workable consensus. Moreover, the legislative, executive and judicial roles of government should be kept separate so that each is independent. Finally, the decisions of government should be carried out in accordance to a written constitution, which is nevertheless subject to periodic review.

How many modern democracies operate entirely according to those principles? The answer, of course, is none, although most claim accountability to the people they represent. Practical expediency necessitates at-best, compromise and at-worst, subversion.  As a system for running a state, Churchill once declared that ‘democracy is the worst form of government except for those other forms that have been tried from time to time’.

In his recent book, ‘Democracy and its Crisis’, the philosopher, Professor Anthony Grayling, outlined three reasons why modern democracies, particularly those in the UK and US, are failing. They are: governments are too self serving of their own class and faction, the electorate is inadequately represented and insufficiently informed and there is too much interference in government by external agencies.

An Elected Dictatorship.

In the UK, the prime minister and her cabinet effectively run the country, subject to the ‘approval’ of parliament. They organise both executive and legislative functions of government and are only accountable to the people inasmuch as they can either be endorsed or rejected after five years. Bills may be delayed by resistance in The House of Lords, but they cannot be blocked. Even the judiciary lacks the power to strike down laws made by parliament, although it can ask parliament to reconsider laws that contravene legislation on human rights. In the nineteen seventies, Lord Hailsham called the UK system of government an elective dictatorship. This has not changed.

A similar system exists in the United States.  Executive authority resides with the President and the House of Representatives, though the senate does have the power to overturn legislation. For a good part of the history of the United States, there has been a de facto combination of powers with the legislature and executive, both houses of congress and the President working together when the same party has a majority in the house and the senate.

The distortions and inequities of the electoral system and party divisions means that governments of both countries do not represent the diverse views of the population or even majority public opinion. Instead, the executive government represents the background and experience of those members, the President or Prime Minister have appointed. You would at least think that the executive could be held to account by their individual members, but the reality is that in the UK they are bullied, bribed and blackmailed by the ‘whips’ into supporting the party line. It was the whips made sure that article 50 was triggered for Britain to leave the European Union, even though the result of the referendum was only ever meant to be advisory document and only 37% of the electorate voted for it. On a matter as important as leaving the EU, a two thirds majority would have ensured that the people truly decided. Unfortunately, the executive was able ‘to make it up as it went along’, partly because Britain does not have a written constitution. Even party manifestoes are less an agenda for the next parliament than a wish list that may be discarded as situations change.

Both the current UK and US governments could be accused as being out of touch with the electorate and only serving the interests of a small executive group. History teaches us that such unrepresentative government can lead to envy, riot, and replacement by a more populist regime, risking another form of dictatorship. This has already happened in the US while in the UK, an alternative government is biding it’s time, waiting for the current incumbents to implode.

Representation

Government should represent a diversity of views, but the absence of proportional representation in the ‘first past the post system’, operated by both the UK and the US, means that certain views are under-represented or not represented at all. Climate change is arguably the major threat facing mankind, yet tackling it is only championed by The Green Party in the UK. Although, over a million people voted for the Greens in 2015, only one member was elected. And in the United States, Donald Trump, a candidate with no qualification for parliamentary leadership, won more states, even though  Hillary Clinton, with three years experience as Secretary of State, got 3 million more popular votes. The major parties argue that proportional representation would lead to coalition and weak government, but coalition would mean greater representation of the views of the electorate and less manipulation by class based ideology and powerful external agencies. As such, it would be more democratic.

Fake News and Bullshit.

External agencies, particularly the news media have too much influence on both the electorate and MPs. Post truth, fake news, distortion, propaganda, ad hominem attacks, even the caricatures of cartoonists like Peter Brookes create what political commentator and presenter of BBC’s Newsnight, Evan Davis, calls ‘bullshit’ and can all too easily affect the way people think and vote. Bullshit is the political journalist’s stock-in-trade; they are there to probe, to question, to stir things up. It gives them access to the levers of power without any of the responsibility? But it none-the-less undermines our faith in any kind of government. Many people were manipulated to vote for Brexit by exaggerated fears of foreign intervention and immigration?

Social media has made this much worse. Google and other social media outlets can create profiles of every voter. This allows them to target voters in key constituencies or states to swing the vote in a particular direction.

Government can be manipulated by donations from rich individuals or sponsorship from big corporations, while within government, networks of military and civilian officials have a major influence what the executive decides.

For the Many not the Few.

Most MPs and members of the US congress have grown up at a time of peace. Britain and the USA and most of Europe have had no wars on their soil for over 70 years. This may explain an attitude of complacency on the part of government. David Cameron – remember him – failed to factor in a vote to leave the EU or appreciate the inherent inequality in income and opportunity that many in Britain suffered. ‘For the many, not the few’ chimes with the resentment and aspirations of lower paid workers. They are fed up with excuses and inaction, fed up with being fobbed off with the same tired old rhetoric that promises everything and never delivers, fed up with the brouhaha of party politics, fed up with the way the news media create a crisis out of everything. Although we may recognise the criticism of the government of the day and the promises for something different and better as just so much bullshit, we nevertheless are drawn in by somebody who promises to transform the political arena into something different, more can-do. This is the appeal of self appointed populist leaders like Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn, though only the latter can claim hard won experience of government.

So now, a hundred years on from a proletarian revolution in Russia, the US seems threatened by a new form of tyranny while British democracy is rapidly losing all credibility and influence. Can we ever pull ourselves back from the brink and reform the democratic system? Or do things have to get much worse before there is the will to change them? Can we introduce a fair system of proportional representation? Can we reform parliamentary procedures and abolish the party whips? Can we ensure transparency of funding for elections? Can we abolish the manipulation of elections by profiling and targeting voters? Can we in Britain replace a defunct House of Lords with an effective and more representative senate, able to challenge the executive when necessary. Can we increase the political effectiveness of local communities? Can we hold the media to account to fact-check what they publish?

It seems that if we are ever to change our system of democracy, we need to be more involved. Government is too distant and centralised. If people could become more involved in local government, they would understand the workings of democracy. Then their deliberations could feed up to higher levels of government. But how many would wish to be involved? Call me an old cynic, but my experience in running a charity suggests that most people would rather others did it for them. Perhaps if we educated our teenagers to understand how democracy works and gave them the vote at 16, they might feel motivated to make a difference.

 

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Cardiff Crown Courts are contained within an imposing Edwardian building in Cathays Park just an arrow’s flight away from the ancient picture-book keep of Cardiff Castle on top of its mound and surrounded by a moat. From the flagpole sporting a red dragon, I could look over the Principality Stadium, that just a few years ago, replaced the pride of Cardiff Arms Park to the hills and valleys of Rhonda and up to the Brecon Beacons. I was in Wales and it felt like a different country.

Maurice, aviator, adventurer and my old Taunton School friend and climbing buddy, stood accused of breaking a restraining order and was worried. ‘I am facing five years!’, he reminded me.

Maurice parked his van and mobile bedroom in a space in front of the building, not bothering to pay. ‘Why should I worry about a parking fine if they are going to lock me up?’ Leaving me to get his bag of documents through the security check, he stomped off up the steps. ‘I don’t want you to be seen with me. Just follow some way behind like an Arab wife!’ I trudged down municipal corridors occasionally overtaken by barristers and other court officials, who passed in a swish of gowns though doors held open for them. It reminded me of being back at school.

Court number 9 seemed a little cramped. Behind a long raised bench beneath the Coat of Arms sat her honour, the judge. She wore a black gown with red and blue flashings and a token wig that barely covered her hair, which was pulled back in a pony tail. The wig must have been itchy because she kept grimacing and dislodging it to scratch her head. Beneath her in the well of the courtroom sat the clerk of the court, a somewhat dishevelled and overweight youngish woman, who wrapped herself in her gown and sat throughout, gurning at her computer screen. In front and facing her were the benches for the prosecuting counsel and the defence counsel and their assistants. The jury sat in two rows behind elevated benches to the left. The press bench faced them on the far right and contained one intense-looking scribbler.  Maurice sat in the elevated dock to the left at the back of the court almost in touching distance of the jury. He was dressed smartly in a light green hacking jacket, red corduroy trousers and a yellow shirt set off by his red blood-sports bow tie.  He had shaved and cut his hair for the occasion. I and three other supporters sat at the same level to the right.

The judge had not long been appointed. If she was expecting an easy case, she was soon to be disabused. First, Maurice’s defending counsel strode into the court minus his wig and gown and asked to see her in Chambers, where he explained that Maurice would be defending himself. It is Maurice’s 13th appearance; the courtroom is his theatre and he usually excels – so why spoil a winning combination? Next, Maurice made an application for disclosure of medical records, which was ruled irrelevant and refused together with three further applications for witnesses including the psychiatrist who had falsely diagnosed brain damage. At that, Maurice asked for the case to be transferred to Bristol, where he felt he would get a fairer hearing. This was also refused. Finally, Maurice objected to one of the jurors, who was a doctor and may have known the psychiatrist. Another refusal. Things were not going well, but Maurice was not overly surprised or upset.

At length, the jury was sworn in, the judge explaining that their role was to judge the facts of the case while she was there to judge according to the law. The prosecution case was seemingly very straightforward. A restraining order had been issued to prevent Maurice from harassing the aforementioned forensic psychiatrist for falsifying medical records and the chief officer of the South Wales Police for wrongful arrest and imprisonment. His crime was, as I understand it,’threatening behaviour with an offensive weapon – ‘the machine gun case’. Maurice had purchased a vintage WW1 biplane with a machine gun mounted on the fuselage. He had removed the gun from the aircraft and posted an image on Facebook brandishing the weapon and threatening the South Wales Police. The gun was decommissioned; its barrel was blocked, and Maurice had posted the image as a prank. That, however, did not stop the police from storming his house and arresting him in front of his 10 year old daughter, whom they threatened to take into care to protect her from her dangerous father. A mutual antipathy between Maurice and that police force had smouldered for many years. No doubt they were waiting for an excuse to ‘nail him’.

At the subsequent trial, and largely on the evidence of the forensic psychiatrist, Maurice was assigned MAPPA (multi agency public protection arrangement) level 3, by which he was deemed at serious risk of harming the public and threatened to be confined in Ashworth high security psychiatric hospital, where the moors murderer, Ian Brady, was incarcerated. That was in 2009. He was eventually locked up in Cardiff and then Swansea prisons before being finally set free in 2015.

Maurice claims that he has been the victim of police harassment over many years. He considers his imprisonment and the designation that he was a serious risk to the public a gross miscarriage of justice, as a result of which he lost his ability to practice as a vet, his pilots licence, his marriage and any contact with his youngest daughter. He suspects that the forensic psychiatrist was ‘blackmailed’ by the police into writing the damning report that wrecked his life. As a result, he harbours a considerable grievance against the police and the psychiatrist and continues to fight to bring his persecutors to justice.

Breaching the restraining order was perhaps the only means he had of getting his grievances heard and publicised to a wider audience. Apart from the technicalities of whether or not he was properly issued with a restraining order, Maurice’s case is that he had reasonable justification in order to expose criminal activity on the part of the police and the psychiatrist. In other words, ‘they stitched him up’. In that respect, the context of why and how the order was issued in the first place is critically important, but the judge and the prosecution clearly wanted to tackle the simple issue of whether or not Maurice had broken the restraining order.

The prosecuting counsel called just three witnesses, the police officer who took screen shots of the ‘Wanted, dead or alive’ posters on Maurice’s website and Facebook pages, the officer who arrested Maurice after he had taken a video of himself in the foyer of Cardiff police station, and the officer who interviewed Maurice. In a display of cross examination, worthy of Horace Rumpole, Maurice confused the police officers and managed to get the judge to quash the Facebook evidence on the grounds that it was taken out of context.

His supporters were excited. It had been a good day for Maurice. Meirion said that he had not had such a good time in court for years and Terry commented, ‘You’ve got some bollocks, Maurice!’ The man, himself, was in good spirits and looking forward to a drink when he dropped me back at the railway station to get the train to Sheffield.

The trial dragged on for another three days. Maurice was prevented from calling any witnesses, but he was able to explain the background that led to the issue of a restraining order. Nevertheless, the outcome was always inevitable.  Guided by the judge to focus on the recent events of the case, the jury found him guilty of breaking the restraining order. Sentencing will take place on the 12th of November after Maurice has been assessed by a psychiatrist, which is ironic seeing that it was the psychiatric report that instigated all of this. He is now preparing his appeal.

This week on the Hoaxted Website, I had sight of the psychiatric report, which contains many unsubstantiated assertions that should never stand up in a court of law.

The clinical picture is of a man who has always had minor cognitive difficulties (poor writing and spelling). He developed a personality characterised by narcissism (an abnormal sense of entitlement), grandiosity (believing that normal rules do not apply to him) and paranoia (believing he is the victim of persecution). He also shows evidence of poor judgement, impulsivity and a willingness to hold himself hostage by way of hunger strike in an attempt to manipulate his environment. While these personality characteristics have undoubtedly overshadowed his life and probably had a negative effect on his family and social functioning, they appear to have been reasonably stable throughout his life. However, Maurice and the evidence both suggest that over the past two years, his functioning has deteriorated and his beliefs have become more intense and overwhelming and at some times but not others are clearly abnormal. Maurice now shows clear evidence of some degree of neuro-cognitive damage (brain damage), probably as a result of normal ageing, previous heavy alcohol misuse and deceleration following plane crashes. The specific area of brain damage affects his ability to monitor and control his behaviour, decreases self awareness, judgement and decision making abilities and have compounded his paranoid beliefs to the extent that when subjected to further stress, his beliefs intensify to the extent that for periods they have a quality of a paranoid delusional disorder (mental illness characterised by fixed false beliefs unamenable to reason and of a paranoid nature).’

‘Risk is always difficult to quantify especially in highly complex cases such as this and it is also impossible to consider Maurice’s risk in isolation from those he encourages to act on his behalf. The risk of him continuing with his action against South Wales Police and acting in a way he feels justified to act to achieve his needs is high, though whether Maurice would himself he involved in interpersonal violence is less, it cannot be discounted nor can the risk that others may act violently with his encouragement.’

The conclusion that Maurice has brain damage was based on MRI evidence of a localised lack of perfusion in the right frontal lobe possibly caused by a brain tumour. This abnormality was no longer present when the scan was repeated. Brain scans are notoriously difficult to interpret and I am reminded that after trauma and during intense emotion the right frontal lobe can go off-line while victims may behave irrationally. In other words, it is likely that appearances of hypo-perfusion might come and go.

Furthermore, the report states he has a paranoid delusional disorder – in lay terms, mad and irrational – and hints that he may have had this tendency for many years. I have known Maurice for more than 50 years during which he has tackled extreme climbs in North Wales, canoed across the channel in a severe gale, flew to Australia single-handed in his veteran piper cub and then continued round the world, ditching in the Caribbean and subsequently landing outside President Bush’s ranch to thank him for being rescued by the American coastguard, and finally last year crash landed in Southern Sudan during a civil war. While Maurice’s exploits show an impulsive nature and an extreme degree of self belief, they are not the actions of a madman. On the contrary, the fact that he has survived against enormous odds must denote an amazing amount of sanity and sangfroid. Our friend, Jack, who also climbed with Maurice in North Wales said he was a man living at the wrong time and that if his own life was in danger, he would want Maurice with him.

Delusions, by definition, do not conform to reality, but whose reality? Are Maurice’s beliefs delusional or is it possible that he has at times been victimised by the South Wales police force?’. If a person inhabits an environment that is so persecutory he is always having to look over his shoulder, paranoid beliefs may seem quite rational. They might, however, seem mad in a world (and a courtroom) that is justified by the law.

In time, the constant struggle to survive in a persecutory world might cause anybody to question their sense of reality. Maurice has spent a large part of the last few years incarcerated, during which he has been abused, beaten up and disbelieved. This must constitute severe trauma, which would test the beliefs of the sanest of people.

The psychiatric report concludes that there is a high risk of him continuing with his action against South Wales Police and acting in a way he feels justified to act to achieve his needs. It is in the nature of the man. Maurice is fighter and the more access to medical records and court records is prevented, the more he will persist in publicising his grievance in order to obtain justice. Perhaps the court should allow him the freedom to bring his case against South Wales Police to a satisfactory conclusion, but I doubt they will want to take that risk.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the Inaugural Law Enforcement Officers and First Responders Reception in the Blue Room of the White House in Washington.

So Donald Trump is now in the White House; the leader of the western world.  In his inauguration speech, he promised to put America first, to repeal many of his predecessor’s achievements in the of trade deals with Asia, nationalised health care and control of carbon emissions  and to make America great again. Trump is not a liberal democrat; he does not see himself as keeping the world safe; he is willing to go to any lengths as long as this is in America’s interest.  While the white male voters of middle America cheer to the rafters, the rest of the world holds its breath.

It was Freidrich Nietzsche in his polemic, ‘On the Genealogy of Morality (1887)’, who described the masters of society as ‘blonde beasts’, who are only interested in the acquisition and the retention of power.  These are the rulers; the powerful. They are vital, confident and self regarding, but also amoral and corrupt; they hold the rest of society, whom he termed, the slaves, in subjugation. They are the Trumps of this world.

Morality, Nietzsche asserted, begins as a reaction by the slaves against the power of the masters. Their grievance and frustration cannot be used in direct revenge against the rich and powerful, but is  internalized as moral qualities of virtue, compassion, self control and denial, which makes them feel superior and virtuous.

Entrapped by their own virtue, the morality of the slaves encourages constant self examination, shame, guilt and punishment. It isn’t enough to behave badly; people could also punish themselves for having bad intentions or thoughts.  Not given to self reflection, the blonde beasts have no such misgivings; they think and do whatever they want.

Eventually the slaves revolt against their masters under the guidance of their spiritual leaders or priests, who preach a life of righteous asceticism unsullied by shame and guilt and subject the slaves to the moral guidance of an all powerful but ‘abstract and imaginary’ God, whom only they could represent on earth.  A kind of moral and liberal democracy prevails but does not necessarily make people happy as it is built on self examination, confession, guilt and sacrifice and leads to suspicions of inequality among different groups.  So the price of civilization, according to the misanthropic Nietzsche, is a guilty conscience and endless self abnegation while the philosophical/scientific notion of asceticism distances society from life and the emotions into unattainable sterile abstractions.  Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth, but that may not satisfy them.

But politics runs in cycles.  The revolt of the slaves eventually destroys itself (see Newsnight’s video on my facebook page. In his dialogue with Plato,  Socrates came up with the shocking suggestion that tyranny evolves from democracy. The argument goes something like this. Democracy maximises equality and freedom. Everybody is equal and everybody is free to do exactly as they like.  The more democratic a society becomes, the more the freedoms multiply, men are interchangeable with women, animals have rights, children criticise their parents, foreigners can come and work, teachers are afraid of their students, the rich look like the poor. Any inequality is criticised: elites and the wealthy are particularly despised, the weak are suspect. That’s when a would-be tyrant seizes his opportunity. He is usually of the elite but is a traitor to his class and is often given to excesses of power, greed, and sex. He takes over a particularly obedient mob and attacks as corrupt his peers, who either flee or try to appease him.  He offers a relief from the endless choices and insecurities of democracy and rides a backlash to excess and presents himself as the personified answer to all problems, and in the face of the certainty of absolute power, democracy repeals itself.

Does this seem a simplistic and ultimately depressive notion?  Democracy was conceived as a way for large numbers of people to live together in relative harmony, their emotional impulses contained by the laws and morals of society as effected by their secular and spiritual leaders and controlled by their institutions.  So is tyranny is the inevitable outcome of a democracy that has created expectations it can never fulfil?  Has democracy undermined itself by being too liberal.  We in the western ‘civilised’ world have enjoyed a liberal democracy that has lasted for 70 years and have sought to impose the same system on others. The election of a blonde beast in the USA and the near election of another blonde beast in the UK are indications that liberal democracy has succumbed to the hedonic appeal of power.

Sigmund Freud expressed similar ideas to Nietzsche in his essay ‘Civilisation and its Discontents’, in which he described the irredeemable conflict between instinct and the morality of civilisation.

So why do we help each other?  It defies logic.  According to Dr Samuel Okashi, who was speaking at the Cafe Scientifique last night, if we were the rational, logical creatures we claim to be, then there would always be an advantage not to.  The Prisoner Game, invented by the ‘autistic’ mathematician John Nash (depicted in the film by Russell Crowe),  demonstrated that when you cannot trust your partner what to do, it is always better to defect, because the risk of collaborating when they don’t, could mean you end up with nothing and even if you both defect, you could at least end up with something.  This makes logical sense to prisoners and psychopaths, who cannot trust.  It also makes sense for governments.  Look how difficult it is for states to agree on cutting carbon emissions.  Powerful states with more to lose, defect, because if everybody else cuts emissions they will gain, even though the world will lose.  How could you ever get them to collaborate?

Why should people who are inherently narcissistic and self interested, engage in co-operative altruistic behaviour?   Is it just that we are social animals and as such have an inbuilt need to collaborate?   Such behaviour is built into us from the beginning; it’s instinctive; the baby clings to the mother, the mother’s instinct is to care for her infant.  Families stay together not just because there are distinct advantages for them to do so, but because there is a powerful emotional bond.  People group themselves in tribes.  There’s strength in numbers, but there’s also comfort, creativity and meaning.  In a social unit, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  No one person can do everything.  By adopting different roles, they can work as a unit to achieve much more as long as they see advantage in doing so and there is discipline.  And for that you need trust and leadership.  Difficulties arise when you have too many chiefs and not enough Indians.  Our survival as a species is based on collaboration.        

But we don’t collaborate with others just because we discern long term gains from such behaviour or because we avoid long term losses; we avoid being punished.   No, I think it’s deeper than that.  Our lives are built on meaning, the meaning that can only come from social interaction.  Our brains are wired by making emotional connections; neuroscience shows that the more we engage with the people and world around us, the more our brains adapt to cope; the more we grow as individuals.  It’s the way we form our identity.  Defection leads to autism, depression, exclusion and in an evolutionary sense, extinction.  Comparative research among primates indicate that the bigger the social group, the larger the size of the brain.  The implication is that you need big brains to hold in mind the dynamics of so many relationships. 

The key factor is trust.  Relationships, societies are based on trust.  Evolution assumes collaboration, at least for time enough to exchange genes but for social species collaboration must persist for much longer.  Trust is the glue that bonds people into families, friendships and tribes.  We have to know that at the end of the day, those whom we are bonded to by trust, will not abandon, mislead, exploit or betray us.  We need to know we belong.   Without trust we are like prisoners; always suspicious, watching our backs, making sure that others do not steal the advantage leaving us with nothing.  Society disintegrates without trust.  

The Prisoner Game is not the only game. There is another game for social animals and that is what my grandmother quaintly called courtship.  Here the goal is conjunction, the creation of a lasting bond.  In the edgy dance of courtship, each partner attempts to determine the sincerity of the other in all sorts of tests and tasks. ‘if you really loved me, you would do never be late, forget, let me down.’  The object is to build and establish the share mythology of absolute trust that will sustain the sufficiently to rear confident, trusting children while at the same time consolidating their place in the tribe.  In the courtship game, there is only one win.  The philanderer and seductress may achieve a short term gain, but it doesn’t last and both are the losers, gaining only disillusion and loneliness; lust, trust and bust!    

The Prisoner Game is based on false assumptions.  It assumes that human beings are purely logical, rational animals, who have no time for trust and only see personal advantage in relationships.  It is rather similar to the corporate game in which representatives employ the skills of seduction, charm and persuasion, to gain an advantageous deal.   Trust often doesn’t come into it; the best either partner can hope for is mutual advantage, bound by a written agreement, where law replaces trust.   But in the corporate world too, aren’t the best agreements forged during a round of golf or over a drink or meal?  The enjoyment of the game, the companionship, alcohol and food are ways executives still use to break down suspicion and promote trust, but increasingly such individuals are ‘protected’ by their PR companies.  As societies have expanded, so they have developed ever more efficient systems to protect themselves from ‘messy’ emotions.   You need more than the promise of good intentions if you are going to strike the best deal. 

Are so called civilised human beings becoming more selfish and more suspicious?  Do we trust less?   And are we paying the price for this?  Isn’t loneliness the major public health risk of our time?  Hasn’t the birth rate declined  – and the divorce rate gone up?   Are we breeding a generation of mixed up, disenfranchised kids?  Are we more split, more confrontational, more keen on our individual rights than building something together?  Is it better to be right than be together?  Is this the essence of our decline as a society?  Can we do anything about it?

The driver game, in which drivers choose whether to drive on the left or the right,  only works if the players can rely on each other to make the same choice.  A partnership must be mutual, in marriage, friendship or even corporate relationships.  If one partner does everything, if one partner is ambivalent, deceives, plays away, betrays, it doesn’t work.  But collaboration requires energy (though not as much as suspicion) and as long as their basic needs are met,  human beings are lazy. 

So is this the way the world ends – not with a bang, but a whimper?

It was 1789. France was still a feudal monarchy.  All the power and the wealth was in the hands of the aristocracy,  the King was like a God.  His ancestor, Louis XIV, the Sun King, had built himself a wonderful palace in Versailles.  The people had no voice. All the power was in the hands of the aristocrats and the church.  The country was run by the wealthy; the Estates General.   

But there were stirrings; people were restless, the intellectuals and lawyers met in the cafes and talked of revolution.  he American War of Independence had shown them that it was possible for a people to rise up against their European masters and succeed.   It just needed the spark.  A volcano erupts in Iceland,  the climate cools, the wheat crop fails and Paris explodes.  Starvation on top of everything else; it was too much.   

From its instigation in 1789, events gathered momentum like red hot lava.  The Estates General  was abolished and replaced by a more representative National Assembly, but the members were locked out of their meeting house.  The mob stormed the Bastille, the peasants refused to work on the estates, the monasteries were suppressed, wars of conquest were renounced,  the nobility was abolished.  The Government  changed every few months.  The National Assembly was replaced by an inexperienced Legislative Assemply.  This in turn was dissolved to be replaced by a revolutionary commune, which appointed its own tribunal. The King was forced to abdicated and was then  beheaded.  The country disintegrated into chaos, a  reign of terror.  Nobody was safe.  Anybody who looked rich or who has intellectual pretensions was executed.  Even the architects of the revolution, Marat, Danton and the incorruptible Robespierre were despatched by the guillotine.

The French Revolution terrifies me.  How is it possible to live through such anarchy with any sense of integrity and humanity?  .How could a civilised country disintegrate into such chaos?  Could the mob be released here?  Have you ever stood in the Kop?   

So could it happen again?  Could it happen here?  Now?   Yes, if things got bad enough.  George Osborne is swinging his machete with reactionary zeal.  His cuts are going deeper and more quickly than most of us anticipated.  His assertion that people are making a life style choice in claiming benefits is so provocative.  It surely emanates from someone out of touch with real world of the electorate. It will anger many and may well provoke violence.    

I suspect we are in for a very difficult winter and I am not sure the government will survive it. ‘This is no time for novices’, Gordon Brown said.  It is beginning to look like he was right.  Osborne seems carried away by enthusiasm, intoxicated by a delusion of self importance. Is there nobody who can express a note of caution?  Does the government know something that we don’t?  They need to come clean, to demonstrate in terms that are clear to all, the depth of our plight, to offer leadership and guidance as to how to survive it.  Otherwise people will just view the cuts as the desperate acts of an incompetent and insecure government.  They will take to the streets; the mob whipped up by the media, will be released.  It could happen!  The firemen and postal workers are already threatening strikes.  The TUC has urged civil disobedience.   And against the background, the government is also planning cuts in the military and the police.   

My fears were inspired by the performance of Danton’s Death at the National; such is the role of theatre.  Toby Stephens and Eliot Levey were so powerful,  the set so  dramatic, the direction by Michael Grandage so terrifying. Do not see it if you are a nervous disposition.  Just collect any bits of wood, boxes, broken down cars, anything and start building.    

It’s the smell that hits me first.  Not the ferrety lemon yellow scent of the whole building, but a dense, dark, dirty green,  pungent ammoniacal stench of soaked-in urine that has started to degrade, the stench of hell.  This I become aware of a subdued moan; ‘Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear’, never stopping just altering in intensity and pitch as she senses my presence. 

Mum is lying in a padded space, more like an open coffin than a bed.  Her bed clothes are down by her ankles, her best  dress that she created so carefully in happier times, is up around her waist revealing a loin cloth of  padded paper soaked in urine.  She crosses and recrosses her bare legs in a parody of orgasm.  She tears at her buttons.  Her eyes are wide with terror. 

I lean over her, kiss her forehead, look into her unfocussed eyes and say ‘Hello Mum.’  At that she turns and glares, reaches out with a claw and pinches my arm hard.  At 94, she can still hurt.  The litany pauses and changes,  ‘Please, please, please. Oh Nick, oh Nick, oh Nick. Unkind, unkind.’ It  breaks my heart to see her like this.  Hadn’t I promised never to let her go into a home?     

They bring her supper in and I try to spoon some soup into her mouth.  She swallows a few sips and then pushes my hand away as terror fills her eyes.  ‘No, no, no!’  I tear a morcel of egg sandwich and place it on her lips.  She opens her mouth and chews then spits the masticated pulp into my hand.  She takes a few sips of juice and then glares at me again.  No,no,no! 

A young nurse comes in, leans over her bed and asks me what she should do.  As if I knew!  Just be calm and keep trying.  At that mum reaches out and grabs the scarf she wears around her head and pulls.  ‘No, mum, let go.’, I say sternly but she just holds more tightly and tries to pull the poor girl into her coffin.  I distract her with more drink and she releases her grip. 

Mum has needed round- the- clock care for about a year.  It has worked well for most of the time.  She has been able to stay at home, she could eat, go to the toilet by herself, walk with a frame and she has slept for a bit most nights.  Things were stable, though she had occasional bouts of aggression in which she scratched and bit the carers.  Then her two main carers became ill.  Overnight, she refused to collaborate.   She insisted in going to the toilet unsupervised.  The inevitable happened.  She fell, lost confidence, wouldn’t walk, got a chest infection and ended up in hospital (see The Averted Face of Care, 5th September).  By the end of the week in St Benedict’s, she was started to walk again, she was dry, feeding herself and ready to go.  But she could not be assessed to go home for another week and besides it was the weekend again and she needed a hoist so the carers could cope.   There was no alternative but a nursing home.  With a sinking heart, I reluctantly agreed. 

Perhaps I should have checked Silverdale out, but it was the one used by St Benedict’s and as I indicated to the sister, the plan was for a week’s further mobilisation and then back home.   Besides, this home was one of the most expensive in Sheffield, so, I reasoned that she would have the best chance of getting back home quickly.   But I was wrong. First impressions were that the home seemed crowded,  understaffed and functional.  There were thick carpets on the floor and that pervasive ferrety odour.  Mum was asleep when I arrived and when I came back later, she was being bathed.  I asked the nurse how she was settling in.  ‘Oh fine,’  was the answer.  Why is it that when people say fine, you just know it’s not.  What does FINE stand for?  Frightened, Insecure, Neurotic and Enraged.  Yes truly, mum was fine.      

So many people, including those who should know better like doctors, nurses and carers  make the mistake of thinking that just because a person cannot seem to think and express themselves, they don’t feeling anything.  No sense, no feeling, they say.   It’s not true.  Our cognition tames and makes sense of our feelings.  If we have lost our cognition, then we cannot deal with our feelings and we are left with the terror with no reassurances to calm it.   

I can only think that for mum it must be like being shut up in her own personal Gulag, deprived not only of  freedom but also of personal contact, suspicious of everything and everybody, terrified of what they might do to her,  subjected to sensory deprivation, extreme physical discomfort and the most degrading indignities every minute of the day.  Guantanamo was never as bad as this and yet old people are condemned to this every day in our own towns and cities.  No wonder they decline so alarmingly.  What makes it seem worse is that mum is such a private person,  so nervous of other people.   She and those like her, must feel the sheer terror, and yet there is nothing that she or anybody else can do about it.  She suddenly plummets to the next tier of system of care.  Some may ‘settle’, but the majority, I fear, never get over it. 

Don’t think I am complaining about any particular home or any staff.  I think most really do their best.  It’s the system, which seems to encourage a policy of organised neglect rather then care and rehabilitation.  I just feel the system is more concerned with insurance and health and safety regulations that are more about fear of litigation than compassion and care.  Elderly people have experienced rich, diverse, interesting lives. They are a rich resource of history and wisdom, not just a bit of old crumble waiting to die. They deserve more than to be institutionalised and subjected to such trauma.  People would be outraged if this happened to children.  And they would never, ever treat a dog like this.

Cuts will hit poor 10 times harder than rich – report.   This was the headline in this morning Guardian.  Well, of course they will!  It’s common sense, if the government makes cuts in public spending, it’s the poor,  many of whom are single parents and pensioners, who will suffer most.  They’ll suffer most because they do not have reserve capacity and so they desperately need the extra that benefits provide.   The rich have got their own private sources of funds and while they might miss out on a foreign holiday or delay buying a new car, they will not experience real hardship.  

Last night’s Any questions was broadcast from Sheffield High School on the borders of Nick Clegg’s constituency.  The panel agreed that Sheffield, which is still recovering from the collapse of steel and mining industries in the eighties, will suffer more than most cities from the cuts.   Fourteen miles to the south and west in the picturesque vales of Derbyshire around the Chatsworth Estate, there will be scarce a scratch.  Indeed, this morning as I ran past the Carleton Gate, a notice advertised £1000 reward for information leading to the recovery of a precious African Grey Parrot on long term medication.  It’s a different world down here.  But I still get an embarrassing cheque for winter fuel allowance, free bus travel and reductions on the train!   

I voted for this government.  I wanted to get away from the adversarial bickering of party politics and have a real mature consensus.  I reasoned that there wasn’t much to choose between the parties and when it came down to it.  Surely, men and women of slightly different persuasions would be able to work together for the good of the country.  And that, by and large seems to be happening, but I and millions of others hadn’t quite realised how draconian the cuts might be. 

Just this last week, George Osborne announced that he wanted to cut an extra 4 billion off the welfare budget (over and above the 11 billion planned) by making it much harder for people to remain on unemployment benefit long term,  VAT has been increased, Vince Cable announced that Royal Mail delivery services could be sold off with many thousands of job losses, and front line services in the police may go with £40,000 job losses.   Funding for schools is to be reduced, and unversities do not have the capacity to accept students who would otherwise get in.  This year, even students with four A’s are having to sign on.   And yet, there is no sign of the increased investment that might allow the economy to generate funds and avoid a catastrophic rise in uneployment and poverty.  Such cuts tear at the seams of the social fabric and threaten the release of criminal behaviour and civil unrest.  And yet they’re slashing front line jobs in the police force as well. 

Is this joined up government?  Are ministers talking to each other?  Who’s in charge of publicity anyway?  It doesn’t make sense.     

What does the government expect?  That workers will be phlegmatic about it and say, ‘yes, we’ll do our bit for the country’.  They might have done this 70 years ago with the bombs falling and ‘Winnie’ in charge.   But now?  I fear that  as the cuts go deeper, people will get so angry they will take matters into their own hands.  I fear this oncoming winter of discontent will be every bit as bad as 1979 and Maggie’s no longer in the wings with a rescue package.  Gordon Brown must feel vindicated, although his policy of tax and spend risked economic collapse by driving interest rates up.  

There is a limit to how long government can continue to bleat; ‘It’s the last lot who created the mess.  We’re just trying to clear it up and it’s going to be tough for us all.’  No it’s not; it’s going to be tougher on the poorest among us and the last lot still say they would have done it so differently.  But is that so much Ed Balls?

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