All entries for January 2007

January 31, 2007

Do we really need to define 'Britishness'?

In recent months, there has been increased debate surrounding the idea of ‘Britishness’. Politicians, journalists and commentators are all adding their voice to the discussion, and are likely to devote even more time to the subject in the approach to the next general election and the imminent face-off between Gordon Brown and David Cameron.

But according to a recent survey of social attitudes in the UK, the proportion of the population that consider themselves ‘British’ has declined from 52% to 44% in the last decade. At the same time, the Scottish Nationalist Party appear to have wide support from the Scottish electorate, worrying those who have recently celebrated the 300th birthday of the Union.

It is easy to see why a decline in the numbers of those who feel a sense of national identity might worry the future Labour leader. For the Scottish MP with his eye on Number 10, it is now more important than ever that the population remains united.

The politics of the Union between the England and Scotland is, its fair to say, rather complicated. But it is also only one issue in a complex discussion of what unites the population of the UK. There are a number of questions still to be answered, starting with the obvious: Do we really need to define ‘Britishness’? There are many who would argue that we do.

“The concept is certainly not redundant,” says Matt Hartley, chairman of Warwick Conservatives. “It’s important that society has something that all its members can take pride in, and patriotism will always have a role to play in maintaining a strong, cohesive and stable society.”

“It is a shame, however, to see the idea of Britishness being abused by politicians for their own ends - the most recent example being Gordon Brown, whose patriotic talk of “being British” is nothing more than a cynical attempt to counterbalance his own Scottishness in the minds of the electorate.”

Damilola Ogunleye, President of the Politics Society, is also wary of public figures abusing the idea. "There isn't a problem with having a term of national identity as such, as long as it is a flexible concept that isn’t reduced to an irrelevant rallying term for politicians and a few segments of society."

Brown’s supporters would no doubt counter that this is a subject that has long been close to the Chancellor’s heart. In 2005, Brown highlighted the importance of “a sense of shared purpose,” and argued that a belief in “tolerance and liberty… shines through British history.” If you’re prepared to forget about the legacy of colonialism, you might think that he has a point.

In 2006, Brown took the idea further by proposing a national day for Britain, directly referring to the American model. It seems that there is still has some way to go if he is to win over the population. David Cameron has taken a slightly different approach, stating recently, “we can't bully people into feeling British - we have to inspire them.”

For Chemistry student Gary Bartley, the emphasis should be placed on redefining, rather than inventing, the concept. “We need to move away from the stereotype of men drinking tea and watching cricket, and move towards a more realistic idea of what we stand for today.”

Ciaran O’Connor, Vice-President of the Politics Society, is altogether more sceptical that it is possible to define what it is to be ‘British’. “I think it’s a bit of an outmoded concept, and what actually is it anyway?” he asks. “I think some form of cultural identity is a good thing, but to differentiate between that and other, more universal values such as liberal democracy and human rights seems slightly pointless.”

Professor Steve Fenton, who recently participated in a One World Week event looking at multiculturalism in the UK, agrees. “Who said Britain has a copyright on these values. We can be all for these values without it being because of our national identity."

“I am not at all convinced that people in their everyday lives are very concerned,” he continues. “People have other concerns which are related – for instance there is undoubtedly a strong band of sentiment against immigration, and a rather narrower band against multiculturalism.”

These comments highlight an important point. The values that Brown and others would like to associate with ‘Britishness’ are shared by societies throughout the world – so how can we claim these under the banner of the Union Jack? Some would argue that it is also misguided to assume that it’s possible to reach a consensus on which values should be included in a comprehensive definition of our national identity.

“Ironically, this kind of national soul-searching can actually divide people more than it unites them,” said Labour Party member George Eaton. “Individuals have multiple identities and everyone's path to some notion of Britishness will be different.”

A further problem for those seeking to promote tolerance and diversity as ‘British’ values is the fact that this isn’t always supported by reality. One political commentator, Martin Bright, recently commented in the New Statesman magazine; “the values [Brown] treasures… have been sorely challenged internationally by the government’s foreign policy. Jade Goody has not helped.”

Indeed, the majority of people living in the UK would no doubt support the promotion of positive values. That 40,000 people called Channel 4 to complain about the alleged racism in the Big Brother house recently is a good illustration of this. But whether or not these callers’ actions were distinctly ‘British’ is still a matter for debate.

Written for The Warwick Boar, 31st January 2007

January 14, 2007

The Good, the Bad and the Tabloids

According to the Audit Bureau of Circulation, roughly three quarters of daily newspapers sold in the UK are tabloids. The Sun and News of the World boast the highest sales, both selling an average of three million copies every day. Compare this to the UK’s most popular ‘quality daily’, the Daily Telegraph, which sells just under 900,000 copies, and tabloid sales seem all the more impressive.

These figures will no doubt be of concern to those who disagree with the tabloid approach, typified by sensationalism, irrationality, scaremongering and hate.

But a closer look at the statistics provided by the ABC reveals a much more worrying trend. The two most popular tabloids are both published by News International Ltd., which also publishes The Times – a ‘quality daily’ with a circulation of roughly 600,000. Together, these three publications reach 6.7 million readers every day, a figure that any other news source would find difficult to match.

News International is the UK subsidiary of News Corporation, the Media Empire of Australian billionaire Rupert Murdoch. This empire includes 175 newspapers, magazines, HarperCollins publishers, Sky, the Fox network as well as the recently acquired

There are no signs that Murdoch’s empire has reached its limit, either. In November, BSkyB acquired just under 20% of ITV shares, which had the result of both ruining Richard Branson’s takeover plans and further boosting Murdoch’s own power and influence in the industry.

The implications of Murdoch’s ownership of such a large chunk of the British (and global) media are not limited to the boardroom. Evidence of his influence is very easy to find. For example, Murdoch has recently ‘converted’ to the cause of environmentalism, backing down from his previously sceptical position to one of concern for the impacts of global warming. Turn on Sky News, and you’ll see the recently added carbon emissions counter. Open a copy of The Times, and you can read an increasing number of sympathetic articles on the subject. Even The Sun is talking about global warming as a serious problem; it has recently boasted of its ‘campaign’ to raise awareness of the issue, and included an exclusive article by Sir Nicholas Stern.

That Murdoch has now woken up to what other commentators and news sources have been saying for a long time is not in itself a problem – and is of course a huge boost to environmental campaigners everywhere. However, what is of concern is that one man should have so much influence over the news agenda. In 1997, The Sun famously claimed that its support for Labour had delivered Number 10 to Mr. Blair – and sure enough Blair had realised its importance (or should that be Alistair Campbell?) and obediently posed for a photo.

Depending on your political outlook, Murdoch’s support for New Labour in 1997 was either a very good thing or a very bad thing, but either way it’s hard to deny that his publications do have a significant impact in forming opinions and attitudes.

Although there is a cause for concern in the UK, the situation is far worse in the United States, where the biased, inaccurate and hateful reporting by Fox News is the subject of a documentary by Robert Greenwald, entitled ‘Outfoxed.’ In response to the film, and almost as if he wanted to prove Greenwald right, Fox News Reporter Eric Shawn responded, “it’s unfair, it’s slanted and it’s a hit job. And I haven’t even seen it yet.”

Frustration with American news channels is often shared by much of the international community. The best example of this is recent creation of France 24 and Al Jazeera English, two international news channels designed to counter what is seen as propaganda coming from the US. In a report for the BBC, Caroline Wyatt wrote that the former was born out of Jacques Chirac’s “intense frustration that France’s voice was not being heard loudly enough.”

Despite challenges from rivals new and old, Murdoch is not prepared to allow his strong position slip away without a fight, as his recent acquisition of ITV shares illustrates. For example, News International has recently created The London Paper – a free paper designed to rival Metro. Why bother with a free paper read on the tube by bored commuters? The answer: Metro is owned by Associated Press, publishers of the Daily Mail – Murdoch’s biggest rivals in the newspaper market.

It is clear that Murdoch has the financial power to seriously damage anyone or anything that becomes a serious challenge to his position. But what is even more worrying is that he has enough political clout to ensure that, for the most part, politicians remain silent on the subject.

Written for Footnote, 14th January 2007 

Who can Make Poverty History?

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In an age in which the total income of the world’s 500 richest people exceeds that of the poorest 416 million, it is fair to say that the world is characterised by a huge level of inequality.

In the summer of 2005, the Live8 event reminded us all that we’ve got it pretty good, compared to the billions that live in conditions of poverty, war, famine and disease. The Make Poverty History campaign encouraged millions of people to take action, and to do their bit in the fight to end world poverty. But who can take the most effective action?

For many, the most obvious response to this question is to leave it to the government. Those in power have the know-how and the resources to make the important decisions that affect lives across the globe. Getting involved in politics, either through a political party, or by lobbying government, therefore seems like a good starting point if we are ever going to make poverty history.

In the search for solutions to global problems, the importance of government policies is undeniable. In Britain, at least, the Labour government has confronted development issues head on, and today the Department for International Development (DFID) is committed to halving world poverty by 2015.

Although many campaigners and academics would debate the level of success achieved by DFID and by the Labour government, its potential ability to make a real difference to the lives of those in developing countries is considerable.

On an international level, it is governments who fund, and therefore influence, bodies such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation. The choices made by these institutions can make or break a community’s prospects for development.

However, it is easy to assume that governments are more often than not in the pockets of big business, and that ultimately the private sector gets its own way. It is certainly true that the governments of many developing countries struggle to compete with capitalist muscle. In 2000, the Institute of Policy Studies reported that of the 100 largest economic entities, 51 of these are corporations.

Sadly, it seems almost inevitable that industry will tend to take advantage of countries with the weakest labour laws and environmental standards. This can have devastating consequences for a population, such as the ‘Rainforest Chernobyl’ in Ecuador. CorpWatch reported that local communities “have suffered severe health effects, including cancer, skin lesions, birth defects, and spontaneous abortions,” all a direct result of Texaco’s disregard for the environment.

That is not to say that the private sector is incapable of working towards progressive causes. It has, after all, become good business sense for companies to engage in more responsible practices, and it is hard to deny that – generally speaking – consumers are starting to become more aware of the benefits of ethical spending. Sales of Fairtrade products, for instance, have been growing at an average of 20% every year since 2000.

It’s easy to forget how much power consumers do have in influencing the behaviour of big business, but there are plenty of cases of consumers demanding more than low prices.

In 2002, for example, Nestle was forced to retract its demand of $6million from the Ethiopian government. The Swiss food giant, concerned about the impact of a consumer boycott, responded to the 40,000 emails it had received (thanks to a campaign initiated by Oxfam) and even offered to reinvest a part of its profits (which totalled $6.51 billion in 2001) back into Ethiopia.

Nestle’s retreat in 2002 was a great example of why we shouldn’t underestimate the role played by civil society in tackling global problems.

On campus too there are plenty of opportunities to contribute. A range of societies, fundraisers, political parties and campaigning organisations frequently seek student support for their causes. Anyone who spends time in the library would have noticed the various societies and charities that set up stalls outside, campaigning on a range of subjects.

Students have more opportunities than most to enhance awareness and have their say on an issue. At the first Warwick International Development Summit, participants discussed the best ways to address and reduce global inequality. Can any one course of action be said to be more effective than the others?

The progress up until now has been a product of the actions of governments, companies and civil society. And ultimately, the impact that all these groups have is determined by the actions of individuals, and by the decisions that we take in our day-to-day lives.

It all boils down to the choices we make. Who to vote for, what to buy, and when to act. As tempting as it might be to entrust the future of the world’s poorest to men in suits, there’s plenty we can do.

Written for the Warwick Boar with Julie and Carole Biau, 27th November 2006 

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  • An excellent blog Simon. I am looking forward to seeing 'Outfoxed' quite a lot now. Hope you keep th… by on this entry

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