Just WRITE SOMETHING!

Mrs Sane has compelled me to return to blogging. It didn’t require a great deal of pressure to be honest, because I miss it enormously and I’ve been toying with the idea for a while now but it was nice to receive the (metaphorical) jab in the kidneys and the order to get into the office (well, I say office, it’s now the domain of the Little Sanes who treat it much like the Wehrmacht treated the Russian Front) and WRITE SOMETHING.

So here I am. Writing something. And I’m rusty. Rustier than a rusty nail on a particularly rusty day. I tried to explain that I can’t just write something at the drop of a hat, there’s not a button I can press marked ‘Witty and informative blog post generator’ but she wasn’t having any of it. In fact, just to make a point she picked up a hat and dropped it, then shoved me in here and locked the door and said I’m not allowed to come out again until I’ve written something.

It isn’t easy to just spew forth words. I’m too used to Twitter these days – 140 characters (including spaces) to play with – so having to actually write sentences, paragraphs, doesn’t come naturally anymore. But that’s why I’m here – I’m battling through this in lieu of having anything in particular to talk about. Of course there is plenty to talk about: Algeria, Mali, Barack Obama, Michael Winner, horse meat, the bloody weather. But where do you begin when you haven’t blogged regularly for years?

I suppose you begin here: writing a stream-of-consciousness that nobody will ever read because this isn’t worth publishing. And back at my old blog again, too. I started Mind Trumpet because I wanted to make a fresh start and that worked OK for a while but I’ve been blogging under the pseudonym of Citizen Sane for nearly eight years now and regularly tweet under this name so I guess I’m sticking with it. Makes sense for these ramblings to be on the blog of the same name too. Branding and all that. Plus having looked again at WordPress I have to say it’s a really nice blogging tool with some great looking templates so why not just give it another spin? I’ll import all the posts from Mind Trumpet over here and then that’s nearly everything I’ve ever blogged all in one place. Plus, as my mate Les never tired of reminding me: Mind Trumpet is a blatant rip off of the Armando Ianucci show ‘Time Trumpet‘, which was never a conscious decision but, yes, OK Les: you win. It’s going. Happy now?

So there it is and here I am and there you are. I’m going to post this bugger and off we go again. Carpe diem and all that. Or carpet diem – seize the carpet, and give it a damn good shake. It’s good to be back.

I’m going to hit that ‘Publish’ button. Oh yes I am. Here we go…..

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The towering pomposity of Simon Jenkins

I know I shouldn’t. It’s bad for me. It raises my blood pressure and causes an involuntary, reflexive movement whereby I smack myself on the forehead for a period that can last a couple of hours in extreme cases. I grind my teeth, gurn, clench my fists and exhibit all the symptoms of a mammal in extreme distress. But I just couldn’t help myself…. I read a Simon Jenkins article in The Guardian.

Sir Simon Jenkins, for those unfamiliar with his work, is an incorrigible curmudgeon. Think John Humphrys with toothache. In the rain. In many ways he is an unusual columnist for The Guardian: he’s certainly not a denizen of the politically correct, wet liberal or ultra-left constituency. No Polly Toynbee or Seumas Milne, he. Indeed his career has mostly been at The Times, The Economist and the London Evening Standard (he is also chairman of the National Trust).  On paper, at least, he would seem to tick all the boxes of stiff British conservatism, so what he’s doing contributing to the bible of the liberal chattering classes is anyone’s guess. Maybe The Guardian lost a bet and had to swap him for David Aaronovitch and a packet of scotch eggs or something.

Anyway, pick a subject – any subject – and Simon Jenkins will write a sour, contrarian column about it. It’s what he does; it’s what he’s paid for.

This week the focus of his frustration is The Shard – London’s latest skyscraper and the tallest building in Europe. I like it. I like tall buildings generally. Who wouldn’t look in wonder at, say, the Manhattan skyline? I certainly did the first time I arrived in New York, coming over the Queensboro Bridge in a taxi. Indeed, it reaffirmed a love affair with skyscrapers that I’d had since being but a wee lad. This is what cities should look like – big, bold buildings prodding the sky with their magnificence. Clusters of imposing towers of brick, glass and steel boldly exclaiming “Look! Look at this! This is a city!”

But not to Jenkins. Oh no. To Jenkins The Shard is an act of vandalism, a vicious assault on London’s skyline. To which I say: what skyline? For a major city, London’s skyline is uninspiring. Sure, there’s Docklands, but that’s all over THERE *points*. There are a few high towers in the City: the Gherkin, Tower 42 (formerly the NatWest tower) and a few more due to be completed in the next year or so, but that’s about it. Mostly this is not so much due to a lack of architectural ambition but regulation that for years ensured that nothing obstructed or distracted from the view of St Paul’s Cathedral. Sacred St Paul’s. Hallowed St. Paul’s.

I worked for years in or around Paternoster Square so I’m very familiar with St Paul’s and I’m not dismissing it. It’s an amazing construction, part of London’s heritage, indisputably an iconic landmark and has been for over three hundred years. But should it have this protected status forever? A lot has changed since the 17th century, as you may have noticed. Nobody is suggesting that St Paul’s be bulldozed, just that, perhaps, it would be nice to add some additional impressive structures within a mile or so of its vicinity. The cathedral would still be there, where it’s always been, for anyone to go and see, but we’d also have some other buildings bringing variety and spectacle to a skyline that is, for a major city, dull.

The Shard is a good start to this. Personally I’d like to see another dozen such structures going up. Although according to Jenkins anyone who thinks this way is in the grip of some kind of Freudian crisis: we “equate phallic prominence with civic prowess”. Indeed, in one of his more eccentric statements (even by his standards), he says that The Shard is “an adjunct of Tony Blair’s foreign policy, a cure for erectile dysfunction”. (This is unsurprising although I’m amazed it took him six paragraphs before finding a bridge between this subject and our former prime minister; usually he gets there a lot sooner than that.) “The Shard,” says Jenkins, in full hyperbolic mode, “has slashed the face of London forever.”

It’s not hard to imagine Jenkins in New York City in the early 1930s bemoaning the Empire State Building: “This monstrosity will ruin Manhattan’s skyline!” he would have said. No doubt his ancestors had similar misgivings in ancient Egypt, wailing that the “ghastly pyramids will destroy the view of the desert”, decrying them as an “adjunct of Khufu’s foreign policy”.

The Shard is a controversial building but so was the World Trade Centre in New York in the early 1970s. It didn’t take long for the Twin Towers to become established as a prominent feature of the city, part of its very identity. Similarly, The Shard will soon become considered a familiar landmark to the residents of London. Maybe even old misery guts Jenkins will learn to love it too. I say let a hundred Shards bloom. But then what do I know? I’m just a vandalistic modernist obsessed with erections.

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Occupy in the sky…..

We are onto day three of Occupy London Stock Exchange Occupy Some Space Near St. Paul’s Cathedral. It’s a shame because until the end of last year I worked right next to Paternoster Square and I feel like I’m missing out on all the excitement. Now, I can only read about it on news sites or Twitter, or get information from people I know who still work in the area.

While I genuinely admire the spirit of people who are prepared to sacrifice the comforts of home life to live in a tent pitched on concrete, next to a cathedral whose bells ring every fifteen minutes, it’s impossible not to point out the utter silliness being spouted by some of the collective. It’s very easy for me to make glib comments but then, when people are putting up stupid signs like this, they really are asking for it:
Let’s be clear here: protesting about the iniquity of western capitalism is not on a par with the Arab Spring. It just isn’t. To compare yourself to the people of Tahrir Square, who were standing up to a military dictatorship for basic political freedoms, is just insulting.
Or there’s this one. I love this one.
Courtesy of – who else? – the Socialist Worker. “JOBS, HOMES & SERVICES NOT RACISM”. Sorry, I had no idea that this was the choice we were facing. So let me make sure I understand: we are presented with a choice of, on one hand, jobs, homes & services or, on the other, racism? Well, if you put it like that I’ll have to go with the former. Can’t abide racism. Thanks for putting it so succinctly.
But ooh, ooh, we now have a manifesto of sorts from the Occupy London movement. Nine points in total. Shall we have a look at them? I’ve added a few thoughts of my own in italics.
#OccupyLSX initial statement

At today’s assembly of over 500 people on the steps of St Paul’s, #occupylsx collectively agreed the initial statement below. Please note, like all forms of direct democracy, the statement will always be a work in progress.

1 The current system is unsustainable. It is undemocratic and unjust. We need alternatives; this is where we work towards them. One of the nicest features of a democracy is the right to gather and make statements like this. Which, neatly, disproves your point about the current system being undemocratic. Funny eh? But yes, you mentioned alternatives and working towards them. OK, we’re all ears. Hello? Are you still there?

2 We are of all ethnicities, backgrounds, genders, generations, sexualities dis/abilities and faiths. We stand together with occupations all over the world. OK. Get to the point.

3 We refuse to pay for the banks’ crisis. Which brings us back to alternatives. The alternative was wholesale collapse of the banking system with nothing else in place. This is why the banks were bailed out – an unpopular measure was taken because the other option was even worse. So now what?

4 We do not accept the cuts as either necessary or inevitable. We demand an end to global tax injustice and our democracy representing corporations instead of the people. I’ll give you this one. No major objections. Although not sure I buy the line about government only representing corporations. But we’ll move on.

5 We want regulators to be genuinely independent of the industries they regulate. No argument from me here. That would be a good thing. But what regulators and what industries are you talking about?

6 We support the strike on the 30th November and the student action on the 9th November, and actions to defend our health services, welfare, education and employment, and to stop wars and arms dealing. As is your democratic right. See point 1.

7 We want structural change towards authentic global equality. The world’s resources must go towards caring for people and the planet, not the military, corporate profits or the rich. I can’t object to this per se. That would be a good thing. So – what’s the plan?

8 We stand in solidarity with the global oppressed and we call for an end to the actions of our government and others in causing this oppression. Hmmm. Bit vague this one. Which actions of our government? We were quite instrumental recently in supporting the Libyan uprising, for example. The Libyan people were quite oppressed and we helped them. Is it possible that sometimes, just sometimes, we are not the bad guys?

9 This is what democracy looks like. Come and join us! You’re right. This is what democracy looks like! You have every right to do this, it’s enshrined in law. Hell, even the canon chancellor of St. Paul’s has given you his blessing to be there. There is absolutely zero chance of David Cameron sending in the tanks to crush your camp and shoot your ringleaders. Which is why any attempt to claim “solidarity” with the uprisings in the Middle East is so utterly fatuous.

 

So overall, I’ll give you two, maybe three, of your nine points. Not bad.
The occupiers say they are there for the long haul. The temperature is meant to drop considerably towards the end of the week. The people gathered are still no nearer to their stated objective of occupying the stock exchange, but are still sticking it out. This is going to get very interesting….
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Call out the instigators, because there’s something in the air….

Are you ready for the revolution? Because it’s happening. It’s happening today! Can you smell it in the air? Can you feel it in the wind?

No, me neither.

However, a group is currently gathering in Paternoster Square in the City of London with the stated intention of kicking…. something off. The organisers of Occupy London Stock Exchange (#OccupyLSX), inspired by the ongoing Occupy Wall Street campaign in New York, are planning to, well, occupy the London Stock Exchange and, erm, I think that’s about the extent of their planning.

Just a couple of problems with this. Firstly, it’s a Saturday so the stock exchange will be closed. Even rapacious capital markets stop for the weekend to allow bankers to gather their thoughts before continuing their pernicious campaign to hold us all in financial slavery again on Monday morning. Secondly, the London Stock Exchange doesn’t really perform the function that I suspect a lot of these demonstrators think it does. It’s an administrative headquarters so, while it no doubt has symbolic value and is certainly the centralised hub of all London share trading, ‘occupying’ it wouldn’t really be very disruptive given that all trading is screen-based and takes place inside the premises of the individual banks and brokers. Perhaps the organisers are expecting to see hundreds of traders, wearing jackets, waving bits of paper and shouting at each other. And they would see this, if they were also able to invent a time machine and visit the old stock exchange prior to October 1986, when the ‘Big Bang‘ ended open-cry equity trading in London.

There is also the problem that Paternoster Square is privately owned and entirely paved. So good luck getting settled and even better luck creating a campsite. I’m not sure how many people are turning out today but they are likely to be greeted (and possibly outnumbered) by bemused tourists visiting St. Paul’s Cathedral. Still, there is a Sainsbury’s next door, plus a Pret a Manger and Starbucks, etc. I’m sure they’ll appreciate the extra weekend revenue.

I’m not entirely unsympathetic to the sentiment behind this gathering. I can fully appreciate why people are angry with the banks, the state of the economy, the scarcity of jobs, the imminent cuts in public spending, the fragility of the entire economic system in fact. But as is so often the case in such demonstrations, beyond the intended (and childish) stunt of occupying the London Stock Exchange, there is barely any coherence in their stated aims, targets or – crucially – any viable alternative proposed. The extent of the argument seems to be: the banks were bailed out, ‘bankers’ still pay themselves obscene bonuses, normal people are suffering so…. we’ll gather here for a bit and maybe Billy Bragg (or, even worse, Penny Red) will say a few words and then, oh, let’s see what happens.

The near-collapse of the banking system and the subsequent economic fallout was largely caused by reckless lending on the back of an unsustainable property boom, predominantly in the United States and particularly in the sub-prime market. These mortgages were then repackaged into complex financial instruments and sold all around the world, ensuring that when the property bubble burst, the contagion was spread all over the globe. Attempting to occupy the London Stock Exchange in retaliation does not even make symbolic sense as none of these products would have gone anywhere near it. But hey, it’s a financial centre and representative of capitalism and stuff so it’ll have to do.

It’s this lack of attention to detail, lack of understanding and lack of anything approaching a workable solution that makes this event so utterly futile. If you want further proof of this, have a read of the accompanying ‘manifesto‘ of the wider global movement which conflates first world anger about the recession with the democracy struggles raging in the Middle East.

If there’s going to be a revolution, these are the last people on earth that should be leading it.

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Why I love Twitter

I first learned of the horrific events in Norway yesterday not through traditional media channels but, as is so often the case nowadays, Twitter. I immediately went to the BBC and then The Guardian websites for additional information but, finding only a placeholder news story with minimal information, returned to the social networking site where I was able to immediately find first hand accounts of what had occurred and immediate reaction from a variety of different people. Twitter has changed, and continues to change, the means of people being able to distribute news and opinion. Old media simply cannot compete and this is why I love Twitter.

At first I was sceptical of the medium. I didn’t understand the appeal of something that restricted you to just 140 characters (including spaces). How limiting, how frustrating, I thought. But in many ways this is actually quite liberating. You soon become adept at distilling your thoughts, Haiku-style, into concise and neat little packages. Even better, you do, over time, link up with other like-minded people and you soon find you have a nice little (virtual) community to interact with and share interesting things. Unlike, say, Facebook, where you generally connect with people that you know in real life yet it somehow manages to be excruciatingly dull. It has been said that Twitter connects you to people that you don’t really know but should, while Facebook keeps you in contact with people that you do really know but perhaps shouldn’t.

As ever, there are tedious naysayers who dismiss the entire thing. Here’s Rod Liddle being typically contemptuous of something he clearly does not understand. Or John Humphrys, another curmudgeon who simply does not get it. You’d think, as journalists, they’d be able to easily grasp the potential of such a powerful and simple tool to disseminate ideas and opinions, but no, they join in with the rest of the clueless who think it’s just a load of people saying what they had for breakfast. Well, I dare say a lot of people do use it in this way – I wouldn’t know as I only follow people who interest or intrigue me (or, occasionally, I follow people for sheer curiosity value – there are some bizarre people out there). Accusing Twitter of being a platform for banality is pointless. Banality exists wherever groups of people might assemble: the trick, as with any social gathering, is to weed out the boring, stupid and ignorant and seek out the clever, witty and interesting. It may take a while to find them at first, but they are out there.

By the way, should you be wondering, I had Eggs Royale for breakfast.

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The revolting tentacles of News International

My, but how the plot thickens. Today it was Dave Cameron’s turn to get a sound kicking: in this case at the Number 10 press conference where he desperately tried to put some clear blue water between himself and News International. Easier said than done, of course, given that he recruited Andy Coulson as his communications director even though he must have known that there could be some rather fishy baggage coming along for the ride. Clearly this was the risk he was prepared to take, so keen was he to have someone who could feel the pulse of the British public. Or so Cameron figured, anyway. I don’t know why a former entertainment reporter for the Sun and, later, editor of the News of the World would automatically be the best man for the job. I suppose he wanted his own Alastair Campbell. Campbell had a tabloid background, too, of course, but he was at least a political reporter and editor in his day, as opposed to Coulson who was little more than a stalker of third rate celebrities and a peddler of prurient tittle-tattle.

Coulson was, as predicted, arrested today and later released on bail. Rebekah Brooks will no longer be heading the internal investigation at News International, but is still, somehow, holding onto a job. Her position is now nothing short of farcical. Even Cameron, at his press conference today, said that he “would have accepted” her resignation. It can only be a matter of time.

Brooks met with the dumped NotW journalists this afternoon and seemed to suggest that the real reasons for closing the paper would be clearer in a year’s time. Christ knows what this means. “Who is she? The fucking Riddler? asked Charlie Brooker on Twitter. If she is The Riddler, then that must make The Guardian Batman because, through their constant refusal to let this story die, they have delivered News International an almighty kick in the throat.

And hooray for that. I’m not vehemently anti-News International: I subscribe to The Times and think it’s an excellent newspaper; I have no beef with Sky TV, in fact it’s a great product. But it is very clear that Murdoch’s empire has too much concentration of media, too much power and has some revolting tentacles attached to the main body. They deserve everything they are being hit with. If this ushers in an era of politicians being less in thrall to Murdoch and his hideous tabloids then that is a long overdue development and can only be a good thing for democracy in this country.

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Check before you spread News of the World

Sooner or later I had to break my blogging hiatus: it was just a matter of waiting for a suitable jolt to come along. Something that I couldn’t let pass without comment. Without doubt, the extraordinary events that have taken place concerning the News of the World, its parent company News International and the implications for the prime minister, the police and the entire news industry was that subject.

By now everyone knows the story, more or less. Tawdry Sunday tabloid allegedly employs all manner of devious and underhand methods to obtain information about celebrities: namely, phone hacking. On the whole, the nation shrugs. Then it transpires they are accused of employing the same methods in the case of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. Cue righteous and justifiable outrage. Then it gets worse: the family of the murdered Soham girls, 7/7 victims and their friends and families, relatives of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan were all targeted too. There seemed to be no end to the depths of the paper’s depravity, no ethical barrel they would not scrape the bottom of to get a lead on a story. National outrage ensued, questions asked in Parliament, much heat on David Cameron (who famously recruited former NotW editor Andy Coulson), accusations of the paper paying the police for information, campaigns on Twitter and Facebook to boycott the newspaper and, indeed, anything else to do with parent company News International. All made the more interesting, of course, by the fact that a decision is due to be made on whether News International should be allowed to pursue its takeover of BSkyB. Soon, reacting to the public outrage, major News of the World advertisers began pulling the plug. News International, meanwhile, announced that they were performing their own internal investigation to be led by chief executive Rebekah Brooks (née Wade), who is herself at the centre of the storm given that she was editor for much of the period under scrutiny.

What a morass of moral torpor.

Then today News International took the remarkable step of shutting down the newspaper altogether. Their best selling and most profitable paper (indeed – depressingly – reported to be the most widely read English language newspaper in the world), brought crashing down in less than a week, after 168 years of publication. A remarkable series of events.

The whole thing still has a putrid stench about it of course. The people paying the ultimate price are the current staff of the newspaper who, as it stands, are not suspected of any wrongdoing (other than being tabloid journalists, of course, which, shameful as it might be, is not actually illegal) while the executives at News International remain in gainful employment. Of course their main motivation is to clear the decks to continue to lobby for BSkyB ownership. They could never do that while there remains such fuss around the actions of the paper. By ridding themselves of this toxic brand they hope to draw a line under the whole affair. Undoubtedly they will at some point soon re-enter the Sunday tabloid market – already rumours abound that the staff at The Sun have been told that the paper should prepare to be produced seven days a week instead of six. Additionally, the web domains sunonsunday.co.uk and sunonsunday.com were apparently registered a couple of days ago. (Meanwhile some wag has already nabbed the Twitter identity….) You can hardly expect News International to give up several million readers to their competitors now can you? Expect The Sun on Sunday within months, if not weeks.

Rebekah Brooks clings onto her job for now despite continuing clamour for her to step down. Somehow she still has the unambiguous support of the Murdoch clan: James Murdoch said earlier this evening that he is “happy with Rebakah Brooks’ ethics”. Yes, well, when prompted Satan says something very similar about his chief demon. This is not exactly a credible endorsement. I suspect the pressure will continue to build against Brooks and she will, eventually, have to stand down to “protect the brand”. We can probably also expect some more incriminating information to come from disgruntled NotW hacks who, come the weekend, find themselves unceremoniously dumped from the NI payroll.

Meanwhile, according to The Guardian, Andy Coulson is going to be arrested tomorrow morning over his involvement in phone hacking and alleged payments to police officers, which could have serious repercussions for David Cameron.

The press. The police. The politicians. The whole story could have been scripted by James Ellroy. Looking forward to more revelations in the coming days.

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Calling occupants of interplanetary craft

I’m still here.

(In case anyone was wondering.)

I will be back.

Suffice to say that having two children (one 17 months old, one 5 weeks old) is not exactly conducive to blogging. Or anything in fact. But I hope to make some sort of reappearance very soon……

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Votes for prisoners

MPs have voted against the motion to extend voting rights to prisoners, defying the edict of the European Court of Human Rights. I was still unsure what I felt about this subject until recently. Just over five years ago I touched upon it on my old blog and had no doubts at all:

But it seems to me that while they are serving their sentence, repaying their debt to society, whatever you want to call it, they should also be excluded from the benefits of being part of that society. Voting is one of those privileges. Why should someone who has committed a crime have a say in how society functions in the meantime? When they’ve been released, yes, absolutely they can have their vote back but while they’re in prison? No. It defies sense. It’s the sort of frilly proposition you’d see raised and carried at a Liberal Democrat convention. “Oh, those poor prisoners, serving their time and they don’t have political representation.” Well, you make your own choices don’t you?

I’m not quite so convinced by this argument now. I still generally feel that if someone is in prison it’s for a legitimate reason; they have been removed and excluded from the niceties of society for a specified period. Losing the right – temporarily – to political representation is one of many rights that can be suspended during this time. That said, however, I’ve been considering some of the other arguments and I think they make a stronger case. The best argument I have read was by David Aaronovitch in The Times (subscription only I’m afraid) who built his case around the common sense question: who gains from denying prisoners the vote? The unavoidable answer, when you really think it through: nobody.

Ultimately, regardless of what someone is in prison for, it’s safe to assume that everyone would prefer they come out a better person than when they went in. That won’t necessarily happen of course, but removing the right to vote certainly isn’t going to help. Maintaining a link to greater society is part of the rehabilitative process along with access to the tools of education. I would not be in favour of removing libraries and access to training from prison so why the right to vote?

So yes, I changed my mind. It happens, occasionally.

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Cameron, multiculturalism, etc.

I think it’s very unfair to accuse David Cameron of being racist on the basis of his multiculturalism speech. Why, he celebrates the multi-ethnic tapestry of British society and mixes personally with people of different colour and background every day. There’s that black chap who polishes his shoes. Then there is that Asian man who brushes the fluff off his top hats. Both staff, of course.

I jest. A little bit.

The fundamental problem with any debate about multiculturalism is that neither side is working from the same definition. To its advocates multiculturalism is a wonderful illustration of tolerant, multi-ethnic modern Britain: people of different colour, religion and national origin working and living peacefully side by side. To its detractors, it is evidence of fragmented communities: a society lacking cohesion with certain minority groups living in isolation from the mainstream with no common language or culture.

I have always tended to view it more as the former but recognise that there are clearly pockets of this country where the latter holds true. It is silly to pretend otherwise. There is also a high degree of sensitivity around discussing this issue candidly for the fear of being branded ‘racist’ – an accusation that Cameron faced in some (predictable) quarters. My earlier joke notwithstanding, I do not think that the Prime Minister is racist – it’s too easy for some to paint him as such seeing as he’s a wealthy white Tory from a privileged background, but that doesn’t naturally make him a bigot – and I do not think it is racist to point out that that there are sections of communities in this country that have not fully integrated into British society and do not want to either.

The real problem: how have such elements been allowed to fester and what can be done about it? This is the crux of Cameron’s criticism: the suggestion that cultural division has been purposefully engineered by do-gooding liberal lefties. If this is the case, what alternative policies are the government going to implement?

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