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Blogging about things that matter to me. Photographing things I love - Instagram @debcyork. Writing about both. Only wine and chocolate can save us… You can also find me on Twitter (@debcyork) and Facebook. If you like four-legged views, try @missbonniedog on Twitter

Monday, 22 May 2017

The Services Demographic

So I had planned to whitter on about the 'dementia tax' in this post.  And now this morning there has been a U-turn apparently.  

I am not surprised the U-turn as come on the care side.  At university in the early Nineties, I earned my beer money working on political surveys to analyse the membership demographics of the Conservative and Labour. parties  It was a slog of a job because there was no technology for looking at the answers.  So big thick surveys were posted out and then we all worked to code the answers by hand, reading each and every returned book.  Various work came out of the projects but the main one about the Tories was a book called True Blues by Paul Whiteley, Patrick Seyd and Jeremy Richardson.  My memory of the work is largely composed of continual amazement at the great age of most of the Tory members.  Crabbed handwriting became our speciality.

And I don't think their demographic has really changed all that much.  I don't propose to analyse the reasons for that - it is far too complicated for this little blog post.  But I was amazed at the arrogance of the announcements last week.  It really felt like the Tories were so over-confident of winning the election, they were prepared to finally say what they really though about social care, school dinners, etc.  No tiptoeing required anymore.  And no numbers to back anything up.  Just 'this is how it is'.

For a key part of their core support though, care for the elderly is a huge issue - be it for themselves or for relatives who are already struggling to provide care.  Free school dinners are also one of the few benefits which are not means tested.  No matter how much tax you do or don't pay, your children are entitled to the meals. 

Whilst I entirely agree with the arguments by Jamie Oliver and others about the future saving to the NHS from keeping our children healthy, I don't believe there will be a U-turn on school dinners.  They don't want the NHS to be saved.  They want it to creak slowly to its knees so they can say it is no longer fit for purpose.  Neither will there be a change on university tuition fees.  Because the Tories see no electoral benefit to themselves.  They let the Liberals fall on that sword.

What needs to happen in these last weeks of campaigning, aside from encouraging people to actually use their votes?  Well, I think we need to be talking about how policies will actually affect people.  You may be safe for now from a 'dementia tax'.  But you are only safe while the Prime Minister has taken it off the table in order to get your vote.  Clearly, policy work has been done on this issue and a large Conservative majority will mean they could bring all sorts of things out of the cupboard in the next five years.  

Voted Conservative all your life?  Well, during most of this electorate's lifetime, there has been an NHS, social care, public funded education.  Think about your life without those things.  Your grandchildren losing free meals, your own future care uncertain, the NHS unavailable as you age.  Your children working until they are seventy.  Your grandchildren stressing about having to get into grammar school.  Starts to look a bit different doesn't it?  The last massive Tory majority privatised anything they could get their hands on.  Now they want to get their hands on the last bastions of the post war consensus.

This is not about True Blue or True Red.   This election is about the future of our services.  It is not too late to make that decision.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Defence Spending

Despite the mass cyber attack, I currently (touch wood) seem to be able to use my laptop.  I am late working on it today but at least it is usable.  I hope you have survived the virus so far.

Whilst travelling to the hell hole which is Ikea earlier (I now go alone and beg strangers for help in lifting stuff rather than take my husband and plunge towards divorce at Aisle 1 of the warehouse), I was listening to the radio.  I think it was the Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2 but anyway, the talk was of how surprisingly unsophisticated the WannaCry cyber attack has been in its components.  Experts believe plenty of 'cyber gangs' are capable of much more.

In other words, at least half of the National Health Service has been brought to its knees by amateur attackers.  Showing the experts how easy it is to break the outdated systems.  Causing chaos for millions.  Spreading it around the world in a flash.

Operations cancelled, patient details inaccessible,  thousands of appointments not possible.  The list of trouble is endless.  Paper records are no longer kept.  In most surgeries, you don't even check in for your appointment by talking to a human being anymore.  You use a touch screen arrival system.

Then it took an amateur IT researcher to crack the virus and stop it spreading.

So could someone please explain why defence spending is to be 'ring fenced' if the Conservatives win the election?  And why successive governments - of all persuasions - have clearly not spent enough on the infrastructure of the NHS?  We knew there was not enough being spent on staff and treatments.  Now it turns out that the systems are so poor, the whole service could be broken by what may turn out to be a bunch of chancers.  And what does this mean for public services in general?  Is enough being spent to prevent us losing access to power stations?  To stop someone hacking air traffic control?  etc etc.  Of course, most of the other UK services have already been privatised.  How do we know if these companies are spending enough on their defences?

My family, like most, has benefitted from the NHS over the years.  In fact, being blunt, none of us were born in private hospitals so it is a fairly safe assumption that without the NHS, some of us would not even have made it.  You only have to watch a drama like Call The Midwife to get an idea of conditions for many people at the time of the NHS' inception.

At least a million people use the NHS every day.  This apparently unsophisticated cyber attack needs to be the final straw, the final wakeup call for our government to protect and enhance it.  All of it.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Perfect World?

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I have recently discovered the joys of Instagram.  Yes, much later than most people.  Especially those younger than me who are now onto something else which hasn't even hit my radar yet.  But never mind.  I am enjoying discovering this visual brand of social media all the same.  I have not made my account private (@debcyork if you are interested) because I thought it would be interesting to see what kind of people might 'like' my pictures.  

So far, I have posted mainly pictures from dog walks and pictures of food.  I tried one 'fashion' kind of picture but it made me terribly uncomfortable!  The temptation, of course, is to copy the methods of those trying to make a living from Instagram and to make your photos look as perfect and gorgeous as possible.  To say nothing of your life itself.  And following all the people who do make everything look easy, perfect and beautiful does make you a little too aware of how unperfected, difficult and annoying many aspects of your own life are.

For example, tomorrow is my birthday.  After watching a number of make-up tutorials - as advised by my daughter - I have settled on some apparently much needed up-to-date make-up as one present.  I have also been seeing endless pictures of women in 'Bardot' tops roll by on my photo stream.  You know, those off the shoulders, stretchy tops.  So I determined to ask for one of these as well.  Worrying about what I would end up with if the family were left to purchase this item without guidance, I have spent some time on trying on these garments.  In a wide variety of shops.  And almost none of them were even vaguely flattering.  I have finally found one.  But now I am left wondering how all these Instagrammers keep their chests in place under said tops...

I do wonder what someone like my ancestor who went to India with the army in 1804 would have put on Instagram if it had existed.  If there is a human desire to say 'it's fine' and 'having a lovely time' whatever is happening, it would be funny to see what he would have posted.  If he followed twenty-first century human behaviour, presumably it would be pictures of fabulous scenery, unusual animals, beautiful girls/boys and amazing food.  Ignoring the illness, the appalling living conditions and the general nightmare of soldiering in that age.  So we would be no wiser about how they managed even if we had access to such material.

All very frivolous.  But I do have a more serious point.  It seems to me that the more difficult and worrying our world becomes, the more we retreat into the pursuit of 'perfection' - that is, perfection as dictated by a relatively small number of our planet's inhabitants.  Whether it be huge caterpillar eyebrows, equally huge bottoms or thick make-up for women.  Or triangular body shapes, endless workouts and recipes for protein rich foods for men. ( Or a mixture of both for everyone.)  We all want everyone to believe we are doing brilliantly at everything.  Looks, decor, fitness, reading, crafts, cooking and eating, you name it.  Never was the campaign for better awareness of mental health issues more needed.  It is ok not to be ok.

Monday, 1 May 2017

The Latest Phase

Image result for 1997
So here we are in May already and Twitter this morning has a thread about 'what would you tell your 1997 self' in honour of the twentieth anniversary of the Labour win in 1997.

I have been pondering this as I dealt with kids, dog, general household stuff.  The treadmill of modern family life does get me down and May 1997 would be a nice time to tell me not to bother.  I wasn't engaged until later that year.  But I really could not think of any major thing I would tell myself to do differently.  Life has had many ups and downs in the last twenty years but I firmly believe they all make you what you are in the present.  I am quite sure many people do not like me in the present but at the moment, I think I quite like myself and my place in the world.  Which is really all that matters.  

On the smaller life decisions, there are plenty of things I wondered if I would change. Avoid certain alcoholic beverages; avoid various people; refuse certain jobs or take others; not wear certain outfits; check my daughter's hamster cage door every night (!); not get on that horse a fortnight ago (my ribs are still agony.)  

Surely, though, these things all add up to what you are right now?  My parenting mantra has generally been 'it is a phase, it will pass'.  This can be applied as equally to endless re-runs of Thomas the Tank Engine causing you to lose to your mind as to stroppy teenagers who think they know everything about the world because they watch YouTube and you don't. 

After my blog last week, a friend commented that the blurb on this blog is now a bit misleading as I seem to have got more political.  The family history element has been edging out.  And I do agree, looking at my 2017 posts.  I no longer tag it on Twitter for #familyhistory because I wasn't sure how relevant it is.  I have been wondering how to 'rebrand'.  But have got no further forward than wondering.  Family history is still a major part of my life and my writing.

So maybe this is a writing phase.  It is a time when I feel more political.  My family history is half-based around emigration and immigration.  I have a grandfather who was a conscientious objector in the Second World War.  My children have a half-Irish heritage.  I would be letting this history down and letting our descendants down if I do not campaign again against nuclear weapons, say what I think about Brexit, encourage people to use their votes.

I can rebrand the blog - and probably will change the blurb if I can get my head around what it should be trying to say - but according to the system (and I am not the best at doing the stats on Blogger!) more of you are reading my stuff than before so I am hoping my tone is reaching someone.  I would really welcome your comments though.  It might help me come to some conclusion!

Monday, 24 April 2017

Last Chance Saloon

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My dear departed father-in-law was an Irish Catholic immigrant who ended up as a Conservative mayor.  As you can imagine, it was difficult for a Methodist Leftie to find things in common with him politically.

However, one thing we definitely agreed on was the need for each and every person to use their vote. And never has this been more important.

Last week, typically on the day after I post (thanks for the heads up, Theresa), a 'snap election' was announced for the UK.  This meant the government had to get the backing of Parliament for calling an election before the standard five years was up.  (The five year term is a relatively new measure.  When I was a researcher at Westminster in the 1990s - pre even Blair! - we lived in a state of battle readiness because you could theoretically have to fight an election at any time.  Doesn't look like the legislation has made much difference to this but anyway.)

And here we are, a week later.  The parties are all on the 'campaign trail', the press coverage is as one might have predicted and the general population seem utterly defeated at the thought of having to vote again.  I myself even tweeted that I despaired at what this election would achieve apart from another five Tory years instead of three.

However, in thinking about what to post on this blog in the throes of such apathy, I have come to the conclusion that, more than ever, we have a duty to  vote.  And those of us who do not agree with Brexit have a duty to do more than that if we are in so-called 'safe' constituencies for Brexiteers.  Even if you suspect your vote won't count for much, you should still vote.  I have spent years having my vote cancelled out by my opposing husband's.  It is a small victory if he forgets to go.  But I still vote.  People died, and are still dying around the world, for the right to vote in a free election.  The least we can do is to exercise our right.

But more than this, if you oppose Brexit, look at the lists of places where there is a chance of removing a Brexiteer.  And send money.  Go and help campaign.  Ring people you know there.

Last June, the unthinkable happened.  And as I have posted before, I believe it partly happened because people who usually feel disenfranchised, by the 'first past the post' system and by being ignored by Westminster, were led to believe they were voting to actually make a change.  The implications of this change were never properly explained to them by either side. 

This is the last chance to make our voices heard before we are taken out of the EU.  If we can't remove the Tories - but I believe we could - we have a responsibility to make the process of Brexit as difficult as possible for the hardliners to achieve.

Our ancestors fought for democracy.  We now need to fight for our descendants.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Easter Messages

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A short post today, thanks to Easter childcare duties and to cracked ribs making it tricky to sit and type for too long.  (Long story, involving a horse and me who hasn't ridden in over thirty years and will not be doing so again any time soon).

I was looking at the news channels at 4am UK time today, thanks to the rib situation.  In the space of less than three months, Trump has brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.  It's not exactly an unexpected outcome but it is terrifying all the the same.  And as usual it is being compounded by the childlike tweets which issue forth from him.

And yet as this continues, here we are celebrating the Easter festival.  The birth of new life, all things Spring, the victory of Jesus against death.  Saviour of all.  If you were to talk to many of Trump's people - including 'evangelical Catholic' Vice President Mike Pence - the Christian faith is what drives everything they do.  They wax lyrical about finding God, dedicating themselves to Jesus, ad infinitum.

I think the Syrians might have something to say about the sincerity of these sentiments.  And the Afghans who were bombed with the biggest non-nuclear device every used.  And even the North Koreans who have, let's face it, been sabre rattling for years with little real action.  I am not defending Assad, ISIS or Kim Jong-Un in the slightest.  But it is hard to understand how American  'born again' Christians can believe it would be acceptable to authorise loss of life on such a scale.

Very little coverage was given this Easter to the Pope's Easter message, or so it felt.  I am not Catholic and do not relate to the idea of a world leader in that way.  But someone or something is urgently needed to bring perspective to a world teetering on the edge of war.  It will not be Trump, Kim Jong-Un, Putin or any of the other aggressives who pay the price of nuclear war.  They will have bunkers and will survive with their families and their flunkies.  Imagine if they bomb the rest of us to hell and they are all that is left to continue the human race...

Monday, 10 April 2017

No. Just No.

Today in The Guardian there is a piece about possible changes to entry requirements for the US.  Apparently, US authorities are considering compelling foreigners to hand over their social media passwords under a new ‘extreme vetting’ policy.  Non-US citizens could be compelled to give access to devices and personal data or risk being denied entry.  Click on the link above for further details.  It is quite legally technical.

I am more interested in the fact that this is even a conversation.  Even being considered.  If 'extreme vetting' begins to take hold, we will have the US denying entry to foreigners based on their digital presence.  We will have China which still censors/refuses so much internet content.  And we will have Russia where free speech is ever more dangerous.  What an example from the three biggest nations on the planet.  To say nothing of what goes on everywhere else or what other restrictions the Americans,Chinese and Russians are enforcing.

So how might this work for travel to America?  The article talks about the high level of discretion in the hands of border staff.  So will it just be a racist policy?  They will automatically ask to see your phone or laptop if you are black, Muslim etc.  Or will there be agents who pick on women?  And what about children - whose lives are conducted online far more than most of their parents?  Most under eighteens entering the States are on holiday.  Clutching their phones, tablets, laptops.

The process to enter the US is already tedious, even if you travel regularly.  They surely cannot inspect everyone’s devices as well?  And if, fearing refusal of entry, you meekly hand over your phone and show them your Facebook page or your Twitter feed, will it be based on what is on your timeline at that moment or will they trawl everything?  Would they keep lists of anti-Trump hashtags to use as markers?  Or lists of naughty bloggers (!)?

Other governments need to forcefully protest this.  The fact the Trump administration believes there is even a consideration for this to happen is extremely disturbing.

We and preceding generations have fought for freedom of speech.  Western governments have claimed for decades to be doing what they do national security-wise to protect our freedoms and our democracy (let's not get into that now.  Whole other nightmare).  

Where the US leads, we absolutely must not follow.  
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Monday, 3 April 2017

Doing the Numbers

Here in the UK, we do not live in a poor country.  We have infrastructure, facilities, services.  We can cope if there is a huge flood or some other disaster.  (Granted we don't have - so far - natural disasters on the scale dealt with by many countries but you know what I mean.)

Yet our government consistently tells us that there is no more money for the National Health Service, for education, for decent pensions.  Services like provision of care for the elderly or mentally ill are at crisis point.  But we have money for defence spending, for high speed trains to tear up the countryside, for the Royal Family.

How have we reached a point where we willingly accept that this is how things are?  Is it because once ministers and the media start talking in amounts by the million, it is so far-fetched that none of us can relate to the figures being bandied about?

My son regularly reports the price of expensive footballers to me.  He talks of figures in the tens of millions as if it is normal to pay that for the services of one, easily-injured human being.  And he does so because it is normal to him.  He cannot relate to the figures he is being given.

Maybe we need to start reporting what schools and hospitals need in terms which modern society can understand.  Here are a few examples I have come up with:

1)  If you Google 'how does it cost to build a new hospital in the UK', you get an estimate of around £90 million.  Last year, Manchester United paid just over £15 million for Paul Pogba.  Or, on a list of the top twenty highest paid footballers in the world, Ronaldo earned approximately £80 million in 2014 alone.

6 x Pogba's fee = hospital.

1 x Ronaldo's 2014 = nearly a whole hospital.  If that was 2014, he will have made at least £50 million a year since then, presumably (see how easy it is to bandy these numbers about?).

2)  Ed Sheehan is currently estimated to be worth around £50 million.  And in 2016, despite having the year off, the band One Direction made £89.9 million.

2 x Ed Sheeran = 1 hospital 
1 x One Direction's 2016 = 1 hospital

Now, if you are in demand and you work hard, of course you are entitled to your earnings, however madly out of proportion they might be.  I am not suggesting Ed should cash it all in and buy half a hospital or the One Direction boys should club together to do likewise.  These and the football numbers are just 'fun' examples.

Except, it is not fun.  Because we are being conditioned into thinking our country cannot afford the basics that such a developed country should be providing for its citizens.  And we are also being conditioned to believe it is acceptable for relatively few people to have immense amounts of wealth.  

This is not about communism, about taking away from those who have earnt or inherited (although taxes on the so-called super rich should definitely be increased).  It is about recognising the stupidity of accepting sub-standard services for the majority whilst reading - for entertainment - about huge sums of money being spent on sport, fashion, yachts, homes.  Even films are mainly spoken of in 'financials'.  How many millions they cost to make and how many they have recouped.  (£876.3 million globally for the new Beauty and the Beast apparently...)

Last July, the UK parliament voted to renew the Trident nuclear deterrent at a cost of £31 billion.  And 'just in case', the government has set aside another £10 billion in case of extra costs or over spending.  

That is around 344 hospitals for the budget, let alone the 'extra' £10 billion.  

Or how about this:

Research conducted by the Alzheimer's Society in 2014 for its report Dementia UK: Update shows that there would be 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK by 2015. This will cost the UK £26 billion a year.
Two-thirds (£17.4 billion) of the cost of dementia is paid by people with dementia and their families, either in unpaid care (£11.6 billion) or in paying for private social care. This is in contrast to other conditions, such as heart disease and cancer, where the NHS provides care that is free at the point of use.  (source: Alzheimer's Society)

Now there are some numbers to think about.

Monday, 27 March 2017

No Minister

It is a strange week to be a UK blogger with pretensions to comment on current affairs.  There has been a terrorist attack in London and this Wednesday the process for Brexit will actually start.  I send all love and sympathy to those affected by the attack last week.  Any lives lost is too many.  However, I suppose we should be very thankful that it is twelve years since a major attack succeeded and very grateful for the professionalism and sacrifice of those who dealt with the events of last week.

And in a way that links to my thoughts about the Brexit 'triggering'.  I did not vote for Brexit and I greatly resent that such a momentous, complex decision has been made on the basis of one vote.  However, since our government are determined to stand by that one (very close) vote and exit the EU, I believe we now have to fight for the details of that exit.  

The British civil service is one of the major factors which has kept our country from stumbling into extremism.  With a big enough mandate, the elected government can push through what it wants in Parliament - as long as it keeps its own MPs happy.  But the detail of how things are actually implemented and what they mean further down the 'food chain' is very much influenced by what ministers are told is possible or by how civil servants interpret the demands of ministers.

Yes Minister, the 1980s sitcom about the civil service, runs very close to the bone.  (Sort of how I might prefer my husband think it was his idea to book a holiday - but on a much grander scale!)

I do not doubt there are civil servants at all levels who supported Brexit.  I should imagine dealing with EU law and institutions is very frustrating for a start.  And I myself did not vote Remain because I think the EU is perfect.  Far from it.  But I would have preferred to be working for change from within the grouping.  The loss of so many protections and freedoms in order to be free of bureaucracy was, in my opinion, too high a price to pay.  Especially for future generations.

The close protection officers who whisked Theresa May out of Parliament last week would have done so whoever was Prime Minister.  Our security services continue to perform their functions whichever party is in power.  In the same way, other civil servants keep government ticking over through elections, reshuffles, etc.  A short while ago, one of the newspapers saw fit to publish outlines of the plans for when the Queen dies.  They are drawn up according to past history and long experience.  To be implemented by the occupants of ministerial offices, regardless of party loyalties.

And now we desperately need our civil service to step up for the Brexit negotiations.  It is their job to be politically neutral and to do the best for our country.  Ministers are too driven by the big pictures, by election results, by social media.  What we need for the next two years is people who will focus not on their own concerns but on what is best for our future.  They may not have long experience of this issue.  There was apparently very little contingency work done before the vote.  But they do know how to get things done despite the politicos.

Some commentators have said the gates through which the attacker arrived at Parliament last week were a security weak spot.  In part because ministers and members insisted on to being able to get through quickly by car. 

The government's majority in Parliament means that 'No Minister' needs to be heard far more often and more firmly as we enter these talks.  Or who knows what will be let through in the interests of government supporters.  

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Monday, 20 March 2017

Ninety Years of No Change

Chuck Berry

This weekend, Chuck Berry died at the age of ninety.  His music was not my era but of course we all generally know who he was and have danced to his music.  Without his emergence, popular music ever since would have been very different.  And no matter someone is very old when they die, their loss is deeply felt by their family and friends.

I must admit, I actually had no idea he was still alive.  The grand age of ninety is still quite rare even in these days of life-extending medicines and treatments.  But if you think about what has happened in the world since Chuck Berry was born in 1926, the mind truly does boggle.  (His own life was quite a rollercoaster too but that is another story.)

In 1926, it was less than ten years since the Great War (they didn't know it was the First World War, of course).  The Wall Street Crash and the Depression had not happened.  The Second World War was yet to come.  To say nothing of the Cold War, the end of the Cold War and everything in between and after those.  This is not the place for a massive timeline.  But if we think about technology - few phones, no television, primitive radio and don't even think about computers and all they have brought to the world - we can see just a tiny bit of what has changed so dramatically in less than a century.

And yet.  Once again in this last week, we are being told of catastrophic famine in African countries.  The Middle East is a battleground.  Russia is showing signs of aggression and empire building.  Resources are very definitely not shared equally.  Millions still live in relatively the same conditions as their 1926 ancestors and millions have little expectation of living anywhere near as long as Chuck Berry did.

For example, according to Oxfam:

Just 62 people, 53 of them men, own as much wealth as the poorest half of the entire world population - or 3.6 billion people - according to a report released by anti-poverty charity Oxfam. And the richest 1 percent own more than the other 99 percent put together.17 Jan 2016
This was the situation in 2015.  I can't imagine it has changed much.  Click here for the list, if you can face looking at it.  It is depressing reading.

Isn't it a terrible indictment of our world that actually so little of real importance has changed in ninety years?  Food, health, shelter and peace for all.  Fairly fundamental requirements for a race, wouldn't you say?  But precious little chance of any of them being achieved across the board in the near future.  We can only guess at the state of the world in another ninety years time but humans'  track record so far is appalling.

By the way, the President of the USA in 1926, Calvin Coolidge, seems to have been a tad more sensible than today's incumbent (not difficult but whatever).  He wrote:

The words of a President have an enormous weight and 
ought not to be used indiscriminately.

Imagine his horror at the tweetings of Trump....