OLSX protesters should decamp – for their own protest’s sake

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"What do we want?" "I don't know. Just the chance to say I want something!"

Everyone has heard of this question: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does the tree make a sound?” I like to think that I know the answer—it’s a no. If a tree falls in a forest, it creates vibrations in the air. An ear is needed to receive the vibrations and a brain is required to interpret them as a sound.

The “Occupy London Stock Exchange” protest, currently encamped outside St Paul’s Cathedral in London, has become that falling tree in the deserted forest—it is making no sound because its message is not being heard, even though an action has been undertaken. No one is listening to their message, not least the people whom the protesters wanted to listen. That is completely the fault of the protesters.

A protest is a form of communication, i.e. a message that requires a sender as well as a receiver. Some criticise the protest for lacking a cohesive message, but everyone understands that the protesters are sending a message about the excesses of financial capitalism. The intended recipient of the protest, however vaguely, is the people who work in the City of London, many of whom played a part, wittingly or unwittingly, in causing the world’s financial crisis.

Yet this hullaballoo about St Paul’s Cathedral has completely engulfed the protest’s message and changed the intended recipient. Two weeks on from the encampment, the message that the protesters are sending is, “We want to stay” instead of “We dislike financial capitalism”; the intended receiver of this message is the Cathedral, not the bankers.

So why are the protesters continuing to camp outside St Paul’s even though doing so changes their message and the intended recipient? The immediate trigger, I believe, is the “Arab Spring” effect. Mass occupation of public spaces was seen to be key in dislodging the dictators in North Africa. This was most dramatically displayed in the occupation of Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The current “Occupy” protestors across the rich world are hoping to mimic the Arabs’ success in revolutionising their world simply by getting together and setting up a camp.

But I think a more fundamental and worrying reason is that technology has made “communication” one-sided. People no longer have to have someone to “communicate” to. Blogs, Youtube, Facebook and Twitter all prosper on the basis that people can express themselves without a clearly defined audience. It invites people to publicise whatever they think, however trivial their thoughts are. Others can reply or ignore, but that’s not important—what is important is that a view has been expressed. The questions of “To whom?” and “To what effect?” are no longer relevant (and this blog is equally guilty).

That is where the “Occupy” protest is failing. The protesters seem to be saying that it doesn’t matter that the financial world is not reformed, as long as they have the opportunity to express their views—and it doesn’t matter who is inconvenienced in the process. That is selfish as well as stupid, and will do their message no justice. If the protesters are serious about their message, they should decamp and think of more effective ways of protest.

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香港、英國:移民的迷思

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如果問,香港與英國的歷史發展有甚麼共同之處,你可能會抓抓頭。兩個地方無論地理、歷史、文化、風俗都迥然不同,哪有共同之處?其中一樣相同的,就是歷代都是吸引大量移民。而兩地近期的移民潮不約而同地鬧起同一場風波。

英國和香港向來的都是移民的目的地。英國與歐陸有一水之隔,但這水使英國由中世紀至近代都避免了捲入許多歐陸上的戰亂,成為許多歐洲人的避難所。20世紀後期,政府曾鼓勵勞工從前殖民地移民過來,在工黨剛執政的年間,歐洲共同市場向東擴展,引發東歐移民潮,給人最明顯的印象是「波蘭藉的家傭和水電工」。許多英國人擔心低收入移民會搶奪他們的飯碗,或者要英國納稅人付錢養他們,令不少反移民,甚至種族歧視的政黨和團體冒起。英國經濟蕭條,只加重了本國人對移民的疑心。移民成為許多選民關注的題目,所以去年上任的聯合政府計劃將歐盟以外的移民率大幅縮減,由「幾十萬減至幾萬」。

香港作為殖民地時,同樣是中國大陸動盪混亂時許多人的避風港,回歸後又吸引許多大陸的經濟勞工,所引起的問題,如出一轍。港府經濟能力與英國不同,非常強勁,但本地人對移民的戒心和疑心卻沒有分別。剛剛的財政預算案宣佈將向每位成年的永久居民派發港幣6000元,卻令許多還未領取「三粒星身分證」的新移民無從享受。政府保證「人人有份」,卻激起了一場有關移民與身分的風波。在Facebook上有一個群組,名叫「新移民冇得拎六千蚊,這是永久居民獨有的福利,要有十萬個like俾班新移民睇」,不少人認為新移民好食懶做,來香港只是求福利,政府不應再向他們提供利益。

英國的移民都有不同的種族和膚色,所以移民經常與種族混為一談。香港的經驗則是「打內戰」,中國人恨中國人。其實移民所引起的問題大多都在乎經濟,可能有一點在乎文化,但絕對不會在乎膚色或種族─除非閣下是納粹主義者。理論上,絕大部份在生的英國和香港人,近代的祖先都從其他地方來,都是為了謀生才遷移的,與今日的移民無異。人怎能說:「今日的移民不能留,我們的祖先卻能留」呢?只是因為「我們」的祖先比「你們」早來幾十年嗎?哪樣一個家族的人要過多少代才算是「本地人」呢?反對移民者不能自圓其說。

再者,英國和香港在歷史上都出現過移民潮。英國人在15至19世紀因政局、經濟、社會不穩而越洋到北美洲和澳洲;香港人在1990年代因同樣的原因大舉遷移。他們走的理由不就是許多今日移民來的理由嗎?所以我一直都搞不清有人反對移民的原因。「我走就理所當然,他們來就萬萬不能」-這種自相矛盾的態度令我啼笑皆非。

話轉過來,這個問題似乎沒有完全解決的辦法。人就是喜內排外的生物,如何處理移民是許多國家的問題。甚至是最明顯以移民建國的美國,最近也為大量的拉丁美藉移民而頭痛。

理性探討問題,拒絕他人煽動,是面對的一個方法。不過,如果每人本身可以這樣做的話,就不會搞出那麼多問題了。政治只是在地上同樣的問題上兜兜轉轉,不過這也是政治有趣之處吧。唉。

假如我是露宿者(1)-沒有地址的生活

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本系列的文章假設如果我是露宿者,我會如何生活。我在七月會從英國倫敦騎單車到法國巴黎,為英國露宿者慈善團體 The Big Issue Foundation 籌款,請踴躍支持。多多益善,少少無拘!如索詳情,請按

我每個月都等不及到最後一天,因為我這天出糧。我的銀行戶口只會在這一天顯示為正數(我正使用戶口透支),因為第二天我就要付房租和水電煤等帳單。不過我還覺得自己很幸運,因為至少我有一個地方需要我付租金和賬單。

在未來一系列的文章中,我將探討如果我是露宿者,我的生活會有什麼的困難。我首先不會研究一個實在的居所是多麼的重要,只從擁有一個地址開始。難道露宿者的地址可以寫成"某某天橋底嗎"?

想一想。你可以在以下的清單中提議更多方面的難題嗎?

如果沒有固定地址,做以下的事情,我會覺得很困難,甚至不可能:

  • 收取任何郵件
  • 在銀行開戶口
  • 申請長期的工作
  • 收取我的工資(如果我已有一分長工)
  • 領取某些(或任何)國家福利
  • 登記投票
  • 在診所註冊
  • 申請身份證明(如護照,駕駛執照)
  • 註冊超市的折扣計劃,減少生活費
  • 獲取信貸評級
  • 獲取手機合同

以上的事,有些是比較瑣碎的,其他則很重要。我會如何應付呢?你會如何處理呢?

理論上,要繞過以上所有問題有很多方法。例如,蘇格蘭銀行在2001年開展一項計劃,讓露宿者更容易取得銀行戶口,幫助他們保護管理他們的錢財。但沒有一個固定的地址可以導致生活上許多的不便。所以不要把你的地址當是理所當然的!

If I were homeless… (1) – not having an address

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This series of articles muses about what could happen if I became homeless. I’ll be cycling from London to Paris in July to raise money for the Big Issue Foundation, a charity that, in its own words, aims to give homeless people a hand up, not a hand-out. I would be most grateful for your sponsorship. Please click for details about the charity and my challenge. (中文版)

– – – – – –

Every month I can’t wait to get to the final day, because that’s when I get paid. My bank account goes above 0 for about a day (as I’m using my overdraft), then in despair I watch it fall back into the red once I’ve paid my rent and bills. But I still count myself lucky; at least I’ve got a place for which to pay rent, bills and council tax.

In a series of articles I’ll explore what it could mean to me if I became homeless. To start off, I won’t even count how important it is to have physical shelter, but how important it is to simply have an address other than, for example, “Del Monte cardboard boxes, exit 4, Elephant and Castle roundabout subway, London, SE1 (6 pm to 6 am only)”.

Have a think. See if you can add to this list.

Without a proper fixed address, I wouldn’t be able to, or at least would find it difficult to:

  • Have Christmas cards, or indeed anything, posted to me
  • Open a bank account
  • Apply for a permanent job
  • Receive my wages (if I’ve got a permanent job)
  • Claim certain (or any) benefits
  • Register to vote
  • Register with a GP
  • Acquire a proof of identity (e.g. passport, driving licence)
  • Access any discount schemes to lower the cost of living (e.g. supermarket loyalty cards)
  • Get a credit rating
  • Get a mobile phone contract

I won’t be able to, or will find it difficult to, do all of those things if I didn’t have an address. Some of the things are more trivial; others vital. How would I cope? How would you cope?

Of course, theoretically, there are ways to get around all the above problems. For example, in 2001 the Bank of Scotland began a scheme to make it easier for homeless people to acquire bank accounts to help homeless people keep their money safe or even begin saving up (click!). But simply not having a fixed address can lead to many inconveniences when leading a daily life. Don’t take your home for granted; don’t even take your address for granted!

Next time I’ll start thinking about the material goodies I’d lack without a home.

Say “Yes” to AV!

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My reason for supporting AV is simple: it would create a fairer system of government that Britain deserves.

After weeks of haggling, Parliament finally passed the necessary legislation to set the stage for a referendum on changing the voting system for Britain’s general elections this coming May. A “Yes” vote would abandon the current “first past the post” (FPTP) system and adopt the “alternative vote” (AV). Both the “Yes” and “No” camps have now begun to campaign for their sides. I throw my weight—whatever its worth—behind the “Yes” camp.

There are many points of contention between the camps—how much AV would cost, whether people would understand, who in the world use it, whether it will boost or kill small parties etc. My support for AV is based solely on the belief that that would create a fairer and more contestable political system.

The current FPTP system allows electors to pick just one candidate on the ballot paper, and whoever gets the most votes wins. Simple and effective—but is it fair? British Members of Parliament serve two purposes: on a constituency level they represent the people in central Government, holding it to account; on a national level, the numbers of MPs from one party determine whether that party can form a Government.

In principle, in a constituency with three main contesting parties, under FPTP, a candidate needs to win only 34% of the vote to represent that constituency. Multiply that nationally, the winning party will not need anything close to a majority of votes to form a Government to raise our taxes, make our laws or take us to war. In 2005 Labour won 62% of seats with only 41% of the vote. Supporters of FPTP argue quite rightly that the current system allows strong Governments to be formed, but democracy is about building representative Governments, not strong ones.

AV would change that. It would allow voters to rank candidates by order of preference, and the winning candidate must garner at least 50% of the votes. More people’s votes must be counted to find a winner, rather than the 34% in the example given above. It would end the system where, for example, a Labour candidate in a constituency with an inner-city population greater than the suburban or rural population can ignore the latter’s preferences, because the suburban and rural second-preference votes can now also count against Labour. It would mean that every candidate must work harder to persuade people to vote for them, even as a second choice.

Supporters of FPTP fret that the chances of creating hung Parliaments are greater under AV, but that’s not a disaster. Politics, especially national politics, shouldn’t be about one party that hasn’t achieved a majority imposing its agenda on people who didn’t vote for it. In fact, we value compromise and consensus between stakeholders in all our social relationships—family, friends, couples. Why should national politics be any different?

FPTP supporters say that AV won’t bring the change it is intended, but stagnation in popular participation in national politics is partly due to apathetic voting culture encouraged by FPTP. Winning AV won’t change that overnight, but it would be the first step for people to re-engage with national politics. After all, it is the former that the latter is supposed to serve.

And now, you can make it happen, by voting “Yes” on 5 May.

Click for more information about the “Yes” and “No” camps.

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I hereby sentence you to vote at the next election

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European Court of Human Rights

"I hereby order you to give your inmates the vote!"

The row over giving prisoners the right to vote is about two separate issues, and Britain should comply with the Court’s ruling.

Last evening the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly for a motion urging the Government to defy the European Court of Human Rights’ ruling on giving prisoners the vote. The issue has triggered a heated debate, at least in Westminster village, on two separate matters – whether convicted prisoners deserve the privilege/right to vote and whether the unelected supranational court in Strasbourg can issue such a decree in defiance of the will of the nation’s elected representatives. Some Eurosceptics have even seized on the chance to call for the withdrawal of the UK from the European Convention of Human Rights, the treaty that will celebrate its diamond jubilee in 2018 and is the legal basis of the Court. The rest of the country, of course, is too absorbed in other matters, such as potential cuts to local councils, to care, but I will comment on it anyway.

Unusually for me, I don’t have a “clear” answer, at least to the first debate, the principle of allowing prisoners to vote. Both sides of the argument have equally valid points. Prisoners, by breaking their imaginary contract with society, have certain rights withdrawn from them, mainly personal liberty, and with good reason. On the other hand, they are human beings too, and certain rights apply regardless, such as the right to equal treatment and the right to a fair trial. Should the right to vote constitute part of that bundle of suspended rights?

Clearly, there is a case for either side, and I remain undecided. The only thing I will say regarding that is that although a prisoner is currently living with reduced rights, most will eventually be released into society, their right to vote will one day be restored. With that in mind, it is certainly right to prepare prisoners with the capability to participate in democratic society, perhaps having elected prisoners representatives to represent the interests of inmates in the prison (not sure if this happens now).

But without any clear-cut philosophy or school of thought to fall upon (democracies around the world have different attitudes to the matter), the current debate has been framed as a conflict between the democratically elected national Government and the distant, unaccountable Court in Strasbourg. Popular power, or authority from above?

Solely on the conflict of Parliament vs. Court, I side with the Court, and I believe that the ruling should be followed as a matter of principle. The European Convention on Human Rights is the most powerful human rights legislation in the world to date, and while some are suspicious of its intrusiveness, especially when certain cases are highlighted by the media, many forget that this treaty came as a response to one of the most severe and systematic transgressions of human rights in modern European history – the second world war and the holocaust. Human rights abuses are still rife throughout Europe, especially in ex-communist bloc countries. If long-standing signatories to the Convention such as the UK demonstrate that even it doesn’t respect the Court, it will be impossible for younger members to learn to comply. They will also learn that human rights are applicable only when it is popular or convenient, not when it is right. That is certainly not the image that Britain wants to portray.

People who advocate the withdrawal of Britain from the Convention are taking their Eurosceptic folly into even greater absurdity. They bemoan that the faraway Court is not accountable to the British public, but that is a ridiculous contention. The whole point of having judicial independence is so that popular accountability doesn’t enter the equation. Courts are meant to uphold the law without fear or favour, not pander to whatever is popular at the time. If the focus of the argument is altered to have a sole domestic dimension, one could argue that no British judge is “accountable” to the public, since none of them have to face elections.

Secondly, even though the European Court of Human Rights is based in Strasbourg, the law that it is based on, and the people it serves, are very British, because Britain is willingly under the Court’s jurisdiction by being a party to the Convention. Arguing that a judgment of the Court is not valid because it is not based on British soil would be like saying that a court in London cannot rule on a matter that occurred in Kent, even though both places are subject to the same law and the presiding judges may come from outside Kent.

The House of Commons has understandably and legitimately expressed its opinion, but now is the time for the Government to do the right and proper thing by complying with the Court’s ruling, however “distasteful” it may be.

Educating Britain

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What are we worth?

The Government is right to raise tuition fees, but the row masks a bigger problem with education in Britain.

Amidst riotous scenes in central London on Thursday, MPs voted narrowly to endorse the Government’s plans to triple the cap on tuition fees paid by English university students from £3,290 per annum to £9,000 from 2012.

The move, which is a watered-down version of the recommendations proposed by Lord Browne, the ex-boss of BP tasked to review university funding by Labour in 2009, has been controversial. In the past month students have staged demonstrations, sit-ins and occupations in schools and universities across the country, with a few incidences of violence. All in all, though, the decision is a wise one, on several accounts.

The idea of shifting the burden of tuition from the taxpayer to the student is not new. Labour first introduced tuition fees in 1998, at a level of £1,000, and replaced universal grants with student loans. It then tripled fees to £3,250 in 2007. Like a tax, once tuition fees were introduced, the rate could only go up. The coalition’s plans are simply continuing that trend, albeit with a big jump in figures (but then, tripling tuition fees is what Labour did in 2007).

The introduction of tuition fees reflects a shifting consensus on the taxpayer’s responsibility for funding higher education. With the number of university graduates increasing significantly in the past decade, the cost of funding them has grown exponentially too. Not only is it increasingly expensive, it represents an ever-growing transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. According to the BBC on average it costs £7,000 a year to provide someone with a university education, and £3,250 covers just about half of that. Most of the other half has to be coughed up by taxpayers, most of whom have not had the privilege of going to universities themselves. Is it fair to ask them to fund others to have that privilege? Graduates in general earn higher in their lifetimes than non-graduates, and it is quite perverse to ask the poor to pay for the richer-to-be.

But a more worrying problem about the value for money paid to fund university education is how devalued it has become. As said, the university population has expanded, but quantity does not mean quality. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, an international organisation made up of developed states, recently published its triennial report on the academic achievements of teenagers in its member states, including Britain. The report showed that improvements in Britain’s education standards have not kept up with improvements elsewhere, meaning that its position on the global league table has once again slipped, with difficulties especially in reading and numeracy. Below-average secondary school students do not suddenly become above-average university students—the increase in the university student population does not necessarily reflect a nation becoming smarter. Although a separate OECD study has stated that Britain spends less on higher education as a percentage of GDP compared with many other countries, it does not mean that simply splashing out more on students is the answer.

Critics of the Government’s plans fear that bright students from poorer backgrounds will be discouraged from applying to university because of the debt burden. It is a legitimate worry, although it is misplaced. First, tuition fees are not to be paid upfront. A graduate will only begin to repay fees when his or her income exceeds £21,000—a salary comfortable for most singletons (especially if outside London). Any outstanding debt will be erased in 30 years, meaning that there is a definite end to repayments. If a graduate from a low-income family continues to earn only a low income, he or she need not pay.

But I think the big obstacle stopping bright but poor students from going to university is culture rather than affordability. Going to university is a big investment in someone’s life, and what many poorer students seem to lack is proper guidance. A school with a traditionally low university-going rate is not likely to have in place a high-quality university counselling service, giving potential undergraduates good advice on applying. A historical lack of graduates in poorer neighbourhoods cannot make university sound like an attractive option. Therefore the Government’s schemes to actively promote the benefits of higher education, even though it is increasing fees, are welcome.

The problem of low university attendance from poorer communities is reflective of a bigger problem about the state of education in Britain. Although the Labour Government had thrown a lot of cash into education in the past 13 years, it has failed to yield results, as the disappointing OECD report shows. The issue is clearly not money, but attitudes and standards. Part of the fault lies with the currently disincentivising benefits system, which is already under a much needed overhaul. The Government’s belief that money is not everything, partly forced on it by the country’s large public deficit, is beginning to change the country’s view on education. The social status of teacher needs to be improved. Schools need to have more freedom to operate. The standards of education should be raised. Vocational training should once again occupy a greater place in lifelong learning, so that universities can be left to the truly academically gifted to enter, but without leaving non-graduates feeling marginalised.

Although not all of the Government’s plans for reforming the education sector are universally welcome, the courage it has shown to stand firm on its plans, especially in the face of irate protesters on its doorstep, may ultimately pave the way for a smarter, more prosperous Britain.

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