lördag 30 september 2006

Is Britain over-populated?

What is the optimum population of Britain? Of Europe?

Brighton is definitely over-populated. There is a limited amount of land and it is almost fully built-up. You could work out what the population should be on the basis of land area and density.

London and the South-east region is probably over-populated. This is apparent from problems such as transport, also the relatively short distances now separating one built-up area from another.

Now look at the map of Britain. Start at Bournemouth, then draw a line to Bristol, Birmingham, Liverpool, Preston, York, Leeds, Norwich, Dover and back to Bournemouth. I think this is between one-third and one-half of the land area of Great Britain. Call this the 'box'

The only substantial conurbations in England outside this box are Tees-side, and Tyne and Wear (Newcastle, Gateshead and Sunderland), with a combined population of about 2 million. Scotland has a population of just over 5 million, which makes 7 million outside the box. Very few people live outside the conurbations anywhere within the box, thus around 85% of Britain's population is living in about one-third of the land area, and, incidentally, within 150 miles of Oxford.

Yet there is no reason in principle why the Inverness region could not support a city the size of Stockholm, and the area around Fort William a city of perhaps half a million. And of course a lot of the apparent problems of over-population are due primarily to our insistence on using cars and failure to invest in public transport.

It's not overpopulation, it is maldistribution.

fredag 29 september 2006

Capitalist - Socialist: the false dichotomy

Are you a "Socialist" or a "Capitalist"?. There is a serious problem of definition. Strictly speaking, a "capitalist" is simply someone who uses capital. And "Capital" is nothing more than goods used for production or in course of production - such as a craftman's tools or a shopkeeper's stock.

The term "Capitalism" as generally used describes a system characterised by (1) free markets in goods and labour, (2) private ownership of land free of obligation to the community. It is possible to have the first without the second, as it is the second which gives rise to inequality and a perceived need for "protection" and"redistribution".

Socialism misses the point, as its advocates rarely question why wealth is not distributed in the first instance. What it then gives us is bureaucratic control, either by brutal methods as in communist systems or by softer systems as in Western Europe. Either way, the results are bad for people, it is just that the communist system has the larger body count; Social Democracy is benign and slow-acting, but still contains the seeds of its own destruction. The good news here is that where wealth has been redistributed by social democratic policies, there is still an opportunity to avoid throwing away the baby with the bathwater.

torsdag 28 september 2006

After three weeks in Sweden

Whilst first impressions count, three weeks in a country gives you the chance to scratch below the surface. Paradise?

There is definitely more care for public spaces than in Britain, and this makes the whole experience of being in the country more pleasant. People generally seem more relaxed and better tempered and teenagers are, on the whole, better behaved, and more polite and considerate. There just doesn't seem to be the underlying mood of aggression that is so prevalent in Britain.

You see hardly any homeless people on the streets and sleeping in shop doorways. There is much less litter and vandalism. Public spaces are invariably designed and built to a high standard. It is easier to walk around towns because it is obviously accepted that people should be able to go easily and safely. In city centres, we find pedestrian crossings all in the right places, with good facilities such as controlled lights. In the countryside, we find well-placed but discreet footpath markings.

Alcohol-related problems appear to be on nowhere like the scale they are in the UK. The beer on sale in supermarkets has a low alcohol content - about 3%; anything stronger can only be bought from the state off-licence chain Systembolaget (which has been the subject of a corruption scandal). So the Swedes generally either go abroad to drink or buy their cheap booze in Denmark. The alcoholics tend to gather in small groups on park benches or hang around the Systembolaget shop. This presumbably would have the effect of making people reluctant to go and buy booze, as the styling of the shops is a bit off-putting - it would be a bit like being seen entering a VD clinic. The same benefits could probably be achieved through the tax system.

Is there a down-side to all this? Seventy years of socialism have both yielded benefits and taken their toll.

But the UK's troubles are coming. A lot of Swedes live in on the outskirts of towns and cities, in flats on bland estates with few facilities, apart, perhaps, from a reasonably good bus or tram service. These worked well as long as people acted with restraint and respect for public space - indeed, they were, mistakenly held up as in example and the idea imported into the UK, where attitudes and conduct are very different. But there are a lot of immigrants, some of whom are, as it is tactfully put, "not well integrated". The high divorce rate (50%), which is accepted as OK, has given rise to a generation of children who are not as well-disciplined as they would have been had they been brought up in settled families.

So graffitti and vandalism, whilst nothing like as bad as in Britain, is on the rise, as is drug-taking and the associated crime. Sweden is probably about twenty years behind the UK but unless things can be brought under control, they will inevitably go our way.

The economy is also shaky. Visitors will find the exchange rate very favourable, which is not a good sign. There is a serious poverty trap, which, together with high taxes on labour, has led to an unemployment rate estimated to be about 20%, even though official figures are lower.

The price of the liberal society is also being paid in another way. A low birthrate, combined with high taxes on labour, has led to a brain-drain and a demographic problem, with a pensions crisis and difficulties in providing care for the elderly. Just like Britain, then.

For decades, Sweden's experiment in social democracy, was held up as a model alternative to Marxism. Certainly it was a gentle affair and in mny ways has been hugely successful - it remains a good country and in many ways one of the best in Western Europe. Whether there is much that other countrys can learn is questionable, because the achievement is to a great extent due to the character of the people.

The task now is to avoid throwing away the baby with the bathwater. Whether the new government can achieve this remains to be seen.

måndag 25 september 2006

Sanctuary of Christ the King, Göteborg

Went to Mass here yesterday. They do coffee and sandwiches afterwards which is an excellent thing as it helps bring people together.

Pity about the language problem. My own Swedish is rudimentary, but with so many different nationalities coming here, it is a case of "united we stand..."

Same thing in Brighton. The Polish people have their own Mass and the church is too small for them - we should not be separating like this. Sometimes we have visiting priests who struggle to say Mass in English, so why should they be expected to and why should congregations have to put up with hearing their native language massacred?

The need to spread the use of Latin in the liturgy has never been greater.

lördag 23 september 2006

Do you feel threatened by any of these?

The hoodie is a product of the breakdown of British society, a process that has been running for the past forty years. There are lots of factors - social, political and economic; educational policy obviously has a lot to do with it.

There is a film called, "It's a Wonderful Life" in which a man is shown a vision of what his city would have been if he had never existed. It is not unlike Brighton on a weekend evening, with drunks, fights, the occasional murder. I am not usually around then, but as I make my way every morning through the trail of litter, broken glass and vandalism in the middle of Brighton, past the homeless people huddled in shop doorways, I see no reason to expect that things will improve.

The burka is the one to worry about, and it threatens the whole of European society. That feeds on and gains strength from the so-called "War on Terror". Anyone who talks of such a thing does not know what they are really dealing with, since the ultimate consequence of failure to deal with what it is really about is that the one in the middle will be there to enforce Sharia law.

Prince Charles sees himself as becoming one day a "Defender of Faiths", unfortunately this is a fantasy, as the one in the burka will not tolerate any others. This is a point that has not yet sunk in amongst opinion formers, such an idea being regarded as intolerant and illiberal.

fredag 22 september 2006

Martin Luther

Painting of Martin Luther in Helsingborg church

This reproduction of the original by Cranach hangs in the Maria church in Helsingborg.

Really he has a lot to answer for, though of course he was a mere trigger who unleashed pent-up forces. Nevertheless, he is not an admirable person.

Libraries have been written on the subject, but in brief, the Reformation split the Western church, and Europe with it. First it created a north-south divide, and then led to the creation of the modern nation-state. In England, there followed the collapse of the social welfare network of schools, hospitals and almshouses which had been run by the church, with dispersion of church lands to the new aristocracy, supporters of Henry VIII and Elizabeth. In Europe, it gave us the Thirty Years' War.

Following Luther came further reformers, notoriously Calvin, whose doctrines made room for Capitalism, the Evangelical Right and the present hegemony of the United States.

Luther himself was a notorious anti-semite and helped to sow the seeds of hatred which ultimately led to the Hitler and the Holocaust. We might also do well to remember that the militaristic Prussian kingdom was and could only have been a Lutheran establishment, and it is not too far-fetched to suggest that he was a factor in causing the major twentieth-century wars.

It would certainly be a good thing if his picture was removed from public view in a church, put away in a cupboard or sold to pay for repairs or something useful.

tisdag 19 september 2006

Swedish democracy - government changed

The Swedes got their government changed. But whether this will be beneficial remains to be seen. The country has a lot to lose. A few years of misapplied free-market policies could send it in the disastrous direction that Britain has gone, where there is hardly a public service that is functioning properly and adequately funded, wages are low and labour costs are high due to misconceived taxes.

Which is not to say that it should have continued as it was, just that everywhere there is a need for genuine alternatives to the left-right options that is all that is usually being offered.

fredag 15 september 2006

Swedish democracy - British democracy

There is an election campaign in progress at the moment. Of course, as a visitor who speaks next to nothing of the language, it is impossible to get a true picture of things.

However, a few points are pretty obvious. There are about seven parties. There is some form of proportional representation. And local, regional and national elections are simultaneous and at fixed - every four years - intervals.

In conversation with one of the Greens, I mentioned the British first-post-the-post system, and his immediate response was "how horrible". But the Swedish system doesn't work. The same party - the Social Democrats - has been in power for most of the past seventy years, in recent times governing with a minority as the smaller parties are unable to combine to form an alternative government. That cannot be a good thing.

Blair promised us electoral reform but New Labour abandoned that as soon at it was intoxicated by its first whiff of power. So we too are left with the dictatorship of the largest minority. Some people find their vote is always wasted, and there must be a lot of people who refrain from political activity because they could never swallow the entire set of policies of a political party. And not only that - people use local elections as opinion polls and so perfectly effective and competent local politicians get voted out due to the unpopularity of the party at national level. The system also gives rise to "tactical voting", in which people try to guess the result and vote so as to keep out the candidate they like the least.

This electoral system must be part of the reason why British politics are, and have been for generations, largely dominated by Oxbridge graduates with degrees in PPE or Law. In more recent times, they have followed a simple career path from university to parliament via a party research office or think tank. Never have they done anything like the actual work that most people have to do.

Babies and bathwater
Of course, proportional representation is not a solution in itself, and a party list system like they have in Sweden could merely hand more power to party head offices, who are liable to fill it up with their favourite hacks. The British constituency system has the huge benefit of providing people with a local representative for their areas, though these days, they mainly seem to function as chasers-up of incompetent bureaucrats on behalf of their constituents. Even if the will to change existed, this aspect of British government needs to be held on to.

One way of making parliament more representative whilst keeping the benefits of constituencies is the "Single Transferable Vote". Instead of putting an X against the name of the candidate you want to see elected, you write down numbers against their names in your order of choice - 1, 2, 3, etc. If your first choice is for the candidate who comes third, then your second choice is allocated to one or other of the first two candidates, so your vote isn't wasted. They use the system in Northern Ireland, so why not in the rest of Britain? But this could leave us with the Swedish problem, where the party with the most MPs forms a minority government.

A further useful change benefit would be fixed parliamentary terms, but why do elections need to be national? In the recent past, some local councils had elections by rotation, so that not everyone had to stand for re-election at the same time. At a national level, we might have three groups of constituencies, with staggered elections every two years, with MPs serving a fixed six-year term. This would avoid the kind of sudden change we had in 1997 and can expect again in due course, where goverments are formed of ministers with no previous experience.

Of course these changes would put an end to the two-party hegemony, and as turkeys don't vote for Christmas, we are stuck with more decades of the present ding-dong. Meanwhile, important issues are never addressed in the radical way necessary and one has to ask where things will end?

onsdag 13 september 2006

Astonishing information about my computer

I logged onto this web site
A popup window kept appearing telling me there was something wrong with my computer and urging me to select "fix it", so I did, just to see what would happen.

It gave me various bits of information including my IP
number and location (sort of except it spelled it wrong), told me my
operating system was unknown and then gave me this information about
exe programmes it had allegedly found.

"Your system is currently sending private information and documents to
a remote computer. One of these processes (Win32res.exe) has just sent
us the following information:
- \Windows\System32
- \Program Files\Internet Explorer
- \My Documents
- Drive C:\ files

The point is that I don't have a Drive C:\ and am not running any .exe programmes, in fact I don't have any. So it is all invented as a way of trying to get poor Windows users to buy some software or other which probably opens their computers to attack as well as their bank balances.

If commonsense prevails - which is a big IF
Vista should be the last of this junk.

måndag 11 september 2006

After a week in Sweden

This country isn't paradise but there seems to be a lot more things they get right. The design of public spaces is literally streets ahead - high quality design and workmanship is the norm. And people generally treat them with respect.

There is is plenty of graffiti, just like anywhere else, but a lot less litter and vandalism; I was astonished to see a that a sample greenhouse could be left permanently on display in the town square at Halmstad - a town of about 70,000 people. It wouldn't survive a weekend anywhere in Britain. The British bloody-minded attitude seems to be lacking here.

This could be related to the prices of acoholic drinks - ferociously expensive. Instead of off-licences, there is the Systemboglaget, a nationalised outlet, and there aren't many of them, so the alcoholics hang around nearby where the police can keep an eye on the situation. This holds the lid down on consumption until the Swedes go abroad. Stockholm is nobody's stag-night destination.

There is pressure to liberalise alcohol, but it would be a mistake to go down the path we have in Britain, where excessive alcohol consumption is a major public health and social issue.

Perhaps there is something about the culture in Northern Europe which makes so many people unable to drink sensibly and stop when they have had enough, though it might be a genetic thing. Personally I can take booze or leave it, but I object to having to make my way through a trail of broken bottles and other alcohol-related debris every morning.

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