Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Partying with the English Defence League - a disturbing glimpse into the mind of the EDL rank-and-file

"I'm not racist but..." Can there be another phrase in the English language more likely to make anxious liberal buttocks clench in queasy anticipation? Sometimes The Golden Latrine pines for those Alf Garnett days when racists were at least upfront about their prejudice.

Current doyens of the "I'm not racist but" line are the English Defence League (EDL), who insist they are charming, warm-hearted folk who like flowers and kittens and just happen to be against the creeping "Islamisation" of Britain. Definitely not racist.

The far-right group are planning a national demonstration at the end of the month in Hyde, an economically-depressed market town most famous as the home of mass-murderer Dr. Shipman's surgery (although oddly the local council haven't used that on the town's website).

As is standard procedure with the EDL, they have attached themselves to a local cause, in this case the attack of a 17-year-old white teenager and his friend by a gang of asian youths in Hyde town centre (you can read the Manchester Evening New's report of the attack here).

The Facebook group for the march quickly began to scour the area for similiar cases and muse about how the police would ignore the racial element of the attack (in actuality, the police treated it as a 'hate crime' and charged the alleged perpetrator with a section 18 assault). Perhaps more troubling was the persistent need of one poster to capitalise the first letter of every word ("I'm Unsure, But The Divisions We Are In Will Not Stand By And Watch This Happening In The Streets That He Lives In, Another Reported Case Tonight!"), presumably to ratchet up the drama and make everything he said sound like a headline. Or maybe he's just not that bright.

But endlessly rehashing the EDL's shortcomings is boring, and instead I'd like instead to offer a disturbing glimpse into the mind of the rank-and-file by means of a personal anecdote.

The Golden Latrine casts his mind back to Halloween a couple of years ago. That day there happened to have been a large-scale demonstration by the EDL in Leeds city centre, matched by a counter-demonstration by Unite Against Fascism.

The plan was to nip downstairs to our neighbours' party for a drink or two, before heading to our friend's place. Now, at the neighbours' party there was an EDL member and a Unite Against Fascism member in attendance. Let's call the EDL member Dean (if there are any liberal-minded Deans reading, I do apologise, it just seems like a good solid racist name) and the UAF member Tarquin.

The meeting with Dean did not start auspiciously. After sampling my limp-wristed greeting, his first words to me were: "That's a poofter's handshake". Never one to shirk a challenge, I decided to give him the eyes. Since it was Halloween, I had white facepaint on, with kohl eyes and ruby red lips. I tried explaining to Dean that it was Halloween make-up, but it did not compute. Squinting with the effort, metaphorical steam billowing from his ears, his continued response was: "To me, make-up is gay".

Now, I can honestly say that Dean was one of the least intelligent people I've ever met in my life. If most peoples' brains are Pentium processors, his was a plastic Fisher Price toy computer. But talking to him outside, he seemed far more confused than nasty. He'd clearly been well-schooled in the rhetoric of the Islamisation of Britain, although when I asked him to give me an example of this Islamisation, his only suggestion was that a Muslim on his estate had tried to convert him. I pointed out that a Christian had handed me some reading material earlier that day.

But here's the rub. While Dean was woefully undereducated, UAF's Tarquin was, if anything, much more of an idiot. Despite being university educated, his major complaint about the protest that day was how disappointed he was that the police had put the kibosh on any hope of a running street battle between the two groups. Which was a joke, because he was a skinny wisp of student and the fascists would have ripped him to pieces like a strongman with a phonebook.

At this point in the night, things began to go a little awry. My friend, a maths PhD student with a machine-like brain then pointed out, Spock-like, the flaw in Tarquin's logic. If Tarquin wanted to fight fascists, well, there was one right over the other side of the room. You know, the guy he'd just been chatting to and joking with for twenty minutes. His self-righteousness questionned, Tarquin confronted Dean and launched into a giant tirade about how ashamed Winston Churchill would have been of him.

A giant bust-up ensued in which Dean was, if anything, extremely restrained. As we left, Dean shook my hand and explained to me, with a sad frustrated face, that he was "basically just a very violent person". You had to admire his honesty, and we took that as our our cue to stagger off into the night.

EDIT: The family of Daniel Stringer, the assaulted teenager, have made quite clear that they did not invite the EDL to Hyde.

The Golden Latrine would also like to make clear that he is in no way implying that UAF are comparable to the EDL. This piece simply happens to shine a spotlight on the youthful stupidity of one UAF member.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Does it matter if Britain loses its triple-A credit rating? The opinion of the undemocratic ratings agencies is worthless

The Golden Latrine has sympathy for Greece. Although my overdraft doesn't quite yet run to the hundreds of billions, the pain of unpayable debt is something that is all too familiar to most of us.

News percolated through last night that the credit ratings agency Moody's has warned that Britain may have its AAA status downgraded. In laymen's terms, these agencies grade the security of debt i.e. how likely a lender is to be able to pay the money back, AAA being the most secure. Put simply, a downgrade would mean that in theory it was more expensive for the British government to borrow money. Last month France lost its AAA status and eight other Eurozone countries had their status downgraded in this way.

Britain hasn't been downgraded, or even put on "negative watch" (which implies there is a 50% chance of being downgraded within two years), but rather on "negative outlook" which suggests only about a one in three chance of a downgrade in the next year or two.

Nevertheless, this is news that will have the chancellor's heart (if George Osborne has one) aflutter and raise alarm in the City, but the average person will shrug over and carry on with their day. And you know what, the average person would be right.

These are the ratings agencies, after all, that completely failed to spot the 2008 global economic crash and, more amusingly given their pronouncements from on-high about the creditworthiness of the Eurozone economies, the Greek debt crisis. As the brilliant Aditya Chakrabortty pointed out recently, Moody's report on Greece in December 2009, six months before the country had to be bailed out by their Eurozone partners to the tune of $147bn, was entitled "Investor fears over Greek government liquidity misplaced." In other words: everything fine here, nothing to see.

The stark fact is that global finance has reached the stage where it is simply too complex to be properly comprehended. As screenwriter William Goldman said of Hollywood: "Nobody knows anything.”

And don't just take my rabidly liberal, frothing-at-the-mouth word for it. Watch this clip, for example, from Inside Job, Charles Ferguson's outstanding documentary about the economic crash. Asked why they had given a AAA rating to bundles of extremely risky sub-prime mortgage debt, the heads of the credit rating agencies lined up to tell a Congress inquiry that, in the words of Moody's CEO Raymond McDaniel, their ratings "are just opinions."

Nevertheless, these undemocratic purveyors of "opinion" are being invited into the heart of our public life. Only recently the NHS regulator Monitor floated the plan to scrap the current assessment system that rates NHS providers (hospitals, ambulance services etc.) on clinical quality and instead use the rating agencies to grade their "financial strength" - with those achieving a low grade liable to lose their contract to operate in the NHS.

The mind well and truly boggles. Chancellor Osborne's office is somehow trying to spin the Moody's report as a validation of his austerity measures (you can read BBC Economic's Editor Stephanie Flanders excellent editorial here), since the Moody's report suggests that the downgrade might go ahead if the UK eases up on the cuts.

But should the credit rating agencies, who are accountable to no-one and have shown time and again that there predictions are basically just a stab in the dark, have this level of influence over government policy? We complain about EU law violating British sovereignty, but the credit ratings agencies exert a far greater sway over national governments than Brussels.

Maybe there is hope though. Last summer Standard and Poor downgraded the US's triple-A rating, to which the market's response was largely: So what? It's time for governments and policymakers to stop running scared.