You’ll recall that I recently became disproportionately agitated about some little cloth hats that Marks & Spencers have been putting on their bottles of pink lemonade, and the questions it raised in my head about the retailer’s commitment to its ‘Plan A’ environmental sustainability commitments. I have an update.
James Cridland, who first brought my attention to the hats, emailed M&S to ask them how the hats were consistent with Plan A. Here, in full, is the response he received from them today:
Dear Mr Cridland
Thanks for your email about the cloth hats on our summer drinks range. I’m sorry you’ve been disappointed with them.
We appreciate we haven’t optimised on minimal use of packaging for this particular range of products in the same way we have with the majority of our other product lines.
However, the hats are helping us to differentiate between our products, making sure they stand out to our customers and encouraging sales. The more products we sell, the more funding we have for our wide range of sustainability initiatives.
I assure you we are still focused on become the world’s most sustainable retailer and our decision to put cloth hats on this small range of items doesn’t detract from that.
As responses go it is, like the hats, utterly useless. Let’s take a moment to pick it apart. (No, I have nothing better to do; why do you ask?)
M&S admit they made a conscious decision to add unnecessary packaging – or rather “we haven’t optimised on minimal use of packaging.” There is no suggestion that the hats have any use or purpose, nor that they are recyclable. They are pure frippery.
Their defence comes in two parts. The first is that the use of hats on this product represents an exception to otherwise impeccable behaviour. It’s an aberration, out of character. It “doesn’t detract” from their focus to “become the world’s most sustainable retailer” because it’s a one-off, and only a little one at that. These things just average out, right? I know I’m eating this huge cream cake but mostly I’m still on a diet. I know I was drunk behind the wheel, officer, but if you’d stopped me at any other time I’d have been sober.
The second aspect to their defence is that the hats form an essential part of the product’s marketing, thus driving sales, thus providing “more funding … for our wide range of sustainability initiatives.” It is undeniably true that the more bottles of pink lemonade M&S sell, the more money they have to spend on stuff like Plan A. Equally, the more cigarettes Philip Morris sell the more money they have to spend to combat under-age smoking and the more petrol BP sell the more money they have to invest in renewable energy technology. Yes, without a doubt, the more of something you sell, the more you can spend on projects to mitigate its harmful consequences.
Otherwise, all that’s wrong with this part of M&S’s argument is that the hats are only encouraging sales of pink lemonade at the expense of other M&S products. The lemonade is not sold or marketed elsewhere, so the only way you will see it is if you are already looking for a drink in M&S – a retailer that only sells its own brand. I suppose there might be customers who go into M&S to buy a sandwich, planning then to go to another shop for their drink, but are so captivated by the hats that they change their mind and buy the lemonade instead, but there can’t be that many. As they say in their email to James: “the hats are helping us to differentiate between our products.” Even if the hats generate a huge uplift in sales of the lemonade, it is only at the expense of other M&S products, so the overall increase in revenue for M&S – and thus cash to spend on tiny hat recycling initiatives – is likely to be marginal.
All of which in any case misses the point, which is that you cannot declare yourself to be as single-minded about environmental issues as M&S claim to be and, at the same time, decide it’s actually OK to be a little bit wasteful every now and then.
“We’re calling it Plan A because we believe it’s now the only way to do business.” Except when we find a different way to do business that we like. ”By 2012, we’ll aim to ensure that none of our clothing or packaging needs end up as landfill.” Well, nearly none.
As I pointed out in my last blogpost on this: someone at M&S made a conscious, deliberate, unforced decision to generate pure waste and no one in the building actually cared enough about Plan A to stop them. As James has now discovered, M&S are absolutely fine with that.
This really is a small thing. I do get that. This is not a huge corporate scandal. M&S haven’t crashed an oil tanker or deforested a wilderness or set up a dozen patio heaters outside every store. The fate of the planet depends on big things like wholesale political and economic change, not pink lemonade bottles.
But, at least in part, the fate of the planet also depends on everyone continually making small steps to change what they do, and do less harm. M&S recognise this – it is why they have Plan A. They deserve praise for having Plan A. But it’s a hollow promise that you can just choose to dip out of, on a whim, if it might help you shift a few more bottles of lemonade.
Another day, another Parliamentary vote on marriage equality.
I’ve blogged before about the principled reasons why MPs should vote for marriage equality; why it’s consistent with the Christian and conservative principles of universal love and individual freedom that its opponents are supposed to believe in; and why the objections to it are logical nonsense. This time, I want to talk more about history and politics.
Same-sex marriages were outlawed by the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1973. I didn’t realise this myself until today – Peter Tatchell discusses it in this Guardian opinion piece. In 1973, I was one year old; David Cameron was 7. It was an Act passed by our parents’ and grandparents’ generation. That generation is – I believe and hope – the last that will consider being openly homophobic to be politically and socially acceptable. Today, the fact that, if you are not yourself gay, you may have work colleagues, close friends, relatives or children who are gay is commonplace and unremarkable. The irrational denial of rights to themselves and to people they know and love is unconscionable to a clear majority of those under 50. Just since the last Commons vote in February, equal marriage laws have been passed in Brazil, France, Uruguay, New Zealand, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Delaware as well as various smaller jurisdictions around the world. Not only is marriage equality in the UK inevitable, we are surely not far from a time when the idea of prohibiting same-sex marriage is as abhorrent as a proposal to ban inter-racial marriage would be today.
Any organisation whose core support comes from older demographics will be aware of how limiting that is to their long-term future. Both the British Conservative Party and the Church of England face a long-term decline in membership due to the mortality of their aging supporters. The only way any organisation can attract younger members is to appeal to their values, and to include rather than exclude.
The Church of England seems determined to accelerate its own demise. It appears committed to making homophobia its defining article of faith. Apparently believing that the ‘gay rights agenda’ is a core aspect of secular Britain’s supposed ‘war’ on faith, the Church has resolved to defend any and all acts of discrimination. They seem to want being Christian to come with the automatic presumption of homophobia – for “I believe in Jesus Christ, therefore I am against gay marriage” to be the default logic. How many young Christians – the potential congregants, vicars and Church leaders on whom the Church’s future relies – must be re-considering their support for a church that they perceive to be so unloving and ungenerous? How many young people who are gay or have gay friends or family will look at the Church of England and conclude that Christianity and homophobia are intrinsically intertwined, and so recoil equally from both?
A similar dilemma faces the Conservatives. The issue is not that a majority of people in this country now support allowing same-sex marriage – 54% against 37% opposed in a recent YouGov poll, 62% in an ICM poll last December. It’s not about the relative importance of the issue currently to voters (YouGov’s Peter Kellner points out that it isn’t a very high priority, even to equal marriage supporters). It’s about the perception of a party’s cultural values to young people. The arguments against marriage equality being put by Tory backbenchers are so weak it is hard not to characterise them as very thinly disguised bigotry. Bigotry does not go down well, even among right-wing voters. (There’s a reason UKIP expends so much effort trying to convince us that it is a “non-racist” party.) David Cameron knows that the long-term future of the Conservatives is secured by persuading voters – younger voters in particular – that the Tories are no longer the ‘nasty party’. There is a clear strategic benefit in portraying the party as no longer full of narrow-minded dinosaurs, but a modern party with modern social values. There’s an obvious advantage to being remembered as the party that advanced civil rights and individual liberty rather than the party that, alone and in the face of certain defeat, chose to block that advance.
Tory opponents of gay marriage accuse David Cameron of trying to destroy the party. In fact, he’s trying to save it – from itself, as it turns out. There will be a time, not so long in the future, when the right-wing populist party of the moment will be at pains to tell you that it is a “non-homophobic” party, so as to distinguish itself from the lunatic extremists that might otherwise attract the swivel-eyed attention of the disaffected. If the equal marriage bill fails now, the next Labour government will pick it up and pass it, over the continued opposition of Tory backbenchers, and Labour will get all the glory while the Tories look out of touch. In a democracy, political parties are rarely destroyed by holding majority opinions.
I am neither an Anglican nor a Tory, so the demise of either institution would not trouble me. What baffles me is the perversity of their rush to self-destruct. You expect politicians to be motivated by either moral decency or self-interest. To have no regard for either is truly baffling.
I’m reminded of a quote from The West Wing (with apologies to anyone unfamiliar with that show). Josh Lyman is trying to persuade Vice President John Hoynes to support the President on an issue. ”You’ve had some experience battling Jed Bartlet when he’s right and you’ve had some experience battling him when he’s popular,” Lyman reminds Hoynes. ”Why in the world would you want to try it when he’s both at the same time?” Marriage equality is both right and popular. Why in the world would a party that wants to govern oppose it?
There are plenty of Big Things in the world to get worked up about, but sometimes it’s the small and trivial that irk.
The image above is from my friend James Cridland (used here with his kind permission) who spotted it in (I assume) his local Marks & Spencers. What caught James’ attention was the little hat on top of these bottles of still pink lemonade (marketed as being part of their ‘Great British Summer’ range, although I assume they contain no actual rainwater). The hats are very small – just big enough to perch on top of a cat’s head, as seen in the customer photo below shared on M&S’ Facebook page (posted here without anyone’s permission):
Cat in a hat
The point to note here is that the hats serve no function or purpose. They are not large enough to be used by anyone as an actual hat. They are decorative, I suppose, if you have something very small to decorate and low expectations in decoration generally. I’m sure you could find other uses for them if you thought hard enough about it – you could possibly blow your nose in it, for example, if you have a small nose. But they were not obviously designed with any particular purpose in mind other than to sit on top of the bottle, looking cute.
What irked James about this (and, consequently, me) is that M&S makes a very big deal about its commitment to environmental sustainability. They have a thing called ‘Plan A’ which is a lengthy set of policies on sustainability. They want you to believe that they take environmental issues very seriously. Plan A is promoted with prominent signage in M&S stores and their policies, as well as reports on their implementation, are given in lengthy detail on a section of the company’s website dedicated to Plan A. Even the name – Plan A – is clearly meant to imply that environmental sustainability is the company’s first priority. ”We’re doing this because it’s what you want us to do. It’s also the right thing to do. We’re calling it Plan A because we believe it’s now the only way to do business. There is no Plan B.”
Unnecessary or surplus retail packaging has long been a issue for anyone with even a passing concern for the environment, and many retailers have been very responsive to this. Even if it is recyclable (which it often isn’t) excess packaging requires natural resources to manufacture it, adds weight to the product which increases the fuel required to transport it, and creates waste that ends up in landfills. Packaging that is purely decorative but serves no functional purpose other than to be thrown in the bin is unforgiveable. M&S insists that “we’ve been working on reducing the packaging we use” and aims 12.4 to 12.9 and 13.1 of Plan A relate to the reduction or recyclability of packaging. Hats on bottles, made from non-recyclable material and which will mostly go straight in the bin, would seem to be a pretty obvious affront to these aims.
James raised his concern with M&S on Twitter. This was their response:
@jamescridland Sorry if this left you disappointed James. We’re not doing it for all drinks but we’ll certainly take your comments on board
They then, with an apparently straight face, referred James to their Plan A website.
I was no more impressed by this than was James.
This is, like the hat, a small thing. It is, as someone else who follows me on Twitter quite reasonably suggested, an odd thing to get upset about. I don’t know how many of those little hats have been made but I’m sure that, cumulatively, they will take up very little space in the various landfills in which they will inevitably end up.
What bothers me is what these hats say about the real commitment of M&S to Plan A. How embedded is Plan A in the company’s culture, really? Someone in M&S made a conscious decision to have these hats designed, manufactured and incorporated into the drink’s packaging (or approved the proposal from a supplier to do this). If I may be (even more) cynical, they probably made this decision because they thought it would make it easier to charge a premium price for the drink. At no point did this person, or anyone working with them, pipe up and say, ‘hang on, what about Plan A and our commitments to reduce unnecessary packaging? Nice idea but, apart from some temporary feline accessorising, this thing is going to get chucked straight in the bin. It does nothing to improve the utility or quality of the product – I can’t see how we can go with it and stay true to Plan A.’ Or, perhaps worse still, someone did say all these things but was over-ruled, maybe by someone who was just so caught up in how adorable the hats are and how funny they’d look on someone’s cat.
It’s just a small thing, but it suggests a bigger truth. Corporate responsibility is our first priority, except when it isn’t.
So much for Plan A. Might be worth starting work on Plan B, just in case we need it.
The horrific news story about the collapse of a clothing factory building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing hundreds of people, has raised some questions in my head about where we get our clothes. Clearly, these are questions we (all of us in the West) should have been asking all along, just as we do for all the ‘cheap’ things we buy, from food to books to gadgets.
Anyone who knows me will know that I wear cheap clothes. Clothes are functional things, as far as I’m concerned – they keep me warm and protect those around me from indecency. I don’t care about fashion. People who pay huge sums for specific brands or designers are, in my view, just not very bright. Since I quit my job and left London, price has, by necessity, become the main factor in my choice of clothing. I no longer have the money to be choosy.
My four year old son has just secured his place in the state primary school that we wanted and so we’ve started looking at what he’ll need to be wearing come September. The school has a uniform, so he’ll need black or grey trousers and white shirts. They’re astonishingly cheap in the supermarket – £4 for two pairs of trousers, £6 for four shirts. Can they have been ethically manufactured? Surely you could only get that sort of price for sweatshop-made clothing. Enter the minefield that is ethical clothes shopping. This Guardian article from 2010 gives you an idea of the complexity bundled up inside that word ‘ethical’ (and that’s even if you ignore the tangential debate on whether or not school uniforms themselves are morally defensible). Cheap is not necessarily evil, is the gist. Or consider this from Alex Hern in the New Statesman who finds that there are sensible people offering coherent arguments for why sweatshops are not necessarily unethical anyway.
And, if you search for “ethical clothing” online, you enter into a parallel retail universe. If the marketing messages of companies describing themselves as making ‘ethical’ clothing are anything to go by, shoppers looking for ‘ethical’ goods are a demanding bunch. They want to maximise their ethicality (is that a word?) It has to be, as one retailer described their products, the most ethical clothing.
‘Our clothes are made from 100% organic hemp, harvested by hand by farmers who we don’t even haggle with – we just pay them whatever they ask. The fibre, unbleached and washed by hand in a nearby waterfall, is transported, carbon-free, by muesli-fed organic llamas to a factory made entirely from recycled oil tankers where unionised indigenous tribeswomen, working a four-hour day twice a week for $40k a year, assemble our clothes before heading off next door to collect their children from the school we built in 2009 and which has pioneered the teaching of compassion. T-shirt for a 4-year old: £65.’
No retailer has actually said this, but it’s not that wide of the mark. And I’m not really bothered about a lot of this stuff. I know I should care about whether or not the cotton is organic, but I can’t honestly say that I do, much. It’s lovely if, just by buying some boxer shorts, I can help to save the world, but I don’t think it’s strictly necessary. I just want to buy clothes made by people who are paid a fair, living wage and who are not putting themselves in constant physical danger just by showing up to work.
I know that, to some people, this half-heartedness will be inexplicable. Something is ethical or it isn’t. You can’t just pick and choose your ethical considerations, discarding some in favour of others. It doesn’t work like that. I understand that point of view and have some sympathy with it. But I can’t help feeling that there must be some kind of halfway house – something in between the budget high street retailer that’s not really interested in anything other that reducing its costs and the ultra-ethical fundamentalists who spend their evenings fretting over whether or not buttons represent some aspect of the Euro-centric patriarchal hegemony.
What I was after, I concluded, wasn’t something ethical so much as not-unethical. And then I realised that what I was searching for was a company that simply displayed the basic, minimum level of human decency that we assume we would all get from anyone else we encountered in the world but which, for some reason, some large corporations find requires extra effort.
Isn’t it odd that we, as a society, have become so accepting of a business that effectively says: “we just sell clothes; if you want clothes not made by people who’ve just been killed in huge numbers in the rubble of their own workplace, you’ll have to go to a specialist supplier”? Isn’t it odd that providing your staff with a non-lethal working environment counts as corporate social responsibility – an add-on, for which you gain extra Brownie points? By “odd” I mean nauseatingly wrong and incredibly anger-inducing.
Maybe I’m over-reacting. Sainsbury’s does have a Code of Conduct for Ethical Trade, as do other retailers whose clothes my son wears – including H&M and Marks & Spencers. They each emphasise different things and use different language, so it’s hard to compare them or even evaluate them if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for. Primark, one of whose suppliers was in the collapsed building in Dhaka, appears to take ethical trading quite seriously with a whole section of its website devoted to it. ”Primark has been engaged for several years with NGOs and other retailers to review the Bangladeshi industry’s approach to factory standards,” they said in a statement today. Not quite the same as actually checking that current factories are safe, and refusing to use them if they’re not, is it?
Ultimately, of course, it is down to us. We all need to raise our expectations of the businesses we buy from. We don’t need to demand muesli-fed llamas – but a basic, minimum standard of ethical behaviour by every business is, actually, not a lot to ask for.
In the course of my research, I emailed Sainsburys, H&M and Marks & Spencers to ask if any of their clothing was manufactured in the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka; if they require their and their suppliers’ factories to have third-party certification for ethical standards; and if not, whether any of their factories have such certification anyway. Feel free to do the same with any clothing retailer you use. I’ll post the responses I get as updates to this blogpost.
Update (27 April): I’ve had replies from Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencers. Here’s what Sainsbury’s said:
Our customers want to be confident that the people who make and sell our products are not being exploited, or exposed to unsafe working conditions. Our Code of Conduct for Ethical Trade covers the employment practices we expect from our suppliers, both in the UK and abroad. As founder members of the Ethical Trading Initiative, our Code of Conduct is consistent with the ETI Base Code and national and international laws. We pride ourselves on having good supplier relationships and work with them to support our ethical trade goals in the following areas.
We were the first supermarket to implement a voluntary code of conduct that went beyond the obligations contained in the previous Supermarkets Code of Practice. We have consistently supported the strengthened and widened Grocery Supply Code of Practice (GSCOP) which came into force in February 2010 following the Competition Commission report into the grocery market. We have made significant investments to implement GSCOP throughout our business.
Our Supplier Handbook, which is issued to all suppliers, is our legally binding code of commercial practice. It incorporates GSCOP and our Code of Conduct for Ethical Trade. Where there have been disagreements with suppliers about a particular trading practice or decision we have a proven record of effective internal escalation and resolution. We support effective GSCOP enforcement, but we remain of the view that an additional enforcement body is unnecessary, as the strengthened provisions in the GSCOP and the existing enforcement regime are already self sufficient and fully address the areas of concern identified by the Competition Commission.
All our new suppliers are risk assessed prior to us establishing a relationship and are required to sign up to our terms and conditions which incorporate the Code of Conduct for Ethical Trade. Our assessment tools determine the level of ethical trading risk of each supplier and require suppliers to undertake a third-party, independent ethical audit where necessary. This in depth analysis allows us to determine whether a supplier is eligible to work with us. Suppliers are required to ensure that our Code of Conduct is applied to their suppliers and sub-contractors.
We work with lower risk suppliers to assess their risks and performance against our Code of Conduct whilst higher-risk suppliers are required to have independent, third party ethical audits. Over 1,700 audits and site visits were conducted at Sainsbury’s suppliers last year.
Suppliers’ ongoing ethical trade performance is then regularly tracked through the Supplier Ethical Data Exchange (SEDEX), our own internal databases and our supplier scorecard. Corrective actions which are identified through audits are resolved in a timely manner by suppliers with support from our ethical and technical teams. We report back to internal colleagues on supplier compliance and best practice on a regular basis and share our performance externally through meetings and workshops. Our Product Technologists and Ethical Trade teams visit suppliers throughout the year to ensure that our ethical requirements are being met and provide support on ethical issues where required.
Close monitoring of suppliers means that we are able to identify trends of common issues. It also enables us to give additional support to those suppliers who may find it challenging to achieve our standards.
Our products are sourced from where we feel offer the best quality at the best price. Sourcing in this way means that we can pass on great savings to our customers. We source our products from hundreds of suppliers worldwide.
Our corporate website contains all this information and much more on our ethical trading standards. By visiting www.j-sainsbury.co.uk you can access all the information you need.
No response to my specific query about Rana Plaza, but plenty of reassuring stuff here about having, and making the effort to monitor and enforce, an ethical code of conduct.
Marks and Spencers were briefer:
Firstly, I’d like to assure you M&S were not affected by the factory collapse in Bangladesh.
With regards to points 2 and 3 of your email, it might be easier and more informative for you to use the link below. This should answer all your questions.
I’ve had a look at their Global Sourcing Principles, and they seem rather less impressive than Sainsbury’s Code of Conduct. The M&S ‘Principles’ include an attempt to absolve themselves from responsibility for everything that might happen along a lengthy supply chain (which I think is a cop-out – perhaps they should shorten their supply chains?) M&S allows itself and its suppliers a lot of latitude. Suppliers must “strive” to behave ethically, they “should normally” not use child labour, M&S “may” cease trading with them if they’re not compliant. There’s plenty of warm sentiment here, but little serious commitment. I’m not persuaded that M&S are all that bothered.
Update (15 May 2013): In writing my more recent blogpost on M&S’ environmental credentials, I realise that I neglected to update this post with H&M’s response to my email on their ethical standards in clothing manufacture. The tardiness is entirely my own – H&M responded very promptly. Here’s what they said:
Thank you for your email regarding the recent collapse of the clothing factory complex in Bangladesh.
I have looked into this for you and can confirm that none of the textile factories located in the building produced garments for H&M.
Our thoughts do go out to those who have been affected by this tragedy and we are monitoring the situation.
For more information on what we are doing in Bangladesh, please visit our webpage. You can also view our Code of Conduct with regards to what we expect from our suppliers and all business partners.
If you follow the link, you’ll see it directs not to general statements of principle (although these are plentiful elsewhere) but specifically to H&M’s Bangladesh Development Plan. It all seems very thorough and positive to my untrained eye. As with M&S and Sainsburys, I have no reason to doubt H&M’s commitment, but nor do I have any external information on how well they are actually adhering to the ethical standards they publicly espouse. Taken at face value, I find H&M statements reassuring.
“Accusations that this government neither likes nor supports the arts are disingenuous in the extreme,” Britain’s Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Maria Miller, reportedly wrote in the Evening Standard last November. She has a funny way of showing it. The BBC reports that Ms Miller today gave a speech at the British Museum where she describes “British culture” as “the most powerful and compelling product we have available to us” and “British culture and creativity” as “a commodity worth buying into” [emphasis added]. This is typical modern Conservative thinking – a thing only has value if you can put a price on it and sell it. I think it completely misunderstands the value of culture.
I’m not some wide-eyed purist who thinks that art and culture exist in perfect isolation from economic reality. Nor would I argue that economic considerations have no place in the creative world. Artists have to live and pay the bills like everyone else. The commercial success of a creative work can be an informative proxy for its impact, which often contributes to its cultural importance. Would Gone with the Wind, say, or Catcher in the Rye be considered as culturally significant as they are if they had proved incapable of finding a paying audience? Perhaps not. Then again, plenty of creative works have made lots of money - Fifty Shades of Grey or anything ever produced by One Direction – that I suspect will have no lasting cultural impact at all.
My point is this: cultural value does exist separately and distinctly from economic value, and its value to us – to society and to government – is in danger of being greatly underestimated.
Our culture is what defines us, as a nation and as a society, to others and to ourselves. Britain (well, England at least) is the land of Shakespeare and Austen, of Dickens and the Brontës, of Elgar and the Beatles, of the Sex Pistols and Danny Boyle, of Monty Python and Doctor Who. Economically, on the other hand, it is the land of Vodafone shops and Greggs the bakers, of retail parks and payday loans, of overpaid City bankers and underpaid virtually everyone else. Which of these things shape our perception of ourselves? Which shape the notion of ‘Britain’ in the minds of those from other nations? Is our mental image of America shaped more by Hollywood or Wall Street (or, indeed, Hollywood’s portrayal of Wall Street)? Our influence in the world, our status as a ‘great’ nation – if such things are important to you – are formed as much by our cultural heritage and output as our GDP and balance of trade.
Moreover, cultural value endures in a way that economic value does not. It is what we remember most, and for longest, about a civilisation. People still read Homer; no one frets about ancient Athens’ budget deficit. Shakespeare is important because of what he wrote, not his box office takings. We watch Casablanca for its portrayal of love and heroism, not its merchandising potential.
My purpose is not to belittle economic value, which is clearly important. Plenty of economic innovations have been instrumental in our history – from enclosures to the East India Company, from the development of the railways to privatisation. And you would have to be both very rich and have your head lodged firmly in your intestines to downplay the importance of economic conditions to the lives of every human on the planet. My purpose is to highlight the parallel importance of cultural value.
I think that Maria Miller is wrong to insist that we must “hammer home the value of culture to our economy”; that “our focus must be on culture’s economic impact.” To do so is to mistake culture for commerce. Both are valid and legitimate endeavours, but they are not the same thing.
That much creative work is intended solely to create economic value is undeniable. There will never be any shortage of writers or performers who are just in it for the money. However, if we make it a prerequisite that all creative endeavour must be focused on generating economic value rather than cultural value, we should not be surprised if we produce little or none of the latter. If, as Ms Miller appears to be suggesting, we commoditise creativity – that is, produce it in large volumes of homogenised lumps, to be produced and consumed as cheaply and efficiently as possible – then we should expect to be left lamenting our declining status in the world. Future foreign visitors are unlikely ever to make a pilgrimage to Simon Cowell’s birthplace.
Why should we care about our national identity, about our status in the world, about the legacy we leave to posterity? There’s a negative answer to this, and a positive one. The negative answer is that it feeds our own sense of self-importance. For many of us, there is a joy in being associated with greatness, or being part of a ‘great’ nation. We like to feel that we are part of history, or at least witnesses to it – that the time we lived in was meaningful rather than insignificant. Once, many years ago and for about twenty seconds, I got to bop with Tracey Emin. That’s something I’m more likely to tell my grandchildren than where I was when they launched the iPhone 5.
The positive answer is that producing and enjoying things of cultural value makes us better people. I don’t mean that in the snobbish way. I’m not talking about believing yourself to be superior because you like certain types of culture, like opera or French poetry. I just mean that embracing cultural value entails broadening your horizons beyond just material desires. ”He who dies with the most toys wins” has gone from being an embarrassingly unfunny joke to a mantra of government dogma. It’s an attitude that belittles us as human beings. The music you enjoy should be more important to you than the device you play it on. Have some soul (and stop imagining that soul can be monetised).
So, if Maria Miller really does care about culture, as she claims, I hope she might consider looking at the world through the other end of the telescope. While we’re hammering home the value of culture to our economy, how about we also ask about the value of our economy to our culture? If our focus really must be on culture’s economic impact, let it also be in the economy’s cultural impact.
Incidentally, this is not necessarily an argument for or against government funding for the arts or creative industries. Clearly, a difficulty for any government is that economic value is measurable and we imagine it to be predictable, at least in the short-term. You can build policy around it. Cultural value is largely subjective, has no unit of measurement, and is utterly unpredictable. We have no way of knowing what will be the cultural legacy of our age. Will Britons 250 years from now be boasting of living in the land of Hilary Mantel, Damien Hirst and Adele? Or have we got it all wrong, and they’ll be raising a glass every year to mark Simon Cowell’s birthday? Either way, I’m reasonably confident that they’ll have long forgotten Maria Miller.
Today, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has upheld the UK’s right to ban all political advertising on television and radio. Of the few really unpopular views that I hold, none is perhaps quite as socially unacceptable as my belief that we should allow paid-for political broadcast advertising in the UK. I have met almost no one who doesn’t automatically recoil in horror at the idea, and who doesn’t then go on to radically reassess, downwards, their opinion of me.
Much of this reaction seems to relate to what we perceive as being the American experience of political advertising. Most news reports on the subject, and also most opinion polls I’ve seen on it, at some point use the phrase “US-style” to describe the system they’re discussing. This might be intended to be helpful in framing the debate, but it is also highly leading and potentially misleading. It immediately defines political advertising in this country in terms of something that most people already have strongly negative views on.
It’s worth bearing in mind that the US political system, and the American media and advertising markets, are so utterly different from ours that we should be wary of drawing too many conclusions from their experience. US elections are conducted on a massively different scale to those in the UK. This is not just a feature of geography – the US is 40 times the area of the UK with five times the population; a US Congressional district is, on average, ten times the size of a UK Parliamentary constituency – and these factors do much to drive up the cost of broadcast advertising in the US. There are fundamental systemic differences, too. The US system is federal so, on any given election day, the number of offices up for election is likely to be considerably higher than a British voter would ever face, and only one of those election campaigns is run on a nationally centralised basis. The US system has primaries, which both prolong the election campaigning period and also lead to a substantially weaker party system than we have in the UK (both reasons, by the way, for my belief that we would be insane to introduce primaries in this country). Whereas a British Parliamentary candidate can largely rely on their party’s national head office to manage (and pay for) the bulk of all the advertising that reaches voters, American candidates for public office must run and finance their own individual campaigns, with varying levels of support from party HQ. In short, the American system necessitates many more people running ads for many more campaigns in many more elections appealing to many more voters over a much bigger area, much more frequently and over a much longer period of time than the British system would require.
That said, the two aspects of the American system that I think most people are concerned about probably would apply in the UK: the campaign with the most money would have an advantage; and there would be a lot of vile attack ads. To both points my response would be the same: they are already true of our election system today. Political advertising is permitted on posters (and other outdoor media), in the press, via direct mail and online. TV activity is limited to party political and election broadcasts, but these are expensive to produce. It is already the case that running an effective national election campaign requires considerable financial fire power that really only the two biggest political parties can muster. It is already the case that we have negative advertising in politics.
You could – and, I think, would want to – impose some fairly stringent regulation on campaign spending (and donating) which could mitigate some of the financial concerns. You would certainly want to regulate the broadcasters’ trading systems to ensure fair access to all political parties, on identical terms (to prevent any broadcaster from offering loads of really cheap airtime to their favoured party or candidate, while shutting out others). You might well want to restrict who can buy airtime, to avoid the situation where a single billionaire decides to buy loads of ads supporting his or her chosen party, thereby circumventing the restrictions on that party’s campaign spending. I don’t pretend that allowing broadcast political advertising is unproblematic, but I think that there are solutions to most problems and we could avoid the worst of the US experience if we wanted to. As I’ll explain in a minute, allowing broadcast advertising could actually work to the advantage of smaller, less well resourced campaigns.
On the issue of negative advertising I would say that that is about the message, not the medium. Remember Tony Blair’s ‘evil eyes’ or Michael Howard portrayed as a flying pig? Nothing prevents negative advertising at the moment, whether in non-broadcast media or in party political and election broadcasts. I think nothing should. You’ll never be able to regulate impartially the content of political advertising, and it will inevitably get too close to censorship of political speech to try. Does that mean allowing extremists like the BNP to advertise on TV? Probably, yes. I don’t like that any more than you do, but if we’re not going to ban a party from existing and putting up candidates for elected office, it seems illogical and illiberal to ban it from communicating.
Nothing I’ve said so far is actually an argument for changing the system in this country to allow broadcast political advertising. So, with absolutely no expectation that I might seriously change your mind, here’s why I think broadcast political advertising would be better for our democracy than the current system.
It would better engage voters. For all our attention on terrible advertising in America, we forget that some political advertising is very good (the majority is neither). Here’s a favourite example from recent years, from Hillary Clinton’s 2008 Presidential campaign:
The style and delivery may not be to your liking, but my point is that in just 30 seconds, without ever mentioning either her name or Barack Obama’s, the ad communicated perfectly what Hillary thought was the most important difference between herself and her opponent.
Good advertising works. Companies spend money on advertising because, when it works, more people buy more of their products. It changes how people feel about brands, products and services, and makes more people interact more with those things, primarily by buying more of them. (I make no judgement here about whether or not this is a good thing, or the extent to which our collective gullibility to marketing is incredibly depressing – I’m just observing.) I would argue that any democracy functions better with more engagement and less apathy. Advertising could help.
It might be a stretch to say that advertising would suddenly make lots of people politically energised, and magically drive up election turnout. You might correctly point out that turnout in US Presidential elections with lots of advertising are generally in the 50-60% range, whereas in the UK they are in the 60-70% range (and were in the 70-80% range not very long ago). You might also remind me that, for all the brilliance of her TV ad, Hillary Clinton did, in fact, lose the campaign to be her party’s presidential nominee. Fair enough. But nothing, surely, could be worse for political engagement than what we currently have.
Party political and election broadcasts (PPBs and PEBs) are dire. They are unwatchable drivel and, as a result, I suspect no one watches them (I haven’t been able to find data on this – if you have it and can prove me wrong, let me know). My hunch is that, for most people, the words ‘party political broadcast’ are a cue to turn off. That’s if you happen to see them at all. Each one is shown only once (maybe twice, but still only on a single day). They are scheduled at times when TV channels expect to lose viewers anyway (late at night, for example) and shown only by the five ‘public service broadcasting’ (PSB) channels (BBC1, BBC2, ITV1, Channel 4 and five) which have a slowly declining audience share. If you do decide to watch one, you are subjected to an often poorly made short TV programme that you may feel is of no relevance to you. This is because, with so few opportunities to get their message across on TV, and with only general purpose national channels to broadcast on, political parties are forced into making PPBs with very broad appeal. They can’t easily target a message geographically or demographically.
Now imagine you’re watching your favourite TV show on, say, E4. During a mid-programme ad break, a political ad comes on. If you haven’t popped out to the loo or to put the kettle on, chances are you’ll sit and watch the ad, just as you sit through all the ads when you watch (non-recorded or time-shifted) TV. It may be a terrible ad – like many of the non-political ads you also watch – but it’s only 30 seconds long and your show will start again in a minute. It might be quite a good ad – pithier and punchier than a party political broadcast. You might think that it’s so good, you wish your friends could see it, but you know they don’t watch this show. No matter – it’s been booked as part of a campaign designed to garner a certain number of impacts so, over the course of the next few days, across a range of channels, a known, measurable number of people will see the ad. One of the reasons you like the ad is because you’re a twenty-something, watching a show watched by lots of other twenty-somethings, and this ad talks about issues relevant to twenty-somethings. (Different ads, on other channels and around other shows, target people of different age groups, or ethnic backgrounds, or with specific policy interests). You like it even better because it’s only showing in your region, so it talks about your region.
OK, so it’s clearly far-fetched to expect all of this from political advertising, but my point is that the move away from untargeted broadcasts that few people see and fewer still actually watch, to targeted ads that more people see and a higher proportion actually watch, ought to be a good thing in terms of overall political engagement.
Advertising also works better for political parties and particularly those with smaller budgets. This last bit is clearly counter-intuitive – how can moving from a system of free airtime to one of paid airtime be better for organisations with very little money? Answer: by letting them spend that money more effectively.
Imagine you’re the Green Party. You have a very limited budget for broadcast marketing – tens of thousands of pounds at best (I’m guessing – it could be much more or much less than that, I have no idea; bear with me anyway). As a minor party, you’re getting limited media attention. You’re not going to get into any of the televised debates. Everything that the three major parties are guaranteed to get – appearances on Question Time, coverage of press conferences – you are guaranteed to get less of, or none at all. Your only guaranteed broadcast airtime will come through your party election broadcasts, and you’ll get fewer of them than the three main parties, and they’ll be shorter as well. However, because they are your only chance to be seen or heard on air, you have no choice but to take advantage of them. TV production is expensive – high quality TV production even more so – so pretty much your entire broadcast marketing budget will go into a single five-minute PEB that will air once at 11.05pm on BBC2 and almost no one will pay any attention to.
Now imagine you’re allowed to advertise. Although you have to pay for your airtime, you’re not forced into a one-size-fits-all solution that simply reinforces the advantage of the three major parties. Yes, you have to cut your cloth accordingly but you weren’t actually able to do that before. You can forget TV and you can forget national coverage – too expensive. But you have some target seats – Brighton, Norwich, Cambridge, maybe Edinburgh, maybe Lewisham. To win them, you particularly need young people to turn out to vote, and you need them to choose you over Labour. You can cheaply make some radio ads – about issues that you know younger votes will particularly respond to – and still have plenty of money left to buy airtime on local radio. Sure, Heart FM is full of ads for the big three parties, but you can reach out effectively using the smaller stations and particularly those – like Juice FM in Brighton – that have a particular demographic focus. You can plan a campaign that you know will be heard by a certain number of people, and you have control over when your ad is scheduled.
You still can’t come anywhere close to matching the impact of the main parties’ advertising – but all parties, including yours, could spend their money more effectively than they can at the moment just by being given the freedom to choose their own medium and channel.
The current system does little more than entrench the status quo. We may all be horrified at the idea of elections being decided on the basis of who has the deepest pockets but I’m not sure if that is necessarily much worse than elections being decided on the basis of who has won elections before. Small parties are marginalised in the current system; new parties shut out altogether. I would question the health of a democracy that is incapable of allowing new voices to be heard.
In any case, while having a big ad budget is clearly advantageous in an election campaign, it’s less clear that it is necessarily decisive. The Natural Law Party could saturate the airwaves with commercials and I still don’t think many of us would be persuaded that yogic flying was a particularly coherent basis for a system of government.
Everyone whose opinion counts in media and politics is against broadcast political advertising, despite all the benefits it could bring to both media and politics. Voters are pretty firmly against it too. Even this neo-liberal government that wants to deregulate and commercialise just about everything else within its grasp doesn’t want broadcast political advertising. It’s just me. I wish we could be more willing to give it a go. I think democracy could actually be healthier for it.
The Rt Hon Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, 2010
I’ve been trying to work out what bothers me most about Iain Duncan Smith’s comments on the ‘workfare’ scheme yesterday.
The Work and Pensions Secretary was on the Andrew Marr Show and was asked about Cait Reilly, the geology graduate who won a partial legal victory over the government after she was told that she would lose some of her benefits if she didn’t do an unpaid stint as a shelf-stacker in Poundland. Reilly, who was claiming jobseeker’s allowance while doing voluntary work in a museum, suggested, among other things, that working at Poundland was actually taking her away from job-hunting, rather than helping her find work.
Duncan Smith took issue with this. He dispatched the central argument – about whether or not Reilly was being paid, and what the core purpose of benefits is supposed to be – thus: “I understand she said she wasn’t paid. She was paid jobseeker’s allowance, by the taxpayer, to do this.” He then attempted to move the debate onto an entirely different, and entirely irrelevant, point:
“I’m sorry, but there is a group of people out there who think they’re too good for this kind of stuff. Let me remind you that [former Tesco chief executive] Terry Leahy started his life stacking shelves. The next time somebody goes in – those smart people who say there’s something wrong with this – they go into their supermarket, ask themselves this simple question, when they can’t find the food they want on the shelves, who is more important – them, the geologist, or the person who stacked the shelves?”
Most of the subsequent attention to IDS’s remarks has been to this section of them, which is exactly what he hoped for because he wants to be accepted without further challenge his notion of what benefits are for. Benefits are no longer there to help people while they are in poverty to house, clothe and feed themselves. They are now a payment for services rendered. You’re not entitled to something for nothing. Oh, unless you’re Poundland, I guess.
It is essential to the government that we all believe their central narrative on welfare, which is this: everyone claiming benefits is an idle scrounger. All of them. Every one. By definition. And the only way to change this is to apply the incontrovertible logic that if we’re paying for you, we get to decide what you do. You owe us. (It’s a logic that applies only to poor people, of course. Just because we paid to own some banks doesn’t entitle us to tell them what to do. Don’t be silly.)
No longer will public money be wasted merely on allowing poor people to eat and keep warm. Don’t let people like Cait Reilly – who is clearly neither idle nor a scrounger – distract you from the necessity of transforming benefits into a transaction, but only in the sense that indentured servitude is a transaction. “She was paid jobseeker’s allowance, by the taxpayer, to do this.” She’s ours and she’ll do what we tell her and she should count herself lucky.
And since Ms Reilly is neither idle nor a scrounger, what story can we set up to make you dislike her so that it becomes OK to bring her into this arrangement? Ta-dah: she’s a snob!
Except – and this, I’ve discovered, is the thing that bothers me most about what IDS said – it isn’t true. Yes, obviously the stuff about Ms Reilly being paid to work at Poundland is untrue – continued payment of her benefits may be conditional on completing meaningless ‘work experience’ schemes, but that is not the same as being paid for her labour. But what about that stuff about shelf-stacking being beneath her?
The really dishonesty – the huge, clunking great leviathan of falseness in all this – is that Iain Duncan Smith himself doesn’t believe a word of it.
When IDS complained that “there is a group of people out there who think they’re too good for this kind of stuff,” is there any conscious, sentient human on the planet who actually thinks that Iain Duncan Smith is NOT one of those people?
Is anyone willing to claim that IDS really, seriously thinks that Terry Leahy’s experience as a shelf stacker is key to his success (rather than, say, his degree in Management Sciences)? When Leahy was in Ms Reilly’s position, as a new graduate, and applying to Tesco to be a marketing executive, don’t you think he would have considered shelf-stacking beneath him? Does IDS genuinely believe that shelf-stacking in Poundland constitutes useful work experience, of the sort that might interest potential employers of a geology graduate?
And for how long has IDS been marvelling at the vital importance of shelf-stackers in the nation’s culture and economy? I enjoyed his almost apocalyptic view of British society without shelf-stackers. How would we find stuff? Would we have to go back into the store room? How would we know what’s on special offer? Surely the complete breakdown of civilisation could not be far behind. Thank goodness we have Iain Duncan Smith on hand to show us how grossly we’ve been under-appreciating the shelf-stacking heroes and heroines that walk among us. He understands. Whether it’s in his epic ballads on the noble shelf-stacker that he writes during his lonely lunch hours, or the huge long lists of shelf-stackers that he submits, in vain, for consideration for knighthoods or elevation to the House of Lords, only Iain Duncan Smith really gets shelf-stacking and its place in our national story. He’s probably considered an honorary shelf-stacker in shelf-stacking circles, he loves them so much. If you listen carefully in the small hours of the morning, from every supermarket in the land, you can hear The Ballad of Duncan Smith being sung, lustily, as the shelves are proudly stacked.
Or maybe not. Maybe, just maybe, IDS does think shelf-stacking is beneath him. He would not be alone in this. A lot of us do including, I would guess, a lot of the people who find themselves stacking shelves.
Iain’s game – apart from deflecting attention away from how he’s turning the welfare system into some sort of medieval feudalism – is to throw back at the left our own anti-elitist vocabulary and thereby unbalance us. Well, two can play that game.
So, my first question to IDS is: why are you so keen for the oil industry to fail? The oil industry relies on geologists to find, well, more oil. You think this is a job of no value – or, at least, of less value than a shelf-stacker. You said it yourself – the shelf-stacker is “more important” than the geologist. So, we clearly need to shift our educational and economic resources away from earth sciences and towards retail display, or maybe we should just encourage more geologists to have a sense of duty to society and become shelf-stackers. Either way, you’re setting up the oil industry to fail. What kind of Conservative would do that?
Second question: why do you want so much waste in British universities? You think it’s a good thing for someone with a geology degree – which takes a lot of both the student’s and the state’s money to acquire – to do a job that doesn’t require a geology degree. No, you do. You just said how awful it was of anyone to think otherwise. Since the geology degree is not required to do the nonetheless “more important” work of shelf-stacking, all that money – including public money – has been wasted. What kind of Conservative thinks waste in public education is a good thing?
Third and final question: why don’t you believe in markets any more? Have you become a Marxist? If you were a Conservative you would believe in the market as the perfect mechanism for determining the value of things. How does the market value shelf-stackers versus geologists? Well, according to the Fair Pay Network, a supermarket shelf-stacker in London can expect about £6.30 an hour, just a little above the current minimum wage for over-21s of £6.19 per hour. Asked what job they wanted to give to someone to do for nothing, Poundland chose shelf-stacking, so that gives you an idea of the value they place on it. Prospects.ac.uk, “the UK’s official graduate careers website” says that the starting salary for a new graduate in engineering geology is about £25,000, which (assuming that’s a full-time salary) equates to an hourly rate of £12.96 – roughly double the shelf-stacker. So, we have to conclude that Iain Duncan Smith thinks the market has got it wrong because the market clearly values the geologist much more highly than the shelf-stacker, and IDS is very clear that this is the wrong way round. Coming from a government minister, this smacks of socialist interventionism and state interference in wages. Is IDS about to defect to the SWP?
So, I welcome your conversion to left-wingery, Mr Duncan Smith, and I happen to think you’re right about some things. We shouldn’t look down at shelf stacking – and certainly not at shelf stackers. Paid employment – even of a menial sort – is better than unemployment. And shelf stacking is, actually, quite important and would therefore appear to be under-valued in the market. So how is it reasonable to not pay someone to do it?
You know who gets to determine the value, worth or meaning of my marriage? Me and my wife. That’s all. No one else.
Every couple is different, every marriage is different and so the meaning of every marriage is different. The government, the church, society, they can all have a go at expressing what the institution of marriage means to them, but they don’t get to tell me or any other married person what our marriages mean to us.
And what my marriage means to me is unaffected by what your marriage means to you. You cannot devalue it, nor can you add value to it. It is what it is.
I cannot believe that, in 2013, we still have to argue and fight for discrimination to end. I cannot believe that a proposal to remove one aspect of discrimination – by equalising marriage rights for same-sex couples – can be considered contentious by decent, intelligent, modern adult humans.
Later today, MPs have a chance to extend individual liberty, to grant rights to people who have been denied them, to make this country just a little fairer, more equal, and happier. How rare is that kind of opportunity? And how much rarer to be able to do so at no cost, with no harm to anyone? This is not a case of one person’s rights conflicting with another’s. If you are not gay, you lose nothing. You suffer no loss, harm or damage. Your freedoms are not curtailed, your choices not limited. Your wealth, health and happiness are untouched. Someone wins, but no one loses. How mean do you have to be to object to that?
I have seen many heart-felt and sincere arguments against marriage equality. I have yet to see a single rational argument. A lot of people seem to think that marriage is a centuries-old tradition that is tinkered with at our peril. This strikes me as both logically and historically false. Centuries ago, you would have married who your parents told you to marry, and it would have been essentially a financial transaction. In the Middle Ages, boys could marry at 14 and girls at 12. Is that the kind of marriage tradition that Archbishops and Tory MPs are talking about? Marriage has changed often over the centuries. In any case, when has ‘we can’t change because we’ve always done it this way’ been considered a valid argument by any grown-up?
It is remarkable that the proposal to grant marriage equality is being pushed through by a Conservative prime minister. Those of us for whom ‘Conservative’ is a four-letter word should not let our cynicism or our dislike of David Cameron blind us to the significance of what he is doing. He is doing the right thing. He is doing it in the face of career-threatening opposition from within his own party, the depths of whose ugliness he has sadly also exposed. I don’t propose that we forget or forgive the damage he is doing to the nation’s economy and its public services, but for this alone we should applaud him. As should any self-respecting, philosophically consistent conservative. Conservativism is supposed to be about smaller government, with less regulation and fewer restrictions. It is supposed to be about individualism and personal freedom. If you believe that marriage is beneficial and should be encouraged, then you should want it more widely adopted. True conservatives should be proud of what their eponymous party is doing. Instead, many are letting their prejudice override their reason.
The church seems to rest much of its argument on the view that the primary purpose of marriage is to start a family – the “potential for procreation” as they put it. They use that clumsy phrase because they are trying to evade the obvious logic that, if only those marriages that seek to produce offspring are morally legitimate, then the church must refuse to marry heterosexual couples who don’t want children. The “potential for procreation” is still there, right? They could change their minds, couldn’t they? Of course, the church cannot escape the unpleasant logic of their position. To apply consistently the rationale that marriage should only be permitted where there is the potential for procreation, the church morally has no choice but to refuse to marry any couple where one partner is infertile. That would get people’s attention, wouldn’t it? Imagine the front pages when it is discovered that a respectable, upstanding and deeply in love heterosexual couple have been turned away by their local vicar because of a medical condition or injury that has left them incapable of having children. It’s not a morally sustainable position.
The only institution being undermined by the church’s stance on equal marriage is the church. For one thing, their view is un-Christian. As an atheist, you may consider me an implausible judge of such things, but I went to school long enough ago to have had God drummed into me and to have formed a pretty clear idea of Christian values. Whatever you may think of the behaviour of the church, Christ’s core philosophy was sound: that humans should be motivated, in their relations with each other, by love, humility, kindness and generosity; that we should pursue each other’s happiness; that all people are entitled to be treated this way. The Jesus I was taught at school had no time for discrimination.
By taking such an intolerant position, the church’s leaders do a disservice to the many Christians who do not share those views. The church has done much to equate “Christian” with “homophobe”, to make discrimination against gay people an inseparable aspect of Christian faith. They should have a higher opinion of their followers. And they should take heed of their falling attendance numbers. The more socially unacceptable it becomes to be associated with institutional discrimination, the harder the church will find it to recruit new members. The church has put itself on the wrong side of history. It is rapidly becoming outdated and irrelevant and has only itself to blame.
There is also no logic to the church’s complaint that allowing gay marriage – indeed, allowing equal treatment of gay people in any context – is an act of discrimination against Christians. In fact, the reverse is true. A state of discrimination is currently in operation, but it works – in the church’s view – in favour of the church. Here in the secular world, we cannot legally discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation. The church largely retains that right, most obviously in its hiring and promotion practices but also in its discretion to withhold access to its services for reasons of its own devising. What the equality agenda seeks to do is remove that discrimination – between the church and secular society – so that the church is placed on an equal footing with the rest of the modern world. To say that this curtails your rights is to assert the right to be homophobic. It is to claim the right to deny equal treatment, equal respect, equal dignity to someone for no better reason than you think you are entitled to judge who they love, date, sleep with, co-habit with. Once you’ve established your right to be prejudiced against gay people, it’s no great leap to claim your right to be openly, institutionally, functionally racist, sexist, anti-semitic, take your pick. What a vile world that would be.
But all this misses the point or, rather, the points. First, yes, the institution of marriage is going to be redefined, but only by being extended. Other people get the right to marry, but you don’t give it up in the process. And secondly, your marriage isn’t being redefined at all. Only you and your spouse can define your marriage.
Discrimination is wrong. I can’t believe, in 2013, that this has to be spelled out. It is wrong because it makes the lives of those discriminated against miserable, it divides and diminishes our society, it makes us meaner, more paranoid, less open to new ideas and perspectives, less happy. It is wrong because it prevents people from living up to their full potential and so it prevents society from achieving its full potential. It degrades and belittles us, culturally, politically and economically. It is self-defeating, petty-minded and unpatriotic. We should not permit it, anywhere.
Only those same-sex couples hoping to get married can explain what marriage means to them. It will be different for each couple. We don’t get to define their marriage, they do. They don’t get to define your marriage, you do. Some people win. No one loses. How mean do you have to be to vote against that?
“Soldier does the job he is trained and paid to do.”
That’s the big headline on most of this morning’s national newspapers. Take a look – it’s there as the main front page headline on the Daily Mail, the Daily Star, the Daily Mirror, The Sun, the i, and the Daily Telegraph, and as a smaller front page headline (with photo) in The Independent, The Times, The Guardian, the Daily Express and The Scotsman. It was, yesterday evening and this morning, a lead story on the BBC News website and its national radio and TV news bulletins.
I’m not trying to belittle or trivialise the job that British soldiers do in Afghanistan (and anywhere else in the world where they serve). In fact, I think quite the reverse. It’s the aggrandisement of the unremarkable contribution of one unremarkable soldier that demeans the largely unreported work of all the others. Why should this one soldier receive quite so much attention?
The answer, of course, is that he is (at least, in the eyes of news editors) not an ordinary soldier. He is Prince Harry, third in line to the throne (a phrase you are supposed to read in the sombre tone of a BBC correspondent since it denotes superiority over us lesser humans – you may not snicker at its suggestion that Harry is simply at the back of a short queue for the toilet).
Harry has chosen a military career for himself, and it is one that he clearly enjoys and finds rewarding. He has completed extensive training, has apparently proven himself capable in combat, and has achieved the rank of army captain. He has been put in charge of some very expensive and deadly machinery which, in the course of his duties, he has used. This is not news. Harry is not news. Even to ardent royalists, Harry holds no office of constitutional or political significance. He is, essentially, just another celebrity. I can understand why the Daily Star or The Sun might think him news – they think celebrities are axiomatically newsworthy. The BBC, for some reason, feels that one of its core purposes is the delivery of a steady stream of unthinking Royal propaganda that is blind to the cost, propriety or actual worth of anything the Royal family does, so their complicity in this fiesta of craven adulation is understandable if not forgivable. But The Guardian? The Independent? Has every editor in the country gone mad? Clearly, yes – but, since they are only responding to what they know to be the expectations of their audience, the madness is ultimately ours.
I do not understand public support for the institution of royalty. None of the arguments I have heard in its favour seem to address adequately, for me, the obscenity of the hereditary principle – the idea that a single family, by virtue of birth alone, is entitled to such high status and colossal privilege, at public cost. Whether as trade envoy, charity fund-raiser, global ambassador or national figurehead, there is nothing that a monarch can accomplish that an elected head of state could not equally do – and we could hold the latter to account if they were no good. The next king could be a deluded half-wit with only a tenuous grasp on reality and really bad taste in architecture – it doesn’t matter. We can’t stop him being king and we can’t take it away from him once he’s got it. And it makes no difference how talented or loved you may be – you could be considered a national treasure, an institution in your own right, a combination of Shakespeare, Brunel, Churchill and Fiona Bruce – it doesn’t matter. The institution of Royalty is closed to you, except by the misfortune of marriage (at which point the whole nation will remind you – in the belief that they actually care about these things – that you are just a ‘commoner’).
I have heard royalist friends say, at times of great occasion like Royal weddings, jubilees or the state opening of Parliament, that royalty makes them feel proud to be British. It make me queasy and embarrassed to be British. It’s not just that we have a monarchy – it’s they way we do monarchy in Britain that turns my stomach. We have a head of state whose core attribute is her remoteness from her ‘subjects’. Not for us a monarch who understands our lives and our concerns – “just one of the lads” as Prince Harry imagines, in delusion, he is. No, we like the weirdly Disneyfied fantasy of Royalty – the more outlandish and ostentatious the better. We think the overblown costumes and the pantomime carriages are pre-requisites of great state occasion; that pomp and circumstance are an essential part of our national identity and they cannot be achieved without monarchy. But have a look at an American presidential inauguration, like President Obama’s yesterday. Plenty of ceremony and ritual. You were left in no doubt of the significance of the presidency as the personified representation of the nation. But where our royal occasions could not look more preposterous if you staged them on another planet, the inauguration was moving and dignified (and that would have been equally true if it had been Mitt Romney taking the oath of office rather than Barack Obama). It was also democratic. Not because of nonsensical symbolic representations of democracy, such as the charade of the House of Commons momentarily shutting the door on Black Rod (before obeying the Royal command to traipse across the hall to stand, cramped, at one end of the unelected legislative chamber – a more obvious symbol of our contempt for popular sovereignty you would be hard pressed to invent). There was actual democracy – the American people, a million strong, gathering to witness in person the inauguration of the citizen that they had chosen to be their head of state.
Why does anyone consider the Queen to be the personification of Britain when royalty is the antithesis of everything that is good about this country? Where the most positive aspects of the British national character are its sense of decency and fairness, nothing could be more indecent or unfair than hereditary monarchy and the excess of privilege with which we endow it.
And why do we labour under the huge national inferiority complex that perpetuates the whole system? For, if we insist that the Royal family is superior to us, then we must regard ourselves as inferior to them. More than that, we are perpetually, innately and unavoidably inferior.
Last May, Princess Alexandra visited RHS Rosemoor, the Royal Horticultural Society garden in North Devon, near my home. Children were taken out of school to wave flags pointlessly at her. The local newspaper did a special photo feature on it. I had to look her up just to work out who she is. She’s the Queen’s cousin. That’s it. That’s her only role in life. She does “Royal duties”. She is – wait for it – “41st in the line of succession to the thrones of 16 states”, by which is meant the UK and the other 15 Commonwealth countries with insufficient self-worth to have become republics. I’d have kept the kids in school. I’d probably also have charged her admission to Rosemoor and given her a map to guide herself round, like everyone else. I’d have got Alan Titchmarsh to unveil my plaque. He is someone. Princess Alexandra is just the cousin of someone. Forty very specific people have to die, simultaneously, before she gets to be someone. Why do we treat her as if she matters more to us than any other visitor to Rosemoor in an ugly blue hat?
It does not matter what little intelligence, talent, skill or ingenuity they possess, we will bow, scrape and curtsey to them, call them “your highness” and “ma’am”. It does not matter how little actual impact they have on anyone’s life, how few will be enriched or enlightened by their presence, how little they may care about anyone but themselves, we will always treat them as if they are absurdly important.
It doesn’t matter how good an army captain you are, how skilled you are at flying Apache helicopters on combat missions, what dangers you’ve faced or what courage or compassion you’ve shown, how many lives you’ve taken or saved. It doesn’t matter what struggles you will face when you return home, what financial difficulties you or your family may endure, problems finding work or housing, health issues, your kids’ education. It doesn’t matter what you achieve when you return, what businesses you build, what charities you support, how many people depend on you or are grateful to you for how you’ve helped them or changed their lives. These things do not matter because you are not Prince Harry. You are inferior. You are not news and you never will be. Only Harry is news. The great Captain Wales.
And so it will continue to be. I see no prospect of change in my lifetime. The monarchy is as popular as ever. We like our inferiority complex – it feels safe and comfortable to us. The moral compromises we make to preserve it are, it would seem, a price we are happy to pay.
We have become, through sheer force of habitualisation and indifference, so accustomed to some of the weird conventions of news reporting that they have ceased to appear weird to us. For example, we don’t bat an eyelid at the bizarre three-stage life cycle of any news story in which it is news that something is going to happen, news again when it does happen and news a third time as people react to it. And we have become inured to the ‘PR as news’ phenomenon in which an event fabricated for the sole reason of generating media coverage is treated as if it were, in fact, an actual event.
Last week saw a prime example of this with the ‘announcement’ that Hasbro, the makers (i.e. rights holders) of the Monopoly board game were planning to give the game’s fans the opportunity to choose which of the game’s playing tokens should be replaced, and what it should be replaced with. Except, that’s a rather dull account of what Hasbro has in mind. In fact, of course, one of the game tokens was due to be “axed” and “you” would be making the key decisions. In case you were in any doubt of the significance of this responsibility, you were reminded that Monopoly tokens are “iconic”. Wow. Basically, the fate of Western civilisation is in YOUR hands. Decisions this momentous haven’t been offered to the general public since Shakespeare’s publishers ran their legendary “which Plantagenet king should he write about next?” competition four hundred years ago.
The story got blanket coverage. I doubt there was a news outlet anywhere in the Western world (and probably in much of the non-Western world) that didn’t report this, debate it, write columns on it, invite their audience to send their views in and speculate on the final outcome. (My personal view is that they should replace the car and the top hat with a badger and a wind turbine, just to annoy Daily Telegraph readers). And, as far as I can tell, absolutely everyone reported this ‘story’ with a completely straight face. I didn’t see anyone who reported this as a PR stunt (please send me a link if you did). This was treated as an actual event, worthy to be considered ‘news’ in its own right.
But, of course, it is entirely possible that the journalists of the world know something that we mortals do not. Might there actually be something behind this apparently innocuous attempt to remind people of a board game they once played?
Could there actually be a huge Monopoly development lab, perhaps deep underground Hasbro’s Pawtucket headquarters, or maybe in some shiny research park on a California university campus? There, Monopoly paradigm engineers (‘Monopoliers’, please – if you call them ‘Monopolists’ you lost the right to collect anything when you land on Free Parking) sit among vast super-computers capable of playing a billion games of Monopoly every hour, and they work on ways of perfecting the game for its millions of followers and disciples.
For months, they’ve been trying to deny what the data have been telling them. ”We have to accept it,” they admit one day, at the end of a Community Chest Textual Reinterpretation meeting. ”Replacing the iron with a Segway would have a profound effect on gameplay dynamics, the beauty and complexity of which will be hard for most even to perceive, let alone comprehend.” As they would later explain to Hasbro’s board (the secret ‘Monopoly Conceptualisation and Modernisation Board’, not the ordinary board of directors – and don’t call it ‘the Monopoly Board’ or you’ll suddenly find you can never throw a double when you’re in jail): “computer analysis of some 18 billion exabytes of game completion data clearly shows that replacing one of the player tokens with a new design will ensure that the user of that token, if he or she also owns the orange set on the board, will add roughly 7-10 days to their life expectancy.” ”My God,” the board members would say, in shock. ”No one was even looking at the oranges. We all thought it was the yellows.” And so they agreed to the change.
They knew the public couldn’t handle the truth. Monopoly player tokens are iconic. What Monopoly player hasn’t taken their favourite piece out of the box and placed it at the centre of a little shrine in their home, surrounded by scented candles and the remains of sacrificed animals? Changing a Monopoly piece is like changing one of the characters in the Bible, or changing one of the particles in the standard model of quantum physics. If they went public with their findings and the whole plan, there would be social disorder, economic collapse, political upheaval, riots, hailstorms, possibly even a Twitter argument between two footballers – all on a terrifying global scale.
Over the next two weeks, a secret cabal of Hasbro executives (all of whom have since died in mysterious circumstances) hatched a plan to release the new Monopoly piece on an unsuspecting public. They would dress the whole thing up as just a big PR stunt. They knew the world’s media would lap it up, and there would be plenty of helpfully cynical voices muttering loudly about how this was all really about declining sales of board games among the digital generation. The PR people, who would be allowed to think the whole thing was their idea all along, would celebrate their tremendous success. The whole world would be sent into a frenzy of discussion about the relative merits of the dog versus the boat, all carefully watched by ‘Earthturn’, the biggest and most powerful of Hasbro’s supercomputers (acquired in the 1984 takeover of Milton Brothers, where it was previously responsible for the astonishing narrative realism you’ll have noticed in The Game of Life). And it would work – people would buy the game with the new token, and they would play it and the world would start to be a brighter place again.
But no one had reckoned on the amazing powers of perception, investigation and dogged intuition of the journalistic profession. Somehow, they knew there was more to this than the cynical, transparent publicity-seeking that everyone else seemed to think was going on. They could see that there was something real here, they just couldn’t pin down what it was. To show that they knew something was happening – that there was a real news story here, hidden beneath the dung-heap of shallow corporate opportunism – the world’s journalists treated Hasbro’s announcement as news, rather than PR. It was a shot across Hasbro’s bows, and it’s got them scared. In the Monopoly development lab, paradigm engineers now work, cut off from their families, under the close supervision of armed guards from Hasbro’s Imperial Militia. Hasbro and the world’s journalists are embarked on a deadly game of brinkmanship in which the future of humanity is at stake. We must not let on that we suspect anything. Play your Monopoly games as if nothing unusual was happening. But stock up on canned goods and bottled water, just in case.
News planner for journalists
To aid global media networks in their efforts to unravel the hidden Hasbro conspiracy that secretly dominates the world, here is a preview of the news stories, cunningly dressed up as PR stunts, that you can expect later in the year.
February – Hasbro to announce a change to the murder weapons depicted in the game Cluedo and that, to show its support for tighter US gun control measures, ‘the revolver’ would be replaced by ‘the shark’. The ensuing outrage would be used as cover to sneak in the actual change planned for the game which is to manufacture the Colonel Mustard pieces with wholegrain mustard instead of French, as a cost-saving measure.
April – Hasbro to announce a public vote to choose a seventh Trivial Pursuit category. Options to include home improvement, colours, food & drink and macroeconomics. The actual aim is to have us drawing seven-segmented circles, stimulating receptors in the brain that encourage obedience and docility.
June – Hasbro, makers and rights holders of the popular board game ‘Chess’ to announce that it will start making gay and/or female bishops. Nigel Farage will denounce this as political correctness, triggering what will be known as The UKIP Chess Riots of 2013. All those taking part in the riots will have their water supply very slightly poisoned while they’re out of the house.
September – Lord Leveson is called into service to conduct a two-year inquiry into the decision by Hasbro to allow contractions, abbreviations and acronyms in Scrabble – a move reckoned to have increased the world average blood pressure by about ten per cent. Hasbro denounces this move as an act of aggression, declares itself an independent theocracy, claims its seat on the UN Security Council and places its fleet of nuclear submarines on high alert. A piece in the BBC News online Magazine is headlined: “Game changers: Are Hasbro’s announcements just PR stunts? You decide.”
December – Hasbro announces that, in the game Mouse Trap, all depictions of cheese will be replaced by peanut butter, because it’s more effective at catching mice. The US and UK governments respond with declarations of all-out war against Hasbro, and begin conscription and mobilisation of troops. The Daily Telegraph publishes a special supplement on ’20 Ways to Enjoy Mouse Trap if Your Child has a Peanut Allergy’ – number one is “wash each mouse in warm soapy water before and after each game.”
So, you see, it turns out I was wrong. This stuff is news after all.