Monday, 2 April 2012

April Thoughts...

A new month and the sun still shines in deepest East London. I thought of posting on politicalbetting this morning but the mood seems absurdly febrile - I can't quite see why. There seem to be all sorts of trolls and assorted nitwits on the site 14-16 hours per day. It must be unemployment or under-employment.

As a liberal, I'm not keen on State intrusion into my business and the news yesterday that the Coalition is looking to re-introduce a proposal dropped by the Labour Government in 2006 to grant powers to GCHQ and other agencies to monitor emails, telephone calls and gather information on websites visited by Internet browsers.

All very Big Brother, you might think, and some so-called liberals have thrown up their hands in horror at the prospect.

Unfortunately, being a liberal in 2012 means living in the real world not some utopian fantasy. We are in the Information Age and we already know copious amounts of personal information are held by and recorded by Governments and other organisations. Without it, organisations couldn't work properly and we voluntarily surrender that privacy to make our own lives easier.

In any case, if anyone wants to know what websites you've visited, it's not just a question of clearing your browser cache. Registry files have to be deleted - to be honest, even destroying an entire machine won't work if your ISP has the information on where you've been and what you've seen.

There is an argument that in the war against terrorism and criminal gangs, any advantage (including Internet monitoring) has to be taken and there's something to be said for that. In the same way, if individuals want to live "off the grid", that's their choice but they have to accept the restrictions and limitations such a decision bestows. In short, information is the modern currency - without it, much of modern society cannot function. Indeed, it's not hard to argue we are already a closely-observed and monitored society and, as last summer's riots showed, criminal behaviour in an era where CCTV cameras proliferate isn't easy to get away with. There's little doubt in my mind football grounds have benefitted from CCTV which allows the Police to monitor and forestall violence.

The current proposals claim no databases will be kept - I don't doubt many already exist. On balance, however, I would argue vigilance on all sides is the way forward - those in favour of greater civil liberties must ensure that information-gathering does not become used for improper practices while those charged with the maintenance of the security of our streets and communities must ensure they have both the correct tools and the strongest levels of public scrutiny and accountabilty and that includes GCHQ.

On a different matter, I once heard that civilsation was six square meals away from anarchy. After last week, I would change it to one tank of fuel. The merest hint of the possibility of a tanker drivers' strike combined nwith some quite appallingly injudicious comments from a couple of Government Ministers and the Prime Minister to trigger a rush of panic buying, queues at filling stations and the very shortages the strike was supposed to cause.

As a political person, I found this car-crash of a response (pardon the pun) quite unbelievable. It's less a question of being out-of-touch than of simply making elementary political mistakes. If you want to create a panic on fuel, simply tell people to fill up their tanks and that's pretty much what David Cameron did.

Whether he appreciated or understood the almost-Pavlovian response of millions of drivers to the possibility of not being to get petrol for their vehicles is unclear but the folk memory of the events of September 2000 remains strong and now I know many people srive with full tanks just in case..

The situation is complicated by more cars and fewer petrol stations so the chokepoints are clear and obvious. Throw into the mix the absurd scare-mongering of the Daily Express and you have a heady cocktail of fear and uncertainty.

What it has also sone is to immeasurably strengthen the hand of the tanker drivers anjd today's negotiations will, I expect, see the employers forced to make concessions. IF the strike goes ahead, which I suspect it won't, the unions are obliged to give seven days notice so Easter is safe. Once the strike date is set, the panic will begin anew.

As the Petrol Retailers' Association Head said this morning in a fascinating interview, the margins for retailers are wafer-thin and as a result there is little or no excess so, as we saw last week, a sudden panic leads to shortages requiring extra deliveries and overtime for the tankert drivers.

I imagine the tanker drivers will have been delighted by David Cameron's intervention. This week's overtime will help if a strike takes place.

Politically, the Conservatives have taken a hit in the polls but, as last week's by-election in Bradford West showed, Labour aren't guaranteed to be the main beneficiary. The anti-politics mood is very strong at present and is as strong as it has been since the Expenses Scandal broke. It is shocking to find such little faith in politicians and so much desire for "strong leadership" (whatever that means). Democracy is a curious flower - ours shouldn't wither not because of a shortage of water but because of a shortage of petrol.

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