Talking about inequality again…


I know, it has been a bit of a theme recently; increasing inequality and the inevitable rise of poverty as the 1% grab more, whilst reframing the economic narrative around ‘austerity’ and creating fear of feckless insiders (benefits scroungers) and the undeserving outsiders (immigrants.)

The story of the decision of the UK government to cease involvement in rescuing immigrants from drowning in the Mediterranean sea has to be seen within this overarching narrative. We can send troops to fight Islamic militants in the (oil rich) middle east but saving the lives of people who are trying desperately to find a way to reach the promised land of wealth and opportunity will only ‘encourage more people to come’. More than 2,500 people are known to have drowned or gone missing in the Mediterranean since the start of the year; who knows what the real number is. The point is, not all lives are equal.

Some of the old dividing lines seem more fixed now than ever; North/South. Black/White. Man/Woman.


The me-first mythologies behind understanding poverty, in which we come to believe that any measures to tip the balance back towards the have-not’s are somehow immoral, as they might somehow undermine human endevour/entrepreneurial effort, are pernicious heresies that have to be challenged.

Oxfam has started a new campaign, called Even it up, asking campaigners in 37 countries to unite behind the call for a more equal world.

How is it fair that a select few have more money than they could spend in several lifetimes, while millions of people around the world struggle to buy food for their families or send their children to school? Such extreme inequality is threatening to undo much of the progress made over the past 20 years in tackling poverty. Oxfam say that this inequality is not inevitable, rather is the consequence of economic and political choices being made in our name. Here are some of the facts as Oxfam sees them;

1. The world’s richest 85 people have as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity / half of the world
2. Since the financial crisis the number of billionaires has more than doubled and at least a million mothers died in childbirth.
3. Half a million dollars. That’s what the richest 85 people made every minute last year.
4. Today there are 16 billionaires in sub-Saharan Africa, alongside the 358 million people living in extreme poverty
5. Seven out of ten people live in countries where the gap between rich and poor has grown in the last 30 years.
6. A third of the world’s richest people amassed their wealth not through hard work, but through inheritance.
8. Every year, 100 million people are pushed into poverty because they have to pay for health care.
9. Getting all girls into primary school could cut the number of women dying in childbirth by two-thirds.
10. More than half of the world’s workers are in vulnerable or unstable work.
11. Without action it will take 75 years to achieve equal pay between men and women.
12. In 2013, tax dodging by rich elites cost the world at least €156 billion – enough to end extreme poverty twice over.
14. Developing countries lose billions of dollars due to corporate tax dodging.
15. Today, a small tax of 1.5% on billionaires could get every child into school and deliver health services in the poorest countries.




UK kids describe what living in poverty is like…


I read this article in the Guardian today. It was hard to finish it.

Firstly because it was heartbreaking reading about kids trying to get by, trying to transcend the shit that we subject them to. Trying to hide from the harsh glare of the hierarchy.

Secondly because I was one of those kids.

35 years ago however was a better time to be the child of a single mother living on benefits. They were worth more in real terms than they are now. There was also a generally more benign societal view towards the poor; it was the role of the state to try to support and assist- even though in many ways it always failed, still there was this desire to strive towards a more equal society.

But what I remember most of all was not the lack of stuff, the absence of material possessions, holidays, mobility, choices. What I remember most of all was the shame. I was a head taller than anyone else in my class and it was impossible to hide. I entered every encounter with a sense of being less-than. Things that came easy to others took huge effort. My awkwardness and alienation was like a force field which was every bit as visible as my odd clothing.

It comes to me still, in moments of vulnerability; we never quite escape the children we once were.  We are primarily social beings after all…

Perhaps gradation and discrimination over minor difference is a human characteristic- from the playground onwards. But poverty, this is the source of so much ordinary day to day evil. It is not motivating, it is not romantic, it does not forge any kind of community spirit. Poverty brutalises, degrades, isolates and defeats people. It perpetuates itself through a thousand small failures.

I got out. I clambered onto a ledge of safe solid respectability and mostly ignored the vertigo. Most of the others can not. My whole working life has been concerned with trying to grapple with the reality of this for huge sections of our population.

The scary thing is, it is getting worse.



Castle Lachlan, Autumn…


I took a photographic trip to the old Castle Lachlan today to take some images for use in their publicity materials. It was a fairly decent day for photos, could although I made the rookie error of only taking one camera battery, which ran out. I will have to go back, which is no hardship.


Here are a few of the pics;


Children who are killed by their parents; we still have so much to learn…


I do not tend to watch TV programmes about social work (not that there are many of them) as they tend to either bore me or make me angry. Last night, this one was a major exception.

The documentary did not say much that I did not already know- I have reflected on the tragic story of the death of a boy known as baby Peter many times on this blog, in an attempt to tell something of the complexity of attempting to protect children through bureaucracy, and my total frustration at the vilification of my profession (social work) as being somehow culpable for what sadly what is an all too frequent occurrence.

Around 260 other children have been killed by their parents since Peter died. We do not know their names. Many of them were also known to services.

The difference in this case is that the press decided that scapegoats were required. They made no effort to understand, to engage in debate about the nature of the task, to understand the inter-relationships between agencies, to consider the resources that are being applied to the task and whether they are adequate or appropriate.

The story that they chose to create was one of the failure of social workers, and to a lesser extent, a ‘foreign’ doctor. Three social work staff, including a rather brilliant director (Sharon Shoesmith) were destroyed in the public eye.

Politicians, particularly David Cameron and Ed Balls then weighed in- one to make political capital, the other running scared of The Sun newspaper and the Murdoch empire.

It became a witch hunt.

If you want to understand how organisations attempt to protect the most vulnerable members of our society from those who should be their closest protectors, then you should watch this programme.

Watch it to understand how things go wrong, but remember too that many many children do not die, because of the intervention of these very organisations, and the dedicated staff who work within them.

You might like to check out some of my earlier posts on this subject;


here, and




It was Aoradh Sunday today- the day in the month when we get together as a group to share food and worship together. We use a simple structure- people bring contributions for the table, and an item to use as part of a worship event- song, video clip, activity, thought, poem etc…

Today we shared communion, around a clay tablet that we had made at the last gathering (and had since been fired, glazed and mounted.) It has names of people who are involved in Aoradh, along with names of God on it. It will spend time in different homes over the next year.

It was also the gathering closest to the birthdays of two of our number, who will both notch up 50 years. That is a lot of candles. (Thanks to Sharon who supplied the cake despite not being well enough to attend herself. Get well soon…)

It was a lovely gentle afternoon and I am deeply thankful for the friends that I am surrounded with.


N B-W shows some (tattooed) flesh…


Here is one of those problems that affects us ever more in this age of total communication, where everyone is open to 24 hour digital scrutiny;

Movements of people need leadership.

Leaders tend to fail, sooner or later (they are just like us after all.)

Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran pastor of Church or All Saints and All Sinners in Denver, is undoubtedly giving leadership on some really important issues, from inside (or at least on the edge) of organised religion. Along with her faith community, she has broken open a lot of issues around inequality, greed, the destruction of the environment and (of course) homosexuality.

I believe that if we are to find a place of real change, we need leaders who will challenge and show a different way. I also believe that change requires heart, passion, spirituality, and that the this is where an encounter with the radical love of Jesus starts to break things open.

There is an interview in which she tells something of her story here. Be inspired.

But expect too that the pedestal that we place her on will inevitably crumble… but the ideas can live on through the radical tradition that she (and we) are part of, known simply as ‘The Kingdom of God’.

The People’s Narcissist…


It is easy to sneer at Russel Brand. His shtick is just so cringe making half the time- that mix of awkward sweary truisms mixed in with 12-steps to recovery prophetic zeal.

Tonight Michaela and I took the kids to see the Guardian Live screening of Owen Jones and Russell Brand talking about revolution. There were many moments when I found myself cringing into my seat.

But I also cried.

Brand’s basic point is that having in theory won the celebrity/wealth/success lottery, he found that it was all hollow, shallow. He found that in consuming more than anyone could ever want he was destroying himself, and then as part of an on going process of recovery, he knew that he could not stay silent- he had to use the platform he had to raise some objections. He had to challenge the shallow emptiness, the unfairness, the unsustainability, the selfishness.

In many ways, he spoke like a religious convert, the other side his Emmaus Road experience. The meeting was screened from the Emmanuel Centre- a big church in Central London, and just above his left shoulder were the words of John 10:10 I have come to bring you life, and life in all it’s fullness. Brand himself has the words of Francis of Assisi tattooed on his arm Lord make me a channel of your peace.

And tonight, I think the prayer was being answered, in part at least. At one point he told all the audience that they were “..all Fucking Lovely, and it is all going to be OK…” if we just learn some humility and start to look for ways to help one another. Simplistic, emotional, naive even, but also a sweary echo of what Jesus was all about.

There were no real big ideas tonight- no complex processes of change, no economic alternatives to the Capitalist overarching evil narrative- but the clarity of the objection to what is, and the desire to change was all there.

There were 5 of us in the cinema in Dunoon. It was just like going to church. In a good way. The revolution starts here…


Bruce Cockburn’s biography excerpt…


What follows is an excerpt from Bruce Cockburn’s book which you can now pre-order on Amazon. It deals with one of his most famous songs, the controversial “If I had a rocket launcher”, written after a trip to the Guatemalan refugee camps on the border with Mexico.

The dreadful history of the massacre, torture and terrible atrocities done to poor native American communities by forces supported by American money and weapons (and to protect American business interests) is one that I would know nothing about, if not for this song. And we need to know. All these second hand wars fought in the the name of ‘freedom’ … 

You can read the full excerpt here.

It seems possible to view the genocide against Mayan people as an extension of thehistoric U.S. policies of extermination at home against Native Americans. The atrocities were not unique. They were part of a pattern of depravity that surfaces again and again all over the globe. In southern Mexico we found raw evidence of the banalityof evil. Not only was it horrible, but for the most part it wasn’t even creative.

Not much has changed in the realm of mass murder since biblical times. Though the tools of the trade have become more sophis-ticated, when we get down to it, it’s somebody bashing someone’s head with a hammer or a shovel, or herding folks into a church and setting it ablaze. Same old shit. The difference for me was that this aspect of us had leapt off the page and become flesh and blood.

Asking God how he could allow such brutality seemed like an irrelevant question. Here, splayed before me in ways I had previously only imagined, were the “juicy bits” from the Bible. Here was the horror, Conrad’s heart of darkness, Thanatos projected, all too real.
I felt the violence pulsing through our DNA. These actions are embedded in our social, religious, and political traditions.

A decade later, surveying the mine- strewn beauty of a Mozambican landscape ravaged by the same evils, it struck me that war is the default position of mankind, peace an aberration.In San Cristóbal I bought a bottle of cheap whiskey and holed up in my bare hotel room. I needed the simple whitewashed walls. I didn’t want to see anyone. I kept reliving the terrible stories, trying to breathe them into some comprehensible order. The quiet courage, the fierce determination and dignity of the refugees, the children still
being children after all they’d seen— all of it hit me like an ice pick to the heart.

When I thought about the perpetrators of those deeds, especially the anonymous airborne ones, I felt all- consuming outrage, a conviction that whoever would do such things had forfeited any claim to humanity. I envisioned myself with an RPG, blowing them out of the sky. In the hotel room, through tears and under dim light driven back from night’s rippled windows, I began writing.

Here comes the helicopter— second time today

Everybody scatters and hopes it goes away

How many kids they’ve murdered only God can say

If I had a rocket launcherI’d make somebody pay

I don’t believe in guarded borders and I don’t believe in hate

I don’t believe in generals or their stinking torture states

And when I talk with the survivors of things too sickening to relate

If I had a rocket launcherI would retaliate

On the Río Lacantún, one hundred thousand wait

To fall down from starvation— or some less humane fate

Cry for Guatemala, with a corpse in every gate

If I had a rocket launcher I would not hesitate

I want to raise every voice— at least I’ve got to try

Every time I think about it, water rises to my eyes.

Situation desperate, echoes of the victim’s cry

If I had a rocket launcher

Some son of a bitch would die

Let’s talk about inequality; blog action day 2014…


We used to talk about equality a lot in the UK. After the war there was a political consensus around the need to flatten inherited hierarchies of opportunity, health and living standards. I was a social studies student in the 1980s, when even at the height of the Thatcherite government we still were interested above all in how we understood the causes of poverty and the perpetuation of wealth and privilege. We cared that women were disadvantaged in work, or that young black men packed our prisons and our secure psychiatric hospitals. It bothered us that poor people died younger and that if you had a particular accent you were not welcome on the BBC.

On a previous Blog Action Day post I mentioned the infamous Black report, that encapsulated much of the research around this time in these areas.

Something has happened since then however. The Blair government stopped talking about poverty, changing the language to ‘inclusion’. The focus went from the role of government to deliberately intervene in order to equalise, towards ‘Education, education, education’- as if we had to give up on the current generation and blame the next for their failure if they do not take the chances offered to them (we have learned nothing from the failure of every previous attempt to engineer through education; poor kids always do less well, despite individual successes.) The agenda changed- market and consumer forces now set the agenda. Economic forces became our master, not our servant.

The Market decides, so we are told. Equilibrium will always be found by The Market, unless we meddle with in in which case things will go badly wrong. So we watch a narrow selection of indicators of The Market’s healthiness (inflation/economic growth/unemployment/public borrowing) in order to gauge how happy The Market is. If it is not happy we feed it human sacrifices in the form of austerity packages, slashing at those unproductive leaches on the underbelly of the proud beast that is….The Market.

Although no-one quite knows for sure what keeps The Market happy (S/he being a capricious God) we suspect that The Market likes inequality. It keeps people hungry for more, and so The Market remains exalted. Without personal individual aspiration (sometimes understood as greed) how will we feed the voracious appetite of The Market? Casualties may fall by the wayside but The Market rises still…

Some ideas become so ingrained in our cultural consciousness that any challenge seems impossible; countering them seems foolish, dangerous even. So it is with those who want to de-throne The Market; those who see it as a kind of conspiracy against the common good in which profits are ruthlessly privatised whilst losses are socialised. We have accepted a myth as truth- the myth of the wealth-creators, whose aspirations to accumulate are the engine of our national success.

The work of French Economist Thomas Piketty, whose book Capital in the Twenty-First Century has taken the issue of inequality on directly- so much so that the book has become something of a sensation- entering the best selling list alongside the latest blockbusting novels.

He has carefully analysed data from about 200 years of capitalist expansion, and came to this rather startling conclusion;

Capital, he argues, is blind. Once its returns – investing in anything from buy-to-let property to a new car factory – exceed the real growth of wages and output, as historically they always have done (excepting a few periods such as 1910 to 1950), then inevitably the stock of capital will rise disproportionately faster within the overall pattern of output. Wealth inequality rises exponentially.

Piketty tells us that in a society where The Market is god, rich people get richer, and the poor get poorer. This was a short period after the last world war when this seemed to have been moderated in the UK- there was a convergence of wealth as progressive taxation and a rise in living standards of the lower classes overturned the power of The Market. However, this has now been totally forgotten. Now the gap between the rich and the poor is increasing and those who benefit from austerity are clearly the top 1% whose share of national wealth has greatly increased.

Oxfam, The Trussel Trust and the Church Action on Poverty recently released a report entitled Below the Breadline, the relentless rise of food poverty in Britain. It makes for sobering reading;

Although the UK is the seventh richest country in the world, it is also deeply unequal, and millions of families across the UK are living below the breadline.

Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty have calculated that 20,247,042 meals were given to people in food poverty in 2013/14 by the three main food aid providers. This is a 54 percent increase on 2012/13.



George Monbiot wrote this recently;

One of the remarkable characteristics of recent growth in the rich world is how few people benefit. Almost all the gains go to a tiny number of people: one study suggests that the richest 1% in the United States capture 93% of the increase in incomes that growth delivers. Even with growth rates of 2 or 3% or more, working conditions for most people continue to deteriorate, as we find ourselves on short contracts, without full employment rights, without the security or the choice or the pensions our parents enjoyed.

Working hours rise, wages stagnate or fall, tasks become duller, more stressful and harder to fulfill, emails and texts and endless demands clatter inside our heads, shutting down the ability to think, corners are cut, conditions deteriorate, housing becomes almost impossible to afford, there’s ever less money for essential public services. What and whom is this growth for?

It’s for the people who run or own the banks, the hedge funds, the mining companies, the advertising firms, the lobbying companies, the weapons manufacturers, the buy-to-let portfolios, the office blocks, the country estates, the offshore accounts. The rest of us are induced to regard it as necessary and desirable through a system of marketing and framing so intensive and all-pervasive that it amounts to brainwashing.

A system that makes us less happy, less secure, that narrows and impoverishes our lives, is presented as the only possible answer to our problems. There is no alternative – we must keep marching over the cliff. Anyone who challenges it is either ignored or excoriated.

So, is the battle for greater equality worth fighting? Has it not already been lost?

Research would suggest that there is little doubt that the more equal a society is, the healthier it tends to be for its citizens, whilst the more unequal a nation is, the more prevalent these things tend to be mental illnesses, obesity, ill health, crime, infant mortality etc. By enthoning The Market, we make ourselves sick it seems…

So, how do we achieve it?

My suggestion is that we need to look back, and look forward.

We need to look back to a time when people tried hard to achieve some kind of convergence within a liberal democratic tradition- using a consensus around progressive taxation, Market regulation and state sponsored health and welfare. We need to treasure this as part of our UK heritage- to be proud that our people achieved this, whilst learning from the mistakes we made too, in anchoring ourselves to an economic model based around unsustainable ‘growthism‘.

In looking forward however, we also have to remember that issues of inequality are not restricted to our own national borders. The single greatest threat to the stability of our planet is the destructive and exploitative effects of The Market on a global scale. Wars fought around oil deposits, mineral rights. Poor southern countries providing natural resources and a labour force in order to sustain the avarice of the rich north. Starting to tackle this kind of equality requires a much greater leap, towards living more simply, more sustainably, more collectively…

The first step however is to do one simply thing- dethrone The Market.

Start to imagine what we might exalt instead of The Market. What values do we want to live by- do we want our children to live by? What currency might we measure success with other than these inhumane  ones concerned only with finance/growth/consumption?

In this, my friends, there is a kind of grace that goes deeper into who we are as humans.

Monbiot again;

Thus the Great Global Polishing proceeds, wearing down the knap of the Earth, rubbing out all that is distinctive and peculiar, in human culture as well as nature, reducing us to replaceable automata within a homogenous global workforce, inexorably transforming the riches of the natural world into a featureless monoculture.

Is this not the point at which we shout stop? At which we use the extraordinary learning and expertise we have developed to change the way we organise ourselves, to contest and reverse the trends that have governed our relationship with the living planet for the past two million years, and that are now destroying its remaining features at astonishing speed? Is this not the point at which we challenge the inevitability of endless growth on a finite planet? If not now, when?

We made The Market. It should not make us.