Monthly Archives: April 2013

Playing politics

I do love politics. I don’t necessarily want to get involved, but I enjoy dissecting the communication messages from different parties, analysing their discourse. I believe it can sometimes get some great things done. I also think that it affects all of our lives. You may not consider yourself political, but it affects the price of fuel in your car, whether your street has lighting or whether your rubbish collections are weekly or fortnightly (or not at all?) – so I like to keep informed.

There’s a difference between politics of negotiation, compromise and getting things done; and political games. Sometimes politicians get so caught up in point scoring that they forget that they’re actually there to do a job.

Take Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. Like anyone else, someone dying is a sad thing. No matter how I felt about her policies, she was someone’s mum, aunt, grandmother. She was, at the end of the day, brilliant and frail and talented and flawed like the rest of us.  Protests were inevitable as her policies had hurt a great many people. But the way that Conservatives have tried to milk her passing for every bit of political capital they can get has been unedifying. Alistair Campbell is no stranger to political games himself, but his blog on the funeral arrangements is illuminating. He describes how David Cameron ramped up the funeral arrangements, which had been long-established:

Whatever the possible reasoning, the fact is that it is the break with tradition and precedent, the recall of Parliament, and the nature of the funeral arrangements – effectively a State funeral by stealth, without full Parliamentary approval – which have politicised the death in a way that was not necessary and risks becoming horribly divisive, that word so often associated with Mrs Thatcher’s style and policies.

It’s all over now, anyway, and apparently the polls don’t appear to reflect any bounce for the Prime Minister in the wake of the scramble to claim Thatcher’s memory. I can’t help feeling though, that yet again Osborne and Cameron have gone for strategy over decency and common sense, needlessly politicising an already divisive issue.

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Suicide in the UK: questioning ourselves

Suicide rates in the UK are on the rise. According to The Lancet , in a blog whose title I borrow here, suicide rates for 2011 show an increase of  437 deaths compared to the year before. The Lancet blog cited figures from the Office of National Statistics. Their main findings are as follows:

  1.  In 2011 there were 6,045 suicides in people aged 15 and over in the UK, an increase of 437 compared with 2010.
  2. The UK suicide rate increased significantly between 2010 and 2011, from 11.1 to 11.8 deaths per 100,000 population.
  3. There were 4,552 male suicides in 2011 (a rate of 18.2 suicides per 100,000 population) and 1,493 female suicides (5.6 per 100,000 population).
  4. The highest suicide rate was in males aged 30 to 44 (23.5 deaths per 100,000 population in 2011).
  5. The suicide rate in males aged 45 to 59 increased significantly between 2007 and 2011 (22.2 deaths per 100,000 population in 2011).
  6. Female suicide rates were highest in 45 to 59-year-olds in 2011 (7.3 deaths per 100,000 population)

What’s alarming about this is that it supports anecdotal observations by a number of people, including Railway Chaplains. Last year, I began to notice that barely a week went by without a major train delay on the train line in my area. Sometimes it was just the usual technical hiccups, but there were a few weeks towards the end of winter when they announced that a person was under a train regularly. When Channel 4’s Jon Snow was delayed on a train on my line for that very reason, he blogged about it. (Another good blog on the topic is this one by Owen Jones from December last year)

One day, when my station was shut temporarily after someone jumped, there were some lovely Samaritans there handing out numbers for people to call for counselling. I spoke to one of the volunteers, who told me that the previous Friday alone across the London network there were 5 suicides. I later contacted the Railway Chaplain for the area, who told me that though the numbers for railway suicides aren’t collated offcially, he had begun to track the numbers himself and was alarmed at the rise.  In terms of the railways at least, TFL and the Samaritans have a project to tackle the issue, but as the Lancet blog points out, these worrying figures require a holistic policy response.

The Railway Chaplain confirmed the ONS findings that the victims are mostly men. On the railways, the tragedy is compounded because the emergency crews who have to clean up are affected by it, as are the train drivers, and anyone who sees the person jump, not to mention the person’s family and friends.

I remember arriving at my station one evening just as people came streaming up the stairs away from the platform. Many were crying, grown men were shaking. Someone had jumped, the police had been called, the train had hit the person and no one knew what to do.

Much like the economy, there is a lag with statistics. I worry that the statistics for 2012 may be worse still.

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Not so Fast

Earlier this week I heard rumblings of a spat between the Malawian President and Madonna. At first, it just seemed that Madonna was displeased at being made to queue with the general public at the airport in the capital, Lilongwe, instead of being whisked to a VIP lounge. I must admit I felt a little stab of schadenfreude and thought nothing more of it. Every time Madonna visits Malawi it’s a media circus and I do find it irritating that the only time my country makes the news is when Madonna is there. Plus, I am deeply ambivalent about the way she was allowed to sidestep the country’s child protection laws in order to adopt her two children, Mercy and David.

But that was under the last President. I’m not sure what happened between Madonna and President Joyce Banda to occasion such a war of words, but soon my Twitter timeline was awash with excited tweets celebrating my President giving Madonna a dressing down, accusing her of exxagerating her charity work and being a bully. Some asked if this was the end of paternalistic celebrity charity work in Africa, others high fived Banda’s assertiveness. As the Guardian put it:

It’s funny, but it’s also a classic takedown of the astonishing entitlement of white savior types and their puffed-up pretensions.

Not so fast.

The 11-point statement reads a like a long, furious stream of consciousness rant. The President may well have some points about Madonna’s attitude and the media circus she stirs up around her charity work, which is up for debate: the last time I was home, I saw the site of one of her schools and it was a razed plot of land. Banda accuses Madonna of exaggerating her school building programme, which may well be right, given reports of mismanagement at her charity, Raising Malawi. I am uneasy about the way Madonna has gone about her charity work and there are reports of her sidestepping the government to do her own thing when she perceives bureaucracy as getting in the way of her plans. And that’s just the thing, her plans. There is a sense that Raising Malawi is her project and legacy and that there is no local consultation, no partnering with grassroots organisations – just a top-down paternalistic development model that is all too prevalent in Africa.


I have to admit feeling more than a little alarmed at the tone of the statement, which smacks of personal offence rather than a purely principled objection to Madonna’s behaviour. The President also defends her sister, who worked for Raising Malawi and apparently left under a cloud. That may just be a coincidence but even more reason to be circumspect about using the Office of the President to launch a vituperative attack.

State House has noted these claims and misgivings. State House has followed the debate incidental to these claims with keen interest, and would wish to respond as follows to put the record straight:

Why is the State House training its beady eye on Madonna’s every move and utterance with the laser focus of a gossip magazine? With inflation soaring, a food crisis and the economy struggling, a shortage of drugs in hospital…I’d argue that the State House has more important things to worry about.  Yes, it’s possible to do both, but the way to deal with Madonna is using our secret weapon: bureaucracy. If the Malawi government doesn’t like her charity’s work, don’t give them planning permission. You’re the government! You could even deny her a visa if it came to it. I don’t recommend it, but my point is, there are so many other weapons in the arsenal to deploy against Madonna – a hysterical statement, even if it (eventually) makes a good point or two, is not it.

The fury is personal. And that’s worrying coming soon after a man was arrested for “insulting the President”.

The statement is tone deaf. A little like throwing a celebration one year into your Presidency, which came about after the death of the previous incumbent and in a time of immense hardship for the people whose wages have not risen with inflation  – in a country that’s already very poor. (Tip: the IMF came calling and praised the currency devaluation. Suffice to say that if they’re happy, someone somewhere is suffering)

More than anything, I’m worried at the character that the statement betrays. It’s impulsive, emotional, thin-skinned, sarcastic and, yes, a little arrogant. And that’s not to side with Madonna.

I want my President to succeed; for my country and for African women. Her role is imbued with symbolism. She has done a number of great things, including restoring donor relations, selling the Presidential Jet and taking a 30% pay cut. She is leading from the front. But, don’t use a hammer to crack a nut. Be a stateswoman, Madame President.

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