What’s the link between Brexit and the price of a tin of Baked Beans? The short answer is money. That seemingly simple thing that the rich have lots of and the poor not so much, which actually turns out to be kinda confusing. For starters, take the Brexit vote. It happens and then the pound sterling loses value. Suddenly Britain’s currency is worth less in the world and it gets pricier to import goods, so businesses put their prices up to recoup the loss and the consumers end up having to pay more on everyday goods. Meanwhile, the Bank of England recently edged a little closer to raising interest rates, which would make it more expensive to borrow money, again making it harder for everyday folk to take out loans. But what does all this financial malark mean? Well, here’s an over-extended metaphor involving Monopoly to try to explain it.
You’ve got your typical game of monopoly with plenty of players, lots of streets to buy and a bank dishing out money. So far, so simple, but now imagine that the board gets bigger. As the game progresses so new streets are built and one player, Mr Top Hat, wants to build an epic new street full of shops, houses and hotels. Mr Top Hat doesn’t have enough cash under his mattress so he approaches the bank to take out a loan. Mr Bank is pretty excited by this new development and decides to issue the loan. Hurrah, Mr T-H has the money (the credit) but is also in debt to the bank because he’ll have to pay it back with interest. Mr T-H builds the street and it’s epic. Other players buy houses and hotels on the street and Mr T-H makes a bunch of money. He pays the bank back with interest and pockets a tidy profit. Now, the other players are so impressed by Mr T-H’s success that they start doing it too and take out loans to build streets with cool amenities on them. Mr Bank sets a favourable interest rate (i.e. making it easy to take out money) and things start booming. However, because the board is growing the money supply needs to grow as well and Mr Bank creates some more cash (just like that!). More money in the economy gets Mrs Supermarket excited and she puts her prices up meaning goods become more expensive. So Mx Average Jo suddenly has to spend more money on a tin of baked beans. This whole process of rising prices and falling purchasing power is called inflation.
The players keep nipping around the board and the board keeps growing in size, as does the amount of money in the game, so inflation keeps going up too. However, too much inflation is not a good thing so Mr Bank decides to increase interest rates to make it harder to borrow money. The point of doing this is to keep inflation rising at a steady and manageable rate. Of course, it’s alright for Mr Top Hot, who is very rich, but not so good for Mx Average Jo who will have to wait for another burst of growth to inspire a drop in interest rates. But the irony of this all is that whatever Mr Bank does inflation is always increasing and whether Mrs Supermarket puts her prices up if there’s more money in the economy or Mr Bank puts interest rates up because there’s too much money in the economy, the one who loses out is always Mx Average Jo. Economic growth and inflation are two sides of the same coin. Now, what about Brexit, fluctuating currencies and economic recessions? That’s Part 2 and involves an important new player, Mr Speculator.
I don’t normally do this. Get out of bed at ten past six in the morning to go and join a protest against Roche, the giant pharmaceutical company. But yesterday I am very glad I did. One bus and one tube later and I was standing outside Westminster Cathedral with an eclectic group of activists, doctors and charity workers. The most striking were those who’d donned the custom-made fluorescent pink dresses with added boobs. I wore a modest headband with messages stuck to it including ‘Pharma Greed Kills’ and similar protestations. Then off we went, marching from the Cathedral to the revolving doors of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry.
The groups on the march included Act Up London, Treatment Action Campaign and Stop Aids, all united in the struggle against HIV/AIDS and all aware that the greed of pharmaceutical companies affects people with so many other illnesses as well. Also present were Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, a student-led organisation working to improve access to and affordability of medicines. And it wasn’t just London in protest there were groups in Brazil, France, Malaysia, the US and Zambia. Meanwhile, the crowds gathering in South Africa were not only just making demands of Roche but were commemorating Tobeka Daki, a passionate activist who sadly died from cancer unable to afford the treatments.
Back in London we started chanting as we marched, “Say no to Pharma Greed, Give us the cancer drugs we need” and other less catchy numbers that didn’t rhyme. We got stared at, photographed, laughed at and cheered by various members of the public. At 8.30 in the morning we did make for a nice change from the usual grey of the morning commute. We overshot the ABPI building but quickly backtracked to set up shop. Whilst others chalked on the pavement in pink, gave speeches and waved placards I handed out leaflets and the message was clear: Roche can profitably manufacture a year’s supply of Herceptin® (unbranded it’s called Trastuzumab), a cancer fighting drug, for £190 yet it is currently costing patients tens of thousands of pounds annually. People are dying from a disease that can be treated because Roche is putting profits before people. Justice for people with breast cancer, that’s what we want.
Many people avoided my gaze as I tried handing out the flyers whilst others just carried on listening to their music (seriously, I spotted so many of those fancy, giant ambient-noise blocking headphones than ever before). Some did take the flyer with an awkward smile whilst others stopped to find out more. That, for example, the development of Herceptin® and other vital cancer treating drugs depended on public sector support, philanthropic donations and the US government’s National Institutes of Health. Whilst Roche and one of its subsidiaries, Genentech, also invested in the development of these drugs for some reason they hold the patent so can set the price. And that price is high, they’ve already earned more than $60 billion in profits from the sale of Herceptin® alone. Roche’s CEO, Severin Schwan, isn’t doing that badly either. Back in 2015 he took home a nice salary of $12 million. So, whilst Roche could easily cut the cost of these drugs and still make a profit they just aren’t.
But it’s worse than that because Roche aren’t just keeping the prices artificially high they are fighting dirty to ensure they have a monopoly over these drugs. In India Roche have embroiled the country’s drug regulatory body and producers of similar products to Trastuzumab in long-running and complex litigation to prevent the widespread availability of potentially affordable versions of the drug. In Brazil and Argentina, Roche is one of the pharmaceutical companies litigating against those governments for their attempts to use legal international safeguards to protect public health and make Trastuzumab more accessible. In South Africa Roche holds patents on Trastuzumab that will last until at least 2033. In essence, Roche are fighting tooth and nail to keep the prices high even whilst so many people die. It turns out that ill and dying people are profitable.
Back on the grey streets of London I was very grateful every time someone took a flyer. Because even if they just put it in the recycling bin when they get home what is important is that more people are aware. Cancer is a disease that touches the lives of all of us. 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime and 1 in 870 men will receive this diagnosis. We may have lost someone we cared for, we may know someone who has it or a friend of a friend, or ourselves. And whilst it is risky to talk of a ‘cure’ for cancer there are so many life-extending medicines out there which can treat it and improve the lives of those who have it. So it’s not that the cure doesn’t exist it’s that the cure is too expensive. However, at 8.30 am on a grey, Tuesday morning in February I did not always have the time to explain this as people passed me by. But many did stop to look at the giant pink banner: “Pharma Greed Kills” is a simple and shocking statement and it is true. Profits are being pitted against people and profits are winning. Until we can contain and control money we will keep being forced to fight this ruthless, tragic battle because too many people love money more than they love others (or even themselves). I hope one day Severin Schwan wakes up and does the right thing. Until then I’ll keep doing my best to wake up before the sun rises so I can join those bright pink many-boobed beacons of hope.
“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
The Red Queen, Alice In Wonderland
If we can put people on the moon, if we can build a world-wide web, if we can invent the Hoover, then we might as well try to keep Britain in the EU. We are caught in a unique period of time and history: the leading parties have no plan for the future and faith in our country and economy is wavering yet the catalyst at the heart of it – the Brexit vote – has not been rendered fact. It is still just a story. It’s a powerful one that many people have accepted and has already had adverse social, political and economic impact but it’s still a story that can be challenged. It’s time for Operation Breentry.
What’s Breentry? It is a movement to stop Britain leaving the EU. It involves emailing MPs asking them to reject the result of the referendum. There’s another initiative to call for a second Referendum and the Parliamentary Petition for that has over 4 million signatures. Meanwhile, people are demonstrating in the street to Remain in the EU and other European leaders like Angela Merkel are advising us to think twice. Unfortunately, many people are already resigned to letting Brexit happen and/or think Breentry could/should never happen. I want to challenge these beliefs.
It’s anti-democratic: To annul a referendum certainly appears anti-democratic but that surely requires living in a functioning democracy. But we don’t. The Leave campaign was anti-democratic – it lied with regards spending on the NHS, it lied with regards limiting immigration (the deals we might do with the EU would involve maintaining freedom of movement anyway) and it was only campaigning against something, it had no plans for after winning. However, even taking the Leave-Remain decision at face value is wrong because the calling for the Referendum itself was anti-democratic. David Cameron, who had entered into Parliament with a slim majority, called it to appease his right-wing back benchers so he could become PM. That is power politics at its worst especially when so many of the electorate did not even vote him in. Remember, our head of state isn’t elected, our House of Lords isn’t elected, our mainstream media is privatised and has a clear agenda and we only vote once very five years. So, yes, Britain is an aspiring democracy but it hasn’t got there yet. All is still to be striven for.
It’s too late: No it’s not. Article 50 has not been signed. We can still petition all MPs and leaders of all parties (the Tories included) to not make one of the worst decisions in recent British history. Furthermore, even if Article 50 were signed we could still challenge it. Or perhaps this isn’t about being late or early at all, if we were on time we would have trialled all war criminals, transcended growth-based consumer capitalism, ended all wars and avoided climate change. Let’s just be pragmatic and do what we can in the time we’ve got.
It would lead to violence and civil war: Breentry would certainly anger voters who wanted to Leave but their actual vote to Leave has acted as a rallying call to violent racists and xenophobes. Police have registered a fivefold increase in race-hate complaints since Brexit. Immigrants have been verbally abused, attacked and fire bombed in the past few days. This proves again how misled and misguided many Leave voters were, that they actually believed Britain might become some free-standing, all-white nation surrounded by high walls. That was never what the Leave vote was offering even if the likes of Nigel Farage might have encouraged it. If people do threaten violence in response to Breentry and we don’t act as a consequence then we are negotiating with terrorists, kowtowing to criminals and appeasing racists. We categorically cannot let the bullies win. As for civil war, well, currently the Tory and Labour parties seem to be hellbent on ripping themselves apart as the vote has unleashed a whole wave of vitriol and back stabbing from the parties. Meanwhile, the Referendum has split families and friends, as people fall out with each other in bitter arguments. And every economic forecast looks bleak. Perhaps we’ve always been at war in Britain, certainly a class war, and the Referendum just proves what has always been true. Hence why we must do all we can on all fronts to heal the many deep wounds in our country rather than stick the knives in further.
The Tories will negotiate a good deal outside the EU: No they won’t. The Tory party is swift revealing it’s inability to steer a post-Brexit course. Gove stabbed Johnson in the back and does not have a plan for a Brexit future despite co-leading the Leave campaign. Theresa May is notoriously anti-immigration and yet might have to be the one negotiating a deal with the EU that involves keeping freedom of movement – that’s like asking a racist to argue for multiculturalism. Meanwhile, Liam Fox is anti-EU (and anti-gay marriage, he said it’s ‘absurd’ and ‘social engineering’). Angela Leadsom loves Europe apparently but says, “What I hate is the EU and the way it is destroying such a fabulous continent” – good luck negotiating with the likes of Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker then (she also abstained from voting on gay marriage, she believed it didn’t have a mandate). The irony is that the one pro-Remain candidate, Stephen Crabb, will lose support because of that stance, although he only adopted it out of loyalty to David Cameron even though he’s largely anti-EU. He also opposed gay marriage but apparently is OK with it now, phew. None of these people have the country’s best interests at heart or the intelligence to guide this country into recovery. They’re also all pro-austerity, an economic decision that will grind this country down even further and exacerbate the unrest we’re witnessing. I thought the Tories were supposed to oppose Labour but turns out they oppose themselves as well.
Labour could negotiate a deal instead: No it couldn’t. There’s almost more infighting there than in the Tory party. Corbyn is being relentlessly stabbed in the back by Blairite MPs even though he has a huge amount of grassroots support. He was also anti-EU and decidedly quiet on calling for Remain. If he miraculously became PM (which would be no bad thing as he’d challenge austerity and enrich the welfare state) would he really have the best interests of the UK at heart when dealing with EU bureaucrats? Perhaps he’ll wake up to the Breentry call and take us back, although he’ll have a vicious, untrustworthy party behind him that is just waiting for his political demise. I thought Labour was supposed to oppose the Tories but turns out they oppose themselves as well.
The UK is strong, we’ll get what we want in the end, we’ll “take back control”: No we won’t. Nicola Sturgeon is calling for a second Scottish referendum. Leanne Woods, leader of Plaid Cymru, is calling for Welsh independence, “redesigning the current UK is the only option.” There are calls to unite Ireland and even for London to go independent. Turns out it’s not just political parties that don’t get on, countries don’t either. Add to this deepening austerity, companies threatening to leave/leaving the UK, the loss of our triple A credit rating, a rise in racist violence and I’m struggling to see how the UK stays united. That selfish little world of capitalist consumerism and middle-England-ism is imploding and is trying to take its neighbours down with it. This isn’t new – this has been an ongoing problem for decades, Brexit has just exposed it more starkly. Breentry would just be the first step in trying to patch back together the social fabric of the UK.
But migrants are a problem, we need less of them: No. That is taking Tory and Leave propaganda at face value, as well as various Labour views. Stirring up racial hatred and anti-immigration sentiments are a timeless tactic used to distract attention from underlying economic issues which include rising inequality (how come so many people can’t afford their rent whilst so many others have multiple houses around the world) and austerity (we keep forgetting that it was the 2008 financial crash that brought the global economy to its knees not a “bunch of migrants” nor over-generous Labour government spending on the economy, remember, Osborne’s deficit has been so much higher than that of Brown’s). If we scapegoat and abuse migrants and people whose skin isn’t white enough we will set this country back decades and fall into the same bigoted trap of history. We are better than this and we can learn our lesson.
What if we’d voted Remain and the Leave campaign wanted to challenge it: Then they’d have every right to and could use the same arguments that I have. Except many of the Leave camp voted out of protest on the proviso that Britain would take back sovereignty and control, but that was a lie. They voted to get more money spent on the NHS, that was a lie. They voted for less migrants, that was a lie (plus, I don’t negotiate with racists). But even if this scenario were true the state of our country would still be to play for. We’d still be realising, all too late, that whilst political statements seem like irrefutable truths they are in fact stories and agendas that can be challenged, whoever’s side your on. The game is afoot (and always has been but for too long we’ve let others, including elitist, old-Etonians, play it for us).
The EU won’t get any better: I agree that the EU is a problematic institution. The economic bullying of countries like Germany and France against Greece is outrageous. I know my grandparents didn’t risk their lives against the Nazis just so economic powerhouses could drive other countries into recession. However, I do know they risked their lives to stop war on the continent and that worked, for now. With the rise of the extreme right and this includes the neo-Nazis we risk undoing their good work and whilst we might not have a war with trenches and obvious beginning/end points we will witness the rise of extremist terrorism in Europe directed at groups including Muslims, Jews, the Romani, queers and any other convenient scapegoats. The EU, problematic as it is, is a supra-national organisation built to enhance unity and promote peace but this won’t happen by magic and we must challenge and change it from within to ensure peace reigns. My grandparents fought the Nazis, I think I can fight corrupt EU politics. And the latter is itself a victim of globalised, growth-obsessed, consumer capitalism (that’s the real fight, see rest of blog for thoughts on that).
There is another way and it’s called Breentry.Email your MP and ask them to vote out the Referendum, sign the petition to call for another one, wear a safety-pin to show support with the immigrant population, challenge hate crime, hug your friends, let yourself cry, howl in anger at the moon, smile at strangers and talk, talk, talk. We must dare to be political and we must dare to call for change. A positive post on Breenty and a possible future will come next but this one is getting far too long. Please do challenge me, this is just my opinion, but please let’s keep talking about this. May the force of Lady Gaga be with you – she’s right, we are on the edge but we don’t have to fall.
This is my 100th post and I’d planned the title to be “what’s the point of this blog?” and given the UK’s decision to leave the EU I think my comments on that might answer the question anyway. But, first things first, the Referendum wasn’t real, what’s that all about? OK. It was real, devastatingly so. It is already having vast emotional, social and economic ramifications. As Britain ‘goes it alone’ the pound has plummeted in value, the economy is wobbling and a shift to the right in mainstream politics is underway with the likes of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove vying for power. Extremist right-wing parties like Ukip and their European counterparts are claiming this as a victory for xenophobia and hate. We’ve even recently witnessed one act of right-wing terrorism claim a life, that of Jo Cox. Uncertainty is rising as hope takes a blow to the chest. Yet, for all this, how can I claim the Referendum wasn’t real?
Because from the outset it was a farce. Firstly, democracy was boiled down to a single multiple choice question with only two answers, In or Out, that few people had actually wanted to be put to the public. This doesn’t respect the multi-faceted and multi-partied nature of our democracy it just promotes further divide and hostility as friends and families suddenly found themselves forced to pick a side. And asides for a select few bureaucrats in Brussels and maybe one or two British politicians no one, absolutely no one (myself very much included) could vote with a sufficient degree of knowledge – there are documents of tens of thousands of pages outlying all the treaties and clauses amassed over the decades Britain has been part of the EU and I certainly haven’t read them all. It’s funny that people were suddenly and arbitrarily forced to get knowledgeable and passionate about something they had not seemed to care that much about before.
Meanwhile, people who’ve lived in this country and contributed to its economy for longer than I’ve been alive weren’t allowed to vote. Teenagers weren’t allowed to vote even though they have more future to lose than the rest of us voters. Both campaigns used tactics of fear, hate and misinformation (aka lies) to cajole and manipulate. We’ve already seen Nigel Farage swiftly distance himself from the Leave pledge of £350 million to the NHS (but did we really think neoliberal parties would do an about turn on their views of the welfare state?). There were campaign posters that bore too much resemblance to ones used by Nazis and the media played on xenophobia, fear and outdated nationalistic sentiments to make people think that voting in the referendum was the equivalent to taking some sort of significant stand (it wasn’t, it just makes it easier for the rich to get richer whilst deepening austerity and rolling back the welfare state). Somehow the woes of neoliberal, consumer capitalism (see the rest of this blog for criticisms on that) were landed on the heads of some of the most powerless, namely refugees and immigrants, and a bunch of pro-establishment, old-Eatonians managed to dupe large chunks of the country into thinking voting Leave would lead us into a wonderful British revolution rather than entrenching inequality and recession. That being said, lots of utopic left wingers were somehow led to believe Brexit would yield a land of milk, honey and socialism (my fingers are still crossed). And let’s not forget why this referendum even happened in the first place: because David Cameron wanted to be Prime Minister and he needed the support of his more right-wing back benchers to get it, so he promised them a referendum to appease them rather than having the courage to say ‘no’ (he put it on our heads instead). That’s not democracy, that’s cynical party politics at the public’s expense.
So, yes, the referendum is real and it has happened and this is a rallying call for anyone of whatever political persuasion and however they voted in the referendum to choose peace and oppose the rise of extremism and the violence that goes with it. But, no, the origins of this referendum were neither hopeful nor fair nor democratic. So whatever people say, this was not a victory for the British and the public have not spoken because there was only 1% in it. Like austerity, the referendum is a story wrapped around an agenda. Many desperately believe in it, many just cynically use it to get more power, many misguidedly want it to become true in ways it never will but it is not ‘the truth and nothing but the truth’ it is just one story among many. Unfortunately, it is a very powerful story and its repercussions will prove fatal for many. But Britain has survived two world wars and I think we can survive this too. Now here’s Lady Gaga because why not 😉
Slowly catching up on unwatched Pixar films and I’ve finally got round to Monsters, Inc. What an ace film – funny monsters, incredibly cute children, a brilliant premise for a world (scaring kids to harness energy – who comes up with this stuff!? Genius!), an extended cast of ace characters (the giant slug receptionist – haha), lots of heartfelt moments and a great, final message (big spoiler coming): that kids actually produce more energy when they laugh rather than when they scream and cry. Who’d’ve known!? Naturally, this is an apt metaphor for the fossil fuel industry.
The monster economy is predicated on traumatising children. This, ultimately, is horrible – how tragic that for the monsters to thrive they must instil fear and suffering into the hearts of endless children. So too for our energy industry – fossil fuel extraction has always been dangerous and is increasingly so. For example, the extraction of oil in the Niger Delta has led to huge amounts of pollution, high levels of corruption within the Nigerian government and many human deaths – due both to poisoning and murder. Of course, we can’t just blame other countries and their governments for the problem. Companies like BP and Shell are notorious for colluding in and profiting from corruption. In Monsters, Inc. a typical fossil fuel company CEO is represented by the five-eyed humanoid crab Henry J. Waternoose III.
The company has been in Henry’s family for three generations and the pressure’s on for him to keep it running. Unfortunately, scream energy supplies are dwindling and Montropolis is experiencing frequent black outs. At first Henry appears harassed, proud but well-meaning until we discover he is colluding with one of his employees to use extreme-extraction techniques on children. So too for energy companies like BP as they’re forced to use more dangerous modes of extraction to get at lessening fossil fuel supplies. The Deepwater Horizon oil spillage of 2010 is a potent reminder of how dangerous this is – a BP owned rig exploded off the Gulf of Mexico killing 9 and causing untold levels of pollution. I was at a talk given by an ex-BP member of staff and they admitted that the reason it was a BP oil rig that exploded rather than one owned by another energy company was “bad luck” – yup, oil rigs are accidents waiting to happen because energy companies want energy fast to boost their profits now. They ride rough shod over health & safety and concerns for the environment and the results are tragic. Fortunately, Henry J. Waternoose III ends up in prison for his nefarious dealings (as should CEOs of dangerous energy companies, instead they get £14 million pay deals but at least the BP shareholders are making a fuss about Bob Dudley getting paid loads to trash the planet).
Meanwhile, James P. Sullivan is a big, blue, fury scarer. He’s the best scarer on the block having spent years terrifying children. However, when one kid gets into the monster world – an adorable little girl called Boo – James is forced to think twice. They become friends but there’s a moment when he accidentally scares her. Naturally, she cries. The moment is caught on camera and James has to come face to face with who he really is. He realises his whole life has been spent causing misery and harm, so he changes his mind and changes the company. He becomes the new boss of the company and sets it on a sustainable path – collecting laughs not screams. In rea life, the CEO Ray Anderson turned the textile company Interface around, from dirty to clean; John Browne once told us that BP would go Beyond Petroleum (although that all turned out to be spin and lies); and Charles Grant was a businessman who profited hugely from slavery but became a major advocate for its abolition. So, it’s possible, people can change and so can business.
So let Monsters, Inc. be a lesson to us, especially the heads of fossil fuel companies. Climate change is continuing unabated, the world is heating up and sinking. Weather is becoming increasingly unpredictable and extreme. And all the while societies are being picked apart at the seams and so much human misery is caused. We desperately need a few CEOs to step up and have some climate-based epiphanies. There are benign energy sources out there like that giant ball of molten fire in the sky for instance. If the monsters can do it, so can we, and here’s to a future of laughter, not screaming.