My little global village

Central Bylines editor, Simon Ferrigno, looks back on a year when cowardice, cronyism and cruelty squandered opportunities for genuine progress

Have you noticed the homeless are back on our streets? The government found a solution to get everyone under a roof during lockdown, and money to do it, but that has now dried up. And it’s not really being talked about, despite the numbers of homeless people rising.

The empty hotels are there. Even when we discount our region’s mythical 4-star hotels which house refugees in unparalleled luxury (according to Wellingborough MP Peter Bone), there’s still an awful lot of space. There’s money too – if you happen to be pals with a government minister or two and can supply the cosmetic treatments (sorry, dysfunctional test and trace and unsuitable PPE) to mask the government’s incompetence in pandemic management.

Everyone in…and everyone out again

But there’s no money for dealing with homelessness for good, even when your MP is the self-styled minister for the universe. At the time, ‘everyone in‘ meant everyone in temporary accommodation, but there was no policy of ensuring ‘everyone out’ and into somewhere permanent, let alone decent. There was nothing, too, for dealing with the root causes of homelessness nor the new home insecurity: sofa surfing, domestic violence and post-pandemic job insecurity. Clearly the homeless hang about in the wrong gardens and WhatsApp groups.

Broken bedrock

Pre-Covid, in 2017, I took my daughter to the Natural History Museum in London. We got chatting to a homeless man bedding down in the snow while my daughter ate ice-cream (temperature makes no difference when you’re three years old). He’d been in the army, suffered from PTSD, and ended up in prison. He explained that, once in the prison system, he had had little-to-no education, or rehabilitation and no preparation for leaving prison. And afterwards, thanks to another bodged (and subsequently reversed) privatisation, he had received little in the way of effective probation.

This man was articulate and passionate and informative about a broken system that seems designed mainly for the entertainment of the Daily Mail/Tory voter nexus and not to repair the broken bedrock of our ‘civilisation’ and social contract.

He was in a sleeping bag in the snow in the middle of the afternoon, in a busy thoroughfare in one of the richest areas of one of the richest cities in the world. And being largely ignored.

I left him enough money for a hotel room for a night or two. I hope he’s OK. We have to hope that all those newly vulnerable renters are too as the pandemic ban on evictions end.

Our friends in the kleptocracy

I had money to give him because I’d finished part one of a contract in North Africa, a contract I’d taken because my normal EU work had been killed by Brexit. So I was exploring this new world, this Global Britain that we’ve been told is full of opportunities.

It was the kind of contract I used to ignore because it raised red flags. Which turned out to be right.

This is a world where, if you take a contract, you’re supposed to just say yes, and leave aside any ethical or environmental concerns, even if it’s part of the job description and even if a vast majority of stakeholders are raising problems. In this world, you’re supposed to turn a blind eye to blatant government corruption, to a country that locks its own young, ethical, passionate entrepreneurs out of opportunity so that state appointed officials, politicians and connected business people can asset strip all value.

I found out that not turning a blind eye means you’ll never be paid. Bad news for myself and my business partner, himself from another African country. Bad news for idealistic, hopeful nationals of said country, which is surely brewing another revolution because foreign powers turn a blind eye too.

It takes something for businesses to do the right thing. I’ve been asked a few questions about that particular project since, some quite recently. Some businesses’ ethical radars are working. Some will practice due diligence and hopefully do some good work and create some decent jobs despite all.

But an awful lot of companies and people don’t, content to rake it in. Which after the scandals of Covid contracts reminds me a lot of the UK, circa 2020-21.

The UK’s willingness to drop anything difficult such as climate change from trade deals in desperation does not bode well for that still evasive ethical foreign policy, either.

Climate change

Meanwhile, post-Cop26, the cop out is not good news – where is the sense of urgency? Part of my Christmas reading is the Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson, a near-future science fiction novel which looks at what might happen as the glaciers continue to melt and big oil refuses to go quietly into the warming night…

We need carbon wallets. We know roughly how much each person can consume before we hit what is known as earth overshoot day, and if each person had such a wallet, we could high-tax them as soon as they overshootl (for many billionaires and millionaires, that would probably happen in January). The tax raised could then be redirected to climate change mitigation and to those who are so poor they are unlikely to hit their annual allowance in a lifetime.

Kim Stanley Robinson proposes a carbon coin as a new variant of quantitative easing instead. An idea worth contemplating too, perhaps?

I’ve not finished the book yet but my cynical side views what I’ve already read as overly optimistic. There just isn’t any sense of global urgency around. Look at the failure of rich countries to help everyone get access to vaccines. Gordon Brown is rightly critical.

Drunken angels…

If you’ve read this far you might need a drink and some Christmas giggles. The stupidest angel is quite a good read if so. There’s some milk of human kindness in it, once the brain-sucking and Ikea jokes are done.

Central Bylines wishes a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all our readers and to our many contributors and volunteers.

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If you have money to spare, there are plenty of street shelters, food banks and street kitchens needing donations, and a few appeals linked from recent Central Bylines articles:

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