The Futility Monster

He'll pointlessly derive more enjoyment out of your resources than you

Posts Tagged ‘political bravery’

It’s All In The Timing

Posted by The Futility Monster on August 24, 2010 @ 11:47

Yes. It is.

To me, the beauty of the American political system is in its enforced renewal. Every two years, the populist House has to be re-mandated. It is this very nature that makes it populist. Meanwhile, their ultimate leader and national figurehead, the President, gets a little longer, but is not allowed to stick around for more than eight years, lest he (not yet a she) start to get ideas above his station, and become a little too attached to the trappings of office.

There aren’t many other Western political systems that have such rigorous time and term limits on everything. The rest of us, especially Westminster inspired systems, have a lot more flexibility regarding the calling of elections. And that’s where the problem begins.

Take Australia. In January, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd looked in an extremely powerful position. The opposition had just replaced its leader, in a fractious contest that split the party down the middle. His personal approval ratings were sky high. The opposition controlled Senate had just blocked a key plank of his legislation – environmental regulation – for the second time. This opened the door for Rudd to engage in some constitutional jiggery-pokery: a “double dissolution” election, which, most probably, would have resulted in a sweeping Labour victory in both chambers of the Parliament.

Instead, he decides to tough it out. And then sees everything go wrong, getting chucked out and replaced by Julia Gillard.

Julia Gillard doesn’t want to repeat Rudd’s mistake. While the polls see her arrival as positive, and the Labor Party improves its standing, she decides to seize upon the honeymoon and go straight to that election. The net result: Labor on the brink, courtesy of a terrible, back-biting campaign, and an opposition that had had eight months to prepare for this very moment.

Then there’s Gordon Brown: clinging on by his fingernails till the very last moment. If only he’d gone straight away, like so many commentators (including me) thought he should. His first job, after accepting the invitation of the Queen to be the Prime Minister, should have been to say, “And now I’d like an election to mandate this change”. He didn’t. He didn’t want to be one of the shortest ever PMs. And yet all the omens were good for them. Tories still not ready. Old election boundaries. Honeymoon period. The rest is history.

Recent evidence seems to be that politicians are not very good at choosing the timing of elections. They either worry that they’re about to sign their own death warrant, or are hopelessly optimistic about what’s lurking around the corner.

Since we should only trust politicians as much as is necessary, we should do them all a favour and back the idea of fixed election dates. Let’s take the stress off them, and in return, remove a major element of political fiddling from the system.

Though I still think five years is too long…


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Australia: A Tough Call

Posted by The Futility Monster on August 20, 2010 @ 10:12

She bravely toppled her leader and called that election. That's the way to do it, Gordon.

It’s amazing just how much the Australian election has turned on its head. At the start of the year, it looked like Kevin Rudd, former PM, could do no wrong. So much so that I made a bold prediction: that he would win another landslide later in the year in a “double dissolution” election.

Now, the words “former PM” sort of give the game away about how wayward that one was.

But now it’s the case of the Welsh girl made, not good, but Aussie, versus a climate-change denying, right-wing firebrand. One of those, what we lefty types like to call, paleoconservatives.

And the polls put it on a knife-edge.

Why should we in the West care? Oz is a long way away, after all. Most of us would only care if it’s going to affect our plans to retire there, or go on a two year jaunt picking grapes on a “working holiday” visa.

I humbly suggest that, to those of us bothered about global issues like environmentalism, and economic regulation, it really does matter who gets elected. It would, for a liberal leftie like me, be preferable to see the Labor Party win, in the vain hope that they will stick to their guns and push hard for wider, faster, and deeper agreement on carbon reduction. The more voices in that camp, the easier agreement will become.

Perhaps that’s a little naive, though. After all, too many nations, especially nations as significant on the world stage for their mineral production like Australia, are only in it for their national interest. And that is what in the end did for Kevin Rudd. He wanted to be bold, and ended up battling against the vested interests so much that in the end he backed down, and looked a spent force. His replacement, Julia Gillard, learning the lesson, is not quite so strong on the issue; especially in the face of a rival who came to the fore exactly because of it.

The election will be close, but I’m going to stick to my guns. Labor will win. No landslide though.

And the reason? Probably because of these.

In modern politics, leader ratings are just as important as the party ratings. All things being equal – as they are here – I believe the people will plump for the leader they just “like” more.

It’s going to be a good test of the theory anyway. Watch and learn.

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A Budget With Balls

Posted by The Futility Monster on June 25, 2010 @ 09:32

The battered old Budget box keeps on going...

No, not the Ed kind of Balls – though more on him tomorrow – but the other kind.

Though the Budget has annoyed me in more ways than one, it has been very interesting, and very good, for another reason.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote this post imploring the government to just get on with it as far as cuts are concerned. At the time, I was fed up with the pussy-footing around, the idea that maybe cuts were going to be quick, or slow, and might exclude certain things too politically sensitive.

In the end, I got exactly what I wished for, and for that I am actually quite pleased.

The reason I am happy about this is simple. Politics doesn’t seem to be about anything these days; the three parties are increasingly close to each other. But this Budget really will set the cat amongst the pigeons. Labour, whoever their new leader is, are drawing a very clear line in the sand. They are, naturally, going to stand up for their record in power, and are going to snipe from the sidelines, but will be ready to say, “I told you so” if the worst predictions for this Budget do happen.

That is good. It feels like there is a real division between the coalition government and the Opposition, and that’s because, at last, there actually is. So many times politics is all about an imaginary distance between the two parties. So many times we have to suffer the tedium of centrist politicians fighting between themselves to out manoeuvre each other.

Naturally, I am under no illusion that Labour would also have been making cuts. But there is a stark difference between the parties. One is for cutting all the deficit within the next five years. The other had made half of that ambition. One is taking its ideological belief in a small state right to its logical conclusion. The other would have reluctantly made cuts, but only out of fiscal necessity, on a small and slower time scale in order to protect the state apparatus they genuine believe in.

OK, maybe when it’s put like that I might be exaggerating just how exciting this apparently yawning gap between the parties is. But in today’s catch-all politics, we have to be grateful for small mercies.

The coalition will either live by the cuts, or it’ll die by the cuts. Its whole reputation has been staked on this gamble.

As a person, I am deeply worried that we’re heading down the wrong path.

But as a political observer, the coalition government is the gift that keeps on giving.

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And So It Begins… Again

Posted by The Futility Monster on May 25, 2010 @ 10:40

Spend it! Spend it like there's no tomorrow!

Today’s Queen’s Speech will give us a much better idea than the coalition document about what the government thinks are the urgent priorities for the nation. The coalition document is a framework for the next five years, but it doesn’t tell us anything about the order of those ideas…

After all, how many times have we seen manifesto plans eventually put on the back burner because they’re too controversial? What if, for example, the Higher Education Review suggests scrapping the top-up fee limit altogether? That would be too much for the Lib Dems to take; and the grassroots would put enormous pressure on the party to do more than merely abstain, as the coalition document says they will.

Events, dear boy. Events.

Many commentators observe that so much emphasis is placed on the legislative programme that it is, in fact, disproportionate to the amount of importance it has.

I disagree with that.

Lots of government activity takes place by ministerial fiat or by statutory instrument. In all honesty, most of this kind of governance takes place regardless of whoever is in power. Minor decisions, and extremely technical ones, are invariably in the hands of the civil service. Ministers didn’t come into politics to piss around with these tedious regulations, and they mostly pass by without comment.

The big changes to this country, on the other hand, can only happen by legislation.

And today we get to see which bits of legislation this government has decided are so important that they must take place this session.

And it’s a long one. Parliamentary sessions usually begin in November. In recent years, they’ve even started in December. This one, however, is starting in May, and won’t end for around 16 months. Plenty of time then to ram through their pet issues.

This is when a new government is at its most potent. Its political capital account is stacked full to the brim. This one especially, being the only government in generations to be able to claim to have more than 50% of the population supporting it. That’s an impressive mandate.

And now is the time to spend it. Never again will the public be so supportive. Never again will party discipline be so tight. Never again will the levers of power be so available to Cameron and Clegg to get their way. It really is downhill all the way from here.

Today we will see just how bold this coalition is going to be.

Unfortunately for me, I’m going to be stuck on a train. Let me know if they’ve got the balls afterwards, won’t you?

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Which Way To Turn?

Posted by The Futility Monster on May 11, 2010 @ 11:07

Executive summary: In a move that would shock most of the people who know me, I have no choice but to back the LDs into a coalition with the Tories. No other option is tenable, and coalition is the best way to achieve LD policies. Full thinking follows…

The incredible developments of yesterday have combined to produce a truly astonishing moment in British politics. The right went into synthetic rage when they realised that Nick Clegg had the sheer audicity of negotiating with another party. Meanwhile, Gordon Brown noticed the rather large writing on the wall that had been there since October 2007, and offered to fall on his sword.

Elsewhere, Nick Clegg got caught in a classic bind. Which way does he go?

I had been speculating for a while that something was amiss. It was clear that Mandy et al were telling the Lib Dems in secret backchannels that Brown would depart to smooth any transition. The LDs were clearly listening, but wanted to show the Conservatives the courtesy of concluding their negotiations first. That the Tories should be “shocked” that a horse-trade was soon to follow either shows their stunning naivety or breathtaking arrogance.

Either way, I’m certain the LDs and the Tories thought they’d finished the negotations yesterday. David Laws and his negotiating team were ready to get the deal approved by his fellow MPs, and then it was to be concluded in the Federal Executive later that day. The tenor of the coverage was that the deal was inevitable.

Instead, David Laws comes out and claims he has been asked to seek “clarification”. You bet he was. There was obviously some concern amongst the parliamentary party that the deal – for confidence and supply – was imprecise. They must also have realised that it was time to talk to Labour, and see what extra they could get from the Tories. That’s what negotiation is all about.

The path was then clear for Gordon to go public, and the dual talks to begin. jumped the shark. I’ve never seen such vitriol, and such panic. All of a sudden, the Tories’ ascent to power was in jeopardy.

Open negotiations will now begin with both sides. That is right, and it is fair.

But the stakes are now extremely high.

It’s clear that Gordon Brown knows only a coalition will do. He said so yesterday. And the Tories have made their so-called “final” offer (I’ll bet you it’s not) – but the price will be a formal coalition, embracing the LDs so tight that their blood supply will be in serious jeopardy.

None of this was on the table a couple of days ago. The LDs were going to let a minority Tory administration form, and in return get some policies through. Politically, that was the right option. It would allow the LDs to survive. But in terms of delivering policies, it wasn’t.

The LDs now have the unenviable choice. Not supporting either party is no longer an option. It would be seen as extremely weak and indecisive after spending so long negotiating with them. It would also allow people to claim that this is somehow a disaster of PR (even though it’s under FPTP) because apparently negotiating and taking a little time over a new government is a failure.

The real killer, though, is that when faced with the chance of power, the LDs refused it. Then we’d get a run down of the old classics like: “You don’t know what you stand for!” and “What is the point of the Liberal Democrats?”

There are now just two options. A coalition with Labour, or a coalition with the Conservatives?

In terms of policy, there is only one answer. Labour. They will clearly be able to offer way more of the Lib Dem agenda because their situation is more desperate. They want to cling to power and will do anything to achieve it. A coalition with Labour may be the only chance ever the Liberal Democrats will get to push for the Single Transferable Vote and all manner of other reforms that the Tories could never support.

But realistically, a coalition with Labour would be a disaster. The waning power of the papers means that we could safely ignore their rancid rubbish. But it would nevertheless create days of hysteria about the “undemocratic” outcome of a coalition between two parties with more than a majority of support across all of the UK, including England. That’s not a problem.

The real issue is the fact that Labour cannot deliver their promises. A new leader could not be trusted. Neither could the rainbow of others. The fractious Labour Party is split a multitude of ways on the reform options. The party is ill-disciplined. It will not survive more than a year. Perhaps it doesn’t need to if STV is delivered quickly.

But it’s just not tenable. Another new PM with no election?

I don’t buy it. Not in this age with the presidentialisation of politics.

The Liberal Democrats have no choice but to form a coalition with the Conservatives. The reaction from the left of the party – a faction in which I count myself – will be tough to bear. But the LDs have negotiated so well that there is enough of our agenda in play. We can try to reassure Labour voters, through, hopefully, our record in office, that it was the right thing for the country, as it will tame the worst excesses of the Tory government we could so very nearly have had.

If it can survive in office for at least two years, it will allow the electorate time to reflect more on us with the benefit of hindsight. Perhaps we won’t be punished so harshly then.

This has to be wrapped up today. Though it is sensible to negotiate with all sides, we have done what we needed to, and that was force the Tories to up their game. Now we’ve done that, it’s time to look decisive, accept the new position, and avoid poisoning what is going to be our crucial relationship with the Tories before the government has even got underway.

This turned into an essay, but it’s because there are so many points to consider. It’s the most difficult decision the LDs will probably ever make. But in reality now, there can only be one outcome.

Good work, Nick. But don’t mess it up.

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The Voters Can’t Handle The Truth

Posted by The Futility Monster on April 28, 2010 @ 09:47

OK, it was the obvious picture, but who cares...

A few weeks ago I had a small argument with a friend. The subject: spending cuts. In the end, it turned out we were rather violently agreeing. Our expectations of government are too high relative to the amount we are all prepared to contribute.

So yesterday, the Institute for Fiscal Studies thought they would come out and tell us all how much of a bunch of liars our political parties are. This morning, it is front and centre of all the papers, and it dominated the broadcast media yesterday. Political journos love it. Adam Boulton really got his rocks off attacking Peter Mandelson about the lack of information regarding where the axe is going to fall.

Cast your mind back, merely a few months, to September last year. The Tories were banging on about an austerity agenda. George Osborne instructed us all to dig out that hairshirt. Calamity Clegg jumped on the bandwagon, talking about the need for “savage” cuts. Even Alastair Darling joined in.

And what happened?

The electorate didn’t like it. It was all too real. Too bleak. Too depressing. Life is difficult enough already without the politicians seeming to revel in how much they can make it worse for everyone.

We like to pretend we want our politicians to tell us the truth, but the real truth is that we can’t handle it.

If Nick Clegg came out in tomorrow’s debate and said, “We will cut 15% from the NHS, freeze school spending, slash defence by 20%, freeze public sector pay for the next three years and look to make 10% of the workforce redundant,  freeze all benefits for the next three years and scrap all the “bribes” like free TV licences for the elderly and winter fuel payments” you can be sure that the response would be swift and damning.

The truth hurts. And, in reality, the people don’t want to hear it. It cuts too close to the bone.

Trust and responsibility in all forms of life is a two-way street, and politics even more so. Our politicians have a responsibility to be honest with us, but at the same time, they will never trust us. They will never trust us again to act rationally, because we act irrationally. We are too fickle, and too fleeting. We are distracted by whether or not Peppa Pig is going to appear at a Labour Party PR stunt. Our politicians have to talk to us in soundbites, because if they don’t, they won’t keep our attention. And worse, if they try to be more complex, it will invariably get distorted by the echo chamber that is the media.

The politicians can’t trust us to listen carefully, and the people don’t want to listen. We don’t want to listen because politicians in the past have abused that trust, and have acted irresponsibly with the power we’ve given them.

Politicians are to blame. The people are to blame. The media are to blame.

What’s truly worrying is where this cycle is going to end…

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Don’t Get Rid Of Politicians; Empower Them Instead

Posted by The Futility Monster on March 9, 2010 @ 09:42

When the answer is "more politicians" you're asking the wrong question...

Campaigns like this one really fuck me off…

NFR (Nurses For Reform) believes that the next government must liberate health provision from the costly and counterproductive world of top-down and un-innovative state control.

First point is I’ve never heard of them, so I’m immediately suspicious that, especially as the story was in the Telegraph, we could be seeing a group being used for party political purposes. How many times have we heard about pledges to free healthcare professionals from the iron grip of the bureaucracy from certain right-wing parties…

Second point is that they are totally wrong.

There are enough problems in this country that we can’t solve. People moan and groan about politics and not voting because “it never changes anything”. That’s because politicians have done their level best to absolve themselves of any responsibility for anything by farming out decisions to quangos and other layers of civil service bureaucracy.

Let’s not continue along that course by placing the NHS in the hands of an unelected, nepotistic agency which will doubtless allow politicians to get away with murder, and no longer have to get their hands dirty.

After all, that’s what politicians are supposed to be for. We elect them to take decisions on our behalf because a) we would probably make a hash of it; b) we don’t have time to do the job ourselves; and c) there are some thing we just couldn’t give a stuff about. Agricultural and fishing subsidies, for example. Boring, but important.

We shouldn’t be electing them to wash their hands of doing the job we want them to do. When these agencies fuck up, there’s invariably no way of holding them to account. When politicians fuck up, we can give them a kick in the ballots, or the opinion polls.

But thirdly, this campaign is not good because it distracts us from the real issue. The NHS is a monster. It cannot be run from Whitehall. But the real solution to that is true devolution of responsibilities from Whitehall to local authorities. Let’s give councillors more responsibility. Let’s give them something to do. Let’s make local government more interesting and more relevant to people again.

That principle can be applied across many departments in an attempt to make local councils more responsive to the needs of local people. They are in the best position to judge, after all.

Then maybe, just maybe, we might get the Liberal dream of a federal UK. Oh my!

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The Drones May Fall Into Line

Posted by The Futility Monster on January 15, 2010 @ 10:40

Well, it sort of makes sense here...

Praise be!

Our Lord President Obama has actually taken an opinion on something!

Yesterday he unveiled an opportunity to extract large sums of cash from the corporate monster that is the banking sector.

The plan itself is remarkably bold for a man who has been so timid on various issues throughout the first year of his presidency, when he should be at the peak of his mandate. And yet, it is actually a fairly modest tax that would extend over 10 years, and only be more punitive to those who deserve it the most: the ones with substantial borrowings. It should still, however, raise significant sums of money.

Bankers in the US will bleat and moan that many of them didn’t even accept taxpayer’s money during the height of the crisis; and that they will just have to pass on this cost to the consumer. Of course, that’s all just part of the PR game. First of all, no bank would be left standing if it wasn’t for the unprecedented scale of loans, investments, nationalisation and quantitative easing that has kept the sector going. They should be grateful they’re still here.

And as for passing on charges… well, many banks were planning to do this anyway in order to enhance their profitability after a couple of years of hits. Now they have a perfect excuse to do so, and can blame the government in the process. It’s all about the rhetoric.

With a bit of luck, the plans will make it through the US Senate relatively unscathed. It is an election year after all, and all the polls are still showing a great degree of negativity towards banks, bankers and their bonuses.

What will be most interesting, however, is whether other countries will react in the same way. British efforts to rein in our banking sector now look rather tame in comparison. Surely we should take the opportunity provided by Obama to copy the policy and extract our own pound of flesh? It would be a relatively free hit and wouldn’t be as damaging to UK competitiveness if our biggest rival in the banking sector is doing exactly the same.

That old chestnut of national interest, however, is probably what’s going to stop us. There is still a banker love-in going on in the City of London, and many of them will currently be wondering if Obama’s actions could lead to another round of offshoring. Maybe once our 50% bonus tax has worked its way out of the system we might be in line for even more banking jobs, and even more bonuses…

And this, my friends, is why we need global co-operation. If only Obama had told everyone last year that this was what he was planning all along, we might have got better agreements at the various G20 and G8 summits last year.

A wasted opportunity, methinks.

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Take Responsibility, Politicians

Posted by The Futility Monster on December 9, 2009 @ 09:56

I wonder whether Dubya will be mocked for many generations to come...

Something I’ve moaned about before, and again yesterday, is the likelihood of politicians these days farming decisions out to an external body so they don’t have to take the flak when something goes wrong.

There are many examples in modern political debate, from quangos in regional development agencies, to NICE – which now effectively decides which drugs should be available on the NHS. All decisions which, in the past, were made by democratically accountable ministers, or even councillors.

And the Tories will be no different. Witness George Osborne’s creation of an Office for Budget Responsibility to “hold a Conservative government to account”.  What’s the betting these independent people will give him cover for his budget agenda?

There are two sides to this tale, however. First is that some of these bodies are useful. NICE, for instance, focus on the evidence. Which, in an area of science, is very useful indeed. But the very fact that their final decisions have no political involvement at all can be argued both ways. On the one hand, it is good that delicate issues are dealt with on their own merits, rather than seen through a prism of politicking. But on the other, it almost negates the point of democracy if our elected representatives have their hands tied from day one.

It’s a debate that will run and run because of its complexity. My instinct is to say that the more decisions politicians make, the better our quality of democracy will be. And then I end up arguing against myself, because the natural consequence of that is populist decision-making in search of good headlines. See the farce over the classification of cannabis.

But really my worry on this topic today is one that emerges from the wars we have become embroiled in. As the years go by, it is becoming increasingly apparent that politicians, having got us into this mess, are looking for someone else to carry the can.

Step forward General McChrystal.

Politicians are wimps at the best of times, but when the issue of war comes along now, the first instinct is to ask the generals for their advice. And for that, read buck-passing.

Once it became obvious that Obama’s main man in Afghanistan was recommending lots more troops, it was a sure fire winner that that was what Obama was going to do. Why swim against the flow?

What worries me is when did we start having our strategy decided by the people on the ground? Military generals should be implementing the policy decided by our accountable politicians. Not the other way around. If this plan all goes belly-up, are we supposed to sack McChrystal? You bet Obama would, but it wouldn’t matter, since Obama would get the blame, even though all he did was follow the recommendations of the guy we all previously thought was an expert.

This is why people tire of politics and politicians. There is no leadership any more. There is no bravery. It is all an exercise in trying to make it look like your ideas are backed by an independent authority, and just say you’re merely following orders.

And now we have McChrystal telling us that what we really need to do is take down bin Laden.

Well, thanks.

It’s time for military figures to disappear into the background once more. No more interviews. No more briefings. No more rent-a-quotes.

Let’s make the politicians more responsible for the mess they’ve got us into.

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Have The Climate Change Doom Merchants Blinked?

Posted by The Futility Monster on December 7, 2009 @ 11:57

Our old friend, the hockey stick. Al Gore will be pleased.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve noticed a very distinct changing of the emphasis in the discussion on climate change lately.

Before I begin, though, a declaration of interest. I am one of those climate change doom merchants. I believe man is making a significant impact on the planet. In fact, I believe we’re already past the point of no return, and humanity is too complacent and set-in-their-ways to do anything about it now anyway.

But even I have been tested lately.

We have been told for some time that the science is unquestionable. I believe it mostly still is. I’m no scientist, but even I understand that science very rarely gives a definite answer. So the science is not and has never been unquestionable. There are no real scientists on this planet who would ever be blinkered enough to say that their work has proved the climate change thesis and all discussion is over.

That’s why we should not fall for the climate change deniers who constantly harp on about them being ostracised and victimised. That there is – somehow – this big conspiracy stopping them from getting over the truth that climate change doesn’t exist. That they are going to save you from nasty governments who just want to use it all as an excuse to tax you more or inspect your rubbish bin.

No. The science is a debate going on between people far more intelligent than me, and usually involving stuff that I haven’t a clue about.

Like most things, then, it’s a question of trust. Do you trust the UN panel, the IPCC, made up of the works of thousands of scientists, but with the involvements of governments and maybe other vested interests, who say that there is a 90% chance that humanity is responsible for climate change? Or do you go with the much smaller body of science which believes the complete opposite?

I’m getting the sense, however, that those of us on the IPCC’s side are beginning to squirm a little. We no longer talk in imminent dangers. We talk in probabilities. That we ought to act because even if we’re wrong, it is a gamble that we should not take with our stewardship of the planet.

But the real noticeable change is a sudden shift in emphasis.

We are talking less now about climate change but about the elephant in the room. At last.

We are getting to the heart of the actual issue that’s wrong with Western world humanity.


I’ve written about this before, how we are avoiding the really important issues by focusing on minor ‘green’ things like recycling.

Because there is one fact that even the climate change sceptics cannot deny.

Fossil fuels are finite. Coal, oil and gas will not go on forever. And our society, utterly dependent on plastic, utterly fixated on production and endless consumption with perpetual growth, no matter the cost, is not sustainable.

This is what we should be talking about. It just so happens that tackling most of these will co-incidentally reduce our carbon emissions. A win-win, perhaps.

But this agenda needs the politicians to be even braver. Who dares stand up to Shell, Exxon Mobil, BP et al?

Oh well. At least the talk sounds good.

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